The last time Vani felt like a teenager was June 17, 1994. She was 22.
She and Prashanth had just gotten married. She took a bus into the city to join him for lunch but by the time she got there, Leetha, his secretary, said he was stuck in meetings through the afternoon.
Leetha had exactly three piercings: two on one ear, and a cartilage on the other. Vani guessed she was in her 50s, by the way her roots were starting to lose their red. She wore velvet almost every day.
“But sweetie,” Leetha said. She was smoking, her eyes fixed on the tiny box TV at the edge of her desk. “You should stay. You’re not going to want to miss this.” She pointed with her acrylics, the length of them almost touching the screen.
“What is that?” Vani had only been in the States for six months. She moved just after the wedding and met Leetha soon after. Leetha taught her how to read the DDOT schedule and which panties made her look like she wasn’t wearing any. Vani had taken to asking Leetha everything she was too embarrassed to ask Prashanth.
“What is that?” Leetha turned to her, smoke ribboning through her graying curls. “Oh, now you’ve got to stay.” She tapped the TV with her cigarette. “This, baby,” ash crumbled onto the desk, “this is America.”
On the screen was a white Bronco sailing down the 405.
“Who’s in there?” Vani asked. She dropped her bags and pulled up a chair, rolling into the space beside Leetha.
“That’s O.J., baby.” Leetha leaned back, exhaling to the ceiling.
“Who?” The name sounded familiar, like something Vani had heard in whispers around her.
Leetha looked at her, eyes wide. “Really? What, you don’t watch the news?”
Vani shook her head.
“You should,” Leetha said. “Don’t wait for Prashanth to tell you what’s going on. Men have tunnel vision.” She took another drag. “Orenthal James,” she said, blowing smoke at the screen. “He killed his wife. Ain’t that the tits?”
They sat like that for the next 40 minutes, Leetha occasionally offering fragments of information until Vani knew the whole story: “They were divorced;” “The waiter got stabbed, too;” “He’s going to get away with it. I can feel it.”
“He’s going so slow,” Vani said. She couldn’t look away.
“You know why, baby?” Leetha asked. “Because he can.”
Vani went home that night and switched on the news until Prashanth got back.
“Did you see it?” She asked him when he walked through the door.
“I was in meetings,” he said. “Remember?”
“Right,” she said. Her arms were buzzing. “I watched with Leetha.” She looked from him to the screen and back.
“Wow,” he said. He put his briefcase by the door and stepped into the kitchen.
She talked across the space, about what Leetha said and what they saw and what she watched when she got home. She loved having information she could share with him. After months of him having to show her everything, she finally had something to give.
“Vani.” He took a glass from the cabinet. “I know who O.J. is. He’s all over the news.” He poured out something dark and took a sip, closing his eyes as it went down.
Vani paused at his irritation but tried not to let it bother her. He had a long day, she told herself.
“Of course you do,” she said. She sat back down and turned the volume up.
“What, now you’re mad?” Prashanth downed his drink and re-filled it. “I was in meetings all afternoon,” he said. “I don’t have the energy for this.”
“No,” Vani said. She didn’t know what it was he was drinking until they moved in together. She’d wait until he fell asleep to dig through the wastebasket and count the empty bottles.
“I’m not mad,” she said. “You had a long day,” she said to him, and to herself, again, again, again.
“I’m working all day for you,” he said. “For this.” He threw his hands up at the ceiling.
Prashanth had been doing this more and more in recent months, coming home from a hard day only to flail his arms around when Vani tried to ask him about it. Vani wasn’t sure if it was normal, what they were doing. She wasn’t sure if that’s what husbands did, if that’s how their wives responded, if it was unusual for her to feel like a burden, if it was her fault for asking questions, if it was his fault for the way he answered.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean anything by it.” She turned back to the TV. “I’m not trying to argue. I promise.” She blinked away tears, not wanting him to see her cry. “I was just excited.”
Prashanth exhaled, and the air around him started to break. He moved to Vani, sitting down on the sofa his mother had bought for them and putting an arm around her. “We’re not arguing,” he said. “I’m sorry, too.”
He put his mouth to her cheek, breathing hot air across her skin. She set his drink on the ground beside him and turned so they were nose-to-nose.
She wanted to ask him if she was what he wanted. She wanted to ask him if she was a good wife, if he thought she’d be a good mother. She wanted to ask him if she could help, in some way, if it might make it easier on him if she was making money, too.
Instead, she just looked at him. He closed his eyes and kissed her, one hand around the back of her head.
He pulled away and reached for his drink. “Everything’s okay,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
Sitting back into the burgundy leather, Prashanth pulled her into him. She turned up the volume. Tom Brokaw spoke over them.
“O.J. Simpson is almost back home,” said Tom. “He’s in that car. We’re told that he has a gun.”
Vani leaned forward. She would have jumped into the screen if she could.
“What happens when he gets to his home, we cannot say,” Brokaw said. The Bronco was pulling onto O.J.’s street.
“Come on, Juice.” Prashanth put a hand to Vani’s back, rubbing his thumb between her shoulder blades. She felt the hairs on her cheek start to bristle.
“What are they going to do to him?” Vani asked.
Prashanth shrugged. “No idea.”
They watched O.J. sit in his driveway for three drinks and a fourth pour. Prashanth couldn’t wait anymore.
“I’ve got to get ready for work tomorrow,” he said, putting his nose to Vani’s temple and pecking her so fast he nearly missed. He took his glass to the bedroom and shut the door.
Vani stayed up the rest of the night. She paged through magazines while the news rolled on, hearing Prashanth snoring through the walls. With a bowl of popcorn, she switched over and over to whatever channels were covering the case. She felt like a kid, up past her bedtime.
She hugged her knees to her chest and thought about what one of the newscasters said, that O.J. might have been framed. She thought about all the people in the street around his house, about whether they thought he did it, about whether they cared. She thought about what O.J.’s mother must be feeling, if she thought her son was capable of what he had been accused of, if she had ever noticed his rage, if she had ever been scared.
Vani didn’t know what she thought. She didn’t know if she believed that a husband could kill his wife, that violence could find its way into such intimacy. She couldn’t imagine Prashanth ever being so cruel.
The next day, Vani woke an hour before Prashanth. She had brewed a second pot of coffee by the time he walked into the kitchen.
“What are you doing up?” He filled a mug and leaned against the counter.
“Reading the paper,” she said. Vani had her feet up on the table.
“But why?” Prashanth asked. He dropped a slice of bread in the toaster and pushed it on.
“Because it’s good to know what’s going on,” Vani said. She finally looked at him over the paper, taking in his dark suit, his pressed socks, his navy tie.
Vani was in school before they met. She studied mathematics. She was going to be a professor, like her father.
When Prashanth and his parents showed up at her family’s door in Vijayawada, Vani’s parents greeted them like old friends. Vani brought out tea and biscuits, and she didn’t address Prashanth directly. She didn’t speak at all.
Her father sat close to her while her mother went on and on about their family and how Vani was a good girl, focused on her studies, wanting to teach in the local college, wanting to see America, wanting to stay in America if that’s where Prashanth found good work, wanting to become a mother, wanting to start a family, wanting to have it all.
Vani watched Prashanth as her mother spoke. His eyes were soft – softer than hers. When he met her gaze and held it, she felt a tingle swim up her arms, taking warm laps through her belly.
Her father was quiet through most of the courtship. Just before she left for the States, he took her hand and asked, “You’re happy?”
Of course, once they reached Michigan and moved into their apartment, Prashanth’s job picked up quickly. And the PhD track at home was nothing like the tracks in the city. Credits didn’t transfer; Vani would have to start all over. But there was no time — she had to assimilate, first. She had to learn the route to Prashanth’s firm and how to get there by herself. She had to learn which words didn’t make sense in her accent, which consonants just didn’t sound right as they came out. She’d go back to school once she did. Once life settled.
“I think I’ll go out today,” Vani said. She stood to meet him, watching him butter his toast. Crumbs fell from his hand as he took a knife back and forth over the bread, clumps of fat pooling near its crust.
“That’s great,” he said. He dropped the knife into the sink.
“For a job, I mean. I’d like to do something.” Vani pulled the knife from the garbage disposal, where it had clattered blade-first.
Prashanth laughed into his food.
“What?” Vani watched bits of bread drop to the floor when he took a bite. She didn’t know why he would be laughing. “You work,” she said. “I want to work. And maybe I’ll go back to school soon, too,” she said. “We’re all moved in. I don’t see why not.”
“You’re right,” he said. He kissed her on the cheek, leaving an oily smear by her lips. “All I mean is, you don’t need to.”
“But I want to,” she said. “I do.” She ran a finger across her face and put it to her mouth, sucking the butter in through her teeth.
“Fine,” he said. “That’s great.” He set his half-empty mug on the counter and turned to the door. “I’ve got to go. Meetings all day.” He found his shoes and slid them on. “I’m off.” He winked and shut the door behind him.
Vani sat back at the table, pulling the paper onto her lap. Nicole’s blood was found in the Bronco. O.J. was in custody. Marcia was smart. Really smart, Vani thought, and she didn’t know why more people didn’t seem to think so. All the papers could talk about was her divorce and her clothes and her hair which, Vani conceded, wasn’t great, but could have been much worse. Not everyone had a Leetha.
She finished her coffee and readied herself for the day, wearing a new dress she bought from Filene’s. It was cap-sleeved—the closest she had come to wearing her shoulders out in the sun. She was changing; she could feel it. Becoming more herself or someone else, she wasn’t sure, but she felt like this new person was a version of her, too. She took a bus from Ypsilanti into Detroit and walked to a salon Leetha had told her about. Ask for Andy, she said. She’ll do you right.
Vani took her hair out of its braid before she walked in, running her fingers through the hip-length waves she had carried since she was a girl. Her mother would be furious if she knew what Vani was there to do, if she knew Vani was about to pay 75 dollars to have a white woman cleave through nature’s elegance and generosity, through the thing that kept Vani beautiful, kept her feminine, kept her Indian.
She sat in the waiting room, legs crossed. The salon was shiny, a still respite from Detroit’s summer wind.
“Vani?” Andy clicked towards her, heels heavy on the floor, long red hair ablaze with crimson and orange and hints of gold when she stood under the light.
She sat Vani down at her station and asked her what she wanted.
Vani flipped through an Us Weekly she had brought in, until she landed on the page she had dog-eared while watching the news the night before.
“Do you think it’ll look okay?” Vani held the magazine next to her face.
“You’re going to look better than she does,” Andy said. “Paltrow doesn’t stand a chance.”
Inch by inch, Andy cut off Vani’s hair until her toes were buried under the dead weight, until there was almost none left. She tamed the fullness of Vani’s hair, letting it take shape above her forehead, letting her ears feel the blow-dry’s heat, letting her neck breathe for the first time in years.
“Your husband better watch out,” Andy said. “Gorgeous.”
Vani ran a finger over her head, over what was left of her, over what was becoming of her. Her chest felt heavy and light, and her breath came out hoarse. Mouth open, she stared at the woman in the mirror.
“Oh shit,” Andy said. “You don’t like it?”
“Oh god, no,” Vani said. “I mean yes,” she noticed Andy’s green eyes grow wide, “I love it. It’s not that.” She put a hand to her cheek and jumped when her fingers came back wet.
“Is it too short?” Andy asked.
Vani moved her fingers to her arm and pinched, just enough to know what was real.
“I never thought I could do this,” she said. “Just let it all go.”
“It’s just hair,” Andy said. She put her arms around Vani, hugging her from behind the salon’s chair.
“No it’s not,” Vani said.
Andy squeezed for a moment before letting go, leaving her hands on Vani’s shoulders.
“No, it’s not,” she said. “Come back soon, yeah? We can even play with the color.”
Vani left the salon feeling brand new. She bounced as she walked, letting herself make noise on the pavement. She went to a bakery two blocks over, just because she could.
She felt people watching her as she ordered, watching the way her hips swayed behind her, the way her wrap-dress hugged her waist. She smiled as she bought a cream cheese brownie and hazelnut latte, heart racing as she sat down by herself to flip through Us Weekly over and over and over again.
Vani took apart the brownie with her hand, eating it slowly, saving bits of each bite on the pads of her fingers so she could suck on them later. She felt the density of the chocolate sink down her throat and drop into her belly. She felt herself expanding with each crumb, her fullness growing from the latte’s milk and the richness of the cream cheese, her breath becoming shallow after each finger she licked. She felt sick.
She tried to distract herself with the magazine, sweating as her eyes glazed over the pages in front of her. Was this a hot flash? Already?
Vani sat at the table until she couldn’t anymore. She rose quickly, dumping her unfinished brownie in the trash before stepping back into the city. Running to another bin, she keeled over it, knuckles white on its edges as her treat poured back out of her. She brought a hand to her ears, instinctively wanting to pull back hair that wasn’t there anymore.
She felt people watching her, again. But there was nothing she could do, so she threw up until she was empty, until there was nothing left of her to spit out.
Clutching her belly, Vani leaned against the bin. She caught her breath and felt another tug in her stomach, a curling so violent she thought she might scream. She was scared.
Home was an hour on the bus. Prashanth’s office was just a few blocks from where she was.
Vani gripped her sides the whole way. She walked as fast as she could, through the cramping of her calves and the swirling of her stomach.
She pushed herself through the revolving doors of his office building, dragging herself into the lobby where she leaned over the trash next to Leetha’s desk and heaved.
“Goddamn, baby.” Leetha peered at Vani over the rim of her glasses, through a layer of smoke and worry. “Hot hair,” she said. “What are you, pregnant?”
Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash