Inside the Ribcage

People tell me I look just like my mother.

It took me years to see it. The structure of our cheeks, the shape of our smiles. A few weeks ago when my mother drove me home from the airport I looked down at my hands and was startled to see hers. I hadn’t realized I’d known them so well — the wrinkles on the joints of her fingers, the patterns of crevices at the base of her knuckles, the veins that bulged out of her skin when she made a fist.

I don’t know how to explain my mother.

My childhood memories of her are shaped by numbers: every day we sat on the swing in the backyard, my older brothers’ textbooks between us. I fancied myself a prodigy. I sat proudly in the front row of college classes in calculus, C++, chemistry. Now when I look back I remember my mother driving me from school to the community college an hour away three days a week. I remember she brought me lunch to eat in the car. I remember that when I sat for exams it was her numbers that spilled out of my pencil, her numbers she’d seared into my skin from hours of practice tests, homework questions, textbook examples. Her numbers that had flattened me into my seat and slapped the tears off of my cheeks.

Only it wasn’t her numbers. It was her father’s. When I go to India every few years I see them still, on the swing of my grandparents’ porch, overlooking the dusty street air and the stray dogs that wander the backroads. My mother, pale and fragile in her youth, feet curled underneath her with a book of trigonometry in her lap. Her father, my Nana, sitting upright beneath the creaking chains, gnarled skin sallowing into itself.

When I was thirteen, Nana cupped my face in his hands, held my cheeks up against my mother’s. He was looking at me; I was looking at him, and at Nani on the couch, and at my mother’s face radiant above mine. My mother is beautiful. I wonder what combination of Nani and Nana’s genes led to this: Nani, with her wizened body stooped into the ground over her walking stick, Nana, with his round face, bulbous nose, peeling brown skin. Maybe it comes from neither of them. Maybe it’s the besan she grinds into her body every day, the henna and coconut oil in which she steeps her hair overnight. Maybe it’s the manicures and the kajal and the hair irons, all coalescing into the image of a woman who has found the fountain of youth and has bathed herself luxuriant.

My mother had wanted to be a doctor.

That was before Nana tore open her chest and fashioned her a new spine made of functions and integrals and logarithms. Now when I touch my ribs through my chest I do not know how much of my bones is my own and how much is what my mother has welded into me.

I don’t know how to explain my mother.

I was twelve when she began the inevitable descent from infallibility. The day the world splintered into pieces around us, I remember she sobbed, holding herself together in the corner of the hospital room. It’s not your fault, I said. My mother stopped crying once the doctors stitched me shut.

She failed me, is what I tell my friends four years later, when people still stop to stare at my scars. My friends are quick to agree. What kind of mother could erase two years with a wave of her hand, could look her daughter in the eye and laugh about mental illnesses, because why don’t those girls who starve themselves just eat? and oh, maybe I have social anxiety too!

Now I think that maybe it was easier that way. I remember how my mother sobbed in the corner of my hospital room. I remember she told me maybe this was karma for having such an easy childhood. Like the needles that dove in and out of my wrist had torn open her skin.

People tell me I look just like my mother. I wonder how it must feel: to stand there powerless and watch your image tear itself apart.

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