PART 1: School Friends
We saw the obit and told our parents who told their friends who told their kids who had already heard about it. Aliyah Haldiram, dead at 20. A Tuesday in May. Some of our parents went to the service (at Purni’s Funeral Home with the on-site crematorium) where they learned that Aliyah sped over the bump on Miller and skidded on the wet road and hit the maple that should have been cut down years ago. Lucky no one was hit. The obit said she was pre-med and loved open mike nights.
In the photo she’s smiling. The sun is behind her and you can’t see the mustache. The down she had until it became more than down by the time she was 7 or 8.
She was born at the same hospital as the rest of us, but her family lived in the newest developments. What were once strawberry fields were now houses with security system lawn signs in the landscaping. In our part of town, we kept spare keys in mailboxes.
Dr. Haldiram set some of our bones. We didn’t always understand what he was saying but he had a great bedside manner and signed our casts.
At her 2nd grade birthday party, we sat quietly on the sectional lined up like polish and played games meant for five year olds. At curriculum nights, Aliyah stood separate from her parents and said “Hi” like we were besties. We tried to be nice. Her parents stared at her the way you stare at something precious. We wished our own parents looked at us like that. Instead they cursed and kissed us on the lips. Or slapped our backs like teammates.
In 6th grade, she wore nude nylons under her shorts and called it skin. If you stared, you could see the long, black hairs smothered underneath.
She sat near us but not with us. Sometimes she interrupted or said something embarrassing. When her stockings pilled, Kerri and McDermott tried to explain that they didn’t look like skin.
That year, she wanted to be in the spring fling talent show. She picked at her canned peaches and watched the auditions during lunch. “You should try out,” Kerri said. We didn’t think Aliyah would actually stand in line. We didn’t think she’d say she knew how to tap dance when she wasn’t even in the top group at Lonnie Mayes Dance Center.
The audition turned out to be one of those things teachers did to make an ordinary event seem special. No one was cut.
For the show, Aliyah wore a half polka dotted, half sequined leotard. She tapped to “Material Girl” and squinted at the exit sign. The hairs on her face were so caked with foundation they looked like rows of angry, brown teeth. We clapped politely.
Sarah had leukemia, and we dedicated our 8th grade yearbook to her. Her boyfriend, Steve, had bad acne but was so funny. They kissed whenever they felt like it, their tongues rooting around like tentacles.We were happy she had him, happy that maybe they went all the way because we thought all the way was all that was left for her. We flocked to her, hoping to capture a little of her magic, a little of her tragic fame.
We saw Aliyah’s jealousy. We saw how she flirted with Steve when Sarah wasn’t there. And though we understood it, though some of us felt it too, we asked each other, “Who did that? Who wished Sarah less than she already had?”
Sarah ignored her. She looked past her when planning parties at the Bird Sanctuary on weekends she felt well enough, where we went to make out in the littered fields if we were lucky and pass around bottles of Boones Farm Wild Cherry. All of us jumpy with important roles – who would steal their parents’ wine coolers, who would host the pretend sleepover, whose older brother would collect and drop off. We liked that Aliyah was there to watch and wish.
Sarah went into remission and became a gym rat. She crossfitted and drank protein shakes until her body was a flesh-covered machine. She got a job at the mall, while most of us went to Hofstra or LIU or CC. Some of us commuted and some of us didn’t finish. She laughed when we came back to work retail and reception.
The Garrows kept their cornfields but sold the tobacco. The Country Store became a 7-11. We never went to Brentwood even though we liked the meatballs at Tony’s. The library got a make over and ladies’ night at Chili’s was still two for one shitty cocktails. We drove by the Bird Sanctuary parking lot sometimes, pleased to see that high school kids still went there.
On Miller Road we slowed down and gave the tree a glance. Grew quiet if we passed Aliyah’s house. Smiled if we saw Dr. or Mrs. Haldiram at Cirillo’s or ShopRite. We could see that small talk made them sad, so the next time we avoided them.
We were surprised but not surprised when Sarah became pregnant. “Knocked up,” were her words. We didn’t ask whose it was, the whole thing being a miracle. The fact that Sarah could carry, the fact that she decided to keep it, the fact of Sarah at all.
At first, they were small inconveniences. A bad rash after a visit to Malaka’s Threading. Extra ingrowns after waxing. Little visions, like the time McDermott was walking her dog around the subdivision where she’d recently moved in with her boyfriend. He worked insurance, which we all thought was pretty good considering McDermott. She rounded the cul-de-sac and saw dozens of nylons fluttering like shriveled legs in the dogwoods. Brown nude with runs through the toes.
“Like they were posing,” she said over margaritas. “Or dancing.”
Kerri saw her in the bathroom while touching up her lipstick. She and Jerry Corbitt were on their third round of whiskey sours, eating garnishes for dinner. She saw a shadow in the mirror and when she turned around, Aliyah was leaning on a stall with her arms folded across her chest, hair down to her eyebrows and a tense little scowl on her face.
Kerri said she heard her giggle, like she was enjoying herself, but not unkindly. “I could’ve touched her.”
Months later, Sarah saw Aliyah in the Chili’s parking lot. “I didn’t spook like the rest of you,” she said. “I chased her down to Home Goods. She ran with one foot on the sidewalk and one foot in the gutter. Her clothes were dated. Jeans tucked into socks. Sometimes she looked back to make sure I was still there.” She shrugged. “I lost her in the Ciniplex.”
We sighed in relief.
“But this dropped from her hand,” she said and passed us a folded piece of paper. “Lara Mansingh” it said. We remembered the name. Her father had run for some kind of office. “Vote Mansingh and You’ll Be Singing” lawn signs everywhere, though he didn’t win. Months later, the signs still showed up in garbage piles covered in dirty snow.
We friended Lara and she accepted within minutes. She lived in Westchester now but grew up in Ronkonkoma on the lake. One of those giant brick buildings that have wings.
A few weeks later Kerri got this over messenger:
Let me start by making clear that as a dental entrepreneur, I have plenty else to occupy my time than to think about the post-mortem antics of Aliyah Haldiram. She was the daughter of family friends growing up. Just a girl we knew.
I have a daughter. Nearly four months old.
We named her according to the lunar calendar, my husband a Brahmin, and it happened to be that her name needed to start with an A. We decided on Anya.
She was small, our Anya, and covered in lanugo, that soft down that small or premature babies flaunt outside the womb. Like wooly peaches. Anya was covered in it – her back, her legs, her upper arms.
Of course, she also had a full head of hair all the way to her eyebrows.
The lanugo was not lanugo. Instead of falling off, it got thicker. Her sideburns dug in, became more defined and unruly. Her brow unified. The down at the nape of her neck turned lush and silky. That faint mustache above her upper lip became less faint.
She is the sweetest child. Hardly cries. Smiles every time she makes eye contact. Her lashes flap like primordial wings. Dark sheets snapped in the wind.
My husband has a modest display of chest hair and my maternal grandfather was British. I have his light brown eyes.
And that Tuesday in May? Yes, it was that Tuesday in May.
You might find this improbable. You might think, if you ignore me, you’ll be spared. The most she’ll do is run barefoot through your hallways, maybe tickle your ears. After all, you’re not ethnic girls.
Later, you’ll wish you’d listened.
PART 2: Family Friends
Aliyah was tall and broad shouldered, a meat-lover while the rest of us got our protein from lentils. We felt bad for her parents who came to our parents’ parties, played cards, and brought limp samosas. They liked to comment on their daughter’s height.
One year, we were asked to perform a traditional dance for Diwali, an opportunity to demonstrate our cultural commitment. We appreciated how hard our parents worked to have this house or send us to that tennis camp or buy that stock or cook that meal with the spices only available in Jackson Heights (before Whole Foods carried organic garam masala).
We learned the routine from a former Bollywood dancer in Sayville and were told that her stage name was Goodie though we all called her Mrs. Malhotra.
At drop off, Aliyah walked away from her mother’s reminders to take off her shoes. She wore cut off shorts and white sandals over nylons. The darkened control top peek-a-booed like a reverse tan line around her thighs.
The event was held in a state university hall (a safety school on our college lists). Desks were pushed aside and a set of gray folding chairs set up in uneven rows.
For the show, Aliyah wore her chanya so low her whole belly showed. Better to show some calf in this country, our mothers reminded us, than too much up top. She refused to smile the way we were shown – sweet and toothless – and after, she stormed off to the dressing room like she couldn’t stand the applause. She sat on a broken swivel chair, one hairy toe on the milk water linoleum pushing her left and right and back and again.
We took our cue from Lara and her parents, who made a big show of their affection. Like the heroine in Dilwale or the girls on Full House, we hugged and hugged.
Lara was the example our mothers held up for us to strive for and then feel guilty about because we always fell short. She observed all religious holidays (including dry Tuesdays), enjoyed sorority parties and spring breaks in Jamaica. She invented a special plaque-fighting toothbrush for kids that made oral hygiene a digital gaming system that earned five stars on Amazon. She even won an “America’s Best” contest. She posted during each round to say how grateful she was, smiling so genuinely that we all liked and commented and forgot that she never liked or commented on our selfies. She was so busy winning at being good.
Aliyah did not change with time. In high school, she made out with the chubby cashier at Subway who flirted with us shamelessly in front of our parents. She wore high cut bathing suits to pool parties that revealed a stubbly bikini line. She fought her hard-working parents when they begged her to at least be pre-med. We shared these details with one another out of concern and maybe a little awe. We heard, and this wasn’t confirmed, that the day she died her mother discovered her belly ring and instead of removing it respectfully on the spot, Aliyah ran out of the house.
Over time, we succeeded in ways our parents always hoped we would. The best schools followed by the best grad schools followed by the best entry-level positions and then, for some of us, suitable matches through online dating platforms meant for South Asian professionals.
It was dusk at the upscale strip mall where Seema was buying a slow cooker, hoping the appliance would make it easier for her to avoid ordering take out five nights a week (Seema was an overweight internal medicine resident). On the way out, she felt a whisper on her neck.
Mitali saw Aliyah in the crowd when she collected her Ph.D in biomedical engineering. Then Bhavana said she could hear her giggling at night from behind the curtains.
At first we didn’t understand. We were just family friends who met one or two weekends a month. Was it our fault we were not like her? That she was not like us? Was it our fault she’d failed to reincarnate? We were all token South Asians in our suburban schools, but unlike Aliyah, we made sure to stay cocooned in our honors classes and Ambassador Clubs where we belonged. What could she want with us?
According to her, Aliyah Haldiram was just ashes flowing downstream.
When Lara became pregnant, her mother-in-law sent mini pink heart soaps in pale pink boxes tied with brown ribbons and the words “From my shower to yours” handwritten in perfect, miniature calligraphy. This baby would be a beauty, we all said to each other, given Lara’s complexion and her husband’s cheekbones.
We received the announcement a month later. The stationary was a compliment to the soaps, a thing you didn’t want to sully with your fingers. Anya, height, weight, her parents’ darling.
But in place of a perfectly shaped head peeking out of an organic cotton swaddle was a black and white photograph of two pruned baby feet. On closer inspection, we suspected that it was carefully cropped.
Something wasn’t right.
We’d heard of the Bird Sanctuary. Our own school friends fooled their parents into believing that what happened there was entirely innocent, just some “petting” and malted drinks and bad hangovers.
We, on the other hand, were prohibited. The Bird Sanctuary was how girls ended up working retail at the mall instead of attending Ivies. We imagined a filthy place that could rob us of virtue, the kind of place that drew you down. None of us went. And we weren’t invited.
Only Aliyah bragged about sitting on the lap of a green-eyed boy named Dean in a field glittered with broken glass. We nodded and stared at her spandex dress from Express that she wore over dark tights, the top covered artfully with a turtleneck.
Were we at all jealous of the daring figure she cut then? Was that envy, lodged between the weak muscles of our spines, meant more for debate teams and spelling bees than athletics? Though, to be fair, Lara, after eight years of training, was able to gracelessly stand on her toe knuckles in ballet class. Still, if we dreamed about Dean lying in a patch of sunlit dirt, Aliyah leaning over him, her hair an indigo sheet, we kept it to ourselves.
We met at dusk. As we pulled into the dusty lot of the Bird Sanctuary, our mothers’ admonishments rang in our heads.
Lara wore Lululemon leggings under a tunic that was so perfectly East-meets-West that we couldn’t help but admire it. Seema had grown even larger than her posts let on. Mitali wore diamond studs and sensible shoes, while the rest of us regretted our sling backs. We kept our pleasantries neutral.
We followed Lara down a marked trail through a forest of oak and pines. Not a single bird song cut the dark haze.
It was easy to pick out Sarah; she was the only one who didn’t eye us apprehensively. The others circled around her, and, depending on the angle, they could have been soldiers or prisoners.
It took us a moment to account for her pregnant belly. Everything else about her was angular and carved out.
We stepped carefully, our heels sinking into dirt, and tried not to feel dwarfed by the buttery sky and the shared, delinquent fun we never had there. You could feel it, like an electrical current between them. The sense of belonging that they couldn’t help. That had been passed down to them effortlessly.
“Look,” Lara finally said and took out her phone. She swiped again and again and again. We huddled so close we could smell their cheap, pharmacy counter perfume.
“Such beautiful features,” Seema said.
“What good will features do her?” Lara answered.
“There’s that woman with the beard who works the runways these days,” one of them said.
“There’s always what our mothers used to do with the towel,” Mitali offered. For the school friends, she added, “You can rub the hair until the skin is raw to depress the hair follicles. A home remedy.”
“It’s awful,” Lara said and shook her head. “She screams.” Then she looked up and asked, “I can’t do it. Could you?”
Were we truthful, we’d have said, yes, we could. Rubbed and rubbed until the towel was bloody.
“I take her to a café, and people stare. Like they’re trying to figure out what exactly she is,” Lara lamented. “Or, worse, the barista comments on how beautifully thick her hair is and then I stand around uncomfortably waiting for my matcha.”
Behind the cornfields, the sun sank. The buzzing of angry female crickets grew louder as the wind shimmered through the tall grass.
“What do you want us to do?” Sarah finally asked. “Call her here? It’s not like we have any control. It all just happens.” Sarah flexed her overly defined triceps. “And besides, she was never our problem. We weren’t her real friends.”
“None of us were her real friends,” Lara said.
It was true, but not something you were supposed to say. That’s not how we were taught. But an endurance was being shed, like the expressions that we’d held for so long didn’t serve here.
“There was a story my grandmother once told me. She said some people’s ashes escape. She saw it herself when she cremated her mother. She saw her ashes rise up from the flames and instead of falling, they formed a shadow, just for a second, over the pyre and then hurried away. You could miss it if you weren’t watching carefully. And who in their grief watches carefully? But my grandmother was clear eyed. She’d never felt close to her mother, never felt free of her, and that day she was looking to be free. But those ashes,” and here she shook her head, followed the dragonflies swerving in and out of the meadow, looking no more than a child.
All of us stared.
Sarah cleared her throat. “Great story. But we bury ours. Straight to heaven or hell, depending.”
“Or stuck in-between,” said one in a quiet, trembling voice.
“Shut your mouth, McDermott.”
A distinct rustle rose above the rest. Not repetitive or regular, but the rustle of someone there. Lara quietly returned her phone to her purse but not before kissing the face on the screen.
The rustle grew into tapping, what could have been a woodpecker knocking but we knew better. It tap-tap-tapped a rhythm we recognized.
Later, when we had gone back to our lives – our degrees and our houses and some to our marriages and boyfriends, back to our striving, back to pushing down and away the questions of why this and why that so we could go on posting pictures to show how happy we all were – and when they too went back to lives we could only crudely fathom, lives that were just down the street and soaked deep into the ground, lives held together by vines – we would still remember feeling a force over our faces, like we were one being, one organism with a single, beating heart. It could have been trying to seal us up or rid us of impurity. We didn’t know, but it passed over all of us and when we saw each other again, we were raw, like we’d been scrubbed to the bone.
“Whoa.” Sarah fell to all fours, clutching her belly. She emitted a low groan.
Lara knelt next to her. “Oh dear.”
Together we helped Sarah to her feet. The sun was rapidly setting and as we led her through the woods, we became shadows. There wasn’t an OBGYN among us, but Seema was able to ask pertinent questions, like whether she felt the baby kicking, and coached her to breathe through the contractions. Half way up the path, Sarah was overcome again. “I can’t. She’s coming.” She crouched in the dirt and sticks and dried leaves and we crouched with her, holding her shoulders. We coaxed her not to push. Timed the contractions, which were only minutes apart. Lay down a scarf and passed around hand sanitizer. We all tied our hair.
At the hospital, Sarah named the baby Ash. The paper ran a story about the birth and the Sanctuary and mentioned Lara as the toothbrush inventor. For a time, we heard that they kept in touch, Sarah and Lara. That their daughters played together when Lara was on the Island to visit her family. We heard that the girls liked to regard each other quietly, that they spent hours twirling and watching the other closely. We heard that as they grew older, they leaned away from their own mothers to lay claim to what was theirs. We learned that they colored their hair according to the fashions – bright oranges and pinks and blues. They renounced products and let their bodies grow over, like a forest with its own particular order, how you can look deep inside and see layer upon layer. We followed them wistfully, our lives largely unchanged, and when we heard what sounded like footsteps on a marble floor, we couldn’t help but look to the sky, as if she might be there, ready to swoop down and let herself in.
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