Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer

Accident

David tripped on Sonia Aunty’s verandah steps and hit his face on our third day in Colombo. I worried that his bloody nose would affect his reception at the party that evening. I had persuaded Sonia Aunty to invite all the relatives, even the Matara crowd that had been blackballed for missing my grandmother’s funeral five years ago. Persuading Sonia Aunty that the party would not offend my parents was harder, but I had managed that too.

“It’s been months,” I reminded Sonia Aunty. “Old news now. No one is going to be shocked.”

The blood that dripped from David’s nose was as dark and viscous as the molasses his mother had drizzled on cornbread while I sat stiffly at her dinner table, the time we visited her in Dallas. Drops oozed through David’s fingers as he clutched his nose, and coagulated on the red stone of Sonia Aunty’s steps. He was grinning as if this were just another fraternity prank. It was the same grin he had had the first time I had seen him, when he had been in a track suit plastered with blue feathers and I had been wearing a bicycle helmet and filmy fins constructed from an old voile sari my mother had given me. That seemed eons ago now, although not much more than eighteen months had passed.

Aiyo, aiyo, get him to the hospital now,” Sonia Aunty said, as I pulled David to his feet. She tucked her sari pota around her plump middle and tried to steady David, which was difficult because she was easily a foot shorter than him.

“I still want to see the golden carp,” David said, stumbling against the clay bird bath that Pedris, Sonia Aunty’s gardener, had filled with fresh araliya flowers for the evening’s festivities.

“Yes, yes, you can see after you get back from the hospital,” Jith Uncle said. His words were slurred. They had been drinking Jith Uncle’s whiskey for two hours by then. Jith Uncle had taken the day off from work to help with the party, but all afternoon he had been watching movies with David. First it had been a World War II documentary, and then, after they started drinking and laughing, a flickering film of the Marx brothers.

I led David to the car. Sonia Aunty hurried into the house and reappeared with a frayed towel, which she spread across David’s lap and the back seat. “To catch the blood,” she said. The tone of her voice reminded me of the way my mother had sounded on the Friday evening she had seen David on TV, high-fiving his frat brothers in front of a smoking house.

Sonia Aunty looked at my dress, one of the comfortably high-waisted shifts I had been wearing to lounge around her house since we had arrived in Colombo. The dress stopped several inches above my knees. “Go and change, Dilini. You can’t wear that to the hospital.” I knew from the way her eyebrows were twitching that she was irritated about the whole situation. She looked very much like my mother in that moment, although Sonia Aunty was much more rotund than my mother, a fact my mother attributed, illogically it seemed to me, to Sonia Aunty’s childlessness.

“Never mind that,” Jith Uncle said. “For an emergency, it’s okay to wear.”

On Jaya Road, Jith Uncle swerved to avoid a black cat that darted out of a lantana bush, and nearly crashed into a parked van. When he accelerated too quickly off Circular Road, I realized his judgment was impaired.

I wondered if I should ask him to pull over. But he still thought of me as a child, and anyway, I didn’t have a license to drive in Sri Lanka.

“Maybe we should go back and get Sonia Aunty to drive,” I said.

Jith Uncle laughed. “Why, you think I am drunk after a couple of whiskeys?”

At the Pannipitiya junction, a woman stepped onto the road and Jith Uncle braked too slowly. One minute she was standing open-mouthed in her starched dress, holding a polka-dotted umbrella against the afternoon sun, and the next she had disappeared. The umbrella stood in the roadside grass like an oversized poisonous mushroom.

I jumped out with my heart pounding while Jith Uncle was still fumbling at his door handle, and David was saying, “What? Why are we stopped?”

People were already swarming towards us, yelling and gesticulating. A tuk-tuk driver in a sweat-streaked khaki shirt reached the woman before I did. She was lying on the asphalt with her hair frizzed around her. A spangled red hairclip had got knocked off her head. One hand, with a wedding ring, was lying across her dress. It was difficult to focus with all the commotion. Thoughts were jumbled in my head: Is the woman dead? Need to try CPR. Could she be pregnant? Does she have children? How old would they be? Who should I call?

Then I saw the woman move. I ran around to where I could see her face. She was fleshy and middle-aged, with the marks of healed pimples on her cheeks and wide creases across her forehead. She was blinking as if she had something in her eye. “Are you okay?” I said in Sinhala.

“I just fell,” she said, sounding astonished.

“Does anything hurt?” I said.

The tuk-tuk driver helped her to a sitting position. “Let her stand up and then we can see,” he said.

“See, see, you are fine,” Jith Uncle said as the woman staggered up, clutching me and the tuk-tuk driver. Sweat was running down Jith Uncle’s face, soaking his sideburns.

Nine or ten other people had reached us by then. One person, setting eyes on David, who was standing by the driver’s door, said, “Suddhek!”

People started exclaiming over the presence of a white man. I thought of my father saying, “Whether you go to Colombo is your business now. Just don’t let David drive. You know what trouble there will be if he has an accident.”

Acrid fumes swallowed us as a bus screeched by, honking. Several schoolboys balanced on the footboard jumped off and came running over to join the crowd.

A man who had a plastic ruler stuck in an ink-stained shirt pocket said, “This suddha has got hurt also. Look at his nose. He must have hit his head on the wheel.”

David was surveying the hullabaloo with the cheery befuddlement that appeared on his face when he was intoxicated. For the first time since we had arrived in Sri Lanka, I noticed how different he looked from everyone around us, with the blonde hair that straggled over his ears and his rosy, freckled skin. It made me think of how different I must have seemed to him, the night I first met him, at a Halloween party I had attended with my friend Fallon. I knew I looked out of place, not only because I was the only brown person there, but also because of my odd costume. Fallon had wanted us both to go as mermaids, in green and blue bikini tops and trailing skirts. We made fins out of one of my mother’s old saris, and attached them to our arms and the backs of our skirts. But when I looked in my bedroom mirror before leaving for the party, I thought the bare expanse of my midriff looked inappropriate, so I decided to go as a fish instead, to Fallon’s dismay. I put on a lime green Lycra shirt and on my head, a green bicycle helmet, decorated with scales painted on with nail polish. When we walked into the party, the first person we saw was David, who had also ended up in an unexpected costume, one amended at the last minute. In his case, it was not by choice, but because his fraternity brothers had squirted glue onto his black tracksuit and then poured a sack of bright blue feathers over him. Instead of the panther he had wanted to be, he had ended up as some sort of impossible tropical bird. He still had whiskers painted on his face.

“The suddha knocked this woman down,” another man said, jerking me back to the present. He had his hands on his hips in a way that seemed threatening.

“No, no, he wasn’t driving,” I said, but my words were drowned in the bellowing voice of a matronly woman standing next to David.

She said, “Didn’t even look at where he was going.” Perspiration had darkened the armpits of her flowered blouse. Her substantial bosom heaved as she glared at David.

“Driving as if this is England,” another man said. He looked like a clerk in a government office, with his grey checked shirt tucked over his hollow chest and pot belly.

Someone had seated the woman who had been hit on the dusty hood of the Peugeot. There was road dirt smeared on the back of her dress. She had knotted her hair into a haphazard bun, but it was coming undone and snaking across her shoulders.

Jith Uncle’s hair was standing up in oily peaks. He raked his hands through it again. “Shall we take you to the hospital?” he said. “That is where we are going. They can check to make sure you are alright.”

“Checking is not enough,” the bosomy woman said. Her ponytail, smelling of sandalwood, brushed against me as she turned to face the thickening crowd. “This suddha here ran this woman down.”

David had his arm on the open driver’s side door. He fingered the caked blood on his face, looking dazed. The breeziness had gone out of his manner. “She’s not hurt, right?  What’s going on? What are they saying?”

“He wasn’t driving,” I said directly to the bosomy woman, still in Sinhala.

But she did not seem to hear. She touched my sleeve, which was stained from when I had pulled David to his feet on the verandah steps. “Aney, Miss, you also got hurt?” she said.

“No, no, this is from before,” I said. The heat and the noise, combined with the press of sweating bodies, were beginning to make me feel nauseated.

The pot-bellied man pushed his way to the front. “This suddha can’t come here and drive as if he is in England,” he said, his voice stentorian. There was a ripple of agreement from the crowd, and two teenaged boys in grubby white school uniforms cheered and slapped each other on the back, laughing.

“You are not England here,” the pot-bellied man said to David in English, shaking his fist in David’s face. David took a step back, looking puzzled.

“Ask him for money,” the man said in Sinhala to the woman who had been hit.

“Call the police!” someone shouted from the crowd.

Jith Uncle inserted himself in front of David. “Look,” he said, looking around the crowd. “I was the one who was driving. Not this fellow. This fellow is my niece’s husband from America. What is all this nonsense?  This fellow fell on our steps and I was rushing him to the hospital and that is why we had the accident. But the woman is fine. We’ll take her and get her checked. Enough now of the nonsense.”  He rubbed his cheek, looking surprised at his own eloquence, although he was normally so garrulous, even when he was not drunk, that he sometimes drove Sonia Aunty to shut herself in the kitchen for the sake of quiet.
“See this, selling out his own people for the suddha,” the bosomy woman said to the crowd.

There was hissing from the crowd, and cries of “Ado, go away!” and “Let the suddha pay!”

“Him telling lies, you think helping?” the pot-bellied man said to David in English.

David said, “What?”

“We’ll make sure this woman is alright,” I said to the bosomy woman in Sinhala. “My husband needs to see a doctor. His nose could be broken.”

The woman looked me up and down as if she was seeing me for the first time, and I wished I had stopped to change my dress before leaving the house.

Two police officers arrived and forced their way to the front. When the older of the two took a pen and a notepad out of his breast pocket, people started hollering, offering disjointed pieces of the story.

“Right, right!” the younger policeman shouted, waving his hands and trying to silence the crowd, while the older one took a statement from the pot-bellied man, who had evidently appointed himself spokesman for the woman who had been hit.

“This is all wrong,” Jith Uncle said. “I was the one driving. This woman was not hurt. Just ask her.”

The older policeman looked at Jith Uncle’s Peugeot, at David with the blood dried on his face, and at my kneecaps showing below my skirt. “Best thing is to go to the station,” he said, smoothing his graying mustache with his pen. “We can discuss there.”

***By the time we got to the police station, it was almost five o’clock. Three young men were gathered around a telephone pole outside the station, their shirts psychedelic and open to half way down their chests. When I got out of the car with David, they began hissing and calling out in Sinhala. One winked.

“Have you no shame?  This girl is married,” Jith Uncle said.

“Okay, okay, no problem, boss,” one of them said, but when Jith Uncle turned away, the young man winked at me again.

“What? What were they saying?” David said.

“Never mind. Rowdies. It’s because my dress is short,” I said, even though I knew Jith Uncle had heard what they had said, how they assumed the worst because I was with a suddha. Even my own parents had assumed that my values would change if I was with David; that was why they had initially tried to get me to stop seeing him. They didn’t start talking about how a marriage could be compromised by incompatibilities of religions and cultures until they thought I was getting serious. And after David appeared on TV, they had refused to have anything to do with him because of what they called his public indecency.
“I’ll set them straight,” David said. He turned back to approach the men.

Jith Uncle pulled him away. “Come, come, David. We have enough trouble here.” He sounded worried. He was no longer slurring his words.

“What trouble?” David said. His hair, turned dark with moisture, was plastered above his ears. Irritation and the heat had sobered him too. “The accident? This is a simple misunderstanding. It will be easy to clear up. I’ll talk to the police.”
The annoyed way Jith Uncle shook his head made me worry that I might lose David’s main ally. I wondered if we would have time to find a bathroom so that David could at least clean the blood off his face.

We entered a spacious room with windows open to a small yard overgrown with weeds. The woman who had been hit was sitting before one of the desks bordering the room. Behind the desk was Kuruvila, the gray-mustached police officer from the accident scene, talking to a sari-clad clerk who was writing in a ledger. When Kuruvila saw us entering, he hurried over.

“I informed the inspector about him,” he said, jerking his head towards David, who was looking nonplussed. “Go there, to the inspector’s office.”

“What did you tell the inspector?” Jith Uncle said. But Kuruvila had already walked away.

The cement floor of the inspector’s office was streaked with the tracks of dragged chairs. A ceiling fan spun above an ancient desk. Meticulous piles of papers on the desk were pinned down by two large bubbled glass paperweights. We sat in scratched metal chairs before the inspector, a short-necked man stuffed tightly into his khaki uniform.

“So Kuruvila told me your friend here ran over a woman,” the inspector said to Jith Uncle in Sinhala.

Jith Uncle recoiled as if he had been struck. “What madness is this?” he said. “I was the one driving, and all I did was nudge the woman with the car. She is not hurt. And this man is my nephew.” When the inspector smirked, Jith Uncle added, “In-law. From America.”

The inspector’s eyes flicked over me. I placed my hands on the desk so that he could see my wedding ring.

“Can you tell me what is going on?” David said to me. “What did he say?”

I put my hand on his arm at the same time that Jith Uncle said, “Wait, men.”

“Yes, yes, you tell what happened,” the inspector said to David in English, but he continued before David could speak. “You are coming here and knocking down one of our women.” He leaned across the desk, his chest straining against his shirt buttons, and pointed a pencil at David.

“What are you talking about?” David said. “I wasn’t driving.”

“So. Just like that, your nose got blood.” The inspector twirled the pencil in his fingers. His wedding ring flashed.

“The nose, that happened before,” Jith Uncle said in Sinhala, but David interrupted.

“What the hell does my nose have to do with it?”

“We were going to the hospital,” Jith Uncle said to the inspector, glaring at me as if I were to blame for David’s outburst. “To get the nose checked.”

“Look, there has been a misunderstanding,” David said. “A simple matter. Let’s not complicate it.”

“In America, everything simple, no?” the inspector said, tapping his pencil on one of the blue glass paperweights. “But here, different.”

“The woman who got hit is there in the hall,” I said. “Call her in and she will tell you what happened.”

The inspector tossed his pencil onto the desk. “So you also think, so simple, Miss? Living in America. But here, not so simple. This kind of incident has to be reported. So many forms have to be filled. Too much work when we have such a small salary.” He took up the pencil again and pointed it at David. “You, but, must be making a good salary.”

“He doesn’t even have…,” I started to say to the inspector. But then I stopped because I did not want Jith Uncle to think of David as not properly employed. I had described David to him and Sonia Aunty as a writer working in book sales, which was a fair enough way to describe a part-time bookstore clerk with an English degree and writing aspirations. Sonia Aunty and Jith Uncle had looked uncomfortable when I told them that. Perhaps my parents had already discussed the subject with them: David’s so-called lack of ambition, despite being the son of a successful real estate developer.

“For us, everything is hard because we have no money,” the inspector said. He extracted a small brown envelope from his desk drawer and blew into its empty interior.

“What is this?” Jith Uncle said, although I could see that he knew as well as I did where we were heading.

The phone on the desk rang before the inspector could go any further.

“Hallo? De Silva speaking,” the inspector said. Then his offhand tone changed to one of attentiveness. He sat up and adjusted his badge. “Yes, sir, yes.” His eyes slid over us. “Yes, yes, no problem, sir…. No, nothing broken, sir…. No, no trouble, everything has been sorted out…. Yes, sir, no problem at all, only filling out an accident report…. She is also fine, sir…. Good, good, sir…. Okay, sir.”  He slid the empty envelope back into his desk drawer as he hung up the phone.

“So yes,” he said. He shifted some papers and handed Jith Uncle a form. “As I was saying, all you have to do is fill out the form for the accident.” He tapped his watch face. “Getting late. It was only for you that I stayed late, after Kuruvila told me about the accident.”

“What is going on?” David mouthed at me.

“Everything is fine,” I said.

***While we were at the hospital, waiting to be seen, Jith Uncle phoned home and discovered that our release from the police station had been engineered by Sonia Aunty. The owner of the banana shop at the Pannipitiya junction had seen the accident and sent his boy in a tuk-tuk to inform Sonia Aunty. She had dropped the deviled eggs she was stuffing and called her cousin Tressie, who had contacted her neighbor, the deputy high commissioner of the police.

“Go easy tonight,” I said to David, picking a flake of dried blood off his cheek. I used my left hand so that the patients gawking at us in the waiting room could see I was married.

“It’s a party, Dili. Sonia will want me to have a good time.”

“I wish you’d stop using her name as if she is our age,” I said.

When we visited Dallas two weeks before we got married, David’s mother had told me to call her Lindsey, although her pinched lips and grudging tone had suggested that it would be better if I did not speak to her at all. I had not addressed her by name at dinner or when David and I said our stubborn goodbyes. She stood on her front porch as we drove away in the Toyota David had rented, past the neighborhood’s carefully-landscaped front yards and the sprawling houses in which the only brown-skinned people were domestic employees. She did not wave. I had not had to deal with calling David’s father by his name either; he had not shown up for dinner. The fact that he had chosen to work late was a clearer signal of the family’s disapproval than David’s mother’s attitude or David’s married brother’s refusal to return David’s phone calls.

“Fine. Sonia Aunty,” David said. “And look at Jith. Okay, Jith Uncle. He could drink me under the bar. We’re thick. Look how he whips out his whiskey for me every evening.”

“Because you’re his guest,” I said. “Doesn’t mean he’ll appro