“Lucky Buddha” by Rajasree Variyar
“I feel like you’re cheating on me,” I say. “Are you?”
Maria snorts. “Only with the usual bastard.”
She’s just come home, her handbag – Louis Vuitton, I think – slumped on the hall table. It’s almost nine o’clock, but the summer sun’s just edging down to the horizon, turning the stained-glass hall windows to molten gold.
I open my arms to her before I remember that I’ve decided to paint this evening and fresh oily colour glistens on the smock she forces me to wear. Instead, I touch her shoulder, running my fingers over skin soft and smooth as a butterfly’s wing.
“God, Tom, what a day,” she says, rubbing her eyes.
In her power suit, her runner’s body straight and lithe, make-up pristine even at this time of night, she seems calmly invincible. It’s the look that keeps control of a board room of mostly grey-haired, over-confident men. I’m still in the casual, comfortable jeans that are a graphic designer’s prerogative.
“Tough one?” I ask.
“We’ve had to push the launch back another fortnight,” she says. The suit jacket drops onto the bag. They’re a stark contrast to the copy of Harry Potter that perches on the table’s edge, dog-eared by little hands. Her manicured fingers reach up to tug pins from her hair, and her clavicle becomes a curved shelf that her head seems to balance on like a hunter’s trophy. “I’ve been in crisis meetings all day.”
“I hope they fed you.” I can see the hollowness of her cheekbones where they press against the blush-brushed delicacy of her skin.
“Good old sandwich lunch.”
“Mm-mm. You don’t eat sandwiches.”
“So what did you have?”
To our relief, we’re interrupted.
Adriana is walking down the stairs, her nightie ghost-like around her.
“You should be in bed!” Maria says, smiling. She bends to wrap her arms around her. I notice they’re almost the same width, my wife and our ten-year-old.
It’s a second before Adriana’s arms rise too. She pulls away first.
“Are you coming tomorrow?” she asks, although I’ve told her not to.
“Tomorrow?” Maria asks, and I grimace over their heads.
Maria squats down and I half-expect her bones to rip through the film of her skin. She kisses Adriana’s tummy, just above the medals. “I wish I could, love. I’m so sorry. I’ll be here to celebrate when you get home, I promise.”
“That’s ok,” Adriana says, “Daddy will be there.”
Even in profile, I see the flicker of anguish guilt on Maria’s face. I step forward, and Maria says, “You know what we have to do now, though?”
She turns to the honey-bronze Buddha statue by the front door. We bought him on a whim in Beijing, a memento of Maria’s first marathon after Adriana’s birth. He greets visitors with a thick-lipped, wide-mouthed grin.
Adriana looks at him too, and the corner of her mouth sidles reluctantly upward.
“Rub it for luck!” they say in dual soprano, and then they’re giggling and all is forgiven.
The clock chimes, a teasing excerpt of a Bach prelude. “Bedtime,” I say.
“Mum just got home.” Adriana glares at me.
“We’ll hang out on the weekend, I promise,” Maria says leading her back up the stairs.
I go to the kitchen to pour her a glass of water and check the emails making my phone buzz against my hip. It’s a message from the gallery that stops me scrolling.
Maria enters behind me. I turn to see she’s in her Nike Dryfit top and compression pants. Her elbows are the widest part of her arms. There’s a fearful part of my mind that notices these things, makes me aware of them like a slave at a Roman Triumph.
“I’m going for a run.”
“See, this is why I think you’re cheating on me. You just got home. Where are you running to? The boyfriend’s house, obviously.”
She laughs. “Come with me, and you’ll know for damn sure I’m not.”
“Yeah, no. Have fun with the lover.” I let my smile fade. “It is late, though.”
She shrugs. “I just need to get out, and the sun won’t disappear for an hour. Thank God for summer.” She smiles at me, sips the water. “How was your day?”
I drum my fingers on the marble benchtop.
“Productive. We’ve got a new client – some big-name jewellery brand that’s launching a winter diamond campaign. Any graphic designer’s sparkly heaven.” I refrain from mentioning I’ve spent most of the day perfecting images of straight-bodied, spindle-limbed twenty-year-olds dressed in diamonds against backgrounds of fantastically misty waterfalls. Instead I say, “Forget the day job. The gallery wants to see my latest painting.”
Her mouth opens in an O of outrage. “I haven’t seen your latest painting.”
“Patience is a virtue.” I keep my voice casual. “You do remember we went for a run this morning?”
One eyebrow arches and her lips tighten, micro-expressions so slight I’d miss them if I didn’t know her face better than my own.
“Not long enough. That seven-thirty call was a waste of time, by the way.” She puts her glass down. She never takes more than a sip or two. “Then I spent the rest of the day sitting on my backside in steering committee meetings and drinking too much coffee. I was an inch away from spontaneous combustion.”
I lean close and sniff her neck. “Yep, you’re sizzling.”
“Don’t think you’ve distracted me. The gallery doesn’t get to see it until I do, got it?”
“Deal – especially if you don’t go for a run now.”
She sticks her tongue out at me as she tucks her keys into the zipped pocket that juts out over her tailbone. “I’ll be back soon.”
We both know I’d lost the argument before I’d started it. I always do. “Have fun,” I manage. She flashes me a brilliant smile that makes the shadows under her almond-brown eyes lift, and then she’s gone.
I retreat to my tiny studio, and the mind-blanking release of a world of liquid colour.
The sun’s succumbed to the horizon before she gets back. The clock tells me it’s been an hour. Her knuckles rap a soft tattoo against the studio door. I open it a crack to peer at her. “It’s lovely out there,” she says, beaming. The sliver of her face that’s in sight is flushed with exertion. I imagine her running past the peacocks in Holland Park, the twilight turning the tulips to lavender, past the giant chess set we’ve always meant to play and the roses unfurled to the sky.
“How’s the boyfriend?”
She reaches in to brush a fingertip over my cheek. It’s icy cold. “He’s jealous of you, because you’re real and he’s not.” Her eyes flick past me. “Can I see yet?”
“Nope. And it’s dinner time.” She rolls her eyes at me. “I haven’t eaten yet either,” I say, and my stomach growls in angry agreement.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Tom. Why’d you wait?” But she lets me lead her to the kitchen.
We have dinner seated side by side at the breakfast bar. That is, I watch her eat a half-rainbow assembled from her side of the fridge, which looks like the vegetable aisle of Waitrose. It’s a mess of pale greenery dotted with brilliant flecks of tomato and raw capsicum. I tuck in to the spaghetti Bolognese she made on the weekend and won’t touch. The meat is delicious, slow-cooked in a rich tomato sauce that hours ago had painted a clown’s smile around Adriana’s mouth. I desperately want to scoop a ladleful onto Maria’s plate.
She eats slowly, each lettuce leaf masticated over and over again, as though she’s practicing a Buddhist meditation technique. My plate’s in the dishwasher before she’s popped the last quarter of cherry tomato into her mouth.
“Are you sure about Saturday?” I ask her. “It’s your birthday, you’re allowed to take it easy. We can just head out for dinner, rather than having everyone over.”
“It’ll be fun,” she says. Hesitation. Reaching out, she takes my hand. “I think it’ll be safest, if it’s okay for you.”
Leaning over, I bring my nose inches from hers. “Whatever you want’s okay.”
Her eyes are luminescent in the kitchen downlights. “I’m sorry I’m such a crazy…”
My breath stops as I wait for her next words, hungry for them. But we’ve been twirling through this dance for the fifteen years we’ve known each other, she and I and her invisible lover, so I can’t be surprised now when her next step is a shake of her head.
I swallow my scream of frustration. No missteps now, not so close to her special day. Instead I brush a tendril of hair from her cheek. “I love crazy. Normal’s boring.”
She smiles, bittersweet.
The summer serves us a rare bright Saturday, clear, at the height of July warmth. Birdsong rouses me at sunrise. Maria wakes with me, the warmth of her skin pressed to mine a weekend luxury. She smells like honeysuckle and jasmine.
“Happy birthday,” I whisper in her ear, and she turns so her lips are pressed against my jawline.
“Fantastic forty,” she whispers back. “Too old for the secret lover now.”
“So I’ve got you all to myself?”
She believes it, I know. And so do I. I have to, don’t I? That’s trust.
The day’s all about preparing for the night.
We shop in the morning and leave the French doors open through the afternoon, letting the smells of Maria’s slow-roasting lamb and baking sticky date pudding waft over our neighbours’ backyards. I mix Pimm’s and sugar-free lemonade, slices strawberries and cucumber, and as the sun continues its hyperbola across the cornflower-blue London sky, we become laughingly tipsy. Adriana catches our mood and abandons her iPad to dance around the house, singing a combination of ‘Happy Birthday’ and whatever comes up on my Spotify playlist. Maria dances with her, pirouetting giddily.
At five o’clock, Maria takes my hand and leads me upstairs and then we’re in the shower together, slick skin pressed to slick skin. It’s been too long, and I’m hot with steam and desire. By some marvel, or perhaps by grace of the Pimms, she lets me touch her, kiss her, make slow, careful love to her. I watch the beads of water slide down the sharp planes of her body. Maybe I shouldn’t want her. Maybe I’m just encouraging her. But I can’t help it, even when she looks like this.
“You need some padding,” I say. “I’m going to get bruises from your bones.”
“It’ll toughen you up,” she says.
My lips find the cliff edge of her collar bone. “Ouch,” I say.
When the doorbell rings we’re ready. I’m in a barely-worn casual suit we picked up in Bologna, and Maria wears a shin-length loose dress of midnight-blue with sleeves of lace. It hangs off her more than ever as she greets and smiles. I note how the light glances off the skin drawn over her sternum and ribs, the lines of tendon running from ear to clavicle, the delicate web of veins trailing down her calves. I feel a frisson of familiar fear. I shouldn’t find her beautiful anymore.
Adriana stands by the front door, a miniature gatekeeper. She orders every new entrant to rub Buddha’s expanse of stomach.
“It’s for luck!” she commands. Our friends love it – they take selfies with both of them, child and God-man, before they’ve even said “hello”.
The evening almost works. We laugh as we haven’t in months. Maybe years. Maria is the hostess of dreams, refilling plates and topping up wine glasses. She darts around the informal dinner table, speaking to everyone. As I entertain Adriana, I try to watch her. I have one eye on her plate. Food moves around it, but I can’t see it leave. As she whizzes past me I whisper, “Make sure you’re eating.”
She smiles at me, and doesn’t.
“Happy biiiiiirthdaaaaay, dear Maria!”
Her boss, David – they’ve always been close, more so than she and her perfect, perfectly absent, cardiovascular surgeon of a father – David leads off the singing, his deep baritone wavering under the strain of multiple glasses of wine. The roast’s gone, the soup’s been slurped, the starters and sides demolished. Dessert bowls hold only remnants of sticky date pudding. Only the actual birthday cake remains. Her favourite, of course – a luxurious black forest with fresh cream and real fruit, a ring of ruby red cherries sitting like a lifebuoy in the centre.
She blows out the candles, one for each decade. I stand with Adriana leaning against me, tired now, and bored.
Maria smiles up at me. “Love you,” she mouths as she raises the knife and slices through the layers of chocolate sponge I’ve soaked in rum and fruit-laced cream I’ve whipped by hand.
The party quietens and the tender strains of jazz float through the living and dining rooms. It’s the aftermath of a polite Dionysian revel. Maria takes the cake away, despite the protests. I follow her into the kitchen behind her cousin Georgia and college friend Lisa in time to see her shoo them both away. They leave without much protest. They know as much as anyone that Maria’s in control.
I take the sea-teal cake plates from the cupboard and lay them out for her. She smiles at me.
“You’re having a piece, right?” I can’t help asking.
She steps away, cake knife in hand, and tiptoes to kiss me on the cheek. “Of course.”
As I lay the final plate down, our friend Kumar appears by my elbow. “How’s she doing?” he asks.
“Good,” I say. “Great. Crazily busy but work loves her.”
“Next stop CEO, right?”
“Watch this space.”
He looks uncertain. “Look, Lisa mentioned something that I’d noticed too. Maria looks a little tired. Has she lost weight?”
The warm glow the wine’s bathed me in burns hotter, more unpleasant. Kumar’s not the first to say something. Each time, I feel more sick.
“Maybe. I guess it’s a side effect of training for a triathlon.”
“What a machine. She does it all.” My friend smiles and it doesn’t fool me. “Just make sure she’s looking after herself, yeah?”
David’s at Maria’s shoulder. Lisa thrusts a cake slice into his hand. With a feigned groan of effort, he takes the plate, his thick fingers completely encasing the spoon’s handle.
Maria laughs. Slowly, she lifts a spoonful of cream-covered sponge to her mouth and it vanishes between her lips. Her brows rise in delighted acknowledgement, but I see the tension in her face and I wonder what kind of mistake I’ve made.
It’s a crash, the sound of ceramic splintering into shards on tiles, that distracts me. I run to the hall. Pieces of porcelain crunch beneath my feet, and my foot knocks against a mini basketball, a ball that isn’t permitted in this room of sculptures and clocks. I look down and recognise the pale green and lavender of the vase my mother gave us as a wedding gift. Something shifts in the corner of my eye, or perhaps above my eyeline, and I look up to see Adriana shifting from foot to foot in her pale pink dress. It shimmers in the light, at odds with the guilty defiance on its wearer’s face.
“It was an accident,” she says. Her voice is flat with the lie.
I can feel spectators behind me. “It’s time for bed,” I say.
I lead her first to Maria for a good-night kiss, then upstairs to her bed. We don’t speak. She watches me leave the door open a crack for her, just as she likes it. I have to fight the temptation to close it completely.
I return to the hall to sweep up the shards of china. Half the vase remains intact, its empty stomach bared. When I get back, I’m surrounded by people congratulating me on the evening, on our family, on our house. It’s a while before I realise only the supporting cast are in the room. Maria’s gone.
“We haven’t seen her for a while…”
“I thought she was with the girls?”
“In the bathroom, maybe?”
A faint sound from the kitchen reaches me, the dull whir of the dishwasher. I walk quickly through the dining room. It’s only then I notice the table’s been virtually cleared. Even the cake’s vanished. Only the bottles of port and the cheeseboard remain.
She’s drying her hands on a tea towel when I enter, her back to me. Royal blue lace webs across her shoulders. Her head turns, the gloss of her hair catching the light. I catch sight of her eyes, red-rimmed and moist.
I cross to her.
She tucks her loosened hair behind her ears. She’s smiling, but the swelling of the skin beneath her eyes betrays the tears she’s quickly wiped away.
“Everything okay?” I ask.
“Of course!” She gestures around her. “You know me, I thought I’d get a bit of a head start on the clean-up.” Her lips, soft and warm, brush the skin of my jaw. The sour smell of bile hovers over her perfume.
Invisible twine tightens around my heart.
“What else have you been doing?” I say.
Rounded reddened eyes stare back at me in a frozen moment. The silence is sliced apart by her sigh. “I’m sorry.” Her arms reach up to drape around my neck. I capture one hand and turn it over. It’s red and warm from the tap water, the knuckle of her index finger slightly swollen. I try not to imagine her teeth scraping over it.
I sink to my knees in front of her, my face pressed against the silky hollow of her stomach. Fingers slide into my hair.
“It’s okay,” she says. “It won’t happen again. I’ll beat this.”
I can argue. I can ask if she’s in control. We’ll tumble over into that void of freezing, lonely silence.
It’s her special day, I think.
We walk hand in hand out of the kitchen to find our guests calling Ubers or hunting for car keys. With smiles and laughs and thank-yous, we wave them off into the darkness.
And then the house is ours alone once more.
“Let’s go to bed,” I whisper to her, but she shakes her head.
“Let me finish cleaning up.”
I look at her, exasperated. “Now? The food’s cleared away. The rest can wait until tomorrow.”
She’s already moving toward the utility cupboard, wrestling the Hoover into the hall. “It won’t take long,” she says. “I can’t go to bed with all of…this…still here.” She waves a hand at the askew chairs in the living room. Her face is tense, immovable. Before I can argue, she’s moved on. Instead, I follow helplessly in her wake and try to help rather than get in her way.
One o’clock has passed before we go upstairs to tangle together on the bed, our bodies forming a Gordion knot, unknowable, undoable. I’m conscious not to settle my weight on her bird bones.
She’s said nothing. It’s my turn. It’s always my turn. But I don’t have words that won’t bring the cold into her eyes, or the frosting of bitter silence that’ll ice the house for months. I don’t have words that won’t drive her away.
“I love you,” I whisper instead into the darkness and her face moves to fit perfectly into the crook of my neck.
She falls asleep, but I can’t. Finally, I leave the sound of her regular breathing and sneak downstairs like a thief.
Moonlight casts a shadow puppet after-party against the wall. I leave them celebrating and escape to the studio. I don’t think about what drives me. I just paint, paint until dawn.
The next Monday.
It’s ten o’clock and chilly rain is drilling down in the darkness when Maria comes home. Her voice floats down the hallway to the studio, forming my name.
When I emerge, she’s in the hall and already changed into running gear, hair in a waterfall of a ponytail that flows down the smooth nape of her neck.
“Launch is done,” she says, smiling. She looks so tired and drawn. The kitchen downlights cast shadows like Halloween make-up, huge purpling bruises under her eyes.
My heart sinks, quick as lead. “Where are you off to?”
“I need a run.”
A frustrated, incredulous growl is trapped in my throat. “It’s miserable outside,” I say. “And late. Why don’t you run tomorrow.” I don’t bother making that a question. I already know the answer. I feel like I’m trying to empty an ocean with a teaspoon.
“Just a quick one,” she says. “I need the stress relief.”
“You haven’t even seen Adriana.”
“She’s asleep, right? I’ll go into her as soon as I’m back.”
“Or eaten anything.”
Echoes hover in the suddenly vast silence of the room. The almost translucent skin of her hollow cheeks are beginning to stain pink. One foot is tapping impatiently on the polished mahogany floor.
“I’ll eat when I get back.”
She’s gone. I walk back into the studio and stand, staring at the form that’s almost fully birthed onto the canvas in front of me, trapped between loving and hating it.
Time passes. I’ve left the studio door open, so I hear her come in, pause at the base of the stairs, and begin to climb them. She freezes as I emerge into the hall, her eyes huge as a hunted animal. The light turns her post-run hair into an auburn halo. Sweat glistens at her temples.
“There are leftovers in the kitchen,” I say.
She seems even more exhausted. “You can have those tomorrow. I’ll pop in to Adriana then whip something up.”
Fear turns me furious. “Yeah, that won’t take long. How much whipping do you need to do for lettuce and a side of veggies?”
“You want to do this again?” Her voice is chilly, dangerous.
“Yes,” I say, riding on anger.
“I’m an adult. It may surprise some people, but I can eat what I want.”
“Can you? Can you really? Because you don’t. So if you think you’re in control, you’re wrong.”
She stands, still as a hunting lioness, watching me. Her lips are tight, her hand gripping the bannister white-knuckled. Rain droplets or tears glisten on her cheeks.
Then her eyes drop to her feet, and she draws a long, shuddering breath.
She doesn’t move as I climb the stairs to her and take her in my arms. Sweat and the frigid night air mingle on her skin, leaving it cold and clammy. Wisps of dark hair have pulled from her hairband and tickle my face. She pushes against my chest at first, but then she sags against me, her body moulding to mine. The bones of her elbow and forearm dig into my ribcage.
There are a thousand things I want to say, but my anger is vanishing. “I think it’s ready,” I say instead. Her face turns up, quizzical.
I scoop her up. She weighs not too much more than Adriana, I think, as I carry her down the stairs and along the hall to my cupboard-studio. She draws a sharp breath as she realises where we’re going.
The studio light is still on. I set Maria on her feet in the centre of the floor and we stare at the canvas.
We stand in silence. I’m too afraid to look at her.
And then, finally, I hear her take a long, shuddering breath. I look over.
Her eyes shine bright with tears light.
I follow her gaze and wonder if she’ll see what I see.
A woman stands framed by a window she has just turned away from. She looks back at us, her face lit in a half-smile that is a moment away from tracing laughter lines from the corner of her almond eyes. She is drawing a silk shawl – her favourite, purchased in Amman – up over her smooth, rounded shoulders. It tangles with the wealth of her auburn hair.
Her cheeks are full and dimpled. An inviting curve of hips are outlined under the red dress that flows to mid shin, leaving her muscled calves bare.
A round-bellied, bronze Buddha stands laughing, half-hidden behind her.
“It’s beautiful.” She takes a step forward, her hand reaching toward it.
Relief and guilt silences me. Would it have been if she wasn’t the way she is?
“Is that how you see me?”
My hand inches down her arm so that my fingers can tangle with hers.
“To me, you’ll always be perfect,” I say.
“There is no perfect,” she says.
Her tears break the bank of her lower lids to run down the slopes of her cheeks.
The door creaks and we both turn.
Adriana has heard us. She’s at the door, watching us with huge eyes.
Maria holds her arms out and Adriana inches uncertainly into them. I see her eyes flick from her mother to the painting.
“I’m sorry,” I hear Maria whisper.
At school pick up the next day, the phone rings over the screams of children recently released for the summer holidays. Adriana hangs off my arm, waving at her friends.
“Speaking,” I manage to say.
“This is Dr. Ali, at Charing Cross Hospital. I’m sorry to say your wife was brought in to emergency this afternoon. Please get here as soon as you can.”
There’s a moment where I forget how to breathe.
The neighbours aren’t home, and so Adriana comes with me. She clings to my hand as we make our way through the cool, lemon-sterile smell of the halls, into a six-bed ward.
Georgio’s there. It’s the first time in months that I’ve seen Maria’s larger-than-life father. I notice that he’s forgotten to de-scrub his shoes. Little blue shower caps still wrap around the Italian leather on his feet. A bizarre urge to laugh is bubbling somewhere so deep down I’m only barely aware of it.
I force my eyes over to the bed.
“Is that Mum?” Adriana asks, in a timid whisper.
She is sleeping. It doesn’t seem like her. Not with her body almost hidden in its oversized hospital gown, and the IV drip running from under one sleeve. Her head rests against the clinical whiteness of the pillows, the angle drawing her skin over her face like cling-film.
A nurse is writing something on a chart by the bed. Another, older, woman – a doctor, I guess – is standing patiently in the path of the storm of Georgio’s rage.
They watch me as I near the bed and reach out for one of her hands, taking the lithe, cold fingers in mine.
“You can’t be serious,” Georgio is saying. “She’s never had a problem. She’s successful forty-year-old, for God’s sake, not an angsty teenage girl.”
Part of me, the part that isn’t howling, tries to make sense of what he’s saying. Adriana has half-hidden herself behind my leg.
Someone is beside us. It’s the doctor. She’s looking at me as gently as though I’m the one who’s ill.
I feel like I might be.
The nurse comes over. She is round-faced and rosy-cheeked, like a storybook cook. She takes Adriana’s hand and leads her away, to the corner of the room.
The doctor’s speaking. “Heart failure,” I hear. “Extremely low blood pressure…malnourished…” My own heart is staggering in response. I wonder if that’s what Maria felt before she hit the floor.
“…problems with food?” I hear her ask.
A lump sits in my throat. I shrug, because I can’t speak.
Georgio is staring at me, incredulous.. “How could you let this happen?” The words burst from him in a hiss like a punctured tire.
How could either of us, I think, but I stay silent. The doctor’s eyes beetle into a faint frown. “It’s a very complex condition,” she says. “This is no-one’s fault.”
This is my fault.
We look down at her. The white of her hospital gown is broken by a print of mint-green diamonds. They rise and fall slightly as she breathes.
“I need to get back to work,” Georgio says. “Keep me updated.” He strides out of the room in his ridiculous scrubbed-up shoes. I don’t think he’s noticed Adriana’s presence. I gather up Maria’s things – handbag, dress, jacket. They smell of her.
On the table beside her head, I leave a pamphlet – an exhibition guide from a small art gallery in Shoreditch. I fold it open to the headline piece. The woman by the window stares up at me and I find comfort in the lustre of her eyes.
Adriana runs back to me. As I take her hand, the doctor tells me not to worry, that we can beat this.
But some lovers just don’t let you let them go.
Maria’s with him again.
I might lose her to him.
Adriana and I go to the hospital café. Out the window, the sun is sinking below the horizon. She still wears her school backpack. I open her lunchbox and find her lunch untouched. Maria will be annoyed – it’s becoming a trend now, the return of the uneaten sandwich. It’s now slightly soggy, unappetising.
I crouch down to bring my face level with hers and I say the most normal thing I can. “How about a cheese toastie, honey?”
She looks up at me, almond eyes solemn in the roundness of her cherub’s face.
“No thanks, Daddy. I’m not hungry.”
She rubs her belly, for luck.