Fiction by Sudha Subramanian
Janice’s cries slice through the hardwood even before I knock. It is a frosty November morning, and the ten-year-old’s screech, spattered with words, is thawing the frigid air in the foyer. I slip my hand into the bag to feel the edge of the plastic tube, and my toes trace the outlines of the Welcome doormat.
Is this about last evening?
Janice had refused to swim last evening. The pool’s blue reeked with laughter and giggles, but she sat on the edge in her yellow dungarees, feet ducked in the chlorinated water, wiping her moist cheeks.
I half turn, ready to leave, when Marie appears in the doorway with a garbage bag.
“Hey!” She calls after me. Fine lines crease her forehead, and her thin smile doesn’t reach her eyes.
Has she not slept?
“Hi!” My voice shakes while I pat my neck, pretending to have just returned from the hot sun.
Marie trots out of the building in her house shoes and flings the black plastic into the green rubbish bin.
Perhaps I should leave them alone.
“Good day, Marie,” I say when I hear her.
“Wait.” Her face is bright, as if something has changed in the past second. “Come.” She grabs my arm and leads me inside.
“Janice!” she calls out.
Janice is huddled on the couch, hugging her knees. Books, the furry brown bear with big eyes, skirts, and trinkets surround her.
“You are so beautiful,” Marie compliments me out of the blue. “Isn’t she Janice?”
Janice’s droopy eyes switch on the jingle in my head. She brings back memories of when I arrived in this foreign country three months before and moved into Marie’s studio apartment upstairs. Janice warmed up to me immediately and spent time chatting. She loved my food and declared I make the best pilaf.
But Janice was quiet, and her eyes were puffy yesterday. She had slipped her fingers into mine as we walked to the pool. No. She didn’t want to swim and had flung her swimwear into the pool.
I slide next to her and straighten the brown bear’s bow tie.
“Look at you two,” — Marie points to us, — “sisters from the same country.” She claps her hands, and her lips form a neat O.
Janice is adopted from Sri Lanka, and I am from India. But I don’t correct her.
“She…” Marie is making up her mind but finds no words and scratches her hollowed cheeks before slumping into the chair.
The jingle in my head reaches a crescendo and throws up an image.
A woman in a white knee-length dress holds up a pink box.
“Janice…” Marie’s voice is a whisper.
A blonde man assists the woman in the white dress into a convertible.
“Tell her.” Marie’s hazel eyes dig into me.
“What?” I want to ask, but nothing escapes my mouth.
She thinks I know what to do.
I shift in my seat, and sweat drenches my palm. Marie mumbles to draw my attention.
I count the freckles on her ivory skin. There are four on her cheeks and one on her chin.
“Tell her?” I almost laugh.
Marie furrows her brows. “You know…” She tucks a tuft of blond hair behind her ear, revealing a pearl.
Other images replace the lady in the white, knee-length dress.
The disgust in the mother’s eyes when I waved at a baby on the bus.
The security that trailed me through all the aisles of the Supermarket and followed me even after I checked out.
And that woman on the train? I rub my face as if to calm down. The hatred in those twitched lips rubbed on my dented soul like sandpaper.
My fingers curl into a ball, and the air thickens.
Our hands had clutched the grab handle in the evening metro. Students, office goers, everyone jostled to find a spot. On reaching my stop, I lowered my arm, and my shoulder had grazed hers by accident. In that fleeting moment, she had lifted her well-manicured hand, dusted, and wiped away my touch.
Her face. How could I forget her face? A thick ridge on her cheeks led to her red lipstick, a blue nerve throbbed on her forehead, and a layer of blush like the ones on dolls highlighted her white face.
And she didn’t stop.
She squirmed as she gathered her floral skirt closer and shrunk to a corner.
Was I dirty?
Did I smell?
That evening, I scrubbed my brown skin under the shower with fragrant oils and soaps till blood oozed from the cracks in a failed attempt to cleanse.
“I am not filthy,” I had screamed in my empty living room.
Later that day, an ad played on the television.
A woman in a knee-length white dress jumped, sprained her ankle, and squeezed some white cream from a pink tube. She daubed it evenly over the blotched side and smiled into the camera —a soothing balm for every bruise, every wound, every pain.
Could it numb my ache? And I had carried one with me as if it could work magic on my invisible bruises.
“Please…” Marie’s voice drowns the jingle and drums into my ears.
Janice tips her head and latches her small eyes onto mine. Her whimper is a whisper, and she drowns in my arms without warning. Her tiny body trembles, and I can only blink away my tears.
There are no words or stories for a ten-year-old. There is only anger.
“Marie!” I swallow the lump in my throat, drawing Janice closer.
It will be a long day about Melanin — a stubborn pigment that slides under our skin. The one that thickens but never gives up.
I gulp dry air before meeting Marie’s eyes.
Sudha Subramanian is an independent writer of Indian origin living in Dubai. Her words have found space in magazines and anthologies. She is an amateur birder, a tree hugger and dreams of visiting 50 countries before she turns 51. Connect with her on X @sudhasubraman or on Instagram @sudha_subraman