Scoundrel Time

First Gods

They had the number, Lalita divined. Now, sitting with her father and mother at the restaurant, looking at her father’s face, its flat surface smugly composed for once, instead of explosive with rage, Lalita was sure of it. Her parents, having never moved away from their house in Long Island, had her telephone number in West Haven, the place that she’d seen as a real haven, from the beginning. All along, they’d known exactly where she was. She pictured the ‘family room,’ as they called the small room behind the living room and in front of the kitchen. There was a darkened yellow easy chair, moved out of sight when anyone came over, the only chair in the house not covered with plastic, so anyone talking on the phone could rub bare feet against its pelt as if they were sitting on a long-suffering dog. The phone was on the wall just above it, and next to it were scribbled pieces of paper, cardboards with columns of numbers. Taped to the phone was Lalita’s number, her address, the address she had assumed was a secret, everything they knew and had known, she suspected, soon after she thought she’d moved out of their reach. A four-hour drive, but across state lines, distant neighborhoods. Places her parents would have avoided.

She thought back to her most recent conversation with her mother. Now it was nearly a year after Lalita left. Her mother had just sent her the book, Forgive Your Parents, Heal Your Life, full of stories of repentant, newly evangelical adults who, like lottery winners, had prospered suddenly once they’d gambled on reuniting with an alcoholic dad, a vitriolic mother they hadn’t spoken to in years. The best way to move forward, all the self-help books said, was to forgive. Lalita couldn’t imagine what that meant. Or – she could imagine but couldn’t distinguish between the various possibilities that presented themselves at odd moments in the day or first thing in the morning. Did forgiveness, Lalita wondered, mean getting married to her boyfriend John, having his children and, once they were safely born and sheltered by his side of the family, allowing her parents to see them? Not alone, of course. Did it mean calling her parents every week? Giving them her number and allowing them to call her? Allowing them (as she knew with a singular certainty) to slide right back into behaving the way they always had. They would find reasons for her leaving that would put them in the best light: “You were unstable then, but thank God, you’re much better now.” “God be praised, you lost your weight, Daddy was beginning to worry that nobody would marry you.” “I think college was too stressful for you – you couldn’t handle it at first, you took it out on us.” “Generation gap. A lot of Indian families have problems because of how much we leave behind, the trashy culture here, what can you do.”

But what did forgiveness mean? Did it mean forgetting who said what? In the months since leaving home, that one pure stretch in her entire life when Lalita had been nowhere near her parents, hot feelings of rage coalesced into words, they cooled and became redundant, crumbling like volcanic rocks. And she, in turn, believing they didn’t know where she was, despite remembering their explosions, felt cool and nearly indifferent, her attention turning to the present. The cuts they had inflicted healed. Then her entire summer, like a peach. How she felt after a good run up Science Hill. Dishes from the Provence cookbook in Ann’s kitchen that she wanted to try making for John. Flowers to buy and put in a vase that she’d made on the third try in pottery class and painted. Studying, the term papers she had to write now that she’d chosen to be an English major focusing on poetry. Her part-time job as a research assistant for an Economics professor who studied the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and who invited her to dinner every now and then in case one of his sons should take a liking to her despite her mentioning John.

But all this time, while Lalita was thinking about her parents, often when she didn’t even want to, forcing herself into reflective moods that felt like contrition – they hadn’t even cared. When they got her number somehow, maybe from the police, her parents had their power again and were too content to bother to grasp at her anymore. They could have called at odd hours, when they knew she was unlikely to be home, just to hear her voice on the answering machine, echoing off the walls of an apartment they could locate at any time. In fact, she almost knew they had. Why hadn’t it occurred to her before? Maybe because whatever they did changed nothing. She’d still have what they did as part of her past. And part of her was still thinking: Maybe they don’t care and that’s why they let me go so easily. I’m not even worth their letters anymore.

Lalita shivered. Her mother could still harangue her in dreams, especially when Lalita was naked, in bed with John.   In dreams that came when he was by her side, she was back in her parents’ house alone, like she’d never met him. All of it the same, as if she’d never left. In one dream, Lalita was at the top of the stairs, a door separating her from her mother, who leaned against the wall at the bottom of the stairs, shouting at the top of her lungs like she would never be pacified, no matter what. And it was Amma’s power to turn her from a reverie, the contemplation of how she looked in a new shirt, whether or not to cut her hair, the first few lines of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Instead Lalita had to make the peace: come down from the shelter of her room, confront Amma, scream back if possible so that her nerves were frayed, lose control in a panic of disgust and resentment over the woman’s insistence on disrupting her peace, on screaming about something, something, what?

Sometimes Amma herself admitted she had no reason and simply insisted on her human right to scream. “Pretend I’m talking to the wall,” she said furiously. “Don’t I even have the right to scream? Not that you or your father would listen.”

But Lalita herself losing control was the key her mother was seeking by screaming. A switch. Then her Amma was fairy mother again, calming, controlled. “Alright now, calm down. It’s all going to be alright,” and so on, an hour passed and Lalita no longer breathing hard but disgusted with herself, confused, repulsed but passive as her mother kissed and caressed her.

Yes, physical affection was normal between mother and daughter, Lalita replied to Amma’s voice in her head. But not sleeping and touching in a bed. And not after that kind of staged screaming match, Amma. When you needed me to lose control, so you could feel in control again; when you couldn’t stand my having peace of mind, and the freedom of not being an adult yet and your house not being my house to run, your husband not being my husband to put up with.

***

One day later that spring, nearly a year since Lalita had left home, when John was away on some academic conference, and she was completely alone for the first time in weeks, she called her parents’ number on impulse.

Her mother picked up the phone and said, “Hello.”

Lalita answering sobbingly, “Hi, Ma.”

Her mother had been startled at first, then had responded with cunning. Well, of course Dad was still a problem. Yes, sometimes he had his rages. And how was Lalita? Did she, by any chance, know a good therapist for Dad? Lalita, herself startled into action, a suggestion of change, family again? found herself promising to find someone.

It was only afterward that she realized how strange it was for her, having been cut with a knife and attacked with a bottle by this man, called a slut since she was twelve, told she was going to come to ruin, promised that no one but her mother would want her, slapped, hit, and given concussions, and had her mind turned, over the years, from fairly contented and benign to vengeful and brooding – well, of course, she had to be the one to find her father a therapist. Why else have a daughter? she thought again, her parents sitting across from her now in the Manhattan restaurant to which she’d ill-advisedly invited them, about two weeks after that call.

***

It was November now. Eight months, nearly to the day, that she’d left home. The summer in between, and now the fall, her favorite season, usually. Except Lalita had taken this foolish risk, summoned them here.

This was the sort of restaurant her father would never have come to willingly. Run by Black Muslims, “so-called Muslims,” her father said sneeringly, it was crammed onto a street in Morningside Heights. It was a humble place known for good food, a favorite of Columbia students.

The man at the counter had brightened, answered, “Alaikum al salam” in response to Lalita’s polite greeting, “Salaam.” As perfect strangers, she and the man could wish each other peace, Lalita thought.

And I shall have some peace there;

For peace comes dropping slow-

Her parents were already sitting at a table by the time she arrived. Their water glasses were untouched, her father’s elbows rested on the table. They both had a few more gray hairs, and her father had put on some more weight, but otherwise looked the same, their frowns identical behind thick spectacles.

She sat down, drawing her chair slightly away from them, thankful that her mother didn’t reach out to touch her right away. That in public, at least, her mother concealed what she’d tried to do to Lalita.

“So,” her mother said, gathering steam.

But Lalita interrupted her. “I wanted to say I forgive you,” she began. “I mean, not that I’m the only one who needs to forgive. I’m sure I did things that angered you.”

“I’m very glad you realize that,” her father said, supercilious. “So thankful you’re aware. That you aren’t perfect. Not yet.”

“So, you are all from India?” the waiter said, smiling. She noticed his embroidered cap. “India hasn’t been so kind to Muslims, but good health to you!” he said smilingly, not reacting to Amma’s cold stare.

“You take us to a dirty Muslim place?” Amma whispered. “Is this how you treat your parents? Better you should just pretend we’re dead.”

Appa closed his eyes and massaged the sides of his forehead. “Anayum pitayum munari daivum,” he said, his eyes still closed.

“Your mother and your father are your first gods,” Lalita said. “Is that what it means?”

“You tell us,” her mother said.

“I don’t know what you mean by it,” Lalita answered, in the monotone she’d practiced in the train, sotto voce. “But if you had been my first gods, I would’ve had to let you kill me. Remember when you tried? Aren’t you kind of glad I ran away? Think of the scandal.”

She sounded reasonable, even to herself, and this time she wasn’t crying. So many times, she’d told them tearfully that what Appa had done had threatened her safety, that it wasn’t normal to grab a knife and go after your daughter when you were having an argument, even if you claimed afterward that you never would have used it, even if that same scenario repeated almost every week. And this time, like all the times in the past, she expected him to sneer at her again and imitate how she said the word “safety,” as if it were a concept only spoiled brats or cowards ever appealed to. Or a hoity-toity word, as he’d call it. Hoity-toity was a British word, he’d say. Lalita’s arrogance: American.

“Hah, she thinks her safety is threatened,” her father had often said, in a hard voice of contempt.

“Who puts food on the table for you every night?” he would start. “Who sends you to college? Who works day and night to make sure you never go hungry or homeless, like I was hungry when I was a boy? I. Am. Your. FATHER,” he would shout, nearly apoplectic, stabbing his finger near her face. “Say whatever you want, you deerdram, but you cannot change that fact, and don’t you forget it.”

But here, now, in this restaurant, they were in a public place. The sharpest thing near him (she’d already checked) was a blunt knife on the butter plate, and she took that in her hand, meaning to lay it down out of his reach.

Her father saw. “Look at that,” he said wearily. “Will you look at that, Amma? She thinks her own father wants nothing more than to grab a knife and go after her, in a public place. Do you want to see your father in jail? Is that what you want? You’re a clever girl, Lalie,” he said, changing tactics when she sat stiffly unmoving, her fingers still grasping the knife. “A very clever girl. You have the brains to twist things around. Alright. Okay. Very soon you’re going to find that you have no one at all. Very soon, my girl. You’re headed for a fall. God is watching you.”

Later that night, when Lalita was in the flat that John was subletting uptown, he wanted to know why she hadn’t said the words out loud, to her father.

She shook her head, unable to communicate the dread she felt about suffering some retribution for what she was doing. How could she think the gods were on her side? She was living in sin, not just because she was having sex with John, but because she had stolen her life like a golden apple from her parents, taken something they’d polished and always meant to have, and pushed it with all her might out of their reach.

 

 

 

 

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