He did not like waiting.
The sensation, interlaced with uncertainty drilled at his brain and made him shiver. He had been waiting at the airport for twelve hours already, half a day. Twelve hour segments had been ground underfoot and had slipped between the cracks below him. The pedestal on which he stood sagged underneath the added weight of both him and his emotional burdens – all self-inflicted sorrow.
“When will I go home,” he sighed softly through his teeth, his head rolling back and forth on his shoulders. World-weary like those of Atlas, yet fragile and bony. The shoulders of an unfulfilled intellectual.
However, the truth, which he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge, was that airports felt more like home than his apartment. Located in New Jersey only a block away from his parents, it was impeccably clean, owing to the fact that few feet brushed it’s floors and few fingers familiarized themselves with the foreign furnishings.
He crushed his fifth cup of coffee in his hand. The cheap, flimsy plastic gave way between his agitated fingers, producing filmy cracks that ran along it’s transparent surface.
It had served it’s purpose, and now it was time for it to be thrown away.
Did he need to crush it, to destroy its form so gratuitously? No. But it had made him feel better, so he did.
How selfish I am, he thought to himself, even in the simplest and most inconsequential acts of the everyday.
The sun shone in unbroken rays through the large glass windows of the airport directly into his eyes, engulfing his vision in a solar eclipse of sight. Blinded briefly, he was pulled back to the present moment from the throbbing recesses of his consciousness, and remembered where he was and why. He was on his way back to his apartment. He would turn on the light and there would be nobody to greet him. He would open the fridge and there would be nothing inside it except the frozen rose from his uncle’s funeral. He would check his mailbox-which at this point he did merely out of heavy habit -and there would be no friendly greetings, no letters, no acknowledgement of any previously cherished relationship, not even a plea to return a lost item.
He could see all of it already so clearly, having repeated the same actions over and over again, only to discover that the familiar feeling of emptiness mingled with longing had never left him, no matter how many times he had tried to run away to the life he’d always envisioned for himself. The far flung bits and pieces of himself cried out to be united, but he could not be everywhere at once without being nowhere, at the same time.
He had realized, after arriving at the barren apartment time after time, that he had come to define himself not by what he had achieved or by what or whom he loved, but by what he lacked…
It was, he knew, a dangerously common disease.
At twenty five, Sanjay Subramaniam lived the nomadic life of someone raised in decisively different worlds. It was a never ending internal battle, the weight of the choice – choosing between what you were born and what you became was the anthem of his every moment. He held on tightly to the ankles of his past with his feet planted firmly in the sands of certainty, to prevent himself from being washed away by the tide of his indecision. The guilt from his constant compromise seeped through the cracks and ate at the place where his heart and consciousness met, and he tried to reconcile his conflicting cultures with each other but it was as futile as putting a band aid on a broken skull- everything fell apart anyway, bleeding through the cracks.
Sanjay was, to any outside observer, an unexceptional man. He had moved to America when he was three years old, and had been brought up by a successful middle-class Indian family, who loved him as much as they loved the Motherland they had left. His last name, Subramaniam, meant “worthy jewel” and was derived from Lord Murugan, the god of his people, Tamils from South India. His Father’s full name was Balasubramaniam, but after coming to America he cast the first part off in exchange for the simpler Subramaniam, shedding layers of himself like a culturally constrained chameleon.
They were nothing like other parents. They were not quintessential Americans, but they were not quintessential Indians either. His mother had lived and gone to school in England for the past twenty years of her life, and his father’s mother was of European descent.
He, when asked said simply that he was “Indian, mostly.”
He had never been more shocked than when his father, when talking about America being attacked during 9/11, had said “Us.”
The Subramaniams were also Catholics. Sanjay recalled sitting aside from his friends in fourth grade, leafing through the thick, flaky pages of a World Atlas in the school library until he found the chapter on India. When he got to the section titled “Religious Demographic,” underneath the statistics for Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism, were the words, Catholic / Christian population, 1.1% . Seeing this tiny figure reaching barely over one percent, he felt both isolated and special; aware that he was vastly outnumbered, yet eager to establish his place in the world.
As he grew, the sensation of being somehow different persisted. But it was not uncomfortable or strange, it liberated him, set him apart in his mind. Years of schooling flew by and friendships were formed and subsequently outgrown like exuviated skins, growing dust, memories to be brought out and shaken when Sanjay had the time to spare.
When he was fifteen, he entered High School. The concept of it, it’s dynamic, puzzled him. The way individuals conformed so willingly to short-lived cultural phenomenons as if they were about to be sorted into a societal filing cabinet intrigued him, his classmates becoming more and more like blueprints to examine and decipher and less and less like friends. The first and only person who mattered to him at that stage of his life was a girl named Katharine. She had big green eyes like globes and thick coppery eyelashes that fanned out in front of them like butterfly wings, with a soft jaw that cut into the masculinity of her broad eyebrows. She was American- “Just American,” she had said when asked- and so different from him in what seemed like every aspect of her existence that it both fascinated and frightened him.
The first thing he had noticed about her was that she knew so little about suffering.
“Katharine, you have the earth in your eyes, how could you not know?” He joked. But he could not bring himself to be upset with her. There was something so insubstantial, so deprived about her blinkered understanding of the world he could only muster pity. The broken human shell likes to seek shelter in the gilded cage of first-world modernity, with all it’s distracting comforts that distort impending death into the form of a self-righteous donation sticker, he wrote that night.
Katharine was an art student, with what seemed like permanent flecks of paint dotting the inside of her palms and her clothing. She had approached Sanjay in the library to ask him questions on a project she’d been assigned, on the artistic styles of the Third World. His brown skin must have given him away, a link to his origins, his true self emblazoned on every square inch of his outward appearance. She told him about the project, what she wanted to accomplish, how art pieces must first be planned, with attention to composition, to detail, to value. Sanjay listened intently. He wanted to love the world in this way, paying attention to how much he loved the lines, drawing everything to support the focus, the moment of emphasis…
He began to tell her about his life in India. The stories which were once his secrets became currency he could trade for companionship. Sanjay told her about the buses that had been burned and turned over during riots, he told her about women and children coming up to the doors and knocking at the glass, their eyes so heavily sunk into their heads he felt like he could see through the other side. He told her about climbing onto people’s houses to steal fruit, the hot tin of their roof’s burning the soles of his feet. He told her about a ragpicker boy he watched ground into the dust by a man with a stick, and how he sat frozen, horrified as the boy’s blood pooled around him. The way he felt like his heart could not breathe. He told her about the women, abused by their alcoholic husbands, who came knocking at the door. He told her about the singing in church, women covering their faces with their shawls as they bowed their heads to the floor, accompanied by the blind pianist’s chords resonating across the compound. He told her about the little girl whose face was burned off with kerosene oil and a lighter. He told her about the summers he spent, running with the street boys, kicking up the dust, playing in the dirt, stealing from carts and climbing trees.
It was another world within a world. Sanjay had learned over the course of his experience in India how to separate the loud tragedies and ecstasies with the quieter trials and joys stitched into the fabric of the everyday, and with that knowledge he covered himself from head-to-toe.
Sometimes, Katharine would not only listen but reply in kind, telling her own stories. She told Sanjay about how she would visit her family in Maine over the summer, where she lived only minutes from the Wyeth’s home, greeting scenes from their paintings every day, drawing inspiration from the same landscapes and faces as the masters themselves.
“Sure,” she’d say, when asked to do something. It was so casual, so nonchalant, as if it were absolutely no trouble at all to answer the question, to do whatever was asked of her. Sort of like “of course” but less earnest, and in a way less false, less forced and so relaxed, as if there were no problems that existed in the intimately finite amount of time it took to utter the syllable. She was the sort of reserved person you met, once or twice in life, and who you never thought of again unless you really wanted to. Quiet, but kind. Inarticulate, but well meaning.
One day, a normally pleasant girl was stony-faced on the bus home from school.
“Is that girl in front of us okay?” Katharine asked Sanjay, who had barely noticed. What she really meant was, Turn your head, look. She’s upset. You see? Look at the curve of her mouth and the slant of her eyes and her furrowed brow and her nose turned downward.
He looked up. He saw.
The immortality of these moments and conversations they shared struck him with a sense of finality and permanence, and by the time he noticed that her eyes were different sizes, he didn’t care.
He loved telling her stories nearly as much as he loved the fact that she could never understand them, separating the reality of his life there from his life here. They hung in front of his eyes like photographs on a string, as if he were not really living his life but observing images he could pick and choose from, to draw to the surface her thin-lipped smile, teeth protruding slightly, a flash of metal briefly visible.
One day his mother called him while at school, crying. A bus had been set on fire during a riot and had exploded in front of the marketplace in their home town. Pushpa bookhouse had crumbled into rubble, the old man who had given him biscuits when he had gone to buy Dickens had been buried among his dusty volumes, and Raj the gardener had been found in pieces near a wall.
He was in a state of disbelief. Katharine tentatively put her arm around him, her touch light, turning slightly to accommodate his shuddering body, sweaty with the faint scent of sandalwood soap. She said nothing for two hours. He did not stop. It was excruciating, it was the height of agony, his whole life had culminated and then shattered before his eyes as the foundations of his childhood collapsed. The velvety material of her jacket pressing against his face smelled of something unfamiliar, and he was dimly aware of their proximity, drawn together by his grief. He was fairly certain she knew what suffering was now.
“Katharine?” He asked.
“Have you ever seen the grave of a two year old child?”
“I…well I was..I don’t remember I think but I…” She trailed off, not knowing what to say in response to something from a world so far removed from her own. Her green globes looked concerned as they met his dark brown orbs, deep like rich earth, the black lashes that framed them wet with tears.
He drew his shaking palms close together. “It’s so small… so small.”
He rolled over the memory of Katharine in his mind and his chest burned. He was twenty five. It was time to get married. Most of his friends were, at this point. He was surprised, but then again, not really. Much like him, they had all spent their lives running from and after things, people, ideas, constantly stifled and spurred by their own ambitions. In the end, they had settled for married life, one person in which they could invest the rest of their unfulfillable cares and tribulations for the rest of eternity. They were always reaching for something just out of their grasp, something abstract that tantalized them. Few of them cared about the immediate state of their lives anymore.
“This life is just a preface, just a prelude,” his best friend from College told him late one night, as they lay awake unable to sleep.
“To either eternal damnation..or ecstasy.”
“So you don’t know? You don’t know which? Doesn’t that bother you? They’re opposites.”
“Sometimes I toy with the idea of finding out. But then I decide, ‘I’d better not’.”
Sanjay never asked again.
As the wedding invitations piled up, these friends began to form and epitomize one big Congratulations of which he was not part of, as if he’d looked up the dictionary definition of the word and seen all their names as examples, listed underneath the antonym where his own name was spelled out, in stiff, forbidding letters like brittle leaves.
Every time his parents offered to find him a wife he threw up his hands, both out of resignation and indifference, “Please! Do whatever you want!” Yet every time he met a potential bride he rejected her. All these traditional Indian girls were too centered, too entrenched in a culture they knew and understood like the fingers on their hands. They had seen what he, like a coward had tried to run from his whole life, and stayed. Katharine, he knew, could live a hundred years and not comprehend a fraction of the life they and Sanjay shared.
But even so, when they spoke shyly of India and said “Us” he had to shake himself…Us?
He would have to call his mother as soon as he got home. Tell her again that the girl he had gone to see was not the one he’d bring home, not the one he’d spend his life with. She would be disappointed, but she would pretend she wasn’t for his sake. In a week she would be moving back to India anyway, with his father, where twice the amount of effort would be thrown into his marriage endeavor.
“Pursuing things even though they seem futile is what makes us human!” She had said many times before, “Persistence, perseverance, unwavering aspiration! God bless you my son.” She would end with a prayer and then go for a walk around the balcony in her apartment, lined with potted plants she had forgotten to water in all her fretting for him. She was only a block away. He would sit at his desk with the drafts of stories he had wanted to write for years piling up around him, swallowing him as he tried to coax them onto their crippled legs. “Nothing can last for me now,” he wrote.“My foundation is slippery sand and my castles erected with hope are sinking into infinite oblivion, ephemeral structures collapsing into the depths of eternity.”
The animalistic impulses he acted on in every situation were frittering and giving way to inconsequentiality and immateriality before his eyes.
Maybe he should have just become an engineer.
The gate agent stood stiffly with his back against the wall. His Indian accent was distinct and jarring among the soft tones of pink-lipsticked and mascaraed women. Sanjay heard it above everything in the profoundly Western setting, and he could hear it stir the fragile roots of his American Dream.
Home. Was that really where he was going? In his life he had known so many.
The couple in front of him in line were laughing and smiling. The man was tall with bright blue eyes and a dark beard and the woman was much shorter, with wispy hair that curled around her jaw.
“…I have been crying so much my eyes feel like those dry pound cakes!” They were holding hands. Sanjay clenched and unclenched his fists. Further away, an old man sat alone on a bench, staring into space. In his hand he held a Dickens novel. Sanjay had to turn away. There was a group of young girls with matching uniforms, standing in line behind him, and nearby there was a single father holding his son’s hand like an anchor. An old couple leaning against each other closed their eyes, and behind them stood a young businesswoman with stern eyebrows, arguing with what seemed to be her business partner.
“It’s the norm” she said loudly, eyes flashing.
“It’s an ideal” her partner retorted, a half smile on his face.
“It’s the twenty-first century, ideals are the norm…”
Stirred by this, Sanjay’s eyes roved over the masses. Men, women, and children, each of them having furnished themselves with their own working, middle or upper class flavor. So many people, and they came and they went. Having lived and loved and lost and limped their way through the lifelong journey, trod with feet of varying degrees of disrepair.
And so he stood, and he waited, letting go. He was at a point in his life where he had never felt more lost, but in that moment he felt so full to the brim with experiences, touched by the countless people he would never see again, as if by brushing their lives so briefly renewed in him the hope that there was so much more to his life on earth than his limited sphere of understanding.
When it was his turn to board, the gate agent stamped his boarding pass, spitting out his words in small disjointed doses like an uncooperative soda machine, and he mounted the plane.
As he lifted off, the ground underneath rumbling and trembling, he remembered how he used to grasp his mother’s hand as the plane rose into the air. Her hands were always warm and firm, her golden wedding and engagement bands pressing against his bony knuckles. She would whisper prayers as she fastened his seatbelt, always before fastening her own. He could feel his heart grow lonely again. Now there was nobody with him whose hand he could hold, nobody who could pray for his safe return. The couple sitting next to him, the same ones in front of him in the line, were leaning into each other, and had already fallen asleep, their limbs intertwined, fragile fingers interlaced.
Never did he feel more alone than when intimacy he did not share was so near.
Yes. It was as he’d left it. Even the door handle was untouched, no fingers having left their oily prints on it. The rose was still in the fridge, the floor, unswept for weeks looked freshly cleaned, the mailbox unacknowledged. The only thing betraying the apartment’s state of neglect was the fine, nearly imperceptible layer of filmy dust lingering on every surface.
Bathed in the solitary artificial light of his table-lamp was his house phone. Casting his suitcase off to the side, Sanjay strode across to it, taking large lopsided steps. He dialed the nine digits of his parent’s number and waited silently, without breathing, to hear his mother’s voice. “Yes? Hello? Sanjay? Sanjay are you there?” The words flooded from her, as free and emphatic as her uninhibited personality, swift and staccato.
“I’m coming with you.”
That was all he said.
There was no need to explain to her. She was not like anybody else. The words melted from his mouth and dribbled from his chin and she wiped them away, just like she used to do twenty five years before.
After a long silence, his mother spoke: “People always have this attitude of ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’ but often, the reason you see it is because you believed in it.” Her words hung in the air for a moment, until they were absorbed by him, into his skin and into his mind, embedding themselves in his psyche, curling into the crevices of his Perspective.
In the end, he was a man caught in between disparate lives that strung the tightrope of eternity, wavering in between the finely translucent, nearly invisible lines separating bathos and pathos, love and limerence, adoration and adulation, asceticism and altruism. But how could he tell the difference, just yet? He could barely tell East from West, his hands stretched, persistently, up to the sky, yearning to break the glass of his own fruitless inhibitions and live free from sight.