Years later, as you watch your oldest daughter get on an airplane to move across the world, recall the walks you and Peter took next to the rice field in Goa. You meet there most days—Peter to get out of the house, away from an uncle who doesn’t think he should live there, and as the sixth of eleven children, the rice field is the only place you can breathe. His hair is jet black, somehow darker than yours, and a thick mustache rests above his lips. Watching the women bent over picking rice, their saris tucked into their waists, Peter says he wants to get married and move to Bombay. He places his rough hand on your arm, smoothing down the hairs that rise as a chill runs through you.
You’re a woman now, your mother says when you tell her. It’s time to leave. Peter borrows a black suit from his cousin for the small wedding at St. Anthony’s Church. White lace sleeves cover your dark arms. It is mid-morning, and the sun beats down on the guests. Droplets of sweat run down your back, and you’re afraid you’ll spoil your sister’s best dress. After the wedding, your cousins light firecrackers outside the church. You look around, squinting against the light, and try to memorize the faces of everyone you’ve ever known. The photographer captures you and Peter standing in front of the altar with a sharp purple flash. Eventually, your daughters will mount the moment in a silver frame.
Carrying a brown suitcase holding only clothes and that photograph, you say goodbye in front of the red laterite walls of your childhood home. The ride from Madgaon Railway Station into Bombay lasts twelve hours, half of one day. Peter sleeps on the hard cot, and you sit by the window. You cannot focus on one tree before it passes. The other families in the car don’t talk to you, but they watch as you open the tiffin you packed and take out chapattis and yellow dhal. You and Peter eat the meal carefully as though you will never have another opportunity to eat.
The air is dense when you arrive in Bombay. The flat that Peter rents has two bedrooms and a small balcony with space for one chair and a few plants. When your husband leaves for work every day, you sit on the balcony and study the schoolgirls with slick black hair in tight plaits as they walk by. The fisherwomen shout the prices, and you crave the pomfret your mother cooked for you as a child.
Many years later, at your funeral, your daughters will remember you as brave, but in this moment, you’re afraid to venture into this noisy city where you don’t know anyone. You have never been alone with so much space before. You sit only on the balcony chair, not knowing how to spread out into the whole flat yet, though you will learn.
It’s not long before you are pregnant with your first child. With the company of the baby—low and heavy in your stomach—you feel comfortable going outside without Peter. You walk to the market to buy fish, clutching the money in your right palm. People speak to you in Hindi, and you respond in a mix of English and Konkani. They don’t understand you, and you walk away, disheartened, with a small piece of fish that won’t be enough for dinner.
In the last two weeks of the pregnancy, you lie still in the grooves your body has made in the mattress. The maid brings you nimbu pani, assuring you that the lime will settle your stomach. The fan overhead creaks while it spins, and you pretend it’s the sea breeze you were used to in Goa. A golden cross rests on your sternum.
Your baby is a girl. You name her Shilpa, deciding it will be easier if she has an Indian name. A year later, you have another girl. Her eyes follow you wherever you go. “Surely this one will be a boy,” your neighbor says when she sees the rise of your belly a third time. Before spring, another girl is born. It’s understood that you will keep having children until you have at least one boy, but after the fourth girl, you say it’s time to stop. Peter doesn’t argue—you know he’s thinking you can’t afford these children. You lie in bed the night after the final birth. The moonlight passing through the sheer curtains looks like waves on the ceiling, and you think of your mother in the red house in Goa.
You and Peter remain in the two-bedroom flat with four daughters. You get used to the crowded rooms again, finding comfort in the body heat. People pity you because you don’t have any sons, but you are secretly happy.
Shilpa is the first to leave for Chicago at twenty-two. Your youngest daughter follows her five years later. For a while, you thought you’d keep your third daughter, but she, too, leaves for America. You continue to care for the only child who’s left, Meera. She will always need you.
The airport was still small back then, and you feel as though you and Shilpa are the only people in the world. For travel, she wears an indigo-colored dress that lands below her knees. Her black hair cascades around her face. You think, How beautiful she has become. Though she doesn’t say it, you know Shilpa is nervous. You reassure her, but you’ve never been on an airplane before either. This is not the end—she will come back to Bombay to see you—but you don’t know that yet.
You watch through the airport window as men in blue uniforms shut the plane’s door. Your reflection in the glass obscures the view as the plane glides into the slate sky, but then the light shifts, and you imagine you see her through the small airplane window. This first girl—who will become my mother—a woman now, really.
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