Bharati breathed deeply through her nose, stretching her arms upward as she did so. It was the first time all day, it seemed, that any oxygen had actually made it to her lungs. When the tension began to ease from her muscles, that felt abnormal. But as quickly as her body embraced the stretch, her mind wandered back to where it had been all day.
“What are you wearing?” Amma asked, in English, the way she did whenever her daughter dressed as though she had been born in America. She had, but this was something Bharati’s mother only acknowledged when relatives visited from Hyderabad. Listening to Bharati attempt to communicate with them, regardless of language, made her upbringing impossible to ignore.
“Jeans and a t-shirt,” Bharati said. “Like you told me to.”
Amma shook her head and looked away. Yes, she had told her daughter to not concern herself with fashion and focus on her studies. Yes, this meant jeans and t-shirts. No, neither was supposed to hug Bharati’s body like they did. But to have this conversation would mean acknowledging body parts that there was no need to discuss out loud.
Bharati knew what her mother was thinking, looked down at her dressed, and sighed to herself as she left the house.
This was nonsense. When American parents took issue with what their teenage daughters wore, it was because the girls had forgotten that their shorts should be longer than their underwear or weren’t realizing that the shirts that revealed their belly buttons when they lifted their arms still showed just as much skin when they put them back down. Bharati had never dared even look at such clothes on the rack, but she was certain her parents had hammered her with more guilt.
That Bharati was twenty-two only made the issue worse. She was in college—no, about to graduate college, and yet she still had to deal with this on the way out the door. She excelled in high school, did even better at her college courses, and had never tasted a drop of alcohol neither before nor after her twenty-first birthday. But she wasn’t good enough.
Bharati bent over, touching the mat near her toes. Blood coursed through the muscles of her calf. She pressed her palms flat onto the floor, deepening the stretch through the back of her knees and through her thighs.
Bharati shot her foot back. Then the other. Her body set into a triangle with her hands and toes digging into her mat. Her heels stretched downward, stopping an inch from the ground.
This was as far as she knew how to go. Technically her grades could be a bit better, but somehow she knew that even if they were, that wouldn’t make much of a difference. Neither would working an on-campus job. That would be a distraction from her studies, which she poured all of her time into in order to prepare her for work after graduation, when working would no longer be a distraction. Then, eventually, she would continue her studies while holding down a job. At that point, apparently, her brain would be able to multitask.
At some point Bharati would bring home a husband. How, she did not know. Doing anything to prepare her for one was strictly off limits. While some girls in her school managed to date under similar circumstances, including a few that were first generation immigrants themselves, Bharati had done no such thing. By the time she got to college, she didn’t know how to interact with guys enough to even contemplate the idea of attracting one. She had no idea how she would begin to find a partner once she was out of school and stranded in the working world, where most of the men she encountered would likely be her father’s age.
Bharati’s parents wouldn’t pick out a partner for their daughter. They had a love marriage, and they expected their only child to have the same. They wouldn’t tell her how they went about getting to know each other, nor were they at all tolerant of Bharati getting to know someone on her own. She was too young for that now. But in a few short years, she would suddenly be too old, and they would start to wonder what she had been doing with all her time.
When Bharati brought her feet back to her hands, something was off. She stumbled, briefly, before regaining stability in her stance. She couldn’t push her palms to the floor this time. Touching her fingertips to the floor felt like a stretch.
Then she stood up, her heart rate accelerating. Something was off. This was not the response her body usually had. Soon, when the poses became more intense, the pressure would rise, but now was much too early for that.
Then, she remembered.
Soon she would be her own person, even if she were still confined to her parents’ house.
Despite not knowing exactly what would happen next, and even though life didn’t come with a teacher the way class did, she began to trust that she would keep her footing. Her mind had got her this far, and it would see her through.
Just so long as she didn’t keep everything bottled in.
“Learning to Breathe” by Bertel King, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.