Photograph by Reelika Ramot
A man is trying to sleep. The night is in the peak heat of summer, and a thick film of sweat swaddles his body. In this sticky state, he feels like a newborn. His wife is in the living room reading on the couch; some prize-winning novel she started last week. He has to work early the next day, so he shuts his eyes and splays his legs open so things can hang freely. It is too hot for sleeping.
But he has to try. A weak breeze squeezes past the window screen and pokes his shapeless body, which resembles tapioca stuffed in sandwich bags. The hairs on his skin go up in relief. The air cools him, and he sighs deeply. He thinks about the dinner his wife made—a chicken fricassee with rice and beans; it was good, a little on the spicy side, maybe there was too much chili powder—and the sauces and lumps of fowl floating in his stomach like kids in a pool.
But he's starting to feel his pores gasping, oozing grease all over his body. The sheets beneath his Buick of a back are now damp, and the space inside the folds of his fat are actually beginning to feel wet.
He thinks about the dinner he ate, and then he thinks about his wife who cooked it. These days she sits a lot in their living room, where the carpet color matches the curtain color. The house they live in is white, with black shutters. It was finally purchased last November after twenty-five years of mortgages. They almost lost it in the "economic downturn," or the "recession," or the "subprime mortgage crisis." But they'd lost a lot of things, so it wasn't shocking.
Kids, for instance. His children are almost grown up, some in college, some working their first jobs, all far away from him. The last time he saw his eldest son Randy was at an Olive Garden, behind an endless basket of breadsticks and across from his son's then-girlfriend, whose cleavage eclipsed the endless salad bowl. He was graduating college. He did not turn out tall, like his mother. He took a banking job a few months later and hasn't called home since.
But that's just what grown-ups do, the man tells himself. They get busy. He isn't sure what the official age for a grown-up is, and anyhow, he is no example of that. He quit college to chase his dreams.
"What the hell is a cinnamontographer?" his own father had bellowed at the dinner table.
The man never ended up going to film school, or working on any film at all.
Then they died. Both his parents. That was another thing he lost.
Also, erections. To say that he and his wife didn't have sex was probably untrue; they just stopped having it with each other. Once he walked in on Sally jacking something with urgency between her legs on the couch. In a suspended moment he saw her, silent, eyes beamed ahead like headlights with the focus of an archer, sprinting to some euphoric finish line on their wall.
"Is that—" he began. "Is that corn?"
She cried as he stood there, coat still on, frozen with his briefcase and sagging eyes that observed the mechanics of ecstasy from afar.
That was three years ago. Another hundred pounds later, he was here, sweating like a whale in cardiac arrest on a bed by himself.
Stop thinking, he thinks.
His wife turns the page and it makes a crinkling sound. It echoes throughout the living room and bounces into his, ricocheting off his translucent thighs and springing onto the ceiling, landing hard on his bulbous nose. It veers against the wall and pummels square into the vast, useless space between his legs. He turns over in agony and lashes the pillow across the back of his head. No, no, no, he moans. He wallows, face-down, into the mattress. The backs of his thighs are sweating. His eyeballs are sweating. His wife will not stop reading.
Suddenly he thinks of a pot roast. That's it, a pot roast, tender and moist—not unlike the underside of his arms—glazed all over with its own fat and some chopped carrots. He imagines his fork delving its glinting prongs into the sinewy chunk. It disintegrates to the touch. The saliva mills of his mouth are up and roaring, and he angles for the perfect bite. But the meat slides right through the fork like thin cough syrup, and he can't get it onto the utensil. It's like eating soup with chopsticks. He stabs at it again, but the chunk only runs down his fork—a caramelized drip right onto the plate, where it pools back into the shape of a perfect pot roast.
The whole affair makes him sweat more. The plate is a vast white sheet, just under his nose, and he chases the food around with his fork before succumbing to more desperate measures. If the meat will not come to him, he will go to the meat. He stamps his massive, doughy cheek on the plate and opens wide, a gaping hangar where the pot roast will park for eternity. The meat is a dark, sideways mound on his horizon.
With his free hand he nudges it, just to be sure.
It stays firm.
His saliva glands lose control and blast an uncontrollable highway of warm drool onto the plate, but no matter—it's going back inside anyway. His fingers prod the chunk just before his eyes.
One more shove and it's in.
He can almost taste it.
The last push is a hard one and he can hardly contain his anticipation before he shovels the meat at full velocity into his face, yes, here kingdom comes—when suddenly he arrives at the fleshy cram of his own fingers, the pudgy pointer jammed hard down his own throat and none of it, not a thing, tasting like pot roast and carrots.
It was gone.
It had left him, again.
Why, he moans. Why, why, why. He thinks he's crying, but it could well be the pond of drool beneath his face. The entire episode tires him. In five hours he would have to get up, drive twenty minutes to rot under mail room lights for the day, drive home and stare at the light beer selection in the fridge. He will talk, or not talk, to his wife over dinner. She will read her novel, likely for eternity. His children were never coming home. He couldn't remember the color of his living room carpet. He was two hundred and eighty pounds.
Two hundred and eighty. He thinks about this number. The eight does not look unlike him when he's wearing a belt. He could be the zero lying down. It all flattens out.
He counts blubbery sheep that have his face. They jump over a fence. He hits two hundred and eighty and starts over again, this time with a mustache on. He fancies himself French. The breeze is coming back. It's nice. It grazes over his skin and he turns on his side so it can hit his back, the one his wife used to caress but now tells him to wax. "It isn't that bad," he protests, but when she makes a face he's only seen right before she vomits, he nods his head and does nothing about it.
There, that wind—it's a wind now—gliding over the right plane of his body. It's as if someone is petting him, and he settles on that—the sensation of being pet.
He thinks he's asleep. Maybe not. But he feels different suddenly—his body, folded over on its right, is thinner, lighter, more athletic. His tits disappear. Everything is slim. He has difficulty breathing and puts his hand to his neck—there's a necktie there, that's why. He loosens it, and realizes there's a collar. The collar is attached to a shirt, and the shirt is underneath a jacket, and the jacket is over a pair of pressed pants. He's wearing a full suit. He looks good. At least that's what he's feeling—that he looks good. There's no way to know for sure, is there. He wiggles his toes and sees that his feet are in a pair of nice shoes. They're buffed and shining and the laces look made from silk. The shoes have an elegant shape to the toe: long, sleek, made of good brown leather. His grandfather used to tell him that you could judge a man's character by his shoes. So they're definitely not his shoes. His shoes are boxy, square at the toe, and there's a hole in the sole. Sometimes he can feel himself leaking out of that hole onto the pavement, where he steps himself all over the city's sidewalks.
What's he doing in a suit?
He's in a cold room and looks down, where a red carpet begins to form beneath his feet. At first he wonders if he's bleeding out of that hole in his shoes, but realizes he's not wearing his shoes. He's not even himself, is he? The bottom of his pants are perfectly trimmed. He can actually see his toes, which is refreshing. The carpet rolls out in all directions and the room fills with people, all dressed like him, some women in skirt suits, other men in the same crisp outfits of varying shades: blue, gray, black, blue, gray, black. They notice him. They say hello. His hand is being shaken many times over, and he finds himself smiling at their attention.
"Hey, Walter," they say, and they look into his eyes. "Good to see you again."
His name isn't Walter, but it doesn't matter. He must look really good. They are milling all over this room like caffeinated ants, walking bolted paths to where, he's not sure, but they're doing it with purpose, and that's all that matters.
He gets a cup of coffee from the breakfast spread and stirs in cream with a silver spoon. Maybe a person like him shouldn't be putting cream in his coffee. He should probably take it with soy milk. So he sets his old coffee aside and gets a fresh one, this time with soy. He stirs it with satisfaction and takes a sip, pretending he likes the flavor, which is horrid and tastes like bong water. He's had bong water before, in college, before he dropped out. His frat elders videotaped him, drunk and stoned, chugging it with a jock strap taped to his face. He threw up on the carpet, and they made him do it again.
He hasn't had bong water since.
He looks across the crowd and feels placed. He belongs here. The soy coffee is beginning to taste better, and he no longer feels the strangle of his necktie. He likes the way people are shaking his hand, even though they shake everyone else's hand the same way. A man next to him barks into phone and bats his arms around to make a point. A woman checks her blackberry, eyes hardening at something that drives her out of the cold, carpeted room.
It is suddenly beginning to feel hot again. Walter, or so they call him, tugs at his necktie. He wants to take it off. He unleashes it in the middle of the room and none of the other tie-wearing people seem to notice, so he takes off his jacket. There's a blast of air conditioning from nowhere. He turns his left side to face it and lets it run over his forearms, his ribcage, his firm buttocks. It feels so good he takes off his shirt, just unbuttons it right there amid all those people and none of them stares. Fine, then I'll take my pants off too, he decides, and he takes his pants off, letting the cool blast air things out.
His shoes are the last to go. He's sad to take them off and has the sense he'll never see them again. They were beautiful shoes, and he wished they were his. But as he loosens those laces and tugs off the heel, there's sand. It comes pouring out, as if he'd been at the beach, and he, from long ago, had buried them there. The sand doesn't stop flowing and he checks the sole.
There's a hole in it.
So much sand has leaked out that he's in fact standing on a mound of it. Something caws overhead: a seagull. The waves are just to his right. There's a little boy pounding a stick into the wet sand with a plastic shovel. It looks like someone he knows. The little boy's mother—she's also familiar, but before he can put a finger on all of it, someone calls out to him.
"Walter!" she cries.
She approaches him, her blond hair caught in the wind like a tangle of hay, a sand dusting over the bridge of her nose. Her freckles splatter high on her cheekbones.
"But I'm not Walter!" he replies.
"Oh, Walter," she says with relief. "There you are. We thought we lost you."
She looks exactly like the woman in an advertisement he and his wife passed two days ago walking past a Gap store.
"They don't actually look like that you know," she'd said to him.
He wasn't sure what she meant, so he grunted, and continued on their way. He thinks about this now as the woman from the window smiles at him, looking exactly like that. He wants to ask his wife what she meant. But his wife isn't here.
She's over at the sand pit, with the little boy. Walter squints at her and she's the spitting image of herself in their wedding photo, the one tucked behind the coffee coasters. Her brown hair is frazzled, half-up in a barrette. Her tanned breasts are spilling out just slightly from a polka-dot one piece that hangs itself around her long neck. She's radiant. She's smiling in a way that makes Walter squeeze his ass cheeks together and mush his fingernails into damp palms.
I can't go talk to her, he thinks. She's so pretty. She's too pretty for me to go over there and talk to her.
His wife is playing with their firstborn, Randy. He's shoveling sand all over her chest and she's giggling and Walter is getting a hard-on. This is wrong, he thinks.
This isn't me.
He stares at the beginning of his own family. Why doesn't it feel his? It's his wife, and that's their son, conceived the night they shared two bottles of cheap Merlot at Josephine's, on Pine Street, and came home to empty the liquor cabinet. Randy was a five-pound, six-ounce accident. Then came Lainey, then Max. Andrea was born after a miscarriage.
That had been hard on his wife. He had cupped her limp hands and felt her lungs shiver through her back each night when he cradled her. When day broke, there was the sting of warm salt when he kissed her cheeks.
He had been familiar with the nape of her neck, then.
At what point had they left themselves?
What had he done Tuesday night? Wednesday night? How long had she been reading that novel?
"Walter," comes a voice.
His name isn't Walter. But he glances up anyway. The people from the conference room are standing, blue, gray, black, on the beach. Their suits move like flags in the wind and they're arranged like props around each other, as if on set. He feels a momentary sense of relief. They know him. They had shaken his hand—with smiles, no less. If only he could get a soy coffee.
But something strange is happening, he thinks. The girl from the advertisement is standing before them, gesticulating. Walter strains to hear what she's saying. The cries of children and seagulls and waves drown out her voice.
"Walter—" she is saying. "Do you know where he's gone?"
They shake their heads. They seemed baffled. She hoists his shoe to identify him.
How does she have that?
Yet there it is, canoe-like in the way his foot had stretched it. It's his. He sees the laces, frayed like floss, the black leather more like scoffed bark gnawed by an animal. That boxy toe, fit for an oaf. He stuffs all of himself into those shoes each day, all two hundred and eighty pounds, and this day, after all this time, he wonders why he never bought a new pair of shoes.
There's a hole in the sole.
My god, that hole. Sand is flowing out it like a broken hourglass. It runs endlessly. She's holding it up and the wind is blowing the stream of manila beach westward. The crowd considers and shakes their heads.
"Do you know where Walter is?" she asks again.
There is an urgency in her voice that touches him. But he's losing track of the girl's voice. The wind is whipping sound away. He merely sees the outline of her lips, the shallow shape it makes of the name, Walter, her eyebrows pushed together in the frenzy of a mother who's lost her child.
The suits shake their heads again.
"No," they say. "We don't know a Walter."
Photograph by Prima Alam
If Mum knew that I was here she would kill me. Eighteen years on from the day when Stork Incorp. took the final instalment of my conception fee from her account, I am finally about to meet the male who fathered me.
My first sight of the imposing grey concrete buildings on the outskirts of Dundee, that are Stork Incorp. with their surround of high barbed wire fences is almost enough to turn me about in my tracks. Almost, but not quite. I am determined to meet him, this male who out of Mum's earshot and even then, still under my breath I sometimes refer to as 'Dad'. As a child, all I had to prove his existence was a small, crumpled photograph, torn from the Stork Incorp. catalogue of the year of my birth, but that tiny picture, hidden inside my pillow, heard as many childhood secrets and wiped away as many tears as any flesh and blood parent.
Blood, that is what we share and why without him I feel like I'm only half a person. I have inherited my mother's hair and eyes but according to our medical records, my blood is my father's. It's not my head or my heart that aches to know him, it is my blood. It pumps faster now in growing expectation as my two escorts lead me through countless gates, doors and security scanners and past the windowless nurseries where the few male children reared, are kept. It must have been a strange, strange world before the revolution, when males were allowed to roam among us.
History has always fascinated me. It was both my favourite subject at school and, as it turned out, the reason for my eventual expulsion, when I dared to attend a Invergowrie School end of term party in a SKIRT! I was expelled instantly on grounds of 'unacceptable femininity'. Mum laid the blame for my degeneracy on my father's blood. This only served to strengthen my resolve to meet him and each week I put a little of my meagre wages aside until I could afford the trip to Stork Incorp.
I am ushered into the waiting room and left by myself. Here, the walls are painted in pastel shades and covered in pictures of smiling baby girls with their proud mothers. For a moment these photographs remind me of those that are sticky-taped to my bedroom wall at home, except that my photos and posters... I cringe with shame as I admit this... are all of males. Degenerate I am, like Mum said. It's in my blood. Never the less I do find it embarrassing to walk into a second-hand shop, in a Dundee side street, and under the disapproving eye of the proprietress, pick out the faded, torn pictures of rock and film stars from a previous age. Despite my shame and the fact that my purchases are invariably wrapped in brown paper and quickly thrust into my bag by the shrewd shopkeeper; once I reach home, tear off the wrapping and see those handsome male faces staring up at me, the ordeal is made worthwhile.
I have been waiting here for twenty minutes now and growing more nervous by the second. What shall I say to him? There is a pile of magazines on the table but they too contain nothing but endless pictures of mothers and their daughters. I wrote to the problem page of a similar publication to these, a couple of months back, explaining that I was planning on seeing my dad and asking them what I should expect to find. Their reply was most unhelpful -'DON'T DO IT' in capital letters, and informed me that even if I succeeded in meeting him, the outcome would only be a bitter disappointment to me. 'Males aren't like us you know.'
I have a book in my bag. I shall take it out and try and read. It's a romance, my favourite kind of fiction, no longer published of course. I have covered it in the jacket of a volume entitled 'Advanced Hydraulic Systems, Their Maintenance And Repair', thus sparing myself the pitying looks of my fellow travellers on the journey down. It's by a woman named Jane Austen, the romance that is, not the hydraulics tome. Mum still finds my wearing of feminine clothes and shoes very hard to accept, but her reaction is mild compared with the fury I provoke when walking around our small town, dressed in all my finery. The very first time I plucked up the courage to venture out on the streets of Invergowrie in a DRESS and a pair of SLINGBACKS, the abuse and the spittle fairly flew in my direction, until a friend of ours dragged me home in disgrace. Never though, will I be tempted to trade my glamour and femininity for the drab uniform of overalls, sweater, laced up boots and cropped hair worn universally by everyone else, young or old. I am proud that degeneracy is in my blood. I am going to thank my father for giving me this, the greatest gift of all.
The only word I can think of to describe what has drawn me here to finally meet my father, is an old fashioned term no longer used - LOVE. I love him although I have never met him and 1 hope that once he knows who I am, he will love me. Love must be the thing that fills up that cold, empty space inside of a person. When I look at my posters and pictures of males, I feel moved in some way. Is that love too? It must have been pretty important once. Pre-revolution poets filled books with poems about it and most of the songs on my antique CD's mention the word as well. I cannot see any of these songs of love making today’s top twenty. Nowadays almost every song written is about a woman's aspirations or career - either how well she is doing or how well she would like to be doing at her job. I work as a plumber. I was startled to read somewhere the other day that there used to be male plumbers too in the old days. Mum says that it cannot be true because it is a skilled job and if males had been responsible for our sinks and toilets the whole planet would have been flooded with sewage in no time. It does make you think. At school we were taught that males have only a limited intelligence and are all dangerous and destructive. Apparently, they began to threaten both the survival of womankind and of the planet itself, hence the revolution.
My escorts still have not returned. Do you suppose they can have forgotten me? I must say that the women in this Jane Austen's novel seem to be very taken with the charms of the males in the story. These males do not act like they are dangerous at all and the way she has written it, they seem to be almost as intelligent as the women.
At last I can hear the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside. My escorts are returning to collect me and take me to see HIM! I can hide my book inside a different cover but I cannot hide my feelings. I am coughing and sweating - will it arouse their suspicions, or are the women who come here to choose a father for their children, usually nervous like this? If my deception is discovered I may be thrown back out into the street without seeing him or I may even be arrested. That does not scare me as much as the prospect of meeting Dad, even though it is something I have waited for, for the majority of my life. Will we be like strangers to each other? After all, we share nothing but blood.
There is a warmth down deep inside of me, in my blood. Perhaps there is a similar warmth in him and at the sound of my voice it will kindle into love. I wonder if he will still be recognisable as the male in my photograph, taken nearly nineteen years ago. Unfortunately, I will be behind mirrored glass so that although I will be able to see him clearly, he will not be able to view his daughter. This is a precaution by Stork Incorp. to 'protect the woman's anonymity and to avoid causing undue disturbance to the controlled daily life patterns of our males'. At least we will be able to speak to each other. This is allowed so that those women looking for a male with a higher than average I.Q. rather than a specimen with mere physical beauty, may question the males at length though it's stressed in the publicity material that the males might well choose not to answer. I sit down in the chair provided and look through the glass into the opposite room, where my father will soon enter. The escorts leave me, the door in the room beyond opens and here he is! It is him! Yes it is; older naturally, a few lines on the handsome face, a sprinkle of grey in the thick brown hair, but it is unmistakably the face which has looked out at me from that torn piece of paper, these past eighteen years. DAD!
"Hello" I stammer. He sits down in a chair but doesn't try to stare in the direction from which my voice is coming, out of habit I suppose. He has never had the opportunity to view one of his visitors and probably never will. Of course, I do not interest him - not yet, not until my fumbling tongue can explain our special bond. Our bond of blood.
"I have come here for a very special reason..." He is not reacting to my words. An awful thought has just struck me. Suppose he is not English and cannot understand me. Some males are imported from abroad to give a wider choice and variety. I must put the thought out of my head. I must carry on now I have come this far. "Hello Dad, yes that's what you are, you are my father." He jumps up out of the chair. He understands! "I love you, Dad and I've missed you all of my..." He has turned away from me. He is pushing a button on the wall. What does that mean? I cannot see his face to see how he is taking my news. "Dad! Dad!" He is not listening to me. He is at the back of the room now. He is hammering on the door by which he came in. He is pounding on his door, but it's my door that flies open. My escorts are back and with them two huge, grim-looking women. "Dad, what's happening? What's going on? Do they treat you well in here? WHY WON'T YOU SPEAK TO ME?"
The heavy gates slam shut behind me, my hands are nursing my head where it cracked against the pavement. Lifting my face from my hands, I see first the barbed wire barricade around Stork Incorp. and then upon my fingers I see my blood, our blood, beginning to collect and to drip down the front of my dress.
Judy is a multi award-winning playwright/screenwriter, with plays produced by the Royal Court, Hampstead Theatre, National Theatre and BBC Radio 4 among many others. She has also had two feature films, several short films and an original TV drama produced, as well as numerous short stories published.
Photograph by Prima Alam
Enter, stage left, a woman raised in the West but rooted in the East, the age-old immigrant story, the proverbial clash of civilizations (though she’s never bought into that oversimplified narrative). She comes of age like her peers, quickly, wildly, and defiantly. She flinches reflexively at words of obligation - should and ought and must - because she cannot see their relevance in the land of opportunity.
Her parents, in the shadows of stage right, stand aghast. Raised in a culture that privileges the voice of community, they dare not speak personal pipe dreams and desires aloud. Who is their shape-shifting daughter, who shows flashes of both the culture in her blood and the one she wears over her brown skin, and yet is neither one nor the other?
ACT ONE: FAMILY
I am in the passenger seat of my friend’s car, and we are driving with no purpose other than to feel the possibility inherent in the evening. There is a party at my house tonight, full of relatives who would ask biographical details to see if any details have changed. Name, age, what do you want to be when you grow up? We don’t see these people often enough for them to come into focus, so I would try for the hundredth time to memorize faces, names, relationships. Every gathering is a reunion for our parents but a meet and greet for the children. Once, I asked my mother to help me write down our family tree but I couldn’t find a piece of paper big enough to fit all the branches.
My presence is nonetheless always required, though I am never consulted regarding my own plans for the evening. I must attend, because any meeting of families is impossible unless each unit is complete. I currently have ten missed calls, and they all scream “Mom” with increasing urgency. I see the name flash again on my phone, and I send it to voicemail, letting my other hand catch cool currents of air outside the window. My mother laid out an outfit this afternoon for me to wear, loud crushed silk shot through with heavy gold thread. I have been the dutiful paper doll for every other gathering, but tonight, I could not put on the appropriate face, so I do not make an appearance.
She did not come, so we had to play her role. Every aunt, uncle and cousin forcing us to answer questions on her behalf. We all relish these gatherings, to be able to spend rare time with one another with a comfort and familiarity which does not extend to any other aspect of our lives. She does not find similar solace in blood ties.
She views family as a flat plane, but really it is a pyramid, sloping up to our elders at its point. Those forming the foundation are critical; without them, or any of us supporting one another, the structure crumbles. How to tell her that she will have her freedom of choice when she has earned her knowledge and her place?
ACT TWO: EDUCATION
Two years into college, after I’ve had my fill of experimentation, I call my parents to switch my major. I’m changing from biology to fine art, I tell them, and they react straight from their script, which is to say with great alarm and distress. They already have doctors, so why do they need me to be one?
I send them photographs of my art, in which I try to make feelings tangible, to communicate with them through slashes of paint because words are woefully inadequate. I send them an invitation to my final show. They shuffle through the gallery quietly, spending a few seconds on each piece. But when they find me at the end of the line of paintings, I do not see pride on their faces, only deep and abiding concern.
Every time my mother comes to my apartment, a tiny studio barely large enough for a double bed, she does the dishes. Actually, she asks me first if I’ve thought about going back to school or getting a job, while we are surrounded by the canvases that already speak to my chosen profession. Then she stands at the half-sink getting splashes of water on her clothes and scrubbing paint-encrusted pallettes and food-stained plates. Pouring down the drain the feelings she cannot express to me.
When you know struggle, you do not wish it upon anyone else. How could you? You wish for your children a life better than you have lived. You wish for them an easy life, where the paths are straightforward and lead reliably to security. If there are roads like this - doctor, lawyer, engineer - we do not know why someone would not take them. It’s like rejecting a buy one get one free coupon; we paid for the education, and the career was supposed to come with it.
We took cars and trains and airplanes all the way to a different country, simply to reach an endpoint we could trust. Or that our parents told us we could trust, because we put our faith in those who know better. She thinks chaos and uncertainty will fulfill her. But beauty alone cannot sustain you; art cannot feed you. What else can keep you whole like stability?
ACT THREE: MARRIAGE
I introduce him to my parents at the most awkward of lunches. They are usually the most sociable people - you have to be, when you grow up with relatives constantly coming and going - but now they are silent. My partner tries to carry the conversation but can find no purchase beyond one-word answers. He gives up and I try to block out the sound of all of us chewing.
He is confused as to the problem, and honestly, I am, too. Could my parents possibly have expected an arranged marriage, one in which I would have no say? It has to be willful blindness if they did not see my life leading inexorably to this result, a partner who doesn't share my religion or skin color, but most importantly, shares my love.
The wedding planning is particularly uncomfortable. My parents have moved on to resigned acceptance, and my mother sends a guest list of hundreds. All of these people are necessary, she says, and all of those other people are necessary because the first people are necessary. We are peeling every layer of relatives inward, but I wonder when we will reach the center where my partner and I are standing.
At the wedding, we are too drunk on joy and cheap wine to care about disapproval. In any event, there is none. I watch my father dab his eye as we say our vows, and my mother weep openly. We are surrounded by a crowd of relatives who vibrate with contagious happiness. An entire community of people, all here just for us.
It wasn’t what we would have wanted, though we can’t quite explain our objections. It wasn’t him so much as the idea of him. At that first lunch, we saw the disintegration of everything we worked for, all the values we believed in. When a girl gets married, she is no longer a part of her old family; she becomes a member of her new one. And so we had brutal dreams about the death of our culture at the hands of our daughter.
We wanted a logic for her union, one we could understand beyond amorphous “love”. Love is not a flash of lightning, a single glance, or infatuation; it is familiarity and companionship cultivated over a period of years. How else to know that you should put in that time and effort than by ensuring you are aligned with your partner as far as possible? It is a matter as elemental as finding the right seeds for the right soil.
We wanted a marriage with room for our culture, one that would rear children with a knowledge of our gods and languages and histories. We preferred our odds if she had accepted even one of our attempts to set her up. But we met him a few more times, and slowly he became more than the man who stole our daughter. We learned of his openness, curiosity and kindness, and how, in loving our daughter, he accepted all parts of her, not just the ones she pre-packaged to show him. Perhaps, we thought, this was the guarantee for which we’d hoped.
The wedding was beautiful, of course; everyone we knew and loved was there, which is one of the unstated purposes of the occasion. When we took her hands in ours and passed them to her partner, we didn’t even feel like we were losing her. We gazed at her radiant face and thought maybe, finally, she realized what we had been trying to say: all we wanted, in the end, was for her to be happy.
Exit, scene left, SHE and the CHORUS, on paths that do not run strictly parallel but endlessly diverge and converge, weaving a web to hold them in a strange and unknown land.
Nina Sudhakar is a writer, photographer and lawyer. Originally from Connecticut (by way of parents from India), she most recently lived in London and is currently based in Indiana. Her work is forthcoming in The Equals Record, Stoneboat Literary Journal, and re:asian. She writes about travel and culture on her website Project One Thousand (http://www.projectonethousand.com).
My parents weren’t born until 1975, but they were total hippies. They had vague memories of Reagan, and the way our country turned its back on those with AIDS, HUD and Iran-Contra -- all of it. Their own parents had lived through the 60’s, but they stood on the sidelines and observed because they were too busy cobbling together enough to keep Illinois family farms going.
My parents met while at a mediocre state university, both feeling like they had a sign on their backs that said “Kick Me: I’m Poor White Trash.” But they always wanted to change the world. At first they thought it was through teaching, and the Ivory Tower and all that noise. They did everything right, and they got advanced political science degrees and made just enough noise to call it Social Justice and to feel like maybe they could bring kids into the world. So they did. Jimmy in 1999. Me in 2002.
I can’t give you all the details. How my dad saw himself in every student, except the rich ones from the suburbs, whom he antagonized and shamed. Inside he was still poor with one pair of dungarees and boots he stuffed with newspaper. It made him afraid to stop working, to stop, period. Mom taught too, but once me and Jimmy came along, teaching didn’t hold the same import. We loved our lives. We lived in a town with a university at its center and everything radiating out from it. Jimmy and I would ride our bikes home and find international students from Africa and Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, along with the entire art faculty at our table, a little drunk. My mom was in the kitchen, so happy and a little high. She’d have us carry in huge dishes of curry, samosas, aloo goobi and garlic naan. She’d present us as if we were the most delicious dishes she ever made, one hand on each of our heads, blessing us. She’d kiss us all over our faces for the entire world to see.
Here’s what happened. So you understand my dad isn’t evil. My mom got sick. She was stage 4, so she wasn’t working. Couldn’t work. The state of Illinois was starving higher education. There were massive layoffs at the university and my dad’s program was small. Small but mighty, he used to say. Even though he was tenured and full, boom. He had one year of employment still, but he walked, out of principal.
My grandparents’ house, 13 miles outside of town with 6 acres had sat empty. My parents had cared for it—mowing and upkeep, and we mushroom hunted and picnicked and spent time there in all seasons for the thick silences, but my dad and mom explained we were going off grid, in a sense. We were going to grow tomatoes and sunlit happiness. I was 13. Jimmy was 16. We’d have a plethora of peace and quiet, which my mom really wanted. To die in. She said stuff like that so we’d press our face up to the fact that she was dying. She wasn’t scared. She thought it’d be like before she was born. And when I can’t sleep, I try to remember what it was like, before I was born. I think of the sign above the front door my dad made, reading “Utopia”. Everyone says I speak like some forty-year-old, but they don’t get it. Most adults don’t know what I know. Dad likes to say it isn’t their fault, but I sometimes wonder. Maybe I’ll be a hospice nurse. Maybe at 14 I’ve already found my calling. Easing pain.
My caseworker asked, “Knowing what you know now, what would you go back and change?” Made me want to punch her in the throat and I’m a pacifist. My dad grew weed, yes. He sold it to middle aged folks grappling with hard life and there was so much of it, suffering everywhere and the weed helped. It took off the hard edges so people could endure. My father never, ever glorified it and he mostly dealt in trade—an oil change, alpaca wool socks for the whole family, six loaves of stone ground wheat bread, and people came in and helped with my mom.
Mom died, bathed in our attention, the solidity of our love—we were a wall around her. The whole world was right there, in us four. I told my caseworker that’s all I’d say about it, in addressing you, the court, but maybe all of you gathered can imagine how the world was blown apart too. Maybe you can understand some pain can’t be eased. Only carried.
The people who once ate our table will turn their backs to shame us now. When the cops came, with a helicopter even, Jimmy grabbed my hand and looked hard into my face, looking for all the world like a child, not my nearly seventeen-year-old brother. “It’s just time, Suzie,” he said. “Dad will do it. We’ll endure it. When I’m 18, I’ll come for you and we’ll be right back here. In the meantime, you carry it all with you.” He pointed to his own forehead, and tapped twice, something my dad would do to tell us, “Think. Think.” We watched out the kitchen window, our beloved father in the front yard of Utopia, down on his knees, hands behind his head, centered in a spot light that made me shudder, that made my teeth chatter and so we grabbed hands, knowing the world had come to tear us all asunder.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in Fiction Southeast, Watershed Review, Rappahannock Review and Iron Horse Literary Review. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo, or engaging in literacy activism and radical optimism. She can be found at barbaraharroun.com.
Carly Dee and Q Lei, Editors of BLYNKT magazine and hosts of BLYNKT podcast