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The following is an excerpt from “Flashes” – a work of short fiction inspired by the stories of desi gas station attendants in New Jersey. These images were created to accompany this creative writing piece originally published in Issue #3 of Newest Americans.
Written by Rutgers University – Newark MFA creative writing candidate, Shaleena Koruth.
I didn’t find Parul. She found me.
If she had ridden up on horseback and swung me onto her saddle, it wouldn’t have been far from the truth. But that’s not what she did. She appeared on the bounding wall of the basketball court, the red instep of a high heel flashing, one leg swung over the other, in a white salwar-kameez, a camera across her shoulder and one of those shiny bags with ‘Ps’ written all over that you see on the sidewalks of New York City. That’s the picture of her that’s always in my mind.
Even now, two years gone, earning good money, with a car and a flat, and no woman waiting in the wings for me, that’s how I see her. On my desk is a Manila envelope from my mother, with some woman’s photographs and a bio, to try and make me agree to an arranged match. She’s probably scanning the matrimonial classifieds in the paper right now, looking for a good Punjabi girl with the right height and weight and a job-worthy BA. And that’s when I think of Parul. The way she showed up, like an apparition on the wall. I caught sight of her in one blazing instant on a day that was otherwise perfectly ordinary. Just Afzal and I shooting hoops at night like usual with the guys after work.
She was staying with her aunt, visiting India and taking courses in Quality Assurance testing at the polytechnic. A lot of the students were from abroad; it was simply cheaper to pay Indian rates and still get a first class certificate than study in the U.S. and shell out dollars. Afzal and she got talking at a local coffee shop, he invited her to meet his friends from work after a basketball game one night and that’s how I came into the picture.
“She’s from Cincinnati,” Afzal told me, waving at her. She waved back and smiled. He liked to tease her and say she was an escapee. Running away from her dad’s grocery store in a suburb of Cincinnati. Parul worked there in the daytime.
“That’s partly true,” she would nod, “I needed a break from that place. I crossed a whole ocean just for that purpose.”
But I learnt all this later. That first time I saw her at the basketball court in Vikasgarh, I had this sense that she noticed me. When I chased the ball to the edge, my head down between my legs, I saw her face, upside down. She was smiling, at me. She had a round face, high forehead, shiny skin, long black hair up to her shoulders and she’d got on lipstick. I stood up slowly, and I looked at her, right side up.
Her clothes had that gleaming dust-free whiteness that Indian clothes never retain. Must be the water or the air, but something ends up yellowing our whites. And her skin gleamed – she was so chikna, smooth – skin that escapes a burning sun for half the year.
I had been back in Vikasgarh, back in India for a year now. The guys at the gas station in Jersey had told me I was crazy to leave. I knew I was crazy to leave. My father had died suddenly of an asthma attack – too many years spent on the seats of tractors on the big wheat farms, breathing in dust and husk. Returning for my father’s funeral would mean I would not be able to set foot in the States for a long time. That was the penalty for overstaying. And I had overstayed my tourist visa by a year then, working at my uncle’s gas station.
“Your tears are a luxury,” they said. “You can afford to cry. What price did you pay to get to Jersey? An air ticket. We paid with time and fear.”
“Not my tears, my mother’s,” I’d said.
Read the full story in issue #3 of Newest Americans here.