The Brutal Secret I Share with My Neighbor
"The Neighbors" by Shruti Swamy, recommended by Laura Furman
INTRODUCTION BY LAURA FURMAN
Secrets are dropped like pebbles throughout Shruti Swamy’s “The Neighbors,” forming a path to lure the reader through the story.
The narrator starts with her children, a newborn son and school-age daughter, and reveals herself as a prisoner of her duty to keep them safe and well. She has disappeared into her maternal role until she doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror. Her pregnancies have robbed her of her beautiful hair. The demands of being a housewife and mother have left her without even a remnant of vanity. She doesn’t know where the girl she was has gone. She observes the baby watching the sunlight through the trees. He’s feeling a joy that she’s barely able to identify. The narrator’s loneliness floods the story. She’s with her children constantly, even when they sleep, so she’s both a prisoner and a prison guard.
Luisa, the new neighbor, appears with her daughters: “She had baked a batch of pale cookies and seemed to be visiting the entire neighborhood with them.” The narrator lets us know that “Other neighbors had made similar overtures over the years. But after a while, they left me alone.” The new neighbor and her daughters are beautiful in a fragile blonde way as different as can be from the Indian narrator and her children. As the two women spend more time together, there is a vital moment in which the narrator longs for Luisa to recognize her, a recognition of their similar secrets that would mean a connection.
“The Neighbors” is full of mirroring and intense inspections that result neither in communication nor understanding. Through Shruti Swamy’s collection, A House Is a Body, her varied characters share a singular quality—their painful desire to reach the reader with the secrets, shame, and truths they can share with no one else. I look forward to more of her stories and especially her endings, which always manage to reveal what I should have seen all along.
– Laura Furman
Author of The Mother Who Stayed
The Brutal Secret I Share with My Neighbor
by Shruti Swamy
At that time my daughter was eight, and my son had just been born. I sat on the front lawn with him and stopped him from putting fists of grass into his mouth. It was late July, and hot, a rich, thick heat that reminded me of the descent into summers of my childhood in India. My son gazed up at the trees in wonder. Still small enough to look slightly absurd, almost like a fish with the gaping mouth and eyes, but then he would move his head a little bit, wave his arms, and he would look suddenly, startlingly human.
My daughter came running down the street with no shoes on. Only this morning I had combed her hair, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her.
“Mom, someone’s moving in to Mrs. Hildebrandt’s house.”
There was a moving truck pulled up in the driveway of the empty house at the end of the street. We could see them through the trees. A girl—then two—emerged from the passenger’s side of the cab, from the driver’s a tall man, then a short-haired woman.
“Where are your shoes?” I said. I watched the family as they opened the door to their new house. In fact I had been keeping an eye on the place since it became vacant. It had a similar floor plan to ours, all the houses on the street were Eichlers, but better sun in the yard, and the last owner, an elderly woman who had died some months ago, planted roses that bloomed even in her absence, and not one but two fruit trees, lemon and orange. The girls ran in first. The woman stood a few paces away from the door, and the man behind her. She turned to the man to say something to him. She was much smaller than him, and had to lean up to do it. The man put his hand on her head, right at the nape of her neck. She looked so vulnerable there, at the back of the head, with her hair so short, short like a baby’s, so close to the soft skull. His hand there was familiar to me, the gesture full of the brutal tenderness of husbands. I couldn’t see her face to tell if she was happy or sad.
That evening I lay my son down in his crib and went to the bathroom to comb my hair. Almost as soon as I put him down he began to cry, and the door didn’t blunt the noise. I wanted to comb my hair. When I was younger, my hair was thick and rich and scented, after washing I used to spread it on a wicker basket under which burned a lump of frangipani. Once as a girl, finishing the thread I was using to sew a dress for my home crafts class, I had plucked a strand of my own hair and threaded the needle with it. It was long enough and it held.
Of course I lost quite a bit of my hair after my two pregnancies, which my gynecologist told me is common. For a while I thought my hair would grow back, but it never did. Then I began to comb it less frequently, sometimes I forgot for days. I had remembered today because of the woman and her short hair, which had shocked me. But she had seemed beautiful, even from such a distance. I could hear the mewling cries of my son, rising in pitch and frequency. The reflection in the mirror surprised me. Who was that woman? I thought of myself as young, a girl, and hardly ever looked at myself anymore. Then I began to comb my hair, tugging hard at the snarls, so hard that my scalp bled. When I was finished it lay flat and shining against my skull.
It was three days later when I opened the door to the neighbor woman. She had baked a batch of pale cookies and seemed to be visiting the entire neighborhood with them. Up close she was older than I expected, older than me, her face all angles, as well as her body, which was so slender it was boney. She wore a pale blue dress that left her legs and freckled arms bare. Under the right eye the skin was slightly darkened, the ghost of a bruise. Her two girls stood behind her. The elder was surely my daughter’s age, the younger, no more than three, plump, with bright gold hair, like a little doll.
“God it’s hot as anything out here,” the woman said, handing me the cookies. A bit of hair stuck to her damp forehead. “I didn’t feel like baking, but when you move you should always bake something for the neighbors, I think. Anyway, I hope you’re not allergic to anything or vegan, they’re lemon cookies—lemons from the tree—” she pointed to her yard, “I didn’t want them to go to waste. I’m making marmalade with the rest of them—the oranges are too sour to eat. I don’t know anything about orange trees.”
The sound of the sprinkler, two houses down, hissed up between us. The woman smelled of flowers, yellow flowers I imagined. Other neighbors had made similar overtures over the years. But after a little while, they left me alone. “I don’t know anything either about orange trees,” I said.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t even say my name,” she said. She was older than me, but her face looked young, and flushed slightly like a girl’s. “I’m Luisa. And this is Camille and Geenie. My husband, Richard, is at work. We moved in to the house down the street. They’re shy, the girls are. Say hi, girls.”
“Hi,” they said. The elder’s voice sounded bored, the younger’s was a whisper.
“Would you like to come in?” I said. “My husband is also at work.”
Luisa looked down at her two girls, then looked back at me. A strand of gold, terminating in a tiny star, hung from each ear. “That would be wonderful.”
I led them inside—seeing the shoes at the door, they took theirs off on instinct—and sat them down in the living room, where the baby, in his swing, had began to bunch up his face, but he relaxed when he saw me, held out his arms. I carried him so much in those days that my body had gotten used to the extra weight. When I put him down, there was a feeling that came over me, almost like vertigo, a mixture of dizziness and exhilaration, of terrible, terrific lightness. It wasn’t like this with my daughter, who was always independent and self-contained as a cat, and who had learned to read when she was five, which was when I lost her to her mind’s vast interior. She was her father’s child.
“A baby!” said Luisa, “He’s beautiful. How old is he?”
“Four months,” I said. He smelled of milk, my baby, and he grasped my shirt in his hands and wiped his nose against my shoulder. “His name is Manoj. I’ll get my daughter, I think she’s your age, Geenie.”
Then I went to the bottom of the stairs and called her, sweetly and urgently, so they would think I was a good mother. “Manisha!”
She took a while to appear. Backlit by the window at the top of the stairs, there was a crown of hair frizzed around her head, and I couldn’t see her eyes. The soles of her feet were also out of my vision, but their state I could guess; black from her barefoot summer, black and leathery, like the child of a beggar. “What.”
I spoke to her in Hindi. “The neighbors are downstairs. The new neighbors. Will you come down?”
Her body held the heaviness of a sleepwalker, but she came, and followed me back into the living room. Luisa sat on the sofa with a girl on either side of her, and they were talking in low voices. I could hear the unmistakable sound of whining, and the equally unmistakable sound of stern hushing. “Manisha?” said Luisa, she said it like an Indian, with a soft uh sound instead of a hard a Americans put in the first syllable. Manisha, my daughter came home crying with anger her first day at school from the cruel mispronunciation. “This is Geenie, and Camille, and I’m Luisa. Geenie’s going to be starting fifth grade in the fall.”
“Manisha too,” I said. Geenie was a year older, then: Manisha had skipped a grade. She had been a misfit before the change, and she was a misfit now, because of her age, and, I suspected, her solitariness, which came off as cool pride. “Manisha, do you want to show Geenie your room?” Manisha looked at me, not a little warily. The mention of school had shaken her out of something, the thick dreaminess I had seen on her at breakfast. “You can show her all your books,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. I could see her eying Geenie, her pretty clothes, the little ribboned clips in her hair. Their feet were quiet on the stairs, carpeted to cushion a child’s fall, dark to hide stains. I shifted the baby in my arms. He was sucking his heel, then his fist.
“Can I hold the baby?” Camille whispered to her mother.
“Babies aren’t dolls, Cami, they’re not toys.”
“I know,” she said. Her eyes were caught on my son’s. Hers were pale blue, like her mother’s dress. “Can I?”
It was all addressed to her mother, but I said, “Go wash your hands, the bathroom is just right over there. Then you can hold him.” We watched her pad out of the room.
“You have a beautiful house,” said Luisa. The sink turned on. Camille was on her tiptoes, we could see her through the open door.
“Same as yours,” I said.
“No, I mean, the way you’ve arranged it. The furniture is so beautiful. It’s very bright and friendly. You have a good eye for things—you and your husband, I should say.” Of course, it had all been me, and I smiled with pleasure. It wasn’t often I had guests, though I did my best to keep the house clean. “Come, let’s have some of these cookies.”
“No, no. I’ve had enough already,” she said. “You have them later.”
“Where did you move from?”
“Colorado—Denver. Richard had a job there.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s in sales. And I’m an artist.”
“Yes. I paint. Mostly watercolor.”
“What do you paint?”
“Oh, lots of things, really. I paint those two a lot, if they sit still. We lived in Arizona before Denver, and I liked living in the desert. I liked painting how dry and red everything was out there, especially in the evenings. Richard calls it my Georgia O’Keeffe period, of course.”
“How do you have the time for it?”
“It’s just a matter of practice.” She had slipped her legs beside her on the couch. There was something avian about her, the elegance and ease of her pose. Yet I felt something unsettled in her too.
“But the space I mean.”
“The space?” she said. “Usually we make some space in the garage.”
“Not that kind of space,” I said, but I didn’t know how to say what I meant, and let it drop. A small silence followed.
“And you, what do you do?”
“When I was young I wanted to be a pilot,” I said. The sink switched off. Camille’s little hands were red. “Come here,” I said. She sat next to me on the love seat.
She smelled of my soap—sandalwood— and kid’s sweat, and thinly, the floral scent of her mother. Sitting with her back against the back of the love seat, her feet just reached the end of the cushion. “If he cries you mustn’t be upset, okay? He’s shy, just like you.”
I eased Manoj into her arms. “Keep the head up, like this.”
I could see the storm gathering in his face. I held his hand, and sang to him the Indian anthem, which always soothed him. He began to laugh.
Late at night, I was awoken by the sound of glass breaking, or glass broke in my dream, and I awoke. I was flung awake. My husband lay on his back, sleeping, and the baby was asleep too, in his crib, which we kept in our room. Father and son slept dead like each other, bodies gone thick and heavy and soft, slept without moving, barely breathing until they woke. My son’s sleep was particularly disconcerting, because he slept with his eyes half open, and during the weeks after he was born I had often held a mirror under his nose, to see if it fogged up with his breath. I went to my daughter’s room, and stood in the doorway, casting my shadow over the floor. The room had filled up with her breathing, warm and not wholly pleasant. She curled on her bed with all the blankets flung off dramatically. Her window looked onto the street, from the vantage of the second story. I stood there in my nightgown. The lawn below me was nearly blue in moonlight and streetlight. There was someone in the street. I saw him, his shoulders, his hot blonde hair, then lifted my gaze, to where all the lights were on in the house down the street. I must have stood there for a long time. I felt my own mind, tingling like a limb come awake. The street was empty, then the light went off in the house, still I stood, remembering a night long ago, when I stood at a window in another country. It wasn’t nostalgia. My life was crowded then with family, and I worked hard. Yet this space was there. I thought about it for a long time. I couldn’t say whether I was happy, or sad, or sorry for myself.
Then my daughter cried out in her sleep, and just like that, the space closed. My mind and body turned to her. She blinked up at me, like she had as a baby, with her black eyes. “Mom?”
Was she awake or dreaming? I felt irritation and tenderness in equal parts. “Go back to sleep,” I said.
“I was being eaten, someone was eating me,” she said.
“Just a dream,” I said. She was scared, shaking and I held her, she allowed me.
“You don’t want me anymore,” she said.
“You don’t want me anymore.”
“You’re dreaming,” I said. “You’ll feel embarrassed about this in the morning.”
Every morning, I combed my daughter’s hair before I fed both the children breakfast. It was a challenge, because the baby was always clingy right after he woke up and my daughter had trouble sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time. If I put the baby down, he would begin to cry, and Manisha would use the distraction to run off. Then I would have to start the whole process over.
“You said Manisha means mind. You said that the mind is the most important. That’s what you said.”
“Mind is important, hair is important. Already you run around the neighborhood like a wild thing.”
“So my hair is as important as my mind?”
“No.” I had put the baby in a sling against my chest, so my hands were free. The sling reminded me of the peasant women in the fields, who worked for hours with their babies tied to their bodies in old saris. But mine I bought at Target. “It is important to look nice for people.”
“I don’t know why. I don’t know why you are so difficult, why you don’t just listen to me.”
“Because you don’t make sense!”
July mornings were cool and felt strange on the skin after waking; afterward the days became brutally hot. The baby was still small enough to bathe in the sink, and I bathed him often and massaged his body with oil. Manisha came in only when she got hungry, and I cleaned the house and made sure the dishes were out of the dishwasher, made lists of things I needed to get from the store, paid all the bills and called the health insurance company about a birth-related expense they had not yet reimbursed. I was in the process of applying for citizenship, which also produced a large amount of paperwork. I fed the baby, changed the baby, put the baby to sleep and picked him back up when he woke, sang to the baby, talked to the baby, read to him. Manisha came in and reported that Luisa was letting her kids run through the sprinklers. “Geenie has a bikini!”
“You don’t want a bikini.”
“Yes, I do.”
I sighed. “Wasn’t it you who was only caring about the mind this morning?”
“Do you want to go and run out in the sprinklers with them?”
“I don’t know.”
“We could put the sprinklers on here.”
“Then we’ll be copying them.”
Luisa was stretched out on a plastic lawn chair in shorts and a tank top and a hat that covered her face. She was reading a gigantic magazine. She waved when she saw us approaching.
“Glad you’re back, Manisha. Brought your suit?”
Manisha pulled up her T-shirt, showing the swimsuit underneath.
“Go on then.”
Manisha hesitated. Geenie and Camille had not taken any notice of her. They looked half-wild on the lawn. They would grow up to be beautiful, like their mother, with their small faces, Geenie’s heart-shaped, and Camille’s oval, their wide eyes and little noses and soft, elegant mouths. Their beauty was startling because they were so unaware of it; it was strange to see them act with such abandon, like children, with those faces. Like two princesses from a storybook I read Manisha, one dark, one fair, the water glittering on their skin. As the sprinkler changed direction, it fanned into a rainbow. Manisha took off her shirt and shorts and stood barefoot in her yellow bathing suit. Her belly puffed out, and the way she stood with her feet turned outward made her look like a duck.
“Girls, Manisha’s here,” said Luisa. The girls looked up from their play. Camille’s knees were stained with mud. Her little pink tongue came out of her mouth and licked her cheek. “We’re playing cats.”
“No we’re not,” said Geenie. She was, as reported, wearing a ruffled pink two-piece, the top of which lay flat against her chest. She cast a scornful look at her sister. “Cats hate water.”
“Not all do,” said Camille.
“Yeah, all do. They’re from the desert.”
“I like cats,” I heard Manisha say. She was allergic, and had an instinctual fear reaction to most animals, throwing her hands up to protect her face when they came near.
“We’re going to get one, Mom says,” offered Camille.
“We’ll see,” said Luisa.
The baby and I were both sweating, but I was glad at least that I wasn’t pregnant in this heat. “It’s hard enough being responsible for the two of you. Though at this point maybe a third life wouldn’t make any difference.” She had put down her magazine, and she took her hat off to fan herself. On the underside of her arm there was a constellation of yellow marks. “Tell me, how long have you lived in the neighborhood?”
“Well, let’s see. Manisha was four and a half when we moved. So I would say about three and a half years.”
“I hope we stay here that long.”
“How long were you in Denver?”
“Only a few months. Richard’s job. Three schools in two years.”
“That must be hard on them.”
“But you know, I moved around a lot as a kid, my dad was in the army—so I think of myself as sort of a gypsy now. Richard says I romanticize my childhood, but he wasn’t there, was he? I like change, moving around.”
The baby sneezed. It was a tiny noise, but it rocked him. He looked up at me, bewildered, and I stroked his cheek so he would feel reassured. Ever so slightly, I shifted him in my arms, so that the bruises at my throat would be visible between my dupatta and the neck of my blouse. I looked to see if Luisa noticed; if she had her face didn’t register it. “Moving around so much—it must be nice, in some ways.”
“Yes, it is.”
“To feel . . . how does it feel?”
“Just about how you’d expect, I think. Sometimes it’s hard, you get so attached to a place. There are so many places to miss. And you just have to pack everything up, your clothes and pots and things, you start to hate your stuff. You want to throw it all away and start over on the other end.”
I remembered how I felt when I was young, slight as a plastic bag, caught on nothing, riding the wind. But I had been caught. Again, I shifted the baby in my arms, more clumsily, less carefully, to show her where, three days ago, hands had squeezed my neck as though pulping a fruit. I stood there with her in an expectant silence, feeling the start of a sweeping relief, like a person in a wreck who sees through the windshield the Jaws of Life. I had, until this moment, never said it to anyone, not even to myself. Instead I had extinguished each event at the root of the candle, before it had time in my mind to burn. Then I looked at her and realized she was refusing. Not only to say it, but to see, just to see it, to see me. Her eyes were hard and faraway, the eyes of a stranger—which, of course, she was. With haste I covered the spots on my neck and looked away.
There was a cry from the girls, and I turned around to see Manisha tripped or fallen in the grass. She was wet now, and lay for a minute stunned on the ground, facedown. Geenie and Camille stood still, grazed every now and then by the edge of the sprinkler, Geenie’s face proud, Camille’s full of the innocence I hoped she would always have, would never leave her.
“She tripped,” said Geenie.
“Are you okay, Manisha?” said Luisa. She rose from her lawn chair but didn’t approach my daughter. Manisha lifted her wet face. There was grass stuck in her hair. For a moment I could not bear to look at her face, full of humiliated anger. She looked too much like me.
“Manisha?” I said.
She would not cry. She came to her hands and knees, then picked herself up gingerly, and, as though her legs were untrustworthy, treaded carefully over the wet lawn. When she had reached the sidewalk, she began to run.
“Manisha!” I called. She didn’t turn around. I watched the black soles of my daughter’s feet slapping the pavement.