It leaves on a lori after midnight, packaged in plastic and cardboard, traveling northeast across 490 kilometers of vacant fields and settlements, past Tiruppur and Erode, past reservoirs dotted with dust-colored flamingos barely visible in the moonlight, past Salem and Villupuram, to the sea port of Chennai. Here, in the morning, men in checkered sarongs unload the boxes and resettle them inside a battered steel container. Giant pincers lift the container into the sky and place it on a cargo ship, and the next day it departs, sailing south down the coast, stopping briefly in Colombo before crossing the Indian ocean to Madagascar, and finally passing around Cape Horn and across a choppy Atlantic to Norfolk, Virginia, where it docks in the early hours of a morning storm. From here it goes north in a tractor-trailer, past Newport News and Fredericksburg and Trenton and Poughkeepsie, to the small town of Pittsfield at the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. Here, a scowling man with a forklift stacks its box onto industrial metal shelves. A week later the box travels first by van, then by semi, then again by van, 720 miles south to a Highlands, North Carolina, where the savvy proprietress of a country boutique carefully snips from the quilt’s corner the small taffeta tag declaring “Made in India” before arranging it on a shelf among other assorted linens of sympathetic design. Her neat cursive label announces: “Traditional Appalachian Patchwork Quilt, Queen Size $350.”
A few weeks later the quilt is purchased by a woman, a divorcée, who sees in it the perfect addition, the focal piece even, to her new condo’s country-themed master bedroom. Handing her credit card to the clerk, the divorcée feels a particular glow, the warmth of a newly acquired treasure—a guiltless, proud, tradition-bearing token of small-town craftsmanship, and in the moments before the clerk returns her card, the woman places her palm on the quilt’s folded mass, feeling the easy give of its thick batting, the simple softness of its fine, clean cotton and the curt rumples of raised fabric between the color-matched, barely visible quilting threads. But instead of comfort she feels a surprising tide of loneliness and longing, a nameless ache as small and alone as a single body adrift in the sea.
It is a feeling that mostly fades when she brings the quilt home. Draped over her queen-size bed, the quilt presents the room with a grid work of multi-colored stars, each framed by a border of earthen brown, each star unique in its pattern of hues but identical in shape and design. The quilt is nearly perfect. Its color-scheme compliments the décor of the country-themed bedroom so precisely that it could have been sold as part of a set. In the morning when the sunlight diffuses through gingham curtains, casting a glow over the neatly made bed, the quilt is radiant and awake, yet by evening in the soft light of the bedside lamp its tones are subdued and elegant, understated accents and calming hints, and this changeability is what pleases the divorcée so much.
Her ex-husband would have hated it, and this too is pleasing. More than once she has indulged in a particular fantasy of him visiting her on some pretext, wandering around the condo with his appraising eye, picking up objects and hefting them as if to gauge something about her. In her fantasy he strolls nonchalantly towards the bedroom door and pushes it open. He wrinkles his nose and starts to comment but she is right behind him, reaching past him to close the door and present him with the wall of her smile. “No-no,” she says. “Off limits, Bob.” And she saunters back to the condo’s living room, leaving him there mystified and repulsed. The fantasy ends there, always, so that for her he remains perpetually mystified and repulsed, uneasy with the new woman revealed in a glimpse of strange new bedroom furnishings.
But despite the quilt’s success here, sometimes at night, lying in her perfect new bed alone, the divorcée feels the quilt swelling with a liquid grief that penetrates its neat rows of cotton batting, coursing through its patterned threads, welling in the corners and weighing her down. The weight is oppressive, almost suffocating, and the woman in her half-sleep tosses this way and that. Airless dreams, cornered dreams harass her as the quilt hangs heavier and heavier, its fringes limp, its batting soggy, so that the following morning, even now that the spell has passed, the woman wakes up tired and vaguely anxious. She is harried by something she can’t put her finger on, except that this is how she felt that afternoon after shopping in the mountain town, a gnawing loneliness that even four glasses of wine could not alleviate.
She brings home a man, a date, thinking maybe the answer is the simple physical comfort she’s been without for so long, and in the bedroom she lets him lay her down on top of the quilt, her head coming to rest just between two patchwork stars, so that she gazes at him from within a cotton halo as he pulls off his shirt. They grapple awkwardly with the rest of their clothing, smiling at one another in quick, nervous glances, but then very quickly the man is pushing himself inside, and his weight on top of her is oppressive and uncomfortable. The divorcée emits a small startled yell that reverberates and dies against the condo’s thin walls. The man mistakes this sound for an indication of pleasure, and he begins to rock and pump with a vigor that soon has him wheezing—he’s nearly sixty and not frequently active—but he’s determined to prove that age is no restrictor to passion, and that even this room with its overabundance of gingham and country crafts, reminding him of a certain sexless aunt, long dead, will not mute his drive to please and be pleased. Meanwhile the divorcée is shutting herself off. She knows she wanted this, but not this, and it’s the difference between the wanting and the having that she can’t quite grasp. The last time she made love was four years ago with her ex-husband. They were already separated with no hope of reconciliation and, perhaps because of this, she remembers it as the most tender and lovely moment they ever shared. It was also maybe the saddest, and this precise mixture of great pleasure tinged with sadness, she realizes now, is what she most needs if she wants to feel alive again. And yet where on earth will she find it? Far above her the man is lurching onwards. Her own body is sinking deep into the rumpled folds of the quilt. Not here, a voice is whispering. Anywhere but here, and she manages to croak a feeble “up!” into the man’s flushed ear. He grunts, trying to rise while lifting her with him, tensing his thighs and straightening his back, then gasping aloud at the outpouring of pleasure and release, followed by a clearly audible pop, and devastating pain in his lower back. He falls on her. She squirms away, producing a second, smaller, heartbreaking pop as he slips from her body and two globules of yellow-white sperm land unnoticed on the earthy border of the quilt, two milky sequins that spend the next twenty-four hours seeping into the fabric and drying in the condo’s dehumidified air, until what’s left are a pair of glazed-over circles, a set of bleary cartoon eyes, staring at the ceiling with a disquieting sentience that the divorcée cannot ignore.
In the days that follow what she begins to feel for the quilt is an intimate loathing, the kind normally reserved for close family members or spouses, the kind she felt for her ex-husband during the last five years of their marriage, and the kind she cannot help but feel for the man who left her apartment that night on a stretcher. It’s the kind of loathing she’s learned by experience is best dealt with decisively, which is why she hasn’t returned the man’s calls and doesn’t plan to, and why she’s decided, after much consideration, to redecorate her bedroom. The country theme was a mistake, a botched attempt to recover a long buried desire of living on a farm somewhere and baking bread. What she really needs is to create a bedroom that reflects the woman she has become: firm, mature, independent, cool on the surface but capable of great giving and warmth if she desires. Muted yellows and pale greens, blonde wood, sparseness and Scandinavian simplicity—this is what she must create for herself, and so one afternoon she walks into her bedroom, avoiding the quilt’s blank and spooky stains, and deftly folds it into a rough cube. She stuffs it inside its zippered plastic bag and drives directly to the red metal clothing bin by the closest gas station, where she feeds the bundle to the high hinged jaws and feels an instant and unburdening relief as it thuds to the bottom of the receptacle, out of her life for good.