Writers' Circle
Down, Across

Anupama Mohan’s writing has both quirky and serious overtones


He wrote a reply to the email as soon as it had landed in his inbox and then he saved it as “draft.” He would send it next morning; that way, it wouldn’t seem like (a) that he was always online; (b) that he cared. Arguably (b) was more important, although, of late, he had become somewhat paranoid about (a) and resorted to building an elaborate fiction about his life outside of the Internet. For this purpose, he would, quite casually but really quite deliberately, insert into conversations with his friends “Oh, you know, the other day while I was at the pub…” or “Hey, I could introduce you to these guys I know…” But the truth is, Alex never went to pubs, he didn’t really know anyone outside of his work, and in a city that was so white that it hurt his eyes, he literally met no one who looked like him, talked like him, or even ate like he did. It was a little like owning only blue shirts or chewing from only one side of your mouth.

He missed the mottled cityscapes of his past life, the many colours of the east coast, the reassurances of miscellany in a world of single truths and single lies. The internet was thus his best friend, his not-so-best friend, his beer buddy, and his hey-how’s-the-weather friend. Through the internet, he stayed in touch with an earlier life in India, a noisier, more crowded life. He read news of the world and particularly of India, voraciously. He lived in and through the news of a place whose passport he no longer carried for travel but kept safe in the drawer above where he kept his undies along with his now-precious U.S. Green Card. It was a well-used passport with his class X photograph and he looked terribly young and provincial in it. It was a photograph he really liked.

He taught in a small college in Reno, Nevada. It was a small job, a small life, a small black box in a large crossword that he wasn’t playing. Mode: Easy. Level: Beginner. The white squares next to him each had letters that defined their being. In 903, lived an I: a corporate type who drove a small tight car in which one could fit only small women in tight dresses. I was short – by American standards – but he wore a big watch that flashed defiantly, and he had that crisp, commercial way in which he flipped his wrist in the elevator at 8:01 a.m. knowing fully well that it had only been a minute since he locked his apartment door and stepped into the elevator which had Alex in it, in his pajamas and a slightly wrinkled morning smile with a bag of trash that he was taking out before the municipal van came. The wrist-flip was designed, of course, to show off the watch, but it meant more. It meant, hey pajama-pants, I have a life. I have to go somewhere. Don’t get your trash-air on me. That was I, with his tight, unyielding smile, big watch, and shiny pinstripe pants.

Then there was S. She was the yoga-loving, Starbucks-addicted, big-boned girl, of the kind that mushroom everywhere in the U.S. There was a transparency about S, a sinuousness, and whenever Alex saw her, she gave him the biggest of her smiles, as if reserved for just him, and a look that always said, hello, you gangly, awkward, Indian, man living in my building, bye! That was the thing about S – she was like a complete sentence teetering on the edges of grammaticality as she pushed in as many clauses as she possibly could, splicing away life’s manyness into an ungainly but full sentence. By the time Alex smiled back at her, she had looked away and her mind had gone back into the vortex of the music that filled her ears from her iPod.

And then there was R on the 11th floor, he didn’t quite know which apartment. R had once pressed 11 on the elevator, which is how Alex knew that he lived there. Or maybe he didn’t and he was headed to a party on the 11th floor to which he had been invited and Alex hadn’t. R was a stout, squat man, with a big head that wobbled on a thick neck. His shoulders were built for manliness, but he had tiny hips and spindly legs, and always wore shorts so that the contrast between his top and bottom was always evident. He smiled a foolish smile, not showing his teeth, but stretching his lips all the way to his ears. He nodded as he smiled as if Alex and he were sharing a cue before a bank heist. It was a cue that said, hey man, great game, wasn’t it. Alex never knew what game was meant in the smile, but he could now do that look that said, all-American-like, booyah! And that was enough for the brief elevator ride.

Alex ate well; he loved spicy food. The spicier the better. He loved wasabe, galangal, kimchi, and achaar – all these pungent, larger-than-life flavours that crushed your tongue, killed the bland bread by suffocating it in powerful waves of a foreign taste that set the palate on fire and made you seek water in the glass like an infant goes at a nipple. Ferociously, proprietorially. He loved the new Thai restaurant that had opened in his neighbourhood. The food reminded him of his time in New York, the city of his past, of those days when he was a student and when, drunk with youth and the privations of sex, he would jump out of the subway and scream into the shiny black night outside of 125th Street, cocksuckerrrrr! The green curry with its whipped-creamy texture and the softly-cooked chicken whispered to him the tale of a chef in a big hat who lovingly crafted the dish and sent it out for destruction. As Alex methodically demolished the rice and curry, he imagined the food as a flaming dragon burning a bed through his food pipe, a thick coily beast of satisfaction plunging into the abyss of his stomach to settle down, spent and tired and immobile.

He saw S run by. She was in black tights and a blue vest, her hair tied into a high ponytail, a blue tennis band across her forehead, and the iPod stuck by a strip of velcro to her forearm so she could move her elbows and keep her hands free. She stood running in one place, arms marching phatically, waiting for the light to turn green. Alex watched her small breasts heave slowly beneath her vest. Her ass cheeks wobbled indecorously. She was full-figured, he noticed, and understood her need to run. As if she knew someone was watching her, she flicked her head around to see where the eyes were. The large glass windows of the Thai restaurant showed her the many lights inside but also reflected the outside world, the road, the waiting cars, so one couldn’t quite tell, Alex surmised, whether it was the inside you were seeing or the outside. And then the light went green as the white-man lit up on the sign, killing the ambivalence and giving her permission to run on. Alex had grown still when he saw her look into the windows, but despite his stillness, he felt he had been seen. The dragon in his chest puffed up a bit and he reached for some water.

As he paid his bill and walked out, the cold air fanned his face welcomingly. He had some take-out curry for next day’s dinner, which he held gently so as to not tip over any of it into the plastic bag. He raised the collar of the jacket to keep the wind from whipping his ears. It made him look like the Phantom of the Night, he imagined. A car passed him by with some boys in it, hooting wildly into the night. He thought he saw I but he could be mistaken. Some of them looked so alike. They screamed something at him, he couldn’t quite make out what, but he smiled and raised his thumb in manly support. The car jumped the light but at 8:30 p.m., no one cared, and it roared as the driver hit the pedal. In a second, the tinkling sound of glass hitting the pavement boomed through the night as Alex smiled fondly, half in understanding of the testosterone and half of the age. Ten years ago, that might have been him.

He wanted to walk a little. The dragon still flamed in low embers, warming his body from the inside, insulating it against the hollownesses of his life. He walked past the silently gushing Truckee, the dark waves foaming blackly into the night, glinting back the tiny lights of the city. The night air was mildly heady like the slowly fermenting sap of old mandarin oranges, just past their expiry date, a not-quite definable liquor cooling the tongue ever so much like a familiar juice, ever so like a misremembered wine. Somewhere, ducks flapped and although he couldn’t quite feel it, Alex wiped his face with the back of his hand as if he had felt the spray. There is nothing quite like night next to a river. The beauty is in the darkness, in those obscure half-moons of visibility where real and imaginary things meet in an unholy union. One might find one’s religion or lose it, depending on one, on a night next to a river. Alex had long ago both found his religion and lost it, so he walked by ascetically, past the sleeping homeless man who looked like an abandoned bundle of clothes on the dark grass. Reno is a city of desires dashed like beer bottles in the night, of people with no teeth and falling hair, of low incomes and big casino dreams that the working class can never quite pop out of.

He walked past the local church, built on a large rock like how it was meant to. Its picket fence arranged the world into belief and unbelief. That easy. He looked up into the sky and it was starless while afar loomed the Sierra Nevada, an armour that kept them safe. But who would save us from the mountains? Who would give I some companionship, S her freedom from eyes, R some congruity, and Alex some belonging? The mountains looked like they would stop anyone who tried to alter life, to mix it all up a bit. The mountains looked like they took their sheriffy business quite seriously.

Alex wondered if he would see S on her run back. He had been going in her direction, he realized absent-mindedly. A slightly dilapidated house with rotting pumpkin shells, remnants from Halloween, shivered a little in the night. The floorboards had probably creaked in response to Alex’s strides. He looked into the lit window of the home and saw three children and a dog crumpled up in front of a big television screen. It was a homey moment, and Alex missed his family in India, and he thought of the sounds of Indian TV. A child gesticulated wildly at something on the screen. The dog jumped towards the window and stared at Alex who waved back in acknowledgement. He heard a cough and a whimper from across the road and the dragon inside him sputtered out a low fire as he made out a small figure on the other side tottering on its feet.

Reno’s drunks are its treasure and the amount of money spent on alcohol every night alone might buy the city’s poor a full year’s quota of food. Alex mentally debated if he could help. The road was wide, the floundering figure some distance away, and in the night, he could see hardly more than an outline. A monster truck sped past, nationalistically, its big wheels as if on air. As the gush of wind died away, Alex refocused his gaze across the road and he could make out a little more than an outline as something on the figure’s arm glinted in the night. It moaned weakly and he crossed the road in some hurry. The tightness inside his chest warned him of a complex night and as he neared the figure, he began to see familiar things. An iPod hanging from an arm, a flapping strip of blue cloth, a shoe. A face with a purple blob where an eye should have been. S.

He beat down the dragon rising in his chest and breathed through his nose in controlled, deliberate breaths. She calmed down a little as if he had breathed for her and made it easier for her bruised ribs. In silence, he picked her up as she collapsed into his arms whispering rape over and over again. He put his food down as he raised her to her feet, her legs unstable, and he walked a little for her and realized that, despite her tall frame, she was small as an atom. He strengthened himself like a mountain around her.

They walked like that a little until they reached some light coming out of the doorway of a condominium lobby. How they must look from the back to the dog in the house window, Alex thought fleetingly, its snout pressed against the cold glass, thinking in dog. A crusty octopod evading the main topic. He used part of his jacket to cover her, unsuccessfully, and he smelled her sweat and blood. She shivered a little when she felt his warm body and he sat her down on the condominium steps. She slumped her head into her knees and rocked herself as she moaned inside the dark of her body. He ran up the stairs, through the glass doors, to find someone in the building. It was as if he knew that to not talk was a gift in the midst of that great dispossession. He saw no one inside, and took out his cell phone to dial 911. He spoke briefly, cogently, enunciating his words – clarity was key. He could control his accent well now. He provided address, age, even ethnicity (how did it matter, he wanted to ask). They said, momentarily, and he winced because he was of that generation which remembered the now-obsolete distinction between “momentarily” and “in a moment.” He shivered a little and felt some part of him sting a little.

He walked out to the girl who was peering down at her knee, her swollen eye cupped in her left hand. She was blowing at a dark bruise and she looked at Alex and said stings. He licked his fingers and applied his saliva on it, and she blew some more like it was her birthday. She was talking a lot. In monosyllables. She of the complete sentences full of comma splices. And Alex knew that she had lost more than her manyness that night. She had lost a language somewhere and she would perhaps no longer splice away. Her eye must have hurt her much more but, for some reason, she found the bruise on her knee urgent. Alex came close to her, and lifted up the iPod hanging from her arm by the wire of the earplugs, waving wildly as she fanned her bruised knee where the tights had ripped away. He fitted it back on her armband and sat next to her, like an old friend, acquiescent as the sky, and there they sat, momentarily, in the night next to the river, waiting for some police.

Illustration by Surian Ssoosay at Flickr

     

Anupama Mohan (PhD 2010) is a professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is the author of Twenty Odd Love Poems (The Writer’s Workshop, 2008) and an academic monograph, Utopia and the Village in South Asian Literatures (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

     

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Reader Comments

# 1
Posted by Emily W MSc on November 17th, 2012 @ 1:31 am

Awesome story – totally unexpected way in which the tone changed. And I really liked these lines: “There is nothing quite like night next to a river. The beauty is in the darkness, in those obscure half-moons of visibility where real and imaginary things meet in an unholy union. One might find one’s religion or lose it, depending on one, on a night next to a river.”

# 2
Posted by Jon Weiss PoliSci%202007 on November 30th, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

Beautiful story, so well-written! Though I have never been to Reno, this story makes the place come alive. The contrast between the opening and the conclusion is explosive. Ultimately, I wondered if this was really a short story or a brilliant study of character and environment. More such works need to be published – U of T’s magazine is doing a great job in encouraging new Canadian talent!

# 3
Posted by Scotty M. on November 30th, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

Great story, very atmospheric, and almost Poe-ian. I kept waiting for a dramatic turn and though I got one it still completely surprised me. I liked that whole paragraph where the night is described so I have to agree with the poster above but I loved this line in particular: //The night air was mildly heady like the slowly fermenting sap of old mandarin oranges, just past their expiry date, a not-quite definable liquor cooling the tongue ever so much like a familiar juice, ever so like a misremembered wine.//
This line’s gonna stay with me for a long while…

# 4
Posted by Maureen on December 1st, 2012 @ 9:01 pm

I really enjoyed this story.

The story’s descriptions are a big part of its success. They are lush and tactile. I have been to Reno, but a reader needn’t know Reno to visualize the river, the neighborhoods, the chintz, and the heartbreak depicted here. And, the descriptions of the characters are so very real. Any reader would know these personalities–they seem like modern American archetypes of sorts.

Like the other readers that commented here, the tragic turn took me by surprise as well. I feel the ending speaks to the nature of a city like Reno. The reality of of Reno can bring you back down to earth pretty quickly, maybe even faster than what you’re ready for.

# 5
Posted by Valerie on December 4th, 2012 @ 10:46 am

This is a lovely story. I love how Mohan uses language here to craft an illuminated miniature of character and place. I hope the author continues to explore this genre.

# 6
Posted by Janet H Swinney on January 2nd, 2013 @ 7:43 am

I agree with Scotty about the dramatic twist. I was enjoying the evocations of life in India, as compared with the atomised and alienated state of existence in the USA, but starting to wonder where things were heading when Whap! there it was, the incident which brings two almost-strangers together, and suggests rapprochement and belonging.

Loved the crossword analogy, and the city ‘so white it hurt his eyes’.

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