About the Feature
Dhruv found this faux French restaurant—a restaurant of sorts but perhaps more of a cafeteria—off the bypass road of a highway called Research Boulevard, close to his hotel. There were many of these restaurants all over the southern and midwestern states to which Dhruv traveled for work, and he had eaten in most of them. On a Wednesday night he was having a late dinner of something they called chicken friand, a square puff pastry stuffed with chicken and gravy and smothered in a thick, gummy mushroom cream sauce. As always he ordered it from the counter and watched it plucked from its home under a heat lamp where it had been kept warm for an undisclosed length of time. This was one of the better ones, still somewhat moist and flaky. Sometimes the corners were so dry and hardened he couldn’t get his fork through it, yet he took his chances on this dish every time he came.
He had to admit the concept here was well executed, a testament to the power of objects. Mounted on a brick wall across from his table, a decorative iron hook held a long-handled copper saucepan. The hook’s baseplate was a pleasing silhouette of a rooster, a motif repeated throughout the restaurant, on a teacup, a ceramic jug, and a porcelain plate. A fireplace divided the two dining rooms and on the broad mantel rested a giant iron lid and a bellows. Dark wooden beams stretched across the plaster ceiling, and some of the walls were paneled with the same coffee-colored wood. The few segments of wall not made of brick or covered with wood were accented with framed pictures—maps of France, still life paintings, and sketches of ruined castles on riverbanks. The music was baroque.
He never dined idly anymore. During this meal he wanted to get a letter written to his parents. “I am sitting in a quaint French-style restaurant,” he wrote, in English. His old friend Tuli had once joked that his parents did everything in English—they shopped in English, they ate in English, they even made love in English. Picturing Tuli’s jolly, white-toothed grin, Dhruv sighed deeply before continuing his letter. He tried to describe the rustic décor and how it was meant to evoke the French countryside. This would mean little to them since neither he nor his parents had ever been to the French countryside and his parents had no appreciation for the charm of old things, no nostalgia for simpler times. They lived in India surrounded by old things, and their lives had always been relatively simple. Among the three of them, only Dhruv would have fallen victim to the manipulations of this interior. This dining room, reproduced hundreds of times in hundreds of cities, somehow awakened heartfelt pastoral yearnings, as if he’d been a French farmer in another life.
He wanted to write about a woman he loved but couldn’t begin for many reasons. For one thing, she had not yet returned his feelings, and for another, she was a Muslim, though not devout in the least. In fact, she was a heavy drinker. He believed he could fix that if she would give him the chance.
He was easily distracted from his letter. Outside in the parking lot, an old Asian man was shouting at an Asian woman, presumably his wife. Dhruv studied the man’s behavior, the angry spasms of his mouth and his arms flailing theatrically under the eerie orange street lamps. He wondered if something justifiably outrageous had set him off on a public tirade, or if he was just another grown man prone to tantrums. Grown men prone to tantrums were a universal phenomenon, found a stone’s throw from any point around the globe.
Dhruv looked away momentarily to see if anyone else found this scene riveting, but the only other person facing the window was a woman sitting alone a few tables down. Dhruv had noticed her when he sat down with his tray because she was dining alone and reading a novel, and he was always curious about people dining alone. He tried to guess at her situation. She could not have been on a business trip. She was too much at home, with an unhurried air of self-possession. She looked to be in her mid-forties, not unattractive but not overly concerned with her appearance. His powers of deduction led him to conclude merely that she was an avid reader who had wanted to get out of her house. She did not look up to watch the man with the loose temper. Her book, whatever it was, held her unfailing attention. Every few pages she would lift her glass of white wine and take a sip, and that was her only distraction.
The Asian man threw his car keys on the ground and took off walking while his wife, somber with her head bent, remained by the car. After a moment she picked up the keys and drove away.
Then Dhruv saw a tiny boy wobbling around the restaurant with a giant laminated menu in his hand, smiling at anyone who was interested and tilting the menu vaguely in their direction. He was a beautiful child, with thick black hair and shining black eyes. He came to Dhruv’s table. “Are you the waiter?” Dhruv asked him playfully. The boy froze and stared at Dhruv’s mouth as he spoke. “Would you like to give me a menu? Is there anything good to eat today?”
He finally stood up to look for the boy’s family. He did a kind of dance with him, herding him toward the adjacent dining room, where a large party had joined together many tables to accommodate everyone. An elderly gentleman saw them and came over, snatching the boy up and giving Dhruv a brief, grateful glance. As the boy was carried back to the table, he cried and dropped his menu, causing him to cry even louder and thrash about in the old man’s arms. The old man quickly dropped the boy into the lap of a young woman, surely his mother. Like the boy she was strikingly beautiful, with high cheekbones and deep-set eyes. She pressed the boy’s head against her chest, quieting him down, and a man who must have been the boy’s father picked up the menu, while still engaged in animated conversation, and put it absentmindedly on another table. Dhruv didn’t recognize the language they were speaking. Not Spanish. Portuguese? They were all dark haired and fair skinned.
Since he was up, he decided he might as well go to the pastry counter to get a chocolate croissant and a cup of coffee. He didn’t want to go back to his hotel room just yet. When he returned to his table, which had been cleared of his dinner tray, he began to write what was foremost on his mind: Ma, Baba, I have met someone. Before he could get very far, the woman with the book made a remark. “No one is watching that boy,” she said. At first Dhruv didn’t understand what she meant.
“He’s wandered over here at least ten times,” she said, seeming stunned that Dhruv hadn’t noticed him earlier.
“Aah,” Dhruv said. “Well, we are all watching him, aren’t we?” He turned back to his letter, shrugging off the strange admonishment. At least he had returned the child to his family, while she sat there with her nose in a book.
As he wrote about Mahnoor, he knew he would never send this letter. He had seen her nearly every weekend for over a year through a small circle of Chicago friends who gathered frequently, yet he was at a loss for words to describe her. He listed the facts. She was a pediatric oncologist with a broad smile that turned her cheeks into two crescent moons. Long, wispy bangs grazed her eyebrows. She had a habit of brushing them aside with her fingers to reveal a narrow triangle of forehead that he found very attractive. He knew the group gathered during the week as well, in his absence, and when he returned on the weekends she always looked surprised to see him. “You’re back,” she would say, and he could never tell if she was disappointed or relieved. She had a distinct American accent that her friends said was a Southern drawl. Drawl was a word he found difficult to pronounce. She had grown up in Georgia.
Last weekend he had given her a ride to her apartment in Highland Park because she got drunk, extremely drunk, and wanted to go home before her roommate was ready. In the car Mahnoor confessed that she was thinking about distancing herself from this group of friends, that they had become too dysfunctional and incestuous, and lately she felt her life had become all about work and drinking. She needed some quiet time. She needed some time to read and travel and visit museums and learn something new, to learn how to do something new. She’d always had an interest in carpentry, in making things with her hands.
“You know,” he had said to Mahnoor, still thinking about the word incestuous, “I like to do all those things.” He had felt a rising panic threatening to choke him. He did not know how he could see her if she left the group. He and Mahnoor had never done anything on their own, until this drive.
“You like carpentry?”
“Well, I’ve never tried it, but I have assembled a lot of Scandinavian furniture.”
She laughed and laughed and laughed. He laughed too.
“I’ve never seen your apartment,” she said. “Why don’t you ever have us over?”
“I’m hardly ever there.”
“Have you decorated it? Does it feel homey?”
“No, I haven’t done anything with it.”
All he could say about his apartment was that it was impressively clean. It had a brand new kitchen that had seldom been used, and polished wood floors, and a bedroom set that matched. The walls were bare and the shelves were empty. He saw so little of it because the consulting company he worked for shipped him anywhere they liked for the workweek. When he first got the job, he thought it would be interesting, traveling all over the country, going to business lunches, getting to know all kinds of people. He had planned to experience the culture and beauty of every place he visited, but in two years he had not seen anything but highways and business parks, and often he could not even remember where he was. The company flew him in on Monday mornings and flew him back to Chicago on Thursday evenings. Every week he was in a new city, sitting in a new cubicle in an office building that looked like thousands of others, and it didn’t matter where he was, really.
“I was talking more about the travel, and the visiting museums,” he said to Mahnoor, gathering the courage to ask her out on a date.
“You like to visit museums?” she asked doubtfully.
“I love art. Paintings, sculpture, design.”
“I would never have guessed,” she said. She sounded delighted.
But she fell silent after that. The mood changed so rapidly he knew it would be a mistake to try to return to their previous conversation. Something must have happened earlier, some heartache that kept coming back to her despite her best efforts to remain cheerful. He kept looking over to see if she was crying or feeling sick, but she was perfectly composed, yet melancholy.
Once they got out of the car, she was unsteady on her feet. He stayed close beside her as they walked along the path to her apartment building and up the stairs to her second-floor apartment. On the steps, suddenly, she stumbled and fell into his arms. She stayed there for a moment, looking up at him with her pearly black eyes, but then her eyebrows twitched and she pulled away. She thanked him for the ride, politely but with an unmistakable finality. He waited on the landing while she fumbled for her keys and clumsily opened her door. She said goodbye again, without looking back, and slammed her door shut.
He was sure he had not done anything wrong. He had only held his arms out to keep her from falling down the stairs, but now that some time had passed he thought he knew what had troubled her. She had been attracted to him, there on the steps, and imagined briefly being with him before she came to her senses. The reason for her rejection was not that he was a Hindu and she a Muslim, or that she saved children’s lives while he traveled around the country as a programming consultant, or even that she was beautiful and he was . . . not bad. It all rested on the immutable fact of his Indian-ness. No matter what he wore or how he styled his hair, he would never carry himself with the easy confidence of American men. His American-born friends taunted him about this. They told him to not to be such a FOB. “Don’t be fobbish,” they often said, when they perceived him to be too Indian, too foreign, and he never could quite get their meaning. He never could quite understand what he had done to offend them.
He had filled three pages of onionskin paper with this drivel about Mahnoor. He put his pen down and massaged his neck, and thought about tearing up the letter and starting again back in the hotel room, or at the airport tomorrow. He would have plenty of time in the next twenty-four hours to write a more sensible letter.
The family in the adjoining dining room was making a racket as they prepared to depart, giving him his cue that he should leave as well. They were calling out the little boy’s name—Rafael—and Dhruv looked around, expecting to find the boy nearby. The woman with the book had gone. The restaurant was about to close. The heat lamps had been turned off, the counter was dark, and a girl in a burgundy apron packed the salad greens into plastic tubs while another employee brushed dust off a ceiling beam with a mop he held upside down. The dust fell, like dirty snow falling from dirty clouds, onto the food counter before the girl had finished packing away all the salad greens. Dhruv watched them, wincing.
He stood up and prepared to leave, but something about the family looking for the boy, something in the volume and pitch of their voices, kept Dhruv from walking out the door. They had recruited an employee to help them look for the child in the kitchen, behind the counter, and in the party room, which the employee agreed to unlock, despite the implausibility of the boy getting into that room through a locked door. Dhruv approached the old man who had taken the boy from him earlier. “Can I be of some assistance?”
“Rafael,” the man said, but clearly his English was not good enough to explain the situation. The man called over another male relative, a boy of about twelve or thirteen who spoke perfect American English. He told Dhruv they were looking for his baby cousin. Last they saw he had slipped under the table to hide, and everyone assumed they would still find him there when they were ready to leave.
“Does he hide often?” Dhruv asked.
The boy shrugged. He did not seem as alarmed as the adults, and Dhruv took this as a good sign. He tended to trust the instincts of children, even children as old as this one, whose body language suggested this was not the first time the whole family had gathered forces to find the errant toddler. Still Dhruv was moved by the mother’s panic. She had become distraught in the last few minutes and could not be comforted. Her cries were becoming increasingly desperate. She called out her son’s name in a way that might have made the child feel too frightened to come out.
Dhruv decided to take a quick look outside before he headed back to his hotel room. He was not eager to become further involved in this rising drama, but he suddenly remembered the woman reading. What was it she’d said? No one is watching him. Dhruv couldn’t help but wonder if the woman had taken the boy somewhere, perhaps out of the restaurant but somewhere close, just to make a point. She seemed like the didactic type.
Dhruv hurried out of the restaurant and circled the building. An employee with a flashlight and another member of the family were already surveying the parking lot, which extended far out along the length of the bypass road. Behind the restaurant there were ten or twelve other shops, all connected to each other in one long concrete strip. At the far end of this shopping center there was a movie theater with a full and expansive lot. There were a million places to hide. A million places for a woman—who might be slightly mad, now that he thought of it—to take a child and still keep an eye on the scene unfolding at the restaurant. He headed for all of those places, looking around corners, columns, and bushes, out as far as the movie theater. He ran through every row of the theater lot and then ran back to the restaurant, thinking the boy must have been found by now, but as he came around the corner he saw two police cars parked by the restaurant.
Dhruv took out his cell phone. It was past eleven. They had been searching for more than an hour.
Outside the restaurant he gave a statement to the police, but all the while he imagined the interview being cut short because the boy was right there inside, slumbering in a shadow, somewhere they’d looked a thousand times without seeing him. The family was huddled together in silence at a patio table nearby. The police took a long time with the interviews and every now and then the father implored them to cut the questioning short and keep looking for his son. Dhruv tried to be quick with his details, but he wanted to be thorough. As expected the officer was interested in the woman with the book. Most of the questions were about her, and when Dhruv was asked if he saw the woman leave, he shook his head guiltily. “I was writing a letter. I didn’t notice she had gone until I heard them looking for the boy.”
He heard the officer discuss the woman with his partner. “Let’s hope she used a credit card,” he murmured. Dhruv was a little taken aback by how firmly the woman had become a suspect based on his testimony. He hoped he had just given the facts and not misrepresented anything he heard or saw, but if the woman was innocent, the most this would cost her was a few hours of her time and some humiliation. If she was guilty, if she had indeed snatched the child, Dhruv felt at least she wouldn’t harm him. He found himself hoping that his suspicions were correct. If Rafael was not in the restaurant, the best alternative was that he was with a bookish, middle-aged woman with poor judgment. Any other scenarios were far more sinister.
When he was a child, this happened all the time. Children went missing for a while until they were discovered at some neighbor’s or relative’s house. He himself was lost during Kali Puja when he was about five years old. He happily sat for hours with an old man who fed him sweets and told him stories. He did not even go home that night. An aunt and uncle he didn’t recognize found him and took him to their house. The next morning his family’s driver, Santosh, came to retrieve him, and at home he was lightly scolded for wandering off.
The officer told him he was free to go.
“I’m going back to Chicago tomorrow,” Dhruv said. “Is it possible for me to get news from someone when the boy is found?”
As he put the officer’s card in his wallet, he realized he had left his letter pad at his table. He was embarrassed by the thought of someone finding it and reading it, but it seemed inappropriate, petty somehow, to ask if he could go back into the restaurant to retrieve it. He said goodbye to the family and told them how sorry he was that this had happened. “I’m sure you’ll find him,” he said, “soon.” The men shook his hand. The women bowed their heads, except for the mother, who was staring at the road, lost in a waking nightmare.
When he turned to go to his car he was surprisingly disoriented. He couldn’t remember where he had parked, and although he stood for a long time staring at the silver Hyundai that was his rental car, he had been looking for his own car, parked in the basement garage of his apartment building in Chicago. Without any recollection of driving this car over the past week, he took the key out of his pocket. He pressed a button, heard the click of the car unlocking, and opened the door. He was tired and overstimulated. He would go home, not home but back to the hotel, take a hot shower, and fall into bed.
Back in the hotel room he was still awake at three in the morning. He had not even changed out of his clothes or turned out the lights. He did not turn on the television or read a book. He just sat on the edge of the bed and relived his evening in the restaurant over and over, trying to uncover something he might have missed. After a while his mind started playing a game with him, like one of those Where’s Waldo books his nephews liked so much. Where’s Rafael? He is by the fireplace. He is under the copper saucepan. He is there in the framed picture of a ruined castle.
Suddenly Dhruv covered his eyes. A rush of tears fell into his palms. His chest heaved. A groan escaped from his throat. He was sobbing like a little boy, his body expelling some kind of liquid anguish. He had never cried like this before, not even when his beloved grandmother died. He sobbed until he was exhausted. He got into bed, thinking he would fall right to sleep, but as soon as his head sank into the pillow he was wide awake.
He took out his phone and studied his contacts list. Who could he call at this hour? He could call his parents, but on a cell phone the expense would be enormous and they would worry about him. He had friends in California, but it was late even for them. He came to Mahnoor’s number and stared at it, wondering what would happen if he pressed the call button. He did it without thinking. His mind was an empty vessel.
She picked up after two rings and he hung up.
His phone rang.
“I’m sorry. I dialed you by accident. I’ve woken you up.”
“No,” she said. “I was awake.”
“Are you on call?” he asked, certain he had disturbed something in her schedule.
“I couldn’t sleep. Then you called . . . by accident,” she said, and he understood that she was teasing him slightly. “Where are you?” she asked. She sounded sleepy. He imagined her lying in her bed.
When he tried to answer he could not for the life of him remember where he was. In his mind he could clearly see the building where he’d worked that day, the on- and off-ramps of the highway, the shopping center, the restaurant, the parking lot, his hotel. This litany of images did nothing to help him recall his location. It only prolonged the silence. He thought of France.
“One moment,” he said. He looked for clues on the bedside table. There was a breakfast menu, directions for ordering movies, and even a booklet with dining and shopping options in the area, but not a city name to be found. I’m nowhere, he thought.
It came to him at last. “Austin,” he said. “Austin, Texas.”
He paused, wishing he had not called her, but wanting desperately to keep her on the phone. “I’ve had the strangest night.”
“What happened?” she asked, her voice lilting and curious.
He shook his head. He would tell Mahnoor everything about the missing child. “I was sitting in a restaurant, trying to write a letter,” he began, but he felt mournful and guilty, overcome with an uncanny sense of anxiety, as if he were trapping the boy with his story, as if the story itself could make him lost forever.
About the Author
Chaitali Sen's fiction has been published by New England Review, Juked, Front Porch Journal, Brink Magazine, and other journals. She holds an MFA from Hunter College and now lives with her husband and stepson in Austin, Texas, where she is finishing a novel and teaching elementary school.