To a Starving Body

Most of all, I remember the laughter.

I remember your eyes, ma. Misty, with that odd brightness. Lit up. Manic. Your fingers dig into my shoulders, piercing, flesh oozes in your hands. Your hands float over my collarbones, almost a caress, you sway. We are dancing then. Round and round, a dizziness in our fingers, a fever in our throats, in the laughter, so light and free. A laughter that is not a sound at all but a solid thing, like the loneliest feather. Mist in your eyes, your eyes fixed to my face, but I know you do not see me, that I am just an anchor you have clutched onto while your mind dances on.

Most of all, I remember the laughter. I remember catching your laughter and swallowing it, rough and prickly as a cat’s tongue. I remember laughing.

Your fingers drift down my collarbone, hover above my breasts. He touched you here? Yes, I breathe, my eyes bright, mist, laughter, nodding, I dance, wide. Here? Or here? you ask, hands on my breast and then my back, my shoulders. Here, or here? You’re sure? You’re sure it was here? I’m sure. I’m smiling, but brightness fades, the song fades—but we’re still stuck in your dance; you sway.

You sway and you dance yourself out of the room. Leave. I stay. I am in your bedroom. I think of how this is the first time in over a decade I’ve said something to you that wasn’t where is the milk? or there’s someone at the door. I think that maybe I should scrub my skin ragged because that’s what everyone seems to do. I think of how this is the first time you’ve hugged me and the first time I’ve let you touch me. I think of nothing. Dance with my hands. Dance my body into the bed. Curl into the parts of myself that I pretend still belong to me.

*     *     *

     The word game is used to denote two things:

  1. an activity one engages in for fun or amusement.
  2. wild mammals hunted for sport.

*     *     *

I was ten when a guru, a music teacher older than my grandfather, stole a hand over my breasts. I refused to tell you at first.

I’d left the third time it happened, three months after the first. Like clockwork. Left—not dramatic, not with a slam of a door or a slap to his face. Left—like a fugitive, in quiet hurried steps, head down as his wife called, did I want anything to eat before I go? Left—the laughter poisoning me already, smiling wide, no, thank you.

“It’s true that in the mother tongue you struggled to teach me, there is no phrase for the words I love you. What couldn’t be shown through voice would be hummed through the hands.”

You were upset. I was ashamed. To forget was a power by itself, so that’s what I thought I’d do. In the end, I told anyway. You were upset. I didn’t know it then, but you were, and then Appa stopped singing and you stopped letting me shake hands with strangers.

In the beginning, there was confusion. Dreams. Of men in elevators pushing me up metal walls, and I don’t know if the word in my mouth is a yes or a no; everything is the same and nothing matters and I wake sobbing.

Beyond the laughter, beyond the dreams, I remember a word. I remember a later, where we pretended there was no dance, no laughter drifting like a feather on my collarbone, no mist in your eyes.

I remember you saying: you’re okay, yes? Not: how are you? Or even: are you alright?

You’re okay, yes? The sort of question that leaves no room for any answer other than the one you need to hear and the one also, I suppose, that I needed to say.

Yes, I said. I’m okay. Which meant I will be okay if I say this often enough. Which meant I had a lot of lying to do.

You sat, heavily, which meant I had to sit down too because this meant we had to talk. Your eyes fixed themselves onto my face again while your mind half-danced. It happened to me too, you said. I nodded. On the bus, at the festivals, in the bathrooms. It happens to everyone, you said. I nodded. It’s not that strange, you said. I nodded. And if it happens once, it will happen again. And again. And again. And again. Your eyes fixed on my face and your mind is not dancing anymore. I nod.

In this memory, my sister is sitting with us now. Men are so strange, she says. I nod.

 I mean, it doesn’t make any sense. They’re just balls of fat.

The men? I ask.

She laughs. Barks it out. The breasts, she says. You know what they need?

The breasts? I ask.

She is confused now. The men, she says, slow. Stress balls. They need stress balls. The squeezy yellow ones with the smiley faces on them.

Stress balls, I say. Weighing the word on my tongue as if it has no meaning at all. As if it’s a prayer.

Stress balls, she says. She smiles. Then she doesn’t. Flickers. I smile.

*     *     *

I am remembering the time you were washing the dishes in the kitchen and I hovered in the doorway like something unwanted and you said, you should leave. Then you looked up and my face was an anchor again and the mist was in your eyes as you danced. You should leave us, you said. I’m no good for you.

And I said, I would never do that, or maybe I’m here, or maybe nothing.

*     *      *

When the dust settled and placing a flute to my lips brought only the echo of touch, and not the physical nausea of his breath on my neck as he murmurs sit straighter; the sticky warmth leaving me cold; the scent of old people, of mucus and faded cloth; his hand circling over my ribs and then trickling up—then, you started to look for new gurus.

We found a woman this time, almost as highly acclaimed as the previous one, and twice as expensive.

We left on a Friday morning. I dressed in a churidar. I never blamed myself for what happened; I know it wasn’t my fault—I’ve heard it enough. But I also know that it was when I came to class cloaked in a saree that his eyes first lit up. Did he assume I was old enough? Is that what he told himself? If I hadn’t worn that saree, that day, that man, this girl, would things have been different? I’d wanted to ask you this, but I suppose it never occurred to me that I could. To actually say the words, it was unthinkable.

Appa and I left for her house at five in the morning, while the early light was weak and still. By the time we arrived, it was noon, and the sun beat down on my exposed skin in fire blades.

The house was small, cramped further with gold statues, coins, medals—kissed by dust and spiderwebs. Her husband was a gold seller. I thought of how the living room looked like the warehouse of excessively fortunate thieves. I despised her already, with a cruelty I’d never known in myself.

I blinked. The woman was huge, taking up the entire doorway when she greeted us. Dressed in a nightie with her hair crawling over her shoulders, kajal crawling in streaks down her face.

Appa and the lady talked. He told her why we left the previous guru. Their voices sank low, as if they could unmake a memory in silence. This was when I knew, for sure, that my father was even aware of what happened. Lower voices. Somber tones only.

When we were going back home, I asked him what she said. He told me she already knew. That the man did it to all the girls. That they all come to her afterwards.

*     *     *

I am remembering the dancing again. I am remembering the first time you held me as if I was something worth holding. The last time you held me as if I was something worth holding.

In this version, there is no mist in your eyes and no laughter in your throat. You press me to your chest and say nothing. You smooth a hand over my back and use your body to take in my trembling when I start to cry. In this version, the trembling begins inside me, in that point between the shoulder blades and the chest, then blooms outwards, to my breasts; to my limbs; my hands; my feet; so useless, I fall into you like a thawing, I thaw. You hold me. Press your lips to my hair, whisper: it’s alright, sweet, you’ll be alright, even though you don’t know that; even though you can’t know that; even though you can’t be sure. In this version, you hope.

I never cried, ma. Isn’t that strange? I never cried.

*     *     *

It’s true that in the mother tongue you struggled to teach me. There is no phrase for the words I love you. What couldn’t be shown through voice would be hummed through the hands. In the dance of the eyes and the curve of the lips. What couldn’t be shown through voice should have been sung in the body.

Sometimes, I wonder whether I ever truly knew you, beyond the mist in your eyes and the laughter in your throat and the dance in your mind. Sometimes, I wonder whether we ever loved each other the way a mother would love and be loved by a child.

Sometimes, I understand why we don’t speak out this emotion that is so complex, so futile, and so unforgiving in its willingness to forgive.

Even though to forgive is so much of a new ache, as food feels so much like a new hunger to the starving body.

Shreya Vikram is a writer, blogger, and poet based in India. Her work is forthcoming in Crack the Spine’s The Year Anthology. Find out more at https://shreyavikram.com.