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?”
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.”
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.