Worth Keeping

Short Story

We planned it the day before. Coffee and then yoga. The pairing sounded awkward even over text. I wanted to, but restrained myself from suggesting a cup of tea or smoothies instead of coffee before a yoga class. I imagined myself in downward dog next to him, palms gripping the earth, toes scrunched, and feeling the urge to throw up. Not a good pairing. Not a zen-ful experience. I started typing. I crafted and deleted the text message over and over until it dawned on me that, if he is worth keeping, he’ll have the right mind to suggest this alternative in person. 

We planned to meet at 6:30 the next day. He suggested the time saying that it would give him enough time to stop home after his shift at the hospital and enough time for us to talk before the yoga class at 7:30. I agreed. I didn’t have a job or shift to influence the hour we met. I didn’t need to stop home. I would already be home. I would be in my pajamas researching secondary sources for a paper on religion and morality as it pertains to the Victorian era in Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I would be sitting Indian style on the couch all day with my laptop heating the upside of a pillow. One time my mom told me that resting a laptop directly on your skin causes cancer. She read it out of a Prevention health magazine. Now I use a thick pillow to separate my thighs from the laptop’s radiation. 

I do have a job but it doesn’t feel like it. I babysit for a few families in the area. One hour here. Two there. Sometimes, just to keep me busy, I think about applying to the Italian restaurant I worked at in high school. I couldn’t be a host again. No. If I applied I would want to be a waitress with a red bow tie. The servers were always on their feet and busy. I liked the idea of constantly walking for work. It was like going to the gym and making money at the same time. I remember one of the waitresses had an excellently toned butt. A small waist too. Her arms were full and womanly. I watched her from my host stand. Her legs plunged her forward. If I were to apply, I would only accept a position as a waitress. But then I think about the ten hour shifts and weekends and the desire falls out of me. Working in a hospital probably requires a lot of walking. Showing patients to their rooms. Retrieving paperwork and proper vaccines. In all the hospitals I’ve seen there is always a big staircase with an elevator beside it. I would use the staircase everytime. 

“Do you take the stairs or elevator?” I asked with a styrofoam cup of water in front of me. We were sitting in a booth, directly across from each other. He seemed to be leaning forward a lot. I pressed my back against the booth’s cushion.

“Stairs, definitely.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s faster.” He began to stir his smoothie with the straw and took a long gulp. I watched the lump in his throat bob up and down as he swallowed. I was impressed by how closely he had shaved. Maybe that’s why he had stopped home.

“What about you?” he said.

“I wouldn’t have asked if my answer was elevator.” His lips formed a silly pout. I laughed.

We walked down the street to the yoga studio. On my shoulder, I carried a canvas tote bag with a sports bra and leggings inside. He was already dressed for class. Cotton shorts. A sweatshirt and a bottle of Fiji water in the side pocket of his backpack. I considered wearing my yoga attire as well but then I thought about how we met in yoga. He’s never seen me in jeans, I thought. I took the liberty of selecting an outfit for the occasion. I stood in my bedroom for a while, pajamas thrown on the floor, and contemplated which shirt and pant combination would make me look thoughtlessly put together and a little sexy. The pants were easy. I wore black Levi jeans from the Salvation Army. They were snug but comfortable. Shoes were easy as well. White platform sneakers from Converse. I paid real money for those; they were irresistible, displayed in the mall like a prize. I couldn’t decide on a top. Something short sleeved seemed appropriate since my legs were covered. I liked how this seemed balanced. But what if it was cold in the coffee shop? I couldn’t take the risk of exposing how my dark arm hair stands erect in a chilly room. Maybe I could bring a cardigan? I fussed like this for a while. Shirts and sweaters piled on my bed, gradually turning into a heaping mound. In my discouragement I went downstairs to my parents’ bedroom. I opened my mother’s drawers. The first shirt I saw was long sleeve and black. There was a pattern of faint white stars throughout the torso. I think it was a pajama shirt with its soft waffle-like material. I put it on. It felt right. 

 

I spotted him the moment he walked in. I knew it was him, it had to be. He looked puzzled and kind of excited. His shoulders slumped. His eyes scanned the room. I felt nauseous all of a sudden but it didn’t worry me; nausea is a symptom of designating part of your day to a stranger. A symptom of hoping my hair doesn’t look greasy, of hoping we have something to talk about. I looked down when I saw his head swing in my direction. I pressed the home button on my phone, checked the time. It was 6:28. He set his backpack down at a small round table for two. He started looking for me. I lifted my head and stood up. How uncomfy, I thought. I hate this part. The initial meeting makes me want to roll myself in bedsheets and pray that no one ever asks about me again. I moved closer. 

He moved his backpack to the booth where I was sitting. I fumbled with my jacket for a moment, checking the pockets for no reason, trying to keep myself busy. I stopped moving so much and began to relax. He asked if I wanted anything. He seemed to be leaning forward a lot. I pressed my back against the booth’s cushion. My shoulder blades scraped the cushion. My neck felt warm, perhaps feverish. 

“A water would be great,” I said. We both got up. It felt stupid for him to bring me a water. I asked for the water cup myself and filled it. He ordered a strawberry smoothie. I waited for him to order a coffee. I waited for him to offer me a cup. He never did.

“We’ll call your name when it’s ready,” the cashier said. We walked back to the booth. I walked in front of him for the last two feet. I wondered if my waist looked small, if my butt looked toned. I wondered if he had even observed me at all. It saddened me for a moment, thinking about him not thinking about me. I convinced myself that this was the case. If only I had wider hips or a fuller frame. 

As we talked I thought less and less about my body. I noticed that our eyes seldom met. He looked past my shoulder when he spoke. I wanted to turn around and see what he was looking at. When we did make eye contact it didn’t last long. It was jumpy and brief. I started counting the seconds. One. Two. One. Two. Three. One. One. Two. Our record was five whole seconds. I had only done something like this once before when I attended a Catholic middle school. On Wednesdays the whole school walked to the church next door for mass. During the priest’s homily, I counted the seconds between his sentences. The moments he was silent, not talking. The dead moments. We are called to be servants of the Lord. One. Two. It is our duty. One. Two. Three. We must live in Christ’s image. One. Two. Three. Four. Amen. 

“Do you take the stairs or elevator?”

“Stairs, definitely.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s faster.”

“What about you?”

“I wouldn’t have asked if my answer was elevator.”

 

I went to the bathroom right away. After the tall styrofoam cup of water, I had to pee badly. My urine sounded like a healthy kitchen faucet. A steady, warm flow. I washed my hands and began changing. I don’t know why I felt rushed but I did. I had worked up a baby sweat from the brisk movements. Taking off my shirt. Unclipping my bra. Peeling socks off my feet. Once I had finished, I shoved my clothing into the tote bag and made sure that my underwear was locked somewhere in the middle of it all. 

We unrolled our mats next to each other. The floor was damp from the previous class. It could reach up to 95 degrees in the room. Sometimes the heat was too much for me and I would find child’s pose while the rest of the class held four arm plank. He brought a bath towel to class. It was folded into a neat square as if it were just removed from a linen closet. Instead of a towel, I used my shirt to dab the sweat off my face and neck. I never remembered to bring a towel. And a shirt worked fine anyway. The room was quiet except for the sound of water rushing through the pipes every time someone used the bathroom. I looked to my left. His body was flat against the mat. His shirt removed. I wanted to ask him something but I laid down instead. I tried to ignore my bladder’s second urge to pee. It felt like someone had set a paperweight on my crotch. The pressure. The filling up. I couldn’t take it. I went to the bathroom again. 

By the time I finished, class had begun. I walked through rows of motionless, spandex covered bodies to get back to my mat. The instructor, a tan pregnant woman, was dimming the lights and challenging the class to empty their mind. Deep inhales. Cleansing exhales. I could never empty my mind. Most people probably can’t. I thought about my empty bladder. I thought about the walk from the coffee shop to the yoga studio. We had walked side by side, talking the whole way. He kept his hands in the pockets of his cotton shorts. The strings on his sweatshirt bounced against his chest. At this point the nausea had settled. I felt frustrated instead. I felt like I was playing a character of myself. My words sounded foreign. My tone sounded morphed. My sentences were hard to recognize. How could he know? He didn’t. To him this was me. For all I know he could have been feeling the same internal frustration. Maybe I don’t know who he is either. 

I heard the instructor’s voice. Focus on the strong breath in the room. I thought about my bed instead. I imagined curling into my bed sheets and forgetting that I have a name or face. 

 

The class ended. Pools of sweat drenched the floor like a soupy marsh. I rolled up my mat and put on my shirt. Looking to my left, I saw that our movements were synchronized. He was wet with sweat and breathing heavy. It seemed intimate to see him like this. 

“Tough class,” he breathed. I nodded my head. 

“We should do this again,” he added. 

“We should,” I said. 

“But instead of coffee, why don’t we plan for tea?”

Flash Fiction: Girlhood

Short Story

We rode the bus home together everyday, sharing snacks and drinking from the same water bottle. Our stop was in front of a blue-shutter-house with dead bushes. The front porch was crumbling. We walked to the end of the street together before going our separate ways. 

One time, before parting, Alana made me laugh so hard I peed. I felt the warm urine trickle down my inner thigh like a train track. It reached my kneecap, then absorbed into my white knee high sock. The walk home was uncomfortable. I kept looking down at the little spot of yellow as it dried in the cotton. I felt the urge to pee every time Alana made me laugh. The worst time was at recess with our red cheeks and runny noses. Only the smart girls wore pajama pants beneath the plaid uniform skirts. The smart girls had warm, protected legs. The smart girls jumped rope on black asphalt. 

Alana and I stood in a circle with some boys from homeroom. Everyone had their fists scrunched into sweatshirt sleeves. The boys kept their hoods up, sniffling and wiping their eyes. As a joke, Alana told Shane to put on her sweater. I watched Alana unzip her green woolen cardigan. She handed it to Shane with a huge smile on her face like something great was about to happen. Without removing his sweatshirt, Shane forced his arms into the cardigan. He looked fat and protruding. He laughed the entire time. Everyone did. Alana looked at each face in our circle with her arms folded on her chest. She was a generous leader, passing mints to me in math class. At the lunch table, she auctioned off her vanilla pudding or cookies. 

Alana saw the pain in my eyes. I looked deaf and worried. I felt cold and awkward. A whistle blew and recess was over. Shane tossed the cardigan to Alana. Our circle flattened and we stumbled back to school like a misplaced bridal party. I felt an arm float around my neck. Alana’s touch was gentle. With her thick muscles and rough skin and scabby knees you wouldn’t expect delicacy. I turned my head to her. She was smiling and looking onward. I had a wonderful feeling that she knew what I had done. I felt safe under her arm. She would take care of me. 

I went right to the bathroom. It was empty. I chose the stall on the far end for privacy and because it always had the most toilet paper. My uniform skirt slapped the tile floor when I unbuttoned it. I lowered my shorts and underwear. The fabric was heavy and saturated with urine. It smelled like my grandmother’s basement after a flood. I waited. I started wondering if any of the boys had noticed. If they had, I decided I would tell them it was a condition, that I couldn’t help it. 

A group of eighth grade girls, with knotty hair and dry lips, entered the bathroom. I watched them through a wide crack in the stall. They laughed and swore and stuck their tongues out. Some applied lip gloss. A tall girl, wearing a ponytail tied with blue ribbon, lifted her shirt. She wasn’t wearing a tank top like we were suppose to. Her torso was pale and shaped like a box. She gathered the attention of her friends and showed them how many times she had rolled her skirt that day. She told them how she walked past Mr. Henley without getting caught. 

The bathroom door flung open. I saw Alana’s reflection in the mirror. A crumpled plastic bag was in her fist. She went into a stall three down from mine. Once the eighth graders left, Alana whispered my name. I told her I was in the furthest stall. She began to fiddle with the lock. Then, with her fingernail, she tapped on my door. Seeing her dirty sneakers and permanently knotted laces, I let her in. She handed me the plastic bag and told me to put my wet underwear inside. I did as she told me. I trusted her like a godmother. Then, from beneath her skirt, Alana lowered her shorts and underwear. We both stared at the fabric around her ankles. We both felt a slight terror rush through our little girl limbs. Until this moment, I never saw Alana hesitate before sharing. She had given me her toothbrush, her bed. She had smuggled granola bars out of the pantry for me during the night. She rode her bicycle to my house in the rain.

She handed me her underwear. The cotton was soft and light pink. A trim of white eyelet graced the waistband. I stepped into the leg holes and pulled them up. I felt restored. Alana pulled her shorts up her legs. I put my skirt back on. She tied the plastic bag tightly into a double knot. With a broad, firm wrist, Alana handed me the bag and told me to bury it in my backpack right away. 

Excerpt from “I’m A Virgin, Not A Hero”

Short Story

“…I don’t drink pop unless I’m at a college party hosted by college boys. I’ve found that girls offer more options when they host. At least they provide a white wine or two. I took small, methodological sips of the Sprite and Malibu mixture. I had taken off my jean jacket and slunk it over my arm. A black spandex tank top, tucked into black jeans was what I decided to wear that night. I read an article once on how to convince a man that you’re irresistible. It offered a lot of interesting tips on seduction. To be effortless, it read, wear your sexiest lingerie as everyday undergarments. That way, whenever he undresses you, you are already prepared. It also said that exposing your shoulders and lower back is much more intriguing than cleavage. It was an article out of Vogue written by a Parisian woman named Séverine so I took the words as scripture…”

Flash Fiction: Compassion

Short Story

I wrote this piece of flash fiction on the plane home from California. Its influence is a collision of reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel titled The Namesake and from spending the past weekend admiring old pictures of my great grandmother Marian.

Compassion

On the plane ride home from Mumbai, Wendy rummages through her purse, trying to locate the images of her great grandmother that she peeled from a decaying photo album. She remembers zipping them into a pocket but the purse is wide and has too many compartments: some sealed with zippers, others with Velcro. Wendy is leaned over her thighs. Strands of thick shiny hair obscure her view of the bag’s interior. Her hand touches a leather notebook, pencils, coins, a wooden comb. She begins to unload the belongings onto her lap. A soft cover book of short stories starts the pile. Then the notebook, the comb, her passport, a draw string bag of clip on earrings. Wendy’s cheeks are florid, hands shaking, her mouth goes dry. The passengers on each side of her seem in tune with the panic. Having abandoned their crossword puzzles, they are watching her. They are wondering if the item she has misplaced is vital like a wallet or cell phone.

Wendy begins to reload her purse. Every bend and stretch of her elbow is felt with defeat.  They are on the bed, Wendy admits. Scattered and bent, the images are holding up a stack of clean clothes on the bed she and her cousin Amina shared. It happened after Amina’s mother handed Wendy an invitation addressed in Bengali to her family. It was an invitation to Amina’s wedding that autumn. She knew the family would decline, knew it was a waste of handwriting and ink. Wendy’s family prepares rice from a box with a tablespoon of butter. No sides of dal. No cilantro garnish. They watch Jeopardy in an air conditioned living room, answering the questions in English. They wear jeans with Birkenstocks. They carry coffee in tall travel mugs.

Despite all this, Wendy packed the invitation and its resentment into her purse, appeasing her aunt. She put it in the same pocket as the images of great grandmother Pranali. It bothered Wendy. She did not like the shared space. She moved the images onto the bed for a moment to reorganize her purse. And then, through a doorless archway, Amina walked in with wet shimmering hair asking Wendy to weave french braids down her back.

The plane is warm, uncomfortable. A crochet sweater is folded on Wendy’s lap. The flight attendant pushes a cart down the aisle, offering coffee or water to passengers. Wendy can hardly respond to the bald, distinguished looking man. Her eyes are red and swelled with tears. In a small voice, she asks for water. The man hands her the plastic cup wrapped in tissue. Wendy is grateful and startled by the man’s compassion.

She wipes her eyes. A few eyelashes and specks of mascara come off. She sips the water, closing her eyes. Pranali develops on the back of her eyelids. The reds and pinks of her saris. The sequins and vermillion. Her immaculate skin. The indifference of her closed lip smile. Pranali sits in a cove of massive Gulmohar trees, creating a thick canopy around her. And for a moment Wendy prefers it this way. She prefers seeing the images in her mind. Not worried about her fingerprints smudging the scene. The colors more vibrant. The crinkles gone. And, this way, the face of Pranali is her own.

 

Short Story Excerpt: In Unison

Short Story

Thank you, Jhumpa Lahiri, for inspiring me to write short stories. I had the great pleasure of hearing Ms. Lahiri speak two times during my time in Rome. In particular, her book Interpreter of Maladies showed me the power and beauty of the short story. I have been working on a few ideas for my own short stories that I am planning to publish on my blog in the near future. For now, here is an excerpt from the first AND ROUGH draft of a short story that I am currently working on titled In Unison. Also, click the following link to hear Ms. Lahiri read one of her exquisite short stories that takes place in Italy. Enjoy!

“The Boundary” by Jhumpa Lahiri

In Unison

Pierre practiced yoga every Sunday evening at a studio located on the first floor of his apartment building. Before she died, Pierre’s wife use to accompany him to class each week, arriving ten minutes early to meditate in silence. In child’s pose, she would lay on the mat next to him, taking deep inhales and cleansing exhales until she was asleep. Sometimes her own snoring would wake her. Other times Pierre would place his hand on the center of her back, feeling the air rush along her spine. He would pause here, taking a moment to acknowledge the life inside her. In a way her death was not a surprise. She had always pointed out songs, while driving or cooking, to play at her funeral. She made it known that burial was not an option. She wanted to be cremated, her ashes scattered into the plot of a tree. And Pierre prepared as well, always being the first to apologize after a fight; he never left the house without kissing her goodbye. It became an anxiety. He anticipated tragedy like a package delivery, reminding himself each day that death could happen today.

Feeling the oxygen move within her soothed Pierre’s worry. It was the one moment he was convinced that nothing bad could ever happen. That is was here, on their mats, where they belonged. When the yoga instructor walked into the room, Pierre would pat his wife’s back rhythmically to say that class had begun. Every class ended the same: legs crossed, heads bowed, and battery powered candles illuminating the center of the room. And the instructor saying, “The light and love in my heart honors and bows to the light and love in each one of you. Have a wonderful night. Namaste.” In unison, the class would bow their heads lower and repeat the word namaste. Pierre regretted every class that he never repositioned his body to face her, touching her fingertips, and promising, “The light and love in my heart honors and bows to the beautiful light and love in you, Georgia.” Although they were not his words, he could not think of a more accurate way to articulate his love.

More Like Rosie

Short Story

Rosie waited in a long line for ice cream with her mother and grandparents. It was an unexpectedly cool evening for July. The whole line of ice cream buyers seemed to shiver in their skin wishing that they’d either worn a long sleeve shirt or were waiting in line for a warmer treat. Rosie’s mother had thick arms; she seemed unfazed by the temperature. Her mother leaned against the rim of a stroller with a leather dog leash wound around her hand. The leash led to a small, loaf-of-bread-sized dog with fluffy white hair. Rosie fiddled with the leash. Rosie fiddled with her own hair. She had faint red hair that trailed along the back of her neck in a loose french braid. She twisted and flipped the braid with her fingers.

Abruptly, as if an epiphany struck her nervous system, Rosie jolted her head to the young boy who was standing on a brick flower bed behind her. He seemed to be the same age as Rosie: curious and craving new perspectives. Rosie skipped introductions.

“Do you want to pet my dog?” she bluntly asked. It was hard to distinguish who Rosie was addressing. She put her question out into the summer air, it seemed, for any listener to hear. Again, she asked the boy the same question with the same matter of fact tone.

“Do you want to pet my dog?” This time the boy dropped his chin to his chest to hide the shyness of his smile from Rosie. Out of encouragement, the boy’s father nudged him to facilitate the interaction further. Rosie grew impatient. There were so many other things to look at. The cars soaring along the road. Other dogs. Other little girls. Other candidates to pet her dog. Seeing the ineffectiveness of her daughter’s conversational skills, Rosie’s mother refueled the interaction by suggesting, “Say hello first, Rosie!” And without a pause, without a moment to consider the sounds of her mother’s voice, Rosie asked, “Hello, would you like to pet my dog?”

Before hearing the boy’s response to her revised question, Rosie crouched down near her bread sized dog. Another revision came from her grandmother whose voice sounded like church bells. The grandmother chimed, “Rosie! Ask the boy his name first and then tell him yours.” And like a sponge Rosie leaked, “Hello. What’s your name? My name is Rosie. Would you like to pet my dog?” By this time, the young boy had jumped down from the flower bed and found security at the level of his father’s hip. Rosie saw shy all over the boy this time. Shy in his lowered eyes. Shy in his awkward sway. The boy even stood just shy of his father’s belt loops. Rosie’s ambitions had caught the attention of other ice cream buyers who were waiting in line that evening. We were all rooting for the little boy to pet the dog. The boy declined, shrinking further into his father’s waist. Absorbing Rosie’s disappointment, I bent over and asked, “Can I pet your dog?” The bridge of Rosie’s freckled nose scrunched up with enthusiasm. She found my eyes. I feared that, after all the revisions to her initial question, Rosie wouldn’t be satisfied if I was the one to pet her dog on that cool July evening. But as Rosie lowered herself to a squat near the little dog she warned me, “Be careful, she bites.” Rosie’s mother shook her head gently and through a laugh said, “Rosie, our dog doesn’t bite.”