Introduction by Ilana Masad
I’ve been a fan of SJ Sindu’s writing for a long time and have witnessed the unique settings and characters in her novels A Marriage of a Thousand Lies and Blue-Skinned Gods. Now I’m thrilled that she’s brought her wit, beautiful use of language, and sharp eye for social dynamics to the short story form in her new collection, The Goth House Experiment and Other Stories.
This beautiful, tragic, and enraging story, “Patriots’ Day,” takes place on Monday, April 15, 2013, the day when two self-radicalized men, unaffiliated with any foreign or domestic terrorist group, planted bombs near the finish line of the 117th annual Boston Marathon. A violent event like this, even in a country built on so much violence, can often split people’s lives into a before and after, marking their memories forever.
But what gets overshadowed by such events? What seemingly smaller, maybe less thought-through violences go unremarked upon under such a time of emergency? “Patriots’ Day” imagines one such act of violence, a tragedy that in its specificity is far more American and terribly human than the well-known Boston Marathon Bombings.
Sindu gives readers a lot to work with right from the opening: Amit Srinivasan is going to die, on Monday, April 15, at 8:10 PM, when Pamela Robertson pushes him in front of an orange-line train in Boston. But before he’s murdered, Amit is alive—alive and in limbo. He’s living apart from his family in a small apartment, has just filed for divorce, and is missing his girlfriend Hannah, for whom he’s left his wife. Over the course of the story, we come to know Amit in his small, quotidian specifics: he prefers lattes but can’t really afford to indulge in them; he fantasizes about how he’ll spruce up his apartment; he hopes to take his kids to get food in Chinatown once his wife allows him to see them again. His life is caught in a moment of uncertainty and upheaval, but he is fully alive in the midst of it, with plans, both vague and concrete, for the future.
Readers learn, too, about Pamela, the woman who won’t tell police why she pushed Amit onto the tracks. There is a great deal of life in her, too: she hasn’t spoken to her daughter in three years; she works at Toni’s Chocolate Factory; the shoes she wears to work are bad for her feet. Pamela, though a soon-to-be murderer, is nevertheless rendered as a full human being, one with grudges and preferences and sorrows and griefs and the kind of casual racism that is ugliest in that it is rarely stated, almost terribly mundane.
The humanity and pathos with which Sindu renders each of her characters does not absolve them of their wrongdoings. Amit isn’t a perfect man—nor should he need to be. Pamela is not a perfect woman—nor do her imperfections explain or easily lead to her act of violence. The truest kind of villain is the human one, the one who makes a series of choices, the kind who never thinks of themselves as a bad person.
– Ilana Masad
Author of All My Mother’s Lovers
A Doomed Romance Is the Deadliest Tragedy
Patriots’ Day by SJ Sindu
Four days before his death, Amit Srinivasan files for divorce. He’s living in a tiny apartment in Somerville that he began renting in December, ever since his wife packed a suitcase full of his clothes and burned it in the backyard firepit of their suburban brick house. Winter has broken, and Somerville’s tree-lined streets rupture with color. Pink petals work their way into the cracked, uneven sidewalks.
As soon as Amit files for divorce, he calls Hannah. She doesn’t pick up. He leaves her a voice mail. “We can be together now,” he says. “I love you,” he says. “I filed for divorce,” he says. But four days pass, and Hannah doesn’t call back.
At 8:10 PM on April 15, a woman named Pamela Robertson will push Amit in front of an orange-line train at the Forest Hills T stop in Boston. She will be frustrated, and all it’ll take is a little shove, a couple pounds of pressure. Amit will already be over the line, standing with his toes butting into the yellow markings on the platform. He will be leaning forward, looking into the tunnel as the headlights fill the empty stone void, the light rushing closer, and Pamela will put out her arm and shove him in the back, her fingernails scraping against his trench coat, and he will hang there, slanted, poised between death and the platform. Pamela will be able to picture it, years later, the way his body will hang diagonal between the platform and the yellow line, the way the tunnel will fill with light, the way the rumbling train will carry him off like a leaf.
When police officers ask her why she did it, she won’t tell them. Pamela will feel her skin, the clothes over them, the air around her and the officers. This is what she will know: that she has a chip in one of her nails from the blending machine she operates at Toni’s Chocolate Factory; that there are 1.82 ounces of white chocolate in each almond macaroon they make; that she needs her roots touched up where the gray is starting to shine; that her appointment is on April 16 at 4 PM with Amanda; that she is wearing the wrong type of shoes; that for her flat feet, she should really wear sneakers when she stands at the machines all day, but she can’t bring herself to give up her polished-leather penny loafers like her mother used to wear.
On the morning of his death, Amit heaves himself out of bed and turns on the TV in his tiny Somerville apartment. The red line rumbles beneath the floorboards.
He looks around and thinks that he needs to get a clock. He could get some plants, or a picture frame to hang over the white spot on the wall where someone patched over a hole and neglected to paint it. He could make a home here. He could be happy. He could take his kids to Boston on the weekends, buy them food in Chinatown, watch all the parades and shows they missed before, when the thought of driving to Boston on the weekends exhausted him.
But his wife won’t let him see their children anymore. She claims his affair with Hannah is a bad influence, that therefore he is a bad influence, a bad father, a bad husband, and a bad man. His wife often thinks in absolutes. She likes the stratifications of ordinary things: poor and rich, piety and sin, love and divorce. Amit knows he will have to sue for partial custody, that the judge will ask if he has enough space in his apartment to house his kids, that he’ll have to say no, that he’ll only be allowed a day or two with them a week.
Amit wants to sink down into the weary mattress springs, down through the floorboards and into the earth. He wonders how things went so wrong. Something had burned off his childhood optimism like fog in the sun.
He and Hannah fought viciously the last time he saw her, their biggest fight in the two years they’d been dating. “Do you love me like you loved your wife?” That was the question. A trick question, he has since realized. A question to which “First love only happens once” was the wrong answer. Hannah hasn’t talked to her mother for three years because they disagreed over her father’s funeral arrangements, something about who got to give eulogies and which flowers were placed next to the casket. He knows Hannah can hold a grudge.
Amit reheats the naan and palak paneer left over from his take-out dinner at the Indian place down the street. The palak paneer tastes like the Styrofoam container he heated it in, but he eats it anyway.
On April 15, Pamela calls her daughter Hannah before work. She calls her daughter every day before work, though Hannah hasn’t picked up for over three years. Pamela says the same thing into the voice mail that she does every day: “I miss you. Call me. Your father and I love you.” Pamela’s husband has been dead three and a half years. Heart attack. Her daughter walked out of the funeral and hasn’t spoken to her since.
Pamela wraps her green paisley scarf around her neck, slips her feet into her shiny leather penny loafers, and steps outside. She makes sure to lock the dead bolt on her apartment door. She walks down the stairs of her condo building, her knees creaking with every step. Maybe it’s time to move, she thinks. Maybe she should get a nice house without stairs, somewhere outside of town. Newton. Concord, even. Go north. Away from the bustle of the city, north to the sleepy towns where locals in costume still reenact the start of the American Revolution. What would she do in such a town? She’s so used to the T that she knows most schedules by heart. Her feet carry her to where she needs to go, without having to think about Boston’s winding streets. She likes the chaos, likes that people who have lived in Boston for all their lives can still get lost, likes that she never does.
Amit dresses and walks down to the coffee shop on his block. Five dollars for a latte. He can’t keep that up, not if he’s going to pay rent and half a mortgage. Two dollars for a coffee. Better. Back then, his wife blamed their money problems on his one-bottle-of-whiskey-a-week habit, on his SUV, on his budgetless trips to Toys “R” Us. In turn, he blamed his wife’s collection of shoes stuffed into the hall closet, her Coach bags, her weekly manicures and monthly facials. Back then, he was careful to never take home the restaurant receipts, the bar tabs, the mini hotel shampoos.
At CVS, he buys a pack of Marlboro Lights. He’s never been a regular smoker, but it feels good to have something in between his fingers, ashes to flick to the ground. Outside the Davis Square T station, he asks a stranger for a light, and the man steps so close to light it for him that, for a moment, standing in the haze of the man’s cologne, Amit feels a shock up and down his body. He hasn’t been so close to another human in days, not since he last saw Hannah.
He had met Hannah at the pool, where they both swam at the same time after work. Back when he used to swim, back when he thought he could make his wife happy if only he looked better or spoke better or bought her flowers. But by then, it was too late. Suspicion had grown like a monster in his wife’s head, had sprung from her imagination before he had even thought of other women. The night he met Hannah, he came home to find his wife on the floor of their kitchen, cradling some roses he had brought home for her the night before. Her constant accusations had made him feel like a cheater long before he committed anything worthy of her suspicion.
Pamela Robertson takes the T to the chocolate factory in Somerville. She stands pressed up against young students with backpacks. College students perhaps, but she can’t tell anymore, not like she could when her daughter was in school. Back then, she could pinpoint their ages like cities on a map. Hannah’s age. A year older. Two years younger. But now she barely notices them and doesn’t care for their blank-faced ages. Fodder for the cubicle farms. Not her. No, thank you. Pamela likes the chocolate factory with its smells and the white suits the employees have to wear. Macaroons, cupcakes, truffles—what they make changes by the day. Always something new. Some new taste. Some new ingredient.
Her friend Ellen is waiting for her at the door like she always does, primping her white curls and watching her reflection in the tinted glass. In the locker rooms, they put their purses in identical, eyeheight lockers and get white coveralls out of the laundry bin. Pamela can never figure out how the laundry workers get all those chocolate stains out, but every morning, the coveralls are there, as pristine as if they’d just been sewn.
Amit likes the way you can see end to end on a green-line train, the way the cars snake through corners, wrapping around each bend like a time warp.
A cop stands in every T car, not holding on to anything. People flow and jostle around the officers, talking loudly about the marathon.
Somerville was warm, but Boston is exceptionally windy. Amit comes up the steps, and the wind reaches into the tunnels. Copley Station is closed for the marathon, so he gets off at Arlington and walks. Boylston Street bursts with chaos. People are already lining up at the finish line, their faces painted, their bodies bundled against the wind. Barriers close off the road to traffic.
More cops stand along both sides of Boylston. The wind blows at their coats, knocks down trash bins, rolls empty plastic bottles all over the streets. Pigeons peck near their feet. But still the cops stand in their navy and silver.
Pamela clocks in at 8:47 AM. She and Ellen work the same station, which today is a new biscotti recipe. Amaretto. Which means a smell that Pamela doesn’t care for. She likes the aromas of melting sugar, chopped nuts, chocolate, fruit. But amaretto burns her nostrils in a way that reminds her of her late husband and his liquor cabinet.
The station manager is a woman half Pamela’s age, a woman who, Pamela knows, started at the factory five years after Pamela and three years after Ellen.
Heather the station manager sneers over her clipboard. She has lipstick on her teeth, a garish shade of pink that Pamela would never wear. Prostitute pink. Maybe Heather’s trying to catch the eye of the foreman. He’s always lusting after one or more of the workers. If that’s it, then Heather has some stiff competition. She’s over thirty and looks older, with a belly that’s starting to hang over the elastic waist of her white suit.
“New recipe today, girls,” Heather says. False cheer. Drawn-on eyebrows. “Amaretto biscotti. This one’s going to be big. Corporate thinks it’s going to be big.”
Pamela tries to catch Ellen’s eye. They had both been there when corporate thought chocolate bacon was going to be big, then walnut-crusted mints after that. As far as Pamela’s concerned, corporate is full of young ninnies who would never buy the factory’s chocolates if they saw them in a grocery store.
There was a time when Pamela thought she could be one of them, when she wanted to try to work her way up the company and into a corner office. She was young. She knows now that no one makes it from the factory floor to corporate. Those offices are full of people who have never worn white coveralls. And so Pamela decided she likes the factory floor. It’s more honest, this working with flour and sugar and shaping sweets out of thin air.
Heather passes out copies of the recipe and gives them assignments. Ellen on flour and sugar, Pamela on amaretto.
Amit’s office is empty, even though it’s Monday. Everyone with a salary stays home on marathon day. The only workers who show up are hourly temps and their managers.
At his desk, Amit puts down his things and gets himself a coffee. Thirteen unread emails. A call from Kate in reception: “Your herd of new temps is ready.” He goes down to the lobby. He has to remember to call Veronica at the temp agency. Who tells temps to start on marathon day?
A group of young white women stand against the metal logo on the wall, looking lonely and lost. One of them has his wife’s round face. One has her jagged, sawed-off jaw. One is wearing her hair in curls the way his wife does on special occasions. They stare at him but don’t hold his eye contact, like he’s translucent, like they can see through him down to his dark insides, like they can see the blood in his veins, like they suspect it isn’t red, like they want to test the theory. This divorce must be weighing on him more than he realizes if he’s seeing his wife everywhere in the faces of others. His mother told him to always see God inside others. He tries. He tries to imagine a warm ball of light inside each of the new temps. Little balls of light they are, all gathered around him in this lobby.
“Good morning,” he says. “How is everyone today?”
The women—girls, really—look at each other. They look at the floor. They look back at Kate the receptionist.
One girl, mousy and pale, says “Good morning” back. She introduces herself. The others mumble their names. Amit leads them on a tour of the building. Whenever he turns his back, he can feel their eyes on hm, crawling like bugs, all over, everywhere. He points out the women’s bathroom, the cafeteria on the ninth floor that looks out onto Copley Square, the showers on the tenth, the kitchenettes tucked into the corners where people put food left over from meetings.
“The first rule of proofreading,” he says, “is to always let your co-workers know when there’s free food.”
He waits for them to laugh. After a few seconds, a couple of them smile nervously. He’s off his game today. He shows them to their cubicles, but their computer log-ins don’t work. He walks them to the front of the building, where, through the floor-to-ceiling windows, they can see the marathoners pass by. Hordes of spectators push at one another on the sidewalks. The temps flatten their faces against the glass and watch.
An hour passes, and the IT techs—mediocre Indian-educated men the company imports because they’re cheaper than the made-in-the-USA models—have no idea when the temps will be able to log in. Amit still remembers the programs he wrote as a high schooler, the days he spent dreaming about being the next Silicon Valley tycoon. But then in college, he took that philosophy class, that damn philosophy class, and suddenly he thought he understood his parents and the rift that had formed between them and his brothers. The only thing he really understood at the end of it all was the real tragedy of immigration: that it made parents and children strangers to one another, created a cultural gap too wide to fill. If you stay on one side, you’ll always yearn for the other. If you try to straddle the abyss, you’ll fall.
The worst part of it is that his wife—born and raised in India—doesn’t even understand him. Whatever she had expected in an American husband, he wasn’t it. Ex-wife, he reminds himself. Almost.
Amit lets the temps take a three-hour lunch with a pile of board games while he fights with IT and swallows his blood pressure tablets. He tries to get work done but ends up thinking about Hannah. He checks his phone like a tic. Still nothing. They’d talked every day for two years, and now four days seems like she may never call again.
He tries to think of the temps, how smooth their faces are, how their innocence should excite him. At one point, he would have flirted with them. But now he feels tired. He no longer has the energy to chase girls half his age.
The internet is down. Amit’s day normally consists of answering endless emails. Panicked project managers. Disgruntled copy editors who think proofreading is trying to do their jobs. Upper management, who keeps trying to move the proofreaders to another building in Arlington. IT, who wants to go paperless. Temp agencies with résumés from eager college grads. Everyone wants something. The temps want to be paid better. The permanent employees want vacation time. His wife wants him to be the man she thought he was when she married him. What does Amit want? Right now, he wants a beer from the bar down the street. He wants to erase Hannah from his mind, and he wants to be near her again. He wants his son and daughter to visit him in his apartment. He wants a bigger apartment. He wants to give each of them a room.
The amaretto needs to be fetched from the storage floor, where Carl the stock guy heaves it onto a cart with a smile. If she had time, Pamela would wait to see if he smiles at the next woman who shows up or if his smile is just for her.
Pamela wheels the cart down, taps the keg, and fixes it to the machine that pumps it into a measuring vat and from there into the kneading bucket. According to the recipe, the amaretto needs to be added while the dough is kneading. The siphon slowly pours a stream of brown liquid over the mass of cream-colored dough.
The smell of amaretto turns her stomach, though she tries not to let that show on her face. If Heather assigned this to her on purpose, Pamela doesn’t want to give her the satisfaction.
Her husband loved amaretto sours, and she had made one for him every day when he came home from work. “I’m home, honey. Make me a drink, will you?” Sometimes when she opens the door to her condo after work, the walls say those same words to her. “Honey, I’m home. Make me a drink, will you?”
When he goes to the temp cubicles after lunch, Amit finds the girls talking with one another. They stop when they see him. He feels their eyes on him again, itching all over.
“It seems like IT will be a while with your log-ins, so you can start with paper.”
He shows them the wall of projects. They follow him like ducklings.
“Project managers drop off the manuscript.” He takes one out to show them. Back when he was a proofreader, it was all paper, and he likes the weight of it in his hands. “Always go through the order form, then the cover sheet. You’ll start with spot checks, then move up to first reads when you feel ready. Check corrections are the hardest.”
A faraway sound—like a balloon popping—cuts him off. It echoes through the empty office.
The temps look around. Another pop. It came from the street. Amit walks to the windows that look out over Boylston. The crowd below wavers, grinds into itself like wheat in a mill. Muffled screams float up the seven floors.
The temps gather at the window.
“There,” one says. She points down Boylston toward Copley Square and the finish line.
Something litters the ground a block down from the building. Bits of paper. Bits of banners. Red smeared over the concrete.
Amit steadies himself with a hand on the wall. Time warps around him, stretches itself out and scrunches back. He thinks of the green-line train. Sound cuts to silence, and he doesn’t feel the minutes pass.
One of the temps has her phone out.
“They’re saying it was a bomb,” she says.
The word falls leaden onto the floor. Amit feels the room tilt for a just a moment. “How can you know that already?” he asks.
“It’s on Twitter.” Her hand scrapes at her chest. She’s wheezing and looking around wildly.
Amit guides her back toward the center of the floor. He’s grateful for something to do. Without the temps to herd, he thinks he’d be the stray one.
“Shouldn’t we evacuate?” someone asks. “We need to leave.”
“No,” Amit says. “We’re on the seventh floor of a stone building. We’re safe.” He believes himself.
He leads them to their cubicles, away from any windows.
The temps have phones out and are frantically typing. One looks up from her screen. “I have no reception,” she says.
Amit left his phone at his desk. His hand tingles in its absence.
“Everyone stay here,” he says. “No one move.”
They stare at him blankly. A couple of girls pull air into their lungs as if they’re drowning. A phone rings.
He goes back to his desk. It’s the landline.
“Amit.” Hannah’s voice. The sound makes him feel solid again. “I couldn’t get through on your cell. What’s going on?”
“We don’t know yet. We don’t know.”
“But you’re okay.”
“I’m okay. You’re okay.”
“They evacuated our building. I’m going home.”
He remembers the red on the sidewalk. He grabs his stapler, a sea-green one that his wife got him as a birthday present. He should’ve known then. No one gives a stapler as a gift to a loved one. The stapler is scratched up, the electroplated paint stripping away to reveal the dark metal underneath.
“Come see me,” Hannah says. “Come over.”
“Why didn’t you call me before?”
Pamela stands next to Ellen, who’s working the kneading machine. They watch the dull blades push and pull at the dough. After the kneading machine, the dough goes to the shaper, where it’s made into wide, flat loaves to be baked. The loaves are as long as they can be while still being able to support their own weight once baked.
Break time. Pamela and Ellen go down to the cafeteria. They get tea and sit themselves down at one of the indoor picnic tables. The ends of the first batch of amaretto biscotti loaves sit in a small basket on each table. Pamela pushes the basket toward Ellen, who shakes her head.
Pamela doesn’t know how Ellen drinks tea without even a touch of sugar. A handful of years ago, Ellen went to Japan for her son’s wedding to an Asian woman and came back with all these ideas about health foods. Pamela has never told Ellen, but she’s glad her daughter hasn’t married yet. She knows that Hannah is dating a man from India—or so she guesses from his dark skin. She has seen him on Hannah’s porch, seen the two of them walking around Jamaica Plain, holding hands. Even though Hannah doesn’t call, Pamela knows it’s her duty to watch her. She hopes that Hannah moves on. Pamela doesn’t think she can carry around pictures of mixed grandchildren in her purse.
The foreman Hugo walks out of his office. He pats his face with a kerchief, runs the fabric over his bald head. He never takes breaks with the rest of them. The chatter quiets. He stands at the door to the break room, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Heather clack-clacks to a seat.
“Something’s happened,” Hugo says. He opens and closes his mouth several times before more words came out. “Two blasts, at the marathon. Some fuckhead put bombs in the trash cans.”
People start talking at once, but Pamela can’t understand them. Hugo turns on the old black stereo that sits in the cafeteria. He blows the dust from it and coughs.
A voice crackles through. “Cell phone reception has been shut down in the area. The MBTA has been suspended until further notice.” The voice continues to talk, but it’s lost in the waves of whispers.
The bell rings to signal the end of break. No one moves. They crowd around the radio and listen. The beating in Pamela’s chest grows erratic when Hugo tells them the blast happened at the finish line, which she knows is four and a half blocks from where her daughter works as a medical receptionist. Her daughter. She needs to go to her daughter. Hannah would welcome her in all this panic.
Pamela pulls Hugo by the shoulder, away from the radio.
“I need the rest of the day off,” she says. “My daughter needs me.”
He leans back, as if she towers over him. “Are you crazy? It’s a clusterfuck down there.”
She puts a hand flat on his chest. “I need to go to her. She needs me.”
He closes his mouth, swallows. He fills out a leave form, a fresh bead of sweat rolling down his bald head.
The temps are on Twitter and Facebook, calling out updates.
“The bombs were in trash cans.”
“People have been taken to the hospital.”
“All the trains are down.”
One girl sits in the corner, under her desk, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees and her eyes squeezed shut. Amit’s wife—ex-wife, almost—took the same position when he’d finally confessed about Hannah.
A voice comes over the intercom: “This is a message from HR. Everyone in the Boylston Building, please make your way safely to the nearest exit. The building must be completely evacuated and will be closed until further notice.” The voice repeats itself.
The temps look at Amit. He’s done countless fire drills. He pictures Hannah, and the thought of her anchors him to the moment.
“This way,” he says. He pulls on his trench coat. “Grab your things.”
He leads them down the south side stairs and out the back entrance. Sirens and voices scramble over the brick streets.
“Stay together,” he says. “You’ll have to walk to South Station and catch the commuter rails home.”
They leave him as a pack, weaving through the crowd. He turns and walks the other way, toward Hannah’s place in JP. When his hands shake too much, he stuffs them in his coat pockets. When his knees bend too easily, he stops and breathes solidity into them. When he hears the sirens from Boylston, he ignores them and keeps walking.
With the trains down, Amit walks the hour and a half to JP. On the stoop of Hannah’s apartment in an old triple-decker house, he wonders if he should’ve bought something for her. Flowers or chocolates, maybe. Isn’t that what he’s supposed to do? What his wife had always complained about? “You’re never romantic,” she had said, over and over so that he can still hear her tone of voice, the hurt in it, the indignation. “You’re never romantic, and sometimes I wonder if you really love me.”
He hears Hannah’s footsteps on the stairs before she opens the door. She’s wearing the blue skirt he bought her for Christmas last year. The cerulean silk flows around her hips. He’d found it in India on a trip with his family, had doubled back to the store to buy it after dropping his wife and kids off at the in-laws’ bungalow.
When Hannah hugs him, he almost chokes on the smell of her hair. Four days have felt like months. He follows her up the steep circling stairs, trying not to look up her skirt. Even in the dim light of the single bulb, he can see the soft hairs on her legs that she has been growing out for over a year. He watches her lock the apartment door behind them and wonders what he’s supposed to do now. She sits on the couch and arranges her skirt carefully over her knees. He sits at the other end. He wants her closer, wants to pluck at each of her blond curls and watch them spring back up.
“I didn’t know if you’d come,” she says. She keeps looking at her lap, fidgeting with a string unraveling from the silk.
He doesn’t know the right response, doesn’t know how to fix what has broken between them. “I wanted to see you.”
She winds the string around her finger and snaps it off. “You told your wife.”
“You asked me to,” he says. She had pleaded, had begged him to tell his wife so that she could finally feel like a part of his life. “You wanted me to, so I did.”
When he first started seeing her—two months after the pool, before they had sex—he tried to end it. He had been walking around with guilt on his shoulders, the weight of it pushing him down with each step. “I can’t have my cake and eat it, too,” he told her. She frowned, and said, “I’m not a cake.”
Now he wonders if he should shift closer to Hannah on the couch, if she’d let him hold her hand. “I miss you,” he wants to say. What he says instead is: “What a day.”
Hannah clasps her hands in her lap and says nothing.
“Can I help you cook dinner?” he asks. That’s what they have always done, and right now he craves a return to normalcy. He wants some way to feel close to her.
She stands up and brushes nothing off her skirt. Without a word, he follows her into the kitchen, its yellow walls making her hair even blonder, her skin even paler.
He fills a saucepan with water and turns on the stove. They always cook the same thing. Yakisoba noodles with egg and fish sauce and a stir-fry of whatever vegetables they have on hand.
She turns off the stove. “I don’t want to cook today.”
He reaches out his hand and touches her waist. She steps into him. For the next fifteen minutes, he makes love to her on the floor with a desperation he hasn’t felt since they were still new to each other’s bodies. After he comes inside her and rolls off, she lies there and stares at the popcorn ceiling as if it were made of stars.
“What do you want?” he asks. He is sweaty and naked on the cold vinyl floor. “To do?”
“Why is it that you can’t ever figure it out?”
“You wanted me to tell her, so I told her. What more do you want?”
“I shouldn’t have asked you to come.”
He grabs hold of one of her curls and rubs the hair between his fingers. “We can be together now. That’s what we want.”
“I love you.” He waits. He wants her to slide closer. He wants to ask her if she came, if he should fit his mouth between her thighs. “I love you,” he says again. He waits. His heart races, and he is drowning. “I left my wife for you. For you.”
She is silent for a long time. Then her body shivers, and he pushes up against her. She lays her head on his chest, and he strokes her hair.
Pamela waits on the stoop of Hannah’s building, her finger pressing the doorbell over and over. She waited for hours at the station for the red line to start running again. She watches the hands of her watch tick by: 7:35, 7:36. On the fifth ring, she hears footsteps on the stairs. She holds a plastic grocery bag in each hand. Pamela is proud of herself. She knew exactly what to get, knows the vegetables Hannah buys every Saturday afternoon because Pamela watches her at the JP Whole Foods.
The door opens, and Hannah appears. For a moment, Hannah’s face is blank, almost pleasant, and then it twists into displeasure, and Pamela feels small.
“Mom,” Hannah says. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you, darling.” Pamela puts down one bag and hugs her daughter.
Hannah is stiff under Pamela’s arms. She keeps looking back up the stairs. “I told you never to come here.”
“You needed my help.”
Hannah finally looks at her, searches her face.
“I brought you necessities,” Pamela says. She tries to push the handle of a plastic Market Basket bag into Hannah’s hand.
“I don’t need your help.” Hannah wraps her arms around herself and watches a group of bikers at a bar nearby.
Pamela knows her daughter is being difficult on purpose. She often did this as a child, screaming in toy stores, crying until she was allowed to stay up to watch her favorite shows. Even as a teenager, Hannah knew the precise pitch of voice that would make Pamela see spots behind her eyes.
There are more footsteps on the stairs. The shadow of a lanky man at the door. He walks out onto the porch. Pamela recognizes him as Hannah’s lover. She is surprised at the hatred that fills her.
“Everything okay?” he asks. He puts a hand on Hannah’s waist, and she steps closer to him.
“This is my mother.”
He is backlit by the stairwell, and Pamela can’t make out his expression.
“You should go,” Hannah says to Pamela.
“I’m your mother.” Pamela holds out the grocery bag, but Hannah doesn’t take it.
The man pulls Hannah closer. Pamela tries to ignore him, ignore the way he holds on to Hannah like he owns her, ignore his dark skin and his inkblot eyes. The grocery-bag straps are cutting into her palms. She drops them onto the floorboards.
“Let’s go upstairs,” he says to Hannah. He starts to draw her back toward the foyer.
His voice grates in Pamela’s ears.
“It’s you,” Pamela says. “You’re ruining her life. You’re taking her from her own mother.” She tries to grab hold of his arm to pull him away from Hannah, but he flinches out of her grasp. “Get away from my daughter.”
“Listen,” he says. He takes a step toward Pamela. “I love your daughter.”
“Amit,” Hannah says. “Both of you, stop. Mom, you need to go. I told you I didn’t want to see you.”
Pamela bites down on her cheek to keep herself in the moment.
“Hannah, honey,” she says. “Hannah. It’s been long enough. Three years is long enough. I thought I lost you today. Your father and I love you.”
“My father?” Breathless, Hannah’s voice turns high. “How dare you.”
Pamela opens her mouth to explain, but there are too many words, and they all rush toward her tongue at the same time. She ends up saying nothing. “No,” she wants to say. “It’s not what you think. I loved your father.”
“Twenty years,” Hannah says. “Did Dad know? Is that why he had a heart attack? Is that how you finally killed him?”
The man rubs Hannah’s back. Pamela wants to smack his hands away.
“Hannah, dear,” she says. “Listen to me.”
Hannah’s face grows cold, shuts down like a curtain falling across a stage. “I don’t care.” She shivers.
“You should both go.”
“Baby,” the man says.
“Don’t you call her baby,” Pamela says.
“The city’s in mourning. People are dead.” Hannah’s voice curls louder. “What is wrong with you two?”
The man reaches for her again, but Hannah backs up into the foyer.
“Just go,” Hannah says. “I want to be alone.”
The man spins on his heels, walks down the porch stairs and into the night.
“Good for you,” Pamela says to her daughter.
Hannah shakes her head from inside the house. She closes the door. Pamela hears the lock slide into place. Through the glass, Hannah walks up the stairs. Pamela waits until she’s out of view, stacks the grocery bags up against the door, and follows the man out to the sidewalk, rubbing at the spot above her heart the way her husband used to.
On the night of his death, Amit Srinivasan walks down a dark street in JP. He passes a group of young bikers who laugh loudly outside a bar, propped up against their motorcycles. Amit puts his hands in his pockets and keeps walking. He tries not to think of how Hannah kicked him out. He knows her moods. He knows there is no getting to her tonight. He’ll try again tomorrow.
The bikers’ laughter stops. Amit looks around for cops, but the streets of JP are deserted except for young kids milling around in the pools of streetlights.
“Hey, towelhead,” one of the bikers calls.
Amit keeps walking. Pamela Robertson walks a few steps behind him.
“I’m talking to you,” the biker says. “They’re still searching for the bomber, you know.”
Amit is two blocks away from the T station. If he can get inside, he knows there will be police, at least on the train cars.
“He’s trouble,” Pamela says to the bikers. “He’s trouble. He got my daughter in trouble.”
Two men step in front of Amit. He stops. He remembers the way people looked at him after 9/11. He knows not to engage. He goes around them and keeps walking toward the station.
The man is following him, he’s sure. He hears the footsteps but doesn’t want to look back. Amit keeps his eyes forward. He walks faster. For the first time that night, he can see his breath coiling into the air. He hears what sounds like more than one set of footsteps behind him, but that can’t be right. He chances a look. One man, tall and muscled, his hair shaved close to his head. Pamela stands behind him, watching.
“Fucking terrorist cunt.” The man stops, spits on the ground.
Amit keeps running and running. When he’s inside the station, he finally looks back and sees Pamela tapping her card to the fare gate at the station’s entrance.
Amit’s breathing comes in bursts, his head full of the biker’s voice and Hannah’s blond hair. Something aches in his knees. He tries to think of something else. This weekend he will apologize to his wife, and she’ll let him take the kids and bring them to the pond in JP. They’ll rent a rowboat, and he’ll row them out to see the turtles that nest on the small island. His kids will like that, especially his daughter, who once tried to make a pet out of a turtle she’d found in the backyard. He’ll take them to meet Hannah.
A train rumble fills the void. Amit watches the pigeons that fly around the station, the flapping of their wings echoing off the cement so that one bird sounds like an entire flock. The pigeons spiral up, circling around one another, up and up until the night swallows them whole.