i saw my daddy the other day. i had been neglecting him; it had been ages since my last visit. he's a good and forgiving daddy though, so he didn't even mention my transgression. he was just happy to see me, period.
he and i are remarkably similar and that's why he grasps why it is so difficult for me to spend time with him. it is entirely possible to love someone too much, to experience a sentiment so powerful it overwhelms you to a point of sickness. that's how he lived every day of his life after my birth. sometimes, when i was younger, i wished he didn't love me so much. it would've meant less pain and stress for all of us. but that's neither here nor there. he DID love me fiercely and that is what created the me you read about on this blog. so all's well that grows up and ends well. but i digress.
i knew he wouldn't be thrilled with my hair. though he'd love the length-- what daddy doesn't love little girls with long hair-- i knew he'd loathe the auburn colour. too bad, dad. this is the price paid for me growing it long...i get bored and it gets coloured. "why can't you just leave it black?" my hair ISN'T black though. it's dark brown. "no, that's your sister. she was born with the chembicheh thalehmoodi, the bleached hair. you had nice dark hair." first of all daddy, people PAY to have hair like veena's. "pay? you paid someone for this disgrace on your head?" i roll my eyes. my hair was the first battleground my father and i fought on; he wanted it long as in, hangs to my knees long, because "good kerala girls have hair such as this".
i was mortified at my horrid crystal gayle impersonation. once i got to high school, i couldn't bear the ridicule. unlike miss gayle, my hair was so thick, you couldn't put a scrunchie around it twice...well, not without causing you AND me immense amounts of suffering...so i really looked more like cousin it. yes. THAT cousin it. sigh.
at least it's long daddy.
he glares at me in response. but the anger fades as he looks me up and down. "what are you doing? fasting for shiva? you are disappearing!" i did lose some weight, yes. "how much???" um. about 16 lbs. "child, i can see your collar bone. is your mother feeding you? or are there onions in your food?"
at some point, when i was around six, i decided to stop eating cooked onions. i thought they looked like worms, the very same worms i saw shriveled up outside on our sidewalk in millbrae. i was horrified to recognise the scraggly, purple carcasses fairly infesting my favourite "mashed" potato sidedish. i remember exploding in to tears, pushing my plate away and looking up at my father. i was beyond squeamish and so was he...surely he'd understand...
"daddy i don't want to eat that."
"you will eat it or i will shovel it down your throat myself."
i cried harder. my mom bitterly chimed in with her two paisa "see? you spoil her and she does these things. last week she finished the entire pan, this week she is too good for it. this is your doing."
my dad glared at her more fiercely than he had glared at me. "can a man eat in peace?"
i sat. my appetite had absconded to some less scary clime. i'm not exaggerating about my delicate sensibilities; to this day if i hear someone step on a snail, i'm unable to eat for a few days, the clattering shattering of that gnarled brown edifice continuously looping in my tortured imagination, the thought of an eviscerated slug left to die between pavement and the bottom of a shoe haunting my mind's eye. my stomach twists just typing that. so i saw the onions, thought "worms!" and couldn't eat.
i didn't eat. my father calmly walked over to where i was sitting, dinner's only leftover, as plates had been cleared and people excused hours ago. he picked up my fork, took a massive helping of potato and dared me not to open my mouth. as tears flowed freely i begged him not to make me eat. but as soon as i opened my mouth to desperately plead my case, he forced my dinner, and i wept. i swallowed only out of fear. i ate most of the cursed, cold gruel and then i ran off to my room, to seek solace under my desk, with my doll lily and my bear babu.
several hours later, i tentatively walked back in to the living room, where daddy was watching tv. i clambered up next to him, with my back to the television, braceletted ankles tucked underneath me, big toes touching, hands clasped solemnly in my lap. i looked at him with baleful eyes. "mutheh-kanee" he had nicknamed me, moments after my birth. "giant eyes." he used to brag that everyone flocked to my window at the nursery, to see the baby with huge eyes and so much hair. "you were the only baby who was alert. intelligent, even before your first hour passed! obviously. you were mine." he looked at me, perched next to him on the couch, and that was my cue to speak.
"daddy. i don't want to eat onions. please don't make me ever again."
"why." his eyes narrowed, and he slowly commenced grinding his teeth, an unconscious habit that meant he was not pleased. this was not good, but i had to state my case. this was too important.
"because they look like worms. and when mommy makes the thiel curry they look like slugs. and i'm scared of worms and slugs." my eyes filled again with wet.
my father looked at me in a way that i had never experienced, and i commenced trembling...i thought for sure a spanking would be mine for such insolence. his eyes searched my face, stopped at my chin-- the "family" chin-- and dropped down to my little hands, which were now wringing an imaginary towel viciously in my lap.
his hands came out so swiftly, i cringed and whimpered instinctively, turning my face away from inevitable pain. i hated spankings. i knew this would end badly, with me over a lap getting bruised by an angry hand, while i pleaded for mercy. he seized my underarms and jerked me towards him, but i wasn't going face-down in to the couch; no, he was pulling me in to his chest, and my face found solace in his aramis-scented neck. "don't cry little one." he said, in malayalam. arms wrapped around me, and he let one hand roughly stroke the back of my head, pulling my hair almost out of its ponytail (he never knew his own strength). "you will never have to eat onions again. not while i'm alive. you're right. they do look like scary things. i never noticed." with one final squeeze, he set me down in front of pbs and launched himself towards the kitchen. i heard anger pouring forth. voices escalated and i cringed...
"why do you cut onions like that? they look awful. you're scaring her. cut them smaller next time. THAT's why she didn't eat."
"you're spoiling her! don't tell me how to cut onions. tell HER to eat."
"cut. them. differently. she does not have to eat what she does not want."
"i am not cooking without onions for your little princess."
"then *I* will cook for her. this is finished."
and he was back on the couch. he didn't look at me, but when i rested my head against his bicep, he nestled me closer, and i fell asleep...
i miss chole daddy. she doesn't make it like you do."
daddy snorts. "nobody does ANYTHING the way i do, girl."
it's not like she puts ooly, or onions in it...it's just not the same. i frown at this. feels like it's been years since i had daddy's fiery chole. i make it like he does, and it's good. ask my cousin's panjabi friends in d.c. for proof, there were no leftovers. but i don't cook when i'm with my mom. her kitchen is very much her space. just like my kitchen is mine.
"are you sick? you need to drink some horlicks."
horlicks. whore licks. my little sister veena and i forever snickered at that unfortunately named drink. horlicks. bournevita. ovaltine. gah.
i'm not sick. i think i look fine...my opinion earns me another glare. i can't believe daddy never needed botox; his face forever frowns. he's fierce like that.
"how's your sister?"
oh! she's fine. she was a little sick a few weeks ago, but you knew about that. i think she's going to be okay. she might be coming home for xmas/new years! remember the last time she did...the last time we were all together...
the memory makes me frown. and my eyes sting as i immediately cast them downwards. i don't want him to see me cry. fate does what it does despite the pain that comes. this is not daddy's fault. it's been so long since he's seen me; i want to be radiant, not sniveling. he's kind enough to give me a moment, and the pain passes.
"your hair is ruined, you're too skinny and your mother isn't putting onions in your food. what else?"
sigh. oh daddy. everything. everything else. i'm so lost without you. you were the mapmaker in my life, literally and figuratively. yes, i have mapquest now, but how it thrilled me to no end that whenever i went somewhere new, you'd grab whatever paper was nearby and with your magic red felt-tip (or my waterman fountain pen) you would wordlessly, flawlessly sketch streets and landmarks. all of your training as an engineer...so that you could be my personal cartographer. i never got lost with you, daddy. never.
i can live without THOSE maps (um, barely) but i cannot bear to be without the other, more necessary ones. the unwritten verbal exchanges that always ended so decisively. everything i did that was glorious, came through you daddy. you pushed me to debate class, when i was too terrified to speak to someone at the door, let alone at a microphone, and i ended my lincoln-douglas career 12-0, undefeated anna...what was my nickname? the iron maiden. "being in a room with anna is like being locked in a medieval torture device" because no one knew that they were debating me, they just saw a code. and they would walk in to that room and betray the terror in their hearts by the horror on their faces. you used to gloat, you bad daddy, you. :) taking pleasure in other people's pain.
no wonder i'm me. you never missed a single speech or match. you carried my briefcase, consulted, advised. helped me rewrite a brief in one 15-minute break when someone else stole my award-winning case and used it against another st. francis girl. she ran up to you breathlessly..."someone copied anna's negative! that's so wrong!" you were unshakeable and that would made me unbreakable. "that happens, baby. it's a shitty world. excuse us for a moment." and you took my elbow and steered me to an empty classroom, checking first that no one followed. "anna. sit and write a new negative construct." but daddy, i don't have time?! "write. i need to go find out something." ten minutes later, daddy came back, a slight bit of grim dragging down impossibly full lips under an imposing moustache. "just as i suspected. you are in the final round. he is against you, and you are negative. he will obviously know your old strategy since he stole it. if he is this shrewd, he will have changed his affirmative to reflect this." i was stricken.
i felt like my heart was somewhere between my kidneys. what the hell would i do now? my hands were shaking above my legal pad...daddy reached in to my open briefcase, pulled out my hidden stash of cadbury fruit and nut and opened it carefully and deliberately. peeling away the gold foil, he put it in front of my mouth. "bite!" he commanded in malayalam. daddy this is no time for chocolate! "BITE!" my hands are shaking can't you see that? "your blood sugar is low, girl. bite." i bit, and then protested rudely through a mouth full of decadent milky cocoa love. that's not why my hands are shaking, daddy! "nonsense. that is the only reason they would shake. nothing to be ashamed of. daddy is hypoglycemic too. see, i'm going to eat some as well." daddy they are shaking because- "because you need sugar. i did not raise a coward or a quitter. now bite and WRITE. he is nothing without your intelligence. he is in the final round because of YOU not him."
i nodded meekly and started to write. it was gibberish at first but daddy's eyes never wavered, and then my pen started to move feverishly. after ten minutes i had sketched out a new case. my fear was already ancient history. i became animated, and i felt a hot sort of confidence infusing my limbs. daddy, what if i do this? and what do you think about this point here? isn't it unbeatable?
daddy looked at the rolex that i coveted, the one that i would receive a duplicate of as soon as i finished college one day. "time to go. you will be late." he said gruffly. i snapped the briefcase closed and he grabbed it wordlessly, leaving me free to pore over my yellow paper. i muttered points to myself over and over again, until daddy stage whispered "quiet!" in malayalam. i looked up. my opponent had reached the door of our appointed boxing ring just as i had. he smirked. i smirked harder. i saw something unsure pass through his eyes for a nanosecond, but then he recovered. "after you," he said with an exaggerated sort of chivalry. i snorted. "ladies first," i spat, waving him in with my hand. he stood and looked at me and i shook my head. i wanted to rip him to shreds, i didn't have time for this bullshit. we each set up and met at the podium, where he shook my hand. my grip was stronger. "good luck" he said, with an excessive amount of sweetness. "luck is for dilettantes. you can have it all." oh i was going to enjoy this.
the plagiarist walked back to his desk and i stayed at the podium, steeling myself with the same ritual i always used. i took a deep breath, closed my eyes, bowed my head slightly, asked God for his blessing (dear God, please help me do well with this debate. help me win. help me destroy my lame-assed opponent. for everything is possible through you. thanks.) spiritually fortified, the third and final step of the ritual was left; i looked up and locked eyes with my father, who was as motionless as a statue.
my mouth opened and my opponent's jaw dropped. an hour later, i shook an excessively sweaty palm and wheeled away on my kidskin heel. daddy was already at my desk, digging through the briefcase he had bought for me. he found the blue hospital solution that was almost pure alcohol and disdainfully put a quarter-sized puddle in my hand. "dirty white people, you know they don't wash after they..." he muttered in malayalam. i happily destroyed germs the way i had decimated my unworthy opponent and savoured the moment.
a few hours later, my heart was thumping like a dhol in my chest. they were announcing second place and i waited to hear my opponent's name. the smirk was already there, and i was tasting vindication..."2nd place goes to the pride and joy of st. francis-- and her daddy-- Anna..." WHAT?! what the fuck was this?? i was too stunned to show such sentiment, so i ambled up to the stage and accepted the lesser trophy. i looked at it dumbly as i heard the words that made my stomach nearly disintegrate from the churning acid inside..."and taking first place for varsity lincoln douglas tonight, a truly amazing feat if i may say so, considering who he had to beat to make it here-" the man nodded at me as he said this, " ____________ !! congratulations!!" as soon as it was polite, i walked offstage, down the three stairs that lead to the gym floor. i couldn't bear to look at my father.
it wasn't really an issue, since he wasn't looking at me at all. he had already managed to retrieve all of my scoresheets and he was mentally recalculating everything. my coach walked up and put his hand on daddy's shoulder. "George, i know you're heartbroken right now, but you should know that he only beat her by one point. he won decisively in the first two rounds and it gave him the boost he needed. but you know what? 2nd is GREAT. look at that trophy!" my coach lightly punched my shoulder. "good job kiddo. first place for your speech on the japanese educational model and second for LD. i'm so proud of you!" i think he sensed that it was a "moment" so he wisely left us alone.
my dad nodded to himself, tucked my scores carefully in to a briefcase pocket and snapped it shut. he withdrew the keys to his fleetwood from the right pocket of his trousers. "let's go." i followed, silent and humbled. he opened the back door for me and put my briefcase on the passenger side floor. he paused for what seemed like an unnaturally long time after igniting the engine. looking straight ahead in to the starry night, he quietly said. "the only way to beat you, was to be you. he didn't win because he deserved to...it's okay." he put the giant car in reverse and backed out expertly.
as the car bounced upon leaving the parking lot and moved on to the street he commenced a tirade i was familiar with; "i always told you, you have to be better. because of your skin, because of your sex, you have to do more, be more. if they get 100% you need 200%, if they get..." my eyelashes fluttered at the comforting sound of what most people thought was a gruff, loud, menacing voice. i was asleep before we hit the freeway, curled up in the backseat of the fleetwood, my navy blue blazer a makeshift sort of blanket. the trophy fell from my hand, on to the embroidered floor mat below.