When Esme joined her father in his garden, they rarely exchanged words of much consequence.
Usually no matter what she asked him, regardless of how specific the topic raised, Aakash Acharya responded with a bare bones comment on the elements. He would praise or bemoan their effects on his neat, tightly controlled square of nature in their otherwise shaggy backyard, saving uncomfortable details for inside the house. Out here, she knew, was his sanctuary, away from his daughter’s problems. Here, only these more easily governed fruits of his labor existed.
“Dad, I need to talk to you about something.” Esme was irritated but unsurprised when he didn’t answer. At least his distraction meant a delay in the penetrating, severe stare she was sure to receive. She felt silly for still allowing his quiet judgment to rile her up and his placid evasion of real, honest conversation to hurt her, after enduring three long decades of both. Upon each return to her childhood home in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, time sped backward until she was small again, and then it stood still there.
Today, they surveyed his begonias together in tense silence. Today, Esme would have to tell him about losing her temp job at the mayor’s office and the impending eviction from her studio apartment in Philadelphia, the one he was still guarantor for on the lease. Today, she would have to ask him for his help. But first, his plants.
“Stem rot,” her father said finally, shaking his head at the wilting flowers. “I’ve been watering them extra to make up for this drought but—well, look at them, Esme.” The tone of disappointment with which he muttered her name was of course directed at that aforementioned fickle twist of the earth’s plans, but it made Esme bristle with discomfort anyway. Esme had been Esme for as long as she could remember, but as her older sister liked to sternly remind her, she’d once been Easwari. That was the name on her birth certificate and Ambika was the name on her sister’s. Their mother, Amrita, had never been a proud Indian like Aakash. She had taken a liking to old black and white French films, one that almost bordered on obsession, when they were young. Easwari became Esme and never looked back. Ambika became Amelie, but at age seven, she demanded to know why they had such European names. Why their names contrasted starkly with their skin, so brown that in the sun it shone black. Her mother’s answer—to help them fit in better—hadn’t satisfied her, so she was reborn that day as Ambika.
“It’s not too late to embrace your true identity,” her sister had warned, when Esme was fourteen. Her ominous words clashed with her dulcet tones, as she prepared for the move to college in California that would leave Esme to handle their parents all on her own. “If you’re not careful, you’ll get all self-loathing like Amma, forever trying to please the wrong people.”
Today, in Aakash’s garden, surrounded by doomed begonias and dull Thai basil leaves, Esme tried to talk shop with her father, while ducking for cover from the cool droplets of his advice before they picked up speed and ballooned into the kind of hail that can crack a windshield.
“We’ve got some rain in the forecast coming up,” Esme said. “I’m sure that’ll take care of things in no time.”
Aakash didn’t even glance up, but if he were the type to roll his eyes, she’s sure he would right now. “That’s not how gardens work, Esme.” He finally turned to watch her, as closely as he was capable in his emotionally limited fashion. “That’s not how life works.”
Oh no. Ambika, that traitor, had already filled him in on at least some of it. “You can’t just sit back and wait for everything to get better. Hoping it’ll all just sort itself out. Or some savior will come along to take care of it for you.”
Esme felt her eyes narrow and a sneer begin to lift the corner of her upper lip, a defense mechanism developed in her early adolescence. His criticism couldn’t injure her, with a shield of scorn for his opinion to protect her. “I thought we were talking about your flowers, Dad.”
“You know exactly what we’re talking about, Esme. You have to prepare for the storm before it gets here.” She finished this last sentence aloud with him, a sign of disrespect she knew he hated.
“Okay, okay. If you’ve just come here to be a smart-ass and you’re too good for my help, you know how to get to the train station.” He was already halfway to the back door, before she caught up to him. She halted his progress with a light touch of her hand on his arm.
“I’m sorry, Dad. You’re right. I don’t plan ahead like I should.” They waited in silence for what they both knew was coming next. “I’ll need some money. And to stay here. But just for a little while.” She heard herself talking faster, the panic rising in her throat. Was thirty the number? Was this the age when he’d finally say no, suck it up buttercup, you’re on your own? And really stick to it? Wasn’t this the procrastinated point, by when she was supposed to have magically transformed into an adult?
“Fine. Your mother’s been visiting Mimi Auntie in Delaware for a few weeks, though, so it’ll just be you and me here.”
“Oh.” This was unwelcome news. “Why didn’t you go with her?”
Her father pulled a face. “Please. They’ll have a much easier time gossiping about their husbands if we’re not sitting there, staring at them the whole time.”
“True.” Esme swallowed hard. “Anyway, thanks Dad, this really—”
“Don’t get too comfortable. I don’t want to be known as the pushover dad on the block with his fifty-year-old kid still living in the basement.” He went inside and she didn’t follow.
“Pancakes?” Aakash was at the stove the next morning, surrounded by an array of sticky eggshells, flour, sugar, salt, and blueberries. He wasn’t one for cooking, but it had always been a Saturday morning ritual at their house for Amrita to sleep in while Aakash and the girls made pancakes together. Esme couldn’t help but feel a bit touched that he was making them today, on their first awkward morning of living together as adults. Maybe he was trying to make up for his harshness the day before. Esme took a seat at the island.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you.” Aakash paused. “Are you still seeing that boy, Matthew?”
Only her father would refer to a grown man as a boy, just because Esme liked him.
“No. It’s sort of fizzled out.” She stretched and yawned, hoping that would be it on the subject.
“Well,” Aakash said, “that’s a relief at least. He was a waste of your time. But fizzling doesn’t sound over.” He cleared his throat. “Best to make a clean break when it comes to these things.”
“Will do.” After Matthew had cheated on her with a co-worker on a business trip, Esme broke up with him in theory. But they were still technically hooking up on and off, whenever loneliness and a longing for the comfort of past happiness overtook her. Each time she got dressed afterward, she mentally promised herself this would be the last one, but then he’d call or text, and there they’d go again.
Esme didn’t feel up to sharing any of this with her father now or ever. Ambika had already been unbearable enough, immediately offering to set Esme up with every Indian man they’d ever bumped into on the street.
“So when does Mom get back anyway?” Esme inhaled deeply, enjoying the scent of vanilla permeating the kitchen.
“Oh, I don’t know,” her father said, his back to her. “Soon, I’d imagine.”
Esme frowned. “You don’t know when she’ll be back?”
Aakash’s voice was gruff this time. “I just answered you, didn’t I? It’s not like she needs a date for a plane ticket. She drove.” The brief silence that followed was broken only by the crackle of freshly baked batter sizzling in the pan. “She was supposed to come back a few days ago, but I don’t know.” He turned to face Esme. “She decided to stay a bit longer, I guess.”
Esme got up and went to the cupboard for some plates so they wouldn’t have to look at each other. She stopped in front of the window. “Oh, sorry, Dad. Looks like no rain today.”
A week of sun-dappled days slipped away uneventfully. Their annoyed discomfort with each other as roommates ebbed into more of a quiet understanding. Esme began to notice her father in the house a lot more. Less and less time was spent out in his beloved garden, and she couldn’t fathom why. When the third week began and he still hadn’t ventured out into the yard, she grew concerned but had no clue how to approach him about it.
“What?” He was in his recliner, the same one he’d purchased when he and her mother had first come to America. He was watching some Hindi film without subtitles, which was a not so subtle hint that Esme shouldn’t bother joining him. He took a sip of whiskey neat without looking up at her in the doorway.
“What do you mean what? It’s like 3 pm on a Tuesday.” She motioned at the nearly empty glass in his hand. “What are you doing?”
“Isn’t the point of being retired that you don’t have to suffer responsibilities anymore? I don’t have anywhere to be right now. Or tomorrow morning. So I’m having a drink with my movie.” He lifted up the remote with his other hand and raised the volume. Normally, this would have been enough to make her leave.
“Dad, where’s Mom?”
“This again.” He pointed to the kitchen behind her. “Go get yourself a drink if you want. Otherwise, let me watch this in peace.” When she remained where she was, he shifted in his seat.
“Shouldn’t you be looking for a job?”
“Your flowers are dying,” Esme snapped before turning and walking out.
“Ambika? What the hell is going on? Where is Mom?” Esme was hiding in the empty bathtub that she and her sister had shared, and fought over, so many years earlier. She had the old mildewy beige curtains drawn to better conceal her, as if her father would ever burst in on her and enter a place so unappealing to him as the girls’ old bathroom. Her slim rose gold phone felt hot and tingly pressed up against her ear, as her furious whispers flecked the screen with spit.
“Dad’s claiming it’s just some extended visit with Mimi Auntie that keeps getting longer and longer, but he’s obviously lying. I went into their room the other day. Her closet looks like it’s been ransacked.”
“Oh, I thought you knew,” Ambika said. She was as infuriating as she was informed.
“Well, I don’t.”
“She’s felt weird calling you because you’re staying there right now. She figured he’d be the one to tell you.”
“He didn’t,” Esme said, struggling to keep her voice even.
“No one’s told you?”
Esme hated when her know-it-all sister belabored the obvious in that honeyed, innocent tone. “Seriously? Would I be calling to ask you if they did, genius?”
“Settle down,” Ambika said, slightly more authoritative and forbidding now. Esme could imagine her rising up straighter and knitting her perfectly shaped eyebrows together on the other end. She could also picture Ambika’s immaculate Pacific Palisades mansion in California, with her husband, Mohinder the entertainment lawyer, playing tennis with a client on their private court out back.
“Okay, sorry. Would you tell me? Quit stalling and just tell me.”
“Fine. It’s really her or him that you should be asking.” Ambika hesitated, but this time, Esme did not rush her. “Amma says it’s something of a trial separation. She just wants some time to think.”
“Are you serious? And Dad knows? But hasn’t told me?”
“He definitely knows,” Ambika said. “He knew when she left. I think he assumed she’d get what she needed and come back by now.”
“Well, has he said anything to you?”
“Yeah. He’s pretty torn up about the whole thing. You know Amma though. She can be selfish. Thinks she’s the only one in the world with feelings.” Ambika always put their mother down in that removed, academic tone, as if she were a counselor discussing a patient, instead of a daughter her mother. Esme neglected to tell her sister how much it hurt that their father could confide in Ambika that he had any feelings at all.
That night, Esme tiptoed around Aakash. The last thing she wanted to do was bring up the truth she now knew. Somehow, it was like he’d figured her snooping out on his own anyway, because he was more distant and cold than ever.
“Do I need to set a deadline?” he asked after dinner, his voice as hard as ice. “For you to get a new job and find your own place? I’m not doing you any favors, the longer you hang around here, putting it off.”
“No. I’m looking. There’s not a lot of openings right now, but I am on it. Really.” He grunted in disbelief. Mom wasn’t here to excuse her today, to plead with him that people are different. That the world is made up of individuals. That you can’t hold everyone to the same impossibly high standards all the time. Especially not when they’re down. Esme isn’t Ambika, she’d tell him if she were here, deep affection and concern for her youngest lacing her voice and filling her light brown eyes. But Amrita, her beautiful mother, as stubborn and impetuous as a combination of toddler and teenager, was gone. And if the state of his garden was any indication, Aakash now needed Esme as much as she needed him. It was intimidating to feel needed by him. But it was nice, too.
After he went up to bed, she went outside and watered each and every one of his plants. Then she lay on her back in the cool grass, like she hadn’t done since she was a child, and stared up at the silent stars she could never see in the sky over Philly. Their brilliance lit up the growing darkness around her and bathed her in something like hope.
Two days later, Esme strode into the living room and turned off the TV over her father’s indignant protests. She perched herself on the coffee table across from him.
“Dad, I know about Mom. Ambika told me. Why haven’t you talked to me about this?” Aakash’s surprise looked genuine. “You’re having your own troubles right now, Esme. I didn’t want to burden you with mine.”
“Well, I want you to. Lay it on me. Did she even give you a reason?”
“Oh, who knows with your mother.” Aakash started to reach for the remote, but Esme tossed it onto the couch out of his reach.
“Dad, please. You can talk to me. Why won’t you just talk to me?”
He stared at her hard like he wasn’t going to break, but then his shoulders sagged, and she could see the words building inside of him just before they came rushing out.
“It’s all this new-age modern stuff about not being happy,” he said. “Back home, she’d have never left me for a reason like that. I don’t raise my voice or my hand to her. I worked hard to support her and my children. I’ve never been addicted to anything. I’m in bed beside her each night—no affairs. But none of that is enough anymore now.” He shook his head. “I think she even used the word fulfilled in there. I don’t make her feel fulfilled.” He laughed even though it wasn’t funny.
“It’s not silly that she wants to be happy, Dad. That she wants you to at least care if she is or not.”
“Don’t think I didn’t know you’d be on her side.” He rubbed his chin. “I always thought we’d go back, you know, once you kids were all grown up. To India. Your mother—she never wanted to. But I thought maybe that would change. She’d start to remember where we came from and stop feeling like she had to be ashamed of it. But no. This place is home to her now. Not there. Not me.” He smiled at Esme. “I’ve never quite fit here myself.”
“You really were going to go back there? And leave us?”
“After retiring, sure, once you girls didn’t need us anymore. Once you were self-sufficient. Not that I could have yet.” He gestured at Esme. “What would become of you if I did?”
“I’d get by.” They both laughed now. “Dad, have you at least tried to call her? Talk to her? Can’t you go there? Show her that you give a crap enough to listen and work on making things better together?”
He stood up and retrieved the remote. He dropped back down in his chair. “She just needs to get this out of her system. And if she doesn’t want to come back, then let her go be happy. Whatever that is.”
When Matthew texted Esme a few hours later, to ask when she’d be back in town, she wrote, “This isn’t working for me anymore. Sorry,” and hit send before she could second guess it. She went outside with the jasmine plant she’d gotten from a local nursery earlier, grabbing her father’s fat orange gloves on the way out. She knelt down and transferred it into the soft soil that she’d layered with compost and patted it in with a gentle resolve completely foreign to her.
The next few days drifted by with not much conversation of note. On their quietest night, the two managed to make it through an entire meal, exchanging nothing more than a nod, before going to bed. She almost began to miss the sound of his lectures and considered complaining about her life to bring one on. In the morning, Esme awoke to the sound of her father shouting her name from downstairs. The last time he’d done that, she’d been a teenager oversleeping and making them late for temple. There was an urgent quality to his voice that was familiar, but also a tinge of wonder that was less so. Rubbing her eyes and cursing internally, she willed herself out of bed and onto her feet before staggering down the stairs.
“Dad, what the hell is it? Are you okay?” She looked around, unable to locate him through the sleepy blur in her vision.
“Come, you have to see this.” He was at the back door, waving her over, and then he disappeared. She joined him out in his garden, just as she had on the first day she arrived.
“Look, Easwari. My flowers. I know I haven’t been good about tending to them, but they’re thriving on their own. Look at the color of those begonias. I’m not one to talk of miracles, but I guess a little patience and time was all they needed. Nature knows what it’s doing, right?”
“Right.” Esme wouldn’t dream of embarrassing him now with the correction that she was the one who had been safeguarding his darlings in his absence. Not when the look of elation on his face was one she’d never seen before. Aakash turned to face her and they held the eye contact they usually found so disconcerting, that which they avoided at any cost. He remained difficult to read, but it felt like he was really seeing her. Like he knew it was her that had taken care of him without her needing to say it. He looked back at his blossoming lilies and perky peonies and squeezed her shoulder. She waited, sure he was going to say something. She didn’t know what it was, but she wanted it more than anything. His smile was a thin line, but it was there. He was heading back inside before she fully registered that the moment had come and gone. But it had come.
She followed him into the house after a few minutes. When she reached the top of the staircase, she saw his door ajar and peeked in. A small carry-on bag was open on the bed with a few shirts and pants haphazardly spread out beside it. Just enough for a short trip to Mimi Auntie’s. Esme could hear him rustling around in the closet and hastened away before he could catch her there.
After making herself appear and feel more human, Esme wandered back out to the garden. The rays of the rising sun warmed her skin. She made her way over to the jasmine flowers, their strong fragrance waking her all the way up before she even saw them. Waxy and white, small but clustered together into a larger whole, the bright buds appeared on the cusp of opening and blooming fully. Any lingering tension in her bones, from the time spent waiting for her father’s words that would not come, thawed and softened in their presence. She promised herself that later, she’d respond to the request for an interview she’d received in an e-mail the night before. It wasn’t a dream job, but it was something. She didn’t know exactly what she wanted from her life next, but this seemed as fine a spot as any to sit and think.
“Nurture” by Anna Vangala Jones appeared in Issue 38 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Anna Vangala Jones is a writer and English teacher. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The MacGuffin, Kartika Review, Fiction Southeast, and Sea Foam Mag, among others. Her stories have earned honorable mention at Glimmer Train and placed as finalist and semi-finalist at Gigantic Sequins, American Short Fiction, and Ruminate. Visit her online at annavangalajones.wordpress.com and find her on Twitter @anniejo_17.