We were that family that lived behind the white picket fence. That family that dedicated an entire room to storing aged wine. That family with the indigo Indian shutters, the five-bedroom guesthouse, and the champagne golden retriever no one, not even a neighbor, ever saw take a shit. We were four: my father, my mother, my sister, Brenda, and I.
The summer I turned six, we relinquished ourselves to India because we had no choice. We’d flown at the request of my father who’d been relocated by his company to oversee a new business venture in Mumbai. He sent for us six months into his term, more for his sake than our own, fearing if we didn’t see him by the end of the year we’d lose all memory of what he looked like. From where we lived in Concord, Massachusetts, he was exactly 7,639 miles away. To put it into context, the distance between us was a third of the Earth’s circumference.
We flew forward in time, gradually veering south across the Atlantic, arriving at the Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar where we waited fourteen hours for a second flight the following morning. Mother scanned the airport, planted herself at the nearest open bar, and handed my sister a crumpled twenty before waving us away. We didn’t see or speak to her again until an hour before our next flight.
But Brenda and I, we loved the freedom of having no mother. We became airplanes ourselves, flying aimlessly through the desolate airport terminals. Brenda capped her head in her gray pullover hoodie and transformed into an F-16 Fighting Falcon, our father’s favorite, shooting fire beams from her sleeves and propelling herself by the balls of her icy-white trainers. In her speed she broke records. In her speed she broke cloud clusters. Cocking her head left and right, she surveyed the glass-encased landscape and pressed her mouth against her shoulder.
“This is a strange place, Lieutenant. What is your position? Over.” I’d no interest in man-made machinery or in playing games where she held the lead. My imaginary playing fields were composed of a more natural geography. Spreading my arms as far as my chest would expand, I ignored her call and morphed into a snowy egret.
“Lieutenant! What noises are those? Has your ship been hijacked? Over.”
I continued to ignore her and dove as low to the ground as my spine allowed, skimming the surface for any sight of scurrying crayfish. The swirls of carpeted paisley smelled of calcified urine. Brenda let out a deep sigh as if emitting exhaust from her engine.
“You never know how to play right.”
We continued to fly side by side. She shot missiles. I scooped fish. If our mother were there, she’d have recognized that our characters—Brenda’s fighter jet, my silver heron—symbolized our real-life personas. Brenda was older by exactly three years, but in many ways she seemed younger. Or perhaps it was me who did not act her age. Unlike other siblings, Brenda and I were rarely compared. Our parents’ friends, they knew to tell us apart. Which one not to joke with and which one liked to eat.
“She’s got spunk, that girl.” I’d heard a short blonde woman at a party once say. “I see her becoming a politician."
At these dinner parties, our mother knew how to dress for the role of good housewife. In her shampooed hair and saccharine voice, she could have won an Oscar. She applied her hands over my shoulders, gripping them tightly as if to say, don’t you embarrass me.
“Actually, I think a world-renowned chef. She just loves helping me in the kitchen. Don’t you, Gemma bean?”
I’d learned when to nod. Fake a smile.
“Better start watching her diet now,” said a man touting a Calabash pipe. “You wouldn’t want to distract from that pretty face.”
Mother let loose her goat’s laugh.
“No, we would never want that.” Then she nudged me toward the yard, “Go on and play, sweetheart.” I walked out of the family room but never fully left the conversation. I hear their voices still, sharp as paring knives, haunting me at every meal.
Of Brenda, those same family friends commented on how composed she always appeared, how poised and astute. I scoffed at their praises even then. Brenda would braid her spaghetti straight hair into one loose strand, looping the ends tight with a plastic-ball elastic—her idea of dressing up. Then she’d descend the stairs in a gallant fashion, one pointed foot after the other, and feed each guest her false pleasantries as if these, too, belonged on a tray like the Blue Crab beignets. My goodness, Mrs. Bartle, what a gorgeous dress you have on. Is it French silk? Col. Henry, I’ve missed your hunting stories. Tell us the one about the Canadian elk. The one with the three antlers. That one’s my favorite. With her crystalline eyes and calculated cackling, she could have won Best Supporting Actress.
Without warning, Brenda halted midflight. She saw people. Familiar people. Recognized their dark-skinned faces from the part of our neighborhood we knew never to trick-or-treat.
Brenda tucked her fists into her armpits. “What are they doing here?”
She pointed ahead. A family of four—a wife, her husband and their two children, a boy and a girl—strolled through a vacant corridor, all eight arms heavy with luggage. The mother, garbed in a cerulean sash wound at the waist and draped over the left shoulder, glanced in our direction.
I dropped my wings. “Is that Mrs. Gulati? Let’s go say hi!”
Brenda hooked me by the elbow, “Don’t you go anywhere.”
I’d experienced India before, through my first grade teacher, Mrs. Gulati, an impeccably dressed Indian woman with a strict policy against bringing soda to class. If little girls acquiesced to the idea of achieving both beauty and brains, then Mrs. Gulati was the prime example of that aspiration. For afternoon story time, Mrs. Gulati would strew lux Kantha cushions across the floor and beckon us to sit at her feet. Her voice so liquid-smooth I imagined her larynx gilded in agave honey. She displayed handpicked curios from her native India across her white oak desk: a golden elephant paperweight, its curling trunk and dimpled forehead pressed in gemstones, a mysterious sandalwood jewelry box, and a cherub-faced figurine blowing into the divot of a tiny flute.
Mrs. Gulati appeared a deity herself, often garnished in an emerald sari embroidered with gold trim, she floated through the classroom like an uprooted willow tree, the skirt of her sari catching flight with each step, hands perched in the air as if waiting for a sparrow to land on her palm. We noticed her polishless fingernails were often tinged yellow and in our childish minds we speculated that Mrs. Gulati didn’t own any grooming utensils. Bethany Hamilton was the only one bold enough to ask. A spoiled, sixth-generation New Englander, she commented on our teacher’s mustardy scent and questioned if she owned a pair of nail clippers, and if not, perhaps she could lend her some. Her family owned plenty.
“Thank you, Bethany, but I own quite a number of nail clippers. My husband seems to always lose them so I find myself stocking up whenever I pay a visit to the pharmacy. But if you’re wondering if my hands are dirty, I can assure you they are not. They’re simply stained with turmeric. Can anyone tell me what turmeric is?”
No one knew. Not even Bethany, who’d taken the slumped shape of a snail receding into its shell.
Mrs. Gulati continued, “In Bangalore, where my family is from, we cook with a lot of turmeric. It’s a rich, yellow substance usually peppered into curry and sometimes green tea.” Then looking straight at Bethany she added, “Next time I visit the pharmacy, I’ll be sure to purchase a polish.”
She never did. Or at least nothing anyone ever noticed. And for that I was grateful. I’d grown to despise the chemical scent of my mother’s at-home manicures. Hated the way she’d colonize the entire living room with her tiny silver mechanisms and glass-bottled lacquers, cotton balls stuffed between her white, salamander toes, demanding we fetch her more chips and dip as she blew each wet digit dry.
I wrung my arm free from Brenda’s grip. “That is Mrs. Gulati. I know it’s her.”
“Well, even if it is, which I doubt, we’re not allowed to talk to her, remember?”
“I don’t care,” I said, marching toward the Indian family who’d stopped to rest at a nearby seating area. “I’m going to say hi.”
I was determined, even then, not to let my mother dictate my life.
Brenda trembled at the shrill sound of her voice, the bulging white of her eyes. But then again, she’d experienced three years of hell I’d never known. Once, on one of the many occasions our mother had forgotten to retrieve us from school, Mrs. Gulati noticed Brenda and I walking home alone and invited us into her house where she served us a plate of nankhatai (a type of shortbread cookie) and two glasses of rice milk.
“The word is naan-kah-tie,” she mouthed slowly. “Come now, you can say it. Nankhatai.”
I slapped the table with my half-drunk cup of milk like I’d seen at the parties. “Non-kitty,” I boasted proudly.
Brenda spat out the cookie on the first bite. “Where are the chocolate chips?” she demanded. “And why does this milk taste so dirty?”
Mrs. Gulati’s eyes resembled a one-way mirror, betraying whatever feelings bubbled beneath the surface. I could see the frustration in them. For a moment, she resembled our mother when we approached her without first asking. But then her eyes quickly softened and she smiled through Brenda’s reproach, explaining in her tender voice that in Bangalore this is what everyone ate.
“Maybe it’s your mouth that’s dirty,” I suggested to Brenda, biting into my second cookie. “I didn’t see you brush your teeth this morning.”
“Shut up, Gemma. You’re fat and eat anything.” Then she complained rice milk was only a cheap alternative to regular milk and that she missed home and wanted to leave. At this Mrs. Gulati retreated to the living room where she picked up the phone and dialed our mother.
A normal mother—a loving, caring, sober mother—would have apologized profusely. She would have sped over in her black-chrome Audi, barely pressing the break at intermittent stops, sprinted up the brownstone steps, hammered the brass doorknocker until it threatened to unhinge, contorted her face into an ugly cry the moment the door opened and there stood her girls, cookie crumbs cornered at their lips. She’d have embraced Mrs. Gulati as if she owed her her life, as if we were her life.
But our mother never stepped inside. She never so much as honked the horn or turned off the engine. The moment she sputtered up the drive, Mrs. Gulati showed us to the front porch. There she gave Brenda’s shoulder a soft squeeze and assured her she’d have different, more American cookies the next time she visited. And then she turned to me and did something I’ll never forget. She squatted to my eye-level and handed me a plastic baggie filled with cookies, spoke softly so only I could hear.
“Your mother is your mother and she’ll always be your mother. When the time comes, open your heart to what she has to say. When the time comes, try your best to forgive her.” And because this was Mrs. Gulati I nodded my head furiously and signed an X over my chest. I would have promised her the world.
Brenda and I slipped into the black-leather backseat and mother welcomed us with her usual greeting.
“What the hell were you two doing?”She wore a pair of oversized sunglasses over her cadaverous face, the roots of her taupe-colored hair slicked in grease.
“You forgot us at school again,” Brenda said, clicking her seatbelt into place. “Mrs. G tricked us into going into her house with a plate of cookies. Turns out they were only dog biscuits.”
I jammed my elbow into Brenda’s side. “You’re such a liar. They’re not dog biscuits. See, I have proof.”
I waved the bag of cookies in the air where they hung heavy like a speed bag. Mother twisted in her seat and ripped the bag from my hand, as if I were holding a sack of dog shit, then tossed it out the window the moment we rounded a corner. From the rearview mirror she said to me, “From now on, cookies, candies, and any kind of bread is forbidden, you understand? You’re going on a diet. Now, tell me—what did that woman say to you?”
I was too stunned to answer. Brenda sat frozen as well, clutching her royal blue JanSport backpack against her chest. I suddenly imagined lighting a match to my mother’s oily scalp.
“I believe,” she spoke steadily into the mirror, “I just asked you a question.”
I swallowed back the tears. “She said when the time comes I need to forgive you. But I don’t know if I’ll ever want to.”
The car went silent. No one, not even her, spoke a word the rest of the ride home.
When we arrived, mother sent Brenda to her room, told her she didn’t want to hear or see her until the next day. Then she cornered me in the kitchen where she burrowed her nails into my scalp and yanked out a small tuft of hair the width of braided twine. I screamed until my lungs faded into black. She said she’d hope I’d one day forgive her.
In the airport, I rubbed the bald patch on my head buried beneath strands of dirty blonde. I owed it to Mrs. Gulati to say hi to this family. I owed it to her, even if deep down in the lowest well of my stomach I knew this Indian woman wasn’t really her. I owed someone somewhere some kind of apology on behalf of the woman who felt she owed nothing to no one.
I approached the family. They stared at me with baffled, slightly terrified eyes, as if I were a pint-sized security guard about to kick them out of their seats.
“Are you lost, little girl?” asked the father.
“No,” I replied. “I just have something to say.”
“Where is your mother?” the mother asked.
I glanced behind my shoulder, caught Brenda’s hooded silhouette peeking from behind a pillar. “She’s somewhere back there.”
The parents turned to each other and began speaking in their native language. Before I could protest, the daughter, a gangly girl with blunt-cut bangs and a pink ladybug shirt jumped from her seat and pointed at my shoes.
“We’re twins, “ she said excitedly.
I glanced at her tiny brown toes and was shocked to see the same pair of pink butterfly sandals strapped to her feet. “Hey!” I exclaimed. “We are twins!”
I turned around and waved at Brenda, still standing motionless behind the concrete pillar. “Come say hi!” I said.
Brenda uncapped her hood, slipped hands into pockets, and sauntered slowly to our area. Noticing her, the father stood to survey the empty space in search of an airport attendant, a security guard or perhaps a frantic parent with skin white like ours.
“What’s your name?” I asked the daughter.
“Seeta. Like Rama’s Sita. But spelled with two e’s.”
“I’m Gemma. Spelled with two m’s.”
We sat with our legs stretched out across the carpet, measuring the ribbed soles of our shoes flat against one another. We wore the same size. And though I hadn’t yet asked, somehow I knew we were also the same age. Her mother was a slightly shorter, thinner version of Mrs. Gulati. Where Mrs. Gulati would already have spoken to dozens of airport attendants with her sharp, silken voice, this woman only gaped quizzically at her husband.
Seeta pulled me by the sweater sleeve and led me to the glass windowpanes where we watched the planes gather on the track. Each plane rolled across the tarmac and positioned itself at the opening of a long, accordioned tunnel, depositing more mothers and fathers and children through the other side. Soon the once-empty corridors bustled with more Mrs. Gulati’s varying in shape and clothing and skin pigmentation. Brenda glowered at the opaque midnight sky as if searching for the plane that would take us to our father. I reached for her hand and she clasped it without hesitation. I imagined our arrival the next morning, imagined us flying through the accordioned tunnel like falcons, like egrets, landing in our father’s outstretched arms, inhaling the smoky menthol of his hair and neck, and in that moment we were one— the three of us.