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Prologue

1985

I will return to what I love. To music. To Evan. To my life in graduate school at Chapel Hill. To Beethoven’s Opus 110, Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Haydn, and Mozart’s Concerto in C Major. To my graduate recital and concerto competition next year. To my cozy attic apartment on Tenney Circle. I will return. Soon. I just need to hold on for three months.

I’ve been chanting this mantra since yesterday. 

Since everything shattered like a crystal bowl.

I must talk with him one last time.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I tell Amma, my mother, after we check in at Delta Airlines at JFK airport in New York. I walk purposefully to a pay phone some distance away where, hopefully, she can’t see me. 

I check the flight monitors. Only an hour before we board. JFK’s as crowded as a farmer’s market and I weave my body, brushing a shoulder here and there, through the rush of travelers to get to the bank of phones. Announcements of departing and arriving flights, snippets of conversations in New York, Southern, and California accents, German, Hindi, and Chinese swirl around me.

My hands tremble as I pick up the receiver. I imagine him waiting anxiously in his Chapel Hill apartment, his lean face and lithe body strung out as he paces tight as a wire in his two rooms. From the corner of my left eye I see Amma, in black polyester pants and a maroon baggy sweater, watching me like a hungry cat. She won’t give me a minute alone. I twist away so I don’t see her. My eyes sweep over crowds of other Indian travelers reminding me, with irritation, that I’m one of them.

My fingers press the cold steel numbered buttons. My tongue, dry with worry and determination, tastes metallic and sticks to the roof of my mouth.

Evan answers after one ring. 

“Hi, Evan,” I say in a rush.

“Hi, love.” His honey-like tenor is taut. The sound of him is home. “I’m so worried about you. Are you really going?”

“It’s only three months. We can do it. You know we can.” I imagine his brown eyes, his arms around me. I need to hold on to this moment, to his voice, to us.

“Of course. But don’t you see? They won’t let you come back.”

“They will. They can’t take me away from my education!” Our family’s god is education. Amma always made sure I went to the best schools. Though she loves a beautiful home, my parents did without much furniture when we immigrated six years ago so they could pay for my college tuition.

“I don’t trust them. Don’t leave, Mytrae! Can’t you go to the bathroom and flush your passport down the toilet? Or throw it in the trash?” 

“Amma has it with her. There’s no way she’ll give it to me.”

“Walk away, then. Don’t get on that plane, whatever you do, love. Do something, anything.

His frantic voice makes me doubt myself. But this is the only way I know. Do what I don’t want to ultimately get what I do want. They said if I stay in India for three months and still want to be with him, they’ll let us be together. Just like they made me minor in Computer Science, when I wanted to major in music. I sigh, winding and unwinding the metallic phone cord around my fingers. 

He’s not Indian. He doesn’t understand how we need our parents’ permission for everything.

My shoulders tighten with decision. “I’m doing this for us. I’ll call and write to you while I’m there. They’re announcing our flight. I have to go. I love you, Evan.” 

“Always remember, I love you,” he says slowly, deliberately, like he wants me to really know it. And hold on to it. “Goodbye, my love.”

“Bye, Evan.” I hang up, lean my forehead against the pay phone. Three months will be unbearable.

I walk back to Amma, feeling the thick rope between us and beyond us. It ties us to Daadi, my grandmother, then spools century upon century through my female ancestors to the very beginning of time. It wraps and knots around my waist, and hangs heavy, like lengths and lengths of six-foot saris. It binds us. It defines us. However different we all are, because of it we are the same.

I stop two feet from Amma. Her body relaxes with relief, but her mouth turns down with disappointment and disgust. 

Guilt and shame twist me. 

I’m here, my eyes tell her. I’m ready. I hate you, but I’m ready. 

We turn, without a word to each other, and walk towards security.

* * *

I lift my head groggily from the tray table. The screen shows our jet crossing Afghanistan into Pakistan toward India.

“I can’t bear to face Daadi with this news.” Amma breaks our strained silence. She glances at me then turns away. I got only a couple of hours sleep the night before so I’ve slept most of the thirty-some hours from New York to Hyderabad, waking only for water and orange juice. I haven’t been hungry since they found out about Evan. I can hardly feel. Let alone speak or eat. 

My mother looks haggard, the ever-present dark circles under her black eyes even darker. Shaking her blue-gray asthma inhalant, she puts it to her thin lips, inhales sharply, then rests her head back against the seat and closes her eyes. The gray roots in her short black hair look more pronounced from that angle.

It’s not that bad, I think. People fall in love all the time. Is it so shameful? I turn my head away from her, burrowing into the navy blue pillow. Her asthma always trumps every situation, and I feel the familiar tugs of guilt, pity, and resentment I did as a girl when she wheezed or had an attack. I don’t want to hear her feelings—I’m too overwhelmed by mine. Why should my life be interrupted to convince her and Naina, my father, of my love for Evan? I’m furious about their power over me. And even more furious at myself for bowing to it. I want my own life. I want to make my own choices. I look around at the mostly Indian passengers. I don’t want to be like them. Married with babies and boring careers. The last thing I want to be is a dutiful daughter. 

A dutiful Indian daughter.

Two years ago, the summer after I graduated from Wake Forest, I stayed in India with Daadi and Thatha, my grandparents. They were so proud of me then. Will Daadi shun me now? I avoid the thought. Surely, Thatha won’t make much of it at all, Westernized and broad-minded as he is. After all, he studied at Cambridge and education is everything to him. They love me, and Thatha’s proud that I’m studying music. They won’t treat me the way she is. Thank goodness Roshan Uncle and Leela Aunty, who live next door to my grandparents, are broad-minded. They’ll brush it off like a fly. And I will return to what I love. To my music. To Evan. And my life.

Soon.

Late and jet-lagged we arrive at Hyderabad airport, the dust, heat, and maelstrom that is India greeting us. Amma and I barely look at each other as we pass through customs, collect our bags, and are driven to Daadi’s and Thatha’s home, weaving through bustling, honking thoroughfares crowded with cars, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, and cattle-drawn carts. We are in India, the land of my birth, the city of my childhood, winding through timeless byways of my ancestors.

This is an excerpt from Mytrae Meliana’s (pronounced “my-thray-yee”) just published memoir ‘Brown Skin Girl: An Indian-American Woman’s Magical Journey from Broken to Beautiful‘. She is an award-winning writer, spiritual teacher, speaker, and holistic psychotherapist. She leads workshops for women who desire to heal from trauma, liberate themselves from patriarchy, connect with the Divine Feminine, and create true, bold, inspired lives. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Facebook|Instagram|Twitter

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