“What Babas Are For”

Originally published in ExPatLit.com

copyright (c) 2010 by Anjoli Roy

It would be the farthest I’d been from home. Minutes before I boarded the eighteen-hour flight, I reminded myself that I’d been away at college for two years already, that I’d be gone for only seven weeks of the summer, that I had traveled alone before, that I was brave.

“You’ll have to get some sleep on the flight,” Dad said over our last meal together before I officially left the country.

Across the sticky table, amid the clamor of the food court, I saw the worry wrinkle the skin around his eyes.

I’d woken up that morning in Pasadena feeling forgotten. My bags were in my mother’s car, and as I’d looked back at our steel-frame house, I’d wondered why—when he’d left for his own early flight the week prior—Dad hadn’t woken me up at least for a quick peck on my forehead as he’d always done when I was a girl. I’d peered at his room upstairs, watching the ceiling fan cut the dim morning light with each turn of its dark blades. He was nowhere.

He was gone a lot when my older sisters and I were small, but he would also take us out of school to go with him on his business trips whenever he could. Pharmaceutical companies that wanted him to endorse their drugs would send him a first-class ticket that he’d exchange for a few coach seats. He was a surgeon—a “women’s physician,” he said to say if anyone asked—and he taught at a university near our southern California home.

Between his traveling, being on call, teaching classes, and attending board meetings, we were only home together for occasional weeklong stints. After Mom moved out when I was seven, our parents shared custody. By the time Joya was in college, Maya and I had decided to stay at Dad’s full time.

Dad’s home is our home, I remember reasoning. It was Mom who decided to leave. She can come visit if she wants to see us.

Even when their divorce was fresh, I loved going on those business trips. I remember playing hide-and-seek with the other doctors’ kids in convention centers and monstrous resorts in Kā‘anapali, Miami, Palm Springs, Sydney. We’d spend entire weeks in bright, sparkling pools, each indistinguishable from the one before. In the evenings, we’d throw t-shirts over our burned shoulders and play elevator tag until one of the lifts broke. Then we’d hide in the rooms, order room service. We’d pour the contents of those miniature ketchup and mustard containers across a pile of pancakes, or drizzle maple syrup on a half-eaten hamburger that we’d sprinkled with artificial sweetener. We’d mix orange juice and milk in a glass with lots of salt and pepper, garnish the drink with a sprig of fresh parsley for visual interest, and watch the mess curdle. Then, we’d dare each other to eat—take a bite, swallow a swig—before pushing the mess out the door for someone else to clean. We’d suck on sugar packets, jump on the beds, then do it all again the next day. We were little nightmares.

When we were bored, we’d ask Dad if we could come to his dinner talks. I’d put on one of the flower-print dresses Mom had sewn for my older sisters that I was then big enough to wear. We’d slick back our hair, bleached from chlorine and the sun, into tight ponytails. We’d sit quietly in the back of a packed hall with napkins on our laps, giggling behind tall glasses of ice water.

All the while, Dad would be running around, attending or delivering lectures. Five-feet, six-inches tall, he’d be neat in his tailored suits, his chest perpetually puffed out, his chin tilted slightly up, like a person accustomed to speaking with giants. His large ears protruded from the sides of his head, and his smooth brown face broke into easy smiles, revealing slightly crooked teeth. A plastic nametag was permanently clipped to his breast pocket. His eyes were mischievous; I remember thinking I never really knew what he was up to.

He was a good speaker. I knew that then, not just because of how often he was invited away, but because it seemed there was a perpetual crowd of groupies hovering near our table, fawning over my sisters and me and saying, just loudly enough for us to hear, that “Dr. Roy was such a good speaker,” before someone would shush them (loudly), saying that his daughters were right there, and they should keep their voices down. We would roll our eyes at each other—those suck-ups—then smile into our napkins. We’d marvel at how the man who couldn’t finish a sentence at home—whose limp attempt at communicating was more often than not, “Give me the-uh-the…”—could conjure up thirteen-letter scientific terms without faltering.

We saw our dad as the most important person in the world. Other people’s adoration of him only confirmed this.

It wasn’t until we grew invested in the complex customs of pre-adolescent social hierarchies, wanted to be more like the pack, were more keen on staying in one place than tagging along on our dad’s trips, that we lost interest in having our father’s singularity recognized.

Once, when I was in the fourth grade, I was having a sleepover and Dad was home during an unusually long stint in town. He was on the phone with an intern, and we were all eating dinner. Dad wasn’t on call, but the attending physician at the hospital was overbooked, and the shaky voice that we could hear through the phone was doing what I recognized was a hysterectomy without supervision.

“No! No!” Dad was saying, sucking the dahl from the tips of his fingers. “Yes, that’s the bladder, just move that to the side!”

Darcy, one of the popular girls from school, froze beside me. I looked over to see her pale face gone pink. Before this phone call, she had been staring at the plate of food before her, presumably trying to figure out how to eat without silverware, which I’d mistakenly thought was going to be the biggest challenge of this sleepover. I got up from the table and brought her a fork from the kitchen.

Because we were getting older and it was harder to miss school, we spent more time at home. Every few days, it seemed, we’d wake up to our dad’s illegible doctor’s scrawl scribbled across a strip of paper. In close, he’d remind us to “wow ‘em.” That was his motto. “Make them say, ‘Wow!’” he’d say on those few instances he could drop us off at school. I remember feeling embarrassed at his enthusiasm, but I still felt his words. On those handwritten notes, next to where he signed “Baba,” there would be a hurried smiley face sandwiched between two sticky-outie ears, almost as big as his real ones. I collected dozens of these notes in a folder somewhere.

In 1995, during the summer between sixth and seventh grades, he was away for two full months. He was going to Saudi Arabia, and our contact with him would be limited, he’d told us across the dining-room table. Though Joya was away at college in San Diego by then, both she and Maya had objected, said they’d miss him too much, and I’d joined the choir too, a bit. I was twelve, and mad at him for going away again. Didn’t he want to be with us? I wondered. I told myself I didn’t care that he was gone, and half- believed it.

I didn’t know it then, but he’d been invited to teach in Saudi Arabia. Allegedly, a member of the royal family had gotten sick and found the quality of care to be subpar in the local hospitals. One of the princes, an ambassador to the United States, mentioned while golfing with an American that the royal family was interested in flying in U.S. faculty to Riyadh to get the quality of care “up to snuff.” They were willing to pay $1,000 per day to qualified doctors. With Joya in college, Maya and me in private schools, and Mom on alimony, Dad jumped at the offer.

In later years, he told me about the locked walled compound where he stayed with the twenty-five or so other American physicians. “The apartments were very nice,” he said. “Just like in the U.S.”

When I pressed him for details, he recounted what he thought would interest me: the calls for prayer, the heads and hands that were rumored to roll in a square nearby to deter crime. He told me stories of a Westerner adventuring in an exotic Middle East. I searched these words for clues that might tell me how much he missed us.

When he returned that summer, Dad brought back mirrored jewelry boxes and 22-carat gold necklaces he’d had made with our names in Arabic, along with some joke t- shirts he’d secured. One had three cartoon women standing on different-sized platforms, with only their eyes showing. Below them were the words, “Saudi Arabian beauty contest.” At his welcome-home party, everyone had a good laugh at that. I locked myself in my room and listened to them toasting their wine glasses, wondering when he was going to leave again. I wondered when, if ever, I was going to get my turn with him.

Soon after that, Joya’s psychology-major friend, Adina, came over to the house and looked around in wonder. “It’s amazing!” she said as she burst out laughing. Her arms stretched open to take in the space of our living room, cluttered with dusty knickknacks from around the world. “Everything you have in your whole life is because of vaginas! Everywhere you look, everything you have: Vaginas!”

We laughed too, but wondered at the cost of these things. We knew what we had to give up in return.

Now, I was on my way to South Africa for a summer program, and he wasn’t there. He hadn’t come home in time to say goodbye to me, as his East Coast conference had kept him longer than expected. Though I’d be back in seven weeks, I’d only have a handful of days with the family before heading back to New York to start my junior year.

When he called to say goodbye, Joya answered the phone. Eight months pregnant, she stood with one hand resting on her quickly growing belly and held out the phone to me with the other, pleading with her eyes. I pretended to have a headache and closed my bedroom door behind me, nursing my hurt. Still, while my hands were busy folding clothes, my ear angled to the door as I heard her tell him about how our middle sister, Maya, was settled in at her internship in Washington DC; that, yes, I was old enough to travel halfway across the world. I was smart enough to handle the post-apartheid climate. I could do it on my own. I puffed up my chest a little at Joya’s faith in me.

Our home, now wrapped in gauzy morning light, looked distinctly empty. Joya hugged me tight, and her husband and my two little nephews, Rab and Momo, gave me squeezes before backing off to let me dip into Mom’s car. I held onto Joya’s belly, stared back at the house, didn’t make a move toward the car door.

“Come on, darlin’,” Mom said gently, standing beside her Prius. She was wearing a loose-fitting gray sweatshirt and pants—the kind that cinch at the ankles. Small red fingerlings broke up the whites of her brown eyes. Her hair, usually an even poof around her handsome face, was still smashed on one side from the pillow she’d evidently jumped up from at her house in Altadena just a few minutes away. She waved at me dramatically to hurry up. “Don’t want you to miss your plane.”

On the way to the airport, I stole glimpses of Mom’s death grip on the wheel, her knuckles as white as paper. She wove in and out of morning traffic. I wondered if she’d always been like this—quiet, impassive—during all those years of driving my father to the airport when they were still a couple. I almost reached over to loosen her fingers from the wheel a bit to help her relax, to touch her heavily creamed skin, which was beginning to blush with sun spots.

Instead, I poked at the wooden knitting needles that I’d brought along to keep my hands busy during the flight. Their knobby ends protruded from my bloated purse, which I hugged on my lap. I touched my passport for the hundredth time.

As we passed through downtown Los Angeles, I looked out the car window at the onslaught of houses and concrete that carpeted the city. I wondered what this trip would be like. A part of me wondered if I was heading out into the world, this time in the name of education, to repent for those years of mindless travel when we were kids. I touched the necklace that Dad had given me and felt a surge of strength.

I said goodbye to Mom at LAX. She gave me a squeeze, said to call her right when I got in, then turned and walked back to her car, double-parked at the curb, with an efficiency that comes from years of practice at being left behind. I bit my cheek, wondering if we weren’t all just punishing each other for those years of leavings; maybe that was why we kept leaving one another, again and again. I dragged my suitcases, heavily, from the curb.

At my layover in Atlanta, I scurried around the airport with my carry-ons. My phone rang from somewhere deep in my bag. I hesitated, just for a moment, then picked up.

“Well hello, Anjoli dearest.”

“Hey, Dad.” I refolded the map of Cape Town I’d been fiddling with moments before and clasped my hands in my lap, waiting for his words. I took a breath, tried not to sound too excited to hear from him.

“So, where are you?”

“I’m in Atlanta. I have a two-and-a-half-hour layover,” I complained. I shredded the edges of the map and balled up the torn paper like flint hungry for a fire. A cigarette ad with a trim of colorful plastic lighters glinted at me from the souvenir shop across the hallway. I wanted to tell him that I was hurt he didn’t say goodbye, that he didn’t seem to care that I’d just gotten back from my second year of college and was heading out again for most of the summer, that I was sad to leave when Joya was due so soon, that I was scared to go and wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing, running all the way to the other side of the world. But I didn’t say anything. He’d have to hang up any second.

“Yes, but where are you in the airport?” he asked.

“I’m sitting in the food court by some greasy fast-food noodle spot,” I huffed, picked at my jeans, rested my chin on my free hand.

“Anjoli, since you left for school in New York, I’ve been thinking. You and I haven’t spent more than just a few minutes together, just the two of us, have we?”

I held my breath, leaned back into my seat. “Yeah. That’s kind of true.”

“Do you have a few minutes to talk to me?”

“Sure,” I said, glancing at the face of my phone. “My battery’s charged.”

“Good. Look up.”

Striding over to me with a bright white rose under his broad smile, he was neat in a black tailored business suit and a compact carry-on that he rolled casually behind him. His crisp, sky-blue shirt set off the earthen color of his skin. Even with his sleight frame, he towered over the travelers hustling around him.

“But, Dad, how—?” I stammered, still speaking into the phone, the corners of my eyes welling up.

“Do you really think I’d let my youngest daughter go so far away without saying a proper goodbye?” He smiled, ended the call, and sat down across from me.

“Um, no? I mean, I was hoping not,” I said. I leaned over the gray Formica table and gave him an awkward hug. He held onto me, and the familiar stubble on his face grazed my cheek. “But I didn’t think you’d coordinate our layovers either. Wow, Dad.”

He winked at me, shrugged. “It’s the least I could do. Besides,” he said, leaning back into his seat and smiling broadly, “what are babas for?”

6 thoughts on ““What Babas Are For”

  1. One of the most touching things I have ever read – I can find my Jethu so much here!!

    Didnt I comment here earlier??

  2. […] for my uncle’s birthday, in North Carolina to see him mom or to visit friends of the family—he even orchestrated my layover when I was off to do a seven-week study abroad in South Africa so he… after I thought he’d forgotten to say goodbye to me in […]

  3. dude. totally crying re-reading this today. granted i’m emo-town in this moment but seriously. i miss you guys and love you so much and am so glad i have you as family!

    • Love you, iyaaaa!! Was thinking that dad is gone from you guys for so long! I’ve totally hogged him. Love you so much. He misses you guys like crazy, even as he is swimming in some really beautiful india-fam love 🙂

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