La-la land, she called it, that place her daughter went that she would never go.
“Tell me when you’re back from la-la land,” she said, as she put her eye mask back on. This was not an uncommon refrain. She had always said that it was my American eyes and all the television I watched that had put certain ideas in my mind. She said it when we scratched off the lotto tickets Dad bought: “Ticket to la-la land, is it?” She said it when I wanted to play my own song instead of a Suzuki one at my piano recital, like that was an unreasonable and possibly criminal act: “An anthem from la-la land, is it?” It always came up when there was something she found ungraspable, like the clouds in the sky, where she regularly assumed my head was.
La-la land, she called it, that place her daughter went that she would never go.
Just a few days ago, I was in college, where new ideas were catching hold every day and you could almost see them when they did. A class let out and the students poured into the courtyard because someone in their seminar mentioned knowing qigong and everyone wanted to try it. So there they were, slowly swaying, stretching out an arm with a palm upturned toward the heavens for “raising the sun” or bending low by their feet then slowly rising, lifting their arms wide above their heads for “scooping up the ocean to see the sky.”
I was not a joiner, but I could laugh at all this at a distance—how they moved en masse like elders, slow and careful. Moments later, they would rush off as if on fast-forward, to class or to keggers. It felt like no matter what I learned or where I went or who I met, I would always stay the same, the daughter of my parents first and foremost, molded just so with a particular identity and destiny, unlike all the unformed shape-shifters around me. I envied how my classmates could be absolutely anything at any moment, and, most of all, that they were okay with that.
Sometimes I observed all this at a literal great distance, up high in the carillon tower. I had taken bell-ringing classes my freshman year and was now officially on the schedule, sending chimes down to the tiny lives rushing about. I loved how playing required pounding, from both my fists and feet. How you had to push down hard for the sound to emanate. There was nothing delicate about it. I wasn’t really in control, but sometimes it felt like I was providing the soundtrack to a movie set on a college campus. If I sped up the music, those tiny beings would have to rush faster. If I played something easy breezy, people might fall in love in the quad.
My favorite class was one on world religions. The professor’s premise was that whatever you seek you find, in both holy and secular literature. I had just opened the textbook to a page with a sidebar about Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt when the dean rushed into the lecture hall and told me to come with her. It was urgent. When we got to her office, I knew something was very wrong. When she told me to sit down, I felt like I was sinking. I saw a snow globe paperweight on her desk, a wintry scene of the quad, picked it up and held onto it as an anchor.
“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this,” the dean said. “Your father drowned.”
“What?” I said, panic swirling and swishing inside me. My father knew how to swim. My father taught me to swim. In kindergarten, he taught me the four major strokes. Eventually we had races. We could do laps of breaststroke or freestyle. Neither of us liked the backstroke or really had much strength for the butterfly. Years later, I taught him to float. He had thought floating was just for kids, but I showed him it could be for adults too.
What the dean was saying made no sense at all. Dad had been swimming daily since I left for college. He said he was devoting his energy to his new routine since he no longer had anyone to make morning smoothies for.
“Unexpected undertow” sounded like the name of a campus rock band. It did not sound like anything having to do with my father.
The dean said my father had saved a tourist—and then got caught himself. This didn’t sound like Dad. He was not the put-his-life-in-danger type. He was not even the climb-a-high-ladder type.
I said nothing more, just shook the snow globe hard. I liked the heft of it in my hand, and all those fluttering bits . . .
Once the snow had settled, I set it back down. The dean reached across her desk and put her hand over mine on top of the globe. My hand felt warm under her cool one, like its insides were churning.
“Tara, I’m so sorry,” she said.
“It’s Tah-ra, not Tare-uh,” I said, stuffing my hands back into my hoodie, a gift from my dad. Part of me felt her mispronunciation was confirmation that this drowning was not real, that she was confusing me for someone else.
I slumped more deeply into the chair, thoughts swirling around in my mind, landing nowhere helpful. It was only later, when I heard my mother’s voice telling me the same news over the phone, that I believed it to be true.
It felt like no matter what I learned or where I went or who I met, I would always stay the same.
We went from the airport by rickshaw to the village, to my father’s childhood home. The part of the airport we were in was relatively deserted. Under construction, it smelled of sandalwood and plaster. Outside, throngs of people seemed to be yelling at once. An uncle I didn’t recognize came to meet us, kissing my mother on both cheeks and me the same. He piled our luggage into his own car and signaled for the rickshaw to take us. The driver finger-kissed the picture of Mary hanging from the handlebars by a small garland of flowers and zoomed away from the commotion.
On the road, we whizzed by a bus with blue paint chipping off, motorbikes one after another, honking cars, all pausing only when a boy half my age led a line of white buffalo across the road. My mother gazed outside unperturbed, not at all shocked by how close these large animals were. I realized this was the place that was so much a part of me, yet a place that I didn’t know, full of unknown terrain. The jet lag was catching up to me already, and I dipped in and out of sleep until I wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was really in front of me or memories of photos I had seen in the past. Outside, vast paddy fields opened up to the horizon. The smell of something burning filled the air, a scent that reminded me of barbecue mixed with church incense.
When I fully woke some minutes (or hours?) later, I wiped sweat from my brow. My shirt had started to stick to the back of my neck. When we passed by the whitewashed Catholic church, I knew we were close. That was the church from all the photos, the one my parents got married in. Schoolchildren dressed in uniforms were playing outside—girls with their hair in braids and blue pinafores over white blouses. We passed by people’s homes, one with a drumstick tree just like the one Dad had planted in our yard, with its long thin seed pods hanging down resembling drumsticks; another a waxy-leafed mango tree; a third with trees bearing pink or white guavas. Dad had taught me to identify these trees by name, pointing them out whenever he spotted them.
A black dog ran out and barked loudly when the rickshaw stopped in front of a gate painted yellow and red. Framing the entrance was the shadow of a huge breadfruit tree. I had seen this too, in photos, heard the story of my dad planting it as a boy. I felt a little lighter thinking of him planting trees in different parts of the world. The dog was Tensing, my auntie’s loud black dog. We had arrived at my dad’s home.
I realized this was the place that was so much a part of me, yet a place that I didn’t know.
After tea in the sitting room, I went to the room where our suitcases had been put. I lifted up the mosquito netting and lay down on the hard mattress. My mother walked across the room and stood by a wardrobe chest next to the bed.
“This is it,” she said, rapping a wooden edge loudly.
“What is?” I asked.
“My dowry,” my mother said. “Well, this and a sewing machine.”
I yanked the sheets over my head, then peeked out, looking from my mother to the dresser and back. One seemed to relate very little to the other. How could these two be involved in a trade? The outline of the wardrobe began to shimmer around the edges. My mother opened each of the drawers. The scraping sound made the hairs on my arms stand on end.
We could hear church bells ringing through an open window. It reminded me of the carillon, and I wished I could escape high above the village and look down at everything. I wondered what it would look like from above, miniature squares of water-soaked rice paddy fields, the tips of all those groves of coconut palms. My mother walked over to the window and abruptly shut it.
“I wonder who it is that died,” she said.
“Someone died?” I asked.
“That’s what that means, those church bells,” my mother said. “A boy runs up and pulls the bells—one way if you’re from the village and a different way if you’re a relative who’s abroad.” I wondered how it had rung for my dad. This village, had they still considered him theirs?
The next day, the burial took place on the verge of a downpour. The palm trees were clattering, their fronds snapping back in an unseasonably harsh wind. Our American coffin was too big to fit in the village cemetery plot; a simple wooden box had to be used instead. I turned away at the sight.
The whole village turned out for the funeral, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. After the ceremony, they started to form a long line. I stood next to my mother as each person clasped her hands and kissed her cheeks, then clasped my hands and kissed my cheeks.
“Heart-felt sympah-thees,” each one said, in careful English. My mind could not piece together what was happening except in bits—the wind whipping against my skin, my hair flapping against my face. At times, I could feel my mother’s eyes on my hair, staring it down as if trying to control it with her mind.
“Take,” some big-hearted person said later at dinner, spooning lime pickle onto my plate. My mother was on one end of the table and I at the other, with aunties, uncles, and cousins in between us. Her hair was still perfect, but something had happened to her face. It was awash in an expression I could not discern, one that did not belong on my mother. I continued to find it difficult to focus, to trace voices, to feel at home. When everyone’s plates were full, my aunties told stories I’d never heard about my father.
He’d thrown a fit when his sister became a nun, arguing that taking a vow of poverty would mean the family would never get out of poverty. “My sisters were always the smartest,” he had told me when I got my college acceptance letters, “and yet we could never, did never, send them to school.” The moment his own father had died, he applied to go abroad. The very next day.
“His ambitions bloomed in secret,” my eldest auntie said. “Not once did he mention these American dreams—”
“—Plans,” my mother interrupted. Her voice sounded tinny and discordant somehow.
“Not once, until he already had all his papers in hand,” my auntie continued. “All this time we were here with him, and then—just like that—he was gone.”
My mother took out a newspaper article, unfolded it, and pressed where the creases had been. She said it was about my father and the person he had saved. Just as I was wondering why she had never shown it to me, my aunties started staring at me. One by one each looked at the article, then up at me, then down again at the newspaper clipping. In the silence, I kept eating, scraping the last bits of food off the plate with my fork.
When the paper reached me, I saw Dad’s photo and clasped his ring, still hanging on the gold chain around my neck. And when I saw the other photo, I couldn’t breathe . . .
I knew what the aunties wanted to say. The complexion, the hair, the hooked nose. There was precisely one person Dad would risk his life for. This girl he had saved looked just like me.
I bolted from the table, my aunties calling after me as I ran and ran, past one home then the next, all the way to the village church and then behind to the cemetery. Breathless, I opened the squeaky metal gate. I walked among the graves as if in a maze, then stopped at my dad’s plot. The marigold petals still looked fresh. The red earth was still warm from a blaze of late-afternoon sun. I knelt by his grave and pressed my fists hard against the dirt.
I pushed down on the red dirt with my fists clenched as if the ground were just a trapdoor and if I just pushed hard enough, I would get to an opening. I would hear something. Know something. But there was nothing more I could know.
Sitting in the cemetery felt like sitting in a field of questions. Around me were so many other graves, my family’s neighbors and ancestors I had never met, would never meet. The wooden crosses read “Remedios,” “Pulqueria,” “Orneles”—graves whose formerly bright yellow and orange petals now lay whitened, faded by the sun.
I could feel my heartbeat, an abandoned sound, rattling frenetically inside me. He thought she was me. He thought—he didn’t think, he just acted. He saw me and he just . . . I scooped up some red dirt in my fists, feeling so angry, so loved, and so sad. And now, no one would look out for me in the same way ever again. He was gone and so was his love. The hot red dirt crumbled in my hands.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a figure standing in a shaded corner of the cemetery—an elderly woman, bowing her head as if praying. She looked up and then at me, fixedly, as though I were coming into view very slowly. Then she walked toward me.
Sitting in the cemetery felt like sitting in a field of questions.
“Tara bai,” she said, “like this.” She unfurled her hand from a fist to an open palm, her fingers like petals of a blossoming flower.
“Helps, no?” she said, and she softly laughed as I repeated the gesture she had shown. I nodded, letting the red dirt fall from my hands. I felt a little dizzy as I stood up, and kind of hollow. The knees of my blue jeans had become smudged with red dirt.
“How do you know my name?” I finally asked. She pointed at my eyes. “Mai Genu,” the woman said, which was what everyone called my dad’s mother. She began winding her way through the tombstones gracefully. My grandmother had died when my father was very young. We had no photos of her because there had been no photography in the village at that time.
So, my eyes were my grandmother’s. Had Dad known?
The woman stopped by a wall of small drawers with engraved plaques. She tapped one of the drawers. “Mai Genu,” the woman said. I read the name on the plaque, Genoveva. This might be a drawer of my grandmother’s bones. I placed my hand on the plaque. The woman stood behind me, her taller shadow encompassing my own.
Maybe this woman had seen me when I came here as a baby. Maybe she was my grandmother’s friend.
“Tara, ing yo,” the woman said, gesturing for me to come with her. She slowly walked out of the cemetery gate. I felt happy to accompany her. When I smiled, she started softly laughing again. We walked together on the dirt road that led to a beach known for its healing water. Older villagers sometimes went there to soak their achy joints. The old woman unpacked a thin sheet, flapping it in the air. I held one side and she the other, and we watched it parachute gently onto the sand. She took off her sandals, left them on the sheet, and walked to the shore. I did the same, surprised by the softness underfoot.
In the distance were large hills. When they moved, I jumped back. The hills had become cows resting on the sand. The old woman laughed and laughed. The wind seemed to carry her laughter directly to my ears. There was something about the woman that calmed me, made me feel less like an American alien intruder in this place and more like a part of it. I was surprised we understood each other. Was she speaking English? Or was it just that I could understand through her expressions?
When I looked down at our two sets of sandals holding down the blanket, I remembered my family’s tradition of picnics on the beach. I could almost imagine Dad as a young boy playing his favorite card game, Truk, with his sisters, the cards flying in the air caught up in a big wind and him running to retrieve them. I wanted to ask the woman if she had played Truk as a child, too, but she had moved away, closer to the water.
I ran up to where she was. We stood side by side at the shoreline of the Arabian Sea. She let the waters lap at her gnarled toes and swirl around her ankles. It was so different from my approach. When the water came toward me, I always jumped.
Whenever we had visited the beach when I was young, my parents and I had always played a game. They would swing me by the hands, with Dad on my left and my mother on my right. When the waves approached, we leapt backward all at once. It was exhilarating—I was always afraid, but also full of laughter. The three of us laughing sounded like three differently toned chimes. Dad had been the one to get me over my fears by teaching me to swim. All those lessons on form—slicing the water in freestyle, learning the rhythm of the arm and leg movements in the breaststroke—all that, and for what? Now look. The water he taught me to trust had swallowed him up.
The woman was no longer beside me. I turned, looking far down the shoreline before scanning along the horizon. The sun had begun to set. Its light shone over the waves, turning over into a trillion moving, colored bits. I dug in my heels. A crust of wet sand outlined the shape of each foot. Cold water pooled between my toes.
Then I heard her. She was with a few other old women in the water. Their torsos made up a circle. They looked like mountains rising from the sea, appearing to stand upright and proud. They were slapping the water with their palms. At first it sounded like the pitter-patter of rain, but then it transformed into a song, a strong one. They each had their parts—soft hits and hard ones, and sometimes they would loudly hit the water at the same time. While they played their music, everything else stopped, as if on cue—as though the currents in the water, the wind, even the seagulls wanted to hear.
I closed my eyes. At one part, the beats sounded like footsteps shuffling down a road and, at another, a shovel striking into and turning over the deep earth. The gold ring hanging from my chain began to vibrate. I could hear everything: the shifting water around my toes, the soft click of my jaw, the water music. All rushed through me at once.
When I opened my eyes, a single mammoth wave stretched all the way down the shore, curling and coming toward me. Deep in me, I felt the urge to do what I had always done, to jump and avoid getting hit. Instead, I just stood there.
The water came up to my ankles and then a little higher than that. The sand felt like it was reaching up to touch the bottoms of my feet, instead of the other way around.
She let the waters lap at her gnarled toes and swirl around her ankles. It was so different from my approach.
When the wave subsided, the sand was pockmarked with tiny holes. I rubbed the ball of my foot along the sand, revealing what looked like a miniature clam shell where each tiny hole had been. The shells were all different colors—lavender, bright orange, ochre, rose. Hundreds, possibly thousands of them.
I had seen them once before on a Florida beach vacation when I was a young girl. I had insisted on wearing my bathing suit in the car. All during the ride, my parents had been arguing, something about whose family to send money back to. When we pulled into the bungalow where we were staying, I ran straight to the beach, pigtails bouncing, to get away from their anger. I started patting sand into my two red plastic pails, cementing it with water, then turned the pails over, one after the other, in a row. The water advanced, and when the waves receded, shells had appeared, like buried treasure uncovered all along the dimpled shore.
In an instant, my parents’ argument had dissolved. They turned young before my eyes, grabbing my red plastic pails and collecting the shells, shuttling from the shore to the kitchen and back again for more.
That night, they worked together, cleaning and boiling the coquina shells. Shiny and hard, the shells click-clacked against each other before spilling into the bubbling water. Each opened like a set of miniature butterfly wings. Once drained, the flavored water was used to cook the rice. The loud cascade of grains momentarily turned the water white, then gray with cloudy swirls; the inside of the rice pot its own kind of crystal ball.
Our whole little bungalow was filled with the shells’ soft, sweet smell.
Looking at the tiny colors strewn across the beach, I felt lighter. I scooped up a handful of shells from the wet sand and rinsed them in the water. Then I picked up my sandals and returned to my auntie’s house. When I got to the front yard, I tugged on a branch of the curry leaf tree. Its peppery musk wafted under my nose.
My aunties told me that I had worried everyone, especially my mother. I went to my mother’s bedside, where they said she was resting her eyes. I placed a violet shell, the size of a pinky nail, in her hand and curled her fingers around it.
“Mom, do you remember this?” I tried to make my voice sound sweet. Silence filled the room. I stared at my mother’s eyelids, their movements beneath, as though she were dreaming.
“I know why you go to la-la land,” she said in a distant voice, her eyes still closed.
“It’s your father—”
“I’ve been talking to your father. He’s over there right now,” she said, opening her eyes, wet and glossy.
“La-la land?” I asked. She nodded. “Yeah, okay, Mom.”
“He’s not mad about being buried back here.”
“Okay, Mom, okay,” I said, trying to soothe her.
“He can see us, but not for long. He said it’s like developing a photo in a black room.”
“Ah, yes, dark room. He said ‘black room.’ I knew he didn’t have the words correct. He said it is like a photo, but the images go backward, to not being developed, back and back.” She waved one hand emphatically. “He said, ‘This was all meant to be.’”
“He did, or you did?”
“What can I tell you? I’m just repeating what he said. Maybe your thinking changes over there.”
“Okay, Mom, okay.” Her eyes fluttered closed again. I knelt by her bed and hugged her, resting my head on her chest.
“Your father and I,” my mother began. “Our last moment together was one big fight. He said to me that he will do whatever it takes for this marriage. That was the last thing he said, ‘This marriage must survive.’”
“Oh, Mom, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“And that girl . . .” My mother’s voice dropped. “The one he saved . . .”
Her eyes were open now, entreating, and I could glimpse a softer, younger self within.
“She looked just like me when your father and I first met.” She cried softly. “For a moment, he must have thought he was young.” I let her tears fall into my hair.
She opened her hand and looked stunned at the sight of the shell. “Where are we? I just don’t know where we are,” she said, and her cries grew loud. My mother was becoming undone.
Of course, seeing her cry made me cry too.
“It’s okay, Mom. It’s okay,” I whispered to her, just like my Dad would when I was young and had woken up from a nightmare. I patted her as gently as I could, creating a litany of comforting sounds. She was trembling all over.
No women were out that night when I walked onto the beach. The men stared at me like I was a new kind of creature, and maybe, in my green one-piece swimsuit, I was. If my mother had seen me she would have said I was inviting trouble. My hair was down, long, unspun, blowing wildly in the wind. At sunset, the water had been opal-like, but now its darkness was absolute, like onyx. Each step felt heavy, like I was carrying the weight of the men’s gaze on me. Someone called to me with a string of words in a language I did not understand. I brought my hand to my neck and felt for Dad’s ring on my chain, but I had left it back in the room.
I stepped into the cool water and began swimming the breaststroke. My neck felt bare without the ring. The stroke involved tracing a heart shape with my arms, then a whip kick—pushing out with my legs before snapping them back. The heart in, then the kick out, then the heart in, the kick out, just like Dad had taught me.
I listened to the lapping of the water. The women singing in the water had long since gone, yet I could still faintly hear the water music—though whether it was out in the ether somewhere or a memory from inside me, I couldn’t be sure. An impenetrable darkness surrounded me. I felt the beginnings of fear start to grow inside. But before it could take hold, I saw a glowing pinpoint of light down below. I dove.
Underwater, the pressure changed. I could no longer see anyone. The silence was not just any silence, but an enveloping one.
When I came up for air, I opened my palm slowly, unfurling my fingers but still cupping the water in my hands. A gold light blinked—a tiny bioluminescent creature pulsating. I saw more and more bright flickering around me. It was as if the stars had fallen into the sea and come alive. I couldn’t look away.
Nearby, church bells began to ring. I wondered who they were for—people who had left the village, or those who had stayed behind? In the silence, the notes from the church bells felt like they were landing in the water around me. I stayed like that, treading water, half in open air, half under the sea, surrounded by stars, creatures, notes.
Eventually, the moon came out from behind the clouds. Its bigness made it feel close. Bits of moonlight dappled along the water. Clouds shifted above.
Inside me, too, something shifted and settled. I kicked my legs up and floated, first upturned, like prey, and then, unperturbed, like a being who could exist with infinite water below and infinite sky above. Gliding my hand along the water, I thought of the shells, how they had flavored the rice water, not there and yet there, too, undoubtedly so. I thought of my father who I could no longer see, and of my mother showing signs of a person I did not know.
What kind of creature would I become?
Exposed to the elements, the moon, now the sun, the cooling wind, the warming water, the shifting waves below, the steady sky above. The fog set in.