“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.
“Can you just figure out if anyone can come by, maybe someone with kids of their own?”
“I only trust Langston.”
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.
“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…”
“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?”
“What if I cut the potatoes?’
“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 don’t want to.”
“Go outside and play.”
“This sucks…” Tulsi pouted.
“What did you say?”
“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.”
“I am not playing with you.”
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.