Her beady eyes stare up at me, unblinking. I know she can’t really see, but it scares me to have this little bundle of nerves and skin and blood and fat staring up at me like it exists. She exists, I have to say to myself over and over again. Her little black eyes look at me like I owe her something. I’ve already given her everything I have and here she is asking for more, and I know she’ll keep asking for more.
Everyone around me is smiling, like I should be happy. My husband squeezes my leg but I can barely feel it with all the drugs they pumped through me. Is this why I feel so blank? I tear my gaze from those black eyes and look at him hopelessly. His smile doesn’t even falter when he sees my expression, like he’s blinded by his own joy. Is it the drugs? Does everyone feel this way? Am I going to be a bad mother if I can’t even feel happiness holding my newborn daughter?
“Have you folks decided what you want to name her?”
My husband looks at the doctor and then looks at me and squeezes my leg again. I look at him and the doctor and then my baby, and the idea of giving her a name seems to plant a seed in me. I look at her beady little oblivious eyes and I get this ache in my chest like I’m staring at poetry on a blank paper, a baby in an unmarked world.
She pulls her hands up above her head and grapples with the handle of a drawer. Her mouth is open slightly and I can see the soft pink skin of her inner lip. Her fingers open and close around the round silver handle. She turns her big baby head to me and makes a questioning sound. She blinks her black eyes and her lips twist up into a stupid baby smile. “Am-ma,” she says, her English almost as broken as mine.
“Am’ma,” I repeat back, smiling beside her. The kitchen tiles are cold on my legs as I sit, watching her explore. She doesn’t have socks on but she hasn’t reacted to the cold since she wandered into the room. Should I put socks on her? How sensitive are baby feet?
“Dad-da,” she babbles as she turns her face back to the dresser. I smile to myself and watch her pull back until - to her surprise - the drawer opens slightly. Utensils scrape against each other softly as she lets go and falls down on her butt. I expect her to cry but she sits in confused silence, looking around at her hands, the floor, the dresser, her hands.
“Oh she’s just adorable,” a woman says, walking past with her small, yappy dog.
I give her a tight smile as my husband says “Thank you,” beside me and then immediately begins a conversation. “She’s quite a handful sometimes, but the good moments definitely outweigh the difficult ones.” The woman nods in agreement and says something back but I’ve stopped listening to their back-and-forth. I watch my little girl play in the grass a little ways away. She runs around chaotically, occasionally tripping over her own feet and landing in the soft dirt. I can hear her tinny giggle from where I sit on a checkered picnic blanket.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” my husband asks. I turn to look at him and realize the woman’s gone. He tilts his head curiously, reminding me of the little girl running around in the grass, questioning everything’s existence.
“I’m not good at talking,” I offer.
“Dadda!” she yells, skipping out of her room. She twirls in front of him, showing off her first-day-of-school outfit proudly. She’s donned a bright orange T-shirt and clashing purple pants, and nobody can tell her it’s not peak fashion.
“I love it!” he answers, clapping his hands and smiling knowingly at me. I cross my arms and lean against the door-frame of her room.
“Ready to go?” I ask her, bending down to look her in the eyes. She gives a comical squeal of excitement and bounds into the garage. I laugh and turn back to my husband. “I’m worried,” I confide.
He shakes his head and gets up from his chair with a sigh. “I am, too,” he says, somehow quelling my fears.
“Am- I mean, Mom?”
The word surprises me, hits me like a bull, burns me like a flame. I put a hand on the counter and stare at my skin. Stare until the brown leather becomes the cold white granite of the kitchen counter. And then it comes again, sending me into a spiral: “Mom?” I stand up straight and place the dish I was washing into the sink. Wiping my hands on the back of my jeans, I step out into the door-frame to answer my daughter.
“Can I go over to Sarah’s for a sleepover tomorrow?” she asks tentatively, her hands clasped together over the dining table like she’s giving me an interview.
“Are all your studies done?”
“Yep,” she answers proudly.
“Sure, I can drop you off.” I turn to head back into the kitchen, still reeling from her latest language development, then change my mind. I swivel back to look at her, and tilt my head. “Why ‘Mom’?” I ask.
She shrugs. “Sarah and April call their moms that.”
I nod, the casual death of my most respectful title stinging like an open wound.
“Hey, no hug?” I ask, pretending to be offended as she walks away from me.
She turns around and stares at me with such unabashed disappointment I nearly take a step back. “I’m too old for that,” she says, shrugging. “See you at 3.” And she walks away, her bag hiked way too far up her back. I want to run over and fix it, tell her she’ll get a neck-ache. I want to spin her around and hug her and kiss her and tell her I love her, but love’s not cool at her age. Instead, I stand there, broken and lost and wondering when my whole identity moved to rest on the shoulders of an eleven year old girl.
“Can’t wait to see you tomorrow!” a mom yells at her friend across the parking lot. I turn to look, only half-interested and recognize both of them from my daughter’s swim team. I assume she means the swim meet until the friend answers, asking her to bring wine. I spin a little too abruptly to look at her, and she sees me out of the corner of her eyes.
“Oh,” she says. “We’re not drinking at the swim meet.” She giggles quickly and shakes her head. “The moms are just having a little get-together afterwards.” She realizes her mistake the same moment I do and stumbles over her own words when she asks if I “would maybe want to tag along?” She pauses and bites her lip. “We just didn’t know if you’d, um, want to. You’re always so quiet and everything,” she says, as if the fear of my accent and my Telugu words are a curse of silence.
I give her a tight-lipped smile and nod my head. “I would love to come,” I say.
She slams her bedroom door, the vibrations echoing around the rest of the house. I cautiously tiptoe to her abused door and lean against the wall next to it. My husband pokes his head downstairs, confusion written across his pale skin. I open my palm to him, trying to get him to leave. He wouldn’t understand what she’s feeling, nor would he be able to help. Would he? Would she rather listen to his skin than my words?
“I hate you!” she yells, slamming open her door again. She shows the faintest bit of surprise at finding me waiting there, but masks it quickly. “You have no idea what it’s like!” she growls, her thick eyebrows scrunched together, making folds in her caramel skin over the bridge of her nose. I open my mouth to talk but she silences me with a pained, angry voice. “Why couldn’t you have named me Jessica? Or Isabella? Or - How is it fair that I have to deal with all these people asking me how to pronounce my name? I don’t even know the right way to pronounce my name! Why do you get to decide how difficult my life is?” Her cheeks are shiny with tears, her eyes red and puffy. She swipes at her face with a sleeve and sniffles at me indignantly. “Kavita?!” She screams, and slams the door.
Kavita, Kavita, Kavita. Poetry squeezed out of my body, poetry in the innocent giggles when she was a child, poetry in the way she made me love her, poetry in her skin, poetry in her voice, poetry in her name. And she would pass it all up for a name that never gets a second glance. I sink to the cold hardwood floor and stare at her door, tears falling slowly from my beady black eyes.
“Are you sure you do not want to let it down?” I ask, watching her separate her hair into two long dutch braids knotted down her back.
She turns and glares at me. “It’s too frizzy. Besides, I think this looks cute.” She turns back to look at herself and then flashes her eyes at me in the mirror, as if daring me to contradict her. She’s not wrong, the braids look fine, but I miss seeing her head of thick black hair bouncing around the house.
“Okay,” I say quietly. “Come pray?”
“I don’t have time for that,” she says sharply, tying her hair and pushing past me out of the bathroom. “Can we leave now?” I follow her into the garage, like a ghost without a body. And as I drive her to school, I keep glancing over at her as if she’ll change into the little girl I knew so well. Her hands reach up from her lap to support her head as she slouches against the door and I notice - how could I not see - her Henna is gone, sparse dots and lines of red ink the only remnant to the art of her culture.
“Your Henna,” I say. “Did you not like it? I thought you wanted it for the first day.”
She doesn’t look at me as she hides her hand between her legs again. “It looked gross. Nobody else wears Henna to school.”
“Nobody else has a heritage like you,” I remind her, puzzled.
“I didn’t even want this!” she says, raising her voice. “I look too- too Indian.” And the way she says it is like when a rubber band is pulled back and slaps against your skin. The way she says ‘Indian’ like it’s bitter on her tongue. The way she says ‘Indian’ hurts the same when she first said ‘Mom’. The way she says ‘Indian’ hurts like centuries of hurt and pain. It hurts like women telling me I’m too quiet, men telling me I’m too hard to understand. It hurts like my husband’s white confusion and my own stupid silence.
“I’m so nervous,” he says beside me and I look and smile at his wide, alert eyes.
“I’m excited,” I say. “Do you think she can see us?” I ask, looking at the stage at the front of the school theater.
“The lights are going to be too bright for her to see anyone but the front row,” he says, his ability to quell my fears dissipating through the years. I try to give him a look, but his eyes are glued to the stage.
The lights dim suddenly, and the emcee steps out into the spotlight, his smile bright and toothy. “Welcome, everyone, to Roosevelt High’s very first poetry event!” The parents around us applaud loudly, a sound like slow rain on hard ground. The man goes through the rules on photography and recording, then launches into a clumsy speech on the importance of poetry, switches gears and talks about the students, then just as suddenly as he started, he ends with an introduction of the first student.
His hands shake, making the paper crinkle in his fingers. His eyes won’t leave the black lines of safety scratched into the page, and his voice wobbles with the ailment of fear. Watching him, my excitement gives way to agitation over the looming performance of my daughter. When the student finishes his lengthy poem, the audience erupts into frenzied gratitude and praise that lift his eyes to the front row, the only audience he can see. I steam in my seat of dread as student after student follows the boy, some good, some scared, some bad. Finally, the emcee pauses before he says the next name and I know it’s her. When he says her name, the emphasis is all off and I feel guilty once again for the gift I thought I was giving her.
Silence. She didn’t cry when she was born. Silence and silence and she appears. Pushing past the red curtains, smiling down at her paper, her skirt flowing behind her. Silence and silence as she adjusts her mic. A crackle as she turns it on and a silent, silent breath as she leans into it. And then…
Poetry in her smile, poetry in her skin, poetry in her eyes as she stares into the light. Poetry in her hair, frizzy and cloudy and beautiful. Poetry in her lips, in her freckles, in the way she holds herself. And I’ve never heard her talk like this, think like this, paint like this. Words in the air like she’s composing a song. And she’s saying something about me and she’s saying something about her skin, her skin! She’s saying something about her name, her skin, her dad, her mom, her hair, her gods, her skin, her dad, her hair, her name, her gods, her skin, her skin, her skin, her skin, her skin. And she’s saying she’s poetry, she’s all poetry, and I made poetry.