by Mira Jacob
But where had her father gone? Now missing for more than six hours, Thomas had sent the house into tumult in his absence. Ammachy wandered from room to room, fighting with anyone who crossed her path. Sunil, having crossed her path twice already, found a bottle of toddy and was devouring it in the rarely visited parlor. Divya had tucked herself in a corner of the verandah. Itty ran circles on the roof. Kamala, Akhil, and Amina sat on the upstairs bed, playing their fourth game of Chinese checkers.
“Your move, Mom,” Akhil said.
“Yes.” Kamala glanced down at her watch and inched a blue marble toward a yellow triangle.
“What time is it?” Amina asked.
Akhil did an elaborate series of jumps, sliding one more marble into configuration.
Amina sighed. “I don’t want to play anymore.”
“That’s just because I’m winning,” Akhil countered.
“You win every game!”
“So don’t play.” Kamala rubbed her own forehead, smoothing out the lines that had settled into it.
“But there’s nothing else to do!”
“Enough of whining! Go see what Itty is up to!”
But Amina didn’t want to see Itty any more than she wanted to see the Chinese checkerboard, or the inside of her parents’ sweltering bedroom, or Akhil gloating for the millionth time in a row. She pushed off the bed, heading instead to the stifling, fanless stairway, and lay down at the top of steps, letting the marble’s momentary coolness slide into her. A whole muffled world rumbled under her ear, clicks and groans of the house, the shup-shupping of someone’s slippers, slow, whale-like moans that she imagined coming from the depths of a huge, cool ocean. Her hip bones dug into the floor, and she heard something else. Singing. Was someone singing? Amina lifted her head off the floor.
“. . . fingers in my hair, that sly come-hither stare . . .”
Music! It was coming from below. Amina peeked over the stairwell. She crept down a few steps, and then a few more, until she was able to see into the parlor.
“Witchcraft . . . ,” the record sang, and Sunil along with it, his eyes shut, his face shining. A record spun in neat circles on the turntable, and next to it, her uncle followed, arms cupping the air in front of him, knees bouncing.
Amina stared in dismay as Sunil pivoted from one foot to the other, his hips cutting the air in deft strokes. It was like watching a muskrat slip into the Rio Grande, all of its clumsiness turned to instinctual grace. His meaty upper half arced, dipping near to the floor, then back up.
“I know it’s strictly taboo . . .”
The lightness in his face was something Amina had never seen before. He was, she realized for the first time, a handsome man. Not movie-star handsome like Buck Rogers, not even tall and sharp-jawed like Thomas, but appealing all the same. He took one quick step back and twirled to the right, his hand guiding an invisible partner.
Both Sunil and Amina jumped as Ammachy appeared in the doorway, arms folded tightly over her chest, sniffing at the room. Amina turned and ran up a few stairs, so she wasn’t sure what happened next, whether her grandmother actually sent the needle skidding across the record or if Sunil had done it himself, but the quiet that followed hummed with potential disaster.
“This again,” Ammachy said.
Shuffling. The sound of liquid being poured. A glass slammed on a table.
“You’ve had enough already, Sunil. Go to bed.”
Silence. Amina leaned forward. They were switching rapidly between English and Malayalam, which always just sounded like argada-argada-argada to her, until her grandmother demanded, “And where exactly is your brother?”
“I already told you, I don’t know.”
“So? You can’t be bothered to look for him?”
A sigh, a snort. “Please, Amma.”
“He’s your brother!” Ammachy snarled.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Sunil loosed another sigh, but this one was forced, feigned boredom hiding anger. “It means that Thomas is Thomas and he will go where he wants when he wants. You of all people should know that.”
“Oh, stop it with that. No one is interested in your babbling.”
“Idiot! You’re drunk. Argada-argada-argada.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
Amina slid her feet over the edge of one stair, then another. She peeked around the wall to find her uncle slumped into a living room chair, all trace of music and movement sucked from him. Ammachy hovered over the chair, the bright green silk of her sari glowing.
“How dare you do this?” she hissed.
“What now?” Sunil shut his eyes, leaning his head back on the chair.
“Feeling sorry for yourself again. Today of all days!”
“I don’t know what—”
“The house! You finally got him to give it to you.”
There was a moment while this sank in, Sunil’s bid for detachment redirecting. He sat up. “You think . . . you think signing over the house was my idea?”
“All the time he is giving you things, feeling sorry for you! Poor Sunil didn’t get the same opportunities, poor Sunil doesn’t have enough! And now you’ve taken the house!”
“He gave it to me.”
“Because he is always taking care of you.”
“Because he wanted me to take it from him.” Sunil rose from the couch. “You think he wants to live here?”
“He doesn’t know what he wants yet!”
“He doesn’t . . . You believe that, Amma? That Thomas has been gone these ten years because he doesn’t know what he wants?” Sunil laughed, but underneath there was tightness in his voice. “You think he wants to sit and rot every day in this place instead of running off to America and sending checks?”
“He sends the money for you!”
“He sends it for himself, Amma! He sends it so he doesn’t have to come. My God, you must know that by now.”
If she did know it, Ammachy gave no sign, choosing instead to wrap the end of her sari tightly around her shoulders. “Go to bed!”
“You think Thomas would ever give me something he actually wanted?” Sunil shouted as she walked into the hallway, and Amina covered her ears, suddenly understanding that she had heard too much. She felt for the step behind her with one foot, then the other, hoping illogically that if she walked all the way to her parents’ room backward, she would unremember the entire conversation. The knob was cool against her palm as she twisted it and shuffled into the bedroom.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Amina turned around to find her mother frowning at her.
“Nothing.” Amina sat on the bed.
“You’re feeling sick?”
“Did you make BM today?”
Akhil rolled his eyes. “Sure you did, poo bag.”
“Akhil,” Kamala snapped. “Enough. Your move.”
“Helloooo, Mom, anyone home? I won already.”
“Fine, so do something with yourself.”
“Like what? Make Amina poo?”
Amina rushed at him, digging deep into his belly with her nails so that he shrieked, knocking over the game and the marbles, which spilled across the bed, providing an unlikely torture device as he slammed her on her back. He twisted his head to spit on her, and Amina grabbed an ear, pulling as hard as she could.
“AMINAKHIL! STOP THIS BUSINESS AT ONCE!” Kamala pushed between them, sharp hands collaring their necks. She forced them apart.
Amina kicked at him again, and her mother squeezed her throat. “Ow!”
“My God,” Thomas said from the doorway. “What is all that about?”
The family turned to him, panting, and Thomas walked into the room, a sweet and funky cloud of toddy on him. He smiled his lopsided smile, and no one knew what to say.
“You missed dinner,” Kamala finally said.
“I know, I know. Sorry.”
“Where were you?”
“Out where? Doing what?”
“Well . . .” Thomas looked at them, as if considering something. “Making plans, actually.”
“Well . . .” He looked from Akhil to Amina to Kamala and back again. “Okay, listen. I have some big news.”
“You do?” Kamala’s hands dropped, and her voice was soft with excitement.
“We’re going on a trip!”
“To the beach! Sundar Mukherjee’s wife is a travel agent, and she booked us rooms at the Royal Crown Suites in Kovalam!”
“What’s Kovalam?” Akhil asked.
“Rooms?” Kamala’s face darkened. “What for?”
“Kovalam is the beach on the peninsula,” Thomas told Akhil. “It’s very nice.”
“But we don’t have time, Thomas! My sisters will be—” Kamala began.
“We’ll get to Lila’s on time. We’ll just leave here a little early.”
“Early?” Kamala asked. “How early?”
“We need to rest, koche. A real vacation.”
“Vacation?” Kamala’s voice dropped an octave, like she was saying drug binge or spending spree. “Thomas, what are you talking about?”
“A break! A little peace and quiet! You know, a chance for us to just relax.”
“I’m relaxed!” Kamala protested, looking anything but.
“No you’re not. And how could you be with my mother nagging you all the time?” Thomas raised his hands into the air. “Impossible! She’s made it impossible. It’s not fair to you or the children. No wonder everyone is fighting!”
“A beach like Hawaii?” Akhil asked. “Does the hotel have TV?”
“Yes, I believe it does.”
“Does it have a swimming pool?” Amina asked.
“It has a very nice pool,” Thomas informed her. “I believe there’s even a bar in the middle, where you can swim up and order a fizzy drink.”
Amina gulped, dizzy with possibility.
“Thomas,” Kamala said sharply. “We can’t just go.”
“You know why not!” She raised her eyebrow at the bedroom door, as though it were Ammachy herself. “Have you told her?”
“Don’t worry about that! I will explain tomorrow. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
“Tomorrow? Understand? Have you lost your minds? Besides, what will the neighbors think? Everyone will talk!”
“Who cares what the neighbors think?” Thomas scoffed.
“Everyone cares what the neighbors think!”
“Kamala,” Thomas sighed, rubbing his neck. “It’s not such a big deal. We’ll be leaving a few days early to go to the coast, that’s all. Don’t make it into a federal case, okay?”
Kamala got off the bed and opened the bedroom door. She looked at the children. “Out.”
“What? No, Mom, this is a family discussion, right? We’re entitled to—” Akhil started.
Akhil and Amina scooted off the bed as quickly as the marbles and bedsheets would allow, walking straight across the hall into their own room. They waited exactly five seconds after Kamala shut the door to slide out onto the verandah, where they could watch their parents but remain hidden in the dark.
“—can’t. It’s just not done,” Kamala was saying.
Thomas opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off with the flat of her hand.
“Bad enough the son leaves for America, then he comes home and stays for all of three days only?”
Thomas sniffed. “Don’t let’s start with all that.”
“I am not starting anything! You yourself started this business!”
“Enough, Kam. I am warning you.”
“You don’t warn me when I’m warning you!”
“She lied to me!”
“So what, now you want to run away? All because Dr. Abraham came?”
“She told him I wanted a job!”
“And you told her you would come back after studies! So? You are two liars! So what?” Kamala spun toward the window and Amina ducked, but her mother wasn’t looking at her. She was scooping up loose marbles and placing them in the game box.
“I did not lie, Kamala. It’s not as though I planned this.”
“No, of course not, His Holiness of Sainthood and Angels! You would never do such a thing!” Kamala shoved the top onto the game box. “You just studied the one branch in all of medicine that would be difficult to practice here and were shocked to death to learn that you could not practice it here!”
Thomas’s mouth hung open. He blinked several times before answering. “You saw me, Kamala. I asked at Vellore. I checked in Madras. I even looked in Delhi, for the love of God!”
“Yes, you said.”
“And what? You think I’m lying to you now?”
“No,” Kamala said, uncertainty creeping onto her face.
“The technology is not here yet! What do you want? You want me to work some miserable job just so we can be here?”
“I am just saying—”
“Answer me! Is that what you want? How about if I become a dentist? We can live right here, upstairs.”
“That’s not what I—and anyway, what’s so bad? So you don’t do the surgery! You are still a doctor! We could still have a good life.”
Amina had not known, until that very moment, that her father could look so bloodless, the color draining from his face until it looked like an angry husk. “What is so wrong with your life, Kamala?”
“We are not talking about me!”
“What is it that you long for? What opportunity have you not been given?”
Kamala fumed at the floor. “Nobody is talking about that.”
“Is it the house? It’s not big enough? You don’t like your car?”
“Don’t be a silly.”
“You want to come back here, is that it? After all these years, after everything we have built for ourselves there, after all that I have tried to give you, you want to uproot the kids from their entire lives and just move back here?”
Kamala’s lips clamped shut.
“What can you have here that you can’t at home?” Thomas took a step forward. “Really, tell me! You sit here like some pained mermaid longing for her sea, but what is it, really, that you don’t have back in the States? Your sisters who live in all different towns here anyway? Your independence? Enough help around the house? Someone to—”
“Myself,” Kamala said.
Thomas swayed a little bit, as if slapped.
“Myself,” Kamala said again, her eyes filling with tears she wiped away hastily, and Thomas’s arms dropped in their sockets. They did not look at each other then, but at the floor. A moment later Thomas turned and left the room, shoes heavy on the steps. Amina leaned over the verandah’s edge a few seconds later, watching him cross the yard, heading back to the gate. Akhil tugged her arm.
C’mon, he mouthed.
The lock screeched open again, letting Thomas back out to the street, and Kamala sat on the bed. Something round and hard moved from Amina’s throat to her gut, making it difficult to breathe. Akhil frowned at her.
“Let’s go, stupid,” he hissed, and she turned and followed him back inside, glad to have somewhere to go.
(From the book The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob. Copyright © 2014 by Mira Jacob. Published by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC)
Mira Jacob is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, which was shortlisted for India’s Tata First Literature Award, honored by the APALA, and named one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, Goodreads, Bustle, and The Millions. She is the co-founder of much-loved Pete’s Reading Series in Brooklyn, where she spent 13 years bringing literary fiction, non-fiction, and poetry to the city’s sweetest stage. Her recent writing and short stories have appeared in Guernica, Vogue, the Telegraph, and Bookanista, and earlier work has appeared in various magazines (RED, Redbook, i-D, Metropolis, STEP), books (Footnotes with Kenneth Cole; Simon & Schuster; Adios Barbie, Seal Press), on television (VH-1?s Pop-Up Video), and across the web. She has appeared on national and local television and radio, and has taught writing to students of all ages in New York, New Mexico, and Barcelona. She currently teaches fiction at NYU. In September 2014, Mira was named the Emerging Novelist Honoree at Hudson Valley Writer’s Center, where she received a commendation from the U.S. Congress. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, documentary filmmaker Jed Rothstein, and their son.