That's just how teenagers are

Submitted into Contest #105 in response to: Write a story from the point of view of three different characters.... view prompt

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Desi Speculative


I pounded my fist on the table.


She had looked at him in a way she never has.


My little girl let out a sigh and touched my face.

ARTI:


“Arti.” My father squeezed his hands together, taking off his glasses. He said my name the way he always did, with more pepper than pep, like it was the name of a sleepy cinnamon. The ‘r’ and ‘t’ didn't collide with each other, making it sound like ‘aarathi’ in his thick accent and rolling Rs

“Papa, I know what you’re going to say and all, but I think I’m old enough to make my own choices.” I pulled on my bubblegum pink tank top, suddenly feeling a little too exposed. “It’s just lunch, why are you so worried?” My father sighed, the skin on his forehead folding.

“Arti,” He put his head into his hands. “This pooja is for your grandmother.” His voice started to gurgle in sadness. “It’s been a year since she left, remember? Remember, Arti?” He said my name again, like it was a soothing spice. It shot through my veins, like a wakeup call. I didn’t want to say anything, but Papa was scaring me. 

His voice was hushed, calm, unlike his usual aggressive demeanor. I loved the sound of his heated, scratchy voice. As a kid, I’d lie to myself, telling my head that I hated to make Papa yell, but the sound of his booming voice comforted me. It made the line between father and daughter clear as the ocean. It made me his little girl, his best buddy. 

But now that line’s muddy. Papa now sits me down, after the house has fallen asleep and talks to me in a droopy, disappointed voice. 

Gray that dyes can’t cover has seeped it’s way into his hair.

“I know, Papa.” I whispered. “But there’s someone coming to that lunch…” I could already see his warm eyes. A kid from the football team. His eyes were always dancing, like he was it. Like he knew that if anything went wrong, there would always be his smile.

I didn’t even know his name, his number stayed registered in my phone, just a +1 986 723 4508. But tomorrow I could ask. Tomorrow I could show him that my eyes danced, too.

“A boy, Arti? There are a thousand boys. But there’s only one tomorrow.” My cheeks turned a violent red for a quick second, but I regained my composure. I could see Papa’s bottom lip tremble. 

“Papa…” I moaned, pulling my phone out of my pocket, even though I didn’t know why. The home screen started to calm my nerves. “Papa, it’s just one pooja. I’ll come to the next one.”

“You used to love your grandmother, Arti. Never in a million years had I expected that you’d choose a lunch over her. ” He moaned. I started to shake my head in pain. I did love my grandmother. She always smelled of incense and cooking, and she spoke slowly, with a shaky, peppery voice.

My grandmother would shoo my mother away from the kitchen table, away from all those leftovers and frozen meals, and she would take a big pot and start chopping up vegetables, throwing just the right amount in. Even an extra slice of a carrot deemed the dish inedible.

 I wasn’t alone in loving Ammama. My brother loved showing off his little grandmother, how she loved him so much. He could always make it all work. He could make being Indian work. 

Ammama would use her hands to stuff rice and curry into our mouths, alternating between the two of us as we watched Marvel on TVShe would sit on my bedside and sing bhajans as I drifted off to sleep.

“I still love her, Papa. Why do you have to make this so hard?” I cried. Papa folded his hands in his lap.

“Where are you going?”

“What?”

“What’s the lunch place called?”

“It’s a steakhouse…” I mumbled. My fingers started to fidget. A look of disappointment paraded onto his face. 

“Arti.”

“I wasn’t going to eat any meat.” I assured. 

“Arti, you’re a vegetarian. It’s a part of you.” Vegetarian. Vegetarian, it was so much harder than Papa thought. Vegetarian always meant the ‘Why? Don’t you want to try it? My mom makes the chicken real good’. Sometimes it even means someone pushing the food onto my plate, contaminating everything, even after I explain. Even though they know that I’d throw out my whole lunch and go hungry.

“I wasn’t going to eat anything.” I said again, but it was more of a reflex than a true belief. “Papa, you know I wouldn’t, I’m a good kid.” But he was already mumbling under his breath.

“I used to be proud of you. But you never deserved a single score.” My heart split in half. Papa was looking at me like I was a disappointment. A failure. It was just one lunch! Couldn’t he ever make it work? I pounded my fist on the table.

“Papa!” I screeched. The waterworks started to pound at my heart. My grades meant so much to me, even if Papa cared way too much about them. He pushed me way harder than any other dad. So unfair.

“Good night.” Papa didn’t argue at my outburst. In fact, he seemed bored. It was clear that a valley had formed between us. One day, it had been the both of us, geeking over the computer, much to my brother’s displeasure. I don’t know when it changed, maybe it was when mascara bottles started to appear on my usually bare vanity table, but I was mad. It was just one lunch. One lunch. Why did he care?

It’s not like anyone cared what I did right.

Not the perfect test scores.

Not staying silent about my much-wanted liscense.

No one wanted to know about all the insecurity, about watching everyone watching me. At home, I was the rebel, but did no one care that I was such a goody-two shoes everywhere else? Did no one else see me?

“Your grandmother is watching, in shame.” Papa muttered, looking at his feet. My blood started to boil. No. Ammama still loved me. Even if I had changed.

“SHUT UP!” I yelled, forgetting about the sleeping house. Papa wasn’t defeated. Not in the slightest. He was angry. And so was I. My fingers started to shake as I turned around. I was done. So done. Up the stairs as fast as I could, through my bathroom. The marble sink’s table was full with tubes of lip gloss, mascaras, and palettes of foundations. It didn’t matter how hard I tried, no one ever noticed me. Indian means smart. Indian means good grades.

What if I didn’t want that? What if I wanted something else? Like law? Politics? What if I wanted to be a police woman? What if I wanted to do something for the world, something bigger than math. 

Another small packet laid by my sink, collecting dust. Bindis. Said bin-these. They’re little stickers I have to put between my eyebrows every time an Indian auntie comes over. Papa is always ranting about how they have cultural value, but I just zone it all out. My heart starts to ache like there’s a nasty cavity embedded into it. Ammamma still loves me. I turn my pounding head to the hallway. Sure enough, a photo of my smiling grandmother is perched onto the top shelf, with a fresh garland around it. I sniffle and run into my dark room, not even noticing that it’s pitch dark. Instead, I just rip off my tank top and slip into a full-sleeved shirt that’s the most awful green, crusted with stains, before collapsing onto my bed.


PAPA (Third-POV):

And she was gone. 

Arti growled at him, climbing up the stairs, swishing the ponytail that was up too high on her head, pulling at her scalp. Papa hung his head low, massaging his neck. He made sure every light was off, before heading into the dark bedroom. There was already a snoring lump in the bed, hugging her pillow, so he got in beside her and took off his spectacles, before rubbing his head. It hurt so much. Because of Arti.

She had looked at him in a way she never had.

Nuvvu lechava? Are you awake?” Papa whispered to the lump beside him. It turned over, and a yawning woman sat up in bed.

“Mhm.” Papa rubbed his forehead. 

“Arti didn’t bend.” The woman, Mamma, grimaced.

“That girl is going to get what’s coming for her.” She scowled.

“She used to be so smart.” Papa moaned. Mamma nodded.

“She used to agree to everything we said.”

“I thought we’d never have trouble with her.” He mumbled. “She used to adore her culture.” As a child, Arti was fascinated by everything. The overwhelming smell of deeparatham. The cold marble floors of the temple. The blend of curries that the family ate every day. Whenever jasmines bloomed in their backyard, Arti would happily let them be sown into her hair.

It was only a small taste of the heritage that she was a part of, but Arti savored it like it was ugadi pachadi, made only once every year for the special occasion. But then aarathi became arty. Her name suddenly started to sound like it had been put through a blender, the r and ti sounding like they had been gurgled out. Arti started to complain about the Indian food, and the smell of deeparatham, and all of a sudden, the temple just meant wearing itchy clothes.

“Mmm, why isn’t she coming?” Mamma asked.

“She’s going to a steakhouse with friends.”

“A steakhouse?” Mamma gasped, already peeling the covers off her body. “I’m going to talk to her.” Papa shook his head.

“No.” He sighed. “It’s her choice.” Papa sighed. Arti used to look up to Papa, let him make all her choices. So much so, that when she wanted individuality, Papa couldn’t take it. He kept plowing on.

“Oh, so next she’ll decide to flunk school? To flip burgers for a living?” Mamma growled. Papa shook his head, alarmed. “Is that her choice?”

“No! Of course not.” Arti was smart. Good with numbers. She had potential. Of course, she complained that her parents pushed her too much. Like any other teen. But she would never give up.

“She’s already becoming an American.” Mamma clucked her tongue and turned to check her phone, but Papa was already shivering. He had uprooted his entire life.

He had come up from nothing, enduring all the hard looks so that Arti could have a chance. A chance to be something. She would never waste that. Right? But then again, Papa remembered her locking herself in her room. Walking up to test rooms empty handed. Watching more YouTube than she was allowed.

He had slowly watched her turn into a medhipandu, a rotten fig-like fruit. On the outside, Arti looked like any other obedient Indian daughter. But inside, she was spilling with flies and the American way. Papa had worked hard, all through his childhood. Every cent meant something. But to Arti, money was limitless. She didn’t know what it meant to have nothing. So she had let herself rot.

“I don’t remember having this problem with her brother.” Papa grumbled. Arti’s brother was not gifted with numbers. But at least he was more patient.

“Really? I do. But he was slower.” Mamma clicked her tongue again. “Anyway, have the preparations for tomorrow’s ceremony been made?”

“Yes.” Papa nodded. “The priest will be here by eight.” He shook his head. A year. It had already been a year.

“Mm, good.”

“Did you call in a substitute?” Papa asked.

“Yes.” Mamma nodded sleepily. She worked as a kindergarten teacher, and often came home with glue in her hair and a couple pairs of soiled clothes, covered in pasta sauce. Mamma rolled over in her bed and in a few moments, there were quiet sniffling sounds coming out of her nose. Papa settled into his spot, and looked up at the twirling ceiling fan.

He sighed. Between Arti and his mother’s death, he felt sad. And tired. Not like a depressed sad. No. It was the kind that just seeped into your bones and made you feel like this was it forever. Arti would be gone forever. Gone as his mother.

Amamma had been very stubborn about staying halfway across the world from Papa. However, she remained the same doting grandmother. Calling every night. Sending over mysore pak and pickles. So when Mamma got a job as a teacher, she put her stubbornness aside and packed her bags. Papa couldn’t remember very many moments when Arti wasn’t without her, kissing her cheek, nestling in her arms. 

So why did Arti pretend she didn’t care?

Papa put his pounding head on the pillow, and stared at the ceiling fan until the sun came up.

...


AMMAMMA’S PHOTO:


“Mm, hello?” Arti’s Mamma walked by me, without casting me a glance. She was wearing a red-and-white saree, her hair still a mess of clips and pins. She smelled faintly like her sambar, which never had enough uppu-salt. “Yes, I see, I see.” She started to yell down the stairs in accented English, to Arti’s Papa, who yelled back. She rushed down the stairs, leaving me all alone again.

This picture, hung up a few meters beside Arti’s now usually shut bedroom door, was my only view into the house from up above. 

I had begun to see more and more of the same things, and it was beginning to worry me.

Arti was acting like a teenager.

And her parents was scowling at her every chance they had

Things change quickly in a year. 

Arti opened her room door for the first time all day, and she looked so different, it made my heart break to call her Arti. Her face was a too-pale color, and through the face powder and low-cost avakaya-like makeup on her cheeks, I could see the red and swelling under her eyes.

Though the hair was done up in a sloppy bun, strands were spilling out like tears. The do looked weary and sad, with the same glow as a common house mop.

Mostly, she just looked sad. The turmeric-colored shirt and nicker she was wearing could’ve probably made anyone else smile. But Arti simply frowned, and turned her eyes to watch me with a gentle gaze.

“Ugh, whaddo I do?” She moaned, nearly rolling her eyes, until she noticed my forever smiling picture. Her eyes hung on it like cream on milk. “Papa hates me.” Arti moaned, sniffling.

I understand, Ama

Something in her pocket started to buzz like a wasp. She looked up, startled. Arti took the phone out of her pocket and let out a small gasp, like a hummingbird. Her eyes became scattering mice, darting around. I quickly glanced over to check the number. +1 986 723 4508. Arti bit her lip as she slowly pressed the green answer button.

“Hello? Who is this?” The reply came slow and sugary in a deep male voice.

“Hey, yeah, this is Arty right?” I sucked in my breath. Arti was a beautiful name, full of character, a light peppery sound, like Krishna’s flute’s gentle, breezy sound. Not Arty, like it was a marker brand. Did Arti tell him to say it that way? Or did he just decide that whatever he said would be right. I wish I could scold her. Or him. Or both of them.

“Yep. Mhm. Absolutely. Who are you?”

“Jax. From school? Yeah, are you meeting us for lunch today?” Arti froze.

“Um, maybe?” She turned to look at my garlanded image, horrified.

“Maybe? Girl, like everyone’s gonna be there.” The boy on the other side hissed. I could feel anger rising in my throat. The boy was a rotten tomato, slowly spreading his poison throughout, trying to ruin everyone else. “If you ain’t, then that’s gonna be a problem, girl.” Arti stiffed up even more.

“It’s just, uh, a thing with my parents-”

“Parents? What the heck, Girl, don’t be such a dog. Honestly, I was thinking about asking you out, maybe to get a latte at Starbucks, but if you’re gonna get so stingy, don’t come.”

“Wow, um.” Arti started to blush a wild red color, like tilikum-vermillion. “See, my grandmother, she, uh.” But the words wouldn’t come out of her throat. She started to stutter, looking around the room for help, until she saw something.

Me.

She looked up at me with big, scared eyes and pressed something on her phone, muting it, before coming closer. Close enough that I could feel her nose. “Ammama, tell me what to do.” She moaned, reaching out to touch the smiling picture. “Help me.” Her lips started to tremble. I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to gently stroke her hair. 

Ama, stay with your family. They know best. 

My little girl let out a sigh and touched my face. Her bottom lip trembled, and for a second she almost dropped to her knees, but she took a deep breath and made her watery reply.

“Heyyy, Jax. I’m not going to make it. Sorry.” Her voice was blown, defeated, but kind of satisfied. Bittersweet, like pomegranate seeds.

“What the heck, girl,” He started to give her a lecture, but Arti clicked the red end button before he could. She closed her eyes, held her heart, and made her way into her closet. 

Thank you, god.

After a few minutes, she emerged wearing a half-saree that looked like all the colors of holi. Arti’s eyes were smiling and scared all at once. her hair cascaded loosely in shiny waves, waiting to be braided. Most of all, a beautiful diamond bindi decorated her forehead.

“Love you, Ammamma.” She kissed my picture and barreled down the stairs to talk to her parents. 

August 06, 2021 02:07

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