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Features | Anila

Lovers can find ways to hide time, at least for a while.

Lovers can find ways to hide time, at least for a while. I know that I did. Each Saturday night, I used to unplug our alarm clock so that I didn’t have to notice how long Anna and I spent tangled up in each other’s limbs on our slow Sunday mornings. My fingers would get lost in her hair, her toes would gently fight mine for an extra piece of the blanket, and we would slowly plan our entire day; run some errands, fold some laundry, maybe go to the local farmer’s market in the evening. Nothing special.

Eventually, she would find her way out of my arms and unfurl her body with a long stretch. She always threw her head back, opening her neck up to the world. Some mornings, she’d stay like that for longer than usual and you could see a blade of sunlight cut across her collarbone.

For the rest of the afternoon, our house swelled with the scent of coffee and slightly burnt bread. She’d turn on some Christmas jingles on our old CD player, even if it was July. I’d always stay in bed for a little while with my eyes closed, letting the music wrap itself around my bones like tinsel.

It’s funny how we count on these little moments to save us.

***

All of that feels like another world. This morning, I crawl away from the sun, burying myself in the same sheets Amma bought for me when I was 14. I can hear her downstairs, making her early Saturday morning calls to family in India. Fragments of their conversation come to me through the air vent. Someone’s sick. Some- one else’s daughter is getting married in July. Some of the names I vaguely recognize. Most of them I don’t. They say that blood is thicker than water, but you can’t hold your grandmother’s weathered hand or crawl into bed with your favourite cousins when entire oceans are in the way.

When I finally make my way into the kitchen she hands me a cup of tea.

“How was your sleep?” she asks in Hindi.
“It was okay,” I answer in English.
We drink our tea in silence. Out the window I notice that there’s a fresh coat of paint on the Banarjees’ garage. A red-haired woman in a power suit is rummaging through her purse on their porch.

“Wait, did uncle and auntie leave?” I ask her.
“Are you surprised? Uncle was on his way to a six-figure salary around the time you were moving away.”
“Wow, I can’t believe it—”
She rolls her eyes. “You big city people think that your hometowns will be as you left them. But we’re allowed to move on too, you know. Now, if you hadn’t left—”

I want to remind her that I hadn’t left, that they were the ones who put a suitcase in front of me when they caught me kissing another girl in the basement. I want to remind her that it was below freezing that day and I only had time to grab my windbreaker. I want to take her across the street and show her the phone book that I flipped through trying to find other people with our last name, hoping they were distant family who could take me in. I want her to hear the mechanized operator telling me that the only number I did find had been disconnected. I want her to feel the way the handle of that suitcase dug into my fingers as I pulled myself down the street. But there’s no use dwelling on the past. So I just shrug as she goes on and on.

***

I was still using that same suitcase the night Anna and I moved into our apartment. After months of living in decrepit basements with semi-functional plumbing, she convinced me to sign a lease on this new place:

“Come on, I’ll pay your rent while you look for a job,” she’d pleaded.

“You can’t do that,” I said, “You’re still in school. I don’t think your parents—”

“Don’t worry about them; they’ve got money to burn. I just really don’t want to see you living like this—”

It had been an empty argument. We both knew I’d give in.

That afternoon she went to get some lunch and I emptied my entire life onto the kitchen floor. I’d forgotten to pack a lot of things, but I’d managed to tuck in a couple of little paperbacks I hadn’t touched since middle school. I opened them, letting the dust from their pages cascade through wedges of sunlight; a single creased photograph fell from one. It was a picture of a tiny woman in a sari, hair tied into two tight braids, eyes closed, brows scrunched up, mouth somewhere between a polite grin and an amused smirk.

“Anila,” the back read, “1983.”
“She’s so beautiful,” Anna said from behind me.
I hadn’t noticed her come in. She put her bags to the side and took the photo from over my shoulder.
“I can’t believe you were using her as a bookmark. Who is she?” “I don’t know. I know we used to have a couple maids back in India, but I was so young—”
“How old do you think she is here?”
“Here? I would guess about 21. I like how she looks like she’s waiting for something big; it’s kind of nice that she gets to stay like that forever.”

“Well, you know, she’s probably out in the world somewhere, moving through life like the rest of us. It’s kind of fun to think about what the real Anila must be doing right now, don’t you think?”

I really didn’t.

But we hung our Anila up on the fridge. We’d meet her every morning when we’d make our way for some orange juice, and every night when we’d go to heat up our dinner. The world spun and shook and screamed, but Anila stayed the same. She was always there with her eyes closed tight, waiting for something big.

***

Nowadays, waiting is all I do.

I’m sitting on the porch, staring at new cars in old driveways, new bodies on old pavement. Eventually, I can’t even recognize the past. The recollection of my first car crash clashes with that of my first kiss. I remember the wheels of bicycles turning, but not the people riding them. It’s like someone took slides from my memories, cut them up, shuffled them in a shoebox, and scattered them across my consciousness.

I feel a hand cup my shoulders. Amma uses my body to settle down next to me. The skin on the back of the hands looks like crumpled packaging paper, but her palms are stiff with calluses. She used to tell me that up to her wedding day, she hadn’t worked an hour in her life. Back then, her hands were smooth and white, like she bathed them in milk every day. There are a dozen pictures in her wedding album just of those pearly palms, bursting with hot red henna.

“We should go to the temple tomorrow,” she says. “I would really rather not,” I reply.

Her mouth falls, “I thought you had come to your senses, leaving that girl—”

“Amma, she left me—”

We’re silent for while. I really shouldn’t test her too much. Trying to avoid her gaze, I turn my head and look into our house through the open door. The suitcase is still sitting in the living room, like some kind of a threat.

“Sometimes I wonder why we even brought you here in the first place,” she starts, her voice quivering, “you first generations don’t understand – you’re all just copying them, copying the way they dress, the way they talk, things that they do. But mark my words, you will never be like them. And none of them will ever love you, not like family. You’ll end up neither here nor there.”

***

“Where you are from?” Anna asked a few months after we’d first moved in. “Show me.”

She had just found an old globe on her bike ride back from work and placed it on our kitchen table. She spun it around, making me feel a little bit dizzy.

“What do you mean? You know where I’m from.”
“Well, yeah. But I want to know exactly where.”
“What, you want me to me to pick out my great-grandfather’s village?”
“You’re so vague when you talk about your family. I really want to know more about your past.”
“I moved when I was 5; that’s not really my past. I know you want to hear that I grew up being chased by tigers in a tropical rainforest, but I was raised in the suburbs; I took swimming lessons at the community centre, I went to public school. The biggest difference between your childhood and mine is probably that the other kids didn’t make faces at what your mom packed you for lunch.”

“Oh come on, now you’re just being difficult,” she rolled her eyes, letting her index finger graze the spinning globe, not paying much attention to where it landed.

Later that night, we were lying in bed. I brushed my fingers against the hollow of her collarbone. I could still smell the sweat from her bike ride.

“Oh!” her eyes lit up, “we should go there, visit your family! I mean, you’ve had Thanksgiving dinner with mine. My finals end early this year and tickets aren’t that expensive in December. I really want to meet them.”

“Yeah, I don’t think you’re the kind of groom my family has in mind.”

“Come on, I feel like we barely go anywhere—”
“I just don’t like going places for the sake of it. I mean if there’s something interesting happening, then sure. But I’m happy here,

I’m happy with you. I like things the way they are.”
“I like things the way they are too, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend all my time cooped up in this tiny apartment. India would be so much fun; we don’t even have to visit your family. We can just be tourists. Hey, we might even bump into Anila.”
“That Anila is probably old and grumpy and has ten kids she can’t afford. I like the Anila on our fridge, and I get to see her every day.” She stared at the ceiling for a while, and then threw off my arms and walked over to the vanity table. I stared at her face in the mirror. I realized that her hair had grown considerably in the past few months. A couple of tiny, thin silvers grazed the left of her head. There was a crease mark on her forehead that I hadn’t quite no- ticed before. She stood there for a while, playing with the latch of her jewelry box.

“I don’t know why you’re like this,” she started softly. “Sometimes you can be so closed off. I feel like I tell you everything—” She really did. In the first half-hour of our first date she had told me she was 50 per cent Irish, 25 per cent British, and 25 per cent German. Maybe she was looking for common ground, trying to show me that neither one of us were just one thing. And I guess that was true. But at least all of her jewelry was in that one box. Amma told me that a week before the midnight flight from Indira Gandhi International Airport, she had taken all the gold chains and earrings and bangles that overeager family had gotten me over the course of my five birthdays and had divided them amongst three wooden containers. Each container was at a different relative’s house.

“This way we don’t have to depend too much on one family,” she’d said. Anna kept talking, but her voice began to feel like elevator music. Suddenly all I could think about was my gold, glittering in three different dark places.

***

Sometimes Amma likes to turn the ring on her finger around and around as if she’s trying to open a particularly stubborn lid. She’s doing it right now as she stands in front of the stove, waiting for the oil in her frying pan to warm up.

It starts hissing and she slides in some thinly cut lady fingers. The pan spits hot oil at her every once in a while, but she barely even flinches. I think about all the other women who cook like she does, who have the same little burns on their arms. Maybe Anila is one of them. Amma used to say that you can only talk to people with the same wounds as you. I think about all the different conversations she could be having.

“Amma,” I pipe up from the kitchen entrance, “did you know someone named Anila growing up?”

“Someone? I knew several. There was Anila, the butcher’s daughter. She got married to the tailor’s son, but he died after ten years. She had three children by then. She also had a beautiful smile, the whitest teeth you’d ever see. And she couldn’t even afford toothpaste! Then there was the Anila who worked for your grandmother. We all despised her; she would always…”

And one by one, she remembers each Anila to life. She knows who they were married to, how many children they had – for two of them she even knows what their favourite food was.

“And then there was Anila whose father shared some land with mine. She was a little bit older than me. She always wore jasmine in her hair; every room she visited would smell so good. I used to follow her around like a little dog,” she laughed, “I acted like I was in love with her.”

She catches my glance and her smile fades.
“I mean,” she says stiffly, “she was a good friend.”
She wipes her brow with her left forearm and keeps stirring the vegetables. Eventually, the sound of her cooking is so loud that we both have an excuse to be silent. The smell of cumin and chilli powder rises and loosens the tension in the air. A part of me feels jealous of her, though, jealous of her for knowing all those Anilas.

I guess some would say that I’m feeling nostalgic. But nostalgia is a longing for the past. This isn’t longing. This is not knowing what exactly is missing in the first place. This is every life you’ve ever lived spitting you out like a bad taste. This is feeling the ghost of the little girl you once were dancing around your heels and vanishing in a cloud of giggles when you reach down to grab her. This is exile with nowhere else to go.

***

Some nights Anna liked to have parties in our home. Everyone was welcome. She’d leave the door open and streams of people would float in and out. It was a tiny space, but that was okay; conversations were started by falling onto the sofa or almost spilling your food onto someone’s lap. In the beginning, we’d move from one pool of people to another together, reminding one another names we’d forgotten. But eventually Anna insisted that we try to socialize on our own.

“We can’t be one person,” she’d said. “Sometimes I feel like you—”

She paused for a moment to brush some mascara up her lashes.

“I mean, we’re just too co-dependent,” she finished, snapping her makeup kit shut.

So while I might have wine with the man from down the hall, she’d talk to the lady upstairs about some new art exhibit in town. Sometimes, we’d pass by each other. Other times, we’d catch each other’s eyes. That has to be one of the strangest things in the world, making accidental eye contact with someone you love. You almost forget for a second that you know them.

One of these parties fell on the night of our anniversary. Around midnight, we were both sitting in a single loveseat, watching two bottles of champagne surf the crowd. I could smell the wine on her breath; she’d never liked to drink much before.

“How long has it been?” yelled a pot-bellied man from across the room.

“Um, I think about two years,” I replied.

She secretly traced her fingers down my back. “We’ve come so far,” she whispered softly into my ear.

I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant. Did she mean that we’d grown up together, taken on the world side by side? Or did she mean “so far” like so far away from home, like so far away from anything or anyone else that we were sitting in that chair and hold- ing each other out of necessity rather than love? Did she mean “so far” like we couldn’t make our way back even if we tried?

When everyone left, I’d often do the dishes by myself, letting the warm soapy water fall through my fingers. That night Anna came into the kitchen and hugged me from behind.

“That was nice,” she slurred, “a lot of new people showed up. I wish we could see those people more often.”

“You can if you want,” I said, struggling to pull out a free arm to close the tap.

She rested her chin on my shoulder. “You don’t actually mean that,” she whined, “I see the way you look at me when I’m going out or when I have new people over. You – you’ve barely touched me in three months.”

Her mouth pressed against my shoulders; it felt like cold metal. I could smell the alcohol on her lips. I didn’t want her but I could barely move. Her entire body felt like a straitjacket. I thrust my elbows back and she fell, crashing against the fridge, knocking over Anila.

I turned around, picked her up, and put her back on the fridge. I stood there for a while, ironing out any creases with my fingers. Anna looked up at me from the floor like she couldn’t recognize who I was.

“Seriously,” she choked, “it’s a damn photograph.”

***

Lovers can be turned into homes, at least for a little while. But you can’t count on someone to stay in one place. And, besides, neither people nor places can save you.

Those last days were just a frenzy of boxes and paperwork; we could barely look at each other.

“Do you know where you’re going to go?” she asked the final morning, twirling a sugar cube in her coffee.

“Not really,” I said, stuffing the last bits of my clothes into my suitcase, “probably home – or like, my parent’s house.”

And I’m here.

Amma is out in front, on her knees, trying to plant jasmine flowers in the little garden right outside of our house. I hope that when they bloom, the entire air feels stuffy with their scent, like Anila’s spirit is running up and down our stairs.

I don’t actually know what happened to our Anila. She must have gotten lost in the tumult of the move. Maybe she slipped under the fridge, or slid into one of those little openings at the bottom of our walls. Maybe she fell out of a box or a suitcase outdoors and is now passing through the city, under bright lights and strangers’ boots, her braids and sari forever in place.


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