In the Beginning
For their fourth date Aneeta decided to move her relationship with Phillip forward, a step. They’d gone the first night to Vanderbilt, a low-pressure, after-work cocktail spot where Phillip teased Aneeta over how long she took to finish her one prosecco. Second, he had taken her to a ball game, and though she told him she didn’t understand baseball, she cheered his team, ate hotdogs, and took a sip from Phillip’s flask. A week later they rode bikes over the bumpy dirt trails the park, stopping by the lake for huaraches and bottled beer from the Latin American vendors. They ate sitting among the wildflowers growing down the sloping bank, the wind whipping Aneeta’s long black hair across her face. She laughed, and Phillip framed the perfection of her profile with his fingers. He called that Wednesday to suggest dinner at Ai Fiori on Saturday night.
The mention of Ai Fiori had made Aneeta decide it was time to give Phillip an undisguised signal she was willing to go wherever he led. Clearly, she thought, Phillip felt the same way. It was one thing to eat Mexican food in the park or hot dogs at a ballpark, but another thing altogether to have dinner at Ai Fiori. Aneeta wondered how on earth Phillip had got a reservation, if he’d had to pull strings. Maybe doctors were given preference? She let herself say out loud only one time: Aneeta Beharry is going to have dinner at Ai Fiori with a medical doctor. To consider the date too much she realized, would make her delirious, would spin her mind out of control at the possibilities. Instead, for most of Saturday, Aneeta tended the dahlias she’d planted this year. Working in her garden—always flowers, never vegetables—kept Aneeta calm.
It was while Aneeta got ready on Saturday evening, as she washed and perfumed her body, brushed her heavy hair, and stroked on her makeup, that she thought about her mother. Her mother had married at fifteen and she had never seen Aneeta’s father before that day. All she had ever done before her wedding was work. She planted rice, collected firewood, minded her seven younger brothers and sisters, milked the cows, took them out to graze and brought them back to the pen at sunset, and cooked of course. Aneeta stretched her mouth wide and in her peculiar way moved her head instead of her hand to carefully glide on her reddest lipstick. One evening, her mother had told her, a man she had never seen before came and spoke with her father. She washed her feet and wearing her mother’s orhni served her father and the man rum, the man in their only glass (a jar) and her father in their least chipped enamel cup. Later that night her own mother had told her that she was going to be married.
Aneeta ignored her telephone. She didn’t want to talk to Imogene. She needed to focus full on the preparations for this night. Imogene’s chatter right now would pierce the ritual and dilute the magic she needed to create. The one happy story Aneeta’s mother had told her over and over was the story of her wedding day. How her mother and aunties had bathed her, washing even her most private parts with Kananga water and marigold petals. They had massaged her naked skin with ghee, pulling and stretching her limbs until she had felt unable to walk from the coconut pallet to stand in front of the long mirror they’d borrowed from the pundit’s wife. A milk cow had been sold to afford the red sari her aunties wound and draped around her slender body. Aneeta stared at her own nakedness, at her full moon breasts and tiny navel, and found it impossible to believe that her own mother had once been pretty. By the time Aneeta and her twin sister Geeta were born, their mother didn’t have any remaining teeth. The sun had cured her skin the color of a cutlass sheath, and the soles of her feet were as hard as the whetstone.
Aneeta’s doorbell rang at 8:27. When she coyly told Phillip he was early for their 8:30 date, he crossed his legs and tipped his body full against her doorjamb, a motion that caused a hank of his blond hair to separate from the rest and fall forward against his forehead. “I’ve been sitting in my car for ten minutes,” he said. His wide white grin shone down on Aneeta.
She wore her one shoulder black dress. Her heels were high, but barefoot Aneeta stood five three. Even her bedroom slippers had tiny heels. Phillip didn’t sweep his eyes over her, but Aneeta felt him note her side-parted hair, her long-drop earrings, her strong clavicle. He kissed her cheek and inhaled deeply. “You’re beautiful, Aneeta.”
“Thank you, Phillip.”
Aneeta knew she was beautiful. Her beauty had been the impetus to make her mother steal from her father all Aneeta’s life, and then when the money she had hidden wasn’t quite enough, to borrow from every last friend and relative to make sure Aneeta had a chance to go to school and then to leave the rice forever. Aneeta had never suffered jiggers under her toenails like the rest of the poor children, had never had to carry two buckets of water at a time from the standpipe. Even Aneeta’s father had been in awe of her beauty. When drunk or sober he beat her mother, her twin, and the rest of her brothers and sisters, he only ever shouted at her. At the airport Aneeta’s mother had said, “Forget about we, you hear. Forget this nasty rotten place. Go, beti, go.”
This was the coincidence of Phillip and Aneeta’s life. He had actually visited Aneeta’s village, that nasty rotten place.
As they walked down the path through the rows of budding dahlias, Phillip placed his hand on the slight curve of her back with enough pressure so she felt the warmth of his palm through to her skin.
He drove well, Aneeta thought, speeding up after lights and slowing as they approached the next intersection. Aneeta liked that. She felt it showed that Phillip was cautious and conscientious.
“Music?” Phillip asked her. Aneeta turned to look at him. His profile faded in and out as the car passed under the curving lampposts along Highland Avenue. In the light he was as gorgeous as a man could be without being vulgar. The shiny hair, the strong jaw, the eyes with just the right amount of wrinkling. In the dark Aneeta could see his smile. “So?” His hand reached toward the radio.
“No music if you don’t mind. Unless you want to hear music?”
He was unsurprised by her response. He remembered how the women in Aneeta’s village had scurried around serving the men, even though they worked has hard in the fields and took care of the children. Their instinct had been to please, and his father had told him, they faced terrible consequences for disobeying. “No,” Phillip said, “I like driving along with you like this. We’ll be there in three minutes.”
Inside, Aneeta stood close to Phillip while the host found their reservation. It had become Aneeta’s dream to go to places like Ai Fiori. In the future she conjured while tending her flowers saw herself as complement to a rich man’s lifestyle. Aneeta didn’t think anything callow about this desire for didn’t she know what it was like to be the wife of someone poor? She wanted three beautiful sons, close in age, and a part-time maid. She wanted to chair the PTA, to have a well tended home, and a club membership. She would throw delightful dinner parties, serve not too spicy exotic food, and have witty conversation. Aneeta wanted to celebrate Easter Sunday in a pastel green dress with a matching hat, to take the boys egg hunting and have their small picture featured in the newspaper’s Family section. She wanted a cruise in the winter and a beach house for the summer. She wanted to casually toss a light cashmere sweater around her shoulders, lean against Phillip on the dock and ooh and ahh at fireworks exploding in the Fourth of July night. Aneeta read all the magazines; she knew what was there to want. Cultivation didn’t just mean rice.
The host found Phillip’s reservation and ushered them through the seated diners. Aneeta didn’t imagine all the women turned to look. Emboldened by their perfection, she took Phillip’ elbow. Their table, set in an alcove two steps above the other diners, made Aneeta think of the theatre. She had never seen a play, but she knew the best seats were in private boxes, high above the heads of the hordes massed together in the orchestra below.
“Would you like cocktails to start,“ their waiter asked. Aneeta noted he was an older man, not one of the young servers at the places farther down Highland where she and Imogene hung out on Friday nights. He didn’t introduce himself and announce the specials of the night. He didn’t give her the eye.
“I’ll have a prosecco.” Aneeta didn’t say please on purpose. Before, she had always said please and thank you to wait staff, until Imogene said it made her sound like an immigrant.
Phillip ordered a dirty gin martini.
“Tell me again,” Aneeta asked, “how you ended up visiting Caroni?”
“Isn’t it crazy,” Phillip said. “I can’t believe you’re from that place. My dad was an epidemiologist and the Center was battling a malaria outbreak in the Caribbean. He pulled me out of school and took me down with his team. We went to Caroni, Oro, Orotouche?”
“Oropouche. All over the island. Anywhere there was rice paddies and swamp.”
“I would have remembered you,” Aneeta said. “Strangers never came to the village. For anything.” They’d figured she must have been at school. But, Geeta would have been home. If she married Phillip, Aneeta thought, in a way Geeta would have met her husband.
“I’m sure I would have remembered you, too.” The combination of Aneeta’s size and beauty Aneeta, her gameness, turned Phillip on immensely. That day in the park she had ridden the trails as if her life had depended on it.
“Do you ever go back there?” he asked her.
“Everybody’s dead,” Aneeta said simply. And it was true. Caroni was a blurry past. Had she ever held rice seedlings between her toes or bathed naked in a muddy river? Or had that only been Geeta?
The waiter reappeared.
“Let me order for you,” Phillip said. Aneeta set down her menu. “We’ll start with poached oysters, lobster veloute, and the blue crab grapefruit salad. Then let’s have the roasted breast of squab, the braised veal agnolotti, and,” Phillip looked at the waiter, “see if Cannon has the semolina saffron gnocchi.”
A place like Ai Fiori was Phillip’s element. Aneeta wanted that unchallenged birthright for her unborn sons.
“The ’07 Pauillac should go well with this.” The waiter thought it would. He took Phillip’s empty glass and brought him another martini.
She had learned so much since leaving home. Most of her maturity had come as she dated up through the ranks: fellow students, a policeman, one of her professors. Imogene had told her she could get top shelf. “Look in the mirror, Aneeta Beharry.” Imogene had placed her palms on Aneeta’s cheeks. Aneeta saw her own big eyes, her familiar nose, her butter-colored skin. “You,” Imogene said, “can have any man you want.”
The waiter served their dinner. How Aneeta murmured when she swallowed those warmed oysters, when the silky veloute caressed her tongue. The roasted skin on the squab seemed to shatter crisply and the meat below was soft and rich. Phillip fed her a bite of his veal, and Aneeta thought, yes, cows were sacred.
This was by far the best meal she had ever eaten, unless of course she remembered the childhood curries her mother and aunties had made on feast days. Her mother too had cooked with saffron, had added a pinch of the golden threads to her pots, but she had never produced anything so airy as that gnocchi. The days of feasting for Paghwa and Diwali were the bedrock of Aneeta’s happiest childhood memories. The arrival of the aunties from neighboring villages, the black-bottomed pots bubbling on open fires, the Hindi songs the women sang that no one could tell Aneeta what the words meant, the dancing under the stars. Aneeta stopped reminiscing there, early in the night, not wanting to remember later when without fail the uncles, made fearless by rum, raised their voices in challenge to each other and ran into their shacks for cutlasses and knives. Feast days had often meant terrible nights. Her twin Geeta had died on a feast night.
Phillip chose dessert, and while Aneeta delighted and moaned over mouthful after mouthful of baba al rhum, Phillip set down his bourbon and said, “Ai Fiori means among the flowers. Did you know that?”
Aneeta put the back of her hand to her mouth. She hadn’t.
“That’s what I feel like when I’m with you, Aneeta,” the candle flickered double in Phillip’s eyes. “I feel like I’m amongst the flowers.”
As Aneeta swallowed the last of her dessert, she refused to let down the iron gate she dropped whenever she didn’t want to think. She had dropped it when her uncles had touched her, when her father had beat her mother, and when she’d got the news Geeta had been chopped to death on Diwali, whenever too many thoughts had threatened. Aneeta kept the gate up and her mind clear.
He drove a little too fast on the way home, making the yellow lights he had slowed for earlier. Aneeta decided not to care. Everything was a sign. If she made it back to her apartment alive, then the life she wanted was to be. If she died with Phillip right now, then this date would have been the pinnacle of all she would ever achieve. Wasn’t this all so much more than Geeta had had before she died, everything her mother had ever wanted for Aneeta?
Phillip parked in front of her apartment, jerking Aneeta forward against her seatbelt when he braked too hard. They lingered outside, Aneeta deciding if she should let him in. Four dates. She unlocked her front door. “Come for a nightcap.” He wanted bourbon. Aneeta was glad she had listened to Imogene and stocked a tray with alcohol she’d never even tasted. Look at me, Aneeta thought as the amber liquid settled in the bottom of her crystal highball, pouring a drink for a man in my own place.
“What was that?” Phillip asked her when she came and sat next to him.
“What?” Only seated did Aneeta bend to remove her heels.
Phillip’ legs were so long, Aneeta thought. She turned to look at him, “Maybe I’m happy. I had a good time with you tonight.”
He set his drink on the table and reached for Aneeta’s feet. She whooped when he brought them to his lap, spinning her around on the white leather. He massaged her sole, and Aneeta let herself go. I am a woman, she thought.
She liked the bourbon on Phillip’ tongue, was surprised to realize that the smoky taste and smell combined to remind her of the open cooking fires her mother and aunties had kindled on feast days.
“It’s late,” Aneeta told Phillip. She said it languidly, thinking ahead to their next date, when she would be bold and suggest the theatre.
His response was to kiss her again, rougher this time, and when he pressed into her he felt heavy. Aneeta kissed him back, but she wasn’t comfortable. She pushed against him so slightly, trying to shift his massive weight off her chest. Without warning he drew up his knee and tried to open her legs. Aneeta stiffened. Her lips were parted, but she was no longer kissing Phillip. She stayed still while he panted and ground in a fury above her. With one hand he reached under her dress and dragged aside her underwear. Was she consenting to this? Aneeta thought she could endure. If her mother and her aunties had endured so much for a bowlful of rice and a dusty yard full of hungry children, couldn’t she put up with this for one night if it meant she could have the life she wanted? Phillip’s fingers closed around Aneeta’s neck. She found it hard to breathe, impossible to swallow. She felt lightheaded. On the edge of consciousness she took in the ropy muscles on Phillip’ neck, his hard-set jaw, the blond hair that had fallen forward and swayed like young rice in a low paddy on a windy day.
Phillip sent her flowers in the morning. The deliveryman made three trips to his van. Six gorgeous bouquets: calla and tiger lilies, tea roses, orchids, daisies, tulips. Aneeta held her front door open with her body, not bothering to close her robe at the neck where the bruises on her buttery skin had already turned purple and blue. She signed his clipboard and after he left read the card attached to the largest bouquet. With you I am ai fiori, and I want to be with you always.
*Food references adapted from Sam Sifton restaurant review in the New York Times Dining Section, Wednesday February 22, 2011.