Every Saturday night when I was in middle school, my father disappeared to a local gas station to buy his weekly lottery tickets. Each week, we sat at the dinner table, facing the same scene: a table set for a family of four, plates heaped with rice and dal and an anxious hope between us, hot as soup. The scratchable lottery tickets sat beside my father’s plate like a side dish. Every time, I squealed like a child and asked if I could scratch the tickets; he would reach into his coat pocket for a penny.
During my father’s most monotonous weeks of work, the ritual of buying lottery tickets — to no avail — continued most fiercely. When my father lost his job, he came back home with three bags of groceries and a fresh stack of lottery tickets from the gas station. He took out a penny from his coat pocket, shiny and cold as a dream, and scratched the surface of each ticket until the paper skin bled.
“Maybe this time,” he’d mutter under his breath. I remember how I’d wince every time he bought a ticket. I only liked scratching the tickets, but I couldn’t believe he kept buying them week after week after week of losing. It seemed like delusional persistence to me. Once, on a bright morning before school as I was scarfing down a bowl of Special K, I asked him why he continued to buy them. He replied hesitantly, the luster in his eyes waning: “Because what else is there but hope?”
As children in our home in Portland, Oregon, my sister and I would play something called the “Pretend Game,” where we constructed alternate existences in our minds based on the lives of Bollywood celebrities. The world of Bollywood movies is filled with color and dance and music. Within the walls of our pretend game, we could devise the rules of our world — a world imbued with the same color and dance and music we saw on television.
Sometimes, our parents would have to jolt us back to reality when we enveloped ourselves too far in the game. When my grandfather died, I was sitting in the back seat of our SUV as my father drove me back from swim practice. I was 12. My hair dripped from the shower I had taken in the locker room, and my skin reeked of chlorine. After my father told me, I remember how the silence hung in my throat like a piece of sharp candy. I also remember how ashamed I felt at my own apathy, for not knowing my grandfather as well as I should have. When I returned home, my sister and I played the Pretend Game. We retreated farther into the lives of the characters we constructed in our minds; we planned their outfits based on the ones we recalled from the movies they starred in. In the wake of my grandfather’s death — the death of a man I hungered to know but did not — my sister and I painted a new world for ourselves, replete with color and dance and precisely planned outfits.
That night, my father went to the gas station to buy more lottery tickets.
When I was seven, my family made a trip to India over the summer. My mother’s father, my other grandfather, took us to Mantralayam, a prayer site in the south of India. On the long bus ride to Mantralayam, my sister and I pressed our foreheads against the tattered seats in front of us as we ate several bags of masala Lay’s chips, a flavor only found in India. Eventually, the residue of masala in our mouths, we fell asleep. I remember awakening slightly now and then to see my sister, her head pressed into the seat, her mouth ajar, drool spilling onto her knee. In her imperfection, with the disgusting drool falling from her mouth, she glowed wholly, completely, in a way that the statue of God in my room back home could not.
In the temple in Mantralayam, the people scurried like insects, like ants, scavenging for scraps of salvation. When I ate with my right hand instead of my left, my father reprimanded me; the ritual dictated to eat with the left hand. The people in the temple bowed down, their heads caving into the carpeted ground and their eyes closed. They prayed and prayed but the whole thing to me seemed like a ritualistic ceremony, a strange and pointless routine. A woman pushed me to move ahead in line, to get to the priest who was serving holy water and ghee. Her fingernails pressed into my skin, forming a subtle indentation. Leaving the temple, I felt disgusted, and my stomach twisted.
This winter break, I traveled to western Australia to visit my parents, who moved there for a year because of my father’s job. My sister came from Cambodia — she is a Peace Corps volunteer — to spend her break with us. When she arrived, she looked sickly, and we learned that her lymph nodes were swollen. She is better now, but she spent several days of the vacation in bed, her face growing pale. One day, we all went with her to the doctor’s office across from our apartment, aptly named the “Travel Clinic.” As we sat there, in this foreign place we were temporarily calling home, far away from our little blue house in Portland, I stared at the map plastered on the wall. My sister pointed to a small dot on the map and began to cry soft tears. “I see Portland,” she said, and I ached to go home, a home that transcended the blue house.
I looked at my sister, thought of her life in Cambodia, a life that I could not know, and I thought of her face pressed against the seat in the train years ago, the drool spilling from her mouth, the Pretend Game, the precisely planned outfits of our characters, and I felt frantic, restless like the woman who had pushed me in the temple, and I felt like a fly, my antennae twitching, and I was hungry for my sister’s health, for my own salvation, and I understood the woman’s madness, her ritual, the way she clung to it fervently, because it was her ticket — even if it was a fruitless hope — and she would scratch it, for it was all she could do.
Some days, when the weather is dreary and the days solidify into monotonous routine, I sit at my desk in my dorm room and look out the crack of my window. From this window, I can see the top of Pierson College and the tops of the trees, which at certain angles brush into the sky. I usually have classwork due the next day, but I still open a Word document and start writing. I pen fictional worlds, paint them with luster and color and submerge myself in the lives of my characters. I write about people I do not know but who I can feel, whose lives have attained a paramount importance to me. I write about their joy and their pain, in the hopes that, slowly, perhaps I’ll begin to understand my own.
Each day, I’ll return to the page — as if it is a ritual, a prayer. Time will shuffle forward; my parents will grow older and so will I; the snow will fade away and the sun will shine above, a copper penny in the sky.
Meghana Mysore | firstname.lastname@example.org