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
"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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