Fiction | Unmoored by Rajiv Ramkhalawan

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Rajiv Ramkhalawan


Unmoored

.……..You are headed to Trinidad for Carnival.
.……..In the lead up to your flight, the island of your birth consumes you, maddens you in the way a lost soul forages a burial ground for its own body, but never quite finds it. You are like that lost soul, trapped between the past and the present. Longing for something that may no longer belong to you.
.……..
You’ve come to realise that homecoming is never about you. It is always about them.
.……..
The profits and gains. The souvenirs. The gifts. This time in the form of interwoven cotton and polyester.
.……..
Out comes a multitude of white “I Love New York” T-shirts, with the word “love” replaced by a red heart. Yellow, green, white, black words. But the heart is always red. You open a bag filled with an assortment of small, medium, large, extra-large, and extra-extra- large T-shirts because you have not seen most of your aunts, uncles and cousins in quite a few years and do not want to insult anyone.
.……..
Debbie and Derek, your cousins and fraternal twins, ransack the neat pile you have placed on the kitchen island. Your aunt Stella and a couple of your other aunties tug and jostle for their preferred colours and sizes, while brandishing phony faces of indifference.
.……..
You shout that one of the green ones are for Tanty Patsy.

.……..No one appears to hear you as they continue their attempts to get out with the most loot. But then your older cousin, Martin, while prying away possession of a black T-shirt from your younger cousin, Sharlene, turns to you and says: would you believe it, that Patsy still with that good-for-nothing Franklin. After all these years.
.……..That’s l-o-v-e people, your uncle Thomas sings, draping an extra-extra-large T-shirt over his faded hoodie, and doing a ukulele dance, strumming invisible keys and all.
.……..
More like toxic masculinity, if yuh ask me, your not-so-baby-anymore cousin, Keisha, butts in.
.……..
Everyone busses out in a laugh. You frown.

.……..You remember the many times that your neighbour, Tanty Patsy, came running to your house, bawling like maimed livestock as her husband, Uncle Franklin, followed in pursuit, staggering, wielding a sharpened cutlass and cussing at your mother to mind her own effing business, whenever she would open the door and snatch up Tanty Patsy.
.……..Mammy would cradle her like a baby in her arms and when Tanty Patsy’s cries subsided to whimpers, proceeded to plaster layers of eucalyptus ointment along swaths of blue and black marks throughout her back, which looked like ugly tattoos to you.
.……..
Mammy would threaten to go outside and “handle” Uncle Franklin but Tanty Patsy would plead with her that it was just the alcohol talking. That he was not so so bad when he was sober. Mammy would scream that she did not care, that she would take that same cutlass and planass the drunk out of him.
.……..
But your mother never seems to be that passionate about anything, anymore. She seems to have almost forgotten herself in Trinidad, lost in a wine-coloured suitcase that never made the journey to Queens. A life spent cleaning toilet after toilet after toilet, often filled with odious fumes and streaks of left-behind solids could diminish anyone.
.……..
Uncle Solo, clearly now an extra-extra-large, rafts away the lone remaining small and you wonder about the painful plans he must have for the T-shirt. Everyone is content and happy. Everyone except Rachel.
.……..
Your cousin, Rachel, doesn’t take a shirt. She is silent in the background, sitting on a worn couch, flipping channels while her ear is in the conversation with the rest of the family in the kitchen. Rachel only responds to you in one-word sentences. She never asks you anything. She is still upset over that thing that happened a few years ago. But you know there is no thing, the thing was made a thing because jealousy and anger inflated it into something more than it should have been. You can’t even remember what actually happened. Maybe it was a fight over a spilled secret? God knows how many secrets Rachel has. Maybe you took too long to respond to her text when she really needed you? You couldn’t be sure.
.……..
She is upset, you always tell Mammy, because you got out and left her here. Alone.
.……..
She was your favourite cousin growing up. You wonder which cousin she consorted with to thief Uncle Joey’s governor plums after you left for New York. And whether they went down by the bay after committing their crime, like the both of you had done, to talk about boys and twist up your faces like monkeys whenever she or you bit into a sour one.
.……..
Aunty Stella, Rachel’s mother, says they want to take you on the Avenue: doubles, geera pork, and bake and shark. You can’t wait. Your belly is boiling. You walk up to Rachel and ask her if she wants to go, too. She says, sorry no. You smile awkwardly and say, okay. At least you got two words in this time. That is progress.
.……..
On the Avenue you stuff your face with three more doubles than you vowed you would eat. You worry whether you will fit into your costume. But you can’t resist. Oil and flour must be the Devil’s creation. You eat another one. And another. You confirm that the place on Fulton Street in Brooklyn might be a fraud.
.……..
In the morning you play Mas for the fifth time. This is the best one yet, you tell your eldest cousin, Cindy. She laughs and says you say that each time you play Mas, right before she gets sucked into a legion of multi-coloured feathers, glistening beads and faux silk. Your glazed skin purples and swells in the heat.
.……..
While the music pulsates, your mind slows with memories of barefoot walks on stinging pitch to buy eggs freshly pushed out from home grown hens. Of guava whips welting the soft backsides of disrespectful classmates. Of Mammy bubbling curry duck on an earthen chulha behind your house, even though you had a stove inside.
.……..
Your mind quickens again, and you let a half-naked man dogging you for some time finally take a wine on your bumper as the Machel song begs him to mash it up. You disabuse yourself of the subservient commands of the lyrics and just go with it. The bad feminist inside of you toys with the idea that Roxane Gay might surely be on to something. Three hours and fourteen mash-it-ups later, you are spent, but happily spent.
.……..
You unlock the meaning of that Kes song, the one that starts off: if yuh know yeah, then yuh know, yeah. Your connection to this land, this stage, the savannah is almost biblical. The spirits of shackled ancestors and starved forefathers thrown into the Kalapani would marvel at the exuberance which has sprouted from the dry seeds of dehumanisation and desperation. This is indeed the New World that Columbus never imagined. You find respite in the sweat, music, and colours of downtown Port of Spain on Carnival Tuesday. You remind yourself that this land is yours.
.……..
The next day you meet George in a casual restaurant in Port of Spain. The both of you have been texting ever since you purchased your plane ticket. He is a doctor now, but all you see is the fifteen-year-old boy you once loved, still love. You promised that boy you would return to him in a month. But you went to visit your mother in America and never returned.
.……..
He has been working today. Little globs of blood and other fluids provide texture to his otherwise plain shirt. You decide he was either too eager to see you to detour home to change or purposely avoided going home, for fear that his wife (an attractive woman who appeared gussied up no matter the occasion—you’ve seen some photos on Instagram) might ask more questions about you. Deeper ones, perhaps. You can tell he was sucking on a mint right before meeting you. His breath smells like candy canes and alpine trees.
.……..
You sip on cold mauby and stare into his brown eyes. You vigorously stir the drink with your pinky, and the clinking of ice on glass drowns out anything relating to his kids, his wife, his new Mercedes Benz. You filter the conversation and nod whenever you suspect a third-party topic is about to be broached.
.……..
George pauses for you to say something. You stop stirring your drink and ask him to repeat the question.
.……..
He does, and you decide to lie.

.……..You tell him you have a boyfriend to prevent him from making a move on you. But that isn’t the George you know. You might not really know the George in front of you, but you know yourself. You only invented a boyfriend to avoid declaring your love to him. A declaration that would spill off your lips like magic.
.……..You’re not sure how that answer really makes him feel because he is smiling and saying pleasant things, but his forehead says otherwise, it’s doing that thing where his eyebrows arch up and create three neat furrows.
.……..
You question whether going to America was the worst decision you ever made. And whether staying would have meant a future with George. Suddenly you are both fifteen again, sharing your first kiss with each other behind the old police station of all places, on a Carnival Monday to boot, giggling at the awkwardness of the situation. You savour the series of pecks, awkward and ridiculous, and treasure the saltiness of George’s mouth.
.……..
Now, you wish that George had taken you to a seedy restaurant on Charlotte Street, one that sold sketchy food to even sketchier people. You romanticize the illicitness of the endeavour, how George would carefully shift his frame from side to side on a rickety chair missing most of its padding, apprehensive that someone might “see you”.
.……..
But true to form, George chooses a decent restaurant, with real cutlery and table service, meaning that this tryst is simply just old friends catching up.
.……..
When he waits on you to order, you remember your primary school days, when he would wait with you after school until Mammy came to get you. You talk about all the times you played marble pitch together on a dirt track behind the school. Does he remember how you used to beat him? This is your favourite memory, but you never tell him this. You promise yourself that someday you will. You tell him you have a jar of Crystals and KKs somewhere—your winnings. He chuckles and says that he wants a chance to win them back.
.……..
Before he pays the bill, his forehead does that thing again. He jokes that if you hadn’t gone to America, you would have ended up together, naturally. You snicker and pick at the one remaining broccoli on your plate, not trusting yourself to respond. You chew the broccoli, sucking in the sesame oil coating the meaty stalks.
.……..
You ask him if he still plays football.
.……..
He seems disappointed that you changed the topic but mutters that yes, he still plays football.
.……..
The remainder of the meeting deviates from tracing demarcated boundaries of love and attraction to the province of friendship and security. When you leave the restaurant, you sob the entire ride home. No one asks you anything.
.……..
The night before your return flight you are sad, upbeat, and nostalgic all in one. Aunty Stella wraps empty mayonnaise jars filled with homemade pepper sauce and seals the lid with rounds and rounds of duct tape. She places the jars in a suitcase while you sit on the bed, folding your clothes into tiny cylindric balls and stuffing them into another suitcase. You spot a feathery arm band from your Carnival costume, and you become overwrought with emotion.
.……..
In the moment you are little again, peddling your bicycle along slender roads in darkness, while you swished the seeds of piquant tamarind balls in your mouth and corked your nostrils from the scent of urine sprayed along rum shop corners and fish innards abandoned on the market floor.
.……..
Aunty Stella senses your unease and tells you that you must come back soon. This land, it calls you, it’s in yuh blood, she says. You want to tell her you want to stay here. With her. You want to mend things with Rachel. You want this life. Your birthright. You tell your aunty nothing.
.……..
“How is yuh mudda?” she asks. “Mammy good. You know her. Busy.”
.……..
Aunty Stella turns to you and presses her hand on your left wrist, and you stop packing the suitcase.
.……..
“How meh sister really doin, chile?”
.……..
You consider whether to lie but you don’t.
.……..
“Working her bones away. Day after day. But it’s honest work. I tell she I have a job now, she doh have to work so hard anymore, but yuh know the woman, she eh go listen to anyone.”
.……..
“Yes, that is the woman self. Yuh take like she you know, baby, she love off on dis island and her family rel bad, but she cudna refuse that chink of ah opportunity when it came. Just ups and leave everyone here. Juss so, juss so. I eh blame she or you. Dat is life.”
.……..
You smile and then swallow hard.

.……..Tomorrow you get onto the plane and breathe Trinidad out of your system and feel as if a part of you is ripping away. You breathe in again and out. But your heart is not with you.


Rajiv Ramkhalawan is an Attorney-at-Law and writer from Trinidad and Tobago. Rajiv is the winner of the 2020 Cecile de Jongh Literary Prize. He is a past recipient of a regional award from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. His short fiction has longlisted for the 2021 Fish Short Story Prize and shortlisted for the 2020 Perito Prize. His most recent works of short fiction is forthcoming or has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Litro Magazine, Rebel Women Lit and STORGY Magazine.


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