When they finally arrive at the swimming competition, the daughter’s hands are melting and the mother’s eyes are burning. The pool is too large, at least 100m in length, and is a sea filled with legs and arms and branches of bodies. The shouting is too loud and the outpour of frenzied, nervous words are too familiar as the parents scream ‘where is the sunscreen’ and ‘find your goggles’ and ‘I’ll have the camera out I promise.’
The daughter looks up to the mother, just to see what she is thinking. Her mother’s mouth is open and gaping, too vacant to be approached. Kids in varied colors of suits run around, flitting between spaces, suddenly falling into the pool and then sprinting out, impervious; laughing, shouting. The daughter tastes the chlorinated water on her lips before she undresses. Her shirt falling over her back, parting slightly to reveal the crimson skin held taut by a rubbery blue suit.
“Should’ve practiced in a bigger pool,” the mother says as she pulls the daughter to the bleachers, rearing her forward, and seating her down in between green towels and Sports Energy drinks. It smells of urine and Clorox everywhere and there is a constant ringing in the daughter’s ears from the wailing around and she almost giggles, but her mother’s hand on her shoulder reminds her that there is nothing to laugh about.
“Do you want to practice now, before it starts? You have twenty minutes. You could still practice your breaststroke.” The mother is so anxious that her voice has become husky and slow. It is almost soothing.
“I don’t know if I can do this.” The daughter thinks she is screaming, but the mother can barely even hear her. “I really don’t know.”
“Don’t be stupid. You’re only nervous.”
“You’re missing out on an important opportunity. You love to swim. Don’t be rash.”
“This is just like you. You give up before you can even try. It’s impossible to make you do anything.”
The mother sighs.
The daughter waits.
By the next day, the daughter has chewed and bitten her fingers to the point where the side of each is bleeding. In school, the daughter sucks her fingers violently, almost chugging the dried metallic blood on the sides, a beast baring her teeth, licking her arms and trying to stop her hand from aching. It is no longer just an irritation: it has been transformed into a threat, a slice of agony, a retelling of torment. She fantasizes that she’ll need anesthesia, about the twenty minutes of pure, uninterrupted rest she’ll have, when her brain will no longer click and her insides will no longer churn, and all she’ll feel is the humdrum swaying of her own shallow breathing. She will become a quiet, downy body. She will not be ruffled, she will not be waylaid. She’ll be like a piece of thin, cool marble, a slate of stone, steadfast and rooted, she will not drown.
When it is lunch, the daughter cannot find her friends so she talks to the boy sitting alone at the back of the lunch hall. He is cutting his sandwich into parts; three pieces, five, ten and so on but he doesn’t put any bread in his mouth.
The daughter asks him what he’s doing, but he doesn’t look up. That is when she notices just how long his lashes are, how lewd and dark and luscious, like tiny, outstretched beetle legs.
“Have you seen my friends?” She asks, but he’s already gulped down half the little bits of fried egg on his plate and it seems as if he’s going to leave any second. “My friends? I can’t find them?” She remembers them telling her that they’ll wait for her at lunch. She realizes they were lying.
He doesn’t say anything, he only shifts around in his seat, squirming like the worms she’s seen in her yard.
“Gosh, look, I only want to know about my friends, where are they?”
“I don’t know, retard,” says the boy and guffaws, his nostrils flaring into the shape of a deformed, dented circle. He’s so ugly, decides the daughter, staring at the boils and red pimples all over his face and the shaggy spindly strands of hair that lie tucked behind his oily ears. He seems like he really likes to burn things, and watch fires, and just dream about arson all day and it is all so terribly funny that the daughter feels that if she doesn’t laugh, she’ll die.
“Stay away from me, you pyromaniac. Go molest your sister or something.”
The daughter giggles then and a soft, curious hollow sound escapes her mouth and she feels the familiar wave of fury within her leap up and then slowly fizzle out, like a match that was struck but whose fire didn’t quite stay. When she watches the boy scowl, grimace and leave, she feels so vulgar and loutish that she wonders if she should run away and spend a few nights in the streets, armed with only her foul mouth and uncouth hands and legs. She imagines what will happen if she is murdered while on the run, if she is disembodied, if she is dissected. She tries to picture her attacker sucking out the breath from her lungs, swallowing her whole as he stabs her in an alley, tearing apart her arms, breaking her elbows, slowly, dearly, crushing her neck. In that moment, they could be lovers exchanging a brief whimper of submission; her attacker to his dark urges, and she to her desire of a long, palliative rest.
The daughter almost follows the boy, she almost tries to stop him, to apologize, but she cannot. It is not even worth it to try.
When the daughter is home, her mother descends upon her like a vulture, her claws piercing into the daughter’s skin, holding her captive, caged.
“I got an e-mail from your physics teacher. He said you told him you weren’t going to be taking the final?”
The daughter tugs at the worn skin near her nails, and exhales as it falls to the floor, leaving behind a stinging, blurred sensation. “I’m not.”
“Because I won’t be here.”
“You have two months. I’ll make sure you are. Don’t be like this.”
“I won’t be here.”
The phone rings. The mother glances. HUSBAND blinks the caller ID.
“It’s dad, he wants to talk to you,” the mother thrusts the phone at her daughter, arms outstretched, pleading.
“Hey dad… Yeah, no I’m fine. I didn’t swim, I didn’t want to… I don’t know who came first, I wasn’t there. Yeah, school’s going okay. I’m not sure if we have a new teacher. Look, maybe you should just talk to mom.”
And the daughter is out: slipping through the cracks in the door, dashing through the walls and gliding into the evening mist. The daughter almost turns back, almost runs home because all of a sudden everything seems too menacing, too mean. The pointed trees look like obscure alien creatures lying in wait for her, and the road ahead seems too pointless, going on for miles. Still, white swirls of fog push the daughter forward, carrying her thighs up into the air and down. The daughter tries to remember her mother, tries to think of the ocean, which her mother claims to love, but she can only see the road in front of her, and she dreams of jumping up and touching the bruised, purple sky. She feels as weightless as the smog that surrounds her, and more lifeless than the hordes of fallen chip packets on the ground.
She thinks of throwing herself in front of a truck, an incoming lorry, she thinks of watching the driver’s sleepy eyes when he realizes what he has done. She imagines him going home to his wife and hugging her and making love to her while crying, crying because he has killed a child, crying because he cannot stop dreaming of the child’s mother cursing him for stealing her child. She almost laughs. It is a foolish idea. A lorry would create too large a scene and she cannot bear to think of her face in the newspaper for weeks, pale and splotchy and faint for everyone to see.
She enters the nearest convenience store with the brightest green neon lights she has ever seen and the largest variety of porn magazines, which she has never truly noticed before. She stares at the man behind the counter who is picking at the red lumps on his skin. Stares at the woman staring into the deep freezer in the frozen food section, her hands quivering over different brands of peas. The daughter retreats further into the store, to the very end where they keep the pastas and the cookies and the dry fruit and she thinks of how she has never had more than twelve almonds in her life. She thinks of all the things she has never done. She has never shoplifted, never kissed more than two boys, never kissed a girl, never kissed her father, never met her grandfather, never had a best friend. She thinks of buying the stale bread she sees next to the spaghetti to give to her mother as an explanation for why she was out so long. She touches the slippery plastic, reads the expiration date and imagines herself telling her mother that she thinks there’s something terribly wrong with her. She has Googled it before. She has Googled ‘how to talk to your parents’ but the only results that came up were on how to come out to your parents and she thinks about how much easier it would be if she was gay and once her mother accepted her, she wouldn’t have to worry about anything anymore. The daughter can see it is getting very dark outside and the deep orange and violet hues of the sky are slowly turning into a molten, smarmy blue.
She tries to think of a reason for all of this, a reason for why she is so tired, for why it feels as if she is carrying a ten pound load on her back every day. She can’t tell why she gets agitated so easily. Sometimes the mother tells her she’s just pretending, that if the daughter was truly sad then she would cry and let it out and then she wouldn’t be so lazy and impetuous anymore. The mother tells her daughter that everyone is sad and that there’s nothing special about it and that she’s only being silly. The mother tells her daughter that everyone’s emotions get too much for them sometimes, and that everyone has days when they cannot contain their feelings.
The daughter doesn’t know how to tell her mother that feeling too much is not the problem, it never has been. The daughter doesn’t know how to tell her mother that she doesn’t know how to feel, the daughter cannot tell her mother that she does not feel at all.
Rudrakshi Bhattacharjee is a fiction writer and is ecstatic for the opportunity to share this work with So to Speak and its audience.