aomi wore headphones on the plane. Her hair was stained black from the dye she’d applied a few days before, and in the beam of the overhead light it glowed an iridescent blue. Every few moments she extracted a notepad, contorted her body around it, and scribbled in private.
She was at the age of experimental fashion and funereal music. I wasn’t alarmed by this but could see it for what it was: a positive and healthy time of transition. My daughter was starting down the craggy road of self-discovery. She took after me, I believed—a serious girl, a thinker and a feeler, concerned with the fate of humanity. At seventeen, she was halfheartedly applying to colleges, disdainful toward the marching of worn paths. There was mention of a gap year, volunteering at soup kitchens, food pantries. Her mother, I’m afraid, was less tolerant of our dark poet, but I sympathized with Naomi’s resistance. I felt that I understood her unquiet spirit, her lofty, amorphous ambitions. Even her scornful pouts and contemptuous comments gave me a flicker of pride.
Nicholas was a more conventional boy, at home in the suburbs, enamored with Xbox and baseball. Now, in the airplane, he watched an animated fish strum a banjo inside his seat-back screen. His lap held the only book about India we could persuade him to open—a history of Mughal invasions, protracted and bloody.
I simmered with excitement to set foot on the Subcontinent. The heat whipped us as we exited through customs into Delhi, its sweet and fetid odors braided too tightly to identify. As we picked our way through the rubbled parking lot to our driver’s car, Jillian held Nicholas by the hand, and I walked beside Naomi who silently gaped at dust-caked children sleeping layered upon a wagon.
We stayed two days in the capital, daytripping to Agra for a dizzying turn round the Taj Mahal. There, in full view of the tourist crowds, Nicholas flew into a raw sprint of joy down the path between the two fountain pools. A bolt of elation, a sharp light in my chest, stamped the moment—my wife and children, that beautiful bulb of a building, the mirrored water and colorful jostle of visitors—into my heart. I try to keep that moment fresh. When other memories intercede, I plump up the Taj in my mind to balance the downward pull.
When we had children, Jillian and I agreed we wouldn’t let them change us. We swore to guard our essential selves, our outward view of the world, to resist the compulsion to make a nest and shrink into it. We vowed to travel, keep traveling, with children in tow or without, and to travel as far and hard as we could.
To most residents of our town, travel means Vermont or Nantucket. Each summer we watch neighbors load cars with beach chairs and coolers, set home alarm systems, and drive blithely toward the horizon. We understand that not everyone thinks of travel as we do. Holidays, for some, are just that: a brief truce with daily rigors, a time to be cushioned in the known and the mild. We’ve been lucky, Jillian and I, to find ideal partners in one another, who share an abhorrence of leisure. We go nowhere without our passports. When Naomi was born, we bundled her over the ocean to Scotland and Greece; when Nicholas joined us, we raided Portugal.
I like to think that this young introduction to travel advantaged our children over their peers. They learned the breadth of the world early and gained context for their own local privileges. Still, we were cautious with them for many years, electing destinations of relative comfort, and I was itching to dirty my socks, to break out of the hemisphere. When the kids started seventh and eleventh grades—old enough to travel as fellow adults—we took out the battered atlas and rifled its pages. We surveyed Russia and Thailand before landing squarely, with mutual frisson, on India.
We started preparations early. Jillian gathered library books, and we rented Indian movies. My heart swelled as Naomi sat spellbound through Gandhi. We clapped along with Monsoon Wedding, Nicholas mimicking the dances. I bought a travel guide and planned our route: Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, for the ten days of Christmas vacation. My sour-faced co-workers sneered at the plan, and when Carl Grasso proclaimed, “I’d never go there,” I knew that we’d chosen well.
And I knew, even as it was happening, that I’d love telling Carl about our overnight train ride to Varanasi, the narrow sleeping compartments, the shelf-like bunks, the feces-smeared lavatory. I’d love telling him about the train stopping inexplicably a half-mile short of the station, and how we walked like hoboes, pulling our luggage over train tracks and oil puddles, past cows and shacks. I’d tell him how adorably incongruous Jillian and Naomi looked in their straw sunhats, and how Nicholas sprang ahead and took a photo of his sweaty family, a print of which I now keep in my wallet.
Varanasi is an old and holy city, India’s oldest and holiest. A lucky sliver of the nation’s billion manage to land there just before death. Another sliver make the trip as corpses, to be burnt at the shore of the Ganges—sucked into holy air and sunk into holy sludge. Nicholas was unashamed of his interest in public cremations. “Where do they burn the bodies?” he asked at full volume on the rickshaw ride to our hotel. “Where do they keep them before the funerals? Is there a warehouse or something?”
Naomi slapped her brother’s arm. It gave me a tingling pride to see that she understood this basic moral calculus. Whatever examples Jillian and I had set over the years, in our quiet, undemonstrative ways, had been well absorbed and synthesized by our daughter.
Once in the old city, we walked along the string of ghats, stone stairways at the river, beneath Shiva’s sacred sky. The steps were still muddy from the monsoon and mottled from centuries of litter. The water itself was the color of mucous. Men called out to me, the putative leader of my family, hawking rides in faded rowboats. Boys with bright teeth and dark faces stepped into our path, unfurling chains of postcards. Small girls trotted alongside us like puppies, carrying trays of lotus-flower candles, pleading in English and tugging at Jillian’s loose tunic. We knew better than to stop or make eye contact. It was Naomi who finally pulled back and told one of the children, “Yes. I want one. How much?”
“Ten rupees.” The little girl in braids beamed. She was a pretty child. I’d noticed that against all odds the children in India were astonishingly made.
“Dad?” Naomi turned to me.
“Sure, honey, why not?” I smiled and dug for the money. “It’s for the river, right?” I asked the girl.
“For family good fortune,” she affirmed. “Good health, long life, very important.” She wobbled her head in that peculiar Indian yes–no fashion, and handed me a votive glued to a flimsy square of paper.
I saw the depleted look on Jillian’s face that meant she was ready for the hotel room. She squinted against the sun and guided Nicholas forward. We began to move on, but Naomi hung back.
“What’s your name?” I heard her ask the little girl, enunciating each syllable.
“Amina,” the girl said. “One more candle?”
“No, no more candle,” I interjected. “Thank you, Amina.”
After showers and wardrobe changes, our family adventured back into the steam heat of the city’s old alleyways. We followed the guidebook’s suggestion to visit a German bakery, of all things—Varanasi was full of them for some reason—which turned out to be an endearing little upstairs café. Floor cushions circled low tables, and I admit this appealed to the bohemian in me. A waiter gestured us to a table already occupied by a Western woman in Indian dress. We lowered ourselves around her, smiling apologetically, and I secretly hoped she didn’t speak English so that we could avoid the scripted banalities of travelers. The woman gave off a scent of patchouli oil that sent me back to my college years. She had a longish, horsey face, relieved by a pair of light green eyes. She looked up from her book with a sad smile. I said hello.
She was Australian, as it happened. Her name was Vicky, and Varanasi was her favorite place on Earth, a planet which she claimed to have traveled widely. I imagined this to be an overstatement, given her apparent age—under thirty to be sure. She’d been settled in this city for over a year, and her heart still broke for it each day. She worked for an NGO, helping Indian women make a living wage through their handicrafts and educating the public about women’s rights. Yes, I’d heard that the country had a long way to go in that arena, I remarked as the waiter arrived with our food.
“We want to put an end to bride burning, in particular,” Vicky said, her eyes glittering over a cup of chai.
“What’s that?” my daughter asked.
“There’s an old dowry tradition in India that still hangs on. When a woman gets married, her purpose is to bring children to the husband and a good dowry to his family. If the family is disappointed with the dowry, sometimes they take revenge on the woman. Usually with kerosene and a match. They tell people afterwards that she died in a ‘kitchen fire,’ but everyone knows what that means.”
“That’s horrible,” exclaimed Jillian.
“Almost two thousand women die each year in Uttar Pradesh alone.”
“What’s a dowry?” Nicholas chirped, holding a samosa with his left hand, which we’d repeatedly told him not to do. Left hands are considered dirty in India.
“The money that comes with a bride,” Naomi told her brother curtly.
Vicky smiled at Naomi, and I watched my daughter shift position on the cushion, bringing her leg up into a sharp fold that struck me as vaguely indecorous. She wore a pair of loose dark pants from home, too heavy for the weather but in keeping with the Eastern dress code. She’d packed carefully for this trip, studying the guidebook’s do’s and don’ts, selecting modest cotton pieces, draping a gauzy scarf across her chest. She wore no rings in any of her piercings. It seemed wrong to show off even her drugstore jewelry, she said, when these people had so little.
“A lot of the women in our shelter are burn victims,” Vicky said. “They have nowhere else to go, and we give them work they can be proud of.”
“Sounds like a wonderful enterprise,” I said, bringing a forkful of daal to my mouth.
“Do the women live with you?” Naomi asked. “What kinds of crafts do they make?”
“They live in a house down by Assi Ghat, with a workshop attached. They make all kinds of things. Toys, rugs, pillowcases, clothes.” Vicky looked only at Naomi. “You’re welcome to visit if you like.”
Naomi turned to me in pleading. I smiled and said, “I don’t know about that, honey,” through my food.
“Oh, tourists come by all the time,” Vicky interjected. “We had some British girls just yesterday.”
I felt Jillian’s eyes on me. Nicholas was engrossed in a chemistry experiment with chutney. “Actually, I thought we’d visit the Muslim Quarter after this,” Jillian asserted, “to see the hand looms.”
“Mom,” Naomi protested.
I wiped my mouth with a napkin. “Well, why don’t we go ahead and visit the looms, and Naomi can go to the shelter and meet us later on,” I said. “There’s plenty of time for all of us to explore.”
Jillian gave me a dark look, but I ignored it.
“Super,” Vicky said. “How about I give you my mobile number, just to put your mind at ease.”
After the meal, we stood up from the detritus and I was surprised to see that the Australian woman was nearly my height. We told Naomi to meet us back at the hotel in two hours. When Jillian questioned how she’d find the hotel on her own, Naomi assured us that she could handle it. Vicky winked conspiratorially at us, and led our daughter into the streets.
We were unable to find the Muslim Quarter. The back alleys of the city were unmarked and hectic, and didn’t adhere to the guidebook’s map. A young boy manifested beside us and led the way, depositing us at his uncle’s silk shop where we gawked at the legion of kufi-hatted men at the looms, and haggled for scarves. Jillian chose a violet one for herself and a fuchsia one for Naomi, “to brighten her wardrobe a little.”
Naomi rejoined us at the appointed time in our hotel room, where we’d already dropped, exhausted, in front of the television. Only Nicholas had the energy to imitate the Bollywood dance routines. Naomi paused for a moment in the doorway as she entered, quietly observing her family. I don’t know whether I saw a shade of disdain pass through her eyes or if this is something I’ve suggested to myself in retrospect.
“How was the women’s shelter?” I inquired.
“Fine,” she answered, with the same flatness of affect she used at home. She moved into the bathroom, and I heard the faucet run.
“Remember not to drink from the tap,” I called out.
Naomi returned to the room and planted herself at the window, looking out over the river. I gave her a moment, then pressed on.
“What did Vicky show you?”
“The women,” Naomi answered.
She was quiet for a minute. “Yeah.”
“Interesting, I bet. That’s something you won’t find in the guidebook. Hey, maybe you could send an e-mail to the guidebook publisher when we get back and let them know about this organization. Being listed in the next edition might help them attract customers.”
“It’s not like that,” Naomi said sharply. “It’s not a store.”
“Honey, why don’t you lie down for a bit,” said Jillian, her voice muffled by a pillow.
“I’m not tired,” Naomi replied.
I put a hand to Jillian’s shoulder and rubbed. The limit had been reached, I knew: the invisible trip-wire in all teenagers. I knew I would just have to endure it with good humor. It would be unnatural for a girl this age to behave differently.
Our little family rose before sunrise the next morning, as instructed by the guidebook—and, unshowered and sticky-eyed, went down to the river for the classic Varanasi boat ride at dawn. After strict negotiations with a boy no older than nine, I secured a decent price, and we jammed into a musty little vessel. To my surprise, it was the boy himself who rowed us down the Ganges, and who cheerfully showed us his calluses. Naomi hunched at the stern of the boat, with an expression of fatigue or contempt. She wasn’t a morning person, but we wouldn’t have allowed her to miss this. For my part, I found the experience entrancing. The city was awake and clanging as the smoldering sun slid up from the water and breathed its first heat in our faces. We glided past orange-robed priests, ash-smeared sadhus, and all manner of dark-skinned bathers. Up close, the water was layered with glutinous bubbles of scum.
I cleared my throat. “I read that the Ganges has four thousand times more fecal bacteria than is safe for bathing.”
“That’s disgusting,” Nicholas said. “Oh, and look, that guy’s brushing his teeth!”
“Don’t point,” Naomi said.
The river was crowded with other waterborne tourists, some of whom lit lotus candles and placed them overboard. Jillian did the same, and we watched our family candle wobble downstream to join the flotilla, until it was abruptly extinguished by the dunk of another boat’s paddle.
We passed people drinking from the river and fishing with pieces of string. We watched a boy pummel his tiny catch against the stone steps. We passed a dead water buffalo, and what was unmistakably a human corpse, floating face-down. Nicholas, thank heaven, was looking away at that moment. But Jillian and I saw the bloated shape, and our eyes met silently. We both glanced at Naomi, whose pale face told us that she, too, had seen. We all knew, from the guidebook, that sometimes bodies weren’t fully incinerated before being put into the river. Many families were too poor to buy sufficient firewood. No one spoke, but I knew that we’d talk about it later. And after some time, when we were back home, we’d begin gently sharing the story with others. Whether I was proud of it or not, that moment delivered a kind of fulfillment for me. I knew that we’d use it as an illustration of India, and of our indisputable presence there, for the rest of our lives.
At breakfast, Naomi announced her intention to return to the women’s shelter. Jillian gave me another wordless look, but I shrugged it away and told our daughter to go and learn what she could from this country.
By our fourth day in the city, Naomi had made a habit of the shelter. When she spoke, it was only of Vicky and the women. She came back to us in new clothing: a draping two-piece ensemble with a scarf hung the wrong way round her neck, its ends trailing behind. When I joked that they looked like fancy pajamas, she sneered. “It’s called a salwar kameez. All the young women wear them, you might notice.”
My daughter was right. I now saw that only the older Indian women wore traditional saris that exposed their belly and back fat. The younger, prettier ones wore the flowing pajamas.
On the fifth night, Naomi didn’t return to the hotel for dinner. We ate without her. Afterwards, Jillian paced the room, and Nicholas collapsed on his cot, spent from a hot day of sightseeing at the university and Hanuman Temple. A new, hand-painted statuette of Hanuman, the mighty monkey god, looked down on him from the shelf above his sleeping head. Finally, I took my wife by the arm and stood with her at the window.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” I said. “Vicky is there to look after her.”
“Who’s Vicky?” Jillian retorted. “She’s a stranger.”
Through the window we watched a gang of scruffy boys on the ghat below, circled by shadowy dogs. It still jolted my Western mind to see children thus unsupervised. Presumably their parents knew where they were—or maybe they didn’t bother to know. Above the boys, a lone streetlamp wore a halo of gnats. Beside me, I felt Jillian burn. My further attempts at conversation were cut short by silence.
Just before midnight, Naomi came quietly into the room, wraithlike in white cotton. Jillian opened the balcony door, and Naomi followed us into the muggy night air.
“Where the hell were you?” Jillian whispered.
“I was at the shelter, helping Vicky with a new woman.”
Naomi didn’t respond but looked out toward the river. I noticed a small red smudge on her forehead. Blood, was my first panicked thought, but then I remembered the chalky scarlet dots that the women wore here.
“Answer me,” Jillian pleaded. “What were you thinking? It’s not safe to stay out like that. You don’t know this place.”
Naomi turned back to face her mother. “What do you want me to say? I’m sorry if you were worried, but this is important.”
Jillian looked from Naomi to me, her face a rictus of desperation. I had to step in.
“Honey,” I began, “your mother is only upset because she loves you and doesn’t want you to get hurt. You’re young and pretty, and there are people here who might take advantage of that. This is a foreign country.” Even as I said them, I knew that these words followed a crooked train of logic.
“You weren’t there, Dad. This woman was in terrible shape. She was really badly burnt.” My daughter looked at me with wet eyes. For a moment, I was glad that she’d disobeyed us. I felt that it was evidence that our work as parents had, in fact, succeeded. And I knew that taking the children here had been the right thing to do. It would change them for the better, make them fuller human beings. It gave me a small glow inside to see that this was already happening.
“Naomi, I think it’s wonderful that you’ve taken an interest in the women’s shelter, but we do worry. And we wish you’d spend more time with the family while we’re here.” I felt a catch in my throat as I spoke. “We won’t have many vacations left before you go to college.”
My daughter said nothing. In the faint light, I studied her fine-boned face, growing rapidly into its beauty. To my knowledge, her rose-petal mouth had not yet kissed a boy. But at that moment, in that light, her face seemed to change. With its spooky third eye, it looked many years older.
“Do we have a deal?” I whispered, and held out my hand.
My daughter left my hand hanging and went into the room.
But she did stay with the family after that. Together, we spent the rest of our time in Varanasi wandering the ghats, dogged by touts. We made a wide berth around the burning ghat, where sometimes three bodies blazed at once in broad daylight, while children played around them with bicycle tires.
It was on Friday, the night before our return flight, that Naomi disappeared again. At dinner on our hotel’s rooftop restaurant, she excused herself to use the restroom and didn’t return. We found a note in the room:
Mom and Dad: I’m sorry to have to be sneaky about it, but I’m not coming home with you tomorrow. I need to stay a little longer to help Vicky at the shelter. It’s what I have to do. Love, N.
Jillian threw down the note. “Jesus Christ,” she said, and went to the door. I followed her, and instructed Nicholas to stay in the room with the locks bolted, under penalty of death.
From the reception desk, we called Vicky’s cell phone, which rang into the void and wouldn’t receive messages. Jillian and I wandered the back alleys of the city, stepping around manure and drowsing cows, avoiding eye contact with the rail-thin men who trailed us chanting sing-song syllables. The city at dark, stripped of color, was disorienting. We found the German bakery, in the hope of inquiring after Vicky, but the door was shuttered. It occurred to me, belatedly, that we should have accompanied Naomi on one of her visits to the shelter, if only to learn its location. And, if we’d visited more than once, if we’d involved ourselves, perhaps the place would have lost its mystique for her.
That night, back at the hotel, Jillian cried audibly in bed. I could see Nicholas lying awake, studying his Hanuman figure in the darkness. I reminded myself that Naomi was seventeen, almost an adult. I thought of the small children we’d seen in this city, fending for themselves. Regardless, my heart raced through the night, and I slid into dreams of filthy alleyways and bobbing corpses.
Our flight was at noon. I set the alarm for five, and we took Nicholas out with us to search. After a few hours’ sleep, my panic had softened. I was certain that we’d find Naomi in the light of morning. We’d laugh about this episode in the future; perhaps it would figure into my toast at her wedding. For a moment I forgot my fear, and a foolish smile played at my mouth as we walked against the flow of virgin tourists in search of dawn boat rides.
We returned to the German bakery and waited. The man who came to open the door didn’t reply to our question, but wobbled his head in that maddening way. We repeated the words women and shelterand prodded him with a map until he circled a spot with his finger.
Map in hand, I led the way to Assi Ghat, at the southern tip of the city. Energized by the adventure, Nicholas approached the locals, made gestures, repeated “American girl.” The women scuttled away. Men approached, but their assistance turned quickly into solicitations to buy silk saris or visit a guru.
Jillian had begun to cry, which alarmed the people we met. In her haze of tears, she clenched my arm until it bruised. We dragged onward, but the alleys began to further resemble one another the more we traveled them.
We missed our flight.
That afternoon, we extended our hotel reservation and returned to Assi Ghat. I would have to call my office and explain that I’d been delayed, that Carl would have to take the lead on the budget until I returned. It was a shameful inconvenience, to be sure, but not the end of the world.
Nicholas resumed his spiel with anyone he could stop. Finally, a group of boys giggled in reply. “Nomi,” one said. “Nice girl.”
The boys took us to a lane of crumbling buildings, and directed us to a pale blue doorway topped with a hand-painted portrait of Shiva, recognizable from his hippie hair and snake choker. A yellowed cow wobbled nearby, its dull eyes focused on nothing. The air smelled of urine and spice. One of the boys held a palm out to me, his smile evaporating. I took his hand, shook it firmly and said, “Thank you.”
Jillian knocked on the door, and a young Indian woman answered. From behind her came the smell of frying chapatti and the roving notes of a recorded sitar. It seemed that we’d been misled by our boy guides. But when Jillian asked, “Is Naomi here?” the woman turned around to look, and the sound of our daughter’s voice quietly answered, “No, tell them no.”
“That’s my sister,” Nicholas asserted.
I looked at Jillian with a tight expression meant to convey both relief and resolve.
“Naomi, come out please,” I called sternly.
The young Indian woman turned around and closed the door slightly. Jillian, stepping onto the threshold’s concrete slab, pushed it open again. “Excuse me,” she told the woman, and shoved past into the apartment.
The room was a dirty rectangle bordered by a stove, ironing board, and mattresses. Flags of colorful fabric hung from every peg and corner, giving the place the look of a stalagmited cave. Another young Indian woman stood sentry in the corner, where Naomi sat cross-legged on a cushion, staring hotly at us. She wore a glaring red orb on her forehead, and her black hair glinted in the shaft of light from a tiny window above her.
“You made us miss the plane,” Nicholas said, his voice high and reedy in the dusky room.
“I told you, I’m not coming,” Naomi said.
“Honey, do you have any idea what you’ve just put us through?”
Jillian stretched out her arms, but Naomi blocked her mother’s embrace. “All right,” Jillian said, pulling back. She took a breath. “If we call ahead we might get on tomorrow’s flight. You just better pray they don’t charge us for four new tickets.”
Naomi didn’t respond, but kept her position on the cushion, her back rigid.
“Get up,” Jillian demanded.
“Sweetheart,” I began, and took a step toward Naomi, who remained stiff. “I know that staying seems like the right thing to do. You’re a good person to be so concerned about the people here. But you’re still our daughter, and you have to come home with us now.”
“Why are you reasoning with her?” Jillian snapped.
“Come on,” moaned Nicholas. “Get up. I want to go home.”
“I’m not getting up,” Naomi said.
In that moment, I had a dart of clarity. As my wife and I stood in this crowded, sour room in this renegade country—two well-fed, well-meaning Americans—I saw that our daughter was truly alien from us, a compact and strong-willed heroine. In her serene lotus position, there was no uncertainty in her face, no indication of drama or internal strife. It occurred to me that she wasn’t going to stand up. There was nothing we could do about it. I wondered if Jillian would attempt to lift her and carry her out to the street.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Jillian shrieked, and again Naomi was silent.
“She appears to be staying,” I said quietly.
“No,” Jillian shot at me, “She does notappear to be staying. She appears to be acting like a child. I’ve had enough of this. We have jobs to get back to. We can’t stay here screwing around with her prima donna antics.”
I’d never heard my wife speak this way in front of the kids. Nicholas gaped at her. Naomi narrowed her eyes.
“All you people care about is control,” she said evenly. “But you can’t control everything. You can’t control my decisions. I’m old enough to go to college, and I’m old enough to do this. Maybe you don’t understand why it’s important, but I do. All you know is your comfortable little suburb and impressing your stupid friends. Well, these are myfriends, and I’m going to stay with them. You can postpone my plane ticket. Tell school that I’m sick or something. Go ahead and get back to your jobs. I’ll be fine here without you.”
The thing is that I believed her. There was anger in her voice, but beneath the anger was a terrifying conviction. My daughter had become something I’d never been at her age, or ever.
I glanced at Jillian. Her face was flushed as if slapped. She stood in place for a moment, then pivoted and went out the door. I had the knee-jerk impulse to follow, but mentally overrode it. Perhaps it was better that she stayed outdoors for now. This was a conversation a father and daughter should have. I came closer to Naomi.
“Tell me. What is it you want to do here exactly? I’m listening.”
“I just need to stay two more weeks,” Naomi said, relaxing her posture a bit. “There’s a petition to the government against bride burning, and we’re submitting it on the fifteenth.”
“Can’t you help from home?”
Naomi scoffed. In the corner of my eye I saw that Nicholas had wandered to a cluttered shelf and was examining a collection of figurines. He held a small Ganesh, the elephant deity. Ganesh was my personal favorite, bright and endearingly sinister, the lord of wisdom and destroyer of vanities. He was everywhere in India, it seemed, every taxi, hotel, and restaurant. To encounter him in this place was somehow comforting.
The two Indian women remained at their posts, observing the scene. They were both young and attractive, dressed in the bright native colors I admired so much. “I see that these are your friends,” I remarked diplomatically.
“This is Neha and Lakshmi. They work at the shelter, too.”
The woman who’d answered the door acknowledged me with a nod and, as if released, moved to the stove. The other woman smiled warmly. “Naomi is a wonderful girl,” she said.
“Yes, I know.” I returned the smile. “It’s hard for us to leave her with you, even for just a little while,” I added. I squatted down by Naomi’s side and smelled the fresh American tang of her shampoo. “Baby,” I said softly. “I think it’s terrific that you want to help. You’re a brave and noble girl, and I’m so proud of that.” I took a breath and continued steadily, keeping my voice as light and non-parental as possible. “This has been a good introduction to the world for you, and there’s so much more to learn. There’ll be plenty of time to come back here. There’ll be plenty of time in your life to save burning brides, and everyone else.”
My daughter looked back at me without expression.
“We’re going to the airport tomorrow morning,” I said. “If you’re not ready to come back to the hotel with us right this minute, that’s okay. You can take your time to say goodbye here, and meet us at the hotel later. You can even come back tomorrow morning, and I promise we won’t ever mention this again. That goes for your mother, too.” I took a breath and nodded, as Naomi looked stonily at me. “We’re leaving for the airport at ten.” I kissed my daughter’s head and straightened up.
I took Nicholas by the arm and led him to the door.
“Isn’t she coming?” he asked.
“Yes,” I stated, and took him out into the hammering sun.
Deep down, maybe I knew Naomi wouldn’t come. We stood in the lobby with our luggage the next morning, watching a French family check in, their small daughter cooing over a cockatiel in a white cage. Jillian hadn’t spoken or slept since the previous day. Now she peered at me with bruised-looking eyes and said, “We have to go back and get her.”
“I know,” I said. “Wait here with the luggage.”
I don’t know how I found the place alone. But I knew the blue door at once, and knocked forcefully. No one answered. I felt my heart spin a drunken loop as I nudged the door open and entered the room where my daughter had been, but which I sensed would now be empty. I stood for a moment and gazed at the bare place on the floor where she’d sat. I felt suddenly faint, struck by the fact of my own stupidity. I’d had my moment to lift her over a shoulder and clap a hand to her mouth, and had let the moment go.
I called my daughter’s name. I walked a circuit of the room, as if I might discover her hidden in some cabinet. My heart, pulsing in its box, was a puny thing. I circled the room again. I couldn’t go back to the hotel without Naomi, I couldn’t face my wife. But I couldn’t conjure our daughter out of air, either. I stopped walking and stood among the flaps of colored fabric. As I stood there, I told myself that my daughter was probably nearby—and almost certainly safe. She hadn’t been abducted, after all, but had come here of her own volition. I remembered the pretty young women, her friends. This wasn’t a perilous place, but a shelter.
Finally, I knew what to do. It felt like a release, like letting a bird fly from my hands. I opened the doors of a painted pink cabinet and rummaged through its contents until I found a pad of paper and a blunt pencil. Gripping the pencil, I imprinted a message on the top sheet of the pad. We were going home, the note said, but we’d have a plane ticket sent to the hotel in Naomi’s name, for mid-January, two weeks from now. I wrote, Please be safe, and signed the note, Love, Dad.
I trotted back to the hotel. My heart still felt wrong in my chest, shrunken and weak, a betel nut leaking juice. Jillian held a hand to her forehead and stared in pale dread as I came through the lobby alone. The cockatiel was screeching on its perch. It looked like a toy with its round red cheeks and glassy black eyes. I forced a smile onto my face, and through the bird’s racket, gave my report.
I’d spoken to Naomi, I said, and she’d apologized for her childish behavior. I’d seen Vicky, too, who’d also apologized for alarming us. I’d spoken to both of them at length, and had finally been convinced that working at the shelter would be a growth opportunity for Naomi. It was serendipitous, really, that she’d happened upon something that fired her passion for service so strongly. We couldn’t have asked for a better scenario if we tried. That’s why I’d made the executive decision to let her stay two more weeks. We’d send her a new plane ticket from home.
Before Jillian could speak, I picked up a suitcase, and within seconds three porters had materialized around us. All at once, they had our bags on their heads and were rushing on bone-thin legs to the door. I hustled after them, farcically giant.
Mercifully, Jillian didn’t argue or resist the forward thrust of our departure. She sat beside me in the auto rickshaw, her face drained of color. We rode to the airport, weaving for the last time through the tangle of bicycles, goats, and women with head bundles. The rumble of the rickshaw’s engine vibrated through our bodies. As the rush of my fabrication receded, exhaustion overtook me, and I let myself go limp. We jostled like dolls in the carriage, at the mercy of the driver.
We spoke little on the flight home. Jillian closed her eyes for the duration. Nicholas, between us, quietly watched the seat-back monitor. I noticed that, on his lap, he gripped a small Ganesh figure. I began to ask where he’d gotten it, if he’d stolen it, but stopped. It felt hypocritical somehow. Instead, I leaned back in my window seat and looked out at the sharp Asian stars.
The next day, I called the high school and told them Naomi was sick and would be out for a while. Mononucleosis, I said. They asked for a note from the doctor, which I promised to produce. Through the phone I could hear the ringing bell and the echoing clatter of adolescents in polished hallways. Then I called Air India, made a reservation in Naomi’s name for the fifteenth of January, and asked that the physical ticket be mailed to the hotel in Varanasi.
I called the hotel each day after that, and each day the manager replied that no one had come for the plane ticket. January fifteenth passed, and I called again. The manager neatly hung up the phone.
Jillian took more time off work. She stayed in our darkened bedroom and slept. It had been difficult for me to return to the office myself. My co-workers seemed so clean in their pressed business shirts, with their fresh-shaven faces, pink lips, and plump bellies. I didn’t want to share our personal trauma with them and demurred when they pressed me for details of India. I told them I couldn’t begin to describe it. At their insistence, I showed them the photographs, though it felt wrong to do so. Their gasps and expletives came at the moments I predicted they would: the open sewers, the Ganges tooth-brushers, our family stranded on railroad tracks. At this last photo, my stomach caught on a hook. There was Naomi, half-shaded in her sunhat. Her body was narrow in the T-shirt and cargo pants, still so much that of a girl. I stared at her face. Had the first mutinous match already been struck in her? Or, if it was something purer than mutiny—a transmutation, a kind of saintly possession—had she felt its first vibrations already?
At last we received a postcard, stamped on the day of our departure. It featured a poor-quality photograph of the ghats at sunrise, fiery red letters spelling Varanasi: City of Light. The few lines on the back, in Naomi’s rounded print, explained that she needed to stay for longer than she’d said. We could think of it as an early gap year. She signed off with a heart.
I brought the card to Jillian in bed. I expected her to leap up and punch a wall. I expected her to call the police or the American Embassy. Instead, she let the card drop to the bedspread and sank back to the pillow. Dusty light came through the window blinds from the January sun. Her breathing was shallow and silent. I touched her shoulder, then rubbed her back gently. She didn’t stir.
Over the next few months, I e-mailed Naomi multiple times, but never received a response. I began to doubt whether she was seeing my e-mails at all. Her only communiqués came in the mail, via postcards. In May, she sent an envelope containing an article about the women’s shelter, the famous bride-burning petition. There was a grainy photo of the volunteers, a group of huddled women, Indian and Western. I found Naomi in the picture at once. She was small beside Vicky, her adopted godmother. I stared at Vicky’s broad Australian smile, and felt a startling surge of hatred toward her. It occurred to me that she, too, might have abandoned home as a girl. Clearly she’d introduced the idea to our daughter. In the photograph, she stood with her arm coiled around Naomi, both of them smiling with spiteful superiority.
I remained stalwart for Jillian’s sake. I sometimes heard her in the bathroom at night, sobbing behind the locked door. In the daylight I saw a leaden weight in her eyes. When we spoke, her words were often preceded by a delay, as if she were gathering force to clear a hidden barrier. Sensing her pain, I assured her that Naomi’s little adventure would end soon. At the very least, she’d have to return before her visa expired in June.
In an e-mail, I congratulated Naomi on the successful petition. I was proud of her, I wrote, and looked forward to hearing the details in person. I sat for a long minute, carefully choosing my next words. As you know, your visa is expiring soon, I typed. But rather than just buying a plane ticket for you, I’m going to let you choose the date you’d like to fly home.I said that in the next week I’d make a wire transfer to the State Bank of India, at Assi Ghat. Typing these words, a picture of Assi Ghat rose to mind—its mad, dusty tumble—and I was pleased by my ability to casually reference it. I’ll trust you to take the cash to a reputable travel agency and book a ticket on the airline of your choice. I sat for a long moment staring at the screen, feeling the depth of its dark power, before typing, Love, Dad. With that, I pressed a key and sent the message spiraling through space.
I sent the money: one thousand American dollars. The following week, I entered the tracking number into the Western Union website and was informed that the money had been claimed. I felt a wave of gratitude. Sitting at the computer, I exhaled a long breath. It took all my willpower not to rush to Jillian and tell her the news. I decided to keep it secret, so that I might see the blast of joy on her face when Naomi’s taxi arrived.
In the meantime, I relished the daily renewals of spring and began to plan our next trip. My idea was Norway—safe and fresh. We could go in early July, I privately calculated, so that Naomi would have a chance to rest before re-departing with us. I brought home picture books of fjords, indigo pools trimmed with silver. It felt like the right time for something clear and cold, a Scandinavian asceticism. Nicholas skimmed the books. Jillian failed to look at all. When I asked, she assured me that the trip was a fine idea, that we needed to continue on as before. I nodded, setting my teeth against a smile.
It was with sweet suspense that I greeted each day, knowing it might bring Naomi home. I resisted the lure of the computer, the urge to e-mail her constantly, to beg for details of her plans. As the calendar flipped to June, my anticipation reached an electric pitch. Helplessly, I clung to the days, watched them turn to weeks. The mailbox expelled the usual garbage: bills and supermarket circulars.
July arrived. With a knot in my throat, I re-checked the visa sticker in my own passport. There, amid the Hindi squiggles, was the expiry date in black ink—15June—the day and month transposed, European style.
In India was a girl without money. What bank official, what dirty sleight of hand, was to blame? I could see her in the dust cloud of Assi Ghat, thin and bereft, walking back along the brown sewer to her barren quarters. It was possible she’d taken the cash and disobeyed my directive, but I couldn’t bring myself to accept this. It was more likely the money had been stolen. Everyone knew it was a country of swindlers, of swine. A country that dumped its dead in a river and called the water holy.
No postcard came, no letter, no taxi. In the heat of an insomniac midnight on the eve of our Norway trip, I went to the computer and typed a string of weak characters: Where are you? Please come home.With the weight of a finger on a key, the message flew away. My knees creaked as I rose and returned to bed, where my wife lay sheltered in sleep.
The dawn of our flight, we spoke little as we orbited the kitchen, pouring coffee and juice. We’d packed for Scandinavia’s cool summer weather. Jillian had been feeling unwell, so I’d chosen her clothes for her. Nicholas had procrastinated and was now stuffing underwear in a backpack. I saw something dangling from the backpack’s zipper, and when I recognized the pretzeled body and elephant head of Ganesh, I felt a visceral jolt. I don’t completely understand the indignation that followed, the obscure shame that made me go to the backpack and yank the figurine from its string. All I know is that the next moment I held the elephant in my hand. My son stared at me, and after a dazed pause I handed it back to him.
Slowly I returned to myself, re-entered the groove of routine. I turned off the main water valve, double-checked that the lamp timers were set, and pressed the code for the burglar alarm. It was still dark when we stepped out to the car and began our drive to the airport. In silence, I piloted my seat-belted family over the empty roads of our town, past sleeping trees and houses. Above, the sky gradually shed its black velvet illusion, its trick of infinity. It blanched and hardened and, like a bell jar of morning, lowered softly around us.[from NER 40.1]