By Sudip Bhattacharya
For their sixth date (maybe their seventh?), Rani suggested they go out instead and watch a movie for the first time together. Until then, they would grab some dinner around the area, sometimes Chinese takeout, and make out in their cars, or at least twice, get on top of each other, with their underwear at their ankles, finding some semblance of a rhythm. The steering wheel would bite into Rani’s back, and after their last time, something felt off for her. Maybe it was their prior conversation about the possibility of Dev moving soon for a journalism gig in some bumfuck town in Ohio (anything beyond Jersey and the city was bumfuck). Maybe it was the fact that Dev’s breath smelled of some kind of spice she couldn’t figure out or assess, which drove her a bit obsessive. For the entire night, she thought about what they ate. Maybe it was just the fact that Dev always liked to joke, even during sex, commenting on how sweaty he’d get, like a sea lion. Who the fuck says that?
They met at the movie theater in New Brunswick, the big AMC theater that showcased a bunch of Bollywood movies to appeal to all of the Desis clustered around the suburbs nearby and some in and around Rutgers. People who were working, living, rushing to and from Costco, their second home, and spending way too much to watch the same actors in the same scenarios (jilted lovers or fighting “terrorists,” which were always, always Muslim). The suburbs nearby would melt into one another, with saree shops and Patel Cash and Carry spilling from one town to the next. The AMC was on a hill overlooking the highway, with Bollywood posters plastered on the windows, with Desi and some Arab families rushing ahead, catching up with their kids who’d jump out of the car once they got parked.
When they got there, there was already a line of people extending past the doors. People chewing on gum. People wearing hijabs. People speaking in bits of Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi. Some English. Some Bengali.
Rani got in line and noticed a big pickup truck now roaming the parking lot, a big American flag sticking up from the back, waving in the wind. The truck definitely looked out of place, surrounded by asphalt, gas stations, and strip malls. It stopped for a brief moment as she made contact, though its windshields were tinted. Soon, it would continue to drive across the lot, mostly on the main pathway, circling those who were also making their way into the theater, the greasy popcorn butter in the air causing their skin to already glow.
“Tom Cruise is a god amongst men,” Dev said once he arrived, a sprinkling of sweat on his forehead.
Rani rolled her eyes.
“What?” Dev exclaimed, grinning. “Can’t someone both be a Scientologist and one of our greatest actors of all time?”
“He doesn’t even do his own stunts,” she replied, “Plus, we’re watching Spider-Man. Like we planned.”
“The one with Jim Carrey?”
Rani sucked in her teeth and kept her arms folded.
“Is it Christopher Reeves?”
“I can’t with you,” Rani said, forcing back a smile as best she could. They were now inside the theater, the AC blasting, creating goosebumps that she knew were visible on her arms. But Dev was also now staring out at the parking lot, the joy wiped clean from his face. His eyebrows furrowed.
She took in a deep breath. “It’s been out there for a while,” she said, “I think someone inside yelled something at the family behind us.”
“Some random person yelled at my uncle while he was pumping gas for someone,” Dev said, still glaring. Others now in line also glanced. Some would quickly turn away. A few focused their gaze as if waiting, their muscles tensing. One other woman was grinding her teeth as her kids pulled at her arms and shirt.
Soon, however, all of them would be in their seats, cloaked in darkness, hidden. All of them, for a brief time, would be immersed in superheroes and supervillains, duking it out over a green screen Manhattan skyline. But until then, as they inched closer to buy tickets and popcorn and fountain soda that was 80 percent water by the afternoon, both Dev and Rani would instead glance at the posters of other movies and mumble to one another about them. Filling that time with some needless commentary, as children screamed, as parents tried to bribe them with more candy and soda, as the employees chatted, and as movie trailers boomed.
After the movie, with the last scene between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin still stuck to her brain, the American flag waving behind her favorite superhero in the final scenes, Rani felt like she was in a fog. Like someone had bopped her on the head several times, or like when she banged her head against another player’s head when competing for the ball hanging in the air during a high school soccer tryout. She still made the team, but she stayed home for a week, and her mother kept complaining about her decision to play sports rather than look for someplace to work, like at the liquor store. That entire week, time held no meaning. She could feel the earth turning under her, and all she could do was make sure she didn’t fall off by clutching her pillow to her stomach and trying not to throw up the scraps of food digesting inside her.
“Hey, do you want some water?” Dev asked as they emerged into the parking lot.
Spider-Man had leaped off a building and swung onto the empire state, the American flag waving behind him. The scene kept repeating. When she was young, she always begged her mom for the Spider-Man comics at the corner shop. Sometimes, her mom would oblige. Other times, she would pay the clerk and buy some lottery tickets instead, and Rani, in turn, would glare and feel the hatred rising inside.
“I just think I need something to eat,” she said to Dev, although she did feel queasy. She spotted the truck again. The flag was gone, but she could tell it was the same truck from before. Tinted windows and all.
The night sky was a deep shade of purple. The highway was full of lights. Eventually, they would drive, Rani leading the way, into East Brunswick to find someplace to eat. Dev offered to drive them both, but she’d refused. As they neared the shopping mall, past the Hooters, McDonald’s, and Baja Fresh, she decided to turn toward the IHOP instead. IHOP was extremely overrated to her. It was the place she’d only go to with friends when they’d just wanted to sit and talk and commiserate over breakups, bad movies, and other types of bullshit that were now impacting them in this new millennium. She could see Dev right behind her and trailing behind. What she didn’t see, however, was the truck, no flag, just a few yards away — obscured behind some trucks. Windows tinted.
Abhishek, Rani’s younger brother by a couple of years, never understood Rani’s fascination with Spider-Man or with comics generally. As much as Rani tried to get him interested, oftentimes lecturing him on storylines spanning several different characters (the X-Men ones made his brain leak down the side of his face), he’d always feel the urge to zone out, to fade. He did enjoy visual arts and would frequently check out art museums in the city when they were much closer, but after they moved to Iselin from Kearny, from one cramped neighborhood to another (allegedly, for the schools, it’s always about the schools), he ceased caring. He channeled his limited passion into whatever made “sense” to him, i.e., riding his bike for hours or reading history and politics.
The neighborhood they grew up in was also mainly Desi, with everyone stuffed with their family of nine into one-floor ranches or two-floor homes with a wrecked deck or the top floor had maybe two or sometimes three bedrooms, with one of them being half the size of the other, but in the end, everyone shared one bathroom. At night, when Abhishek would try and read whatever he’d borrowed from the library, his shirt still sticking to him after biking to and from, across several busy lanes, the cars shooting back and forth like bullets, he could oftentimes hear his neighbors. They were yelling, laughing, sobbing, burping, slurring their words, and screaming at the television. He could hear them even chewing and spitting out paan into the alley between them. It made him shudder.
Made him become a business major, although he hated business. He hated the people he saw in and around Iselin who owned said businesses. Hated how much the people at temple would bring in a “community leader,” oftentimes some business owner with a double-chin, who would donate money, fold his hands, smile, nod, and look like some mafia don. Always smelling of aftershave.
It was his final year, though, at Rutgers, and all he needed was to complete the semester, and that would be the end of it. His parents really didn’t have much to suggest on what else he could do because neither of them understood him still, or at least he felt that to be the case, which didn’t upset him. They fed him. Clothed him. Took care of him. And frankly speaking, he truly didn’t understand himself much either. Learning about U.S. history was intriguing and remained so. It was certainly illuminating, too, how the country had been founded on the oppression and exploitation of several classes of people, especially Black people. But, what to do about that? He didn’t know and, sometimes, didn’t have the energy to care. All he desired was to graduate, get a job, get the fuck out, and move away somewhere where he could finally have a night where it felt like people weren’t screaming in his ear.
It was the day prior to Rani’s sixth/seventh date/meet-up with Dev, a day before Rani and Dev would be followed and attacked. Abhishek was in Edison, a town over from Iselin, where all the saree shops and entertainment stores still selling bootleg copies of Bollywood movies were. He was at one of the restaurants there, waiting to interview the owner for his project detailing South Asian business owners for his illustrious business class, where the professor would repeat phrases like “free market” and “supply and demand” ad nauseam.
He looked around as the wait staff began arranging the forks and spoons for the oncoming dinner rush, or the expectation of. Since the attacks, there had been a nose dive for many restaurants and other businesses in the area, with many of the usual customers simply staying home, avoiding exposure to the elements of American society hyped up on war. It would soon recover. His own parents began to eat out more, or at the very least, grab samosas and chaat from nearby. But now, with tanks rolling into Baghdad, a similar pattern had re-emerged. On his bus ride here, he noticed some of the windows of an Afghan business being smashed. He’d also noticed U.S. flags plastered everywhere: on windows, between weeds in the little pieces of grass between shops, U.S. flag pins attached to the dress shirts of servers.
Raj Patel, the restaurant owner, finally had Abhishek meet him in his office in the back, stuffed between the kitchen, already hissing from globs of oil spilled onto pots and pans, and the employee “break room,” which was a makeshift closet that had one coffee machine and some random napkins on a table. Regardless, as the supposed dinner rush approached, the servers and cooks were too preoccupied rushing from one end of the kitchen to the next, from one end of the restaurant to the next, folding napkins perfectly for the umpteenth time, while brushing off beads of sweat from their foreheads with the backs of their hands.
“Business has been good, good,” Mr. Patel expressed as Abhishek asked him questions, tapping his feet under his seat. He sat back, revealing his lump of a stomach, a tiny hill. “Americans are nice people. Always nice.”
“So, you’ve been around for a few years now?” Abhishek asked, trying to keep his back straight, attempting the act of looking “poised” and invested.
“We’ve been here for almost nine years, yes.”
“And so, you haven’t experienced any issues?” he asked.
Mr. Patel paused and smiled. His dress shirt had an American flag pinned to it. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from nearby. Iselin.”
“But where are you from?”
Abhishek resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “My parents,” he emphasized, “are from West Bengal, Kolkata.”
“Ah, so you understand. You’re Indian.”
Abhishek didn’t say a word and made sure to smile and nod. Smile and nod as Mr. Patel explained how Indians, unlike some “others,” didn’t want to cause any problems. How Indians understood they were “guests” in the country and certainly needed to make sure “Americans” (Abhishek knew this didn’t include Indigenous or Black people) understood them as being “different” from the “others.”
“We just want to work, live, eat, have fun!” he exclaimed and laughed.
Abhishek smiled, nodded, and, soon after, rolled up behind one of the Halal butcher shops. The moon was bright and big, looking as if it was only a few feet away. Some of the other workers also sat between dumpsters, smoking and chewing paan. Some glanced at Abhishek, who stuck out with his dress shirt and backpack that his sister had bought him so he could look the part of a professional. He could hear the humming of traffic not so far away and also random bits of conversation from inside, floating through like ghosts.
He dragged in the heat and puffed. A sense of relief began to also flow through him, although he still couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Patel and his comments. Mr. Patel was an asshole, an asswipe, as it is known in the academic world. To be fair, businesses and business experts are usually that — men who find ways to get rich or die trying, but most of the time, dragging down others along the way, even when “failing.” He was only in it because he wasn’t very good at math and English, and other more humanities-oriented courses wouldn’t help him find a way out of the stupid-ass place he’d been sharing with his parents and tons of other families. All of them sinking into debt and long hours, smelling like parsley, ammonia, or gasoline. His dad had started thinking about being a taxi cab driver in the city, which his mother was against, at least for the time being. He would spit paan at her feet, and she would throw a plate at his head. Later that night, they would watch Bollywood movies, even though his dad barely knew Hindi and was half asleep, drool spilling from his mouth. Abhishek’s mother, however, continued sewing some blankets together, her eyes fixed on the glowing screen, smiling for the first time that day.
His parents and others he knew echoed what Mr. Patel had said to find a way to get by. What other option was there for them? To take on the full weight of the established order? He knew history. People always fought back. But in groups. He couldn’t see that for them. Everyone was too worried, wrapped up in anxiety, and for good reason too. In New Jersey, the second home of the diaspora, despite how many of them there were, it did feel, at times, that there was no one willing to stand or speak up. And if there were, they’d be knocked down, never supported by anyone else in the community. He ground his teeth and ground down the blunt beneath his shoes.
A man had come into where his mother worked a few weeks ago and started knocking down cans and other jars off the shelves, letting them shatter and explode across the aisle. Most of the women who were made to work at the front stood and watched. One asked if they should call the police. His mother waited for the man to leave and told everyone in the meantime to step away. He could’ve had a weapon buried under his shirt. Finally, when the man did leave, his mother grabbed a mop and some gloves and started cleaning, and the remaining customers quickly bought what they wanted and left.
“I didn’t wanna ask you this over the phone, but ….” The words hung in the air. He sighed but kept his eyes focused on the ceiling, at the weird brown stains scattered.
There was silence as Abhishek looked over.
Sarojini was now also staring at the ceiling, not saying a word.
Sarojini and Abhishek had been friends since growing up in Iselin. Sarojini’s parents, however, cared even less about academic pursuits. After being able to rely on some federal loans to help pay for her time at Rutgers, Sarojini dropped out in her third year, but she still kept living in one of the houses on campus, choosing to work odd jobs nearby, and chopping up rent with five other people she barely knew. Many of whom had stopped talking to her too.
He brushed back her bangs and could feel how moist her forehead felt. Her breath reeked of a random assortment of buffalo chicken, chocolate, and beer.
“I already spent what I had on the rent.” She finally said. “And I just want some, you know, fun, I guess.”
“But what happened to …”
“They fired me a week ago.”
He grew quiet. A tightness in his chest.
“Don’t worry; I couldn’t stand it anyways. And I have something else lined up … but in the meantime …” Again, the words drifted, hovered between them.
He wanted to catch her like she’d done for him, though every time his mind would reflect on this fact, he’d wince, as if touching a stubbed toe. Anger poured through him. So did a sense of humiliation.
Eventually, he would share with her enough to get her by for the week until, allegedly, her next interview. She kissed him on the forehead, on the cheek, on the lips, and back on the cheek again. Giddy, she swung her legs off the bed and grabbed his hand as they danced to some loud techno that was now being pumped in from the house next door. It was getting darker now, and it was a Thursday night, the time when most undergrads would slink out from under their covers and piles of papers and take showers for the first time all day, do their hair and makeup, and find the perfect pair of sneakers, the ones they hadn’t worn all summer. It was the time to go out and dance, drink, eat, dance some more, and more often, wait in long lines outside bars and peoples’ houses along the block, their blood boiling from the pre-game.
Sarojini said she hated how often her roommates would go out. She was always anxious about any of them bringing people back since she knew many times it was bros that always would stare at her, or sometimes, glare, as they were pulled along into separate rooms, as if caught off guard by her presence. Rutgers was one of the most “diverse” schools, possibly in the country. It would advertise this now on billboards strung along the turnpike, the main artery connecting several clusters of towns and cities throughout the state. Exit 9. Exit 8A. Exit 10. That was their world for the most part. Still, she felt extremely distant from the people around her, including some of the Desis who loved the same emo rock and Jay-Z that their friends liked, while she, on the other hand, would listen to Wu-Tang or Kate Bush.
Sarojini hated asking Abhishek for extra money. But he owed her, especially after all the times she bankrolled his beer obsession back when he was also trying to break into some of the business fraternities along frat row. The game plan, apparently, was to drink, to party, to gather connections he needed from peers whose fathers and, sometimes, mothers worked at some random firm “making investments” in Wall Street, a combination of whites, East and South Asian dads, who did the “sensible” thing of sitting behind computers at their desks and refreshing the page to see so and so stock either went up a cent or went down. Clusters of men who had mistresses out in the open. Men who spoke with terms like “portfolio,” “money manager,” and “potentialities” sprinkled in nearly every conversation.
Abhishek wanted to be one of them, Sarojini remembered. Abhishek did try to explain that he wanted to make the connections he would need to get his ass out of town, and find someplace nice. But it didn’t alter the fact that he so badly wanted their approval. He only stopped when every weekend, all he could do on Sundays was throw up in a garbage can in her room, his body shaking, covered in sweat like slime. He was disgusting to look at those days and to even be around. How he’d stumble into her room, her carrying him, babbling. He would usually spend the entire night and day resting. Sometimes, she’d proactively call his parents and explain that he had been studying all day and was on the couch, crashing and resting. Sometimes, the parents would believe her. Most often, they’d be too busy to care, and after telling her to tell him that he needs to tell Rani to call Comcast about the cable at home or some other random errand, the ringtone would echo instead, and all he’d hear was Abhishek groaning and coughing.
“Do we really need this much?” Abhishek asked as Sarojini piled Mexican soda, some tortillas, and, finally, ground turkey meat into their shopping cart at one of the local grocery stores a few blocks away from downtown New Brunswick. She didn’t want to go to the supermarket nearby since she knew she’d see her former co-workers there and plus, it felt somewhat freeing to be away from all her fellow undergrads that day, especially when the football game was about to end, and everyone would be spilling out of the buses and into random houses, holding up red solo cups.
A part of her, however, did miss attending classes. Rutgers still had some of the most interesting people teaching, and the classes she did take, on literature and history were fascinating and gripping and sometimes challenging. Her favorite class was on realism in literature, which was a relief from learning about the romantic era, in which basically privileged-ass people wrote about how much they loved trees and grass. It reminded her too much of the Bengali poets her parents liked, who’d write musings on a tree stump for hours but wouldn’t say a single thing about caste.
Similar, though, to what she learned about realism in European literature, there have been Bengali writers who would focus on class and socialism, especially in the 1930s up until the 1960s. These were men and women who saw connections in society based on their own experiences but also on what they saw around them. Some were indeed middle class themselves and privileged in other ways but had a sense of conviction about how society should be, but nonetheless, saw clearly, from their balconies above in the middle of sprawling cities on the subcontinent, what it truly was. A non-stop race to get by. A non-stop fight between desperate people.
“That is very dark …” Abhishek said once they were back, with the house still empty. Abhishek was already beginning to slur his words as Sarojini felt her anxiety deepen. She watched him from the corner of the room, her back aching, lying on the wall, as Abhishek was sprawled on the bed, face on the mattress, arm hanging down. He was still smiling, though, his eyelids half-lowered. At any moment, he’d be off in his other world, with all the connections his heart desired. In his own apartment somewhere far away, someplace you’d have to take a bus and two trains to get to, not just the turnpike.
When they grew up, it was them against everyone for the most part. The nerdiest ones in the pack of friends, who were only friends with them because of their ability to do homework for them or to provide them breakdowns on topics. By college, neither of them really knew what else they could do, clearly. For her, the issue had always been following what piqued her interest versus reality. Her parents could give two shits about anything. They never wanted her to leave Iselin, just get her associate’s degree somewhere close, work, save, go to temple regularly, marry, have some kids, die, go to heaven, get reincarnated, and repeat the process.
Abhishek was loudly snoring. He was one of the few men who was rarely intimidated by what she knew. A low bar. And yet, she glared at him, knowing he still had classes he could attend. Had some kind of support he could rely on, even during moments of intense self-doubt, however rare. An older sister who always smelled like parsley but, at the very least, had some money to pay for what else he needed, and …
She shut her eyes and could feel the earth beneath her moving, shifting. When she finally woke up, the room was completely dark, except for the strands of light from nearby windows. The bed where Abhishek lay had only crumpled covers on top. The rest of the house was quiet, though, at each passing moment, the humming of traffic returned, as well as the sound of men yelling.
“Bombs over Baghdad!” some of them sang. As usual, it was an assortment of mainly white men who still liked to wear their baseball caps backwards. Sarojini wiped the drool off her face and crept to the window. There were also some East Asian men, some Black, and a smattering of Brown men who looked like the “bros” that Abhishek had wanted to befriend earlier in his so-called academic career — the ones who also wore their baseball caps backwards, and liked to call themselves “investors” at any opportunity they could get.
“Bombs over Baghdad!” they kept repeating, laughing, as they blocked traffic, as cars honked, as drivers also poked their heads out and cheered. At the other porches nearby, groups of women also joined in, laughing at the men but truly, with them. She recognized some of them as friends of their housemates, the ones who didn’t really speak to her anymore.
The cheering and laughing continued to rise and saturate the air. Her heart began to beat against her chest, like someone slamming their shoulder into a door that wouldn’t break down. A fire raged right behind them. She quickly called Abhishek.
“Bombs over Baghdad!”
“Can I call you back?” his voice sounded muffled.
“Where are you now?” she demanded, now her heart pounding in her eardrums.
“What?” he repeated, the cheering nearly swallowing him.
He was still on campus somewhere. Was he on frat row again?
“I’m heading to the train station now,” he said. “Can I call you back?”
Was he visiting people there? Why would he do something so stupid? So ignorant?
Who was he anymore? He certainly wasn’t the same person she knew in high school when all he’d do outside was ride his bike to the nearest store, or join her and kick a soccer ball on the street. Then again, it was just her and him, and so maybe this person was also lurking beneath. Maybe this was where it was always going to be once he met others. How was it so much easier for him?
“Hello?” he asked.
“You need to call me when you’re home,” she said suddenly. “Is anyone following you?”
There was a pause. “Some drunk guy was pointing at me a block away … but I don’t think he’s behind me anymore. I’m at the station now. I’ll call you.”
She exhaled, though the pounding in her chest persisted. She wanted to ask him why he was even on frat row, to begin with, but decided against it, allowing him to hang up, having made more promises to call, and talk more later.
The men could’ve followed him, still. That was the reality now. Clutching her phone, her hand grew numb. The yelling expanded, seeping through the walls. She could see more people drinking and laughing. Someone began yelling, “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A!” Others joined them, their shadows looming over the house. Snarling. Their teeth glinted under the moonlight.
She grabbed her backpack filled with pens and paper, stuffed inside some water bottles and granola bars, and ran down the stairs. Sarojini tripped as she made her way through the back, landing on her chin onto the gravel parking lot between their houses. But she scrambled up and kept moving. There was a fence separating their house from the cluster of administrative buildings nearby, which she climbed over, again landing on her chin and arms.
Dev wouldn’t call her, she knew. He wanted to leave so bad, clearly. He wanted to leave her and everyone, and weirdly, she also knew how that would be impossible. Nonetheless, it’s the thought that matters, right? Her mind raced as she gathered her breath next to some dumpster. Some of the lights in the other houses flipped on, glowing like portals.
She kept moving, running. Blood slowly dripped down her neck. This is stupid! Why was she doing this? She could’ve stayed inside, bided her time. What the fuck was she even thinking? But what choice did she really have? To stay behind?
A roar echoed down the block, just as she managed to reach the main avenue where all of the restaurants and bars were, a few blocks behind the row of houses and campus buildings. The last thing she wanted to do was be someplace where there was no crowd to blend into. Yet, the roaring trailed after her, and she realized the people around her, also undergrads, seemed to be staring at her. Even those waiting on the long lines outside the bars seemed to be watching her. Every time she’d turn to meet their gaze, they would turn away and mutter something to the others around them.
As she kept on her hoodie, now over her head, her curly hair stuffed into it, she’d spot other women, other men, who looked Brown, who looked like her, either whispering to one another in tight circles of their own or some pressing their cells to their ears, nodding frantically. One woman, also with curly hair, was standing in the back of a line outside a bar, alone. She noticed Sarojini staring and glared, before they both looked away and pretended to be looking at something else.
A young Sikh man waited on a street corner, waited for the light to change. Others in the nearby crowd bumped past him, and he glared at them before turning his attention back to the light. Someone hissed at him, too, until he decided just to cross the street, causing cars to honk. She looked at him, and he looked at her as he finally made it across, and retreated back to the side he was on previously and kept walking in the other direction, possibly back to his dorm. A group of men followed him.
Finally, she stopped inside one of the restaurants selling falafels. A handful of people were inside, all sitting at their individual tables, snacking on hummus, falafel, and chopped-up lamb. After ordering some fries sprinkled with Zaatar, she took her seat away from the window in one of the booths and didn’t eat. Instead, she placed the phone in her lap and flipped it open. She looked for any text messages, however clunkily written they were, usually from her mom, imploring her to return “home,” to stay with the family in Iselin and save money.
He wasn’t going to call, she knew. He was an irrational mess of a person believing he was rational, the worst and most dangerous kind.
He was an opportunist, willing to rationalize his selfishness as something grander, more hopeful. But for whom? For himself, obviously.
Suddenly, she looked up. There was no one now inside, including behind the register. Most likely, they were out on a smoke break, but that didn’t matter. The lights inside the store were kept on as shadows passed over the walls nearest to where Sarojini had been sitting, their ears pointy, their teeth long.
Eventually, she found a spot downtown, a block away from the train station, in the midst of more new restaurants and coffee places that didn’t serve good coffee but had a “vibe.” For some reason, newer cafes loved to focus on arranging vinyl records on their shelves and placing plants in corners rather than focusing on the taste of the coffee itself. Then again, she’d see people go in, spend hours in them, possibly re-typing the same sentence on their CV over and over and over again.
She sat on the bench a few feet from one of the major high rises that had been built near the train station. Possibly to bring in people from other parts of the state or from NYC itself. To convince them they could live in Jersey but commute for work, to not have to spend their entire time here, could continue to pretend they were New Yorkers.
Sarojini didn’t mind all of the development. People with less don’t like restaurants that are falling apart or hate cafes. Only people who grew up with such things can live a fantasy of being “authentic,” of eschewing the niceties of life since they already had their fill. The problem, though, was who was going to enjoy such things? Sarojini had some sense by then, it wasn’t people like her, necessarily. Prior to dropping out, one of the projects she did for her journalism class, a class she became obsessed over, had been to interview residents about the changes to the area: the new parking lots being constructed like temples, the roads being dug up around the train station, the new billboards advertising condominiums. Most of New Brunswick was still struggling. Most people either rented or shopped at the corner stores. Many relied on the buses that were rarely on time.
But also, most people seemed glad the changes were taking place, believing it would somehow bleed into the rest of the city. Having read some of the history of this “development” in other parts of the country, like in New Haven, she knew the reality. Her incorporation of facts, interpretations, and the interviews awarded her praise from the professor, who then recommended she submit her essay to some competition, which Sarojini promised she would but never did. She would see the deadlines being emailed to her by the professor almost every week, even once the semester was over. But she still felt heavy. She still felt loaded down with everything she heard and saw and, soon after, left.
They were all glaring at her. Some muttered things at her and laughed in their groups of friends as they passed by her bench. Sometimes, she’d glare back at them, but often, she’d glare while focusing on the street across from her, on the glinting light emerging from the windows and lampposts like orbs. Her breath now formed clouds. She dug her hands deeper into her sweatshirt.
She also remembered one of the other students in the class especially liking the essay, telling her it was both informative and intriguing to read.
“Intriguing?” Sarojini said with a wry smile.
The other student, whose name sounded Indian but was African American, chuckled. “I know, I know, I’m a nerd,” she admitted and continued telling Sarojini that she should think of publishing the essay somewhere.
“I dunno. Maybe the local papers.”
“Hmmm. I don’t know. I don’t even know how to describe what I wrote.”
“That’s a good thing.”
“I can help you find some outlets, maybe?”
“Really? Why?” Sarojini asked eyebrow raised.
Again, the other student laughed. “Wow,” she said, “What do you think I’m going to do? Find some magazine that has zero readers?” She laughed.
Sarojini tried not to smile, but it was getting difficult. Soon, the professor walked in and immediately launched into a lecture about the free press in the U.S. The other student, whose name escaped Sarojini (most names in that class did, including those they were supposed to study), would continue talking to Sarojini, offering help. Gradually, they would make plans to meet at the library and use the internet there to review some possible places. But that was a week after Sarojini decided to leave and began to feel more like a fraud.
The other student, whom she never could find around, had said during one of their conversations she was a major in English lit, enjoyed realism, despised romanticism, but weirdly, appreciated poems about nature and trees. She also confessed at one point, as they were working in a group, coming up with reasons for a debate about the first amendment, how it’s always limited, and why in some sense, that’s a good thing. That her parents wanted her to be a doctor instead like they were. She grew quiet. Her face looked suddenly far older. Sarojini didn’t know what else to say besides keeping them engaged on their assignment. Afterward, one of them made a joke.
Sarojini couldn’t remember what it was, of course, but she thought about them laughing. She thought about the work she’d done and could do, and the people who would see it, read it, and be willing to absorb it. She also knew she’d have to turn back soon. Her hands felt stiff. There was more roaring, rolling through the streets, between high rises now. Flooding.
A group of people laughed. She looked up and glared.
It was the anniversary, so Dev turned on the TV set in the apartment he shared with a roommate he barely saw (their shifts never matched) to ESPN. Then, before washing and cleaning the chicken, switched it over to the music on the radio, some “Big Pimpin’” flowing through. He wasn’t a fan of the song or much of the music played most of the time. He’d listen to some Nas, maybe, but most music with messages, however intricate, bored him. On his ride back from work, when he was trapped on the turnpike, as he’d glimpse other drivers on either side of him, tightening their grip over the steering wheel or picking their noses, or worse, he’d listen to some jazz instead. He did this even though he didn’t know any of the names of the musicians who he played. Sometimes, he’d just sit in silence, but that would usually only last for a few moments until he’d begin fumbling for the car radio, twisting it all the way up.
His eyes were sticky as he stripped away the veins of the chicken, leaving behind more pink. He took off parts of the muscle, too, making it lean as possible. The plan was to make some type of pulled chicken, mixed in with paprika and other spices, which he learned from his ma who, while instructing him over the phone earlier in the week, would constantly become exasperated, exclaiming, “How did I raise such an idiot boy? You are my betaa, but also an idiot boy.” He’d chuckle and remind her it’s all her fault, of course, and she’d push through, telling him to add more “spice” but not really specifying. Usually, the chicken was at least cooked and edible, which is sorta important when it comes to cooking and feeding people.
Rani, the only Desi he knew, showed up a half-hour before he was done with the salad, just as he was adding some more pecans, sprinkling them in. She was seated on the couch, the only piece of furniture that was in the living room. The back of his neck felt hot. They hadn’t spoken in a couple of weeks, and they did text, but … he swallowed and touched his jaw. It still throbbed, but at least his teeth were intact.
He put on a movie, one featuring Denzel, this time as a train conductor? He didn’t look too deeply into the movie when he stopped to rent it. He had been running late that day after another grueling shift at his new job as a reporter. After some time working a series of odd jobs, depending on Ahmad at times to carry some of the load in terms of the rent (he’d insist on paying for groceries since he had a Costco membership which is akin to the holy land), he finally landed a reporting gig, but it was an hour away in Jersey City, where he’d never spent much time before. For the past several weeks, he’d been waking up when it was still dark, having one cup of coffee, no milk, no sugar, packing some granola bars, lumbering into his car, hitting his head, cursing at himself and at the granola bars in his hands, and finally, driving between people honking at him for only driving twenty above the speed limit. He would do all of this only to be told by his editor, as he chomped through a rubbery bagel, not to bother coming to the office to pee or anything but to instead “go straight to the action.” Meaning: to head to a corner of the city where he could find some parking, have a heart attack as he sought to parallel park, rush into a Dunkin Donuts, pee, wipe his face, find a seat by the window, and start to call or email his “contacts.” He did this until his back ached, acid built up, and he finally got to publish a story about a pipeline bursting somewhere or about a diner turning 75 years, where he interviewed the “most loyal” customers, according to the owner, who stood a few feet away, a smile plastered on.
“How’s work?” she asked.
He shrugged. “It’s okay,” he said.
He continued chopping onions for a soup he was still making, as Rani sat and watched the movie. Not knowing what to do, she munched slowly on some chips Dev gave her and glanced at him every few minutes. Also, she kept glancing at parts of the apartment. It was certainly slightly bigger than the one she was sharing, and that wasn’t going to change anytime soon. It turned out that working as a cashier wasn’t as profitable as one would like. Plus, much of her money was still being shelved away so she could go into a graduate program next, possibly in sociology. But that, too, now hung in the balance. For now, what she really needed was another way to make money. She started selling some of her old clothes on eBay, but that too could be overwhelming as she wasn’t always enthused about setting aside hours after work to pack away dresses and shoes, head over to the post office, and wait in line when she could be sleeping instead, allowing her mind to feel whole, her feet to stop throbbing as they did each and every day now.
“You should get a coffee table,” she said.
“Someday,” he answered, as he dumped more onions into the broth, some of it spilling on the burner and prickling his skin. He muttered under his breath. This was far harder than he had ever imagined. Carrots, for some fucking reason, were also so hard to peel and cut, and that was next. Part of him wanted to stop, order some naan instead, and grab some mango pickles somewhere close by. Part of him just wanted to keep munching on random snacks he had in the apartment until he could fall asleep, his stomach bloated but his heart content.
Before he looked at Rani and subsequently changed his mind, part of him wanted this to end. He didn’t really know where they were going, but as he looked at her munching and watching the film, a part of him knew he’d miss this, even if whatever this was appeared now caught in a routine, like the rest of his life. Wake up. Go to work. Pay your bills. Don’t have someone chase you or kill you. Text with Rani. Maybe once a week. Meet up somewhere, perhaps gravitate toward the bed, hands melting, bodies undulating. Maybe not. Watch a movie. See each other another time. Rinse and repeat.
Shoving her head deeper into the bag now, half her arm descended, she could sense Dev being a weirdo and glancing at her. But she didn’t turn her head, pretending to be engrossed in the movie. In some ways, she was relieved to be watching something to allow her mind the space to stop churning, and her heart to stop racing. Sometimes, when she did find some relief, often when lying in bed after a long day, too tired to think, she would realize just how fast her heart had been racing all that time. Like she’d been running a marathon with the top half of her body doing everyday things, like scanning items as customers sighed and waited, while her legs were sprinting in place. Often now, she did feel disjointed, her body scattered, her mind, as much as she could remain calm and collected, on the verge.
She hadn’t had any nervous breakdowns as she knew others had. These included her roommate, her roommate’s boyfriend, whose natural response has been to play video games all night in the main living room, and her dad, who’s been drinking more, watching cricket in his tiny ass studio, coming into work, slurring his words and dragging his feet. She was still the most stable, something she assumed she would be proud of, but she also worried how much she’d been shoving down below, how much pressure had been building.
The last time she was at the temple her mom usually frequented, a mostly Bengali worship, the priest, speaking in Sanskrit jargon, an ancient language that meant nothing to her, sprinkled them with water apparently from the Ganges, the most polluted river on the planet. Her mother, still retaining her sanity, tucked in her head and ordered Rani to do the same while others opened their mouths wide. Rani’s chest felt tight for the rest of the service. Especially when a local Bengali businessman, one of those who the other men would gather around and hang on every word, brought in some local councilmembers too, one white and one African American. They both seemed nice, smiling and clasping their hands together, nodding to people. However, the man who invited them spoke on how fortunate they were to have such great people in their midst and how there was going to need to be a “cultural exchange” so everyone knew that the community was pro-American.
“We love America,” the man said, and some in the crowd nodded and murmured. The priest himself was busy arranging some golden pots and pans, but it was only after the men sat down, that Rani noticed a sharp burning sensation. It was coming from her hand. She had been digging her nail into the side of her thumb, cutting a deep wound. Fortunately, it wasn’t that bloody, and she was able to wash it at a fountain and rejoin the congregation. But once home, she would look at her hand and at her other hand and wonder what other part of her body would be scarred somehow. In what other ways would all this fester in her?
“Ahmed wants a coffee table too.”
Suddenly, she snapped her head to see Dev sitting down, his hand open for the bag of chips, which she passed to him. She smiled. “What’s holding you back? Did you put all your investments somewhere else?”
He chuckled and crunched. But kept his eyes on the screen as Denzel leaped from one train to the next. He had no clue what was going on, but in some way, he preferred it that way. After a week of being yelled at by his editor, of being told where to go, of having to stay in his car writing stories back to back to back, of dealing with his mom constantly texting and calling him to see if he was “safe,” all he wanted was to watch Denzel leap and jump, to be funny, charming, to outmaneuver the bad guys intellectually, to be a hero.
Rani watched his face, wondering whether to ask him again how he was. It was getting dark out. Soon, the only light inside was the TV screen and the car headlights that would sometimes pass over them, despite them being in more or less a basement-style apartment. Sometimes, the lights would cause her to wince or shift in her seat, like she was in a prison camp, with floodlights pouring over her and Dev. Over all of them.
Over the past few weeks, Rani would go to the local library between shifts. It was a few blocks away, but there were days when she couldn’t sleep or take a nap she needed, and, instead, she found herself moved to learn more about some of the topics she had discussed as an undergrad. She had professors who introduced to her some aspects of U.S. history that seemed to be relevant now. She also had student groups she’d been adjacent to. She had never liked the people in them, but some of their ideas or points were intriguing, if not illuminating. One Desi guy who she couldn’t stand, given how much he liked to talk, and talk, and talk (an affliction), did bring to her and others’ attention about U.S. involvement in parts of the world, like Latin America, especially Central America, and even places as far away as Bangladesh.
As a Bengali, her mom did mention this to her once or twice, but in ways that weren’t supposed to elicit a wider discussion. Her mother, who was usually soft-spoken, or always too tired to raise her voice, would sometimes chastise Rani when she was younger and not wanting to eat, about how so many Bengalis didn’t have food at one point. How so many, her mother claimed, had just wilted away in the middle of the road. At the time, the story was disturbing. Until it was repeated so many times that it also became part of the wallpaper behind her.
Still, the story now was reverberating inside her. Although resources were limited, she was able to go online and find books that did discuss the U.S.’s involvement across countries like Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. How the C.I.A., allied with major companies, supported right-wing coups and death squads. Monsters eager to maim and torture and destabilize the region.
Thousands of people murdered and disappeared. Entire countries rotting from the inside.
Every time she tried to discuss this with her mom, her mom would continue doing what she was doing, chopping up vegetables, packing tiffins for lunch at work, or just nod and walk away and not say anything. At one point, while watching Family Feud, her mom sighed and murmured as Rani tried to tell her again about the coup that took place in Chile, and how the Pope supported the fascist dictator too. Rani stopped and also pretended to enjoy the categories that contestants were getting wrong, the banter between them and the host. An illusion of a fun event.
Her friends, however few now, reacted similarly. Her roommate covered her ears during breakfast. She insisted that maybe later she’d be interested to learn more about America’s cruelties, but she was heading to work and no longer wanted to step into the workplace, her brain swimming in images of death and destruction. It was “not fun,” she said to Rani, as she slurped down the sweet milk left in her bowl and ran out the door.
But Rani could still feel her body reverberate. Fester. She looked over at Dev finally and said, “I’m going to a protest Sunday.”
Dev took in a deep breath but kept eating. “Good for you,” he said.
“Do you want to come?”
“I need to rest. So, no.”
“Okay. Maybe another time?”
“Probably not,” he admitted.
“Why not?” she asked, navigating.
“What for?” he said. “There were protests, and nothing happened. So, what’s the reason?”
“It’s wrong. All of this is wrong.”
“I know. But I don’t understand why you want to get so involved. It’s just going to bring on more anxiety and anger. Who needs that?”
Rani, this time, was the one who took in a deep breath and faced the screen.
“What?” he asked. “What did I say?”
She shook her head. “No, never mind,” she insisted, “I just …”
“Nothing, nothing. Let’s just watch the illusion.”
“What you say?”
Dev glared as he faced the screen.
Rani, too, kept watching. She knew she wasn’t staying this time. What was the point? She wasn’t entirely sure either if she would attend the rally. She was hoping someone else could come with her. Ease her own anxieties, given she’d never been to such an event before. But a part of her badly wanted to. Given everything that was going on, she couldn’t ignore any of it, even if it meant more anxiety, more anger, and more sadness weighing on her.
Suddenly, her fingers were beginning to burn. She drew in some air.
“This isn’t working for us,” she announced.
Blood dripped on her jeans.