Sudha Balagopal "Two Stories"

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Repetition

           

Dev push-slithers his way out of mother's womb half an hour before you. At birth, you weigh a pound less than he does. In other ways you're similar―same unruly hair, same flared nose, same bony hands, same high-arched feet. At age three, you stand abreast, shoulders touching, while parents and grandparents “ooh and aah” over their varis, the heir. You repeat varis, varis, varis because you don't know the word for heiress. In your family, that word doesn't exist.

 

Flash cards

           

Your teacher instructs you to write the times table on rectangular pieces of paper measuring three inches by two inches. In neat alphabet, you also inscribe vocabulary lists, famous quotes, world capitals―flash cards with condensed information to nudge your brain. Dev hides the nuggets, mocks your learning. When you complain, your parents say you can just as easily make two stacks of everything. He's the varis. He embodies the family's festooned hopes and dreams. Later, you find the flash cards cut up like confetti.

 

Mnemonics     

           

When your fifth-grade teacher introduces you to VIBGYOR, violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red―a word tool to help recall the colors of the rainbow―you develop your own mnemonics. YACS, you always come second―Dev receives a helping of hot halva before you do. HYBS, help your brother succeed―when Dev cannot use a protractor, you must measure the angles. YCBV, you cannot be the varis―when you mention college, they talk marriage; when you mention accounting or medicine, your grandmother says, “What's the point? Girls will waste an admission that could go to a boy.”

 

Association    

           

When Dev lags in class, the family rallies to support the varis. They enroll him in after-school math and science classes to help improve grades. Your parents declare you don't need extra training, they must save for your wedding. Dev's behaviors don't change, will never change: he leaves his homework lying around for you to complete; he offers joy rides to girls on his scooter, lurks in parks, cafes and movie theaters. You hold the information inside your rib cage, hug your upper arms, console yourself: at least you finish his work, at least one of you learns, at least the fees don't go to waste.

 

Rote   

           

The postman hands you the envelopes from the universities on the same day, one thick, one thin: one for you, one for Dev. Inside your room, you memorize the date stamped on your cover, memorize the name and title of the person who signed the letter, memorize the slant of the signature, memorize the school's motto, memorize the scholarship offer. You memorize every single sentence on the crisp white sheets before you hide the packet inside the drawer, then sit at the desk, one hand on the knob. Outside the room you hear the family, tongues clicking in commiseration.

 

                                                                  

 

 

Pachyderm

           

Ajay squeezes my fingers. His grip strangles the engagement ring between my digits sending a sliver of pain into my knuckles.

“No one's ever asked to rent our elephant, have they, Oscar?” Phil—the manager at Pomp and Show—asks the four-foot-long iguana draped shawl-like over his shoulder. He offers the lizard a tatter of lettuce from a bowl. The iguana licks the shred a couple of times before swallowing it. “A horse won't do? Or maybe a zebra if you're looking for . . . pizzazz?”

“A family tradition,” my fiancé tells Phil. “Ma says my Papa, God rest his soul, rode one. As did my grandfather.”

 

Sticky-warm air wafts through the open flap of the tent. Cocooned in Ajay's hand, my palm sweats. Sometimes, my heart somersaults when Ajay wants to hold my hand. At other times, it sets up  a heavy thud-thud—when he eats off of my plate, when he answers the phone every time his Ma calls, or when he speaks of  traditions he must uphold.

           

Phil strokes the iguana. “It'll be pricey,” he says. “But I can offer you Lily. She's temperamental . . . just like a woman, heh, heh. “

I wrench my hand free, stand. The plastic chair falls.

Phil's hair glistens with pomade. “What I mean is, Lily has a calf that's sorta attached. So . . . ”

Ajay's phone dings.

“Ma says we need the elephant to ferry me up the drive to the hotel's entrance.” He tucks his phone, recaptures my hand. “About 300 yards. That should take thirty minutes, tops, with the music and the dancing.”

The manager attempts to lift the iguana off his shoulder. The animal clings. “That can be arranged.”

“This is our wedding, a once-in-a-lifetime event.” Ajay bunches my fingers, kisses them.

           

Mother said Ajay's everything she dreamed of―he celebrates family traditions and is “committedly attached.”

             

“An elephant for a wedding in America? Ridiculous.” Father did not tiptoe around words. “In our time, the goal was a short wedding and a long marriage.”

           

In our home, Father charted the week's menu on Sunday nights; he informed Mother of vacation plans after taking time off and booking tickets; he decided the kind of car she should drive.

           

Father believed he was progressive because Mother had access to a joint bank account.

           

           

Ajay links his elbow with mine while iguana-draped Phil takes us to Lily's small enclosure.           

           

The lively calf weaves in and out from under Lily's legs. I unwind my arm walk toward the not-so-little one.

           

Phil yells, commands the trumpeting calf away from his mother. I raise my hand, glare.

           

I bend, touch the calf and he responds, flapping his ears, patting my head with his trunk like a blessing. I  tell Ajay, “Look, he's smiling. ”

           

His phone rings. “It's Ma.”

           

I ask, “What's the urgency?” but he's walked away.

           

When he returns, he doesn't greet Lily, or say hello to the friendly calf.  “We've decided. Ma asked me to pay the deposit with our shared credit card.”

           

I want to ask how long the card will stay active.

           

           

Ajay's Ma mail-orders adornment for the elephant: a massive blanket to drape over Lily's back, a faux-gold ornament for her broad forehead, paint in vibrant shades to create art on the pillar-like legs, a tasseled umbrella in rainbow colors that'll hover above my fiancé as he rides the elephant up the wedding venue's driveway.

           

“Why have the decorations been delivered to my house?” I ask Ajay. “This is yours.”

           

Mother wrestles open the cumbersome package with the elephant's blanket, unfurls it on the sofa. An appreciable length trails behind the sofa-back.

           

“Magnificent,” she whispers, palms together.

           

I run my cold hand over the ornateness. The sewn-in beads and stones poke, the thick, richly hued fabric scratch-itches. Ajay will ride in opulence atop a massive pachyderm, sway his way to marry me. Lily's calf will be left behind in the enclosure. I recall the warmth of her trunk on my head, a benediction.

           

I capture the ends of the blanket, fold the material in quarters. The embellishments on the blanket get caught in my engagement ring as I shove-push-shove-push the yards back into the package.

           

I pull off the ring.      

Bio: Sudha Balagopal's work appears in Fractured Lit, Monkeybicycle and Smokelong Quarterly among other journals. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can't Tell Amma, was published by Ad Hoc fiction this year. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions and has a micro in Best Microfiction 2021. She is also listed in the Wigleaf Top 50. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com