The Worlds behind the Windows

Robson Ranch. A manicured highly upscale suburban community in the desert valley of Phoenix, Arizona. Zig zagging man-made waterfalls and emerald green lawns hallmark homes that are pieces of art. But its streets are mostly deserted, except for the early hours when men and women in expensive workout wear ran and biked through them. After that, only landscaping and housing cleaning service vans could be seen around. Manas looked out his window daily, wondering what the places where the vans came from were like.

 

Manas stayed in 691 W Ashley in the Ranch: a home no less beautiful than its Conde Nast worthy surroundings. The fifteen-year-old son of Dr. and Drs. Gupta who have three practices and two children.  Manasi, the elder, and Manas the younger. The Guptas had come to the US for school and had stayed back. They had no reason not to, for the life they had made for themselves here was no less than a fairy tale…

Manas!!!

Manas startled out of his story in which he was observing himself.

‘What?’

‘Your meal ready. Please come out to the dining area.’

He obliged, following Melissa out into the halls. His story could wait – it wouldn’t go anywhere. Thought castles – he called them. He had many of them built and left all around the house in various stages of build. They all waited for him. They knew he would be back to start again from where he had left them.

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He is a weird child. Melissa had heard them all say.

Manas was nothing like his sister. Nothing like he should be. A child of the highly accomplished and educated Guptas should either be a bright, brilliant, nerdy techie or a desperado college heartthrob – Manas was neither. But Melissa didn’t think Manas was weird. Manas was a bit like her. Displaced, but not striving to conform. Building his own worlds instead – even if only in thoughts. Only legal since a year in the States, Melissa understood ‘misfit’. To those who have never felt like they shouldn’t exist, it wasn’t something that could be explained.

Melissa watched Manas gobble up his supper. He always hurried through his meals – as if he needed to be back to some task of momentous importance. And then, once done, he went back to the windows.

Manas was being homeschooled. Mr. and Mrs. Gupta had a private tutor coming in for most of the days to educate him. The best solution they had arrived at after four private and two charter schools had failed to assimilate Manas. His grades had been terrible everywhere, but more importantly, they had feared that he was being bullied terribly. A new school – the same story. So they had had to end the cycle.

 

Melissa didn’t talk much to the Guptas. She didn’t need to. Her instructions were clear and her pay and benefits were managed through the agency. Her job didn’t require much discussion. She took care of the cooking, served the meals, and facilitated the happening of everything else. Seven days a week, ten hours every day. Longer if needed. That is why she had gotten this job despite her limited years of experience and nonexistent referrals. The Guptas had absolutely wanted one person all through and there were very few who were willing to sign up for that. Most in the agency worked five days a week, eight-hour max each day. Melissa didn’t mind these hours. She welcomed them. She had nowhere worth going back to. Here there was a service handling each of the other tasks so her work wasn’t strenuous at all. Landscapers came daily, the cleaners once a week, pest control people came once a month, and the pool man every other week. Melissa just needed to let them in and out, check around and after, and take care of Manas. His meals – his tutor – his clothes and stuff – his being around his elder sister when she was home from college – his not being around during the house parties.

She watched him. Back at the window, back in his world. It was time for everyone to be back home. Melissa laid dinner out and checked the rooms one final time.

 

 

The Guadalupe area wasn’t known for safety. It was known for petty drug peddling, police sirens, discount grocery shops, and affordable housings. Melissa had chosen the studio by the food city through the process of elimination. Least worse of the worst. Habitable for a single woman. The AC worked – a must for the desert – and the entrance laid in full public view. The windows were new and locked and the kitchen was doable.

‘Hey chica!’

Melissa hurried past David like she did every day holding her car key between her fisted fingers. Self-defense tricks from the trade she had left behind. Pimps would follow her all the time, as would drunkards and dealers. David was neither. He was just someone Melissa had made the mistake of dating for a few months. But some mistakes come with high pay.

‘You wh#@$! You are too good now?’ David started following her as he did on the days on which he could stand on his feet. The distance from David’s porch to her front door was not too short, so on most days Melissa made it inside well before David caught up to her. Which was all that was needed, for once the door slammed closed, David could only bang on the closed-door swearing and cussing before retreating to his quarters deflated. On good days, Melissa’s upstairs neighbors would be home. They would cuss back – threatening to call the cops and throw ice water on him.

But today wasn’t a good day. Today, Melissa tripped.

‘You bi%$*!’ Melissa could feel his breath before she felt his grip on her hair. She thrust the key upwards with full force as he pulled her up.

 

 

His mother walked into the room just as he was about to apply her new lipstick. She was startled. He was startled. “What are you doing with my lipstick? He handed it back to her. ” I am playing Draupadi – in our college production… rehearsals start this evening.”

‘You don’t have a college production Manas!!! What the hell are you talking about?’ Mrs. Gupta was no stranger to her son’s eccentric habits – she had long accepted their worst fears to be true – but she didn’t want to have to doubt his cognitive sanity.

Manas stared blankly at her for some time before responding. The joy on his face that was there a moment ago – the nonchalance that their son had only recently started sporting when caught in his awkwardness – faded. Mrs. Gupta remembered the early days. Her husband’s anger. Her fear. The hours and hours of family counseling. Practiced acceptance. She couldn’t let all that be undone.

‘It’s OK.’ She forced a smile. ‘You look nice.’ She looked at her son again trying to put together the puzzle quick – mental pictures – castles of imagination – the doctor had given them toolsets to interact. ‘How do you know about Draupadi?’

‘Everyone knows about Draupadi Ma,’ Manas answered softly and paused, ‘I researched the Mahabharata online.’

‘Ok…’ Mrs. Gupta wanted him to continue. The trick was non-judgmental listening.

‘Manasi is in a college play. They are doing an adaptation of the Mahabharata. So I looked it up.’

Manas wasn’t close to his sister. Mrs. Gupta couldn’t blame Manasi for that. Like them, she too had had to learn to accept her brother.

‘Really?’ Mrs. Gupta asked. ‘When did she tell you?’

 

‘She didn’t. Melissa did. Melissa helped her pack an outfit for the play from your sarees last weekend.’ Mrs. Gupta wasn’t surprised. That was Melissa’s job. To attend to her children’s needs when she couldn’t and Melissa did chat with Manasi a lot. More than she ever did her. Their daughter had just visited for spring break and Melissa had mentioned something indeed regarding packing a few of her sarees. But Melissa shouldn’t have talked to Manas! Mrs. Gupta felt a slight irritation moving up and down her throat as she maintained her smile. Manas didn’t need unnecessary unsupervised conversations.

‘OK. You continue getting ready for Manasi’s…I mean your play…’ Mrs. Gupta corrected herself. Manas’s imagination didn’t need to be challenged – he needed to be gently guided out – she repeated the instructions in her head walking out of her son’s room.

 

‘It’s a rendition of the Mahabharata Ma. Just a section – not the whole epic off-course.’ Manasi was matter of fact about it. Their daughter was exactly what they had wanted their children to be. Multi-talented – brilliant – beautiful. Pre-med at Penn State and in gymnastics, performance art, and dance.

‘Why did you need to discuss,’ Mrs. Gupta paused to think for she didn’t want to say it the wrong way, ‘the details with Melissa though?’

‘Oh come on, Ma. What do you mean?! We were super excited. Draupadi is the most important part and I have bagged it! I needed her help to look right. And Melissa was super psyched too – you know – I could see it. I showed her the google images and she helped me pick and try out the sarees…oh that reminds me, I borrowed three – I am sure you won’t notice – but I think one of them might be the Kanjivaram from Sarbari aunty you are a bit weird and touchy about…’

‘Was Manas there when you guys were doing this?’ Mrs. Gupta interrupted. The Kanjivaram was the least of her worries.

‘Nope. I don’t think so. Why?’

 

 

Melissa listened silently. All she could think of was her shades, hoping that Mrs. Gupta would not question them. She needed them to hide her right eye. But Mrs. Gupta was preoccupied today. She was enquiring about Manas, not Melissa’s being late and wearing goggles indoor.

‘Yes.’ Melissa said once Mrs. Gupta finished. She had indeed explained to Manas what was going on. But she hadn’t been the one to bring it up to him. Manas had watched them try out sarees and make-up when Melissa was helping Manasi. But Melissa didn’t correct Mrs. Gupta. It didn’t matter.

‘Don’t do it again please,’ Mrs. Gupta debated what more to add for a minute, ‘there are things about Manas you simply won’t understand. I am not the type to stop workers from interacting with my children, but we have instructed you about Manas in detail right? You will need to follow directions with him. To the T!’

‘Yes.’ Melissa nodded. Mrs. Gupta couldn’t tell if she needed to drill it home further. Why was Melissa wearing dark glasses indoors? She suddenly wondered. Did she always wear them? She couldn’t remember. Maybe she did. These people have cheap and weird tastes sometimes – like fake Gucci bags and leopard prints – not for her to judge. ‘OK. I am glad you understand,’ she decided to leave the matter. She was getting late and there was nothing more to say. For now.

 

 

Manas saw his mother’s car pull out. Nothing that could have happened had happened last night. Ma didn’t mention anything to Papa. Manas knew she had been perturbed. She had tried to hide – but he could tell. They didn’t know about his works. His worlds. They couldn’t. Manas had seen the disappointments, the concerns, and the struggles. The should have been-s hitting against what was. Their love fighting for his being as their fears screamed murder.  He knew they were trying. He didn’t want to make it harder for them.

But his worlds were all he had.

Today was when they had planned the rehearsal would be- his eyes lit up remembering.

‘Melissa!’ He called out.

 

 

Dr. Gupta didn’t appreciate having to cancel his mornings but he nevertheless did. They had left home separately like other days but had met up directly at Dr. Rockwell’s office.

Manas is not crazy.

Dr. Rockwell had assured her last night.

He was quite possibly born the wrong gender – his effeminate ways and misidentification went beyond what could be discounted as mere exploration. There was a gender orientation conversation which they would have to start soon – Dr. Rockwell had reminded them – but he wasn’t crazy.

Drs. Gupta had felt frustrated. Manas’s fascinations were neither surprising nor novel anymore to them. Yes, she did still pray in ardent desperation during pujas and rituals, but nothing more than that. What she was worried about now was him shifting in and out of reality. The episodes of living in his imagination were becoming more and more pronounced ever since he had been put out of school. Was spending all day at home really the only way? What other choice did they have? The bullying, the episodes…they could have lost him otherwise…

Drs. Gupta had asked for a next day appointment.

‘Let’s go in.’ Dr. Gupta guided his wife. He could see the thoughts in her eyes through her jet black glasses.

 

 

Manas shivered in the corner, opening and closing his fist. He had never seen his papa so angry. Sobs came up to his throat and kept going down. He had never really wept.

‘Get out now!!’ He heard Ma repeating to Melissa. But it was Papa’s ice-cold eyes that bothered him more.

Melissa hadn’t said a word so far. Ma and Papa had come back home in the middle of the day and found them in the closet. Melissa was helping Manas drape the saree on – watching how-to youtube videos together – they had been at that for quite some time. Manas had makeup on too. Melissa had applied it. She was good at it. Neither had heard Ma and Papa come in.

‘Go! Your dues will be cleared.’ Ma repeated. But Melissa didn’t move. As if she was waiting for something. She didn’t look afraid.

Melissa didn’t fear Dr. or Drs. Gupta’s wrath. Neither was she waiting out of concern of them reporting back to the agency. She was waiting for  Manas. She needed to explain to them what he was trying to do – about his worlds – his need to make them real. Melissa didn’t know if Manas was a fag like the whispers suggested, a transgender like his sister thought, or whatever else he could be. But she knew that he had his worlds – he needed to act them out – he needed to make them real – even if for moments. There was nothing wrong with that…they needed to understand…

‘What the hell are you waiting for?’

Dr. Gupta was speaking at last. Melissa knew this tone – she had heard it before from men and she knew what follows. But she was stunned to hear it come out of Dr. Gupta. And then, she felt his grasp on her arm – fingers digging into her flesh. Dr. Gupta yanked at her with more force than even he knew he was capable of!

Mrs. Gupta exclaimed. Melissa struggled for words as the force caused her to tumble forward, hitting the doorway. Melissa felt the impact and gasped in pain. Dr. Gupta didn’t care. And then, suddenly from somewhere, Manas jumped in. With full force he freed her of his father’s grasp, pushing the later hard.

‘Let her go!’

‘Shut up you weirdo.’

‘Let her go papa.’

‘Oh really!’ Dr. Gupta frothed as he tried to regain his balance. ‘Or else what?! You will show me how to be a man? You queer!’

Mrs. Gupta stood frozen in shock as she heard her husband speak. ‘Arun please…’ She managed to say at last.

‘What Sobha?’ He turned to her. ‘Look at our son! Now he wants to be a man it seems. Standing here draped in a saree challenging his father for a half-literate maid.’ He turned back to Manas standing between him and Melissa and pushed him hard. ‘Go back to being a faggot you moron. Leave being a man to the real men!’

The last thing Melissa saw before Dr. Gupta dragged her out was Manas trying to get up as Drs. Gupta fell to her knees trembling.

 

 

Robson Ranch looked more beautiful in spring bloom. The sun shined beautifully on the waterway right in front of 691 Ashley lending a brighter shine to the brilliant bougainvillea around. A few school children trotted happily past. Yellow school buses pulled up for them to board.

Melissa waited, watching from behind her goggles the dark windows of the house. She would wait for as long as needed. She needed to meet Manas. He needed to know. What was said to him was wrong. Whatever it is they thought he was didn’t matter. All men she had known had hurt her – showing disregard or control – except for this boy. So Melissa Gongalez needed fifteen year old Manas Gupta to know that he was a real man. The only real man she had ever met.

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About the Author

Tanushree Ghosh

Tanushree Ghosh (Ph. D., Chemistry, Cornell, NY), is Director at Intel Corp., a social activist, and an author. She is a contributor (past and present) to several popular e-zines incl. The Huffington Post US ( read more...

58 Posts | 169,980 Views

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