His eyes were the pale color of skinned grapes, the laugh lines around them like the three-pronged tracks of some long-legged bird. In my favorite photo, he was preserved in the moment before a smile, his gaze fixed upon something above the lens—the face, I guessed, of whoever held the camera. I spread two fingers apart to zoom. On some base level, I knew we were made to collide. We matched. We set a time. His name was Leo. So was his star sign.
Early evening, late September. On FaceTime I held his pixel-features in both my hands. The color of his hair was caramelly and soft in the warm light. A green tendril of some houseplant poked into the frame for a moment. I sat stiff in my armchair as he clattered about in his kitchen across town. He was dynamic, at times a blur. Earlier, he’d pointed his camera towards the various knickknacks lining his shelves, the apple tree in his yard and its fist-sized fruits, his Welsh corgi named Susan draped upon his feet. Now, I heard the shrill whistle of a teakettle, then the relief of silence as he lifted it from the stove.
We didn’t meet up in person on account of everything going on.
He held me in one hand as he emptied the kettle into a small, ornate cup. A plume of steam billowed around his face, then vanished. “What’s your type?” I asked. He said that he didn’t have one. A pause, then a sheepish glance, then the reveal: well, it just so happened that his ex-girlfriend was Indian, too. Two and a half years together. A Gujju girl with strict parents, classical training in Bharatanatyam, and two degrees in chemistry. I could picture her—blue-black hair to her waist, big doe eyes, straight gleaming teeth the combined product of good genetics, steady after-school visits to an orthodontist, and an obsessive water-flossing ritual.
I envisioned her in a bloodred salwar kameez, her Patiala-style lehenga ballooning around her legs, a pipette in her hands for good measure. Looking like a Fair & Lovely advertisement and smelling like a suburban Bath & Body Works. A vegetarian with an iron deficiency. Eyebrows threaded biweekly by a gossipy Punjabi woman. I could hunt through heaps of that glossy hair strand by strand without finding a single split end, not even one incriminating flake of dandruff.
Leo gazed at me expecting some reaction.
“I bet you I’m nothing like her,” I said.
“I hope so,” he said.
“What was she like?”
“It’s difficult to say.” He pinched his chin with his thumb and forefinger and sipped his tea in short, delicate bursts, a manner I found professorial. “One story that comes to mind is that she lied about having cancer.”
“She had cancer and said she didn’t, or she didn’t have cancer and said she did?”
“That sounds elaborate.” I considered flicking on the lamp nearest me. Pro: he would be able to see me better. Con: he would be able to see me better.
“How did you find out?”
“There were signs,” he said. “There was also a certain lack of signs.”
I knew signs: my mother and her dimming, yellowing eyes, the shocking shape of her skull, the steroidal puff of her cheeks.
“Did you ever confront her?” I said.
“It wouldn’t have mattered. I was a bit afraid of her by the end. She turned out to be pretty crazy.”
“You know,” I said, “many would consider it a red flag that you just referred to a woman you dated as crazy.”
“What would you consider it?”
“Yellow bordering on red. Let’s say orange.”
“Great color theory.” Earlier, we’d swapped broad biographies; this comment was a reference to my college major in visual studies, how my favorite course had been Color Theory. He had studied biochemistry. He still did. He was a post-doc at the same university that employed me. When I’d asked him to explain his work to me as if I were a five-year-old, he’d used the verb “jiggle” with the noun “primase,” primase being some kind of enzyme, enzymes being a substance my spit contained.
“We’re talking about a girl who manipulated and lied to me,” he continued. “I don’t think I’m being problematic when I use that word, in this case.”
“I still find it reductive,” I said. Why I felt defensive of this random woman, I was not sure. South Asians were not a monolith, as I was constantly reminding others, and myself. I was not Gujarati, I’d quit Bharatanatyam after one lesson, chemistry had been my worst subject in high school, and as far as parents went, I only had one and he was quite lax.
“Fine,” Leo said. “She was off. How about that?”
“That’s slightly better,” I said. “But what if she did have cancer? Would that have changed anything?”
“It would have changed everything, but she didn’t,” he said, and that was that. We had other topics to discuss. By the time we hung up, we’d spent three hours on the phone, my throat ached, my neck ached more, the sun had long set, and the pressure in my bladder was so unignorable that when I stood up from the armchair, I nearly fell over. I staggered to the toilet and peed for many minutes all the while still clutching my phone, which was near dead and hot to the touch. I held its smudgy screen to my cheek and closed my eyes, letting it warm my face as if it were somebody’s hand. Even from the bathroom and over the tinkling stream I produced, I could hear the crickets outside and all their amorous chirping.
I was unable to sleep that night, awake in the liminal hours wondering about her name: something sleek and modern? Jia? Arya? Saira? Did she come from people who were Indian-Americans, emphasis on the American? People who vote blue and drive hybrids and live on the coast and eat at fusion restaurants staffed by white waiters who are also singer-songwriters? Tandoori chicken poutine? Aloo au gratin? Naanzanella salad?
Or something phlegmy and arduous. Dhristi, Bhagyawati, Hrishita. Raised on Hindu Sunday school and Kumon and no sleepovers and no dating till you’re married. People who eat frugally at those strip mall South Indian restaurants, the ruder the waiters, the better the sambar. Mom’s hair red at the roots with mehndi, Dad’s kept unnaturally black with Clairol Natural Instincts. A shared bedroom with a little sister and no money for fun stuff. Sneaking out the second-story window on Friday nights in high school, walking down the silent yellow-lit block to a waiting car, hopping in, looking around, then kissing the gora boy on the mouth.
Or something faux-American and assimilationist, easy to spell, easy to say. Alisha! Tara! Tanya! Her brother would be named Jay, Neel, Riann. White friends who consider her white too, and her own car at sixteen, a good college somewhere far away—
Oh, I was swimming through this imagined life now. Sometime, a June wedding, her special day. Five hundred people with a horse or even an elephant. The women’s hands are hennaed and the men’s whiskey glasses are full and there’s the corny DJ playing bhangra remixes to the top ten and there’s Jay-Neel-Riann flirting with the cutest bridesmaid though he doesn’t stand a chance and there’re the turtle-looking old women in their finest silk saris watching as their mid-twenties grandchildren loop glow sticks around their necks and their early-sixties children are all screwing the light bulb while petting the dog and at the center of the arhythmic mass is the beautiful bride, Alisha-Tara-Tanya, her face almost unrecognizable in all that makeup, and her smile has never looked wider, her waist never slimmer, her posture never straighter despite those many karats of gemstones adorning her nose, her ears, her neck, and she throws her hairless, intricate arms to the sky—
Was that the kind of woman he liked?
I was working on the cover of a book about the Kingdom of Pontus. The bust of the Roman general Pompey, an image of which I manipulated— expanding, shrinking, tilting, increasing contrast—had taken on special significance in that it was the only face I was seeing with any kind of regularity. I gazed with fondness at the deep wrinkles lining Pompey’s forehead, the bulbous tip of his nose. I was inventing my own font with which to declare the book’s title. The font was quite similar to other Greco-Romanesque fonts, which is to say it did not necessarily need to be invented, and yet there I was, engaged in the process of useless creation. Tinkering, fiddling. Three versions of the Pontus jacket were due by October first.
The aforementioned degree in visual studies had yielded me a middling job in graphic design at a university press, a job I’d held now for seven months. Previously, I’d held the same job but at a different press in a colder city with a lower salary and a higher cost of living. I was new here in Nashville. I’d moved seeking a change, but now, my experience of the American South was confined to my cheaply furnished living space with its ancient grout and scuffed hardwood floors that wailed beneath my feet. I commuted from my bedroom to the kitchen table, the kitchen table to the toilet. Once a week, I showed my face at staff meeting, my colleagues reduced to stamp-sized images on my laptop, little flat faces interrupting each other, trying their hardest to emote, freezing at inopportune moments with their mouths stuck yawning open, their voices gritty, warped. Once a week, I could see the details of their tiny messy lives spilling out behind them on camera: dying plants, ugly art, pets who needed walking. Their omnipresent voices would trick my body into believing I was having a social experience; someone would say “y’all,” and I was included within the all.
Mostly, though, I was alone.
Recently: the cover of a book on the ancient Visigothic kingdom of Iberia. Another on hunting and masculinity in medieval Europe. Before that, English peasants before the plague. Environmental crises in urbanizing Asia.
I would name my new font Pompey. I was tapering the edges of my letters with delicate, looping leaves when my phone buzzed. Leo. I had been anticipating a message from him; still, his name made my heart accelerate. “Talk again tonight?” he wrote. “Yes please,” I replied.
I kept going back to it, the photo I liked best. Each time I looked, it deepened somehow, like a painting by some great master. I hadn’t noticed the first time that there was a rosebush behind him, how the buds ringing his head tilted their faces towards their source of light. Or the ridges on his neck, as though he had not one Adam’s apple, but two. The way he looked at whoever held the camera, that sly familiarity, made me shiver. It had to be her behind the camera. I zoomed in on his eyes, but all I could see there were two reflections of that same light.
The playground by my apartment was abandoned, blocked off with caution tape. A lone face mask, sky blue and stained with dirt, hung from the corner of a park bench, flapping in the wind.
After work, I wandered the neighborhood as if my physical setting were some kind of virtual reality game. After a day of screen time, my eyes thirsted for softer light. Gazing at the trees—their delicate green hues crisping and browning as the weather cooled, the round dimensionality of their leaves, the red beads hanging from branches like ornamental baubles—served as a reset. Though what was around me did not feel any realer than my conveyor belt of book jackets, the talking 2D faces. This world felt too high-def. The transparency of leaves from below, how light shone through exposing their delicate vein systems, their variance of color against a blue sky almost frightening in its placidity—how could any of it be true?
I lived in a neighborhood of charming brick houses loudly being replaced by ugly modern horrors that loomed, tall and thin and historyless as runway models. Some evenings I’d walk for several hours without noticing the gradual dip of the sun. I’d call people—old friends whom I hadn’t seen or spoken to in weeks, maybe months. I’d let their soft voices guide me as I placed one foot in front of the other. My neighbors liked to keep curtains open, lamps on in the evenings. I could see right into their homes sometimes: women reclining on couches, dogs chasing balls down narrow hallways, newscasters analyzing presidential tweets.
This evening in particular, I made slow circles around the empty playground and returned my father’s earlier call. It was unseasonably warm, so I wore a new pair of sandals, which bit into my heels. I could smell cleanness in the air; someone near was engaged in the process of laundry.
My father picked up after several rings. “Hello,” he said. He never said it like a question.
“Hey. Just returning your call.”
“Did I call you?”
“Yes. You called twenty minutes ago while I was finishing up work.”
“Did I?” The fact of his mortality was occurring to me with increasing regularity each time I spoke to him. As a result, I was tempted to speak to him less.
“Are you walking somewhere?” I said. “You sound out of breath.”
“Just taking a stroll through the garden,” he said, as if his garden were an expanse one could stroll through. It was not. It was a small plot of hedges ten feet in length at the most.
“So what’s going on? How are you doing?”
“Oh, Sonia,” he said. “Things haven’t been the same.” I could picture my father in the yard, his wide stance and bowed shoulders. The wind picked up around me. The mask on the corner of the bench lifted and flew a few feet, landing gently in a pile of decaying leaves.
Sonia was my mother’s name.
“Dad? It’s Kajal.”
“You just called me Sonia.”
“It was an accident, beta. Sorry about that. Accident.” His voice sounded thick, as if he were speaking through a woolen blanket.
“What hasn’t been the same?”
“Everything’s fine. Everything’s good. Listen, it’s late, I need to sleep now. Talk later, okay, Kaju?”
He hung up then. I called him back, but he didn’t answer, he just texted, “going 2 bed” with a ZZZ emoji, though it was four p.m. where he lived, in California. By the time I returned home, it was dark and my heels were bleeding. I washed them one at a time in my bathroom sink. Rust-colored water pooled then swirled down the drain.
“Did you know you can order chickens online?” Leo said. The blue light of his laptop rinsed his face. He wore glasses this time. His hair was wet, meaning he had recently showered. I had difficulty imagining him showering. I had difficulty imagining the three-dimensional fact of him in general, though we’d spoken in some form or the other near constantly for the last week.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m on the website of this hatchery. Apparently, you can order them and pick them up at the post office, like any other package. They call you when the chicks are ready, and you just go and get them. The box comes with air holes in it. Of all the chicks shipped yearly, only half a percent of them die in transit. It’s all very humane.”
“Where would you put them?”
“I can build a coop in my yard, easy,” he said. “Another thing: shipping chicks works well because chicks don’t need to be fed for the first three days of their lives. Before a chick hatches, apparently, it absorbs the yolk left inside the eggshell, and that’s all the nutrients it needs to survive for a few days.”
“I think I knew that, actually,” I said. “My first-grade class incubated chicks. The incubator looked like a big glass salad bowl upside down. We watched the chicks hatch one morning. I thought they’d come out yellow and fluffy, but they were brown and wet and a little ugly. This girl Madison R. started crying at the sight of them.”
“Sounds like some kind of life lesson,” Leo said. “The chicks I get will be the yellow kind though. They’ll have time to fluff up. In transit.”
“You really going to do this?”
“It’d be an interesting experience. I have the space for them.”
“My mom grew up with chickens. It was one of her chores to take care of them.”
“Really? Where was that?”
“Small town in India.”
“Where in India?”
I’d forgotten that he was somewhat familiar. “Maharashtra,” I said. “Below Gujarat, on the western coast.”
“Cool. Tell her to pass on any chicken-rearing tips,” he said.
“I’ll call her later and ask.” Of course, she was dead and had been dead longer than I’d known her alive, but Leo wasn’t aware of that. “What’s your mom like?”
“Interesting lady. She’s from Greece.” He combed his fingers through his wet hair. “She’s Orthodox, spends a lot of her time doing church stuff. Lives outside Miami with my dad.”
“Do you look like her?”
“I look more like my dad.”
The same was true for me. I had resembled my mother as a child, had her snub nose and wide, always-surprised eyes, but now, I was the spitting image of my father. Like one of those dogs that starts to look like its owner. When I looked in the mirror, I saw his thin lips, his flat cheeks, his overlarge, inquisitive ears.
“What’s your mom do?” I asked.
“She met my dad in dental school, but now she works as his administrator. She schedules appointments and stuff.”
“So she’s technically a dentist but works for your dad like that? Is that weird for her?”
“Never asked. I don’t think it is. He went on longer than her. In school, I mean. He’s an orthodontist. She got pregnant with me and never practiced.”
“Are they happily married?”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“I wouldn’t say that either.”
“What would you say?”
“I would say that they’re married and that will never change.” I considered this. I nodded.
“What’s your mom like?” he said.
“Very strong,” I said truthfully. And then for some reason: “She beat cancer. Now she runs a marathon every spring. She’s training for Ironwoman too. She also really likes to bake. Everyone says I look just like her.”
“She sounds like a cool lady.”
“I think you should get the chickens.” I could see my own face, brown and angular, reflected in those glasses of his. I preferred him without them.
The next morning, before my commute to the kitchen, I googled “how to raise chickens.” I found a YouTube video by an account called MotherHen360. MotherHen360 was a middle-aged white woman with a loose-skinned neck and a beady gaze not unlike a chicken’s. She radiated no-nonsense competence. The pores on her nose were large and pronounced and the diameter of her forehead immense. I recalled how in drawing class, we were taught that human eyes are actually in the middle of the ovular head, not towards the top like people think. Hers were centered perfectly. “Chickens are simple,” she told me, and I believed her. I watched the video in its entirety, rated it five stars, even considered subscribing to her channel. Her content was really quite engaging and educational. I then texted Leo, “My mom’s tip is: make sure the chicks get enough protein in their diet.” One minute later, he replied, “Thanks, Mom!”
An election was coming up in the country I happened to be a citizen of. A month away now. This fact was apparent when I walked around my neighborhood after work later that day. Many of my neighbors had placed signs on their yards or porches to indicate support of one of two presidential candidates. One family had placed a sign in their front yard that read JESUS 2020. The “Jesus” was in red letters, while the year was in blue—as if to suggest that Jesus could bridge the two-party system, transcend the binary.
On my citizenship: it was a fluke. I was born extremely premature, which was the only reason I was experiencing all this liberty. My mother had intended to have me in Maharashtra, where I would be crooned over by several generations of soft, round women, shuttled between houses, coddled and raised in a blood neighborhood that loved me. Instead I found myself here.
As I walked, one of my neighbors planted a sign into the wet grass of his yard, the first time I’d seen anyone putting a sign up; most seemed to crop up unseen and unheard in the middle of the night, like a zit or new breasts. This particular sign I’d noticed in clusters lately. IN THIS HOUSE, its first line proclaimed, WE BELIEVE SCIENCE IS REAL. The neighbor, a white man in a polo, glanced at me as I passed. He gave a wave and a big grin, as if acknowledging my humanity.
I waved back.
WE BELIEVE BLACK LIVES MATTER, the second line declared. Each of the capitalized beliefs was written one after the other in a different color. NO HUMAN BEING IS ILLEGAL, it confirmed. WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS, it reminded me. LOVE IS LOVE. The polo man smiled at me again, then returned inside. That’s one virtuous deed done for the day, he probably thought.
I was reading the final proclamation—DIVERSITY MAKES US STRONGER—when a black Escalade pulled up alongside me. The man behind the wheel rolled down his window. I drew back. Without greeting, he said, “Where in the neighborhood do you live?” With his wide bright teeth, he looked like he belonged on a real estate billboard.
Without thinking, I said, “I live over there,” pointing down the block at my house, the top floor of which I rented from a nice enough old man who could not pronounce my name and referred to me vaguely as Miss. “Why? Where do you live?”
“Easy now,” he said with the kind of tone one might use when talking to a wild-eyed horse. “I’ve lived around here twelve years. I hadn’t seen you around, so I thought I’d ask. We look out for each other here in the neighborhood.”
“Thanks for looking out,” I said.
My favorite signs were those that read GIANT METEOR 2020.
Sometimes I called my grandfather on WhatsApp. We’d met only once, when he visited the States after my mother died. His usual question for me on the phone was “What did you eat today?” and I would describe in detail a meal. I’d invent. Palak paneer and pav bhaji and vegetable pulao and aloo parathas—all the things my mother used to make, the dishes I hadn’t eaten in years and dreamed of at night and ordered at restaurants only to learn time and time again they could never taste as they had when I was a child—but my grandfather, hard of hearing, would interrupt my fiction and say, “Pizza? You said pizza?” and I would say, in a louder voice, “Yes, pizza, so much pizza,” it was always easier to go with pizza, all I did in my vapid American life was eat pizza and lie.
I’d talk to my aunts sometimes, too. As far as I could tell from photos, they were three fleshy, sweating women who looked like my father. They would ask me to send them photos of myself and when I did, they would say, “Looking fab! Slim and trim! Maast!” These are my people, I would think, when I looked at images of them or older photographs of my unsmiling forefathers, their stares stoic as if to remind me of all the ways they’d suffered. But they were strangers, these people, strangers just like the white people I scoffed at and considered myself separate from. I should go back to where I came from, I thought to myself when white people revealed themselves as particularly horrid. I meant this only half ironically. But I’d never been to where I’d come from.
I walked through my neighborhood at dusk on a misty evening two weeks after I first spoke to Leo. The sunset was purple and subdued. I waited to cross the street. At the sight of me, a driver in a Honda—a young woman with bug-eyed glasses—braked gently. She waved a hand, motioning for me to pass. This simple gesture caused a crumpling feeling in my chest. Her acknowledgment of me—the fact that she saw me there—brought me to tears. I crossed and roamed the empty winding path. A combination of tears and snot dampened my face mask. Through an open window, I saw a Christmas tree, lit, though it was still only October. In the window’s reflection, I saw the slight shape of my own body hovering ghostlike, swallowed up by the tree.
Then Leo called me.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hey. I texted you earlier.”
“Haven’t looked. Sorry. What’s up, Leonard?”
“Here’s a fact. It’s actually short for Leonidas, not Leonard.”
“Leonidas?” The crack in my voice made it quite obvious I’d been crying. “What is this, some kind of Greek city-state? What’s your brother’s name, Prince Xerxes?”
“I didn’t realize you were a classicist.”
“I didn’t realize your dad was Menelaus of Sparta.”
“Are you okay, Kajal?”
It was the first time I’d heard him say my name aloud. He said it correctly. I wondered if he’d googled it. The tender idea of Leo googling my name, practicing it aloud, led me to say, “I lied. About my mom. She’s been dead for fifteen years and she hated baking and she also hated running.”
A long pause and then he said, “I’m sorry.”
Another pause and then I said, “No, I’m sorry.”
The static buzz of the line. And then: “I actually called you because I wanted to ask you something crazy, but now I’m losing my nerve.”
I heard him draw a breath. “Say it,” I said. “Spit it out, Leonidas.”
“Would you want to come over?”
Though I’d been waiting for him to ask, I hadn’t expected the proposition to be so simple.
I said, “What if I’m sick?” and he said, “Don’t laugh, but I bought one of those new rapid home tests for you last week,” and I said, “What if you’re sick?” and he said, “Well, I bought one for me too,” and then I was walking home. Then I was throwing my necessary things into a duffel bag, I was watering my plants and locking my door, I was driving for ten minutes on a litter-dusted highway, I was parking outside a blue two-story home on the other side of town, I was huffing into my face mask as the three-dimensional fact of Leo walked towards my car holding a square box, he was placing the box on the pavement and walking away, I was opening the box, I was inserting a device up my nostril and then waiting, I was calling him on the phone at the same time as he was calling me, I was knocking on the door of his house with a shaky hand, he was opening it, we were showing each other our results through the glass storm door, we were looking each other in the eye for one long moment, and finally, he opened the door. I slipped in.
That first night, we sat side by side on the grass in his backyard, not touching. A flock of birds circled ahead, stark against a gauzy indigo sky. Leo spoke of migratory patterns, of his childhood in the swamplands of Florida, of white-tailed deer and slow-moving sea cows.
“Tell me something no one knows,” I said, so he did: once, when he was a boy, he caught a lizard in his garage, held it by its tail, and hurled it against the wall. When it didn’t die, he did it again until it did.
“Now you,” he said, so I told him something four other people knew, ex-lovers mostly: the time my piano teacher pawed my breast when I was ten, his long, slender fingers up my T-shirt grasping at that which was not yet there. This was an event that had not affected me psychically, at least not yet, for it was a trauma easy to relate, so commonplace that the memory of it could have belonged to any other woman, though I knew it was me there on the piano bench gazing out the window at bishop pine trees in the distance, a cold hand against my thrashing heart.
What no one knew: after my mother died when I was twelve, I would imagine my father dying, too, for practice. It was like flexing a muscle, like lifting a weight. I did it nightly—sometimes so vividly that I would vomit, sometimes so realistically that I would wake up in the morning and think, I’m an orphan now, I’m orphaned—only to find my father in the kitchen making chai before work, and oh, that would come as a shock, some kind of miracle, I’d trick myself into believing that he’d come back for me from the dead, and if it were possible that he could come back from the dead then maybe—
Even as I spoke, Leo looked towards the sky, and in this way, I became acquainted with his profile, the way his forehead formed a Neanderthalic shelf above the thin bridge of his nose, the featheriness of his left eyebrow, his cheekbone and how it pressed insistently against skin that caught and reflected the low light of the evening, a jaw that reminded me of drawings of obtuse angles. I wanted to draw his face and keep it. I wanted warmth, shelter. When he turned to look at me straight on, I found it very striking to see both his eyes at once.
After the first time, we clutched each other like we’d never known touch before and might never know it again.
“I feel so close to you,” I whispered into his collarbone.
“You feel so small in my arms,” he said. “Like I could crush you.”
I knew then, but I didn’t want to know, not yet. His eyes, finally so close that I could study them, were intense and grasping. I looked beyond him and at the ceiling instead, where there was a water stain in the shape of a cloud.
Some mornings that month he’d go to the empty lab to check on his enzymes and from my place on his bed I’d lunge for his shin and say, “Don’t go, don’t go, don’t leave me here,” and he’d give his leg a little shake, then look down at me and say, “I don’t have time for this, Jennifer,” and I’d say, “Steven, please! Think of the kids!” and he’d say, “I never wanted those kids in the first place,” and I’d say, “Think of little Bobby! Think of little Suzy!” and he’d say, “Fuck those kids and fuck you too,” and he’d slam out of the room, only to open the door a moment later to say, “I’ll be back in a bit. Have a good day.” And once I heard the front door lock I’d pore through his things like an anthropologist in a foreign land—drawers of neatly folded T-shirts, birth certificate stashed under his mattress, bookshelves filled with classics I’d never read, medicine cabinet lined with only boring practicalities—until it was time for me to work, at which point I’d sit at his enormous boardroom-style kitchen table and type my little emails, fiddle with my little files, make my little fonts until the day was over and he’d come home to me and I’d say, “What took you so long, Kenneth? Were you with that whore secretary again?” and we’d riff on that a while until one of us lost the mood and then we’d sit in the yard drinking beers until the sun went down and our fingers got cold, at which point we’d feed each other like newlyweds and walk Susan the corgi through the rolling grass of the nearby park once it was late enough and empty enough and then we’d come home and remove each other’s clothing like it was Christmas morning and we’d press into each other again and I’d think to myself, Is this what people do? Is this how you make a life? And he’d fall asleep twitching like I’d come to learn he always did and I’d stay awake a little longer memorizing everything we did or said that day worth remembering, until I fell asleep knowing that in the morning it could start all over again if I wanted it to, but I wasn’t always sure if I did.
The first time I was alone in Leo’s house, a week into my stay there, my father called me and asked me to come home because he’d locked himself out and couldn’t find his keys. “I need you to come home and let me in, meri jaan,” he said.
My dad never spoke Hindi to me. He spoke Marathi to me and Hindi to my mother when he didn’t want me to understand. Hindi had been the language of exclusion in our house, but meri jaan I knew. Meri jaan is what he called her. My life.
My mother always liked Hindi best. She said it was a sweet language, a language of love. She sang Hindi songs in the kitchen while washing the dishes and I could only understand the cognates. She sang about the moon, about love. She sang one strange song about a lemon.
“I can’t come home, Dad,” I said. “I’m in Tennessee, remember?”
“What are you doing in Tennessee of all places?” It was a good question. “It’s going to rain. I can tell from the sky.”
He made a noise like a fist slamming on wood. Then he made more noises that sounded like crying. “What about the key in the lockbox, Dad?” I said. “Remember the lockbox in the backyard, underneath the patio chair? Go look there. Do you remember the passcode?”
“One nine nine zed.”
“That’s right, Dad. The year you moved here.”
I heard footsteps, I heard the clang of the backyard gate, I heard his ragged breathing and the click of the lockbox. I heard the creak and sigh of the back door opening.
Later he texted me: “found keys. oops. ha ha.” I could picture him in his armchair, glasses settled halfway down his nose. Behind him, a window. And through the window, columns of shivering pine.
My second week at Leo’s, I discovered a photo of her in his desk drawer beneath a pile of receipts. It was a photo booth strip of the two of them at some arcade in town. There were four photos vertically arranged. They were smiling in all of them, as if they didn’t realize they were supposed to make a different face each time the camera flashed. Maybe they were so happy they couldn’t think of a single strange face to make. She sat in his lap, their faces so close together they seemed to share one wide trunk of a body. She was beautiful—predictable, yet unfortunate—with round shining eyes and straight chin-length hair and tiny uniform teeth set inside low-resting gums. I tried to believe that we looked the same, but it was impossible, only a racist could say so. Leo appeared younger in the photo, his hair shorter, beard thinner, eyes clearer. With a pair of scissors, I snipped the bottom photo and put it in my pocket. All four pictures were the same anyways. He didn’t need them all.
When he came home from the lab that evening, I was quiet. “Stacy?” he said.
“Leo,” I said. I needed him to remember who we were. I sat at the kitchen table with my arms around my knees. I was done with work and though it was dark out, I’d forgotten to turn on the lights.
“You okay?” He switched on the kitchen light and I remembered the way he’d looked the first time I’d spoken to him, when he was just a flat face in my hands.
“Everything’s great,” I said. Then, just to try it out, to see if I could, I said, “I love you.” He looked at me for half a second before opening the fridge. “I don’t think you mean that,” he said into the cold. Then he turned and looked at me again, some challenge written upon his face. I wondered, not for the first time, how he managed to know me so well without knowing me at all.
“You’re right,” I said into my knees.
“Better luck next time,” he said. He slid a beer across the absurd length of the table. It collided with my shin. I let the beer coat my mouth with its bitter fizz.
That night, there was an increased intensity to our movements. The corgi left her customary spot at the foot of his bed as if she could not bear to watch. Leo stared at me like he was trying to take something from me. Like he hated me or he loved me and I couldn’t tell which. Afterward, he collapsed onto his back. My pulse was throbbing in my neck, my groin.
“You make me feel like a simple animal,” I said.
“The world’s simplest animal,” he said, “is called Trichoplax adhaerens. You are complex in comparison.”
I asked him to tell me more.
“It was discovered by this Austrian scientist, Schulze,” Leo said. “He was an expert on ocean sponges. He collected those sponges in all different colors, sizes, shapes. He discovered Trichoplax on some algae in one of his aquariums. Tiny thing the size of a sesame seed. No blood, no veins, no mouth, no stomach.” As he spoke, he stroked the green veins of my wrist, he pinched my mouth, he patted my stomach. “No front or back, either, since it’s only three cells thick.”
“So what does it do?” How does it pass the time? How does it make a life?
“It’s like an amoeba,” Leo said. “It sticks itself to other organisms, algae mostly. Like a little suction cup feeding off whatever it latches onto. Though its genome is pretty sophisticated.” He turned to me, resting his chin in the palm of his hand. Then he brought his forearm to meet mine. “Almost the same color,” he said. His arm was a deep bronze, the hair there bleached golden from the sun.
“We are not the same,” I said, because it seemed important all of a sudden. Then I said what I was wondering, which was, “Do I remind you of her? Your ex?”
He brushed the hair from his forehead and looked at me, as if he needed to study me to answer. I was aware of the rapid rise and fall of my bare chest, the sweat beading at my hairline. We’d both captured some part of each other in these moments of unguarded domesticity. How unbearable to think that thirty years from now, when reflecting upon this moment in history, he might remember me as I looked now, that he’d always have that, I’d never get it back.
“You’re nothing like her,” he said. He placed his thumb on my neck, traced the spot where my pulse jumped. I had my answer, but didn’t know if it was the one I’d wanted.
Sometimes during sex he would pull me on top of him and wrap his hands around the circumference of my waist such that the tips of his fingers almost touched. This was something he liked: measuring my body in terms of his own. Translating my units into his. My feet were the size of his hands. The top of my head reached the center of his chest. Two of my fingernails made one of his. One night, towards the end, he told me about vorarephilia, derived from the Latin vorare, to devour: the erotic desire to consume or be consumed. “Do you want to consume me?” I said, but he just laughed like he knew something I didn’t.
The night before Election Day, I was watching a film with Leo when I received a phone call from an unknown number with a San Jose area code. I paused the film and picked up.
“Is this Kajal Deo?” a voice said.
“Yes, this is she,” I said. I remembered how my mother said those same words whenever she answered our landline. I’d always thought, incorrectly, her. You should say, yes, this is her. Trash can, not dustbin. Last name, not surname. Pass the salt, not send the salt. I stood from my perch on Leo’s lap and walked to the yard. A squirrel was scampering across a telephone wire clutching one of those precious apples to its chest. Leo often grumbled about those squirrels and those apples.
“This is Kevin Ransom, I live at 108 Verity Lane,” the voice said. It was happening. Was it happening?
“I just was with your father, Suresh,” said the voice. “I saw him outside this evening and he looked pretty disoriented.”
“Oh,” I said. He was still alive. My breaths were shallow and audible.
“He couldn’t seem to remember where he was headed,” the voice said. “I was with him about half an hour. Is his address 84 Verity?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Good, I saw him go inside, but just wanted to check he was in the right place. He seemed upset, though I couldn’t quite understand everything he was saying. Bit of an accent. Does he live alone?”
“Is there anyone who can come and stay with him? I don’t mean to pry but I saw this kind of thing happen with my own late father—”
“I’ll come.” As soon as I said it, I knew it was right. “Thank you for everything you did,” I added, then I hung up, because I had no interest in hearing about Kevin Ransom’s dead dad. I called my own father five times. Six times. Seven. Each time it went straight to voicemail. I called the landline, but then I remembered we no longer had a landline. I threw my phone, but the grass was wet and the phone stuck straight up out of the mud unscathed. I retrieved it, then remembered I had my father’s location through his Apple watch. I tracked it. He was home. I would continue checking this until I got there. I would track him. I would be there.
I headed inside the house, hands muddy. Leo was still sitting cross-legged on the couch. He turned to look at me and I thought about that photo I’d liked so much. I thought about all the things I’d learned about him—how his nose reddened first thing in the morning, how he sang the same show tunes under his breath when he watered his plants, how he’d gotten almost every scar on his body, how when he didn’t know a word I’d used, his facial expression edged towards anger rather than confusion, which struck me as both toxic and masculine, and and and—
As I stood before him in the silvery dusk light, I could picture Leo as an old man, lean and sinewy, some brittle, shrunken brown woman beside him, but that couldn’t be me. Already, he looked like someone I’d met long ago. Had his face always been so rigid, so hardened? Outside, a robin was chirring, its call another message beyond my grasp.
“I have to get to San Jose,” I told Leo. “I think my dad is sick.” I sank into the cushion beside him. His right hand made its way to my thigh where it rested with an interesting familiarity. “I can’t ignore it any longer,” I said into Leo’s neck. He did not know what I meant. He did not ask.
Part of me half-hoped that he would offer to drive with me—some back drawer of my brain entertained wild ideas of co-listening to an audiobook through Arkansas, motel sex in Tulsa, the New Mexico sky bright and hard as bone, the gaping purple mouth of the Grand Canyon, the fragrant garlic fields of middle California, the rolling vineyards outside my hometown swaying, beckoning to us as I brought him closer to the house my mother had so loved—but he just said, “I’ll help you pack.”
Over a month in this house now and I’d wondered all along how I would find the limit. A relief to reach the end of what he’d do for me, the end of what I meant. We folded my clothes in silence, his stack tidier and sharper than mine. I would leave early tomorrow.
After dinner, we drank espresso and stayed up late. Our bare backs against the carpet of his bedroom, heads turned towards each other, a straw-colored strand of dog hair stuck to his eyelash. “I’ve never spent this much consecutive time with another person before,” he confessed. I hadn’t either.
He didn’t ask me when I would be back. We both knew that whatever had kept us here together was no more; we could feel it between us, slackness where before there had been taut wire. There on the floor of his bedroom, I made my own confession. I told him I’d never felt this way before. It was the truth. But equally true: I didn’t want to feel this way again, so small, so translucent.
I slipped out of bed as the sun rose. He was still sleeping, legs twitching like a dreaming dog’s. The creak of his front door, the click of its closing. The dawn sky was raw and bare of clouds. I lifted my face to meet the wind. One day I’d drive past this house and see grown chickens pecking in the front yard, strutting and jerking about like royalty, but for now, I would drive westward, until I reached the brink.