His mother and aunt were clearing the table, now empty except for him as he sat, still slowly draining a glass of water. One woman gathered the plates while the other poured the serving bowls into tupperware, snapped on plastic lids. He didn’t know what to do. He wanted to help, but there wasn’t space by the sink for a third body. The women squeezed streams of opalescent soap onto ceramic, spraying everything down with a cautious eye for the water bill.
“Where did Navin go?” his mom asked, scrubbing at a stubborn turmeric stain with the tough end of a sponge.
“He took the kids downstairs to watch TV,” his aunt said, putting down the plate she had wiped dry. “Ekta –” she gestured for another dish and his mother handed one over.
He watched how his mother pressed her lips thin together, the building frustration with which his mashi scrubbed porcelain dry.
“Would it kill him to help you sometimes?” his mom finally asked. “I’ve never even seen him do the dishes or wipe the table or even say thank you, the food was great.”
“He never has. It isn’t new, didi. Pehli sai bhi, before you two moved in –” she flicked her gaze up at him, still sitting at the table. It was the first either of them had acknowledged him. “Navin doesn’t help unless I nag,” she continued, and he finished his water in a long, pained swallow that spilled over his mouth, splashing onto his shirt.
“Nice,” his mom commented, raising her eyebrows. He muscled his way from grimace to smile, mocked a bow. She turned back to the dishes. He felt itchy, guilty, grabbed some wipes from the plastic Lysol container and began wiping down the table.
“Oh, thanks, shona, you don’t have to do that.” His aunt turned to her sister. “Ekta, you have such a good daughter.”
He winced before he could school his face into the sheepish thanks expected. His mother glanced up at him. “Oh, she’s alright,” she said with both sarcasm and love.
“You know, Navin always gets to be the good guy. I have to be the bad guy, mean mommy, always a nag. You know, I work the same hours he does? But I don’t get to come home and rest. I get to listen to his stupid jokes that he thinks are endearing –”
He moved, breaking his anxious stillness to throw the wipes away and go quickly to the next room, grabbing his book and sitting back down at the table. Pretending to read. His back ached from his binder. Tears threatened to spill from the thick guard of his eyelashes, infuriating.
“I know that. You think I don’t know that? Madhu, all Indian men believe they should be mothered their entire lives.”
They had entirely abandoned their project of dishwashing. His mother leaned against the counter, listened to her sister.
“He never stands up for me,” his mashi continued. “His mother –” she broke off with a furious noise. “She makes all these little digs about how the house looked. Do you remember – you were there – yaad hain, she said that thing about how tired I must be for the house to look so messy?”
“I remember,” his mother said, and he remembered as well, tried not to wince again. “You stand up for the people you love, even to your own family. You’d stand up for him, if Mummy and Papa said something like that to him, sawal hi nahin aata hai ki you wouldn’t.”
“No one would ever say that to him. It’s always my job to keep the place clean.”
“It’s such bullshit.”
“And he doesn’t even care!”
“Oh, I know. I remember his old apartment. You couldn’t walk to the bathroom without tripping, and he didn’t care. You can’t live like that. This one –” she gestured to him, “is a fucking slob. So was her father. Well, he probably still is, I don’t give a fuck –”
“He is,” he adds, looking up quickly before turning back to his book. After a moment. “And I’m not that bad.”
“Sure you’re not,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “I don’t clean your room anymore, but when you were a teenager, I’d always end up doing it before you could because it stressed me out so much.”
She turned back to her sister. “You know, Langesh’s mother used to say that kind of thing constantly? I could never do anything right. When he came home, it was all, oh, poor boy, must be tired. No one felt sorry for me. I had to make dinner, I had to clean. I had to do everything. Never so much as a thank you.” With a wet dish, they resumed their work as she went on. “And what good was Mom? She never helped. Women don’t get support from their families. But look at bhaiyya! When Titu’s kid was born, she stayed with him for three months. When this one was born, she came for three days. With Naina, you got a Skype call. We were daughters, so we didn’t need help?”
They were burning through the dishes, grinding the ceramic nearly to bone, rage rendered physical up until the moment the dish was put down to airdry with surprising gentleness. He watched over the top of his book, which had been on the same page for several minutes. He wasn’t an Indian woman, no matter how hard he tried, or others believed him to be. But he didn’t want to be this, either. Rotten to the core, to his heart of hearts a selfish man. He felt tears well up again, traitorous.
“I have to – bathroom,” he said, moving to rinse out his glass.
“Give it to me,” his mom said, so he did.
Down the hall, hands braced on the sink, he finally let himself cry. He didn’t want to become cruel. He didn’t know how to be a good man.
Uma Dwivedi is a sophomore at Yale University. They’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Black Warrior Review, and other previous and forthcoming publications include Gay Magazine, Cleaver Mazine, and Picaroon Poetry. They are a prose editor for Persephone’s Daughters and a poetry reader for Winter Tangerine; previously, they’ve been a finalist in Write Bloody’s 2017 manuscript competition & a poetry mentee with The Adroit Journal. Dancing girl press released their first chapbook, They Named Her Goddess (we called her girl), in January of 2019. Catch them thinking about flannel or cartoon bears.
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