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Photograph: Wendy Johnson
Sure, we weren’t alone. We had neighbors a couple of miles down the road, and many lived across the lake where the properties were more coveted. When the television wasn’t working, my mother and I sat by the back window, wrapped in our comforters, and watched them eat dinner together. “Oh Mrs. Smith cooked a big turkey today, Maya,” my mother would say to me, “Do you think her hubby likes it?” We made bets about who—Mr. or Mrs. Smith—would wash the dishes after dinner and take out the trash. It didn’t matter that we had never met them. They were the Smiths as much as they were the Johnsons. We supposed enough and assumed the rest to entertain ourselves.
A highway on the other side of the woods saw enough action to require frequent visits from the local snow plowmen. My father offered my mother this, too, as proof of our connectedness to the rest of the world: the fact that we could see other people, the fact that we had clean roads to go see other people closer if we didn’t mind being out in the cold. “We are not absolutely alone,” my father reminded us on those wintry nights when the temperature made no sense. My mother talked over him during the commercials. Sometimes, all three of us huddled together under layers of mothy comforters, my mother switching channels until our antenna caught the right Hindi show. Other times, and more often than my father admitted, we were left with a screen as white and flaky as the snow falling outside our windows.
A few months after we moved in, my mother screamed and threw the comforter draped around her shoulders at my father.
“If you hadn’t manipulated me,” she said to him.
He picked up the fallen comforter, dusted it off, and placed it over his own shoulders. He was sitting on the floor by the sofa, straining to read the newspaper spread out in front of him. He stretched and cracked his back, a small price of discomfort for not needing to hold up the pages or to extend his hands out of his comforter cocoon.
“Then, what?” he said. “Remember how you boasted shamelessly to Mrs. Pandu,” he changed his voice to match my mother’s, “‘Oh, the government gives husband-ji and us extra to live there.’” He smacked his lips and rubbed two fingers on his thumb. “Extra is costly.”
“For Maya’s education,” she said. She called me Maya although my father preferred my full name: Marisha. My father had a way of consolidating my mother’s pet peeves—impersonations and commentaries about her “money hunger”—into a single sentence, and my mother had a way of answering by involving my name in her responses. I was just a bystander, or a by-sitter, trying to read a book.
My father was an engineer at Doyon, Limited in the Yukon Flats. Before that, he used to work for ExxonMobil in Montana, but when he heard the government was paying people to inhabit the last frontier state, he couldn’t refuse the offer. Convincing my mother was his only obstacle. She wasn’t keen on the cold weather—“I’m made for the tropics,” she said, pointing to the hair rising on her arms. “How can you find gold in the cold?” Florida had no oil, he promised. To entice her, he showed her pictures of the aurora borealis and explained the phenomenon in the night sky as Vishnu scratching the surface beneath Him; the mountain ranges, higher than the ones in Montana; the crystal-clear waters (we’d no longer need filters on our faucets—a $40 expense saved every three months). The air itself is richer and better for bone growth, he told her. One of my science projects had taught him that dinosaurs in the Triassic were large because of the high levels of oxygen. “Just imagine. Marisha, a tall superstar model at nine?” And here’s where she’d hit his hand covering her eyes, “She’s going to be a doctor. No model in short short skirts. Not unless the cold freezes me blind.” Even in daydreams, my mother didn’t find me beautiful. “Well,” my father faltered, “With all the money we’ll make and save there, all the taxes we won’t pay, the higher salary—we’ll have funds to send her to medical school twice.” In the end what made her pack her coats was the assumption that flights back home were bound to be cheaper, Alaska being closer to India. “In fact,” my father said, “We can go every month if you can sit through the half-hour ride.”
My mother snatched her comforter away from my father, and both of my parents were a little surprised at how difficult it was to do so.
“We need to turn the heat higher,” my father said. They would come to this conclusion in every one of their fights, yet neither raised the thermostat setting from 55 degrees Fahrenheit. “Go, go fix it, Madam-ji,” he’d click his tongue at my mother as one might attract a pet’s attention. The he’d excuse himself to the bathroom, cursing the previous tenants for the low setting. My mother, realizing she had been volunteered and outwitted by my father’s bladder, would suddenly recognize someone in a commercial—“She shouldn’t model anymore, poor thing,” she’d say. And that often spelled the end of the fight, with both of my parents too proud to admit their ignorance. OK, so my mother didn’t know how to work the thermostat. But my father studied engineering.
My mother had been a model and an actress in Bombay. I never asked her why she married my father, considering that her particular caste in her particular home state had no shortage of engineers in all shapes, sizes, and colors. I thought about this a lot though. Her biggest regret was that she couldn’t produce another daughter who might’ve inherited the phenotypic qualities she admired. But I’m not bitter about her feelings anymore. She wasn’t formally educated. It takes a kind of cruelty to judge those who had the means of attaining knowledge but didn’t, but a kind of evilness to condemn those denied of any means of attaining said knowledge. I don’t want to be considered evil.
The bodiless head of my father turned in my direction. “Marisha, please, turn the heat higher for your mother.” He read out loud the last few sentences on the newspaper page.
“Why should she get up?” my mother said. “You wanted to live here, buried in snow. Now you feel cold, then you fix it.” She pointed her finger at me, “Maya, read your book, beta.” She addressed me as a son most of the time. She said it was out of affection, and I suppose a bee stings to preserve itself.
I followed the lines of dialogue in the book with my finger.
“Maya, don’t answer the phone,” my mother said but didn’t take her eyes off the television. I hadn’t heard the phone ring. She was, by then, already under her blanket again, settled on the sofa, her feet nestled between the cushions. The head of the TV remote control was poking out of a small slit in the covers wrapped around her.
As if on cue, the landline in the kitchen rang.
My mother muted the volume. “Maya, your father is calling from his cell phone. If you answer the phone, he’ll ask you to turn over his newspaper page.”
“Rubbish, simply rubbish,” my father said, scratching his beard through the edge of the comforter again. He had stopped showering and wore cologne to mask any smell of sweat. To my mother who objected to sleeping near him—instead she crawled into my cot and slept cuddled next to me—he said our place was so cold, it was impossible for him to perspire. To me, he smelled fine—even better than if he had showered—especially when he sprayed himself with my mother’s lavender perfume. On those days, he walked with a bit of a tilt in his neck, hunched over, maybe with a crick, maybe voluntarily, as if sniffing himself since my mother wouldn’t.
My father looked at her again, but she didn’t meet his gaze.
“Assumptions,” he said. The phone stopped ringing. “What have you not learned yet in your life about assumptions?” A hand crept out of his comforter and gingerly turned over the crinkling newspaper to the next page.
My mother stood up, slipped on her fuzzy slippers, and waddled to her bedroom.
'He wants to help Alaska. Maybe Alaska will reward him a brain for his labor.'
Later that night I woke up as she slid into my covers. Her cold hands wrapped around my waist and absorbed the warmth from my back. What did she have in her life but assumptions, she asked me. She assumed she was pretty enough for the industry so she moved to Bombay from her little village; she assumed she could act, and she auditioned for the role of the housewife/dishwasher in that Amul detergent commercial (who knew she was too sexy for it and the advertisement would never air?); she assumed a man was enough if he’d steer her away from the train back to her parents—she assumed he knew luxury—but he was just another roadside Romeo who had become a fan of her pictures on billboards. She assumed America would be filled with skyscrapers, miniskirts, and fancy convertible cars rolling down empty highways—images from those Bollywood musical numbers, which had lovers dancing on clean, foreign streets. But Montana had only been a smaller version of India, a smaller community of people who gathered every other weekend to play cards and eat samosas and fret about how their sons and daughters fit in too well. She was left with a suitcase full of assumptions and saris, and nowhere to run except toward my father and the Lifetime Original Movies every Tuesday and Friday night. Because she knew it too well, what she didn’t assume was that my father had the right amount of patience to wear her down.
My sleeping mother wasn’t the scary beauty that had always haunted my reflection. She wasn’t any kind of beauty at all. The lava lamp cast a reddish glow on her face that contoured her nose and cut its tip in half. Her curls greased with canola oil were tucked away in a tight plait. The ridges of her face, the alopecia on the side of her forehead, the drier parts of skin flaking off her chin—these were the things that made her average. Just erase these things, and she’d be that same model in those photographs on her dresser. It was a matter of lighting, makeup, a particular angle, photo-shopping, and then forgetting any such enhancements existed—so much artificiality is required to make someone appear naturally superior.
Once, during the warmer days of the summer, I was out fishing in the lake behind our house. The objective was to catch a fish with my bare hands, the way Timothy said he had done since he was three. Fourth grade was about annihilating competition. This was the least boring part of school back then: finding the arrogance and sucking it away from whoever possessed it. The trick to catching a fish without any weapons is to stand still and react at the slightest hint of something moving near your hands in the water. It might’ve taken over an hour to achieve such stillness, especially on a windier day, but you had to disturb it. You had to reach everywhere for anything struggling to escape. Even if you ended up with a plastic coke bottle and it took another hour for the water to become still enough again, you had to do it. My father thought this was a great exercise for me. “See how Alaska teaches our daughter patience,” he said to my mother, “She’ll need patience to deal with patients.”
Despite his confidence in me, I only caught one fish, and that felt more like luck than skill. I stood in the same spot every single day. The green moss grew on the embedded rocks, softer than carpet under my bare feet. Tangled roots bit my calves. The evergreens lining the other side of the lake, the bigger homes of other Mr. and Mrs. Smiths, and birdless skies were captured in the crystal blue of the water, but not for very long. It looked as if these things on land, and not the water in the lake, were moving away from where they stood. My reflection was transparent, clearer in what was underneath the surface, and then accurate in the way it scattered. The enchantment, as with those concave and convex mirrors in funhouses, was about how many versions of my face were possible and how many of those versions were better or worse than what I had.
I caught a trout, finally. It was covered in black dots, a brown top and these two red lines on its sides. I cupped its thin body tightly as it flapped water into my eyes with its tail. It excreted mucus from its silvery scales that made its body slippery. Remembering this feeling later the same evening, I wrote a reminder in my daily agenda to ask my science teacher why water inhabited by fish wasn’t also slimy or if it did have some negligible concentration of slime that couldn’t be detected by our skin.
That fish, however, slipped back into the lake with shameful ease. I knew a bit about catching, but nothing about handling. Plus, I was distracted then by my mother who, with her shawl in hand, was yelling at me from the deck of our cabin. She held the railing and leaned over the edge as if she was considering jumping into the water.
“Maya, stop it,” she said in Hindi. “Maya, come here. Come out of there.”
In that moment, with wisps of her curly hair tumbling out of the plait, brows furrowed, a maroon shawl falling off the side of her shoulder, her neck elongated, and her eyes squinting, my mother was beautiful. The trees cast a shadow across her expression, her perfect heart-shaped face—I can still picture it. I can hear her glass bangles clanking down her arms when she waved me closer. I’m still waiting for my mother, like me then, to look over her shoulder, and find my image just as arresting.
“What is it?” I said to her as I stepped onto the deck.
She grabbed my shoulders and hugged me. “He wants to help Alaska. Maybe Alaska will reward him a brain for his labor. Maybe some common sense, Maya. But we’re leaving him in the Yukon with his oil.”
“Leaving for what?”
“In Montana, there was at least Mrs. Pandu. Mrs. Pandu and her dal pasta recipes. Her cashews and tea and stupid Hindi soap operas. That fat buffalo.” She smelled of her lavender perfume.
“What about school?”
“There are good schools in Bombay. I’ll be a server in a hotel before I stay here.”
“How will we get there now?”
She dragged me down the deck. “Boat across Beijing Strait. Swim across it, they did it in Titanic.”
“Don’t correct my spelling mistakes.”
Her arm clasped around my shoulders, pulling me along the driveway, through the woods.
Then my father ran after us, yelling for a compromise.
“Adjustment. Marriage is about adjustment,” he said when he caught up to us. We were already by the side of the highway. Headlights curved in the distance like sparklers celebrating my mother’s liberation, but to me they were like the lit ends of dynamite sticks about to blow up in my face. My mother stuck up her arm and thumb.
My father pulled down her arm. She put it up again straighter, flexed completely, and he grabbed her wrist and placed her hand on his chest.
“Please,” he said.
“Maya.” She grabbed my arm with her free hand and jerked it up.
I kept my thumbs-up until the car drove closer and then, changed it to a wave. I smiled at the driver, who waved back. We must’ve looked like friendly locals out for a walk in the evening. I was pretty good at making us look normal in any place. My mother never fit in and didn’t like to. She insisted on wearing saris in America and flowery dresses in India. My father looked at every place with the same giddy expression.
By twilight, my mother had agreed to my father’s compromise: no more winters in the Yukon. My mother, the Persephone tempted by the pomegranate seeds my father offered, was given the month of December to return to the warm womb-like climate of her parents’ house in her village. A place where she could be barefoot without the skin on her heels cracking, where she wouldn’t be weighed down by comforters, where windows were kept open to let the breeze bring the gossip inside. My father swore he could make this true for my mother, knowing he wouldn’t. But I suppose he did finally bring us here, after four such winters in Alaska, and we never moved again.
He applied for jobs in Bombay sometime after he fractured his spine on that ice patch in front of Pent Mall, the one everyone knew how to avoid by walking around. But he “refused to yield” and stay in the cold any longer than he absolutely had to. My mother said she laughed as he writhed and shouted for her to dial 9-1-1 (probably the only time he raised his voice and ordered her)—something I like to think she feels guilty about, especially on those nights when she leaves their bed and crawls into mine. She says she can’t sleep with that smell of softness oozing from his pores.
My mother grew a thick skin during my father’s bed rest. Each of those last months we spent in Alaska, she added another layer of adipose tissue and retreated for long periods of time into the kitchen to cook food she’d then eat alone. She’d hover near the gas stove and boil a pan of water all afternoon, her fingers playing the piano on the rising steam while my father, from his temporary spot on the sofa, by the light coming in through the window behind him, read me news of unstoppable forest fires on the mainland that started when someone left the stove on in a wooden house. Hearing him, my mother would boil milk, orange juice, or the cranberry juice my father bought for his prostate problems, basically whatever liquid she had in the refrigerator, and called it cooking. Sometimes, she’d shove her face above the pan of warm, purple vapor, and sniff the coagulating grape juice—its sweet, rusted odor—with such admiration that we came to believe the cold had frozen not her eyesight but her olfactory receptors. My father coughed out what felt like a chunk of his lungs. He scrunched his face together, his eyebrows became one with the bridge of his nose, his mouth twisted into a wrinkly o, and he shook his head left and right as if he were fighting off a woman from forcibly kissing him. His coughs, unlike mine, were high in pitch, and he expelled phlegm into his mouth, which he swallowed painfully instead of spitting in the toilet. His face distorted into yet another kind of smile and frown—both happy and sad masks of Dionysus cinched together. I choked back laughter, too.
My mother opened the window behind his sofa when she heard me coughing from the smell. “There,” she said to my father. “Let’s enjoy the oxygen of Alaska so that we may all grow tall.”
“I don’t know how long it’ll take me to heal if you keep doing this,” he said to the back of her head. “I’ll lose my job. We’ll have no money.” And then, when she was in the kitchen, he shouted, “What about Maya?” over the sound of her pots.
I could retreat into my room where I kept a space heater under my bed, but my father was stuck on that sofa in the den. The back of his neck turned red, and the skin burnt and flaked. His sweat froze in crystals along his temples. He covered his shoulders with comforters and shivered, his teeth chattering until his jaw numbed. I once read him an article from Science about how fifteen minutes of shivering is equivalent to three hours of rigorous exercise. He laughed at my futile attempts to console him.
“Quick, Maya,” he said. “Slide down the main shutters at least.”
“I’m not sure that’ll make a difference,” I said and turned on the television to my mother’s afternoon soap operas. The sun had sucked away any last hint of warmth.
“Please, Maya. What if you become sick?”
My mother walked into the den. “Close the window, Maya,” she said. She sat down by his feet and lifted his pajama shirt to the middle of his stomach. She dabbed her palm with a teaspoon of oil, rubbed it into her fingers, and massaged his bruised hip. She nudged her head toward the window again, “Marisha, the windows, now, beta.” The tips of her nose and ears reddened.
I turned up the volume to a fairness cream commercial, but I couldn’t move beyond this.
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