This story won third place in the first inaugural Short Fiction Competition.
In the boat on the way over, Nirmala had been quite animated. Though, what had begun as excitement (real, glimmering, childlike excitement for a trip across waters, a tourist’s day sailing) had built steadily over the morning, mingled with small annoyances and bigger, older grievances, been all stored up and kept for this…and had ultimately soured in the heat. Now played out in behavior that would characterize her very poorly to strangers, and indeed to friends.
I was her guest that July. On a program that granted highschoolers like myself return airfares to see the world. You just had to write an essay to be considered. “The Aspect of my Education thus far which I Value Most Highly.” My mother made me enter. Partly as a joke with myself, I wrote about obedience. And then I was selected and here I am. Venice, Italy, oddly. A boy I knew had gone to Canada, where apparently he had one uncle. Someone else to Saudi, where the school had some connection or other to an alumnus, ten or fifteen years graduated and working in oil and gas. Another to Australia: a migrant friend of our Principal’s. I got given Nirmala Aunty because of my father. Her cousin-brother.
A dreadful hotness sat on top of the city for the duration of my stay. I see you’ve brought the heat, was the first thing that Nirmala Aunty said to me when I arrived at her door on the first of the month, 1:15pm, clutching my wheelie suitcase in my both arms because the pull-along handle had jammed the moment I stepped off the plane. She said it in such a way that would have been comical had I been there with my siblings. My twin brother and my two years younger sister. My inbuilt lightness, joviality, ease of being, youth. Solo, I became very serious. You’ve missed lunch, she said next (and I just about died with discomfort). Well? What will you eat? Neither one of these questions were delivered with any hint at her thinking, so that I might bend any response I might have to try and fit what she might want. Flat and sharp and loud, her sentences were those tiny toy firecrackers sold in a matchbox that you could hurl at the ground to watch unsuspecting passers-by jump at the bang. Sandwich? she snapped.
The place positively steamed that first week. I, used to the heat, showered twice daily, shut up my windows, shut up myself inside, slept at 2pm; took rest again at 5. She, different, dragged herself around the vegetable market, the bread men, the fish square even, every day, even if she bought nothing. She said it was the way of things. I was doubtful that it was. She had stayed there for four years. Before that, she had been in France, for some reason. Before that, America. People from our neighborhood spoke of her with either wonder or scorn – never a combination. It had been almost a decade since she’d left.
Among girls my age at home, she was a local celebrity for her sheer confidence in quitting our life and doing this thing, becoming this thing, despite common understanding that it all was enabled only by the great deal of money from which she came. A truth which ought to have tinged her idol’s status with the muck of wealth, the disappointment that you would think should sticker itself to any lazy extravagance, any life of foreign luxury not self-made. But it hadn’t, and I was quite the envy of my classmates for my good luck. She must have been aware of all of this, but seemed indifferent. Also perhaps a side effect of money. Nirmala’s grandparents had been rice royalty, business moguls with only two heirs between which to split the inheritance; her parents, money magnets by virtue of this plus all the hopeful investors who later came in faithful droves. My paternal grandfather, the great entrepreneur, had sought to expand, failed, caused the great rift that eventually split the family, and lost him his share in the fortune. There was some background notion (of which I was painfully aware) that me-this-her-now was a move towards amends of sorts. My father and grandfather recovered our branch somewhat in the years leading up to mine and my brother’s birth, and by the time our sister came along, thanks to the tireless efforts and sharp business head of my mother, we were out of the pit they had dug by the year 1999, ready for us elder two to start at proper school. All that then, my father suspects – and tells everyone loudly – was their punishment, their penance for not simply sitting still. Inheriting and that’s it. For being so bold as to think that one could improve upon such an empire at a time at which India was enjoying such a…boom! (and he would clap together his hands and shout out that boom too). He says this all with some swagger, some level of a brag in his voice and his gestures until my mother shoots him a glare and he quietens.
At her home we ate approximations of Italian cuisine. Cooking that she insisted on completing start to finish by herself. Always bustling, always huffing. After a day or so I realized that there were no maids at all here. I thought maybe she was preparing such stuff for my benefit, whether she ordinarily would eat instant food or takeout. This embarrassed me greatly and I incessantly offered myself to help, which flustered her which flustered me and thrice daily we repeated the charade. I often wondered why she had agreed to have me at all. Only now, some years on, can I consider loneliness a factor; as well as another aspect of her character that was certifiably outside my realm of normal adult actions and reactions. Behavior that showed itself on repeat occasions taking the form of over-enthusiasm or hyperactive rushes. Hot contrast to the nagging quiet of her hours otherwise. A symptom of solitude that fuelled these energetic yeses! borne of…boredom? Yeses to things so far from her ordinary that they warranted shouting, merited attention that without them went to waste.
Despite myself and my fear of Nirmala Aunty, I found myself wondering if something had happened to make her leave home like that. With some degree of concern, I scanned her face for traces of loss or extreme pain. Hints at injustice. Residue of betrayal. Naturally, my teenage imagination, swimming in teenage ignorance of my city in the decades before me and my life and my friends, ran away with itself and then I was left stranded in the worst possible (made-up) memories of a Nirmala that I had never known and who likely never existed.
She’d worked it out so that I had one thing to do per week. Always on a Tuesday because she couldn’t bear the crowds at the weekend. So, four things total. Five once she’d added this extra, the Friday of my final week with her there. Other than that, I skulked around the corners of the apartment. Shuffled from room to room, eyes on my fingers or my feet. Each morning, she addressed me without looking up from her paper: What are you going to do with yourself today? And each morning I would dither and dance over the two boiled eggs on a plate on a doily that made me queasy but that I ate regardless because she did, and then excuse myself to will away the seconds in the minutes watching shadows do nothing on the walls.
She sat between meals on a swiveling chair before a metal desk piled with wires, silver disks, multi-coloured plastic cases, and a fat-bellied computer monitor, similar to the one my father’s colleague had in his office (we had seen a photograph). The mousepad was emblazoned with a once cheerful Disney World motif. She never typed anything on the thick white keyboard, just click click clicked with that mouse stroking the faces of Mickey and Friends. Sometimes, when she was hurtling around the kitchen, I stole glances at the screen saver she always made sure to enable before she left the machine. Rainbow fish and giant streams of incredibly real looking bubbles floating always upwards upwards until they hit the abrupt ceiling of the scene. Then they popped. Bubbles and fish. People came to visit this city.
Island hopping was the agenda of the day. All morning she frothed and swilled frenzied energy, barked instructions like a traffic man, paced fast around the waiting area at the ticket booth, clapping her hands sporadically. The misfortune of the boat staff and tour officials. Boys and girls on summertime break from their studies at the university.
The dock had been full of tourists. Mostly all European, mostly all silent or, if chatting, only demurely in pairs or threes. Nirmala Aunty in her loudest most bossiest talk – English, not Italian (which she still did not speak) – had pretended that she was Italian, and I too, and demanded the local pay rate for two tickets, as opposed to the foreigners’ one, some four euros in difference. Mortified, I fumbled with my belt bag, yanked out the envelope that housed the wad of cash my father had gone especially to Connaught Place to change for me, tied tightly with a rubber band for me, warned gravely against carrying in public (but how else would I use money?), tucked into a special pocket he himself had stitched in the lining of the belt for me. I tore a five euro note near clean in half scrabbling to retrieve the rumpled twenty that I eventually managed to slide, panting, onto the counter. Nirmala Aunty, still squawking, brushed it straight back off, and I ducked to catch it before it hit the ground. I was desperate to use the washroom.
On the boat:
I stood up and immediately stumbled. Blushing, swallowed sickness and made my way, lurching, to the rail. Blessedly, Nirmala Aunty was deeply involved in her booklet she had brought from home, A Tourist’s Guide to the Venetian Isles that she’d told me twice she’d purchased some two three years back when she’d made this same excursion herself, by herself, she for some reason enunciated differently, not long after arriving. I hung over the rail. A family of birds made a ribbon in the sky, swirling and rippling gently against the blue until it broke and they scattered. But I caught their patchy reflection too, on the water.
The pain in my bladder had risen now to my chest. I was afraid that if I didn’t empty myself soon, urine would come gushing from my mouth. I fretted over how it might taste. It had to go somewhere. My eyes began to pool.
On the islands we saw:
A man who made horses from whorls of hot wet glass; several rows of brightly coloured houses; many cats; some decrepit souvenir shops. Nirmala Aunty marched from street to street half marveling half complaining that nothing was in the same place as it had been the last time she was here. Last time, the horse glass man had given all members of the group a tiny pony to take away with them. Included in the price of the tour ticket.
I staggered around behind her. With no sign of relief anywhere, I eventually pulled from my knapsack the thin woolen sweatshirt, brand new but mercifully navy, brought along upon the insistence of Nirmala Aunty despite the heat in case of “winds at sea.” I, 15, had (out of sight of her) rolled my eyes and complied, and thank Jesus because this was what I folded up and sat on, pretending to watch the prettiness of the rainbow houses from a bench on the opposite side of the road. And I pissed. Slowly, steadily, letting it dribble and soak, pausing for a beat every few seconds in the stream to let what had come out go down. The absorption wasn’t fantastic. There was a definite drip all the way to the ground between the bench slats. I held my breath the entire time and when it was finally over, I rose, looked around once, tied the sopping thing around my waist to cover the wet on the seat of my jeans, moved to join the rest of the party making their way back to the boat. Nirmala Aunty was busy antagonizing a seagull with the pointed tip of her ice-cream cone.
For ten weeks, my father had managed to dance around the glaring. He involved himself by way of organizing practicalities, like the money, and by offering goofy points of advice (“don’t fall too much in love with za pasta za pizza!”; “mama mia, come-a back-a with-a accent!”). He told my siblings and I stories of the first time he himself had visited Europe, gotten violently ill from eating unwashed fruit, spent six weeks recuperating in an old wartime hospital under the care of a beautiful but very thinny skinny nurse named Lucia…We listened and nodded and giggled, sure of his fabrications, happy to humor them. But it was the school who had initiated and maintained correspondence, made all the actual arrangements with Nirmala. And it was my mother, ignoring my father and his party piece, who had sent me with a letter in my suitcase, addressed to her, handwritten, expressing thanks for this thing. She obtained Nirmala’s number and phoned me twice a week over there (also an ordeal given the inconvenience of having to use the phone: huddled in the hallway, winding the wire around my fingers for fifteen minutes at a time. Once she told me off for stretching out the spiral only to watch it boing straight back), speaking muffled nothings into the receiver in case I disturbed the dust on the sideboard. And half the time the line cut out anyway. But my mother never didn’t remind me to purchase a gift for Nirmala Aunty, something to present to her on my final day there, something nice from all of us.
It was the twenty-eighth of the month. Forty-eight hours on from the boat trip. The heaven-sent last day. Desperate, embarrassed, agitated beyond anything I had ever before experienced, I snuck out of the house while she was bathing. Buckled with the weight of promises made to my mother, the dread of returning and explaining myself to my aunt, I wandered the streets for twenty minutes, sweating. In the end, I bought her a limp bunch of flowers from a roadside vendor. What have you done this for? she asked when I shoved them through the crack in the doorway half a second from the time that she opened it. It’s a thank you, I sort of shouted, adrenaline shooting through me to shock the skin around my fingers, eye sockets, and the tops of my ears. My temples pounded.
She took me on a water taxi to the airport. While we waited for it, I tried to think of one intelligent question to ask, or something lasting to mention to her. Come back and visit us sometime. South Ex is very nice now, I gabbled into my fingers instead. She stared at me blankly, waited until the boat arrived and then said: OK.