What Comes After

by A. A. Singh

April says our plants are proof of how we need to get it together before thinking about a dog. I am drowsy-eyed lying on the couch as pastel rays seep through our venetian blinds. She asks if I remembered to place our orchid in sunlight, and I think, you didn’t tell me to—but I see what she is doing.

Still, I feel as though I would remember to care for something that follows me around and farts as much as I do. I stare at our television and wonder if I’d care for the plants I now have more than my hypothetical gassy dog if I spent some of my childhood in the Midwest like April did, tending her grandmother’s vegetable garden with her father. I tell her about how responsible I was when I used to babysit my cousins. I tell her about how my family has depended on me with their kids for two decades.

April stands next to our table, left leg folded, foot pressed against her right leg supporting the rest of her weight. “You didn’t have to bring the problems home,” she says. “You didn’t have to stay their guardian for longer than a couple days.”

* * *

Talks of marriage seemed natural while April and I dated, but there was a dissonance I hadn’t felt with her before when our talks evolved into something more serious. Into something about having kids.

I remember sitting in my mother’s Florida room one night as April explained how important it was for us to be on the same page about kids before taking any further steps. The over-climactic sounds of my mother’s Bollywood soaps percolated through the closed doors. I’ve never wanted kids, she said. Loud and clear. And I probably never will.

I hadn’t thought about it very much and just considered it part of life, some inevitable event that would happen once I was married and settled down—once I was ready. Some event that just happened. No thought involved. Okay, maybe some thought—but not right now.

I remember telling April, whether I wanted kids or not, that no decisions had to be made right then. That we were still young and thinking like young people do.

I hoped she would change her mind—not to want kids, but to not not want kids.

* * *

I once asked my mother about her reasons for wanting to have kids. We were married for a little while. I remember staring at her. There had to be more. We were married for a little while. That’s just what comes after.

* * *

My older brothers always joke about how they plan to handle discipline, licks, with their future children.

“I’m just going to give them licks at the same time every day,” they say, laughing.

My childhood, spent babysitting younger cousins, is probably why I am good with kids, why I am obsessed with things from my childhood, why I always thought having kids was just the next step. It’s as if we are programmed by our families, our media, our toys. As kids we play house, and then we fail to think about how our romantification of raising a family may supersede whether we are actually qualified—or not qualified—when the time comes.

My teenage years were different—in my early teens, my parents ceased to grow with me. As I grew older, I could see my relationship with my parents, my father especially, regressing into awkwardness. My father would no longer smile in pictures or hug me with both arms. Our family no longer used the words “I love you”—not even my mother who used to hold my hand when she drove me to elementary school.

April’s childhood revolved around a small Nazarene church her father pastored. She knew of her family’s constant focus in the spotlight. This meant no Pokémon or Power Rangers, no trick or treat. She felt like an adult when she was seven.

No one suspected her uncle, another pastor, was sexually abusing her. This is why we do not share childhood nostalgia. This is why, until she had truly assimilated into my close-knit family, it was easy for her to negate the possibility of kids in her future.

I sometimes wonder if this disconnect—when my brothers and I grew older—was sparked by the awkward tension that happens during and after puberty. At what point does it stop being okay for your kid to shower with you? Sleep with you? I will admit, I was probably too old on both of these accounts, but there is nothing diabolical about my past. And while it’s frustrating that my parents seemed to worry about such a thing, I find myself falling in line with this convention whenever I’m around young children. Did they teach me to be this way, or is it societal conditioning?

It seems that there is always a reason to worry: I hear that one in three women have been or will be raped in their lives—and it seems, too often, to happen in childhood.

Suddenly, my parents’ awkwardness doesn’t feel so trite a thing anymore.

* * *

When you’re ready, do your plants stop withering and bloom beautiful flowers? Do the spider mites stop eating them? Or do you over-water them, fill them with so much love that they drown? Do they fry in the sun, out in the wild with no window to protect them?

* * *

I have this naive fantasy that having a dog will make me a happier person when I come home after a long day. Or a bad day. Or when I run myself into a wall with writing. Or when April and I fight. But what about the heartache pets bring when we realize—knock on wood—we live longer than they do? April wants a dog too, but she says it would feel like betraying her childhood dog who still lives with her parents.

Unlike April, I grew up with a lack of puppies and kittens. When my parents still lived in Trinidad, they had dogs—roti-hounds, dogs they would feed table scrapsbut none of them were allowed inside. No dogs in the house, they’d say. The fur will make Grandma’s allergies act up. My brother had a dog in Trinidad too, but it slept outside. Once we were in North America, however, pets were no longer welcome.

I remember my oldest brother dragging us to a pet store for a science project. We returned home with a turtle my brother named Rusty after his bronze shell.

There was no science project.

We gave Rusty to a maintenance worker in our apartment complex once he outgrew his cheap plastic aquarium. My mother said she felt bad for how small it was, and Eugene always spoke of his aquarium. Still, I can’t help but think of the relief she must have felt when we waved good-bye to Rusty.

* * *

My brother once told me that his son—my nephew—was not allowed to stay the night at our apartment. We will work toward that, he said. As a parent, I worry about things. Like what happened to April—you should understand.

I didn’t understand. But maybe these horrible things that happen to us are ways to pass it on to the next generation.

* * *

In my sophomore year at university, I spent my evenings, after class, driving to my aunt’s house to tutor her two children. I couldn’t find a job, and she wanted to help out. For the entire year, I appeared to be a role model—a father figure, even—to her children. Their real father was working long hours at a startup company in another state and flying back only for weekends. He was burnt out.

My aunt would sometimes fly out to meet her husband, and I would watch the kids for the week or so—take them to school, drop them off at soccer practice, watch terrible children’s television with them, make sure they were fed and not bruising each other’s faces with their knuckles. I always grew my beard out to make myself look more like an authority figure.

They called me Papa Singh.

After a long day of separating the children from “no, you are” arguments, I walked into the room with the younger one bawling—the type of bawling and sobbing and snotting that only happens after physical provocation.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

The older one shrugged and grinned, knowing the worst he would get is a lecture.

“Guys.” I closed one eye with my thumb and the other with my pointer finger, rubbing them softly. The crying sounded like an ambulance. “What happened here? Why is he crying?”

Another shrug.

The younger one wailed and whined between mucousy gasps. “He—he hit me—for no rea—son,” he said. “I didn’t—even do—anything.”

I studied the older one’s body language. He smiled at me, raising his eyebrows. He was testing me—a usual annoyance, but this time he broke me.

What is it that causes the human to hit?

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Perhaps it’s written in our DNA, fathers and mothers passing it down with each slap to our faces—a tiny, slow growing seed planted early and watered regularly. I was never abused, but I sometimes wonder if the few times I was hit by my parents is what made it seem normal—like I deserved it.

Maybe I did.

Or maybe it’s hereditary. Maybe some poor child, put up for adoption by parents who feared how they would mess up and fail, is already doomed—maybe the child grows up to be exactly like his parents. Is it nature, or is it nurture?

There was no hesitation. Just a whoosh and my palm connected with his face. His eyelids snapped shut—an attempt to blot out the tears.

He later explained to me, as I apologize, that it was the shock, not the actual force of impact, that made him cry, that I didn’t hit him hard and I shouldn’t worry about it. I remember telling him how sorry I was, that I loved him, that I would never hit him again. I remember telling myself I would never hit anyone again.

* * *

The plants are dying. There are no petals left on the orchid.

* * *

When the my brother was sixteen, just a few days before the doctors removed an apricot-sized tumor from the back of his brain, we were huddled around his hospital bed in the intensive care unit. A teenaged boy had been rushed in earlier, and we knew something was wrong; his mother was screaming his name. My brother sat on his bed, unsure if he would wake up after his surgery, listening to what could have been his future.

We found out later that the boy was brain dead. There was nothing the doctors could do. His mother threw her body on top of him, begging the doctors to keep him on life support.

They had to pull the plug.

I can’t make out the name, but I can still hear his mother’s screams.

* * *

As soon as my brother moved out, he got a Doberman pinscher. I remember my brother staying in the car with Caezar as I reached through the car window to pet his head for the first time. I was terrified of him when he grew to his full size. Once, he cornered me when I was holding my newborn nephew. He snapped his canines, an ivory bear trap. Let go of my human.

He would become my favorite dog—the dog that taught me to love dogs. He would rest his head on my lap, cry if he could not reach me.

Years later, my brother and his wife will call me to let me know that they have put Caezar down. A tumor will grow in his jaw and the bleeding will refuse to stop. It will be easier to put him down than to let him suffer.

* * *

I am reminded of how my parents used to be when my baby cousin visits. My father, too awkward to hug his grown sons, becomes a singer. My mother holds my baby cousin’s hands.

A similar thing happens when my brothers bring their dogs inside the house. My father smiles big and squinty-eyed, boiling chicken breast for the dogs. They like this better, he says. And when one of them pees on the tile floor, my parents furrow their brows and suck their teeth, and I can swear I hear a chuckle.

* * *

April surprises me when she imagines about how attractive our mixed kids would be or how she thinks I’d be a good father.

We are fickle. We are afraid of what we may screw up. There are so many variables to get just right when we make decisions for something we create, something that could reflect our inner most selves. Something that could grow up to be us—better than us, worse than us. I feel this way when I am hunched over a computer or a piece of paper. I feel this way whenever I am writing or composing a song or drawing a picture. April says my worst quality is that I am a self-defeatist. She says I am my own worst critic, that I keep myself from growing and reaching my full potential by nipping ideas in the bud.

I wonder if this is what we are doing. If we are keeping ourselves from our full potential—keeping ourselves from being great parents—nipping ourselves in the bud.

I stare out our sliding glass door and watch the Muscovy ducks shimmy through the rough Floridian grass behind our patio. Since we moved into this apartment, our plants have been leaving us: Even our cactus—April named it Yoshi—withered and turned black. Black like Caezar’s nose.

April shrieks like a banshee. “Korra is still alive!”

Korra is our ginseng ficus bonsai.

I open the glass door. “I thought the mites killed her,” I say.

“She’s blooming though! Maybe I can go to the store and get some organic insecticide—that stuff I made on my own didn’t seem to work last time.” April is beaming, her cheeks puffy with excitement.

Maybe we didn’t fail. Maybe she will sprout again.

Maybe we should get a dog.

 

BIO: A. A. Singh is a sleepy over-thinker who lives in Tampa, Florida, where he teaches English courses at the University of South Florida. His work has appeared in The Caribbean Writer, and he is the Associate Nonfiction Editor for the literary magazine em: A Review of Text and Image. He is currently working on a memoir about growing up in Florida as an Indo-Trinidadian.