Excerpt used by permission from Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). Copyright © 2020 by Jenny Bhatt
I am going to disappoint you. You probably know it when you spot me in the check-in line. Some part of you knew it even when we first met.
My memory of that meeting, fifteen years ago, stabs sharp as ever. Icy Chicago winds blew you and your friends into the cramped Hyde Park bar where I worked evenings. You pressed in closer over the counter and the wet leather smell of your jacket reminded me of my landlady’s butterscotch lab. Your face, under that snow-wet ginger hair, flushed bright pink as you tried to catch my attention.
I placed a beer pitcher before you and held out a hand.
You smothered it with both of yours, saying: “How ‘bout some curry and naan with that, babe?”
The laughter that rose around us was like the scraping back of a thousand chairs. It bothered you that I did not join in. You did not know how many curry lines I got in a single night.
As the light dimmed in your eyes, I pointed at the maroon phoenix on your T-shirt and smiled, “U of C?”
After closing, when you offered to walk me to my apartment, I nodded because my loneliness, after two long American months, was swishing and foaming inside me like a bitter brew.
A month later, your ex-girlfriend stopped by. Looming tall next to me in the bathroom mirror, her fake tan darker than my skin, she spat: “Stay away from my boyfriend, you black bitch!” It took two of her friends to drag her away.
I wiped my face and laughed hard because how can you take someone seriously if they cannot even get your ethnicity right? Still, I poured the next drink with an arm that shook like it had a life of its own.
When you found out, you were annoyed I had not come to you right away for help. We were lying on the pullout in your shared apartment, wide awake past midnight because of the noises across the hall. I sat up in the dark, clasping myself tight across the knees—a part of me thrilled at your protective claim over me and the other part upset how this had been your first concern. Raising my voice above the other racket, I said I never wanted to see her again.
We had been together for six months before your parents visited. They invited me to your birthday dinner at that Navy Pier restaurant where the vaulted wood-beamed ceiling was like the inside of a rowboat. Thick lengths of rope dangled everywhere with odd-shaped shipyard bits reclaimed and trapped in elaborate knots. Lake Michigan, with its wavering reflection of the Chicago skyline, dazzled through floor-to-ceiling glass.
Your mother kept sighing how she loved Midwestern summers and I understood where you got your secure charm.
Slashing his nearly raw steak so the juices ran over the greens, your father interrupted her, “What’s that British movie we watched some time ago? The soccer thing? Doesn’t she look just like that Indian girl?”
I bent my head low over my plate, searching for a cherry tomato to place into my arid mouth.
Though there was mock frustration in your tone, a kind of delight danced around your lips as you said, “Dad. She’s nothing like her. They don’t all look the same, you know.”
Your mother winked at me as if at a clever joke. She poured everyone more red wine and her diamond and gold bracelets clinked like she was dropping precious coins.
But it was the time you did not speak that got to me the most. I had come early on my night off to surprise you with a long-promised home-cooked dinner. Letting myself in, I heard your two buddies in the next room.
One said: “Hey man, how come you’re dating out? Know what I mean? Could have at least given the old neighborhood a try first?”
The other: “Quit hatin’ on him ‘cause he’s got an exotic Indian princess while you’re jackin’ off to porn.”
I held my breath for the one voice I needed to hear. Instead, the air filled with the sound of you all hooting as if a favorite quarterback had scored a touchdown.
That night, your lips and fingers running all over my body gave me little pleasure. Perhaps sensing my lack of patience, you finished quicker than usual. Afterward, rather than wrapping myself around the shape of you as always, I rolled as far away as I could.
Next semester, it did not take you long to find someone new. I saw you together once in Campus Market, basket filled with frozen Indian food. With hennaed hair and tiny cut-off shorts, she seemed both exotic and whitewashed enough for you. When I locked eyes with her, she looked away first.
So here we are: doing exaggerated double takes, talking like we are competing in an awkward-off, pretending we have never looked each other up on Facebook. I see the ring on your finger as you stroke the one on mine.
We glance at the colorful streams of people flowing about and laugh about how time has marked us both. You ask me to join you while we wait for flights to different destinations. Brandishing our phones, we share pictures of our spouses and children, proudly mentioning their accomplishments.
Sipping coffee from white china, I silently recall the way you would tease: “If you had my babies, they would be café au lait gorgeous.” It makes me shiver, this old sensation of being stripped of everything except what you desired.
We rise to leave. Your face crimsons like the first time, that flickering hope lights your eyes, the edges of your lips dance upward again. You close the space between us and whisper: “I should never have let you go. Do you wonder?”
I stare for a beat, then disappoint you with: “No.” And walk away.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and reviewer. She is a Contributing Editor at PopMatters. Her debut short story collection, Each of Us Killers: Stories, is out now with 7.13 Books. Her literary translation of Dhumketu’s best short stories will be out in December 2020 with HarperCollins India. Her non-fiction has appeared or is upcoming in, among others: The Atlantic, NPR, BBC, Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, The Millions, Electric Literature, PopMatters, Scroll.in, and more. One of her essays was published in an anthology, Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World. Her fiction has been published in Amazon’s Day One Literary Journal, Gravel Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Hofstra’s Windmill, Eleven Eleven Journal, Hot Metal Bridge, Jet Fuel Review, Kweli Journal, Five:2:One, The Indian Quarterly, York Literary Review (UK), The Nottingham Review (UK), Litro UK, The Vignette Review, etc. Her short stories have been nominated multiple times for Pushcart Prizes and the Best American Short Stories anthology. She has been a Best of the Net Anthology finalist. Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.
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