By Sarah Thankam Mathews
The week before I turn thirty-four, the rising waters flood my stupid, spiteful Red Hook rental for the second time. Enough of this nonsense, Kamala, my mother tells me. As if I am to blame. My chirrupy, long-widowed mother, my uninvited houseguest of three months, but who is counting. I close my eyes, because she is right. When we return from evac to survey the premises, my walls are as wavy and creased as slept-on skin. A nursery for black mold.
Time for you to leave Nyoo Yoark Sitty, my mother says. She is right. A brown sadness seeps towards my lowest parts with the massed confidence of floodwater. While she packs, I go outside and inhale a cigarette deep into my lungs, like I am trying to dry something out, put something down. I have wicked cramps, am clean out of NSAIDs. I can hear my landlord grunting in the next apartment, tearing out carpet. He has a habit of staring over my body as though he can’t believe its bulk. When he saw my bird-boned mother next to me his eyes goggled. Trying to comprehend how I came out of her.
Outside, some people are airing out sodden bedding, others piling bags into cars. This is the dividing line of the world now, those who nest and those who flee.
It’s a pure and beautiful mercy I did not try to buy in Red Hook, settling instead for the ground-floor rental, my mold factory. I could have, right after I said deuces to the low-six-figure job. But what I wanted when I first arrived, was to
1. emigrate from my life,
2. never again see a slender Park Slope mama pushing a stroller,
3. write stories,
4. live cheaply,
5. work the kind of job my father would have called koyt menial while he was alive to say it,
6. never again delete a company-wide email from HR about egg freezing benefits, while shaking with rage, with grief,
7. walk fatly by the sea in peace.
If you are skillful, imaginative, you can nest and flee in one.
My mother wrinkles her nose, when I walk back in the soggy apartment, waves her hand like I am a tall column of flies.
—Smelling very bad, Kamala. Cheh! Go take a bath, now.
As if I am eleven still.
In the shower, I feel a wave of wild knifey pain, far beyond the shore of the ordinary. I crouch down on my haunches so as not to fall; palest brown water pours down my hair and pools round my toes. I debate calling for my mother. To do so would be a concession, could be interpreted as, I’m glad you’re here. Death by exploding ovary seems preferable.
Minutes pass. The pain recedes. I get up, towel off. It may have been an ovulation cramp, I think. A lump gestates in my throat.
Another bite of pain, dully efficient. I put my foot up on the toilet seat, lift the fall of my belly, and check the strings of my IUD. Just beyond my cervix there they are: plastic, hard, factual.
My mother came back from Kochi to stay with me, unasked, when I finally told her, months after the fact, that I had stopped trying to have a child with my dead husband’s sperm, that I no longer wanted one, and no, I would never get married again. That I longed above all else to be alone, to have some peace and quiet.
No normal girl will even say something like that, Kamala, my mother had hissed into the phone, no normal girl wants to be alone, how can you even say such a thing, and we began shouting at each other, and then I hung up. A week of silence later, she was at my door.
—You’ve become so plump, Kammu, was the first thing she said, and I flashed a deranged, beatific smile.
She has decided I will return to Middleton, Wisconsin, where we settled after immigrating. Middleton, where I grew up. She will come with me, and we will buy a small house there with our combined savings. This is the plan and it is not original. For years now, there has been a steady stream of migration from the buffeted coasts, with their storms and fires and killing heatwaves, towards the temperate belly of the country. The ruin of my apartment is what has, finally, undone me. I am too exhausted to put up a fight, which I can tell she is counting on. Middleton, damn.
She’s packed the photo frames already, where I am a small gnome wearing OshKoshBGosh overalls, where my father and I stand unsmiling by the blue siding of our squat house, my teenage haircut stringy and unwashed, his polo shirt tucked in and belted overbelly. The one picture of my husband that I kept in my room was taken in Middleton, too, by the Mustard Museum. Akash is holding a glass jar of spicy stone-ground, has his arm around me. His smile is wide and bright, mine is absent. Who took the photo, I don’t know.
As our packing winds down, I have my day’s third cigarette, consider whether to say goodbye to the man I have been sleeping with on and off. He is a line cook at the Red Hook Bar and Grille. Koyt menial. Just like me. He is younger, with an ugly face and lovely, capable hands.
Better not to.
Nice to be the one to leave a man for a change.
My cramps abate. My mother makes kanji and pire in my ruined kitchen one final time.
When we leave, so early in the morning, I avoid looking at the orange dawn spread like marmalade behind the Statue of Liberty. Its very existence seems embarrassing now.
We are driving, of course. My mother knows I will never, if I can help it, get on a plane again. I don’t have a license. It is all her behind the wheel.
Akash and I had met by the Statue’s plinth many years ago. He had come up to me, asked to take my picture. When he was alive and we were together, this was our agreement: to not be in each other’s work. No portraits of me; no characters based on him. A matter of respect.
We would, we said, live in each other in different, healthier ways.
We froze Akash’s sperm before he began chemo, just in case. We caught the mass early; his chances were excellent. He was in remission, had begun to work the odd gig again, when the storms brought his plane down.
All the stories I wrote in the past year have been about my dead husband, the children he could not give me. I wrote them by hand, in a composition book. They are incoherent with anger. Shapeless, unpublishable. I left the book in Red Hook, on the kitchen table, open.
—Come, Kamalam, my mother says through the window, gold-ringed hands on the steering, as I stand surveying the Brooklyn skyline in the nipply air.
The music of it makes me smile, out of nowhere: come-come-lum.
My mother can only drive four hours a day before she gets too tired, and so we will get to Middleton in five days. We will stay at a series of motels, she decrees. This is all crazy-making. The car is full to bursting and could easily be broken into.
Beggars cannot be choosers, Kamala, my mother informs me. We are on the Newark-Jersey City turnpike. I turn my eyes heavenwards.
—Told you so many times to get your license, no?
—That’s right, Ma, you are correct, on that front. Be happy. Enjoy being right.
—No smoking in this brand-new car, or I will put you on the side of the highway, Kamala.
—How nice. Please stop at the next exit, I need Tylenol.
—Not good to take all these medicines for every itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny pain, okay? Not good for your constitution.
We are on the I-80 West. I see a sign for a strip club in Bethlehem. We cross Hershey, Pennsylvania.
How my mother sees me: selfish, modern, weak, but her child, and thus the obligatory target of care and love. Eats too much. Smokes—cheh, disgusting, like a man. Prone to self-pity. Smart but no common sense. Become too big for her boots. Scared. Bad. Childless. Throwing her life away.
How I see my mother:
The highway’s choked with migrants from the coasts, their vans and cars full.
We cross Youngstown, Pennsylvania. We look for a motel, find a Red Roof Inn with a single vacancy. By the flappy vinyl blinds, my mother does callisthenics, a surya namaskar or two.
I try to order a drink at dinner, but she slaps my hand, shakes her head at the server: absolutely not.
—Ruin your health after I’m dead, okay? she says, in the same tone as someone saying, shall we look at the dessert menu.
We cross Elyria, Ohio. We drive past Angola. There are no vacancies in Indian Village, Indiana, and she does not see the humor in this. In South Bend, we find a nasty Motel 6, our room’s pale green sheets crusted with cum. I sit on the bed, limp, for minutes while she uses the restroom. I feel so weak that I would sleep right here and not care, though I know better than to say this.
—Americans only would do like this, cheh, so disgusting, my mother says, as she makes the bed with fresh sheets from the car.
When we fought about my decision to stop trying to have children, she had been making the bed. I knew, because I could hear over the speakerphone, in the early snatches of the conversation, the creak of the almirah in her Kochi crash pad, the pauses as she climbed into the gap between the wall and the bed to tuck in the fitted sheet. That was how often she and I used to talk, back when Akash was alive, that I knew exactly what she was doing from the background sound. It seemed like a vain, preening thing, I’d tried to tell her, my desire to procreate, which had dried up anyway. I was so tired of being disappointed, of feeling like my body could not hold life. There were the intellectual considerations of this too: the wars, the storms, famine, great tides of refugees.
A foolish thing, a selfish thing, to bring a child into the dying world.
Right before I had slammed down the phone, my mother had shouted,
—If you, after all the good things you have been given in life, after me telling you that having you was the best gift of my life, after how your father and I raised you, if you can choose not to have children after all that, then I have nothing to say to you. Stupid girl! Selfish girl! Grow old alone, then, with no one to take care of you! Die alone! What will you do by yourself? You can’t even drive!
I watch my mother sleep in the Super 8 motel. She is so much smaller than me. Neater, ordered. Her gray hair spills over the limp pillow. Her lips are parted, her breath is even, peaceful.
I think, with horror and wonder, I came out of your body.
Through the window I can see stars wink. This is what Akash means: sky.
When I wake, I feel wetness in my underwear. I pull down my pants in the motel bathroom, and there is something so dark in the cotton crotch of my panties that my breath stops momentarily. Whatever has come forth out of me is black, bituminous.
I clean myself, my pulse flickering in my ears. We are a day away from Middleton. I’ll see a doctor there.
Things my mother has said to me, over the past year:
1. Global warming and all is now the reason to not have children? Who taught you this, to take responsibility for the whole world but not your own life?
2. You do what you want. You know best. You young people are so vain. So self-important. Like planets sailing round the sun by yourself.
3. When I gave birth to you, it was the most beautiful day. I had a very dangerous bleeding, and I was so scared, but the doctors and your Papa took care of me. You were so small, but you looked at me, you knew who I was. My heart, you know, it was bursting with love.
4. Whatever you do for yourself, Kamalam, whatever fears you have, there will be children born, until the end.
5. So you say to me, Ma, leave me alone, I don’t want your life. I don’t want your life, can you imagine this girl? What life do you want? You want to go to a designer store and get a special kind of life, custom-made, just for you? What do you despise about my life, huh? Tell me, what do you think of your mother?
Gentle but inexorable, obsessive, maddening. Preening, self-righteous. Disappointed and stoic. Disappointed and unable to let go. A woman who lives only for other people, who cannot imagine life spent otherwise. Rigid, upright. Beautiful and smart and underestimated. A woman who has seen some shit. A woman who turned to her husband in their bed and said: poaam, let’s leave for the States, what is here for us?
Nitpicker. Compulsive cleaner. A stupid old woman. A conspiracy theorist. A Fox News watcher. A snake oil buyer. The lifelong prettiest girl in the room. My mother who bathed me when a child. My mother who rubbed oil into my skin every day when a child. My mother who rubbed my back when I vomited. My mother who, the day my father died, did not cry. My mother who fell down when doing puja after his cremation, shattering the murtis, making me rush her to the hospital to get stitched up. My mother who said, under her breath, thinking I did not hear: why couldn’t I have died instead of him. My mother, who never spoke of this after.
A slender teak-skinned boat of an old woman. Silver-headed, gold-ringed.
There is a stormfront coming, headed for Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota. Seems doubtful it will cross us. Then again, the old joke applies: you never know.
The flush of the toilet in our hotel off Calumet Ave, by the defunct Marathon Petroleum, is not working. As if this is not enough, some presumably insane person has scattered nails into the toilet bowl. They glint at me, shiny and steel.
—It’s okay, do susu only, my mother says.
I burst out laughing for what seems like the first time in months. I am almost thirty-four years old and my mother still calls it susu.
I wash and fold our clothes in the hotel launderette.
—Good girl, she says, absently.
For Indians, you are a girl until you are a grandmother. My mother, in her own eyes, is a girl. She finds it absurd, this American practice of calling a slender twentysomething woman. You’re a girl until you’re old. You’re a child until your parents die.
When I wake up the next morning my mother gives me a box of sweets, soan papdi tied with a curly ribbon. I squint and rub my eyes.
—Happy birthday, Kammu darling, my mother says, stroking my hair.
She smells like coriander and Yardley talcum powder when I hug her. She tells me the story of how I was born, in the dirty hospital, how frightened she was, how glad.
I was born less than a year after my mother’s mother left the earth. My mother had nursed my dying grandmother. Her lips a purse for drool, her legs flappy, marked with bedsores. Her mind, lost. It was like she was a baby again, like she was my baby, my mother once told me in her gentle, dreamy way, and I, pigtail-headed, pinafored, slunk off into another room and wept.
I was the first grandchild, a hook to hang things on. A tiny sparrow mouth to fill. Yawning, red.
Every female fetus develops its lifetime supply of ova while still in the womb, the set of eggs that stay with you and drop with periodic frequency throughout your life. What this means for each woman on earth: the egg that bloomed into what is now her life, was once inside her mother’s little raspberry-fetus, held safe in her grandmother’s womb.
When I go to the bathroom to brush my teeth, I see that the nails in the toilet bowl have rusted overnight.
We pass Rosemont, Illinois when I feel the first wave of nausea. I ask: Can you stop at the oasis, Ma?
She stays in the car, reading through her little copy of the Gita.
I pass the Starbucks and the KrispyKreme, the shuttered Mobil gas station that has been refurbished with charging ports. I keep my eyes alert. With the influx of coastal migrants, the heartland oases have also become stops for traffickers and junkies, the violent and insane.
It is so crowded here. Mothers, grandmothers, children in various stages of kemptness. Red-faced white truckers eating burgers. Arab uncles playing backgammon on the Formica tables. There is something beautiful about this in the abstract. A new world forming. Contracting, knitting together in the country’s heartland like a star.
The oasis bathroom smells like sulphur and meat. These women’s eyes are wary. Their hands are in pockets fingering weapons or mace in case someone tries shit. There are used needles swept into the stall’s corner. On my knees on the wet tiled floor I retch my guts out.
And then the impossible alights in my mind. Fuck fuck there is no way—
There is a TravelMart in the oasis, with a little drugstore attached.
There’s no way, I tell myself, as I piss onto the white plastic strip, absolutely no way.
But there it is, the new pink line. Positive.
I check my IUD strings. Still in place.
Is this Akash? The line cook? The cum-stained motel sheets? Something else?
Is the test even right? What will I tell her?
Whatever fears you have, there will be children born, until the end.
Her car is empty, parked where we left it. Dread whips through me like wind.
I’m a child again, small and terrified, my heart a rabbit’s. Did someone take her. Did she leave me. Did someone hurt her. Where is she.
You’re a girl and then you’re old. You’re a child ’til your mother dies.
I palm my belly. As I call my mother’s name I begin to cry.
A country’s not your country ‘til you bury someone with your name, birth someone of your line.
Where is she. I am a child, still a child, with a child.
There she is. In the KrispyKreme line.
She sees me, grins, waves.
—Come, Kamalam, my mother says, cheerful, full mouth working, a white powdery lipliner around it.
Come-come-lum. She says it again.
Which means, let’s go.
Aditya Desai talks to Sarah Thankam Mathews about “The Storms.”
Sarah Thankam Mathews grew up in India and Oman, immigrating to the United States at seventeen. She is a Rona Jaffe Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has been published in The Kenyon Review, Buzzfeed Reader, AGNI, and Platypus Press. You can find her on Twitter @smathewss.
Senna Ahmad is a DC based graphic designer, photographer and digital illustrator. Much of her work revolves around her multi-faceted identity as a Pakistani American woman. Her work is inspired by the Urdu script, South Asian poetry, and the incredible strength of women in the subcontinent. Her work has been featured in Dawn.com, Scroll.in, Kajal Magazine, and other news publications. You can see more at sennaahmad.com, and find her on Instagram @sennaahmad.