Kanu leaned in and whispered, “I think I’m going to throw up.”
“No, you aren’t,” Naima replied.
“But I think there was something wrong with the fruit punch. I think it gave me diarrhea too.”
“First of all, that’s gross. And also, you can’t get diarrhea from drinking fruit punch.”
“Fine. I’m going to throw up then, and shit everywhere like a volcano. Now can we go?”
Naima smiled, but kept herself focused on the stage.
Kanu narrowed his eyebrows at the back of her head. “You’re killing me,” he said.
“We all die someday,” she said with a smile. “Now, please learn to have some fun.”
Kanu sighed, and looked up at the stage as well, at the bright light shining a narrow beam onto its surface.
“I want to welcome the Class of 2006 to our very first reunion!” the speaker announced and the crowd applauded. The speaker was tall, and gangly. But he had a nice smile and was one of the lightest-skinned Indians Kanu had ever seen. The banner above him, which read East Brunswick High School, glinted like a gem, or something covered in Vaseline. Kanu yawned, but made sure to place his hand over his mouth. He looked around the room, as the lights were turned back on, and the music played, something old like Nelly or Britney Spears.
Kanu didn’t hate high-school but he wasn’t fond of it either. There were definitely moments in his life while lying in bed after work when he would wonder if he could go back and have a simpler routine: get up, go to class, eat food that always smelled the same (like sweat), sleep through the final couple of hours of science and math, and head back home to a home cooked meal and no bills or rent to worry about. But those moments of nostalgia would always fade, and ultimately, disappear. He would remember being stuck in his desk for eight straight hours, listening to a teacher telling him about some stupid founding father with his stupid wig and cutting down stupid trees. None of it seemed real or mattered.
But after receiving their class reunion invitations, Naima wanted to come, which he still couldn’t understand why. She was like him. A nerd, which by the way, wasn’t cool back then. But despite the other girls laughing at her and calling her names, Naima would read her books at the cafeteria, surrounded by her own group of friends, who would also be reading books, and even comics. Maybe that was why he liked her so much. Even now, she was studying non-stop for her PhD. Studying all day and night it seemed. She was so weird, and yet, okay with it. So, why did she want to come to this, he wondered, as he kept looking around, trying to find someone he knew or could recognize.
“I’m going to get some more fruit punch” he told Naima, who bobbed her head to the music and who smiled and waved for people she knew. He rolled his eyes, and made his way to the main table where the chips and dip, and the purple tinged fruit bowl filled with purple drink were arranged. The fruit punch reminded him of Lil Wayne’s addiction to purple drank, which was basically cough syrup and therefore, such a stupid thing to be addicted to. If you’re going to get hooked on something, get hooked on something cool. Like heroin. Or even cocaine, if you could afford it. Kanu chuckled to himself as he drank cup after cup, after cup.
Kanu was content in spending the night by himself in a corner, however, people kept walking up to him to try and start conversations. Some of them said they were old friends. Some had simply shared the same gym or math period together and who without prompting, would launch into some tale about how Kanu and all of them were always joking with each other in the back of class. One person who tried talking with Kanu was missing a tooth but was dressed in a nice suit. He asked Kanu what he was upto nowadays. Kanu told him he was a professional assassin. The person at first balked at the response, but then chuckled nervously. Kanu simply kept smiling at him, till he stopped talking and went away.
“Hey everybody, just wanted to say, how awesome it is to see all of you tonight,” the tall and light-skinned speaker returned to the stage. “And I want all of you to know that this is our community. High-School is a family. We share memories together. We share hopes and dreams together…”
The person’s words faded, as Kanu focused on drinking more punch, and looked across the room. The person on the stage kept talking, but his words sounded muzzled to Kanu, like someone who was underwater. Suddenly, Kanu noticed someone walking into the auditorium from the main hallway entrance, which was odd to Kanu since it was already so late in the reunion for anyone to decide to show up. Kanu’s eyes followed, as the person stayed at the edge of the crowd, smiling at the stage. He looked familiar to Kanu. No way…Kanu murmured once he realized who it was. He immediately navigated his way through the crowd, until he was side by side with the man. The man looked over when he saw Kanu, and Kanu smiled and asked, “Aren’t you Dilip?”
The man at first didn’t respond and just kept smiling. Kanu thought that maybe he couldn’t hear over the sound of the speaker’s voice. But before he could ask the question again, the person who he knew as Dilip, answered, “You can call me Dave,” and again, before Kanu could respond, the man stuck out his hand and they shook.
. . .
Kanu spoke with Dilip, a.k.a. Dave for the remainder of the night.
“What are you upto these days?” Kanu asked him.
“Nothing much. I write books now,” he told Kanu.
“That’s sweet, man! Are you in New Jersey?”
“No. I moved to Cali.”
“Sweet!” Kanu exclaimed.
He later introduced Dilip to Naima and explained that Dilip was staying in Jersey for the weekend. “I told him he could drop by our place tomorrow night and have dinner with us before he leaves,” Kanu said.
Naima thought that was a good idea, and she too shook hands with Dilip, but she raised an eyebrow at Kanu once Dilip had to break off from the conversation to take a phone call.
“What?” Kanu said.
“Who is he?” she asked.
“What? He was in our lunch period back in 11th grade, remember? He wore a turban back then. Probably the only one in the school to be honest.”
“Him?” Naima looked over at Dilip who was still on the phone, and standing in the crowd. She looked back at Kanu. “But why are you so excited to see him? I don’t remember you and him being that close.”
“I know. But he has a rough time in high-school. He was teased a lot, and I don’t think he had any friends, so I think it’d be nice to show him some hospitality. That’s all.”
Naima nodded and looked back at Dilip. She said she understood. But she warned him that Dilip was probably not the same person anymore.
“So don’t try so hard, okay?” she said. “It’s not yours to fix.”
“Don’t worry,” Kanu replied. “I’ll do what I can and then I’ll go ahead and save the rest of the world.”
Naima pushed her glasses up her nose and shook her head at him. They got their coats and left, past the banners hanging outside and the others who were heading to New Brunswick as well, but mostly toward the bars and wherever else they could feel like best friends again.
. . .
Neither Kanu nor Naima were good at cooking. Kanu wanted to cook some naan and some fish for Dilip, but he wasn’t sure how. Naima tried to help, but she had exams coming up, which were crucial in whether they would continue onto the next stage of her PhD at Princeton. There was no room for error.
“You don’t have to sound that dramatic about it,” Kanu said, after they managed to make some rice pudding in their apartment.
Naima shrugged, and kept stirring the pot till the pudding frothed to the top.
Kanu decided to buy the rest of the food from a local restaurant, and ran back to their apartment so he could set up in time. When Dilip arrived, Kanu was just finished placing all of the food on the table and throwing out the plastic bags that read Indo-Pak Cuisine.
“Yo! What’s up man?” Kanu greeted Dilip at the front door, as he entered.
Kanu took his coat and directed him to the table.
Naima, who had taken a quick shower, slowly emerged from the bedroom in the hallway, and flashed a smile and like before, shook hands with Dilip and traded the usual pleasantries with him. They eventually sat down at the dinner table and continued to smile and chuckle.
“It was definitely weird seeing everyone last night,” Kanu said, as he sat across from Naima, while Dilip was at the head of the table.
“It was,” Dilip said, although he kept smiling. “I didn’t know that so many people would show up.”
“Me neither,” Naima said. “Although it was nice seeing everyone.”
“It would’ve been better if the building had exploded,” Kanu said, and laughed and laughed. Of course, he soon realized that no one else was laughing with him, and that Dilip was instead smiling, and Naima, after shaking her head, asked Dilip if he wanted some tea. He thanked her and said he didn’t drink caffeine and soon after, they all were eating and talking again, asking about each other’s lives in bits and pieces.
. . .
Once they were done eating, Kanu asked Dilip what he planned to do for the rest of his time in New Jersey. Dilip explained that he probably would just drive around for a bit but nothing more. Kanu decided to come along. He told Naima he would be back soon, as Dilip waited for him in the lobby.
Naima told him to be careful. Her eyelids were half-lowered. Kanu noticed the dark rings under her eyes, and wondered how long she had them. He squeezed her hand and told her to take it easy. He grabbed his car keys and met Dilip downstairs, as the wind began to fill the air, whooshing past their ears.
Kanu, who lived with Naima in their cramped apartment on the outskirts of New Brunswick, drove them back to East Brunswick. On the way there, Kanu tried to spark conversation. He brought up the usual subjects to talk about, such as how New Jersey, over time, was beginning to feel less and less like a shithole and more like home. Kanu himself was born and raised in East Brunswick. So was Naima. Kanu’s parents, who had come from West Bengal in India, first lived in Queens and saved what they could till they were able to buy a house on the border of East Brunswick and New Brunswick. Naima’s parents, on the other hand, who were probably only a handful of African-Americans living in the area back in the 1980s, grew up in East Brunswick and watched as the community became more diverse, like the rest of the state. Yes, in some ways, New Jersey was an afterthought (especially when compared to New York City), but Kanu began to realize that maybe comparing New Jersey to New York City was wrong all along, that when New Jersey was compared to places like Pennsylvania, to Vermont, to even the rest of New York outside of the city, the so-called Garden State was more diverse, more trippy, and unashamedly, more of its own. Every corner in every town, city, and suburb/ the tiniest of enclave was now filled with restaurants from a million different places in the world, from Ethiopian to Indian, from Halal to Kosher. New Jersey sometimes did feel like it was slapped together overnight, with its Taco Bells next to Hindu places of worship. No longer was New Jersey the cookie-cutter paradise of the 1950s.
“So, how do you feel about being back?” Kanu asked, in his eighth attempt at starting a conversation.
This time, instead of just saying something concise and smiling for the rest of the way, Dilip answered, “Let’s stop at Rajesh’s house. I think he lives behind the East Brunswick Library.”
Kanu paused. He quickly looked over and saw Dilip still looking out the window.
“Uh…I don’t where he lives exactly. I don’t even know who that is…” Kanu said.
“It’s okay,” Dilip replied. “I know. Just follow my directions.” He looked over at Kanu as they stopped at a red light, and smiled.
. . .
They drove to the rear parking lot of the EB Library, which was right across from a row of attached homes. Dilip instructed Kanu to park the car and to shut off the engine. Kanu, without saying a word, did as he was told. They sat in the car for what felt like hours, although every once in a while, Kanu would check his phone and see that only a few minutes had gone by. Naima kept texting him as well, asking where he was. Kanu decided to text back that he was still hanging out with Dilip. Kanu knew that Naima was worried, but he really didn’t want to leave Dilip alone. It would’ve felt like abandoning him.
After a while, as fewer and fewer cars passed by, and just as Kanu opened his mouth to ask a question about what they were exactly doing, Dilip leaned toward the windshield, and squinted. Kanu followed Dilip’s gaze and saw a tall man walking out of one of the attached homes. As the man walked across the street and into a truck that was parked a few feet away, Kanu, who tried his best not to move and even held his breath, realized that tall man was the light-skinned Desi he saw on stage earlier. The man was dressed in what looked like to be a security guard uniform, with the requisite flashlight and walkie-talkie hanging off his belt. Kanu quickly glanced at Dilip, who was smiling wide again. Once the light-skinned man got into his truck and started to drive away, Dilip whispered, “Follow him…”
Kanu turned the car back on, and followed.
The streets of EB were empty at that point. There were a few cars here and there, with their headlights turned high. They got on Route 18, where all of the major businesses were, including the shopping mall hulking over the empty parking lot. They followed the light-skinned man in his truck till he slowed down and pulled over next to a diner. Kanu didn’t know whether to do the same, so he drove past.
“What are you doing?” Dilip said, his eyes wide this time, and looking feverish.
Kanu’s hands stuck to the steering-wheel. He shivered. “I’m sorry but I don’t know what we’re doing,” he said.
“Just go back!” Dilip said, his voice beginning to splinter. He quickly composed himself however and like before, presented a smile, and added, “Please.”
Please or no please, Kanu was already searching for a U-turn. He looked up at the rearview mirror, and noticed however that the truck was just behind them now.
“Shit,” he said. “Is that the same guy?”
Dilip looked back as well. “Pull over,” he said.
“Just do it. Please.”
Kanu sighed, and parked the car on the side of the road, at the entrance to a Dunkin Donuts, although he kept the engine and his seatbelt on.
The light-skinned man got out of the truck, and started walking toward Kanu in the driver’s seat. Kanu stood absolutely still, as if somehow the man wouldn’t see him.
However, Dilip got out as well and Kanu watched them through his side view mirror.
Dilip walked right up to the light-skinned man. The man gestured with his arms, as if to say, what the fuck was their problem?
Kanu could hear their voices, although muffled.
Tell me where he is.
What the fuck is your problem?
Tell me where he is. I’m not fucking around.
Dilip, you got to – – –
Suddenly, Dilip grabbed the man’s flashlight and hit him over the head with it. The man crumbled to the sidewalk and threw up his hands to cover his face. Dilip hit him once more before holding the flashlight up over his head, threatening for another blow. Kanu couldn’t hear anything anymore. His heart was banging against his chest. The sweat poured down his neck. Dilip eventually got back into the car and told Kanu to drive to the local hookah lounge, which was further down the street.
Kanu couldn’t stop his heart from beating so fast. It had begun to hurt. His body began to quake. As if on autopilot, he put the car in reverse and headed back onto the road, hurtling past the lights that begun to blur.
Kanu wanted to just drive till the fuel would run out and they would have no option but to stop. He wanted to keep driving till he was back to his apartment or till he would pass out. Instead, the sign for the local hookah lounge, bright neon pink, crept closer and closer.
“Dude, what the fuck is going on?” he finally asked, the words busting out of his mouth like a jail run. “Dude, who the fuck did you just beat up?”
Dilip, with his voice even and composed, simply replied, “He knew where Rajesh is. That’s all. And I didn’t kill him. Don’t worry.”
Kanu took deep breath after deep breath.
“Kanu,” Dilip said. “Kanu, everything is going to be alright.”
“What is going on, man…? What is going on?”
“Look. Do you remember what happened on September 11, 2005?” Dilip asked.
Kanu didn’t reply.
“That was the day when the entire cafeteria chanted Osama! Osama to me when I walked in,” Dilip explained. He paused. Kanu glanced over as Dilip stared through the windshield. “Every day, every fucking day, someone would either yell at me, tease me, even throw food at me. Do you know what that feels like? To walk into a room and know that everyone is against you, and there’s nothing you can do about it? Apart from taking away the things you feel most proud of…like my turban…do you know how I decided to cut my hair?”
“No…” Kanu said.
Dilip smiled at him and then back at the road. “It was the day after everyone starting chanting Osama, Osama to me. I decided that maybe I could learn to blend in rather than stick out. So before my mom got home from work, I went to the mirror, unwrapped my turban and in a matter of seconds, after stuffing who I am real deep, I cut away. The sacred hair that binds me to my faith. All of it gone. Like that. For them. For you.”
There was another pause. All Kanu could hear was the sound of the wind again, as the car increased speed. For a moment, he forgot he was the one driving. But once he remembered, he couldn’t help but try and change the conversation.
“It sucks what happened,” he said. “But can’t we do this another time, maybe? Can’t we just take it easy? We can go somewhere and chill you know. Just have some coffee and talk.”
Dilip laughed. “My friend. This is it. I’ve been waiting for this since the day I graduated,” he told Kanu, who gripped the steering wheel as tight as he could, who could see the sign for the hookah lounge looming over them. Kanu slowed down, as they neared the entrance to the parking lot. He briefly thought of pressing hard on the pedal instead. But Dilip’s voice, like smoke, drifted around him, filling every space inside the car. The memories suffocated him. “I appreciate the fact you feel sorry for me and whatnot, but let’s be real here. You and I know why you’re here with me. You feel dirty don’t you? For just being there. Seeing what you saw. And you want to wash it away. You don’t want to be dirty. You want to be clean, like a good person is supposed to feel. Am I right?”
Kanu’s foot slowly pushed further on the accelerator, as he kept his eyes focused on the road.
Dilip laughed again. “You’ve had your guilt. I’ve had my nightmares.”
Kanu sighed. He turned into the parking lot and parked in the first empty space he could find.
Dilip thanked him and marched to the front entrance. There was still light inside, bleeding through the windows. The local hookah lounge/bar was basically like a diner except with hookahs of course, and instead of fat fucks burnt out from work, it was mostly young folks trying to pretend they would never turn into the fat fucks that they would see at the diners.
Kanu knew he could drive away, but he chose not to.
“You asswipe!” a voice shattered the night. Kanu looked toward the entrance, and saw what appeared to be Dilip dragging a man by the collar out in the cold. The man was shorter than Dilip but he had broad shoulders. Dilip threw him onto the pavement, but the man quickly got up and pushed Dilip away. Dilip ran to him and punched, but the man pushed him away once more and punched him back. Kanu thought about what to do. He waited till Dilip would beat the man or do something that could show he was okay. But instead, the man grabbed Dilip by the collar and punched him in the stomach, causing him to crumble. Kanu waited a bit more, but the man simply pulled Dilip up again and punched him again.
“Dang it…” Kanu muttered and ran out to help. The man quickly turned, with his fists up, ready to fight. Kanu put his arms over his head, and told the man he was just there to make sure everything was okay. The man squinted and asked who he was. Kanu recognized the man’s face, but couldn’t quite place him. He simply assumed he was someone who he went to high-school with. Before Kanu could answer, Dilip grabbed the man’s legs and flipped him onto the pavement. The man screamed, as Dilip climbed over him, and began to punch him. Kanu stood, still with his hands up. Dilip stopped once the man began to cry. Dilip ran back into the car. Kanu soon got in as well, and drove back onto Route 18, heading north to New Brunswick.
Dilip gathered his breath. He told Kanu to drive to another hookah place that Kanu had never heard of, somewhere in Woodbridge.
“Woodbridge? But…what about…?”
“That’s wasn’t him. He’s somewhere in Woodbridge. Trust me. That motherfucker is out there.”
Kanu’s phone was vibrating. But he didn’t dare pick it up. He drove in the direction of Woodbridge but once he saw a shopping mall, he parked the car, ignoring Dilip’s voice asking what he was doing. Kanu cut the engine off, and faced him.
“Dude, I’m sorry for what happened,” he said. “But I don’t think any of this is going to end well, especially if we keep heading down this road.”
“Road? As in the route we’re on?”
“No. As in what we are doing. Driving around like some nut, and finding random folks to beat up.”
“They’re not random! They deserve this!”
“That may be true. But to someone else, especially witnesses, it just looks like you’re some asshole who’s harming innocent people. Do you want others to think that about you?”
Dilip scrunched his forehead and looked down.
“I want to help you,” Kanu continued. “I’m here.”
Dilip stopped scrunching up his forehead. The creases faded, as he looked back up at Kanu.
Dilip looked at him.
Dilip head butted Kanu in the face.
“What the fuck – – – ” Kanu exclaimed and grabbed his nose. Dilip got out of the car. Kanu could feel something warm leaking down his face. He blinked open his eyes in time to see Dilip heading toward Skirts, which was a bar that had just opened a few weeks ago. Kanu never drank, but he saw the ads for it everywhere, especially on TV, with the waitresses dressed in tight skirts of course, and bending over with the light bouncing off their cleavage. He covered his face with whatever pieces of paper he could find in his car, and plodded after Dilip, who had entered the bar. Kanu couldn’t see straight, but managed to reach just outside. He kept blinking and tried to keep himself steady. But Dilip rushed back out, with a beer mug in his hand, as a large man followed him outside with his fists clenched, and as another man yelled at Dilip to buy his own drinks next time. One of the waitresses, with the skirt tight, and her cleavage out in the cold, simply stood back, her face full of confusion and fear. She looked at Kanu, and Kanu looked back, wanting her to just go back inside.
“Dude, please stop,” Kanu told Dilip. But Dilip pushed him away and kept drinking, the liquid pouring down his chin. “Why are you doing this? This isn’t you, man. This isn’t you,” Kanu tried telling him. But Dilip smashed the drink on the asphalt and grabbed Kanu by the collar. The guys who had come out of the bar simply shook their heads and walked back in. “Fucking ragheads,” the smaller man muttered.
Kanu could feel Dilip’s breath on his face. And although he could barely see as the blood kept leaking from the cut on his head, he tried to look into Dilip’s eyes.
“Please,” he said. “Please.”
Dilip kept his grip on Kanu’s collar. But his shoulders eased. And Kanu could see the wetness around his eyes. Dilip murmured something but before Kanu could figure out what he had said, Dilip punched him in the stomach and let him collapse to the asphalt. Kanu grabbed his stomach and tried to call out but all of the air was gone from his lungs. The pain and the dizziness soon took over. The last thing he saw that night was Dilip walking back to the car, and getting in. Kanu rested his head and closed his eyes.
. . .
New Jersey at night looks beautiful. Honestly, it does. New Jersey has a bunch of shopping malls. That’s true. It also has a bunch of strip malls. But at night, the lights bloom and flourish. The shopping mall, from a distance, isn’t just a place to kill time, but with the lights on, it’s like a stadium, or better yet, a coliseum. Kanu woke up in his bed, thinking of the shopping mall lights, the cars, the waitress’s face. He groaned as he slowly sat up, with the sheets all crumbled.
“You should be okay,” Naima told him. She sat on the edge of the bed. “The doctor said you didn’t break anything.”
Kanu felt the bandages that were wrapped around his head.
Naima told him that the car was still missing.
“We don’t have to file a report right away,” she said. “I don’t think the cops care too much anyhow. But, it’s something to do. Plus, I have a class later today. So we should do it before then.”
Kanu looked around the room, at the pictures on the wall, at the clues of their lives that someone else could walk in and guess from.
“Are you feeling okay?” Naima asked.
Kanu turned to her.
“Are you okay?”
Kanu looked. He saw the bags under her eyes. The creases. He knew she had classes to go to. She was studying her ass off to better their lives. She barely went anywhere. She barely had time to do anything other than reading and writing, reading and writing. Fuck, she needed the car.
Tears formed. “How will you get to class?” he asked.
“I’ll get a taxi,” she said.
The tears still gathered.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s alright,” she told him.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated and embraced her.
He felt Naima’s arms slowly wrapping around him as well. He could feel the soreness of his bones. With his eyes closed, he still could see the shopping mall lights, the waitress’s shocked face. He could still see Dilip walking into the cafeteria. Everyone had pointed and chanted, till he threw down his plate, and ran away. Everyone laughed. The laughter kept getting louder it seemed. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, and clung to Naima, as tightly as he could, while trying his best not to hurt her.