The apartment had six windows and nine doors. I knew because I had counted them all. Once on the nine-hour flight from the airport, then on the eight-hour flight from Frankfurt while sipping on a carton of chocolate milk through a flimsy, striped straw, and yet again when I was trying to fall asleep in the heavy, humid air after we had landed, collected our bags, found a taxi, and finally climbed the two flights of stairs that loomed before us.
Why is it that the longest journeys are the ones that keep us awake at night?
I laid on the floor. A thin, cotton mattress provided a padding between my back and the hard linoleum. A simple green cotton sheet dotted with violets and daisies covered my thin, prepubescent legs, which were beginning to sprout stems and weeds of their own. I waited for my eyes to tire, for my mind to slow, for the fan that was spinning above me to lull me straight into something that resembled sleep. But instead, my mind spun in tune with the ceiling fan above me, whirring around and around. I thought of all of the things that I would finally do now that I was here.
The next morning (or, four hours later that same day), I bolted upright to the sound of a rickshaw hurling itself down the street. Those small three-wheeled vehicles appeared out of nowhere, scurrying and scuttling about on the streets, unavoidable and yet unforeseeable. Cockroaches, my aunt had termed them. Ugly, little black and yellow cockroaches, she called them, the very thought of the creatures bringing the taste of bitter melon to the tip of her tongue.
Seven in the morning and the Infestation had long since begun. Rickshaws, cyclists, schoolchildren, monkeys, cows, all out and about starting their respective days the only way that they knew how: sipping morning cups of chai, sitting (standing) in traffic.
I woke up from my floor bed to see my sister fast asleep on her own mattress beside me. I stood up, and crept quietly out of the room. And I count: one window back there. One door here. Another door to my left as I tiptoe into the hallway even though everyone else in the house is already wide awake.
I can’t remember what our first house looked like from the inside. I’ve seen pictures of me standing outside of it in a blue frock, white lace like a doily on a dining room table lining the neck, sleeves, and hem of the dress. In another picture, I’m fast asleep on a twin-size mattress wearing a yellow tank top with sunflowers, while a Jurassic Park movie poster towers over me, a Tyrannosaurus guarding my dreams, haunting away evil spirits by its sheer number of teeth.
I was terrified of that poster, but my walls were so bare, and our wallets were so empty, and it was my father who had gone to a thrift shop, found the long shiny poster wrapped up in a piece of pink construction paper labeled “25¢”, and stuck it up on my wall so that I would have something to look at as I fell asleep in the New Jersey moonlight.
The journey that we made to that house is a shared history — a story from my past that I can’t remember, and so someone else had to share it with me: Two suitcases, (some number of) a hundred dollars, and no one to wrap us up in their arms. Long days of walking to a laundromat, down some stairs, into a dungeon of a basement to do our laundry. Even longer nights of calculating what time it was at home, and what we might be doing if we were back there.
I’ve gone back there only once since the last time I wore that blue dress with the white trim. The drive to that first apartment wound us around and around the New Jersey Turnpike — the way that my mother would wrap a lock of her hair around her index finger — and spit us out at exit 9, tossing us through the suburbs of a place that smelled like it was always a little bit damp from a previous night’s rain.
The journey back to the house seemed to take an eternity. But when we pulled up to the apartment building at the end of the street, its white paint faded from nearly two decades of families moving in and out, climbing up and down, growing up and out, it seemed far too small. Too tiny to have held all the stories I had heard and pieced together in my mind. Too little to be the place that I had come from.
The day before we were going to board our plane back home, my cousins and I decided to go out for ice cream. The grey clouds rolling in from the Arabian Sea were the color of sediment and minerals, as if the sky was weighed down by rocks that came tumbling forth from the west.
The path to the ice cream parlor meandered through the neighborhood, passing by the butcher’s shop, the sweet shop, and the old man with a (slightly) rotten wooden cart who started selling his vegetables only after three o’clock every afternoon. We walked past bungalows and buildings, homes stacked upon homes, the way that my sister and I would stack our legos and build red, blue, and yellow skyscrapers that came all the way up to our knees.
I saw people pull their damp laundry from off of their balconies, slide their windows shut, slam their doors shut, and hide away in anticipation of the impending downpour. As we stood in line waiting to order our mango, lychee, jackfruit-flavored scoops, I thought of our own house, thousands of miles away, and the way that the east coast wind would blow the curtains to one side and then another before it began to rain.
On the walk back, the monsoon finally gave way. We sought shelter at a tea stall, its awning made from banana leaves echoing the rain. I closed my eyes, felt the drops on my shoulders and cheeks, and began to count the windows and doors that awaited me on my journey home.