I saw someone who looked like Avi on the road yesterday. It wasn’t her. She walked past me in a tangerine shirt, with her hair in her eyes.
Sanaa and I would always take things from Avi’s house. We meant to return them until we realised that she didn’t seem to notice they were gone; not the old notebook with pages that slipped like butter, or the small wooden monkey with joints that bent in ways that ours couldn’t. She had small things that Sanaa and I would slip underneath our shirts, arching our shoulders forward to make our clothes seem shapeless. Our hair was always longest in the summer weeks that we spent here; we’d used it to cover the bulge under our clothes when we slipped out of Avi’s door.
Avi was our aunt’s neighbour. My sister and I have spent three weeks of the summer with our aunt since we were five, and our parents realised they didn’t know what to do with us when they went to work. Papa refused to leave us with our neighbours because he said they were too loud, and their son was always eating ice cream, even in the winter. I don’t remember this, but Mama says there was a day when she took Sanaa to her office, and Papa took me to the university he taught at. Sanaa drew on apparently important documents, and I dropped Papa’s piles of alphabetically arranged books. That night, our aunt was called.
That first summer, Avi wouldn’t speak to us much. Our aunt said she didn’t talk to her much either. I’m certain Avi wouldn’t have spoken to us at all if our aunt hadn’t told her to look out for us every time she went out for lunch with men we never got to meet. Sanaa would wonder why our aunt never invited them inside; we’d only see them from the window in Avi’s hall. It was the only window in her house that wasn’t dusty and let sunlight in.
The first time Sanaa and I took something from Avi’s house, we took a handful of unfilled balloons from a packet underneath her bed. She had given us the sandwiches our aunt had left for lunch, and was sitting in a rectangle of sunlight with a book. Sanaa was convinced the balloons were for a birthday Avi had never celebrated, and nobody remembered. She told me that Avi had sat at home in her tangerine shirt, waiting for a chocolate cake she never got.
It didn’t matter that Sanaa couldn’t possibly have known this. That year I told Mama we must have a chocolate cake, like the one I had eaten at the neighbour boy’s birthday party. We must also have three balloons on the door, I said, because neighbour boy had had two. Mama showed the man at the shop three photographs, and asked him to pick the cake he thought he could make best. When he did, she ran her hand through her hair and told him to make the other one, the one that looked like a carrot. She also told him to make it a brightly coloured butterscotch cake.
Sanaa and I took the balloons from underneath Avi’s bed because they came in sad colours—there was the brown of roasted almonds, and the green of mould that appeared on the bottom of kolhapuris that hadn’t been dried after an evening in the rain. We slipped the balloons in our pockets, told Avi we’d go home because the sandwiches had made us sleepy, and ran to our room. She didn’t look up. I don’t think she heard us leave.
I filled the first balloon, and my sister let it go outside our window. They’ll be happier filled, I’m telling you, she said to me. We watched all ten float away from us. I didn’t tell her they made the sky seem sad too.
A year later, our aunt married one of the men she would always have lunch with. He was Portuguese–not tall, but with thin legs that made him walk like a spider. He told us to call our aunt tia.
The Portuguese man didn’t seem to like us spending our summers there. On some mornings he would sit in front of the television with his feet on the sofa in the way that our aunt always told him not to. Your tia hasn’t made me lunch again, he would say to us on other days. We’d hear the door close a little while later.
On these days, he wouldn’t be home in the evening. Sanaa and I were sent to Avi’s house when he returned; sometimes our aunt would come to take us back home at night. Her eyes would be red from all the anger. He says he fell asleep at the train station again, she’d say to us. The first time this happened, Sanaa brought home a wooden monkey from the table in Avi’s hall. On these days, Avi would watch us leave.
The monkey was our favourite until Sanaa fell ill. That day I brought back postcards from Avi’s bookshelf. We stared at the postcard with the tall apartment blocks that looked the same. Every open window had yellow curtains, as though everyone had decided to change them on the same day. Sanaa stared at the postcard of an old woman selling ginger in a street market that nobody could ever stand still in. The woman had hair the colour of ginger, and Sanaa was sure that the toothless man in sunglasses sitting next to the woman was her husband. Avi’s lived in all these places, Sanaa told me. I believed her.
Three summers later, Avi wasn’t there. Our aunt said she left without notice. She had found the key under the mat outside her door.
The Portuguese man had disappeared. Our aunt had got married to another man she’d have lunch with often.
On the evening of my aunt’s wedding, Avi had been writing. Papa disapproved of second marriages the way he disapproved of ice cream in the winters, so he didn’t come. Mama came, but left soon after; she said she couldn’t miss work the next day. Sanaa and I stayed at Avi’s house that night. I slipped a little dusty box under my shirt when we went home the next morning.
It was the dark brown colour of Avi’s closed door.