Pleated Skirts and Amens

When she asked me whether I would go to art school, I said “No” too fast. There is something about a girl sitting in class, drawing, that is different from a girl sitting in class, reading, or a girl sitting in class, talking. When you are a girl, it is okay to draw in Math class, and to go to art school. So I said, “No”. I handed over the book to her, and told her that there was a drawing of a crucifix on one of its pages.

We are walking into the quadrangle after basketball practice. Classes are over; the quiet makes me feel like we’re in an altogether different place. I know this place by its sounds; here, I learn to become loud. We walk along the line of bricks that separates the veranda from the gutter and the plant pots. It is the first week, and they’re curious about the boys I’ve “dated”. Some of them tell me that x and y have been with their boyfriends forever, and that they’re sure they’ll end up married.

There is an assembly every day, with its Our Fathers and Hail Marys and loud or soft thuds depending on how far from the fainting girl you are standing. In the balcony – in a fashion that seems unconsciously and obviously papal in retrospect – our nun principal bats an eyelash, and continues. We sing the national anthem. There will always be the one girl with the stained skirt who happens to be standing at the front of a line.

We threw our seniors a pre-farewell party. They smeared paint on each other and on us and on the teachers they weren’t afraid of. We made a large banner out of sheets of chart paper, but I don’t think they saw it. One of the girls got onto a chair and rolled her skirt up. Another performed a scene from a Konkani play she was in. One girl ran to a balcony and pulled out the colourful, twisted streamers. Later, she put them in her hair.

I read while I went to school there. I read, and I wrote, and I drew, and all for myself. Only F knew that I wrote, because she wrote, too. One day, she said that we should both bring a poem to class. During the lunch break the next day, we sat on the stair at the classroom door, and they sat around us, listening. It was nice. At some point, someone said, “That’s so true”.

They used to be the enemy team; I knew them as ‘the one with the blue headband’ or ‘number five’ or ‘the short one who runs really fast’. My first day there, they came to see me in the morning break. I sat in the second-last row with an old friend from my previous school. One by one, they fell into the class, said, “So you’re playing for the team, right?”, and left. I wouldn’t learn their names till the next day.

They told me all the stories I needed to know. I think they were excited to tell these stories, and excited to have someone new to tell them to. You had to be loud, or louder than everyone else, to be heard. N was usually the loudest voice, but she became quiet when this story was told. I’m smiling now as I remember it. One day, we were standing at the entrance to a junior classroom when they pointed to a cracked pot in the garden. S saw a spider and jumped into D’s lap, screaming. Terrified, N ran out of the class; tripping on the stair at the doorway, she fell headfirst into the garden, and cracked the pot with her head. “She was fine, though”, they said.

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Lunch

‘Lunch’

The fish is frying from the bus stop
To wave at the palms in the rear window we get off

Brother kicks a stone from his sandal
Tar to tar so long it falls

Before we are to reach the table
We must brush aside the bougainvillea branch

Our palms hold the damp door frame
To scrub soles on a poky green mat

Nana calls from her chair near the phone
A private conversation in the middle of the house

The table is set with the grandfather and the crossword
Letters cut open and understood

Mother descends by the staircase
Her hand never really touching the banister

Dirt

Mama tells me that I used to hate sand. When someone tried putting me feet-first onto the beach, I would kick my legs up and throw a tantrum.

The little girl is walking hand-in-hand with her mother. I think she is wearing a red cotton hat, and she is already tired from the walk towards the water. Every so often, she becomes determined about chasing the few crows that seem to move with them as they walk. One of the crows has had enough, and pecks the girl on the head. Maybe she wasn’t wearing a red cotton hat.

I like to think that I protected my brother in school. He is younger than I am, and was more introverted, and I desperately wanted us to have the kind of relationship where I was the protective older sister who scared all the bullies away.

The girl is standing at the side of a tall slide in the playground, carefully watching another child climb its ladder. She makes her way to the ladder, and begins to climb it, too. When she is at the top, she watches as the boy pushes the other children down the slide, laughing evilly; suddenly she looks afraid, and says nothing. As she slides down, the boy, who is now standing at the foot of the slide, decides to make his way back up. She smiles at the hunched, approaching figure in passing and decides not to tell her brother about it.

I was fascinated by the many bonsai plants that Suzette had in her kitchen. A miniature coconut tree, in particular. One day, she gave my brother and I two bonsai plants. I got a cactus, but I can’t remember what Nihal got. We put them on the window sill next to the inevitable mung-bean class project.

She is watering the plants. Her mother has put one at every edge of the flat, it seems. The plants hug a mossy structure in the middle, and like this, they grow. She remembers which plants she has watered by the colour of their leaves; downstairs, two plants have dark green and black leaves, and two have bright green leaves. She always begins with the plant with the dark green and black leaves, and takes longer to water them; it is like the colour absorbed the water better.

The first time Ilu and Suri heard that I had never eaten mud as a child, they assumed that I was joking. “But you never just picked up a handful of mud and put it in your mouth?” “Uh, what?” Their surprise doesn’t diminish with the growing number of people who say that they didn’t do this, either. “You were all just strange kids”.

They are returning from the beach. In the lift, the girl is arguing with her brother about who gets to bathe first once they reach the front door. After kicking their shoes off, and brushing the mat with their feet, they run towards the bathroom. Her brother is complaining outside, about how long she takes to bathe; somewhere from the dining room she can hear her mother saying that next time her brother will go first. When she is done bathing, and rinsing her swimsuit, she fills mugs of water to throw against the sandy floor; she watches as the sand collects and separates, and breathes, and finally reaches the reluctant drain.

I think it was the first time I did something to be able to say that I had done it. That, and for the brilliant picture I was sure it would make. I was twelve or thirteen, and we were at “Boot Camp”, which is just a fancy term for the weekend we spent trekking, and climbing fake hillsides and sailing. Basically, it was perfect, and on the last evening someone suggested that we have a boys versus girls mud fight in the disgusting mangrove mud that was full of twigs and god only knows what else.

The boys ran to the well and rinsed the mud from their short hair and uncomplicated bodies. The three girls spent two hours prying the drying cake from their tresses. The turtles in the well looked up and rolled their eyes.

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Turns out, someone did take a picture.

Them

I asked Mama if they were happy together. She smiled at me, as if she knew that knowing that they were happy was important to me.
We were getting out of the car, and she shut the door and she said, “I think marriage meant something different to them”.

I don’t remember them happy together, but they always looked as happy as the next couple. The early pictures are the most confusing because they look happiest there.

My grandmother’s hair is thick and straight and beautiful in the way that hair is beautiful when it falls casually around a woman’s face, open; it curves a little at her arms, as if imitating her shoulders. She’s smiling. She’s smiling broadly with an ease that she has acquired by distancing herself from herself. In later pictures she always looks aware of the camera, of the person taking the picture; there is a sharpness in this picture that she doesn’t yet know she will acquire.

The skirt-suit she is wearing is the same rusty red as the landscape behind them. I keep going back to her smile. I don’t know it. I have never seen it before. It is different; it makes her look like someone we might have both found in the pages of the album, and been equally confused by. I didn’t know that she was ever young. I still think about her as someone who had been wise before she had grown old, and the woman in the picture is a wonderful, light-hearted imposter.

They look stunning together. My grandfather’s dark blazer is the same intelligent blue that I have come to associate with him, now. He looks like he knows that one day he will look back at these pictures with his grandchildren. He is wearing the smile of a man who has discovered not only that man is capable of discovery, but that he himself is young, and my God, isn’t that a beautiful prospect?

I don’t remember whether his arm is around her, or whether he is casually leaning against the brick wall that reaches their…waists? But it could be. It might be around her shoulders, or around her waist, but if it is, it was placed there correctly.
He knows that she will look gorgeous in the developed picture.

There is something right about them. I am almost afraid to write about it, because when I write I often stumble upon things I don’t want to know. The process of discovery is also one of elimination and I am not ready for any part of this picture to be deconstructed.

It is a beautiful day in Malta, and my grandparents are on their honeymoon. They look happy together.

 

Twenty

I lay on my bed in my room in my home that is no longer my home because you know I moved away to college and now a hostel room is my home and I won’t whine because it’s really quite a nice room. Tears formed in my eyes yes and it verged on pathetic and my mother sat in the chair and waited and I mumbled from under the sheet in that way that so many children have I think I’m depressed. She took me seriously and perhaps I should admit that this caught me off guard a little because I don’t think I wanted to be taken seriously and she said Yeah? genuinely concerned. I said Yes, I think so and she asked Um and I said I mean, college is fine, and my friends are great, and he’s great, and I’m liking this semester a lot, and nothing is really wrong and we came to the conclusion that everything was too fine and that sometimes that takes a while getting used to. Then we talked about writing and I’m quite sure that I want to be a writer too and it’s a little scary because it’s no longer an option it’s already begun happening like some bad habit I might want to put off a little till I am older and people can call it quaint but I am young and I must write and I want to make something of my writing and myself and Lord my name is on the line What line? you ask and I point there to that line across my forehead that says Writer and do you see it because I think it’s growing darker and some people say they think it’s highlighted and believe me it’s just the sweat from all the words I can’t digest and I took a sponge to my forehead and I scrubbed the line and I scrubbed it some more and I went to my desk and got a black marker and I tried changing the w r i t into l a w y but it just won’t go and so I came here and wrote and my God am I grateful.

Elbows

I woke to find that the road had risen to meet the second floor.
Downstairs, the rain was spread across the street in that residual fashion.
When I walked to the window the road was where it had always been.
A feeling grew in the pits of my arms that made me fold my hands.

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