My mother isn’t dead. I know this the way I know that squares are also rectangles, and that the sun is also a star.
I am at the far edge of the pier at Long Branch beach, a small spot of sea that still belongs to the locals, its raw reeds tumbling across the cold sand and into the ocean. The wooden walk bordering the unfinished patch of asphalt parking is the same one my mother walked every day, one that leads straight back to my house, one that will soon be dismantled to make way for white tourists. The sign—“Long Branch Pier Village: Coming June 1, 2005”—is what drew me here weeks ago, and I have walked here every morning of every week this April. Soon this wild walk will be made into rooftops and restaurants, its beauty fossilized somewhere in memory, whatever pieces of my mother it once held nowhere to be found.
I pull the combup and study it: its pinkness, its familiarity. I slip it into my pocket, making its texture a memory against my palm, and inhale salt thick into my lungs, staring at the mass of gray sea against the clouded cotton sky.
But the newborn blue keeps breathing, even after I’ve put it back, so that somewhere in my body is the in-out, in-out, and somewhere in my heart is my mother’s voice murmuring words I will never clearly understand.
I live with my grandparents, who are two of the messiest people I know.
I never had a father, so after my mother was gone, it was just us three, and it’s been that way ever since: two over-seventies and one barely-twenty, skipping generations together in the same space.
My grandfather has just discovered Kraft macaroni and cheese, which is half the reason they are so messy. Our kitchen is always full of the empty blue boxes that he pretends he hasn’t eaten. Except he doesn’t really know how to make Kraft well, so he gets in trouble, since my grandmother starts screaming every time she finds a saucepan with thick orange gunk stuck to the sides. She hates that he cooks, and he loves that he’s finally figured out how to cook, and they fight about it so much that they forget the rest of the dishes half the time (and guess who winds up doing them). She thinks he’s starting not to need her when she needs everyone to need her, and he thinks she hates him because he can finally cook.
“It’s screwing up my pans,” she grumbles as she scrapes cheese out of the sink.
“It’s delicious,” he insists.
They aren’t lovey-dovey; for one, they’re grandparents, and second of all, they’re Indian, which means anything lovey-dovey is strictly off-limits. I saw them hold hands once, the day I told them I’d turned down Stanford to stay home, but that was years ago. They love each other in their own way, I guess, but especially in a way that involves loving me and yelling at each other.
And when I say yelling at each other, I mean she yells at him.
“You don’t wipe the bathroom floor after you’ve showered?” This is the morning yell. My grandfather showers in the morning, and I shower after him, and in between she comes in to pee and give the morning yell. “I have been telling you for years and years, this is not India, this is not a wet bathroom, and you are going to cause a leak!”
But everything in the house is leaky anyway, which she always manages to temporarily forget, and I know this because I have the Long Branch plumber, electrician, and hardware store on my cell phone’s speed dial. They bought the house in the seventies, and they haven’t bothered to change or fix anything since then, so it’s been about thirty years of wooden walls and orange carpet and ceilings that drip in the rain.
She complains about the state of the house so regularly that I could never forget where I live even if I wanted to. “The stove is funny. Eh, you see that?I tell you, one day you come home and gas is going to leak. That is why we have to make a change about this place!”
In her mind, the changes are my responsibility. She yells at him, but really she is yelling at me. When something is broken, she takes it to my grandfather and yells that he is good for nothing because he can’t fix modems or satellite dishes. But really what she is saying is, “Saya, you need to call the satellite company.” Because my grandfather does his part with the making money, and she does her part with the cooking and the kind-of cleaning, so in our tripod of this old house I get to do Everything Else.
It’s cliché, but the first thought I have is to ask them again. I come home with the pink comb hot in my hand, my broken heel trailing blood across the hot house, hoping for answers instead of avoidance.
This isn’t my first try. I’ve asked them before. I know what happened, the shadow and shape of it, but I still want to hear the whole thing. I need it to be solid, straight in my mind. I need a story to tell.
Instead I get euphemisms. “She’s in the next life,” they say. “Death is simple.”
“That’s a euphemism.”
“Che!” My grandmother is big on the tongue-clicking. “That’s religion. Be grateful you are born into a religion where you get to live more than once.”
The only pictures they have are from when she is twelve and up, from when they bought their first camera. There’s one framed in my room, once taken in front of the house. From chin to cheekbone she’s all bones and angles, but there’s a round spot on her belly under the thin sari. “See?” my grandmother says. “It runs in the family.” She pinches the soft spot of skin above my waistband, points to her own. But my eyes can only see her crooked smile, her thick eyebrows, her long neck. Every time I look at the picture, I catch me looking for myself.
Every time I look at the picture, I catch me looking for myself.
But today, I open the frame and set the photo aside. Tucked into the back is half a pink plastic comb, its broken edges still sharp and saltless. I take the other half out of my pocket, let the mates meet at their mouths and watch how they still fit together. My only memory of her clouds me, her voice a blue song stilted with sadness, snapping the thing—a toy from a princess board game bought for my third birthday—in two halves. “One for Amma, one for Saya, one for Amma, one for Saya.” Her slipping her half into her pocket, me clutching mine in my hand.
And my grandfather, who understands the need for voices and stories, comes into my room then, sets the comb down, leads me to the window, points to the seagulls flying across blue sea and sky, and says, “Her heart is there.”
And this is why the ocean makes sense.
Shankar and Lalitha moved to the United States in 1954, which was two years after their wedding and ten years after their daughter.
Shankar cannot remember why he chose America. He cannot remember his reasoning or his logic. He cannot remember if the roads were paved with gold when he and his wife arrived or if their stay on Ellis Island was long. He cannot remember the sadness of forgetting his mother’s touch, the initial elusiveness of the English language, or the taste of fresh flipped rice cakes dipped in oil and chili powder. Some things, he knows, are meant to be lost forever and savored only in sense and memory.
The first fear he ever felt was when he began to forget his mother tongue—when it slowly began to slip from his mind as if he had knocked his head against an iceberg. There was a leak!
He remembered the moment clearly. He had been reading—one of the many Tamil magazines that came through his mailbox from the Little India in Edison—and his wife asked him what had him so focused. “An article about the election,” he tried to say, but he stuttered before he could finish his sentence. He tried to make it come—article, he knew the word, he’d said it so many times, as a child, as an adult, to his wife, his brothers, his children—and yet it felt stuck, glued firmly to the sides of his mind no matter how hard he scraped at it to come undone.
“An article,” he said after a great pause, in English.
He asked his granddaughter to look it up, asked her use the Google, and when he saw the word there—katturai—he repeated it to himself once, twice, a thousand times under his breath as he drove to work and then to the grocery and as he laid the incense out for prayer in the evening.
He said it in silence, over and over, until the word became a loop, hooking its back into its front so that the repetition became rhythm and the rhythm becamemelody, a song to keep singing until he lost track of the lyrics once more and continued to hum a wordless tune.
Lalitha Shankar was never one for poetics. Tamil, she knew, was not a poetic language, and when she knew something there was no argument, not even when centuries of Tamil poetry existed to disprove her. She preferred the rote rhythm of Sanskrit prayers, the rise and fall of a priest’s voice at the fire saying God’s name, God’s name, God’s name. She had no patience for flowers, no softness for romance, not even an ounce of frailty where her daughter was concerned. Her husband, on the other hand. He was something else.
In his time he had recited poetry, written her love letters, and wrapped his hand softly around hers. That was all after marriage, of course, but none of it had moved her nearly so much as his need for her. They met four days before their wedding. She moved into his mother’s home. He spent hours reading comic books as she allowed her mother-in-law to correct the way she held a spatula. She scrubbed pots and pans as he gazed into her eyes, and somehow that made a life.
And then came the States. And fifty years were gone.
As his memory began to go, hers returned with a vengeance. Her husband forgot dates, years, anniversaries, pujas, birthdays, house keys, stove switches, bathroom etiquette, and how to make love. In return she remembered every ceremony listed on the temple calendar, every relative whose phone number they’d written down on napkins and receipts, and every year that he refused to acknowledge their dead daughter. He had lost a limb, and she was growing another. This, she knew, was how good marriages worked.
She had cracked once, only once, but even the recollection was one of hot tears and shame.
It happened just after Saya was born. The fertility treatments were as ordinarily arduous as any geriatric pregnancy of an unmarried woman, but her daughter’s carriage was smooth, her delivery painless, a nine-month beat of blessed growth and glowing joy.
And then came the throbbing pain in her daughter’s left leg.
Could be routine, the doctors said. Could be related to the pregnancy. Could be cancer/diabetes/dead flesh/age. Let us give it a few days, they said first, and then, Let us give it a few more, and then,
Amputation, they said, amputation.
It was the sight of her daughter—forty years old, but still a small girl inside—that shook Lalitha to tears. Her darling daughter, home fresh from the hospital, trapped in a wheelchair. She cried only that once and not again. In the heat of those sobs, she found herself crouching at the sea behind her house, digging her fists into the sand and praying. Mother Ganga, if you can hear me, she thought. If you can hear me, I would have given anything.
The Rules are really what kill me. They each have their own, and none of them overlap, really, except for the one I hate the most: DON’T GO INTO THE WATER. The beach is allowed.
The shore is fine.
The boardwalk is okay.
But the ocean is off-limits.
Sometimes I think I can remember the day she took my mother, when I was still small and fat and curly-haired. I wore a polka-dot bathing suit. I lost a yellow pail in the water and chased after it, waddling, crying, and when I turned around, her wheelchair was gone. Or maybe it was later. Maybe I wasn’t there that day at all.
When the grandparents get ready for bed, I go back out to the sand and skip rocks with one whole comb in my hair. Fish dash through the high tide.
We don’t talk about the water much, my grandparents and I. In the summer, we spend afternoons at Asbury with funnel cake, chewing sugared dough with sand stuck to our heels. Whoever my mother was sits bubbling between us, threatening to leak out of whatever vessel my grandparents try to keep her caught in. Somewhere out to sea, my mother is a mermaid. I think of her like Daryl Hannah, sprawled out in a bathtub, cracking lobsters open with her bare teeth. Or Glynis Johns, wide-eyed and laughing. But always she is out there, breathing, her voice a caw over the crashing waves that pull backward beneath my heels, sand spinning and inviting me in.
This is what I know about aquatic life: Most fish are cold-blooded. This means their bodies adjust to the temperatures of their surroundings, and not the other way around. Or something like that. They eat seaweed and kelp and other fish. They swim all day, and when they aren’t swimming, it’s because they are asleep. Or because they are dead.
My mother isn’t dead. I know this the way I know that squares are also rectangles, and that the sun is also a star. Her body may be different—muted, transmogrified—but somewhere out there she is swimming. Baby me was born in blue because we both knew where we belonged.
Baby me was born in blue because we both knew where we belonged.
Now our conversations are stilted and uneven. I talk; the ocean listens. Sometimes I am in my head; sometimes I talk out loud. I tell her about school and the grandparents and the boys I don’t like (but not the ones I do), and if I listen very closely, I can hear her singing back.
The broken clip was a message. We never found the other half with her things, you see, because she took it with her. And now she’s sent it back to me. What she is saying is, Saya, I am waiting for you. Saya, come home.
There was no body to burn, of course, for the ocean had taken her into its arms. That first year had worn them down; there was no heart left among them. Between the wheelchair and the baby and the false smiles that had stretched thin across three faces for so long, there was nothing left for a funeral, no energy at all.
He had seen the look in his daughter’s eye, seen it from kilometers away, and this, perhaps, was why the shock did not shake him. In Lalitha, the shock burned. He had known in the way that only a father could know that something was amiss. She had adjusted too easily. The wheelchair immediately became a part of her, the false leg blending perfectly into her knee. Not once had she asked for help using the bathroom; not once had she complained. An armor of independence had clamped itself against her spirit.
“It was as if you were born to be this way,” someone had said callously, once in another life.
And it was in that other life, where social gatherings were common and pleasantries required, that she had laughed with a brightness that was a touch too sharp and said, “Maybe I was.” It was then that he saw it in the corner of her eye: a blue fog beginning between her lashes, spreading softly and steadily through the firm happiness of her expression. She let Saya wail until Lalitha rocked her alone, asking—a bit too cavalierly—what kind of a milk-machine was she, what kind of makeshift mother cannot even reach over the crib to lift her own child?
He had tried—oh, how he had tried! The fog grew and swirled around his daughter, grew bluer still as it seeped into her skin while he waved his arms frantically to swat it away. Sweets, he thought. Movies and ice cream and time spent at the oceanside. A pet, though Lalitha hated dogs. “Appa, I’m okay,” she had said in the way that daughters do, and for a time, he thought he had succeeded.
In the end, after all, had she not finally come around to Saya? Did she not pick her up at least once, press her nose against her cheek and inhale deeply? Had the melody of her voice not lost its bittersweet tinge, in the end, after everything?
Perhaps, he thought later, he had just learned how to ignore it.
It happened suddenly. The tide was coming; the chair tipped over the pier. The wind was so loud, they barely heard her at all.
It was Shankar, not his wife, who found the wheelchair the next morning. The dog was whimpering in a puddle of its own pee, and they were walking together toward the pier when he saw the black wheels balanced so close to the edge. It was as if she had said, “Excuse me, I’ll only be a moment.”
In the night he found his wife’s hand under the sheets.
“She slipped,” she said, and her voice was sturdy in its sureness.
Shankar considered the bright caution tape strapped around the scene, paired it in his mind with the handfuls of painkillers missing from their medicine cabinet. It was all open and shut, they kept saying, all open and shut. Rocks were gone from the garden that would have filled her pockets and weighed her down. For his daughter, drowning might have felt like a dream.
“She slipped,” he agreed, because he loved her.
I live with my grandparents, who are two of the most helpless people I know. But they are all I have left of my mother, that one fused fossil of goodness that keeps her memory whole while I wait between lives on land.
And so I stand at the water’s edge, foam caressing my skin, staring blankly at the sea as if its blueness speaks another language that only I can hear, as if it is home, as if I can plant myself here. Sometimes I think places make more sense than people, that air and sky and land and wind can make better grounding than any human voice. But the rhythm of loss is always the same: My mother is gone, and the three of us try to fill the space.
Sometimes the gaps between us are so large that it feels like I am screaming over crashing waves to be heard, like no number of years or time or patience/listening/understanding can fix this. But then there are moments—air-swirling-in-a-conch moments—that speak to me, where we are sitting on the patio and we are pleasant. Maybe even dull.
I wade out to the water, waist-deep in salt.
I push the pink comb through my ponytail.
I close my eyes and hold my breath: I’ve lived here my whole life, but this could never be my home. Brown toes in brown sand, I bury myself in the tide.
Kristen Sahaana Surya is a music lawyer living in New York City. She is a winner of the 2020 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and a student at the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson. Her work has previously appeared in The Rumpus.