Thursday, June 20, 2013


Snapshots from the Life of Z

   This story begins when Z is eight years old, then moves very rapidly on to the high school and college years, and on.
    This is a story of one who is a product of displacement and acculturation, but then who isn't a product of displacement and acculturation? In the strangest of ways we are all wayfarers, walking a lonely path, in an unknown country, making friends as we go along, picking up some gravel in our shoes, traveling by boat sometimes, sometimes by train, sometimes taking the high road, sometimes not. It is also a treasure hunt. I hope you will find all the book titles, movie titles, and song lyrics woven into the text.
     Z is a Bangladeshi-Indian-American version of "Everywoman." She is first cousins with Ankita(the LP of American Desi Girl) from "Bloom Where You Are Planted." Mama is her favorite aunt. Z's Daddy and Ankita's Papa are brothers.

     Hope you enjoy reading her story.


            There was much ado about nothing in Z’s eyes as the family quarreled over protocol at Uncle L’s wedding. “How does it matter who sits where at the dinner table? What a tempest in a teacup,”thought Z.
            But families are funny things. Siblings meet after twenty years sometimes and behave like little children again confusing the next generation. This was the twelfth night at uncle L’s place, getting ready for what would be the last wedding of the generation, and everybody was here, decorating, cooking, making phone calls, and so on, labors of love, with their baby brother finally getting hitched.
            The children slept in the attic all ten of them, a slumber party to remember. There were the scary stories, family folklore, and baseball card trading, bond-building, and such.
            Z was falling asleep sitting on the floor leaning against her bedroll, admiring the strings of lights all aglow and some twinkling around the skylight window in the attic. There were lights all over the house, the house having been decorated the way homes in Calcutta or Dhaka are adorned for a wedding. Z was drifting thinking, ♫” You would not believe your eyes if ten million fireflies lit up the world as I fell asleep. It's hard to say that I'd rather stay awake when I'm asleep because my dreams are bursting at the seams.”♫
     At about three in the morning she woke up or imagined she did to the sound of something rustling outside in the yard. Then she saw a glow outside the window. The window was too high to look out of but she could see the sky at a certain angle if she tried. A blue shimmer appeared on the ceiling and said,”Hi Z.”
     “Hi”, replied Z, fascinated by this creature.
     “Love it here?”
     “Yes I do.”
     “Life isn’t going to be one long party you know. There’s school again in the fall, then winter, then spring. Summer won’t come around again for a long time.”
     “I know.”
     “Enough about that. I’m really here not to chitchat about the weather but to ask you a very important question.”
     “And what might that be?” asked a nervous little eight year old Z.
     “Would you like to be happy in the first half of your life or in the second half?”
     “What a stupid question,” thought Z. She said, ”All my life, please.”
     “Now that is not the right answer. You can only pick a half.”
Z thought for a second, always having been taught by Ma against her own judgment, that dessert must be eaten after dinner, deferred to the implied lesson and said, ”Second half. All’s well that ends well.”
     “It shall be as you like it. The first half won’t be so bad though so ♫don’t worry. Be happy♫. It’ll be a comedy of errors rather than a true blue tragedy. See you around.”
      The following morning Z woke up and put that down to a surfeit of candy saying, “This was just another midsummer night’s dream. I’m reading fairytales all day long and eating too many sweets. I wonder if I’ve caught fairytalia?”


            Yesterday was Sunday, a beautiful sunny sunshiny Sunday. The family went on a picnic to the park, parents, cousins, uncles and aunts. When they had eaten and were gloriously full, Uncle N started making a little paper boat with a page he tore out of his magazine. He set it in the still waters of the little lagoon by the grassy knoll they sat on, away from the drifting water of the stream. But as if by magic his little boat caught the wind or the wave and was drawn to the faster flowing water and went downstream anyway.
            By and by, Auntie M made a boat that had a blue and yellow sail and a hull made of fine print. Cousin Z was transfixed by her Ma’s boat as it went downstream rather quickly and disappeared round the bend. Uncle N’s boat was right off the mark a quick one too but it got caught in the tangle of overhanging branches of some willow trees. The wind in the willows set the boat loose. It started to spin as it reached midstream and disappeared out of sight.
            Cousin Z decided to make her own boat. She thought it would be like Ma’s or Daddy’s but it turned out quite differently. It behaved differently too. She set it on the water’s edge, a little red white and blue boat that smoothly glided to the middle of the stream and sped away.


           Z (the family called her so because they hardly ever saw her awake) would walk home from school every day with her friends. They’d stop at the curb and talk and laugh and carry on about the happenings of the day. Then at five o’clock they’d head home. Z would spend an hour answering her Ma’s query,”How was your day?” while she served herself some supper and then put herself in bed promptly at seven each night. That was when her Daddy got home from his woodworking shop with a big smile and a loud guffaw. Ma’s weak smile would meet Daddy’s big smile and the two would awkwardly fall to the floor as they had unwittingly collided.
            All evening in the sitting room Daddy got louder while Ma got quieter until dinnertime at nine. Then Ma would come to life again, serve a lovely meal, clear the dishes, and get to bed.
            Everyone slept peacefully for a few hours until at four, quiet as a mouse, Z arose to brush her teeth and start the day with homework, while she looked every now and then for the line of light on the horizon promising dawn.


            After school, just where the sidewalk ends, a huddle formed as it did every evening, consisting of Z and her friends X and Y who were sisters, close enough in age to be best friends and to hang out with the same group of friends, and W.
            W was steaming mad over some issue in the newspapers where women were being treated unfairly and condescendingly, for being the “fairer sex”.
            “I’m a feminist,” she declared after a long, mostly incomprehensible, and loosely- connected-pieces-of–poorly-organized-logic speech.
            “Why are you a feminist?” asked X, the oldest of the band of sisters, a very glamorous, amorous, recently broken up diva.
            “Because women are equal to men and the men need to be informed of that.”
            “Don’t bother dear. It’s a waste of time. He has just one thing going for him, you’ve got three. It’s no contest. Women are not equal, we’re superior.”
            Z about fell on the pavement laughing.


            It didn’t happen often that the LP would have an emotional meltdown. Being on the spot on a regular basis had toughened her up over the course of her young life. Today was an exception. She fretted and fumed and refused to eat lunch until Z took her aside and asked what the problem might be.
            “I did something so stupid I should crawl under a rock and hope to die.”
            Z, always fastidious about language said,” It’s either ‘crawl under a rock and wait to die’ or ‘cross my heart and hope to die’.”
            “Whatever Zeee. You know what I mean.”
            “What eating you?”
            “Can’t tell.”
            “That’s helpful.”
            And they fell into sister shorthand but to no avail.
            After a while Z gave up prying and said,” Whatever it is, imagine that a great big Regret Egret gave you a gift, a single feather, a reminder of what you did wrong. When you’ve figured out what the best resolution might have been for that situation, kiss the feather goodbye and let it go.”
            “Listen to me now and believe me later.”
            “Where do I keep that feather, for now?” asked the LP finally buying into that story.
            “Night stand, desk, under the mattress, any old place you’ll remember it each day.”
            “Do you have any egret feathers with you?”
            “Oh, yeah.”
            “How many?”
            “A whole boa.”


            Writing college acceptance essays was a particularly daunting task. The topics were –
 ‘The Stupidest Mistake I Ever Made’
Z, ”Now who would want to publish that?”
Z, “Morbid.”
Z, ”Scary stuff.”
 ‘Ten Best Inventions: A Personal Perspective’
Z, ”Ten? How about five?”
Z, “Could write about my family’s history.”
 ‘A Year of Challenge’
Z, “Okay, that last one is easy to write because three terrible things have happened in the last six months alone. A few impressive quotes and I’ll have a good looking essay.”
She picked up the book of famous quotes hoping to make a grand opening statement. She found one – Tolstoy : ”All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
            Z, ”Woe is me. We have been terribly unhappy, and with the doctor having said Ma is very, very sick, we have been feeling even worse. We had the huge chemical spill in our town killing eight people. I can still feel fumes scorching my throat when I remember that day. But I still need a few high impact quotes for good measure.”
               She resumed reading and as if by magic one line picked itself and suspended itself in the air above the page for her to read – Einstein : “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.
            “Okay, okay, I get the sign. Let’s put things in perspective without trivializing them.”
            She wrote an essay a lot less lachrymose than she had planned.
            “Heritage” was her next choice.
            “Daddy, tell me something about the town you grew up in.”
“We moved a couple of times but we always lived in a town adjacent to
 Lake Woebegone, where all the women were strong, all the men were good looking, and all the children were above average,” said Daddy and gave a great big guffaw. “And when we messed up we said,”So what?”
Ma looked wan, weary, and distant, and said, ”You are growing up very differently from the way we grew up. Times have changed.”
Z sat, pen poised over paper for an eternity and no words came forth. ”Is this writer’s block? Feels more like blocked wisdom. I feel like I haven’t grown since the eighth grade and yet I feel profoundly tired.”
            Ma said,”Show me what you’ve written. I’ll help you with your essays,” and was happy with the one Z had written. Daddy and Z read a novel each by Wodehouse while Ma napped to fill the hours.


This was a bleak period in Z’s life. Their castle and moat sank and shrank to give them a snow globe to live in, a little plastic deal with fake water, fake snowflakes that glittered and swirled when shaken, and a little crystal palace. Amidst a grand party for the world at large it seemed to Z the little world of Daddy, Ma, and Z was cold and oppressive.
            Z cried herself to sleep every night and couldn’t fathom why. She didn’t know, or rather hadn’t understood very well what the doctor had meant when he said that her Ma was very, very sick. She just imagined it would take her a very, very long time to recuperate. Within a world that was alive in vibrant colors and happy music, Ma, Daddy, and she lived in a grey and yellow world and were mute.
            There was just one bubble of air in this world, at the top of the snow globe to which they could rise to socialize. On a sojourn to that little bubble where the thick fake water in the snow globe could no longer distort her view of the world she looked toward the window in the east hoping to catch a glimpse of children playing in the warm golden sunshine, and green grass, to cheer herself up. She saw instead an unfamiliar and shimmering world that she had no passport to and was tantalized by it. One part of her said she belonged in that world, but the other said not. She did not have the reserves of trust and humility to ask for anybody’s help or good counsel so she turned away hoping life would find a way of getting things right for her. Somehow something did not feel right.
            On a sad, sad day Ma slipped away to Heaven and left them looking on helplessly unable to follow or to pull her back into their grey and yellow world. So like a mermaid she dove back into the depths of her thick ocean while her Daddy remained in the bubble flailing his arms against the plastic that held him captive in the saddest part of his life attempting escape.
            Her mother, her best friend, her philosopher, her teacher, had all been taken away for ever and she wept tears that got lost in the thick fake water amidst the fake snowflakes. And as if that wasn’t bad enough she threw a spiritual tantrum abandoning prayer. Her life had begun showing the effects of being under siege but no one seemed to have noticed.
            “Grace under fire is what the world expects from you and anything less gets trampled underfoot,” she surmised.
            Compassion not given, not received, became the redundant currency in her grey and yellow world.
            The snow globe seemed to close in on her as she sat alone at its bottom grieving, crying, ranting, and trying to make sense of it all. It was all so useless she gave up the struggle and became very quiet. She accepted that perhaps her whole life until now had been a sham and felt better. Her little crystal palace under the ocean imploded quietly. She hoped someone had notified her Daddy of this catastrophe. She remained so still she hardly knew she was alive.
            Into the cramped space, through the thick fake water a gentle glow appeared as the sun rose and peeped into the room. Accustomed to the half-light and the confines of her few cubic centimeters of fake water the light meant little to her but as if by some natural instinct she moved toward it. Divine intervention that surely must have been for she walked through the plastic like a heroine in a sci-fi movie and then through the grille on the window in the east into the real world with real people, with real hopes, real dreams, real goodness, real flaws, real hurt, and real decisions to make each day. This world demanded real forgiveness and real change.


            High School was nearly over. Her yearbook all signed, phone numbers of dear friends in her diary, Z began to get serious about moving out of the house. Daddy would be remarried sooner or later. She wasn’t sure which, sooner or later. Other than that life had been a colorless blur. She had been slow in sending out her college applications and was now paying a price for it. She still didn’t know where she was going, but she knew she was on her way.
            After school she sat in her room one day at the bottom of the snow globe, minding her own business, when SUDDENLY, a dark shadow appeared before her. It was a FRIGHTENING FACE, an old crone in a dark scarf in a dark mood in a dark voice cackled as she saw Z startle. Z was screaming under water now. No one heard her scream. That seemed to have propelled the crone into action. She picked up the snow globe and gave it a good shake and she mumbled with satisfaction as she saw the insides swirling. Z, sadly for herself, never lost consciousness even when she bumped her head a million times as she swirled with the water. Each bump and bruise felt new and she felt it in its full force.
            By the time the water became still again Z had crawled back to her rock and had been sitting there as still as the water a very, very long time, holding tightly to a cut on her arm that bled and stung if she let go. She had probably cut it on debris from the previously imploded crystal palace but she wasn’t sure. It did not really matter to her as to how she was hurt. The why was a question too large and distorted from her point of view to even begin to attempt to answer.
            Dulled by the aftermath of pain she lost her concentration and let her grip on the cut slip. A plume of bright red blood floated up and like a smoke signal sent out a message ‘Calling All Predators’ far and wide. She saw the gusher and put her hand over the gash tightly again and darkness fell. She fell asleep.


            It had been several months since Auntie M had passed away. Cousin Z was graduating high school and the LP, Mama and Papa were invited to attend. Mama picked out a beautiful heart-shaped pendant for Z and promised to take her shopping for a prom dress. Back at Uncle N’s after an exhausting day of trying on clothes and shoes and hairdos they were sitting together in the den after dinner, relaxing. Z looked very mature with her hair pinned up and her pj collar slipped down to simulate the neckline on her gown to show off her new pendant and chain. They switched off the T. V. to go to bed.
          As Z looked at the dark screen she saw herself and burst into tears sinking into the armchair her knees drawn into her chest as she rocked and cried. Mama put her arm around her and a few minutes later Z pulled herself together, dried her eyes, sat up straight, and said,”I’m sorry I bawled. Ma would have loved to be here today but she can’t.
            “But she is. Please believe that she is with you every day and wants very much for you to be happy always.”
            “I try, I try, and sometimes I fail. And I stupidly ask ‘How dare you die?’ ”
            “It’ll get easier as the years go by. Live up to her dreams for you and make her proud. In fact you already have.”
            Z started to tear up again so Mama just held her hand and said a prayer for her and said to Z, ”There’s magic in those words if you’ll say them everyday.”
            “I know what I have been doing wrong. I have refused to pray and have lost my only source of peace. I have put the pieces back together on the outside but there is a nebulous muddlemess inside of me that needs attention. Thank you for helping me in so many ways.” 


            On an airplane leaving home for college many miles away, excitement successfully replaced trepidation. Cousin Z noted the uses of a flotation device, the exact location of the emergency doors, and was stunned by the fact that the flight attendant had just said that an adult sitting next to a child must wear his or her oxygen mask first and then put one on the child’s face.
            She knew Ma would have put the mask on her first and then attended to her own. “What a metaphor! If only Ma had known that you can’t give away what you don’t have.”

11.  WWMS

            Sitting all alone in her dorm she surveyed the accomplishments of the weekend. Friends made, closet organized, desk arranged, it was time to leave for the very first class. “I wish I knew what to wear; to do; to say; to think; to not think. I miss Ma’s wisdom even more now. What should I do? What?”
            Her eyes strayed over the books on the bookshelf and their titles seemed to speak to her. She laughed out loud and decided she would ask the most fashionable lady on the shelf for fashion advice, and would consult Ms Post about the avoidance of social potholes, and ask Shakespeare and Einstein and Emerson to help out with the rest.
This Council of Elders would have to stand in for her after-school hour of “What would Ma say?” As for Ma’s love and affection that was missing from her life, she would have to find them in her own heart.”

            The first weekend at college well spent Z took heart being so far from home and all things familiar for the very first time, believing that this was where she was meant to be. It just felt that way. The place felt just right as did the people.
Monday night after dinner she and her new friends walked along the road flanked by oak trees hundreds of year’s old, spooky looking things like sentinels to a history that had sometimes been dark, with their limbs dripping cobwebby moss. The crickets got louder as did the frogs. And did she hear cicadas? She wasn’t sure nor was any of the other four in the group who all grew up in places that hosted no cicadas. In the fading light she saw through the bars of a narrow wrought iron gate a statue that looked a lot like Annie in a long dress holding two bowls, perhaps filled with birdseed for birdies coping with ♫the hard-knock life♫, in her hands in the walled garden of a southern mansion. A board nailed to the wall said ”KEEP OUT”. Her thoughts ran wild. “This would be just the kind of place Boo Radley could live in. It’s such a shame to kill a mocking bird. Or maybe this was the garden of good and evil.”
They entered the building and each went her own way. Z reached her door and found a strange sight. A pair of work boots, rather big ones, stood in the hallway a wee bit closer by her door than her neighbor’s. She didn’t know what to think of them so she ignored them and went inside.
Next morning her neighbor said hi, looked at the boots and at Z, back and forth, a rally that lasted all of fifteen seconds or so, then picked up the boots, continued the chitchat about the weather and abruptly said goodbye. The exact same thing happened on Tuesday. On Wednesday it happened again. Z thought this was a friendly and talkative soul, and just a little strange around work boots. Why did she hug them so? Dirty muddy things that she should not be leaving outside her neighbor’s thresh hold in the first place. Instead she ought to clean them up and keep them in her own room. They probably were her boyfriend’s since they were huge. Maybe he should clean them up and keep them in his room in his dorm.
No boots the next two days, so Z forgot all about them. She had the room to herself for the weekend and looked forward to listening to music as she pleased without worrying about bothering her roommate. Nice girl but valued her space and had a completely different idea about what good music sounds like. They promised each other they would only listen on headphones to keep their friendship in good repair.
The day went by exploring areas of the town within walking distance, a trip to the ice cream shop, laundry and trying to recall classmates’ names as she met them in places other than class. People look different in different surroundings she thought, having difficulty matching names and faces correctly. The boys, many of them, were going berserk, being a threat to themselves and to property and innocent bystanders, on this post high school, totally unsupervised sleepover a whole weekend long. 
 Her neighbor knocked on the door late Saturday night while Z sat alone in her room. Z opened the door to a shirtfront. She was very puzzled because she had heard her neighbor call her name. This was a big burly man a foot taller than her, and she began to realize this was her classmate, the older guy who had come back to get his degree after a hiatus of five years, her neighbor’s fiancé. Her neighbor peeped from behind him and said ,”He’ll borrow your Yeats for the night. I’ll give it back to you in the morning.” Z wondered how they knew she had a Yeats but she picked out the book from the pile on her desk to give to him and turned around to see he was cracking up silently laughing and her neighbor had shut the door on the pair of them. He did not take the book from her and left like a phantom slinking away into the darkened hallway. Z was puzzled by the strange behavior but thought they must be high on something and put the matter to rest in her own mind. The next day she saw her neighbor wearing a long gingham dress going from room to room except she wouldn’t look Z in the eye. The talk at lunch was how this neighbor had gone telling everybody in the dorm how lucky she was to be with the man she was with because she had this litany of health issues, divulging unnecessary details of her feminine woes, but he loved her so deeply he did not care.
Wednesday morning, the class of eight filed into the professor’s library to read aloud their first papers of the year, on Yeats, in a very quiet space, the stage having been set for quietness by their still and somber teacher. Some of the papers were really, really good. “We’re going to have to work here to stay afloat,” thought Z. At the end of class the professor, a man of few words and measured tread, Ivy Leaguer, three solid publications to his credit, looked Z in the eye and said,” Miss Z, hear me out. You could be making money selling fashion instead of paying me to teach you something you will very likely never need and never use.” In that moment was born a little neon sign on her mental landscape that said, ”You will one day ask me to send my papers for publication.” He then turned to her neighbor’s fiancé, the one of the work boots fame and said, ”So what are you, a professional student?” The only two comments in a classroom where eight papers had just been read may or may not have been heard or understood by all the students there but they would prove to be blimps on a future radar screen in Z’s life way downstream. At that time Z was too miffed at the seeming insult to her intelligence to think of anything but writing a paper to die for in the very near future.
Z would get wind of strange goings on in the room next door and it would take her years to put the pieces of that puzzle together. She did see a pattern emerging over the next couple of years that got entrenched perhaps over the next two but Z had stopped seeing them folks with seeing eyes after a while. It was easier to paste on a fake smile and walk on by like they didn’t bother her. The pattern of her neighbor’s life was thus, every few weeks, when the weather was good, there was an orgiastic episode in the room next door. Strange people showed up. Strange sickly sweet and rancid smells emanated from there. The voices sounded like they were coming up a shaft from the netherworlds in tones and pitches that were never heard elsewhere. Music, soft and sensuous played all night. In exactly forty-eight to fifty-two hours there was heard the deep throated sobbing of a woman, accompanied by the sounds of spoons and books and odds and ends being flung across the room. Her boyfriend would leave a half hour after the sobbing ended. She’d wash his shirt in the sink and hang it out to dry.
The first time Z heard her crying she ran to the other end of the dorm to fetch her neighbor’s only friend. The friend waddled down the hallways reluctantly and left as soon as she saw the work boots at the door saying this was none of her business. Other people curious about the crying looked at the door and walked away. Z thought about it off and on and wondered what woman would love to live that life when life had so much more to offer. Because, make no mistake, her neighbor was very happy and very content. It was her boyfriend who wasn’t making the grades he could’ve, having worked as a successful entrepreneur in the publishing world without a college degree for five whole years. He was always stoned when came to class, which was only occasionally. Z, in her own convoluted way decided it was phallic women who thrived on the energy of the hookup but the real women just sorta died. Z especially missed one of her favorite people among the first years’, a kindred spirit in many ways, a girl who’d read the same books she had, been raised a few miles from where Z grew up, and who experienced the world in a way similar to the way Z did, through the lens of an artist as a young person, both having grown up around several artists in their families. They talked in a code that siblings developed over years right away. This girl stayed on the straight and narrow just long enough to become one among the band of sisters and then missed a lunch date here, a manicure date there, and then went underground altogether. For most of the year she was somewhat sick and only came to class until noon. After which Z would have to bring her lunch to her room and then dinner or she wouldn’t eat. She refused medicine. She said she was doing great, usually through a thick fog of smoke and past some strange man lounging in her room. Sometimes she’d say to Z, ”You have no idea what life really is about, do you? You know, people can take away everything from you, everything, but they can’t take away the love that you share with a man even if for only fifteen minutes.” She left end of the year.  She could not figure out the blokes though. They looked happy enough for now. Having seen the men and women who came and went from that ignominious room she just thought she’d remember all her life what they looked like progressively, over the four years that she saw them off and on, portraits etched in her memory that she couldn’t put names to, not even make-believe ones. Not that she never their names, she just could not remember them for very long. Note to self, on the hookup circuit, the female of the species is deadlier than the male. And the same ten people hook up with the same twelve people.


            This world was too fresh for her to make sense of it yet. Bacchanalia and austere penance coexisted in this world as did deep unselfish love alongside hatred and intolerance. There were the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor, and then there were the multitudes between them. There was comfort to be found in conformity, anonymity, and mediocrity for a while.
            She was ashamed to have felt so sorry for herself. She had shed copious tears for Ma’s unfulfilled dreams as well and now realized how blessed Ma’s short life had been. She looked upon children who had nothing, no hope, probably no parents, and were starving, naked, homeless, begging for the basics and not having their needs met. Thankfulness for plenty was due.
            With her lot in life put in perspective she got to work. Affection, blessing, accolades all came her way and helped her forge a new identity. Often people surprised her with comments like ”Don’t hide your light under a bushel”. Some looked to her for strength or leadership. Then there were those who thought she was naïve or hateful. All this attention was confusing. Disheartened at times, and feeling invincible at times, she wondered how long she would be able to put one foot before the other contentedly.
            The newest, most frequent comments from her associates were of the nature; ”You look like a cat that has just licked cream; “You look like a kitten on a hearth on a cold day in that that shawl reading your book.”
            “Who, me? Cat?…Cream?...Kitten?  


            A new and unfamiliar world arose to beckon her. Z looked to the left and to the right and saw nothing else that seemed like a path out of this wasteland of driftwood and dead trees overrun by vines that strangled them. She looked to where she had come from and the bridges had fallen away. Not her fault, not anybody else’s, just Time that takes a toll on all things living and dead. So she put one foot before the other and trudged to that world, the only world that seemed inhabitable and cast away her mask, her veil, her mantle, and the chip on her shoulder.
            “Nothing could have been better,” she told herself. She had done what Life her commanded her to do. That, she believed, was the right thing to do. She had not experienced comfort and abandon in years and hoped she would find that innocence again, that happiness again.
            “Is this too good to be true? Will this last forever? Would life be a Shylock?”
All doubts quieted Z began to celebrate her new world.


            Having walked through the minefield for a while she now walked in it with aplomb, recognizing a detonating device from a mile. She had, along the way, made up her mind that her happiness was her responsibility and that no one was going to take it away from her. She put one foot before the other and the mines lost their power over her. But this was new territory. The topography surrounding her had changed. There was no grass, no trees, forget flowers, just dry cracked earth. Clods to trip over, no stones to rest upon, just dry cracked earth.

            She considered Eliot’s question, ” Who is the third who walks always beside you?” , and hoped she had seen a shadow. She hadn’t heard yet of the second set of footprints that proved that the One had borne the other in His arms through times of insurmountable grief.

            She felt a nervous-resigned-preordained calm. She hadn’t yet fallen out of love with the world and hoped she never would. She waited patiently for ‘Shantih’ the peace that passes all understanding.


            Z had settled in, and found life sorrowfully incomplete without music and looked for a music school in the area hoping to learn something new. All her life she’d been drawn toward blues and jazz but her staunchly classicist music teacher forbade even listening to “pariah” forms of music so she had resisted the urge to partake of such art forms hitherto. College had brought with it a sense of freedom so she felt daring and ready to break out of the schoolgirl mold she had lived in all her life. She found a place right outside the campus grounds that taught music but as luck would have it they only taught piano and harp in a paint-by-numbers format. However, they had a new dance teacher with a fledgling class of three who taught Irish step dancing. Out of sheer desperation to be near music again she signed up for dance lessons for she was mesmerized by the Celtic music they danced to.
 The first day of dancing was a life altering experience. She felt she had wings. The little class of four was an anomaly, a miracle, a flock of Jonathan Livingston seagulls, a diamond in the rough. And their teacher, barely out of college herself, was a master craftsman and a Chiron of a guru. She felt she had been to a little corner of heaven and back. ♫ “If you walk the footsteps of a stranger you'll learn things you never knew you never knew”♫, she sang to herself walking back to her dorm.
            It didn’t seem right to have to get through eight hours of lessons to get to the one hour when she felt truly alive. She had hoped “a fine education” would do as much, but here was the truth of her present day life. She went to college full time to wait to dance an hour at a shabby little studio every day. And why not, for that hour put her in a frame of mind that helped her through academics, she reasoned with herself. Because suddenly she began to understand concepts before they were fully taught. She wondered for a moment or two what exactly was happening here but lost that train of thought very quickly as laundry, term papers, money management and sleep deprivation took precedence over such unusual questions.
            On Wednesdays, she was told, the local pub hosted musicians and raconteurs and comics and other talents. It was the place to be between seven and ten. The patrons and performers were mainly from the university. She made up her mind to be there. It would take her fifteen minutes to walk from the studio to the pub so she’d be late. She told her friends to save her a seat and left for the studio.
            At dance they wore a school dress, and the hard shoe, and for the sake of uniformity, their hair in two braids in ribbons. So here was Z, going to the pub, feeling like she’d like she’d love to wear a raincoat and galoshes over the prep school talent show look. And her long hair in ribbons was so middle school it was hilarious at nineteen. “First impressions are everything in college” she’d sadly learned by being burned a few times. “But I’ll be very, very late, so I’ll take the chance on going unnoticed by every cute guy in the pub, because as we all know you don’t matter when you look fifteen while the other girls are looking age appropriate. I’ll sit in a corner in the dark. That is if I don’t get turned away by the doorman for being underage while carrying a fake ID.”
            She walked in with no questions asked and started to sprint toward the stairway as she heard applause and then an announcer hoping to be seated before the next performer came on. She was so intent on not tripping on the carpet in her tap shoes she forgot to look where she was going and stopped about a foot short of stepping on a pair of black shoes and moved left hoping to let the pair of shoes pass. She forgot she was supposed to stay to the right in such situations. Confusion ensued, mainly because she could no longer tell between left and right.
“Faculty spawn. Whose I wonder”, she thought she heard him think as he finally walked past her.
“The stupid school dress made me do it”, she tried to kid herself as she finally made her way up the staircase. She felt an inner calm she had never experienced before. ♫Strangers in the night♫, like those proverbial ships in the night, don’t have that effect on you, she knew that much. “Most unusual,” she thought to herself but was quickly distracted by the hubbub of the crowd and she looked for her roommate.  

            Z sat by her roommate through the evening sipping a root beer float. Her friend was completely besotted by her new cellular phone and kept talking to her boyfriend two time zones away and paid no attention to any one or anything around her. Z looked down at her relatively new dress and noticed a string of fake pearls dangling from the hem and proceeded to slide down her chair to look for escaped pearlized plastic in as dignified a manner as she possibly could. Hiding under a table in two braids in ribbons and a stupid frock would just about kill her social future at college so she swore to herself she’d wear high heels and lipstick and Ma’s pearls to next Wednesday’s event to erase the damage she was causing her reputation on this given day.
            She found a couple of escapees and saw another three feet away as she felt a tap on her shoulder and a clear and authoritative masculine voice in her head, ”Stop that. That is not important. Look up. Do you recognize him?”
            She slid back onto her seat. She had been listening to this joke about a drunk and a cop all wrapped around a traditionally sad song while she was fake pearl scavenging but she had been under the table all the while. She looked up and did not understand the question because there was a band setting up to play in the middle ground of the stage while the raconteur was to one side using the announcer’s microphone and dais and ‘him’ could mean any one of the six people on stage. Having received the gifts of obedience and task-oriented-ness from the good fairies at birth she did not stop to ask this Voice who he might be and why he was being so bossy. A figure of authority was not to be questioned in her immature mind. And give the girl a job to do and she’d get it done.
            She took a few moments to run each face through her face recognition software and came up with no results. “Which one? ” she asked confounded.
            “The one on the microphone.”
            “I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure.”
            “Well then remember his face, for you will fall in love with him but you are not getting married.”
“Whoa, thanks for telling me. You’ve saved me a lot of trouble. I’ll make sure I do not fall in love with him or any one else until I walk to the altar. I’ve seen people make fools of themselves falling in love and I so don’t have the time to be a fool.” And in that moment she had a memory from the deepest quietest coldest waters of her subconscious surface and gasp for air. She knew she recognized him alright. She then felt an invisible blade of steel go clean through her heart. A shroud of tulle descended over her. She had seen this happen to other people and never believed it would happen to her but here it was, her story unfolding, she knew what was happening but she couldn’t do a thing about it.
As the raconteur finished and accepted his applause and started to leave the stage the announcer called him back to give him a token of appreciation that was given to each performer, candy, and so now she knew his name.
     She observed him as he took each step going down from the stage into the darkness below, and that was him, in profile, the one she had seen suddenly in a cloud of light when she was very, very young, perhaps six years old. Now she saw him in a gegenschein, a gentle glow in the darkness made more pronounced by the floodlights up on stage. 
     Z was ‘confuzled’ Pooh bear might have said, but not for long. She had the facts of the story straightened out in her head in a few short minutes. “If signs and premonitions are to be taken seriously, he is The One but we’re going no where, so let the matter rest.”
Z walked with her friends back to the dorm and went about her rituals of getting ready for the morning, filing away notes from the day, checking the schedule for the following day, putting her earrings away, brushing her hair, and as the place quieted down and the lights went out one by one a voice filled her head. She could hear every word of the drunk and cop joke as it had been told in a bemused rich baritone, and was baffled by the experience.
“I so need to remember to forget,” she reminded herself and fell asleep.


            Not a science fiction buff, nor an irrational being, Z took a series of experiences  in her stride that would most certainly beg the question ”WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?????”
            She never thought of sharing these experiences with any body. It simply was something she thought was normal for her even though she had never before had any such thing happen to her. She had heard of perfectly reasonable people having premonitions so she thought it was just one of those things that simply happen to some unsuspecting beings and she just happened to be one of them.
            She thought nothing of The Voice with the message that had found her sitting under a table. She thought nothing again of being at the pub on a Wednesday night as usual, examining her customary root beer float, a habit acquired from spending too much time with Dennis the Menace who had left her with a lifelong love of root beer and a particular philosophy of life, and looking up from it to look for the first time into a pair of eyes she knew she had never looked in before but paradoxically had cherished forever. She thought nothing of the fact that one day at noon she was sitting outside her classroom and she thought she heard a thought ♫“You’re beautiful”♫, and looking up from her reading she saw the receding silhouette of He Who Must Be Forgotten. “Nah, he does not even know my name,” she said and promptly went back to her bookmark.
 This was becoming an increasingly confusing time in her young life, being besieged by conflicting messages from her head and her heart. One hot humid night in June she sat on the parquet floor in her dorm lulled by the hum of the fan. Out of the blue she heard her soul scream – a piercing, chilling, plaintive, involuntary scream – “I’ll die without you”. For the first time in months something as unusual and as life endangering as that actually grabbed her full attention. She could no longer ignore the toll this unacknowledged feeling of panic was taking on her. And from that moment on the panic grew to a crescendo until the week before finals were to begin.
To celebrate the end of school year various club had organized events. She went to a bunch of them and amused herself with soulvaki, dolma, tejano music, and even tried to dance the conga and meregue but this straitlaced girl had her arms glued to her sides and her sides stiff as cardboard, so she gave up after a feeble attempt or two. The last of the lot was a cultural show, featuring south asian bands playing sufi pop, techno lavani, disco dandia and such. Multilingual, fluent in Hinglish and ‘indi and a smattering of bangla, ever the cultural ambassador Z wore her long hair loose and Ma’s rich silk laal paar, something that she had simply had to bring with her to college like a security blanket, she found herself a place on the floor in front of the stage because that had now become the front row and being fifteen minutes late as usual that was the best seat in the house that she could find as usual. Into the second set she felt eyes at the back of her neck she couldn’t ignore. Turning around she spotted HeWhoMustBeForgotten(HWMBF) sitting with some one not from his usual group of buddies but this boy she had seen about campus that reminded her of a pet chameleon named Iago her fifth grade science teacher kept at school for lessons on reptiles, adaptation, camouflage, coldblooded-ness and such. She turned back feeling a fear she had never before felt at the fleeting glimpse she had had of cruelty in his eyes she did not think he was capable of. “That was perhaps a misjudgment on my part,“ she thought as she saw him again at the end of the evening walking up to the stage to offer a vote of thanks looking disturbingly handsome in ethnic threads. “You’ll play roles in life I will never have the privilege of seeing you in and the loss is mine. I’m happy I have this to remember you by. I know, I already know that this wish has a snowball’s chance in hell, but please do miss me and come back to find me.”
     She thought nothing of the fact that later that day she’d clearly heard Ma’s disembodied voice, ”Z, go to the window, will you, and look outside.”  She did and she saw, of the fifteen thousand people on campus, HWMBF walking by the window in her room, strolling along with an older gentleman, also uncommonly tall, a relative perhaps, or a teacher, she didn’t know. She shook her head and thought it was mighty strange she should see him here. He had noticed her face in the window and smiled. Ten minutes elapsed. It was Ma again, her voice again, ”Go to the window again Z and see him for the last time.” Z who had never disobeyed Ma except for the childish things like not putting away her toys when she was very young obeyed without thinking to question her seemingly nonsensical commands. There, walking past the window again was HWMBF all over again. And he noticed her again. He did not seem happy about being stalked thus and his eyes held an expression of “Leave me alone” that would bore through her soul and never leave her consciousness.
     Panic had no place in her life from then on. It had been replaced by a feeling for which there was no name in the English lexicon that she knew of. Unable to define this feeling, she experienced it as sadness to which she could not ascribe a single logical reason, yet could not ignore because it had found its insidious way into every single cell in her being. The lack of logic complicated matters to a point where it made no sense to share any of it with another human being. She’d heard this word in Hindi that she knew translated to “unmeaning” the original being “anarth”, and that little word was the closest match she could find to describe what she thought of the strange events of the day.
     She kept her smile, her commitments, her friends and her enrollment in the quest of learning but all else had disappeared under the cloak of sorrow.  
     Over the days that followed she blurred every little detail of her freshman year beyond recognition but she could not let go, not even for a fleeting moment, the sadness. She used every rational argument known to humankind and every shred of her willpower to let go of it but it colored every detail of her life and grew a little each day. She looked at faces every where she went and asked each face silently, ”Does each of you walk about the earth carrying sadness around like I do?”, “Do you know what wrong I have done to deserve this pain?”, “Do you know what I could’ve done differently?”, “Do you know, do you know, do you know…..?” until one day she couldn’t ask any more questions.
     And when she stopped asking those questions she stopped recognizing pain in herself and in other people, and the questions that brought it on. There was a world to explore and it was best explored with no extra baggage.
Just when she succeeded at rationalizing her emotions someone else would start asking her unnecessary and uncomfortable questions. There was a turntable in her life populated with these question askers whom she could not possibly shut out for they were people she saw everyday or almost. They each asked as often as circumstances permitted if she knew some one by “that” name, or if she knew what “he” did for a living in such and such town, or if she knew so and so who met HWMBF last weekend. Her answer, truthful more times than not, was always no. He had told her to leave him alone and if that was what was going to make him happy, by all means she’d leave him alone, even if it meant voluntary and selective amnesia.


            Out for a breath of fresh air and dying for some sign of normalcy in this world Z found herself standing in front of a children’s play area at the edge of campus where faculty rented apartments. She had to drop off some books at a teacher’s and then get back to dinner and then she would have to read for the last of her finals. Freshman year had been an amazing year in many ways but right now she had tunnel vision so all she could see was darkness and the first year of college almost completed. She knew that that would have to be everything that mattered for now.
            She felt a little tap on her shoulder and a soft, ”Boo.”  It was the teaching assistant’s wife whom she knew from back home. Delighted to see a friendly face she spent some time chatting with her, and the lady invited Z to dinner the day of the last of her exams.
            Freedom! Almost a sophomore! Z wore the most traditional of her Punjabi suits and said goodbye to her friends and went to an enviable dinner in the best of moods in a long time. Another young family who had just moved into the area had also been invited, so the TA, his wife, their three year old son, and the guests made a party of seven. Conversation flowed and small talk flowered as hors d’oeuvres were served. Z almost dropped her plate of onion pakoras when she heard the TA telling his friend who was new in town that HWMBF now lived in New York. The gist of it was he had graduated, or defended his dissertation successfully, been offered two jobs, one in New York, the other in Los Angeles. He’d picked NY. The three year old who had been walking in circles around the coffee table sampling munchies and ignoring his mother’s reproaches about ruining his dinner seemed to have been taking in every word that was being spoken. He paused at Z’s knee, oily little fingers staining her purple and turquoise salwar, and with the most earnest little face she had ever seen, said to her, ”He congratulated college. He’s gone to New York. He’s never coming back. He told me to never forget Confucius said genius is the ability to hold two conflicting thoughts in one head at the same time.”{The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. ~ Scott Fitzgerald - paraphrased and misattributed to Confucius.}
            “How sweet,” she thought, ”to take the time to get a little three year old to memorize that mouthful. And such a pity that I can never live in NY.”


            The reality of her new life started to make its presence felt early next morning. Nature abhors a vacuum they say, and they are right. It takes the container holding that vacuum some time to understand that. The mind is slower than the body after all these years of evolution. Every cell in her body knew that there was a vacuum where sadness and hope used to be. They had both slipped away while she slept through the night. What came flooding into that vacuum were equal parts the urge to live life to its fullest and the knowledge that it would never really matter. It did not help to know why not. It wouldn’t matter no matter what. This was a body at war with itself. The soul set itself apart from this drama and watched silently too lost to know what to do.
By the following day she felt lazy, too lazy to finish packing to go home, but her ticket was paid for and she had to go. A neighbor in her wing at the dorm helped her pack, get dinner, and call a cab. She took the redeye and then a cab because she had not wanted to disturb her already vexed and flippant Daddy.
            She let herself into the house quietly. Once she made it to her room she crashed in a heap on the bed and try as she might she couldn’t cry nor sleep nor read. Oceans of will power and its negation raged inside her, wave against wave, tide against tide, with nowhere to go. Memories of happier times came charging at her. The loss of childlike faith hurt with a brutality she had not expected from a loss not quite corporeal or quantifiable. Despite of all the dysfunction in her life when Ma was alive, it had been what one might call a life. What would one call this existence in a twilight zone? Living life in two time zones, trying to collate the images of Ma and Daddy as “her parents” with the images of her step mother and Daddy as “her parents”, attempting to superimpose the concept of “Daddy that was” over the concept of “who Daddy is now”, and much else in the same vein, was very difficult.
            By five she was asleep. At nine Daddy came barging into her room demanding why she hadn’t told him she was coming home. If he had known he would’ve sent a limo to the airport. Her eyelashes had unfortunately gotten glued together over the last few hours and she struggled to look at him, and ended up plucking out a few hairs in her frustration and was in a lot of pain. Her face felt swollen like she had the hives.
“Something wrong with you?” he asked. And as he touched her brow he said, ”You need to take something for that fever.” 
She got better by and by and swore to make her health a priority. Being sick is NO fun at all.
A liberating sense of numbness slowly replaced the raging war within. It empowered her like nothing else had ever before. In her bravado and loss of direction she said, ”Bring it on Life. Let’s see what you have in mind for me.”

            “The actions speak so loud I can’t hear a word,” thought Z as she went over in her mind the fragments she’d heard about HWMBF over the year. “One can only make so many assumptions based on next to nothing so one ought to forget all about trying to read two leaves to decode a lifetime.” The Voice and Ma had been silent the rest of the year after a few spectacular prophecies.
            Home for the summer she began looking for employment and was not very happy with the job she’d found. And she couldn’t find another so she stayed with it. Family was beginning to get on her case a lot lately. Aunts told her she’d better get used to the real world. It shows one ones real worth. She did not look the part to secure a halfway decent job or snag a rich husband. There was no real hope for her future so she ought to appreciate all the comforts at her father’s house before she left it for good.
            Life was a drag but there was the paycheck and the company of friends and the feeling of security being “home”.
            Something had changed - it was perhaps the way the wind blew or the way the river flowed or the point in the horizon where the sun rose or the mirror in her room that had cracked from side to side or the one in her mind that she carried around everywhere she went. In the vast extended family of fifty or more blood relations that lived near one another and visited each other all the time she was not good enough for anybody she met from the time she woke up in the morning to the time she went to bed. The subjects she’d picked at college would make her an unemployable waste of space for the rest of her life she was told. Her temperament, she was told, as well as her complete lack of talent and perseverance, would ensure she’d get fired the first week of work. If she ever did get married he’d probably be struggling all his life to put food on the table so she’d better get used to wearing plastic flip flops all her life. And with that face and ratty hairdo and excess weight and no sense of what to wear she’d be lucky any one would look at her long enough to marry her or even notice her in the first place. Daddy did not think very differently either. He even went so far one day, sipping a ♫ rum and Coca Cola ♫ to tide him over a dark phase dealing with some ♫ shame and scandal in the family ♫ of his new in-laws or outlaws as preferred to call them, to tell her,♫” If you want to be happy living a Queen Life marry a man uglier than you♫. Better safe than sorry.”
“Queen Life indeed,” thought Z. ”This stinks. Ever since Daddy‘s linked his lot with that Mrs Malaprop his syntax and grammar are shot. You can always tell a man by the books he reads and the company he keeps.”
      The saddest change that had come about in Daddy was that he no longer saw himself as a part of the extended family, hated the kids, cast aspersions on the capabilities of the boys in the family, lost no opportunity to question the morals of the girls in the family. It was getting rather difficult to just be in the same room as him.
Auntie S thought the world of her but she was a person who was born to be a mother and loved all the children in the family the same.
            It hurt at first but then it began to make complete sense. Ma left. HWMBF did not know her name. All her family was a chorus. Her boss hated her. An aunt went, “How will you ever attract a man with that long hair and 1950’s figure? Girls these days are very slender and have short hair and are tall. Look at my daughter. That’s how you should look. Let’s go get you a real hair style,” and drove her to three hair salons all of which refused to cut Z’s long hair anymore than just a trim because they said a lot of people come in wanting a drastic change but regretted it right away and wept or raged or sued. They asked her to go short in five or six instalments over as many months. Even with all the running around, dance lesson and practice included Z would never be slender. She was born to have curves. And an extra cup of popcorn or an extra piece of candy magically morphed into an extra pound on her which she found completely maddening. Z hated herself in the mirror by now. All she saw was a pudgy tired slob who needed to shave her legs just like her aunts did. Her aunts never missed the opportunity to point out a stray hair or two on her skin anytime they were within pointing distance. All those years of taunting had added up to a hefty sum of loathing, with Z being who she was, directed inward. Ma had been a poor role model in this that she had not known how to see through attacks such as these and nip them in the bud. Z might have learned this elsewhere given how gregarious she was but somehow she never picked up on that little survival skill in all her interactions with a million people. She had been told to respect her elders and just did it without checking first to see if they had earned it. Little did she know that giving useless people power over you makes them go insane and murderously dangerous. Snow White’s step mother wanted her killed as soon as an inanimate object declared her more beautiful than the Queen. Hello!
                        The newest bogey men being sent to Z to send shivers down Z’s spine were, “Who will ever marry you if they find out if your mother wasn’t quite Bengali, her mother a Brahmo, her grandmother a Pir Ali Brahmin. Girl you are barely a Bengali, more a mongrel, and with your grandmothers being sisters you are born of incest. Then your mother had to go die of a dirty rare disease. Anybody who saw her like that would never marry you for fear that you and your children might carry that gene.” Z forgot to ask them if they were born of the same mother as her father why they weren’t mongrels as well. Both aunts had married into families where it was the norm to marry first cousins and their in-laws were all related by blood in complicated connections only they could understand. It was the norm in southern India to marry one’s uncle, or maternal aunt’s son. People had done that for centuries. Their kids were fine, Z’s precious cousins, smart strong healthy beautiful exceptionally talented kids who with a little nurturing would blossom into great athletes, maybe movie stars, industrialists anything. This was a bright wired bunch. The potential was there. If only their parents could see it. She had not learned to question authority yet. And might they not also be carrying the gene for scleroderma? The most unkindest cut of all came from Daddy, “The puppies this year at my friend’s kennel are not quite healthy or good looking so he’s trying to give them away for free. I asked him why that had happened. He said, too much incest, “and smiled as Z cringed and the step mother smiled broadly, both enjoying Z’s heartbreak. The aunt with the hair obsession chimed in with, “Why have you not learned to give yourself to a man? That just hasn’t flowered in you. You have to show society you are warm blooded and welcoming or you look cold and frigid. No wonder no man wants to marry you.” Now that drew some ire from Daddy. He glowered at his sister and changed the subject. These were the very same sisters who had lived in a home built mainly out of Ma’s inheritance and been married with the same money, trousseau, jewelry, pomp, priest, banquet all.
            The tribe in their tribal wisdom born of fear and hatred had found the poison for their peach, the cancer for the cure, the sacrificial lamb who had volunteered to wash their sins with her blood, and had with astounding success most perfectly matched the hex and the single girl who had only asked if she could possibly, if time and circumstance permitted, please, O pretty please with sugar on top, be told the meaning of life.
            One evening as always, while the elders of the tribe segregated by gender, the males drinking an upgrade of hooch, and smoking several upgrades of the rolled up tobacco leaf talked each other down, and the women toiled in the kitchen and played their own version of Chinese Whispers with a twist that involved salad knives and the occasional steak knife, Z was left in charge of her little cousins. They played Cowboys and Indians until each little one hungry and tired went up to his mother and asked for supper or a cookie ♫and then there were none. ♫
 With a little time and space to herself and a bowl full of mixed nuts to assuage the growl in the pit of her stomach, the fire in the belly, she observed the happiness quotient of this enactment of communal harmony. “I hope I find a better way,” she thought to herself. “And truth be told there is nothing to learn here anymore. I can run a house and climb trees as good as any in here. All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten. Bo Peep has lost her sheep and doesn’t know where to find them.”
            If she had gotten up and looked she would have at least found the one little lamb that was being fattened for the sheesh kabobs the tribe was craving. Yes Virginia, it is possible to be so dumb you can’t find your own backside with your own bare hands.


            A mythic chasm had started to open under Z between who she was and who she really wanted to be, and what she wanted her life to look like and what it really looked like. She put all her trust in this thing called Life and got busy everyday doing this and that and loved the results.
            The chasm got wider and deeper all the while and Miss Elastigirl stretched further and further to bridge the gap. Until one day she decided to explore the chasm and see what was in it. The first thing out of her mouth was a four-letter word. She covered her mouth reeling from the sound of profanity that she had despised all her life. Her face stung with shame but her body felt a surge of power that surprised her. She felt…good?? A sly shy smile came over her lips. In an instant she knew why Ma couldn’t face life and Daddy was robust despite all his misfortunes and ungoverned habits. The secret was concealed in the gaps between the one vowel and three consonants of a very special word. “But I can tell no one. I’ll keep this to myself and it’ll be my silent solace when I’m angry or surprised, bothersome times that always catch me off-guard. I’ll never be a sailor mouth like Daddy. Like Ma, when things get really, really hairy, I’ll say, ‘Oh dear.’ Classy Ma.”
            In the abyss she found she had one guiding light, and just one, motherhood or the hope of it. “But I have things backwards here. ♫First comes marriage, then the baby carriage.” ♫ She couldn’t believe she was thinking what she was thinking and had this vision of herself watching herself thinking. She knew she had to snap out of it and get to dinner if she didn’t want to eat alone.
            Miss Z couldn’t sleep that night. She had a mythic abyss to explore that contained unusual monsters and treasures in unexpected places. Morning happened and off she went to class. About noon in a hallway in the English Department she was waylaid by the Colonial Studies teacher demanding, “So how many weeks is it going to take you to pick up Vaidehi and Ashaad Ka Ek Din? They’re cluttering up my desk. Your paper’s due in five days.” Z had been avoiding writing this assignment while looking to find something else to write on, but here she was face to face with a formidable guru. The gift of obedience not gone to waste Z took the materials, bowed obsequiously, and left too embarrassed to accept an invitation to a homemade lunch of khichdi.
            The abyss was her favorite place to be after a day of studying. Among other things she’d figured out in her nineteen years was that life wouldn’t begin in another four years, nor would it end in another four, this was a long haul, one that lasted as long as you could breathe. It was going to be fairly important to figure out how she would like to spend all of her waking hours. “You’re asleep for a third of your life anyways, you get through the business of living for roughly another third, it’s the leftover third that you have to consciously make up your mind up about. You had better be doing something you feel like doing or you’re dead. In the darkness of this abyss lies the path to that third, the all-important third of my woebegone life.”
     Friends invited her on their capers but she said she felt she was drunk enough on life itself and needed no upgrades at this point. She got some plenty ribbing for that,“What are you, a Spartan nun?” The boys she met quickly fell into one of four categories – brothers, buddies, mentors and GBF’S. They treated her like one of the blokes and gave her the respect they’d give a lady, never crossing the line on any count. She had found a band of sisters as well, as she had in school. She found out in the very first week that on the hookup circuit, however, the female of the species is deadlier than the male and was sickened by the observation. Why had Ma neglected to inform her of this dangerously important stuff? She knew she was headed for college. Maybe she didn’t know. ♫ Only the good die young. ♫ 
     Z, never one to call her constantly irritable Daddy with little complaints or “Hello, how are you’ s”  because he did not really like to hear from her, having a lot of trouble adjusting to his new marriage, she refrained from talking to him about ’what next?’ Her friends had all pretty much figured out their way through life and she did not really learn anything about how they had arrived at their personal conclusions because it seemed to her things just fell in place for each one. Once again she trusted Life to do the same for her.
     Finals were at hand and a fever had gripped the university. Stress was showing up in strange masks. The scariest was one evening at seven walking back from the studio a group of very drunk boys in a convertible drove too close to her laughing like hyenas as she balked and jumped. When she finally calmed down it was nine-thirty and out of a real need for reassurance, Daddy being hundreds of miles away anyway, she called him hoping to hear him say he was concerned. His reaction was,“ So why were you walking the streets alone after dark?” Click.
And with that hurtful sentence a parent-child bond was severed.
     Free of all connections to childhood Z began to explore the abyss to see where it went, further and further away from her childhood home back east that had morphed into a monster house in a kingdom from where hearts had been banished. For now it just went darker and deeper and she couldn’t stop walking, walking fast, and then faster, as her need for speed in this zone of dragons and dungeons became insatiable. She went sonic on her monster hunt doing away with the bugaboos of the mind and developed a predilection for the loneliness of the long distance runner, except she was a rebel with a cause. She fancied herself a seeker - halo, heavenly sword and all - in a fable from the Brain Age civilization, whose quest was for noesis as opposed to perception. She fell. Humpty Dumpty was pushed. Her sense of Time Space Self and Other all shattered and tessellated into a pattern of something she no longer recognized as her reality. But perhaps this was her new reality; her new normal. She just wasn’t ready for it when it arrived.

23.  ♫ I  AM  WHAT  I  AM ♫

            Clueless about sexual politics, never having been allowed to date, as is the case with a lot of south Asians, Z navigated the dating scene by using the politically appropriate “my religion does not allow it” ruse and it served her well. She’d watched older cousins get into scrapes she wanted no part of. The theatrics made her sick. A broken heart was something she knew she’d despise so why bother. Like Ma, Thakuma, Dida, one would just wait to walk around the sacred fire seven times and then hand over one’s ticker. Simple plan. Couldn’t be easier to execute. But then, we already know how useless plans are. She never talks about that little episode of absurdity with another living soul but somehow her friends are asking probing questions like, ”Is there someone in your life?” or the even more bizarre,” Are you engaged?”, and it freaks her out each time. She is afraid they can look inside her head.
            That actually had always been one of life’s most intriguing questions for Z. Ever since she had watched her first movie, or tenth, she’d had wondered, if you could plug a movie screen to a human head, what would you see??????
            She voiced that thought a few times shooting the breeze with friends and it earned her laughs like no other joke ever did, not even the smuttiest. She never really could understand why though.
            Through middle school and high school there was none of the pressure to impress or to please a man and from the looks of it, her life was as simple as an abacus, or the A B C’s as far as the romance department was concerned. It had left her hours to read and to practice her music and yakity yak and stare into space. One did not consider having a passing crush on a passing rock star a romantic development, at least not to Z, or any of her sensible shipmates.
            College was a new deal. By the middle of freshman year she had hardly any one to hang out with most evenings. The girls were either studying or spending quality time with their significant others. She’d end up in the library every night with the other studious types. Until one day she was dying to find some company to go to the classical music extravaganza in downtown with. She found a kindred spirit through some serious networking, a perfect gentleman, quasi genius, her first GBF. They were peas in a pod whereas taste in music and literature were concerned.
 It was five evenings of pure classical music heaven. And she wasn’t afraid to take the train or bus or walk through dark streets since she wasn’t alone. Her new friend and she had talked through all the commuting like they’d known each other for years, with never an awkward moment, except….
Like most concerts, these concerts didn’t end until late into the night. As luck would have it she’d lost the key to her room and hadn’t had the time all week to get another. With her roommate being gone most nights she couldn’t get in her room without the roommate’s key, which had to be left in a safe place. That safe place, her roommate insisted, was on the nightstand of her lab partner, a very butch, very out of the closet gal. Z was not prejudiced but just uneasy about knocking on her door past midnight five nights in a row saying she was locked out of her room. She needn’t have worried. GBF and butch gal next door knew one another well, having woken up one another in the middle of the night a few times before, for a quick loan of pot and paraphernalia. When she insisted he wait until she had locked her door behind her he had given her a funny look, like ,”How paranoid are you?”  But when she walked past her room up to butch neighbor’s door and stood there looking pretty in pink pondering, “To knock or not to knock”, he asked what her predicament might be. She said her roommate had left the sole key to the room on ‘her’ nightstand. He was suddenly in savior mode. He took charge of the situation and did the same the following four nights, never making Z feel stupid. Over the course of the week they all became friends of course and Z relaxed, and discovered she’d had a lesson in social niceties she had never had before.
“If getting away from home hadn’t included so many ennobling experiences I might not have valued freedom as much,” Z thought.


            “There are so many ways to look at the exact same thing. Can’t count the ways to skin a cat, can we? We dressed in our renaissance look-alike peasant blouses and jeans and curled our hair like Juliet’s to go to Shakespeare at the park, a rite of passage I’m told, and came back having left something behind at the venue, each of us of the sisterhood,” thought Z putting her bracelets and earrings back in their boxes. Getting rid of the mascara was the next thing on the list. “There’s no shame in crying when people die.”
            The kiss of death had left an impression no amount of washing would wash away. Wishing did nothing either. A hush fell over the dorm despite being almost Saturday. Not one of the Freshmen Five as they were known to the rest of the dorm was asleep yet and one by one they gathered in the screened porch that was a makeshift kitchen. Anyone paying attention would’ve noticed right away these kids had wider eyes, ghostlier lips and paler brows now than all semester.
            They had bonded over late night pizza, manicures, spell-checking term papers for one another, and Chuck Norris jokes, but something unusual had happened tonight. Each had showed up almost by compulsion, like moths drawn to a flame, to be part of this family far from home on a night when the tragedies of Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt, Mercutio, Lady Montague, Count Paris and all those who grieved them became too much to bear in the quiet of the night. The solitude of falling asleep brings on angst tucked away in concealed places in the psyche on many, many nights. Somehow on this night that angst was too much to bear alone. The ones with a fondness for annihilation by spirits felt no pull toward the refrigerator door to pull out a wine cooler or hops. This was something that couldn’t be washed away, this mark from the kiss of death.
            They started talking about how cute Romeo was and how funny Mercutio was and by and by they started to unravel from the depths of their souls the real reasons they were here on this night. Death had touched every family at some point and left its imprint in a unique way with each of its special kisses. Great grand parents had passed on so had babies in the womb. Each had a story that brought them closer in one night than a year of picnics alone would have, in a strange, sad, wistful way.
            Too young to see dispassionately that dying is a part of life it affected them in a raw, all the way to the marrow in their bones kind of way; a “something’s rotten in the state of Denmark kind of way . The stories are common enough in the larger world so they are not for telling in this text. But to each young heart caught up in the limited scope of its young life the pain was gruesome. Some knew the purpose of that pain in their lives. Some knew more was on the way. Some knew how to deal with it and some didn’t quite as well.
            Z had this cold awful feeling of seeing Death waiting in the wings. Soon after Ma had died Thakuma had lost all three of her surviving siblings in a space of four months. Why that must happen is a question no one can answer. “We’ll meet again in another life”, she consoled herself.
            Over the year there would be a young friend and a favorite aunt who would choose to make their exits on their own terms. There would be lives lost to reckless behavior. One to irrational crime. “Why? Why can’t we just live normal lives?” would be a question that would weigh heavily on her heart.
Too young again to see death as a metaphor for change they took the sad, sad storeo of Romeo and his girlio literally. Perhaps there was in that story not an irrevocable finality but simply the ending of a chapter in the human experience. If there is life after death maybe the bard should’ve left a couple of clues in the closing scene about such a possibility.

25.  ROOTS
            Stepping out of the familiar zones of family, home, hometown, classical music, had encouraged Z to be more accepting of new thought, new horizons, new everything. And yet she wanted more than ever to see how these new horizons had been arrived at. In other words, she was more curious about her roots than ever before. In an effort to understand the primordial soup aka the Indian subcontinent she joined the cultural association of students run by students of Indian origin. She had noooooo idea that the subcontinent was like a continent in itself. Forty different languages, five distinct religions, several ethnicities, at last count, and she was amazed at the diversity of India. On her two trips to Calcutta and Dhaka this fact hadn’t made an impression on her. She had been too overwhelmed by the heat and the crowdedness and newness, or too young, or both.
Growing up she had learned about Durga Puja, Mahalaya, the right way to make shandesh, and all things Bengali and had been sadly tainted by the cultural elitism of the nose-to-the-grindstone overachieving clan she came from. Satyajit Ray was it, and Hrishikesh Da was as far as her family would venture into Bollywood. She had loved “Apur Sansar” and “Chupke Chupke” among other brilliant stories that they had told, but there was plenty to be said in favor of the Bally Sagoo, Gurdas Maan, Runa Laila and Garba songs that were a riot at every Indian get-together. Somewhere around that time she found a store that rented Hindi movies and discovered Bollywood gems like “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron”, “Guide”, “Aashirwaad”, “Baazaar”, “Mandi”, “Bemisaal”, “Jaagte Raho”, “Mera Naam Joker”, “Teesri Kasam”, “Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak”, “Amar Akbar Antony”, “Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi”. The variety was amazing. After years of getting her ears finely tuned to the nuances of different languages and the music of the legends her ears picked up on the simplicity of the three note “Hum the woh thi aur samaa rangeen samajh gaye na, jate the Jaapaan pahooch gaye Cheen samajh gaye na.” and the simplicity was exhilarating. She hummed that song until she thought she was going loco. She needed a new song! But that would come after long silence, expressing the inexpressible, looking for what was good and praising it.
Right about then she was gaining a vocabulary on race, gender, class, hegemony, macrocosms and such. Patterns began to hazily appear and disappear, and before she could decide whether they existed or not, they were gone, subsumed by the familiar, the dominant, the accepted version of things her generation had accepted as reality. One thing remained, a faint feeling, that white people were getting a bad rap for colonizing the world, using up other peoples’ resources and curtailing their freedoms, and dark skinned people were getting a bad rap for being too close to nature, incapable of governing themselves as modern man ought to be able to. To her it looked like over time there were good results and bad results from the colonial period, depending on whether you the judge are an optimist or a pessimist. There were atrocities. And there was progress. “That is how history played out at that time and that line of thinking has a legitimate place in the study of world history. The caste system in the Indian subcontinent seems to have had similar origins. The imbalances are correcting themselves, however slowly. So long as we are headed in the right direction we’re doing okay. If you want to witness colonization of the weak and a usurping of their resources and freedoms you could’ve come to my home for thanksgiving and you would’ve seen it all in fast forward and in monochromatic monolingual sepia. You’d see with your own two eyes ♫it don’t matter if you’re black or white.♫ All that counts is whether you are filled with love or if you are filled with hate. When are we going to take a step or three in the right direction? In the last year my stepmother and a couple of aunts have done just that to the rest of us. We are ‘less’ in everyway in their nomenclature of us. They work no jobs, have no hobbies, no long term friends, no laurels to rest on, a skeleton or two dangling in their closets, but as soon as anybody enters the room, they hand out a compliment followed by a list of inadequacies real or imagined. They taunt and scheme like Scar, and then cry and howl at any insinuation that they are untruthful. They tell their lies a thousand times until it becomes the truth, and parade their half truths as facts. They identify and isolate an honest, decent, weak one like Simba, load him up with guilt, shame, a muster roll of his powerful enemies, and a gross magnification of his shortcomings, and a war of attrition begins. Those of us who shun such behavior give up the fight and move on to some endeavor we think is worthwhile. We look like losers and don’t even know it. Yes we ‘losers’ have impeccable and inane reputations, ‘the pretty one’, ‘the talented one’, the sweet one’, ‘the good housewife’, ‘power couple’, but we’re hurting like crazy. They allocate status, money, time, affection as they please to the rest of us. And if you look closely, the kinder, gentler amongst us are getting less and less of a voice in group decisions, like to sell or not to sell the condos the family owns. The bitterness generated by the cross fire between those who are fair and those who want more than their fair share is eating away at the foundations of this family. And all it took was one deceitful and greedy person with no scruples and a strong will to step over the threshold. Deceit and greed are replacing decency so fast, I wonder what winter break is going to feel like at home? Maybe I should find me a job that keeps me busy all day long.”
The loss of continuity caused by displacement, caused by simply going off to college, or by becoming a Christopher Columbus headed for the other side of the world, or by hitchhiking through the universe, or by being born among peoples following antelope post an ice age, causes a shift in perception. The world ain’t flat any more. Parallax becomes an issue, memory too, as are value systems. One cannot erase ones history, only learn from it, first by embracing it, then seeing it plain and whole. Simplicity is hard to master, even harder to arrive at, in such impassioned ideals as identity, fairness, truth, honesty. But in every muddlemess we all know whose heart is in the right place and whose isn’t, don’t we?


            Monday morning, the first day of sophomore year, Z having gotten used to late nights and late mornings through the previous year was blinking at the sunlight flooding into her room. Someone knocked on the door. A disheveled Brit kid was looking for tea bags and had been directed to her room. She had arrived the previous night and was jetlagged and hung over and needed black tea, lots of sugar please. Z was quite sure some tea was in order and asked her to sit, introduced herself, was delighted to hear her name repeated back to her with perfect enunciation, and the British import introduced herself while Z made tea, literally. This girl was chockfull of words and details even while hung over and about the funniest person in the world. Z was amazed by the flow of language and ease of communication and the complete transparency this girl embodied. This girl was all the Britcoms on PBS fast forwarded to here and now. It was a treat to gather the first fruits of culture shock this teenage sage was experiencing. She, like most people who come to America for the first time, found it a place so far removed from the America of her imagination she was rattled, no matter how witty she might otherwise be. The Brit wit was clearly out of her comfort zone. Tea downed she ran off to get ready for the day. She was a first year on scholarship studying among other things landscape architecture, hoping to work for a movie house or a fashion house some day. She knew what she was doing, for in her three waking hours on the vast American landscape she had noticed the lay of the land from air and on the ground, the placement of buildings, the styles of architecture, the color of sunshine, the age of the mighty oak trees, the French sounding names of the streets. If you can do that at eighteen straight out of high school it bodes well for your future as a set designer perhaps on a Spielberg movie or something.
            Z took pause for a moment in the middle of getting to breakfast to think how the mention of tea had sent an unknown quantity to her door. Racial profiling worked for once. One time Ma had sent her to the local grocery store for milk, garlic and parsley. The checkout lady giggled as she corrected her entry, saying it looked a lot like cilantro so she hadn’t realized it was parsley. “Ya, you could make some serious mistakes in life putting racial profiles above all else. It has its place in the world at this time in history but it will completely stop working in a few hundred years, if the species survives a few hundred years,” Z thought as she got herself a not so clean bowl to eat her cereal out of with an, “Oh well, dorm life.”
            Z and the Londoner crossed paths a few times through the week exchanging a sentence or two. Then Saturday morning at breakfast time eating the customary cold cereal Z realized a lot of people were looking her way, or just above her head, looking in disbelief, the girls looking in disbelief, the boys in awe. Z thought she might want to think she had a halo around her head being such a good girl all week, as she had seen it happen in cartoon shows. Then she heard a soft British accent behind her, “Z, may I borrow your jacket for a wee bit?”
            “Sure,” said Z thinking perhaps the girl had spilled something wet on her shirtfront and needed cover to walk back to the dorm, and that probably explained the ogling males.
            “Thanks a million,” the girl said as she slipped on the jean jacket and ran.
            A little later Z found out that on her first weekend in America the  European had made the classic mistake of thinking no one wore restrictive clothing on weekends in the land of the free and the home of the brave, especially not since the feminist movement, surely if they did not back in old fashioned Europe. It took a little while to bring her up to speed. This was the deep south. The Bible belt. Moreover nowhere in America did one walk about without wearing restrictive clothing. And bras were never really burned by feminists, not in the sixties, and not since. And to not worry. She wasn’t the first to make that mistake and would most likely not be the last.
            Over the course of the next few days the Brit kid had hauled back several boxes of snorkeling gear, down parkas, snow shoes, skis, rappelling gear, from the UPS store across from the library. Her Mum had shipped them to her as she didn’t want her buying a whole new set with American money. The girl was ready and eager to re-conquer America from sea to shining sea. She’d put up a calendar on her wall with all holidays and off days highlighted and a map of the USA. She had frequent flyer accounts set up with a couple of airlines, the Greyhound and the Amtrak. She was asking all around if anyone wanted to go to Lake Pontchartrain for the weekend. That explained, in a quaint way to Z, why the sun never set on the British Empire for years and years and years.
            “Man, and we never left Fairview unless a relative died or got hitched outside city limits,” thought Z.
            And so, even though the dissimilarities were many, the group of girls that spoke a similar language, one of sisterhood and the pursuit of excellence, became a sorority with no name. One was Catherine, Catherine the Great they teased her for her expansionist attitude and Russian ancestry, because she always forgot a book or her shoes or scarf or something in other people’s rooms. Her roommate had thirty percent of the room only by the end of each week because Catherine would’ve spread her stuff too far and too wide. Guilt would take over and she’s clean up and apologize every single week. Julie was Chinese. She came to the sorority by way of violin and Shakespeare. She was a lot like Midori but hated the reference so they spared her feelings. Iravati was the other Indian kid in the wing who, over a period of time gravitated toward the group needing a common wavelength for social interaction to be meaningful. Melissa played chess with Catherine sometimes and took the same classes as Iravati (often shortened to ee-ra), math and science. Clare, the British girl hung out with them even though she was a year younger and a freshman. She might just’ve been the smartest of the group, finding her way through the world both feet firmly rooted in reality and greeting the world with a confident smile.    
Sophomore year began to sink in bit by bit about ten days into the year. Z was surprised by the ease of these ten days as compared with the first ten days of freshman year. She had fallen into the swing of things in a minute. What a difference a year can make. And a new fact began to make itself known to her. The empowerment she had experienced from going numb had a new ally. Her head had turned into a machine. It floated a bit above her shoulders defying all norms. It was a work of intricate wheels within wheels with a face to one side. It had its downside though. Messages from the other senses took a while to go through the new and overly sophisticated routing system and often got lost. The bugs had not been worked out of its programming yet.
‘Divide and rule’ was an apothegm she’d heard thrown around a lot but did not recognize it as it manifest itself in her own life, in her own person, her own psyche.
The eyes saw everything through a film of gel. If she woke up in the pitch dark of night she’d pinch herself to be sure was alive and not dead. If she looked in the mirror it was to check for evidence of good hygiene and general presentability. She stopped seeing Z in there so she was afraid to look too closely at the stranger in the near distance in her room fearful of whom she might find.
The nose was getting sharper however.
The ears stopped hearing the melody so much and turned themselves more toward semantics.
The taste buds were fried.
She had lost the ability to tell between hot and cold like a leper.
CRACK!!! The fractured pieces of Self Other Time Space cracked once more into littler fragments but with a difference. Half the fragments were bright and half were dark. They tessellated into a harlequin pattern. The big fatuous ugly wanton agnostic genderless hairy disembodied Hand of Fate had rearranged them so, so she could no longer tell who she really was, or for that matter tell accurately what time it was, or where exactly she was, or with who.
The pattern must have had a subliminal effect on her for on a whim she wore a dress with a harlequin pattern on it, looking like a maid-in- waiting or she-jester to a queen of diamonds in a pack of playing cards. Conquered people tend to be witty. And highly suggestible.
 The conquered are controlled through fear and confusion. They cannot tap into their strengths for they do not recognize their strengths when they see them. They have, by now, been ridiculed for their strengths, their strengths turned inside out, and held in contempt for their failings so many times they have little self worth to lean on. Beaten yet again they learn to fear and trust those they perceive as more powerful and more knowledgeable than they. As the master’s gaze lands on something, the slave’s gaze follows there too. The eyes follow the eyes, the footsteps the footsteps, the ears the ears, always a little behind and in the spirit of service and obedience. They live to improve themselves and to please the eagle-eyed and the very discriminating master, in awe of the powers of discrimination and self-assuredness. And thus they learn to focus on their limitations. Given their ability to burn things with focus, as they turn their candent gaze toward the perceived and real flaws in their make up they end up burning a hole in their own protective outer shells letting the world in, letting all and sundry look into their souls. As more light from within shines through, more limitations are slapped upon them.
As the limitations go on mounting, they are convinced they are not this and they are not that; they cannot do this and they cannot do that; they can never be this and they can never have that. They hear their Masters’ voices in their heads all the time. Eventually they own their blots spots scars and dark pasts and presents and futures. The evil ones steal their power as easy as they steal candy from babies. Mark my words, they do steal candy from babies. And shoplift. And fudge on their taxes, cook the books, whittle away from the family coffers, tell lies with a hand on the holy text, so on and so forth.
  The balance of power shifts to the one who can inveigle better. It is all perception, baby. Never fact. Mainly fiction. Or rather, facts rearranged to present a reality that serves the Master and enfeebles the enslaved. And Z, who had patterned her personality after her mother’s, had never even heard the words ”Shut up bitch” or she might’ve said them to the Queen of Diamonds when her self control was flagging. She was so tired by now, her emotional reserves spent completely, her self control was teetering on the edge quite a bit these days.
 The fear the Transparents carry about is obvious to the world at large. Little do they know in this world, fear has no place. Only strength respects strength. God, our Creator, has stored within our minds and personalities, great potential strength and ability. Prayer helps us tap and develop these powers. But then this someone in a jester suit had abandoned prayer for a while now. The God who had served her up this smorgasbord of defeats in life could not possibly care for her, could he?
Mid-terms came and went. Julie transferred to Julliard with a promise to be back for Spring Break. She had to pick between accounting and music and the brave little girl picked music in the face of hostile criticism from family. She said she’d have time to work on an accounting degree in the evenings, and would they please send her a little money for those evening classes.
The new addition to the sorority with no name was Rachel, a Gweneth Paltrow waiting in the wings. Until she met Bill, a strategist waiting in the wings. But that’s another story. A nice one too.
In the winter break Rachel asked Z and Melissa if they would like to help with a minor political campaign in Olympia, Washington. It was just something homely, her parents were working on it, it should be fun, and a nice change from the Bayou. They both agreed. Iravati was going to Pennsylvania to her Uncle’s place. Catherine had a baptism and a wedding to go to. Clare was going spelunking in the Lost World caverns in West Virginia.
“In winter??!!” they asked.
“The price was just right,” she replied.   The girl knew no fear.
And so Z saw Washington state for the very first time in her life. It is so beautiful you almost have to close your eyes. The break was refreshing beyond belief. Rachel’s parents were the best, Mommy and Daddy, away from Mommy and Daddy. You could fall apart in their backyard and they would give you no grief over it. And they fed the kids rather well. They knew exactly what balance to strike between being parent and being friend to the adult child. The parent was protective, firm, clear, saw things from the perspective of who has given birth, and knew where to draw the line; the friend was a homie. It was probably a reflection of the balance they had achieved in their own personalities. You felt completely at ease with yourself when you met them, even if you were a painfully awkward youth so tired of struggling with your own concept of your own self, you hadn’t exactly had the time or the energy to figure out the world.
 Political campaigns are a lot of fun. You needn’t know a thing about them but like a football game you’ve been watching for a while you get drawn into them against your will. And then there are the personalities. Muffins they were not. And thank goodness for Rachel’s parents’ standing in the community, nobody dared breathe a word out of place around these young and impressionable girls. There was a pouty Miss Ouri who griped about the rain, the glue on the envelopes, etc., etc., etc. She presided over the girls’ activities, simple craft projects, for the first couple of days. She was niggling about the pieces of the banner that didn’t connect, ”I cut them to perfection. You did not put them together just right.” Another time a porcelain vase broke in the room. Must’ve cost $4.99 at the most, but she had to gripe about it for hours, until Melissa said, ”Why? O, Ming pottery that must’ve been,” and ended the sniffling. They began a little of the real campaign work like making phone call, telemarketer stuff. Then it was three days off during which they went through a whirlwind of Christmas parties. There they met Bill. Or rather, Bill tripped over Rachel’s dress or shoe, crashing onto the chair next to hers, apologizing profusely, and laughing a lot. Fireworks are hard to miss and hard to conceal. We’re talking Monte Carlo pyrotechnics. By the end of winter break every body knew. She had hoped to keep her parents out of the loop but that was so not happening. On the last day there the girls cooked dinner for the family and Bill, lamb shanks with oregano and wild rice with mushrooms. It was too late to be shy Rachel had surmised. Her sister had just come home. It was time to make introductions. She was at William and Mary. Land of Nod was beckoning at ten. Nessie was on the Discovery Channel. They served some Baked Alaska for dessert and Melissa and Z made their silly little goodbye speeches and withdrew to let the family have some alone time. They flew back to their routines the next morning.
January consisted of exams. February was only twenty eight day so it helped. And there was the mystique of the world famous mardi gras. The previous year Z had ended up holed up in her room during mardi gras owing to some poor choices in food and sleep patterns and the awful feeling of the possibility of running into people she knew from campus at the parade. How disgusting to come face to face with a teacher on Bourbon street.
This year she was celebrating a birthday on Fat Tuesday. How bad could it be? She’d be with her friends, sample some gumbo, try the king cake, make certain the girls didn’t have one too many Sazeracs. She hadn’t counted on Clare saying, “Look, Z is sampling the soup and licking the cones for once.”
“It’s my birthday, moron.”
Nobody ever gave Ira any trouble over her asian weirdness. They declared open season on Z. Iravati totally knew it. She had this masterful knack of going from social butterfly to fly on the wall in a nano second. She ducked all the teasing, a smile on her face, enjoying the spectacle of Z’s mind becoming playground for the sorority on brew. “That”, thought Z to herself, ”is my goal for this year of my life – to learn to fly under the radar. It must be soooo peaceful under there.” Z had, since she was born, been a human magnet for bouquets and brickbats. She elicited a response no matter what room she walked into. And hated it.
No one had informed her yet that choices made under duress are usually bad ones.
March was ho-hum, April, more of the same.
In May the plans for the end of the year celebrations were advertized. Somewhere in there was HWMBF’s name. She thought it might be a flyer recycled from the previous year and the corrections were not made for the here and the now, but who knows. It did leave something to be looked into, when the time came around. There were exams to study for. The end of the year came along. It was time to go home.


            Z sat in the library a late wintry afternoon too tired to study, reading yet again some Charlie Brown, when her eyes were drawn toward a bound publication by the University Press lying face down on the table among a scattering of magazines and books some sloppy brat had left behind. She reached for it for no reason except to close it, help out the library help who would be doing so after a long, long day. She almost jumped out of skin as she dropped the book a few inches onto the table as it shut giving her the briefest look at the page it had been left open to. She knew who that name belonged to. Her fingers trembled as she feverishly looked for the page again. Mysterious and invisible lenses creating major distortions had begun floating before her eyes as she glanced at each page completely forgetting there was such a thing as a table of contents. As her breathing returned to normal and her heart slipped back down from her throat into her thorax she stopped the insanity and looked in the right place and proceeded to the page in an orderly fashion. It was an article on something she knew little about but she read it any way, a letter at a time, her eyes moving attentively over each curve each straight each junction each squiggle of every letter. She was completely besotted by the clarity of thought and expression. She understood completely every thing she read. It was like the five pages in question were illuminated. And somehow that had helped her gain access to their meaning. She sat down, shut her eyes, and felt her mental furniture rearrange itself in her cranium, windows being opened, fresh air wafting in scented and healthful, sunshine too, a clock chimed in the room, she had been transformed, born again, a new and improved Z, a more adept at understanding the written word than ever before Z.
            She had never guessed at this in a year and a half. HWMBF had brought into her life a certitude and a clarity born of it. It had happened so slowly she hadn’t realized it was happening. If she so much as breathed a word of this to another living or even non-living thing they’d think she was crazy so she never did share this revelation with any body. It just amused her and intrigued her by turns. She tossed it around in her head and studied it. And wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. It was like she had found a magic toy part prism part periscope part magic brush part golden compass part telescope part microscope part spaceship part deck of magic cards and so on. This was fun. By and by it became too much fun to keep under wraps, so in the most socially appropriate way possible she began sharing it, obliquely, in metaphors, via analyses of whatever it was that was the topic of discussion or food for thought. Denied the emotional aspect of the experience, given her disposition, her decisions, her premonitions, and the heavy duty grieving post loss of Ma and Kaku and home, she put her all into teasing out the intellectual aspects of love, loss, hope and healing from what was given to her. Good choice? Bad choice? No one really knew. She was often told she was cold and emotionless and needed to cry. But if the tears don’t come should you chop onions? She tried. Didn’t work for her. Thomas Hardy couldn’t make her cry! The Blues had no power over her. Alcohol made her sick, REALLY sick, from her one experiment with it, albeit a forced experiment, having to guzzle down some beer to make her very sweet and kind neighbor happy who had been more of a mother to her than anyone else in the weeks following Ma’s passing.
            Z’s voice began to change. Very perceptibly. Her speaking voice grew old and weary. Her singing voice got very finely tuned, smooth, mature,  in emotion-rich in sound, and sparkling. Suddenly she knew what the words meant and why they were strung together the way they were and why a note followed the one before. She had been allowed into the hallowed space of creativity that resides in the artist. That was a divine space and she dwelled in it in awe and thankfulness. She couldn’t understand what good she had done to deserve this blessing but loved it and accepted it whole heartedly. Her fingers touched the violin and it sang, soared, danced, like it had a life of its own. Her art had surpassed her and she stood in awe of it. She knew she was an instrument of peace and accepted that responsibility with genteel humility, not knowing again why she had been chosen but felt good about it.
            This wouldn’t last forever but three years of this magic filled her with love and awe and wonder enough to see her through plenty. Of course she did not know now but this was a bounty. She, a green stick split down the middle, would bloom where she had been planted, two branches reaching for opposite directions an illustration of the dualistic nature of life, giving shade bearing fruit, the Giving Tree, eventually.
            A year and a half from that day in the library there would come a day sitting on the patio at a dear friend’s house when she would find this thing this awesome clarity magnified manifold if only for a few fleeting moments and once again it would come seeking her out on a cold winter’s day bright with sunshine and laughter many many years from this day. It would come after her mind so murky it had become dark as pitch and devoured all hope all happiness all capacity for attaching right value to people and events everywhere. That kind of confusion is so thick you lose all instinct for self-preservation and walk into death traps if you are asked to. You have no idea when your dignity is being assaulted. You lose your ego to a point you could be convinced of anything by a little fudging a little conniving. The world joins in this game of minimizing brutalizing testing ridiculing you and you are so past caring you don’t know if you are dead or living. It is one of the saddest things that happens to people.
 Maybe we are born trailing clouds of glory. In this life we have to relinquish the old to be ‘born again’ and relive some of that magic that came with the stork flapping his wings. Just don’t be embarrassed about needing to learn to walk again or speak again. It will all be good.


Decorated war hero who is mentioned in many history books for his bravery lay dead on the living room floor, three of the four Sorbitrols he usually carried in his pocket still there, his last conversations with family about how much better he’d feel dead than alive. He was home alone at the time, the T.V. was on, he’d been watching “Amistad” while drinking a cup of tea, the newspaper was next to him as usual, and he’d rented “An American Tale” for his sons. The family was just plain angry with him. Why did he not look for a cause to believe in? Was he not happy they would have a daughter soon, Tsangpo, once the papers were done? He’d promised his wife every time she was pregnant that if they’d have a daughter he’d buy her diamond earrings but they ended up with double trouble and he never did buy her any diamonds. He would’ve soon. Why did he not advance in his career? Why did he make every mistake in the book and out of it? Why would he not look at the glass as half full? God had given him so much, so much of everything most people can only dream of, so why did he hate his life and drown it in alcohol and smoke? Why did he walk about this earth like a soul lost in the desert? WHY?
Why did we, his family, who professed our love for him by berating him every time we saw him for drinking too much and smoking too much never stop to ask him why he did what he did? Why did we never let him speak for himself and listen with the “love” we professed? Why did his “friends” egg him on to his worst escapades knowing full well what it would eventually do to him and his children? Why were we so mean to him? He was never mean to us.
Each question burned a hole in her consciousness as she prepared to go home to the funeral the family had known was coming but was nevertheless shocked at its coming so soon. All those buddies who had poured him drinks, double with ice, after they had been told that the doctor had said it was poison for him were there to sing their eulogies and to pay respect to the surviving family. His sons were trying to be men in their preteen years. His mother was inconsolable. His wife looked lost, never one to make wise choices, needed help with little everyday choices now. Z saw herself in the boys’ faces and knew how useless words would be at this time and place. This moment was what it was and had to be accepted for what it essentially was – an end of an era and the beginning of another. She just hoped the world would be kinder to them than it had been to her. They were very much younger than she had been when she had lost Ma.
But the world will be what it is. Vultures will look for the wounded too young or too weak or too stupid to move to a safe place. Vipers will nest where eggs are for the taking. The Good Eggs never have the instinct to hatch in time. And so goes on the list of the bad things that would follow in the dead Hero’s wake. He had lived the life journey of Hercules of the Greek tradition, his labors completed, his sacrifices made, his mistakes made, his accolades won, he had worn the shirt dipped in poison and we all knew it now for sure. This is just how this story plays out with the Herculeses of this world, give or take a labor or two. That’s how the wheel of time had turned again. And yet again we watched and waited. Just a little late we found him lying on the floor. He had been all alone smoking his last cigarette. Once again we forgot this is not the dress rehearsal, but this is real life. We watched him drowning and yelled at him then for not knowing how to swim. He watched us too through the frayed veil of tears and self-deception that was giving way to complete despair.
“If only we had figured this out just a little sooner we might have saved his life,” thought Z. ”We’ve  lost so much in losing him we’re afraid to even think what might have been if he had just survived this darkness that had taken over his life.”
The buzz among the shloka spouting faction of the family was that her little cousin R had been born on janamashtmi, Lord Krishna’s birthday, and had hence caused Kaku’s untimely demise, the rationale being that those born on this auspicious day carry a curse that causes the maternal uncle’s early death, just as Krishna had killed his barbaric uncle who was a monster.
Z remembered one night the summer before when he was very drunk yet very lucid and calm he had said to Daddy, his big brother,”I know why bhowdi died. You killed her. I will die too,” and he smiled a sad knowing smile. He knew that that remark had made its mark. Then he saw Z was in the room so he smiled at her and asked, ”How is aamaar shonaar Bangladesh? Studying hard? You ought to.”
The family was doomed to repeat history. Why? WHY?? WHY DIDN”T WE SEE IT COMING??? ARE WE BLIND??? ARE WE EVEN HUMAN???
Z took the boys under her wing all summer and saw to it they had someone to talk to when they were feeling emotional, and did her best to help them catch up with their grade level in reading and math. She found they gave her so much more in return than she could have ever given them. They made her sit in the sandbox against her will. They made her watch the stupidest movies ever and the laugh track they provided could’ve been bottled and sold as an antidote to the worst case of sadness ever for millions. They made up words every time they played scrabble and awarded themselves made up scores. They taught her to laugh, to live, to lighten up, and helped her lose a lot of the gravity that had kept her from being her age. She’d begun to feel she was eighty-seven and a half before the boys snapped her out of that mindset and reminded her she was of their generation. From then on she resolved to deal with life with a sense of humor. On the day of her cousin’s birthday she invited his friends and all the children in the family to a surprise party and was most surprised herself when the elderly couple from next door walked in unannounced to bless the boy on his birthday and then turned to Z, ”Beti, life is a series of adjustments and you are in charge of your own happiness. You will succeed in life. Tum koi maamuli cheez thode hi ho.”  That piece of encouragement found a special place in her heart and was almost a motto for the years to come. It would take a very resolute entity to kill her laughter or her love of life.
Thaakumaa had regressed into her youth and childhood it seemed for she much preferred the company of her grandchildren to that of her children and the neighbors. Z and her cousins loved that about her. She told them funny stories of the old country. She shared their every joy and pain. She taught them all to sing “Tumi Ekla Cholo Re”, and “Aamaar Shonaar Baangla” which made Z sad sometimes because her uncle had called that ever since one day, when she was three, he had caught her singing that in front of the mirror. She’d hated it then but now she missed that. 
At the end of each day they all they all went their separate ways to deal with the darkness alone each in his or her own way. Thaakumaa prayed and cried and talked to herself a lot awake and in her sleep. They boys fought violently at times. Z cried and sometimes she couldn’t. Daddy drank like there was no tomorrow and spoke nothing to them that they wanted to hear so at the first sight of him returning home they’d slink away to other rooms. If Z said one word to him about anything that needed to be done, he’d ask her to take care of it. If she did, the step mother would say, ”Live like a guest. You are a guest in this house.” If she did report anything of this to her father, he’d wince, then smile, “See how tough she is. She will make it impossible for you to come out of your room.” Z had been watching the business come apart as the step mother completely sidelined daddy and took over the reins. Daddy reported to her every minute detail of every interaction he had with family, customers, and persons he should not be interacting with, like a child reporting to his mother the details of what had happened that day while she listen very carefully. It was obvious she had cut a deal with him, and there was something very strange about this woman, or what woman would lap up the sordid details of her husband’s misdoings with such unusual interest. And just how weird was Daddy to choose to be with a person like her? She took control over the employees who were hired for reasons other than their talent for selling wood and treated them like chattel. Ma had been such a contrast, looking out for the employees and their families like they might be her own, helping with doctor’s bills, books for the children, and such necessities. When Daddy said his new wife was entitled to her bad behavior she knew exactly what he meant. In his third year of marriage now he drank most of the day. It was difficult to find a good time to talk to him because he never was completely sober. Relatives and friends took Z aside and advised her to jump off this sinking ship. There was trouble brewing big time. The boys were not cared for at all. It was a good thing Aunty S and Uncle V decided to adopt them. It would take Z a good part of the year to stop making excuses for Daddy, to see him for who he had become, realize the father she knew was dead, accept and grieve that, and move on to seeking a life without the first family.
If only Ma and Kaku had known they’d shatter the sky as they left earth behind them they might’ve felt differently about dying. But the uninitiated knows only so much. Pain like love conquers all.

            Mama had a little accident working in the kitchen, a little fall on a wet patch on the linoleum, and was told to rest her back. Z being in town was the LP’s chauffer two weeks. Rink side was an awesome place to be. The LP was working on a routine set to a Strauss waltz. This was quite an experience for Z. There’s a certain something in the air around people who are on a mission. This was a group of people dedicated to their craft and it was in some way like watching Degas painting ballerinas or perhaps Strauss writing his music. Z had her gloves on, a wool jacket on, and was still a bluish shivering version of her, thrilled to be there. The LP was a consummate performer. All those years of practice showed in the first fifteen seconds, and now Z knew why she and her parents had given their all to this endeavor, in the face of intense criticism from the extended family. There had been the ignoring, the ridicule, the harsh indictments, and this family had dealt with all of that with a smile and a nod and a “pleasure to have met you”.
            Just when the LP could do no wrong in Z’s eyes, something happened. Z heard, albeit a tired and wrung out LP since her mother had been unwell for ten days, offer something like a rebuttal to one of the coaches’ corrections. The coach looked sad and tired and did not persist.
            When they got out of earshot Z said, ”Do you ever think before you talk?”
            “You just talk. Why do you have to think before you talk?”
            “You sincerely mean you don’t think before you talk? Is that why you were so rude to your teacher? You might want to apologize soon. Here she is trying to help you and you are talking back to her?”
            The LP had by now realized she had made a booboo. “It just happened. I wish it hadn’t. Sometimes this just happens to me. And she the kindest person this side of the Mason-Dixon line.”
            Z thought to herself, “In our family it’s encoded in our genes. We succeed at work and fail at life, all because we’re running our mouths.”
            After a while Z thought she’d give the LP a little gift of a didi-ism, a little mental gimmick that she’d devised one afternoon when a very sagely friend in high school, Nalini, had asked if thought preceded speech, or vice versa, in her life, leaving her with a quote from some where “Do not speak unless you can improve the silence”.
In Z’s imagination a nice little box took shape. It was studded with gems and lined in black velvet. She dropped every word that crossed her mind into it and the words landed softly as silver coins. She closed the lid, waved a wand over it, and then opened the lid again. If the coins remained there, she said what she had planned on saying. If they had disappeared, she imagined they had turned into golden silence.

31.  JUNIOR  

            When do you know you’ve been moved from one room to another while you were sleeping? When you wake up. Duh.
            Something along those lines had occurred at Z’s home during the summer between sophomore year and junior year. She was in unknown territory. Nothing fit.
            She was biding her time. It wasn’t worth getting into fixing things any more around here. Uncle E had said it, “The (saand) bull had destroyed the china shop. No amount of glue is gonna take care of that mess.”
            But then Z had had two years to get used to the facts on the ground, so what if she floated about on a cloud in the aery faery world of long forgotten music and centuries old stories for the most part. There’s something magical about 24 months, especially when it comes to adapting to sea changes. It was a little over 24 months since Ma had died, just under 24 months since Daddy remarried, and just under 24 months since she had left for college. She was beginning to grow up, get comfortable with traveling on her own, going to the bank by herself, getting a grip on the various structures of community at large, so on. Disillusionment with the world and family was the only unfortunate byproduct of this process, but just how long do you wish to worship false idols???
            The curriculum had fallen in place for Z like a little bit of magic. Every course was designed just for her it seemed to her. She took to academics like a fish takes to water. Or a duck? Whatever the real phrase might be, you get the point. By Thanksgiving she had arrived at a very important decision. She would no longer go home and get sick to the stomach. Instead she’d find a place to stay, and live in the library until they threw her out. Her morale and her health improved dramatically every time she left Fairview so why get sick on purpose? Of course it had taken 24 magical months to get to that realization/decision, but better late than never.
            The year saw all of the Juniors come into their own as individuals. Or perhaps Z began to see them that way. The sorority definitely was more mature and serious now. New York had made quite an impact on Julie, they noticed right away. Her understanding of the world of music had always been something to marvel at. Now she talked like a virtuoso. She played like one too. She had touched the soul of Music and you could see what magic that had done. Rachel was hardly a giddy girl anymore. She saw herself more as the other half of Bill who was a lawyer and political strategist in training. She spent an awful lot of time with him and his parents at Georgetown. That one fact now a year old had turned a very giggly gangly Rachel into someone you could trust to give you sounder advice than your grandmother could, now with her new perspective on Life. Iravati had MIT on her mind a lot. Clare had set foot in all the time zones of U.S.A, Hawaii included, as well as the MGM studios, also Universal and Nickelodeon. She had plans to see the locations where Mystic Pizza, and Driving Miss Daisy had been filmed. Melissa was toying with the idea of transferring to Stanford where her twin brother was, if they’d accept her.
            Melissa’s twin brother had surprised her one day showing up at dinner time while they had been eating beef stroganoff. He was a character. To him the sorority was an extension of Melissa. There were just more Melissas to harass. He had a week off so he decided to spend it with Melissa but he wouldn’t say he missed her. The twins had never been apart for more than two weeks at a time before they had left for college. While she was at class he wandered about blending into the crowd and regaled them with stories about his day in the evenings. His most favorite character in this parade of characters in his stories was an older unavailable ‘Miss Kegel’. That was most likely not her real name. She was with, according to him, ‘Mr. Legally Blind’. Somewhere along that storytelling hour of the day he had figured out Z never fully understood his jokes, not for 24 to 48 hours at least. He, however, had a Marauder’s Map (Harry Potter) of her mind so he knew where the blind alleys and blind corners were. He’d pitch his stories at just such spots much to his and the sorority’s amusement. Z, who prided herself on decoding people’s mental grammar within five minutes of meeting them felt very humiliated. Her head was getting transparent she was sure. People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. And this transparent person can see things no one else can, like they can see Thestrals now, and cannot see things most everybody else can. It is a pretty unfortunate situation for the bereaved.
            On Saturday they walked down to the ice cream parlor. Outside, waiting perhaps for other people, were ‘Miss Kegel’ and her ‘legally blind’ significant other, Melissa’s brother pointed out to them. Mr. Legally Blind was hot. He was nothing like the doddering persona with a cane that Z had imagined. Her first impression of him was a tauter, bronzer, smarter Gilderoy Lockheart. Miss Kegel was older than she had thought, with tightly wound boxes where her biceps, behind, and calves should’ve been, that made you want to scream, ”Lay off the HGH sister.” 
            “I thought you were jealous of Mr. Legally Blind,” said Z.
            “Because you, Z, are legally blonde,” said the Jewish brat to the Indian girl and laughed so hard he walked into a lamppost.
            That night they went out to a traditional Louisiana dinner and then walked the French Quarter, playing host to their out of towner guest, enjoying the change in perspective that comes with such an excursion. They each knew they wouldn’t be here for ever. The time for leaving their home away from home was getting closer each day. Z watched the rising crescent ♫moon over Bourbon Street♫ and vowed she’d always cherish the happier moments savored in this city.
            The year brought lots of fresh ideas, new ways of bending ideas, new tools for breaking open ideas, and such. Z felt like she was on a thrill ride in a carnival intellectually. She met new people who introduced her to new people and suddenly she found herself surrounded by an amazing group of some very sharp minds. Her waking hours were filled with sudden newness like spring showers after much aridity. For the first time in her life she saw the fabric of life interwoven with art, science, history, geography, religion, politics, and all of human striving and human consciousness.

            Z set aside her comic book and tired of ♫chasing pavements♫ took the nicest path from the library back to her dorm, a green mile -- grassy knolls, manicured lawns, sidewalks covered with clover, vacant lots between buildings draped with kudzu – for your walking pleasure if you were willing to hop step jump detour duck etc. It brought perks with it – a little pond with algae and a water lily or two, low hanging wisteria for the picking this time of the year, dandelions to play wishing games with, four leaf clovers for the lucky ones, and a short stretch of an almost yellow brick road. If only she had those magic slippers.
            This last year of college behind her she would be ready for the real world. Being a real person in training can get very tiresome, even boring, and embarrassing, by the time one turns twenty three, like having training wheels too long. Gung ho about doing job interviews she had to rein in her mind and keep it on the page before her nose.
            She looked up at the blank blue wall in front of her and saw HWMBF sitting on a white chair, a little table with a black rotary telephone on it, a young lady she recognized from years ago in elementary school seated on a divan, and to her utmost surprise she heard her own name being spoken! She blinked, many more times than two or three, and resumed studying.
            A fortnight or so passed. It was afternoon again. She was slaving at her test prep again. And a swarm of angry little miniscule insects jet black and shiny showed up in front of her and spoke to her in a voice as commanding as the Snow Queen’s that she recognized right away after all those years, “Z, let him go.” Z replied, “I have. I will,” and followed through.
            Z could no longer understand the words on the page so she put her head down on the desk and said to herself, ”So this was why I needed to see that -- to put the matter to rest and seal the hushed casket of my soul.”
            Once again after many long years she felt the light in the sunlit was simply not enough to live by. When the lamp is shattered the light in the dust lies dead. And that which is dead feels nothing.

Z would be flying home with extra baggage if she carried all her things with her so she decided to ship the books and clothes she didn't need and to that end was to be found waiting in line at the post office. In walked an old friend who was so completely out of context she took an extra second to say hi, what with the sunglasses and visor and all. He was leaving for Fairview that afternoon having attended a conference in town over the week. He asked if she knew his polo playing buddy just got married? 
Z said, "Of course."
"Who told you?"
 "I must be psychic," she said.
"No, seriously," he laughed,"who told you?"
"No one did."
"Ah, okay," he seemed to accept the fact Z was not willing to disclose her sources, not for a moment suspecting Z was perhaps telling the truth.
"Honestly!" insisted Z.
He said the bride was from Fairview.
And that confirmed to Z she was in fact not "seeing" things.    
She asked him the bride's name.
"We went to the same kindergarten school,"said Z nonchalantly.
Her friend nearly jumped out of his skin,"You know her??"
"Why, yes. We sat together first semester in kindergarten, until the homeroom teacher decided it wasn't a very good idea."
"I can imagine," he laughed heartily.
"She's pretty," said Z.
"Some might think so," he said, he said, looking very concerned.
"You know Z, I think you had a narrow escape."
It was Z's friend's turn to go to the counter. It was almost closing time. They said goodbye, and see you in Fairview. 
When Z put her pen to paper she realized her home address had become so alien to her it took her a moment to recall the street number where her house stood.


Z had stashed away some cash from her summer jobs and as a present to herself took a trip to Colorado with her roommate and a few friends to “just get away from it all” there being a two week period of nothing between exam date 4 and exam date 5, a scheduling error overlooked for too long, and could not be remedied at this late hour. Back at their dorm she found a small package, her mail, and a note from her friend N the TA’s wife, waiting for her in the lobby. The note simply said, ”Call him.”         
“What does she know??” thought Z to herself. Then she opened the package from her step mother and found some homemade “imperishable” snacks in ziplock bags, and two letters from aunts who lived in the old country, a birthday card from a friend from high school, and an invitation to a wedding back east she couldn’t possibly attend.
The biggest shocker for the day was that she has assumed incorrectly the date on the wedding. She knew she had lied to her friend from Illinois and that was why. But she really had had no idea one little white lie, simply going from the present tense to the past, can affect a person’s reality so vastly. ”But what of that? What’s decided is decided. N knows about the matter. How does she?? “
Curiosity got the better of her and she called N and asked. There was no mistaking what N knew and what she thought of it. She was plainspoken always and now she was as direct as anybody could possibly be.
“Call him. Tell him what you just told me. It seems very likely he does not know half of what you just told me. See what he thinks of it. I know you think it might be too late to call but give life a chance to surprise you. You could always say you called to say goodbye. There is something called closure that people need before they can move on to the next chapter in life. You and I, because of our cultural heritage, sweep these things under the rug but it never works. Call him now before it really is so late it becomes inappropriate to do so.”
Z was horrified at the thought of having to do this, as much as she was torn by the need to just talk to him. Realistically, she’d look like a crazed idiot, so calling was pretty much out of the question. N was her friend and firmly believed the situation merited at least a phone call. The dilemma in Z’s head resolved itself with a, “How can I possibly say goodbye to someone I have never said hello to?”
“Sorry I forgot you have no heart.”
Stung by those words Z sat on the floor and after a long pause said, ”My heart refused to cross the mighty Mississippi so I left it there on the riverbank and came here by myself because the rest of me has to carve a life out of what I have been given. 
“Do you want me to come over?”
“No. I just need some time alone. “

Memories of Colorado made perfect sense now. In the deep of REM sleep she had heard a whisper in her ear, “Wake up, will you.”
            Not quite awake and not quite asleep she found herself in a comfortable space, like it might be the most natural place for her to be, that wasn’t her home, nor her dorm, nor this hotel room, but a place where she felt a sense of belonging.
            The exact same thing had happened the following day. The same wake up call, the waking up to a beautiful place, but just so sleepy from the high altitude effect she took a little longer to wake up. In five minutes the replay was derailed. She thought she had done or said something wrong. She started to drift back into the hotel room.
It took Z a few moments to put things in order in her freshly woken up head. She was wide awake now. She could see the outlines of objects against the light from the city glare coming in the window. Her roommate was snoring as usual. She could feel the textures on her quilt and the headboard she held on to as she sat up. She heard, clearly, unmistakably, the words, “Z, I don’t know why this has happened. I don’t understand why I am doing this.”
Z turned the lamp on and then turned it off again. Daybreak was hours away. She had time to think, to reflect, to neatly package this memory in mothballs and put it away. She had no earthly idea how her interpretation of this moment would affect the rest of her life. As always she had taken the blame entirely on herself.
 “If I do call now it would be weird to the max. I’d cry. I’d offer to fly on wings to be by his side if he so much as suggested it. It would be such a soap opera. After all the near misses this is the last one I guess and it looks like I need to accept this just as it is. He had three whole years to make this decision, and if this is his decision I can accept it for what it is. It looks like the goodbyes, at least on his part, have already been said. I’ve watched other people go through this and I know I can handle it. If N wants to call him she can do it of her own free will. If she does reach him and he asks to speak with me I’ll talk, but not otherwise. Lack of protest on my part was acquiescence N would surely understand. It’s a cultural thing. ”
A song floated about in the darkness in the distant future.
♫“If I never knew you I'd be safe but half as real … If I never knew you … I would never have a clue how at last I'd find in you the missing part of me … If I never knew you I'd have lived my whole life through, empty as the sky never knowing why, lost for ever. ♫

            Expected to vacate dorm rooms the same weekend as exams ended Z had to find a place to stay the extra week she had planned to stay to attend the annual bluegrass festival the city hosted. It gave her a week to transition between one world and another, college and home.
N invited her to stay the week and Z gratefully accepted. She felt like she could use a safe house to fall apart. N being the one person in the world who understood and sympathized and seemed to have some idea of the real world facts as well Z couldn’t wait to talk to her at length. Once she got to her place however Z figured she wasn’t designed to have meltdowns before an audience. She couldn’t fall apart, come unglued, let her tears flow. She felt better just holding it all in. When N tried to get her to talk she gave her the royal brush off.
 She had in her own mind pooh-poohed the Colorado incident and related happenings as nonsense but she had to finally admit to herself she was under so much stress she needed this break more than she had previously imagined. Going straight home would’ve been like going from the beach into a cryogenic pressure chamber so she might’ve gone into thermal shock. Add to that the oddest question in the world - How do you accept the fact that you are hurting when there is no logical reason to be doing so? – and you have a situation. Your life is falling apart and you cannot believe your life is falling apart. You cannot believe your life is falling apart. And you cannot believe that beyond the shadow of a doubt your life IS falling apart. You are drowning in a desert; you’re screaming but not a sound can be heard; you are praying but there is no God, or so it seems; the emptiness is oppressive; you’re sensitive beyond imagination but you don’t know if you’re dead or alive. And yet every minute comes and goes on schedule. Small delights like the perfectly browned toast or fireflies in the backyard must be honored. Daily routines must be honored. People in your life must be honored. You imagine that when you wake up in the morning this will end like a bad dream. Except this is no dream. And this is not night going into morning. This is when the dark night of the soul is just getting started. It’s about five o’clock on a cold winter’s evening for your soul, except this is about the same time as the summer solstice in the real world. And you are young and blessed in the eyes of the majority because the majority see with just their eyes. A few, a very small minority, of all the people you meet, see with their hearts and know you are not. The incongruities never end.
            There was just one more thing that she couldn’t understand. N, who awoke at four each day to get a few hours of reading and her hour of jogging done before her son woke up, would hover around the couch where Z slept at just about five thirty. As Z’s eyes fluttered open she’d say, “Z, when he contacts you don’t respond. Promise me now you won’t. You know how men are. I don’t want you getting hurt.” She’d repeat that again every evening, just when Z would begin to drift off. Z marveled at N’s ability to know exactly when she was waking up and when she was nodding off. “Comes with the territory of motherhood I suppose,” she thought amazed and amused in equal parts.
            Z humored her three days and then laughingly asked if she was programming her using some technique she’d learned like sleepytime mind control or something. N told her she was dead serious. That begged the question did she know anything? N swore she had not heard of him since he’d left and in fact she had never actually met him. Her husband knew him somewhat because every evening when he took their son to the park HWMBF would be walking to his apartment at about the same time. She said she just knew it in her bones that one day Z would hear from him. It could be soon. Z thought that was bizarre. Twenty days ago N had asked her to call him. That Z had thought was bizarre. Now she was asking her to make this strange promise over and over on a strict schedule and that was equally bizarre, in fact more. All the same Z promised fifteen times over seven and a half days she wouldn’t respond if he ever contacted her. “N is a sweetheart but overprotective and just a tad soft in the head. How silly. Why on earth would He Who Does Not Know My Name contact me, at this time in his life??” thought Z to herself. “He might not know whom to contact, logically speaking, since he does not know my name you know. These thoughts, these feelings, the premonitions, N, were all stuff and fluff. As far as I can tell nothing ever happened. All I have to do now is remember that very important fact. Other than N nobody seems to take it seriously. If they did someone might’ve actually said something that made sense in all these years. The family found out God knows how and just says mean stuff to hurt my feelings and get a reaction out of me like they do with everything else. If I stop reacting they’ll stop saying things. By and by every one will forget. I’m as silly as a bear of very little brain. When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it. So this will never get out into the open.”
The day she was to leave N cooked them a traditional breakfast of idlis and chutney which the four ate on the patio in the cool of the early morning hours. N’s son woke up too to say goodbye to Z. They would drop her off at the airport. Z would be on her way to another facet of her worldly experience and be back for the very last year of a privileged existence as student.
For some reason undecipherable intangible indeterminate as Z saw it, she saw her surroundings with a degree of clarity she had never before experienced. The whites were whiter, the colors were brighter, the patterns showed in sharper relief. The sun just rising from a point in the horizon adjacent to the oak tree festooned with Spanish moss lit up the world, and Z saw splendor in the grass, dewdrops afire, more brilliant than the world’s most precious diamonds, dangling from the most impossibly green grass of summer, and scattered among them a few acorns adventuresome enough to stray so far from the tree. The two little resin bunnies that sat by the patio had a visitor, a curious young squirrel who had woken up bright-eyed bushy-tailed to explore his universe, the ends of his fur and whiskers aglow in the morning sun like an aura of the deified around him. N’s son had named the bunnies Peter and Benjamin. Button mushrooms sprouted at their feet making them seem very real and very at home.
            Z took it all in and savored it. She would always remember how good this felt. N and her husband had cared for her like they cared for their son and that had restored her in immeasurable ways. All it had taken was a little love, a little nurturing, a little Zen, some Suprabhatam, some genuine friendship, wholesome home cooking, a little fun, all at once in sensible portions like a well balanced meal, even though this was a very difficult time in her life, to fine tune a dial in her awareness, even if for a few hours, to give her a glimpse of what was possible if those conditions persisted. Unknowingly she internalized that newfound knowledge.

            So by and by Z forgot everything else, her promises to N, what people had said, what she had thought, what happened, her dreams – all were laid to rest. She’d made peace with them all. The clarity remained in areas of her life where love flowed freely, but in cold harsh hate-filled circumstances her eyes, her heart, her brain, her nose, her ears, all stopped functioning. She ached for a day when all would be well and tried to take the good stuff and sneak it, then force it, into the cold arid zones of her existence. Try as she might she always got beat back, with greater force and malevolence each time, over many years. Memories of happiness can warm your heart only so long. One needs real happiness to live by after a while. The hatred induced venom in her and it was spreading like kudzu and slowly choking her as she began to struggle to survive. She hoped Life would hurry up and show her the way to happier days. But Life, like rivers, knows this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day. All the strife and fear and stupidity and falsehoods would have to be leeched out of her before the good stuff could find a home in her awareness. Life had someplace to take her nice and slow without telling her where or why or exactly when. All the artifice in the world wouldn’t change a thing.


            Z was Amtraking to a friend’s wedding. Bored with looking out the window she pulled out a book and then put it away as the lady next to her looked like she was about to start a conversation with her, and Z mostly preferred chatting to reading when distracted and soooo did not want to appear rude. Through the small talk (about Z going to a wedding) and its meanderings she gathered that the lady and her friend were not married but a couple, and would not marry since the institution of marriage was suspect. Her boyfriend nodded in agreement with everything she said. She said she had been raised to believe in equality and love for all. Z began to really, really like the people. They were moral to a fault about their vegetarianism which made Z squirm about being a token vegetarian and essentially a bogus animal lover because she ate one every now and again. They were so kind to her she felt weird having gotten used to being the kind one in any interaction all of her life. They were very knowledgeable, and had clearly defined ideas about life, politics, and everything in between unlike our inadequate flaky little dilettante who was always ‘one the one hand but on the other’- ing anything of consequence. Z felt, by and by, like she had promises to keep and miles to go before she sleeps, literally and figuratively. How often in life do we have prophetic moments that we don’t know were meaningful in any way at the time, let alone profound? ♫The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind. ♫ The beautiful couple had reminded her of a pristine innocence she had begun to lose since the day Ma died. They had awakened in her a long forgotten dream, a soulful song, an idealism, a can-do activism she greatly admired but had not been able to cultivate in her own persona, a wisdom, an extra special brand of humanism that was heady and sweet.
            An elderly gentleman sitting next to this wonderful man looked like he should be wearing his shirt collar backwards but he wore the loudest pink tartan shirt, blue jeans, sounded exactly like Dennis Haysbert and made people around him feel they were in good hands. He nodded and smiled and flicked off imaginary motes of dust off his saxophone in the aisle and tolerated the young people.
             The lady excused herself to go to the smoking car. Z buried her nose in her book. Just a few hours more and she’d be a bridesmaid with Rachel getting married and most likely ditching college to move to another continent to be with her war correspondent husband. Z thought Rachel’s not getting that degree she’d worked toward for three and a half years was silly but she was happy to see her so happy. Z wished she could be half as happy.
            The elderly gentleman cleared his throat and struck up a conversation with the young man. “Man talk,” thought Z and stayed out of the interaction. But blowin’ on a wind came to her this astute observation by the younger of the two men who upon being asked why he was ideologically opposed to concept of marriage said, ”Now why would you buy the cow if you could get the milk for free?”


            Z was very happy Aunty S, Uncle V and the LP would be coming to her graduation. Daddy couldn’t come because they had already planned a huge party for their fourth wedding anniversary and it was too late to cancel, RSVPs having already come in by the dozens. “It would’ve been nice to have Daddy here too and then go back to the big celebration at home, since it was a catered event at a club anyways,” she thought. But he said they had to be there to make sure the caterers got things just right. So much for missed celebrations. She had missed every diwali, holi, pujo, almost every birthday and wedding since she’d left for college. Everybody does that. And valedictorians cannot, unless they’re superhuman, be partying at school and at home.
This last year of college behind her she would be ready for the real world. Being a real person in training can get very tiresome, even boring, and embarrassing, by the time one turns twenty three, like having training wheels too long. Gung ho about doing the resume and pantyhose routine she had to rein in her mind and keep it on the job at hand, graduate.
            ♫Graduation Day♫ dawned hot humid hazy like a large pot of crawfish on the boil. It was surreal. The graduates were deliriously happy and a little anxious, or most were. Some kids just know how to navigate this world. They do not get the willies. But then there are the multitudes who go through life with varying degrees of insecurity slowing them down to varying degrees. Some do a better job of concealing it, that’s all. Miss Z was the kind who could hide nothing. Her jitters and her joy showed in their full glory, mixed emotions sending out mixed signals. When most of the population learns to get better at concealing their thoughts and emotions and motives Z spent her youth becoming more transparent. Was that good thing or a bad thing? Was this Existential Dualism at its dysfunctional best/worst? You the reader are the judge of that.
            The party of four was making their way to the outdoor arena set up for the ceremony. They were just a little late because the women had to share a single hair dryer. So now they had to park several blocks away and walk. Just around a corner they came upon a little group of people. They thought it might be the place to pick up programs or water bottles but it wasn’t. This was a bake sale. No ordinary sale too. It was Z’s first sighting of a real bake sale of this variety and it did something to her somewhere deep in her soul. Very quickly however, between her rational self and her spiritual self there was a compromise she didn’t like but accepted anyway. The loss of dignity her soul experienced was quickly glossed over with an urbane “But this is the real world.” And she walked on in her high heels, daring the muggy day and mortarboard to mess with her hairdo. She’d sprayed it so liberally with Extreme Hold that it stayed in place as good as Hillary’s. As her spikes sank into the soggy lawn she had a song starting to play in her head. She couldn’t remember where she’d heard it or how exactly it went, but the line♫ It suck to be me ♫ kept coming back to her like a refrain when she really ought to have been mentally rehearsing her speech.

38.  OH  WHAT  A  FINE  MESH  I  AM 

          Young adults have heard of identity and enmeshment and such but they are just too young to know what those words r-e-a-l-l-y mean. And so Z was completely stunned by the realization, now looking back at the last couple of years, that while she had fiddled, Rome had burned. Fumbling among the ashes she found just one surviving object, a fine mesh, through which she sieved the contents of her daily world, the words she spoke, the words people spoke to her, the news on television, the sun, the moon, the stars, everything....
           Upon closer inspection she saw that the wires that ran cross-wise were her concept of herself, and her concept of HWMBF. Destroying it made no sense because, it was, like all psychic phenomena, indestructible. One could put it away though, like an old worn out something one no longer know what to do with. Some had happy memories, some had anger and bitterness, some hundreds of photographs and trinkets, some broken vows, and she had this fine mesh no one could see.


           All packed and ready to leave for home she still had one favor to return to an aunt, by way of which she had to go on a customary blind date with her aunt's colleague's brother whose uncle knew her Daddy, a "nice fair Brahmin boy", as her aunt had described him. South asians, by the time we are twenty-two, master the art of meeting and greeting an assortment of oddballs sent their way by well-meaning relatives. One more or one less means nothing to us. It's the price we pay for fresh biryani and we are okay with the trade-off. Not wanting to make it the formal occasion families in India will turn it into bringing out the best china and silver and silks Z's aunt decided they would meet at a restaurant, so if things didn't work out, it would remain just another introduction, rather than ending up on the chalk board as a strike out. She instructed Z to meet him at a given time at a given place and so Z sat there reading a "Calvin and Hobbes" when he showed up. Z thought to herself, "Auntyji, not this one in a million years."
          With that decision having been made Z was completely at ease and made an effort to help the poor unfortunate soul from Nebraska find his peace so he could stop stuttering. Over the course of dinner he told her about his family and asked her about hers. With a plane to catch in three hours the meeting was hurried and Z got up to leave. He excused himself to go to his car to bring back a camera. As he walked in the door Z looked up and was startled to hear Da Voice again,"Whether you like it or not, this is your husband."

40.  BILLS

Funding for the arts had been cut so even merit scholarships in the field were fewer than ever. Realistically speaking money was a necessary evil. Daddy was not going to say no if she asked but would she want to ask for two more years of college? And then there was this ultimatum from Daddy one Sunday afternoon when he had come out of his bedroom, a gin and tonic in hand, he had walked up to her as she sat at the dining table eating her lunch alone after a morning out with friends, “Marry the bloke from Nevada or else. He is my friend’s nephew. If you don’t, expect nothing from me. You are on your own. You will not be married from this house. I have done enough for you.” The unknown quantity from Nebraska was suddenly the unopened unknown Christmas gift. At least one could hope. Then there was the little matter of the pact she had made with herself years ago, to ask God for nothing for herself. Following which a few years ago she had left the dilemma of the ‘who’ and ‘when’ of matrimony in God’s hands. Now, pushed to make a decision, she had given herself a deadline as suggested by most of her family, her twenty-fourth birthday. She made up her mind to accept as divine verdict that which came her way by that hallowed day. And here it was, approved and stamped by the family, most friends, and Da Voice. She was just being ‘selfish’ or ‘stupid’ or ‘swollen-headed’ if she was going to wait any longer. Then there was the question, ”Do I go do the Greenwich Village thing or do I do the yuppie thing? Bohemia? Academia? Suburbia? Which? Which witch is which witch? Dorothy was confused. She had definitely strayed off the yellow brick road. Here were no ruby shoes, no Toto, no body that understood the aftermath of a tornado. The chorus at home sang sweetly of the luckiest girl alive who had been blessed by the gods and her dead mother in spite of being so spoiled and bratty. Hear again, hear again the Greek chorus speaking of Z’s luck. In an effort to stay alive among other things she caved in and went with the traditional wisdom of getting married “at the right time” because her aunts were getting gray hairs worrying she’d be too old to marry off once she turned twenty-five. The white picket fence and the baby carriage had never before been such a source of angst and hope. Academia could never provide enough distraction to take her thoughts away from the thoughts of applesauce and lullabies. “Bobos in Paradise we shall be” was her new mantra. So one afternoon she picked up the phone and accepted the proposal of marriage from Nebraska.   
Friends would have to be informed, good byes had to be said, she wouldn’t be able to meet them for cappuccinos at fifteen minutes notice any more.
She received thirty five overwhelming be-knight-ments on the occasion of her earning an Mrs., many more than she had received on earning her baccalaureate and two scathing reviews. Two to thirty five the nays lost. One from Rashmi, Rush Me, of the Rush Me and Slow Me duo from Ma’s circle of friends, recently widowed after eighteen years of being married to Mr. Chips. She predicted that with that kind of attitude she’d last no more than six months in Nebraska, so either her attitude had to change or her decision had to be revoked. “Have you any idea how happy I was when I was engaged to be married? Have you any clue how happy most any girl is at this time in her life? You look like some one just died.”
“If happiness is an attitude and not an emotion,” thought Z, “ I can develop a happy attitude,” and left.
The other nay came from Bill, Rachel’s husband, who had surmised she was thinking about getting hitched eavesdropping on Rachel’s side of the conversation so when he came to the phone he had a strategy forming in his head, it became apparent to Z a little later. He made no attempts at small talk, launching straight into, “Remember the after campaign party before we were given the shove off and sent to the kiddie table. We were at my parents’ table fifteen minutes. Every body who was at that table wants to know what you are doing with your life. The Governor’s wife asked if you’d read the Whitman book she asked you to read. She told me to ask you. My father wants to know if you minored in music. The new campaign in underway. My parents would be delighted to have you travel with them. And Zach. Rachel does not want me to say another word about it but now I will. She’s saying something about religious convictions. What are you doing girl? What has happened to you in the last six months? Have you lost your mind?”
“I have lost my way. This is my best hope yet. Ever body else, in my family, seems to think so too.”
“And you, what do you think?”
“I think I’ve made a good decision.”
“You didn’t tell me you had already made your decision, or I wouldn’t have said what I just said.“
“It’s okay. Friends need to be honest with each other no matter what. Since you’ve cut to the bottom line, to put your mind at ease I’ll tell you the real story. I have a complicated set of convictions, part country, part rock ‘n roll, between cultures, between generations, and what I need most in my life right now to just stay sane and alive is the pitter patter of little feet. If all else was pared away from my life I could live with the loss, but this one thing consumes me day and night. I won’t expect you to understand this if you can’t, but please just hear me out. Your brother is one of the finest people I’ve ever met but he’s as passionate about his beliefs as I am about mine, and let’s not pretend that three of every four of our fundamental beliefs run contrary to one another.”
As she was talking she realized Da Voice had been right. She was doing what he had said she would, and how. Things were falling in place effortlessly. She was edging closer and closer to her new life and didn’t know how.
 She had needed to know more about what her new life would look like, so over fifty phone calls she figured she was to spend most of the day in the wigwam, associate with academics, and get used to the new skyline, which she knew from hearsay and T. V., was beautiful, remote, flat, beautiful.
  “Worrying about the inevitable is the stupidest thing in the world so worrying is not on my agenda. I’ll give it my best, and like anything else, when you give something your best, it gives its best back to you, and so will marriage,” she proceeded to sermonize to Bill.
“If you were to bear witness with your own eyes, just once, the lives of people here among famine and war you would change forever. You would no longer have this skewed perception of life. I can try to talk my Dad into getting you a hall pass of sorts but I doubt he’ll oblige. So imagine for a moment you are not you, but someone documenting your life. The first thing you’d do is stop feeling so f^%!^) sorry for yourself.”
“I’m not feeling sorry for myself.”
“You’re acting like you do. Victimhood has claimed you ha?”
Z hardly knew what to say. She had been accused of pretty much everything in her short life, but playing victim was something no one had ever thought of accusing her of before. Here was Bill, in a war zone, documenting the lives of children there, telling her over a satellite phone she was playing victim. She hated him. She was “playing”? What bullshit. He’d never understand so might as well let it go, get to downtown for trousseau fittings.
She began winding down the conversation to a farewell speech at the end of which he said, ”You can be trusted to make the right decision even with a gun to your head so I guess you made the right decision. Have a good life.”
Z decided that now that Bill and Rachel were living in a place where people thought so differently from the way they did, by and by they’d understand her decision and absorb the underlying principles behind arranged marriages. They’d stop thinking she’d turned into this icky mail order bride. With that she got up to check the to-do list for the day and figured it would be best to take the train into town.
With an hour to kill she bought the daily newspaper and opened it to her favorite section. The bloke sitting next to her was surreptitiously reading the headlines she gathered as she put the paper down to look out the window and he tapped at the picture of carnage in a populous area, and said, “Why does brother blow up brother in these parts of the world?”
“Very astute, very forthcoming, very American,” thought Z, and decided she’d like that discussion. She knew she could pass for Arab with just the right emphasis on her  ‘kh’ ’s. Or Latina if she pleased, but she decided to put away that childishness and act her age. She didn’t say much except mirror his sentiment. She thought to herself, ” These issues are waaaaaay toooooo complicated for a ten minute discussion. Cain and Abel are still under scrutiny and no body knows for sure yet why that whole sad story came about. If people born of the same parents can kill one another what is to be said of neighboring nations? And then there’s the problem of identity. Thakuma gets so agitated hearing of the ongoing violence between India and Pakistan. Perhaps her identity includes both nationalities, having being born in Bangladesh. To her the division of India seems a questionable decision in light of its aftermath. And all that questioning comes from fifty years of being an American most likely. Yet brother fights brother in every century in every part of the world. Why? Why do people select one something from all applicable labels to represent themselves? And go to war over it? If you ask Thakuma where she’s from she says’ Fairview’ or ‘India’ or ‘Bengal’ depending on who you are. To a Bengali she’s ‘Baangaal’, meaning from the region now known as Bangladesh. My violin teacher chose western classical music as her sole source of identity and has no patience with any other definition of herself, and that is after being Polish, Russian, German, Russian again, American, atheist, agnostic, and a semi-believer exploring Judaism, Orthodox, and Baptist faiths at subsequent points in her life, having lived in Minsk for fifty years or more before moving to the USA. What if these two old ladies met for tea? For a samovar and glucose biscuit summit?”
She’d reached her destination and it was time to ponder sequins and petticoats, and ask again,
-  “Am I happy?”
“Yes I am. Rashmi, thank you for that.”
- “Am I a victim?”
“Not in the least. I made a decision based on popular vote, and the resounding applause thereafter, and that little oracle Da Voice.”
She skillfully excised from her awareness the fact that those who had cast their ballot in favor of this decision had never ever met the man they had made the decision in favor of. They had spoken just once to a friend of the family from the old country who had known the boy for three months and decided that their daughter would be blissfully happy with him despite her misgivings.
Like the sands that slip noiselessly through the narrow waist of an hourglass, Z slipped through the eye of a needle from one world into another. “This is the real world, and in this world this is how the wheels turn.” She had thought that thought a bunch of times ever since Ma had died. That thought was getting as comfortable as an old shoe. She lost sight of the larger perspective of the larger world and favored the miniscule details of daily humdrum things.
            Over the years she would, every time she encountered an uncomfortable truth about herself, excise it from her awareness and it would look an awful lot like an eyeball staring into space so she’d feel all wrong about throwing it away, so she’d save it in a jar filled with formaldehyde. One day the jar would turn Argus eyed, a thousand watchful eyes staring back at her, she who a thousand points of light had dwindled to a single point of stillness.
She had allowed the power of consensus and the power of convention to hold complete sway over her individuality. She had surrendered her personal vision to the care of those convention said knew better. That was logical enough for now no matter how soul-killing that was. All her failings had been pointed out to her so many times by so many people she could not possibly be right about anything she imagined. If her whole being was revolting at the thought of abandoning every hope she had ever had of doing just a little more than housekeeping and such or of being in a relationship she looked forward to, those hopes had to be quelled into submission. Some one who could not even walk or talk properly surely couldn’t do any thing of any worth in the real world, could she? The voices of encouragement had been so few and so far between, the lies she had been told by those she trusted so outnumbered the handful of truths they had told her she was lost in the fog of falsehoods but didn’t know it. She was tied up in knots like a contortionist gone to seed trying to bend this way and that to accommodate each lie in her ken and was told yet again she who knew not how to walk or how to talk needed a man, any man, or she had no place in the world.
Not designed to use force, not against something as tender and ethereal as a dream, she did not beat her dreams into pulp, instead she took each hope each prayer each desire she’d held dear to her heart since she could remember, and set them free like a thousand butterflies. They flew up to the sky and turned into a constellation of a thousand dimly lit stars to guide her on her way. One came down, a falling star, and she caught it, kept it in her pocket, saved it for a rainy day. The nine hundred and ninety nine blinkers in the sky were deaf mute sentinels that would stay awake with her all the years she couldn’t seem to find any zzz’s. That constellation represented structure, permanence, design, destiny, rationality, ethics, morals, values, and little angel eyes she worshipped with every breath she took. Be sure the mind has a thousand eyes and the heart but one. Shutter that one lazy eye and you’re doing fantastic in the real world. 
The real world is a university apart from the educational institutions of this world. It'll teach you things you never knew you never knew :)

   The End

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