Mother died. The apartment I’d bought for her had to be sold.
When the apartment wouldn’t sell, I started grousing that I would be wearing Mother’s albatross now. As soon as the place was move-in ready, she had to go and die. Good in a way she was dead, actually; if she’d had an inkling of my (okay, mean) grousing she’d have writhed like a salted leech. And if she’d even heard the word “leech” — same thing.
Mother loved my son Joey more than anything else in her world, everyone would say. Joey didn’t love her back that much. Joey was a tough kid that way. Living with his immigrant single mom, American dad furious about the divorce, Joey knew not to love too much where the yield was slant or uncertain. And so he didn’t love Mother enough to be really stricken when she died. I tried to see it from his point of view, but since I had to be the link between him and Mother, I minded it. I minded that he wasn’t more like a “normal,” happy kid who favored grandmother over mother. I minded that Mother wasn’t able to inspire hardcore grandkid love in him. Her unconditional love for Joey — she claimed she’d felt the same for me but was afraid to express it in case it spoiled me — made things worse. It made her weak with him and he could see that. What use was it to love him in a way he didn’t respect? How would that undo what she did or didn’t do to, for, me? I minded that she wasn’t able to fix in his life the holes in mine, that I’d passed on to him. She’d been too hard with me and then she was too easy with him.
That was Mother. No judgment, no guts, only remorse and always too late.
Just for the sale, then, we went back to the old country, India. The apartment was still “virgin,” someone said, I forget who. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen, balcony. Brilliant white walls, pastel bathroom tiles. Pristine and lifeless. Like a “virgin,” I suppose. The windows were large but the apartment never caught much light from the sun, only a head-splitting heat.
Joey had never wanted to stay in that apartment even before I was ready to sell it. Maybe Joey knew something I didn’t. He always itched to be done with visits to the old country. I couldn’t fit him in there; to get away from Mother (and Father), I’d run too far away and I couldn’t connect the ends. In the old country I ended up being a misfit myself. Exhausted. Maybe I’d been stretched too thin between past, present and future — five thousand miles at least — and damaged Joey with my fatigue. Maybe Joey got that. Maybe he didn’t want to be the missing link in my broken chain. Maybe everybody but me got that.
Maybe I shouldn’t have left for the U.S. And because Joey loved me maybe he could see through my angry chatter when I blamed Mother that it wasn’t just rage, though it always only looked like rage.
Stupid woman left me in the lurch when I was finally in a position to get her away from Father.
The apartment wasn’t getting much interest. Maybe I should never have bought it. Maybe Mother shouldn’t have whispered to me in her kitchen — so Father wouldn’t hear — that she could find sanctuary there. Maybe her spirit was hovering over the apartment saying, “Mine, mine! All mine!” Unlikely. Every time Mother was told she couldn’t have whatever it was she wanted, her head kind of dipped to one side like she was peering at her own breasts, and her body closed in upon itself like a tortoise under attack. Shrunken, she slunk away. Accepting what was given. Except me not working hard to be what Father wanted. I got her helpless, frustrated resentment for that. Except my need to stay the way I was, because Father said she’d better…. Or…. Though that’s a kind of love too, I suppose.
Trying to sell the apartment also opened my eyes to why I’d really left. It wasn’t because of a lack of opportunities for someone who didn’t want to be a doctor, engineer, or accountant. I’d said those things for years and believed them. Good luck with being a painter if you’re not from money. Good luck with being a woman if you’re not from money.
Selling the apartment was a reminder of the real reason.
Fucked up. It was no country for women and girls. A fucked up motherland.
I left and there was nothing Mother could do about it. The way she could do nothing about the Uncle who loved to put me on his lap and dandle me. When I told her, she fell from the sky. She looked stabbed in the gut, devastated. Stupid woman. Apparently she didn’t know such things happened. For a while she kept stammering, “But, but… he’s your….” Then, still looking like she’d been stabbed, she managed to scoop together the guts to go to Father and I don’t know what happened there. She came back with her head dipping to one side, wouldn’t look at me.
Uncle Asshole kept coming but I refused to sit on his lap anymore. He fussed and frowned. I stared at him while Mother rattled things in the kitchen. I never saw her address him directly.
That’s why I’ve watched over Joey like a hawk from the day he was born.
“Did anyone touch you where they shouldn’t have?”
“Mum! Come on! No one touched me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Mum! Yes I’m sure, stop asking me that! It’s embarrassing!”
It made me feel so good, so whole, so responsible, asking him that. I knew that I was a better mother to Joey than Mother had been for me. Oh much, much better. I’d done it all and alone. I’d kicked out the man who thought I was gutless like Mother; I’d never dipped my head to one side for him. I kicked butt. And I was okay and Joey was okay.
Mother hadn’t been able to do anything. Father wouldn’t let her.
That’s why I left the country as soon as I had a chance.
Joey is American. Joey’s never going to leave America. (If it’s still there in twenty years, of course.) So I’m also stuck being American. I won’t leave America either. So the apartment had to go. Joey would have to go to college.
Was I being disloyal? To Mother? Oh fuck no. She always chose wrong for herself and for me.
Everyone wanted to help me sell the apartment. Father. His building electrician. His cook. Asshole.
Yes, even Asshole. He was almost seventy now. Still spry, a full head of silver hair — a more debonair version of Father. When he saw Joey he chucked him under the cheek. I made big eyes at Joey that was code for, “Stay away from this thing.” But how surprised was I when Joey didn’t listen. He stayed. Maybe in my family, in the old country, he was looking for a male role model, what with his Dad not being around.
“Joey!” I yelled. Teeth clenched. You can do that. When you’re pissed off and freaked out at the same time. “Get into the shower, it’s time for bed.”
Joey, ten years old, looked at me like I’d just killed his mother and said, “I’m not doing that.”
I dragged him away by one arm as he discreetly kicked at my legs, trying to trip me up without being too obvious —Asshole was making him want to look civilized? — because I still could. And I looked straight at Asshole after I came back — Joey standing under the waterfall in the bathroom and shouting, “I hate you! I hate you!” — and asked him, “What’s up?” My arms were akimbo.
He was standing against a wall, arrogant bastard that he was. He flinched the tiniest bit, but recovered. The mocking grin never flinched.
“Just like your mother, aren’t you, young lady?”
I left the room and slammed the door of my bedroom, Mother’s bedroom, behind me. Looking around, the only thing I could find to kick was the desk where she used to sit and email me, so I did, hard, which hurt. And Joey came out commando, dripping, and said I was ruining his life. And was smacked for his effort.
I wasn’t like Mother. I was a better mother, a smarter woman. Except for buying that apartment that nobody wanted now, not even strangers. And that too was because I’d listened to her. And as I called her names inside my head my eyes prickled with something hot and wet, and I knew my mouth was twisting like a child’s.
Father gave Asshole the key to the apartment. To show buyers. Without asking me.
“Why did you do that?” I shouted. “Why on earth would you give it to him? Why would you do that without asking me?”
The old, ebony-skinned man looked at me over his newspaper, said nothing, and went back to reading, but with his paper lifted a little higher, a little tighter.
I called Asshole and said, “Give me the key back. I don’t need your help.”
He said, “It’s better I do this, dear. I can transact this entire business on your behalf, because I know better how it works here.”
I said, “Over my dead fucking body. Just bring it back. I don’t need your help.”
And Joey said, “You’re so mean to your grownups and you tell me I have to be respectful?” Father’s palm-leaf shaped ears perked up, the newspaper in his hand lowered to show his goggle eyes behind his ridiculous lunettes, and I braced myself for a comment about what kind of daughter or mother I was. A grunt, a smirk. It never came, but I knew.
How old would Joey need to be before I could tell him? About this and about his Dad? His Dad who found gambling sexier than me. Didn’t like it when I told him he had to stop. Who told Joey no one could possibly live with me.
Asshole said I was supposed to route all queries — email or phone — about the apartment to him. I was supposed to say he was my agent, and communication would be through him. I asked Father if he didn’t think this was ridiculous. It was my apartment. I’d bought it for my mother.
“Who the hell does that jackass think he is, acting like he’s in charge? Eh?”
And the jackass’s brother said, “You’ve been in America too long. Far too long.”
Joey and I are, deep down, very close. I know it’s me he loves and needs more than anything and anyone. For me, life doesn’t mean anything without Joey. It’s been pretty much the two of us together for the last six years, after his father finally stopped coming by raging because I’d divorced him. Men are weasels.
Except Joey, of course. He’s just a kid. Now. But what will he become when he’s older? Will he still love me?
Asshole brought candy and cheap Chinese-made toys for Joey when he visited. To report about the apartment and brag. Joey ran to him. I gave up on grabbing and chasing Joey down after a few days.
What did it matter? We’d be gone soon.
So Joey ran to Asshole and he promptly told Joey stories about me as a girl, about how close we used to be and how I loved to hear his stories and how he brought me candy too, even though Grandpapa there said no, and then…. And he looked at me after he said that, and I saw his eyes were full of mocking laughter. And all I could do was never leave Joey alone with Asshole.
Asshole found buyers. I wasn’t to respond to phone calls if any came. He’d take care of it. He knew how to negotiate. I put my foot down. These were buyers. They were ready to buy and they were buying from me.
“Like hell you’re going to talk to them on my behalf.”
“You don’t understand how it works here.”
“Like hell I don’t. You’ll probably get a cut from them. You think I’m an idiot?”
He said, “Tsk, tsk, tsk.”
I said, “Get the fuck out of here, you Asshole, and take your deal with you.”
Joey said, “Is that how you talked to my Dad? Is that why he left us?”
“How dare you?” I turned on Joey. He took a step back. Toward Asshole. “How dare you speak to your mother that way? What d’you know?”
Father came out of the bathroom where he spent hours every day. He came out and he and Asshole went into his bedroom and shut the door. Joey stood in front of me in the dining room, eyes burning a hole in me.
Mother. What did they do to you? How did they stick you under a shell and keep you crawling?
And what’s my son doing? Rejecting me, buying men’s lies? Are they all the same weasels?
Mother’s face was hanging in a frame on the wall. I went closer and looked up at her.
Of course, she was no help. Like always, standing by, silent, head hanging, useless, gutless. But, I sensed for the first time, asking for forgiveness.
The apartment sold. I deposited the money in my US bank account. Asshole smiled and congratulated me. Father said nothing. I packed.
Joey protested, said he was just getting to know his grand-dad, his great-uncle. I told him it was complicated.
Joey and I left.
Joey asked, “That’s it, right? We’re never coming back, are we?”
Nandini Bhattacharya has received residencies and fellowships at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop, the Sarah Lawrence Summer Writers’ Workshop, the Southampton Summer Writers’ Conference, The Voices of Our Nation Arts Writing Workshop, and the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop in Paris. She has also been awarded a funded residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2019.Thus far, she has published four short stories; her novel Love’s Garden has been accepted for publication in 2019; a second novel manuscript is in progress. To hone her craft, she has taken online writing courses through the UCLA extension program and attended the Writer’s Digest Advanced Novel Writing Conference (2017) and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference (2018). Recently she was chosen as the first runner-up for the Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction contest (2017-2018), a finalist for the Fourth River Folio Contest for Prose Prize (2018), long-listed for the Disquiet International Literary Prize (2019), and a finalist for the Reynolds-Price International Women’s Literary Award (2019).
Raising Mothers is a free online literary magazine for BIWOC and non-binary parents of color. As little as $1 a month goes a long way towards supporting our editorial staff and contributors while keeping us ad-free. Become a patron today.