Shanti squinted as she stepped into the sunlight.
All she saw were blurry images.
So, she blinked and blinked, until finally, Radha, her older sister, was standing across the street, waving and smiling.
“Yay!” Radha exclaimed and hugged Shanti once they were close. Shanti kept her arms hanging by her side. Even after pulling away, Radha was beaming, and helped Shanti put her luggage in the taxi.
They sat together in the backseat. The driver, whose head pushed against the car ceiling, reminded Shanti of someone she knew at Rutgers. She didn’t feel like talking anymore.
But Radha kept asking her questions, about how much sleep she got the night before, and if she was hungry.
Shanti answered as efficiently as she could, and as they pulled away, Shanti gazed at the building, which loomed, where she spent the previous months in, surrounded by trees. MENTAL HEALTH INSTITUTION OF CENTRAL NEW JERSEY, the big bold letters read on the sign above the entrance.
“So I spoke with the administrator and he said not to worry about the billing just yet,” Radha said, as they made their way along the turnpike, back to what Shanti was used to: concrete and billboards.
“Will I still have to pay in the future?” Shanti asked. Her eyelids were half-opened.
Radha kept smiling. “We,” she said, “will pay them.”
Shanti kept her eyelids the way they were, and asked if Radha told anyone about what happened.
The smile faded, and Radha lowered her gaze.
“Mom and dad know,” she said. “But no one else. I mean, you understand how people can be. They won’t comprehend.”
The car rocked slightly as it returned onto the local roads.
“So what did you tell people about me…?”
“Just that you’ve been busy collecting your thoughts.”
“Did you tell them I dropped out?”
“Some know. But the rest of the information I keep to myself. It’s not for them.”
“I’m not a freak.”
“Honey, no one is saying you are.”
“I’m not a freak. Everybody faces adversity.”
“Yes, of course. I just want you to feel safe.”
The taxi steadied, and slowed.
The house that Radha lived in was on the edge of Union. Like much of north New Jersey, Union was a microcosm of the state. Houses were spread around the downtown like a ring, while projects and whatever remaining businesses were kept closer to the city’s center.
The house wasn’t big but it did have two floors, and Radha shared its expenses with two other housemates, Bharati and Geeta.
Shanti arched an eyebrow.
“The ones from Jersey City?” she asked.
“Trust me, they’re different,” Radha said, as she carried Shanti’s luggage into the living room. “Besides, this used to be Geeta’s aunt’s and uncle’s place anyways,” Radha explained.
Shanti looked at the white walls adorned with pictures of South Asian Americans wearing sarees and Nehru jackets, smiling from ear-to-ear for the camera lens. She also spotted balloons tied to the railings on the staircase.
“You had a party?”
Radha paused, and looked, as if seeing them for the first time too.
“We’ll be having a birthday bash,” Radha said.
“It says Piyush on them,” Shanti pointed out and after a few more seconds, her eyes went wide. “Oh my god, don’t tell me you’re still with him…”
Radha recovered her smile and told Shanti to get settled. She led Shanti to her room upstairs, which had a clear view of the main road.
“Are you hungry?” Radha asked, as Shanti sat on the bed and peered out the window.
Shanti told Radha she was just tired.
“Yea sure, get some rest, and maybe later, we can gossip,” Radha said.
Shanti felt a reflex to arch her eyebrow again, but she saw the expression on Radha’s face, the lips stretching from cheek to cheek and for the first time in days, she understood to do the same.
. . .
Sunlight filtered in, and Shanti rubbed her eyes. She quietly got out of bed and after taking her pills and getting dressed, she went downstairs for breakfast. Before going to work, Radha texted Shanti: Eggs on stove. Shanti read the message and prepared some coffee and watched TV in the living room.
Mostly news about weather and traffic filled the screen, and Shanti tried to keep her mind focused, not letting it wander.
However, there were also reports about a woman named Sandra Bland, who was arrested by the police for a simple traffic violation and who ended up dead in their custody. Pictures of the young woman were shown, as well as video of the policemen pushing her into the ground, being played over and over.
Shanti sipped on her coffee. Her heart was beating faster.
Shanti changed the channel and landed on music videos. She took in a deep breath. Suddenly, Iggy Azalea was dancing in front of her. Shanti immediately grabbed the remote and shut it off.
Shanti’s palms were sweaty. Her heart was pounding against her chest. She closed her eyes, and kept her back straight. Her doctors taught her to focus on her happy place. “It’s all in your head,” they’d say, to the point that it felt too obvious.
She imagined herself riding in the passenger seat of a car, being driven past homes with lush front lawns and their windows and porches intact. She pictured herself looking out and seeing all the people, folks who looked like her friends and family she grew up with. The car window would be down, and she could feel the warm air against her face.
For the rest of the week, Shanti applied for jobs, even calling up stores and asking if they had openings. They would tell her to email her resume, which she would, and after a few hours, they’d respond that they’d have to pass. One store manager told her over the phone he couldn’t hire someone like her.
“Honestly, you have a difficult past,” he explained.
“But, I’ve always been a good worker. Have you called my references?”
“It says in the system you attacked another student at Rutgers.”
“That’s not true. He was not a good guy. He was lying about me.”
The store manager sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said, and hung up.
Shanti put the phone down and after taking a deep breath, went back to closing her eyes and feeling the warm air.
And for some time, everything was relatively normal. Shanti continued to apply.
But it was at the end of her second week of recovery that she realized things wouldn’t be exactly as she planned.
It was late night. Radha and Shanti were watching sitcoms, and eating Mexican food.
“Isn’t this fun?” Radha exclaimed, as they filled their tortillas with rice and chicken.
Shanti smiled, as she rolled up her tortilla like a cigar.
Radha mostly talked about her day working at Verizon, selling plans to people who had already made up their minds before stepping into their store.
Although Shanti wasn’t following every word, she was relaxed, and glad to be hearing someone else sharing how they felt for a change.
After all the rice was finished, and their heads drooped, Radha said she would clean up and Shanti went back upstairs.
She laid her head on her pillow, and slowly lowered her eyelids.
Just as she was about to descend, a voice suddenly screamed, “STOP!”
Shanti immediately sat up and looked out the window. The voice sounded like a woman’s, and repeated, “STOP!” again and again. The road was empty, and the lampposts flickered, casting their glow on the other houses, with their floorboards sticking up on the front porches and cracks in their windows taped over.
Eventually, Shanti realized the screaming was coming from next door. Once there was a lull, Shanti returned to bed, but like before, the noise consumed the room as she put her head down. This time, a man was yelling too.
“Shut the fuck up!” his voice boomed.
“What did I even do wrong?”
“Shut the fuck up or I’m going to break you!”
The arguing persisted almost every night. Shanti ignored them the best she could, but as the nights seemed to grow longer, she couldn’t help but ask her sister if she too heard what was happening next door.
“Just don’t pay attention,” Radha said as she was checking her purse before leaving for work.
“Maybe someone should call the cops…”
Radha stopped rummaging through her things and stared at Shanti.
“Unless you’re on fire, don’t do it,” Radha said. “Just worry about yourself, okay? Don’t try to think about stuff that doesn’t concern you.”
Shanti, who didn’t know what to else to say, slowly nodded.
Radha smiled, and grabbed her keys and told Shanti she’d try and come back early. She rushed out the door while Shanti remained standing in the living room, surrounded by pictures on the walls.
. . .
The windows were down. Their car was the only one on the road. To her right and left were pretty homes, and outside were pretty people working on their pretty gardens. She smiled, and they’d smile back. She would wave, and they would do the same. The warm air – – –
Shanti opened her eyes, as she heard laughter downstairs.
“Shanti!” the voices called her. “Our college grad! We want to see you!”
Shanti hesitated but knew they wouldn’t stop. She walked downstairs and saw what she expected: Bharati and Geeta passing back and forth a bottle of whiskey while collapsed on the living room couch.
“Our hero!” Bharati exclaimed and Geeta giggled before taking another swig.
They told her to sit between them, and Shanti did, although keeping her hands on her knees and trying to avoid eye contact.
Bharati and Geeta were still wearing their work uniforms from the supermarket, their nametags dangling and covered in fingerprints.
“I heard you spent some time collecting your thoughts, right?” Bharati said.
Shanti didn’t reply.
Bharati nestled her chin on Shanti’s shoulder.
“You know, none of us were so blessed to even get into college, so you shouldn’t feel bad that you didn’t make it through,” she told Shanti. “My mom and dad were just ordinary Bangladeshi immigrants, from the land of beyond, like yours. It’s good you wanted something more than just being a store clerk. So don’t feel awful or anything that you couldn’t end up with what you wanted. It’s too bad being with the average people but you’ll get used to it.” Bharati stopped, and burped.
Geeta laughed, and Bharati soon joined in, their voices flooding every pore.
They tried to hold her, but Shanti wrestled free and ran outside.
She paused, and looked back, but could still hear them laughing through the front door.
She stood where she was, on the front steps, and instinctively, her head slowly turned to her left, to the house next door.
The moon was bright. The house, Shanti realized, had all its bottom windows boarded up. She tried to get close enough so she could maybe hear the woman inside. Shanti went to the backyard, wading through the tall weeds. There was a shovel sticking up from the dirt.
“Shanti!” Radha called out.
Shanti ran back to the front, where Radha was waiting for her on the sidewalk.
“What are you doing?” Radha asked.
“I was…I…” Shanti stuttered, gasping for words.
“Why were you even outside?” Radha said. “You should be in your room, resting, and getting better, like your doctors prescribed.”
“I don’t remember them saying that…”
“Well, one can assume that’s what they meant,” Radha replied and told Shanti to help her carry a cake and some balloons.
Once they were back inside, Shanti continued to help decorate the home for the upcoming party.
As they were tying more balloons to the stairs, and while Bharati and Geeta took turns giggling and putting up streamers in the kitchen, Shanti asked Radha why she was even still with Piyush.
“He’s such a tool…” Shanti said.
“He’s never been an easy person to deal with, I know,” Radha replied. “But his life is on track. He’s going to be a corporate lawyer someday.”
“If I can impress his parents, who are coming to the party on Saturday, we can move our relationship forward and get engaged even. You and I can have a better life.”
“That doesn’t make sense…he’s not going to treat you any better. He’ll just be himself and – – -”
“Don’t you think I already know that,” Radha snapped.
Shanti’s eyes were wide.
Radha looked at her, and settled down to her normal voice.
“I know he’s not the top choice,” Radha explained. “Let’s face it: neither of us even have college degrees. We don’t stand a chance for any type of luxury if we keep heading in this direction. We have to survive one way or another and honestly, I can’t stand working 60 hours a week, and barely able to pay my electricity bill. And besides, why do you keep saying he won’t change?” Radha smiled, but before Shanti could produce one of her own, Radha returned to tying up the balloons. “These look so pretty,” she said. “He’ll definitely like these.”
. . .
As the party preparations consumed most of Radha’s time after work, Shanti found new ways to occupy her days, such as taking walks around the block, and sometimes, observing the house next door.
One afternoon, Shanti decided to journey much deeper into Union, to its main center, which was in a state of rejuvenation, according to city hall and the businesses they allowed to re-invest with tax incentives.
She walked the furthest she had in months and was eager to see more of the new Union, but as she neared downtown, a man pushed her out of his way, as he ran down the block.
Shanti recovered, and soon after, another man yelled “Watch out!” and did the same, knocking her to the side of the road.
Fortunately, she was able to keep her balance and noticed the large crowd gathered at the end of the street.
There was police tape surrounding a building entrance. Shanti edged to the elevated part of the sidewalk, and saw the men snapping pictures with their cameras, and others doing the same with their smart phones. Shanti craned her neck as the police led a tall man into a van. The man was handcuffed, but he looked in Shanti’s direction, and Shanti’s heart stopped. The police van left, while the ambulance workers stayed, and Shanti watched as they mopped up the pool of blood.
Back in her room, she Googled about what happened, and learned that the man who was arrested had shot and killed two Mexican-American women standing in line at the bank. He simply walked in, and picked them off with his pistol.
Shanti stayed in bed all night, as Radha ordered the caterers on arranging the tables and what food should be served first.
Eventually, the caterers left, and Radha was back in her room.
“I’m sorry! It won’t happen again!”
Shanti stared at her ceiling, until the moonlight faded.
. . .
On Saturday, everyone woke up extra early. Geeta and Bharati were dressed in their best sarees. So were Shanti and Radha, who also stood and waited in the living room.
But the hours ticked away, and no one was knocking on their door.
Radha tried to keep smiling as she looked ahead.
“I guess he got busy and forgot to tell me,” she eventually said.
Shanti clenched her hands into fists and glared at the floor.
They waited until the naan turned stiff like bricks.
On Sunday, gray clouds covered the sky. Radha had begun cleaning up the decorations in the late afternoon, and once Shanti woke, she asked, “Why don’t you go out and have some fun?”
Radha handed her money, and told her to get some Mexican food and watch a movie.
“Live a little,” Radha said.
Shanti looked at the money and then looked at Radha. She wanted to say something but recognized the expression on her sister’s face.
Shanti got dressed and left, and doing her best to block out the shooting from memory, she headed back downtown.
She ate at a Mexican restaurant that she used to go to when visiting Union back in the day. She got a table away from the window and poured hot sauce on everything, including the nachos.
Shadows still cut across the walls, as people went to the nearest train station, to whisk them away to the promises of Manhattan, where everyone from Jersey could complain about the tourists from Wyoming.
Shanti did plan on watching a movie. She even went to the local theater and read the films that were available. None seemed to interest her, and so, she walked back instead, away from the crowds.
The roads were more busy when she was going back, feeling cars roll by almost at every second. Eventually, she lifted her gaze from the sidewalk, and ahead of her, were cars parked along the side of the road, right in front of the house she lived in with Radha.
She stopped, her hands in her pockets, as the lights glowed from every window, like a supernova was trapped inside.
When she did cross the street, she went to one of the windows, and peered within.
There were dozens of people dressed in glittering dresses and Nehru jackets.
Piyush was talking on his cell phone in the corner of the room, and Radha was spotted speaking with an older man and woman.
Shanti stayed by the window, until Radha, who was laughing, suddenly looked and saw her.
Radha stopped smiling, and quickly excused herself.
She met Shanti outside on the sidewalk, asking what Shanti was doing back so soon.
“I thought you were going to watch a movie,” Radha said.
Shanti just stared back.
“I’m sorry,” Radha said. “I am. But like I said, this is an important event. You understand, don’t you?”
Shanti turned to the voices that were seeping through the front door.
Radha promised that at the next party, Shanti would be with her.
Although Shanti had her doubts (and kept them to herself for the remainder of the week), she followed her routine of watching TV, and sleeping when she could, and when the weekend arrived with another gathering to celebrate Piyush finishing the bar exam, Shanti was indeed prepared in her favorite saree, and standing near the door to greet guests.
After a while, though, she decided to sit on the main couch, surrounded by everyone. Radha was standing beside Piyush, who again was on his phone, and laughing at the top of his lungs.
The other men, most of them much older, congregated in tight circles, wearing their Nehru jackets with lint stuck to their edges, and discussing their “investments.” She recognized them as uncles from when she was younger, men who had arrived in the U.S. part of the second wave of South Asian immigrants, men who unloaded goods in warehouses, who pumped gas for the Desis with sports cars and toupees, who still wore sandals in public. The women, a mix of first generation and immigrant, all of whom were adorned in their finest jewelry, and hovering around the kitchen, passing plates of food to be carried into the living room, and of course, asking about each other’s lives in bits and pieces. They too wore smiles as wide as the sunrise.
Shanti giggled. She covered her mouth when she realized she couldn’t stop. The night before, the couple next door was arguing for hours, and Shanti was up listening and smiling at the ceiling about what she was hearing, of how familiar it was.
Suddenly, without warning, Shanti burst out laughing, and everyone at the party glanced at her. Shanti laughed and laughed, until tears were rolling down her face.
Radha asked what was going on, and Shanti apologized and did her best to stop, even closing her eyes and thinking of the car, and the homes and green grass. But every time she pictured being in the car, the windows were up. She laughed again, and rushed upstairs.
. . .
The house was empty. The streets were empty too. Everybody was at work or buying lottery tickets downtown.
Shanti was in her room, staring at the pills in her hand.
“Stop! Please stop!”
“You fucking idiot! I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget!”
“No! Leave me alone!”
Shanti’s heart pounded.
The shouting grew louder.
“Leave me alone!”
“You idiot! You loser!”
Shanti bounded out of bed, and rushed down the steps. She followed the screaming to the house it was coming from and pounded on the front door. There was a sudden crash. Shanti kept banging her fists against the door, until it flew open, and standing in front of her was a man, glaring down at her.
A woman was sobbing while on her knees on the floor.
Shanti tried to push through but the man blocked her way, and laughed.
Shanti grabbed his arm, and bit him.
The man yelled, and she rushed over to the woman, who looked up and smiled.
Shanti smiled back and was about to ask if she was alright but she saw the expression on the woman’s face twist into horror. Shanti quickly turned. The man was running toward her like a bull.
He swung. She dodged. She stomped on his foot. He screamed, as the woman ran around him, and knocked him on the back of his head with a frying pan.
The woman continued to hit him, over and over, until the man’s mouth hung open, and his eyes stayed wide.
Shanti and the woman were hunched over him.
The woman told Shanti she’d handle the rest.
Shanti insisted to stay but the woman said Shanti wasn’t able to help and needed to go home before people noticed she was gone.
Shanti hesitated but followed the woman’s instructions.
Bharati and Geeta were singing pop songs in their room, as Shanti stayed in her own.
“Are you ready for tonight?” Radha asked as Shanti sat on the edge of the bed, her saree bundled next to her.
Radha asked if everything was alright.
“I’m feeling happy,” Shanti answered.
Radha arched an eyebrow, but didn’t ask any more questions and went to her own room to prepare.
Within a few hours, cars lined up along the road again, and guests filled up the living room with their voices, and perfume.
Shanti sat on the couch, and looked around at the people who were sneaking glances at her as well.
Shanti began to zone everyone out.
Bit by bit, their voices faded.
Yet, she heard a car honk from outside. She ignored it the first time, but it repeated, and seemed to be coming from right in front of their house.
Shanti got up and went out.
The woman from next door was leaning against the hood of the car, and smiling wide.
The woman told Shanti she took care of everything and now wanted Shanti to come along with her.
There was more to do, the woman explained. Especially for people like them.
Shanti went closer as the woman talked about the adventures they could have.
Finally, Shanti smiled, and got inside the car.
Soon, Radha emerged from the house, asking what was going on.
“What are you doing?” Radha said.
“Having some fun,” Shanti answered and kept smiling.
“What are you talking about? Please come back inside.”
“No,” she said.
Radha looked back.
“You probably should go back though,” Shanti told her. “You have another party to plan I assume.”
The laughter grew.
Radha bit her bottom lip and eventually, got in as well.
They drove away.
Radha was still asking where they were going, but once they drove out of Union, Radha stopped talking and gazed outside.
Shanti also leaned back.
She smiled wide as they watched the houses go by, as she felt the warm air against her face.