Reunion Dinner I: Jothi
Jothi returns to her family after a few years in college abroad. She rediscovers familiarity in her home, and the difficulty of being closeted and having a small voice in a loud family.
Part of a fiction series by resident writer Gerald Sim.
The flight from New Haven to Singapore takes 26 hours. She is transiting at Doha. At three, Doha time, she would be trying not to fall asleep because the jetlag would do her badly upon arrival.
Jo has taken everything she needs. Ambien, earplugs, sleeping pills, five shows downloaded onto her phone’s expandable memory, and a book she’s been meaning to clear. She could feel these loose items jiggling in her bag as she made her way down airport security. She laid her bag on the conveyor belt.
Sure enough, the arrival was smooth. Jo felt clear and light-headed, like when she wakes up to chilly mornings with one foot under the sheets and the other out. Standing at the carousel next to a row of groggy, muddy faces, she felt triumphant.
The Uber driver smiled at her as she loaded her bag in the boot. She smiled back. This one didn’t talk to her so much. She laid her head on the window and felt the sun intermittently strike her face. It feels rawer than the sun back there; it was delicious and ripe.
Jeya was at the lobby when the Uber pulled over. He had a ridiculous pair of aviators on. On his long face, it made him look bug-eyed. Jo pulled her baggage, and he held out his hand as if to hug her, but took the bag instead.
“It is,” he said, pulling down his shades a bit, “in all senses of the word.”
Jo grinned. He put an arm around her.
“Really damn hot. And this: very ugly. You still always want to look cool,” she tugged at his sunglasses.
“Chee. Have to maintain image.”
They rode up the lift in silence. At Level 7 Jeya pulled his phone out. At level 9, he said,
“Amma and Appa are out. Buying dinner. Amma never cooks anymore, we eat out most days anyways.”
Jo considered asking how things were at home, but she knows the answer to it already: “same lah,” always said nonchalantly, with a shrug of the shoulders and perhaps a plaintive look upwards.
“I hope there’s briyani.”
The house screamed “same lah”. All the picture frames were in order, save for a few additions. Jeya’s army picture was now nestled in a nook, between Uncle Silas’s wedding and her prom picture. She wore a tuxedo to prom, and there was considerable outrage from the parents who were there, the pestering types who loved to hover over their teenagers and their peers. Who was she to care? She was out.
“Really, nothing ever changes here, uh?”
Jeya grunted and set a cold drink in front of her. The condensation lapped at her fingers. She took off one of her rings. This one was found at a weekend farmer’s market. The other two given to her by Erin, she kept on. She fiddled with the other two. Above, her grandfather’s picture loomed over the stairway, the garland around it so bright it reeked.
“Amma just texted. Reply her eh.”
The food was set out on the table. The usual crockery laid out. From the top, it looks like boats of food were docking somewhere. What zeal Mrs. Naicker lost in cooking, she seemed to put into place-setting. The elegant table runner tickled her feet. She forgot to shave before leaving.
“School okay?” Mr. Naicker asked, peering through the top of the glasses.
“Yes. There was this sudden flurry of essays due just before my flight, but I finished them in time. That’s why I couldn’t talk to you all that much.”
“Good,” Mr. Naicker nodded approvingly. “You know never to put us before your schoolwork.”
Mrs. Naicker clicked her tongue, and her husband smiled lovingly at her. Underneath the table, he squeezed her thigh.
“Your amma is annoyed at me. She said we’ve been neglecting you.”
Jo laughed genuinely. Her eyes met Jeya’s, and he dutifully grinned back.
“I know how much you guys want me to do well. And don’t worry, I think I’m doing quite well, in comparison to the others, at least. You’d be surprised how many people slipped through the cracks to enter this school.”
“Cometh pride, cometh also shame,” Mr. Naicker said over a spoonful of rice. There was a lull. Jo felt her stomach fill up with sauces and curries.
“Devi inviting us to dinner tomorrow. She makes that divine deer briyani, you remember right? We were so worried she would fatten you up, like a pig!” Mrs. Naicker chuckled.
“Her family’s doing well. Her son is back from London, but he’s running back soon. Lawyer-in-training, UCL. Has a bit of the London accent, which fits him quite well. He grew a beard, you know? Can barely tell him apart from his father now.”
“Very handsome too,” Mrs. Naicker added, pinching Jo’s arms lightly. Embarrassingly, she could feel her slack meat.
“Two years ago, he looked like a boy. You know, he was still playing those stupid video games, like a child, and now the boy can wear a shirt without looking like it’s borrowed from his father.”
“Two years ago Jothi also had those terrible thick glasses on, remember?” Mrs. Naicker added. Jeya laughed.
“And now look at her.”
Mr. Naicker looked straight at his daughter as if she were a landscape. The whole table fell silent, content.
Jo hasn’t put on a Punjabi suit since the college’s intercultural day. She took one off her suitmate, which was ill-fitting and unflattering. Somehow, Mrs. Naicker’s suit was impeccably cut, slightly tapered at the waist.
In the car, she smoothed down her creases. It was raining heavily when they pulled into the Raos’ gates. The maid came out with an umbrella, and they had to leave two-by-two.
The Raos and the Naickers exchanged hugs and kisses, the two men hugging each other perhaps a bit too hard. The women exchanged air kisses. The son Ashwyn stood slightly behind, sheepishly smiling.
“Jothi just came in yesterday from New Haven,” Mr. Naicker beamed.
“Beautiful. I see the American weather has been kind to you,” Mr. Rao tapped her shoulder.
“Her complexion is so good. Look at mine, this humidity really just ruins it.” Mrs. Rao said as she hugged Jo. “I am so jealous. Ashwyn never lets us visit him so I never get the weather’s blessings. He’s always so busy.”
Mrs. Naicker groaned. “Jothi here always siams us. It’s our fate as parents, we must take it, no choice.”
All of them dutifully laughed.
“Please, please don’t just stand here. We have the table ready,”
“You must try this wine. Nowadays, the Australian vineyards make fantastic stuff.”
Mr. Rao appreciatively cooed over the bottle, then asked the maid to bring it to the back.
Jo could feel her stomach distend to the limit. Suddenly the punjabi suit felt constrictive. She was thankful to be sitting down. The plates were cleared, and the two families worked on their wine. Mrs. Naicker kept a worried eye on Jeya.
“Tell me, Jothi, what do you intend to major in?” Mr. Rao said. Jothi gave a dutifully bashful laugh. “I’m still not sure.” “Surely things interest you,” he rebutted.
“I’m thinking somewhere along the lines of economics or psychology.” “Fantastic.”
“The college fills her mind with all kinds of useless things. I wish she went to the UK instead where they teach more solid things,” Mr. Naicker said. “It’s painful to be paying 60K a year for her ‘interpretive dance’ class.”
Laughs around the table.
“But I’m sure there are lots of eligible men there,” Mrs. Rao said, sipping her Shiraz. Again, laughs around the table.
“You have a boyfriend, Jothi?”
“Please, Sobhan, she doesn’t even tell us!”
“No, uncle, I don’t,” Jothi laughed.
“But she’s such a flower, isn’t she?” Mr. Rao searched Ashwyn for a response. Ashwyn didn’t seem to notice.
“God knows who our Ashu here is dating also,” Mrs. Rao looked at her son with that characteristic loving-disapproving look. “Probably one of those gallivanting London Indians.”
“Bah, he wouldn’t tell us either,” Mr. Rao jokingly punched his son’s arm. “Right?” Ashwyn laughed and sipped his wine, almost in time with Jo.
Jo caught him smoking upstairs. She could see his forehead bent over the railing. A swirl of smoke was forming around him; it lent him some enigma that would have been attractive on someone else.
“You smoke uh?” Ashwyn jumped. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Yah, I do.”
Jo nodded, replacing the glass door behind her.
“I do too. Menthols?”
“It’s too hot to smoke anything else here.”
“You’re right,” she took the stick he pushed out of the case. “Thank you.”
Ashwyn nodded, lighting her cigarette. She took a drag.
“Eh, so you’re the typical ‘good girl gone bad’ case uh.”
“You also. So typical. Go UK smoke.”
“Everyone does. It’s the only way you can power through law school.”
“They’re trying to hook us up.”
Jo burst out laughing. The slims made every laugh giddy.
“Yeah. So typical Indian, right?”
He nodded. They were now both staring at a window at a neighbour’s house. Someone turned on the lights there.
Ashwyn stubbed out his cigarette into a cup and squeezed Jo’s shoulder.
“When you finish, there’s mouthwash in the toilet here. Indian parents, they can smell your cig breath from Johor Bahru.”
Jo grinned and he slinked out of the door. A text from Erin came. She let herself ravish Erin recounting the life she left back at New Haven; the same bunch of friends, the same cafès, the same teachers. Her cigarette ran past the filter. Slims burn quickly.
She forgot to gargle. Mrs. Naicker must have told her husband at one point of the night. By then, he was wobbling in his walk and not in any way fit to drive. He waited until halfway through the drive to interrogate Jo.
“Did you pick this disgusting habit in the States? From your American friends? They are all idiots, you know. I told you not to get mixed up with the wrong people. Do you know how many chemicals are in those things? It’s the same as licking the road. That’s how your appamma died you know? Went through a pack a day.”
“I smoked since I was in JC.”
“Are you proud of that?” he slammed the steering wheel. It was still raining. The Naickers fell silent.
“Low-class. Sending you there only makes a whore out of you.”
Mrs. Naicker tutted. She turned around and frowned at Jo, saying: “we just want the best for you, Jothi.”
Suddenly, Jo felt like she had forgotten something.