I first saw her when I came down for a glass of milk. Mama kept the kitchen counter clean and arranged her kitchen stools in a parallel line every night. She was sitting in the middle stool, her back to the counter, staring into space. A veil of light vibrated around her. I had blinked once then thrice and the floaty apparition remained, the errant stool breaking away from mama's assiduous orderliness. Mama would wake up in the morning, pause by the middle stool and adjust it 2 inches back.
She sat there, in loose blue jeans and a sweater top, her blonde hair clipped to a side; an ethereal creature who looked calmly past our kitchen cabinets while she swept her sneakered feet on mama's vacuumed floor. What was she looking at, I wondered, following her gaze. Mama's jar of strawberry wafers? Her Holland mugs? The wall? Mama rearranged so much, I hadn't the geometric precision to tell what our kitchen architecture displayed.
I coughed and she whisked around, her blonde hair slapping her white cheeks. And just like that she was gone. 2 seconds ago, I shared a universe with this strange being and here I was back in mama's kitchen, 15 slippered steps from pouring Marigold milk into a glass.
I trekked to mama's fridge and scanned the chocolates, butter beans, diced corn, iced coffees and milk. Mama had clearly done grocery shopping for me.
"Oh you're up early," chirped Mama from behind. I startled. Mama swanned to me and kissed my cheek. She was in her rose pink dressing gown unashamedly bra-less in front of her strapping 25-year-old son. Her light brown hair was tied in a lazy braid which I suspected was to keep her hair wavy for the day. Her recent photos on Facebook suggested a preoccupation with curly hair.
"Ma, is there a ghost in the house?" I asked a little foolishly.
"A what darling?" Mama asked disappearing into the pantry.
"A ghost! Oh nevermind. Coffee mama?"
"I'll make it myself darling, thank you. I like it black and sweet, unlike you. Put the kettle on though won’t you."
I liked the sound of the kettle boiling. It gave me a semblance of hope and great expectations. The arrival of coffee, no matter brewed or sachet-ed filled my overwrought mind with tidings of joy. Kettle boiling in the morning hour, I made a mental note to write that down, I needed a checklist to fulfil my average life. There was no kettle boiling in the kitchen where I lived. Just the sound of ugly sirens and the dull roar of an operational city. I awoke to the awful jolt from the alarm clock, put myself into unsympathetic clothes and made the grudging march into the streets with store-bought coffee I never finished.
Mama sashayed to the kitchen counter. She was 50 and looked 35. Her boyfriends looked like 28 and I'd long gotten used to that. She pushed back the errant kitchen stool and turned to me. "How long are you staying this time?"
"Yesssss," mama clapped her hands excitedly. "We can have so much fun."
I smiled in spite of my impending trepidation. "Let's go out tonight. I've been eyeing this pizza place for weeks," she said.
"Is it high carb?" I asked.
"Way too high. That’s why I waited for you."
My good mood was dented by the text I received. "Baby, spoke to your mom already?"
Evan seemed more anxious than me. It irritated me that he was intruding on my holiday so soon. Couldn't he give it a rest? I'd held his hand a little longer yesterday and let him fall asleep while my hand suffered pins and needles. In the morning, he had made a show of missing me and how mom would love me no matter what. I had grunted with irritation while he poured coffee and buttered toast for me.
"I can do it myself," I said, my voice rising slightly. "But it’s nice of you," I quickly offered upon seeing his wounded face.
I felt liberated the minute I stepped on the train and waved him goodbye. Predictably his text sprung up on my phone in seconds. He would miss me and I was to sleep early to avoid my backache from exacerbating. I found myself opening Grindr again. Evan and me had promised to get off it when we met, and I believed he did. It's not that I didn't love Evan, or maybe if I were brutally honest, I didn't anymore. I was definitely not in the state of love. Evan was attractive in the typical gay way - great skin, great smile, buff body and an intelligent mind. I was besotted with him for awhile. But Evan was needy and lacked a life independent of me. This turned me off and I found myself working hard at sex, thinking the worst thoughts to keep from being flaccid.
I settled on a bar stool and put my phone away. "So mom, dinner tonight and a movie after?"
"What do you wanna watch?" she asked from the fridge. I saw her removing jars and rearranging fruits. I could relate to the pleasure she derived from a tidy fridge.
"I don't know, the Greatest Showman?"
Mom laughed. "Trust you,"
I felt a punch to my stomach and nerves pricked my knuckles. "Mom," I nervously attempted.
"We'll go at 6pm. I've got Jenna at 3 and yoga class after."
Failed attempt. I would try again.
She flitted around the kitchen, juicing something, cracking open an egg. Mama was a water sign with a touch of air and recklessness. Generally liberal, deeply emotional and strangely conservative in matters of love. There were worst things in third world countries but telling her I was gay qualified as a Liliputian first world problem. I couldn't do it. The words couldn't come out and I gave in to our regular banter.
Mama and me had finished breakfast and she suggested driving to Walmart for toiletries. I had left my shampoo in the city and Mama was unnecessary in her insistence that I had access to my regular things. She made me feel comfortably coddled in a way that Evan couldn't.
"No mama, it’s okay, I can use your shampoo,"
"Shut up and let's go. I need to pick up eyeliner anyway,"
I had laughed and kissed her. We both jumped into our sweatpants and hoodies and headed out.
I had picked up a conditioning shampoo from Kiehls, my little attempt in enunciating my un-Christian tendency. She had bought eyeliner and lip gloss. "Ring it all in, I'll pay," she told the cashier.
After that, we walked to a deli and she told me about Jesse. He was a 30-something music executive who arranged concerts and tours for Wiz Khalifa. They had been going out for 3 months and he had asked her for a holiday.
"You like him?"
"He's not "the one," but yeah I do,"
Mom had no hangups about her boyfriend being around me. She was eating breadsticks when he appeared. He looked at me tentatively and I gave him a friendly smile. That seemed to relax him. Jesse, held a serious authority, dressed well and was cool in an emotionally-intense sort of way. He seemed really into mom, the way he looked at her and offered to get more napkins. Had I not been there, Jesse would have cuddled Mama and I sure as hell could not handle that. There was a degree of how-dare-you dangling on the cliff of my brain.
He left after 15 minutes. "Sorry baby," she said touching my hand. “He wanted to just see me for awhile.” I shrugged it off.
"Are you seeing anyone?" she asked. Nerves docked and I inhaled deeply. By all accounts, this was the perfect timing. I had given approval to Jesse the younger boyfriend and it was her turn to approve my detour from the norm. But mom was buoyantly applying lipstick which meant we would be leaving our coffees. Which meant Mama didn't expect to hear anything extraordinary.
"Umm yes, I am. But ummmmm Im thinking of calling it off,"
"Ouch, why? Not up to your standards?" she shook her head farcically.
"I guess I can't stand how I've become the centre of someone's universe. I’m the sun being revolved around this loyal planet."
"Hahaha I know right!!" Mama stood up. "Isn't that the biggest killer of all relationships."
We walked out of the restaurant. "It was okay in the beginning when we first started out, but lately I’m irritated,"
"Break up baby,"
"You give the best advice Mama."
"I definitely do."
I spent the afternoon in the gym while Mama set off with her activities. She had driven me to the gym and told me that Jesse hadn’t expected me to be so good looking. Mama had laughed. "He's going to up his game around you. What did he think? Chinese Americans aren't hot?"
Rather than flatter me, it served to heighten my anxiety. Was I being drawn more to the side of a straight man? "He's pretty good looking too," I said tonelessly.
I found my worries dissipating as I gripped steel and felt the familiar burn of lactic muscle. Pumping iron calmed me down. I put on my headphones and ran for 20 minutes, while Daddy Yankee and Skrillex egged me about sex and finding myself. I was one of those unobstrusive gay types. In the hierarchy of the gay world, and lest I sound like a snob which I did not intend, I sat on the lion's pack. I walked with the gait of an athlete with too much shoulder, I had no untoward hand gesticulations and my voice lacked the nasal overtone my more effeminate counterparts had. I was, I suppose typically masculine. Masculine isn't something every man has, much like how femininity doesn't attach itself to all women. Straight men and their ludicrous notion of how masculine they automatically were made me laugh.
I knew I was gay from a young age. 7 if I remember correctly. Years of carrying a secret and feeling guilty does things to your self-worth. I remember going on a date when I was 15. Reese Johnson was coy and bubbly. She had on cherry lipstick and a yellow smocked top. We spent 3 hours in Appleby's just talking about stuff deigned too "sissy" by my buddies. I didn’t tell her about being gay, but I realized after, how important having a good friend was. Years of compensating and quelling that deep pit of fear matures you. My ego never allowed me to find another Reese Johnson. Never allowed me to take the dance classes I wanted and wear a silkier texture in summer. Perhaps if I had been more honest, it would be less difficult to come out to Mama.
I knew someone was checking me out when I went to the bench press. He had the body of a seasoned gym-goer and a face like a 40-year-old who hadn't aged well. He was like a ravaged fish that had done its rounds. Too much sex and partying, my over-assuming mind said. I wasn't interested. This man was too much of an extrovert to even be my friend. I nodded at him politely and regretted it immediately. I'd given him a confirmation that would interrupt my gym time. I resumed my workout with a determination meant to shake him off my tail.
When I walked to the locker area, 40-something was parading naked. Erotic art snaked itself on his left thigh. Was it art or a mere come-hither? On top of feeling disturbed, I was starting to get irritated. He looked at me longingly when I walked past.
"Don't even," I warned.
He gaped at me, before looking mildly sheepish.
"Why so grumpy? Lighten up man. I’m Kent," he held out his hand.
"I’m in a hurry," I said patting his hand away.
He grabbed my hand and pulled me to him, his body pressing against mine, his breath on my face.
"Awww don't you have some time?"
"Hey asshole, if you don't let me go in the next 3 seconds, I’m going to rearrange your fucking face."
The aged face looked angry, "What's your problem man? Why don't you live a little? You got something stuck up your ass?"
I banged the locker doors with my back of my fist. The violent clang of metal reverberated in that room, shocking the innocent bystanders and causing a wave of "what was that?" out front.
40-something held his hands up and backed off.
I showered and theorized that I was close to depression. Anger could be a by-product. I had spent 25 years being a closet gay and it was killing me. Living a life where your most basic self is disallowed does something to your soul. I had woken up one morning in cold sweat, only to realise I had to come clean. I had to tell Mama. I needed her to tell me it was okay. I needed her to accept me so this guilt of being not straight would go away. I prayed so hard nothing would change her love. Perhaps that was my greatest fear. That her love for me would change. That I would look less in her eyes.
But enough with this facade and feeling "wrong." I played football in school and loved the SuperBowl like a religion. But I also read Nietzsche, Indian novelists and played the piano. I had a preference for good coffee and tea and developed stamina for meandering conversations with my grandma. I only allowed my feminine side after curtain calling the masculine performance. Straight men and their obsession, or rather fear of being less masculine shunned anything feminine or gay. Most men didn't know their true selves, too busy living up to the world with their ego pupetting them. Triple that for me. Perhaps some of that pent-up rage had imprinted itself on the dented gym locker.
I would tell Mama tonight. I would tell Mama that as hot as Hugh Jackman was, my crowd rooted for Zac Efron.
We met Jesse after the movie. I was both disappointed and relieved and unable to feign an animated conversation.
"Darling are you tired?" Mama asked with concern while Jesse put his hand on her knee under the table.
She pushed it away and I saw the fleeting hurt in his eyes.
"We should go home, you just got back and you're probably exhausted." Mama was wearing an oversized light pink sweater and tight jeans. Couldn’t blame Jesse for wanting more time with Mama.
"Actually I am, but let me Uber back and you kids have fun."
Mama put up a fight but I would hear none of it. "Take her somewhere," I said to Jesse. I shook Jesse's hand the bro way and he looked at me gratefully. I had earned VIP Wiz Khalifa concert tickets.
"See you later, don't do anything I wouldn't," I chided mama. She giggled and I watched as Jesse swooped his arm around her, happy to be finally rid of the son.
At home, I decided to make a cup of tea and watch some Hulu. I sent an obligatory text to Evan and we spoke for 5 minutes when he called. I pretended to yawn and he let me off easily. "So lonely without you," he had cooed while I channel-surfed. I threw my phone aside and settled on the sofa. Jasmine tea soothed me and the weather was cool. I drifted off in front of the TV while voices chattered on.
She was there when I opened my eyes 3 hours later. Sitting in the kitchen counter in the same jeans and white sweater. I craned my neck and remained absolutely still although my insides were cold. She seemed to have no evil intent, except to sit there in feline grace. She kept looking at the wall, her head bobbing gently and her body moving to an invisible vibration. In the night, the veil of light around her seemed brighter, like gold dust. I had no notion of anything reasonable to do so I decided to count. I mouthed the numbers, giving them weight, reinforcing my present situation with a ghost. Then she turned to me and smiled. A lovely smile that reached her eyes. I trembled and sat upright, sending a tasseled pillow to the floor. And just like that, she disappeared.
Mama was in the kitchen making coffee when I trudged down at 10am in the morning.
"Someone slept well," she said, bringing over a plate of pancakes.
"Pancakes! I love you ma!"
"Maple or honey?"
"Butter if you have some," She waltzed back to her kitchen counter and I heard the sound of knife slicing butter.
"Mom you don’t have to do that," I said. She shushed me. "Sooooooo. Where did you and Jesse go last night? You were out all night," I asked.
"Oh nowhere. After a drive, we hung out at a bar. Eggs?"
"Scrambled," We were silent for an awkward moment. I knew they went back to his house but Mama was always smart to be coy with me. She brought over chipped butter flakes in a plate and I dug into my breakfast.
"Ma, I gotta tell you this. I saw a ghost in this kitchen last night, actually it was the second time. She appeared yesterday morning right before you came down."
"Oh is it?" She asked looking at her slab of butter.
"Seriously mom, this is for real! It’s this Asian girl. She wears these light blue jeans and she's blonde. It creeps me out."
"Is she pretty?"
"Mom I’m not kidding. I'm freaked out," I said turning around. "Who is she?"
"How do I know darling? I’ve never met this ghost friend of yours."
I harrumphed. "I’m not joking. I really saw this thing. I counted till 67 and she was still there."
"Errrr okay," she said unconvincingly, as she turned her spatula on the eggs. "I mean, they do exist. We read about them long enough to know they come and go,"
"She just sits at that kitchen stool, yeah, that one in front of you and stares at the wall"
"Is she staring at my picture?" Mama asked, the sizzle of eggs distracting her.
"Picture?" I got up, my heart thumping. Why hadn't I noticed a picture on the kitchen wall.
"I had it up a few months ago," Mama replied with more interest. "It was during our dance school party."
I went over and inspected the blown up photo.
She continued, "We had the greatest night dancing to eighties music. It was so cool, we all went back at 4 in the morning. I don't remember having that much fun since ever."
It was a picture of 15 people posing in the expected dance fashion. Mama was fourth from and everyone was in various states of expressions. It was a regular happy picture without any nuance or thought. Just a photo which resonated with the 15 people in it. I scrutinized for clues. The confetti in the background? A girl in the corner of the picture looking stumped? The clock? Any secret messages formed if I closed my left eye? I stared for 5 minutes while Mama bustled about. "Gonna stare all day?"
"Who's the guy in the center?" I asked finally at my wits end.
Mama came over with more interest. Her picture seemed to be her talking point. "Arun?" She pointed to the smiling young man in a black jacket and OBEY cap. "That's one of the dance instructors from Cloud Studio. He's a great dancer and a really nice guy."
"What do you know about him?"
"Nothing except that he teaches hip hop. A big Jesus fan. We only met two or three times. He's new to our town. Well relatively. Been in Richmond for over a year."
"Big Jesus fan?"
“Oh you know, the kind that attributes God to everything."
"Hmmm... Can I meet him?"
"To ask him if he knows your ghost?" Mama laughed uproariously. "Aidan darling, are you alright?" She brought the scrambled eggs over and sat next to me. "I know it’s ridiculous Mama," She waved me off. "I’ve always been good with ridiculous. I'll drop you off in the evening when I go for my art class. Now eat."
I could hear Migos and Nicki Minaj's MotorSport revving as I climbed the studio stairs. I pushed open the door and saw an empty reception. To my left, a guy was dancing by himself in one of the studio rooms, checking his movement in the mirrors with a fierce scrutiny. He repeated a spin and a drop to the floor with a finesse I could only envy. Then he saw me. The music was lowered and out he came.
"Hi how can I help you?" he asked pleasantly.
"Um hi, I’m looking for Arun," I said nervously.
"That's me," he replied cheerfully. I was instantly at ease. He was Indian, boyish and slim. Unlike Jesse's cool which had a tinge of arrogance and heaviness, Arun's was easygoing and inspiring.
"Hey man, I’m Aidan," we shook hands. "I’m Robin's son."
Arun's face registered familiarity. "Robin? Oh yes, wow. Great meeting you. Your mom is so cool. We partied together once."
"Yeah, yeah she told me," I replied, my mind drawing to a blank. I kept quiet and Arun looked at me quizzically.
"Okay man this is going to sound strange, but do you know an Asian blonde girl in blue jeans and a white sweater? Hair past her shoulders, kinda slim and ..." I trailed off because Arun's smile had disappeared.
"Are you talking bout Swensen?"
"Ummmm, could I see how Swensen looks like?"
Arun's eyes narrowed. Here goes, I thought. "Now this is going to freak you out, but this girl I just described appeared in my house yesterday. Morning and night. I was so freaked out. I don't know who she is but she kept looking at a photo in which you were there and I’m just shooting in the dark really, so as weird as this sounds, you gotta show me how Swensen looks like."
It could be the desperation in my voice because after an intense stare, Arun took his phone out. Gone was his light spirit. "Wait man. What do you mean she appeared in your house? Swensen's gone."
"She appeared as a ghost. Sorry if that disappoints you. Her picture please."
Arun scrolled swiftly and stopped. He handed me his phone. I felt the hair stand on my skin. "Oh God, that's her."
"What the?" Arun took his phone back. She was on her knees, wearing a light green turtleneck and high-waisted jeans. A selfie taken in front of her mirror. A selfie probably meant for Arun. "Hang on, let me find another picture. He scrolled again then showed me his phone. "Is this what you saw?" I swallowed hard. She was standing in a park in the same blue jeans and white sweater. "Oh my God."
"That used to be her profile picture," Arun said taking his phone back.
We were both breathing hard, unsure of the new dimension thrown at us. "You sure you saw her? Her?" Arun pressed.
"Why didn't she appear to me?"
"Who is she?" I asked.
Arun breathed deeply. "We were seeing each other. It may sound corny but she was my soulmate."
"She was one of those children of the Universe sort, too cool for religion, too much into animals. We had an argument before she died. That killed me man, cause we never resolved it."
"Sorry to ask man, but how did she die?"
"She was shot 7 months ago," Arun said flatly. "She had gone off to NYC for her solo travel like she always did and she got caught in a gang crossfire in Brooklyn. She was just walking home from the subway, drinking her iced coffee in Flatbush Avenue when the cars came. She died on the spot."
I was quiet for five seconds. "What you guys argue about?"
Arun sighed, as if he had thought about it a hundred time. “Sometimes I text her verses from the bible. A day before she left for NYC, we had a conversation about one of the verses and unfortunately that day, it went from a misunderstanding to a quarrel. She can be so disrespectful about Christ sometimes," Arun looked tired. "She accused me of forcing her to be a Christian and it made me so mad because I would never do that. Then she started saying my God was egoistical because he created people to worship him. And then she started finding fault, bringing up homosexuality."
My ears perked up. "Homosexuality?"
"Well you know what the bible says about that. Well I don't know if you know but never mind. She said people like me didn't make it a happy place for homosexuals. She said I may not go up to their faces but my belief made their lives mentally difficult. Listen I don't want to go into details, but she wasn't very respectful about my beliefs.
"Wow!" I couldn’t help it.
Arun shook his head exasperated. "Religion aside, she was a great girl. I sure as hell thought she was."
I was starting to think so too. "So why is she appearing in my house? And only to me? Mama's never seen her before."
Arun looked at me intently. "Did she say or do anything? Come on man, tell me something please."
I paused as I went back to yesterday night, digging deep into my memory. I thought of Swensen sitting on the kitchen stool, hands on her jeans, and the smile she gave. I thought of myself sitting in the sofa and seeing her. The pieces began to fit and a slow wave of realization moored.
"She stares at you." I said. I took my time with my words, each word pushing itself out in a clarity I suddenly grasped. “I think she’s appearing in my kitchen to speak to you really.”
"She smiled at me yesterday, a really genuine smile, like she wanted to reassure me she's fine. She's assuring you man, not me. I’m a conduit."
"There was this light around her. This may sound corny but I feel like it was love. Like a vibration of love. She's definitely not angry at you and she wants you to know that. In fact, I have this sense that she loves you.” I was stunned at my own words. But something inside, something that connected with the mysteries of this great Universe felt so convicted. “Yeah, yeah, I think that's it man!" I was excited. This was surreal.
Arun's face was heavy with emotion. He looked as if a giant weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
"But why you?" asked Arun.
"I think the photo in the house is a big reason why," I replied. "It was easier for her to get to you through that."
"But why not your mom? She only appeared around you."
I took a deep breath and said the words I'd been dying to say. "Because I’m gay."
I got a takeaway pizza and settled on the sofa at home. Occasionally I would glance at the kitchen counter but I knew Swensen wouldn't be there. Her bidding done, her spirit body was floating somewhere else, in this unfathomable universe.
Arun had hugged me before I left. We decided that this incident was significant enough to keep in touch and be Facebook friends. Swensen was a spunky girl. She'd send a gay guy to tell her soulmate that she was alright. I was chosen because she wanted to make a point with Arun.
Arun had laughed after I explained my Swensen hypothesis. It was a genuine laugh and I had a feeling he was going to be fine after this. "So besides telling me she loves me, she wants the last word." I didn't ask what they argued about, but I could sort of guess. This was Swensen's way of saying she was right. She wanted to win the argument.
I couldn't figure out why Swensen wouldn’t appear to Arun. Maybe she had limited channels of travel in her dimension. Maybe his house wasn't ghost-friendly. I could only guess. Or maybe, I deduced, she felt more good would come from sending me.
I felt a lightness in my heart. Swensen's arrival made me see that the world we perceived was so small from what truly existed. Here we were, stressed over human-made realities and settling for average just to conform. I would break up with Evan later tonight. Our love had run its course and we would be better people with others or by ourselves.
Mama came home as I finished the last cheesy pizza. She had picked up groceries and I helped her unpack.
"Ma," I began.
"Uh huh," she said putting canned pineapples into the fridge.
"I need to tell you something."
"There's no more space inside here," she grumbled, rummaging in the fridge.
"Mama, I’m gay," I forced the words out without hesitation and before fear had a chance.
I couldn't see her face as she was bent inside the fridge. There was a pregnant silence for an eternity of 5 seconds and I heard the thud thud of my heart. She nodded slowly, as if accessing the situation, her back to me. "I got it," she yelled, jolting me out of my nervous stupor. "The pickles go back, butter beans for dinner, the pineapples go front and I've made space. Woohoo!"
Then she turned to face me, "Okay darling, when do I get to meet your boyfriend?"