The Iron Curtain

Fiction

“Neil, what you studying in school, boy? Interracial marriages?” my mom asked.

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“International relations,” I said. Suddenly I was slurping down the rest 
of my coffee in a rush to get out.

She turned to my father. “I send he to ‘U.F.T.’ to study international 
relations but I feel he studying interracial marriages. I does see we son knocking about with a little girl of the . . . Asian persuasion.” She glowered over her mug at me, and I back at her. “I getting a Chinese girl for my daughter-in-law,” she said. “Allyou think she could cook a roti?”

She did this to stir my dad and it worked every time.

“She go feed me chow mein and pork till I dead,” Dad said. “Noodles, noodles, noodles! My backside already thin like a noodles. How I could survive on that?” He waved his bony arms.

“Don’t forget fortune cookies.” My mother sipped the last drop of Milo from her mug and headed to the family room.

My dad followed her. “Me ain’t want no cookie with fortune inside. 
I done know my fortune if my son marry a Chinese girl: I go dead from 
eating noodles.”

My girlfriend was from the Philippines. She had almond-shaped eyes and hair like black silk. I really began to notice her when she started 
sitting next to me in a political science class. She would stare intently at 
the professor and scribble furiously into her notebook. When we began sharing notes, it amazed me how she still managed to underline all her headings with a glittery pink pen. Every i was dotted, every t crossed, 
every lower case y finished with an elaborate flourish. Her fixation on a perfect grade point average fascinated me too, but it was Rosi’s determination to get what she wanted that really attracted me.

“You ain’t go dead from eating noodles alone, Satish, SARS go surely speed up the process,” Mom said, rearranging the pillows on her recliner.

Heads swivelled, necks craned and bodies leaned in all directions to get an unobstructed view of my girlfriend.

When she knew she’d vexed my father into a huff, my tiny mother would slip on her fuzzy orange slippers and climb up into her leather recliner. She’d close her eyes, a satisfied smile stretching across her thin lips, until his ludicrous notions had lulled her off to sleep. I always wondered what sort of dreams she had, falling asleep this way.

I didn’t understand then what the big deal about Rosi was. I hadn’t once said I wanted to marry her. The truth was, I hadn’t even thought about it until Dad made it his business to point out what a big mistake marrying her would be. After that, Rosi became a big part of my life.

The first time I brought her home Dad was sitting at the kitchen table, shelling pistachios and wearing a surgeon’s mask. Rosi stiffened. I was mortified. We watched him line the shells up in neat little rows like missiles ready to fire. I imagined the smug expression he wore beneath his protective mask. I knew he was daring me to introduce him to Rosi, so I did. And for good measure I said, “Isn’t she something?”

Smiling bravely, Rosi stepped forward, her small, bronzed hand in mid extension. But when Dad’s only acknowledgement was a nod and a grunt before turning back to his pistachios, I caught Rosi swiftly by the elbow and, slipping an arm around her waist, marched my mystified girlfriend down into the basement, away from the enemy and the cracking of shells.

Rosi abandoned me at the bottom of the steps to explore my basement apartment on her own. I trailed after her in awkward silence, trying to piece together an apology on my father’s behalf. But she paid me no attention as she scanned my bookshelf for interesting titles and gazed thoughtfully at photographs on the wall. Her composure unnerved me. When she discovered the bar in the far corner, Rosi slid behind the marble countertop and placed two glasses in front of her. “What’ll it be?” she said. Her face betrayed no emotion.

“Uh . . . scotch for me.” I paused. “Listen, Rosi, I’m sorry about the way my dad treated you—”

“It’s an acquired taste, isn’t it? How do you like it?” She motioned for me to sit at my own bar, a bottle of Chivas Regal in her hand.

“What?”

“Your drink. How do you like it?”

“Oh. Neat.” I licked my lips. “His behaviour was unacceptable and I just want you to know that I’m positive you and I are—”

“On the rocks for me.”

“—good for each other.”

“A toast?”

“My parents may be wary about interracial dating but that doesn’t change the way I feel about you.”

“Cheers!”

I sighed, raising my glass to hers. “Did you hear anything I just said?”

Rosi took a sip of her drink. “Every word,” she said. “But I have just one question.” I watched her swirl the ice cubes around in her amber drink, 
a mischievous smile playing on her lips.

“Anything.”

She leaned across the bar. “Does he know he can’t eat pistachios with 
a surgeon’s mask on?”

I laughed, relieved and, leaning forward, I kissed my girlfriend on the mouth for the first time.

 

When the holidays rolled around two months later I began to see more of my extended family. Mom’s older brother, Uncle Adesh, threw the first party of the season and his wife, Auntie Patsy, asked the one question I didn’t want to hear: “So, Neil, when you getting married, boy?”

I saw Dad’s body go rigid. He clinked the ice cubes in his glass, irritated. “Neil, you ain’t introduce Auntie Patsy to your sweetheart yet?” He took a gulp of his drink, eyeing me from over the rim of the glass.

“She’s in the powder room, but I’ll—”

“Powder room!” My mother snorted. It sounded like pow-dah room when she said it. “Where you pick up such hoity-toity lingo from, child?”

Before I could reply something swooped down into the seat beside me. “What she name? What she look like?” I’d never seen Grandpa move so fast. His sharp, old eyes roamed the room for a new, young face.

My cousin Rani, thrice removed, was next to him before I could answer. “How you could keep a secret like this from me, Neil?”

Her husband, whose name I still can’t recall, shooed her away and took her spot. “Give the boy some room, “ he said. He poured a shot and a half more of rum into my glass and a dash of Coke for colour. “This is man talk.”

But Rosi’s sudden appearance in the kitchen prevented any kind of talk—man or otherwise—for a few moments. Heads swivelled, necks craned and bodies leaned in all directions to get an unobstructed view of my girlfriend. Rosi looked stunning in her purple satin dress and sweeps of lavender eye shadow across her slanted eyes. Even I stared. She laughed at the awkwardness of the situation, warm and earnest.

Her eyes welled with tears. “The food hot like a donkey’s backside!” She clutched her bosom. “How this gyal could eat my food?”

“Hi everyone, I’m Rosi,” she said with a little wave. As I was wading through the bodies to take her hand and introduce her more formally a distant uncle shouted out: “Patsy, you ain’t see Neil’s girlfriend come? Fix she a plate, nuh.” I exhaled.

As the room hummed with an excited new energy, Auntie Patsy bustled forward, fanning herself anxiously. She greeted Rosi sincerely but I noticed her fidgeting uncomfortably with the hem of her blouse. Perspiration glistened on her upper lip. I watched her eyes shift from the food on the stove to Rosi and then back again, apologetically.

“What’s wrong, Auntie?” I asked.

Her eyes welled with tears. “The food hot like a donkey’s backside!” She clutched her bosom. “How this gyal could eat my food?” Rosi and I hid our smiles. “Everyone go say I is a bad hostess if I don’t feed she”—she nodded towards Rosi—“but if she eat, the pepper go kill she!”

But Rosi survived Auntie Patsy’s cooking and even indulged her by having seconds, which had my auntie beaming for half the night. And while Rosi ate, Grandpa talked. “You like tomatoes?” Rosi nodded. “How about ocro and aloo?” She looked confused, but nodded anyway. Grandpa was encouraged. “Pumpkin? Thyme? Onions?” Yes, Rosi liked them all. Grandpa leaned closer to Rosi and lowered his voice. “I inviting you to a exclusive tour of my garden. My thumb green-green!” He winked at her and wiggled his thumb in the air like a crazy hitchhiker.

Rosi raised her glass to Grandpa’s, businesslike. “It’s a date,” she said.

Mom watched the exchange purse-lipped from across the table as she folded a Christmas napkin into little squares, deepening each crease with 
a belligerent sweep of her trigger finger.

“Neil,” she said, “you ain’t tell anyone how you do on your midterms.”

I sighed. I knew it was a prompt for my father, who chimed in right on cue.

“You nearly failed three exams, ain’t that so, Neil?” he paused to empty his glass. “Too much Ring around the Rosi if you ask me.” He was drunk.

My uncles and aunties laughed. They didn’t understand our cold war. 
I believe they actually thought it was cute, that I was some kind of lovesick puppy.

“Actually,” I said, turning to Uncle Adesh, who was filling thirteen shot glasses right to the brim, “Rosi aced all of hers. Since we’ve been together, she’s reached the top of the class.” I winked at her. I was trying to help her, trying to prevent rumours of Rosi’s bad influence causing me to flounder 
in school. It backfired on me though.

“So allyou fall in love and now she smart and you’s a duncy-head 
fool?” Uncle Belly slapped me on the back. Rosi squeezed my hand beneath the table.

“Like the girl do obeah on you or what, Neil?” My mother said, propping her chin on her palm.

Rosi looked quizzically at my mother. “I’ve never dabbled in mysticism,” she said. “Obeah’s roots are grounded in African soil and practised in the Caribbean. It’s a far way from the Philippines.”

A second of stillness silenced the buzz in the room, a wonderful second of awe, until Uncle Belly hooted and slapped the table excitedly. “The girl smart in truth!” He leaned toward my mother, a foolish grin on his round face, “I bet you think the gyal didn’t know what obeah is, eh?” My mother glared at him furiously.

“Sound like May Lee to me,” Uncle Belly said, nudging my father playfully before emptying a handful of cashews into his huge jowls. “The coconut don’t fall far from the tree, man.” Adesh and a few other uncles and aunties snickered and exchanged knowing glances.

A shadow of pain swept across my father’s brown face. He looked uncomfortable for a moment, unlike the proud man I’d always known. But before anyone else could notice, it was gone and he was slapping a deck of cards on the table saying: “All-Fours. Who’s in?”

The next weekend, Rosi came over to watch a movie. We disappeared into the basement again to avoid my father’s disapproving grunts and the sour scowl my mother had been sporting since Uncle Adesh’s party.

Rosi was unusually somber that evening. She stared unseeingly at the television, back erect, arms crossed. “Are they going to get over this?”

She caught me off guard. She had a way of doing that. “Probably not.”

“And you’re okay with that.” It was statement, not a question, and that made me uncomfortable.

“They’re my parents. What choice do I have?” Once I’d said it, I knew it was the wrong thing to say. There was silence for a few moments. Heavy, unforgiving silence.

“Your mother has dismissed me as a sorceress of black magic. Your father refuses to acknowledge my presence. And you’re okay with that.” Rosi was up from her seat now, pacing slowly in measured steps, her hands clasped behind her back.

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“You know that isn’t true, and I was just as much a victim of their criticism as you were.”

She stopped pacing. “So that makes it okay?”

“Of course not. I’m just saying.”

“All you’re really saying is that they have licence to insult us because they’re your parents.”

I looked away. Is that what I was saying? I sat there in the dark, the movie playing in the background, and I wondered if this is how it would end. “I won’t let them drive us apart. I say we boycott the rest of the holiday festivities. We’ll make a statement,” I said, taking her hand and coaxing her down onto the couch again. I’ll call Uncle Belly and—”

She shook her head vehemently. “Definitely not.” I was taken aback by her conviction. “That’s exactly what they want. I want to go.”

When she turned her attention back to the movie I pulled her close because I could feel her drifting away. It didn’t help and I knew why: she wasn’t the problem.

That evening, when Rosi left, I joined my parents in the family room. They were watching a 60 Minutes special on one man’s ability to withstand subzero temperatures without protective clothing. During a commercial, Mom kicked her footrest out on the recliner. “I wonder what kind of girl does visit a boy in the basement of he house?” She picked a piece of lint off the blanket draped across her knees.

“A girl with no brought-up-sy,” Dad said.

“You think she parents know she does come here and make nest in we basement for hours?”

I watched the reflection of television dance over my parents’ dour faces in disbelief. They never even looked at me. “She has feelings,” I said to them. “You’re driving her away.” It came out more desperate than I meant it to. Dad gave me a peculiar look, almost sympathetic, before he rearranged his bones into a more comfortable position from which he didn’t have to look at me.

Mom feigned offence. “How that could be, Neil? We haven’t said a word to she.”

I glared at her. “That’s exactly it, Mom. You—,” but she held up her 
hand then. The 60 Minutes clock was ticking away on the television again. My time was up, our conversation over.

When Uncle Belly threw his annual Christmas Eve party four days later, I showed up with Rosi on my arm. My parents pretended she wasn’t there but everyone else welcomed her affectionately. I caught a glimpse of my mother glowering in a dark corner. My father had moved to the other side of the room.

“Lamppost reach! Lamppost reach! Allyou could start the party. I reach.”

I turned to see my Uncle Lamppost walking through the front door, 
the last of my mom’s brothers. He towered above us all on his lanky legs. 
I watched him stoop to kiss the ladies and offer a bejewelled handshake 
to the men. He had poured every male cousin their first drink, lit their first cigarette behind the shed in his backyard and described to us a woman’s anatomy long before we had our first girlfriends. We didn’t see him often, so when Uncle Lamppost made his entrance at the Christmas Eve party, the music was turned down and the party gravitated toward him.

“Lamppost, this is Neil’s daahhllingg,” Auntie Patsy cooed, ushering Rosi toward my uncle. Liquor had thickened her accent nicely.

Everyone watched Rosi and Lamppost lock eyes. Lamppost didn’t say anything at first; he just stared at Rosi in a bizarre way that made us all a little uncomfortable. He placed his ringed forefinger beneath Rosi’s chin and tilted it slightly so that he could see her eyes better. What he said next came out in a whisper, “May Lee.”

Uncle Belly erupted into laughter, relieved his eccentric brother hadn’t embarrassed him. “I say the same thing myself just the other day, Lamppost! The very same thing.”

None of the cousins seemed to know what they were talking about but a familiar titter of gossip washed over the aunties and uncles like blue-green sea foam over rocks at Maracas Beach.

“Who is May Lee, Uncle?” I asked.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw my mother elbowing her way through the crowd toward us. Her black eyes were slits. Her mouth was the very shape of disgust, full of curdled milk, it seemed.

“You father never tell you about May Lee, boy?” Uncle Lamppost laughed, looking around for my dad. I spotted him first. He was sitting in the same corner, downing a scotch on the rocks and looking more morose than ever.

“Satish, what happen to you? Your mouth sew up?” Uncle Lamppost took Rosi by the hand and led her to the sofa, bidding me follow. He accepted a drink from Auntie Patsy, who was trying to squeeze her hips in between Rosi and me. My other relatives stood about in their own circles pretending to make small talk but they were all really straining to catch bits of our conversation.

“May Lee was your father’s first love, boy.” He turned to Rosi. “And she was as beautiful as you are.”

Mom had finally forced her way to the centre of the action. She glared up at Lamppost with her clenched fists set firmly on her waist. “What nonsense you talking, Lamppost!”

Lamppost flashed his dazzling smile and stooped to plant a kiss on his furious sister’s cheek before continuing. He would not be outshone by 
my mother. “This was back in Trinidad, of course.” Nostalgia crept into 
his eyes. “May Lee’s father owned the only dry cleaner shop in San Juan 
in those days. Your father used to drip dhal on his good-good shirts so he could take them to May Lee to wash.”

“Your father is a damn fool who does still drip dhal on his good-good shirts,” Mom said to me.

I stole a glance at Dad. He had risen from his chair and he looked 
fearful now.

“So what happened to May Lee?” I asked.

“Your mother. People used to joke she must have really do some good obeah on he backside because just like that”—he snapped his glittering 
fingers—“your father stopped visiting the cleaners and your parents got married.”

My mother scowled deeply. “People in Trinidad does drink too much rum and talk too much stupidness.” She sucked her teeth long and hard. 
“I didn’t have to work no obeah on Satish. He know a good woman when he see one,” she said, raising her chin.

Uncle Lamppost grinned, his gold tooth glimmering. “I thought you said Satish is a damn fool.”

Mom was perspiring at the temples. I admit I enjoyed watching 
Lamppost exasperate her that way. But I was still confused. “So where 
did May Lee go?”

Mom turned on me then. Beneath the ire in her eyes I thought I detected a warning to back off. “Boy, hush. You too fast for your own good.”

Uncle Lamppost furrowed his brow in thought. “She moved to Tobago around the same time your mother met your father.”

“So you drove May Lee away, too,” I said to my mom.

My mother’s face reddened then. I heard Rosi’s sharp intake of breath and suddenly I was aware that my entire family had given up the charade 
of small talk and were just plain staring now. My mother stood at the 
centre of it all, and as her gaze fell on Rosi and me it hardened in such 
contempt that I was chilled to my very core.

She took a step toward me. Her voice trembled when she spoke. “You think May Lee’s family would have give their daughter to a coolie like he?” She nodded her head in my father’s direction, staggering toward us now.

“Who you calling a coolie, Drupatee?” He never called my mother by 
her first name. It was always dear. “You see me working on a plantation? 
I am no coolie. In fact, if I is a coolie, then you is one too!”

My mom looked right through him; she wasn’t interested in anything 
he had to say. It dawned on me too, that she knew he was merely trying to derail the present quarrel, or at least, redirect its course. She raged on.

“You think May Lee could have wash and cook and clean for you father? You think she could have manage to cut cane in that hot sun with that child in she belly?” My mother spat the last part out. “I save he!” She stomped her foot. “While that hot little thing abandon your father’s bony backside to have she mix-up child in Tobago, I save he!”

Auntie Patsy’s meaty hand flew to her chest with a gasp. Uncle Belly was wringing his hands in a corner; his party was ruined. Even Uncle Lamppost had nothing charming to say, so he made a sad attempt to calm my seething mother. The rest of my family murmured amongst themselves and stole furtive glances at my dad. He stood there, a scandalized, angular mess, knowing neither what to say or do.

“And you,” Mom whirled on Rosi now, “you, show up here and seduce my son with your exotic-erotic magic to repeat history—”

My dad lowered his head under the weight of his guilt and shame and my mom raised hers in unwarranted pride. They stood like imbalanced scales on Judgement Day.

“Enough!” I bellowed it from somewhere deep inside me, the dark place where I’d been burying my resentment. My head spun. Silence pregnant with anticipation fell over the room and I realized that I would never again have such an opportunity to speak my mind. “Don’t say anything else. Not a word,” I said. “I’m tired of the backhanded insults, the incessant sarcasm and your flippant attitude toward Rosi.” Mom opened her mouth to speak but for the first time in my life I beat her to it. “Have I shamed you in bringing her here, this intelligent, exotic-erotic goddess?” Mom flinched at the sting of my words.

I felt my dad’s skeletal hand press into my shoulder, but I shrugged it 
off boldly.

“No, leave him, Satish!” she said to my father. “We son is a big man now. He could tell off he mother in front of people.” And with a sweeping gesture of her arm, she addressed the tense room. “How I could feel shame? No. 
I is proud-proud right now.” The grate of her scorn on my ears infuriated me. She slithered to my dad’s side. “And you should be proud too! Look how we son is following in your footsteps, so cozy with Rosi!”

I understood now that she had been holding this against him for their entire marriage. My dad lowered his head under the weight of his guilt and shame and my mom raised hers in unwarranted pride. They stood like imbalanced scales on Judgement Day. I loathed them both at that moment.

“You’ve had thirty-two years to come to terms with your choices—and they were your choices,” I said. “Rosi and I are staying together”—I reached for her hand—“She’s my girlfriend, not your scapegoat.” The colours of embarrassment glowed on my mother’s cheeks.

I made to walk away, but Rosi didn’t move. She had watched the drama unfold like a spectator and now she was ready to step into her own story, to speak her own parts. She released my clammy hand and moved closely to my parents. “Look at me,” Rosi said. “Look very carefully at me.” Her composure was more powerful than all the wrath, cynicism or shame that lingered in the air. We hung on to her whispery words. “My name is Rosi Bautista, 
not May Lee. I’m from the Philippines, not Trinidad. I’m in love with your son—wait, no, don’t look away—but it’s okay . . . It’s okay because I’m not May Lee.”

We all stood in awe of her tenderness. Mom sucked her teeth half-
heartedly and then, exhausted by her own resentment, leaned against Dad’s bones and allowed herself to weep quietly.

As the action of our drama ebbed, the room grew lively with voices again.

“Eh, allyou dry up your tears, nuh. Christmas reach,” Uncle Belly said. The circle around us broke apart into smaller groups and we were lost in the renewed merriment and laughter of the party. Uncle Lamppost sauntered over. “I been to plenty-plenty fete in my life, but I never see entertainment like this before. You really steal the show tonight, Drupatee.” He pinched her wet cheek, chuckling; she was too drained to respond.

My parents looked at Rosi and me. It was too much to expect an apology then—they were still licking their own wounds—so I mumbled: “Half-sister or half-brother?”

Dad shrugged, his eyes glittering with regret. “I never knew,” he said.

When Rosi and I snuck out a half hour later, snowflakes were drifting lazily from the night sky. We made fresh prints on the driveway, she and I, hand in hand.

“I’m sorry things turned out the way they did,” Rosi said into the darkness. Her hot breath escaped into the frigid night in clouds. “But things look promising, don’t they?” She didn’t pause long enough for me to answer. 
“I mean, there is definitely potential for a better relationship between you—us—them—all of us—you know what I mean.”

I gave her a peculiar look but she rattled on, puffs of breath dancing from her lips like smoke from a steam engine.

“And I think you were brave, standing up to your mom that way. Thanks for defending me, too. Oh, and I meant everything I said tonight, you know. And isn’t it interesting that—”

“Rosi.” I stopped walking and took her face in my gloved hands. “I love you, too.”

She looked up at me with such coyness, I was taken aback. I smiled. She had a way of doing that.


Lawrence Hill read this piece in manuscript, helping develop it for TOK.
View Sabrina Ramnanan’s author profile.