KIRTI by Shruti Swamy
When I pick Kirti up from the bus station, I don’t want to look at her all at once. It’s been years since I’ve seen her last and I want to take her in piece by piece. I look at her brown arms that hug her dirty yellow backpack to her chest, a pose too childish for her twenty-three years. Her elbows are so dark they’re nearly purple, from the bunching of her skin. Her right ear has a ring pierced through the top of it, like a goat’s.
“Let me take that.”
“It’s not heavy.”
I unlock the car. It’s a hot day and the seats have been baking in the sun. Kirti rolls her window down. She’s got sunglasses on that cover most of her face, so I’m allowed just her large, elegant nose and her cheeks, browner than I remember.
“It’s almost never hot here.”
“I don’t believe you. Remember last time I came?”
“You’re just picking hot days to visit. We can go to the beach.”
She’s looking out the window, her hair, loose, blowing all around her face. Prettier than me, of course, as little sisters are. The sunlight falling on her face looks like internal radiance, that old trick. Her lips are parted and I can see the white-yellow edge of her teeth.
“I don’t feel like the beach,” she says.
We get out of the car, and I notice that her gait has changed. It has become slower and more swaying, a little dreamy. She lets me hug her, but holds herself away. The house is clean—has been cleaned for her. The day before I came home from work early to dust and vacuum and put away. From the corner of my eye I watch Kirti as she looks around. She hardly seems impressed, but I didn’t really expect her to be. I take her to the guestroom where the air mattress is all set up and she puts her backpack down at last. She’s wearing an uncharacteristically loose dress that gathers on a cord at the neck and falls to her knees. Her legs are unshaven, hairy as a man’s.
“Are you pregnant?”
“Kirti.” I catch myself. “You don’t look fat. I’m not saying you’re fat.”
“What are you saying?”
“It’s the way you’re holding yourself.”
She rubs her hands in her hair. She’s taken off her sunglasses, finally, and I can see her black, bus-tired eyes. “Okay. I was going to tell you. I just didn’t want you to freak out.”
“I’m not freaking out.”
Since there is no place to sit except the air mattress, we stand awkwardly in the doorway. I have managed, at least, to keep my voice tremendously level.
“Have you told mom and dad yet?”
“Not yet. They’re going to lose it.” Then she says, “Where’s Brianne?”
“She went to pick up sandwiches for lunch. Are you hungry?”
She shakes her head.
“What do you want? We have OJ and milk, and I have some of that French lemonade mom used to get.”
“Just some water.”
I go to the kitchen and lean against the counter. It’s hot. Even with all the windows open, we’re not equipped for it, have only one mostly ineffective fan. Something I have not thought of, since we use it in our room when we sleep. We’ll have to buy another one for Kirti to sleep tonight. Take a few deep breaths. In an emergency I am often calm, and can hold myself back until it’s passed. I pour my sister a glass of buttermilk and bring it to her. She’s moved to the living room, slipped off her shoes and tucked her feet up on the couch.
“Water, I said.”
“Have it, na?”
She wraps both hands around the glass and holds it to her cheek, then her forehead. Cold, and slightly sour, sweetish too, and thick. I remember her, of course I do. She drinks it quickly and with pleasure, and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Do we have to talk about it right now?”
“No,” I say. “We don’t have to do anything. Have you seen a doctor?”
“I’m perfectly healthy.”
“Kirti, are you crazy? You have to see a doctor.”
“For fuck’s sake, I saw one. That’s what I’m telling you.”
“Well, what did he say?”
“What did she say?”
Kirti shrugs. “I’m about four months in. Everything looks fine. Need to take folic acid. No papaya, which is weird. But okay, I don’t really eat papaya.”
“Yes, four months, stop repeating everything.”
“Do you know who the father is?”
“Yes, I know.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not trying—I’m just trying to get my arms around it.”
“Listen, Anu, I promise we can talk about this. I just really, really don’t want to right now, okay? Can we please talk about something else?”
But we both can think of nothing else to say, and so we sit together in silence. Kirti runs her finger along the rim of the glass to scoop out the last of the buttermilk that has clung to the sides. She’s hungry but won’t ask for food. Her body, even now, is skinny, partly because she is naturally lean and partly because she hasn’t been taking care of herself. Her hair is thin, pulled back from her face, fuzz at the widow’s peaks where you can see the scalp. In this light, her skin is waxy and sallow. Skinny—our mother was never skinny. From my earliest memory she had a soft comfortable body that spread out with age, each hip large enough to seat a baby or a small child. Her lap, sought in moments of distress or the babyish need for comfort, often provided the kind of solace the mother’s body gives, even while her mind is elsewhere.
I am not skinny like my sister. My hips are wide, childbearing hips. My thighs and belly, between which I carry my useless womb, are both soft, a fact that in earlier years shamed me, then made me hopeful, and now seems like a waste.
Brianne’s keys are in the door and then she appears. Tall for a woman, my Brianne, pale and slender, wearing a checked shirt, carrying the bag of sandwiches. A moment passes between us that is enough to make the smile on her face wane slightly, but she puts down the bag and says, “Kirti, you’re here. It’s good to see you,” and Kirti stands and lets herself be embraced.
“It occurred to me that we don’t have a fan for her. For tonight.”
Brianne’s look says Is that all that’s the matter. “I got one while I was out. Arctic Hurricane.”
“You’re incredible,” I say and get up to kiss her. She puts a hand on the small of my back. We took tango classes one summer and she liked it more than me. But we were not well matched in tango, we both tried to lead.
“How long was the bus ride?”
“Thirteen hours, Jesus, you must be exhausted,” I say. “I didn’t realize it was that long from San Diego.”
“I didn’t come from San Diego,” says Kirti. “I think I’m going to lie down for a little bit.”
Kirti herself was a sort of surprise, at least to me, born a full ten years after my birth, to the month though not the day, in summer. I had long gotten used to my place in the world, and watched my mother’s belly grow for months with a mixture of anxiety, envy and anticipation. During this time my mother was self-contained and dreamy, and I grasped her hair, her hem, her fingers often in my hands, though I was already too old, wanting to reach her. Her lap, which had often held me, became to full to fit me, so I placed my head there, until that too didn’t fit. My father stood with me on this distant shore, watching my mother drift out further and further, though he seemed less troubled by it—she had already once returned to him. But she never returned to me, not quite. Instead, my father joined her and I stood alone, looking over the gulf that separated me from my mother and father, and feeling myself to blame.
Kirti arrived tiny, born premature, and stored for the first few days in a plastic case in a room full of infants in plastic cases, row after row of them arranged before the window like unopened toys. My parents spent their days and nights in the hospital, and I stayed with my next door neighbor, Tillie, and her mom, who took us, every day, to the community pool. I saw my sister just once in the hospital and couldn’t hold her. My dad held me up and pointed: that one, three over from the right. I didn’t know how he could tell. She looked just like all the other babies.
But something did come over me, when I at last got to pick her up. She was too weak to hold up her own head. Her hands were pink and exact, replicas in miniature of my own. Her skull, still soft, rested in the cup of my hand and her eyes looked right into mine. I looked back into those eyes and smiled.
She naps for most of the afternoon. Napping, maybe reading in there, or just looking out the window at the tree in the backyard, which brushes its leaves against the glass with the wind. Brianne and I eat together, and talk, quietly, about the news Kirti has brought. I can see immediately Brianne’s relief, which is premature, and entirely misplaced. She is more of a mystic than me and trusts the universe to provide everything one desires, at the right time of course. When she tells me this I ask her about people who are poor or dying of AIDS. Why hasn’t the universe provided them with a cure, money for dinner? What makes us so special? Brianne shrugs. Maybe they’re not asking right, is what she says, which we both know is a bullshit answer.
“She hasn’t said anything—anything—about adoption. We don’t know anything yet. And even if she does—”
“Do you think she wants to be a mother and raise a child? She’s come here for a reason.”
“Please, please stop,” I say. I’m sort of furious. “We don’t know anything yet.”
“You can’t trick yourself out of getting hurt by not hoping for things.”
I look away from her. There are tears in my eyes. The worst thing right now would be for Kirti to walk in and catch us: two dirty lesbians scheming to steal away her baby. Brianne doesn’t know Kirti very well and what little she knows should make her suspicious—my sister has the most fickle heart of anyone I’ve ever known. We finish our meal in silence. After the dishes are done there is nothing to do: we cleaned yesterday, and did the grocery shopping; laundry’s not until next week. Emails have been answered, bills have been paid. I had thought that the three of us would go for a walk, to the park or the beach, or go see a movie. I have made a list of restaurants to suggest for dinner, but have not planned for this. Kirti’s presence in the other room is constraining. We move quietly. I pick up my book, but have trouble focusing, I keep moving my eyes over the same sentence, the same three words.
Brianne wants a baby too, of course, almost as badly as I do. Not badly enough to carry it inside her and give birth to it, that’s the difference. After the usual sperm bank stuff failed, I had six rounds of IVF and three miscarriages within the first trimester; the other times my womb rejected the eggs outright. After the last miscarriage, I decided to stop trying. It felt too much like when I was in high school and in love with a girl in the senior class. I was a freshman. That girl was so tall and cool, she had a perfect face, and it was a shame to love her. I was so ashamed of it. Something about the way I had been made was wrong, I had been assembled incorrectly. I could at that time already see the ways in which Kirti had improved on me: bubbly, a charmer, a pretty child, and social, with her plump little cheeks and arms. It was all you could do when you saw her, little imp, with jam inexplicably smeared around her mouth, to not pick her up and kiss her. As she grew older she thinned, her cheeks and thighs became sleek. But that was an improvement on me, too.
She’s in her studio, Brianne, listening to Philip Glass. I can hear him, muffled, through the kitchen wall, circling himself, and adding, circling, and adding.
“What time is it?”
Kirti’s sleepy voice. Her hair’s mussed, nearly standing on end in the back, her feet are bare. And, I can’t help it, I see her, for a moment, exactly as I always did when she was little, her plump face further softened by sleep.
“Five, I think? Five-thirty?”
“I slept.” She sits down next to me on the couch and puts her head against my shoulder. Her hair is soft, a little oily against my cheek.
“Yes. For a few hours. Are you hungry?”
“Your sandwich is soggy.”
I bring it to her on a plate, and she eats it quickly.
Nods again. Mustard on her cheek. I wipe it with my thumb. I bring her some bread and cheese and milk and a cold, peeled egg, which she eats with an unthinking hunger I have never seen in her.
“Your new place is nice,” she says when she’s finished. “It sort of makes you think how much of a dump your old place was.”
“I mean, you fixed it up nice. But it was sort of just a cardboard box.” She looks at my face and says, “I’m giving you a compliment.”
“Where are you living?” I say.
“Well, sort of—sort of—I was living in Fresno for a while—”
“Yeah, and then I was visiting some friends up in Nevada City. There’s a farm up there we were all working on. I worked there for a few months.”
“And now—well, nowhere, I guess. I have some of my stuff in storage back in San Diego.”
“Where are you going once you leave here?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“And you were thinking maybe you could stay here.”
“I wasn’t thinking anything, Anu.”
“It sure seems like that, doesn’t it.”
She, oddly, remains pacific, only shrugs. “What’s amazing about life is that you never quite know where it will take you.”
“So you’re just swimming in the sea of life, huh, just floating on your back, drifting this way and that, wherever the current takes you, impregnated—maybe like a jellyfish, they just shoot their sperm out into the water, you know, Fresno, Nevada City, your sister’s place, and then who knows where for what or for how long and what after? The universe is full of mysteries.”
“Jellyfish shoot their eggs in the water too. They don’t get pregnant.”
“Okay, thank you Mr. Scientist.”
“I can leave, you know. I’m happy to leave.”
“And go where? To mom and dad?”
“I’ll figure it out.”
She looks proud. That familiar tilt of her chin. She used to confess to me, when she was little, her crimes, her secrets. She used to hug my neck as she slept and I was the one to carry her from the car. Now, I cannot see the oily panic that may be welling underneath the surface of her calm, or the anger. But she’s come here, hasn’t she, to me and not someone else. Perhaps she’s in trouble—and then I almost laugh for thinking of it like that: what does trouble look like if not this?
“Kirti,” I say. “Stay, okay? I’m sorry. Stay.”
She just nods.
The drive to dinner is silent, no surprise there. Brianne and I refrain from the private conversations couples sometimes conduct in public through glances, touch. She drives, and I look out the window. Kirti, sitting kitty corner from me in the backseat looks out the window too. I glance up and see her averted eyes in the rearview mirror. She’s showered and changed into a new, but similar dress, gathered at the neck and cotton, loose. This one is white; she knows well to set that color against her skin. It is her trick to glow when you catch her in your vision but are too afraid to stare, some illusion she must have learned early in life and has always used to her advantage. At the restaurant, we order a bottle of wine for the table, and she has a few little sips. “In Europe they drink through the whole thing,” she says, and I let it pass along with everything else.
“So, Kirti, you were in Nevada City? Farming?” Brianne says, bravely wading in.
“What was it like up there?”
“Oh, beautiful. We had chickens. When I first got there it was snowing, and we were all staying in this trailer together. We had to wake up really early—I mean, really, really early. And work with your hands, you know? And at the end of the day, you had these eggs, you’d planted carrots for the summer, and harvested—turnips or whatever, there wasn’t that much during the winter—you had the feeling you were really doing something. It wasn’t just punching things into a computer all day. You made food.”
“I worked on a farm for a summer too.”
“You did?” I say.
“Yeah, back in Boise.”
“You never told me. A potato farm?”
“We grew other things,” she says. “Aside from being stunningly homophobic, Boise’s pretty nice.”
“So you say.”
Kirti shifts in her chair. She dips her finger absently in her glass and licks at the residue the wine has left. I try to remember back to what all my books said about four months pregnant. Does she ache, are her breasts tender? Can she feel the baby move inside her? She has not yet rested her hands on the neat curve of her belly the way that pregnant women always seem to do, which sends a knife through me every time. She feels watched, and looks up, not shying from me, meeting me, my eyes with hers. They are the same color as mine but slightly different in shape, rounder, and have a small pocket of red in the inner corner of each, the first place to be filled with tears. They are sad eyes, even when they are not sad, when they gaze calmly across the table.
“I still can’t get her to come visit,” Brianne says to Kirti. “It’s been ten years and she won’t visit my hometown. They have bike lanes!”
“I just don’t want to go somewhere where I’m not welcome.”
Brianne tilts her head and lifts her eyebrows at me, you want to do this now?
I shrug. You brought it up.
“My parents are pretty old-fashioned,” she says to Kirti, half apologizing.
“Ten years, and where are the Shahs?”
“At least they’ve met you,” I say.
“Oh god, our parents are the worst.” How easily she can say that, Kirti, how much it takes for granted. “You can’t take it personally.”
“I’m going to go to the bathroom.”
It’s empty. I wet a paper towel and pat it all over my hot face. When I get back to the table, Kirti is telling Brianne that they made their dresses from old sheets they found on the farm. Brianne’s face is fixed on my sister’s: not politely, but with genuine interest, at her story or her prettiness I’m not sure.
“I didn’t know that you knew how to sew.”
“It’s not that hard. They had a sewing machine.”
“We have some maternity clothes at home you could have,” says Brianne, “right?”
“Right,” I say. The food comes, but I’m not all that hungry. The wine has soured my mouth. Kirti eats and eats, finishing her plate of pasta, and then mine when it’s offered. She likes the restaurant, the food, it’s been a long time since she’s been taken out. My parents will lose it, they really will, but they’ll get the grandchild they feared they’d never have, and will soften and forgive when they see its face.
“If you guys want to,” Kirti says, in a show of politeness. We order three kinds.
At home she tries on a pair of jeans with the stretchy front panel and a pretty, expensive dress that we never should have bought to begin with, empire waist, eyelet lace, white, with little sleeves. We had been excited, the first time. At the store I tried everything on, filling out the extra room with my imagination. The clothes still have their tags.
“You can keep that,” I’m sitting on the closed toilet seat, watching her look at herself in the full-length mirror hanging from the bathroom door. “It looks really nice on you.”
“It’s a little big.”
“You’re going to get bigger.”
“It’s too hot for pants.”
She pulls them off her. Then she pulls the dress off too and stands in her underpants in front of the mirror. No bra, and her breasts have swelled, tipped in brown nipples. There is something almost grotesque about it, her belly, big as the distended belly of a starving child. A faint black line runs down the center of her, as though drawn in by a pencil. Her face is so tender.
“Have you thought of a name?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Shasta.”
“If you want your baby to grow up to be a hippy.”
“That wouldn’t be so bad.” She looks at me in the mirror. “I’m not dumb, you know.”
“I never said you were dumb.”
“I can see it. What you’re thinking.”
“You don’t know what I’m thinking.”
“You used to tell me that I was dumb. You used to sit with me in the back of the car and whisper it in my ear.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Yes, I do. I’m surprised you do, though. You were little.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
“No. Of course not. I was just a kid. You only remember the bad parts.”
“I don’t,” she says, “I remember other things.”
She thinks. “Like…how you let me sleep in your bed. You didn’t just lie down next to me, you put your arms around me.”
I remember that, too. Warm and soft as a little animal, burrowing. She would narrate her dreams as she dreamt them.
She holds my gaze in the mirror. “Don’t I look different?”
“Yes. You didn’t use to look like such a mountain woman.”
She smiles, my beautiful sister. I ask, “Whose baby is this?”
She pulls her farm-made dress over her head, and sits on the lip of the bathtub. “Well, at the farm, I met—he owned the farm. He’s a little bit older.”
“And what happened?”
“What do you think?” She shuts her eyes tight for a minute, and opens them, still dry. “He wasn’t married, but he had just separated from his wife. And he had a little kid already with his wife. A baby, really. It’s messy, you know, he didn’t tell her about me and I met her, I met them both, that little kid and—anyway. It’s done.”
“Done? What does done mean?”
“I mean I left. He didn’t want anything to do with it. So I just left.” Her eyes are all red. “Don’t say it.”
“Whatever you were going to say.”
“You think I’m going to yell at you?”
“You want to, don’t you?”
I look at her, trying to see her as a stranger would. For one thing, I can see nothing childish about her at all, not the firmness of her pose, not the tight set of her jaw, not the pucker between her brows. For another, I can see it now, not panic, not anger, but sadness, vast and ocean gray coming up through her eyes and tilting the corners of her mouth, though she doesn’t cry. And shame, plastered over by false pride, the way she has deliberately squared her shoulders. How she’s grown since I’ve last seen her. It’s taken me this long to sniff out her broken heart.
“I want you to have her.”
With something like anger, I say, “Don’t say that unless you mean it.”
“I mean it.”
“Have you thought about it?”
“I thought about it, Anu.”
“Think about it more.”
“If you don’t want her just say so.”
Her. Not it, her. I look away. Kirti is just in the corner of my eye, and luminous again. A student, an artist, a stock girl, a farmer, a mother for nine months and then whatever she wants next, passing from one thing to another, as easily as a little bird darting from flower to flower. A child, six, and careless with a doll that had once been mine, drawing on its face with indelible ink, blacking out the eyes.
“I thought you would be happy.”
Shaking my head. “Why didn’t you get an abortion?”
“Because of you.”
In the bedroom Brianne is sleeping with a book open on her chest. The fan is on, and ruffles her hair and the pages every time it swings around. There is a small smile on her face, which is just the way her mouth is at rest, like a dolphin’s or a dog’s. She wears glasses to read.
I like this room. The bed takes up most of it, but it has a big window that looks out onto the city, a shelf of light in this dark. I don’t think I can sleep. I change into my nightgown and have to climb over Brianne to get into bed. Reading Moby-Dick again, and she’s lost her page. I shut the book and take off her glasses and switch off the light. A baby, three of us, a tiny army against a hostile world—is that what I had thought? Or proof that I was who I was meant to be, that I could give myself whatever I needed? I wanted that small body in my arms. It is something that existed before reason, words. Her arms around my neck.
“Are you crying?”
“Not really.” Brianne turns over and puts her warm feet against my shin. “Are we going to be parents?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did she say?”
“She says things just to please people all the time.”
With a sigh, she pulls herself up, out of sleep. “Why do you think so little of her?”
“Do you think she’s prettier than me?”
“Anu. I’m not going to do this with you.”
Her face is a soft shape against the window. So pale, so reasonable, my Brianne, my complement, my opposite, my shame, my heart, my worst fear. One summer she took my two fists in her hands and unclenched them, smoothed them out to the palms, and I fell in love.
“Let’s go swimming tomorrow. We haven’t gone in such a long time.”
“If the weather holds.”
Which will go first, Kirti or the heat? I can see her in dirty shorts and a straw hat, standing on the top of a hill. The farm covers the slope in verdance, curly heads of lettuce, vines of blooming squash, Paleolithic fronds of kale. A man, the father, stands beside her with no face. And between them stands the child, their natural daughter, skin the color of earth, wheat colored hair, hands tiny bunches of carrots, cooing. I reach my hands out to this girl and she runs away.
After breakfast we drive north, out of the city. Kirti rolls the window down. She is delighted to be crossing the bridge, which wears today a skirt of fog that will vanish before noon. She’s borrowed a two-piece that barely fits her breasts, and she looks oddly voluptuous when she takes her dress off at the shore of the lake. Her eyes are less tired than yesterday. Brianne holds her arm to mine, as she often does, to compare our colors, never in her favor. Out of the three of us, she is the only one to slather herself so entirely in sunscreen, she smells of it pinkly. We sit on a blanket on the shore, heating our bodies until we feel the desire to cool them in the lake, Brianne with Moby-Dick, Kirti with a book on philosophy she’s picked from our shelves, and me with a magazine that I look up from often, to stare out across the water. A pair of children in colorful bathing suits wade into the lake, and I think of Tillie and me, swimming at the community pool the week of Kirti’s birth. Tillie had wanted to splash around and make up water games—kid’s stuff. I just wanted to swim from one end to the other. I’d touch the wall of the pool and turn right back around again, shutting my eyes tight against the stinging chlorine.
The baby would look like me. The greater world would see her and assume she was mine without question. But I would know. In three years, another person might return to me, someone who has finally settled with the wildness of her youth, coming to me with her arms open, wanting back her child. And how easily the world could tilt from mother to aunt, aunt to mother.
“Christ, Anu, are you always this morose?”
I look up at her. She’s crosslegged on the blanket next to me, sitting up very straight. Somewhere along the line she has corrected her terrible posture.
“Don’t needle me.”
“It’s not hot enough yet.”
I look at Brianne. “How many times are you going to read that book?”
“Go on,” she says.
I take off my shoes and walk with my sister to the water, watching her slow, careful steps. So close, she smells peppery, and her back bears the traces of dormant acne. There’s a welt on her arm, purple in color and perfectly triangular, where once, long ago, I accidentally burned her with the tip of an iron. I touch it. The skin has cooled and healed, but still remembers.
“That hurt like crazy,” she says, looking.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
We’re at the water. It is cool, but not cold. Touches our feet, pulls away, returns. Our wet skin is the same color.
“I can feel her move now. It’s so weird. She has eyelashes already.”
“You can’t feel that.”
“The doctor told me.”
Kirti walks in a little further, covered in goosebumps, feeling at the ground with her feet before she puts her weight down. Her shins, and then her knees. “Be careful,” I say.
Her thighs, her waist. Then all at once, she ducks her head down and disappears, and comes up grinning.
“I do it slowly.”
“It’s worse that way.”
I wade in to my knees, then my thighs. The water is cold under the skin of the sun-warmed surface, true cold, and murky from the silt stirred up by our limbs. I feel bright, entirely awake. I too duck under the surface of the water and hear it booming in my ears. Push out and knife my body into the water, pulling myself with my strong arms. Kirti is just a few feet away, floating on her back. Her toes poke the water, her nose, her breasts, her belly. Her eyes are open, serene. Standing, I look back at the shore, Brianne is sitting right where we left her, pale pink and tiny. In that entire thousand-page copy of her beloved book, there is only one sentence I found underlined and starred by her hand: Ah, the world! Oh, the world!
The trick of floating took me a long time to master. I was always sinking at the knees. It was Brianne who taught me, balancing my body’s mass in her hands in the YMCA pool. I doubt anyone had to teach my sister. I let the lake lift me. The trick is to stay loose, which is harder than it sounds. I can see us from above, two planets spinning their separate orbits. But we have the same eyes. She closes hers, I leave mine open, filling them to the brim with sky.