Authors: Sejal Badani
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 by Sejal Badani
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Mumtaz Mustafa
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014950441
To my family—
Without you, I would not be here. For everything I am, thank you. I love you.
My mother’s voice echoes in the background, her message blaring from my cell phone’s speaker. With each word come memories, filtered through shards of broken glass. I want to, need to, shut the phone off, but my body refuses to move. Her voice gets louder as she calls to me, the desperation in her voice seeping through the fog that is clouding my mind.
With approximately seven billion people in the world, I wonder how one person’s voice can have such an effect. I imagine I am stronger than I used to be, more resilient. That I am the master of my destiny and everyone is a pawn in my game—not the other way around. Because if I am the poker chip, then I have to wait to see how I’ll be played. The unknown is the hardest. Which might explain why we try so hard to rule our worlds. It is the only hope we have to make sense of our lives.
Noises of the city waft through the open window. My apartment sits on the tenth floor, but the honk of the yellow cabs and the sounds of people moving on the streets below easily make their way up. Though winter has arrived, the only signs within the skyscraper walls of Manhattan are heavy jackets and the smell of salt mixed with remnants
of snow on the streets. Otherwise, no one misses a step. A fortitude I have come to admire in the three months since my arrival.
I glance around, staring at the framed pictures that fill this temporary home. Every place I have been, memorialized forever on glossy paper. Through the prism of a camera lens, I have seen the beauty of the world. Monuments created by humans stand in competition with art sculpted by nature. Each image serves as a reminder that a light shines through so many people, and yet, no matter how far I run, I cannot seem to escape my shadow.
“Come home. Please. I need you. We need you. Your father, Brent, he . . .” My mother’s—Ranee’s—voice falters. A woman who rarely spoke during my childhood now says so much: “Sonya, he’s in a coma. I don’t know how long he has.”
As if my father is here, in the sanctuary I have created, I feel his breath on me as my own comes in gasps. I clutch the counter behind me, pressing my fingers against the cool tile. Images of the past fill the room, each one stronger than the last. Shaking my head, I grip the tile harder, my muscles constricting with the effort. Finally, the pain breaks the noose of the past tightening around me and I can breathe again.
Closing my eyes, I try to imagine him lying in a hospital bed, dependent upon machines to keep him alive. It seems impossible to believe. Yet I am sure my mother is not playing a game. Over six years have passed since I left her on the doorstep, watching as I drove away. Not once since then has she asked me to come home. Or begged to see the daughter she bore and raised. Her anguish is not a ploy, but nonetheless I am helpless to ease her pain.
I stare at the evidence of my travels, each photograph proof of my desperate search for a place to call home. Now, the only home I have ever known beckons, demands my return. I am a grown woman, capable of making my own choices, but there is no choice to be made. The secrets my sisters and I hold like a lifeline are drumming within me, a
steady, relentless beat. The secrets are demanding to be free, heard by the world. Yet, I am not ready. I fear I never will be.
Because if they are free, then where does that leave me?
She sits with him because she has no place else to go. As the oldest of the three sisters, she has been with him the longest. For some that status would be cause for celebration, the child who had her parents first. For Marin, it is simply more proof that good fortune has to be made—it is not given. She was the first in line for everything—the first disappointment, the first heartbreak. Her sisters, Trisha and Sonya, watched her, learning from her example. When she refused to cry, she told herself it was for them. To show them that strength was the better option. Now, as an adult, when her face remains dry, void of tears, she accepts that the cause is her inability to feel.
Marin crosses one pantsuit leg over the other. She glances at her watch—seven in the morning. Earlier, Raj assured Marin he would have Gia ready and off to school on time. Marin’s not worried. At fifteen, Gia sets her own schedule and follows it in exacting detail. Never a minute off. Marin is incredibly proud of her daughter’s self-imposed structure, which will serve her well in her career. She applauds herself for her daughter’s trait. Since she’s always been the same way, it’s normal her daughter would follow.
Having climbed the ranks in her finance company to CFO quickly and efficiently, Marin understands there were those who viewed her with contempt. Names whispered behind her back as she chaired meetings and led the company through mergers and acquisitions, one success following another. She worked hard for her place in the world. Others’ jealousies or opinions are not her problem, and she will not allow them to constrain her. She knows plenty of women whose self-esteem is based on the estimations of others. They choose the clothes that are in fashion, even if they don’t suit their taste. They let their colleagues define the boundaries of their careers. Live their lives according to strangers’ rules. Marin congratulates herself for being above the rest. For standing in a place of her own making, for earning her success and creating her perfect life.
Marin took her mother’s call about Brent the morning before, while sitting in her office’s leather chair. After a few minutes listening to the details, she explained she was late for a meeting. She assured Ranee she would try to stop by the hospital that night, but it had taken her a full day before she finally made it to his bedside.
“Happy birthday to me, Daddy,” Marin says. She smooths the hospital sheet over his body. Though he is in his early sixties, his face shows few signs of age.
It’s funny, I don’t feel older
. She pulls her hair back, a nervous gesture from childhood. She’s noticed Gia doing the same recently, and makes a mental note to speak to her daughter about it. Nervous habits are a sign of weakness, of vulnerability. Gia can’t afford such displays during college interviews. Regardless that they are two years away. As a sophomore, Gia arguably still has time to prepare for soul-searching questions by the interviewers who will determine her future. The time is now to plant the seeds to enjoy the fruits of the tree.
Marin had not told Raj she was coming to the hospital this morning. He assumed she had an early meeting, and she said nothing to correct his assumption. Not a lie, but a truth left unspoken. One of
hundreds over the course of their marriage. In an arranged wedding, they came together as strangers, and they went on to build a life with each other. Their daughter was the result.
“Do you remember my first birthday in America?” Marin asks aloud, watching Brent for a sign that he can hear her. None comes; it is the first time she can remember him silent. Unable to afford a party, Brent had taken Marin to the local ice-cream store for a birthday cone. They left Trisha at home with Ranee—Sonya wasn’t born yet. Marin’s birthday was her special day. Brent told her she could have a double scoop, so she perused all the options carefully. The smell of cream and sugar saturated the air, making her mouth water.
“Hurry,” Brent said. He was still in his work clothes. He hadn’t found a job as an engineer, so his uniform was soiled with the oil from the gas station where he worked. “Choose.”
Marin nodded, but, caught up in the excitement, she failed to notice her father’s growing agitation. “May I try this one?” she asked the teenager behind the counter.
“Sure.” Bored, he took a tiny pink spoon and scooped out a small amount. Marin savored the melting milk on her tongue. In India, sherbet was the closest thing they had to ice cream. It paled in comparison. Marin had never had anything so delectable before.
“It is wonderful,” she said in perfect English. “Thank you. May I try another?”
The boy shrugged, unmoved by her excitement. “Yeah. Which one?”
Marin tried three more before finally deciding on one scoop of vanilla and one of chocolate. “Thank you, Sir,” she said to the boy while her father paid. They walked out of the store and started back toward their apartment, Marin licking each side carefully to make sure not even one drop would fall. Daring to take a full bite, she closed her eyes at the taste of the two flavors combined.
“It is so wonderful, Daddy. You must taste it.” Marin held her thin arm up, carefully balancing the cone for him to taste. Just as Brent bent
down to take a lick, Marin’s arm wobbled and the melting ice cream scoops fell out of the cone, splattering on the ground below. Tears filled her eyes, but before they spilled out, she felt the slap across her face. Shocked, Marin glanced at her father in confusion. It was the first time he had raised his hand to her.
“Look what you did,” Brent barked. Stepping over the puddle, he continued walking, leaving Marin to stare after him. “What a waste. I never should have bought it for you.”
It was an important lesson to Marin, one she didn’t forget: never depend on another person for your happiness. If someone had the authority to give, then he or she had the authority to take away.