He called me Koshka. Koshka, Ka-Koshka, krasievaya Koshka. It was a pet name – literally – the Russian for little cat. But it was the first name I really felt was mine, a name I could grow in. My given name had been Nisha. But when I started high school, my parents had given in to my childish dislike of my Indian name, and I had been allowed to choose an ‘American’ name. I chose Claudette. Claudette was to be my own invention. Not a shy, goofy little girl like Nisha, but a cool, sophisticated girl who would be popular and have a great boyfriend. Well, you won’t be amazed to discover that it didn’t work out like that. But it wasn’t that Claudette was just Nisha by another name. No. Claudette took on a life of her own, and turned out to be even goofier than Nisha. Claudette was not exactly unpopular: worse, she was popular with the wrong kids, the dorky ones. And of course she didn’t have a boyfriend.
I don’t know how or why that happened, but in any case I was glad to come home to Nisha at the end of the school day. For all her faults, Nisha felt like me, and I came to think of her as the real me, and Claudette just some phantom at school. I continued this double existence till Siegfried kissed me on the lips, twice, pushed a stray curl behind my ear and whispered, krasievaya Koshka. Beautiful little cat.
I had been a fiercely sentimental child. As little Nisha, I had felt a strong attachment to home and could not bear the thought of change. My sentimentality had clung promiscuously not only to my parents, my older sister Arti and our home in New Jersey, but to everything in it. I had an extensive collection of stuffed animals, each with a name and even distinctive imaginary character traits that I would explain to any visitor who cared to indulge me. I had a horror of losing any of those toys – I could make my heart swell and my eyes fill with tears just by imagining Pooky or Panda forlorn in a puddle somewhere. (Even then I sensed this was an unhealthy exercise.) I was equally attached, though, to household junk, especially the Indian bric-a-brac that littered the house, but even ordinary stuff. I remember crying once because a neighbor failed to return a serving dish with a picture of a horse on it that my mother had taken over with some home-made sweets.
I grew out of it, of course. Or rather I became more discriminating. Instead of reaching out to the world and forming more grown-up attachments, I retreated into myself, like the Russians fleeing Napoleon or the Germans. In adolescence, I came to think of our home as my parents’ house, and of my parents as part of the world rather than an extension of myself. I was alone, but secure in myself. By the time both my parents were killed when I was fourteen, I was able to take it in my stride. My best friend Roxanne – that is, Claudette’s best friend Roxanne – matured differently, broadening her interest in the world without ever becoming alienated from her family. Indeed, her new relationships seemed to evolve by analogy with her family ties, while imperceptibly performing the opposite function, and transforming those family ties into grown-up relationships. I had no such virtuous dynamic to shape my relationships. It was all or nothing. When Siegfried kissed me, he became my mother and father, my world, my everything.
A voice at the back of my head told me this was a bad thing, a very bad thing. But I disowned that voice as resolutely as I disowned my family. I hurled myself into a new life.