The Better Person

The first look at Quarantine, Rahul Mehta’s debut collection of short stories about young gay Indian men adrift in the world

01 April, 2010

FRANK IS ON THE PHONE with my brother’s wife, Ellison. They talk often, which surprises me because they are nothing alike. Ellison has decorated her and my brother’s house with gold-framed posters of Impressionist paintings and plastic flowers in white urns from their wedding. Frank, on the other hand, pisses out the bedroom window when he’s drunk. I don’t worry about him hitting people on the street, because the window faces an alley. But on summer nights, when everyone’s windows are open, I wonder if some of it sprinkles into the apartments below. I once asked him this, but he shrugged. In New York, he said, worse things come through your window than piss.

That makes Frank sound like a loser, but he’s not. He loves me, though he wouldn’t admit it. Not in those words. I wouldn’t either. I don’t think I’ve ever said ‘I love you’, except maybe in an ironic baby voice.

But I know Frank loves me. That’s why he talks to Ellison on the phone. They compare notes about me and my brother.

Ellison must have asked about me now because Frank says, ‘Deepu’s been sulking all afternoon.’ He smiles at me, and I scowl back. ‘He always mopes on Sundays.’

I don’t need to hear my boyfriend talking about me like I’m not there, so I take my coffee mug and pack of cigarettes and go into the living room so that I can do what I do best: chain-smoke and play scratch-n’-sniff with my body parts, while obsessing about how much I don’t want to go to work tomorrow.

Though Frank and I have been going out for three years, we had no intention of moving in together. It just happened. I lost the lease on my sublet and planned to stay with him a couple weeks until I could find a new place. Then, without warning, his roommates Jack and Carly moved out. That was three months ago. So we were stuck.

Jack and Carly took everything: the stereo, the TV, and all the furniture. Frank doesn’t own anything. My sublet was furnished, so I don’t own much either. We look like squatters, sleeping on a filthy futon, both of us sharing one nubby grey towel. Neither of us has lifted a finger in three months. What few dishes we have—mismatched and chipped—are perpetually dirty in the sink, and we only wash them one at a time when we need them. There are spaghetti sauce stains on the linoleum floor. Dirty clothes everywhere. Soap scum in the sink and tub. I have to close my eyes when I lift the toilet bowl lid it’s so disgusting.

We haven’t figured out what we are going to do in the long term. Maybe we’ll stay in the apartment. Be a real couple. Buy a bed, a couch, some plants. Invite people over for dinner. Or maybe we’ll decide we’re not ready for all that, and I’ll find a studio for myself in Brooklyn Heights with a loft-style bed so close to the ceiling that I can’t sit up and read, and a bathroom so small that I’ll have to squeeze in sideways. Or maybe we’ll leave this city, one at a time or together—new apartments, new lives. Who knows? Since Jack and Carly moved out, we haven’t even talked about it. The first of the month I give Frank a rent check and without a word he stuffs it, with his, into a white envelope and mails them. Each time I think to myself: Next month...we’ll talk about it next month.

On my fourth or fifth cigarette, Frank finishes his phone call and comes out of the bedroom.

‘There’s trouble in paradise,’ he says.

‘What do you mean?’ I ask.

‘Ellison and Rajiv may be splitting up,’ he says. ‘She suspects he’s about to leave her.’

‘Rajiv didn’t say anything to me,’ I say.

‘I’m sure he’ll call you.’

Frank says he’s going to take a nap. I finish my cigarette, then join him.

WHEN RAJIV AND ELLISON married two years ago it was a big deal in my small town in West Virginia. It was the first Indian wedding, and my parents spared no expense. The ceremony was so lavish the Sunday paper ran a full-color frontpage photo of Rajiv and Ellison flower-laden on the red mandap making seven circles around the wedding pyre. The caption read: Tradition has it whoever returns to his or her seat first will be the one who controls the relationship. The caption didn’t identify who won: Ellison. Later, Rajiv told me he let her.

Rajiv rode a white horse to the ceremony, and I walked next to him, carrying an enormous square-shaped parasol over his head, red with gold bells jingling from each corner. That’s not what scared the horse. My cousins did, though not on purpose. When they lit the firecrackers, the horse whinnied, reared up, and galloped away into the woods. Rajiv was barely hanging on, and the trainer had to chase them and coax the horse back to the wedding hall.

When they returned, Rajiv’s turban, stitched with real gold zari, was missing. We sent a search party into the woods, but no one could find it.

When Rajiv and Ellison got engaged, they had only known each other a few months. I thought it was too soon. I remember when the horse ran off with my brother, I thought, first, Please don’t let him get hurt, and then, Here’s your chance, Rajiv: Run!

I was bored during the ceremony—the Hindu priest droning in a dead language I couldn’t understand. The twins kept stealing Rajiv’s shoes, and each time he sent me after them with twenty dollars for payment. By the third time I was so irritated that I didn’t even pay Dilip and Meena. I snatched the shoes and pocketed the money.

Actually, there were two weddings. The day after the Hindu ceremony there was a Jewish one at a Unitarian church. It almost didn’t happen because the string quartet didn’t show up and Ellison sat in her dressing room crying. She said, ‘There has to be music when I enter.’

I was the one who found the girl, a distant uncle’s daughter, who could play Für Elise from memory on the piano, stopping and stumbling when she forgot a chord. Ellison was born Protestant but had converted in college, around the same time she became a vegetarian. At the Jewish ceremony there were exactly three Jewish people present: Ellison, the rabbi, and the ex-roommate Ellison claimed was responsible for her conversion. I didn’t understand that ceremony either. I focused on my father standing next to my brother and how strange he looked in his white satin yarmulke and morning suit, so unlike any father I knew, and my father’s father who had refused to wear the yarmulke, thinking it was a Muslim skullcap and unwilling to be convinced otherwise. It was hot that day. In all the wedding photos my brother’s hair is wet and flat against his forehead, his clothes are in disarray, there are dark stains under his arms and around his collar, and Ellison’s face is streaked with sweat.

WHEN WE WAKE UP from our nap, Frank wants to fuck. I don’t. In my head I count how long it’s been since we last had sex, and when I calculate it’s only been three days I decide I can safely push him away without his complaining. I’m right. He lies on his side, his head propped on his arm, and looks at me, his hand gentle on my back.

Last week during one of our marathon telephone conversations my mother asked me which one of us, me or Frank, was the woman in our relationship.

‘Neither of us, obviously,’ I said. ‘That’s what makes us gay.’

‘Very funny,’ my mom said. ‘Someone on Oprah said that often gay couples have one person who plays the man and the other who plays the woman. So I was wondering which you were.’

‘Frank and I don’t believe in hetero-normative gender roles,’ I told her. I knew my mom didn’t know what ‘hetero-normative’ meant, so I figured she’d drop it.

‘So who does the cooking and cleaning?’ she asked.

I could have truthfully answered ‘neither of us.’ Instead I asked, ‘Is that what you think womanhood is, Mom, cooking and cleaning?’

My mom got quiet. I felt bad. I imagined her cursing herself for coming to America and raising such a disrespectful son, for letting him attend a liberal arts college and take women’s studies classes and think he knows more about womanhood than his mother. I started to apologize, but she cut me off. ‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘I know you didn’t mean anything. I didn’t either. I’m sorry for asking you those questions.’ Like every phone conversation I’ve had with my mother, she ended with, ‘I love you.’

When I was ten and my mother went back to work full-time outside the house, she stopped watching prime time television with my dad and my brother and me. If I listened, beneath the laugh track, I could hear kitchen cabinets shutting, pots clanging, or the vacuum cleaner humming in the other room. Sometime late at night while I tried to sleep, my bedroom directly above the kitchen, I could hear the sound of water and gold bangles clicking against ceramic plates. Early the next morning, she’d be up long before anyone else, already in the kitchen, another long day begun. Perhaps this is what my mother really meant when she asked, ‘Who is the woman?’ She meant: Who is the better person?

Instead of cooking and cleaning, if my mom had asked me which one of us gets fucked up the ass, me or Frank, I would have said I do and that still doesn’t make me the woman it only makes me the bottom which isn’t the same thing at all. Though I had an ex-boyfriend who couldn’t understand that. One morning after sex he had held me in his arms and begged me to move in with him. Rubbing my stomach, he said, ‘Let’s settle down; let’s make babies.’

After Frank and I have been lying awake in bed for several minutes, he asks me what I want to do tonight. Back when Jack and Carly were here and we had a TV, we would all watch the The X-Files on Sunday nights. Jack and Carly would sit together in the over-sized chair, bundled up with pillows and blankets. They were always touching each other, even when they were in the kitchen or walking down the street, and it made Frank and me sick. To prove a point, we sat extra far from each other on the couch whenever they were around.

Now with no TV, Frank offers Chinese take-out and a movie, neither of which appeals to me.

‘What about going out?’ I ask.

‘Like, out-out?’ Frank asks.

‘Let’s go to a club,’ I say. ‘We haven’t been dancing in forever. We only ever go to bars. I wouldn’t mind sweating out some toxins.’

‘And ingesting some new ones?’ Frank adds.

I think about it. Sunday night is a great going-out night, not too crowded, because all the bridge-and-tunnel kids have gone home and all the yuppies have to wake up early. I have to wake up early too, but all I have to do at my job is answer phones and type and file, so it doesn’t matter if I haven’t slept. I remember a club on Avenue B that’s trashy and fun. We used to love it there. We decide to go.

WHEN MY BROTHER GOT MARRIED, I had asked my mom if it was okay for me to bring Frank to the wedding. ‘You’re kidding, right?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’m kidding,’ though I wasn’t.

Two days after the wedding when I returned to New York, I called my brother and cried. I hadn’t meant to cry. I had meant to say I had a nice time, it was good to see him, I’m happy for you. Instead, when I heard his voice I bawled. I wasn’t sure why.

‘It’s okay,’ Rajiv said. ‘We’re all having post-wedding depression.’ He paused, as if to consider something. ‘Last night Ellison shoved a fistful of pills in her mouth. She did it right in front of me. I had to make her spit them out.’

I pictured this, Ellison walking into the room, crying, her mouth stuffed with pills, one or two slipping out, glistening with spit. Then Rajiv panicking, prying her mouth open, reaching his fingers in, bending her over the toilet forcing her to spit them out. What did they say to each other afterwards? How did they sleep?

‘I’m so sorry,’ I told Rajiv. ‘Is she okay?’

‘She has episodes. She doesn’t know what she’s doing,’ he said. ‘See, you’re not the only one. We’re all fuck-ups. Don’t tell anyone.’

That night, as I lay down to sleep, I thought of Rajiv and Ellison in their house. During the wedding there were women in diamonds and sarees singing in the front room, applying intricate mehendi designs to each other’s hands, and men in gold silk breaking coconuts on the porch. But not anymore. They were gone and the house was empty. Rajiv and Ellison were alone, listening to each other breathe.

AROUND MIDNIGHT, Frank and I take the subway to the club. I want to ask him about the apartment, what we’re going to do about our future and living together. That’s what I mean to say when I open my mouth. That’s what I’m thinking in my head. But instead it comes out, ‘Do you think we should have affairs?’

‘What?’ Frank says.

‘Do you think we should have sex with other people?’ I ask.

‘I know what “affairs” means,’ Frank says.

I don’t think he’s surprised by my question. We’ve discussed it before, whether or not we should have an ‘open’ relationship. Some of our friends think monogamy is unnatural, bourgeois. Frank and I sometimes agree with them in theory, but in the three years we’ve been dating, neither of us has strayed.

‘You mean tonight?’ Frank asks. ‘You want to have affairs tonight?’

‘Yeah, maybe.’

‘At the club?’ he asks.

‘If I remember correctly, anything goes in the backroom,’ I say. ‘Of course, it wouldn’t be serious. Just anonymous. Meaningless.’

Frank and I have our pasts, whoring around New York. Literally. When Frank first moved here, he sometimes did it for money, getting paid as much as four hundred dollars depending on the act. I, on the other hand, never knowingly had sex for money. Once I went with a German guy back to his hotel and after sex, to my surprise, he gave me forty bucks. I was so offended—not because he thought I was a prostitute, but because he thought I was only worth forty bucks—that when he went to the bathroom I stole the other hundred from his wallet and left.

‘I’m not sure about this,’ Frank says.

‘Think about it,’ I say. And I guess he thinks, because we don’t talk for the rest of the ride. We read and re-read the subway ads in silence.

ONE COLD GREY WEEKEND last fall, Ellison and Rajiv paid for me and Frank to fly down and visit them. Frank and my brother are exactly the same age, and Frank was amazed how different Rajiv’s life was from his own: four-bedroom house, furniture from Ethan Allen, not the Salvation Army, no leaky faucets, no toilet handles you had to jiggle, no warped doors that didn’t close. The guest bedroom we slept in was pink and everything matched exactly—the comforter, the sheets, the pillow-covers, even the lampshade and curtains—like they were all bought at the same store.

The four of us took a road trip to see a bridge. Though it was overcast and had rained, the drive was beautiful. The leaves had begun to turn, and the raindrops magnified the colors. The slick bright leaves, sticking to the cars and roads, looked like patches on denim.

The bridge was famous for being the longest or highest or oldest or something. At the designated photo spot, we asked a tourist to take a photo of the four of us. Later, when I examined the picture, I thought we all looked horrible, facing this way and that, not even smiling. I was convinced that we had smiled the second after the photo had been snapped.

The tourist should have waited. What a shame. The bridge in the background was perfect, its smooth arch stark against the chaotic rocks of the gorge, the river below the color of gunmetal.

The last night we were there, Ellison offered to cook dinner. Rajiv had made vegetarian lasagna the night before. She said she didn’t need any help, she wanted us to relax and spend time together. ‘It’s not often enough two brothers get to see each other,’ she said.

Rajiv, Frank, and I played Jenga in the living room, taking turns trying to move blocks from the center of the tower to the top without knocking it over. We played three rounds, and I lost all three. During the fourth round, I took a break and went into the kitchen for juice and asked Ellison what she was cooking.

‘Thai stir fry,’ she said. ‘Vegetables, noodles, and peanut sauce. I hope you like it.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m allergic to peanuts.’

‘Rajiv didn’t tell me you were allergic to peanuts,’ she said.

‘It’s no big deal,’ I said. ‘Since you haven’t added the sauce yet, I’ll have mine without.’

‘It won’t taste right,’ she said. She went into the living room. ‘Rajiv, you didn’t tell me your brother’s allergic to peanuts.’

‘I didn’t know you were making peanuts,’ Rajiv said, not looking up from the Jenga because he was in the middle of his turn.

‘Of course you knew,’ she said. ‘I only ever buy these vegetables when I’m making this dish. You went shopping with me. You knew I was making it.’

‘One sec,’ Rajiv said, still trying to place the block on top of the tower. ‘Let me finish my turn.’

‘Fuck your turn,’ Ellison said, swinging her arm and knocking over the tower. The blocks crashed against the wooden table. Some fell on Rajiv. Ellison returned to the kitchen.

I looked at my brother. He collected the blocks and started re-stacking them.

I went into the kitchen, and Ellison was dumping not just the stir fry but the whole wok into the garbage. She was crying. ‘Your brother knew I was making this tonight,’ she said. ‘He deliberately wanted to make me look like an idiot in front of you and Frank.’ She went into the bedroom and shut the door.

In the living room Rajiv and Frank had started another round of Jenga. Frank looked at me, his eyebrows raised. Rajiv was concentrating. He said, without looking away, ‘Let’s order Chinese.’

Later that night, my brother came out on the porch while I was smoking. Ellison hadn’t emerged from the bedroom all evening. Frank was inside watching cable.

‘Can I have a drag?’ my brother asked.

I handed him my cigarette, and he took a long slow drag that must have given him a head rush.

‘You should have said something to Ellison,’ I said.

Rajiv returned my cigarette. ‘When Ellison and I first met,’ he said, ‘I was a mess. Really a mess. I didn’t tell you and Mom and Dad because I didn’t want you to worry. I was having anxiety attacks. They felt like heart attacks. The first time I had one I thought I was dying. I even called an ambulance. But they kept happening. I’d cry all the time. I couldn’t sleep in my apartment alone. Ellison was so sweet to me. She had problems, too. We took care of each other. When I look back on that time, I don’t know how I would have made it without her.’

‘Do you still have those attacks?’ I asked.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I got better. But Ellison’s getting worse. We have always been there for each other. So you can see why I can’t “say something,” why I can’t stand up to her or talk back.’

‘I didn’t mean you should have stood up for yourself,’ I said. ‘I meant you should have comforted her.’

Rajiv was silent for a moment. ‘You’re one to be giving relationship advice,’ he said. Then he asked if he could have a whole cigarette to himself. He smoked it and then left and by the time I went inside he was asleep.

The next morning when I woke up Rajiv had made pancakes. Ellison was smiling. They drove us to the airport, and we laughed in the car at a funny old song on the radio, and they hugged and kissed us good-bye. As I walked toward the gate, I looked back and saw them, arms around each other, waving.

AT THE CLUB on Avenue B there is a long line outside. The man standing in front of us is wearing fake fur and sunglasses and sputtering into a silver cell phone. His backpack is shaped like an alligator and the green sequins glitter in the light of the street lamp.

Inside, I realize I have forgotten how to dance. I have a couple drinks and try to re-learn by watching people around me. I imitate the way one man’s arm windshield wipes the air. I imitate a bald man who throws his head around as though he has a great quantity of hair and he is making patterns, like a gymnast with a ribbon.

Frank goes to get more drinks. A boy rubs up against me and I rub back. He is cute. I lean against him, following the way his body moves. He is very young, six or seven years younger than I am, too young to be here. His thin face and wrists and long eyelashes remind me of myself when I was his age.

It’s happening. I can tell it’s happening and there is nothing I can do to stop it. I tug on his shirt and pull him off the dance floor. I take him toward the backroom. Frank is there with our drinks. He is with a man, and the man’s hand is on his back. They are entering the backroom, too. Frank sees me. He is still looking at me, when I say to the boy, ‘Let’s go somewhere else,’ and we turn and leave.

Outside, we walk past a couple of buildings. I push the boy into an alley. I don’t look at him anymore. I don’t kiss him or stroke his cock through his jeans. I turn the boy around, push him against the brick wall, yank down his jeans. I roll on a condom I got from the safe sex people in the club, and I start fucking him. I don’t prep his asshole with my fingers. I know it hurts. I know from experience and from the tightness of his ass and the way he doesn’t grunt or moan but cries. I want this to be over. I want to be home with

Frank, asleep.

Afterwards, I ask the boy if he’s okay and he says yes. I’m sorry, I say, I’m really, really sorry. I tell him I’m going inside and he says okay. I find Frank sitting on a couch alone. The man who was with him in the backroom is gone. I ask Frank if he’s ready and he says yes and we get a cab.

Back at the apartment, the first thing I need is a shower. I hope I’ll feel better after. When I get out, Frank is in his boxer shorts standing with the fridge door open, staring blankly into the empty fridge. In the dark kitchen the light of the fridge makes Frank’s pale skin moon-like. He shuts the fridge door and in the greyness of early morning says to me, ‘We didn’t do anything—me and that guy in the club—nothing happened.’

‘Really?’ I say. ‘I’m surprised. How come?’

He shrugs.

I briefly consider whether I have to tell Frank about the boy in the alley.

After a minute, I say, ‘Something happened with me.’

‘I know,’ Frank says. I think he is going to say something else but he doesn’t and he goes into the bedroom.

I can’t stay here. It’s only a couple of hours till work. I decide to go to a diner, get some breakfast, have coffee. I pick the least dirty clothes up off the floor, put them on, and leave.

For the first Monday in all the Mondays of my adult life I am happy to be at work. I am thankful for the fluorescent lights, the empty conversations, dress shirts, and slacks. Even the filing. I am thankful I can see the order in things.

BY SIX O’CLOCK, most of my co-workers have left. I want to leave too, but I can’t face Frank. He’s bartending tonight, but he won’t leave home until later. I decide to call my brother.

‘How you doing?’ I say, happy Rajiv has answered and not Ellison.

‘I’ve been better,’ he says.

‘Ellison told Frank,’ I say. ‘You know…that you guys are having problems. And Frank told me.’

There is a long pause. He’s not ready to talk, I think. I should have waited for him to call me. I cough so that he knows I’m still there.

‘Am I a terrible person?’ Rajiv asks.

‘No,’ I say. ‘Of course you’re not.’

And then I ask him the question I have been waiting to ask since Frank and I visited last fall: ‘Why did you get married?’

If I had asked him two years ago, before they married, why they were doing it, my brother would have said,

‘We’re in love; we want to spend the rest of our lives together,’ and to everyone, maybe even me, that would have been enough.

Now he answers, ‘We needed each other.’

Then he says, ‘I called Dad and Mom on their anniversary this year. I talked to Dad while Mom was in the shower. Do you know what I asked him?  I asked him if he was always in love with Mom, if he was still in love with her. He hesitated and then he answered, “Of course, my family is my whole world.” He didn’t say he was in love with Mom.’

‘That’s what he meant,’ I say, but I know Rajiv isn’t satisfied. ‘Mom and Dad had an arranged marriage,’ I remind him. ‘They hadn’t even met each other when they got married. The phrase “in love” doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to you.’

‘Dad hesitated,’ Rajiv says. ‘When I asked him the question, he hesitated before he answered. That means something.’

‘It doesn’t mean anything,’ I say. ‘You didn’t see his face. You only talked to him on the phone.’

‘In thirty years,’ Rajiv says, ‘when someone asks me if I’m still in love with my wife I want to be able to answer right away, “Hell, yes!” In fact, I want it to be so clear that no one would even think to ask me.’

‘No one would ask you because it’s a rude thing to ask,’ I say. ‘What kind of son asks his father that?’

Rajiv says, ‘You don’t understand. I don’t want to be Dad.’

I don’t want to talk anymore. ‘I have to go,’ I say, and hang up.

WHEN I FINALLY LEAVE work and go home, Frank is gone. The apartment smells like Pine-Sol. The floor is mopped, the toilet scrubbed, the clothes washed and folded. The kitchen sink is empty, the dishes stacked in the cupboard. The apartment feels strange and new.

Taped to the fridge is a note. ‘You’ll probably be asleep by the time I get home,’ it says. ‘We should talk soon.’

Walking around the clean, empty apartment, I have images of a red chair here, a floor lamp there, a poster on that wall. This apartment could be someone’s home. Maybe someone else’s, a couple more like Jack and Carly, holding hands in the kitchen, clinging to one another on the couch. Or maybe a couple like us.

I’m exhausted. It’s been almost two days since I’ve slept. In the bedroom, I remove my clothes, careful to fold them and stack them neatly in the corner. I pull back the comforter on the futon. There are fresh sheets, I realize, as I climb in.