M-O-T-H-E-R

by Sameer Pandya

This story first appeared in Epiphany (Winter/Spring 2007-08) and is included, in a slightly modified form, in Pandya’s The Blind Writer: Stories and a Novella (University of Hawai'i Press, 2015).

In that Epiphany issue, Pandya’s story appeared alongside work by many emerging and established authors, including poetry by Derek Walcott, excerpted from his book White Egrets. The issue also featured an essay by Walcott, and a painting of Walcott’s on the cover. Also, Elena Ferrante’s book The Lost Daughter was excerpted. In photography, the issue featured Gail Albert Halaban’s series, “This Stage of Motherhood,” examining the lives of a group of women in New York.

 

UMA SHASTRI HAD WORRIED about loving her boys too much.  But then again, she wondered, what in the world was too much? 

In high school and college, Uma was good at math and economics only because she studied so hard.  But with a field hockey stick or a tennis racquet in her hand, her body slid to all the right places without conscious thought.  With her strong thighs, quick feet, and icy insides, she was always the best player on any field.  Later, when she was married, she wanted a daughter, but learned to be excited about the boys that came out of her belly.  Sure, she could have given a girl the real encouragement in sports she never had, but the boys would be an easier sell.  As the years passed, neither boy showed any interest in Little League, tennis, or even Ping-Pong.  Instead, they loved chess and, with their sharp memory and an ability to visualize and break down words, were highly skilled spellers.  Her husband Arun thought spelling and chess were the only sports worth encouraging.  She said they weren’t real sports; he said they showed spelling bees on ESPN.  Once she realized that both boys had genuine interest, Uma decided she’d help them become accomplished, well-known spellers, even though they weren’t all that interested in the competitions.

It was just past 6 AM on a Saturday morning and the family was on the road to the state spelling championships, in Sacramento.  They’d allotted two hours driving time and two more just in case.  Arun had suggested they drive the night before and stay at a motel, but Uma said no because all the responsibility would fall on her.  Arun would pack a few things in a bag five minutes before they were scheduled to leave.  She had to pack for her, the two boys, and deal with food.  Her elder son Pankaj was allergic to dairy products and wheat.  And so they were on the road at 6 A.M.  Both of them liked getting to their destination early, though Uma liked it just a little more. 

As soon as they got in the minivan, Pankaj went to the seat all the way in the back and fell asleep.  Bankim sat in the first passenger seat.  Arun drove, and Uma sat next to him. 

Arun and Uma didn’t think of driving a mini-van as surrendering to a staid domestic life in the suburbs.  In fact, they’d actively sought out the life.  They spent the first two years of their marriage in Baltimore, where Arun was completing his medical residency.  They rented an apartment at a safe distance from the tough neighborhood surrounding Johns Hopkins.  Arun spent his days and many nights at the hospital, while Uma had to fend for herself.  She had an economics degree, but had trouble finding work.  She ended up working at a fabric store for minimum wage.  The first month a woman in their apartment complex was held up as she was opening the door to the building.  This haunted Uma for the rest of their time in Baltimore.  When she ventured out, she did not feel comfortable until she was safely back inside their apartment.  When they left Baltimore and headed west, they agreed that they wanted nothing more to do with urban living.  They wanted a place where the parking was easy and where they didn’t have to spend the 30 yards before the front entry readying the key so that they could open and close the door in one swift, defensive movement.  A large, comfortable car was one small part of the life they’d envisioned. 

“Don’t you want to get a little sleep?” Uma asked Bankim.  “You didn’t fall asleep until late last night.” 

“I’m fine,” he said, staring out at the empty freeway.  One reason Bankim was so good at chess and spelling was that he could sit quietly in one place for hours. 

“We have plenty of time.  Rest your eyes.”  She felt more nervous than he did.  She’d only had a few short stretches of sleep the night before and now her eyes and head felt heavy.  A lack of sleep shortened the leash on her temper.  She closed her eyes for a few minutes.        

Some of Uma’s best childhood memories revolved around early mornings.  When she was young, she, her mother and her two older brothers often took an early morning train from Bombay into Gujarat to spend time with her mother’s family.  Uma’s mother got them up, dressed, and to the train station while she and her siblings were still half asleep.  And then they’d be settled in a train compartment.  Even before the train started moving, Uma was fast asleep.  She’d wake up a few hours later to a sharp, sunny day, with the countryside moving in a blur of greens and blues.  Her mother had a plate of fried snacks and a thermos of hot tea ready.  Uma wanted to duplicate the magical sensation of going to sleep in one world and waking up in another, but Pankaj usually slept through all their trips and Bankim never went to sleep. 

When they were about half an hour away from Sacramento, Uma called back to Pankaj and woke him up. 

Both brothers wore long-sleeved button-down shirts that Uma had ironed for them the night before.  Pankaj’s shirt was already untucked and completely wrinkled.  Two years before when he was 13, Pankaj was pictured on the front page of their local newspaper, with his disheveled chambray shirt, standing with his shoulders slouched and his back in a C, holding up his plaque: “LOCAL BOY WINS STATE SPELLING BEE.”  At the national bee, he lost in the second round.  Both brothers knew that Bankim was now expected to win here and then do better at the nationals.  They’d be the first set of brothers to win the same state spelling bee.  There was a two-year difference between them, but they looked very much alike.  They wore wire-rimmed glasses, and had bowl cuts, soft hands, bad posture, and slightly protruding bellies.  The only difference was that Bankim didn’t wrinkle his shirts, and that might have been the main advantage the younger had over the older. 

Pankaj climbed out of the back and sat next to Bankim.  “Donkey,” he whispered. 

Bankim started giggling.  They were best friends and each other’s spelling partners.  In between difficult words, they competed over who could come up with the silliest ones. 

“Shh,” Arun said, looking through the rear-view mirror.  “Let Bankim concentrate.” 

“He’s concentrating too much,” Pankaj said.  “He needs to relax.” 

Arun didn’t say anything for a few seconds.  “Maybe that’s a good idea.  We all need to relax a bit.”  It had been a quiet and tense ride.  Uma had tried, but couldn’t fall asleep. 

“Just sit quietly,” Uma said.  “We’re almost there.”  She didn’t like how Arun let the boys do whatever they wanted.  He was too easily swayed by them.  Pankaj had made a good point, but she didn’t like it when he talked back.  He wasn’t rude, but he simply no longer assumed that his parents were always right.  Bankim was impressionable and looked up to his brother.

“Booty,” Bankim whispered. 

“B-o-o-d-y.”

“Stupid.  It’s b-o-o-t-y.” 

By 7:30, they reached the high school where the bee was being held.  Though the parking lot was nowhere close to full, there were already quite a few cars.  Uma felt a bit of panic, but assumed that people had simply arrived early.  Arun and Pankaj stayed in the car while she and Bankim went to register. 

Ten minutes later, Uma was taking long strides across the parking lot, with Bankim several steps behind her trying his best to keep up.   

“Arun, it starts at 8:30, not 10.”  Uma didn’t understand how she had gotten it wrong.  She never got such things wrong.  She was worried that this was a sign of bad things to come.  If she couldn’t keep up her end of the bargain, how could she expect Bankim to keep up his? 

“It’s fine,” Arun said, looking at his watch.  “We still have over half an hour.” 

Arun’s patients and colleagues always commented on how casual and comforting he was in his bed side manner.  But this wasn’t the time for it.  “I asked you to take care of this one thing.  I’ve done everything else.  Why can’t you help out a little?”  She knew she hadn’t asked Arun to keep track of the start time.  She was just worn out from everything she’d done to insure the smooth movement of the day.  The night before, after they’d all gone to bed, she stayed up well past midnight, making fresh samosas for the trip.  When she had offered them during the car ride, they’d all dismissively said they weren’t hungry. 

Pankaj called Bankim into the car where he was playing his Game Boy. 

“We’re fine,” Arun said.  “Let’s not do this in front of them now.”     

Arun walked to the open side of the car and asked with added cheer, “Are you ready?”

“Sure,” Bankim said.  “I’ve been ready for a week.” 

“Let’s go in,” Arun said. 

“The boy’s haven’t eaten yet,” Uma said.  “And I don’t want to be in the auditorium with all the nervous kids and their parents.” 

She handed Pankaj his own Tupperware, which had three different kinds of wheat-free and dairy-free snacks.  She, Arun and Bankim ate from a larger container of samosas and pakoras.  Samosas and tea before the start of a spelling bee:  it was their small version of a tailgate party. 

“Are those OK?”  Uma asked Pankaj.  They’d only recently found out about the wheat allergy and she was still figuring out how to work around it. 

“They’re fine,” Pankaj said. 

Bankim ate two samosas quickly and was going for a third. 

“Slow down,” Uma said.  “You don’t want to get a stomachache up there.”

Pankaj looked into the canvas food bag.  “Where’s the ginger ale?”

Uma looked into the bag.  She’d packed a thermos of tea and a bottle of cold, sweetened milk for Bankim.  She forgot Pankaj’s safe drink for road trips. 

“I’m so sorry,” she said.  “I was running around and I forgot this one thing.  I’m really sorry.”

“What am I supposed to drink?”

Uma didn’t like the tone in his voice.  “The tea doesn’t have that much milk,” she said.  Even a couple of tablespoons of milk destroyed Pankaj’s digestive system for days. 

“That’s not funny,” Pankaj replied, his voice a little shaky. 

“We’ll get you a drink inside,” Arun said. 

She looked at Pankaj, still her little boy with allergies, and thought about apologizing, but didn’t feel like it. 

They finished eating and went inside. 

In the auditorium, they wished Bankim good luck:  Pankaj squeezed his shoulder, Arun shook his hand, Uma played with his hair and then combed it through with her fingers.  By 8:20, Bankim was in his seat on stage, in the first of five rows of seats.  Only a few others kids were seated.  Many parents were still standing with their kids in front of the stage, hugging and kissing them.  Uma hoped that Bankim knew that though she wouldn’t be so affectionate in public, she’d be there for him long after most of these parents gave up. 

She didn’t love one son more than the other, but she and Bankim had an unusual connection from very early on.  Like his father, Pankaj had an intellect that scared Uma.  They both used it to cut people off in conversation.  Bankim, on the other hand, had to work a little harder in school.  But he was a charmer.  Right now, there was a charm in how his glasses always slipped below the bridge of his nose.  Though everyone always wanted to play with him, he would withhold his interest for as long as he could and then give himself to one or two people, and only for a limited period of time.  Mostly, he’d stay attached to Uma’s leg.  She’d never known love and devotion in the way she felt it from him. 

Arun, Uma and Pankaj found seats toward the back of the auditorium.  Uma wanted a place where she didn’t have to make small talk with any of the other parents.  Once they sat down, she raised her hand and put it down when Bankim noticed.  Now that he knew where they were, Bankim would only look for them if he was in trouble. 

At 8:30, the main judge came up on stage and explained the rules to the participants and audience.  As he was talking, Uma scanned the stage for competition.  She recognized several kids from previous bees, but felt confident about Bankim’s chances.  And then they got started.  There were a hundred kids competing and the first couple of rounds were very slow.  They got rid of the under-prepared and those who were too nervous to perform in front of crowds.  One boy broke into tears before he was half way through democracy.  Bankim easily got past the first two rounds with abdomen and ostensible.   

By the time Bankim got up for the third round, an hour had passed.  Arun read Ludlum; Pankaj had recently gotten into Asimov.  Uma, however, had not taken her eyes off the stage.  Arun and Pankaj only looked up when Bankim asked for the word dungarees to be pronounced for the second time.  In the early rounds, Bankim usually spelled the words quickly, thinking he should save his energy for the later rounds.  But with dungarees, he was taking a long time. 

“What’s he doing?” Pankaj asked.  “He knows this word.  It’s easy.” 

“Shh,” Uma said. 

Bankim stood casually at the mike with his hands in his pockets.  For about ten seconds, he just stood there.  Uma quickly scanned the audience.  Except for a few whispers here and there, they were all intently watching her son. 

Even from where they were sitting in the back, Uma could clearly see Bankim’s eyes as they bulged out and then receded.  It frightened her.  His head swooned back a little, and with his hands still in his pockets, he stumbled like a drunk, took a few steps sideways, and at the last possible moment, took his hands out of his pockets and used them to break his fall.  All the kids leaned forward to look, and there was a collective gasp from the audience.  Just as Arun and Uma got up out of their seats, Bankim used his hands to get up.  He pushed his glasses up his nose with his thumb and middle finger, walked to the mike, spelled out d-u-n-g-a-r-e-e-s correctly, and went back to his seat, as if nothing had happened.  For the first several seconds after he sat down, no one knew what to do.  It took the audience that time to decide that Uma’s cute but dorky 13-year-old boy had displayed a great bit of courage and strength when, despite the pain and disorientation he must have felt, he got up and took care of the job he’d come to do.  He persevered through pain for the sake of a larger purpose.  At first the audience clapped quietly.  But when they processed what had happened, seemingly all at the same time, they went wild with their cheering.  Everyone stood up and clapped and kept clapping.  As the family walked down the center aisle toward the stage, Uma whispered under her breath, “That’s my boy.”  They were clapping for him, but they were also clapping for her, for raising a child who got up when others would have stayed down.

When the family reached the stage, the bee officials had already taken Bankim to the back.  The main judge went on stage and said the competition was temporarily on hold. 

“What’s wrong?” his father asked, placing his hand on his forehead and cheeks. 

“Nothing,” Bankim said.  He was sitting in a chair, his shirt still neatly tucked in.  “I just felt a little lightheaded.” 

“We have a school nurse and she’s on her way,” the judge said.  

Arun was about to say that he was a doctor, but the judge walked away. 

“Do you feel tired?”  Arun checked his son’s pulse and looked at his eyes.

“A little.”

Arun asked Pankaj to give Bankim some of the cranberry juice he’d bought earlier from the vending machine.  Bankim took several sips.  Uma ran her fingers through his hair.  “How do you feel?”

“Fine,” he said. 

The nurse, an older woman in street clothes, arrived a few minutes later, checked Bankim’s vitals, and asked him some questions.  Arun spoke to her, but didn’t say he was a doctor.  She said she couldn’t see anything outright that was wrong, and that he was fine to go on if he liked.  “It’s up to you.”

Arun and Uma walked to a corner away from the kids. 

“What do you think?”

“You know what I think,” Uma said. 

“Even after what’s happened?  He’s sick.  He passed out.  We’ve been pushing him too hard.  His body is rebelling against the exhaustion and stress.” 

“I know you think I’m being selfish, but I’m not.  Bankim has worked very hard for this.  And he’ll want to know why we didn’t encourage him to keep going.” 

“Bullshit,” Arun said and looked to see if his kids had heard him.  If they had, they didn’t turn to look at them.  “This isn’t encouragement, it’s being pushy.”

“This isn’t about me.  I’ve watched him study.”  Not only had she watched him, she’d created tests for him to take and study guides for him to use.  She’d even found a guy who taught Bankim basic Latin roots.  “He doesn’t want to lose this opportunity.  Look at them.  They’re going on like nothing has happened.”  The two brothers were standing around and laughing, as if, indeed, nothing had happened. 

The boys were a constant source of disagreement between Arun and Uma.  Arun believed in a laissez-faire policy of child-rearing.  His parents had maintained a distance from their children, but had offered advice and emotional support when needed.  Arun thought he’d turned out pretty well:  he loved his parents and he’d never cheated on either his wife or his taxes. 

“Arun, your father never knew whether your birthday was in April or October,” Uma had once said. 

“So?  He remembered everything that was important.” 

Arun was comfortable with his father’s distance; Uma was trying to make up for the distance she had from both her parents. 

“And the nurse said he’s fine,” Uma said.  “You said he’s fine.”

“O.K.,” Arun said .  “Let’s at least ask him.”  

They called Bankim over.  

“Hey buddy,” Arun said.  “How do you feel?”

“Fine.” 

“Do you want to keep going?”

Bankim looked at his mother and then his father and then back to his mother.    “Yeah,” he said. 

“Are you sure?” Arun asked. 

This time, Bankim just nodded his head. 

Arun and Uma went to find the judge.  “I still think this is a very bad idea,” Arun said. 

When Bankim returned to his seat on stage, the audience clapped again, though this time not as loudly.  Bankim kept his head down and found his seat.  He’d never had this much attention centered on him before.  He waited as they went through the rest of the third round.  When it was his turn in the fourth, he got up, listened for the word, spelled regiment immediately, and returned to his seat, without letting a second pass between each task.  And then the words kept coming and Bankim kept spelling them correctly.  Idiopathic, pharmacology, lumpen, fecundity, odoriferous, pettifog.  The group on stage got smaller and smaller.  Uma went to the bathroom when there were still twenty-five kids left and Bankim had just completed a round. 

She walked into a stall and sat down.  Since Pankaj had been born, she’d used the bathroom for a few stolen moments of quiet, which she now desperately needed.  She was relieved that Bankim was on track.  When she played tennis, she had an uncanny ability to sense when her opponent was feeling nervous.  And right at that moment, she’d attack.  Bankim was equally good at the mental game.  He didn’t think about what came before or what would come after.  He went from word to word and stayed within the game.  But as much as she loved competition, her constitution couldn’t quite handle the pressure when her kids were competing. 

A couple of women came into the bathroom a minute after her.  They washed their hands and fixed their makeup. 

“I’ll be glad when it’s over,” one woman said.  “Our lives have been crazy.”

“I don’t know where Sam gets the strength and motivation,” the other said.  “He’s up in the morning before us.” 

There was a pause for a few seconds.

“I’m glad that little boy is O.K.,” the first woman said, her voice a little softer then before. 

“He’s precious.” 

Uma was happy to hear this.

“But I can’t believe he’s continuing on.  If I was that mother, I’d get him to a doctor and give him a full check-up.  What if there’s still something wrong?” 

Uma wanted to say that nothing was wrong, that her husband had checked. 

“It’s just irresponsible.  I’d be mad too if, after all the work we’ve done, Michael had to drop out.  But I’d understand.” 

Uma had seen them on TV: mothers who pushed their kids too far, mothers who fought other mothers over who had the better, brighter, prettier, more athletic child.  She’d been wondering whether she’d gone too far this time.  Bankim could take the pushing, though she needed to be careful.  But hearing these women articulate her fears made her feel even more self-righteous.  Who the hell were they?  They knew nothing about her or her life.  Spelling separated her from parents pushing their children to be better football players and bouncier cheerleaders.  She was helping them to be smarter, more successful kids.  Who didn’t want that for their children?  Once she he gotten over the disappointment with her boys’ disinterest in physical sports, she realized that encouraging them at spelling was very important.  Despite the promise that America made about equality, her boys would never get their backs scratched in the same way their white counterparts would.  The only recourse they had was to be smartest in the room.  It wouldn’t make them equal, but at least it would keep them in the game. 

And she encouraged the boys in spelling so that she could spend time with them.  She’d gone from a father to a husband.  In her boys, she saw a chance to give and receive with some purity.  Uma didn’t have many friends.  She’d lost touch with her school and college friends from India and child-rearing didn’t leave time to make new ones.  But it wasn’t really an issue of time.  She didn’t know how to relate to adults.  She was graceful and wore her saris well, and made small talk when she and Arun had dinner with his colleagues.  But she didn’t spend time one-on-one with other women.  She didn’t act childish and she didn’t want to be a child.  But given the choice, she’d rather spend time with children.  Adults disappointed her.  They insisted on conversations about their anxieties and failures.  They said one thing when they meant another.  She found children to be straightforward:  they smiled when they were happy, cried when they weren’t. 

Uma had intended to wait until the two women left the bathroom to come out.  But occupied by her thoughts, she opened the stall door.  All three made eye contact through the large mirror in front of them.  Uma was unmistakable.  At 5’10”, she was an inch taller than Arun.  And they’d all watched her run down the middle aisle when Bankim fell, her single braid whipping up and down like a snake. 

Right when she made eye contact with them, Uma felt calm.  She wasn’t going to say anything.  It was not her place or responsibility.  They were the ones who’d been talking and they’d have to be the ones doing the talking now.  Uma walked over to a sink, washed her hands and wiped them.  She looked at one woman then the other and smiled.  “Have a nice day,” she said and walked out the door.  As she stepped away from the bathroom, she wished she could hear what they were saying now.  Her moment of restraint felt like a great victory, as if her restraint, when she had every right to tell them to go fuck themselves, washed away their criticism that she was a bad mother and a bad woman.  A bad mother would have insisted on a fight in the girl’s bathroom while their kids were outside competing and working hard.  No, Uma was a good mother for taking the hit on the chin and moving on.  

She walked back to her seat a little tingly, as if things were going to turn out all right. 

 

AT THE END, there were two: Bankim and an unremarkable young girl named Joan from Stockton who’d not struggled with a single word that day.  The auditorium was still full.  The audience didn’t openly root for one kid over another.  But Uma felt that despite what they thought of her, surely they were secretly hoping that Bankim would win.    Bankim and Joan went back and forth for seven rounds.  Uma couldn’t sit and watch.  Her stomach was rumbling and she vowed that this would be the last time she was going to come to one of these events.  She had a family history of high blood pressure.  

Arun came up to the little hidden corner behind the last row of chairs where Uma was standing.  When she first saw him coming toward her, she was annoyed.  They stood together for about five seconds before Uma said she was going back to their seats. 

“It’s fine,” he said.  “Pankaj is there.  He’ll take care of him if he needs it.” 

She hesitated and then stayed put. 

Arun stood next to her, holding her pinky finger in his hand and repeating, “He’ll be fine, baby.”  This was Arun’s term of comfort and love, used very sparingly. 

With Arun holding her pinky, they got through the rounds.  As it happens often, Joan got a fairly easy word—solvent—wrong.  She spelled it with an a.  According to the rules, Bankim had to spell solvent and the next word on the list to win.  He began to work it out in his mind.  Uma remembered going over the word with him.  He knew it.  Bankim took his time:  he asked for the definition, the origin, and the use of it in a sentence.  And then he took a step toward the mike and spelled it correctly.  The judge announced the next word: auteur.  Bankim asked for the definition, kept his head down for about ten seconds, and then spelled the word out correctly. 

The applause was long and loud.  Arun squeezed Uma’s pinky and the two of them stood there for a few seconds.  The boys had won competitions before.  But this one felt different, like she’d won as well.  They walked up to the stage where the judges and the other participants were congratulating Bankim.  The family waited for a few minutes, but when the crowd didn’t appear to be thinning, they walked through it.  Pankaj slapped Bankim’s arm, Arun gave him an awkward hug, and Uma fixed his hair. 

They’d been through the aftermath before with Pankaj.  Then, it was simply one boy, one victory.  This time there were more story angles for the newspapers:  Bankim’s victory, his perseverance, the brothers’ joint victory.  Uma filled out the proper paperwork and they stood on stage taking pictures and answering questions from the local newspapers.  Uma knew that though the newspapers were only small, stories had the ability to grow bigger with every retelling.  She placed most of her hope in the local TV station.  If they were there from the beginning, surely they’d captured Bankim’s fall and rise.  She couldn’t wait to see how it looked on film. 

The TV reporter asked Uma if he could interview Bankim. 

“Of course,” she said. 

“Do you want your mom to be with you?” the reporter asked. 

Without looking at her, he said, “No, I’ll be fine.”

He asked Bankim how he felt after the fall. 

“When I was standing up there for my—what round was it?”

“I think it was the third,” the reporter said. 

“Right.  When I was standing up there for my third word, I felt very dizzy and disoriented.  I went blank for a few seconds.  That’s when I must have fallen.  But the second I fell and hit the ground, I felt better.  I didn’t feel great, but I really wanted to keep going.” 

Uma thought he’d freeze up in front of the camera, but he was perfectly comfortable.  Uma and Bankim had not made eye contact since she had gotten up on stage.  She assumed he was overwhelmed and busy. 

After Bankim finished with the reporters, the crowd began to disperse.  Uma and Arun thanked the judges and the four of them headed back to the car.  In the parking lot, Pankaj and Arun were walking ahead, while Uma and Bankim followed about twenty yards behind.  She was happy finally to have a word.  She wanted to congratulate him for his masterful performance.  It was just like they’d planned, but even better.  They’d decided that the third word would be the best moment to fall.  At that point, there would still be enough participants and audience members to get the best effect.  Uma had been thinking about the plan for several months.  Spelling bees had some suspense, but they were never exciting.  If there was going to be any excitement, something extraordinary needed to happen.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to grow naturally out of the competition.  The idea of Bankim falling had just come to her.  Even if he didn’t win, he’d be the one people would remember and even cheer for.  For months, she had kept the idea to herself.  But the longer she thought about it, the more she felt like it was a reasonable plan.  A month before the bee, she had talked to Bankim.  She thought he’d tell her she was crazy.  But he reacted with neither excitement nor disbelief.  He treated it like it was a reasonable request, as if she’d asked him to wear his brown pants instead of the blue ones.  And so they practiced, after school before Arun and Panjak got home.  Falls to the left, falls to the right.  She taught him to use his hands to break the fall.  She made him promise not to tell anybody. 

And when he finally did it earlier that morning, it was better than any of the practice rounds.  He used his hands without any hesitation.  Uma wanted to know what he had been thinking while he was up there and she wanted to know how he did that thing with his eyes.  They’d not practiced that.  They could talk about all this at home; for now she simply wanted to congratulate him.  But right when she turned to him, Bankim looked straight ahead and picked up his step toward Arun and Pankaj. 

The second he took that step away from her, she knew he was gone.  She knew, because mothers can sense these things about their children.  Somewhere between their initial conversation and now, Bankim decided that his mother had asked him to do something mothers shouldn’t ask of their children.  Uma thought she could catch up with him, and so she picked up her speed.  The closer she got to him, the closer he got to Arun and Pankaj.  By the time she’d made some ground, Bankim was walking between his brother and father.  As she saw Arun put his arm around him, she stopped and labored to catch her breath.  She felt a tiny, sharp prick behind her right eye, the beginning of a headache she’d been fighting off all morning.  There was the boy she loved and craved more than anything else.  She kept repeating in her mind that she’d done it for his sake, because if she didn’t convince herself of this, she’d fall right down in that parking lot.    

When she reached the car, they were already in their seats. 

“Bankim, you choose where we’re going to eat,” Arun said.  “We’re celebrating.” 

“It doesn’t matter,” Bankim said. 

“Of course it matters,” Arun said. 

Bankim didn’t respond.  Arun looked at Uma, asking her to say something. 

“C’mon sweetie,” Uma said turning her head to face him.  Someone needed to fill the silence.  “Pick something.” 

And perhaps because of the look in her eyes or the way the word “sweetie” rolled off her tongue, Bankim started crying.  Pankaj looked at him and Arun watched him through the rear view mirror, but neither said anything.  Uma reached back and placed her hand on his knee.  He didn’t move it away.  There was no way for her to recover that part of Bankim she’d ushered away.  But she still had that part of him that could break down in the moment when his own confusion about adult life crossed paths with her sweet voice.  In that moment, he was still all hers. 

“He wants pizza,” Uma said and nudged Arun to start driving.