By Rabi Thapa
16 March 2018
A short story.
As he turned into Sunnyside Mansions and pounded down Fisher Lane, waving distractedly to the guard in his box, Suraj felt heavier than usual. Perhaps it was the sky, so bright he could barely look it in the eye. It was a Saturday so he’d headed out later than usual. The day was unseasonably warm, and he couldn’t wait to strip his sodden running gear off and cool down in the shower. There, another pearl of sweat off the end of his nose. First, he needed to slow down. He dropped pace as he swerved into Cabri Lane, then stopped running altogether. Damn, it was hot.
It was about a hundred yards to No. 654, and his thoughts ran easily to the impending celebrations. Neeta would be calling to confirm attendance with his friends, and perhaps a few of his colleagues; the kids would be squalling around the house heedless as she pleaded with them to help tidy up for Papa’s big day. Forty-five! What was that, halfway? Back when the Santa Rosa start-up fell through and he’d begun scrambling for options, he’d found the recruitment tag Careers in Beer Begin Here as exotic as Denver’s mountains were soothingly familiar. The job was no party (as he still had to explain at parties), but he hadn’t looked back since he joined a decade and a half ago. For the youngest Vice-President at Molson Coors, the future was bright. As they used to say back in Vidyadarshan Secondary School, so bright you needed sunglasses.
He grinned as he plodded up the sidewalk, figuring he’d quiz Nischal, an MD, and Binay, an investment banker, about what they made of the future, halfway down the line. Back in school as skinny, pimpled kids who couldn’t even bring themselves to approach the giggling St Mary’s girls on Scout’s Day, they could never have imagined they’d get so far, and still be together to take stock. Three guys with three gals and an American dream team of kids. The sky was the limit. Suraj Dhital and his jigris were pretty awesome.
Right now he wasn’t feeling too awesome. He was only walking, but his breath was whistling somewhere behind him. It roared high in his ears like a bottling line at one of the breweries, and his neck felt stiff, like someone had him by the scruff and was dragging him down. It’d only been a month since he’d promised Nischal, on his 45th, that he’d take up running. He must be overdoing it. He doubled over, slippy hands on slippy knees, and squinted into the distance, perspiration filming his vision. He should have been home by now, but no, he was still at No. 583, where the ancient Korean vet always sat in a lawnchair with a tiny radio squawking on a footstool, waiting for his obese daughter and her kids to visit in that bust-up van, their scruffy clamour reminding the Dhitals they needed to upgrade to a better Denver burb, but when would they find the time?
He straightened, frowning, and gasped as an electric surge thrust through the side of his chest and held, throbbing redly. A cold sweat pricked out onto his forehead. Panting hoarsely, he bent over again then thunked down onto the kerb. His neck twisted uncomfortably, and even as he asked himself what’s happening he knew something was seriously wrong. He rummaged in his pockets, realising he’d left his phone behind, but should he drag himself up and home, or wait to catch his breath? He glanced up but his vision blurred into soft greens and greys and a dizzying whiteness all around, he tried to speak but his mouth was acrid and dry, and he sucked in the air but it wouldn’t come, just not as much as he needed, his heart, his goddamn 45-year-old heart now kicking and yammering like an animal tearing around inside, and he lifted an arm to wave to someone, anyone, and it was like a steel rod had skewered it all the way from his funny bone to his shoulder making him go unnnghhhh and it flashed across his mind like an ākāshvāni from the gods, you’re having a heart attack and you’re gonna die.
The thought stilled him for a moment, but the pain got worse, burrowing deeper into his chest as he gasped “Ah… Aah… Aiyah”, the sounds involuntary and evaporating into the summer air like little puffs of steam. He listed clumsily onto his side on the path, bringing his knees up into his chest, his mouth ajar quivering like jelly, his eyes opening and shutting, forehead scrunched, thinking where’s Neeta, where are my sons, this can’t be happening, no it can’t be happening.
He cried out loud now, a drawn-out moan swallowed in a wheeze, a grown man, I’m a grown man and crying by the side of the road, what if Rajeev and Neeraj see me like this? What if they don’t see me at all? It’s just too unfair to not get to say goodbye, if that’s what this is, but this can’t be it, it will pass in a bit, won’t it. His cries echoed in his ears, disembodied, over and above the rattle in his throat trying to claw in the air, anything to slow down his heaving sack of a body, the burning brand under his ribs lancing in, then out, scraping along like his insides were being dragged across the asphalt, pressing on him for an airless eternity and blotting him out until he opened his eyes and his chest expanded, the air flowing easier, the sweat just pouring down his face, and he groaned, thinking how ridiculous, just ridiculous to be having a heart attack when he was only trying to keep fit, to be dying alone on the sidewalk when he was meant to be celebrating his life in his own house in a few hours.
But it was passing, he could look around and observe his own ungainly sprawl and feel a little embarrassed even, now he could go back to tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life with the lived knowledge of his own mortality, wiser and better and happier with Neeta and Neeraj and Rajeev, he would after all maybe see them growing up playing basketball and soccer and going to the prom with their first crushes to get their hearts broken as they left for university to make their futures as grown men who’d go and see Nepal just like he’d come and seen America, who’d learn how to be Nepali just like he’d learned how to be American, who’d fall in love with the things that he’d taken for granted and come back and tell him all about it like they were Columbus, that they had had discovered a Nepal beyond their speechifying uncles and gossiping aunts and that they wanted to go back and do something about it rather than leave it all behind and keep pretending they cared or even remembered it anymore with their mouths full of momos and their hands full of cards when they got together to be Nepali but right now it didn’t seem like he could make it to 654 let alone Nepal he couldn’t move his arms and though he could see two scrawny white legs in shin-length socks right in front of him he couldn’t figure it out till he saw the old man’s wrinkled map of a face blinking upside down, his mouth working silently, looking around and moving away, was he going to get help now? Please make this stop now, he whispered to himself, I’ll be ok, we’ll cancel the party but I’ll be just fine, bhayo aba malāi thik bhayo aba but it was not ok he knew, he could still die before anyone got to him, the whole of his insides felt like a giant constricted heart, black and red and contorted and fucked up with a lifetime of sel and jalebi and khasi ko māsu and ghee and chips and beer and burgers and hot dogs and Your Career in Beer Ends Here, he thought as a glazed kind of numbness washed over the hurt, a ghastly chuckle escaped him and he felt better, just a bit better. Tyo mujhi budho kasto tātho, he swore silently, thinking of the old man nearing 90 and walking around the block spry as anything, his family all around him, the completeness of his life, and now a suffocating wave of sadness crept over him to think he might not get to complete his own life, if he didn’t die now he’d die in a year or two or five just like that dāi who’d keeled over the day he was due to return to Nepal, funny he hadn’t thought of going back for a few years now, never again now gais Nepal aba there wasn’t even anyone left to receive his ashes with his parents gone and his brother in Australia, he recalled the other Nepalis in Denver saying they would go back for sure it was only a matter of time but in a matter of time they’d be dead anyway, it was always those who hadn’t been here long enough to make it that wanted to go back, not Nischal not Binay not him, they were always meant to be here in the American summer, their American Dream, which began at that outdoors concert in Atlanta, their first music festival, eyeing those sweet blonde girls now available to them, leaping out of the pages of well-thumbed teen magazines, smiling at them in that knowing innocent way of theirs, but still they never really knew if they were entitled to that part of the dream, and before they knew it they’d agreed to mix in the old world of red saris and kohl-lined eyes and clinking glass bracelets catching the light like marbles in the grubby gutter along the stores in front of the big house in Nagpokhari where he went to watch reruns of Shaolin Temple with Dhiraj until his father came around shouting he’d beat the skin off his back like they would never allow in this Amrika where you couldn’t even say khālās ek jhāpu but you could shoot someone and say it was an honest mistake and how would they all stay safe once he was gone?
“Baba ke bho? Did you fall? Are you ok?”
Neeta’s quaver brought Suraj out of his sweaty reverie but he couldn’t even raise his head to signify the relief like a breeze over him, the tearing subsiding with his head cradled in her lap, his wife telling him that everything was going to be just fine, thik cha baba hold on now and then further away, briskly urgent as she dialled for an ambulance and repeated the address, young feet slapping up the lane to stop short with a high-pitched babble, a rough cloth wiping him down, water to his lips sloshing down his chin and Neeta soothing away their sons’ tearful questions in affecting half-Nepali, half-American, her voice fading in and out like the first time he met her for coffee on a fortnight’s break to Kathmandu to look for a Nepali bride, he had to keep on leaning into her, her diffidence egging on his newfound American brashness and he found himself talking about his life in Denver, how he liked to hang out with the guys and play golf when he had time off from work, which wasn’t often since he was so busy you couldn’t imagine it living in Kathmandu and of course they got a taste of just that when they went in to get their marriage certificates done and had to wait for ages for the section chief to get back to his plastic swivel chair with the patterned towel over it and when they finally walked out into the sun stepping around the stinking heaps of garbage he joked now this nightmare is over, we can live the American dream and she smiled in a funny way like he had maybe got it the wrong way around but she never, never complained about being in America, it hadn’t always been smooth sailing but they had made it, here they were now though sometimes, just sometimes he wondered if they hadn’t left some pieces of themselves back in the old place, his heart contracting again like some rogue element and he tried to sit up but Neeta held him tight, murmuring ambulance āudaicha baba, ekkai chin mā, and he slumped back into a cloying warmth, fingers sweeping back his hair and wiping his face like his mother and the typhoid fever that took weeks to subside, the most bored he had ever been in his life because none of his friends bothered to visit, and all he had was Major Dhital scowling at the door, impatient with his recovery and everything else as usual including his mother crooning over him with the tasteless jāulo that she boiled up day after day until he was clear of the fever and insisted on walking to where the local kids gathered to play dandi biyo and his father grumphed Send him! It’ll probably give him some jāgar to see the other boys move their arms and legs around, you always smother him it’s no wonder he doesn’t play sports and without sports how the hell do you think he’ll get into the army? And when he walked out of the gate, everything was so vibrant and brimful with life, people’s voices louder and more jagged, even the stray dogs that shied away from his hands curled with stones now came up mouths open to pink tongues and thumped him with their wagging tails as he passed them slowly, slowly, and the raggedy boys in the dusty flat clearing before the giant tree were engrossed in the game, flicking the stick out of the groove and whacking it once, twice, thrice all the way to the road with cheers and the old man with his shock of white hair spilling out from under his topi turned up the dial of his radio way up so the whole tole resounded with the reverb of that song about the eagle in the sky and a shadow on the earth and as he tipped his eyes up to the blue, blue he felt the warmth of the sun caressing them closed until the servant plucked at his elbow, Babu, let’s go home now.
“Ma ghar jāna lāge, Neeta, aba,” he managed, I’m going home now, and she smiled at him, her tearstreaked face quite lovely as he was lifted onto a stretcher, the flashing red light reflected in her wet eyes as she leant over him, touching his face, yes, you’ll be home soon, I’ll be with you soon baba I love you, and she stepped back as they closed the doors, for a moment framed with their sons on either side open-mouthed and pale and then he was alone, wondering when was the last time she said that to me and shouldn’t I have said it back to her, to my sons, eyelids twitching in the white light, cool fresh air easing the knots inside him, hands fluttering over his face and body, drifting to a space he needed to be, in bed, alone, the first day of the winter holidays, his father out and his mother in, a cup of tea on the bedside table, the whole day in front of him and many more to come. Heart attack bhayo, the thought announced itself again and, eyes closing, he muttered, “Bhayo”.
~ Rabi Thapa is from Kathmandu, where he is the editor of the literary magazine La.Lit (www.lalitmag.com). He is the author of Thamel, Dark Star of Kathmandu (2016) and the short-story collection Nothing to Declare (2011).