Laura M. Rocha
Young & Golden
Kim Drew Wright
The Long Road
Vincent Paul Vanneman
Are you an alcoholic? A self-test
Motion Without Meaning
Dinner at the Twicketts
What Ever Happens Next
The Long Way Home
How You Won’t Go Back
The Book Club
The Edge of the Known World
Neel was 13 and his sister, Anita, was ten, when their parents split up. On a chilly day in March, his mother picked him up after his astronomy club meeting and told him. As he sat in the front seat listening to her, Neel tried to keep his mind on the fact that he, his mother, the car, and the freeway were, at that moment, traveling through space at 30 kilometers per second on their journey around the sun.
In the months before the divorce was final, when Dad had moved out and was living on the other side of Newark in an unfurnished efficiency apartment which contained almost nothing but a bean-bag chair and empty Chinese food take-out boxes, Neel asked his parents many times why they were getting divorced.
His father, T. Gopalakrishnan, would rub his small pot belly slowly and say, in his thick Indian accent, rolling his R’s and enunciating each consonant strongly, “Your mother has decided she does not want to be married to me anymore.”
His mother, Linda, would toss her long brown hair over her shoulder and say, “Your father isn’t interested in working on our marriage.”
Neel tried to point out to each parent that, apparently, things could work out if they simply admitted to each other that they wanted to stay married. They’d shake their heads and look at him searchingly. “No, Neel,” they’d say. “It won’t work. I’m sorry.”
He was baffled by the ways of adults. One day, while he and Anita were sitting on the floor of the basement rec room playing Monopoly, he asked, “How can two people get a divorce without ever having a fight?”
Anita moved her piece, the horse, past “Go” and counted $200 onto her pile of money. “They fought all the time.”
“They fought every day. Didn’t you hear them?”
Neel thought about this. He remembered a chilliness in the air during dinners sometimes. He remembered his parents closing their bedroom door and having muffled conversations. He remembered wanting to retreat to his room more often than usual.
“What did they fight about?” he asked.
“Mom said Dad was spoiled and expected to be treated like a prince. She said she wasn’t a subservient Indian wife. Dad said he only wanted a hot meal and a clean house when he came home and that Mom was the spoiled one. He said she wanted to be waited on hand and foot. Mom said all she wanted was for Dad to pay attention. She said he didn’t even know which days the trash was picked up. She said he never remembered her birthday or their anniversary. Mom said they needed marriage counseling and Dad said he’d never set foot in a counselor’s office. He said there was nothing wrong with him. It’s your turn, Neel.”
“How did you hear all that?”
“My room is next to theirs. I could hear everything.”
Neel was astonished that Anita could remember all this. He didn’t see how these minor misunderstandings could lead to something as momentous as ripping apart the only life he’d ever known. He thought his parents were hiding something from him.
One day, he stormed home from school. “Is he having an affair?” he demanded of his mother. His voice cracked, both from emotion and from his enlarging voice box.
“Who?” she asked. She was sitting at the kitchen table, which had been, since Dad moved out, piled high with papers which Neel and Anita were never to touch, and which never went away. “These are important financial documents,” his mother would say. “We need these for the divorce.” The table in the dining room was, as usual, covered with potted plants—it was the sunniest room in the house. So they’d been eating their dinners on the sofa in the family room.
“Dad,” Neel said. He was standing with his jacket and shoes still on, when normally the rule at their house had been to take shoes off as soon as you walked in the door. That was an Indian habit, and his father liked to point out that taking one’s shoes off was a way to make a distinction between the stress of work and school, and the comforts of home.
Now that Dad wasn’t around, Neel noticed that even his mother was clomping around the entire house in her sneakers.
“Of course not,” Mom said, looking back at the papers in front of her. “Where did you get that idea?”
“Josh Benmer at school said Dad must be having an affair. That’s why his cousin’s parents got a divorce and they wouldn’t tell his cousin the truth for a long time.”
Mom shook her head. “It’s nothing like that. We are telling you the truth.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Sit down.” She pushed aside a pile of papers, took hold of his hand across the table, and looked him in the eye. He knew they were now going to have a serious, adult conversation.
“When Gopi and I got married,” she said in a measured tone, “we were so young. We were still in college. He was working on his PhD and I was a nursing student. We had no idea what we were getting into. Our backgrounds were so different. He’s from Bangalore, which as you know is a huge city. I’m a small-town girl from Michigan.”
Neel had heard this story many times. His parents had met when Dad started tutoring Mom in chemistry. “But you fell in love,” he pointed out.
“At least we thought it was love. It may have been nothing more than loneliness.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you all this. College was such a big place for me. I hardly knew anyone. I missed my boyfriend from high school. We’d broken up when he decided to go into the Air Force, and I went off to nursing school. One day, during our tutoring session, I started crying. Gopi invited me up to the graduate student dorm and made dinner for me. I still remember it. He made a curry with nine kinds of vegetables. I was impressed that he knew how to cook a meal from scratch, and that he used so many vegetables. The boys I’d gone to high school with could barely make themselves a hot dog.” She laughed. “Gopi was so different than other boys I knew. He spoke with an accent. He was so quiet and courteous. I thought he was really exotic.” Mom rubbed Neel’s fingers and smiled at her memories.
“Why are you getting a divorce?” Neel repeated.
Her smile faded. “Do you know why we got married so young?”
“Because you loved each other.”
“Because I got pregnant.”
Neel’s hand flinched away from his mother’s, but she had a tight warm grip on his fingers. His eyes rested on a document that said “Statement of Assets” across the top.
“Is this too much for you to know?” she asked.
He mumbled something and shrugged.
“I thought I might as well tell you, since you seem so upset about the whole thing. We knew our families wouldn’t be happy about our marriage so we just went to the Justice of the Peace and then told everyone about it later.”
Neel’s forehead began to furrow. “But I wasn’t born until—” He wondered if, somehow, his parents had lied to him about his birth date to make things appear more normal.
“Oh!” she laughs. “It wasn’t you. I ended up having a miscarriage. That’s the ironic part. If we’d waited even another month, we probably never would have gotten married at all.”
Neel wasn’t entirely sure what a miscarriage was—whether it was an accidental event or a deliberate action. “Did you think about getting a divorce then?” he asked.
“No. We both come from families where no one ever gets divorced.”
“Then why get one now?”
She let go of his hand. “I’m older now. I don’t want to keep waiting and hoping things will get better.”
“Your father—” She licked her lips. She shook her head. “No. I can’t tell you all this. Your father’s a good man. I want you to remember that, Neel. OK?” She patted his hand and gave him a tight smile. The serious, adult talk was over.
During the process of the divorce, Neel grew taller than his dad. By the time everything was final, he was thin and lanky, bent like a willow tree in the wind.
The summer before his ninth-grade year, he and Anita moved with their mother to Centerton, Michigan, a small town about two hours southwest of Ann Arbor. Centerton was where his mother had grown up and where Neel’s Grandma Mary and Grandpa Paul still lived.
“This is the first divorce our family has ever known,” Grandma Mary said. Neel, his sister, and his mother were sitting around her blue speckled Formica kitchen table, the night they arrived. They were staying with Grandma Mary and Grandpa Paul until they found a place to live. The kitchen was small and old and smelled of roast beef and bacon. They sat companionably in the darkness, except for the light from the stove. Moonlight streamed through the lace curtains, making a pattern of lacy light and shadows on the table. Anita traced the light circles with her finger. Grandma placed a long white cigarette between her lips and flicked her lighter, which flared brilliantly in the dimness.
“I didn’t think anything good would come of marrying a foreigner.” Grandma tapped her cigarette into an empty coffee mug. She had sold all her ashtrays at a garage sale some years ago, intending to quit smoking, so now she had to use whatever was handy for an ashtray.
“Mom,” Linda said sternly.
“They’re old enough to hear this.”
“He’s their father,” Linda said. “They’re the good that came out of the marriage.”
Neel stood up abruptly and pushed open the back screen door. It slammed closed behind him. He stepped away from the house, away from the troublesome conversation inside. The air was warm, and the moon above was so bright and large—it seemed close enough to touch. He remembered looking through the telescope during astronomy club one night, and seeing with startling clearness the ring-shaped craters on the gray surface of the moon. Those craters were up there now, although he couldn’t see them.
In Centerton, Neel and Anita were just about the only dusky-skinned people around. Not that anyone was prejudiced or anything. Adults went out of their way to be friendly to them. A few weeks after they arrived, at the beginning of ninth grade, Neel’s home-room teacher, Ms. Pierce, put her hand on his arm as he was getting ready to go to his first-period biology class. “Neel, what is your background?” she asked.
Neel shook his hair out of his eyes and said, “Pardon?”
“Your ethnic background,” said Ms. Pierce. She was a young, slim woman with her hair in a ponytail, and a wide smile.
“Oh. Um, I’m half-Indian.”
“How interesting!” She clasped her hands and bounced on her toes. “I’m part native myself. What tribe?”
He shook his head. “No. I mean, my dad’s from India.”
“I’m sorry, I misunderstood. That’s fascinating. You might want to talk with Mr. Cartig. He’d like more diversity on the staff of the school newspaper. I’m sure you’d bring an unusual perspective.”
Neel thought it might be fun to be on the school newspaper staff. There was no astronomy club at this school. But he didn’t know how he could bring an “unusual perspective” to the paper. In New Jersey, there were so many kids with two Indian parents that he and Anita were viewed as hardly Indian at all.
In the spring of Neel’s ninth-grade year, soon after his fifteenth birthday, Dad announced that he was going to take Neel and Anita to India over the summer. “We have not gone since you were eleven, Neel, and Anita was only eight,” Dad pointed out.
Anita, on the extension upstairs in Mom’s bedroom, wailed, “You said I could go to horse camp this summer!”
“Yes, yes,” Dad said. “We will go to India at a different time from your horse camp.”
“I don’t want to go to India!” Anita wailed.
“Don’t be such a baby,” Neel said.
“You will have fun in India,” Dad said.
“No, I won’t.” Anita sniffled.
“Yes, you will. Tell her, Neel. She will have fun, right?”
“Sure,” Neel said. He didn’t really want to go to India either, but he also didn’t want to cause trouble.
Neel’s mom was much more excited about the trip. “What a wonderful opportunity for the two of you!” she gushed when she heard about the plans.
“I’m not going,” Anita said.
Mom bought several books about India for Neel and Anita: about Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, about Indian holidays and festivals, about Indian geography. Mom even rented the movie Gandhi. Neel liked the character of Gandhi. He seemed kind and wise at the same time. Anita refused to look at any of the books, and wouldn’t even watch the movie.
Neel told Mr. Cartig, the school newspaper advisor, that he was going to India over the summer. Neel was a “junior writer” on the school newspaper. Mr. Cartig’s eyes lit up. “The land of Gandhi!” he declared. “You’re a lucky kid, Neel, to have a personal connection with that man. He’s perhaps the greatest leader since Jesus.”
A personal connection to Gandhi. The greatest leader since Jesus. All day after he talked with Mr. Cartig, Neel wondered if this could be true. He had never been particularly proud of his Indian heritage. He hadn’t been ashamed of it either. He just hadn’t thought much about it. Now Mr. Cartig suggested there might be more to his family than he realized. That night, he told Dad what Mr. Cartig said.
Dad laughed. “Maybe Gandhi was the greatest leader since Jesus. But unfortunately, our family has no personal connection with him. Gandhi’s family was from Gujarat. That’s a completely different part of the country than where I grew up.”
Neel felt hot with embarrassment at his father’s laughter. “I’m sure Mr. Cartig didn’t mean a personal connection as in, related or anything,” he emphasized dramatically. “He just meant, you know, the same country and all.”
“Same country. Yes. OK, so are you ready for our trip?”
The next day, Neel told Mr. Cartig that his family had no personal connection with Gandhi. “He’s from a completely different part of the country than my family,” Neel informed Mr. Cartig, proud that he knew something about his own heritage.
Mr. Cartig said, “But your family must have been involved with the Indian independence movement. That was going on all over the country.”
Neel nodded. He had never thought of that. When Dad called that evening Neel asked casually, “Were you involved in the Indian independence movement?”
Dad laughed harder and longer than before. Finally he said, “I wasn’t even born when India got independence!”
Neel cursed his own stupidity. How could he not have known? After he got off the phone, he looked in his book again and found out that India won independence in 1947. Dad was born in 1958. So it was Neel’s grandfather who must have been part of the independence movement.
At Mr. Cartig’s suggestion, Neel decided to interview his grandfather on this trip. It would be a real coup for a sophomore to have a feature article printed in the school newspaper. He packed a voice recorder and notebook in his suitcase.
In the end, Anita refused to come along, and Mom reluctantly agreed that she could spend time with Dad in New Jersey before the trip, but would come back to Michigan when Neel and Dad left for India.
“How are you, young man? I remember when you were only so high.”
“He has grown tall! Do you remember us from your last trip to India?”
Neel’s head was still spinning from the long plane ride and then the hair-raising taxi-ride from the Bangalore airport. He and his dad stood in the entrance hallway of Dad’s childhood home at three o’clock in the morning. Neel shifted his weight from one foot to the other and hung his head. Sriram Uncle clapped him on the back and Sunita Auntie pinched his cheek. He tossed his hair out of his face and tried to mumble something polite to his relatives.
Ahead of them on the wall was the garlanded black-and-white portrait of his grandmother, who died when Neel was a small boy. He didn’t remember her. To the right of the photo was the shiny wooden door leading to his grandfather’s room. Neel felt like a journalist on a foreign assignment, scoping out the scene. He’d put up with the discomforts of his assignment for the reward of seeing his words in print.
Over the next week, Neel tried to figure out how to arrange to interview his grandfather. Tata was a large, bulky man with a gigantic square head hanging from his frame. He reminded Neel of a bison. He wore a white dhoti wrapped around his legs (it looked like a long skirt to Neel), an undershirt, and a thin white towel neatly folded and draped over one shoulder.
Several times a day Tata walked majestically around the house, his hands behind his back, as though leading a procession. Every so often, as he passed Neel perched on a sofa reading old Reader’s Digest magazines (the only reading material he found in the house), Tata barked out a question. “What is the square root of 1,369?” “What is the name of the largest volcano in the world?” After each question he glared at Neel for a few seconds. As Neel floundered for an answer, Tata made a rumbling sound in his throat. Neel was never sure if this was a chuckle or a cough. Then Tata put out a massive thick-veined hand and dropped a piece of foil-wrapped candy into Neel’s lap. Neel remembered that Tata liked to produce chocolate or caramel chewy candies at random moments and watch his grandchildren squeal with delight. Neel was too old for that kind of behavior now.
How was Neel supposed to interview a man like that? Besides his frightening looks and manner, there was his inviolable schedule, for which Sunita Auntie made elaborate accommodations. Tata must have hot coffee the minute he woke up, so Auntie was constantly on the alert for that event. After coffee, Tata took his bath, and Auntie mixed his bath water in the bucket to the exact temperature, placed a stool in a particular spot on the granite bathroom floor, and made sure Tata’s soap and shaving equipment were within easy reach. After bathing, Tata did a long pooja in the pooja room, for which Auntie provided fresh jasmine garlands, fruits, and cotton wicks dipped in ghee. After pooja, a full meal (rice, rasam, sambar, cooked vegetables, pickle, yogurt). Then, a walk to the post office or a store to do a few errands. Then a thorough reading of two or three newspapers. Then a nap, and afterwards, tea and snacks. It went on like this all day.
One afternoon, Neel asked his father about interviewing Tata. Dad shook his head and said, “Not now. Later.” Even though it was afternoon, Dad had just bathed and shaved and was getting dressed in a white embroidered Indian shirt. Neel wasn’t sure what was up. Dad had done this once before—gotten dressed up and then disappeared for a few hours.
After Dad left, Neel found Sunita Auntie in the kitchen. She was making tea. It took a few tries before she understood what he wanted. His American accent was difficult for her, and she continued pouring and mixing as he talked. But when he mentioned the words “publish an article,” she stopped her work and looked at him. “You want to interview your Tata for an article in your school newspaper?” she asked. “Yes, we must arrange for that.” She immediately walked into the living room, where Tata was opening the mail and waiting for his tea.
That very day, after tea, Tata and Neel retired to Tata’s bedroom. Tata sat in a rattan chair with his hands gripping the arms of the chair, as though bracing himself for the work ahead. Neel sat on the bed and placed his voice recorder on the desk next to Tata. He pushed the “record” button, opened his notebook, cleared his throat, and said, “I want to know what you did for India’s independence.”
“What?” Tata shouted.
Neel repeated his question louder.
“What I did? I did nothing.” Tata sat back and looked satisfied at having dispatched the first question so quickly.
Neel didn’t know what to say to this. Tata must have misunderstood the question. To buy a few minutes, Neel peered at the voice recorder. The red numbers kept counting the seconds relentlessly, recording nothing but the silence in the air.
Neel cleared his throat again and asked, slowly and loudly, “I mean, how did you help out when India was trying to get independence?”
“I did not help out,” Tata boomed again. “Our state was not under British rule. We had a Maharaja. Don’t you know anything? What do they teach you in school over there in America?”
Neel’s face flushed. He couldn’t think of anything else to ask. His whole interview was demolished almost before it had begun. Why did none of his books mention this fact about the Maharaja?
“What else?” Tata shouted. “Speak up.”
“So . . .” Neel thought quickly, “the Maharaja was independent of the British government?” The question came out with a squeak at the end.
“No, of course not. Nothing was independent of the British. The Maharajas ruled only with British consent.”
“Then why didn’t anyone in this state do anything for independence?”
“Oh, many people did things. There were all sorts of marches and speeches. That sort of thing.”
Neel was confused by his grandfather’s responses. Tata shifted his weight impatiently and his chair creaked. Neel hurried to think of a question. “Did you like the British?” he asked.
“The British modernized India,” Tata proclaimed. “Our railways were built by the British. Do you know India’s railway system employs more people than any other institution in the world?”
“So . . . do you think the British should have stayed in India?” Neel didn’t want to think his grandfather was a British sympathizer, but after all, if it was true, it might result in an interesting article anyway.
Tata rumbled loudly and slammed a fist onto the desk, causing the voice recorder to fall onto the hard ground. “Of course not. What kind of question is that? Nobody wants to be colonized. You must know America was a British colony at one time. You people didn’t like it any better. Don’t you know about the American revolution?”
Neel picked up the recorder. The numbers continued to tick off the seconds. He set it on the table again.
“The British looted this country!” Tata continued. “You know they took our cotton to England, had it made into cloth there, and then brought it here and forced us to buy it!”
Neel knew. He read it in one of his books. He felt a glimmer of hope. Maybe the interview wasn’t dead yet. “Did you burn British-made cloth?” He had read about the huge bonfires Indians made out of British clothes and toys.
Tata shook his massive head. “No, no. I did no such thing.”
“Why not?” Neel’s frustration was rising. “Didn’t you want freedom for India?”
“Of course. Why do you go on asking the same question over and over again?”
“Because I don’t understand. Why didn’t you help out? Was it dangerous to help?”
“It was not so dangerous. You must remember, the British were not Nazis. They jailed people who were public about their support of independence. If you went about in homespun clothes and attended rallies and made a fuss, they might jail you. In your own home you could burn as many British clothes as you wanted. They would not bother you.”
“So why didn’t you?”
Tata slammed his fist on the table again. The recorder fell again and Neel let it stay on the floor. “I told you already,” Tata boomed. “Our state was under the Maharaja. There was no need for me to do anything. Gandhi had so many people helping him. What good would it have done for me to burn a few clothes? Hmm?”
Tata’s logic seemed water-tight. Neel could think of nothing else to ask. But he wanted an article. He tried one last time. “What have you done that you are most proud of?”
“Hm? Proud? No, I am not a proud man. ‘Pride goeth before the fall.’ Who said that?” He glared at Neel for an instant, and then continued. “I am a modest man. I mind my own business. I don’t get involved in anything and everything that is going on around me. That is how I have always lived my life.”
Tata stood up, turned his back on Neel, and proceeded to re-tuck his dhoti. Then he stalked out of the room. The interview was obviously over.
Neel rescued the recorder from the floor, turned it off, gathered his things and climbed up the stairs to the bedroom he and his father shared. He hurled his recorder and notebook on the bed. They didn’t even bounce, the mattress was so thin. Then he hauled his suitcase out from under the bed, scooped up the recorder and notebook, threw them in there, and shoved the suitcase back under the bed. He sat down on the bed. He stood up again. Shaking his head, he dragged the suitcase out again. Squatting on the floor, he turned on the recorder, pressed the “erase” button and held it until the number flipped to zero. He threw it all back into his suitcase, zipped it closed, and pushed it far under the bed once more. He flung himself face-down on the hard bed.
Just before dinner, Dad turned on the light in the bedroom. Neel woke up and squinted at him. Dad was smiling broadly.
Neel rubbed his eyes. “What’s going on, Dad?”
“It’s all settled! I will be married soon.”
“What?” Neel sat up cross-legged on the bed.
“I have been corresponding with one woman for some months. Her name is Madhupushpa. We had our horoscopes matched by an astrologer, and now I have met her twice.” Dad was walking around the room, waving his arms. “She is a widow with one daughter. You will meet her tomorrow. We are invited there for lunch and you must be on your best behavior. You must try to eat everything she serves you. Understand?” Dad didn’t wait for an answer, but continued talking breathlessly. “We will be married in a few days at the temple near her house. Just a simple wedding, since it is a second marriage for both of us. I have decided to do things the Indian way this time. When you have Indian blood, you must do things the Indian way.”
His father caught sight of himself in a mirror on the steel clothing cabinet. He stopped in front of his image, smoothed his hand over his mostly bald head, and smiled at himself.
Neel leaped off the bed and lunged at his father, grabbing handfuls of the white embroidered shirt. He towered over his father. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he screamed. “Why didn’t you tell me you were getting married?”
His father took several steps to regain his balance and grasped Neel’s wrists. “Neel, stop it,” Dad said, pushing him down on the bed. “I am surprised at you. You have always been a good boy. Now you are behaving like Anita. I did not know myself I was going to get married until this afternoon. How could I have told you any sooner?” Neel lunged up again, and Dad pushed him back down again.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were writing letters?” Neel screamed from his position on the bed. Dad’s hands pressed onto his shoulders, keeping him down. Dad was short but strong. “This whole trip was so you could get married, wasn’t it?”
“I did not want to upset you, Neel,” Dad said in a calm, even voice. “The divorce has been hard on you. I know that. I did not want to tell you something that might not happen. I thought it would be best if I waited until everything was final. You are still a child. You do not need to be burdened with knowing about your father’s marriage plans.”
“You burdened me with the divorce!” Neel screamed.
Dad took his hands away and stepped back. “Yes,” he sighed. “We did. We could not help it. I’m sorry, Neel.”
Dad slowly began removing his shirt and pants. He folded his clothes and wrapped a dhoti around his legs. He slipped on an old plaid shirt. As he dressed Dad said, “My marriage will make no difference in your life. I will still call you every evening. You will still come to visit me during your school vacations. Now, Madhupushpa Auntie will be able to make a more comfortable home for you, with home-cooked food and all. You will like it.”
Neel slumped on the bed. Dad’s marriage would make no difference in his life. That was the problem. He wanted there to be a difference—a good difference—in his life. “I think you will like Madhupushpa.” Dad patted Neel on the back. “Come down with me and have dinner.”
Neel shook his head. “I’m not hungry.” He lay back on the bed. Dad walked out of the room, leaving the door open and the light on.
Outside, a peacock screamed and autorickshas sputtered. Neel stared up at the ceiling, trying to create pictures out of the random cracks spider-webbing across the white paint. Maybe he was too good. He should throw a tantrum now, refuse to meet this lady, Madhu-whatever, insist that Dad take him back home immediately. That’s what Anita would do.
Neel became aware of heavy footsteps in the hall. Dad must be coming back. Neel closed his eyes. He didn’t want to interact with Dad.
Something rumbled. Neel opened his eyes to see Tata standing in the door. He’d never known Tata to come upstairs before.
“You are not hungry?” Tata demanded.
Neel sat up. He didn’t want Tata to think he was disrespectful. “Not really,” he said.
“Our food does not agree with you.” Tata sat down on the bed beside Neel. He rubbed his hands on the towel slung over his shoulder, and grumbled softly in his throat. Neel wasn’t sure what to say or do.
“Your father is getting remarried,” Tata observed.
“I do not understand the ways of the modern world. Divorce is very difficult for the youngsters.” Tata said the word “die-vorce.”
“I don’t understand it either,” Neel said.
Tata put out a massive fist. Neel wasn’t sure what to do. Was Tata trying to give him a fist-bump? Then Neel realized—he was about to drop a piece of candy.
But before Neel could open his palm to accept the gift, Tata withdrew his fist to his lap and rubbed it with his other hand. “You are growing up,” he growled.
Neel nodded stupidly.
“You are very studious,” Tata declared. “You will go far in life.”
“Thank you,” Neel said, his voice crackling.
Tata kept massaging his fist and rumbling, as though he wished to say more. Then, he abruptly stood up and lumbered out of the room. At the doorway he said, without turning around, “You come down and ask Sunita Auntie to make you something else for dinner. She will not mind. It is not good to go to bed hungry.”
“Thank you,” Neel said again.
As Tata’s footsteps thudding downstairs, Neel felt a lump in his throat, and his eyes stung. He swiped at them furiously. What could he do? His only reason for coming on this trip had been shattered. If he refused to meet this woman, that wouldn’t prevent Dad from marrying her. The only thing to be done was to endure the rest of this trip, and then go back home and try to forget he was half-Indian.
A small gray lizard scampered lightning-quick across the wall opposite. Then it backed up and turned, as though looking at him. Neel clapped, and the creature shot into a crack behind the bookcase. At least he had the power to scare a small animal.
The lizard poked its head out. Neel lay down on the bed, hands behind his head, feet still on the floor, watching the tiny reptile zipper along the wall. He thought about clapping again, but decided to let the lizard be.
He, and the lizard, and his father, and his grandfather were all co-passengers on this planet, speeding along at 30 kilometers per second around the sun. His mother, his sister, his teachers—even Madhupushpa—everyone was on this journey with him. And the entire solar system was revolving around the center of the galaxy, which was in turn moving through space.
Neel closed his eyes and imagined himself into a very, very tiny speck in black space. He contracted himself into a smaller and smaller dot, until he almost didn’t even exist. Then he thrust this dot into orbit, faster and faster. He was a miniscule amount of matter, flying through space at an unimaginable velocity. He knew this was actually true—yet he couldn’t feel a thing.
Jyotsna Sreenivasan’s novel, And Laughter Fell from the Sky, was published in 2012 by HarperCollins. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary magazines and anthologies. She is also the author of novels for children and reference books for high school and college students. She has received grants from the Washington, DC, Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and currently lives in Columbus, Ohio.