Do Not Be Afraid

Fiction / Reshmi Hebbar


:: Do Not Be Afraid ::

The snow had fall­en two days ear­li­er. If it fell again tonight, Pallavi’s moth­er might try and get every­one to stay until Christ­mas Eve. But then again, if Pallavi stuck to her deci­sion and told her par­ents, they might make her leave. She imag­ined being ban­ished from her child­hood home, a place she wasn’t keen now to arrive at any­way. She pic­tured dri­ving back to Bloom­field in the black night, the white flakes falling every­where or still packed on the ground, the voice of regret hiss­ing in her mind instead of the voice of urgency. As she head­ed east around the city, the salt­ed roads and still fresh lay­ers of white pre­sent­ed a sense of order she was reluc­tant to dis­rupt. Tell them! the whoosh­ing of the high­way seemed to entreat. Pallavi gripped the steer­ing wheel and con­sid­ered con­tra­dic­to­ry pos­si­bil­i­ties: noth­ing she could say would get her thrown out into the cold; she would be fine out there any­way. Like an unex­pect­ed charge of sero­tonin surg­ing through her brain, she remem­bered again events from the night before, Alex’s lips flut­ter­ing against her neck. 

When she pulled into the dri­ve­way, Pallavi was struck, as she always seemed to be now, by the mod­esty of the struc­ture her par­ents had tak­en care of so deter­mined­ly, repaint­ing the sid­ing with crisp white coats, adding a side door to the front-fac­ing garage, call­ing arborists to pre­vent the elm tree in the front yard from dying in the pass­ing blights. Her rel­a­tives in India might no longer be impressed by the size of the house, at least not in the same way they would have been when it was being built in the late sev­en­ties, when her moth­er used to send pho­tos to Hyder­abad and Ban­ga­lore of Pallavi and her broth­ers tod­dling around on the linoleum in the kitchen. Even if its promise now seemed dat­ed, its colo­nial style, the snow in the yard, and the sur­viv­ing tree—these spotlit a steady­ing truth, one that her par­ents would nev­er own up to: they belonged to this place now more than the old one. 

If they could only admit this, Pallavi felt, her life would be easier. 

Pal­lu, set small­er plates for Samir and Maya. Give them plas­tic cups instead of glass. Chil­dren are always spilling.” Her moth­er often con­clud­ed instruc­tions with a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for giv­ing them. Pallavi could have remind­ed her that she was not unfa­mil­iar with the habits of kids just because she didn’t have any of her own. But she was feel­ing grate­ful for her mother’s fran­tic host­ess ener­gy, which always sup­plant­ed the space for any­body else to come out and say what was tru­ly on their mind. It was per­verse and per­haps anoth­er para­dox to con­tend with: her moth­er would be so busy enter­tain­ing that any­thing Pallavi want­ed to tell her would have to wait; the quick­er Pallavi was at per­form­ing these tasks, the more time there would be left for sit­ting every­body down and hav­ing a prop­er talk. In the mean­time, these flash­backs to Alex’s hands and lips, the quick dop­ing jolts that she treat­ed her­self to around the house now were like shak­ing a present not yet meant to be opened. She did not deserve to remem­ber any­thing until she told them. 

Pallavi’s eldest brother’s fam­i­ly arrived in Mon­roeville an hour lat­er, her niece and nephew drag­ging snow in from the yard onto the engi­neered hard­wood her par­ents had installed in the foy­er. They demand­ed soda when she was pour­ing them some juice. It had dis­mayed Samir to see hock­ey on the tele­vi­sion instead of Nickelodeon. 

Pal­lu, use the rags from the laun­dry room—not the kitchen—to clean up the snow, and turn on this Dis­ney or what­ev­er for Samir in our bedroom.” 

Every­one in the Red­dy fam­i­ly, includ­ing Pallavi’s sis­ter-in-law, would have known not to take a rag from the kitchen to wipe up the floor. 

In the small mir­ror her par­ents had hung by the front door, Pallavi caught sight of her flushed face and felt relief. She wasn’t twelve years old but a grown woman over thir­ty-five who could pass for thir­ty. Alex hadn’t just been flat­ter­ing her; her skin was indeed bright and youth­ful. There hadn’t been a need for lines or games, just the imme­di­ate igni­tion when Alex had pro­nounced her name so per­fect­ly, the grat­i­tude Pallavi had felt then warm­ing her low­er back, her pelvis, her toes, until it felt nec­es­sary lat­er to deox­i­dize the heat they were gen­er­at­ing at their table in the mood-lit bistro. 

The Christ­mas tree looks great, Amma,” Pallavi’s old­er broth­er, Ravi, called now to their moth­er as he passed the liv­ing room. “When’s Arjun get­ting here?” 

Arjun had to work half day today,” their moth­er answered from the kitchen. “We’ll open the presents after din­ner. You brought all the children’s gifts from home, right?” 

Ravi halt­ed at the entry to the den and gave Pallavi a look. She want­ed to raise an eye­brow back at him—she was clean­ing up after his kids. 

Amma, you know that San­ta brings their gifts,” Ravi told the top of Pallavi’s head. “He won’t show up until they’re in bed at home tomor­row night.” 

Ravi’s wife, Kavya, emerged now from the pow­der room. 

Leave that, Pallavi,” she said, tak­ing the rag from her hands. 

Kavya, my mother’s ask­ing why we didn’t bring the kids’ presents.”

Pallavi watched Kavya bend to the floor and ignore this remark. She was curi­ous about the ten­sile qual­i­ty of her brother’s mar­riage. Per­haps Pallavi felt this way towards any tra­di­tion­al rela­tion­ship between adults of her gen­er­a­tion, the kind that involved pri­vate skir­mish­es about trips to the gro­cery store and in-laws. The type that would not have required her to lean up and whis­per in a hot moment into Alex’s ear, or any person’s she real­ly want­ed to date, that she didn’t feel com­fort­able in the open, so could they please take this inside? 

Tell her you’re on call, no?” Kavya mur­mured final­ly, stand­ing up with the rag curled in her fist like a rosette. 

They all turned at the foot­steps, the famil­iar beat of Pallavi’s moth­er in her rub­ber flip-flops. 

What is this, Ravi? Kavya nev­er did San­ta and what-all in India when she was a child. Is it okay with her that you are not even stay­ing here one night this week?” 

The ten­sion of this moment dis­tract­ed Pallavi from the two parts appre­hen­sion and one part resolve that had been turn­ing to acid inside her since she’d arrived. 

I’m on call, Amma. Start­ing at mid­night tonight,” Ravi tested. 

Look at you, Pallavi want­ed to say. Instead, she took the rag back from Kavya and went to hang it up in the laun­dry room before her moth­er could ask her to. The evening was still wide open; there were still many chances left. 

Her father was on the car­pet of the den try­ing to set up the stereo. 

Come, Pallavi. I’m look­ing for the Vasund­hara Devi record. You’ll sing lat­er, no?” 

The room’s wood pan­el­ing had been paint­ed over in light gray, a col­or their moth­er dis­liked but their father claimed would help with resale when­ev­er the time became necessary. 

Appa, I haven’t tak­en lessons in twen­ty years. I don’t do that stuff any­more.” Pallavi wished her response could have con­veyed more than it did, and that her father, instead of reply­ing with the words she felt cer­tain he would use in a moment, would stop root­ing around the cab­i­net for aux­il­iary cables and come out and say what had been obvi­ous for too long. For as long as her par­ents had been updat­ing the house, and plan­ning for retire­ment, and find­ing Ravi a wife, and then wor­ry­ing about Pallavi and her oth­er broth­er, Arjun, for­ward­ing on emails, week after week, with descrip­tions of peo­ple who would be the per­fect mates for them, sent from peo­ple who knew oth­er peo­ple look­ing for per­fec­tion. She wished her father would put down the wires and take a hard look at her. Then he would be able to answer: of course you don’t. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father sang. “Anjaathae Nee Vaa. It is your her­itage, Pallavi.”  

Alex had asked about Car­nat­ic music on their date, and Pallavi had found that, when she was with the right kind of per­son, she could be elo­quent about things she had tak­en for granted. 

That sounds amaz­ing. I’d love to hear it some­time,” Alex had gushed, del­i­cate­ly fork­ing up a last bite of floun­der from its but­tery skin. “I wish I came from some­where else! All I had was mid­dle school glee club.” 

Pallavi had want­ed to say that she’d been in glee club too. That she and Alex weren’t as dif­fer­ent as you’d expect. But maybe it wasn’t true. For most peo­ple, the date wouldn’t have been as big of a step as it had been for her. 

When the whole fam­i­ly had final­ly assem­bled for din­ner, her moth­er asked how Pallavi’s search for a mar­riage “prospect” had been going. “Are you find­ing any­one interesting?” 

Pallavi felt embar­rassed in front of the kids. 

Yeah. Sure. There’re some.” 

Well, what are their names?” 

Pallavi’s twin broth­er, Arjun, reached across the table and asked Samir to pass him the pani puris, pre­tend­ing after­ward to fum­ble with the bowl so that the boy gasped and gig­gled. Pallavi knew what her broth­er was try­ing to do. She took a breath. 

One’s name is Alex. We actu­al­ly went out last night,” she said, glanc­ing around the table as if she were delight­ed to have been asked. She did not look at her mother. 

Alex?” her father said. “So, not an Indian?” 

No.” Tech­ni­cal­ly not a lie, Pallavi told her­self, and inhaled again. Adren­a­line began to pool inside her. 

What about the two or three boys which Rad­ha Auntie’s sis­ter sent us the con­tact info for?” 

Those nev­er worked out.” Pallavi kept chew­ing care­ful­ly, even after she had swal­lowed her puri. Arjun was look­ing at her, but the moment had passed. Now didn’t feel like the right time after all. 

What do you mean nev­er worked out? Did you call them?” 


Did you guys catch Cros­by in the Pen­guins game last week? Jesus—” 

Arjun, wait … ” 

You know, Mom,” Kavya was speak­ing. Kavya almost nev­er spoke. “Even in India these days, girls are wait­ing until their thir­ties to set­tle down. My col­lege friends and all.” 

Pallavi felt grate­ful to Kavya—the girl was always nice to her, even if she seemed devoid of a real per­son­al­i­ty. But her sister-in-law’s point would count for lit­tle giv­en that Kavya was three years younger than her. It also didn’t fail to net­tle Pallavi, as it always did, that Kavya, the only younger per­son at the table who had not grown up in Amer­i­ca, could call their moth­er “Mom” while they could not. 

Pallavi is thir­ty-sev­en years old,” her moth­er rebutted. 

Hey, so am I!” Arjun widened his eyes until Samir and Maya smiled. 

That’s old!” Samir marveled. 

Not as old as your dad,” Pallavi retort­ed, fill­ing up anoth­er puri to stuff her mouth with. 

Aw, come on. I’m only forty-two, guys!” Ravi grinned around the table. 

You are not old,” her moth­er said, and of course every­one knew what she meant. These words might have pushed open again the win­dow for telling them, but Pallavi did not jump at the chance. Instead, she stole anoth­er peek at the mem­o­ry of Alex’s hand on her neck as they had wait­ed for the valet. Not old, not too old! she want­ed to shout across the table now. 

After din­ner,” her father was offer­ing into the brief silence that fol­lowed her mother’s pro­nounce­ment, “Pallavi will enter­tain us with some old fash­ioned music. You’ll like it, kids, I promise.” 

Appa—” Pallavi began. 

I want us to watch Bend It Like Beck­ham!” Samir cried. 

Okay, okay. No prob­lem. We’ll see after that.” 

Every­body rinse your plates prop­er­ly before putting them in the dish­wash­er. They don’t get clean oth­er­wise,” her moth­er said when she could com­mand atten­tion again. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father sang as the dish­es were being gath­ered. “Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” he con­tin­ued as Pallavi grabbed the broom before she could be told to sweep up under the din­ing table. “Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” he trilled as he was adjust­ing the wiring in the media cab­i­net, unplug­ging con­nec­tions to the stereo’s receiv­er and hook­ing them up instead to the video input. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa. In Tamil, which was not her par­ents’ moth­er tongue, the phrase meant “Do not be afraid.” The song was about a woman who tried to talk to com­mon birds—pigeons, doves—to coax them into trust­ing her to hold them for a moment before releas­ing them into the sky. 

Her par­ents’ taste in music had always been sur­pris­ing­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic. They’d not allowed them­selves to get caught up in debates about which South Indi­an lan­guage had the best songs, or which lan­guage Pallavi should take lessons in. They had nev­er mind­ed the cas­settes being blast­ed from Ravi’s room upstairs, or the head­phones Arjun took to wear­ing when the twins were teens, or the semi-rit­u­al­ized way Pallavi had record­ed and then con­sumed music videos on Sat­ur­days, the intense­ly monog­a­mous rela­tion­ships she’d main­tained with artists for months at a time: Belin­da Carlisle, Deb­bie Gib­son, Mari­ah Carey. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father was singing as they all filed into the den, Kavya refus­ing to sit on the sofa, and Pallavi’s moth­er rush­ing to pick up glass­es that had been left out of the dish­wash­er, the chil­dren claim­ing most of the space, Samir tak­ing imag­i­nary shots at an imag­i­nary goal. 

What is his obses­sion with this movie?” Pallavi asked as a way to qui­et her­self. The voice inside her was get­ting shrill. 

He’s obsessed with the actress who plays Jesmin­der,” Ravi joked. “He loves that scene when she takes off in her soc­cer shorts and kicks all those boys’ butts.” 

Pallavi’s moth­er said nothing. 

I love the soc­cer!” Samir protested. 

I love the wed­ding!” lit­tle Maya joined in. 

It sounds like you remem­ber the movie so well that we don’t have to watch it,” Pallav­i’s father tried, his fin­ger ready on the remote. He seemed so hope­ful. What would it do to her par­ents, this thing inside her, to peo­ple with such sim­ple though par­tic­u­lar needs—a daugh­ter who would sing clas­si­cal music, and chil­dren who would find part­ners who shared their “her­itage”?  

Her moth­er said noth­ing. Pallavi felt like a bird in a com­pound, torn between the offer of ready food and the safe­ty of flight. 

I don’t know why they set this movie in Eng­land instead of Amer­i­ca,” Arjun put in from the armchair. 

That’s where Beck­ham is, genius.” Ravi’s crit­i­cisms of Arjun had got­ten milder over the years. 

I know, but they could have picked a dif­fer­ent sport, dif­fer­ent ath­letes, and done it here, right? We have kids going through those issues here.” 

Shhh!” Samir urged them. But Pallavi knew what her twin had been try­ing to do. 

This is the movie with the kid who … you know. The Sikh girl’s friend?” Her moth­er sur­prised them all with her wav­ery tone. 

Which friend, Ammam­ma?” Samir asked eager­ly. “You mean Jules? The girl who brings Jess onto the team? She has short hair and is real­ly good?” 

Pallavi real­ized then what was the rea­son behind Samir’s infat­u­a­tion with the film. She’d always been able to detect those loose ends of attrac­tion that peo­ple tried to hide. She might have said some­thing now, but she didn’t want to embar­rass her nephew. Her nerves were reflux­ing again because she felt cer­tain her moth­er wasn’t ask­ing about Keira Knightley’s character. 

Not that one, sweet­ie.” Pallavi’s moth­er looked away from her grand­chil­dren to their par­ents. “The oth­er friend. The Sikh boy whom the girl’s par­ents want her to get engaged to. Should the chil­dren be watch­ing this?” 

Pallavi felt a strange relief bub­ble up through the dread roil­ing in her. Wasn’t this the per­fect moment, then? 

You mean because that kid isn’t straight?” Ravi brushed the thought aside with a wave. “The movie is about soc­cer and Indi­an cul­ture, Amma. Come on.” 

Don’t you think it can give chil­dren ideas though?” 

What kind of ideas, Amma?” This was Arjun again, and Pallavi’s instinct was to shoot him a look that said “take it easy,” a habit devel­oped through their short­hand of qui­et, if not direct, resis­tance. Where was the voice inside her head now? Where were her words? Why was she let­ting the oth­ers do the talk­ing for her? 

Ideas like it is okay to be … you know.” 

Gay?” Arjun asked. 

Arjun, stop shout­ing,” their father said. 

Why aren’t you ask­ing whether it’s wrong for the movie to be pro­mot­ing Sikhism then?” Arjun went on. “I mean there are Sikhs every­where. Look at them. So many.” 

Arjun, will you just shut up?” Ravi snapped. 

Dad­dy, we’re not sup­posed to say that!” Maya whimpered. 

You’re right, sweet­heart. Every­one be quiet.” 

I think it’s impor­tant for kids to be exposed to as many lifestyles as pos­si­ble,” Pallavi spoke into the fresh silence. 

What lifestyle?” her moth­er demand­ed. “They are immi­grants liv­ing in Lon­don, and the par­ents are so igno­rant. So tra­di­tion­al. This is not Indi­an cul­ture, I say.” 

Her mother’s anger always man­aged to take Pallavi by sur­prise. Inside her mind, the voice and the words had flut­tered away, but she reached now to find them, prepar­ing for cer­tain failure. 

Indi­an cul­ture has changed, Amma. There are new­er immi­grants. And more gay peo­ple. All over the world.” 

Sure­ly this was all that need­ed to be said. Sure­ly she’d said it all? 

Maybe things like that hap­pen in those com­mu­ni­ties over there, but it doesn’t hap­pen in ours,” her moth­er insisted. 

How do you know that though, Amma?” Arjun asked now. For all the emo­tion flap­ping inside her, Pallavi could not decide whether she want­ed him to go on. “How do you know what it was like for all of us?” 

I’m just say­ing,” her moth­er said, her voice ris­ing as if try­ing to be heard over a crowd­ed room, “that all of this being what­ev­er you want is just a fashion.” 

Arjun’s eye­brows were lift­ed, but Pallavi looked away. She knew what she was sup­posed to say next, that she was sup­posed to ask her moth­er what she meant about being fash­ion­able, and that Arjun would like­ly join her in skew­er­ing their mother’s flim­sy points against the wall of their shared under­stand­ing of the real world. But she had reg­is­tered the tini­est hint of ter­ror in her mother’s voice. 

It’s not fash­ion, Amma,” Pallavi said slow­ly. “It’s not some­thing to be afraid of.” 

Why we had to pick this movie instead of some­thing about Christ­mas, I don’t know!” her moth­er answered and stared fierce­ly at the television. 

Anjaathae Nee Vaa,” her father sang soft­ly, tilt­ing his head at Pallavi. 

You’re ruin­ing it!” Samir stood up shout­ing. He grabbed the remote from the floor and jacked the vol­ume up ten decibels. 

You have to turn it down, Samir, so the oth­ers can talk,” Kavya said. 

I want to go home.” The boy piv­ot­ed sud­den­ly, the remote con­trol held at his chest like a handgun. 

Pallavi’s father was the first to react. “Don’t say that, Samir. We are all togeth­er here. It’s Christmas.” 

It’s Christ­mas Eve Eve!” Maya chant­ed, and Pallavi could not tell whether she shared her brother’s frus­tra­tion. “Santa’s com­ing on Christmas!” 

San­ta can come here, too,” Pallavi’s moth­er posit­ed. The expres­sion on her face now was one of unmasked panic. 

No he can’t, because we live in Sewick­ley,” Samir replied. “We need to leave milk and cook­ies out for him.” 

We can do that here. We have milk and cook­ies from the store.” 

Today’s not Christmas!!” 

Samir’s fury seemed phys­i­o­log­i­cal, emo­tion cat­alyzed by a dif­fer­ent crea­ture, or par­a­site, forc­ing its way out of his body. Kavya jumped up from the floor. 

Tell your Ammam­ma you are sor­ry for shout­ing, Samir. Right now. Be a good boy.” 

I’m sor­ry.” 

Mom, it looks like we should go. Some­thing must have hap­pened to his stom­ach, or maybe he needs bet­ter sleep tonight. But we should go. I’m sorry.” 

Pallavi’s moth­er said noth­ing, and over her father’s protests, Pallavi could hear Ravi detail­ing their sched­ules, offer­ing a fam­i­ly din­ner at his house in two days. Peo­ple need­ed to get some rest, he said. And he was on call anyway. 

Well, I’m going to go, too. I’ll catch you guys lat­er.” Arjun stood up and pulled his keys from his pocket. 

You can­not go back to Lewis­burg now, Arjun.” Their father was incred­u­lous. “You’ll get there in the mid­dle of the night.” 

Arjun laughed. “Appa, it’ll be fine. I can text you when I arrive. I was always going to leave late.” 

Nobody wants to stay here any­more. Every­body wants to leave.” 

Their mother’s words were the truest ones Pallavi had ever heard her say. They sound­ed so strange, so purged of judg­ment. Pallavi thought of the song her father want­ed her to sing, about the woman lur­ing the birds to her hands, the clar­i­on firm­ness as she sang in the for­eign lan­guage: do not be afraid. 

Maybe you can take some time and think about why that is, Amma,” Arjun sug­gest­ed loud­ly, mov­ing his bulky body into the foyer. 

What are you say­ing, Arjun? Do you real­ize what you’re saying?” 

Pallavi’s father had the old warn­ing in his voice, the rare thorni­ness from when the boys’ fights became too phys­i­cal when they were young, or when Pallavi overt­ly dis­obeyed their moth­er, the prick­ly tim­bre of final author­i­ty. She looked at his face as he rose from his chair. He appeared, so faint­ly that one could miss it, lost. 

You should have just sang like I asked, Pallavi,” her father said, his stature seem­ing so small in the room he’d proud­ly maintained. 

Leave her alone, Appa. It’s not her fault. You guys need to let her talk to you any­way. We should all leave,” Arjun fin­ished, open­ing up the front door. “I love you all, but I’m tak­ing off.”

A part of Pallavi want­ed to laugh now at her brother’s pre­sump­tion. She sensed that she had a right to be angry at him for rush­ing her, for manip­u­lat­ing the moment like this. 

What does he mean let her talk to you?” Pallavi’s moth­er asked her. The fear was still spum­ing in her face. “Do you want to leave now too?” 

There were deep­er ways to hurt her par­ents, Pallavi real­ized, than what she had failed to tell them her whole life. There were more dev­as­tat­ing things they were fright­ened of than real­iz­ing the truth about any one of their chil­dren. And all the oth­er emo­tions that blind­ed peo­ple, like out­rage and resent­ment, weren’t they also just excus­es for peo­ple who want­ed to fly off and be left alone in the first place? She of all peo­ple knew that it was hard­er to stay put and sing. 

Pallavi opened up her mouth and closed her eyes. “That’s not it. Alex is a woman. I’m gay,” she began and noticed that when she opened her eyes again they were still stand­ing there in the half-emp­ty den. “But I don’t want to leave.” 



From the writer


:: Account ::

Pallavi Red­dy, the hero­ine of “Do Not Be Afraid,” is one of four women fea­tured in sto­ries I’ve been work­ing on for almost a year, ever since I got the idea to take my mem­o­ry of attend­ing Hin­du tem­ple camp in Penn­syl­va­nia when I was a kid and using it as a means to con­nect dif­fer­ent adult com­ing-of-age nar­ra­tives of char­ac­ters from the same cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ty who first met as teens. Though my own expe­ri­ences were dif­fer­ent from Pallavi’s chal­lenges as a queer South Asian girl grow­ing up in the 1980s, I found myself enriched by writ­ing sto­ries from her per­spec­tive of com­pound­ed iso­la­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly when I set her life in a part of the coun­try that I did not know but had been drawn to while attend­ing camp as a child. That is, writ­ing about her allowed me to imag­ine and cre­ate a sense of belong­ing to a par­tic­u­lar Indi­an com­mu­ni­ty I did not have real access to while also test­ing the lim­its of its abil­i­ty to be social­ly accept­ing from with­in. After writ­ing and pub­lish­ing a first sto­ry about Pallavi as a teenag­er, I real­ized that I wasn’t fin­ished with her fam­i­ly. I sensed a poet­ic poten­tial in her adult repres­sion and real­ized that she deserved her own sto­ry about com­ing out to her fam­i­ly as a les­bian in her late thir­ties; it offered a unique way to explore the theme of mid­dle-age regrets and the onset of mid-life iden­ti­ty crises. Both are key con­nec­tive themes with­in my larg­er man­u­script of more sto­ries of which this piece of fic­tion is a part. 

The rhythm car­ry­ing the nar­ra­tive for­ward (my rep­e­ti­tion of a spe­cif­ic line two-thirds of the way into the sto­ry) was inspired by my watch­ing a black and white YouTube video of the South Indi­an clas­si­cal song from which “Do Not Be Afraid” ulti­mate­ly got its title, a song, as Pallavi tells us, about a woman try­ing to hold birds in her hands. Hav­ing nev­er heard the song before, I felt almost heart­bro­ken by my lack of expo­sure to it and my hav­ing tak­en for grant­ed such a rich cul­tur­al her­itage when I was younger and my par­ents were keen to make it known to me. Birds as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of women’s restrict­ed self-empow­er­ment is an old trope; I want­ed to repur­pose it as a sym­bol for par­ent­ing as well. Not only is Pallavi strug­gling like a bird to be brave and “sing” her truth, but her par­ents are also wrestling with the nec­es­sary les­son of learn­ing how to let their chil­dren go. The trans­la­tion of the title from its orig­i­nal Tamil helped me to crys­tal­ize the idea that Pallavi’s abil­i­ty to speak up and come out to her par­ents rests on her real­iz­ing that her fear is sim­i­lar to their own. Once she does, she is able to see their human­i­ty instead of just their author­i­ty, one of many lessons essen­tial to “grow­ing up” as an adult. 


Resh­mi Heb­bar pub­lish­es aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly about women’s mul­ti­cul­tur­al and immi­grant nar­ra­tives. She has pub­lished non­fic­tion at Slate, fic­tion at Funic­u­lar Mag­a­zine, and has fic­tion forth­com­ing at West Trade Review. She is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Oglethor­pe Uni­ver­si­ty, where she pro­duces an ongo­ing pod­cast fic­tion­al­iz­ing the expe­ri­ences of South Asian immi­grants and their chil­dren. She lives out­side of Atlanta with her hus­band and two daughters. 

The First Act

Fiction / Jessica Alexander


:: The First Act ::

The dra­mat­ic thrust had all but been enact­ed. It lacked only a third or sec­ond act. 

The Count­ess had come and promised to come back. Lau­ra sat, list­less­ly embroi­der­ing in a nook by the win­dow. It was so many years ago, Lau­ra told her­self, and it nev­er was a love affair. It lacked even a sec­ond act. She sus­pect­ed the Count­ess was a liar. She sus­pect­ed the Count­ess was dead or dying some­where. It felt unfin­ished. If there’d been even a sec­ond act, she’d know what to call it. So, one morn­ing, when the girl float­ed along the walled gar­dens, Lau­ra stood and gasped. There was a moat and a draw­bridge and a stone foun­tain. They’d sat by the foun­tain in the first act. Her knit­ting nee­dles clat­tered to the ground. A ghost! she thought. The Count­ess has come back!

The girl, for her part, stopped amidst the fra­grant lilacs. Her shoul­ders clutched as if she had been struck. There was the slab of stone where she sat so many years ago, but she could not remem­ber what for or why she had returned there. She did not love it, and the mute and stu­pid stone, it did not love her either. Still the foun­tain soft­ly gur­gled. The water was the kind of blue that makes you think of dream­ing. I have been here before, she was think­ing. It makes you want to give your mind away. To trade it in for some­thing sweet­er, some­thing kinder. Some­where a bird chirped, and she almost loved it, almost thought that’s what love is: how the air held her to itself. She stood very still beside the foun­tain. The sound was clear. The light was clean. The sun dipped behind some clouds. She stood there. A ter­ri­ble trick! She looked over the edge of her strange body as if it were a precipice, and longed to fling her­self for­ev­er over it. It was a ter­ri­ble trick to be held here. She did not want it. 

That’s how Lau­ra found her, so still beside the stone, like she might fling her­self into the moat. “Wait—” Lau­ra said, but on see­ing the girl’s face, she sprang back. Was this the Count­ess? She looked dif­fer­ent. Maybe younger. The Count­ess did not seem to know her. 

Are you a ghost?” she asked. 

The girl said she did not know. 

Come clos­er,” Lau­ra said. Though she knew it was a hor­ri­ble trick to coax a dead girl into her soli­tude, she want­ed to. She want­ed this girl for her com­pan­ion. But ghosts, she thought, are such fatal­ists. They do not like tricks, and yet— 

Had Lau­ra said that aloud? Like an indig­nant cat, the girl gath­ered her­self. It isn’t true, she thought. I haven’t any preferences. 

Lau­ra, of course, con­ced­ed. How could she know a thing about this strange being? So, she told her­self, and yet she was cer­tain it was an argu­ment they’d long been hav­ing. The grass, the branch­es, the foun­tain. Let me invent this. She’d make her remem­ber. Yes, it is all a trick but it will get inside you, she was think­ing. I will put it all inside you again. Is it hor­ri­ble for me to curate a memory—to call it loving—and like a balm or a berry I’ll press it through your rough lips. Because, admit it, you’ve been starved, are starv­ing. The sky! Just look at it. How every day the air feels like a day you’ve lived already. And what are you then? Just some­thing briefly hold­ing it, forc­ing it all to go on exist­ing. How utter­ly unre­al­is­tic it is to want any of this, and yet— 

I want to show you some­thing,” Lau­ra said. 

How could any­one be like this, the girl was mar­veling. Was mad, so mad, so ven­omous. Her hard eyes, her con­tempt, her impas­sive mouth. I’m noth­ing like her! I’m noth­ing. How can any­one know enough to say so much? Say, I am like this? Con­fess. How can any­one say: I am like this. This hap­pened. Then this. Now I am like this. It’s remark­able, real­ly, she was think­ing, what some could say! They sit. They sigh. They say, Look at the sky. And you look at the sky. They force your eyes. Your mind. They get inside you. They say, I want an apple. And so you want an apple too. You want some sol­id thing inside you, an idea. It is not enough to touch the tree, the grass, where you sit and laugh. You must car­ry it all away with you if you want to be some­body too. Some­one must make you want something—they will put an image in your head and it can­not hold or con­sole you. And if they are some­one like this woman, Lau­ra, you are wait­ing. You are hold­ing your breath. And you are won­der­ing: what will she make me want next? It’s like trad­ing your­self in for a sto­ry, and so, you’ll nev­er be sure whether the sto­ry was any sweet­er or kinder than you were. Mean­while, the sky is on the brink of mean­ing some­thing. It’s all too hor­rif­ic. A hor­ri­ble trick! You want a fog­gy city. You want some­how to be smoth­ered in fog or a fond mem­o­ry of some­thing long ago. A city. Call it Venice. No, not Venice. Maybe Bath. Call it Bath. 

The girl remem­bered a vil­lage: the build­ings were grand and bro­ken. Some­where some­one else was wait­ing for her, and she was try­ing to get back to her. Did she ever get back there? She didn’t think so. That’s how all the sto­ries go, isn’t it? And the girl was won­der­ing, who put that sto­ry inside of her, and did she want it there? How, now, she won­dered, would she ever rid her­self of it, this ter­ri­ble bereave­ment? Was it even hers? 

Mean­while, time was passing. 

I will invent you, Lau­ra was think­ing. I have felt this way, Lau­ra was think­ing. I have felt this way. Before you came, I felt this way. Like the clouds felt heavy and they pressed some­thing out of me. Like I might drown in sky. Like all day I sigh. Like I can’t tell if the air in my chest is too much or if I can­not get enough. 

And then, the girl told her­self: I won’t be sad because you say so. I won’t be so suggestible. 

Some­where on a tree limb a bird chirped. “Do you like the sound of that? I like the sound of birds in the morn­ing. I like the morn­ing. We have such won­der­ful birds here. I like the light. I like the way it creeps in slow­ly, glow­ing. I want to show you some­thing,” Lau­ra said. 

How does one come to know this about them­selves? How does one come to know they like the sound of birds? To have a thing to show some­one? To say: look? And then you turn your eyes just like they want you to. Why? Because you are a fool. 

What’s wrong,” Lau­ra was ask­ing her. 

It had nev­er occurred to the girl to say any of these things. And what hap­pened when one said it, when Lau­ra said “what nice birds” was that she want­ed the earth to swal­low the birds. To swal­low her. Why should she want this, she won­dered. Because this girl made her want and she want­ed wrong! When Lau­ra said she loved this time of day, the singing birds, the sky, which was almost pur­ple, she want­ed to impale her­self on a tree limb or a fence—she want­ed to nev­er leave it, to curl up and die inside a sweet­ness she would nev­er learn to trust. The girl felt ner­vous. Tell your­self a sto­ry. Look, the sky you loved has changed already. Tell it. Tell it quick. Before it all changes again. But when she watched her­self talk, when she tried to bring her­self into being, she seemed to push her­self fur­ther and fur­ther away from what she’d aimed at, some vital glow­ing thing, some­thing else. What was it? Why was this woman hold­ing her hand and lead­ing her on and on through the tall grass, toward the house. She ought to be leav­ing now. 

For Laura’s part, she found the girl very odd. She was noth­ing like the Count­ess. She knew noth­ing. So, Lau­ra had to tell the sto­ry all over again, to start from the begin­ning. Still she liked her. How strange and pret­ty she was with such wilder­ness in her wild hair and her face all bronze from stand­ing in the sun. Her voice was rough and pleas­ing. So stern and sad and seri­ous. It was a joy to stand in the grass and look at her. She thought she was a ghost. “Are you a ghost?” she said. 

The girl said she did not know. 

You remind me of some­one,” Lau­ra was telling her. “There is a woman who vis­it­ed so many years ago. You remind me of her. You look iden­ti­cal. Only you are so dif­fer­ent. So wild and shy. I have the woman’s por­trait inside. Would you like to see it?” 

Yes,” the girl said. But she did not believe it. Not real­ly. Not yet. It was a trick. The way the sun felt. The way this woman wanted—what? To make her want. To make her say it. “Yes, I want to see it.” 

It is a trick, Lau­ra was think­ing, and you are a fatal­ist. How could she pos­si­bly know this, she won­dered. Because all the sto­ries have been told. She want­ed to tell her this, they’re all tricks, you know, and yet— 

She did not know how to make the argu­ment. It was self­ish. She want­ed a com­pan­ion. She liked this girl who spooked so easy like a bird. Like an injured bird, she thought, I will care for her. 

Then, sud­den­ly, the girl remem­bered some­thing: the fra­grant lilacs that bloomed two weeks each spring, the walled kitchen gar­dens, the shrub­beries, the park­land, the poplars and the pear trees. 

She shut her eyes and braced her­self for a hard slap. 

Because this world, she thought, who wants it? 

Every­one. What­ev­er it is. Every­one wants this so bad they’d claw their own heads off to keep them­selves from want­i­ng it. 

Would you like to see it? 

See what? 

A por­trait of your­self. Come. I want to give you this. An expe­ri­ence. To carve a shape in your mind the size of myself, and if there is such a thing as betray­al, I will betray you, because you are not me. But come out of the sun. I want to show you something. 

The girl held her­self at the edge of the foun­tain. She did not know what else to do. Hadn’t this already hap­pened? Why am I here again? She was won­der­ing. Have I left some­thing undone?



From the writer


:: Account ::

I kept hav­ing this dream about a woman I knew. 

Let’s call her Car­ol. The last time I saw her was in high school, which was, to be hon­est, a very long time ago. The dream is set in a wrecked city that’s full of red light and fog. And I’m look­ing for her. I ask a bar­tender, “Where’s Car­ol?” He points across a smoky room at some­one, and there is noth­ing famil­iar about her. Still, the bar­tender is not wrong, that’s Car­ol, and I’m will­ing to accept it, though, admit­ted­ly, I’m dis­ap­point­ed. Like all the urgency just swirled down the drain of this dream. I don’t know Car­ol anymore. 

I haven’t seen her since high school, and in my wak­ing life I have no desire to speak with her. And so, this long­ing, like many, total­ly baf­fles me. I can’t help that. At night I’m wan­der­ing through the ruins of my mem­o­ry, want­i­ng bad­ly to tell Car­ol something. 

A bar in win­ter was the last place I actu­al­ly saw Car­ol. She sat on a stool and I sat on a stool across the room. And she looked at me with this very styl­ized hatred. It was high school. We were too young to be there. She didn’t want to say hel­lo. It was clear. It was no big deal, or was she jok­ing? Her sense of humor was won­der­ful and bru­tal. So, I thought about say­ing hi to Car­ol, but then she’d left, and that was the last time I saw her. It wasn’t a big deal, in part, because it took a decade to decide that was the last time. And the dis­cov­ery, by then, felt like stum­bling into my present, hold­ing a rel­ic, like a VHS, which is obvi­ous­ly just so use­less now. Still, I dream about it. What could I pos­si­bly have to tell Carol? 

When you’re young it’s like that. You have this rich inner life, and maybe a friend equal­ly invest­ed in per­form­ing it. Two years pass, and, maybe, you imag­ine all that has noth­ing to do with the peo­ple you’re becom­ing. I liked Car­ol. In high school, I liked the Bron­tës, too, and all through col­lege I’d look back on that fact and feel baf­fled by it. I loved Char­lotte Bron­të in par­tic­u­lar. I loved espe­cial­ly Vil­lette, which tells of Lucy Snow, who, after an unspec­i­fied fam­i­ly dis­as­ter, leaves Eng­land for the fic­tion­al French-speak­ing city of Vil­lette, where she teach­es at a girl’s school. And so, in the nov­el there is a world which reflects the severe finan­cial, social, and pro­fes­sion­al lim­i­ta­tions imposed on sin­gle women liv­ing in the Vic­to­ri­an era, and then this wild exces­sive coun­ter­part and counter-tem­po­ral­i­ty to that world, where Lucy Snow has this super­sen­su­al inner life, rich with desires whose objects all dis­solve inside these very elab­o­rate metaphors. And it’s odd because nar­ra­tive usu­al­ly needs such erot­ic props. A home, in the Vic­to­ri­an nov­el, is usu­al­ly one such ves­sel. And Lucy Snowe hasn’t got one. She says, “To be home­sick, one must have a home, which I have not.” It wasn’t, to me, a sim­ple dis­avow­al but a tes­ta­ment to the illeg­i­bil­i­ty of her loss and her long­ing evinced by the false author­i­ty of def­i­n­i­tion. I mean, she’s wrong, right? One must pos­sess a home to long for it? But she’s exclud­ed and home­sick for anoth­er world. And so this nar­ra­tive sleight of hand, this self-defense, which dis­avows emo­tion by negat­ing its objects, seems also to expand the hori­zon of her long­ing. So, there’s nev­er an object, and yet the nov­el is so erot­i­cal­ly charged! I know peo­ple dis­agree. I’ve read essays about it. There is an object, they say—its name is Paul. Well, I, for one, could nev­er state with clar­i­ty what in this world exact­ly Lucy wanted—and still the nov­el erupt­ed, at every turn, with rabid and wound­ed wanting. 

And so, I was think­ing about spec­tral desire, and I want­ed to write a nov­el, a spec­u­la­tive, par­o­d­ic, and goth­ic melo­dra­ma. Of course, there’d need to be a ghost, and the ghost is real­ly dis­cur­sive, pre­oc­cu­pied with negat­ing the world and her desire for it, which is to say, she’s real­ly angry. And I want­ed it to end when a woman seduces the ghost back to liv­ing or at least she attempts to do so for what can only be very self­ish rea­sons and I’m almost fin­ished and this is how my melo­dra­ma ends.


Jes­si­ca Alexan­der’s sto­ry col­lec­tion, Dear Ene­my, was the win­ning man­u­script in the 2016 Subito Prose Con­test, as judged by Selah Sater­strom. Her fic­tion has been pub­lished in jour­nals such as Fence, Black War­rior Review, PANK, Den­ver Quar­ter­ly, The Col­lag­ist, and DIAGRAM. She lives in Louisiana, where she teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisiana at Lafayette.