Featured Fiction returns with “The Fight” by Chaya Bhuvaneswar, author of the collection White Elephants Dancing! “The Fight” is an examination of race, sexuality and power, et in the aftermath of the 1992 LA riots, muddied by Chip’s warped view of his own privilege, a white, legacy admit to Yale, whose grandparents owned a building on Science Hill.
“It’s not just that he came into the room,” Mahisha said. They were walking to Clark’s Diner to get ice cream. A May afternoon near end of term.
“It’s you. It’s that you didn’t do anything when he just came in and talked to you and I was fucking naked in your bed.”
“We were not fucking. We were done by then,” Chip pointed out. They’d just gone running on Science Hill, Mahisha barely exerting and Chip quite out of breath, but as always when he passed those buildings, even when he was falling behind on their weekly run, Chip still got a satisfied feeling. It was 1992 and Bush was president, May and Rodney King was a few weeks behind them now, not that Mahisha stopped talking about him. Despite the potential for turmoil, both in LA and in their vexed relationship, dignified old money could be counted on, Chip often reminded himself.
Chip’s family owned one of Yale’s Science Hill lecture halls. It was a technical ownership—technical because the family had donated the money in such a way that they owned it, and Yale had no choice but to name it after them, but officially the entryway still also said “Yale”, and it wasn’t private property. So no one really knew Chip’s grandparents had a piece of Yale, even if they connected the name with Chip’s last name, unless he pointed the situation out to them, unless they took the time to stare up at a nearly-hidden, small name plaque in a backroom. Which was no problem for him; Chip liked being technical, like knowing what others didn’t. Charles Abernethy the Third was his full name; Chip was his name from Skull & Bones; “Chuck” his name before that, but during Rush they’d made him choose a brand-new nickname, “Chip” so it could be short for “Chippendale”. Chip supposed there was some parallel to something immigrants complained about—how they were pressured to assume new names. To serve some master’s agenda. But Mahisha wasn’t an immigrant; nor was she Indian Indian; Mahisha was born here, the daughter of a Harvard-trained orthopedic surgeon who lived in Hillsborough, New Jersey and belonged to a country club, the best one for Indian-Americans in the tristate area, she’d said. And Chip hadn’t gotten Mahisha pregnant; not technically. The pregnancy hadn’t lasted.
“Not only were we done by then, but you weren’t even making any sounds,” he continued, still being reasonable. “And we were on the top half of the bunk bed, so I doubt very much that he saw anything.”
“You doubt?” Mahisha yelled. “You doubt? That isn’t something you want to make sure? That your roommate didn’t see your fiancée naked?”
Chip winced. Mahisha could be technical too, using that word. Fiancée. When she’d had the miscarriage early on, he hadn’t asked for the ring back.
“He’s a tall guy,” Chip conceded. “Okay, he could have seen. If he wasn’t as hung-over as usual.” Chip’s roommate, an alcoholic ex-swimmer, recruited for the sheer, joyous length of his Norwegian-American body by a coach unfamiliar with the stigmata of chronic alcohol overuse, was socially raw and even intrusive at times. The guy had asked more than once what “Indian girls” were like, including rude questions about the color and feel of her private parts. Yet Chip gave him the benefit of many doubts. He believed the roommate’s glance at Mahisha was accidental, if it had even happened.
Mahisha pushed the door open to the diner and went through without him, not holding it open. But Chip made a positive moment out of her snub; that was another skill he had. He stood outside of Clark’s reading the menu, which he had never taken the time to really look at before. There were a lot of dishes there. Why ice cream? he asked himself. And why the same kind every time? This time a root beer float, he told himself, wiping sweat off his brow. Something different.
Hadn’t his dad said that having a mistress kept his marriage (before Chip’s mom discovered her) alive?
“And then he was playing Guns N’ Roses, of all things,” Mahisha said, suddenly in front of him, holding open the door expectantly. “Guns N’ Roses. Haven’t I told you a million times that Axl Rose is a racist? The band gets up on-stage and spews out racist rants. And you expect me, the woman you’ve said you’re planning to marry, to just lie there in your bed, naked, while you have a conversation with a despicable white man, no, boy, who wants to wear a bandanna and dance in his underwear to Axl Rose?”
Chip said nothing on entering. The simpering waitress wasn’t here today. Self-doubt, in his case never meager, settled on him heavily. Some days were like that; some weeks. The plus or minus rating of his personal greatness, his legacy. The B-minus on his Great Empires paper, because, he was convinced, he’d argued that empire was economical, a way to maximize profit and minimize risk, because if some venture on the ground went wrong there was in place a host of other people the risk-takers could place the burden on. It wasn’t any different, really, from the professor who’d been lecturing all term about how when empire declined, so did the national greatness. But the uppity TA had said Chip’s use of a long quotation, as a segue to the piece, from Kipling’s classic, “The White Man’s Burden”, had been “disturbing, proto-fascist, and serious cause for concern.” Geez, lighten up! he’d wanted to say to the skinny, light-haired, tightly-wound, Birkenstocks-wearing guy who looked both vegan and sexually repressed. Or maybe not sexually repressed, because just yesterday Chip had seen him hold hands with a Black athlete he recognized from one of the fraternities. When they’d seen Chip they dropped hands immediately, turning the contact into oh-so-friendly shoulder punching, chuckling, etcetera. They didn’t know—he didn’t care if they French kissed in front of him. Chip’s own brother was gay and had come out to him a few years ago. When Steven was so afraid that he would die, he wanted Chip’s help making a will. At first that was a real cause for consternation and concern—something more than the knee-jerk political correctness of his blond TA demagogue, Chip thought. The reason for the concern, even alarm, was that his brother had a habit of getting stinking drunk and taking anyone with a penis home. By all rights he should have gotten some type of disease, including The One. Chip hadn’t slept properly until the life-and-death blood test came back, but that was nothing to his older brother’s agony.
The negative AIDS test had turned around his brother’s life. Steven was a Log Cabin Republican now, a married investment planner, two kids adopted from an orphanage in Vietnam, his partner Louis a veteran, an older man who had made peace with his traumatic past, or so he advertised on his website. Louis was a therapist, a bit of a crunchy but “terrific as a wife”, his brother swore. Louis was half-Latino, his mother a Mexican, and Chip thought it was a shame, really, that the two men couldn’t reproduce, because the mixed children would have been beautiful. Chip didn’t understand, he really didn’t, and in all honesty it really exercised him, that the Bushies (close personal friends of his father, and in a way mentors to Chip too, on account of his being a Bonesman)—that the Bushies were so reviled, beyond lampooned, just vilified, for calling their beloved half-Mexican grandkids, Jed’s family, “little” and “brown.”
* * *
When they’d first started going out freshman year, Chip called Mahisha “My Little Brown.” It wasn’t that she hadn’t been honest with him about her “politics” as she called them, or “views.” Chip hadn’t cared, and maybe hadn’t even heard the words she’d said. He’d seen a girl, petite, energetic, with that whoa tiny brown body that could climb all over his. Somehow, he’d known Mahisha was only superficially angry. It hadn’t taken more than a month of smiling sex to convert her to a giggler, a girl who twirled curls of her soft black hair as they sat in Durfee’s officially reading, leg against leg, really conducting hours of foreplay. No one had mocked Chip for this cloying patience, nor for following Mahisha around. He’d been in love.
But that was then, Chip told himself now. The tall elf-eared waitress at Clark’s Diner was a blond literature graduate student who was usually on at this time of day, Chip knew. He’d first noticed the girl a few months ago, after he’d learned about the pregnancy from a positive test Mahisha had left in the bathroom of his suite, right there where any of his roommates could see it. Chip snatched it up; a fight ensued, then promises. Back then Mahisha was too early to show but crankier than usual and always ripping into him.
That afternoon, Mahisha’s monologue, something about the Gulf War, divestment, Ross Perot being on human growth hormone and Chip’s recent reluctance to touch her (“It’s not like you can make me pregnant again, I’m pregnant now”) had faded deeply into the background as Chip watched the waitress tuck back a loose lock of hair and scribble their order on a notepad. Watching the slim-hipped, delightfully ectomorphic waitress that day, a day he happened to be zit-free and wearing something pretty good, Chip could tell she was aware of him, and why shouldn’t she have been? He was dark-brown haired with midnight-blue eyes, and pale skinned with pink lips the color of his member. And the length of him was proportional to his solid, 6’4″ height; he’d watched in amusement the penis-measuring contests that almost all other boys engaged in publicly after high school gym class or at parties when they were drunk. In the school locker room, he’d stroked himselfprivately, proudly—nine inches flaccid, eleven inches erect. While doing so in the mirror, he often admired his long, pale tapered fingers too.
The main problem was his ears and the way they stuck out; the feminine slope of his shoulders and his slightly concave, hairless chest; his nose, shaped oddly, often dripping. “Allergies,” he’d explained to Mahisha, seeing the slightly grossed-out look on her face after their first night together. He had a prominent Adam’s apple too and an Ichabod Crane neck. Once some random young guy on the street outside the School of Medicine had come up to him and whispered excitedly: “Excuse me, is it possible—do you have Marfan’s?” and Chip, interpreting the name as a variety of marijuana, shook his head no wistfully. Chip also had a tendency to forget to wash his face and walk about, in broad sunlight with eye boogers visible. His clothing was expensive and tasteful but obviously couldn’t cover the relatively frequent pus-laden facial zit that couldn’t be covered by a beard either but looked red and inflamed after he’d shaved. And his teeth were brown—he didn’t know why, he’d never been a meth addict or tobacco chewer or anything, though because of Steven he’d had a four or five year phase of lots of pot, late nights, junk food and limited tooth-brushing especially during senior year of high school. Those few small physical flaws, he thought, unfairly kept him from marquee idol status, or the equivalent at Yale—unlimited play, even from the feminists. Even though his tongue was quite long too.
* * *
But like him, the waitress who was here after all, object of his recent regard, was far from perfect herself, he noted. Eventually he’d learned that her name really was Darlene, like it said on her uniform. A surprisingly white-trash name (and he enjoyed the subversiveness of this slur white trash, which Darlene with her proletariat sympathies abhorred) for the child of community college lit professors, he’d thought when she told him, over a sort-of-first-date they’d been on which had ended in kissing and touching and fondling in the dark, earlier that month, when Mahisha stayed in her dorm room by herself, watching old movies and weeping after having ordered Chip to “leave me the hell alone for good” because of how he claimed “not to see the big deal” about some strung-out townie calling her “Gandhi” and laughing with his equally high friends.
* * *
Now sitting across from Mahisha at Clark’s, Chip savored all the details of Darlene that he beheld. The girl was nearly as tall as Chip, a thin freak next to Mahisha with hard bitten-down, chipped-polish fingernails that revealed her daily anxieties about food and money. Her hair was dirty blond and unwashed-appearing, and she usually wore a yellowed wife-beater undershirt that showed, no bra, under a blue or white Oxford man’s shirt with dark brown stains on it. She’d confided in Chip that all her clothes came from the Salvation Army.
Of the three of them, even though Mahisha’s nerves were a wreck and her eyes frequently flashed in annoyance, Mahisha was the only radiant one. Men stopped and stared at Mahisha in the street even when Chip clutched her tightly to his side, which he hadn’t done for months now, come to think of it. Nowadays she walked in front of him, floating in long see-through skirts or tiny shorts, her long, thick, lustrous black hair always fragrant and clean, her face alert with minimal make-up and smooth as a petal, her torso thin but voluptuous. Even today, even slightly disheveled from the run, even a few minutes after the start of their daily argument, even with about four hours of sleep since she’d been crying in bed last night before his roommate came in this morning—Mahisha was untouchably glamorous in her neat tank top and preppy pony-tail, barely noticing any of the diner staff. She’d barked, “Cold water and a diet Sprite,” and thrust the short, silent Latino waiter her menu without even once making eye-contact, which Chip didn’t think was especially respectful or egalitarian, even though Mahisha claimed to be both of those things. It maybe even was racist. Or classist. Not that Mahisha would have entertained, for one moment, how someone like Darlene might have grievance against her.
* * *
How the hell had he ever gotten Mahisha, given that overall he was at most a six, okay a five, out of ten then? At first, especially in the days when she could make him hard by staring at him intensely, Chip spent hours worrying about this. He was still distracted by Mahisha in the months before the secret societies rush and the not-all-that-surprising decision to induct him into Skull & Bones. Skull & Bones was not that big a deal, Chip knew; but that fact was like so many secrets he’d kept all his life—including that his rich house was often neglected and dirty; that he preferred McDonald’s to the high-end restaurant food his mother ordered in; that his father’s second wife had once slept with Steven, before his brother had realized he was gay; and that he Charles had never loved anyone as much as he’d once loved Mahisha. As much as (when he felt up to the task) he supposed that he still did. Love her. Saying the phrase had gotten unpleasant, because it implied he’d have to marry her, like he promised. Chip was careful to never under any circumstances whatsoever reveal the secrets of his family, or his girl, not even during quiet times with his fellow Bonesmen when everyone confided about illegal activities. Sure, Bonesmen had access to an island owned by the society anytime they liked, and they got interviews from firm VPs and CEOs calling them, and not the other way around, before their Yale graduation, and the likelihood of getting an i-banking, consulting, hedge fund or VC job, if you were a Bonesman, was about 99.5% percent (subtracting the one admission here and there Chip thought of as “sub-mental”, the few who’d flunked every class and not just a few, the few whose parents’ donation to Yale exceeded that of Chip’s own family. The Bushies hadn’t been in that outlier group in spite of the rumors in the popular liberal press). There were plenty of perks that justified lifelong Skull & Bones loyalty. The perks of admission were the rewards for enduring Rush Week, which had been frightening: isolated at night in the dark mostly naked with a bunch of men he only knew vaguely; allowing himself to be blindfolded and then led underground, forced to lie down and have things done to him, things he wouldn’t even admit in his head had taken place. Mild but unpredictable physical pain had been involved as well ritualized and indelible humiliations. Steven, with his extensive collection of S&M teen male porno magazines, had really, really wanted to know what exactly they had done to Chip during Rush, but Chip wouldn’t even speak the words out loud to his brother.
* * *
The year he’d been inducted had been one year before the society voted to start letting women and minorities in. He’d wanted Mahisha to rush, just for the hell of it, thinking she wouldn’t get in anyway, but knowing that now the society would have to tone things down during the hazing now that everyone was afraid of being sued. But Mahisha, like all the other women his now-brothers approached, wouldn’t consider it for a second.
“I don’t want to know what you do with those assholes,” she’d said. ‘I’ve heard the stories about peeing in the crypt and fondling William F. Buckley’s underwear and sacrificing goats. I know I can’t force you to quit them so just don’t share with me, okay?” And she’d been pregnant by then, so he didn’t insist. But that first night of Rush, it still stayed with him, the darkness, the black cloaks, the harshly silent members holding up candles. It wasn’t quite a traumatic memory, but it bothered him that he would never be able to bond with Mahisha over it. That was their bargain, their trade: They never talked openly about any hard times recent or past.
* * *
Only the occasional bout of tears at night, on her part but not his, betrayed the fact of the miscarriage Mahisha had suffered one month ago. She was physically back to normal by now, but the tears came unbidden. She’d been at eight weeks, four days—they’d been counting—and just a few hours after a typical evening which an unsuspecting Mahisha spent as usual complaining about how her back hurt and how much she hated the idea of gaining weight, the inexorable bleeding had started, like a punishment. Almost a trimester; but she’d been like one of those pregnant teens Chip had read about, who’d left their baby in the school bathroom garbage the night of senior prom. Mahisha had shown nothing; even her doctor-father hadn’t guessed she was pregnant, she’d admitted, when Chip wondered aloud how she would explain what happened to everyone who might have known. It wasn’t that Mahisha’s parents had been left completely in the dark: They knew about the engagement and offered, via telephone, to pay for their honeymoon. Chip, taken aback, had accepted. When he and Mahisha called her parents to tell them, he’d braced himself for profanity, or at least dramatic objections. The last thing he’d expected was that the Indian surgeon would open his checkbook, or that Mahisha’s mother would say she was crying for joy, and that she wanted them to have a Paris honeymoon.
Recently, after he’d started occasionally chatting up Darlene, labeled in his fantasies as “sylph waitress at Clark’s” (who was now busy wiping down a counter and watching Mahisha delicately sip her diet Sprite) Chip suggested to Mahisha that maybe the engagement would have been easier on her parents if he’d been Indian.
Mahisha snorted, not bothering to remind of him, for example, of her brother’s three successive French fiancées, each one a Catherine Deneuve replica and, by her parents, equally cherished.
That suggestion that maybe the two of them weren’t meant to be was the closest Chip had come so far to breaking up. Not that it worked: Eventually, it just made Mahisha exasperated and explain yet again, with yet more detail, that her father had married a white woman long ago, a sweet nurse who’d died of breast cancer when she had been thirty and the marriage had been only a few years old; and then at age thirty-six her grieving father had received her mother in the mail from her grandparents’ village in India. Though sight unseen her mother had been twenty-two, obliging and pretty, churning out one child after another and staying home for all of them. Mahisha had been preceded by five brothers whose glowering, bearded photographs on Mahisha’s desk made Chip quite uneasy, but whom he hadn’t (thankfully) met in person yet. The brothers were in high finance, Wall Street, at firms that Chip’s father sniffed at as second tier, except for one engineer and one lawyer on the West Coast, both with families. The lot of them had been too busy to come looking into Chip, or demand to know why ambitious Mahisha, who had always been bound for law school and a career in civil rights, would get married so young, at twenty-one. The family was rich and Westernized, her mother’s hair cropped short salt and pepper, her face still young, her skin a shimmering tan in photographs. Her father was light-skinned as well, bald now though still bearded like his sons, and muscular as Chip would have expected for a surgeon who fixed ribs and cut off legs, who maneuvered the shoulders and knees of pro basketball players, ballet dancers, Olympic swimmers and the like. He practiced at Columbia in the city but consulted, Mahisha had said proudly, all over the world.
Her pride embarrassed Chip when he thought of his own father—a ruddy-faced and flabby man proud that he had pickled himself in alcohol and that he came from rich parents. On their rare lunches together Chip’s father mainly spouted mini-lectures about wine, asset management, rich people’s portfolios, and his talent for occasional (or maybe not so occasional) stealing. In spite of all the family legacies, his father hadn’t even gotten into Yale. Dad managed to pull a C-average from Occidental College, get his first hedge fund job from his own father’s connections, then skirt the law with great finesse until a near-scandal with the SEC encouraged him to close shop. Now Chip’s father was in semi-retirement, laying low, living partly off a trust fund, partly off a kind of informal investment club where much older rich and eccentric men effectively signed money over to him as part of a special strategy for advanced retirement planning, to kick in only if they lived past eighty. Most of them didn’t, his dad often told Chip with indecent glee, and during his investment meetings, he encouraged the men to smoke cigars, drink whiskey and even consort with coked-up, drug-dealing hookers, just to speed the whole process along so that their money would remain in his account for perpetuity.
But Mahisha wasn’t Little Miss Perfect after all. Few people knew that; Chip did. My Little Brown, Chip almost said, taking her hand suddenly there in the diner, not caring that Darlene’s feelings would be hurt when she saw that, not trying to catch Darlene’s eye to communicate that he was only being a nice guy, that Darlene alone commanded his desire. Unlike she had done on other mornings after a run, Mahisha didn’t move her hand away from his. A small smile came to her lips though she kept reading the newspaper that someone, the last diner, had left on the table. Now she was on the Wanted ads, having talked vaguely about getting a job and deferring Harvard law school, where she had gotten in but hesitated to fully accept, for reasons he couldn’t understand.
But what a relief it was, Chip acknowledged at this moment in Clark’s, for her not to berate him in public, to not expose the two of them to scrutiny. “Sometimes I think you just believe in peace at any cost,” Mahisha had said just last night, after a halfway romantic dinner in a booth in the Timothy Dwight College dining hall, where she and Chip sat alone in the partial light and ate soft chunks of round-loafed bread with pretty-good pot roast and vegetables. “But Chip, the problem is that you don’t care if peace comes at the cost of injustice. You don’t want to change any part of the system, because historically, you’ve profited.”
Last night he’d shrugged, not bothering to argue, not tensing in anticipation of what usually came next—Mahisha’s withering critique of the Bible and the dreadful evangelicals who used phrases from the Bible, “beasts of the field” and “markings of Cain” all over the place, supporting the status quo of what she insisted was white supremacy. Instead he’d been preoccupied with thoughts of Darlene, wondering if and when he’d be able to sneak off to see her again, and it was probably because of that preoccupation, he realized, that he didn’t stop his idiot roommate Olaf from coming in so early this morning that Mahisha hadn’t gotten up or gotten dressed. The next date with Darlene, Chip knew, would end in sex, and this time he would be careful—so careful!—demanding proof that she had put in a diaphragm or an IUD and even with her attestations, using a double layer of Magnum-sized condoms just in case, but then letting go the way he hadn’t been able with Mahisha since the miscarriage, kissing Darlene with abandon, excited by how easily he could have broken her bones.
Darlene was a Communist. That’s how little of a future there could be with her, Chip told himself. Darlene apparently believed the USSR was an achievement, that Leon Trotsky, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, was brutally and undeservedly murdered not only by Stalin but by his capitalist, fascist, CIA-funded followers. Darlene also believed that Ayn Rand, one of his favorite writers, the only woman writer of the twentieth-century who should have by rights won a Nobel, Chip often said, should have been tortured and killed before she died, for how much horrible hatred she festered against the masses through her rubbishly-written, insensitive novel The Fountainhead, a copy of which someone had left on the windowsill at Town Pizza near where Chip and Darlene had eaten. Rand’s descriptions of Soviet soap were reprehensible, Darlene claimed, in how these distorted utopian realities. But Darlene, Chip thought with pity, was poor—living in a disgusting, old, dirty, small rodent- and roach-infested walk-up on Howe Street that reeked at all hours from the mediocre Indian restaurant one level down that Mahisha wouldn’t be caught dead walking anywhere near. Darlene couldn’t get certain kinds of guys to go home with her even if she begged, Chip was certain. Darlene, a graduate student now ABD at UConn and scratching for fellowships, any fellowships left after the lit students from Yale had plundered the lot, was all-too grateful for Chip’s attention. Even on their one date, where he’d only bought her two pizza slices and a Coke, Darlene’d been docile and endearing, performing her Communist tirade in a half-whisper only before she’d known about Chip’s own politics, then laughing in self-deprecation, eating a microscopic amount of sausage and saying in the same half-whisper, “I haven’t had a lot of time to update myself on the Party’s most recent campaigns. I’ve been working so much.” She hadn’t finished more than a quarter of one slice, watching Chip devour the rest. For in addition to being a Communist, Darlene was also a Pro-Ana, a woman who believed in anorexia as a lifestyle, a wearer of a red bracelet with her Salvation Army clothes and someone proud of not having to spend more than three dollars a week on groceries.
If Darlene’s life was miserable, it didn’t stop her from being horny as all get out. Even at the pizza place she’d laid a cold hand on Chip’s thigh. He’d become erect instantly, hating himself for the lack of discrimination but grateful that he’d soon have relief. Not from the deed—that particular night, though not the night before, and night before that one too, he had held back from actually sticking it to her—but when Chip was alone back in his room, waiting for Mahisha to return his calls, he’d gotten himself off with his hand more easily than he had been able to since the news of the pregnancy, knowing with a grim determination now that sex didn’t have to change his life.
Unlike Darlene, Mahisha’s life had never been miserable: Chip supposed the miscarriage was the first real grief she’d ever known in her life. She would weather it fine if they broke up; he knew that too. Chip’s own life-speed-bumps had started when he’d worried about Steven having AIDS, then when his mother divorced his father expensively and rancorously. Both of these situations turned out fine. Steven was alive and well and prospering, inured from misfortune and not interested in any of Chip’s dilemmas. Chip’s mother had taken her considerable settlement and opened up a flower shop in France, in the Seventeenth Arrondissement on a very dignified street in Marceau, which made a Paris honeymoon, if Chip actually married Mahisha, a not-unpleasant thought. His mother was happy and at peace, living chicly and modestly, not seeming to care that she no longer scored expensive gifts or high-toned invitations from Chip’s paternal grandparents, who wrote to him relentlessly on gilt-edged paper in his grandfather’s shaking hand, demanding to know what he would be doing with his B.A. in American Studies and when he would come for a visit. Chip hadn’t told them, or anyone in his family come to think of it, that he’d gotten engaged. None of them knew that Mahisha existed.
Well, maybe there were spots of might-have-been-trauma in Mahisha’s life, Chip remembered, his grip on her small brown hand now tightening enough so that she glanced up at him from her paper, which she read now instead of finishing her Sprite, and suggested, “Shouldn’t you go wash up? You’re dripping sweat, it’s gross.” Clark’s Diner had a small sink in the back, Chip remembered: It was a perfect opportunity to meet up with Darlene. So Chip stood up obligingly, feeling Darlene’s blond hair standing on end as she watched him now from behind the counter, vigilant, and followed parallel to where he walked, like an ant marching on a trail that would lead to something good, like a greyhound guided by the scent of Chip’s Eros.
* * *
No, Mahisha wasn’t perfect, not at all. For one thing, her nose was Indian—not hooked but definitely different, with a bump in it that was Semitic enough so that if she’d just been a shade lighter, or from a borough in New Jersey just fifty or so miles to the right or left, she’d be heading to a surgeon friend of her father’s, the kind who did nose-jobs as Bat Mitzvah presents. For another, she had an odd history of persecution: First the children in her second-grade class, following her after school with rocks and chanting, “We hate Mahisha”; then the summer camp counselor at a swank upper-middle class place in Kaaterskill Falls who was smoking the wrong sort of ganja one day and accidentally-on-purpose set Mahisha’s long, thick beautiful hair on fire with his cigarette lighter. She’d had the presence of mind to put it out immediately but she still said the smell of burning hair had stayed with her, that even her father making sure the counselor was fired hadn’t stopped her from crying over it, from feeling that she somehow deserved to be hurt. There were many other incidents of this kind throughout Mahisha’s high school upbringing, really until she’d come to Yale and stayed far away from townies and the like, sticking instead to a rotating circle of well-put-together Indian girlfriends who’d all dated the same three handsome Indian playboys until Mahisha, walking in one of them about to have adulterous sex with her lissome Indian roommate, decided she’d had enough and didn’t say no to Chip when he called nervously, asking, no begging, her to a movie. Dating Chip had cut her adrift from that entire crowd. Now various Indians on campus whose names Chip didn’t know would either glare or smile at them but in neither case do more than say hello and walk on by, even if Mahisha stopped to talk to them. Occasionally Mahisha would cry after such an encounter, her face drawn and pale as Chip peered into the well-stocked fridge at Wawa’s, refusing to break down until they were back in his room with the door closed and she could explain her tears by saying, “You’re such a jerk.”
How to explain Mahisha’s tales of victimhood, Chip wondered, walking slowly now past the old red vinyl ice-cream barstools, past framed vintage pictures on the wall, keenly aware of Mahisha watching him suspiciously, the way she usually did if any attractive young white women were around, Mahisha’s jealous eyes boring into the back of his neck, while Darlene inched closer and closer to their common destination: the sink for employees, hidden in the back supply room. How was it possible the molten core of Mahisha, the fire he witnessed every day, could co-exist with a weakness, a fearful courting of oppressive behaviors, an anxious vigilance always, always, it never stopped, that someone somewhere who happened to be of Caucasian ancestry was going to find a way to wound her permanently, if she didn’t remain on the defense. “No, I’m not a jerk,” he’d say, definitive. “I’m not a jerk, but your last Indian boyfriend was, and that’s not my fault, and maybe it tells you that race isn’t everything.” And that would be enough for her to give him the silent treatment for at least an hour, until she let him start taking off her clothes, and then they’d have make-up sex, and afterward trade contented jokes at dinner unless she felt compelled to get political.
* * *
“Hey! What the hell are you doing?” It was Mahisha, wielding a huge knife, really a meat cleaver that she’d obtained from God knows where, and standing next to Chip before he’d made it all the way to the sink, to try and sneak in a moment with Darlene.
Later Chip would pace it out in slow motion—the way Mahisha found a knife behind the counter, used for cutting up a ham or such, kept it behind her back, so no one would panic. How Mahisha might then have waited for her suspicions to be confirmed, the eye contact between Chip and Darlene increasingly intense and even star-crossed lover-mimicking, their pas de deux a low rent Romeo and Juliet movie, only instead of a fish tank, a dirty old lunch counter between the two white faces. How Mahisha must have caught onto the tilt of the head, the small gesture Darlene had made, to beckon Chip to a back-sink. How then Mahisha must have come up silently, wielding that knife as eagerly as a butcher, he thought, admiring her as much as he feared her. But it wasn’t his balls she seemed keen to cut off; she was shouting at Darlene, who cowered in vain.
“You stay the hell away from my fiancé!” Mahisha yelled. “Do you understand me, bitch?” Darlene nodded. As Chip pulled Mahisha’s hand down, removing the knife, Darlene braced herself behind the long counter and whispered: “He fucked me last week.” She was bluffing, but at that Mahisha, though empty-handed, went for the girl, leaping up and pulling her slender body over the counter, ripping at her hair. Darlene was taken by surprise and didn’t fight back, but soon the Latino waiter who had served them ran to the girls and shouted, “Stop! You have to leave! Get out of here or I call the police.”
They were almost through the wide front gate of Silliman, the residential college where Chip lived, when Mahisha finally spoke.
“Don’t bother saying she’s lying,” she said, sniffling. He was sure she’d been crying but hadn’t dared to look directly at her as they’d walked back to Yale.
Chip waited, slightly afraid without being sure why. He took her hand.
“What can I do?” he asked, caressing her fingers but avoiding the ring.
Mahisha looked way up at him and laughed. Her face was tear-stained but pretty in the moonlight of the courtyard. She didn’t answer him until they’d made up it the steps, to the open door of his entryway, which was next to a smaller, closed but unlocked side entrance, familiar to them both. Mahisha stood still and talked loudly. It was as if she wanted others to overhear.
“The only reason I stay with you, Charles Abernethy the Third,” she said, “is because of your big, silky pink, delicious, perfect, very effective—”
“Don’t say it,” he begged, not wanting to make people look at them. Mahisha giggled, pulling him through the side door, which led to an unpopulated corridor, a place where they had done the deed in the past, and more than once, against an unplugged, old washing machine. Through a lust fog he registered how Mahisha, seeming giddy and thoughtless, was determined. Sex was always a way she found power.
Chip had to admit that still, tonight, Mahisha somehow evoked that feeling—a vague discomfort, thrill, her thrall—he’d never had with anyone but her. And likely never would again, because he knew, as surely as he knew Mahisha would always forgive him, including after they had “apology sex” in a few minutes, and after she pulled him into her room, so she wouldn’t have to run into his roommate, so she could force him to lie for some time listening to Indian DJs on her boombox that few people had heard of, that Chip would leave her side a few hours later, that same night, to go find Darlene, who likely was off crying alone in her crap apartment, whose dreams and skin he recognized. Darlene who kept quiet while he fucked her. Darlene who cried when he told her, “Sorry.” Darlene who ate the food he brought her like a hungry dog. Darlene who never asked about the future, or brought up much of his past, who didn’t know how anti-proletariat his whole life was by design, had always been, Darlene whom he couldn’t quite stay away from, whose gratitude he understood, whose loyalty would not confuse or overwhelm him the way Mahisha’s often did, still did, even though without that loyalty, devotion from the proud girl he secretly still thought of as “his”, Chip couldn’t yet imagine what he would do. Couldn’t think how he’d ever live, without his Little Brown, and wasn’t sure he could.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician, writer and PEN American award finalist for her debut collection WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS: STORIES, which was also selected as a Kirkus Reviews Best Debut Fiction and Best Short Story Collection. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Literature, Kenyon Review, The Millions, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, Community of Writers and Sewanee Writers Workshop.