When he closed his eyes real tight, so tight that his heavy eyelids seemed to disappear into his straining ocular muscles and perhaps into the serpentine folds of his brain itself, so tight that the fleshy red-black sensation of shuteye-sight faded into the deeper and darker black of spilled India ink, the throbbing in his head would begin, and Harshan Liyanage would hear the voice.
He liked hearing the soft, susurrus voice of his mother. He liked to squeeze his eyes shut as he lay in bed on Sunday afternoons, glowing dust mites floating through the shutters, and listen to her speak fluid Sinhalese. Harshan couldn’t understand a word she said, but it sounded beautiful, those gentle, undulating tones. It was odd, though, that his mother’s voice would speak Sinhalese, since she used to speak mostly in accented English. She only really spoke in Sinhalese when talking to her sister in Sri Lanka, and she would only talk to her sister when someone in their family had died.
Harshan’s father, Dr. Sunil Liyanage, did not know what to do with his son. Sunil reflected that Harshan had always been peculiar, even as a small, dreamy-eyed boy, but as a mourning teenager he seemed positively otherworldly. To Sunil’s distress, Harshan no longer kept in touch with any of his old friends, instead immersing himself in books and music while sleep-walking through life, speaking hardly a word to anyone. Sometimes, Sunil could hear Harshan speaking softly to himself.
Although his own heartbreak over his wife’s accident was sometimes more than he could bear, Sunil tried his best to reach out to his son. But his attempts at conversation often fizzled; Harshan either did not respond, or he replied in monosyllables.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know,” Sunil told his therapist, Dr. Tanaka. Both he and his son had been seeing her for the past year, but while Sunil felt he had made great strides in learning to cope with his grief, Harshan seemed to have made no progress at all.
Dr. Tanaka sighed. “I’ve tried to get through to him during our sessions, Sunil, but Harshan is not very responsive. Sometimes he even tries to read or listen to his iPod during our sessions, or he just shuts his eyes. I’ve tried to reach out to him in his own terms, asking about his favorite authors or musicians, but I don’t know enough about him to connect. As distant as you feel from him, you are the closest person to Harshan at the moment; if you can’t connect, we’re going to have to try medication again.”
“But he wouldn’t take his meds before.” Sunil felt his heart tighten. His son may have seemed silent and lifeless, but he still managed to be a rebellious teenage boy.
“There are other options, but they are a bit more drastic.”
“I understand you think he may be showing signs of depression, Doctor, but Harshan has always been a bit sensitive and pensive. He’s just having a harder time dealing with this trauma, that’s all. He is still young.”
“Perhaps. But the thing is, Sunil…”
Dr. Tanaka continued to talk, but Sunil had ceased to listen.
In a moment of frustrated abandon, Sunil buried is face in his hands and released a great, shuddering sigh. In the dark privacy of enclosed flesh, his sensations seem magnified. His breathing sounded like a heartbeat under water. He felt the hot breath of his mouth on his hands, and it seemed like fire. He felt a warm tear slip down his cheek, catch on a hair of his mustache, then trickle onto his lower lip, and it tasted like ocean. And the scent of tear-brine and the spicy mustard on his breath mingled to create a sort of acrid fog. Sunil closed his eyes so hard his head pounded.
The corporeal sensations distracted Sunil from his emotions for a second, and in that second, a vision of his beautiful Nimali appeared before him. His wife smiled her sweet, tenuous smile, her long hair flowing like spilled ink all around her. Sunil could watch her forever.
“Sunil? Sunil! Are you alright?” Dr. Tanaka’s shrill voice pierced through the vision, dissolving it.
“Reach out to him in his own terms,” Sunil said wondrously, as though waking from a dream.
Dr. Tanaka gave a worried frown. She had never seen Sunil grin so feverishly.
The next Sunday afternoon, Harshan was horrified to find that he could no longer hear his mother. No matter how tightly or how long he squeezed his eyes shut, he could hear nothing more than his own shallow breathing. A despair like none he had felt before descended upon him. Every breath rattled painfully through his hollow shell like a fly clamoring to escape a tiny windowless room.
After a few hours of such agony, Harshan stood and walked over to his desk. But instead of his favorite book, he found a 50-page typed manuscript that looked as though it had been bound at Kinkos. It was titled “The Voice of Reason – The Story of My Life and Family, by Dr. Sunil Liyanage, M.D.”
Stunned, Harshan grabbed his iPod and put on his headphones to fill his mind with music before he could process what he was seeing. But when the song played he heard his father’s voice, accompanied by acoustic guitar, recorded on what sounded like a low-quality computer microphone. Harshan immediately glanced at the iPod screen and saw a new playlist had been added: “Songs for my Son.”
Close your eyes
Have no fear
The monster’s gone
He’s on the run and your daddy’s here
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful
Darling, darling, darling
It was a song by John Lennon, who had written it for his own son, but Harshan thought it sounded completely different when covered by his father. The slightly accented intonations, the unique mix of awkwardness and tenderness, was all Sunil Liyanage, and Harshan couldn’t keep from chuckling as he thought how his father had actually stopped being a serious doctor long enough to be a dorky dad again, picking up the guitar for the first time since Harshan was a little boy.
“Oh my god. No he didn’t,” Harshan said to himself, groaning with embarrassment when he heard the next song: his father was rapping “Just the Two of Us” by Will Smith.
Shaking his head with a wry smile, Harshan picked up the manuscript and began reading in bed as the glowing dust mites floated through the shutters.