Baba bought a Christmas tree because Tania insisted on it. Two weeks later, at circle time, everyone in her class is going to talk about unwrapping gifts around a Christmas tree. And she does not want to be left out just because we don’t go to church on Sundays; we worship several Gods and Goddesses in a temple, adorned by flowers, covered in sandalwood fragrance, called on by constant ringing of bells.
Ma sits quietly in kitchen, stares at the mottled bark of oak in the backyard, her face a roiling ocean of emotions, her neck perpetually taut. She gets up and stirs the gravy for mutton, whispers to herself. Outside, the sunlight is shallow. Soon the festive mayhem will be over. It's hard to explain our friends and their parents why we don’t celebrate Christmas, and watch their faces drop. Hindus, you said? They ask, Like Buddhists?
At the dinner table we say our prayers. Tania and I don’t close our eyes. We watch our parents, their head bowed and hands folded, whispering shlokas from ancient Hindu text. Unlike American parents, Ma and Baba don’t touch each other in public. Ma never wears pants or skirts even though she has remarkable legs.
Ma instructs me to close my mouth while chewing. Tania asks about the ornaments for the Christmas tree, Ma suggests using her imitation earrings, old necklaces, silk hander kerchiefs. Tania shrugs, I know she’s disappointed. We talk about decorating the house and Pa says we can use the oil lamps from Diwali. It’s not the same, Tania resists. From the overhead bulb, light splashes on her face. She urges Ma and Baba to buy a few strings of bulbs for the tree in the front yard, sweating through her fleece. I place my hand over hers. Ma continues to suck the bone, little lumps of marrow falling on her plate, her fingers licked clean.
After the dinner, I pull out the trash cans on the roadside. The air pokes everywhere, a chill spreading through my body faster than fire. The houses are decorated like brides. I collect the mail and stay in the driveway listening to the distant evening traffic. I don’t feel I belong here, not in the way Ma and Baba talk about their village in India, how they made it out to America for a better life for them and their kids. I don’t think I belong where they come from. I am only familiar with a few alphabets of Hindi, garam masala and turmeric, differentiation between a few Hindu castes based on their last names. Tania and I are at the border: our citizenship is a string of digits in our passport, our ethnicity a questionnaire our parents wish we knew the answers to. We can look on either side and not find a home. Between my dusky fingers, flyers flap: coupons for clothes and jewelry, symmetrical trees that go up to the ceiling.
Our fake tree stands next to the fireplace we never use and clean once a year. The LED’s blink hard: yellow and red. Isn’t it nice? Baba says, lounging in his easy chair, smiling, extending his right arm towards me. Yes, I nod my head and hand him the mail, wishing I was like him: feeling at ease, wherever, whenever. He has never said I love you to any of us. The words just don’t come. In the background, the vents vibrate like small-winged birds, blast warm, dry air and he asks me to reduce the temperature. Then he goes back to reading the mail and the room glows in an artificial light, like a town in the middle of nowhere.
-- Tara Isabel Zambrano works as a semiconductor chip designer. Her work has been published in Tin House Online, The Southampton Review, Slice, Triquarterly, Yemassee, Passages North, and others. She is Assistant Flash Fiction Editor at Newfound.org. Tara moved from India to the United States two decades ago and holds an instrument rating for single engine aircraft. She lives in Texas.