That summer, the first woman he met had spent the previous three years on tour with Cirque d’Soleil. During that time, she created and performed a piece inspired by her training in classical Indian dance. Neela had recently left the Cirque because she was tired of touring and was now applying to law school. But there was a problem even before they met: she lived in New York and he lived in San Francisco. She was in the Bay Area visiting some friends. In the days leading up to their date, Ajay kept imagining her perfect dancer’s body. The thought aroused him until he remembered his own body, which had never been in ideal shape. He was a fat kid and he had grown into a tall, well-built man, but he could never get rid of the little rolls on his belly, no matter how much he tried. And in pictures, he thought his face looked fat. At dinner, she took off her jacket; she was wearing a tight, black tee-shirt that showed her flat stomach. She was taller than he expected. They met for Italian food and they talked through the courses. She ate well and drank half a bottle of wine. But he fixated early on the hoop through her right nostril. He loved nose rings on some women, but on her, it was unattractive. It induced a scowl on her face.
“Conversation was good,” Ajay said.
“And, well, it made her look like a dyke.”
“I thought you liked nose rings.” Vikram was Ajay’s oldest, most patient friend and they had talked extensively about the things Ajay liked.
“I do, but it’s the first thing my mother will notice. She will take me to the side and ask me why I have brought that home.”
“You can ask her to take it off.”
“And she lives in New York. When am I ever going to move to New York?”
A pattern had emerged over the course of Ajay’s twenties. He’d go out with a woman, and around the one-month mark, he’d decide on their long-term potential. He said he needed one month to determine if there was enough passion and mutual understanding to carry them into a relationship. While he thought he had an effective formula, he remained unmarried as the rest of his friends paired off. Every once in a while, his parents asked whether he had any prospects.
When he passed thirty, the expectation that Ajay should get married sooner rather than later became more explicit. His parents never came out and said it, though his mother did begin to offer to set him up with the daughters of various friends. His parents had been married for more years than he realized, his older brother was married, and most of his cousins were either married, close to marrying, or in the closet. He’d noticed that his father treated his brother more as an adult after he got married. As long as he stayed single, Ajay remained a student or, at best, a young man. For his family, marriage, more than a good job and home ownership, marked the beginning of manhood.
He sent word out that he needed help. He requested introductions. Among his friends, there was a growing competition about who could best set Ajay up. Most of them didn’t really believe they had the perfect woman, but a competitive spirit had spread and everyone lobbied for their candidate. Vikram didn’t know any single women, at least any that would interest Ajay. He just wanted his friend to be married.
One night Ajay went to a club to meet a friend of a friend. The woman he was meeting brought along her older sister who had come because she wanted to see the club scene. At one point in the night, away from the noise of the bar and the dance floor, Ajay sat in a booth with the two sisters. The younger sister was nice, but they had little to say to one another. Perhaps there would have been better opportunity to talk if the older sister had not been there. But she was and she and Ajay did most of the talking. She had come to see the club, but seemed impatient with the loud music and the drunkenness of carefree twenty-five-year-olds.
She was in her early thirties and worked as an architect. Ajay had always wanted to be an architect because it seemed to him the perfect blend of art and practicality. He knew a little about the stars—Gehry, Meier, Eisenman, Foster.
“You know that Tadao Ando is finally building in America,” he said.
“Yeah,” she replied. “In Fort Worth. It’s a step up for Texas.” She didn’t show any surprise that he knew something about her world. Ajay thought that she should have been delighted. How many guys did she meet in bars who asked her about Tadao Ando?
Soon, the younger sister slipped away and he ordered them beers.
At first, neither of them said very much. He was there, after all, to meet her sister. But then a song came on that sampled a beat that they could not place.
“No,” she said. But she did smile.
They tried to remember the original song and then they talked about the music they liked. She said she had been listening to a lot of Neil Young lately. The more she talked, the more comfortable and expressive she became. Her white teeth seemed perfect to him. She was the type of woman who never got cavities. They talked about movies and travel—easy topics for a first meeting. They had traveled around Spain and Portugal the same summer. She said how much she disliked romantic comedies. He would have agreed either way, though he disliked them as well.
He asked about her job.
“I worked at a large firm for several years with bad pay and a lot of apprentice work. But for the past year, I’ve been working for a smaller firm where I have a lot more responsibility. We also do a lot of public projects. I was a getting a little tired of designing people’s homes.”
“Can you at least do my house?”
“You can’t afford me,” she said and took the last sip of her beer.
They talked about the different architects she liked as they had another drink.
“Why are you so interested in all this?” she asked.
“I can’t draw a straight line so it’s nice to talk about people who can.”
Later they moved to the dance floor, and at one point, he was dancing with both sisters. He had his fantasies.
At the end of the night, the elder sister gave him her card: Sara Khalid.
“She’s smart, we had a fantastic conversation, and we have a lot of the same tastes. But it can’t work.”
“Why?” asked Vikram.
“Her family is from Islamabad. It would be fine for six months. But it can’t work in the long run.”
“Does she practice?”
“I don’t think so, but even so. You know I can’t be with a Muslim. It doesn’t feel right.”
“But she doesn’t practice. You’re not a practicing Hindu.”
“But it’s in the soul. She has a Muslim soul.” Ajay knew that this made no logical sense, but Vikram provided him the space to be illogical, to feel and not to think.
“Any other problems?”
“She’s too old and knowing. I don’t want anyone my age.”
In a booklet sent to all members of their subcaste, in India and abroad, Ajay’s parents wrote down his profile: 5’11”, fair complexion, BA and MBA. His mother called him at work one afternoon and said this one could not be missed. He had resisted set-ups by his parents before, but now, doubting his ability to find a woman on his own, he did not object. Madhuri was visiting California with her parents and they contacted Ajay’s parents after seeing his name in the booklet. She works in the movies, said his mother. He did not trust her ability to read between the lines. “Works in the movies” could have easily meant that she was an assistant on the set or was a script copier. When they met, he was glad he had allowed his mother to meddle. Madhuri was a knockout in the way that rich women from Bombay are knockouts: she had red lips, unblemished skin—quite a feat considering she lived in the tropics—and a fashion sense that was some mix of Bombay and LA. She was wearing a hat with the bill off center. They met at a nice Chinese restaurant. She came with her older sister and her brother-in-law.
He had taken to watching Hindi movies lately. She looked familiar and could easily have been one of the stars in the films. Her name—Madhuri Bhatt—was very filmy. But if she was one of those stars, why was she looking for a husband in California? Bombay had plenty of handsome men who were rich, worked out and wore earrings.
Once again, Ajay found himself talking to the other sister. Madhuri was shielded away and only spoke to her sister, and occasionally to her brother-in-law, and they conveyed her answers to Ajay.
Ajay began by asking about her involvement in the movies.
The sister answered: “Madhuri has been in a couple of small films, but there is a big one coming up. She starts shooting in September.”
“How exciting,” Ajay said. “What movies were you in?”
Madhuri whispered in her sister’s ear. “Madhuri’s disappointed that you don’t know.”
“I’m sorry, but work has kept me really busy.” He tried again: “What movie are you going to be in?”
“She can’t talk about that. It’s part of her contract. But it’s going to be big.”
Ajay gave up trying to ask Madhuri questions and started talking directly to the sister and the brother-in-law. She wrote for a movie magazine and he was a banker and they both lived in Bombay. Ajay and the brother-in-law talked about their jobs. He asked Ajay about management consulting because consulting opportunities were growing in Bombay and he wanted to move away from banking.
Finally, Madhuri asked a question. “Ask him,” she began, “whether he’s interested in living in Bombay.”
He knew the answer she wanted and he didn’t want to give it. She didn’t seem so pretty anymore. Of course, he liked the prospect of marrying a Bollywood film actress. What young Indian man didn’t? But he couldn’t get past the absurdity of this exchange. Was the process of only speaking to each other through intermediaries supposed to be coy, a method of creating interest? “I could see myself having a flat there, and spending three or four weeks a year and maybe a full winter now and then when I get the time, but nothing permanent.”
He assumed that eventually he’d find somebody, but as he was driving home from his meeting with Madhuri, he began to question that assumption. His life was a farce.
Ajay wanted to find someone long term, but he had short term needs.
At a party one Friday night, he started talking to Priya, a woman he had seen at various parties over the past year. She was part of his large circle of friends and acquaintances. When they finally talked, there was some spark, though she seemed more interested than he was. He knew she had asked a common friend of theirs about him. But as the night wore on, his interest grew. They slept together that night, but he didn’t call her for several days after. They met again the next Saturday night, had dinner, and spent another night together. In a bout of honesty the following morning, Ajay told her that he wasn’t interested in a relationship.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “Neither am I.”
“Did you spend the night again?”
“Shut up,” Ajay said again. Though he’d enjoyed his evenings with Priya, he felt quite a bit of shame that their meetings were based on simple desire. He saw her several more times, but he didn’t tell Vikram.
At work, an attractive Jewish woman named Rachel joined his group. He didn’t know that Rachel was Jewish until she told him.
“We’re nominally Jewish.”
“Nominally?” Ajay was well-educated. He went to Berkeley and prided himself on reading widely, from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to biographies and histories. He loved to demonstrate his knowledge, but his intelligence could be dull at times. It was hard for him to handle nuance.
“I’m not religious and neither are my parents. No Sabbath for us. We’re just Jews.”
He knew about the Sabbath, but he didn’t know its exact significance for Jews. He didn’t ask.
They had this conversation in the first month they knew each other.
And in the months that followed, he talked her through a break up with her boyfriend of two years. She said she was convinced all along that he was the right person, and then one day, after he had been away for a week on a hiking trip with his college friends, he came back and said it was over. He said he was uncertain about her.
Rachel stopped eating and began to lose weight. Ajay started bringing her little snacks—a muffin in the morning, biscotti in the afternoon. He insisted they eat lunch together and he made sure she ate. They never talked about the fact that she was not eating. She was the slow crush that he’d not had as an adult. He found himself thinking about her in the evenings. A couple of mornings a week, he was excited to figure out what breakfast treat to bring her. For a while, he brought her croissants and muffins and other delicate pastries.
And then one morning, he brought her hash browns from McDonald’s. While he was getting them, it seemed like a fun idea. But as he was walking towards her desk with the bag in his hands, he felt he had made a mistake. He opened the bag and saw that the little bag they had placed the hash brown in was soaked with grease. He was going to throw it away, but he wanted an excuse to see Rachel. She always looked perfect first thing in the morning in her well-pressed suits.
“It looked much better at McDonald’s than it does now,” Ajay said as he placed the bag on her desk.
She opened up the bag and looked inside.
“You really don’t have to eat it.”
She took it out and had a bite. They chatted for a few minutes about a project they’d both worked on. “Are you traveling this week?” she asked. Management consulting required a lot of travel.
“Phoenix. Are you?”
“Tucson,” she said.
She finished the hash browns, carefully wiped her mouth with a napkin so that she wouldn’t smudge her lipstick, and slowly folded the bag several times before throwing it away.
“Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon?” she asked.
“Once with my family a long time ago. I think I was ten.”
“I don’t know how far it is, but maybe I’ll stop by after I’m done with Tucson. I’d like to see it.”
She’d left him an opening that he had been waiting for and now with it in front of him, he couldn’t move forward. He was scared of her. They were the same age, they liked the same kind of movies, they were both the middle of three children; they even looked alike in the way that Semites and Indians can look alike. And there was plenty of attraction. But he was scared because they were ideal for one another and because he had a good feeling about their long-term possibility.
“Yes,” he said. “You should check out the Grand Canyon. It’s a really nice place.” They talked about her client in Tucson and then he walked out of her office.
Vikram wanted to meet Rachel.
“They don’t marry outside their group. What’s the use of starting something if it isn’t going to go anywhere?”
Vikram asked what it mattered if it went nowhere. There would be some fun, and wasn’t that enough? Ajay said that it wasn’t. Vikram thought that if they started small, they could build up to something bigger.
“Has she said she won’t marry a non-Jew?”
“She doesn’t need to say it. I know.”
Vikram had found love easily. He and his wife often talked about how they fell in love. Being Indian helped initially—they had similar pressures from their parents; they took an Indian history class together. But they thought they fell in love because they experienced the intensity of college together. And Vikram remembered some friends of his parents who boasted, “Ours was a love marriage. Nothing was arranged for us.” Vikram had reached that ideal. His wife just happened to be Indian. He couldn’t understand Ajay’s insistence on being able to love only an Indian woman.
“You experience the same intensity because you are both Indian,” said Ajay.
“It helped, but it wasn’t everything.”
They were at Ajay’s place, having a few drinks.
“It’s in the soul. You only fall in love with a woman whose soul is like yours. You can only feel intimate if she breathes the world in the same way you do. I can’t explain it. There is a core that brings you together and language and the place you come from creates that core. Talking in Gujarati gives me an intimacy that I can’t have in English.”
“Your Gujarati is horrible. You butcher it.”
“It’s not that bad,” Ajay responded quickly and then continued: “Knowing that we come from the same place matters. She has to have an Indian, Hindu soul. Rachel and I look like we can get along, but we can’t. The essence is not the same. I know this sounds silly, but it’s the way things work.”
“Ajay, you’re drunk.”
“No,” he pleaded. “I’m serious. There are a lot of mixed marriages, but most people stay close to themselves when they get married. I just want to be like most people.”
Until recently, Ajay hadn’t questioned his parents’ decision to move to America, partly because they’d never questioned it. But now that he was an adult, responsible for his own happiness, he had been thinking about the move. From how his parents described it, and from the little memory he had, they had a pretty good life there. He tried to imagine the details of his alternate life had they remained in India. In a country with a relatively high level of poverty, his family’s upper middle-class status would have given them a good life—a large apartment in central Bombay, help around the house, a driver. And he’d been rethinking the possibility of an arranged marriage. For years, he thought such arrangements were old fashioned and unromantic. The men who willingly entered such marriages were wimps, unable to create their own social lives. Now thinking of them simply as introductions, the whole thing didn’t seem so bad. “If we’d stayed, my parents would have found a perfect match for me, letting the planets do the work. No running around, no searching in bars.”
“That’s right,” Vikram said. “That recent introduction went so well.”
Ajay believed in the importance of being with a particular type of Indian woman, and that he’d find the right one. But at that moment, it was hard to push away the confusion the search had created. Perhaps he would not find the woman he was meant to marry. Perhaps he would never get married. He hadn’t really worked through these thoughts fully because they scared him. And to defend against going too far down this path, he took another sip of his drink and said: “It would have been easier for us if our parents stayed in India. America has fucked us.”
Ajay looked at Vikram, with his goatee, his well-fitting jeans, and his beautiful Indian bride. Vikram caught Ajay looking at him.
“You know you’re lucky.”
“You’re in a solid relationship. It must help you deal with anything that goes wrong. Bad day at work, but warm body at home.”
“It’s nice,” said Vikram. “It doesn’t solve all my problems, but it makes life easier. My parents are comfortable with the situation and so are Sejal’s. It’s comfort all around.”
The summer ended. For the next two months, he saw nobody. Partly he was sick of going on dates, but mainly he had already met or gone out with most of the women his friends knew. Now nobody was calling. There had been rain, cold rain, and now it was quiet. But then, as the holidays were nearing, he made another effort.
Ajay was apprehensive about many things in his life. He didn’t do things that he thought weren’t in his best interest. But there was adventurousness in him and he would try anything once. Vikram had told him about speed dating. Indian speed dating.
Ajay paid his thirty dollar reservation fee and learned that the event would be held in a Pacific Heights bar. How it worked became clearer once he arrived. There were fifteen men and fifteen women all between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. He walked in and talked to the “host” who gave him a score card and a badge with a number. There were fifteen tables set up for two. These were the rules: he would spend three minutes talking to the woman across the table from him, and then a whistle would blow and he would move on to the next table and talk to the next woman. After each conversation he would circle yes or no next to the number allotted to the woman he had been talking to. The host insisted that the circling be done discreetly. At the end, the host would collect the cards, marking the end of the evening. The next day, they would tabulate the score cards, and each man and woman who had met and talked, and who both circled yes, would receive each other’s email address.
The bar had a nice vibe—Nusrat on the stereo, generous bar drinks, and the lights dim enough to see clearly the person across the table, but not bright enough to scope out everyone in the bar. Though he recognized the irony, he thought the men were there because they were socially inept. He didn’t want to talk to any of them and no one made an attempt to talk to him before the event started. At eight p.m. sharp, the speed dating began.
The first woman, Mala, was a South Indian doctor. A pediatrician. He wanted her to be a heart surgeon, or a surgeon of any type. He wondered if she wore clogs. He found doctors in clogs very sexy. They talked about her practice and, as with other doctors he knew, that was all they talked about. Then the whistle blew, and Ajay circled no.
The next woman was getting over a divorce; she was not yet thirty. “You need to know sooner or later, and what’s the use of knowing later? It’s a waste of time for both of us.” Ajay liked her and he liked her unusual green eyes, but he didn’t like her divorce. Whistle and No.
Bela was next. She was a corporate lawyer who looked like she made a lot of money. He noticed her Cartier and her nice black suit—she said she came straight from work. She was born in South Africa, but had lived most of her life in California. She was beautiful. He wondered why she needed to come to such an event. They talked about the law and Ajay knew that he was going to circle yes. And for the first time that night, he began looking around to get a sense of his competition. Who had she talked to already and who was she going to talk to next? The whistle blew and he moved on.
The next one made his heart sink. It was the architect, Sara, whom he had not called. He sat down and they both started laughing. Ajay laughed partly because of the circumstance of their second meeting, and partly out of the guilt of not having called her. She laughed with her whole face. Right then, he felt very attracted to her. She had not laughed like that at the club. He asked her how her work was going. She told him she was working on a project to design an elementary school. Her firm was figuring out ways to make the classrooms and the play areas feel connected to one another. They were going to use steel beams and glass to make the school seem airy and light. That night at the club, Ajay had loved the way she talked about her work. And he loved the way she talked about it now. He wanted to ask her so many questions. Of the many first meetings he had with women that summer, his conversation with Sara had the greatest ease.
There was a second of silence after she was done talking about the school. “I was looking forward to your phone call,” she said.
He gave himself a couple of seconds. There was an easy way out of this. “I just didn’t think it would work.”
She moved her right hand back and forth between them, as if to draw a line in the air. “What about this can’t work? I am laughing and talking to you about my job. They are the two things I like most.”
Ajay had no response, at least none that he could say to her. The whistle blew. “I am sorry,” he said as he got up from the table. He felt sad, but resolute in his turn away from her. No.
The next six women were unmemorable, or memorable for the wrong reasons. One had a mole right below her left nostril, another had yellow teeth. He realized that most of the women that attended these events were not very attractive. He thought that this was one place where he was allowed to be completely shallow. This was, after all, a completely superficial event—in three minutes, all you had to go on was some physical chemistry, and then maybe, if you were lucky, one person said something that struck you as being interesting.
As he was going through the line of women, he felt a little bit of a panic. He had spoken with ten women and he had circled yes for only one of them, and she was the prettiest of them all. All the other guys would pick her as well. He didn’t really care, but he wanted some dates out of this event. He needed a bit of a boost to his ego. The panic continued until he got to the first of the last three women.
Her name was Stacey. It was an initial turn-off—either she had changed her name or she had the type of parents who would give an Indian girl a name like Stacey. But she improved. She was close to being done with her doctorate in biochemistry. “I want to make a lot of money working for a pharmaceutical company.” Ajay laughed. “I’m serious,” she said. He appreciated a woman that spoke freely about money. Whistle and Yes.
The next was Uma. She was short and nice enough and by the time Ajay had made it to her table, she was completely sloshed. She said she had had two glasses of wine to numb her nervousness and it was two glasses more than she regularly drank. She started making fun of some of the guys she met that night. She did not whisper. Ajay liked this spirit. The other women were so careful about how they came off. Whistle and Yes.
And finally there was Kavita. There had to be at least one Kavita in the room because one didn’t have to go far to find Indian parents who thought their child was a poem. She was pretty—thick black hair, high cheek bones, long, thin fingers.
“Nice cuff links,” she said when he sat down.
He tugged at the ends of his sleeves. “Thank you.” She was the first person that night to give him a compliment. She moved forward and looked at them closely. There were several different shades of blue stones set against a silver back.
“You’ll have to let me borrow them sometime,” she said. Whistle and Yes.
Then Ajay turned in his score card and fled the bar.
For their first date, Kavita insisted they meet during the day. Was he somebody who looked threatening to women? But by the second date, she was ready for the evening. For their third date, they went to see the extended version of Apocalypse Now that had just come out. Kavita had never heard of the movie, but she said she was willing to see it. He suggested it because he wanted to see something a little artsy. He knew that artsy could be pretentious, but he wanted to impress Kavita.
As they were waiting in line at the food counter, Kavita asked, “What is the movie about again?”
“What goes with a war movie?”
“In terms of food.”
This seemed an absolutely absurd thing to ask, but it made Ajay want to go into the movie theater and start making out with her the second the lights went out.
Ajay looked at the options, but could not come up with anything.
“Nachos?” asked Kavita.
“No. No serious food. Candy might be better.”
“Candy it is,” she said. When they got to the counter, she ordered Twizlers and Skittles and she asked Ajay to get some popcorn for himself in case she got a little hungry.
In the middle of the movie, after a particularly tense scene when Chef and Willard go looking for mangoes in the jungle, Ajay and Kavita looked at each other and Kavita maintained eye contact for a second longer than necessary. Ajay went in to kiss her, but Kavita said, “Shh. Later.”
But at the end of the movie, neither was in the mood for kissing.
“Wow,” said Kavita. “That was a horrible date movie.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I really liked it.”
They went for a drink after and they spent some time talking about the movie. Mostly they talked about Marlon Brando. “Did you see his hands?” she asked.
Ajay had not noticed them.
“They were enormous. He could crush a baby’s head with them.”
Ajay didn’t know how to respond.
“I mean that in this character, you could see how his hands make him seem so monstrous.”
“Have you seen him lately? He’s become really fat. He can barely move and he breathes real heavy.”
“Yes,” she said. “He reminds me of Shashi Kapoor.”
That may have been the moment when he first began to be seriously interested in her. Shashi Kapoor was an icon of Bollywood film in the seventies and eighties and was, like Brando, very handsome as a young man. But in his later years, he gained a lot of weight. Ajay had made the comparison once himself, and was quite proud of it.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” she began as they were leaving the bar. “How many names did you get in your email?”
Ajay was embarrassed and thought about inflating the number. “One,” he said. “You were the only one.”
“How many yeses did you circle?”
“One out of four? That’s dismal, Ajay.”
“How about you?” he asked.
“I got four names, but I circled the other three before I got to you. I wouldn’t have circled yes for the others if I had seen you first.” She turned away as she said this, seeming surprisingly shy.
At the end of the night, it was Kavita who pulled Ajay to her and kissed him. Between kisses, she said, “If you wanted to get in my pants, you should have taken me to a comedy. That movie is going to set me back for days.”
They were together for four months, and he thought he had finally found the right woman. At first, they saw each other only on the weekends, but then they began spending weeknights together too. She was perfect in many ways: a high caste Hindu, a few years younger than him, a beautiful haiku. Her Gujarati was better than his. They went dancing together and played tennis on the weekends. It didn’t bother him much that she was a better tennis player. He felt justified in his insistence on waiting all this time for the right woman. He even gloated a little in front of Vikram.
But then Ajay got restless and a little tired. There was something overwhelming about her directness and her quirkiness. She was direct about what she wanted for dinner (“I hate sushi”) and she was direct in bed (“That smells a little”). At parties, she chatted with everyone. Ajay would still be hanging up their coats while she was already in the middle of a conversation, halfway through a beer. And then there was the drinking. She was a drinker—lots of whatever was available. If she started with beer, she ended with it. And if she started with martinis, well, she would end with martinis in the bathroom, over the toilet. Kavita was the type of woman he knew in college—they could drink with you, they were on the intramural soccer team, but you couldn’t go out with them. They were buddies. And Kavita had become a buddy, a beautiful buddy, but a buddy nevertheless. He had stayed with her so far because her directness and quirkiness were charming. She was a very funny woman.
He was a little scared of talking to her directly, so he wrote her a letter. He convinced himself that writing the letter was the better, classier way of ending their relationship. It would give him the opportunity to articulate his feelings fully. He wrote that he was confused, uncertain about the direction of their relationship, and thought it was best they spend time apart. It was not an easy letter to write. He had really grown to like her, but he couldn’t deal with her high energy.
Two nights later, she came over unannounced. He had been expecting her. “This is bullshit, Ajay. What the hell are you saying? This letter says nothing. I like to be upfront about things and I think I deserve at least that from you.”
Ajay tried to restate what he had written in the letter, but she stood there unconvinced. She had the power, somehow, to know when he was saying the truth and when he wasn’t. The only thing that would satisfy her was the truth.
“Okay, Kavita. You’re not the type of person I want.”
“Good,” she said. “What type of person am I?”
“You come on, well, you come on strong.”
“What does that mean? Please just say what you want.”
“Kavita, you’re a little too … I am looking for someone a little softer.”
Ajay knew he shouldn’t say it, but she had been pushing him harder and harder. “Someone a little more feminine.”
He was done. Her face no longer demanded answers. Ajay moved closer to her because he thought she would want a hug, or something. But when he got closer, she popped him right below his right eye. It came quickly and ended quickly. It took him several seconds to realize what had happened.
“You fat pig,” she said and then turned around and walked toward the front door. He stood dazed for a few seconds. He didn’t know whether to be angry at Kavita for hitting him or at himself for being so insensitive. She had insisted on the truth and he had been honest. He was not to blame.
“Kavita, please wait.” As much as he liked the feeling of being a rogue right then, he thought it was not who he was. He wished he could just let her walk out the door. But they’d had too nice a thing together to end on such an abrupt note. “Please wait one minute.”
She turned around and waited by the front door.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Ajay began. “It’s just that you and I are a little too different.”
“My parents are different from one another, but they’ve been together for thirty years.”
Kavita said this to show Ajay that difference was not the deal breaker, but all he heard was thirty years. “That’s a long time.”
“How long have your parents been together?”
“I don’t know, but somewhere around there. Thirty-five I think.” It was hard for him to imagine that long of a period with another person.
They were silent for a moment. He’d told her to wait to make himself feel better, but he had nothing to say.
Before Kavita turned to leave, she said, “I really don’t care that you think I’m not feminine enough. But it’s fucked up. You’re fucked up.”
Vikram came over a few nights later.
“What the hell happened?”
As he told Vikram the story, he kept touching around his right eye, encircling the sore area. It had turned an ugly shade of black and blue and gray. Finally, he placed his finger on the bone right below the eye, harder than he intended. He felt a sharp pain. And perhaps because of that pain, Ajay started crying. There had been a few times when thinking about his fear that he would find no one, he had come close to tears. But those times, he had resisted.
“This is not what I was promised,” Ajay said.
“What were you promised?” asked Vikram.
Ajay thought for a few seconds: “An end to this looking.”
“You can end it the second you want. But you won’t because you like it too much.” There was a sharpness in Vikram’s voice that hadn’t been there before. The phrase fell out of his mouth like he’d prepared it before hand.
“What do I like so much?”
“You know. The whole drama of looking around and the disappointment. You don’t really want anybody, you just like the process of wanting.” Vikram paused and then continued. “Things might be a little easier if you realized this.”
Ajay went to the bathroom to blow his nose and thought about what Vikram had said. He stayed there longer than he needed, trying to work through the various explanations for his continued failure. Perhaps he hadn’t allowed himself to practice being in long- term relationship. Or he hadn’t met the right woman. Maybe it was something deeper that he was a little scared to consider. But he could come up with no clear understanding of his situation. When he came out of the bathroom, Ajay asked, “If the lecture is over, can we go get a drink?”
They went to a place near Ajay’s apartment and sat down at the bar. Vikram’s wife Sejal was going to meet them there later. A woman, tall and attractive with dark blonde hair, was tending bar that night. They recognized each other from the times Ajay had come in on his own, but they had never gotten past the small talk in those moments when she was making his drink.
“Hey,” she said and placed two napkins in front of them.
Vikram ordered a beer and Ajay ordered a scotch.
She got them their drinks. But instead of going back to the other side of the bar, she stood near them and turned her head to the TV. She had never lingered like this before. The Giants game was on.
“Do you guys watch baseball?”
“Sure,” said Ajay.
They talked about Barry Bonds and the prospects for the team. It was early in the season. She introduced herself and offered her hand. “My name is Eileen.” They watched the game for few minutes until she was called away by someone at the other end of the bar.
Ajay leaned over to Vikram and whispered: “Women like injured men.”
Ajay watched her as she prepared drinks and leaned down to remove a few bottles of beer from the fridge. Of course, she wasn’t his type. But that didn’t matter right then. He liked the nervousness he felt around his shoulders and he liked the challenge of figuring out what he would say to her next. Come on back, he thought. Come on back here. And every time she seemed to be coming his way, Ajay could feel his chest constrict.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said to Vikram.
Vikram took a sip of his beer, smiled, but didn’t say anything.
“I really tried with Kavita, but I just couldn’t do it.” He heard his mother’s insistent inquiries, getting less gentle as he grew older. And he heard his father say without much irony: “Please, please don’t let me die with you still unsettled.” He pictured the many weddings he’d attended in the past several years. He was so tired of those voices and images. He was tired of the expectation he’d placed on himself. “I can’t produce the intimacy she demanded. And I don’t have patience to work through all the problems every day.”
“That’s fine,” said Vikram. “Some people aren’t meant to be in a relationship. I function better in one and you function better without one.” Vikram held up his glass to toast Ajay. “Here’s to uncertainty.”
Ajay took a long sip of his drink and then another. He wondered what happened to men like him. He couldn’t get Kavita out of his mind.
He got up and went to the bathroom. When he came out, he saw Sejal enter the bar. He stood back and watched them. She had a big smile on her face, as if it had been much longer than that morning since she’d seen her husband. Vikram got up and hugged her. They fell into some conversation and they both looked like they were genuinely interested in what the other was saying. Ajay had always envied the ease between them. He continued to watch as Eileen went over, took Sejal’s order and grabbed a bottle of beer from the fridge. And then she went and stood at far end of the bar from Vikram and Sejal.
This wasn’t about Ajay’s inability to commit or to love. And it wasn’t about him being a bit of a cad, though he liked the idea that someone might think that of him. This was about being selfish and feeling that it wasn’t such a bad thing. He felt free. And a little frightened of what lay ahead.
Ajay walked up to Eileen, ordered another drink, and as she was preparing it, asked, “Do you know anything about cricket? It’s a much better game than baseball.”