When Aunt Rita passed, it was decided her son Auro would press the red button at the Brampton Crematorium. Even though he wasn’t there yet. No one knew if he would show up. No one needed to explain. Least of all Mam, who has been like a real mother to me since I remember. Aunt Rita is my first mother. I have been the only one visiting her twice a week ever since Snelly let me in on the family secret, three years back. I needed someone to explain.
“Bitter?” Snelly is a food scientist. At work, she maps emotions to taste. Outside, she treats it like a game. I don’t want to play her game.
“Name it.” Snelly has a short fuse. She’s annoying.
“Pretzels,” I say, just to get her off me. But I don’t feel anything. And I haven’t cried. There is nothing to cry for. No memories except that I have been visiting her for three years since the day I believed what Snelly told me. I never had to explain to Aunt Rita why I was showing up thrice a week all of a sudden. I doubt she knew who I was. Her language had declined. We have never talked.
“I am grapefruit,” Snelly crinkles her nose to show disgust. She says she can tell I am hurting.
Snelly tells me everything. One day, three years ago when the nursing home panicked over a choking incident, she told me about Aunt Rita and then tried to convince Mam to visit her. We were sitting in the kitchen. In the half-hour, she had finished a tub of pasta sauce dipped in Extra Spicy Doritos. When the nursing home called again, she tried to vomit it all out like a wine taster. She didn’t tell anyone else what she was feeling. Snelly says spicy is anger, anxiety, fear.
“Shouldn’t it work the other way?”
“Which other way?”
“Shouldn’t you be eating ice cream when you are angry?”
Snelly likes to feel it when she is feeling it. Another time it was a bag of freshly sliced lunch meat, while she waited in her car outside a Psychic store. Mam was inside, looking at a crystal ball in order to find out the exact sequence of events during that one week she had to travel to Ottawa for training, leave the husband behind, with the sister.
Aunt Rita was fifty when I was born. That was one year after Uncle Fatik started the second Fat’s Convenience in Meadowvale and Mam became a full-time Pharmacy Assistant at Costco and Aunt Rita fell down in a bathroom somewhere in India, lost an eye, left her husband, and moved into the attic of her sister’s Lorne Park house. Snelly was a latchkey girl then; the family needed Aunt Rita. Back then, her own daughter lived fifteen minutes west. But she preferred to live at her sister’s. Now everyone says it was because of the affair.
Exactly one year later she would be asked to pack her things and clear out—Mam says it was her choice to leave me behind as she moved into a basement with her daughter whose family had fallen into hard times due to the husband’s gambling and drinking and stuff that no one ever talks about. Snelly says Aunt Rita was given no choice. Everyone hated her. Snelly says there is no specific taste for hate because hate is a hybrid emotion, made of fear and anger.
Before Snelly moved to London, Ontario, her house in Brampton was the place I’d hide whenever the thought occurred to me that I was really the other child. In her study, she had a chart showing all kinds of emotions mapped to all kinds of food—warheads → envy; sardines → sadness; jalapeños → surprise. “You are the reason I couldn’t have a child,” she once said to me. She’s a liar. I don’t believe that.
She is fourteen years older. That’s one less than the year gap between Mam and Aunt Rita who turned eighty-five before she passed. That makes Mam seventy-two. But when I say, Mam has started forgetting things. Perhaps it’s in the gene. Snelly says, Don’t ever say it again. She wants everyone to last forever.
In our particular tradition, when someone dies, you grieve for thirteen days. But since Auro had just arrived and also had to get back to his new wife waiting for him in their renovated one-dollar house in Italy, Mam decided the grieving would last seven days. After that, the wake. It makes no sense to adjust grief to a calendar, but about Aunt Rita, Mam’s word was final.
“Call everyone,” she ordered, pausing the blender with which she was beating eggs and cream of tartar for sugar-free meringue cookies. Mam is diabetic. Sweet can kill her. But she likes to bake. A month ago, she was making macarons when Snelly said Aunt Rita might respond to old pictures. Mam called the nursing home to ask why they were spreading lies. Mam had never called the nursing home before. They thought it was a prank. When she called again and repeated her accusation, they blocked her number. Unlike Snelly, Mam doesn’t like to feel, unless she has to.
Aunt Rita has been in a wheelchair since 1999, her nurse says she remembers things in flashes—mostly food, from many years past—because she talks about it right after—not the time and place she ate something—but that something is not sweet. Sweet is the only taste she remembers. Snelly says pride stopped Aunt Rita to return and get me. Pride tastes sweet.
Last week when everyone knew Aunt Rita would be gone soon, Snelly offered to bring to the nursing home some possessions she had left behind.
Mam asked me if I brought the cheesecake she likes. She likes to talk sweet when she doesn’t want to talk.
“What good would it do you think?” Mam was lounging in the yard, absentmindedly finishing a pencil portrait of a dead relative. Mam and other members of the clan have decided to curate dead family members—tether them all inside a book with portraits and bios.
“What about me?” I asked in jest.
“Are you dead?” Snelly played along. “Your portrait will need colour though.” She explained later she needed to say it.
“Talking may slow down the forgetting,” Mam said without raising her head from the portrait.
“She doesn’t remember much,” I said.
“When you are sick like her, you don’t remember. You only forget. But that’s something she earned.” Mam has her own way of finishing a conversation.
Mam’s ears become red when she’s out in the sun long. It’s July and the smoke from the fires in Northern Ontario has put the air in a chokehold. Now inside, she holds the casserole containing the sugar-free cheesecake I got her. She has been asking habitually, ever since I found the owner of the old bakery, three blocks from home.
When I showed photos, the bakery owner said he knows Mam.
“What about Aunt Rita?”
“They never came together, but they always asked for the same thing.” He said he would do the cheesecake sugar-free.
Mam cut the cake into perfect squares and covered them individually in cling wrap. She was saving them for the funeral. She was going to have the crematorium tray them by the coffee.
Not many came to the funeral. Actually, no one other than those who couldn’t stay away—Mam and me and Aunt Rita’s family. And there was Philomena, her nurse for the past three years. She sat by herself in a black lace dress, her lips painted cherry as if she was expecting a crowd and needed to stand out among strangers with stronger claims on the patient she cared for. Her hair had the bright, new shine as if she had it coloured and carefully styled just before she got there. She must have gone to a hairdresser. She cried like she had lost someone she knew well. Or because of what she knew. Or because it was the end of what she knew. I had met her several times at the nursing home. It could be all three. I don’t know.
At the crematorium, Mam wore dark glasses. It must have been because of the fluorescents—the electric hum mixed with the sound of hymns piping out of hidden speakers. The lino floor was so shiny, our shoes squeaked; the flowers in the reception, freshly cut; the girl at the front entrance in a black suit, businesslike, eager to please: what would you like? what would you like? she constantly asked. Everything neatly arranged, even the haze from the sandalwood incense hovering over the hallway, shaped like a humongous meringue. Dying here is just like dessert. You die to remember the meal.
The crematorium had questions. Since we hadn’t ordered in advance—will a standard white wreath do? What about the casket—would we like to rent or buy? What would be the duration of visitations? Is the air-conditioning all right? Will there be older guests? Should they move the cheesecakes into the prayer room? Do we have any preference for prayer tracks?
Then they explained the sequence of events, even though Mam seemed to know. Mam is now the official Clan-Elder. She is supposed to know everything. The visitation will be followed by prayers. Yes, the crematorium can arrange a priest. A fire pit is okay, so long as we take care of the smoke. Yes, the casket can be opened after the prayers one last time. Then it would be taken to the area at the back where the ovens work night and day. “Perhaps you can hear them now.” Perhaps the incessant humming was the ovens and not the fluorescent lights. Only ten close family members are allowed. The urn can be retrieved in a week after the ash cools down. Do we have a photo? We do. It’s beautiful, from a time before she got here: Aunt Rita and her children playing in the rain. Her black hair tied firmly in a knot behind her neck. Water standing still like a tiara on the part of her hair.
It’s a Wednesday. There are others dead. Other halls have more people.
“Where’s Snelly?” Mam asks.
“Snelly isn’t coming.”
She had said she’d come then changed her mind.
“Why?” I asked. She didn’t answer.
Snelly said there is no official taste for grief. She didn’t speak English when she got here. She used to have a lisp. Now she talks weird. And really fast, as if by talking fast she can spit out whatever it is she wishes to say. Strange for a person who likes to feel it when she is feeling it. It could be a lie. Everything is a lie anyway.
I was born here, three years after she arrived from India. We are neither the same colour nor taste. She’s coffee; I am wheat. She is olives and tabasco—half and half. I am rhubarb and kimchi. Envy, anxiety, shame: she has it all mapped out on her board. She said she’d be there for the wake.
One day we were having sundaes when Snelly said she got old too soon because Mam had her when she was twenty-five. Now she wants to sell everything and retire with Mam.
“Why so early?”
“You have a problem with that?”
I do. Because Snelly wants to sell the house we live in. It’s hers. But I have lived here all my life. We don’t talk about it.
“You can live with us in Florida,” she says.
I am thirty-two. It’s not the same.
The house is a 1959 craftsman bungalow. Mam and Uncle Fatik bought it in 1981 when Lorne Park was still a little village. Nothing here goes for less than two million now. Mam is proud.
“Why not? This was what she came here for.” Snelly says. But the truth is, that’s what she is left with.
Mam would take anyone on a tour, even the chimney sweep, when she pays a visit. There is a method. She’d start from the stairway near the main entrance, work her way up to the landing on the upper floor. She’d talk about the reinforced ceiling, the jatoba wood of the floor, the polished metal railings. She’d stop often, point at the walls around the stairwell and the landing crowded with photos of Uncle Fat and her and Snelly. My photos too, but only after I had grown a moustache—no photos on a tricycle or in a splash pad—as if she was waiting for something to happen before she could let me in. Not until after Aunt Rita was sent to the nursing home. Aunt Rita makes pretty photos. Her photos are banned. At the end of the tour, Mam would offer a piece of homemade saltwater taffy from an air-tight container.
Friday morning, a day before the wake, Snelly pulls up at the driveway. She must have started out early. Mam and I are still at breakfast. Snelly says she forgot something and goes out to retrieve a box of blood oranges. She peels them, puts them in the juicer. She doesn’t remove the seeds. The juice turns out the colour of blood. Bitter as bitter. She adds loads of sugar to compensate, but that never works. Mam won’t touch it. She puts it in a crystal jar and places it on the dining table as if she just wants the smell. Mam hates bitter. Mam thinks Snelly is slowly bittering away. She never told me that. Mam doesn’t tell me anything. But I know from the way she looks at Snelly before walking away toward the fridge, poking her head into the freezer. Mam is lost.
Why would Snelly do something like that? I don’t know. Unless she wants to remind Mam about blood, and how bitter it can taste when things become so complicated, to leave them alone is the only way to heal.
The night Mam called Aunt Rita’s daughter and asked her to take her away, Snelly was with me. When Aunt Rita realized she was being banished for good, she ran into the washroom and gashed her face as if her movie-star looks, even with the blue false eye, were the only reason for all the trouble. The scar is still there when they open the casket the last time. Some things just don’t heal.
“What’s wrong with you?” Mam gets annoyed when she sees flies.
“What about Aunt Rita?” Snelly holds one end of a charcoal portrait Mam has been working on.
“What about her?”
“Your own sister dies in a hospital less than two miles from here, all you have been doing is portraits of dead people, and something is wrong with me?”
“We are doing just men,” Mam looks away.
“What’s wrong with crying?” Snelly looks at me as though it is all my fault.
“Why wouldn’t they test?” I asked when Snelly first told me about Aunt Rita and Uncle Fatik.
“Go ask Mam why she kept you here.”
“Mam says I belong here.”
“Let me hear it. I want to hear it from her.”
“What’s inside your mouth?”
“You should be crying you rockhead.” Snelly gets upset when people don’t feel things like she wants them to feel. I don’t get her.
“You can’t pretend as if I am the only one not feeling anything,” I say.
“Is that what you think this is about? A frigging house?”
“I am not going anywhere.”
“You are coming with us. Say thank you.”
Mam wears the same black dress for the wake that she wore at the funeral. Snelly orders nasturtiums.
“Look what I got.”
“What do I need flowers for?” Mam sits by the window watching a squirrel eat her tomatoes.
“You can eat them, you know?”
“Who eats flowers? What do they taste like?”
“What is the taste of watercress?”
“Mustard. Bell pepper.”
“I have no time for mustard.” Mam fusses about carrying the chequebook.
“Why are you paying for Aunt Rita’s wake when her family is there?”
“Because I got her here.”
“Stop the farce. Everyone is laughing at us,” Snelly says.
“Who is everyone?” Snelly shows me the phonebook packed with uncles, aunts, cousins you know nothing about.
In the wake, when everyone is asked to make a small speech, no one talks. They whisper about Mam and Uncle Fatik. Oh! the pioneers. How they inspired the rest of the family. Stuff like that.
Snelly says the worst way to remember Aunt Rita would be to make a portrait of her for a book. Someone laughs. Everyone knows Aunt Rita won’t be in the book. Then Snelly looks at me.
I don’t have a lot to say anyway I lie though: “She wasn’t exactly lucid when I met her, but she knew why I was there.” People nod, as if they understand. Mam looks away.
Philomena says Aunt Rita was always the first one to show up in the dining hall so long as her hands could steer the wheels of her own chair. She always managed to corner the tub of marmalade. She loved cheesecakes, most of all. She’d cut a slice into smaller pieces and eat one piece at a time.
Mam wears dark glasses again. Mam doesn’t say a word. “Where’s Snelly?” she asks, later.
I see Snelly leave the hall right after Philomena is done speaking. I can tell something is wrong. I know Snelly had walked out of the house the day Aunt Rita was let go. Before they found her collapsed on the ice. I know Snelly is feeling it. I go looking for Snelly.
There she is. Sucking on a Sweet and Creamy popsicle by the cooler. She is done feeling, I guess. There is no point. I knew that all along. She avoids looking at me. I avoid looking at her. I understand where she is coming from.
Sabyasachi Nag has published fiction and poetry. His work has appeared or forthcoming in Anomaly, Black Fox Literary Review, Canadian Literature, Grain, The Antigonish Review, The Dalhousie Review, and The Windsor Review, among others. He is an alumnus of the Community of Writers at Squaw, the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, the Humber School for Writers, the BANFF Centre for Arts and is currently an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. He was born in Calcutta, India, and lives in Mississauga, Ontario.