– Susan Scutti –
The seasons are just about to shift, Spring forcing Winter out like a disgraced employee. Rohak Srivastava wakes and sees one of his drawings, a jagged accumulation of red lines, hanging on the opposite wall. He smiles proudly. Lingering in his warm bed, Rohak resolves to move in with Sally. His decision contains a certain binary logic; he’d dated two women in grad school and two women after that; he has been involved with Sally for twenty-two months, which is twice the amount of time spent on the previous women in his life. Why not go forward with this plan, championed by Sally for weeks now? Although he suspects, understands, really, that she is motivated by some kind of herd instinct—all of her girlfriends have paired off in the past year—he’s willing to give it a go.
They met at Edgar’s Cafe. “This is not what I ordered,” Sally was saying to the waitress with an overbite. Although Rohak did not recognize her—Sally is a successful voice actress who speaks the part of a Saturday morning cartoon character—he could not help but notice her, complaining beside him at a separate table. And so he commiserated with her and then introduced himself, offering up the name “Ralph” to make things easy. Somehow the conversation unfurled pleasantly enough and before he left he asked for her number. On their first date Sally wore an ochre-colored dress with bright pink bows and she seemed genuinely interested in his work. Once, maybe even twice that night she laughed in a tinkling tone at the observations he made. After more than a few dates—all of them ended with Sally clinging to him on her couch, Rohak gently but firmly disentangling himself—he finally entered her like an expensive store: all unctuous civility and apology for his awkward elbows. The first time he sketched her, Rohak required less than ten quick strokes: upturned nose, plump cheeks, weak chin, round blue eyes, rosebud mouth and curled blonde-brown hair. In his portrait of her, Sally looked vaguely generic, as if she is the model for instructional manuals found discarded on the chairs of a doctor’s office (“Breast Self-Examination”).
Despite or perhaps because of this, Rohak finds himself transported within her presence. He drifts far from his own world of computer programmers and code, algorithms and formal logic, homely relations and half-remembered Indian customs. And he believes that she, in turn, is eased by what he now sees as his courteousness and steadiness, qualities she never unearthed in past boyfriends. “Not one?” he asks.
“No, Ralph. You’re the first.”
“I find that hard to believe.” He lifts a saffron-colored martini to his lips as he coolly surveys the motley clusters of friends and couples at surrounding tables.
“I guarantee you.” Sally’s smiling face appears as open and pretty as a heartfelt pledge. “None of my boyfriends has ever called to ask if I slept well. You’re one of a kind.”
Rohak runs a hand along her nude arm, surprised once again by the softness and warmth of her pale skin. It’s all true. Years ago in India he sat between two cousins, their practice exams cast aside, their soft perspiration mingling with the scent of samosas on a chipped plate as they watched their favorite TV show and sleuthed the possible English origins for mangled Hindi translations.
“Could that be the phrase, ‘knock yourself out?’”
“Maybe. Or ‘knock on wood.’”
“Yes, yes, it must be that! He’s feeling lucky, Hathaway is finally saying ‘yes’ to him.”
Not once did Lakshmi or Radha betray her surprise at the customs of these pixilated people moving back and forth across the bulky screen squatting on four legs before them. So too Rohak maintained a blasé expression to cover his shocked delight. No matter where they came from, no matter their race or sex, the Americans on ER accepted one another as friends and lovers. And this meant that Rohak, laughing now with Sally who nodded her head to the beat of a familiar tune, could also belong. Their first year together often felt like stolen scenes from a TV show with Sally sprightly leading the way to movies, stores and restaurants while Rohak followed, thrilled to idle away his time in her easy company. It’s all true.
The morning he is to vacate his apartment in the least attractive building on the stretch of 84th known as “Edgar Allan Poe Street,” Rohak cuts himself shaving. In the bedroom, Howie and Bill, both female, have begun another play-fight. “Stop it, now. Your new owner will be here any minute,” he tells them, pressing tissue into the cut on his cheek. “Soon you’ll be living in Inwood.” This is one of the conditions of moving in with Sally: she is allergic so he has to give up his cats. He himself had come by the girls through a friend who had moved on short notice so it seems only fitting that he should pass them on now to the new guy at work, who is desperate to make a positive impression. Rohak glances around his dusty apartment—his stuff has been moved to Sally’s place, a single box remains. His mind travels back to his earliest hours here; living alone for the first time in his life, he loved these small rooms even if now he sees they are as cramped and maybe even as shabby as Sally says. (The pleasure in Rohak’s eyes dies.) His buzzer rings. After his co-worker leaves,
Howie and Bill mewing from inside a large animal carrier, Rohak pushes his final box into the cabbage-y smelling hall and closes the door. A teardrop of blood has coagulated on his cheek below his left eye.
His first week at Sally’s place passes without incident. Rohak barely feels the adjustment. After all, he’s stayed with her almost this long in the past, stringing together three, four days at a stretch, rushing home here and there to take care of the girls and pick up new clothes. Now, no more cats to feed and his clothes are neatly arranged in a bureau purchased at a flea market. In the evenings, he and Sally share a single newspaper. They make a show of this old-fashioned custom —Sally says it reminds her of a scene from Citizen Kane. Tonight as they struggle over the Science Times (Sally play-fighting rather like his former cats, Rohak thinks), Sally is confused by the concepts:
“How can one particle be in two places at the same time, Ralph?”
“Are you reading about subatomic theory?”
“Well, let’s see. These days scientists are able to isolate particles smaller than the atom. So they’ve studied their behavior.” Rohak smiles thinking about Sally’s passionate response in bed last night.
“But I thought it says here that you can’t observe a particle without changing its behavior?”
“Well, it’s more complicated than that. Science has already conceded that unseen dimensions exist, so it makes sense that other realities follow different laws than our own reality, the laws of what’s known as ‘classical physics.’”
“But how do they know there are unseen dimensions if they are, well, invisible?”
Giving up, Rohak says, “It’s only a theory. As yet unproven.”
She wrinkles her brow. Long seconds pass and when she finally speaks Rohak is turning another page of Business Day. “Even though we can’t see certain dimensions, that doesn’t mean we can’t feel them, right?”
“Hmm? I’m not sure.” Rohak’s smile, now, is not without condescension; Sally is a voice actress, after all.
“Well, I believe maybe we do feel them but we just don’t recognize the feelings. As such.” Prettily, Sally lifts a stubborn chin.
Rohak reaches across the table and touches the tip of her upturned nose.
“Oh, Ralph, I hate when you do that!”
“But it’s so hard to resist.”
Sally rolls her eyes yet Rohak knows she is flattered. He feels a heady rush of pride whenever he considers that she has chosen him. When they met, he had just started his new programming job and was in many ways still a lonely foreigner yet he knew she felt genuinely comfortable with him on those early dates. (On first seeing her Saturday morning cartoon, Rohak observed that the features and skin color of Sally’s animated character resemble his own.) And now, although her place is not entirely to his taste, he feels comfortable, perhaps even content to be installed snugly here beside her.
In the second month of living together, Rohak remarks Sally’s tedious habit of watching, sometimes re-watching her favorite Tivo’ed TV shows while performing strange and toxic-smelling beauty rituals (she is partial to facials and pedicures). A few short weeks after that, Rohak, who arrives home drenched in the kind of hostility that sometimes breeds in corporate offices, encounters the new wallpaper Sally has chosen for the bathroom. Peeing, Rohak is reminded of his boss’s open and chewing mouth. Does Sally not see that this is an atrocious shade of red?
And now, somewhere in the middle of their fifth month together, Sally stands before him in this ugly, unfamiliar apartment, discussing laundry while Rohak’s mind still reels from another stressful workday. (Ever since his boss heard he’d moved in with Sally, Rohak’s workload seems to have exponentially increased.) Rohak’s eyes lose focus and Sally’s voice fades. He imagines himself in his former apartment: He sits in the easy chair before an open window, Howie and Bill gently sleeping curled together beneath the kitchen table. Poorly conceived drawings composed with bright markers hang about him on the walls. The stove does not work, the refrigerator trembles as it completes a cooling cycle, and the dirt-caked skylight above the kitchen has been sealed for safety purposes and yet Rohak feels utter peace here in this dream of his former self. Turning his head, he stares through the window at a brick wall, sunlit and oddly beautiful. A sketchpad lies on the floor just within reach. On top is a just-finished drawing of Sally; among the colors he’s chosen to represent her is a greenish-brown, the exact shade of grasshopper wings, wings that barely lift the heavy insect body off the ground.
Sally’s prattle penetrates his thoughts. “Ralph? What do you think?”
Rohak smiles unhelpfully.
Sally says, “We could do it tomorrow, but we have plans in the afternoon.”
Incensed, Sally’s voice descends to a note of menace: “We’re meeting Jenny and Dan for drinks.”
Rohak is silent, trying to remember precisely who Jenny and Dan are.
“Do you even care if our apartment is clean?”
Rohak says nothing for a long time, then: “It’s your apartment.”
Sally’s eyes narrow with anger and then, unexpectedly, an expression of indifference drifts like an errant cloud across her face. This response somehow recalls Rohak’s first days in New York. He’d traveled from Mumbai to study at Columbia. Longing for warmth, fearing hostility, Rohak had been surprised by his actual reception: mute disinterest. The other students hung together in tight clusters. Along his way through school, he’d found two, maybe three friends, similar solitary particles whirling through the centrifuge of classes and lectures. But eventually each of these friends spun off into a separate existence. Abandoned, Rohak returned each time to near-solitude in the stuffy Queens apartment of his cousin and his cousin’s distinctly unlovely wife (a marriage arranged by far-off relatives).
Now, seeing the familiar expression in Sally’s eyes, Rohak feels a slight nausea as if swallowing an unfamiliar and unwholesome food. He will work to make their living arrangement tolerable—anything to avoid a similar reaction from her in the future! And so he helps her with the laundry that evening. Yet one night later, Rohak begins a new habit deftly timed to Sally’s pedicure routine. Carrying his laptop (a sketchpad and markers hidden within its padded case), Rohak leaves the apartment after dinner, walks to Edgar’s Café, and curtly orders a beer. He sits and stares for long, vaguely unpleasant minutes and then he sighs, reaches for his markers, and begins a new drawing in his sketchpad. Gradually, his mind unspools and the pressure from work is relieved. Although not as comfortable as his former apartment, he feels sated nevertheless. It is somehow enough to remain separate and aloof, temporarily safe from Sally.
Three, four weeks pass, each beginning with a Monday morning alarm and ending with weekend chores apportioned by Sally and interspersed with visits from other couples. Most of the talk among Sally’s set of friends is about TV, music, movies, meals, vacations and expensive purchases, each act of one-upmanship ever so casual as to be barely noticeable. Socially, Rohak and
Sally maintain an appearance of quiet pleasure yet these days they rarely speak when alone. Oddly, Sally doesn’t seem to notice or to mind.
“But don’t you think it’s about the kind of mothers who raised us?” Sally says into the phone, registering though not acknowledging Rohak’s re-entry into their shared, close-smelling apartment. “Yeah, yeah. Exactly….I mean, do you ever remember your mother dating? I don’t…. Mmhmm… I don’t know how she did it… Mine hated all those parent-teacher conferences. Going alone, the other women there with their husbands and their wedding rings, the teacher noticing everything... My mother would call my aunt to complain… Right!” Sally smiles, charmingly yet coldly, in Rohak’s direction. “Ralph’s home. He’s been working late again, really putting in the hours. I better be going… Right, this Saturday… Say ‘hi’ to Dan. Bye.”
Hanging up, Sally asks, “You hungry?”
“Who was that?”
“Jen. She and Dan might be moving to Bushwick.”
“Oh. Were you telling her about us?”
Sally shrugs. “I talk to her about everything.”
Something inside Rohak clenches. He searches his mind as he does at work but here he can’t seem to find the correct equation and only later, sketching at a table in Edgar’s Café does he shape somber-toned impressions into words: How is it possible Sally doesn’t know what she’s missing when she—when they!—had everything just a few short months ago: long conversations and laughing pretend-fights, joyful love-making and the pleasures of eating out together? Arriving home from work the following evening, Rohak finds her once again happily chattering on the phone. He
leaves as soon as decently possible after a stilted meal and goes to the café to sketch. Unbothered by his time away, Sally is puttering at home when he returns. Is she happier without him near? “Why are you staring at me like that, Ralph?” Sitting among the plump pillows on the couch, Sally appears both childlike and majestic. When he does not immediately speak, she turns her attention to the TV, as thin and flat as her interest in Rohak.
Fearing he has nothing to lose, Rohak says in a quiet voice, “Are you happy, Sal?”
Her brow furrows. “What do you mean?”
“It’s a simple question. Are you happy living with me?”
“Of course.” She shrugs and turns back to the TV. A moment later, but for Rohak not a moment too late, uneasiness rouses her. “Are you happy, Ralph?”
“Not always.” He reaches now for her hand, feels the coolness of it within his own hotter one. “We used to enjoy being together.”
“What do you mean?” Sally’s face colors with sudden emotion. “We still do!”
“Is that what you think?”
“We always have fun, Ralph, don’t you think?” She squeezes his hand hard and lets it drop.
He is reassured and very tired and too mentally exhausted to question her further yet still he is saddened. As she sits before him, so small and soft, legs folded beneath her, hair falling along her shoulders, he can’t help but feel protective of her. How can she not understand they might be so much more as a couple? She does not—or cannot—see what he sees. The following day Sally purchases a neon yet somehow banal shade of green nail polish and Rohak winces at the sight of her painting her toenails. He lingers in Edgar’s café the following night till he believes she has gone to bed. He is wrong. As she stands barefoot and unconcerned before his eyes, her strident toes gleaming in the soft light, he silently wonders for the umpteenth time how she understands this conjoined isolation and why, why is she not as miserable as he?
A month passes, then another, still another is conveniently used then discarded. Rohak is staying later at work, even longer at the café. One morning when he wakes code is streaming through his mind, an electronic blur of letters and symbols; his hands jerk forward in an effort to grasp it. His head aches. Asleep on her side of the bed, Sally gives off a slightly rank odor (she has her period). In the bathroom, he shakes two aspirin from the bottle. Instead of the subway, he hails a cab and slinks against the backseat as the car makes slow but certain progress to his midtown office building. Before lunch, the no-longer-new guy stops by his desk to update Rohak on the cat antics of Howie and Bill. This brief (and rare) moment of camaraderie passes much too soon and then once again the hours begin to melt one into the next. At day’s end, his mind continues to ache and yet, somehow, he is bearing it.
On the subway home, a slender, pallid woman enters the car and sits across from him. She arranges herself on the seat and stares blankly. Something about the origami way her limbs fold inspires in Rohak an unusually strong desire to sketch. After arriving home, he eats a brief meal with Sally who informs him of their weekend plans. When she takes up her position on the couch, rattling an unopened bottle of nail polish like a maraca, he leaves the apartment for Edgar’s Café.
Crossing the street, a car without headlights speeds toward Rohak. His heart leaps in his chest and he jumps back just in time. Trembling, he hesitates before walking down the block in the direction from which the car came. He arrives outside his former apartment building and for whole minutes stares up at the lights glowing from windows on every floor. He climbs the stairs of the brief stoop and idly rings the bell of his former apartment. The buzzer sounds. Without thinking, without pause he opens the twin security doors one after another and then begins the long climb to the top floor. Pausing, a gentle scent of cabbage reaches him and he continues upward with a slight smile on his lips.
When he reaches the familiar fifth floor, he sees that his former door has been left ajar as if awaiting him. Knocking, calling out, “Hello?” he pushes open the door. Stepping inside, cat odor makes its immediate assault and Howie and Bill look up from another of their pretend fights. Returning Rohak’s surprised stare for just a moment, they tiptoe toward him and lift their faces to his touch. Behind the closed door of the bathroom, the toilet flushes and a man clears his throat. The door opens with a familiar squeak. Wearing sweats and the holey t-shirt Sally insisted he discard, another Rohak emerges from the bathroom:
“Hey. You’re back.”
Long moments pass in which dumbstruck Rohak believes he hears the creaking crooked spin of earth on its axis. When he is finally able to speak, Rohak, who continues to stare at this other incarnation of himself, says, “I was passing by. Thought I’d come up.”
“Don’t see why not.” This other Rohak thoughtfully looks into his eyes. “Nothing has changed here.”
“I see that.” Rohak glances around the walls; the sketches he’d drawn just last week hang there. “Everything’s intact.”
“More or less. Please, sit, I’m just going to…” A gesture completes his half-thought.
Rohak sits at the kitchen table and watches as Rohak crosses the room, sinks into the big chair, and turns his face to the window. The brick wall remains unchanged. Rohak picks up the sketchpad lying on the floor beside the big chair and begins to sketch. In the room there is no sound other than the soft strokes of markers along paper. Rohak looks up at the drawing hanging closest to
him on the wall above the kitchen table. The color is a perfect shade of red. If vision passes through the pupil of your eye, does the color of your iris —the color surrounding the tiny hole of your pupil—filter and influence the colors you see? Maybe Sally’s pale blue eyes perceive color differently than his, which are the darkest shade of brown. Sighing, Rohak stands and wanders over to the seated Rohak to peer over his shoulder at the sketchpad. A human brain—both right and left hemispheres colored a shade of silver that somehow evokes fallout—blooms on a fiery orange spinal stem. Rohak watches as his former-self carefully refines this new drawing. His heart slows in his chest and coldness slithers down his spine. As whole minutes disappear, he stares at the strange sketch showing two sides of a human brain, beautiful and repellent by turns, yet also pulsing with its own strange half-life.
“I guess I’ll be leaving,” he says at last.
In his comfortable chair, Rohak does not lift his head or glance away from the drawing on his pad.
The following day, Rohak wakes with a blank, still-aching mind and the usual hardness between his legs. He pushes himself inside the empty space within Sally who abruptly wakes. Briefly her eyes appear distressed then her face lapses into its usual blank expression. At work the no-longer-new guy sits across from him at a conference table; without acknowledging Rohak, he stands and exits the room, cat hair clinging to his pants. On his way home from work, an ancient-appearing woman presses against Rohak. Wearing heavy white powder, violet lipstick and circles of red blush, she smiles as if trying to seduce. When he opens the apartment door, Sally lifts her face, covered with hardening mud, and greets him with an unknowable half-smile. In her facial mask, Sally resembles her Saturday morning cartoon character. Rohak thinks his brain has somehow split in two and begun to leak. Sweat forms and then chills on the surface of Rohak’s skin. With his right hand he unconsciously feels for a pulse at his left wrist. The weak throb beneath his fingertips fails to reassure. Meanwhile, Sally’s smile disappears. She turns her faceless face back to the flat screen of the TV and stares once again into the colorful vacuum.
“What on earth are you looking at, Ralph?” she says and laughs, a sound like a coil being sprung.
That evening Rohak does not go to the warm café; instead he wanders the streets and silently stares into passing, unfamiliar faces. Why can’t he find his way back to loving Sally? He pauses outside his former building on 84th Street and, looking up at the windows lit by a yellowish glow, Rohak experiences a brief sensation of falling. At that same moment his swooning consciousness travels upstairs to the apartment with a sealed skylight. There, another self sits sketching, musing.
Does the sight of green awaken all past knowledge of green—grass and leaves, his mother’s favorite sari, distant summer hills? Is memory what gives color its emotional resonance? Rohak arranges his markers and then begins. Carefully, he layers and blends tones and shades in order to create his own colors: Synapse red. Silicon gray. Thulium orange. Iridium silver. Diffraction blue. Koyaanisqatsi green. Is there any need, any real desire for form or figure? Maybe color alone is enough. Automatically, Rohak’s hand skates across the page leaving behind traces of his intention while in the street below Rohak stares unseeing beneath a starless sky, his face wet with memories of all he’s lost, his two hands seemingly useless at his side.