Joyland

Consulate |

The Love Lives of People Who Look Like Kal Penn

by Aruni Kashyap

edited by Michelle Lyn King

A woman sits next to Arunabh in the flight. She carries a bottle of green water in her hand. Must be Vitamin Water; people here drink a lot of Vitamin Water, he thinks. She introduces herself as Sandy. Sandy is chatty. She tells him she is a history teacher in a community college and asks him if he is he from New York. He says he is from India. He doesn't say that he is from Tinsukia since he is sure she has never heard of his hometown. There is no reason for her to hear the name of his hometown in Northeast India just as there is no reason for him to visit East Lansing, Michigan, except for this conference.

When the flight takes off, Sandy unties her red hair and asks him if he has grown up in New York (for the third time) and he says (for the third time) that he didn't grow up in New York . He wants to look out of the window but she has the window seat and he is on the aisle seat but he is worried, if he looks out of the window she would ask him more questions, try to pronounce the name of his hometown, fail and laugh, and ask him to teach him how to pronounce it, apologize, will fail again, laugh again, and ask him to teach her how to pronounce it again, and that's how they would kill half an hour.

So he doesn't look out through the window. He tries to take a nap, but she wakes him up when she has to use the restroom and apologizes profusely. It is okay, he says, though he is irritated. It is not her fault, he thinks. When she returns, she requests the air hostess for a bottle of chilled water and some peanuts, then calls her again and specifies that she wants roasted but unsalted peanuts. The airhostess says she will check and get back to her. During the journey, Sandy mentions several times that it would snow in Michigan by the time they reached. She is worried about the snowfall but he says it is okay, he has never seen snow, and would love to see and feel for the first time. She is surprised and asks him how far are the Himalayas from his hometown and he says, very far, as far as Alaska. He doesn't mean it and he doesn't care whether she believes. They talk about climate change and online dating, about traveling to Greece when they will have money, about the lack of tenure-track jobs, but he doesn't tell her that he is new in America; that, small town Minnesota, a lot of conversation about the impending winter, people uttering jeez during conversations, and people with a high propensity of using sorrys and thank-yous, are his first glimpses of America. He doesn't tell her that he is going for a conference, that when he signed up for the conference earlier that year he didn't know that the conference venue was in the middle of nowhere, that his flight would be so small with only two rows of seats that he would worry if a strong gust of wind would make it crash.

There are no shuttles from the airport to the university. The cab costs one hundred and eighty-five dollars. He is upset but he has no choice. It is November and the air is sometimes nippy. At the airport lounge, they wait together for their rides after she calls her boyfriend and he a cab company called C.C.C.

When her ride arrives earlier, they both shake hands saying goodbye. She looks at him, smiles, and says she will find him on Facebook to which he nods his head, and smiles with his lips pressed hard—the kind of smile that doesn't show teeth, but conveys measured warmth. Then he adds that it would be good, worries if she would get his last name right: Borkakoti. She says she loves India and has plans to visit once she gets married. She is going to marry the man who has come to pick her up.

"And I am not going to do that with the person who is coming to pick me up," he tries to crack a joke. Before leaving, she pauses, and asks if she could tell him something.

"Yes, sure."

"Alright, you know I have been thinking since I met you and I wasn't sure if I should say."

"Oh come on, just say it." He laughs.

"Alright, alright. You know, you remind me so much of Kal Penn. He is like my favorite actor! I mean, he has grown older and put on a little weight—especially in Designated Survivor—but he is just so adorable. And I think you look like him to a great extent, do you know?"

Arunabh's heart sinks a little. "Hah." He forces out a smile and says, "Never thought about that."

Sandy concerts her lips into an inverted U. It is the kind of expression that people make when they know they have said something offensive but also know that it isn't very offensive and turning their lips to a soft inverted U absolves them of it. But Arunabh is still silent after several seconds, not knowing what her expression is all about. She rolls her eyes, moves the inverted U slightly to her left, and adds quickly as if to fill up the awkward silence, "As in, a younger, handsome, Kal Penn Moody?"

He wants to say, actually, it is Modi, not moody but all he is able say is, "Oh, haha." He knows his smile isn't reaching his eyes. So he forces a smile and adds another 'haha'. But in no time, his smile, and the goodbye-expression vanishes from his face. He is not flattered but still he tries to bring back the cheerful goodbye-smile and wonders if he is looking like a fool. He decides to reject her friend request on Facebook even if she gets his last name.

"See you. Will connect later."

"See you," he says.

He doesn't want to look like Kal Penn.

He isn't flattered that she thinks he looks like Kal Penn.

His cab driver, Jim, can't pronounce his last name, too.

"Mr. Bukkaki? Hi I am from Clinton County Cabs." Arunabh tries not to laugh and wonders if Jim knows the meaning of bukkaki. He doesn't mind because there is no prospect of sending each other friend requests. He doesn't mind because there is nothing to mind. Jim wears a blue denim jacket, has black hair, and one of his front teeth is missing. He has tobacco stains on his gums but he smiles broadly and is extra friendly. His name is easy to pronounce. He is six feet tall.

It is five pm. The pre-winter November air in Michigan is sharp on his face and neck. Jim mumbles that it is going to snow and starts the car. Inside the car, Arunabh takes off his cap, sits comfortably, pulls up the zip of his woolen coat, looks at the sky, and hopes it would snow. He wants to see snow, touch snow, and walk on snow. He doesn't tell that to Jim since he doesn't know how he would react if Arunabh told him that. He doesn't want Jim to know that he is new in America.

Jim turns on the heating and Arunabh feels warm and sleepy but he doesn't want to sleep though the journey is going to be long and lonely. After twenty minutes, they leave the city and for miles and miles, he doesn't see human beings or houses. He doesn't even see birds. He looks out, feeling lazy inside the warm, comfortable car and enjoys the fall colors since there is nothing else to look at. He doesn't want to revise his conference paper or make calls or check Facebook notifications.

Years later, when he would talk to people about this journey, he wouldn't remember if the cab drove through downtown East Lansing, cutting through the campus of the large state university; he wouldn't remember if East Lansing had a downtown at all. He wouldn't remember whether he saw Jimmy Joes, Papa Johns, Olive Gardens, Applebees, Burger King, and other restaurants. He would remember how the trees were running away from him. He would remember that he didn't want to look like Kal Penn and that he observed his reflection repeatedly at the rearview mirror above the driver's seat to check if he actually looked like Kal Penn and more than once, had considered asking whether Jim thought he looked like Kal Penn.

But he will always remember the fall colors, his first fall in America: the gold, the yellow, the orange, the red; the blue sky that was slowly turning grey; and his yearning for snow. He has never seen snow; he wants to see snow, touch snow, and walk on snow. Soon, it would be dark and he would be still wondering if he actually looked like Kal Penn. He was so sure he didn't want to look like him.

*

At the reception desk, he meets a thin young man who has also come for the conference. He is training to be a journalist at a program in New York City, is from Delhi—where Arunabh lived before leaving the country. They don't hit it off because the young man says he is working on a project that tries to understand and not really justify the philosophical reasons--he uses the word "underpinnings"—behind the attack on artists by the Indian right wing. Arunabh never thought that qualifies to be a research topic. He takes a step back from the person and wonders why he repeats that his research is not trying to justify violence on artists and writers. He swipes his credit card, signs the receipt, thanks the receptionist, and asks him how it doesn't justify the attacks, and condone something heinous. The young man's voice morphs into a cranky tone. He starts talking with an unpleasant swagger. The young man is called Adit.

"I thought this conference is about Human Rights and Literature." Arunabh says.

He slips his room keys in his pockets and decides not to go for his paper. Adit asks him if he would like to sit in the lobby and have some coffee. Arunabh doesn't understand why he agrees but they walk to the other end of the room where other people who look like Serious Conference Attendees sit. On a desk, there are four large coffee dispensers: hazelnut flavored, dark roast, medium roast, decaffeinated. There are cookies and pretzels and green apples and bananas on a large tray that has the name of the hotel engraved. Adit asks him about his paper and Arunabh says he wouldn't like to know about it. He notes the sarcasm in his own tone and tells himself to tone down.

It is cold outside but there is no sign of snow. Arunabh wants to see snow, touch snow, walk on snow. He has never seen snow.

He tries to change the topic. "I don't understand the point of decaffeinated coffee. I guess it is brown water."

Adit seems to agree with him finally on something. He chuckles.

Arunabh doesn't understand why he has taken a liking to Adit, why he wants to stand next to people who look like Serious Conference Attendees and drink coffee with him.

Adit says, "America is a funnny county." He pronounces funny with extra Ns and speaks in a deliberate Indian accent. "Now, come on, tell me about your paper."

"Why don't you come listen to me tomorrow?" Arunabh is a bit irritated now.

"My god, you are adamant."

"One has to hold the ground, isn't it?"

"I will come for your paper. I like to listen to people who make a career out of dissing their country!" He winks, raising a thumb at Arunabh.

He is perhaps trying to make the threat sound like a joke or the joke sound like a threat but Arunabh finds it neither funny nor threatening.

*

On the third floor, he tries to look for his room and remembers how most American hotels feel like mazes to him. He remembers the conference hotel in Madison, where he often lost his way in the many twists and turns of the corridors and this hotel seemed the same. When he finally locates his room number, he is not able to unlock it. He tries with his laptop and duffle bag hanging from his right shoulder. Then he tries to unlock after gently placing the laptop and duffle bag on the carpeted floor. He tries for a very long time and he is tired and unhappy and realizes he hates people like Adit and doesn't want to look like Kal Penn.

"There is a trick to opening that door." A husky resonant voice.

He hasn't seen such a beautiful woman ever in his life. An indigo colored scarf covers her head. Everything else she is wearing is pitch black, but a bright, red, silk muffler adorns her neck, giving her a radiance that matches her expressive eyes. He almost drops the keys.

She says, "May I?" but she doesn't wait for him to say yes. She takes the key from his hand and unlocks the door in a second.

"Oh my god, that looked easy."

"But it is not," her voice is deep and sonorous. She speaks from her heart, he thinks and immediately considers the thought stupid. He smiles.

"I am sorry—? Did I say anything funny? I am sorry, if I did. I didn't mean to—

“This time he smiles. "No, you didn't say anything funny. I was just thinking something else."

"Oh, I am sorry‚—I thought..."

He does the rude thing. He interrupts. "Are you from Minnesota, by any chance?"

For a second she looks stunned. Then she bursts out laughing. It is a loud, throaty, crackling laughter--a confident and happy laughter. He laughs too. His eyes almost shut as he laughs.

"I am not gonna ask you how did you know."

"You don't have to." He says. "Hi I am Arunabh. I live in Shakopee."

"What a small world!" She says, pushing her room's door open. He notices how skillfully she unlocks her door. She knows the trick well. He wants to tell her not to go. To stand there and chat. She pushes her door open and waits, "I am really sorry, I haven't even said my name." She comes forward to shake hands with him and the door shuts behind her with a thud. "I am Adayomi."

She gasps as soon as they shake hands, "Fuck. My door is shut, and the key is stuck into the main switch of the room!"

"Oh no, I am sorry. Don't you have a spare key?"

"Yes, I do." She feels the pockets in her jacket. "I am so sorry I swore." Her fingers rush through the pockets but emerge empty. "But I think I left it on the table inside. I went to get some coffee downstairs and left the second key on the table. Oh no, I am so sorry."

He pushes his door open. For a second, he doesn't know whether he should invite her in his room and let her sit, or leave her out. If he invites her, he may come across as creepy. If he shuts the door on her face, it would be rude; rude to the person who helped him unlock his door, rude to the person who says so many sorrys, rude to the person who is also from Minnesota. He decides in a second. He places his luggage between the door and the doorframe in such a way that the door doesn't shut. He says he would just be back after making the call, and she waits next to his door. She can see him from there. She can see him picking up the phone on the bedside table and asking for help from the reception. She can see the white curtains and beyond that through huge glass windows the yellow streetlights, the racing cars, the orange colored unknown tree that was shedding the last bits of its leaves to welcome the winter.

"I am so-so-sorry – you must be so tired." She says.

"It is alright and you don't have to apologize. It happens to everyone I am sure."

She rolls her eyes. His room's door is still open and if she wanted she could look outside, she could look at the orange leaves falling and the group of people who were walking on the road. She rolls her eyes and says, "I wish it never happens to me again. I am sorry I got you delayed. The dinner is at eight-thirty and it is almost seven-thirty. You won't have any time to rest." She folds her arms and looks at him.

"That's alright! I am Arunabh, by the way. I am from India. We don't say sorry and thank you that much, so it is a bit odd for me."

She smiles and looks at the brown carpet below. It has chrome-yellow patterns.

"You know--I have to say this—my god, Minnesotans, apologize all the time. My friend Kate apologies for apologizing too much."

She shakes her head and laughs again. This time it is not throaty and loud. It is a soundless laughter that shakes her silky red muffler. A bit of it comes undone revealing her neck. It is longer than he expected. "I get that a lot. I came to attend school in Minnesota eight years ago and have been living there since then. But my family is still in New York. And guess what, I find them rude now compared to how Minnesotans are."

This time, Arunabh rolls his eyes, "I am not sure if it is really about being polite. My awful roommate leaves these stickers on my door which I find after a long day." He puts on a poorly performed American accent to mimic his roommate, "I will really appreciate if you please spray the anti-bacterial liquid on the kitchen counter after you make tea and then mop it with the kitchen rolls."

"Seriously?" Adayomi is as if offended on his behalf. “Your roommate is horrible, and that’s nothing to do with being Minnesota Nice.”

When a housekeeper comes with a set of keys and opens her door, Arunabh hates the housekeeper because he thinks the housekeeper arrived too soon. He wishes the housekeeper brought the wrong keys. He wishes, there is something seriously wrong with the key and it takes longer to open the door but the black-haired housekeeper with a big ass and a deep masculine voice and an extra-smiling face says, "Don't worry, it happens to the best of us,"and leaves. "Have a comfortable stay." He adds, stretching the Y in the stay.

"I didn't even ask what's your paper about."

"Oh don't worry— it is not scintillating." How skillfully she unlocks the door, and pushes the door open. She has longer fingers and her nails are painted blue. "Shall we meet at eight-twenty five downstairs? It will be good to meet the rest of the presenters."

"I think so."

She doesn't leave. "It is very cold outside. So bundle up." She sounds like a caring friend, like his new friends in Minnesota who would regularly offer rides for winter shopping. "It may even snow."

"Ah – it is two degrees already?"

She gasps. "What!"

"Oh, wait, I mean in Celsius. I am still getting used to Fahrenheit. It doesn't make sense to me. Why do you guys have to do everything differently?"

"Don't blame me. My father is Nigerian. I was born in Canberra and we moved here when I was fourteen. I am all for Celsius, but I just don't understand how that works!"

Then she stands there for another few seconds. As if she is waiting for him to say something

"I see," he says. "Don't tell me your paper is on Chinua Achebe."

She laughs again. Throaty and loud. The laughter of a joyful person. He wants to see snow, touch snow, and walk on snow.

*

There are sixteen conference attendees at the hotel. They meet at the lobby but soon divide themselves into groups of four and five. Some of them had arrived earlier in the day, and had already formed their own circles. Arunabh's group walks to the pizza restaurant nearby. He doesn't like pizza but he goes along. It looks like a cheap place. He doesn't want to spend a lot of money. He is still converting US dollars to rupees in his mind. He is embarrassed to admit that even to himself.

There is a woman called Elena with them who has moved to Boston several years ago from Wyoming. She makes sure everyone knows that. She makes sure that she is working with a famous academic and she ran into Derek Walcott at the elevator several times, when he was alive. Adayomi and Arunabh sit next to each other. She turns to her right to look at him and a smirk forms in his mouth. He sees that her lips have formed a soft-inverted U. He looks away because he is worried he would burst out laughing and the woman from Boston who met Derek Walcott in the elevator won't appreciate that.

Elena is full of energy like a child who is high on sugar. If she could, she would run around. If she could, she would do sit-ups. Mow a garden. She dominates the dinner conversation. She is loud and excited, and like many people here, uses a few words repeatedly. They are:

Excited (variations of it),

Amazing,

Cool,

Awesome, and

That sucks.

She is the one who reads out the menu and asks everyone their preference, and places the order on everyone's behalf. She says if the waiter walks around the table asking people what they would like to eat, it would drive her nuts. She is the one who repeatedly touches her blonde hair and rattles the list of things she is allergic to and what she likes or dislikes eating and also provides a list of pizzas she thinks is amazing. She strongly recommends the pizzas she likes. When Tara--the lady from Mumbai--wants to order one with olives and tomatoes, she asks if Tara is sure that she wouldn't want to add pepperoni with it. Tara says no. She asks again, "Are you sure?" Later, when they wait for the food, she talks about her ex-boyfriend, the athletic sex she had with him, and the perils of dating American men through online sites. He doesn't want to know any of that.

Adayomi is quiet. Arunabh is quiet. Adit is not so quiet. Tara is wearing a sari. She is smiling so much that he wonders if that is a sign of being jet-lagged because in-between Elena's anecdotes that he doesn't want to know, she says she just landed in Chicago that afternoon. After Elena finishes talking about her sex life and dating life, she wants to know about everyone's papers and responds with one of the words provided above. Arunabh feels he is in the middle of a panel discussion and she is the bad moderator. She uses the word "awesome" in response to Arunabh's abstract. Tara is the last one and she speaks for at least four minutes and fifty seconds after Elena asks her about her paper. He wonders if everyone has now decided not to go to her panel the day after. She continues to speak until Adit interrupts her with a question that was clearly meant to disrupt her, not out of any curiosity. Elena takes the window to respond to Tara's narration of her abstract and paper and the research trips she made. She uses a different word: "Interesting." Tara looks disappointed. She perhaps wanted to hear one of those superlatives that Elena had been using: variations of excited, amazing, cool or awesome.

"So, you must have grown up in Nigeria, right? Kedu!" Elena asks Adayomi. "I have read a lot of Nigerian novels."

"No, I grew up in Paris and New York and I don't know what is the meaning of kedu."

Elena's disappointment is visible. She stops half-sentence, with her lips slightly parting--large enough for a fly to enter. She pauses like that for a few seconds. "So how did you get interested in Nigerian literature?"

Adayomi fumbles. "Oh, I mean, everyone has heard of the civil war and we all have read Achebe."

Arunabh says, "So your paper is actually about Achebe."

"Yeah." She says in a bored tone. "All Nigerian English PhDs are about Achebe, you know."

Tara bursts out laughing. She is so loud and her voice so thin that it startles the baby in the next table. The baby starts to cry loudly, and the mother is annoyed. She tries to whisper, "I am sorry. I am just jet-lagged." She even fails at whispering.

Elena is unrelenting. She asks Adayomi, "But I mean, your upbringing must have helped you gain some interest in Nigerian writing, isn't it?"

"My father is an engineer. He doesn't even read the papers--forget Achebe. And My mother is a nurse. She had no time to read books and she is Bangladeshi."

Arunabh looks at her with a note of pleasant surprise and she responds with a soft nod that no one else can see. Perhaps, it is a nod to the bond that they had suddenly found in their common South Asian-ness.

"Oh." Elena's voice has no enthusiasm. But it comes back within seconds and she says cheerfully, "May be your mother reads and you must have visited Nigeria, haven't you?"

"Once." Adayomi sips her Coke.

Elena is unable to imagine how someone with Nigerian roots cannot know about Chinua Achebe.

The pizzas are on the table now. The waiter asks if he could get something more. Arunabh knows that he will come again and asks if they are enjoying everything and everyone would say "food is great," "it is awesome." He fails to understand how people are always so cheerful and enthusiastic here. He doesn't want to be cheerful and enthusiastic all the time. He wants to see snow. Touch and feel and walk on snow. Arunabh is still a bit irked by Elena's questions.

"Elena, but you must have grown up in Somalia, right?" Arunabh asks her.

She looks shocked. "Of course not." She places her piece of pizza on the white plastic plate. "Oh no, not at all. Why do you think so?"

"No, since you are presenting your research on Nuruddin Farah. How did you get interested in him?"

Elena's annoyed expression is enough, so he wants to leave it there; he made his point. He allows her to concentrate on her pizza and contemplate over what just happened. Everything would have been fine after that but Tara ruins it. She places her water bottle with a thud on the table, covers her mouth and coughs a little, and says loudly, "You're killing it," and bursts out laughing. Water dribbles from the corner of her lips. She uses a tissue to cover her face but a stream of water falls on her chest. She swallows the remaining water in her mouth and laughs loudly, with gasps in-between. The baby starts to cry again and the mother mumbles something and gives their table dirty looks. Tara continues to laugh, "That's a good point, Arunabh; that's a good point." The baby cries more and more. Elena eats her dinner in silence and avoids him for the next three days.

*

Twenty minutes later, they are walking on the university campus; laughing. Adayomi laughs in loud gasps and intersperse them with "oh my god" and "you are too much." Occasionally, she asks, "Why did you do that?" but she doesn't expect him to answer because he is laughing so much that he is not in a state to answer her question. They walk further into the campus. The large buildings in red-brown bricks welcome them. It is nine pm and they should go to sleep to wake up on time for the conference, but they walk more. She says she has to treat him. He says that he will accept her treat in one condition. She asks him what. He says whatever she treats him with, they would have to sit down on one of the large plastic benches outside and eat. She says it is cold, and adds mimicking him, "Two degree Celsius". But later, when she buys him baklava, they sit outside. They eat slowly.

"What did you think about that guy? The other Indian guy." She asks him.

"Oh, he is an ABCD."

“I know that term—it is not a nice term, I know. My mother uses it a lot!’ She laughs again. “I didn’t bring water, don’t make me laugh. When I laugh a lot, I choke.”

"Okay, then I won't tell you what ABCND means."

She gives him a look full of question marks. "Let me chew what I have."

"American Born Confused Nationalist Desi."

"What?" She gasps, laughs more. "Where do you even learn these things?"

"Tell me about your mother. How did your parents meet? And which part of Bangladesh is she from?" His voice is full of excitement, tone quite loud.

"She's from Chittagong. It is a long story, but my father crudely, but very funnily says that he met my mother in bed."

"Oh no, that is just so sad and hilarious!" Arunabh laughs so much that he has to place the plate of baklava on the bench.

"Yes." Her eyes become large. "And by the way, me and my sisters have banned that joke in the house but later we found out that my mother really loves this horrible awful joke; so the ban was eventually lifted and we dread when someone asks him that question. He had an operation in a Dubai hospital, when he met her as his nurse."

Arunabh nimbles on the sweet, shaking his head, uttering a muffled 'gawd, parents'. "I think Adit is going to come to troll me during my presentation!"

She is drinking decaffeinated coffee and he doesn't tease her. The temperature is dropping fast. He tightens the muffler around his neck. She sits in a heat-preserving position: arms folded, hands inside the warm coat pockets.

"I don't know what I am doing here with you. We should go! My blood is going to freeze."

"You are buying me baklava in appreciation of my brilliant trolling of Madam Elena."

It starts to snow and Arunabh stands up. He feels the snow on his hands and watches it melt immediately. He looks at the cotton swabs like snow and watches them melt as soon as they kiss the ground. He hears a mild sound: kit-kit-kit. It is the sound of snow falling on the ground and melting immediately because the earth is warm. But they are relentless and adamant. They fall again. Kit-kit-kit. Kit-kit-kit. He is amazed at their resilience. Adayomi stands next to him. "Let's go", she suggests and he says, "Wait, let's wait." She is loud now. "You will see so much snow in your life in Minnesota that you would want to return to India. You will hate snow. You will have to memorize the size and design of your friends' coats in order to recognize people during winter. Fuck, it is cold."

"Adayomi."

"Yes! I am leaving if you aren't coming with me."

He wants to say, I know you won't go but asks, "What is the meaning of your name."

"Why the hell you want to know that now?" She finds it funny.

"Because I am sure there is a meaning."

"Will you fucking go if I tell you the meaning of my name? You are crazy, you know!"

"Yes, I will."

"I think it means something like She Brings Me Joy or something. I don't know. I don't speak Igbo. Oh yes, I do know the meaning of kedu, but I just didn't want to talk to that stupid woman."

They start to walk back. She is still in the heat-preserving posture. "And what does your name mean?"

He is too busy looking at snow falling, covering the ground like a never-ending layer of white pollen. He doesn't want to tell her the meaning of his name. "What's the meaning of your name?" She asks again. He doesn't want to tell her that his name means sunrays—sunrays that bring mornings, that melt snow. He doesn't want the snow to melt.

Arunabha--whose name means sunrays—looks straight into her eyes and says. "Promise me you will meet me in Minneapolis. I will tell you the meaning of my name."

She smiles. Her eyes dance.

She holds his hand as they walk into the lobby.