The following excerpt from Zigzags by Kamala Puligandla is published with permission from Not a Cult Press.
The Obvious Combination of Beef Stew and American Cheese
Richard saw himself in me since the day we met, which was something I had never been able to shake. At the time, Georgie and I had just moved into an apartment together in Edgewater.
“I’ve got a job as a cashier!” she came home and announced one afternoon.
It was Halloween that day, and the job struck me as a trick. “How?” I asked. “Where?”
“It’s a hippie-dippie restaurant with a store and a bar. They were totally impressed that I lived in China, and they said they liked my scarf.” Georgie fluffed her hair up in front of the mirror and adjusted her pashmina. “I start tonight. Everyone’s so nice. They invited us to a Halloween party, can you believe that?” she asked. “I need to wear an exciting costume that will also hide my excessive amount of nervous sweat.” We eventually settled on Waldo’s Pregnant Wife, and Georgie told me to stop by the bar at 10 when her training was over.
“Friend potential?” I asked her.
“Oh yeah. High potential,” she replied.
I liked the sound of that. I’d come to Chicago in the first place because of Georgie. When she returned after a two-year fellowship in Kunming, China, I wanted her to move out West with me but she wouldn’t. “The fam is in Chicago and I can’t leave the Summertowns,” Georgie insisted. This surprised me. My family had good taste, and we generally enjoyed each other’s company, but since we were kids, the idea was that my sister and I would strike out on our own, to discover the world for ourselves and make our own place in it. My mom had made it clear that only in a severe pinch could I live at home after college.
Georgie had grown up in Chicago and knew plenty of people, so I decided to move in with her. I didn’t know anyone else. I spent my days on the computer, editing and writing inane articles about the kinds of skills one could expect to acquire with a vet tech degree or where to find online courses in soil science. It was both comical and depressing to break down every career into a series of concrete steps so web readers would believe that if they just stuck to the prescribed path, they too could become successful neurosurgeons and film directors. “5 Steps to Becoming a Successful Writer” was the name of one article I’d been assigned that day. I’d had to put down my coffee mug in order to laugh maniacally for a minute.
That night around 10, I showed up at the Heartland Café in my best rendition of beef stew. I’d taped construction paper vegetables to a brown shirt and fashioned a foil cap to look like a pot lid. As soon as I walked through the screen door, I was confronted with Georgie, in her blue knit cap and striped shirt. Her palms were pressed into the counter, and she was blowing at the longer side of her bangs. I was impressed that she’d managed to keep her pregnant pillow in her shirt for the entire shift.
“What’s going on?” I asked casually.
“Oh my god, you scared me!” she said, jumping back. “I thought you were another customer and I was going to have to tell you we were closed or that we can’t do the ginger dressing gluten free. Hey, Nikki?” she yelled over her shoulder and a skinny woman with frosty blue eye make up appeared. I wondered if it was a costume or if she always looked that way.
“Georgie, don’t forget to take out the cash for tips. That’s what this stack is doing over here.” She pointed with a pen that she stuck in her mouth and wandered back over to the bar. “And don’t forget that you have to do all of the credit card transactions too,” she called, and picked up her blue drink. “That’s the stack on the other side.”
Georgie stared at me with wild eyes and I knew that I would be going to this party alone. “I’m not doing well,” she confirmed. “I’ll join you later.”
I walked over to a stool at the bar, and Georgie addressed the young servers who were taking off their black aprons. “Hey guys, this is Aneesha. We live together,” she added.
I ordered a whiskey ginger and looked up at the large dusty buffalo head on the wall. The bar seemed like a standard dive. The vast beer selection was scrawled on a chalkboard, and an empty stroller sat idly in the corner. The wall behind the bar boasted a fantastic clutter of license plates and photographs of the Heartland across the decades. My dollar bills stuck to the surface of the bar when I paid for my drink, and I realized this was exactly the place where Georgie was qualified to cashier.
“Hey, I’m Whitney,” said a girl with very curly hair. She was writing in her receipt book and accidentally brushed my boob with it as she walked past. “Oh!” She grabbed my shoulder. “I’m so sorry.” I was struck by the contrast between the firmness of her grip, but how lightly her pen rested between her fingers. She paused to take a better look at me. “Are you beef stew?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, excitedly. “I am. I’m so glad you could tell.”
“Great costume. I’m American cheese.” Whitney gestured at the piece of yellow foam she was wearing over her shirt. “I made the flag bloomers myself, so they’re a little funny. You’re coming to this party, right? The foods should hang out together.”
“Naturally,” I said.
“Good.” Whitney added her receipts to the pile Georgie was working through and took the stool next to me at the bar. “What are you drinking?” she asked, which led to a conversation about our shared love of whiskey, temporary tattoos, and the boys’ section at Target. Whitney was the kind of queer who didn’t look especially queer unless you were queer yourself, and that was something I always liked.
She took me with her when the group headed down the street to an apartment, where someone named Heather was going to give us a ride to the party. I found myself standing at a granite island, watching a girl divide the last of a bottle of gin into a dozen plastic cups. She was wearing a glittery leotard that I very much admired.
“Hey, do you know who Heather is?” I asked.
“I’m Heather,” she said. “I live here. You must be a new person. Why don’t you take one of these drinks? Nice touch with the foil hat, by the way.”
That’s when Richard walked in, sporting slippers and a bathrobe. He nuzzled the hell out of Whitney’s hair, picked up one of Heather’s gin and tonics, and sipped it elegantly, pinky in the air.
He cocked his head to the side and watched me watch him. “Who are you?” he asked, as if my presence were a mild insult.
This reaction was closer to what I had expected of the night. I’d tagged along to my share of parties, and mooched off a number of friend groups, but I had rarely felt so welcome to do so.
Whitney reappeared just in time to offer an apologetic introduction. “This is Richard,” she said to me.
“Aneesha,” I said, shaking his hand.
Richard raised his eyebrows at Whitney then grinned at me. “It’s a pleasure. Everyone’s been saying there’s a cute new cashier at the Heartland, and you’re about as adorable as a koala.”
“Oh, no. That’s my roommate, Georgie,” I answered.
He motioned between Whitney and me. “So that means you two are new friends.”
“As of two hours ago,” I offered.
Richard looked amused, and smugly drained his cup. “Alright, well done.” Then he moved on. “I can’t decide what to be tonight, hence this horrific nightmare.” He gestured to his loungewear. “I have some options, but I’m not married to any of them.”
In the end, Richard decided to dress up as a coke addict from the ‘80s. He wore an over-sized thrift store suit, which Heather and her friend Amanda had apparently bought for him, and spent an unbearable 20 minutes applying Vaseline and baby powder to his upper lip. Right as the group was about to leave for the party, he ran off to his apartment, saying that he just couldn’t bring himself to go out wearing a silver belt buckle and gold watch, that he needed to change. The car ride required us to jam into the back of Heather’s car, but nobody seemed bothered.
“Make room for me,” Whitney said, as she climbed onto our laps in the backseat.
I had no idea where we were going or what kind of party we were in for, but I had to admit I felt I was in solid company. Heather was dressed as a glittery Jazzercize instructor, Amanda was going as a businesswoman with an oversized cellphone, her boyfriend, Sam, had made a cardboard and long-underwear Batman outfit, and Whitney was wearing the foam cheese pull-over with homemade American flag bloomers. Then there was Richard. He annoyed me. His pinched face, his brashness, his touchy grabby comportment, and his less-than-inspired costume. I never expected to be friends with Richard.
At the giant loft party, I watched Amanda and the cardboard batman get close, while Heather flirted with an Alex from Clockwork Orange. Meanwhile, Whitney and I downed drinks and chatted up strangers. She also hardly knew anyone there. We jostled on the dance floor, side-stepping loud girls in roller skates, and I sensed a playful glowing chord being struck between us. Her touch on my back was gentle when she asked me to get her a new drink, and there was a loose “baby” tacked onto the end of her thank you. In a haze, Whitney and I took a cab home together. I sat in the back seat, my hand on her thigh, her head on my shoulder, when suddenly, Richard materialized in the front. “Play nice girls,” he called and winked as the two of us slid out of the back seat.
Even as I followed Whitney into her apartment, I hadn’t seriously considered that this is where the night had been leading. So often, these were the kinds of interactions that meant I’d made a new best friend. Richard, however, had known all along, and even Whitney was cool and casual as she poured me a glass of water. “You’re welcome to spend the night if you’d like,” she’d offered.
Richard still brought up his presence in that cab from time to time. “I knew something was happening there.”
“Nothing even happened that night,” I’d told him time and time again. “I had a glass of water and walked home.”
But he knew I was lying, and I think he preferred not knowing exactly what to picture. “Of course. How polite and gentlemanly you are, Aneesha.”
The truth of that night, I kept to myself. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t original. Not even Whitney would have remembered that she took both of my hands, led me to her bed, and pulled me on top of her. We were both still wearing our coats and bags and even though I was straddling her, our fingers on each other’s faces, I recalled the sensation that we were still so far apart. I was exhilarated by how sharply her lips tugged at mine. But as quickly as it began, Whitney’s gin-soaked mouth went slack and lazy, and I pulled away from her.
“Hey, Whitney,” I’d said, holding her cheek in my hand. She’d mumbled and turned her nose into my palm. I jumped off of the bed, and chuckled to myself as I unlaced her boots and pulled them off. Then I adjusted my scarf, pulled up the collar on my coat and left her to sleep. It was too unexpected to take seriously, but on my walk home I purposely attempted not to replay anything in my head, to keep the details fuzzy. I had an active imagination and a bad habit of falling in love faster than was comfortable for anybody.
It was then I had to acknowledge that Richard, the crass stranger with a goopy upper lip, had seen something familiar in me, some part that I hadn’t entirely recognized myself. He would never be able to fully explain what he was doing in that cab, but I got the impression that he’d been in my position before, and I wondered what else about me he knew that I didn’t yet.
Kamala Puligandla is a writer and editor in LA. She writes autobiographical fiction and essays on queer love and futures, aka she steals from her friends’ lives. Her novella, called You Can Vibe Me On My FemmePhone, is forthcoming in Jan 2021 from Co-Conspirator Press and she is currently the Editor-in-Chief at Autostraddle.com. Kamala is well-known for her contagious laughter, her iconic hairstyle, and her easily undone heart. Zigzags is her first novel. Find out more about her at her website.
Music by Catlofe
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