Sometimes she forgot to smile.
She was up, not too early (but early nonetheless) scooping up a spoon of cumin and dropping it into the sizzling pan. Distracted, the mustard seeds were already popping before she rememberred to follow through with the urad dal. An onion sat on the cutting board entirely unchopped, and while it wouldn’t take her long to dice up half of it, the process was something she should have done beforehand.
This semiya upma would be far from her best batch, perhaps not even too far off from her worst, but it would have to do. She didn’t have time to start over, and with the childhood she experienced, it would be a snowy week in Texas before she’d consider tossing the food out and serving her kids something else. So she sprinkled in some salt, tumeric, and water before putting a top on the pan to simmer.
Her children, though they were young teenagers now, were still too young to appreciate having someone to cook them warm meals each morning. Years later, once they became sophomores at college and tired of the perpetual all-you-can-eat supply of quasi-fast food tasting dishes three times a day, they would think back to these mornings with a newfound fondness. Even the mornings like this one, where the semiya was darkened a bit more than it should be.
Their mother served them the food and asked them about the day ahead. Were there any tests she should know about? Had they studied? And, since she didn’t want to be the strict Indian mother her own had been, she asked about their friends and, pushing the boundary even further, if they were dating anyone.
Her kids, being second generation and thoroughly American, answered with non-answers as best they could before finishing their food, grabbing their books, and running out to catch the bus. Their mother had managed to pull it off, sending her kids off too school with proper nourishment of both the belly and the mind. Only this time, she realized only after her kids were out the door, she had forgotten to smile.
Parvini sat down at the kitchen table with a plate of her own and, for the first time that day, allowed her thoughts to wander to her own well-being. Forgetting to smile was a mistake she made increasingly often these days. Too much longer and her kids would begin to wonder what was wrong with her. They might assume it had something to do with their father, and they would be right.
Parvini’s husband traveled for work almost weekly, leaving her alone to tend to the kids. She couldn’t complain. They made enough off his salary to afford a comfortable life in the obscenely expensive Virginia suburbs of DC, and she still got to see him on the weekends. That was more often than she saw her own father growing up, who, at least in the childish haze of her fading memories, left for months at a time. Reality didn’t veer too far off.
The job wasn’t too much of a burden at first, though even in the beginning Parvini protested when Manu filled out the job application. He just wanted to see, he said. She tried to be supportive, but it came as a struggle. It still did, over a decade later.
The family wasn’t entirely dependent on his income. Parvini made a comfortable salary herself helping to run a successful makeup and dance shop in the bustling downtown area of Leesburg. She didn’t make enough to cover all of their expenses, but their expenses wouldn’t be so high if they had chosen anywhere other than northern Virginia to settle down. Richmond had jobs, she argued. As did Hampton Roads. They loved Virginia Beach and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel that took them over twenty miles to the Eastern Shore. Imagine, for a moment, staying there to build a home and having the luxury of visiting the beach without making a trip of it. Just the presence of the ocean reminded her of home.
Home was real – a place somewhere along India’s eastern coastline between Visakhapatnam and Chennai – but Parvini’s memories were abstract. Her family had left before she was five, raising her in a suburb of Charlotte. She didn’t have anything against North Carolina; actually, if she were honest with herself, she loved it. That’s why when she had her time to escape and finally choose her own home, she went to college in Virginia, a state that wasn’t all that different. She would graduate from Old Dominion University, the place where she met her husband.
Parvini missed those times, back when they saw each other daily. They’d studied together, eaten together, and, more or less, lived together. Ironically, she felt as though they shared more of a home then than they did now. This place, tucked away at the edge of Loudoun County – a place growing so quickly that rural areas had become bustling neighborhoods and then turned into old ones before her children had made it out of elementary school – was a location Manu had chosen, but a place where only Parvini lived.
She brewed a cup of tea and walked outside to the bench beside her mailbox. In previous years, she sat here often, typically with a book, watching her kids play in the streets with the other neighborhood children. It was a cul-de-sac, so the only cars that came nearby were inherently cautious, as there was a good chance one of its driver’s own kids was out playing with the others.
Today Parvini sat here just to think. She told herself that she wouldn’t be this miserable this many years ahead. She’d adjust, and eventually this life would become all that she knew. She’d remember the time period when Manu was a constant presence in her life, but she wouldn’t be able to recall it. The thing is, that never happened. She could picture those memories vividly. They still ate away at her almost daily.
Yet this week that tore at her the hardest. This Thursday would be the twenty year anniversary of when she and Manu got together. They hadn’t gotten married for another six years, but they had spent two decades together. Well, on paper they had. For fifteen years Manu divided his time between Parvini and whichever state or country his company’s clients worked in. Home, for him, was a plane. And on the day of their anniversary, Parvini would sit alone, her husband a thousand miles away.
She wanted to be with him, but when he pulled into the driveway a day later, she couldn’t bring herself to smile.