“I think today we will find someone,” Farah said to Gautam, just before she slipped out the zipper door to walk again. He looked up from his book, and Farah recognized in his eyes a glint of darkness that had been there in her dream. His eyelids were a richer brown than they’d ever been. She felt her cheeks grow warm. She left before she could fully blush.
Farah walked and went over her plan. Her mother was dead. Her daughter was lost. But with pieces of them both, with pieces of their love (their love?) guiding her, she would find the child to replace them. She had the pillbox her mother had given her and the handkerchief that had dabbed at Anjali’s eyes when she was small, so Farah had devised a plan. She asked Gautam to take weekends with her at The Line, the place she remembered from the newspaper article. She said they would go to The Line and see if they could find a new child together. Gautam had resisted right away.
“Why can’t we have another child on our own?”
“Something is wrong with me,” Farah said. “I can’t do that.”
“You can. You’ve done it before.”
“I don’t want to. We’ll just go here and look, okay? Only look. It’s not as if I can take home a child without you knowing.”
And Gautam had nodded his head slowly with his lips pressed shut, as if he wanted to say something but didn’t know how to start.
After several weekends spent in the tent, Farah had learned to look in the places between buildings. In the alleys between restaurants and portable toilets, she often saw leaning silhouettes of young boys in groups, girls sitting cross-legged on the ground, children passing around trinkets or products or money. She would not approach them in groups. She could not take more than one at a time.
All morning the wind was cool on the back of her neck, but children left from between buildings in twos and threes, and Farah just kept walking.
Later, when the evening sun made everything seem gold, from the tin roofs of smoothie sheds, to the round tops of makeshift street lights the shop owners had set up, to the tops of blonde-haired heads, Farah saw a boy with a round stomach walk out from a portable toilet and come toward her alone.
“Excuse me,” she said. She put her hand on his shoulder after he’d already passed her. He turned around easily.
“Yeah?” The boy had a round face with cheeks that bulged as if he were holding something in his mouth for later. He had shy brown eyes; he looked around as if he expected someone else to approach. Farah thought the color of his hair was the same as her skin, and suddenly longed to touch her hand to his head to see if it were true.
“Here,” she said. “Wait.” She pulled the handkerchief from the pillbox. She held her breath and silently asked,
Anjali, is this the one? Mother?
“Oh,” said the boy. “Thanks.” He took the handkerchief and wiped it in a circle around his lips. Farah shook her head when he held it out toward her.
“Do you have parents?” she asked him quietly. She bent her head down so that some of her hair fell over her eyes. She did not want to be aggressive. She did not want to be scary. She did not want to make this child scream, and she did not want anyone sitting in their tents and staring through their screen windows to think she was doing something wrong. So she smiled, too. She felt a light breeze come into her mouth between her teeth.
“No,” said the boy. He shook the handkerchief in front of Farah’s face and shifted from one foot to the other.
“Would you like me to take care of you?” She was worried he hadn’t heard her. She had said it so quietly. He did not respond right away. Farah forced herself to brush the hair back from her eyes and actually look at him. Straight in the eyes. She let her knees bend so that her eyes were at his level. “Would you like that?”
The boy’s eyes had stopped darting. He stared at something over Farah’s shoulder, with glassy eyes that told her he wasn’t really looking at anything. Farah waited patiently and watched as another breeze pushed in, clearing away some of the oppressive heat, making the edges of the handkerchief dance.
“Okay,” he said. “Can we eat?”
That was it? That was all? It was this easy? Farah went over everything she’d prepared in her head: I know it’s scary, but this handkerchief used to belong to my daughter. I’ve had children before. We’ll go back to my house and you won’t have to try to take care of yourself anymore. She was ready to fight to convince him, as long as he’d taken the handkerchief, but the boy wasn’t concerned. He raised his eyebrows, expectant.
“I want to eat some cake,” he added.
“Of course we can eat something. Will you hold my hand?”
“Why?” but he stuck his hand into hers anyway. She felt something sticky pass from the handkerchief to her palm, and wanted to jerk away, but told herself instead to calm down and remember what living with a child was like. They were dirty and made mistakes all the time. She felt a dull warmth growing in her stomach as she slipped into selflessness. It was like pulling out childhood toys from closeted boxes and setting them out for the world to see again. The moment felt worn. Soon Farah forgot about the stickiness in her palm. They walked along the line together and stopped at a small cafe set up with folding card tables.
“I want some cake,” the boy said to the man behind the counter. Farah and the boy sat on the same side of one of the plastic tables. They were canopied with red tarpaulin, flanked by noisy, metal generators that ripped through the conversation and made it difficult for Farah to hear what the boy was saying.
“No, no, you should eat something better,” said Farah. Vegetables and fruit. And curry, if she could manage to convince him to try it just once. He wasn’t from India, she assumed. He had no Indian blood, as Anjali had, but perhaps she could shift his taste buds through habit so that he would come to enjoy hot chilies, tamarinds, and fenugreek. He would learn the names of all the spices. Names.
“What’s your name?” she asked, putting her hand over the top of his, feeling his knuckles rise up to meet her palm. “And he will have a smoothie, please,” she said to the waitress. “What kind would you like?”
Farah let her leg down so she stood halfway on the ground and only leaned on the stool. The boy swung his legs back and forth, his tennis shoes making dull thuds on the wood of the counter.
“Aaron,” he said. “And I want cake, not a stupid smoothie.”
“How would you like an apple instead?” Farah asked. She tried to remember what Anjali would have eaten for a snack. What did she prepare for her daughter in the afternoons when the sun slanted through the blinds of the living room? With the handkerchief stuffed into the pocket of the boy’s shirt, Farah felt cut off from Anjali and couldn’t remember. Aaron hit his fists on the counter top so that a loud bang throbbed through Farah’s ears. He was chanting,
“Chocolate cake. Chocolate cake.” He did not yell, but it was still too loud. Farah watched the waitress roll her eyes and pull impatiently on the bottom of her black apron. Pale and beautiful: she would make an elegant mother if she ever had a child, Farah thought.
“Cake? You want cake? Calm down.” Did the buzz of the generators grow louder just then? A headache crept up to her temples. Farah shook her head. “A strawberry banana smoothie for him, please,” she said to the girl definitively. With a nod, a sigh of relief, the girl left to prepare Farah’s order. Aaron sighed, too.
“I don’t want that.”
“I’m sure you will like it when you try it.” She remembered the night after Anjali returned from her grandmother’s, when Farah had to force feed her a forkful of rice, and even then her daughter spat it back onto her plate. She was prepared, somehow, to wipe down the counter of this cafe if she needed to.
“I won’t drink it.”
“Have you ever lived in a house?”
Aaron nodded his head in response, but kept his arms crossed and kicked faster with his feet.
“Well, after we eat, I’m going to introduce you to my husband. We have a big, beautiful house, so tomorrow morning we’ll go back there, alright?”
Aaron made no move to respond. The girl came back with his smoothie, and he tipped it over with one motion of his arm. Farah put it back upright before any of the smoothie spilled out, but she did not make him drink it. She did not hold his hand on the way back to the tent, but instead walked a few steps behind him, sipping up the mashed mixture of strawberries and bananas, wondering why this was the boy who had taken her handkerchief, why this was the boy she’d take care of. What was important about him, if he couldn’t even drink smoothies?