The couple lives in Louisville where he works as a bookseller, and she works as a marine biology researcher. She makes more than him and he acknowledges this, happily. His laptop sports a colorful #Feminist sticker and, right next to it, a #ReadBannedBooks sticker. He understands hashtags because he must; he is still working on his novel about psychedelic meditation and an ashram at the end of the world. He’s heard that Twitter—or TikTok—is where to get noticed. Privately, he bemoans this, wants to return to a simpler age. He is 38, just past what he feels is trendy and young in the literary world, but externally he applauds his younger friends who have succeeded. He is in bed with his fiancée, Beth, the woman he met just over a year ago on OkCupid. She tosses and turns, a habit of hers he finds annoying, but she is carrying his child.
It’s a Saturday, and on weekend mornings, the two of them go to the Farmer’s Market to buy fresh produce and taste wonderful artisan cinnamon rolls made by two local Latinx chefs. As a couple, they like to support the work of immigrants and their children.
They look perfect together, which means they look like they should be together, their expressions nearly identical, her hair just a shade darker than his. They look almost like siblings. Of course, they understand it’s great to be a couple where people are different, but the two of them prioritized sharing a background. It just made the most sense to start a family from sameness. They make sense together. They live a peaceful life, and at night, they make peaceful, quiet love, and he enters her slowly, making sure not to hurt her, making sure to kiss her ever-expanding stomach where the two of them have made something, where someone resides who promises to be brought into this world.
Alone in her New Haven apartment, Surya puts together a found poem. It’s an activity of hers on Saturdays when she feels drained, and she often feels drained these days, in these after-college years. She needs connection, but not from people. Found poems are about connection. They’re about taking what doesn’t naturally come together and bringing it together. She thinks often about the words he said to her. The words about his and Beth’s shared background. She had felt his wet curls on her chest in the shower. She liked his smell, which was like soup. Campbell’s chicken soup even though he was vegetarian. He kissed her back, kissed her down to her butt, and he bit it, and she liked it.
Surya met Isaac in a graduate humanities program located in the mountains of a southern state. She entered the master’s program directly after she graduated from Williams in a fog of panic, and she dropped out of it after a semester. It was because of him, but she told herself it was because it was impractical and wasn’t leading her anywhere except towards unnecessary student loans.
She liked him because he was often alone, and didn’t seem to mind, didn’t seem anxious in the way she was to be around the sounds of people. He had been seeing Beth when they met, but they were open, and so Surya slivered into his life, believing she had a place there.
It was simple when they spent time together, at first—they took walks on the greenway, and he knew about birds, about their calls, and she liked learning about them. They stood by the river and kissed, and Surya felt like someone would see and they’d be found out, even though they weren’t doing anything wrong. The act of being seen in this intimacy felt wrong to her.
They ate tomatoes and olive oil on toast and talked about the books they were reading, the detective novel their professor saw too many societal implications in, the endings of stories that landed on images that were difficult to interpret. In his bed, she swam in his shirts, in the smell of his sweat as he pressed himself into her, the fur of his cats sometimes getting into her mouth. He licked her everywhere like he wanted all of her. This was why she kept coming back to his bed. She wanted to be wanted everywhere.
Later, when he told her he wanted to be with Beth exclusively, that they were going to start a family, she felt pins all over her body.
This isn’t the point, she thinks, as she works on the found poem. He isn’t the point. She presses her feet into the carpet in the basement apartment she’s stayed in for too long. She thought the apartment would be temporary until she could find a better place, but her new job with the art professor isn’t paying her enough to find anywhere nicer. She refocuses. The point is the words. Why did it take her so long to get over this man? Her mother asks her this on phone calls. This is your problem, she says. You get stuck somewhere and you miss what’s happening all around you.
The words. The time he told her, a few weeks before deciding to be with Beth, that they both knew he never intended to be serious with her. He said it flippantly, like it was obvious, and how could she assume anything else. How could she assume there were real feelings between them? He’d been messy with her, as though he wanted to get out all his messiness before he became a father. As though to be a father were a flip of a switch, something mature people decided to do mechanically. It all seemed oddly clinical to her. And the words he said to her once, at a local brewery, the two of them kissing before he said them: I can be rougher with you; she can’t take much.
He could choke her and bite her and slap her, but he’d never do those things with Beth, who, he seemed to say, was softer, more serious, and then what was she? She couldn’t stop wondering in the days after they separated what it was about her, her body, that made her so discardable.
He said she was beautiful. He said it many times to her, when she was on top of him, her hair covering his face. He loved her hair, he said. He loved her body, how he could bite her thighs. He did things with her he’d never done before with anyone. It made her feel special, and then she hated herself for feeling special to him. She sometimes thought about the other woman, and she searched her name on the Internet, found pictures of her from various labs she’d worked at in different states. She looked so simple, so plain, her body the exact opposite of Surya’s. She imagined him inside of her, and when Beth became pregnant (a fact she learned from Isaac’s Facebook page, even though she’d unfriended him), she imagined him cradling Beth’s pregnant body and kissing her stomach, kissing her all over, saying he loved her.
It’s that I love her, he texted to Surya later. She kept trying to block him, but she kept wanting to hear from him, for him to say something to her that would make her feel special again. He’d barely talked about Beth until he decided he wanted to start a family with her, and then he loved her, and he made sure to say this word over and over to Surya, to underline that it was Beth that he loved, not her.
There was one time, before it all ended, when he’d convinced her to have a threesome with Beth. She found out later, calculating the timeline, that Beth had been pregnant then. Beth wore a plain dark brown dress, something plainer than Surya would’ve ever worn, and watched Surya out of the corner of her eye. Surya wanted her plainness. She wanted to be clean like her. Her hair was short and brown and pinned back. Even in the throes of intimacy it stayed intact, while Surya’s hair expanded, becoming more and more unruly. You dirty girl, he said to her when they were together, alone. Then, she liked being dirty, but now all she wanted was to be a pure thing. Isaac’s cats circled them, and Surya watched them as Isaac gently licked Beth’s nipples. One cat curled up beside Surya, and she felt its fur, then it ran away.
Surya kissed Beth and her lips tasted antiseptic. He watched as she wrapped Beth’s legs around her. She wanted to be enveloped by her.
He hid his face in Surya’s thighs, and he kissed her everywhere, but he did not say she was beautiful. This was the last time he touched her, and Beth was watching, touching herself quietly. As he kissed her, Surya watched Beth, who sat at the edge of the bed, her finger pressed to her lips. Surya made sounds, and he kept licking her, but Surya didn’t look at him. She looked at Beth, sitting on the outside of them, though Surya knew she was the outsider.
She arranged the words she’d cut out from magazines and newspapers on the floor. The world’s footprint, a sea of whales, the luck of clovers. She didn’t know what to do with them, what she could make. Ajji called her. Her mother’s mom, the grandmother who lived in Mysore. She had been calling her a lot recently, perhaps because she knew Surya was all alone on the other side of the country. Surya answered, and Ajji’s face rose blurrily on the screen. She was sitting in the kitchen. Spices were arranged messily on the table behind her, exactly the way she remembered from the last time she was in India.
“Have you eaten, rajkumari?” Ajji asked Surya. In Kannada, she told Surya she would eat soon, and then Thatha would give her insulin shot. Ajji’s mouth went sideways when she talked about the insulin.
Ajji’s thoughts spun outward. She said Thatha was showering; these days he took long showers, not like before. Before, he would be quicker, wanting to sit with her in the living room. Surya had no memories of the days when her grandparents wanted to be around each other. They seemed to have always slept in separate rooms, like her parents.
“Take care of your health,” Ajji said to Surya. “You look frail,” she said. “Are you eating and sleeping properly?”
Surya nodded. “Of course, and you take care of yours.” But when she hung up the phone and went to the bathroom, she looked at herself in the mirror. She had become thinner, her stomach sunken in, her cheeks papery. She pursed her lips. It was these lips, thick, that he had bitten, sucked, until they bled. It was her thickness, everywhere, that he’d said he loved, and yet in the aftermath of it all she wished to be smaller.
Some nights, when she left Isaac’s apartment, she felt demeaned. It wasn’t his words, or the way he touched her, that felt sharpest in her stomach. It was what her parents might have said had they known how he treated her. Had they known she’d been on her knees in front of him, even after he told her about Beth, begging him for a shred of his affection. Why do you lower yourself this way? Surya’s mom would’ve said, and the fault would’ve been Surya’s. Her fault for letting herself get hurt. Her fault for involving herself with a man who was older than her, in a different stage of life. Her fault for wanting. For imagining him as a young boy at the local theater with his father. For remembering.
When she left Isaac’s place for the last time, the voices of her family circled in her head. How could you be so weak? How could you be so boy-obsessed, so stupid? She wiped the mascara off her cheeks. She emailed Dr. Hema Saraswath, a South Asian Art History professor at Yale, and introduced herself as the daughter of one of her sister’s friends. Hema’s sister lived in Blossom Grove, a couple neighborhoods away from Surya’s family, and once upon a time Layla Saraswath invited Surya’s family to her house with all the other Indian families in town. When she learned of Surya’s father losing his job, she stopped inviting them over. But all of that didn’t matter. Surya needed to use any in she could get to get away from Isaac, from the program, from the southern town in the mountains.
It worked. Hema was hiring for an assistant, and she must have been lazy or tired because she went with Surya. Surya dropped out of her program and drove the eight hours to New Haven to this basement apartment she found on Facebook.
Isaac left the program, too, to pursue his plan of starting a family with Beth. His phone contact used to be accompanied by a photo Surya had taken on campus, outside the meditation chapel.
Now, on her phone he was nothing, just a string of numbers and letters.
Surya’s mother called her the last night she was with Isaac. It was after he said he didn’t want her anymore, and yet he’d pushed her onto the floor and put himself in her mouth, holding her head and maneuvering it like it was an object.
It wasn’t seeing herself as an object from his eyes that hurt her, but the sound of her mother’s voice when she walked back to her apartment in the dark, how she couldn’t tell her what had happened, how she would never understand, how she’d be shocked, and disappointed, and wanting Surya to move back home and be safe in the family’s embrace.
Was her family safety, or the thing she’d run away from? She didn’t know anymore.
What hurt her was not falling on the cold, uneven pavement, or the blood that gushed from her knee, but her mother’s voice, asking her, putta, are you alright, are you in bed?
It was thinking of all the things her parents had wanted to protect her from. All the disappointments Surya had suffered and could not tell.
The remnants of the weed she had smoked that night lingered in her throat, and the night contorted in front of her into a monster-like shape.
After he had released himself in her mouth, and after he told her to leave, her heart started pounding fast and she thought she couldn’t breathe. She told him she was having a panic attack and he stared at her, and his eyes were filled with the coldness of someone who did not care.
The person on the other end of the line, her mother, cared, and yet Surya could not speak. I’m okay, mom. Yes, I’m in bed. If only she could see how the blood dripped down her knee. I’m okay. I love you too. Good night.
One of the first things she did when she arrived in New Haven was to go to the beach. The sand was soft, and she could bury her feet underneath it.
She rested on the sand, listening to Ajji’s old voice messages. Ajji sent Surya fragments of stories, asking her to record it all down.
Surya listened to her voice. “When I was twelve, I found a book in my mother’s bookcase.” A sound like rustling papers animated the pauses between her words. “It was her journal. She wrote all the things she couldn’t tell my father. My father was often away. She wrote about the smells of her body, how much she peed after she had all those children, the aches in her joints. But also her happiness. She used to play the veena beautifully. I played the veena for your Thatha. He would sit next to me, and I played all the songs I knew. He said my songs were like the voices of birds. I taught him how to play. I don’t know when we stopped sitting together. Maybe everything turns bad once you’re with someone for so many years. We are like siblings now, not lovers.”
Surya opened her mother’s voice message from that morning. “I know this must be hard, putta. But you’re following what you want. Don’t feel any shame.” When she told her parents she was dropping out of the program, she expected their disappointment, but they weren’t disappointed. On the Skype call, they nodded their heads, told her the mountains were stifling her, that she should drive north, go to New Haven, get a new start.
“If I could drive away, I would.” Her mother’s voice seemed to contain the same rhythms, the same pauses, as Ajji’s. She spoke a combination of Kannada and English. Her admission wasn’t a sad one, but of a desire once had and released. “When I was younger, in Delhi, I listened to ‘Country Roads Take Me Home’ and imagined what America would be like—roads and roads and roads that went on and on. I thought I’d learn to drive, and I’d go through all the roads, the rows of cornfields, the mountains, the snow, everything. I thought I’d keep going until I reached something. Your dad taught me how to drive and he made me so anxious on the roads. We got in an accident going to Montana and now I’m scared. I don’t want you to be.”
The ocean water circled around itself. She noticed the creatures beside her on the sand. With her fingernail, she felt the outside of a mollusk. It was cold and shiny. Her mom’s voice moved with the water. “Being scared doesn’t mean you should stay.”
She held the mollusk, a clot of reddish-brown. The waves left and came back. She thought of her mother on her first plane ride to America, wondering about everything her parents had never told her. She thought of her Ajji as a child, packing and unpacking her belongings every time she moved. Every time, another wound, another yanking away. She thought of her Ajji’s two braids, her unsmiling face, and glistening eyes. The waves grew louder. They touched her feet, and she left the mollusk to the water’s embrace. The mollusk disappeared, gone when the waves calmed into silence. But beside her was the small crater of its absence, the impact.
MEGHANA MYSORE, from Portland, Oregon, is an Indian American writer and a 2022-2023 Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San José State University. Her work appears or will appear in Apogee, Passages North, The Yale Review, The Rumpus, Indiana Review, Roxane Gay’s The Audacity, wildness, Boston Review, The Margins of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and the anthology A World Out of Reach (Yale University Press). A Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Scholar in Fiction and a Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference Scholar, she has also received recognition from Tin House, Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and The de Groot Foundation, through which she was a finalist for the 2023 LANDO Grant. She holds a B.A. in English with Distinction from Yale University, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Hollins University. She is working on a novel exploring three generations of an Indian American family, an excerpt of which appears in Pleiades.
The art published alongside this story is by Anna Buckley.