Melissa didn’t say a single word during the car ride from the apartment she shared with Subhash in Elizabeth, New Jersey to Subhash’s family’s home an hour away in East Brunswick.
Subhash, who was driving, kept playing with the radio, flipping between news and mainstream rap. Melissa thought of plugging in her IPOD into the stereo, keen on filling the empty space with Run the Jewels instead, but decided against it, not wanting to lose focus on what was ahead of them that night.
The house was in a typically suburban community, with at least one tree in front of every home, and people walking outside without locking their doors.
Melissa and Subhash were born and raised in East Brunswick, or E.B. for short. They knew one another other in high-school but started considering each as an option to sleep with during their days at Rutgers, where they both majored in Political Science and gazed into each other’s eyes while organizing rallies outside the university cafeteria.
“Are you ready?” Subhash asked once he parked in the driveway.
Melissa looked over at the house, its windows all bright with light, and seeing shadows behind the curtains.
“I’ll make sure to grab the dessert,” she said and took the apple pie they bought from a store nearby.
As they walked upto the front door, they could hear the laughter and the music from inside. They took deep breaths, and knocked. One of Subhash’s cousins answered, and instantly, the laughter, and even the music from the radio stopped.
Everyone, including the cousin, looked at Melissa and Subhash standing in the doorway. Melissa made sure to keep smiling, even though she knew that the night wouldn’t be any different from all the others.
She handed the pie to the cousin, greeted those she knew, such as Subhash’s aunts and uncles, and after forcing small talk, took a plate of food and headed outside to the backyard, where she spent the majority of the party alone, dipping her naan into the chicken tika gravy, and watching the lights from the other houses start to glow.
. . .
Melissa, after a year, wondered why she kept trying. She really did. After all, she was well-educated, had a good job, was able to share expenses, and kept goals in life, such as one day owning a business in graphic design/advertising. She described it as Mad Men, but without the rampant sexism. Of course, she understood that the problem wasn’t her character. Heck, it wasn’t even about her obsession with comic books, which she knew she’d have to manage, some day.
Nope. It was none of those things just mentioned.
The reason why Subhash’s family felt so uncomfortable to include her in the family pictures, Facebook threads, and party invitations was about something she had no real control over.
“I’m not a racist,” the eldest of Subhash’s uncles began to say while in the living room with all the other men, “but, I hope you’re not thinking of marrying her…?
Subhash sat across the uncle, and picked at the food on his plate.
“Marriage isn’t a big issue for us yet,” Subhash replied.
“Good! Cause again, I’m not a racist but you should marry someone who’s pretty,” the uncle continued, as everyone else stared at their food.
Melissa, by then, had come back inside to get a glass of water and after hearing the voices in the living room, stopped to listen from the corner.
“If I do feel like marrying her, I will,” Subhash said.
“Listen, I understand you’ve spent a lot of time with her, and she seems like a nice person, but she comes from a people that don’t share our values. I see them all the time when I work in New York, having kids before marriage, cheating on their husbands, taking drugs.”
Subhash looked up from his plate. “Her name is Melissa, and you’ve known her for years,” he said.
The uncle nodded. He admitted that Melissa was a good person.
“But she’s still a black,” he explained, as if it were a mental condition, “and blacks don’t understand Indian values.”
Subhash didn’t wait for anything else to be said. He tossed the rest of the food into the nearest trash, and minutes later, him and Melissa were in their car, heading back to their apartment.
“I told you it would be a bad idea,” Subhash repeated while behind the wheel.
“What was our other option? To ignore your family?” Melissa said.
“Who cares about them anyway?”
“I do. I still believe they can change if they get to know me.”
“It’s been years. Forget them.”
“Well, in that case, let’s get married.”
Melissa glanced over when Subhash didn’t immediately reply.
She watched, as he kept his eyes focused on the road.
“We need to first get our house in order,” Subhash finally said, citing the debt they were in, and bringing up once more Melissa’s comic book collection and in turn, Melissa mentioning Subhash’s overspending on lottery tickets and his investments in friends’ failed businesses.
They talked and talked, as other cars passed them on the highway.
“Experts say the storm will hit the east coast with a force not seen in decades,” said the news anchor on the radio.
But neither Melissa nor Subhash heard him while they argued, not even hearing the name that forecasters had given the storm: Sandy.
. . .
Melissa and Subhash lived in a busy apartment complex, just a few blocks from where they would take the train to their jobs in Manhattan early each morning. That week, they followed their routines, waking up when it was still cold, taking showers while coffee brewed, and heading off to work along with countless others still picking off the crust from their eyes. Each night, they’d eat dinner, discuss their days and fall asleep after an hour or two of watching shows on their tablet.
On the outside, they looked like any other pairing of young professionals. However, just like most couples and families who lived in the building, they were surviving from paycheck to paycheck. Both of them were drowning in student debt, and as the months dragged on, they begun to fall further and further behind in their bills. Eventually, the only mail they got was letters from creditors.
. . .
Melissa and Subhash tried to keep themselves financially afloat, either working part-time over the weekends, saving up what they could by only eating turkey and cheese sandwiches everyday for lunch, and even asking for more shifts.
Melissa was getting ready to work overtime one afternoon when she received a phone call from Subhash.
“Are you at your desk?” he asked.
“Where else would I be?” she replied. “Did something happen?”
Melissa waited with her phone against her ear, hearing Subhash still on the other line. She stopped typing with her other hand and repeated the question.
“Did something happen?”
Subhash sighed. “We’ve been evicted,” he said.
Melissa sat up in her seat. “What are you talking about?” she said.
Subhash explained that there was an eviction notice on their door and the locks had been changed. He took out all they had in their savings (which was enough for three months rent) and tried paying off the landlady, but she told him they needed to go down to the company headquarters.
“Oh,” Melissa replied. “Are they located in Newark?”
“No,” Subhash said, “they’re down near Cape May…”
“What the heck? That’s in southern New Jersey. That’s hours away!”
“I know, but she told me that the offices are open 24/7.”
“So what? Do we just drive down there?”
“We have no other choice. We can’t just wait and let things get worse.”
“What about the storm?”
“It’s all hype. That’s what these weather forecasters do.”
“Okay. I’ll head back as soon as I can.”
“No,” Subhash told her. “I’ll pick you up from work.”
Melissa understood, and went to the bathroom. When Subhash arrived, she got the call, and rushed down. Once she got in, they took off onto the Garden State Parkway, where cars were packed in, and no one was moving, even an inch. There was nothing good on the radio. Subhash asked Melissa about her day, and she asked about his.
. . .
Rain drops began to fall while they were still on the highway.
“It’s all hype,” Subhash repeated, as he maneuvered them onto the local roads instead.
“I don’t get it,” Melissa replied, as they drove through town after town, “by what you’re saying, this is some sort of conspiracy done by weathermen…”
Subhash shrugged, and turned up the radio, with more Drake echoing inside.
Melissa winced. She turned to the window. Shopping malls faded into the distance, replaced by small shops, including liquor stores. Cities mutated into suburbs.
They drove all the way to the shore, where the rain grew heavier, but the roads were empty. They even began to joke with one another, as before. Confederate flags hung from some homes along the way, and they imagined the kind of person who would live inside them.
“Probably the kind of idiot who frisks someone in a bookstore.”
“Wait, did that actually happen to you?”
“Yep. A while ago. But I still remember that hag’s hands all over me.”
“Where was this? This is insane.”
“It was at a bookstore in Metuchen. I walked in and the lady working there kept asking me what was in my pockets, so she pulled me aside and went through them.”
Melissa burst out laughing. “She probably wanted some of that Indian meat all for herself!” she said.
Subhash was smiling. “She was so wrinkly,” he said.
“She could’ve been your sugar mama!” Melissa continued to laugh.
For a few more miles, the road was theirs, and neither of them seemed to care much about the rain anymore, even though it was picking up pace.
However, while half-way down the shore, traffic reappeared, blocking their way. Thousands of cars filled up the lanes. To their left were the homes along the shore and the ocean waves crashing against the rocks and sometimes, making it over.
Subhash told Melissa to rest since she might be driving the rest of the way. She leaned back, and closed her eyes.
. . .
When Subhash and Melissa officially started dating, they hung out in downtown New Brunswick, before the city was gentrified and every inch of was covered in yogurt shops and hookah.
Melissa, back then, wasn’t entirely sure what Subhash’s ethnicity was. She understood he was South Asian (not Arab like she once thought), but still unclear of where his parents came from. She figured out from bits and pieces that Subhash’s family was originally from West Bengal in India. She heard of Bangladesh but never knew what West Bengal was (later, she would google and find out more information). She asked Subhash if she was the first black girl he dated, and he admitted she was, but quickly added, that his family didn’t teach him to be prejudiced, and that all he wanted was someone who he could talk to and share new ideas with.
Her own parents didn’t know much about Subhash, apart from what Melissa told them over the phone. Both her parents had moved to the west coast to work as professors, and they too had many questions about Subhash’s background, and warned Melissa against thinking everything would be ideal. Melissa would tell them she had control of the situation.
The first time she met Subhash’s parents was after graduation, at their home in Montclair, again surrounded by trees and other random foliage. Subhash’s parents shook hands with her, smiled at what she said, and asked her questions about what she wanted to do with her life. It was a pleasant conversation. On the way back home, however, Subhash explained to Melissa that his parents still wanted the rest of the family to also accept her, otherwise, the matter would be complicated. Melissa agreed, thinking it was a reasonable request. And so, she met everyone else at a family picnic, where no one spoke to her, and just stared whenever she’d go to the main table for some of the Indian food available. Sometimes, a child would walk up to her and ask her about her hair, and why it was so thick. She’d force a smile and ask their names, but they’d always giggle and run away.
Melissa told her parents she had a good time at the gathering, and after hanging up, Subhash took her out for ice cream, and they didn’t say much to each other for the rest of the evening, and just looked up at the moon, as their tongues lapped up the chocolate and vanilla on their cones.
. . .
She heard screaming. Her eyes flung open, like shades. People were running past them. Melissa sat up, and heard loud crashing, so she turned to where the noises were coming from and saw the giant waves tumbling over the rocks. She saw the summer homes all destroyed, left in heaps of sticks.
Subhash was still behind the wheel, and honking.
“These idiots,” he muttered, “all they have to do is continue driving and we will be fine.”
Melissa ignored him, as the giant waves grew larger and larger.
“We have to go,” Melissa said.
Subhash cursed at the other drivers.
Melissa turned to him, and with her eyes wide, she yelled, “We have to get out!”
She grabbed his arm. He broke free and instead, told her they couldn’t leave.
“This is all we have!” he said.
“Doesn’t matter!” she yelled, and when Subhash still didn’t react, she lunged into the backseat, grabbed the backpack filled with the rent money and also tossing in some granola bars and whatever she could find. She tumbled out. Water was rising around her. Subhash lifted her to her feet, and they ran.
Hundreds of others were already heading up the hill, glancing behind to see their cars soon submerged.
. . .
After running till their legs were sore and muscles ached, all of the people, as if somehow connected telepathically, all slowed to a walk. They plodded through neighborhoods of abandoned homes falling apart way before the flood. Signs reading FORECLOSURE stuck out from front lawns.
Everyone kept going for another five miles. It was getting cold. People started shivering. A tall woman in front of Subhash and Melissa asked the person next to her where the shelters were.
The other person was also a woman, although much shorter and with broader shoulders. She said she wasn’t sure.
Subhash and Melissa, who were in the back of the group, checked their phones for directions, but their batteries were dead. After they passed another row of empty houses, Subhash took Melissa by the hand and led her onto the sidewalk.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Subhash let go of her hand and tried to open the window of one of the houses. It wouldn’t budge. He looked around and picked up a rock. He waited until the crowd of people was beginning to fade in the distance before he threw it through the window, shattering the glass.
Melissa stood in silence, as Subhash, using his sleeves, carefully cleared off the remnants, and hopped inside.
He turned and reached out for her. She hesitated. The wind grew colder against the skin. She took his hand finally, and jumped through.
. . .
It didn’t matter that Langston Hughes wrote about the Indian struggle for freedom in his poems.
It didn’t matter that Indian leaders like B.R. Ambedkar identified with African-Americans’ fight for freedom as a cause every lover of liberty should believe in.
Heck, it didn’t even matter that Dr. King went to India and that Malcolm X expressed solidarity with all people of color around the world, especially those on the Indian subcontinent.
What was so odd and perplexing was that many Indians and Indian-Americans that Melissa got to know through Subhash greatly admired men such as Dr. King and President Obama. She knew many who voted for the president and who hated republicans and their policies.
And yet, whenever she’d go to the Hindu temple with Subhash, all the other worshippers, most of whom were Indian, would stare and not say a word as she’d walk to the front and sit down on the floor to listen to the priest. In contrast, she remembered another member of the temple who brought his white girlfriend with him. At first, the white woman experienced the same level of hostility, but on that same day, she also received advice from the Indian women, even the older ones, on how to pray, and what to do when the priest spoke to her.
Melissa learned everything on her own, since Subhash also knew very little of his family’s faith.
Subhash stopped going to the temple after an older man looked at Melissa and said something in Bengali. Subhash confronted him, and before it escalated, he backed off, and told Melissa they were leaving instead. Weeks later, Subhash tried explaining what happened to his family but they blamed Melissa and that was the first time they also spoke to her directly, telling her that society was built in such a way that sometimes, things were out of their control.
The discussion was held at the family home. Melissa told them respectfully she would take what they said in consideration and continued to from a cup of water. Subhash stayed with her for the night, since no one else spoke to them afterwards.
. . .
“One day, we could own a house like this.”
“Maybe. But not along the shore.”
“In East Brunswick?” Melissa asked.
“No,” Subhash answered.
The house was two floors. It had a living room and two bathrooms, and there was no furniture left inside.
Subhash and Melissa sat on the floor, resting their heads against the wall, and eating granola bars.
Subhash explained they could wait for a boat to come and rescue them.
But by morning, the water had risen, flooding the streets and engulfing the cars that were left behind.
“We could swim.”
“Not possible. There are downed power lines everywhere. Plus, the water is crawling with disease.”
“That’s true. But we need to move quick.”
Melissa nodded and looked out the window, searching for a way out.
Suddenly, there was a man yelling from the house across the street.
“You stupid bitch!” he bellowed, and pushed open the door, dragging a woman by her hair. He dragged her down the front steps and close to the water.
Subhash yelled for the man to stop. The man looked up, and the woman was crying. The man glared and yelled back for them to mind their own business.
Melissa fumbled for an idea. She quickly held up her phone.
“Go ahead!” she said, “We got all this on video!”
The man kept glaring, and stood absolutely still.
Finally, the man let go of the woman’s hair and rushed back inside, slamming the door behind him.
Melissa breathed a sigh of relief.
“I thought your phone was dead…” Subhash whispered.
“It is,” Melissa whispered back.
She called out to the woman, asking if she was okay.
The woman rubbed the back of her head and stumbled to her feet. Her hair was long and covered her face. She edged closer to the water. Melissa warned her not to go in.
The woman peered into the water’s surface and stood over it.
. . .
Melissa and Subhash decided to jump from porch to porch, and climb along the rails. They made it downtown, where they could walk on the streets again. They went to the supermarket to gather more supplies. There were hundreds of others there too, bumping against each other, shoving items into bags.
Melissa spotted the tall woman she saw before, and asked if she knew of any shelter nearby. The woman shrugged, and continued to pour cereal into her purse.
Fortunately, Subhash found out there were buses up ahead, a few miles away. They immediately began walking again, eating and heading further up the hill. It was night when they finally reached a stretch of road where there were buses and people waiting in line to get on.
A person who was standing in front of them, after Melissa asked him what was going on, told her that the buses were taking them to Atlantic City, where people could transfer.
Melissa was worried. She asked the man if they couldn’t somehow avoid Atlantic City. Subhash, however, told her not to worry.
“We’ll be in and out, okay?” he said.
The ride was an hour long, and Melissa grabbed Subhash’s hand when they stepped off. The plan was to simply transfer to another bus, but Subhash said he needed to pee. Melissa followed him and waited outside the restroom.
The casinos were still open. The evacuation hadn’t yet fully taken place and many people seemed to be in denial, dressed up in their finest jewelry and apparel, going from table to table and gambling away their investments.
Large groups of men exited the bathroom every few moments. They streamed out, zipping up their flies in a hurry. Melissa squinted into the crowd. The minutes clicked by, and she didn’t see any sign of Subhash.
Her legs grew tired. She went inside the restroom. Covering her face from the stench of dehydrated piss, she looked through each stall. It was all empty, except for the men standing and staring at her from the urinals. After checking everywhere, her eyes grew wide, and she immediately rushed out. She ran to the casino portion of the hotel, dodging people in her way. She hopped on a table, and people yelled and threatened to call security.
“Black bitch,” a woman muttered.
Melissa ignored them, and ran to the end of the floor, where there was a crowd of people surrounding the blackjack table.
“Big money, big money,” Subhash muttered, biting his nails, as the black ball popped in and out of the whirling numbers.
Melissa fought through the crowd.
“What are you doing?” she yelled, and grabbed his arm.
The crowd booed.
“Babe, just listen, I can win us five months rent!” he said.
Melissa looked at the stack of chips that were on the table.
“Oh my god…” she murmured.
She lunged for the chips. Security grabbed her. Subhash tried to push them away. But they took him by the neck, and dragged them both outside.
“Wait!” Subhash yelled, as he tried to get past them and inside the hotel, “my chips are still in there!”
But the two security guards stood in his way and didn’t move. Subhash, after feebly trying to push though, stopped and with slumped shoulders, looked over at Melissa.
She was fixing her shirt, and glaring at the ground.
He sighed, and tried to talk to her, telling her he still had enough for two months.
“I’m sure we’ll be okay,” he said, and took her hand.
She didn’t stop glaring.
They finally took a bus further south, and Melissa gazed out the window as Subhash kept holding her hand and talking, mentioning how everyone on the bus looked constipated. But Subhash became quiet too once it was only his voice being heard inside.
The main headquarters for the leasing office was in a small town, which was empty of people. The headquarters was the only place open and the largest structure around. It was three stories tall and looked like a warehouse. But inside, it had the appearance of a local bank, with lines of people waiting to be called and tellers behind glass.
Melissa explained their situation to one of the women working that day.
“We have what we have because of the storm,” Melissa said.
The teller told them they had rules in place for a reason, and Melissa, with Subhash standing in silence, replied that they could pay a bit extra for the next few months too.
Subhash turned to her, and the teller lifted her head from the packs of money.
Melissa made sure to smile but to also look pensive and serious.
The teller accepted the deal and handed them the special key that would get them inside their apartment.
Melissa thanked her and rushed outside, with Subhash trailing behind.
“How are we going to pay extra?” he asked once he caught up.
“I have stuff I need to sell,” she said, “comic books that I don’t read anymore.”
Subhash paused. They stood at the bus stop.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
Melissa watched the road. “What choice do I have?” she said, and craned her neck to see the next bus coming in. She could still smell the ocean.
. . .
The bus back home took them from the local roads and onto the turnpike. Subhash had stopped talking too. However, when the bus made a detour into East Brunswick for passengers who lived in the area, he immediately took Melissa by the hand and led her outside. Melissa asked what was going on, but he smiled at her, as they made their way into the nearby courthouse.
Subhash greeted one of the employees at the front desk and asked if anyone was available to officiate a wedding.
The woman smiled and explained the kind of paperwork they would need.
“Awesome! We’ll be back!” he exclaimed and they took a cab to Rahway, where Subhash immediately began rummaging through their apartment once they got in, gathering all the necessary forms and I.D.
Melissa simply stepped inside, and looked around. She saw the boxes of comic books in every corner. She saw the blots on their ceiling from broken water pipes. The trash was filled to the brim with ripped up lottery tickets.
Once Subhash entered the room again from their hallway closet, papers in hand and beaming, she smiled as well, but also walked forward, and peered into his eyes.
“Honey,” she said, “let’s get our house in order first, okay?”
The smile on Subhash’s face slowly vanished.
“Let’s organize everything and open up an account on craigslist and start getting rid of what we don’t need,” she explained.
Subhash didn’t turn away.
“And then we can go to the courthouse?” he asked.
She smiled until he smiled, adding, “First, let’s get some work done before the rest of the storm hits us.”
“I’ll start right away,” he said, and after a quick shower, he packed up the boxes and labeled them, as Melissa sat on the computer and opened the account.
. . .
At one of the family gatherings they went to, right after they graduated from Rutgers and announced their relationship to everyone they knew, they spent the evening sitting by themselves on the living room couch. Most of Subhash’s relatives kept on talking in their own little groups, and eating, and sometimes, glancing at Melissa from the corner of their eye.
Subhash greeted the people he knew, especially cousins, but then decided to sit next to Melissa on the couch, handing her a plate of food as well.
She asked him why the rice was yellow, and if the lamb was spicy.
He answered, and they ate together.
“This is nice,” he said, as he used his hands to mush the rice and gravy.
She arched an eyebrow at him.
He saw her expression and smiled.
“Considering the circumstances, this is the best we can do,” he explained, and since Melissa wouldn’t stop looking at him, he asked her if she liked the food.
“Of course, I do,” she said, also mixing up the rice with the sauce from the lamb, “This isn’t my first time eating Indian food.”
Subhash couldn’t stop smiling. And Melissa finished everything on her plate, even though she didn’t like to eat so much usually.
They stayed on the couch, talking, and holding hands, imagining themselves away from everyone, very much in control.