Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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Ode on an Asian Dog

Walt’s eyes were luminous planets behind his glasses. They shone as he walked Jumi to dance rehearsals, carrying her saris and bells. They swirled as he drove her to shops where he bought the jeans and thongs that made him whistle. They glistened as he laid her bare on Martha Stewart blankets in sandy coves. When his teeth clenched those enormous nipples he said were made for breastfeeding, we cities hummed like church organs.

Come home with me, he said that August, so she wore her red silk dress. Not knowing his town would shimmer up golf courses and country clubs. That his Chinese mother would dash out a split-level Victorian like paparazzi. Jumi emerging from the car! Jumi hunched in the living room! Jumi sidling out the bathroom! Jumi drooling in her sleep! Our dazed subject ran into the side garden of nodding sunflowers, poofy hydrangeas.

There Walt’s father pressed a finger to his lips shh and rearranged ceramic gnomes. He was relieved, he whispered, to meet a humble girl, asked why she looked Thai, said he’d forgotten his Hindi. Jumi settled on a vinca bed and began the well-worn lecture: we’re Indo-Burmese, we have indigenous traits, Assam was the last part the British added to the Raj. Mr. Singh gave the well-worn response: Disney bug eyes, mid-air freeze. Later at the kitchen counter, he rambled on about growing up with Andaman tribals. A people, he shook a forkful of pork, nearly extinct. Walt laughed and thumped his chest. E-e-ooo-ah-ah-walla-walla-bing-bang!

I Am Ready
Who knew they’d meet at the Harvard welcome table? That she’d wave to him over the spoilt milk and he’d point to his nametag and grin. I’m half-n-half, Indian-Chinese. That he’d walk her to Au Bon Pain for fresh squeezed orange juice and she’d freeze. I don’t got money to pay you back. He’d stroll off to the Yard, hands in pockets. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around.

Three summers later, she ran after him. Walter Singh: safe enough to lose your virginity to, staid enough to dump scot-free. She invited him to troll Manhattan readings, skinny-dip on Orchard Beach, trail her at the Puerto Rican Day parade. He stuttered questions to authors, flung sand at her till she barked quit it, blinked at salseras through Harry Potter glasses.

When she visited his Chinatown digs, he played India.Arie. I am ready for love wafted through his boat-strewn room. Planets pooling, pooling. She straddled his lap, nibbled his ear, begged give it to me, give it to me. Jumi, he whispered into her black tangles, please don’t get bored with me.

Homies Forever
Mira, her Puerto Rican roomie would say. I saw the signs. Vero heard how Walt and three friends had trudged from the Bronx Zoo to Jumi’s house with that deer-in-the-headlights look (Black people! Single moms! FOBs!). Her father met them on the cherry-lined street, wearing his Harvard Dad T-shirt and best dentures. He waved them through the two-story brick to its warm kitchen, where he’d fried pakora and masor koni, brewed Darjeeling with cinammon. Walt & Co. sidled about corners as if walls might crash down, headlines flashing across their faces: Harvard kids buried in Bronx apocalypse. Mr. Saikia recited his favorite tales from the crypt: who got robbed at gunpoint, who got shoved onto the tracks, who got raped in the park. Jumi, trying not to giggle, snorted tea in and out her nose.

Months later, Jumi gulped. A black-and-white photo hung over Walt’s dorm entrance. Walt & Co. mugging before a studio brick wall graffitied Homies Forever. Jumi stared at the mock pouts, crossed arms, and turned to the bedroom doors. Each one locked, kids hunched over moral imperative, supply and demand, identity politics. Jumi walked out to the elevator and jammed the button. “Did you take that photo when you visited me?” Walt strolled barefoot behind her. “Probably. Why?” She placed her hand on his thumping chest. “I need to think.” “Please,” he said, his lower lip trembling, “don’t think.” The parting doors halved their image to zip.

“So now you know,” Vero said when Jumi slumped onto their papasan. “Get used to it or get out.” A Santurce doctor’s daughter, Vero had started seeing a Colombian lifeguard. Every evening Camus pressed their elevator button, dorm proctors asked for his ID. Vero repeated what he’d said when she’d shrugged. How would you like it? How would you feel? But when Jumi rang Walt—what if her homegirls had snapped themselves in polo shirts before his golf course—Walt stammered words that hadn’t shown up on her SAT. It wasn’t my prerogative. I merely acquiesced. Jumi asked for her keys. Walt shuffled over. Heads downcast on the church steps.

Jumi whirled about the stage for ten days, knocking over larger girls, the rickety set. When she trudged home from Auburn Street, she found his phone messages like campaign slogans. We can make it through this! I believe in our future! Give change a chance! The afternoon she threw up green water in the dressing room, the other Indian girls squealed and pinched their noses. Jumi bolted to Walt’s suite—his crushing hug, soapy scent, crowing laugh. When she rolled over, there was the photo, adorning the door.

All year, he bussed to her room instead.

But my summer nights! Walt slipped from midtown bars and read Styron on the Uptown 5. In a studio that overlooked swaying maples, Jumi YouTubed dance clips till Walt stumbled in. All beer and soapy sweetness.

His favorite treat? Her striptease, when she slipped off the backwagon of her jeans and swiveled to some hip-hop Top 40. Play, repeat. Her favorite style? Doggy-style, when he grabbed every supple orb and growled mine. They did the deed atop her quilted radiator, her one dollar chair, the cot under her dead mother’s shawl. The cot-the shawl-cot-shawl-cotshawlcotshawlcotshawl. He grew into a mangy wolf, licking at her to get up, get down, to stand and walk on him. Acrobatics that turned her tightroping swan.

When they stood newborn before the mirror, she said, we look different. His swimmer’s body, all shoulder and leg, had the Nordic height of Punjab, the lithe lines of Chinese script. Her gymnast’s body, called childlike, had the sturdy look she’d found in books like The Tribal People of India. When she tried turning to the cot, he caught her waist. We’re flawless.

The last evening rain broke the summer heat, he drew her close in the cot. What would you say if I said—the maples swished—I couldn’t imagine my life without you? She pushed him to the wall. I love you but I’m not in love with you. He pulled her in again. Give me time. How come, and he lifted the covers into a tent, this feels so natural? Because, she said to the moon gleaming through the sheet, all lovers live in caves.

By day, they roamed biryani joints in Jackson Heights, El Rey eats in the North Bronx. Though after molé at Grand Concourse, he slumped onto a bench, gazed about the glassy lots, the singed brick. I can’t kiss you here. I’ve never seen so much poverty. Though after samosa chaat on Roosevelt Avenue, she let go his hand. Stragglers sang Bollywood tunes she, if not he, understood: tujhe dekha to yeh jana sanam, pyar hota hein deewana, sanam. I saw you and I knew, beloved, love is crazy, beloved.

The crowd crushed them onto trains to his brother’s pad. Their fists shifted up and down a metal pole that reflected their bashful glances, while a raven-haired woman watched with knowing eyes. From the Times Square penthouse, Jumi peered at the sparkle of cabs, tourists, billboards, then turned to the spotless coterie of lawyers-bankers-politicians. Pretty money, she thought sourly while downing cups of pink champagne. Until Walt led her to a hookah room of pale, shirtless boys, and placed her hand in the slack hand of his brother. Chris sucked at the hookah pipe. “Jumi is Assamese,” Walt said, pulling the corners of his eyes out. “Where,” Chris puffed in. “Is,” he puffed out, “that?”

The Fall
Cambridge rang—bells under church spires, girls clopping in boots—of crisp, crisp money. Walt and Jumi held hands and cowered under the Harvard Yard arch. Real ivy on old brick! That tiled path that made a suggestive ring! Clean-cut students lugged suitcases in and out dorms, and Jumi stiffened. I don’t know if Imma make it through this. Walt scanned the tweeds and convertibles of Massachusetts Avenue. We won’t let this tear us apart. After dragging boxes to opposite ends of campus, they made frantic love on her cot.

The news shot through the halls: Walt and Jumi sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. Girls who’d never seen Jumi, who wore Dolce and Prada to class, who rated boys on their Earning Potential, stopped by her room. My mother would shower me with diamonds. Boys who’d scoped Jumi out as pretty but unfriendly, who bristled at her scornful laugh, who edged near her at parties, picked up her books. Walt’s the nicest guy at school. Rani, a Bengali sylph whose waterfall hair snared as many Indian boys as med school did, shouted over her vacuum cleaner. If this ends, everyone will blame you! Bruce, a Chinese Renaissance man whose killer cheekbones sent the Asian girls swooning, announced on a jog. Dude. It’s Pride and Prejudice meets Love Story. Vero, who’d warned that the prepsters wanted to pluck a wildflower, tame a colt, folded towels gently. “Walt this, Walt that. You know you’re allowed to see other boys, right? But por el amor de Dios, stop flirting with the ladies.” Rajiv, a BJP economist who’d grown a mustache that made him look like a young Mussolini, noted in section. “Brother, we thought she was half-Latin. Not only does she live with Negroes, she flirts with ladies.

Walt tried to slip them to the ducks and trees of the Commons, but Boston drizzled into gloom. To his house for Mom and pork fried rice, but Jumi slunk about the Russian dolls. The easiest days were nights, when he slung his bookbag over her chair, and she dreamt them back to the Cape. He had pulled over by the dunes, seagrass curtaining the whales, and had thrown their coats over the windows, her orange bikini swinging from the dashboard. They fucked against stenched leather seats, the glass fogging, fogging against creamy birches. Which shivered as if, any second, a cop might jolt out.

The Stranger
Veronica María Alejandra Sánchez had hoofed to Annenberg as a Victoria’s Secret Angel: black lace lingerie under red chemise, crepe wings wired to bra latch. The hall teemed with ghouls and devils drinking beer and brandy under stained glass scholars and poets. Vero had been twirling her hands in the air to “Thriller” when someone tapped her shoulder. A Guy Fawkes-masked man in a Dracula cape looked her up and down, offered his bejeweled gloved hand. Pero sí tu eres la angel más bonita aquí. She stumbled home at dawn, holding the 609 digits of Alberto Camus.

Jumi looked askance when Camus plopped on their papasan, but had to admit. Those hazel eyes, close-cropped kinks, roguish laugh that made him tramp to Vero’s princess. Jumi hadn’t expected Vero’s taste, but then, Vero didn’t know why Jumi stuck it out with type As. Camus, finding himself in the Towers, worked the crowd. He parodied bowtied Harvard boys, sang “Knight Rider Bhangra” by heart, replaced Jumi’s tangled bike chain. Each time he brought Vero burritos, he left chocolates on Jumi’s cot. The Sunday my girls hauled laundry to the basement, Jumi said, “He’s smart. He knows the way to a woman’s yoni is through her friends.”

Life of Sin
I’d say, Thanksgiving night, his uncles ushered Walt into the study and asked when he was going to marry Jumi. His brother, scanning her wild curls over the disemboweled turkey, said Walt would raise pygmies. His parents, setting out plates of pumpkin pie, asked for a number, but when Jumi said kids would end her career, Walt raised three cream-topped fingers. Yet who could say nay in that holly-hung house, by photo-framed fireplaces? Jumi, pooped from class-dance-scholarship chores, crashed and snored like a motorcycle in a room strewn with toy boats, postered with exquisite maps. Walt shuffled over with dewy eyes, then lay rubbing his paunch and crooning Jay-Z. All I need in this life of sin is me and my girlfriend, me and my girlfriend . . .

Boston would say, but the girl considered other men. Not white boys who hooted Jumi from the block, but dusky boys who rambled shyly about Marx over dining hall soup. You don’t always gotta bring up Walt, she told one brother, who watched the bangles clink on her wrists. She even listened to pudgy aunties who tackled her in the wings, asked her age-caste-major, named which so good-looking son would be starting vaat six-figure salary. Right in front of Walt. Who said nothing.

We’d both say, Vero tossed and turned across the hall. Camus’ hazel eyes turned out magnets for any end of pretty. After choir one evening, Vero collapsed on the papasan and talked a mile a minute about which guy had catcalled or winked at her. Jumi stopped typing. Why are you dressed like you going to a funeral? You know you like color. Vero flung her peacoat off and a tear eeled down her cheek. Alberto hooked up with his ex. Jumi gasped and knelt by Vero. Lose the mofo. He knows he’s not in your league. Vero gazed at the ceiling. I’m not upset. He’s ending things with her. Jumi slid back. Veronica, do you believe him? Vero gave a tight smile. Chica, I wish we all had the same luck. Pero así es la vida.

Our Future
At P.F. Chang’s, Vero folded and refolded her napkin as Walt and Jumi hissed. The baby-faced waitress hovered close, then drew back. Was Eminem famous because he was pink? Was Monica Bellucci the most beautiful woman because she was white? What sort of Desi called England the Mother Country? “You’re colonized,” Jumi cried over spring rolls. “A banana, a coconut, a Twinkie, a-a-a . . .” “Stop being so pedantic,” Walt snapped. “You’re boring everyone.” The genteel old couple next to them, who had not paid for this Christmas entertainment, drank their soups worriedly. Slurp, slurp. This is our future. Slurp, slurp. Each couple looked forlornly at the other.

Yet New Year’s Eve, Walt held Jumi’s hand down the glowing corridor of Faneuil Hall. He pointed out gleaming stalls of lobster and sushi, creamy barrels of chowder and gelato. Snow melted off Jumi’s dark coat. They strolled until they reached the rotunda, where Vero and Camus giggled and chewed corn cobs on a bench. Walt and Jumi unclasped hands. That’s weird, Jumi said. I told her we were coming here for our six-month anniversary. Great, Walt said. An evening with Dopey.

The four kids made small talk in the spotlight of the rotunda: Fuckin’ ey! What the—? Tan loco! Camus, who’d heard of this Other Boyfriend for months, challenged Walt to an eating contest. Walt wrinkled his nose and looked off at the newsstand, but Camus tucked in his Che T-shirt and zipped through ten cobs. He pumped his fists—the girls laughed—Walt plucked his molar with a toothpick. On the hall’s marble steps, kids sliding down the slopes on boards, Camus pelted Walt with snowballs. The girls turned away to cheer on the snowboarders while Walt darted and dodged from Camus. “Here, pussy-pussy-pussy,” Camus cried. Walt glowered behind a garbage can.

Later, Jumi toweled Walt down in her bathroom. “That’s just his way,” she said. Walt punched the shower door. “I’m not hanging out again with them.” Jumi yanked the towel away. “I hang out with your friend who calls turban wearers towelheads.” Walt pulled on his boxers and marched out the door. “So don’t. But at least I don’t alienate the Indians here.” Jumi followed his wet footprints to her room. “Are you serious? You’re taking cover behind those kiss-asses?”

Cartoons of Apu and quotes by Gandhi had floated a year after 9/11 like flags across stately buildings. Get to know your friendly neighborhood Indian, the fliers read. Free samosas. Indian couples in black peacoats walked gingerly about the Yard, faces clouded with the gloom wafting over the country. On the SAA listserv, folks spelled out Dotbusters, shootings in Texas, clubbings in New York, and said, we may need to go to war. Jumi half joked back, do we really want to play good Indian, bad Indian, and the listserv had shot back, high horse, traitor, leftie!

Jumi hugged Walt, who frowned out the window at the murky river, and said, “They say Hi to you now and completely ignore me.” He turned around and re-wrapped Jumi’s towel around their hips. “Sometimes, it’s better not to say anything. We don’t always have to agree. You don’t have to take everything to heart.”

Walt confessed to Jumi after she’d stroked his scar a hundred times. He hadn’t thought any woman would want him. His foreskin had wrapped so tightly over his broad tip, he’d pulled back the flap to pee. He’d funked through high school until his father cornered him by the ferns. Only after surgery did Walt chat up a cheerleader. That’s why, he grinned, I’ve got so much game. Jumi grunted. Your game is zero game.

Jumi screwed her windows against the first frost and crawled under a quilt. She’d never planned a wedding. Too much time at bus stops with sixteen-year-olds and their babies. At the restaurant with Punjabis and whities licking their lips. Sure, she’d mooned at boys in class—cream-and-honey-and-coffee-skinned boys—but who looked at a nerdy flaca? Bronx boys, she muttered into Walt’s chest, may be the most beautiful boys in the world. But they’re also the rudest.

Vero was more romantic than Valentine’s Day. She trolled wedding sites for dresses with Princess Di trains, for venue dates at El Rincón. She teared when repeating The Legend of Camus: how he’d hitchhiked from Colombia to Mexico, been smuggled on a donkey cart here, sent money to school his brother.

“Are you sure your parents will like him?” Jumi said.

Vero shrugged. “My dad picked my mom from a chorus line. What’s he gonna say?”

“Doesn’t Alberto worry?” Jumi said.

Vero snapped her chocolate bar and gave Jumi half. “Alberto says, if you can do something, why worry? If you can’t, why worry?”

No one told them about the memory of places. How even the river—waiting, waiting—would gurgle up a thousand-year warning. That land and loss are constant. That forgiveness is the hardest trick of all.

Maybe it began the March night she swept the glass animals he’d gifted her off her desk. They smashed into shards so luminescent she wanted to roll about in them. Rise armored with colored glass. He froze at her laptop, where he’d been clicking on a game. She hated how he was the popular one, just ’cause he was some rich kid? He knelt by her cot and sobbed. You don’t know how I feel about you. She crackled onto the glass. No one knows how you feel about anything. He wanted to bash her dark eyes in. Wasn’t she the one who wept in closets? Homesick, scholarship kid, cold-ass town. Yet he’d soap her down, toast cheese sandwiches, watch I Love Lucy clips till she uncoiled. He spread his arms. Doesn’t it mean something that you push but I stay put?

Maybe it was the evening he thumped shampoo into her scalp and muttered. His boys had caught her talking to the dance professor. She slammed off the knob. Stalked dripping to her room. Was she under surveillance? He tried to draw her in by the mirror. Calm down! You’re yapping like a Chihuahua! She jerked away and yanked open drawers. Did he think they were the prince and the pauper? At least the prof wasn’t a stuck-up. He kicked the soccer ball at her ankles. I get it! You people are the unsung dogs of Asia! The ball bounced off the drawer and struck the mirror. Teetering  . . . toppling . . . smash! Their startled faces scattered over the floor.

Their fingers bled as they picked up the jagged pieces.
My mom picked my dad because he had I-N-T-E-G-R-I-T-Y!
Your mom’s dead! Stop romanticizing the past!
At least I don’t worship whiteness!
At least I don’t follow made-up gods!

Walt dumped glass into the bin, and jabbed the message button on her answering machine. The voice of her high school buddy graveled out: I probably shouldn’t say this, it being Valentine’s Day and all, but oy gevalt! I fucked a girl today! I felt like the President conquering China.

Jumi shivered on the floor. Walt yanked the cord from the socket. “How the hell do you call me a dog and not him?”

Maybe it was the nights after, the funk between them turning their bed ballet into halfhearted hop. He couldn’t get it up as much—you’ve lost so much weight, he cried as he crushed her under him—she got off only one way now, facing away from him cowgirl style, longing for trees that trembled up branches. Would they, she gasped, bloom?

She asked Vero a few hours after she walked in on Vero, topless and giddy, under Camus. Vero slipped on her glasses and sat back in the papasan like a therapist. Just come out and tell him, Jumi. I. Need. More. Lovin’. Camus leapt between the girls and pinned Vero back onto the cushion. Just say, lemme show you how it’s done. Vero clasped Camus securely as he settled onto her lap, and Jumi squinted past them, into the dark, where sakura buds were curled against the frost.

Love Alone
The day they dropped theses into boxes, ice slithered off roofs. Thawed the Charles into sludge. But Jumi, riding the T for hours, wept in Chinatown and couldn’t say why. Not even to the black man who sat on her bench and said, “Is it that bad?” When she kept sobbing, he said, “Now, now. It’ll pass.” Several minutes later, “I better go before I get arrested. You take care.”

Walt sipped coffee in the sun-dappled Square, and tracked the wind. Boys hurling Frisbees, girls lingering in dresses. On his lap, purple orchids for Jumi. Under his loafers, sharp cobblestones. Over his head, the sudden open sky.

They slept back to back and browsed work sites secretly. Till the breezy morning Jumi poured him a cup of bitter Assam. “Can you believe it? Dancing in the foothills for a year!” Walt scalded his tongue and stared out her window. The Charles churning, churning. “You wanna live in la-la-land.” Jumi hugged his head. “Visit me. I promise you’ll like it.”

The few times they slept together, they woke with one kid sprawled on the floor.

“What did you expect?” Vero said. She tiptoed to a tin of condensed milk on the shelf. “You’re so skittish.” Jumi rubbed her temples. “I’m so tired I can’t think straight.” Vero frowned at the tin. “This turns to dulce de leche at home.” She shoved it back. “You pick. Por ejemplo, I get tired of listening to Alberto talk about electronics and sports. But he makes me laugh. He’s devoted. And he gets sick of all this.” Jumi kicked the soccer ball. “For real?” Vero paused the ball. “I got a research grant to Peru. We’re talking about phone calls, visits, the whole deal.”

When Jumi brought up Camus, Walt stabbed his dining hall pudding. Jumi pulled out the knife. “Forget India! Your friends think I’m lucky you visit the Bronx!” Five jock girls slid to the table’s other end. “I bought a plane ticket already, okay?” Walt said. “I’m teaching near your home next year, got it?” Jumi scraped back her chair. The Azores ladies in their hair nets were wiping down tables, listening in. They had told Jumi: Walt was bonito, he would be rico, she could dance por sempre. Walt cupped her face. Throw me a bone, Jumi. No one can live on love alone.

Eta Tierra
Graduation day, the Sanchezes flew up—ay que frío eta tierra—and cheered in the Yard. Vero had marched to the front row, right on time, but Jumi, who had woken up late, trailed the last file to the back. She looked around for her father’s small stature, stern face—kot asa Baba?—but it was Camus who clapped her eyes gotcha! from behind. After the Latin speeches, the English speeches that sounded Latin, my kids trooped back to change into jeans. Camus, cornering Mr. Sanchez by the papasan, rapped his favorite song. I like big butts and I cannot lie. A normally-beaming dentist, Mr. Sanchez clutched his belly as if in labor.

Mr. Saikia met them at Pho Pasteur, where he shot Walt dirty glances over the menu. Walt gorged on vermicelli as if it were his pre-execution meal. Mr. Sanchez happily overpowered the silences with tales of his yacht. The hour—Walt’s brother talking to Mr. Saikia as if one of them were retarded, Camus downing beer as if he’d found an oasis, Jumi explaining for the nth time this dance in a war zone thing—ended on the restaurant threshold. Brattle Street, where the kids had skidded over so much icy doubt, was a glittering curlicue of stone. As the Sanchezes chattered about airport shuttles, Mr. Saikia turned into a bitter wind, which tossed Jumi’s words over the Singhs’ guarded faces. “See you soon?”

Walt was left standing alone, gazing from one tide of backs to another.

She summered on Orchard Beach, watching the elliptical dips of the gulls. When some island guy came up to even her skinny ass—blunt stare, cajoling talk—she flirted till shutting down into a book. “Ninety-nine percent of the time,” she told Vero on a visit, “I’m on top. Is that normal?” “How about it’s sweet?” Vero said, slipping on her sunglasses. In her Yankees T-shirt and cutoffs, Vero drew glances to her guitar hips, her cavalier recline. “Ay chica,” she rose and shook off sand. “Stop kicking him to the curb. Decide and be done with it.” She strolled to the sea rim and rung Camus.

August. A gold-skinned pão sauntered up as she lay reading Strangers of the Mist. He asked for the bathroom in mangled Spanish—she gazed around at the vast sand and bush—he grinned. They spent the day pacing the strip, comparing notes on Nova Iorque, capoeira, goddesses. He told her his grandmother was an Indian and belted orixa songs at the sea. They drove to City Island, where they shared fried calamari and tossed fries up to the frenzied gulls. At dusk, they parted on the Island Bridge, the Brazilian blushing at Jumi’s eager lips.

August. Walt smoked blunts with his brother. Cruised downtown with his buddies. Ogled strippers with creamy tits, endless legs. Hit tennis balls with The Other Asian, Scott Lee, a Korean frog about half Walt’s height and color. The very last game, Walt called Jumi.

“I don’t know what happened!”

She set her basket of sandy clothes on the washing machine.

“I had him. Two sets up, a break in the third. Then my knees buckled. I sank right there on the court. When I got up, I was a different man.”

Jumi dumped the clothes and slammed the lid. “We all lose sometimes.”

“You’re not listening!” Walt cried. “I kept double-faulting, hitting easy balls out. He demolished me.”

Chug-a-lug the machine thrummed. “Next time,” she said. “We can’t always get what we want.”

“I can’t believe it,” he whispered. “I can’t believe I lost.”

The Moon
If India was another planet, the Northeast was its moon.

Jumi danced weekly on makeshift stages, in Guwahati fields, Naga villages, Shillong churches. The ruddy cheeks, brushstroke eyes made her want to pull Walt through the phone. You would fit in here! But their phone connections were so fuzzy, Walt heard half her sentences. We cancelled the tour to Imphal last minute because of a bomb blast, she said. He heard, we tour Imphal last because it’s a blast! When he called the Imphal hotel with card after card he’d bought in Indian groceries, the receptionist giggled, hasta la vista, baby! Jumi, eating momos in a Kohima hotel, fell asleep to the cop flick Paap.

Family obligations, Walt said for Diwali and stayed in Massachusetts. Jumi rattled on a jeep to Kanchenjunga, a crisp blue peak that marked the Old Silk Road. Her travel mates, boisterous Bengalis who swapped tiffins of fish curry and rasmalai, cheerily informed her she was a typical backwards Northeasterner. She clutched the door as they zipped around misty hill passes, and prayed for life, liberty, and the pursuit of peace. But at the Gangtok Monastery, Jumi wandered the red halls and felt her gut surge. She wanted to ruin every shaven monk who strolled by: spare faces, maroon robes with flame shirts peeking through. She shitted so long over holes she thought she’d grown new thigh muscles, stopped shielding her rear from men who leered. Ah, sexy, sexy shit!

Then, at an Arunachali dance performance, she met a prince. A punk rock-loving, Johnny Walker-drinking prince who invited her to museums, parks, cafes. Who steered her and his hounds in a jeep along the lush riverbank, across cow-ridden bridges, past elephants lumbering from forests. Who sang full-throttle to Bob Dylan, who slapped his knees at goofy jokes, who studied Jumi sideways as if she were a marvelous alien visiting his planet. It struck her later as an old-fashioned courtship—whole villages watching, whispering—that fizzled out. Because she had to tour; because she’d be gone; because Walt called every Friday. I miss yous and what’s news that left her dizzy. Why do you sound so weird, he said. I’m sorry, she said.

Mostly, the moon made her gasp. Emerald hills capped by clouds. Girls click-clacking striped shawls on looms. Blackouts when folks lit kerosene lamps and spoke. Names that belonged to the jobless and the junkies, the fighters and the fucked who crouched at town edges. The names weighed on Jumi as she danced, so that she felt like a puppet. The dances themselves, once rich with twirl, seemed desperate. Or, as two French tourists put it, so simple an animal could do them.

Fat Kid Love
Walt’s parents stared at the crooked streets, bargain stores, shambled tracks, and said, Parkchester looks like a war zone. Indeed, those first brutal months, the kids stampeded over Mr. S. Kids who seemed more invested in Dungeons & Dragons than in the Constitution. Who said basketball was more practical than the UN. Who remembered mack lines—mami, you so fine you make a nigga God whine—rather than his PowerPoint words—decorum, restraint. Who didn’t know what to make of Mr. S: Pancake Face, Ching Chong, Tiger Woods? Walt pointed to his brown forearm and said, See? I’m also Indian. The kids neck-bobbed about the classroom, slapping their mouths in war chants.

Welcome to my childhood, Jumi said.

For Christmas, she broke up with him. The thirtieth time. He zombied through the American Civil War, then graded till bedtime. When he couldn’t sleep, he drank vodka shots and jogged to Jumi’s parkway. Heaved on a bench till a crackhead, rising-falling, asked for change. When she called him a month later, pleading for one more chance, he sighed. Jumi, I can’t play this game anymore. When she yelled at him about his spoiled ways, he yelled back that he’d known she’d regret it. Fine, they cried. I’m over it!

Then there were days the children sprang forth like lamas. Little blonde Nathan punched him in the hallway. This too shall pass. L’chaim! Little Boricua Miriam pulled him down by his tie. Cheer up. You could die. Days when rap became a revelation: the rhythms that sounded like trains, the monotone delivery that unfolded into witness, the surprisingly rosy-and-blue ballads. Why Jumi had said 50 Cent had penned the world’s most romantic lines, lines his kids sang daily to each other. I love you like a fat kid loves cake. Why he saw with sudden clarity masks drop from faces: who parented parents; who got locked in basements; who, no matter what, would run through the cracks.

He lay on his bed, listening to the number four rumble by, and a seismic shift shot through him. He couldn’t even save himself.

Their last supper at Kebab King, he told Jumi about the Austrian girl. A teacher who had drunkenly admired his exotic skin, exotic lips, exotic eyes. Who didn’t have Jumi’s hang-ups: brown girl secrecy, self-loathing, rage. Who was twice as beautiful, twice as troubled, twice as worldly. I don’t know why she chose me, he said, frowning at the calamari. Jumi patted his shoulder. She has good taste. He jerked back and scowled at her hand. You look burnt.

They tried talking on the phone, as he plowed through his last teaching year and she danced at a Jersey theater. But when he yelled about the time and money he’d wasted on her, how he was better than ninety-nine percent of dogs she’d meet, she said nothing. Later, she wept before the mirror. Her dark skin! Her tiny limbs! Her broke ass! Her father drove those evenings from the restaurant, a routine that greyed his hair. You are my blood, you are my heart, you are my star, he bent over her. But she couldn’t hear any of it.

She cut Walt off, and danced like a madwoman. He checked in with friends who’d attended her shows: how did she look? Was she with someone? He gave her email to girls who’d gossiped about her, who suddenly wanted to befriend them both. He left a voicemail rant, saying he was appalled and disgusted she’d slept with his Korean friend. She considered telling him Mr. Do-gooder had hidden her from his church friends, had a pecker the size of a pinky, which explained his pious airs. She called to say, you think your name is stamped on my forehead? How many girls have you slept with? Walt snapped, if you act like a kindergartener, I’ll treat you like one, then hung up.

She called once more, the night her father lay in the ICU. She sat on a stool, every jump of the heart monitor kicking her own guts, and said, what if he dies? Walt could only talk about cheating on Anna, about how he and Jumi got derailed, about how, years later, they might’ve worked. Are you listening? Jumi asked and Walt cried, I’m talking for once! It’s your job to listen! After she gently pressed the receiver, she counted how many times the pump by her father’s head sent air into his lungs, the plastic bag of blood by his feet circled in-and-out his sides. She touched the veins spidering over his wrists as snappable as hers. Deeta, can you hear me?

Years later, she’d spot in strangers his gentle hunch and squint harder to reel him in. Luminous planets spinning. Years later, he’d call three more times, alternately yelling and weeping. If I could do it again, I’d do it differently. Years later, she’d be coaching wild-limbed girls, and he’d mirage from a chair in the back. Dwarf suns throbbing. Years later, he’d hear from some law crony, over lobster bisque, how much she’d given up! Not just him but propriety.

He didn’t hear how, the afternoon Vero and Camus traded rings, Jumi walked to that bridge over the Charles. How a bagpiper blared a ditty that had roused them each dawn. How she wasn’t ready for the tears that sprang up when longboats rowed into the light.  end  

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