Dear all - I mentioned that I had done a reading of my work at a literary bar a few weeks ago. This is what I read; and is probably what I will submit as a chapter sample to a publishing house once I get my book proposal done!
* * *
For my date with Reindeer I wake up extra early to wash and style my hair. I decide to wear a brown skirt, hot pink shell, and light pink sweater. When the train pulls into the Westchester station I spot Reindeer, leaning against his car, sporting his shades in the manner of a Bollywood legend. It is times like this I feel certain a bhangra song is going to slowly begin around me, the soft lilt of a flute, and the gentle tap-tap-tap of the tabla. Until it crescendos into an ensemble of 50 color-coordinated extras dancing while Reindeer and I lip-sync to India’s number one hit song. I can’t help it. I grew up watching subtitled Bollywood movies.
Reindeer greets me with a hug, which is nice, but by now, shouldn’t we be moving onto a peck on the cheek or lips?
“I went to the farmers market this morning,” he says.
“Sounds nice,” I reply as we get into the car.
He lives about five minutes from the Metro North station and parks the car in the back of the building, under a shady tree. The exterior of his building is a 1970s design with a flat roof. However inside his apartment I am stunned. His décor rivals anything I have ever seen, including the cover of Interior Design magazine. Everything is artfully placed in this contemporary space filled with deep rich brown leather chairs (bad Hindu) and a couch accented with red pillows and a chenille throw.
The unfortunate living room detail is the wall clad in mirrors. Another 1970s tactic to make the room seem bigger, when it really leaves you feeling a little dirty like a porn star once lived here. The bathroom has a gigantic Jacuzzi tub and a large vase of curly willows. Since Reindeer rents, I’d like to believe he is not the one who painted the bathroom walls Pepto Bismol pink.
His bedroom is spacious but sparse, with a bed and a dresser.
“It’s time for juice – grapefruit or orange?” he asks and directs me out of the bedroom I trail behind him to the kitchen where he ties an apron around his waist.
“Grapefruit” I reply. This entire production is surreal – Martha Stewart quality Juiceman juicer, a collection of cut farmer’s market citrus fruits and an apron-ed desi man.
It takes a few minutes for him to concoct the beverages and we adjourn to the living room for a leisurely chat. Where oddly, he sits clear across the room from me.
After finishing our made-fresh-by-Reindeer-juices we leave for Stone Hill Farms. As we head towards the Tappan Zee Bridge, Reindeer explains that it is referred to as the “Tap”. Since I’m an avid viewer of the morning Road and Rail Report, despite not having a car, I already know this. But I let him be the man, and act like what he shares is fascinating.
Once off the freeway the drive becomes scenically pastoral and quaint with cows and rolling hills. The pristine view and gentle quiet, the endless grass and sky could be mistaken for central Wisconsin, not 40 minutes away from New York City.
We get out of the car and Reindeer directs me to an open air outdoor café where we order sandwiches. He selects tea, making him seem more Indian, while I opt for Diet Coke, more carbonated, more American.
We sit down to eat and suddenly his two matrimonial profiles pop into my head. It has bothered me for weeks, finding that he has two handle names in his search for mate, and that he looks at both regularly. I have very seriously begun to believe that there is a week-day version of me. I have concocted what she looks like – a very slim Indian woman with thick, straight hair, almond shaped eyes, a little darker than me, and not as smart. I rather hope she has huge boobs, so I can understand why, when the time comes, he picked her over me. A woman with bigger boobs I can accept losing a man to. Being told she is funnier or smarter than me, not so much.
I set my sandwich aside and say, “Reindeer?”
“Yes?” he replies, a little flirty, a little serious tone.
“Would you say we are dating?” He raises a brow at me and says nothing. Crap, why can’t I be subtle?
“I ask because, I enjoy seeing you, but we’ve never kissed…” I begin.
He continues to sit motionless and then says, “I’m not seeing anyone else, so sure we’re dating.”
Oh really? Then why the two profiles? What about the kissing? I do like him, but what is going on here? I worry about falling too hard and too fast. And if does not like me back, I have to implement some self-preservation. I wish I just had the steel ovaries to ask about what really troubles me - the second profile. Without surprise, the rest of the afternoon is strained. And the date ends like it began, hug, no kiss.
* * *
The following weekend Meera and I are sitting at the bar of Ono in the Meatpacking District. Meera orders wine and excuses herself for the ladies room. Empty bar stools on a Saturday night in Manhattan are a hot commodity so I pull hers closer.
I sip my club soda with lime. Since I stopped drinking, I experience everything much more vividly, including my love/hate relationship with the Meatpacking District. The trendy restaurant fare is good, but pricey. And the influx of non-Manhattan residents can be maddening, but I often think they are the smarts ones, having the sense to play in the City, just not pay for it.
“Are you here for the NYU event?” a man asks as he stands next to me.
“No. Are you?” I ask. I can’t explain how, but I just know he is Pakistani.
“Yeah, we’re having an event upstairs. I thought you were the organizer.”
What an absolutely odd thing to say to me. What kind of organizer would I be if I was sitting with my back to the door, at the bar, drinking, albeit club soda?
Meera comes back from the loo and sits down, which allows me to return my attention to her. A few minutes pass and Pakistani Guy talks to me again. Meera shrugs and checks her phone. Just as I begin to politely end conversation with Pakistani Guy, his Indian friend appears.
“Meet my friend! He is super smart guy, best in our class, great job, total catch,” Pakistani Guy says. His friend seems embarrassed but we exchange polite hellos. He is not bad looking, average height, a little stocky.
“So are you seeing anyone?” Pakistani Guy asks me.
Before my brain can formulate a sentence, Meera snaps her phone shut and says, “No, she is not.”
I glance at Meera wondering if she has forgotten Reindeer. Or is she conspiring with my cousin Ashu. Last week Ashu grilled me for details regarding my desi dating and then doled advice like a Pez dispenser on speed. “You have to play the game” “These are the rules” “Trust me I know what men want”
“Hey, this is great – he’s single too,” Pakistani Guy says, points at his friend and turns away. Meera returns to her phone, forcing me to chat with Super Smarty.
“So do you live in the City?” Super Smarty asks.
“I do, and you?” I ask.
“Hoboken. But I work in the City…” he adds.
“Wall Street,” Pakistani Guy interjects and then returns to his other conversation.
Super Smarty tells me he was born in Madras and has a married sister who lives in the Gulf. When desis say “the Gulf” we mean Persian, not of Mexico. He does most of the talking, and only stops when Pakistani Guy interrupts so say “Super Smarty is brilliant.” “He is going to be rich.” “He is going to be a great husband.” Pakistani Guy has the subtly of an Indian Auntie.
When the NYU event begins Pakistani Guy and Super Smarty get up to leave. Super Smarty pauses and says, “Can I have your phone number?”
I can feel Meera staring at me. I am pretty sure if I don’t give it to him, Meera might. So I do.
“Oh my God!” Meera squeals when they guys are gone. “That is the second guy in a bar you have picked up. I have never picked up anyone,” she says and sips her drink.
“I really like Reindeer,” I say.
She makes a face. “We have never met him. You have never met his friends. I think something is off here. You introduce your woman to your family and friends if you are serious about her.”
“Do you think Reindeer is a player?” I ask. I have not told her that he has two profiles. I am sure if I did she’d march upstairs and arrange my first date to Super Smarty.
“Absolutely not. I think he’s a dork,” she says.
The next morning I am shoving one leg and then the other into my 7 For All Mankind jeans. At $144 plus tax this is the most expensive clothing item I own. Not even my dress pants, suit jackets or down winter coat cost this much. I pull on a black and white printed I.N.C. shirt and my never worn green Franco and Sarto heels.
When Reindeer calls to let me know he is waiting in front of the building, I lock up and hop into the car.
He slides off his sunglasses, surveys my outfit and says, “I thought I said casual.”
I furrow my brows. “Jeans are my idea of casual.”
He smirks and eases the car away from the curb then heads south on Broadway.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“You’ll see,” Reindeer says.
“Did you do anything fun last night?” I ask.
“Saw a movie,” Reindeer says.
I nod and say, “With your other girlfriend?” What the? Who said that? Either I feel guilty for talking to Super Smarty or I’m being passive/aggressive about his second profile that I continue to harbor negative feelings about.
He glances at me and shakes his head. “I’m not seeing anyone else.”
Oh, I think.
He finds a metered space and says, “Can you walk in those shoes?”
I flash a bored look, “Yes.”
Reindeer nods but his body language demonstrates doubt. I’ll show him! Of course I wish I knew where we were going, that would make it easier to “show him”. As luck would have it the deli is a few blocks away. “So this Zabar’s, a New York institution. I’m showing you the sights.” This is quite sweet and thoughtful of him. “Next weekend we’re going shopping in SoHo,” he adds. Clearly he has been planning so now I feel worse about Super Smarty and Reindeer’s imaginary girlfriend I made up.
We have lunch and ice cream, then we wander through the grocery store where Reindeer spends a substantial amount of time in the coffee/tea aisle. In the bakery section Reindeer selects a chocolate babka. We hop back into the car and he takes me home.
“So I have a problem,” Reindeer says as he eases the car against the curb.
“What's that? I ask I am mildly impressed that my feet don’t hurt.
“I’m going golfing now.”
“Uh-huh,” I reply. He had already told me this on the phone when he was planning our date.
“My babka might melt in the heat,” Reindeer states.
He’s right, it might.
“So will you keep my babka? Just pop it in the freezer.”
I don’t get this man at all. He plans future dates. Has yet to kiss me, but now I am indefinitely storing his babka.
I get inside the apartment and immediately crank up the air conditioning. I put away my dress clothes and slide into my jammies. I walk past the skinny metal console that houses statues of the Hindu gods and goddesses. Day or night I can glance across the room and see Shiva, Parvati, Ganesh, Hanuman and Durga watching over me. It makes me feel safe. So I stop close my eyes and ask for some faith, instead of hope. I find hope to be letting me down these days. When I open my eyes I decide to take a nap. I was never one to nap, but sometimes, like right now, I like the escape from dealing.
Night has fallen. That is the first thing I think of when I hear the mobile phone ring. When I glance at the number, I debate answering. It’s my cousin calling from India. There is a little part of me that thinks I should let it go to voicemail, but don’t. Like a stalker who needs a restraining order, she’ll just keep calling until she gets me.
“Hello?” I ask hoping I sound bright late at night.
“Hi!” she says. “I called the land line and mobile twice yesterday why didn’t you answer? I was worried.”
How exactly am I supposed to stay mad at her and remain strong at the same time? Is this a talent all Indian women learned except me?
“How are you? You don’t sound too good,” my cousin asks. We’ve been on the phone less than a minute and I am exhausted from trying to decode the secret meaning of her words.
Deep down inside I know she would never hurt me, and given all the reasons to be suspicious in New York, she is not one of them. So I relent, “I’m fine. Just tired. It’s after midnight.”
After a long pause she says, “Yes. Each time we speak you sound like this. Defeated. I think the American life is too hard. You have no one to cook for you or drive you.”
This is not really true in New York with the MTA and million eateries. But there are other aspects of New York that are gritty and hard --- the homelessness, the cost and the competitiveness of everything.
She then says, “I think you should consider India. I can get you a really good job.” Probably because in a nation of 1 billion desis, matrimony is almost guaranteed, so she leaves out the ‘I can also find you a husband’ part.
I burrow deeper into the couch and get comfortable. These calls about my imminent spinsterhood coupled with impending poverty are seldom brief. “Look I just moved to New York nine months ago. Now you want me to move to India? No thanks.”
“What is so bad about India? You are the only American I know with issues. Thousands of goras come every day.”
“Yes, but the goras are foreigners in a foreign land. You Indian desis treat us American desis like shit. Yet fall all over white people.”
“Oh-fo! This argument again? Who cares how anyone treats you if are clearing a $100K.”
Despite being an uber chatty Chhaya, I become fiercely silent. I don’t want to live in India. Ever. Dad didn’t slog his way of that country and set up base camp in Minnesota just so 30 years later I could go back.
“How is the dating coming along?” she asks. Oh finally something in the conversation that interests me.
“Reindeer took me for a Mexican dinner a few weeks ago. He’s not a fan, but I was wanting it – sweet, no?” I say. Who knew love could be found in an endless basket of stale tortilla chips and under spiced salsa?
“Who else is there?” she asks.
“Who else is where?” I demand.
Several seconds go by. The hollow echo of my voice reverberates across the satellites. Several more seconds pass. Still I don’t hear her respond. Thinking the connection cut out, or is stuck between two coordinates; mid-beam in space I shake the phone (because that always works) and wait.
When she finally speaks, my cousin says, “Your mum is very worried about who will take care of you when she is gone. I am a mum so I understand her concern.”
How can I rebut second-hand Punjabi-Hindu-Mom-guilt?
“Again, I think you should be dating no less than five men at one time. When you were living in stupid Minnesota no one came to meet you. Fine, but now you’re in Manhattan. You should use sheer population to your advantage.”
“Minnesota is NOT that BAD,” I argue. Just because I don’t want to live there doesn’t mean it’s without redeeming qualities.
“Stop thinking with your heart and use your head. This is not going to get you anywhere,” she snaps.
I sigh and snap back, “What is your problem? Reindeer isn’t dating anyone else.”
“Look, I know you want an A grade guy but are you really A grade? No. You’re old. You’re slimmer than before, but not skinny. I think your standards are too high and you need to consider B grade guys. Maybe even C grade guys.”
Now that I have been put in my place, I get a little angry and snarl into the phone, “Well why don’t I marry Prestige Uncle? He owns the pizza place around the corner and is damn sexy in the tomato stained wife beater he wears. His idea of a date is a New York ‘Jankees’ game. Too bad I don’t like baseball!”
UGH! Again, why God, why? Why did I give up drinking? I could drink the bottle bone dry and then use it to hit myself on the head. It would be less painful than this than these groom hunting conversations that leave me feeling wide-eyed and plastered to the ceiling.