Cowboys And
Rumaan Alam

When I was eleven, we went on a family vacation to some place where only Spanish is spoken (not California hahahahahaha) and an old man stopped me on the street and jabbered at me in the language, which I could not understand. I stared up at him, panicked, and managed only "No comprende," which is grammatically incorrect but something I'd heard in the movies. He laughed and picked me up, right off of the street, kissing my cheeks. That's something you can't get away with in this country: picking strange children up off of the sidewalk and kissing them. I guess he took me for Mexican, Peruvian, Cuban, some modern descendant of the ancient Maya, with my brown skin, my thin wrists, my brown eyes behind the thick lenses of my glasses.


Once, at a party, I was stuck talking to precisely the sort of person one fears encountering at a party. Knowing no one else there, she clung to me with impressive persistence, despite the fact that I'm not actually all that friendly, and she peppered me with questions to which there was no real answer.

In addition to wanting to know how I was acquainted with our hosts, what I did for a living, my thoughts on the prospects for the coming presidential election, where I did my grocery shopping, my favorite of our neighborhood's Mexican restaurants, she wanted to know something else.
"What are you?" she asked, stroking my arm as you would a cat, or a bolt of fabric you meant to buy. "I mean, what are you?"


Dylan was a boy in knew in college, a very tall, very handsome boy. His eyes were the precise blue of water in a quarry, and obscured by long lashes that made you think of paintbrushes. Every girl I knew was in love with him.

Dylan wore his long hair in dreadlocks, an affectation I hated in white kids. His prized possession was a book of Allen Ginsberg poems the poet had inscribed to him, in a frantic script that included an illustration: To Dylan, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy.

Dylan had taken a trip that changed his life—changing your life at nineteen, can you imagine?—to India.

"It's just magic," he said once, in front of a crowd, for he was never without a crowd, pretty girls, scattered at his bare, calloused feet. "You know what it's like," he said, nodding at me knowingly, even though I grew up in Maryland.


Glimpsed once, driving through urban sprawl on a sunny but joyless Sunday: a family of five, father with big belly and cheap sweater, mother in a colorful sari underneath a sporty windbreaker, three children. The family was seated around a picnic table in front of a fast food chicken restaurant, the kind of table where acne-scarred teenagers loiter and smoke menthol cigarettes. The screaming traffic, the cracked glass façade: no place at all to sit and eat. And to sit and eat a meal at four o'clock in the afternoon—what meal was it? Was it early dinner because dad or mom had to work that night? I had no idea, and drove by so quickly that I can't be sure I didn't imagine some of the details.

Rumaan Alam has had stories in American Short Fiction, Crazyhorse, The Literarian, The Gettysburg Review and others.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Brett Davis.

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