The summer with Avyan had a before and after: before his widowed father came to visit and—afterward. I was an out-of-work graduate student in the sixth year of my doctoral program in Political Science, slicing my life thin and watching the end of a relationship slowly burn out, like a curtain winded by an errant candle.
Avyan worked nine to five as a data analyst at a local holding company. I worked at the gas station opposite a Subway store two blocks from Avyan’s apartment on Mayfair Street, bringing in pennies on the down-low—F1 International students weren’t really supposed to work off-campus. Avyan was mortified when I told him.
“Let it go, Mrinalini, please. You will get us in trouble. How much money do you need?”
“You are always so scared, Avu. They never ask for papers.”
“More reason you should be worried. We look different, in case you didn’t realize. We don’t speak English like Americans. They’ll know easily.”
“Don’t worry. A white dude is covering for us, and the owner is Indian,” I said, taking a swig from the whiskey glass.
“How come you never mentioned any of this? This is really unnecessary, Minu.”
“What? What is unnecessary?” I swung my arms around his neck, my speech slurring.
“Quit it. This is really annoying. If it is about the money, you know I am good. Don’t you want to finish your PhD? You haven’t come here for this.”
One day I rammed his brand-new Honda Civic into an unattended grocery cart in the parking lot at Aldi. The collision resulted in a slight dent. Still, it was enough to dent my ego, too, and my confidence in driving. I gave up my job at the gas station. It wasn’t anything in particular, but maybe the sheer inertia and the constant shame of not writing my dissertation, coupled with Avyan’s warnings, that led me to a point where I knew I couldn’t drag myself to the shop anymore.
Sometimes, the sky broke out in angry heat boils. I’d draw the curtains, cloistering myself in a closed den, rummaging through discordant words, an argument. Avyan would return home to a dark, damp house with near-frigid temperatures. I’d be tunneled into one corner of a room, swathed in an ill-fitting jumpsuit, blowing empty smoke rings to an absent spectator.
“You look like death,” he’d say.
Some days our bodies made love. On other days, I slept on the couch, sinking into the upholstery of a thrift shop three-seater, tracing jagged edges of compassed letters enclosed in a heart sign. Here I was, lovelorn and lost, sans family, sans stable income, a late twenty-something debutante preparing for an entrance only to realize midway there weren’t enough steps to make a grand gesture.
One day Avyan announced that his father would be visiting in the last week of June. On account of his mother’s first death anniversary, he and his sister in Varanasi had managed to convince the old man that visiting America would be a good change for him. This unexpected development added another level of complexity to our failing relationship, like uncovering an invisible stone in an already-weeded garden. I considered my precarious finances and uncertain future in this country.
Avyan was standing on the other side of the kitchen island. I was in the middle of cooking parboiled, scented rice in chicken stock, milk combined with one orange peel.
“If I knew your father would be coming I would have made other plans. I could have crashed at Angela’s place. Now it won’t be possible. She’s gone back to Florida for the summer,” I replied.
“Please,” he entreated in an embarrassed voice, “I want you to stay. I did not mean for this to appear in this way—I would have told you before if I wanted you to leave.”
“Is your father okay with us living together?”
“He knows about you. He thinks we will get married soon,” he replied.
A deflated animal escaped my throat and conspicuously settled in the room.
Avyan proceeded to placate, “I know we aren’t prepared for marriage right now, but I want you to stay, Mrinalini.”
I felt an unnatural rush of sympathy for him then. It was the closest that I’d felt to him that summer.
Later that night, after the dinner of chicken and coconut-scented orange-peel rice, after a week of tiptoeing around each other, we went to bed together. There was an imminent change on the horizon. Still, we temporarily found comfort in our intertwined bodies, tracing patterns of hurt corralled with longing and desire, me curling up into a soft ball and pressing myself against him, reproaching him for not fighting for us enough. Him, freeing himself from my grasp and rubbing my shoulders, his hands cool and placating, silently stilling my beating heart. Even in the intimacy of the bedroom, he was impassive when all I wanted was to talk, pour my heart out, tell him how every day was a blur, how he was the only other human contact I had, how every morning was an endless nightmare, how all I wanted to do was sleep and sleep and never wake up. And how I wished he would look at me once like he wasn’t disappointed with me, like he didn’t think I had no purpose in my life, like he believed that I would one day stop being so sad, and that I was so disappointed with myself for not knowing why I was this sad, and that it had nothing to do with him, yet everything to do with him. But that night, we at least held each other, even if for a brief second, it wasn’t just me clinging to his body, like it was the only floating piece of log in a turbulent sea, that even if for a brief second, he needed me, just like my body needed him in order to feel alive.
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