Section III: Chapter 17

Author’s Note: The following was left unedited so that means, what you’ll be reading is a very rough first draft. I will edit the entirety  of the novel in the coming months and will post that too when it’s completed. Enjoy and thank you for the support!   

            Bloated. Bile tickling the throat. Trees fly by, and houses are scattered. Each town looked like the last.

He held her hand, and whispered, “We’re almost there.”

She burped, and covered her mouth. Neck was stiff. Fumbling in their backpack, Emiliano grabbed a pack of cookies and shared them with her. She nibbled, and he asked if she was feeling better. She lied.

This happened every time she’d go back. The headache would start in the morning and get worse throughout the day. Despite taking aspirin, once she stepped foot on the train, her brain felt twice its size and desperate to break out of its skull. She meditated and yet, nothing could hold back the avalanche of thoughts. Every time, all the anxieties about school would come through, and this time, she also thought about what would happen once they’d graduate in May. The interview she had the past week was still rattling in her mind. Lauren Olamina, the founder of The Justice Project, a new initiative to help unite Mexican-American, black American and Asian working-class around issue of profiling, discrimination, and dismantling hierarchy, reiterated over Skype that although the organization was new, their mission was grand and perfect for inciting real change. But the problems remained. And her chest tightened.

They made it to Jersey City and once on the platform, she rushed to the nearest trash can and vomited. Emiliano bought her gingerale from a store nearby and some more cookies as they waited below the tracks.

Fortunately, the car arrived on time and inside was Subhash, smiling ear to ear until seeing the look on his daughter’s face. She reassured him that she wasn’t too nauseous anymore but he still insisted that they stay in the apartment until she was completely herself. Emiliano agreed and they sat in the back seat, her head on his shoulder and him doing his best to answer questions from Subhash, who was behind the steering wheel, twisting it left and right through traffic.

They made it to the apartment in one piece and immediately, Tulsi threw up some more in the sink. She went to the couch and slept, still in her clothes and Emiliano and Subhash got plates and food ready for dinner.

 

. . .

 

Naima arrived in the evening, wearing layers of sweaters and scarves, and shivering. Tulsi was awake and watching TV, while Emiliano showered and Subhash cooked stew. Naima went to Tulsi, asking why she was watching TV.

“Weren’t you sick? Your father texted me you were throwing up everywhere,” Naima said.

Changing channels, Tulsi rolled her eyes. “That’s an exaggeration,” she said, “I was just dealing with the same ish. Plus, I’m bored now.”

“Bored? What about your school work?”

“It’s spring break.”

“So? You don’t have any assignments coming up?”

Tulsi shrugged, and stopped on the local news. Naima sighed and kissed her on the head before going to the bedroom to change.

“I urge everyone not to go outside this weekend since we’ll be expecting the most severe storm in decades,” the weather woman said while standing in front of an image of the seven day forecast, which showed snow every single day of the week.

“Dinner!” Subhash called moments later and they all sat down at the round dining room table next to the kitchen.

In between bites, Subhash asked about their time at Rutgers and how they felt about their undergrad careers coming to an end.

“Are your parents going to come up from Maryland for the ceremony?” Subhash asked.

Emiliano explained that his dad was still visiting relatives in Mexico and that their grandmother had fallen ill.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Was he able to get more time off from work?”

“He did. But he’s the most experienced engineer they have so I don’t know how much longer he can stay. But my mom will definitely be there.”

“I forget. Is her family from Thailand?”

“No. Her parents are from the Philippines, but my mom grew up in College Park.”

“Have you guys started looking for apartments together?” Subhash said.

The TV in the living room was still on, as voices migrated across the room. Experts on CNN discussed the issue of climate change and how it’s progressed in the past decade. Most were pessimistic, except for one, who believed that there was opportunity to move the dial in favor of addressing the future.

“Yes, we are living with the consequences of our actions, but we still have chances to either do something different and react in the correct way or simply allow this pattern to continue. Nothing is ever perfect to begin with.”

“Thank you so much for that insight, Congresswoman Alicia Williams,” said the host, before heading off into a commercial, and while Emiliano traded glances with Tulsi before murmuring, “We’re thinking about it,” and went back to eating his stew.

Subhash looked at Tulsi, who quickly did the same. Pipes in the wall shook, as someone above flushed. Naima ate the naan and went to the bedroom to answer a call from a source. After washing the plates, Subhash also went to the bedroom as Tulsi and Emiliano lay on the pull out couch.

Moonlight covered the ceiling, the silhouette of factories painted the walls.

“So, you haven’t told them yet?”

“I didn’t see a reason to.”

“I think it’s best  if you did.”

“But you’re acting as if I came to a decision.”

“Haven’t you?”

Tulsi didn’t reply, as they were side by side and looking up at the ceiling.

Emiliano turned over as Tulsi watched the moonlight.

 

. . .

 

The next day, Naima went to finish interviews while Subhash, Tulsi, and Emiliano went to the Costco in another suburb right outside the city. The lines extended into the parking lot, as people rushed to horde enough canned food and water for the rest of the week. Aisles emptied at an alarming rate, as Subhash maneuvered the shopping cart in avoiding others and also being able to get to where they needed to be.

After filling their cart with perishables and more milk, Subhash stopped at the center of the store where the discount pants and shirts were. He told them to grab whatever they could find, especially sweaters.

“Excuse me? I saw that first,” a man yelled at another behind them.

Subhash told Tulsi and Emiliano to keep looking for clothes and to ignore everyone else. “Sooner we’re done, sooner we get out of here,” he said, as he fit pants between the boxes of canned food.

“Asshole! That’s mine!” Suddenly, there was screaming and the tables of jeans and clothes tumbled over.

Two men wrestled on the floor, as others wanted to get around them. A woman tripped and others fell on top. She begged for everyone to get off while more pushed and more fell. Others continued to trample and try and get out of the way. Emiliano tried to move to the side but he too was dragged down by his collar like being sucked in by a cyclone. Subhash and Tulsi ran over and pulled him out and along the floor. Tulsi led Emiliano to the section for appliances and had him lean against the shelf. She looked over him for any bruising. Subhash emerged soon after, informing them that their cart was also knocked down.

“We have to try and get what’s left,” he explained.

Tulsi brushed back the dirt from Emiliano’s hair and held his arm as they followed behind Subhash. Like astronauts on a forgotten planet, they carefully scanned the area, picking up the remaining cans and clothes.

Back at the apartment, Naima was on her laptop on the dining room table. She saw them stagger inside, carrying whatever they could salvage. She asked what happened and helped them with taking the things onto the living room carpet and couch. Subhash collapsed onto a chair and Tulsi grabbed a pack of ice, pressing it into Emiliano’s shoulder. Naima unpacked and pulled Tulsi to the side to tell her she’d be home late.

“Where are you going?” Tulsi asked, stunned.

“Work,” Naima replied and kissed her before putting on her coat and heading out the front door.

Tulsi remained speechless as Subhash and Emiliano dozed, their heads hanging and the snow outside starting to fall.

 

. . .

 

 

The snowfall intensified in the night, as streets were paved with white in a matter of minutes. Subhash kept calling Naima but she wasn’t picking up her cell, and he began pacing the living room.

“We should go and find her,” Emiliano whispered.

“How? She took the car,” Tulsi replied while they watched from the corner of the room.

It was midnight when Naima returned, rushing inside, covered in snow. Subhash, who was in the process of calling her again, turned around and ran to her, asking where she’d been and what happened and why she wasn’t responding earlier.

“We talked about this,” he said.

Naima took her scarves, and gloves, and began heating the kettle on the stove. Subhash followed her from one spot to the next.

“You could’ve at least texted,” he said.

“I know what I’m doing,” she finally answered, and looked over at Tulsi and Emiliano on the couch. “Do you guys want tea?” she asked.

They shook their heads no and Subhash glared at the back of Naima’s head before taking out some tea bags from the top drawer and also grabbing some cups for them to use. The snow continued to pile over the parked cars and streets, until nearly everything became hidden. They all went to sleep, wrapped in blankets, and doing their best to avoid the news on social media and refusing to turn on the TV. However, Tulsi would toss and turn while Emiliano grumbled, telling her he’d stay on the floor, which he did, taking his own blanket and resting on the carpet by the coffee table. Tulsi insisted he didn’t have to and she’d stop but he wouldn’t reply and closed his eyes.

For the next couple of days, they stayed in their apartment, in their separate corners. Emiliano would spend all day working on his resume and cover letters. Subhash updated his book. Tulsi mostly read, although she also emailed Olamina, who was asking for a response to their offer soon, while Naima was answering phone calls in the bedroom, her voice bouncing off the walls.

The news repeated how exceptional the storm had been, causing deaths and neighborhoods to lose power. By middle of the week, the heat in their own building ceased working.

Subhash complained to the management and so did others but the storm was just getting worse and whoever was in charge of fixing it kept promising them it’d be on although it would take more than a few days. Emiliano grumbled while lying on the carpet that he should’ve been in Maryland instead. Tulsi told him that the entire east coast and mid-Atlantic was under siege by Mother Nature and he responded that at least he would be with his parents.

Subhash told everyone to wear layers and to not try and do much. Naima continued to answer calls although the morning after they stopped having heat, she was sneezing and coughing. Subhash placed a hand on her head and sensed her body burning up. He told her to also take it easy. She took medicine and kept waking up earlier than anyone, turning on her laptop the first thing.

 

. . .

 

The water stopped working and Subhash rationed what they had left in the water bottles they bought from Costco. After counting what they had, Subhash and Tulsi talked in the dining room table while the others slept.

“Is everything alright with you and Emiliano?” Subhash asked.

Tulsi admitted that there were some “differences” between them brewing, but wouldn’t elaborate further. She didn’t want to tell him about the fact that the new job was on the West Coast and that if she went, Emiliano would find something else in D.C. and that they would probably have to end it. Emiliano said they could go on but she knew better. She too wondered if ever there could a combination of both worlds. She didn’t tell Subhash about the fact that even though the Justice Initiative was redemptive and powerful, that it was still on shaky ground financially and who knows what could happen to it over the coming year. She didn’t tell him many things because all she wanted was to be in the apartment and to feel whole like times before when she was younger.

“What do you mean you won’t publish it?” Naima’s voice suddenly echoed, as she balanced the phone between her ear and shoulder while rushing into the room and placing the laptop on the dining room table.

Subhash rolled his eyes and took his plate to the sink, while Tulsi listened to the conversation with whoever was on the other side of the line. Naima argued for the next fifteen minutes, debating about edits, until hanging up and going back to typing on her laptop. Naima asked while typing if Tulsi drank any milk. “It’ll help you go to sleep,” she said, and Tulsi said she did and added nothing else.

All night, Naima was up on her laptop, wiping her nose and working. The glow of the screen on her face. Tulsi watched while also lying down on the couch. The next day, Tulsi decided to help Subhash cook a meal for everyone. She knew how to make grilled salmon and butter naan, and fortunately, they had the ingredients in the kitchen. She took most of the day to make sure everything was perfect and served dinner when it was time to do so. But, Naima answered phone calls between bites.

“I told you this story is important,” Naima said over the phone, “This is not something you can ignore.”

She got up from the table and went to the bedroom to finish the conversation. Soon, Subhash also got up and washed his plate. Emiliano simply ate in silence.

 

. . .

 

The snow was finally letting up but Naima’s fever was growing worse. Suffering from headaches, she took medicine every morning before going to her laptop and writing. Tulsi continued to try and make them all sit down for dinner but every time she did, there would be another phone call or a neighbor knocking on their door, complaining about the lack of heat and water.

It was nearing the end of spring break when Tulsi woke up to see Naima still at her laptop at the table. The screen illuminated in the mostly dark room. Tulsi went to get some water and on her way back to the couch, she heard Naima ask if she woke her up.

“I was trying to type slow, but I had some more edits to do,” Naima explained, and Tulsi told her it wasn’t anyone’s fault and after taking a sip and standing, decided to sit down beside her mother.

Tulsi asked if she was updating her website, which was started right after what happened at The Jersey Tribune. To this day, Tulsi wasn’t quite sure of how her mother was able to fund a news website and how she was able to get that many up and coming local reporters and writers to contribute. She assumed it came from funds from the speeches she did and the other articles she published as a freelancer. That would explain the long hours working and the days when she was practically missing from Tulsi’s world.

“Do you remember the stabbings and attacks that were taking place when you were a little girl?” Naima said, as she deleted and punched keys.

Tulsi vaguely did. All she knew was that the person responsible was never found.

“Did you figure out who did it…?” Tulsi asked.

“Not exactly,” Naima replied, “but there were some stabbings again this past year that I think was similar to what happened then. I’ve been trying to write something about the victims and why the police have been dragging their feet.”

“Have you been writing it since then?”

“Yea. But, only this past month, it’s all come together. I hoped some of the bigger publications would want it. They’re saying that no one will read it, which is ridiculous. So, I’m trying not to dumb it down but making sure that it gets included on the front page somehow.”

“Ma, aren’t you tired?”

“Of course, I am,” Naima replied, “I’ve never worked so hard in my life.” Naima clicked the mouse. “Finally, people outside our neighborhood will know about this awful stuff that’sbeen going on,” she added, and clicked on the mouse and Tulsi observed quietly.

Naima looked skinnier than before, and was still coughing. Her eyes were also red and she asked Tulsi for some more blankets. After Tulsi brought them to her, Naima told Tulsi to go to bed and get some rest. Tulsi understood it was best to do so instead of hover around like some bug.

Emiliano too got sick. He still shoveled the sidewalk and helped in removing snow from their car. Afterwards, Tulsi asked him if he wanted to see his mom in Maryland.

“I think the trains are working again,” she said.

He narrowed his eyebrows at her as they warmed up by the stove.

“Why now?” he said.

“Cause she probably misses you…”

Emiliano glared. “I don’t get it,” he said, “And I don’t want to.”

He went to the couch and flipped on his IPAD. Tulsi continued to warm her hands and wait for her parents to come back from outside too.

 

. . .

 

 

On the final weekend of spring break, while Tulsi was done washing her hair from the bottled water they had left, she went to the couch to get ready for bed. Again, Naima was on her laptop, covered in blankets on the dining room table. Tulsi laid down and closed her eyes. Suddenly, Naima yelled, and everyone jumped up, asking what was wrong.

“It’s published!” Naima said, stretching her arms in the air, “It’s getting published!” she kept repeating until Subhash shook his head and chuckled. Even for a moment, Emiliano smiled at seeing Naima smiling and laughing. Soon, Naima began to cough and shake and Subhash helped her to their room. The rest of the night was quiet. The next morning, Naima was the first to wake up, typing on her laptop and Subhash prepared pancakes. Tulsi emailed Olamina her decision to join the company and showed Emiliano the message. Emiliano got off the floor and went to take a shower, he said.

“You’re going to get even more sick,” Subhash said to Naima while he placed the stack of pancake at the center of the table with the plates arranged. Subhash even asked Tulsi to come but she had to go and see if Emiliano was ready first. She knocked on the bathroom door and Emiliano replied he wasn’t ready yet. The more she asked, the more he told her to leave him alone for a minute until finally, he stopped responding. Tulsi’s shoulders sagged but she returned to the dining room where Naima was at the table, slowly cutting and eating and Subhash doing the same and asking her if she took her medicine. She said she did and commented that the pancakes were good, and he nodded. Suddenly, the phone rang and Naima got up and answered, and Subhash continued eating.

Tulsi smiled. For a moment.

THE END 

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Section III: Chapter 16

Author’s Note: The following was left unedited so that means, what you’ll be reading is a very rough first draft. I will edit the entirety  of the novel in the coming months and will post that too when it’s completed. Enjoy and thank you for the support!   

            She jumps on me for sharing pain with the living, but she tries to share it with the dead.

“Dr.Shaheed, are you ready?” the nurse approached her, and she acknowledged the name. She was led through the hallway to a room at the end. The nurse explained that the patient was discovered in the bath tub with both wrists slashed. Loss of blood was significant.

She went to the patient’s bedside, and asked for some time alone. All she could think about was being in her apartment with her patient on the couch, sleeping peacefully.

 

. . .

 

I didn’t like them when I heard them. I liked them even less when I met them. They look at us as though we smell and they don’t. Of course, it doesn’t matter whether I like them or not. There are other people in the neighborhood whom I don’t like.

            Farida stopped. A part of her wanted to keep reading. But her mind wandered. Shahnaz called.

“What happened? Are you still coming to Boston?”

“I can’t…”

“Why not?”

She explained to Shahnaz the situation.

Shahnaz sighed. “That’s terrible, obviously,” she said, “But you’re supposed to be on vacation…”

Farida didn’t respond.

“I’m sorry, but you know I’m right,” Shahnaz added.

“I need to get some rest.”

“Just please take some time for yourself. Did you at least get that book you wanted?”

Farida glanced at the copy in her hand, the words Parable of the Sower on the cover.

“You always said you wanted to read something different,” Shahnaz said.

“I’ll try to keep going,” Farida replied, “but it’s not up to me.”

In the afternoon, Farida went to her clinic which was a few blocks from the saree shops and Indian supermarkets in downtown Edison. Since it was the weekend, no one else was around, as she went into her space and began searching files for patients, past and present, scattering them across the floor.

Sophiline was her first patient. Frida spent hours reading Sophiline’s folders and background, scavenging for clues. Over the past year, Sophiline seemed to be improving. She was reconnecting to her family and old friends, and was set to be promoted at work. She even visited relatives in Cambodia for the first time and posted pictures of the historic temples on Facebook. So, what triggered the attempt? Was it stress or something sudden? Was it her ex? Farida had no way of contacting him since all Sophiline said about him was that he made her feel “powerless.” Farida took some files home.

 

. . .

 

 

She focused on former patients, finding those she instantly recognized as ones who needed the most help to recover. There were a few who she hadn’t seen in months, including one who had survived a gunshot to the chest and after spending time in a coma, suffered reoccurring nightmares. She made him write a journal of his thoughts, which he shared with her initially. He mostly described the scenes that repeated in his head, of his fist ramming against another man’s jaw, and then being chased by others in his life, all of whom were naked from the waist down. Another had problems eating food that was round and this bothered him since he was a fan of pizza. This became a reality when he lost his job and subsequently, unable to pay rent and became homeless. Since then, he would always feel nauseous around pizza and donuts. Farida surmised that it was possibly linked to his feelings of being emasculated. He didn’t believe her and also, stopped showing up for therapy.

Jamal was one who displayed the most progress in a short period. Since his teens, he dealt with OCD, preventing him from sometimes attending classes to locking himself in his bedroom for days. After graduating college and getting his first full-time job, he would avoid interacting with co-workers and doing anything else but work. He realized his symptoms were out of control when he skipped another happy hour and instead, cleaned his fridge, bathroom, microwave, sofas, and blinds, until his fingers bled. Still, he listened to Farida’s instructions and made an effort to talk more and to go outside to places he felt comfortable, like the local coffee shop or to the library.

Farida knocked on Jamal’s door.

“Who is it?” he asked.

She told him and the footsteps stopped.

“Did I do something?”

“No, I just wanted to see how things were.”

He opened and stood before her, skinny and short. They had coffee in the living room and she listened to him update her on his life.

“I don’t worry too much about what bars we go to,” he said, “But when I do feel like I don’t want to be there, I remind myself that I’m safe and that I’m with people who care.”

Farida said she was pleased but remained skeptical. His eyes darted, and he looked jumpy at times.

She told him how glad she was that he was being honest and open with her and understanding how important that was to the process.

He mumbled, “Thank you,” and snatched their empty cups to wash them in the sink. As she was leaving, Jamal said he had to get something off his chest. Farida pretended she was surprised. Jamal, however, looked at the ground, as he explained he was dating again.

“I met this person a few weeks ago,” he said, “And I’m not certain if I am ready or not. Even though I do like her.”

Farida waited for more. But Jamal finally looked up at her, and she smiled and told him to do what made him comfortable.

After making a mental note to check on Jamal in the coming weeks, she went to the next person, a man she knew from the South Asian American neighborhood they grew up in at the heart of Iselin. Prior to being a patient, she barely spoke to him, apart from sometimes, bumping into him at their high-school or when she’d be done praying at the local mosque and him at his Hindu temple nearby. However, once he experienced a mental breakdown and went missing, she joined the community in finding him, updating each other over Facebook and Twitter, and calling the police as much as possible.

The man now lived by himself but explained to Farida that he enjoyed the time alone and how it allowed him to process life at his own pace. They went to the local temple, where he sat cross-legged in front of the deities and uttered mantras with his eyes closed. Priests rang bells and blessed parishioners, as Farida stayed by the man’s side, glancing at his face and observing the creases under his eyes.

 

. . .

 

 

Farida continued to visit more patients. Many were working again and some started families. Most were glad Farida would drop by since they wanted to share all the positive news. But there were a few who behaved strangely and Farida placed them on her list of people to keep an eye on.

Whenever Farida’s body slowed down and she would read more or take walks, she’d picture Sophiline. While on a date, she struggled to listen to the person across the table, telling her about his job as a dentist, and how “fun” it was to “clean teeth and make people smile.” Farida ate and smiled, but afterwards, when strolling, she spotted a woman scavenging for food in a dumpster, and immediately, Farida let go of her date’s hand. He asked what was wrong but she went to her car and drove away. She blocked his number and stopped answering calls, including from Shahraz.

. . .

            Raziyya crossed her arms.

“I finished my sessions with you,” she said, “I’m not going back.”

“And you don’t need to,” Farida replied, “I’m only here to see how things are going.”

“Everything’s fine.”

“Are you working now?”

“Yep.”

“Have you gotten to know your roommates better?”

“Yep.”

Farida smiled, as Raziyya glared.

“Like I said, everything is perfect.”

“Are you making more music with the band?” Farida asked.

“We finished our EP.”

“That’s great! Will it be on Soundcloud?”

Raziyya nodded and Farida continued to smile even though she knew it was time to leave.

That night, she searched for the EP online and uncovered links to the band’s Facebook page. There seemed to be a following which was good to see since Raziyya had always wanted to play music and have people care. But after some more digging, she noticed a recent post: COME SEE US LIVE @ CASPER CLUB SATURDAY NIGHT!!!  Farida’s eyes widened. She rushed to Raziyya’s again but one was answering the door. The next day, Farida did the same and still, no one was home.

She knew the only option left was to go to the show in New Brunswick. The venue was a new bar downtown, which would convert into a stage and a dancefloor on weekends. Farida made sure to stay in the back of the crowd once the music started. Raziyya was behind the drums with her two friends trading vocals and playing guitar and bass. It was loud but rhythmic. People cheered. For a brief moment, Farida felt at ease and stopped watching Raziyya’s face. Instead, she felt the drums and the melody in her feet and hands.

At intermission, everyone ordered more drinks and cleared the main floor. The guitars and drums remained on stage. Farida had fries and although she didn’t speak to anyone, kept herself engaged in their conversations, overhearing parts of who they are. After a half-hour, the second half of the show was set to begin. People converged and the lights dimmed.

Only the drums were illuminated by the spotlight and the guitars leaning against the speakers. The crowd murmured and the owner of the venue apologized and promised they’d start soon. After another fifteen minutes and with no one showing up, the crowd began to jeer. Some started to leave. Farida slipped between and peeked behind the curtains. She went down a long hallway and through the back door, revealing the tiny parking lot. There she saw the two guitarists standing over Raziyya who was perched on the back of their van, heaving and coughing.

“Do you need help?” Farida asked.

Raziyya looked up and snapped, “Just get away from me.”

“I understand you’re hurting, but we can deal with this,” Farida said, “Remember that anxiety can be managed. You are in control.”

“Fucking leave me alone!” Raziyya screamed.

Her two friends agreed, blocking Farida’s way.

Farida didn’t know what else to say so she got back to her apartment instead. After a few days, she went to Raziyya’s and was told by her roommates to get away too. She tried to explain that she could help but they wouldn’t listen.

For days, Farida didn’t know what to do. She tried walking more. She tried exploring places she hadn’t been in yet. No matter what though, she always felt weighed down as if wearing armor or chainmail.

Freedom is dangerous . . . but it’s precious too. You can’t just throw it away or let it slip away. You can’t sell it for bread and pottage.

            The words escaped the din of the heart machines and wheels screeching through the hallways.

Sophiline blinked and placed the yogurt on the table beside her.

Farida asked if she wanted something else and she hung shook her head.

“Do you want me to keep reading?” Farida said.

Sophiline nodded.

Farida turned the page and kept on reading.

Section III: Chapter 15

Author’s Note: The following was left unedited so that means, what you’ll be reading is a very rough first draft. I will edit the entirety  of the novel in the coming months and will post that too when it’s completed. Enjoy and thank you for the support!   

            Coffee spilled across the table. Napkins were tossed over, as the pot in the kitchen crackled.

“Langston!”

Quickly, the cup was cleaned and filled with more. Fortunately, it was still bitter, and he needed more.

“Langston!” the voice repeated, “What are you doing?”

“Honey, I’ll be right there,” Langston said from the dining room table, as he tried cleaning up the mess.

Amiri rolled his eyes and helped. They made it to the Peruvian restaurant in Highland Park, just in time, and after ordering fish and plantains, Amiri asked if Langston was feeling alright.

“Why?” Langston replied and drank some water.

“It’s a simple question,” Amiri said.

“I was uploading another video to YouTube. That’s all.”

“That shouldn’t take that long. Are you sure you weren’t doing something else?”

“We had another faculty meeting. I was the one in charge of notes.”

Amiri sighed, but Langston promised him it would be different this time.

“We’ve been going through a lot of changes, and I need to make sure everything is going smoothly,” he explained.

“I understand, but that’s not your primary job. I’m worried they’ll try and drown you in unnecessary work…”

“It’s not unnecessary. I need to do this. Unless I show the department and people in our field that I can do more, then I won’t have to worry about getting tenure.”

“Fine. I just think you’re better served focusing on your brand then taking orders from them.”

“I can do both. Also, I took your advice and did a short one about social movements. It’s an introduction to literature about people who join groups and social justice organizations. That in fact, most are highly intelligent and integrated into society and aren’t whackos as the media likes to portray.”

“Hmm. Did you send this to me to look over or did I miss it?”

“No…I did it today and decided to just do a few edits…”

“Oh. Okay. That’s cool,” Amiri said, as the waiter arrived, and set down their plates. Amiri began cutting into the tilapia with his knife and fork, “Just make sure it’s not in jargon that ordinary people can’t understand.”

Langston said they could watch it when they get home, and added that next time, he’d make sure Amiri would get to access the video before it would go public. Amiri nodded, and they ate, amidst the other professors and professionals masquerading as normal people on a Friday night.

After the restaurant, Langston and Amiri had dessert at a Pakistani sweet shop in Edison and strolled around the block. Arm in arm, and with Amiri’s head resting on his shoulder, Langston did feel calmer, and happier. However, what happened at the meeting would swell, along with deadlines for journal articles and upcoming schedule for the fall semester, causing him to check his phone every few minutes.

At their home, Langston and Amiri went straight to their bedroom. They kissed and remembered each other’s favorite spots. Langston did his best to keep pace, as Amiri began to go faster and faster, and held him close. Langston ignored the glow from his phone in the corner of the room, and gripped Amiri as tightly as possible.

 

. . .

 

The latest video garnered close to 200,000 views and over 1,000 likes. Langston knew it wasn’t comparable to what others received, especially those who had been able to sustain a large audience for years, but he was encouraged by the numbers. Langston decided to create his “brand” since the last university budget cuts, when funding was depleted and the dean warned that even fewer students with full scholarships had to be admitted. Amiri helped set up a Facebook page, a Twitter account, as well as a YouTube channel, and even a blog where he could publish short essays about issues that he was an expert on. In the beginning, only colleagues and friends shared his posts and online work. However, Langston persisted, and Amiri told him often that if he wanted to create real change and connect with what’s going on in the world, that he needed to go beyond academia. Langston researched online the biggest influences on social media, and even contacted a few, such as one trans woman of color living in Newark. She explained, through email, that her secret to becoming popular, was based on staying honest with herself and never being discouraged since there would always be commentators who would be negative and harsh. Every time I post something that I think is serious or do a video on a subject, she wrote, I think of someone like me when I was younger, in some small town somewhere, who is scared of what they’re feeling and is constantly being harassed, all that they need in the moment is to feel less alone.

Langston was in his office, typing another post on his blog that would add context to his latest video. He read the material on the upcoming election as well, and ideas on what to share next sprung in his head, ranging from discussing the false idea of American Exceptionalism to maybe comparing the current field of candidates and their racism to the dog whistle politics of Reagan and others, to counter the current narrative that somehow, the U.S. was immune to division and authoritarianism until recently. He jotted down a few titles that could grab peoples’ attention, and as he was done, an email from the department chair appeared in his inbox. The subject header read: Sad News. Langston took a deep breath before clicking.

With a deep hole in my heart, it is my duty to inform all of you that Frederick Ortega has decided to move on from his time here and to find better opportunities in his home state of California.

            Soon, other professors replied, wishing Ortega the best of luck and expressing their shock and disappointment. Suddenly, another email arrived, this one from Ortega himself and only addressed to Langston.

Sorry for not telling you sooner, but I didn’t want to ruin your weekend. As you probably have guessed, I didn’t get tenure and I had no other choice. I think this is for the best actually, because I can’t take the culture of academia anymore. It’s too insular. You can’t foster any real change. Again, I apologize for doing this and not telling you face-to-face but maybe down the line we can meet up and grab a drink. Until then, I’ll be in touch.

            Langston went to the lounge for more water, but on his way back, stopped in front of what used to be Subhash’s office. He peeked in the small window on the door, at the empty walls and empty desk. The last time they spoke was when Subhash was packing up to leave, and Langston was trying to figure out why. Subhash repeated that it was difficult to explain but that he knew he had to do more to recover.

Planning to stay at the office for just another hour, Langston called the Political Science Association journal.

“Hi Bill? This is Langston. Yep. I was wondering if you’ll be publishing the article this year…”

The man on the other side apologized.

“I was meaning to reach out to you,” he told Langston.

Langston pressed the phone to his ear.

“Did something happen? Did I miss a correction?”

“No. You’ve been following our instructions perfectly. However, our committee is divided on including your piece in the upcoming issue.”

“I thought you said everyone was excited when they first read it…”

“I definitely was. I still am. But some of us have more…clout…than others.”

“Let me contact them myself. I can persuade them.”

“I’m not sure about sharing their numbers with you. And the main person you have to somehow convince is difficult to get in touch with.”

“Who is he? Is it Professor Dyer?”

“His name is Professor Burgess.”

Langston was stunned. “He’s still around…?”

“He was the co-founder of the journal and is a legacy appointee on the board. He’ll probably leave only when he passes on.”

“Do you know what his problem was with what I wrote?”

“Honestly, he doesn’t communicate directly to us. He has a few assistants who message us. I understand the pressure of getting something into the journal. I really do. But I don’t think you can even talk to him.”

“I need more articles on my resume. I need them soon or I’m screwed.”

“I’m sorry…I don’t know what to say…”

Langston cut short the conversation, and allowed his heart to settle. Once the sweat on his palms dried, he Googled Burgess’s resume, background, and anything else he could find, including phone number to his office. As his eyelids began to lower, he bought more coffee and continued, following links until he’d uncover another clue and realize seconds later, it meant nothing.

 

            . . .

 

Coffee cup rings were scattered all over the table and desks. In the dining room. The den. Especially at his desk at work.

Between updating syllabi for the upcoming semester, emailing and arranging for more faculty meetings, and making lists of probable assistant professors who could fill in the gap for their department, Langston persisted to search online for any insight as to who Professor Burgess was. He had always heard of the name, since Burgess was considered a “founding father” of modern political science and even parts of sociology. Yet, he never bothered to dig any deeper, until then. He even asked those in the department who knew anything at all, and in turn, received random anecdotes and observations.

“Burgess? He’s around 34? No wait, he’s 62. He has to be. No. 98. Yea. And he’s tall, like a tree.”

“He’s about 5’3”. He always wears this coat, like the kind you’d see at golf associations. And he doesn’t talk loud at all. Like I barely could hear him when I went to this conference a year ago. Almost like he whispers everything like a ghost.”

“I was invited once to this event he and Professor Dyer were hosting. It was at this hotel in D.C. Come to think of it, I never actually met Burgess. But from what’ve heard, he can’t stay in the sun too long, so he’s usually in his home.”

“If you Google all the major groups and associations in Political Science, he’s affiliated with every single one. I don’t know how he finds the time. Personally, I read one book by him, cause it was required when I was in undergrad, and he kept talking about this whole ‘deficit of citizenship’ that happened post-1964. It was strange.”

Langston decided if he had any chance of meeting Burgess, it would be at the annual PSA conference, where all the major political scientists meet at one location. This year, it was only an hour away in Philadelphia, and Langston bought his tickets for the event. He then glanced at his phone and saw there were a dozen messages, all from Amiri. Langston’s eyes grew wide at the time, and rushed home.

“I’m sorry, I got caught up preparing assignments,” he said immediately after stepping through the front door, but Amiri was at the dining room table, eating. Langston repeated his apology while Amiri cut into a slice of cake. “We can still catch a movie,” Langston added.

“It’s okay,” Amiri said, “I have to wake up early tomorrow.”

“Do you want to watch something on Netflix?”  Langston offered.

“Pick something and I’ll be there,” Amiri said, and took his plate to the sink.

Langston connected their tablet with their TV and chose The Get Down for them to watch.

He made sure to wrap his arms around Amiri while on the couch. He also would kiss him on the neck whenever the next episode took time to load. Amiri stared at the screen instead, and at one point, asked Langston if he posted anything new on his blog or channel.

“Not yet, I haven’t found something unique to say,” Langston explained.

Amiri, without looking at him, responded, “Don’t forget to update. Or otherwise, people will think you left them behind.”

Langston said he would do something soon, and slid his arm down Amiri’s back, as the colors on screen illuminated the walls.

 

. . .

 

A week before the semester would start, Amiri chose to visit family in Chicago. Langston dropped Amiri off at the Newark airport and told him when he’d get back, they’d go to his favorite restaurant.

“On the same day?” Amiri asked, eyebrow raised.

“Why not? You’ll be here mid-afternoon, and you can grab a quick nap,” Langston told him.

Amiri grinned, and boarded the plane, while Langston waited for it take off.

The first thing Langston did when home alone, he sketched outlines for future blog posts. He was in the middle of figuring out what to say for his upcoming video when he began receiving emails from work again. One colleague also called, although Langston ignored and let it go straight to voicemail. Langston put on another pot of coffee before sitting down and reading through his inbox.

            . . .

            Eyes red. His skin raw. He groaned as he lifted his head off the dining room table. After more coffee and washing up, he checked the date, and quickly packed his laptop and some clothes. He got onto the turnpike and drove.

Philadelphia was only an hour away, and he already booked the hotel near the convention center where the conference would take place. He changed into a dress shirt and black pants in his room and went to join everyone else in the main banquet hall, surrounded by portraits of old men with brown hair and blue eyes, as if clones.  Some were painted blonde. Many of the political scientists in attendance also looked like those decorating the walls. Langston mingled with members of the Asian American, Latino American, and Black American political science associations, as they huddled in the corners of the room, also in their best shirts and shoes. Since it was day one, most of the events were short and Langston went to his room when everyone started to leave. On the second day, he listened to a few presentations by people he knew, but later in the afternoon, just as the crowd grew, he asked others about Burgess. Much of what they said was the same as before. Many told him that Burgess was probably not even in Philadelphia.

“That’s bullshit,” said Ortega, who Langston bumped into at the bar, “He’s definitely here. This is probably his favorite place on the planet.”

“Why are you here? I thought you were leaving academia for good…” Langston said.

Ortega chuckled. “I don’t know,” he said, “I paid for the reservations earlier and I guess I didn’t want to waste any money.”

“Is everything okay?” Langston asked.

Ortega gazed at the crowd while they leaned against the bar. He told Langston that Burgess was in the top floor of the hotel.

Langston wanted to know more but took the next elevator all the way to the tenth floor. He knocked on doors, with no one answering, until a gangly man stepped into the hallway, having to bend under the ceiling like a giraffe.

“Hi. Can I help you?” he asked in a slow drawl.

Langston’s mouth hung open. He said he was looking for someone named Burgess.

The man, who was also dressed in a suit, explained his brother’s name was Burgess. “But he’s not a professor,” the man said, “He’s a police officer in Pennsylvania.”

“Oh,” Langston said, feeling deflated, “That’s fine. Thank you for your time.”

The man asked Langston what the other Burgess looked like and Langston did his best. After listening with his large hands under his chin, the man said that he saw someone who fit that description also on the floor.

Langston asked where and the man told him to come back in the morning since that’s when the other Burgess takes his daily walk.

“Daily walk?” Langston reacted, “Wait, does he live here…?”

But the man didn’t respond and shut the door. Langston returned to his own room and ordered more coffee and searched for more details online. On the third day, he did as told and went back to the tenth floor. Waiting by the stairs, he kept his eyes trained on every door. For an hour, nothing happened. Then, he heard a slow creak like someone walking, and turned to his left. There was a tiny man who opened his door, and who went to the elevator. He wore a bowler hat and had long pants like a magician, and he was at the same height as the doorknob. Langston instantly ran down stairs to the lobby and watched from across the elevators as the doors opened and the man stepped out.

Langston followed the man all afternoon, from the conference room to the other small venues where last minute additions to the schedule had been added. Sometimes, the amount of people made it difficult for Langston to keep track, although he’d try and guess where the man’s next movements too.

The man eventually went into the bathroom and Langston stood outside. After a while when no one was coming out, Langston also went in. He pretended to pee and washed his hands. He did this for several minutes until no one was coming out of the stalls. No one was at the urinals either.

Langston rushed through the crowd, even standing on the furniture for a better view. He retraced his steps, through the conference room and the other ones where people were still talking. At the lobby, he faced the entrance from behind a pillar.

A person tapped him on the shoulder.

“Are you looking for me?” the voice said, “I’m not a fan of sunny days, just so you know.”

It was the tiny man, staring up at Langston. Sweat trickled down Langston’s back.

“What do you want?” the man said, “I don’t have all day.”

“Is your name Burgess?” Langston said, trying not to stammer.

“That’s my cousin’s name,” the man said, “He’s in St. Louis. Why? Do you know him?”

“He’s not a professor, is he?”

“Nope. A judge. Again, why do you want to know?”

Langston apologized and left the man alone. That night, he tried to sleep but every time he closed his eyes, men on horses and carrying ropes filled his mind. He woke up early and worked on upcoming projects.

 

. . .

 

On the final day, he checked out of the hotel before joining the conference. He dragged his suitcase along to each event. He tried to crack jokes with colleagues and handed out business cards to people he felt would be useful in the future.

“Phone call for you,” a waiter at the hotel restaurant informed Langston after he sat down at one of the tables.

Langston asked who it was from but the waiter said he had to attend to others. The phone was in the hallway.

“Hello? Who am I speaking to?”

“Why are you so invested in this article?”

“Is this Professor Burgess?”

“He thinks you’re not using your talents by focusing on issues beyond your understanding.”

“What do you mean? My article is about race and identity, which is what I always cared about.”

“Yes, but you’re writing about Filipinos.”

“Filipino-Americans,” Langston corrected, “And I don’t see the problem.”

“Unfortunately, he cannot approve.”

“Wait, that’s not – – -”

“He says to enjoy the rest of the conference.”

The line was dead. Langston grabbed his suitcase and charged to the lobby, and asked the front desk if they had anyone by the name of Burgess in their hotel. The woman at the computer checked, and said they had  two dozen names with the last name Burgess. Langston gave her the first name, and the number still remained.

“Are they all on the top floor…?” he asked.

“Yes…” she answered, watching his face, “Sir, are you alright?”

Langston mumbled and plodded away.

            . . .

 

All the doors were left slightly hanging open, including the one where the tall man was in.

The room was dark. The curtains drawn. Langston edged down the hallway, peeking into each one.

The room at the end was the suite. It too was cloaked in shadows. The windows covered in blinds. Langston hesitated on entering, but voices started to echo. He was frozen.

“They’re all the same.”

“Yes.”

“That’s why they can never succeed. They’re stuck in the past.”

“Yes, sir.”

“He will be like all the rest of them.”

“None of them will be as great as you, sir.”

“He won’t last.”

“No sir.”

Langston went to the garage, and took his car. He got on the turnpike and tried to escape before rush hour. As he crossed the bridge, the traffic stalled.

“Fuck,” he muttered, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

He called Amiri.

“Are you still at the airport?”

“No,” Amiri said, “I took a taxi.”

“I’m almost there. Just take a nap and we’ll head out once I come around.”

“Where are you?”

“Uh. Heading out of Philly…”

“Did the conference just end?”

“Yea. Did you eat anything?”

“Lunch before the flight. I’m not hungry.”

“I’ll grab something on the way, just in case.”

“Are you ok?”

“I’m fine. I’m sorry.”

“It’s whatever. Don’t rush.”

“Okay.”

There was a pause.

“Are you still there?” Langston asked.

“Yea, I’m here.”

“I was wondering if I should make a video about American Exceptionalism.”

“Oh. Did you make it already?”

“No. I’m just asking you if that’s alright. I can share some ideas now. I’m on Bluetooth.”

“Sure,” Amiri asked, “What’s your first idea?”

“My first one is about the false idea of American Exceptionalism,” he said as the cars in front crept along, “

Section III: Chapter 14

Author’s Note: The following was left unedited so that means, what you’ll be reading is a very rough first draft. I will edit the entirety  of the novel in the coming months and will post that too when it’s completed. Enjoy and thank you for the support!   

              Cheddi’s lungs burned, as he lifted the box filled with old DVDs. He lifted it onto another shelf in the storage room before collapsing onto the floor, and panting. When he was younger, he would’ve panicked, but he knew better the effects of his asthma, how it sometimes meant all he needed was to slow down.

“Wow! Look at how busy your nephew is!” his uncle’s voice boomed, as he stepped inside.

Cheddi staggered to his feet, his lungs straining for breath, as if a letter kept under a stack of books.

Krishna, who rushed over, complained why Ram always made it his responsibility to check on what Cheddi was upto.

Ram pointed a finger at him and growled, “I don’t need to give you a reason.”

Krishna slouched, and once Ram returned to handling customers, he marched and grabbed Cheddi by the arm and squeezed.

“What the fuck are you doing to us?” he exclaimed.

Knowing there was no real answer, Cheddi promised he’d do better, and coughed phlegm into a napkin. Instantly, Krishna let go and grimaced. Cheddi continued stacking the shelves after taking his inhaler and in another half-hour, he still was weak and his movements sagged. When he woke up the next day, his suitcase was missing from his room, and he eventually found it lying on the sidewalk in front of the store. Only Uncle Arjun was behind the cash register, as always yawning and chewing on coffee beans.

“Where’s everyone?” Cheddi asked, and Uncle Arjun shrugged.

Cheddi waited, but only customers appeared and soon, he was feeling their eyes on him as he kept sitting on a bucket in the corner. He dragged his suitcase through Jersey City, stopping for some food at a convenience store, and charging his phone at the library. Finally, after spending a few moments thinking of what else to do, he went to the apartment he once shared with his mom, and fortunately, found the extra key in one of the pant’s he had in his suitcase.

The apartment was dark, and he quietly went to his bedroom, where he undressed. The hours plodded on and his mom still hadn’t shown, so he went to the kitchen and searched the cupboards and fridge, and had enough to make some naan, which he added some extra spice to, and herbs. As he added the oil onto the pan and heard the sizzle, instantly, the soreness in his lungs eased and his mind drifted to how his hands moved and to the color of the bread.

 

. . .

 

His mom said she was too tired to talk and stayed in her room all night. In the morning, Cheddi made scrambled eggs and toast, and his mom thanked him but told him she needed to be back at the supermarket for an early shift. She left soon after, and Cheddi finished the toast and saved the eggs in the fridge for a sandwich later. He tried calling the store, but no one answered. He even went to the local delis in the area, asking about his uncles, until, he remembered to also check the gyms. Unable to find them, Cheddi ended his day at the indoor swimming pool he and his family would go to when he was in junior high. Although the main reason was to get him to swim since according to the doctor, it would help make his lungs stronger, everyone would join in, taking turns holding their breaths under water, or simply splashing each other. His cousins, most of them younger, liked jumping in, while his aunties yelled at them.

With the little money he saved, he paid for a month membership and headed into the pool, doing laps until his lungs were on fire. The doctors warned to never do too much and when he was old enough, explicitly said his lungs could shut down completely. He kept those thoughts at bay, and gathered himself for a full hour before going back to the apartment. His mom was already at the table, typing on her laptop. He asked what she was writing, and she glanced and saw the expression on his face, the creases and bags under each eye. She wanted to know where he went and he told her.

“Why?” she asked.

“I had to.”

“Are you going back there?”

“Why not?”

She sighed, and instructed him to sit, which he did. She told him he needed to do something, and that he should go and visit the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick. She explained that a friend of hers was giving a short speech that week and it would be important for him to meet and talk with her.

Cheddi exclaimed it had been over a year and he wasn’t ready to go near a classroom, but his mom repeated, “You have to do something,” adding that he needed to wash up since he smelled like chlorine.

 

. . .

 

The mini-lecture took place at Scott Hall, in one of the larger rooms on-campus. Although only half of the seats were filled, most of those who attended were mostly black women students, and some South Asian, Hispanic, and white too. He was in one of the back rows, listening to the woman speaking on stage. She was shorter than him, and skinnier. He eventually recognized her as she addressed questions from the audience.

“How did you become a journalist?” one student asked after raising her hand.

The woman explained that she was always aware of the barriers, whether to do with race or gender, or in her case, the combination, but knowing was half the battle.

“In the end, it’s about making sure you’re connected to why you’re doing what you’re doing,” she said, “I wanted to make a difference, no matter what. I also liked the sound of words when strung together. No one was going to stop me from following my passion.”

Cheddi watched their faces, as they listened with wide eyes and wide smiles, some of them on the edge of their seats. When the talk was over, Cheddi, however, left. He wasn’t an artist or a writer. He wasn’t seeing the point of staying there any longer. At the apartment, he watched YouTube videos of cooking shows, and attempted to do chicken tika like the ones he’d tasted on Newark Avenue. He burned the tip of his fingers, and yet, he put them in cold water and finished the dish. When his mom asked him how it went, he replied, “Have some?” and handed her a bowl. She arched an eyebrow, and only had a sip. He asked how it was and she said that he always made good food, and also stated, “You’re not going to college, are you?” To which, he responded, “Mom…It’s too expensive.”

“We can get financial aid,” she told him.

“I’ll still need loans.”

“So?”

Cheddi rolled his eyes and packed the leftovers. His mom remained at the table, and kept eating. The rest of the week, she would go to work, come back, and head to her room after a snack. Sometimes, Cheddi would offer something he made, and she’d say she was either not feeling well or had a big lunch. Cheddi pretended he understood and would also go to his room and search online or lie down and think. After a couple of weeks, he went swimming in the pool, gritting his teeth, as his lungs screamed.

. . .

 

Krishna emerged from the locker room one afternoon, goggles set firmly over his eyes and his hands on his waist as he surveyed the pool.

Immediately, Cheddi jumped in and did his laps. Krishna lingered, his voice finding space in the water.

“Do all you want,” he told Cheddi, “And you still can’t lift a fucking box.”

At first, Cheddi ignored him, and his arms and legs maintained their synchronicity and rhythm. However, the pain in his lungs was growing, and every breath was like sucking air through a straw. Suddenly, he choked, and flailed, fortunately grabbing a railing, which he used to pull himself up.

He coughed and groaned, while the other swimmers stared. Krishna too stood at a distance.

By the time he recovered enough energy to get up and walk, it was night, and the sidewalk was dense with exhaust and cigarette smoke. He covered his mouth, and when he reached his room, instantly climbed into bed and fell asleep.

Every day for the rest of the week, Krishna would come to the pool at the same time as Cheddi did, and every time, he’d berate and curse while Cheddi swam. Sometimes, Cheddi would try and go later in the day or extremely early, just when the pool would open, but Krishna always was close behind, as if they were on the same mental frequency.

Cheddi also spent his days interviewing for local jobs, especially in the areas around the waterfront, including the new bars and restaurants that sprung up over the last few years.

“It says here on your resume that you were at the top of your class in school,” the manager of a lounge/bar said as they spoke in his office one afternoon, an hour before service would start.

The manager had a fat neck, and reminded Cheddi of the cops in his neighborhood. Cheddi didn’t smile but answered his questions as calmly and intelligibly as possible. He explained that he worked at his uncle’s store too, and at some local delis. The man asked where in Jersey City and Cheddi told him, and he reacted.

“So, you’re on the other side of City Hall…” he said.

“There’s a bus route a few blocks from me,” Cheddi replied.

“How long have you lived there?”

“All my life.”

“Didn’t someone get shot down there?”

“That was a week ago. And it’s not always like that.”

“Hmm. How about this? I’ll call you when ready, okay?”

“I can start whenever you need. Even today.”

“No need. I’ll be in touch.”

And so, they shook hands, and Cheddi moved onto the next one. Usually, the interviews were short, and all the managers looked the same. Cheddi filled his days by following up with more possible places to work in, even those that weren’t hiring at the moment, and swimming and cooking right after. Cheddi learned some more baked goods to try, which he’d keep in the freezer for his mom to have, even though he barely saw her anymore. It didn’t matter, he’d tell himself, all he needed to do was stay calm and be resourceful. Things would change soon enough.

 

. . .

 

It was Monday. It was just him and Krishna. The water was too warm, and none of the bars called him back.

“I bet you can’t even lift a box of Christmas lights!”

“What’s your problem?”

Krishna stared as Cheddi floated and did the same. After neither of them uttered a word, Krishna smirked.

“You’ve been a burden your entire time,” he said.

“I did everything you could,” Cheddi responded, “I carried TVs even.”

Krishna kept smirking, and Cheddi returned to swimming. Just as his lungs were beginning to constrict, Krishna began to yell at him, louder than before. Cheddi moved his legs faster, and faster. Water filled his mouth and he splashed. In the middle of the pool, he pushed himself to find the bar, and did all he could to drag himself onto the floor. Krishna stood over him, but Cheddi couldn’t hear what was being said.

After more interviews, Cheddi returned to the pool at the end of the week, and Krishna wasn’t there. Still, Cheddi did his laps, avoiding the other people alongside him. Each day, he would add another lap, and practice holding his breath for longer periods of time. One morning, after an interview was cancelled, he swam until the afternoon, taking small breaks in between. His skin was wrinkled. His eyes turned red. Mid-way through another lap, his chest tightened, and the air was drained from him. Even though he got out of the pool, his lungs felt like they’d shrunk in size. He massaged his chest, and tumbled onto a bench. Others looked on, as he fumbled for his inhaler.

 

. . .

 

The manager gave him a quick tour of the kitchen, the storage rooms, and of the main dining space.

“People have to place reservations at least a week in advance sometimes,” he said, as they headed down the hallway with pictures of boxers and actors in black and white portraits. “And we get folks from all across the area,” he added, “Bayonne. Short Hills. Hoboken. Even from Princeton.”

Cheddi did his best to show he was interested, asking questions about the type of food they served, the peak hours of service, and about what they were looking for in a future employee.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he told Cheddi once they were in his office, his hands clasped on the desk like he was a high-school principal, “I just don’t know if you’d fit in here, especially with our staff.”

Cheddi wore the same expression as before, asking why not.

The manager explained, cautiously, that their restaurant had a certain attitude that they aspired by.

He thanked Cheddi for coming in and told one of the waitresses to lead him out. Customers watched Cheddi as he walked past their tables. That evening, he bought some ingredients from the bodega, planning for a busy night.

When he entered their apartment, he spotted a figure on the couch, bundled up in sheets. He knew it was his mom, but was surprised to see her. Edging closer, he realized she was asleep, and also, spotted the bags under her eyes.

Cheddi held off on cooking, but there was a knock on the door. He paused. His mom woke up and groaned.

“Is anyone home?” the voice called out, and his mom replied, “You were supposed to come around at 6.”

“It is 6,” the woman behind the door said.

Cheddi was rooted to his spot in the kitchen, as his mom squinted and opened the front door, letting in upto a dozen others, all of whom he vaguely knew. They asked if his mom was feeling sick, and she told them they needed to get to work. They gathered at the dining room table with their sheets of paper, pens, and some with laptops that were chipped on the corners and had broken screens.

“Either, we win or they do,” his mom said, “Always remember that.”

They nodded, and Cheddi, although confused, watched them write and discuss. He cleaned plates in the kitchen, did anything he could to be seen as being part of the background. When he saw some of them yawning, he took out his batch of brownies, and shared them.

“These are amazing!” one of them said as he passed the tray around the table.

Cheddi smiled, and glanced at his mom, who also took a bite and agreed. He went back to the kitchen to make more.

Section III: Chapter 13

Author’s Note: The following was left unedited so that means, what you’ll be reading is a very rough first draft. I will edit the entirety  of the novel in the coming months and will post that too when it’s completed. Enjoy and thank you for the support!

Every few minutes, light flashed from the corner of the room.

“Ma’am, you can’t smile.”

“I’m not…”

“Please, just look into the camera and that’s it.”

“But you keep saying cheese.”

“And stop talking.”

“But—”

“Ma’am, do you want to be here all day?”

“No?”

“Again, refrain from speaking.”

“This is ridiculous…”

“One, two, three, cheese!”

Devika printed more forms, as Indrani continued snapping pictures, as the line finally grew smaller.

“One of them had spinach stuck between their teeth,” Indrani said during their lunch break.

“You didn’t tell them anything, did you?” Devika said, while they ate their salads and sandwiches at their front desks, with a clear view of the main road and the trees that surrounded them.

“Why should I? Their grown ass people, aren’t they? They can spend a second or two checking themselves in the mirror before they drag themselves in.”

“I still think you could’ve hinted. Like point to their teeth without letting others know what’s going on.”

“Maybe next time,” Indrani said, before reacting to her phone vibrating. She slipped it out of her pocket and narrowed her eyebrows after looking at the screen.

Devika slowly chewed. “Is it about the stabbing?” she asked, and Indrani explained it was her cousin texting her about what happened.

“Did you know he stabbed another woman wearing a hijab a week ago too? Apparently, he’s on the loose.”

“He’s always been. It was a year ago when they promised they’d find him.”

“Do you think it has to do with the elections?”

“It’s always been like this. At one point or another.”

“I can’t believe what I’ve seen on TV. Have you seen how big the rallies are? All they do is chant and yell.”

“I try not to think about it. It’s out of our hands.”

“Is Manmeet still with his relatives?”

“Yes. Fortunately, he has another week of spring break, so I’m sure by the time he returns, things will be less tense. By the way, are we still meeting up after next Friday?”

“Radhika won’t be working then and says we should meet her at the Dunkin.”

“That’s where we’ll be grabbing food…?”

Indrani laughed. “That would be super fancy, I know. Instead, we’ll probably meet there, wait for the others, and head over to this Halal meat place around the corner. It’s in this shady strip mall but the food there is amazing! I’m not sure though if enough people will show up…”

“Doesn’t matter. I can literally pick everyone up. We should get bubble tea also.”

“I don’t know any good places to go for that.”

“There’s some in New Brunswick. I can drive all of us there. I haven’t had bubble tea in forever.”

“Cool. I can’t stay out too long. I need to get my car looked at the next morning.”

“Why? What’s wrong with it?”

“The engine keeps making this whirring sound. Like water is trapped but I’ve checked.”

“You’ve been driving around like that…? And why couldn’t you get time before then?”

“No, I’ve been borrowing my sister’s car. And this place was the most affordable and that’s the only appointment they had available. It’s okay though. She takes the bus to Newark anyways.”

Devika suggested a website dedicated to cars and auto parts, which she described as “WebMD for mechanics,” for Indrani to check before going to the garage to avoid getting screwed over. After another hour, Devika let Indrani know she’d be leaving soon, and headed straight to the nearest South Asian supermarket, the sun still above the trees and strip malls.

 

            . . .

 

At the supermarket, Devika grabbed fresh Okra, spinach, turmeric, garlic, lettuce, and carrots. She also found the best looking papaya she’d seen in weeks, according to what Harjeet taught her were the important clues. However, when she approached, another woman bumped into her.

“Excuse me? Could you watch where you’re going?”

“You were the one who ran into me.”

“If you move over, I’ll be out of your way.”

“You almost broke my foot.”

“Are you serious? I barely touched you.”

Other customers pushed their carts between them, causing Devika to drift apart. At Costco, she followed the crowd as they gathered for samples, trying cubes of cheese to cups of fruit punch.

“I don’t work in this section,” one of the workers said to Devika when she asked where she could find a specific brand of pears.

“Who else can I ask?” Devika said, and the man directed her to one of his co-workers stacking apples onto crates.

He too looked perplexed when she asked him about the pears, and called over to another person busy carrying boxes of mangoes.

Finally, Devika moved on and replaced the pears with more apples and peaches, and ate more cheese.

 

. . .

 

Devika paced in the parking lot, with her phone pressed against her ear.

“No,” she repeated, “I can’t do an extra shift next Friday.”

“It’ll be for a few hours, I promise.”

“I can’t. I told you what my schedule is like for the rest of the month at my other job.”

“Fine. I still have to cut hours though.”

“Why..?”

“That’s the nature of the business. Fewer customers mean less funds. It’s simple math.”

“But we need new cash registers. And even new mops.”

“Let me handle that. Now, this is your last chance. I’m letting you know that opportunities like this will be scarce.”

Devika stuck to her answer and went to a nearby gas station, where she filled up her car and bought some string cheese from inside their store. While driving on the main road, she felt dizzy, and her skin cold. At the red light, she vomited. She wiped off whatever she could from with napkins and made it to a Target, where she rushed in and bought the first nice shirt she saw. She changed in the car, and sprayed the seats with air freshener. But the stench was strong and she remained nauseous.

She closed her eyes and stayed absolutely still. In her head, all she wanted was a few minutes of rest. Cars honked, and a man was yelling somewhere in the near distance. Sunlight begun to fade.

            . . .

 

Perched on a hill, their temple overlooked the main intersection and the Wawa across the street.

Devika carried the groceries into the main kitchen, her head aching and her lips dry. Auntie Kaur, who was one of the oldest members and in charge of the weekend’s langar, told Devika she needed help in also cooking.

Devika sighed, and followed the steps in preparing the rice, bread, and vegetable dishes, while Auntie Kaur made the curry and sweets, ladling them in cauldrons.

Noise from the cars outside sometimes seeped into the walls, but Auntie Kaur stayed hunched over her pots, and Devika tried to do the same, although she continued to mutter under her breath.

The sun hid behind the clouds, and the lampposts in the parking lot were on. Another woman, who Auntie Kaur introduced as someone who had just moved into the area, joined them.

As they shook hands, Devika realized it was the same woman from the supermarket. The woman arched an eyebrow as well, even as Auntie Kaur directed her to the next table and showed her where all the knives and pans were. Devika cut the lettuce while the new member peeled the beans.

 

            . . .

 

Devika wasn’t a fan of nature, despite being a suburbanite all her life. She was reminded of this as trees loomed on either side of the road. Attracted to tall buildings and architecture, she planned to live somewhere like Queens or Jersey City after Manmeet graduated college and found a job, and when Harjeet was ready too. Devika believed they would be so long as she explained how important it all was, to think more clearly about what makes them happy.

After a quick shower and a snack, Devika still smelled something pungent. This time, it was from the garbage in their kitchen. Fish skin and broken egg shells swelled to the top. Devika groaned and tied it up and went to the front door, where she paused. She could see the silhouette of the garbage can at the end of their driveway. Images of what occurred emerged. Devika thought of keeping the bag and throwing it out in the morning. But, the stench was too strong, and Devika kept her phone in her other hand as she raced and dropped the bag inside, and by slamming the door behind her.

Devika saw shadows of what she knew were of more trees and cars flow across the bedroom walls. The images sunk in. But she also remembered she’d meet her friends next Friday and knew it was best to settle down and focus on the moonlight shining through the window.

Harjeet arrived when Devika was already in bed. He too changed and slid next to her, and whispered, “Are you awake?”

“Yep. How was work?”

“We lost another contract. But don’t worry, we’ll get more.”

“Did you ask for your bonus?”

“Now’s not the time.”

“It’s been more than a year.”

“Have you called Naima and Subhash?”

“I left them another message.”

“Are they still not talking to one another?”

“I don’t know. Last time I spoke with her, I told her she shouldn’t be doing anything too dangerous.”

“By the way, we need to see my brother next week.”

“When?”

“Saturday.”

“When? In the morning?”

“Yes.”

“But it’s a four hour drive.”

“That’s why we need to head out Friday evening.”

“No.”

“We need to see him. Otherwise, he’ll feel even more excluded.”

“No. I told you already. And that’s it.”

“You’re being unreasonable.”

Devika crossed her eyes and turned onto her side, facing the blinds. She focused on the slivers of moonlight peering between.