by Pallavi Wakharkar
At some point, it became improper for you to sleep next to your brother and your cousins, all boys, so you slept next to your grandmother. Every summer before this one, you had slept next to the boys and they kicked and snored and all the motion sometimes would untuck the mosquito nets from their careful positioning and you’d wake up red and bitten. But this summer, your grandmother wordlessly placed your pillow next to hers in the only real bedroom in the house and you knew this was where you were to sleep now. You were fifteen and a half.
You visited this house because you had to. Your mother wanted you to connect with your culture. She snapped when you spoke English at home and she sent you to this house, thousands of miles away, because it was good for you. This summer marked perhaps your tenth trip. You’d lost track.
Every summer you and your brother landed in an airport with too many colors and smells and your cousin picked you up. Your cousin always did this thing where he never let you stand close to the street. He did this other thing where he expected you to pour his tea for him. This year, as he maneuvered the car through the laneless streets, you told him—shyly but proudly—that you were getting your driver’s license in a few months. He laughed at you. “Girls are awful drivers,” he said. He laughed even harder at your learner’s permit, the picture of your little smiling face against the backdrop of the Grand Canyon. He dropped you off at your grandmother’s house, three hours outside of the city. He came in for tea, took a nap, and drove back to the city, leaving you and you brother. You both looked different than your cousins. America had made its mark on you.
Your best friend from Phoenix was Danielle, a white girl who was a dancer and had the muscled calves to prove it. She had a lightness about her that you admired. Next to her, you felt heavy.
Like many fifteen-year-old white girls you knew, Danielle liked tanning and boys. On the night before you flew away that summer, Danielle sat on the floor of her bedroom, lengthening her eyelashes with mascara in front of her full-length mirror. As she did this, she puckered her lips.
“I can’t wait ‘til I get tan this summer,” she said. “You have it so lucky. You were born tan already.”
You told her that your grandma says Indian girls are supposed to stay pale.
“Weird,” she said, sweeping her leg out in front of her and bending over in a deep stretch. “So, what are the boys like in India?” she said into her shin. “Are they like that weird kid Ravi?”
Ravi was the only other Indian kid in your grade at school and, admittedly, he was a little nerdy. But you felt protective over him—maybe because your mothers were friends and shared recipes with each other, and once you went over to his house with your family and he let you play Assassin’s Creed with him. Your own brother hardly let you touch the Xbox.
You looked at Danielle in the mirror, then at yourself, considering how different your features were from hers. You smoothed your hair with one hand, took a deep breath, and asked Danielle if she thought you were weird like Ravi.
Danielle unfolded from her stretch and picked up the lipstick she stole from the mall. You had watched her slip it into her pocket so naturally, as if it were already hers. “Don’t be silly. Of course not.” She applied the lipstick and then offered it to you. “You’re basically white to me, anyway.”
You smiled a little and put the lipstick on. It made you feel good to be like Danielle. You liked her big house and her small white mother who drove a big black Escalade and wore big black Chanel sunglasses. You liked the trampoline in the backyard and the spaghetti for dinner and how you could watch MTV freely. You liked her older brother, Matt, and how blue his eyes were. You liked her dad, who wanted you to call him Adam instead of Mr. Humphrey, which was cool. Your own dad preferred that people call him Dr., or at the very least, Mr.
Your dad embarrassed you sometimes. You cringed at the way he fumbled for coupons at the grocery store, and at his accent (which you thought was slight but others said was thick), and at how he said, “How do you do?” instead of “How are you doing?”
But there was that one time he picked you and Danielle up from school and you saw how hard he was trying to talk to her, to connect with her in some way, and you loved him. He had asked her too-loudly, “How do you do, Danielle?” and she had looked at you for a second, raising one perfectly arched eyebrow, then looked at him and said, “Um, fine,” and he became quiet and didn’t speak for the rest of the drive.
You had been filled with a sudden, protective anger that you did not expect. But you didn’t say anything. You felt ashamed because this was how you knew you were supposed to feel, even though you never quite knew what you were supposed to be ashamed of.
The summer you were fifteen and a half, the house in India did not have Internet, which was a problem you were unused to. You tried not to be an American brat, which is what your oldest cousin called you when he thought you weren’t listening. He used big words sometimes because he knew you didn’t understand them, but what he didn’t know was that you read your late grandfather’s Marathi-English dictionary for fun, and that you looked up every unfamiliar word he used, and that you had learned to read and write in Devanagari from your other grandmother, who wanted to teach it to you before she died.
When you got especially bored, your uncle took you to the village library on his motorcycle. You liked watching the world spin by—all the women in their bright saris, the stray dogs, the loose cows, the noisy rickshaws. You did not have much to talk about with your uncle, but you felt close to him on these wordless motorcycle trips to the library, your arms secure around his waist.
The library was small and unlike the library at home, which was massive and immaculately organized. There was no Dewey Decimal system here. You rooted around large piles of books, looking to spot anything in English. You found a romance novel that you thought looked interesting. You did not know there would be so much sex in it. You read about Damian and Katherine’s torrid love affair on the swing by the mango tree, and it made you tingle between your legs, which you felt conflicted about. But you kept reading it anyway. You hid the novel from your grandmother, who was a mathematics teacher for many years and the principal of the village’s school for girls. Everyone called her Madam. When she was nearby, you read something much more tame, something she would approve of.
During the day, when your grandmother was cooking or cleaning or going to the temple, and when your brother and cousins were in the village motorcycle shop—a decidedly no-girl zone—you walked around the village alone.
Now that you were older and had a hint of breasts, some things were off-limits, but other things were allowed, and it was difficult to determine which was which. You were no longer permitted to wear shorts or skirts that landed above the ankle. But you were allowed to go places alone. Sometimes you went to the girls’ school where your mother was once a student. You liked seeing the girls, all wearing two long braids and navy blue dresses and white socks and red ribbons. You liked imagining your mother as one of these girls. She’d head home from this school to tend to her grandfather’s chickens, taking care of them when they were sick, and you liked imagining that this is what made her want to be a doctor.
Most of your walks started and ended at the village’s one Internet café, where you would find many email updates from Danielle. Danielle hardly responded to anything you’d written and instead told you everything about her life. Despite this, you were glad to read something in your other language.
When Danielle told you via email that she had finally kissed Mark from the soccer team, who was a senior and old-looking with an actual beard and thick hair covering his thighs, you were happy for her. You really were. And when she told you a week later that they’d had sex after the soccer game under the bleachers next to all the empty soda cans and M&M wrappers, you were a little less happy for her—because you knew this was where things changed. This was where she would start having experiences that you could not relate to, and you knew she would look down on you for it. Still, you emailed back Tell me about it! both because you were curious and also because you knew this was what a good friend should say. Danielle made sex sound like the novel you’d picked up from the library.
That summer, you started thinking about boys a lot. Maybe it was all the updates about Danielle and Mark, or all the times you re-read the steamiest passage about Damian and Katherine outside on the swing. Even though the boys at your school smelled like Axe cologne and had dirty fingernails, you thought about them.
A boy kissed you once, quickly and unexpectedly, at a birthday party during the previous school year. He had braces and the sensation of having his face pressed up against yours was not one you had liked. Afterwards, Danielle had demanded to know all of the details, but all you said was that it was okay. If that was what kissing was really like, what was the big deal? You’d lived fifteen years without it.
That summer it was hot and you were growing up fast and you had a hyperactive imagination and you were curious. One afternoon, your grandmother wanted to visit her friend across the block, and she dragged you along with her. You wanted to sit inside the house and read your new book—you’d found another romance novel, one that took place in Medieval times—but this was not an option.
Your grandmother’s friend offered you tea and biscuits and you accepted both but only ate one biscuit, putting the rest in your pocket for one of the stray dogs you liked. As you were doing this, a boy your age walked into the room.
You recognized this particular boy because you’d seen him in the village other summers when he, like you, came to visit his grandmother. You’d seen him in the motorcycle shop a couple of times because he worked there, and once you saw him by the lake at the small Chinese restaurant you and your brother liked. Your grandmother and his grandmother were neighbors and had always been close, made even closer when their husbands died a few months apart. But you had never spoken to this boy because your Marathi was only good for speaking to adults and babies. You didn’t know the right slang to use with anyone in between, and your mother never said anything inappropriate or cool in Marathi, so you’d never learned to say anything inappropriate or cool in Marathi.
His name was Arjun.
When he walked into the room, he gave you a strange look, seeing you put the biscuits in your pocket. He had grown up a lot since the last time you saw him, and you watched him realize the same about you.
You listened to his grandmother brag about him, saying he was top in his class at his school in Mumbai and such a good boy. And he listened to your grandmother brag about you, saying you earned only A’s in your American school, and you spoke Marathi so well, and did they know you could read and write too?
“I saw you at the library yesterday,” he said to you.
You wondered if he’d seen you holding the romance novel and felt embarrassed.
“This girl is always reading,” your grandmother said before you could reply. “I think she likes books more than she likes people.”
When your grandmothers got up to clean the dishes, he looked directly at you. You tried not to squirm. Then he pulled a small notebook out of one pocket of his pants and a pen out of the other pocket and started to write. He ripped a page out of his notebook, folded it, dropped it in your lap, and left the room. You read the message over and over, trying to commit his handwriting to memory. He wrote, in English: Meet me at the well tonight at 11. When the grandmothers came back into the room, braids swinging, you quickly slipped the note into your own pocket. You thought of Danielle, how she had slipped the lipstick into her pocket so effortlessly that day in the mall.
You got ready for bed that night, but you weren’t going to bed. You didn’t take out your contact lenses and wore your glasses over them, which gave you a headache. You put on your pajamas over your daytime clothes. You climbed under the mosquito net and into the bed and pretended to fall asleep, trying to breathe slower and more evenly than usual.
You waited for the sound of your grandmother placing her spectacles on the bedside table. Then you waited for her snoring. You moved. An inch at a time. The mattress, thankfully, was stiff and noiseless. You worked on the task of untucking the mosquito net from under the mattress. You made a small opening and slipped one leg out. Then the other leg. Then the rest of you. You slid out from under the net and tucked it in again, loosely, so you could get back in easily when you returned. You crept across the living room, where the boys slept in their heap on the floor, careful not to trip over any of the mosquito net threads, which stretched weblike from wall to wall. By the door, you grabbed one of the flashlights your grandmother kept around in case of power outages. You slipped on a pair of chappals and unlatched the heavy metal door as quietly as you could. You left it open behind you.
You waited by the well for ten minutes. It was the well where your mother had learned to swim. She was dropped into the water with just a coconut tied to her back as a floatie.
“I want to show you something,” he said, and you jumped a little because you hadn’t heard him approach.
When you asked what it was he said, “It’s a surprise.”
You told him you wouldn’t go off with him in the middle of the night to see a surprise. This was a lie, but you didn’t want to admit it.
“Are you scared?” he asked. You said no.
He told you about a flower called the Brahma kamal, a lotus that only blooms once a year at nighttime during the summer monsoon season. He wanted to take you to see it.
The moon hung fat in the sky, and the village was eerily bright despite no lamps. You could see the veins in his arm clearly. He had unusually light eyes, the color of honey. You looked at his hands for a long time as you walked alongside him. He had neatly trimmed fingernails and his skin was the same color as yours.
You walked for a long time, past the internet café, past the bazaar where your grandmother bought vegetables, even past the school, to a hilly part of the village you only ever saw when you were entering or leaving its boundaries.
“There,” he said, pointing. You both crouched next to the lotus but did not touch. You felt warmer next to him. “The Brahma kamal,” he said. You knew kamal meant lotus, and that Brahma was the Hindu god of creation. The flower was white and bulbous, with longer, thinner petals at the edges, like eyelashes. You imagined it closed shut, opening slowly and imperceptibly until it was wide open. The way it stared up at the moon reminded you of a strange eye.
You asked if he believed in the gods.
“Of course I do.” He smiled at you, cocky, as if you were silly to doubt him. You thought about your grandmother’s stories of all the gods, and how you’d like to hear more of them now. You wanted to know what he knew and feel what he felt. You wanted his certainty, his arrogance.
You reached for his hand. It felt good, so you squeezed it. You’d held hands with other boys before, but only too-eager white boys who paid for your movie ticket with their parents’ money, never someone like this boy, so respectful, who wouldn’t try to touch you.
You stayed there, crouching and holding his hand for what felt like a long time, and you knew you’d never tell Danielle about this moment. You noticed the way he looked at you—the same way your cousins looked at the American toys you’d bring them every summer. Like you were a precious thing from somewhere unreachable, shiny and to be admired.
Published August 12th, 2018
Pallavi Wakharkar is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She was born and raised in Arizona and studied creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a winner of the 2018 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellowship for her work in fiction.
From the Guggenheim: One Hand Clapping, on view through October 21, 2018: “The artists in this exhibition explore the ways in which globalization affects our understanding of the future. Their commissioned works represent a range of traditional and new mediums, from oil on canvas to virtual-reality software. In her paintings and sculptures, Duan Jianyu celebrates the marginal figures who haunt the transitory zone where rural and urban, primitive and modern intersect.”
Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, on view October 12, 2018 through February 3, 2019: “When Hilma af Klint began creating radically abstract paintings in 1906, they were like little that had been seen before: bold, colorful, and untethered from any recognizable reference to the physical world. It was years before Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and others would take similar strides to rid their own artwork of representational content. Yet while many of her better-known contemporaries published manifestos and exhibited widely, af Klint kept her groundbreaking paintings largely private. She rarely exhibited them and, convinced the world was not yet ready to understand her work, stipulated that it not be shown for twenty years following her death.”