Miss Me Forever
Tulsi is dreaming of oceans when he hears the explosion, a thundering boom that rattles the casement windows of his grandfather’s apartment. For a moment he is back in Nepal, in Camp Goldhap, the bamboo walls of his sister’s hut casting a ladder of light across the packed earth floor. When he opens his eyes he sees his grandfather at the front door, waving the broom he uses to clean the stoop.
“Poor boys,” he yells through the screen. “Poor boys.”
It is the night before Halloween, Tulsi’s first holiday in the United States. It is a festival he does not yet completely understand. From what he has gathered it involves human skeletons, candy, and the decoration of giant gourds which are then blown up by the neighborhood boys for sport. Twice this week, Tulsi has heard the explosions and peered out the window to view the orange carnage in the street. Once, while dozing on the pullout that serves as his bed, he was awakened by the splatter of an egg against the window. Tulsi does not like Halloween and will be happy when it has passed.
Tulsi hurries across the apartment, his sandals slapping the ceramic tiles. He steps behind his grandfather and takes the broom from his hands. A piece of stringy pulp sticks in the screen.
“Bad boys, Hajurba,” Tulsi says as he places his hands on his grandfather’s bony shoulders and guides him to his chair. “Here, they are named bad boys.”
“Poor in spirit,” his grandfather says. He lowers his wiry frame into the tattered La-Z-Boy and with a sudden yank lifts his bare feet into the air. Their soles are the deep red-brown of mahogany and just as hard. “You must not be like them,” he says closing his eyes. “You are Nepali. Always remember this.”
Tulsi hears the boys laughing, their expensive sneakers pounding the sidewalk as they run away and he thinks, it is impossible not to remember.
Tulsi arrived in the United States a month and a half ago, on an afternoon so impossibly damp and gray he wondered if he’d landed on the underside of the world. Three days after leaving the transit center in Katmandu, sleeping on planes and buses and in airport terminals, Tulsi picked his bag off a rotating conveyor belt that slid past his feet like a long steel snake. Outside the airport a husky man with spiked blond hair held a cardboard sign that read Tulsa. A black headset hung from one ear and he appeared to be talking to himself. When he saw Tulsi staring at the sign, he touched something on the cellular phone attached to his belt and extended his hand. He pulled Tulsi into a half-embrace until their shoulders met.
“You’ve come a long way, brother,” he said, “but your journey is only beginning.” Tulsi was not quite sure what the man meant. He was clean-shaven with features like a baby’s, soft and rounded. His chin protruded only slightly further than the roll of fat at his neck. He took Tulsi’s bag and introduced himself as Pastor Ken, a youth pastor and volunteer for the International Institute. “Call me PK,” he said, “that’s my nickname. Do you have nicknames in Nepal? We’ll get you one pronto,” he said and smiled.
On the ride to Tulsi’s grandfather’s apartment the man spoke endlessly, describing the high school where Tulsi would begin as a freshman, the area of town where Tulsi’s grandfather now lived, the amount of rain they’d had that summer, and a list of other topics Tulsi only partly understood. Tulsi kept his eyes trained on the world unfolding around him. Four-lane highways divided by concrete slabs, rows of brick factories and warehouses that seemed completely empty, vehicles the size of boats with wheels that spun even when they stood still. He wished his sister, Susmita, were with him. She would be able to explain this place, help him understand. She had remained in Goldhap, teaching at the one-room school where Tulsi himself had been a student. That spring she had married another teacher, a kind man named Purna who was so quiet you had to lean toward him when he spoke, as though his voice held magnetic properties. Tulsi had lived with them until his grandfather was settled in Pennsylvania, a place Tulsi’s friends had assured him was governed by Vampires. Purna’s family would be relocated as well, and once they were, Susmita would travel with them as was their custom. Their new home could be anywhere: Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Tulsi knew it might be months before he heard from her, years before he saw her. He knew he might never see her again.
The Tuesday after Halloween, Tulsi takes the bus to Pastor Ken’s church, a huge white building with a giant cross on the side and the biggest parking lot he’s ever seen. Inside there is a chapel, gymnasium, full kitchen, nursery, and a dozen classrooms. By the time Tulsi finds the one where the ESL Class is being held, many of the students are already seated with notebooks spread open before them. Most are dressed in jeans and sweatshirts. Tulsi was unsure what to wear for a class being held in a church and so he has on khakis, beige socks beneath his leather sandals, a white dress shirt, and a tie his grandfather bought him. The tie is pale blue. Stitched onto the front is a giant whale swimming vertically toward Tulsi’s face, mouth spread open as though it means to devour him. Pastor Ken spots Tulsi from across the room and jogs over.
“Oklahoma,” he says, placing a meaty hand on Tulsi’s shoulder. “We’ll call you Oklahoma. You know, because I thought your name was Tulsa, but it’s not.” Tulsi nods uncertainly. While they’re speaking a slender woman in jeans and a t-shirt appears. Tulsi is suddenly very aware of the whale on his tie and crosses his arms over his chest to hide it.
“You must be Tulsi,” the woman says. She has the blondest hair he has ever seen. Her eyes are the color of copper. “I’m Abigail, Pastor Ken’s wife. I’m here to help out as a conversation partner.” Tulsi shakes her hand while keeping one arm crossed over his chest.
“How’s Oklahoma?” Pastor Ken asks his wife, wrapping an arm around her waist. “We’re trying to figure out a nickname.”
Abigail smiles politely as though she’s meeting the man standing beside her for the first time. “A bit long. Nicknames are supposed to be easy.”
“It’s because I thought his name was Tulsa.”
Abigail pats her husband’s hand where it holds her. “We’ll give it some thought,” she says.
Pastor Ken opens the ESL class with a prayer. Through a sort of miming routine he instructs everyone on the correct posture: hands clasped, heads bent, eyes closed. Partway through, Tulsi peaks around the classroom. The other students have followed Pastor Ken’s instructions with the sort of fervor they all feel is necessary to fit in. Their hands are folded and outstretched before them. Their heads appear glued to their desks. Pastor Ken’s eyes are squeezed shut and a strained expression covers his face as though he is lifting a heavy object. He is saying something about trials and sacrifice. Across the room Tulsi sees Abigail watching her husband, a serious look on her face. She is the only one besides himself who does not have their eyes shut. Before Tulsi can put his head back down, Abigail turns and locks eyes with him. For a moment he worries he’s in trouble, but then, Abigail smiles.
The class is taught by Mr. Malak, a local professor who is also a member of the church. A tall man with a long gray ponytail, he conjugates verbs on a dry-erase board and makes jokes Tulsi does not understand. The Asian man next to him fills his notebook with furious scribbles even when the professor is not speaking. Tulsi has not brought a notebook, and instead repeats in his mind over and over what Mr. Malak has listed on the board. I am being. I have been. I will be.
While he waits at the bus stop, Tulsi leafs through the free Bible each student received after class. He can hardly believe how thin the pages are, like the wings of an insect. Across the road a construction crew is busy digging a trench. As he watches, a yellow car shaped like a helmet pulls near to where he waits. Abigail is driving and waves him over.
“Ken meets with the youth group on Tuesday nights, but I’m headed home. Need a ride?” The air smells of burning leaves and diesel fuel. Across the street a dump truck beeps as it backs up. Abigail reaches over and pushes open the passenger door. “Come on,” she says, glancing at his sandals, “your feet must be freezing.”
The radio is playing a hymn and for the first few minutes they listen silently. The sky is a metallic blue with dark clouds that crop up like distant mountains. Tulsi wants to make conversation, but it is hard to think of something to say. Before he can, Abigail says, “I like your tie.” Tulsi had momentarily forgotten about the stupid whale-tie and looks down to find it clearly visible between the nylon straps of his seatbelt. He cannot imagine why, out of all the ties in their new country, his grandfather chose this one. He almost didn’t wear it, but there was his grandfather, smiling his partially-toothless-smile, holding the tie out in both hands like an offering. Tulsi does not think Abigail is being sarcastic though sarcasm is something he has trouble detecting, especially female sarcasm, which is somehow more subtle.
“My grandfather buys it for me,” he finally says. Abigail nods as though she knew this was the case.
“Well it’s very nice,” she says. “It reminds me of the story of Jonah.”
“I am not familiar,” Tulsi says, surprised to hear himself do so. Normally when he doesn’t know what people are talking about he smiles, like at school when the boys in his class argue the finer points of Ultimate Fighting, referencing things like cage matches and grappling, submission holds and fish-hooking, razor-elbows and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Tulsi wants to argue with them, wants to say he’s seen some of the fights on late-night cable, but joining their conversation is like jumping on a moving train. Instead he remains silent, listens to their words as they rumble past.
“Jonah and the whale,” Abigail says. She reaches over and touches the Bible in Tulsi’s lap. “It’s in there.”
“I am looking before,” he says, “very small print.” He makes a gesture with his thumb and forefinger like he’s crushing a bug, and instantly feels stupid. “It’s surprising me. Everything else in the United States is very big.” Abigail laughs a deep laugh.
“I guess that’s true,” she says, and then her face goes suddenly serious. “It must be a lot different here than in the camps. Do you miss Nepal?”
They are heading north along Peach Street. Below them Lake Erie makes a second, bluer horizon beneath the sky. Tulsi wants to explain the situation as best he can, wants to tell her how the Bhutanese government kicked out all the ethnic Nepalese long before he was born, how the refugee camp was the only home he ever knew. When he was still a baby his mother died from infection, and then his father left. He wants to tell Abigail how his grandfather raised him and how Susmita has another family now, but he only has his grandfather who is getting older and older, dark spots appearing on his skin like the water-stains on the ceiling of their apartment. He wants to tell her how his grandfather works the overnight shift at the juice plant, how tired he looks when he gets home, but how he still waits until Tulsi has finished his breakfast and left for school before he’ll sleep. Tulsi wants Abigail to know he’ll never be able to repay his grandfather for this. Abigail’s car rocks over a pothole. In the distance the faint outline of the moon sits atop a ribbon of clouds. Somewhere on the other side of the world, Tulsi thinks, Susmita is sleeping, her shiny-black hair covering her pillow like spilled ink.
“Some things I miss,” he says.
That night Tulsi lies awake on the pullout. His grandfather was already gone when Abigail dropped him off, and the apartment feels even emptier than it normally does. A streetlight shines through the yellowed blinds, throwing stripes across the bare walls. Somewhere a siren blares, and a few blocks up, a freighter rumbles along the tracks above 14th Street. Before he shut off the light, Tulsi read the story of Jonah, how he disobeyed God and ran away from him, how the ship he escaped on was struck by a terrible storm. He read how, after casting lots to see who brought this misfortune upon them, Jonah asked to be thrown overboard into the angry sea. Lying on the mattress, Tulsi imagines himself sinking slowly through dark water, his limbs weightless. He imagines a whale, as big as a mountain, swallowing him whole, the great rush as he’s sucked into the belly of the beast. He closes his eyes sealing in the darkness of that place, feels the creature descending, swimming through deep oceans, until after three days it spews him onto a distant shore, far from the land he calls home.
Wednesday is the first day of Tihar, and Mr. and Mrs. Bhandari, an elderly Bhutanese couple recently resettled nearby, come over to celebrate. Together they light small clay lamps and pray that good will always triumph over evil. Mrs. Bhandari is kind and smiles at Tulsi, her face so full of wrinkles her features seem lost between them. Her husband ignores Tulsi altogether. He speaks to his grandfather about America as though it is another planet.
“I am not liking it here,” he says. “This place is not good for Bhutanese people. It is making them forget our home country and our values.” He glances in Tulsi’s direction. “Especially young Bhutanese,” he adds. “I try not to leave my home, ever. This is my first exit since Monday when we were required to meet with the worker from the resettlement committee.” They are sitting at the kitchen table. It is covered with half-empty dishes, a plate heaped with Roti, a pot of curried vegetables, and another of spicy Dal, bowls of fermented pickles and chutney, and sweets made of almonds, pistachios, and coconut. Tulsi can still taste the burn of the chutney and wets his lips to reignite it. At school they serve mashed potatoes, lukewarm spaghetti, chopped steak in thick brown gravy, food so bland Tulsi eats it only to keep from fainting.
“And if there was a fire?” Tulsi’s grandfather asks Mr. Bhandari. “Would you leave then?” He nudges Tulsi below the table with his knee. Tulsi hides a smile, grateful to be the grandson of this man and not the one across the table. Mr. Bhandari considers the question seriously.
“Yes,” he finally says, “if there were a fire, then I would leave.”
Sunday is Bhai Tika, the final day of the Festival. It is the day sisters bless their brothers and pray for their well being. Every year, for as long as his memory permits, Tulsi recalls Susmita drawing a Tika of rice paste on his forehead, Tulsi touching her feet as she prayed that he would live a long and happy life, free from the evils of this world. The night before, Tulsi slept with the phone cradled on his chest. All day he waits for the phone to ring, waits to hear his sister’s voice as she asks these things for him once again. But the day drops from beneath him like a trapdoor, and his grandfather leaves for work and the phone does not ring. Tulsi sits in the empty apartment and wonders who will bless him now.
The next Tuesday Tulsi is the first to arrive at the ESL class. He is wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans. He brings a notebook, half a dozen pens, a bottle of water, and a Powerbar. He finds a seat near the front of the class and arranges these items at even intervals before him like a shrine. When Pastor Ken says the opening prayer, Tulsi keeps his forehead pressed against the cool plastic of his desk. Tulsi listens to Mr. Malak intently as though he were offering the key to happiness, for in a way, Tulsi thinks, he is. Twenty minutes into the class, Abigail arrives and takes the open seat beside him. Tulsi smiles at her. She has brought nothing but herself. Taking care to be as quiet as possible, Tulsi tears three sheets from his notebook. He places them on her desk along with a pen.
The instructor makes a list of questions on the board and asks the students to find a conversation partner. They are to take turns interviewing each other.
When Abigail asks him the first question on the list, his favorite food, Tulsi says Philadelphia Cheesesteak. Tulsi has never tried one, but has seen them prepared and eaten on the Food Channel and Philadelphia is the biggest city in his new state.
“Really?” Abigail asks. “I love those.”
“Yes,” Tulsi says. “Delicious.” All around him he hears his peers struggling with their responses, their thick accents filling the air like a toxic gas.
“You know,” Abigail says, “for how long you’ve been here, your English is very strong.”
“I study before leaving,” Tulsi says, “at Blooming Lotus English School in our camp. But there we study British English.” A look of recognition lights up Abigail’s face. She puts her hands over her heart and pretends to swoon.
“That’s it,” she says. “I thought I heard a bit of a British accent from you. I adore it. It’s so official sounding.”
Tulsi’s cheeks flush with heat. He picks up a pen, sets it down again. He is flattered and embarrassed. He knows it was meant as a compliment, but still, this is not why he has come to class.
“I want to sound American,” Tulsi says, looking away from her when he does.
After class Abigail offers Tulsi a ride home. He thanks her, but says he is planning on making a stop first and doesn’t want to delay her.
“I’m in no rush,” she says. “Just tell me where we’re headed.”
It’s past eight, but the Wal-Mart lot is filled and they have to park next door at the giant Cineplex built to look like a castle. Inside Wal-Mart, an elderly employee in a cowboy hat and suspenders greets them and pushes a cart toward Tulsi. Fluorescent light reflects off the waxy floor. They pass barrels brimming with discounted DVDs and display cases filled with MP3 players and cameras. There are pyramids of junk food and rack upon rack of clothing. The front left wheel on the cart jiggles incessantly, pulling Tulsi toward aisles he has no wish to enter. There’s a vision center, a tire display, a wall of freezers, a lawn and garden department with stone fountains, garden hoses, and bags of soil. Finally they reach the shoe aisle.
Tulsi lives at the corner of 11th and Ash. The kids on his block all wear Nike Air Yeezy’s and Reebok G-Unit’s. He’s taken the bus to the Millcreek Mall and wandered through The Finish Line and Foot Locker, eyeing the wall displays, but all these sneakers are too expensive. Even if he had the money, Tulsi knows he would feel guilty buying a pair. After weeks of saving what his grandfather gives him for lunch, eating nothing but hot dogs, the cheapest thing in his school cafeteria, and drinking only water, he has managed to scrape together thirty dollars. Just enough for the newest pair of Champion C9’s. He finds them in black then searches for a pair of eights. The closest he can find are nine and a half’s. He slips them on and laces them up.
“Better try them out,” Abigail says. At the end of the aisle a mother pushes her cart and yells at her lagging daughter to hurry up. Once they turn the corner and disappear, Tulsi and Abigail are the only two around. Tulsi drops into a sprinter’s stance and takes off, running up and down the aisle while Abigail watches and laughs her deep laugh. The sneakers feel like they’re going to slip off at any moment, but Tulsi figures he can double up on socks. Better too big than too small. He can grow into them. Abigail leans over the edge of the empty cart applauding.
“Well?” she asks. “How do they feel?”
“Perfect,” Tulsi says. He places them back in their box exactly as he found them and puts it in the cart.
In the checkout line Tulsi recognizes another student from the ESL class, a Middle Eastern man named Aban. He is holding a giant package of diapers and when he sees Abigail and Tulsi, he steps out of line and walks back to them.
“Hello, friends,” he says smiling. He is wearing a faded turtleneck beneath his coat, the collar frayed by his thick beard. “A good class tonight.” He hefts the package of diapers. “I buy for my baby. Only three weeks old.”
Abigail smiles politely and offers a quiet, “Congratulations.”
“It is wonderful surprise for me.” He looks at Tulsi and asks, “You are student?” It is almost their turn at the register and people are already waiting. Tulsi wishes Aban would not have seen them.
“Yes,” he says, inching the cart forward, “at East High School.”
“Excellent. Maybe you become doctor, or minister like PK.” Aban’s brow wrinkles and for a moment he looks as though he might cry. He turns to Abigail and says, “Your husband is wonderful man.”
Abigail nods. “He’s very fond of you as well.” Her voice sounds flat, distant. Tulsi thinks she’s acting strangely and wonders if it’s because they have been seen together in public, if this is somehow improper. Aban’s face lights up. He clutches the diapers to his chest and nods toward them.
“You have?” he asks. “Baby with PK?” The cashier is waiting for them to step up. Tulsi can feel the eyes of the other people in line. Impatience, he has learned, is something of a birthright in his new home. Abigail is silent. She reaches out and taps her fingers against the handle of the cart, as though checking for stability. She shakes her head.
“No,” she says.
The car ride home is silent. Abigail grips the wheel like it’s something alive she is trying to subdue. Tulsi holds the shoebox in his lap. The clerk did not offer him a bag. He listens to the wind as it sails over the hood. The road they are on cuts through a rising valley Tulsi has never seen before. They might be headed downtown where he lives, but he can’t be certain. He wants to check with Abigail, but something tells him he should keep quiet. A line of clouds floats past a bone-white moon, and in the distance, below the rise of the road, Tulsi spots the oily black surface of a pond. Abigail is staring straight ahead and suddenly she says, “Why did he have to ask that?” Her voice sounds different and Tulsi feels the tiny hairs on the back of his neck prickle. A home for the elderly sits in a clearing above the road. It is built low and wide, and some of the windows are lit up like portholes on a ship. “What kind of a question is that?” Abigail says.
Tulsi is unsure what to say, and so he says nothing. Abigail is still not looking at him, and he senses that she does not expect him to answer. The road descends into the valley where the shadows of trees have darkened the asphalt, and for a moment Tulsi feels the sensation of being submerged.
Abigail cranks down her window and the car floods with a sudden rush of freezing air, the sound it makes deafening. Tulsi keeps his head lowered, his eyes trained on the lettering of the box, which seems even more unfamiliar to him now. After a moment Abigail turns to him, surprised, it seems, that he is sitting beside her.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s been a long day, a long couple of days, and I’m very tired.”
Tulsi nods. Slowly he is beginning to understand. Abigail offered him a kindness and he made a mistake. He took too long at the store and now it is late.
“I’m sorry for this,” he says, patting the box. “It is dark out and I am keeping you.”
“No,” Abigail says. “That’s not it at all. I’m glad you found your shoes. I’m glad you like them.” She pats his hand and instantly Tulsi forgets the guilt he was just feeling. Abigail rolls her window back up and adjusts the heater so that it blows a steady stream of warm air.
“If you’re happy I am too,” she says. She turns to him and smiles. “You’re happy, aren’t you?”
Tulsi pulls the shoebox closer, feels the warm air from the heater wash over him. Abigail is driving him home and he trusts she knows the way. “Yes,” he tells her. “I am happy.”
A few days later Tulsi sees snow for the first time. Fat flakes descend from bulging clouds and cover cars and benches, the naked branches of trees. For three days it does nothing but snow, and for three days Tulsi watches. Giant yellow plows fight through the drifts, forming banks along the sides of roads, building tiny mountains at the edges of parking lots. Tulsi is afraid to go outside, afraid to touch it. The temperature continues to drop and the snow glazes over with a thin coat of ice that sparkles like crushed glass. At night his grandfather wraps shopping bags over his socks and sandals and ties them with twine. Tulsi watches him slip and stumble along the sidewalk on his way to work. Tulsi tells his grandfather he is sick and cannot attend school. Tuesday comes and he skips the ESL class. He stays inside the apartment all day wrapped in a thick shawl Susmita made for him before he left. When he first arrived, it smelled like her, like cardamom and lavender, but now when Tulsi holds the shawl to his face and inhales he smells only the cold. He wonders if Purna’s family has been issued their resettlement orders, if Susmita has left Nepal. He wonders if it is snowing where she is.
On Thursday there is a knock at the door. Tulsi walks across the room, the shawl draped over his shoulders like a cape. He opens to find Abigail standing in the snow. She is wearing a bright red winter coat, a yellow scarf, and a green knit cap. She reminds Tulsi of a rainbow. He wants to say so, but instead invites her in.
“You weren’t in class the other night,” she says. “I was worried.” She is holding a large brown package tied with string. “Are you sick?”
Tulsi shrugs his shoulders and the shawl slips from one, dangles to the floor.
“It’s beautiful,” Abigail says, pointing at it.
“My sister makes it for me,” he says, surprised to hear the words come out of his mouth. This is the first time since arriving that he’s spoken of Susmita to anyone but his grandfather.
Abigail looks intrigued. “I didn’t know you had a sister,” she says. “What’s her name?”
“Susmita,” he says. “I live with her and her husband before I come here.”
“You must miss her very much,” Abigail says. Tulsi lifts the shawl from the floor and begins to fold it.
“She wanted me to come here,” he says, “to live with our Hajurba.” Tulsi points toward the bedroom. “He is asleep.” Lately his grandfather has been picking up extra shifts, volunteering to fill in when other employees request off for the holidays. He arrives home exhausted, too tired even to eat.
“I’m sure she thought it was for the best,” Abigail says. Tulsi nods. He remembers how in the weeks leading up to his departure, Susmita would only speak with him in English. She wanted him to be prepared, to be ready for his new home. If he tried to engage her in Nepali she would cover her ears and hum. He remembers his frustration, trying to communicate at such an important time in a language not his own.
“I brought this for you,” Abigail says, handing him the package. Tulsi accepts it hesitantly.
They sit across from each other at the kitchen table. Tulsi unties the string taking care not to rip the brown wrapping paper. Inside is a navy blue winter coat and matching hat. Both feature the trademark Nike Swish logo in stark white. Tulsi runs his fingertips over the cool nylon.
“I wasn’t sure if you had any winter clothes,” Abigail says and smiles. “I know the weather here isn’t quite the same.”
Tulsi touches the smooth fabric once more then folds the wrapping paper over it. “I am sorry. I cannot accept,” he says and slides the package across the table.
Abigail looks confused. “You don’t like it?” she asks.
“I like it very much, but I cannot repay you.”
“You don’t have to,” Abigail says and pushes the package back toward Tulsi. “It’s a gift.” She smiles and motions toward it. “Take it. It’s nothing.”
Tulsi sits quietly for a moment. He knows he shouldn’t but finally he lifts the package and holds it to his chest. “It is something,” he says.
Outside it is still snowing. The sidewalks have not been shoveled and so they walk along the icy street, snow crunching below Tulsi’s C-9’s. He is wearing his new coat and hat. The air is crisp against his skin. He feels better than he has in days. Abigail asks him why he skipped the ESL class and he tells her.
“This,” he says pointing at the bank that comes up to his waist. “It is something new to me.”
Abigail laughs. “You’ll have to get used to it living here,” she says. “Besides, it’s not so bad.” She kicks at a mound of powder near her foot and Tulsi watches it explode in the air like smoke. The sun shines above the apartment complexes to the west and makes the snow glimmer. Tulsi leans down and scoops up a small handful. It looks like a mound of cotton, wet and cold in his bare palm. Abigail scoops some up as well then crunches it in both hands. “Perfect for snowballs,” she says. She winds up and tosses it toward a stop sign but misses to the right.
Tulsi makes his own and hits the sign above the p.
“Nice shot,” she says. The two of them stand there tossing snowballs, seeing who can get theirs nearest the middle of the sign. The light begins to fail and the streetlights switch on and after a while Abigail says she has to go. Tulsi thanks her for the coat and hat and watches her walk back to her car. He waves as she drives by. For a long time he stays there, pitching snowballs at the sign until the fingers of his throwing hand go numb.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving arrives and in lieu of a lesson, the ESL class has a party in the church gymnasium. Mr. Malak has asked the students to bring a dish native to their home country. He has told them this is called “Pot luck.” Tulsi arrives late wearing his C9’s and his Nike coat and hat. He is carrying a bag of Doritos he bought at the corner store near the bus stop. The others have all dressed up. The men wear threadbare sports coats from Goodwill. Their slacks are mismatched and too-short, revealing white tube socks and second-hand dress shoes. Some of the women sport Saris while others have on faded dresses. Everyone is smiling and laughing, holding plates of food and glasses of punch, but somehow, all of it strikes Tulsi as sad. He walks directly to the long folding table to set down his chips. He scans the gym for Abigail, but sees no sign of her or PK. Mr. Malak is standing at the far end of the basketball court talking to Aban. Tulsi walks over and interrupts them.
“Is Abigail been here?” he asks. Mr. Malak looks down and smiles.
“Has Abigail been here,” he says. Tulsi repeats him and he nods approvingly the way he does during class. “They were here earlier, but only to say goodbye.”
“Goodbye?” Tulsi asks. Across the gym, two Sudanese women from class break into song. They sway side by side, arms around each other’s waists. Tulsi watches momentarily and then says again, “Goodbye?”
“PK has been offered the Senior Pastor position at another church. Unfortunately, he and Abigail will be leaving us soon.”
“PK was very excited,” Aban says while looking at Mr. Malak.
“Yes, he was, Aban. Nice job.”
“I am confused,” Tulsi manages to say. His heart is beating fast as though he’s just finished running. His head is suddenly dizzy, his legs weak. “How can this be so?”
“We hate to see PK and Abigail go, but the Lord has called them elsewhere. It’s His will.”
Tulsi feels a rush of panic, the same way he felt as he climbed into the van that took him from Goldhap, everything he owned packed into a cloth duffel bag in his lap. He remembers Susmita calling his name, waving to him as the van pulled away until she was nothing more than a faceless onlooker in the crowd. Sometimes, when he tries to think of her now, he cannot picture her face.
“It’s bittersweet,” Mr. Malak says. “Do you know that word? Bittersweet?” Tulsi shakes his head.
“It’s something good that also makes you sad. Do you understand?”
“No,” Tulsi says and turns to go.
At the information booth in the lobby Tulsi finds a church directory. The first few pages contain pictures of the ministry staff with their families, smiling couples flanked by children in tiny suits and ruffled dresses, God’s workers in miniature. On the last page are PK and Abigail. PK’s hair looks extra spiky, his doughy face stretched into a smile. He is standing behind a seated Abigail, his big hands resting on her shoulders. Abigail is wearing a white dress with black flowers on it. She is beaming, her hands folded in her lap. Above them her dress swells at the stomach, a prominent bump that cannot be mistaken. Tulsi runs his fingers over the picture, the page glossy and cool. Finally, he thinks, he is beginning to understand.
Beneath the picture is a phone number and address. Tulsi writes them down on a piece of church stationary and leaves.
The first bus driver tells him to wait for the Number 17 and get off at the third stop. When it arrives, Tulsi takes a seat alone in back. It’s only five o’ clock and already the light is failing. A thin haze of violet floats above a line of trees in the distance. The air looks smoky, and the driveways and lawns on either side are covered in white. By the time Tulsi gets off the bus it is full dark and beginning to snow. He walks east until he reaches Costa Drive. Most of the houses are lit up. Tulsi reads the numbers on the mailboxes until he finds 112. It’s a tiny two- story home with a shoveled stone walkway and lavender window boxes. Abigail’s car sits in the driveway covered in a shell of snow. The house is set back from the road. Tulsi wants to go right up and knock on the door, but senses the impropriety in this. He was not invited. He has never visited their home. He worries how he will answer if PK opens the door, what he will say if asked how he’s found their address. Instead, Tulsi cuts through an adjacent yard, taking care to stay close to a row of evergreens that runs parallel to a darkened garage. His sneakers crunch through the icy snow. Somewhere nearby a dog barks. Tulsi ducks against the hedges and waits for it to quiet. He jams his bare hands deep into the pockets of his coat. His feet are freezing and as he waits snow begins to cover his sleeves. He can feel the flakes settling in his collar. He tries to keep from shivering but it’s hard. He’s never felt so cold in his life.
When the barking stops he continues to move, staying low to the ground. After what seems like forever he reaches the end of the hedges and cuts through an opening into PK and Abigail’s backyard. A clean sheet of snow covers the frozen grass. Unlike some of the other yards on the street, theirs is empty. No grill, no bird feeder, no swing set. Behind a sliding glass door, the dining room is lit up. The light casts a bluish sheen over the snow before dying into darkness. Abigail and PK sit side by side at the table, their hands clasped together, their eyes closed. They are facing him and from where he stands, Tulsi can see PK’s lips moving, the urgency with which he speaks. His face looks the way it does when he prays in class, full of pain and wonder. Abigail’s face is blank, her mouth set in a rigid line. After a while PK stops speaking and leans against Abigail until their cheeks touch. He kisses her on the temple, stands and leaves the room. Tulsi looks up and follows the snowflakes as high as he can before they disappear in the dark. It isn’t that far. A wind comes rushing down the yard and cuts straight through his coat chilling his skin. He wants to step closer, wants to stand where the light touches the snow. He takes a step, then another. Abigail has her elbows on the table and is holding her head as if it weighs a thousand pounds. Her shoulders heave, but Tulsi can’t tell if she is crying or coughing. He wants to know. He takes another step and when he does a motion light clicks on bathing the yard in light. Abigail looks up and for a moment, Tulsi stands perfectly still, unable to breathe. Abigail tilts her head from side to side, rushes to the window and cups her hands to the sides of her face. Tulsi is unsure if she can see him. She raises her hand and bangs her knuckles against the glass as though to frighten an animal. Tulsi hears the dog barking again, this time closer. Another light goes on in a neighboring yard. Tulsi turns and runs.
He goes back the way he came, his feet crashing through the crusty snow. When he reaches the front of the house, he realizes he’s lost one of his sneakers. He keeps running down the sidewalk, his socked foot pounding against the cold concrete. Behind him there are headlights. He cuts through a yard, and then across the road into a stand of woods. He stumbles over snow-covered underbrush, his hands held out before him like a blind man. Branches whip at his face. A car door slams. He stops, falls to the earth and crawls behind a nearby tree, sits with his back against it. He cannot be sure but he thinks he has made it deep into the woods, too deep to be seen from the road. For a moment there is nothing. And then there is Abigail.
“Tulsi,” she yells. Her voice sounds far away. “Tulsi, I know it’s you. I saw you in the yard.” Tulsi doesn’t move. He cannot feel his fingers. His sock is soaked through and his foot throbs. His sneaker is gone.
“Listen,” Abigail says, “you don’t have to come out, but just listen.” Tulsi leans back hard, feels the bark press pain into his spine. He does not want to listen. He does not want to hear a word. He wants to cover his ears, jam pinecones in them, scream until his lungs burn and set fire to his frozen body. He rests his chin against his sternum, and then, with as much strength as he can manage, slams his head backward against the trunk. He does this again, keeps his eyes open so that the world jars as though trying to right itself. Susmita is gone forever. Her children will never know him. His grandfather will work himself to death in this cold place where no one waits for anything. Abigail is leaving.
“I know you’re upset,” she says, “that you think you’re being abandoned. I’ve felt that way too.”
Nearby a branch cracks and falls under the weight of the wet snow. Something warm trickles down the back of his neck and soaks into his shirt. He thinks about running further into the woods until he reaches the darkest part. He imagines living in the hollowed out center of a giant tree, surviving on nuts and berries, drinking water from a clear stream, never again speaking to another living soul. It is a crazy, childish fantasy. But people have done things like this. He stays still and holds his breath. His head is spinning, white dots float near the edge of his vision. Abigail has left the headlights on and thin cuts shine through the branches. It reminds him of Susmita’s hut, the way the morning light filtered through the bamboo slats. He remembers waking late, the rib work of wood beams above him, Purna and his sister already gone for the day. He remembers dressing in the stifling heat while dust particles fell through the hazy light, pulling on his sandals before rushing outside to find his friends.
The morning he left Camp Goldhap he wanted so badly to speak to Susmita in Nepali, but even then she insisted he use English, told him it was more important than ever. He remembers standing in line beneath the scorching sun, UN volunteers helping the elderly and very young as they boarded the vans that would take them away. Soon it would be his turn. Soon he would be gone. What he wanted to tell Susmita was to never forget him, to always remember him, her brother. He recalls the frustration he felt at trying to translate the words in his head. When it was his turn to climb aboard the van, Susmita drew him close and held him like he was all she had in the world. When she released him he looked up at her and said, “Miss me forever.” They were the last words he spoke to her.
Tulsi knows now there is a difference. He understands it is a subtle difference, but that it still exists. He would never have wished Susmita a fraction of the sadness he’s felt since leaving. He only wanted to not be forgotten.
A strong wind rushes through the trees. Tulsi’s entire body aches, stung by the cold. Slowly, he raises himself to his feet in the darkness. Abigail is calling him and he turns toward the direction of her voice. He moves carefully, feeling for branches with outstretched hands, lifting his feet high to keep from tripping. He knows now how to speak the words he could not say to Susmita. Knows the proper way to say goodbye.
Eugene Cross is the author of the short story collection “Fires of Our Choosing,” which was named the Gold Medal winner in the Short Story category by the Independent Publisher Book Awards. He’s taught creative writing at Northwestern, Penn State, The University of Chicago, and other institutions. His stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Story Quarterly, and Callaloo among other publications. His work was also listed among the 2010 and 2015 Best American Short Stories’ 100 Distinguished Stories. He is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and fellowships from the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the Yaddo Artists’ Colony, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Eugene was recently selected to the 2017-18 NBC Writers on the Verge Program. He lives in Los Angeles where he writes for TV.