It was raining the first time I left my body.
Mom left the house to be one with the storm. Her shirt was still stained with hot tea when she left, and the floor behind me was still covered in broken glass pieces.
Mom had been far away from here again, yelling about Missed Opportunities and Sacrifices She Makes. I was far away too, yelling about Let Me Live My Life and You Ruin Everything.
We have so much in common. But Mom’s far away is in the past and mine is in the future. It makes all the difference.
Mom stood outside and let the rain dilute the tea soaking her shirt, like she taught me how to dilute acrylic colours with water from the bathroom tap when I was five.
She’s turning it into art.
Mom finds art everywhere — in the leaves caught in her windshield wiper, in the black strokes of her quill, in the microbiological life living on the food in our fridge.
I was contemplating making some of my own art when it happened — I felt myself drift away from my body. I watched myself from above, a floating mist.
My body bent down to look at the tiny glass pieces on the floor. The glass had been thrown with such force that the pieces looked like the glitter mom and I used to decorate my school projects with. I picked up the glass and pressed it into my wrist.
I watched from above — enraptured, scared, helpless.
Ruby drops appeared and then spread along my wrist in tiny rivulets, flowing past pieces of glass like streams diverging around river islands. My head cocked to one side, watching the sunlight flash in the glass.
I knew that expression. It’s the look mom gets when she finds art in the mundane.
Blood and glass. Paint and glitter.
I don’t remember much of the rest of that day except I couldn’t re-enter my body till late at night when I was safe in bed. My being floated downward and seeped into my body. I lifted my wrist to examine my distracted clean up. It looked less like art and more like painful scars now.
Outside my bedroom door, glass crunched underfoot. I held my breath as Mom paced outside the door, and released it when I heard her footsteps retreat and her bedroom door close.
It was a sunny day the next time it happened. Mom was chucking paint at a canvas in lieu of chucking plates at the wall. Her paint jars had cracks in the bottom and the brush hairs stuck out in all directions like a fan. Paint hit the canvas in an oddly rhythmic sequence.
Mom had just thrown my college pamphlets in the bin. “You want to leave me here. You’ll go abroad and forget your mother.” The irony was that the more she accused me of trying to abandon her, the more I wanted to.
Mom had waited in line to buy plane tickets to a far land once. “A land full of opportunities. But mummy didn’t have enough money to give the Airport-Man, so they sent me back. But I’m not sad at all, because I get to stay here with you.”
That was six years ago. I had smiled and hugged her then. And now she had thrown Financial Aid for International Students in the bin.
I left the house, forcing the wire mesh door to clatter against the frame as I did. I skipped over the multi-coloured fence Mom and I had painted after she got a new job in seventh grade. We joked that if we started an art project each time she had to look for a new job, we’d be living in an art gallery. The paint was fading now, the fence crumbling.
I was drifting down West Road when it happened again. I tried feebly to cling to my body but was swept up. I feared the wind would blow me away, but I seemed to be tethered to my body.
I walked straight into a solid metal pole. I stumbled backward and put my hands up to my face. I walked into the next one too.
On the way home I thought of explanations for the purple blossoming across my face for a whole minute before I caught myself.
I heard steady brush strokes from outside the front door. I asked Mom about dinner. Her eyes reflected the splotches on the canvas. I ate cereal with milk. I left a bowl out and wasn’t surprised to see two spiders sitting at its dry bottom the next morning.
Mom and I were never good at grocery shopping. We used to turn it into a game — find the items on the list and get to the counter first. I made the lists and Mom drove the car there. Then we would run down slippery aisles and past crowded shelves. Sometimes I would lose Mom in the store. I would go to the help desk and make an announcement, and Mom would show up twenty minutes later, looking sheepish and holding up an avocado cube cutter, or a toothbrush holder that was made entirely out of living moss.
I remember the time I brought Alia over. We were supposed to be doing physics homework. Alia said our house smelled like Hydrogen Sulphide, hadn’t we better clean out the fridge? The pool of lilac in the sink is really stagnant water which could breed mosquitos, shouldn’t we fumigate the house before we get dengue? Alia begged me to at least unclog the sink. Mom didn’t say a thing when she saw the lilac dregs. Alia wasn’t allowed to come over again.
As time passed it started happening more and more. I carved designs into my skin with a thumb tack. I showered with scalding hot water till I was a light coral mermaid. I tried to embed seashells in the sand of my thighs. I was always floating when it happened — amazed, horrified, detached.
I was afraid I’d wake up one day and see Mom’s face in the mirror.
I tried to talk to Alia about it. “I’m sorry, but your mom’s not really there all the time, is she? She glamourizes things too much, but you can’t let it influence you.” When I didn’t look away from the pale pink lines criss-crossing my wrist, she said, “Come stay with me for a few days. Tell your mom we’re having a sleepover.”
Alia’s mom opened the door the second I rang the bell, as if she had been waiting just for me, and from the way she beamed when she saw me, she might have been. She wore frameless glasses and round-toed heels.
I felt a tug in my gut as I remembered my mom’s attempts to pick me up on time. Our ninth grade class had come back from an outstation trip at one in the morning. As soon as the first bus pulled up to the school yard, parents crowded around us like bees to a hive. Within seconds teenagers and their parents had flowed out of all the exits of the field like water running off a smooth surface.
I was alarmed by how quickly everyone cleared out, until it was just me and two sour-faced chaperones who couldn’t wait to get into their warm beds. Every inch of my skin was being pricked, as if the surrounding air molecules were jeering at and attacking me. I heard the chaperones muttering behind me, not bothering to keep their voices down — Where are her parents? Doesn’t anyone care to pick her up?
Mom turned up at 1:25. She always did eventually. She apologised first to me, then to the chaperones, and then to me again in the car. I’d slept on the train, but I still felt too tired to keep my eyes open. Mom promised to take me to the little Japanese stationery store down the street the next day so I could buy new washi tape. Despite my tiredness, my eyelids flickered and my mouth curved slightly upward.
We never did end up going to the stationery store because the next week Mom’s friend found authentic mood rings in Jodhpur which were too hard to pass up.
Trying to ignore the heaviness in my chest, I made my way to Alia’s bedroom on the first floor. She was flipping through our sixth grade science project on tidal waves. We made a great team; Alia did the research and writing, and I filled the pages with lapping waves, cerulean meeting teal.
At night, after dinner (club sandwiches and organic kale juice), Alia and I lay on her bed and looked at the working model of planets hanging from her bedroom ceiling.
She said, “I’m worried about you.”
I watched Pluto whizz past. “I know.”
She traced the marks on my wrist. “This isn’t art. It’s glamourized self-harm. You must know that,” she said softly.
Pluto orbited the Sun again. I did know that. “It’s not me doing it.”
Alia fell silent, and our eyes traced Pluto’s path till we fell asleep.
I came home and cleaned the messy fridge while I was still firmly placed in my body. Mom was taking a nap, so I threw the weeks-old eggs with tiny holes poked in them in the bin. I only threw what stank or looked otherwise unhygienic. I started collecting Mom’s art supplies. I couldn’t be sure of what her art was, and it was scattered all over the house. It was a cruel treasure hunt.
At least I knew the signs by then. I was in danger of slipping away whenever I didn’t feel like myself, or like anyone at all. Whenever this happened, I would call Alia and ask what the homework was, especially on days when we had none. Alia told me to come over and help her study more often. She helped me more than I ever helped her. All the while Mom filled our house with tiny foil balls.
College application season came around. I applied from Alia’s computer. I offered to edit her essays so I wouldn’t have to think about how my stomach was descending to the floor.
I got accepted to college with a financial aid offer. The day I had to leave, I locked my bedroom door and packed slowly. Mom had gone out. I played loud pop music and made sure to keep moving, working through my list systematically. Alia’s mom had to drive me to the airport.
At college, I left my body less and less. People joked about college life being a mess, no food in the fridge and dorm rooms buried in dirty clothes and old wrappers. I didn’t have to adapt. I tried calling home sometimes, but I never got through.
My roommate was a brown-haired girl who played house music that made the pen holder on my desk rattle and covered her side of the room in dim, blurry pictures. She had a penchant for knocking things over and apologising profusely after. Alia said it was crazy and how could I study? But I was grateful for her presence. She was the kind of person you needed your full attention around.
Sometimes I would slip homeward, spot a curious pattern in our scattered bedclothes, an interesting formation in the pile of old ramen cups. I’d wonder how Mom would interpret it if she were here. Then my roommate would sweep them into the bin, and I would let her.
Towards the end of junior year, I received a call from a woman with a smooth, buttery voice and sharp, glass-edged words. I could barely hear her because of the pounding music. I found out when I stepped outside. Mom had left her body permanently, and on that frosty winter night, I did too.
Ashira Shirali is a high school student from Gurgaon, India. She loves books, music, good food, and the colour blue. Her work has been published in Teen Ink and Moledro Magazine. You can find her reading with a cup of tea on most days.