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Whole Milk and Cement MAG
In 10 years, my mother will praise my “social skills,” teachers will tell me I’m “well-adjusted.” In 10 years, I will be kind, slightly timid in front of strangers, immensely loyal, with an ever-present sense of right and wrong.
But now I am just fierce, fierce and twisted.
I watch as my mother struggles with the steering wheel, wondering why she isn’t as good as Daddy at driving. I ask, “Mum-mi, how much longer?” just to distract her, make her less nervous.
As planned, her grip on the wheel loosens and her turns become more fluid. “Beti,” she starts with this term of endearment, to soften the criticism she is about to deliver. “We’ve driven up this road a thousand times. We’re maybe two minutes away. You know that.”
I fidget a bit, uncomfortable with being scolded in a friendly tone. What a tactic. I peer through the window again, squinting to see a white house with black shutters approach. I start squirming in my seat as the brilliant red door breaks into view, beckoning me to come inside, to enjoy another evening with my best friend.
Esha is jumping up and down behind the storm door. I hear her yell excitedly, “Mama! Mama, can I go see Swati?” I don’t hear the reply, but within moments Esha is tearing down the driveway, to hug me with all the strength in her thin arms. I hug her back, laughing. It’s been two whole days since we last saw each other.
“Beti, don’t run! You’ll trip and fall!” her mother calls. I love Reena Auntie. I don’t know how long I’ve loved her; I don’t even recall meeting her, but she’s almost an aunt to me. Years from now, and years before it is fashionable to do so, I will unconsciously begin to imitate the way she places her glasses in her hair like a headband when she is not using them. Later on, when I realize I am mimicking a woman of my mother’s generation, it won’t bother me, knowing it’s Reena Auntie. I’m surprised how fat she’s gotten lately. I won’t find out for another month what being pregnant means.
She walks toward Mum-mi, says something about something, and the two chat about grown-up stuff. Reena Auntie insists, “Poonam, yaar” - my mother’s name, and the casual term for a friend - “Come in for some chai.”
Mum-mi accepts despite the hot summer weather. “Well, Rajiv has his football-shootball to watch anyway.” The women laugh, while Esha and I look on. If I laughed at Daddy when he wasn’t making a joke, things would not go well.
Esha and I run upstairs immediately. “Let’s play snakes and ladders!” she cries. Snakes and ladders is a simple game involving little but a board, two pieces, and dice.
“I’ll be blue because that’s my favorite color. Blue isn’t girly like red!” I look scornfully at the red piece in her hand, remembering that my brother has warned me constantly that he won’t like me if I’m too girly. He’s four years older and has every reason not to hang out with me. I need to be careful.
My thoughts are interrupted by Esha shyly saying, “Me too. Blue’s my favorite color, too.”
Ridiculous. I know for a fact that her favorite color is purple, with red coming in a close second. I decide to test her. “Actually ... I like white better. Blue’s all right, but I’m just settling.”
She replies quickly, so eager to please, “Me, too!”
Copycat. I give the red piece in her hand another meaningful look and reply carefully, with a voice that is equally apathetic and unbelieving, “Whatever.”
She blushes furiously, realizing that she is caught in a lie, and casually exchanges pieces so she has green, a less feminine color.
We begin. Snakes and ladders is easier than tying your shoe. The object is to be the first to reach square number 100. Soon the game is nearly over. My blue piece is on 94, while her green piece cheers quietly from 91. I need a six to win. That seems doable. Esha rolls snake eyes - 93. I roll the dice and get eight. The rules (per my brother) clearly state that if the dice show a number larger than the spaces that you have remaining, you forfeit your turn. So, I should forfeit my turn.
I pick up the blue piece and begin to move it forward, counting, “One, two, three, four, five, six” - I move the piece one square backward - “seven” - Then I move the piece one more square forward, landing on 100. “I win!” I declare happily.
Esha begins, “I don’t think you can do ...,” but stops when I glance at her, daring her to question my rules. She falters, beginning in her mouse of a voice, “Are you sure that ...” She stops again. Meekly she says, “Okay.”
We are bored with snakes and ladders. Esha sadly states, “I never win.”
“Practice,” I tell her. “Practice, and maybe you’ll do better next time.”
Esha pulls out a stack of Highlights magazines. I tell her to put on some music, and obligingly she pops a Kidz Bop cassette into her tape player. “Kidz Bop is so crappy,” I tell her, enjoying the taste of the word that frequents my brother’s vocabulary and is forbidden in mine. “You should listen to the Goo Goo Dolls.” She nods complacently.
We flip through the magazines for a bit, solving word puzzles and finding hidden tomatoes in city-scapes. I read a slightly infantile story about a grasshopper. I begin to laugh loudly, although the story is less than enjoyable. Esha looks up curiously. “What is it?”
“Oh, it’s just - ” I make a big show of an entirely staged exasperated sigh. “Never mind, you wouldn’t understand. You’re much too catachrestic.” I’m certain that I’ve said the word wrong, but it doesn’t matter. It’s had the desired effect.
I watch Esha grapple with the large word, a wet, squirming fish in the hands of her mind. She gives up, casting her eyes downward, and lets out a sad little sigh. “I guess I am.”
Highlights, too, soon loses its appeal.
As we walk down the stairs, Esha slips her arm through mine, already forgetting my ill-gained win and mean comments. I let her arm stay, although I am annoyed. It’s infuriating how yielding she is. She gave in so easily today! Some days she actually argues back, and rarely - about as often as Daddy does the dishes - she wins.
We get to the ground floor, where Reena Auntie intercepts us, handing us two cold glasses of Shekhar Uncle’s famous lemonade. I thank her politely, as my Mum-mi has taught me. “Thank you, Auntie. I don’t know why, but Uncle’s lemonade is always better than ours.”
“Salt,” Esha interjects quickly, just to inform me. My face flushes and my pride smarts as if it had been struck with a ruler. Show-off.
Reena Auntie looks at me admiringly. “Beti, your manners are excellent. Esha, you could learn from Swati.”
Esha glumly walks downstairs to the basement, with me hopping along behind her.
“Uck, my glass is wet,” she complains.
“Condensation!” I retort proudly.
We decide to pursue our artistic ability. We save Auntie the trouble of cleaning paint off the floor, and instead opt to make a mess with crayons. We color intently for a while. I look over at Esha, her tongue peeping out of the corner of her mouth.
“Finished!” we both yell at the same time. She looks at mine, a picture of two mountains and a setting sun.
“It’s really nice.” Her voice is sincere, slightly awed. Her eyes dart down to her picture, a messy family portrait with her parents having somewhere between three and eight fingers on each hand.
“Thanks. Yours is, uh ... is that one you?” I point deliberately at the house behind the three stick figures.
“No!” Her voice is uncharacteristically loud and startling. “It’s a house. And you know what else? MY PICTURE’S FINE!” her lip quivers but her nose flares, a sure sign of anger.
“Okay. All right. Let’s go upstairs?” I use the calm, restoring voice Daddy uses after Mum-mi is finished yelling at him. I gingerly put my arm around Esha and pat her heaving shoulders. I help her up the stairs, an emotionally wounded soldier leaning on the girl who shot her. We climb the stairs slowly, maybe more for my sake than hers.
Reena Auntie places warm cookies, chocolate chip with walnuts, in front of us and hands me the first one. In Indian homes, a guest, no matter how young, is treated specially, and it just so happens that I am her favorite guest.
“Here you go, Swathu-kanathu. Esha, you have to drink all your milk. Don’t forget!”
She turns her back and I break my cookie in half, handing Esha the larger half. She smiles at me, a warm, happy smile that only an angelic girl like Esha can manage. We chew our cookies slowly, the walnuts crunching away our grudges, the chocolate chips melting in our mouths, unknowingly making us sweeter.
Later, when Esha wrinkles her nose at her half full cup of whole milk - she needs to put on weight, the doctor has told Reena Auntie - I drink it for her while Auntie is not looking, cementing our friendship, which now often needs cementing. Whole milk is revolting. Whole milk is the price of friendship.
The doorbell is ringing, and Reena Auntie gets it. Mum-mi sweeps in, her hands gesturing in the air as she speaks rapidly in Hindi. Auntie giggles and they converse for a few minutes, until Mum-mi cocks her head, telling me that it’s time to leave.
“No, no, no!” Esha pleads. “Can she sleep over tonight, please, Auntie, please?”
“No, Babbu, not tonight. She has a doctor’s appointment later.” My mother smiles at our picture perfect friendship, ruffling Esha’s hair affectionately.
We say good-bye, arms wrapped around each other, each hoping we are taking a bit of the other with us. She kisses me on the cheek and tells me we’re best friends. I kiss her on the cheek and correct her - no, best friends forever.
Ten years later, we are still best friends. I look back at myself and hate what I see, but Esha put up with me despite it all. We chat about friends, boys, clothes, remembering how much we hated changing her little brother’s diapers. We delve into the hardships of growing up Indian in America and how unfair our parents are. She supports me as I unceremoniously remove my older brother from his pedestal, and I am there for her first heartbreak. And though I know all that is in store for us, I don’t know how we could possibly last as friends. How Esha tolerated me for 10 years is beyond me. Maybe it’s all that cement. Reena Auntie always said milk is good for you.