By Thalia Ramanujam
Julian was someone who pretended he could convince Veronica that his many transgressions in life turned laudable simply by willing it so.
And Veronica let him.
Because fighting her way through her disbelief of his disbelief was too painful.
Instead, she went about her life on their hillside home, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the constant company of the whispering redwoods and Rusty. Rusty, her little Shitzu, with his twitchy ebony ears, shivering malachite nostrils knew how to keep tabs on Veronica’s moods with metronomic precision, while Julian traveled away to exotic foreign locations in search of exotic fossil dig sites.
In keeping with the theme, Veronica also allowed Julian to bond with his those thirty-some-thousand-year-old skeletal remains and the accompanying twenty-some-year-old female graduate students who respected the work he did and worshipped him (in that order).
And, he could, if he chose to, wax eloquent on National TV about pre-marital courtships among the Neanderthals while comparing them to personal present-day marital mores (using personal details of his marital arrangement with Veronica).
Silence, she figured, was her most powerful homemade WMD.
Experience with her Middle Eastern-stock and naturalized American-citizen husband of over ten years has taught her this lesson.
But, ever since Adan, their seven-year-old adopted son entered their lives exactly one year ago, Veronica had started to feel a tug- a pull- it had become a dizzying task to keep Julian balanced on a scale with Adan on the other end.
It was unclear what triggered her but Veronica woke up as if someone had thrown a switch, thinking that her left half of the body was in an earthquake all of its own.
The right half was dead to the world when she tried to move it.
It was too early to be waking up, she’d rather be dead to the world anyhow, Julian had been gone all week and the world was marching towards a Sunday and the silvery-night sky was turning golden-orange already.
The vast expanse of Julian’s side of the real estate on their bed was barren—a desertscape.
Veronica slowly rolled over and ventured into his space, his world, entering it with utmost curiosity and reverence. She buried her head into Julian’s pillow and filled her chest with his aroma. Eyes closed, she got her brain to commit the various notes of his fragrance to memory—not in the shallow parts of the sulci that stored evanescent ones, but in the deeper valleys that held etched and burnt scars.
Next door, Adan was waking up in his bedroom on the second floor of their home making sounds in low register like peeling Velcro—like raspy paper. It seemed as if he had a fear about adding to the sound pollution around his vicinity. He arrived with a surprising new expression- a kid’s holiday expression. His diaphanous eyes were embedded with amber and gold-flecked pupils like marbles. He hopped around the room, tapping a catchy beat on anything tap-able along his way—teakwood doors, TV cabinet, wooden blinds, Julian’s built-in bookshelves, abandoned coffee mugs, wineglasses, table lamps, unopened Amazon boxes, toothbrushes.
Then, when least expected he frog-leaped into her bed, his knobby knees pressing into her sides, his tummy flattening her chest. With his matchstick finger, he twirled a sprig of her hair and started humming in a falsetto voice as she dove in and out of a shallow state of hypnogogic sleep.
He started tapping a rhythm on the headboard and stared straight into her eyes as if challenging her to remember. Adan had an ear for complex rhythms. Forehead against her forehead, he pried open her eyelids and peered into her pupils. The unspoken expectation was for her to have memorized the sequence and tap it back for him—on the arc of his back, on his resonant chest, on the percussive drum of his belly.
It was his test for her.
An unwinnable test.
That pint-sized little rascal!
When Veronica first met Julian, knowing that he had escaped a region in the Middle East with a very traumatic ethnic dispute, she had spread open a map on the campus cafeteria table, and asked him to point out from where exactly he had escaped before he arrived in America as a refugee.
“I must know the exact dot of real estate you belong to,” she had said.
“Oh, I really can’t show it you,” he said, picking a scab off his forearm with studied interest. “I think it is the area between the good and the dark side of the moon actually.”
Okay, she thought to herself, I’ll never bring this topic up again.
Her adoration for him never waned.
“Is that why you are looking to adopt a child because you are bored with trying to own me? Rehabilitate me?” he said, acting very casual as he let those words slip out of his lips, eyes meeting midline while starring at tip of his nose. She knew he knew how Adan too had had a similar background as he did- the same sort of warring tribal disputes and displacement of families and who knew what else? No child from these parts left without trauma—without scars.
Indeed, she had found out about Adan’s horrific life story.
“But, why gravitate to the dark side of the moon? There are needy kids all over the world, you know??”
“My bad, to think you might connect to someone with the same…” she stopped noticing a worm of a vein writhing on his forehead. “I just thought the two of you might be able to speak without talking, you know?” she said, instead.
“Wow,” Julian had said. “You use irony like a land-air ballistic missile.”
“Mama,” she heard Adan call out to her from his room. “However much I try,” his voice trailed off. He started to run his eyes as if he intended to erase them away.
Only ten days ago, his adoption had been finally finalized.
When they returned home to celebrate as requested by Adan—Julian and Veronica and Adan were to pitch a tent in their living room and sleep inside the whole night. Sadly, when they whistled for their dog, Rusty was missing.
Adan ran to the door and twirled round and round in the customized gossamer curtain hanging at the entrance. He wrapped himself tighter, swaddling himself with the curtain as if being swallowed by a boa.
“However much I try, Rusty keeps missing,” he said, trying hard not to burst out crying.
Veronica jumped out of bed and picked him and placed him across her shoulders like a stole.
“One of these days, we’ll try to find him,” she said, not believing a word of it. It had just been too long since Rusty was gone although Adan seemed not to have a sense of passing time.
Adan had been rescued by a Dutch humanist after his entire village had been decimated in a long-warring, ethnic, border struggle. But Adan was the only one to have miraculously survived.
“When I found Adan in the rubbles, the rival tribes were making him dig mass graves for his own family,” the Dutchman told Veronica on the phone.
“Has Adan had any psychological help? I mean, do we know how much Adan is affected?” She felt odd asking. In the trenches, saving a life is perhaps all that one could do.
It was up to her, now. She would need to champion Adan’s recovery.
“Is there any way we can hasten the adoption process?” she had asked the Dutchman, already feeling an intense love for Adan that felt more like an affliction. It was as if someone had extracted Adan out of her body and placed him in the Dutchman’s hands. Now she was trying to reclaim him back for herself. It only took hearing his name mentioned for her to feel like he was hers.
Every cell in him came out of every cell of hers.
Her head became filled with Adan-shaped thoughts all the time.
Her eyes welled for no reason at all.
Everywhere she looked, there were only little boys to see.
In the DMV office, in the 7-11 check-out line, in the Ladies room at the gym, in the Doctor’s office, on the bookshelves in the garage.
Oddly, the little boys seemed more interested in digging. Veronica tried hard not to make it be graves.
But, no luck.
Graves appeared everywhere.
She tried to superimpose beautiful landscapes, imagine Adan in scenic places, an angelic child on a beach in southern California—Santa Monica, maybe—wearing azure-blue swim trunks, digging into the golden sand with a lemon-yellow toy shovel- building sand castles, which curly haired boy wouldn’t like that?
Only, out of nowhere, dead bodies appeared, dead bodies piling atop dead bodies, along the boardwalk in Santa Monica, with the sun-drenched ocean waves thrashing about, against a red horizon screaming in the background.
If she can barely handle it, how do you get a child to speak about such matters?
The TV was buzzing in the background.
“Why do you like to watch this staticky TV without any images, Bud?” she asked.
“Adan likes it cuz,” he said.
“Let’s try this, okay?” Veronica said, shutting off the TV.
She tapped a musical phrase on his mid-back. He listened and tapped the rhythm back with perfect timing. She increased the tempo. So did he. He listened, head tilted, eyes squinted. With each progression of complexity and sequencing, he kept up, vocalizing with foreign-accented clicks, and keeping time with little finger snaps.
When he first arrived at the airport, Veronica had to bend double to get close to Adan’s face.
Adan looked like he was holding back a smile as he showed her a picture of Julian and Veronica that he was holding in his hand. He beamed, thrilled to be able to spot the very two people he needed to match the picture with.
The expression of singular joy on his face—Veronica recognized it instantly—that guileless smile.
Julian! He used to be the owner of such a smile, too. Years ago, on the day after Thanksgiving, at the International Students’ desk at De Anza College, when she mentioned this unique smile, he had said to her, “This is the signature smile of the disenfranchised, you know.”
She leaned over the desk and traced his lips with her pointer finger.
“I want to borrow that smile,” she had said.
“Cuz, you see, everything there is to lose in our lives already belongs in our past,” he said, sitting on top of the desk and resting his feet on her chair.
“And anything to gain has got to be in our future,” he said, staring out the window as if the sky had something to add to that.
Those words stuck with her.
Without a moment’s hesitation at the airport, she hugged Adan. To break the awkwardness, she patted his back. Just as clumsily, Adan patted the same exact rhythm back on her back.
And, this was the start of their secret game. Using their secret codes.
An inadvertent discovery of their own private language.
She tried to pick up his backpack.
“Auto-self,” Adan said, insisting on carrying his own backpack.
It was Adan’s three-month adoption anniversary day and Veronica had marooned herself at home, checking the paperwork in anticipation of the completion of the adoption home study.
Her motherhood—her ability to raise Adan—was still an open question until the social worker signed off her papers.
Adan was in great spirits that morning. With his hands clasped behind his back, he took big steps back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, like a land surveyor, whistling a strange tune. “Fixing breakfast for Mama,” he announced.
He was wearing a pair of shorts that fit him more like a pair of pants—no shirt, thank you—butt-crack visible. “Eating sloth- shaped cookies,” he announced, although Veronica found him tucking a couple into his pockets.
“Adan, you are after me to buy these cookies for you,” Veronica said. “But I never see you eat them. Why?”
“Cuz,” he said and stuffed yet another sloth into his pocket. He tried to crawl out through the dog door. “May I go out? Adan wants to pick a tomato, auto-self.”
“Just be careful,” Veronica said.
“Does Rusty dream, Mama?” Adan stopped mid-crawl.
Veronica paused, taking in the strangeness of her son sliding out the dog door while asking strange dog questions.
The front doorbell rang.
“Bud, can you open the door for me? Summer is here to spend the day with us,” Veronica whispered, walking up to him, she pulled up his shorts well above the butt crack. Gently, she steered him toward the front door.
Outside, the kitchen garden looked like a tropical paradise compared to the unattended yard around it. The tomato plants were lavishly green with a surprise of resplendent tomatoes speckled inbetween.
Julian was an earth-digger. That much could be said of him. How easily he seemed to have forgotten his past, buried his history, Anglicized his name. “I want a naturalized American name, not a plasticized foreign name,” he joked.
At one point in their lives, Julian and Veronica had been very intimate.
Suddenly, he advances in academia, gets invited by all the major TV networks for interviews on his groundbreaking research, gets national and international recognition as the authority on human evolution.
Now, he doesn’t show up for his or her birthday dinners.
Always comes up with an excuse—postdocs, research scientists, staff scientists, NSF grant application deadlines, PETA, hummus, qatayef, baba ganouj, booty calls—not his fault if his brand-new grads flew in from Lithuania, Rio, Chang Mai, as if the hallway to his office were an airport runway. She couldn’t blame them. Julian was a charmer. Who could resist a man full of secrets who never reveals them, and who could unravel one of your secrets to its last DNA helix?
“Mama, lookie who’s here.” Adan came running inside.
Summer had a filamentous body but she was wearing an oversized yellow hat.
“Adan is a riot,” the social worker said. “He says I remind him of a sunflower.”
Adan saluted then bowed. He pirouetted and marched out of the room.
Veronica perched on the edge of a chair.
“When I spoke to Julian on the phone, he told me that Adan is still distraught about losing Rusty. Are you noticing any signs of deep grief?”
“Not much,” Veronica said.
Summer was ticking off box after box on a sheet as she rattled off questions.
“Sometimes, we read much into our kids,” she said as she started to flip through her files.
Veronica was making her way to her final phase, it seemed, jumping through checked boxes, slithering past marginalia, and dodging pointy editorials in a file.
“Given you have so much experience,” Veronica said, her notepad ready to take notes, “Yes, I’m concerned that Adan has no concept of life and death yet. For instance, he thinks Rusty is still alive after all these months that he has been gone. Also, he doesn’t want to talk about his family that he lost. For that matter, even simple things like, the cookie. The sloth-shaped cookies that he loves? He asks for them but never eats them.
Summer shook her head as if she expected all the information to enter her head by some form of osmosis.
Then, after giving it some required time of concern, she asked if she could check the laundry room, by the way.
While Veronica waited for Summer to return, she noticed Adan’s feet sticking through the dog door. He was singing in a falsetto voice.
“Great, everything is in order,” the social worker said after stopping for a bathroom break on her way back from checking the laundry room. “Perhaps we tend to read too much into our kids.”
But she was happy with how well Adan was doing.
“You can expect the post-adoption papers and the final home study material that I will have signed in the mail. This completes all your formalities. Good luck going forward. This is it,” she said and hurried away.
Veronica woke up to a salvo of chilling cries from next door. Adan, who was unflappable ever since he arrived, seemed to have finally cracked. Come to find out, he had locked himself inside his room and didn’t know how he let himself out.
Soon, Adan was starting to bang his head against the door from sheer fear and panic.
“Open the door, Mommy, open it!” The terror in his voice might be something she might have imagined of Adan back in his homeland. But, why here? Why now?
“Adan, I can’t open it from the outside…”
The loud banging from the inside continued. It seemed as if he would crack his skull open.
“Don’t do that, please. I’m right here, son.”
The screaming intensified.
“I’ll get you out of there in no time,” she said, starting to panic, too. She could hear him retreat to gain momentum and charge forward before he rammed into the door with his head.
At first, she tried using a soothing voice, then the voice of cartoon characters, then a sergeant’s sonorous voice, then a sing-song tone.
She covered her face with her sweaty palms and froze for a second. Why wasn’t Julian here when she needed him?
She thought about calling Julian, but she didn’t want some sweet female voice to pick up, claiming that they were racing against an important deadline for a research grant or some such.
“Gear up, stupid,” she said to herself, as she dialed and spoke to a locksmith.
When she hung up, she decided to run outside the house to see if she could access his room on the second floor through the window that faced the garden.
“Hey, Bud,” she said, using a telescoping spider mop to tap on his window from outside. In the moonlight, she found a ladder but it wasn’t tall enough to reach the window.
She tied Adan’s favorite stuffed baby sloth to the mop and introduced it through the storm window.
There was a brief letting up of the fierce shrieking.
A cloud was chasing the moon and the house fell into darkness.
Veronica tapped a chord progression against the aluminum siding. Suddenly, she got a rhythm tapped back.
She tried a different musical phrase. Still screaming, Adan managed to respond with perfect accuracy. They kept going with a special code in and a special code out.
“Let’s have a picnic,” she said, standing on the top rung and flinging a fruit over the window sill through the open window. “Catch.” Then, a banana and juice carton flew over too.
“This is the best picnic I’ve ever had,” she said, balancing herself and biting into an apple. “Aren’t you loving it?”
“Now comes your favorite sloth-shaped cookies. Tap if you find it yummy.”
After a short while, there were five tentative raps.
As the locksmith worked on the door, they played word games, he feeding her the consonants and vowels, and she guessing the words for him.
When the door opened Adan rushed into her arms.
“However much I try,” Adan said, starting to sob all over again once he was safely tucked in her arms.
“I think you are a hero. You are Auto-Self Adan.” She could barely enunciate these words because her facial muscles refused to obey her.
“Not a good idea, cuz,” he said, still sobbing.
They climbed into bed.
“Mama, do dogs dream?” Adan asked.
Unable to speak a single syllable anymore, she tapped a complicated beat just to reassure him on his back.
He responded by tapping on her back.
She needed that reassurance more than he could have known.
Two weeks after that incident, Veronica drove Adan to drop him off at Julian’s office.
“Is this Dad’s office?” Adan asked as he settled down on the carpet. “Where is he?”
“Oh, out there somewhere, digging, I suppose,” Veronica said, settling down on Julian’s swivel chair.
“Adan wants to say hello.”
“To whom, Bud?”
Adan ran close to a skull display on a pedestal and peered keenly at a particular skull. “That skull looks like a chimp wearing goggles,” he said. She remembered this fossil from one of their trips to South Africa. She tried to pick up Adan so he could have a better look at it.
“Adan do it. Auto-self,” he wiggled off her grip.
“Okay, I’ll go sit at Dad’s desk,” she said, watching him take out a sloth cookie from his pocket and place it next to a skull.
“What’s his name?” he asked, squinting his eye.
“Who? This fossil? It is the extinct hominid of Australopithecus sediba? I know because I edited Dad’s papers. Why do you think he’d like your cookie?”
“Dad dug Aus baba out?” He sat down on the ground as if he needed to anchor himself.
“Mama, was Aus baba alive when dad dug him up?”
Even before she could respond, there was a knock on the door. Julian peeked his head in.
“Hey, Daddy,” Adan said, flying towards him with his arms outstretched. “Were your skull friends alive when you dug them up, Daddy?”
“Come here, buddy,” Julian picked him and waved to Veronica. He lavished kisses all over Adan and sneaked a kiss on his belly button.
“Let’s go. I have a colleague of mine taking you to the Natural History Museum today, okay?”
They walked away with Adan wrapped across Julian’s shoulders like a baby lamb.
When Julian returned, he kissed Veronica and sat down across from her. Dressed in studied casual clothes, loafers, and Hemingway cap, his eyes were smiling even when he wasn’t. He appeared like he was waiting for an interview session.
“I think this chair, this deco, this title, this department—everything suits you better than they suit me,” Julian said. “I feel intimidated sitting across from you.”
Intimidated? she thought. If you are intimidated then you are intimidated by your own guilt, Mister, not by me. She stood up and started towards the door, letting him know that she would be expecting Adan home by dinnertime.
Julian loosened his tie and added a swagger to his gait.
“Adan asks a lot of questions about Rusty. Does Rusty dream? Is he alive?” she said, picking up her stride “I know what you mean,” he said. She stopped and turned around to face him. His eyes pointedly stared at her feet instead of her face.
“You are thinking I worry to the point of hysteria?”
He shifted back and forth on his feet as if he was trying to find a balancing point. “Reading kids is like reading tea leaves. You know?” he finally said.
She faked a laugh.
“What are you laughing at?”
“That’s what I think about you all the time. How you are inscrutable. How you could be more involved with Adan with your being…”
“Being what? I am an American just like you,” he said. “But, I find myself having to remind you all the time of this simple fact.”
“I don’t feel I have a clue what this kid is going through. I wish I could.”
“Oh, the incident when he locked himself in his room?” Julian said. “I can see myself reacting that way.”
“See what I mean?”
But, he didn’t. He didn’t want to. He didn’t want her to want him to.
They separated without saying goodbye.
It felt like this may be how things were going to go for them from now on. A continental drift until suddenly you will no longer see what you left behind.
Suddenly Julian called out to her. She didn’t feel like she wanted to stop but her feet did.
“I wouldn’t worry so much,” he said. “You know why?” He kept walking towards her and she could feel his moist breath on her cheek.
“Remember how Adan asks you to buy him sloth cookies from Kelly’s all the time? He never eats them even though he asks for them all the time. He feeds those cookies to the tomato plants in the kitchen garden. I see this as a sign that all is well.”
Veronica stood statue-like, staring, Julian had given her a parting gift, she stood there stupefied, not knowing how to respond to that note of approbation, except stand there watching him do a perfect pivot and walk away with a finality in each stride. Veronica started down the corridor of the Anthropology department, not running anymore, but sauntering in slow motion, along the creaky wooden floor, taking in the musky wet smells, observing its tall domed ceilings.
As a student herself once, she had walked down such great walkways to the sanctums of professors, whom she too had admired for their brilliance. Now, these corridors seemed dank with empty and lonely and vapid spaces created by closed doors and shadows of stone torsos of dead men on pedestals.
A young woman, wearing shoes that looked like fencing swords, walked past her, bestowing an amiable smile.
Veronica had owned such a smile once, too, when she used to soar in academia, but everything changed when she met Julian. She had stepped off her own paved path, lofty career, instead gotten involved in his work, becoming his helper, reading his papers, editing his articles, helping him launch as a famous American scientist.
On a trip to Brazil, during their early days of digging for fossils, Julian and she were more than tipsy after drinking a local Caipirinha, Veronica vaguely remembered asking Julian about his past life and the circumstances of how he ended up in America.
“Long story,” he’d said. “I was one of those kids who dug the mass graves. Ethnic warfare stirred up Americans. Before the Americans rescue us, Americans decimate us. That is the American way, you know?”
Veronica remembered crying softly.
“I was just a kid and I was forced into digging mass graves. Some graves were overflowing with bodies, too many bodies. The men who forced me to do this used their shovels to tamp down the bodies. Some of the bodies were my own family. I didn’t even think about what I was doing. I just did. I felt numb.”
Later, when sober, she’d brought up this topic with him, Julian categorically denied having said anything to that effect. Instead, he accused her of having imagined the whole conversation.
Did she believe him? Or not believe him?
Here history was repeating itself with Adan, and Julian instead of helping their son was digging holes for fossils and there was nothing she could do about it.
Out of nowhere, a cell phone rang sounding like bleating sheep jolting her into her senses.
Veronica pulled out her car keys from inside her bag and they came out covered in the crumpled remains of Adan’s sloth cookies. Taking off her shoes, she started to run as if being chased by invisible aliens.
The ride home happened in a complete daze, too. Breathlessly, she rushed directly to their kitchen garden.
The tomatoes were shining like gems picking up the sunrays. She uprooted a plant, then another, then another, her heartbeat bounced off her eardrums, which amplified them several fold. The last of the plants came out as she scrutinized each one with an archeologist’s attention to details.
Too fearful to use a shovel, she started to dig the soil with her bare hands. As expected, the soil was a burial ground for numerous sloth cookies.
She kept on digging into the dirt.
And, just as she had suspected, lying in a shallow grave was poor Rusty.
Decomposed, desiccated, lifeless.
Could dogs ever dream? And was Rusty dreaming when Adan found him sleeping, curled up on the bathroom mat in his room?
To herself and later to the social worker, Veronica conceded that it all made sense. Underground is where Adan saw his family go. It was where he left everyone he knew and loved behind. As far as Adan could tell, this is the safe place where the people he cared about got to dream their dreams.
Until days later, years later, centuries later, an archeologist like Adan’s adopted father— her Julian—would come along and excavate Adan’s loved ones, unearthing them along with their dreams and uncover their bodies and listen to their forgotten stories.
Thaila Ramanujam is a physician with an MFA from Bennington College, Vermont. She has written two novels and a collection of short stories. Her work has been published or won awards in Nimrod, Asian Cha, Glimmer Train, Readers, Kartika Review, New Short Fiction, Storysouth, Cantaraville, and Kalachuvadu Literary Magazine.