“One of us should live here some day,” Dinesh says, gazing up at the ceiling in the living room of 42 RC.
His sister, Sathya, stands at the window overlooking the driveway. She watches the street in front of the house, waiting for the painter’s white van to drive up the street and turn into the driveway. Sathya and Dinesh are putting 42 RC, their childhood home, up for rent next week; painting the walls is the last thing they need to do. Their father is finally ready to move in with Dinesh, six months after their mother passed away.
“Sure,” says Sathya. Her eyes don’t move from the window.
* * *
42 Rainbow Centre Drive is a brown-bricked detached home with a double garage, deep in Scarborough, only an hour-long bus, rapid transit and finally, subway ride away from Toronto proper. Each time Sathya says 42 RC, her mind conjures the view she saw each time she entered the doorway into the house as a child, adolescent, and adult: the expanse of square peachy-pink tiles in the main foyer, demarked by grid lines of grout; on the left, a trio of doors opposite the entryway, leading to the basement, the powder room, and the laundry room; on the right, the pristine formal living room with the creamy beige carpeting.
Once Sathya moved out for good, her parents replaced the carpet of the entire house with hardwood. They kept the pink tile where it was, pointing out the cloud of steam perpetually surrounding their new dishwasher, the laundry room appliances with penchants for dancing across the floor, and the leaky powder room toilet that had never been installed right. When Sathya visits 42 RC in her dreams, it is always the creamy beige carpet on the floors instead of the wood, with the vacuum cleaner tracks and the old chesterfield sofas covered in fitted plastic like a custom made dress.
Sathya remembers the day those covers were made. She was eight years old, and a pair of long-haired Italian men came by with sheets of plastic that they cut and folded and fixed around the wood contours of the couches, securing them with straight pins. Sathya was disappointed when they removed all the plastic and left, but delighted when they returned a week later and outfitted both the couch and the loveseat. There were even separate sleeves for the cushions, with see-through zippers covered with flaps, suggesting modesty. Sathya lacks stories of her legs sticking to the plastic couch covers in the heat, because she was rarely able to sit on the chesterfields. That room was for guests.
Sathya visits the kitchen of 42 RC in her dreams for years. They always begin with her grabbing milk out of the fridge to add to a boiling pot of chai, or else, sliding a damp J-cloth over the countertop, collecting crumbs and debris and tipping them over the edge into her hand. At some point in these dreams, Sathya realizes she needs to be at school to write an important test or a big exam. And she panics, waves of unease crashing through her subconscious, and wakes up with her head pounding.
She first has these dreams in middle school, once she’s begun getting her monthly menstrual periods. Her mother asks her increasingly frantic questions each month: Why are you getting your period again? Why are you bleeding so much and using up so many pads when you’re still so young? Are you still bleeding today? Sathya gets told off for writing “period started” on her wall calendar, where her older brother and dad could see it. Unable to anticipate the start of her next cycle, Sathya soils pair after pair of panties, dark red tear drop shaped stains not washing out even after soaking them overnight in bleach.
One day, Sathya leaves her panties soaking in the laundry tub, forgetting to wash them in the morning before she leaves for school for the day. When she comes home, her mother is disgusted with her, and tells her she is a troublemaker.
From then on, Sathya steals quarters and loonies from her father’s coat pockets daily, and runs to the mall at lunch every few weeks to buy panty liners that she wears every day. She hides the liners on the bottom of her school knapsack where they crush under her textbooks, and takes the knapsack everywhere she goes.
The dreams continue once Sathya enters high school. She works at a local bookshop after school three days a week. On her working days she comes home at 8 PM, eats dinner with her family, washes and dries all of the dinner dishes, puts them away in the cupboards, and sweeps and mops each square of the pink-tiled floor. It stretches through the kitchen in one-foot squares, continuing through the breakfast area to a sliding door at the back that opens to the backyard. The house has a security system, and each time Sathya opens or closes that sliding door, or the front door, or the side door, she hears a quiet but clear beep-beep-beep. The backyard fence backs onto a few feet of wild grasses, which gives way to a sharp cliff. At the bottom of the cliff snakes a ravine that is tributary to the Rouge River.
During high school, Sathya repeatedly dreams she is in this kitchen doing housework when she realizes she is late to go write an exam. She thinks about speaking urgently about her need to leave her chores and go to school. Her mouth freezes. She is unable to move or emit a sound. She wakes like that, with all the muscles around her mouth clenched, sweat behind her knees. It takes her several terrified seconds, eyes wide open and mouth sealed shut, before she comes into her body enough to open her lips and intake a gulp of air.
A dining room is plopped into the floor plan of 42 RC immediately adjacent to the kitchen breakfast area, so that there are two dining tables within feet of each other, separated only by a wall and a small doorway. The kitchen side is where Sathya and her family eat their meals every day, while the dining room, next to the living room, is for company. On the kitchen side of the wall is a particleboard TV unit that Sathya’s dad had made by hand; on the other side, in the dining room, hangs a stuffed pheasant mounted onto a wooden plate. Whenever guests are over, the pheasant glares down at them from where it is perched on a walnut-coloured branch, it’s tail resplendent, stiff and colourful, oblivious to the din of conversation and the clink of cutlery.
The kitchen and dining room of 42 RC look out onto the backyard, an almost perfect square of grub-eaten grass with failed flower beds clinging to the edges like mould on cheese left too long in the fridge. One corner of the yard near a wild berry bush is sunken by half a foot; beneath the surface are the bones of Sathya’s pet rabbit Ricky. She got him when she was ten and he was Ethel. He became Ricky after Ethel got Lucy, the family’s other rabbit, pregnant in the middle of their first winter with them. Their entire litter froze and Sathya’s father gave Lucy to a school friend right after. Ricky died when Sathya was seventeen. The grass under his hutch, a raised wood unit her dad made the summer they got the rabbits, was lush for years after Ricky passed, the accumulation of seven years of rabbit poop enriching the soil, the grass a deeper green than the rest of the yard for summer after summer after summer.
After high school, Sathya moves out of town to Waterloo for University through a combination of truth (“I need to be in a good co-op program), embellishment (“Toronto’s programs are of declining quality”), and outright lies (“I intend to go to law school”). It is an audacious plan, with her history of getting caught dating after being told not to speak to boys, of smearing off lipstick onto the back of her hand before sliding into the house, and her ever-increasing bra size.
The plan works, and Sathya moves into a tiny apartment in Waterloo, with a roommate from North Bay. They share a kitchen and a bathroom with a claw-foot tub.
Sathya’s dreams recur. They invade with urgency, slithering from a point deep inside her stomach as she sleeps. This feeling remains with Sathya into her school day like an odour. In the dreams, Sathya is in the kitchen of 42 RC, wiping the counter; she remembers she has to leave to write an important exam back in Waterloo. She is able to speak now, and proclaims she must leave. Her father and mother ignore her, laugh, or sneer.
Sathya states she is going to leave on her own, and can drive herself. She sees the car keys hanging from the wooden “Letters, Bills, Misc” mail sorter with the key loops at the bottom, and starts towards them. She freezes in the spot. She can see the car keys, they are so close, but is immobilized.
And Sathya wakes, arms pinned to sides, jaw clenched, a scream trapped in her throat.
The main floor powder room of 42 RC has the same pink tile as the kitchen and the hallway. One day after she graduated from University and moved back home, Sathya retreats into it, pushing the lock just before her mother gets to the door. She plunks down on the floor in front of the vanity cabinet and opens the doors, looking for something to read, as her mother bangs on the door. Behind the extra rolls of toilet paper and old No Frills Grocery flyers, she finds a jar of green hair gel, a flytail comb, and the Mach III disposable razor that her dad keeps in there to trim under his nose, where he says the light is better.
Sathya picks up the razor and feels its weight in her hand as she examines the grips in its handle. It is six weeks since Sathya had graduated from university and told her parents she was not going to be getting the arranged marriage they had planned for her, and that she had in fact been living with a man for the past year while in Waterloo.
Sathya’s mother shouts and cries outside the powder room door, something about being ungrateful, and the meaning of the word izzat. Her mother’s definition of the world includes an image of her dad completely unclothed, walking amongst community members who stare.
The peachy-pink tile is cool under Sathya’s legs. She cracks the sides and removes three miniscule blades.
Her mother pounds on the bathroom door and says she is going to find a bobby pin.
Sathya looks at the razor blades and realizes that the triple blade action touted in the Mach III commercials, while capable of giving a smooth close shave, might not do more than scratch the skin on her wrists.
She pricks the tip of her left index finger with one of the blades and watches a tiny, iridescent dome of maroon, black and red emerge, just as the door clicks softly and her mother enters.
Sathya’s mother spots the blood. Her eyes narrow. “What do you think you are doing?” she asks.
The next day, her mother swallows half a bottle of Paxil.
Sathya’s dad calls 911 when her mother doesn’t wake up from a mid-morning nap she took after her shower. He glares at Sathya as the sound of sirens approach and stop outside of 42 RC. Her mother is verbally responsive and tells her dad what she had done and where the rest of the bottle is. The paramedics arrive and shimmy her form onto a blanket, cradle her in the blanket onto a wheelchair, push the wheelchair from her room to the top of the stairs and then inch the chair down the stairs, one lifting the bottom, the other holding the top. They take several moments to affix an IV to Sathya’s mother’s limp arm as Sathya’s brother Dinesh provides her health card information. A fire truck comes and leaves.
Cops come inside to where Sathya and her dad are. They ask if they are needed. Sathya looks at the cop who asked the question. Her dad looks at Sathya. Sathya looks at the pink tile. The cops leave.
Sathya’s mother stays on the IV at the hospital for two nights, where she is admitted to the psychiatric unit. Sathya’s father describes the others on the floor, some raving, others catatonic. Her mother tells the doctors she did it because she just wanted to sleep. The psychiatrist discharges her mother after her father says that this would not happen again, that it was a family matter that has already been resolved.
Sathya calls her mother’s psychiatrist, Dr. Marisol Riaz, from work after Googling her name from the new bottle of antidepressants her mother is now on. Sathya cups her hand around her mouth and the mouthpiece and leaves a message on Dr. Riaz’s voicemail, pleading to be called back, saying it is urgent. It works.
“I can’t discuss patient files,” the psychiatrist begins, her Pilipino accent rich in Sathya’s ears, “but I can refer you to get help.”
“Is this my fault?” Sathya blurts. “Is it?”
“Your mother sees you as one of her fingers,” Dr. Riaz sighs, “so it is as distressing to her when you don’t do as she says, as if her own finger were not moving when her brain commands it to.”
Sathya and her mother do not speak, even while living in the same house.
A year later, Sathya marries her boyfriend. In each of her wedding photos, the corners of her mother’s mouth turn down.
After the wedding, Sathya moves out of 42 RC and into an apartment with her new husband on the west end of Toronto. They take classes and try new restaurants and go for hikes wearing matching boots caked with mud, burrs stuck between the treads.
The dreams continue. Sathya is in the kitchen of 42 RC but does not wipe any counters, and makes no chai. In these dreams, Sathya strikes her mother, digging her nails into her eyes. She grabs her mother by the back of her hair and slams her head into the pink tile repeatedly, before pulling her head up slowly to assess the damage, with a worry that she’d gone too far. And Sathya’s mother’s face smiles back at her, skin pristine, not a hair out of place.
Sathya goes to therapy. Weeks turn to months. She breaks up a thing she thought was whole and disassembles it into smaller and smaller pieces.
Months churn to years.
Sathya starts speaking to her mother again, but sanctions quickly when boundaries are crossed. She writes down her mother’s recipes, and calls her once she’s given them a try.
Sathya’s mother gets cancer. It goes into remission. Sathya has a child, then two more. Her mother’s cancer returns.
Her mother palliates for five months and three days. On the fourth day, Sathya sits at the end of her mother’s bed in 42 RC, the time growing longer between each of her mother’s sleeping breaths, until her mother’s head slumps to the side and she breathes no more.
* * *
“One of us should live here one day,” Dinesh says, gazing up at the ceiling in the living room of 42 RC.
“Sure,” says Sathya.
“No, really. Freshen it up a bit. Get rid of that assy pink tile. The bones are good.”
Sathya steps out of the living room to the front door of 42 RC. The pink tile stretches from the door to the backyard. The grid of the grout lines blur in and out of focus, sharpen into prominence and fade, sharpen and fade.
Sathya looks at her brother and shakes her head. “Not me.”
Sathya steps back into the living room. The sun shines onto the honey coloured floors, warming them under her feet.
Sathya remembers the last dream she had of this house. It was years before her children were born. Everything started the same: she was wiping the countertop, her family was there, and a pot of chai warmed on the stove. She remembers the exam she needs to get going to write.
In this dream, Sathya turns away from her family and strides out of the kitchen to the front door, the pink tile cool beneath her feet. She gets to the door and extends her arm.
She feels the dented brass doorknob in her hand. She twists the doorknob and swings the door open.
She hears the beep-beep-beep of the alarm system and steps out of 42 RC.
Sathya never has that dream again.
“Hey… Why not?” Dinesh is looking at her. Sathya shrugs. “I have my own house.”