THE LOOK OF A THING FROM ON TOP OF IT ALL
To Lakshmi and Dahlia, TLC was more than a band. They were silk and lipstick one moment and boxers and baggy pants the next. They were beautiful women with arms that could strangle a man if they tried. They were famous and they weren’t white. Sometimes their lyrics were difficult to understand, but the underlying message was always the same: you are going to be ok, you are going to get out, and you are going to be fierce.
Lakshmi and Dahlia liked to pretend they were TLC on tour or TLC making music videos. They’d jump around in their tent, where they lived on the Mumbai streets with a pack of orphaned girls, dancing until their muscles throbbed and their voices grew hoarse. Every afternoon they sat outside the electronics shop, hoping to catch a glimpse of T-Boz, Chilli, and Left Eye on MTV. The day the wave hit, they were down at the shore, reenacting the Waterfalls video.
Dahlia, Lakshmi, and Kavita were standing knee-deep in the ocean, and the rest of the girls watched from the beach. When they got to the part where Left Eye starts rapping, the water disappeared from underneath their feet. The briny liquid pulled back somewhere far into the horizon, and when they looked out at the sea, they saw bare sand for miles where water had been. In the distance, a wave grew. As the wave got closer, it got bigger, but instead of crashing down when it curved over their heads, it just stopped.
After the wave froze, they started to experience time differently. Lakshmi picked up a seashell and ran her fingers over its pronounced ridges. When she looked up, she found that her sister’s hair was a foot longer and her skin was wrinkled at the corners of her eyes.
“Something’s happening,” Lakshmi said.
Dahlia followed her sister’s sightline towards the sea where it met the endless horizon. Suddenly, they realized they were alone on the beach, and it was difficult to tell if the rest of the girls had left ten minutes ago or ten years ago. Either way, the wave still loomed overhead, and they didn’t know how to swim.
Dahlia started to think how nice it would be to curl up in the tent and settle into their usual nighttime activities: cooking, storytelling, and games. That’s when TLC materialized out of thin air.
“T-Boz, Chilli, Left Eye, is that you?” Lakshmi asked. TLC could only communicate in fragmented song lyrics, so they sang, “DON’T GO CHASIN’ WATERFALLS,” and even though the sisters had heard that song hundreds of times, they didn’t really know what it meant. Left Eye added, “IN HOPES OF COMIN’ TRUE, BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, THE REST IS UP TO ME AND YOU.”
Dahlia said, “I think they’re trying to tell us something."
Left Eye said, “I’VE BEEN WATCHING YOU WATCHING ME AND I KNOW YOU WANT IT,” as she dipped her fingers into black shoe polish and smeared it onto their cheekbones.
“What’s that for?” Dahlia said. But TLC just sang, “DON’T TAKE NO MESS FROM NOBODY,” and then vanished into thin air. That’s when Billie Holiday’s voice floated in from somewhere over the horizon. Billie sang Strange Fruit, and Lakshmi and Dahlia put one foot in front of the other, not sure of much, but sure they needed to keep moving towards her voice.
It was difficult to understand how much time had passed or was passing as they journeyed towards Billie and the wave. The constant rising and setting of the sun caused a strobe-light effect, which refracted through layers of seawater. Walking under the wave felt like being alone in a rave at the end of the night, but in the middle of a dessert, in a time warp. Sometimes they had to duck to avoid the drops of water that hung down, frozen in mid-air like pieces of hard candy.
As they walked, Billie’s voice danced in their brains, and they remembered the first time they were drawn to the sound, standing outside a string of fancy hotels, their arms wrapped around stacks of pirated Goosebumps books, scanning the crowd, looking for drunk American parents on vacation who might, in a stupor, think about their kids at home and feel guilty for not bringing them on vacation.
“Three for the price of one,” they shouted at a woman with eyeballs that wobbled and feet that shuffled. That’s when they heard Billie’s voice, but it sounded less like a voice and more like a color, and they felt pulled towards it like tides pulled toward the moon.
Dahlia followed her sister as she darted past the hotel staff, over a fence, and on top of a garbage dumpster. On top of the dumpster, they peered through a vent that opened into an opulent hotel lounge. Inside, couples drank cocktails and feasted on plates of steaming food while Billie Holiday pulsed through surround sound. These things looked different from the outside, but they were still beautiful.
Coriander and mint mixed with the smell of greasy American foods like French fries and hamburgers, filling their nostrils while Billie’s voice burrowed deeper inside of them. With each phrase, she acknowledged a different part of them that was hurting.
Lakshmi opened up one of the dumpsters and found two half-eaten burgers and a beautiful purple tablecloth with a small burned spot near the edge. She ripped the tablecloth into several pieces and fashioned makeshift saris around her sister and herself. As they feasted on beef, they started to see the world through Billie’s voice, and everything about it was blue.
For the next 7 days, they woke from blue dreams. They dreamt of blue streets, blue faces, blue eyeballs watching them from rows upon rows of blue cars. They dreamt of puddles of blue sewage. They dreamt of blue sickness coming up their throats and spewing out of their blue lips. They dreamt their blue teeth fell out one by one. They dreamt they wrote a letter to their father. The paper was blue, the ink was blue, their hands, gripping the pen, blue. They dreamt of a sea of blue people screaming blue screams and shedding blue tears. They dreamt that all their mother’s boyfriends were blue. They dreamt of a thousand blue plants. They dreamt of swimming in a warehouse filled with their mother’s blue jewelry. They dreamt of blue tigers with blue hair follicles and blue dander and blue pupils that watched them from the side of their blue eyeballs. They dreamt of blue Gods, Ganesh and Hanuman. They dreamt of blue rupees spewing out of their mouths and blue organs spilling out of blue gashes in their blue stomachs. They dreamt of blue giggles that slipped out when they least expected them. But mostly, they dreamt of blue waves: gushing, pulsing, inky blue, frothy blue, violent blue, vengeful blue, apologetic blue, criminal blue, blue with soul.
On the 7th night, a blue wave wrapped around them like a boa constrictor. It squeezed them around their blue waists until their blue ribs cracked and their blue lungs collapsed. It squeezed their blue organs and their blue bodies into two flat, blue playing cards that floated on top of blue waves to a blue Italian countryside where they ate blue pasta with blue sauce and grew rolls of blue fat until the wave washed them away again, so that they could travel the blue world begging everything, begging anything to be red.
As the sisters journeyed further under the frozen wave, Dahlia jumped from one clump of seaweed to the next, stomping on the bulbous orbs. She liked the way the seaweed felt under her bare feet as the air escaped and the orbs flattened.
“Stop wasting your energy stomping around,” Lakshmi said. Dahlia obeyed her sister, placing one foot quietly in front of the other for a few miles before she closed her eyes and said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m having a wonderful party in here.” And even though Lakshmi was annoyed with her sister, she closed her eyes and listened.
“You can have a party anywhere you like,” their mother used to say. “Just close your eyes and tell the world what you see. Tell your sister. Tell your friends. Tell anyone who will listen.”
Like zombies, they walked, eyes closed as Dahlia described her party. “We’ve got champagne, monkeys, and fortune tellers. There are ten swimming pools filled with champagne and the monkeys are giving massages! And while the monkeys work on your back, the fortune-tellers take a look at your future. Afterward, step into a private theater to watch the movie version of your life. The monkeys will paint your toenails while you watch.” As Dahlia started to describe the loving way the monkeys applied the polish, their foreheads smacked against the base of the wave. When they opened their eyes, they saw a magnificent curtain of solidified water with pieces of seaweed and fish dotting the blue-green façade.
“You’re here!” a man wearing flip-flops and an obnoxious grin called out. His skin, although white, looked tan and crispy, like he’d spent a lifetime baking in the sun. Out of habit, they wondered if this man was one of their mother’s boyfriends. Men of many varieties flocked to their mother’s side. Despite their differences, they had one thing in common: they never showed up empty handed. The clothes-washer pocketed their mother’s underpants and brought them back clean, wrapped in garish bows; the fisherman delivered transparent Bombay ducks every Sunday; the groundskeeper brought plants stolen from rich clients; and the electrician connected wires to the top of their shack when no one was looking.
Once, when they were still living at home, their mother had an American boyfriend who couldn’t stop smiling—a photographer who traveled to Mumbai hoping to capture the slum in a series of 8x10 frames.
Their mother was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and he followed her as she walked home from the airport recycling plant, where she worked, every day until she invited him in for tea. He stayed for a week and took photographs of the girls everywhere: running through traffic jams selling pirated books, crouched in the corner of their shack counting their wares, and playing rugby in the barren field behind the public toilets.
One afternoon while Dahlia was bathing, he grabbed a handful of mud and smeared it onto her cheek. “It’s perfect!” he said as he clicked the shutter. The next day he was gone, and their mother cried every night for a week.
The new smiling man polished a cloudy spot on the base of the wave with some spit and a handkerchief. Afterwards, he knocked on the surface, and a bright rumble followed, similar to a timpani. In the wake of the sound, he said, “You can call me Bob.”
Bob led them down the beach to a collection of objects nestled into the base of the wave: a table, some chairs, a gramophone, and a few cots partitioned off by pieces of driftwood. That night, he chipped into the base of the wave with a screwdriver and carved out several fish for dinner. As he grilled the fish on the fire, he told them stories about his surfing adventures: the time he caught the perfect party wave with his friends, the time he surfed the pipe all the way through in Hawaii, and the time he road tandem with his first love. Lakshmi and Dahlia closed their eyes and listened to Bob’s party. Afterwards, he served the fish and played Billie Holiday on the gramophone. As they ate, they watched Billie’s voice spill out into the dark sky and barren sand, as if inviting every lost soul to join them for dinner. After they ate, Bob tucked them into their cots and kissed them on the top of their heads.
None of it made any sense—the frozen wave—the benevolent stranger—the omnipotent Billie Holiday—but because living was painful, the absurd offered hope. It spoke in a familiar language, and it said, “You are going to be ok, you are going to get out, and you are going to be fierce.”
As they drifted off to sleep, the sound of Bob washing dishes reminded them of happier times when their mother was well and she’d sing them to sleep as she tidied up from an evening of partying. Their mother threw the best parties—not the kind you imagine behind closed eyelids and describe to feel better about your life, but real parties, with real themes, real people, and real laughter. At the end of each week, she brought home contraband from the airport recycling center: food containers in all different sizes, shapes, and colors. If she brought home sandwich containers from the Dutch airlines, they had a Dutch party. If she brought home bento boxes from the Japanese airline, they had a Japanese party. No matter the theme, the food was always the same: a large pot of lemon rice and roti bread on the side. Lakshmi and Dahlia’s favorite was the Hawaiian party. Along with metal trays, their mother stole several plastic leis. When she got home, she placed the colorful garlands around their necks, bowed dramatically, and said, “All hail the beautiful princess Lakshmi and the beautiful princess Dahlia.
Everyone loved Lakshmi and Dahlia’s mother. She could pack twenty women into a tiny shack and make one pot of lemon rice feed twenty more. With their mother, every moment was magical, and every sentence was a story. As she served the lemon rice, she navigated the crowd like a stewardess and told them all about the place they were about to visit. She had no idea what Japan, Italy, or Hawaii were like, but she made it up, and the women who came to her parties listened with fascination and excitement, because life in the slum was hard enough and they needed stories, because stories were the only thing getting them from one moment to the next. When she wasn’t telling stories, their aunties, as their mother called them, talked about making more money, who their daughters would marry, and how to move up in the slum.
Everything changed the night she started throwing lemon rice on the floor and screaming. At first, the aunties thought it was all part of the act du jour. Their mother could be quite theatrical. They giggled, waiting for her to finish, but she just kept going, and then ran out into the alley with the serving spoon held high over her head like a weapon, her pupils wandering, as though she saw something terrifying off in the distance. It wasn’t the first time the sisters saw that look and it wouldn’t be the last.
When their mother talked about the recycling center, she said, “It’s a beautiful place. There’s a different room for every country and we sort everything into brass sinks. At night, a man comes to polish every surface. The sinks are so clean you can lick them the next morning.”
The day they followed their mother to work, they saw hundreds of women sitting on their knees, sifting through airline trash stacked in piles from the dirt floor to the ceiling. They organized and divided the trash into smaller piles as quickly as possible. In the middle of it all, their beautiful mother sat on her knees, her hands moving swiftly in small circles, but her pupils tracking something terrible off in the distance.
The recycling center smelled like a damp cave and the white sound of machinery filled every crevice. In the corner, a man stirred a metal smelter with his eyes closed, and trash compactors crunched down in syncopated rhythms.
At the base of the wave, Lakshmi and Dahlia heard a familiar white noise as they slipped in and out of sleep. For years, the sisters shared a dream world. Their mother said this was because they had one heart between the two of them. At the base, they dreamt they fell into the metal smelter with their mother. The ore gurgled and churned around them until they woke to find Bob pushing an electric sander back and forth over two large surfboards. He said, “Say hello to your new ride, ladies.”
They imagined waves wrapping around their wrists like chains and water gushing into their mouths until they blew up to the size of two hotels. They remembered the look on their mother’s face when she said, “One day, a tsunami will come.” But then they thought of TLC standing proud in the water, and the surfboards started to look less like a threat and more like a promise.
Bob drew the shape of two boards in the sand and showed them how to paddle hard as they imagined the wave bubbling up underneath them, how to hold the rails, push up their bodies, and bring their legs underneath them in one smooth swoop. Every morning, he added more challenges to their workout: pushups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks, but he also tested their balance, making them stand on one foot with their eyes closed while they sang along to Billie Holiday. “Louder ladies! It strengthens the abdominals!” he shouted.
Their mother taught them many things, but she never taught them how to surf. She taught them how to thread a needle. How to think about the thing they loved the most as they pushed the thread through the hole. How to wash a baby balanced over their outstretched legs. How to steal things without anyone noticing. For example, one orange, a handful of rice, or five sandwich containers. How to close their eyes and pretend to be somewhere different. How to lose their minds. How to make dhal, roti, and lemon rice. How to massage jasmine oil into their skin. How to pack twenty people into a tiny shack.
She taught them that they were stronger than they thought, but that they could crack at any moment. She taught them that everyone was crazy. Everyone was sick. She taught them how to tell a story. She taught them that a person could go crazy and still be themselves. She taught them that a mother is forever in thought, but not in practicality. She taught them about anger, frustration, sorrow, and fear. She taught them whimsy, imagination, and love. She taught them how to make spicy bean curry. She taught them that it is possible to no longer like the person who taught you the most.
At the base of the wave, they learned to look at their memories from above. Before, memories clung to them like cobwebs, but at the base, they felt more like movies.
One afternoon, they watched clips of their mother from above while they practiced their pop-ups, and instead of anger and frustration, they felt peace envelope them like a warm bath. Shortly after, they heard a rumble off in the distance. Bob placed his ear against the frozen curtain and said, “It’s time.” Then, he started running, and Lakshmi and Dahlia followed behind, carrying their surfboards under their arms. At the far side of the base, Bob led them up a stairwell that opened onto the top of the wave.
“No time for goodbyes. Paddle out,” Bob shouted as the water liquefied and the wave came rushing in. They felt the swell underneath their bodies, and they heard Billie’s voice rattling in their skulls. Water pooled around them and the pain started seeping back in: the inequality of it all, the lack of mothering, the hunger, the sorrow, the loneliness, the poverty, and the fear. They understood they were going to die, but deep within them, they felt a desire to live. They grabbed the rails of their surfboards and pressed up into two perfect planks, pulling their legs into surfer stance with sprite-like nimbleness. Billie’s voice faded, the tsunami pulsed underneath them, and finally, they understood the beauty of living.
N. Michelle AuBuchon holds an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn. Her stories and essays have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in No Tokens, The Iowa Review, The Collagist, Hobart, BuzzFeed, New Orleans Review, The Weekly Rumpus, Caketrain, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Washington Square, and Gawker. She was a finalist for the 2015 Indiana Review 1/2 K Prize and the 2014 Iowa Review Award in Fiction. She is currently working on a novel told in the form of a memoir.