It was only [img_assist|nid=10936|title=Contemplating Attachment by Sandi Lovitz|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=366|height=366]after I left India—after I left my mother—that I began to sew.
My mother was a popular tailor in south India. Wealthy matriarchs commissioned her when they needed a fashionable blouse for their daughters’ bride-viewings. My mother then sewed their wedding trousseau, and later, their maternity salwar kameez, a loose-flowing tunic and pant set. She also salvaged remnants and made outfits for the little children and babies. There were always more women, more weddings, more babies. She never suffered in her business.
Her sewing gave us food and shelter; her sewing gave me Bopal.
I. Never mistake the power of the thimble. Even the best seamstress will have cause for one; else she will be pricked by a very large and very unsuspecting needle.
I was nineteen when I came to the United States for school. When the taxi driver asked me where I wanted to go, I told him I needed a sewing machine. He drove me to Joann’s. With traveler’s checks I bought my first sewing machine: a Singer 10 stitch. It was clean and a very bright white. Later when I got to the dorm for international students, I unpacked it onto a tiny folding card table in the corner of the room. My roommate who was also Indian had brought jars of various types of oil from Mumbai: jasmine, coconut, almond, and had set up along the other card table. She listened to me loudly sew shapes: sequined circles, zig-zaggy squares, polka-dotted rectangles while she layered her hair with oil.
“What are you going to do with those shapes?” she asked.
“Practicing,” I said. “What are you doing with that oil?”
“My mom has thick hair,” she said.
My mother called every week. She asked more questions about my machine than me. She demanded I call her right away when I had picked out a pattern, decided what I was going to make, and figured out when I would complete it.
In between classes I drove around the city looking for places that reminded me of home. The deadened shrub in front of the local library looked like the tuft of my father’s hair that my mother kept in a button box after he died. The convenience store window with the illegible scrawl reminded me of how quickly my mother could sew. The hospital with the steady stream of traffic felt like our house before a wedding: the half-naked women crowded in our tiny living room, comparing cup sizes and waiting to be measured.
One day I saw an Indian family go into the hospital. They were unsure of what they were doing there, so I parked and followed them inside. They made it to the ER waiting room, speaking to each other in a language I didn’t know, but I listened carefully anyway. After the daughter’s name was called, everyone left, but I stayed. Several hours later an older white woman came by and asked if I was there to help. I told her yes; she gave me a schedule, and I started volunteering.
My job was to help discharged patients leave the hospital. I started with minor cases: anxiety attacks, falls with no broken bones, overnight monitoring. After a month they moved me to the major cases: stents, radiation, physical rehabilitation. I didn’t cry at first. But after I escorted Rosie, a giggling patient who’d suffered a stroke, into a van, I hid in the storage closet and bawled. I couldn’t get her face out of my head: one side hung as though someone held an invisible string and was pulling it askew, testing how far it would go. I thought about my sewing machine.
My eyes adjusted to the dark and I saw that I was not alone. A man was also crying, softly, his hands over his face. His nails were chewed down, his knuckles like gaping bandages.
“Why are you crying?” I asked.
“Why are you crying?”
I thought about my favorite stitch on the Singer, the one that looked like the arc of a bat flying home after a long night of hunting. “I can’t fly away,” I said.
He stopped and took his hands away from his face. He looked me straight on with bloodshot eyes. His chin was round, and I wanted to push on it, shape it into something else.
“What if people are better off dying?” he asked. His eyelashes dropped with wetness. I wanted to carry them in my skirt the way women carried mangoes in India, trying to sell them but not really trying to sell them because then there wouldn’t be any left to eat.
We remained silent until someone called for me over the intercom. Another patient was going home.
On his way off shift he was sitting outside of the hospital smoking a cigarette, his shirt half-done so that I could see the curly black hair like mattress springs on his chest and the gold cross he wore around his neck.
“Hey,” he called to me. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Bopal, a third year. You want to get some dinner?”
We went to a sushi bar, and by the time the rolls and sticks came, the back of my neck was soaked. He watched me stare at the food. He shoved the chopsticks aside and nudged a piece toward me.
“You have carpenter hands,” he said, but I didn’t understand. I picked up the roll with my fingers and swallowed. He laughed. Later in his shiny efficient car we kissed three times: one for chemistry, two for compatibility, and three for longevity.
“We will be together for a long time,” he said after the third kiss. He was my first kiss, my first in bed, my first everything.
That night I got on the computer, and after hours of searching I purchased my very first pattern. It was an old style of silk robes, long flowing, drape-y things with sashes cinching in the waist and sleeves like wings. They reminded me of fish that were not of this world.
I called my mother and told her. I also told her about Bopal. She begged me to get a thimble.
[img_assist|nid=10937|title=Isn't it Grand by Suzanne Comer|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=246|height=306]Though conflicted, Bopal continued with medical school and decided upon pediatrics as his specialty because someday he wanted children with me. He decided when it was time for us to be serious, when it was time to move in together. He told me I wasn’t capable of making those choices. “You are always changing your mind, Ruk. Stick to one point,” Bopal said when we were in a fabric store, and I was cycling silk in and out of our cart, but it was easy to go between, to not fixate on one stance. He called me peripatetic, his vocabulary extensive and free-flowing, and sometimes morigerous, but he didn’t mean it as an insult.
Bopal was blunt and forward and said I had gone too long without someone heady in my life. I thought it strange at first, but he liked to use my towel right after I showered, when it was wet and he said he could feel the places where my body had touched it. But later after I thought about it some I would wait for him to use my towel, and then I would use it again, feeling the places where his body had touched mine. On the nights he worked and didn’t come home, I slept with his towel, holding it underneath my t-shirt so that it would not dry. It smelled like the ocean.
He praised my ability with numbers, so the next day I changed my major from cultural studies to accounting. Sex made him so happy that I’d get on the internet and watch porn to learn. And I didn’t tell my mother but I converted to Christianity because of his gold cross. When I touched it, it felt like Bopal, warm and hard at the same time.
To balance his rough demeanor, he bore a sensitivity that was light, but also deep. He cried during sad movies. He visited his elderly parents and cleaned their bathroom. He watched his friends’ kids when they needed a night out.
In my head I called Bopal narisimha: half-lion, half-man, an avatar of Vishnu. My mother kept a tapestry of narisimha in the bedroom we’d shared; “the Great Protector,” he kept us safe from the things that my mother and I never talked about.
One night coming home very late from a surgical rotation Bopal had been doing at the hospital, a bonus shift he had taken from another resident so that he could celebrate an anniversary, Bopal had fallen asleep. His car had veered into oncoming traffic and killed two children on their way home from their grandmother’s house. Bopal was alive on the way to the hospital, but he died of a heart attack before the paramedics could even lift his body out of the van.
After I notified his parents about what had happened, I threw out the Singer, which had been giving me bobbin wind-up problems anyway, and purchased a Brother 25 stitch, which came with different feet. Some of the stitches looked like sutures. I finished the silk robe I had started and slept in it with a wet towel next to my waist.
II. Some fabrics require a high tension setting; other fabrics do not and will pucker along the seams if the setting is not adjusted properly. Ensure that the thread can withstand the tension desired; too much tension may cause cheaply-made threads to break.
My mother called me every day. Sometimes I answered; sometimes I pretended that I did, and we would have real conversations that had nothing to do with sewing. She sent me scraps of fabric in the mail: squares of bubbly denim, see-through chiffon, and rough polyester. When she sent me a plane ticket, I called and told her to stop. After that she airmailed a pattern that she had penciled. The parchment paper was dotted with charcoal marks. I could still picture her favorite pencil sitting behind her ear as though a watchful apprentice.
Her instructions indicated fleece. I purchased more than I needed, skipped class for two days to finish. It was a combination blanket and hood, but it didn’t have any arm holes. At first I thought I had sewed it wrong, but the instructions were clear. When I tried it on, my arms were kept snug against my body, but I couldn’t move them. My head was secure, my torso warm.
I stayed in this blanket for days until the one morning I woke up and did not turn away from the sun.
I finished school and took an accounting job at a large commercial bank. Every morning I got to work early and stood on the sidewalk and watched the flurry of people circle through the revolving glass doors, their bodies pressed against the transparent elevator that crept up the side of the building.
“I see you here every day,” a man said. His cologne was loud. “What are you looking at?”
“Life,” I said. When he didn’t move from my side I turned to look at him. He was a large man, tall and hefty, with stunning blue eyes and an ethnicity I could not determine. My eyes moved back to the people coming down the elevator, and it looked like they were falling. I held my hands up in the air, and he laughed.
His name was Chris, and he’d bring me bagels and muffins and donuts and we’d eat breakfast while watching the working people go to their offices. On our first official date he took me to an Ethiopian restaurant. He tore the pieces of flat bread and dipped them in stew for me. We kissed afterward, in his house. I lost track of the number of kisses. I lost track of a lot of things when I was with him.
When I told my mother about Chris, she asked me what I was sewing. She seemed upset when I told her that I wasn’t working on anything. She wanted to know the settings on my machine and chastised me because I had put the tension on five without ever starting at three. “You will break,” she said. “You will break.”
During a run for fast food, as my car’s engine sat idling, Chris put his head in my lap and proposed. No ring, but he’d borrowed a crown at the window and placed it on my head. “My kingdom, my lady,” he said.
Chris and I married within six months. The wedding was filled with people from his family: those from his father’s American side, and those from his mother’s European side.
My mother could not leave her business to come. It was wedding season for her too. “When will you come visit me?” she asked. “I want to hold you.”
“Soon.” I wanted to bring her a child to sew for.
At the reception Chris drank too much and whispered in my ear, “It’s like you live to love me.” He felt up my gown and pressed me against the head table. I thought I saw my mother in the corner of the hall, holding up my old sewing machine. I left the reception to call her again, but she did not answer.
A few days later I received a letter from my aunt that my mother had died sometime on my wedding day, around the time Chris was sticking his tongue in my mouth.
My mother passed from a diabetes-related infection that had begun in her pedal foot. The doctors had cut away and found a large, brackish growth that smelled like a drowned rat. There was nothing they could do because she wouldn’t let them. Contumacious, Bopal would have said had he still been here.
As some sort of consolation, the family sent me a box with all of her old patterns, many of them ones she had drawn up herself. I closed my eyes and reached in. I pulled out a mock-up for a little girl’s party dress. It was new, articulated in her favorite charcoal pencil. I began sewing.
III. Pay attention to the needle thickness. Thicker fabrics like denim, fleece, and suede require thicker needles, but more delicate fabrics like silk, velvet, and chiffon require thinner needles else the stitching will damage the fabric.
“Let’s have a baby,” Chris announced one night five months after our wedding. “You’re not done with that thing yet?” He poked at the dress. I had gone back and forth on different choices for the material and had finally settled on a flattened black denim. The piping would be white. Every time I finished stitching two pieces together, I used the seam ripper and started over again. The edges were becoming ragged. It was taking too long.
“Rukmani?” My neck hurt from bending over the torn seams. He took the ripper from me and looked at it. “It looks like teeth.”
I didn’t ask for it back but held my palm up, hoping he would just drop it in.
“I think the pharmacy is still open; let’s pick up some ovulation kits.” I was not ovulating. Bopal used to schedule the cleaning of the bathroom by my period.
Through the onion-skin walls I could hear the car starting, the engine idling, Chris waiting. My palm was still up when I stood from the chair. I used the inside to soothe my face, which was wet and smelled like Bopal’s ocean.
In the drug store, his arm around my waist, Chris whistled while he selected the kits. I watched him finger them as if they were legs. He paid the cashier who didn’t have a big enough bag for all of our stuff and stuffed them inside the pockets of his cargo pants.
At home I took the test. Chris cursed and said it was defective and insisted I use another stick and another until we’d gone through the entire box. Until we’d gone through all of them. So we went back to the drugstore, his arm still around my waist, still whistling.
One night Bopal and I had gone to see a movie about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Throughout the entire film Bopal was stiff, straining against the armrest as though it were paining him. His hand was on my forearm; it grew numb. After the movie ended, as we walked under the bright lights of the marquee, I tried to jiggle my arm back to life. When I looked at it, I saw a purplish thumbprint marking the skin.
When I showed it to him he said, “Ruk, your arm … vitiated by my lack of emotional control,” and I thought he was quoting from a book or something he had read or even something I had missed from the film. But they were his words: elegant, formal, but still reeling of feeling. I told him it was all right, but he didn’t listen and took me dancing at my most favorite club even though he had been scheduled for a five AM shift at the hospital the next morning.
After twelve boxes of ovulation predictor kits and almost one hundred tests later, my stomach heavy from water, Chris went to bed with his shoes still on. I stripped, and though I had taken a bath earlier in the day, I felt I needed another one. When I looked in the mirror I saw finger marks the color of blackened coffee along my waist. “Vitiated,” I whispered.
IV. It is best to sew during lunch time when the sun is highest in the sky and the light is most ample. Using your machine at night or too early in the morning can render you blind.
Once I got pregnant, Chris asked me to quit my job. They threw a party for me at work, but Chris said he was too busy to come even though his office was only one floor up from mine. Afterward, I sorted through the cards and everyone had written the same thing. We will miss you, which made me think that they didn’t know me at all. I packed up my small box of stuff, tucking away the one photo I had of Chris on my desk. It was a picture of him before he’d met me, a picture of a time when Bopal was still alive. In it he is leaning on the hood of a car, cupping a pair of keys.
During the day I slept; at night I sewed. The dark scared me—it seemed too large and our house too empty—and Chris would not let me leave the light on, so I moved my sewing machine to the guest room and worked. The dress was not finished, but it would be soon.
“You ever get scared, Ruk?” Bopal had asked one night when he had insisted on leaving the light on in the bathroom.
“Of dying,” I said.
“I mean things like the dark, tenebrosity.”
“Dying is like being in the dark.”
“Nah,” he’d said. “Dying is like being in the light.”
I finished the dress the morning after Sarah was born. She was too small for it, but her eyes bugged when I showed her the contrast between the piping and the skirt.
Within a few weeks of her birth Chris began complaining. He wanted more time for us to talk. He wanted me to try to look decent sometimes instead of the usual salwar over sweatpants that was just easier. He wanted more sex.
“I feel like we are slipping,” he said.
I went to the hairdresser and got my hair cut short—got rid of all the thick, black dregs that hung around my face—and when it was styled, the hairdresser clucked, and the old ladies who were watching Sarah sleeping in her car seat turned to stare at me. At home I put on a dress from my time with Bopal, a tight black jersey that clung to what he called “my planets.” “You are spectral,” he’d said with his eyes closed, his face pressed next to mine.
The dress didn’t cling as tightly as before, but it still looked decent. While nursing I put on lipstick and blush and tried really hard not to kiss Sarah.
I nursed her three times before Chris came home flushed with heat and triangles of sweat on his chest.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “She still up?” he pointed to Sarah whom I had brought into bed with me. Her tiny hand grabbed a hold of the jersey material, and she snuggled against it.
When he finally came to bed he gently removed Sarah from the bed and roughly removed the dress from my body. He placed his elbows on my breasts while he went inside of me, his bones poking at my nipples. I tried to turn, but he forced me upright, and when he was done, he went into the den to watch TV. I sat on the toilet; the urine burned across my stitches. I cried silently.
In bed I thought about Bopal after the accident. His smashed forehead, the bulge at the back of his head where his brain had swelled up, his teeth shattered. I wanted to turn my brain off, but I couldn’t.
V. Winding the bobbin takes practice. Ensure that both sides of your bobbin are filled evenly for solid, smooth, and secure stitches.
Chris had taken Sarah out for his morning run, and I stood near the sewing machine, running my finger down the side and coming back with a line of dust.
I pulled out my mother’s box of patterns and dug through, not sure what I wanted to make, but needing to make something. My hand came across an envelope at the bottom—something I had missed when I had first gone through it. My name was written across the top in my mother’s cursive writing. Ruk. Inside was a pattern for a maternity dress. It wasn’t finished yet; only half of the pieces were sketched. There were no instructions. She had started with the bust, which was smocked, and the sleeve ran straight down to the bicep.
I put the pattern back into the envelope and sealed it tight. I left it in the box.
I began sewing something free-form. I had a small amount of emerald organza from the underside of Sarah’s dress, so I traced and cut a bust and small skirt piece and sewed them together. After I was finished, I blushed. It was a see-through tankini, but I never swam.
“People really are just lenocinant animals, Ruk,” Bopal had said one night when at a
restaurant, I’d come upon two people having sex in the ladies bathroom. The extent of Bopal’s savagery in bed had been me on top with all of my clothes on.
I posted a photo of the tankini on eBay and within minutes someone had bid on the outfit. I took out the rest of the organza and made two more outfits, adding white ruffling at the edges, which I then sold for a little bit more.
I went to the fabric store and came back with bolts of material. I sewed for the next month. I did not tell Chris about the money.
VI. Every machine is different; read the owner’s manual before attempting to thread your machine. Older models tend to be more difficult to thread, but have a longer shelf life; newer machines are easier, but require more maintenance.
Chris worked as a loan officer at a large commercial bank. Over time he moved up in rank. His job was lucrative with raises every year and bonuses or promotions twice a year. We were moving to a larger house again—this was our fourth in less than two years. I had learned not to accumulate much, only what was absolutely necessary.
We were in the middle of packing, and Chris asked me to get rid of the sewing machine. He said it was getting old. “You don’t sew anyway,” he said when I took a protective step toward it.
I went for a walk with Sarah and when I came back I found it in the trash. The white arm was hanging over the side as though it were desperately trying to climb over the edge and spare its life. I laughed and touched the spool.
“What’s so funny?” Chris called from the other room. He was packing our bedroom.
“Trash.” He didn’t say anything. I moved the trashcan into the den but didn’t take the machine out.
While I was emptying the storage closet, I came across a box of old photos. In it were pictures of me and Bopal early on, when he would take digital shots of me and make prints. Before giving them to me he’d write obscure words on the back like a game, quizzing me to see if I could make the connection between the word and the photo.
Jongleur. A picture of me during karaoke, blazing drunk, mouth open wider than the microphone. I was probably trying to rap, which Bopal had dared me to do.
Sui generis. I was unaware that he’d taken a photo of me. I was standing with my back to him, my hair flying this way and that, giving a homeless person a dollar bill. We’d gone to the symphony that day, and our tickets had cost a fortune.
Mephitic. I was asleep with Bopal’s hand over my mouth. He always said I had the worst morning breath, made me sleep with fennel seeds in my mouth, though that didn’t help.
“Are you still in love with him?” Chris was behind me. He knew a little about Bopal and how he had died, but that was all.
“Why do you still have them? Why not throw them away?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can’t compete.”
“You are not.”
“Okay then throw the pictures away. Right now. Give them to me, and I’ll do it.”
Behind me through the window, the sun was going down, and when Chris stretched his hand toward the box of photos, his limb made a shadow against the wall. It looked like a hook I’d found in an alley in India once. It was rusty and red, and lay buried underneath the dirt. I had tripped over it on bare feet while running, and my mother had to use her sewing needles to stitch up the skin because she did not want to pay for a doctor. The wound had healed, but I still had a scar there that looked a little like the hook that had caused it.
“I can’t,” I said.
“What did you say?”
He moved toward me so quickly that I didn’t have time to defend myself. He slapped me hard on the face and then walked away, slamming the front door, the noise waking our daughter from her nap. I went to the mirror and saw that my dark skin had simply absorbed the shock of the slap.
“Men who hit their wives are execrable.” Bopal’s words when he’d told me about the abuse his mother had suffered at the hands of her first husband. Bopal had been the product of her second wedding: a love marriage to a half-Indian, half-white man. “If she would tell me his name, I’d find him and
He had never finished these thoughts, but in my head I filled in the blanks for him. Shoot him. Cut off his balls. Sew his penis shut.
I took my sewing machine out of the trash and packed it in a suitcase of its own.
The larger house had more rooms. I claimed my own near Sarah’s and stayed there with my sewing machine. Chris left me alone.
When women began calling the house asking for Chris, I made my business official. I called it Racy Ruk’s (Tasteful Lingerie) and hired a webmaster to design a site. I applied for a license and paid a marketing consultant to promote the business. Because I filed our taxes, Chris didn’t know how much money I was saving. Sometimes I even sewed after I tucked Sarah into bed. The walls were thick, and she couldn’t hear me.
“When will you stop?” I’d asked my mother once. She was sewing into the night, making last-minute adjustments for a wedding in two days. I was seven and sleepy, and the machine made a noise like it was unzipping something, which kept me awake. It was time to get a new machine, and she was simultaneously cursing it and goading it on so that it wouldn’t break in the middle of her projects.
“Amma?” I came over to her side, and her eyes were scrunched like they hurt. “When will you stop?” I asked again.
“Until,” she said.
“Until I feel safe.” When she un-scrunched her eyes, tears ran down her face. I tried to wipe them, but she gently pushed my hands away. “I shouldn’t sew at night,” she said. “Ruk, go to bed.”
I fell asleep, and when I woke in the morning, my mother was still sewing.
VII. The outside of a piece is important, but equally as important is the inside. The underside of a garment should always have finished seams. Finished seams look polished and neat, and they prevent unraveling or shredding, which can show through to the front.
One night Bopal had found me surfing lollipop sites like some women surf for shoes. I would add them to my cart and then close the window down to avoid the temptation of buying any. I tried to click away, but he had seen. After that Bopal used to randomly leave lollipops underneath my pillow, calling himself the “fairy popmother” (“I know, the pun isn’t exactly right,” he’d tease).
The first time he left me a lollipop that was olive green with a bit of red in the middle. “Like your mother’s sewing machine,” he said. When we first started dating, he had asked for pictures of my mother, but my mother didn’t allow anyone to take pictures of her. I had showed him a photo of the machine instead.
The second time he left an even larger lollipop shaped like mouse ears. In the middle it said, “You’re sweet.” He nibbled on my ear while I unwrapped it and took a lick.
“You can eat it all,” he said when I put it away for later. It was hard to be angry. But when they kept coming, one every day, I told him to stop.
“Please, Bopal, I don’t want any more. If I wanted them, I would buy them myself.”
“Yes, I would.”
“Ruk, you’re being neanic.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re being childish.”
“Tell me really why you want me to stop. Speak your mind.”
“Too much happiness.”
Bopal laughed. “There’s no such thing. Happiness is not like energy; it can be created. It’s limitless.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve never had an unhappy day in my life.”
“But the day I met you.”
“I wasn’t unhappy, Ruk. It was an epiphany.”
I didn’t agree with him. I also didn’t tell him what I really believed—that happiness was like water. There was only a certain amount of it to go around, and if you used too much, then there wouldn’t be any left for later, even for your own children. And that disappointment, hurt, and betrayal were all distractions to happiness, which weren’t always bad because then that meant you didn’t use too much happiness too early on.
After our discussion, Bopal stopped putting the lollipops under my pillow every day. He did randomly, sometimes once a week, sometimes more than that. But he always remembered, and though I threw them in the trash without him knowing, I had appreciated them.
After five years of Chris’s infidelity, Sarah determined our arrangement wasn’t working and that we should split.
“You don’t love each other anymore. Divorce. That’s what Jane’s parents did.” Jane was her best friend, classmates in first grade. Sarah had the keen insight that many children had, yet she had something a little extra—the emotional capability to deal with the ramifications of this insight. She could handle it.
“Dad said that he doesn’t love you anymore.” She was a transparent little girl, unable to keep secrets, and I was thankful that her life was still simple.
“He did? When?”
“I asked him if he loved you still. He said no.”
Various sewing patterns were arranged on the dining room table for Sarah. She’d asked me to make her a special dress for Jane’s birthday party on Saturday. I had selected about ten for her to choose from, and now I pulled one of a girl in a red sleeveless chiffon dress with a thin sash and a gauze top and showed it to her.
“No,” she said. “Jane’s wearing red, so she told me that I can’t.”
“I can make it in any color you want.”
“Don’t you care that Dad doesn’t love you anymore?”
The pain was dull and old, the way an achy bone feels when it’s been overused slightly. We lived like respectful roommates who didn’t know each other very well, sharing in the domestic duties and each spending as much time as we could with Sarah. When we had occasion to speak, it was most always about Sarah.
“No,” I said.
“I don’t believe you,” Sarah said.
“Pick an outfit,” I told her.
“Be right back,” she said. She ran down the hall and into my bedroom. When she came back she was holding up the dress I had made before she was born: the black with white piping. It would fit her perfectly now.
“I like this one. Do you?”
I held her on my lap and nodded. “Perfect.”
After I read her a book and she had fallen asleep, I went online and surfed for lollipops. I added a few chocolate ones for me, and ones that had frosting for Sarah. I had a total of ten lollipops in my cart when I made a move to close the window. I paused. My heart raced as I dug into my purse for my credit card. I purchased the pops. They would be here in a few days.
I sat back in the chair and closed my eyes. I could feel Bopal’s arms around me.
VIII. Sewing is always about the end product—the finished result. It teaches one to think about how minor details will affect the grand outcome, and how subtle changes in pattern shapes and sewing lines can produce varying results. Sewing requires foresight, not hindsight.
When Sarah was thirteen, Chris decided that he was going to teach her how to drive.
“She’s too young,” I said, but I didn’t do anything.
For the entire hour they were gone, I gathered all of the little scraps of fabric that had no place and began piecing them together on my sewing machine. I didn’t bother changing the thread or adjusting needle thickness; I sewed and sewed and only stopped when the needle broke while I was trying to attach two squares of denim. The needle was thin—the same type that I had used to sew Sarah’s party dress. The machine jammed, flashing an error message. I tried to unscrew the needle to replace it, but the screw would not turn. Frustrated, I threw my bag of sewer’s tools against the wall and began to cry.
I cried so hard that I almost missed hearing the telephone. It wasn’t until the answering machine picked up that I ran to the phone, breathless.
“Hello?” I screamed into the phone.
“Ouch, Mom. Why are you yelling?”
“What’s the matter? Where are you? Has something happened?”
“Chill, Mom. Dad and I are at the Dairy Queen. I wanted to know if you wanted something. Dad actually wanted to know.”
“No, I don’t want anything.”
“Are you sure, Mom? I mean, Dad’s asking.”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
Bopal once told me a story about a very particular, very orderly resident who was divorcing his wife over a fork. I didn’t believe him until he explained that what she’d done was a form of deray, disorder.
“She’d mix up the utensils, Ruk. So sometimes there’d be a lone spoon in the forks tray. Other times a lone knife in the spoons tray. It was the lone dinner fork in the salad forks tray that did it.”
Bopal said that most people were like that. We all held a world order in our mind, and if something was off in that world order, it could cause us major upset. He said we often didn’t know what would disrupt it: sometimes something as simple as a fork, other times something as monumental as a death. And sometimes something as commonplace as a husband thinking of his wife at a Dairy Queen.
By the time they got home—safely and in one piece—I had replaced the needle and was well on my way to a king-sized quilt. I hung it up to show Sarah who wrinkled her nose in disfavor.
“Love you, Mom,” she said, kissing me on both cheeks and heading to her room.
After Sarah had gone to sleep, I went into my room and shut the door. I took out a scrapbook of convincing opinion columns I’d cut from the local paper. I read them every night before bed; I admired these people’s beliefs, how they could believe in something so strongly. It was the types of letters Bopal might have written if given the chance.
When I finished the last letter—a woman upset that the city council had voted against building a park for disabled children —I closed my eyes and drifted off. In my dreams I was in the car with Bopal; sometimes I was the only one in the car.
“Wake up, you’re dreaming. Wake up.” I opened my eyes and shrieked.
“It’s me, it’s Chris.”
I rubbed my eyes and looked at him in the dark. He’d never come into my room before unless he needed to ask me something, and even then, mostly he’d stand outside in the hallway and ask across the threshold.
I turned the light on, so I could see him well where he sat near the window. It had been a long time since I had really looked at him. His blue eyes were the color of breast milk, his build fatty. His hands that had at one point seemed menacing were still menacing but now etched in wrinkles and blue veins.
“I can’t do this anymore.” He grabbed me by the wrists and kissed me. I should have pushed him away. I should have stopped it. Deray, deray, deray, deray, a voice droned, but I covered my ears. I gave in to what he wanted, in the way I had done before.
The next morning, he hardly said a word other than to ask me to pick up Sarah after basketball because he was going to have a late night. His eyes avoided mine.
For the next six months I sewed nonstop. Within weeks I had sewn an entire new wardrobe for Sarah, which made her popular at school. I dug out the pattern for the maternity dress my mother had started and sewed it, even though I knew that I would have no use for it again. And when I felt a pain so deep that it was like something was plunging my heart of its blood, I talked to my machine, asking it questions that I would have asked Bopal.
How many stars are in the sky? Why do newborns need to be held? What is the purpose of a convict? That there were so many ambiguous questions like these—limitless unlike happiness—provided me comfort. And then as quickly as this brume set in, it vanished.
Chris tried to come into my room one other time, but I kept the door locked. Though he knocked, I held onto my scrapbook, lying naked underneath the spread of the maternity dress, and did not answer.
IX. A weak[img_assist|nid=10938|title=The Judgment of Mr. Carson by Rachel Dougherty|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=383|height=383] machine is better than a weak operator.
“We are all doctors manqué, failing to prolong the inevitable,” Bopal had said to a friend of his who’d killed a patient in surgery. I remembered thinking it cold, detached: wondering how Bopal could get away with saying things like that and have so many friends by his side. Hundreds of people had come to his funeral. But thinking about it now I found it reassuring—a comfort that in whatever we did, we would never be good enough, but that was okay as long as we were self-aware. Bopal knew this truth, and he was not afraid to live an imperfect life.
Earlier Chris had taken Sarah out for another driving lesson. I had seen Sarah drive; she was learning well. They continued to go for ice cream afterward, though Chris never asked me if I wanted any. I was close to finishing the quilt, which I worked on in between lingerie for the business. It was large—bigger than the size of my room—and so colorful. It had come to symbolize different projects that had been important in my life and was composed of scraps from that time. I remembered the trips to the fabric store: in college, after Bopal died, when I got married, after my mother passed. I remembered everything.
I was digging for more scraps in the closet when the phone rang. I smiled thinking how, though her father had stopped, Sarah never failed to call and ask me if I wanted any ice cream. The answer was always no. I answered, still smiling.
“Sarah, no ice cream for me, love, I—”
All I heard was “hospital.” I dropped the phone, couldn’t find my car keys, and ran the entire two miles uphill to the hospital.
Chris and Sarah had been driving together; he said he was driving. He wanted to take her to a little café tucked in the mountains. It was winter, and though it hadn’t snowed recently, the roads were icy and slick. Around a bend one big deer and two little deer had been standing on the metal grates along the pavement. Chris swerved, the car spun, and they hit a thick cottonwood tree head on. The passenger-side airbag went off. It broke several of Sarah’s ribs, her nose, and gave her a head injury that had her out. The doctors still couldn’t tell if she’d suffered any trauma to the brain. The driver-side airbag had also released, but Chris’s face had hit something hard. His front teeth were shattered. He held an ice pack to his lips, which were swollen, and when he talked, I couldn’t bear to look at him.
It’s Bopal. Bopal Reddy.
It’ll be all right, Miss.
“Stop talking,” I said to Chris, but he kept going on, about how sorry he was, about how they should have stayed on the freeway, but she’d wanted to be a little adventurous, and he couldn’t say no.
“Stop talking!” I screamed.
I had never yelled at Chris or anyone before. He went quiet and sat down. He held the ice pack to his head, and I saw where the blood from his mouth had caked. He was crying.
“Father manqué, mother manqué,” I consoled myself. “Family manqué.” The vocabulary soothed.
When Sarah finally opened her eyes, the doctors said she would be fine. She had suffered no injuries to her brain. Her broken bones would heal over time, but her nose would have a lasting bend to the right.
“Nothing major, you will always be a very pretty girl,” the doctor said. Even with the bandages on her nose and her forehead bruised, she was stunning. A perfect mix of everything and nothing.
“I’ve decided,” she said, holding my hand with her right and Chris’s with her left, “that it’s time for you two to get divorced.” I laughed.
“If you want me to, I will,” I said.
“Mom, stop being so morigerous.”
She held up a book someone had left on the end table. A dictionary. I felt a little flutter inside the way a catheter feels after it has just been inserted.
It was Sarah who finally decided for both of us that it was time. After her release from the hospital, we filed for divorce. Chris moved out of the house and with the money I had saved, I paid off the mortgage in full, and Chris signed the deed over to me. I had more time for my business, and I worked to replenish the money I had used to pay off the house.
X. An expert seamstress understands that there are always lessons to learn, new projects to tackle. If willing, the job is infinite.
I finally finished the patchwork quilt; it was over twenty feet long. It had to be folded and weighed too much to carry. At night I wrapped myself in it several times and felt my mother near me. It was as though her fingerprints were everywhere. If I fell asleep in the quilt, I didn’t have the terrible nightmares. Instead my dreams were filled with light and music. Sometimes Bopal was there, loving me so hard it hurt—like someone was cutting open my body and then placing a warming salve under all of my joints, squeezing until that warmth radiated throughout.
When my daughter fell in love for the first time, she called me from her dorm room at college and asked what it felt like.
“Like a blood massage,” I told her. She laughed.
“That sounds about right, Mom,” she giggled and told me that he was an aerospace engineer, a soft-spoken man from Kansas who packed her lunch and left little notes inside and sometimes index cards with one or two nonsensical words like jiggledy-jamz or potter-putter or whamdom. “He likes to make up words.”
“Love him, Sarah. Love him more than you think you are capable of.”
“I want you to meet him.”
“I want to meet him too,” I said.
After we hung up, I thought about Bopal. The only remnants I had of him now were photos, memories, and a dictionary filled with rare words—words that he’d used in his regular, colloquial life. Inside was a random note he had posted on the refrigerator after a rough night at the hospital. He had come home silent.
There will always be the inevitable. And there will always be words.
I was lucky to have loved him so much. I was lucky that he had loved me as much as he did.
After talking with my daughter, I sat on the porch looking at the moon. I wanted to give away my sewing machine. It was time. The business had grown enough that I was ready to hand it over to someone else; I had no need for money any longer.
My eyes tried to find shapes in the moon’s textured surface, but there was nothing. Just a buttery-colored circle emanating the light that I imagined my daughter was feeling in another person’s arms. I covered myself in the quilt until I couldn’t move any longer. I felt safe.
Annam Manthiram is the author of the novel, After the Tsunami (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2011), which was a Finalist in the 2010 SFA Fiction Contest and in the 2012 New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, and a short story collection (Dysfunction: Stories, Aqueous Books, 2012), which was a Finalist in the 2010 Elixir Press Fiction Contest and in Leapfrog Press’ 2010 Fiction Contest.