I’m hoping to start a science-fiction story-cycle at some point. This is not part of that. Rather, it is about Russians, height, dots and feathers, and the ripple effects of early marriage. Definitely something you can skip.
“Oh, hello. Yeah, no, I have no idea. So … yeah. No. Cool. I’ll see you around, I guess.”
I had nothing to say. This was pretty galling, as in my head I had practiced dozens of conversational gambits. But in truth I was floundering. The next day, Bora explained everything: “No, that happens to everyone, dude. You were hypnotized by her boobs.” Which struck me as simultaneously slightly offensive, somewhat comforting, and entirely true. Is it horrible to say that I’ve been plagued by intimidating Indian women my entire life? Probably. That doesn’t change the facts on the ground. My friends called my high school girlfriend “Indira Barbie,” which, sad to say, tells you roughly everything you need to know about her. I kind of thought of her as my boss more than as my girlfriend. Perhaps all high school relationships are like that. She’s now a junior management consultant. Still pretty cute. Just saw her at the five-year. Anyway, I’m pretty sure I’ll never see her again. She was there with her Indian boyfriend, who was tallish and angular. Handsome, well-adjusted, clearly going places. Seemed like an asshole. They will be hot and tastefully prosperous for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, I’m going to die in a TB ward in some nameless slum, choking on my own bile and burning piles of money to spite them.
Where was I?
I’ve always been interested in the parallels between the Russians and the Indians. Both are corrupt, sprawling countries full of people who are charmingly chatty while also being devious thieves willing to stab you at pretty much any moment. Apparently Bollywood movies are huge in Russia, which makes sense. Russia is cold as shit, and you don’t often see riotous mobs of midriff-baring knockouts breaking out in song in, say, Volgograd. I can see how a little Bollywood magic could break the monotony. I guess that’s not really a parallel. Anyway, there was also the weirdness that happened whenever I encountered other Russians, particularly when I was with non-Russians. There was a look of recognition and instinctive mistrust: ah, I see you’re Russian. Don’t think I can’t sniff it out, pal! Granted, this could be a function of my paranoia. But I know Indian friends of mine had similar “Indiandar” encounters. Too assimilated? Not assimilated enough? This is tricky terrain. My parents landed, of all places, in Bloomington, Indiana, so I wasn’t properly socialized. My closest friends growing up were the Asians and the miscellaneous weirdos. Bloomington is America’s mecca of Central Asian Studies. I’ll bet you didn’t know that. The University thus attracted some pretty high wattage miscellaneuous ethnics, a lot of them fleeing some kind of war-torn situation. My parents were actually mathematicians, but I was drawn into the ethnic orbit. This had some odd consequences. One of them is that though I towered over my compact Asian friends, I never felt terribly tall. In fact, I’m pretty sure I projected, and continue to project, slightness. I’m pretty sure I could’ve been a good athlete, but the rest of the world found this notion laughable, so I was relegated to the math team. I suppose I could be bitter and enraged, but I think it turned out okay.
It could be that my misperception of my own size had something to do with my really strong interest in Lalita. Her mom was Indian, and she was from New Jersey. Specifically, I think she was from a slightly low-rent suburb, where she was surrounded by armies of Indian relatives. But — here’s the thing — she towered over them. At 5’10”, she actually dwarfed most of the dads. This is despite the fact that her father, who died when she was a kid, wasn’t even a particularly large fellow. Science. Regardless, she was really tall and she had really big features: huge eyes, etc. Imagine a gangly beansprout of a teen surrounded by a gaggle of petite Indian schoolgirls and reflect on the resulting trauma. So you see the potential complementarity straight away. Me, tall but small. She, tall but psychologically massive. The logic is undeniable. I’m insane.
I’ll admit, I knew way more about Lalita than she knew about me (nothing) when I first met her. Or rather when I met her the second time. She worked with Bora at some kind of women’s action strike force for a summer, where I believe they wore commando gear to assault the patriarchy. Bring it down, I say! Skip the tear gas, go straight to the bullets. That same summer I was working and living in Beacon, NY at a museum. It was somewhat cooler than it sounds, but the point is that I first saw Lalita at this party on a roofdeck in Greenpoint. Bora was living with her older sister, and we were having an evening of pretending to be cool adults. Serious people in training. It was fun, but it was also a miserably hot night. I remember that Lalita was surrounded by dudes and saying hilariously crass shit the entire night, but we didnt’t really talk. I nevertheless heard about all of her exploits from Bora. So I felt prepared the second time I “met” her, when she, ouch, brushed past me.
Maybe “prepared” isn’t the right word. I should mention the most spectacular exploit Bora had filled me in on, namely the fact that Lalita got married a few month after the rooftop. Briefly. Keep in mind that at this point we were 23, I was barely out of diapers spiritually and intellectually, and Lalita had been married and divorced. Also, he was almost ten years older! Ahhh! And it’s not like this was some kind of quickie marriage that lasted one seamy weekend. They were married for a year, living together in half of a not-earthquake-proof Victorian house in Berkeley. She was his second wife! I know almost nothing else about this guy. Was he a lumberjack? A neurosurgeon? Both? I didn’t know. But he had clearly figured out something that I’d like to know. Good lord. It should have been clear from early on that my crush wasn’t going anywhere. That didn’t stop me, of course. No, that only happened when, six months later, she remarried her ex-husband. Bora very generously invited me.
“You want to come?”
“What the hell?”
“They’re getting remarried. To each other.”
“Is this going to be a serious wedding? Like, with a priest and presents and shit?”
“Oh yeah. The first time was more eloping. Her mom isn’t stoked exactly, but he’s not a bad guy.”
“Wow. So clearly I have no window here. There’s no Dustin Hoffman angle I can play here, I take it.”
“I think that would probably be not smart.”
Turns out he, Sam, was a very cool, very progressive dude. They met during the Obama campaign, when she was 20 and he was 29. I’m personally scandalized by this age gap, but I suppose it’s not historically unprecedented. He was going to the Stanford GSB, fully intending to, um, get involved in “social entrepreneurship.” If you want to get a sense of what he was like, think about it this way: he played lacrosse in high school, to the point where he was recruited, and ultimate frisbee in college. Which I think reflects kind of well, though I mean to suggest a certain level of boringness, which is perhaps unfair. I mean, this guy was just not capable of true menace.
I actually never found out exactly why they got divorced in the first place. I guess one or both of them panicked. But seeing the two of them, their ease and mutual jokiness, it was clear that the marriage was going to last. The wedding was, I must admit, quite cool and beautifully done. Most impressive, to me at least, was the fact that it seemed frugal. Apparently Sam grew up with some Buddhists who had this beautiful spread about three hours up the coast. People doffed their shoes and the food was mostly made by Sam’s mother and brothers and sisters. You can see why Lalita might want to be a part of this family. And Lalita’s friends were funny and cool (and fetching) enough to restore my radically diminished faith in humanity. I often think I’ve exhausted the pool of worthwhile human beings, and then I fall into this kind of surreal, pleasant, only minorly heartbreaking situation. I talked to Lalita very briefly.
“Hey, you’re Bora’s friend!”
“Yeah! Hey! Congratulations! This was so cool, I’m so glad I could come.”
“Well, we definitely need to hang out. Dan doesn’t know a huge number of people here yet. I’ll bet you guys would hit it off.”
“That would be great. Um, well, thanks again.”
Gosh, she was quite beautiful. Her hair was a strange, sometimes sickly brown that varied with the seasons, and it looked gold-flecked and amazing in the sun. Maybe I was drawn to her semi-Slavic full features too. Fully aware that this was entirely in my head, I couldn’t help but think that under slightly different — by which I mean profoundly and dramatically different — circumstances, that would’ve been me next to the tall, stately lady in the green dress. Lalita wore a lot of green, which was shrewd given her slightly yellowish pallor. I realize that sounds kind of unappealing. But yes, I was pretty much recovered. While thinking about this a little dreamily, Bora poked me in the ribs. She had a longneck, which we passed back and forth.
“What up kid.” Sip.
“I think you’re taking this whole thing really well.” Sip.
“Yeah. I guess. I hate Indians.” Sip.
“They’re overrated, dude.”
“I mean, dots or feathers? Feathers are cool. Dots are dorks.” Sip.
Sip. “Feathers are cool, man.”