They’ve thrown this party for twenty years and counting. I haven’t missed once. Some of us have divorced, some have left the country, others are joined by their children, and I’ve had my only one die.
The party is Christmas-themed and takes place on Christmas Eve, which means something to only two kinds of people in this country. There’s the poor, misplaced by every one of our 33 million gods and found by the Jesuits who brought them to Jesus. Then there’s us, recipients of bounty, blessings, and Hollywood aesthetics. Every year I purchase a red sweater with something joyful on it. This year’s has tiny bells sewn all over the front (handmade in New Delhi, delivered with a photograph of the maker). The bells jingle slightly as I slip out of conversations once I’ve gotten the gist (how quickly the world is warming, new apps to try on the phone, ways to avoid cancer). The conversations I enjoy best are the ones I’m not in.
The year my son died I arrived with a giant bow pinned to my chest. It was a sure way of showing I was there to say, “Cheers!” Grief is not something I want to share with this group of people.
He was twenty-three and drunk. His father called after the funeral to say he died to lift the distance between us. I said he died because his body slammed into a pole at 150 kilometers per hour.
What do they mean when they say it’s about the living? They mean a torn aorta and nobody to mend it will lose you a seat at the table of concerns; they mean when you trade the dead’s body for its worth in absence, you can refuse the bulk of it — “I’m afraid that weighs too much,” is something you could say. I told my husband I wanted to take all of it.
“You already missed your chance to throw yourself onto the pyre,” he said, and hung up. He called right back to say he didn’t mean it and asked if I wanted to meet before he flew back to wherever it is he lives these days.
I called a realtor, rented our house to some Germans who agreed to keep the staff, and moved into a cottage at a friend’s resort in Nagarkot. The view of Everest, as everyone will tell you, is more than spectacular. Besides, room service can do wonders during a difficult time. From one day to the next, the world produces things that don’t remedy themselves. Hair on the pillowcase. Nail clippings on the bathroom floor. Flecks of skin on the writing desk. To live is to labor. You leave that to housekeeping, and you tip them well.
One of the children who went to school with my son is at the party with her fiancé. I haven’t seen her in years because her family moved to Australia. We were both in love with this girl, my son and I. I’d bring her gifts, and my son would draw comic strips about discoveries the two of them had made together. “Oh, how cute!” she says now, examining one tiny bell on my sweater. “Come stay with me,” I want to suggest, calculating for a quick second the chances of her saying yes (slim). Alternatively: “Take me back with you to Australia. I’m no longer afraid of big spiders.”
Once, standing behind her in the school bus line, my son tucked an illustrated note under her skirt’s waistband, and she showed it to a teacher who made him come to the front and rip it up before putting it in the bin. He laughed as he told me about it.
“Aren’t you a little bit sad?” I asked him.
“I already cried on the bus.”
The girl he was dating has moved back to Bangladesh. Every once in a while she emails me a thoughtful quote about letting go. “At your age,” I want to tell her, “I highly recommend it, let it all go. At my age, I don’t have to.” Instead I ask her about new restaurants in Dhaka, about menus I’ve studied online, as if I plan on eating at any of these places.
When my husband calls, it’s from some beach that looks out upon the bluest of oceans, his voice inseparable from the smell of cigarettes even as it comes through an international phone line. I imagine him in a bathrobe on a sunny balcony, chest hair unruly from the salt in the water, legs propped on the table. The very people who busy themselves with quotidian concerns, afraid a moment of reflection might pull them under, are the ones who’ll accuse you of sleepwalking. “You’re sleepwalking,” he likes to say.
“I’m deep-diving,” I’ve replied more than once.
Our host makes a show of standing on a chair and tapping her wine glass with a spoon. She gathers us to unveil a newly acquired painting. (It looks like a murder was summoned to the canvas.) “So raw!” everyone whispers around me. No one asks for my professional opinion anymore, not even our friend the curator who sold this painting and used to sell mine. They assume I quit because of my son, but the truth is my work had started to wane long before he died. There’s a limit to the energy you can put into watercolor florals, and to the number of banks and hotels that can fill their walls with them.
I don’t tell anyone that I’ve been making effigies for the last year and a half. The sunroom in the cottage is filled with them. Watching our son’s body slowly engulfed in flames, I had imagined the burden that would fall on me one day to oversee the ritual of cremating my husband. It became a scene I kept returning to for pleasure. So I made an effigy of him. I burnt it at a safe location suggested by the man who works the resort’s front desk. I told him it was art. “All done?” he asked, waiting to instruct someone to clean up after me. Now I have sixteen of them, each over eight feet tall, including one of my son and one of myself.
All night I’ve been studying these old faces. The hostess with her thick brows, the husband with his large ears. Every one of them an effigy-to-be. I pause next to the curator, whose square jaw is pleading for my attention, and I think about turning to her and asking if she can find a space where we can gather an audience to watch me burn around fifty effigies.
Comfort is your head in the arms of someone who isn’t embarrassed by tears. For me, this was provided by the oldest of our house staff: Phoolmati, who was unmarried, who never went home, who was at the hospital when I gave birth, who put my son to sleep when I couldn’t, and who permanently shrank as a result of mourning my son according to the traditions.
For the first few months I was a new bride at the house, I was convinced she was placed there to bring me to ruin. I used to call her “Phoolie,” not out of endearment, but because I didn’t have the patience. It was my son who pointed out that the word “servants” was demeaning, and now I call them staff.
I was an idiot not to bring Phoolie with me. I called her to ask if it was true she was thinking of retiring soon, and she said it was. “Work for me till then,” I said. “I’ll get you a room, we’ll eat our meals together, maybe you’ll help me keep my studio organized. Every morning we’ll eat an English breakfast, read the newspaper, look over the rice paddies, and talk about the weather.”
It was kind of her to say she would think about it. She called me the next day and said, “You should consider moving back in. The afternoon light in baba’s room feels like — I’ve been taking my tea there. These people are never home.” Anyway, she said, there was something else she wanted to tell me, which was that she had once been married. She was thirteen, and ran away from it. “It lasted for two days,” she said. “I’m getting old and I want everyone to know.”
I sent her a check as an early retirement gift. “What are you trying to do, redistribute wealth?” my husband mocked me on the phone.
“Sure am,” I said, and hung up.
Someone once told me it was embarrassing to be rich in a country like this. Name one country where it isn’t embarrassing to be rich.
When my mother misses my son, she begs me to come for lunch. My sister joins to mediate because one minute she’ll be talking about how gentle he was, how observant whenever he entered a room, how seriously he took silly things as a child — remember? — and the next minute she’ll be making a desperate, direct appeal to God about what we could have done to save him. “You have to stop blaming yourself,” my sister texted me after one of these lunches. Who said anything about blame? The way that boy liked to do things, there was no stopping him. I don’t regret teaching him how to be free.
The animation is 24 minutes long. A half-hour slot with room for commercials, my son had explained to me. He’d been working late nights with his friends out of a little office they’d set up, drawing thousands of frames and recording music, dialogue, sound effects.
The timestamp on the finished file says it was created at 1:37 AM, and when I got the call it was just after three. “Describe everything to me,” I said to the two friends who were with him that night.
“He was singing when he lost control of the bike,” one of them said.
“He was really happy,” the other confirmed.
“Which song?” I asked. “Which bar? Which drink?”
In the animation, my son does the voice of an aloof “guy from the block” character who appears once in a while to deliver the punchlines. I hear proper words in his native tongue roll out of his mouth with ease. Words we never used at home, words learned from a YouTube comedian who uploads monologues on his cellphone from a modest mud house, words that must have brought him closer to belonging here than anything has brought me. Words that he must have practiced, over and over, till they became his.
I don’t want to stay at this party too late. The drive back to the resort is uphill and slow. I start my round of goodbyes, repeating at every stop how I wish I could’ve stayed longer. When I go to gather my things, I hear laughter spill out of a back room. It comes to a halt when I make my entrance. “It’s okay,” I say, sitting myself down. “You’re right, those were the days.” They pass me the spliff. This is a new era where we smoke with our grown children.
“Your husband used to be wild,” someone continues.
“Mad,” someone corrects him. “Not wild — mad.”
The loudest laugh in any room, a perpetual grin through tobacco-stained teeth, a king who believed doubt and sorrow were playthings that belonged to peasants — that was my husband.
When I wake up at the resort, I’m in my car and it’s a little past noon. The compound is quiet except for a stick broom scraping a floor. I see the man from the front desk darting in my direction.
“I’m sorry,” he says as I get out of the car, “but I’ve had to call Madam about you.” That would be my friend, his boss.
“Why?” I ask. Whatever happened to our understanding?
“Madam will talk to you,” he says.
Back at the cottage, I see that I’ve been busy. A couple of effigies are on the bedroom floor, and the rest are gone from the sunroom. A lamp has been knocked off the table, and I wonder whose cardboard head did it. I suppose housekeeping has preserved the mess as a gift to me. I walk over to the front desk. The man is on the phone and signals with his forefinger to wait.
“Yes?” he says once he’s done. I wouldn’t say he looks tired, I’d say he looks like someone who’s come to a decision.
“Did I burn everything?” I ask.
“You almost set the trees on fire,” he says.
He sounds like my husband, always foreseeing danger in my actions. “You think that’s wise?” he’d say, referring to pretty much anything.
I’d like him to call me now and ask about the weather. Ask if I saw the sunrise over Everest. I did, it was gorgeous. Then I’d like him to take his shirt off and lie on the hot sand. When it starts to sting unbearably, I’d tell him to stay there a little longer. “How do you do this?” I want him to ask. “I need you to show me.”
Sarahana Shrestha is a Nepali writer living in one of the apple counties.