Square Pegs and Round Holes
The flight arrived late and by the time Blue cleared customs and came out to the waiting area, it was almost 2 in the morning in Kuala Lumpur. Apprehension written all over their faces, Elisa and Meena waited for Blue to emerge. Dharmishton and Lalitha had chosen to stay home for fear that there would be no room in the car for Blue and her luggage. They needn’t have worried as when the girl finally appeared, thin and gaunt, she just had a battered carry-on with her. Valerie was right. Blue had changed drastically even in appearance. She was almost scrawny. Her big blue eyes that stared out and around fearfully, appeared like they had been stuck on her boney, tanned face like an afterthought.
Elisa could see her searching the waiting crowd anxiously as she soon as she stepped out through the glass doors and as soon as she caught sight of Elisa waving happily, she raised her hand, a little nervously. Gone was the air of defiance and its place was left insecurity, and even anxiety. Elisa could see her quickly smoothing down the outfit that Valerie had bought her, a pair of black pants and a pale blue top. Her long black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She looked like she had freshened up in the bathroom just before touchdown because she had on some pale lipstick and some light makeup. But the makeup didn’t do anything to conceal the fatigue, the deep fatigue that the girl must have felt, not just from the flight but from just living.
Elisa welcomed her with arms outstretched and hugged her tightly as soon as Blue came to her. “I am so glad you are here. I can’t tell you how happy I am,” she said warmly. Blue smiled faintly but returned her hug wholeheartedly. Meena looked on smiling, a little uncertainly but happily. She could see the resemblance to Savithri almost immediately and that was enough for her to decide that she had a new charge. Some years down the road when it would be Meena’s time to pass on, it would be Blue who would be sitting by her side most of the time, taking care of her, stroking her feverish forehead and holding her hands in the days leading up to the end. “This is Meena, my aunt. I guess she is like a grandma to you. She is my closest friend,” said Elisa cheerfully as she affectionately held Meena’s shoulders. Blue hugged Meena cautiously while Meena smiled happily and patted her on the back lightly, as Elisa looked on striving hard to hide her amazement. The drive home was generally quiet, except for Elisa asking now and then about the flight and about Valerie. Blue was thankful that Elisa appeared to studiedly avoid the subject of Grace and what had happened to her.
As soon as they got home, Lalitha and Dharmishton came out to the gate to meet them at the car and help if they could with the luggage. Blue shook hands with Dharmishton and hugged Lalitha carefully. Dharmishton patted her on the back. “Welcome to our home, child. We are so glad you have come to us.” His affection was genuine although he had earlier expressed concern that Elisa was taking on the problems of her cousin. “This is Raghu’s problem. You are taking on his responsibility. What if she is unhappy here or if she doesn’t fit in, what then?” he had grumbled. “I want you to settle down with your life. The two of us are getting on and we want to see you married again and happy. You can’t count on us to live forever. Now you are taking on a new responsibility. Sure she is not a young child but she won’t have anyone but us here…I don’t know if this is the right thing…” he had trailed off; not sure of where he was going with what he was saying but clearly looking unhappy. Elisa had hugged her father’s shoulders affectionately as she said, “Don’t worry, Pa. She’ll be okay. I’ll take care of her. She is not a child who needs constant attention. She needs a family, love, and guidance. I just don’t want her to end up like her mother did. She’ll be fine, I assure you.”
Blue was too exhausted to say anything much on the night she arrived. She had gratefully accepted a hot glass of Milo, a semi-sweet milky chocolate drink, from Meena and gone to bed. It was almost noon the next day before she woke up and came out of her room, by which time Elisa had gone to the school telling her parents that she would be back in the evening. Blue was quiet all day, merely answering questions about what she wanted to eat or what she needed. Lalitha and Dharmishton kept the conversation warm and casual but minimal. It was apparent that as much as Dharmishton and Lalitha wanted to get to know Blue, they were a little wary, even a little shy. Blue was guarded too, but more in a nervous sort of way. As a woman and a mother, Lalitha found it a little easier to get to know Blue. She talked about how Blue needed some clothes and needed to put on some weight. She asked Blue about what she liked to eat and by early evening, the two were chatting somewhat easily, but still warily, about food and clothes and even the weather because it had started to rain heavily as usual.
Blue was both fascinated and afraid when blinding lightning ripped through the sky and thunder cracked the afternoon with deafening force and the rain came down as lashing belts of water that splattered noisily on the ground. Lalitha and Dharmishton smiled good-naturedly and said, “You better get used to this. It happens almost every afternoon.” Just as the rain abated, and the lashing belts had been reduced to gentle drips of water that clung tenaciously to awnings, roofs, and trees before plopping weakly into puddles, Elisa returned from the school. “Hi, you were still asleep when I left this morning,” Elisa called out as she stepped out of her car. “Did you rest well?” Blue was visibly pleased at the sight of Elisa. She even voluntarily reached out and took the heavy bag, filled with programs and brochures for the next performance, with which Elisa struggled.
Elisa was a little surprised but she concealed it well. The Blue she remembered would never volunteer for anything. In fact, the kids in school would complain that whenever there was cleanup to be done after PE or any kind of activity in school, Blue would always walk away pretending she didn’t see or hear. “Did you eat something?” continued Elisa walking behind Blue. “Ah..ha. I ate with your…with the…uh… grandmas and grandpa” responded Blue. Elisa smiled as Blue stumbled over her choice of words in an effort to be correct. “I have eaten curry before. My mom made it once or twice before she got sick,” she added quickly. Elisa nodded thoughtfully, wondering if it was about the right time to ask about Grace. She decided to put it off till later that day. “What else did you do today?” she asked, instead. “Not much. When I woke up it was noon. I just chatted with your…uh..grandma and grandpa and then the rain came and then…well…” They had walked into the sitting room by this time where Meena was waiting with a pot of tea.
Elisa loved when she got a chance to sit with her parents and Meena at teatime. It was a time to just chat with them and talk or gossip about everything and family. They talked about the day’s happenings or simply reminisced about family members that had passed on or with whom they didn’t keep in touch or family events. Every now and then, Lalitha or Elisa would turn to Blue and explain something to her or fill her in on the relationship with someone. It was awkward because some relationships and events were deliberately omitted. Since Blue was with them, they did their best not to talk about Savithri or her side of the family. “But we can’t do that forever,” thought Elisa to herself as she glanced at Blue who was watching them silently or nodding now and then, as she sipped her tea. It was difficult to keep Savithri out of the picture because she had spent so many years with them and there were hardly any occasions in the past when she was not involved.
As the afternoon wore on, the cool comfort left by the rain melted leaving in its place a somewhat warm and humid evening. Elisa, her parents, Meena and Blue were forced to take their plates of dinner outside to the verandah. Elisa and her parents talked and Blue listened mostly while very occasionally adding a comment or two in monosyllables when Elisa’s parents asked questions. Given her experiences, she was understandably slow to trust and to lose her inhibitions. “But it is certainly a huge improvement from what she was and I can’t still believe what I am seeing,” thought Elisa to herself as she watched Blue’s interactions with Lalitha and Dharmishton. As she remembered, the Blue that she knew would have been unfriendly, even rude about their accents. Elisa felt so happy watching the girl warming to her parents and doing her best to be a part of the family that she almost felt disinclined to bring up Grace and ask her what happened. But she had to, eventually.
The next morning was a busy one for Elisa. There was much to be done for the performance that was coming up in two weeks. So before Blue was up, she was already dressed and ready to leave. But just as she was about to leave, Blue stepped out of her room. Much to Elisa’s surprise, she was all dressed too. “Can I come with you today?” she asked. “Oh! I didn’t even realize that you were up. Didn’t you sleep well?” But before Blue could respond, Elisa answered her own question. “I guess it is the jetlag.” Blue did look a little tired like she hadn’t slept all night. “Well, I woke up at about 3 in the morning and just lay in, waiting for everyone to wake up. But I was also hoping to come with you to your school. If you don’t mind that is…” “No, of course not. I was going to take you there anyway, as soon as you got more settled,” was Elisa’s cheerful response. It was during the drive to her school that Elisa decided to ask about Grace. “So…when did Gra…your mom pass away?” Blue was silent for a few minutes before she responded. “It was a few months after you came. You know she was very sick…it was her liver…” Elisa was silent. “What made you change your mind about coming out here to me?” she asked slowly. Again, Blue was silent for what felt like an hour. She simply sat staring at the traffic that was inching its way towards Elisa’s school. Elisa threw her glances every now and then while keeping her eye on the traffic, waiting for a response. She was still debating if she should ask the question again or simply drop the subject when Blue responded. “Actually, it was mom who changed her mind a couple days before she died. By then, she knew for sure that she was going.”
In the last few days before she had died, Grace had slept most of the time, only waking for short periods, intermittently during the day. It was during one of those times that she had weakly held Blue’s hand, just for a few seconds and smiled feebly. Blue had been trying to feed her. It was the first time in many, many years that Grace had attempted to show Blue some affection. Grace had had her eyes closed when she had whispered weakly, almost like she was mumbling in her sleep “You deserve better, kid. I think you wanna take up her offer. I’ll let you go.” Blue had not said anything then. She didn’t even make up her mind six months after Grace was gone. It was only when she was clearing up Grace’s things when she had to move out of their place in Salinas that she had found some yellowed photographs hidden in an old torn handbag. There were some of her when she was a baby and then as a toddler, with Grace in better times, smiling happily, pretty and healthy, holding her by the hand. Then there was one of Grace, again young and pretty, with an Indian man. The man had his arms around Grace and she was leaning against him, laughing. Blue had stared curiously at the picture for a long time. Her father was handsome in a gentle sort of way, a little thin but tall. He was resting his cheek against her mother’s face. Blue had held her own picture as a baby in one palm while she had held the picture of her parents in another, desperately trying to look for some resemblance. She had her father’s nose and mouth but her eyes were quite obviously her mother’s. Hot tears had slowly welled up in her eyes as she had continued to stare at her parents’ picture trying to get a clear idea of her father’s features. The tears had quickly dissolved into loud heart-wrenching sobs as the loneliness and her parents’ rejection of her had consumed her. Two days after that afternoon among the remnants of her dead mother’s tattered things, she had called Valerie.
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