This Special Occasion

They're all uncles, all fathers. A hall filled with
100 sisters, 100 brothers, 200 mothers,
200 others: some related, some familiar,
all of them uncles.
Today is a special occasion.
Today is a reason to discard the ponytail and glasses.
Today demanded pulling out the lime green sari
with the chic silver beaded patterns,
to pay hellos to cousins, aunties, nieces, nephews,
in-laws, and grandmothers.

But there was still the room with the open bar,
filled with more people,
most of them uncles:
the room of low-tolerances,
empty boasts, politics, business deals, and
self-made men too proud to be driven home,
all of them uncles.
Only a couple worth talking to.
He was one such uncle.
Over there, by the buffet,
next to the chicken tikka.

Not a mother's brother uncle, or
a father's business partner uncle, but
an old family friend uncle.
Here was a break, a refuge
from everyday white-bred culture,
from being exotified
from gossiping wives and busybody aunties,
from everything that was expected
on these special occasions.
I brushed past, turned, said "hi"
with my first genuine smile.

Do I really look that different,
outside jeans, unmasked from glasses?
Am I unrecognizable,
having stepped beyond myself without notice?
He's the third one to reply "yes"
with his eyes,
with confusion,
with that sudden moment of vague recognition.

They only saw me grow up
in the awkward-fitting-ugly-printed shorts
hiked up above my waist, matching purple top
on sale at TJ Maxx.
They saw me kick butt at Trivial Pursuit.
But they've also seen me in a sari, in make-up, in contacts,
wearing fancy chumpels, with fresh plucked eyebrows.
Though maybe not all at once,
till now.
This time, I actually made an effort.
This time, was a special occasion.

I watched him,
I watched him play cricket at summer picnics,
watched him watch Jordan drain that fade-away jumper.

He watched me.
He watched me be comfortable in a pair of jeans
and renounce Banana Republic and the Gap;
watched me preach politics
and barge in on sports debates where
a female,
a girl,
a 9 year-old with a big mouth
had no business sitting down among
a crowd of Indian men.

I watched him watch me,
surprisingly impressed
with a young tomboy
sporting more than enough nerve.

I watched him pull my arm,
on this special occasion,
red wine on his breath, in his hand,
two eyes peering from closer than
comfortable distance.
I watched him lean closer and tell me,
in perfect Gujarati inflections,
that I looked beautiful.
I watched more words drip from his mouth
on this special occasion
like excess wine left unchecked,
not yet swallowed.

I looked blank.
A forced laugh, a sheepish glance.
"You don't even know what that means, do you?"
I did know.
But I looked blank.
Blank is the expression left
when shock bleaches away trust,
when heroes crumble from betrayal.
I looked blank.
"It means you look like a very mature woman,
except it's not a compliment."

I am abandoned there,
forever frozen, forced to tell
my shattered ego
because no one else will, that
it wasn't too much lip liner or too much jewelry;
it wasn't my fault;
it was the wine,
but I'll never be sure,
never again.
He's allowed to be drunk, he's allowed to get away with it
because my father had another pressing engagement
behind the cash register of a gas station on Golf Rd.
because we lack the money
to buy respect.

Besides, there are 199 others here,
all of them uncles.
Next time, I'll choose a pair of jeans.
And a basketball game.
And some of that weight I'd bothered to lose.
Next time, I won't bother trying.
I finally grew up: I finally felt like going shopping.
I felt like buying it all back.


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