Fiction from NER 42.1 (2021)
wo plus decades ago, while he was waiting in line at the only place on campus that sold tofu burritos, Stewart stood behind a woman carrying a large vinyl bag emblazoned with the words STOP CORRUPTION. He’d noticed her before, more than once—she was also a freshman, and how many South Asian students were there in Ithaca who wore combat boots and had cerulean hair and attended rallies against apartheid and corporate greed? The woman’s name was Hasina, and she was lactose intolerant, and she often adopted a defiant tone when she told people she was the first person in her family to go to college. Two years later, three months into their junior year, Hasina’s mother, Geshna, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and that summer, when Hasina and Stewart were sharing a room on St. Mark’s Place across the street from Boy Bar, Geshna was institutionalized for eight weeks.
Stewart was familiar with crazy. His own mother, Heike, was emotionally unstable. This was one of the things that had initially drawn him to Hasina: the fact that he could confide in her, tell her stories about his mother coming into his room at 4:00 AM, in tears, standing next to his bed telling him no one loved her and she had nothing to live for. “You don’t care about me,” Heike would say, mascara running down her face. This was back when she was poor and trying to find a husband so she and Stewart could move out of their cramped apartment in a subsidized housing complex in Southern California whose parking lot was littered with broken glass. Once, when Stewart was a senior in high school, after Richard Leibowitz had left her and Stewart had just been accepted to Cornell, Heike came into his room in the middle of the night, telling him she’d decided to move back to Germany where she was born, that she was going to move to Düsseldorf to live with her aunt. Stewart got out of bed and gave her a hug. He told her he loved her and asked when she was moving.
“I knew it,” she exclaimed. “You want nothing more than to get rid of your old mother. You wish I didn’t exist.”
Then, when he denied these accusations, she played her queen of spades, the pity card: “What’s going to become of me when you’re gone? You’re all I have.” She said this in reference to his having applied to colleges on the East Coast, and in reference to the fact that she was fifty-three years old and single, and that the woman she played tennis with on Thursdays had just moved to Pismo Beach to open a B&B. In part, Heike was right: Stewart did want his space. He and Hasina had bonded over the fact that their mothers were needy and unstable and, at times, sexually inappropriate.
Stewart and Hasina didn’t actually become friends—true friends—until their sophomore year, when they sat next to each other in a class called “Women, Gender and Society,” whose reading list included The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, and the Radical Lesbians’ founding manifesto. They did a presentation together on Hélène Cixous and poststructuralist feminist theory, and they participated in rallies against Cornell’s investments in South Africa and the rape culture perpetuated by fraternities, and, when they were juniors, they lived in the college’s pansexual co-op, Von Cramm, where they made seitan lasagna and vegan pizza with basil grown in the co-op’s garden and stayed up until 2:00 AM drinking chamomile tea, because a doctor told Hasina that she was developing an ulcer and needed to avoid coffee.
Hasina wanted to be an artist. She spent nearly her entire senior year in the studio making paintings and collages full of meticulous images of women wearing burkas in domestic settings, juxtaposed with images of partially clad women in porno-graphic poses being straddled by men with scimitars. Often she incorporated photos from magazines of celebrities like Brooke Shields and Farrah Fawcett, along with photos of expensive perfumes and handbags. She wanted to show people how it felt to be a woman of color at an Ivy League school, wanted frat boys to understand what it meant to be marginalized by a society that turned women’s bodies into objects. She wanted classmates who’d gone to the Emma Willard School and to Chapin, who wore Jordache jeans and drove their parents’ Mercedes, to appreciate the extent to which they’d been blinded by empty materialist values.
Back then, when Stewart was twenty years old—before he started and abandoned a PhD program in Comp Lit and eventually settled into a comfortable, if boring, middle-class life, teaching social studies at a Catholic school outside of Fitchburg, Massachusetts—everything Hasina talked about felt meaningful and revelatory. Raising your hand and asking the professor whether he believed heterosexual sex was perforce rape and whether he agreed with Andrea Dworkin that patriarchal societies eroticize female subordination didn’t feel gratuitous. Back then, questions like this felt probing and crucial.
Stewart marveled at the fact that once, during a senior seminar on identity politics, Hasina had the gumption to tell the professor that he shouldn’t assume that just because Hasina was a person of color she had anything in common with the Black students at Cornell, that the prejudice she faced was different. The professor—a skinny white guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a trimmed beard who’d gotten his PhD at Berkeley and whom Stewart and Hasina both agreed was the hottest professor on campus—turned red and apologized and ended up giving her an A+ in the class. In his comments to her final paper on Gayatri Spivak he wrote that she was one of the most insightful, thoughtful students he’d ever had the privilege to teach. At a time when Stewart himself still had one foot in the closet and nurtured fantasies about his freshman roommate, Andy Witherspoon—a soccer player from Florence, Alabama, who ended up joining Sigma Chi and dating the daughter of one of the school’s most famous alums—Stewart marveled at Hasina’s ability to talk about lesbian sex openly, despite the fact that she’d never actually dated a woman and had only fooled around once with a thirty-year-old woman who ran the local flower shop. He admired the fact that once, junior spring, when a group of guys carrying lacrosse sticks called out from across the quad, yelling Stop corruption, baby, she yelled back: “Suck my dick, you fucking meatheads.”
Which was why Stewart found it not just surprising but, indeed, incomprehensible that Hasina ended up hooking up with Andy Witherspoon in April of their senior year, when the snow had almost completely melted and the crocuses were beginning to bloom, and Stewart had decided that he was going to move to New York after graduation and work as a waiter so he could live in a city where there were more than two places to get pizza and more than seven gay people, all of whom were undatable because they were either too queenie or too closeted. Hasina knew what Stewart’s reaction would be when he found out about Andy, she said, which is why she ended up waiting three full weeks to disclose the news.
Months later, after he and Hasina had stopped speaking to one another, Stewart decided that this drunken hookup in the basement of Sigma Chi had been Hasina’s way of getting back at him—either because she was jealous of the fact that he’d won the English department’s Moses Coit Tyler Prize, or because, when she showed him the painting she’d worked on during most of winter break, his response had been enthusiastic, but not enthusiastic enough, or maybe because he’d said the wrong thing when she told him her mother had lost her shit over Christmas and started throwing dishes across the room and then proceeded to put the dinner they’d all prepared into the garbage disposal—not just the carved turkey but also the yams and even the pumpkin pies Hasina had made herself—before anyone had eaten. He’d learned that Hasina was the kind of person who didn’t always tell you what was going through her head, that as much as she seemed willing to share her deepest secrets and reveal her most private insecurities and fears, she was also capable of withholding information, and indeed opinions, that most people would share willingly. She was perplexing. Perhaps, Stewart decided years later when he was in therapy, this was one of the things that had drawn him to her in the first place: the fact that she, like his mother, was riddled with contradictions.
For months, for years afterwards, as he tried to make sense of his friendship with her, Stewart replayed the events leading up to Hasina’s hookup with Andy and the days between their coitus mirabilis and Stewart’s discovery of this fact—which Hasina mentioned almost casually when they were walking to the grocery store together and they passed another member of Sigma Chi whom Hasina knew Stewart also thought was hot: “Oh, by the way, there’s something I forgot to tell you—remember that night when I didn’t come back to Von Cramm and told you I was working at the studio? I actually went to a party at Sigma Chi and got shitfaced and gave Andy a blowjob and then let him fuck me and, yeah, he really does have a six-pack and a spectacular dick.”
At the time, Stewart did his best to produce the appropriate response, to act not angry but merely surprised, to hide any sign that he felt jealous or hurt or betrayed. He followed Hasina into GreenStar market, picked out two bunches of spinach, a block of sharp cheddar cheese, and a pint of heavy cream. He gathered together enough lettuce and heirloom tomatoes and mushrooms and rosemary to make three quiches and salad for nine people, because it was Friday, and classes were done for the week, and he and his best friend were making dinner to celebrate the birthday of the president of the Womyn’s Issues League: someone named Megan, who was lesbian and who’d transferred from Reed to Cornell two years earlier because she wanted to be able to cross-country ski—the same Megan who would move to San Francisco after graduation, then get a PhD in the History of Consciousness at Santa Cruz, followed by a JD at Boalt, thereby making a shitload of money in Silicon Valley, enough to retire at the age of forty-two and move up to Sonoma and raise horses, or whatever.
Why was it, Stewart often wondered, that Hasina could tell him about the fact that Geshna had fled the house for three days when Hasina was eleven years old with nothing but a backpack full of saltine crackers and two persimmons, could tell him that Hasina’s father had gone berserk trying to find her—calling relatives and hospitals and police stations, before eventually finding her sitting cross-legged under a bridge, alone, eating a bag of Doritos with dirty hands, claiming that she’d been trying to find their kitten, Natasha, who’d drowned three months earlier in the neighbors’ pool? Why could Hasina tell him this story, and the story of Geshna locking Hasina in the closet for seven hours because Geshna was afraid that a man she’d seen in the grocery store who had a menacing look in his eyes might try to steal her little girl, and the story about Geshna getting dressed up to attend Hasina’s piano recital and then smearing lipstick on her white dress because she had nothing proper to wear and needed an outfit that was more festive? How could Hasina share these things and then refuse to tell him that she hooked up with Andy Witherspoon? And refuse to admit that the night they went to the Pyramid during their summer in New York and stayed out until 4:30 AM and came home and got into bed, she felt angry because Stewart had danced with a guy she thought was cute when the deejay put on “Rock Lobster”?
Why couldn’t she tell her best friend that a little piece of her might have had a mini crush on him, Stewart—which, in the grand scheme of things, wouldn’t have been a big deal to disclose, given the fact that they spilled their guts to each other about everything (including the fact that Hasina had once walked into her parents’ bedroom and found Geshna on the king-sized bed, naked, while fondling their Chihuahua) and had once even French-kissed in the rain down by the railroad tracks, just because. Why would that have been a big deal to say—admit, whatever? Why did she have to sneak around behind his back and have sex with someone like Andy as a weird kind of retribution?
Because, Stewart ultimately concluded, that’s what it had been: Hasina’s way of trying to punish Stewart. Not just because Andy was someone Stewart had fantasized about when they were roommates (the inaccessible other, the well-adjusted jock, the paragon of manliness who would always remain out of reach), but also because of the way Hasina withheld the information for three weeks and then delivered it offhandedly, as if it meant nothing, thereby sending a message: Fuck you.
It wasn’t until Stewart had been in therapy for eight months, when he was twenty-three years old, that he got in touch with his anger about the Andy incident—which he realized, then, was not about Andy per se, because who the fuck really cared about Andy—and about the fact that Hasina had abandoned him a few months later, just after they finished college, when they were in La Paz, Mexico, and about a good many other things: boyfriends who’d broken up with him, his father’s explosive temper, his mother’s increasingly unreasonable demands that Stewart come back to Ventana Beach and live with her, because she needed him.
Therapy had been a useful tool, Stewart’s therapist liked to say: it had helped Stewart begin to process the traumas from his past that he’d bottled up. Sometimes his therapy sessions felt like a cliché.
How many hours had Stewart talked about his mother and his father and Hasina, who, even though they were no longer in touch, continued to occupy a disproportionate amount of his consciousness? How much money had he spent ruminating over questions that were unanswerable: was he to blame for the end of his relationship with Hasina or was she? Had he made enough effort to reconnect with Hasina when he found out about Geshna’s suicide? Had competition driven them apart or was it something else—was it possible that all those late-night conversations they’d had, when it felt like no one else would ever understand him the way that Hasina did, weren’t as momentous as they’d seemed? Maybe that’s just what kids do in college: stay up all night smoking pot and telling secrets and baring their souls, then graduating and, within weeks, going their separate ways.
Stewart often looked back on the summer of 1987, the summer after their junior year when he and Hasina lived across the street from Boy Bar in the East Village, as one of the happiest times in his life, maybe the happiest. For three months they shared a third-floor walkup, a studio with a skylight and a leather couch and a chrome dining room table and a painting by Basquiat before he was Basquiat, and a waterbed they slept in together. They listened to the Smiths and the Cure and the Police, and they drank rum and Cokes until 11:00 PM, then studied themselves in the bathroom mirror one last time before heading out into the humid, cacophonous night to watch Lady Bunny and Miss Demeanor and Mistress Formika sing “I Will Survive” and “Dancing Queen” and “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” If Stewart was lucky, he’d hook up with a Puerto Rican guy who’d taken the train down from Spanish Harlem or the Bronx and who called Stewart his papi or his papacito up on the roof of their building or in the basement where people stored their bikes and old mattresses. On Thursdays, Stewart and Hasina went to the Pyramid, on Fridays, Save the Robots, on Saturdays, Palladium or, if Hasina was sick of Palladium, then Limelight (but never the Tunnel). They smoked cloves and danced until their lungs were raw and their eardrums felt thick and numb.
This was back when you had to wait in line to go dancing, when you did your best to look blasé while waiting to get picked by the doorman, back when Stewart shaved his head and wore black tights and Hasina had platinum blond hair and black leather pants, back when they spent hours at MoMA and read each other poems by Elizabeth Bishop and Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg, and they vowed they would always be friends—a fact as immutable as the granite outcroppings at Cascadilla Gorge, they insisted—and that maybe one day when they were done picking up tricks on the street, they would get married and grow old together. This was before Hasina hooked up with Andy, before Heike’s third facelift left scar tissue under her chin that tingled at night and would never go away, no matter how much she kneaded it with her fingers and applied eucalyptus salves, before Geshna took Hasina’s old jump rope and cinched it around her neck and hung herself from the banister of the staircase in their living room.
“Look over there,” Hasina said, her hair fuchsia now in celebration of their graduation. “There’s a gaggle of geese.”
They were walking with Heike around a lake, or rather an inlet from the ocean, a bird refuge with—various placards announced—white herons and snowy egrets and mallards and ruddy ducks. No geese, but Hasina wasn’t referring to actual geese. She was invoking a joke that had taken root months earlier when they were watching TV together, a British nature show on BBC America. “This charm of finches,” a stodgy British narrator reported, “has lost its fearless leader and must rest for the night here on the shoals of the Spratly Islands in Southeast Asia. Together they must gather their energy before embarking on their long voyage home.”
“Which charm of finches is the good man referring to?” mimicked Hasina. “I see no charm at all, my good sir.” Whereupon Stewart adopted the same British accent and they began addressing one another as madame and good sir for the rest of the evening. “I do believe I espy a charm of finches,” Hasina began saying to Stewart, when she wanted to point out something she found especially ridiculous. For example, when eating pizza in the Village after the Gay Pride parade and seeing a group of drag queens in full regalia, she might turn to him and say, “Here, here, good sir, did you perchance order a charm of finches with your sausage pie?”
Charm of finches led to dole of doves and tiding of magpies and, Stewart’s favorite, pandemonium of parrots. Tourists from the Midwest, taking up space on the sidewalk, looking up at the buildings—so tall! Imagine being up that high!—were sometimes referred to as a muster of peacocks.
The joke usually made them feel close, but not on this particular day, when they were visiting Stewart’s mother in Ventana Beach, where Heike lived in a cramped three-bedroom house next to a community center with a Ping-Pong table and a pool whose sign Hasina found more gross than funny: PERSONS HAVING CURRENTLY ACTIVE DIARRHEA OR WHO HAVE HAD ACTIVE DIARRHEA WITHIN THE PREVIOUS 14 DAYS SHALL NOT BE ALLOWED TO ENTER THE POOL WATER.
By this point, the joke about the geese felt worn. Stewart sensed it and so did Hasina, but Stewart still smiled, because here they were, best friends, their lives ahead of them—Stewart heading off to New York City, then the Peace Corps in September, unless he changed his mind about wanting to live in Honduras for two years, and Hasina on the cusp of a promising career as a visual artist, because, as one of her professors proclaimed, she had shitloads of talent. And Heike, always paranoid, always worried about what people might be saying, flipped out, yelling: “What do you find so funny, you two? Are you making a joke about me? What’s wrong—are you not happy to be making this walk together? Don’t you enjoy the beautiful birds and nice weather?”
This was six days after they’d packed up their rooms and left Ithaca for good, two days after they’d arrived in Ventana Beach to spend a week with Heike before they took a bus down to La Paz to go kayaking in the Sea of Cortez. Hasina had always wanted to see the gray whales, and she’d never been to California and had saved twelve hundred dollars working as a research assistant for a professor, and she didn’t care if Heike was crazy—she wanted to see where Stewart grew up.
The day they arrived in Ventana Beach, the curtains in Heike’s house were drawn and when Stewart’s mother came to the door to greet them, she had an enormous white scarf wrapped around her chin and neck and head. She was wearing large sunglasses, and she told them that getting the facelift—her second—had been the biggest mistake of her life. “I should never have let this butcher come near me,” she complained. “He promised he was very experienced and would do a good job. My friend Marcella told me not to do it, but I was too stubborn. She warned me against finding a doctor in the yellow pages, and now there’s nothing I can do. My life is ruined!”
Heike was the kind of person who skipped small talk—went straight for the kernel, which in this case was the puffiness of her skin and the scar tissue she was convinced would never subside, and the redness and burning sensation on her neck and behind her ears. She offered Stewart and Hasina a plate of store-bought Linzer cookies and ginger ale, and she sat on the couch with the dog on her lap, complaining about the good-for-nothing who’d ruined her life, a man named Dr. Carnavales. “The least he could do for two thousand dollars is return my calls. All I get is this nurse who is no help whatsoever, telling me to take aspirin and put cold washcloths on my face. I don’t need someone to tell me to take aspirin, I want to talk to this crook who takes my money and has himself a good time in Oahu.”
Initially, Hasina found Heike charming, then off-putting, and by day four, unbearable. “We need to get out of here, Stewart. Tell her we had a change of plans. Tell her the bus is leaving early.”
“I can’t tell her the bus is leaving early. What does that even mean? She’ll totally flip out if we don’t stay the full week.”
Hasina relented. She stayed and listened to Heike’s stories about Dr. Carnavales and Heike’s ex-boyfriend Richard Leibowitz and the Shrimp: the accountant Heike had met at a concert downtown who promised to take her to Las Vegas, but in the end was only interested in her body. “That’s how men always are,” Heike admonished, looking at Hasina. “Isn’t it so? They want to make love to you and when they get what they want, that’s it, they take off. I’m lucky I have money in the bank.”
Baja was a disappointment. Hasina and Stewart reached their forlorn destination after the whales had left or maybe before they’d arrived. The air conditioning at the hotel was broken, and the pool was full of algae, and on the third day Hasina got food poisoning that left her sweating and heaving and retching for thirty-six hours. And then when she was feeling better and they took a bus to Los Barriles, where the beach was beautiful and the water clear and it seemed like they might actually have a good time, they went out to dinner and their waiter, a twenty-eight-year-old guy from Guanajuato who’d moved to Baja to relax and unwind, offered to go dancing with Hasina and Stewart later on, to take them to a bar he said was really fun, and, lo and behold, Stewart and Juan Manuel ended up making out under the disco ball, and Hasina said she had a headache and went back to the hotel, and Stewart and Juan Manuel went down to the beach and fucked bareback on the sand, despite the images lodged in Stewart’s skull of Rock Hudson and Patient Zero and the men in San Francisco dying in droves.
The next morning, Hasina was gone when Stewart woke up. She hadn’t left him a note, which worried him, but he stayed in bed, watching a fly buzzing frantically up against the window. He felt the sun on his body and wondered if he should just go back to sleep. He wondered if he’d see Juan Manuel again, because he liked this guy from Guanajuato who called Stewart his bizcocho, and the sex had been very good.
An hour later, he was hungry, and he went to the restaurant downstairs, expecting to see Hasina waiting for him, but she wasn’t there. He got a pastry and walked out to the pool, and when he didn’t still find her, he started to freak out. He wondered if she was okay, if maybe she’d gotten food poisoning again and had gone to the hospital, or whether something had happened to her mother. He asked the receptionist if he knew anything about his friend, the woman with the platinum hair and the crucifix tattooed on her shoulder. He walked down the block, wondering whether maybe he’d see her in one of the cafés.
Six hours later, Stewart was on his bed, trying to read The Stranger but unable to concentrate, when the door opened and Hasina came in nonchalantly, as if she’d just stepped downstairs to pick up a coffee.
“Hey,” she said, her feet covered in sand.
“What the fuck? Are you okay? Where have you been?”
“I went for a walk.”
“You went for a walk? Where’d you go? I’ve been going out of my fucking mind worried you were abducted by some Zapatista.”
“I went down to the market to get some mangos and then I went to the beach. Excuse me for living.”
Two days later, Hasina said she wanted to spend the afternoon on her own, and when Stewart got back to the room he found a note.
I know this is going to seem ridiculous, but I feel like I just need a little time to myself right now. Sorry, I know this is totally weird, but I’m flying back home. Hope you don’t hate me.
What does that even fucking mean, I hope you don’t hate me, Stewart asked Megan, who was spending another month in Ithaca before she moved to Santa Cruz, because he had to talk to someone and she was the only person he could reach on the phone.
“God, I don’t know. That’s really weird. Maybe she’s worried about her mom?”
“She’s not worried about her mom. She hates her mom. She told me she wishes her mom were dead. She’s obviously pissed off about something I did, but what the fuck? Do you think she’s jealous I hooked up with that guy?”
“Jealous? Why would she be jealous?” Megan was trying to be helpful, but nothing she said was helpful. Stewart wondered if he should call Hasina’s parents. In the end he stayed in Los Barriles for another week and had sex with Juan Manuel eight more times. They went dancing together and ate ceviche with lime so sharp it made Stewart’s tongue burn, and Juan Manuel took Stewart to the place where the turtles emerged from the sea at night, under the full moon, to lay their eggs in the sand.
Stewart tore Hasina’s note up and tossed it in the trash with a used condom. He replayed the events of the past days and weeks in his head, dissected her looks, the silences and exchanges. Hasina had a history of cutting people off. She’d told him stories about friends who’d pissed her off and whom she’d excised from her life. “Not you, Stewart, I’d never do that to you.”
He went back to Ventana Beach and spent two more weeks with his mother, whose scars had begun to heal, and who was back on the tennis court, hitting forehands and backhands and serves. He moved to New York and found a boyfriend and decided not to join the Peace Corps after all, and then, in September, Megan called him and asked whether he’d heard the news: Geshna had committed suicide.
He hadn’t heard the news. No one had called him. He hadn’t heard from Hasina since she’d abandoned him.
He wondered if he should call Hasina, whether he should forgive her and reach out to tell her he still loved her. He waited two days, then he sent her a letter, a three-page missive in which he told her how sad he was to hear the news about Geshna and how much he missed her. “Maybe I’m just making all this up,” he wrote two pages in. “Maybe I’m just being completely neurotic—as per usual. If so, just tell me to stop. Tell me you’re not mad and we’re still friends, and I’ll be on the next train to Philly. Sitting here writing this, I miss you so much, Hasina. I feel like a huge fucking piece of my stomach got cut out of my chest. There’s this big gaping hole. I keep trying to figure out what happened between us—was it Juan Manuel? Are you mad that I hooked up with some random waiter on the beach?? If I did anything wrong, I wish you’d just tell me what it is, so I don’t keep making shit up in my head like a total freak. I really hope you write me back or call me or send me a smoke signal or something.”
Twenty-three years later, Stewart is sitting in Heike’s house in Ventana Beach, going through his mother’s papers—old receipts she never threw away, letters he sent her that she’d saved, newspaper clippings—when he gets a message on Facebook.
Hasina Gossart sent you a friend request.
He doesn’t know anyone named Hasina Gossart. He knew a Hasina Mangalmurti in college, but that was a lifetime ago—before he moved to Massachusetts with his partner, Klaus, before Klaus was killed in a freak boating accident on the Puget Sound, before Stewart had gallstones that his doctor said necessitated a cholecystectomy, before Stewart became infatuated with butterflies and began to spend all his disposable income on trips to Sri Lanka and New Guinea and the Philippines. Before he knew the difference between a Sapho Longwing and Blue Morpho, a Purple Emperor and an Island Marble.
“Stewart: Megan told me the news about Heike. I’m so sorry. I know I owe you an apology for cutting off contact with you. I was an asshole. I’m sorry. Love, Hasina”
He’s sitting on the folding chair he used as a child to do his algebra and geometry, to conjugate his Spanish verbs, in front of his little yellow desk in the room his mother used to call his, even though he never really considered it his room, the room with the poster of the Zugspitze and Neuschwanstein Castle, and the teddy bear his mother gave to him for Christmas the last time he visited her: a white fluffy bear with outstretched arms and a bib with the words Hug Me in red lettering.
His mother is dead. Three days ago she was buried, and here he is going through her papers and files, rereading the letters he sent her so long ago when he was in Ithaca and he needed to make it clear that he was an adult, and he needed his independence, and he wasn’t responsible for her happiness.
Tomorrow he’ll figure out what to do with his mother’s clothes, how to dispose of the tennis skirts and velour warm-up suits, the shoes from Costco and Kmart, and the fur coat she bought online for $69.99 that she kept the tags on in case she wanted a refund.
He looks at Hasina’s message. “Forgiven,” he responds and hits send.
“You realize I never actually had sex with Andy Witherspoon, right? I made all that shit up. You knew that, right?”
“What???? RU insane? Why?”
“What’s your number? Want to call you.”
“Busy. Feeding geese,” he writes back.
“Fuck you. The gaggle can wait.”
He sends her his mother’s phone number, which hasn’t changed since Heike moved into this house twenty-seven years ago, then he gets up to go to the bathroom and pee, in case Hasina does in fact call right away. He feels excited—the stirring in your stomach you might feel before a first date or when you receive an unexpected gift that you know is quite precious. He knows that Hasina can be flaky, that she’s the kind of person who might say she’s going to call and not follow through, but maybe she’s changed. Of course she’s changed. Neither one of them is the same person they were in college. Stewart is more introverted than he was back then, less fun. He can tell from Hasina’s profile photo that her hair is no longer dyed. Her most recent Facebook post shows her in front of a painting at a museum or a gallery. In the photo she’s holding a stuffed animal—a red pig with a corkscrew tail—and laughing, and she looks good. She looks happy, successful, radiant. He wonders whether, during the expanse of time since they last saw one another, they’ve changed so much that when they do talk, things will feel strained.
Stewart’s old enough now that he’s had the experience of losing touch with and later reconnecting with a fair number of people. Usually he finds these ordeals awkward and somewhat exhausting. Especially these days, now that he’s losing his hair and he’s put on some weight, he notices how much effort people expend insisting that he looks just like he did in college or whenever they last saw each other. He knows this isn’t true, of course, but he plays along, trying to be gracious. He wonders whether talking to Hasina will make him feel like they’re back in college again or whether it will just leave him feeling older and sadder than he did before they spoke. After he’s peed, he goes back to his laptop and doesn’t see any more messages from Hasina. No: “Great, I’ll call you in 10 minutes” or “I’ll call you tonight” or “Excellent, talk soon!”
Somehow, the excitement he felt initially has already started to curdle, and he begins to feel irritated. Because her messages to him suggested a certain degree of urgency. They suggested that a call was imminent, and though it’s only been six or seven minutes since he sent her his number, six or seven minutes is not now. Not that he has somewhere to be—he’ll be spending this afternoon and evening puttering around his mother’s place, sorting through papers and photos and things that should have been thrown away decades ago. He wonders how Hasina dealt with her mother’s death, whether she processed the grief at the time or buried it. Despite being so defiant and forthright when it came to most issues, Hasina always struck him—back when they were close—as someone who avoided tackling the most complex emotional issues head on. Maybe he himself was the same way. Maybe he still is. He looks at her Facebook page and sees more photos of what are clearly paintings of hers, good paintings, celebrated paintings, and as he does so, he feels jealous. He can tell she’s become quite successful, but it’s hard for him to determine how successful. He could Google her of course, but he feels like Googling her would somehow give her more power than she deserves. This is the thought that is going through his head when the phone finally rings. He’s sitting right next to the receiver, but he lets it ring once, twice, three times. Given everything that’s happened between them, the last thing he wants is to seem too eager. ■