Sunday Scribbling-Skin (two short vignettes)
I always know when it’s a bad day at home. I can feel it somewhere inside, the part that knows more. So it’s usually not a surprise when I walk through the door and the nurse is sitting there, already with her coat on, rolling her eyes, aiming them at the bedroom door.
“She’s a handful today, son.” She reached out to touch my shoulder. I kept waiting for her to say something else, something about staying longer, or all night, maybe. But instead she just shakes her head, pats my cheek, and walks out the door, shutting it behind her. Gone, just like that.
No matter where you are looking in our house, it feels like you can see the bedroom door. Like it’s breathing.
I’m slow today; I know it. She hates it when I do that. But it’s hard to move towards her, sometimes. Sometimes I want to stay myself, the way I am at school. I’m on the football team, you know. Special teams. I like to wear my jacket all the time, the one that tells the world that I’m a Hawk. It’s like a second skin now. Like a better one.
She hates it when I wear it at home. “Where you going now, Michael James? Why you always leaving me?”
“I’m not, Ma. Don’t get upset.”
“If it’s cold in here, you can turn up the heat, you know. We can still afford that.”
“I know…I know.” And then I take the jacket off, and I’m home for the day.
So I make myself a sandwich, flip the TV on. I keep an eye on the door. I don’t want her to know I’m home yet. If she’s sleeping, let her sleep.
I shove the rest of the sandwich in my mouth. I don’t like to eat in her room. She thinks I live on junk food (I do) and then I gotta hear a lecture on how she’s still around, I’ve still got a mother, and she’ll make me dinner soon.
Sometimes she even tries to get out of bed. Then she cries all night.
I open her door. She’s lying there, just like always, flipping the remote every second. Change, change, change. Magazines are scattered all over, a bowl of soup by her bed, so cold it’s got skin now.
“I didn’t hear you outside. Have you been home long?”
“No.” I hate to lie to her.
“Did you eat?”
“Nah, in a bit.” I never used to lie to her.
I start the way I always start, trying to clean up the room, trying to change the sheets. She leans on me, hard, as I walk her to her chair by the window. Her hard is pretty soft, these days.
“You gotta eat more, ma. Didn’t Mrs. Percy make you some soup today?”
“Eh, that’s sludge. In my day, we wouldn’t give that soup to the cat, forget about people!”
“I’m sure it’s not bad. She’s just doing the best she can.”
“People say that all the time.” She leans herself towards the window, like she’s trying to catch the last bit of sun. “I don’t think it’s true.”
It’s time for her bath. I heat the water just above room temperature, just how she likes it.
“I wish you didn’t have to do this. It’s not right.” She crosses her arms across her chest. I look away.
Her skin is like wadded up paper, like someone threw her away. I take the washcloth and try to smooth her back out.
“It’s not right.” She says it again, and I can feel it coming, the red anger—the one that makes me want to grab her and shake her back to health. The one that makes me run and run around the track until my mind is blank.
I don’t want her to feel it, that red anger that pushes against my skin so tight. I don’t want to burn her.
She leans her back against my hand, for just a second. She looks down into the water. Her skin looks like fish in an aquarium.
“I should be taking care of you.”
“You are, Ma.”
I hold up the towel, quiet, and quiet, she steps inside.
Music plays everywhere, the Punjabi drumbeats that always sound exactly like happiness to me. My feet itch to dance, but it’s my mendhi party, so I sit instead, as the three mendhi artists write my fate on my hands and feet. I’m a bride. Finally, as my parents would say in relief. Finally, as my aunts and uncles would sigh. Finally, as my whole culture would shout, one collective shudder of joy. I had escaped that horrible fate, the one everyone had predicted when I went away to college. I wasn’t going to be some rebellious American girl, like Dadiji had predicted, staring balefully into her chai cup. Every relative was full of stories that had to be told. Warnings that had to be delivered. They tried to convince me. “Not that you shouldn’t go to college, beta. It’s important for you to be a smart, well educated girl. But…go closer to home. Stay with your parents. Lots of crazy things happen in this world. It’s not like home, you know. I see what it’s like. I watch the news.” I only managed to escape by promising that I would always remember who I was. Who I had to be.
Since all I could move was my head, I concentrated on watching the partiers, these people who came together for every wedding, naming, funeral, then scattered themselves to the winds again. These people who had seen me grow up in steps at each event. Family that never seemed to change, that seemed to exist only to celebrate, dressed in fine silks, bent by heavy gold jewelry. I couldn’t connect these people to the mundane tasks of life any more. It was like we kept them into storage and brought them out for parties.
I know how much my parents saved and scrimped for today. I remember my mother tracing her hands on the big motel ledger, muttering numbers to herself, chanting prayers for our prosperity in Hindi. They wanted to step out of the day to day too…everyone here was pretending to be in a Bollywood movie, or else back in India. Outside this hall might be gray Atlanta skies, but inside, we were all in Bombay. For a few days, my whole family stepped back into their native skin, speaking their language, eating their food, telling the same old stories and jokes, and singing the same songs that had been sung at their weddings.
All of the women invited were sitting around me on the floor, getting less elaborate mendhi on their hands, laughing as they tossed compliments and teased each other. Babies and toddlers ran around their mothers, sitting on the floor, thrilled to be taller than Mummy for once.
So I watched them, these mendhi women as they held their cones of putty like pencils and concentrated on covering every inch of my skin. They tucked their mangal sutras into their buns and wiped the tips of their cones carelessly on the old cotton saris they wore for their work. The green goop feels cool on me, like cucumbers on your eyes after a night at a smoky club. Not that I would know anything about that, ha ha. My brown skin turns into a canvas, full of swirls and pictures and lines. Telling the ageless story of every Indian wedding through my skin. I tried not to shift too much. One false move and everything that was so clear now, would smudge and become unrecognizable.
They continue to write on me, to draw the ancient wishes that would help turn me, for one day, into an incarnation of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Good Fortune.
And I wanted to be that. I wanted to make my parents proud, to take the seven steps that would turn me into a woman, into a wife. To wear the bridal sari and the sacred markings on my forehead, the jeweled bindi of a bride.
I wanted the mendhi to write over everything that had come before this day. The tumbled kisses as we danced, he and I. The feel of his calluses on my skin—hard meeting soft. The way his skin grew whiter when I told him, harsh so he would leave, that I would never choose him over my parents, over everything I’d was.
The way I felt it in my skin when he left and slammed the door.
My parents were surprised when I told them I was finally ready to be married. But they tugged on the family network and before I knew it, I was engaged. I like him, my betrothed. Like my parents would say, “He’s a nice boy. Good family.”
The mendhi was done. The women stood up, wiping their hands on their laps and stretching. Everyone crowded around me, their bare feet sounding like the tabla drums beating through the speakers. This was their favorite part of the ceremony.
“Look and see, Nisha…now you have to try to find his name in your mendhi. That's how you know he's the one who is fated for you!” I looked down at my hands, covered now by a gorgeous intricate design.
I tried, stared intently at hands grown beautiful and foreign. And they waited, these women I’ve known forever, waiting for me to become one of them.
I tried, muttered something. The aunties laughed and shouted, "She's just too modest, a proper blushing bride!"
But that wasn't the truth.
The truth is, I couldn't find it.
For more layers of skin, go here.
Labels: sunday scribblings