India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
March 25, 2019

Verve Fiction: Routine

Illustration by Opashona Ghosh

We deem mothers to be the embodiment of safety, security and unconditional love; they are tasked with absorbing others’ pain, while putting their own needs last. Inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Anjali Enjeti’s short story — exclusive to Verve — subverts these entrenched notions and forces us to confront the lengths women go to uphold this mythologised role

The pedicure (gel, of course) was the colour of an orange peel. She needed nice toes before abandoning them. A proper haircut with an actual blowout. She considered colouring her wavy, shoulder-length mane before leaving but there was something about that singular swathe of white that swooped near the centre of her forehead and what it announced to the world. Wisdom, perhaps. Or simply, don’t fuck with me. Ever since first giving birth she’d always left salons with limp wet hair. I’ll dry it at home, she’d tell her stylist. She never did dry it at home. As soon as she walked in the door the Husband handed her the Baby to nurse, a preschooler to be consoled. A bubbling pot on the stove was always in need of a stirring before the beans, already slightly charred, burned themselves to the bottom.

She first thought about leaving the night the Husband told her she was irresponsible. She’d forgotten to pay the cable bill while recovering from a C-section. Her nipples were swollen and hard. The milk from her leaking breasts joined the stream of sweat from her armpits. The Baby, yet another boy, had screamed for six hours straight, and when she called the paediatrician’s office to tell them, to make sure he wasn’t in any kind of pain, that he wasn’t dying — the triage nurse stated plainly: sounds like you’ve got a crier.

The Twins, age four, repulsed her with their snot and shit, their grubby yoghurt and play-dough fingers. They screamed if the mashed potatoes touched the carrots on their plates, if they could feel the seams in their socks when they pulled on their velcro sneakers. At the school’s parent night, their teacher visibly twitched when she said, this one doesn’t like the sound a lead pencil makes on paper. The other doesn’t like the sound of scissors cutting paper. Maybe you should consider taking them to see someone.

She had never been an angry person before motherhood and now even her whispers sounded like full-on rage. The parents with the soft, patient voices — who were they? In what galaxy did they exist? Yesterday one of the Twins hit the other on the cheek with a hard, plastic sippy cup. The other’s voice was so shrill and high-pitched, it ricocheted off the walls. The sound pierced her temples, reverberated behind her eyes. She thought it might kill her.

The Husband took her to the Psychiatrist who prescribed neat light-blue pills. The Husband bought her one of those pastel plastic cases with M T W Th F labelled for each day of the week so she’d remember to take said pills. It sat on the kitchen counter near the microwave and mocked her as she nuked leftovers for the third night in a row. The pills made her feel lighter but did nothing to change the fact that she no longer wanted this particular life. How silly to diagnose a woman for making a terrible decision she now regretted, a woman who once stupidly thought she wanted the picket fence and the smiling holiday cards displaying matching Christmas outfits.

Planning her escape felt good, the highlight of her day. When one of the boys threw up in bed, she envisioned herself walking through the airport with a single rolling bag, a scarf loose around her neck. She felt more like herself in her imagination than in real life.

She prepared, of course. She placed the cereal in the pantry exactly where it was supposed to go so that the Husband could find it more easily when he was the single father to three small boys. She began purging the baby clothes that no longer fit them, dropping them off at friends’ homes or at Goodwill. The Husband was so proud of her. “So nice to have extra room in their closets,” he mused.

She had fallen in love with the Husband on a Tuesday, the sun warming their heads. There were bits of bread tossed to the ground, mallard ducks waddling near the bounty. He placed a four-leaf clover above her ear, said he loved the way her lip curled slightly when she smiled. That she was the smartest and funniest person he knew.

She did not deign to envision where she’d see herself in five or ten years, did not consider the fact that he was from Greenville, South Carolina, and wanted to take over his father’s law practice someday, that Greenville was not Los Angeles where she would need to live to make it as a screenwriter. She got her teaching certificate because it was either that or waiting tables. She won county and district awards. The Guidance Counsellor, who stunk of tomato juice from the Bloody Marys she drank every morning, routinely pulled her aside and whispered, in confidence, that parents were always requesting her to teach their child.

When she was pregnant with the Twins, before she had to go on bed rest in the sixth month, the Principal, a man with bits of granola trapped in his dark looping moustache, assured her she’d make a wonderful mother. He was the father of five children from three different marriages, none of whom lived with him full-time, but she nodded and smiled all the same. She had taught third grade for seven years before getting knocked up while drunk on bourbon because there was a solar eclipse and bourbon felt like the thing to drink for such an auspicious event.

She could not keep her job with twins. She could not even figure out how to put a load of laundry in with twins. Those first few years, she avoided other mothers of young children because when they asked how she was doing and she replied she was miserable, they laughed nervously, bought her a latte, and asked if she’d begun sleep training. Her love for the Twins was raw, though. A dizzying fever. She ached with a longing for them even as they played at her feet.

At bedtime, in their footed jammies, their curls wild and untamed from their bath, Dev and Darshan had asked if she’d take them to get gelato the next day. A big word for them — gelato. Her yes was a little too enthusiastic, a G sharp. What would they like — a scoop of stracciatella in a sugar cone? Her mouth went dry as she spoke. She pulled the quilt up to their chins in the bed they shared, and kissed them as she always did, night after night, first on their eyelids, then their slight, upturned noses, their ruddy cheeks and finally their strawberry toothpaste smiles.

Later in the middle of the night, she waited until Arun popped off her nipple, until David’s snores found an even rhythm. She crept from the bed to the closet, where she yanked down several shirts off the hangers, pooled them into a pile on the floor. A layer of dust coated the maroon suitcase. She wiped it down with David’s dirty sock.

She tossed the sock to the side, zipped up her suitcase, strode toward the window. The moonlight cast its glow on Arun’s little face, his half-swaddled body wedged against the side of the bassinet. He was rooting again in his sleep, his mouth puckering in an O to mimic the shape of her nipple. Her breasts heaved and released in response, the thick cotton pads no match for the gush of milk. He was her son, he was her son. The son others declared to be her spitting image, whose existence she agonised over in the abortion clinic after lying to David that she was going shopping at the outlets two hours away.

When she touched his chest, he settled instantly, her mere presence enough to satiate him. It was a test to see if she’d come quickly enough to his rescue, if she could anticipate his need before he himself was fully conscious of it.

Her lips met Arun’s warm forehead, his doughy cheeks. She closed her fingers around his knotted fist. The bud of his tiny nose, lips stained like cherry Kool-Aid, even his tissue-thin fingernails seemed miraculous. She glanced at her suitcase, upright, waiting expectantly. She glanced at David, underneath a heap of covers in the bed, his forearm thrown over his eyes as if in a state of exasperation, his chest expanding and deflating in the darkness. She remembered cuddling into that chest the very first time years ago, when his arms felt like the safest place in the world.

She released her son’s hand, straightened and headed back towards the closet.

The airplane will be chilly, she thought. Better not forget my scarf.

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