Aya (Here), Tya (There)
Aya, it is getting chilly, Ma says on the phone, raining all night. The streets are flooding, and in the morning all the mangoes have fallen from the trees. The air smells like rotten fruit and the mosquitoes are coming out. It’s 6:00 AM. Tya?
Aya, I say, 8:00 PM, icy cold, snow on the ground. My boots have lost their waterproof and the subway keeps breaking down. It’s been okay, busy. The landlord is threatening again, too many of us to one room. They say we live as animals, but you should see how they keep their pets. Like baby princes. Remind me how you spice your okra?
Tya, where will you find okra? Ma asks. When will you find the time to make it? Come home to learn from me, then get married and make it for your husband. Aya, you can buy it from the corner, make it every day. Tya, who will sell it fresh? They eat pizza and chicken, Amrikans, don’t they? They flavour it with butter and salt. Tya, they don’t like spicy.
Aya, it’s okay, I say. I’m doing fine. The restaurant doesn’t ask for papers and the landlord turns a blind eye, so long as I do as I’m told. I know there is the possibility of permanence—an American husband, an admission to graduate school. But these are as imaginary, as distant, as home. Tya, Ma and Baba told everyone when I got into an American college, framed a copy of my student visa on the wall. But they thought I would come back. That aya, I would miss tya, in time returning so they could bring me around to the neighbours and show off my polished English and foreign experience. Sometimes I do miss it. I miss Baba’s custom of playing the golden oldies on repeat in the mornings, Ma’s way of spicing the okra. I want to ask again, if I need to stir cumin and mustard seed into the hot oil, but I can’t remember the word for mustard seed. I feel ashamed, upended. Aya, the restaurant packs me leftovers and the Korean market sells cheap vegetables, I say instead. Aya, I’m eating well.
Baba has taken the phone, wants to know if I’m still writing papers, if I’ll be published soon. Keep trying, he says, you’re doing well. You’re in America now, he says, tya you have opportunities. Tya, you are making us proud. Remember to call us, he says, before giving Ma back the phone. Tya, Ma says, what else is happening?
Nothing else, I say, aya, everything is okay.
The moon is slipping behind the clouds and the 180 bus rumbles down the street. Pretty soon, I’ll be on my way to work the late shift, staying past midnight to scrape chicken bones into the garbage, to sweep away stray chickpeas and wipe greasy fingerprints from menus. Tya, Ma will be brewing morning chai on the stove, grating ginger into the milk to stave off the cooling winds. Baba will sweep mangoes from the front yard like fallen leaves. Aya, in a few weeks, the snow will turn to rain. Tya, the rain will keep coming.
The next time I call home, I will remember, the way the crickets return every dusk. My people’s word for mustard seed is rai.