Hospital rooms are nothing like they are in the movies, white and pristine and looking out onto something scenic, like the ocean—or at least this one isn’t. My mother’s hospital room is painted a bland pink and smells like her, camphor and hair oil, and like something antiseptic, and looks out onto the parking lot. She lies still on the bed and the sheets are pulled up around her shoulders. It’s strange to see her face so still, her expression fixed. I take one of her warm hands in mine and notice how the skin feels smooth and thin, how her hands look like they are carved out of wood. She is breathing. I listen to the soft huff of her breath.
You do stupid things when you love. I climbed trees with my sari tucked between my knees before you were born. Walked along the river where no one could see us. Your father, a wish. Wind in my hair from bike rides to secret roads. Everything hushed, a whisper. No means nothing to him. He split me open. I held my breath.
It’s a gray and drippy day outside, the bleak asphalt of the parking lot is a mirror of the sky. I’ve taken a leave of absence at work to be here, to sit with my mother while she decides whether or not to die. I don’t know if she can hear me or not, if she can really sense my presence. This is the most time I have spent with her in many years.
There’s a memory of my childhood I’ve been turning around a lot in my mind lately. I’m standing at the edge of a riverbank, but it is empty of water. The muddy band divides jungle from jungle and it is full of treasures—clay cups for oil lamps, two-rupee coins and gold rings. The mud is red-brown, a deep skin color, like an old woman who has taken off her blouse to bathe in the river, the low hang of her breasts. You are not supposed to see that. My mother stands on the ghat, the pallu of her sari waving in the hot wind. I turn to her and she is gazing at me and past me, her eyes wet.
And then summer came and it was too hot to think. You were growing in my belly, the two of us like the last of those Russian nesting dolls, one inside the other. One hollow and one full. Your father would not marry me. Girls drowned like this. Riverbank dry and dark as his skin.
My girlfriend, Annabelle, calls. Distance distorts her voice, and it sounds like she is talking underwater. “Are you okay, Ajay?” she says. She has a soft drawl from the time she’s spent in Texas, and hearing her voice makes me think of the texture of her fine, blonde hair. Her voice is like that, thin and bright and silky. She has never met my mother, and since we started living together, I have stopped eating with my hands.
“I’m fine,” I say.
“No news. How are you?”
“I’m okay,” she says. “Unclench your jaw.”
I realize I’ve been speaking through gritted teeth. I try and relax.
“I could hear it in your voice,” she says and I sense the tug of her, like a person asleep who is starting to wake up. I haven’t slept here much and I feel hazy and wired at the same time. My mother doesn’t move or talk, and I hardly do either. I just watch her sleep, if that is what she is doing. We are two bodies with beating hearts. I wonder if I will shave my head if she dies. I know I’m supposed to.
“What are you thinking about?” says Annabelle, after a long silence.
“Haircuts,” I say.
My name means surrender. I lay back in the river and floated to America. Working late cleaning, cleaning. My friend Rosali was a stranger here too. She made spicy food from her country. Cleaning, cleaning. She had dark hair, like mine. She said in Spanish giving birth is dar la luz—giving light. You were bigger, bigger, a drop of life and then a small stream, and then an ocean. I stood on the beach at sundown wondering who you were. I was frightened.
But I asked my mother about that memory once, the one by the riverbank. It was few years back on her birthday, and I had called her. We didn’t have too much to say. I told her how work was going, and she said her health was all right. It’s funny how well you can know a person, even when you don’t know their past, even when you don’t have anything to say. I knew the way she was standing on the cool kitchen tiles, her toes curled up under her feet, like a child would stand. I knew something must have been burning on the stove, because I called at dinnertime, and she could never do two things at once.
“Do you remember?” I asked her. “I couldn’t have imagined it.”
“You were very small,” she said, “when we went back.”
“But I remember it so clearly.” I was getting upset. It was so important for her to say that it happened.
“Aree!” she said. “Something’s burning. I’ll come back.”
My mother was never able to talk to me about a lot of things. She slapped me once for saying I was hungry. Ungrateful, she said. She’s a cold woman, with a hard, sculptural beauty. She never told me about my father or her family. Sometimes, when I was growing up, I felt like an orphan.
Rosali said you were a blessing. She held my hands, a blessing, a blessing. Before you came I wished sometimes I had had the procedure done in India and then none of this would have happened. I thought about you with your brand-new hands and your lungs that have never tasted air. So I waited for you.
That dry riverbed was waiting to be filled up, and I knew my mother then. I think I did. I can still see every pore on her face, her hair pulled back and shiny with oil, her dark eyes open and shut. On her face an expression like gratitude. When I think about it, something moves through the inside of me like rainwater down a windowpane. Love, maybe. Something hard to describe. I think about all the stories that I have lost, that she has kept. I wish she had told me about how I was born.
On the bed I can see her eyes move under her eyelids, and I press the call button for the nurse. My heart is racing. I take her hand and I say, “Ma?” and her hands twitch a little bit. Her eyes are deep set, under smooth curved brows. Her shoulders are so thin, I realize, so much thinner than I remember. I make a quiet deal with whoever is listening. I say that I will try harder, be better. If she is okay.
And my water broke in the afternoon. An ambulance took me to the hospital. Rosali had to work. I stayed alone in the room with a tight-lipped nurse, pushing you out. Faded wallpaper old with women’s screams. You split me open, I thought I would die. In a dark, sterile room far away from home. I never wanted to die like that.
A river thick with rain and I wished for you. I didn’t know it yet. Riverbed dry in summer heat, clay cracked like lines on a palm that spelled my destiny. I looked out there that morning and saw you running across the palm of my hand and I understood my whole life from the smile on your face. I wish I could tell you.
And then, there you were. They put you in my arms. You turned your face toward me. You opened your eyes.
My mother opens her eyes.
This is the story of how you were born.
|Shruti Swamy is working toward her Masters in Fine Arts in fiction at San Francisco State University.|