By Sudip Bhattacharya
Brown water gushing from the kitchen sink, black mold seeping through the walls, someone grunting through constipation on the floors above. Some experts would say these are not “ideal” for the average person navigating the terrors and insecurities of life. Some experts would go as far as to claim human beings need clean drinking water, less stress, fewer debt collectors ringing, to be considered healthy.
Samara and Ashish would’ve agreed, as they stood, glaring into the abyss of their kitchen sink. It looked more and more like a muddied pond you’d find lurking outside. But as Ronald Wilson Reagan would’ve remarked, if he hadn’t collapsed into himself after painstaking years of committing crimes in Central America, “Asbestos is white, so how bad could it be?” To which Bill Clinton would’ve said, his eyes bright red and coughing, “Just don’t inhale.”
Still, for Samara and Ashish, this was a step beyond the normal abnormal one is asked to accept when living in the bowels of the Garden State. A land peppered with trees and mansions, yes, but also, your standard issue Wawas, Walmarts and Amazon warehouses that twinkle in the distance like miniature cities.
“And they want us to pay more rent,” Samara muttered, her body shaking, daring to explode and splatter, to become finally one with the fungi germinating just below the surfaces of their bathroom and kitchen.
Shaking off the early morning rust, Ashish too, could sense an eruption inside his body. After several days of the water being discolored, looking diseased, he had called the building’s front office, only to be compelled to leave behind scraps of himself in voicemails, most of them sounding plaintive, he would admit later while lying in bed, sinking.
Stress lines spread across Samara’s face, lips, and forehead, and he immediately promised to call again. Samara had to leave soon if she was going to get to her class on time. Nervousness, worry, and anxiety filled the space. His stomach grumbled as doors below and above were slammed.
“I’m not crazy, right,” she insisted, “This is not normal. How are other people ok with this?”
“Definitely other people will be complaining about this,” he said, edging closer, placing his hands on her shoulders, doing the manly thing, which is to comfort their “woman.”
A deep sigh followed. She turned around to face him and said, “We’re living in a toxic dump. Why doesn’t this bother you more?”
Class was now only an hour away, and judging from the honking cars, traffic had begun to build. New Brunswick was notorious for causing people to grind their teeth until there was nothing there, trapped for the awful hope of driving a block away.
“I’ll make sure to punch the first person I see at the office today,” he said, and despite Samara rolling her eyes, he could sense a smile slowly breaking through.
“You’re so annoying,” she said, playfully swatting his chest, maneuvering past the banter to get dressed.
“What do you think about this?” she asked, placing a blue skirt beneath her red t-shirt she was planning on tucking underneath. “And please, be honest,” she reminded.
Admittedly, Ashish had absorbed some lessons on fashion from Samara, and others too, who understood the importance of presenting oneself to the world. How a certain pair of socks or a tie could project an aura of confidence, or worse yet, arrogance. Still, his mind was swimming in the sound of cars outside, the kitchen sink gurgling, and the slow realization that, quite possibly, the water was poison.
Even if he tried very hard for his mind to wander elsewhere, he’d seen in the news about people in other parts of the hollowed out landscape of the northeast and Midwest suffering through clean water shortages. Some articles cited people vomiting out their insides, to others barely surviving dizzy spells in the middle of work, to decomposed bodies being uncovered, legs and arms twisted into the sheets. Of course, it would be the landlord who’d find them or some disgruntled friend fueled by some forlorn memory. Finding a body, once again, is not ideal but something a true-blue American must be prepared for apparently. That, and being able to alter one’s voice when answering the door at the end of each month or when being stopped by the pigs for having rear view lights “malfunctioning” on a bright sunny day.
“I like it,” he told Samara, forcing a smile, the stench of the water flaring his nostrils.
Some months ago, the local Democratic Socialists of America had recruited Samara for a campaign on housing, having seen her speak at city hall. The DSA had been a part of Samara’s life, off and on, for a few years but it wasn’t until some leaders contacted her that she decided to become part of something more consistent, like a campaign. At first, Ashish was grateful, attending meetings with her, watching her interact with others, smiling, laughing, eyebrows narrowing when thinking. But with everything else that happened, with Samara’s mom now enduring breakdowns every other day, Ashish would find Samara back at the apartment more and more often, and less so at city hall, or at some tenants’ meeting instead. As Samara tried on another skirt and tucked in shirt combo in front of the mirror, Ashish wondered if it was worth salvaging, that connection with the local chapter, or with a group of people there, who clearly recognized Samara’s brilliance in stitching together words and meanings that could resonate with people beyond those she already knew. A rare skill, especially in an era of people appealing to their niche audiences, salivating for another concept or term that they could only know and wield.
Still, a part of Ashish very much wanted nothing to do with the local chapter, especially as some of the meetings would run for hours with him caught in the back row, next to some older member who’d insist that the only way to win socialism in the U.S. was to run as Democrats, and to disavow every socialist country that ever existed. Even for someone like him, this felt like giving up before the real battle had even begun.
“Love you,” Samara said, kissing him.
“Love you,” he echoed, his mind swimming.
Before the room could cease moving, Samara was out the door, rushing, joining her fellow subjects of the suburban sprawl, texting and driving, blasting music, and tapping their feet while their bladders filled up. Sometimes, Samara would text while on the road, thanking Ashish for cleaning up after breakfast, which usually meant collecting all the K-cups strewn across the kitchen counter. Ashish would reply with a stern warning to keep her eyes ahead. So far, there’d been no terrible accidents, no PSAs that were inspired by Samara behind her steering wheel. But sometimes, there was worry in his chest, pushing down on him. There had been times in the past when they had more time to spend with one another, where Samara would want to just drive around their neighborhoods, coasting along, commenting on some of the hidden gems of central New Jersey, like the large houses looking like they were pulled out of a brochure, their bushes perfectly trimmed, their gates rusted and yet, looming. Sometimes, she would lose her focus, pressing on the brake inches from the car ahead of them, causing Ashish’s heart to hit him in the throat.
Sometimes, they’d argue. Sometimes, they’d not talk and then proceed to hold hands over the armrest. He’d want to return home, jump on his DoorDash app, and drive and deliver bags of food dripping with grease, gathering tips from people with sullen looks, and sometimes, smiling but tipping him in crumpled dollar bills like moist towelettes.
The water from the shower head also looked brown, or was it his mind playing tricks? It’d been several nights too of tossing and turning, of taking edibles while gazing out the apartment window at the empty street ahead, at the houses with sunken porches but brightly colored and gaudy figurines of Krishna and Ram decorating their windows, and of tiny Menorahs too, glowing into the blackened sky, like burnt coal. Standing there sometimes, he’d tell himself that everything was normal. Everything was fine. It had to be. Similar thoughts darted through his head, like mosquitos spotting exposed flesh, as the water hit his skin, causing him to grimace.
Before taking on the world’s most despotic and delusional empire, Ho Chi Minh traveled the world, including some time within the belly of the beast, listening to poetry and jazz in Harlem, the words enlarging his heart. Despite the shadow of Jim Crow, African Americans had found ways to build beautiful worlds for themselves, burning with art and expression and contradictions. Some, like Langston Hughes, allowed their minds to travel, penning sonnets to revolutions that would stretch from New York City to what was then called Calcutta.
Minh himself believed in aspects of the U.S. dream, especially some of its founding documents, like the Declaration, which he’d cite as a reason for why the Vietnamese people desired independence from French domination and control. Of course, as many of us already know from our experiences, when Euro-Americans are confronted with facts and logic, their self-destructive sense of self gives way to anger and resentment. They rejected Minh’s invitation to side with the freedom fighters; although Minh correctly aligned the values of Marxism with the values of true freedom and justice. After all, gaining independence was only one element of what Minh and his comrades desired. They were well aware that independence, without a class analysis and socialist values, could easily slip into one set of foreign capitalists being replaced by local capitalists instead, and sections of Vietnamese society that were fairly reactionary to begin with.
Gazing out at the class, seeing some staring into the void, some typing on their laptops, and a few leaning forward, Samara faced away from the projector screen, asking if anyone had either any lingering questions, or had other things to add in regards to the lecture so far, expecting most of the male students to raise their hands, and repeat what she’d just said.
Instead, one of the female students, Priya, who sat at the front, spoke up. She reminded Samara of herself during undergrad, with the same black bangs nearly covering her eyes, her hair kept short like a swimming cap, and always arranging her pens before the start of each class.
“I was really excited by how he emphasized independence was more than just replacing one group with another, and I think that, to me, is useful even now. Like, we have, and I guess I’m speaking for myself here, but in the last few years, we have people of color who claim to want to represent us but they’re really representing themselves, and some of them are just business owners too, or they’re really religious, or something else. Anyway, I think what we read makes sense to me nowadays too, even if we’re not fighting a guerilla war, you know? I dunno, I just thought that was interesting. I could be wrong but yeah.”
Nervous energy radiated like kryptonite, and yet, Samara knew the student was well on her way to becoming far more bold, in due time, of course, considering how very early on, all she had done was take out her laptop and write notes, nodding at times to whatever tidbit of history, a scrap of hope and destiny was being shared.
Now, she was peeling apart speeches, history, and everything in between, testing the waters in terms of analysis and coherence. Truly, it was a sight to behold, the political and personal development of people within the correct setting, and was a firm reminder of Samara’s ability as an instructor, and in some sense, an organizer too. One of the main reasons for doing what she did, rushing across campus every other day, sweat collecting in her back as she spoke regardless of how often now heard her voice (which she always felt was a bit too whiny despite Ashish insisting otherwise, which sometimes annoyed her but in other times, was sufficient evidence of his love), was her own experience learning. Samara’s father would often read the newspaper aloud in front of the TV, blaring headlines, and proceed to do so with various voices for each of the story’s “characters,” finally asking Samara questions about what she gathered from the words and statements and perspectives that permeated each paragraph. Sometimes, she had no clear comprehension, and she could easily get distracted by her mother in the kitchen, pots, and pans clattering, and loud cursing, but her father would somehow return her focus with another question, or a joke.
Often, he would hand the paper to her and tell her to read it instead as he’d either take a nap before logging more hours reviewing blueprints for infrastructure in parts of the city he’d never feel comfortable in, or he’d plod into the kitchen, with the smoke alarm blaring, flapping a towel, opening windows, grumbling. Sometimes, her parents would go to their bedroom, and she could hear them slinging condemnations, projecting onto each other, and soon after, they’d come out, not speaking for some time, in their separate corners, ruminating while cooking, crossing out a row of extra toilets for a building that felt unnecessary. When the nearby lampposts would flutter awake, their front lawn glowing under the beams of moonlight shooting through the sky like alien spacecraft, her mom’s head would be resting on her dad’s while her dad was falling asleep, occasionally burping after having overeaten mango pickles despite warnings not to, in front of the TV screen flashing silhouettes on the wall. Another argument usually followed. Samara would’ve been in her room by then, still reviewing the various newspapers like pages from the Mahabharata, picturing parts of the world far, far away, suddenly in front of her, with people she could begin to comprehend.
It was always exciting to learn more about the world, to decipher how things worked, to no longer feel thrown around by random events, suffused with magical thinking. Her father, whose family was filled with teachers, had always wanted to be one, but after migrating to the States from Jamaica, and after meeting Samara’s mom fleeing the clutches of tradition and magical thinking in the outskirts of Patna, he decided he had to do something else to make ends meet. But that love for learning never abated. It could never just go away, as much as he probably wanted it to.
Suddenly, picturing her father laying out the newspaper on the table in front of the television, rubbing his chin as he scanned all the various columns, bags under his eyes, wincing as he would bend forward, trying to read each headline, her heart dragged into her stomach. A sense of nausea swept through, and yet, having been here before, did what she felt she needed to do, such as grabbing hold of the lectern while she spoke, telling the student that her insights were very interesting and worth a journal entry, and subsequently, informing the class that they should all take a fifteen-minute break instead.
Once the class emptied or students simply returned to their devices, she situated herself behind the podium and clutched her phone against her chest, pressing it in. Now, peering up at the ceiling peppered with mysterious stains, all she wanted was to be back at the apartment, rotten water and all, to be in her bed, watching videos on TikTok, of accounts slicing up random fruit and putting all of it in a blender, or people traveling the globe, looking happy as they stand next to waterfalls with their arms outstretched like Jesus freaks. Images that ooze some level of comfort and familiarity, and a way for her and Ashish to make fun of them. He would be slinging jokes, and she could feel his hands stroking her hair, and outside, families could be heard playing at the park, with the old heads blaring R&B from the ’70s and ’80s on a bench, dragging in the air until the sunlight had turned orange, defiant and full of hot gas.
“If one of them farts, they’d fly into the sun,” Ashish had once said as they sat by the window and watched everyone below, sipping tea, and splitting cookies. Samara snorted, with some tea shooting out of her nose.
“Professor?” a student’s voice broke through.
Looking up, everyone was in their seats. Jumping to her feet, thanking the student as one does to buy more time, she shuffled some of the papers she’d ripped from her notebook, scattered on the podium, notes of what students had shared so far, and questions she had wanted to ask them in return. A smile was offered while clicking the mouse, trying to log back into her PowerPoint, which, for some reason, had been deleted from the computer. Her sane side reiterated that most of the class was shrouded behind screens, their personalities engrossed in YouTube clips and decontextualized movie scenes, many of them preoccupied with the next dopamine rush prior to their next class. Many of her students would come to class, reeking of cleaning products and fast food.
But her phone continued to vibrate. She could feel the skin over her bones stretching. She could see her mom and her older sister, heads bowed, holding hands, tears streaming. She could see her mom peering across, glaring.
“Let us turn to the middle of chapter two, wait, chapter three, yep, yep, turn to chapter three, beginning,” she said, clearing her throat, staring into the page until some pattern of words would emerge in her head. Instead, there was a blank space. “Actually, turn back to chapter two,” she said, and pretended to search for something important, still turning pages, squinting and nodding, projecting what a person in deep thought would look like. Priya’s eyes focused on her, she knew, and so, she persisted in nodding, murmuring to herself as if repeating an important concept or question. The proverbial philosopher was stranded amidst an ocean of deep thoughts, tossing her one way or another, which was partly true ironically. She was existing inside her head, the images ahead of her becoming blurry.
Ashish had told her that whenever she was mired in situations like this, when it became all too much to navigate, it was best to remember that someone else, somewhere, had also been dealing with a terrible day of stubbed toes, papercuts, and coffee that tastes like warmed up spit. Sometimes, when he would do something careless or frustrating, like bumping his knee against the dishwasher or a wall or place a bet on the Knicks, Ashish would oftentimes exclaim, “All downhill from here,” and laugh through gritted teeth, rubbing where he’d been hurt, or after deleting the ESPN app for the five billionth time.
There was value in this approach, she knew. One can’t move throughout life, always feeling the weight of things. How else to proceed with even the most basic human functions, like eating one’s breakfast, if all you can think about is how insufficient you are or how many things are beyond one’s control? Yet, sometimes, it felt hollow to retreat into the self. The notion of self-care immensely annoyed her. Light some candles, watch a delightful movie, and feign interest in things that don’t directly relate to one’s worries. None of that makes a difference, though, when the problems are still there, hovering, ready to consume. Spilling some red wine doesn’t stop your boss from emailing you late at night.
When her dad was found in his bed, he was still wearing his white shirt and pants from work. His eyes were shut. It was daylight. Her mom had realized how cold he felt after returning from her late shift. A scream had lifted up the house, causing walls to crack, according to her sister. Neighbors rang the doorbell to see what had happened. This was a day or two after she’d spoken to him, upset over how he didn’t want to retire and pursue what he really wanted to do, like writing a book, maybe going back to school and finishing another degree. He’d explained that time for him had passed, and she could feel the anger spilling. Her mom, after the final rites, as dirt was spread, had told Samara she loved her, her dad loved her, but she should’ve accepted him for him. According to her mother, her father had returned from that conversation, deflated, ashamed. He laughed it off but her mother knew. They held hands as her father was lowered, and yet, her mother’s hand felt cold, like she’d been stranded in the arctic for days. Samara fled the reception after, unable to answer or respond to any further questions.
Since then, she spent time crying, arguing with Ashish, with people online. But she also pushed through. Action was imperative, especially if one wants to endure. Self-reflection can sometimes be deadly, and distracting. Constantly thinking about the meaning of life as a tsunami crashes over you isn’t always the sensible step.
The bad taste of coffee, fortunately, began to gnaw on her tongue, and distracting herself with it, the words flopped out, like slugs. Reacting rather than pausing to allow another wave of discomfort to seize her nerves. An apology was offered as well, and she asked everyone to switch to chapter one while she fumbled in her pocket, finally switching off her phone. A part of her wanted to run. A part of her wanted to lie on the couch, dragging in relief, her chest caving in. A part of her wanted to escape and find someone who, too, had a deep pit growing inside, most likely someone at a Wawa parking lot rewatching clips of cats nudging items off ledges. She wanted to move her hips against theirs, to keep moving, grinding, searching for a rhythm, until her mind was too tired to think for the remainder of the day. A part of her wanted to dissolve. But there was also a part of her, which she held onto, that kept her where she was, and she didn’t know why, but she smartly didn’t question it. Which was what Asish would’ve wanted her to do.
But was it the right thing to keep doing? Right now was probably not the best time to wonder, as what felt like a million screens and eyes and souls watched her. She smiled at the multitude judging and pressed on, as one does.
Some rules to keep in mind when attending a city hall event, according to Samara, if she ever had the time to write these down:
- Always have some snacks and water on hand.
Usually, city hall officials can smell the stench of social activism heading their way, oftentimes by having their interns, who were paid with prestige and work experience, to monitor the interwebs and social media clicks. When a controversial or semi-important issue comes to the attention of the public, i.e., rent control, or a cop losing his usual calm temperament and beating the shit out of somebody who bumped into them on a humid day, councilmembers will organize some cultural events, such as slam poetry about the changing weather (a metaphor for change in society broadly), or will stuff the agenda with a litany of confusing roll calls and other sorts of policy interests, usually tax rebates and tax cuts for another eleven-tier parking garage.
Patience has been a crucial trait, Samara had known, having attended events such as these since her time in college, packing their backpack with water bottles, hand sanitizer, extra masks, and most importantly granola. Although Ashish hated the brand since it would be impossible to eat without crumbs all over their lap. Still, he zipped up the bag after adding in some extra cash for parking and a bag of peanuts coated in paprika.
2. Be sure to attend a meeting with more than yourself.
That was the golden rule. Upon learning about the rent increase that was planned for their building, Samara contacted some of their neighbors, most of whom were in their mid to late sixties, creaky knees, lines that cut deep. Their response was to invite her in, bribe her to stay, and talk with some cake samosas or maybe some flan.
One of their neighbors had been alone through Covid, after her husband passed at the very beginning when most likely, some asshole coughed on him while waiting in line to pay for some olives and bread. When Samara appeared, next to Ashish, Ms. Hurston beamed, Monk playing in the background, the scattershot of drums and pedals and high-hats, piano keys jangled and melodic and sometimes frustrating to trail after. They couldn’t stay long and, for safety reasons, stayed in the hallway, explaining the recent attempts by the building management to jack up rents for everyone. Ms. Hurston, however, recoiled after hearing this, her eyes dimmed. She’d said that the last time they’d try to talk to people at city hall nearly a decade ago, bringing some attention to the property developer’s poor management of the building, they’d received threatening calls for weeks after, informing them of code violations and probable reasons for eviction that she and her husband were never confident were legal. It didn’t matter. Since then, they just focused on what was in front of them.
“Best that way,” she said, and after recovering her smile, invited them once more for some coffee cake instead.
Ashish touched Samara’s arm, and Samara politely declined, although fury was simmering within, and what she wanted to do was spend some time with Ms. Hurston, be there as a friend, to redevelop that connection one requires when developing a long-term campaign.
3. Know that city hall is only the first face of power, as Steven Lukes would say. Meaning: in a capitalist society, it is often the private business interests that hold sway over public policy ultimately. Given that housing itself has been kept in the hands of the so-called “free market,” it’s the private developers, landlords, and the banks that invest in housing derivatives/schemes that are in charge of developing housing; how much such housing should be, and in what areas deserve a dignified standard of living.
Samara was well aware of this, and it was something she wanted to state when it was her turn for public comment before the city council dais in New Brunswick. She would speak before her city council members. People who represented alleged constituencies, slices of life that acquiesced to a certain concept of “progress” in the city and in the rest of the county: Hispanic, Asian, Black and white. At least members of those groups who weren’t too paranoid and resentful or had left decades ago.
It wasn’t always, truth be told, the most well-off who believed in urban renewal and what some term gentrification. There were sections of the working-class, the blue collar, who, much like people living on faith, strongly believed in better days ahead, who invested themselves in so-called community leaders expressing joy in how clean the streets looked, in how the new theater down the block would bring in tourists and outsiders with fat pockets and time to kill.
“What’s wrong?” Ashish nudged Samara when Samara hadn’t yet volunteered to speak after nearly two hours of “agenda setting” by the council.
She had been staring ahead, squinting at times. It was a habit of hers when something she’d hear was too annoying to believe.
“We should’ve knocked on more doors,” she said, “You don’t need to be leading me away from people.”
“What are you talking about? We were running out of time.”
“We had at least an hour. You were working from home. You could’ve started sooner, too, knocking on doors.”
“I don’t like that stuff. It’s too much.”
A deep sigh escaped her chest. At this point, Ashish could visualize the anxiety rising, like protons and neutrons bouncing within a condensed space. For now, there wasn’t much he could do or say. Eventually, Samara did speak at the city council meeting, and cited their broken promises and how weak they looked when all they did was listen to big developers in the area instead of taking seriously the residents’ needs and interests.
The city council nodded. One was scribbling on his sheet of paper, his collar hugging his neck. Finally, the event ended with the city council thanking everyone, and disappearing into another room for more “deliberation.”
But by then, Samara’s shoulders drooped, as she returned to their seats. Ashish immediately draped her sweater over her shoulders, and they returned to their car and headed to a North Indian place nearby, with Ashish ordering all the naan they could conceivably fit into their stomachs, and some lamb curry dripping onto their plates. As they burped as quietly as they could moments later, rubbing their stomachs, they laughed at some of the things said at the council meeting, like the one man who complained not about the rent but more so about the geese leaving green poop on the front lawns.
“Wild,” Samara would repeat.
A sense of relief was shared between them, and hours later, Samara and Ashish had their sheets curled up by their feet, their skin glistening. Samara still felt the anxiety radiating from Ashish. In the past, she could always catch him observing, deep in thought, clearly wondering what he could do. They had conversations about this in the past, whereby Samara would insist Ashish was already doing what he could to resolve the many issues, to be there for her when she needed him.
They laid in bed, skin still warm, the blood still pulsing through.
Not a step but worth noting that while Samara snored with her mouth open, with daylight vanishing like something being absorbed back into its portal, Ashish stared up at the black mold, fingers dancing on his aching stomach. The black mold was their third roommate now, he conceded, spinning a joke to possibly share with a friend. But quickly came in the recent memory of his meeting with their manager, the audio crackling as if they were speaking from different dimensions, informed “sadly” the management position had gone to someone else. “Maybe next year,” said the face Ashish would never ever again see. I need to be more, I need to be more, to do more, for her. For us. For her. But how? Thoughts like fireworks bursting upside his brain. Should Samara contact more people to help her? What about her friends at the DSA? His toes curled thinking about the meetings that would start with the sun shining outside to everyone leaving with the moon glowing bright, boring holes into their blinking faces. Some of the discussions made him feel distant from her too, as much as he enjoyed seeing her face glow around others, her hands moving through the air, her voice landing blows, causing some to cease speaking and nod instead. Should he contact her sister instead? What else can I do? I have to do something. I must.
Back to the essential steps,
4. When attending a city hall event, know that none of it is futile. It rarely is unless you are surrounded by the wrong kind of people. Even then, silver linings do exist. Deep reflection is always necessary.
The history of the world is not simply a history of oppression and loss. This is something we’ve lost, since the repression of the left and of working movements rooted in a class analysis (an emphasis on having the perfect number of people of color and women in elite circles has superseded Old Left “concerns”) but there was a time when anti-colonial socialist movements had spread across the globe. There was a time when income inequality had shrunk.
Still, it’s understandably difficult not to feel weighed down by history, even when you’re lying in bed, as Samara was after a while, when turning over and realizing Ashish was missing. It was still dark out, but she could hear the birds arguing with each other, and sighed into her pillow. She also saw the clumps of hair on Ashish’s pillow. Her eyes turned wide, and yet, coursing through her was a renewed faith in doing something. The front door suddenly opened, and she held up the clumps of hair as Ashish stepped into the bedroom doorway, holding two cups of coffee, steam rising.
“Hmmm, that’s not good,” was all he could say.
To which, Samara replied, “This is also probably from stress, you know.”
Ashish sipped his coffee, said it was hot, and went back into the living room, watching the traffic from their window. Soon, he could hear the shower turn on, and Samara singing a pop song. Life would go on, for now at least, and all he wanted to do anyway was take her out again somewhere surrounded by some semblance of normality, people who looked like they cared but didn’t care too much, food that looked clean and hearty (a term he never thought he’d ever use in his lifetime), and where the wait staff didn’t look as miserable and scatter-brained. After kissing him, Samara rushed out, leaving behind a plume of strawberry.
He would log onto an early morning meeting, reminiscing about the city council event with Dev, his co-worker, who clearly had a gambling addiction, and didn’t have a filter either, talking about all the IG models he followed over the years, despite allegedly being married. The hours ticked away as Excel graphs filled his screen.
Someone was stomping on the floor above theirs. Suddenly, at noon, someone knocked, but Ashish stayed still instead. The knock became a banging.
“Is Samara there?” the voice echoed.
Now, Ashish’s heart pumped blood into his brain, causing it to swell. It was Samara’s Ma.
“Hello?” she repeated, until Ashish opened the door, projecting a version of himself as much as he could.
Samara’s mother was a few inches shorter than her but had a stare that could cause everyone around them to feel like half their size. Looking up, squinting, she said, “Is your hair getting thinner?” and before he could respond, adding, “So young, you need to rest more. Not play video games so much,” and from there, she stepped into the apartment, her voice filling the space, asking about Samara, asking about him, then more about Samara, what was wrong with her, why hadn’t she returned her calls. The list of questions grew, as Ashish did his best to politely shut the door to their bedroom, and kick aside socks and other dirty clothes off the floor.
The rest of the day, Samara’s mom simply waited at the dining table overlooking the road, occasionally watching Bengali shows on YouTube on her phone. Ashish offered her what they had, which was chicken strips, some leftover sushi, and water, and some mango juice — the essentials.
She politely nodded, no, and resumed watching, and Ashish did his best to stay engaged with his Excel spreadsheets, inputting names of various organizations he would need to contact for “customer engagement.”
Finally, the front door opened, and Samara stepped through with a large smile. Ashish greeted her at the door, kissing her on her cheek, whispering to her about the situation. Samara’s eyebrows were arched, as she slowly entered, and her mom had already gotten to her feet, exclaiming, “Samara! You’re ok!” Samara hugged her mom, asked her how she’d been, and apologized.
Ashish returned to his computer, this time pretending to wear his earphones but listening in. Samara and her mom, as expected, talked about a lot in a matter of moments. Samara’s mom expressed what was clearly depression. Samara recommended she hang out with her sister, who lived farther north, or with some of the aunties on the block they’d lived on. But Samara’s mom would insist instead that all she wanted to do was be here for her. “Don’t forget about me,” her mother said.
“I’m not forgetting about you, Ma,” Samara insisted, although all she could still see, instead of her mom smiling at her, was the scene of her father, head drooping, heart caving in, slowly chewing his food hours after they’d spoken. Not saying much to her mother while at the dinner table until Samara was sure, her mother demanded to know what was causing him to feel so sluggish and low. All Samara could envision was the scene of her mother, hours after, screaming after touching his skin, crying, desperately calling her sister and then Samara, all the while her father was still in his buttoned shirt.
Would this ever change for her? She was sure over time, perhaps, the imagery would be less intense, but it had already been some time, and every time, almost, this was all she could think about and remember, even when her mother was holding her hand, and beaming.
“I’m not forgetting you, Ma,” Samara said, doing her absolute best to see her mother standing before her rather than memories and shadows that clung like dirt and mud.
Samara’s Ma held her hands. She looked over at Ashish. “Is Ashish’s hair thinning?” she said.
Without thinking, Ashish finally said, “Yea, I think it’s because of the water.”
“What about the water?” Samara’s mom asked, repeating it as she looked over at Samara, as Samara looked over at Ashish, who looked back at his screen, pressing the delete key over and over.
5. Always be mindful of your words.
Following the impromptu “visit,” if one could deem it as such (although every auntie would), Samara and Ashish barely spoke to one another for several days. There were moments when Samara felt the urge to explain that there was only so much she could do for her Ma, that being around her still made her feel powerless and empty. However, Ashish gathered bits and clues, choosing to be the one who would communicate with Samara’s mom still, updating her on Samara’s health, what she ate that day, what she was up to, and in return, receiving an almost unending supply of neurosis and paranoia, and anxieties about Samara and her sister being the next ones to fall silent someday. It was a back and forth of care and constant worry. Often, Ashish would need to take an afternoon to lie down and just scroll on his phone, to feel the anxiety draining from him like pus.
Still, Samara and Ashish, of course, communicated when necessary, such as lightly tapping on the bathroom door when one needed to go in to cry with the water running, or when preparing meals together in the late afternoon, silently sniffing the raw chicken, glancing at one another as they deciphered whether the ammonia smell was coming from the kitchen counter or sneaking in through the vents from another apartment above. At some point, one of them would either toss it into the trash or onto the frying pan, and stir in the vegetables, earbuds on at this point, SZA’s songs making sense again.
When confronting the challenges of being in a relationship, it was typical of Samara to turn to podcasts, and to audiobooks, and YouTube. But she’d stopped listening to them, as many of them insisted on the same methods that seemingly felt detached from life. In fact, when reading up on personal strategies in navigating the world generally, Samara detested the notion of being completely “open” and “transparent” with one’s emotions, personally and to others. To a degree, Samara and Ashish too, although he rarely said this (the irony), that sharing one’s thoughts, and opinions, and emotional quibbles, was useful in particular contexts. But to do it all the time could be tiresome, in fact, for the individual saying what they think they need to have said, and those around them.
Frankly, to be always attuned to one’s emotions can be self-absorbed and draining. There are bigger things happening in this world and if a person was always down to cry, down to break down and express “hurt” and “sorrow” from their day, or having been triggered by something, nothing of substance would ever get done. Sometimes, it is necessary to hold onto such feelings, to shove them down. How else to accomplish anything of substance if it’s always about oneself and what emotions are swirling around? How can one challenge the broader circumstances with tears blurring your vision? The great revolutionaries had their moments, but they could’ve never done anything if they always wanted everyone to sit in a circle, contemplating trust falls, and sharing their innermost thoughts about something that bothered them from a few weeks ago when everyone had been cutting through the jungle, bugs sticking to their faces like puddy.
Call it emotional repression. Call it being tactful. Call it arrogance. To Samara, it was a method of surviving, both at the personal level, and for those she cared for. Why weigh her mother down with more thoughts about what had transpired so suddenly on what was supposed to be a family outing, the first one in months? Why weigh down Ashish with those same thoughts when she did share some a while back and clearly, Ashish had become consumed by them?
And why should it always be on the person hurting in some way to be so willing to share that with everyone to receive what they may deserve? Why should the onus be on her to speak up constantly for her to be heard?
If Ashish had known exactly what Samara was thinking as she sniffed raw chicken again, a pair of scissors ready to slice through every chunk she felt looked gross, plump with fat and blood, he certainly would’ve had a clearer picture, but after a while, perhaps would’ve also returned to his usual attempts at elevating her mood. It was Ashish’s doing that Samara’s mom had invaded the apartment in the first place. He’d remembered something else Samara had muttered, while watching families at the park, and immediately, after Samara had gone to work, called Samara’s mom, asking if there was something he could do to lift Samara’s spirits about life. Maybe a part of him knew Samara’s mom would do what she did, maybe a part of him wanted that to happen. Either way, it did, and he refused to share this fact, hoping for the memories of that day to disintegrate like burnt leaves instead.
One night, all their anxieties, frustrations, and some of their suspicions about themselves and one another compelled them to spend the entire time in bed, legs curled around each other, drawing each in, closer and closer. The next morning, Ashish convinced Samara that it was the perfect time to grab breakfast instead. Samara had already been awake several hours, listing names and numbers to call.
During the time when they weren’t on regular speaking terms, Samara had dedicated more of herself to contacting some of the people she’d gotten to know at the DSA. Admittedly, she did feel torn. There were DSA members whom she needed to speak to but didn’t want to, some of whom were anti-communist and loved to inform her about “real” politics. But there were others with whom she could engage with and learn something from, people who were determined as her but also, clearly aware that there were things they didn’t yet know. Nevertheless, better than relying on even a smaller sectarian socialist group whose main calling was to meet in libraries to discuss the summaries of texts. Then again, as someone who taught, the turning away among some, from reading Marx, Lenin, and Luxemburg and others, very much unnerved her, gave her indigestion in the middle of the night.
Sometimes, Ashish would wake up from a weekend nap, overhearing Samara on the phone in their living/dining/guest room, her laughter spinning through. Yes, sometimes, she would just be on the phone, it pressed against her ear until it was red, nodding. But there were moments too when she’d be chuckling, returning with her own flurry of jokes and funny asides. She was a different person, Ashish could see. Or an enhanced being, some could say.
“Have you had enough sambar? Have mine,” Ashish insisted one late afternoon as they returned to their usual pattern of talking, with their plates of idli and dosas between them on one of the few tables outside. The restaurant inside had been packed all morning, with people still pouring in, some trickling out, patting their stomachs, dabbing their foreheads with sleeves.
By now, Samara had been looking off at the traffic darting by. Smog had enveloped the parking lot, leaving behind blankets of soot on top of cars. She’d read in the news about fires that had been spreading across the hinterlands of Maine, the smoke spilling over for miles and miles now. It was definitely getting harder and harder to breathe, and her mind was reeling like it had been for weeks, months, ever since she’d stepped into her first sociology class, helping to illuminate experiences she carried with her, balancing between revealing some and hiding scraps.
Reading the lines on her face, the silence deepening despite her chuckling at some of his worst jokes, he finished his meal ahead of what he’d prefer, the hot soup and sauce melting his guts, and they headed back, the smog sticking to their windshields, the taste of smoke filtering between the gaps. Once back at the apartment, Ashish drew back into the bedroom, removing himself for a few, while Samara returned to the lists of people to call. Eventually, he reappeared, rubbing her back, nibbling her ear.
With his chest clenched, he finally told her she needed more people to help her with the phone calls. She’d explained earlier that now, the game plan was to call a broader swath of the local DSA membership, as well as people in coalition with the organization. This meant thousands of people, possibly many of whom had dropped out of the progressive organizing space since the start of Covid-19.
“I’m too much of a coward to help,” he said. “You should call Claudia, and whomever. Invite them here.”
Arching an eyebrow, she asked if he was sure. He nodded, and said he’d order some food for everyone instead.
“Oh my god, you’re still hungry?” she smiled.
“Always,” he said, peeking into their cabinets, realizing most of what they had revolved around was different combinations of crackers and bread with peanut butter, and unopened jam. An hour later, he called a place nearby for nachos and tacos and horchata. All of it arrived on time, just as Claudia and Ella, the two Black members who remained in the chapter, were calling up other local members, many of them admitting they hadn’t been to a meeting since Bernie’s last failed run.
They were set up in different parts of the apartment, so their voices wouldn’t clash. Samara was set up in the bedroom, but when the food arrived, she joined everyone. Ashish gave her space to eat and talk, as he began writing some poems again, filling the Google doc with aimless lines, experimenting with rhyme schemes he never liked, but would help in breaking the block in his head.
“He really said that??” Samara exclaimed to something Ella mentioned about a past date. A man who disagreed on pretty much everything aside from voting Democrat.
“Let me tell you,” Ella proceeded, as Claudia shook her head and ate some of the nachos, waiting for the ridiculousness of it all to unspool. “He even said…oh my god… it was so weird!”
“Oh my god, just say it!” Samara nearly yelled and laughed.
Claudia threw her head back as well, her mouth full of cheese and bread.
“Close your mouth!” Ella responded.
Samara laughed. Claudia snorted.
Ashish could still imagine someone coming up from management, knocking on their door, politely asking what was going on, having heard some “commotion” from other neighbors. He could still picture them, hissing, conversing in their offices, about this new “issue” developing in their building, of “outside agitators” and some of the tenants working in tandem now. Most likely in the coming weeks, they would receive notices regarding “disturbances”, asking them to come down to the office to “discuss” their rent and their lease agreements. Most likely, someone from management would keep knocking, keep “checking in” for weeks, for months to come.
Claudia ordered some bubble tea for everyone. She asked what bubble tea Ashish wanted, and after having been stuck on rewriting one line, imagining the sound of knocking for the past half-hour, he responded.
Samara and the rest of the crew resumed calling, with Samara making jokes with the people she called, drawing them out of their shells. Ashish could hear some laughter on the other end too, and could feel some of the sunlight pouring into the room.