Specks of sand flew into Monika’s eyes as her uncle’s old Chevy roared to life. She brushed the sand off of her shoulder, and squinted as she watched the red truck become a small blur in the distance. Her first instinct was self-inflicting pity, mostly because of her love for her uncle, and partly because he was the only adult around her household that understood her. Really understood her. She had always been an odd child, keeping away from social gatherings and relatives who wanted to chat about the precarious details of her life. For some reason unbeknownst to her- though she largely suspected that she was a self-diagnosed introvert and preferred solitude over human beings- her uncle saw something in her that made her feel special. My little princess, he would say, his eyes twinkling. She couldn’t quite fathom what made her a princess, and after countless days of glancing at herself in the mirror and seeing a wide-eyed, bespectacled girl with short, brown hair staring back, she decided to ask him.
“Uncle Dom?” she asked hesitantly, her voice fading away slowly.
He was perched on the edge of his seat, watching a hockey game. Her eyes jumped to the screen and back to her uncle’s face, observing the pure fascination as his muscles tensed. She flitted her glance back to the screen just in time to see a yellow and blue clad player slam into the side of the net, his hockey stick firm in his hand, the puck inches away from his face.
He glanced up from the television screen, suddenly noticing her presence. He patted the seat beside him, a smile crinkling at the edge of his lips.
She sat down beside him, her posture like that of a lady at a tea date, and studied his face. His salt and peppered hair was parted neatly, falling in waves across his face. His skin, usually a pale white, was now tanned with the summer sun, and his olive green eyes were bright with excitement as he watched the players move rapidly across the screen.
He wore an old plaid button down top, complete with beige khakis and fuzzy house slippers. She smiled. He always had a knack for slippers. He turned to her then, his attention shifting away from the announcer that was now chit chatting about the highlights of the game.
“What can I do for you, my princess?”
And there it was again. Princess.
“What makes me your princess? I don’t look like a princess, and my hair definitely isn’t long enough,” she said, her eyes moving across his face, searching for an answer.
He laughed. He put his arms across her and plopped her right onto his lap, his muscular arms enveloping her.
“You, my darling, are my princess not because of what you look like.” He paused, smiling, and then placed one hand on her heart. “It’s because of what you have right in here,” he said, tapping her heart with one finger.
“What does my heart have to do with anything?” she asked, her voice uncertain.
“My darling Monika, you have understood things that I could’ve only hoped you would understand in your later years. You understand the meaning of giving yourself to others, of lending a hand, and most of all, you have a peace within you that is enlightening.”
She paused. She knew what enlightening meant, but had only ever heard it being used in a spiritual context.
“Can a person really be enlightening?” she asked, her hand brushing the waves of hair that had cascaded down her face.
“Just like we recognize the ocean because it tastes like salt, we can recognize enlightenment because it tastes like freedom,” he said, his face turned towards hers.
“Did you make that up?” she asked, immediately suspicious.
He laughed again, this time louder.
“I wish I did! Buddha said that,” he said. “You have a way of letting people recognize what they’re missing. Your thoughts are so pure that they enlighten those around you, you inspire those who interact with you.”
She tilted her head back, studying his face. His olive green eyes stared back at her, unobtrusive and unblinking.
She smiled and lifted herself off of his lap, collecting her hair in a bundle and quickly knotting it into a sock bun.
“Thank you Uncle Dom,” she said, her eyes shining. “I’m going to reflect on what you said and read about the properties of enlightenment.”
Uncle Dom laughed for the third time, and shook his head, muttering something under his breath. He smiled at her, and she smiled back, and for a moment, nothing in the world mattered. It was then that Monika realized that Uncle Dom really understood her, and that maybe she wasn’t such an oddball after all. Maybe she was just different, and, as time passed by, maybe she would learn to accept that there was something inherently unique about the way she went about things. Perhaps the thing that was so “unique” could even be a gift that only she possessed. She smiled at the thought and turned in the direction of her room, ready to escape into a world of research. Her room greeted her as she stepped in, the bookshelves expectantly waiting. She switched the sign outside her door to “Do Not Disturb” and made her way to her set of encyclopedias. She picked out the volume marked “E” in gold accents, and pulled out a chair. It was going to be a long day.
(C) Namrata Tilokani