The door is open.
Why is it open? What is in there, past the open door?
Arms folded on my chest, stooping as if to block the world, I march across our front lawn and stand on the sidewalk. I stare at the house opposite ours, which has been vacant for months.
It looks occupied, but I don’t see a moving van or cars in the driveway.
Did they fly in?
Someone inside flips a switch, and a bright light streams through the open door.
“Jeena! Dinner is ready. Where are you?” I hear my mother call, but I don’t turn back.
Winter is setting in. It is also getting dark, and I am alone on the street.
The cold settles in my heart makes me wrap my arms—it is only forty degrees, and not windy either. Anyway, I like cold weather. It is in my genes, my father said—his genes. He instilled a pride in me, in my physical ability to withstand any storm, any snow, any hail, any wind, any hazard that Nature might bring my way.
So, this shivering, this unusual tremble, this blocked chest is not about the cold outside.
I continue to stand and look.
The open door is a magnet of possibilities. Its promises entrance me.
One month back, I wouldn’t even have noticed, let alone cared about an open door.
But it’s different now. I am different. Dad is gone, and he has left me frozen inside. Dad never taught me that cold can come from within. He only taught me how to brave the Nature outside.
His heart had never felt alone, atilt, or adrift.
The open door radiates a hope that beckons.
What sort of people leave their front door open so anyone can walk in? How long will they leave it open?
It is unusual in America for a front door to be wide open, late in the evening, where the custom seems to be doors that are closed. If I walk up to a house, ring the doorbell, and someone opens the door, I already know, though I cannot see this, that they have inspected me through the piece of glass set in the door somewhere at adult eye level, high above my head.
“Jeena, stand away from the door when you ring the doorbell, far enough for them to see you,” Mom has instructed me, because in my excitement, often I forget and lean into the door—as if to teleport myself through.
It’s not only front doors that are closed. When I go for a sleepover to my friend Anna’s house, she closes the door to her room so her mom and dad can’t walk in or look at us as we play.
“Why do you close the door, Anna?” I used to ask. “We are not doing anything that your parents can’t see.”
“No, Jeena. We need our privacy,” Anna would say with an assurance I wished I had. “And they don’t want to hear our noises, anyway.”
Anna is my best friend, and we giggle and whisper though we can be as loud as we want because of the closed door.
I notice that Anna’s parents close their bedroom door too. Anna’s elder sister is in high school, and she keeps her door closed when she is in there. Her door has a handwritten piece of paper taped on that says, Keep Out.
It is different in my house. Mom and Dad did not close their door, and I was not allowed to close mine. They said privacy is not about closing a door. Even at night, they left their door open. I remember crawling into their bed, right in between them. They didn’t mind, and I loved it. We went into one another’s room whenever we wanted. We didn’t close inside doors except to go to the bathroom. In fair weather, or on weekends when we were home, even the front door was left open. “It’s good for cross ventilation.” At night, or when out, we closed it and then we looked the same as others in the neighborhood.
Houses in America are designed so doors can be closed without affecting access to common areas. A typical home has a corridor with rooms going off on one or both sides so each person can close the door behind them. “Just like a hotel,” Mom says. “What is the point of having a house, a home, a family if we shut ourselves off in our rooms?” She doesn’t subscribe to American notions around security or privacy. “What is the privacy for? You need privacy from strangers or when you shower and change clothes, but why do you need privacy to lie in bed and read a book? Listen to music?”
Dad was born in Michigan, but he agreed and said we had nothing to hide from one another. Open doors must have been customary where Mom grew up in India because Mom is a pretty private person in other ways. For example, Mom and Dad didn’t kiss in public as I have seen other parents do. The most they did was hold hands when they thought no one was looking. Dad sometimes sneaked a peck on Mom’s cheek, and she blushed red in spite of her dark skin. It was almost a game they played, their own secret game. Mom’s ideas about privacy are her own, and Dad loved her just the way she is. And I loved my dad best and saw her only through his eyes.
So, I don’t admit it to anyone, but on Saturday afternoons, when we were home together, when I was in my room, I wanted my door open. The soft breeze that wafted through our house carried sounds that connected our family and made us special. It was as if an invisible thread wove through our bodies—fine yet strong in a flexibility that allowed us to be independent without being unsociable. I could hear the clattering of Mom’s utensils in the kitchen, my dog Zeena’s snoring in the yard, and Dad practicing his music on the living room piano. We had a bond in our family that withstood distance, separation, and the cold.
I close my eyes and recall his music. An open door reminds me of us—as a family. It helps me summon the inner warmth that binds us.
I remember the man who visited us last month when Dad was on a trip. He knocked on our door and when Mom opened it, he asked, “Are you Mrs. Maya Mann?” and when she said, “Yes, I am,” he said, “May I come in?” The man wore a dark suit and carried a briefcase. He was from the State Department. He showed identification and asked to sit in the living room. He said he would not be long. When he saw me, he asked to meet with Mom alone, but she said it was fine for me to be there. If she had known what was coming, she might have agreed with him, but with Mom, I don’t always understand how she thinks.
“Mrs. Mann, I am sorry to have to do this, but I must inform you that Mr. Jerald Mann’s vehicle was ambushed in Pakistan yesterday. He was traveling to a remote village. It was a routine assignment—security inspections and audits. We had no warning that he was in any danger. It was unexpected, and we have initiated an inquiry.”
“How can that be? He called me yesterday.”
The man took official papers out of his briefcase and handed them to her.
“I am sorry, Mrs. Mann.”
He let himself out the door, and Mom sat unmoving, staring at the papers. I don’t think she remembered I was still sitting there.
After the man left, I sobbed, pummeled her body to get a reaction, and threw a tantrum.
“How could he? How could Dad die and leave us alone?”
Mom seemed to come out of shock and held me tight. “Shh,” she said. “Shh.”
She was not crying.
I did not understand. “Is he gone? Gone-forever gone?”
She nodded and crumpled the papers to the floor. Still no tears. In my rage and confusion, I turned on her.
“You! It’s your fault. You didn’t love him. If you did, you would have stopped him from going to dangerous places. I hate you.” I thrashed out of her embrace.
I said a lot more. I don’t recall how long I ranted. Along with my grief, hurtful words poured out uncontrolled; how I had never seen her display affection publicly; how she wouldn’t stop him from going away. She said Dad’s job brought him fulfillment. She knew it was unsafe, but she had no right to stop him. She said their love was sacred but private.
What about me? Did she even love me?
She sat in place till I calmed down. Then I ran to my room and slammed my door shut. She did not follow me or knock on the door. I realized my mistake and opened the door, but the moment had passed.
At night, I heard her sobbing herself to sleep. Every night. Night after night. She needed me but I did not know how to help. I froze when I thought about a future without Dad.
Last night, I found the courage to crawl into her bed and hold her tight. It started the thaw. She talked. She told me that while she had thought about returning to India, she had now decided America was our home.
“Would you prefer that, Jeena?” she asked. “I want what is best for you. Jeena, you are my reason for living now.” Then she held my face in her hand, looked me in the eye, and said my outburst was healthy. That I shouldn’t feel bad about what I had said. She was glad I could express my anger, sense of betrayal, and feelings of loss. “Dad loved you very much, Jeena. And he loved me too. He loved us enough to last seven lifetimes.” That’s what she said—it’s the Indian in her. And she told me what she meant by seven lifetimes.
“Your dad will always be with you. He lives inside and around. What you have to do is close your eyes and call him.”
And that’s how I can hear Dad practicing the piano. Even though he is dead.
But when I am with Anna, when she comes to my house for a sleepover or to do homework, I close my bedroom door because I understand it’s the American way and I want to be an American. Mom doesn’t say anything about it.
There is no contradiction in my mind. So what if Anna’s habits differ from mine? She is her own person and so am I. I look like Dad except I have Mom’s dark hair, and his hair was gold. I know this because sometimes when strangers assume I’m white, I don’t correct them. When they call me Jane, I let it go, though I am proud of my name. Dad said small slipups don’t reflect the true person. Mom said I am American whether I am brown or white.
They are both right.
But since Dad died, such little things make me anxious.
That is why the open door has me transfixed. It is the door to our new neighbors. They must have moved in during the day when I was in school. If I walked into the bright, warm kitchen, what would happen?
Who are these people? Will they welcome me or will they think I am strange to visit uninvited?
I drop my arms, square my shoulders, take three deep breaths, and ready myself to face the world. I march up the driveway, to the front door.
“Hello. Anybody home?” I yell as I press the doorbell on the wall.
I am not cold anymore.
Writer, technologist, and unabashed geek, Neerja Raman’s short fiction has been published in several periodicals, and she received an honorable mention in the Katha Fiction Contest (2017) for her short story “Garden of People.” She has also authored essays and other nonfiction published by Information Age Publishing. Her book “The Practice and Philosophy of Decision Making: A Seven Step Spiritual Guide” is available on Amazon. Her debut novel is “Moments in Transition: Stories of Maya and Jeena”, also available on Amazon. Raman was inducted into Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.