Lucy headed straight for us.
My son and I were seated in the Westfield Mall’s food court. The last time I had seen her was on a cold, depressing day at Dulles departures. From then, she had shed every bit of doubt from her gait, walking towards us with the confidence of someone who knew what she was doing. I half got up to greet her, possibly give her a hug.
“Hello, junior Rajesh.” She knelt on the floor and kissed the back of my toddler’s palm. She still pronounced my name as ra-zh-ush. I sat back down. It’s ra-jay-sh, baby.
“His name is Abhay,” I said. Cheese was smeared across his right cheek and caked on his arms. The blue bib was squeaky clean.
“Now that’s a name I get,” she said. She puffed up her cheeks. My son giggled. He wrapped his mac-n-cheese fingers around her pinky.
“I bet your wife chose it,” she said, looking up. Her eyes glistened with contempt.
“Actually, I did.”
I fished out Abhay’s dessert from a green Whole Foods bag. “Wow, it’s been so long, right?”
She stood up and smoothed down her mustard skirt. “Five fucking years, Rajesh,” she hissed.
I winced at the bowl of thinly sliced apples. To a casual observer – of which there were many in this food court – the fruit had simply oxidized too much.
“You know, you look just as beautiful,” I said. It was true. There was a glint of diamond in one ear. I couldn’t see the other, covered by her wavy blonde hair.
“I gave you more than one chance.”
“It was a long time ago, Lola.”
“All you had to do was ask. We would have been on that plane together.”
I got up. I made sure Abhay was strapped to the infant’s seat properly and pulled her aside.
“I am sorry.”
She moved closer. I breathed in rose and jasmine. She pulled out the locket of her necklace from under her black shirt and held it out. It was a red heart I had known intimately in another life.
“What about this promise?”
The locket held a grain of rice with Lola engraved on one side and Raj on the other. It was a promise I hadn’t kept.
“You know how it is with Indian parents,” I said. My hands clenched. “You knew everything!”
“You haven’t changed one bit, have you?”
She noticed my work badge lying on the table beside us and picked it up.
“PreciSoft,” she read. I snatched it from her hand and stuffed it in my pocket. How dare she just show up and rip my peace apart like that?
“Does PreciSoft send its employees to shoot lions in the lower Zambezi?”
“So how do you manage this and wildlife photography both?”
“I don’t. That never happened.”
Lucy took two steps back. She was incredulous.
“That too?” She laughed out.
My hands unclenched. Yes, that too.
“But that was what you lived for!”
I didn’t respond. We stood in silence. Then, the blaze in her eyes cleared. Something had dawned on her. Something about me. She walked over to Abhay and planted a kiss on the top of his head.
“At least teach your son to stand up for himself.”
And she left, just like she had come, her steps unwavering, purposeful, like she was going somewhere important. Not just that day, in life.
She walked down the aisle to the far end of the food court. Without a break in her stride, she removed the necklace and left it on a vacant table. Then she turned the corner and disappeared. A sudden sadness clutched my stomach, wringing from it a certain will. A will to go on.
My son had stopped eating long ago. He held a slice of fruit between his tiny fingers, staring at it in wonderment, ready to see how far it would fly. I decided to clean him up before the wife returned from her shopping. Maybe one day he would wield a camera perched on a tree in the Zambian wilderness. After all, wasn’t Abhay his name?