Art: Reality Bites
By her twenties, Susannah had come to believe that pain was a kind of currency. Everyone had something they always wanted to do someday, and most people were willing to pay for their dreams with pain. Once she realized this truth, she saw it everywhere, even in the places she’d least expect. When she’d been shunned by her classmates, including the Brahmin Indian kids, for example, the elementary school librarian, an elderly black woman wearing chunky jewelry and a heady rose perfume, had given her The Velveteen Rabbit, and it had quickly become her favorite book. She believed it was about how love made you real. But twenty years later, when she read the book to her babysitting charge, she realized that the stuffed rabbit became real not so much because of the power of a small boy’s love, but because after he endured the pain of being taunted by real rabbits and the small boy abandoned him, a fairy recognized he deserved to be real. So it was the pain perhaps, not the love, that served as a catalyst.
For Susannah’s boyfriend Drew, the dream was to become a successful marijuana farmer, and it was only late in their relationship that she understood he would sacrifice everything to it.
It was 2004, and they had been together for over four years. The grow room had a wild smell, a forbidding swirl of marijuana, fresh paint and animal droppings. Drew was down on his hands and knees tending to the girls in their white buckets, slowly clipping their sticky leaves with great concentration.
“No. This needs to be done right and doing things right takes time.” He wiped sweat from his freckled brow. A dealer Drew had met just days before wanted to pick up a dozen dime bags that night.
“You’re using a shit ton of energy with these lights.”
“Don’t use some environmental excuse to nag me.”
“They’re waiting for us. They don’t like when we’re late.” Trying not to beg, Susannah added, “Come on! It’s a free meal.”
“Look, I already told you I would go, so I’ll go. But I gotta get this done first.” He continued to clip silently. His strawberry-blonde hair and tiny hoop earrings gleamed. The halide light bounced hot and white off the dimpled silver foil tacked against the wall.
Forty minutes later, Susannah hurried into the dimly lit Thai restaurant, alone and irritated. Her parents were already sitting at a table for four, and they didn’t remark on Drew’s absence at first. But when they finished ordering, pink linen napkins drooping on their laps like injured birds, her father said, “So Drew couldn’t make it, huh?”
“No, he was busy with a project.”
“Isn’t he unemployed?”
“Yes. But he has projects. I don’t know why you can’t understand that.”
“We’d like to talk to you.”
“We’re worried.” Her mother fidgeted with her napkin and adjusted her batik tunic.
“How serious is this relationship?” her father asked, the dark orange-pink slivers of his papaya salad hovering near his mouth.
“Serious,” she said, meeting his gaze.
“Like marriage-serious?” Above them by the wall, a giant gold Buddha loomed over their conversation.
“I dunno,” Susannah said. The waiter set Tom Kha and pad thai noodles on the table. She shoveled the noodles into her mouth too quickly—hot and sweet. She ate so quickly they felt like slippery worms in her mouth. Her parents disapproved so strongly, there was no room to question her relationship with Drew at all.
“Because he doesn’t act like it.” Her father’s elbows were on the tablecloth and his fingers were clenching and unclenching. Her heart tightened in response to his worry. They had married outside their castes and against their own parents’ wishes. In her purse, at that moment, there was a wedding photo of them that she had taken from their photo album when she went to college, and carried around like a sentimental fool. A barebones ceremony, her mother wearing an ordinary sari—as if it were any old day—almost no guests, none of the usual family support. “He doesn’t act like it’s serious, and if someone isn’t serious, you really should move on.”
“And he smokes,” her mother said, dabbing white soup from her lips with a napkin. She was referring to cigarettes, not marijuana—drugs of any kind would have been a whole other issue. “He’s not very smart, is he? He didn’t go to college. He doesn’t care about his health. You can’t have a family with someone like that.”
“I’m not any better than him.” They continued to eat in silence.
Towards the end of the meal, Susannah’s father announced in a more cheerful tone, “I’ve been watching The Bachelor.”
Susannah snorted. The reality show where one relentlessly boring white man was pursued by a bevy of shiny, hopeful girls that usually included at least one sociopath. Her father continued, “And it seems to me that American men are not looking for a commitment with girls who just hang all over them. I mean, it’s disgusting, the way these American girls just throw themselves on this one guy. I just don’t want you to be like those girls.”
“You’re offering me dating tips from The Bachelor?” Susannah asked. You can act according to the script for Tamil culture or the script for American culture, he would claim, but you can’t pick and choose what you like from each script.
“Well, yes. Dating in America is so different from what we had in India, you know, and these reality shows are really giving me an idea of how it works.”
“They edit reality shows, you know, they’re not real.” Susannah stabbed at her tofu without eating. She wished she could honestly tell her father that he didn’t understand American social rules at all, and that’s why he didn’t understand her decisions, but she wasn’t sure she would go that far. She was a bit of a freak regardless of what cultural standards were being used.
A few minutes later, Susannah’s mom volunteered, “We could put up a matrimonial ad. The other day I heard from Anjali’s mom. Remember how I told you she couldn’t find anyone? Her parents put out an ad and found a suitable match with an engineer from Bangalore. Do you want us to do that?” She did not say outright that nobody would want Susannah, with her dark skin and flat nose, if she waited much longer, but this was what Susannah heard. She was only twenty-six, and none of her friends were married, but to her Tamil mother, she was reaching the end of her shelf life.
Susannah considered asking what Indian would answer an ad that told the truth—after all, her mother had lost her Brahmin status and, for many years, her ties to her family, just for marrying her father. But her mother’s chocolate brown eyes looked bright and wounded, so she said instead, “Anjali is one of those nasty girls who told me I wasn’t really Indian when we were in school together because you never did a thread ceremony for me and I have a Western name. I can’t believe you still talk to her mother.”
“You never told me she said that. What ignorance.”
“Of course, I told you! You just blocked it out the way you do everything you don’t like.”
Her parents looked at each other, but said nothing. When her father left for the bathroom, her mother said in a soft voice, “I just don’t want you to be alone your whole life.”
“What do you want from me? I’m not alone.”
“Life is so hard. Marrying someone that is looking in the same direction makes it easier. You and Drew are so different.”
Susannah wanted to ask how well her mother had known her dad in the three months before they married, and whether she would do it again, knowing the isolation that would come from being just the three of them alone in a foreign country, but instead she said, “Mom, come on, you don’t even know him.”
When she returned to the warehouse, Drew and Apollo were watching Adult Swim at a tilt, sitting on the couch with a missing leg. A pungent spliff still fumed in the ashtray, a brilliant orange gleam on a balsa coffee table stippled with ash and cluttered with spare car parts and the metal guts of a half-built computer.
Susannah slumped on the armrest of the couch, and stared at the screen. The thought of dumping Drew made her heart feel small and cramped—wasn’t true love supposed to transcend all that? Her parents had been so in love at one point, they flouted all convention and escaped to another continent to start a new life.
Sometimes you find someone hot because they trigger a secret, rarely traversed corner of your psyche, because they induce a strong click of recognition inside you. Other times you lust after them only because they aren’t who you expect them to be. Drew was neither of these. Apollo was both.
Apollo was lean and black with a voice like molten gold. “I’m a cinephile. I want to make films,” he said, one evening early in his acquaintance with Susannah when Drew was out delivering marijuana to a buyer.
“What’s your favorite movie?”
“Hard to say,” he said. “There are so many.”
Susannah smiled and turned back to her book, ready to dismiss him as a pretty face.
“In a Lonely Place and Bridge Over the River Kwai. It’s a tie.”
“You serious?” A jab of delight.
“You thought I’d answer with some Spike Lee title? Or maybe—”
“Not at all. But that decade for film is my favorite, too. For the quietly glamorous films, more than the grim ones.”
“Quietly glamorous like what?”
Susannah was taken aback again. Drew rarely asked her questions about herself, and they usually watched the movies he wanted to watch, full of pointless irreverence and fart jokes. “Roman Holiday.” They compared notes about film until Drew came home a few hours later, needing Susannah to help him trim leaves for another delivery.
The following week, Drew’s parents, who were retirees, invited them to dinner with some of their friends. They drove an hour and a half to their mansion in the hills and ate under heat lamps on the patio at a redwood table overlooking a novitiate, where nuns-in-training made marzipan and wine. Drew’s mother had dyed her hair auburn and introduced Susannah to her friends, as she always did, as Drew’s friend, not his girlfriend. Drew did not correct her. Susannah smiled politely and shook hands.
Drew’s parents asked how he was doing, and he lied, claiming he was doing some freelance work for an animation company. “How’s that extra bedroom for another renter coming?” his father asked. He passed her a glass of Two Buck Chuck—a $2.00 Pinot Noir. Drew had told her that they saved their special reserve wines for romantic evenings alone, the opposite of Susannah’s parents, who only ever brought out their best for guests. “Can I get my tools back?” Drew had borrowed tools to build the grow room.
“It’s all done,” Drew said. “It looks fantastic. I’ll show you pictures sometime.”
“You look so handsome these days, Drew. Just like a younger version of your dad,” said one of the friends. She pushed her purple designer glasses back up on her attenuated nose. “And handy, too! I bet Susannah appreciates that. It’s getting so expensive in the Bay Area to hire folks to help around the house.”
Susannah smiled and nodded.
“Drew’s friend just graduated law school,” Drew’s mother said.
“Oh, are you planning to be a corporate lawyer?” another woman wearing garish pink lipstick and culottes asked Susannah.
“No, environmental. Plaintiff’s side.”
“Oh. Isn’t that interesting,” said the woman, conveying with her tone that it was not interesting at all. She began eating the arugula salad that Drew’s mother put in front of her.
“I keep trying to get her to interview with blue chip firms so I can retire and we can be fabulously wealthy,” Drew said. “But she’s a do-gooder.”
“Well, I think that’s wonderful. Just so long as you’re not planning to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center or some kooky liberal organization like that,” said Drew’s father. Drew’s mother started to reminisce about the good old days when you could get a colored girl to clean your house for cheap. Colored girl. Although she was Indian, Susannah wondered if Drew’s parents saw her as the colored girl with whom their son was “friends,” and then she seethed, thinking that Drew let them see her that way.
On the ride home, they listened to rap music, not speaking. An intense heat wave had arrived in Oakland, and the moment they walked into the warehouse, Drew turned on an industrial-strength fan. Susannah went into the kitchen. She didn’t want to clean it again. It took Drew three or four days to bother loading his dishwasher, and in the meantime, he stacked the dishes high inside the sink, and then barricaded the edges with five more towers.
“I can’t do this, I can’t do this. I hate the smell. I hate this lifestyle. Can’t you just cut back? Just a little?” She threw a metal spoon into the careful pagoda of dishes. A cup at the top slid off and all the other cups followed, landing with a clatter. She palmed sweat from her forehead.
Drew said something, and they yelled back and forth, not able to understand each other over the wind from the fan, until Drew turned it down. “No. I mean, come on, Susannah. You knew this was me going in.”
He stepped back towards the refrigerator.
“But you weren’t growing back then.”
“What do you want me to do? I got a medical card. Yes, I know, it’s just for personal use, but the police aren’t coming into this warehouse and they wouldn’t care. My best doesn’t seem to be good enough for you.”
“Maybe we should break up.”
“Is that what you want?” He grabbed a Red Bull from the refrigerator.
“No, but I want you to see yourself, really see yourself,” Susannah said, crossing her arms. “You’re an addict. And your friends are addicts. The worst part is you think you’re normal.”
“Pot isn’t addictive, and it’s not like I ever told you I was normal. If you’ll remember, I warned you I was just the opposite.”
“You use pot as a crutch. You can’t start your day without it, not an hour passes without you smoking it. How can you not see how depressing that is?”
“So I’m a wake and bake stoner. If it’s so depressing, why be with me?”
“Because I love you.” Just as the words left her lips, she realized they weren’t quite true anymore. He never probed who she was, he never criticized her—they were comfortable together—but had he ever really seen her?
“Listen, the world is cruel. It’s a fucked-up place,” Drew said. “I need something to make it less terrible, so what?” Silence. A hiss after he cracked the aluminum tab back to open his drink.
Susannah took a deep breath, trying not to say too bluntly the angry things she was really thinking. “You keep saying it’s fucked-up. But really, your parents are filthy rich and you’re talented. This world was designed for people like you.”
“Well, I told you about my issues from the beginning.”
“I should have believed you.” Susannah stomped into the warehouse bathroom. He didn’t follow.
Drew promised their relationship would be entertaining. It was during their fourth date, a night of chicken tikka masala and a Kabuki-influenced theater performance about a green bird. He had passed her Indian food test, by agreeing to eat some form of it, even though he would have preferred steak. Back then she found him so charming and sweet, she didn’t quibble that chicken tikka masala wasn’t truly Indian, but a British bastardization of Punjabi cuisine.
Later she would see that in those early swooning stages, Drew humored her. Neither of them fit with their workaholic families, who had moved to the Bay Area from rural, traditional places. Both of them hated corporations and the man. They were two amiable fuck-ups seeking solace in the oddness of each other, but somehow they didn’t match.
They were walking up Arch Street to Susannah’s apartment when she asked Drew what his tragic flaw would be. The wind picked up long ochre and sienna-colored leaves as they climbed the steep hill, passing them forward like batons.
“Tragic flaw? What do you mean?” he asked, lighting a Nat Sherman cigarette and holding it out to her. She shook her head. He took a drag.
“Everyone has one. Like Hamlet might say that his flaw was being indecisive. Romeo might say he fell in love too fast. Frasier might say his was being pretentious. Or maybe the characters wouldn’t say, but other people, professors, would. You know what I mean.”
“Jesus. Does anyone watch Frasier anymore?”
“Don’t keep me in suspense.”
“I just want to say the right thing.”
“There is no right answer.”
“Well, I mean it’s not like I have no flaws.” He had big bones and stood there like a fairytale giant, a shelter, with the wind blowing his wispy strawberry blonde hair back. Enormous and unapologetic.
“Ha, I hope not,” Susannah said, tapping her boot on the pavement. “You’d be boring if you had no flaws.”
“My flaw is…I’m always trying to make girls laugh.”
“Not exactly what I had in mind. I was thinking something sad,” she said. She started walking down Scenic Avenue towards her apartment and he followed.
“Oh, trust me. I want it so much, it is sad. Though I’m sure all the shrinks my mom dragged me to would come up with other stuff.”
“What flaws would they say?”
“Oh, god, it’s what they’ve already said, which is ev-erything,” he said. “ADHD. Oppositional defiant disorder. Bipolar disorder. Narcissistic personality disorder. Conduct disorder. Since I was five, my mom had them watching me in a little room to figure out what was wrong with me, observing how I played. They all had different diagnoses. You name it, I’ve been diagnosed with it.”
“No, she thought something was wrong with me. Really all I wanted was her attention.” Viewed through the lens of diagnosis, Drew’s calmness seemed peculiar, rather than organic, something to fear rather than trust as Susannah had been doing. “I was on a boatload of pills until I was eighteen. Then I refused to take them. But pot keeps me feeling normal.” He had not been curious what Susannah’s tragic flaw was and she didn’t know what she would have answered.
In her kitchen, she uncorked a bottle of sparkling wine. The cork narrowly missed Drew’s head as it sailed towards the blue and pink chalk messages on the blackboard her roommates had stolen from TGI Fridays. She poured the champagne into two garage sale beer steins. Drew handed her a black market Vicodin and she washed it down. Meanwhile he busied himself at the kitchen table, shaking a trail of pot into the center third of a rolling paper and arranging the flecks with thick, freckled fingers.
Susannah wondered how his parents could put him in a room to be observed when he was five—however much her parents annoyed her, she could never imagine them trusting someone else to tell them who she was—and a wave of tenderness washed over her as she imagined Drew as a little boy, slowly becoming aware that people were watching him as he played, the odd paranoia he might have felt.
He finished rolling the spliff. “To our relationship. I can promise it will be entertaining,” he said, as he clinked his glass against hers.
When Apollo came home, the heavy metal door to the warehouse slammed behind him. He and Drew began talking and Apollo admitted he’d lost his job. “So I was late to work. Again,” he said, his sheepishness plain in his voice. “But I also think they were looking for an excuse to fire me.”
“I’m sorry, man,” Drew said. Someone turned on the television—another cartoon with its sounds of wascally wabbits falling off cliffs and a popgun going off like fireworks.
Susannah washed her face in the sink, thinking about the matrimonial ad her mother could place. To draw interest from an Indian, it should say something like “Fair Brahmin woman with wheatish skin seeks handsome young doctor.” But those were lies; she was not fair, she was not a Brahmin, nor another upper caste category that could be specified; she was, quite specifically, an outcaste, a misfit by all the standards.
When she emerged from the bathroom, Apollo and Drew stopped talking. Drew looked down at his book. Apollo was extremely handsome, distractingly so when he looked at Susannah. Even his gaze unnerved her. She slipped into the bedroom to continue eavesdropping in peace, but neither of them said anything notable. Eventually Drew came to bed, and they fucked, the kind of clawing and sweating and writhing that led to an intense orgasm on his part and a faked one on hers. After a fight like that, their relationship was too fragile not to do it. As usual, Drew was out of condoms and he pulled out before coming.
“We’re going to be late,” Susannah said. She stood by the front door, winding a scarf around her neck.
“Let me just finish rolling my joint.” Seeing Susannah’s irritation, Drew said, “What? You know I can’t sit through the whole movie without it.” As she waited for him to finish rolling, and knowing they would be late to the movie, she could not stop thinking about her parents. Every time she thought of their worried faces, and juxtaposed them with the entitled yuppie obliviousness of Drew’s parents, the more anxious she grew.
But as they hurried to the movie theater, a homeless Latino man asked for change, and Drew paused to hand him a $20. “Need change?” the man asked.
“Nah, man, keep it,” Drew said. She squeezed his hand as they continued towards the theater.
When they returned from the movie, Drew had to drop a bag off with a customer. Susannah was supposed to be studying for the bar exam, but instead she started cleaning the warehouse. She was going through her purse, throwing away receipts and old business cards, when she noticed that Apollo was watching her from the couch. “What’s gotten into you?”
Susannah shook her head. “I’m sick of this.”
“The mess? It does get pretty filthy around here. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. Who lives like this? Who would put up with this extravagantly unsuccessful pot farm?”
“Somebody would. It’s not like being fucked up precludes you from being loved.”
“I know that.”
“My mother put up with my dad’s affair for thirty years. He’s had a mistress for thirty years. Can you imagine? But she’s still putting up with him. Are your parents still married?”
“An arranged marriage?”
“No, they married outside their castes, outside their religions. It was a love match.” Both families had been equally unhappy with the marriage, which was seen as something shameful, impure and wrong. Her father’s Dalit Catholic family from a village was suspicious of her mother’s fair-skinned Brahmin family. Brahmin ideology, a policy of not even allowing a Dalit in their home or to touch their food or doing anything besides scavenge, was what had motivated their escape to Catholicism. Her mother’s clan disdained her father and his family for being untouchables, and they much care for her either. For a moment Susannah thought she would elaborate to Apollo, but she didn’t want to share something she’d never even shared with Drew.
“I thought all Indian people got arranged marriages. Were they rebels?”
“Rebels? I guess so.” Susannah had never thought of her parents this way, as people to be admired. She blushed. Something about the hungry way he was looking at her from under his long lashes made her feel like he was drinking her down.
At the start of their relationship, the perpetual haze of smoke was novel and romantic, a respite from student life. Susannah didn’t know Drew dreamed of having a hydroponic marijuana farm. She’d lug legal textbooks to his apartment and after she studied, they got high, had sex, crashed, and woke up to the hypnotic drum of the winter rain steaming up the windows, the grinding pulse of dance music on Drew’s alarm clock.
“Do you think I’m pretty?” Susannah asked Drew one night. They’d been dating for about a year and were lying in bed spooning in the dark. The neighbor downstairs had been pounding on the ceiling of her apartment with a broom handle to tell them to shut up while they were fucking, and now they could hear her storming around in her own bedroom.
“Yes, you’re the most beautiful girlfriend I’ve ever had,” Drew said. He pulled her tightly toward him, hugging her like he could make her real.
Susannah laughed. She was the girl who wore thick coke-bottle spectacles until she went to college. She probably should have gotten orthodontia as a little girl, but her parents had spent the income from her dad’s engineering job to open her mother’s restaurant and market in Fremont, and then expanded it into a chain.
“Don’t get me wrong, you don’t look like anyone else, but weird is a good thing. I Your eyes! You have the most beautiful strange eyes. And of course, you’re the smartest girlfriend I’ve had, too,” he said, hugging me.
The smart part seemed rather obvious, but the weight of Drew appraising her face this way—when her parents, relatives and friends had always found her lacking and ugly—stunned her. This tiny compliment was so heavy that it carried her away from all the friends that told her Drew wouldn’t amount to anything, that he was nothing but a stone gathering moss and force as it rolled downhill, pulling her down with him.
“Someday I’m going to take you around the world,” she said, imagining the kinds of adventures they could go on once she had a decently paying law firm job.
He smiled. “Amsterdam?”
“I was thinking more like Morocco or Chile or Iceland. Oh I know, the Galapagos,” she said, thinking of places that her friends and family had never been. “Some place strange and special. Like our relationship.”
“I’d settle for Amsterdam. It would be easy to find weed there,” he said and reached for his pipe.
After the bar exam, in August, Susannah discovered that Drew had hemorrhaged all his money that summer investing in his farm. She’d just started a job as a first year associate at an environmental law firm in downtown Oakland and she assumed he’d take up a sys admin job again or go back to school. In her elaborate daydreams, they would move in together, getting married and having kids. Her parents would get used to him, if he were their son-in-law.
She kept waiting for their happily-ever-after to materialize, but difficulties continued to mount. Next month, the water company shut off water to the warehouse. Not wanting the girls to die, Drew took a crowbar to the sidewalk and pried up the concrete lid of the water tank. He cranked the water back on. And then the electricity was shut off. They lit the warehouse with white candle tapers, and the place smelled like dripping wax, looked funereal.
Apollo complained, but he hadn’t paid rent. Without the halide lights, the girls wilted. Drew took them one by one to the backyard to suck up some of the faint autumn sunlight. He lined them up on the cold backyard deck beside the chain link fence, but there wasn’t enough sunlight, and they couldn’t be revived.
When the East Bay Municipal District realized Drew had tampered with the faucet, they fined him. He could not pay the fine or the overdue electricity bill, so Susannah wrote him a check for a grand. “I’ll pay you back soon.” He asked his parents for another loan.
One night, when Drew had fallen asleep on the couch, a twinge passed through her abdomen. She ran cold fingers under her T-shirt and across her stomach. It was starting to bulge with a hardness she’d never felt there before. She hadn’t gotten her period since summer. Later, all three over-the-counter pregnancy sticks confirmed her suspicion.
The following week, she and Apollo were sitting up late on the couch watching old movies. Drew was at a friend’s house mooching off the friend’s weed, since he no longer had any of his own. Apollo was drinking a bottle of Cabernet and offered Susannah some, but she declined, claiming to be on antibiotics. Sitting a foot away, Apollo was wearing a Lakers basketball jersey, which set off his dark coppery skin. She could smell his cologne, something musky and dark, but sweet like decaying apples and good sex. She watched him out of the corner of her eye as Bogie kissed Ingrid Bergman, wondering if anything would happen.
“How’s your job search going?” she asked.
He shook his head, “It’s not.”
“Maybe you should apply to film school?”
“Yeah, I’m thinking ’bout it.” He waved a hand dismissively and leaned towards Susannah. They kissed, a gentle kiss, a sweet kiss that tasted like wine and orange Tic-Tacs. But then their noses knocked against each other. His warm hands were running up her arms, and suddenly they were too close. She couldn’t breath. She pulled away.
Apollo hovered in front of her face for a second, like he was about to confront her, but then he took a big swig of wine. She looked at her hands, and wondered what to say.
He said, “I think this is cheap, what the screenwriter did here. Why doesn’t Ilsa just refuse to go? She doesn’t love that guy.”
“She knows deep down that her future is with Laszlo, maybe. They’ve got a higher purpose.”
“Isn’t love the highest purpose?” Apollo said, looking right at her with his large clear eyes. For a split second, she saw recognition there. “Staying with Rick would be worth the consequences, wouldn’t it?”
“There’s no purpose to pain.” She was too attracted to Apollo not to push him away. “Suffering is a constant, but it’s completely meaningless.”
“It all means something someday,” Apollo said.
“Someday never comes.”
To her surprise, Apollo laughed. “Damn! You’re so cynical.”
Realizing he was drunk, she started to feel queasy. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you’d think you were really put upon from the way you talk. Indian girls! You’re such princesses.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let me guess. You probably have a rich family and you’ve lived all your life totally sheltered in the suburbs wishing you were white. Your parents paid for college and law school. You went to law school partly to please them, but also because you have no passions. Your parents probably hate black people.” He hadn’t actually liked her, Susannah realized with a pang of despair, as he chugged more wine.
“My family doesn’t hate black people,” she said. Trying not to cry from disappointment, she kept her eyes trained to the television screen as Rick said, “Louis, I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.” They moseyed through the deep grey fog towards the glimmering lights. The music swelled.
A week later, Susannah still hadn’t told Drew about the baby, simply wearing bigger and bigger suit jackets buttoned over her belly to work. Drew didn’t notice. He was worried that Apollo hadn’t paid rent for three months.
“He’s not even trying to pay me. I mean he just smokes my pot and hangs out all day,” complained Drew, swiveling away from his workspace.
“That’s what you do,” Susannah reminded him. Ever since Apollo had told her what he thought of her, she’d burned with shame. Last week, Apollo had cooked dinner with ingredients she’d purchased, including gravy so decadent you wanted to swim in it. During dinner, Susannah dropped little facts about her life, facts about how poor she’d grown up, about how ostracized she’d been, facts to show Apollo he was wrong about her, but he showed no surprise. He seemed to have forgotten all about their kiss.
“That’s different. It’s my place.”
Susannah didn’t say what she was thinking, that Drew’s parents were “loaning” him money to pay the rent on the warehouse, not knowing he had maxed out his credit cards on equipment and plants for the grow operation. “Mm-hmm.”
“I’m gonna lock him out.” Drew picked up an X-Men comic.
“You can’t do that under California law.”
“What’s he gonna do? Call the cops?”
“Maybe. Apollo’s not a bad guy, you know.”
“Why are you on his side?”
“I’m not, I just don’t want you doing something illegal.”
“I’m not running a halfway house,” said Drew. “Gonna do it. My parents think I should kick him out.”
“They think you should break the law?” Susannah asked.
“Well, they won’t loan me the money to start the eviction process properly, so in effect.”
Late that afternoon, Drew changed the locks on the front door.
They were fixing dinner when they heard the clank of the metal door being kicked. “You fucking piece of shit. Let me in! I live here. I need my shit, man! Let me in!”
“Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin,” she whispered, still bitter about what Apollo had said. Then a wave of guilt—Apollo was so obviously distraught—but Drew laughed. The odor of fresh basil stained the cold kitchen air. Sesame oil sizzled in the wok. A few minutes later: a sharp cracking, a breaking.
“Oh fuck, the lock.” Drew ran for the front door. At first, Susannah continued stirring the broccoli with a slotted spoon, but since she couldn’t quite make out their words, she stopped and tried to listen. They shouted obscenities, mostly fuck yous, at each other.
Clanging against the concrete floor.
Susannah dialed 911 on her mobile phone.
“Help! There’s a fight here.” She told the police dispatcher the address.
Just as she entered the front hallway, Apollo wrested himself from a headlock and leaned back. He was wearing a red flannel shirt that looked like he’d been sleeping in it for days. He was holding a strawberry-kiwi Snapple bottle over his head. Before Susannah could say anything, he slammed it down hard on Drew’s skull. Drew collapsed on the floor, kneeling before Apollo like a supplicant, before losing consciousness and slumping to the floor. A thin stream of blood trickled down his forehead.
“Shit, man. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I’ve been drinking and…” Apollo kneeled for a split second to look at Drew, then jumped up and ran out the front door. Susannah kneeled beside Drew in confusion.
Moments later, two OPD officers knocked. Susannah answered the door. “Who called?” they asked. Drew was blinking and regaining consciousness. Without thinking, she told the police about Apollo. They ran back into the night to find him as the screaming whine of sirens approached. She slipped outside for a minute to wave the emergency responders into the warehouse. The air smelled like plastic burning, as it often did when the neighbors were smoking crack. Far down the wide empty street lined with warehouses, she saw Apollo being handcuffed.
His face gleamed by moonlight. Even from ten feet away his eyes looked big and confused, like he wasn’t all there in that moment. There were a lot of things Susannah thought of calling after him —she was his lawyer, he shouldn’t answer any questions, it would be all right— but she couldn’t figure out the right thing to say and so she said nothing. As the responders came up to the door with a stretcher, she motioned them inside. Not a single officer commented about the smell of pot or the lit spliff in an ashtray in the kitchen; nobody even asked to see a medical card. Drew had been right—nobody cared about his tiny infractions.
As she watched the responders tend to Drew, carefully transferring him to a stretcher and wheeling it out the door, she realized what her tragic flaw was—she was so afraid she didn’t belong, she would choose the power of being alone and aloof over dedicating herself to someone and finding out for sure. But, of course, she would have lied if anybody asked her.
When Drew returned from the hospital after midnight, Susannah made instant ramen, and set a bowl in front of him. “I’m pregnant.” She handed him a spoon.
“What? You are? But I pulled out every time.” He looked at her stomach. “How much are abortions?”
“I’m going to keep it.”
He pled with her, pointing out that he wasn’t ready to be a father. He said he hoped he would be ready someday and she would still be around then. “Just look at me,” he said, trying to be funny, pointing at the stiches on his head. “I can’t even take care of myself.”
The more he talked about his inability to function in the world or care for someone else, the more Susannah knew she couldn’t be with him anymore. A thought blossomed in her mind. All her life, she’d only known one story about love: you sacrificed everything else for it. This was what her parents had been afraid of, that after gorging on this one story she would mistake pain and adversity and sacrifice for love. Surprised at her thoughts, she burst into tears and went into their bedroom to pack and type an email to her boss.
She would not see Drew for many years after that, and then only in passing at a burger joint in Berkeley; his strawberry blonde hair had grown into a ponytail and he was with a skinny blonde woman who was dressed in a long purple skirt and Renaissance Faire peasant top. The baby was at kindergarten, so there was no reason to speak. Susannah nodded to Drew, and kept walking by, like they were only acquaintances.
That night, when Susannah arrived at the original location of her parents’ chain restaurant and market, Madras Magic, with her old blue suitcase and a hatchback full of odds and ends, they were working, as they always were. They said they didn’t want her to have the baby either.
All around the store, they’d strung tiny colored lights, red and gold and green. They blinked on and off, as her parents talked at her, first yelling, and then when that didn’t work, appealing to her sense of logic, and then when all else failed, simply stating what they thought should be obvious to her.
“You’re ruining your life,” her mother said. She was kneeling in the snack aisle, stocking big plastic bags of murukku and sev on the lowest rack.
“I don’t care. I’m committed to doing this, and it’s the happiest thing that ever happened to me.”
“You should have an abortion,” her father said, coming out from behind the cash register with his stainless steel cup of filter coffee. “Is it the money? We’ll pay for it. You’re simply not thinking this through. How are you going to raise a baby as a single mother at a law firm?”
Susannah decided not to tell them she’d asked for a leave from work. “It’s not the money. And it’s too late for an abortion.”
“Susannah, you don’t understand how hard it is for those women. You don’t know how expensive childcare is in the Bay Area. And taking care of a baby is hard, harder than being a lawyer. And paavum, that baby growing up without a father! This isn’t the life we want for you.” Her mother jumped up with an indignant expression.
Susannah wanted to say that all she wanted was someone in the world who was like her, who loved her, who needed her, who belonged with her, and after all, even if she was going about it from a different direction, a painful direction, wasn’t having a family what her mother had wanted for her? But Susannah’s mother walked to the other side of the store where a metal statue of Saraswathi, the goddess of wisdom, sat wreathed in fresh marigolds. She kneeled before the statue, lit sandalwood incense, and began to pray. Susannah’s father returned to the front of the store, shaking his head.
There was no precedent for what she was doing—had any Tamil girl in all of America’s history had a baby out of wedlock? Doubtful, but then again, they probably wouldn’t tell the story of it. There hadn’t been a precedent for her parents either, and in spite of their faces, heavy with disappointment, it had turned out okay for them. She might never travel the world, nor be a famous environmental lawyer, nor force her parents to understand her, but once upon a time, long, long ago, they’d flown across a vast ocean just so they could live by their own rules. This was not the life anyone would have envisioned for her, but in the end, she was only doing what her parents had done, making up the rules that would lead to her future. There was nobody she belonged to, until one day there was.
Anita Felicelli’s short stories appear or are forthcoming in Juked, Kweli Journal, The Rumpus, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Normal School, and elsewhere. She has contributed nonfiction to the New York Times, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, and Los Angeles Review of Books. She is the author of a poetry collection, Letters to an Albatross (BlazeVox, 2010), and other books. She was born in South India, but grew up in Northern California, where she lives with her family. She tweets sometimes: @anitafelicelli.