Sometimes he dreams as babies do – or at least, how he imagines they do. In curls and twists and whirls, in fading colors and soft musical hums. That’s what it must be, right? What keeps a baby so content when it’s dreaming?
This is what Sapan thinks about now as he leans over the glass edge of the hospital’s newborn cot. His sister is one of the many babies in this room. He’d been startled when he walked in, never having seen so many babies in one place before; it is a sea of pink and blue blankets and hats with fuzzy bobbles. But he would have recognized her even if his father hadn’t pointed her out. Not because she has his grandfather’s nose, as his mother murmured happily, or his Ada Aunty’s cheeks, as his father muttered less happily, but because hers is the only brown face, besides his own and his father’s, in this room of pink babies.
His sister is new, brand new, just born, fragile like his brand-new train set, but she already looks old. Older than him by far, and he has a good six years on her. Her cheeks are wrinkly, deep lines running down from her nose to her mouth, frozen bird formations just above her barely there eyebrows.
When he saw her before, swaddled in his mother’s sagging arms, she was crying – not the sort of bawling that gets him a time out, but the petulant, whiny cry of the stray cat sitting on their fence in India, the one his mother always warned him to be wary of because it could be sick. Now, in slumber, she looks happy for the first time in her short life. She sighs deeply and serenely, like an old man, and paws at her face with a tiny pink-wrapped hand. He even thinks he sees her smile, although his father is quick to tell him that it’s not a true smile yet, just reflex. She’s a person called Sanjana, and they share dreams.
He knows that she is smiling, even if his father doesn’t think so.
Other times he dreams in film noir, like the movies he’s recently come to love. Guys in suspenders and undone ties, surrounded by coils of cigar smoke. Girls with coiffed hair and bright red lipstick – you can tell it’s red, even in black-and-white.
He likes to pretend he’s in one of those movies, and in his apartment, it’s not hard to do. There’s not much color around. The carpet is beige – used to be white, his mother frequently scolds – and the walls are cream to match. Even the window faces the peeling gray walls of the neighboring apartment complex, nothing else.
His mother hates it. When his father isn’t around, she tells Sapan how much she hates the dreary wallpaper, the broken-not-broken television. How she wishes the place belonged to them and not the grumpy landlord downstairs, so she could paint it the shade of mint green she found in Home and Design.
Then again, his mother hates almost everything. Sometimes he thinks this includes his father. She serves him dinner in silence, usually much later than when she and Sapan eat, because his father comes home around eight. She brings him tea before brewing her own – every morning at 6:30, just when Sapan is brushing his teeth in his Mario Kart pajamas – but he doesn’t ever say thank you, and she looks away. They don’t ever hug or kiss like his friends’ parents do. One time, after second-grade graduation, he saw Timothy’s parents kiss and then smile at each other like the actors in his movies. It made him feel odd, knowing that people, that parents, do that in real life. Once, when he was in the back seat of their car on the way to a function at Aditya Uncle’s house, he thought he saw his father putting his arm around his mother’s shoulders. But it turned out that he was just getting ready to reverse.
His mother met Vijay Uncle at the Indian grocer’s two blocks down from their apartment. At least that’s what she tells Sapan when he comes home from school on Tuesday after Robotics Club and there is a man he’s never seen before sitting on the sofa, smoking a cigarette.
“Sapan, this is Vijay Uncle. He just moved here from India and lives very close to us, a few houses down,” his mother says. Her face is flushed, her lips are coated in red, and she’s wearing the expensive perfume his father bought her for their fifteenth wedding anniversary a few months before, the one she wears for special occasions.
He smiles, says hello, then goes to his room to do his homework and play video games. By now he is used to the parade of Indians his parents befriend. The potbellied uncles who start the evening with their mouths settled in tight lines but end up singing old Hindi love songs in drunken bliss. The gossiping aunties who sit around the kitchen in saris that don’t move as they do, talking about Cousin Nina, who eloped with an American, and her poor family who must be so upset. And of course, the continuing annoyance of their limitless children, who they lug around to every event and whose well-being inevitably becomes Sapan’s responsibility.
But Vijay Uncle is different. He carries with him no wife, no children, no potbelly; he seems relaxed, at ease with himself when he talks to Sapan’s mother, and doesn’t recognize that he’s unwanted when Sapan’s father merely nods to acknowledge his presence. He smokes cigarettes and keeps his mustache trimmed, his cuffs rolled up, and his tie loosened, although he never takes it off.
Sapan notes Vijay Uncle’s difference, but doesn’t think much of it. Doesn’t care much about it. He has a ten-page report on Russia’s tsars due next Monday and was never a procrastinator.
So he stores Vijay Uncle’s uncomfortable visits in the back of his head, saying a curt hello and disappearing to his room when he sees him again on Wednesday and again on Thursday. He ignores the disconcerting scent of his mother’s Safrant Troublant perfume mingled with the stale odor of cigarettes lingering in the living room one Saturday morning when his father is on call at the hospital and doesn’t come home at all.
He asks no questions, just as his father, who sits in his armchair and notices an unfamiliar dent in its cushions, who goes to the bathroom and finds cigarette butts in the trash can, who can smell samosas frying in his sleep but acts oblivious to the smoke-stench that clouds their living room, asks no questions.
Later Sapan will think back on this time in his life and realize that he would have known it was an affair had it been anyone but his mother.
After Vijay Uncle’s visits stop, his mother grows quiet. Her lipstick lies unused on his parents’ sink, eventually growing old enough to throw out. The infamous perfume sits forgotten in her vanity cupboard. She stops going out to their many Indian functions, claiming to have a stomachache, a headache, a fever. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when he’s getting a glass of water or using the bathroom, he sees her sitting at the kitchen table, staring at cupped hands that hold nothing but air.
Some weeks later, she suddenly announces to them that she’s booked a trip to India. It’s during dinner, and they collectively tip their heads up and out of the silence, staring at her with their hands suspended halfway between their mouths and their plates.
Sanjana is the first to snap out of the shock. She begins wailing, says, “Mommy, I can’t miss school, plus I have Jessica’s birthday party on Saturday, and she’s turning nine, it’s important!”
Sapan soon joins her: “Mom, are you serious? You know I have exams coming up ….”
Their father is alone in his stillness, staring hard at Sapan’s mother as if he’s willing the next words out of her mouth.
She complies, waving a hand as if to brush away their complaints. “No,” she clarifies, “the trip is for me.”
She goes on to explain her father is sick and it is important for her to spend some time with him, caring for him in his old age. Sapan finds it odd that she chooses now to go, considering his grandfather had a mild heart attack a year ago and has since recovered completely, according to the doctors. She’s leaving in a month, and will be gone for four. “At least,” she adds.
He doesn’t say anything. Nobody does. His father looks down intently at his meal. Sanjana is still crying. Sapan carefully rolls a ball of rice in his fingers and puts it in his mouth. The chicken, he notes, is especially spicy today.
Since his father works late, it is decided that it will be best if the children move in with Ada Aunty and Aditya Uncle for a while. After all, Sanjana is just eight and can’t be expected to take care of herself when Sapan goes to a friend’s house or an overnight competition. Their home is only a few miles away; there is no need to transfer schools. It seems like the perfect setup.
Ada Aunty has a round, pleasant face and an inviting smile. Her house is much nicer than their cramped apartment; it is often the designated meeting-place for their parents’ friends. Unlike his mother, who long ago shed her traditional clothes in favor of casual Western outfits, Ada Aunty still wears ironed saris in the daytime and ragged cotton ones at night. Their tight sleeves create a permanent angry red bangle on her upper arm, leaving the loose skin to swing around her armpits like wings.
Aditya Uncle is friendly as well, with a wide mouth and amiable eyebrows that fade into his receding hairline. He is an accountant and is always home at exactly five. Sapan sometimes wishes his father had a job like that, instead of one where he rushes out of the house at two in the morning trying to save some stranger’s life.
After school, there are always snacks on the coffee table. Crackers and cheese, usually, but since Sanjana mentioned that they love Nutella, there’s often a chocolate-spread sandwich as well. Ada Aunty never hogs the television like their mother; she cooks elaborate dinners and, if she has time left, she cleans. She cleans even the places nobody but she knows about: the crevice behind the mantle, the cracked floorboard underneath the Persian rug. She cleans until everything sparkles, until her hands are blistered.
Sapan has heard the women gossiping about Ada Aunty; how she insisted on finishing college before searching for a husband, how her father had to pay a lot of money for Aditya Uncle to marry her because she was dark and homely. Now, watching her furiously scrub dried curry from a dinner plate, he wonders what her college major was and whether she wishes that her life were different.
Then, one day, he knows that she does. That day, Aditya Uncle doesn’t come home until nine at night, and he is drunk. His face is shiny red, and he is angrier than Sapan has ever seen him. Ada Aunty tells Sapan and Sanjana to go to bed early, but he lies awake, listening to their voices rise and fall. The next morning there is a bruise high on Ada Aunty’s cheekbone.
It happens again a few weeks later, and again a few months later – the four months that his mother speculated earlier have turned into five, six. It’s usually on Saturdays, and it’s always when he’s drunk. Sapan has never seen him hit her, but he sees things that are not in the spots they normally are the next day, the spots that Ada Aunty has designated for them.
Boots, books, belts. Anything.
He becomes a doctor, of course. There was never really any other choice. At his graduation, his mother cheers the loudest, his father beams the proudest. The picture they take on that day shows the three of them, Sanjana behind the lens, squinting at the sunlight and smiling the same crooked smile.
Gayatri is the first and last girl he meets. His parents are so glad he hasn’t married an American, like Sanjana, that they don’t pressure him to meet anyone else.
Over tea, he learns that she is an art history major, an accomplished kathak dancer, and a decent singer. She doesn’t offer up this information, of course; her mother, a birdlike, hyperactive woman with a shrill voice and arms that remind him of a Velociraptor’s curved claws, is all too eager to feed it to him, along with the plate of orange ladoos she claims Gayatri made herself.
Still, there’s something he likes about her. Maybe it’s the way she juts out her chin, even while looking down demurely. Maybe it’s that she’s an art history major, not a doctor or an engineer.
So he marries her; what else is he supposed to do?
They met at a bar, the place all good love stories start. She ordered vodka; he asked for scotch. She pulled her seat closer and didn’t need to do anything more.
They walked to the car.
(Irrational, irrelevant, improper)
He tugged off her jacket.
(Indecent, irreverent, illegitimate)
He noticed her wedding ring and became vaguely aware of the dull gold band around his own finger. What was proper in such situations? Should he take it off or attempt to hide it? For a brief stutter in time, the thought crossed his mind that such deception was wrong, that what he was doing was wrong. But, as is the case with many such silly thoughts, it dreamt itself away.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the March 2015 Teen Ink Fiction Contest.