Salim was a comedian.
Comedy was what Salim wanted to do ever since he saw a Chris Rock performance on VHS (Salim was a nineties baby, hence when the world wasn’t so big just yet).
Salim was amazed at how one man could control hundreds of peoples’ emotions with words.
Salim himself started out by telling jokes to family and friends and became addicted to the the joy filling his bones whenever they would laugh.
Salim began to gather steam in his comedy career at around age 29, being asked to perform at clubs all around New Jersey. One of his favorite spots to perform at was at a club in downtown New Brunswick, which was just a few miles away from where he was born and raised.
“So, I lived in Jersey City right after graduating from Rutgers, and it probably wasn’t the most glamorous spot for a 22-year old to find himself in,” Salim told the crowd on a late May night, when the air was saturated with sweat and cologne. Still, the club overall smelled like the food it served, paste and even crepes. And people seated in the dim light chuckled at what he’d say.
“Just the other week, though, I went back to the same block I used to live at, along JFK, and wow, when did that place turn into a poor man’s version of Williamsburg?” he said, causing more people to chuckle, and for a brief moment, Salim himself was able to smile.
However, as he went deeper into his set, and right before the red light would blink from the ceiling, alerting him that his time was over, what he described to his friends as “emotional contractions” took hold.
Sweat formed on his brow while on stage. He stayed smiling, but he caught sight of the couples in the crowd. The heaviness in his heart returned. He tried to focus on a person’s face but suddenly, he looked to the very back of the room, and he saw her: standing against the wall, her curly black hair barely reaching her shoulders but still shining, and her lips curled into a smile, for him. His voice cracked and he closed his eyes. But it was too late. All he could think of was her. The way she would watch him when he’d be telling his stories. The sound of her voice when she would laugh at his jokes.
. . .
“What happened up there?”
“I don’t know…”
“Bullshit. Admitting it is the first step toward recovery.”
“Ashok. I’m not an alcoholic…”
“Well, you’re acting like one.”
Salim sighed, and his shoulders slumped.
He stared at the smoke salmon on his plate.
“You have to learn to forget her,” Ashok told him, as they sat in the restaurant portion of the club. The waiters and bar tenders were cleaning up and muttering over the mess people had left behind.
“If I knew how, I would…”
“Listen. I know she meant a lot to you, but how long will you keep this up? We have a tour coming up this month and I’m counting on you to be my opening act.”
Salim scoffed. “It’s always about some show.”
This time, Ashok narrowed his eyebrows and stopped eating. And Salim noticed and looked across the table.
“Who was there when you first bombed on stage? When you started out with your tail between your legs?”
Salim rolled his eyes. “You,” he murmured.
“And who was there when you needed someone to open up for you, when no one else knew who you were. Hmm?”
Salim went back to peering down at the salmon.
“What happened with you and Arundhati is in the past now. There’s nothing you can do about that.”
“Maybe I can still convince her.”
“Convince her? Are you serious? And do what? Tell her that she should forget her parent’s wishes and continue dating a Muslim? Her parents have known her for 30 years. You were only with her for a month. A month, dude.”
“But we had fun.”
“Doesn’t matter. If they want a Hindu for a husband and she agrees with them, then you’re no longer in control. Stuff like this takes generations to change, and hopefully, you’re not going to wait an entire millennia.”
Salim didn’t respond.
Ashok shook his head, and went back to stabbing his chick peas with his fork.
“I warned you bro, not to mess with Indian women in the first place,” Ashok said. “They’re all insane. Trust me. I’ve been to temple plenty of times and every one of them is busy smiling at whoever their fathers want them to.”
“Now, you’re the one sounding bitter,” Salim said.
Ashok shrugged, and continued to eat.
“Just stay away from them dating sites for a while and write more material,” Ashok said.
Salim nodded and leaned over his own plate, touching the salmon with his fork, and already knowing it was cold before taking a single bite.
. . .
Salim did try to get back into writing new jokes. Every day, after work, he would drive someplace around where he lived in Union, sometimes to a diner, or to a restaurant he liked, or even to random shopping malls where he’d park in the front lot and take out his notepad and try to fill each line with new ideas.
But the pages would remain blank. Every time, he’d try to think of something funny, or insightful, the heaviness in his chest would return, weighing him down, making each breath feel like his last.
He would chuckle at the dramatic feelings that were lumped inside him. But no matter his perspective, the heaviness would grow.
At the end of the week, Salim signed back onto OkCupid, the dating app on his phone. He’d sit up in bed, scrolling down the list of pictures and names, clicking on those that seemed interesting.
Most of the profiles were the same, however. The summaries were typically long, almost like essays in academic journals, describing themselves in every minute detail, like what makes them upset or happy, saying they were looking for their “partner in crime” and making a joke about how the crime would obviously be legal, like going to a cafe for espresso. Some even listed the places they’d visited, from India to “Africa.” Salim would still message, but ask, “What do you mean by Africa? It’s a big continent. Anywhere specific?” Those women would never respond.
Salim also still performed, mostly at clubs where Ashok would go, in places across northern New Jersey. He’d re-hash old material, although every second he’d be on stage, he’d be thinking of Arundhati. After a while, he didn’t care if the audience was laughing and just wanted to get paid. Instead of doing jokes, every time he grabbed the mike, he’d just try to make it to the end of the set, somehow.
. . .
Salim worked at an office in Bridgewater, one of New Jersey’s many towns known for its corporate headquarters and random trucks parked in random places. The grass was always green though, of course cut up in the shape of company logos. Salim would often stare out his building window, at the grass, wondering if he should have any more coffee from the breakroom which often gave him the runs anyway. Between coffee and staring, he would also check up on messages on OkCupid. Sometimes, there were some, but most were either short or the conversation would halt in a matter of minutes.
One night, Salim received a message from a person whose username read: wretched61.
Salim put down the bucket of ice cream he was eating onto the kitchen counter and squinted at the glowing screen.
Her name was Supriya. According to the profile, she lived close to Freehold, and worked as a lawyer. Her self-summary was just one paragraph and she included the Autobiography of Malcolm X as a favorite book.
What got you into doing comedy? Sounds fascinating, was her message to him.
He checked more of her profile.
She was five foot one. She didn’t drink or do drugs. And she was Hindu.
He wiped his face with a paper towel and cleaned his hands.
Just the usual. Horrible childhood. Mixed in with self-esteem issues.
Haha! Cool. I like guys with problems. Always worked out for me.
Lol. Are you referencing The Wretched of the Earth in your username?
OMG! Yesh! I think you’re the first one to get that!
Haha. It was either that or you also have low self-esteem, which is what I like too.
Salim spent the entire night messaging on the app. He debated with her the top-five MC’s in hip-hop. He even mentioned Octavia Butler and Supriya began recommending stories by Butler he never heard of before.
As light crept into his room, they traded numbers, and Salim promised he would text her as soon as he could.
BYE. You broken, broken man.
Ttys on the other side.
Salim went to bed and woke up an hour later to get ready to go to work, but he took a shower and felt refreshed.
. . .
Salim met Arundhati after three months of being on OkCupid. Salim had spoken to other girls before, even on the phone, but never felt compelled to meet any of them in person. But when he saw Arundhati’s profile, he was completely and utterly fascinated. Her profile was to the point. She had James Baldwin as a favorite author. Her pictures weren’t selfies or taken in a public restroom. They messaged for two straight days, and then texted for another three, until finally talking on the phone for the first time, discussing everything from the increasing likelihood that Lena Dunham’s vagina smelled awful to why Men’s Rights Activists were in love with their dads. They met at Penn Station since Arundhati lived in the city. On their first date, after spending five hours just walking and talking, Arundhati admitted her parents were encouraging her to find someone with the same religion. But she agreed with Salim that they clicked and waited with him for his train back to New Jersey. They had a second date, lasting seven hours. On the third date, she even came down to New Jersey, something she had never done before for anyone. He visited her back in the city on their fourth date but she introduced him to friends of hers and they spent close to ten hours together, grabbing dinner, and checking out her neighborhood in Hell’s Kitchen. They even began compiling a pro and con list for one another, such as Salim not having “stacks” and Arundhati having a weird obsession with the movie Pitch Perfect. She always made him laugh.
Salim texted Supriya during his lunch break, and after eating, he went back to his desk, where placed his phone to the side, and focused on the work at hand, some files that needed to be re-written, others that were filled with typos even after the manager had looked over them. He’d glance at his phone and see the screen still blank. He eventually turned it over but after an hour, then another, he begun to listen and wait for it to at least vibrate. And when it finally did, he grabbed it quickly like Golum and the ring, and realized that it was just another message from a club promoter. Salim hid the phone in his desk drawer and continued typing, like everyone else in the office.
It was dark out and still, there was no response. He ate cereal for dinner and lay in bed, counting the brown damp spots on the ceiling. His roommate was out and Ashok was busy performing. Every time Salim’s phone vibrated, which was beside him, he’d glance and take a breath.
He fell asleep. He saw Arundhati waiting for him on the train platform at Penn, which was not possible, but then again, it was a dream, so anything goes, especially when the subconscious bleeds. Salim was the first to get off the train. He smiled. She smiled too. He reached for her hand, but his fingers went through hers, like a hologram. She kept smiling though, until finally, another man stepped off, and kissed her on the cheek. Salim simply watched them walk away, hand-in-hand, heading up the escalator and disappearing into the crowd.
A sharp blue glow entered the scene, like rays of sunlight. He blinked. He awoke in bed, sheets all crumpled. He rubbed his eyes and saw his phone’s screen lighting up the room.
It was from Supriya.
OOPS! Just saw this! Guess what?! I’m heading to NYC this Saturday. Want to meet up then?
Salim immediately stood up, and walked over to the window, the light from the neighboring buildings draped over him. He bit his lip, and waited for about seventeen minutes before typing back:
Awesome. Let’s meet at Penn.
. . .
It was supposed to rain but it didn’t. Instead, the sun was out and there was a cool breeze that floated in between the buildings.
“You’re late,” Supriya said to Salim when they met outside MSG, with advertisements for upcoming Billy Joel concerts flashing on the big screen.
She was grinning. She had long but curly hair.
Salim knew what to say, how to be.
“So are you already making a pro and con list, cause I already started mine,” he said.
She smiled. She laughed.
They walked around the city, and ended up in Central Park, making fun of the tourists with their large backpacks and dollar-store sunglasses.
“But we’re from Jersey,” Salim said, as they stood on a rock overlooking the park.
“Ssshhh,” she said, placing a finger to her lips.
Salim laughed till his sides hurt.
They talked more about their favorite genre of music (debating whether Thieves in the Night was better than H.E.R or whether K-Dot had already achieved legendary status), and picked apart the other profiles on OkCupid.
“So annoying,” Supriya said as they sat and finished their coffee on a bench, surrounded by more tourists, bikers, runners, and anyone and everyone who felt alive.
“Do guys do the same thing?”
“Oh definitely. They say they loooove to travel, forgetting that doesn’t mean much apart from them having the money and too much time.”
“But are their profiles detailed?”
“No, no. I mean, honestly, I don’t even have time to check their profiles. When I log in, I already have a hundred messages waiting for me, from dudes either saying, ‘hey’, ‘hi,’ or ‘you have nice breasts.’”
“Yep. Really classy dudes all around.”
Supriya tucked her hair over her ear and took a sip.
“You know, my first inclination was to send you a dick pic,” he told her.
Supriya scoffed and looked into the distance.
“Oh yea? I was thinking of sending you a picture of my clit.”
Salim’s eyes went wide.
Supriya took another sip and looked back at him.
He shook his head but chuckled.
They had to take different trains when heading back home, but they waited in the same terminal. Their sides were sore, as they made plans to meet the following weekend in New Brunswick.
“I’m already looking forward to it,” Salim said. “Gonna add more to my pro and con list, ya know?”
“You should start one too,” he continued, and grinned.
“Maybe,” she said and the train schedules popped up on the screen and the crowd of people surged like a flood.
Salim waved from across the hall, and Supriya did the same, as the crowds pushed them ahead.
. . .
Salim told Ashok about Supriya, and Ashok told Salim to keep working on more jokes.
He’d go to work, and write new material between assignments. He’d eat lunch at his desk and jot down ideas on his notepad. But always, after a few minutes, he’d glance at his phone, and start thinking about the weekend.
When Arundhati came down to Metropark in Iselin, Salim picked her up in his car and drove around, showing her the park near the main mall in the area, and taking her to eat Pho in New Brunswick. They even took a drive through Rahway, and since she had grown up right outside the city, seeing run down car shops and small homes was new to her and even exciting. They talked about exploring Jersey City together, even parts of Camden County. But it was just two weeks later that she called him and explained that they could only be friends. It happened so fast and so sudden that all Salim could do was listen since he had no words worthy of a reply.
That week before meeting Supriya, Salim tried out his new jokes but none of them were yet landing the way he wanted them to. Ashok reminded him to focus and to get more sleep. Salim agreed, although every night he’d lie in bed, and watch the lights outside his window, hoping he’d pass out soon.
The heaviness took hold again when he got a text from Supriya on Thursday night, informing him that she would be unable to meet in New Brunswick.
Why? Did something happen?
Ok. Tbh I live with my older sister and her son.
They don’t want me driving so late at night.
Salim paused. He looked over at the window. He could hear the cars driving along the road.
I can pick you up.
He stopped, and waited. And waited. And held onto the phone, staring into it like a portal.
Should I call? he added.
She immediately responded: It’s ok. I’ll text you my address.
Salim exhaled and went back to bed.
But still, he couldn’t sleep. The heaviness grew.
. . .
On Friday night, Salim shaved whatever little hair he had, washed up, wore a new shirt and left a note on the fridge telling his roommate he could have the roasted turkey he was saving.
Salim took the turnpike but eventually ended up on the local roads. The large apartment complexes and shopping malls he was used to gave way to box-shaped homes and lots and lots of trees. Some roads he recognized, but others reminded him why left the central parts of New Jersey for the north. Yes, at least central Jersey had the diversity in places like Union and Jersey City but towns were separated by lonely roads stuck between miles and miles of open space. Salim would try and focus on the destination ahead, ignoring the trees looming and the random sheds off in the distance.
Fortunately, Freehold was much busier than other places nearby. Freehold did have a large shopping mall and an avenue lined with chain stores and other restaurants. However, the road that Supriya lived on was tucked inside a suburban enclave with houses that all looked the same, even down to the patches of dirt on the front porch.
The house that Supriya lived in was on a cul-de-sac. The house had two floors, and the lights on the first were on. Salim parked, and immediately, the front door swung open, and Supriya rushed down the steps, her black dress sticking to her form.
She didn’t even look at Salim when she hopped in, and simply said that they should go.
Salim asked if everything was alright, but Supriya took out her phone and grimaced at the screen instead.
She eventually noticed that they weren’t moving so she turned to Salim, and flashed a smile.
“Or we can just stay here and stare into the abyss,” she said.
Salim smiled. He put the car in gear and drove them back onto the main roads.
Supriya connected her IPOD to his radio and played songs from her playlist, including Thieves in the Night.
They talked over the music and made it to the Pho Vietnamese place in downtown New Brunswick.
At dinner, they continued their conversation, talking about what happened to Freddie Gray.
“Have you ever been frisked?” she asked.
“I have. Once during college and another time at a book store.”
“A book store? Really?”
“Yep. It’s an embarrassing place to have that happen. Something you don’t want to tell friends.”
She giggled, and they ordered dessert.
Every few minutes, however, there would be a buzzing sound.
Salim asked what that sound was after he kept hearing it.
Supriya showed him her phone.
“It’s my sister,” she said.
“Oh. Uh, is everything okay?”
“Seriously, you’ve got to stop asking me that,” she said and smiled.
Salim nodded, as Supriya placed her phone back into her purse and they continued their meal.
They talked more about Gray, and about how anti-black certain South Asians could be.
They were the last customers before closing time, and afterward, they strolled through the neighborhood, through the parts that had been under construction for a decade and revamped for the yuppies sweeping in. Salim told her about what was going on in Jersey City as well.
“A part of me is glad,” he said. “But also, I’m thinking, why can’t the people who lived in these neighborhoods also benefit? Why does it always have to be new groups of people who push them out?”
“It’s typical white bourgeoisie politics,” she explained, and opened her mouth to say more, but her phone buzzed again while inside her purse. She took a breath and continued on with her point.
Salim listened, but he still couldn’t help but hear the buzzing. They ordered bubble tea at a Chinese place closer to campus. They found a table by the window.
“I bet that guy picks his nose and eats it,” she said, looking at a man wearing a backward baseball cap and standing on the street corner with a cell phone to his ear. His beard was bright yellow.
“Ew, gross,” Salim said. “Takes one to know one,” he added.
She laughed, and snorted.
But as they took sips and smiled, the buzz filled the space between them.
Supriya, at one point, excused herself to go to the restroom.
Salim gazed out the window and when she returned, she asked if he wanted to explore some more.
Salim stood up, and they went back to the car.
He drove through East Brunswick first. Like a tour guide, he pointed out the spots he used to hang out at when younger, like the mall, and the IHOP.
But as the minutes passed, Supriya’s laughter eroded. Even when they returned to places more crowded, in Edison and Piscataway, she was silent. She would occasionally smile and look out the window whenever Sailm mentioned something. He even realized it was well after midnight and suggested Supriya text her sister to tell her where they were.
“She’s probably worried,” he said.
But Supriya shrugged while she gazed through the window.
They stopped at a red light at an intersection.
He tried not to dwell but the silence grew, so he added, “Why aren’t you at least telling her where we are?”
Supriya glared at the people outside.
“Okay. What is going on? What happened?”
“Stop pretending to care.”
“Just stop. We’re having a good time. Just focus on that, okay?”
“Um, I was, until you stopped talking. You haven’t said a word for an hour.”
“Well, what do you want? For me to tell you jokes? To be the manic pixie girl of your dreams?”
“Manic what? I’m just telling you to let your sister know.”
“I threw out my phone.”
Salim stared. The light turned green.
“What the fuck you do that for?”
Supriya crossed her arms, and kept glaring outside.
“Fuck it,” Salim said. “I’m taking you home.”
“Whatever,” Supriya muttered.
Salim ignored her and drove back to Freehold. He parked outside the house, but Supriya didn’t move.
“Fine, have fun,” he said and headed up on the steps and knocked on the door.
A tall woman wearing glasses answered.
She instantly narrowed her eyebrows at Salim, who suddenly became silent since his emotions were already beginning to ebb.
She didn’t say anything either, as she looked over at the car and saw Supriya still inside. The woman sighed, and her face softened.
“Subhash,” she called out and a young man emerged from the hallway. “Go and speak with your aunt outside,” she told him, and he nodded and headed past Salim in the doorway.
The woman instructed Salim to follow her inside.
“We need to talk,” she said, and Salim, who glanced and saw Supriya still inside his car, hung his head and stepped into the house.
The woman, of course, was Supriya’s older sister. She led Salim to their kitchen, where Salim was told to sit down at the table as she warmed up some tea on the stove.
“When Supriya told us she’s meeting someone, we thought she meant a friend,” Supriya’s sister said, as she stood by the stove, occasionally glancing at the steam pouring out from the spout.
“None of us were aware she was even on a dating website.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” Salim said. “She told me about you and your son but that was all.”
The woman smiled at him.
“You seem like a nice guy,” she said. “Usually, they don’t even come in. They just leave.”
“To be honest,” Salim said, “I’m very confused. One moment, we’re having a good time and in another, she throws away her phone. I’m sorry if I caused any issue, but I just don’t know what’s going on.”
Supriya’s sister switched off the stove, and sat down at the table as well. She clasped her hands and leaned in.
“What did Supriya tell you about herself?” she asked.
Salim told her.
She leaned back in her seat.
“Some parts were left out,” she said.
“Are you sure you want to know?”
“Alright. But you can head out that door and I wouldn’t blame you.”
“No. I’ll be thinking about this all night.”
She took a deep breath, but smiled again.
“Supriya had a mental breakdown right after law school,” she explained to Salim, whose well of words instantly dried up.
Supriya, according to her sister, left her firm months ago and was unable to keep up with rent, so she moved back in. Supriya kept trying to live the life she had, such as going out on dates, or driving for long distances by herself.
“She’s just not ready,” Supriya’s sister said.
She paused. They were both silent.
The son entered the room.
“Auntie is on the deck,” he said.
Supriya’s sister told him to go back to bed, which he did, after glaring at Salim.
After a while of just sitting and staring at the linoleum floor, Salim said, “She’s still a smart and funny person.”
“I know that. She’s always been our bright star. But she’s still too fragile.”
“I understand…but…” Salim stopped and kept his head lowered.
“Like I said, you can leave,” the sister told him. “After all, we both know this is not going to work out and when it does fall apart later, it’ll hurt much more for her.”
Salim stared at the checkered tiles.
“Just go home.”
He stared and stared.
He eventually took a deep breath and thanked Supriya’s sister for her time and headed outside. The door slowly shut behind him, as he walked down the stairs. He even got to his car and unlocked it, but turned back around. He spotted Supriya perched on a giant swing on the side of the house. She was simply looking straight ahead and slightly rocking back and forth.
Salim tried to look away, but he gripped his keys in his fist. He sighed, and headed back up around the house to where Supriya was.
He sat down on a chair slightly facing her.
“I had a talk with your sister,” he said.
Supriya didn’t react.
Salim looked at her face. The same face that was smiling and laughing with him just a few hours ago. The same face that made his days go faster, and made the sun seem so much brighter.
“I guess I have more to add to my con list,” he said.
This time, a tiny grin started to form on Supriya’s face. She still didn’t look at him and managed to hold it back from becoming a smile, but Salim beamed and continued.
“How bad do you think Lena Dunham’s vagina smells?” he said.
Supriya covered her mouth and shook her head.
Salim pointed. “I saw it! I saw it!” he exclaimed, and Supriya pushed him away and laughed.