Raj cruised the eastside streets searching for a fare. It had been a slow morning, burning gas with little to show for it. It was only eleven o'clock but his stomach growled. He looked over at the canvas bag nestled in the passenger seat. He had long since drained the thermos of tea Rupa had brewed for him in their dark kitchen, had eaten the slices of mango she had sealed in a small plastic bag, the dry chunks of naan left over from last night's dinner. There was a sandwich wrapped in tin foil but if he ate it now he would be starving by the time his shift ended at four.
A doorman flagged him down on 74th Street and ushered an elderly woman to the rear of the cab. Raj got out and hoisted three oversize Louis Vuitton suitcases and a matching garment bag into the trunk.
"JFK," the woman said in a raspy New York voice as Raj slid back in behind the wheel.
Raj punched a button on the meter. The trip from Manhattan to JFK was a fixed rate, fifty-two dollars. At this time of day he might make it in half an hour if he was lucky. If he quickly got a fare back to the city it could be a profitable run. If there was traffic or an accident, he would seethe, counting the dollars he was losing as each minute ticked away.
Raj looked in the rearview mirror. His passenger was probably in her seventies but her face was tight and unwrinkled. Her hair was bright white, fluffed up on top of her head, stiff with hairspray. She wore big tinted designer glasses and three thick strands of pearls around her neck. She looked like the type that wouldn't tip well.
Raj drove every day except Tuesday. He kept a running total in his head of the fares he had earned, calculating how much he would be able to keep after he paid for gas and the monthly ransom to rent the cab from Medallion Taxi. Raj could never understand why his American passengers were so careless with their money. They would pay him to ride six blocks when the sky was clear and the day perfect for walking. They would leave behind packages, cellphones, even crumpled dollar bills.
Raj saw in the mirror that the old woman was watching him.
"Is that your boy?" She pointed at a small photo in a plastic sleeve that Raj had taped to the dashboard.
"My son. Yes. He is almost four years old. His name is Sandeep."
"Isn't he precious?" Those words sounded strange coming from a woman with such a deep, harsh voice.
"He lives in Mumbai. That's my home."
"Oh?" she said. Raj sensed her disapproval.
"With his mother. I will send for them as soon as I have enough money to afford them a proper home."
When Raj came to New York, Chandra had taken their young son and moved in with her mother. It would save them money and provide Chandra with company and support. Each month, Raj would work out with his pad and pencil the amount he would send them for living expenses. What money he didn't send home he deposited in a savings account. His goal was ten thousand dollars; he thought he could have that much saved in another six or seven months.
Raj looked at the photo on the dashboard, the big dark eyes, the shaggy brown hair, the hesitant smile. He missed Sandeep. Still, he wondered about New York. There was opportunity to be sure but it had been two years and the city still felt foreign. Raj was growing accustomed to Rupa and her American friends, their carefree laughter as they joined the men at a bar for a drink. He marveled at how unashamed Rupa was even in their most intimate moments. Chandra wasn't that way. She wasn't flirtatious, didn't indulge in alcohol. Chandra didn't like the cold and the winters here were long and gray and icy. Raj wondered if his family would be happy here, worried that Chandra would not fit in.
The old woman caught him looking at her in the rearview mirror again.
"You shouldn't be afraid to bring your family here." It was like she could read his mind. Raj was still astonished at how forward Americans could be. "People misunderstand New Yorkers. We can come across as cold and hard, but underneath it all there's usually a heart of gold. Best people in the world."
"I have seen that," Raj said, wishing not to offend.
"Your wife would like it here."
"She would indeed. And a boy needs his father."
Raj turned his eyes back toward the road and drove in silence. When he pulled up in front of the Jet Blue terminal, the woman opened her purse and pulled out three stiff, new hundred dollar bills. She handed them across the front seat.
"Add this to your funds and send for your family. Soon."
Raj took this as an omen. He had a powerful belief in such things.
He thought briefly about Rupa. She was a good woman but, after all, just a temporary convenience. He shared her rent which helped them both. And a man, of course, needed company. Rupa had adapted to the modern ways of New York, but still—she would understand that Raj had an obligation. Rupa wouldn't make any trouble.
Raj would tell Rupa of his decision tonight.
Or perhaps this weekend.