Joyland

San Francisco |

Didi

by Shruti Swamy

edited by Kara Levy

When I got back from the grocery store, my wife was sitting in an armchair and looking out the window at the rain. She seemed startled to see me, and wiped away her tears with her palms, and then I could see her carefully arranging her face before she turned it to me.

            “Back so soon?”

            “The bus came right away.”

            “Did you get everything?”

            “Yes, everything,” I said. I went to the kitchen and put all the bags of groceries down on the counter. I liked the strain in my arms and my shoulders and was sorry to let them go. They slumped down. My wife padded in behind me and went to the sink to wash her hands. She was wearing a beautiful dress of a dark, fine material that she wore sometimes when we went out on rare occasions to fancy restaurants. Now that I got close to her I could see the makeup on her eyelids and smell her perfume. It was eleven thirty in the morning.

            “Where are you going?”

            “Where would I be going?” she said. She lifted each item out of the grocery bag carefully, turning each orange over in her slim hands to inspect them or bless them. She took out a large wooden bowl and placed the oranges inside, and she was right to do so; they were beautiful in that bowl.

            “Those are Cara Cara,” I told her. “I had a sample in the store.”

            “How much were they?”

            “Four-fifty a pound.”

            “Four-fifty!” She looked displeased, and I was honestly glad. I wanted to see something on her face, even displeasure.

            “Try one,” I said.

            “I’m not hungry right now.”

            “Here,” I said. I took one out of the bowl and peeled it messily; the juice got all over my hands. My clothes were still damp from the rain outside. I held out a section to her. “Here, try it.”

            She stood with her arms folded. She took it up like a game: angry wife, foolish husband.

            “Here,” I said. The fruit was a reddish orange inside, almost the color of a grapefruit. I came toward her, holding the piece in my hand. She stood still. I brought the fruit to her lips. “Here,” I said, putting the fruit right to her mouth, wetting her lips with the juice. She looked very small, standing with me in the kitchen. Her dark hair was parted neatly at one side and gathered at her neck. She had black eyes and very narrow shoulders. She didn’t resist me. Her lips opened. She ate the piece of fruit I offered her, and then opened her mouth for another. So I stood there and fed her the orange. I was grateful to her. When we were finished she wiped her mouth.

            In the bus earlier there had been enough room for me to sit down and put the bags of groceries on the seat beside me. I was in a sort of trance when I looked out the window. It was the sound of the wheels on the rainy street and the rain splattering down on the window. I hardly knew where I was. I had an urge to lift a bag of flour from the bag of groceries. I took out the bag of whole-grain flour and sat it down on my lap. I wanted to feel the weight and heft of it in my arms. I put my arms around it and closed my eyes. For a little time it felt right, pressing down into my thighs, bouncing with the movement of the bus, almost like a live thing. But after a while I began to feel unsatisfied and I put it away.

            “Why are you dressed like that?” I said now.

            “Oh,” she said absently. She was looking out the window again. “I just wanted to feel pretty.” 

 

For a time my wife made bread every day, too much bread for just us, so we would walk around on Saturday mornings and give the loaves away to the people who lived on the street in our neighborhood, though we often got the feeling they would have preferred something else. We thought about getting a dog. My wife occupied herself during free time by teaching herself Hindi. I had my books; sometimes I went alone to bars. We spent some quiet months. I saw her eyes track the children in restaurants or in the park. Once on the way out of a pizza shop a little boy grasped her hands with his little fingers and tried to climb up her leg, saying, “Mommy, Mommy!” It was when he saw her face that he realized his mistake and skittered off, and when I put a hand on my wife’s shoulder, she turned away from me. Again, I could see her carefully arranging herself. When she looked up I saw she was trying to laugh.

            I had taken to telling the story, when my wife was elsewhere, to strangers at parties. After a few beers I would have a nice feeling in my stomach. It was a warm anger. I would say, “The bitch of it is, I’m not even sure I want to be a father. In fact, I think that it is fundamentally evil to bring life into this world. You think about the things you know your child must suffer, any child, even if you give him the best life you can. Think about death, for example,” I’d say. “Think about the carrying capacity of the earth, for god’s sake,” I’d say. “Think about pedophiles.” We stopped getting invited to so many parties. 

            There was a way my wife touched her stomach a day or two before she told me. I saw her gathering her strength. I saw her hand resting on her sternum. It was too early to know but we knew. It was the same feeling, the sound of that ringing bell.

 

Then our daughter was born. When she was a baby I liked to listen to a particular song by Echo and the Bunnymen on the weekend and watch her kick her legs up into the air. By the time she was five I knew she would never be pretty; she had all of my looks. She was stout, solidly built, dark as me or darker, with thick brows and small, curious eyes that peered out of her face like a badger’s. Her name was Diviya: we called her Didi.

            “You ever think,” I said to Didi, “that you and me just sitting here at the table is going to only be relevant to us?”

            “No,” said Didi. It was a Sunday morning and she was smacking down a glass of milk; she was a big eater, and ate always with relish.

            “I mean, when I die, and when you die, this moment is not going to matter to anyone. Nobody else is here.”

            “Mom’s here.”

            “Mom’s in the other room.”

            “It’ll matter to me.”

            “Well, you’ll be dead.”

            “No, I won’t.” Then she took out her 101 Wacky Summer Camp Jokes book and read some jokes aloud. She had learned to read astonishingly early, and at six she was working through Wuthering Heights. I was afraid that her idea of the world of adults was getting skewed, but supposed she’d sort it out eventually. 

            “I was sent home from summer camp because of poor eyesight,” Didi read. She had a deadpan delivery. “I was the only camper who didn't see the skunk.”

             I didn’t laugh, and she tried another one. She was sitting at the kitchen table and swinging her legs off the seat while I drank my coffee. “What goes snap, crackle, squeak?”

            “I don’t know, what.”

            “Mice Krispies.”

            “What does that have to do with summer camp?”

            “Beats me,” she said. “I’ve never been to summer camp.”

            “I guess you can eat Rice Krispies at summer camp.”

            “I guess so,” she said. She read, “Camp Woodland put on a show with a happy ending. Everybody was glad when it was all over.”

            “A show with a what?” I said.

            “A happy ending.”

            “No,” I said. “Oh no. No, no, no. Let me have that book.” It was written by some asshole named Melvin Berger. I showed it to my wife. She was in the bedroom, reading a book of Hindi poems. It made her laugh.

           “That’s a good one,” she said.

           “It’s not a good one,” I said.

           “Don’t be so serious.”

           “Do you even know what a happy ending is?”

           “Yes,” she said. “I know what a happy ending is.”

           I sat down on the bed with her. Something about the way we were positioned, her lying on her back with her book and me very close to her, not touching her, reminded me of when she was pregnant with Didi, and I had put my hand on her belly for the first time and felt a live thing kicking. My wife told me her senses had sharpened. “It’s so strange,” she said. “I can smell everything. I imagine this is what the world is like for a dog. Even though the window’s closed I can smell the rain on the street, and the wet grass and dirt.” She told me I smelled like eight different things and listed them all, the last one being nervousness.            

           “What does nervousness smell like?” I asked her.

           “Sort of a sour smell. It’s in your sweat, the smell.”

           “You’re bluffing.”

           “You’re not nervous?” she said. She grasped my elbow with her hand. I was almost angry with her for noticing. She had looked at me with an expression of pity and love, and said, “I’m nervous.” But pregnancy had given her the calm radiance of a female Buddha, and I didn’t believe her.

            “What are we going to tell Didi?” I asked her now.

            “Tell her about what?” said my wife.

            “Sex, death, happy endings,” I said.

            “Oh, I don't know,” she said. “Everything, I suppose.”

 

In high school I was a wrestler. I remember being quite good, though at some point I just gave it up. I can remember very vividly that smell of sweat and the deodorant and the powder we wore under our shorts to keep from chafing. Closer down to the mat there was the odor of feet, the sticky plastic of the mat too, and I loved that smell because I didn’t allow myself to smell it unless I had won.

            There is one particular match I think of often. It was one of the last matches I had, before I gave up wrestling. Before a match I would try and make my mind cool and blank. I needed to feel no emotion toward my opponent. I thought of myself as a soldier in some ways. I listened to the voice of my coach—he understood me. He knew it was not the things he said to me, but the sound of his voice, and he used his voice to talk to me the way one uses their voice to talk to a child or an animal, with attention to pitch and tone.

           My opponent and I were in the same weight division, but he had an immense presence, the presence of a bull, and he was dark-skinned like me, his ancestry similarly tropical. At first I avoided eye contact with him, because I was struggling to clear that space in my mind. Each time he met my eyes I felt as though I had brushed against a thin, prickly thing, like the spine of a fish. But I didn’t want to seem weak or frightened, so after a while I began to meet his eyes. I fixed his face in my mind—the same flat contour of South Indian nostril, the purple-brown lips—his head was shaved like mine, and like me his ears stuck out almost sweetly, and when his mouth opened I could see his teeth, slightly tinged with yellow, irregularly shaped, nearly shining against his dark skin. Close enough that I could see the pores in his face, and I began to make all sorts of novice mistakes, giving him too much ground when I should have been on the aggressive, staying up high, though my true strength is in my legs. All of a sudden he caught me in his arms. He stood behind me, hugging the breath out of my stomach and chest. At first I felt pure panic, and then another emotion came through. The emotion was almost a sound I heard, ringing in my ears. I lay back into my opponent’s arms.

 

I woke up to the sound of the phone ringing. Didi was at a sleepover; it was too late in the night for good news. I raced to the phone.

            “Hello?”

            “Dad?”

            “Didi?”

            “Hi, Dad.” She was whispering.

            “What’s the matter? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

            My eyes were beginning to adjust. I took the phone with me back to the bedroom, where the light from the street poured in from the windows, and sat down on the bed. “Didi,” I said to my wife, who rubbed her eyes with her hands, looking for a moment like a child. I took her warm foot in my hand.

            “Will you come get me?”

            “Didi, what happened?”

            “Is my bed still there?”

            “Of course your bed is still here. Did something happen?” But I couldn’t get an answer out of her. I had almost never heard her frightened before. It was her first sleepover. I covered the mouth of the phone with my hand and explained the situation to my wife, who said that we would go get her in the morning. “I told you she was too little for a sleepover,” she couldn’t help adding. It had stopped raining, and I began to put on my pants and shoes. “Honey, it’s two in the morning,” she said, and then, sighing, “Take a taxi, at least.”

            But I walked. It was warmer outside than I expected. The sky was the kind of bruisy purple that it was in early mornings before rain, almost red, an eerie glow. After I crossed Valencia the streets were empty. As a young man I had walked like this, before dawn in the city streets, when I couldn’t sleep. People told me it was dangerous, but I saw all sorts of things. I liked to stand at the corner and watch the traffic lights change even though there were no cars. I was the last man on earth, but the lights would still change. I would wait my turn.

            Didi was sitting on the top step outside her friend’s apartment with her backpack on. She was wearing yellow pants and a pink sweatshirt she had outgrown but still insisted on wearing.

            “What the heck are you doing, guddu?” I said. It was strange to see her there. She tilted her face toward me so the light washed down over it. Nobody will have this picture of her—not her mother or the man who will take her away, for it will die with me. My daughter’s brown face in the light from the street, even up high, the glitter in her black eyes.

            “I didn’t want to wake anybody up,” she said.

            “Come down from there,” I said. She climbed down the steps very carefully, holding on to the railing. We began to walk. “Are you tired?”

            “No,” she said. She held my hand out of habit. Her other arm swung free. She was somewhere between knee and waist, growing quick, though I suspected even in her adult state she would be very close to the ground.

            “What happened?” I said. “Were you scared of something? Did you have a fight?”

            “I thought you were going to give my bed away.”

            “That’s absurd, Didi, we would never give your bed away.”

            “Well, that’s what I thought.” The two of us waited at the light, even though there was nobody coming. She was a law-abiding citizen, just like her father. All the neighborhood cats had come out, the shy ones that skittered away if they saw us during the daytime, but at night they were free and hissed if we got too close. “Do you ever feel sad when you go to the library?”

            “Do you?”

            “Yeah,” she said. “I feel like there are just so many books there and I will never be able to read them all.”

            “A lot of those books aren’t even good books. They’re like cookbooks and books on computer programming.”

            “Oh. So you don’t feel sad in the library?”

            “Sometimes I do.”

            I had been walking quickly, and she lagged a little behind me, so I slowed. It was a great pleasure to watch her move. She gathered her hands into fists and marched, like a Midwestern woman on a weight-loss program, full of destination. “Why were you worried we were going to give your bed away?”

            “Well, there are all these friends who sleep outside. Mom gets really sad to see all those friends outside. So I thought maybe since I wasn’t using my bed she would give it to one of them. I don’t mind just for the night but tomorrow I would need my bed again and what would happen if he didn’t want to leave? Would we have to share it? Why do those friends have to sleep outside, anyway?”

            It was a question she asked frequently, and never seemed satisfied with an answer. So I just shrugged. “I don’t know, Didi. Some friends sleep outside, some friends sleep inside. But we would never give your bed away.”

            “I know you wouldn’t, but what if Mom wanted to?”

            “Mom knows that your bed is your bed, even when you’re not using it, okay?”

            “Okay,” she said. Sometimes I still couldn’t read her. She was looking up at me as she walked, not even looking at the ground. But she walked so solidly I was never worried, not from the time she wobbled out her first steps, that she might fall.

            “Didi, there’s something I want to tell you. You had an older brother.”

            “I did?” she said. “Where is he?”

            “He died, before he was born.”

            “What kind of person was he?”

            “I don't know,” I said. I looked down at her. I could see the thought of a brother moving around in her brain. Still I pushed her. “His brain wasn’t fully formed, so he died.”

            “Died?” said Didi. Then she said, “Like all those people in Japan.”

            “Kind of like that,” I said.  We crossed Valencia Street, a strange press of people because the bars were all closing, and they seemed shocked to see Didi, standing so small and fearless among them. Drunk people have their own logic, I suppose. I lifted her up. It was that old myth, Krishna’s father carrying baby Krishna on his shoulders, the waters rising to touch the child’s feet. I held on to her shins, her feet knocking against my chest; she wrapped her arms around my neck and leaned forward so her chest was against my head. Then we crossed Valencia and the streets were empty.

            “Dad, what happened to those people in Japan?”

            “They died, Didi.”

            “I know, I mean, what happened to them?”

            “They drowned,” I said. “Or something fell on them. Or maybe some people had heart attacks.”

            “But what happened?”

            She was on the edge of it. I held on to her. My shoulders began to ache.

            “I don't know,” I said. “What happened?”

            “I don’t know,” she said.

            The hill up to our house was steep. “Didi, can I put you down?” I said.

            “Okay,” she said.

            I knelt so she could get down. I thought of her brother. For a moment I could see him so clearly, standing beside her on the sidewalk. He had the face of that high-school wrestler I surrendered to, which is to say, my own face. His arms hung down at his sides. It was with a terrific anger and love he had wrestled me with all those years ago. Didi trundled along beside me. Then we were home. I lifted her and took her to bed. I took off her shoes and her socks and put on her nightie that was still in her backpack with her toothbrush and her joke book and her copy of Wuthering Heights. I sat in the dark with her in her tiny room until she fell asleep, which was not very long. The night air had kept me awake; now here in the warm house I felt old and sleepy. I felt sleep begin to hold me, as I imagine death would, gently around the waist. For a moment, I was sorry. Then I lay back into it.