Summer of Love

By the time I poured my coffee, two men had texted me pictures of their breakfasts. Karan sent an image of a blender crammed with what looked like cottage cheese, peanut butter, and spinach. “Leaning into the masochism,” he typed, referring, I guessed, to the extreme fitness regime he had described on our most recent date. Alex, meanwhile, was starting the morning with a mess of scrambled eggs that incorporated the remains of the caprese we had prepared together at his apartment the night before. He accompanied this picture with the message “Mm… salad for breakfast.” I had nothing to say about his leftovers. But on the date that I had escaped only when the free parking on his street ended at 10 PM, Alex had shakily requested that I respond faster and more reliably to his text messages now that we were nearing two months of dating. So I held my thumb down on the picture of eggs and waited for the little “thumbs up” button to appear next to it. I tapped it.

I was sitting at my parents’ kitchen table in a suburb of Boston known for sending its children to swanky colleges. I did not actually live with my parents, but I was summering in the unaltered bedroom of my teenage years while they cooked and cleaned and bickered their way through whole days together following my mother’s recent retirement. I was thirty. I had come to Boston to enjoy the luxuries of a city, force out some academic articles for the sake of my tenure file, and find a husband. In case the life of regression should grow too oppressive, I was still paying rent on the apartment in the bumfuck Virginia town where I taught English. Thus far, though, not even daily parental editorializing on my unorthodox life could tempt me to return to the church-stuffed backwater whose sole cultural offering was a museum of wooden ducks.

My mother limped into the kitchen, grimacing; her hips gave out after she left the office. She wore the batik robe that I had purchased for her birthday from one of the do-gooder websites that claims to help poor women, whether through capitalism or by resisting capitalism I can’t remember. She carried her iPad, which disseminated the urgent tones of MSNBC commentators to our tired ears.

“Morning,” she said. She set the iPad on the counter. “Are you going out tonight?”

“Probably,” I said.

“Is that a yes or a no?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m working right now.” On my laptop, I dragged a Word document in front of Facebook.

“I need to know so I can plan dinner. If you’re out, I’ll make chicken. If you’re here, I’ll make fish.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “Make chicken. I’ll forage if I end up staying here.”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” my mother said. Behind her, MSNBC was airing clips of children wailing in grief, tears streaming down tiny faces, because the US government had separated them from their parents at the southern border.

“Going out,” I said.

“Which man?”

I told her I didn’t know. Another adult woman might have picked a name and stuck to it for convenience, but I never learned how to lie to my parents. I had been the unfortunate sort of teenager who never had anything to lie about.

“You’re impossible,” my mother said.

At that point in the summer I was dating three men: Karan, Alex, and Shri. All were academics with PhD in hand or near completion. Two were born abroad; Karan came from Oklahoma. My phone was quaking—Alex again. He was asking if I wanted to meet his lab mates for cocktails that night.

“Better check that phone, never mind the person talking to you in this room,” my mother said. Over her voice, the MSNBC anchors sawed their own anxious elegies for the demise of American norms in an era when innocent children could be held in cages. I didn’t respond to my mother or to Alex. I didn’t want hear more tales of his lab’s elaborate tortures of mouse cerebella, having quickly learned that neuroscience lost its glamor when explained by neuroscientists. Also I wanted to have sex, but something about Alex repelled me physically. I reserved sex for Shri, who I was hoping would ask me to spend this Friday night with him. I set the phone aside without texting.

A few hours later, I was still sitting at the kitchen table, pretending to produce scholarship over the clamor of cable news and my parents’ unhappiness. At last Shri texted. He invited me to his squalid Cambridge sublet for dinner. I smiled and texted Alex: “Sorry, can’t tonight. Maybe something tomorrow though?” He responded: “Tomorrow is great!” He suggested a day trip to the coast, which sounded like an impossibly grand commitment. I sent him a thumbs up and a blushing smiley face. To Karan I wrote: “Looks foul. At least use yogurt instead of cottage cheese.”

An hour later, I accepted Shri’s invitation.

 

I had met all three men online through an app that supplied a stream of people with better educational credentials than the general population, according to a few days of swiping profiles. The app let users exclude matches based on various criteria, so I eliminated anyone who claimed a religion other than “atheist” or “Jewish,” the classification I begrudgingly selected for my own profile. Under the category of race, I checked “no preference,” not wanting to confess my racial biases to anyone—least of all myself. My sister would later send me an article showing that many white women chose differently, often blocking Asian men. Because of this romantic racism, the app showed my profile to a lot of Asian men, and a large majority of the men who “liked” me fell into the vague category that could account for more than half the global population.

Things had ended with my last boyfriend a few months earlier. He was a scholar of Eastern religions, a big white brute with a chest deep enough to serve as soundproofing material. We comforted each other through the last years of our PhDs and idiotically attempted to stay together after accepting jobs a thousand miles apart. Without the palliative effect of sex, he soon wearied of the way I teased him about his field’s inherent Orientalism and derided his old white man mentors, all of whom seemed to have young Asian wives. He wearied of the way I disrespected him by getting drinks with my new male colleagues in Virginia and the way I slaughtered him in arguments about the stupidity of claiming it was disrespectful for a young professional woman to get drinks with her new male colleagues. When I couldn’t find anyone to get a drink with, he wearied of the way I whined about my loneliness and nihilistic despair in bumfuck Virginia, where there was no acceptable grocery store within an hour’s drive.

“You’re always obsessed with your suffering, with yourself,” he said on one of our bedtime Facetime calls, still high on the class he had taught that day on the doctrine of no self. He gazed at a spot several inches above my forehead, lip curled downward to express his disappointment in my unenlightened state. The video quality shifted to a higher resolution and I could see the bluish color of his eyes. “The way you’re thinking about your problems is so Western. So monotheistic. Try to stop imagining the individual self as the container of suffering and you’ll realize that your problems don’t matter. You don’t matter. You don’t even exist.”

 

A few weeks into my summer of love, I developed an annoying tendency to cry en route to my dates, and I could feel the waterworks starting up as I followed the curves of Memorial Drive toward Shri’s place that evening. I was always driving in; obviously the men could not visit my parents’ place in the suburbs. I told them about my living situation on our first dates and didn’t know whether to attribute their universal nonchalance to goodwill, desperation, or a strain of sexism in which they did not expect women to live independently. At a red light by the Charles River, I wiped my eyes and tried to appreciate the skyline of Boston clumped across the twilight water. Everything was okay. It was just the loneliness of the car, the stress of traffic, and NPR playing endless clips of the children stranded at the southern border. The weepy feeling would dissipate once a man was bathing me in a current of sexual attention.

Shri was interning for one of the tech giants in Cambridge over the summer. He would leave Boston in August to complete the final year of his computer science PhD in California. When I learned this at the vegetarian restaurant he had selected for our first date, I knew I should never see him again. It was already stupid to think that someone from Boston would want to date me, and even I understood there was no hope of sustaining a relationship across a continent. But Shri was kind, curious, and cute, with sweet round eyes and a dark complexion (don’t worry, I won’t compare his color to a food). We interrogated each other about our research projects and decided that, despite our different disciplines, we saw the world in a fundamentally similar way. We grinned dopily at each other over dosas and sambal—the best he had tried in the US, he said—and I decided that Shri and I should have a one-night stand. My first ever. That was in early July; now the month was almost over.

I parked on a street where the meters ran 8 AM to 8 PM, which was convenient because I never had quarters. My armpits slickened with sweat even before I started walking. I had gotten used to intense humidity in Virginia but was surprised to find that steam bath weather was now regular fare in Boston, too, such that my parents now let the AC run every day all summer.

I knocked on Shri’s door and waited but heard no one stir within. I texted him. After a minute, the weepy feeling started building in the back of my throat again. I looked at my phone for a while and called Shri. No response. The perspiration pooled between my breasts. I was wearing my glasses because Shri had a thing for women in glasses; now, sweat-slicked, they kept sliding down my nose. How long does one wait outside like a desperate person? I read an op-ed on my phone about the migrant children.

After two minutes, feet pounded inside and Shri opened the door, breathing hard, his chest bare, a thin towel wrapped around his waist. Having decided early in the summer that the men I dated should not witness negative emotion from me, I swallowed the anger and embarrassment. Shri apologized frantically as he ushered me into his un-air-conditioned apartment, which was so hot that my glasses fogged up. He was more frazzled than I; he had to stay late at work, he said, and raced home to cook dinner for us, and he was in the shower when I showed up. I had forgiven him by the time I deposited my sandals on the mat outside his bedroom door.

The white walls of his room were sponge-painted red. Before letting me in on our first date, Shri had warned me that his room looked like a crime scene. Maybe he said that to all of his Internet dates, I joked, before he murdered them. Now the room was somehow hotter than the rest of the apartment; it was hard to breathe the thick air. Still, I embraced Shri and kissed his warm shoulders. We tipped onto his unmade bed—the only available seating, already crowded with two open laptops that further heated the room—and clung to each other until Shri’s heart rate slowed.

“I’m so sorry,” he said again.

“Stop apologizing,” I said. “I’m sorry if I’m adding to your stress.”

“No, it’s calming to have you here.” I hugged him tighter and exhaled into his neck. Of all the girlfriend duties, I most missed the chance to care for somebody just by being present, and I felt woozy with gratitude to Shri for letting me playact the role.

“Should we have dinner?” Shri said.

We collected the chapattis and fried spiced okra that Shri had cooked from the kitchen, but eating in that room was impossible. It was a mess of Shri’s cooking and whatever dishes his roommates had left out for the last day or four. We tried to set up the meal on Shri’s unmade bed, but when I proved incapable of dipping the bread in the okra without dripping on his sheets, we moved the operation to the floor. It was very romantic. The food tasted great. The spices came from India, Shri said. Every winter when he went home for a visit, his mother spent days grinding spices for him to bring back to the States. He resisted, but she was relentless in her drive to feed her eldest son. He had learned to check an empty suitcase on the eastward trip, knowing that it would be stuffed with ingredients for the return flight.

When we finished eating and had cleared the dishes, Shri confessed that he needed to finish setting up some experiments. He was working with a voice recognition team tasked with filling our homes and cars and pockets with devices that could listen and talk to us, understand and analyze us, no doubt record us, no doubt change forever the idea that any conversation could take place between just two people. We resettled ourselves on the disheveled bed. Shri handed me a laptop with which to entertain myself while he worked.

“Or if you want to read an article I’ve been working on,” he said, “I would like to know what you think of it.” I agreed to read while Shri typed green code onto the black screen of his work laptop. I knew nothing about computer science and had no idea what intervention Shri was trying to make, but thought I could detect in it some of the sincere curiosity that had first drawn my attention to his dating profile. Eventually Shri sighed and looked up from his screen.

“I was especially hoping you could check on my writing and let me know if there are any grammar errors,” he said. “I’ve always spoken English alongside Kannada, but I’m still self-conscious about writing.”

I actually laughed out loud. Shri looked hurt. But I was laughing from surprise. His written English was perfect—beyond perfect—it was sophisticated, confident, entirely idiomatic.

“My college students in Virginia only know English, and they can’t write half as well as you,” I said.

Shri wrapped his arms around me.

“That means a lot coming from an English professor,” he said. “A very sexy English professor.” He smiled sweetly and we began to kiss. Soon my professorial glasses were smeared with oils secreted by both our sweaty faces. Our clothes came off; we moved the laptops to the floor. Shri obtained one of the condoms he had ordered off Amazon the day after our first date. Sex with him was as uncomplicated as a cone of soft serve: not interesting, not revelatory, but craveable, comforting, and dependably sweet. When it was over, we wiggled back into our underwear and attempted to watch an episode of “The Office” but fell into conversation instead. Something in the show made Shri ask why American culture was so fundamentally sexist, much more so, he claimed, than Indian culture. It wasn’t necessarily easier to be a woman in India, he said, but people called India the “motherland,” and the idea of the woman was therefore revered. In India there were plenty of female politicians, doctors, and engineers, and no one questioned whether they could do their work well. I knew nothing about Indian culture and found these observations fascinating. It was true, I said, that if pressed to gender America, I would think of it as masculine. The conquest narrative; the urge to dominate; the lust for economic success over every other form of wellness.

“And of course,” I theorized learnedly, “white American masculinity is built on the idea that the white man is supposed to protect white women from the threatening Black man. It’s about being on top, having someone to subjugate.”

This was news to Shri. He had never encountered the term “Jim Crow,” so we looked it up on Wikipedia and learned facts about segregation and the American South. We clicked through to pages on Emmett Till and googled blackface and the Black Belt of the Deep South. We were insufficiently horrified. Shri was thinking about taking a cross-country road trip, and one of his favorite American highways ran through Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans. He opened Google Maps in a new tab and showed me the route.

“Be careful,” I said. “I’d be scared to drive through Mississippi, and I’m white.”

Now that Maps was open, we explored the world: we looked at the Connecticut coast, which Shri had visited a month before, and the Maine coast, which he wanted to visit so he could say he set foot in all of the New England states. We looked at the Virginia coast; we looked at the coasts of Goa and Kerala. We image-searched pictures of these sea-edged states and taught each other about them. At last we congratulated each other on our curiosity and brilliance and open-mindedness and indulged in another round of soft-serve sex. Soon we were grasping each other in deep sleep, teeth unbrushed, the light still on, as I would discover hours later when I woke sweating and gasping in the unremitting heat. I extracted myself from Shri, scrubbed my teeth with the toothbrush I had packed, and rinsed in the scummy shower, drying off with the same mildewed towel Shri had wrapped around himself a few hours earlier.

Shri did not awaken when I crawled back into the hot bed, but he wrapped his arms around me. He liked to snuggle all night. When I turned to get comfortable, he always found me and held me again, a beatific smile smoothing his face—even in sleep! Consequently I slept terribly at his place and was at the same time flooded with shocking doses of oxytocin throughout the night. As Shri nuzzled his nose into my neck, the words “I love you” rose unbidden in my mind. I would never speak them. I didn’t even feel them. I sweated. Relished the feeling of Shri’s closeness, focused on appreciating every second of it. The memory of this intimacy would have to nourish me through an entire celibate year in Virginia. I watched the room shade from streetlight glow to predawn gray, watched the blood splotches on the walls emerge in the glare of a new day. When hot sunlight pierced the window frame, I kissed Shri and left him in bed. I got to my car before the meters went into effect.

 

At my parents’ house, my father was having his cereal with the Saturday crossword. I avoided him because he turned out to possess an uncanny awareness of whether I’d had sex the night before, and he was gruff when I had. Having remained a virgin through high school, I had never witnessed his superpower before this summer and found it uncomfortable if strangely moving. Upstairs I took a real shower, hoping the blast of hot water would free my brain from the blanket of fatigue. It didn’t. Alex had texted by the time I got dressed. What was I thinking for today? Beach? Hike on the North Shore? I said I was exhausted and not feeling super well and should probably stay closer to home. Why not meet at his place and decide from there? I would have to pick him up in my car anyway. I said I would aim to get to his neighborhood by noon. I tried to nap but instead read news about the still-separated children, checked the dating app, and matched with a physicist in Somerville. I got in the car at around one and listened to the migrant children crying all the way into the city.

Alex lived in a one-bedroom walkup owned by his parents near Fenway Park. He buzzed me in, and on the way upstairs I swallowed my dread and wiped my tears and sucked at an iced coffee to dispel my headache. Alex had left the door to his unit open but was not waiting for me. This made me nervous. Was he hiding around a corner, knife in hand, preparing to murder me? Did he somehow know where I had been last night, and was he planning his revenge? I said “Hello?” shyly, and Alex emerged from the bathroom. His appearance did not quell my paranoia. His expression was always unreadable, his features still, curiously devoid of the micro-movements that you don’t notice on other people’s faces until you meet someone who doesn’t have them. He was not much taller than I, but broader, and I wouldn’t be able to escape if he tried to do something.

“I’m so glad to see you,” he said, and hugged me.

“Glad to see you too,” I said. I let my head rest on his shoulder. “Sorry to be so unadventurous today. I don’t know why I’ve been sleeping so poorly.”

“You don’t have to apologize,” Alex said.

“I’m not even wearing makeup,” I said. “So I guess that’s a milestone: first time you’re seeing me barefaced. With extremely sexy dark circles under my eyes.” Alex looked at my face and kissed me. He was trembling a little. When we first started dating, I thought this was a sign of his passion and perhaps nervousness, but eventually I realized that he trembled a little in all of his motions.

“What should we do today?” he said.

Nauseated at the thought of more driving, I deflated Alex’s dreams of adventure and suggested we walk to a Thai restaurant for lunch. There was no Thai food in bumfuck Virginia, and I wanted to gorge on noodles all summer. Alex took my hand as soon as we stepped outside. I hoped that none of my other suitors would see us. I sweated and couldn’t shake a sense of dizziness bordering on vertigo.

“Maybe I’m down,” I said to Alex after we sat and placed our order, “because it’s almost August and that means I have to leave Boston soon. It’s making me think about things.”

“I’ve been thinking about that too,” Alex said. “It’ll be okay. You can show me around your apartment on Facetime. We’ll visit each other.”

“You really want to do all that?” I said.

“Of course,” Alex said. “I’m not sure why you always question how I feel about you. I like you. I want to do this.”

Our food arrived and I buried my face in tofu khao soi.

 

After lunch, Alex wanted to continue exploring the city on foot; I suggested a nap. We went back to his apartment and collapsed on his bed. Even in the stultifying heat, I fell asleep immediately, my head resting on Alex’s shoulder. I awoke to discover a slick of drool staining his tee shirt. It was the sign of a satisfying sleep. I felt a lot better. I felt better about Alex. I rubbed his chest and pressed my nose into his neck. His body was cozy. He paused the Russian movie he was watching on his laptop and started to kiss me. Though his lips were thinner, Alex was a better kisser than Shri, who didn’t like to open his mouth.

“Sorry about your shirt,” I said.

“Don’t apologize,” Alex said.

He pulled his shirt off and slid a hand under mine. I held it there on my wobbly belly.

“I still want to take it slow,” I said. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Alex said. “Sex can wait. It’s more important that we get to know each other.” He withdrew his hand and we stared at each other. Alex had the sunken eyes, square brow, and black hair of one of my cousins on my mother’s side. They could have been brothers. Alex and I could have been cousins, though we were born 4000 miles apart and dreamed in different languages. I was having a problem with other Jews. Theoretically I wanted to date one; I was plagued by a persistent if unexamined fantasy of raising Jewish children. But kissing Alex inspired a sort of incest-taboo revulsion. I grew up surrounded by Jews, thinking of my family and classmates and teachers and bosses only as people. Since moving to Virginia, where many of my neighbors had never met a non-Christian, I saw us as Jews. Every Jew I encountered suddenly felt like a relative, a human madeleine recalling an ancient memory.

Of the three Jews who got my phone number that summer, only Alex made it past the first date. The Israeli’s politics were so bad that our coffeehouse rendezvous devolved into a shouting match loud enough to turn heads. The American, an overgrown theater major, only wanted to talk about his drum circle. Alex had read nearly all of my academic writing by the time we met, a somewhat stalkerish approach to dating mitigated by the fact that he could ask intelligent questions about my work. He spoke English with an American accent, having immigrated, he said, just a year or two before Russian speech patterns would have hardened in his developing brain. Alex knew a lot about brains. He still spoke Russian with his family; he still remembered the way his classmates in St. Petersburg mocked him and called him a Chechen during the war in the ’90s because they could tell by his features that he was not an ethnic Russian.

“You have nice eyes,” I said. “Very long lashes.” He thanked me.

“What are you thinking about?” I said. I wondered if we weren’t talking because we had nothing to say to each other.

“You’re different from other girls I’ve dated,” Alex said. “You compliment me and check in to see if I’m having fun. You want to know what’s going on with me.”

It was true: I often asked him those awful questions, “What are you thinking?” or “How are you feeling?” because I could not read the answers on his stationary face.

“You know the Beatles song with the lyrics ‘I just need somebody to love?’” Alex said. “That’s what my past relationships were like. I didn’t really expect the people I was dating to care about me. I just needed somebody to love.”

I told Alex that he deserved to be loved and cared for. I said it like that, in the passive voice, leaving myself out of the equation. I didn’t matter. Alex took my hand and held it to his chest.

“And now I am finally getting that love and care,” he said, his nose inches from mine. “From you.”

I imagined picking this moment to tell him that I had awoken that morning in the bed of another man, my shoulders redolent of that man’s deodorant and body odor, my face so slick with his sweat that two pimples had bloomed on my cheek overnight. I have heard people describe moments of terrible intimacy or violence in out-of-body terms in which “they” hover above the bed and watch things happen to “them.” What an impossible perspective, I thought, staring at Alex’s face. What a profound vision, to see oneself unfractured: the self as a body viewed whole; the self transcending the body, seeing its eyes with its own eyes. I couldn’t imagine it. I could only see Alex: sad eyes, long nose, cheeks the color of Cream of Wheat. I nodded without smiling, which Alex seemed to interpret as a gesture of solemn intimacy. I didn’t even exist.

 

That night I slept profoundly in my childhood bed. The next morning I felt good. It was Sunday, which mattered little in a house of retirees and a dilettantish academic. By the time I came downstairs, my father was doing the big crossword in the kitchen and my mother was watching MSNBC in the den in her anti-capitalist robe. I sat with her and read articles about the separated migrant children on my laptop and listened to Rachel Maddow talk about the desperate parents. My mother and I shook our heads and said all hope for our country was lost. Soon my younger sister showed up at the house with bagels, lox, cream cheese, and a hamper of dirty clothes. She sat with my mom and me and shook her head at MSNBC and said fascism had arrived.

Eventually my mother carried the news into the kitchen on her iPad, where she sliced tomatoes and onions and cucumbers to round Becca’s bagels into a brunch. She called us in to eat and I regarded the feast anthropologically. I couldn’t tell whether the family was eating this paradigmatic meal because we were Jewish or playing at being Jewish, or if there were a distinction between being and playing. There were no bagels or lox in bumfuck Virginia, so I didn’t eat these foods on my own anymore.

I approached family meals that summer with the silly expectation that the old nucleus would have a lot to ask me since we saw each other so seldom during the year. But it turned out to be difficult to incorporate a newcomer into an old script, so mostly my parents and sister talked to each other. Becca visited every Sunday to take advantage of my parents’ laundry facilities. Unlike me, in high school Becca had avoided the temptations of academic competition and grade grubbing and college admissions hysteria that plagued our striving suburb. She spent her teenage years smoking weed and cementing lifelong friendships, and as a reward she got to live near a major city and teach English at our old school. My worldly pride, meanwhile, won me title of “professor,” with the caveat that I would have to wield it in Virginia, where I earned the same salary as Becca and taught similar lessons to undergraduates who could not read or write as well as her high school sophomores.

Her teachers’ union was negotiating a new contract that summer, Becca was explaining, and the school district didn’t want to dole out raises. My parents knew all about the debate and asked about a recent school committee meeting. I chewed my bagel, which was stale. Still, the sandwich tasted good, an adequate facsimile of childhood. I could hear human wailing migrating from outside the kitchen.

“What’s that noise?” I said. I said it three times to be heard over my family’s voices.

“What noise?” my dad said finally. Everyone quieted and I referred to the soft weeping.

“It’s just the TV,” my sister said.

“What?” my father said.

“They can’t hear it,” Becca said.

“I’ll turn it off,” I said.

“Don’t bother,” my dad said.

“But climate change et cetera,” I said, standing. In the den, MSNBC was still explaining that the state was separating children from their parents at the border and caging them in facilities that looked like dog kennels: concrete floors, wire fences separating “rooms.” I picked up the remote. Due to several accidents of the twentieth century—the Holocaust, my ancestors’ brush with statelessness, the reorganization of empire—I held one of the most valuable passports in the world. With nominal paperwork, I could receive passports from two more nations of surpassing wealth and safety. If I could give you but one third of my state-sanctioned existence, I thought to a screaming toddler on TV. If I could give you another third, I thought to a tearful mother, who was half a decade younger than I and wore the mantle of adulthood with more assurance. I clicked them off.

“The Black parents,” my sister was saying back in the kitchen, still talking about the committee meeting, “were so friendly and polite. How can we work with the teachers, they said. There are so few Black kids in the school, they want to make sure that the curriculum has something for their kids, a way to feel included but not overwhelmed when we talk about slavery and stuff.” My parents nodded.

“But then these pro-Israel parents start talking,” Becca continued, “and they are just complete assholes. They’re claiming the curriculum is anti-Semitic. Any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism; it’s ridiculous. This one guy’s like, ‘maybe the teachers will look up an article about Israel and Palestine online. How will they know if it’s true?’ Seriously, as though we’re not educated people who know what fake news is.” My parents shook their heads.

“Terrible,” my father said. “They should know better.”

He collected our empty plates. Becca and I halfheartedly offered to help clean up. When he refused us, we joined our mother in the den, where MSNBC was showing the clip of the same toddler and mother. We shook our heads. I checked the dating app on my phone. The physicist from the day before had initiated a conversation. “It’s so funny,” he wrote. “Every time a girl likes me here she turns out to be Jewish! Anyway how are you?” I deleted him.

“Did you wake up here today?” my sister said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Who’d you see yesterday?”

“Alex.”

“And she spent the night before that with one of the Indian men. I’ll never keep their names straight,” my mother said.

“Can we not, please, with the racism?” I said.

“Jesus, you’re still seeing Alex?” Becca said. “You don’t even like him.”

“Sure,” I said. “It’s hard to turn down male attention when you’re used to being unattractive.”

“Just because you were a heavy teenager doesn’t mean you’re unattractive,” my mother said. “You don’t have to have the perfect body or face to be attractive.” Becca and I looked at each other. “So you’re not a classic beauty,” my mother continued, lovingly. “So Becca got more of the all-American features. Your face isn’t unappealing. It’s just more—exotic.” She meant that I had coarse black hair and a large nose.

“She says worse things about my body,” Becca said.

“But the thing that really fucked us up,” I said, “was listening to mom shit all over herself.”

“Don’t start,” my mother said.

“Mom,” Becca said, “our whole lives, all you talked about was how much you hated your body.”

“Always complaining that you looked fat in all of your clothes,” I said.

“Always on a diet, or being bad and cheating on your diet.”

“Sure, blame your mother for ruining your lives,” our mom said. “You’re the first ones to think of that.”

“Mom, it’s okay,” Becca said. “You have a negative body image. I could send you so many articles about it. Society taught you to hate yourself, and you do.”

“I don’t have a negative body image,” our mother said. “I have a negative body. My image of it is correct.”

 

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A few weeks later, I woke up in Shri’s arms and did not wriggle out of them. Morning sunlight illuminated the red splotches on his bedroom walls and incubated the room. Shri slept on sweetly; I pulled away just enough to reach for the floor where my phone was charging. I unplugged it one-handed and levered myself back into the bed, where Shri re-entwined his arms around me and sighed into my collarbone. Karan had texted overnight: “Hey I can’t remember if we talked about this but are you still free to get together tomorrow (well technically tonight)?”

I checked my personal and work emails and Facebook and Instagram and the New York Times. The president refused to believe that Russia had meddled in US elections. Everyone else believed Russia had done this, but the president would not believe it, and no one believed that the president refused to believe it. It was almost eleven; Shri and I should have been out of bed hours ago. We were going to drive to Maine so Shri could check the sixth state off his New England conquest, and it was Sunday so we should have left early to beat the tourist traffic. But this was also our last time in bed together: Shri had a closing dinner with his fellow interns that night, and the next day he would fly back to California. So nostalgically I let him nuzzle closer. “Really need to finish this article,” I texted Karan. “Let me check in later? It would be a good incentive to write fast.” He replied: “Sure lmk.”

I finally ended things with Alex a week earlier after he threatened to introduce me to his visiting parents. I did it by text—kindly, I thought, noting truthfully his goodness and my badness—and was slightly insulted when he never responded.

Becca texted as I was reading a news story about fake news. “I just had a premonition of the government deciding to kill the Jews,” she wrote. I replied: “The US government? How did this premonition take shape?” “I was thinking about it while peeing,” she typed.

Finally I got up and showered in the filthy male bathroom, but Shri was still sleeping by the time I dressed. I sat on the bed and kissed him into consciousness; he curled around me like a human belt.

“It’s hard to want to do anything but this,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “But we need to get on the road.”

While he got ready, I read more hot takes on the disbelieving president. “Seems unlikely,” I texted Becca. The letters slid out of focus; as usual, I had failed to sleep much in Shri’s embrace. I googled cafés and found one nearby that looked cool. I suggested we stop there on the way out of town; I couldn’t safely drive all the way to Maine without caffeine.

“I have coffee,” Shri said. He held up the jar of Nescafé instant granules that he kept on his shelf.

“No,” I said.

So we checked out the café. It had white brick walls and blonde wood tables. There were plants everywhere, and massive deer antlers served as the centerpiece of a cabinet of curios near the register.

“Who would ever imagine that something like this belongs in a café?” Shri said, his vegetarian soul offended.

I chose iced coffee over cold brew because it was a dollar cheaper, though if alone I would have ordered the trendier drink. When the coffee was ready, Shri decided he should get some too and took a sip of mine. He grimaced.

“I think it’s decent,” I said.

“That is so bitter,” he said. “If I’m having iced coffee, I want it prepared the way I like it, which is the way I always order it at Starbucks.”

“But we’re already here,” I said. But now that it was in his head, Shri wanted Starbucks, so we drove to one of those. While he ran inside to get his coffee, I wondered if I were now seeing to the bottom of Shri, and if it were a blessing that he was returning to California before I could scrape it and grow bored of him.

Becca texted: “A far left or far right gov’t could easily think that the Jews are the problem

It’s a circle not a line

Bent toward the jewssssss”

I wrote: “I feel like other ppl are in much greater danger now

The migrant children, black people etc.

More important to focus energy there”

Becca wrote: “I mean OBVIOUSLY”

Shri emerged from the Starbucks with his coffee. He gave me a sip; I grimaced. “That is shockingly sweet,” I said.

 

Maine was a bust. We crossed the state line so that Shri could collect his free map at the information center, but the weekend beach traffic got so bad that we lost the will to find a quaint town for strolling. So we drove back to Cambridge, where Shri still had a few hours before his dinner. I thought I should leave to avoid prolonging the goodbye. But Shri convinced me to nap with him. He woke me with kisses and we had sex one last time. It is always disorienting to get out of bed at dusk. As we dressed, Shri suggested that we walk together toward his dinner.

We walked through Kendall Square, that humming brain of the world, billions of dollars of MIT metal and plastic and glass partially shielded from our sight by a few inches of shiny new walls. I felt giddy in Kendall now, surrounded by so much human and machine intelligence compressed into such a small district, so many of the world’s best minds drawn to this cluttered scrap of soon-to-be-underwater coastline. I tried to hoard experience once again for my return to the intellectual desert of Virginia. In my excitement, I grabbed Shri’s hand. He seemed surprised but clasped back politely. I didn’t want to say goodbye. We could have been good together, if he didn’t live so far away. We had a connection. I didn’t make connections easily. I said all of this to him.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s really too bad. We will stay in touch.”

We reached an intersection. A red hand told us to stop walking. I slid an arm around Shri’s waist and kissed him near the ear. He smiled and kissed me near the ear. I wanted to tell him that I loved him. I wanted to give him those words like a gift, a souvenir of the East Coast as gaudy and vacant and sentimental as a Boston snow globe.

“Go home!”

A white man on a motorcycle, stopped at the red light, was shouting. “Go home!” he said again. He was looking at us. “Go home!” The light changed color and he disappeared loudly.

“What a dickhead,” I said. “Boston is the worst. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Shri said.

But somehow it was.

 

I met Karan at a dim hipster bar somewhere along the border of Cambridge and Somerville. He was already seated when I arrived. Despite our voluminous text correspondence, we had only gone on a handful of dates, and each time we saw each other I was impressed by the intensity of presence compressed in his compact frame. His eyes were quick and long-lashed; when he wasn’t speaking, he pressed his lips together as though it took a great effort to hold in all of his intelligence. He sprang up and hugged me briefly, though he did not like public touching and looked side to side afterward in embarrassment or fear. Maybe he had reasons to avoid being seen. I no longer did.

“Did you submit the article?” he said as we sat.

“No,” I said. I sighed tragically. “I’m terrible.”

“You’ll get it done,” Karan said. “Have confidence in yourself. You’re already kicking ass.”

It was sweet that he thought I had accomplished so much just because I had the professor title while he was still a graduate student. We were the same age, but he had started his economics degree later, and he could not see that a few years would more than even out the difference between us.

“Remind me what you’re writing about?” Karan said. A waiter took our orders. Karan got a mocktail; he had quit drinking after going overboard in college. I picked whichever mixed drink had mezcal in it. We agreed on an appetizer plate.

“Ugh, who knows,” I said. “Apocalypse? Pollution? Modernism.”

“Modernism like Joyce and Eliot?” Karan said.

“Yes,” I said. “Nothing new. But maybe the modernists will stage a comeback, with fascism on the rise again.”

“I mean, maybe the new regimes won’t be all bad,” Karan said. “For example, it could be easier for governments to crack down on bad things, like carbon emissions, when they don’t have to worry about individual self-interest.”

“You have more faith in the foresight of authoritarians than I do,” I said.

“Do you think people are going to vote to pay more for gas?” Karan said. “Do you think people in Bangladesh are going to say ‘Hey, we’d really like to develop more slowly’? You need someone to step in and say, ‘This is for your own good.’”

“You have very little trust in the people for a progressive,” I said.

“Oh. I’m not a progressive,” he said. “I guess I would call myself a contrarian.”

“Oh my god,” I said. I put down my drink. “Please don’t tell me you voted for Trump.”

“Of course not,” he said. “I’m not out of my mind.”

“Thank god. I would literally get up and leave.”

“I know you would.” He smiled and sipped his drink. “I did vote for Kasich in the primaries.”

I gagged performatively. Inside, my guts actually grew heavy with embarrassment at not having figured out Karan’s political orientation sooner. The summer of love was officially a bust.

“What does that even mean, you’re a contrarian?” I said.

“I mean the thought on the left is reflexive dogma.”

“Like what?”

“Well obviously identity politics or whatever you want to call it,” he said.

“Oh, no,” I said. “Are we seriously going to have this conversation?”

“It’s just so tyrannical,” he said. “Like, do aspects of my identity affect me? Sure. I was one of like two brown kids in my high school after 9/11, and it sometimes sucked. But I don’t want that to be the way I define myself.”

“I’m sorry you went through that experience,” I said. “But I don’t think that’s what ‘identity politics’ is about.” I used air quotes.

“It reduces everything to a few major categories, like gender and race. But who’s to say that people are the most deserving of justice on the basis of those categories? Maybe the people who need help the most are too marginalized to make their voices heard,” he said.

“I just feel like race and gender are really important categories,” I said. “And there are facts to provide evidence for a history of discrimination.”

“By the way, Indians are the most racist people in the world,” Karan said. “It terrifies me to leave the house with my aunt. You never know what she’s going to say.”

“I don’t know anything about Indian culture,” I said.

“But you have all these Indian American kids from our generation claiming the biggest problem in their life is other people’s racism,” Karan said. “I think they need to suck it up.”

“I wouldn’t claim to understand someone else’s experience about race. I would listen first,” I said. “In the same way that I would ask a man to let me speak first about navigating the world as a woman.”

We went on like this for a while. Our twee pickles and cheeses arrived.

“How nice,” I said, staring at the little shapes. “There is no nice restaurant near where I teach. There is no restaurant where you don’t need to rub scum off the edges of your plate.”

“Welcome back to the coastal elite,” Karan said.

“That’s supposed to be derisive,” I said. “But I live in ignorant bigot land, and I’ll take this instead.”

“You can hate whoever you want,” Karan said. He ate a pickle.

“So tell me one thing that you totally disagree with on the left. Something where you maybe pretend to tow the party line, but secretly you think is complete bullshit.”

“Absolutely not,” I said.

“But there is something, isn’t there?” he said.

“There isn’t one big thing,” I said. “I like the progressive positions. I mean, maybe I see a few things slightly differently.”

“So tell me,” he said. “You know I’ll love it.”

“No,” I said. “Our phones are recording us.”

“Come on.”

“This is how the fascists will destroy us. They’ll listen to our conversations and leak our ideological differences to turn us against each other. Better leave a few minor quibbles than risk total destruction.”

“That’s the laziest argument I’ve ever heard,” he said. “That is fascism.”

“Okay,” I said. “Here’s one thing. It’s not exactly a disagreement, but it’s uncomfortable.”

“Yes!” he said.

“It’s easier to be a Jew on the left since Charlottesville.”

“Yes!” he said. “Because that’s all the left is. The ability to claim a grievance, someone hates me, someone is hurting me.”

“That’s not all the left is,” I said. “But it does help that Jewishness can mean something other than apologizing for Israel’s bullshit.”

“Is your university near Charlottesville?” he said.

“I know Charlottesville,” I said. “Pretty town. Happiest place in the country for people who are already happy. But my school is several hours away. Charlottesville money doesn’t trickle down the mountains to the backwater where I live. We get the racism, though. Not high class, like the piedmont racism. Very gritty by the time it drains into my sodden part of the tidewater.”

“What did you even just say?” Karan said. “Nobody talks like that.”

I held out my hand to him and he shook it uncertainly. I kept holding his hand until his eyelids drooped dopily at the current generated by our contact.

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “I’m nobody.”

 

I drove Karan home. I wanted to go back to my parents’ house, crawl into my childhood bed, and try again for a husband when I could return to civilization next year. But he invited me into his apartment and I went. I said I couldn’t spend the night out of respect for my parents; in fact, he should remind me to text them if I stayed at his place later than eleven.

His apartment, thank god, had air conditioning. His roommates were out of sight. In his bedroom, only the bed could seat two, so we tipped onto it and entangled our legs. I liked the way Karan kissed best of all: intensely, mouth open, encompassing mine. His lips were soft and substantial. He slid a hand under my shirt and grabbed my breast.

“Okay,” I said. “But I’m going to tell you up front that I’m not ready for sex.”

“Okay,” Karan said. “Just tell me what I can and can’t do.” I nodded. “Like can I take off your shirt?” he said.

“Okay,” I said. He pulled it off. He also unclasped my bra. I held it over myself because I hadn’t said okay to removing that. He kissed around the edges of the lace and rooted underneath until he found my nipples. Eventually I gave up and let him take the bra off. He sat up, straddling me, and looked down at all he had laid bare.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said. He was incorrect; I was not beautiful. But all the dates in the city meant I was skipping a lot of dinners, so my belly was flatter than usual.

“I love your freckles,” he said, kissing my shoulder.

“Really?” I said. “Historically they’re considered a mark of ugliness. Like in Victorian novels.”

“Stop,” he said.

“You need to take off your shirt too,” I said. “If I’m going to lie here like this.”

Karan obliged. He pressed his chest against me. His skin was barely darker than mine, though the hue was different—gold underneath.

“You’re nice and warm,” I said. “And firm. Maybe Crossfit is working.” He slid a hand into my shorts and I arrested it with my hand. I turned onto my side and pulled Karan into spooning position. Now I was facing the wall, where a crate turned sideways supported a stack of books. Steven Millhauser, Francis Fukuyama, Andrew Sullivan, a thick edition of the Bhagavadgita in facing-page translation.

“Nothing by a woman,” I said.

“Oh screw you,” Karan said.

“Well I guess who knows about that,” I said, pointing to the Gita. “Can you read Sanskrit?”

“Not really,” he said. “Hindi helps a little.”

“Can I look?” I craned to look at him.

Karan closed his eyes and smiled into space.

“It has some—notes. I read it when I was going through a difficult time. It’s probably embarrassing.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. “I’d love to read your thoughts.”

“Maybe not right now,” Karan said. My phone buzzed in my bag. It must have been after eleven.

“Okay,” I said. I kissed his neck. He was massaging my breast, his leg looped over mine. I pointed to the Sullivan. “Really?”

“Yeah, of course you’d give me shit about that. But that’s his early stuff. I’m into literature about epidemics,” Karan said.

“That’s interesting,” I said. “What other esoteric things do you like?”

“Another thing I really like,” he said, “in terms of desire and stuff, is imagining choking people. Or pretending to do it.”

“You want to kill people?” I said.

“I mean, not actually kill them. Just sort of cartoon-strangle them. It’s pretty common. Don’t you watch porn?”

“When I was in college some people in my dorm watched ‘Debbie Does Dallas’ together.”

Karan looked at me with loving condescension.

“You’re so innocent.”

“My imagination suffices when I need to get off,” I said.

We made out for a while.

“Mind if I try some choking?” Karan said. “Mind if I put my hands around your neck just a little? I mean, no pressure, but it could be fun. You can tell me if it’s too much.”

I said okay. The transition from cuddly kissy talk mode back to sex mode was abrupt. Karan rolled on top of me and commenced to wrap his hands around my neck, thumbs pressing against my windpipe. His palms were warm. It didn’t feel so bad. My phone was buzzing randomly in my bag, suggesting a volley of text messages. Karan started breathing hard and whimpering and pressing his groin against me. I started breathing hard too, because I had to, to get sufficient oxygen to my lungs through a circumscribed trachea. He began to choke me in earnest. Now my phone buzzed in a regular rhythm, and I imagined my parents sitting at home in their bathrobes anxiously hoping that I would pick up this time. I wanted to respond to them, but I was trapped. I really did not know how this type of erotic play was supposed to work. I didn’t know if Karan intended to fool around innocently with my body or if he was going to kill me. But as his fingers tightened around my brainstem and spine and the assorted soft tubes contained in my neck, I realized with a suffusion of sublime calm that I did not actually care whether things went one way or the other. If I survived, I would continue to generate more carbon emissions than three or four people from a more modest country; if I suffocated, the US government would not give my vacant spot to a migrant child in need. I had enjoyed a comfortable life for a reasonable amount of time, had loved and been loved and accomplished too little and was probably not on track to accomplish anything more significant. Whether I lived or died at this particular moment did not matter. I didn’t matter. I didn’t even exist.

 

 

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picture of the author, Stephanie Bernhard

Stephanie Bernhard’s essays on literature and the environment appear in Slate, Orion, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other venues. She has received fellowships from institutions such as the Jackman Humanities Institute of the University of Toronto and the Institute for the Humanities and Global Cultures of the University of Virginia. “Summer of Love” is her first published work of fiction. She is currently revising a novel, The Corridor, about dating on the highways that divide rural and urban America.

 

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