by Vikrant Chandel
Artwork, “Rojo” by Penney Vasquez
“Yo.” Sergei called after Rohit, who was doing a just-shat-your-pants walk-run down the street. “Those kids are dicks,” Sergei shouted after Rohit, who stopped and made sure not to turn around as he wiped tears and snot onto his sleeve. Once Sergei caught up, they made brief eye contact until both boys realized how exceptionally interesting the sidewalk happened to look. In silence, they walked the four blocks to Rohit’s house as the tear streaks dried.
“Aight, see you at school.”
“Do you want to come up for some Mango juice?”
Rohit laughed, remembering his thick Indian accent and his fragile ego as he passed the joint back to Serg. The ego had hardened a bit in years since the move and the accent had been relegated to names of vegetables and few choice words like schedule. They were sitting on the curb staring at the side of a beige Plymouth Gran Fury with a driver whose parallel parking skills took no note of the curb. Serg was skipping chemistry because he hadn’t written the lab report and Rohit was skipping US history because Serg had asked. As Rohit exhaled, his glasses ushered the smoke into his left eye, plunging him into a fit of eye rubbing.
Serg rose, killed the j, tossed it and extended a hand to Rohit. They strolled down Booth Street, a sliver of sky above them. Rohit shook off the thousand eyes that lined every public space he had moved within for the past 6 years. He was no stranger to hundreds of people watching him where he went, but at least in Bangalore he could see them too. He hated catching himself in the hours of dissonance where streets were sparsely populated yet buildings multiplied and stood taller, their dead ogle luminescing. Coupled with the fact that each goddamn street looks like a set, every walk made Rohit feel like an extra in someone’s straight to DVD, D-grade film.
They shuffled along nudged by concrete giants, talking shit about teachers. Serg had his face scrunched up and his left index finger circling his nipple. In a brutally nasal accent, “Well when you take Sin X and divide it by Cos X it is a lot of nipple chafing.” Rohit took up the bit mimicking the accent and motion, “and then you multiply it by the tangent and you’re bleeding through your shirt.” They took a right, looking ahead to Queens Boulevard and the sky opened to a couple fluffy cows grazing on the big blue.
Once on the Boulevard, they walked aimlessly until they saw Guyanese Frank huddled in the indent of a Chase Bank façade. Serg squatted by him and asked, “You up?”
Frank? Guyanese Frank.
“I am now kid.”
Frank extended a closed fist, which Serg met. GF nodded towards Rohit, who responded in kind. All involved politely ignored the vague whiff of piss. GF spit and asked if they were looking. “Always,” responded Serg, whose fingers extended with the remains of a vacuumed sealed bag of bud.
“What you tryna cop?”
“A six, bottle of Svedka and some nips of whiskey with the rest.”
“You got papers?”
Serg produced a pack of zig zags pinched between his middle and index finger before the question was over. Rohit Bill Clinton-ed the second joint, while GF and Serg reveled in it on the walk to the liquor store. GF waved them away a block before the glass paned liquor store only to stumble back.
Rohit reached into his back pocket and handed over a clump of crumpled bills. GF mumbled something that Rohit thought was unprofessional and Serg insisted was fish in a hole. Rohit asked why GF would possibly have said that to which Serg shrugged. Moments later GF returned with a six of High Life, a bottle of Svedka, and a couple Jim Beam nips. He handed the bags over, didn’t return the change, flashed his few remaining teeth and unfurled three fingers to reveal a nip of Jim Beam.
“You tryna jam a bit?”
They had a couple hours til Claire and Irina would be ready to meet them, so “Why not?” said Serg. Rohit’s parents had rented the basement of his building as storage and allowed Rohit’s older, off-at-college brother to convert part of it into a pretty decent music space, which was now under Rohit’s care. Bringing GF there and watching him kill on Rohit’s older brother’s bass was always a little too real for the kid. The line Ro had drawn between them was already too thin.
When Rohit had approached the first Guyanese student he’d met in the 7th grade assuming the kid was Indian, it rocked his worldview. The British occupation had always been sold to him, even back in India, as some sort of favor the British did the Indians. They built the roads, the trains, the “culture,” Gandhi and Co. were said to be more British than Indian in a way. Understanding that this kid’s not-too-distant ancestors had been shipped across the world as de facto slaves didn’t fit with the narrative he’d been taught. Rohit’s own father had impressed upon him that racism was an excuse.
GF was also by far the best musician in the room and the only one who had a little Miles in him. The bullshit drums Serg played, mostly to satisfy his ego, and Rohit’s middling guitar were a bit embarrassing in comparison. Not like GF could care less, he lived for music. Well, that and fighting men whose glory days started on a Lacrosse Team and would end from too much red meat. He couldn’t go more than a few days without screaming in one’s face or grabbing one’s junk or going in for a lick, for perceived and real slight. They, on cue, were happy to relieve him of most of his teeth. He’d been banned from like half the bars in the area. The ones that still allowed him in had seen him play. What really unnerved Rohit about GF was that the man used to be a bloody PhD candidate for math at UT Austin before he had a psychotic break, something Rohit had seriously doubted until he saw GF laugh through his brother’s College Level multivariable calculus take-home midterm.
After GF had been released by Texas’s unsympathetic and relatively unhelpful mental health system, he’d gone to the only palace he really knew: Rego Park. His mother had passed, the papa had gone the way of the bottle early and what little family he had had, had returned to Guyana, leaving GF and his tattered mind to figure some shit out, which he’d done as best one could. Rohit couldn’t really accept the story, always assuming there must be more. Not that he was going to inquire, but Rohit still didn’t enjoy the ambiguity rolling into his place of refuge.
A little summer reading was enough to show Rohit his father had little clue what he was talking about. His father’s reaction to his brother’s uncloseting made it painfully clear to all involved that their father was brutally misguided on much. Yet Bap had carved a place out in the world from basically nothing, so he clearly had figured out some. The myths people need to tell themselves to continue to exist can be disagreeable to reality but no less real. On the topic of Frank, parsing the chicken, egg, or dinosaur in the sedation, mental health, and systematic oppression game had become far too circular, so Rohit and Serg had abandoned the mental exercise quickly. All this faded when GF played. The dude was born on strings.
Sergei got the text that Claire was almost there and Irina would (should) show up in a bit. With that announcement, Guyanese Frank turned to Rohit and asked,
“Ooo you got a friend too?”
“Nah, just a girl he’s been pining over for like three years, maybe it was four?”
“I mean, I’ve thought she was cool for a while, but I wouldn’t like say she’s my girl.”
His crusted socks probably would though.
“Kid’s destined to stay a virgin until he pays for it.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
GF bid them farewell, not wanting to step on the youngins’ game. Walking out, he passed Claire on Saunder’s Street, who waved politely and threw up a smile so convincing that maybe only Rohit could identify it as a forgery. She meant no ill will–like four out of five smiles were brought about by social convenience for her. She was gorgeous, like the girl born of ice and snow that the media overlords and collective history have colluded to sculpt in men’s imaginations. She mostly faked smiles as she’d rather avoid the coin toss of devotion or anger that the combination of her beauty and blasé attitude incited out of most.
She kissed Rohit on the cheek when he opened the door and Sergei on the lips when he got up to greet her. Sergei handed her a beer, whose cap she popped off with the back of her white lighter.
“Bad news, I don’t think your girl’s coming.”
“What? Why? I thought you said she’d be here in bit?”
“I thought so too, but she’s got a big exam Monday.”
“But she’s got the rest of the weekend to study?”
“Aww don’t let it ruin your mood. Maybe she just doesn’t like Satriani?”
“Dude, fuck that. We are about to go see the greatest guitarist on the dot.”
“We already got her the ticket though.”
“You’re better than the guilt trip, we’ll flip it at the venue. For now, drink my son.”
They took shots and danced to Queen. Rohit had called Irina, she confirmed she couldn’t make it and he’d acted so like chill about it. Maybe they’d see each other at school or whatever. After his spirits were lifted by the promise of one his idols and damped by the liquor, they made their way to the show.
After, they danced on the Manhattan streets, only allowed to see a sliver of the starless sky their parents had come to this country for. Sergei cried off the molly, gotten as part of the street ticket sale and ingested alone despite pleas for a companionship. Rohit had realized he would always play the guitar. Claire enjoyed watching people she loved experience peaks of emotion. She had spent the night dissecting those around her and dancing. By the end, she was mostly contemplating life within the ice sheets of Europa. More importantly, how would alien life react to Satriani? She guessed negatively as they were probably into like some whale noise type shit. Also why were we sending the Beatles music into space, it’s not like the space invaders were gonna hear ‘Let It Be’ and be like good call. She kept getting wrenched out of her mind to half-heartily chant for the first, second, and third encore. The concert was heavily populated with dudes who lived for Satriani.
Back at Rohit’s basement, drunk and excited, they went into their remaining beers. To Claire’s mild disappointment they put on more Satriani and began reliving the concert in greater detail, commenting on his backup band. At points, the two high-schoolers used their industry ears to separate the good backup musicians from the great backers. Eventually, Claire had to eject the CD and hand Rohit his guitar. The video camera Sergei and Rohit used to record themselves playing and sometimes choreographed dancing on (which if asked about, they’d deny) lay on the table. Claire bent to use a beat copy of ‘English August’ and an uncreased copy of ‘The Things They Carried’ to angle the camera at Rohit who, standing with one leg on a chair, was head banging to his own tunes. Sergei pulled Claire onto his lap as he inhaled from a joint that had materialized. She turned to kiss him and accept the content of his lungs. She held it in as she rose, walked over to Rohi,t and with her lips inches from his, exhaled. She returned to Sergei’s lap, where they proceeded to sloppily make out.
Rohit, hit with pangs he’d rather not understand, this lack of dissection becoming the theme of his day, he noticed, put down the guitar and popped in The Doors self-titled EP. He then picked up the camera and turned it on the other two. Claire laugh and Sergei held up his hands.
“I need to see more passion. No one is going to buy this, way too much saliva or, honestly, too little. We want the tease or full commitment.”
With that, he began to direct them. “Stop moving that hand like you’ve got a twitch. Good, kiss her neck. Keep it moving, no hickeys, you’re not in fucking grade school.”
They let him, undressing and redressing at his command, until they were having sex right there in front of him in his fucking basement as Rohit knew they had done before. She whispered something into Sergei’s ear. He nodded, whispering back.
“Louder for the camera.”
She got up and moved to Rohit, stepping on the table in the process. She caused him to make sounds foreign to him and Sergei laughed.
“Don’t worry, you’ll eventually get better at it. Maybe.”
“He’s already better than some.”
Serg rose, bent her over Rohit, whose one hand was barely afloat on her hip with the other still clutched to the camera. He had no fucking clue what to do with either. Serg reached down for Rohit’s neck and Rohit’s face rose to meet his friend’s. Rohit’s felt a hand and spilled his genetic material into it. The moments crawled until Rohit felt Claire slump onto Rohit and ask,
Was that alright for you?
Yeah, it was great.
Serg and Claire began pulling on their clothing as Rohit ragged himself off. Sergei was indiscriminately killing wounded soldiers. He dropped a couple of nugs on the table and pulled a couple of papers.
“I’ll see you tomorrow or something.”
“Yeah, fo sho.”
“I’ll probably just see you at school. Got a bunch of work this weekend.”
“Yeah, word. Uh…good luck.”
They exited as the first emissaries of the sun announced their master’s imminent arrival over the tops of buildings and through the space between leaves. Rohit pulled the tape out of the camcorder, dropped it on the floor and stepped on it. He played the album again, tossed the fragments of tape along with the empties in a trash bag, mumbling some shit which could have been “that’s rock and roll” or “that’s whacka mole” or something entirely different.
They did not see each other the next day or for the next week. A couple missed calls on both ends. They both eventually had a friend’s birthday lunch to attend where they orbited each other. When Serg was leaving, Rohit saw him out. They gushed over the concert and talked about looking to book a gig. Rohit said he might have a cousin who could hook them up. Serg’s phone buzzed: he was late to meet Claire. Rohit walked him down the street and they cut a nervous boge. Quick elbow dab, and Rohit turned back in.