VACATION

ASHIRA SHIRALI

Neha shielded her eyes with one hand as she made her way through a tangle of straw-backed chairs, beach bags and children in swimsuits. The temperature was only twenty-seven, what they called “pleasant” back in Delhi, but the sun was stronger. It seemed to reach her bones. She imagined her femurs bleaching. Vikram, Jyoti and Neil were at a table at the far end of the patio. Ayana was sitting near the kidney-bean of a pool, a puzzle they’d bought at the airport spread before her. Why people came to Miami to swim in a chlorinated pool escaped Neha. She walked faster when she was nearing the table and nearly tripped on a doughnut life buoy. She fell into her seat with an oof she hoped no one heard.

“This is prime,” Vikram said, stretching his arms out. He spoke sometimes like he lived in a seventies’ Archie comic. He had a sharp face till you reached his doughy chin, like God forgot a lump of clay there after sculpting the rest of it. Jyoti’s legs rested on the table. Diminutive, the tiniest adult Neha knew. Her peacock-blue nails looked like M&M’s balanced on her toes.

Vikram and Jyoti didn’t have kids. They had a country house in Essex and a specialty paper business inherited from Jyoti’s parents. In their first year at Trinity, Jyoti found ‘The 100 Museums to Visit in a Lifetime’ in The Irish Times. She and Vikram went to The National Museum of Archaeology, a breezy walk from campus. They got married between museums nineteen and twenty. They were on twenty-four, last Neil told Neha.

“Should we order drinks?” Jyoti asked.

Bartenders stood at the poolside bar, their white shirts tissue-papering in the sun.

Jyoti asked for a fizzy lemonade. Vikram said, “Lemonade? Aren’t we on vacation? I’ll have a mojito.” He tossed the menu onto the table.

“I’ll have a mojito too,” Neil said, barely looking at the options. He grinned at Vikram, but Vikram was looking at the ocean.

Neha realised everyone was waiting for her. “Just water, thanks,” she said. She wondered how much sugar went into the lemonade. Jyoti’s legs were in front of Neha. Her calves were gently sloped, tan parentheses. Neha and Jyoti spoke of work (they’d shipped wedding cards with gold flakes painted onto the cover last month) and motherhood (Ayana had been a caterpillar in her playschool’s last production). Jyoti’s voice didn’t seem to come from her body. It was steely, and husk broke through when she said ‘yeah’. Occasionally their conversation was interrupted by laughter from the men.

Neil’s eyes were somehow even brighter than usual when he spoke to Vikram. He was gesturing with both hands. If Neha hadn’t known he was a lawyer, she wouldn’t believe it. He was a different man in the courtroom, though. It was one of the things she admired about him; how he could chase Ayana around the sofa after a day of arguing for the rights of rape victims. That he was a lawyer was also the first thing Neha had heard about him. Kusum chaachi couldn’t name the Prime Minister or open “the Facebook” on a laptop, but she knew every bachelor in the community. When Neha turned to her parents for an arranged marriage, Kusum chaachi was the first person her mother called.

Ayana came rushing to show Neha the puzzle. Neha was quite sure it was impressive, if not precocious, for a three-year-old. She stroked her daughter’s head, her hair escaping the several butterfly clips she’d made Neha put on that morning. The drinks came.

“Papa, look!” Ayana held the box up to Neil’s face with both hands.

“Good job, beta,” Neil said, his body still angled towards Vikram. “The thing with –“

“It’s fifty pieces.” Neha didn’t know why she’d said it. Her cheeks warmed.

Vikram put his glass down and turned to Ayana. “Fifty!” The child beamed, showing teeth small as pomegranate seeds. “That must have been a big job.” Ayana wandered off, and they continued talking.

After the drinks, they went to the beach. The sun scattered white diamonds on the waves. A group of girls was trying to get a jumping picture in front of the ocean. “I wasn’t ready!” one of them yelled.

“This is better than Corfu, na, Jyoti?” Vikram said.

“More commercial, but nice.”

Before getting married, the only beach Neha had seen had been Juhu in Mumbai. She had begged her parents for a beach party for her tenth birthday. She’d seen pictures of white sand, aqua waves, seashells in colours delicate as a jellyfish’s inside. After some discussion, her parents pulled the old purple suitcase down from the top of their cupboard. For the first time, Neha was going to fly in a plane and go to a beach over the summer, just like her school friends did. On the plane, Neha bounced in her seat the colour of rotting sambhar. She leant over the woman sitting in the window seat to see brown, boxy Delhi shrink till her mother asked her to stop.

The day of, Neha woke at six and put on a plastic tiara her mother had laid out on the hotel’s tiny desk. She jumped between her parents on the bed, saying, “Wake up! It’s my birthday!” The taxi smelt of sweat and smoke. The driver hummed loudly along to the radio. He left them at the roadside, near a coconut seller. “Where’s the beach?” Neha said. She’d been sitting between her parents in the cab, unable to see outside.

“What do you mean?” Her mother gestured at the sandy flat. Piles of chips packets and cans dotted the ground, like its skin had erupted metallic pustules. “Come, let’s see the ocean,” Neha’s father said, holding a hand out. Three couples, two screaming toddlers and a joint family passed before Neha spoke.

“This isn’t a beach.”

A dog barked somewhere. Her father reasoned with her, but her mother said nothing. All the air seemed to go out of her. She sat down, rested her head on her knees. Her mangal sutra glinted at her neck. For years after, whenever Neha fought with her mother, she couldn’t sleep for the image of her that day, sitting on Juhu beach.

On their first anniversary, in Turkey, Neha told Neil about her tenth birthday. She told it as a vaguely amusing story about how childish she’d been. When she was done, he ran his hand down her arm in three neat strokes, like he was trying to activate a touch-sensitive lamp. She didn’t talk about her childhood again.

Sinking into the Miami sand, Neha held Ayana’s hand and walked behind the other three. Vikram said something and they laughed. Neha was going to ask what she missed, but Ayana said, “Mama, are there sharks here?”

“No, beta. This is a tourist beach.”

Ayana looked at the water dubiously. Apparently she had seen a billboard for Sharknado 2 on the highway. Manya had told her sharks are bigger than buildings and can eat their entire class in one bite. Ayana refused to come when they dipped their feet in. They sat on the gritty sand. Ayana sat behind Neha, making sand hillocks. Neha couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt strong, yellow-white blankets of sunlight. She closed her eyes.

They stepped out of the hotel at noon. “Where are we going?” Neha asked. “We’ll see,” Vikram said, strolling ahead with Jyoti. Ayana was going to be hungry soon. She’d eaten nothing at the poolside when they’d had herb-flamed prawns. Neil took Neha’s hand and led her on. They stopped at a small Mexican place, a fishy Subway, a restaurant with beige tablecloths. They would look at the menu. Then Jyoti would walk out, or Vikram would say he was “afraid the food wouldn’t be authentic enough.” Ayana’s unicorn backpack, stuffed with a change of clothes, a water bottle and colouring books, was growing heavy on Neha’s arm. When they stepped out of the fourth place, Vikram asked in a sing-song voice, “Where do you want to eat, Ayana?”

“McDonald’s,” she said promptly.

Vikram and Jyoti laughed as if she’d said something clever.

They ate burgers Neha couldn’t put her mouth around at a place designed like a shipwreck. They came with Dijon mustard, skewered by a toothpick shaped like an oar. Neha had to cut Ayana’s into pieces for her. Back at the hotel, Vikram suggested they play billiards. Neha had never played. “I’ll teach you,” Neil said.

“You know how to play billiards?” Neha imagined all billiards players as old Englishmen in suits, with smoking cigars hanging from the corners of their mouths.

“Know! Neil was the champ of our dorm,” Vikram said, arranging the balls. Neil grinned as he chalked his cue stick.

The game was slow and confusing. Neha hit the cue ball with strength only to see the balls go in random directions. Jyoti had to stand on an ottoman to take her shots. Neha saw her thighs move as she bent. “Classic Jyoti,” Neil said, watching her struggle to reach the triangle on her turn to rack. Vikram reached across and did it for her. There was something in his gesture, at once caring and casual, her murmured thanks as she focused on her shot, that made Neha feel as if she’d walked in on something. She looked away to check on Ayana.

Vikram and Neil play-shoved each other out of the way as they took their shots. Neha looked at Jyoti. She didn’t seem bothered. Neha suddenly saw four years of this, four years of them, younger, lither, around different billiard tables, sitting together in the last row of empty lecture halls, warming their hands on two-euro coffee. She felt a cleaving emptiness.

Ayana was getting restless, lolling on the sofa, making strange sounds (mooooh, oooh). Neha said she had to take Ayana to the room for a nap. She didn’t think she could lift the cue stick again anyway.

They went into the water the next day. Neil ran in, his face pure joy. Vikram ran after him. Neha felt kindly towards them as she watched them attempt the breaststroke. The sun glinted in Neil’s thick, wind-blown hair. Neha was lucky. At arranged weddings as a child, she’d seen potatoey complexions, sagging jowls, mashed plums for noses under sehras, and shivered to think of the day when she’d be on that red velvet stage.

Ayana still wouldn’t touch the water. Neil came back to the white sand lip, saying, “Who’s afraid of the big bad shark!” Ayana shrieked and ran on her stubby legs till Neil swept her up. She squealed as he lifted her into the watercolour sky. Gripping Neil’s hand with her left and Neha’s with her right, Ayana paddled in. A small smile broke across her face when she saw her wavy feet, the white melted ribbons of sunlight laid out on her toes.

After some swimming (Jyoti) and splashing around (Neil and Vikram), they sat on the sand. Jyoti lay down. “Don’t you want a towel?” Neha asked. She had brought four, one each for her family and an extra.

Jyoti looked up. “Towel?”

“The sand will stick to you otherwise.”

“It’ll dry and fall off.” She closed her eyes.

Neil dried his hair. Vikram looked at him, and they stood up.

“Papa, where are you going?”

“Just for a walk.”

Neil usually took Ayana along on walks. On Sundays, the two of them took a round of Khan Market and got ice cream at Big Chill. Neha repeated her daughter’s question.

“Relax.” Neil stretched the word out. He gave a half-wave and followed Vikram.

“They’re just going for a smoke,” Jyoti said, turning onto her side.

“A smoke.” The words sounded like the phonemes of a foreign language coming out of Neha’s mouth. Neil didn’t smoke. Never had. Her parents had made sure to inquire before arranging their match. Neha felt a chill in her chest. Jyoti was still sunbathing. A smoke. She wrapped her arms around herself.

That night Neha lay awake, watching Neil’s figure under the blankets. He always slept on his side, facing outward. He joked that it was so he could run quickly if anyone he’d had indicted caught up with him. Tonight it seemed deliberate. The nape of his neck looked different. Neha wasn’t sure if something had changed or she’d never seen it closely in the first place.

By Friday Vikram and Jyoti couldn’t go any longer without seeing a museum. They wanted to leave at eight. The five of them were the only people at the hotel’s buffet breakfast. The first Uber came. Vikram moved towards it, motioning to Jyoti, who was wearing a navy jumpsuit and a sunhat. Neil waved at the car, said, “We’ll be right behind you.”

After the towering glass hotels had transformed into block stores, Ayana declared, “I’m car sick.”

“You’re fine,” Neha said. Ayana often made baseless proclamations.

Ayana threw her arms up and let them twist. “I’m siiiiick.”

The driver’s eyes darted between the road and the backseat. “Should I pull over?”

As Ayana started making gurgling sounds, the driver stopped. Ayana hopped out, skipped along the pavement. Neha saw how far she’d gone. Ayana was mumbling the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse theme song, but Neha still lowered her voice. “Were you smoking yesterday?”

Neil’s face became a scrunched foil sheet for a second before he smoothed it out. “Yeah.”

Neha didn’t know what to say. She’d been ready to quote Jyoti as evidence. Neha didn’t think smoking was a crime; her dada had kept a pipe. But there was what Kusum chaachi and his family had said. She took a few aimless steps along the sidewalk. She couldn’t make herself bring it up.

Neil called Ayana back. He texted Vikram that they’d be late, and he and Jyoti should go in. Ayana sat between them, humming the entire way. When Neha heard ‘museum,’ she thought hand-painted pottery, fossils, hunting equipment. Aquamarine and iris and mustard leapt at them from every wall at Wynwood. They found Vikram and Jyoti looking at a mural as if a differential equation were written on it without solving which they wouldn’t be allowed to leave.

Neha felt a pulling fatigue. She sat down on a bench and was almost lulled to sleep in the heat. “Neha, are you bored?” Neil’s voice was low. She blinked awake. “Not really…”

“We can go shopping in the evening. See the stores.”

Instead six o’clock found them sipping tea and crunching peanuts at the poolside café. Vikram looked to his right, like he was searching for someone, and pulled three faded maroon scarves out of Jyoti’s purse with his left hand. When Neil noticed he said, “No way!” He set his cup down, and spilt tea started to blossom in the white tablecloth. Apparently they’d bought these together in their third year, and Neil hadn’t known where his had gone till then. Neha took photos as the three of them posed in front of a palm tree, scarves thrown around their necks. Neha couldn’t deny that they were good pictures. Even Jyoti was beaming.

Vikram and Jyoti had an early flight to catch the next day. Neha took Ayana to bed at nine. Before she left, Vikram said, “Come back down, have a scotch after putting Ayana to bed?” Neha said she was tired. Ayana fell asleep without much fuss, so Neha sat on the balcony with a Keats collection. Every now and then she’d hear a burst of laughter and imagine them.

Neil went to the airport to drop Vikram and Jyoti the next morning. Briny breeze caressed Neha as she sat on a lounge chair. Ayana sat next to her, flipping through a pop-up book. She couldn’t read by herself, but Neha caught her lips moving sometimes when she looked at the glittery cardboard. Neil sat on the next chair when he returned. He put his wallet on the table, softened leather with a green stripe running down its centre. Neha had given it to him as a surprise last year. She’d nearly forgotten he still used it.

Neil stared at a spot on the stone floor. Then, “Want a coffee?” They sipped lattes as they waited for the cab. A girl laughed at another table. Palm leaves sashayed through the air. When it was time to leave, Ayana ran to the lobby. Neil followed her. Neha took the pink suitcase her daughter had forgotten and started walking. The car was waiting.

ASHIRA SHIRALI is from Gurgaon, India. Her stories have been shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Short Story Competition’s junior prize, the Adroit Prize for Prose and other contests. Her work has been published in Hobart (web) and elsewhere. She is a sophomore at Princeton University.

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