“I have a favor to ask you.”
“Sure, what is it?” They hadn’t spoken since school let out two weeks ago, but he didn’t sound at all surprised to hear her voice.
“My flight got delayed — now it doesn’t leave till the morning. Can I crash at your place tonight?”
“Of course. No problem.”
“Thank you so much, Saraj, I really, really appreciate it …”
“It’s no problem. So … which gate?”
He lifted her scuffed brown suitcase out of his trunk and carried it up the four flights of stairs to his apartment. She followed two steps behind, careful not to bump into him.
“The elevator broke yesterday,” he said. “Some guy’s supposed to come in this weekend and fix it. But I still don’t know if I’ll be riding it for a while. Hard to trust a broken elevator. Who’s to say it’s not gonna break again?”
She nodded even though he couldn’t see her. She’d forgotten he was scared of heights. They’d tried to get him to ride the Ferris wheel at the spring carnival freshman year, but he’d refused, complaining of a stomachache. She wondered if he’d ever ridden the Ferris wheel with his niece back in Atlanta. He said he loved her more than anything, but did he love her that much? Did his love for his little niece eclipse his terror of being high above the ground, looking down at the toy cars and dots of people’s heads, as the breeze made his cart gently tilt forward, gears groaning?
The hallway was wider than she’d expected, the lighting brighter. The doors were painted burgundy with little brass number plates below the peepholes. “This is nice,” she said, waiting as he unlocked the door to 4C. “Much nicer than Goldman,” she added, referring to the apartment building owned by the university where he’d lived the previous school year.
“Yeah, I like it here. It’s quiet. I can rest.”
She laughed, following him inside. There was a wide brown couch facing a small television propped up on a folding chair. Unopened boxes crowded the corners of the room.
“You sound like an old man!” she said, perching on an arm of the couch. “You sound like my father! No, my grandfather!”
He plopped down wearily beside her on the couch. “I’m a working man now. A job makes you tired.” He was a valet at a ritzy hotel in downtown L.A.
“But you’re in college,” Danielle said. “It’s summer. You should be having fun.”
“Nobody else is here over the summer. It’s just me and my DVD collection.” His tone of voice was like a shrug of the shoulders. Ho hum. Like he was just as happy now, spending a Friday night falling asleep on the couch watching old episodes of “The Sopranos” with a carton of Thai takeout-for-one in his lap, as he had been two weeks ago, surrounded by all his friends at a keg party. She wondered if he ever got lonely. If he missed people, other than his little niece.
“Hey, we should go out tonight,” she said. “Seriously. It’s my last night in the States for two months. Let’s do something. I’m sure we can find a party somewhere nearby.”
“But doesn’t your flight leave early in the morning?”
“Whatever. I can sleep on the plane.”
“I have to be at work by 8:30 tomorrow.”
“We don’t have to stay out long,” she said. “Just for a little bit. Have a couple beers.” She tilted her head slightly at him and smiled. “I mean, it’s the only night you’ve got me here.”
“That’s true,” he said. “I guess I should take advantage of it.”
He disappeared into his bedroom and she ducked into the bathroom to change into a nicer top. The few instances she had reason to step inside a guy’s bathroom, she was always surprised by how few products they owned. Saraj had hand soap by the sink, shampoo and conditioner and soap in the shower. Facewash. Hair gel. Was that really all he used, all he needed to get through his morning routine? She thought of her own tiny bathroom at home, the countertop cluttered with perfumes and hand lotions and face creams and hair moisturizers. Her travel toiletries kit was full to bursting, and she had made an effort to “pack light.” She dug through her suitcase, looking for the shiny gold number she’d tucked away at the last moment, just in case there were clubs in India. India! Was it really possible she would be there by this time tomorrow? Fists of dread threatened to burrow their way into her stomach. She swallowed and tried to think of other things. Ferris wheels, Saraj, a party. A beer. Her gold silk shirt. She needed her gold silk shirt.
She found the shirt buried underneath all the conservative, monochromatic blouses and long cotton skirts she’d bought specifically for her trip. A class acquaintance born in New Delhi had advised her that even as an American tourist, she should be careful not to bare too much skin. Her impulse, of course, had been to pack the skimpiest shorts and tank tops she owned, because it would be hot, achingly, devastatingly hot — summer in India, her grandmother said, was like living inside a potter’s kiln. She saw herself suffocating in her buttoned-up blouses. Drowning in sweat under those long cotton skirts, her feet wet and slippery in her sandals. She pulled off the T-shirt she was wearing and stuffed it, along with the rest of her India clothes, back into her suitcase, which she then zipped closed, pressing down firmly on the lid with the palm of her hand. She snapped the buckles shut.
The shiny gold shirt fit her like a silken second skin, with a loose droopy scoop neck and a low-cut V-back. She loved it, even as she simultaneously realized she could never wear it in India. She looked in the mirror, pulling the shirt up to glimpse her naked stomach, and thought, as she sometimes did, This is the best it’s gonna get. She’d read in a fashion magazine that a woman’s beauty peaked in her early-to-mid 20s. She was a month away from 21. It’s all gonna be downhill from here. She considered the mole on her right cheek, the patch of bumpy skin on her upper arms that no amount of moisturizing lotion would cure, the little bubble of fat nestled below her belly button like a kangaroo’s pouch. Someday, an older you will look back and long for this body and wish you had appreciated it. She thought of sagging boobs and arm flab and nose hair. Maybe she would even develop a moustache, like her mother had recently, and like her mother she would have to get it waxed. It was a horrifying thought. She stood facing the mirror a moment longer, one hand resting lightly on her stomach, before pulling down her shirt, applying a coat of mascara and lip gloss, and opening the door. Saraj was waiting in the hall, wearing a blue collared button-down with gray pinstriped pants.
“Ready?” he asked.
She nodded. “Look at you, Mr. Working Man! You look good.”
“You too,” he said.
As they walked side by side down Adams Boulevard, she was struck suddenly by the oddness of it all. How funny, really, the people you stay close to. If you had asked her at the end of freshman year who she thought she would stay in touch with from the dorm, Saraj would not have been at the top of her list. It wasn’t that she hadn’t liked him — she had liked him, he was funny and smart and genuine in a frank, unassuming way you didn’t come across very often, especially in L.A. But just because you like someone doesn’t mean you stay in touch with him, and freshman year they hadn’t been much more than casual acquaintances in the same rough circle of friends. But somehow, when they all returned to school last September, she was the one who called to invite him to their potluck reunion dinner, and then a couple weeks later he called to see if she wanted to bring the gang over to watch the game at his place.
And that’s the way it went. Theirs wasn’t an intense, needy, “Let’s sync up our class schedules and meet for lunch every week” friendship; rather, their bond was quiet, controlled, even slightly detached. If they didn’t see each other for weeks at a time, it wasn’t a travesty; they were just busy. If Saraj were to transfer to another school she would miss him, of course, but she would be okay without him. Still, somehow during the past year he had become one of her closest friends, someone she knew she could depend upon, whether it was to walk her home from a rowdy party at 2 a.m. or let her crash on his couch on a random Thursday night when her flight to India was delayed.
Her friend Hannah didn’t understand the concept of guy friends. “I can only be friends with a guy if I feel absolutely no attraction to him at all,” she said. “And the thing is, if he has a penis, there’s probably gonna be some level of attraction there.” Danielle was different — all through school and into college she’d had plenty of guy friends. But Saraj wasn’t like her other guy friends. It wasn’t that she didn’t find him attractive; it was more that she recognized his attractiveness in the same way you might notice that your cousin is handsome. She felt about Saraj the way she imagined she would someday feel about the man her sister chose to marry.
Another reason, she admitted, that she felt so platonically toward him could be that she knew nothing would ever happen between them. Saraj had told her one Saturday night many Saturday nights ago, when they were the only two still awake after an intense night of MarioKart drinking games, that he would marry an Indian woman. He refused to consider any alternative. He would marry the Indian girl his parents chose for him and, hopefully, love for her would eventually well up in his heart like the first timid, squeaking notes of a middle school clarinet recital. His eyes were so sad, so serious and earnest when he told her this that she couldn’t help but believe him, even though the idea of arranged marriage seemed to her as antiquated as horse-drawn carriages and kerosene lamps.
“In high school I loved a girl who was not Indian,” Saraj had said. “I dated her, I gave myself to her and I didn’t care if my parents found out. I was selfish. And of course they did find out. Danielle, I’ve never seen my father so disappointed. That night, he had a heart attack. Thank god he’s okay, but I didn’t need any more signs. I broke up with her the next day.”
“Do you ever miss her?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” he said. “I really did love her. She had the most genuine smile I’ve ever seen.” He picked at a scab on his knee, keeping his eyes downward. “But it’s more important to be a good son. To please my parents. That’s the most important thing.”
It didn’t take much walking before they heard the muffled yet unmistakable sounds of a college party: shouting, laughing and loud, insolent bass music. They turned the corner, and there it was, spilling out onto the balcony of one of the university apartments open for the summer. “What do you think?” Saraj asked. “Should we give it a try?”
“Sure,” she said.
The lobby door was ajar. Once inside the building, they had no problem finding the right apartment; all they had to do was follow the noise. The apartment door was open, and the hallway was crowded with students drinking from red plastic cups. Saraj pressed his way through, Danielle following close behind. He gently held her wrist so they wouldn’t get separated. Parties like this made Danielle think of a giant game of sardines. How many people can we cram into a two-bedroom apartment? A strobe light pulsed patterns on the walls and Justin Timberlake boomed from iPod speakers. Girls danced in clusters, raising their arms and shaking their hips; couples gyrated against each other, sweaty and shameless. The room felt hot and small.
Danielle followed Saraj into the kitchen, where he grabbed two cans of Bud Lighte from the half-empty case on the counter. He handed one to her. A crowd had gathered around the kitchen table, over which a closet door had been placed to create a makeshift beer pong table. Danielle and Saraj watched for a few minutes,; then he leaned in and said something that she couldn’t hear over the music. She touched his arm and led him through the mass of dancing bodies out to the balcony. Three guys were leaning over the railing, blowing puffs of smoke to the smog-obscured stars, and a couple was indiscreetly making out in the far corner, but compared to the muggy chaos inside it was relatively peaceful. They stood against the railing, sandwiched between the smokers and the lovers, sipping their drinks and watching the street below.
The moon was full, or nearly full. Wisps of clouds blew across it, hesitated, then swept past. Danielle felt the tangible, inevitable passing of time deep in her belly, in the warm visceral place a clock’s steadily ticking hand never reached. She remembered the exact moment she had decided she would go to India. Flipping through a magazine, she saw a picture of a college-aged girl, stunning in a plain white shirt and colorful print skirt, her hair covered, kneeling in prayer at a mosque. Danielle felt a strange pull toward her, a connection that she found difficult to pin down or explain. She tore out the picture and kept it. Perhaps the girl reminded Danielle of her mother in the slightly blurry snapshots from her newlywed days, kept in a shoebox in the linen closet. Sometimes when Danielle was visiting home, she crept quietly downstairs late at night, after her parents had gone to bed, and took that shoebox down from the top shelf. She sat cross-legged on the dusty, carpeted closet floor, pulling the string so the single light bulb glowed from above, and sifted through images of her parents’ past selves. Looking at the photographs made a yearning expand inside her ribcage like bread dough rising, swelling bigger and bigger until she was sure her ribs would crack from the pressure. It seemed, when she saw that picture in the magazine, and the word INDIA stamped across the top of the page in bright red postcard letters, that something essential shifted inside her and she knew suddenly that she would go. Immediately, she had felt the pressure inside her leak out a little, bits of it evaporating into the air each time she exhaled.
“I can’t explain it,” she had told Saraj. This was during the school year, when she first divulged her summer plans and he asked, why India? “I’ve been searching for faith for a long time and all I feel is emptiness. But for a moment, as I looked at that picture, I grasped something. Peace. You know?”
To her parents she simply said, “It’s something I want to do.” She searched online and found a position doing social work in Hyderabad that would give her a place to live along with a weekly stipend for meals. Her parents were stillanxious.
“It’ll look so great on my CV,” she told her dad. “It’s a trip of a lifetime,” she told her mom.
“But, two whole months, Danielle?” they said. “Two months is a long time.”
“It’s not that long,” she said.
Her grandmother had lived in India for three years in grade school. Her father, Danielle’s great-grandfather, had been a scholar of ancient Roman texts, and had been invited to take over a temporary teaching post at the University of Calcutta. Growing up, Danielle’s grandmother told her stories of marble floors and high ceilings and vivid-hued saris straight out of a movie, and eating everything with your hands — omelets, rice, papaya, dal, the food so spicy it made your eyes water — and the frantic river of bikes and rickshaws clumping through the dusty streets, people singing and yelling and calling out to the Amerrrrican, rolling their r’s exaggeratedly. “And the heat!” she said. “Oh, the heat! India’s like the inside of a potter’s kiln in the summertime, my dear.”
Danielle got her passport and her visa and her malaria pills. Two months before her flight was scheduled to depart, she printed out the online confirmation for her airline ticket, mentally tracing the bumpy, 28-and-a-half-hour flight path that would take her from home in Seattle to a layover at LAX to another layover in Singapore to, finally, Hyderabad. She taped it to her bathroom mirror alongside the picture of the girl from the magazine.
“I almost feel like this trip has already happened,” she told Saraj. “Or like — I don’t know — like it’s been set to happen for a long time, and I’m just — I’m just carrying out the details to make sure I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
Sometimes, when she lay curled around herself on her thin cotton sheets, her roommate snoring softly across the room, and she felt the spider web of nerves knotting around her stomach and inching across her breasts, winding their way around her arms and creeping down her legs, she clenched her eyes shut and thought about that picture, trying to fix the girl’s peaceful face in her mind. Sometimes it worked, and she drifted off to sleep almost convinced that this would be the summer everything clicked into focus.
Now here she stood, on a balcony overlooking Adams Boulevard at a party on a warm Thursday night in June, thinking about how she should be bursting with excitement to leave in the morning. If her flight hadn’t been delayed she would already be halfway around the world. Her beer can bruised slightly in her grasp.
“Saraj, I’m scared,” she said, turning toward him. “I’m scared about India. I’ve been saving and planning and dreaming about it for so long, and now I’m terrified. I’m so terrified I don’t even want to go anymore.” Thinking about lugging her ratty brown suitcase out of 4C, down four flights of stairs and into Saraj’s car headed for the airport made her chest tighten with panic.
“It’s okay to be scared,” he said. He put his arm around her shoulders. Their faces were so close she could see flecks of amber in the dark brown of his eyes. “But just hold on, Elle. You’re gonna love it there. You’ll see.”
“I hope so.” She leaned her head against his. She could smell his shampoo, something minty. After a moment, she broke away and leaned over the balcony. The street was a long way down.
Later, back at Saraj’s apartment, she changed into her pajamas and washed her face. She wiped off her makeup on one of his towels, momentarily forgetting it wasn’t her own, and refolded it guiltily to try to hide the black smudges of mascara. She made goofy faces at her reflection as she brushed her teeth, a game she’d played since childhood. If this is the best you’re gonna get, she thought, I guess it’s not so bad.
Saraj was in the living room, unfolding blankets onto the couch. “Are you sure you don’t want me to sleep out here?” he asked her. “You can have my bed.”
“Don’t be crazy,” she said. “The couch is perfect.”
She went into the kitchen and filled two glasses of water from the tap. She gave one glass to him and sat down in the pile of blankets, patting the couch cushion with the palm of her hand. He sat down beside her.
“Sorry the party was lame,” she said.
“What do you mean? I had fun. It’s just different in the summer, when everyone else isn’t here.”
“Thanks again for letting me stay with you,” she said.
“You don’t need to thank me. Really.”
She gazed at the Homer Simpson clock on the wall. The second hand tick, tick, ticked. In six hours she would be headed for the airport.
“Saraj?” she asked. “Have you ever gone on the Ferris wheel with your niece?”
“What Ferris wheel?”
“Any Ferris wheel. I mean, hasn’t she ever asked you to go on a Ferris wheel with her? Like at a fair or something?”
“Danielle, my niece is 3 years old.”
“But if she were to ask you. If she does ask you, in the future. Will you go on it with her?”
Saraj was quiet for a moment, staring into his water glass. “I like to think so,” he said softly. “I like to think I will.”
* * *
That night, Danielle dreamed she was flying to India. No plane, no passport, no scuffed brown suitcase. Just her bare arms, flapping freely across the clear, cold sky.
* * *
Dallas Woodburn, a recent Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, has published fiction and nonfiction in Zyzzyva, Conclave: A Journal of Character, Fourth River, Nashville Review, the Los Angeles Times, North Dakota Quarterly and Monkeybicycle, among many other publications. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she won second place in the American Fiction Prize and her plays have been produced in Los Angeles and New York City. Her short story collection was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Augury Books Prose Award and the Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize. She is the founder of Write On! For Literacy, an organization that empowers young people through reading and writing endeavors.