Arranged marriages and love marriages have the same percentage of working out, she told him. He was confused.
He doesn’t know about rings, white dresses, or joint income. He knows heartbreak. He doesn’t know love but they’ve talked on the phone. Akshay had just been told this anecdote by his therapist, though at first, he thought she was only telling him this because he is Indian and they have a reputation for this kind of thing.
This was Akshay’s first time in the therapy, and his therapist looks exactly as he imagined it on his walk from his dorm to her office: taupe sweater, smooth hair to her shoulders, bracelets that looked expensive. She looked related to the cast of Big Little Lies, a show his high-school girlfriend used to watch and talk about with her friends. Her name was Ella. She had brownish hair with a crooked part and talked a lot without saying much. If private school had prom queens, it would have been her. She was so absorbed with herself, and Akshay always thought she should be more absorbed with him. Ella was at a small college across the country now.
Akshay doesn’t know Ella anymore, they don’t talk on the phone. He knows her mother, and he knew her dead husband. He was an alcoholic who died a tragic death falling off a barstool. Akshay decided he needed therapy because he was undecidedly unhappy all the time. It was when Akshay told his therapist that he was thinking about transferring, that she told him this bit about arranged and love marriages.
Akshay left her office that morning thinking hard about this. The day was cold, bright, blue. His father taught at the college he was now a student at. Akshay had spent the last sixteen years and ten months of his life here. He didn’t know physics. He knew even less about Keats. But he knew his first kiss, underneath a small tree across from the college’s library. He didn’t know where to put his hands, how to touch her lips and not her teeth.
The worst parts of his day are when he’s not in class or in his room. When Akshay walks to class or eats meals—alone or with people—he fantasizes about marriage, about Ella, about the situation he’s found himself in, and the things he could have done differently.
Akshay doesn’t know anything about arranged marriages. His parents got married when their two countries were fighting a war. His dad was born in India. His mom was born in Pakistan. When he tells people this story, it is usually around this time that the image of Cyril Radcliffe comes to mind. Akshay imagines this British lawyer—a man who had never before been east of Paris—tasked with partitioning the subcontinent in five weeks, using only a pencil and out-of-date maps. But when Akshay tells people this story, he doesn’t mention Cyril Radcliffe. Instead, he tells them about how his parents met in New York and fell in love. He doesn’t bring up the different diets, nuclear arsenals, and incompatible gods. Akshay says that it’s actually a pretty funny story—his mom had set up her college friend on a date with my dad but it was my mom that he was actually falling in love with; how years later, they had him, and turned a bloody history into a baby boy and cello lessons, and Quaker school tuitions, and basketball tournaments, and runny noses, lost mittens, bad dreams, gas expended, babysitters, vacations, inside jokes, and please Dad, please let me sleepover!
And after all of this love was poured into him, here Akshay was, hating it all. What’s that about?
Ella had found herself a new boyfriend at college. He was hairy and looked like he smelled like a soccer field. Under the right conditions, he could be called good-looking. Akshay wondered if they did adult, college things. Did he come to her room at night and did she get up from her bed, smiling because she knew exactly what was going to happen when he walked through the door.
To Akshay, it was like Ella was in a love marriage: a foreign, exciting territory made up of beautiful boys and beautiful her. She had successfully tapped into this mysterious current—college life: going out, learning French conjugations, and letting the age-appropriate boy drag his sweaty palm around her pretty knee. This felt so far away from Akshay. In his arranged marriage, he didn’t feel any of this enthusiasm. There were no roses and kisses and restaurant dinners in his marriage. What he really wanted was for the wedding service to be over, and for his wife to flatten out underneath his feet like a kitchen mat.