Her appearance struck Milford when she stopped Mrs. Milford on the hotel stairs, to ask a question. There was a flushed urgency, a near-breathlessness, to the question: “Have you been to the hairdresser yet?”
“No, not yet,” Jean answered, startled to be abruptly accosted, though since they were all members of a 22-person museum-sponsored tour of the temples of southern India, in theory they were all comrades in adventure. It was so early in the tour that the Milfords hadn’t yet thoroughly worked out the other couples, but Henry recognized this apparition on the stairs as paired with a bespectacled, short, sharp-nosed man in a blue blazer, the two of them hanging back a bit shyly at the get-acquainted cocktail party beside the hotel swimming pool. Somewhere in their early 40s, by Milford’s estimate, they were among the youngest people on the tour, whereas the Milfords, in their early 70s, were among the oldest. Yet age differences, and differences of wealth and class, were compressed to insignificance by the felt pressure of the alien subcontinent all around them.
“How was she?” Jean asked, abandoning her usual reserve. There was, Milford had often noticed, a heated camaraderie among women when they touched on the technology of beauty. Already, he saw them as sisters of a sort.
“Horrible,” came the swift, nearly breathless answer. “She didn’t understand my hair at all. It’s too curly.” The word came out as a spondee—cur-lee. The woman, in her own, more snugly cut blue blazer, spoke with a faint strangeness—not an accent exactly, but with her mouth held a little numbly, a bit frozen in the words’ aftermath, as if whatever she said slightly astonished her. Her hair, now that he looked, was indeed remarkably curly, bronze in color, and so thick and springy it seemed to be fighting to expel the several tortoise-shell barrettes that held it close to her head.
Milford, standing lower on the curved stairs, with his feet arrested on two different steps, recalled an earlier glimpse of this apparition, also on steps. Those on the tour who weren’t too distinctly infirm had been climbing the 614 steps carved into a stone mountain, Vindhyagiri Hill, at whose summit stood a monumental Jain statue, a giant representation of a fabled sage, Bahubali, who had stood immobile for so many days and months that (legend claimed) vines had grown over his body. At the beginning of the climb, Milford had been shocked by his first sight of a live “sky clad” holy man, who was moving upward, one deliberate step at a time, with ceremonial pauses for chanting and shaking his wrist bells. His stocky, even paunchy body was otherwise quite naked, and tanned an oily coffee brown unbroken but by patches of gray hair on his chest and elsewhere.
The ugliness of an aging male body disturbed Milford. Did the man proceed up and down the holy stairs all day long? Didn’t Indian law forbid indecent exposure? Or was it legal at sacred sites, in the vicinity of a giant nude statue whose penis, the guidebook calculated, was five feet long? Preoccupied by these questions, Milford felt a body brush past his. He was being passed by a youngish woman in khaki slacks and white running shoes and a yellow baseball hat tipped rakishly forward on her head, as if her hair were too bulky, too springy, to fit into it. Without effort, it seemed to the gasping Milford, she moved upward and out of sight, amid the many other ascending pilgrims at Sravanabelgola. By the time he had made it all the way to the shrine at the top, out of which the huge effigy, symmetrical and serene, protruded like a jack-in-the-box—she had disappeared.
“But she shouldn’t have trouble with your hair; it’s so straight,” the woman was telling Jean, with that terminal emphasis, her lips ajar as if there was something about straight hair that left her stunned. “I’d love to have straight hair,” she did add, and thrust out a shapely, heavily ringed hand for Jean to take. “I’m Lorena. Lorena Billings,” she said.
“I know,” Jean smiled. “I’m Jean Milford, and this is my husband, Henry.”
He wondered if Jean was lying, or if she had really known. Women lied, often for no other reason than simple politeness or the wish to round out a story, but then they did retain details that slipped by men. He had already forgotten the apparition’s name. Taking her hand—startlingly warm and moist—he said, to cover his betranced confusion, “You passed me on the Jain steps yesterday. Breezed right up by me—I was impressed. You must be in great shape.”
“No,” was the thoughtful, unsmiling response, as she looked at him for the first time. Her eyes were a surprisingly pale color, almost amber. “I just wanted to get it over with quickly, before I lost heart.”
"Did you really know her name?” Milford asked his wife when the other woman had gone off with her horrible haircut. It had looked pretty good to him, actually. With hair that curly, always retracting into itself, how could a hairdresser go wrong?
“Of course,” Jean told him. “I looked over the list they gave us when we signed up for the tour and tried to match up names and faces. You would get much more out of these trips, Henry, if you did some homework.”
She had been a schoolteacher in her early 20s, before he had met her, but he had a clear enough vision of her standing in front of the second- or third-graders, slender and quick and perfectly groomed, demanding with her level, insistent voice their full attention, and rewarding them at the end of each class with her brilliant, gracious smile. She would have subdued those children to her own sense of a proper education, and she was still working to subdue her husband. Sometimes, when he sought to evade one of her helpful lectures to him and sidle past, she would sidestep and block his way, insisting, with a blue-eyed stare, “Look at me!”
He said, kiddingly, kidding being another form of evasion, “I prefer the immersion method—to let it all wash over me, unmuddied by preconceptions.”
“That’s so sloppy,” Jean said, endearingly enough. Physically she and the apparition were both, Milford supposed, his type—women of medium height with a certain solid amplitude, not fat but sufficiently wide in the hips to signal a readiness for childbirth; women whose frontal presentation makes men want to give them babies. His and Jean’s babies were themselves of baby-making age, and even, in the case of their two older daughters, beyond it. Yet the primordial instinct was still alive in him: He wanted to make this apparition the mother of his child.
Lorena Billings’s body differed from Jean’s not only by 30 years’ less use but by being expensively toned. Though open to dowdy, education-minded New Englanders like the Milfords, the tour was basically composed of Upper East Side New Yorkers. They seemed all to know one another, as if the metropolis were a village skimmed from penthouses and museum boards, and their overheard talk dealt with, among other cherished caretakers of their well-being, personal trainers.
Much of the conversation among the women was in Spanish. An oddity of the tour was the number of wives from Latin America—remnants of a wave of fashion, some years ago, in trophy mates. Lorena was one of them, the child of an adventurous American mining engineer and a Chilean banker’s daughter. This explained her charming, intent way of speaking—English was not her mother tongue, the language of her heart, though she had been sent off young to American schools and spoke the acquired language fluently. She even spoke it with a pinch of New York accent, that impatient nasal twang so useful, in her husband’s mouth, for announcing rapid appraisals.
Ian Billings was a lawyer, with unspoken depths of inherited, extra-legal resources lending his assertions a casual weight. Milford took what comfort he could, as their trip wore on and as acquaintance among the tourists deepened, in the observation that Billings had the thin skin and pink flush of a candidate for an early heart attack. He was his wife’s height, a height that left her bordering on tall but her husband distinctly short. In talking to Lorena, lanky Milford felt himself towering as if literally mounted on Proust’s figurative stilts of time. He was plenty old enough, if he thought about it, to be her father, but in the society of the tour bus—a kind of school bus, with the discipline problems in the back and the brown-nosers up front near the lecturers—they were all in the same grade.
Dusty villages and green rice fields flowed past the bus windows. Vendors and mendicants clustered at the door whenever the bus stopped. Temple followed temple, merging in Milford’s mind into one dismal labyrinth of dimly lit corridors smelling of rotting food, offerings to gods who weren’t having any. At the end of some long and dark corridors stood the linga, a rounded phallic symbol periodically garlanded and anointed with oil and ghee. In especially well-staffed temples, robed priests guarded the linga and stared expectantly at the tourists.
Milford was not good at Hinduism. He kept confusing Vishnu and Shiva, missing the subtle carved differences in hairstyle that distinguished them. He kept forgetting whose consort was lovely Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and good fortune, and whose consort was Parvati/Durga/Kali, daughter of the Himalayas, goddess of strength, warfare, destruction, and renewal, dancing with lifted leg and multiplied arms in her circle of fire. Jean and Ian struck up an alliance, a conspiracy of star students, comparing notes and memorizing lists of primary and secondary deities and their interrelations and of the eminently forgettable long names of the temples nested in their various dirty, clamorous cities, among their endless one-man shops and mutilated beggars and heartbreakingly hopeful, wiry, grinning brown children.
While their consorts matched notebooks and one-upped each other with snatches of Hindi and Sanskrit, Henry and Lorena were thrown into a default alliance of willful ignorance. They became, with sideways glances and half smiles, connoisseurs of irrelevant details—the dead-on mimicry by Indian officials and maître d’s of an imperial Englishness, bluff and haughty; a startlingly specific sex act included in a time-worn temple frieze; a lonely bouquet of withering flowers at the base of an out-of-the-way shrine to Parvati, goddess of (among much else) fertility and childbirth.
In the bat-cave recesses of the larger temples, wild-eyed Brahman priests appeared, selling blessings to the tourists. The tourists learned how to put their hands together and say their namaste, and to bow their heads and receive a stab of bright henna or oily ash on the center of their foreheads. Lorena, it seemed to Milford, retained the fresh mark all day, a third eye above her two, topaz-colored own. She had an aptitude for being blessed. In one of the larger and busier temples, a tethered elephant had been trained to receive a piece of paper currency in the prehensile end of its trunk, swing the trunk backward to pass the note to the trainer’s hand, and then lower the pink, three-lobed end of its uncanny and docile proboscis upon the head of the donor for a moment. At every opportunity Lorena submitted to this routine, her eyes piously closed, her canary-yellow baseball cap tipped jauntily forward on the dense mass of her curls. The cap, Milford supposed, served as something of a prophylaxis, but it was with wide-eyed merriment that after one such blessing she complained to Henry, “He spit at me! Right in my face!”
Trying to feel an elephant’s blessing as she felt it, he submitted to one, for the price of a rosy, 10-rupee note bearing Gandhi’s image, and did feel, on the top of his head, a fumbling tenderness, a rubbery heaviness intelligently moderated, as if by an overworked god.