William H. Coles
n our first night in New Delhi, Helen and I ate dinner in our hotel with our new acquaintances, Betsy and Anwar—from Birmingham, Alabama where Anwar practiced orthopedic surgery and she kept house.
“You two married?” Betsy asked Helen and me.
“We live together,” Helen said. She didn’t want to explain we lived together most of the time in my cramped condominium facing Lake Ontario, but that she still had her house from her divorce where she spent time during the week.
“Well, I declare,” mooned Betsy. “An arrangement.”
“A little more than that,” Helen said, bristling.
With canny insight, Betsy had cut open the conflict between Helen and me, conflict we had not planned to share with strangers on an Asian tour.
Helen wanted commitment—meaning us married and settled in her seventeen-room, early twentieth-century house in town with tennis court and three-car garage. She believed if we changed the furniture and decorated with art we chose together, we could be happy newlyweds. But every time I stepped into her house, memories of her ex-husband rustled around me in the walls like trapped rodents. He was a sixty-four year old famous and successful neurosurgeon who was cavorting around Florida with his twenty-four year-old office receptionist, who Helen and I thought too overweight and shaggy to be attractive to anyone but a lecherous older man still in midlife crisis. I was convinced I could never replace her ex in his former home even though Helen insisted she had erased him from her life, which I thought was probably true. But I suspected she longed for the life they had created together, a life of almost constant in-home entertaining and guest-admiration for the uncramped comfort of her echo-filled interior, shelved walk-in closets, and eight-burner stove surrounded by acres of counter space. Although I never confronted her, I knew she wanted legitimacy for our relationship to recreate her previous high-society life.
Despite my lack-of-a-forever marriage commitment, Helen and I were intimate good buddies, and we leveled our friendship canoe pretty well by stroking carefully in unison on opposite sides. She was an eager traveler—we loved tours—and she rarely complained as she followed routes on maps with her clear-polish fingernail and tirelessly read guidebooks where she marked pages with dog-ears and pieces torn from in-flight airline magazines.
In Delhi, on the next night at dinner at the hotel, we learned Betsy and Anwar had been married for sixteen years. Helen gave me a raised eyebrow. When we were alone in our room, she expressed her usual suspicions about how happy couples really were in their marriages. She pointed out blaring incongruities about Betsy and Anwar. Even on tour, Anwar was our best-dressed traveler and wore beige Italian-silk suits, dark blue or maroon Egyptian cotton shirts with no-pattern ties of magenta or gold, and narrow hand-cut shoes with pointy-European toes that looked painful. “That is one uptight dude,” said Helen. In contrast, Betsy wore plain cotton print dresses with flowers and insects, or swirl patterns in pastels, and serviceable cross-trainer running shoes. “A real homebody,” she added. And both Helen and I had been puzzled by Betsy’s one consistent ostentation; a necklace of seven diamonds graduated in size on each side of a central more than one carat stone and all mounted in platinum.
“Zircons,” I said to Helen who was an expert by frequent expensive purchases from Tiffany jewelers in New York whom she knew personally.
“The real McCoy,” she said.
“Who’d wear a real necklace on a tour?” I asked.
“Only the socially insecure,” she said.
“Why take the risk?”
So the very next evening at dinner I asked Betsy about the necklace.
“Aren’t you afraid you might lose it?”
“All the time,” Betsy said. “I love it so much. Anwar gave it to me.”
“I hope it’s insured?” I said. Helen threw me her you’re-out-of-line look.
“Of course, but it could never be replaced,” said Betsy.
“Women shouldn’t have possessions that are not used,” Anwar said emphatically.
Helen frowned. She hated sexism and inflexible pronouncements. But despite her many ingrained opinions, Helen was socially adept and completely capable of hiding her real thoughts. She tilted her head slightly as if in agreement with Anwar. But after dinner, when we were alone at the bar, Helen turned irritable. “I’m sick of that goddamn necklace.”
“You’ve got prettier ones,” I said.
“It’s just not appropriate,” she said.
“Low-class?” I asked.
“Nouveau riche,” she said. “Ridiculous.”
That night, I fantasized out loud to Helen about Betsy shielding her necklace with her wash cloth in the shower as she lathered up, clutching it with both hands while Anwar made love on top of her, refusing to remove prized possession when she went for a mammogram. Helen said my imagination was out of control.
For three days we toured, shopped, and ate spicy food. On the fourth day in India we waited for our special tour to the Red Fort. Helen and I were drained of energy from jet lag and often sleepless from uncomfortable foreign beds. The group felt the exhaustion too. Anwar’s laugh, a measured breathy monotone, cut among the tour group as he busied himself reloading film into his camera. Betsy felt the group’s irritation with Anwar’s pithy apercus and she glared intently at guidebooks without reading or speaking, her lips pursed, refusing to look at Anwar. Finally the bus arrived that, an hour later, delivered us to the Red Fort.
The hot humid air clutched our skins as we stepped down one by one from the bus interior and beggars swarmed around us desperately reaching out.
“It’s so sad.” Helen said, looking at one emaciated woman with a toothless smile and vacuous eyes.
Most of our group stayed within a few feet of each other as we walked . . . except Betsy, with her diamonds sparkling, lagging behind to give a few coins to a child and Anwar who stayed in front next to the guide, a place he preferred so he could ask questions.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever love India,” Helen whispered to me. “There’s too great a difference between the haves and the have-nots.” I squeezed her hand.
We trudged on behind the guide and Anwar when Betsy’s yell stopped us all. A thin woman with sores out on her arms and leathery skin with a yellow hue clutched Betsy’s knees. Betsy struggled, her arms flailing but she went down, the woman on top of her. Betsy struggled to get up, pushing the woman away. A shoeless man knocked Betsy forward facedown to the ground. He yanked the necklace from her neck before she could get her hands free. The two thieves disappeared into the crowd that opened and closed to swallow them. I ran to Betsy; others followed; she sat on the ground whimpering.
“Are you all right?” someone asked. Betsy sobbed.
Helen found a tissue in her bag and dabbed at bleeding, dirt-encrusted scrapes on Betsy’s arms and knees .
“Get the police,” Anwar yelled at the guide. Within minutes uniformed officials wrote notes for reports. Our group fidgeted, openly afraid of the crowd, and demanded our return to the hotel.
Anwar stiffened. He thought he saw the thief. A grinning old man with something sparkling on his neck stood maybe fifty feet away from us.
Anwar bolted away from where Betsy still lay.
“That’s not him,” I yelled. “It’s metallic.”
Anwar ignored me. The old man’s eyes widened as his mouth dropped open.
Once in full stride, Anwar was a quick as a leopard. “Thief,” Anwar screamed, his face flushed. He closed the gap and threw the man to the ground, kicking him in the ribs with his pointed shoes. Once, twice. The man howled, pushed up on his knees, lunged to his feet and ran for his life, his malnourished and arthritic frame swaying to the right in a grotesque limp.
Anwar surged after him but the natives closed in a protective clump around the man who disappeared.
“It probably wasn’t my necklace,” Betsy said still in tears when Anwar returned to the bus.
“Oh, shut up,” Anwar said.
“I just meant . . . he didn’t look the same.”
“Betsy. It’s the principle. A thief is a thief.”
Anwar’s teeth gleamed in a sudden smile as his eyes swept over each of our stares. His face softened. Helen shivered at his transparent goodwill. He hugged Betsy briefly. “That’s my little pumpkin. Sorry, honey. It’s all so unfair,” he said. But I could see, and Helen was looking too, he could not hide his anger-induced trembling.
All but a few refused the tour of the Red Fort–eager and thankful to get back to the comfort of the hotel. Helen and I felt hopelessness for Betsy and, with the window drapes tightly closed, tried to rest in our room. Later we retreated to the hotel shop to look at faux-ivory carvings and Hindu masks.
At dinner that night, only Anwar joined Helen and me at our table.
“Betsy’s not feeling well,” he said.
“I’m so sorry about Betsy’s necklace,” Helen said, looking to me for support. I looked appropriately sad, but it was damn hard to be sincere. Earlier, alone with our analyses, Helen and I agreed. Betsy had asked for trouble. We were not unsympathetic, but the necklace had been a stupid idea.
“These beggars are animals. Barely human,” Anwar said. Helen tensed and was about to say something contrary but I touched her leg with my hand under the table.
After dinner Helen and I settled on the two-seat sofa in our room. Helen shook her head: “I had a little trouble with the animal bit. These are desperate human beings.”
Helen read out loud the details of our trip to the Taj Mahal. My eyelids were heavy and I fought to keep my head from nodding. A noise, like a scratching, was outside our room. Helen stopped. I jerked fully awake. Faint rapid raps came from our room door, too timid for maids. I moved when Helen threw me a demanding glance. I opened the door cautiously. Betsy wore a white tee shirt and Capri pants, her hair in disarray.
“Sit on the sofa,” Helen said to Betsy. “I’m so sorry . . . that necklace was beautiful on you.”
Tears rolled down Betsy’s face again. “Oh, it’s not the loss,” Betsy sniffled. “I never really liked wearing it. It’s that Anwar blames me!”
“For not keeping up with the group. It wouldn’t have happened if I had been careful.”
“You weren’t that far back,” I said.
“He’s crazy sometimes. He thinks I’m a silly woman too stupid to do anything right. You don’t know how small I feel around him.”
Helen shot me another of our private glances that Betsy could not see.
“You can find another necklace, ” I said. “Helen could help when we get back.”
“We can never replace the necklace of his dead mother. That’s why he insisted I wear it all the time. To remind him.”
Helen gave me a so-there nod. Anwar’s fault, she was saying. I gave her an exasperated glance.
“Can I sleep here tonight?” Betsy whispered. “You could close the bedroom door for privacy.”
“Of course you’re welcome,” Helen said.
“You don’t want to be in your own bed?” I asked.
“I’m afraid,” Betsy said. “Anwar is a stubborn man. His feelings get buried inside.”
“I don’t understand,” Helen said.
“He hit me. He didn’t mean to. It just came out.” Betsy said. “The first time ever.”
“Are you hurt?”
“It wasn’t hard.” But even though the light was low, I thought I saw a faint purple of a beginning bruise near her temple.
Helen helped Betsy settle then came to bed. “Call out if you need me,” Helen said. Helen quietly closed the bedroom door and we whispered for an hour about Betsy–and Anwar. “It’s as if he possesses her,” Helen said angrily. “Like marriage is bondage.”
“She’s really kind,” I said. “And she’s not stupid.”
“Not at all. She’s the real jewel. If he only knew,” Helen said before her eyes closed and her head snuggled onto my shoulder. “He had the chance to do her right,” she whispered, “but he failed.”
“I don’t understand.”
“To forgive her. At least not blame her. There’s not a drop of evil in her.”
The next morning Betsy looked exhausted but was cheery to a fault. She did not mention Anwar or the necklace. She refused to take a shower in our bathroom, and went back to their room determined to greet the room-service maids who brought morning tea.
“It’s as if Anwar loved that necklace more than her,” Helen said after Betsy left.
This was our free day before the Taj Mahal excursion. I had decided we would visit the museum of historical artifacts.
“You go,” Helen said. “I’m going to ask Betsy to go shopping. She’ll need me.”
“I’ll ask Anwar if he wants to go to the museum,” I said. Anwar had plans to join another doctor on the tour to visit a hospital to claim the trip as a tax deduction. But on reflection he decided to go with me. “I can go to the hospital earlier,” he said.
At the museum, Anwar and I learned more of Asian culture in the endless halls of glass-enclosed objects–decaying authentication of past generations’ existence. But I missed Helen. I liked sharing thoughts with her.
When we were walking down a hall between display rooms, I said to Anwar, “If you have photos of the necklace, I’m sure Helen has the connections to replicate it exactly.”
“Jesus, John. It’s the sentimental value. It was passed down in my family for generations.”
“Betsy is strung out about the loss.”
“I told her, John. Over and over. Stay close to me. She didn’t listen.”
“It might not have made any difference. She was only a few feet away from us.”
“It was her responsibility. She failed. I can’t forgive that.”
We split up when we reached the end of the hall, and I did not see him until we met at the exit to find transportation back to the hotel.
Helen and I did not sleep well but the next day we joined the tour for the Taj Mahal with Betsy and Anwar and most of our group. The road to Agra stretched through fields with dung, garbage dumps with human scavengers, and polluted rivers too thick to flow. Human adults and children stood roadside and stared at the passing traffic, an entire population seemed abandoned by humanity. Then we saw the Taj Mahal, an ostentatious jewel glimmering in the refuse-packed, ravaged landscape.
We toured the Taj with the group. Anwar assertively maintained a distance from Betsy, who stayed close to Helen. Helen and I separated from the group upon leaving the Taj to sit on benches and discover the symmetrical elegance of the architecture. Light from reflecting pools threw shadows on Helen’s face, and my gaze stayed fixed on her beauty marred only by her painful thoughts of the ubiquitous poor.
“We have so much,” she said. “And we never value what we have. The gods are angry.”
“You think the theft was divine vengeance?” I asked with more incredulity than I wanted.
“The money that necklace would bring could feed a family of ten for years. We have responsibilities to our fellow humans,” she said.
That seemed a little too much, but I got her point. “Wearing a necklace isn’t a sin,” I said to relieve her guilt.
“When it’s worth thousands,” she said, “who knows what’s a sin?” Helen’s faith held a creator with more than a touch of retribution, and she held complex beliefs in cause and effect. I slid closer to her on the bench and touched her hand. She cared so much it became a burden at times, but how could I comfort her with careless council?
We returned with the group to the bus. Fifteen to twenty beggars surged toward us. “I don’t think I can take much more of this,” I said. Helen elbowed me, pointing to a gaunt woman wrapped in a torn sari who held out a naked male child in her arms. The woman begged with unrecognizable words.
“What does that mean?” I said to Anwar.
“She just wants money,” he said. “The kid is for sympathy.”
The woman held up the child.
“It’s dead!” Helen sobbed and clutched me as if she might slip into an abyss.
The corpse was skin and bone, head back, legs bent, and already in the rigor of death. “It’s okay Helen, get in the bus,” I said over the clamor of our fellow travelers.
“They pass that body around for days,” Anwar said authoritatively, as if that might ease our outrage.
Helen grabbed our touring bag that held our stuff and her wallet. She broke away from my protective grasp, ran toward the beggars. They froze, unsure. Then, seeing no danger, they moved around in a swarm.
Helen dug in the bag. From her wallet she took all her currency, Indian, American, and a few other foreign bills and coins. She was dropping money into any close hand. Beggars dissolved into frenzy. She placed a ten-dollar American bill on the chest of the dead child now on the ground. A hand from the crowd scooped it up before Helen stood up.
Helen ran out of money but she gave them tissues, candy bars, peanut butter cheese crackers, anything that was in the bag. The crowd grew to more than fifty with mystical rapidity. Helen seemed not to care. When she finally turned her dazed eyes to me, I saw her confusion, her pain. I waded into the crowd to retrieve her. I worried for her health and safety.
“It’s not enough,” she said.
“It’s a start,” I said.
It took a few minutes for everyone on tour to calm down and find a seat on the bus and we began the trip back. We found seats together four rows back from Betsy and Anwar. “They have nothing,” Helen said, still gasping. Our fellow travelers said little and seemed divided in opinion about Helen between admiration and possible insanity.
The return was silent except for the drone of the bus diesel engine, whining with braking and acceleration. Helen sat rigidly staring ahead. Before we reached our hotel, the guide announced the scheduled stop at one last gift shop. “Half an hour,” he announced.
Helen was spent, her mood sour, unwilling to look at one more expensive souvenir. “I can’t,” she said. She was selfless with worry in a way I had never noticed before. She seemed about to cry. “I can’t do it.”
“I’ll take a look,” I said, wanting to buy a gift to surprise her. She stayed on the bus with a few of the other weary travelers.
Inside the shop I looked into glass jewelry cases and to rows of shelving with carved Hindi gods with strange clothing and in awkward positions. A sparkle of reflection from a dark necklace of polished jade, vibrant with the living colors a new-growth leaf and the plume of an exotic bird, caught my eye. I flagged a saleswoman. The necklace wasn’t expensive and I paid cash. I refused to have it gift wrapped, liking the red velvet draw sac it came in, and put it in my pocket.
That night Helen dressed for a cultural show of music and drama with Betsy and mostly the women in the tour group. Anwar and I had decided on a leisurely dinner and early retirement.
“You run today?” I asked.
“Who knows? Lots of evil looking characters but most either too malnourished or close to death to be able to do you any harm.”
“I bought a necklace yesterday for Helen.” I reached in my pocket to show him. “I’m going to surprise her.” I thought it might give him some ideas for Betsy.
“Jade?” he asked, as if weighing the differences between jade and diamond with disdain.
“Good value,” I said and showed him the price.
“My mother’s necklace had been in the family for three generations. My grandfather was a Syrian diplomat. He bought it in London. My mother could only wear it when she traveled with my father, but she was very proud.”
“Betsy loved it. You could see it in her eyes,” I said.
But Anwar’s eyes turned opaque and then he looked away. I pocketed my necklace for Helen, dejected that Anwar had no interest and had turned sullen. He said little for the next few minutes and we returned to our rooms to read.
I was reading in bed with the nightstand light on when Helen returned in tears.
“Betsy’s sick. I thought she’d die,” she said.
“We were in the theater,” she gasped. “She had a terrible headache. When I touched her she was burning with fever. She vomited. She fainted as I was getting her to the bus.”
“Where is she?”
“The hospital. I went with her. Anwar came. He went crazy. Accused the doctor of not using the right medicines. He told me to leave.” Helen’s eyes squeezed shut with the thought of Anwar’s exclusion.
“What was wrong?”
“Infection, I think. They didn’t know exactly.”
I held her. “We’ve got to go. They’ll need us.” I dressed quickly.
The hospital elevator glided two floors up, the doors parting smoothly. The door to Betsy’s room was open. ”Be careful,” Anwar said to an ambulance crew as they lifted Betsy’s writhing body roughly onto a gurney. “Don’t drop her,” he said.
Anwar saw us. “Fucking blockheads,” he said to us.
“What’s happened?” I asked as he held an IV bottle in transfer.
“Meningitis maybe.” He didn’t look at me, collecting a syringe with a needle and empty vial and putting them in a bag that he tucked under the gurney mattress.
“Will she be okay?” Helen asked.
He glared at us, as if we didn’t exist. “How could I know that, Helen?” Anwar said with disdain. “Look at her. Why don’t you tell me? ”
Helen gasped, unable to respond.
“What can we do?” I asked.
The attendants tucked sheets around Betsy. Anwar hung the bottle on the end of a metal support pole at the corner of the gurney. Betsy’s open eyes showed no recognition we were there and were now searching without pause.
“There’s nothing to do, John,” Anwar said. “This hospital isn’t worth a shit. I’ve hired a private jet to get us to Tokyo. If I can keep her stabilized, I’m taking her home.” Now his voice held fear and concern.
Anwar and Betsy were on their way out the door. At the elevator, Anwar turned as Helen and I caught up.
“Can we make any calls? Send anything?” I asked.
“Just enjoy your trip,” he said.
“Please let us know how she is?” Helen pleaded.
“When do you think I’ll have time to call you?” he said. “You have a good time.”
“We’ll be worried,” Helen said.
“I can’t help that,” Anwar said. Helen winced. “She might never come back,” he said. “Even if she lives, she’ll never be the same.”
Helen cried silently, hurt by Anwar’s rebukes. Anwar had reached under the covers to hold Betsy’s almost lifeless hand. Just before the elevator doors opened, he cried silently.
In the elevator, on the gurney, Betsy now lay still, her eyes closed, her head turned. The attendants positioned necessary equipment under the gurney. Betsy’s skin was drained of blood to the shade of alabaster. She retched once, her arms and legs jerking then her body relaxed as she went unconscious again. The doors closed and they were gone.
Helen paced in our room.
“If she lives,” Helen said to me about Betsy, “Maybe Anwar will finally appreciate her wonderful qualities.”
“He seemed to really care,” I said. “I’ve never seen that in him before.”
“I hope so. But too late. I hope Betsy knows he cared.”
“I think he loved her . . . in his own way.”
“I hope he gets the chance to tell her.”
Finally, I got her to sit on the sofa and she held me tightly.
My last image of Betsy surfaced; she’d never be the same. I didn’t think she’d live. But I said nothing to Helen. Still, she read my thoughts.
“She’s a goofy good person,” Helen sobbed, “loyal, devoted, caring. God, I hope she makes it.”
The next evening after dinner, a faxed message waited in our in-box at reception. Betsy died in a Tokyo hospital. I searched Anwar’s hand-written note for meaning, but the words–starting with “Dear friends,”–were cold and distant.
Helen read the message sitting on a lobby bench as I stood beside her. She carried deep concern for Betsy’s soul. A moment of fear pierced me; I never wanted Helen to ever doubt that I loved her. I reached in my pocket; I placed my gift necklace around her neck. Fixed the clasp. With the back of my hand, I touched the damp-skin on the side of her face, smoothed a wayward strand of hair. I’d never seen her more beautiful.
“Am I possessed?” she asked with a dubious smile.
“Never possessed,” I said. “Valued forever.”
“I’ll sell the house,” she said with a wistful smile.
“We’ll live wherever you chose,” I said.
I bent over and kissed her lightly on the ear. “I love you,” I whispered.