GIRLS by Chaya Bhuvaneswar
LATA VAIDYANATH, AGE EIGHTEEN, sister of Meena, stands willowy, unseen by passersby, behind a tree outside of the American College on a July day in 1988. The place has a golden sepia tint, is a Victorian painting come to life, and, like any other place back in the late nineteenth-century, Lata has no hope of getting in.
She wears long-sleeved kameez sets, always. To hide the scars on the inside of her wrists. She has impressed herself, not talking about Hector with anyone, convincing even her sweet, but observant, aunt that she hasn’t been thinking of him. But, of course, she has thought of nothing else.
Even more so, when men are brought to see her in the evenings on pretext of visiting her aunt, a retired schoolteacher, the voice of sanity who’d written to Meena and Lata’s parents advising them crisply of how much a sin it was to physically punish your children. Your children are not your children, her aunt wrote, and her father, on the phone with her aunt, his Akka, older than he by fifteen years, enough to feel like his second mother, had cried, ashamed.
After the hitting stopped, her parents kept on with other forms of punishment. Like marrying her off against her will. Most recently: last year, Lata, at eighteen, was engaged to a rich man in his fifties. The man, the first Indian partner in a big three accounting firm, a famous lawyer, hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d never laid a hand on her.
It was the bag from Stern’s that she’d found on her bed the night of the engagement ceremony. Whispers of silk and lace her mother had thoughtfully bought for her trousseau, and not even on sale.
Lata, alone, held these robes for seduction to her nude body. Imagined the stranger, a thickset man with serious glasses and coarse skin, greyish-white beard, generous belly, too much saliva dripping from his lips, removing her clothes, after removing his own. Tried to imagine herself smiling, liking it, even being patient as he touched her, and made her decision.
Lata’s boyfriend Hector was the one who wouldn’t run away. He had applied for a Green Card. No less than twenty family members were counting on him—to get the card, to sponsor more, obtain a loan, open a shop, open a hair salon. He came from hardworking people, like her parents. On their best days, she whispered plans to him, undeterred by his reluctance. They were used to hiding, as lovers. Outside the Ultima Beauty School, Lata and Hector would walk without touching each other, conscious of how her mother or father could be looking to the street from any of the buses that moved up and down Roosevelt Avenue, how her parents could bring everything to an end. She and her boyfriend would wait until they reached the apartment he shared with two young sisters who were away at elementary school, and a mother who watched telenovelas and reruns of “Cristina!” all day and could be persuaded to let her son bring his girl into his room, as long as they didn’t make noise or ask for food. Outside the fence of P.S. 169, before Hector had to pick up his sisters, they’d stand there kissing, first lightly, then deeply, until to make themselves both stop, he’d lift her and spin her around, so to show everyone that they were only playing. That there was no tragic love story for anyone to look at there. That people could move on, not look at them, say nothing beyond a trademark, muttered joke, like “Get a room.” Leave them alone before they figured out how much Lata was in love with Hector. How, seeing that stupid Roja movie on the tiny TV in her aunt’s parlor when there was nothing else to do, Lata heard that line, “There is no life without you!” and believed it. Wondered if it was possible that other people loved the way that she still loves.
Wondered if anyone else had ever known what she still knew: there wasn’t any point to living if she couldn’t have him.
But on the plane to India, her stoic and sweet aunt waiting for her at the airport, she’d promised herself and Meena—no one else—that at least she would try. Try not to ever attempt suicide again. So screw it, she will get into this college, she thinks now, no matter what the obstacles. There is no money, for one thing. And the whole structure of Indian college admissions exams, it’s like China, like the Caribbean, Africa, even Europe. Whole futures reside in how well a thirteen-year-old might or might not study for an exam. One day’s performance determining whether they’ll get to read books in school ever again, or solely learn a trade, be outdoors, working and practicing, doing.
The line “everything depends on a red wheelbarrow,” pops into Lata’s head, and she holds back a giggle, unable to remember where it’s from.
Through this door, into a building with a sign that reads, “Main Hall Building,” next to a golden plaque with a few lines about Rabindranath Tagore, who lectured there, as the college wants to make sure everyone knows, Lata walks as if she knows where she’s headed.
A few flights of stairs. Nudging through a passageway, head down, because two male students have noticed her, have started smiling and then whispering. New Girl. Escape. But now she sees she’s taken a wrong door. There is a hallway, lower level, that’s so much dirtier than the rest of the building, it almost belongs to another time. There is a wheelbarrow, as if someone is doing construction work down here. Red clay on floor, walls unpainted, concrete, and a stunning smell. As if someone lay dung patties end to end, on every wall, which perhaps at some point, maybe they did.
Lata starts to look for the exit, remembers with a sigh that another gentleman caller is coming to visit this evening, that she will have to bathe again and do her hair, cure herself of the dust that coats her after every walk.
The new man is a widower, age thirty-nine. “A nice fellow, junior professor in a girl’s college,” her aunt had said, maybe hoping that there is someone, from a good family, from whom the suicide attempt will not have to be hidden. Already, in just these few months in Madurai, there have been phone calls to her aunt. Lata is sorry about those. Sisters, mothers, of candidate grooms, who hadn’t known of Lata’s shameful past when they’d brought their precious young men to visit her, but then found out from some Tamil acquaintance or distant relative in New York. “And when I came to know…” they’d launch into outrage. Over the phone, spitting insults at her aunt, like angry bees hitting their own bodies against a closed window that blocked access to a garden, exhausting venom for no reason, since by then it was obvious the woman on the other end of the phone would never become a family relation to Lata, or her aunt.
At this moment, pace quickening as she walks down this shit-smelling hallway, aware of how wet mud will be not only on her shoes but on the edge of her fresh-pressed salwar, the tightly-tapered calves of which are actually flattering, Lata cannot see her future. By nineteen, she will have made it to Delhi for six months, using money Meena sends over. There she will have a few relationships, with both boys and girls, to see which type she likes better. And, coming back to the U.S. later that year, she will discover a talent for eco-feminist writing and smoking organic weed, cut her hair shorter than a boy’s, “like a widow,” her father will say, and will refuse to visit the family or talk much on the phone. She will choose to live in an unorthodox sexual co-operative in Portland with lesbians and trans individuals and bisexual men, and will be refreshingly unaffected by her mother’s tears, eventually turning to social work in Manhattan around the millennium.
But here, at this moment in the Main Hall, this is her life, no different than a cloistered Iyer woman living fifty years before. In this hallway, an unknown vulnerability to the two young men above, who’d looked at her, did seem aware of her, could be coming down now, to corner her. She is somewhere she’s not allowed to be and has to retreat, behind the thick door of a bungalow, beneath the slow fan of her aunt’s neat house. She is outside, exposed, and thereby endangered. Lata has heard about this, eve-teasing. A polite name for heckling; a euphemism for much worse.
She has to find the exit now. Walking fast, she almost doesn’t notice the little girl, two braids, each one dusty, skin of her face dustier still, large eyes, begging posture, asking for paise silently. And an older girl behind her, leaning against the dirty, concrete wall, light sifting in from high barred windows like one expects in a basement. Both of them carrying satchels, possibly with books inside, and it occurs to Lata, who doesn’t stop, who doesn’t give either of them a single coin—so intent is she on leaving this place—that both of these girls deserve to go to school. That either of them could be just as eloquent as Rabindranath Tagore or some Christian college professor might once have been, walking through these buildings soon after they’d been built a century before, when a queen’s eyes watched those men from the walls. When these halls were considered splendid.
CHAYA BHUVANESWAR's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Awl, Narrative Magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review, Tin House Online, and elsewhere. Her collection of short stories, White Dancing Elephants, will be published by Dzanc Books in October of 2018 as recipient of the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize; it is now available for pre-order from Amazon and other booksellers.