KILLING ME SOFTLY
On March 14th 2019 you wanted me at your apartment early, 10 AM, so we could spend one of your last days in the United States together before you moved back to Chennai. It was an unlikely sunny day between weeks of rain, clouds, and cold. My excitement to see you eclipsed our recent rocky past; butterflies ravaged my stomach as I passed your compound’s coded gate and wound my way through its maze of garage entrances. Proud I could finally navigate these twisty roads without help. Pulling my Celica into a spot outside of your unit’s behemoth ground-level lot, I texted, “I’m here!” Headed toward your building carrying a plastic tray of home-made chocolate chip cookies.
Homemade cookies—the most comforting thing I could think of to compensate for the denial of your request to stay in the U.S. A shocking denial, they’d only given you two months to pack up your life and, in more bureaucratic terms: Get the fuck out. This despite all your work—gold for backstroke in the Asia Games, Rhodes Scholarship finalist, MA degree from Vanderbilt, and five years of consistent tax payments to the U.S. Treasury as a software engineer for Kaiser. Still, no. The H1B visa would not be granted.
After receiving my text you came downstairs. Squinting against the sun, stumbling toward me pigeon-toed, rumpled from sleep. Half of your black curls puffed up in a cloud at the back of your head and the other half dangled limply around your face. Quite the hulking contrast against the manicured paths that wound around your apartment complex. Almost like you belonged on a poster issued by the Neighborhood Watch, warning residents of an unsavory prowler. In fact, you looked like a disheveled version of my original exaggerated caricature of you—how intimidated I’d been to date India’s former swimming champion! sometimes still was—when really you were just frightened and sad. My unsavory prowler, mine. At least for today.
A warm hug, you kissed me on the forehead. “I’m so glad to see you.” Whisking my red purse over your shoulder. I fell in step behind you and bookmarked the image: my pajama-clad Olympian carrying my purse up to his tower. As if you could read my mind, wanted to snap me out of my reverie, you turned right for your cement stairwell too soon and nearly walked into a shrub—you were exhausted.
When you opened the door to your apartment, I took in your five helmets lining the left wall of your hallway. One month from now they would be gone, and I wondered what you would do with them. How do you pack five helmets to move from one continent to another? Or maybe you wouldn’t take them at all since you’d decided to sell all three of your motorcycles at the last minute. So much I still didn’t know about you. But I didn’t ask.
I followed you into your room, tamping down the contrast of your impending departure date against that warm feeling of being a duckling behind you. Too soon to cry. You made your way gingerly through chaotic piles of clothing and tools, flopped into bed on your back, and reached out your arms for me. “Hop, skip, and jump over here, Madame!”
Your darkened room was even further beyond its usual explosion. Papers, tools, and home appliances were scattered across the floor. Empty suitcases lay haphazardly flung open, apparently waiting for the material disorder of your life to “hop, skip, and jump” into place.
Negotiating the piles, I stumbled my way into your arms. With a swift twist, you secured the heavy crimson curtain around your bedpost, letting a soft shaft of sunlight kiss our faces. As you cradled the back of my head in your palm, your eyes scanned my face furiously, looking for . . . what? Things I’d left unsaid that had wanted to surface forgot themselves as the warm tip of your index finger slid my bra strap over my shoulder. How much was there to say?
The mirror doors of your closet revealed us enmeshed above the sheets and, like a voyeur, I watched. Together our bodies had rhythm, wisdom, ease. There it was, had it always been there? A natural fluidity I had to see to believe. But in the scheme of things, after so many heartbreaks, it was late in the day for an epiphany. In absence of words, I screamed with a rage I didn’t know I’d had while we rocked, locked in our magical shape that would always shift to fit the whole of both of us. We swam through time without hesitation, without boundary. An act of love that felt like grieving.
You turned into me and nuzzled my neck. “What are you thinking?”
“Nothing.” Staring up at your bunk bed, calm enveloped me. “You?”
Breathing into my hair, you mirrored me. “My brain is a blank.”
And then it was noon. Probably time to eat, I was willing to bet you hadn’t had breakfast. During our first-date getting-to-know-you talk, you’d said, “I believe pancakes are America’s greatest culinary achievement!” Sheepishly revealed that IHOP was your favorite restaurant. So now I suggested we go to IHOP. You sat up like Christmas had come early. “I love IHOP!”
Reveling in your light embrace, even the animal-mushroom scent of your sweat, I widened my eyes. “I know!”
You rolled away from me and craned your neck toward your desk. “Alexa! Play ‘Killing Me Softly’! The remake by the Fujees started playing, which apparently would not do. “Alexa! Play ‘Killing Me Softly’ by LO-RIE LIE-BER-MAN!”
I thought: I’ll miss your dictatorial relationship with Alexa. And, after months of listening to you serenade me with odd song choices like Evanescence’s “My Immortal” and “Zombie” by The Cranberries, this too-close-to-home choice surprised me. “Oh God, you finally pick the right song and it’s too real!”
After a soft piano-guitar intro I’d never heard, you started singing, and I joined. The song brought flashbacks: first dance, first date, first kiss. Between the song and the intimacy of singing with you, my voice cracked under the weight of emotion. But we just kept right on singing to each other, thinking our different thoughts, sticky and naked under the sheets.
When the song was over, I summoned the courage to pull the handcuffs I’d brought out of my purse. You’d always said (semi-joking?) you wanted to try them with me. So I’d committed to giving you a send-off to remember. Surprising us both, I tossed the cuffs—heavier than I’d expected!—onto your bed. A sudden heat in your eyes, you patted the sheets. I sat down next to you, realizing I had no plan for what to do next. You motioned for me to lie down, which I did. Then you clicked one handcuff around your wrist, one around mine. Twined our fingers together . . . and didn’t move. Several seconds passed. Maybe a minute. This was not how I thought it was going to go.
I giggled. “Well. Now you really can’t leave.”
Deep sigh. “Chained together!”
The innocence of the exclamation dissolved any erotic vibe I’d hoped to create, instead melting my heart. Tamping down tears again. “Will you write me letters?”
A smile in your voice. “I will.”
Slicing through the moment, your phone buzzed on the desk by your bed. With the swiftness of a ninja you rolled over, forgetting we were cuffed. I yelped, “Wait!”
Your phone continuing to sound, you couldn’t get to it while attached to me. In your thick Indian accent, “I did not plan for this! Where are the keys? Get them off!”
I scrambled for the keys in the sheets, found them, freed us. As I waited for your call—last minute negotiations about the final sale of one of your motorcycles—I grabbed the journal and pens I’d brought. I’d told you I wanted to spend our last day creating a list of things you loved, a gratitude list, thinking it would lift your spirits. Advice I’d seen on Oprah years ago. But you’d been skeptical.
Hanging up, you stretched out next to me, and groaned at the sight of the notebook. “Oh no, not the list.”
“Give it a chance! I use it daily. And sometimes I use it to ask the universe for help.” I bounced on your bed to drum up enthusiasm.
Your body jiggled limply in forced response. “You ask the universe for help?”
I stopped bouncing. “I’ve kept one for a long time, it works. I’m grateful for so many things!”
A blank stare. “Clearly not, if you need a list!”
Didn’t know how to counter that. It sounded like a good point.
You plucked up a pen, turning it slowly in your fingertips. “Thank you, I like the pens. But I’m grateful every day. All the time.”
Standing up, you surveyed your room and reined your curls into a tight man bun. “I have so much to do. I still haven’t started to pack.”
Reality had intruded. I felt strange lying in your bed while I watched you begin to rummage. “Can I help?”
“No. I’m going to put in some laundry and then start packing. You relax.”
But I did not feel relaxed watching your room come even more undone as you ripped dress shirts from closet hangers and flung them into piles I doubted you understood. But maybe I was misreading the situation—maybe you had some grand scheme for the chaos you were creating.
“Sure I can’t help? I could fold shirts—”
“No, I want to roll them! . . . How tightly can you roll a shirt?”
“Pfff, I’m from German stock, you have no idea.”
I actually had no idea, I was a lazy-messy packer. But for you I summoned my Dad’s OCD and impressed myself.
You watched me roll. “Wow! They look like grenades! Okay, I will button the shirts, and you can roll them.”
You had even more clothing than I did. With every piece you handed me, I thought of something hopeful for you, rolled up a prayer in each shirt. Wondered if you’d think of me when you unpacked them.
I wanted to unpack all the shirts now, wanted to keep you. “Hey, I want one of your shirts.”
A breezy reply. “Okay, which one?”
I shrugged. You smiled. “Ah, I know!” Handing me a blue collared polo. “Here, it’s the smallest one I have.” I slipped it on, and you grinned. “It suits you.”
Shirts rolled, we switched tasks, focusing on the unopened mail strewn around the floor. You insisted we shred each item by hand. Since you had a mini shredder by your bed, this gave me pause.
“Don’t you want to use your shredder?”
“Too much work! By hand is easier.”
Though I struggled with the cellophane windows of the envelopes, I savored the task anyway, wanting to help in whatever way I could. As I tore up flyers, coupons, and insurance letters for your motorcycles, you pulled a paper from one of your plastic storage drawers. “Christine’s letter!” You waved it around before neatly tucking it into the side of an empty suitcase. The only thing you’d packed to take with you besides the shirts we’d just rolled.
You kept reworking your man bun—a sign of boredom? Anxiety? A tic? I’d never figured it out, never thought I wouldn’t have enough time to eventually know for sure. How much of our attraction was still based on some fundamental misunderstanding about the other?
Suddenly it was 3:30 PM.
You patted your bed. “Why don’t you sit here?” I’d been cross-legged on your floor by the bedroom door, and now you helped me up. Feeling sentimental and brave, I looked into your eyes. “I think you do love me.”
You maintained my gaze, but your eyes calcified and retreated. “Why do you say that?”
Not the response I was hoping for. “Just an instinct.”
You broke eye contact. “Okay. What does love mean to you?”
“Good question . . . . I guess caring deeply for someone, and if you’re romantically interested in them, there’s a strong element of attraction.”
Relief. “Oh, well if that’s all it means, then yes.”
I hesitated. “Is there something I’m missing?”
You exhaled heavily. “Love gets a bad rap. It’s a selfish thing. There’s an element of attachment. Possession. I don’t have that with you. There is no selfishness . . . .” You paused, gauging my expression. “Look, it’s getting late, I really think you need to eat. And I feel we will not go to IHOP. Share some noodles with me?”
Feeling not at all hungry, I nodded.
As you got up, your phone buzzed. A woman on the other end. You put her on speakerphone, began teasing her about a love interest while you boiled water and added Ramen. You presided over the noodles attentively, phone nestled between your shoulder and your ear, and stirred with a butter knife—the only clean utensil in your kitchen besides the one fork you’d washed and set aside for us to share. While you bantered, I snuck some photos of you stirring the pot.
After hanging up, you told me that the woman was the friend you’d stayed with during your farewell tour in New York the previous week. And then:
“She’s really pretty, so I hit on her. But I didn’t think she was interested. Plus I’m leaving, so what would have been the point in starting anything?” Noodles ready, you poured them into a large bowl. “And it seemed like my friend liked her, so I told him he should go for her. Ha! She got mad at me for that! And she couldn’t understand how I could be so free and generous with love.”
So free and generous with love? Reminding myself how much I valued your honesty, wanted to appreciate your candor. Resisting temptation to jump out of the window. “Wow, all of this happened within a weekend?”
“Oh yes! Things happen for me within the day.”
My, how quickly we had crossed into the Kingdom of TMI. Eviscerating me with red flags right up until the very end. On your balcony outside, your washing machine buzzed, indicating the end of its cycle. Paying it no heed, you walked around your coffee table to sit next to me, handed me the fork for the noodles, and eyed me. “Are you okay?”
You were leaving the country within a few days and had just hardcore failed Feelings 101—no, not okay. I cleared my throat of emotion. “Yeah.” I thought back to my conversation with Martha months ago, about how so many cis-gen women of our generation, especially in the Bay Area, get unwillingly cast in the role of the “chill girl” in the face of unreasonable and quasi-polyamorous romantic situations. Now here I was, caught between playing the role and making a scene. I arranged my face. Look. I’m so okay, I’ve transcended okay. Nonreactive as a Teflon pan, that’s me: #chillgirl.
I flashed back to our text conversation when I’d asked how you would feel if I dated other people. After lots of hesitated typing, you had responded, You should do whatever makes you happy. As long as we don’t share too much, or anything, I think we should be fine.
Like you, my feelings about relationships were mixed, but my feelings about you were serious. Didn’t we share that? And just as I’d had no intention of seeing other people despite having posed the question, I did not believe you would be okay if I dated others, let alone share my experiences with you. Had we crossed into friends-with-benefits zone without my knowing it? Same old doubts worming around in my gut, but now it was 5:00 PM, and I would have to leave soon. I reminded you to change your laundry.
You squeezed my hand. “You’re so smart.”
Maybe true, but it felt condescending. When I didn’t brighten, you nudged my shoulder with yours playfully. “Smarty pants.”
My frozen, mild manner faltered as you got up to open your sliding glass doors and change the laundry, so you pointed jovially at the shorts—your shorts—I was wearing. “Smarty Shorts!” Determined to get a happy reaction.
But you knew you’d crossed a line. I’d gone from chill girl to ice queen, and after returning from the laundry to my stone-faced slurping of noodles you asked, “So . . . what do you want to do?”
I wanted to stick my fork in your eye.
But knowing that violence was not how I wanted our evening to end, I asked, “Can we cuddle?” For better or worse, for reasons I didn’t want to think about too deeply, I wanted to hold you even more than I wanted to fork out your eyeballs.
You nodded, loved cuddling more than anyone I knew. “Yes!”
Limp and exhausted I waded back into your bedroom, lay down on my back next to you, and gave in to tears. The end was nearing and we still couldn’t find our way onto the same page, even just to say goodbye.
Also on your back, you asked, “Do you want to have sex one more time? This could be my last chance. In India I’ll be forced to become a virgin again.”
Very much against my will, this did make me laugh. “Yes.”
As you pulled me toward you, your eyes changed upon seeing my face. “Why are you sad?”
To your ridiculous question, I gave a ridiculous answer. “I’m not sad.”
Now I sobbed. “They’re tears of joy.”
You frowned. “They are not tears of joy. Talk to me.”
“I don’t know what to say . . . ” Inhaling wetly. “I will just miss you.”
You did not like seeing me this way. Wanted to fix it. “You are just sad because you think you’ll never feel this way again, but you will if you just let life manifest it.”
A key rattled in your front door, which swung open. Your roommate had returned from work, and you threw your blanket over me with a rushed whisper. “We’ll have to reschedule.” You ran out of your room to greet him. I panted under the blanket, trying to memorize the scent of it, the sound of your voice. Times to reschedule had run out.
With the door to your room wide-open, my person-sized mound beneath the blanket on your bed was impossible for your roommate to miss. Some muffled conversation, and then you removed the blanket with a flourish as if I were your magician’s assistant, or a rabbit. There was your roommate looming lanky and sullen in your bedroom doorway, dressed in all black, looking like the Grim Reaper. Standing awkwardly between us in your room that smelled like cookies and sex, you gestured at me. “This is my friend Christine. She bakes. And cooks things!” You grabbed a cookie and extended to him what looked like a peace offering. “Here. You have to try this, man.”
I’d never met your roommate, but I knew the relationship was strained. And he looked in no mood to socialize now. An introduction no one wanted. Before leaving for the common area, he reached with a long, slow arm for the cookie. Mumbled he was going to smoke a jay. While you showered, a melancholy melody floated into your room from his guitar in the common area. Friendly your roommate was not, but he strummed the pain of the night beautifully.
Before we left, you donned your motorcycle armor and addressed him. “I’ll miss that guitar when I’m gone, man . . . . Don’t forget the cookie.”
Down two flights of stairs in your garage, we idled beside your motorcycles. You kissed away one of my tears. Sighed in defeat as more followed. “Can you please not be sad?”
I could not.
You announced with annoyed certainty, “You will see me again.”
Shook my head wildly, No! Defiant. Exasperating you.
“Even if you have to drive back once more, you will see me again!”
6:00 PM. I willed time to stop.
And time did stop.
But you, too wily for time, did not. Instead, you kissed me lightly, put on your helmet, and slipped away.