And there she was on the other side of the fence, wearing a slightly quizzical expression on her small face. Her eyes were large and almond-shaped, liquid, glittering. She was wearing a pink dress that ended at the knee.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” I whispered back.
“What’s your name?”
“Jenny,” I said softly. “What’s yours?”
“Rajani. But everyone calls me Ani.” She paused. “Do you wanna see my cat?” I nodded. “Well, come on then.”
She turned to leave, and I hoisted myself over the fence, landing on my feet. I followed her across the grass, wet from Saturday morning sprinklers. She wasn’t wearing any shoes. I wondered if the grass tickled her feet. She crouched down next to the juniper bushes, and started talking quietly. A cat appeared from beneath them.
“This is Motu,” she said, giggling. I looked at her, confused. A large Persian cat was rubbing against her bare legs. “It means fatty, in Hindi.” She looked at me, watching understanding dawn on my face. We laughed.
And that was that.
Her house became my home. I loved the scent of her mother’s cooking, the coriander, cumin, turmeric filling the air with the scent of fire. I loved the pictures hung on the walls, of blue-skinned gods and fierce-eyed goddesses, tigers, and elephants, and cobras. Her mother, a small graceful woman, with slender arms the color of almonds, small soft smiles that made me think of the edge of sun behind a rain cloud, fried pakoras for us and gave us juice. I used to wish she was my mother.
My mother would spend long afternoons drinking gin and watching soap operas with the shades pulled down. My father spent long evenings away at work, sometimes coming in late at night, whispering apologies to my mother that quickly escalated to shouts.
I hated home. I wanted to run away into the safety of Ani’s, listen to her father’s goodnight stories in her warm, moonlit bedroom where we would giggle and be sisters. We would giggle under the summer sheets where we lay side-by-side and even when she fell asleep I would lie awake, listening to the soft hum of the fan, the crickets outside, the soft puff of her breath that was almost a purr. We spent our summer afternoons in the tree between our houses, held aloft by its sturdy branches, whispering secrets.
Ani grew and so did I. Her limbs were short and graceful as mine were long and awkward. She had a sharp-eyed stare that could reduce administrators into puddles. They stayed away from us, the whole high-school world. We moved around the space in some sort of translucent globe that Ani made with her quick comments and her bright eyes, and after a while boys knew better then to bother us.
“You are my shield,” I told her once, when the world closed in on me and I had to fight to get out, pinned against the cement wall on the far end of the parking lot by two strong arms, a male torso, big legs, and a mean-boy face. Fighting tears as he breathed against my neck, “You would be kinda pretty if you didn’t hang out with that bitch.”
I wanted her flame-shaped hair and dark eyes like mirrors and sharp elbows and courage and her bright voice that could cut through steel or strong male arms or silk. I wanted to be a tiger that bristled with tender ferocity. I was a deer. I was a lamb.
Ani punched the guy in the face and spat on the ground like a man. “Don’t touch her,” she told him. His lip was split and had a stripe of red. His eyes were huge with shock. She sneered as he tried to recover. “You weren’t worth it,” he said to me, but we both knew who had won.
She turned to me and the flame in her eyes dimmed as she hugged me and I could hear the beat of that huge drum in her chest through her maroon sweatshirt. She said to me, “And you are my heart.”
She made magic things with her fingers, caught butterflies in jam jars and then released them, decorated her room with dried flowers that she hung upside down. I painted her pictures of roses because they reminded me of her and she would hang them up on her walls, already cluttered with posters, pictures torn out of magazines. Those bright pieces of red, they looked like hearts, as I look back on them now, too bloody to be floral, too raw to be beautiful, but she smiled when she saw them and tacked them in the centers of the crowded walls.
We didn’t climb the bright tree that stood between our houses but sat underneath it, the leaves and branches making gold patterns on her face. She had these hands, these hands that were slender as the green stalks of new flowers and full of grace as they picked lint off the shoulder of the old gray sweatshirt she wore that was pulling apart at the seams. We sat on a ripped bedsheet her mother had deemed suitable for outdoor use and I traced the elephants that marched across it in blue lines.
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” I asked her and she closed her eyes and put down her book.
“A dancer,” she said. “The president. A movie star. An astronaut.”
Sometimes she said the same things she did when she was six.
“What do you want to be?”
“A doctor,” I said. She threw a handful of fallen leaves at me.
“Jenny!” she said. “So boring!” She pulled off her sweatshirt. Her hair was cut close to her head and she ran her fingers through it absently.
“Not boring at all,” I said. “Don’t you watch ER?”
She laughed. She had a small stud in her nose where she had pierced herself with a safety pin. Bleeding all over the bathroom. Red blood roses blooming on white paper towels. She had laughed then too, at my shock, my eyes wide and my mouth in a wide O. I wasn’t squeamish at the sight of blood, though. I could stomach it.
“Listen,” I said. “Do you know Bobby?”
“Bobby Delario?” she said.
“I know him.”
“Oh. Well, he asked me to go to the spring formal with him.”
“And you said no, right? He’s a douchebag.”
“He’s nice,” I said. He had approached me after our calculus class. He had big hands and a slow, shy smile. He looked at the floor and I looked at my hands. He had freckles across the bridge of his nose. He was nice. “I said yes.”
She looked at me so long I felt small under her gaze. I didn’t know what to say so I ripped the small green leaves that lay scattered on the bedsheet.
Finally she said, “Fine. I hope you have fun.” After a while she went back into the house and I went to my room and locked the door, feeling guilty and confused.
But I had the dress, cinched with organza and a shiny blue, laced up in the back and 50 percent off at Sears, and I had the shoes—stupid satin pumps that my mother insisted on, and the necklace that used to be hers that she gave me after we bought the dress, and I had fun dressing up, even though I wished Ani could have been there with me, putting nail polish on my toenails and applying bright eye shadow with an almost steady hand. Bobby wore a tux and smelled like soap, my mother took pictures, we got into his dusty pickup and drove to the dance. Before we had gotten in the car, I had glanced up at Ani’s window, but it was dark.
And it was just like every other high-school dance. My high heels made me feel wobbly. We met up with Bobby’s friends in the parking lot and they passed around a bottle of peach schnapps. We went into the dance, we danced a little. I saw Ani from across the room with a guy I had never seen before. He had a bar through his lip and a shaved head and they were both laughing. She was wearing this dress that shimmered like fire in the soft lights, it was thin and held the outline of her body and was made out of a slippery fabric like silk and the man’s hands were on her hip, his fingers spread out, possessive. She looked over at me, and tilted her head up—a nod. The flicker of a smile on her face.
“I have to go,” I told Bobby, and he offered to drive me home, so I agreed and he drove me back to my house. We didn’t talk very much, and he seemed disappointed so when we got to my house and he tried to kiss me I let him, just to be nice. “I’m sorry I had to leave,” I said and he told me it was okay. We said goodnight and I got out of the car and slammed the door shut and sat on the curb for a little while, looking at the moon and the stars, their radiance dimmed by the streetlights lining the road. I was crying when Ani drove up. She parked in front of her house and got out of the car. She walked over to me. Her dress fluttered and shimmered. She sat down next to me.
“Did you have fun?”
“Yes,” I said, and wiped my face.
“Then why are you crying?” she asked, and I said I didn’t know. She put her arm around me and I cried into her bare shoulder. Her skin smelled like the sandalwood soap her mother got from India. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I wanted you to have fun.”
“Who was that guy you were with?”
“A friend of the family’s son. I’ve known him since I was tiny.”
“You look very nice,” I said.
“So do you,” she said. “Where did you get your dress?”
“Sears.” I told her. “Where did you get yours?”
“Ross,” she said. I smiled.
“Yeah. You know me.”
“Yes,” I said, “I do.” She got up and I followed her. She walked over to our tree and sat underneath. The bedspread was still there from the few days before, the elephants marching along in the moonlight. Above us, the leaves were edged with the bright silver of starlight and they were a pale acid green. She lay down on the sheet and looked up at the feathered branches. “Do you like Bobby Delario?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. He tried to kiss me.”
“Did you punch him?”
“No. I just cried.”
“When he kissed you?”
“Later. When you found me.” I lay down too, next to her, so that our arms were touching. Her short hair curled around her face. Her skin was dark, dark in the streetlight and the moonlight. “Ani?”
“Yes,” she said, her eyes fixed on a point above her. She sounded suddenly far away. I rolled over to my side so that I was facing her. “Look at me.” And she rolled over so she was on her side, facing me and her face was wet and I asked her why she was crying and she wouldn’t look at me. And I took my hand and pulled my fingers through her short hair and then I kissed her there, under the tree that had watched us since we were children, and under the moon who shone like a smile and she kissed me back, hard, and put her hand on the small of my back and I was shaking and she was crying, but I felt like I had just come home.
Why should we be ashamed?” she asked me later, and I told her that if my parents knew they would throw me out and never look back. She had to yield in the face of this practicality, but she still kissed me, sometimes, in the school parking lot. My head screamed not here not here not here, and I felt eyes burning my back even before the quiet hisses of dyke and lesbo and queer, and we were stared at whenever we walked down the halls. She was a panther those days, teeth bared, and growling under her breath, her eyes burning, fierce, and it was a relief to come home, to lock the door, to have our universe consist of the two of us in the room. It always seemed to me that she had something to prove, but my love for her was something that didn’t need to be proven. It bloomed like some flowering vine that looked soft but held on strong as steel, smelled like summer, shed orange petals.
She was angry, happy. She slammed her locker door shut with both her hands.
And then it was her, slammed against a concrete wall in the parking lot, pinned by two strong arms, a male torso, and an almost-man’s face pulled into a sneer. There was no one else around except for me and the guy’s friends who were laughing, and when I yelled stop it stop it stop it, they just laughed more. It was evening since she had detention because she had bitched out the guy for calling us names and then she hit him and the principal came and gave her a stern talking to and then detention, and I had come to pick her up. And the guy, Rob, had it out for her ever since.
The sky was turning bloodred and the sky was gold and the sky was beautiful and nobody could see this because Rob was slamming his fist into Ani’s face, once, and again, and then a third time, while one of his friends held her arms. Her lip was spilt and it was bleeding down her face and there were a few drops of blood on Rob’s white shirt that said Pizza My Heart and I was screaming and I ran at Rob and kicked him but then he turned and pushed me to the ground so hard my breath vanished and I sat stupidly on the concrete, choking. Ani was yelling at them to leave me alone, and I got up and tried again, I pulled at his arm and tried to hit him but he caught my arm and punched me swiftly in the stomach and Ani wasn’t crying and her eyes were blazing and I wish I’d told her I loved her then but someone’s foot collided with my body and then once more and I couldn’t move and then I couldn’t see, and I dropped my head onto the concrete and let my eyes slip shut. Her image was burned there, screaming beneath my eyelids.
I woke up in the hospital. My mom slept in the chair next to the window, facing me. It was dark outside, and the room was reflected back to me in the glass. The white room. The stale chair. My mother, asleep. My body felt broken but I wiggled my toes and they were okay. My mother’s face frowned even in sleep. “Mom,” I said, and her eyes broke open.
“How are you feeling?”
“Where’s Ani? Is Ani okay?”
“We’ll talk about that later,” she said.
“Where’s Ani?” I said again, and sat up.
“Don’t get yourself worked up. You need to rest now.”
“How long have I been here?”
“Not very long. An hour or so. Look at you, Jen. You’re a mess.”
I looked at myself in the darkened window and had to agree. “I’m okay now,” I said. “I just want to see Ani.”
“Dad’s on his way, I just talked to him. He was in a meeting but he’s on his way now, he said. He’ll be here real soon.”
“Mom! Please, where is Ani?”
“Don’t think about that right now.” She reached over and smoothed my hair down—a rough gesture, half love and half agitation.
“I need to see her!”
“Why not? Why can’t I see her?” My voice was rising.
“You just …”
“Where is she?” I yelled and I yelled so loud I felt the tears coming and I bit my lip and then I yelled again, “Tell me where she is, tell me why I can’t see her.”
“Because she’s not here anymore,” my mom said softly. “She’s somewhere better, Jen.”
And I wanted to take every single cliché I had ever heard and especially the two my mother had just said and write them on a piece of paper and tear them up and set fire to the tiny bits until they were nothing more than ash. I wanted to saw off my hair with bread knives and pull out each of my eyelashes with a tweezer. I said her name over and over and over until it was something raw inside my mouth, as if her name was as bright as blood. My mother put a hand on my shoulder like she was steadying a wild animal. The breath in my lungs slowed and then the tears went away and I just stared out the window, newly numb. “Gone,” I said. “Gone.”
And now, whenever I see that tree I think of her. The branches holding us up there in a bright bottle-green world where we were safe. I miss her. The wind is always saying, “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”
Shruti Swamy is a junior at Vassar College, where she is studying English.
KATHA 2005 Results
First Prize (cash award $500):
The Talkative Donkey of Balram Singh
by AMIT MAJMUDAR,Cleveland, Ohio
Second Prize (cash award $300):
Teacher by MALATHI MICHELLE IYENGARAlhambra, Calif.
Third Prize (cash award $100):
Affidavit of Support by RADHIKA KUMAR
Federal Way, Wash.
The Green Tree
by SHRUTI SWAMY
Fragments of Glass by MURALI KAMMA