Mother is not the kind to go door-to-door smelling of apple bath gel or primrose cream. She exudes functional odours—antiseptic Dettol, the powdery notes of Johnson & Johnson’s babies. The former she learned to use as a girl hopping across filthy Indian gullies, and the latter, as a first-time mother in deserted Northern Ontario. Her episodic baths sometimes have her see to the white hair at her temples. No make-up can do what Miss Clairol can do. Naked, on the edge of the blue tub, waiting for dye to set, mother grows younger. To keep her hands stain-free, she uses plastic baggies from the produce department at No Frills, where she spends countless efforts selecting bananas or cherries, one at a time. Regarding fruit, there’s always a better one in the lot. Regarding hair, black is true and white is false. Regarding plastic baggies, I don’t know what to say, except that her hands always end up in them.
Mother attends parties only because father warns her of the declining radius of our social circle. An evening can go by without her uttering a single word, except “han” (yes) to a tumbler. Sometimes she utters two words, “garam pani” (hot water), a terrible inconvenience for the hosts who have pre-poured and arranged on a tray a good estimation of the central tendencies of partying Indian women: orange juice, Ginger Ale, and Sprite. Mother doesn’t believe in parties. She claims if people were honest about their intentions, they’d agree that the only reason to throw one is to sell something. Mother gets better deals on anything she wants—CorningWare, Tupperware, Palmolive—by keeping her eye on the discount flyers, demanding that father drive her to outlets, or using her one-on-one bartering techniques. Soft drinks and lukewarm buffet curries are frills she can live without. Mother defines artifice. Some examples: twist-ties for baggies (a loose knot will do), hairstyles (one braid is best, and two for girls), daily baths, and parties. Dancing is for the faithless, a theory of hers supported by evidence: one night a drunk Indian man (who imbibed because he would be forced to dance) stepped on a big toe poking out of her golden sandal. For years mother could feel pain there, even after the blackening had faded away.
In 1975 scientists discovered the adaptive significance of scatter hoarding in chipmunks, and Mother became an Avon lady. She never wanted to go anywhere except to the grocery store, and no one ever dropped by. Mother’s otherwise significant efforts to adapt to Plum Tree Way, North York, corporate North America, didn’t extend to discussing lipstick shades on the telephone. Most conversations were in Hindi, and I would have noticed the untranslatable: “Avon”, “Cherry Jubilee”, “Instant Mocha”. Surmounting unlikelihood, large brown cardboard boxes arrived on a monthly basis at our front door. Mother’s name in print, the look and feel of success. Inside were lipsticks, eyeshadows, mascaras, and bubble baths. I marveled at them, studying their attributes: size, shape, colour, scent, whether they were for day-use or night-use, whatever I could tell from their boxes. I built a one-to-many map of the secondary sex characteristics of women I’d never seen but might someday need to befriend, some Lindas, some Julies, my thought-experiments overtaking the experiential goo within.
The 5” x 7” glossy catalogues changed every month with the new “must-haves”. Desire was the variable, peaking on the 15th, with larger seasonal peaks: January (Valentine’s Day), April (Mother’s Day), and November (Hanukah). Toiletry in the shape of all things ephemeral, such as a fawn or beer mug, appeared in our bathroom. Mother got these as bonuses for reaching her quota. They had short half-lives in Avon universe but survived for years with an added value only mother’s brain could compute. She bought large quantities of cheap overstock and sold or gifted them to friends, extended family members, or neighbours at a later date, a much later date. India was in perpetual need; people would kill for that stuff there; some contents never expired.
One day a clear plastic bag with dozens of two-inch white tubes arrived in the box—lipstick samples for the clients. Mother stored them in her top dresser drawer for the inevitable future parties she didn’t believe in. I’d steal some to SWAK my letters to my neighbour Vicki, to Seal them With A Kiss. My lips’ imprint never looked like those in the Avon catalogues. But that didn’t matter, for I knew the difference between real and forced kisses (there was after all that one “uncle”… ). Vicki never played at our house because Mother didn’t believe in playdates. So I told her Vicki was helping me with social studies. A game we played had us each choose a profession and borrow Vicki’s mom’s high heels. I became Lawyer Susan. I was a good lawyer: Mother didn’t own any high heels, so I argued I should get first dibs. Some days (I could never predict which), Vicki would open up one of the jars of kosher dill pickles stored in the basement pantry adjacent to our office desks and their IN/OUT files. After distributing to us one pickle each, she’d return the jar to its spot, that perfect circle formed from the absence of dust. The jars in our house contained embalmed mango and chilies, the only pickles mother believed in. They made telltale yellow rings wherever they were placed so were kept in plastic baggies.
When scientists discovered the adaptive significance of ear tufts in owls, I cut my first bangs and entered Grade 5. The previous year, I was in Grade 3 playing Connect 4 and being read to (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing). Skipping grades was an effortless long jump. The real long jump was a failure, but I still received an “Excellent” for “Effort”. My first independent project was a non-fiction book report. My information gleaned and carefully recombined, with attribution, from the 1981 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica and the one picture book in the library. I discussed morphological traits, diet, habitat, global distribution, behavioural characteristics, and how the ibex should be differentiated from common goats. The final document truly merited the title, “The Ibex”. The pen and ink drawing on the yellow construction-paper cover was very fine, and for this Mrs. Knutson wrote: “Next time, submit only your own work”. Okay, so I’d asked Vicki’s older brother to illustrate my title page. The guidelines didn’t mention cover art, but surely any picture was better than none. Later, my ability to combine the arts and sciences wherever they were being pulled apart would be rewarded. Someone other than Mrs. Knutson might have acknowledged that the light within me saw the light in Vicki’s brother. But there was no “Namaste”, just a bright red C.
In my class there were three popular girls: Hayley, Debra and Aviva. They had perfect figures. Small waists, larger hips, the shape of their bums in the jeans everyone was wearing. They were confident and carefree and, above all, they took an interest in me. One day I went with Hayley and her parents to Hillcrest Mall. Hayley's parents let her wander around department stores alone. Hayley wanted to buy her father a birthday present. She looked over the diverse selection of chocolates, a connoisseur at age 9, and let out a squeal when she saw white chocolate almond bark, her father's favourite. She asked the salesgirl to wrap up a few pieces, and paid for it with cash from her vinyl purse. The salesgirl used heavy gold paper, and Hayley could choose any colour for the wide satin ribbon. She told me to keep it a secret. I had no purse. I wasn’t allowed to handle money. Mother didn’t believe in ribbons. I’d never seen my father eat chocolate. I didn’t know chocolate could be white. But I understood secrets.
Later that year, the girls introduced me to Lipton’s Chicken Noodle Soup straight from the packet. Licking your finger, sticking it in, and then licking all the bright yellow powder off. The salt, the chicken-ness, the femininity. From the first time, I was hooked. I asked mother to buy some, which she did. She was an excellent cook, but had given in to Hostess and Wonder. I stole packets from the kitchen and stashed them in my bedroom closet, where I’d later hide, crunching the o-shaped noodles, thinking of my HayleyDebraAviva approval rate. However, the number of empty packets didn’t correlate positively with anything except my need for full ones.
Spring was coming and so was Debra's birthday. I wanted to make a long-lasting impression, to create an outlier that would drive the trend way up. Like thick black eyeliner. I remembered mother's Avon collection. I found a handful of small glossy blue boxes in a drawer under handkerchiefs and underwear. I picked one up. It pictured the item to be found inside: a plastic grey top hat with a pink-and-white rabbit’s head popping out of it. It said “brooch.” Jackpot. I stole some wrapping paper from a roll that looked the least like Christmas. Debra’s green-shadowed eyes didn’t notice the snowflake print in May. Her manicured nails edged off the Scotch tape, her Everlasting Pink lips saying thank you, you shouldn’t have, thank you, you shouldn’t have, you shouldn’t have, and finally the opening of the box. It had not rattled, but the failure was all mine for not having shaken it. It was empty.