Maya

DelhiSunrise

Madhan called last night and told me he needed to see me, called late at night so that I had to pull the phone’s cord as far as it would go away from Mama and Baba’s room, so they wouldn’t hear us talk. They thought I’d stopped talking to him after they told me to, but they were wrong.

I haven’t gotten any sleep since I hung up the phone. I got back home from night school, slipped in quiet so Mama and Baba wouldn’t hear, hid my books, and Madhan called right after, as if he knew. Maybe he did. I don’t know. That boy seems to know so much.

The night moves into morning, and I spend it by sitting on the grass, in a field near my home, watching the way the purple of the sky turns to pink, the stars disappearing into nothing. This place I’ve been to with Madhan so many times before, lying on the grass and looking up at the sky, far enough from New Delhi’s center that it’s quiet, close enough that the city’s lights erase some of the starlight.

Madhan said he’d be here by sunrise, like the times before, when we’d shield our eyes from the light and watch the city come to life, the stray dogs rising up from the ground like steam to wind their way through the city and find another meal. But Madhan isn’t here. I told myself I wouldn’t cry, but my eyes are clouding, letting the light take over everything. I’m standing up, the dew on the grass clinging to my feet, and I’m putting my sandals back on, trying to figure out which way to go.

I get to the bus stop, this bus that will take me to Madhan, that will get me the answers that he suddenly doesn’t want to give. I sit on the bench and wait, but after a minute I’m back up, pacing, waiting for the bus as the sun rises into my eyes and blinds me. Finally, I’m not even pacing, just standing, and this old dog comes up to me with his tail between his legs, big eyes looking at me, begging for food.

I put my hands out to show him I have nothing, but he persists. He sniffs both hands to make sure that I’m not hiding something, then walks behind me and sits next to the bench. I take it as a sign and take a seat, reach out and pet his head, scratch his nose, his gray whiskers moving as he smiles at me. I can see the dog’s ribcage, and he limps on one of his hind legs, but this old dog doesn’t seem to mind. He just sits there next to me with his tail wagging, brushing the dirt from the ground like a child who doesn’t know how to use a broom. I pet him so we can both forget for a while.

When the bus is in sight, I want to leave this stop and this old dog and go back to the field, back home. Somewhere else. But I don’t. I get on the bus, and I pay my fare, and I take a seat, and I wait for the stop that will take me to Madhan.

The beggar children try to stop me everywhere I go once I get off the bus. They cup their hands into little ponds that are waiting to be filled. When they reach out their hands, I hold them briefly and apologize. I have nothing to give.

I get to Madhan’s door and knock. It takes a few minutes, but finally he comes to the door and asks who’s there. When I tell him it’s me, he waits a while before opening up, peeks through the crack between the door and the frame to make sure it’s actually me. Opens it up the rest of the way and says nothing, only looks at me.

He puts on some tea and offers me a seat. We don’t talk until the tea is done, and he pours my tea with shaking hands. He starts by saying, “You know how I feel about you.” When he says this, my stomach drops. He sips his tea so he won’t have to say anything more, and I do the same. Finally, he says, “I have to do it.”

It’s his parents, he says. They’ll never forgive him, never let this go. They hadn’t approved of me, and they never would. Anyway, it’d be better for me. This way, we wouldn’t strain things with our parents. He could marry who they wanted him to marry, and I could marry Suddho. And when I tell him I don’t want to marry Suddho, I want to marry him, how Madhan takes my hands in his and kisses them both, first the left, then the right, then the left again. How he tells me we can still see each other, how he can visit me in America if Suddho is still to take me there. And when I ask him why we can’t run away together like we’d planned, how he looks away so I can’t see the tears clinging to his eyes. How he kisses me, deeply, and holds me to him.

We spend what feels like hours there, ignoring our tea, holding each other, barely separating, wanting this moment to never end. And when we finally separate, how he tells me he’ll call, he’ll see me. How I cry because I know this isn’t true. We both know it isn’t.

And how he takes me to the door, unwilling, and opens it to the bright sunlight shining in. How we kiss and we kiss and we kiss, and he moves me past the door, looks into my eyes and says nothing. How he closes the door. How I knock, and cry, and call his name over and over again. Madhan. Madhan. Madhan.

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Tallulah

At a little creek, beside the woods, a three minute walk from my old childhood Park Ridge home, there’s an awkward stone bridge that someone made, the idea being that you could hop from one stone to the next to get to the other side, where the woods would give you enough cover to get high out of sight and smell of parentals. I didn’t want to get high, but my tiny self did want to get across, if only so I could say I did. But every time, every damn time, I’d come up short about halfway across and fall into the creek, soaking my Converse. I’d have to turn back and head home in my soggy shoes, leaving wet footprints behind.

There was a gaggle of kids that would give me shit at recess, follow me home and shout taunts till I reached the house with the pitbull that was always in its yard, the pitbull that gave me slobbery kisses but growled at the kids anytime they got near. One day, I decided to pick up some rocks and whip them at the kids’ heads. That got them off my back, until a couple days later when they told me I was adopted. This was before I found out that I actually was adopted. But anyway, that’s what they said. Because you know. Escalation.

When I asked my parents about it, I got a bowl of mint chocolate chip and an episode of Pokémon. I don’t know why I didn’t ask them again. Why I didn’t press it. But I didn’t.

There’s a thing you do when you’ve just found out something that huge about yourself and are trying to get to sleep that first night, or at least there was a thing I did. I clenched my pillow with all ten fingers till my knuckles went red, then white, till my fingertips hurt and beyond even that. I smothered an invisible person and yelled into the pillow till I thought I might go hoarse. I punched the pillow, then the mattress, then the bed frame. I snuck into the kitchen, scooted a chair up to the fridge so I could reach the freezer, and iced my bloody knuckles. I didn’t want the parentals to notice.

I remember sneaking into our partially finished basement, dirt floor in the farthest corner, the place where the light didn’t quite reach, and plopping myself down, not caring if I got my pajamas dirty. Listening to the sound of the furnace dying out and coming back to life: a coughing, wheezing resurrection. I don’t know why, but I started digging. It wasn’t long before I found what I hadn’t been looking for: an empty Jim Beam bottle. Jim Beam, what Dad had been drinking before he “quit.” What he’d given up after Mom started needing surgeries and four hours of sleep in the middle of the day.

Anyway, I took the bottle and smashed it against the wall. I hadn’t planned any further than that, so I picked up all the shards and put them back in the grave I’d robbed them from. All except one. It was a big piece of glass, narrowing out to an impossibly sharp tip. What I did was I brought it to my feet, bare, dirt clinging to the bottoms of them, and I started jabbing little pricks into my ankles. I was careful not to go above where my socks would be able to hide what I’d done. I don’t know how long I sat there, alone, in the dark, on the dirt, and poked little constellations and swirling galaxies into my ankles. All I know is it kept me from crying, and that’s all I really needed in that moment.

I hate myself for it, but I never really said anything to those kids after that. Took all of their taunts, their laughter, their following me home everyday. I didn’t throw any stones, didn’t yell back. Just took it. All the while here I was, in my room, unrolling my sock and adding a little bit more to my painting every day. I’d work in sections, letting one part heal before circling back. I always had something to work on.

I guess it all came back to that creek for me. I’d go there day after day, hopping from one stone to the next, taking those leaps of faith, and inevitably I’d fall in about halfway through. The water would soak my shoes, and I’d get home to see that the individual pinpricked bloodstains on my socks had bled together and faded to a light pink. I let the creek launder my socks, hiding them from the rest of the laundry so that the parentals would never find out.

Until this one day.

This one day, I walked straight from the school bus to the creek. I went without hesitating, jumped from one stone to the next as if I was born to do this. Reached the halfway point, the creek rushing a little faster that day, the water lapping the stone’s edges, turning it a darker color. All around me, things were moving even though I wasn’t. Things were carrying on. So I jumped. And when I reached one stone, I jumped to the next. And the next and the next, until I made it to the other side. When I got there, I plopped myself down on the grass, on my back, and watched the clouds slice through the sky, watched the planes slice through the clouds. And it was like that for who-knows-how-long. But eventually, I left. Eventually, I went home.

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