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.

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