At the door, I always tell Father I’ll come back. There must be a word for goodbye in my language, but I have never heard it. What we say instead: I’ll leave and return. Or—if we’re in a rush, or we don’t know how long our detour will take—just, I’m coming. There is a smear of sandalwood on the wooden door from last year’s festivals—I can’t remember which one. The floor is coated with dust and scattered rice flour from the kolams. The lights are flickering, and there are other rules: we cannot ask the person where they are going or what they intend to do. This, presumably, is bad luck. So our fathers stand there at the doorstep, watching the elevator doors snap shut, waiting for their daughters to return to them.
A boy in the elevator says to me, How did your tenth finals go? I get the sense that I should know him—perhaps he is from my previous school or a friend of a friend of a friend? I cannot remember his name, though I may have seen him before, in this same elevator. But maybe that is another boy—they all look the same. The boys in the elevators are generic creatures. They have black hair and near-black eyes, clear skin, and unremarkable eyelashes. They say to me, I heard you were Valedictorian, congratulations you genius you and Are you still playing the flute? I have not played the flute since my flute teacher’s hands were on my breasts. A part of me was glad it happened, glad I had a reason to step away, to stop being the Flute Girl—just like how I was glad when my hair started falling and browning, and I was no longer the Girl with Long Black Hair—what petty descriptions, how easier to be this forgettable, nameless thing. They talk for seconds, and then the elevator bell chimes. I think to myself, I should ask for their name. I should say, I’m so sorry but what’s your name again? I have terrible memory, really—but they are gone already.
Downstairs someone is chopping the grass. The air is crumbly. The man on the lawn is thin and browned, darkening underneath the sun. It is one of those summers where aunts and great-aunts will put their hands to our flushed cheeks and say, Look how she’s darkened—such a hot, hot summer—it’s a hot, hot summer, and our skin colors itself. It’s the kind of summer I might have spent lying in my room, placing lemon slices on my skin to erase the tan. I might have felt chocolate ice cream drip onto my wrist, slide down the sharpness of the bone there, and then the sudden, stone-sharp guilt at the cool sweetness in my throat.
The light beside the swimming pool flickers once in two heartbeats. One moment there, the next gone, gone—and this altercation leaves a stain on the floor beneath that stays. The stain is not something you can see, though you may think you see it—just as you may think you see an illusion, a mirage. You cannot see what is not there—this, we must agree on. And yet the stain is there, isn’t it? There, two steps to your right: light leaves light behind—glob the size of a sky’s fist, returning shadows.
Shreya Vikram is a writer based in India. A Dorothy West Scholar, she has been recognised by the Adroit Prizes for Prose and the Young Poets Network. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ruminate, Hobart, Mid-American Review, Rumpus and elsewhere. She is a Submissions Editor at Smokelong Quarterly. You can find more of her writing at shreyavikram.com.