Shake Hands and Kiss (Originally published in Ekakshara)

The humidity was unbearable, even though the sun had gone down three hours ago and it was only late March. Outside his uncle’s house in India once again—the humble flat with only two bedrooms to fit all four of his children, at least the living room was large enough to accommodate guests—Abhay sat with Ela on the wooden porch swing that creaked as they swung back and forth. The metal must’ve grown rusty over the years; when he had swung on it the last time he visited—he was eight years old—it had moved smoothly and without protest. Beside him, Ela was relatively subdued as seemed to be her most common disposition, but the night wasn’t quiet. Though he had shut the front door, he could still hear elevated chatter from his family and hers as they drank their after dinner tea and munched on sweets. Indians were known for their loud voices—the near yelling he’d always joked about with his mother and father when they’d had guests over in Connecticut and each one fought over the others to tell his story, growing louder and louder over the evening. Normally, the noise was welcome, amusing even, but this evening he was worn, tired.

He fought the drooping of his eyes, the dryness that resulted from an overwhelming lethargy. Though he’d arrived two days prior, he was still afflicted with jet lag. His thick black hair felt greasy, as did his face, and already he dreaded returning to work in a week, fighting sleep at the wrong hours all over again before setting himself right. After the wedding, this would all end. Finally, they’d be in the same place and he wouldn’t have to keep up this exhausting pattern of travel.

“It’s good to see you.” He cupped Ela’s face in his hand, holding his palm against her chin. Her face was plump in places—like her cheeks—but her chin jutted like her elbows.

He leaned in to kiss her and she pulled back. Hours upon hours on the phone spent getting to know each other after their initial arrangement and she was still playing keep away. He released her face and reclined on his chair. He thought of the ladies he ran into on lunch breaks in Midtown or at night in Manhattan’s trendiest bars, dressed in their Diesel Jeans and their Jimmy Choo pumps. Ela was just as beautiful as any lady he had lusted after, but she wore it much differently. The tightness took away from her charm and she lacked the feeling of luxury he was used to, the sense that he was in the midst of extravagance. When he looked at her again, in her soft blue salwar kameez, he realized that she dressed much simpler than the women he was used to. But by no means was she plain. The lightness in her eyes contrasted with her deep black mane, the warmth in her skin and the kohl lining her eyes, her apparent innocence all made her intriguing—unconventionally beautiful.

“It’s ok,” he said when he leaned in again. “We are engaged, remember?” India’s spring was just as bad as the worst New York summer, and at that moment, he wished to be back in the frigid cold of the city amidst gusting winds and frost. Here, he felt frustrated by the lack of air and the excess of space between them. He was hot—the cause, a combination of the oppressive lack of air and Ela’s sex appeal—and subsequently, impatient. When he brought his face to hers, she exercised her signature move and he sighed once more at her hesitation.

“Ela, it’s nothing new. We’ve kissed before.” As he said this, he realized that the kiss they had exchanged four months earlier might have been her first. Following their engagement, he’d wanted to taste her, but her mouth had felt stiff against his, uninviting and reluctant. Not exactly the way he’d imagined it would feel to kiss such a beautiful woman. He shrugged off the thought and persisted, but her resolve was greater than his desire and the kiss went no further than pursed lips and frozen air.

His last trip to India had been much easier; surrounded by an entourage of family to celebrate his engagement, he had known his place. The ceremony itself had been formal as was the proposal itself, negotiated by their fathers in place of something more romantic or spontaneous. Since then, so many things had changed and progressed—he was in line for a promotion at work—in just a few months he’d be their finance director his boss claimed, and the wedding was coming together. Ela’s dad had secured the hall—a nondescript, mid-sized reception area in Ahmedabad, much nicer than what they could’ve afforded in New York. Abhay and Ela had also made their own progress: learning more about each other each week, coming closer to remembering the names of each other’s best friends and closest relatives. But, nothing between them was different. Despite all the conversations, all the getting-to-know-you emails and lengthy phone conversations, Ela insisted that they were still strangers.

What Abhay wished to do and what he was able to do were spread so far apart that he wanted to violently jam them together. He was tired of waiting for her. How could he marry a woman who wouldn’t even kiss him? What else would she withhold?

He thought of the devastating—nearly unbelievable—set of message boards he’d come across at work while setting up their wedding website on weddingsutra.com, an Indian wedding web portal that was fairly comprehensive in sharing marital news and concerns. One troubled husband wrote about getting married too early due to excessive parental pressure, and even more worrisome was a post from a wife of three years who claimed that she and her husband had yet to consummate their marriage.

“Ela please let me kiss you.” He tried to ignore the absurdity of his almost begging; they were no longer teenagers in pursuit, but like an adolescent he felt a searing sense of panic that the moment would never arrive.

“Someone might see, Abhay. Please. Don’t.” Ela surrendered her smile.

A society built on sexual repression had seemed like a goldmine for a man like him. He didn’t care about finding someone of his own race or culture; he wanted a wife who would be easy to deal with, but would also excite him. India was theoretically full of beautiful women who were more Western in attitude, who were ready and willing to act more liberally than their surroundings would allow, if given the opportunity. During daydreams, he considered how, if prompted, Ela would unravel like a frayed tapestry and run all over him, unencumbered, lustful and lively. But in reality she was as tightly wound as a sewing thread around a spindle. Three kisses so far since the first time they had met, just one month before they agreed to be married. Three kisses that could’ve just have easily been planted on a mannequin’s lips as Ela’s were just as motionless, cold and stiff as porcelain.

As he chose his next move, as he tried to talk himself down from acting too much like a greedy American—insensitive and revved up with lust—he realized that he had never seen Ela’s hair worn loose. Suddenly, the pulled strands were what interested him and he tried to recall if she ever changed the way she wore it, or if she ever left even half of it loose against her back and shoulders. As far as he could remember, Ela’s hair was always wrapped in that bun, riding low against the nape of her neck, bulging like a knapsack full of books on a child’s frame.

For his next move, he decided an apology would be best. But before he could focus on the kisses again—or lack thereof, as it were, he inquired about the bun. “Do you ever wear your hair down?” he asked, tugging on the knot of hair.

“No,” she replied.

“I keep wondering what that would look like—your hair hanging down.” He checked to see if she was listening and then added, “I don’t even know how long it is.”

She held her hand like a marker, palm flat and facing up, halfway between her shoulder and her elbow.

Her silence, he realized, was not always annoying. In some instances, it was adorably coy. Already a man in longing, now he wanted even more of her. Though he realized it would take time to break her in, he reminded himself that she was a prime acquisition, part of his wildest fantasies.