Susmita polished the skeleton’s collarbone. The oblong piece of plastic gleamed back at her. Perfect.
She returned the skeleton to its chair at the dinner table and took her place across from it. Though her lentil soup had grown cold, Susmita devoured it, glancing from time to time at the bony outline of the skeleton’s hand resting on the checkered tablecloth. Lentil soup again, she could hear the Doctor grumbling in her mind, you’re whittling us down to bone.
The skeleton had been the Doctor’s suggestion. You spend so much time in here. You shouldn’t have to spend it alone. Susmita almost responded but you brought me here but stopped herself. Ammi had taught her that.
Ammi had told her lots of things — how to prepare lentil soup for a bad stomach, how to drape a sari to hide the body, how to smooth the bedsheets from a troubled night. How to soothe, how to disappear, how to preserve illusions — these were all Ammi’s tricks.
Ammi had not taught her how to survive the frigid austerity of New York City. At first Susmita had enjoyed seeing fresh snow, a growing softness in the air and the promise of almost magic. Then came the slow melting, the piles of discarded yellowed slush, and the treacherous patches of ice. The ever-present danger left Susmita even more afraid to venture outside her door.
Left to her own devices, Susmita had come to enjoy her cozy confines. A one bedroom walk-up on top of Autumn Leaves Bookstore, the apartment had everything a new couple could want. In the living room, there was a worn corduroy sofa, the stuffing poking out in uneven sections. There were a handful of books scattered around, piled on windowsills and corners of the room, still seeking a home.
The kitchen boasted an oven, a dishwasher, a microwave, a toaster — appliances Susmita had to learn to use over time. She preferred to warm her meals on the stove top, savoring on her lips the bitter taste of charred marks left by a too-warm pan. The Doctor laughed at her, at the inefficiency of her life.
The bedroom had a mattress on the floor and a few suitcases the couple never fully unpacked. Once a month, Susmita would close the suitcases and roll them down the street to the 24-Hour Laundromat. It was here that Susmita learned to count change, separating quarters from the paperclips and other debris that lined the Doctor’s pockets.
The star of the apartment, of course, was the dining room table. It was here that Susmita and the Doctor used to eat their daily dinner, their sole interaction of the day. It was here that Susmita learned about the Doctor’s world — his shrinking staff, his impatient patients, his tyrannical administrator. Susmita nodded and counted the flecks of rice gathering in the Doctor’s untrimmed beard. By the time she got to twenty-one grains, the Doctor had fallen into a drowsy stupor. The apartment pulled back its normal state, silent and implacable.
From the double paned windows, Susmita watched 66th Street come to life. In the mornings, Nusrat guided gaggles of young children in their brightly colored winter jackets and wool hats into the daycare. Next door, Nusrat’s husband flipped through TV channels as he waited for customers to enter the bodega. Directly across from her, she could see Mina talking on the phone as she flipped naans. Occasionally, their paths would intersect as Nusrat visited Mina or Mina worked a shift in the daycare. On the very rare occasions that their paths crossed, Susmita would avert her gaze or cross the street, too afraid to approach the strangers whose lives she followed so intimately.
Before these outings, Susmita practiced her English in front of the mirror, saying Yes, No, Thank You, Please. Though Susmita had taken English in elementary through high school, she had never felt comfortable speaking. The harsh consonants struck the edges of her throat and made her gag. Still she forced herself to smile at the strangers on the street, the owner of the Laundromat, and the other women waiting beside her. She smiled so much, the mask stuck to her face.
Most of Susmita’s days were spent waiting for something, though she could not exactly describe what that was. Time became an enemy, the endless hours of the day looming. Reading and writing, sleeping and waking, cooking and eating, Susmita marshaled her days together, blurring time into empty years. Susmita could hardly remember what year it was, could hardly remember Ammi’s hands or her childhood home. It had existed — hadn’t it?
Instead of memories, Susmita lingered in her stories. She loved to spend time in the mundane worries of Austen’s heroines. Her favorite, though, was the slow decay of Madame Bovary. Emma was a close friend of hers, much closer than any she had had in real life.
Once Susmita unpacked her wedding sari. As she traced the golden threads on her scarlet bridal sari, she felt her eyes twitch. As a child, she begged Ammi to dress her in a red sari. Susmita would shimmy around the kitchen to Lata Mangeshkar’s crooning, carrying a crown of jasmines on her head. She was the latest filmi star, jumping into the spotlight. Encased in red silk, she was fearless and loud, ready for boundless adventure.
When Ammi announced her marriage to the Doctor and Susmita’s subsequent journey to America, Susmita felt a similar sense of adventure. As the celebrations approached, though, she began to have nightmares. They all started the same way — Susmita in a red sari, in a room with white walls. The walls would come closer and closer together until Susmita could hardly breathe, until they pressed into her sides, until her bones pierced into her organs. Susmita would wake up gasping, sweaty.
One week away from the wedding day, she asked Ammi, What will I do in America? Ammi didn’t reply right away. She rubbed amla oil into Susmita’s scalp, pulled her black hair into braids. You’ll survive, she finally added. We all survive somehow.
On her wedding day, Susmita was engulfed, overpowered by the turmeric rubbed onto her face and the henna that crawled up her arms and legs. She sat on her garlanded throne, the din of endless blessings and greetings washing over. As the Doctor and Susmita walked around the ritual fire, she briefly contemplated touching the flames and wondered if they would burn her. Then, in a flurry, the day was done, an airplane flew over the ocean and now she lived in a new city.
66th Street was different from her hometown. The songs that played in the grocery stores were too bass-heavy, the aisles further apart, the produce too organized, the options too many. Susmita spent a half an hour comparing all the different apples — organic, farm fresh, regular, red, golden, granny smith — before giving up. She bought milk that came in plastic containers and eggs that came in plastic cartons. The cashier who handed her the bill didn’t smile. She trudged through the cold with her plastic bags, ignored by strangers.
The Doctor assured her that she would find friends among other Indian women in their community. Susmita attended their weekly dawats, unable to understand the women’s fast-paced conversations, the mix of English and Marathi dialects, and their jokes about children. She sat in a corner at the dawats and shoveled bowls of chaat into her mouth, nodding as required. As time went on, the invitations grew fewer and fewer. Susmita was relieved.
In the beginning, she called Ammi every day. They would compare households — Ammi marveled at the fancy life Susmita now lived. Susmita missed feeling the warmth of the stovetop and watching Ammi’s hands dance between hot oil and dough, flipping perfect parathas for breakfast. In her own kitchen, Susmita had tried to mimic Ammi’s intricate performance and ended up with red blisters and purple scars on her hands. It takes time, Ammi told her, you’ll figure it out.
Soon though, the Doctor began to grumble about the call center’s high prices. Nearly two dollars a minute! Who does she think she is? The daily calls became weekly, then monthly, then every few months. Susmita forgot the taste of Ammi’s food, the sound of Ammi’s voice, the smell of Ammi’s body. Ammi blurred into a shadow, a ghost. Ammi must have existed at some point, hadn’t she?
Susmita rubbed her eyes, wiping away a stray tear. She put away the red sari, burying it at the bottom of her suitcase. There would be no reason to wear it anymore. She hurried to the kitchen, turning on the stove to heat up leftovers. The Doctor would be home for dinner soon.
As time went on, the Doctor worked longer and longer shifts. Moonlighting, he grumbled as he crept around their apartment at the early hours of the morning, fastening his tie and sweeping back his hair. His chubby fingers struggled to close the buttons on his blue shirt and the white coat strained around his shoulders and waistline. His stethoscope hung askew in his front pocket as he jostled out the door. They pay us so little to begin with.
Susmita wanted to ask — then why don’t you leave? Are you happy? But some questions don't have answers, only obligations. Ammi had taught her that too.
Still, the Doctor had been happy that summer day, the day he brought home the skeleton. He carried it up all twenty nine stairs, cradling the bones in his arms as though it were a newborn child. They were going to throw this out! Can you believe it?
Over the course of the afternoon the Doctor rushed around the apartment, a whirlwind of activity, the busiest Susmita had ever seen him. He peered over textbooks, grunting as he shifted one bone onto the next, constructing the Frankenstein monstrosity. By dinner time, he had sweated through his polo shirt and was looking bereft in a threadbare undershirt. He wiped his head with a checkered handkerchief and grinned. Welcome to your new home!
At first, Susmita didn’t know what to make of her companion. Its bones had become slightly yellow with disuse and buckled with age. The legs bowed outward in a grotesque way. Its empty eye sockets seemed to follow her every move. Susmita turned the skeleton around so it was facing the wall, but it was no use.
She could hardly sit on the couch without meeting the skeleton’s disconcerting gaze. The throw pillows, gaudy purple hearts purchased in a rush at the flea market downstairs, dug into her ribs. She could feel every spring that supported her body, their individual spires creaking as she sifted about. In the kitchen, it was no better. As she chopped an onion, Susmita once again felt the skeleton’s gaze. Her hand slipped and the paring knife hit the metal of her wedding ring.
The skeleton’s presence began to occupy her every thought. She would dream about it, the skeleton’s perfectly yellow teeth smiling as it danced up and down the street. Its hand would reach out to invite Susmita to join in. Though she refused, she couldn’t help but be enchanted by the skeleton’s feet tapping away on the cobblestones. Susmita woke up confused. What if — she asked — What if I just gave in?
One day, Susmita decided to clean the skeleton. Armed with her arsenal of cleaning supplies, she prepared a special cleaning formula mixing half a cup of liquid blue dish soap and a quart of bleach until it foamed in the bathtub. She carried the skeleton into the bathroom, setting it gently on top of the toilet seat.
She worked to dismantle its body piece by piece. First, she twisted off the arms and legs and allowed them to soak. She moved its wrists and feet up and down, scrubbing between its fingers and toes. Then she plunged the rest of the body, the rib cage, the pelvic bones and the skull. She dug her fingers into the nostrils, brushed the teeth and even scrubbed the underside of the skull cap. She traced the nerve branches, vertebral artery, and lumbar disc with a fine little toothbrush.
Once every piece had been thoroughly inspected and cared for, she took the bones out and dried them with a soft cotton towel. She carried it back out to dry under the patch of sunlight in the living room. Deconstructed like this, the skeleton seemed feeble almost, a person in need. The bones were warm to touch. The process of reassembling its body came naturally. Each bone glided into the next. As a final touch, Susmita rubbed amla oil on the surface, the skeleton glistening, lively. Susmita smiled at her finished product and the skeleton seemed to smile back.
That night, Susmita asked the Doctor if the skeleton could join them for dinner. The Doctor nodded, glad that his wife seemed to be embracing some aspect of their life together. Through the Doctor’s diatribes and tirades against the medical system, Susmita and the skeleton would stare conspiratorially at each other. They could survive this, together.
During the day, Susmita began to read the skeleton, teaching it about the classics. They discussed Emma’s antics, both secretly wishing they could just give in as Emma had. As Susmita moved through the apartment, she took the skeleton with her, placing it on the kitchen counter, at the dinner table, next to her on the couch. On the nights that the Doctor worked, she would even place the skeleton next to her in bed.
Perhaps this is why she didn’t notice how much time had elapsed since she had seen the Doctor. Maybe it had been a month, maybe it had been even longer. Susmita no longer cared.
She told the skeleton all her thoughts, her dreams, her ideas and hopes. She confined secrets she never told Ammi or the Doctor. The skeleton was the best listener.
Every month or so, she would clean the skeleton, carefully disassembling and reassembling its body. She took the skeleton for walks, carrying it to the park, putting it in her grocery cart, propping it up next to her at the Laundromat.
The skeleton still visited her dreams. Now they are both dancing together in the street, hand in bone. Now they are both smiling, lovely smiles.
Life continues, as Ammi told her.
Nuha Fariha is a first generation Bangladeshi-American writer. You can find her on social media @nuhawrites.