2020 Short Story Contest Winner
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
by Vikram Ramakrishnan
The man hated the cold. That he forgot his beanie at the woman’s apartment annoyed him. After they walked out of the subway turnstiles, she stopped at the top of the stairs. She took a deep breath as the wind ran through her long hair, her arms out as if she was Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.
I love the fall, she said.
It doesn’t matter what season it is, he said. That train is hot as hell.
She laughed and looped an arm through his, snaking her hand into his pocket as the two walked down 74th. People clamored about from store to store, weaving through frozen traffic while sunlight hung like a faint haze in the air. A Sikh man asked if the couple wanted a psychic reading. The woman smiled at him and said, Maybe later.
He touched his fingertips to his dastar and smiled back.
If asked what the man did, the woman would say he’s in grad school at Columbia studying South Asian art. The conversation would hover in silence before moving elsewhere. If asked what the woman did, the man would say she’s in graphic design for a furniture startup in SoHo. This always brought smiles and questions.
They were in Jackson Heights because they craved Indian food, specifically Punjabi. They loved it for different reasons. Two years of fieldwork in small villages outside of Ludhiana had enhanced the man’s palate. Idlis and dosas of the woman’s childhood had always been far too bland.
How hungry are you? she asked.
Not a lot, how about you? he lied.
Same, she said. Ok, good. I want to show you around. I can’t believe you’ve never been here.
It wasn’t the first time he had been to Jackson Heights, but he didn’t say anything about that.
They’d met while he was in India, and she was at a small coffee shop on Bleecker and Lafayette. A lamp hung over his head and gave light to the olive green, cracked walls behind him. He balanced his laptop on his knees, and his video would occasionally hang. Sunlight streamed through her coffee shop, drowning the woman in reds, browns, and smiles. Her laptop sat on a flat grainy table near an espresso stain. She showed it to him, tilting her computer.
An hour into the conversation, the subject of favorite movies came up. Darwaza. She was shocked that he had heard of the Ramsay Brothers. What other surprises did a white boy who knew so much about India have up his sleeve? Before he could respond, she shrieked when she realized she was almost out of battery. He waited, and when she logged back on, she’d changed into pajamas. He had combed his hair and put on a new shirt.
Let’s pretend it’s the same time of day, she said.
They both closed their curtains.
He stayed up into the late morning, forgetting he had interviews to conduct later that day at the museum. She skipped a spin session and a minor acquaintance’s birthday party to talk to him.
They stopped in front of a beauty salon, where an older man struggled to open the door for his wife.
Why do you need the eyebrows done, too? asked the old man. You can barely see them.
I’ll stop as soon as all our grandchildren are married, she said in a high voice that lifted sixty years from her appearance.
The woman’s eyes widened, and she looked at the man, her cheeks round as if she was about to laugh. She ran over to the elderly couple and held the door open for them. They smiled their thanks.
The woman tilted her head and looked back. She threw an arm out and said, Come onnnn, it’ll be funnnn.
His stomach lurched, but he laughed as he followed.
The man sat down at his desk, back pressed against a rosewood chair. He closed his eyes and let the small desk fan at the corner of his desk purr, whisking away the summer heat from his face. Sighing, he reached for a book—Artistic Nepali Forms of the Northeast, by Tamarin Gogde. The faded cover depicted a copper Tara with a patina of blue-green oxidization across her shoulders.
Opening the book, he pulled out a piece of letter paper and flattened it against his desk, thumbs pressing against its creases. Words whirred through his head, almost as quickly as the fan’s blades as he tapped his pen against the table.
What am I going to say? he asked out loud.
The paper flew off the desk onto the ground. The man tsked, shook his head, and picked it back up, placed it on the table, and flattened it out again, turning off the fan.
He crossed out Dear, crumpled the piece of paper and threw it in a waste bin, and tried another sheet, wiping his forehead sweat off with his shoulder.
Madhavi, he began. While he wondered if he should follow her name with a comma or colon, a bead of sweat dripped from his forehead onto her name. The bead soaked through the paper, leaving her name a blotch. He let out a sigh of frustration as he crumpled up the paper, tossed it onto the ground, and leaned back into his chair.
It’s stupid how ticklish you are, the woman said.
I’m not ticklish, the man replied, his eyes closed as he gripped his armrests.
A Bengali woman scraped the soles of his feet with a pumice stone. When the scraping finished, he let out a breath, opened his eyes, and relaxed his grip.
They were seated in leather chairs, their feet in pink bowls of lukewarm water smelled of rosewater and mint. The man was closest to the door, which sent a gust of cold air at him each time it opened. The woman was to his right, and the older woman one chair past her. The older woman had a gold piercing on each side of her nose and two large hoops in her ears. Her husband sat at the front of the store with a newspaper in his hands. He wore square eyeglasses, had large ears, and a stark white, trimmed mustache.
He’s ticklish too, the old woman said. It was the first time she spoke to the couple since they were together in the store.
The older man looked up, fixed his glasses, and shook his head, lifting his newspaper to cover his face.
We were a couple of mischievous troublemakers too when we were your age, the elderly woman said. Her voice held an accent tempered by decades of living in the States. I’m from Lahore, and he’s Tamil.
Oh, naanum Tamizh, the woman called out, her voice in a sing-songy tone, the kind he’d heard her use when she was on the phone with her parents.
The older man brought down his arms and newspaper onto his knees.
Appadiya? He asked.
The two exchanged a few rapid sentences the man didn’t understand. The woman put a hand on his arm and said that the older man was from the same town in Tamil Nadu as her father. Madurai.
What were the odds? she said.
Don’t worry, I don’t know Tamil either, the elderly woman said. And she winked at him before getting out of her chair. Her husband tossed his newspaper and rushed over to help her out.
You look beautiful, the woman said, squeezing the elderly woman’s hand before the couple walked out the door.
She was a bundle of kindness dressed in leathers and minor tattoos.
Paakalaam, the elderly man said.
Two months after they spoke online for the first time, the man landed at JFK in the early afternoon. The woman waited for him outside of customs with a giant printed poster board of the monster from Darwaza. Below read the words WELCOME HOME in bold white lettering. She whistled when the man walked out. A few of the limo drivers with proper signs who stood near her looked at her askance.
She wore washed denim overalls over a cream top. The white purse that hung at her front matched her white sneakers. Multi-colored bangles ran up her wrists, more on one forearm than the other. Her lips were Arabesque red.
Where did you get this thing? the man asked, gesturing at the poster of the werewolf-like creature with giant upturned nostrils.
Online, she said, throwing her arms around him. You’re taller than I thought.
He dropped his bags and wrapped his arms around her. She smelled of sandalwood and cannabis.
He realized it was the first time their bodies touched.
Next to the beauty salon stood a store with a morass of kitchenware in its storefront. Saucepans, bowls, and wooden chapati belans were all tangled together. Bells rang after they walked into the store. The man looked up to find three bells tied together with red and orange string, nestled atop the hydraulic pump of the door. The store smelled like mothballs and jasmine incense.
A lazy-eyed store owner grunted when they entered, but otherwise ignored them as he watched a Bengali soap opera play. The television drummed dramatic beats, and the store owner clapped.
The woman ducked into the back of the store, past the bags of rice, past the glass jars of pickles, and past the rectangular packets of Parle-G. There stood shelves of Ganesh murtis, those left unsold from the last Chaturthi. She reached upwards, towards the top shelf and then stood on her tiptoes. She looked at the man and pointed. He picked a teak statue from the top shelf.
Isn’t the Buddha beautiful? she said. This is something we’re thinking of working into our Indian selection next Spring. I found the name of the manufacturer, and we’re ordering direct from them. She put her hand to her cheeks. It’s like half the price that way.
He ran a finger over the statue’s wooden grooves. Its eyes were closed. Atop its head was a headdress that looked like a rising sun. An intricate etching of robes rested over its body. Both of its hands rested in its lap as it sat cross-legged atop a wide lotus.
This isn’t a Buddha, the man said.
It’s a Tara. Also, it’s also not Indian. This one’s Nepali, he said, handing it to her.
She looked down at the statue and then back at him, open-mouthed. The man felt bad for a moment like he told her he had wanted nothing to do with her.
Shit, she said, shaking the statue in her hand.
Woah, be careful, the man said.
She touched the statue to her forehead, closing her eyes and placed it back on the shelf next to a Ganesh.
We’re going to have to change everything. She looked up as she started typing on her phone. Tara, you said?
The man nodded.
What’s her deal? she said.
Yeah, like what is she known for?
This was something the man knew well. He opened his mouth to explain, but she cut him off. But quick, like two words that I can use. I think I can convince them that this is a better option.
He thought for a moment.
Hurry, she said.
Empathy, he said. Compassion.
Around the time the man had recovered from jet lag, he offered to cook dinner for the both of them. When he opened the door for her, he was struck by how the light from the hallway cast a shadow across her face. Her eyes looked brighter, her lips redder, and her nose ring more gold. She wore a light button-up shirt with blue peacocks tucked into black denim shorts held up by a brown belt.
Should I just stand here? she asked.
Sorry, sorry, come in, he claimed. Still getting over jet lag.
Mmm, hmm, she said, slipping out of her sandals.
She pulled out a bottle of red wine from her bag. Her red nails were darker than the color of her lipstick, and one of her rings clinked against the bottle when she handed it to the man. At its center, the wine’s label had a stark blue circle with smaller red circles. A flock of birds nested in the top right corner of the label.
I don’t know much about wine, but I remembered you said you liked Tempranillo, she said. The wine guy said this is supposed to be good.
He thanked her and gestured for her to sit down, but she had walked over to a shelf he used to store his records. Behind her, and through his living room window, the faint red and white lights of brownstones and skyscrapers alike looked like they should have been on canvas. She pulled a record out at random.
Ha! she exclaimed, swiveling around, showing him a picture of M. S. Subbulakshmi on the record. I call her M.S. Paati because she looks like my grandmother. My parents have this one too.
She looked at it closer. At least I think it’s the same one, she said. But they store them like this. She stacked her hands over one another.
Not good for the grooves, he said.
I should tell them that, she said.
After putting the record away, she pulled out another. Abbey Road.
I love the Beatles, she said, holding the album close to her chest.
The man slid a tray of honey-glazed salmon burgers into the oven, washed his hands, and wiped them down on a blue towel.
Do you want to put it on? he asked, to which she smiled back.
The heady beat of Come Together had them pumping their necks in unison with wine glasses in their hands as they sat on his living room couch. She commented on how much Indian art was on his walls and shelves as she reached into a glass bowl full of chocolate covered almonds on his coffee table. He asked for her advice on how he should arrange his place.
By the time Here Comes the Sun started, the two measured the length of his walls, when the man realized he needed to check on the oven. She offered to help, but he waved her away.
I’ve got this, he said.
Not long after dinner, but before the bottle of wine was empty, her brown belt had come off.
It was Spring when the man introduced the woman to his mother. They had brunch on Sunday at Almond in Gramercy. At this stage in her life, his mother was a modern dilettante who spent her time between dirty martinis and Broadway matinees. She had never quite held a job, apart from a small stint in interior design for a boutique hotel that his father’s family-owned before they married. On occasion, she would look for a project that would grab her attention for longer than a day, but once she realized how much work went into it, she would quickly recede into her drinks and shows with one of her handful of girlfriends.
That day, she wore a black dress as if she was going to a funeral. Grey pearls hung at her ears and her neck. Her tortoise eyeglasses pushed up against the man’s cheek when he hugged her. She patted his chest and commented on how wonderful it was to see him.
The woman put out her hand, but his mother ignored it and wrapped her in an awkward hug.
What lovely hair you have, she said, running her fingers through the woman’s locks.
His mother’s eyes lingered at the woman’s nose ring and the bangles at her wrist. When they sat down, a waiter picked up an empty Bloody Mary glass and asked if the mother wanted another.
Of course, she said.
The man ordered a beer and a burger with extra avocado. He made sure the waiter understood the patty needed to be well done. The woman ordered sparkling water and granola with a side of maple bacon, and before the man’s mother ordered her salad niçoise, she made sure she heard right. Granola and a side of maple bacon?
After the woman excused herself to the restroom, his mother put her hands over his.
Are you doing ok with money, honey? she asked.
Yeah, I’m fine, mom, the man said.
Humming to herself, she swished her hair and shook her index finger at the man a few times, pursing her lips. She pulled out an envelope from her handbag and pushed it towards him.
I don’t need this, the man said.
Nonsense, honey. Those Indian girls, they love their gold, she said.
He sighed and slid the envelope into his pocket.
She’s not like that, he replied.
That’s what you said about the last one, she said. And look at how that went.
She used a stalk of celery to stir her Bloody Mary, its ice clinking against the glass. She looked at the man through the side of her eyes while slurping down the Bloody Mary. She down the waiter for another.
Can’t you find a girl more like us? she asked between faint burps.
Heat went to the man’s ears.
The woman came back to the table, blood rushing to her face. She apologized for being away for so long and blamed an erring attendant who said that the restroom was being serviced and that she would have to wait. When a line of people formed behind her, a woman wearing a bachelorette sash knocked on the door demanding the person to hurry up. After no one responded, she tried the door’s knob, which turned with ease. The attendant apologized profusely. The woman let the bachelorette through first with thanks and congrats. The bachelorette threw her arms up, and everyone cheered for her.
The woman, the man, and the mother shook their heads and laughed. Only in New York, they all agreed.
Things are so different now, the mother said. Your father and I? He asked me if I wanted to get married. I said, yes. We walked over to City Hall, and it was done. Now there’s an engagement party, a bridal shower, bachelorette party. All this happens before the actual event. Isn’t that right? She glanced at the man.
He cleared his throat and waved down the nearest waiter and asked for the bill.
After his mother paid the check, and they had said their goodbyes, the couple walked west down 22nd. The woman walked faster than her usual speed, which he could match easily with his long legs. The trees that lined the street were budding white and purple flowers. They passed a dog that decided to urinate in the middle of the street in front of a honking truck, which the woman ignored when the man pointed it out. When they arrived at the corner of Broadway, she was clenching her jaw.
Are you ok? the man asked.
She shook her head as tears welled in her eyes. She took a deep breath and let it out, deflating her puffed cheeks like a balloon that was being let out.
What’s wrong? he asked.
I heard what your mom said.
You know about what.
I’m sorry about that, he responded. She was a little drunk.
The man stood silent, staring up at the sign for Imran’s Jackson Heights Jewelers.
Don’t worry, I’m just here for design ideas, the woman said. She pulled out her phone to look at it, the fourth or fifth time in the last few minutes, before putting it back in her purse.
He didn’t know how someone could confuse Tara with the Buddha, but he had learned that being honest and being supportive did not always go hand in hand.
It’s going to be fine, he said. Just a minor mix-up.
A wave of air conditioning blasted the couple as they entered the jewelry store. A thick scent of jasmine and sandalwood hung in the air like an invisible cloud. Gold necklace and earring sets filled the glass cabinets that adorned the walls of the storeroom. Two women in blue and silver shalwars smiled at the couple as they wiped down the glass countertops.
What if they fire me? she asked, looking at a headless mannequin that sported a necklace of golden peacocks.
They’re not going to fire you, he said, looking over her shoulder.
Two peacocks sat at the center of a hefty gold pendant, their heads and backs touching each other like a couple who had gotten into a trivial argument before bed. Between the two peacocks was a red ruby. Diamonds dripped from the pendant like frozen raindrops.
Ah, I remember you! a man’s voice boomed from the far end of the store.
The man’s heart sank. Imran.
Imran was tall and wore a refined salt and pepper beard. He walked with a slight limp up to the couple. He stabbed a thick forefinger into the man’s chest before crossing his arms again.
The pillow cut, he said. He wagged a finger at the man. I never forget a customer’s face.
You’ve been here before? the woman asked.
Been here before? Imran’s face held the expression of faux surprise. He spread his arms around the room. This is the greatest jewelry store in all of Jackson Heights. Padma, bring us two chais! This is the lucky lady? But where is the ring? He gestured at the woman’s left hand.
The man felt an overwhelming blanket of pressure envelop him.
I know you dated her, but why didn’t you just tell me you two were freaking engaged? the woman asked as the two stood outside the store. That’s not the kind of thing you’re allowed to just keep from me.
I don’t know, the man said.
That isn’t a good enough answer this time, the woman said.
The man looked away, towards the green and white Patel Brothers sign across the street. A Sikh family walked out of the grocery store, both children in black and red patkas shoving each other while their father barked at them to quiet down. When he looked back at her, he opened his mouth to speak.
The phone buzzed in the woman’s hand.
Oh, she said. It’s work.
The man’s heart beat faster. What did they say?
The woman read the text and handed the phone to him.
This is even better. Let’s chat about it live tomorrow! And stop working on the weekends!
See? I told you, he said.
She closed her eyes and sighed, and looked up at him, her eyes wet. Do you still love her?
While the man walked to meet Madhavi at the Blind Tiger in Greenwich Village, the Fall’s evening light stretched the trees’ shadows across Bleecker Street. A growing sensation that pulsated from his sternum into his stomach seemed to slow him down. Salty saliva gushed into his mouth, and it wasn’t until he saw a drunk couple arguing over tacos did he take in a deep breath and walk through the doorway.
The man scanned the room. Two bartenders worked the draughts for a semi-circle of patrons at the bar. The patrons were hunched over like beanbags. A man in a yellow hat held up two fingers to the bartender. A waitress whose hair was held up by a white scarf leaned into a table while balancing pints on her tray.
The man thought he heard his name on his left. Madhavi sat at a small wooden table, her back straight, willowy arms waving at him, a bright white smile on her face. The sounds of the bar collapsed into a steady stream of white noise. His heart felt like it was filled with lead and drawing further into his chest.
He put out his hand to shake hers, and she rolled her eyes, choosing to hug him instead, patting his back, running her hands over his shoulders, squeezing them twice. She smelled like heavy cream and dry roses.
They both sat down at the table at the same time. Madhavi opened her mouth to speak, but quickly closed it and put a finger up, reaching into her bag. She slowly pushed an emerald green drawstring pouch across the table.
The man glanced up at her. Her eyebrows were two slanted lines of black.
I’m sorry I ran off with it, she said. But I wanted you to have it back.
Opening the pouch, the man pulled out a small jewelry box. He flipped it open. A pillow cut diamond perched on a halo ring of white gold. The diamond’s facets caught the evening light like a prism of orange and red.
He put it back in the pouch.
Silence cut across their table. The man’s hands felt cold, so he shoved them into his jacket’s pockets. Madhavi bit her lip as the two looked at one another.
I feel like I owe you an explanation, she said.
The man played with some lint that formed in his pocket, running it between his forefinger and thumb. He caught a handful of words but wasn’t paying attention as his head drummed: scared, two years of fieldwork, we were so young, grown a lot.
Now that you’re back, I thought we could talk about things, Madhavi said. You know? Give it another shot.
I’m with someone else now, he said.
Oh, she said.
An old Indian man in the corner stared at the two when they sat down at Jackson Diner. He wore a tight collared shirt with thick stripes. Splotches of turmeric stained the wrinkled side of the man’s collar. Three tufts of flax hair sprouted from his wrinkled, bald head like white turf. His baleful eyes aimed at the man.
I’m so hungry, the man said, looking down and opening up the menu. He blinked a few times for the lighting to adjust so he could see clearly.
The woman loved sweet and salty, which made mozzarella sticks with honey Dijon her favorite. He preferred salty first, and then sweet as dessert, like most others were trained.
Ok, he said. Let’s do chaat first.
Oooh, that’s a great idea, she said, tapping her head with her index finger. And then what?
While he looked through the menu, he looked up again to see the same man glaring at him in the same way.
That guy is still staring at me, the man said.
The woman was about to look around, but the man stopped her.
He’ll know I told you, the man said. Wait a minute.
The woman shrugged and looked around the restaurant, clapping her hands faintly.
What’s his issue? the man asked.
Maybe he thinks you’re the monster in Darwaza.
The man called over a waiter and asked for an extra straw.
What are you doing? she asked.
Just watch, he said.
The waiter returned with another straw and handed it to the man. He ripped off its paper cover and took out the straw from his glass and folded both in half. The other man’s lips had become a faint sneer. He shoved a laddu in his mouth and continued to stare, chewing a mouth full of orange. The man glanced back at the woman.
He’s eating a laddu and looks like he wants to kill me, he said.
Please let me look now, she said. I have to see this.
After he nodded, she pretended to stretch and turned around. When she turned back around, she slapped her hands over her mouth as her face turned red.
He hates you, she said after she caught her breath.
He tried placing the folded straws under his upper lip but couldn't because he laughed so hard. He tried again, and only got one in before he burst out laughing.
Oh my god, she said. I can’t believe you’re going to do this.
He shook his head and craned his neck left and right. He shook out his shoulders and put a serious face on. In two quick movements, he slipped the two folded straws under his upper lip to look like giant fangs. He raised his eyebrows, looked directly at the other man, and stuck out his tongue, curling his fingers into claws.
Chee! The other man yelled and threw some cash onto the table before running out of Jackson Diner.
The woman’s bangles clacked loudly against the table as she slapped her hands on it. She stomped one foot on the ground. Her face was red, and tears fell from her eyes. The waiter came back to the table and looked confused. The man pulled the straws out of his upper lip and ran a tongue over his gums.
Sorry, he said. Can you give us a few more minutes to decide?
After the waiter left, the woman picked up her glass of water and held it up. Her eyes had contracted into moist sparkling gemstones. The light of the lamps above her glinted off of her nose ring. The creases around her mouth relaxed, and she bit her upper lip. She shook her head ever so slightly.
He clinked his glass against hers and took a sip, the slightest smile quivering on his lips.
Copyright © 2021 by Vikram Ramakrishnan.