“…like a love sooong” finishes Noorie, crooning breathlessly in her high pitched voice. Meanwhile, I am trying swerve my car just right. Being a new driver is hard. But I can get from point A to point B. That’s the only points that seem to matter in my life now. Although, I can’t seem to listen to the radio anymore, much less fiddle with it every time an ad comes on. Well, that right I had relinquished anyway after my daughter turned five. She wouldn’t leave the music system alone. Takes after me.
We reach the mall just in time. My daughter’s voice is sweet, but after a point I need it to stop. Phew, I’ve parked it well! Yaay! Have to tell my husband about it. “Will we get caramel popcorn or cheese, bebu?” I ask my daughter. “Mixed”. At seven, Noorie is more sure of herself than I was then, or am now. She knows what she wants, and more importantly, she knows even more clearly what she doesn’t want. We trot up the stairs, and then the escalator, Noorie marveling at every mannequin she sees. “That dress is nice no?” I say, pointing at one. She giggles and says, “that’s a real girl mama!” Oops. She really fooled me. “I know, was just trying to make you laugh!” “No! you didn’t know!” she squeals. She’s a smart cookie, this one.
We get to the theatre area, and what do you know! We’re way ahead of time. We stroll near one of the red sofas, lounging about and chattering until the auditorium opens. My daughter and I talk about the last movie we saw, and she skillfully slips it in how much she would like a minion backpack- message received- and how it would be so nice if we were to have minions. While all this is happening, my eyes scan the other moviegoers. All of it filled with families, or with teenage couples looking well turned out. Also many a divorced dads spending their weekend with their kids whose mums must have the custody. You can always tell with the divorced dads. They don’t say no to anything.
My attention however seems arrested by a girl, who looks to be about ten or eleven. She meets my gaze for a second before looking down again, guiltily. She’s seems to be getting a thorough talking-to to by her dad. When I look at him a second longer, I feel uncomfortable. He is not the dad. He seems to be in his early twenties. A little young to be a dad, a little old to be her older brother, possible though. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else who’s there with them. An uncle, maybe?
I forget how long I keep discreetly watching their exchange. She seems to be mostly bowing her head down. He is talking to her in hushed tones. I can almost feel the tension he’s holding back. My curiosity piqued, I strain to catch a few sentences. I could only hear a few words like “you must understand these…” “Can only do so much”, “don’t care”, when Noorie yanks my hand and asks if we could please buy the popcorn? Yes of course. Even as we go to get the popcorn I keep inadvertently glancing at the uncanny pair. Who is he? Their tiff, if I could call it that, seems almost…adult-like. She seems to be announcing by her body language that she is afraid and ashamed and remorseful towards him.
I get a sense of foreboding deep in my gut. An electric shock of recognition. A sense that I know what is happening. My heart is pounding, and I momentarily cannot hear anything. I get the popcorn and immediately afterwards the auditorium opens. My daughter’s grip on my hand is almost painful. She hurries me along to go inside the theatre, while the girl in the orange shirt keeps mute. She gets up and they also proceed to the same auditorium, him putting his hand on her back and ever so slightly rubbing it. I resolve to see them later again. Why though? Why should I see them? Because something isn’t right. I can feel it in the catch of my breath and in the clamminess of my palms.
I’m not a meddler. I generally leave others be. But even after we are seated, I keep straining to see where they are. But I don’t see them, the lights are dim, and my daughter needs my attention.
The movie starts. Mowgli is jumping about in glee, and the forest is beautiful and lush. Noorie is completely mesmerized. I would’ve been too, perhaps if my mind weren’t bringing up a thousand mosaic like memories. I remembered things I had forced myself to forget. Had succeeded, even. Hadn’t told a soul. I remembered how he caressed the back of my neck as he taught me how to play carrom. How he slithered his hand under my skirt when the lights were off. “Shh!” he’d say. “Keep quiet, Uncle loves you so much”. “Eat your food now! come on” he’d say, while his socked feet would slide along my calves.
I was eight. It felt terrifying and exhilarating. I’d never felt more conscious of my body. I felt special. Like I was chosen by my favorite uncle, to be his favorite girl. The one he picked out, to spend more time with. Share more secrets with. And secrets they were. My mother slapped me sometimes, and he would be there, ready to save me. Tell me a joke. My grandma would laugh. “These two! Inseparable” she’d say.
I remember how he would get angry when I would tell him about my friends. “I’m your friend! Why do you need so many?” I remember how I couldn’t ever focus on my homework. Because when I was home, there was no homework, really. Which earned me many names- lazy, insolent, idiot, etc. Not to forget the spankings. The constant talking between my parents and my teachers, discussing what a nuisance I was. Discussing it as if I wasn’t even in the room. Sitting next to them, my head bowed.
He left eventually, moved to another city. I cried for days. For a loss I was relieved about and yet I was in perdition. What would I do without him? Who would ‘love’ me? Who would console me? Only later did I feel the anger. I still don’t know why it happened. I don’t know if I’m angry anymore. He still meets me. Gives me a hug. But never touches me like that. So respectful now that sometimes I wonder if I’ve made it all up. I haven’t. I try to look at the audience again, trying to spot her. I haven’t.
I couldn’t see them again. Even if I did see them, what could I have done? Spoken to the girl? Spoken to the man? What could I say? Who could I report it to? That night, I get a headache. As a child I’d always had them. For no reason I could understand. Today I feel like it would consume me. Was I sick? Maybe I had a tumor that I wasn’t finding out about. Maybe I’d know when it was too late. Is it possible that some memories could join together inside your brain and become a tumor? I don’t know what I’m even thinking.
I realized we’re all only as sick as our secrets.
I am sick.