Pallavi Wakharkar | Fiction
I was raised primarily in solitude in a house upon a mountain, on Camino Sin Nombre, that winding road without a name. From below, jutting out from rock, against the dark of the sky and amid the milky thrum of clouds, our house, resplendent with costly light, glowed like a beacon. My father liked to keep the lights on, even when we were not there. “Let people think we are home,” he always said.
It has been years since I set foot in that house; still, when I close my eyes at night, I imagine I am floating through its arched hallways. I remember the red plush of the Persian rug, the cool marble tile against my feet. I remember how the brass door handles, shaped like quails, felt in my hands.
As a child, I amused myself by playing hide and seek alone whenever my parents fought, fitting myself inside the laundry room cupboard or behind the wall of flowing dresses in my mother’s closet. A reckless hope lived within me then, the hope that they would lower their voices and seek me. How I longed to be sought.
Theirs was a tough varietal of love. If I dawdled going to bed, my father would say, “She’ll learn her lesson tomorrow when she is too tired to stay awake at school.” He would speak through me in this way, as if I could not hear him, as if I were some mute animal.
During screaming matches, I would watch through the wooden slits of the staircase railing as my mother’s face took on a whole spectrum of feeling: anger, sadness, fear, gaunt exhaustion. I could have watched her face for hours. I was keenly interested in the idea of my mother as a person, a person who felt. Yet whenever she turned that face towards me, I only ever saw blankness, a waveless composure.
Until I was six years old, the house was my only friend. I whispered my secrets into its cavernous expanses, found companionship in its many mirrors. Then I entered the first grade and saw, for the first time, a girl at school who looked like my reflection. She sought me on the playground and asked if we could be friends, so we were.
It was so easy, the way our friendship sprouted. It is so easy, when you are small.
It was mid-autumn the first time the girl came over to my house after school, and the acacia tree out front was in full, yellow bloom. The girl was called Niki, just like me, though our first-grade teacher had begun using out full names for simplicity’s sake. Hers was Monika, mine Nikita. I cherished sharing that syllable. I cherished the mole on her earlobe and the way her eyebrows formed perfect, feathery arches that almost met.
I pulled her through the front door that afternoon, eager to show her the house’s secrets— there was the cool, dark cellar, where my parents stored bottles of wine, or the small forest of waxy ficus trees in the yard, where families of quivering jackrabbits could be found. I dragged her by the hand upstairs, where first, I showed her the wooden rocking horses in my room. She mounted one and began to rock, and I rocked beside her, going nowhere.
“Your house is big,” said Monika, facing forward.
“I guess so. Wait until I show you the yard. We can play in the fountain.” She said nothing, just continued rocking. “Where’s your house? Can I come over there next time?”
“It’s not like here,” she said, gazing at her socks. At school, I had noticed that she wore the same pair of shoes every day, a beat-up pair of New Balances, one with a hole in its roof through which, when she was nervous, she would poke her big toe. She was nervous often. Gazed down at her feet as if reminding herself she was still there, still standing.
“Well, what’s it like?” I said.
She stopped rocking and turned her body to face me, tucking a thick lock of ink-black hair behind her ear. She spoke with that certainty children possess when they are parroting an adult. “We don’t have our own house just yet. We live with Raj Uncle. He’s my mom’s brother. But one day, my mom and I are going to get a house of our own, like we had in Florida. And then my mom’s going to buy me a canopy bed.”
“You lived in Florida?” I said. Florida seemed exotic, though anywhere was exotic compared to dusty Phoenix.
“Yeah. We lived in Florida until my dad died. After that, we packed everything up and drove here for days because Raj Uncle is here. We even slept in the car. I peed in a bush one time.”
“A bush?” I said. To my sheltered ears, her life sounded like an adventure. I didn’t know anyone who had died before and found it rather impossible to imagine my own father—who snored every night so vigorously that I could hear it whole rooms away—dying.
“But one day, we’ll get a house just like this one,” she continued. Her eyes roved around the room. “You have so much stuff on the walls.”
“My mom collects art from India.”
“My mom collects salt and pepper shakers from Goodwill.”
I paused to consider this. I didn’t want to ride on the rocking horses any longer; there was so much more to show her. “Do you want to play hide and seek?” I said.
She bit her lip, her two new front teeth ridged and protruding from the reef of her gums. I loved the way she looked at me, her eyes open and surrendering. “Do we have to?” she said.
“It’s fun. Don’t you know how to play?”
“I know the rules.”
“Okay, so come on. There are so many good places to hide in my house.”
“What if I get lost?”
“You won’t. I’ll find you.”
She sighed. “Do you want me to hide first, or you?”
I felt, around her, a sense of my own power for the first time. I liked the way she asked me questions, gave me the reins, let me decide. Finally, I had someone to direct—a real person, not a doll or stuffed toy. For my whole life, I had wanted to hold something that pulsed and breathed. Here she was in front of me now, her cheeks flushed and her eyes alert, alive.
“You hide first,” I said. I sat on the carpet of the stairs, loudly counting down from one hundred, peeking through my fingers every now and then. When I reached zero, I called into the quiet of the house, “Ready or not, here I come!”
It took me no time to find her. I knew the contours of my house better than anyone, all those quiet afternoons spent holing myself somewhere dark to wait out the storm. I had hoped Monika would choose somewhere interesting—perhaps she would slip inside the crevice between my bed and the wall or drape herself across two chairs at the dining room table—but instead, she was in one of the guest rooms, perched on the windowsill, kneeling behind the curtain. I saw a dark shadow there in the shape of a curled body. The afternoon light streaming in through the window had exposed her.
“Found you!” I yelled, throwing back the curtain with triumph, only to see that my new friend was trembling, her lip bleeding on account of how she kept biting it with those unruly nubs for front teeth.
“What’s wrong?” I said. “Why are you crying?”
She lifted her chin, almost defiantly, and pulled her bubblegum-pink shirt over her head— that shirt she wore so often, sometimes twice a week. It fell to the ground. She began to unbutton her pants when I said, “What are you doing?”
“You won the game,” she said. The skin of her stomach was the same camel shade as mine. It felt wrong to look.
“That’s not how you play,” I said crossly, tossing her shirt back at her. “Put your shirt back on.”
“But I lost,” she said. “You’re the winner.” Then she began to cry, and I could not understand the words that gurgled from her mouth. Her hair was so thick and so long on such a small girl that she seemed mostly made of it. It circled her face, one strand sticking under her weeping nose. I had seen her cry once before, on the first day of school as she clung to her mother’s shins. That day, she had cried with a certain noble stillness, a martyred silence. This was different. I stepped away from her, repulsed by her wet need, as she knelt in a patch of sun- touched carpet, the light imbuing her hair with brown, red, and even violet hues. There was a silence around us but for the sound of her wails, which quieted into sniffles as I waited.
“Let me know when you’re finished,” I said, which is what my mother said to me when I cried.
“I’m finished,” she said, several minutes later, wiping her nose on her sleeve. No longer in the mood to play, I walked downstairs and allowed Monika to follow. In the TV room, my mother sat on the chaise longue, a magazine in one hand, massaging her temple with the other. It was early evening and she was bathed in warm lamplight. She looked beautiful in the light: it further paled her face, increasing the contrast between the dark pools of her eyes and the smooth cream of her skin.
“There you are,” she said as we padded into the room. “Monika, your mother just called. She’s stuck on the night shift and can’t pick you up. You’ll stay here tonight, okay, beta? In Niki’s room.”
“Okay,” Monika said. I suspected my mother could have told Monika she was to sleep outside in the rocks, and she would have complied just as easily. There was something soft about Monika, I noticed; she was easy to push, easy to bruise.
She slept in my bed that night, curled with her knees grazing her chest. I must have fallen asleep smiling, glad for company, but I woke in the middle of the night to a dampness, a remembered smell. Monika sat up in bed beside me, poking my arm with urgency. “I had an accident,” she said.
Unhappy to be woken, my mother stripped the sheets from my bed with undisguised impatience. Monika and I perched on the carpet of my bedroom, waiting for new blankets. “It’s okay, it happens to me sometimes too,” I told her, though it didn’t, not anymore.
At school the next day, Monika borrowed my clothes and I flushed with pride at the sight of her, as if I had molded her in my own image.
From then on, whenever Monika slept over, my mother pulled out the trundle bed, where Monika slept beneath me, limbs folded and tucked like a dog’s. I often hung off the edge of my mattress before falling asleep, gazing at the rise and fall of Monika’s chest with tenderness, wondering if my own mother ever felt this way, when she looked at me.
I was ten years old the first and only time I can remember my parents tucking me into bed together. It had been a strange day at school; teachers had flocked together, whispering and even crying, and we kids were sent home after lunch.
It was earlier than usual, around 8pm, when my parents put me to bed, and as they leaned over me, fluffing and adjusting my blankets, I knew that something was wrong with them. After several minutes of feigned sleep, I crept out of my room and looked over the railing of the second floor, where I had a good view of the TV room. My mother and father were watching the news in the dark, standing very close together. I slunk down the stairs one by one so as to not be detected, crawled through the hall on my hands and knees—I had a flair for the dramatic—and skulked behind the couch. Their silhouettes were black and intertwined against the backdrop of the news.
It was so rare to see them holding each other that I gawked at the vulgarity of it. For some time, I did not notice the news, but once I did, I could not look away. I sat there for what felt like hours as the television played the same footage of the same burning buildings over and over, the people in those buildings stuck on a demented, endless loop of jumping, of falling, of dying.
In the months following, my parents were fearful, and their fear reignited their love for each other, however temporarily. And in the days following, when a Sikh gas station owner was shot six times with a .380 handgun pointed out of the window of a Chevy S-10, five to the chest as he planted flowers around the edge of his store, blood blooming from his core and fertilizing the open soil, I saw my father kiss my mother for the first time, a tender planting of lips to newly wrinkling cheek.
And in the weeks following, one morning in late September, I found a note in my locker before first period. It was torn from a yellow notepad and said TERORIST in the messy, thin scrawl of some boy. I took it straight to Monika’s locker and showed it to her without a word. She pulled a matching note from her own locker, though hers said TERORIST! To my great surprise, when comparing the two notes, she laughed.
“They can’t even spell the word right,” she said. “They had two tries.”
“How come you got an exclamation point and I didn’t?”
“Maybe I’m a worse terrorist,” Monika said. And then we both laughed.
When Monika’s mother, whom I called Meena Aunty, came to pick us up after school that day, we showed her the notes, crumpled from being held in our pockets all day. She smoothed them over the leather of the steering wheel and, like Monika, smiled. They had the same smile, toothy and unrestrained.
“You know what we say to that, dolls?” she said, turning to look at us in the backseat. She was born in Florida and spoke an English full of endearments, terms foreign to my mother— honey, doll, sweetheart—as well as curses equally foreign—fuck, shit, asshole. She spoke the language with a native ease my parents would never be able to wield. It thrilled me.
“What?” I said. We were still parked in line at the middle school pickup; around us, kids fluttered towards their parents’ cars.
“We say, fuck you,” said Meena Aunty.
“Fuck you,” Monika repeated, face pressed against the window, breath clouding the glass. I was surprised by the fierceness in her voice.
“Nikita, say it with us,” said Meena Aunty. Her eyes met mine in the rearview mirror, and she winked.
“Fuck you,” I said, turning to look at the school.
“Louder,” said Meena Aunty.
“Fuck you!” Monika and I yelled, and a gaggle of girls waiting at the curb turned to look at us.
For years, I kept the note in my desk cabinet. It was through our shared difference that I felt I possessed Monika. We were close enough to be categorized. There was a pain in this, but it was not a pain I bore alone. No one at school could have her like I had her. And no one could have me, not like she had me.
At thirteen, we savored our first taste of independence. We joined the basketball team, and after practice, would walk together along backroads lined with orange trees to Raj Uncle’s house, where we enjoyed one or two blissful unsupervised hours. I began to understand it was possible to exist on a need-to-know basis with my mother, who did not know that nobody was home when I went to Monika’s after practice, and who did not need to know. Monika and I often watched MTV while completing our homework, dancing on the sagging couch cushions.
The house where Monika lived was on a cul-de-sac just north of school: a half-moon of ranch houses that all looked the same but for their colors. With their thatched roofs that came to triangular points and their low ceilings—houses long and flat, like the mesas themselves—one would have expected them to be a color in keeping with the desert: sand, beige, sienna, adobe brick. Instead, they were the color of pastel Easter candies: Sonoran pink, palo verde green.
Raj Uncle’s was the robin’s-egg-blue house, a color perhaps intended to be cheerful, but after years of relentless light and against the backdrop of the rolling mountains, the house looked somber. A lone saguaro stood in front, spiked arms pointing to the sky in perpetual salute. In the springtime, that saguaro sprouted strange tumors that eventually burst into flowering. There was a constellation of twinkling wind chimes on a tree near the front door, as well as a crowded grove of lemon trees that Raj Uncle tended to as if they were his own gangly children. Monika was often sent to our house with crooked arms full of lemons; my mother never bought them at the supermarket anymore. At thirteen, Monika and I were closer than ever.
If one does not know that a sign is a sign, is it still a sign?
One day at practice, after Monika changed into her pinny, I noticed a small red mark on her neck, near her collarbone. She noticed me looking and adjusted her pinny to cover it. By the end of practice, I forgot it was there.
But nothing escaped my mother’s scrutinous gaze. When she came to pick me up from Raj Uncle’s house that afternoon, Monika and I were still in our clothes from practice. My mother swept the hair off her long neck with the back of her hand and a gust of perfumed air swept downwind towards me. “Niki, what happened?” she said, tall and imperial, reaching her hand towards Monika’s neck as if to touch the bruise. As if it were something dirty she could wipe away.
“I must have knocked into something during practice today,” Monika said. She pulled the collar of her pinny up to her chin.
“Mm,” said my mother. It was the same noise she made when she caught me in a lie, when she was giving me a chance to alter my statement.
On another evening that year, after practice, Monika and I sat with our legs dangling off the porch as Raj Uncle squatted in the dirt, brushing thick streaks of white paint onto the trunks of lemon saplings. It must have been autumn, for there was a cool breeze lifting Monika’s hair.
“Why are you doing that?” I called out to Raj Uncle.
He brushed sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and smiled at me. I felt a small burst of excitement. He was handsome, but for those teeth; I was reminded of the story he once told us, that he was born with three front teeth, but his father had yanked the third out with a pair of pliers, which is why his teeth were so crooked, so full of gaps. I never knew if it was true.
“It’s a way of protecting the tree,” he explained, motioning with the paintbrush as he spoke. “Young trees have very tender bark, prone to splitting and cracking, see? You have to give them special care. When you seal the bark with this paint, it keeps them from splitting, which protects them from bugs, or fungus, or sunscald.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“Trees are a lot like people.” Flecks of paint decorated his neck. He looked like a young artist, mischievous and charming. “They’re sensitive when they’re young. And they can get sunburnt, just like people do. Especially out here in the desert. We call that sunscald, or southwest injury.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said. Next to me, Monika tapped her foot with increasing speed.
“Do you want to come over here and give me a hand?” he said. “Bunch more to go, and I have a spare brush.”
Monika stood and turned towards the door. “Don’t,” she said to me. She called out, “We have homework,” but we were finished with homework, had been for the last hour.
“What was that about?” I said, following her into the house. She opened the freezer and began to rap an ice tray against the counter to loosen the cubes. She rapped with a forcefulness that verged on violence.
“You shouldn’t talk to him,” she said, plunking ice into her glass of water. “Just listen to me, okay, Niki?” We only called each other Niki in times of great need, when we wanted to feel close, indistinguishable in our closeness.
“Okay,” I said. “I won’t.” Through the window, I watched for another moment as Raj Uncle painted bark with a fastidiousness that was endearing. His hair was glossy with sunlight, swaying with the motion of the paintbrush.
In my memory, he lives as a quick-to-smile man with a crowded mouth and shiny, thick hair like Monika’s. But years later, as I searched for footwear appropriate for the occasion of my father’s funeral, I encountered Raj at the Just for Feet store wandering the tennis shoe aisle with a glassy, lost look in his eyes, and he was unremarkable, even ugly, his hair limp and skin pocked. The kind of man I would never assume to be powerful. A sad kind of man, a living leftover with a pitiable face. He looked through me, unable to recognize the woman I had become, and I felt my own silence around my throat like a tightening fist. I stood still, determined to meet his eyes, but he brushed past me, lost in a world I could not fathom, and bent to inspect a pair of shoes.
Before I entered eighth grade, I received a directive from my parents.
One night, before my first day of school, my mother and father cozied up to one another and formed a team, like they did when things were serious. They swept around the kitchen, graceful and industrious, placing two varieties of pickle and two varieties of chutney on the table, blasting throaty Carnatic music from the TV’s speakers. They loomed over me while I ate my dinner, spooning more rice onto my plate when the pile grew smaller, topping me off with daal, dripping ghee onto my chapatis until they glistened. I was not usually allowed this much ghee, on account of the rotund shape my body was beginning to take, and my mother’s distaste for said shape. I ripped a piece of my chapati, dipped it in daal, and ate, gazing at them with wariness.
“Your mother has something to tell you,” my father said. There was a grain of rice stuck to his moustache, dangling. My mother shot him a cold glance. The music wailed in the background, the singer’s voice twisting and looping through the raaga.
“We have something to tell you,” she corrected.
“Yes?” I said.
She took a breath, which deepened the delicate hollow between her collarbones. “It’s about Monika.”
“You can do what you like at school,” my mother said, “but you cannot go to her house any longer. And we cannot have her around here.”
“What? Why?” I asked. There was a presence—Monika’s presence—in the empty seat next to me, the seat Monika had so often occupied. Four was a neat number; three was cruel.
“The details are not for you to know. But you are growing older, so I’ll tell you this and only this: I do not trust that man.”
“Raj Uncle? Why? What happened?”
My mother leaned in close to me, her face as baffling as the moon, and said, “What we are telling you is very simple. You will not go to that house anymore. Are we understood?”
“But why can’t Monika come here?”
“It’s simpler this way,” my mother said.
“I won’t go there, okay, but why can’t she come here? What did she do?”
“The girl did nothing,” my father said, his only contribution.
“I don’t want you around those people,” my mother said. “You will understand one day.”
That my parents would take away my only friend was unimaginable, yet there I was, sitting at the table, napkin tucked into the front of my shirt, fingers wet with food, gaping at them like a fool. How could I allow it? Did it have something to do with money? They had plenty of money, but I had only one friend. I had seen enough fights to know how to fight. I slammed my fists down onto the table, clattering the serving spoons. The grain of rice on my father’s moustache tumbled down, landing on the third button of his shirt. I erupted, daring my mother’s face to change, daring its placidity to break into something more interesting. I wanted her to react to me, I wanted her to feel something because of me, I who felt something because of her. “You can’t do this!” I screamed. “She’s my friend, my only friend!”
I stared at my mother, breathing hard. Her lips remained languid and her eyes revealed nothing in particular except a boredom, or was it amusement? I reached for something to shatter—just last week, I had heard a crystalline crash after my mother threw a glass cup into the sink with sudsy hands—but all the dishes nearby were made of steel.
“Life itself is not fair, Niki,” my father said, and something about the name Niki dissolved all my immediate fury, left in its place a bitter determination.
“Don’t call me that,” I said. I stalked upstairs without placing my dishes in the sink or even washing my hands, knowing that in my absence, my parents would continue chewing, swallowing treacherous mouthfuls, tapping their malicious feet off-rhythm to the music, their alliance against me soothing their enmity for each other. When I reached the top of the stairs, I whirled around to face them, but they were not even looking at me. “You think you’re fooling me?” I said. “You think I don’t see how much you hate each other? Fuck you.”
“Did you say something, child?” my mother said. She hadn’t heard me over the music.
Of course, my mother was right, in time I would come to understand—in time, these flashes of memory would cohere into the image of something ugly I’d recognize on sight—but in the moment, the only cruelty I could recognize belonged to my parents.
The next morning, which was the first day of school, I saw Monika across the parking lot, hair streaming behind her like a flag, and ran to catch up with her. She glanced at me as I fell in line with her step; her face was totally blank, like my mother’s. I shivered in the sunlight.
“My mom says I can’t go to your house anymore. She doesn’t like your uncle.”
Monika blinked rapidly, then pinched the bridge of her nose. “Okay,” she said.
“But I say, fuck her,” I said. “We’ll still hang out all the time. Right?”
She nodded several times, her eyes wide. Where were her questions? Where was her rage? I stared at her for several long moments, feeling as though she knew something I didn’t.
Only now can I imagine how lonely she must have felt.
Later that day, I swiped a thumbtack from home period and, during lunch, kneeling inside the ditch behind the soccer field, I pricked her pointer finger, then mine. “We will be friends forever,” I said to her, and she nodded. Our fingers met, and we pushed them together, hard.
Ninth grade brought exciting developments, like the overnight science trip to the Grand Canyon, as well as my budding breasts. But something was shifting. I saw Monika less, as we were not in any of the same classes, could not spend time at each other’s homes, and she was busy with practice after school. I had quit basketball, but she was dexterous and graceful on the court, could palm a basketball with her large, capable hand.
When I did see Monika, she was engaging in inside jokes with white girls I did not know, Rachels or Jessicas, and she had even begun flirting with a white boy. I had seen them together, Monika leaned up against the blue metal of her locker, twirling a thick cord of her hair around her finger, the boy whispering something into her ear, something that she smiled at, gazing at her feet and then meeting his eyes almost boldly. When did she become someone bold?
One day, during a five-minute passing period, she mentioned to me offhand that she had moved; no longer did she live in that blue ranch house with the lemon grove, apparently. Now she was in a two-bedroom apartment near the hospital. Ridiculously, I felt a sense of outrage and loss.
“What?” I said. “Since when did you move?”
“We have our own place now,” was all she said. The knowledge stung. I wanted to know everything about her, could not bear the thought that time was passing and my information was expiring. And didn’t I, too, have memories in that house? Didn’t I deserve to know that she was no longer there?
The Grand Canyon trip was an opportunity to reclaim my friend. I imagined we would do the long hike together, lingering back behind the others, kicking up clouds of red dust while exchanging gossip. We would share a two-person raft and course down the Colorado River, bonding in certain definite ways, giggling as the thin froth of water splashed us. I hoped we would nestle together in the small tent, keeping each other warm. The sky would glitter with stars and we would hear the faint howling of coyotes in the distance and, close by, the cooing of night owls, the ambient buzz of a thousand crickets.
The bus ride to the mile-deep canyon lasted five hours. We traveled directly north and Mr. Kean, the science teacher, paused the bus movie system, interrupting our games of MASH, to yell over the din of our voices, reminding us that this was a scientific trip, that we were to take notes on the sedimentary layers we observed, like scientists, that we would be tested upon our return, something about Precambrian basement rocks and bright angel shale, and don’t forget, the oldest pancake in the stack is always at the bottom, so that means the oldest rock is where?
“Remember, the Grand Canyon rocks!” he said in conclusion, and we groaned through our smiles, shy about showing exactly how much fun we were having, though this trip was one we’d all been looking forward to, each for our own private reasons.
Near the end of the bus ride, with full bladders and legs that ached to stretch, we stopped on the side of Highway 89 near Hamblin Ridge, where the landscape stretched endlessly, the blue of the sky too bright for our eyes, contrasting with the muddy brown of the mesa. Monika and I had sat next to each other on the bus ride, sharing my prized iPod Nano, though she had turned and chatted with her other friends most of the ride, until she fell asleep on my shoulder. We were on Navajo Nation now, had stopped to see the Moeonkopi Dinosaur Tracks. We padded through the dust to see what was left of the dinosaurs, letting our eyes linger a little too long on the Navajo people who sold jewelry by the side of the road. The tracks were smaller than I had hoped, but their shapes were pleasingly alien. I put my foot next to one, feeling small and purposeless. It is strange to recall this now that I am older, but I knew in that moment that I would never have children.
Looking about me then, it was not difficult to imagine dinosaurs roaming that desolate land. They would have looked at home there, filling the stretching space with their massive, scaly bodies. It was space that longed to be filled.
We arrived at the Grand Canyon in mid-afternoon. By the rim, the air was cool. A light breeze rustled the tops of the hardy, scraggly plants that dared to grow so close to the void. I stood by Monika’s side overlooking the edge of the canyon, which, in the soft winter sun, looked to be made of only the softest shades of purple. She moved closer towards the edge, despite Mr. Kean shouting, “Do not move any closer!”, and peered towards the chasm with an expression of wonder. I realized she had never seen it before. In my short life, I had been there already five times.
Looking out at the Canyon, wonder of the world that it was, I was not thinking of redwall limestone, brachiopods, or the differences between igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rock. I was thinking of my friend and how nice it was to be beside her as she saw, for the first time, this strange absence, this land that had been hollowed out over a period of six million years by that very same river that flowed, still, after all this time, beneath us, its sound in our ears a relic from a lost time.
We hiked part of the way down into the canyon and Monika—newly long-legged and athletic—pranced ahead of me with her other friends, looking like a girl for whom everything was easy. We didn’t raft in the Colorado River after all, as there had been too much rain that season, and the river was stronger and more capable of savagery than usual. When the sun set, the wind picked up and it grew, all of a sudden, cold, colder than we warm-blooded Phoenician kids were used to. We trudged uphill to the lip of the canyon just as the sun disappeared and loaded up into the bus once more. We set up camp in a town called Page, at a rocky campground off the edge of Lake Powell. When we settled in the tent after the long day, it was too cloudy to see the stars and too loud with the sound of ninth grade whispering to hear any wildlife.
I could feel the length of Monika’s body against my side. The ceiling of the tent dipped close to my face, and I zipped my sleeping bag tighter. It was an old tent, had belonged to the school for years, had housed generations of students and was threadbare with use. My teeth chattered, but hers were still.
“Do you miss your old house?” I said. I couldn’t get over the fact that she had moved— that she now slept in an entirely different place—and hadn’t told me.
“No,” she said. “Not really.”
“When were you going to tell me about moving?” I said. “It’s kind of a big deal.”
“I don’t know,” said Monika. “I don’t have to tell you everything.”
“Since when do you not tell me everything?”
There was a long pause, so long that I thought she had fallen asleep. I twisted my head to get a good look at her, to see if her eyes were open, but it was dark inside the tent. I closed my own eyes, accepting that she had fallen asleep, as it had been a long day and I too was tired. Above us, I heard a rumbling, oceanic sound, the sound of a distant airplane passing through. The sound soothed me, and I was almost asleep, almost but not quite, when I heard her say, against her pillow, “I never told you that my uncle hurt me. He used to touch me all the time at night, before I got too old for it. All the time, for years.”
Another sound filled my ears, and I understood only after several long moments that it was the battering of my own heart. I opened my mouth to say something to her—how I wanted to say something to her, anything—but I found there was nothing I could say, nothing that I knew how to articulate. “Niki?” I heard her whisper. It had been a long time—years—since she had called me by that name. There was a desperation in her voice that I recognized from our younger years, the days when I had been the shinier one, when she had been the one who followed and I the one who led. I wanted to comfort her, yes, but there was also another, crueler part of me that wanted to keep her waiting, that wanted to wound her with my silence, that wanted to prevent her from the release she sought, that wanted to keep her down, beneath me. Her breath was ragged next to me, as if she were running, or crying, and I said nothing. I said nothing that night, nothing the morning after, nothing in the days and weeks and months and years that followed, and all this time, I have had to live with that nothing. I have had to live with that nothing for so long that it has become a part of me.
By twelfth grade, we were no longer the only two Indian girls at school. The third was named Anagha, though she went by Annie, and I was not her friend, though sometimes I shared a lingering glance with her in the hallways, as if to say, something slippery connects us.
Behind the prison-like exterior of our high school was Superstition Mountain, and during free periods, we seniors would drive our cars to the top and perch near the cell tower to make out with one another or smoke weed or, in my case, just sit and look out over the valley. It was April and the tight grip school had had on me was loosening. I’d gotten into college—a good college, a good college far away, on the other side of this land mass we called country—and an enormous weight had been lifted, leaving in its absence a determination to leave Arizona for good, to never return, because there was nothing here for me anymore, now that I had the opportunity to go. My relationship with my parents had deteriorated in a personal sense but had come to thrive in a business sense, as if I were an investment that was doing particularly well. They observed from afar and anticipated returns. They still fought with one another but took no pleasure in it; no crashing dishes, no raised voices, just the same tired bickering over who had left the fridge door open or whose turn it was to bring in the mail. There was no longer any pizzazz to their altercations, no blood in the water to sniff out sharklike, no longer any instinct to wound.
After school that April afternoon, I drove up Superstition Mountain, and as the car climbed, I felt calm, relaxed even. I parked and found my usual flat rock, the one I had spent many afternoons warming on. I looked out over the city I had called home my entire life, thought of all the people it contained, and relished the fact that I was leaving them all behind, all these people below with their sad, plain lives. I thought I could have a better life than all the millions of people in the city below, that I deserved a better life.
“Hey,” said a voice behind me. I turned and it was Monika. Sloe-eyed and slender, taller than most boys, square-jawed with striking eyebrows, she had grown to inhabit a rare kind of beauty. I could not say that we were still friends. I heard rumors about her from time to time from the few people I talked to; that she drank on the weekends, that she was a bit of a slut. The word was used in a derogatory sense, but to me, it inspired awe. To be a slut meant that someone saw you, wanted you.
I did not know Monika, not anymore. It hurt me to think of her—to recall all the sunny afternoons we had spent side by side on our stomachs, legs splayed and kicking, giggling over something or the other, believing we had the kind of friendship that would last. It pained me to think of that night in the tent, how she had told me something I did not want to know, how I had wished I hadn’t heard.
“Hey,” I said. She stood before me with one hand lifted to block the sun from her squinting eyes, her shirt lifting to reveal a thin stripe of skin. Her eyes were molten in the light.
“What are you doing up here?” she said. She sat next to me in the dirt, tucking her knees into her chest. When she spoke, she looked up at me and smoothed her hair with one hand, a gesture that was devastating in its familiarity.
“Just came to sit for a while,” I said. I realized how strange it sounded and admitted, “I just didn’t want to go home.”
“Right,” she said. She pulled out a sheet of rolling papers from her bag, as well as a small vial of weed. She began to roll a joint with practiced finesse. It shouldn’t have surprised me, given the people I knew her to be friends with, and what those people were known to do on the weekends. She lit the joint and offered it to me. I shook my head in what I hoped was a casual manner, a manner that suggested I had been offered plenty of joints in my time alive and did not need yet another. She shrugged and said, “Suit yourself.”
“What are you doing next year?” I asked. I wanted to know her. I still knew so many things about her, but this ancient repository of knowledge served no purpose. I knew how she had gotten that sickle-shaped scar on her knee; I knew that she talked in her sleep. What was I supposed to do with all the things I knew about her?
“Why does everyone ask that question?” Monika said, tilting her chin up towards the ever-blue sky to exhale. The smoke fell around me like mist. “I’m staying home, taking classes at SCC, and keeping my job at BJ’s. What are you doing?”
I was filled with a sudden and unexpected shame where, before, when I thought of my future, there had been only shining, bubbling pride. “I’m moving to the East Coast,” I said, “for college. To the Boston area, actually.”
“East coast! No thanks, I couldn’t deal with the snow,” Monika said.
As if you even have the choice, I thought. But all I said was, “Yeah, it’s going to be different.”
“So what do you want to study?” she asked after some time. “You were always so into school.”
“Maybe linguistics,” I said. “Or Classics, as in Latin and Greek mythology and stuff.”
“I know what Classics means,” Monika said, and looked at me almost smugly, as if I had proven to be everything she thought I was. She got up off the ground and dusted dirt off the back of her legs. “Gotta run, my friends will be here any second.” And then she was gone.
I sat there at the vista point for quite some time longer, trying to settle all the feelings that Monika had, in just a few minutes, stirred up, but they wouldn’t settle. They rushed about within me like spooked bats. I drove home in silence, my eyes fixed upon my house in the distance, glowing at the top of the mountain preserve. The lights were on like they always were, and I wondered if anyone was home.
So many years later, I have become obsessed with the landscape I used to call home, obsessed with the indescribable smell of rain from my childhood, the renewal I have been awaiting ever since. It took many years living elsewhere before I understood that the smell I associated with rain was, instead, the smell of a wet creosote bush, that ever-present desert shrub with its fuzzy seeds and yellow flowers, as common and inconspicuous as tumbleweed, speckling the desert basin for miles in every direction. Creosote, which exudes that particular scent when joined with water, seasoning the Sonoran air with a humid aroma. Creosote, known by many names. Larrea tridentata, scientifically. Greasewood, colloquially. Chaparral, medicinally. Gobernadora, in Spanish.
I read one night recently, before my flight home, that the creosote bush is the most drought-tolerant perennial in all North America. Its leaves are so shiny due to a waxy coating that prevents the outward loss of water, one of many crafty evolutionary adaptations to its cruel environment. It is that same waxy coating that, once touched by moisture, volatilizes, producing that particular, camphor-like smell that anyone reared in the Mojave, Sonoran, or Chihuahuan deserts has come to associate with rainfall.
I admire the creosote bush because it knows how to survive, and there is so much to survive: brutal summer heat punctuated by spells of flash flood, a cycle of desiccation, then saturation. And it plays dirty: some believe it exudes an allelopathic compound that inhibits the growth of nearby, competing plants. The creosote’s root system is tenacious, surrendering little water for other plants to use, leaving the land directly around its base barren. Ragweed, competitor for the title of most arid-adapted perennial on the continent, knows to stay away, discouraged before it can take root.
A strange consequence of the creosote’s biological weapon: that very chemical inhibits the germination of the creosote’s own seeds. In this way, the plant ensures a solitary survival.
Last week, twelve years since I last saw her or even heard her voice, I watched Monika get married against the backdrop of Camelback Mountain. It was dusk and the curving shape of the mountain was dark against a blistering, pink sunset. It was my first time home in five years. I looked to the clouds and hoped for rain.
Of course, I hadn’t expected to be invited—I’d frozen with disbelief when the thick, gold envelope arrived at my office, my name written in her rounded script. It was a joke, perhaps, this invitation—yet every time I stuck the envelope into a drawer, resolving to forget its existence, something drew me back to it. Maybe she felt she needed to prove something to me. Maybe I needed to let her prove it. I could feel the girl I once was, sharp and keening, at the base of me. I’ve spent my adult life paving over her layer by layer. I began to dream about my old house, occupied by another family by now, yes, but surely still home to a spectral fragment of me, hiding in its darkest corners and hoping to be found.
And so, before I could question the decision, I purchased a ticket. I reserved a hotel room. Months passed, and I found myself back in Phoenix beneath that bright sun that beats its light over my earliest memories.
I sat in the back, my vision obscured by the heaping hairstyles of some of the older ladies. Still, I could see that Monika was beatific. There was a fluency to her movements, one I would never possess. A man promised to love her until he died and even after that still, and I could understand how he had come to feel the way that he did. When Monika looked at him, her face softened and I saw the child she had been: open, surrendering.
I hadn’t planned to stay for the reception, but when one of her guests saw me heading for the exit, he said, “Come on, you gotta stay for the party,” and pulled a glass of champagne from one of the passing waiters’ trays, offering it to me. It was an expensive-looking wedding, and I hated myself for the surprise I felt when I noticed this. I sipped the sweet, fizzing liquid, taking in the scene around me, all of Monika’s friends and relatives—all these people I did not recognize who comprised the life she had built for herself, a life I was not a part of—when all of a sudden, I could not take it anymore, I could not take my own loneliness, my shame, my complicity, my sickening privilege, and I turned abruptly, at which point I knocked into someone, said, “Sorry,” as I steadied my champagne glass, noticing with relief that it had not spilled, when I saw that the person I collided with was Monika herself, her eyes ringed with kohl, her smile luminous and knowing.
“What for?” she said.
There was one afternoon when we were around ten—back when we were permitted to be friends, when my mother sometimes called me Monika and her Nikita, our names interchangeable in her mouth as if we were real sisters—when Monika and I were alone with Raj Uncle in his blue house, the smell of citrus infusing the air through the open kitchen window, and he said, “Do you girls want to play a game?” and I said, “Yes!” and Monika said, “No,” and I said, “Come on,” and pulled her closer, using my fingers to tug the corners of her mouth upward into a smile, and after a few moments of this molding, she laughed, lips breaking into a real smile, and we had a pillow fight, the three of us, a real pillow fight, and the feathers rained down around us like in the movies, getting stuck in our hair and landing in our laughing mouths, or maybe there were no feathers at all, but I remember there being feathers, and I remember feeling so free and so lucky, like our girlishness and girlhood was precious and finite, and it was, it was, it had been.
Pallavi Wakharkar is a writer from Phoenix, Arizona. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vanderbilt University and currently teaches at Colgate University, where she is the Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Creative Writing (fiction). Her work has appeared in Joyland Magazine, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere.