In Twenty Years
Being a nanny was not going to be Manju Gupta’s full-time job forever. Her husband, Krishna, had only just graduated from law school and taken the bar exam. They were waiting for his new job as tax attorney at the firm of Bundy, Willis, and Brown to begin in the fall. She had not so recently earned her Philosophy degree and still didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up. The newlyweds repeatedly had an argument that went something like this:
“The wedding was expensive. It’s time to start saving money, Manju. We have student loans and bills to pay. You can’t just be a stay-at-home wife yet. We can’t afford it.”
“I don’t want to stay home permanently, just until I figure things out. Why can’t you understand that?”
“It’s not just you anymore,” he said. “There are two of us to think about now. And maybe a family someday.”
Finally, one day, Krishna won the battle. Manju had to get a job.
The new job at the Thompson family’s home had Manju more than a little nervous. The last diaper she’d changed had been her brother, Naveen’s, nine years earlier. She had treasured Naveen when he was small, as if he were her own little doll. She had liked to rock and cradle him and play mother.
Manju’s parents had been supportive when she approached them about her fears, after the crutch of her student identity was gone. The only thing in this life she was certain of anymore was the strength and endurance of Krishna’s love and devotion. All else concerning who she was supposed to become was a gray haze. Her parents reminded her of how warm and natural she’d been with her brother and suggested the temporary financial fix of being a nanny. This surprised Manju since her only babysitters growing up had been her grandparents and her parents’ fellow Indian immigrant friends. No outsiders had ever been considered for the position. She was unsure of what it would be like to work in a stranger’s home.
Standing at the Thompson’s front door, about to ring the bell, she contemplated an escape. There was no time to run, however, as she met the large dark eyes of a woman peering out at her through the glass to the right of the door. A tattoo of black and purple flowers sprouted along the woman’s brown neck like vines of ivy and clung there like weeds. Her hair was wild and free but her irises, already delving their way into Manju’s flesh with bruising fingertips, were caged.
“Don’t go yet. I can’t bear to be alone with the baby.” Sona’s hand fluttered up to her forehead in a dramatic imitation of swooning. “I don’t survive long after you leave me each day.” She smiled in the charming manner of a child confident in their ability to get what they want.
“Sona, please don’t start. I’m tired,” Manju said, trying to suppress a groan at her employer’s customary and effective wheedling. “You’ll be fine. He’s not carrying any concealed weapons. You’re safe until Jon gets home.” Manju’s position was strict defense in this daily game they played.
“I know you judge me.” Sona sighed. “Why wouldn’t you? Afraid of my own baby.”
“Sona — “
“You’ll stay then? Chai’s almost ready.”
Manju nodded. Of course she lost this round. Sona was the type who always won. Besides, keeping her company meant less time for Manju to be alone at home waiting for Krishna. He worked unthinkably long hours that first year.
Sona was an older mother. She had gotten pregnant at thirty-nine and now at forty, she and her husband, Jon, were new parents to a beautiful baby boy. Sona and her family had left India when she was twelve and moved to New York City; it was there she met Jon Thompson at the youthful age of twenty. They traveled the world together like nomads, eventually settling in New Jersey.
Sona owned and ran her business out of her home selling sustainable clothes on the Internet that she’d designed and made by hand herself. Saris, salwar kameez, kurtis, peasant blouses, skirts, and pants in a range of fabrics and brilliant colors. Manju liked to run her fingers along them before leaving — some soft and deep like she was dunking her hands in a jug full of milk, while others were sturdy, stiff, and scratched back.
Sona was in the house all day with Manju and the baby, but was always shut up in her office until about four o’clock in the afternoon. Then while the baby napped, she would come join Manju in the kitchen and guilt her out of fleeing right away. They would chat before Manju left, the time they spent together growing longer each day as the months passed. Some days they laughed. A few times, Manju even spoke about herself. But mostly, Manju just listened.
Sitting together at the old and worn kitchen table now, over steaming hot mugs of masala chai, Manju wondered why she bothered pretending to put up a fight when they both knew she’d linger anyway. Perhaps because it was such a dependable part of their routine. Sona chattered as the minutes swelled into an hour or more.
After there was no more tea or stories for Sona to tempt her with, Manju stood up. “All right. I’m really going now.”
Sona laughed. “Okay. That’s fair. He’ll be back soon anyway.” Her face darkened. “If you lived here, I wouldn’t mind if he never came home.” Sona lowered her volume. “He’s so — “
They both heard the front door creak open and made an abrupt switch to Tamil, as they often did, with Manju helping to remind Sona of the many words and expressions she’d forgotten from her mother tongue. Sona said she liked to speak Tamil with Manju because Jon didn’t know any.
When Jon entered the kitchen, he frowned and asked what Manju was still doing there.
One afternoon, Jon came home earlier than usual. He greeted Manju, and they made polite small talk before he left the room and joined Sona upstairs in her office. They were talking a while until Manju even forgot they were both home. Then Sona’s voice boomed throughout the house.
“There you go with the same old excuses. Has the baby made me that disgusting?”
“Sona, don’t be ridiculous. We’re both exhausted. I don’t see you ever in the mood either. But go ahead. Just blame me.”
“This wouldn’t even be an issue if we’d never had the baby, so you are to blame for that.”
Manju was getting herself a glass of water and had the baby in the kitchen with her, asleep in his bassinet. At these last words of Sona’s, Manju frowned and glided over to the baby to make sure the noise hadn’t woken him. Satisfied that he remained asleep, she lowered herself to the floor beside him. She pushed and pulled the bassinet back and forth in a slow, peaceful rhythm. She was used to Sona and Jon’s screaming matches now, and the little attention they paid to the fact that she was there in the house hearing every word, but they never failed to upset her and excite her compassion for the little boy in her charge.
Sona walked in and just barely glanced at Manju, not acknowledging the scene from upstairs. She delicately eased her small baby boy out of the bassinet, nestling him in her arms. She went and sat down at the table, slinging him awkwardly over her shoulder. She began to talk as though she and Manju had been in the middle of a conversation. “That ass thinks he’s entitled to a happy marriage because he gave me a ring and walked down an aisle twenty years ago. It takes work. Jon used to look at me like I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. That was a long time ago. They look at you differently when you’re young. Everyone treats you differently when you’re young.”
Manju nodded as if she knew anything about it but kept her mouth shut. The baby began to cry. Low pitched at first but quickly rising into a loud wail. Sona rubbed his back and bounced him roughly, kissing him all over, trying to make him stop. His crying only got louder and louder until Manju couldn’t hear herself think. Sona pressed him to her brown breasts, which were peeking out over the habitually low-cut blouse she wore. She bent over him, her black frizzy hair tickling his cheeks, while she crooned a soft lullaby into his ear that Manju’s own mother had sung to her and Naveen many a night, too. The baby wouldn’t stop screaming. Sona then made an irritated sound from deep within her throat and rammed her chair back as she thrust the baby at Manju.
Sona stormed into the living room and slammed around in there for a few minutes while Manju held the baby and rocked him back and forth without a sound. He kept crying, but the volume was decreasing. She kept her pace steady and within a few minutes, his cries ceased and he was asleep again.
Sona peeked into the room. She pantomimed clapping. “You’re a miracle,” she whispered, returning to her seat. She wiped her forehead, staring at her son. “God, I hate being a mother.”
Manju tensed and walked the baby back over to his bassinet and placed him there without looking back at Sona as she spoke. “You don’t mean that.”
“I do, I really do. You don’t know.” Sona was passionate in her tone.
“Fine. I just wish you wouldn’t say things like that to me. I have to go. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Manju grabbed her purse and headed straight for the door without a backwards glance. She made it outside before she was stopped by the pity in Sona’s voice behind her.
“I was you once, you know. Twenty years ago. I was you.”
Manju turned around, halfway down the brick path leading to the sidewalk. Sona stood in the doorway, her head tilted to the side as she observed Manju.
“I was the same way, all pretty and sweet. Excited for what life and my future with Jon had in store for me. I was you.”
Manju nodded but didn’t respond. She turned away and continued the walk to her car.
Nearly two months later, Sona sat down across from Manju, sliding over a cup of chai. After a few quiet sips of her own drink she said, apropos of nothing, “I’m not the monster you think I am. Jon and I agreed on no children, you know.”
Manju couldn’t conceal the surprise and interest that flickered across her features. “How’d you end up with one then?”
“Jon told me he’d gone to get the vasectomy. He was lying. We were totally unprotected and then I was throwing up all the time and well, you know the rest.”
Manju opened her mouth to speak. To say how she couldn’t even comprehend a betrayal that deep. To say how sorry she was that Sona couldn’t trust Jon anymore. To say it still wasn’t the baby’s fault and now he’s here and Sona should try harder to love him. But in keeping with what made her so likable and now necessary to Sona, she kept her lips closed and her thoughts to herself.
“Sometimes, I feel closer to you than my husband,” Sona said. “Sometimes, I think I love you more than him.”
Manju tried to glare at her, but instead she just stared too long, more intense and pointed than she intended. “You shouldn’t say things like that when you’re angry. You don’t mean them. You two just fought this morning.”
“You make me feel so much better all the time. I really love having you here. Our talks, most of the time, they’re the happiest and very best part of my week.” Sona stared back, her bright eyes demanding a response.
Manju was looking down at the table now, deep in thought. She traced the imperfections and ragged cracks in the aged brown wood with her fingertip of the same shade. She was absorbing everything Sona said, even if she didn’t feel up to resuming eye contact.
“I just meant you understand me better than he does. You listen to me so well. Jon’s a damn brick wall. He doesn’t listen to me like you do. No one does.”
“A therapist would,” Manju said, more to herself than anyone.
“Nothing. I think you should see someone, Sona. Get some help for how you’re feeling. It doesn’t have to be so hard every day. Things can get better.”
“You’re right.” Sona reached across the table. Manju didn’t notice, her eyes still fixed on a spot on its hard surface. Sona placed a rough palm on Manju’s cheek, gliding it across her smooth skin, much like Manju’s hands did daily over the garments upstairs. Manju started, but didn’t move away either. She was now looking directly at her companion, a blush creeping into her face. Sona moved her hand to brush stray dark tendrils back from Manju’s forehead.
“You’re so beautiful and fresh and pure, Manju. You make me believe things can get better.”
Manju jumped up, nearly falling in her haste. She backed away a few steps, groping for her jacket hanging on the back of the chair. Sona stood up, looking genuinely confused, and began to approach her, her expression open and pleading.
“Don’t,” Manju said.
Sona stopped where she was and put her hands up as if to prove her harmlessness. They both waited, completely still. Then Sona took one more step forward. “I think you’ve misunderstood me.”
“I’ll leave. I am leaving.” Manju turned to go, her skin so hot it was burning.
Manju pivoted slightly. The tired look Sona usually wore was back on her face.
“I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable.” Sona paused, appearing thoughtful and lost in equal measure. “I was just trying to tell you — well, it doesn’t matter, does it? I’m wrong to try and put everything on your shoulders. It’s really not your problem. Go on home, and I’ll see you Monday.”
After a weekend of being unable to stop wondering about Sona in ways she didn’t quite want to understand, Manju stood at the Thompsons’ front door. The words “I quit” hesitated at the threshold of her lips. Before she could reach for the bell, Jon wrenched the door open.
“Sona?” He stared past Manju, his voice frantic, the baby wailing in his arms. The child was now big enough to start crawling soon. “Sona, where are you?” Jon said to no one in particular, his eyes darting around and finally zeroing in on Manju. “I’m sure you know. Is she really gone?”
Manju began to sputter, guilt welling up in her chest as though he was right to suspect her of being complicit in whatever the hell Sona had done now. “I’m so sorry — I really don’t know what’s going on.”
“Tell me the truth.” His tone was pained but his expression ferocious. “She told you everything like you were her goddamn diary. So don’t pretend you didn’t know she was leaving.” Manju tried to cut in, but he raised his volume as he leaned in closer. “Was it someone else? An affair?” He grabbed at Manju’s wrist, but she yanked it out of his reach. Breathless, he whispered, “Was it you?”
Manju looked at the baby, thankful his eyes were closed as he cried, so she could force herself not to feel as she said, “I can’t work here anymore.”
“Good,” Jon said, retreating into the house. “Daycare will be better for him than you or his mother.” The door closed and Manju was suddenly aware of how loudly she could hear herself breathing.
When Manju reached home, she went straight to her laptop to email Sona and demand an explanation. Jon hadn’t gotten around to specifying what she’d taken with her, so Manju was too afraid of trying Sona’s cell and having him answer. She checked if there was already a message in her inbox waiting for her. Nothing. Furious, she refreshed the page. Still nothing. Refresh. No new messages.
Manju slumped back in her chair, disbelief and hurt coursing through every nerve in her body. A pressure built in her chest. She ached for some final words. But perhaps this is what Sona had been trying to tell her only a few days earlier, trying to prepare her, but Manju had been too afraid to listen. Too afraid to wait and stay for the word — goodbye — she didn’t know she dreaded but now knew she needed.
The screen blurred and the words on it began to swim. Manju wiped her eyes dry with violent hands. A sound in the room jolted her. She swiveled around in her chair and saw Krishna standing there.
“I forgot some papers here, but I have to be quick getting back — “ He stopped when he saw the look on her face.
He rushed over to her, his arms outstretched. She reached for him, and he drew her into a tight hug. She gripped his muscular arms, the arms that held her so close each night, keeping her safe and warm. She pulled back to look at him.
Manju stared into his eyes, seeing the earnestness there, and wanted so badly to believe and leave it at that. Yet the truth was plain, that neither of them could really know what this or any other life would be for them in twenty years.