Shoma puts on the dress she bought at Rag-o-Rama, a vintage red floral with a full skirt and belted waistline. Sauntering around the room she imagines she is Sarah Jane from Imitation of Life. Sarah Jane has just snuck back from meeting her white boyfriend, a real boyfriend, not the one that beats her up because she’s “colored.” Out the window she pretends to see Suzy with her brand new horse. She kicks her sad old teddy bear across the carpet. She makes a petulant face in the mirror and is interrupted by a knock at the door.
Shoma’s mother walks in, dressed regally in a cream silk sari. She points at Shoma with her whole hand. “You want to wear that?” she asks.
After the last fight they had over clothing, her mother doesn’t dare argue. Shoma bought this dress with her babysitting money. Her father already told her she looked pretty.
“Put these earrings,” her mother says, twisting a pair of gold and ruby earrings into her earlobes and fastening them tightly, then pulling clumps of Shoma’s hair behind her ears and trapping them with two bobby pins. “Ba, ki shundor,” her mother says, looking very proud.
They drive for about twenty minutes and pull up to a house that is large and boxy, with beige vinyl siding. She follows her parents into the house and, trying not to choke on a sickening ambush of scents—perfume, cologne, curry, incense, and cigarette smoke—she shyly says hello to the aunt and uncle who are actually just friends of her parents. They practically push her down the stairs to the basement, where all the kids sit on one enormous L-shaped couch in front of an expansive television screen. Everyone is wearing jeans and when they look in her direction, she can tell they are looking at her dress. Inside she is smiling.
Demurely she unfolds a metal chair and sits in the corner. Buri says, “Move closer, Shoma. Don’t be a geek.” Buri’s hair looks great today. She has cut and styled it into a bob that makes her look like a 1920s flapper. Shoma obeys Buri’s command and moves her chair closer to the couch.
Buri is two years older than Shoma. Despite all the time they’d spent together as children, practically like cousins, she and Buri have never been good friends. Three years ago, when Shoma was eleven, she stayed here with Buri and her parents while her parents looked for a house in Decatur. During that visit Shoma got her period and did not handle it well. Buri caught her crying and washing the blood off her panties in the sink of their shared bathroom, then lectured her for hours about tampons and sanitary pads and what it meant to be menstruating. “Don’t you know any of this stuff? Didn’t they give you the talk in school?”
Yes, they had given the talk at school, but Shoma had not understood that all these changes they were talking about would actually make her feel like she was bleeding to death.
After that, Buri was extremely curious about Shoma’s sexual IQ. Since she scored in the zeroeth percentile, Buri urgently tried to fill in the gaps of her knowledge. All Shoma remembers now from her lessons is Buri sticking the index finger of one hand through the O she made with her other hand. “This is what ‘fucking’ is.”
“You guys all know Shoma, right?”
Shoma waves her hand at no one in particular. The others nod their heads or raise their eyebrows. They are preoccupied, watching music videos on MTV. Shoma doesn’t have that channel at home. A pretty man is singing. He is wearing a pirate suit and a lot of make-up, his thin lips pink and glossy.
“He’s such a faggot,” says a kid that Shoma has only met a few times. Every time he speaks she winces.
“He is not,” says Buri. “You’re a faggot.”
On the commercial, Buri turns to Shoma again. “Do you know Rishan? He goes to Decatur.”
“He’ll be here later.”
Rishan is in tenth grade, a year above her. He is known as a soccer jock. She has seen him before at puja and sometimes passes him in the hallway, but they have never spoken to each other.
His very arrival is athletic. He bounces down the stairs and stops, arms in the air with pointer fingers up, hollering like he just scored a goal. “You’re a retard,” Buri says. He ruffles Buri’s hair and she punches him, hard, in the chest.
Then he gives all the boys high fives before tumbling onto the couch, sprawling across the two kids already sitting there. They scoot over to give him room. Shoma doesn’t realize she is staring until he acknowledges her. He points to her with his chin and says, “Hey.”
The boys continue to hurl insults at the musicians in the videos, until they are called for dinner. Meena Auntie grabs Shoma’s plate and piles more food on it while pretending to scold Shoma’s mother for starving her daughter. “Have you looked in the mirror lately?” she asks Shoma.
“No,” Shoma answers, and everyone in the vicinity laughs.
After dinner the kids go back to the basement to watch more TV. Shoma looks at the screen but sees something entirely different in her head. She is imagining herself as a detective, like Nancy Drew. Not solving a mystery really, just walking around in mysterious locales and wearing pretty dresses. She has been thinking about taking up sewing. The fabric store at the mall always has classic patterns for dresses.
A week later she takes out the sky blue 3-speed bicycle she got at the Goodwill store. Her father wanted to take her to a department store to get her a new bike, a ten-speed, but she fell in love with this one. “Good girl,” he said, thinking she’d chosen the older bike to save him money. It isn’t state-of-the-art but it’s easy enough to ride on the level streets of her neighborhood. She is wearing a yellow dress that buttons down the front from the collar to the hem. Her mother asks her why she would go riding in a dress.
“At one time girls wore dresses all the time,” she answers.
Her mother doesn’t understand.
It is a glorious day. On her bike ride she thinks about how much she loves Georgia. She loves the tips of the Georgia pines touching the clouds, the epic train tracks and the beckoning trains chugging along on their journey from sea to mountain. She loves the explosion of sunlight and blossoms in spring, and the sultry summer rainstorms. She dreams of one day having her own craftsman cottage, with a picturesque porch cooled by a creaking ceiling fan. When they lived in Long Island, her imagination never took off with this kind of abandon.
After her ride she goes to her room to work on her latest project, a collage on poster board of special pictures along certain themes. This is her third one. She recently finished a collage of places, mostly European street scenes—cafes, narrow alleys, and cobblestone streets. Her current collage is a collection of photographs and sketches of women wearing dresses that look like they were made before 1960. Some of the pictures come from old books and magazines on sale at the library, and some come from glossy modern fashion magazines. Her latest challenge is to “diversify” her pictures, after realizing that most of the models are blond and all of them are white. It is turning out to be quite daunting, trying to find pictures of other kinds of women wearing old-fashioned dresses.
As she works on her project, running through her head is a story she made up herself, about a girl from India who is kidnapped by a childless English couple and brought to a small town in the English countryside, where she grows up known as Emily Bancroft. No one ever knows of the girl’s true heritage. Then, when a band of gypsies roams through her town, she marvels at her resemblance to them. She is courted by a gypsy rogue and runs away with him.
“Shoma, get ready. Rishan and his parents are coming for dinner.”
Her mother stands in the doorway, looking down at her mess of magazine clippings.
“Rishan. You know Rishan.”
“Since when are we friends with them?”
“He probably won’t even come.”
“Is he a good boy?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think he’s nice boy. Parents are good. Very nice.”
“Great.” Shoma rolls her eyes for effect.
To her surprise he does show up with his parents. His full lips make a heart shaped pout. She is reintroduced to his parents and sent with Rishan to the family room upstairs. As soon as they get there he asks, “Is it just us coming tonight?”
“I’m not sure,” she says. They sit on the couch and stare at the television set.
“Do you want to watch something?”
“Do you have cable?” he asks.
“Do you have any movies?”
“Yeah, we have Sound of Music and Casablanca, and a movie called Imitation of Life. I’ll bet you’ve never heard of it.”
“Jesus,” he says. He puts his elbows on his knees and rests his head on his fists.
“We can listen to records,” she offers. Then, without waiting for his answer she walks over to the record player. She doesn’t change the record that is on the turntable, just turns it on and watches the needle rise and fall to the first song. It’s Patsy Cline, “Back in Baby’s Arms.”
“What the hell is this?”
“Sorry, I don’t have any rock songs.”
“Don’t your parents let you listen to rock?”
“They don’t mind. They’re pretty liberal. I just like old stuff.”
He stares at her. “I don’t know anybody like you. Why do you like this shit?”
She doesn’t like his word choice, but she gives his question serious thought. “I guess because I like history. I like thinking about what things were like before I was born. I think living in today is kind of boring.”
“It is. Boring for us Indian kids, since all we’re allowed to do is study.” He laughs.
“But you play soccer.”
“You know all my friends are driving already, even if they don’t have their permits yet? My curfew’s ten o’clock.”
He gets up to look at her other records. After pulling out a few, he lies down on the floor and holds the album covers up in the air and reads them. His shirt rides up and she can see his belly button. She can’t remember ever sitting this close to a boy.
“Put this on,” he commands. It’s the soundtrack to the movie Grease. Shoma has never seen the movie. When it came out she wasn’t allowed to see it, and eventually she lost interest. Her father likes this record more than she does.
They fall silent for a while, just listening. He stares dreamily at the ceiling.
“Do you like anybody at school?” she asks.
“What, you mean like a girl?”
“Well, you know, Gail and I have been friends since elementary school. But I really like her.”
“Oh, she’s pretty,” Shoma says. Everyone knows Gail for being in the school musical. She is pretty, all rosy cheeks and red hair.
Rishan sits up and looks at her. “You know, you could be pretty. You just have a little bit of a moustache. But most girls do . . . they just take the hair off with something.”
Shoma puts her fingers above her lips.
“I like the way you dress,” he continues. “Girls don’t dress like girls anymore, you know?”
Shoma smiles, but her fingers are still feeling for her moustache.
They go down and eat dinner and listen to their parents’ conversations for the rest of the evening. Rishan answers her parents’ questions with a politeness that seems genuine. When they leave he cheerfully waves goodbye to her. “See you in school,” he says.
A week later, he calls her out of the blue. Her mother picks up the phone and hands it to her incredulously. “It’s Rishan,” she says, breathless with disbelief.
Her hello is a question.
His voice sounds younger, more nasal over the phone. “Are you doing anything right now?” he asks.
She had been perfectly happy lying on her bed, watching the ceiling fan for most of the morning, just thinking.
“Well, I might go to the movies.”
“Oh, really, with who?”
She tries to think of a name.
“A bunch of us are going to Little Five Points. You want to come? I’m driving.”
“Buri and Sanj are coming with us. Are you scared?”
“No.” She puts the phone down and finds her mother in the living room. “Can I go out with Buri?”
“With Buri?” her mother asks.
“And Rishan and Sanj.”
Her mother looks worried. Shoma repeats the question, saying she has Rishan on hold. After a long wait her mother gets off the couch. “Let me talk to him.”
“No, Ma. Can I go or not? You’re always telling me to go out with my friends.”
Her mother throws her hands up. “All right, go.”
When she picks up the phone again Rishan is talking to someone. “Okay,” she says.
“Where’d you go? I didn’t know if you hung up or what.”
“I can go.”
He says he’ll pick her up in an hour. She spends a long time choosing an outfit, finally settling on a simple skirt with two pleats in the front. She wears it with a white blouse and blue cardigan. Then she waits by the window, staring at the driveway. Her heart is pounding and she wonders why she said yes.
Eventually he pulls up in a tan Datsun that must belong to his parents. Since no one gets out of the car she runs downstairs.
“I want to talk to him,” her mother says.
“No, Ma, they’re in a hurry. It’s not like you don’t know where they live.”
She gets in the back seat with Buri, who looks her over in her typical neutral way. “You have the coolest clothes,” she says without a smile. That’s when Shoma remembers that she hasn’t brought a purse or any money with her. She hadn’t thought of it.
Buri’s boyfriend Sanj is in the passenger seat, putting a cassette into the tape deck. Once they are on Ponce, headed for Atlanta, Sanj turns up the music. It’s that song about a brown-eyed girl that she always hears on the radio at the dentist’s office. When the singer sings in his shallow voice about making love in the green grass, Sanj lets out a high pitched “Whoo!” At the end of the song he rewinds the cassette to the beginning and plays the song again. He makes them listen to it four times, and says “Whoo!” every time. Occasionally he tells Rishan to change lanes.
Buri and Rishan go back and forth about whether she can have a turn at driving the car or not. Shoma stares out the window, wishing she could drive, or take MARTA by herself to explore all the historic neighborhoods of Atlanta.
When they stop at a red light on Moreland Avenue, Rishan turns and asks Shoma if she’s ever been to Oakland Cemetery. She says no.
“You’ve never been to Oakland Cemetery!”
“You’d love it. We should go. Let’s go.”
“Not again,” says Buri.
The car rolls forward as the light turns green. Rishan drives on past the triangular plaza at Little Five Points and stops along the curb on the next block. “I’ll let you guys off here. I’ve got to take Shoma to the cemetery. Shoma, you’ve got to see it.”
“You’re a retard. Shoma wants to go shopping. Don’t you, Shoma?”
“Actually, I forgot to bring my money.”
“I can’t believe you guys don’t want to go,” says Rishan. “Let’s all go.”
Sanj says he wants to get out here, and orders Buri to get out with him. Buri looks troubled. “Well, I guess we can all go to the cemetery,” she says.
“You just said you didn’t want to go,” yells Sanj.
“I don’t but . . . ”
“We’ll be back in an hour,” says Rishan. “We’ll find you.”
Sanj reminds them that they are in a no standing zone, so they have to make a decision if they don’t want to get a ticket. Without waiting he opens the door and gets out, taking Buri with him, and Shoma moves into the front seat, wishing she had not come. Buri continues to look back at the car as they cross the street.
“You’ll like this place, since you love old stuff.”
“I don’t know much about it.”
In a few minutes they are parking close to the gated entrance of Oakland Cemetery.
It doesn’t take long for Shoma to submit to the charm of the cemetery. It is like walking through a magical garden where time has no meaning. Almost immediately she feels calmer, and she is amazed at how accurately Rishan had anticipated what she would like. She wants to see all of it, every sculpture and epitaph and all of the tombstones lain out like chess pieces. “These are mausoleums,” says Rishan, referring to the buildings that look like gothic cathedrals and Greek temples in miniature.
“I like anything that’s miniaturized,” says Shoma.
Rishan frowns. “Okay . . . ” he says. “Well, come on, I’ll show you my favorite one.”
He hurries her along until they get to a mausoleum built of large stone blocks. It has a pointed arch and weathered bronze doors. Impulsively Shoma wraps her hand around one of the handles and pulls. Rishan laughs. “Do you want to go in there?”
“I would if it didn’t have dead people,” she says
He takes her hand and pulls her around to the side of the building. Then he pushes her into the masonry and kisses her. His tongue is slippery. It feels like she’s licking a raw chicken breast with the skin on, but she doesn’t push him away until a voice startles her. “You can’t do that here. What’s wrong with you?”
A maintenance worker is staring at them. Shoma’s nerves tingle, her skin prickling with shame. The man looks so offended, she is afraid he will call the police. “Sorry,” Rishan says. “It’s just so romantic here.”
“Move along now,” the man says, keeping his eyes on them as they walk past him. Shoma watches her feet, seeing nothing more of the cemetery than the brick that lines the path. She will never be able to return to this place, which could have become her special sanctuary, without reliving the shame of desecrating a gravesite.
“We should go find Buri and Sanj,” she says.
“Yeah, we should.” As he drives he puts his hand on her knee. “I really like that you dress like a girl. Even the straight girls in our school look like dykes.”
She isn’t flattered, since he’s already used that line on her. “Do you think you can take me home? I’m not feeling very well.”
He puts both hands back on the steering wheel. “Ten and two,” he says. “That’s where your hands are supposed to be.”
“Do you think you can try to hang out for a while? Are you mad at me?”
“No, I just wasn’t expecting that.”
“You didn’t like it?”
She doesn’t know if he is asking about the kiss or the cemetery.
“I hope you didn’t hate it, because I really like you.”
Shoma wants to relax. Sometimes she does get lonely, and here is someone trying to be with her.
They find Buri and Sanj in Stefan’s Vintage clothing store. Buri is looking half-heartedly at the shoes. “This place is expensive,” she says. “I would never wear this stuff.”
When Rishan and Sanj go outside so Sanj can smoke, Buri tugs at her sleeve and asks, “Is there something going on with Rishan?”
“I don’t know,” says Shoma.
Buri is exasperated. “What do you mean you don’t know? There’s either something happening or not. What happened at the cemetery?”
Shoma’s face is overheating. She cannot even think the words that Buri is waiting to hear. “You’re hopeless,” Buri says.
They join the boys outside and walk around until it starts to drizzle. “I’m so bored I want to kill myself,” Buri says. They decide to get back in the car and go home. As they near Decatur the rain comes down in sheets. They can barely see Buri’s house when they pull up to it. Buri peers out the window. “I don’t think anyone’s home,” she says. “You guys want to come in?”
Of course Sanj says he will hang out for a while.
“I better go home,” Shoma says, more desperately than she wanted.
“I better get this little lady home,” Rishan says. Buri frowns at him while he continues. “Unless you want to just call your mom from here. Tell her I’ll take you home after the rain stops?”
Shoma shakes her head.
After Sanj and Buri get out, he tells her he isn’t a chauffeur so she better get in the front seat. The few seconds she is out in the rain is enough to drench her. She rubs the raindrops off her arms. He starts to drive but the rain pounds the car like a mob of angry fists.
“I better stop in this parking lot for a while.”
He pulls into the lot of an elementary school. In the rain, the building looks blighted and abandoned. Soon the windshield is covered with gel-like globules of water.
“I don’t really want to go home,” says Rishan.
“We can go back to Buri’s if you want.”
Rishan laughs. “No we can’t. They’re probably having sex right now.”
“Really?” Shoma asks. “What if her parents come home suddenly?”
He falls silent for a minute. Then he says, “I think my dad has a girlfriend. I think she’s a doctor at his hospital.”
She doesn’t have trouble believing him. Rishan’s father is a good-looking man, and his mother, well, she might have been pretty when she was younger. They aren’t like her parents, each as attractive as the other, well-matched. Rishan’s parents were mismatched.
“Have you seen her?”
“No. I heard them talking on the phone. I knew he was on the phone to her and I picked up the line. They stopped talking for a second but then they started again. They were talking about going somewhere together. And a week later my father went to Hawaii for a medical conference. He used to take us with him but he doesn’t anymore.” His voice breaks a little.
“I’m really sorry,” she says. “Do you think your mother knows?”
“Maybe,” he says. He leans over to kiss her. Somehow the rain changes everything. They are protected, hidden from the outside world. After a while he asks her if she would like to climb into the back seat, and she does. They are kissing heavily and she already feels herself getting better at it. When his hand goes up her skirt she flinches a little. He stops and looks at her, then tugs at her panties. This time she controls herself, and he smiles as he unzips his pants. He takes her hand and wraps her fingers around his penis and tells her to stroke it, up and down. It is rubbery and boney at the same time. “That feels so good,” he says.
Shoma thinks back to the things Buri told her about sex, trying to remember details about the male anatomy. “Is it always hard like that?” she asks.
He looks confused. “Are you serious?”
“No, just kidding.”
He smiles again and kisses the bridge of her nose. His eyes remind her of apostrophes . . . apostrophes with long curly lashes. “You’re cute,” he says. While they are kissing he pulls her panties down and nudges her legs open. His hand is warm. “I want you so bad,” he says. “You’re so pretty.” He rubs the end of his penis along her privates, and it awakens her senses in a way she has never experienced before. All she is at this moment is a body, a body close to another body.
Suddenly his fingers are prodding and poking between her legs. “That hurts,” she says.
“I’m just trying to figure out where I am. It’ll only hurt for a minute.”
He replaces his fingers with his penis. “It hurts,” she reminds him.
“It’ll take a minute. Try to relax.”
It takes more than a minute. He keeps talking to her as he labors at her flesh, but she isn’t listening to him. She remembers the day in fifth grade, in Long Island, when they separated the boys and girls and told the girls about the reproductive system. They talked about the sperm meeting the egg, and Shoma raised her hand and asked where the sperm comes from while the other girls snickered. “It comes from the male genitalia,” the teacher answered. Shoma raised her hand again. “How does it get into the female?” Then the teacher started to laugh too and her question was never answered.
“Is that enough?” she asks Rishan.
“Just a little more,” he says. She watches his neck as he squeezes her hips and pushes harder. His shirt is buttoned almost to his collar.
Suddenly she understands what Buri meant by the finger in the O. He is tearing into her and it hurts like bloody hell. After a few burning, heaving thrusts he cries out and drops his full weight on top of her. She can feel his heart beating.
“You’re crushing me,” she says.
He kisses her cheek before getting off of her, and wipes her down with a tissue. “Thank you, Shom. I feel a lot better now.”
He drives fast through the rain, skidding once around the corner from her house. When they get to her house he says, “Maybe you should go up and take a shower first, you know?”
“I will,” she says. She is almost too exhausted to get herself out of the car.
“Thanks again, Shom. You’re an angel.”
“See you in school, I guess.”
She sneaks past her mother, who is at the stove stirring something that is sizzling in oil, and rushes upstairs to take a long hot shower. She changes into her pink flannel pajamas and presents herself to her parents before dinner.
“In nightclothes already?” her father asks.
“I’m tired,” she says.
She eats voraciously, remembering for the first time that she hasn’t eaten since breakfast. They ask her questions about her outing, which she answers with just enough detail to satisfy them, but at the end her mother asks, “You didn’t enjoy it?”
“Not really,” Shoma says. Her mother seems disappointed.
That night she doesn’t get herself to sleep in the usual way, by imagining her stories. Instead she thinks of Rishan, of what will happen next with him. Will this be a regular thing, like going steady? Will it not hurt as much next time?
In school on Monday she puts her arm up to wave to Rishan, but she doesn’t get his attention. Later that week she sees him holding hands with Gail as they walk to the cafeteria. Gail wraps her arms around his neck and kisses him on the lips before they part. When he notices Shoma watching, he smiles and waves, as if nothing ever happened between them. But he finds her by her locker after school and asks her to come outside for a minute. In the smoking area he explains how Gail just called him on Sunday, completely out of the blue, and said she liked him.
“I guess you were my good luck charm,” he says.
Shoma knows the worst thing to do at this moment is to act like she cares, but she doesn’t know what to say to demonstrate her indifference. She settles on, “I’m glad I could help.”
“You’re sweet, Shoma. You really are.”
She is wounded and relieved at the same time. As she walks home there is a light skip in her step because she feels like herself again, and it is nice for this day to be almost over.
Once her parents buy her the sewing machine, the weekends go by quickly as she throws herself into learning how to use it. One minute it is Saturday morning and she is waking up before dawn to read the sewing books she got from the library, waiting impatiently for a decent hour to start the machine, and the next minute it is Sunday night and bedtime. Her parents are impressed with how quickly she turns out her products. She has made a set of napkins for her mother as her first project, and an A-line skirt for herself. Now she is struggling with a dress pattern. She is afraid her ambitions have raced ahead of her skill.
When she stops sewing her worries overwhelm her. She hardly sleeps at night and finds it so difficult to keep food down that it causes her mother to have a breakdown. “You look terrible,” she says. “Something is wrong with you.”
Shoma has never seen her mother cry. It shocks her.
“I can’t sleep,” she explains, as if this fact will make anything better. “I don’t know why.”
The following weekend her mother calls over a Brahmin priest to do a ritual for her. She sits cross-legged for a long time while the priest and her mother say prayers in Sanskrit over an altar of ghee and sandalwood incense. In the middle of it, Shoma has to get up to vomit in the bathroom. Afterwards she cries as quietly as she can. The chanting and incense have upset her, and now she has to admit what she knows is wrong with her. What she knows a Brahmin priest can’t fix.
That evening she makes an A-line skirt for Buri, even though she has never seen her wear a skirt. She calls Buri’s house.
“You made me something?” Buri asks.
“I need to talk to you. Can you come pick it up?”
Buri comes the next day. Shoma can hear the surprise in her mother’s voice when she opens the door. “I didn’t know you were coming.”
“I’m just on my way to a game. Shoma said she has something for me.”
Shoma waits for Buri at the top of the stairs and summons her up. In her bedroom, Shoma hands her the skirt.
“Why’d you make me a skirt?” Buri asks.
“I wanted to ask you something, because you know a lot of things.”
“Is it about Rishan?”
Shoma sits on the edge of the bed and doesn’t answer.
“What is it?”
She finally manages to say it. “Can popping the cherry make your period stop?”
Buri doesn’t react. She stares at Shoma for so long, she wonders if Buri has an answer. Then Buri lets out one long breath. “Oh, Shoma, didn’t you listen to anything I ever said? Why do you think I was asking what happened at the cemetery?”
Shoma looks down. The hemline of her skirt is grazing her knees. The stitching isn’t as straight as she thought it was.
“When was your last one?” Buri finally asks.
“Beginning of March maybe.”
“Can you go get a yellow pages without your mom seeing?”
Shoma is happy to be given a task. She goes down to the kitchen, where her mother is talking excitedly on the phone. She holds the receiver away from her ear and gives Shoma a questioning look. “We’re looking up some fabric stores near Buri’s house,” she says, which seems to satisfy her.
Back upstairs Buri is impatient. “Hurry up. My friends are waiting in the car.” She already has a pen and paper in her hand.
She doesn’t go far in the phone book. She writes down an address and phone number. “I think this is the place.” Buri does not look at all certain. “Yes, this is it. You’ll have to take some money.”
“I don’t know for sure. It can’t be much. How much do you have?”
“I have eighty-three dollars in my piggy bank.”
Buri scowls. “A piggy bank? Is it all in quarters?”
“It’s in twenties,” Shoma says.
“Anyway,” Buri says, obviously annoyed, “I think that’s enough. If it isn’t they’ll just tell you to come back with more, right?”
“I don’t want to wait,” Shoma says.
Suddenly Buri is confident and aggressive with her advice. “Call them in the morning in case you have to make an appointment, but I think you can take MARTA there right after school. And don’t listen if anyone says you have to tell your parents. You don’t. If there’s a problem just leave and call me later.”
Shoma’s throat fills with tears. She feels desperate for Buri to stay. She wants to ask her to meet her somewhere after school so they could go together.
“Don’t cry,” Buri says. “It’ll be all right.”
“It’ll be over soon.”
“I knew you could help,” Shoma says.
Buri presses her lips tightly together in a kind of smile. “I could have helped sooner,” she says. To Shoma’s surprise she remembers to pick up the skirt. “Call me after it’s over,” she says. She walks to the door, but turns around abruptly before opening it. “Do you want me to go with you? I could, you know.”
Now that Buri has offered, Shoma can’t bring herself to say yes. “Maybe I can call you tomorrow if I want you to come?”
She can’t read Buri’s expression. Buri is hesitating to say something when the doorbell rings. Then, without even saying goodbye, she swings the door open and goes running down the stairs.
Later, Shoma goes downstairs to watch The Honeymooners marathon with her father. She thinks about how different her parents are from Ralph and Alice. Her parents respect each other. They are gentle with her and hardly ever show their tempers. She goes to bed with a renewed sense of purpose. She has to take care of this herself, without putting her parents through the shame of knowing how this happened and blaming themselves. She can’t wait until the day when remembering this is like remembering a dream.
At lunchtime she goes into one of the narrow phone booths by the cafeteria. Inside there is a payphone, a shelf, and a stool. Shoma has never had a reason to use these booths before, but there is something soothing about the dim light and the waxy, scratched up wood and the smallness of the space. She could stay in there all day. When someone at the clinic answers, she tries to make herself sound older. They give her an appointment for the following morning at eight o’clock.
For the rest of the day she worries about what they will say when they see how old she is. She imagines different scenarios. In each one she refuses to leave the place until they take this thing out of her.
Shoma does not even go to the bus stop the next morning. She rushes to the MARTA station, trying to get off the sidewalks before her parents drive to work. It is a few stops and she ends up in a business park where all the buildings look the same. She thinks she has found the right building when a woman dressed like a nurse tells her to come inside.
The clinic reminds her of her dentist’s office. It has a small waiting area with a lot of burnt orange and beige, and a light pop radio station playing softly through the speakers. As soon as the clock strikes eight the place comes alive. The phone is ringing and doors are swinging open and closed. She signs in and while she fills out a stack of papers on a clipboard she watches everyone, the woman at the reception desk, the nurse who keeps appearing at the door, another girl who is waiting. This girl is chewing gum and her stomach is very swollen, causing a too tight tee shirt to ride up to her belly button. Shoma is disgusted by the look of it.
She is called in and follows the directions of the nurse. At first it’s no different from having a regular check-up at the doctor. Then a woman who introduces herself as Katie talks gently to Shoma, asking her questions about her period and her pregnancy, making her cringe with that word. She goes into the bathroom and tries to pee on a device without getting any on her hand. When she comes out, Katie says the test confirms that she is definitely pregnant.
Shoma bursts into tears. “It wasn’t my fault. Can’t we do it today before it gets any bigger?”
Katie’s voice is hushed. “It will be all right. Do you want to tell your parents?”
“No,” Shoma cries. “I have to do it today.”
“Do you want to call a friend?”
“I want it gone. I want it gone,” she says, shaking and sobbing into a fistful of tissues.
Katie leaves the room. Suddenly afraid they will send her home until she can calm down, she breathes deeply and forces herself to stop crying. A few minutes later she is led into another room to talk to an older woman who tells her about the procedure. Each form Shoma must sign is explained to her slowly. The woman asks her after each explanation if she understands, and Shoma says yes, she understands. On one of the forms Shoma writes Buri’s bhalo nam and phone number as an emergency contact. She doesn’t want to imagine what will happen if they have to use that number.
After all that, the woman tells her she will still have to wait an hour. Shoma now understands that they are testing her willpower, and she is ready to show them how determined she can be. She empties her mind, listening to the DJ’s voice on the radio, letting the litany of band names and song lyrics pass like a parade. Culture Club. Eurhythmics. Pet Shop Boys.
They call her back in an hour, as promised. Lying on the table, she asks if they will put her to sleep, or give her the laughing gas like in the dentist’s office. Katie says they will inject something to numb the area, like Novocain. She can’t see what they will put in her body and has no concept of how far in they will have to go. When it begins, her stomach clenches and her legs ache. It hurts but she thinks of the pain as almost a comfort, a triumph. Before long, in minutes really, it’s all over. She is left alone. For the first time in days she falls asleep, and when they wake her up she feels like she has been asleep for hours, but it is not even ten o’clock yet. They give her a dose of antibiotics and a card with a 24-hour emergency number on it.
Though she had planned to go back to school afterwards, with a forged tardy note ready in her purse, she now sees no reason why she can’t go home. She spends the entire day in bed, sleeping deeply. When she wakes up her pad is soaked and her cramps make her want to separate from the lower half of her body. Her mother is home from work, sitting next to her on the bed and touching her forehead.
“I have my period,” Shoma says. This is the first time she has ever said that word in front of her mother. When Shoma first got her period, her mother must have heard about it from Buri’s mother. In their new house, Shoma’s bathroom was already, without fanfare, stocked with maxi pads.
Another Georgia summer begins. Shoma sleeps with her window open, serenaded by thundershowers and the long, slow rumble of the freight train. She has made her first dress. It is a basic pattern, a sleeveless v-necked bodice and skirt. The dress isn’t perfect but she’s proud of it. She wiggles into it and examines herself in the mirror.
Her mother makes a musical entrance with her many bangles.
“Is it finished?” she asks.
“Almost,” says Shoma.
“Won’t you come? All your friends will be there. Buri. Rishan.”
“I want to finish the dress.”
Her mother sighs and swooshes over to the closet. “What a wastage of pretty frocks!”
“I wear them a lot.”
“But they are for occasions. I don’t know why God gave me a daughter who shajes for no one.”
She walks her mother to the door and watches her parents pull out of the driveway, making sure they are gone before closing the door and locking it. She puts on a pair of her mother’s pumps and walks around the house, relishing the sound of her footsteps on the tile. At twilight she goes to the backyard to lie in the hammock. The air is cool and clean, the leaves rustling ever so gently. She closes her eyes. She has another story in her mind, about two lovers who meet in several lifetimes. In every age they look for each other. It begins in Ancient Egypt and never ends. When Shoma opens her eyes the night is purple. The stars are out. It feels like she could be anywhere.
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