JOSH
By: Vijay Balakrishnan | Categories: Art, Kudos, Serial Fiction

Josh, from a young age, had a fascination with Indian culture, starting with Haji on Johnny Quest, moving on to his parents’ Ravi Shankar albums, then to the Buddha himself. He turned Buddhist in high school in Skokie, and by the time he came to New York for college, he’d boned up on Zen and at least the popular Tibetan stuff. He tried his best to sit daily for an hour in meditation, and spent the rest of his time intensely studying philosophy, or pre-law in parentspeak.

One night he went to a party with loud music and a pretty Indian girl came up and talked to him, and when he introduced himself she misheard his name as “Jagdish,” and he was drunk enough to go along with it, inventing his Indian family in Illinois, stitching together all the stories from his Indian friends in high school, even falling into a light lilt in his accent. The whole thing went off beautifully. He didn’t get her number or anything, but he knew he was not only convincing, but actually kind of charming. Something he could never be accused of in his old personality. Where Josh was overly cerebral, socially awkward, getting in his own way, Jagdish was fluent and easy. He had nothing to prove.

The next morning, hung over, he laughed about his escapade, even feeling slightly guilty for the deception. He worried about running into the girl on campus, but he never saw her again. His social life remained as tortured as ever in the metropolis. A few infuriating dates, stupid nights in clubs, sex once the whole year (too drunk to remember details, but not good anyway), and the occasional dinner with a couple of bitter philosopher pals. It was on an evening when he was particularly distraught about the state of his affairs that he saw the sign for “The South Asian Student Association Social.” It was starting right then and was one block away. As though compelled by a larger force, he made his way to the address, and hesitated for just one second before joining a stream of South Asians on their way to the party. The muffled thump of a bassline was echoing through the stairwell, and Josh felt a blast of adrenaline as he walked into the large hall, paid his two dollars, and penned, quite beautifully (something Josh would never do), the name, “Jagdish.”

*

Sure, he could pass. Though his parents, American-born, had met and married in Chicago, Josh’s father was Armenian and his mother was Spanish, both dark, Jewish, and practicing secular humanists. They liked conversation, good Sauvignon Blanc, and the basic extravagances (including a great little 25-foot yacht docked in Lake Michigan); and above all they enjoyed the freedom to denounce the entire corrupt apparatus while indulging in drunken utopian fantasies. Former student radicals, now his father was at the peak of his career as an ophthalmologist and his mother ran a gallery of figurative painting on LaSalle Street. They were wildly successful, certainly glamorous, quite intelligent and philanthropic in their way, but ultimately infantile. Basically good, Josh thought, but somehow decadent. As mother and father he knew they had failed him. Their narcissism wouldn’t allow them to engage him beyond the social requirements of parental responsibility. Or maybe he was born overly sensitive. Whatever the case, he grew up in a climate of what felt like neglect, turning inward for comfort. It’s difficult to say which came first, their neglect or his withdrawal from them. “The chicken or the egg?” Jagdish asked out of the blue.

“Both,” said the small, pretty girl (definitely girl, not woman), with close-cropped hair. She was in jeans and a purple halter top. “Or neither,” she added, smiling slyly, nodding her head to the beat of the Hindi hybrid club-mix blasting out of a boom-box.

Jagdish was swaying himself, almost ready to dance. He’d had nothing to drink and yet he was feeling as loose as ever. She wasn’t wearing her name-tag. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Anita. You’re,” she checked his tag, “Jagdish.” Her accent was close to Midwestern. Heartland America, a certain openness, a flatness, something familiar. She gave him her hand to shake and Jagdish was pleased it was a firm grip, and that she met his eyes squarely. “Nice to meet you,” he said.

“This is pretty good,” she said. “Great turnout. Nice vibe.”

“Yeah. Hey, I really liked your answer. Both and neither.”

She laughed. “Some bull.”

“Want to dance?” And that was a first in Jagdish’s life, and sadly in Josh’s too, asking a stranger to dance. It was surprisingly easy, and he knew he wouldn’t be hurt if she refused. Instead she said, “Sure.”

She led the way across the cavernous room, her steps slowly turning into dance steps, her hips swaying, ready to join the small cluster of other dancers. Jagdish kept his eyes on her, or on her butt to be more precise, and his absorption was far beyond the sexual, though it was that too, it having such a fine form. He watched the sway and he swayed with it, two steps behind her, in rhythm, in time. She didn’t see it, but he knew she felt it, and that it was good. They turned, finally facing each other, in perfect sync to the beats of old-school EPMD mixed beautifully with Hindi female wailing. Jagdish did a spin, Temptations-style, and Anita smiled, performing salams of respect. He danced towards her, getting close. She wouldn’t look up, her face inches from his chest, their hips even nearer. A heat was building, making Jagdish flush as he slowly moved his hands to place them on her hips. Then the song ended. She backed away from him, clapping with a few others, looking everywhere else but at him. The next move should be natural, thought Josh, and horrified, he realized he’d lost Jagdish.

The first thing Josh noticed was that there was something wrong with the sound-system. Two guys, one a Sikh and the other a hipster with a goatee, were fiddling with the boom-box. The speakers popped and crackled, bits of song blared out, distorted. People started leaving the dance floor and Josh became uneasy, suddenly aware of what he was doing, the insanity of it. Anita touched his elbow. “Get some punch? I hear it’s spiked,” she said.

“Um…okay,” Josh said, and he felt himself begin to tip forward. He worried he was going to pass out, then regaining balance, he followed her to the snacks table, where she poured them both paper cupfuls of bright red punch. Josh took a sip, happy to find it well-dosed. “Were you born here?” he asked. He was trying, with the help of alcohol, to relax, be natural, but he knew he sounded formal.

“Here? As in New York? No. As in America, yeah. You?” Her eyes were twinkly.

“Skokie, Illinois.”

“Get out.” She punched him lightly on the arm. “I grew up in Highland Park. Till high school anyway. Then we moved to the glorious Garden State.”

In any normal circumstance, such a fortuitous point of connection, the basic geography of childhood, would be a godsend in the mating game. Yet Josh only worried about the networks spanning the Chicago suburbs, waiting to expose him. He was mightily twisted inside, staring at Anita’s juicy lips. “Where are your parents from?” she asked.

“Uh…India.”

She laughed. “Yeah, I know that. Where? Like region?”

“Oh, Bengal,” he said, because it’s the first thing that came to mind. He’d read a little Tagore, seen some Ray and also Malle’s Calcutta.

“You like fishheads?”

“Excuse me?”

“I thought Bengalis ate fishheads.” She puckered her lips and crinkled her nose cutely.

Now Josh regretted that he didn’t say Kerala, because his friend Rajan in Skokie was from there. He’d been to their house, eaten their food, seen their vacation videos where they took a trip to the synagogue in Cochin. He would have been much more confident. What were his options as a know-nothing Bengali-manqué? Hey, how about that Apu Trilogy? He’d veered into disaster. He was taken by a big fear. He even smelled fear on himself. “Yeah, my parents eat them sometimes, but I don’t really go for them. How about you? Which region?” Not bad, Josh thought, not bad for scared shitless.

“Kerala,” she answered brightly. Without hesitation, without a thought of his firmly held atheism, Josh thanked God. And though the coincidence wasn’t anything extraordinary, he took it to be a sign, and in his wonderment, he opened a secret door inside himself. And out hopped Jagdish, sporting a winning grin, all set to party.

*

They didn’t sleep together. Jagdish stayed in top form, walking her to her apartment (a two bedroom shared by three girls), getting her number, and even landing a goodnight kiss, lip to lip, that was sexy but not sloppy or in any way presumptuous. Walking home, he was light on his feet, hovering. Not until he got to his studio, owned by dad, and put the key in the lock did he come out of his trance. Excitement mutated into agitation; restless, he flipped channels, getting stuck in a Real World marathon. He dozed and woke to the TV’s heartless chatter. Turning it off, he went to bed feeling lousy.

Josh knew the next morning that he was in trouble. There was a worrying taste in his mouth that he associated with the onset of depression. It was a peculiar taste, like disintegrating tissue, like moss. Your mouth signaling that other parts of the head are preparing to go on strike. The big slow-down. Nothing moving without further talks. “What the hell did you do?” Josh said out loud. He opened his eyes wide, staring at a silver band of light reflecting off the polished wood floor. He stood, grabbing his meditation cushion, and returned it to the nook on the side of the Murphy bed. He made himself a cup of coffee and stared at the matchbook cover on which Anita’s number was scrawled. How pretty she was, and how nice, and funny, and smart. How happy they would be together. If only he were Jagdish. But who’s kidding who here? He is Jagdish, or at least Jagdish came out of him, was a part of him.

What freaked him out was how little communication the two selves seemed to have with each other. When he was Jagdish, he had no desire to be reminded of Josh’s web of complexes. And Josh, quite naturally, was alarmed at the existence of Jagdish at all. He picked up the matchbook cover, looking closely at Anita’s rounded script. He began to tremble as he remembered the charge he felt walking near her, inhaling her sweet smell. What a rat I am, he thought, deceiving that lovely girl. What terrifying karma to have sown. I have condemned myself to the hell realms.

But why did the impersonation create such a feeling of unprecedented freedom? Why, unlike any other time, was he able to suspend his analytical self, and, as they say, go with the flow? Josh was no stranger to the experience. Once, in walking meditation at a retreat, he saw with crystal clarity that he was a part of the whole, and it was a genuine realization, that life in fact lived him, and not the other way around. Yes, he’d done flow; he’d just never done it with people. As long as he could remember, people presented a problem. They were always too jarring, too crude, altogether too noisy. He was a cranky child and grew, even through his deepening commitment to Buddhism and philosophy, into a cranky young man. His friend Toby once questioned the value of Josh’s meditation practice on a day when Josh was in a particularly poisonous mood. “Imagine,” he’d replied, “how I’d be without it.” He thought of calling Toby or one of his other school friends. If he believed what he’d done was merely a prank, he might have called. Finishing his coffee, though, he realized he felt too compromised by his confusion to go to his buddies, too vulnerable to be laughed at even a little. He was sorry that he’d refused his parents’ offer to pay for a regular shrink, which would’ve come in handy right then.

It looked to be a beautiful spring Saturday outside, the birds chirping, the apartment bathed in light, and Josh sensed an almost visible gloom creeping along the floor like dry ice smoke, wrapping around the legs of his chair, his ankles. He sprang up, quickly changing into his running gear, and sped down the steps. Outside, he started a slow jog from his door on 92nd into Central Park. His heart began pumping strongly, blood carrying badly needed oxygen to his brain, chasing away his sluggishness. He joined the circular road of bikers, joggers, and bladers; he sprinted in bursts, then slowed, walking off the track, looking up at the blue sky and cottony clouds, feeling cocooned by the verdant trees, the new blossoms. Paradise. He flopped on a small hill of lawn, watching a surprisingly active baseball game with kids in uniforms who couldn’t have been more than ten years old. A scrawny kid came up to bat, the pitch was released, he swung, and hit. A split-second later, Josh heard the clean smack of wood hitting ball. And that sound, the purity of it, the crispness, made him shudder. Lying down, he closed his eyes, and it was as though he were rushing through an infinite tunnel. His breathing sped up and he was on the verge of panic when his eyes opened to see a majestic hawk soaring in the big blue sky. It seemed to float in one spot before it swooped and flapped its huge wings only once, catching another air-stream. He watched the bird, marveling at its precision, the economy of effort. He began snickering, then laughing, kicking his legs up and down. He was a balloon inflating with a kind of knowledge he could not interpret or translate into words. He only had the feeling that the hawk, the clouds, the sky, and the universe were all the perfect expression of an entity, a living entity. “This is not emptiness,” Jagdish said, rolling around in the soft grass, “it’s God.”

*

“Hello. May I speak with Anita?”

“Who’s calling?” said the girl on the other end.

“Jagdish.”

“Just a sec.” She covered the mouthpiece and Jagdish heard muffled voices and girlish laughter, setting off electric currents in his joints, his elbows, his knees. Small bursts of delight. “Hello?” Anita said, and he wanted to scream with excitement.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hi. How do you feel?”

“Great. Spectacular, as a matter of fact.”

“Lucky you. I’m hung over from that punch. I didn’t think I drank that much, but I guess I did. I’ve got so much shit to do, too.”

“It’ll get done, you know it will. What you need is a recovery day. It is truly beautiful outside. A perfect spring afternoon. A walk in the park. Ice cream. Maybe a movie, later.”

“Does the word ‘finals’ mean anything to you? I’m pre-med, remember?”

“You’re also clearly brilliant and capable and will make one heck of a doctor.”

“I can’t tell whether you’re making fun of me.”

“No, no, no…I’d like to see you is all.”

She was quiet for a few seconds. “That’s sweet,” she said.

“I’m glad you feel that way. I mean, I wasn’t sure, you know, whether it was too soon or too overt or whatever.”

“No. I like it. I like it a lot. I’ve just got too much to do. I’m sorry, Jagdish, I can’t afford the time. Don’t you have to study?”

“Three papers. No exams. And then I’m all done.”

“It’s so exciting. I wish I were graduating.”

“Look out world, huh? You sure I can’t persuade you? Guaranteed fun. Money back.”

“Ohhh,” she said sounding genuinely dismayed. “Stop it. We’ll do it soon, okay? It sounds lovely.”

“Can I call you again some time?”

“I may even call you.” She laughed, and again a tickling feeling went resonating through his cells. “Hey, you know…” she said. “Nah, forget it. It’s too weird.”

“Weird’s okay. What? Tell me.”

“An old friend is getting married next week. It’s the only night I can take off, and I thought, maybe, oh forget it.”

“Wait. Are you asking me to go with you?”

“I just thought…”

“I’ll go. I’d love to go.”

“You don’t think it’s too soon or too overt or whatever?” She laughed.

“Love to go.”

“It’s a week from today. Meet me at my place at three o’clock. I’ll have my parents’ car.”

“Can’t wait.”

“So, I’ll see you then,” she said brightly. “Wear a suit. These folks are kind of fancy.”

“Now you have me worried.”

“Bye,” she said, her voice sounding extra-childlike.

“Next Saturday,” he said and hung up. He danced around his apartment singing, “I believe in miracles. Where you from? You sexy thang, you sexy thang. I believe in miracles since you came along, you sexy thaaang.” He danced up to the sink, ran the tap and filled a glass with water. Bringing it to his lips, he peered in, and through the distortion, saw his magnified fingers. He changed focus to the surface and watched the corner of his face warp into amoebic shapes, then shifted attention again to his fingers, the pale ovals where skin and glass touch. At first he was enraptured by the wonder of perception itself, yet as he kept staring at his twisting face in the water, Josh crossed the oh-so-fine line between miracle and terror.

“I’m cracking up, Robbie,” Josh said. They were sitting on folding chairs in the corner of the empty Zendo, Robbie still in his ceremonial robes, a whiff of sandalwood incense in the air.

“Not in good way, I presume.” Robbie smiled a little and his head looked like the moon. He’d been a resident monk there for six years, but had been sitting Zen since 1966 in San Francisco. Robbie was the first to correct Josh’s posture when he started going to the Zendo regularly. Robbie he could trust.

“Not great, no. Well, sometimes it is.”

“I see,” he said, the smile more pronounced.

“I don’t even know what’s going on.”

“And why is that important?”

“Because it would be nice to know, that’s why.”

“You can’t describe it any way? That’s interesting.”

Josh didn’t like the tone of that interesting. “Okay. Here goes. I started impersonating being an Indian guy, and now he, well, he sometimes sort of takes over, in a way.” Josh chuckled, and there was a desperate edge to it.

Robbie’s eyes squinted, he tilted his head, cocking his ear, like he was trying to listen harder. “Okay,” he said and though he tried to contain himself, he laughed. Josh nervously joined him. “That’s extraordinary. What do you mean he takes over?”

“You know, suddenly I’m just him. Like a possession or split personality. And here’s the truly weird part…”

“I can’t imagine.”

“The Indian guy has a really excellent time. And when,” Josh made quotes in the air, “ ‘I’ return, I go into a crashing depression.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“A few days. Huge mood swings. And…and…I also made a date as the Indian guy. With an Indian girl.”

“Not good.”

“You know I’ve had manic episodes before. I know the turf okay. But this is something else.”

“I have some friends who are therapists. Maybe you need to do some sustained inquiry.”

“Maybe.” Josh was dead gloomy. “I don’t know, there’s something kind of infantile about that Indian guy. It’s like he’s giddy. Like he sees no problems, no suffering. He also reminds me of my parents in a way. I’m not sure I even like the guy. So why is he showing up? You see what I’m saying?”

“Frankly, no, Josh. You’re not making much sense. Why did you impersonate an Indian in the first place?”

“An accident, a joke. Just something that got out of hand.”

“You know, of course, Jews were persecuted into impersonation.”

“What?”

“In history and even now. How do you feel about being Jewish?”

“Fine. Great. It’s not some twisted self-hatred thing. That’s not in me.”

“But it seems like you’re telling me you don’t know what’s in you.”

And Josh thought about it, whether the weight he felt he always carried around had anything to do with his inherited Jewish culture, whatever that was. He faced the problem of a fish trying to describe water. “Here’s something odd,” Josh said. “The Indian guy is totally God-drunk. And as you know I am a confirmed atheist.”

“Is that so?”

“Well, yes. Aren’t you?”

“Am I?”

“Come on, no kung-fu grasshopper stuff. You must be.”

“Why? I’m a monk, a man, a Jew, a Buddhist, a father, a brother, a theist, an atheist, an American, an anti-American, I’m happy, I’m sad, etcetera, etcetera. The point is I am none of these things.”

“Exactly. No self. So what if I’m also this Indian guy?”

Robbie’s smile evaporated. His face was stern, his eyes unblinking. “You are carrying out a deception. That’s a very different thing. That’s a very strong self. As you say, a full other personality. You have to figure out why you’re doing that. What kind of repression is being worked through. And why you feel it necessary to project your fantasy onto a whole other culture.”

Josh wanted to say, hey, I’m not the Brooklyn Jew with a shaved head saying prayers in Japanese. He realized talking to Robbie wasn’t helping. “Okay Robbie, thanks.”

“I really think you would benefit from seeing someone,” Robbie said, getting up. He went into the small back room that functioned as an office and came back with a piece of paper. “I would call Mark first,” Robbie said, handing it to him.

“Thanks,” Josh said, standing. He folded the paper and put it in his pocket.

“You can call me anytime. You know that. But seriously, talk to a professional.”

“Sure,” Josh said. They shook hands and Josh went down the slanted hallway, punching the button for the elevator. No hands, no eyes, no ears, no mouth, and no help, Josh thought riding down. He didn’t even get a chance to talk about what truly concerned him, that even though he wasn’t sure he liked it when Jagdish popped up, he’d also felt, over the last few days, a strong yearning for his presence. Josh had dialed Anita’s number twice, but hung up when someone answered, his throat dry, his mind a blank. He needed Jagdish, yet every attempt at impersonating him, trying the full array of acting class tricks, sense memory, creating a script, whatever, all seemed hollow and stagy, enormously uncomfortable. Jagdish had vanished and the wedding party was imminent.

*

Why didn’t he say he was feeling sick? Or why didn’t he tell her the truth and get it over with? Why did Josh wake up that morning uncharacteristically praying to God? And why, when he prayed, did he pray for courage? Because he knew he would get into his suit, polish his shoes, and go to her apartment. He knew that he would find himself sitting, nearly paralyzed with fear, waiting for Anita to emerge from the bedroom. His one consolation was that checking himself in the mirror, he thought he looked good, more streamlined than stumpy, which the wrong suit could easily do.

“All set,” said Anita, stepping out in a blue silk salwar kameez, a white scarf around her neck flying behind her like wings. A vision. She was peering inside a white patent-leather purse, most likely at a mirror, because she traced her eyebrow with her pinkie. She snapped it shut, looking up with a warm smile. “Hey, you look great,” she said.

Josh stood and cleared his throat, thinking, hug? No hug? Kiss? No kiss? Kiss where? Lips? Cheek? Border? He took two steps in her direction. Now he had to say something. She was looking at him expectantly. Seconds were going by. “Ahem, hi,” he said. She took a step toward him and he kissed her formally on the cheek. He didn’t linger, but even so her scent, like jasmine and wild flowers, almost made him faint. They stood silent for another few seconds.

“Let’s go,” Anita said, breaking the spell.

“Rock n’ roll,” Josh said, immediately thinking, Stupid, stupid, stupid. “So who’s your marrying friend?” he asked, following her down the stairs.

“Anju. We spent a lot of time together as kids.”

“She’s Indian?” Josh asked and regretted it immediately.

Anita stopped in the foyer between the doors, turning to face him. She studied him quizzically. “Yeah,” she said. “From Kerala, like me. Don’t worry, there may even be some Bengalis there.” She tapped him on the chest.

“Great.” For a second he thought about breaking into a sprint, and then moving to northern Montana. Instead they walked to the car, Josh praying for strength, praying for guidance. Anita talked about her friend Anju and her fiancé, but he found it nearly impossible to pay attention. I am lost, Lord. I am nothing. You are everything. “You know,” Josh said snapping his seat belt in place, “I don’t even know Bengali.”

“I speak Malayalam,” she said. She expertly pulled out of the parking place. “So your parents didn’t teach you, huh? That’s too bad. I thought Bengalis were like these language freaks.”

“Yeah. My family’s kind of messed-up.” The statement was purely defensive; he couldn’t help it, he was falling deeper into the lie.

“Hey what’s your last name, anyway. You never told me.”

“Oh, Ray.”

“O’Ray? You’re Bengali Irish?” She laughed.

“No. Ray. Jagdish Ray.”

“Any relation to the famous one?”

“No. No relation. Although I’m a big fan.”

“Yeah, he’s great,” she said. She clicked the stereo on and out came a funky bassline and the high Betty Boop sexiness of Macy Gray. “Oh, I love this,” Josh said and as he was liking Anita more, the anguish also grew.

“Are you okay?” she asked. She turned the volume down a few notches.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. You seem kind of bummed. Do you not want to do this?”

“No. No, it’s not that.”

“Are you on some kind of meds?”

“What?”

“It’s no big deal. My roommate Paula is. A lot of people are.”

“No, I’m not on meds.” But you will think I should be.

“Well, if it’s anything you want to talk about, don’t be bashful. I’m a big girl.” She winked at him.

“You look pretty,” Josh said. The words came from nowhere, formed in his mind with a physics of their own. It was how Jagdish usually made his entrance, stringing together a phrase so unlike Josh and yet so undeniable, so basic, that Josh would simply relinquish control. This time the words tumbled out in their free-flowing way, but to his great relief, he didn’t feel threatened by annihilation.

“Thank you. Took you long enough to notice.” She was grinning.

“I wanted to say it earlier, but I was too stunned by your beauty.”

“Now we’re talking,” she said. She merged onto the West Side Highway, heading north, driving fast. Josh watched the Hudson glittering in the late afternoon light, the river decked out in its gaudy jewelry, starbursts exploding on its rippling surface. He felt connected to that wild animation, but the feeling was submerged, quite deep in his psyche. And the good news was that Jagdish was nowhere to be seen.

*

Mostly Anita played CDs and they spaced out. She talked a little about her family and her plans to become a doctor, although she hadn’t yet decided which kind. Josh didn’t feel like embellishing new lies, so he spoke little about his background, even when Anita’s questions were pointed. He tried to talk about his studies, finding it hard to bring early Wittgenstein comfortably into a conversation. Josh kicked back, doing his best to relax, taking in the scenery on the Taconic, the new leaves sprouting on trees, the purple flowers dotting the grass. By the time she took the exit, he was calm enough to question his sudden religious fervor. If it was only a fear-based response, Josh thought, it was worthless. If he was just crying for help like a big baby, it was an insult to his intellect, his beliefs, and to truth itself.

Anita slowed down, hunched over, trying to read the street signs. They were in a ritzy suburb with big trees and an immaculate little church with a white steeple. She turned onto a narrow street with mansions on either side, hidden from view by trees and walls and iron fences.

Ahead, on the side of the road, they saw a giant SUV pull over and park. “Oh my god,” Anita said as they got nearer and saw fancy cars and SUVs lined up for nearly a quarter mile. “I heard his parents were loaded, but this is outrageous.” She parked behind the giant SUV as an Indian family, complete with three kids and two grandparents, alighted onto the street. The balding father in a suit turned to them and smiled. Josh sat frozen, overwhelmed by events.

“Let’s hit it,” Anita said. She touched up her lipstick in the rear-view mirror and got out of the car.

Josh found he couldn’t move his fingers, and he began to pray in desperation, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…. Finally, he opened the door, got out, and went to her side. They strolled down the sun-dappled road, behind the Indian family, turning into the gate, and up a long driveway leading to the four-columned monstrosity. “It’s like Gone With The Wind,” Anita said, chuckling. “Oh my god.”

“It’s something,” Josh said. They followed the line of guests into the main hallway, where they were greeted by waiters with glasses of champagne. Josh took a big sip, letting Anita lead them through the length of the house and into the yard. There must have been two hundred people gathered around the oval pool and standing at small round tables scattered about the spacious lawn. Anita immediately saw some people she knew and ran up to them, her arms flung open. Josh followed slowly behind, wishing he were dead. He was gazing absently into the crowd when she grabbed him. “Come on. I want to you to meet some of my friends.”

She presented him to some youngish Indians, two women and a man. The man seemed suspicious of him. “This is Jagdish,” she said. “And this is Arpana, Kalyani, and Rajesh.”

“Nice to meet you,” Josh said.

They all said, “Hi,” almost in unison, and Rajesh offered his hand to shake. Josh shook it, realizing his own hand was clammy.

“You go to Columbia?” Rajesh asked.

“For two more weeks,” Josh said.

“You’re pre-med?”

“Pre-law.”

Rajesh smiled what Josh took to be a dismissive smile. “What’d you study? Like history?”

“Philosophy,” Josh said. For some reason, the women chuckled.

“Hey,” Rajesh said. “There’s someone you should talk to. Right, Arpana?” He was clearly already drunk.

“Oh, forget it, Raj. Don’t be a bore,” said Arpana.

“Yes, Raj. Drop it,” Anita said.

“No, really,” he said and leaned into Josh, almost falling on him, then pushing past. “There’s someone you must speak with.” He disappeared into the throng.

“Just ignore him,” Arpana said. “He’s drunk, and he’s jealous of anyone with Anita.”

“Oh,” Josh said.

“Don’t worry. He doesn’t get violent or anything like that.” Arpana raised one eyebrow. Anita laughed. “Oh, look at who he’s bringing,” Anita said. “It’s Mr. Menon, Anju’s grandfather.” Now Arpana laughed too.

“What’s so funny?” Josh asked.

“He’s very nice,” Anita said. “We all love him very much.”

Rajesh walked up with the aged Mr. Menon in tow. The tiny man had a few wisps of white hair at his temples, his pupils were light blue at the rims, and his face was one big smile, highlighting his magnificent dentures. “I told Mr. Menon that you’re a philosophy student,” Rajesh said.

“Hello everyone,” Mr. Menon said, shaking Josh’s hand, his grip trembling and weak.

“Pleased to meet you,” Josh said.

“Be nice,” Anita whispered.

“So, young man, you have chosen the noble vocation of philosophy, am I correct?”

“It’s my subject, sir,” Josh said, respectfully. Anita smiled, pressing against him, and that was just enough to make him forget his fear.

“Have you also studied our ancient philosophies?” Mr. Menon asked, his voice nearly oratorical. Arpana covered her laughing mouth.

“I am in fact a practicing Buddhist, sir,” Josh said.

“You are?” asked Rajesh as though Josh had said he was an insane maniac. Josh nodded.

“Why do you think Buddhism finally disappeared from India?” Mr. Menon asked.

“Well, a whole complex of historical…” Josh began.

“Ultimately,” Mr. Menon said, cutting him off, “because in Buddhism you are delivered to emptiness and in Hinduism you are delivered to fullness. You see, once you know, truly know, you see that suffering also is an illusion!”

“I don’t know about that,” Arpana said. “Tell that to kids dying of AIDS.”

“Or the mentally ill,” Anita added.

“Nothing better you could tell them,” Mr. Menon said. “Nothing more useful.”

All Josh knew was that his pain felt very real, he could almost see it in his mind’s eye, a pulsing globe of cold blue light where his heart should be. “But if it is all an illusion, what does it matter what one does?” Josh asked, his voice cracking.

“Yes, yes, an old question. Very good. I’ll tell you how it is. For some unfathomable reason, the only way to understand illusion, requires of us a vigorous commitment to truth. God’s joke.” Mr. Menon let out a soft cackle. His face was ancient and lined and innocent.

“I see,” Josh said. And he did clearly see the obscuration, the dense patch of his ignorance, his ridiculous cowardice in the face of folly. He knew what he needed to do. And do now. “I’d like to continue this discussion, sir, but if you’ll excuse me a moment?”

“Pleasure,” Mr. Menon said.

“Can I talk to you a second?” Josh asked Anita quietly.

“Be right back,” Anita said. She took his arm and they strolled towards the pool. “Well?” she asked.

Let me be true. “This is pretty weird. You see…I’m…I’m…not really an Indian.”

Time stopped for a second, two, three. She unhooked her arm in slow motion.

“What? I don’t get it.”

“I’m of Spanish and Armenian descent. I’m not Indian…. I am a Buddhist, though. And Jewish.

My name’s Josh.”

“Whoa. Hold it…. That’s really messed up.” She made a grimacing face, sorting the distasteful facts. “So you were just at the party to, like, cruise Indian girls? I can’t believe I kissed you.” She started walking away, shaking her head jerkily like she was trying to chase away a bee. Or a bad feeling.

Josh reached out to her. “Hey,” he said. “It wasn’t like that. At least hear me out. Please.”

To his relief and surprise she turned around, and said, “Not here.” She led the way across the lawn, weaving through the revelers raising toasts, the smart waiters in bow-ties proffering jumbo shrimps, past the well-dressed kids leaning perilously into the pool, away from the crowds, to a rustic picnic table on the edge of the surrounding woods. “Okay.” She sat, straddling the bench.

Josh sat at the other end, facing her. Her eyes were slightly squinted and cold, her lips scrupulously pursed. “I just came in as a lark,” he said. “But what happened with you that night was truly special in my life…. Extremely unusual. And then I was kind of trapped, you know? I didn’t know how to get out of it…. And I liked you. I liked us.”

“That’s it?” Clearly unimpressed, she got up and began to walk away.

“Actually, it was more…. It was scary, Anita. I think it was some kind of crack-up.” His voice was little and strained, his lip quivering. He must have been convincing, because she stopped. “I don’t know what to say,” she whispered, her head falling forward.

“I’m sorry, that’s all. Please forgive me.” He had never needed anything so badly. “Forgive me.”

She was silent for a few seconds, then turned to face him, her mask of suspicion giving way to a gaze full of mercy. She sighed, “Sure. Whatever.”

Josh stood. “I’ll understand if you don’t want me to stay at the party.”

She watched him stare at his shoes, biting his lower lip. He seemed ready to cry. “It’s alright,” she said. “It’s not like we had sex or anything. I mean, you’re not dangerous, right?” She smiled.

“No,” he said and he wanted to kiss her angel face, kiss the earth, the sky.

“But you’re definitely not boyfriend material.”

“Because I’m not Indian, or…”

“Or…” Her eyebrows raised.

“…because I’m a nut-job?”

“Bingo.”

Josh laughed out loud and Anita joined him, their laughter echoing through the woods. She led the way back to the party as a couple of waiters were lighting oil torches in rows, pointing the way to a circus dining tent. Josh watched a torch catch flame and a small boy shriek, thrilled by the sight of it. He watched the mother take the boy’s hand, leading him away from the fire. He saw rows of gangly creatures, impossibly balanced on two legs, shuffle their way to a feeding. He saw watery life on a watery planet, thriving in the sun’s violet evening light. Maybe there was no difference between emptiness and fullness. Maybe the problem was language, after all. And Josh lifted up his eyes on high and wondered, as giddy as Jagdish, Who created these?

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Read more from artist-in-residence Vijay Balakrishnan on HiLobrow.

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Vijay Balakrishnan was born in Ootacamund, South India, and immigrated with his family to Chicago at the age of nine. He’s co-written the feature screenplays Karma Local and Toussaint, published fiction in Miranda Literary Magazine, and his prose and photographs have appeared in The Paris Review. Recently, he published his first novel, Peace INC.