By Geeta Raj
At Twelve Years
I wake up startled to a quiet early morning. I’m in a car, in America, still a child. I slip back into my dream about India, by the Ganges River.
Early morning prayer bells, pundits worshipping at the first breath of day. My favorite is at nighttime, just when you can call it night, when everyone prays and makes offerings. They place in the water, to float away, a bowl made out of dried leaves. A jyot offering. It’s filled with red rose petals, saffron colored bright marigolds, tiny home-made candles and prayers. It’s my favorite thing to do. It’s like letting go of balloons on a windy day and then watching them until you can’t see them anymore.
I reach over the river as far as I can without falling into the rushing water and let the jyot slip out of my hands. I do it again, and again, and again. I watch the candles until the waves wash over them and the bowl merges with the night colored water.
It makes me sad when the water washes out the flame; I always make a special wish when a candle burns bright, longer than the others. It’s beautiful even though the water will eventually dim that brightness. In my dream, I imagine myself curled in the soft, red rose petals, floating away in the Ganges. I know what it means when people say ‘it takes my breath away.’
In my dream, I smell mud and think of shiny earth worms after summer rains. I smell incense. I smell India. There are old naked babajis on one side of the Ganga River and on the other side, women in such wet saris that I can see their big breasts. Bibiji is one of them. I don’t want to be around her so I take 10 rupees from mummy and buy more jyots.
My chunni dips into the water when I lean over as far as I can to catch the currents. I tie the chunni around my waist (so I can fold my hands) and do a Bharat Natyam step with my feet, just to hear the bells tied around my ankles. Just to remind myself I’m alive. I stand with my hands folded in prayer and squeeze my eyes tightly. The shine from all the candles I’ve light must light up my face– God can’t miss me this way.
“Please, God, whoever you are. Please. Don’t forget me.”
The Ganga is lit with floating candles and flowers. It reminds me of the lap of my mother.
“Please put a special potion in his food to make him nice to us.”
I’m startled again, for no reason, and jolted out of my dream. I start crying, thinking of how God never answered my prayers. I look around and notice the windows of the LTD are cloudy from the morning fog. Nadia is awake too but I think she is lying in quiet shock. My arms are wrapped around her. She’s breathing heavily and constantly and my arms go up and down with the rhythm of her breath. Maybe God can only punish me but not her? Why are we both being punished? Nadia notices my eyes opening and starts crying into my shoulder.
We’re still short, like all children are. If we were any longer then we wouldn’t be able to stretch out in the backseat, where he makes us sleep so many nights in a row. Moti is sleeping next to us, his fur is soft and warm. I twist his long whiskers together, round and round, because I have nothing else to do. The car’s fabric is stubby and pointy. It itches me all over. I’ve stopped pretending it’s velvet. I don’t try to clean the fog from the windows. I don’t want to see what has become of the outside. I pretend the fog is a cloud that we’re floating in. My head fits into the corner of the door and seat; Nadia and I disappear into the clouds.
At Twenty-Two, Almost Twenty-Three Years
Lia brings it out in me. We dissolve like salt in water into each other. We giggle in sporadic fits. I drove, but rather wished I could have run, the 18 hours it took me to reach her.
“Veda, just come to Iowa. Move away from everything. Just come, a few weeks, one month. You’re sick, you’re tired. You need distance.”
I couldn’t have worded it in a more perfect way. “Let me take care of you.” Her words surrounded me.
We’re sprawled horizontally on the shorter side of her full-sized bed. I’m amazed how quickly her home has started to feel like mine. My legs hurt from hanging over the shorter side for so many hours in a row. It’s our slumber party. On the ceiling, the lights are still on – we fell asleep after talking of popcorn, art, and chocolate. I’m awake before her and grab the phone when it rings. I can tell Lia is awake when I hang up. She peers at me from under her pillow. I’m suddenly serious.
“L. How’s your leg?” An impregnated moment while I wait for her reply.
“Fine.” A cautious reply. She pauses a few moments longer. My incomplete question has left her confused.
“How’s yours?” she responds, followed by inquiries of the well-being of my remaining body parts. I don’t allow her to finish her tangential inquiries but instead jump on top of her, overcome with giggles. We laugh. And then we giggle. I grab her ankle to inspect the henna tattoo I painted on it last night. Lia had forgotten about it.
“I want to see the henna painting. I only ask random questions about people’s body parts to people who I’m dating or have nothing else left to say. Generally, that ends up being the same person.” We giggle.
Our drive to Northwest Iowa begins much later than we imagined. Our last-minute decision to leave at 1pm brought us to a departure point of 7pm, after much deliberation.
“Lia, we just have too many things we want to do today. I still want to go to Chicago.” I proclaim this in a meager attempt to go to Chicago instead of Northwest Iowa.
“Veda! An emergency photo shoot is of the essence! Everything else must be put on hold! We can have Easter at my parents farm!” She squeals. Her upcoming photography exhibit on symmetry is the focus of our concern.
“Anything for quality photography!” I’m excited now. “Absolutely beautiful. Rows and rows of cornfields. Never-ending rows of soybeans. Symmetry by the human hand.” I dramatize even further.
I decide to do laundry before we leave. I break the laundry machine before we leave. I have to fish out heavy, sopping wet clothes from a machine full of dirty clothes water and soap. Somehow I have to hide them from Lia, who insisted I not do laundry. Somehow I have to hide them from Lia in the trunk, but also hide them in a way so they may dry. Lia’s dog Lexi seems to be sneering at me. I’ve told Lia I think the dog’s jealous of our friendship. Delay: ½ hour.
Lia finds out. I, exasperated with myself, pull my hair back even tighter. We fall into each other, giggling. We can’t stop. Delay: another ½ hour.
“Veda! I don’t believe you sometimes….!” Lia often likes to begin sentences addressed to me with my name.
“I’m not to understand or believe, my dear. Remember, you invited me here.” I kiss her on the cheek with the force of love and, with as much poise as possible, lug the heavy, dripping clothes through the apartment down the stairs to the car. Lia’s dog is still laughing at me in its own ‘incarnation of something horrendously evil’ way. My laundry episode is the first entry in our journal.
I was afraid to drive because I didn’t want to run over any squirrels. But I drive. Eventually, we disappear into the clouds. The car’s fabric feels like velvet to my skin. The evening settles and we enjoy the long stretch of road with dark, calming, wholesome cornfields protecting us from either side. The promise of progression, of growing in some way, of getting out of where we’re at. The need to go anywhere as long as we’re going. We enter deeper into conversation and I sigh. How amazing that she is with me as I keep moving. Moving forward, I hope. She’s kept pace with me. We giggle at random jibberish we’re blabbing about paradigms, alternate realities, and theme songs. Our paradigms embrace each other. I want her to read more Kerouac and Raymond Carver.
The moon is sleepy and drops a little, nodding off like a child refusing to surrender to sleep. I drive toward it. We make decisions for my future: my graduate school future, leaving Joseph, my pending healing processes. I’ll jump right into therapy, I tell her, only if she promises to hold my hand and jump in with me. I talk about her past with her; her battles, fights, regrets. Her men. That’s what’s remarkable about them, I think. Is that they’re hers. They’ve also witnessed her exquisiteness. She’s also mine and somehow I’ve become a piece of her.
We plan to move forward even faster; looking back is exhausting. She’s beautifully resilient. I tell her. I’m still afraid of hitting squirrels. Now I’m afraid of hitting deers too.
“L. my love, you make me want to stay alive.” I exaggerate the sentence. She pauses to think about what I just said. We giggle like schoolgirls.
At Nineteen Years
The fabric in this old Camry is itchy on my bare legs clad in old Levis jean shorts. It’s stubby and pointy and itches me all over. I readjust to find that one spot that fits me perfectly, worn down from hours of me sitting in this seat. The night is quiet again. I’m jealous that everyone on the street has a place to be right now. It’s night and I’m spending it once again in a fucking car.
The gas lights on Kleingreen Lane are, to me, a symptom of a home I never had– something I must be immune to.
The evening had assaulted my ears. The psychotic screams, the shrilling curses, the noises of an unhappy existence. My homemade tomato sauce sat lonely. I had left the gas on under the boiling pasta when I walked out of the house. Mom screamed babble again and that was it for me. She ran behind me with a knife and then gave up when I jumped in the car, locking it behind me. It’s been over two hours now – I wonder if the water for the pasta had completely evaporated? I was through with this night before Mom’s babble burned in my ears like acid. God, mummy, take your Valium. Take your Elavil. Please. Anything for this to end.
My car is parked in the driveway and faces the garage. I lean my chair back as far as it can get. The clouds are thick tonight. I can’t understand why this car is still parked here. It’s years later and I’ve come no further. I’m still spending the night in a car. The tears start; they take their course, fall off the side of my face, down and into my ears. I’m laying so far back I’m almost upside down. I try talking to God.
“God, please. I can’t recognize her anymore. Please. There is not enough room in my heart for the person she has become. Please, bring my mother back.”
My tears are still and I sit quietly, feeling them finish their course into my ears. I wait for God’s response.
At Twenty One Years
A year before I left Joseph I escaped with him behind the clouds in a car on a rainy evening. What felt like clouds was the white patchiness of fog on the windows that hid us from the world.
Fuck. I’ve ended up with him again without knowing how.
The evening got colder and I sat, cuddling my body for warmth and because I was afraid. He wanted to drive me to my car but the keys sat idle in his lap, not even making it to the ignition. I didn’t notice because I didn’t need a ride, just wanted to disappear again with him, behind the fog, and forget.
We laughed. We talked awkward talk because we didn’t know what else to do. I was quiet. I listened to him. I contributed irrelevant sentences. He laughed a laugh so large it threw him on top of me. Remarkably and quite suddenly, there was no more distance between us. He chuckled into my shoulder and I was glowing, happy to be close to someone I could so fiercely hate and so fiercely love. The dark green, soft, comfort of his sweater was welcoming me, a gesture of open arms. He leaned into me. I heard the keys from the ignition fall somewhere on the floor, ran my finger the length of his nose and stopped talking.
“I promise you, Veda, things will get better. They have to,” he said as he loosened my hair. His confidence angered me. There was arrogance in his words. That was what it was. Yes. I remember hearing it that jumbled evening.
The feel of my hair falling loose and sweeping over my shoulders reminded me of the good things in life when I was little. Of the times my mother would let my hair down, rub warm coconut oil on my scalp, and sit in the sun with me for hours.
Joseph reached behind my head and combs his fingers through, twisting my strands into a loose, long and lazy braid down my back. I’ve been putting my hair up around Joseph lately. I wear it down only for my lovers. My curls hold the braid he’s weaved in place.
“Mmm,” I murmur, moving my head once to the right and then to left to feel my drowsy braid swing. I’m not sure if I’m enjoying being around him or not. I just listen as he twists my curls into tinier ones.
“You worry too much, Veda. Don’t grog out, love. Feel. Be happy, be alive.”
His inability to come into my world, to absorb me, was evident.
“Are you comfortable? Hmmm?” He nuzzles love talk into my ear and lays a blanket down for my back. The pain shoots through my leg, starting from my lower back to the last possible point on the tip of my index toe. The pain makes me dizzy, disillusioned. The pressure from his weight on top of me was too much. We’d been knotted together for too long. I groan from the pressure.
“Here, no, no, . . wait.”
His voice rubbed me like sandpaper. I felt myself being maneuvered up and off the cold seats of the car and put back on the warmth and fuzziness of his green sweater. I curve my left leg a little further, around the small of his back.
Why does he keep thinking I want him to kiss me?
I long ago sensed the space in his heard for me has closed in.
I’m unraveling, Joseph.
“I’ve gotta go.” I fumble around him and finally sit up. While he is hesitant in releasing me, he is simultaneously relieved. We stumble back to our roles in the car and I loosen my seatbelt while he drives. I need a little sweetness to end with. I move closer to his earlobe, his neck, and he keeps on driving. My tears fall down my cheek and pick up their stray path down his. I do love him, I do.
When the car stops, he leaves the keys in the ignition but turns toward me. It’s my turn to hide in his embrace. I’ve known for some time I don’t belong here. I weep without reservation. I can’t stop.
At Ten Years, year of the Gulf War
Uncle calls this a LTD. I think they call it a Ford too. Amy’s family doesn’t have such an ugly car. I want to be outside, on the other side, but am not sure how I ended up here. So if I don’t know how I got here how will I find my way out? There is no way I will stay in the LTD much longer – the night is too scary for me. Plus mummy or Bibiji will come get me before it gets dark as black. How did I close my eyes one minute and wake up here the next? How did mummy let me sleep in my bed and then let Uncle make me sleep in the car?
The lights are all out on the street. The normal people are quiet and calm– they are busy going to bed. Big and glaring lights like mean eyes are burning in that house that mummy is in – big and bright like uncle’s eyes when he gets angry. The lights in the house slam into me and I feel his fists. Sleep doesn’t feel comfortable in that home I’m supposed to be staying in.
I look to my left. Shadows are hovering back and forth in the house, behind the thin, white curtains in the kitchen. I think the curtains are supposed to be white but they too have been bruised from the people living in this house I’m staying in. My bowl of chocolate ice cream is probably melted by now; it probably looks like a brown puddle. I’ll give it to Moti in the morning. He likes to stick his nose in the ice cream and then ends up with chocolate stains on his beige fur.
I see people walking by on the street. Where is mummy? I’m so tired. I can’t keep begging her to let us in and tonight just stared at her face. The other people, the normal ones, must think we look funny being outside in our pajamas. It’s weird to be sitting in a car in our pajamas. At least I can lock the doors of the LTD or Ford.
Nadia is my teddy bear and I cuddle her in the space it takes me to close my arms. I wish I had more space to hold her. Her forehead is soft and I kiss it over and over like I see mummy do. My little sweet sister. Her bangs are too big. I pat and pat them to get them to stay down but they bounce back again.
“Stop bothering me!” and Nadia pushes my hand away. I’m too tired to fight back. They are still too big. I still don’t belong here.
I put my head back, so it rests on top of the velvet backseat but my neck starts to hurt immediately. It’s hard to get comfortable even in velvet, which is what I pretend it is. It’s hard to be comfortable in a LTD.
Nadia is trembling again, curled up tighter and smaller. She’s moving a little, she’s somewhere between tears and sleep. Sleep has come her way, at least a little. Maybe the Moon God has come to her like mummy says and that’s why she’s sleeping. He too knows I’m not supposed to be here, I’m sure of it. Nadia’s pajamas are like the pajamas all little girls have. We probably both look cute in our thin yellow pajamas with fading flowers.
Tonight uncle made me drag her too, in her sleep, to the car and I tried to hide it so she would think she was still sleeping in a bed. We’re barely warm in our thin, yellow pajamas. He didn’t even give us our chappals tonight. Is this because he’s allowed? Because he’s giving mummy money like daddy used to?
Where’s Moti? I look and see he’s stretched to the limit of his leash, which is caught between the door and us in the car. Last night uncle sent Moti with us. Moti’s come as close as he can, though, unable to pull anymore. He barked endlessly at first to be freed but then got tired. I know he wants to be here with us. I feel bad for Moti and Nadia.
“Don’t worry, Moti, it’s not your fault,” I whisper to him through the car doors.
I pet Nadia like I would pet Moti.
“I understand, Moti. I’m caught like you are in your collar. I’m also choking because I’m trying so hard trying to be free.”
I keep whispering, hoping he can hear me because I do love him so much.
“You don’t deserve to have a rope around your neck. I belong somewhere else. Maybe with another family.”
Nadia keeps crying now. I’m comforting her with my trembling hands. I’m shaking and cold. I’m stronger when I realize she is more scared than me. Bush went to war again; the neighborhood boys think we’re Iraqi and throw eggs at us. They don’t understand. I’m not one of them. We’re Indian.
The door opens with anger. I think that’s Mummy. She looks so sad. I wish she was stronger. Maybe then she could come get me. I see her in the crack of door. More light. The door looks like the side of a book and that someone is opening it. I’m reading into the life of this house, this house with the dirty, white, thin kitchen curtains.
Moti jumps up and starts wagging his tail, thinking he’s about to be set free. I hold my breath. If Moti comes here then I’ll curl up in his fur and sleep. I love the skin and fur underneath his collar – it’s soft and special. No one pets it except me and the fur is puffy from being untouched.
Mummy doesn’t even look this way. Her tears are keeping her from seeing clearly. I pretend I’m sleeping, like I’m supposed to be doing. Moti gets dragged inside and mummy doesn’t even look this way. The door closes again.
I have to go to school in the morning, Mummy. Please.
The inside of the LTD is covered with maroon velvet. I’m cuddling Nadia with both my arms and use her for a pillow. She’s breathing hard. But she won’t let me go. I don’t want to let her go either. T
he velvet rubs my skin and makes me feel as if I’m covered with a rash. I’m itchy all over; my skin doesn’t feel like mine.
At Twenty Four Years
My neck feels light and empty. The curls lick at my nape like flames of a burning fire. Joseph is watching them, watching how they now end where they used to start. The drowsy braids are a semblance of the past. Joseph fraught by his own tension; how he knows we were doomed from the start.
“We’ve turned each other inside out. You have to do what you have to do and I have to do what I need to do.” I’m whispering. “We’re one breath short of hopeless. I need that breath so I can continue, Joseph. If I can’t breathe, I can’t move.”
I was getting itchy again, sitting in the car. The car’s fabric itches me all over. The leather-like upholstery doesn’t sink in my skin but burns like jealousy. There was nothing more I could say. We didn’t persist with awkward conversation this time.
“When my father left me, I thought no one would be capable of hurting me in that way, Joseph. I was wrong.”
My meanness completes the afternoon. I slam the door shut to him and to what his presence in my world promised. Bleeding from the sharpness of our parting, my feet continued, ahead, away, on the pavement. Pieces of us fell from the sky; we shattered like glass.
At Fourteen Years, Nadia at Eleven
The scissors were dull and Nadia kept cutting the poster board with dull scissors. I tried to interfere and give her the orange-handled pair that I kept for crafts and wrapping presents but she refused.
“No, stop it!” She fussed at me.
I paused at how silly she sounded and kept pushing the scissors at her. She was stubborn not to take them. What would Nancy Drew say to her?
“Okay, whatever Nadia. You’re going to have an uneven cut on my Christmas card.”
“But what if that’s the way I want to make your card, Veedaaa?” she sneered at me in an annoying little-sister-voice.
“Fine, I’m just going to work on your Christmas card. I know it will be better than yours.”
We continued in our play fight, creating our own Christmas tradition. Moti sat in the middle of our crafts circle, slumbering peacefully, while we piled tape, markers, ribbon, wrapping paper, shreds of paper, around and on top of him.
Nadia added a wrapping ribbon on top of his head for the finale of our creation, pretending that I brought him home for a Christmas present for her. He let out a deep sigh, smacking the inside of his mouth, peered at what we were doing, and closed his eyes. Nadia stopped cutting the card and looked at Moti as he let out another sigh of content. She strode over to him and sat next to him.
Cuddling her arms around his neck in a dramatic fashion, sticking out her hip, she proclaimed: “For me?!? Oh, you shouldn’t have, dah-ling! What a precious friend you are, really! He’s beautiful, I absolutely adore him!”
By then she had stood up, fluttering her eyelashes and entering into a dramatic monologue.
“Really, you shouldn’t have, it’s just too much.”
Her laughter crept in at this point but she managed to keep it to a minimal. She again knelt down by Moti, who laid his head down to rest, tired of being her toy and scapegoat.
“Really, I just don’t know what to say. Really, my family doesn’t even celebrate Christmas,” she leaned in to me to coax me to come closer, seeming like she had a real secret to tell me. “My sister and I told our family to leave us alone and let us celebrate Christmas just this year. We decided to just celebrate only between us.”
Happy with the monologue at first, I enjoyed listening to her. Now I wanted to join in. She should sign up for drama class.
“But my dear,” I broke in, wrapping a string of ribbon around my shoulders and sticking a sticky ribbon on my shoulder as a pin, “everyone should be able to celebrate Christmas. Don’t be so silly – this wonderful little puppy dog who has fallen asleep is just the beginning of the gifts I’m going to give you this Christmas. Celebrate Christmas with joy! Think to the future!”
I strutted around her in a circle; she moved in synch. I picked up a larger green and white ribbon and stuck it to the right side of her headband, which she adjusted once I removed my hands. Nadia picked up glitter and began throwing it in the air. The glitter fell on us like a mixture of rain and Christmas blessings, through our long and curly eyelashes, over our shoulders, on top of Moti, and we two sisters sparkled.
Nadia hit play on the first song in the tape deck and a Bollywood song which we couldn’t understand came on through the speakers.
“Yeh Raat Aur Yeh Dhoori, Tera Milna Hai Zaruri!”
No matter. She kept throwing the glitter and confetti in the air as we began moving our shoulders and hips to the fast tabla beats of the song, back and forth, up and down, the glitter merging with our movements.
“Ki Dil Mera Dhak Dhak Dhole!” continued the music and the glitter fell over our flared arms. We continued together in circles, with each other, the glitter streaming down as a reminder of a magical world.