“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
“I have a favor to ask you.”