by Betsy Aaron
Lois sat on the ledge of the glassless window and posed for the Australian jogger as if she was on the verge of falling out. Aman, her guide, stood just outside the frame of the photo and as Lois lifted her feet to feign being swept away, he focused on her ankles.
They’d passed the jogger as they drove up the steep dirt road that brought them to the Monsoon Palace. Each evening at sunset Lois had studied it from her hotel rooftop, a distance that diminished the scale and substance of the white monument so that it appeared to float from its mountain perch into the land of fairy tales. Now that they’d arrived, she could see that it had been cleaned out like Versailles—except that unlike that palace, no evidence of a former elegance remained. Aman pointed out the off-limits wing that now housed a government radio station. The bare walls of the main entrance were splattered with the rusty blood of bats or birds and the only precious thing left was the view, which still made visible the swirling approach of the seasonal storms.
Lois was just coming out of the jungle—which was far more inviting than the hole in the muddied floor of the unlit public bathroom, when the jogger arrived. She hoped he hadn’t seen her squatting on tiptoes in an effort to keep her haunches as far as possible from the insect world.
“Training for The Olympics?” Perhaps he was too startled to notice that she was feeling for her zipper.
“Why don’t more tourists combine fitness with sight-seeing?” He could have been a jungle animal—alert and poised for action.
“Because this afternoon it’s over 110 Fahrenheit?” Why was she unable to calculate in Celsius?
“Got a water bottle, met my goal, I’ve earned this evening’s beer.” Was he looking for company?
“Are you staying in Udaipur?”
“Tonight I’ll be watching Octopussy right on the street where it was shot.” He used his tee shirt to wipe the sweat from his face before slipping it over his brindled head.
“When I go to check my e-mail, I pass the café that advertises two screenings a night. But I haven’t seen the movie yet.” Unflinching eye contact.
“How about tonight then?” He cocked his head and smiled.
Lois planned to be a no-show, but if Aman thought her naked ankles were about to be spoken for, the tension born of possibility would dissolve and they could resume the neat and comfortable relationship of tourist and guide.
In America, Lois’ ankles had not been erotic—for Philip it had been the call of her voice. He’d been cruising the dial and tuned in to her to pass time in the tunnel until the stalled rush hour traffic once again flowed. She’d invited him to spend the evening watching television for women and when he got home he did. He didn’t know why the movie, “The Ice Storm” was television for women but he was grateful because he was able to hear her voice in the commercial breaks that came every fifteen minutes throughout the evening. The next morning he called around to find out which talent agency represented her and he invited her to audition for him.
“Female voice-overs are usually too smiley or fake-sexy. Audiences sense that perkiness masks unhappiness. I am always on the lookout for someone who sounds real.”
He told her later that the first time she’d left a message on his answering machine, he’d replayed it eleven times. After they’d slept together twice, he asked her to whisper.
“In my ear. Make it sound like you’re on TV.”
His eyes were closed when he made this request—was he seeing someone else? A porn star perhaps, or the girl who sat next to him in high school calculus? Was it a doubling of her that he wanted, or was he dividing her by two?
In the beginning she’d been happy to comply but as their erotic adventures began to seem more like a necessary script for him, she wondered why one of her did not satisfy his desire for otherness.
Then he ran off with her voice.
“I’m going to be on the road for a while, scouting for talent. I bought you this so we can play while I’m gone.” The cell phone came with a Gucci case and free anytime minutes that she was allowed to roll over.
The nightly phone calls became a part of her daily schedule—filling the slot between flossing and lights out. And when they slept together, they slept. The morning she woke up mute, he said they had to have a talk.
One month later Lois was in India recovering from jetlag. On the long flight she replayed Philip’s words until they boiled down into a mantra of rejection.
To be honest I don’t know what I feel.
On her third night in Delhi, she sat next to the handsomest man she’d ever seen. He was tall and exquisitely dressed in the traditional salwaar kameez—pajama pants, a tunic and a scarf, but they’d been tailored in a cashmere that would take discipline not to touch. He had hazel eyes framed by gold glasses and as he edged his way down the row toward the empty seat to her right, he looked directly at her and with an exceptionally deep voice he said, “Good evening.”
When he sat down, she could smell the lanolin of his dark hair. She studied his hands; they were golden with a fine pelt of black hair and ringless. He chatted with the elderly woman seated next to him whom Lois assumed was his mother. During the classical dance performance, she strained her peripheral vision to stare at him without being obvious. She imagined that he was doing the same, that his hands were those of a surgeon, that his wife had died in a pile-up with an auto rickshaw, that he did not want another arranged marriage.
After his English greeting and her American hello, they did not speak again.
She wondered if it was his proximity that had been erotic or if her desire had been elevated to a state of orange alert as the result of crossing time zones with fresh wounds. That night, images of the handsomest man began to replace the worn grooves of the Philip mantra. He dissolved into a montage of clothed and revealed skin accompanied by her cover of The Clash: Should I stay or should I go? She replayed his only words, Good evening, and wondered if her voice had done for Philip what the handsomest man’s had done for her. It sang.
The next morning she packed her fantasy of the handsomest man and left for Udaipur. She’d been spending sleepless nights at the twenty-four Internet café there and had recently discovered a website devoted to the erotics of the inner ear. Its thesis was that each person is equipped with acoustics of a unique design, like DNA. Lois wondered whether it was the force of desire that directed one’s sonic vibration toward an open ear, if reception was the result of an active scanning for the sound that resonates within. Perhaps she’d been specifically attuned to the voice of the handsomest man and she’d let their moment pass.
Her meditation on the nature of the erotic was rekindled by Aman’s interest in her ankles—the body part that Indian women concealed from public view. She thought about the magnet’s ability to attract without intention and whether movement toward it was an action free of decision. She looked off toward the distant peaks and craved the back and forth sway of trees in the wind.
“This picture will be great.” The jogger's words brought Lois back into her body. He returned the camera to her and she looked at him as if she was seeing him for the first time. He had a beard that glowed with copper and he looked at her out of deep-set eyes that had bits of black but shone blue. She suddenly understood the Hindu ritual she’d read about which involved opening the painted eyes of the stone-carved deity. He looked at the distant view and she followed his eyes to the moonrise that silvered the daytime sky.
“I’m Edward. And you are?”
“I’m off for a shower then. See you at seven.”
As they drove downhill, Aman asked why she did not trust him with her good name.
“Traveler’s insurance against getting burned.”
“Trust. Here you are phoenix.”
“Is it harder in English to make metaphors—or jokes?”
“It is harder to understand the mind of unmarried American woman.”
When they arrived at the hotel, Lois sent Aman home to his wife’s ankles. “I won’t be needing you tomorrow. I want to explore by foot.”
“As you wish.”
Lois had spent each of the last four sunsets drinking tea on the rooftop that overlooked the lake. Sometimes other guests came out to photograph the scene but today she sat alone and watched a tribe of black-faced monkeys swing down from the City Palace and gradually settle on the rooftop of the neighboring hotel. They seemed to enjoy watching the sun sink for the day. Perhaps she’d share her dinner with the babies who were now being chased by waiters wielding brooms. Lois had read in the Delhi Times that at the Indian Parliament black-faced monkeys were hired out at a day rate significantly higher than the annual wage of the average laborer because they kept the more prankish red-faced monkeys from creating anarchy.
She thought about ordering a thali and getting into bed with the Kama Sutra that she’d found on her night table. She wondered if it had been intended specifically for her use or if a previous traveler whose baggage already bulged with shawls, silks, and jewelry had left it behind in favor of a pragmatic guidebook. Though the 1,800-year-old text promised that through mastery of passion one learns how to live successfully in the world, it did not address the needs of the woman who traveled alone.
Lois used her napkin to make notes that she’d later transcribe in her journal.
Does one travel to be lost or found?
Can homesickness be caused by sickness in the home?
Are answers the beginning or the end of imagination?
Then her attention returned to the neighboring rooftop where a teenage girl dressed in a tank top and shorts jumped rope while facing the burning sky. Behind her, a bus boy stood with his empty tray and watched while behind him monkeys who were lovers picked lice from their mates.
“Delphine—this way. What a brilliant view.”
Lois turned to face Edward’s long lens. He was standing two rooftops away in the other direction. The Kama Sutra advised on the ways of handling a lover who is waning or disappearing—get possession of his best things, laugh at him, sneer, deny him access, but it had nothing to say about a man who keeps appearing. She imagined a revised edition, updated like a graphic novel with a panel in which the potential lover presents himself. The unreceptive woman turns her back in a gesture of honesty, the open one turns to him with a face of kindness.
As the sun slipped into the world just waking, sounds of chanting rose and filled the space that separated them. Edward wore a blue that blended with the darkening and made him look sky-clad—the Jain term for nakedness that Lois had recorded in her journal. She began to memorize him in this moment so that when she moved on she could fill the space that had been occupied by the handsomest man and by Philip—but she was stopped by the loudness of sudden silence. She let go of the image and as it disappeared she could hear once again the music of animals and people praying and the wind that carried the breath of them all. She looked into the open eye of the camera and whispered, “I need to talk to you.”
In the past year, Betsy Aaron ditched her career in television and moved from New York City to Seattle. She has an MFA from the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College and is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Award for fiction. Her work has appeared in The Cream City Review and in Pierogi Press. “Udaipur” is an excerpt from The Constant Search, a story series inspired by Indian miniature paintings.