Short Story: Looking In by Madhurima Chakraborty


Mississippi-River-landscape

 

It’s your freshman year in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, when you live with two other Indians in a one-bedroom apartment. A girl from Bombay, Radhika, and you share the bedroom while her boyfriend Rahul sleeps on the futon in the living room. He wakes up early every morning, folds the sheets away in the particleboard chest of drawers in the living room, pushes the futon upright, and smoothes out its cushions before either you or the girl are up. In the first few weeks that you live with them, before you know to stay in bed until after Radhika has taken a shower and breakfasted with him, you learn that Rahul will read quietly while waiting for her to get up. During those initial mornings, he smiles at you as you enter the living room, and hurries back to his book, and you try to be as quiet as possible as you take your cereal bowl out of the cupboard. The uneasy silence always lasts until she wakes up and joins you.

They say little to each other, lacking the coy banter you have heard between your friends and their boyfriends in Delhi. Radhika and Rahul are a solemn couple, but inseparable. Even their names sound inevitably connected—Radhika and Rahul, Rahul and Radhika. They cook together, wash dishes together, go out for study sessions and the nearby IHOP, and take all the same Engineering classes. You often try and imagine their courtship—sometimes you picture them meeting at a party thrown by one of the other Indian students. They would have been the only two to not get up and dance to the techno music. They would have remained seated the entire evening, too polite to share a couch. Later, they might have kept running into one another at different places—the library, the cafeteria, the financial aid office—until they looked for each other so much that they believed themselves in love.

You wonder if they are passionate in private. You look for nooks on campus, and imagine them there—kissing for hours while Radhika clasps Rahul’s arms as they lean against a hidden wall, or his hands under her shirt as they lie on some grass under a far away tree. You stare at these places, sometimes trace your fingers over the chipped wall or the rough bark of the tree, but you have never seen your roommates kissing there, or anywhere else. Most often, you wonder how they could be so much in love and spend every night knowing the other is only a thin wall away. You wake up when she goes to the bathroom at nights, listening for the creak of the futon as she climbs in next to him, but she always comes back to her own bed seconds later.

 

As tentative as you are around your roommates, you can be witty at your part-time job as a writing tutor. There is no one in the Writing Center who knows what your high school in New Delhi was like, no one who really understands that you have never been the kind to attract boys. Reinventing yourself is easy—it seems that almost everyone at work is ready to be impressed by you. Already, you are the only freshman among seniors and graduate students to tutor there. Also, your American boss, Dr. Drummond, is clearly amused that you come up with countless puns in a day in your heavily accented English. He walks, once, out into the main hallway of the office, where you cover the front desk, and pretends to ask you the joke you have run by him earlier—

“Hey, what’s ‘I am therefore I think’?” He leans up against the sign-in table.

“That’s putting Descartes before the horse.” You grin.

He chuckles, winks, and walks away, leaving you flushed at the attention.

 

You haven’t planned on it, that first night you watch Rahul sleep on the futon. As your eyes readjust to the darkness after the bathroom light, you think you see someone else shifting on his futon with him. It is only his knee straightening out, but you watch him anyway, noticing that he keeps his arm folded over his eyes like you have seen your mother do when she has a headache. You wait in the small hallway by the bedroom and the bathroom, listening to his short and even breaths, and before you know it, you are inhaling and exhaling with him. When he moves his arm to his side, your heart beats so loudly you half expect him to wake up. You stand still, wait for him to return to his patterned breathing, and go back to bed. After that, it gets easier to watch Rahul as you realize he is a deep sleeper and you can take light steps without waking him. Every now and then, you muster up the courage to enter the living room—once, you are close enough to see a dark patch of what has to be drool on the cushion under his open mouth. The next morning, you wait for both your roommates to leave for class, and wash out the faint, now white, patch on the cushion.

 

Away from home, finding yourself amidst American boys, their casual dress and easy speech so different from the well groomed, upper-class Indian boys who enunciate each word so well, you go through a second puberty of sorts. After only a few weeks in Mississippi, you begin to appreciate boys who wear shorts that hang loosely on their hips and fall below their knees. You stare from the back row at the black basketball player that sits in front of you in your English literature class and always wears sleeveless shirts. Before you left Delhi, you slow-danced with the boy you had a crush on all throughout high school at the farewell party your friends threw you, but it is not until the basketball player moves his chair closer to you so you can do an assignment together that you first know what it feels like to get goose bumps because of a boy.

At your tutoring job, students—usually older than you—always laugh with amazement when you tell them you are only seventeen. You savor every compliment any American boy gives you, never once pointing out that since you have spoken English ever since you have been speaking, there is really nothing to your being able to put a sentence together. Most of all, you fall in love with the various ways of flirting.

You love that boys offer to teach you how to bowl, or play pool, and will feign being offended when you laughingly say no. You love that white boys call you “babe” and black boys call you “boo” and they want you to cook for them. You love that they exaggerate their surprise when they hear that you don’t have a boyfriend, and that some of them reply with a “Shoot, if I didn’t have a girlfriend…”

And then, there is your coworker Brandon.

He is a graduate student in the English department who makes the back of your neck tingle by just smiling at you. Brandon is six foot five, with dark brown hair that falls in unwashed bangs over his eyes. He is deeply conservative, which you are realizing is common in Hattiesburg, and an atheist, which isn’t. Two other girls at work, both also graduate students, dated him the year before. You ask one of them why they broke up.

She shrugs and says, “He dates everyone at the Writing Center. It’s like a fucking rite of passage.”

Still, you can’t help but feeling happy that he seems to seek you out when he comes into work. You try and banter with him the way you have seen women do in black-and-white Cary Grant movies. The two of you sit around the office, avoiding students who walk in the door looking for help, and argue about almost anything. You know a little about American history and politics, and assert the few facts you know with a certainty that makes him shake his head.

“You don’t know the whole picture,” he says.

Once, the discussion turns to guns and you learn that Brandon, this boy sitting in front of you, actually keeps a handgun in his closet.

“Are you serious?” you say, crouching over the table in front of you. “Hattiesburg is completely safe—why would you have a gun?”

“It’s not like I keep it loaded and on me. It’s just a gun. You’ve never shot a gun?”

“No way.” You have never even seen one in real life.

He smiles and leans forward, the warmth of his breath sliding down your back.

“I’ll have to take you to a shooting range. The first time is really something else. Then you get used to it, but in a good way.” He looks at you straight in the eye and adds, “It’s like a lot of things that way.”

You have to look away. You think about the weight of the gun in your hand, and how it might smell like fireworks. There is a real chance that you will shoot it wrong, wound someone.

Brandon is still looking at you so you say, “Sure, sounds like a plan. But don’t expect it to change my mind or anything.”

As he gives you a wide smile, you imagine him asleep on your living room couch instead of Rahul, and wonder if he drools too.

 

Your roommates leave their toiletries in separate Ziploc bags in the bathroom cabinet as though they are staying at a motel. Radhika owns no make-up, just a single tube of cherry lip balm that she keeps with her razor, toothbrush, and tweezers. Her strawberry Suave shampoo sits on the corner of the bathtub next to Rahul’s Suave for Men bottle, and she never buys conditioner. He has a gallon Ziploc bag, and it contains more things by far. There are always at least three razors at any given point, and they are, like every other product he has, made by Old Spice. He has the shave gel, the cologne, the deodorant, and the aftershave. You are always the last one to shower, and since he is the first to get ready, the smells of his Old Spice are drowned by her strawberry shampoo. You start taking longer in the bathroom, often waiting to hear them leave before you step out of the shower. You uncork and sniff his aftershave; it is sweet and tangy and lingers in your nostrils. You dab some on to your arm to get a better idea of what it would smell like muffled by skin. You try to put everything back in the same place in the bag as you found it—the aftershave between the cologne and deodorant one day, the razors scattered on the bottom of the bag another.

It takes you a while to figure out that they share their toothpaste and soap, and the possibility of these objects being the site of their greatest intimacy excites you. One day in the shower, without thinking too hard about it, you pick up their Pears glycerin soap instead of your Ivory bar. Since your grandmother back home is very fond of Pears, you have used this kind of soap many times; yet, the touch of the smooth orange bar and its distinctive tart smell thrills you as though the soap is something very new. You can hear your roommates in the living room over the water, and part of you hopes that Rahul will walk in by mistake, and see you with this thing he shares with Radhika. Even after the voices quiet down, you spend a long time in the shower lathering every inch of your skin, from scalp to calves to the spaces between your toes.

As soon as you are done, you wash their soap under running water for minutes, inspecting it for every possible strand of hair, trying to get rid of every invisible flake of dead skin. Then, you set it on the soap dish, on the marks the bar has made before you picked it up—but it is too small, you have used too much of it. You scrub the old marks away with your fingernails, and leave the soap there. For days after, you cringe every time either of them says your name, sure that they know what you have done.

 

They day before you are to go with Brandon to the shooting range, you invite him and your boss, Dr. Drummond, over for dinner. Dr. Drummond, who lived in New York City for many years and is a big fan of Indian food, has been asking to be invited for dinner for weeks. You invite Brandon because, as you tell him, you are used to cooking for three. “Before I left Delhi, I cooked for my parents and myself sometimes. And now, I have two roommates,” you say.

He smiles at you, looks you in the eyes and says, “You got it, babe.”

He comes over a half-hour early and with a bottle of wine—“to help you with dinner because I can’t”—and you are happy that your roommates, who are still there, now see you hosting people who bring wine. You realize that, of course, Brandon is old enough to have gone into the liquor store himself. You don’t have any wine glasses, so you bring out the most curved tumblers you have, moving quickly as though you drink wine out of them regularly. Thankfully, he has a corkscrew attachment on his pocketknife.

Brandon pours himself a glass, and walks around the apartment. He toes the large reddish brown stain on the carpet that has been there since before you moved in, and writes his initials on the film of dust that covers the TV screen. You haven’t noticed the shabbiness of the apartment until now, when you see it through his eyes. You are scared that he will go into the bathroom and see the old, dirty vinyl that is curling up from a corner, suddenly aware that not everyone at this college has to live like you and Rahul and Radhika. There is nothing you can do in the half-hour before Dr. Drummond arrives. The boy comes back to the kitchen, and smiles at your roommates, who are sitting at the small card table in the kitchen, drinking tea before they head out to the library. Not knowing which part of you you’re supposed to be, you concentrate on the chicken curry instead, sniffing the smoke from the pot, trying to tell if you have gotten the spices right without tasting the food. You are reluctant to check the recipe you downloaded in front of everyone.

Brandon leans on the kitchen counter next to you, and makes small talk with Rahul and Radhika. They let him tell them about things they already know—the free concerts the campus is sponsoring, the hours for the aquarium in New Orleans that is less than two hours away—and you don’t know if this is because Brandon is American, white, or if it is because he his older than even them. As juniors, and because they are so serious, Radhika and Rahul have always seemed so grown-up, but, of course, Brandon has more than a few years on them, having taken a year in between high-school and college, and another before he started in the M.F.A fiction-writing program. He has probably been buying wine with his own I.D for several years.

At some point, he begins to talk about you, with pride, as though he is talking to your parents.

“She’s stolen our hearts at work, this one. I think it’s the jokes, personally, even the puns.” He tugs a little at your sleeve as he says this, and you turn away from the chicken for a minute, to look at him. His eyes are already a little pink from the wine.

Then, feeling Radhika and Rahul watching the two of you, you reach for your glass of wine by Brandon, which you have not touched so far, leaning into him more than you have to. You stay close even when the glass is in your hand.

“Yes, we are lucky to have her,” Radhika says, though you can’t imagine she has heard you being funny.

“Aren’t we all?” Brandon says, as though on cue. He puts his arms around your waist, and squeezes tightly. Then he kisses you on your check with his soft, full lips, making your ears burn.

Your roommates stand up, almost together, and he says, “It was nice meeting you, but I think we should get to the library before it’s too late.”

You all say goodbye, neither Brandon nor you insisting they stay for dinner and you hope they are jealous.

Dr. Drummond, arrives ten minutes later, wearing jeans and sneakers instead of the semi-formal pants and shoes you are used to. He holds a second bottle of wine. You ask him if he found the place okay, and he nods. “Your street is only a block long.”

About half an hour later, Brandon sweats over the food, his beautiful face growing deeper red with embarrassment. “I’m so sorry,” he says eventually, spooning plain yogurt on his chicken and basmati pulao for the umpteenth time. “I grew up eating Cajun food—I just don’t know what’s wrong with me.” After a pause, he adds, “I think Indian food has a different sort of heat to it.”

Dr. Drummond, he’s asked you to call him Carl but you have a hard time using his first name, looks at the graduate student with some amusement. Dr. Drummond has already made you pour out some chili powder into a small bowl for him, and periodically adds a little to his chicken. When Brandon gets up to wash his face after finishing what he can, Dr. Drummond leans over the table at you and says, “I can’t believe that you tamed this stuff down for us so much.”

You can smell the wine on his breath, and wonder if he can smell it on yours.

“I don’t know what he’s talking about, this food is absolutely delicious.” He pats you gently on the shoulder, smiles, and leans back into his chair.

Brandon leaves immediately after dinner, apologizing for not being able to stay longer, but he doesn’t feel very well, he says.

“I’m sorry about the food,” you say, unsure about what you should have done differently.

“Well,” he says, “it’s okay.” He looks from you to Dr. Drummond, who is gathering up the dirty dishes, and then back at you. “I’ll see you later,” he says, and leaves. He does not kiss you on the cheek again.

Dr. Drummond insists on washing dishes, and he hums off and on while he rinses the plates. You try several times to start a conversation while you put away the food and clean off the table. After he is done, you straighten up, fully expecting him to leave, but to your surprise he pours himself another glass of wine and sits down on Rahul’s futon in the living room.

For a while, you stand at the doorway between the kitchen and the living room while he asks you questions about Delhi, your major, your family. You answer politely, still confused at his staying but flattered at his genuine interest in your life.

He sits quietly for a second, sips his wine, sets his glass on the floor and says, “Come here and sit down. I have a question I’ve been meaning to ask you.” When he sees you hesitate, he insists. “Come on.”

You sit down on the opposite end of the small futon, wondering for the first time how someone as tall as Rahul could fit on it every night. You fold your legs underneath you and sit on your heels.

“What has been the hardest part of living here, on your own?”

You are surprised. No one has asked you that in the seven months you’ve lived here. Not any of your colleagues, not the graduate student, not even the other Indian or other international students. You think about it.

“The food,” you say.

“Really?” He is smiling at you. “I thought you would have said loss of language, of culture.”

“Food is culture. It took me weeks to figure out what a tater tot was. And then I realized, ‘Oh! They’re saying potato tart.’”

He laughs, and moves closer on the couch. “I think they’re really only saying tater tot.”

It isn’t until he puts his hand on your shoulder again that you realize that he stayed to do exactly this—and the realization that something is going to happen knocks the breath out of you. Even given all the time you spend scrutinizing everything boys say to you, you never stopped to think of your boss. You had even supposed yourself in love with another professor for a few months, and only because he had shared an umbrella with you to class one day when it was raining hard and you had forgotten your raincoat. But this man on the futon, Dr. Carl Drummond, never crossed your mind.

Looking at him, you realize that Dr. Drummond, Carl, is twice and handsome as your other professor, who has a good tooth. Carl is fairly young, in his late thirties or early forties, and has perfect teeth. He catches you looking at his mouth, and smiles, and leans in for a kiss, his hand moving from your shoulder to your breast. You are petrified, and convinced that he will be able to smell and taste the lingering garlic and cilantro on you if you try and kiss him back. You want to push his hands away and jump up, and then you become aware of the fabric underneath you. This is his bed. You have watched Rahul sleep on this night after night, expecting Radhika to join him, first hoping that she would, then praying that she wouldn’t. You have already seen the drool on the cushion—maybe there are other parts of him still on here that you or he haven’t washed away.

Dr. Drummond is kissing you hard, forcing his tongue into your mouth, and you put your hands around his head like you have seen people do in movies. He doesn’t kiss you for very long, stopping without a word to take his pants and your skirt off, and pushes you down on the futon.

The sex itself seems to last a long time. You are not sure of what is happening, or if you are supposed to feel something you are not. You are scared that there will be blood, but there is nothing. You close your eyes, and keep them shut, letting him kiss your face. The smell of your dinner is long gone, replaced by a salty, meaty sweat. When he is done, he sits up, out of breath, and runs his hands through his hair. He picks up his glass of wine that has little more than a sip left, and finishes it. He sits there for a few minutes, his shirt on but naked below his waist, playing with his empty glass. You lie quietly where you are, glancing at him every now and then, but trying to focus on a spot on the ceiling. He gets up, puts his pants on, and walks over to the kitchen.

“There’s still enough wine left for a glass or so,” he says, picking up the bottle and inspecting it. “If you put the cork back on it, it will last a day or so.”

He turns to you and smiles. Then he sets the bottle down on the kitchen counter and leaves.

You lay there for a while, waiting for your heart to stop pounding in your ears. You can’t imagine seeing Dr. Drummond at work the next week, with his clothes on, talking to you about your schedule or problem students. Instead, you make yourself think about leaving the futon unbrushed, leaving parts of your hair and skin and god knows what-else for Rahul to sleep on. But you get up, scrub the couch with a damp washcloth and run a small vacuum over the mattress for a full five minutes. You are asleep before he and Radhika come home. The next morning you go to the women’s clinic instead of calling Brandon to finalize your plans for the shooting range. There are no messages on the machine when you come back home.

 

A few days later, Radhika and Rahul roommates tell you that they are going to get married in the summer when they go home to India.

“Obviously,” Radhika says, “We have no intention of leaving you homeless for the rest of the semester, so you are welcome to stay.” They look at each other and then she continues.

“We are, however, thinking of keeping this apartment next year, so we are going to move into the bedroom together.”

Rahul glances at you, and then stares at his shoes.

“Soon?” you ask. “I mean, you want me out of the room soon?”

“Well, it’s like I said—” she pauses. “You don’t have to move out. You can start sleeping on the futon if you like. We are even willing to give you a discount on the rent. We imagine you would rather find an apartment where you don’t live in the drawing room—”

“No, no,” you interrupt. “I’m fine here. I will stay here.” You look at Raul and then back at Radhika. “I mean, of course, only until the end of the semester.”

It doesn’t take long to move your things around. They empty out the hall closet so that you can have a place to hang your shirts and dresses, and the cheap chest of drawers next to the futon becomes yours. They throw out the old twin mattresses that you and Radhika had put on the floor, and buy a queen-sized bed with a new frame, which you help put together.

They also buy a shower caddy for the bathroom, as well as baskets to put all their toiletries, and yours, in. They seem not to care that your toothbrushes touch each other’s constantly now, and that all his stuff, and hers is thoughtlessly comingled with yours.  Outside their Ziploc bags, these things become plain objects.

The first night you are on the futon, you get up and stand outside their closed bedroom door. It’s after three, but you can hear their subdued laughter and shushes. You hear the bed creak, not with the rhythm of them making love as you’d imagined countless times, but just under their weight as they shift around, and any quiet seconds they might have are broken up by Rahul’s giggles. You walk into the bathroom, close the door behind you, and pick up his Old Spice after-shave. You open the bottle and pour it out in difficult drops into the sink. Very quickly, the sweet smell of the aftershave spreads everywhere, climbing up your nose and traveling down your throat and stomach until it makes you sick.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADr. Madhurima Chakraborty is Assistant Professor in the English literature and Cultural Studies programs at Columbia College Chicago. Her research and teaching interests include Postcolonial, Indian Diaspora, and British literature, and her academic work has been published or is forthcoming in Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, Literature/Film Quarterly, South Asian Review, and Journal of Contemporary Literature.

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