Mangalam Ramakrishnan Srinivasan stood at the edge of the kitchen, head bowed, unsure of what to do. Her husband was shouting at her. While he only did it rarely, when he did do it, it was horrifying. His eyes bulged. His neck separated in to several cables, straining to amplify the hate spewing from his mouth. His face contorted until he looked like the demons she had seen in the Amar Chitra Katha comics she had listlessly flipped through, during the sweltering summers she spent in Trivandrum as a child.
This time he was castigating her about not doing enough cleaning. At moments like this, the oddest realizations would come to her, as she slipped outside of herself in an act of self-preservation. Once she was disassociated from what she was seeing and hearing, her mind would fill with ideas about which she was certain; she was certain that she could tell no one about what she was experiencing, lest they turn around and judge her for it or worse, bring it up when things were good. She was certain that there was some truth to what she was hearing, but that it was also true that he did nothing to help. She was certain that out of all of the men she had been with, he was the best, even though at this moment he was giving her his worst.
Mangalam was disappointed in herself; she had been screamed at her entire life, yet it still hollowed out her insides, made her shake and destroyed her for days. Shouldn't she be used to it by now? An expert at being abused? Every year of her life had contained at least a hundred moments just like this. When would virtual callouses cover and protect her emotions? What more would it take? She tried to remind herself that as much as she felt under siege, the situation could always, always be worse.
Mangalam had watched her now-deceased father shake and choke her Mother, since she was a baby. It was actually her first memory; when she was either two or three, she remembered crouching down next to the 20 lb. sack of rice in the corner of the tiny kitchen her Mother was confined to, in West Roxbury. Mangalam was trying to hide, because she was scared. As her Father choked her Mother and cursed at her, she saw her Mother's hands fly to her throat, desperately trying to pry herself free. When her eyes rushed sideways, not unlike a Bharatnatyam dancer's deliberate glance, Mangalam saw something in her Mother's tear-filled stare which caused her own eyes to spill over, as her underwear filled with urine.
Seeing her only child liquefy gave Mangalam's mother a momentary boost in strength; she shoved her Father away and succeeded, more out of surprise than force. Her mother rushed to the corner, snatching her up and pressing her face sideways in to her sari blouse. "Mani-molay, it's okay" she murmured in Malayalam, as she smoothed her hair, then her dress. Mangalam couldn't take her eyes off of her Father, who was eying her with disgust, taking in the puddle she was still squatting in, which was slowly being absorbed by the hem of her Mother's georgette sari. He picked up the glass of milk she was supposed to drink and hurled it at her. Her mother's hands weren't fast enough; the heavy, ornately cut, avocado-colored glass which had been purchased at Value Village hit Mangalam above the eye and a rivulet of blood soon obscured her vision. She couldn't see if her Mother was hurt anymore and she exploded in to wails of terror and frustration at being covered in milk, mucous, tears and urine.
The memory of that fight gifted Mangalam with a strange resolve, as she dispassionately processed her husband's next complaint. He was sputtering about how he couldn't even invite his friends over, the house was so messy and disorganized.
"Good," Mangalam thought. She hated his friends and the feeling was mutual. At the same time, she grew anxious at the thought that they might come over anyway and see the conditions of her home, because they would tell others and the gossip would spread worldwide and reach her Mother, who had retired to Kerala. Her Mother had been through enough. She grew nervous as she looked at the unwashed dishes in the sink, the pile of unread mail and magazines on the counter, the unpacked boxes left from a move that had occurred three months ago. Hatred slowly seeped in to her fingers, until they tingled; then it spread throughout her, electrifying her spine-- a reminder that she still had one.
"It's not like you do anything to help.", she muttered.
If she had wanted the ugliness to end, that was the wrong thing to say. Enraged, his voice grew louder as he made scathing pronouncements about how she was the one responsible for the mess. "The nerve of you!", he ranted. "You go to Target every week and buy this useless CRAP we don't need. EVERY DAY packages come here filled with things we don't have space for! And if you just got off your damned ass and cleaned, you'd realize that you already have some of this shit, instead of buying it two more times because you can't find the original! All of this, while I STRUGGLE to pay our bills. How dare you shop as if we have money to waste." He was leaning forward now, his right arm braced against the couch, his left hand holding the TV remote with such tension, his already-fair knuckles had gone white.
He had a point, but it didn't sway her. The reason she shopped was simple; it made her feel better. Some women spent thousands on Gilt Group. She wandered the aisles of Walgreens and Target, fingering pristine boxes of cotton swabs, caressing displays of L'oreal's newest makeup. Just walking through the cosmetics section calmed her; losing herself in the wall of products brought her actual peace. An entire hour could pass as she ignored the world while comparing eyeliners from Revlon, L'oreal and Rimmel London, with the care of someone conducting open-heart surgery. Which was water-proof? They all were hypo-allergenic at this point, though she remembered when she was young, how that was a selling point.
She especially loved any "Buy One Get One Free"-offer. She loved them so much, she was disappointed when stores resorted to the far inferior enticement of "Buy one, Get One for 50%". Did they think she was stupid? Incapable of simple math? That was a 25% discount, which was fine, but nothing extraordinary. In fact, she'd be a lot more excited for such a price if they just told the truth: "25% off!". As a result of her drugstore makeup addiction, Mangalam had boxes of unused mascara, eyeliner, lip gloss and eye shadow. For a few years, she kept telling herself that she'd start a Makeup Blog and review products, thus making the expenditure justifiable. Some makeup bloggers had become quite successful, but she didn't even desire that. She just wanted to protect her beloved hobby, find ever more reasons for retreating to her safe space.
Mangalam looked down at her feet and studied them, as her husband raged about spending money when they had credit card debt, another fair point she would ignore, because of how it was being delivered. When he was happy, he never said such things or conveyed such concerns. At worst, he'd cock his head to the side, raise one eyebrow and half-smile, as if to say, "Oh, you!" in an exaggerated way, as if he were starring in a sitcom. Then he'd go back to playing online poker. Mangalam wondered if these were legitimate worries that he hid from her or just points to be scored by an imaginary referee, who danced around their verbal sparring.
"Who knows?", she thought, before becoming distracted by her toes. She was long overdue for a pedicure and her toenails had grown so long, she needed to cut them in order to not destroy every pair of tights she owned. She tried to be careful, as she wielded the sleek Brookstone nail cutter, but somehow, the big toe on her right foot looked lopsided. Mangalam's eyes moved upwards, taking in her legs, which she hadn't shaved in weeks, as a sort of informal, unplanned protest against her husband. She knew he wouldn't touch her if she was hairy and she enjoyed that small measure of control, that possibility for revenge. Her husband had been a virgin when they married, Mangalam was not, although he would never know that. He complained often that he had been "good", that he had waited long enough, and yet she usually resisted his attempts to initiate sex.
"Idiot.", she thought as he kept shouting and cursing. "This is why I don't have sex with you. It's because of this, the way you look, right now. This is what I picture when you come near me and brush my arm. This exact moment."
Mangalam shuddered. To her chagrin, she noticed her newly-chubby thighs quivering as she did. She felt naked and exta vulnerable, even though she was in fact wearing running shorts. She receded behind the counter, so he couldn't see her legs. The fact that they were unshaven made her feel worse about herself. She needed to lose weight. She used to be pretty, in a quiet, demure way, like Madhuri on "Outsourced". In fact, when the doppelganger wave swept facebook, that was the picture she chose for herself, to nearly universal approval.
"Oh. My. GAH. You look JUST LIKE HER!", her coworker Jennifer had commented. Jennifer's words received four "likes", all from other white people. The Desis she knew were participating in the meme reluctantly, and were filled with bitterness at how it was just another opportunity to be "othered".
Mangalam thought of how exquisitely delicate "Madhuri" was and realized with a pang that she had looked like that, just two or three years ago. She felt powerless to change anything, though. If she couldn't get to a drug store makeup aisle, her other trusted refuge was sugar. The fact that she passed a cupcake store on her way home from work every day ensured that she would gain ten to fifteen pounds a year, easily. Mangalam wondered if her husband would scream at her less, if she were thinner. Prettier. Less hairy. That was a stupid reason to lose weight. She had a strong enough sense of self, that she had dumped the two boyfriends who had made "physical" demands of her.
One wanted her to lose ten pounds when she was already slender, and stipulate in a pre-nup that she would maintain that reduced weight, even after childbirth. The other brusquely ordered her to get implants, to compensate for her "absurdly fat ass". She had dumped both, within hours of each ultimatum. No, if she changed her body, it would be for herself. She pictured all of the pretty clothes she no longer fit in to, because she had gained weight. She used to be so stylish! Now she lived in yoga pants and spandex-enhanced gym clothes, even though she hadn't worked out in two years. They were all that fit. Sometimes, she even wore them to work, if they could "pass". She had two pairs of lycra pants, one gray, one black, which, when worn with heels and a sweater, approximated office-appropriate clothing. No wonder no one looked at her.
Mangalam was snatched out of her reverie by the sound of a glass shattering. Her husband had thrown it at the wall; Mangalam noted that this was still not a terrible thing, since she was nowhere near it. Yes. He had thrown the glass, but he hadn't thrown it at her. She noted this quietly, gratefully as he ranted about how she "never fucking listened".
Mangalam looked down and realized that she had been wearing the same tee-shirt since Friday afternoon, when she got off work early. She had every intention of cleaning the house with her found time, but when she got home, a Real Housewives marathon was on Bravo and she gave in to sloth and Beverly Hills froth. Eventually, she passed out on the couch, before 8pm. When she woke up in the wee hours, the bedroom door was closed, which was fine with her. She hadn't shared a "marital bed" in months.
The sofa, which had been a wedding present from their gift registry at Crate and Barrel, was divine. Supremely comfortable. Moreso than the bed, even. She discreetly sniffed her shoulder. It reeked. She looked up at her husband sadly and then turned away from him, spent and defeated. She wished she could just walk away from him, this apartment, her life, but she didn't have the money to leave. He knew that, and while he was usually too decent to mention such a sad fact, today he seemed to relish it. She could walk out the front door and go downstairs, perhaps to the business lounge or the party room, with its oversized flatscreen, but she'd have to change clothes to do it. Why wasn't she thinner and better maintained? No one would come close enough to smell her, of that she was certain. The real issue was the hair, downy on her outer thighs, coarser on her inner. By the time it reached the hem of her shorts, it was undeniable. Those were not hairs that get aired in public, they were practically pubic.
She didn't want to put on clean clothes when she was filthy, and she felt trapped all over again, by his anger, her non-existant savings account, and now, her compulsive need to be personally clean, even if her apartment was cluttered. There was, after all, a huge difference between stuff which needed to be put away and actual dirt. She was stuck inside. With him. There were only two other rooms in the apartment: the bedroom and the attached bath. The latter seemed more promising and she suddenly felt like taking a shower. The hot water would be a welcome distraction from the fight, as it cleansed her and washed away the day. Perhaps she would even shave her legs. That would double the length of her shower, and give her something to focus on besides the grim sadness which was welling up within her. Yes. If she had something to focus on, she probably wouldn't weep, her saltwater mixing with fresh as it coursed down her body, down the tub, down the drain, off to whatever murky place contained their waste and her frequent, painful, uncontrollable tears.