Section I: Chapter 8

He tapped on the glass.

No one responded.

“Open up!” he yelled, “Open up! Open up! Open up!”

Finally, the window was slowly lowered.

Subhash clenched his fists.

Suddenly, thunder rumbled, and a bright flash blinded. He collapsed. Struggling to breathe, he dug his nails into the asphalt, unable to break through. The sky was gray, clouds gliding like fumes.

Soon, the sound of tires screaming echoed. And the smell of freshly cut grass disappeared.

 

. . .

 

“Naima! I have a phone call for you!”

“Who is it?”

“Someone named Devin?”

“What?”

Naima was heading back to her desk, coffee in hand, as the new secretary yelled across the room. Although her row of cubicles was empty, she knew it was best to have the call patched through instead of continuing their conversation over other peoples’ heads.

“Naima speaking. Who am I talking to?”

“I’ve been trying to reach you for the past twenty minutes…”

“Devika? I keep my personal phone on silent. Why? What happened?”

Devika didn’t respond and Naima could hear her breathing.

“What happened? Is everything okay?” Naima persisted, the questions pouring out.

Devika explained what occurred and Naima gazed across the room, at those with their shoulders hunched at their desks and some talking to one another while also grabbing coffee from the break room, their voices lowered to an audible whisper. The secretary too greeted another advertising client who just stepped in and was promptly directed into the conference room.

Soon as Naima hung up, she raced into the hallway, past co-workers and even her editor, who asked about an article. Naima didn’t reply and hopped onto the nearest elevator, and once the doors shut, bit her bottom lip until it cracked and bled.

 

. . .

 

Devika hugged her and helped her to a seat in the waiting room, surrounded by others cradling their injured arms and family members tapping their feet.

“Relax. Take a breath. Harjeet is monitoring the situation.”

As if on autopilot, Naima lowered her body into a plastic chair bolted into the floor and watched the TV hanging from the ceiling.

Family Feud was on and contestants were trying to answer “Reasons why someone will make fun of your car” for the grand prize.

Naima closed her eyes. The tree was smaller but still there. The leaves weren’t as bright.

Eventually, a police detective escorted her to the lobby. Devika stood a few yards away.

“I’m sorry. I know this is a difficult time for you,” he said, as he took out a pen and notepad.

Naima mumbled, “Thank you.”

“Are you comfortable with me going through the details of what happened?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m ready,” she murmured.

The detective explained that neighbors found Subhash lying in the street with a gunshot wound to his chest.

“Would you know of anyone who’d hold a grudge against your husband that might’ve led to something like this?”

Naima pictured Subhash in bed, his fists covered in bruises and blood.

“No,” she said.

“Because if you had any clues whatsoever, it could really help our investigation.”

“Do you have to do this now?” Devika interrupted.

The detective didn’t respond and handed Naima his card. His blue veins were visible on his wrist. She thanked him once more and returned with Devika to the waiting room.

An hour later, a doctor met them. She listened as he explained that Subhash was in stable but critical condition.

“He’s in a medically induced coma,” he told her, “He’s lost a lot of blood but he’s under constant surveillance.”

The sounds of trolleys carrying patients screeched, and the vending machines shook.

Devika asked how long Subhash would be at the hospital.

“The most important thing is to wait for the swelling to go down,” he said, “This is all we can do at this point.”

This time, he made sure to face Naima directly.

“I feel I should tell you this now instead of later,” he said, “but your husband, even if he wakes up, won’t ever be the same as he was before.”

She cleared her throat and asked in what way he’d be different.

The doctor admitted the effects could be as debilitating as being unable to walk or speak to losing his memory and mental function.

At a certain point, the words stopped making sense, and she asked if they could see him.

Devika held her hand as they stood outside the window of the room. Subhash was lying in bed, tubes across his body and the ventilator connected. Nurses checked on his vitals. The doctor added they could visit him soon.

Back at the lobby, Devika asked Naima if she wanted someone to come along. Naima said “No,” and kissed Devika and Harjeet each on the cheek.

She drove from the hospital parking garage and through the heart of Princeton. Locals packed the sidewalks, flowing in and out of bookstores and bakeries, their blue veins illuminated under the bright sun.

 

. . .

 

 

Tulsi ran and hugged her in front of the school.

“Are we going home?” Tulsi exclaimed.

Naima stroked Tulsi’s cheek and smiled.

At home, Tulsi immediately rushed upstairs. Naima slowly took off her shoes. Tulsi returned to view, asking, “Where’s Daddy?”

“Just get washed up, okay?” Naima said.

“Is he at work? Why is he working so late?”

“Please, just get ready for dinner.”

Tulsi hovered. Naima decided to continue her routine. She arranged the plates and rummaged through the fridge.

At dinner, Tulsi picked at the turkey sandwich.

Naima chewed.

“Do you want a snack?” Naima asked.

Tulsi slid her plate away.

“If you don’t eat it, I will,” Naima told her.

“Do you think I’m dumb?” Tulsi said.

Naima coughed. She drank her water and asked why Tulsi would think that.

Tulsi stared at the table.

“Honey, why would you say something like that?” Naima said, her voice shaking.

“I know you’re lying, Mommy,” she answered, “But you think I won’t understand. No one does.”

Naima embraced Tulsi. She kept kissing and squeezing tight until her arms grew tired.

 

 

. . .

 

 

White sheets covered the floor while paintings were stacked against the walls. The canvas and easel were placed by the window, and Rhona’s brush drifted across the plain white surface, until inch by inch, shapes formed.

Tulsi’s easel was next to Rhona’s, and she’d glance over, her canvas still empty.

“What are you drawing?” Tulsi asked.

“I’m not sure yet,” Rhona responded, her brush curving along an outline.

“How come?”

“I have an idea, but I want to go with the flow this time.”

“But what if you mess up?”

“Why would I mess up?”

“Like, if you…color too bright…”

“Is that bad?”

“I don’t know. It can hurt people’s eyes.”

Naima chuckled, overhearing the conversation from the dining room table, where she was emailing contacts on her laptop.

Falling silent, Tulsi watched Rhona.

Rhona noticed and asked if she wanted to brainstorm ideas.

“I have too many,” Tulsi said, sounding mournful.

“That’s great! You should write them down.”

“None of them are good.”

“I don’t believe that. Just try first.”

“Okay. But I don’t know which to pick.”

“It depends on which one you like best.”

“I like all of them…”
“Then do all,” Rhona said.

At this point, Tulsi turned back to her canvas, and pondered. She dipped her brush and started to fill the space.

Rhona went to the kitchen while Tulsi continued, her apron stained and her fingerprints bright yellow and green.

“Turkey?” Rhona asked as she made sandwiches.

“I don’t want to even hear the word ‘turkey’ for another century,” Naima said.

Rhona cooked chicken patties instead, as Naima got up and stretched. As Rhona sliced cheese, Naima went into the living room to check on the paintings that were finished.

Earlier, Rhona explained that she’d been up all night, and showed them some logos and designs she’d been creating over the past week.

Tulsi was hesitant when she first met Rhona, commenting softly on how tall she was. Rhona laughed and immediately introduced Tulsi to her closet full of art supplies, even describing the varying styles.

Naima, however, remained in the background and made a point not to interrupt throughout the afternoon.

By the time Naima was sifting through the paintings, the light was fading from the window. Most of the paintings didn’t elicit any strong positive or negative feelings within Naima. Some she was intrigued by, but none moved her. Until, one in particular caught her attention and she slid it out from the pack, holding up with both hands.

“Bon appetite,” Rhona remarked, setting their plates on the table. Tulsi said she just needed more time to “smooth out the contours”, which was a phrase she learned that day.

Rhona stood beside Naima.

“What do you think?”

“This feels familiar…”

“It’s inspired by the Parable,” Rhona explained.

Naima was fixated by the image of a young black woman surrounded by orbs, looking like planets.

“I know it wasn’t that kind of sci-ifi, but for some reason, this is what I could express.”

“Do you have another easel I could borrow?”

Rhona arched an eyebrow, and grinned.

Naima started work on her own next to Tulsi, even as the city yelled.

“What are you drawing?” Tulsi asked.

“What do you think it is?”

“I see a tree.”

“How do you feel about the tree?”

“The contours are nice,” Tulsi said, stroking her chin like a philosopher.

Rhona, who was wrapping up, smiled and shook her head. Naima smiled too and told Tulsi to help clean and get packed. They had a busy week ahead.

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Section I: Chapter 7

The truck was across the street.

“It’s been there all morning,” Subhash said as they peeked between the curtains.

“Did you see anyone get out?” Naima asked.

“The windows are always rolled up and it was here yesterday in the afternoon, just when I got out of bed.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Subhash didn’t answer as he edged closer to the glass.

He whispered, “It’s going away…”

Naima rolled her eyes and went to their bedroom.

Subhash followed, and as Naima began picking clothes to wear for her interviews, he asked if she spoke to Tulsi.

“She’s been calling and asking when she can come back,” Subhash said, “I think she feels she did something wrong…”

“Keeping our distance is the best we can do.”

“For how long? Don’t you miss her?”

Naima chose a pantsuit she’d bought from Burlington, and grabbed a lint roller.

“Can you stop acting so weird?” Subhash said.

Naima continued using the lint roller on the pantsuit, and told Subhash she’d be home late and to stay away from the windows while she was gone.

 

. . .

 

Cheddi was carrying boxes from the lot and into the store, his thin arms shaking.

Naima approached him, as the other workers hopped off their vans and disappeared into the basement.

“Hey, do you remember me? I’m a friend of your mom’s,” Naima said.

Cheddi stared. His cheekbones were pushing up against his skin.

“Did she tell you to come here?”

“I just want to figure out what’s going on.”

“I’m busy,” he responded and went back inside.

She stepped through as well, suddenly surrounded by aisles of Tupperware, tiny water guns and other items priced at 99 cents. There were three men behind the counter, which snaked around the room. Two were ringing up customers buying lottery tickets and cigarettes while another, who seemed to be the youngest, was reading on his tablet, his hair black and curly, reminding her of Subhash’s cousins.

“Can we help you with something?” one of the men at the counter said once it was less crowded.

Naima had been scanning the area.

She told him who she was looking for.

The man loomed.

“He’s working.”

“He needs to be taking a break.”

“What are you? A social worker?”

“I’m just concerned that he’s not doing what he needs to.”

“He’s a man now. We’re teaching him what he really needs to know in life.”

Naima glared. She promised she’d return and they laughed.

After taking a few deep breaths inside her car, she went to work, writing an article about a pipeline break.

 

. . .

 

 

“What am I suppose to do?”

“You have to get outside your head.”

“But how? All I want are things to go back to normal.”

“Have you eaten today?” Naima asked.

Rhona was seated in her apartment, shoulders hunched.

Naima handed her a tray of fruit salad.”

“I’m not a fan …”
“Just take a bite.”

Rhona nibbled on a cube of cheese.

Naima smiled and sat down.

Rhona paused.

“Are you going to watch me eat…?” she said.

Naima blushed.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be creepy,” she replied and quickly stood up.

“Wait, where are you going?”

“I need to do some research.”

“Do you ever take it easy? I’ve never seen you sit down for more than five seconds.”

“Sitting is overrated.”

“Only someone like you would say something like that.”

“Don’t you have work too?”

“I’m on the graveyard shift.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

Rhona chuckled. She asked Naima if she wanted to watch a movie.

“The one at Hudson Mall is showing Dope in an hour,” Rhona said.

“That’s on the west side…”

“What? You’ve never been?”

“I have, but not this late.”

“Yea, well, you in or nah?”

Naima pondered. Rhona arched an eyebrow.

“Are you actually philosophizing about this?”

Naima explained she was planning ahead, to which Rhona replied, “Plan while we get there. Jeez.”

At the theater, they found clean seats in the center aisle while a few others sat all the way down, their faces up against the screen.

“Idiots…” Rhona muttered and handed Naima the box of popcorn.

It had been a while since Naima was the first to eat a snack at the movies. She tossed a handful into her mouth.

The movie started, and Naima sat back, allowing her body to return.

 

            . . .

 

 

 

Naima rushed down the stairs, her coat flying like a cape. She jumped off the last steps and grabbed the door knob.

“What are you doing?” Subhash said.

“I’m late,” she replied, gasping for breath.

Subhash was at the top landing.

“It’s still out there,” he said.

He was wearing a t-shirt and boxers and the bandages were wrapped around his thighs. She went up and led him to their bedroom.

He refused to lie down.

“You’re not listening.”

“Just calm down, okay?”

“But it’s still out there…”

Naima left Subhash standing by the bed and went to the window in the bathroom. Naima watched. The truck slowly pulled away, and disappeared around the corner. She immediately went to the mirror, fixed her hair, and texted her editor.

Subhash continued to warn her. She got into her car and put the radio on, playing it as loud as her ears could bear. Once on the turnpike, she was alongside thousands of others blazing down the asphalt, pebbles pinging off windshields. She practiced the questions she would ask a teacher who accused the state of administering culturally biased testing requirements and for another interview with a man who moved from California to open an art gallery.

Naima shifted from the left lane into the center. She glanced at the rearview mirror. Her eyes turned wide and she gripped the steering wheel tighter.

Naima kept driving, begging there wouldn’t be traffic up ahead, although that was a possibility as early morning rush hour approached. She peeked at the mirror every few minutes, and the truck would sometimes be a few cars away or even right behind her, as if teleporting. She knew that if it did follow her all the way to Secaucus, that anything could happen if she chose to get out. There would be very few people around and the parking lot was usually deserted until later in the afternoon. Her muscles tensed. Sweat trickled into her eyes and burned.

She spotted another rest stop, and cut across, causing others to honk and yell. She went past the building where the food court was and quickly parked where the big rigs were by the gas station. She rushed out and pretended to fill her tank. After unscrewing the cap and punching in her debit card info onto the main screen, she slowly lifted her head.

She called Subhash.

“Where are you?”

“Why? What happened?”

“Nothing. Just get some rest.”

“Stop telling me what I need.”

“Okay, but…”

“No one cares about anything but themselves. My family is stuck in their shit. All our friends are busy drinking. And now you’re just being weird with me all the time.”

“You’re hurt.”

“We’re all hurt. This whole nation is full of hurt people.”

“Please, I’m just asking you to take it easy.”

“I am taking it easy! You’re just treating me like a child!”

“I have to go,” Naima quickly replied and hung up.

As she held the steering wheel, her hands were shaking. She returned to the center lane, where she stayed, for mile after mile, even as other cars honked.

 

. . .

 

The interviews lasted all morning, and she grabbed a bag of baby carrots at a supermarket in Jersey City before returning to Secaucus. The editor, however, saw her enter and called her into his office.

“How’s your day been?” he said, as he shut the door and they took their seats.

“Good,” she replied, as he positioned himself across the desk, crossing his legs and folding his hands.

She smiled, and made sure to straighten her back, ignoring the ache and throbbing pain in her mid-section.

He asked how the articles were shaping up for the online edition, and she answered, “They’re almost done.”

“Perfect,” he said, “You’ve certainly been busy and we appreciate your dedication to the job.”

Her chest tightened. She held onto her smile, even though her breathing was shallower, as if the air was sucked dry from the room.

The editor finally smiled too. “The publisher is planning to cut back on healthcare plans and bonuses this year,” he said, “And I volunteered you as one of the first who would agree to the changes.”

Naima was absolutely still. She processed the news, and remembered similar moments in her life. Her lips moved, saying she understood and was grateful for the job in the first place.

“That’s exactly how I told him you’d react!” the editor exclaimed, his blue eyes glinting from the sunlight sneaking in.

He also gave her a keychain, which she kept in her bag once at her desk.

 

            . . .

 

Rhona texted her while Naima was in the break room waiting for the coffee to brew. Her co-workers were still out for a late lunch and it was just her and the machines around her.

Naima didn’t immediately respond. Instead, she got her cup and went to her desk, letting the steam tickle her chin. She said, “Hi” to one of the female custodians cleaning up trash from the cans.

Eventually, Naima met Rhona at the same coffeehouse as before, and they sat at the tables outside, with a clear view of City Hall.

“How’s work been?” Rhona asked.

“Just the usual,” Naima answered, and asked the same.

“I cleaned up vomit today,” Rhona replied.

“Wow, does that happen often?”

“Actually, no. I know it’s something people expect, I guess? But it’s not like every day someone comes in and throws up like an idiot.”

“What kind was it?”

“What kind? It was just vomit.”

“Like what food did the person eat?”

“Ohhhh. Not sure. It looked like carrots and beans. It smelled like sour milk for some reason.”

“I always feel like all our vomit ends up as carrots and beans.”

“Yea! Like no matter what a person eats, it just magically transforms. It’s so cliché.”

“Super cliché.”

“Yo, I almost forgot. I picked up a copy of Parable of the Sower,” Rhona said, and after rummaging through her bag, she pulled out a copy. “I only looked at the summary on the back,” she said, “But this reminds me of Dope, but more serious I guess.”

Rhona looked up from the cover.

Tears streamed down Naima’s face.

“Woah, are you okay?” Rhona asked.

Naima nodded.

“Are you sure?” Rhona said.

Again, Naima shook her head and wiped the tears. She chuckled, and cleared her throat.

“Did you read books by Junot Diaz?” Naima asked.

Rhona said no, but heard the name.

“Isn’t he from Jersey?” Rhona said.

Naima laughed and answered, “Yes, he studied at Rutgers,” and kept talking.

 

            . . .

 

Subhash was lying down. His body was sore, and his eyelids were weak. However, he couldn’t keep them shut for more than a few minutes.

He grabbed the railing as he went downstairs. He had to sit on the couch once he made it below. He then pushed himself up and plodded to the kitchen, got a sandwich, and planned to head upstairs again. Yet, on his way, he stopped in front of the door.

The back of his neck turned hot. He pictured Tulsi at Devika’s, not eating, not reading, just staring sullenly at the floor. He clenched his fist around the sandwich until pieces of it fell from his hands. He barged through, exposed under the blazing sun.

He winced and squinted. The truck was a few yards away and Subhash marched across the street. The window on the driver’s side grew bigger and bigger.

Section I: Chapter 6

Naima was fifteen when a group of groups from school surrounded her. She was walking home from the bus stop, across the grassy knoll that led to people’s backyards (except for those with fences). Busy reading a book, she didn’t notice the shadows.

Wow, she’s so weird.

            Totally.

            I bet she smells.

            She totally does.

            Naima turned and saw them smirking at her. One of them knocked the book from her hands.

            Naima was used to getting teased. As one of the smallest girls in her grade, she learned to remain quiet, and during lunch, sat with few others she could tolerate. There were no lasting bonds between them, just their common fear of everyone else tearing them down.

Her nose is so ugly.

            Her lips too.

            They all look like freaks.

            She’s an animal.

            They pushed her to the ground and started to pull her hair and kick her. Naima didn’t cry or scream and tried protecting her glasses from getting smashed. Eventually, she was let go and ran away, leaving her backpack in the weeds. Her mom and dad rushed her to the hospital, as Naima pleaded that neither would complain to the school. Her mom wanted to, but her dad understood, and after getting treated, she spent the weekend in bed, her body aching and replaying the scene in her head. She slept all day, imagining being in the field, but with only trees and grass.

“Where’s Tulsi?”

Naima’s eyelids fluttered open, and beads of light hit her face. She winced and the image of Subhash in bed became clearer.

She told him Tulsi was at Devika’s.

“Since when?”

“Yesterday afternoon.”

Subhash looked at the sheets covering his legs and hips. The swelling on his face had gone down, and he licked the cuts on his lips before telling Naima he wanted to get up. Naima was against it and before leaving for work, made sure she left enough bottles of water and snacks on the tables around him.

 

            . . .

 

“What do we want?”

“Justice!”

“When do we want it?”

“NOW!”

They carried signs and marched in front of City Hall. There were two dozen local residents, mostly black and brown women in their mid-thirties and above who participated and made short speeches about the value of affordable housing. Naima interviewed one of its main organizers, a much younger woman named Alicia, who just graduated from Rutgers. Although originally from Edison, she had family in the area and was drawn to social justice work, which she explained to Naima, as they stood to the side while the rally continued, with pedestrians sometimes snapping pictures of them.

“What is it about this issue that inspired you?”

“I love this city. I really do. And I know it has problems, like poverty and crime. But the solution shouldn’t be to ignore everyone who’s lived here for decades and cater to the white yuppies from the Mid-West who don’t really want to make this place their home for the long-term.”

“What would be your response to people who say this is what’s necessary in order to get the city moving in the right direction?”

“I’m not anti-business. I just think we should think about what kind of investments we want. Again, my folks would bring me here on the weekends when I was in school and I got to know the neighborhood and meet other Jamaican-Americans who knew my parents and our family and ran their own stores. What makes me upset is seeing my uncles and aunts forced to move away from the place where they got to build a tight Caribbean community, from where they raised their kids and had memories, while outsiders pour in and replace them like nothing happened.”

“But do you think your own more privileged background obscures your perspective on what’s occurring in Jersey City?”

“I am definitely aware of the life I’ve had. My own parents don’t even think of themselves as black. Even now, they have issues recognizing how all of this is based on the intersection of race and class and even gender. Still, that’s not going to deter me, and as someone who grew up in a middle-class suburban environment, I am always ready to listen to the needs of the people and learn from them.”

“Do you ever feel frustrated?’

“I do. I remind myself when it gets overwhelming that others depend on me and I need to be there for them.”

“So, do you think this is your life’s calling?”

“Yes. 100 percent. I can’t imagine ever losing myself to something else.”

“WHAT DO WE WANT?”
“JUSTICE!”

The chanting ensued, and Naima thanked the young organizer and wrote the article at a nearby Pakistani coffeehouse. She thought of going back to City Hall and trying to force an interview with either the mayor or his deputies, but knew better than to screw over connections for future assignments. Instead, she called the mayor’s media team, and they emailed her press releases about the issue. She also contacted the main developer cited at the protest and asked what their responses were to the growing pressure to incorporate cheaper and livable spaces for long-time residents. They too weren’t interested in speaking over the phone and instructed her to pluck quotes from a statement they released on their website a week ago. Naima didn’t bother arguing, especially when her editor was constantly texting her for updates.

Naima fended off the lingering frustration from the past few days. Whenever her emotions began to percolate, she’d keep writing, reading and remember not to expose herself to a world that at times, felt alien. Even at the protest, she had an urge to tell Alicia that the problems of fomenting change for those at the bottom would depend on more than just convincing politicians and corporations to care. The “people” were also part of the systemic greed and racism that was at the foundation of the country. It was usually the middle-class and working-class whites who voted against their economic interests, because they bought into the lie fed to them: that people of color, and black Americans especially, were ruining America and therefore, needed to be controlled. Sometimes, it was politicians who were doing their best to improve people’s lives, like when the President expanded health insurance coverage. Rather than understand what the Affordable Care Act meant, white Americans, activated by their prejudice, voted for right-wing Congressmen and women into power to slow down its implementation. Therefore, the narrative of the “people” as voiceless was simplistic for Naima to believe. Certain types of people clearly were heard above others, while others prevented their anger from ever spilling over.

 

            . . .

 

 

After an assignment interviewing owners of a Italian/Thai fusion restaurant, which was opened in the neighborhood closest to the Holland Tunnel where most of the newer residents lived, the ones who wore sunglasses on cloudy days as well as khakis and sandals, Naima stopped at a C-Town in Journal Square. She was on her way to the office, but feeling thirsty, hungry and her contacts were irritating her eyes. The C-Town was next to a row of apartment buildings and convenience stores, and the aisles were filled with Caribbean and Indian spices. Naima grabbed a Snapple from the freezer and was ready to pop it open on the spot. However, she stepped aside, allowing a family and their shopping cart to get through, and caught a glimpse of a face in the corner of her eye. She quickly hid behind a column of Reese’s Puffs cereal and Ramen noodles.

After more people filed past her, she peeked around the corner. Rhona was sweeping the floor, the water creating a shallow pond in the middle of the store. Naima kept watching Rhona, her face creased, and with bags under her eyes.

“Hey…” Naima said.

Rhona, expressionless, glanced at her before continuing to mop the tiles.

“I didn’t know you started working here…”

“I was picked up part-time.”

Naima hesitated, and wondered what else to say.

“How is Cheddi doing? Is he excited about college?”

“He’s not going.”

Naima stopped, and remained standing where she was. Rhona squeezed out the gray water from the mop into the bucket and moved onto the next stop.

Naima asked if they could talk.

“I don’t have any more updates about the building,” Rhona muttered.

But Naima explained she just wanted to grab coffee.

Rhona arched an eyebrow, the water dripping onto the floor, and shopping carts squeaking.

 

            . . .

 

 

They went to the waterfront and gazed at the Manhattan skyline across the bay. It was them and those on their lunch breaks, their stiff white collars pressing against their skin.

“Rutgers even gave him a scholarship. He said it wasn’t enough.”

“What did you tell him to do?”

“I said we are in this together. But he started listening to his uncles…”

“Those are your older brothers, right?”

“Two are. One is slightly younger. They all think Cheddi needs to spend more time with the family business.”

“And you don’t want that.”

“I don’t know anymore. They keep saying I needed a partner to guide him.”

“So is Cheddi with them?”

“Yes. He works at their store and lives in the apartment above. I’ve called him. He doesn’t say much, and I can hear them always in the background.”

“I’m sorry.”

Rhona sighed.

“I never wanted to end up like this…”

“What do you mean?” Naima asked, holding her cup over the railing, as the waves crashed into the rocks below.

“I wanted to be a graphic designer,” Rhona said. “Before I met my ex, and lost my head, I wanted to do more than what anyone in my family had ever done.”

“They have night school classes if you ever feel like going back.”

“I know. I just don’t have the energy. Or the money. I think the moment has passed me by.”

Rhona finished her coffee and smacked her lips. She asked Naima if working as a journalist was always her dream.

“I actually did read the article you wrote about us,” Rhona said, “I also checked out other stuff you published online and a lot of it is great but to be honest, some seems boring. Didn’t you write an article about a person turning 100?”

Naima chuckled. “Yep,” she said. “That was the fifth one this past month.”

“I didn’t even know we had so many old folks running around.”

“Me neither. But my editor keeps finding them.”

“Do you enjoy working on stories like that?”

“I don’t hate them. I just feel…”

“Used up?”

“Yes. And sometimes, isolated.”

“So, is journalism your passion?”

“It has its moments. And I always liked to write.”

“Were your folks writers?”

“No. But they’d take me to the library and I would stay for hours.”

“I never liked reading. The stuff we had at school never connected with me.”

“Well, what kind of genres have you tried? Action? Romance?”

“Nah. I enjoy some sci-fi and sometimes, satire.”

“That’s awesome! Have you heard of Octavia Butler or William Gibson?”

“Butler sounds familiar. Did she write the Bluest Eye?”

“That’s Toni Morrison. She’s also great. Butler wrote stories that dealt with dystopian futures, time travel, and monsters, but connected them to issues of race, gender and identity. I love Parable of the Sower. That’s her best one and I would read that at least once a year when I was younger, especially during high-school.”

“You don’t anymore?”

“I got busy.”

“What do you do for fun then?”

“I can’t remember,” Naima said and laughed, “I guess I watch movies sometimes.”

“Yes! Do you have Netflix?”

“No. We had Hulu once but cancelled.”

“I use my friend’s account,” Rhona said, “I just finished watching Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle for the billionth time!”

“That’s on Netflix? Do you like comedies?”

“This one was on TV. And no, usually I prefer stuff like the Fast and Furious. Have you seen those? They’re so fun!”

“I saw the first one. It’s not something I’m used to.”

“It’s better than what most people think. Is it Citizen Kane? Probably not. But its actual stunts, no CGI, and the stories are pretty sane and deal with themes of family and friendship. It’s not doing anything entirely new but what does? Cheddi loves anything with Vin Diesel which I can’t understand…”

Rhona’s speech slowed and she faced the skyline, the silhouette of skyscrapers bleeding through the fog.

Naima did the same, although a few moments later, she too could sense the world filling up her chest.

“What do you think of Michael Bay?” she quickly said.

“He’s a piece of shit,” Rhona replied, and chuckled.

Naima grinned.

Section I: Chapter 5

Naima screamed.

“What happened to you?” she exclaimed, as Subhash stepped inside, his eyelids half-raised, as if in a daze.

She took him to the couch where Tulsi was watching Dora the Explorer. Naima ran for the first aid kit, as Subhash sat and watched the TV screen. Tulsi gazed at the patches of mud on his face.

“Did you fall down?” Tulsi asked.

Subhash turned and a smile spread across his face, as a thin stream of blood trickled down his head.

            . . .

           The hallways were empty, and all of the rooms for professors were shut, with only pictures of their families and sports logos were left on their front doors, to remind others of how human and approachable they each were. Even the trash cans were locked up inside the janitor’s closet.

Subhash was at his desk, hunched over, and reviewing papers, as the deadline for submitting grades was screeching toward him. He took apart the essays, even if some were well-written. One in particular caught his eye:

            Fanon understood that no society can be pure. Civilizations mix, and so do values and beliefs. Unlike how others see the world, Fanon wanted freedom and revolution but not rigid thinking. He hoped people would fight against white supremacy while also not becoming the enemy and abiding by categories that should’ve never existed.

The phone rang. It was Naima asking if he was on his way.

He told her he was in a meeting but would head back once it was over. After hanging up, he circled the passage in red marker.

 

            . . .

 

Subhash knocked, cake in hand, with the words Happy Birthday scrawled on top in chocolate frosting.

Naima opened the door, and Subhash looked at her face and knew something was wrong. She whispered as she helped carry the cake into the kitchen, “Can you text some people from work?”

He raised an eyebrow and placed the cake on the table.

“Why?”

“Can you just figure out if anyone can come by, maybe someone with kids of their own?”

“I only trust Langston.”

“Shit. Nevermind.”

Naima rushed to grab the candles and arranged them on the frosting. Subhash noticed that everyone was in the living room, nibbling on Bengali sweets. It was just Harjeet and the rest of Subhash’s extended family, including his cousins, who were there.

“Where’s Tulsi?” he asked.

“She’s in her room,” Naima answered as she tried to keep the candles upright, and prevent them from sagging into the cake.

“Should I talk to her?”

“Before your uncle gets back from God knows what, we’re going to cut the cake, serve it up, and take her to a movie.”

“I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want that. She’s probably feeling very embarrassed.”

Naima stood back, appreciating the way in which the candles stood up, like an artist and her painting.

Subhash tried to spark conversations with the guests, although they avoided eye contact and the aunties soon joined Naima in the kitchen. Charu was flipping channels, and asked who else was coming.

“Not sure,” Subhash answered as they were sitting on the main couch. It was just him and Charu, as Harjeet excused himself to go outside.

“How old is she?” Charu asked.

“7.”

“That’s a tough age for parents to deal with. So I’ve heard.”

They watched a golf tournament for the rest of the afternoon, where the commentators whispered and the so-called athletes tapped balls into holes dug into the ground, between commercials of men with beards drinking beer, and taking Viagra.

Charu spoke up again, asking if they were going to cut Tulsi’s hair before Monday.

Subhash balked, as his mind tried to process the question.

Charu looked at him. “Are you or what?”

Subhash glared. “Why does it matter to you?”

“It doesn’t. But it should to her parents.”

“I think we know what we’re doing.”

“Do you? You have a little girl who isn’t fitting in and you’re not willing to fix the problem.”

“Maybe you should worry more about finally moving out and allowing uncle some peace.”

“Man, I knew when Naima settled for you,” Charu said with a smirk, “she’d be in for a lifetime of half-assed excuses.”

“And I’m sure if she never broke up with you, she’d become the best landscaper around, just like her beloved.”

Charu stopped smiling.

“You’re being delusional to think you can have it all without compromise. Her hair is – – -”

“Beautiful,” Subhash answered, fists clenched.

“Do you really want to do this?” Charu said, “Do you seriously want me to beat your ass like in high-school?”

“Leave,” Subhash said through gritted teeth.

“You’re fucking up her future. She’ll become one of those rioters in the streets.”

“Get out!” Subhash stood up.

Neither of them moved.

Naima was in the corner of the room, eyes wide.

“Can you bring Tulsi downstairs?” she murmured, and hurried back to the kitchen.

Tulsi wore her birthday cap, as everyone sang to her. Once everyone was gone, including Uncle Sen who was drunk from the “special” he made for himself from items in the house and what he found in his own supermarket, Subhash and Naima took Tulsi to the movies, and they watched a movie about talking animals who were often sassy or shy. Tulsi giggled, as Naima tickled her. They also shared popcorn glazed with caramel that Subhash didn’t feel like eating. Once the movie started, Subhash felt sleepy, and the energy drained from him. But he kept himself awake by pinching his hand, and whenever everyone laughed during the funnier scenes, he’d laugh as well.

 

. . .

 

John Yoo’s house was outside the development Subhash and Naima lived in. He was enthusiastic when Subhash arrived, eager to show him inside and clapping him on the back as if they were old friends.

“The great Subhash!” Yoo exclaimed and handed him a beer, which Subhash kept in his hand unopened.

They were in the living room, surrounded by boxes filled with framed pictures and rolls of wallpaper. Subhash asked if they were moving.

“No, no, when it rained last time, the walls leaked, so I’m trying to do some home repairs,” Yoo said, and smiled at Subhash, who tentatively smiled back.

They performed the usual steps in establishing a quick common bond (albeit temporary), by talking about what each of them had been busy doing since high-school. Yoo explained that he was able to still get a running scholarship at a small town college in Pennsylvania and stayed for a few years after graduating, although he was, in his words “up the butt in debt.” He owned the car repair shop he once worked at, and bought his current home when the market was still amenable for buying.

“But you’ve probably been the busiest one out of all of us!” Yoo said, and laughed. Yoo already knew about Subhash’s career as an organizer and academic. He even read some of the local articles written about Subhash.

“Hometown hero,” Yoo said, taking a big swig and wiping his face with his sleeve.

Subhash admitted it was nice to be relatively known, although adding that there were always pressures to do more.

“Of course man, of course,” Yoo said, “I mean, even my dad is on my back you know? I keep telling him to go back to Korea and worry about himself! But he’s always like John, you need to do this, you need to do that! It’s insane!” Yoo took another big gulp and laughed even louder than before.

The energy in the room pulsed, and Subhash could feel himself floating.

“Is it alright to discuss now the reason why I’m here?”

“Yea, definitely! I talked to my boy. Everything should be fine.”

“That’s good to hear. Because I don’t want this to keep happening.”

“Believe me, I get it. We’re coming from the same place.”

“Probably we are. But, I’m wondering how he learned that word…”

“What word?”

“The one he yelled…”

“Ohhhh. That one! Yea, I guess I get carried away sometimes and he must’ve soaked some of that up.”

“Did you tell him how bad that word is? What it means?”

“Like I said, I talked to him.”

There was a pause between them.

Subhash didn’t know what else to do, so he popped open the can and it hissed and foamed, causing Yoo to laugh.

 

            . . .

 

The tilapia had to be fried. The string beans seasoned. The potatoes skinned and battered too. Naima rushed through the kitchen, grabbing spoons and sauces, and glancing at her phone on the counter for any more messages from her editor.

Tulsi followed Naima, just a few steps away.

“Can I cut the beans?” she asked.

“No,” Naima said.

“Can I cut the fish?”

“No.”

“What if I cut the potatoes?’

“Absolutely not.”

“Uncle Sen says I should. It’s in my blood.”

“Honey, I seriously can’t do this right now. Everyone will be here tomorrow and so I have to get all this ready before I go to work.”

“I’m bored.”

“Read.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Go outside and play.”

“This sucks…” Tulsi pouted.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Naima succeeded in skinning the potatoes and tossed them into the boiling water, and grilled the fish to the exact smoky flavor that everyone liked. However, she had to sit down at the dining room table and wipe her brow, while sipping on Costco wine she chilled in the freezer. It tasted horrible, and yet, she savored every drop.

But from the corner of her eye, she noticed a shape hopping on the furniture in the living room. Naima realized it was Tulsi jumping from sofa to sofa.

“What are you doing?” Naima asked.

“The floor is lava,” Tulsi said, as she kept playing.

“Stop that,” Naima said.

Tulsi kept moving.

Naima raised her voice.

“I said STOP!”

Tulsi instantly hopped onto the floor and stared.

“We bought a new bike for you,” Naima said, “Why aren’t you riding it?”

“I don’t want to anymore,” Tulsi replied.

“Why not? Even I didn’t have a bike like that when growing up.”

“I don’t care. I hate it.”

“Young lady, you need to go outside.”

“No.”

“I am not playing with you.”

“No.”

Tulsi crossed her arms and glared at the carpet.

“I’m not going to repeat myself again.”

“NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!”

Naima grabbed Tulsi’s arm and was ready to lead her to the garage where the bike was.

“NO!” Tulsi screamed, “I don’t want them to see me!”

Naima’s face softened, as tears streamed down Tulsi’s cheeks.

“Who will see you?”

“I’m ugly! I don’t want anyone to see me!”

Naima knelt and wiped away the tears.

She promised Tulsi that nothing would happen, but Tulsi still wanted to stay inside.

“Please,” she begged.

Naima winced, and held Tulsi’s hand, and squeezed.

 

                        . . .

 

“Guess what Langston told the union?” Subhash said after opening the door and taking off his shoes.

He slid off his coat and went into the kitchen, and after drinking water, he listened to the space around him.

“Hello?” he said, and ventured upstairs, where it was also quiet.

Subhash texted Naima asking where they were. There was no immediate response. He washed up, changed, and started working on extra projects, including emailing students who were organizing around POC issues. He reminded the group to center their discussions on combating anti-black racism, and not to equate the struggles of Asian-Americans, Latinos, and African Americans as the same. The country was founded on black bodies and native pain and suffering, and that echoed in how the current structure of government and economic and social hierarchy functioned.

It turned dark and headlights flashed across the living room. He went to greet Naima and Tulsi, however, once he stepped outside, his legs felt weak. His heart beat against his chest.

Tulsi hugged him, and told him “I love you”, and he mumbled in response. He looked at Naima, who hovered on the driveway, and tried to smile, although not saying anything either. That night, he and Naima ate Oreos.

“Should we watch that movie again?”

“The one with the neurotic giraffe?”

“Maybe. The plot didn’t make sense.”

“Your face doesn’t make sense. Burn.”

“Subhash chuckled, and chewed.

Naima paused, and slowly reached over to touch his hand.

As her fingers brushed against his, Subhash moved his hands to hold his glass and finish the rest of the milk.

 

            . . .

           

            Mickelson sets up…

            This will be his second birdie.

            The crowd can sense his confidence.

            Yes. He is a master of his surroundings.

            No emotions.

            None. All mind, no distractions.

            No one spoke, as the white man in the khaki pants gripped the club. Green grass and blue water sparkled.

Uncle Sen rubbed his gut. So did Kanu. Harjeet and his friend, Devendra, also concentrated on the tiny ball rolling toward the hole. Breaking news appeared at the bottom of the screen, an update about Baltimore.

Subhash squinted.

“Busy learning about your people,” Charu said.

Subhash glared, and kept reading.

Charu chuckled. “Can your degree explain why people who are too lazy to find a job suddenly find the energy to burn down their neighborhood?” he said.

Subhash still didn’t respond, although Charu added, “At least Naima know what side to pick, and what needs to get done.”

“Why don’t you just change the channel? Game is over,” Uncle Sen interrupted.

“Here’s the remote. I don’t care.”

“You’re an idiot. I don’t have time for your stupidity.”

“You never have time but drink and help everybody but me. Where’s my house? Where’s my car?”

“I’m warning you. I’ll give you one good slap!”

“Go ahead and try, Old Man. I dare you!”

“Maybe we should order food,” Harjeet said.

“What am I saying is wrong, huh?” Charu’s voice drowned them out.

Subhash could feel the back of his neck growing warmer. He balled his hands into fists.

“You’ve always been easy on him, and look how he turned out! Can’t even protect the ones he says he cares about!”

Subhash got up, and rushed outside, slamming the door behind him.

He paced along the front sidewalk. Naima came out and asked him to come back.

“Babe, everyone’s worried,” she said.

“What’s the point? What’s the fucking point?” he muttered to himself.

“Babe, what are you saying?”

“Just give me a sec. Okay?”

Naima stepped back inside, as Subhash gathered himself before also returning to the living room where everyone was quiet, and watching another man in khakis. Later in the evening, Subhash went to the study, and searched online about Yoo. Subhash drank coffee all night, and when the sun slowly emerged, he kissed Naima while she was still sleeping and left.

 

            . . .

 

The sky was gray, and the employees at the shopping mall were taking their smoke break underneath the Macy’s sign. Security drove through the empty parking lot, as Subhash rolled past, to the auto repair shop at the other end. There was only a young man at the front desk, and he asked what he could help Subhash with, the tire rims glinting along the wall. While trying not to smile, Subhash explained, “Tell your boss to meet me at this address.” He placed a piece of paper on the desk, and the young man, who was probably just out of high-school, looked confused and scared. “Just tell him, and he will understand,” Subhash repeated, and went back to his car.

The track and field spot at the high-school had empty water bottles and candy wrappers between the white lines. Subhash waited, and kept his arms crossed as Yoo made his way to him.

“What the fuck is this?” Yoo said.

“I told you to leave my daughter alone.”

Yoo laughed. “Bro, I’m glad you found your balls, but this is not you,” he said.

“Your son is a bully.”

“My son is doing what your daughter should’ve done! You think I have time to raise someone weak in a world like this?”

“Remember how everyone would throw garbage at you?”

Yoo stopped smiling.

“Remember when you fell on the track and everyone said you tripped on your tiny penis? It didn’t make any sense, but it was funny and everyone – – -”

Yoo charged, knocking Subhash to the ground.

Subhash covered his face as Yoo punched.

They rolled in the dirt, until Subhash managed to get on top and land blows of his own. He hit Yoo across the eyebrows, cutting him and leaking blood.

“Faggot!” Yoo screamed and pushed Subhash off.

Subhash jumped up and felt Yoo’s fist slam against his jaw and across his head. Subhash was dazed and stumbled.

“You were the loser! Not me!” Yoo kept yelling as Subhash shielded his face as best he could. “You fucking piece of shit nerd faggot asshole cum depot blood sucker terrorist!” Yoo’s voice boomed.

Subhash grabbed a handful of dirt and threw it at Yoo’s face.

Yoo fell to his knees and Subhash punched and kicked him in the chest. Yoo collapsed, mouth open, his chest slowly rising.

Subhash groaned, and plodded off the field.

 

            . . .

 

Blood trickled over his eyes.

He let the drops land on his shoes and carpet.

“Daddy, are you sick? Did you fall down?”

Soon, Naima arrived and dabbed the wounds, and they went upstairs. He laid in bed as she took off his shirt and wrapped his hands and feet with bandages.

Tulsi crept up the steps as well.

“What’s wrong with Daddy?”

“Nothing, honey. Daddy is just tired.”

“He looks hurt.”

“Just go back and watch your show.”

Naima applied pressure to Subhash’s side and Subhash grimaced.

“The cops will come after you,” Naima whispered.

“Nothing will happen…” Subhash said, “I’ve handled it.”

“But…”

“Stop worrying.”

“Daddy, what’s going on?” Tulsi asked.

Naima turned but Subhash encouraged Tulsi to step forward, which she did. Her dress was bright and yellow, like the sun. Her shoes, black and shining. Her hair, short and braided.