Read by Keleigh Wolf
We both loved to eat there, at The Beijing. It was close to the house where my dad grew up, and where my grandmother still lived, the six months of the year she was not in India. When my dad realised it was only the two of us home that night, he packed me up in the car. The décor of the restaurant hadn’t changed since I was a child, or I hadn’t noticed. The same Lazy-Susans spinning, the same black chairs padded with dull red suede. I was using chopsticks to catch at imaginary food when our dishes and my usual arrived, the chili chicken with peanuts. I steadily piled it onto my plate. I was nearly eighteen, and chatted away about starting university. How my brother would follow soon after, the two of us being so close in age. When I looked up, I saw the tears in my father’s eyes.
When I was ten, I tripped on my grandmother’s fireplace grate, rusted and heavy. Her sari draped over her La-Z-Boy as she told me off, gold bangles swinging over her plump wrists and the mangalsutra on her chest. I wouldn’t stop crying. She complained to anyone who would listen that I was too soft. Told them I must have inherited this from my mother’s side of the family. To be fair, at this point neither of us knew my big toe was actually broken.
Flustered by my father’s tears, I put my chopsticks down on the white linen.
“I just never thought,” my dad said, his voice breaking, “that I would be so lucky to have children and a wife, a family…”
“It’s ok. I know we’re going to leave, but really, Kasper and I aren’t going anywhere. You don’t have to worry.”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “I never thought this would happen.”
I remember visiting my grandfather’s sister and her husband, when I was fourteen or so. Their son, my dad told me later, had studied medicine, but then had a schizophrenic breakdown and started to sit in the streets, trying to persuade people to see and hear things that weren’t there. Their daughter had moved far away. I remember refusing biscuits and juice, the weary quiet of their voices drifting against the fuzzy bright of the TV.
Over coffee one day, a friend told me she had broken up with her boyfriend. It’s my fault, she said. I couldn’t talk to him about it. He would watch me eat. Once, we’d gone clubbing together, and she’d worn a dress with no back. There was her protruding spine, a tapering of rounded bone and hollows. When she told me about her depression, I acted. I consoled her as if I could only guess at the hopelessness she felt. I walked her back to the law school and thanked her for telling me. It can’t be easy to talk about, I said. It’s nothing, she said, waving it away with her skinny wrists.
“What do you mean, Dad, that you never thought you would have children?”
“When I was your age,” he said, pushing a piece of tofu with his fork, “I had a massive breakdown. They had to institutionalize me for months.”
The smell of chili rising in my nostrils from the steam of our plates.
The first time I went to therapy I cried forty-five of the sixty minutes. The therapist, who told me she used to be a nurse, asked me to stop crying, because she couldn’t help me if I didn’t explain anything. After she passed me the tissues, she said it must be so hard to live like this. She said medication, what would help is medication. I never went back.
My grandmother resents her children, who covered the living room wall with their degrees and graduation photos, and left. My grandfather’s graduation photo sits on the wall too, discolored and greenish. He studied engineering, and was the first Indian to graduate with a degree in New Zealand. The largest photo, however, hangs in my grandmother’s bedroom. It’s blurred, but you can still make out the black-and-white face of their second-eldest daughter. The girl who would’ve been my aunt, had she not been run over on Adelaide Road, aged nine.
“It happened again when you were very young,” my dad said.
His eyes searched my face, but I couldn’t reassure him. Bile clutched at my throat, and tears burned in my eyes like stars.
“Were you diagnosed with something?”
“You kept this from me? Years I’ve been having problems and you never said anything?”
Once, the landscapes of China had soared out of the walls at The Beijing, but now the blues of their skies had faded to grey. As I cried, there was no public any more.
The number of times I covered for my brother, opened all the windows, felt the cool of night breezes and sprayed to get rid of the smell. It started when he was sixteen. I’d put Kasper in his room, red-eyed, while he laughed, again and again, told me one day we should climb on the roof, smoke together. Each time, it got harder to remind myself that Kasper wasn’t me, that his addiction wasn’t mine.
Studies suggest the recurrence risk for bipolar disorder in first-degree relatives is approximately 9%; nearly ten times that of the general population. Nearly 60% of those diagnosed with bipolar have a history of lifetime substance abuse.
It was our big trip – ten days, just us girls in Brisbane to celebrate the end of high school. After six days I felt they were thinking all sorts of thoughts they weren’t thinking. They were just pretending to like me, they were talking about me, they could see who I really was. I couldn’t be there. I ran into the dark tropical rain, jacketless. I heard sirens going and going, and when I returned, I was told a woman had been hit by a car running across the road, just adjacent to the hotel. The water a very thing of my bones, we all stood in the bathroom and they shouted at me, because they had been scared.
“Dad, this whole time, you made me feel like it was my fault. That all I needed to do was push through it and I’d be fine.”
“You’re nothing like what I was,” he replied.
“But I needed to know. And Kasper, we needed you. Why didn’t you tell us? How could you not think?”
I knocked the plate over when I got up; chopped peanuts, vegetables, chicken, floating in red oil with scrunched-up chili, sliding. I ran out the door.
The second therapist I saw had an office overlooking the Wellington wharf – it wasn’t built on solid ground, but land that had been reclaimed from the sea. As a result we felt every aftershock as they rolled in those six sessions. It’s normal to be nervous about another earthquake, she would say, I’m nervous, she told me. I liked her: more compromising, softer, swells of curly brown hair flickering reddish in the sunlight, strands of grey at her parting. But I still couldn’t help lying to her.
"Can you help me?" Kasper had asked, "with my beard? I can’t get it to look the same on both sides."
I took the razor and motioned him to the window, where the light could fall more evenly on his face. I knew why. His hands, at this time, never stopped shaking, from morning to night. I never let these truths of mine fall into the world and stand, because to him they would stand as attackers; that even having navigated the physical contours of my brother’s chin, I am scared that the void that exists between any two people can only grow.
My dad told me my grandfather never got over the death of his daughter. She died and he stopped going to work. He would sit in his underwear in the study, surrounded by shelves of his books on mathematics and physics. My grandmother was left to survive everything – to bring up seven children, to work long hours at cleaning jobs, to continue living. For this, she will never forgive anyone. She’ll always forget my birthday and complain that I never come to see her; the dishes I wash are still dirty; the walnuts I crack open for her are no good.
I had walked from Newtown to Cobham Drive before my uncle found me. My dad had called him, said I’d run off from The Beijing. He took me home, and in his car I sat quietly, because I was done unraveling.
My second year of university, sitting on a bus, when a nurse walked on with her four charges. I noticed it immediately, as if the push to move swelled in the minds of these men until it had to be released. A shaking hand, tapping feet, restless legs, the quivering of an arm away and towards its body, the cyclical juddering of the head from one side to another. Sounds that felt strange to attribute to a human. I wondered what they felt behind their contorted but blank faces. I kept thinking how people would regard me differently if they could see it.
A languid Greek boy used to sit at the back of my modern fiction class at university. He’d cross his arms and legs everywhere, as if all the space in the world could be his. We talked about characters whose lives were eclipsed by solitude, and he said it was possible to embrace depression as part of who you are. I tried my hardest not to look at him.
Whenever I had to do something I really didn’t want to do, my dad would tell me that I was old enough and ugly enough to do it. I always felt how much he wanted me to thrive. I came home from The Beijing, aching, into my mother’s arms. I don’t know what medications my dad was given, or even in which hospital he was institutionalized. But I knew even that night, that this had been his best. That we came from the same well of pain, and he had done his best.
(c) Ataya Kanji, 2017
Ataya Kanji is a New Zealander enjoying the London life: history; culture; shows; pubs. Feels a bit like a songwriter not talented enough for the guitar, writing somewhere in the ballpark of the personal essay/memoir/creative non-fiction.
Keleigh Wolf is an American poet, performer, journalist & activist. She performs as Coco Millay with the London Poetry Brothel and she also founded The Little Versed Poetry Collective, produces and hosts the Propaganda Poetry radio series, and is Poet in Residence at Kabaret @ Karamel where she curates monthly events.