weekend-readsA Family Matter

Keya Mitra

It’s seven in the morning on a Thursday, and I’m already late for school when I walk into the dining room for breakfast and find Debi, my newborn sister, floating in the aquarium. My dead newborn sister. She must be dead—after all, humans can’t survive underwater—but the magnitude of this doesn’t register.

Last week Ms. Monroe taught my eleventh-grade Spanish class the difference between ser and estar. A defining characteristic versus a temporary state. The example my Spanish teacher gave: Tú estás muy bonita hoy. You look very pretty today. Tú eres muy bonita. You are very pretty. Ms. Monroe is a native Houstonian, but she exaggerates her Spanish accent, perhaps hoping it’ll disguise the reality that she’s white and has never visited a Spanish-speaking country.

“A piece of advice—if you’re ever in Cancun trying to find a hot date, never use estar when it comes to a girl’s looks,” Ms. Monroe said to the class. She’s a sallow-faced woman with frightened eyes, and she stumbled over the joke. I imagined her rehearsing the line in front of a mirror the night before to get the delivery just right, desperate to show us that words like ser and estar have meaning in our lives. I realized that she was terribly alone, and she reminded me of my mother.

“I don’t even know what this means,” Shannon said to me a year ago about the note I’d written asking her to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. I know the girl is supposed to ask the boy, I wrote, but I don’t see any use in reversing roles for this occasion; I want everything right side up. The prose crowded the margins—desperate, breathless, clingy.

Shannon said: “Gapu, you’re too smart for your own good. You live in an alternate universe or something. I don’t even know what this means.” It’s a popular expression at school. In the cafeteria, girls giggle about the boys they like. Never about me, of course. The most adorable Indian boy at our school, Shannon once dubbed me. Translation: the dickless brown midget. No, the girls gossip about the bulky guys whose huge gorilla arms make up for alcohol-induced brain damage. He said I’m fine. I don’t even know what that means, they say.

As I glance at the aquarium, now the deadness of Debi’s body socks me right in the face, and these are the words racing through my head: I don’t even know what this means. The fish swim around the body, and for a moment I feel an absurd sense of relief that they aren’t dead before I remember that my sister is. Dead. That’s the difference between ser and estar—you can’t say: Mi hermana está muerta. Death isn’t a temporary state. She’ll be dead today, tomorrow, the day after. Or so they say.

The water remains still, silent, pleading the fifth. Whatever commotion raged inside that aquarium has settled, and the water won’t divulge the past.

My dad glances up at me from the dining table and smiles—or at least I think he does. He’s gained weight over the years, and the thickness of his neck and the boyish protrusion of his cheeks give him the appearance of constant joviality. His fat has become a masquerade. You can’t discern a sincere smile from a reflexive swelling of his lower face. But, to those of us who know better, his body expands with his stretches of silence, as though his belly is an accumulation of everything unspoken, all that has been withheld seeking release.

We conduct ourselves at home as though our house is tapped, because my dad believes we are living under surveillance. “If you say the wrong thing,” he said once, “they’ll haul you off and arrest you for terrorism.”

My father rises. “Eggs?” he asks me. He is a large man, so large that his standing up seems an act of immense generosity. His hands are wet, and he presses them against the table to support himself when he gets up. His handprints soil the pink tablecloth.

My mother also sits at the table. She says nothing, but clenches her hands with such force that I am afraid her nails will leave permanent impressions on her palms and her anger will be fossilized in those tiny indentations.

Deepak, my seven-year-old brother, sits next to my mother. He holds a banana in his left hand but doesn’t eat it. Instead he shakes it vigorously, as though it’s a hand or foot that’s fallen asleep.

Did my father do it in the morning, alone? Or was it like a magic trick gone awry—Now, for my ultimate feat . . . the baby in the aquarium! . . . What’s that? She’s not breathing?

The absence of sound is nearly as jarring as the dead baby. Debi is (was? How many hours does a person have to be dead before she gets relegated to past tense?) newly human. My mom and dad brought her home late last night, when Deepak and I were supposed to be asleep, and they paused in the doorway of our room for a moment, whispering. I was awake, just barely, and could see the silhouette of Mom and Dad and a tiny bundle with outstretched fingers. And then they were gone, though Debi cried a lifetime’s worth of tears last night, and every hour I was startled awake by her wailing. I thought the only way to get her to stop would be an exorcism.

Apparently, another way was to drop her into an aquarium. There’s something very deliberate about the placement of her tiny, floating body, as though she’s a work of art in a museum. A statement, not a person. A tasteless exhibit by an immature artist who believes boldness and vulgarity are interchangeable.

My father places the eggs in front of me, sunny-side up, the circles of yolk perfectly pooled in the centers. He maintains an almost dictatorial control over objects. Yolks never run loose in our house.

“More eggs?” my father asks my mother. She moves her lips but no sound comes out, like she’s on mute. Finally she shakes her head and says: “I don’t want more legs.”

“You mean more eggs,” my father says, like he’s clarifying this for a court reporter. “You don’t want more eggs.”

“That’s right. No eggs.”

I slide in next to her. I try not to look at the baby in the aquarium. There’s no way it’s Debi, I think. People don’t just leave drowned babies in aquariums. That Yates woman drowned five of her babies—she must have disposed of the corpses somehow. We’re trained to clean or flush anything fecal, diseased, or dead.

But the baby in that aquarium is real, and so is the absence of noise, so stark I can’t possibly be imagining it. The stillness was a major incentive for my mother to have another child at the age of thirty-eight. For years, silence covered the house like snow solidifying into ice over time in a perpetual snowstorm. I’d sometimes push my face against the bedroom window, wondering how everything outside could appear calm in the midst of such merciless weather, wondering whether the insides of the other houses in our neighborhood were like ours, filled with a quiet that lulls you into apathy so you’re always jerked awake or jerked back to sleep, never anything in between.

“I know I didn’t tell you I went off my birth control,” I heard my mom saying to my dad one night. “But who knew I’d get pregnant at this age?” The lie was so weak that even her voice couldn’t sell it. The real explanation: I can’t stand the silence. I want sound again.

Last March my mom came into our room—mine and Deepak’s—and sat on my bed and told us she was having another baby. She had no idea how to respond to the hope inside her; she kept standing with restless exhilaration and then sitting, fidgeting with her hands, picking up my basketball and examining it absentmindedly.

Deepak was excited when she told us, and I made fun of him for it. “Are you going to knit our sister some baby clothes?” I’d say to Deepak. “Are you going to play Barbie with her?” One time after he went shopping with our mom he showed me this tiny pink outfit they’d bought for her. “What’s going on with you?” I asked him. “You’re turning into a giant wimp. Most guys would want another brother.”

He squeezed his fists over his eyes so I couldn’t see him cry, and he ran to the bathroom. I felt awful. The tension between my mom and dad had heightened once she got pregnant, and I was taking it out on Deepak.

A few weeks ago, my mother was watching television on the couch. Deepak sat next to her. She pulled his head to her stomach so he could feel the baby kicking. He jerked backwards. He said: “How can you live with that noise inside your body?”

She laughed, and it was my favorite laugh of hers, the real kind. “I can’t hear it, baby,” she said. “You can have all sorts of noise inside of you without hearing a sound.”

He’d spend an hour pressed against her hard, round belly, and with every sporadic kick he leaped backwards, pressing his hands to his ears. “Ow! It’s like a boom in my ear.”

“Will you stop saying that?” I’d say. “It’s not like a boom in your ear. You can barely hear it.” He’d ignore me. One night I found him leaning over my mother, who’d fallen asleep on the couch. He whispered to her stomach: “I promise I’ll get you out. I’ll get you out, baby. You won’t have to live in that scary place forever.”

I excuse myself from the table and lock myself in the bathroom. I close the toilet lid because the sight of water floating in the toilet bowl nauseates me. I think about calling the police. But it seems absurd, considering my family’s reaction. I imagine the interrogation:

What did you do when you saw your dead newborn sister, sir?
I sat down for breakfast. My dad made me some eggs. Sunny-side up.

I question what I saw. Maybe it was a doll, I try convincing myself. But the body in that aquarium had a uniquely human shape to it, and even though I’m desperate to prove myself wrong, I’m certain it was Debi in the water.

Yet I pray that the silence will soon be disrupted by Debi’s demanding wails. It’s incomprehensible that Debi can’t be fished out of the aquarium, rinsed off, and then put back in her crib.

I’m late for school but unable to get moving. I pull down my pants and try, unsuccessfully, to jack off. But, no matter how hard I try to forget, the image of Debi’s body floating in that aquarium keeps darting through my mind. I shiver as I zip up my pants and press my forehead against the cool surface of the mirror above our sink.

I manage a smile when I walk back into the kitchen. Everyone has disappeared except my mother, who wipes down the counters, scrubbing them vigorously even though they’re spotless. I glance at the aquarium, then look again. The baby is gone. The goldfish swim freely now, their space unencumbered. Water drips down from the glass of the aquarium to the floor, where a pool of water has collected.

My mother hums as she works, her voice unnaturally high. Only her eyes, swollen and disoriented, betray that something unspeakable has happened; they are the eyes of someone who has seen far more than can be tolerated.

My backpack dangles from a single finger. Our bus will arrive in five minutes. My mom nods in my direction. “Go to school, honey,” she says, her voice raspy.

“Mom, come with us.” I try to make eye contact, but she refuses to look at me, as she often does when she’s covering for my father and ashamed of it.

“I’m too old to attend your school,” she says, forcing a laugh. “Have a good day.”

I hesitate. Deepak emerges from our bedroom, fully dressed, though his socks are on inside out, his hair disheveled.

“See you after school,” my mom calls to us. “Gapu,” she adds, allowing eye contact between us for the first time, “please remember that this is a family matter.”

What does she mean? I wonder, as Deepak and I walk down the sidewalk to the bus stop. Would the police ignore a murder if we agreed that it was a “family matter”?

We wait for the bus. Deepak leans against a telephone pole.

“It was probably a doll,” I lie to him. “It looked like a doll.”

Deepak nods. He keeps nodding with great force in a nonverbal filibuster to keep me from saying anything more. We both sneak furtive glances at the house, as though we expect it to spontaneously erupt into flames and betray the crime to the world. It doesn’t, and when the bus comes, we board it, as we do every day. I sit by Hot Shannon and Deepak sits alone two rows behind us, and we say nothing more about the baby.

People have certain misconceptions about craziness. Let me explain.

Crazy comes in different brands. Crazy doesn’t always mean brooding, incoherent mumbling, overgrown nails. Crazy can be an Indian man who’ll dress up in a cowboy hat when your friends come over because it amuses them, who says “y’all” and “I am Apu. Welcome to Kwik-E-Mart” and “Screw that ho” in a Bengali accent because your dad will make people laugh at any cost. Then, after everyone leaves, Crazy goes quiet. Crazy takes off his cowboy hat and stops talking in his accent. He stops talking at all.

Crazy can be a successful lawyer who hoards his money because he constantly anticipates disaster. Crazy lives in a tiny house with his family, a largely unfurnished space, but Crazy isn’t stingy, he’ll insist; he’s responsible.

Crazy can have a lovely wife whom he loves, who was not given to him in an arranged marriage but courted, persistently, until they were a Mr. and Mrs. Crazy with their bulging soon-to-be-son.

Crazy has no idea what to do with the bulging soon-to-be-son, and he has even less of an idea when the soon-to-be-son is a real human being. He withdraws into himself for days at a time. When there’s a second bulge, and a second son, he withdraws into himself for longer. When Crazy gets crazy, the house goes silent. His family tiptoes around him.

Crazy eventually declares a state of emergency in his own home. We are being watched, he insists, though there’s no evidence of this. Any misstep and we’ll be deported, condemned as terrorists, he says. The rules: no betrayal of a family member. No negative talk. Not until things are normal again in this country. The transcript of Crazy’s dinner conversations with his family would read like a script of The Brady Bunch.

Crazy’s wife will whisper to Crazy’s first son, when he can’t take his father anymore, that no man will ever love his family like Crazy. Nothing is as important as family, she’ll say. Whatever happens inside this house is a family matter.

She says that Crazy suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder. Anyone who has witnessed the brutalities of the world like your father would become crazy, she says. In a way, we’re all crazy.

Maybe we are, Crazy’s son agrees. But Crazy is still crazy.

Crazy wears a cross around his neck he bought from the Canterbury Church. His religion is chameleonic: his affiliation shifts from Catholic to Hindu to atheist (in which case the cross around his neck becomes “ironic”) depending on his audience.

At dinner, Crazy insists on praying. He doesn’t know how to say grace, so he invents the words. Crazy’s son makes up his own words, too. Please God, he says, help Crazy. And now, as he boards a school bus: Please God, help me understand what to do about Crazy.

“Do babies ever run away?” I ask Shannon on the bus. I think about those ads we get in the mail with photos of missing people on one side and coupons for a car wash on the other. I try to remember if I’ve ever seen a picture of a baby on one of them.

“What do you mean, like toddlers?”

“No, like babies. You know, a few months old. Or even a newborn. I heard about a duck running away from home once. A baby can, too, right?” Maybe Debi was just swimming in the aquarium, I tell myself. Maybe she went in for a dive, crawled out, and decided to explore the world.

Shannon studies me. She’s perfect. Quiet, understated eyes, a gorgeous body she’s earned through daily runs. She’s some combination of Scottish/Native American/Japanese, but her last name, Martin, and the fact that she’s less than one-sixteenth of any objectionable race, makes her immune to discrimination at our school. But she’s got that rare, luminous beauty that’s a composite of every beautiful culture in the world. Her one conceivable imperfection is that she comes from a fucked-up family—her dad left her mom, and now her mother is a deeply devoted alcoholic—but I know this because Shannon hasn’t lost her capacity for openness and tells me almost everything. I’ve spent nights wishing that she were blind so in time she would forget about my acne scars, and I could bulk up, shave off all my body hair, and spend the rest of my life comforting her with lyric descriptions of the outside world and my dick, which, in my fantasies, will bulk up along with the rest of my body.

“Babies aren’t ducks,” Shannon says.

“When do babies learn to crawl?”

“I don’t know. Even after they learn to crawl, how far can they possibly go? They can’t open doors.”

“But I’m almost positive I read something recently about a baby crawling across a highway and getting hit by a car.”

“They’re not dogs. They don’t run away. You’re way too smart to be saying this.”

“Do babies ever commit suicide?”

“How would they possibly do that?”

“I don’t know. What if they get depressed? And they stick a pacifier up their throat, or something? Or crawl into a pool on purpose?”

“I don’t think they’re sophisticated enough to think about suicide.”

“If a baby is already born, do you think you can abort it? Like a fourth-mester abortion? Maybe it’ll be legally sanctioned in the next couple of years.”

“You can’t kill a baby once it’s born. That’s murder. What’s wrong with you?”

“But what is alive, really? Who’ll ever know if a baby is born?”

“Uh—there’s a birth certificate.”

Crap, the birth certificate. Why am I trying to protect him anyway, I wonder.

“This is a bizarre conversation,” she says, shaking her head. The bus comes to a halt then, and I wait for her as she puts on her coat and backpack. Her every movement is precise and meticulous; she buttons her wool coat all the way up, starting from the bottom, and she’s always the last person off the bus because of it. Sometimes it seems that this attention to detail is the only way she can maintain control over her life, and if a button ever popped on the jacket she’d lose it and never be the same. She looks pensive as she’s putting on the coat, but she doesn’t say anything until we’re off the bus. “Debi came home from the hospital yesterday, right? Is she OK? Does she seem depressed or something?”

Deepak walks ahead of me, clutching the straps of his backpack. I’m tempted to tell Shannon everything, but it sounds absurd even to me. Well, Debi was in the aquarium this morning. I went to the bathroom and once I came out she was gone, so there’s a dead baby lying around in our house somewhere. My mother’s words, It’s a family matter, scroll through my mind.

“Just family stuff,” I say. “See you soon.”

I generally spend a couple of hours or so at Shannon’s house after school. She lives nearby, and though she’s beautiful she doesn’t have many other friends; most other girls envy her and mistake her precise, articulate nature for aloofness, and the guys talk about how hot she is behind her back but are too nervous to ever say anything to her face. Today, I tell Shannon that Deepak is coming over, too, and she shoots me a funny look but doesn’t object. The truth is I don’t feel right taking him home. I’m worried that I’ll come back from Shannon’s place, and he’ll be crammed into that aquarium just like my baby sister. But Shannon’s cool about it, and she walks with Deepak and makes small talk. The problem is that most of her questions are about Debi.

“So, what’s it like being a big brother?”

“I bought her a pink outfit.”

“Does she grab on to your finger?”

“I bought her a pink outfit.”

“She must be adorable.”

“A pink outfit. From Macy’s.”

Finally, I interrupt her — “I think he’s embarrassed,” I whisper — and she stops. We put Deepak in front of the TV at her house, and he sits very tall, just like he did at the breakfast table, and stares ahead at nothing.

“Your brother’s acting really strange,” Shannon says, as we go to her room.

I pause. “He’s stressed out about my sister.” It’s the truth.

Her mother isn’t home; even though she’s tanked all the time, she’ll go to the grocery store and pick up dry cleaning after drinking a bottle and a half of wine so later she can claim that she’s not an alcoholic because, as she says, “Alcoholics don’t go grocery shopping and run a household.”

Of course, we walked into the kitchen one day to find her cleaning her arm with Windex and a paper towel in a drunken haze, but that, her mother says, is beside the point.

“So is everything OK at home?” Shannon says. We’re sitting in her room, pretending to do geometry homework.

“Sure,” I say. “Sure it is.” I scribble something on a piece of paper.

She speaks again after a few minutes. “The other day I smashed all of my mother’s wine bottles against the brick fence outside.”

“Wow,” I say. “All of them?”

“I think so. A policeman was patrolling the neighborhood and saw me throwing wine bottles against the fence. I’d busted thirty-six bottles at that point.”

“What’d he do?”

“He rang the doorbell. My mom was passed out, but after he’d been knocking for ten minutes or so, she got up. She started crying when he told her what I’d done. She swore she’d stop drinking for the rest of the day. Swore up and down. “

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Shannon says. “And by the time I got home from school the next day she’d restocked the whole cabinet and put a lock on the doors so I couldn’t get into it.”

“Hey,” I say. “Hey.” I reach over and touch her hand, then her hair. And then she’s sobbing, and I don’t know what to do. I love you, I want to say. Run away with me. Please.

I think about Debi in the aquarium and how the thought of rescuing her, of making sure she received a proper burial, never even occurred to me.

“It was brave of you to do that,” I say. “I couldn’t have done it.”

She places her hand on mine for a second, and I have trouble swallowing. Her hands are small but strong and blunt, tanned from the hours she’s spent in the sun. “Gapu, is there anything you want to tell me?”

I almost tell her. I almost do, but can’t speak and then the moment is over.

Her mom’s shuffling around in the kitchen, and Shannon wipes her eyes. “We have to get your brother out of here,” she says, standing. “God knows what she’s saying to him.”

We can hear her mom babbling from the hallway, and when we walk into the kitchen, she’s downing a beer and going on about Pokémon or whatever shit Deepak is watching.

“We didn’t have television where I grew up,” her mom says. “I lived on a farm, and my sister and I planted vegetables in the garden. And we picked apricots and peaches and plums from the trees out back and ate them fresh. It was so different then, the world.” Her body is tiny inside the giant bathrobe she’s wearing, and her eyes are barely visible under heavy eyelids that seal them off like shutters. Strange—she, too, was human once.

Deepak doesn’t move, like Shannon’s mom is a bear, and if he plays dead long enough she’ll leave him alone.

“Mom,” Shannon says. “He’s fucking seven. Will you not drink around him?”

Her mother slurs her words. “Honey, I spent the last hour standing in line at the bank to withdraw money for your lunch tomorrow. Don’t I have the right to relax?”

“I’m sure that you were drunk before you left.”

“I drove to the bank. If I was really drunk, how would I have been able to drive?”

“It’s called drunk driving,” Shannon says. Then she turns to me, “Come on,” she says, dragging us out the door. “She wants,” she says as she slams the door, “to live her life with integrity. But she’ll sabotage herself every step of the way.”

The thought occurs to me then, though I banish it quickly enough—what if my mom, who prayed for the chance to bring new life into our house and make everything right with another child, was the one who couldn’t stomach the reality of a wailing, disenchanted newborn in her home? What if the promise of another child, another life, diminished after my mother gave birth to Debi and realized life would play out no differently? What if Crazy is not confined to a single body but instead circulates through a family like an illness, settling in one person, then taking up residency in another, secure in the knowledge that constant movement keeps infections alive?

We walk to the park near the neighborhood, as Shannon and I always do when we need to get away. The sun is setting, and brilliant orange streaks crack open the sky, and I think about Debi, and how, as the day ends, she grows more and more dead with every hour. I think about Debi’s lonely body hidden away somewhere—inside a cabinet or maybe even cremated in the fireplace—and my mother, how sad she must have felt, fishing a body out of that filthy aquarium, a being that had lived inside of her for so long.

Deepak walks ahead of us. I recall the first time they brought him home from the hospital after he was born, and I peeked inside the soft, blue bundle. I felt such a sense of ownership, as though it wasn’t my mother but I who’d borne the weight of his body for all that time. You’re mine, I’d whispered, and my mother had laughed, and my father with her, and their smiles were real then.

When Deepak was less than a year old, I sat in front of him, imparting all the knowledge I had in one vast, unorganized list—my favorite baseball players, all the vocabulary words I had memorized like “melancholy” and “abyss,” the names of the streets in our neighborhood. The fifty states. The continents, the planets, the oceans. And dinosaurs. I was convinced I knew more about dinosaurs than anyone in the world.

And, later, when he was old enough, I read him stories, and he’d get impatient and ask “And then what? And then what?” He smiled with his mouth wide open, all his teeth exposed. It was before he’d been trained to keep everything hidden inside him.

Deepak must have collected facts to share with Debi just as I did with him, and the idea of Deepak waking up this morning only to discover his long-awaited baby sister dead in an aquarium is unbearable.

We’re closer to the park now, and maybe it’s the boldness of the sky, or Shannon, or our dead baby sister, but I take Deepak’s hand and hold it the rest of the way. His hand is small and soft and unresponsive, but he doesn’t pull away. I squeeze it. Shannon takes my other hand gently. And, for a moment, the three of us are a family.

There’s a merry-go-round in a corner of the park that stopped working years ago, and now kids that don’t have friends to play with sit on the horses and look out at the playground at recess. My horse is white, with a look of absolute terror on his face. His eyes are startled, his mouth open, exposing large teeth. One of his front hooves slices the air; the other is anchored on the ground. When in motion, the horse’s fear wouldn’t be as apparent, but now, frozen, it’s preserved in all its vulnerability.

Deepak sits behind me, on a chestnut mare, and Shannon in front of me on a palomino. Their horses wear the same expression of utter horror.

“Now what?” Deepak asks. “What happens next?”

“We’ll go home,” I want to respond. “And Debi will be alive, and it’ll all make sense.” But it’s a lie, so instead I turn and signal to Deepak to step off his horse. He does, and then I hoist him up onto my lap, like I did when we were younger and he was scared at night because the wind was banging against the windows or the TV was too loud, and he felt safe only when his head was cradled firmly underneath my chin— 

I was braver then.

I imagine that the merry-go-round and horses come alive, and we are awakened from this deadness. The expression of terror in my horse’s eyes transforms into one of pure exhilaration. The merry-go-round spins, and Shannon and Deepak and I spin with it. The neighborhood blurs around us as we make our own orbit around the world. Deepak laughs with his mouth wide open, and Shannon glances back at me from her horse in front, reaching for my hand. Then we’re all together, touching, riding atop a moving miracle . . .

Then the fantasy ends, and the only sound is that of the kids in the distance, shouting as they play basketball. Deepak’s head rests listlessly against my chest. I whisper: “I’ll get you out, baby. I’ll get you out. You won’t have to live in that scary place forever.”

I stroke my horse’s head, gently, and give it a soft kick in the stomach, and for a fleeting moment I almost believe—I need to believe—that it moves.

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