You are sitting in the living room of your mom’s mom, your Ammamma’s house. Your grandma stands in front of you with a silver tray of laddus, flowers, oil, and rice. You are to eat the laddu, hold the flowers, and be adorned with oil and rice. Today is the day you’ve become a woman. Except you’re only ten years old, and you haven’t even heard of puberty before today.
When you walked out of the bathroom this morning, you thought maybe you were dying. Worried, you rushed to the comfort of your mother’s arms. She assured you that everything would be okay. That you were a woman now. That it was a celebration. A joy. You could now have kids. You asked her why a ten-year-old would want to have a kid, and she laughed and said, Not now, silly. When you’re older. When you have a family. It’s a blessing. And you believed her.
It was embarrassing, really. Everyone was there. Your grandparents and parents and cousins and older sister. You hated in that moment so much that there were boys in the room. You hated it because you didn’t know if they knew. You ate a small bite of the laddu, but couldn’t stomach the rest. And your grandmother stood in front of you and insisted that you eat the rest, because it was the custom. The tradition. That you always loved laddus.
But not today. Today your stomach whirled. Today, you hated that you were a woman. Today, you curled up in a ball on the couch and lay your head on your mother’s lap while she caressed your long black hair. And in that moment, you felt like a girl again. Not a woman, but a girl. A girl wrapped in the comforting arms of her mother. And you were safe. And you were a child.
It’s your sixteenth birthday and you’re sitting alone in front of an ice cream cake. The cake is chocolate with white frosting and it’s starting to melt. The candles, unlit, begin to tilt with the icing. You’re legally allowed to drive a car today, but you aren’t allowed to play with the matches sitting right beside the cake. You look up at the clock and remember what time you were born. Sixteen years ago, at 10:35 a.m., you awoke from your mother and became you.
It’s ten past noon and you’re wondering how long they will take. All you can hear from the other room is your aunts and uncles arguing. Grandma wants to buy you a car, but they won’t allow it. Grandma’s small voice is muffled by the men. She tries to raise it, but every time she does, they grow louder. You’re worried, selfishly, that your cake will melt. You don’t even need a car yet. You like walking to school.
You get up from your birthday chair, which is decorated in busy pink balloons. You try to listen, but only hear muffled voices. You slowly walk down the hallway to the room on the right. The room they are congregating in, the adults. You, a teenager, sneak your bare feet across the carpet until you’re within listening range. With your ear up to the door, you can hear everyone yelling in Telegu, and you don’t know what to make of it. You can only understand a slowed-down version of your mother tongue. Then you hear this soft quiet voice telling everyone to stop arguing, to go back outside, to celebrate as a family. And this soft voice makes you more anxious.
You hear your family dispersing, their footsteps walking heavily toward the door. You rush away down the hall and plant your back against the wall. You look down at your pocket and pull out your cellphone and pretend to be reading something. The door opens and your grandma walks out and smiles at you, knowing damn well that you heard her rooting for you.
Then come your uncles, wearing plastic smiles. One of them pats you on the arm as a show of fake comradery. You move your back away from the wall, and begin to follow them into the dining room. Where the cake is.
You breathe in deeply, visualizing a white light tracing its way from your nostrils to your lungs and back up again. Your eyes are closed, but when you open them your mom is standing right in front of you, smiling. She whispers, It’ll work out, don’t worry, I’m protecting you. Your eyes are wide and confused and your heart is anxious and jumping. She grabs you and pulls you in for a hug. And you cry deeply onto her shoulder.
You are running down a hallway. The walls are blinking. Purple. Red. Blue. Yellow. The colors seep through. The sound of thunder can be heard outside. You look down at your shoes and notice that a lace is untied, but you don’t stop to fix it. You keep running. Your body is covered in sweat, only it’s not liquid. It’s like steam, rising from your body. It’s like boiling spinach. It smells of sulfur and you want out. As you run, you look down because the colors are making you dizzy. You look up once every minute or so to see if there’s a door. You’ve been running all night.
All night and no doors, not even a window. Just black walls and flashing colors. The sounds of thunder sometimes seep away into the night. You’re not sure if it’s night or day. But you keep running. The thunder goes away and you grow tired. Your eyes heavy and burning. Your eyelids feel like copper. Like small pennies pushing their weight on your corneas. Your legs and arms grow jittery and you feel like collapsing.
But every single time you try to stop running, your body runs faster. Every time you try to sit down in the hallway, a force pulls you up. Like gravity was working in reverse that day. After the first three hours, you finally give up on the idea of resting and run faster, thinking maybe, just maybe, you’ll make it to the door. You have no idea where this door might be, but it has to be here somewhere. You’re not sure if you’re running in a circle or a straight line, but it feels more like a straight line. You can’t tell if the walls are curved. You can’t tell if there’s been a turn in the wall. You just keep running.
Then you see it, a tiny fleck of light. Like a keyhole. And you squeeze your eyes tight and try to concentrate all your energy on getting to that hole. Then you notice the steam coming from the hole, only it’s not steam. It’s smoke. It makes you nervous to know there might be a fire on the other side, but you keep running.
Thunder strikes you like chalk scratching its way across the blackboard. And you hear the sound of Charlie Parker’s “Merry Go Round” playing. A flash of blue light hits your eyes and they close tight.
And then you’re in a park full of evergreen trees that smell so sweet and your mom is standing in front of you, glowing and smiling. You walk toward her. And her body dissipates into steam.
You are sitting in the passenger seat of Dad’s Pontiac. He’s changing the radio station from talk radio to something more upbeat, per your request. You’re not sure where you’re headed, but you’re happy to sing along with The Eagles’ “Hotel California.” You’re only eight and not quite old enough to understand its drug references. You just like the beat, and you look over at him and notice he’s singing along too. He’s smiling at you and singing, We are programmed to receive, you can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave! You ask him if that might be considered kidnapping, and he can’t help but laugh.
You’re livid to see him smiling again. You can’t remember the last time you saw him this happy. You must have been about thirteen years old. You’re singing along, and then you realize you’re only eight. How can you remember something from the future?
You’re confused and your stomach begins to knot. Your breath ceases and you look at him, panicked. How old am I? He won’t answer you. How old am I, Dad? He changes the station back to talk radio. The sound of Rush Limbaugh erupts in your ears. You unbuckle your seatbelt and move in toward the switch. You turn off the radio.
He looks at you and turns it back on. His arms are so long and covered in hair. He doesn’t have to reach to hit the switch. You’re only eight, you think. Dad? You think to yourself, maybe he can’t hear you anymore. Maybe he’s thinking about something else. His smile has disappeared. You forget about the talk radio. It’s all white noise to you anyhow. You look out onto the Tom Landry Highway. You remember Tom and his famous good-luck fedora and you remember watching football with the whole family.
You can’t remember how old you were when they won the Super Bowl, but you remember Dad smiling then. The Cowboys are America’s team! he’d say proudly. You wonder what made that true. Because they were winners? You look toward the exit. Chain restaurants and gas stations and hotels fill the streets. The sign says EXIT 30 Six Flags Drive. You remember the Mr. Freeze ride and wonder if Dad remembers riding that one with you when it first came to Texas.
You look over at Dad and ask him if he remembers, but he won’t answer. You look up in the rearview mirror and see a reflection of your mother in the backseat. She’s staring at you and a few tears fill her eyes. She’s gasping for air but unable to move. You turn to crawl into the backseat, but your Dad tells you to sit still, he’s driving on the highway, that’s dangerous. You don’t care. You have to help her. You shove his arm off of you, and wiggle your way through the small gap that sits between the driver and passenger seats. Once you’re back there, you see her eyes, wet with tears, and she bends her mouth into a smile. You look ahead for your dad, but he’s not there. No one is driving the car. You look down at your mother’s smile and you forget about the highway zooming by and the talk radio and everything. You see your mother’s smile.
You are unlocking the front door of your childhood home. The door is cherry wood and has a glass window in the middle. You notice a small crack in the center of the window, and you wonder how long it has been there.
From outside the house, you can smell the rose bushes blooming. It’s April, a time for growth. The pink rosettes are your favorite, because they bloom much bigger, because they smell much sweeter, and because they were the first your mother planted.
But as you get closer to the door, you smell something even sweeter than the smell of those pink rosettes. It is the smell of home. The smell of aloo chole, coconut rice, and tomato chutney fills your nostrils, and you dig into your pockets to find the proper key.
There are many keys attached to your chain and you thumb around until you produce the correct one. You do not want to knock. You do not want to disturb Mom while she’s in the kitchen. It’s an unsaid rule at home. No one enters the kitchen when Mom’s cooking.
So I turn the key quietly and the cherry wood door swings wide open. Is that you, Ari? My mother is calling from the kitchen. Yes, it’s me! Smells great. When I compliment my mother’s food, I compliment her soul, her entire existence. This is her passion, her skill, her meaning in life. To feed her children the best meals. To watch as hours of food preparation is enjoyed. It’s the way she shows love. Come taste the crab cakes. Mom always wanted me to taste her food. I’ll be right there. I didn’t know crab cakes were on the menu tonight. But then I could smell them. The cilantro and onions. The crab and potatoes. All mashed up and lightly fried in a pan. A favorite appetizer to any homemade meal.
I close the door behind me, and untie my boots. I set them to the side and throw my keys on the table beside me. Are you coming, Ari? I place my right foot on the carpet, but my left foot won’t budge. I keep trying to kick it forward, but it stands frozen, stuck to the tile. I bend down and grab my left leg with my arms and pull with all my might, but it won’t move, not even a little. So I try to move my right foot back, toward the tile, but it is pinned to the carpet.
My left foot feels cold against the tile. My right sweaty against the carpet. I am stuck. Mom? Mom! I yell, but no words come out. What’s taking you so long, Ari? The crab cakes will get cold. I can hear her fine, but she can’t hear me, and I can’t move. Mom! I’m stuck. I can’t move. Can you help me, Mom? But still the words don’t leave my mouth. It is as if I am thinking the words. It is as if I am mute. It is as if words are merely nonexistent, at least for me.
Ari, I could use your help setting the table. I hang bent over with my arms below my waist, my hands grasping my right foot, and when I try to move my arms, they are stuck. Blood begins to rush to my head, and my head grows light. I can’t talk. I can’t move, and she is in the kitchen, out of sight.
I scrunch my bones together and try to force myself into motion, but there is nothing. My eyes can blink. And they do so rapidly and without stop. I move my head upwards, until I can see the roof. But all I can move is my head. Everything else has grown motionless, paralyzed.
And then when I looked around, I wasn’t in my childhood home anymore. Everything around me seemed so foreign, so out of place. I turned my head from side to side and took in my surroundings. Where was I? The layout was the same as my house. But the furniture was all beige and plain. The carpet was beige. The curtains were beige. The smell of pink rosettes was gone. I breathed in deeply and noticed that I could not smell the food simmering on the stove either. Where had it gone?
Still, motionless, I whispered out, Mom, are you there? My voice was no longer mute. I heard it loudly. But there was no response. Mom had disappeared, along with the smells of aloo chole, pink rosettes, and the comfort of the small crack in the window frame.
Sometimes I woke up crying, because it didn’t really happen.
Sometimes I woke up smiling, because I could pretend for a few more moments that it did.