So it’s my first time in Vadodora, formerly known as Baroda, which is indeed much easier to say. The plane lets us off onto the steaming tarmac and the blistering 110 degree winds pulse over me. I head through the one terminal building and pass the two conveyor belts: the joy of traveling carry-on. A drove of photographers and cameramen gather outside. One of the bowlers from the Indian national team is on the flight. I ask my hotel driver his name, but he says he doesn’t know.
Once checked into the Taj Gateway, I make my way to the pool and eventually locate a lounge chair not dolloped in bird shit. The squalid, bean-shaped tub is warmer than fresh pee. With goggles firmly suctioned over my peepers, I slither in. A few amoebalike strokes later and an attendant in white trousers emerges in my periphery. He calls out in greeting. I interrupt my lap to acknowledge him and then float on my back. But the encircling and swooping fowl and bats soon start making me nervous, so I wade to the edge of the pool where the man gleefully beams in wait.
“Hello.” He appears very pleased that I’ve swum over. “Is it possible to order something from the bar and have it brought here?”
“Oh yes sir. Anything is possible.”
“That’s great. What kind of cocktails do you have?”
“You’d like a Pepsi?”
“No no, something with alcohol. Do you have a bar menu please?”
“No no, something from the bar. I saw the bar in the lobby. Can you bring me the bar menu?”
“How about fresh juice?”
A second attendant emerges and scurries over. He nods to me and says, “hello sir,” and the two men then murmur and confer. The second one now pipes in.
“Sir, would you like a juice cocktail?” I remove my goggles, he grins nervously.
“Is it possible to have a drink sent over from the bar, you know, something with alcohol?”
“Oh yes sir. We can do that for you. What would you like sir?”
“I’d love a cocktail if that’s possible. Your other Taj properties have these great specialty cocktails. It would just be really nice to sit out here and have a drink.”
“Oh yes sir, I know. One moment sir.” He scampers off leaving me and the first attendant smiling at one another gormlessly.
“You swim very nice sir.”
I chortle, “No, not really, but thanks.”
“Oh no sir. Your swimming very nice, very nicely.” He is adamant.
“Well thank you. You should see me drink cocktails.”
The second man now trots back. He’s carrying two bottles of water. He crouches down and hands me one.
“No no, I don’t want water, but thank you.”
“Aren’t you thirsty sir? Vadodora’s very hot today.”
“It is, yes. Never mind. That’s okay.”
“OK sir, I’ll leave it over there.”
“That’s fine, thank you.”
The first man says, “Sir, one moment please. I go get the manager.”
“Sure, whatever, thanks.”
I wriggle over the side of the pool and slosh my way to the open-air shower. While hosing off the scum, a more senior man in a black suit gently approaches.
“Good evening sir.”
I must appear like a pudgy white cow caught in the rain, but with goggles round my neck.
“Oh hello, good evening.” I try to ignore the fact that he is formally pressed while I’m half-nude and drizzling. We politely address one another as if our exchange were within the perfect bounds of normality.
“Yes. I was wondering if I might order a cocktail, or something from the bar, and have it served here by the pool.”
“Yes, I understand sir, but I’m very sorry. You see, Gujarat is a dry State.”
There are eight lounge chairs at the front of the cigar store placed four in a row. Jeff and Mike sit facing one another both puffing fat stogies. Pete stands behind the counter tending the register with a cigar in hand. From the designs on the ring bands I can tell they’re smoking the same brand.
Mike says, “Pete, is that your favorite fuckin’ cigar?”
“Yeah, I love the fuckin’ Dominicana Fleur de Toros.” Pete looks up from the till and examines the cigar, rolling it back and forth between his fingers.
Jeff says, “Yeah, that’s a good fuckin’ cigaw.”
I enter the walk-in humidor and scan the rows of open cigar boxes, each laid display like a baby dangling its legs. Pete peers in.
“Can I help you with anythin’?”
“Yeah, I’m looking for a Maduro wrap in a robusto.”
“Aw, you know your cigars, ok.” He steps halfway in.
“You tried the Avos?
“You have the XO’s?”
“Aw, you really know your cigars.”
“I used to work for De La Concha in the city.”
“Aw,” Pete shouts out to Mike and Jeff, now joined by a third, much larger man.
“This guy worked at De La Concha. You know, in the City.”
“De La Concha?” Jeff sits up and shouts at us through the glass wall.
“Yeah,” I say walking out with my stout Maduro Avo, “I worked there in ‘96 for the Melendis.”
“Oh,” Jeff seems excited. His mullet bobs, his sunglasses shake in their wiry gold frames. “Lionel sold that place years ago. Mike, when did Lionel Melendi sell that place?”
“Oh,” Mike thinks, “Could have been oh six, oh seven.”
Ten minutes later it would be Dursos, the pasta place on 35th. Then Utopia Bagels. Who owned it; how long it’d been there; when they did renovations. Etcetera. We knock back expressos with Sambuca and slowly sip Black Label while smoking and bullshitting. It is boring and beautiful. This is home.
A critic once wrote about Raymond Carver that he does what any great writer does: he makes the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange. Returning to my childhood in Queens, a business errand turns into a philosophical and cultural assault.
I drift through New York like a ghost, dodging remnants from the past like the throngs of tourists at Times Square while en route to wait for 40 minutes to get a lunchtime table at the Carnegie Deli. Or traversing Queens time and time again to midtown on the F Train and walking back and forth to the Pakistani Consulate, which is not incidentally directly opposite Emanu-El Synagogue on East 65th.
A high school friend’s daughter’s sixth birthday house party, where after twenty plus years I reunite with an old childhood friend and an old ex-lover. She’s grown haggard and rotund and is looking after a toddler and married and with his two children half the week. Eric and I have a brief but intimate catch up. And hardly a word spoken with Kim, apart from greetings and goodbyes. “Be safe,” her final thought, spoken after an obligatorily parting embrace. And so, what was a lifetime ago a magically fabricated romance is now a salutation at a suburban Sunday buffet.
But that’s not what any of this is about.
He is sprawled out across the hammock on his back, his wife and grandchildren all watching, one of the girls talking to him while he listens and sways. His face shines as though he has never known such bliss. The day is bright, the park semi-crowded. I can tell from his buck teeth that he works with his hands. He swings like a pendulum, his thoughts drifting from the far past to the grandchildren before him. This man has toiled his decades to the bone, and though weathered, he is not broken. A faint glimpse of consciousness glimmers from within his gaze. He is a child again, a young man; a different life, another world.
On our way out of the park we walk passed the hammock and it is empty. My son and his two friends and their three mothers continue up the path, and I say I’ll meet up with them by the car. I sturdy the wide hammock underneath me before I fall in and look up at the trees. Embracing the jet lag, the fleeting fragments of past days set in. New York, China. And this is where I am.
My husband and I just moved into our first apartment a little over two months ago. It’s a late-nineteenth century brownstown with most of the original brickwork on the interior. The building has been divided into two duplexes. We live in the top one and Enrique has the downstairs.
I had asked the landlord about Enrique just before we moved in. I was just curious who our new neighbor would be. But the landlord didn’t know too much. He said that Enrique was recently divorced and hadn’t even lived here a year. His job, which he didn’t know too much about, took him out of the country a lot. And his two young boys visited him on the weekends that he was home.
The first time we met Enrique was in the entranceway a few days after we had moved in. We were on our way in and he was going out, so we just said hello and exchanged names. He was a few years older than us and in good shape, and his brooding dark eyes brightened up when he smiled and shook my hand.
I bumped into him a week or so later at the local Chinese takeout. We introduced ourselves again and chatted briefly until our food was ready. He said that he was recently divorced and had two sons who were sometimes with him on the weekends. I asked him what he did and he said that he was the market manager of a color company.
“But what is it you do?” I asked
“Well, he said, “I’m the market manager of a company that manufactures colors.”
He pointed to one of my jacket buttons.
“We make these.”
“Oh. How do you like it?” I asked, adjusting my button.
“Well, it’s very demanding. I’m out of the country all the time. Next week I’m going to China for ten days.”
“That sounds exciting.”
“Well, yeah, I got a lot of friends there.”
“My husband was in China. He got me this necklace.” I held out my neck.
To my surprise he reached out and fingered the edges of one of its woven silver squares, staring inquisitively at the oval turquoise stones set in the middle of each square. He smiled.
There was an awkward pause, and we both looked over the counter to see what was going on in the kitchen.
“So,” he said, “are you recently married?”
“Just ten weeks.” And I showed him my ring.
He smiled again and held his smile a moment, as if he was thinking about something. And then his food came. And as he walked out he said, “Well, I wish the two of you the best of luck. It’s no easy thing what you’re doing, you know.” He waved to me over his shoulder. “I’ll see you around.”
I thought he seemed nice enough, but wasn’t it a bit rude to make that comment about my marriage, as if he was some expert or something. And he didn’t even ask me a single question about my husband or anything. Isn’t that kind of weird? I mean, we are his neighbors after all. But I guess it’s none of my business. Besides, he ordered Egg Foo Young.
I didn’t see him for weeks after that, but I would often hear him with different women through the brick walls. They would be laughing away and carrying on at all hours with the stereo going, playing this awful seventies music. My husband called it his boom-chicky-wah-wah music. For days after that we would laugh when we heard that music again, and my husband would say, “There goes Boom-Chicky-Wah-Wah Man again.”
But after a while I wasn’t so amused anymore. And I wasn’t so amused that my husband found Mr. Boom-Chicky-Wah-Wah’s philandering so funny, either.
One night while I was trying to watch TV, the music just got to me up to here, and in spite of my husband’s whining for me not to, I went downstairs anyway.
There was no answer at the door at first, and after I knocked louder, I could hear Enrique moan out load in aggravation.
“One sec,” he shouted.
He lowered the music and shuffled across the floor and opened the door.
There he stood, in the doorway, reclined up against the side, in a skinny little robe that barely covered him. He was smiling gleefully.
“Sorry,” he said.
“It’s just a bit too loud,” I remarked, unable to keep myself from looking him over a spec.
“It won’t bother you again,” he said, continuing to smile.
And then he closed the door. And just then I realized that that woman of his in there had been doing something to him from behind the door the whole time we were talking, because right after the door closed the two of them broke out into laughter, and I could hear him chase her from right there behind the door, all the way off.
Then, there was this one time when the outside buzzer rang. I ran downstairs expecting the laundry man, but it was one of Boom-Chicky-Wah-Wah’s girlfriend’s instead. I don’t know why, but I was excited to finally get a look at one of these chickadees. And I was thrilled to see that she was kind of shlumpy looking, wearing dark and heavy clothes. And as she shlumped up the stairs and looked up at me her glasses slid sideways on her face. But I was a little taken aback, though, because she was blonde and had fine thin features. But all this happened too fast and then Enrique opened his door saw me, and then she slid into his place.
I’ve never seen that one again, at least not from that close up, but I’ve seen her and others going up there at night from a distance, when I am standing on the corner and waiting for them to go in.
Then there were times when he would scream at his kids, I mean really scream, like he was going to murder them or something, and that scared the hell out of me, and it even made me stop listening up against the wall.
Then one afternoon when I was going out, I saw his ex-wife picking up the kids in her car. I was rather surprised. She didn’t look like the other women. I mean, she was fat. Or at least the part of her I could see in the car was fat: her face and walrus neck and slug-like arms. Enrique was leaning on the roof and talking to her while the kids got in, and she made some comment to him that she laughed at, and her pink face turned red and her blonde split-ends clung to her patchy cheeks. But Enrique only sort of grinned. And he looked over his shoulder at me and back, just barely acknowledging my presence. So I went in.
Just last week, I arrived home to find all the mail unsorted in a pile on the floor. There was a postcard from a chicky friend of his from upstate saying she would be in for the weekend and would “love to see you.” There was an issue of Esquire magazine. And there was a postcard from the library saying the book he requested has come in.
Then I did something which I couldn’t believe I did.
I actually pretended that I was Enrique’s fiancée to pick up the book from the library. I know, that’s crazy. But is it that crazy to find out who lives downstairs from you? I mean, this guy could be the psycho neighbor you hear people talk about on TV: “He seemed like anybody else, and then one day…”
Anyway, the book was nothing that revealing. Just one of those self-help type books by some PhD in something-or-other called “Coping as a Single Parent.” I didn’t even realize how silly it must have looked, me saying I was his fiancée and all, but as long as I paid my seventy cents they could give a hoot whether I was an alien.
But you know, I did actually end up flipping through the book a bit. My husband would joke with me about how I was planning to have his children and then skip town, but he had no idea why I had this book. He probably figured it was related to something I had seen on one of those TV talk shows. I did buy a book once about the aliens who live amongst us, which nearly scared the hell out of me.
But, this was different. I mean, I actually ended up feeling sort of sorry for Boom-Chicky-Wah-Wah man. After all, I couldn’t possibly have known what he was going through. For Chrissake, I had no more than only met the guy.
But then, not even a week ago something awful happened.
We were having problems with our plumbing. The refuse from the sink was coming up in the bathtub. I went downstairs to see if Enrique was having any trouble with his plumbing and one of his boys answered the door. He said that his dad wasn’t there right now but that he’d ask him about the plumbing when he got back. He couldn’t have been more than twelve, and I reminded him again to ask his dad about the plumbing. He just looked at me and said, “okay,” as if he wanted to be left alone to whatever it was he was doing. Knowing he was left there alone made me feel so sad, like I should reach out to him and reassure him that everything would be all right. That was one of the things the book said to do. He just nodded at me and closed the door.
Some time after Enrique knocked on our door. He seemed kind of chipper, and one of the first things he said as he walked in was how much he liked the place. He commented on the exposed brick walls with the ivy we were growing on them, and he looked at me and smiled, the way he did at the Chinese place, that smiley-sort-of-look. It caught me a bit off guard.
My husband showed him the problem in the bathroom and Enrique said he wasn’t having any trouble in his place. He saw one of my bras hanging over the sink and laughed and made a comment about his ex-wife. And my husband laughed and I blushed. He told us we should get the landlord to call the plumber and then said to me that if I ever needed anything else I should feel free to stop by.
Then Enrique followed my husband through the living room towards the kitchen to look underneath the sink, and that’s when I noticed the book laying on the coffee table. My god, I absolutely panicked. My husband was already futzing about underneath the sink and Enrique noticed me notice the book, and then he, too, looked over on the coffee table. My husband made some joke over his shoulder to Enrique and Enrique sort of laughed while he looked back at me. Then he said rather sternly that he had to get back to his kids and had things to do and he abruptly excused himself.
Anyway, maybe a friend of mine was reading the book and left it, or why the hell couldn’t I have taken it out of the library myself, by chance, or who knows. There was nothing for him to go on up here. “Things to do.” Christ. We all know what that means.
Later that night after the plumber had left, we were watching TV and Boom-Chicky-Wah-Wah man was playing his music and everything seemed back to normal around here. The telephone rang. I figured it was the plumber or the landlord checking up on us, but when I picked up the receiver there was no answer. So, I said, “hello?” a second time, and then waited.
In the background she could faintly hear the muffled tones of music, and just before she said hello a third time, she identified that music as the same sound coming through her apartment from downstairs.
I hang up the phone.