Harish knew who he was, though they were not friends. The rich guy with the good looks and a bank account vaster than the Grand Canyon.
“I want you to design something magnificent for my girlfriend Gail,” the man said with a pretentious air. “I know you two used to work together so I’m confident you will know what she’d like.”
“And your budget?” Harish inquired.
“Money isn’t a problem; just make a ring that she will love.” And with that, the man left.
Harish indeed knew what Gail would love. He knew her very well.
Seventeen years prior, Gail had worked side-by-side with Harish. He taught her everything about the jewelry business. She knew how to grade and rate precious gems, polish gold, estimate values, perform repairs, and match an engagement ring to a woman like nobody’s business.
Their mutual adoration expanded well beyond jewelry however. Love and passion quietly sprouted and grew, watered by youth and time across the borderless geography between America and India. It cast its roots deep in their hearts like an ancient tree—standing in a knowing forest of tenderness and desire. But landscapes change and borders get redrawn and Harish was feeling the pressing familial pressures thundering from far away.
“I have to go back to India,” he told her one sunny morning as he was dressing.
“Oh, I see. How long will you be gone?” she said.
“I won’t be back for several months,” he said. “I’m sorry, it can’t be helped. Family business.”
He left the following week. Three months later she finally heard from him. On a simple white sheet of paper, he wrote:
I’m not sure how to break this to you, I can hardly believe it myself. I’m married. It’s an arranged marriage, the sister of an old school mate. I don’t think I could ever love anyone as much as you but it was expected as the oldest son and I could not disappoint my parents. I’m sorry. You will forever have my heart.
All my love,
Hazel adored her Aunt Gail. She was fierce and free-spirited. She followed her dreams, defying social expectations of who and what a woman should be. She had been a jeweler years ago and was now a personal chef. She knew her aunt had experienced love and loss, a torrid romance that didn’t last, but she never knew the details. She was so contrary to Hazel’s mom who let men define who she was, established her worth as a person, and controlled who she could be or not be.
“Holy shit! Let me see that,” Hazel yelped when she saw the ring Danny gave her. “That’s the most spectacular ring I’ve ever seen. Oh my God! Are you two engaged?” She was incredulous and excited at the same time, knowing Aunt Gail was not the marrying kind.
“It’s a promise ring,” Danny said. “We’re promising to be together but neither of us really wants to go through the whole wedding thing.”
Aunt Gail nodded and looked a bit embarrassed. Hazel waited until Danny was out of earshot and then asked, “Are you okay? It’s a beautiful ring.”
“I wasn’t expecting anything like this so it has taken me off-guard.”
Gail instinctively knew who had designed her ring. She had not seen Harish since he’d left for India but she had heard that he returned to the U.S. with his wife and their two children several years ago. He’d resumed his jewelry business, something she must have casually mentioned to Danny at some point otherwise how would he have known to go to Harish?
“I’m not so sure I want to be promised if I’m really being honest,” Aunt Gail confided in Hazel.
Gail knew her relationship with Danny was heading off track. He was self-absorbed with things, social climbing, being impressive, and she wanted something more, something deeper, primal, connected; something earthy and more real. It was time to go.
“Hello Harish,” she said when she called.
“Gail,” he simply said. “Oh Gail. How are you?”
“I’m well, and you?”
“I’m okay. Times and the economy are changing. Things are strange.”
“Can I see you? Can we meet for coffee or a drink?” she asked.
They met in Los Angeles at a bar that was trending. He pulled up in an aged black Mercedes, looking tired, but even more handsome than she recalled. She valeted her Jeep, an expression of her ruggedness and I-don’t-need-a-man independence. She was sporting her ring however.
“Nice ring,” he said as he kissed her on the check in greeting.
“Yes, someone very special to me designed it,” she said smiling.
“Yes, and are you still with the guy? What’s his name again? Randy?”
“No Danny, and yes and no. We used to have so much fun together. Traveling, exploring the world. But he seems more absorbed by acquiring things now than connecting through shared experiences. Our communication has gone south and we want separate things. I still live with Danny, but in a separate room until I can find a place. He and I just don’t connect any more, he is addicted to status and it simply doesn’t resonate for me. I’m hoping to find a live-in chef deal that will put me on a new trajectory,” she said.
“That’s interesting. I may know someone in need,” Harish replied.
Harish talked about his wife Omala and his children, Manu and Esha. He revealed that his arranged marriage had been loveless, despite the two children who were now grown and off to college. He found himself as caretaker to Omala, something he never signed up to do. She was negative, demeaning and never happy. She wasn’t well and was slowly dying from some kind of nerve disease and blamed Harish for all her pain.
“I have a duplex,” he said. “You could have one half to live in exchange for cooking meals. Helping me with Omala in that way.”
Gail said she’d think about it.
“I sold it,” Danny told her coldly when Gail confronted him, her ring not on the dresser where she’d left it.
She had told him she was leaving but didn’t tell him where she was going and he didn’t ask.
“We’ve grown apart. We want different things and I’m not happy anymore,” she had told him one afternoon.
She didn’t take much when she finally left, there wasn’t much of her in his place anyway. It had been his home before she arrived and she’d never fully settled in.
She drove straight to Harish’s duplex that afternoon and was introduced to Omala simply as the chef. Harish showed her to her half of the duplex which was fortunately furnished. She unpacked what little she had brought and commenced to scrutinize the kitchen. It was not a big kitchen but it would be ample to cook for the three of them, and the occasional visit from Manu and Esha whenever they decided to come.
Omala was neither warm nor cool to Gail, she was somewhere in the middle, not just right like the three little bears, but more neutral. Gail knew she suspected nothing, knew nothing of her former relationship with Harish and that was fine by her. Let dead dogs lie.
And so, Gail settled in to her role. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were delivered on a tray daily to Omala, who gradually moved from sitting in a chair at the table, to a wheelchair at the table, to the living room couch, then to her bed over the months as her illness progressed. In the beginning Omala would rally and insist on eating dinner at the table with Harish if he was there, but mostly she’d picked at the food from her eternal resting spot.
“She’s not really eating much lately,” Gail told Harish while Omala slept. “She is so thin and nothing I make seems to be appealing to her.”
Omala’s strength waned at the same rate her protests and whining escalated. Harish was more tired and exhausted than ever and he was cranky and reactive with not just Omala, but Gail too.
What am I even doing here anymore? Gail thought. This is not bringing me joy. Omala is dying and Harish is just as unbearable.
Harish was advised by Omala’s physician to bring in hospice. There was nothing else that could be done for her medically and now they just wanted to keep her comfortable, ease her persistent cries.
Omala was to be buried in India. Harish said he’d visit family while he was there, he’d be back in several weeks. Gail should meanwhile stay at the duplex and they could talk when he returned.
“Are you hungry?” she asked several days after he’d returned, bringing in a tray of his favorite samosas. “Sit down and eat Harish.”
He took a seat at the kitchen table and placed the savory turnover on a plate.
“Why did I let my parents have such a power over my life?” Harish stated as he picked up and then put back down the samosa. “Telling me who to spend all these years with. I didn’t love her Gail, but I was responsible for her. I failed her and I failed myself. I even failed you. If I had to do it all over again, I would have made different choices. I would never have gone back to India and married Omala. I did my life all wrong.”
“Do you remember the letter you sent me when you left?”
“I do,” he said.
“Is it still true? That I would forever have your heart?”
“Yes, I will never love anyone as much as you Gail.”
He rose up at that point and walked over to her and took her in his arms. He was shaking, his emotions welling up as he began to kiss her, folding himself into her, yielding to needs and desires he’d long since suppressed.
Later that afternoon, while on her side of the duplex, Gail heard a crashing sound as the wall adjoining the two halves split wide open with the thud of a sledgehammer. She let out a startled scream and then realized what was happening. Harish was busting the wall that separated them. Plaster and drywall rained down in her place as he banged, and she began to laugh.
“I’m getting my life back,” he said as he grunted and swung the sledgehammer again and then walked through the hole in the wall. “Do you want to know a secret?”
“What’s that?” she asked smiling at him fondly, her eyes crinkling up in the corners like bird’s feet.
“When Danny asked me to make that ring for you, I wanted to make something terrible and ugly, something you’d hate so that you’d be repulsed by him. I was so disturbed that another man, especially someone like him could have you. But I couldn’t do it. I knew I wanted you to have a piece of me, always with you, something you could look at and know this has Harish’s heart and love. And so,” he dug into his pocket and produced the ring, holding it towards her, “here it is. I bought it back from Danny and thought I’d save it should I ever be lucky enough to have you in my life again. Gail, I promise you, you will forever have my heart.”