To make up for the lack of peacocks in Peacock Grocery below my apartment building, me and my Cousin Anan would buy mini M&Ms to cheer ourselves up, before our Ammas took us to walk in and out the little streets between the buildings and villas of Passport Road, Abu Dhabi. Don’t worry, Amma laughs, we have the passport to walk this street. On the way, me and Anan would pour M&Ms into each other’s hands, offerings of our cousinhood, like communion bread we were not old enough to partake in yet at St. Joseph’s church.
One day, a red M&M falls into the patch of empty sand between my apartment building and the sidewalk. It’s like a seed, maybe it will grow. Anan smiles wide-eyed as he plants his favourite green M&M next to the red and I drop a yellow one a few steps away because my science textbook says roots need space. Everytime we walked by that sand patch since, we’d watch for trees dripping in rainbow M&Ms, pigeons and mynas nesting upon its branches and dream of plucking a new yellow or green or blue or red M&M off to bite into its chocolate insides.
But the harsh heat of the Gulf is not for M&Ms and so the trees did not grow. With childhood persistence, we kept dropping them into the sand patch, hoping that like the M&Ms, we too could take root in the Gulf we called home.
1. Whole Foods is the safest place on earth. What would the terrorists come for? The organic ice-cream? The dinky doughnuts, perhaps, were worth killing for. Imagine, a rainbow of kombucha and salad and bamboo leaf shampoo, with artisanal cheese for taste, shattering outwards, like the first sigh of relief after a breakup. Jia imagined herself in the mix: dangling brown doll, soft limbs pulled apart. What about Juan? He would slip to the floor stylishly, smile gelled on even in death, skull just missing the crack of the coffee machine lever, because that was the stylish thing to do – avoid ugliness. Whole Foods was made to paper over ugliness. It was full of things that prevented and wiped and filled and killed ugliness. “Your total is $6.42.” “Thank you very much, here’s your change. Have a good one, next customer please.” Oh, he has a nice beard, Jia thought. He was white. She wanted him to smile at her. She counted his change slowly, willing him to smile at her. He had bought organic meat and she wrote herself into the daydream, cooking the sausages in his chrome kitchen and listening to something like Fleetwood Mac, hanging up his flannel shirt in their shared closet. “Thank you, have a good one.” She stared at his lips, imagined them coated with the grease of unaffordable meat. He did that thing white people do where they purse their lips in place of a smile, in some supposed act of politeness. He was probably engaged to an Emily, graduated from Brown summa cum laude. “Sir, you forgot your change.” Who came to Whole Foods to buy a mere pack of sausages?
(Whole Foods, Gowanus, Brooklyn)
2. “Oh my God, you have over 99 hearts. Fuuuck. You’re so popular.” “Oh. Really.” So, men liked her. “Let me see your photos.” Juan took her phone. “Oh, this is good. This is hot. But maybe change this one.” “Why?” “Like, look at this one, this one is hot but this one? This is more cute. Like on Tinder, you wanna look hot, not cute. You know.” Jia looked down at her phone, at the distance between hot and cute, the exact measurement of a thumb. “Whatever. If they like me, they like me.” “That will be $7.95.” “I’m sorry?” “$7.95” “Don’t worry, I got it. Just cover me next time.” Juan swung his ponytail. Jia didn’t understand how she ended up being so close with Juan. He was like a show pony with opposable thumbs, to manage his burgeoning Instagram account. The world saw his hair gel, his three-figure sneakers, but he fried chicken for a living last summer. They sat down, Juan tapping his iPhone. “Fuck, this professor is so rude like he gives us so much work.” Jia really liked Juan’s accent. There was something warm and comfortable about it, like biting into a freshly baked bun. The food was ready. Juan tapped at his phone. Jia blew on the noodles. The sesame sauce was like a detonation in the mouth. “Mmm, this is so good. Mm-hmm.” “I know, right.” The sesame was oppressive. “I should really delete Grindr, ohmygod.” Jia calculated how much more food she would have gotten from Halal Cart for a dollar less. The sesame was so dominant that if Vanessa’s blew up right now, the debris would still taste like the goddamn sauce.
(Vanessa’s, East Village, Manhattan)
3. Ajay was visiting from Connecticut. Jia imagined the funeral: a childhood friendship laid to rest over pork dumplings and jasmine tea. Of course, she didn’t quite know it then. Not while they sat silently, pouring scalding things into their mouths, shoving all of it down, keeping it in. Maybe he was still in love with her. She watched the tea fog up his glasses. She’d learnt from someone else that he’d be interning at Google this summer. “Do you want more?” “That’s cool.” You can’t notice endings soon enough, sliding away smoothly like a soy sauce teardrop. Jia looked at him, slurping liquid. “I fucked your best friend,” she would not say. “He’s not my friend,” he would not say. Jia remembers this day and the memory sags, its skin drooping from a too-tight grip. As if massacring a dumpling before it even gets to the mouth. You realize a lot of things only after the fact, which is to say, the teapot cools without asking for your permission, your mind on the ceiling fans, on your wallet, on your burnt tongue, on the waiter’s accent. Those dumplings had such soft skins. “It’s ok, I’ll split it.”
(Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown, Manhattan)
4. Jason didn’t use Facebook. But he asked for her full name, repeated it like an unwrapped sweet bursting open in the mouth, and walked backwards out the door when they said goodbye, as if to prolong their first meeting. He looked her up that night and sent her a message. He wasn’t her type. “Idk, like he started texting me and we get along.” Once, he sat next to her in class because it was the only seat left. She was very aware of his body next to hers. She looked at his exercise book often, to see what he chose to note down. His handwriting was neat, neater than hers. Nothing would happen. “Omg what’s up with jason??” Jia didn’t know why she asked him to Baohaus after class. She overheard him saying he liked that place. “like i don’t like him or anything. we’re just hanging out.” He was much taller than her. He couldn’t believe her taste. “Here, we’ll share.” “Let’s get another round.” “Let’s do it.” Their corner was the size of a bathroom stall. Time went by with the Ubers outside. “Are we late?” Jia forgot about perfection, about crumbs, or credit cards. “Have you heard this Frank Ocean song before?” She unthreaded her earphones, offered him one like a candy. They leaned closer together. “I can’t believe you know this and I don’t.” How could he like her with her skin? Before they left, Jia dipped a finger to pick up peanut crumbs, and place them on her tongue. Make it last. Longer than the fake Chanel bags, feeble leather drooping like aged skin, for sale on the sidewalk. She saw both sides of this city but the first time in New York is always with one eye closed – then, everything looked pretty, and possible.
(Baohaus, Lower East Side, Manhattan)
5. She showed him to her friends. “He’s cute.” “Nice smile.” “He’s probably smart too.” His bio said he made great pancakes. Jia loved pancakes; they tasted like safety. She didn’t eat anything before the meeting, imagining a dinner somewhere she could only semi-afford. Somewhere with low lighting, and a hummingbird’s thrum of foreign music. It took multiple trains to get to the address Amir gave her. She wore her aquamarine earrings, and kept her jeans on. It wasn’t too serious, so she wouldn’t look it. On the train, she looked dramatically out at the underground blackness. She didn’t really believe it would go badly. They would eat, laugh a bit and she’d come home with a new trinket, a new story. Her friends wished her luck, and she asked them to stay awake for her. “INSUFFICIENT FARE” “PAID: $2.75” GO GO GO GO. “I’m so sorry, I’m running late.” “That’s okay, I’m just waiting outside.” Was that him? It seemed to be him. He was waving. Amir was skinnier than she imagined. His dress shoes stuck out like elfin ears. What was she doing here? It was just going to be drinks. The air sunk. Maybe she could fake a migraine and hail a cab back to the dorm. It was all ridiculous. She was raised Hindu and worked at Whole Foods. This wasn’t for her. He got her wine and talked about his politics. He had saved a picture of himself campaigning, caught in action on the cover of The New York Times. He could tell, she didn’t like him. “Let’s go to my place.” “I don’t think so.” He linked their arms together as they walked; she didn’t even know him. “I want pancakes.” He laughed indulgently and held up her elbow, painting her drunker than she was. She wanted to be drunker than she was. “Don’t worry, I won’t do anything.” “Will you write about me in your book? Will you tell your friends?” NO NO NO NO. “Don’t worry, I won’t take your clothes off.” “Oh, hahahhaha.” Jia was so hungry. Such a lovely restaurant, so rich and expensive and fucking New York fusion, and he couldn’t even feed her. “I have a great bottle of wine, come on.” He opened the door and put music on, some New Age remix. “You don’t like it.” “It’s okay.” He touched her hand and kissed it, and it felt like they were in a nursery school play, playing parts. “You’re so cheesy.” “Let’s go to the bedroom.” “I don’t think so.” Fast Car started playing and she wondered how she would react to the song after that night, if it would still remind her of her mother. “Jia. Jia. I want you to know I’m a feminist, Jia. You tell me if it hurts.” NO NO NO NO. “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe we’re having sex.” Jia lay on her front and thought oh, this is happening. So this is what people did. She made noise, and a part of her brain marveled. Her body too was capable. She belonged. PAID: $2.75
(Calle Dao, Bryant Park, Manhattan)
6. “I’m going to see my father.” Sara dribbled soy sauce into the noodles. “Oh shit, too much, my bad.” “How do you feel about that?” She shrugged. The important things were always said too late. “This got mad salty, sorry.” “It’s okay, it tastes fine.” Behind them were two black women. There was something theatrical about them, as if they were choosing to caricature themselves. Both were dressed in black, witchy robes. One was in a wheelchair cracking fortune cookies. The other had her books splayed out, doing accounts. They called each other honeybunch and cookie. THE OTHER DAY SHE CAME OVER, AND I WAS STILL IN MY BATHROBE, WOULD YA BELIEVE THAT HONEY? Jia and Sara stayed silent. Sara went quiet a lot and it was worrying. Silence let a lot of ugly things simmer, sink deep beneath the skin. “Have you heard from Ajay?” “No. As far as I’m concerned, he’s cancelled.” OH, THAT’S ALRIGHT COOKIE, YOU JUST GOTTA TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF NOW. The beads in Sara’s braids glinted as she vehemently shook her head, huddled her shoulders tighter round her plate as if to shrink herself to the size of the clams in their lo mein. “Yeah, shit.” Sara loved people so deeply, drawing from large, ugly craters of emotion she dug out from her flesh. It was a warm Sunday. Ajay always thought Sara was too ugly for him. The sun formed shrapnel wounds of light on the window. THAT’S RIGHT, BABYGIRL. “So I’m deleting Tinder now.” “Girl, yes, that shit is trash.”
(Mr Wonton, Park Slope, Brooklyn)
7. “OMG, isn’t it so fun?” She laughed. What sunny whiteness, carefree and sweet, the unshakeable joy of an ice-cream shop. “Yeah, like I felt powerful. I felt this power when I left.” Juan clapped his hands. Cereal milk is pure silk but cereal milk ice-cream is a mistake. “I don’t really like this.” “Yeah, it’s so overrated.” She scraped the spoon slowly. Jia looked at Juan’s lithe body, so free, his uncreased face, uncreased mind. “I don’t know, do you ever have those weird hookups where like, you might be uncomfortable, and say no, but they keep going? I don’t know, like a weird moment like that.” “Oh yeah, that happens a lot.” He licked the tip of the cone. Jia looked at him and nodded slowly. “Oh, okay.” Amir had unmatched her the next morning. His roommate, some phantom, had heard them fuck, and then he had unmatched her, standing in front of that stupid Matisse copy in his living room, playing Fast Car or some electronic desert music. So it was her fault. “Welcome to the hookup life, ba-by,” Juan waved his pink plastic teaspoon in the air. He said it like that, dismembering the word: ba-by. Jia laughed. She laughed and laughed and then she stopped thinking about it, pouring all the melting cereal milk ice-cream into her mouth.
(Milk Bar, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn)
8. Desi Galli made food that actually tasted like the chefs didn’t bow prostrate to white people while in the kitchen. Jia ordered a chicken tikka kathi roll, the closest thing she got round the corner from the house in Delhi. And because her head hurt, and because New York was so fucking large yet small, and so stupidly far, and because she hated keeping her whole life thrumming solely on the engine of electronics and internet and tinny transatlantic wires, she added gulab jamun too. “Student discount, please.” “Here’s your change.” “Thank you.” One of the delivery guys kept staring at her. He had little shiny spikes for hair, which made his head look like the sole of a football boot. His body was pillowy and it struck Jia that he too looked like a gulab jamun. The whole thing was absurd. Underneath her legs, subway trains snaked and vibrated below the earth, like crazed phallic creatures. “One kathi roll!” “Could I have a coke please?” Jia’s mother had called in class, and then at work. She wished she wouldn’t do that. She wished her head wouldn’t hurt. Her MetroCard was empty. Her feet rumbled from the pressure, the hundreds of bodies churning serpentine below. “Baby, going to sleep now!!! kiss kis kisss, good night beti” She wondered if mothers could somehow sense when their children have – The whole thing was absurd.
(Desi Galli, Lower East Side, Manhattan)
9. Jia loved jazz. She loved the mess of it, as if she could hear the limbs of the notes getting screwed off the stave, and leaping away to new places. Every month or so, she would save up some cash to go to Smalls and see the best jazz musicians of the world. She went once with Jason, on a trip for music class. They saw the drummer Ari Hoenig. Jason sat across the room from her, and she remembered wanting him to look at her and not knowing if he was. But soon she forgot her own body and desires. The drum solos made her close her eyes and think of God. She didn’t think much about God but sometimes her mind wandered, when she encountered something that made her marvel at its existence. After class, Jia went to the McDonald’s opposite the shuttle stop and ordered a drink, a McFlurry or coffee. What people didn’t know was that the NYU McDonalds often played incredible jazz. It wasn’t live or anything. But it filled up the head, like cool water in a bowl, and drowned out the din of thought. She would go alone, with her phone or notebook open, and just listen. Outside, Ubers rushed by and students scrambled in and out of class. And inside the fishbowl, Charlie Parker leant down and warbled into your ear, something from the past.
(McDonalds, 724 Broadway, Manhattan)
10. There was always so much. So much to do. New York was all action. Play on. GO GO GO. On Sundays, you could slow down at the laundromat. Wasn’t it meditative? Carrying the laundry bag back and forth, and counting out sweaty metal change from the aging Chinese man behind the counter, and burying your face in dry heated cotton? A beautiful suffering. And afterwards, you could walk to Tom’s. One of those real old-timey American diner places with huge fluffy pancakes and free coffee refills. She took Juan once and he took a great Instagram there. Sara and her would go often and come back home to watch something trashy, reality TV about plastic people. But most often, she would go alone. She would sit and steep in the American-ness of it, the immigrant servers and Top 40 music and calories and grimy ATMs. There would always be too much of pancake and Jia’s skirt would tighten. She’d make use of the coffee and walk home slowly, straight to her bed and lie there, endlessly scrolling through other people’s lives. Eventually, her eyes closed. Now she could be anywhere at all.
(Tom’s, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn)
Image of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown, Manhattan, New York