By Rajeev Prasad
Based on the movement of stars and planets in the galactic realm, the Hindu priest had set their mother’s death anniversary for tomorrow at the Livermore temple just east of San Francisco. The three sisters were all spending the weekend at Tej’s house. The last time the siblings had been together, they’d watched their mother dissolving under white sheets and morphine infusions.
On that cool Saturday morning, Tej’s sons and nephews played by the pool in the milky fog swirling in the backyard. The clear water lapped up against the decking as Tej cleaned the grill. He was a compact man with a round dark face, thin curious eyes and stocky legs. He wore a long white cooking apron over his jeans and blue UC sweatshirt, — he had studied architecture there years ago.
From where he stood by the grill, through a narrow triangle shaped by the branches of Douglas fir and oak, the Golden Gate bridge etched sloping red triangles onto the Pacific. Above him, the wrinkled fruit of the lemon tree floated like a canopy of yellow planets.
Tej’s wife, Madhuri, opened the patio door and the immediate clamor of voices followed her into the backyard. Tej, having grown up in a noisy house, was accustomed to racket, but his sisters had woken up almost five hours ago. The chatter had been constant, loud enough to send the bluebirds and the sparrows off to the neighbors.
“I cut some melon and berries for the boys, take some,” Madhuri said.
“I had a snack earlier, just getting the grill going,” Tej said.
Madhuri placed the fruit tray on a metal table by the pool and approached him. In the reflection of her glossy black eyes he could see his tiny apron-clad figure. He held up the austere stainless steel tongs to let her know he was going to be busy grilling.
“They miss you inside. You don’t need to get so fragile around them. They’re family.” She slipped her arm around his waist.
“I can’t talk for that long, rehashing all that old stuff.”
“You can’t stay in your shell all weekend.”
“I’m outdoors, fresh air, lemons, the pool, it’s good for me.” Tej smiled and kissed her cheek. His lips felt like cold rubber. “I’ll be in soon.”
Madhuri returned inside, where they laughed, drank chai by the gallon and ate deep fried pakoras. His sisters and their husbands did that sort of thing when they got together.
Tej organized the platters of vegetables and meats around him like plates on a lazy susan. The grill was heating up. The little black needle quivered and incrementally rose until settling at five hundred degrees Fahrenheit.
After finishing the veggie work, he gripped the slippery whole chickens and pork roast and carefully placed them on the grill. The fat and oil from the tandoori marinades dripped onto the searing metal underbelly. Smoke laced with cumin, masala, and chili rose into the atmosphere of the lemon tree. The felt drops of sweat trickle down his neck.
He noticed that the pool was an unusual color, like a silver dollar in the breaking daylight.
“Tej, step away from the grill, man. The chicken isn’t going to run off,” Priya, his youngest sister, said.
Priya walked like their mother, down to the way she paused in front of Tej with her arms folded over her chest and her left eye wandering inwards. Shoots of premature white penetrated her otherwise thick black hair. Soon her hair would begin to resemble their mother’s long white hair.
“Come inside and spend some time with all of us,” she said.
At this, Tej became agitated. He faced her with a long metal spatula that glinted under the sunlight. “How can you all keep laughing and eating and drinking.”
“We’re all her kids. We’ve come together to remember her. When dad died, it was the same. It’s what mom would have wanted us to do.”
Her small hand, adorned with a single gold wedding band, settled on his shoulder. Tej stared at her without saying a word.
She took the platter of food covered with red and black char, and before returning inside, said, “At least come and eat with us.”
Under the lemon tree, the heat from the open grill turned air into wavy lines. In the distance, Tej could hear a foghorn from the bay that sounded as if it was calling his name. He wandered back into his house. His steps failed to make a sound.
Priya handed him a plate of food and he settled into a stiff fold-up chair. The chili powder and lime coated his lips and started a burn. His brother-in-law handed him a Coors Light. He knocked cans with him like it was any other Saturday afternoon.
The kids plucked the meat off the bones with little teeth and oily hands. Their bellies grew large and soon they appeared to be pregnant little people, their splayed limbs cooling under the slowly rotating ceiling fans.
Madhuri, said, “We are thinking about splitting up. Half of us taking the kids to a movie, the other half walking by the bay.”
Tej grimaced. The idea of walking with everyone by the bay seemed torturous, since they’d all be talking louder than the lapping waters. A movie at least would be cool and hypnotic. But he had no desire to do either. The effort to ready and leave with the group was insurmountable.
His wife noticed his panicked look and said, “Or you can stay home.”
“I’ll stay here,” Tej said promptly. He smiled quickly at her. He would thank her later, in private.
“I don’t think so,” Priya said. “It’s not good for you to spend all this time alone. You can’t do it all on your own.”
“I’ll read her journals,” Tej said.
“Sounds really depressing,” Priya said.
That was enough to send his wife wailing. Tej’s sisters came to her side. His two boys were accustomed to her recent level of emotionality, but instead of going to her, they approached their father.
Tej tried to smile at them, to reassure them, but his face was stuck. The pressure and grief were on his chest. His boys crowded around him. His eldest reached his chin now, and stood straight like a watchtower. The youngest gripped his hand.
After a protracted goodbye for a simple trip to the movies and a walk, Tej was left alone. The inside of the house felt hollow. Leftover crumbs on plates. Rejected clothes and wet towels on the floor.
From the back window, he looked over the ravine of brush and saplings growing along a stream formed from the drainage of water outlets higher up in the hills. The leaves were motionless, so clear he could make out their green veins. A film of algae with the hue of golden dust coated the slow moving water. He felt alert. His perception was heightened.
The red sunset flooded through the bay windows. Red, yellow, orange, and purple filled the western sky. Above the palate of colors, planets turned, asteroids streaked, and stars went supernova. For a moment, the beauty of it all was astounding.
The scrap of sandals against brick took his gaze off the sky. It felt like the first sound he had heard all day. He turned and walked to the back of the house. The two patio doors were wide open with a pair of dried leather sandals neatly placed by the doorway.
She was leaning back in an oversized lawn chair, picking the dried skin off her heel. Her white hair hung down the back of the chair nearly sweeping the ground. It didn’t really surprise him, finding her there, and not being surprised might have been the strangest thing of all that day.
“You weren’t ready yet to stop being your mother’s son,” his mother said.
“I knew it was coming. I tried to prepare. But it didn’t help,” Tej said.
“Why aren’t you spending more time with your sisters?” she chided. Her voice was still a cross of growl and command. “Do you remember how loud our house was? That’s the mark of a happy house.”
“I tried to join in,” he said
“Not really, it just wasn’t in your nature. You don’t have to apologize for your nature,” she said.
Her lack of hesitation was stunning. She was the same mom, but somehow different. He asked himself if her last statement were true. Perhaps at the end of life, a person stopped apologizing for their nature, but the way Tej saw it, until then, a person was constantly apologizing. Apologizing to others for letting them down, and apologizing to himself for what they might have become.
“Do you want some lemonade?”
“Yes, and fix it with a little salt and an extra teaspoon of sugar.”
“Your diabetes?” he said.
Her left eyed turned inwards a little more than he remembered, and she shook her head as if he might never grasp the most basic things about life.
“The pool must be very beautiful at night. The light on the bottom spreads from one corner to another,” she said.
Tej walked inside and poured the lemonade. The evening sun scorched the patio. She usually hated being out in the sun. She said it made them dark, made them ugly, and would give them cancer, but today she didn’t seem to mind sitting out in the sun.
Her light brown skin bulged at the waist and hung over the front pleats of her white sari. Her skin was still smooth despite being past seventy. For the last few years, Tej had noticed that she had started to dress more like her mother, wearing unfussy cotton saris and a large unfashionable bindi.
They sat by the poolside as a daylight moon curved behind the bay. Of course, by this point, time was no longer as tyrannically linear. For Tej, living without the pressure of time was a bit like the feeling of lying in a hammock under a starless night. For his mother, it was nothing more or less than the place she had reached.
The bottom light of the pool switched on. The waters, only seconds before clear in the evening light, came to life. They sat before a pool the color of desert sky. Tej started to think that the pool light was no different than the light of stars.
“We had a music, all of us. All the women had our tune. Your father could hear it. He’d come home after working and he liked all the music.”
“I heard it. I just wanted to be away from it,” Tej said.
“I know. You were always the quiet responsible one. You were always the American.”
“We’re all American,” he protested.
“You were very strong, on your own. You didn’t need Indian. You didn’t need the roots to deal with the Americans,” she said.
“Mom, that’s a little racist,” he said, despite knowing that she didn’t mean it that way.
“We belonged with each other. You wanted to belong to something bigger. You didn’t think you would need those roots, until now.”
“I had to find my own way. Boys can be like that,” Tej said.
She strummed her stubby fingers along her knee that she’d pulled up to her chest. “I understand. You have a lot that you want to talk about. We have time.”
They fell silent and watched the rippling surface of the pool. After a while, she turned to him, her left eye threatening a break from her steady gaze. “You wanted to be accepted, a boy of two worlds, but always trying to best both. In their world, you needed to excel. When you weren’t good enough at track you changed to tennis. When you couldn’t do business, you quit your MBA and chose architecture.”
“I’ve always been driven,” Tej said.
“I don’t care what you accomplish. I care about being with you,” she said.
Tej was surprised that his mother had seen his struggle all along, and realizing that she had always known his burden that was different than hers’, than her generation. He was touched. “I’ll get another batch of lemonade.”
“No more lemonade, I’ll take a Coca-Cola,” she said. “And your chicken needs more crushed onion.”
She was still taciturn, full of unspoken love, but tonight she had something pressing on her mind. When he returned with their Cokes, she began speaking. She talked for a long while and said things that she had never said before. Tej didn’t entirely understand, but he came to realize that these moments were mysterious. He was embarking on a journey that could last for as long as he needed.
Quickly dusk came into being and passed on into night. Their voices were like the steady taps of woodpeckers on oak. She put her hand on his. It was calloused from the cast iron pots, the bear paws they used to call her hands. Her skin warm and flush on his wrist, the breeze around them cool and tender, they sat together, the pool lights undulating on their faces.
She held onto his hand for what seemed like a long time. They’d finally run out of words and Tej wanted to swim. He stripped down to his black boxers. The air tingled along his bare brown back.
“Will you swim?” he asked her.
“Not today, son. I stopped swimming a long time ago.”
“I wish you would,” he said.
“I wish I could too.”
He leaned over and kissed her brow. She sipped her Coke and cracked the last piece of ice in her flat teeth. He looked back at her. Her one good eye was on him. Then he dove headfirst into the water.
At first he swam towards the light submerged below the surface that seemed like a thousand feet away. The pressure built in his ears. When he opened his eyes, the water washed into his skull, then through his body. The cold blue filled him.
He turned the corner. His chest burned. Her blurry reflection was far above him, above the surface. He kicked towards her. The bubbles emerged from his nose and mouth. He couldn’t stay under for any longer.
His body broke the surface and the water tumbled around him. The air was cool along his skin. She was gone. She had finished her Coca-Cola and left. He didn’t get out of the water to find her. He knew that he couldn’t do that.
So he started to swim again, long luxurious strokes along the surface. As the laps passed, he felt her presence, stroke after stroke, and breath after breath.
Copyright Prasad 2017