Woman of an Uncertain Age
An excerpt of Priya Malhotra's new novel.
Although it was almost two o’clock on a gray Sunday afternoon in April, she was still only half-awake, unable to muster the energy to get up. She lay sprawled on her bed, under the white comforter, looking at the short, untidy pile of birthday cards that waited for on her nightstand. Languidly, she picked one up.
“You don’t get dumb and old as the years go by, YOU just get SMART, SEXY, and BOLD” screamed a little white card with thick black lettering, which looked poised to pop off the paper. “Wild, witty, and wise, a woman in her fifties is a man’s most treasured prize” proclaimed a red-and-gold card that Naina immediately knew had to be from Shona, the optimistic chatterbox who, despite her efforts for almost twenty years, had enjoyed little success with men. “Age is sage, and knowledge is power, so let the GOOD TIMES ROLL!” declared another card with Elvis Presley on its cover.
But the most unforgettable card, a pretty looking thing with lots of pink roses, was from Karen, her daughter Amaya’s friend. “You’ve touched so many lives, made so many friends, gained so much wisdom, and known so many joys and sorrows. These are all wonderful, beautiful reasons to celebrate.”
Was this a preview of what Karen might say at her funeral?
Naina smiled wryly as she read the cards that invariably referred to this magical fountain of wisdom that apparently sprung from her. She heard the rusty cast iron radiator hissing away like a spurned diva and the maddening sounds, three floors down, of the drycleaner and his wife who were still arguing. That tremulous feeling leaped within her again. She was certain of very little, and as far from possessing any sagacity as she had ever been. Of course, that had not always been the case, and even though she had acquired a distaste for her former life, sometimes she couldn’t help being nostalgic for those days when she felt so sure of everything—days framed by predictable domestic rituals. At times, she did fret over little details but never saw or, if she did, never admitted, even to herself, to the blemishes smearing the canvas of her life: the layer of dust turning the emerald green into a moldy green; the cobweb of tiny rips making the majestic purple look like a sad, shriveled eggplant; the weathering of the shining red to the hue of an Indian bride’s clothes faded in the sun.
Her headache worsened and she forced herself to get up to take a couple of aspirins. She knew the culprit had to be those pale white drinks in those thin glasses she’d downed at some hazy point during the previous night. What were they called? Something that began with a sh. The letters arduously came together to form a word. Sho . . . ts. Yes, shots. Some kind of shots that sounded like military offensives. Kamikaze shots. That was it. Kamikaze shots. They were just as lethal as their name implied, and she regretted having consumed them without restraint. She should have been more careful. Stuck to wine. Not listened to Alannah’s have just one more. Her body was no longer young and as forgiving as it might once have been if put to the test. Now, like an accountant, it registered every indulgence, made her pay for every bit of carelessness. She decided to take a third aspirin just in case two did not do the job.
Her body was no longer young and as forgiving as it might once have been if put to the test. Now, like an accountant, it registered every indulgence, made her pay for every bit of carelessness.
Her birthday party the night before had ended up being much more excessive than she had anticipated, but in retrospect she knew she should not have been surprised—considering it had been Alannah, her young friend, who had organized it. A thirty-five-year-old firebrand artist, Alannah thrived on excess and spectacle. She was a woman whose enterprising efforts intensified whenever she sensed she was drawing someone out of some supposed state of deprivation and repression. The theme of the party was “Arabian Nights,” and it was held in a lush orange-and-green room in Houri, a hip Moroccan restaurant in the East Village. Like many places on Avenue C, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Houri—which means “alluring woman” in Arabic—was on the ground level of a dilapidated brick building that still had traces of graffiti on its walls and an air of having once been a place for rough, illicit exchanges. But when you entered it now, you were immediately transported to a decadent paradise that seemed a world away from its questionable earlier life, and from its rundown neighborhood—the depressing-looking deli opposite it, the crumbling pavement outside, the leaky air conditioner wobbling in a window on the third floor of the building next door, on the verge of falling prey to the force of gravity at any moment.
Even though the East Village, once known for artists and beatniks, had long undergone gentrification, these were the vestiges of a bygone era full of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. To Naina, who had moved to the city from her large suburban home in central New Jersey a year-and-a-half before, no place in New York felt as exciting and edgy as the East Village. In Jersey, there was space and more space and nothing of consequence to fill it, and in the East Village, there was so much energy and electricity that it spilled out of the tiniest gaps, rattling doors and walls, threatening to break man-made enclosures.
A glittering curtain of red, gold, and blue beads led you from the restaurant into a cozy party room where there were sofas upholstered in the fiery red-orange of an equatorial sunset, plush cushions adorned with an elaborate pattern of green and gold, and walls hidden behind sheets of fluttering gold silk. Several hookahs sat on small mosaic tables, and delicate coils of apricot, apple, and spice-flavored smoke swirled and swayed as people puffed away, filling the room with beautiful misty patterns.
In Jersey, there was space and more space and nothing of consequence to fill it, and in the East Village, there was so much energy and electricity that it spilled out of the tiniest gaps, rattling doors and walls, threatening to break man-made enclosures.
There had been about fifteen or sixteen people at the party, the majority of whom Naina had not known for more than a year or so, and some she was meeting for the first time. The only ones she considered to be real friends were Alannah and Mara, a forty-two-year-old self-help writer obsessed with everything yoga and new age, and Rob, a tabla player from a yet-to-be signed fusion band, who looked like a big bird as he waved his tattooed arms around while talking incessantly. Rob had gray hair and a sagging face that made him look much older than his thirty-nine years, but his ebullience and constant use of the phrase “that’s cool” made him seem a whole lot younger. He gave her an orange-and-black idol of the fierce multi-armed Hindu goddess Kali as a birthday present, something he had bought during his biweekly visits to Jackson Heights to eat samosas.
“Nains,” he said (he was the only person in the world who had ever called her Nains), “Kali kicks ass, let me tell you. I mean that woman can create, that woman can destroy. That’s cool. It’s so cool. And all we’re stuck with here is the boring Virgin Mary, boring. Immaculate Conception. Gimme a break. Now, Kali, she’s hot, she’s totally hot.”
“Thanks, Rob, thanks so much,” Naina said, thinking how ugly the idol was. “This is wonderful.” She gave him a tentative hug. “But we should be kind to the Virgin Mary. She’s sort of soothing and nice even if she isn’t as interesting as Kali.” That part, she meant. She had always liked the Virgin Mary, much more than she had ever liked Kali.
“C’mon, Nains, that’s your Catholic School education talking. That’s what they drill into you. Love the Virgin Mary. Believe me, I went to one too, miles away from you though, so I know.”
In order to beef up the crowd at the party, Alannah had invited three or four of her own friends Naina had never met before. One was Iris, an exceptionally tall woman with pointy features, a freelance curator and art writer who exuded the kind of humorless overconfidence that made Naina want to run and hide in some remote recess of herself.
Rob had gray hair and a sagging face that made him look much older than his thirty-nine years, but his ebullience and constant use of the phrase “that’s cool” made him seem a whole lot younger. He gave her an orange-and-black idol of the fierce multi-armed Hindu goddess Kali as a birthday present…
“So I went to see the new John Currin show at Andrea Rosen,” Iris said after she had greeted Naina with a “hello” and “happy birthday” in a manner that suggested that such banalities were not worthy of her time. “I didn’t think his work could get worse, but he surprises me every time. He’s such a lightweight and gets more misogynistic as he gets older.” She vigorously shook her head and exhaled loudly. “God, he just bothers me so much . . .”
Naina didn’t know how to respond because, even though she now worked as an assistant at an art gallery in Chelsea, she barely knew anything about Currin except that he was a famous artist known for painting distorted images of women with large breasts. She, did, however, know the Andrea Rosen Gallery, one of the most renowned galleries in Chelsea, and had gone there to see the colossal, dense installation of British artist Matthew Ritchie a few months before.
“I haven’t seen that show yet. But did you see the Matthew Ritchie show in December? It was magnificent.”
“You think so?” Iris shot back. “I thought it was so lame, so lame . . .” Although Iris did not, at any point in the evening, appear to be enjoying herself, she stayed until the party ended at three a.m., drinking one glass of white wine after another.
That image of Iris now crystallized into a hard-edged shape as Naina looked out at the distant, fog-swaddled spire of the Chrysler Building. Thankfully, her headache was getting better.
Then there was Andrew, Alannah’s soft-spoken English teacher friend. He seemed much nicer than Iris and had brought her a lovely bouquet of pink chrysanthemums—big, bulbous flowers like those in her garden in India. Naina guessed he was a couple of years younger than Alannah, maybe thirty-two or thirty-three, and probably didn’t know anyone who had children, judging by his look of surprise when Naina said something about Amaya’s slender span of interest when it came to literature.
“You have a daughter?” he said as Alannah came up to them, bringing Naina another drink. “Not just a daughter, but a son as well,” Alannah interjected.
“Wow . . . how old are they?”
“Four and twelve,” Alannah said with a grin. “She looks great for that doesn’t she?”
Naina surmised his reaction wasn’t because she looked so young, but because no one in his universe was likely over the age of thirty-five. It probably hadn’t even occurred to him that a friend of Alannah’s could be so much older.
Andrew seemed to believe her until Naina corrected the lie, telling him her daughter—the girl in the charcoal gray dress with shoulder-length black hair engrossed in conversation on the far side of the room—was twenty-eight and her son was twenty-six. At that point, both his eyes and mouth widened, making his face look like a misshapen pretzel with deep hollows. Naina surmised his reaction wasn’t because she looked so young, but because no one in his universe was likely over the age of thirty-five. It probably hadn’t even occurred to him that a friend of Alannah’s could be so much older. It was funny, after that, his tone toward her changed; he became more respectful and after a few drinks, even took to calling her “Ma’am.” While she never said anything, she had yearned to tell him that being in one’s fifties wasn’t as old as he might have thought, that she too had once seen fifty-two as surreal as death, that just because she had grown children and was maybe old enough to be his mother, did not mean there was a huge gulf between them.
The most unsettling moment of the party for Naina was when Karen walked in. The young woman was Amaya’s childhood friend who had transformed herself into a trendy-looking journalist from the chubby, chatty blonde girl she always remembered sniffing jars of spices in her kitchen. After they gave each other a quick peck on the cheek, she felt as if Karen was looking at her with the probing eyes of a reporter, trying to reconcile the image she had of Naina with the one facing her—a fifty-two year-old woman in a long, sleek black dress with two slits on either side; a tummy shaper underneath; and knee-length, three-inch stiletto heel boots. At that moment, Naina felt exposed, as if she were wearing a transparent dress through which her daughter’s friend could see every droop in her flesh. The last time she had seen Karen, her stomach was looser and had a small, visible bulge.
Before Karen thought she was a fraud, a farce, a fool, Naina yearned to get away, but she could not be so rude to Amaya’s friend.
“Mrs. Mehta, happy birthday,” Karen said, her bewilderment conspicuous. “You look marvelous—my gosh—you seem like such a New Yorker now.”
While she never said anything, she had yearned to tell him that being in one’s fifties wasn’t as old as he might have thought, that she too had once seen fifty-two as surreal as death, that just because she had grown children and was maybe old enough to be his mother, did not mean there was a huge gulf between them.
“Uh . . . thanks, Karen.” Karen’s eyes felt like they were peeling away layers of her skin. Skin that felt as thin and flimsy as paper. “So . . . so very glad . . . you could make it. Especially . . . especially . . . since you’re here . . . I mean . . . visiting New York . . . for such a short time . . . Very . . . really nice of you. So . . . how are . . . sorry, I mean . . . how is everything with you in D.C.?”
“It’s good, thanks. Have you been in touch with anyone from Montcrest lately? Oh, by the way, you probably already know this, but I recently to spoke someone who told me that Rishi Nambiar had gotten into Stanford, but his mother didn’t want him to go that far away, and I also heard that the Sharmas are completely freaking out because Puja has decided not to go law school but wants to study music therapy . . . isn’t that awful? Of all the people in the world, I never thought the Sharmas were that conservative, but you probably know better— Gosh, Mrs. Mehta, you look so great. I can’t believe it. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that, you always looked good . . . you know what I mean.”
Naina smiled weakly, muttering something vague about being too busy with her new job to keep in contact with everyone in Montcrest.
Through the beaded curtains, she saw Rita, an arts administrator acquaintance, and Danielle, whom she had once met at an art opening of a Czech installation artist, walking in. Relieved, she excused herself and rushed off to greet her two new guests, grabbing another glass of red wine on the way.
Toward the end of the party—somewhere between one and two in the morning—two Lebanese belly dancers dragged Naina to the floor and made her rhythmically jiggle her hips in concert with theirs. As the alcohol and the swaying of her body took over, everyone and everything around her—shimmering and multi-hued under the colored lights of the Moroccan lamps—seemed magical, and she ended up dancing somewhat provocatively, drawing loud claps and hoots from her guests. She had surprised herself—and by that point in the evening, every surprise seemed like a good one, so she danced alone for an entire song, swept away by her own performance.
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