This softness, this tenderness. This space between smiles, this laughter. This lightness in my chest, where the ribs expand, now holding more than room between heaving sobs. Where this mirror reflects more than darkness at the edges, where four pairs of eyes do not follow each two.
This is how you have known me – and it feels a little like insanity. Who is this person, who is she?
I haven’t known her this way. I do not know her at all. She laughs, her teeth flash in her mirth. She bares them, sure, but when, it is mock anger, not rage. They are no longer needles of frustrations, dulling their edges biting pillows in the night. They are no longer the inflicters of anger turned inward on her knuckles, her arms. They just… are. And they smile at you, they nibble at nails, they show in photographs. Where did she learn this? And how?
It shows, how it tears at me inside, that it shows, the rest, too. When did she become this soft, when did she learn, that it was permitted to be? That there was a world beyond guarding and defending, beyong being caged, beyond hiding. Who is this, who is this woman, she loves unabashedly, she loves with some perverse certainty, some confidence that I am secretly sure is born of folly- surely, it must be? Who told her that it’s okay to love this freely? Doesn’t she know, hasn’t she learned? She’s going to get her hands burnt- hasn’t she been warned?
These trappings, these trappings of normalcy, these colors, these hours, these are lies she’s stealing from someone else. She is someone else, someone I have not known, someone I dared not know. And now she is here, and she is loud, and she is loved, and I am terrified. I am terrified of her, and of you, and of all these people milling about in this dream. Because this has to be a dream, one that I will wake up from, one that you might wake up from, and then, and then, where will that girl who has learned softness be? She will have to go, and then there will just be… me.
My feet squelched the entire way back up the mountain.
It was almost amusing, the steady squish, squish, squish, squish against the rain sodden surface. The steep path uphill (or downhill, depending on whichever way you’re facing, I suppose) is painted in tyre stripes of mud tracked up by the owners of the little houses lining the paths. Roads, they’re to be called formally, because they have graduated being traversed by feet to being coursed by cars. A field could arguably lay claim to that by the same qualification, but well, roads they are. I’ll admit to having more than a little animosity towards them. At an incline of about 45°, they’re not the stuff of a casual stroll, regardless of where you’re headed. But the inevitable aches of separate groups of muscles in your legs is still the more pleasant alternative to taking the slower, winding path down the mountain, lined by houses that have homed generations, with their gardens littered with gnomes, and faces pointed with equal parts of inquisitiveness and guardedness, even some scattered hostility, towards obvious strangers passing through. Come to think of it, it’s an easy choice to make.
I dwell upon these minutiae. I could even say, I think it’s impossible not to. Whether it’s the odd tranquility inspired by a gargantuan golden candle hoisted up on the sides of buildings, framing in electric light the four corners of the city, or the peaceful steadiness with which the behemoths of trees drown out this human attempt of marking man-made boundaries here with the ease of their breadths, there is an unspeakable wonder in both. Depending upon which street you take, your shadow will be cast in the streetlight, or the moonlight, but never both. Depending on which way you’re looking, the mist will condense whisper soft on your face, or lose its fragile claim to existence on your shoulders, but never both. Heading into the woods, I would have still called it fog- visible, almost palpable, but not yet tangible. I moved through it like a brush through paint, like an eye through the ocean, watching swirls bloom and die under the sparse reach of streetlamps. Everywhere else, it was left to those most primitive of senses to still perceive. It feels like drowning in air with uncertain boundaries, melting unexpectedly, seamlessly, with a ground that springs into solidness out of the nothingness, with each step. And yet, the moment I left the city and ventured out to retrace my steps home, then it was rain. The only difference between mist and rain is, after all, how it falls. The deniable and the undeniable, the almost there, and there. Wetness, on my face, in my hair, under my feet. Not flowing yet, but enough to add a layer of movement imperceptibly yet definitely there. I wondered, on my way between two candles, if the frog I saw at the side of a path knew where he was going. Or, for that matter, where he’d come from at all. There were no ponds or streams here anywhere, spare the river, at least two candles away. For a fleeting moment I wondered if I should take him home, but then the impulse passed, and I let him be. You can’t save everything. Most days, you can’t even save yourself.
On the cracked glass globes that cover the streetlights, barnacles grow. Exactly like the ossifications that encrust the skeletons of ships, or the undersides of piers. I remember most clearly ones that grew on a fence half-sunk into a rock pool I used to walk past, a lifetime ago. They looked just the same. Just as sharp, just as desolate. I wondered if they sleep when the snow comes. I wonder when the last time was that the ocean had covered this mountain. I wonder, when the next time will be. I wonder if I will calcify too, before then, if it too would be tangible, and wet. If the frantic lady who discovered at the cash counter that she’d left her credit card in her car, and left a line of people tapping, shifting, and sighing in those unmistakable nonverbals of repressed exasperation behind her, will be there for it. If that man I perceived walking behind me with the slightest, most visceral and peripheral of instincts, will be there for it. If the frog will be there for it. I wonder if it’ll still feel like drowning in air, when it’s salt water instead.
Once upon a time, an unusually tiny kitten walked into a yard. My yard.
Few of you are aware of the flag-bearing, card-carrying toxic relationship I have with my father. I’m so quiet about it, it’s hard to spot (cue eye roll). If I ever need a reason to give up humanity altogether, I can just look back to anything he’s done for affirmation. There are few things the man does that even surprise me anymore. But, as it turns out, he’s still got it. and by it, I mean the cruel, vicious, merciless, sadistic streak that is the most of his entire personality – at home, of course.
Four years ago, on a very rainy night, my father had to catch a flight to the airport, and the driver had to take the car out of the driveway. The itinerary was being discussed when suddenly, the tiniest imaginable of kittens stuck his head into our yard from under the looming black gate. The head and huge bat ears were followed by a skinny body and impossibly small paws. This furball essentially let himself into our courtyard, waltzed up to where four full grown humans and two adult cats were sitting, parked his butt in the middle, and MEOWED. Insistently at that, at the people staring incredulously at him, because we had two litters at home at the moment, but this wasn’t one of ours.
He was so covered in dirt that you couldn’t make out an actual color. He tried sitting with the adult cats, and they hissed at him and scooted up the stairs closer to us. The kitten was not the slightest bit affected by the snub and kept meowing at us, unfazed by the fact that he was in a strange place, standing between complete strangers. And he was hungry. Loudly.
We gave him a little wet food, and after he’d eaten, let himself onto the sofa, and gone immediately to sleep, decided that he must have been abandoned by some disappointed owner, or over-enthusiastic adopter. It wasn’t unusual for people to abandon animals in our yard. And we had nine cats at this point, what was one more mouth to feed. Especially such a tiny, tiny one at that. And so, Tiny became a member of the family.
The next few days went by with a series of discoveries. Tiny was a girl, apparently, and grey, white, and golden tabby under all the dirt. Which she didn’t allow us to wash off before a lot of coaxing. She had an attitude on her, walking up to all the other grown cats and batting them and hissing at them from the first day. If you sprayed her with water, she’d get down from the table, but scratch you before she walked away, because how dare you. My father’s smacks with the newspaper or his shoes were also returned in kind, sometimes immediately, sometimes hours later. Tiny could hold a grudge like no cat we’d known.
She also had epilepsy. She was maybe two months old when the seizures started. And then she stopped gaining weight, like the other kittens.
We didn’t know just quite what to make of her. I took her to the vet, naturally, and the vet advised a lot of tests, none of which the shabby, covered in animal piss government hospital had to offer. A private vet clinic was out of the question- even I wasn’t permitted to visit a doctor officially, and I literally worked as one. The vet suggested that we take care of her general health and hope for the best, but not hope too much from her either. So we did. We took care of her, we hoped, and we watched her grow.
Tiny grew from a stunted, ratty little tabby to a skinny, bony faced adult with twice the temper and half the situational awareness her kitten self had – but she grew. She survived whatever spectrum of neurological deficits she had, because she had a few. She was always falling into open barrels, down holes, getting lost in tunnels around the house, jumping onto the road or under moving cars, hyperactive to a point of mania, and then exhausted – and then running again. It was a joke, that the cat was practically suicidal – except she never made the same mistake twice. Her intelligence and unpredictability led her to actually get some grudging respect from my father, who found the fact that she tried to hit back surprisingly entertaining. We didn’t give a shit about why he liked her as long as he did, because she was outgrowing her seizures, and we were scared that he’d toss her out before she fully did.
Tiny Cat got older, and got pregnant. Her first pregnancy was completely confusing to her, but she managed it through, with us. The days leading up to her delivery, we showed her how to nest in a box, helped her get used to lying there. She kept trying to walk off even during her delivery, and was utterly baffled by the fact that a kitten had already come out, and more were there. At some point some instinct kicked in, but our next few nights were spent sleepless, taking shifts with the mewling furballs and there pretty frazzled mother. Luckily, luckily, the kittens pulled through. I saw them before I left home.
I heard stories of their misadventures, of these kittens that basically thought that my mother was their actual mother. It was ludicrous and hilarious. Tiny never taught her kittens how to cover up after they’d done their business, so they’d leave little smelly piles in the sand. At some point the other cats got so exasperated. they started covering up after them. And then they gave up and started just teaching the kittens how to cat themselves. They were actually learning pretty quick, and even started babysitting the other kittens, as they grew older. At least they did, till when we left home, My father took advantage of our absence, and had the kittens abandoned far away from home.
The thing is, with the decreasing number of helpless humans to torture over the last few months, my father has been turning to the cats. At first, he had the older kittens abandoned at our construction site, from where they naturally ran away scared. Then, the ‘training’ of the cats stuck at home began.
First, the cats were being trained to remain in one yard and not step into the other. A normal person would argue that cats can’t be trained that way. But when a cat is trapped in one place, the doors shut on it, and then hosed down with a power hose till she’s fleeing, digging her claws into cement to somehow scale the wall vertically to flee with slamming water, yes- according to my father, now that’s how cats are trained.
It doesn’t matter if one of them falls off the wall into the street and breaks her hind leg, because of this. It doesn’t matter if this cat walks three-legged, dragging her twisted leg and mangled hip behind her. She’s been trained now, and if she tries to come into the yard from the other side, where she doesn’t have to climb, she gets hosed again. And again. And again. Till she goes feral and stops coming, because the household help has more mercy in their hearts than my father, and they started feeding her outside on the sly.
And then the other cats are taught lessons. Till even the cook, the meekest, most soft-spoken woman I know, couldn’t bear to watch anymore and stoutly protested that at least the cats be allowed to run through one door when the hosing begins. Obviously, her opinion doesn’t mean shit. When my father gets his manic attacks, even the help working in the yard got hosed. Why the heck would he care? They’re his servants, after all. It’s not like they’re real people or something.
Just like the cats aren’t actual livings beings. Or anything more than a temporary fixation for his cruelty. I’m not at home, he can’t make sure I’m waking up at 4 am anymore, or make me do sit ups at his whim, or monitor my food, or lash out as and when he wants at me. He tried with the watchman, but after two days of being forced to get up at 4 am, the watchman bluntly made it clear that he was going to quit under these conditions. The other household help scurry and tiptoe around his always-impending rage and righteousness, which is exactly the way he likes it. Besides, it’s Corona times. If they quit, he isn’t going to find anyone else to do the housework for him. They’re staying on out of desperation too, because it’s unlikely that they find another job with the way things are. He knows that, and he stops pushing them just before their breaking point. With the cats, he doesn’t need to stop.
The last puppy he brought home died about a month after I left. There’s another dog now, but she’s being taken care of, because even he’s starting to get a reputation among his friends who supply the dogs. And then there’s Tiny. Tiny Cat who got pregnant again, and isn’t allowed to stay at home this time. Who wasn’t even allowed to be in the yard- but she didn’t know that. She spent the last few weeks trying repeatedly to come home, and got slammed and hosed down with punishingly hard water jets each time she tried. She snuck in at night, and ate and slept in the other yard. She didn’t understand why she was suddenly cast out, and scratched at the doors and windows, asking my crying mother to let her in. The cook hid her under her arm and smuggled her out each time she could, before my dad could notice that she’d come in again. My mom stopped walking in the yard at all, for fear of attracting the cats, who’d flock to her if they saw her at all. My father would come running in, bolt the doors, and hose them down till they were scrambling around desperately in the mud. Till he was satisfied that they’d had enough of a lesson for today. But that stopped being enough, too.
My father decided last week that Tiny had to go. It didn’t matter that she was due any day. It didn’t matter that she was spending more time wet than dry. She was surviving his currently favorite method of torture, and persisting- and he doesn’t like that. Bear in mind that this is a man who used to trap rats to kill and pour boiling water over them, till my mother gave him proof that was Islamically forbidden. And nothing is more important than a pretense of holiness. But that pretense is still wafer thin. A heavily pregnant cat who had started digging holes in the dirt… wasn’t in any place to fight what was behind that. But help came from the unlikeliest place.
Our watchman caved and decided to take her away. He took her to that construction site, where he knows the family of caretakers, where he knew she’d be safe. It broke him, having to coax her away and leave her there, but she found a hidey hole right away. He went to visit her twice, and she seemed settled in. They leave food out for the cats, and there’s enough space for her to roam. My father was delighted to see her gone. Everyone else is relieved for different reasons.
I’m sitting here wondering who’ll be next, and what will happen when he runs out of animals. I keep thinking of her earnest little face and stubborn, stubborn refusal to give up, and am trying to reassure myself that this truly is the best that could have happened for her. But Survivor’s guilt is a potent beast. And I can’t help but feel, at least a little bit, that in choosing what’s best for me and leaving, I failed my Tiny cat, at least a little.
The smell of buttery peas hits me like a sock-full of nostalgia to the face. I’m seven, in Uncle F’s gloomy manor house in Virginia, and I’ve just discovered that salty, buttery peas make you warm from the inside on a cold day. I then proceed to eat a kilo of them.
Last night, I dreamt of cheese. There was cannelloni the size of actual cannons, lying artlessly strewn through what I think was a lumberyard. I came down to find mine, which had been lying in the middle of an altar – had been. I threw my hands up in the air and asked Patrick where it was. He threw his hands up too and informed me, in the most patronizing, Captain-Obvious-tone, that he’d eaten it.
I woke up feeling quite resentful of this.
Food is a theme I will probably never be able to tackle in a healthy way. Bursts of eating and lack of self control piggyback very comfortably on eating disorders that you haven’t shrugged off yet. I hardly blame my dreaming of cheese on this. The guilt lies far more squarely at the feet of The Bastard, and his flying monkey minions.
I remember, when I was still five or six, my similarly aged cousin Miriam would make a small swoop through the backyard whenever they visited us. A cursory shuffle through the trash bins would be enough to tell her if there was imported cheese in our house. The information would then be passed onto her mother, my aunt. Obviously, then it would be mentioned at teatime, and half the cheese would find a new home, before the day was done.
I saw an old picture of Miriam last night, us at a family wedding event. She was sitting next to the bride, looking absolutely scathingly at her. It made me think of the last time I saw her without a cold, bone-chillingly calculating look on her face. Or a conversation that had not involved some supposedly ‘subtle’ attempt to get family or financial information out of me.
I couldn’t actually think of a time, though. Couldn’t even think of a time that I wasn’t afraid of her, or her mother. The things they did in our house, the things they did to us… the word family seems to be a catch-all for the horrors of what humans can be to each other. Or to other people.
I remember Reshma, the little seven year old orphaned girl who used to work in their house. She had no one to take care of her, back in her village, and had been left with my aunt’s family so that she received shelter and food in return for cleaning my aunt’s house. There was either an uncle or a sick father in the village, who was supposedly given some money as reimbursement for her labor.
I remember Reshma only vaguely. She was a skin and bone, dark, jumpy little thing about our age. every few months my aunt would shave her head. She claimed it was to make sure that Reshma didn’t get lice. I know now, from experience, that shaving heads is some power move that each of these Bastard brothers and sisters like to pull.
Reshma would fill up my aunt’s water supply, from a tap in the courtyard. She would lug metal pots of water half the size of her body up the stairs, which would be the family’s drinking, cooking, and cleaning water. She’d run errands. fetching groceries, doing the meal prep so that my aunt could flurry about the kitchen and wind up cooking in the little time she was home. She would iron clothes and school uniforms, and polish school shoes for my aunt’s children. She’d wake up and not be allowed to rest till it was night. She’d sometimes sneak over to my house between errands, where my mother would hurriedly feed her as fast as she could, so that the girl had at least something.
When my aunt found out, they all beat Reshma to an inch of her life as punishment. Then they made her eat a fistful of chilli powder, to teach her a lesson. So Reshma ran away from home. Somewhere between her village and the city, she was caught and brought back. They declared her a thief and punished her again. In a few months, she ran away again. This time, they didn’t find her. Sometimes, I wonder if she made it somewhere safe, and is happy. Other times I wonder if anyone except us remembers her at all.
Buttered peas remind me of cold, rainy afternoons, high up the mountain, that year with my Uncle F’s family. The few peaceful weeks before my father joined us there. My uncle’s children grew up practically white, sheltered from their uncle,/my father’s penchant for cruelty. They knew him as the happy, jolly, loud uncle that visited their family with gifts, idolized their mother, and was coddled stupidly warmly by their father.
I wonder what they thought the first time we all met as family, and they soon found out, the noises coming from the basement were not the TV, but their uncle beating his family as often and as hard as he could. I wonder if they remember, because they certainly saw. And I wonder how much they understood, because they still treat The Bastard with affection and adulation.
Meanwhile, I resent their father for having died before I could confront him. Did he – the doctor, the brother, their father- regret, for even a moment, encouraging the monster who destroyed my childhood?
I feel as though I am frequently guilty of this. Of simply rolling over and falling asleep, and ignoring some nagging unwellness that has been pestering me. But it scratches at you, making you increasingly restless, till it starts spilling over into the part of your life that you only ‘portray’. When the person you are is unwell, it’s only a matter or time before it starts leaking into the person you’re supposed to be.
For the sake of metaphor and stunted humor, let me say: we’re nothing more than giant bathtubs. If you don’t deal with how much is swirling in there, pretty soon it’ll be sweeping out from under the door and reaching the guests in the living room.
But it’s not about the guests at all. People who visit you don’t live with you- you live with you. We none of us take the time to recognize our existence as a little, self-contained biome that needs a little tending to flourish- and a little pruning. If the diseased parts and chipping fingernails don’t get trimmed regularly, you’re not going to be growing.
And that’s already too many house- and body part analogies, but I’m going to leave you (and myself) with one last one: this body and mind house each other. And in levels of intensity, each one of them needs your care.
Open those floodgates now and then, okay? I promise you, there will be a rainbow over all that you’ve bottled in, flowing out. ♥️
it’s been a while since we’ve spoken at any decent length. Sure, we’ve been having our fluff conversations and Band aid-on-stab-wound repair sessions, but the time is definitely nigh that we put some sutures there. As you love to tell your patients, better to heal the right way, the first time around. Have you been taking your advice? Not so much, not so much.
You’ve been keeping busy. One might add to that, with a little snark, you’ve been doing nothing at all. In the grand scheme of things, you’re still on your way in a journey you started eight months ago. Why have you not reached a destination? Why have you been crossing milestones on crossroads, instead of having picked one direction already? These are absolutes. These are absolute parameters of time and opportunity that you’ve lost. You need to hold yourself accountable for these lapses. Even though you know, as well as I do, that you’ve deserved this soft corner between the years. These few months of ‘the journey is the destination’ have done you so much good. It’s hard, to not begrudge yourself this space for a few well deserved breaths between pants.
It’s not a race, but you’ve had your breather. We have to run in place. Time to speed up now again, don’t you agree?
Look at how far you’ve come. So many life lessons, so many discoveries. Who would have thought that you, that ludicrously social person, would revel in this enjoyment of your own company? Who would have thought that you would endanger yourself to the extent that you did, to try to help someone who did not at all deserve it? That a month would teach you such a lesson on your father not being the only monster out there. That not everyone could be saved. And that your job never was to save anyone except yourself. Would you have imagined that you would find yourself in this situation? I couldn’t have. I’d never realized that you were capable of being this selfless- and this stupid. Your safety takes priority. No man has the right to touch you. And no amount of disease or illness, can be accepted as excuse for trespassing your boundaries. And I’m sorry that you’ve had to learn it this way, As I am grateful, that you’ve learned it at all. You need to choose your friends more wisely. You need to give yourself to people who prove themselves deserving of it. You’ve been confusing giving love with sacrificing self respect for too long. The chronic hemorrhage over the years had dulled your senses to how much you were losing. But that acute fall, that was the one you needed. Even you were not immune to recognizing the meaning of all that blood. You will not forget the bruises. That nightmarish sequence of events. That shift in tunnel vision from wanting to end it all, to end that moment. to wanting to change it all, to end that moment. It was a hard earned lesson. One that all those bruises and all these nightmares have been a price for. But I hope that you won’t forget it ever again. You’re slow to see things, but quick to learn. Don’t forget this one.
Don’t forget this one.
Look at how your life is changing. Look at the sheer number of people you’re meeting who like you, who seek you out to talk to, to spend time with even when they don’t have an emotional vent to open in your direction. (Look at the number of guys who find you attractive. Who the heck saw that one coming. You’re almost starting to believe them!). This business of responding to ‘I like you, you’re amazing’ with ‘I like me too. I *am*, indeed!’ is a bit of genius, by the way. Sure, you might come across as stuck up or full of yourself, but screw that. It’s a polite way of letting someone know that their compliment is accepted, while simultaneously not giving them too many green lights. And screw that, too. You need to say that a few times. You have spent far too many years with a mutilated self image.
(By the way, good on you for turning guys down. It wasn’t your style to begin with, but I’m still so proud of you of not saying yes to people simply because they seemed interested in you. Look at how far your sense of self has come, from being that little girl who just wanted to be loved. I won’t tell you to be proud of yourself. But I do think that you should be happy with this change).
(Oh, and good on you for saying yes when you did. He’s practically teaching you how well men can treat women. You deserve this. And more. Good on you for making this chance possible for yourself).
You are not an airhead for loving art. You are not cold or calculating, for being this good at dealing with death. You are more emotionally stable than people who have only been touched by trauma as it flew them by, instead of being dragged through in in a choke-hold, kicking and screaming. You survived that. You begin every process of healing reminding yourself of how. fucking. unbelievable. much. you’ve survived. You’ve practically already received professional confirmation of how strong you are. Don’t forget this. Don’t forget this. You are capable of giving of giving so much love that it ASTOUNDS people. You are rare in that. (You’ve learned from the best. It’s in your blood). And you deserve the same love. If not in the same quantity, then in the same effort. Don’t forget this.
At the same time, you need to move your feet faster, too. You’ve come through far too much already to not know the uniqueness of your situation and opportunity. This window is closing far. Already sticking your foot in going to cause a little pain. But do that. You know what happens when the window closes. When you miss this train. When this ship sails. When this dragon flies. Take any metaphor, take them all. You know what’s on this side, when you’re locked out. You know better than to stay. Recognize that fear in you, of being back in that cage? Remember that.
This letter was only intended as a reminder. The Universe falls in love with a stubborn heart. And you know, how stubborn yours is. It refused to die. It refused to stop loving. It refused to give up. Remind yourself, what it did all that for.