“Listen,” said Robbie. “I can take the backpack. This bag isn’t that heavy.”
“You’re very strong,” I said, “but you are already carrying at least fifty other bags. So I will continue to carry the backpack.”
“Fine.” He said. Instead of being grateful he was sullen. He told me I looked like a boy since I got my new haircut and now I had started to act like one too. A couple of days before we had gone to see a show at The Utah, and a big burly guy had called us a couple of lesbians. We’re both slight, and we have the same haircut for sure, and Robbie does have a heart shaped face, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s or else like that supermodel he married. Robbie got quite mad and I had to calm him down by rubbing his arm and letting him drink the rest of my beer which actually has a calming effect on him unlike on most other people who break chairs over other people’s heads when they have been drinking. It seemed like a rowdy crowd that night but my head got a little fuzzy after the music started. Music can have that effect on me if it is very bad or very good.
I didn’t mean to jump in time like that. Robbie and I got slammed in the doors on the way out of the car, but we were buffered by the bags. “I was reading the obituaries today,” I said, as we huffed up the stairs, “and I swear I found mine, this morning.”
“Why were you reading the obituaries?” asked Robbie. He was wearing my jacket with the collar up, which was the pretentious way to wear it, but it made you notice how sharp his cheekbones were. It was my jacket, but I didn’t have the heart to take it back from him. In bed, Robbie has a voice like bluegrass, but when you carry someone else’s backpack to the airport they were never yours.
“I never know what I’m looking for,” I said. “Anyway, I just made that up to see what you’d say. I didn’t really find anything interesting.”
The white mouth of the terminal opened wider. The ceiling is so high at the airport it’s bigger than a hanger.
And the windows were tall as whole skyscrapers and it was so well lit outside you could see yourself superimposed over everything that was going on, parents pulling their cars up to curbs and lovers loading up trolley carts, babies hugged against chests and kids tugged this way or that. It would have made me feel better if it was raining, because I would know that at least then I could go outside and stand it in when I had to leave. Then again, maybe I would never leave. Everything stays open here all the night, so I could sleep in the terminals and make friends with all the pilots. They already made a mediocre movie about a guy living in an airport though, so that couldn’t be my story. It didn’t even have the goodness to be bad enough to make fun of; that left me nowhere.
Airports are full of nowhere, which is why I like them so much. Robbie and I walked to the check in counter and I put my elbows up against the top. The guy behind it looked at me kindly, pressed in his uniform with a round face, and have you ever noticed that airports smell like nothing, not food, not the person standing next to you?
“Which one of you—”
“Him,” I said, and Robbie handed him his passport before he even asked.
While Robbie checked in, I looked over the other people on his flight, particularly the women. The most beautiful, a redhead with the kind of pale, flawless skin I spent my childhood pretending I had, was sure to be sitting right next to him on the plane. They’d mix up their carry on bags in the overhead bins and then share a cab to wherever it is they were going when they got there. Maybe in a moment of sleep deprived horniness they would kiss desperately in the airplane bathroom, or have sex with each other even. You can never account for the effects of air travel. “Hey, honey-cake,” said Robbie softly, perhaps feeling contrite for his earlier surliness. The man at the check in counter was lifting Robbie’s big bags onto the long black tongue of the conveyer belt, and a little printer was spitting out his boarding pass “What are you dreaming about?”
I turned and saw a girl on the other side of the glass, dark-faced and short-haired and vividly ugly in anger, and it took me a few seconds to realize that it was my own reflection.
“How skinny you are,” I said.
“You’re skinnier,” he said.
“You’re pretty,” I said,
“You’re prettier,” he said.
“You’re leaving,” I said.
“I know,” he said. He leaned in to kiss me, but then didn’t. Instead he smiled a calm, whisky-bitter smile. “I know.”
We drank and drank at the airport bar, where everything was more expensive than it should be. There were not so many people there, this being a Monday night, the tired-looking waitress had nothing to do but lean against the bar and talk to the bartender about the weather. We didn’t really say much, me and Robbie.
Robbie can be a quiet drunk. Then he said, “Sometimes I just wish somebody could tell me what the biggest thing I will regret is going to be, right now, so I can stop it before it happens.”
“You already know what it is, and you’re doing it anyway,” I said.
“Will you just stop it,” said Robbie. He looked very sour. “If this is anyone’s fault—”
I got up and went to the bathroom, so I didn’t have to hear the end of his sentence. I passed all these cool, international people wheeling around their carry on bags, not even noticing their beautiful reflections on the polished floor. The bathroom was the size of three large living rooms and a kitchen, big enough to spend your whole life in. I sat in one of the stalls and closed the door, everything rocking around me. I felt hungry and thirsty and cold and I realized that I would have to use Robbie’s BART pass to get back home since mine had just run out, and I had forgotten my wallet. I suppose he wouldn’t need it anyway, but I don’t like asking for things like that.
After a little while I came out of the stall and walked over to the sinks. There was a woman who was standing at the opposite wall, the second set of sinks. Both walls were covered in long mirrors. The woman had on a salwaar kemeeze and her hair was covered with her duppata. She was looking down at her hands, and the sound of the running water echoed through the whole palatial bathroom. I looked at her in my mirror, which held the reflection of her in her mirror. Then she looked up at me, looking at her mirror into my mirror eyes.
For an electric second, the gaze locked us together, as if we were looking into the eyes of ourselves. But she broke the gaze and left the bathroom. Had she come in there to just wash her hands? Maybe I had frightened her away.
When I got back to the table Robbie and a woman were sitting there together. The woman had short white hair that had the same feathery quality as goose down. It looked like somebody had combed static through it, it was standing way up on end. I just saw the woman’s back but then she turned towards me and I saw that she was really, really old. She was wearing this crazy costume jewelry around her neck, and I thought at first she had a skin disorder, but then I realized it was just rouge smeared all the way from her ears to her nose.
“This is Mrs. Walton,” said Robbie.
“Ms. Walton,” Ms. Walton said. She extended her hand and I shook it.
“She just wanted to say hi, I guess.” Robbie said.
There seemed to be nothing to say. I felt like I had just interrupted them in a private conversation. “What are you doing here at the airport, Ms. Walton?” I said, finally.
“I’m here to pick up my son,” said Ms. Walton. Her voice sounded like a witchy woman in a bedtime story. “I saw Robbie here and asked him if he would make love to me in the bathroom. But he said that you might object. Do you object?”
“Yes,” I said, “very much so.” I caught Robbie’s eye but couldn’t read his expression. I’m sure he didn’t actually want me to say no, but I’m not sure what he wanted me to do. He seemed a little amused by the situation. He brushed his hair back from his forehead.
“What on earth have you been doing in the bathroom for so long?” Ms. Walton asked.
“Crying,” I said. “I also did my hair.”
“My hair’s always done,” said Ms. Walton to Robbie.
“It looks very nice,” said Robbie, to either of us.
“Where is your son arriving from?” I asked.
“Holland,” said Ms. Walton, “or Belgium. I can’t decide.”
“Decide, or remember?” said Robbie.
“Remember,” said Ms. Walton. She patted his hand across the table. “Remember.”
Robbie and I met at a party. He wore a tee shirt and had tattoos all the way up his arms. I was with my friend Ruchitra who sometimes went by the name of Ramona. I went by that name too in coffee shops when they insisted on taking your name because mine was even longer and harder to pronounce. Robbie was full of coke, both kinds, and whiskey. He knew Ruchi from high school and I almost kissed him in the doorway before he walked me down to unlock my bike. I put my ear to him and listened to his heart like a fist of someone locked inside his chest.
“Are you nervous?”
“No,” he said.
“You sound nervous.”
“You don’t know me well enough to say that.”
His skin was so white under the streetlights. I couldn’t stop looking at it. The skin on his jaws, rough with stubble, was unintentionally handsome. I had never kissed anybody the same age as me before. I touched my fingers to his cheek and felt the pulse in his neck.
“What are you doing?” he asked. He didn’t seem to mind, but I felt like I was looking for something, though I didn’t know what. After a while he said, “You’re like this dark inky pool of night, you know that? Can I kiss you?”
“Okay,” I said, and leaned in. “Do you even know my name, what my name is?”
“Yes,” he said.
“What is it?”
“I can’t say it.”
“Because you don’t remember?”
“Because I don’t want to say it wrong.”
I said it for him, syllable by syllable. He said it back to me, all mixed up on his tongue, and then I kissed him anyway, kissed him for his racing heart and the way his fingers trembled slightly when he put them on my bare shoulders.
Robbie would get mad if he read all this. He would say it was unfair that I talked about him being so high, because he wasn’t that high, and that was the first and last time for coke, anyway. He would also object to the line I said earlier about carrying a person’s backpack to the airport and how it means they were never yours. You were never mine, he would say. It’s you, it’s you.
“Robbie, when are you leaving?” asked Ms. Walton. She had ordered a jack and coke and held it against her chest like a bird. Every once in a while she swished it around so that the ice clinked against the glass.
“My flight leaves in about an hour.”
“That leaves us little time together,” said Ms. Walton.
“Yes,” said Robbie. He didn’t look at me, but down at his empty glass. Then he took his BART pass out of his pocket and slid it across the table. “Here, I’m not going to need this.”
“Thanks,” I said and turned it over. It only had sixteen cents left on it anyway. “What is your son like, Ms. Walton? Is he handsome?”
“My son is very handsome. His father and I only made love a few times before he was conceived, and then he moved to Texas. He hardly ever calls. Texas must suit him better, though, much more temperate. He hates the fog.” Ms. Walton looked Robbie over as if he were another potential fog-hater.
“I wouldn’t call you either. I don’t have any money. Sometimes women expect too much.”
“You have enough money for a plane ticket,” said Ms. Walton. “Goddamn, what I wouldn’t do for a cigarette right now. It’s a bar, for christssakes.
It was the beginning of summer and Robbie and I sat out on the front steps of our building. We weren’t watching anything, but the air was warm enough. We didn’t touch anything or say anything. At night, Robbie moved under me like a bass line.
“Ms. Walton,” I said, “would you excuse us?”
“Look at your skin,” said Ms. Walton. She said it to Robbie, and there was envy in her voice. “Your face is like a sheet ironed flat. There’s no wrinkles anywhere, even around the eyes. You have these sweet little freckles on your cheeks. And there’s a birthmark on your chin, what a miracle!”
“Skin isn’t a miracle, it’s just skin,” said Robbie. He was saying it to me.
Ms. Walton looked back and forth between Robbie and me, as if she was just suddenly noticing me for the first time.
“That bitch doesn’t know the first thing about anything,” she said. Her face turned mean, the folds of it twisting into anger. “Black nigger cunt terrorist hijab jihad, whatever it is. You should just go back to your own country, honey. You don’t know shit.” Ms. Walton drained her drink in one long gulp and then slammed it down on the table. “Are you coming, Robbie?”
Robbie looked at me with an open mouth. “No,” he said. “Of course not. You shouldn’t say things like that. Especially not in an airport.”
San Francisco’s streets break into intersections at odd, impossible angles. The streets are stretched taut over hills that are too steep to ride your bicycle up, even if you have enormous calves. I hate the city at night, when bars are throbbing like hangover headaches. There’s no place to go to be alone where the absence of people doesn’t just remind you that everyone else is out dancing or making love in neighboring apartments. I could already see myself going home that night, falling asleep on the BART to the sound of people talking, waking up past my station, in Fremont or Richmond or Berkeley, depending on which train I got on.
Everybody’s always stealing things from you in the city, bicycle wheels, privacy, smiles and pennies. I don’t think it could have been any different. Robbie asked me once if it would have been different if he had been black, or brown, or blue, or anything else. But you really can’t answer questions like that, so I didn’t. I let it stand in the air between us like a pane of glass, until it grew to stretch to the corners of the room, a pane of glass like in the zoo, and then a moat and a river and a natural habitat, the watcher and the watched. It’s a question you can’t stuff back down your throat. You don’t even wish it could be, sometimes. Sometimes you’re actually glad.
“Ms. Walton didn’t pay for her drink,” I said.
“I’ll pay for it,” he said. His lip trembled, but he didn’t cry. His eyes looked bruised, because he’d been having trouble sleeping lately. “I’m—”
“Pregnant? Sorry? Cranky? Tired? Heartsick? High?”
He laughed. “All of those, maybe. I haven’t gotten my period in months.”
“You can stay. Can’t you stay?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. He traced one of the blue tattoos on his forearm with his finger. We sat there for a long while, not touching. Then he put his backpack on and stood up. “I think I should get in line,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. He touched my hair. We walked over to the security line and then hugged for a little while and I could hardly hear anything. We never held hands even in public so we were kind of stiff huggers at first, but then we just sort of melted into it. Robbie smelled damp and sweaty and I knew his eyes were closed.
“Please,” I said. My voice was muffled and he couldn’t hear me because I said it into his chest. I didn’t know how to complete the sentence anyway.
Ms. Walton was waiting for me at the bar. We had a long drink together, and I kissed her lonely, angry mouth. We looked at ourselves in the terminal window. After a while we couldn’t tell which was which.
“What a joy this story was. In Indian-themed fiction, there is a strong temptation to retreat to well-traveled tropes and narratives, like familial duty, immigrant stress, and the tyrannies of arranged marriage. This story stands out for both its boldness and its refusal to be typical.”—Ray Deonandan
“I was struck by the life and movement in this author’s writing. The characters in “Ghost” carry an authentic sense of conflict, and an undeniable humanity. The pacing of the story is excellent, making the reading of it almost effortless.”—Shanthi Sekaran
|Shruti Swamy is working toward her Masters in Fine Arts in fiction at San Francisco State University.|