Suraya studied Jones as he cut his medium rare steak into halves, wondering all the while if she would go on a second date with him. She glanced at the pink layer of meat, indicating perfection, on his plate. Saliva built at the back of her throat, and she couldn’t decide if it was due to the meat or because she hadn’t had sex in a while. As Jones’ fork penetrated a lettuce leaf and rectangular piece of meat, Suraya was overwhelmed with a desire to touch his face. To feel his rough, fire beard and his jaw’s movement as he chewed the meat’s toughness. Suraya, herself, ordered broiled salmon. She’d achieved a liking for seafood ten years earlier aboard a ship, on a program called Seafaring Students, during college. She didn’t like reminders of that voyage, of Rick, but her seafood craving was incessant, the rich-buttery flavor and enticing coral meat reminiscent. When the waiter brought their menus, she’d ordered the fish right away. Now, she wanted what Jones had. Or was it she wanted Jones? Suraya had no idea this question would plague her for decades to come.
Jones informed Suraya that he enjoyed the lettuce’s watery texture and how it made meat slide down his throat in a delicate manner. She found it an odd explanation, and wondered what other quirks this fire bearded man possessed. She thought such a man would tear meat with his bare hands and shove jagged pieces of it into his mouth. This contradiction between grace and unshaven face, hinted a symbiotic balance of ruggedness and sophistication Suraya found intriguing.
“Do you ever go back to India?” Jones asked finishing his bite. Suraya noted he didn’t stop to wipe his face with the restaurant’s bleached white napkins between bites and inferred this action to mean he felt a comfort with her. She decided to be truthful.
“Used to.” She was not surprise he popped the “India question.” With her pistachio shell skin and onyx, shoulder-length hair, it was an obvious question, one that people upon meeting her always asked, to suss out the making of her physical features. Suraya’s answer to the India question generally depended on her mood. She either leaned in close to the person asking the question, widening her kajool lined eyes so their charcoal color would be their most alluring. Or stared blankly, replied “yes,” and found herself in an incredible hurry to be elsewhere. The question she’d learned was subtext – a way for others to connect with her – it made sense then that she pursue a Doctorate degree in Communication. “I specialize in the influence of media subtext in U.S. politics and culture,” – that what she’d told Jones earlier in the evening.
“Not anymore?” Jones said, his furrowed eyebrows suggesting a genuine interest in their conversation and not just an impressive ploy to bed her, which Suraya wouldn’t have minded either.
“Not in over ten years.”
“Not into it.”
“Not into Bollywood?”
“You know Bollywood?” Suraya said, curiosity in her voice something she knew Jones heard.
“My sisters love it. They want to go to a Bollywood wedding so bad.”
“Bollywood’s ridiculous.” If things between them were to progress, Jones needed to know she didn’t tolerate the film industry. “Their movies are full of ridiculous storylines and inconsistencies.” As Suraya said this, the image of an Indian actor appeared before her. His face blurry, so she couldn’t recall his name, not that she really remembered the names of desi actors anymore. She could make out the actor’s brown skin and heard him say, “Far out, man.” Suraya huffed at the out-of-style phrase. The actor was obviously a comic relief character, his skin too dark, and his face too full of pudding lumps to be considered the hero, the one who got the girl in the end.
“My parents love Hindi films,” Suraya said refocusing on Jones. “It’s surreal. They’ve been away from India for decades, but still keep up with the stuff.” Suraya took a bite of her fish, already half eaten, and chewed slowly to collect her thoughts. After the rich juices dissipated down her throat, she raised her eyes to Jones’ face. His eyes, the color of straw with a hint of green, looked alive and his thick eyebrows, surprisingly a fawn Labrador color, were rounded in an absorbed manner. Suraya felt a flutter of hope.
“My parents dragged me to the Indian store every time they needed rice or okra. They’d check in with the store owner, this Punjabi guy with a teal turban, to see if a new Hindi film arrived. I’d hear the store owner say Bunty Aur Babli is hilarious or Salam Namaste is a sweet movie.” It was a long time ago, but as Suraya told Jones her story, a thin, bony girl with two plaits down her back pulled her back in time, to that store. She could hear her father’s husky voice speaking Hindi, arguing with the store owner over which actress was the best, the humble Madhubala or Mumtaz, an Indian actress whose parents were actually Iranian.
Suraya stopped speaking. Bollywood was cunning, she thought. Trying to take her hostage and lull her back into a superficial, undependable world. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t speak of Bollywood and hadn’t since her shipboard affair with Rick. She was surprised at the ease she felt with Jones. “I overdosed on Bollywood,” she told him, thinking of the heart that appeared next to Rick’s changed relationship status. Engaged, Facebook announced just a few days ago.
Jones laughed, his beard stretching in the widening of his grin, one Suraya was sure he reserved for lovers. Suraya threw her head back and laughed as well, hoping to conceal the droplet of pain that crept into her voice. “Every time a cheesy fight scene came on or some character tried crying, I wanted to scream at the TV and tell them they sucked!”
“Suri.” Jones called her, a nickname he’d given her over dinner. She liked it. “I agree. You’ve done your time with Bollywood. How about an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on our next date?”
Suraya chuckled, wiping food from her mouth, relieved at the change of topic. She said, “I’d like that.” Then excused herself to visit the restroom. As she walked, she opened her clutch to pull out a black tube. She needed to reapply her sunset fuchsia colored lipstick.
Jones was away and Suraya found herself unsure what to do until lethargy enshrouded her and she could fall into bed. She was correct in her assumption four years ago that her fiancé exuded ruggedness, despite his graceful eating habits. He owned a construction firm, and was at a financial management workshop. As evening approached, alone in the house Jones and she moved into six months earlier, built by his firm, Suraya heard the phone ring and went to retrieve it.
“Did you get it?” a woman’s voice urgently asked her.
“Well, hello there, Freya.”
“Hi, did you get it? Freya asked again.
Get what?” Suraya asked, feeling both irritated Jones wasn’t on the other end and excited to speak to her longtime friend.
“You didn’t get it then,” said Freya, chagrin traveling across the cellular network. Ever since they’d met ten years earlier, Freya sought to surprise Suraya. “You’ll get it soon.”
“No hint?” Suraya asked. She heard a child mumble in the background and her friend’s sudden motherly tone told Suraya their phone call would end prematurely.
“Think of the package as a belated engagement present displaying my craft,” Freya said. Something photo related, Suraya thought. Freya was a master scrapebooker, a hobby the two of them bonded over while roommates on Seafaring Students. Before Suraya could confirm the package’s contents, Freya said, “Ahh, gotta go, someone’s painting our tile floor red!”
Suraya had yet to meet Freya’s daughter. She hadn’t seen her friend in five years, since Freya’s wedding, but she was relieved not to be the one cleaning the four year old’s mess. Not that she didn’t want children. Children were permanent, a product of love, and Suraya wasn’t sure. She was having a difficult enough time deciding wedding details. Having to decide on children would cause an unnecessary fight with Jones. She was sure she happy with him. Wasn’t happiness contextual?
She was glad Freya was far away, and not making Suraya confess her hesitancies. Freya always said, “The soul needs confessing.” On the ship, she’d follow Suraya around obsessively, making Suraya give video testimonials about ship life, like MTV’s Real World. Suraya wondered what happened to those videos. She resolved to ask Freya next time they spoke.
Suraya, inspired by Freya’s call, decided to indulge in her old hobby. She’d been scrapbooking since her youthful days in size five, yellow dancing shoes. She enjoyed rummaging through old photos, finding scrapes of paper, and feeling the texture of dried glue as she attached picture to construction paper. Scrapbooking allowed her to make sense of life. She could pick from an array of objects, place them in an arrangement of her liking, and make a relic to reveal she lived a life worthy of record.
Suraya poured herself a glass of red wine and collected her materials from an antique chest belonging once to her parents. They chest, meant as a housewarming present, was solid teak with good patina, brought from Gujrat, India to be passed down the generations. Suraya and Jones’s children were to receive it years from now. Suraya momentarily convulsed at the thought.
She dug through the chest’s contents and found photos of Jones and her on their one-year anniversary. They’d rented a cabin in Tahoe and when they weren’t on the mountain slopes, they were in the hot tub. She combed the pictures, casting a steady gaze on one of them holding champagne glasses, with arms interlocked like twine and a fireplace roaring behind them. They hadn’t taken a trip like that in three years, not since Suraya started her thesis, and Rick’s client load had doubled. Suraya placed that photo aside, wanting a frame to hang it on the living room wall, which still remained bare. Jones was busy visiting construction sites all over California. His firm had a reputation for success. Jones attended to his client’s every need, and always completed projects ahead of schedule. His fortitude is what drew Suraya to him. She liked breathing the silica dust air his stability promised and did not mind the naked walls, she told herself.
Suraya removed the next envelope from the chest. On the flap, written in handwriting she recognized as Freya’s read, pics from the sea. She folded the flap back and staring at her was a ten-year-old photo of a lanky, young woman in a red bikini and pasta colored skin. Suraya was sure Freya would pout, seeing how thin she was back then, before the pregnancy, and the onset of her adult, married life. Suraya herself, wore a black bikini, and her face was rounder than the face she’d seen in the mirror this morning after her age-defying face wash. The two girls, lounging poolside held ice-cream cones with chocolate swirls of yogurt. They were so young.
Suraya’s jaw tighten at the sight of the following picture. Rick was in the photo. It startled her, seeing him standing there, content on his face. She had grown use to keeping his memory in the background, like a forgotten whisper. Freya helped, never mentioning his name on their phone calls. The picture was evidence of a time when they spoke every day. Rick and Suraya had done no such thing in four years, not since his engagement. She hadn’t seen him in ten years, not since the voyage’s end.
In the photo, Rick and she stood at the ship’s bow while the sun, mimicking her favorite lipstick, sunset fuchsia, set in a crimson red background. She’d worn the lipstick the first time she met Rick. The color made her mouth appear fuller, plumper, and more desirable. That night she’d been eager for Rick to bite her.
She wore a knee-length, black cocktail dress and he wore a light gray evening suit, the first few buttons of his shirt undone. In the present, Suraya’s grip made the photo’s edges crinkle upwards. Her breathing grew labored, and she coughed letting out the congestion that built inside her. She remembered this physical sensation, she felt it the first time Rick kissed her.
She’d been happy, the idea popped in her head unsuspectingly, like a pick pocket you never expected. Suraya stood, leaving the scrapbooking materials to the ground, taking her wine and photo of Rick with her. She found herself in front of the computer in Jones’s study. Thoughts she’d avoided for years flew like a spinning top.
“Can I sit here?” Rick asked all those years ago. A code blue was announced over the intercom. Captain Laskaris was dead. Suraya imagined him under a white sheet, growing bluer, with each passing inhale and exhale she took.
“Yes,” she replied.
The union, a small auditorium on the ship seating two hundred emptied out. Suraya glanced at the remaining students, saw heads leaning on shoulders, and heard sniffs as a tissue box was passed around for dripping noses. She felt out of place.
“How you feeling?” Rick asked.
“Never experienced death before.” She leaned towards Rick, who sat in a cushioned, oval-shaped, chair facing her, and whispered, “I should be sadder. I’m not.” She felt guilty for lacking the feeling to mourn.
“I know what you mean. First for me too,” he said, cupping his hand as he whispered in Suraya’s ear. Suraya felt a tingle, the thin hairs on her arms sticking up as his hand brushed her ear. If Rick noticed her shiver, he hid it well.
“It must be difficult,” Rick said leaning back in his chair. “Dying with no family around. Must’ve been a grandpa.” Suraya noted Rick’s faraway look. His eyes, an aqua matching the waters flowing underneath them, were cloudy. She wondered what Rick’s family was like and if he was thinking of his own grandpa. Suraya knew nothing of this man except he was from Louisiana.
“That thought never crossed my mind,” she told him. “Such a Bollywood movie.” The minute she uttered those words, she wished she hadn’t.
“Bollywood?” Rick asked.
“I can’t believe I said that,” Suraya’s cheeks burned.
Rick looked at her. “You got my interest.”
Suraya studied Rick. He was so very different from her. Tall, sturdy, with a body that made her think of Roman Gods, chiseled, marble statues they’d seen in Italy. She likened Rick to Mars, the God of War, and stared at him, imagining his naked body. Rick also had thin, shaggy, blonde hair that besides revealing his receding hairline, contrasted Suraya’s dark hair, and revealed his European ancestry. Finally, he spoke with a southern drawl Suraya was not used to hearing in her part of the United States. Later, he would tell her his accent made him feel uncomfortable outside the South. People thought the long drawn out vowels reflected a poor education on his part. Suraya found it sexy and the accent made her want to tell him everything.
“It’s a melodrama. Captain Laskaris dying at sea,” Suraya said. “His loved ones back home in Greece.” Suraya imagined the Captain’s wife, a woman in her seventies, slightly hunched, wearing one of those old lady dresses with a lacy collar. She wore a red shawl over her shoulders because she’d reached the age where a heavy chill penetrated her bones, one hidden from the young. As she described this image to Rick, Suraya couldn’t help but feel nervous, shy, under his gaze. He did not blink. Suraya interlocked her fidgeting fingers. She said, “His wife’s world is about to be shattered, but in this moment, she is far enough away, and technology hasn’t reached her to know of his death. By living in ignorance, she still believes her best friend will return and embrace her. A perfect Bollywood tragedy,” Suraya finished. Bollywood was a nucleotide in her double helix strand, seeped in her skin, and strengthened by the sweet buttery milk flavors of chas consumed each summer on visits to India as a child.
In the present, in her life with Jones, Suraya thought Bollywood was a recessive gene needing quarantine. Back then, she’d told Rick she wanted to choose love, like the hero and heroine of Kuch Kuch Hootai Hai, a love story of two childhood friends reunited after years apart.
Suraya stopped speaking. She hadn’t meant to word vomit and was afraid Rick would scare off.
“You’re not who or what I expected you to be, Suraya.” Rick said.
“You’re making me blush.” She flicked her hair in front of her face to hide the magenta hues brightening her cheeks. “Don’t worry, I know Bollywood’s ridiculous. No one can even kiss on the mouth. The Indian Censorship Board finds it inappropriate,” she explained.
Suraya thought about the irony of scenes in which the hero and heroine are caught in a downpour, how their naked skin pressed against drenched clothes, were okay by this censorship board. Rick’s bare body popped in her mind. She wondered how his lightly toasted skin would look tangled with her much darker toast skin. “You can taste the sexual tension in those scenes.” Suraya said.
“Close your eyes,” he said. Suraya, caught off guard by his request, found herself obeying. She felt Rick’s breath on her neck and something wet against her lips. Her lips parted, welcoming his mouth. Rick slowly pulled away. Suraya felt her heart skip the way Bollywood informed her it should. She wondered if she should feel violated, pretend to be put off by his audacity to kiss her.
“I’m hoping your Indian Censorship Board won’t mind I stole that kiss,” Rick said.
Suraya saw his mouth covered in lipstick smudges. Delight warmed her.
“I think they might,” she said, wiping color off his mouth. “But I won’t tell.”
The memory of that kiss remained with Suraya as she returned to the reality of an empty house. She typed “Rick Walsh” into a search engine, striking each key gently, not wanting harsh keystrokes to disturb her concentration. She scanned the search results, looking for “Louisiana” or “Veterinarian.” She’d done this before. Only when she was alone. She found his bio on the Nola Veterinary Hospital website:
Dr. Walsh is Co-Owner of Nola Veterinary Hospital. As a young child, Rick helped stray kittens and dogs, eventually turning his home into a small shelter and treating their wounds. Seeing animals that were not able to receive the medical attention they needed motivated Dr. Walsh to become a veterinarian. He earned his Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from LSU Veterinary School of Medicine. He is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Associations. Dr. Walsh has a black Lab named Onyx. In his spare time, he enjoys triathlons and tailgating with friends at LSU games.
Beside the bio was a picture of an older version of the Rick in her crumpled photo. She tried to straighten the crumpled photo out, flattening it with the underside of her palm. The creases in the photo now matched young Rick’s face to older Rick’s wrinkled face. This Rick wore a white lab coat and held a black lab puppy. His jawline appeared fatter, not unattractive, but not the chin of Mars, beach sand scruff covered this chin. Suraya found herself becoming aroused with desire.
The night Rick and she slipped out to the ship’s stern, accompanied by only stars in a deep black sky, came to her mind. He told her to shut her eyes. She did willingly. She was always willing with him. They began a slow dance, the ocean sounding like wind sweeping through reeds, encouraging them to move. She opened her eyes and saw his blue eyes staring back at her. She stood on her tippy toes to let their lips meet. She longed to go to his cabin to explore more, but Rick wouldn’t allow it that last night on the ship. Suraya knew it was because of the girlfriend, but she said nothing. The two of them stayed that way for a while, both feeling the desire, but not falling prey to their body’s murmurs.
Suraya rose from the computer, her head felt woozy from alcohol streaming through her veins and thoughts of that night. She took her cell phone, the half empty wine bottle and the crumpled photo of Rick with her and climbed the stairs to her bedroom. She laid on her bed, the side away from Jones’ recess into the mattress, and placed the phone by her ear.
“Hello? She’d called the last number she had for Rick. Unable to hear a southern twang, she wasn’t sure if it was him on the phone. “Heelloo? Damn, is that you Big Ale?” Suraya hung up. She still wasn’t sure, but the voice, distinct enough from a Californian, made her believe it could have belonged to Rick. It was all she wanted, a sound, a present relic to take her to the ship. She felt a tingling and her hand slipped under the hem of her underwear to increase the sensation. She shut her eyes and imagined Rick touching her in those spots and her fingers drilled harder and faster. She opened her eyes and glanced around the room to ensure the windows were shut. Her body convulsed and she screamed Rick’s name.
Suraya tried to leave the house in a hurry. Jones had returned and she was not prepared for another quarrel over wedding details.
“It’s been a year since I proposed, Suri,” Jones said in a resigned manner. “This is our wedding. Pick something, please.”
“I’m late. I’m meeting a wedding coordinator,” said Suraya.
“Wedding Coordinator? You made a decision?” Jones said surprised. Suraya booked the appointment while he was away. She’d hoped to pacify his concern she wasn’t interested in planning their wedding. She was. She just didn’t mind if he made all the decisions. It mattered more to him the flowers match the table settings. Suraya decided a wedding coordinator, who could make all the decisions, would quell those arguments. This reason was the one she could tell Rick. The other reason, that one she hid from him, was Suraya needed to assuage her guilt.
“I have to go,” Suraya said again. As she passed Jones, he reached for her arm, in response Suraya turned and faced him. On happier occasions, Suraya saw herself reflected in Jones’s irises. She found no reflection now. They were solid, a dirty straw color that emitted no warmth.
“I love you, Suri,” Jones said, anger in his voice dissipating, replaced by a softer, defeated tone. “Cake or cupcakes?”
Suraya shrugged, averting her gaze. She felt uncomfortable with the darkness in his eyes, as if it was shadowing Jones’ feelings for her. She hated other people’s confusion. She recognized her hypocrisy. She pecked him on the cheek. “I’m heading to the appointment.” Jones released his hold on Suraya, and she went out the front door, not turning to wave goodbye.
Suraya stood on the platform waiting for the BART train. A strange humidity overtook the city, and the lack of wind stifled her, causing her to feel lethargic and dizzy. She leaned against the cement wall dividing outbound and inbound trains, and plucked her cell phone from her purse. The message, marked read, still sat in her e-mail inbox.
It’s been some time. Send me your phone number.
Suraya wiped sweat off the base of her neck. She’d received Rick’s e-mail that morning and the ironic timing of the message had not escaped her notice. Jones was showering and she still waking up. Out of habit, she’d grabbed her phone from the nightstand to turn the alarm off. On the phone’s screen, she saw one new e-mail. From him. She’d felt hot, delusional, too many blankets covered her and she pushed them away with her feet. She had blocked her number when she called Rick. Or, she believed she had. She leapt out of bed and ran into the shower to be with Jones, feeling remorse for desiring Rick, and thinking the Gods or Fates she’d learned about in Italy, must have conjured this melodrama to spice up their boring, eternal lives.
The e-mail incident, unbeknownst to Jones, spurred their fight this morning. Suraya tucked the phone into her purse. She hated herself for thinking of Rick while Jones’s aroused manhood hardened against her back in the shower stall. Suraya was glad the steam’s hazy gray made it difficult for him to see her contorted face. She’d wished the water could injure her skin. She tried twisting the showerhead to a harder pressure setting, but the water stream hit Jones directly in the eye and Suraya changed it back. She hated herself for thinking of Rick even now, when in fifteen minutes time, the Bart train would have her arriving at a store filled with assortments of white lace, signature napkins, and samples of his and her parting gifts for a happy couple’s wedding guests.
“Tell me,” the wedding coordinator, a woman named Nancy, with skunk striped hair said after Suraya entered her office. “When’s the big day?”
Suraya immediately thought of Cruella Deville, the cartoon character did nothing to tranquilize her. “We’re working that out.” Suraya said. She felt a surge of condescension from Nancy, as if Nancy knew Suraya was wasting her time, and already spurning her.
“What colors will you wear for your wedding?” Nancy asked.
“White, I suppose,” Suraya said.
“But, you’re Indian,” Nancy said as if a question. Her eyebrows, thin, pencil drawn were black and one raised above the other in a scowling look.
“I am,” said Suraya. She was losing interest with the woman, and felt fidgety, scraping the cuticles from her nails, and crossing and uncrossing her legs.
“Forgive me, I assumed you’d want reds and golds. My Indian friend. I didn’t plan her wedding. Her dresses were absolutely gorgeous!” Nancy continued.
Suraya stared at her like an unsmiling porcelain doll. She felt hives creeping up her back and swatted the nape of her neck.
“I have a doctor’s appointment,” she said, jumping up.
“Oh,” Nancy said, straining the word in the way a salesman might watching his commission walk away.
“When shall we reschedule for?” Nancy hurriedly put on her red framed glasses, they hung from a string tied around her elongated neck. Suraya thought she was an untrusting skunk. Nancy opened her day planner. Suraya heard the whoosh accompanying Nancy’s rapid turning of pages.
From where Suraya stood, Nancy’s handwriting was upside down. Names and phone numbers were listed in white square boxes, each representing a single date. She wondered how those couples were so certain that September 10th or January 15th was the perfect wedding date. Had they checked the Farmer’s Almanac? Inquired fortunetellers? How had they decided to celebrate this one date year after year? Suraya felt light-headed, the colors in Nancy’s office began to swirl in an opaque kaleidoscope of greens, yellows, and blues. “I’ll call you,” Suraya shouted, as she headed out the door.
Once around the corner, in an alley, away from Forever’s Eternity, a store name she found too cliché to joke about, Suraya leaned against the walls of one of the brick buildings towering over her on three sides. The surface was hard on her back and the cool temperature of the brick made her shiver despite the stifling heat. On the wall opposite, the initials R.B. + J.B., were graffitied in glossy red spray paint. The letters looked hazy, and she wondered if the heart with cupid’s piercing arrow was a heat induced mirage. Nausea overtook her and she peeled over, squatting on the ground. Her underwear, moist, attached itself to her bottom. She yanked her phone out. Rick’s message appeared.
It’s been some time. Send me your phone number.
Suraya hated admitting it. She’d denied it when it happened. The moment Jones proposed, Rick’s face blurred her vision. Only for an instant, but the effect was visceral, primitive. She convinced herself the ache in her chest was acid indigestion, after all, the health concern ran in her family. Suraya’s thumb hovered over the delete button. She hit reply instead and wrote:
Wow. Rick. It’s been a long time. How are you?
Suraya read over her response and trashed the draft. She remembered Rick’s girlfriend, now wife, and the first time she saw them together. Freya and she ran to the ship’s deck the morning they arrived in the Bay of Biscay in Santorini, Spain. As Freya and she grasped the handle of a heavy painted steel door leading to the deck, they were met with an uninspiring view. The dock looked industrial, with big red factory buildings and steel chimneys. Suraya felt the nausea that seemed to come and go in her interactions with Rick. A few nights after news of Captain Laskaris’ death, Rick let her know his girlfriend was waiting for him in Spain. The knowledge made Suraya feel filthy as a chimney sweep covered in soot.
“There they are,” Freya said, leaning precariously over the deck’s railing. She pointed to a group huddled together. Suraya felt her airway constrict. The girl’s long hair reached her mid-back and her bronzed skin glittered in the day’s light. Rick, leaned in close, had his arms wrapped protectively around the girl’s waist. Suraya imagined flares sparking as Rick held the girl. Suraya lowered her gaze. Soon, she’d become a distant memory to Rick. A fling to reminisce about over a beer with his buddy. Rick called her a fantasy when he confessed about his girlfriend. Suraya called him a “dick.” He replied, “You’re not my reality.” Suraya’s tears fell, joining the ocean floor that had been her foundation during those months.
Suraya opened Rick’s e-mail once more and positioned her thumb over the delete button, only to remove it. She repeated these gestures for more than an hour, irrespective of the delirium the sun’s heat brought.
After the voyage was over, Rick wrote. He said things like, “I miss you” and “You have a smile that lights up the room.” He remained with his girlfriend. His relationship status never saying single on Facebook. Sometimes months passed between letters, now it had been four years, but when he wrote, she couldn’t help replying. It’s not that she lacked self-control. When Suraya was nine, she fasted the entire month of Ramadan. The religion, she’d long since given up, yet, today she wished to access the dedication she’d used to starve herself of Rick.
Suraya’s legs cramped from sitting. She welcomed the pain, surrendering to it, and yelled indistinguishably to the horrid, muggy air. She looked to her side and found a soda can lying in the gutter. She reached for it from her crouched position and flung it against cupid’s heart. The can was empty and she felt disappointed that soda hadn’t bled the red paint.
She stood to make her final gesture. She tapped the delete button and watched the digital envelope fly inside the trash icon. Suraya breathed in relief, the arm clutching her phone going limp alongside her body. She then heard a beep and pulled the phone to her nose. Condensation had built on the screen and she wiped it off. She saw the e-mail from Rick, a mistake, she thought, and clicked the e-mail to delete it a second time. The message revealed itself. Suraya dropped her phone.
“Suraya, I’m divorced. Let’s talk.”
The phone lay unbroken with the screen side up. She half-wished it had cracked, that Rick’s message wasn’t lit up, staring at her from the ground. She picked it up, scowling at the inanimate object, and typed, “553-555-3842” into the phone. If his number had remained the same, Rick would soon know she had called him the other night. She watched the digital envelope fly into the ether.
Suraya wandered in a daze the rest of that morning and into the afternoon. She continuingly checked her phone, turning the silent mode on and off. She was unsure if she wanted to hear the phone ring when Rick called or if she would rather it go to voicemail. She turned the corner. Somehow, she’d found her way to the Indian grocery store, Gulub Jammon, the name of Suraya’s favorite rice-ball dessert as a child. The temperature had cooled off some since her jaunt with the graffiti tagged wall, but still her clothes weren’t liberated from sweat until after she walked through the store’s front doors and felt the air condition on full blast. As she cooled, she wandered up and down the aisles, reading the lentil’s names lining the wall – masoor daals, mung beans, toor daals. She hadn’t stepped inside an Indian store in years.
She passed by a glass counter containing sweets she once feverishly craved – rice balls covered in tooth aching syrup and diamond shaped dough covered in vark, an edible tin foil. The shelves behind this counter contained DVDs of Indian films, and her lips moved in silence as she read the Hindi titles written phonetically in English.
“Hello, Miss. Can I help you?” said an Indian man in an accent she knew well and familiarity engulfed her.
“I was browsing,” she shrugged.
“You want to see a film?” he asked, emphasizing the ‘L’ in film to sound more like “flim.” He walked behind the counter in step with Suraya as she floated down the aisle gazing at the titles. “There are some very nice ones out now.”
“Do you have Kuch Kuch Hotai Hai?”
“Oh yes, classic flim! That Anjali, beautiful no?” he nodded in a suggestive manner, Suraya chortled, the nod was meant as more of a statement than a question, but to the untrained eye in would be hard to decipher, another gesture Suraya knew from her desi upbringing. The shopkeeper searched for the film. “Yes, here it is. Do you want to buy? I give you good deal.”
Suraya caressed the smooth, bendable, DVD cover. Shahrukh Khan’s and Kajol’s backs were leaned against one another. Their faces were forward and pleading with Suraya to take the DVD home. Kajol wore an orange, bridal sari, her gold jewelry anchoring her to the ground, a golden tikka hanging down her forehead from the part revealing her smooth hairline. Shahrukh Khan had his usual smirk, and wore a light tan, sports jacket. The print quality on the cover suggested to Suraya the DVD was pirated, and the recognition of this illegal activity made the actors on the cover more urgent in their pleading for Suraya to take the DVD home. She handed over a twenty dollar bill.
When Suraya was a child, she pranced around the living room, flaying her arms about, and shaking her hips to the tambla beat she heard on the movie’s soundtrack. The mixed tape was a present from her cousin, so that Suraya would remember her monsoon summers. Suraya thought the cassette of Kuch Kuch Hotai Hai songs was the best present anyone could give her. She’d hugged that cassette to her chest so hard that later a reddish imprint on her bare skin was found underneath the spot. An adult Suraya clung the DVD to the same spot on her chest and hurried to catch the next Bart train.
Suraya arrived home moments before the pale orange sunset disappeared. Jones was asleep on the living room couch. She wondered, if it could have even been possible to NOT fall in love with him. Such a goofy man, who after learning as a child, she adored 3-D puzzles, bought her the Empire State 3-D puzzle and assembled it with her. The structure rested at the far side of their fireplace.
Suraya kissed Jones on the forehead. She caressed his cheek, wanting to feel the red scruff that had grown over night, a gesture she associated with comfort.
“Mmmm. You’re back,” Jones said as he woke, stretching.
“Yes, I am.”
“Good. What’s that in your hand?”
“Watch a movie with me? It’ll make me seem really Indian.”
“Huh?” Jones replied with confusion that could be ascribed to either Suraya’s remarks or his having woken up. She saw him as a helpless child seeking answers.
“Bollywood,” she said, holding the DVD cover in front of his face. Jones squinted to make out the title with his scrunched, barely awake eyes.
“Suri, I thought you hated Bollywood.”
“I thought I’d give it one more try.” She wanted to add that her life depended on it. Their relationships depended on it.
Suraya placed the movie in the DVD player and lay next to Jones, curling inside him on their couch. Soon, Suraya heard Jones’ snoring. He’d fallen asleep before the first musical number. She couldn’t help wondering if Rick would have fallen asleep. Suraya tighten the grasp of Jones’s arm around her, needing to feel the pressure, and returned to the movie. The storyline hadn’t changed. Not that she expected it to.
Suraya heard her cell phone ring. She gazed in the phone’s direction. It was inside her purse, hanging off a dining chair. On the table, Suraya noticed for the first time was a cardboard box, wrapped it hemp string. Suraya listened to the phone ring melodically over and over, in a never-ending pattern. She was trapped under Jones’s arms and his body weight pressed her down. She did not want to wake him. Suraya let a tear fall onto Jones’s maroon shirt, dampening the cloth below her cheek. Soon, she let herself doze off in the arms of her fiancé as the movie still played, the aspirated consonants of Hindi continuing to be spoken. Anjali with her short hair tucked behind her earlobes, waved goodbye to Rahul and Tina, the woman her beloved Rahul had chosen instead of her. The bright white of the shalwar kameeze Anjali wore illuminating the scene. The absence of color to her Indian outfit signifying Anjali’s mourning, half of the hundred and seventy-seven minutes in the film still to go.
Suraya would think of that moment often, but not until her hearing was mostly gone and she sat day in and day out on a bed someone else made up for her that morning and every morning afterwards, would she take a look out the window and see Bollywood in the sunset’s shades of crimson, a sunset that never set, leaving twilight hues to light up the sky. Suraya would then glimpse a moment of clarity. She’d chosen the calm of the night sky over the sunset’s blinding light.
Mariya Taher is currently pursuing an MFA degree in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She received her master’s in Social Work from San Francisco State University and her B.A. from the University of California Santa Barbara, where she majored in Religious Studies and double-minored in Global, Peace, and Security & Socio-cultural Linguistics. Prior to attending Lesley University, she worked in the gender violence field for 7 years, working at W.O.M.A.N., Inc., The Women’s Foundation of California, and San Francisco State University. She aims to combine her passion for social justice with her passion for writing to bring about change by sharing stories of challenges faced by vulnerable and marginalized communities.
She has contributed articles to Solstice Literary Magazine, Trainless Magazine, Global Voices, The Express Tribune, The San Francisco Examiner, BayWoof, and a piece on Female Genital Cutting that was shared on Imagining Equality Project put together by the Global Fund for Women and the International Museum of Women. Her first short story was published in 2013 in University of La Verne’s literary journal Prism Review. She received the 2014 Graduate School of Arts & Social Sciences Dean’s Merit Scholarship from Lesley University. This award is given to a person with a strong academic background, demonstrating leadership skills, and a commitment to the field of education, the arts, social services, the environment or counseling.
Whitney George is a composer and conductor who specializes in the use of mixed media to blur the distinctions between concert performance, installation art, and theater. Utilizing a wide variety of material including literary texts, silent film, stock footage, and visual arts, George’s compositions are characterized by an immersive theatricality that thrives on collaboration in all phases of the creative process. Her affinity for the macabre, the fantastic, and the bizarre frequently gives rise to musical programs that evoke the traditions of phantasmagoria and melodrama, challenging musicians to experiment liberally with their stage personae, and audiences to widen the scope of their attention.
George holds an undergraduate degree from the California Institute of the Arts and a master’s degree from the Brooklyn College Conservatory, and is currently pursuing her PhD in composition at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she has studied with David Del Tredici, David Olan, Bruce Saylor, and Tania Leon. For more information, visit whitneygeorge.com.