Sometimes I look at my mother and see a stranger. I can disassemble the parts of her face in my mind — her nose floats next to her eyebrows, and then they join together again. It seems strange how easily I can fragment and stitch together a face in this way, as if every face, reduced to its components, is merely a jigsaw puzzle.
Sometimes I want to taste something other than monotony, predictability; the days shuffle into one another seamlessly, one blur of indistinguishable experiences.
In the cafeteria, I arrange Catherine’s leftover crust from her peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Ahmed’s juiced lemon, and Briana’s half-eaten quesadilla into the shape of a face. I stare at the sandwich nose, the lemon eyes, the quesadilla lips, and chuckle to myself. I packed some of the lobster left over from the community arts theater fundraising dinner last night. I didn’t really want to go, but Ahmed was going to support Briana’s mom, who works there. The lobster slides gently at the bottom of the plastic tupperware I put it in.
Ahmed and Briana discuss the coming weekend: senior prom is fast approaching; Briana is wondering whether Andrew will ask her to the dance; Ahmed voices his discontent about the whole ordeal, how it’s a pointless ceremony, another arbitrary beauty competition; Briana nods, but she still wants to go. I hear them, the words seeping out of their mouths, taking form in the air, and I see a lobster; it rises, a gnarled red hand. I look down at the red blob in the tupperware. I can see the blood, the pumping heart inside, turning to stone.
After school, I drive straight to Ahmed’s house in the Jeep my dad left for me and Mom. He’s been away seven months now. As soon as I walk into Ahmed’s house, I rummage through the refrigerator for a snack. I take out a container of red pepper hummus and a bag of baby carrots and shove a carrot into my mouth. I dip another in the hummus and eat it in one bite.
“You’re lucky we’re friends, otherwise you’d be starving all the time,” Ahmed says, his voice reaching from across the hallway. I’m always stunned at how quickly he makes it to his house. I’m a slow driver; my mom has convinced me that if I ever drive even a mile over the speed limit, I could end up in an accident.
“I’d be severely lacking in baby carrots and hummus, that’s true.”
Ahmed smiles. I tap the hummus container with my fingernails. “Things need containers to stay together,” I say, as if it’s some sort of private revelation. Ahmed looks over at me, kind of scrunches up his nose, but doesn’t say anything.
He’s hunched over the countertop with that characteristic pensive look plastered over his face. I tap his shoulder and he jolts out of his static sullenness.
“Should we practice our scripts?” I ask. He nods. Our first speech tournament of the season is coming up this weekend, at Pinewood High; they won the state championship last year.
“Here, let’s go to my room.”
I follow Ahmed down the long red hallway where pictures of his childhood adorn the walls — here he is with his sister, when they were three and five, sitting on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, back when his family lived in Australia. I’ve grown to love this hallway over the years. I’ve seen the pictures evolve since the days of kindergarten, when Ahmed and I first became friends after having a strange conversation about the virtues of trees during playtime.
“Tell me about your character,” Ahmed says, slouched on the floor with his back against his bed.
“Okay, so this girl, Chloe, she’s a boxer and she’s competing in the Olympics and it’s a few months after her dad’s death. He boxed too and he basically coached her all his life and trained her up until the Olympics and so she has to, like, learn how to find motivation and strength in herself after he’s gone. You know, powerful stuff.”
“Do you have to actually like box and stuff?”
“Yeah kind of, I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out. There’s a lot of movement for sure. Karin thought it’d be a good script for me for some reason.” I suck in a gust of air, let it linger in my lungs. “Last year’s script was so much easier. Not a ton of blocking. Will you help me?” Ahmed can always tell when I’m getting nervous.
“Yeah, let’s start like now though. I still have to start my essay for English.”
“Me too. An entire essay on Milton? Bleh. Do you have any M&M’s? I really want M&M’s.”
Ahmed rolls his eyes, but subsequently leaves the room, shuffles around in the pantry and comes back with a large package of M&M’s, as if by magic.
We’re going over the scene in my monologue where Chloe is supposed to fall on the floor in a moment of weakness. She’s at the London Olympics facing her opponent, and she wants to give up. She stays on the floor for a beat, but then remembers her dad’s voice, how he would’ve told her to keep going, to persevere until the end. A little melodramatic, if you ask me.
“How do I do the fall?”
Ahmed is sitting on his bed, eating a handful of M&Ms. He bites into one of the red ones, revealing its chocolate center. “Do it easy, natural. Left foot under right knee,” he says. I try it out and collapse clumsily on the floor.
“You’ll get the hang of it, eventually,” Ahmed says. “We’ll keep practicing.”
“And what about my acting? Like, do you feel captivated by Chloe’s voice? Do you feel like it’s genuine?”
“What do you feel when you perform?” Ahmed rubs his chin, as if he’s touching an imaginary beard.
“When I really get into it, I feel like I know her, like I’m in her brain. I think I know what she feels.”
“Well, that’s good then. Just capitalize on those feelings, what makes you both similar.” I nod, and hop onto Ahmed’s bed. I’m already tired of practicing. I steal a few M&Ms from his palm.
“How’re your parents?” I ask him.
“They’re fine. Mom’s getting pretty tired at the school. Long hours.”
“That’s gotta be grueling work, all those children.”
I stare at my palm, its wrinkled surface, and for some reason, I can’t think of what to say next. In the past month or so, the emptiness I thought I’d left behind has been coming back again, making it harder to be easy with Ahmed, with anyone. I know I need to keep this stuff inside. Ahmed heard enough of my whining for months after my dad left. Mom can’t take the stress of my issues on top of hers. She’s just trying to cope. There’s no reason for me to feel this way anymore. I need to snap out of it, like my mom says.
“Yeah, ask me. Anything. Go.” He throws a red M&M into my mouth. Well, he tries to, but he misses.
Ahmed is such a good friend to me—he’d listen to anything I say—yet I feel apart from him, too. I find it hard sometimes to tell him what I mean. I wish he could understand me without the barrier of words. But he can’t join me there, in my brain.
“Do you ever, you know, get lonely?” I ask him. A splash of light hits the window frame, and I wonder if Ahmed has ever wanted someone besides me to be there with him, experiencing the light.
“Yeah. I mean, we all do, right? Don’t you?” He cranes his neck upwards toward the light, like a plant.
“I guess I do. I just want to feel...I don’t know.”
“Like I’m meant to be somewhere.”
He rubs his thumbs together and looks up at me. “Like how?”
“I really don’t know.” I can tell I’m weighing down the conversation. I’m speaking in circles.
“You’ve been doing okay?” he asks, staring at me a second too long.
“I’m always talking about myself.”
I stare at the blue spirals on his comforter. “You and your mom seem to be doing better,” I say, hoping he’ll stop wondering if I’m okay.
“Yeah, she’s pretty tired all the time so we don’t get to talk much. Guess it kind of fixes things that way.” He laughs a little, in a sad kind of way.
“Do you ever think about telling them?”
“I don’t know how I would. But I want to tell them,” he says.
“Do you think they know?”
He sighs and walks over to his chair, turning it so it faces me. It feels a bit like we’re in a therapist’s office.
“Maybe. The other day at dinner, we were eating grape leaves and I just kept poking my fork into my leaf.” I think I see the residue of tears behind his eyes, but maybe it’s just the way the light falls on his face. I think I’m often seeing the world in a sadder way than it wants to be seen.
“So I was staring at my plate and my dad asked me if there were any girls in my life. I didn’t answer him. I just kept making little holes in the leaf.”
I wonder if I should go over and hug Ahmed, but I stay put, pressing my hand down on the bed, as though I’m pushing something away. “Are you afraid of telling them?”
“I’m just afraid they’ll stop.”
“That they’ll stop seeing me.”
I think of the lobster stuck at the bottom of my container at lunch today, how from another angle of the cafeteria, it would’ve been completely invisible.
“Confined to the plastic walls.”
Ahmed looks at me strangely. “You good?”
“We didn’t really practice the blocking. Another time.” I chuckle nervously, my cheeks growing warm. “Guess I’ll wing it this weekend.” I know I’m supposed to respond to what Ahmed said, but all I can think about is how I have to memorize Chloe’s sequence of movement and her lines, how if I don’t before this weekend we won’t win against Pinewood High, and people will think I’m not good anymore. The light from Ahmed’s window screams in my eyes and a pang of pain reverberates across my forehead. I don’t think I’m okay.
“I think I’m gonna go home. I’m not going to memorize the blocking today anyway. I’m just tired. See you tomorrow at school, okay?” I say, getting up and walking to the door of Ahmed’s room. I can tell he is alarmed by the suddenness of my leaving. I wish I’d said something better that indicated I was listening to him. But all I can think about is the script and there’s no energy for anything else. Soon, Ahmed will think I’m not a good friend anymore.
“What happened?” he says.
“I just think I should go. I’m really tired.”
“Okay, see you tomorrow. Let me walk you out?”
“Nah, I know the way by now.” I give him a hug and dip my head slightly into his chest. It’s warm, and it lights up my skull underneath the thick black blanket of my hair.
When I get home, I see my mom making dinner — pasta with sundried tomatoes, my favorite. I walk over to her and curve my body like a comma around hers. I notice the emptiness between us, where my stomach ends and her back begins. It hardens, and I cannot permeate the space. She asks me about the day, about the tournament coming up, whether I’ve picked a script and begun practicing, prom coming up next Saturday, if I want to go to Macy’s to buy a dress, and how is Ahmed, how’re his parents, does he have his script yet, did I hear about the neighbor’s new baby. I nod my head mechanically to all of this, and I respond in mumbles to some of the questions, but I don’t feel like I’m really part of anything I’m doing. I feel nothing but metal on my tongue, mechanical metal, and I don’t enjoy the conversation or really even comprehend anything my mother is saying. I look into her eyes and they seem empty, but maybe they just mirror mine.
We sit at the dinner table, my mother and I, and the silence forms a barrier between us. My dad hasn’t called home in three weeks. The last time he called, his face was a constellation of pixelated dots, and his words sounded rehearsed, his voice disinterested. He went over the important things, the monetary things, but he didn’t ask how we were. I wonder how long my mother has made do with outward coherence, how she convinced herself she didn’t need anything more. I wonder why they never got divorced. I wonder what makes people stay together even when they’re breaking apart.
I want to say something but I can’t think of anything interesting, so I say nothing at all. I look down at my plate of sundried tomato pasta — the tomato oil coats the bowtie pasta, and I dip my finger in the oil and spread it onto my lips. I lick them, and taste something, but nothing that lingers. The taste fades away, and my mouth feels dry, and even when I drink water, the dryness persists.
“How are you, Diya?”
I look at my mother and try, try so hard to tell her what is inside of me, but I can’t. I should tell her about my day, about Ahmed’s house, about Bitch Boxer and the blocking, ask about my dad, if she’s talked to him, even though I know she hasn’t. I should say something about dresses for senior prom, but I can’t bring myself to say anything. All I can think of is the lobster, how it was trapped at the bottom of my plastic container at lunch today, how it was once alive, how it didn’t know how to feel anymore, how it couldn’t even feel the pain of being eaten, my sharp teeth cutting in. All I can think of is the lobster, and that old, now irrelevant David Foster Wallace essay where he says that the lobster experiences pain as a purely neurological event, not as actual suffering, which is intertwined with an emotional component.
I stare at my mother, her frozen smile, thinking I can see in the indentations of her face the vestiges of a younger self, the person who met my dad in Bangalore twenty years ago, that young and unsure girl who would knit alone in her room for hours. I stare into her hard black eyes and for an instant, I think I can see them, my mom and dad, legs crossed on the floor, sitting next to one another on their wedding day, their shoulders barely touching, each in their own cage.
In middle school, my dad and I would sit on the porch outside our house, and I’d scrape at the chipping blue paint on the bricks. Back then, we talked all the time; I used to think I could see a different side of him no one else knew. He would squint down at the ground, pick up one of the pebbles and throw it across the lawn, as if into a lake. I’d imagine the pebble skipping across the surface of water. Mostly, we sat quietly, but sometimes he told me things, like how he wanted to leave and go back to his earlier life in India, where he could be himself. I nodded along, not knowing then how seriously he spoke these words, how he was slowly formulating a way to go.
“I’m sick,” I say in a raspy half-whisper. My mom comes over to feel my head, and she tells me to take it easy, to just eat the pasta and she’ll make me some ginger lemon tea. I nod but my head falls to the table, almost as if it isn’t my head but instead belongs to someone else. It’s too heavy and I can’t lift it up.
My mother comes over to me, cradles my head like a child’s. “What’s wrong, Diya?” I can’t respond. There are tears behind my eyes but I suppress them. I imagine my dad in Bangalore now, still sleeping because it’s only 5 a.m. He looks calm, calmer than he ever was here. My grandma rustles awake from the other room and makes chai, then sits in the living room and sips slowly. In this vision, my dad seems to be a boy again in his childhood home, before he met my mom. He is free, at peace.
I look back at Mom; her brow creases. The house’s white walls resemble plastic, and so many of the world’s buildings, I suddenly realize, have walls of plastic. Ha! This is amusing to me, and I laugh, apparently a bit hysterically, because my mother looks more afraid than I’ve ever seen her before. She holds my hand and pulls me toward the couch and I place my head in her lap. She presses my forehead and I don’t know how she knows that the hurt is there. She runs her hands over my nose, my chin, my eyebrows, and in my mind I imagine her face, then mine, deconstructing, coming back together again. She stops at my chest, the quiet heartbeat, and it beats on and one day it will be silent stone. She puts the weight of her hand on my chest and I don’t know how she knows all the weight is there, I don’t know how she knows all the pain is hidden there, clenched together like a fist.
It’s Tuesday. We have speech practice in the evening. Ahmed and I stand in a hallway by the English classrooms as we usually do, while our teammates debate inside the classrooms. I can hear their voices peeling in through the cracks in the walls. They’re speaking at the speed of light, their words like knives.
“Isn’t it weird how during the day these classrooms are filled with students and now they’re empty?” I ask Ahmed, who is sitting on the ground, cross-legged.
“I guess. Diya, were you feeling okay yesterday when you left my room? I was kind of worried. You seemed a little off.”
“I don’t know. I think so. I keep thinking about my dad.” I hunch my body over. I feel safer in the slouched position.
“He’s still in India?’
“How do you feel about that?”
“I want to fight.”
“You want to be a boxer?” Ahmed laughs.
“Ha, no. I just, I want to know how to fight on the outside.”
“As opposed to the inside?”
“Do you think Chloe’s fighting on the inside too?”
“Definitely. But she can also externalize it. That’s the difference.”
Ahmed balances his little black binder on his knees. It holds a Carson McCullers story, which he’s performing for the first time at the tournament. It occurs to me that Ahmed rarely asks me to help him with his performances; I’m always asking him for help. He’s always watching me, listening to me, helping me, and I wonder suddenly if I’m a burden to him, if I’ve asked him for too much.
“Should we go over it?” Ahmed asks me, and I nod.
In the classroom behind us, Briana and Andrew are loudly running rounds. “Gah, they’re so intense, those two. Don’t know if I could ever do debate. I’ll stick to speech,” he says. I hear myself laugh.
“When Chloe’s boxing,” I tell Ahmed, “she knows the motions so well, it’s like a rhythm. She can predict it. It’s controllable, explainable. Not like her dad’s death.”
“Left, right, left. Right, left, right. Again and again and again.”
I stare at the wall behind Ahmed and Ahmed blurs as I begin Chloe’s monologue. I see her on stage, shrouded in light. The image of my dad cuts into my mind. He’s waking up now, stretching by the window. I imagine standing on the other side of the glass and asking him, loud enough so he can hear, when are you coming home? As he opens his lips, I can begin to see his answer and I want to push it away. I’m home here. I understand. Some people are assigned the wrong parts, and they spend their whole lives trying to escape them.
I fall and then get up, punch left, then right, then left. At the end of the monologue, I close my eyes, feel a sharp pain in my chest, then nothing at all.
That night, I lie awake in bed and there are patterns on the ceiling, contracting, opening and closing like veins. I taste plastic in my mouth, and it melts, lines my gums in warm, thick liquid. I start to think about Chloe. I wonder about her relationship with her dad, and what she felt like when he passed away, and how she felt on the stage in London, her opponent staring into her eyes, if she felt like collapsing then and how she fell down but then got back up. I wonder about what was going through her mind then, at that very instant, if she saw her dad’s furrowed eyebrows, or something conquerable in her opponent’s eyes, something sweet and young and innocent in their hardened blackness. I wonder if she felt weak sometimes when she pretended to be strong, so strong that she could defeat anyone, so strong that when she heard about her dad’s death from her sister while she was boxing at the gym, she just punched and punched like nothing had changed at all.
The darkness outside curls around the wisteria reaching down my window. It filters into the room like tea, smooth and hot. It scorches my mouth, my tongue. It fills the empty cup of the room, and settles in my bones. I find myself throwing punches in the air, one after the other, and I cannot stop. It festers into a disease and I’m fighting the air horizontally, my body spread flat on my bed, and my fists open and they are just hands. I get out of my bed and walk over to the half-open window, where the premature sun peeks out from the canopy of trees. In the filtered darkness, I perform my monologue without speaking; the rhythm of motion becomes suddenly innate to me, a mechanical heartbeat. I repeat the sequence of blocking again and again — Chloe punches the air when she hears of her father’s death in the gym; she boxes, left first then right, at the preliminary tournament; she holds her palm out when her coach tells her to try harder; she falls on the floor, left foot underneath right knee, just like Ahmed taught me; I rise up, out of the container, and see my opponent’s eyes flashing. I see what Chloe sees.
When I wake up, I’m on the floor in my room, and I still feel like I’m fighting. I look in the mirror. My eyes are bloodshot, and zigzagging lines trace the space beneath them; at a certain angle, the lines resemble claws.
“There is, after all, a difference between (1) pain as a purely neurological event, and (2) actual suffering, which seems crucially to involve an emotional component, an awareness of pain as unpleasant, as something to fear/dislike/want to avoid. To my lay mind, the lobster’s behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference; and it may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering.” I imagine that I am the lobster, caught in the kettle, flinching under the pressure and the heat. My red skin burns, and peels off in layers of sorrow. I am aware that I am alive, at least in the scientific definition of the word, for I can feel the sting, and it awakens a pulsing thing in me, the thing that is half-stone, half-flesh. I am aware that there is a world outside of this kettle, this container which has become my home; I am aware that, outside, people are loving and crying and experiencing and living — and living, and living, and living.
Fatigue clings to my bones and fills my insides with emptiness. As we’re turning in our essays, Ahmed comes up to me and tells me that he came out to his mother last night, and I smile and I want to feel joy, immense joy, for I know how much pain this secret has caused him over the years, and I want to hug him and tell him I’m proud of him. I go through the motions, and the blocking is just right, but when I hug him I all I feel is a restless nothingness in the center of my chest.
I leave in the middle of class and go to the bathroom at the end of the hallway. I close the stall door and sit on the toilet. Toilet paper is strewn all over the floors and I think there’s residue of pee lining the bottom of the toilet.
I plug in my earphones to my phone and pull up a video of David Foster Wallace’s interview, where he talks about lobsters. I know what it’s like to be enclosed within those plastic walls, to writhe sleeplessly on the floor, to punch in the air, again and again and again, to execute the words and sequence of motions so well that it begins to trick people into believing that you’re not acting at all.
The morning of the tournament, my stomach is upset. I stand in the bathroom in my house, throw up in the sink, wash my face, and look at myself in the mirror. A bit of vomit still coats the intersection of my upper and bottom lips. The morning is clean as a washed body. I rehearse the motions of Chloe’s monologue in front of the mirror and watch the blocking of my hands in the falling down and getting up scene. I rehearse the words in my head; I know the timing of each line: the longing in her eyes when she briefly mentions her boyfriend Jamie, the hope that pulses in her chest when she’s on the ground and remembers her dad, the pain she keeps within her fists.
The high school where the tournament is being held is so bright it makes me queasy. One of the competitor schools’ coach looks vaguely like my mother. Everyone is an iteration of somebody else, and then we are not so alone. We set the muffins, chocolate milk cartons, and bagels in bulk on the table. Robin, our coach, asks us if we all have the schedule for the day. Ahmed points to the chocolate chip muffins.
“Nothing would sicken me more,” I respond. Ahmed stares at me like I’m crazy, then laughs.
“Dude, you gotta eat. We have a lot of rounds today.” Ahmed’s face loses luster in my mind, and I barely comprehend him when he says:
“Here’s your national qualifier pin from last year. Wear it so people know you made it to Nationals and get all intimidated.”
I take it from him and pin it to my cardigan, but it seems like a pointless action. I sit at an empty table apart from everyone, and stare at all the people, bustling quickly like ants. The anxiety spreads between them, and I wonder if it’s worth it — the crippling anxiety, the stress, the competition, the broken friendships, the medals.
I execute my monologue to perfection round after round, and I make it to the final room. When I enter the room, the three judges are waiting, their faces knit tightly together, and I wonder what it’d take for it all to start unraveling. My competitors look around the room and perform perfect smiles, but I don’t feel like smiling. A few of them stare at the shiny gold pin that reads “national qualifier” on my blue cardigan. I sit silently, distancing myself from the small talk that ensues between Jenny and Adrian, an orchestrated ceremony. I’m up last. I watch the mind-numbingly boring monologues, one after the other — dead babies, a garden, and an old couple all feature in the performances. Inside, something is rumbling, in my stomach, in my chest.
Finally, it’s my turn. I walk to the front of the room but when I stand my legs feel as breakable as pencil lead. I’m holding something inside, and it squirms uncontrollably. I look at my palms and they are red and swollen. The judges smile at me, and one of them nods. “Ready?” she asks. Her hair is black and curly and composed of tight ringlets. The room blurs into nothingness, and the faces of the judges and the competitors bleed into each other. I begin my monologue, but in my mind all I hear is the lobster’s behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference, and I want to escape the kettle, the container, the tupperware, but I did not choose to be trapped inside. Chloe is about to fall on the London Olympics stage. She’s face-to-face with her competitor. She thinks of her dad and gets up. This is the most powerful scene in the monologue. I can’t mess it up. The full sequence, if executed perfectly, should last four seconds. I fall down. She thinks of her dad. Gets up. Chloe gets up. But I can’t.
The audience stares at me — a single mass of cell and tissue, pulsing. I look around and the walls are made of plastic. The judges have stopped writing on their ballots. I can’t remember what comes next. I’m on the ground now, and there is a wetness on my cheeks.
I can’t fight anymore.