Take Me Away

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - JAGTAR KAUR ATWAL

TO­DAY ISN’T GO­ING TO BE LIKE ALL THE OTHER MORN­INGS. Not just for me, but for the fam­ily as well. I can hear the sil­ver spoons scrap­ing the ce­real bowls and my sis­ters’ voices drift­ing up the thir­teen steps into my bed­room where I’m stand­ing by the door try­ing to mem­o­rize their voices. I can’t sit with them like I have a thou­sand other morn­ings, munch­ing on soggy corn­flakes, while Mum spreads sweet honey on her warm toast. I don’t want to look my sis­ters in the eyes and pre­tend ev­ery­thing is nor­mal.

I’m try­ing not to think about how it’s go­ing to be for them when they re­al­ize what I’ve done. I just want to­day to end, un­til I can’t keep my eyes open for an­other minute so I can fall asleep and wake up to­mor­row morn­ing in a strange bed know­ing it’s too late to turn back.

“Mum wants to know if you’re com­ing down!” my older sis­ter shouts from the bot­tom of the stairs.

“No.” I suck on my trem­bling lip.

“Why not?”

“I’m go­ing to work later.” I try to get a glimpse of my sis­ter, but all I see is her brown hand hold­ing the rail­ing.

“What time are you go­ing?”

“Eleven.” I wait for the next ques­tion but in­stead I hear her walk­ing away from the stair­case.

I shut the door and slide the latch across, then lean my head on the door panel and breathe in the vanilla deodor­ant I spread un­der my armpits. I sit on the bed and wait, my fin­gers play­ing with the blue and pink tas­sels loosely hang­ing from a shawl, a gift from my grand­fa­ther. I miss my grand­dad. I was never afraid to be my­self with him. He’d fly over to the Midlands, Eng­land from In­dia nearly

ev­ery sum­mer. I’d tease him and Grand­dad would shuf­fle af­ter me with his walk­ing stick in midair, try­ing to prod me with it. He never once said, “Don’t be stupid, and act like a proper Pun­jabi girl.”

I know I can breathe once I’ve cleared the first three hur­dles: get into a taxi with­out my neigh­bours notic­ing; hide in the wash­rooms at the air­port; and, fi­nally, make it through pass­port con­trol with­out act­ing sus­pi­cious and board the plane. I don’t know what will hap­pen if Mum and Dad catch me be­fore I get away. I’ve heard sto­ries where East Indian girls who’ve been caught with their boyfriends have been sent to In­dia by their par­ents and forced into a mar­riage. I will die if that hap­pens to me.

It was only a few weeks ago that I was sit­ting in the liv­ing room watch­ing the even­ing news with Mum and Dad when they switched off the tele­vi­sion and started to talk about a boy they wanted me to see. I was shak­ing when they slid a black and white photo of a man who was ready to set­tle down. I knew as soon as I fin­ished school and was work­ing steadily they’d be push­ing me into an ar­ranged mar­riage. I didn’t want to touch the pass­port size pic­ture so I tucked my hands un­der my thighs and dug my nails into my skin. There was no point in say­ing I didn’t want to get mar­ried be­cause they would only ig­nore my words, es­pe­cially when they don’t fit into their plans for me. The man in the pic­ture looked like Mag­num PI, tight curly black hair with a thick mus­tache. His dark eyes un­set­tled me; it was as if his eyes were bur­row­ing into me. I gave a side­way glance at Dad as he sat on the brown vel­vet arm­chair with his arms crossed over his chest, ready for a fight, with three of his but­tons un­done, the dense black chest hair stand­ing out against the white shirt.

Even at twenty-one years old I know I don’t have the same free­dom as my friend Doreen, who used to live across the street. I re­mem­ber when she could go cycling down the street on her chop­per bike with red rib­bons on the han­dle­bars flap­ping like flags as she passed my bed­room win­dow. She’d tell me about her boyfriends and eat­ing pop­corn at the movies and go­ing to par­ties and drink­ing wine. My life has been about try­ing to do well at school, learn­ing how to clean a house, and cook­ing cur­ries like Mum. My mum and dad have been try­ing to groom me to­wards be­ing a good re­spect­ful fu­ture wife to a man I will barely know and look af­ter his par­ents. I can’t tell Mum and Dad the real rea­son why I can’t get mar­ried.

I’ve never told any­one, not even whis­pered the word in my own bed­room at night when every­one is asleep. I’m gay. When I was

thir­teen I had my first crush. Miss Straf­ford would smile at me or touch my shoul­der lightly as she passed my desk; she smelt like roses. My stom­ach would quiver and my cheeks would turn crim­son. I have also felt ashamed of my­self for hav­ing feel­ings for my English teacher be­cause it made gay real, and me dif­fer­ent from my sis­ters and the other girls at school.

I’ve only ever seen a gay per­son on the tele­vi­sion but never in real life. I can’t imag­ine what it’s like to kiss a girl or hold her soft hands, but I’ve seen it in a film. I used to creep down­stairs at night when every­one would go to sleep so I could watch films. One night around eleven, I sneaked back down, avoid­ing the floor­boards that creaked loudly, and sat cross-legged on the floor a few feet away from the screen, ready to switch off the tele­vi­sion if I heard Mum or Dad. I could see my sil­hou­ette shift­ing on the wall as the light from the screen bathed me. There were two girls on the screen; they lay be­side each other, the tall girl ca­ress­ing the other girl’s face and they be­gan to kiss each other. I sat with my mouth wide open, my cheeks burn­ing. My hand went out in shock and I turned the knob, leav­ing me sit­ting still in the dark, won­der­ing if I could do that like they did as I lis­tened to my heart drum­ming in my ears.

“What time are you get­ting home?” my older sis­ter shouts from the bot­tom of the stairs.

I lean for­ward on the bed, my head tilted to the side. “Why?” “Just ask­ing.”

“Eight.”

Mum and Dad only see things in black and white; there’s no in be­tween. They think I’m like my sis­ters, and some­times I wish I were. I try to per­suade my­self to just do what they want and I tell my­self that I’m no one spe­cial and noth­ing great will hap­pen in my life. I should for­feit my hap­pi­ness for Mum and Dad’s. Then I think about hav­ing sex with Mag­num on the wed­ding night and I can feel my skin crawl­ing, as if his hands are touch­ing me and I’m left grasp­ing for air.

“Mum wants you down­stairs,” I hear my sis­ter shout­ing again. “Why?”

“I don’t know.”

I hold onto the ban­is­ter, the wood warm against my palm, the treads creak­ing against my weight, the framed fam­ily pho­tos on the wall with smil­ing faces watch­ing my de­scent. I try to steady my breath as I reach the kitchen, the door wide open. Mum doesn’t no­tice

me as she stands by the sink, her hands cov­ered in white foam, the smell of pine trees waft­ing as she presses the plas­tic bot­tle and green gel squirts out onto the sponge.

“You wanted to see me?” I lean against the door­frame to steady my­self.

“I didn’t know you were work­ing late.” Mum twirls the sponge in­side the cup.

“Oh, I thought I told you.” I watch as she strate­gi­cally places each cup and bowl on the dry­ing rack.

“No, you didn’t.”

“Well, it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter any­way,” I say as I lick my dry lips. I’ve been work­ing at the photography shop as a sales clerk in the town cen­tre for nearly a year. I like go­ing to work. I for­get about home life and it’s the one place where I can breathe and get to say what I want. I have fun with the girls I work with. They tease me and I love lis­ten­ing to their sto­ries, and they’ve done things I never have. Mar­sha is fun; she chases me around the store try­ing to tackle me in her arms. I run around dis­play units with cam­eras and stacks of empty frames scream­ing and laugh­ing. I like the at­ten­tion she gives me and when her hands grab me and she starts to tickle me. For those few mo­ments I pre­tend we are girl­friends. Mar­sha has beau­ti­ful black skin and I won­der some­times whether it’s as soft as it looks.

I learned a lot work­ing at the shop. The girl who prints the neg­a­tives al­ways prints ex­tra copies of naked men. We keep the copy in the nude box and some­times when we are bored we crowd round the dirty box and she flicks through the pho­to­graphs. It was the first time I saw a real pe­nis. They all flopped to one side and looked crin­kled and ugly. My thighs would au­to­mat­i­cally squeeze to­gether, scared at the thought of hav­ing that thing pressed against my skin and then in­side of me.

“Don’t walk home, take the bus,” Mum says as she turns off the warm tap and picks up the towel.

“I wasn’t go­ing to walk home.”

Nor­man­ton Road is the long­est road be­tween the shop I work at and home. It’s a busy road with East Indian, Mid­dle Eastern and Pak­istan stores. There are food stores with veg­eta­bles and fruits in boxes stacked on empty milk crates out­side the store. Fair-skinned man­nequins dressed brightly in coloured sa­rees and shiny neck­laces and bracelets, their long black hair wavy and rest­ing above their breasts. Indian sweet shops dis­play­ing yel­low laddu, sticky orange

jalebi, brown and white pieces of be­san and thou­sands of oth­ers I’ve never tasted stacked up like pyra­mids. Butcher shops with men dressed in white coats with spots of blood. Mum buys veg­eta­bles from the store close to the butch­ers and op­po­site to the bank. Five months ago a reg­u­lar cus­tomer from the photography store sur­prised me with a gift for my twenty-first birth­day, a bou­quet of daf­fodils. The yel­low petals felt like vel­vet and the flow­ers made me feel spe­cial, but I couldn’t take them home. I didn’t want to walk or take a bus cradling flow­ers in my arms and have strangers look­ing at me won­der­ing who gave them and then hav­ing to lie to Mum and Dad, say­ing they were from the peo­ple I work with. If I had told them the flow­ers were from a male cus­tomer they would think I had a se­cret boyfriend. Nor­man­ton Road has a lot of brown peo­ple and it’s not the road for an East Indian girl to mis­be­have on; it’s like par­ents’ un­der­ground com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­work, par­ents and friends pass­ing on in­for­ma­tion and gos­sip.

“Ok, Mum, I’ll see you tonight. I’m go­ing to get ready for work.” My fin­gers itch to touch Mum for the last time. I curl my fin­gers tight un­til I can feel my nails dig­ging into my palms. I haven’t hugged Mum since I was a child and I don’t know how. We’ve never been the touchy kind, I think Mum and Dad have been too busy try­ing to build the kind of life they never had in In­dia. I imag­ine the hug to be clumsy and she’d think there was some­thing wrong if I tried. I take in her pro­file, as if I’m tak­ing a snap­shot of her, her smooth skin, a few grey hairs tan­gled in the mass of black twirled into a bun and held in place with hun­dreds of pins. Mum doesn’t look at me, but I give her a smile and hold back the tears.

I turn away and stop at the liv­ing-room door, will­ing my­self to go in and have one last look at my sis­ters, but I can feel the tears against my cheeks and I drop my hand and qui­etly walk back up to my room.

I close the bed­room door, lie down on the bur­gundy car­pet with patterns on it and lodge my head hard against the bed frame, the coarse fi­bres of the car­pet scratch­ing my cheek as my hand slaps the floor, search­ing for my peanut-coloured bag. I drag it out as I sit on the bed. I catch my re­flec­tion in the mir­ror, and for a mo­ment I hold my breath and re­al­ize that I’m about to run away from home. Last night I tried to write a let­ter to Mum and Dad, telling them not to look for me and that I’d be all right and maybe one day I would come back, but I couldn’t write a word.

I un­zip the bag and tip ev­ery­thing out to make sure I have ev­ery­thing I will need. There isn’t much, it’s a small bag with long

han­dles, easy and com­fort­able to swing over my shoul­der. My favourite brown towel rolled up like a cig­a­rette, new tooth­paste, brush, soap, half bot­tle of sham­poo, jeans with a hole in the left pocket, two t-shirts, un­der­wear, Zenit cam­era and a stuffed pink rab­bit the size of my hand, dirt cir­cling the edges of its floppy ears.

I ca­ress the air­line ticket. I picked it up from the travel agency across from the photography shop. It wasn’t easy to walk to the agency and open the door. I’d look at the store win­dow while I was sup­posed to be check­ing the qual­ity of the prints. I was too afraid to walk in, wor­ried some­one who knew my fam­ily would see me. At lunchtime, I’d pre­tend I was win­dow-shop­ping for clothes I can’t af­ford and ca­su­ally moved to the travel agency. The colour­ful pho­tos of des­ti­na­tions in far­away places dis­played at the win­dow, places I can only dream of, but it was the post­card of Koules Fortress, against the bluest sky sit­ting on the edge of the crys­tal clear sea, that called me. I walked in and booked a flight to Crete—it was the cheapest ticket.

I can hear my sis­ters mum­bling in the cor­ri­dor as they slip into their shoes and coats. “We’re leav­ing,” I hear Mum say.

“Okay.”

“Make sure you lock the front door prop­erly.”

“Okay, don’t for­get I’ll be home late.” I run over to the bay win­dows. The front door slams be­hind them and I watch my fam­ily walk past the small front gar­den with red roses and then the green hedge.

“Mum, it’s go­ing to be okay, so please don’t cry tonight,” I whis­per as they turn the cor­ner. I throw my denim jacket over the bag, slip my pass­port and ticket into the side pocket and wait for the taxi to pull up and take me away.p

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