"I will," she said, taking Samir's hand and glancing around to gauge the foot traffic. "Well," she told herself dispiritedly a moment later, "I'll try."
"You'll" you'll try what?" Samir said unsteadily. He released her hand and watched the auto-rickshaw drive off. "Where are we?"
"You're okay!" she said happily. "Um. Nothing. I mean, I'll try to take good care of you. And" we're near the room I'm renting. I couldn't think of anywhere else to go. Come on. It's this way."
The crowded street was lined with stalls. Those running them were either busy with customers or chatting up passers-by. In this part of town, most of the modest apartments above the shops had been rejiggered so their owners could overcharge for minimally private bedrooms that had shared kitchen and bathroom privileges. Access to the converted apartments was via the staircase doors wedged between some of the shops. Rahila slowed as they reached a biryani stand. The door just beyond it had opened, and a plump woman emerged. "Oh," she said as she saw them, "back from your interview so soon?"
"Yes, Mrs. Kahn."
"Well, I certainly hope it went well. Your rent is past due, and I can't afford to let you stay in a room that is not paid for."
Rahila nodded politely and stepped past her landlady into the tiny alcove at the foot of the stairs, but when Samir attempted to follow, Mrs. Kahn blocked the way.
"Ma'am?" Samir said in confusion.
"You're not having a man up to your room, now, are you? I thought I made it clear when I rented that room to you that it was for your use only." She turned an accusatory eye towards Samir. "Do you have a name, or is this an anonymous liaison?"
Before he'd had a chance to respond, Rahila pushed between them. "He's family, if you must know," she said with barely controlled anger, while urging him up the stairs, "and he's just been through a very difficult situation. Do you intend to prevent us from having a private family conversation?" While Mrs. Kahn stood dumbfounded, they flew up the stairs, into her room, and shut the door.
A moment later, from just outside the door, Mrs. Kahn said sternly, "Do not think that this will be the end of it, young woman. If whoever that is has not gone by the time I return, I will throw you out on the street myself!"
"It'll be worth it," Rahila whispered. After a beat, she closed her eyes, squared her shoulders, and took a long, slow breath.
Samir smiled as he watched her relax and re-center herself. When she didn't immediately open her eyes, he rubbed at a kink in his neck and glanced around the small room. The carefully dressed cot ran lengthwise along the right-hand wall, starting at the near corner, effectively hiding it from view until the door was closed. Her bedside table was cattycorner across the room, below the rear window. A well-worn chair faced into the room from the left, just in front of the table. And directly in front of him, perched on a water-stained dresser with a missing drawer, was an unframed photo of what looked like a sunset, flanked by what he guessed were personal treasures. The quirky functionality of the arrangement seemed to suit what he knew about her, the paltry sum of which, he now realized, was nowhere near enough.
"It's a place I've never been," she said softly, nodding towards the picture. "One I've dreamed of visiting, though."
"Are you okay?"
She chuckled. "Am I okay? That's what I ought to be asking you. So, are you?"
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