By Chaitali Sen
Featured Image: [Landscape with Cottage] by Marie-Charles-Isidore Choiselat, 1844
The husband is still explaining it on the day of the parent-teacher conference, and the wife still carries on as if she doesn’t understand. The twins will be home early, their school day shortened so their teacher can meet with parents all afternoon.
“Is the school too difficult?” she asks.
“How do I know? That’s why we talk to the teacher.”
Their appointment is at three o’clock, and it will take almost an hour to get there. He will be away from the shop too long. When is she supposed to start dinner? She can carry on for as long as she wants, he says, but on this he has to be insistent. This reversal of roles must reverse back. She is the mother, the one who should know the details of her children’s schooling.
“It wasn’t my idea to send them to a school so far away,” she reminds him. “It wasn’t mine either,” he says.
It is true it had not been either of their ideas. It happened last year that out of the blue the twins were invited to take an entrance exam to attend a new academy for gifted students. Both husband and wife bore the invitation stoically, though secretly he hoped the children would score well, thinking it would be his only achievement of late. Until then they had known their children to be odd but not particularly brilliant. They attributed their children’s idiosyncrasies to other factors—twins were known to be strange, especially back home, and they had suffered a trauma when they were five years old, at the midpoint of their lives, an abandonment which was well-remembered, though none of them, not brother, sister, husband or wife ever speak of it.
Now the twins travel by subway in the mornings with their father instead of walking with their mother to the neighborhood school. In the afternoons the boy and girl make their way back alone, instructed to come straight home and never leave each other’s sides, which they never think of doing anyway. Every afternoon, they walk through the door at 4:15 and eat a snack at the kitchen table. They don’t speak, except to thank their mother for the food, until they go to their room where they whisper to each other as they do their homework.
On the day of the parent-teacher conference the twins are home by one o’clock. The mother feeds them the lunch she would have packed in their lunchboxes, rice with carrots and green beans and pickled eggplant. The brother and sister eat absent-mindedly, silently, each staring ahead at an imaginary theater of his and her own thoughts. The mother watches them, wondering what the teacher will tell her about her children. She is somewhat interested to know whether they are ever boisterous. A few days ago a neighbor she dislikes asked her what she did to keep her children so quiet, a question that was at once a compliment and an accusation. The woman’s own children are always shouting, always stomping up and down the stairs, and the woman herself is bombastic, thick-limbed, with oversized gestures. “They were born quiet,” the wife told her. Shouting was for demanding things beyond an arm’s reach. The twins always had each other, and nothing to shout for.
Their attachment to each other will be tragic one day. Already they are coming to an age when boys and girls should sleep apart, but there is no room and separating them would bring questions neither parent wants to answer. The mother wonders if they ought to split the family in half, each taking one, the two halves never seeing each other again. Would she take the boy or the girl? The boy is easier. Without his sister he might even be a normal boy, of average intelligence but quick to make friends. The girl is prickly, unforgiving, but somehow more fragile. One day she will need her mother.
“Today I’m going to your school,” the mother announces. A look passes from the boy to the girl.
The girl speaks up first. “You’re going?”
The boy is concerned. “How will you find it?”
The mother frowns. The boy notices her embarrassment and searches for something to say. “I’m glad you’re going,” he says.
The twins put their plates in the sink and ask to be excused to their room.
They have double homework today.
“Double homework,” the mother repeats. “What is that?” “Double, two times as much, like us.”
“Double homework,” the mother says again. She thinks it’s ridiculous. When they get to their room, the girl closes the door urgently. “What’s gotten into her? What a chatterbox!”
The boy isn’t so surprised. Lately he sees his mother in singular gestures, an extra spoonful of ice cream, a chocolate in his lunch, a tug at his hair when she tells him he needs a haircut. He would never have admitted it to his sister but he has been waiting for this day. He still loves his mother with the insanity of a small boy, his heart still galloping every time she appears. There was a time when she went away and it stains his memory. He had willed her back with all his brainpower, and when she appeared suddenly at breakfast one morning, as if she’d only been playing a long game of hide-and-seek, his legs filled with jumping beans. He took her hands and danced up and down while she stood stiff as a lamppost, staring at him with a vacant expression. His sister had to pull him away and plop him in a chair at the breakfast table.
Later, when they were alone, she pinched him. “Can’t you see that’s not Mama,” she said. He had to agree. His sister convinced him their mother had swapped souls with a snake. She said it was the only thing to explain her awkward movements, because a snake has no arms or legs, see? It did look as if his mother could not manage more than that, learning the use of her limbs. And she was always being watched, being held back from the children. Uncles and aunts and grandfathers came from every corner. Their own father was always clutching his head until he announced they were going to America, all of them together. The boy thought all the uncles and aunts and cousins were coming too, but they had come alone, and now the boy is the only one who watches.
Now she is going to school to find out more about the lives of her children and there is no other explanation for it but love. Snake soul or human soul, after five years she is finally learning the ways of mothers.
Later that afternoon, the husband calls her down through the intercom. In a moment her silhouette moves across the dusky lobby. He opens the door for her and she gives him a polite glance on her way out, as she crosses into the November gloom. The day is cold, the first cold day of autumn. Wind blows the withered leaves off the trees and churns them around the courtyard. When they reach the sidewalk, a breeze lifts her hair and he is surprised by her ruby earrings.
He asks if she is warm enough. In the apartment she is always overdressed, armored from head to foot in flannel and wool, but out here her legs are bare except for a sheer layer of pantyhose. She is wearing a skirt and pumps with a low heel, items he has seen in the closet that were never moved, never touched, as if they belonged to a departed loved one and were kept like relics in a shrine. Her covering is a thin raincoat tied with a belt around her waist. He thinks she’s dressed too formally for a parent-teacher conference, but her effort is endearing and he wants to tell her she looks lovely. He doesn’t dare say it. If he acts as if he has any right to offer his approval, she will likely turn back. She says she is warm enough and they leave it at that.
At the subway entrance, he descends ahead of her, though she stays close behind him, and when he pulls two tokens out of his pocket she takes one confidently. The last time he saw her use the subway she was hesitant at the turnstiles, pausing too long after putting her token in the slot and furrowing her brow as she shuffled forward. She didn’t so much walk onto the platform as allow herself to be tossed ahead with a slap on the bum from the turnstile. She looked back at it, scowling at the offense, and then she scowled at him. He had not realized he was laughing.
This time she passes through it with much more grace and they head toward a wooden bench, scarred with doodles scratched into the surface. She sits and examines the markings and he leaves her there. He has a bad habit of standing too close to the edge of the platform, where he cranes and stares into the black mouth of the subway tunnel, waiting for the beacon of an approaching train.
They had not grown up with anything so efficient as this. When they were young they used to squeeze themselves onto a crowded city bus to get to and from school. Before they were ever lovers he’d gained an intimate knowledge of her maturing body from those bus rides alone, but even before that, they had often been physical in their play, like lion cubs.
They had lived on a street so congested they couldn’t see anything beyond the edges of the flat rooftops. Sometimes they looked up, when rain was imminent, when the clouds were especially amusing, or later, when the sunset turned the sky peach or the moon passed over them. One day when they were around seven years old, he caught her looking at the sky with a longing he had mistaken for something else. He seized her and kissed her hard, crushing her little bud of a mouth. Immediately she pushed him off and punched him in the chest, wiping fat tears from her eyes. Many years later he said, I’d like to kiss you but I’m afraid you’ll punch me. He had that line in his head for a long time before he used it. She kept him waiting with the sweetest of smiles before she closed her eyes and offered her lips.
That was his first betrayal. She couldn’t have known all the things troubling him during that kiss, which he had asked for but not wanted. He was thinking of a different girl, one he met after he left home, at a university in a northern hill station where the sky was a creamy blue. That girl was unfamiliar and extraordinary and they were passionate from the start, perfectly matched in all of their sensibilities. He had wanted a quick marriage after his schooling was finished, but he had no money, no status, and her family wouldn’t agree. In a moment of petulance he broke it off with her, choosing instead someone he thought to be his equal, someone who knew his worth. He failed to see any harm in marrying a girl who was like a sister to him.
Years later, when the tedium of his life caught up with him, he found his lost love. They spent an afternoon together as if no time had passed, and it went on like that for a while until they realized neither of them could bear this life. Every goodbye felt like a needle in his heart. They made plans; he would leave his wife, she would leave her husband, they would go abroad, erasing the history that had kept them apart.
He feels the train coming, a surge of warm air and dust, before he sees the glow of a headlight. The light thickens before the train bursts into view. For a brief time, hatching dreams with the woman who had become his mistress, his future was exactly this—a broadening light, an advancing train. He steps away from the edge of the platform and looks back at his wife, who is standing now, clutching her handbag and coming to meet him in front of the sliding doors. They wait as a few passengers step off the train, and when the way is clear they enter the train and separate again. She looks around at the many seats and chooses one by the window. She looks out of it even though there is nothing to see, even as the doors close and the train burrows back into the tunnel.
Standing nearby, with his hand wrapped around a pole, he sways with the bends of the tunnel and watches his wife, knowing she won’t turn away from her window. He wonders what she imagines, if in her mind she is still standing at the edge of the ocean, staring at the sunset. He found her like that once, on a beach resort far from their home, a place she had read about in a women’s magazine. It was three weeks after he told her he was leaving her. Initially she had taken the news well. She had said she understood, that she wanted nothing more than for him to be happy, that they would be lifelong friends, and the next day she vanished. She left their young children at school and failed to turn up that evening, or the evening after, or after. The police said she must have jumped off a bridge and drowned in the river, and that was what everyone wanted to believe, that she had been driven mad by the end of her marriage. She would not have left her children for anything but inconsolable grief, but she did leave her children for less than that—a picture in a magazine, a glossy dream.
He can’t remember all the things he said to her once he found her. He must have said her children, who were blameless, were suffering, that all of her devotion to them had been undone. The boy did nothing but cry and the girl was a quiet mystery, and he had been preparing to take them abroad, where they would have a new mother, where there would be more children, and after some time the twins would barely remember her, their real mother. He tried to frighten her with this threat of losing them forever, and he also begged her to come home, to stop punishing him, because he would stay. He would stay and try to love her the way she deserved to be loved. He tried to show his rage, pity, and regret all at once.
But nothing he said had any effect on her. Shaking her head, smiling tenderly, she said it wasn’t her wish to punish him or the children. She only realized that she no longer wanted the things she had been told all her life to want. She did not want to be a mother anymore, or a daughter, or a sister, or a wife. She wanted to be a woman who lived by the sea and nothing more, and short of kidnapping nothing could make her get on a train with him and start over.
He had no choice but to return home without her. Her brother asked him if he was a man or a cunt, and he said, if you can do better, go ahead, even knowing as he said it there would be no more redemption after that. The moment he told her brother where to find her, he knew something unforgivable would happen, something to follow them for the rest of their days. Her brother was the one to bring her back.
At their stop he calls to her and puts his hand out, as he does with the twins who always race to take his hand. She reads the signal of his hand and stands up, and leads him off the train.
“That way,” he says, pointing to the exit that will put them on the right side of the street. When they emerge at street level, they are at the bottom of a canyon, the sheer walls of the skyscrapers pulling their gaze up to the heavens. He waits a minute for his wife to look down again. There is only a sliver of sky, but somehow it’s enough. Her uplifted eyes hold his attention. She lowers her head and asks, “Which way?”
The school is several blocks to the east, close to the river, in a pre-war neighborhood away from the towers of midtown. The traffic thins, the sky opens, and they come upon a brick structure built in 1908, once utilitarian in its form but now a thing of great beauty. In the front of the U-shaped building, in the scoop of the U, there is a concrete playground with climbing equipment and children’s games painted onto the ground, jumping games, ball games. The lobby is cavernous, leading to things in all directions, an auditorium, a cafeteria, and two stairwells. They have to climb the stairs to the fourth floor, and then wait in a blue hallway for the teacher to open her door. Many parents are waiting, sitting in small plastic chairs or pacing silently, looking at the work stapled along the walls. The ceilings are high, perhaps twenty feet high, and above each classroom door a glass panel carries sunlight into the hall from the classroom windows. The hallways are wide, allowing for an easy flow of children, of children but also their games, their language, their ideas and their emotions. The wife wonders what it must sound like during the school day, all those voices and footsteps, and the teacher’s voice rising above them. She is curious about all the classrooms, their arrangements and the materials provided. Even before the twins were born she’d had a keen interest in child development and read Dewey, Piaget, Erikson, and Maria Montessori. She spent years observing the subtle signs of growth in her children, reporting things to their father that he missed when he was at work, their attempts at conversation, their charming misuse of a word. She was always decoding the logic of their choices, deconstructing the mechanisms of their miraculous brains. Then he would ask her something absurd like, “What did they eat today?” as if her only job was to feed them.
Outside their classroom, there is a display of a research project called “Cities Around the World.” The girl has written a paper about Alexandria, “the pearl of the Mediterranean,” and the boy, oddly, chose Minsk. The wife begins to read his paper while the husband hovers next to her, interrupting her reading to offer a translation. “I can read it,” she says. Surely he knows she can read English, slowly but competently. Certainly she can read a child’s paper. Reading a language and carrying on a conversation are two different things, and she was always more of a reader even in their own language. He walks away. She can see his feelings are hurt. She goes back to her reading. The story of Minsk begins at the end of the last Ice Age, with the carving of the ancient river valley of Urstromtal. The boy is a storyteller. He likes to begin at the beginning. The girl’s paper is more precise, more focused. Perhaps she had more creative ideas but was afraid to try them.
At last the classroom door opens. Another mother and father come out, who recognize the husband and nod their greetings. The teacher appears in the doorway and extends her hand to the husband. They have met before. He shakes the teacher’s hand and introduces the two women as their teacher and their mother. The teacher speaks to the mother as if she’d just come out of a long convalescence. “It’s so nice to meet you,” she says, and the mother, fixated on the emphatic “nice,” forces a smile in response.
The teacher has an artistic look about her. Her many layers of clothing seem to have no beginning or end. She invites them into the classroom and they all sit around the table as if someone might bring them coffee and biscuits. The teacher pulls over two piles of work, one for each child, and the mother, seeing all the work, thinks this meeting will go on for a very long time. “Can we take it home?” she asks, meaning the work, and both the husband and teacher stare at her, either startled by her voice or misunderstanding the question. Perhaps her pronunciation is worse than she thinks.
The teacher turns to the husband to reply to the question. The husband looks at his wife and translates. The work stays in the classroom. Some will be sent home at the end of the year and some will go into a portfolio, which they get upon graduation from the school after eighth grade, in four more years.
Four years! the wife thinks, almost laughing. They’re ten-year-olds, not architects.
Ironically, the first project the teacher shows them resembles architectural drawings, on large grid paper, of famous skyscrapers. Notes in the margins turn out to be mathematical facts about the buildings, their height, width, slopes and angles, numbers of windows, even the volume of bedrock that was dug away in order to create the foundation. Next, the teacher explains, the children will work on a three-dimensional model of the skyscraper. The drawings, and the captions full of numbers, are quite beautiful. Very beautiful, and the mother wants to keep them. Her own education was so limited. What might she have become if this was her schooling at ten years old?
The teacher hurries though the other samples and then leans back in her chair, sighing exhaustedly. She begins to talk again, rambling about the children. Sometimes she pauses so the husband can translate. She says it has taken a while for her to get to know the twins, because they are quiet and speak mostly to each other, but in the past few weeks she feels they are opening up, speaking up more and initiating conversation with their teachers and peers. The teacher struggles to convey her recent interactions with the twins, and the mother notices a film of moisture forming in the teacher’s blue eyes. The blue of her eyes is translucent, like the shallow part of the tropical ocean where you can see right to the sandy bottom. She says something about a museum trip and the girl staring at some paintings, the teacher having trouble tearing her away from the paintings when it was time for them to go. The girl had said something to her in the museum, the meaning of which eluded the mother and even the father who didn’t bother to translate. The teacher put her hand on her heart, which must have been nursing this tender memory of the girl in the museum. She uses the word extraordinary. The teacher asks the husband, “Do you have a translation for that word? Extraordinary?” Her husband looks appalled, and the wife jumps in to save him. “I know the meaning. Extraordinary,” she says, pronouncing it perfectly, she thinks. It cannot be translated. The closest word she can think of means, “without equal,” and that is not close enough.
“I don’t need to show you all this,” the teacher says, pointing with a tilt of her head to the work still left in the pile. “You know who your children are. They’re extraordinary.”
The husband asks if they play with other children. She stumbles over a long explanation that the mother interprets to mean they do not actually play at all. They used to have arguments about the twins playing. He complained that she didn’t allow them time to play, and she said they were always playing, all day. What did he think they were doing over there with the blocks? They played with everything, empty boxes, rocks, cups, bracelets. Their room was full of tactile treasures. He had wanted them involved in sports, at the recreational clubs in which children as young as three were introduced to field games like hockey, football, and lacrosse. He enjoyed them when he was young but all she remembered were lashings from the other girls if she fumbled and lost a game, which she often did. She couldn’t believe the things he chose not to remember. Outside of the recreational clubs they roamed around the neighborhood, a band of unruly children. To him this was freedom; this was a joyous childhood. He didn’t remember being trapped by some older boys who paraded him around the neighborhood with his pants down. He didn’t remember the old man who stood on his balcony calling them cockroaches and the children pelting him with pebbles. There were so many things he didn’t remember.
The teacher asks them how they feel about the twins being separated next year, spending time apart in different classrooms. The father says yes, they are ready, and the mother has no objections. With that the meeting ends. The mother puts her hand out and the teacher clasps it in both of her hands.
As they walk away from the classroom, something feels unresolved. The mother lingers in the stairwell, watching her husband bounce down the stairs. Sometimes, from the back, he is still like a little boy, the way he walks, slightly bowlegged, and the way he tackles staircases, leaping down, running up, as if the thing waiting for him at the top or bottom is some wonder he’d never seen before. He stops on the landing and looks up at her. “Are you all right?”
“Wait for me outside,” she says. “Is something wrong?”
“There’s something in my shoe, that’s all, or else I’m not used to them.”
He doesn’t budge. Sometimes on melancholy days when she didn’t want to play he would wait for her, refusing to leave until she agreed to come outside. And he is still here, when he should have been nothing more than a childhood memory, he is still here. Why had they done it, she wondered. When they announced their engagement she had not received any heartfelt congratulations. Everyone knew something she didn’t, though no one had warned her. No one had discouraged her. She didn’t want to marry a stranger, but a stranger was what she got.
To prove her point she sits down on the top step and takes off her right shoe. There is nothing in it, but she shakes it upside down and pretends to drop a pebble from it.
“I know they get it from you,” he says, ignoring the problem of the shoe. She would like to know exactly what he means. Does he feel their strange manners come from her side of the family, or is he acknowledging her efforts when the twins were young, before their troubles began?
“They don’t play,” she says, reminding him of their arguments long ago. “It doesn’t matter. They’re happy.”
The teacher had not said they were happy. She is certain of that.
“Wait for me outside,” she says. She wants him to go. The stairwell suddenly feels too narrow for the two of them, and obligingly he turns the corner. His footsteps reverberate, echoing, until a door opens and shuts again, and she is alone on the empty stairwell.
Outside, she finds him slouching with his arms crossed. This is his idle pose, when he is bored, when he is waiting. She tells him she’s ready and he looks up, asks her if her shoes feel all right. She says yes, they’re fine, and they walk slowly toward the subway. It’s cold and late. The day is fading. When they get down into the station, too many bodies have already filled the platform. He nudges her forward, like a needle along a hem, hooking her elbow with his hand as the train approaches. She thinks about her children making this journey by themselves, the crowd spreading like a bruise, pushing them along the platform.
Her husband plows her through the crowd until they are on the train. More and more people behind them want to board and the wife has not felt herself so roughly handled since her own school days. The doors try to close a few times. They close and open again, close and open again. People shimmy in, out of the doorway, and finally the rubber edges of the doors come together and seal. The train moves in fits and starts and bodies are thrown together into an awkward intimacy. There is nothing to look at but the frayed fibers of her husband’s blue sweater. She is as tall as his chin and can feel his soft exhalations in her hair.
When they come out of the subway, the wife wants to stop at a nearby greengrocer. At the grocer’s he is supposed to leave her and continue toward the market street where his electronics shop is well situated in the middle of a busy block. It is easy money in a way. People walk by. People stop. People come in to haggle a price, which reminds them of home. There are no returns, only exchanges, and some of their inventory has questionable origins. Some of their inventory will break after two weeks and some of it works well enough for the price. He and his partner disagree about the store’s policies. The husband wants fixed prices and a two-week return. He wants to sell better products. If he has to sell things why not sell things he can be proud of, but the store is successful as it is and there is no reason to change it.
Outside the greengrocer his wife says goodbye. He watches her go inside, past the stalls of fruit under an awning out front—bananas, apples, avocados, lemons and limes. On the weekends they all go to the supermarket together to get everything they need, the four of them walking together with grocery bags in their hands, but sometimes during the week she claims to run out of things, and has to come here. Often he thinks of the people he knew in another country, another life, and wonders what they would think of his life here. Would it look to them like something they had once imagined, once predicted for him? He hoped not. He hoped they had imagined something better.
Even after his wife has said goodbye, he stays outside the greengrocer and waits, anxious for her to come back into view. Every day he thinks of the woman he gave up and wonders what he would do if he were to see her again. In five years their lives would have become widely divergent. They were two people who never should have known each other. If he saw her again today he would not know how to present himself. He might find he still loves her, but now he knows there are desires stronger than love.
His wife squints at him as she comes out with a single bag. “You’re still here,” she says. He sees the bag sagging heavily with onions and potatoes and takes it from her, saying he will walk her home. He thinks their meeting with the teacher has been unexpectedly successful, and her engagement with the world surprisingly swift. He is proud of her and flushed with admiration as they walk home in silence. In their lobby, at the bottom of the stairs, she says, “I think I can make it from here.” Her tone is light. She wants him to say goodbye but all he wants to say is forgive me, forgive me, forgive me. He drops the bag at his feet, his hands trembling, and when she comes forward to retrieve it he clutches her around the waist and kisses her. It is an ambush as bold and uncalled for as his seven-year-old kiss, but she stays in his arms without protest. He moves his mouth to her ear. He wants to tell her he can’t believe she is here with him, the little girl who taught him how to love, and didn’t she agree this was no life to be lived alone? But all of that is too much to say and he kisses her lips again. This is what she has become to him, a throbbing, painful hunger.
There is a commotion at the door. She pulls away and watches as their neighbor noisily enters the lobby. Of all the people to come upon them, this woman is always invasive, always causing a scene. She approaches without hesitation, smiling libidinously. “Are you going up or coming down?” she asks. “You’ve lost an onion.”
His wife hurries to pick it up. She puts the onion in the bag and grips the railing, preparing to run away up the stairs.
The neighbor gestures gallantly. “After you.”
His wife is halfway up the stairs before he finds his voice. “I have to go back to the shop.”
“Yes, all right,” she says without looking back.
The neighbor leans in close. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I know how it is, with children and all.”
She does not know how it is, not for a second, but he gives her a guilty shrug and she remains pleased with herself.
For a long time the wife sits alone in her bedroom. In this room, because there is no other available, she and her husband have learned to keep their bodies still and tight, arms in, legs straight. He only comes to bed to sleep, only after he is so tired he can’t stay awake. She has always been a light sleeper. When he comes to bed it wakes her and pushes her to the edge of the mattress.
There is a rap on the door. The boy. He asks, “Are you here?” “I’m here,” she answers. She asks him if he needs something. “No,” he says, but his feet are glued to the floor.
“I’ll be out soon,” she says. He stands there a few seconds more, then shuffles away. That boy. He never did give her up.
Through the walls she can hear the twins talking to each other. She takes off her shoes and her coat, puts on her slippers, and leaves the bedroom behind her. Being alone in it has not helped her. She looks out at the small apartment, the narrow kitchen and cheap dining table just big enough for four, the living room with a couch and two armchairs, the television her husband watches with the sound low every night before he comes to bed. Within this little space she ought to know her children better. They ought to know her.
She knocks on their door and opens it without waiting for a reply. The twins and all their papers are spread out on the floor. They are working on different things, the boy on his writing, the girl solving math problems. She does not often see this room with the twins in it. After they go to school she tidies the room every day, folding the clothes they throw on the floor, dusting, vacuuming, remaking their beds. She often wonders why. It is such a feeble way to live one’s life.
The twins sit up, surprised to see her standing in the doorway. “Not finished with double homework yet?”
The boy smiles. The girl looks confused.
The mother sits down on the girl’s bed and invites her children to sit across from her, on the boy’s bed. They come and sit close to each other, facing her expectantly.
“Did the teacher give a good report?” the girl asks.
“Of course,” the mother says. “Your work was very good.” The boy and girl give each other congratulatory looks.
“Next year, maybe you will go into different classes. Now that you’re growing up.”
They nod, already resigned to their inevitable separation.
“Not that we don’t want you to look after each other. You should always look after each other.” The mother closes her eyes for a second. Her nerves are threadbare. “You might remember that I had a brother, but he never looked after me.”
She cannot tell if they remember him or not. He used to entertain them with stories and tricks, but they were instinctively wary of him. It satisfied her to watch them reject him, to know they recognized the monster behind his clownish disguise.
“What was I saying?”
“You had a brother,” the boy reminds her.
“Yes. I had a brother. We weren’t like you. All my life I wanted to get away from him.”
“Is that why we came here?” the girl asks, her eyes alight. “To get away from him?”
“Yes,” the mother says, excited to have a reason. In truth she had not been a part of that decision. By the time her husband announced they were leaving, she had long realized her life was not her own. It likely had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with the woman he loved, from whom there was no escape distant enough.
The boy has tears in his eyes. Even the girl looks warmly at her. The boy and girl clasp hands. She sees so much of their father in them, and none of herself. When she was returned, first to her childhood home, then to her husband’s, her brother said he had saved her from her selfish impulses, that she would never again think of abandoning her children. He couldn’t have guessed she was going to come home on her own. She had wanted to come home and tell her children, one day when they were old enough to understand, that she’d only seized a chance to be free once in her life, only once, drunk on salt water, by the sea where she was gloriously alone and unmolested. If her husband had waited a few more days before sending her brother after her, she would have returned. She would have taken her children somewhere new, to raise them without him. But her brother came for her. Her brother, a cousin, and two others she remembered from his turbulent youth. She ran, trying to lose them in a crowd before they caught her and dragged her to her brother’s car. Her brother drove and her cousin watched from the front passenger seat as the other two carried out her sentence. It was a long ride back to the city where they lived.
When she recovered and her brother kept coming around with his bloated triumph, she asked him if she was the only one to blame. Didn’t her husband deserve a lesson as well? In front of her brother she listed her husband’s crimes. He had taken a mistress. He had planned to run away with her. He was probably planning to run away still, now that she was back with the children. That same evening, her husband was dropped on their doorstep, barely conscious. She knelt beside him but couldn’t tell if he saw her clearly. He was smiling strangely, muttering something unintelligible. For a moment she wondered if he thought she was the other one, and then, not knowing what else to do, she kissed his blood-filled mouth.
She wants to explain herself to her children, whose hearts are so open. At sunset, the sea was golden and taut across the horizon, and filled with love for lonely people. If she had taken them with her, perhaps they would still be there now.
When their father gets home, he comes to their room to tell them he has brought home a cake to eat after dinner, because he is proud of them and they deserve something special. They share this with their father, an epic love for sweets. Every day on their way to school, a European bakery with cream-filled pastries entices and sometimes ensnares them. The cake has not come from there, it has come from a place closer to home, but their father assures them this cake causes legendary attacks of euphoria all over the neighborhood. The twins hug their father. The girl hangs on a little longer, because it has been a strange day and she is sad and happy at the same time, and she wants the comfort of her father’s embrace.
She tries to imagine what the teacher could have said to make her parents so breathless. They are like a painting suddenly coming to life. A few weeks ago the class had gone to a museum, which had once been the mansion of a wealthy industrialist. There wasn’t enough time to see everything, and the tour only highlighted a few portraits of important people, but the girl liked the paintings of people in the middle of their lives, a man and woman talking by the window, a girl reading with her dog curled at her feet. When they came to paintings like that she always lagged behind. Each one for her was an entire world, a book you could read in a fraction of the time, and she resented being pulled away before she could experience enough of it. The teacher kept an eye on her, allowing her to follow at her own pace, but when it was time to go it was time to go. “Maybe your parents can bring you on the weekend,” the teacher suggested. The girl shook her head. “My father is working. My mother doesn’t leave the house.” She felt a little guilty for exaggerating. The teacher put her arm around her and the girl relished the pity.
“What do you look for in the paintings?” the teacher asked her. “Is it something in particular?”
The girl had to think about it. “I’m looking for the story.”
“Yes,” the teacher said. That part seemed to be expected.
“And the painter. In each painting I think there is an object, a person or animal that represents the artist.”
The teacher was skeptical. “Why do you think that?”
“Because that’s what I would do if I could paint. I would paint myself somewhere into the picture, but in disguise.”
She didn’t know if the teacher understood her, but she nodded with great sympathy and took her gently by the hand.
Her mother calls them to dinner. Four of them sit in their usual spots at the kitchen table, mother and father facing each other, brother and sister facing each other too, north, south, east and west. Her father is always the focus of attention at dinnertime. This is his time to ask questions and catch up with their school day. They have to furnish many details to keep him satisfied and with every answer he seems to re-evaluate his whole life.
But today their father does not ask them a single question. Apparently his day has been more interesting than theirs. He took their mother across the river and something secret happened. The girl can feel it, this honeyed secret that caused her mother to come into their room and their father to eat his dinner with silent distraction. As if things weren’t strange enough, their mother begins to talk about cities, telling them what she learned about Alexandria and Minsk, and they all watch her, listening like she is some kind of prophet. When she was little, she says, she read a book about Baghdad. Baghdad was a walled city with four gates, named for the cities to which they pointed. Kufa. Basran. Khurasan. Damascus. She loved the sound of that list, four gates, four cities. They were a prayer in her head. Whenever she wanted she pushed all other thoughts away just by chanting their names.
They seem to have a power over her even now. She doesn’t dare repeat them again. She looks down at her plate and the girl sees she has not eaten very much. She has only talked. She wants to tell her mother to eat. That’s what mothers do. They eat.
Suddenly there is a terrible shriek from across the table. Her brother has burst into tears. “What’s going on?” he cries. “Is someone dying?” Their father pulls him over with one sweep of his arm and holds him like a toddler on his lap. How embarrassing, brother sobbing like a baby against their father’s chest. Their father’s face is flush with repressed amusement. There is laughter in his eyes while her brother wails and shakes. He glances across the table at their mother, not really at their mother but at someone he loved before them. She is smiling a little, only a little, but beautifully.
“Is it time for cake?” the girl says wearily.
Her mother looks at her, inhales her. Her smile widens and the girl is wobbly with a feeling that has no word. Not joy. Not love. She thinks but it is useless. There is no word for it and all she wants is a piece of cake.
She hardly has to wait a minute. Her mother gives her the first piece. Her brother wipes his face and goes back to his seat. Her father asks if they have finished their homework. Their forks clink against their plates. The girl says the cake is delicious, and she is waiting for an attack of the euphoria.
Chaitali Sen is the author of the novel The Pathless Sky (Europa Editions, 2015) and short stories and essay published in Boulevard, Catapult, Colorado Review, Ecotone, Electric Literature, LitHub, New England Review, New Ohio Review, Shenandoah, and other publications.
Originally appeared in NOR 17