Authors: Sejal Badani
“Things tell you they want to be photographed?”
It sounds silly put that way, I know. Never have I bothered to explain why I take the pictures I do. It’s possible no one has ever asked before. “There’s an energy around the piece.” I glance out the window
that forms one wall. The nurses opened the shades earlier in the day. Searching for words that make sense, I motion him closer to the window. “See that tree. The one in the middle, among the larger ones?” As we stand side by side, our arms touch. “It’s the smallest one.” The Stanford hospital is set among acres of trees. “The others are blowing in the wind, but the smaller one is protected. It’s standing perfectly still, a haven for all the animals whose homes on the larger trees may be destroyed by nature’s hand.”
“But it doesn’t see itself that way,” David says.
“No,” I say, surprised he follows my thoughts. “It believes itself weak because it is smaller. Less powerful. Maybe nature doesn’t trust it to stand up against its wrath and therefore demands others protect it.”
“But your picture shows the truth.”
I nod. The picture shows what the tree itself cannot see. “Its role as a shelter makes it the most powerful tree of all.”
Suddenly, I am embarrassed, though I have no reason to be. But some sense of shame stays with me always. An article I read once said abused children always feel it was a mistake for them to have been born. I don’t think the feeling is limited only to those who have been abused. In South Africa I was contracted to do a series of pictures for a news magazine. When I started to take photographs of a man in the town square, he asked me not to. I offered him payment for the photograph, but he still refused. Curious about the reason, I asked him. He answered his skin was too dark. It would shame him to see what he looked like.
“But I was supposed to be a lawyer,” I tell David. I glance at my father, who lies interminably still.
“Really?” When the IV machine begins to beep, David pushes a few buttons to silence it. Coolness invades the space where he stood. “Just a warning that the fluid bag needs to be changed soon. The nurses will be in shortly.” He is assuring me that my father is receiving the best care possible. I wonder what he would say if I asked him not to
change the bag. “Lawyer and photographer—those are two very different professions.”
“A lawyer is smarter,” I say, my father’s voice echoing in my ear.
“I would think the opposite, actually.” David leans into the wall. A strand of his hair falls into his eyes. He moves it back mindlessly. “I don’t know if a lawyer would be able to see the trees through the forest.” He grins like a child.
Maybe it is the lame joke or his silly grin as he makes it, but I laugh aloud. We stare at one another, a heartbeat longer than either one of us should. I look away first. I have to.
“I should go.”
“Of course.” Reaching the door before I do, he holds it open for me. When I motion for him to go ahead, he says, “Take care.”
I watch him leave, the door shutting behind him. I spare a glance at my father. It is the last time I will see him. As I raise my hand in a good-bye, I decide against it. It is useless. His actions, his words, have left an imprint far greater than a simple good-bye can erase. Walking out, I feel the door shut slowly behind me.
She came to say good-bye. She hasn’t spoken the words aloud yet, but I see it in her eyes. I know it the way I knew when she was scared as a child but refused to admit it. It’s three in the afternoon. I glance out the window as the chai on the stove simmers. The scent of cut ginger and spices fills the air as the milk heats. Mothers pour out of their houses, gathering into groups to make the daily walk to the neighborhood school. The lower grades are dismissed first and then twenty minutes later the upper grades. I know their schedule as if I had my own children.
Sometimes the children will run into one another’s homes, creating an unscheduled playdate. The moms will shake their heads in mild frustration but follow their children in, always ready for some tea and talk time. They have never invited me. Why would they? They know there is nothing I can contribute to an afternoon discussion of school gossip about teachers and other parents.
I pour the chai into two china cups, both so thin, so fragile, that one slip and the cups will shatter. I add one sugar to mine, two in Sonya’s. She always had a sweet tooth. When we were kids, Papa would buy one box of chocolate mint cookies from Sonya’s Girl Scout troop.
Mama would divide the cookies evenly between us three girls. I would take one from my stack and eat it carefully, savoring every bite. Hiding the rest from Sonya became a mission. She would finish all of hers in one sitting. Yet, no matter where I hid them, Sonya would find them. It might take her a few days or even a week, but she would keep searching until she discovered them. From then on, I asked Papa to hide them in his desk, knowing Sonya would never dare to take them from him.
I shake off the memory, reaching into the cupboard for my expensive truffles and other exotic delights I keep for when I entertain executives from Eric’s company and their censorious wives. Filling a plate, I set it next to the chai and head back to the living room. She is pacing. A caged animal, she moves on her long legs from one side of the room to the other.
“Here we go.” I set the serving tray down and hand her the cup. She takes a sip and nods at me in gratitude. “How have you been?” Small talk—the guarantee against speaking about anything with meaning. A barrier against hearing her tell me what I don’t want to learn. “Have you visited old friends? Reacquainted yourself with the town? The weather has been great.”
“Your home is beautiful,” she says, avoiding answering my slew of questions. Sonya sets the chai down, having taken only a sip or two. “And your husband seems like a wonderful man.”
“Thank you. He is.” I set my cup down also, next to hers. The handles touch, a union of two pieces so similar that one piece has nothing distinctive to separate it from the other. “He said you were lovely.”
“Really?” She shifts in her seat, uncomfortable. “Even though I missed your wedding?”
I had forgotten her way of speaking. Always to the point—never hiding behind walls of make-believe. When we were young, she was the one who spoke about the beatings. Questioned why, and whether Papa had the right. Marin accepted them, said it was just his way. I
would never comment. It seemed inappropriate somehow, since I had no experience to speak of. “He understood.”
“That I couldn’t make it?” She seems surprised.
“Yes,” I lie. He never told me he understood. Never questioned why she failed to show. He simply held me and told me how much he loved me. Promised he would always be there for me. I hold up the plate of sweets, offering her all of them. “Try some. You’ll really like them.”
“No, thank you.” She barely glances at them. “I gave up sweets a few years ago.”
“What?” There is no hiding my shock. Though the change is minor, it disappoints me that I was unaware. “Why?”
“I was in Ethiopia for a photo shoot.” She says it offhandedly. “I had packed a box of real milk chocolates from London—the type you can’t find in the States.” Her face shows her yearning for them. “I had maybe fifty or so in my knapsack. When I was on location, a child came up to me. Three or four years old. Held out her hand for a piece of the chocolate. I gave her some and soon I was surrounded.” Clearly lost in her memory, she continues, “Some of the kids had tears in their eyes as they ate. Over a piece of chocolate.”
“Seems an odd reason for you to give it up.” She’s never offered me details of the places she’s traveled. In the few conversations we had over the years, I never thought to ask. It’s funny how I forgot that while she was gone she was living her own life. My focus remained on those she left behind and our everyday happenings. On our parents, Marin, and Gia—the only family I had left.
She shrugs her shoulders. “Every time I tried eating sweets afterward, I thought of those kids. I lost my taste for it.” She runs her hand through her hair before settling into the sofa. She tries to get comfortable among the ruffled pillows. Out of frustration, she takes three of them and moves them to another sofa before settling into the cushions.
“They’re for decoration,” I explain. Her lack of appreciation for them stings. There is no way for her to know the hours I spent finding the exact match for the sofa. I am distracted by the casual stack she makes of them. Handmade woven silk pillows thrown together carelessly. Clasping my hands together, I tuck them between my jean-clad knees to keep from reaching out and rearranging them. “A contrast against the solid fabric of the sofa.”
Sonya considers my words. She glances at the pillows, running her fingers over the raised stripes interwoven with flowers. Her gaze strays to the sofa, the plain beige fabric that was special-ordered from Italy. The right shade to go with the faux painting and silk curtains in the room. “OK.”
Laughter bubbles in me before spilling out. We’re choosing to discuss chocolates and pillows after so many years apart. Pillows that she would be surprised to know cost what our parents paid for an entire year of rent for our apartment. She has no clue why they are so important. Even if I tell her that I am forced to maintain an image, an appearance for the society I live in, I am sure she won’t care. Just as I cannot relate to her life, she could never commiserate about mine. I wonder if there is anything left between us besides the past. My hands cover my face because the laughter is changing, and I refuse to let her see my tears. I quickly wipe them away, but they flow between my fingers and over my manicured nails.
“Please,” she says. “Don’t do this.”
“Why?” The question reaches far deeper than her leaving. She has still not said the words, but I know it in my heart. The way I know how she sleeps, how she eats, and most important how she lives. Even though I have no idea where home has been for her, I know she is going. We spent hours huddled in the same bed as girls. Without fail, she would curl her body into mine, whether it was searching for heat or the protection of another body during the night. Angrily I would
push her away only to cling to her once sleep overtook me. “You just got here.”
“There’s no reason for me to stay.” Her words are a whisper, fear fueling their admission. “He doesn’t know I’m in the hospital room. Even if he did, he wouldn’t care.”
“That’s why?” A scream starts to build in me, but I swallow it. “You’re leaving because of him?”
“No, I’m leaving because of me.”
“What about us?” Through the window, I see my next-door neighbor leave the house across the street. Holding on securely to her young daughter’s hand, she looks both ways before crossing our quiet tree-lined street. The houses in this town are large, most built in the last decade. It is a neighborhood of new money inhabited mostly by entrepreneurs who have garnered their wealth via the tech industry. Luxury vehicles sit in the driveways. Hispanic gardeners and housekeepers take their lunch breaks by gathering into a group on the sidewalk or in their trucks to eat tamales. The walls that surround me have become my home, one that I would never have imagined owning, but the indulged child in me would surely have expected. “You never think about that.”
“You don’t need me,” she says. Her voice is barely a whisper, but her declaration is weighted with heartache. “You’re fine.” She motions around her. “You have everything.”
“I have a house.” The walls I admired only moments ago suddenly become a barrier between us. “That’s not enough.”
“It’s so much.”
It suddenly occurs to me that she is not content with her life. Never would I have argued she was happy. That emotion feels disallowed. With a past molded by infinite sadness, how could she claim happiness as hers? The two sentiments seem impossible to link, and therefore one must take precedence over the other. Yet I believed she had at least reconciled herself with what had happened. That somehow, somewhere she had resigned herself and found purpose.
“Do you want this?” I ask, gesturing around me.
“No,” she says. “Not anymore.”
“When?” Searching, I can’t find a likely time. Never did she talk about the white picket fence or the two point five children. Her dialogue was always of faraway places and people. Which required no more of her than she could give. The stability, the mansion on the hill, that was my pursuit.
“A long time ago.” Her head drops; she takes a deep breath. In seconds she seems to shake herself out of her reverie. “It can never be for me. I accept that. This is why I have to leave. I don’t belong here. I never did.”
“We are your family. Who else do you belong with if not us?” Her indifference infuriates me. Regardless of what happened, we belong together. As a family, we have to get through this. She left us behind years ago. Once was enough. “You don’t get to run away again. That’s not fair.”
“It’s not about me,” she says. We both know she’s lying.
“Why didn’t you come to my wedding?” The anger I suppressed on that day rears up, surrounding the empty space between us. Like an art piece come to life, I am beyond recognition. “I wanted you there. I deserved that,” I scream. The time for an answer is long past. If she is going to leave again, I need to know the woman she is now. Because never would I have imagined the sister I grew up with would abandon me on the most important day of my life. “Why did you stay away for so long? I needed you.”
“Because there was nothing I had to give you.” She glances at the wall, biting her lip. “To give anyone.” Her eyes cloud over. “I couldn’t watch him give you away. Smile as he played the loving father.” She stands quickly, knocking the stacked pillows to the ground. She avoids my eyes, but I still catch an unreadable mystery in their depths. “And you letting him.” She waits, turning toward me to see how her words affect me.
Something tugs at my brain, a memory. A girl whimpering, searching through the darkness. In the halls of our childhood home, I hear a scream. Terrifying in its intensity, but no one comes to her rescue. She is all alone. I struggle to make out a face, but it is blurred. I shudder, sure it is Sonya I can’t see. Shaking away the image, I focus on who she is now, dismissing the past. Now, I fight to hold on to the sister I have lost. “Then help me watch him die. Tell me how to say good-bye.”