Chopping The Vegetables

Fiction
Swetha Amit


Image of chopped tomatoes on a wooden cutting board. A whole tomato is in the bottom left corner and a white bowl of chopped tomatoes is at the top. On the right, the tip of a chef's knife blade and fingers of a woman's left hand are visible. Light from a source behind the camera casts shadows on the tomatoes, etc.

Photo Credit: Su-Lin Lee/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Pitter-patter, pitter-patter. You stand there in the kitchen chopping the vegetables, listening to the sound of raindrops dripping on the window. The rainy winter of Northern California seems to have instigated your appetite. You peel the carrots, slice them along with the onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers. You take a step back and look at the vibrant display of shades in front of you, wishing you could add some color to your dreary life like the color of the plate of vegetables. You feel a tear roll down your cheek. And it’s not because of the onions. You wipe it away and glance at your reflection on the glass of the cutlery shelf above you. A pair of brown eyes on a dusky complexion with straight black hair stares back at you. The sky rumbles, and for a flinching second, you think you catch sight of an older version of you. You blink in disbelief. It cannot be! And yet it feels like it’s her.

 

Exactly a year since she went out of your life. Your world had come tumbling down with that phone call. You remember the last words of your mother before she left in her car. See you soon, she said, stroking your hair just like she always did. You were hoping to spend that weekend with your parents and talk about your future after graduating from UC Berkeley. You didn’t expect to see your mother lying still with her eyes closed at the hospital. That image continues to haunt you even today. Her face strangely looked peaceful. How could she leave you so soon? She had promised to listen to your plans, share your heartbreaks, shop with you for your wedding and change the nappies of your babies. Why, mom, why? You feel betrayed and shudder when you think of that voice over the phone that February evening: “Is that Amrita? I am afraid your mother has met with an accident and is in the hospital.” It was raining just like it was today. You dropped your phone, screaming for your father. You dialed his number with trembling hands several times until he picked up with an impatient Hello? You mumbled as tears flowed down your cheeks. At twenty, you sounded just like your eight-year-old self who was afraid of the dark. Vulnerable, petrified, and helpless.

You decided to take a break for a year. All you do is brood and visit the kitchen multiple times. A place that keeps you connected to your mother. You cling onto her memories of your moments with her here. It’s the only way you keep her alive. That scene at the hospital flashes in front of you. “It’s too late,” the doctor had said. “Severe head injuries and little chance of survival.” Her car had collided with another on the highway. The front glass was smashed, and the steering wheel was dripping with blood and droplets of rain. You prayed to God, hoping for a miracle. What wouldn’t you have done to see your mother open her eyes and smile at you as she always did? You saw nurses and doctors working on her, trying their best to save her. Those crooked lines eventually turned into one straight line accompanied by the beeping sound of the monitor. You open your mouth to scream, but no sound comes out. Your father’s hand on your shoulder fails to reassure you. He is clearly upset but strangely calm, knowing he had to be that anchor to help you combat this storm that had wrecked your sanity.

You recollect a strain in their relationship before your mother’s death. You could notice being the sensitive person you are, even if you were away from them. But they dismissed it whenever you broached the topic. “Busy with new contacts and deals,” your father, who worked at a venture firm, said. Your mother’s voice sounded tight and guarded. “Just a lot of reading and new releases,” she shrugged. A reviewer for a literary journal, she was constantly surrounded by books. Their nonchalant behavior nagged you to a point, compelling you to visit that weekend, citing the excuse of wanting to discuss your future academic plans. Your mother appeared to be flustered and in a hurry that afternoon. The door slammed after her, and the sound echoed in the hall. The aroma of cinnamon, cloves, and spices wafted in the air. You walked towards the kitchen and saw that she had cooked vegetable biryani—your favorite dish. Next to it was a bowl of raita.

You remembered those times when you and your mother would cook these dishes. It was a regular ritual every Sunday. As a little girl, you’d enjoy watching her smoothly pierce through the carrots and onions. The sound of the knife on the cutting board reverberated throughout the room. Chop chop chop, they’d go, sounding like musical notes to your ears, accompanied by a soft humming sound from her lips. Her eyes shone with pride, seeing the deluge of colors, shapes, and sizes as she cut them into small pieces. Sometimes you’d see water in her eyes. You’d ask why she was crying. “It’s from the onions,” she’d laugh through her tears. Then there were times she’d carve faces out of the leftover vegetables and arrange them neatly on a plate. “Mom, why do you do that?” you’d ask.

“Just for fun. I always indulge in creativity outside my writing. Try to make mundane things look interesting.”

“How?”

“In whatever ways you can.”

You would watch her sprinkle the colorful little pieces into a bowl of curd that she had whipped with a spatula to make it smooth. She would then garnish it with coriander leaves. When you were twelve, you learned this art. You felt all grown up to be holding that knife. Over time you mastered this craft and spent several joyous times with your mother. Your father would jokingly remark about not wanting to interrupt the women bonding. “My two lovely and talented ladies, you could give Julia Child competition,” he’d say fondly. There were times they’d drive from their home in the suburbs to the city. You would all gape at the view of Land’s End, stroll around Golden Gate Park, and picnic at Shakespeare Garden. Together you’d discuss Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello while munching on sandwiches and cookies. Those good old days and moments that felt like a different era were still close to your heart. You even remember those torrid arguments and tantrums with your mother. Over messy rooms, your bizarre piercings, tattoos, your choice of clothes, your mother’s spacing out resulting in her lack of attention towards you sometimes, her critique on your writing, expecting high standards from a schoolgirl. There were times when you felt she didn’t understand you. Like when you dated that boy she didn’t like from your class. Not your kind, she’d said. You called her a snob. Later she’d apologize and exuberate the warmth of a mama bear, embracing you in her arms.

Your father tried his best to be supportive and patient. Even those nights when you’d wake up screaming. Even when you refused to go back to school. Even when you weren’t interested in talking to your friends. Even when all you wanted to do was stay in the kitchen the entire day, chopping vegetables. “Post-traumatic stress disorder,” the doctor had said. “It’s tough. Give her time and always be there for her.” You feel grateful for your father’s support. Even though you knew he was hurting inside. Once, you even saw him crying silently. When you tried to comfort him, he said it was due to the onions he’d tried chopping earlier. You felt like a part of your body had been chopped off. You look at her photograph numerous times. Sometimes you almost feel like you see her standing in that kitchen, her slender build silhouetted against that marble slab, chopping the vegetables, and talking in her soft voice. One thought constantly troubles you. Where was your mother going on that Friday afternoon in the rain? Why was she in such a hurry that she couldn’t stop and chat with you?

 

Just then, you hear the door open and shut. Your father is home. You hear his footsteps coming towards the kitchen. “Smells good. Just like how Mamta used to make it,” he remarks. You smile weakly and accompany him to the living room. His newly-acquired beard makes him look older than his age. You spot the spurts of grey and the tired look in his eyes. Even though he hasn’t been working as hard as he used to.

“Were mom and you happy?” you blurt out.

Your father looks up and thinks for a while.

“Mamta and I shared a wonderful relationship.” His eyes had a faraway look. “There are times when certain things happen. It makes you wonder if you were at fault. I often think I was spending too much time at work. Did you… did you ever feel neglected by me at any point, Amrita?”

You look at the door wordlessly, recollecting your mother’s last words at that same place. Her black dress, silver earrings, lip gloss, and pulled-back hair looked different. Quite a contrast from her usual flowery, bright-colored dresses and equally bright shades of lipstick. Your thoughts are interrupted by your father’s voice.

“Tell me, Amrita.”

You shake your head. He smiles with relief, but a look of concern immediately flashes on his face.

“Amrita, I am worried about you. I mean…” He pauses and gently pats your shoulder. “I was twelve when my mother passed away. My older brother and I pulled through because my father became a pillar of our strength till his death a few years ago. It’s hard…” he pauses and wipes a tear. “My extended family offered their support but…”

You knew what he was about to say. Your maternal aunt invited you over to Dallas, where she lived with her husband and two sons, for a change of scene. You declined. You weren’t up to meeting anyone. Not your paternal uncle who lived a few miles away with his family. Not your maternal grandparents in India. You didn’t want sympathy. You couldn’t bear the thought of looking at their eyes oozing with false concern accompanied by sighs. You look at your father and nod.

 

It was sometime during the Labor Day weekend when you started detecting some sort of tension. You were visiting home and excitedly making plans for Christmas and Thanksgiving. The lukewarm response by your parents left you baffled. Christmas vacation turned out to be a quiet affair. You all drove up to Mendocino, where your mother would spend afternoons scouting the bookstores for new releases at the bookstore. There were times she’d get phone calls in the middle of dinner. Your father would bite his lip, and your mother would look around apologetically. “Sorry. Just an emergency at work,” she’d say. The phone calls came around the same time, and she’d go outside to attend to them. Why couldn’t she talk in front of us, you’d think. You remember that one instance at the bookstore where you and your mother spotted the bookstore cat named after a famous classic. Your mother excitedly clicked a selfie of you both with the cat. It purred, and she stroked it. “Maybe we should get a cat someday,” she said. Being an animal lover, you instantly agreed, while your father wasn’t too ecstatic about the idea of a pet in the house.

 

You checked your phone to see if you had that photo. It was probably on your mother’s phone. For the first time after her death, you wonder about her belongings. What happened to her wallet and phone after her accident? You almost ask your father, but you stop. What holds you back? You aren’t sure. You want to try and look for it first. It’s dinner time. Your father eats the biryani and raita. “Nice,” he says. That Julia Child remark accompanied with that wide grin is missing. You remember the initial few months after your mother’s death.

 

Despite the house swarming with relatives, it felt empty. Your eyes were as red as the tomatoes, and it felt as though you had been cutting a thousand onions. You refrained from any social contact, and your teachers were understanding. When you visited her study and stood by the door, the smell of books wafted into your nostrils. Her desk was as tidy as ever. You imagined her sitting in that chair, her face buried into the pages of a book or typing away on her laptop. All those images would make you burst into tears and run down the stairs to the living room. One day, you decided to carry on making biryani and raita. Your mother would have wanted this. There were times you’d make it on other days besides Sunday. You hadn’t eaten properly for weeks except for an occasional nibble. Your father’s pasta seemed to taste like rubber. Somehow the rice and its yogurt accompaniment managed to elicit your long-lost appetite. It was the only remnant of your mother’s recipe. Not that she didn’t make other varieties. But the biryani and raita held a special place. It was probably because it was your first introduction to the culinary world.

 

Your father clears the table and loads the dishwasher. He retires to the den to do some work before bedtime. All he does is immerse himself in work. You go upstairs to your mother’s study and turn on the light. The laptop is on her desk, and her books are arranged neatly on a shelf next to it. You see a book next to the computer. You pick it up curiously and read the title. Ctrl Alt Del by Aditi Chaubey. What a unique title, you think. You find it strange as your mother wasn’t too much into self-help books. You study the synopsis and profile of the author on the back cover of the book. She worked at an IT firm in Mumbai, where she lived with her husband. Majored in computers. Hmm. Why did the name sound familiar? Did your mother mention anything? You wrack your brain while the clock on the desk ticked seconds. As you browse her desk, you come across a list of Indian authors. Now you remember! Your mother once mentioned how there seemed to be a surge of Indian contemporary authors across genres. She said Ctrl Alt Del was unlike the other self-help books. You flip through the pages and read the lines she has underlined. If I didn’t try to start afresh, I’d have dissolved in my own pool of sorrow. I would have been embroiled in the quicksand that I could never get out of. Was it easy? No. Every step felt as though I was carrying a massive rock on my shoulders. What did that mean? Why did your mother underline these sentences? Was there a hidden meaning?

The room was devoid of any dirt, thanks to the cleaners who came in every fortnight to deep clean your three-bedroom two-level house tucked away in a quiet neighborhood in Silicon Valley. Downstairs is the large living room with French windows and a spacious open kitchen that overlooked the backyard where your mother had a small garden. Along with her death, the plants lost their luster. You moved here at the age of seven after living in a cramped apartment in the city for three years. After your father got a job with a venture firm, you all decided to move to the suburbs, where life was more peaceful.

You open your mother’s drawer and find her car keys and a mobile phone inside. You gingerly touch the car keys wishing they had been misplaced on that fateful day. If only you could turn the clock back. If only you had stopped your mother from driving in that rain. But your mother weathered various such storms, including driving on the highway with the rains lashing furiously on her shield. “It’s so mystical,” she’d say, and her eyes would shine like gems. You take her phone and try switching it on. Of course, the battery was drained. You immediately put it on the charge, watching the battery’s red bar gradually convert to green, just like the traffic signal lights. Did someone jump the signal? you wonder. The driver in the other car was injured, but he had survived. Life is not fair, you think. Why couldn’t he die instead? The other driver, a middle-aged man, had exceeded the speed limit as he was in a hurry to get to a meeting. He was fined, and he apologized profusely after being discharged from the hospital. No amount of apology or money would bring back your mother. Your mother’s car still stood in the garage, looking as new as ever after the repairs covered by the insurance. If only humans could be repaired as quickly.

Fat blobs of salty puddles form on the keyboard. Your eyes are blurred as you switch on your mother’s phone. You see some unread texts and WhatsApp messages dated a year ago. Some forwards and personal messages. You go through her photos and check for that picture you were looking for. It’s there. You, your mother, and the adorable black and white furry cat. Her smile is as radiant as ever as it always is whenever she is surrounded by books. You send that message to your phone, hoping to print it and frame it. Just then, you spot a few other photographs. You feel lousy prying, but curiosity gets the better of you. These were photos of her office get-together. How different your mother looked! More poised and sober.

And then you see something that creates a nauseous feeling in your tummy, just like how you feel every time during the car ride up the hills. You see this bespectacled man with mousy brown hair dressed in a suit with an arm around your mother. It’s a group photo and looks like a harmless, friendly gesture. But deep down, you feel something. You aren’t sure what. Was it the way your mother was smiling? She has had men acquaintances before, but this man piqued your curiosity. You scroll down and see more photos of him, some of him and your mother at another get-together where she is wearing a navy-blue dress. Sophisticated and stylish. It almost feels like she’s someone else. Your mother wouldn’t change for anyone else. A person who talked about embracing creativity never bent their rules for anyone. So why now?

You check her messages. Sorry, mom, you mumble. You cannot help it. Guilt pricks you like a hundred pins in one corner of the head. Curiosity nags you on the other side. Your head feels like a zone of tug of war. You suddenly sit down feeling weak. The exchange of messages sounded like more than just a friendly exchange. You look at the name. John! Who was he? Was he the same man in those photos? You check her emails. This time you don’t feel sorry. John Silver. You see a flurry of emails from this name. They appeared work-related, but a couple of times ended up with ‘see you tonight.’ Did your mother meet this man after work? Was it the office get-together he was talking about? How did it all start? Were you overthinking? But those text messages. Nobody sent their colleague sweetheart or missing you my love messages. You scroll down again to see the dates of those messages. Your heart stops a beat. They were sent during their Christmas vacation at Mendocino. The last exchange was on the day of the accident. This cannot go on, John, your mother had written. There was a phone call dated on the same day. Did your mother go to end things with John? Did your father know about this? Was John married? Did he also have a family? Were your parents unhappy? Did he get to know? Why didn’t they tell her? Questions swarm in your head like a hurricane. You want all this to be just a bad dream. You shake your head and stare listlessly at the pile of books. Nothing makes sense to you. How you wish your answers were in those books. You clutch the phone. You type John Silver on Google. Images of the man in the photo show up on the pages. It was the same one, you think. He was the Editor in Chief of this literary magazine, divorced with two kids in his ex-wife’s custody. You shut the laptop and the light. You quietly go to your room.

You look outside the window, and the inky black sky stares at you. The droplets of rain on the trees make a rhythmic sound. You look at the image of your phone. Why mom? Your eyes are blurred with those salty tears as you taste them now. The barrage of waterworks wouldn’t stop. There is no one you can call. No one you can trust. You feel like someone has stabbed you with a knife. Your head hits the pillow, and you drift away to sleep. Nightmares of your mother’s laughing face, John’s smiling one, and your father’s sad one haunt you. You wake up to the sound of rain, and nature seems to be crying with you. You glance at the clock. It’s nine in the morning.

Your father pops his head in and looks concerned. “Not feeling well, Amrita?” he asks.

You shake your head. “I am fine,” you reply.

“Come down for breakfast then,” he says.

The only sound is the clink of spoons against the bowls of porridge. You look at your father and feel sorry for him. And then a sudden thought crosses your mind. It seemed bizarre. But your head isn’t in the right place. Did your father also like someone else in his workplace? You put your hands on your head.

He looks up and frowns. “Are you really ok?” he asks.

You nod.

He looks unconvinced. He receives a phone call and excuses himself out of the room.

You lose your appetite, and your legs drag you to the study. You look at the photos and the emails with a heavy heart. You replay your father’s response in your head, “There are times when certain things happen. It makes you wonder if you were at fault.” Did your father blame himself for your mother’s affair? Did he find out and chose not to confront her? Was it possible that John was in love with your mother and not the other way around? But what about your mother’s sober appearances? The mother you knew would never try and change herself for anyone. Did you ever know her at all, you ask yourself? Were those moments with her an illusion? Find creativity in the mundane things, her voice echoes in your head. Had her marriage become so ordinary? You were so absorbed in your thoughts that you didn’t hear your father calling for you. Nor do you hear those footsteps coming up the stairs. You are suddenly taken aback to see your father standing behind you. He stares at you and at the phone in your hand. Both your eyes meet. They elicit a certain sadness and unspoken words that bring out the ugly truth.

“Did you know?” you ask, trembling.

He just stares.

“Did you know?” Your voice shatters the frames on the walls.

“Amrita…”

“How could you not tell me?”

You feel betrayed. Who wouldn’t?

Your screams are louder than the ones when you saw your mother breathe her last. Your dad tries to explain. His long hours of work. Your mother feeling neglected, her tantrums, their endless arguments, her withdrawal, his discovery of the affair, a showdown, sessions with the therapist, her guilt, and the conscious decision of not letting you know lest it disrupt your mind. You aren’t convinced and cannot bear to stay a minute longer in that house. House. That’s right. You can no longer call it home. You feel a certain numbness. You can’t find a rational explanation. You feel sorry and angry at your father at the same time. How could they not tell you? You are enraged, hurt, disappointed.

You rush to the kitchen, grab that knife, start chopping the carrots, tomatoes, and onions vigorously. Chop chop-chop. The noise drowns your father’s pleas and attempts to explain. Chop chop-chop. You feel a strange sensation of slicing the oranges, cutting the carrots. You don’t stop. Water trickles from your red eyes. You are blinded and unable to see anything. But you keep chopping and don’t stop. Not even when you accidentally cut your finger and see the splats of red on the cutting board. You chop till a gentle hand steers you away, washes your finger, and bandages it.

*

A year later, you chop the vegetables in your own kitchen at an apartment by the waterfront. Chop chop-chop. You look at the array of colorful cut pieces. You dump the chopped vegetable pieces in the bowl of curd. You carve eyes and nose on three carrot sticks and place them around the bowl of frothy white liquid. You inhale the aroma of spices from the biryani. You arrange some garnished almonds and walnuts in the shape of a heart on top of the rice. Then you look at your reflection in the glass cabinet. You see a face with hair dyed red and eyes wearing grey contacts. Almost a stranger. The phone rings. The word Dad flashes on your screen. Chop chop-chop. The sound of the kitchen knife merges with the calls. At one point, you close your eyes and converge with the sound, tapping your foot. Try to make mundane things look interesting.

The phone continues to ring.

pencil

Author of “A Turbulent Mind—My Journey to Ironman 70.3,” Swetha Amit is currently pursuing her MFA at University of San Francisco. She published her works in Atticus Review, Oranges Journal, Gastropoda Lit, Amphora Magazine, Grande Dame Literary Journal, Black Moon Magazine, Fauxmoir Lit Mag, Poets Choice Anthology, and has upcoming pieces in Drunk Monkeys, Agapanthus Collective, JMWW Journal, Full house Literary. She is one of the contest winners of Beyond Words literary magazine, her piece upcoming in November. She is also an alumni of Tin House Winter Workshop 2022 and the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop 2022.
Twitter: @whirlwindtots Email: swetha0627[at]gmail.com