Take Me Away
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.
“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.”
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.
“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