“I’ve done it more than once. Which makes it possibly a bad habit.”
“What’s that?” Rama had asked.
She’d been complexly twisted in her bus seat, patchouli-scented Jessica, pea-coated back to window, New Jersey gliding by behind her in what Rama remembered as a raw and drizzly November afternoon. “I just tell some people straight-out I’ll sleep with them if they want.”
She’d stared, saying it, at Rama, who must have blanched, because she’d laughed, Jessica, into her jackknifed knee and said, “Shock you?”
“No. No,” Rama lied. “I mean, why not just say it?”
“That’s one way to look at it.”
“Really. All the unease people go through. All the wondering, hesitation, anxiety.”
“Honesty and directness,” some friendly smarm no doubt creeping in by that point. “Best policy. Absolutely.”
“Not when I say it to people I shouldn’t.”
She’d seen then, Rama, that her officemate’s posture was less yoga-complex than effortful-louche. Still, she hadn’t been able to stop herself prompting: “People like…?”
“Like my thesis director’s wife,” came the answer, “back in Ithaca.”
It had dizzied Rama’s young, ingenuous self like a rum shot. Like a suddenly ringing phone in an otherwise silent room.
“I wrecking-balled that marriage,” Jessica said.
Funny: she remembered almost nothing else from the bus ride. Except that she, Rama, heard herself say, at some point, for some reason, “God, no. I’m from what you call an Indian family.” A line she’d never used before or since.
A long, wine-soaked day in the city, then. They’d met, she and Jessica, others from their grad-school program, then those friends’ friends from NYU. Varun, her soon-to-be fiancé, in an ugly corduroy jacket he must have thought would charm the academics, joined them from Boston in time for dinner at an Ethiopian place in what Rama had only recently learned to call, funnily, the Village. Afterwards, one of the NYU boys was just about run over by a taxi. The two NYU girls, it became clear when the topic of sleep habits came up, were a couple. In a bar called Dojo, Varun and Jessica argued semi-bitterly over Bill Clinton’s imminent impeachment, Rama knowing she should leap in and defuse things, joust good-naturedly alongside her liberal classmate, but unable to harness the necessary faculties, fascinated as she suddenly was with a pair of dark moles on Jessica’s left cheek, an inch from her unglossed, shiraz-stained mouth. A mouth, Rama had to guess, some other woman’s mouth had been on. Maybe she misremembered the weather, too, because a bright moon caromed hilariously between buildings as they lurched, the bunch of them, around Soho, bar to bar. The carnival-bright Twin Towers loomed ahead of them as Jessica’s hand nuzzled its way into Rama’s clenched-against-the-cold fist, still henna-stained from a wedding weeks earlier. Varun didn’t see or didn’t care, but it provoked–the hand-holding–a once-over from the half of the NYU couple that looked uncannily like Demi Moore. Since when, though, were a couple drunk girls not allowed some PDA? Even if one’s thumb gyrations in the other’s palm made the second want, contrary to everything she thought she knew about herself, to shove the first one’s back against the nearest wall and thrust her hand down the front of her jeans?
At the last stop of the crawl–some mobbed and musty Irish pit Varun made them all visit–Jessica’s own hand nested comfortably in Rama’s back pocket.
No more titillations, though: Varun, gainfully employed even then, had scored a hotel room for Rama and himself. So after an Eighth Avenue goodnight hug involving nothing weirder than a little roughhousing and headbutting, Rama and Jessica parted ways forever, the latter stepping to the edge of traffic to hail the cab she’d take alone back to the Port Authority, the former, double-visioned, observing the stomach-flipping beauty of her surprise infatuation’s movements: flounce of dark mane, flash of teeth, climb of peacoat hem on denimed hip. In their room Varun toppled, in his infuriating quasi-narcoleptic style, onto the bed, too smashed (gimlets, of all things, he’d been pounding all night) to fuck the paroxysm of girl-lust out of her. Prepared in the bathroom, then, simply to beat off and get it out of her system that way, dizzily huffing the patchouli on, luckily, her left hand, Rama spotted protruding from the pocket of her kicked-away jeans the folded-up sheet of paper that turned out, plucked from its nest, to be a bus schedule, its top margin filled with ball-point scrawl that scared her most of the way back to sobriety–sent her slinking, runny nose-wet undies tugged back up, to the hotel bed where she collapsed beside the father of her future children, head lodged firmly in his armpit.
For several weeks she assiduously avoided Jessica on campus, staying away from the ugly brutalist building in whose basement they shared a broom-closet-sized office.
Then, just like that, she was gone. Jessica. At the end of that same semester. Summoned by some old flame, Rama heard, to UCSD, UCSC, UCSB. One of those places, in any event, as other-side-of-the-continent as you could get.
Five more years it took Rama and Varun to marry. They did it one hot April day at a grotesquely opulent mandir (her mother’s pick) in Houston, her ever-expanding family’s U.S. base of operations.
Within a year, they both landed their jobs in Philly.
Next, they bought the house in Conshohocken.
Then came the children: a boy (politician), a girl (polymath).
Then years went by, and more still. And Rama, forty-eight, salt-and-pepper haired, smile-lined, dessert-fond, career-steeped, was hunting one rainy fall afternoon for her aunt’s emeralds, digging deep in the back of a jewelry-box drawer, when she found instead that origamied bus-schedule note, relic from pre-text-message times, from a near-esoteric century:
You’re beautiful beautiful beautiful and I’ll sleep with you whenever you want.
A statuette of Rati stood atop the jewelry box. Varun had given it to her, maybe a little presumptuously, when they’d first started dating.
Some Googling revealed Jessica had wound up a school psychologist in Southern California. Had been a kind presence on a Facebook bipolar-support-group page between 2012 and 2015. And in September 2017, a Los Gatos paper reported, she’d died. Glioblastoma. Spouse, children: the obit said nothing. In lieu of flowers, donations could be sent to the American Cancer Society.
Around dawn the next morning, a Sunday, Varun snoring placidly beside her, Rama, restless all night, uneasy, plunged into a patchouli-scented dream in which she finally, finally granted her coltish twenty-four year-old self the fearsome pleasure, on a crowded Manhattan street corner, of slipping her arms around that strange girl’s waist, under her scratchy peacoat; of pulling her in close; of touching her nose to her nose; of pressing her lips carefully and precisely to each of two dark moles on a November-cold cheek; of brushing the tip of her tongue past the downy corner of that smiling, wine-stained mouth; of whispering into a moon-white ear, “You are not a wrecking ball.”
She was jarred awake by a phone call from her aunt, whose earrings she still hadn’t found. Weird, too: the woman had died four years earlier in Kolkota. “Pagol na matha kharap!?” she hollered from God knows where, an oceanic roar on the line behind her. “Crazy child,” she said then in English. “Remember there’s only one real question in life: do you want what you want?”
She woke up again.