Baggage

i wake up one sunday morning,
half-open blinds streaming
white winter sunlight. you
spread a tea-stained crossword
across my lap, and wonder
if i know a ten letter word for
nostalgia.

when june arrives, it feels like
i’m looking at your face
through a rain-soaked
window, but i can still hear:
the sound of your smile,
the crunch of your morning frosties,
how you’d tune the radio to a
channel that does not exist because
you enjoy the sound of
static.

so in a tiny airport, headed
nowhere, when i’m flipping through
a book and i chuckle at the phrase,
“avocado colored refrigerator”
i know you would understand why
i bought the book in an
instant.

my summertime movies have
a side of pastries, but
your hair smelled strangely like
icing sugar and now, all
my future powdered donuts are
tainted.

and when i’m writing on the
back of my bill in a noiseless cafe
out by the river, i dip my fingers in
white sunlight and wonder if
the answer to nostalgia could be
heartbreak.

so if i see you in the middle of a
crowded grocery aisle, bagel in
one hand and chilled yogurt
in your cart, i will tell you:
my head is a messy place to be in,
so why don’t you pack your
bags and move
away?

Dear Annoying Cousin,

You read backwards the names on the rear end of a truck, and told me they were residents of your basement who came out for a friendly spook every summer fortnight. You are the reason I kept my torch close and felt the need to tiptoe to the kitchen for my midnight cravings.

My parents would deposit me in your home every time they traveled, and I made a habit of “forgetting” my pajamas so I could wear your long, dress-like football jerseys instead. In a room taped with so many Arsenal posters you could no longer see the walls, I’d find your toy guns in the bed, under your mattress or play with your collection of perfume bottles – some shaped like a lantern and others, tall rose-colored containers.

I pretended to understand the rules of football just so I could sit with you and watch the World Cup Final. You made sure I covered my eyes (no peeking!) when gruesome crime scene photos of your favorite murder shows popped up.

When I came running down the stairs because of a nightmare, you pointed at the dream catcher above your bed and told me it stole all the bad dreams so I’d never see one again. And when we were left to our own devices, you packed my school lunch (your super special double-decker jam sandwich) that I couldn’t fit in my mouth but called yum, anyway.

When grandma announced she was traveling abroad and my timid six-year-old self insisted I didn’t want anything, you and your brother sat me down and pulled out a six foot long piece of paper, filling it with “hair clips” and “Lindt”. You told me your house name (that I’d failed to notice) was a hotel I would often stay at, my head was confused for days and I never once suspected the gleam in your eyes or the silent chuckles.

You no longer have the time to toss a ball back and forth or show me all the cheat codes to Vice City. But you still push yourself between me and the boy who’s dancing with your “baby sister”, sneak me out of a family gathering to grab a few beers and drop everything to come get me after a party at half past midnight.

I don’t fall for your horror stories anymore or keep up our movie night tradition very well, but the reason I put “older brother” in my Christmas list had everything to do with you.

Love,
Forever your Baby Sister

The Wall

We were early, not fashionably so. I had my ragged notebook in hand, my sweater the color of spring sunshine. When we walked in, our footsteps curious, the slate grey floor echoed our nerves.

I found a seat in the front and instantly made eye contact with the large, hand-painted wall at the far end. It was acrylic on brick, pastel on muddy brown, stories in every crack.

I heard a switch click on, flooding the room with lights that matched my sweater, breathing life into art that smelled like a wallflower. I saw five people, huddled around a table like it was their own little secret.

Jimmy played his guitar in a corner, for friends who liked his music better than him. I saw a violin on the next guy’s shoulder, he had struggle on his face and a rip on his faded white jeans.

The man in the center – I called him Karl – had his cards fanned out in the way that experts do, and a drink on the coffee table. He gambled the night away with his two other friends, mischief hidden in his dark brown eyes.

But when I was drawn into things that were more poetic than Jimmy’s guitar or Karl’s poker face and saw heads down, hair streaked with the glow of active smartphones, words tumbling into poetry with every breath, I felt Jimmy play along, Karl set his cards down and the violin? The violin was finally in tune with our shaky words.

Dear Roald Dahl,

It was my eighth birthday and a wrapped package the size of a shoebox lay quietly on my bed. I poked and prodded, gave it a good shake, then slid one finger below the tape and ripped apart the wrapping paper.

I was shocked to find a stack of novels, each brightly colored and illustrated with sharp, pointed noses and stringy hair. My parents had given me a golden ticket to a factory of over-the-top adventures and the best childhood heroes.

Some days, I wanted to glue my nosy neighbors to the ceiling and on others, I memorized the exact ingredients of George’s marvelous medicine. Danny taught me what “poaching” was and all I wanted to do that summer was travel the world in my own giant peach.

But Matilda? She stole my heart faster than she pored over her books. Filled with hope and a sense of wonder, she made me believe that we could all stand up to the Miss Trunchbulls in our lives, telekinesis or not.

With your stories, you took us on adventures that tickled our funny bones: the evil were taught lessons with thinly veiled irony and our favorite characters always found their happy ending.

These are books that crawled into my heart and stuck with me long after childhood. I hope more little girls stumble upon the magic within their pages, and find in them a companion for lonely nights and long bus rides.

Love,
A 90s kid

Dear Extended Family,

We don’t meet for months because living in two corners of a metropolitan city is almost like living in two different time zones. The only phone calls we make are on birthdays or report card days. We don’t have many traditions that make our hearts smile.

But every year, when the quiet buzz of festivity rolls around, we pack our suitcases with ribboned boxes of sweets and take off to a little coffee plantation 150 miles away. We make the 8 hour drive, someone (usually me) pulling out their camera and stopping to capture the foggy state highway every 2 minutes, mother complaining the whole time. We crunch on honey toast and family gossip, turn the stereo up and the windows down and watch tech parks turn into windmills in lush green fields.

When we finally reach, the house welcomes us with open arms and a tray of lime juice. Muddy shoes are thrown under a bench, tired bodies collapse into couches, the place is soon filled with warmth and laughter and twinkle-eyed baby cousins.

It is the only time I sit down at a dinner table and have a meal surrounded by my whole family, gravy bowls being passed around, uncle-who-lives-abroad screaming for a fork. The next two days turn all of us into religious South Indians preparing for the biggest festival of the year. We thread jasmine flowers into garlands, wash and clean banana leaves, stir big pots of payasam, light clay diyas to place on our doorstep and stain our hands with rangoli powder. The men sneak in a card game or two while the children play badminton in the drying yard, eyeing the large cardboard boxes filled to the brim with crackers.

When the light outside dims, we put on our brand new kurtas and finely embroidered salwars and come together in the midst of ringing bells, whispered mantras and burning incense sticks. A large plate of sweets is passed around, breaking all our dinnertime rules.

The cardboard boxes are finally ripped open and we watch the sky explode into blue and red sparks. My favorite part isn’t the firecrackers, though. It is watching the lines of worry disappear from faces brightly lit by a sea of sparklers, waves of happiness washing over all of us.

With every passing year, diwali holidays were replaced by tests to study for and work projects to hand in. Our band of tradition-keepers grew smaller. This year will be my first diwali away from home, with Netflix and cheese nachos and no sweets. But I promise you one thing: I will wear my new silk salwar, light a set of diyas for my doorstep and watch out for blue and red sparks in the sky.

Love,
A former tradition-keeper

Magic?

It’s a sunny afternoon, we’re done for the day, eager to head home to the ice-cream in our freezer – and that’s when we see you. An image flashes before my eyes, one that I haven’t seen in years: the bright-eyed little girl with plaits in ribbons, white blouse neatly tucked into her checked skirt, hoaxing me into a tree-to-tree game. So we call out your name, fingers crossed that you might turn, and in that split second that a million strings of fate untangle, you look up and stare us straight in the eye.

But no, I don’t believe in magic.

So what was it like, finding you after a decade of switched schools and lost phone numbers? It was as easy as hopping on a bus, getting off an hour later and finding ourselves at an open mic: packed with a creatively starved audience, the careless strumming of a guitar, dozens of fairy lights and the nervous munching of our loaded fries. I felt the butterflies escape as the flutter of poetry filled the quiet of a late evening sky. I wouldn’t want my first open mic attempt to be with anybody else.

But no, I don’t believe in magic.

You call me up one afternoon, tell me you’re being spontaneous and surely, a visit is in order. I find you at my doorstep in a few hours and as the night wears on, we bump into some grand adventures with unplanned sleepovers and planned gatorade. And as we spend all morning walking around town, finding insipid coffee and aesthetic brick walls for the polaroids we keep in our wallets, I feel the comfort of home wash over me, knowing I needed my monthly dose of happiness.

But no, I don’t believe in magic.

As you get ready to leave, we trace our stories backwards and plot connections worthy of constellations. You open the package I’ve left you and tell me that this particular book of poetry has been unduly stubborn about falling into your hands. I tell you that’s because it’s been waiting for you, one spontaneous bus ride away. My fingertips tingle as I type this, and yes,

I start to believe in magic.

Subway

Newspaper crumpled as it was
folded in half, travel-size. The
late night metro smelled like
all the school kids and pressed suits
it had transported on
a rainy Monday.
You stared into the pitch black
of the racing window,
worn out eyes, hands fidgety from
the lack of a cigarette pack.
Your faded Nirvana shirt reeked
of sentimental value. I tucked
my glasses in my coat and
looked up to find you staring.
It wasn’t the kind of eye contact that
flattered you or even sent chills
down your spine. It felt
more like you were scanning
my every move, sizing
me up, counting
my breaths.
A dropped keychain,
an unfamiliar cough,
the shifting light from the windows.
I wandered into the bar, it smelled
like happy hours. We were
the only two people who would
rather be sprawled on the
corner sofa than dance
to EDM’s Top 90.
I was two beers down and bursting
with conversation. You laughed
at my shower playlist, that
annoyed me a little. So I
attacked your striped pants and
called them a midlife crisis.
I told you why piña coladas in Maui
were my alternate universe. We
argued about serial killers and
war films. I told you where all
the underground bookstores were.
The night wore on, you emptied
your pack of cigarettes. I had
never discussed Murakami
with a stranger before. It was
half past two when we
finally shuffled out. You put on
your coat and offered to share
a cab. You told me conversations
like ours don’t happen everyday.
But I let you walk into the
Monday rain, where we were still
strangers on a subway.