SMALL ADJUSTMENTS • by Rheea Mukherjee

My Aunt once told me that love comes uninvited. She offered no context, and because of my young age I did not demand one. She was a widow who fell in love at an inopportune time. My disapproving family called him Old Man. He was fifteen years older than she was, and lived in a small white house with a big garden, south of the city. Old Man had a brown three-legged mutt named Congo who sat under the guava tree, his mouth either hanging in surrender to the sun or chewing on a fallen white flower from the tree. I’m the only one who ever saw Old Man’s house.

I knew how much she loved him; I knew every trip to his house was a secret, hours that were never supposed to have existed, chunks of time that I would be left to recreate for my mother, when she asked me about my day. Aunt never told me not to tell; I just understood.

That year, during my summer vacation, I had begged to stay at Aunt’s place for a few days, so we could bake together and watch old Hindi films. Aunt had promised we would do all of those things, but at Old Man’s house instead. It was a small adjustment; pleasing Aunt was a task I craved. Old Man had opened the black gate, his face soured with concern when he saw me. He asked her if my being here was safe; she just smiled at him in response. Her curly hair dangled across her high cheek bones, she smelt of roses and musk — a smell she always wore to his house. Her smile immediately made Old Man relax. The change was physically visible, in the way he stood, the way his legs lay flatter on the ground with every reassuring tilt of her head, his wide hands hung more effortlessly from his shoulders, and finally, most apparent when his thin lips parted into a smile of his own. He lifted me to the air, kissed my cheek and pushed me into his chest as he hugged me.

“Little Mango, you are a special child, one with the maturity of a sixty-year-old, and here I am sixty-one, having the mind of a child.”

“You don’t look like a child. You look eighty-four!” And Old Man chased me until Congo barged out of the front door, and did his unique three-legged hopping in excitement, jumping, his only front paw on my chest, his mouth a wet mess on my face.

There was a surprise for me in the house. Old Man was taking care of his neighbor’s son while his family attended to a family problem in Chennai. The boy sat on the couch, a green tennis ball in his hands; his teeth were clenched, as if he were imitating a cartoon character.

“Can I play with the ball, too?” I asked. And the boy in reply threw the ball with all his strength at my face. I did not cry, even though Aunt almost started to. My upper cheek was bruised, and as Old Man and Aunt hovered around me, placing ice on my face, asking if I needed to go to the hospital, I didn’t reply. Instead, I turned my head towards the boy; his face had paled with fear, his eyes softened and his teeth no longer clenched. I called out to him with my hands, “Want to play now?”

The boy came running to my side and solemnly nodded his head. I got up, and took his hand, pulled him to the garden. I heard Old Man murmur after me, “The maturity of a sixty-year-old.”

His name was Amit and for three days we played in the shade of the guava tree, cutting guavas into varied shapes and allowing Congo to chase us around the house. In the evenings Aunt, Old Man, Amit and I would watch movies: Mother India, Chandani, and Sholay. During those three days my Aunt called my mother only once, and when I took the phone, I said we were doing fine, baking, watching movies, and going to the market.

I try not to, but I do remember the way Aunt’s face paled to the shade of cotton bed sheets as she saw my mother and father in front of her house as we arrived back in an auto. She had taken a deep breath in and had told them we had gone out for a day trip. But my parents knew better, they snatched me away by my arm, and then my mother noticed the bruise on my cheek and her voice echoed with a new ferocity.

“And that monster beats children too, is it?”

I didn’t see Aunt for years after that. I only heard of her in snippets: the catering business she started, how she didn’t take phone calls from my grandparents. Sometimes I would hear another family member talking to a friend about all the shame Aunt had brought on the family as they drank tea from flower-patterned porcelain cups.

I never saw Old Man again; I heard from family he died when I was seventeen. When I turned twenty-seven, I reconnected with my Aunt (in spite of my parents’ disapproval) and we started a new friendship, one where we never talked of the past but possessed the understanding that our bond was thick because of it. I never told her about the day I stood in line to buy tickets for a movie, and recognized him immediately, standing near the entrance, red cardboard box of popcorn in his hand. Even though he was two feet taller with facial hair, and a mole I didn’t remember him having on the left of his forehead, I knew it was Amit.  I did not tell her that, for entire moments, I inhaled roses and musk, and my tongue tasted the tangy-sweet of unripe guava.

Rheea Mukherjee received her MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ultra Violet, Southern Humanities Review, CHA : An Asian Literary Magazine, Bengal Lights, Foreign Flavors Anthology and JetWings Magazine. Her previous fiction has been a Top 25 finalist in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award. Her unpublished collection of stories, In These Cities We Dreamed, was a Semi-Finalist in the Black Lawrence Press, St Lawrence Book Award, 2011. She co-founded and facilitates Bangalore Writers Workshop. She lives and writes in Bangalore, India.

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