2009 First Prize in Prose
MIGRATION by Tamanna Hossin
When I was young, I used to wet the bed. Our babysitter used to hand-wash the sheets immediately after so they wouldn’t stain. She would then hang them out in the front yard to dry, for everyone to see. One of my earliest memories, from when I was five-years-old, is of waking up in a stranger’s house, abandoned by my family. I woke up to the sound of a cow mooing, and I knew I was lost. When I screamed, my cousin next to me tried to calm me with sleep-mumbled words. She said that I had taken a nap when my family was visiting and my aunt had insisted on letting me sleep over. Later that morning, I found out that I had wet the bed again. When my mother came to pick me up after work, she didn’t say that she was ashamed, but I could see the disappointment in her eyes. The next time I wet the bed was in the apartment on High Street two years later, on my first night in America.
In our first week in the apartment, we unpacked all our belongings from Bangladesh, all that could be stuffed into five large suitcases, into the big wardrobes my father had bought for us from a thrift store down the street. This man, who I hadn’t seen for five years, who I was supposed to call father, was a stranger to me. He spoke my language and he had my features, my big nose and my skin tone, but that was all I knew about him. He slept in late in the mornings and worked in the restaurant on the first floor of the apartment during the day. He brought home rice and chicken every night at ten o’ clock, when he returned home. He smelled like meat. On the weekends, he would take us to the New Haven green downtown and on drives down Whitney Avenue, pointing out the big, brick school we would go to and the green trees and hills; I had never seen so much green and such a strange shade too, so unnatural. We saw snow for the first time a few weeks later, little flakes that melted at touch, that quickly swallowed all the green and left only white. It drained the blood of our white neighbors and turned them paler. It crunched under our sneakers and made us wobble like new-born deer when we walked, bringing with it a cold I had never felt before.
That winter, the tenants from our Steven Street house had a stray, pregnant cat living in their basement and a week after she gave birth, my father brought the black and white ball of fur home with him in a plastic bag. When he came home, he called my name and placed the bag gently on the floor, saying “Here, for you.” My father is not a man of many words. After that, he went into his room. When the little thing darted past me out of the bag and into the bathroom, I asked my father if he had brought home a rat. I later found the kitten crouching behind our toilet, mewing softly and hissing every now and then if we got too close, claw-less paws ready to attack. This one was a fighter (and a biter, and a scratcher, I would find out soon after). We tried to lure her out with small pieces of bread we had squished together into edible bits between our fingers, but she wouldn’t budge. If we tried to grab her, she would run, lightning-fast, behind the dryer. We tried ignoring her, leaving her with a bowl of milk in the bathroom as my sisters and I researched “how to lure a cat out of hiding” online. When I felt something wet and hairy touch my big toe in front of the computer in our living room, I screamed and the poor thing rushed back to her safe corner in the bathroom. Taken from the soft warm embrace of her mama, this kitten didn’t come out of the bathroom for a week. When I got home from school one day and went to the bathroom to check on her, she followed my untied shoelaces out. My sisters think Boo--that’s what we named the cat--finally came out because she was a curious baby, but I believe that she got lonely, all by herself in that small, dark bathroom, without her mama, without her sisters, without anything familiar. Now, she spends most of her days in our old, musty basement, always searching for something warm and fuzzy, making nests and finding concealed spots where she can hide from my little sister Samira, whom she took an instant dislike to for no reason. Boo sleeps with me in my room most nights, not on the bed but on a chair opposite my bed. She watches me from the corner of her eyes as she drifts into sleep every night.
My older sister Tania and I were admitted to Worthington Hooker Elementary and Middle School the week after we came to America. I remember seeing the inside of the K-4 building for the first time, comforted by the warm mahogany of the hallway walls that held the colorful pictures the kindergarteners had drawn the year before. In my second grade class, though, I became a mute. Tania and I knew how to read and write English, stick letters together to spell words correctly, but our vocabulary was limited. We attempted to string together the few words we knew in an effort to talk to the kids in our classes, but they seldom understood us. We only received polite smiles for replies. Discouraged, we began to communicate with emotions instead of words, laughing or pouting to express ourselves. During recess, we learned how to play games through imitation, running with other kids while they played tag without knowing why we were running. When my teachers began noticing my miming and my reluctance to speak, they put me in an ESOL class. I, along with three Chinese girls and one Korean boy, met twice a week with a teacher for an hour to learn how to speak English while the rest of our classmates went out to the playground to invent new games. At night, my mother would sit down with Tania, Samira and me, and we would look up words in our English-to-Bengali dictionary before going to sleep. Soon, I had a strong grip on the English language. I could mold my mouth to form the diphthong sounds, click my tongue with force to pronounce the hard d’s and t’s, but I was still hesitant to make new friends. I missed my friends from Bangladesh and I didn’t want to replace them; I felt guilty as my memory their faces began to dull with time.
We moved to the yellow house on the corner of Barclay and Frank St. in the summer before I entered high school. When I first saw it, I wasn’t happy. The house smelled like pee and the old saleswoman with the big mole on her chin said that the owners used to care for their ninety-year-old mother in the master bedroom; the smell was worst there. She advised us to invest in some air fresheners; that should do the trick, she said. But it didn’t. The rooms in this house were strange too, shaped into trapezoids and painted a shade of neon that gave the rooms an alien glow when a light was turned on. My mother, as usual, had a solution for everything. She said she would pull out all the dead grass in the big front yard and breathe some life into it. She said she would paint the rooms white, and we could put in new carpets if the smell became unbearable. I wasn’t sold. My sisters and I had planned for a house with trees, where we could hang a swing like the one my mother had built with us in Bangladesh, the one we spent an evening hammering nails into and hung with rope from the tall tree that stood over our house. This new street had no trees and there was no green grass. Outside the window, there was only a garage to look at, with its broken down cars, and a sharp, wiry fence. My mother argued that anything was better than the two-bedroom apartment on High Street, too small for a family of five. She was tired of stuffing everything she owned into corners and crannies, under the beds, the sofa, between furniture and walls, tired of cooking in a closet-sized kitchen with no windows. She was bowled over by the closets in every room in this new house, the basement we would have all to ourselves, and the large living room and the kitchen with two windows. Three years later, this house still has the same dirty brown carpet, but now, the house smells like pee and spice.
Now, I am nearing my last year of high school and my mother worries. She has a constant fear that I will turn into Tania. When my sister left this small city for New York and Fordham University, she stopped calling home. Grades came every semester with C’s and F’s and soon, even those stopped coming. A year later, she finally gave in and returned home to go to a state college. However, even with my mother pacing up and down the living room screaming at her for wasting thousands to go to New York instead of staying in Connecticut, Tania said she didn’t regret a thing. She said she had to leave, see what was out there by herself and now that she had, she promised my mother she would focus on her academics once more. My mother wants to keep me here in Connecticut, in New Haven, at home, where she can be sure I won’t screw up like my sister. When I say I want to pursue MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or follow in my sister’s footsteps to Cornell University, she cries like a little girl. Samira comforts my mother by saying she will never leave home, but my mother still clings to me as if I am her lifeboat.
Sometimes, I can’t feel the pulse on my wrist or above my collar bone and I like to pretend I’m a vampire. On the weekends, Boo and I nap in the day and wander the halls of our house at night, ransacking the fridge for juice and brownies or cookies. We like the quiet and when we open the windows, we can hear the constant chirp of the grasshoppers. The cat likes to stare out the window and watch the headlights of cars light up the neighborhood. The dog next door barks whenever a car passes and the cat likes to watch the dog. Sometimes, I wish I could hear her thoughts. The black cat next-door likes to come by sometimes and sit on the second floor fire escape next to my window and the cats share the silence. When it rains, we close the windows and watch the drops trail down the windowpane in the dark, lit like stars by the streetlights.
One day, I told my mother, out of anger, that I would never return to her Bangladesh and she took this to heart. When it rains though, I remember the tin roof house we used to live in back in Bangladesh for the first half of my life. The rain used to hit the tin like stones in the monsoon season and the winds howled like the crazy woman who walked aimlessly by our school bus stop every morning. Tania used to tell stories of the wind tearing the roofs from houses and sometimes, she said, sometimes people got hurt by the flying objects. She told us a story of a man who got decapitated by a tin roof when he went outside in the storm. I was scared then but I laugh now at her crazy stories. There was a group of mango trees near our house and in these storms, the unripe mangoes would fly off the tall trees and hit the roofs with loud bangs and my sisters and I and all the kids from the neighborhood would rush out in the rain, collecting the green fruits in our skirts. Tania would always get the most because mango, sour and hard when unripe, was a delicacy to her, when pickled with sugar, salt, and chili. Even now, when it rains really hard, Tania and I go out in the rain, let it wash over us with hands outstretched trying to take it all in, but it’s not the same as Bengali rain. It has no warmth and there’s no pattern to how it falls. Samira usually follows us out on these occasions, with her little purple umbrella. Only five when she came here, she has no memories of home.
When my mother quit work at Au Bon Pain because of her arthritis pains, she dug her sun-browned hands into the earth to forget the loneliness. She began with tomatoes, then pepper, and now she has squash, spinach, cucumber, eggplant, and some hybrids she snuck over from Bangladesh from her last visit. Strangers come from five streets away to admire her garden, and the ice-cream man gives us free coconut ice-cream when my mother offers him a bag of her reddest tomatoes. Now, a familiar chill has settled over New Haven with the oncoming fall and slowly, her plants take their last few breaths. With the cat in my lap, I leaf through a pamphlet about a summer program in Egypt where I will learn the geometry of the pyramids and shape my mouth in new ways to speak an ancient language. I want to taste the salts of the Saharan desert and wake up to the song of black-capped chickadees on the shores of the Charles in Cambridge, but my mother doesn’t want to let me go. My father tells her not to worry as he ladles a serving of her rice and curry onto his plate. “You’ll get more wrinkles in your forehead,” he jokes, and this upsets my mother more. Tired of arguing, she retires to her garden to collect dry seeds for next year. When it begins to snow, however, my mother will hibernate through the winter to rise again, refreshed and stronger in the spring, after the snow fades and her tulip bulbs poke out to reach the surface once more.