I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
The blue uniforms swarmed, pinning the man to the pavement. His voice was muffled as they pressed their knees into his neck.
Soon, the man stopped squirming. He lay motionless, face down, as the paramedics arrived.
The video also reached its end. But Subhash clicked.
I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
Subhash woke up early, planning to get some work done, and instead, was at his computer, staring at the paper he was meant to have finished a week ago. Unable to even write one more line, he searched online about what happened on Staten Island, and found the video recorded by a bystander. It was still dark outside in East Brunswick, and the streets were empty, when he first started watching. Light eventually filtered between the blinds, and he logged off the browser, and cleared its history. After taking a sip of coffee, and allowing the images to swirl in his head like a bottomless ocean during a storm, tossing ships aside, he remembered that Tulsi was probably awake. He checked in her room. She wasn’t there, although her books were organized on the shelf. Her toys were also packed in their boxes. The sheets too were perfectly folded.
Subhash found Tulsi downstairs in the living room. She was staring at the ceiling while on the couch, her tiny body hidden among the cushions and her hair, round and puffy like a marshmallow. Subhash asked what she was doing, and she explained she was thinking.
“About what?” Subhash asked.
“Just stuff,” she replied.
Subhash waited for more. Tulsi, however, kept looking up, her hands folded on her lap, and her clothes without a single crease.
Piano and swimming lessons were on hold, and Tulsi, after they told her a day ago, didn’t seem bothered by the news. She acted the same way as she was that morning, just sitting quietly by herself.
Subhash said they could go to IHOP, and get the chocolate pancakes with the ice cream on top.
“Daddy, who eats ice cream for breakfast?” she said.
Subhash smiled, and after making waffles and eggs, they went to New Brunswick, where he checked mail at the department building, and bumped into a few of the other professors, who were also cleaning up before winter break. Subhash kept the conversations as short as possible, since many were adjuncts. Most complimented Tulsi on her dress, and she’d smile while avoiding eye contact. Subhash encouraged her to speak once Langston greeted them, and asked what book she was reading. “Harry Potter,” she answered, and clutched it against her chest. This time, Subhash was concerned. He told Langston he’d call later, and led Tulsi outside. Students were rushing to class, or sharing cigarettes while perched on the nearby benches.
“Are you feeling okay?” Subhash asked, as he held Tulsi’s hand.
“Can we go home?” Tulsi replied.
“Why? Are you feeling sick?”
“Ms. Lee says I need to study.”
“Sweetie, don’t worry about that. Don’t you want ice cream?”
Tulsi looked at him.
“It’s not morning anymore,” Subhash added, causing her to giggle.
They went to a parlor on Easton Avenue, surrounded by new Turkish, Italian, Middle Eastern, and Indian restaurants. The train station heading to and from Manhattan was only a block away, with new condos towering above it.
“Do you like your milkshake? It’s not too cold, is it?”
“No. It’s good.”
“Do you want more cookie crumbs?”
They sat by the window, and the moments of happiness he’d seen flicker across Tulsi’s face had already dimmed. She sipped, as her legs dangled from the chair. Subhash wanted to say more to her, but couldn’t think of anything else to ask.
He was sucking up the cookie crumbs at the bottom of his cup when there were voices that echoed down the block. Instantly, everyone inside the store stood frozen. Some slowly turned their heads to the window, as a procession of students marched through the street. Many held signs with pictures of black men and women who Subhash recognized.
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” they chanted as cars honked.
Tulsi asked who they were, and Subhash explained what he felt was appropriate.
“Aren’t they scared?” Tulsi said.
“Scared of what, honey?” Subhash asked.
“Of people hurting them,” Tulsi answered.
Subhash glanced at Tulsi, who was transfixed by the scene outside. Her eyes were wide, and she leaned into the window.
The protest circled around the main campus several times until stopping in front of a construction site for a new set of condos. Subhash and Tulsi stood across the street, on the campus lawn, as the students took turns speaking through a bullhorn. There were two dozen of them, most of whom were young black and brown women. Subhash spotted Afeni and Fatima in the group. Local police gathered on each corner of the sidewalk, wearing sunglasses, and Subhash saw two of them grinning at one another.
“Daddy, what are they doing?”
“They’re telling everyone what they believe in.”
“Because they want people to understand and join them.”
“What if someone tells them to be quiet?”
“They’ll just speak louder.”
“Like talk back?”
“Yep. They have to. This is what you do at a rally,” Subhash explained, as more watched from the lawn and nearby lecture halls.
While Zainab spoke to the protestors, connecting what happened on Staten Island to the roots of the nation as she described “a country founded by slave owners,” a white man approached them. Zainab continued her speech, even as the man edged closer. One of the other women stepped in front of him, and he shoved her away. “Go back where you came from!” he yelled at Zainab. Immediately, Afeni grabbed Zainab, who kept cursing at the man. Afeni managed to get Zainab over to the bus stop, and motioned for others to follow. However, the man chased after them and a few others from a fraternity also clashed with the protestors. Cops grabbed the students, throwing them onto the ground. Afeni was the first one knocked to the asphalt.
“Daddy! They’re hurting them!” Tulsi exclaimed.
People fled, tripping and falling across the lawn.
For a moment, Subhash had the urge to jump into the crowd. He took a step forward. Tulsi wrapped her arms around his leg like it was a tree.
Subhash scooped her up into his arms and hustled to the opposite end, disappearing behind the art museum. He moved as fast as he could without losing his grip on Tulsi, as her arms were around his neck.
As they neared the parking deck next to Alexander, Subhash told Tulsi not to look behind them.
“But what about the others?” she asked.
“Don’t worry,” he said, gasping for breath, “Everything will be okay.”
. . .
Naima’s car was in the driveway.
“Fuck…” he murmured as he parked alongside her.
Naima had just got her bag out of the backseat and Subhash tried to smile, thinking of ways to say what he felt was important. Subhash shut off the car, and Tulsi jumped out and rushed toward Naima.
“Mommy! Mommy!” she exclaimed, hopping up and down.
Naima smiled, her eyes sunken, and asked if something special happened at the library.
“We went to a raaa-leeee!” Tulsi cheered, and repeated the new word over and over again. “Raaa-leee! Raaa-leeee! Raaa-leeeeeee!”
Naima stared at Subhash, and Subhash shrank into his seat.
Naima told Tulsi to get ready for dinner, and they went inside, while Subhash sat in the car for a few more minutes.
After dinner, Subhash volunteered to tuck Tulsi in. Tulsi was still excited. Subhash kissed her goodnight, and shut off the lights. Naima was in their study across the hall, with the door shut. Subhash didn’t move. He intended to go to bed, and wait for the morning. Instead, the knot in his chest kept growing and he didn’t know if he could sleep without talking with Naima about what happened. He took a breath, and knocked.
“Come in,” Naima said, and Subhash stepped through.
Naima was at the desk, her laptop open, and massaging her forehead while staring at the screen.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” she replied.
Subhash sat on the guest bed, feeling like they were in high-school, when he’d visit Naima in her room to do “homework.” Naima, even then, would always be focused while he’d want to talk about who he didn’t like at school or about the creative projects he planned to do someday. At high-school, Subhash learned to stuff his opinions deep inside, not wanting to be seen as any weirder than he already was. Known for spending time during his lunch break at the school library, and for talking at a million miles per minute in class if given the opportunity, he understood to keep his mouth sealed. It was either hang his head low, and blend in, or be singled out and called a “faggot” like others. Being in Naima’s room was the only time during the day he could move his hands the way he wanted, to not care about his posture and what it would signal to the world, and to speak about anything, like how it felt to wear his mother’s heels to get the mail, or his dream to play Prince’s If I Were Your Girlfriend on guitar. That evening, however, over a decade removed from their last day in high-school, a lump formed in his throat.
“Can we talk about this?” he said.
“She wasn’t in danger. I know what I was doing.”
Naima shut her eyes, and exhaled.
“She was unhappy at home.”
“Babe, you took her to a riot,” Naima replied, as she turned her chair and faced him.
Subhash arched an eyebrow. “The media exaggerates,” he said. “It was just a minor scuffle. Besides, I got out of there soon as I knew.”
“But why go in the first place?”
“She’s always by herself. Naima, she needs to know that there’s an entire world around her.”
“She’s a little girl. You could’ve taken her on a drive instead. To Princeton. To the local park. Anyplace else.”
“She needs to start learning what she will be up against.”
“You’re sounding like a robot. Like some white guy with dreadlocks.”
“Would you stop with that? Don’t you think I know what I’m doing? I’m her father.”
Naima leaned in, placing a hand on Subhash’s cheek.
“Please, promise me you won’t do that again,” she said. “Please.”
Subhash peered into her eyes, and sighed.
He left the room, and Naima stayed.
. . .
They went to every holiday party/happy hour/ awkward office gathering possible, making sure to hold hands when around others, and to laugh, and share wonderful news about their own lives, such as Tulsi resuming piano and swimming lessons soon, or Subhash finally producing a first draft of his paper. Naima and Subhash wore their best shirts and perfume, and were often the first guests to arrive with trays of chicken and snacks. There remained bumps along the way, such as the topic of discussion at Langston’s, when Devika mentioned what happened to Tamir Rice.
“They didn’t even give him a chance,” she said, as they sat in the living room while the children played upstairs.
“He was shot twice, right?” Amiri asked.
“And no CPR after,” Devika answered, with Harjeet seated beside her, sipping his beer.
Naima slipped her hand into Subhash’s and quickly shifted the conversation.
“I have folks in Cleveland,” she said, “And it’s still a lovely place.”
“My brother’s wife is from Akron,” another woman added, who had just moved to the area from Orange. Her husband was opening a Jamaican restaurant on Route 18.
Soon, the men separated and went to the patio, where Langston, Subhash, and Harjeet formed their own circle.
The moon glowed, as lights from the other houses blanketed the lawn.
“If that was my son,” Harjeet said, I would’ve gone after the cop myself.”
“Would you be willing to kill?” Langston asked.
“Whatever I would end up doing will have to match the pain that man would’ve inflicted on my family. Wouldn’t you?”
“I already am angry over how my nephew is treated. He’s only 16 but cops stop him once a week, even when he’s just trying to meet his friends at the park. This is a kid who’s been living in Morristown all his life and yet, they pat him down, and make him spread his legs, sometimes in front of people. I just can’t…I don’t know how else to feel…”
“Do you talk to him?”
“Langston and I visited his family for Christmas. My nephew was quiet the whole time we were there. He was mostly on his phone, or reading.”
“What do his parents say?”
“I don’t think they want to know. He doesn’t have the proper guidance on what to do.”
“And that’s up to us,” Harjeet said. “We need to be there for them at all costs. Otherwise, we’re cowards.”
Langston agreed and sipped.
Harjeet went to get another.
Subhash sipped as well, and grimaced. Quickly, he changed expression and asked Langston about the new grill.
. . .
It was a week after the new semester started, and Naima was home, preparing for late-night shift covering police reports. She washed her hair, ironed her clothes, made lunch for Tulsi for the rest of the week, paid the electric and gas bills, called Comcast to make an appointment for someone to fix the cable, emailed Devika about an upcoming fair at the park, updated articles on the website, and texted sources. As she was eating a granola bar, Subhash called.
“Go to the school right away,” he said.
“Why? What happened?”
“Just meet me there.”
“Is Tulsi okay?” Naima asked, but Subhash had hung up.
Her stomach tightened and she was nauseous. She chewed on coffee beans and grabbed her things. Once at the school, she was led into the principal’s office. Subhash was already there, glaring at the walls covered in framed diplomas and awards.
Mrs. Perez offered Naima a seat.
“What happened to Tulsi?” Naima asked.
“As I’ve explained to your husband, there was a minor altercation during recess,” Mrs. Perez said.
Naima’s eyes widened, and she demanded to know more.
“Tulsi got into a fight. She’s okay. Just a few scrapes.”
“She got hurt? Where is she?”
“I understand you’re worried. She’s at the nurse’s office, getting the best care.”
“Who attacked her?”
“It was just kids being kids unfortunately.”
“Unless you tell me exactly what happened, I am going to write about this and make damn sure this is on the front page of our paper.”
Mrs. Perez narrowed her eyebrows.
Naima didn’t look away, even though she still felt like throwing up, as the anxiety crept up her spine. She knew this was the way to get what she wanted, even if it drained her of all emotion and energy.
Mrs. Perez cleared her throat and explained that Tulsi pushed an older boy in the playground.
“Why?” Naima asked.
Mrs. Perez paused. “The boy called her a name.”
“What was she called?”
Again, Mrs. Perez didn’t immediately answer and kept her hands folded on her desk.
“Was it the N-word?” Naima said, her voice suddenly calm and level.
Mrs. Perez nodded.
Naima asked the names of the parents.
“Please. We already contacted them and will be setting up a meeting so you two can resolve your issue and come together.”
“Resolve how? By holding hands? By hugging it out? It seems like you’re equating what my daughter did to the actions of the boy, who is a grade above hers. What are his parent’s names?”
“The father is John Yoo. He—”
“We knew him,” Subhash interrupted. “He went to school with us. Remember? He was on the track and field team, but got kicked out.”
“Whoever he is, we want a solution,” Naima replied, while staring at the principal. “We want a solution. And we want it now.”
. . .
Tulsi was quiet. Subhash would glance in the rearview mirror, and see her gazing out the window.
“This is disgusting how they’re treating our baby girl,” Naima muttered, trying to keep her voice down to a whisper.
Subhash agreed, adding that he’d handle it.
“I will figure out what to do,” he said.
“Did you ever call Mrs. Lee?” Naima asked.
“If you called earlier, we could’ve found out if stuff like this was happening in the classroom too.”
Subhash again looked at the mirror.
“How about we get some ice cream?” he said, and stopped at a store along the way.
Naima stayed in the car.
“Are you okay?” Subhash asked.
Naima dabbed her eyes with a napkin, and nodded.
Subhash ordered two cones and they sat by the main counter.
Tulsi held onto hers, even as it started to melt.
He grabbed napkins and wiped her hand, and asked if she wanted to take it home instead.
Tulsi, however, replied, “What’s a nigger?”
Subhash’s breathing turned shallow.
Tulsi looked at him.
“They said I’m ugly and stupid,” she told him. “They called me a nigger. Is that what it means? That I’m ugly and stupid…”
“Baby, you are most beautiful and intelligent person in the world. Just eat your ice cream, and everything will be okay.”
“Don’t worry,” he repeated, his voice shaking with anger, “Everything will be okay.”