Questions for My White Therapist

Two poems about coming of age by Vasantha Sambamurti

Questions for My White Therapist

Questions for My White Therapist

Yes, I’m sure you were wild as a teenager, Linda, 
much more than my parents, 
Indians, all about their tradition.
                                    Tell me about your private school, Linda. 

Did you have a uniform? 
Plaid dress, white shirt, knee-high socks?
Did you wear a black skirt? 

Did the bad girls duck under the stairwell to hitch their skirts up higher?
Did they get busted or were they too rich? Did you do this?

You tell me how you loved smoking cigarettes in the car with your friends. Were they bad girls too? Were they all white with rhyming names? 

Did you have an ethnic friend?

You listen to me lament about being the ethnic friend, tell me you knew some Indian girls in school. But you never thought they had much to lament. Their skin, so tan. Hair so long and black. You admit: you were jealous. 

Did you at least spare them a cigarette? I doubt it, since you’re not doing much in the way of sparing me.

(I count the time. My co-pay ticks).  

Did you invite the Indian girls on drives out? Scratch that: Did you and your friends all drive around together with the car-top down, the new Madonna loud? 

Did you hitch your skirts up to the seatbelt and flick out your cigarette butts? Did you squeal when they burst against the windows of passing cars, lost to highway wind? 

I admit: I get a strange pleasure hearing you describe your teen years as something you miss, while I scrub away the minutes remaining in mine. 

(You remind me to breathe. You tell me some people like smoking because it makes them realize they’re breathing.) 

I breathe. I make a joke so you stop looking at me like the kind of stray dog you’d slow your car for, consider taking to the shelter. (But, ultimately, you wouldn’t. You’d forget it, drive on, congratulating yourself on the original impulse.) 

What a blast you must’ve had Linda. I smile, take a sip of my water. It sounds like a John Hughes movie. 

Ah, yes, you laugh, smiling. We were so free then. 

                                    But, tell me, Linda. Were you, really? 

Was the ease really so freeing? Or did the ease of getting anything you wanted stir a sick yearning to feel something?

I imagine drunken nights with your friends, burning cigarette circles into each other’s skin. I imagine you laughing crazy because you didn’t know whether to feel bad. 

I imagine you thinking about it years later, how broken those people must’ve been, despite everything they didn’t need but had. 

Did you have fun when you did that? Did you like each other hurting? Is pain a way to share something with people that you want to like but can’t?  

Were these the best times you had? I wonder if your friends are in therapy now. Do they see, feel seen, by someone like you? 

Are you still friends? Is there anything you regret? 

                                    Tell me what it was like, Linda. 

I want to imagine.

Little Critters

Amma stills me on a black stool, the seat of barbershop wonder. 
No wonder. She draws out the lice comb, clucks her tongue.
She says it’s because me and my best friend Deedee bump heads at school too much. 

Little critters, the same down to the texture of our hair;
stern, tire-black, thick like rubber. We squish 
together, straining the candied library carpet through our fingers, 
a book closed before us. 

Amma yanks and shushes my hair like an infant. I scream, 
Amma	 	thallamudi izhakathai. 	

Valikirradhu. வலிக்கிறது. It hurts

I imagine Deedee’s amma also pulling a mean comb through her hair after we play,
After we trumpet a raspberry at her mean brother who  
twists our fingers between swing-chains, claiming it helps us rise. 

We scream, and Deedee spits furious 
Spanish at him. I furrow my brow and pretend to feel profound offense when 
he spits back, yearning to understand 
what it means to feel held in their mess. 

The lice comb sings its own doomed verse: shrk shrk shrk; 
the sure music of snakes in grass. Shrk shrk. Appa 
comes home and ruffles my hair. 
Little critters, he says, pointing as one runs 
across my shoulder. 
Not enough hair for that, he says, kneeling
down to show the shiny bald top 
of his penny-bronze head.  

I drum my hand on his bald head as the comb’s slender teeth run through me, 
like fear or pee, catching against the dull husk of lice, the thick spidered knots. 

I remember Ms. Debbie reading us a scary story, 
Deedee and me not listening, 
about a white-fingered witch who stalks through villages to steal children, cackling 
hee hee. But we are the ones witch-cackling 
hee hee, picking at candy crumbs with our 
small brown fingers, 
laughing so close to one another we could smell our Reese’s Pieces breath. 

Deedee and me are so close
in shade people ask if we’re sisters, 
if we’re from here, 
if we speak English. 
I wish we were sisters, 
I wish Deedee were here with 
Amma, Appa and me: 
hunched in front of the mirror on a hunt for eggs. 

Amma picks one out: translucent, pearly. 
She fixes it between her firmest finger nails, 
mortar & pestle, 
and presses. 

It cracks like a nut. 
There, she says. 
That’s how you know the lice were there, 
and now they’re dead.

I imagine whole families curled inside, 
mother and father yolks, unlonely seed siblings.
I wonder if they feel the nail and wept, 
or just gave out a little creak while dying. 

Did Deedee imagine these things?
Amma taps out the comb on the sink. Tick tick. 
A small rain of lice. She turns on the tub faucet for my final rinse. 

Bringing the water my breeding bush of hair, I cry 
for Deedee, for our wonder root-deep, 
mourning what leaves, the hair parting. 

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