Did she look up, see the lettering on his nametag, N-A-D-A-R-A-J-A, and think to herself, “A Tamil I don’t know? In Findlay, Ohio?”
October 28, 2016
The last time I left home, I closed my eyes as the plane took off and promised myself that I’d never come back. I tucked my boarding pass into my wallet, folding the printed paper into a square wad that made it nearly impossible to close: a reminder of the day and the decision.
But I’m back now. And I know how easy it is to break promises to myself.
Every corner of Findlay, Ohio, is stacked with ten fresh inches of January snow. I drive past the Kroger, the mediocre Tex-Mex place I used to walk to in the summers, and park near the entryway to Mr. Nadaraja’s cul-de-sac. It’s miraculously one of the few areas cleared at this hour, due to its fortuitous placement on the route of the local snowplow team. My car is close enough for me to see the house, but far enough away that Mr. Nadaraja won’t be able to recognize me if he happens to look through his kitchen window.
I turn off the engine and let the windows fog up, cold and warm air churning as the outside seeps in through the tiny cracks of my rental. I think about turning around and heading back to the Carolinas. I hadn’t told anyone at work about my plans. I just took one of those few emergency personal days listed on my contract. When I told Mr. Nevin that I wanted to take one, it was clear from his expression that I was the first person to ask him for a personal day in a long time.
I draw my name and a stick figure in the condensation on my window, and push open the door to step out into the street. The whole road is a pool of brown slush. Without winter boots, the water soaks up through my running shoes and into my socks. I take a deep breath and exhale fully, the thick cloud of vapor reminding me that I’m alive and here. No longer just remembering this place, but present in it.
I gather my suitcase and head for Mr. Nadaraja’s door.
Sonia is already there at Mr. Nadaraja’s when I arrive, and after just a few hours of coordinated coaxing, Mr. Nadaraja agrees to our proposition.
“Fine. Fine.” Mr. Nadaraja says with a wincing half-smile. “I’ll sign. I don’t want to be a burden, you know.”
I watch as his hand struggles with the pen, his once pristine cursive script now jagged as the tip shakes along the paper. R. Prasanth Nadaraja.
Mr. Nadaraja would be moved into Hope Village Senior Community. Since Mr. Nadaraja has no relatives in the area, my signature and his together would suffice on all the forms.
Sonia keeps trying to reassure me about my legitimacy in the situation, telling me that when she brought the senior center staff to Mr. Nadaraja’s home for the evaluation, a nurse had pointed out a picture of Ammah and me that sat framed on his marble countertop.
“Is that your son?” the nurse asked.
Mr. Nadaraja walked over slowly, hands clasped behind his back the way they always were when he paced about. “No, but he is my boy.”
Mr. Nadaraja never married. His neighbors around the cul-de-sac, who knew little of his past, only speculated about why he came to Findlay alone seven years ago in his brown Lincoln. Some presumed that their brown-skinned, British-accented neighbor, with his finely-kept rose garden and tendency toward privacy, was a widower. Others presumed he was closeted, placing assumptions on the high softness of his voice and the theatricality of his word choice. But aside from that, they didn’t wonder too much about Mr. Nadaraja’s life. Every day, he woke up at 5 AM, had his tea in his covered back-porch greenhouse, and then began his self-scheduled shift as manager at the local Walmart Supercenter that lasted into the night.
Because Ammah never told me how she met Mr. Nadaraja, I had to piece things together on my own. They told me snippets of scenes, or details were intimated between glances, but otherwise I relied entirely on my imagination. Perhaps they met at Walmart: Ammah, walking down the long aisles with a basket bearing long wool socks, tomatoes, Pepto Bismol, and wheat crisps; Mr. Nadaraja somehow finding the courage in his heart to speak to a woman for the first time in nearly half a century.
“Excuse me madam, can I help you find anything?” he would’ve said, clearing his throat and standing up as straight as possible in a feeble attempt to lengthen his annually-shrinking frame, and to hide his increasingly visible paunch. My mother would respond nervously: “No thank you, sir. I have everything I need.”
What could possibly have come after this? Did she look up, see the lettering on his nametag, N-A-D-A-R-A-J-A, and think to herself, “A Tamil I don’t know? In Findlay, Ohio?”
Did he build up to a more substantial conversation with an innocent opener, “I understand, madam. By the way, I couldn’t help but notice your accent. Could you tell me where it’s from?”
How odd it must have been for Ammah, who had married so long ago under such different circumstances, to entertain the idea of Mr. Nadaraja’s courting. Or perhaps she was the courter?
Even before meeting Mr. Nadaraja, Ammah never spoke in full detail about any of her relationships, not even the one with my father. She’d mentioned certain “individuals”, locating them only blurrily in the time and space. Her descriptions stopped short of revealing anything about her fears, hopes, desires, or any real emotional content—they all were simply the facts.
But when she met Mr. Nadaraja, even the facts were too personal to share with me. She was awkward enough when discussing my dating life to ever entertain the notion of sharing details with me about her own fledgling relationship. But I could tell she loved him in the way she smiled and fidgeted before chastising me for my nosiness.
“Neelan, why do you ask such things?” she’d say, vigorously moving on to another task, pretending like she truly had other things to be preoccupied with.
I knew she loved my father too, but that’s because she always told me so, perhaps in an effort to fill the blank spaces of my memory for someone I never fully had the chance to know. When lung cancer took my father at 60, I was eight years old. Despite being more than 20 years senior to Ammah, Papa married Ammah in what Ammah always referred to as a “love marriage,” emphasizing the word love as a distinction between her marriage and the marriages of many of her cousins and siblings.
When I left for college and Ammah was truly alone, she quickly began the work of creating a new life for herself. She joined the church choir. She learned to drive, despite my protestations. She stopped cooking, mostly, instead keeping a busy social calendar of dinner meet-ups and solo excursions to local restaurants, where everyone knew her name. She was hard to miss in that part of Ohio, one of the few non-white regulars in a small white town. This should never have surprised those of us who knew her. Yet, something about the way she carried on in her steadfastly social and purpose-driven manner, while still always grieving Papa’s death even years later, led to sideways glances between the relatives on their annual pilgrimages to our small town.
But even upon coming to America, Ammah was adamant that she’d maintain her sense of ambition and build a career for herself despite Papa’s healthy engineering salary at the Jeep factory in Toledo. A self-made University of Colombo graduate with a nursing degree, Ammah was a local celebrity back in Sri Lanka. She worked for nearly forty years in the states, though never actually as a nurse.
I have no memory of those earliest days before our great migration. When I see the old grainy photo of us on a giant grey behemoth of a ship leaving from Colombo—Ammah holding me in her arms, Papa’s dark brown hand poking out of a beige linen suit jacket as he waved and smiled for the camera—I know I’ve built my memory of this moment completely from the photo itself. I cast meaning and life onto the still image of my one-year-old head tilted up toward Ammah. I must have been afraid. I must have felt the discomfort of a child exposed to the harshness of both the smell and wind of sea air.
I mostly build my memories of Papa the same way. Yes, I remember some of his habits: The way he would come home from the auto plant late evening and immediately start reading, eating the reheated leftovers of the dinner Ammah had prepared at a small fold out table in front of his La-Z-Boy chair, a looped Coltrane or Shankar record providing the background music for his personal studies. The way he was always gone when I woke up each morning to walk with Ammah to the bus stop for school. I knew he spent more time each day on his drive into the factory district of Northwest Ohio in his beloved grey-silver Cadillac Cimmaron than he ever spent with me. But it didn’t bother me then. I didn’t know to be bothered.
After he died, Ammah would hold me on some nights and cry about how we both missed him. “Papa would be so proud of you,” she’d cry, pushing my unruly curly black hair back over my ears. I cried, too. But not for him. I cried because of the way Ammah shivered as she held me. Because of how seriously she spoke about returning with me to Colombo to live with her family.
Of course, we never went. Not even to visit.
These days, when I manage to sleep, I dream the type of dreams that have no real story, but just leave me with a single image or recollection. In these dreams, all I remember each time is Ammah’s hands. Hands that beat out the flour for mountains of string-hoppers. Hands that answered the phone at the local college donation call center, that wrapped all my Christmas presents year after year, as we celebrated alone together in the mornings before driving to meet others at the church or before we intruded on other families’ gatherings. Hands that somehow remained soft even as the toll of age and experience weighed on her body.
The night Ammah died, the attending doctor at the hospital told me I could hold her hand. He said it might be cold. He said he’d give me some privacy.
I couldn’t do it. Each time I tried to reach my hand out for hers one last time, something would stop me and I would put my hands back into my lap.
I tell myself now that it’s better to remember them as warm.
I stayed in Ammah’s house for nearly a month after she died, as family trickled into the area to mourn with me on short notice. The night before the funeral, Mr. Nadaraja called me and asked that I stop by the next day in the morning.
I was surprised upon returning home to find that Ammah had moved in with Mr. Nadaraja. Certainly I had known things were serious between them; Ammah would always send me cards while I was away at Carolina, and the latest ones usually included a note from Mr. Nadaraja scribbled in at the bottom. But still, I imagined her maintaining some boundary, if only to avoid the news somehow getting out to someone in the extended family.
His spare bedroom was full of Ammah’s clothes and trinkets: rosary beads draped over the corner of the mirror, a chest full of saris and shalwars she had begun to wear again only recently, the locket that contained a picture of her and Papa as newlyweds on the nightstand.
I wondered if she had left the open locket there so obviously, or if Mr. Nadaraja had found it after going through her things after the accident, only now after her death breaching the unspoken oath of privacy between them. A vow to leave some things unsaid and unexamined. For both their sakes.
We spoke for an hour, and I left the room untouched. Too early to stir up the memories that lingered in each thing left behind.
But at the end of that month, I returned to the room and unpacked the drawers, and took the stacks of bangles out of Ammah’s jewelry box. I looked at each item closely, examining the spots where she had worn down the gold varnish on her jewelry, unfolding saris across the length of the floor to look at the repeating patterns and dyes in the fabric. I packed nearly everything to take with me, stripping the room of its memory.
At some point during my packing, Mr. Nadaraja peered into the room to check on my progress. I stared for a moment into his eyes as he scanned the room. I averted my glance as he stood in the doorway, pretending to be unbothered as he looked silently at each of the blank walls, the open and empty drawers, and the blank spaces atop the various cabinets.
He turned away from the door as I attempted awkwardly to hurry up and finish packing the items. He gulped a deep breath, as if to he were about to plunge into the sea. “Take what you need.”
I left Mr. Nadaraja’s home the next day with a firm handshake, a kiss on both cheeks, and four full suitcases of Ammah’s possessions that he could rightfully claim as his own. He said nothing about it.
He had intended a different goodbye. Scribbled on a half sheet of printer paper in his distinguished cursive: “I am going on a short walk, and wanted to say goodbye in case you leave before I return. I love you, Neelan. Please give me a call when you arrive in North Carolina.” He never had said those words to me before. I never gave him the chance to escape either, since I woke at the sound of his note rustling at my door despite his best attempt to be discrete. Forcing Mr. Nadaraja to say goodbye. Face to face.
Sonia had warned me about the ways I would notice the change in Mr. Nadaraja since my last visit. I would have to be prepared for the roses in his yard, now dead and withered. The spoiled food that would need to be rooted out and thrown away each week. One night, another neighbor walked Mr. Nadaraja home after he wandered into their backyard and couldn’t find his way back.
To avoid the possibility of something similar happening, I have planned out this transition time carefully, so Mr. Nadaraja and I proceed through the same routines together. I wake up each morning and find Mr. Nadaraja in the greenhouse area, sitting in the large white wicker chair that looks out into his backyard. He has given up his newspapers and puzzles. Instead, he just sits and looks out into the white space of his snow-covered yard behind the house. His breathing is heavy as he transitions in and out of various states of sleep.
While I spend the majority of my days consolidating Mr. Nadaraja’s belongings in preparation for his move to the assisted living center, I first make two cups of tea in the old Jaffna style, pouring a dark Ceylon brew over condensed milk and cane sugar. Mr. Nadaraja takes a few sips, and then sets the mug down where it cools and coagulates, remaining unfinished until I remember to pick it up after dinner. He sits there all day, only occasionally looking over to mention odds and ends that float into his head. “How’s the girl?” He asks. Given that there is no girl, I give him the latest from my alter ego, the one who is managing to date successfully. It seems like the best option for both of us.
Most nights, I order Chinese delivery and we share the same fried rice with the thunderbolt shaped carrots, and a couple chicken egg rolls.
On Friday, though, I ask Sonia to bring me some things from the Indian food mart in Toledo. Some prepared curries in small tupperware containers, but also some rice flour and dry grated coconut. I take the old stone mortar and pestle from under the sink and beat the coconut into a fine powder while Mr. Nadaraja looks on, neither curious nor disinterested. I pour boiling water over my mixture of the coconut powder and flour, letting the solids soak up the water and become a large clump before transitioning to the laborious process of kneading a dough out of the uncooperative materials. After giving it some time to rise, I push the dough through Ammah’s old string hopper press. Spindles spill out of the tiny holes, leaving small patties of the coiled side-dish that I place into boiling water. Finally, I arrange it all in a gorgeous silver thali, the colorful orange, yellow, and red curries bordering the pearl-white hoppers in the middle of the platter.
Mr. Nadaraja has fallen asleep again, and when I wake him to alert him that dinner is served, he points a shaky finger at my creation.
“What is this?” he asks, the questions of who, where, and how percolating under the surface of his investigative remark.
“I made it,” I say, watching his reaction, looking for signs of surprise or the chance to bring forth a distant euphoria too long dormant in his eyes. “The way Ammah used to.”
Mr. Nadaraja reaches out and touches the string hoppers, lifting a few strands from the steaming pile and letting them drop down once again onto the sticky spheres.
“I’ll think I’ll have the Chinese,” he says.
Saturday morning. I seal the letter, but it is merely a formality. I have made the appropriate calls and spoken with Sonia to tell her about the change in plans. I unpack the boxes and place Mr. Nadaraja’s things back carefully in their previous positions.
I tell Mr. Nevin about my resignation over the phone, calling when I know he will be at the office alone. He tells me he knows; he could tell my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I think it’s a weird thing for him to say, given that everyone in the company spends the entirety of the day staring into a computer screen.
Although I never would have admitted it to myself when I made my plan to come back, I think I knew all along that if I came back home, I likely would stay. I can only say this in hindsight, as each day I linger on an old picture, rediscover a decades-old heirloom, or drift just above the threshold of sleep, hearing Ammah’s voice replicated in my head, I know this place is mine. My friends, my extended family, even Mr. Nadaraja himself if he were in the right state, would have rejected the idea of my staying completely if they had known. He would tell me there’s nothing for me here anymore. He’d say that professionals should take care of a sick man, and that I should just come to visit from time to time.
What he might have said though is meaningless now. Mr. Nadaraja will never know or remember why I’m staying, or who I truly am ever again, so I repeat the same lines regardless.
“I’m staying here,” I tell him, again wasting my time for his reaction. “You don’t have to move anywhere. I’ll live here and make sure everything is okay.”
Mr. Nadaraja is barely paying attention, but somehow, after processing bits of my words, he says, “But where were you planning to go?”
At night, I roll Ammah’s rosary beads through my fingers, praying a little, more because it feels like the right thing to do with those beads than any wish for divine inspiration. I think how Mr. Nadaraja has forgotten my name, and how he hasn’t said it a single time. There is no Neelan for him anymore. Someone familiar, perhaps. But not me.
But I realize now that I can handle it. I can be Mr. Nadaraja’s boy. And that’s enough.