Fiction: Shilpi Suneja
A RIVER CANNOT BE A RIVER
This story was first published in Meeting House (www.meetinghousemag.com) as part of their “Set in Harvard Square” contest.
Meera had called twice. Both times there was no answer. She circled around Out of Town newsstand, then crossed the street peeling off her gloves with her teeth, a mug of hot tea in one hand. She locked her bike on a parking meter and waited for her mother.
Then she saw her. She was getting off the bus, her hand clutching the railings, descending slowly, as if she were fragile, unable to keep her belly from peeking out of her cheap velvet shirt, the color of dead leaves. She was wearing a shabby blue jacket with a broken zipper, her hair untidily flaring out of a woolen face-cap, the sort that night watchmen called Bahadur wear in Indian hill stations.
“Did you call?” cried her mother’s thin voice.
Meera searched her mother’s face. She wanted to know how her interview had been at the school. Ten years in the country and she was still trying to be a teacher. “What do you think, maa?” she said instead, turning round towards Brattle Street.
“I keep the phone in my pocket. Still I don’t hear it,” replied her mother, walking double-fast to keep up. “Where should we go?”
The thought of Harvard Square had thrown a burst of optimism over the winter days that had gone by with a series of failed interviews for her mother. And yet, when the two women were face-to-face with the brightness and cheerfulness of the place, they could not think of a single shop to go into. So they pottered about on Brattle Street. Outside Bertuccis, her mother hit her foot against a brick and stumbled. Meera stopped.
“We should try a smoother road.”
“No, this is fine,” she said, wiping her nose with an old Kleenex lined with lint.
Meera passed her mother the mug of tea.
“It isn’t hot anymore,” she said, taking a sip. A drop remained on her lower lip, and she wiped it with her hand.
“Where are your gloves?” asked Meera.
“I can hold the mug. That’s enough.”
It was too cold to be out, so they took a turn round the shops, which were more like museums where each item was admired from afar, as if it were in a glass case.
In Hidden Sweets Meera leaned over a decorative plate with the Harvard crest and revealed her news. “My director has offered me a teaching position,” she said, keeping her eyes fixed on the gold wreath circling the crest.
“That’s—that’s good,” said her mother from behind, not taking her eyes off the bobbing-head tortoise dolls.
Meera bit her lip, regretting her own words. How could she say it so simply? Like it was the weather or news of her cousins in India? Callous!
They filed through the aisles systematically, one after another, like a couple of safety inspectors. Postcards. Check. Mugs. Check. Plastic wobbly-head dolls. Check. Decorative plates. Check. Meera saw her mother holding a tacky greeting card, her fingers shaking a little. Throughout, she could fee the eyes of the pink-haired counter assistant on her.
Wanting to leave, Meera nudged her mother. Instead, she startled her and her schoolbag swung round, bringing a shot glass with red, cheerful letters crashing to the floor.
“Oh dear, I’m—oh no,” cried her mother.
The girl behind the counter leaned over and sighed.
Meera picked up a shard with the price sticker and walked up to her, followed by her mother. “I will pay,” she said, avoiding the disapproving stare from across the counter.
“Five dollars,” said the girl, with a look that seemed to be questioning their need for Harvard paraphernalia.
“Let me pay,” said her mother, grabbing Meera’s hand.
“No, maa. You don’t have a job yet.” Meera fished in her pockets for cash, but dollar-seventy was all she had. She stepped aside to let her mother pay.
They walked past the florist, past the fashionable clothing stores, past TeaLux with the shiny, bright colored kettles on the shelves. Made in Holland. Meera had found out one day with Aamir. She had lifted a yellow one in her hand, turned it upside-down, and Aamir’s hand had been on the lid. Just like that.
“You should start your class with ice-breakers,” her mother said, looking away. “It is always better to start with ice-breakers.”
“Hmm,” said Meera. She had stopped outside the tea shop.
“We can go in if you like,” said her mother.
“No. There is nothing I want,” she replied, resuming their walk.
Her mother sighed. “Why don’t you call him?” she said.
“He will call if he wants to.”
“As you wish.”
They took a turn on Eliot Street and found themselves in the open space in front of Peet’s café. Meera felt the chill on her fingers despite her gloves. “We can go into more shops if you are cold,” she said to her mother, blowing into her hands.
“No, let’s stay here awhile.”
“Then put your gloves on.”
Her mother obeyed.
They spread old newspapers on a bench, and sat for a while. The usual professorial crowds were missing that day—tall men and women in black coats, furry hats, plush gloves, with a glow on their faces that probably came from their affiliation to Harvard. Meera didn’t blame them. If she or her mother had such affiliations, she too would glow crimson. Crimson, she said, crimson. It had a crispy sound, like the name of a stubborn little girl in pink ribbons. She thought she saw such a girl pass by and lifted an arm to point her out to her mother, but stopped.
At least the shops were still here, Meera thought, and their tinsel and lights, which would remain through the dreariest days of January. At least Aamir had not taken all this away. She observed her mother walk up to the street to offer ginger candy to a little child and to exchange words with his nanny.
A car drove past splattering slush, and some of it landed on her mother’s leg. Meera tore off a page from the newspaper and rose. The sock was soaked. Her thin ankle was wet too.
“Shall we head back? It is getting dark,” said Meera.
They walked up JFK. Outside CVS, a man in old clothes greeted them ceremoniously. Meera handed him a dollar bill and shuffled past.
At the T-entrance her mother stopped. “I forgot to do something—I have to go to the subway.”
“You mean the T? It is call the T in Boston, maa—we don’t live in New York anymore—”
Her mother kept walking straight. Like she had a gun aimed on her back. That broke Meera’s heart.
Her mother stopped at the escalator, looked down, and it was several seconds before she stepped on. She clutched the handrails, her knuckles turning white. She headed for the ticket machines. She took off her gloves, stuffed them in her left pocket, and produced her reading glasses from the right.
Meera stepped forward. “Let me do this. What do you want?”
Her mother fished out her wallet from the school bag, Meera’s old school bag.
“It is only three days a week, for four hours.”
“My new job. At Dunkin Donuts. In Brookline.”
Meera’s hand froze. “You didn’t go to the school?”
“They are not hiring anymore,” said her mother “Twenty-dollars,” she said, handing her a credit card.
Meera pulled out her own. As she completed the transaction, her mother held her palms open under the slot, as if she were standing in a temple, waiting to receive worship flowers kissed by the feet of God. But it was only the Charlie Card that would take her to a Dunkin Donuts where she had seen a help wanted sign written in bad handwriting.
On their way back they passed the CVS. Meera saw her dollar bill lying inconspicuously by the door, far from the foot of their unofficial doorman, who had moved on to the eatery next door, retired from his duties. He shouted faint curses into the night that rose and burst like firecrackers. The noise in his head must be loud, Meera thought, and picked up her money.
“When do you start,” she said to her mother.
“Tomorrow. Seven a.m.” She sighed, then said, “I looked ten years for a teaching job in this country.”
Meera nodded silently. She walked up to the parking meter and unlocked her bike.
“You rode your bike,” said her mother. “In this weather? With a mug in one hand?” she said, squinting. Her eyes had a delirious, fearful look, like she was seeing things over which she had no control.
“I didn’t want to keep you waiting,” Meera said.
They started marching. They had marching orders. From Lieutenant Life. Twin rifles, one poised on the mother, the other on the daughter.
Outside Bombay Club, Meera stopped. “Dinner?” she said, clearing her throat.
Her mother scrunched her shoulders.
“You have a job,” said Meera.
“You have the job,” replied her mother.
Meera swallowed. Another moment and she would kick. Kick fiercely at whatever she could find. She had the job her mother had wanted, had tried so desperately to get, but her degrees and experience from India did not translate. It was as simple as that. For Meera, it had all come easily—as a graduate fellowship in a writing program that she had entered by telling her mother’s stories, raiding her mother’s heart to be heartfelt. She nodded slowly, and said, “Yes, I have the job.”
They crossed the street to the 7-eleven and bought hotdogs, a tea, and a pack of Twizzlers. These they ate on their walk back home. On the bridge they stopped to observe a frozen Charles.
“Tea is awful,” said her mother.
“It isn’t tea at all.”
Meera gulped the last drop of the bland, un-tea-like tea. She regarded the river. The hibernating, unlovely Charles. Unable to be a river during these cold months.
It was as the poet Ghalib had said—there are times when it is not possible for a man to be human. And for a river to be a river, Meera thought. Or a teacher to be a teacher, or a writer, a writer. She steadied her bike, pulled a string of candy from the pack her mother held, and the two women started their march back home.