There is a fruit stand by NYU, two hundred and sixty-nine and one-half steps away from the edge of Washington Square Park, sixty-nine steps to the left of The Dosa Man’s cart. There is nothing spectacular about the stand itself except that you can buy lychees there. And the lychees are so sweet and their flesh is so soft, they remind me of the lychees in Calcutta.
When they talk, my parents always say I was raised in Calcutta. This may be so and I do remember tiffin carriers filled with steaming rice and lukewarm fish. I remember canteen bottles that tried so hard to keep filtered water cool. But I also know within myself that even though I went to school there and played hopscotch in dusty allies, it is New York that raised me. It is here that my senses were heightened to possibility. So much so I believe that when they say I am crazy and fill out a diagnosis form that I don’t ever have the chance to see, I want to say, “I’m not crazy. You just don’t see what I see. You never woke up. I did. In fact, waking up is the only transgression of my mind.”
I often want to scream, “Loving her is the only transgression of my heart. Losing her is the only tragedy of my life.”
And sometimes, when it is dark and I stare out of the window at the shapes of trees shaking ominously in a cold wind, I know my worst transgression is waking up every morning and wanting to die.
Maybe what makes people crazy is shards of a broken heart that somehow reach the brain and cause chaos. Or perhaps people lose sanity when they realize life is dismissive of what we hold most precious and so it takes and takes even if we are not ready to give.
Nights like these I fully believe that she is alive. I call her and she does answer her phone. I remember the first time, and the second time as well if I think about it, that I was at Bellevue. She had come to see me every day. And yet she does not come here. Has she believed the voices that echo like useless wind speaking to mute trees? Has she listened to the voices say, “She is not worthy of you. She will not ever understand life the way you do. Stay away.” Could it be that she has finally believed them?
I am standing in front of the window facing darkness. In the glass, I see his reflection. He is behind me, the goofy nurse whose job is to make sure I don’t kill myself in the middle of the night. His name is Tony. His goatee looks almost orange under the fluorescent lights. He has slicked back his hair and it shines. And in the glass, his reflection looks surreal, as if he is a vision more than a reality.
“Can’t sleep,” I say.
I don’t even turn around.
“Do you want something for that?” he asks.
“No more pills! Please, for God’s sake, no more pills, ok?”
“You’re very tall,” I say.
“Six four,” he says.
He comes behind me and touches my shoulder gently.
“Do you want to talk?” he says.
“It might help,” he says.
I turn around and face him, his blue eyes trying to make sense of me. I have often stared at myself through my own grey eyes in mirrors and reflecting windows and have never been able to figure myself out. I wish he could know he’s wasting his time. Eventually, I think, he will learn.
He motions towards the spare chair in the room, walks to it and then sits down. They did not allow me to have a roommate. Not as if I wanted one anyway. I have never understood how they can deem you crazy and then make you share your bedroom with another crazy person. But what the hell do I know? I’ve spent seventy-nine days here at St. Vincent’s of Westchester and I still don’t understand most of it. And there is more to come.
“What are you thinking about?” he asks.
“My girlfriend. I am thinking about why she has not come to see me.”
“So you’re like a lesbian, huh? No shit.”
Have you ever wondered why people would blame you if you hit an idiot?
“You’re too pretty,” he continues, “your hair is amazing. I love long hair with waves.”
“Wavy hair?” I ask.
“Yeah. And you’re gorgeous.”
“My girlfriend is more beautiful than I am,” I say.
He doesn’t say anything.
“She won’t pick up her phone though,” I say, “Otherwise she’d come visit me. She always does. I’ve been in these hospitals twice. And she used to come every day.”
“Alisha,” he says.
The taunting in his voice is gone and he sounds somber.
“Alisha, when is the last time you saw her?”
“Eighty days ago.”
“Tell me about it.”
My mind races through corridors. It is as if I do not want to tell him and as if I am confused. But I remember exactly where I saw her. I remember that her hands were cold and frail.
“She was in the hospital,” I say.
“I don’t know.”
I look at him and he doesn’t move. Again those blue eyes search me and try to force me to travel to pasts I do not want to remember.
“She had leukemia, you dick. All right? She died there. Are you happy?”
“No. No, Alisha. This isn’t about me. It’s about you. How do you feel?”
My voice is uneven, like a cup and saucer held by trembling hands.
“Fuck you,” I whisper.
“Easy there,” he says as he rises from his chair.
“Fuck you,” I say more softly.
I wait for him to speak.
“Sometimes she is alive, Tony, all right? Sometimes I know she is alive and everyone is lying. Why is that so hard for you to believe?”
“Because she is dead, Alisha, and the faster you can accept that, the sooner they will let you out of here.”
“I don’t even know if I care. I don’t want to live a life.”
“What about your parents?” he says as if I haven’t said anything at all.
“My parents think I am insane because of her. They won’t come here.”
“That must be rough.”
“If I gave a fuck, yes. I don’t.”
He settles back in his chair.
It is as if the conversation about her is lost in the cold night outside my window and we sit here like drinking buddies, talking about sports and good fucks instead of life and death and loss. Sometimes, I do not believe that she has died. I have not even cried for her. They tell me I must understand that she is dead and I must cry, grieve for her. I tell them to fuck off.
I do not want to talk to Tony anymore. I go back to my window and stare into darkness, the trees conversing among themselves, the leaves swaying so violently, I feel they understand my heart.
My heart remembers the taste of rosewater upon her lips. My heart remembers her voice and is afraid every second of every minute of every hour of every day that it will forget the intonations and cadences of her words. My heart remembers seeing her in a hospital bed, her face dry and brown, her eyes devoid of eyeliner and mascara and the shimmer of eye shadow. And yet she was still my Anjali, beautiful and strong. Despite her frailty, despite her failing blood, she was still my lover, my guide, my best friend.
I have made a friend here. Her name is Vani. She cleans floors and garbage and shit and vomit. She never complains. She is old and dark and she smells like coconut oil. But she is soft and gentle and holds my hand when she talks. She does not question me or what I tell her of Anjali. She does not try to make me feel. Usually, she just slowly shakes her head from side to side whether she agrees or disagrees. She is kind.
At night between one fifty-three and two seventeen, Tony falls asleep in the spare chair. Most nights I walk past him slowly and go to the kitchen where Vani comes to heat her dinner. While she is on her break, we have an hour where we just sit or just talk or just sit and talk.
The first night we meet, I am in the kitchen by myself, hiding from the nurse who is trying to force me to take my meds. She walks in and heats her food without even acknowledging me or asking me what I am doing in the kitchen. This bothers me.
“Aren’t you going to ask what I’m doing here?” I ask.
She looks at me. She is dark and darker still are the circles under her eyes. Her hair is pulled back and she has a braid that falls to her ass.
“I am not a doctor, ma’am. I am not a nurse. I clean floors and bathrooms. Why would I ask you what you are doing?”
Her accent is thick but comforting, like the accent shared by my parents. Losing your parents to their own stubbornness makes you miss them sometimes. Only sometimes though. Not enough to beg forgiveness for loving or being.
Her gold earrings catch glints of the fluorescent lights. I watch her heat her food: basmati rice and some pungent coconut fish. The smells mingle and the nostalgia of India permeates the room.
She takes her plastic container and a plastic fork and settles into a chair in the corner, by the window, as if she sees something other than bleak darkness outside.
“So you won’t tell them I’m in here, then?”
She shakes her head from side to side.
“I don’t get involved,” she says.
I watch her eat her food. Fork in rice, fork in coconut fish curry, mouth. Again and again.
I imagine her day in and day out, cleaning floors and toilets. Her uniform is clean and pressed but underneath, her maroon sari still pokes through.
“You look like a big lychee!” I say.
She doesn’t respond at all. No flinches, no words. Rice, coconut fish curry, mouth.
“I’m a lesbian.” I say.
She looks at me.
“Why do you want my attention, Mol?” she says.
I am offended.
“I don’t want your attention. I just thought I’d tell you.”
“So the next time I clean your floor, will it make a difference? Mol, I work. I eat. I have five children and a lazy husband.”
I stare into her vacuous eyes, brown like dark chocolate, unrelenting like the ground in times of no monsoon.
“What if one of your children were gay?” I ask.
“What if? Then what? So what? Mol, there are more important things in life, no? More important than gay or no gay.”
“I have a girlfriend,” I say. She hasn’t come to see me.”
She watches me, chocolate brown eyes looking into my own grey eyes, my eyes full of despair.
“Mol, if she loves you, she will come. Life is not about what or whom we desire but about what or who desires us, no?”
“So she will come then?”
She shakes her head from side to side.
“What does “Mol” mean?” I ask her.
“You are North Indian, no?”
“‘Mol’ is South Indian. It is from the language of Malayalam and means ‘dear one.’”
I do not know what it is about her but she makes me feel safe. I had felt safe once in my mother’s arms when I was hurt or bruised from outside or inside and she held me and told me life was good but not always fair. Now what I remember most vividly of my mother is her turning to leave me the first time I was at Bellevue. She never saw me again. And I hear still her last words, “This woman will destroy you. When you come to your senses, then return to us.”
How can you return from love? How can you return from your heart’s desire? These questions my mother did not answer before she left. All I know is, I never saw her thereafter. Phone conversations at Diwali and New Year’s only suffice for us to wish one another a happy time, a wonderful life. Ironic, I know.
I miss you, Ma. Even though. And still. I miss you. I miss hearing you say my name as if it were valuable.
“What is your name?” Vani asks.
“Her name is Anjali,” I say, “My name is Alisha Malhotra.”
She shakes her head slowly side to side as she says, “Alisha Malhotra.”
“Well, good night,” I say.
I leave her that night as she finishes her rice and coconut curry fish. I walk slowly to my room and all the while have the desire to bury my head in her sari and sleep. I think sometimes when those we love leave us, we are overwhelmed at possibilities that we may be loved again. She makes me miss my mother. And nothing in this universe, even that which we sometimes call God, can change that.
After that first meeting, I go as frequently as I can to watch Vani eat her dinner. There are nights when there is too much noise in my mind and I do not go to see her. But most nights I do because Vani washes me with a calm that I do not find anywhere else.
As time passes by, I start to think I might tell her that Anjali has died. But while she heats food and I sit beside her, I enjoy telling her about Anjali and I enjoy most of all hearing that Anjali will come to see me. Throughout each day, I vacillate between believing Anjali is alive and knowing Anjali is not alive. But with Vani, for the hour that we share, it is so easy to believe that Anjali is alive and that she will come to see me because Vani is one person who does not know the truth. And she believes as much as I do, without hesitation or question, that Anjali will come back to me. I do not want to sacrifice these pleasures.
“She hasn’t come to see me,” I say.
“Mol, she loves you, no?”
“Yes. Yes. I know a thousand times, yes.”
“Then she will.”
She strokes my back. Her hand is heavy. Her touch is so comforting it makes me believe. Anjaliwill come.
Anjali does not come.
I spend my days in recreational therapy as if drawing with pastels or middle C on a piano will heal whatever is broken or tarnished within me. It doesn’t. I divide my heart and mind into two time zones: times I know Anjali is dead and times I believe that she is alive. The rest of my time is interference, white noise, black noise, nothing worth listening to anyway.
One night, a Wednesday, Vani and I are in the kitchen. She eats her idli sambar, mounds of soft rice and golden yellow spicy lentils, and I watch. She calls me to her.
“Eat, Mol,” she says.
She feeds me with a spoon and I feel, above all, safe.
“Tell me about this Anjali.”
I lean back and swallow. I sigh. Then I speak.
“I met Anjali on the street during a rain storm,” I say.
“Every great love story has a little rain, no?”
“Ours did. I met her then. We dated. We dared. I was nineteen. She was twenty-six. That day we bought lychees. She had never tasted one. She was raised here, not in India at all. She held two lychees in her palm. ‘One is you,’ she said. ‘One is me.’ I fed her lychees that day. Her first lychees. She squeezed them in her palms until her fingertips held the fragrance of their pulpy flesh. That is the day I fell in love. That is the day everything changed. Some good. Some terrible.”
“My name is Vani,” she offers.
It is enough of an offering.
As of then, we are friends.
I talk to Vani as often as I can.
I am grateful for Tony’s naps.
There are times we meet that I am not in the mood to talk. Last night was one of those times. It wasn’t for anything that happened or that Vani did. I was just tired of believing one thing and knowing another and then sometimes believing and knowing the same thing. I wanted some peace. And I wanted the courage to tell Vani the truth.
“Anjali still hasn’t come,” I said.
“Mol, she will come,” Vani says.
“How do you know?” I say.
“Maybe you don’t want her to come because you’re like everyone else; you don’t believe this is real. No girl and no boy and we are not real to you because we are Indian and this is not how we do things.”
Vani is quiet.
“Mol, I can say no more than not all people are the same. Yes, I am sorry for your mother and your father. But me, gay no gay, no difference. Believe me or then don’t.”
I look into the fake mirror on the wall. I call it fake because it is not glass for obvious reasons. And because it is not glass, it distorts everything as if it has a right to rephrase reality.
My hair is oily. I haven’t washed it for a week now. But still, it is long and black and wavy. My skin looks dull but then why shouldn’t it? I feel muted myself. Maybe it’s the meds. Maybe it’s my soul. I no longer know the difference.
“Then why won’t she come?” I whisper.
I turn around and our eyes meet. Vani touches my cheek with her hand. Her fingers are rough. Too many dishes washed, too many bathrooms cleaned.
“I don’t know, Mol. I don’t know. But she will. Trust me.”
I hug her. I feel for a moment that my mother has returned, devoid of anger, full of the love she once gave and I once knew.
“Tell me about her,” she says. “What did she look like?”
I sigh. We walk back to the window and sit at our usual table. I look into Vani’s vacuous eyes.
“She was beautiful,” I say. “Very curvy. Always thought she needed to lose weight but she looked perfect.”
I stop. Somewhere, my mind does not make sense. I see Anjali bright and vivacious, using her hips to dance. And I see Anjali thin and frail, holding onto a window pane so as not to fall.
“Are you ok, Mol?”
“She was beautiful,” I say. “She had light brown eyes, golden at times. And she loved makeup. Anjali looked stunning. ‘Giorgio Armani foundation, Lancome liner,’ she would say.”
I lose my thought like a paper kite in the sky.
“Mol, why do you say ‘was’ and not ‘is’?”
I start to breathe unevenly, like a tempest rocking a boat.
I look into her eyes and somehow, I am tired of pretending. Somehow, I cannot revive Anjali again. And I am scared.
“I lied to you, Vani. She is dead. But here, with you, it was so good to believe she was alive. But you are my friend. And I lied to you. And I am sorry.”
I run out of the kitchen and to my room.
“You okay there?”
“Should I call a doctor? Do you want some meds?”
“Please don’t. I just want to calm down. I promise.”
For reasons I don’t understand, he listens. And then I crawl into bed. And then I fall into bed. And I stare at the vacant ceiling as it mirrors my vacant soul.
Tony watches me.
“Please don’t call anyone.”
“She died, Alisha. And you loved her. And I am sorry.”
That is the most genuine Tony has ever been. And I have no words for him.
I close my eyes tight. It is as if the darkness outside the window has hidden itself behind my eyelids. Tighter. The darkness will not go away.
“She died, Alisha.”
I know it is true. But I do not believe that it is true. Do I not owe it to Anjali to feel the loss of her? I fall asleep slowly and wonder if Vani is angry with me.
Today I wait, as always, for Tony to fall asleep. He is still sitting in the chair, saying nothing. Two o’clock seems far away. I wait. Eventually, I hear the flutter of a snore. I watch to make sure he is sleeping. Then I quietly walk past Tony and enter the kitchen. According to the orange clock on the far wall, it is four past two.
When I see Vani, she does not mention my apology. We sit at the table by the window. Steam rises from her plastic container but she does not eat. She stares out of the window at the darkness as if searching for answers or answering a great question.
“Once you know, once I had dog. I loved that dog. He was grey and white and so light I could pick him up and walk throughout Kerala. And one day a bus hit him. It took me a long time to know he was gone. My mind knew, no? My soul could not know. I used to fill his food twice a day and his water also. And I used to scream at him for not eating. But he was dead. For everyone who had eyes, he had died. But not for me. And then one day he came to me in dreams and said ‘Vani, what you do? I am dead Vani. You know this.’ And I did know. And I cried. And I let sadness come in.”
I stare at her. For a long time we say nothing. She does not touch her food.
“What are you saying?”
She shakes her head from side to side.
She presses a wad of paper towels into my palm.
“To open later,” she says.
I put the package in my pocket.
We sit in silence, our eyes staring into the darkness as if there is something to find there. Nothing comes.
As Vani rises to get some water, I say it.
“She died of leukemia seventy nine days ago. Same night I tried to kill myself.”
I feel emptier than I ever have. And then something starts to seep into me. Do we call this reality or grief or love? All the same, no?
I close my eyes.
“Is that why you tried to kill yourself, Mol?”
“No. Bad timing.”
I laugh a little and feel very guilty. I tried so hard to sever life with a slicing of my wrists while Anjali fought to live until she flat lined and died. Where is the justice in that?
Vani covers her uneaten dinner.
“I go now. Next time, I hope you tell me they are letting you go home.”
“I have no home.”
“We carry home within us, Mol. Like we do all that we love. And for these things we carry, we must be better than we think we can be.”
“They won’t let me go home until I feel. Until I cry. And I can’t.”
She gently touches my head before leaving. A blessing I guess.
I close my eyes. I do not know if it is the meds or just this night or Vani or just me. But this night I remember more than my girl’s curves. I remember her diminishing before me. And every time I was scared, she was not.
“There is no room for fear,” she would say.
Through transfusions and chemo and all of it, her leukemia grew stronger and somehow, so did she. And then one day, she couldn’t grow anymore, like a tree with knotted roots. And she stopped fighting whatever wanted to take her. And then she died. She died. She died in a hospital as I slit my wrists halfway across New York City.
Let me make one thing clear. I did not try to kill myself because she died. I tried to kill myself because I was alive and it did not feel natural to breathe. I live in a world where I know there is good and bad. It is not enough for me to want to belong to it. But then in a pouring rain I met Anjali who made me feel that there was also love in this vastness. And I am guilty because even then, it was not enough for me to want to live. Somehow the shadows that play inside my mind consume me. And I am tired.
I still see her. I remember her body and how it shrank from curves and voluptuousness to taut skin and protruding bones. And even if I do not close my eyes, I can see her as if she is floating in front of me. The last words I heard her say were whispered on the phone the night before. I had gone back from the hospital to our home and she called me. We spoke for three minutes and forty-eight seconds at the end of which she said, “Baby, there is no room for fear. I will die, you will live and you know what? You will love again.”
But all love is not the same. She could run a finger across my lips and take my anger from me. She could kiss the corner of my eye and swallow a tear until no more tears would come. She could rub my temples with her palms and make sleep take me. I do not believe anyone understands these rituals. I do not believe anyone understood our love.
When all is quiet and I am sure there is no one who will enter the kitchen, I unfold Vani’s paper napkins. Here are two lychees side by side, attached by a stem, the skin course and maroon and bursting with fruit. I kneel on the floor and slowly peel back the rugged skin on one. I close my eyes and breathe and I can feel her fingers close to my face, urging me to use smell and touch and taste.
“This is you,” I say and my throat catches.
“This is you,” I say again, “full of scents and ripe with life even though they tell me you are dead.”
“And this,” I whisper as I hold the unpeeled fruit, looking even more maroon in contrast to the white pulp in my hand, “this is me. Rugged and coarse and unfeeling, even as I live.”
I squeeze the lychees in my palm until the juice runs onto the floor. I hold them close to my chest. Nothing brings me peace. Nothing ever will. No one understood our love.
I lick lychee juice off the floor. I smell and taste and then smear the juice on the tiles. Tears spill with no kisses to land upon my eyes. I finally feel the loss of her. And the saltiness of my loss mixes with the sweetness of lychee juice. And nothing will ever be the same.
“Anjali!” I scream.
Can she hear me?
As I rock myself back and forth, she comes to me. She is here. Can’t you smell the lychee juice on her fingertips?
“I am so scared without you,” I say.
Somewhere in the night, before they come to lift me off the floor and sedate me with drugs I cannot pronounce, I hear her whisper.
“There is no room for fear.”
But there is, my beloved, room for grief. There is room enough in the void that is me for me to understand words like “never” as in “I will never find your fragrance in the wind again” or “I will never hold you close to me when the world is too big and I am too small.”
Life without you is so full of all the wrong things.
“There is no room for fear.”
And yet fear consumes me.
I have never been afraid to die, my love.
But I am terrified to live.