The Math of Living

Illustration by Armando Veve


I’ve been working for the Chicago Tribune for about a year when it strikes me that I will go home in six months. The ticket has been booked, and I’m ready. My boss has reviewed the JavaScript code and made his updates for the day. The code is in production. 

I’ve been working for the Chicago Tribune for about two years when it strikes me that I will go home again in five months. The ticket has been booked, and I’m ready. My boss has reviewed the JavaScript code and made his updates for the day. The code is in production. 

I’ve been working for the Chicago Tribune for about four years when it strikes me that I will go home again in three months. The ticket has been booked, and I’m ready. My boss has reviewed the JavaScript code and made his updates for the day. The code is in production.

Everything about my going home is formulaic. Sometimes I think this is my legacy—not everyone can write themselves a home. I tell myself it’s the next best thing to being on a plane. 

Math of Living [i] {

By the time this plane lands, I will have traveled for twenty-six hours. 

This is not new to me. 

The distance between the place I live and the place that lives in me is more than eight thousand miles. 

Each hour of the journey home, I will look at my watch, even though the screen in front of me has a world clock. This is so I’m not fooled by the time zone changes. Each minute of the journey, I will have the consciousness of going home. I will try to forget it and involve myself in a good book. But there is no such thing as a good book when you are going home after [x] months. I can’t but sense where the plane is heading. 

The plane will land, and people will rise. There will be an extraordinary wait to get off the plane; men and women will argue about their place in the queue after retrieving bags stowed elsewhere. Then it will be over. I’ll get through customs and exit the terminal. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. My parents will be at the airport, waving at me from a sea of onlookers. They will be as excited as children. My father will do [a] or [b]. My mother will do [b] or [c] or [d]. It’s not surprising that my parents will shower me with love. I know they cannot help it; they haven’t seen me for a long time. They will offer to take my bag and ask [e] questions about my well-being. I will feel the weather greeting my skin. At this point, I haven’t gotten into the cab yet, but I don’t have to reach the house to know the conclusion of this journey. I’ve already walked through the door in that moment outside the terminal. Home is the recognition of the lives we led together once, the things that only we knew of. It is the sound of the river that runs in our veins. Or rather the shape of a story we tell ourselves. Who doesn’t love a good river? 

In the cab, my father will ask me either [f] or [g] before proceeding to tell me everything that has changed in the city since I last visited. My mother will ask [h] questions about the food I’d like to eat. I will enjoy this attention, this care that was missing when I was a child. It is also inevitable that [j] minutes later, my parents will start quarrelling with each other. That is who they are, they cannot stop. I will start feeling anxious; I’ll never be as happy as I am in the moment I arrive. The magic will be over, there will only be mundaneness left. I will briefly feel like rescheduling the return flight I have in [k] days and going back to work. But I cannot do that to my parents. Their faces are still glowing and I wonder if love is a candle lit by distance.

The cab will stop at the toll gate that keeps increasing its prices. My father will take out his purse, but he doesn’t have [l] rupees. I will have to pay for the toll. He will not look at me, the humiliation in his face transforming into anger. My mother will glare at him, the shine entirely gone. This is not new; I know there is no money. I must continue to work, in a country that will never be mine, for them to have something to eat. Poverty isn’t anyone’s choice. Some lives are meant to be. There’s a Hindi idiom for this I cannot remember. If language is a city, mine is crumbling block by block. 

The flight attendant asks me if I want [m] or [o], they are no longer carrying [n], and I refuse it before I realize what I’m doing. I don’t call her back. I’m sick of airline food. And then, of course, I cannot escape the guilt; I’m exercising a luxury I hadn’t known before. I take consolation in the fact that I will enjoy sumptuous food at home. Everything will cost [p] times less. I’ll have [q] rupees to splurge at restaurants. Better to go in the first few days, before the restaurant money goes toward our loan payments and household expenses instead. That is if the medical bills don’t take away more than [r] rupees. Everything is a calculation. My father has often said to me: Why are you spending [s] dollars on a plane ticket? Why are you coming home almost every year? As if I didn’t factor this cost into the math of living. I remember telling him once that capitalism has figured out this shit. That having a day off makes a worker more productive in the long run. Just don’t kill me over a plane ticket, I might have said. But you can never please the math teacher in a father, the one who taught you to solve for x first, before you do anything else. The things you say don’t add up. There’s no mathematical value to feeling adrift in a white country.

Seat belt warning: There is some turbulent weather. There are [t] babies on the plane, and they are all crying. I put on the headphones and pick a movie. One of the teenage lovers has cancer and has [u] months to live; I’m not interested. I ogle at the house depicted in the movie; what I’d like is a spectacular home in which to die. I cannot stop working, I cannot abandon my people. My mother has severe bronchitis from years of exposure to heavily polluted air. I’d like to bring her to the country that has me by the collar, I’d like to say to my mother, “You gave me breath, and now, I want to help you breathe.” None of that is possible without money. And time. And work. And exile. What has exile done? It has taken everything I had in return for the idea of a home far, far away. Home is the sound of a river you are better off keeping at a distance. What else can you do except listen?

There’s a voice in the cabin telling me I am [v] hours away. I know how this goes; each flight is more or less the same. This is the part where I wonder if my father was right, if I should have stayed put in America. Guilt is what I have left after a lifetime of not acting on my desires. A rupee spent on a toffee is a rupee wasted, the ice cream that everyone is having is probably not good for me, nothing is always the correct response to what do you want.

In the cab, my parents will argue incessantly about the necessity of taking a cab. I cannot stand it; I will begin to wish I had saved the money and not flown home. We’ll make do with [w], I’ll assure them. My mother will cough from the dust creeping through the windows, and I will tell her I bought her American medicine, namely Tylenol, and she will smile. Anything foreign is good, and everything home is sickness. Haven’t I been reading the news? 

My father will ask me how I like America, now that I’ve lived there for [y] years. I will lie and tell him that I like being in a place of great freedom and opportunity. It’s better to let him think of America as my future home, to let him float past all inconvenient truths. There’s no reason to tell him that I will never have enough alphabet to build a room for myself. 

The cab will stop at [z] traffic lights and I’ll see change. The city that was once mine is no longer what it was; every street is altered. I will feel foreign to the city. If my parents do not come to the airport, if they are not alive, I will not know where I am. I might be in the same city, but I will no longer be home. I do not know what I’ll be if I do not have a home to go to. I do not know what I’ll do if I cannot see my experiences reflected in the eyes of someone I love. Home is where rivers die, letter by letter.


I’ve been working for the Chicago Tribune for about five years when it strikes me that I will go home in two months. The flight ticket has been booked, and I’m ready. The phone rings: My mother’s lungs have collapsed. She is dead. The funeral is in two days.

My boss reviews the JavaScript code and makes his updates for the day. 

The code is in production. 

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Published: December 3, 2020

Armando Veve is an illustrator working in Philadelphia. His drawings have been recognized by American Illustration, Communication Arts, and Spectrum, and awarded gold medals from the Society of Illustrators. He was named an ADC Young Gun by the One Club for Creativity and selected to the Forbes 2018 30 under...