“Get that out of your mouth!” cried the nanny as she pinched the boy’s cheeks together between her thumb and forefinger, forcing him to open his mouth. “Hai Ram! Why can’t you just behave yourself for one day? Oh, spit it out! Spit it out, already!”
The boy finally gave in and released a glob of saliva along with its precious cargo of mangled flower parts. His spittle drooped from his mouth, a suspension of petals and pistils that if frozen in time would have made a pretty ornament.
The boy looked longingly at the little puddle he left on the ground. Doubtless, the flower had lost much of its initial allure, but the boy still felt keenly of a critical experience thwarted. He hadn’t enough time to explore the sumptuous taste that lay in the promise of the flower’s sweet fragrance. He glanced enviously at the bees, unencumbered by pestering nannies, humming along and drinking up all the sweet nectar.
The nanny proceeded to wipe the boy’s mouth with the end of her cotton sari. Noticing the child’s wistful expressions she consoled, “Rama, Rama. If this were India, I could tell you each and every plant, and I would have even shown you which ones to eat. Karwapak, kothimera… I would have fed you the leaves myself. But please child, here at least keep from eating anything I don’t give you by hand.” The boy answered with a reluctant nod of assent. The nanny went on, “I think you’ve had enough fun playing outside for today. You go and get cleaned up while I get dinner ready before your parents come home. You can tell them all about your little adventure yourself.”
At dinner, the boy’s mother inquired, “Where did you learn such bad habits from, Nikith? You’ve never done anything like this before.”
Nikith just looked down at his pulihora. This was his favorite dish, lemon rice with peanuts. But today it was just mocking him. The rice was the same color as the flower’s pollen, but it bore a spicy tanginess instead of that ambrosial sweetness he yearned for.
Nikith’s father answered, “He probably learned it from your brother. That Sanju was chewing pan the whole time he was here. Nikith probably saw his uncle chewing those leaves all the time and thought that he could eat leaves, too.”
“Now, you leave him out of this,” Nikith’s mother replied. “This is my house as much as it is yours, and my brother will always be welcome here.”
Cutting the thread of conversation, the mother turned back to her son. “The people here in Kentucky, they let their kids play in the forests, and so many of them come back with bites and rashes. Do you know how many patients Daddy and I see who come with rashes and sores they get from playing in the forest?” She continued without waiting for an answer. “So many, soo many. It was a good thing Neelamma stopped you. You could have become very sick.” Turning to Nikith’s father, she directed, “I want you to call the lawn abai tomorrow and have him clear out all those wild bushes that are climbing over the fence, okay.”
The father grumbled something unintelligible.
“Yes, yes I’ll call him tomorrow.”
Nikith stood in the backyard dressed in his nice polo shirt and khakis. His mom had sprayed cologne on him against his will, and he thought he might spend a few minutes outside to hopefully waft away some of the smell before his friends noticed. He looked out at the woods behind the house, which were forced to recede several feet behind the fence from where they used to be. Nikith remembered that only a few years ago he had tried to eat some of those plants. Nikith laughed to himself. What a child he had been eating wild plants. He was far more sophisticated and matured now.
“Nikith, come get in the car now! Let’s not be late for Akhil’s birthday party.”
Nikith wondered how it was that his mom always made it seem as if he were the late one, when in fact she was the reason they were leaving late, having spent hours getting ready. Still, he knew better than to protest and got into the car without a word.
Akhil’s house was an opulent affair. White marble floors flowed into floor to ceiling windows shrouded in beige curtains. A crystal chandelier hung in the main foyer, and the whole house seemed to reflect its glittering light in the form of glamour and charm. Equally charming were the guests— the men attired in impeccable suits and the women in warm colored dresses or silk saris.
The party was supposed to be for Akhil’s 10th birthday, but Akhil’s parents had made use of the opportunity for a networking event. The adults, mostly other doctors and hospital executives, far outnumbered the children. Nikith followed closely behind his parents, unsure of where to go. He didn’t see his friends anywhere, but his parents soon met some of their colleagues.
“How do you do, Drs. Rao?” said a jovial looking man with round spectacles. He spoke through a wispy mustache that flowed into a graying but trimmed beard.
“Well as can be, Vasu, well as can be,” answered Nikith’s father. “And you? How’s the practice?”
“Ahh, you know how it is. You know as well as I how the hospital is trying to push out the foreign doctors. Early 90s when you and I came, remember that, they were clamoring for us. But now they’ve got plenty of local candidates and they’re squeezing us out.”
“Yes, yes,” Nikith’s father nodded, “Just have to do our best to hang on, don’t we?” He gave a little wink at Nikith. “At least until the kids grow up.”
“Right, right you are.”
Nikith, tired from listening to this conversation he could not follow, continued to look around the room for anyone his age. Thankfully, the hosts came to save him.
“Oh Nikith, you’re down here? Akhil and the other kids are upstairs in Akhil’s room. Why don’t you go up and play with them?” said Akhil’s mother.
Nikith did not need any further encouragement. He was glad to leave the dull conversation of the adults. Upstairs he found the kids sitting around the TV in Akhil’s room playing NBA 2k12 on the PlayStation. There were only two controllers and Akhil was always playing on one, so that left all the other kids with one controller to take turns on. Nikith didn’t care much for basketball or video games for that matter, so he took a seat on the floor behind the rest of the kids crowded around the TV. He watched as they maneuvered their players, slam-dunking and alley-ooping.
Nikith noticed a short, thin kid sitting next to him. He was one of the few white people at the party. He too seemed to be getting bored of watching the others play.
“What’s your name?” Nikith asked.
“Jeremy,” the boy answered.
“Cool, my name’s Nikith. Have you played this game before?”
“No, I don’t really play videogames much.”
“Yeah! Me neither. I think they’re kind of boring.”
“Do you want to go find something else to do? I’ve been here awhile and it doesn’t look like I’m getting a turn anytime soon.”
“Sure, Akhil has this really cool playroom upstairs with a bunch of toys. I’ll show you.”
They left the game room and wandered about until they found another room strewn with toys. Jeremy found some nerf guns and loaded them up. He handed one to Nikith.
“You wanna play? First one to get shot three times loses.”
They had the entire upstairs to themselves since the rest of the kids were glued to the video game. After Nikith got hit the third time, he plucked off the dart from his Velcro vest and demanded another game.
When it was time to go, Jeremy said, “Hey Nikith, I’m having a birthday party next Saturday, and you‘re invited if you want to come.”
“That sounds awesome. I’ll be there!” And then with some hesitation, “Oh and what does your dad do by the way?”
“He’s a professor at the college. He actually tutors Akhil sometimes.”
“Cool, well I’ll see you on Saturday.”
“Oh and do you have Yu Gi Oh cards?”
“Umm yeah of course,” Nikith answered with mock indignation.
“Great, bring them. We’re gonna have a tournament.”
This was awesome, Nikith thought. He had tried to play in a Yu Gi Oh tournament in the past at the Arcade Magic Game Zone, an indie videogame and comic store, but when his mom took him to the building she wouldn’t even let him out of the car. She said she didn’t like how the people looked (they were all grown men with beards) and her son didn’t need to be associating with them. Nikith was crushed. He had spent several days building and rebuilding his deck. He cried that day, even though he had sworn off crying. But this time it would be okay.
Nikith was excited to tell his parents that he was invited to a birthday party once he got home. They asked whose party it was. He replied that it was Jeremy Thacker’s, but the name was unfamiliar to them. They asked what his parents did. Nikith had anticipated this question. “His dad’s a professor at the college,” he answered confidently. “Jeremy told me that his dad even tutors Akhil sometimes.”
“Oh really? Maybe we should ask him to tutor you too,” Nikith’s mom said.
“Mummy!” Nikith protested.
“I’m just joking, Nikith,” his mother assured. At the same time, she gave Nikith’s father a look that indicated he should immediately ascertain Professor Thacker’s contact information. There would be no question of their son falling behind the Chennareddy’s son in any way.
After a few more inquiries, his parents said he could go. They would both be working so Neelamma would drop him.
Saturday finally came, and Neelamma took Nikith to Jeremy’s house. It was located downtown, in the little downtown that Cedarton had – quaint and historic, tucked away in the heart of Appalachia, with houses that traced back to Cedarton’s coal mining heyday. Jeremy’s was a small house built into the side of a hill like the other twenty or so houses in that neighborhood. Stone moss grown steps led up to the house from the narrow, winding road. Vines lay like curtains over the fence that separated the yard from the road while a broken down, rusting car rested in a shed adjacent to the house. Nikith was worried that his mom would not approve of him coming here and was about to tell Neelamma to go home when Jeremy came out of the house and waved to him.
Jeremy put his arm around Nikith’s shoulder and walked him up the stairs to the house. “You came! That makes three, Tyler’s already here, and Harrison called and said he’d be coming later. Mom said I could only invite two people but she said it was okay when I told her I invited you too.”
Nikith walked into the house and found Tyler sitting on a couch with his Yu Gi Oh cards in his hands. He was a blonde haired boy also in Nikith’s class. Nikith had played soccer with him a couple times.
“Hey Nikith,” Tyler greeted, and then turning to Jeremy went on, “Yo, Jem Jem, are we going to play or what?”
Jeremy looked at Nikith and said, “Alright, Nikith you can play the winner of me and Tyler. There’s some chips and pizza on the dining table if you want some.”
Jeremy and Tyler continued their game. “Tyler, you only have 500 life points left. Come on, I thought you’d be more of a match.”
“Don’t get too cocky, you don’t know what my face down cards are. And let me just tell you I’ve got some strong monster cards, like 3000 attack, that I’m about to lay down…”
Nikith looked around. He had never been inside a house like this. The carpet looked like it hadn’t been vacuumed in ages, so Nikith was glad when he noticed that Tyler and Jeremy were still wearing their shoes. There were clothes and magazines and boxes of unknown contents everywhere. Two walls of the living room were stacked from floor to ceiling with DVDs, but to be fair the ceilings weren’t that high. The house was tiny- the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the makeshift study that was separated from the living room by a curtain; it all could have fit into Nikith’s living room. But to Nikith the house felt large and spacious. Somehow even his own house, which was definitely much bigger, almost felt small by comparison. Nikith began to form the notion that perhaps new places feel enlarged by a sense of discovery, while the old ones, however big, always grow smaller with familiarity.
The doorbell rang and Jeremy opened the door for Harrison. He was followed by two high school girls carrying a birthday cake.
“Hurry, Jeremy, get everyone to the dining table. It’s an ice cream cake so we don’t want it to melt,” said the taller of the two girls.
Nikith asked Jeremy who they were.
“Oh, they’re my sisters. The taller one is Megan and the shorter one is Josie.”
“How many sisters do you have?”
“Four,” he replied. “And I’m the youngest and the only boy.”
“You all live here?!”
“Yeah, it sucks living with a bunch of girls, but Samantha, the oldest, just got married so she moved out. And Teresa, the next to youngest is staying at her friend’s today.”
The whole party gathered around the dining table, and cheered as Jeremy blew out the candles and cut the cake. The ice cream cake tasted really good, but Nikith kept feeling a pain in one of his teeth whenever the ice cream made contact with it. His mom had told him to brush his teeth every night, but Nikith had been neglecting it. He wouldn’t tell her about it unless it got worse. He hated giving his mom another “I told you so” moment.
While carefully yet diligently swallowing his cake, Nikith asked, “Jeremy, where’s your dad at?”
“Oh, he lives on 4th street. It’s great! I get a second birthday party. He’s taking me to Dollywood next week.”
Nikith decided to stop asking questions. The less he knew the less he’d have to tell his parents.
“Ok, it’s time to open gifts!” directed Jeremy’s mom.
Jeremy sat down cross-legged in front of the TV with his gifts in a small pile next to him. Tyler got him an RC hovercraft. It was a green foam saucer with a propeller on the bottom that allowed it go up or down with the controller. “Aw cool, thanks Tyler!” Next, Jeremy picked up an envelope.
“That one’s from me,” said Nikith.
Jeremy opened it up. “Holy cow, Nikith! Thirty dollars, geez thank you! I should’ve invited you to my last birthday.”
“Lame,” Tyler yawned. “Mine was cooler.”
Jeremy proceeded to read the generic Hallmark card. Nikith wished he had given a gift. He had asked his mom to take him to buy one. Checks were so impersonal. Why did his mom have to give checks for every occasion?
As Jeremy started picking up the scraps of wrapping paper, his mom went into the makeshift study and reemerged with a large, neatly wrapped box. “Hold on, Jeremy. We have one more gift for you! This one’s from your sisters and me.” Jeremy took the box and eagerly tore away the wrapping paper.
“Wow, this is awesome! Thanks Mom! I’ve been wanting a gaming console so bad!”
Jeremy took the contents out of the box and began setting it up with Tyler. Nikith picked up the box. It wasn’t a PlayStation, Xbox, or Nintendo. It didn’t even look like the Dreamcast Nikith had once played at his uncle’s house. Nikith was surprised to not recognize the brand. He thought that all gaming consoles were made by one of the major companies.
Jeremy plugged all the wires into the corresponding ports, matching the yellows with the yellows, the whites with the whites, the reds with the reds. After everything was set up, Jeremy pushed the power button on his new console. The tiny bulb next to the button remained unlit. He pushed it again. He pushed it and held it. He checked all the connections. The tiny little lightbulb remained unlit, darkened, adamantly refusing even a flicker, red or green.
“Why does this always happen?!” Jeremy threw the console aside and ran into the makeshift study. Through the curtain Nikith could hear him crying. Jeremy’s mother looked at Megan and Josie, indicating that they needed to do something while she went into the study to console the birthday boy.
Megan took the lead. “Alright, boys! We’ve got some fun games planned for you.”
Josie brought out two filled garbage bags from the closet.
Megan continued, “Alright, so these bags are filled with clothes. You know sweatshirts, t shirts, pants, everything. You’re gonna split off into teams and have one person put on as many clothes onto the other person as you can in one minute. After the minute’s up, whichever team manages to put on the most clothes wins.”
Josie called out, “Jeremy, we’re gonna play a game now, but we need you out here or we won’t have even teams.”
“Yeah, come on Jeremy. I already called you for my team. We’re gonna wup these guys,” Tyler added.
Jeremy came out from behind the curtain, wiping away little snail tracks beneath his eyes. “No, I think I want to play whiffle ball.”
“Ok, sure! I’ll go get the stuff,” Josie said.
“Where are we going to play?” asked Nikith with a hint of surprise. Jeremy’s entire neighborhood was built into a hillside. The backyard was a green slope, and after the house the slope continued down to the bottom of the hill. The only flat standing space outside the house was the street.
“We’ll play in the street,” Jeremy answered.
“Watch out for the cars. And I don’t want you crawling through all those bushes if you hit the ball down the hill,” Jeremy’s mom cautioned.
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “Alright, Mom.”
Nikith was first up. He tightened his grip around the yellow, plastic bat and squinted his eyes as Jeremy curled up to pitch.
“CRACK!” The sweet satisfying sound of contact pierced the air. It was quickly followed by the rustle of leaves and twigs.
“Oh man sorry, I really tried not to hit it into the bushes.”
“Don’t worry about it. My mom always says that. It’s impossible not to hit the ball into the bushes. Just come help me find it.”
Nikith followed Jeremy over to where the ball entered the foliage. As they sifted through the leaves, Nikith spotted a bush in full bloom with little white and yellow flowers sprouting long filaments.
“Hey, looks like you found some honeysuckle.”
“What, you’ve never had honeysuckle? Oh, you’ve gotta try some.” Jeremy proceeded to pluck a blossom. “Now this is the tricky part. You’ve gotta pinch off the bottom here and you get this little string, see how its coming out of the inside, you just pull it all the way through like this. And at the end of the string there’ll be a little drop of sweet.” He stuck his tongue out and licked off the tiny globule of nectar. “Yum! Now you!” Nikith looked at the wildflowers with hesitation.
“Aww, don’t worry about it, I eat these all the time.”
“Ok, I’ll try it.” Nikith plucked a pure white honeysuckle and pinched the end and drew the little string out. Surprisingly, it was the same white as the petals. The syrupy substance at the end was clear and looked like a dewdrop. It seemed harmless enough. Nikith closed his eyes and touched the nectar to his tongue.
“Wow! This is really good, Jeremy.”
“What’d I tell ya?”
Nikith started plucking more flowers, rapidly downing the tiny treasures inside with a determination to drain the whole bush.
“Whoa, man. Slow down,” Jeremy laughed.
“I think I used to try to eat these flowers whole when I was really small. It was so bad my parents had the bushes cleared from the backyard.”
“Well, I bet they taste a lot better this way.”
“Guys, I found the ball!” Harrison said as he emerged from behind a tree, “But I get to bat now since I found it.”
It was already dark outside when Nikith’s mom came to pick him up. Nikith was able to detect the displeased look on his mother’s face as soon as he entered the car. Without giving her a chance to speak, Nikith launched into an account of the day’s activities. “Oh Mummy, it was so much fun! We ate ice cream cake and played Yu Gi Oh and whiffle ball…I really had an awesome time hanging out with Jeremy. I can’t wait to come back!”
His mom’s stern expression softened somewhat. “I’m glad you had fun. And I’m glad you did something active instead of just sitting around all day playing the videogames,” then looking around she added, “but maybe next time I’ll stay for a while, or better yet you can invite Jeremy over to our house!”
“Why, so you can keep an eye on us?” Nikith mumbled.
“Nothing! That sounds great!”
Nikith looked out the window as they drove home, but the darkness covered everything. He could no longer see the untrimmed overgrowth of the kudzu onto the road, or the winding curves of the road as it navigated down the hill, or the humble houses that were the only remainders from the town’s coal boom days. All he could see were the few feet ahead that were visible from the car’s headlights. A few feet which to Nikith were indistinguishable from a few feet of anywhere else in the world.
They reached home and Nikith told his mom that he needed to retrieve a soccer ball he had left in the backyard earlier. She told him to hurry in and went into the house. Nikith walked across the lawn, which was completely homogenous without a stray weed anywhere, a result of the gardener’s meticulous care. He saw the soccer ball but walked past it to the back fence. He climbed over and walked into the thick foliage just a few feet away. It was dark but the yellow moon cast a soft glow and the lightening bugs were out that night, prepared to meet Nikith and guide his hand. He felt his fingers close around soft petals. Plucking the blossom, he tenderly drew out the string within. The dewdrop now appeared gold in the light of the fireflies. Nikith gently brought it to his lips. It was sweet, the same sweetness.