Red Velvet Cupcake

Aashna must choose between what her family thinks she should want and what she needs. 

By Tanvi Berwah

A month after she thought she was getting better, Aashna had the inexplicable headache again.

One moment, she lay in her bed, contemplating what she was supposed to do through the weekend, and the next, a hammer struck her head. She turned over, shielding herself from the glaring sun. Her hand landed on the envelope entangled in the sheets.

Her pulse thumped against her throat as she clutched at the pillow and hoped it would all go away.

But when she opened her eyes, the envelope, unabashedly white, glowered at her. An inch away, her phone blinked with notifications. She lifted it, checked the time, and let it fall back.

Through the cacophony in her mind, the voices outside broke through. Guests. Her farewell gathering. Was it today? She shook her head, pushing the pale pink sheets off, and sat up. From the blank screen of her open laptop, a gaunt face framed by layers of thick hair stared back at her. She listened to the voices.

Her mother and three aunts. Cousins. An uncle. Her father and her other uncle.

So many people.

So many familiar faces.

So much family.

They were talking, laughing, discussing. She pictured her mother’s laughter, the curve of her lips, the light in her kohl-lined eyes. The animated way her fingers danced in the air, the bangles on her wrist clinking when she talked. Talked mostly about Aashna.

The mirror across the morning mess of a room reflected the door—spotless white, save for a map of the country, a red pin stuck on California. So far away from Boston.

She could hear her whole family outside, but she couldn’t join them.

It was safer here.

It was, until one of her little cousins barged into the room and tumbled over the pile of clothes that had fallen off the chair behind the door. “Come, come!” Her pigtails danced as she stood. The brightness of a thousand suns beamed at Aashna from her cousin. Aashna looked away.

She stepped onto the cold wood-paneled floor, begging the ache shackling her to stay in the room and not follow her outside. Because outside, everyone talked about her. And that Berkeley had accepted her. And her impending success. And her wonderful prospects. And her marvelous future. And her incredible luck. And imagine the intense happiness of her parents!

Aashna shuffled into the room.

“There she is,” one of the aunts said, grinning.

Thick, unbearable sweetness emanated from the shelf in the eastern corner of the hall, where her father lit three incense sticks in front of a small bronze Goddess Durga every morning.

“Choice Organic Tea on Red Oak Floor” © Tweetspeak Poetry https://www.flickr.com/photos/110769643@N07/21734724424/

Aashna smiled and nodded when someone handed her tea. Grateful. She smiled again, and settled as people surrounded her, cutting off any escape. Her eyes drifted over their excited faces. Light refracting off the table’s crystal fruit bowl made the faces shimmer as if an intangible veil separated them from her.

“I always said you’d do great things!” another aunt cooed.

It was as if she were climbing a mountain, and as she moved higher and higher, the oxygen reduced steadily. Until all she heard was babbling so loud she heard nothing; she swallowed, refocusing.

“I told Maria, ‘Look what Aashna’s doing,’” the third aunt said, fixing her silk sari’s safety pin on her shoulder. “She was so impressed and told me she’d love to follow suit. It’s so great you have people looking up to you, isn’t it?” She directed the question toward Aashna.

Nodding would work. Another smile. Wider. They always seemed to be satisfied with wide smiles.

“She’s just thrilled,” her mother said from somewhere in the room. “It’s so prestigious, you know?”

“It is, it is,” an uncle said, sweeping up a fistful of salted peanuts.

They went around like that, making small talk, laughing at someone’s embarrassment at the most recent community gathering, sparing Aashna for the moment, while passing high-piled plates back and forth. It was the pretty set. Gleaming white with golden florals. And heirloom cutlery. The ones Aashna’s mother brought out only to impress. Today, they held all kinds of sweets coated with edible silver, gulab jamun drenched in sparkling chashni, and sugar pearls rolling in between. Tarts and brownies loaded with chocolate and maple syrup.

Amid the sweetness wafting in the wide hall, the distinctive, even sweeter, rose perfume of Aashna’s mother drew near. The ache spiked in Aashna’s head.

“Your favorite!” her mother called, stepping in sight, and sifted through items on the table. She pulled out the red velvet cupcakes.

“Are you all right?” asked her father.

“Yeah,” Aashna said. “Just a headache, nothing serious.”

I don’t want to go, I don’t want to do this. Please, please tell me it’s okay if I don’t do this.

She smiled.

Her father ruffled her hair too, laughing. The clink of his watch against her earring stung her as he withdrew his hand. He was a suave picture of grace in his gleaming cream-colored set of kurta and a black Nehru jacket, only worn around family. As second generation immigrants, her parents were always dressed in Western clothes outside and were always smiling. Always happy. They had done everything by the non-existent guidebook. Now, it was their daughter’s turn. Be pleasant to the people at Walmart. Don’t argue with police officers. Do what they tell you. And smile. Most importantly, smile.

“Take an aspirin,” he said. “You should sleep on time! But you’re so excited, no? We all are. How incredible this is! Don’t worry about a thing.”

Sometimes Aashna thought if she were on her deathbed, her father would still recommend aspirin and some sleep.

“It’s nothing, she’s just so excited,” an aunt chimed in. Aashna neither figured nor cared which aunt it was. Probably Maria’s mother. “That happens all the time.”

If this is excitement, I don’t want it.

No. She was a strong woman.

Weakness. She wouldn’t allow herself to be weak.

No matter if her thoughts were double-edged razors, cutting into her mind.

“A little headache killed no one.” Her mother handed her a piece of cake, dropping her voice low– “Come on now, everyone is here to celebrate you. Don’t make a fuss.” Her sharp and pointed words left no room for argument.

And so once again, Aashna smiled. It began to physically hurt.

“Looking Special, Tamil Nadu, India” © Sivakumar Ramakrishnan https://www.flickr.com/photos/shivramky/14177057566/

All these aunties and uncles envied her, they wanted her life for their children. She sensed that longing snaking around the room. Even at gatherings within the community, hardly anyone found faults in her. The perfection of her family rattled them. And what was she doing? Lamenting ungratefully.

Others have it worse. She reminded herself that there were real problems in the world. This stupid headache, and this nonsensical sinking feeling pulling at her heart, was nothing but her own pointless creation.

So, she smiled. This time with all the force she could muster. She baffled herself with her arrogance. For wasn’t it arrogance, wanting better than this?

Aashna found the cake bitter, and she lost track of the surrounding chorus. But she could pick out words again: law, scholarship, millions a year, marriage, kids.

Nothing she hadn’t heard before.

But a dark, dank well had opened up inside her, dragging her down.

Speak.

NO.

It’s killing you.

Perhaps that would be best.

She clutched at the arm of the couch, swallowing the tasteless cake. Outside, the weather had turned. The warmth of the room’s orange and red décor faded as the halfhearted sun struggled behind the steely grey clouds.

Colors merged into one another. Cream into orange. Red into black. She reeled under the heaviness.

She tried speaking again.

Her tongue had turned to lead.

“I don’t want to go.”

Her mother, nearest to her, rooted where she stood. Others didn’t seem to hear her whispers. She tried again.

“I don’t want to go.”

A deafening silence met her.

Outside, a cat yowled. The drizzle started. Plunk, plunk, plunk. It suffused the air with an earthen smell, which seemed to focus her mind for the moment.

“I know this is sudden but I have a headache,” she said, looking at one bewildered face to another. “I have a headache.”

Her aunts exchanged looks. One, at least, was trying so hard to keep the triumph from spilling onto her face.

“If you have a headache,” her mother said, “you should sleep. I’ll get you something.”

“No,” Aashna said.

“Don’t create a scene.” Her father’s warning was clear in his hard eyes. He held the china too firmly. She wanted to reach and take it out of his hands before he crushed it.

“I’m going in, and I’m not going to Berkeley.”

A murmur rustled the air. The rain was bucketing down now. Through the windows, the cool spray splattered on the edges of the room.

An uncle said, “She’s sad she’d have to leave the family. Aren’t you, buddy? Come on, it’s your fault,” he added to her father. “You never let her away ever and now she’s going to the other coast, away from all of us. It’s okay. Let her be.” He smiled at her, as if he understood perfectly well what she was going through. “It’s just the nerves of leaving home.”

“Of course, of course,” her father said, his tone brightening suddenly, as if he’d figured out a puzzle. “That makes sense. Don’t worry.” He turned to his daughter.

“We’re all thrilled. You’ll do fine and we all know you’re destined for great things.”

Her hands trembled.

If I was bleeding, if I couldn’t walk, if I had scars, if I wore an oxygen mask, would it be easier to accept I was sick? Look ma—I have a disease!

An aunt laughed. “Oh, what’s with the faces? She’s fine, she’s fine! Aren’t you? Be strong, my little lion, you have so much to do!”

“385:365” © april https://www.flickr.com/photos/rottnapples/5362180643/

Valor.

That’s what she supposedly associated with. Not this.

A ruckus of laughter jolted Aashna, stealing what remained of her voice, washing over her thoughts.

Thunder clapped.

Someone handed her another red velvet cupcake.

 


Tanvi Berwah holds a BA and MA in English Literature from the University of Delhi, and her short fiction has been published internationally. A history and space enthusiast, she would’ve loved to be an astronomer had her lack of mathematical skills allowed it. With a keen interest in pop-culture, she’s almost always ranting about books, TV shows, and movies (and occasionally crying at the state of the world) at her Twitter. Feel free to say hi: @tanviberwah

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