“Just stupid stories! How you won that photography award in the tenth grade! How I begged the man at the Hickory Farms to order some ginger pickle in 1982 and then that nuts goes and orders candied ginger!”
“Right in front of you? You were standing right there?”
“I listened from the laundry room.”
To live in the Eapens’ house was to acknowledge the sharpness of invisible borders, the separations that had divided it like two countries since 1983. It had been years since Amina had seen her mother wade into the yellow light of her father’s porch, and as far as she knew, Thomas had never once crossed the gate into Kamala’s garden.
“And you’re sure it was Ammachy?”
Kamala hesitated for a moment. “He could see her.”
Amina straightened. “What are you talking about?”
“He told her to go sit somewhere else.”
“Yes. And then I think he maybe saw . . .” Kamala’s voice trailed off into silence, the world of grief that lived invisibly between all the Eapens revealing itself like a face waiting behind the curtains.
“Who?” Amina’s voice pinched in her throat. “Who else did he see?”
“I don’t know.” Her mother sounded far away.
“Mom,” Amina said, worried now, “is he depressed?”
“Don’t be dumb!” Kamala huffed. A flurry of activity released over the phone line in what sounded like something heavy being dragged.
“No one is depressed. I’m just telling you is all, like that. I’m sure you’re right, it’s fine. It’s nothing.”
“But if he thinks he’s seeing—”
“Okay! Talk to you later.”
“Well, is Dad around? Can I talk to him?”
“He’s at the hospital. Big case. Some young mother hit her head on the bottom of a pool two days ago and hasn’t woken up.” The Eapens had never spared their daughter the details of her father’s work, so even at five years of age Amina heard things like Her medulla has a ski pole lodged into it or His wife shot him in the face, but he should live.
“Are you sure he should be working right now?” Amina had gone into surgery with her father once, in second grade. She remembered the sharp, bitter smell of the operating room, the glint of her father’s eyes over his face mask, the way the floor rushed up to greet her when his scalpel ran a red seam down the back of his first patient’s head. She had spent the rest of the day eating candy at the nurses’ station.
“He’s fine,” Kamala said. “It’s not like that. You’re not listening.”
“I am listening! You just told me he’s delusional, and I’m asking—”
“I DID NOT SAY HE IS DELUSIONAL. I SAID HE WAS TALKING TO HIS MOTHER.”
“Who is dead,” Amina said gently.
“And that’s not delusional?”
“There are choices, Amina! Choices we make as human beings on this planet Earth. If someone decides to let the devil in, then of course they will see demons everywhere they look. Th is is not delusional. This is weakness.”
“You can’t really think that.” It was a wish more than a statement of fact, as Amina was well aware that Kamala, with her Jesus, religious radio shows, and ability to misquote the Bible at random, could and did believe anything she wanted to.
“I am just reporting the facts,” her mother said.
“Right. Okay. Listen, I’ve got to get going.”
“You just came home! Where are you going?”
“Now? With who?”
“Dimple,” her mother repeated, like a curse. According to Kamala, Dimple Kurian had been afflicted with low morality since the day her parents gave her that ridiculous name for giggly Gujarati starlets. According to Dimple, Kamala had a Jesus complex where her heart should be. “Is she still opening relationships?”
“Open relationships, they’re called—never mind. Yes.”
“So she can be with one boy then another, all in one week.”
“Chi! Dirty thing. No wonder they had to send her to reform school! You run around with everyone and then cry ‘Oh no, he thinks I’m a whore, he thinks I’m a whore,’ when he thinks you’re a whore.”
“When have you seen Dimple cry about anything?”
“I’ve seen it in the movies. Henry Meets Sally.”
“When Harry Met Sally . . . ?”
“Yes! This stupid girl is with too many men and crying about ‘Nobody loves me,’ and then she goes with that poor boy and expects him to love her!”
“That’s what you think When Harry Met Sally . . . is about?”
“And then what is he supposed to do? Commit with her?”
“He does commit to her, Ma. That’s how the movie ends.”
“Not afterward! Aft erward, he leaves her.” Her mother’s conviction that movies continue in some private off screen world had always been as baffling as it was irrefutable. Whole plots had found themselves victims to Kamala reimagining, happy endings derailed, tragedies righted. “And anyway, someone should tell Dimple to call home. How can her parents know she is okay if she doesn’t call?”
“Because I see her every day and I would tell them if she wasn’t.”
“Inconsiderate so-and-so. Bala gets so worried about her, you know.”
“Tell Bala Auntie she’s fine. And I’ll call Dad tomorrow.”
There was a round silence on the other end of the line. Had she hung up?
“It’s not something for on the phone.”
Amina blinked at her cabinets in disbelief. “So, what, I’ve got to wait until I fly home to talk to him?”
“Oh,” Kamala said, voice rich with feigned surprise. “Sure, if you think it’s best.”
“When can you come?”
“You want . . . I should . . . wait, really?” Amina looked in a panic at the kitchen wall, where a bright list of to-dos for the Beale wedding hung like an accusation. “It’s June.”
“It’s some big thing? So don’t come.”
“It’s just a bad time. It’s my busiest time.”
“Yes, I understand. It’s just your father.”
“Oh, stop. I mean, if you really need me to come out, then of course I’ll come, but . . .” Amina pressed her fingers to her eyelids. Leaving work in the high season? Insane.
Her mother took a deep breath. “Yes. That would very nice, if you could manage it.”
Amina pulled the receiver away from her ear, staring at it. She had never heard a sentence sound less like it could have come from Kamala’s mouth, but there it was, her mother’s attempt at accommodation as discordant as the hidden message in a record played backward. Something is wrong. Something is really wrong.
“I’ll get a ticket out next week,” Amina found herself saying. She paused hopefully, waiting for a Never mind, a Don’t bother. Instead she heard a long, strained grunt and the satisfying chorus of roots popping up from the ground. The muffled thwack of palms against pants beat through the phone line, and Amina saw her mother as she would be in that moment—standing in the garden, tiny puffs of cottonwood dander floating around her dark hair like dusk fairies.
“Okay, then,” Kamala said. “Come home.”
* * *
Mira Jacob is the co-founder of the Pete’s Reading Series in Brooklyn, where she spent 13 years bringing literary fiction, non-fiction, and poetry to the stage. Previously, she directed editorial content for various websites, co-authored shoe impresario Kenneth Cole’s autobiography, and wrote VH-1’s Pop-Up Video. She has an MFA from the New School for Social Research. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.