The Last Foreigner
By Karen Regen-Tuero
Bashkar had been lost for two hours by the time he found Cindy's apartment on Third Avenue. He'd discovered a park, which he thought might be Central Park, but then he hadn't seen any of the carriages he'd heard word of and the grounds were small and surrounded by a tall black fence.
"No one offered to help me," he told Cindy after she came down to meet him at the stoop. "I wish everyone was as kind as you."
She'd changed her hairstyle from the week before when he first met her on the bus back to Princeton. Her red curls, so unlike his own straight black locks, were now swept up off her shoulders and tied with a string in a loose bun probably meant to relieve her of the heat. She wore a gossamer midriff printed with pink flowers, a fabric he recognized as spun in his home state, Bengal. Looping her toes were the same Bengali sandals he owned. He wished he'd worn his own pair instead of the stuffy Nikes that one of his Americanized sisters had given him.
God, was he tense, Cindy thought, as they started walking around Gramercy Park. Even more so than he'd been on the bus when she'd first sat down and struck up a conversation on her way to her mother's house. She watched him push up his eyeglasses again now after they inched down his shiny nose, she watched him collide with a fat man walking a lap dog. Patience, she thought. Hadnt Mohammed and Choi and Nigel and the other foreign grad students shed picked up on the bus each been pretty shaky at first?
And she was right. By the third time around the park, Bashkars shoulders seemed to loosen up. He cricked his neck - the way her chiropractor did whenever she threw her neck out sewing all night. Then he seemed fine. He began returning her cynicisms about New York and this park that you couldn't get into unless you lived right off it and had a golden key. He was so with her, she thought; they couldn't have met just last week.
Bashkar strolled now with his new friend down Third Avenue where a street fair was being conducted right outside her doorstep. What good fortune, he thought. Feeling animated, he looked about him at the vendors, stopping at a table to take in the familiar scent of the joss sticks sold by black Muslims in white robes and skullcaps.
"It's an annual thing. Second Sunday in August." Cindy made herself smile, afraid to recall how many times shed seen the fair. She tried to shield herself from her thoughts by concentrating on Bashkar and not on the monotony that seemed to beat down like the ninety-eight-degree heat. She watched him bend forward to take in a scent, adjusting the strap of his cloth book bag on his shoulder, the muscles in his back contracting under his shirt. She reached out her fingers to touch the muscle, then withdrew. Dont blow it, she thought. There's still time. Maybe later he'd do it to her standing while she looked out the window, like the Pakistani. Or eat a chilled cucumber from inside her like the Greek.
They passed pale middle-aged teenagers with long scraggly hair selling used Elvis records. Cindy tried not to notice that even the mutts on short chains by the ASPCA trailer seemed to be the dogs from every other year, she tried to look light and joyful. The avenue was littered with squashed plastic beer cups, ice cream sticks and wax paper smeared with sun-baked pizza sauce. "I swear, Rashkar," Cindy said, shielding her eyes from the glare with her hand. "Everyone's selling the same chipped costume jewelry and cookie jars, the same dollar-stockings and liquid diet schemes they do every year!"
"That's Bashkar, with a B, not Rashkar."
He sounded upset. She bit down hard on her lip. Harder, drawing the taste of blood.
She was blowing it. Her face flushed.
"Its okay," Bashkar said.
They continued walking. In the sun, he noticed a makeup line along her pronounced jawbone, the skin of her neck a shade paler and dry looking. She was older than hed guessed on the bus. Old enough to have children.
"What do you normally do on Sundays?" he asked.
Bashkar glanced at her, waiting for more.
"Shirts, pants, skirts. I do it for work and for fun." "Really?" he said with interest. "My mother sews."
"I use a lot of Indian fabrics," she added, tugging at her shirt.
"I know that fabric. It's quite nice. I understand it's difficult to work with."
Cindy smiled. It was going to be a wonderful afternoon.
To Bashkar's right, he saw a buxom woman in a pink iridescent body suit demonstrating the use of an exercise bike and smiling ear-to-ear. The leotard was cut low and Bashkar could not help notice that her breasts jiggled. America, he thought, and averted his eyes.
Cindy swallowed a burst of laughter seeing the look on his face. She peered through the crowd, spotting an Indian food stall among the booths on the opposite side. "Oh, look!" she said, then clapped her hand over her mouth.
"What is it?"
"Never mind." An entourage of white-faced Hare Krishnas had appeared bearing drums. What would Bashkar think? She felt embarrassed to be part of a culture that produced such lost souls. You didn't see droves of Indians donning polo shirts and praying at white-steepled churches.
"Isnt that Indian food?" Bashkar said, craning his neck in the direction of the stall. He began walking over. She had no choice but to follow. He peered up at the menu posted in big letters.
The chants and drum-beating began. "I could go for some samosa," Cindy shouted over the music. "How about you?" A sickly Krishna hopped up to the makeshift counter to take their order.
"No thank you," Bashkar said. In his home state, he explained, seafood was eaten, always fresh.
The chanting only grew louder. Cindy led Bashkar away. When she took his arm, his jaw stiffened. She let go.
"If its seafood you want, let me show you the East Villagethe Indian part," she continued. "You can see barefoot sitarists in the windows. This one place I know, I'm sure they have fish."
As they headed downtown, she recalled the comparative lit student from Taipei she'd taken to Chinatown; the microbiologist from San Paulo to 46th Street. Where were Choi and Paulo now? she thought, squinting to see in the light.
The sun let up slightly, yet the temperature still hovered in the low nineties. Bashkar was taken down the avenue past a burnt down market, a sign for an all-male peep show and a windowless building called Carmen's Courtesy House then under a banner over Thirteenth Street which read "Crack Dealers Out!" reminding him of articles he'd read about random shootings and prostitution in New York. He felt himself sweating on his high forehead and under the arms of his navy sports shirt and he knew it was not just the heat, which he was used to from his own country, but the experience of being in Manhattan; this was only his third visit. He usually appeared intelligent, his eyes eager, but today he imagined he looked slightly dazed, like a displaced person a middle-class refugee. He was all the more conscious of this since Cindy walked with long strides and seemed so self-composed. He feared that his eyeglasses, which kept fogging up in the humidity, only made his appearance worse.
As they walked on, he felt overcome by the ruthless traffic and the inhumanity of the population toward the beggars. Even his companion was ignoring the needy; he had thought she'd be more sympatheticafter all, she had extended herself to him. "In India," he said now, "we have many more beggars, but people with money give."
Cindy hunted around in her straw shoulder bag for some change. "God, look at me," she said, admonishing herself. "I don't know why I stopped giving. It just happened one day" her heart began to tick wildly "I turned numb." She steadied herself enough to drop a few dimes in the next panhandler's coffee cup held out at the corner of a boutique on Saint Mark's. "Poor guy. No one cares." She shook her head with disgust.
"The people in this city I keep telling myself I'm going to leave."
"Where would you like to go?" Bashkar asked.
She thought of lakes, water scooped up, a cock in her hands. "Somewhere beautiful." Somewhere where the garbage doesn`t stink in the summer, she added to herself.
Bashkar responded, impassionated: "I often ask myself why I torture myself studying so hard. So, now soon I'll have my Masters in computer science, but the opportunities are all in the city and I'll have to live in Calcutta and the city will kill me." He felt relief as he opened up to her. "When I was small I used to take walks through forests or visit riversI so rarely have time nowand I used to return so inspired! I composed songs and poems"
"Poems?" A comforting feeling came to Cindy. She hadn't written one since the fifth grade. Maybe she and Bashkar could write some together. This iced-over sensation inside her would go away.
"That's right. Technically they were nothing, but I drew so much pleasure from their writing and I enjoyed sharing them with my friends. I think I'd be much happier having a lower-level bureaucrat's job if I could live by nature. My parents live in a small village. I miss my mother. I'll return there, when I'm finished at Princeton."
Cindy looked away from him at the passing cars, her eyelids shutting. Black out. Like shed done a couple of weeks ago when even her sewing hadn't made her feel up. One too many of her roommates sleeping pills. "You're not going to stay here?" Cindy said now, knowing the answer. Why was she surprised? she asked herself. Not even Mohammed was still around. And he had sworn he'd stay.
"No," Bashkar replied. "If all goes well, I'll go back in May."
"May." There was a short silence between them. Then a bus chugged by, blasting fumes. Cindy waved her arms theatrically and coughed, hoping to cover up the mood shed fallen into. If he was not staying in this country, who cared, she thought. Maybe shed move there. She wondered what his cock was shaped like; her last datea Germanhad one shaped like a hockey stick.
"These fumes are minor," Bashkar said. "You should see Calcutta."
"Actually, I'd like to. Maybe even move there. I'd like that kind of change."
"Move there?" Bashkar said, as they stopped at a corner. He looked into her eyes. She was blinking, her plucked eyebrows raised. She began nervously freshening her lipstick. "Why on earth would you want to do that?"
Cindy wiped off some of the frosted pink lipstick that had gone over her top lip, closed the compact and crossed the street as soon as the light turned. "I like Indian culture."
Bashkar nodded, following along. "Well, I do encourage you to visit. Smell the fumes, see the poverty and leave quickly. Then visit the countryside, my village. You should see the beauty there, the heart of Bengali culture. But do go when I'm home so I can show you all there is to see." He kept his eyes on Cindy to punctuate the sentiment. She began to walk with a spring in her step.
They moved toward the pungent smell of curry. How Bashkar had missed it during this year abroad! "My sisters and brothers have all been corrupted. They eat hamburgers, drive BMWs and bicker with their spouses over who pays what. That's what America has done for them. I'm the youngest. My mother's favorite. She nursed me when I had typhoid. She's ill now herself. I spoke to her on the phone last week, but the connection was poor." He swallowed to ease the tension in his throat. "I could barely hear her."
"Wish I had that problem with mine," Cindy said. "I can always hear her, loud and clear." Marriage...children... Im not getting much younger. Neither are you. I know, Mom. I know. Cindy took Bashkars arm by the elbow. This time his only reaction was widening eyes followed by a relieved smile since she was steering him away from a man vomiting into an open-weave garbage can. The man began ranting and pulling on the chain of the can. "Last week, in the gutter here, they found a box of eyes. They say some resident surgeon had the box in the trunk of his car. The crooks who broke in sure got some surprise!"
"How long have you lived here?" Bashkar asked, stopping short.
Cindy stared, grasping Bashkars arm harder. Beside him, the storefront was plastered with dirty pictures, blondes fondling their enormous breasts, their lips pursed with pleasure. Cindy wanted to take Bashkars hand and slip it down her shirt.
"Have you lived here long?" Bashkar repeated, trying to catch her glance.
"Forever," Cindy replied, turning to face him. She looked down at his hand, the fingers long and delicate.
"What is it?" Bashkar said. "Whats wrong?"
"Nothing," she said, flicking her head like a dog might do to get water off. She let go of his arm and started walking again. Bashkar kept pace with her.
"See, I went away to college," she told him. "I wanted to stay away, but then I got a job here. Fashion. You can't really do it anywhere else. A few years later, here I am." She looked at Bashkar and laughed lightly, trying to cover her discomfort. "You're younger than me. I know."
She rushed on and into the second restaurant she came to, gesturing for Bashkar to follow. A pudgy man seated them; she'd expected the tall, balding man from last time.
"Damn," Cindy said, looking about her. "This isn't the place."
The interior was dim; as Bashkar hooked his book bag over the back of the chair, he felt as though he'd suddenly entered twilight. Around him were empty tables, paste-on ceiling and wall mirrors and splotched maroon carpeting. There was no sitarist, just a bad recording of a third-rate Bengali singer.
"There are so many Indian places. I thought this was it." She stood up, throwing the napkin down onto the table. "I'm sorry."
There seemed something desperate in her voice. "I'm sure it will be fine," Bashkar returned, touching her hand and urging her back into the seat. He spread his own napkin in his lap and picked up a menu; the plastic cover stuck to his fingertips.
The waiter arrived. "Guess I'll have a beer," Cindy said, closing the menu. "Something dark, with a good head. A mango lassi, too, and samosa."
"Your freshest fish," Bashkar said. "And just water." "Oh, that's right. You're Hindu, aren't you," Cindy said as the waiter took their menus and left.
She smiled and fixed the string around her bun, a strip of black velvet leftover from a wrap-around V-necked shirt shed made. Bashkar seemed even more beautiful to her now, she thought; the skin on his cheeks seemed softer, his eyeglasses more fragile. She pictured him as a child chased around the schoolyard, made to sulk when his pants were pulled down. When the waiter returned with the stainless steel tray of sauces and relishes and the samosa, Cindy leaned toward Bashkar, steadying herself with a deep breath, thinking, Cin, youre still young. Pretty too. "I love these," she said and lifted one of the balls with her fingers. She smeared it with green sauce and bit in hungrily. She swigged her beer and put a second ball on her plate.
"There's something I wanted to ask you," Bashkar said, turning from the sight of her hand on the table cloth; it was slender with thick veins, the fingers decorated with delicate rings of varying shapes. He picked up the bulky water glass and drank thirstily. "I was surprised about you. I'd tried to meet New Yorkers before, but everyone was very aloof. No one has ever given me their phone number like you. You weren't afraid?"
Cindy just grinned. "Nope. I have no trouble with strangers." She took a sip of her beer. "Yum. Have some." She slid the glass toward him after wiping the lipstick off.
"No, thank you."
"Oh, thats right," Cindy said, clapping her hand over her mouth when she realized her blunder. "Im sorry."
Cindy drank some more, then filled in the silence. "No sir-ee. Fear's not one of my problems. In fact, once when I was in Panama this native with a machete invited me over his place for iguana stew. His thatched hut, I meanit was jungle. His family was all therea bunch of sweethearts short and dark and all with orange streaks down their noses. Everything was great, except for the mosquitoes. The iguana, too it tasted like chicken. Nothing exceptional happened." Then she couldn't resist. "Oh, the guy did make a pass at me. But that's nothing new." She smiled naughtily at Bashkar, rubbed the stone of her pinky ring between her lips, then lifted the lassi from the waiter's hand.
Bashkar rearranged his hands in his lap. She was not at all the kind of woman whose company he'd seek at home in India, he realized now. Life abroad certainly forced people into odd pairings.
"You're not eating," Cindy chided. "Guess I'll have to finish the samosa myself...Oh, waiter! Another beer."
When at last Bashkar's fish arrived, it was not filleted as he'd expected. With a sigh, he wiped his fork on the napkin, then poked at the reddish-brown flesh with the head still on, the eyes black and crusty. He set his fork down and called over the waiter. They had a discussion in Bengali that ended with the dish staying put and Bashkar leaning back, discouraged, in the poorly carved wooden chair. "Tell me, Cindy," he said. "What is it you like about this city?"
"The people," Cindy replied without having to think it was what everyone said. She helped herself to some fish.
"Well, that's good," Bashkar said, ever more confounded. Hadn't she said earlier that she didn't like the people here? "Friends are important. Do you have many?"
"Friends?" Cara, Faith, Jean, they were all gone now. One by one, lost to the suburbs. "Well, no," she responded. She slid a fish bone from her mouth as delicately as could be done with ones fingers. "Not anymore. And even when they were around they werent friends like yours. No one I did anything like share poetry with." She put down her fork. "But then who wants to be known anyway?" she said, rationalizing aloud. She twisted in her seat. She took out her lipstick and, peering closely into her compact for lack of light, put some on. "Hell, that's what the clothes are for, aren't they?" She dropped the lipstick and compact back into her bag. "They're for hiding. You put on red polka dots or maybe flowers" she touched her midriff "and no one will ever know you feel stupid or ugly or lousy" she swallowed "that you can't get out of bed in the mornings you have to bribe yourself with promises of cannoli. That's why I like clothes so much making them, I mean. And of course wearing them, too." She looked away from him and blotted her brow with the napkin. At least it was too dark for him to see her sweating. "God, I don't know why I`m talking so much!" She grasped her glass hard. "Must be the beer!"
"Please do continue," Bashkar said, leaning closer. He poured himself more water.
"Really, I don't usually run on like this." Or maybe she did, when it was people she hardly knew. She tugged on the top of her shirt to get some ventilation. "See, personally, I like spending time by myself." She wound the lock of hair by her ear tightly around her finger. "Which is good because everyone's always busy. My friends still here from high school, they're like me, they want to be someone design things, build things, see things in a way most people don't. And I guess it just takes too much time to meet. So we talk on the phone."
Bashkar watched her blink and look across the table at him with a tense smile.
"It's better that way."
"Well, I'm not persuaded," Bashkar said, setting down his water glass, the ice cubes rattling alone. "This thing the phone it's an insidious instrument. We're cheated as if hearing the person's voice is all there is! You can't see their eyes."
"Well, it doesn't really bother me," Cindy said. "You get used to it. Like with that panhandler." She drank more beer to relieve the sudden dryness in her throat. "The scary part is you can't remember when you stopped caring." She lifted her beer again and her face shuddered. "You sure you won't have some?" she asked, motioning at the half-eaten fish. "You barely had any."
"No, thank you," Bashkar said. "Let's save it for a beggar instead."
The sun dropped beneath the roofs of the tenements on Third Avenue, leaving the skyscrapers stark naked in the twilight sky. The air remained sticky and hot.
"I had a girlfriend in high school," Bashkar said in response to Cindy`s question, as they approached her building. "We studied together. I treasured her friendship. We could talk about everything. She knew my family well. And then, I had a second one before leaving for this country. We have lost touch, but she is still close to my heart. She was a religious girl. We worked together with a group that had ties with Mother Theresa."
"You haven't met any Americans? Not at Princeton?"
"That's right." She resisted then gave in: "Like the opposite of men."
"There was one, in my math class. We'd study together" he paused "but it was awkward and I've avoided her since."
Cindy gave a knowing smile, swinging the plastic bag with the leftovers on her arm. "That used to happen to me all the time. You sleep together, then the next day you have to see the person in class. That's why its better if they're not from school." The shock on his face made Cindy break out in laughter.
When Bashkar did not join in, Cindy clammed up. They reached her front stoop. "Well, this is it," she said. A man was lying face-up on top of it, an empty vodka bottle at his bare feet.
Bashkar knelt down beside him, amazing Cindy with his compassion the man stunk. "This is so much like Calcutta," Bashkar said, shaking his head. "It's uncanny." He tapped the man's shoulder and waited for him to open his eyes.
"Every night it's someone new," Cindy explained, venturing to crouch down herself. She held her hand over her nose to block out the stench. "The subway's not far. The poor fools climb out and stumble down by the time they get here."
The man's eyes, which had opened briefly, closed again. Bashkar listened for a heartbeat. "He's all right, Bashkar," Cindy said softly from beside him and he knew she was right. He stood, nodding when he saw Cindy put the aluminum foil container down on the step. "He'll smell the cardamom and dream he's in India."
"That wouldn't be far from the truth," Bashkar said.
He shifted his book bag to the other arm. "If its not too much trouble, I'd like to wash my hands. I have a long trip ahead."
"Sure," Cindy said. Out of habit, she was about to step over the drunk, but went around instead.
Bashkar spiraled up the stairs behind Cindy, past sounds of an Italian opera recording, a Chinese family at dinner, an American sitcom until they reached the last landing. The air outside Cindy's apartment smelled of the garlic Bashkar's own mother often used with asafetida and hot oil in cooking. Perhaps Cindy had cooked something earlier in the day. Having eaten little, he was still hungry.
"The bathroom's right there," Cindy said and led him down a humid hallway past a room with the door painted orange. The door was closed and a languorous melody was playing. The air smelled of the hashish that American and European hippies often visited India for.
When Bashkar came out of the water closet, he found Cindy in the kitchen. On the counter sat two plates slick with noodles and an emerald-colored bottle emptied of wine. Cindy was rolling the cork between her fingers, the tips of which were stained red.
"The water closet is steamy. Is there someone else here?" Bashkar asked, feeling alarmed. He'd not expected this. While he trusted Cindy, he could not be certain about her roommate and the roommates friend. He stayed in the hallway without entering the kitchen.
"Yes." Cindy smiled. "And I'm afraid he's got company."
"He?" Bashkar said, scratching under his collar where, with so much perspiration, the fabric had begun to irritate his skin.
"My roommates a man," Cindy said with a soft smile.
"I see." Bashkar wiped a bead of sweat from his neck.
"Its not unusual here."
He remembered now having heard this at Princeton.
In the quiet that fell between them, Bashkar heard laughter buoyed by hashish and the squeaking of a mattress. He turned to face the roommate's closed door. His eyeglasses clouded in the sultry hall.
"Bashkar?" Cindy said soothingly, trying to gain his attention. "Would you like something? Some juice? Or tea I can put some up."
"No thank you. I should go." He came into the kitchen where the light was better and checked his wristwatch. "It's nine already. I have classes tomorrow. And I'm signed up to work at a soup kitchen in New Brunswick in the morning." He stayed leaning against the kitchen counter, fiddling with a drawer, his book bag still deposited on the floor.
Cindy filled the kettle then quickly turned and put it on the stove. "Okay. I guess I'll see you. You'll give me a call?" After the stove lit, she stayed turned around. Her forehead was sweating.
"Certainly. We'll talk on that insidious thing, the phone. But then I'll see you, right?" He tapped her and the muscles of her shoulder gave a jump. He backed away, to the edge of the kitchen. "You'll come to Princeton and I'll show you the grounds. When can we do that? Soon?"
"Sure. Whenever. I'll be here," she said, spinning around and washing her hands in cold water at the sink.
Bashkar fumbled putting his bag on his shoulder. "Great." When had he picked up that insipid American expression? The first time he noticed his siblings using it it had made him recoil.
He watched Cindy blot her hands on her jeans then hurry to let him out the front door. "Well, then," he said, about to leave. He saw that her lips were pressed tightly together.
They both heard moans from the roommate's room.
"What are you going to do now?" Bashkar asked, grasping the outside door knob, his hand trembling. Why didn't he just leave? "Will you study?" Then, to his horror, he remembered she was not a student.
"What?" she asked as a woman's final cry burst forth.
After a silence, Bashkar said, "Who is this roommate of yours?"
"An artist like everyone else. He sells real estate for the money. If it's the same date he had last night, she manages a building he wants. You should see the women he picks up." And then, feeling reckless, she added, "The men, too."
Cindy nodded. "He's eclectic, it seems." The kettle whistled faintly from back in the kitchen. "Let me go get that." She returned with two mugs of oolong tea.
"I am a little thirsty," Bashkar said. "You're right."
Loud giggling was heard from the bedroom. "Let's go in the living room. Get away from the noise," Cindy suggested. "God, I hate it." She smiled. "Don't you?"
Bashkar was led down a snaking corridor. "Is that your room, there?" he asked, pointing to the door off of the living room. A fuchsia tapestry with peacocks and leaves and tiny round mirrors hung from the door.
"That's it." Cindy flopped down on the sofa, kicking her sandals off onto the crimson Oriental rug. She dunked her tea bag up and down.
Bashkar took a seat on a wood folding chair in the corner and blew on his tea. He noticed that the window sill beside him was lined with furry green jars containing snippets left to sprout; the traffic below, muffled by curtains that were pale pink and limp in the breezeless night. "It's pretty in here," he said, touching a plant in a terra cotta pot.
Cindy sipped her tea and looked out over the rim of the mug. That window, that was where Mohammed had reached his hands around her waist and unzipped her jeans. A moment after she'd come and he'd followed, the front door opened and they'd had to scramble for their pants. God, what a night. She put her mug down now and moved, smiling, toward the window. She untied the string to her bun and shook out her red curls, close enough for Bashkar to smell the aloe from her creme rinse. Bashkar got up and moved away, to the middle of the sofa.
He looked at his watch again and his eyebrows rose with surprise. "My, it's nine-fifteen. May I use your phone I`d like to see if the buses are still running."
"They run late. You can still make the ten o'clock. Be home by midnight." She lowered her voice. "You won't turn into a pumpkin."
"Oh, nothing," she said. She was beginning to lose patience.
"Did you say ten o'clock? That late?" Bashkar drew his lips together.
"What's wrong with that?"
"Well, I don't know New York that well. I doubt I`ll be able to find Port Authority alone at night." Bashkar's voice sounded pinched to him, as though someone were squeezing him in the gut. "Would it be possible for me to sleep here on the sofa? Or on the floor, yes, the floor, with the rug. It would be better for my back."
"Here?" Cindy said. "In the living room?" She drew her hair into a high pony tail, tightened the string, and twisted the hair back into a bun. "I have a roommate."
"Couldn't you explain the situation?"
"That I live in Princeton."
"Well, I could. But you wouldn't be very comfortable out here in the open like this. Besides, I don't have any extra sheets. You wouldn't be able to cover yourself." She looked at him directly in the eyes. "You wouldn't like that."
"I don't need sheets in this heat. I'd be fine. In India, I often stay over at friends."
"On the floor? It's not too hard? The rug`s not that thick." "I'd like it. I would. I just want to avoid the trip home it's gotten so late."
Cindy walked absently toward her room. "Sure, you can do that. I guess."
Bashkar followed her. "I'm sorry for inconveniencing you, Cindy." He spoke into her back. A stray lock hung from her bun. He couldnt help touching it.
Just then, she turned around. His glasses bumped against her nose, then his lips touched hers. He jerked back. "My Goodness, Cindy! I'm sorry!"
Cindy sat back down, fighting a smile, and finished her tea while Bashkar remained standing, as stiff as a board, turned away from her. He pushed back his glasses. "I don't agree with the morals Americans have." He looked toward her, his forehead creasing, and gasped: "I don't know why I just did that. I'll be leaving now."
Cindy accompanied him to the door. "Oops. Almost forgot your book bag." She handed it to him outside the door. "God, Bashkar. You don't have to feel so bad. You look like you've done something horrible. It's not like I'm underage. If anyone is, you are." She stepped toward him, into the hallway, removed his glasses and wiped them on her midriff, chuckling.
"I can't see a thing."
"That's okay." Cindy smiled. "You're naked now."
She kissed him more deeply than he'd ever been kissed. "Why did you do that?" Bashkar asked. He was glad the outside hall was dim, his sweat less visible. The sighs and groans of her roommate and the mans date grew audible again through the crack in the door.
"It's pretty bad, isn't it? Sleeping with total strangers. Some people do," Cindy said, pressing her lips together, savoring the taste of his mouth. She wanted to taste all of himthe hollow between his rib cage, the muscles along his thighs, the spot on his back before it curved into his ass. "Personally, I think it's better to sleep with people you know especially these days. And I do feel like I know you. Like I can trust you. We could try it, if you want."
A fly landed on Bashkar's sticky brow; he was too flustered to bat it away. "I don't think so." His voice cracked. "Think how we'd feel in the morning."
"I don't know about you. But I'd feel fine," Cindy said, primping her bun. "Actually, much better." Her voice gained conviction. "I don't think it's healthy to sleep alone." She laughed with embarrassment. "I mean, I read that once."
Bashkar remained silent.
Cindy shrugged, her jaw locking. "Well," she managed to utter, turning toward the door, "if you're not interested, you're not."
"I'm sorry," he said, afraid from her tone that he'd offended her. He strummed the strap on his bag. "I think I should go."
In the low light beside the futon, Cindy watched Bashkar at last succeed in wrestling off his pants. He folded them atop his shirt on the chair under the sewing table, adding Cindys bra to the pile, then - holding the rubber shed given him - hurled himself toward her, pulling her down with him onto the bed. Why was he so nervous? she thought, pushing him away from her neck; she couldn't breathe. When he turned her onto her back and scooted his underwear down, she felt something rub against her, something thin around his waist, then she noticed he wore a black leather cord. An amulet? Naked, in just this, he looked like a boy in an indigenous tribe.
Bashkar could sense Cindy's distance and he understood why. He felt like the bungling, shoeless fix-it man that his family had once employed out of pity, who each time he took a tool from his work box would struggle over which thing did what. Now, no matter what either he or Cindy did he stayed soft, and worse, he could not stop caressing her, hoping he might soon redeem himself. Eventually she rose, threw out the condom, and, putting on a mans tee-shirt, left the room.
She stood barefoot on the tile floor in the bathroom, dust between her toes, her lips dry. She listened to the mice in the pipes, to her own furious heartbeat, to the sound of a cap pop off on her roommate's bottle of sleeping pills.
What have I done? Bashkar asked himself, going out to the window in the living room. He listened to the hum of the occasional car on the street below and the bounce of big trucks. His own heartbeat seemed amplified in the dark. I've cheapened myself, he thought, turned out no different from my siblings. And this the humiliation is my reward.
Eventually he heard Cindy's footsteps, coming towards him. He wanted her to put her hands around his waist and comfort him but she took a seat on the far end of the sofa. He began pacing in the heat, then sat down on the folding chair, taking his head in his hands.
"It's always like that when you're with someone new," Cindy managed. Why? she thought. Why did I rush things?
Bashkar buried his face in his hands. "I've never done this before."
"You're kidding?" Cindy said. "It was your first time?" She stood up. "But you've had girlfriends. You said so yourself. What about the American from your class?" The words slipped out: "Don't tell me you just did math."
Bashkar was glad for the cover of darkness because his shoulders began to shake. Why had he done what he'd done? He'd always planned to save himself for an Indian bride. In their own room together nothing like this would have happened.
"I'm sorry," she said, standing up now, an arms length from his chair.
He looked away. Then, a bit later, he turned his head and saw her gazing out at the night.
"This has never happened before," she whispered.
The streetlights and headlights along the avenue below had begun to spin in her head. She grasped the windowsill for support. "What if we started over. What if you told me about your mother and the countryside in India and I" her voice caught "What if I were a different person."
Bashkar rose and rested his head on her shoulder. "It's all right." His head gently rocked as she sobbed. "It's all right." Hed never in his life heard anyone cry so. It was as if she had cut open her chest and was showing him the heart. He walked her back to bed.
At seven sharp Bashkar was woken by the bleating of an alarm clock. He put on his eyeglasses and wristwatch, scraped on his jeans and collected his book bag.
"Cindy," he called because, as much as he tried, he couldnt figure out how to turn the alarm off. When she didnt answer, he went over to the futon and crouched down by her side, rustling her on the shoulder. A good five minutes later she finally awoke.
When her eyes opened, his face filled her vision. In a flash, she remembered everything. In the center of it all was her own stupidity. Her eyes closed again.
"Come," Bashkar said, giving her a hand getting out of bed. "We could both use a coffee. Now help me shut the alarm."
As she stood, the room - with its bolts of bright fabrics and its old-fashioned Singer - danced in her head. She was glad when Bashkar steadied her. He's got some courage, she thought. Any other man would have raced out, too ashamed to face her. She put on a skirt and top, feeling his eyes on her as she dressed.
"You really are lovely," he said. "Do you know that?"
She stared at him. No one had ever said those words. "Do you think so?"
"Let's pretend nothing happened. Let's take everything from scratch."
"Yes, everything from scratch," Bashkar said as if he actually believed they could do it.