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Issue 167(a)

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

This issue features


  • photograph by Rudiuk,

  • poetry by Ken Been,

  • poetry by R. Bremner,

  • fiction by Dominique Bretin,

  • fiction by Paul Bouchard,

  • fiction by Pernille AEgidius Dake,

  • poetry by Patrick Erickson, and

  • poetry by Janelle Finamore

Kennin-ji Japanese garden in Kyoto

© by Rudiuk.



Ken Been


Art


Life is static

we are a picture

behind museum glass.


I drive into this landscape

believing the composition

that I am going somewhere.


There is a sign over the bakery

grandmothers work behind the showcase counters

with stacks of white boxes and a spool of string.


I smile at the truth

of a chocolate chip butterhorn

in wax paper.


Sadness is portrayal

one of the grandmothers has that look

she knows art.


August hangs on the wall

conditions are dry

as a favor I water her vegetable garden from here.


Copyright © 2022 by Ken Been.


About the Author Ken Been’s poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Headlight Review, Plainsongs, New Note Poetry Magazine, Poetica Magazine, Speckled Trout Review and Kestrel, among others. Additionally, his poetry has been selected for anthologies including Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Ukraine Voices.




R. Bremner


[My bargain-basement soul]


My bargain-basement soul

screeches louder than a banshee

as it goes through all these cycles

of rehabilitation

again and again and again

with similar, but not the same,

walls closing in, walls which

severely need repainting.

I’ll emerge from this cocoon soon

(just before the walls crush),

all fresh and new

to start my new life

of preparation

for the very next sequester

of an endless series of sequesters.


Copyright © 2022 by R. Bremner.


About the Author R. Bremner has written of incense, peppermints, and the color of time since the 1960s. As a member of the Red Wheelbarrow Poets and the Brownstone Poets, he has featured around much of New Jersey and New York City. His eight books have varied from Absurdism to Beat to Erasure poetry, his latest being Erasing Influences (Moonstone Arts Press, Philadelphia, 2022).



Dominique Bretin


White Car


A distant friend sent a Facebook message asking me how it happened that I was in jail. He inquired how I spend my time and if I have regrets. My response to him was simple. I told him I always wanted to paint, and now, as part of my therapy, it is a luxury that's come to me purely by accident.


It began one night after a party. Usually, my husband Lyndon took the wheel of our Toyota Tacoma. I seldom minded. I'd sit shotgun, watching the other people on San Diego's congested freeways, all going in various directions to various jobs. Like arteries—cells pumping—the highways bursting with energy. God knew you had to work hard to live in a sunny environment. In my work, I created and sold jewelry at county fairs. Each necklace, a copper, hand-fired enameled cross with chain, took an hour to make. I injured my fingers more than once when they came too close to the hot metal. I don't miss that, nor those overcrowded freeways.


That night, we'd been drinking, and Lyndon, busy talking about his latest money-making scheme—none of which ever panned out— deferred the liability of driving to me. We were on our way home, traveling in the left lane of a two-lane exit ramp a few blocks off Genesee Avenue. It was dark, the street lighting dim. We had just passed the intersection with the main road when a man, wearing a brown bomber jacket, staggered out from the shoulder into the middle of the street. At the same time, a white car coming up fast on our left hit him like he was nothing but a paper doll, hurling his body high into the air. I slammed the brakes and swerved to avoid hitting him before he came down with a CRACK, hitting the pavement so hard that it remains a sound I will never forget. The white sedan sped right through the red light like a bullet and never stopped. I only caught a glimmer of red taillights disappearing into the darkness and could not read the license plate or the make and model of the car.


I pulled over to the shoulder and checked my rearview mirror to establish the man's condition. Now a slumped heap of bones hunched on the roadway, his body began to move. He lifted himself on one arm. Under the streetlight, I saw his jacket. Except for the missing Pearl Harbor decal on the sleeve, it was like the one my father had willed to me when he died. It wasn't something I ever wanted. Inside one of the pockets, I'd found a matchbook from a strip joint, Dancing Girls Galore. My father scribbled the name Lilly and a telephone number on it. My mother, never taking him to task, wouldn't have been surprised. Living with a man who could love you and equally mistreat you, she had adapted to a manner of silence. Her life became angry, always complaining about everything and everyone—even me. I understood. I had never confronted my dad either. He'd just put you down, demean you like you had no right being alive. Well, the jacket never fit me, and a month after his death, I dropped it at the Salvation Army. That night, it seemed an odd reminder to see that same worthless coat left to me by such a heartless man. I had to believe the injured man crawling helplessly and motioning for help was different and perhaps more deserving of kindness.


"We should go back," I said, "we can't just leave him like that."


"We haven't done anything. The cops will come." Lyndon said.


"But he looks like he needs help now."


"Well, it can't be us, Kathy."


Maybe Lyndon was right—being protective, helping me see another side. Maybe like my dad, the guy was just a drunk, but still—


"We should call 911," I insisted.


"Well, that would be stupid," he said like I was dumber than a doornail, "we'd be pointing a giant arrow at ourselves. And then, what if they take a breathalyzer? Did ya' ever think of that, Kathy? Now, just drive!"


Yes, it seemed logical to go, but it wasn't right to leave him to die. I rolled down the window and heard a low voice cry, "Oh my God!"


The man held himself up, eying the back of our truck. The voice I heard hadn't come from his direction. I rolled the window back up, wondering what to do.


Lyndon pounded the dash. "Get going! It's not our problem—go! Move the damn car NOW! How will you work if they arrest you?" He had a point. I conceded.


I had the Orange County Fair coming up and enough website orders to keep three people busy. Those Evangelical types flocked to my booth. They admired the cross pendants I designed. It worked like magic whenever I said double-fired. They must have believed those crosses would protect them against all that fire and brimstone. I was fortunate for their business, especially the sweet bun ladies who wore those pretty prairie skirts. What would they think if I went to jail for drunken driving? I didn't care much about Jesus, but I needed their business, especially with Lyndon constantly nagging about how we needed more money. I was upset when he made excuses why he couldn't go and find a job. But without him, I'd have to hire someone else to do the books, packing, and unpacking at the fairs. Of course, I also counted on him to make those important business calls, but still, he had plenty of extra time to find a real job.


Sometimes I wanted my freedom from him so bad I could taste it, but I didn't like to be alone. As my father's daughter, I'd learned to be loyal, despite how cruel he was around my mother and me. I'd convinced myself it was better than having no father at all. I told myself that about Lyndon.


And sometimes, it's a curveball you don't see coming, especially that night on Genesee Avenue. When I moved the truck into gear and pressed the accelerator, leaving that poor man to writhe on that unforgiving pavement, it was the total weight of my wrongdoing.


We hadn't gone far when Lyndon said he needed a Coke from the 7-Eleven to help sober him up. I was thirsty too, but it seemed like a bad idea. We got our drinks, and Lyndon suggested we change drivers. We headed to the on-ramp going north on Interstate 5. Lyndon put on a James Taylor CD, and we cruised, sure that our problems were behind us—until we got home. Happy to arrive safely, Lyndon pulled a little too fast into the driveway. He swiped the front fender on the palm tree next to the walkway. Lyndon got a cloth and some Windex from inside the garage to wipe it down and check the damage. I hoped he might get around to washing the rest of it in the morning but highly doubted it. Then both of us, being tired, went straight to bed.


And so, it is odd sometimes how bad luck knows how to find you. Things rarely go as expected—especially when one has surrendered good judgment for self-interest and bad advice based chiefly on a general disregard for others.


Barely two days later, a knock came at our door. Two San Diego Police officers walked into our dining room and looked me sternly in the eye, each in a dark blue shirt and pants, their guns in tidy black leather holsters. Lyndon was still upstairs in bed watching FOX News, an information source—he thinks—essential to his survival. He said he had worked once as a reporter, but I don't know if that was true. It was hard to imagine Lyndon ever getting up in time to hold a regular job. His only 'talent' was blathering on about politics and topical news items. Sometimes, with that loose bottom lip of his, he would bloviate about this or that—so sure he was right—he'd heard it on FOX. It must be true. Whenever he'd start on a subject, I could never get a word in edgewise. Sometimes I thought he liked lording his superiority and tallness over me. Well, right then, I chose to let him respond to the police. I didn't want to mention something and be blamed for it later. I'd just tell the truth, but he might argue I'd said it the wrong way. No, I'd give him no reason to swagger more bully on me.


The dogs barked out on the patio. I yelled up the stairway. "Lyndon, you need to come down. Someone's here to see us."


He blustered out, still in boxers, his belly poking out from under his too-short t-shirt. His face paled when he saw the two young men in blue standing in our hall. One was even a bit taller than Lyndon. He knew they weren't here to pick up an order. Midway down the stairs, he said, "Is there some kind of problem?"


The two cops, holding notepads, gave each other a look. Finally, one of them said, "If you would like to take a minute to change, we would like to ask you some questions." Then one of the officers went out to take some pictures of our truck in the driveway. Lyndon threw on a pair of sweats and a longer t-shirt. I'd never seen him move so fast.


"Mr. Fowler, do you and your wife own the truck parked outside?"


"Yes, sir, we do." He said.


"Were you driving it in the vicinity of Genesee Avenue on the night of August 4?"


"I can't remember exactly."

"Well, we have matched your truck to one identified in a hit and run accident. We'd like to take you downtown for questioning if you don't mind." The officer said it all nice-like, but we didn't have much choice. They recorded our truck outside the 7-Eleven. I guess they have videos outside as well as inside. And oh, how I wished we hadn't stopped for that Coke, but I tried not to worry because I knew we were innocent. I asked a moment to call a neighbor to look in on the dogs. They told us to lock up and helped us into the back of their cruiser.


When we arrived at the station, the detectives questioned us. They asked who was driving that night.


Lyndon answered matter-of-factly. "My wife."


"Mrs. Fowler, do you know a man named Albert Coin?"


"No, Sir, I don't."


"He is in San Diego General Hospital recovering from serious injuries. He claims it was a blue Toyota truck that struck him."


I began to feel queasy, like when your skin tightens and pumps adrenalin into your nerve endings. The spirit of the man in the bomber jacket had come back to haunt me. I recalled the vision, his arm reaching up for help and my foot hard on that pedal—driving away against good judgment.


With the questions coming hard and fast, Lyndon stood over my chair, pressing his fingers into my shoulder, a cue to let him do the talking.


"We have video of a truck with your license plate leaving a 7-Eleven near the vicinity of the accident. Were you at the intersection of 10th and Colburn?"


"I don't remember," Lyndon replied.


"How 'bout you, Mrs. Fowler?"


"No." I wanted to mention the white car but assumed Lyndon would explain.


"They stared at Lyndon, waiting for him to say something.


"We went through there on our way home but saw nothing out of the ordinary." It puzzled me why Lyndon wasn't mentioning the white car.


"The video has you, Mr. Fowler, behind the wheel as you left the convenience store." The detective continued his battery of questions. Then he picked up some photos off his desk. "How did you get this dent on your fender?"


Lyndon said, "Just a fender-bender."


"Why is the vehicle conveniently wiped clean only in this area of the fender?"


"Oh, that was to see how bad it was damaged."


The detective turned to face me. "Mrs. Fowler, leaving the scene of an accident which involves injury, is a felony under California Vehicle Code 20001-A. We'll need to take you into custody." Lyndon said nothing.


I felt sick, jitters settling into my gut. How did it happen so fast? They took me down some corridors to a holding cell with two other women. One was missing a front tooth, and the other, a short Hispanic woman, showed me tattoos of butterflies on her arms. They set bail at $15,000. I stayed quiet until Lyndon returned with $1,200, our portion of it. I was grateful to be released, but since the police had my truck, we had to ride home on the Coaster. I'd paid my fees for the Orange County Fair, and now it would cost extra to rent another truck to work the show. I told Lyndon to find me a lawyer.


Two weeks later, they arraigned me. I pleaded not guilty since that was the truth. It had been difficult enough to post the bailout of our savings, and Lyndon said it would cost another $10,000 to retain a lawyer. We didn't have that kind of money, so Lyndon suggested we defend ourselves. No surprise, he'd seen it done on FOX. The judge found probable cause to charge me with a crime at the preliminary hearing. Since I was the driver, they assumed my guilt. After my hearing, they set a date for my trial. Lyndon assured me he would come up with a plan.


I was partly shocked but mainly worried about how to get through the day. And there was that small dent on the truck. When Lyndon wiped only the damaged spot, leaving the rest of it with a layer of dirt, it was as though he had pointed a big arrow at the vehicle, saying, Look! She did it! I was innocent, but no one believed me, especially Albert Coin.


I should have run when I met Lyndon eight years earlier. But I was thirty-two and didn't want to be alone and unmarried. My father knew that's how I'd end up. He'd badger me, predicting I'd become an old maid. He mocked my strawberry hair and called me chubby. He was sure I'd never get a man. He made me feel ugly and unwanted. And yet, there were a few times I did feel wanted—like when Bobby Spencer took me to the outdoor movie. We laid down in the backseat of his car for a brief interlude. He nick-named me Peaches for the tiny peach tattoo on my thigh. Sometimes I like to look at it or touch it as a reminder of that long-ago night. When I got older, I started to believe my dad—that I might never find a man to marry. But I guess I proved him wrong. I found Lyndon—a man cursed with unlimited potential. I became his meal ticket and had grown accustomed to our situation.


Time passed slowly during the three-month wait for trial. I felt uninspired, what with the worry and all. I couldn't concentrate on work. My customers, unhappy about their wait time on orders, were tired of hearing me say next week, for sure. I suppose Jesus doesn't promote patience. I half-thought I might turn my luck around by wearing one of my own cross pendants. Maybe I could find the protection, and God would wash this trouble away. But no, I never did much believe in heaven. Right now, hell was a possibility, but not heaven. If I lived with Lyndon, my chance for happiness was slim. I had hoped for a kid or two, but we discovered Lyndon was sterile when I didn't get pregnant. He blamed his lost masculinity on his diabetes, and it caused me to feel sorry for him. Unfortunately, he became a blowhard, just like my dad. I should have left, but I learned to be loyal. There was always one more get-rich-quick idea he'd liked to try. But when it failed, he'd blame me. I'd come home tired, and Lyndon expected me to cook his dinner. I guess the TV and diabetes must have worn him out. I'd get mad when he wouldn't fix the washing machine. It costs money for a repair man. Yes, I could've left him, but I took that oath till death do us part.


While we waited for the trial date, Lyndon did some legal research on the internet and found it a bad idea to represent himself. Then, I discovered we qualified for legal aid. We found a decent but not too sharp public defender who always hurried us to get to his next meeting. We—mostly Lyndon—had decided to stick with the story that we didn't see anything, and that's what we told the lawyers in our pre-trial witness statements. Lyndon conferred that we were innocent, so a little white lie here and there was acceptable. He told me not to mention the other car because it would tip them off that we had witnessed something.


"Stick to the story," he said. "Keep it simple. Say we didn't see anything because we weren't there, and it seems like that Albert guy is in bad shape in the hospital with no way of getting to the courthouse. Without him, they got nothing."


"Why would that matter?" I asked. "We didn't do it. I'd like to tell the truth—that we only stopped to see if he was alright. Just the truth that we didn't hit him."


"That's right, Kathy, we didn't hit him." For once, we agreed. Lyndon had a point. In America, you could count on justice, especially if you were innocent. A jury would see right through it; anyway, it was too late to change course. I partly blamed myself, and that frustration allowed Lyndon to take charge. I wanted this mess to disappear because I had work to do and sitting in jail was the last thing we needed.


On the day of the trial, I made Lyndon get up early and put on decent clothes like khakis and close-toed shoes. In the hallway of the courthouse in downtown San Diego, we waited for our attorney while other lawyers in dark suits holding briefcases paced down the halls sipping lattés from Starbucks. People gathered in the hallway; some dressed in ordinary clothes, a dirty man wearing ragged layers, and a group of teens in hoodies. They waited for the doors to open. Finally, our young attorney showed up, and we went in.


The inside of the courtroom appeared like a church interior with paneled walls and rows of benches separated by a front pew. I saw the ragged man make a beeline to a seat in a far corner. The judge and the jury took their seats in the front section: the judge at the podium in the middle, just like a preacher, and the jury seated to his side like a choir, but there was no singing. I sat beside my attorney at a long table near the front while the prosecution questioned police and other expert witnesses. The ragged man now slumped, had fallen asleep in his seat. We had decided only Lyndon should testify. He would be more convincing, and we didn't want our stories to get crossed. It gave me hope when I saw a female prosecutor. She wore a skirt with a men's dark blazer, her hair cut short in a bob. I expected a woman would have more empathy for me. Eventually, she called Lyndon to the stand for cross-examination.


"Mr. Fowler, were you driving a blue Toyota Tacoma on the night of August 4, 2013, on or around Genesee Avenue?"


"No, Ma'am, my wife was driving. We had just left the house of a friend."


"And you were unaware that your car hit a pedestrian?" Our lawyer objected, but Lyndon continued.


"We didn't see anything. We saw nothing. It was dark when we exited I-5. It must have happened after we had gone by."


Lyndon had put his hand on the Bible. He'd sworn to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And even though we were innocent, I knew he had lied. I hoped the jury couldn't tell. We had seen the man, and I wished he'd said something else. His white lie didn't seem so minor anymore. If you swore to it, you were supposed to tell the truth, especially with your hand on the Bible. And wasn't it an odd thing too—a Bible loaded with religious doctrine held out in a court of law? What did that have to do with anything? Well, it certainly did not influence Lyndon. He watched too much TV, and those people always lied and got away with it.


The lawyer continued. "How do you explain the small dent on the right fender of your truck?"


Now here, Lyndon told the honest-to-God truth. "I hit the palm tree near the left of our driveway when I pulled in that night."


"Mr. Fowler, am I mistaken? You said that your wife was driving that night?"


"We changed drivers after we stopped at the 7-Eleven."


The lawyer looked at the jury for a moment with her head tilted to the right, her eyebrows scrunched together, and then looked back at Lyndon, dramatic-like.


"I see. And this is a driveway you use regularly?" Lyndon said yes. She kept on like a bulldog." And what was the reason that compelled you, Mr. Fowler, to change drivers when you were still quite a distance from home?"


She wanted the jury to think he was lying and that we were upset after hitting the man. Except for admitting that we were drunk, he was telling the truth. But she didn't ask that. I looked at some of the jurors. A heavyset man with a handlebar mustache squirmed in his seat, and the young woman sitting next to him had her hair pulled up tight into a ponytail, loose pieces pointed out in odd angles. She nodded in agreement every time the lady lawyer spoke. It was going badly as they cast doubtful looks toward me. With all her needling questions, we began to look suspicious. I didn't want to go along with Lyndon. I needed to do something, just like when the dryer hose broke—I took the tools and fixed it myself.


When the questioning neared the end, the lady prosecutor motioned our lawyer to join her at the judge's bench. They talked so no one else could hear, which I thought was rude. When they were through, the judge announced that a previously unavailable witness of the accident had agreed to testify. Though it was unusual, the judge allowed her testimony. He added that our lawyer had agreed and that we would be allowed an opportunity for rebuttal. Everyone's head turned towards the back of the courtroom to see who it was, just like I'd seen them do on Perry Mason re-runs.


The afternoon sun streamed through two small transom windows above the jury pews. The security guard had stepped forward of the judge's box and assumed a wide-legged stance of preparedness. When the doors opened, a woman entered, pushing a man in a wheelchair. One of his legs extended out in front of him in a brace. His hands fell limply at his sides, and his head tilted to one side. Bandages falling low on his eyebrows covered his head, and he wore a patch on his right eye. I had never seen the woman, but I recognized the man. He was Albert Coin. The woman pushing his chair was thin, her skin ashen. She wore a pair of patterned leggings with a long olive-green sweatshirt. The top looked new, but not the bottoms. Her teeth were crooked, and her hair could have used a style. She looked a bit down on her luck. I thought maybe she was his sister.


I looked at Albert Coin and felt terrible for leaving him there on the road. He looked banged up. And I blamed Lyndon for making me leave the scene that night—so angry I could have hit him. His insistence on telling those little white lies was devious, but what was worse was having left Albert Coin in the road—it just flew in the face of his pain. It was hard not to show it.


We never stopped to help.


The white car—a distant mirage—was as though it had never existed—and I was guilty. Lyndon's face turned pale. Everyone talked and looked forward to the bench, but the chatter in the room ceased when the judged banged the gavel.


"We will proceed." His voice boomed across the room like the voice of God, if there was one.


The woman parked the wheelchair in the aisle and went to the stand to take her oath. Albert stared straight ahead. The lady prosecutor introduced her to the court as Dorothy Porter. It turns out she was his friend and was with him that night.


"Miss Porter, can you identify the person behind the wheel of the Blue Toyota the night your friend, Albert Coin, was injured?"


She replied. "Yes, Ma'am, that lady was there with the bright red hair." I knew she had not seen the other car when she pointed to me. She was telling the truth—the truth she knew—that it was me in that truck. Her testimony was like a death knell, but I was sure there was still a chance. I needed to stand up and tell them the honest-to-God truth.


I leaned toward Lyndon and said, "I'm not doing this anymore. I need to get up there—now." After a short huddle, our lawyer—stunned about this new testimony and keen to have it over quickly—nodded in agreement. He realized that with Lyndon's testimony, we had lost credibility.


Our lawyer rose and told the court we would respond with our rebuttal. He called me to the witness stand. By this time, I was sweating—knots formed in my stomach. My shoes felt like cement. The judge looked down from his high-backed chair and said, "You may come forward, Mrs. Fowler." I spread my right hand out full on that Bible. It was time they heard nothing but the whole truth.


Our lawyer asked me to tell the court what I saw that night.


"We did see the accident, but we didn't cause it. That man there, Albert Coin, stumbled into the middle of the road, and I had to swerve hard to avoid hitting him. A speeding white car that had come up fast on our right did not see him in time. They hit him and sped right on through the red light. We had been drinking and left the scene because we didn't want a DUI. I felt awful about that." The truth was out, but the lady prosecutor did not want to ask me more questions. She closed her notebook, shook her head, and said, "No questions, your honor."


The jury assumed Dorothy's testimony was all the evidence they needed. And it was her voice, they believed. To the jury, it seemed beyond a reasonable doubt, and I realized it had been Dorothy's voice I'd heard when I'd rolled down the window.


Later that afternoon, when the jury returned with a guilty plea, I was stunned but knew I bore some of the blame. I realized I'd been led astray by a substitute of my manipulative father. But I also knew I'd be alright. I'd always managed to support myself with my skills, and strangely—at that moment—it meant liberty and freedom from Lyndon. I looked across the room and watched him sobbing, so fearful and pathetic—not crying for anyone but himself. His pained look said he would suffer the most. Who would save him from the compromised dignity of having to find a job? I knew it wouldn't be me.


So, my friend wants to know if I have regrets. I say no. I'll be out in a year, maybe less. Albert Coin got better though he now walks with a minor limp. My divorce from Lyndon became final last month. I don't hear much from him, nor do I care. He found a job at the Home Depot. I imagine him whining—but not to me—and wearing one of those big wide belts for back support. I picture him in the lunchroom watching FOX News during his break, lording his political views over his fellow workers—proving he's always right.


Here, it's not so bad. I don't have to work myself ragged, especially not for Lyndon. I don't have to cook or burn my fingers. I paint wild horses with glorious manes, their smooth coats reflecting the colors of the evening sun. The ladies here—some in for killing men—find a sense of peace in my paintings. They tell me they see the power in the fleet-footed horses running free under an open sky in fields of gold.


I tell them I see that too.


Copyright © 2022 by Dominique Bretin.


About the Author

Dominique Bretin was raised in Bordeaux and came to live in the U.S. when she was thirteen. Her favorite hobbies are hiking, cooking, and reading. Current authors she enjoys are Carol Shields, Joanne Harris, Wally Lamb, and T.C. Boyle. She worked as a fashion and costume designer in New Orleans, and San Francisco, and now resides in Seattle with her family. Always with the desire to write, she has studied at Stanford and graduated from the University of Washington with two Literary Fiction certificates. Recently, a COVID-inspired flash fiction, Green Lake Man was published by Bright Flash Fiction. She is now working on publishing her first novel, The Fortunate Daughter, about a young French woman who seeks to expose the truth about a family’s code of silence involving her mother’s past during and post WWII. She is a member of Salonistas, Seattle Writers, and Puerto Vallarta Writers Group. Post COVID, she looks forward to the opportunity to mingle again with other novelists at writer’s conferences such as the Writers Conference of San Miguel de Allende. Find her online at dominiquebretin.com, or on Twitter @dominique_bretin.



Paul Bouchard


Priya’s Choice

“Well, gang, that wraps up our final semester and our course,” Professor Martin said. “To quote from our last reader, Priya, I too thank you all for the great papers and the great year. Hope you all enjoyed it and help yourselves to the food. There’s plenty of pizza and breadsticks left. Bring some home if you wish. I was happy to pay for all this, gang, and if you were pleased with the food and with the service, please tip the waitresses accordingly. Thank you, all. Oh, and, Priya, can I see you for a moment please?”


The students started gathering their things, and Priya said, “Yes, sir,” and walked up to Professor Martin.


“After one year, and you’re still calling me sir, Priya,” he said, smiling. “Anyway, that was a great paper, very heartfelt.”


“Thank you, sir. Uh, I mean Mark.”


“Can you hand me your paper please, Priya?”


“Sure,” she said, and she handed him her paper.


Professor Martin took the paper with his left hand, and he pulled out a pen from his shirt pocket with his right hand. He set the paper on the table, turned to the second page, and crossed out the A grade in the top right-hand corner and wrote A-plus. He handed the paper back to Priya.


“Great job, Priya, and best of luck with that novel of yours. I hope you find a publisher, and I wish you much success.”


“Thank you, Mark,” she said.


Professor Martin turned and thanked the Lorenzo waitstaff that was busily cleaning up. Priya turned to her left and saw that Brian was picking up his bookbag. He turned and looked at her and said, “That was an excellent paper, Priya. And a great reading.”


She started walking toward him. “Thanks,” she said nervously. She was standing right next to him, holding her paper in her left hand, her right hand nestled in her right front pocket of her jeans. She had her right index and middle finger secretly crossed as she said, “Brian, can I see you this evening at your convenience? How about the Starbucks next to my apartment?”


Brian looked at his watch. “Sure. It’s almost six o’clock. How about now? Can I see you, say, in fifteen minutes? What’s up?”


“I’ll see you in fifteen minutes, and we’ll discuss it then.”


**


Priya was sitting in a far corner table at the Starbucks when Brian entered. He saw her and walked toward her, noticing she hadn’t ordered anything. Not one to frequent an establishment without buying anything from it, he said, “Can I get you anything, Priya? A hot tea? I want to get myself a bottle of water.”


Priya, nervous, quietly said, “Okay. I’ll have an Earl Grey hot tea. Short please. Low-fat milk and sugar.”


“Coming right up.”


The Starbucks wasn’t too busy, just two other patrons sitting near the counter, far from Priya. Brian placed his order, paid for it, and then went to the station with the milk and the napkins and the wooden coffee stirrers. He placed a bit of the low-fat milk in Priya’s tea and then met her at her table.


“So, what’s up, Priya? Again, great job today with the paper. And hey, that’s awesome that you’re staying here longer.” He opened his bottle of water and took a sip.


“Yes, thank you, Brian.” She opened up the sugar packet and stirred it into her tea.


Brian said, “So what do you want to discuss?”


Priya took a deep breath. “Well, Brian, today when I read my paper, I was not 100 percent truthful.”


“Oh really?”


“Well, you see, the NMSU Business Department has made it very clear to me that there are no guarantees that my extension will go through. They did assure me they will do everything they can to offer me a small administrative job and support my efforts to extend my student visa or somehow stay in this country legally, but they made it very clear there are no guarantees. They also told me the process for these papers takes time, that dealing with the federal government is not easy. Doing it in a month is a tight schedule.”


“I see.”


Priya, her right hand in her right pocket, crossed her fingers. Nervous, she thought of Walter White in the Breaking Bad series. Fearless. Take chances. Go for it. She took a deep breath and then said, “I want to be your wife,


Brian. Will you marry me?”


Brian, stunned, said, “Excuse me?”


Inexplicably suddenly confident, Priya replied, “You heard me. I want to be your wife. Will you marry me?”


Shocked, Brian straightened his back and inadvertently let go of his water bottle, which caused water to gush out on the table. Somehow, he recovered quickly and placed the bottle upright.


“Sorry. I’ll get some napkins.”


He started to stand up, but Priya said, “Don’t worry about the water. Answer me, Brian. Will you marry me?” She took another deep breath. “And please do not think that I am interested in you just because of your nationality. I could have easily applied for a PhD program here and extended my foreign student visa that way, but that is not the life I choose to live. I have been thinking a lot this year, and I’ve made choices. I have chosen to stay here and to become the person I want to be. It is enough that my parents and my sisters have assisted me financially to pursue my master’s degree here. I did a bit of editing work during the year, but that was not enough to live on. I do not wish to be an academic. I wish to be your wife and a novelist.” She was relieved. “And I will help you and also Chuck to be very successful in real estate. In your house-flipping business. I have good taste for decorating.” She nodded her head up and down.


Brian smiled. “You’re not bluffing, are you?”


“What is bluffing?”


“In poker, it’s playing a weak hand in a strong way. Being deceitful. Faking.”


“No, I am not bluffing.”


“So, you’re serious.”


“Yes. Very much so. I would not be asking you to marry me if I did not want you to marry me. You have been very nice to me during this past year. And I remember the first day I met you, in our Independent Study class, that you at first wanted to write about Afghanistan, but then you changed your subject to India, to Gandhi, all because you were interested in me. I can make logical deductions and reasonable inferences.” She removed her hand from her pocket, and she took a sip of tea. She smiled confidently. “Am I not correct, Mr. Robinson? You wrote about Gandhi because you wanted to impress me. This I tell you—our interests are aligned. Now I want to be your wife.”


All off guard, Brian said, “Can I get some napkins to clean up the spilled water?”


“Yes, you may, of course.” She was smiling.


Brian stood up, walked to the condiment station, and got a handful of napkins. He returned to the table and started wiping it up. “Priya, you’re a very nice girl, but we don’t know each other. We haven’t even dated and—”


“That is not so important, Brian. You have known me for a year, and I want to be your wife.”


Finished with the wiping, Brian sat down. “Well, I have to think this through, Priya. I need some time, you know. It’s a big decision and—”


“How much time do you need to make your choices?”


Brian thought for a moment. “I don’t know, maybe a month or so if—”


“That is too much time. I’m sorry. I am not one to press things, but there is the visa issue here.”


“Well, how about a week. That way I can—”


“That is still too much time, Brian. Again, I am truly sorry. How about a day? Twenty-four hours. Can you tell me your choice by tomorrow?”


“Well, I don’t know. Maybe if—”


She cut him off. “Brian, do you like me?”


“Yes,” he said.


“Well, what is the problem then? If you like me, then I should be your wife.”


“It’s not that easy, Priya. I mean, marriage is a big decision.”


“Yes, well, we have a timeline here. Twenty-four hours.”


Brian, uncomfortable, simply said, “Okay.”


Priya stood up, as did Brian. She walked up to him and gently hugged him.


“Good luck with your choices,” she said. “This I tell you: I would be a good and faithful wife to you.”


Brian entered his apartment and went straight to the refrigerator. He popped open a Corona and joined Chuck in the small living room. A baseball game was on, Dodgers versus Diamondbacks. He placed his bookbag on the sofa to his left.


“How goes it, dude?” Chuck asked. He was also working on a Corona. “How was the reading? Hey, by the way, I always meant to ask you. Is it true that Gandhi used to drink his own piss and sleep next to naked young girls?”


“Dude, you’ll never believe what just happened to me.”


“Reading didn’t go so well?”


“Nah, nothing like that. By the way, the answer is yes. Gandhi did on occasion drink his own urine, and he slept naked next to young women.”


“Man, that’s gross. I mean the urine part. The sleeping naked thing, that’s damn good discipline. Anyway, so what’s going on?”


“It’s Priya,” Brian said. “She—”


“How’s the Asian sensation anyway?”


“Well. the Asian sensation is doing quite well actually. Reserved and always polite and a bit shy, she just asked me to marry her.”


“No fucking way!” Chuck said. He popped up from the sofa.


“Way.”


“You gotta be kidding. Priya asked you to tie the knot?”


“Yep.”


“Wow, dude. Massive.” Chuck looked directly at his roommate. “Well, what did you tell her?”


“I told her I needed some time to chew on it, to digest it, to think it over.”


“Fair enough.”


“Yeah and get this: she gave me twenty-four hours to decide.”


“Twenty-four hours? A day? Man, she doesn’t waste time, does she.”


“Nope. Just twenty-four hours. Just a day to probably make the most important decision in my life.”


Chuck laughed. “This is crazy, dude.”


“You don’t say.”


The roommates drank and talked for nearly an hour about Brian’s big impending decision. At one point, the conversation turned to Chuck asking, “What brought this about? Does she just want to hook up with an American to further her stay here? You know, sort of like the mail-order bride thing. Chick just wants to live in the good old US of A.”


“Na. Nothing like that. At least I don’t think so. She insists it’s not that,” Brian said.


“And you know, dude, when I think about it, I never saw you two huggy-huggy, kissy-kissy. Know what I mean? You guys never dated, right? Just the platonic friend thing.”


“Correct. We never dated.”


“Didn’t get a chance to check out the plumbing, hey?”


“Right.” Brian took a sip of beer. He was staring at the television.


“Dude, that’s like buying a house to flip without doing your due diligence.”


“Agreed.”


“Have you told your folks? I was just thinking—”


“Nope. I haven’t informed them at all. Only you know about this.”


Brian retreated to his room at 9:30 p.m. with two freshly opened Coronas. Wearing boxers and an NMSU T-shirt, he clicked open the television, placed it on mute (it was on Fox Sports 1 with UFC highlights), lay down on his bed, and reached to the small bedside table, ensuring his cell phone was charging. He stared at the television screen, his mind racing.


Maybe the most important decision in my life, and I now have less than twenty-four hours to make it. Should I marry her? Can such a marriage work? Can I ask Priya for more time? She’ll understand. No, she won’t. She was adamant. Should I get some guidance from someone? Maybe Chuck some more? No, we already discussed things. My parents? I don’t know. This is crazy. She’s Indian. I thought they had arranged marriages. I forgot to ask Priya about this. Will her parents approve of me? Did she consult with her parents?


Suddenly his iPhone buzzed. He reached over and grabbed it. It was a text from Priya.


“Gandhi, this I tell you: I will do everything within my power to be a good wife for you. I am a good cook. I don’t eat beef or pork, but I can cook it—I’m sure I can. I can learn to make pizzas like Rani. I will clean our home. You don’t have to do the cleaning. I will be a good mother to our children. On religion, we can both practice our traditions. I enjoy our bike rides a lot. As a married couple, we can go on bike rides together. I will support you with your house-flipping business. I am good with numbers, and I have good decorating taste. Here are a few links to some Las Cruces properties that I think have good potential.” She ended with “What time tomorrow will you notify me whether I will be your wife?”


Overwhelmed, Brian mustered the following text: “I will let you know tomorrow at noon at the Starbucks next to your apartment. Best. Brian.”


Fifteen seconds later, his iPhone buzzed again. Another text from Priya: “How about we make it 2:00 p.m.? I don’t want too many people at Starbucks for this most important and auspicious moment. The crowd dies down after 1:00 p.m. Best. Hopefully, your future wife, Priya.”


Brian fell asleep after one o’clock. He dreamed of Priya, his parents, her parents, playing poker in Vegas, and riding the two-seater bicycle with Priya. For some reason, San Diego kept popping up in his dreams.


He woke up at nine the next morning. He made himself a cup of coffee in the kitchen and noticed Chuck had left a Post-it Note on the refrigerator: “Good luck today, dude. I’ve got a Junk King run this morning, then I’m checking out the property on S. Locust Street. Later, C.”


Brian went for a six-mile jog. He then showered and ate two bagels with cream cheese. After eating, he decided to go for a walk on the NMSU campus. He drove to the campus, parked his car, and then started walking with no particular destination in mind. At one point, he stopped at the Barnes & Noble bookstore on campus and read the New York Times. He then ate two tacos at the food court, walked back to his car, and headed to the Starbucks.


He arrived at the Starbucks early, at 1:45 p.m., and as soon as he entered the coffee shop, he saw Priya, sitting at a corner table, next to a large window. She was wearing a blouse, rose in color, and dark blue jeans. A paper cup filled with hot tea was to her left, an untouched newspaper in front of her. She was looking down and hadn’t noticed him yet.


He stood in line—three patrons were ahead of him—and when it was his turn to order, he selected a bottle of water, paid for it, and headed to Priya’s table.


Priya had noticed Brian waiting in line. She placed her newspaper next to her tea, and now she placed her right hand in her right front jean pocket, crossing her fingers. She was nervous and hadn’t slept well the night before. Were my texts as to how I would be a good wife appropriate? This morning, she had a bout with diarrhea, a further sign of just how nervous she was. She, Rani, and Deepika spent most of the morning next to the makeshift puja, praying to the gods for wishes on this most important of days.


As Brian approached her table, Priya managed a smile, and Brian said, “Hello, Priya,” in a calm voice.


“Hello, Brian.”


He took a seat opposite hers. He twisted the cap off his water bottle and took a sip. Then he placed his water bottle next to her teacup.


“Well, I thought this over, your proposal of marriage, and—”


“Before you begin, Brian,” Priya said in a hurried, nervous tone without directly looking at him, “I want to reiterate my desires and abilities at being a good wife for you. I want to emphasize that should you answer yes to my request to be your wife, then I promise you—this I tell you—that you will not be disappointed in, as you Americans say, what I bring to the table. I am a good financial manager, which will not only be good for our family budget but also translates well for your house-flipping business. And I am—”


“Yes,” Brian said, smiling.


Priya, looking slightly to the left and down at the table, continued with, “I am a hard worker. I can help you with your business affairs. As outlined in my text to you yesterday evening, I have excellent decorating tastes, so you will not have to hire a decorator. And I—”


“Yes,” Brian said, louder this time.


Priya looked at him briefly and continued, “I am a good cook and can properly prepare dishes of your choosing, including meat recipes, even if I do not partake in such meat dishes. Additionally, along with—”


“Yes,” Brian said, even louder this time.


But Priya, not looking at him, kept going with her sales pitch. “These skills that I have translate well to not only our family life but to work career goals as well. I believe I can get a part-time job at New Mexico State University, whether an administrative job or perhaps in the creative writing program. Also, if I cannot find a traditional publisher for my novel, Money Matters, then for a reasonable fee, I will self-publish it, and it will earn royalties, which will contribute to our finances so that—”


“Yes!” Brian exclaimed, his loud proclamation causing a Starbucks employee who was tidying up the condiment table to stop dead in her tracks. Priya, with eyes wide open, looked at Brian, and Brian, seeing that he had her attention, calmly said, “I will marry you. I want you to be my wife.”


She stared at him for what seemed an eternity but was in reality five seconds. A combination of relief and energy overtook her, and she sprung up off her chair and yelled, “Yes!” causing the Starbucks employee to drop a few wooden coffee stirrers. She started clapping her hands rapidly, and she said, “He said yes. He said yes!”


With a beaming smile, she suddenly stopped clapping, and it was then she realized that in her excitement of standing up and clapping and yelling “Yes,” she inadvertently had pushed against the table a bit, causing her teacup to spill.


Brian calmly said, “Let me get some napkins.”


“I will get napkins with you, dear husband,” Priya said, still smiling.


Brian replied, “Okay, okay, future Mrs. Robinson.”


She smiled even wider, and she walked up to him. “I like the sound of that, Mrs. Robinson.”


When they reached the milk, coffee stirrers, and napkin station, Brian said, “I only have one request.”


“Yes, what is it, dear husband? I mean dear future husband.” Her smile still beamed as she and Brian were gathering napkins.


“Can you make some pizzas for us tonight?”


“Yes, yes, but of course. Anything. Come to my apartment for dinner this evening. Say six thirty. My sisters will be excited to see you, their future brother-in-law. We’ll have homemade pizzas. Chuck can come too, and Lisa as well if she’s available.”


Brian’s drive back to his apartment took ten minutes, and during the drive, his mind was racing. I just made the biggest decision in my life. This marriage will work. I will make it work. I am attracted to her, and she will be a good wife. I haven’t told anybody about this. I haven’t even bought a ring yet. Not exactly your traditional marriage proposal. I want her to choose her ring anyway. What will Mom and Dad think? What will they say? I think Mom will be cool with it all. I’m guessing Dad always wanted me to marry a Catholic girl. I’ll call Mom and Dad tonight with the news; I have forty-two thousand dollars in the bank. Thank God for that poker score. We haven’t discussed the wedding day. And will Priya be allowed to marry in the Catholic Church?


So many questions … so many unknowns. But he was happy.


**


Brian and the Kumar sisters (Chuck and Lisa had other plans) had a lovely dinner of pizza topped off with a dessert of mango ice cream and peanut butter cups. The upcoming wedding dominated the conversation, with a date not yet selected. “But it must be before September 30 because that’s when my foreign student visa expires,” Priya stressed.


After dessert, Rani, sipping a hot tea, asked, “Well, Brian, who have you informed about this most auspicious of occasions?”


“Just Chuck, about two hours ago,” he said. “I plan on informing my folks this evening.”


“I see,” Rani said. Then she followed with, “We are planning to call our parents and our oldest sister this evening as well.”


“Cool,” Brian said.


“Maybe you call your parents now, Brian,” Rani said.


Brian, who figured now was as good a time as any to inform his folks about his marital decision, said, “Okay, sure,” and he whipped out his iPhone. He looked at Priya, and she was all smiles, relaxed, enjoying her hot tea.


After three rings, Brian’s mother picked up, knowing it was her son, given the telephone number on the screen.


“Hello, dear. How are you?” Her tone was enthusiastic.


“Fine, Mom. Everything’s fine. How’s Dad? And how are Curly and Fritz?”


“Oh, everyone’s fine, dear. Your father had a busy day with the property management issues. He oversaw a crew installing a new roof on one of our apartment buildings today. Big job that took nearly a week. The new roof should last a long time. And Curly and Fritz are fine. They had their scheduled shots this morning. Everyone sends their hellos.”


“That’s great,” Brian said. He cleared his throat and looked at Priya briefly. “Mom, there’s something I want to share with you.”


“Oh, okay. What is it, dear?”


“Me and Priya have decided to get married.”


Silence on the other end for a full five seconds.


“Dear, did I hear you correctly? Did you say you’re getting married?”


“Yes, Mom. You heard me right. Priya and I are getting married.” He looked at Priya, who was looking at him with a beaming smile. She was clapping her hands silently, not producing noise.


“Well, this is … how lovely. This is so exciting. Let me tell your father.” She yelled, “John, Brian’s getting married to one of the Indian girls.”


She got back on the telephone. “Now, which one is Priya? Those sisters are all pretty. And so well mannered. They all look alike. Which one is Priya, dear?”


Brian answered, “She’s the one who sat next to me during last year’s Thanksgiving dinner. The writer.”


“I’m not sure if I remember, dear, but this is so exciting. Even Curly and Fritz are all excited. Aren’t you, Curly, and Fritz? Yes, you are, yes you are. So, when will the wedding be, dear?”


Brian, caught off guard, said, “We don’t know yet, but I’ll let you know as soon as we figure a date.”


“Well, this is so exciting. Here’s your father.”


Brian cleared his throat again. “Hello, Dad?”


“I’m listening.” It was a firm voice.


“Dad, I’ve decided to marry Priya.”


“I see,” he said, firm but calm. “Have you thought this through, son? You know marriage is the most important decision you make in your life. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for your mother, who stuck with me through thick and thin. When we were starting out in business, we decided to forfeit having an apartment, and we lived in one of our trucks. We would shower and use the bathrooms of the nearby truck stops. Did I ever tell you that, son?”


“Yes, Dad. I know the story, and yes, I thought this through. And she’s the woman for me. And she’ll help me and Chuck with our house-flipping business.”


“Okay,” said the elder Robinson. Then he got right to the point. “Now, you guys are going to have a Catholic wedding, right? And you will have kids, and you will raise those grandkids of ours Catholic, right?”


“We’ve thought this over, Dad.” Then he winged it. “Everything will work out. You and Mom will be happy with everything.”


“Very well,” Mr. Robinson said. “So, when will the wedding take place?”


“We’re not sure yet, Dad, but again, you and Mom will be pleased.”


“Here in Albuquerque, right? At the Church of the Risen Savior. With Father O’Leary officiating.”


Dad, you, and Mom will be happy,” Brian reiterated. “It will all work out.”


“Son, have you thought of all these things? These important issues?”


“Yes, Dad. As we set the date, we will inform you and Mom of everything. It will be a nice wedding in Albuquerque.”


“Very well. Okay then. Now, which of the Indian sisters are you marrying? You know you could have come to our home and introduced her to us.”


“Well, we had to Thanksgiving dinner, and Priya was there with her sisters and—”


“Which one is Priya? The sisters all looked alike.”


“The one who sat next to me during Thanksgiving dinner.”


“I think two of the sisters sat next to you, Brian.”


“Well, I’ll send photos later tonight to Mom’s iPhone.”


“Well, okay. That’s a good idea. And get with Father O’Leary with your plans.”


“Yes, Dad. I will.” The call ended.


“That sounded good,” Rani said. “Congrats, Brian. Now we must call home to India with this most wonderful news.”


“Cool,” Brian said, relieved his phone call to his parents had gone as well as could be expected. He made a mental note to contact the Church of the Risen Savior Parish to discuss preparations with Father O’Leary.


“Oh, Brian,” Rani said. “You like beer, correct?”


“Yes,” Brian responded. “Of course. Goes well with pizza, by the way.”


“Sorry we don’t have beer,” Priya said. “Next time, I will have been here for my future husband.”


Brian smiled at her and said, “Cool.”


“Oh, Brian, why don’t you go get some beer?” Rani politely suggested. “We’ll call Chennai, India, and when you come back, you can talk to our parents.”


“Oh, that’s okay,” Brian said. “I like beer, but there’s no need for a beer run.”


Rani shifted gears. “Dear future brother-in-law, Brian. Please go get some beer so my sisters and I can have some privacy while we discuss issues with our parents.”


“Oh, okay. Got it. Privacy first. But before I do my beer run, I have one request. Let me take a photo of you all and then a photo of me with my future bride. My parents want to know which of the Kumar sisters I’m marrying.”


Brian took the photos, including a selfie with Priya, and then headed out of the apartment.


“How long should my beer run last?” he asked as he opened the apartment door.


“Give us thirty minutes,” Rani said. “Be here in thirty minutes. Our parents will want to speak to you.”


Seconds later, Deepika made the call to Chennai, where it was already the next day, given the eleven-and-a-half-hour time difference. Her mother answered, and they spoke briefly in their native tongue, Telugu, mixed in with English. Then Deepika handed the phone to Rani, who spoke briefly with her older sister, Janni, then with her parents for fifteen minutes. All the while, Priya was nearby listening in, making out the discussions, which at times were heated. Inevitably, she would have to face the music. She had made her choices, and she was determined to be steadfast in defending them. She thought, Walter White time. I’m doing it. Rani handed her the phone.


“Father?”


“I’m listening,” Mr. Kumar said firmly. “I’m not sure if I should be listening, but the gods know I am listening.”


“Father, I have decided to extend my stay here in the United States and—”


“Yes, your sister Rani has already informed me of this new development. This extension, on the surface, does not concern me. It would be great if you were telling your mother and I and older sister that you have decided to pursue further advanced studies, like the good examples of your sisters Rani and Deepika and pursue a doctorate degree. Instead, I hear you have somehow found it in yourself to marry an American, and I might add, without first informing your dear parents of these so-called plans.”


Priya remained silent, knowing it was best not to interrupt. After a slight

pause, Mr. Kumar continued. “Young lady, do you know what sacrifices your mother and I have made to support you and your sisters? Do you know why exactly it is that I no longer live and work in the United Arab Emirates and have focused the need to return to Chennai? It is because of the small apartment complex of ours here that we have saved for so long to purchase and that we also live in. It is only slightly profitable. It is what has helped put you and Rani and Deepika in graduate studies in America. Your dear sister here, Janni, may the gods protect her, works very hard in helping us with the maintenance and management of this small housing complex of ours. Your mother and I are currently looking for a good suitor to marry dear Janni, and now I hear that you have decided to get married, without our say and approval, without you having a job, and of all things, marrying a foreign man. You should follow the example of your oldest sister, Janni, and keep with our traditions.”


“Father, I—”


“Silence. I am your father, who has sacrificed so much for you, and I am

speaking. Your mother and I could have found a nice Indian man for you to marry, even in America. There are plenty of Hindus in America, foreign students such as you. Maybe a medical student at Harvard, or an engineer from that great American school, MIT, or Caltech of Stanford. Even a good Indian man graduating from where you and your sisters are pursuing your advanced degrees, at New Mexico State University. But an American? And who in the name of the gods made you think briefly that it was your decision as to who you would marry? How can I explain this? How is it that the first child of mine who marries—who happens to be the youngest child—decides to marry a foreigner? Can you explain this, young lady?”


“Dear father. I appreciate everything you and mother have done for me and our family. I truly do. But I have made my choice, and my future husband will be Brian Robinson. And—”


“And why is it that you think it is somehow your decision to choose who to marry? Do you not know your own culture, your own traditions? It is the parents—of both the bride and the groom—who choose the pairing. It is not a matter of your choosing. I have information that the family next door has a son studying for a PhD in computer science from Cornell University in the United States, in New York. Your mother and I have discussed this, and we think this could possibly be a good match. It is very easy for me to speak to this family and—”


“Father, I have made my choice. I have learned a lot in the last year, not only about America but about myself, and I have chosen to marry Brian Robinson.”


Mr. Kumar said, “How strange it is you say you have learned about yourself. Do you not understand you have duties and obligations, duties, and obligations to your family?”


“I have made my choice, dear father. I have learned a lot about freedom and free will, and I have chosen to marry Brian Robinson.”


There was an awkward silence. “If your mother and I had known you would have ended up poisoned by these ideas of freedom and so-called free will, we would not have supported your studies in the United States.”


“Father, I respect you and Mother of course, and our family, but I have made my choice and—”


“Doesn’t duty and obligation trump this idea of free will, young lady? Think about the ramifications.”


“I have given this a lot of thought, Father, and have chosen to stay here in America and marry Brian. Perhaps down the road I will pursue an advanced degree like Rani and Deepika, and Brian and I will be sure to visit you and Mother and Janni as much as possible. It is not that I am rejecting tradition. It is simply that I have made a choice.”


Mr. Kumar, shaking his head, said, “In life, there are decisions that are irreversible. Marriage is one such decision. Once you make this decision, you must live with the consequences. You know the Americans have such a high divorce rate, don’t you? Their movies are full of it. They don’t seem to understand the concepts of duties and obligations.”


After silence, Mr. Kumar said, “Let me speak to this Brian. Is he available on the phone?”


“Not just yet, Father, but he will be shortly.” Priya and her father carried on a discussion about tradition and family, a conversation the elder Kumar dominated. Finally, Brian rang the doorbell, and Deepika got the door, reminding him to take off his shoes and briefing him about the current phone call to Chennai.


Priya handed the phone to Rani, and the conversation changed into the Telugu/English mix. Priya, with a determined demeanor, walked up to Brian and said, “Brian, my parents will now speak to you. Mostly my father, but my mother will say her greetings. Just answer my father’s questions, okay?”

“Okay,” Brian said as Deepika took the Corona six-pack of beer from him and headed to the kitchen. “And if you’re stuck, just repeat the question so I can hear it,” Priya said. “That way, I can be of assistance to you. I’ll help you answer the questions.”


“Okay,” Brian said.


Rani, holding the phone, looked over at Brian and asked, “Ready?” Brian nodded, and she handed the receiver to him. “Say hi to my father, Brian.”


Brian held the receiver and said, “Hello, Mr. Kumar. I am Brian Robinson, and I—”


“Hello, Mr. Brian” Mr. Kumar said loudly, cutting him off. “My wife will now state her greetings.”


Brian heard the exchange of the phone on the other end, but he didn’t hear any words. He decided to start the conversation, thinking that Mrs. Kumar was on the other end.


“Hello, Mrs. Kumar.”


“Hello, Brian,” he heard.


“Oh, great to hear your voice, Mrs. Kumar. How are you?”


“Hello, Brian.”


“Yes, hello, Mrs. Kumar. Hello from Las Cruces, New Mexico. I am with three of your daughters. How are you?”


“Hello, Brian,” she said, and then there was the exchange of the phone to Mr. Kumar.


“Hello, Mr. Brian,” Mr. Kumar said. “My wife does not speak a lot of English. She knows how to say hello.”


“Oh, I see, sir,” Brian said.


Mr. Kumar got right to the point. “Mr. Brian, when were you born?”


Brian thought this was an odd question, but he went ahead with his answer. “Sir, I was born on April 9 in 1994.”


“I see,” said Mr. Kumar. “And what time of the day were you born, Mr. Brian?”


“Sir, I was born at ten in the morning.” Brian’s mother had told him his time of birth on a few occasions, so he knew the answer.


“I see,” said Mr. Kumar, writing the information down on a small notepad. “And what is it that you do for a job, Mr. Brian?”


“Oh, well sir, for a job, I’m actually in the process of—”


“Stop,” Priya said softly. She was standing four feet from him, waving her arms in a crisscross pattern to reiterate pausing the conversation for now. She whispered quickly, “Tell him you’re a real estate developer. Father does not know what house flipping is.”


“Sir, I am a real estate developer,” Brian said into the receiver.


“I see,” said Mr. Kumar. “Very good. You are a property developer. And, Mr. Brian, how much money do you make on an annual basis?”


Brian, caught off guard, repeated, “How much money do I make?”


“Yes,” said Mr. Kumar.


Priya chimed in with a whisper, “Tell him you make a hundred thousand dollars per year.”


“But Chuck and I haven’t completed our first flip yet,” Brian said quietly. “The typical flip profit is between 10 and 20 percent. It’ll take us a while before we—”


“Just tell him you make a hundred thousand dollars per year, Brian.”


“Uh, Mr. Kumar. I make a hundred thousand dollars a year.”


“Very good,” Mr. Kumar said. “This is very good.”


Copyright © 2022 by Paul Bouchard. This chapter is from his novel Priya’s Choice, for which he is looking for a publisher.



About the Author

Paul Bouchard is a JAG officer who began his military career as an army reporter, He has written numerous books of fiction, including A Package at Gitmo, True Believer, and The Boy Who Wanted to be a Man. He has also written three nonfiction books: Lessons Learned, A Catholic Marries a Hindu, and Having It Good Downrange. He and his wife live in northern Virginia.




Pernille AEgidius Dake


Lost


Carefully, Norio covers his white-dotted lavender tie—spiffy for Kyoto—with the beige napkin the waiter handed him. Sandy smiles wider than what’s likely suitable and wonders about her spill protection but won’t ask. The drippy rice porridge that tastes like fresh air smells, which her landlady serves every morning, Sandy sloppily ingests by herself in her room; the school’s bentos contain mainly chopstick-manageable bits; the ample-portioned, fresh-boiled buckwheat noodle dinners at the eatery across from her boardinghouse on Shichihonmatsu Dori she slurps, same as every other patron, but no matter where she eats, though, she always has plenty of paper napkins within reach.


“This is a wonderful place.” Sandy strokes the moist terry cloth—presumably, the only wipe she’ll get—folded to precisely fit a rectangular turquoise plate.


Norio smiles back at her. His philtrum remains defined; she would likely detect it when they kissed. Even imagining it seems risqué in this formal restaurant that brims with conventions as if they are what chill the air, not the AC. She half-expects to receive an additional menu with sanctioned topics of conversation because questions, even about napkins, but more to the point, what to think of her bizarre encounter with the man at Kenijijen-do Temple last Sunday feels inappropriate. Googling “Dressing like a dead dictator” had led her only to inane links.


“Shabu-shabu,” the waiter announces as he serves paper-thin raw meats and a big pot of bubbling broth.


The liquid smells like a warm, fresh ocean. But if left in too long, the morsels of beef fall apart and taste like past-date Kikkoman.


“Quick expert,” says Norio, his Asian double eyelids raised as he observes her fish around for over-cooked pieces.


Never before has his attention been this focused. In the teacher’s lounge, where everyone sat crammed, concentrating on their lunch boxes or papers, he’d translate a colleague’s address to her in spurts: “Weat-her will stay so-so,” or, “Osaka had fire,” or, “Takashimaya has pot-tery show.” Although, what she heard were elaborate Japanese versions of “Knock, knock, who’s there?” She said, “That’s nice,” or, “I see,” and nodded to those for whom he interpreted. Norio would shrug shyly, and she felt singled out by him. But after four weeks in Kyoto, she still had difficulties telling most of the other teachers apart from the students in her three Basic English Business Communication classes. All seventy-nine blank-faced grownups she taught would repeat textbook phrases like “Your order will arrive as per contract” with such restrain that she imagined their parched English utterances dry up and, like wall paint applied to glass, peel off. “I feel your pain,” she once blurted, and the class repeated it.


It seems rude to disrupt the shabu-shabu, but Sandy excuses herself to go to the restroom. She follows the hostess, whose layered kimonos sweep the floor in exact swooshes. The lady curtsies in front of a narrow eggshell-white door backlit as though made of rice paper, and Sandy bows a stiff goodbye in return. The woman remains.


When she first saw her boardinghouse rooms and the landlady introduced the hole in the bathroom floor, informing, “All busi-ness go there,” Sandy had freaked out. But she got used to squatting. Now prefers it. Until last Sunday, she thought all Japanese relieved themselves into cavities in the ground. Now, here’s another complicated-looking control panel equipped Western bowl like what she’d battled last Sunday. Sandy considers holding it. She can, for a very long time. But she wants to be able to relax with Norio, and this toilet is less intricate.


* * *


She’d felt like such a tourist. Looked the part: pale, long face; blue jeans; neon-pink sneakers; red Gore-Tex jacket; her map folded to where she thought she was. She turned left off Oike Dori, expecting the wider street to be Karasuma Dori which bordered Kenijijen-do Temple’s Park. The map indicated the road with a rainbow of bus and subway lines, like what she’d picked from whenever her Dodge Journey had broken down in LA, but no sign announced a temple.


To use the foldout map from her bedside table’s drawer (where American hotels kept Bibles) felt appropriate since Sandy had chosen her first sightseeing destination by blindly plopping her finger onto that chart. With over two thousand temples and shrines in and around the city, it figured she pointed to one. A museum would’ve made her less enthusiastic because, according to her co-workers’ offices, artifacts stacked on rows upon rows of shelves in jam-packed rooms appeared to be how the Japanese dealt with collecting. Notwithstanding Sandy’s fellow teachers merely accumulated different series of tiny dolls (Norio had said he’d explain the significance of his red assortment), it came across like hoarding and how Hobart had amassed pornographic magazines.


Nearly two hours into her walk, Sandy could no longer distract from the pot of green tea she’d had at breakfast and the water she’d drunk since, and she took out her phone to plot the fastest route to Kenijijen-do and its toilets, only to find her battery drained. She’d been photographing and videotaping everything: the low single-story charred wood or pastel-colored houses, stout listing telephone poles strung with fat black wires, rows of indistinguishable plants in pale glazed pots, meticulous or as often chaotic shop windows, the polished chrome-trimmed scooters, and lined-up pairs of strawberry ice cream or beet-colored slippers by every front door: it was all remarkable. It had to be. However, knowing how the Japanese labeled everything, why had she spotted no public restrooms? Not that she knew what to look for. It was the first time the need struck besides at home or at school, where it said Ladies, which most of her students pronounced perfectly yet shyly. Stooping, feeling awkward and as if standing out like a beanstalk—like back in California (though in LA, she felt like a wallflower among the endless skyline of model-tall women in their stilt-stilettos)—Sandy approached the only person on the street, sitting by the bus stop.


The man tucked the plastic bag next to him on the bench closer to his side, and she respectfully took a step back. The scent of his sweet aftershave chased her. His hair was fluffed high on his head and his caked-up mauve foundation stopped half an inch short of his ears and alluded to sienna headphones. Maybe he was a TV star who’d forgotten to remove his makeup after a recording but wasn’t famous enough to have a chauffeur. He seemed familiar.


“Sumimasen. Excuse me.” She circled her index finger over the map. “Where am I?”


His large, gradient-tinted glasses amplified his mascara and eyeliner Halloween-ghoulishly. She’d read Japanese society widely accepted men sporting makeup but as an enhancer, which she, so far, hadn’t noticed. This guy wore a layer thicker than a Kabuki actor’s Kumadori makeup. Then Sandy recognized the features of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. This man’s jaw might droop more bulldog-like than she recalled the past presidents had, but his attire, what looked like a grownup one-piece, fit as poorly on his plump figure as Kim Jong-il’s had on his. Makeup Man could be a fan. Or perform as a satirical impersonator: Japan had once ruled North Korea, and there were probably citizens who wanted to ridicule the past despot.


Although the man seemed sort of lost too, she tried again, motioning to the sidewalk, then the map. “Where Ke-ni-ji-jen— do?” she uttered as if she had dough in her mouth.


He got up from the bench and grabbed her map. His nails were painted rose—also daring for a Japanese man. His aftershave cloyed. Sandy stared unfocused at the city between their hands, waited for his response. She wanted to confide in him, talk about being a stranger in this land—even if he appeared to want to stand apart, and Sandy wished to blend in. It felt like they had an understanding, just not one strong enough to allow the mentioning of toilets—had they spoken the same language. Sandy should have asked her landlady for a note with the Japanese characters for restrooms. But how would she have indicated the need to urinate? How would she now? Crossing her legs and grimacing with desperation was too demonstrative. Regardless, because of this country’s reserved culture, neither was she comfortable handing over a bathroom slip—had she had one.


His was an extreme version of the taciturn Japanese silence that could make Sandy feel like she had to break stones with feathers. It might be easiest to return her boardinghouse and her own toilet. But she didn’t know which bus to take, neither would she brave hailing a cab. Norio had mentioned that few drivers spoke English, and Sandy had lost track of Shichihonmatsu Dori on her map and could only have indicated a general direction of home. The Japanese just weren’t inexact, not even taxi drivers. And she’d forgotten the piece of paper with her address written in Kanji. It had been her landlady’s gift on Sandy’s first day of work at Kyoto’s International Business School, presenting the note with one of her short cleaver-bows and importance fit for a diploma: “N wali,” no worry, the landlady’s tone eliminated discussion, “Paper says you here.”


Only when Sandy moved to leave did Makeup Man point to a small temple icon on the map. Then two of his rosy nails zigzagged through a green area and around its border to the widest road in a large radius. There, he cut an angle, tapped twice, then circled by their feet.


“Arigatōgozai— Thank you,” she said fast and bewildered.


His plastic bag clattered when he bowed low. Sandy reciprocated with a quick bob—like her landlady’s—instead of matching his body’s incline or bending deeper to show appreciation.


The route he’d shown was a wide gravel road that soon felt like a dead-end. Auspiciously arranged streams and rocks were missing altogether and willy-nilly bonsai-trained trees stood evenly placed in half-dead-half-tufted greensward. Some grass had even gone to seed. And there was litter. Wilderness (neat by LA standards) like this couldn’t possibly lead to a temple, but there was nothing to do but hurry on and, further ahead, a portal with stairs running giant and steep and tall as a skyscraper came into view. And people slowly ascended and descended. Sandy hiccupped from relief.


The climb was strenuous even for her long legs and agitated her bladder. She still overtook everyone except a boy of eleven or twelve. They both sped up. He laughed a happy free roll that surprised her so acutely she almost stumbled and wet herself.


* * *


The last time she’d heard a child laugh had been at the wedding of one of Hobart’s friends in Los Olivos. A flower girl had stood next to her preoccupied mom outside the church, giggling while twirling her dress for Sandy. “Don’t get any ideas,” Hobart growled. Like he did in the gynecologist’s examination room whenever she had her IUD checked or changed—until he made her have a hysterectomy.


She hadn’t distinguished any of his temperament when they’d met at the little gym he owned, but rather, also how Hobart had talked about investing in art had impressed her. “The Baroque was all about nudes, and look what that stuff fetches,” he said on their first date. The prices he mentioned were staggering and indisputable, and so was: “Vintage pornography is another erotically slanted art. It’ll be the next big collector’s trend.”


Not a half a year into their marriage, his collecting expanded to foreign publications. Exotic stamped packages arrived, and he unwrapped and inspected them wearing white curator’s gloves. He shared prize images of women who, even sporting underwear, bore expressions of seduction so raw Sandy recoiled. Whenever he showed her where he envisioned her face in place of the models’—to assuage any awkwardness he might have felt, she’d supposed—her disgust grew, especially after all issues became current dates’. Hobart flicked the pages carefully; acrid print smells wafted nauseously at her while she kept hoping he would heed her silence and detachment and stop. Stop. But no. Instead, her reticence grew innate like an inoperable tumor.