THE DECLINE of Henrietta began in a hotel room in Laurel, Mississipi. Or perhaps it began before that, in North Carolina, when she and her best friend, Rose, used to lie in bed rubbing backsides together, pretending to be sisters. Or maybe it started on the morning of the long purple line which caused Henrietta to believe that all roads led to San Francisco. Either way, we know it started in America; rose from the ground and caught her like a tidal wave, pushing and pushing her so she was always sailing close to the edge.
When Henrietta felt the degeneration, it was physical. It began in the marrow of her arms and legs, troubled its way down her spine, shot down like fire darts to her fingertips. Some days she was so close, she could feel her knees succumbing, and the idea of lying her body down on the sweet, dark earth seemed like the only truth in the world. But then her father would look at her a particular way, or Leo would appear, like the large, selfless thing he was, and steer her gently back to the centre of her life.
It had been happening for so long now, Henrietta couldn‘t remember a time when the feeling wasn’t in her. Maybe long ago. Lying in the hammock between the dogwood trees and the hawthorn in the backyard — her mother looking like a young May queen, Henrietta asking to see her mother’s bosoms, and her mother lifting the delicate corners of her white shirt for Henrietta to lay her head down in all that creamy softness. Or playing with Rose on the swings; pretending they were like those pelicans from Emerald Isle who could fly so straight and far into the sky they looked like tiny shrimp boats in the air.
It was this feeling Henrietta was after. This nice fine feeling of being full. And for the longest time, it had been hovering on some distant horizon, whispering, come get me, promising to make her whole, and then disappearing before she could catch it.
Henrietta believed that moving to San Francisco was going to make her whole again. San Francisco had magical bridges and cable cars. It would be exactly as Kerouac described it: There is something brown and holy about the East… And California is white like washlines and emptyheaded. Henrietta longed more than anything to be white and pure and emptyheaded. She wanted to be a girl with no air in her corners, filled with a balance of all the right things. In San Francisco, Henrietta thought, she would find those missing things.
There was Leo to consider of course. She couldn’t just leave without saying goodbye. Henrietta and Leo had slept together when they were fifteen. They’d first done it in his brother Jed’s Chevy in a rundown A&P parking lot off I-95. Henrietta remembered it being gentle, and after it was over, when he reached for his T-shirt to wipe the sweat off his body, it looked like there had been sweat in his eyes too. He’d walked her to the front door with his arm around her waist, the way her father sometimes held her mother, and for weeks afterwards, Henrietta couldn’t bear the sight of him, because he reminded her of childhood, and how far they’d moved from it.
When they were little, Leo used to come over and beg to play in Henrietta’s treehouse. Rose would bar the entrance with her pink, freckled hands and say, “You can’t come in until you tell us a secret, Leo”. Then Leo would rattle off something about the evolution of dinosaurs or the Pyramid of Giza, and if it pleased Rose, she’d allow him to crawl in and be a mouse at their tea party.
ALL THIS was before Rose’s family visited India, and everything changed. The Christmas they were away, Leo spent all his time researching the Encyclopaedia Brittanica so he’d be ready for Rose when she got back. “Did you know that India has 150 species of snakes, Rose? Did you know that the King Cobra is the largest venomous snake in the world? Do you know about Ganesh — the Hindoo elephantheaded God? Do you know what a herpetologist is? A Hin-doo Hurpy-toe-lo-gist.“
These days when he got the chance, Leo liked to put his head on Henrietta’s chest and listen to her heartbeat. “Nothing in the world is ever still,” he’d say. “Not sound, not light”. He’d tell her how in primitive cultures, they beat drums before going into battle to stimulate tribes into feats of heroism and daring; how the regular repeated rhythms put warriors into a semihypnotic state where all thoughts of fear receded, where there was no pain.
He’d tell her all this, tracing a finger down her body. “Do you know what you sound like, Henry? You sound watery, like white noise, without any form or pattern, just like the waves.”
After Leo, and before returning to Leo, Henrietta slept with eight other boys, and she cried each and every time. One of them wasn’t even a boy. He was the widower McCall who lived down the street, whose wife used to give her pink candy hearts every Easter. He wore musty tweed suits, a gold watch and a silver wedding band, all of which he’d meticulously remove before making love to her.
It occupied her for a while — this ability to drag a man’s eyes toward her and stare him down. She’d come home on Saturday nights after an evening shift at the diner and dancing at Rira’s — all sick and wobbly-legged, with smoke in her hair and Long Island Ice Teas swarming through her veins. At some point during the night, her father, as usual, unable to sleep, would haul her upstairs, remove her heels and tuck her into bed. In the morning she’d see that he’d emptied her backpack, put the dirty uniform in the laundry bin, unpinned her name badge and set it down on her side-table. Some nights, Henrietta could hear her mother crying into her father’s chest. In the morning, it was always the same. “Moderation,” her mother was always saying. “What’s wrong with a bit of healthy moderation?” Henrietta quickly grew tired of it — the flat repetitiveness of it all. Trying to sneak in before dawn, leaving the stealthily parked car at the end of the lane, climbing into bed with the smell of a boy on her pants, feeling satisfied but never full.
AWEEK BEFORE her nineteenth birthday, when Henrietta found herself on the bathroom floor crouched like an animal over the pot, she decided it was time to go to San Francisco. The home pregnancy test’s purple line confirmed what she had already guessed. “Time for me to go to California,” she explained to her parents, “To meet a man and have his babies”. Her father helped her pack the Oldsmobile. Two suitcases, a box of photographs and the brass cow that Rose had given her as a goodbye present was all she took with her. Her mother packed a picnic hamper with sandwiches and Diet Coke. She stood at the window and touched Henrietta’s arm, asking for the millionth time how she was going to live, and if it was something they had done.
All morning Henrietta drove in silence with the windows slightly open so the wind from the highway could hum in and out. It was amazing: all this road, all this land. You could drive for months and still be in America. There would always be this expansive sky, the same efficient signs for rest stops and gas stations. Once in a while, there would be an accident or roadblock, something to hold up the traffic and make the roads ugly or messy. Otherwise, it was all smooth, endless. When she was out there, Henrietta could hear the world making tin tin reverberations in her eardrums. By the time Henrietta reached Tuscaloosa, Tennessee, she had to stop because her eyes were closing. The roads had started blurring on the edges. Up ahead, she saw a drive-in-theatre. Henrietta drove up to a numbered ridge, parked the Oldsmobile and changed into her pyjamas like she used to do when she was little. Two young men in a Fire Arrow rolled up next to her, smiling. They wore ragged T-shirts and baseball caps turned around. Henrietta remembered how her parents used to take her to the July 4 double-shooter specials with Rose. They’d watch tiny airplanes from the flying school next door landing and taking off with the sound of the movie coming in through the radio station. Her father would buy them Subway sandwiches and It’s It ice-creams. Henrietta tried to imagine what Rose looked like now, how it would be if she suddenly appeared to sit right next to her. They could talk about boys and bra sizes, catch up on their whole lives. Henrietta supposed Rose was a career girl now, a doctor, like her father. She wondered if they’d still hold hands, rub backsides together like sisters.
After the movie, Henrietta got back on the road again, still in her pyjamas. She’d seen too many blocks of houses baked dry like wheat; fields and cows and a school bus abandoned in a rubbish heap; small American towns where she’d wanted to walk out into the streets and have people know her name. Something was ebbing in her. She tried to imagine herself in San Francisco, sitting out by the pier, watching the sea lions — a man’s head in her lap, the sun on her back. The road stretched on and on, showed no signs of falling away.
By midnight, a feeling found its way to her so big and overwhelming, Henrietta thought she’d drown in it. She felt like a slow, limpid sunset settling over the edge of a white rock. She was tired and needed a proper bed, so she checked in to the nearest motel she could find — Magnolia Motor Lodge, and collapsed without even removing the dowdy comforter. When Henrietta woke up her back and jaw were stiff. For a while she remembered nothing: where she was, where she was going, why she was doing what she was doing. She ran a hot bath and sat in it with the bathroom door open, listening to a programme on TV about womb music — about how the sounds produced in the womb of a pregnant woman were dominated by the regular noise of the heartbeat. She held her own stomach, tried to get underneath the skin to clean it, thinking if she didn’t wash this off now it would never go away. Afterwards, she picked up the phone to call someone, and the only number she could think to dial was her parents. She didn’t want to tell them she was scared she might not make it to San Francisco alone; that it might not have been her destiny after all. She didn’t want to hear them say, Come home, Henry, figure out your life. She kept staring at the phone, and it brought her down that she couldn’t think of anyone else to call. There was Leo, but she didn’t want to have to drag him all the way to Laurel, Mississippi, just so he could take her home again, where he’d be given to believe he’d saved her.
Outside, the endless cars from the highway with their headlights moving steadily in faultless lines wound in and around her. Ahead, the lights from the highway diners sparkled and flashed their signs for 24-hour food. Henrietta thought about Rose, whose father used to call her sugar plum. Sugar Plum, sugar plum, come give daddy a sugar plum kiss. Henrietta’s father never called her anything silly like that. She tried to remember what it had felt like to be so small and perfect and full — when there were no holes and everything fit. That entire silvered time of childhood before Rose came over wearing glass bangles and a gold chain with Jesus on his cross dangling from her neck. Rose saying, “We’re going to move to India because daddy’s going to help all the poor people there.”
Henrietta thought that might have been the moment when the degeneration first set in; when Rose showed her those pictures of the lepers in Calcutta — those scrawny cages of people with hollows for eyes, their bodies chewed and eaten away to ugly round nubs of flesh.
“What’s a leper?” Henrietta wanted to know.
Leo came back with all the answers.
Leprosy is an infectious disease known since Biblical times. It is caused by the organism Mycobacterium Leprae. It was thought to be a punishment from God for sin. It affects the peripheral nerves, the skin, the eyes, the testes. Loss begins at the extremities. It often leads to blindness and amputation. A leper cannot feel the heat or cold. Leprosy is rarely contagious.
For months after Rose left for India, Henrietta checked herself for patches on her face and arms. Once, she found a tiny, discoloured mark on her belly in the shape of a teardrop that she made Leo squeeze and pinch until she cried; just to make sure she could still feel. Every night, after saying her prayers, she made sure to confess all her sins to God. But she still dreamed of the pictures Rose had shown her, and she imagined how it must be to be herded off to some colony where rats chewed off your toes and fingers so slowly you couldn’t even feel it.
WHEN HENRIETTA finally walked out of the motel to the Waffle House across the street, she saw a big yellow moon rising out of the Laurel-Mississippi night settling between the telegraph wires like a musical note. She wondered if she’d find someone in there worth talking to — a traveller perhaps, or a builder of houses. Maybe a man with strong hands and a strong chest she could fall into for a while. She thought about Rose and her matching dimples, her mother lying in the hammock. Her father was in there too, somewhere unnoticeable and quiet, smelling of azaleas. Nothing was worth thinking about too much, Henrietta thought, as she headed towards the neon signs, the heaviness in her legs getting lighter and lighter, until she was almost skipping.
Tishani Doshi (born 1975) is based in the city formerly known as Madras, where she mostly writes poems and occasionally moonlights as a dancer. An avid traveller, she has visited such far-flung places as Antarctica, Ethiopia and the United Kingdom to trek, eat, and document things of ordinary beauty. The highlight of her literary career, contrary to what people might assume, hasn’t been to win prizes for her poems, but to be seated at dinner between Seamus Heaney and Christopher Hitchens. She has a novel called The Pleasure Seekers out with Bloomsbury soon, but not soon enough.