Sumi waits outside the dorm for thirty minutes before Mary, a fellow grad student, shows up. They’re late for the brainstorming session at Wray’s house.
The radio in Mary’s car crackles, volume on high since the windows don’t roll up. There’s a grassy smell inside the car. Sumi wonders if it’s marijuana. The taxi driver who brought her from the airport last week said he could smell weed five miles from campus.
Mary asks, “How come you enrolled for the spring quarter? Most international students come in September.” She’s wearing a shabby cotton skirt and a sleeveless blouse that reveals unshaven underarms. Her white skin’s tanned copper.
Sumi feels overdressed in her salwar kameez.
“I didn’t want to wait.”
Back in India, folks asked her the same question, exerting not-so-subtle pressure. “You broke your engagement to Rahul and now you’re going to the States? Do you realize how hard it is to find someone?”
At Wray’s house, Mary leads her to the backyard where an oversized, claw-footed tub takes center stage. Sumi bites her lip when she sees embers glowing under it.
Wray, bare-chested, runs up and hugs Mary.
Sumi stares at her feet, unwilling to look at Wray’s smooth, white torso. Her toes are squished into the tight straps of her sandals.
She remembers Rahul’s fat, hairy arms, his generous physique. He told Sumi she must eat more.
“Hi, beautiful,” Wray greets Sumi.
The easy tribute fits awkwardly, like an over-starched sari she wants to wriggle out of.
Rahul didn’t believe in compliments. Her parents picked Rahul. At the movies, he fumbled with her blouse, his hands emboldened by the right bestowed on him, or perhaps the titillation on the screen.
“Beer?” Wray asks. “I like your outfit.”
The beer is bitter, smelly. She gulps it.
Wray hands her a paper plate.
The ridged potato chips and white, creamy dip taste delicious. So does the macaroni and cheese. She accepts a second beer.
Wray runs his fingers through the water.
“Come on, ladies,” he calls. “Discussion time!”
Mary takes off her skirt and top to display a bikini. She steps into the tub, carrying her drink.
Sumi chokes on a chip, coughs.
“We won’t tell anyone in India,” Wray jokes. “Come in.”
She hugs her book bag, shakes her head, drinks more.
“Come on, Sumi. Come on, Sumi,” they set up a chant.
Rahul took her to a romantic restaurant by a lake. His eyes roved, rested on a woman at the next table. When he brought his gaze back, he asked her what she thought of the recent ads for a skin lightening cream. The ads promised to make women lovely.
She picked up her handbag and left. He’d shattered all illusions of romance. Reminded her that this was an arrangement: Rahul would insult her, yet he would marry her, the boss’s daughter, in exchange for a meteoric rise up the company ladder.
She can be free here. She can be brave here. She can step into a tub with strangers.
A phone rings inside the house. “God, that’s my adviser,” Wray says. “Someday, I’ll have a better hot tub. Someday, I’ll finish my dissertation. Someday, I’ll have a great job. Mary, can you answer that, tell him I’m not here?”
Dropping her book bag into a chair, Sumi takes off her salwar and slides into the hot tub. Her top floats up around her hips.
Sudha Balagopal’s recent fiction appears in Fictive Dream, Spelk Fiction, Brilliant Flash Fictionand Jellyfish Reviewamong other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections, There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com