Tara Isabel Zambrano

The first and the last time I picked up a dictionary from my father’s desk was to look up the word  solstice. I loved the sound of it when my 5th grade Science teacher used it in class. The dictionary explained: Either of the two points on the ecliptic at which the sun is overhead at the Tropic of Cancer or Capricorn or a turning point. I stuck with the former definition until the following week, when my father blew his brains out at his desk with a Smith and Wesson. After they took away him and some of his things, including the dictionary, my mother cleaned the room for months; she saw blood everywhere. Her eyes did not meet anyone’s. I stared at the place where his dictionary had been, wondering if I left it open. Those were the longest days and the longest nights, something the earth and the sun are incapable of experiencing at the same time.

The first time I smoked, I didn’t cough. Unusual. All high school boys were impressed. Especially Greg, who coughed on any given day when he smoked the first time. He watched me intently as I took the first puff and, like a pro, stayed quiet. As I kept on building a cloud of smoke, my eyes glinted towards his, the light flickering off his right earring, wrapping around us like a foil.

The first time I told Ma about Greg, all she said was, “What’s wrong with you, Sahil, a boy?” It seemed I could still hear her breathing after she left the room. Outside, the sun burned, a patch of white, behind dense, overlapped clouds. No radio or highway noise on my drive back. Texas spread flat on both sides: farms, trailer homes, gas stations watching the dust behind me, as it rose like question marks.

The first time Greg and I visited a Buddhist monastery was two years after we started dating; a Bodhi center located in the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico. By then I’d given up on God, but that peaceful, collegial retreat was another life. Or perhaps a dream, where we mediated, swept the floors and dusted the books in the library, drank smoothies choked with fennel seeds, and watched the leaves; some were budding, quivering in sunlight, others orange with a hearty rust, falling away to dirt.

The last time I smoked was after Greg was diagnosed with lung cancer. Once, while we were waiting in a doctor’s office, he asked, “Why do you love me, Sahil?”

“Oh,” I said as if hit by something unexpected, “I just … do.” 

“There’s a reason behind everything, there has to be a reason here,” he argued.

“Um .., I don’t know Greg. I can say I love your eyes, your persistence, your smile … but that’s not the reason why I love you.” I paused and held his hand. ” I can’t put a finger to it.”

He looked away, disappointed, the outline of his face against the window, his shoulders hunched under the weight of his disease, someone high in the sky lifting him with every breath, away from me, a solstice, yet again.

The last time Greg wanted to eat Indian food, I deliberated for a few minutes and then called my mother. I had not spoken to her in years. She picked up the phone after the first ring as if she were standing next to it. “Sahil, is that you,” she shouted into the phone.

“Ma,” I said, and a hard knot in my chest softened. A few tears fell, and gleamed in the spiral of the handset cord.

My mother prepared rogan josh and hot rotis for Greg. Later, we all sat down in the porch. As the sky gave in to a darker hue, a swarm of fireflies circled the yard. Ma held my hand and smiled. Greg’s bald head rested on my shoulder. In those wholesome moments, we watched the sparkling bugs drifting and joining in; we named their constellations after stars.

The last time I cried was in front of my mother. It was two weeks after Greg’s cremation. We sat outside and watched the sun go down, our throats stung with hurt, the old fashioned street lights flickering before turning on, a silence oscillating between us. Then I got up and went for a walk. It was the first time I chanted the Buddhist prayer since visiting the monastery. It was the last time I loved someone without a reason.