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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

If You See Me, Don't Say Hi

Stories

Neel Patel

Flatiron Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

god of destruction


The Wi-Fi was out: that was the first sign. The second was that my dress was an eyesore. Online it had appeared chic and trendy, but in person, at the mall, it was an egregious mistake.

“Bachelorette party?” the saleslady had asked.

“First date,” I’d said.

His name was Vibash, and we’d met online, through a dating website for Indians called Shaadi.com. He was an engineer. He was thirty-five. He was handsome, with dark hair and dusky skin. The first time he messaged me, I told him all about my job as an interior designer, making it sound glamorous and important, even though it wasn’t. It was depressing. Sometimes I would come home after staring at a blank wall for hours, wondering what to mount on it, and imagine my clients’ lives unfolding without me. Once, during a renovation, I took the spare key of a doctor’s beach house and drove there in the middle of the night. I walked around the large empty space, which was sheeted with plastic, speckled with tape, and imagined myself living in it—with a husband, a dog, a child who looked vaguely like me. I stole a bottle of wine from their refrigerator and drank it in the front seat of my car. Then I backed into their mailbox.

I wasn’t always this way. But the friction of life has a way of turning sharp edges into smooth ones, smooth edges into sharp ones, until you’ve become a duller, slightly misshapen version of your former self. I used to be happy, in the way that people on Facebook seem happy, posting pictures of their husbands and friends. I was the kind of woman who would say things like “I hope you get that promotion” or “I’m sorry about your grandmother” and actually mean it. No one ever told me that happiness was like a currency: that when it goes, it goes, and that few people are willing to give you some of theirs.

* * *

The cable guy showed up at seven forty-five. It was dark outside, black clouds hovering low to the ground. He looked Latin, or Persian, with a thick, scruffy beard. I stared at the tattoo on his arm—a skeleton of a mermaid surrounded by a school of dead fish—then up at his face.

“The Wi-Fi is out,” I said, closing the door behind us.

He followed me into the living room, where my modem sat next to a pile of indiscriminate wires. He looked me up and down. “Are you going to a party?”

“Excuse me?”

“The dress,” he said, smiling. “It looks like you’re about to hit the town.”

I went upstairs and examined myself in the mirror. Earlier that evening, Vibash had asked me to send him more pictures, so I did: me on a sailboat, me on the beach, me looking sad, then happy, then cross, all in a little frame I’d put up on Instagram. He didn’t respond, and I thought I would die. Then, just as I was about to delete him from my cell phone, my email, my life, he said I was beautiful. And it was funny how it could happen: how just like that you could live again.

* * *

I went back down and found the cable guy standing in a pile of thick cords and wires and plastic tubing. His tool belt was on the floor. His name was stitched across his chest in bright blue lettering: RICKY A. I wondered what the A was short for. Alvarez? Alvarado? I was famished.

“Are you almost done?”

“What? Oh, yeah. I just gotta clip this wire here and…”

I went back into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of wine. I thought about Vibash, about his thick dark hair that was graying at the sides, his wire-framed glasses, his black Mercedes-Benz. He was six foot two—tall for an Indian—with a fine build and ropey muscles. His profile included a picture of him running a marathon, and the way the sweat had poured down his front, darkening his shorts, had made my thighs turn to water.

I was thinking about this when I felt Ricky A.’s presence behind me. He was standing in the half-light, staring at a picture of Lord Shiva on the windowsill. His blue face stared back at us, serenely.

“Are you Hindu?”

“What?”

“This picture. It’s a Hindu god, right? Are you?”

“No,” I said. “I mean yes, maybe. I guess so. My mother put that there.”

“My cousin is a Hindu; he converted. He lives in Orange County with a bunch of guys in an ashram. Are you close?”

“Excuse me?”

“You and your mom. Are you two close?”

It was a personal question to ask, practically vulgar, and yet I found myself answering. “I don’t know. We used to be, back when I was engaged. Then my fiancé canceled the wedding and now she looks at me like I’m an alien.”

I wondered if he, too, would look at me differently. We stood like that for a while, Ricky and I, gazing at the picture of Lord Shiva, trying to decipher what lay behind his enigmatic smile, when my cell phone broke the silence. It was Vibash; he was waiting.

“Look, is it fixed or not?” I asked.

“Oh, sure. Why don’t you check it out for yourself?”

Ricky A. followed me into the living room. I opened my laptop. I could feel his eyes on the back of my head. I could smell his cologne, too—a cheap-smelling fragrance that reminded me of the boys I went to high school with. I was nervous. I covered up my screen with my hand, embarrassed by the Match.com profile that suddenly popped up in the window. “Yep—it works.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” I said. “Look, I really have to go now.”

He followed me to the door. He scribbled something onto a receipt. Then he handed it over. “This is my cell,” he said. “If it acts up again, you just call me.” He stared at me for a moment, as if he were about to say something more; then he stepped out into the night. “Have fun at your party.”

* * *

Two years ago, I had it all: a successful career, a doting fiancé, and an army of well-wishers. I didn’t realize the former two determined the latter. After Amal broke up with me, my friends dropped off like flies, making excuses for their absences: emergencies and scheduling conflicts and some horrific but convenient catastrophes. Thank god for Valerie. We went from drunken sorority girls to drunken adults, functioning through our alcoholism. Then one day she got a boyfriend—Doug—and everything changed. Once, we were having brunch together when I asked Valerie if she ever wondered if Doug was gay.

“Excuse me?”

“You know.” I smiled. “The mannerisms.”

“What mannerisms?”

She dropped her croissant on the table.

“Well, the way he moves, for one, and the way he talks, and his voice. It’s kind of nasally, right?”

I laughed, doing an impersonation. She stared at me.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

I was only joking about him being gay; I only sort-of thought he was gay. I wouldn’t have said anything at all if Valerie hadn’t been going on about the engagement ring they’d seen at Tiffany, and how it was perfect, and how Doug had wanted a destination wedding because that way fewer people would attend. I just wanted to inject a little humor back into our lives, the way we did when we were girls, when life and all its disappointments were a million miles away from us.

She said it was best if we didn’t speak to each other for a while.

* * *

My Uber driver—Siddharth was his name—was lost.

“I am following directions and round and round we are going.”

It was dark out, stars glimmering across the sky like handfuls of spilled salt. I was an hour late.

“Listen,” I said. “How long is this going to take? We were supposed to be there ten minutes ago.”

He glanced at his wristwatch.

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “I might as well have driven myself.”

For weeks, while Vibash and I messaged each other, I had dreamt of this moment: at the office, the gym, while listening to music in the shower. My previous experiences with dating had been disappointments—awkward dinners with stilted conversation—but Vibash was showing signs of promise. We already shared all the things in common two people could possibly share: a love of foreign films, hip-hop music, and Japanese food. We’d already had the requisite conversations, in which we divulged every embarrassing story from our youth. We’d already told each other about the romantic failures we’d had, the mistakes we’d made, and, at thirty-four, I had already begun to imagine myself as a bride again, wearing the gold and ruby jewelry my mother had brought back from India, shortly before Amal and I split up.

It was pathetic.

* * *

It was also premature. I made it to the bar and scanned the crowd of well-dressed men and women drinking chardonnay in their various shades of black, but Vibash wasn’t there. He wasn’t in the bathroom, either, and, after waiting for twenty minutes, my foolish hope began to deflate, like a voluminous hairstyle that fell flat on my head. Then a strange man looked at me from across the bar, smiling. “Are you looking for someone?”

“Yes,” I said. “I am.”

He pulled out a napkin.

“Are you Anita Gun…”

“Gundapaneni,” I said. “Yes, that’s me.”

He handed me the napkin. “He left this for you.”

I stared at it until the words blurred and split in two, then snapped back into focus.

Sorry. Didn’t see you. Had to leave.

My heart sank. I sent him a text message, Hey, come back! and waited for him by the bar.

He never showed up.

He didn’t respond to my text, either, and, after waiting for thirty minutes, I decided to give up, ordering another Uber home. I was relieved when the driver turned out to be a young white woman with colored streaks in her hair. She drove a Mazda, and she was listening to a song from my past: “Where Do You Go” by No Mercy. Valerie and I used to dance to it in her room:

Where do you go, my lovely?

I wanna know.

I thought about calling Valerie and playing the song for her over the phone, but then I pictured her at home, with Doug, watching Netflix, some contrived film she would later rave about over yoga, or brunch, or at a dinner party I wasn’t invited to, and I fell asleep.

“Miss, we’re here.”

We were sitting outside my house. It was pitch-black. I let myself in, dropping my keys on the console and slipping off my heels. I poured myself a glass of wine. I didn’t need it, but I was thirsty. All night I had been poised for it to happen, the transition, the moment my life would change forever. And now it hadn’t. And everything was the same. I walked over to my laptop and went on Match.com, scrolling through my messages. Then I remembered that it was Amal’s birthday. I’d seen it on Facebook earlier. I thought about calling him. It was a habit of ours, when we were dating, to be the first ones to greet each other on our birthdays whenever we were apart. I saw my cell phone sitting on the countertop next to my handbag and, when I made my way toward it, I tripped over something on the floor. I stared at it. It was a tool belt. I knelt down and examined it in my hands. It was made of dark leather and it smelled faintly of Old Spice, but I couldn’t remember where it had come from, or how it had ended up on my living room floor.

And then, just like that, I did.

* * *

I went into the kitchen and grabbed my bag, searching for his number. I emptied the contents: Chapstick, eye cream, a firming lotion from Macy’s, two lipsticks in the shades of coral and mauve. I couldn’t find it. I was overcome with a kind of desperation. If I find the number, I thought, I will be saved. If I find the number, Vibash will text me back. If I find the number, my life up until now won’t have been a mistake.

I found it: it was stuck to a gum wrapper with a piece of chewed-up gum in it. I dialed it at once. I stood in the living room, waiting and waiting and waiting, until he answered on the fourth ring.

“Hello?”

“Ricky?”

“Huh?”

He sounded tired. I glanced at my wristwatch and realized it was 12:30 A.M.

“You came to my house earlier, to fix my Wi-Fi?”

I heard some commotion in the background: the sound of a drawer banging shut, the bark of a dog, the chink of glass against wood, and finally, his deep, guttural sigh.

“Yeah?”

“You left something behind.”

He was silent.

“A tool belt,” I said. “You can pick it up if you want. I’m home now.”

“Right now?”

“Sure.”

He seemed to consider this. “Shit, it’s after midnight.”

“I have insomnia,” I said. “I’ve had it for years. I don’t even need sleep, really.” I was overcome with a sense of urgency. It had to be now, I thought to myself. It had to happen now. “Plus,” I continued, almost breathlessly, “my Wi-Fi is out again.”

* * *

He must have heard the desperation in my voice—he must have known—because within moments he was telling me to stay right there, that he would be right over. I unplugged some wires and spilled some wine on them just to be sure. Then I retouched my hair.

He arrived twenty minutes later, wearing the same shirt as before, as if he’d only grabbed it off the floor and sniffed it to make sure it was clean. I glanced at his tattoo, then up at his face.

“I’m glad you could come.”

He walked into the living room and picked up the tool belt and knelt down in front of the modem. I didn’t want to be near him when he discovered the unplugged wires, so I told him I would be upstairs.

“Just holler when you’re done.”

Only I fell asleep. I’d meant to simply rest my head, which was throbbing as if I’d banged it against a kitchen cabinet. I was still in my dress, my hair a bird’s nest of curls, when Ricky A. walked into the room.

“Sorry, ma’am. You didn’t answer. I’m all done down there. The cords were damaged. I replaced them with new ones—it’s all set to go now.”

He hesitated a moment before retreating. “So I guess I’ll be leaving then.”

I was too tired to speak, to tell him to stay, but then I heard his footsteps on the staircase and was jolted awake.

“Wait,” I said, running down the stairs.

He was lacing up his boots when I stumbled into the hall. “Would you like a drink?”

It was clear what I was offering, the full, unbridled scope of it, and yet he crinkled his brows.

“Right now?”

“Sure,” I said. “As a thank-you. It’s the least I can do.”

He mulled this over for a while, as if he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Then he slipped his boots off and placed them neatly by the door.

“A drink,” he said, thinking. “Yeah, sure. A drink sounds good.”

* * *

As it turned out, we had more to discuss than I thought. Ricky A. was funny, in the way that younger, attractive men can sometimes be funny. We sat across from each other in the breakfast nook and he told me stories about all the crazy shit he had seen as a cable guy, things you could never imagine, that would only happen on TV. I wondered if he thought that this, too, seemed crazy. He drank a beer, and there was a bit of foam hanging on to the slick dark tinsel of his beard. I was tempted to reach out and wipe it, but this was the type of bold gesture I was incapable of making, so I let it hang there for a while, nodding and laughing at all the appropriate intervals. I talked about myself: my checkered past, my road to becoming a designer, Amal and all the various ways in which we had disappointed one another. I wondered if he thought I was pathetic, if he would tell his friends later about the sad old woman he’d slept with, who wouldn’t shut the fuck up. Then I realized that in actuality I was a lot bolder than I thought I was, that everything I’d done in my life was a form of mild rebellion, and that, in the grand scheme of things, the opinions of people like Ricky A. didn’t matter, not in the end. So I did it. I reached over and swiped my finger across his lips, allowing it to linger against the wet pink surface of his tongue.

“You had foam on your mouth,” I said.

He licked his lips and leaned in close so there would be no mistaking it, so that I could see the intensity in his eyes when he told me this:

“I know—I was waiting for you to do that.”

* * *

We went to my bedroom and started kissing. I switched off the lights. Ricky A. switched them back on.

“No. I want to see you.”

There was a sudden gravity in his tone, as if, in the time it took to wander upstairs, he had grown a bit, become more of a man, as if all the innocence from before was just an act, a performance.

I was melting inside.

“I haven’t been to the gym,” I said, shyly. And then, “How old are you?”

Ricky A. laughed. He took off his shirt. His body was brown and muscled, with tattoos everywhere, on his chest and his stomach and his back. A line of thick dark hair traveled down his belly and disappeared into the waistband of his shorts.

“How old do I look?”

“Nineteen?”

He laughed again. “Take your dress off.”

I did as I was told, wiggling out of it in a sort-of dance, aware of how the roles had quickly reversed, how it was he who was suddenly in control. He stared at me baldly, taking me in.

“Now your bra.”

I couldn’t remember the last time I had been naked in front of a man, and yet there was power in this, exposing myself to someone I had no interest in, who would never know the inner workings of my life. I flung my bra over the bed and, without him asking, my panties, too. He brought them close to his face.

“You smell amazing.”

“I do?”

“Like flowers.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah.”

I smiled, vindicated. Then I asked him again, “How old are you?”

He said he was twenty-two.

* * *

He spent the night. I wanted him to. He pressed his naked body against mine and we stayed like that for hours. I had a dream that Ricky A. was actually a Ph.D. student who worked as a cable guy on weekends just to pay the bills, that we were married in a small but tasteful ceremony, and that we had three beautiful little girls. I woke up with a smile on my lips, turning over to nuzzle my face against the dark damp nest of his armpit, when I realized he was gone.

“Ricky?”

I sat up in bed, scanning the walls for his patchwork body, but he wasn’t in the room. I rubbed my eyes and discovered that his clothes were still in a pile on the floor. His wallet was still on the nightstand. His thick white socks were still hanging from the floor lamp. I could still smell him on my sheets, a mix of cologne and sweat that would remain until I did the washing, which wasn’t very often. I walked downstairs. Ricky was staring at the picture of Lord Shiva on the windowsill, picking it up in his hands, when he noticed me and smiled.

“Good morning.”

He opened his arms to hug me and I knew, by the way my body went limp in his embrace, that I wanted him gone.

“Thanks, Ricky,” I said. “For everything.”

It was at this particular moment that his expression suddenly changed.

“Oh yeah,” he said, wincing. “About that. My name—it’s not Ricky.”

“What?”

“You kept saying it last night, and I didn’t want to disappoint you, in case it was some sort of fantasy. But that’s not my real name. Not even close. My real name is Ernesto.”

“But your shirt,” I said.

He shook his head. “That’s just a generic name. The company doesn’t want us to use our real ones. They definitely don’t want some guy going around introducing himself as Ernesto.” He laughed heartily.

I lowered my gaze. “Oh.”

I was strangely disappointed, as if this sudden revelation negated everything that had happened to me the night before, as if the real Ricky A. was still out there, waiting for me. I also knew that I would never see him again. I occupied myself in the kitchen while Ernesto went upstairs and put on his clothes and washed his face and brushed his teeth with his finger, singing and splashing all the while. Then I followed him to the door. Outside, the morning light was bright, the sun blasting through the clouds like brilliant shards of glass.

“Can I call you?” Ernesto said. “Can we hang out?”

“Sure,” I replied—though I knew that we wouldn’t, that it was a mistake I would never make again—and I watched him jump into his Chevy Tahoe and disappear down the road.

* * *

I have never told Vibash any of this. I was too embarrassed. He called two days later, to ask for a second chance, and we agreed to meet at a restaurant overlooking the water, and a coffee shop the next day, and a movie theater the following weekend. We kept meeting, at restaurants and bars, theaters and nightclubs, playgrounds and parlors, until six months later, when he asked me to move in. It became a legend: the story of our failed first date. Sometimes I would start to tell it, and Vibash would chime in, filling in the gaps. I would cringe when he got to the part about leaving the bar—he had no idea what I had done. No one did. I kept it to myself, wincing whenever a colleague happened to say something positively bland like “What a night!” or “I guess it was meant to be!” I would nod along and smile, resting my head against Vibash’s shoulder. It was something I did quite often: the nodding and smiling. After canceling my lease, I packed my things in boxes and moved into Vibash’s slate-colored house. It had a smooth green lawn and a patio with a pool, and sometimes I liked to lie there with a glass of white wine. I redecorated his house with beaded wallpaper and off-white lacquer. Vibash installed a security system. We threw a party for our friends—the dentists and doctors and lawyers, the engineers at Vibash’s firm—and later, after everyone had left, he surprised me with a ring. I had mended fences with Valerie and some of the other women I had offended during the course of my misery, and was subsequently flattered when they ushered me back into their lives. With their help, I became a new woman, adorned with certainty, varnished with pride, glittering with the trappings of a shared life. Sometimes I looked at old pictures of myself and wondered where all the misery went, if it was still lurking somewhere deep inside. Now, whenever I posted a picture of myself on Facebook, Vibash was there, standing by my side, his arm wrapped lovingly around my shoulder, his hand clasped tightly in mine. At night, I stared at these pictures for hours, reading the comments that proliferated like weeds beneath them, bolstered whenever someone happened to post something positive, offended when they didn’t.

I was doing this one evening when the Wi-Fi went out again.

* * *

It was late, and Vibash and I were watching a documentary on Netflix. The screen halted, and Vibash walked over to the modem and picked it up in his hands.

“The Wi-Fi is out,” he said. He unplugged the modem and waited a few moments before plugging it back in again. But it didn’t work. “Goddamn it. We were just getting started. I’ll have to call the cable company now.”

He flipped through a phone book and walked into the kitchen. I heard his voice in the hall. He returned with a smile.

“They said they can send someone over in fifteen minutes. That’s pretty fast.”

I finished my glass of wine, quickly pouring another one. Vibash was staring at me.

“Easy there.”

I glanced at my wristwatch and the sunset outside, which smoldered behind a row of black, lacy trees. The doorbell rang. Vibash ran to answer it. I sat down on the couch, examining a mysterious stain on the carpet—red wine, or maybe one of Vibash’s protein shakes—when he walked into the room.

* * *

He looked the same, except he was wearing a different-colored shirt, and his name wasn’t Ricky anymore; it was Ted. Vibash chatted with him in the foyer before leading him into the house. He didn’t look at me. He went straight to the modem. Vibash was still talking about the documentary he and I were watching, something about Vikings or samurais or spies, when he looked at me and smiled.

I dropped my glass of wine.

“Jesus, Anita,” Vibash said. “What’s wrong?”

The glass shattered against the smooth slate floor, and red wine pooled at my feet. Vibash went into the kitchen to fetch towels and napkins and a portable vacuum cleaner, leaving the two of us alone.

“So,” Ernesto said, “how long have you and your husband been in this house?” He was staring at the blank walls beyond us, the vaulted ceiling above, and I realized, suddenly, that he had no idea who I was.

“Just a couple months,” I said. “And he’s not my husband.”

“Oh.”

“He’s my fiancé,” I said, “and we’re getting married next year.”

“Congratulations.”

He stared at me without the slightest trace of recognition. Then he turned and examined the bookcase next to the modem that housed our statues and albums and books. He picked something up in his hands, and I knew, even before he had the chance to look at me with a curious arch of his brow, what it was: the picture of Lord Shiva. I had always hated it, but Vibash insisted we display it in public, in case my mother ever came to visit. “This is beautiful,” he said. Vibash returned with the towels. The Wi-Fi was up and running again. Ernesto picked up the remote control and reloaded the documentary. It seemed to me, in that moment at least, that we stood like that for a very long time, all three of us, waiting for it to start. ?


Copyright © 2018 by Neel Patel