A Meaningful Contribution

Submitted into Contest #140 in response to: Write about a character with an unreliable memory.... view prompt


Science Fiction Asian American Fiction

When Zyra's family had been allocated the land and the house for free, they did not mistake it for a gift. It was, however, an opportunity for the family to rise above the unfortunate circumstances that had displaced them all. Zyra's mother had lost her Singaporean citizenship as they'd been on public assistance for far too many generations. Nevertheless, her skills had kept them afloat in the early years that the family had settled on the wet Florida coastal town.

She opened a chili crab restaurant under their stilt house. People ate her food on plastic tables when it was dry and in their boats when everything flooded. The concept only worked because the land surrounding their home proliferated with crabs due to the changing environment. They weren't the right kind for the original dish, but they were big enough, and their meat was just as good with the right tweaks to the recipe. Zyra's father did not think the crabs were 'muddy' as his wife thought. He'd been born in Lebanon and had never even tasted crab before he'd met Zyra's mother in the refugee processing center. Zyra's father was the lynchpin of the family. It was he who had won the immigration lottery, he who had gotten a job at the package distribution center. And he who toiled for poverty wages to support the visas of Zyra's half-brothers who'd been born in Singapore, and her mother.

 Her father's and her brother's jobs were why the country allowed her family to come in at all. Not enough low-end workers to fill the needs of the warehouses, scrub the corporate toilets, or man the counters of the shops. Yet, even for those jobs, Zyra's mother was considered unsuitable. She did not have the right papers to prove that she had not committed any crimes in her home country. Nor did she have the right birth certificate for one of her sons. He'd been born on the same boat that the family had been fishing on since the early 2030s. Zyra never saw her parents argue despite the differences in their upbringing. Still, she wondered as she got older how they reconciled their circumstances, how they'd managed to find joy working without a break for years on end.

 Zyra herself was American, the only American in the family because she was born in a hospital in Boca Raton. The hospital itself was now totally reclaimed by the sea. The family had invested everything in her. Once, they had gone without gas in their boat for an entire month. They did this to pay the Singh family down the road to tutor her for the ACT. Her brother, Lee, worked as a janitor at the university to get her reduced tuition, commuting for two hours every day for four years.

Contrary to the usual paths for immigrant children: medicine, law, or pharmacy, the family made itself the topic of gossip when they decided she would study Oceanography in college and get an internship with NOAA- which had become quite well funded in recent years to track the climate changes happening all over the country and the world at large. When she'd asked why they had chosen such a path for her, the only answer her parents ever gave her was, "for your future." It didn't explain how becoming a climate scientist was more secure and lucrative than healthcare, but she assumed her parents had their reasons. After what they had sacrificed so much for her, she felt she didn't have much right to argue with them about it. She also quite liked the subject and felt drawn to work towards aiding the study of the environmental crisis of their age. 

Her father had managed to save a considerable dowry from his paltry paycheck to give to the unofficial mayoral family of the town, the Chowdarys. Their son, Tashi, was one of the most handsome men in Ghranagar and planning to attend the same university. However, his father had initially been unwilling to marry his son off to a non-Indian, especially considering that most of the families in Ghranagar were from the same slice of southern India. Zyra never knew why he'd approved the match in the first place. Was it Zyra's racial ambiguity due to her parent's mixed marriage? Or simply his father's desire to have some capital to play with to build the family up to the middle class? Regardless, the connections she'd gained through marrying Tashi at 19 years old added to what her family and Ghranagar had contributed to Zyra's future. She viscerally felt their dreams and hopes for what their American lives could be riding in her in every choice. So, when she returned 11 years later, freshly widowed, boatless, and unemployed, she did so not with sadness for her reduced circumstances but rather with dread of their judgment.

She came into town on the public ferry at high tide, her belly large with six months of pregnancy and a faux leather-bound notebook open over it. She used herself as a table to sketch and write her impression of Ghranagar's central market. She has not been back for nearly six years.

Outsiders had called Ghranagar "the American Venice," but now that title was being applied liberally to many coastal immigrant communities. Ghranagar had been one of the first to capitalize on the gimmick by serving chili gelato or fusion masala shrimp pizza from their brightly colored windows on coolers days when tourists would motor through to sightsee, and people watch.

It was dusk as the ferry broke the eerily still water of the main channel through town. Zyra had expected to see Christmas lights strung up and wooden furniture on the porches of the stilted buildings, but she saw only darkness and boarded-up windows. At 8:30 pm, people should have been out of the house, enjoying the cooler air and lack of UV rays. But Ghranagar looked like a town of ghosts on the water.

The ferry dropped her off onto a port dock as the light darkened enough that she couldn't see what she was writing. She pooled her little money together with a group of locals to rent a zip boat. She was dropped off first out of courtesy for her condition at her parents' house. Zyra's father met her downstairs and helped her off the boat, carrying her bags up the stairs to the living level.

"Have you eaten dinner yet?" His words were colorless after giving her a firm hug at the top of the stairs.

 "I had a half of a fish sandwich on the ferry."

 "That doesn't sound like food," he sighed, "there's hummus and bread from today in the icebox. You can tell me all about work while we wait for your mother to come back from the town hall meeting."

 She eyed him sheepishly, trying not to take his mention of work like a punch in the gut.

Sitting at the table, swishing the olive oil around her hummus with the corner of her pita, she wondered how she would tell him. After Tashi's funeral, she would stay and work as a bookkeeper for the Chowdary's business. She would be sleeping in Tashi's room and taking their charity, like a refugee herself.

She could see her mother had hung up the boys' and her father's clothes for the funeral tomorrow night in the front of the living room closet. They wouldn't smell musty if they'd air out for the night in the breeze. Everything got so moist in the house if the sea breeze didn't touch it.

As she stared at the fading black fabric, her father slipped an envelope gently under her fingers. It was red and fat with a cheesy "double happiness" character on the top. She knew it was full of money that would doubly fill her with guilt.

 "Stop," she said, sliding it back, "this isn't going to help me as much as it would help you guys."

"Nonsense," he breathed casually, "rent is expensive down there. So Chowdary is going to send Sathya to live with you for a while to help you with the baby while you're in the lab. It's already been arranged."

 Her breath stopped in her throat. Her father had spoken to Tashi's father but not recently enough to know what had happened.

"Papa, I'm not going back to NOAA," she choked out, not meeting his eyes. He said nothing at first, and the silence stretched out before them.

When she did manage to look at him once more, she saw only blankness. Zyra knew it held back a tidal wave he was struggling to contain.

 "I can't live on the salary of an assistant researcher with a baby. Even with one of Tashi's cousins to take care of the house and help me out."

"But this is ridiculous! You got life insurance from him, and you've been there for four years. Isn't it time they took that silly word, 'assistant' off your title?"

"Need a Ph.D. to do that, and Papa, when am I going to have time for that with everything that's happened this year…" she trailed off, not knowing how to continue the sentence.

"Even more stupid! You can give the child to Chowdary or to us. More than enough time to do one of those executive programs. How long will it take?"

She met his incredulity with coldness, "I'm not doing it."

"What are you going to do then?"

She looked away again in shame, the food in her belly becoming ash and weighing her down.

"You're going to live on Chowdary's boat?" His hands were on the table, pressing down harder than she'd ever seen.

She steadied herself before answering. "I'll be in Tashi's room in the big house. Tashi's old job in the office. Just until the baby comes, and I figure out what to do."

"You're going back to work on Monday," he insisted, "you have a month or two left to think about this."

She shook her head, "I quit. I can't do it anymore. There's no future for me there."

 "Don't be an idiot. The only future for you here is a hammock on that garbage boat," he spat.

"No, Papa. He said I could stay in the house. It's going to be fine," she tried to calm him down, noticing that he was getting seriously agitated.

He met her eyes as he pounded his fist on the table, "the state is evacuating everyone to the refugee center in Orlando next week." He spoke, but she did not register his words. When she said nothing back, he continued.

 "It's all condemned—the whole town. The government gave us a new house. It's dry, but it's in West Virginia. How will you work the sea there? Do you even know where they are sending Chowdary? Because he hasn't even told me. Ghranagar is done, and everyone who can't buy their way into something in the state is being separated."

Zyra sat there in stunned silence, feeling a growing ache in her stomach quickly become a panic. The entire Ghranagarian ecosystem, the Arabs and the East Asians, South Asians, the bahnimi sandwiches, and the lemon trees would all be scattered. Her childhood world was to be blown apart. The horror of her parents' lives was to be reborn in hers. 

"Why now?" Yet, he didn't need to answer. She slowly put the pieces together in her head, "they are using that tropical storm on the edge of the gulf as an excuse?"

 He nodded, the anger finally purpling his face slightly, "mandatory evacuation for a tropical storm. We've sat in this house during category three hurricanes waiting for FEMA boats that never came."

"Mama is at the meeting trying to petition the state to reverse it." She finished for him.

They sat in silence. Zyra's notebook was on the table between them. She'd stuffed it with the stories of her neighbors- Arabian fairy tales, stories of people running away from pimps and gangsters in Hyderabad, and even a few regalements of her and Tashi's adolescent forays in Ghranagar.

"When will you call NOAA and ask for your job back?" He said pointedly. It was not really a question, Zyra knew.

She put her hand on the front of the notebook, asking it for its strength. "This doesn't change anything about that choice I made, Papa."

 "How do you think your mother would feel about you living on Chowdary's boat? Will she think his marine waste business is better than working for NOAA? What about when he gets sent off to the west coast? Do you think that's better? What about when he marries you off to a cousin you don't know?"

 She laughed incredulously, "what year do you think this is, Papa?"

 He bit back sharply, "What were you thinking?! Why do you want to quit NOAA?"

She rose, meeting his anger with an icy coldness that steeled against the humid haze that hung in the house as the breeze died out, "I know that I won't be able to help as much monetarily now that I don't work for the government anymore. But my husband is dead, Papa, and our child will be born not knowing him. At the very least, I want it to have some family in its life. Tashi and I had so much of that growing up here. Even if that means disappointing you all and proving what a poor investment I was, I want my child to have that."

She turned, briefly seeing her father shake his head in disagreement, getting out, "no, you do not understand," before she stormed out of the house. Zyra grabbed the family's only dingy and motored away from her father as he called to her. She chose not to hear him.

She docked at Chowdarys' house, noticing all of the boats were gone. Most of the adults were probably at the town hall with her mother. Alham, one of the aunties, was in the kitchen. She offered Zyra a lassi, some biscuits, and her company. Two boys, Tashi's cousins, were running under her feet, playing a chasing game while Alham periodically shouted at them to get ready for bed.

"Your father told you," She guessed correctly simply by staring at Zyra's face.

 "Yes, I'm devastated. How do you feel about it?" She had known Alham all her life. The woman had been in Ghranagar for as long as it has been a town.

 "Me? I'm grieving my nephew. Everything else is inconsequential. The rest of my family is healthy, business is good, and I have a grandnephew on the way," her smile was infectious and wormed its way into Zyra's heart as it always did. "Whether my home is here or in California, Washington, Alaska- I don't mind. My family is together."

Alham's smile broke into her, twisted, and became a sieve that finally let out the floodgate of Zyra's emotions. She burst into tears at Alham's table.

 Alham came to her, wrapping her as wholly and tightly as she would a child. She was round and sturdy in a way that Zyra's mother had never been. She was immensely comfortable to be around. Zyra felt safe enough to let out the thorn gnawing at her since she'd arrived back home.

"I'm such a failure!" It exploded from her like a burst dam. "Tashi is gone, and I'm doomed without him to help us. I've disappointed my parents and his parents- everyone. And he'd probably be disappointed in me too," she got out between sobs, burying her face in Alham's chest.

The woman pulled her back and wiped her tears on a clean kitchen napkin. Then, looking at her in the eye, she held her shoulders steadily, "you are your parents' wildest dream. What you do will help us all."

 Zyra wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her dirty shirt, "Doing Papa Chowdary's accounting isn't that important."

 Alham held her chin abruptly, "you don't remember, do you?"

 The intensity of her gaze transfixed Zyra.

"Beta, the first night of your wedding! We sent your father in to tell you. He was to tell you the wish of all of us—our united wish for you. You were so nervous about the ceremony and the party. I painted your hands with the henna, and your mother painted your face. Don't you remember what he said to you?"

 She tried to think back, but Alham's intensity was making it impossible to think around the fog of feelings. Alham's eyes bore into her. It was the eyes that spoke to her, spoke deep into her soul. The eyes continued to paint a scene that she could not reliably recall without them.

"We were giving you Tashi, and your parents were giving you a university education for your future. It didn't have anything to do with earning money. That's what you thought he was probably telling you at the time. That we were sending you south to study to lift us out of poverty, this was not what we intended. Beta, my Zyra, the world is drowning. All of us here were displaced because people thought more of lining their own pockets than having dry land to raise their children. In you and our Tashi, who was to support you, we wanted to contribute something that our ancestors had not. We gave you all of this for your future and your children's future. You are not a disappointment. You are the reason we can rest peacefully. You are our security and our penance. You are our love and our hope."

Zyra found there was nothing more she could say to that. So she fell into Alham's arms again and allowed the auntie to carry her to the dock. Her father greeted them at the edge of it. He had just arrived on a neighbor's dingy, having come after her to explain.

But he did not need to explain. Now Zyra remembered and knew what her community had meant for her at last.

April 04, 2022 06:08

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