By Rheea Mukherjee
Two weeks after my son died, I started Zumba classes. When Aaditya was alive, the neighbours had asked me to join but I had refused. They had pouted their lips and pleaded with me to come; they needed at least six women so the instructor could come to our apartment's clubhouse. They found their sixth soon enough, a young married couple had moved in and the girl hardly needed convincing. My neighbors promptly stopped asking me.
That morning I had woken up in confusion. I had somehow fallen asleep, something I hadn't been able to do for the past thirteen nights. Guilt swelled in the corner of my chest; I had cheated Aaditya with sleep. I went to my closet and found my old track pants and my husband's round neck black T-shirt, slipped my feet in to my old gym sneakers and went downstairs. I saw them immediately huddled in an imperfect circle near the security desk. Meena, the oldest but fittest-looking of them all, put her hand to her thin lips in surprise. I was a ghost walking. I smiled in response. She dropped her palm from her mouth a second later. They mumbled. Incoherent words, fragments of my name, a section of a pleasantry "Sheetal, um, hello, how are? You want to join…."
Some of them had come for the funeral, though they didn't say much. Our bonds were created from our children, not our similarities. Girija, the one I knew the longest, had brought stainless steel tins of rasam, rice, and tomato pickle to my house every day. The youngest girl, Lara, had come to my apartment a week ago. She said had said nothing; instead she brought my face into her chest, holding me as If I was her child. She had smelt of sandalwood soap.
Girija walked up to me finally, "Going for a walk, Sheetal?"
"Actually, I want to join you all."
"Is it?" she asked her voice unsure, runny like the yolk of soft-boiled eggs I made for Aaditya.
The rest of them acted quickly, a visible group consciousness had evolved. They ushered with their hands to me, as if I were a puppy. Lara walked in a sudden confident stride towards me, grabbing me by the shoulders. From the crevice of her armpit I smelt floral deodorant.
The instructor was in her mid-30s. Her hair short, a blue headband pushed her thick hair back, revealing two small birthmarks where her scalp began. Her smile was wide, her teeth small. "Welcome, I am so glad we have a new member. Have you done Zumba before?" I shook my head. My sneaker squeaked on the ground. I jolted my back up erect embarrassed.
"It's basically a dance party. Just follow along and have fun."
I took my place behind Lara and next to Girija. Girija inched towards me and whispered, "but you don't have to think of it as a party. "I looked at her and involuntarily giggled. Girija widened her eyes and stepped away, then started to stretch her legs. Her buttocks were rounder and thicker than any other part of her body. Music blared shaking the white concrete walls of the clubhouse with fast-paced Latin music. The only word I could discern was Zumba, Zumba – squealed out by an excited female voice in-between beats. The instructor was swaying her hips, circling her fists in the air, "Let's get warmed up, ladies."
Girija was looking at me from the corner of her eyes. Even Lara flipped her ponytail back trying to catch a glimpse of me. I didn't blame them. I would have wanted to watch grief dance too. My hips swayed, my hands flipped, my legs followed the rest of them. By the time sweat started to drip on my eyelashes, I had tuned out Girija and Lara.
Aaditya used to dance only to Bollywood songs. His seven-year old body would bounce around the entire living room. His legs would occasionally thrash into the wooden coffee table; he would collapse on the floor howling until I hit the table in punishment. Then he would get up again, thrust his feet in different angles and jump up and down to his own rhythm. I wondered if he would have danced to this Zumba music.
I saw him in the middle of us women, his feet propelled off the ground, making up moves. His smile was sugar-induced, his shirt orange and his tongue flapped out of his mouth every few seconds. Yes, he would have danced with all of us.
After cool down, the women pulled back into a huddle. I walked towards them; our sweat sat dense in the room.
"Did you like it?" Lara asked.
"Yes, exercise helps."
"Don't do too much, Sheetal, don't over exert yourself," Girija said, her eyes glazed with worry.
"I need to; sitting in the house does no good."
No one said anything, so I walked away from them; scurried almost, back to the elevator. The house was musty, but still smelled of my son. My mobile phone had a missed call from Prashant. My husband left to California three days ago. He had a project in Milpitas for six months, something we had known about much before Aaditya died. Both of us hadn't expected he would actually follow through on it after his death, but nine days after, he said it would be for the best, and that I should come too and heal. I had refused, tearing up at Prashant's impulsive decision. I wasn't ready just then.
I asked him for a month to be by myself. He was broken too and we had no family to pressure us into more traditional coping mechanisms. That's why Prashant and I got involved in the first place. Both of us were on a one-year project in San Jose. I had met him in the break room sipping coffee out of a Styrofoam cup.
"Don't you miss our filter coffee? This tastes like charcoal."
He had lost his parents in a car crash when he was just 15. I had lost my mother to cancer at 17 and my father to a heart attack at 24. I had a brother whom I hadn't seen for seven years. He lived in Thailand.
"We should have met on an orphan dating site, eh?" He had said on our second date. His chin was lop-sided, his hands slender.
We spent most weekends in the bay area driving to San Francisco. We walked up and down the Mission area; the oldest part of town and relatively non-touristy. He had developed an obsession with burritos and most of our lunches were Mexican food at taquerias. Once in while we would go to Fisherman's Wharf, enjoying the other tourists and the crisp ocean air. But that was rare.
We both possessed a new love, and a need to show each other we were atypical, rebellious, so we wanted to explore the quieter areas of the city. We found ourselves near the ocean in the Sunset; we bought healing crystals and herbal medicine on Valencia Street. We ate Burmese food, Chinese food, and Sushi. We had samosas floating in lentil soup and slurped tapioca balls out of plastic cups filled with coconut slush. We talked about our school days in-between bites of green curry and steamed rice. We shoved crepes filled with cheese, basil, and tomatoes in our mouths, as we walked on the side streets near Union Square. We found corner bars to drink whisky sours.
When we came back to India, we got married, six friends in tow; a simple ceremony in a temple that my mother used to visit, south of the city. Aaditya was born two years later. We had moved into the apartment by then. Girija was the first one to visit when he was born. She brought ladoos and kaju burfi. We had sat around the living room cooing at Aaditya who lay in the middle of the floor on a thick purple blanket. We chewed on the sweets and drank black tea. Girija's husband used to live in America. She had never been to the US, but she always asked to see our San Francisco pictures every time she visited.
She gazed at them, as if seeing herself in the pictures. "But only three pictures of the Golden Gate? That place is very beautiful, no? My sister has been there."
She had given birth herself to a son the last year. He was walking by the time Aaditya was two months. Meena had moved in by then too; her daughter and son were seven and four respectively. Aaditya had a soft spot for Meena's daughter, following her everywhere, and she thrilled by his attention would run laps around the apartment garage, egging him on.
He died running. Out of the gate, shrieking "Larry, Larry" to the neighbour's dog which was being walked by the maid. A school bus, which was in a rush, hit him. Girija wasn't there, nor was Meena. Only the security guard and I stood witness to the accident. We just stood there. Pulled in by the concrete we stood on. It captured our legs. It held them witness to a vision that quivered. I don't remember anything else after.
Prashant called again, I picked up. "Is everything OK? You should come next week Sheetal, everything has been taken care of there, and I don't understand what you are still doing there. Can you please allow me to book your tickets now?"
"I started Zumba."
"Zumba, it's basically a dance party, but really good exercise."
"I am worried about you, Sheetal."
"Don't be, I am not ready to come yet. Aaditya is still here, I can feel him. He needs time to be at peace."
"Sheetal, I love you, and you need to start to think practically; you have no other support there except that Girija whom you really don't like. And your best friend has left the city; really, do I need to come back to get you? I am sorry I just left, I had to, but I thought for sure you would follow."
"I'll come later, I'll tell you, promise."
By my fifth Zumba class, my hips, in my opinion, flowed more organically than the instructor's, whose name I had learnt was Zeenat. In my head I call her Zumba Zeenat. Girija and Lara had stopped looking at me. During the class for those 60 minutes, they ceased to see me as Aaditya's mother. But it was during the class that I was especially Aaditya's mother. I danced with him there. His feet were upon mine; his toenail scratched my ankles. His hair tossed to the twists of his neck; his non-existent hips tried to copy mine.
When I came home after classes, I was no one. I was a figure that showered herself, wetting flesh and letting water cool the warmth of her blood underneath her beige skin. I was a ghost that shuffled out of rooms, ate fluffed rice, yogurt, and tomato pickle on a white porcelain plate. I was a shell of an egg, disregarded; I lay on a pile of unwashed laundry. I was a blank canvas. My face did not register the difference between comedy and drama on television. I was the ear that heard Prashant's voice that was slowly disintegrating like baby powder.
One day I book tickets just so the phone calls would stop. By now I have danced over 30 times. Girija helps me pack. A friend who was a witness at our wedding comes on another day. She is sobbing more than I am. I don't know why she should. After my marriage, we have met only 10 times in the last nine years.
Girija says that California will be so much fun. That I can have another child, I am young. She tells me to bring Prashant back soon. "Staying abroad is fun, but one must come back to India only, no?"
I should have told her that Prashant was a shell, and so was I. Neither one of us will come back to this house. And if we do come back to the country, we wouldn't come back together.
For now, I will go to California. I will hold his hand. I will let memories of Burmese curry, the tart of whisky sours, the vastness of the oceans rising and falling, the first shriek of life from Aaditya's mouth, the tricycle bell he rang as he emerged from the left corner of the garage, the dinners we fed him together, all those and more, I will let slip between our fingers.
I will let these memories go, press them into his palms, till our hands dissolve. The taxi is on time. My suitcase rolls over the hump of the doorway. I close the door. Now, only the house is a ghost.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 3 Jul 2013