“I’ve never been ice skating.” Saaya fiddles with her fingers. She looks like an angel when her head tilts back and long strands of her hair appear golden under the sun’s gaze. Her hazel eyes are like pools of warm honey, and her skin is a soft shade of brown. “But I’m afraid of getting hurt. It’s this fear of pain that always stops me from doing things.”
My fingers clasp around the grey mug, so tightly because this feels like an illusion. The whole apartment feels as if it is from a magazine with its white walls and colourful cushions. Two magazines sit on the glass coffee table in front of me, while the blue sofa I am sat upon envelops me in its warmth. The TV is framed by a fireplace, and it burns brightly, even though there is no use for it.
I take a sip from the cup I had last drank from four years ago. Four long years that have built up this division between Saaya and I, pushing us so far apart so I can no longer recognize who she has become. The bitter coffee scorches my tongue, lacking the sweetness I am used to.
I don’t tell her this. Instead, I nod like a puppet whose strings are being pulled and I must react to the world around me, even if nothing makes any sense. “How can you call yourself a Canadian? You have to go at least once in your lifetime.”
“You’ve been?” Saaya stands, stretching her short legs as she moves toward the kitchen. Her fingers graze a photograph by the fire mantle. It’s an old photograph of our family, or at least of the semblance of family we had built. Saaya, Mummy and I. Saaya and I are smiling in the photograph, leaning into Mummy’s arms, but I remember the day clearly and I know I was not happy. Mummy and I had a fight a day before it was taken. But in front of the camera we pretended to be a happy family. Looking back at my life then, I think we had always been pretending.
Saaya lifts the lid from the pot on the stove, her hand cutting through the steam before she sniffs. Perhaps, she knows what the answer will be: of course, I used to ice skate when I still lived here. “Aadi and I were going to wait two years before we had any kids. But it’s been four years now and he doesn’t want kids. It’s not like I really really want them, but something feels missing from our lives.”
“Don’t do what Mummy did,” I say. It’s only been an hour since I’m back and I’m already having to listen to these useless things. “Kids aren’t meant to fix relationships. Don’t burden them with such a horrible responsibility.”
She is silent as she stirs the pot of whatever she’s making. It smells like chicken curry. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe I have forgotten the taste of Indian food ever since I left them all behind. Or at least tried to.
The clock on the wall behind me ticks, filling the silence between us. A floor-to-ceiling window glances out toward the street, where cars buzz past without a glance. Across it is a lake, which has been kissed by winter’s cold touch. I can’t see the bench we used to sit on in the summer, taking pictures to post on our social media account. Those were rare days when we were two teenagers, laughing and posing as models with dreams that were not limited to the constraints of this world.
“Is your mother coming?”
Our eyes meet across the room, and for a moment, it’s like she’s considering the person I have become. Grown from a bratty child to a calm and collected psychologist. Perhaps, in her eyes I haven’t changed at all. Behind the mask of this emotionless person, I am still an angry child, demanding to be loved and acknowledged by our mother. “She’s too old to be ice skating. But we can all go for dinner.”
I shake my head. “No, thank you.”
“Hiral, don’t talk like that. She misses you, you know?”
But missing someone wasn’t enough. It was like dropping a rock in the ocean, expecting it to ripple to every space the water consumed, expecting to be felt. She hadn’t done enough for me while we’d been living under the same roof. I cannot meet her now just because she misses me. I miss her too. Yet, it’s not enough. It’s never been enough.
I push my chair back, forgetting to lift it first. The floor cries out in protest, like it used to when I was younger. When Mummy thought I was ruining our house. “I don’t care.” I shouldn’t have come. What am I here to do? Flaunt my Psychology degree? I’ve never been able to control myself around them. I am a ticking bomb that will explode when in proximity to either of them. “If you want, let’s go ice skating. Ask Aadi too. I think I’m going to go out for a while, and see what it’s like.”
It’s been four years since I was last in front of my childhood house, but the place looks exactly the same. Somehow welcoming but distant. Somehow home but not. A stone bed rests on both sides of the concrete pathway, lined with withering flowers and roses covered in snow, leading to the porch steps. A golden light haloes the sloped wooden planks in dim rays, contouring the triangular roof. The front yard is held in the safety of a black picket fence, embracing the narrow and long building. The house still runs parallel to the playground, gazing into what would’ve been Saaya and my childhood.
“I’m your mother. Of course, I love you. I love you so much.”
Mummy used to watch us from the window. And even when she wasn’t present, I would still feel her presence, towering above me as protection, until something swept us apart, creating barriers neither of us knew how to remove. It was never that she didn’t care for me, that I didn’t matter to her. I just never mattered enough.
I think someone peeks through the front window, so I push myself back against my leather seat, hiding my face. But I know it isn’t possible. It never has been. She wouldn’t wait for me the same way she waits for her husband every day. Every day for ten years. Every day she abandoned me, she spent waiting for him. And it was clear to all of us, in her heart, I was no match for Saaya or my useless father.
“You should go kill yourself. That’s the best thing you can do for all of us.”
I remain in my car even though I want to barge inside and ask why I was not good enough. Why I was always ignored. Why she always complained about me even when Saaya and I did the same things. I wasn’t perfect, but neither was Saaya. Then why was I never enough?
“I never ran from my problems like you. Why do you always run, Hiral? Why are you always running from things you cannot handle?”
My legs bounce as my hand reaches for the door. I pull it open, resting a foot on the asphalt below me. My shoe taints the snow.
“I won’t leave him. No, I will not sign the divorce papers. He will come back to me, I know he will.”
A long breath escapes my lips as I rise, slamming the door shut behind me. I take a step forward. One step closer to my past.
“Be like Saaya a little. She does so much for me. What have you done for me? You’ll never be able to repay the hours, the pain it took me to bring you into this world and give you this life.”
Cold air runs its talon across my cheeks as I take another step in the direction of the life I had run from. Mummy was right. I was always running. I had been running all my life.
“Saaya is majoring in Engineering and what are you doing? Psychology? What is wrong with you? You’re going to go crazy talking to people. You’re already crazy.”
Another step. Then another. Until my hand is hovering over the doorbell.
“Don’t leave. I can’t live without you. I love you so much.”
My fingers tremble. Maybe from the cold. Maybe because I am so close to Mummy, and yet so far away. Somewhere inside, footsteps fill the space, going back and forth as if someone is pacing. This could be my home again. Always stressed, always fighting. Always demanding something that I could never have.
No, I don’t want this life. I want her to love me. I have always wanted her love. But I don’t want to spend my nights crying. I don’t want to be stuck in a limbo of despair and joy, to be a vessel of emptiness. So, I run down the steps and back into my car. I am used to being alone. I have survived without them and that is all that matters.
“What am I gonna break while ice skating?”
The frozen lake is quiet, reflecting the pink and blue that colours the sky. The ice around us appears thin and fragile, like the threads that bind us together.
“Maybe your wrists, arms and butt,” I say. Saaya’s eyes widen. She blows out a circlet of air, watching it fade away. “But I’m alive. So, it’s all okay. You’ll be okay.”
I don’t wait for her as I step onto the ice, and immediately my skates glade over the surface. Cool air brushes against my face. The moment feels hypnotic, so serene and consuming as if it is in the air I breathe, and the blood that pounds through me. The trees, the mountains, they all appear as a blur in my vision, too slow to keep up as my feet cross with a speed of their own. I feel on the verge of control, always a moment away from slipping.
Then a voice cuts through the bubble that I built around me, and it ends. I come to a gliding stop, my blades digging into the ice as I turn. Saaya stands at the edge, brows furrowed and hand outstretched. She is dressed in two beanies and a muffler, as if attempting to protect herself from the pain of hurting her head.
“I’ve never ice skated before. Don’t leave me alone.” There is something odd about her voice. As if it is both distant and close at once.
I cross over to her, offering my gloved hand. She accepts without hesitation, wobbling as she steps onto the ice. I’ve never had to teach a grown adult to ice skate. It’s almost like holding their weight against your own.
We take a small step forward. She lets out a shaky breath, chuckling. Trying to explain the process of skating seems to drag on as if I’ve spent hours on the ice. Despite the cover, my fingers grow cold and stiff, threatening to break off if I spend another moment there.
“Let’s go home.”
She shakes her head, her lips pressed into a thin line. “I want to learn. I want to be good at something.”
I roll my eyes. “You won’t learn in one day. We’ll come back with Aadi. So, he can teach you instead.”
I turn us around, searching for the closest exit.
“You’ve always been her favourite.”
My head snaps toward her. I almost lose my balance, but I spread my arms wide to steady myself. And physically, I may be standing upright, but mentally I feel myself tumbling, losing myself in a spiral I won’t be able to pull myself out of, if I don’t step back now. Anything related to my mother still triggers me. It probes like a new injury yet to heal. “Can you stop with your bullshit? We both know that ain’t true.”
“It is. She cried every day after you left. And suddenly it was like Papa didn’t even exist. The only name she could speak and still speaks is yours. Sometimes she calls me by your name.” Saaya pauses. “What do you have that I don’t have?”
I chuckle, clasping my hands together to keep them warm. “This is not going to make me meet her.” Because I’ve tried and I’ve failed. Because I’m a coward and will never accept that I’ve been running from my past.
“Do you hate me? I think Mummy hates me. I think she’d rather have you near and me gone.”
I slide back, spinning around as if it will help me clear my mind. But it doesn’t feel the same now. I stop. “I think that woman loved no one other than her husband. We were just pawns to make him stay but he left eventually.”
I start again. Moving away from her. Moving and moving, because I want to get away. But she follows after me. It’s like we’re children again. Only now, the roles are reversed. I’m no longer running after her. She stumbles, and I hear her fall. The sound resonates around us, so loud and harsh as if it speaks the thoughts our lips never will.
“Ow, Hiral!” I turn but I don’t move toward her. She appears like a ragged doll thrown on the ground, unable to hold up her weight.
“You know what your problem has been? You’ve been afraid of getting hurt.” I don’t mention that while I spent my years drowning in drugs, she’d done the same only with books. I don’t mention that she pretended to not hear me when I told her about my suicidal thoughts.
There’s no point, I tell myself. She’ll never understand.
Saaya glances down and I know we’re just repeating history, running through this circle neither of us will ever escape. “Shit… Hiral?”
It takes a moment for what’s happened to register. The ice below her has cracked. We’ve ventured onto thin ice.
“Stay calm,” I say, raising my hand. “Just stay where you are, I’ll come to you.”
I crouch on the ground and slowly move toward her. The wetness of the ice soaks my jeans, my gloves suddenly feel like a thin cover that cannot protect me from the bitter cold. My heart drums against my chest, something stuck in my throat as I breathe in and out, slowly. She’s counting on me to save her. I have to stay calm.
I pause as the world around me slows, so unlike how it felt to be skating. Now everything feels as if it's coming to an end, no longer in time’s grasp. She falls slowly, like a feather dropped from the top of a high building, obeying gravity’s command. Her face spins from panic to surprise to fear to almost nothing, before she disappears from my view.
I move faster, desperate to save her. Her hand grasps at the edges of the ice, slipping. My fingers clutch at her gloves, pulling one off. I curse under my breath, grabbing at her hand. Our cold fingers touch, before I am able to clasp her hand in my own. Ragged breaths escape her lips, and strands of her hair stick to her face like dirt.
And for a moment, I hold on. I hold on as tightly as she had done when we were children. When we were running from our parents who did nothing but argue. When we would walk to school together. When she wrapped me in an embrace on nights I was haunted by nightmares.
But then I let go.
I let go just like she’d done when I’d asked for support. When I asked her to love me in my darkest times. When I begged for her to say even though everyone was leaving me.
I let go because I want her to feel my pain.
She splashes at first, fighting, trying to make it to the surface, but then the moment ends. It ends like all stories do, leaving in their wake a stunned silence. A silence that is neither comforting nor troublesome. It exists. It exists as I do. As should Saaya.
I sit there, housing an empty mind that is worse than a whirl storm of thoughts. I am numb. I am empty.
The night cloaks us in its womb, erasing everything in sight from existence. At one point, footsteps echo in the distance, approaching with each breath I take. I want to shout and tell them to slow down, to show them the whole, the fracture that was created by Saaya’s body. But I cannot speak. Someone yells, pulling me away from my sister, moving me through an odd world where I no longer exist. I am someone else. Some other Hiral.
No one sees me as a murderer, but while I sit in the ambulance, wrapped in a blanket, I speak to anyone who will listen. “I tried saving her, but I couldn’t do it.”