There’s food on the table when Maya gets home, but none that she can eat.
Her head is tucked where her mother won’t notice the imperceptible guilt lingering on her face, and her fingers gnaw into the straps of her bag with the hopes that it’ll keep her from saying something she shouldn’t. She pauses at the doorway, a few feet away from where her mother is laying the table with the food she loves—aloo paratha with fresh chana—a dish that she makes only as a reward because of how much it motivates her daughter.
But there’s nothing to be proud of. Nothing.
Maya forgets to move, almost as though she has been cemented to the ground. She watches her mother with longing eyes, as though fearing that another step closer would ruin the relationship she has with the only one in her life who has ever cared. She can’t do this. Throwing everything away for something that’s seemingly so ignorable in the grand scheme of things, is that really how things should go? She has known it for a while—from the moment she looked at a girl and thought for the first time, ‘would she like me if I was a boy?’—that she set herself down a path that would inevitably end in pain.
“Why are you standing there?” her mother asks, turning to face her with a wide smile on her face. She adjusts her dupatta before it slips off her shoulders, draping it around her neck. Colours of a melting sunset seep into the room, washing the walls in deep red like her mother’s mango achar. Even as her mother leans her hand against her hip in her usual, relaxed fashion, Maya can’t help but feel worse. She knows she shouldn’t lie to her. Though, is it really a lie if she just doesn’t say anything at all? Leave it to time and hope it’ll all go away? “Asho re, asho. Change your clothes and eat before the paratha gets cold.”
Maya steps out of her shoes and nudges them to the side. She takes a slow step forward, easing her band out of her tied hair to let it fall on her shoulders. She maintains her quiet distance from her mother, walking against the walls like a shadow. As she observes her mother making her rounds around in the kitchen, bathed in the mellow light of the sun, her heart clenches. Everything she wants to say comes bubbling up her throat like effervescence, even if she tries to shove it back down: Hey, Ma, I kissed a girl. I know you said you’d be happiest at my wedding because you hope it’ll end up better than you and Papa did. I’m sorry that won’t happen. Are you angry? I’m sorry.
Maya averts her gaze, muscles aching with the threat of tears. “Special occasion?” she asks softly, mustering a forced smile on her face if it makes her sound all the more believable.
Her mother pauses in the middle of her path back to the kitchen, and glances over her shoulder, at what Maya hoped was a convincing act. “What? You forgot already?”
Maya gulps, searching her mind for anything she’s done that might be worth a celebration. Conscious of her mother’s unwavering gaze, she straightens her collar and fidgets with the seams of her uniform. An awkward laugh escapes her lips as she turns away, deciding that this is a situation that’s only going to ruin the night for both of them. “Your exams finished today, right? Or is there another exam tomorrow that you didn’t tell me about?” she questions, stopping Maya in her tracks before she can scurry to the bathroom to change.
“Oh,” she says, trying to dodge her mother’s hands when they reach out to brush her hair. “No, I just had so much fun with my friends after the exam that I forgot about it.”
Her mother makes a face at the excuse, but doesn’t ponder on it for too long. As soon as she has the chance to breathe out of her mother’s grasp, Maya drags her hand against her lips in a feeble attempt to wipe the bitter taste of a secret she wishes she didn’t have to keep.
Maya sits at the dinner table once she changes, and she does everything in her power to avoid her mother’s persistent questions. She maintains her weak smile as she looks into her mother’s eyes, picking and choosing answers from her brain that won’t give her mother a chance to figure out how she spent the latter half of her day. In front of her, her food remains untouched and the world has gone cold. At some point, she can’t bear to keep tossing the chana around with her spoon and just sits back in her chair.
For the most part, her mother’s questions are easy to answer. Do you think you can get 80% for your exam? Was there any question you found difficult? Are you going to be at the top of your class again?
Then she asks, “Who did you spend your day with?”
And Maya can only be grateful she has an empty stomach.
Maya’s nothing like herself in the week to come.
She roams like a ghost in her own home, walking with her head lowered in shame and shoulders slumped forward, doing her best to stay out of her mother’s questioning gaze. She’s undeniably perceptive when it comes to her only daughter, and it’s impossible not to notice the subtle changes that unfurl as Maya becomes a shell of the girl she once was. Gradually, she finds Maya coming home an hour or two later under the excuse of extracurriculars, or going right to bed when she does return on time.
Maya doesn’t answer when she’s asked. She musters a small smile, promises it’ll be okay, then acts as though everything that happened is gone with the wind.
At some point, there’s less guilt and more sadness on her face when she comes home, sits down at the dinner table, and doesn’t finish another meal. All of it has become a predictable routine at this point, and even as the portions get smaller by the day, Maya’s stomach doesn’t leave much room for anything after digesting her sour feelings. Needless to say, her mother notices the change—the way the rims of her eyes are red and swollen from crying, her hands shake around the spoon in her hands, and the obvious sullenness in everything she does.
Did you get your test results back? No.
Did something happen? Nothing.
You’ll tell me if something is wrong, right? …
Right? …Goodnight, Ma.
When Maya leaves the bathroom after a long shower, she finds her mother seated on her bed with her hands intertwined over her lap.
Her bed is neat, almost eerily so, with not a single wrinkle on her sheets apart from the creases where her mother’s seated. She pauses by the bathroom door, pulling the towel down to her shoulders as she observes her expression, darkened by the dimly-illuminated room. Outside, the sun has already sunk into the horizon and the once-vermillion sky is as dark as soot, leaving no light in the room apart from the flickering ceiling light. Maya’s heart thrums at her fingertips as she inches closer, only recognising too late that the phone beside her mother is her own. “Ma—” the words leave her mouth with a sharp exhale.
“How long were you going to keep it a secret?” she asks, lifting the phone. Plastered across the screen are several notifications for missed calls and an eventual one that indicates the calls were picked up.
Maya’s blood runs cold. Her arms fall to her side as she notices the look of disappointment in her mother’s eyes, her heart squeezing with regret. All at once, she wishes she could go back in time and do everything all over again. She wouldn’t befriend the pretty girl from her class and fall in love with her, they wouldn’t kiss, and she wouldn’t feel so guilty in front of her mother. Tears gather in her eyes as she musters, “I don’t know.”
“Why?” her mother asks, and before she can continue, Maya starts crying. The towel slips off her shoulders as she lifts her arms to her face, trying to do something between frantically wiping her tears away and hiding in embarrassment. “Oh, beta,” her mother coos as she places the phone aside to hold her daughter. Her mother wraps an arm around her and pulls her into a tender embrace.
“I’m sorry, Ma,” Maya apologises between sobs. “I’m sorry for disappointing you. I know you wanted to see me happy with a boy, but I don’t know how to do it. I really tried to stop it. I tried to break things off with her but none of it was working out and everything just got messed up—”
“Maya,” her mother hums, placing a hand over her head. She pulls her daughter against her chest, where she hears the steady beating of her mother’s heart. “Your friend told me everything. I’m not angry.”
Maya’s body stiffens at her mother’s words. “You’re not?” she mumbles as tears continue to spill out of her eyes, soaking her shirt in the process. Her lips fall agape as she pulls away to look at her mother’s expression, searching for any hint that she might be joking—instead, there’s sincerity. The faint light from the ceiling catches in her eyes, glossing over hazel brown like a calm water surface. Her chest is still sore, and her hands are still trembling, but for some reason, that fear feels conquerable now. “Really?”
“Really,” her mother promises. “I’m your mother, Maya. The title of ‘Ma’ isn’t earned so easily. For nine months, you were a part of me. You ate the same things as me, drank the same things as me. Even after you became your own person, I cared for you every waking moment of our shared life. How could I see you so sad, hm? Everything I have done so far was to make you happy. Did you think one thing like this could ruin all of it? I can’t say I understand this completely, but this doesn’t change the fact that I love you. I’ll love you always.”
Maya’s face burns again. She wraps her arms around her mother in a warm hug. “Ma…” she sobs as she buries her face in her mother’s chest, sparing no strength to hold her. Her mother chuckles fondly as she holds her daughter, stroking her hair. Although the room has gotten humid and unbearably warm, with her mother’s love, somehow, it doesn’t feel so bad.