I am not easily given to liking second-person stories. Often I find the mode artificial and gimmicky. But Pep Talk had a no nonsense quality about it that immediately sucked me in. I liked the narrator, and there was clearly a story here: one of love and heartache, of sexual experimentation and discovery. The telling perfectly matched the tale. I appreciated the boldness, the inventiveness, the shattering of structures. More than anything, I admired the tightness of the story, how in six pages an entire history was told and dispensed with.
– Samrat Upadhyay, judge
Make some coffee, Arunn. Although, what you really want is a cup of milk tea, with cardamom, with cloves. Grind the organic coffee beans she bought from Nuwakot. Let the black liquid drip through the cloth of the clay cone into the cup. This is the only way to drink coffee, really, she used to say with every cupful. Dump the second cup of coffee. Resist the urge to make things for two now. She never liked hers black anyway. You don’t have sugar, you don’t have milk, you’re not a morning person. The cordless phone is low on battery. She doesn’t live here anymore.
Forget the smell of her shampoo. The chemical sugar scent that lingered on her pillow, like streaks of wet hair that arranged themselves on the bathroom tiles post shower, when she forgot to pick them up. Forget how sometimes, when the faucets were dry, you two carried buckets of water into the bathroom. The first time you showered together, you thought it was an accident. She stepped out of her clothes to sit down on the low wooden stool. She loosened her hair and untangled her legs. You let out a soft eh, as though you remembered something you’d long forgot, and gathered your towel and slippers to leave. But she scooped a cupful of water and held it out to you. We’re made of the same things, she said, you should see the American women in the American locker rooms. You hung your towel up on the door, took the cup from her hands, and poured the water over her head. You lathered places she couldn’t reach as she listed secret sights from within an American locker room: a constellation of freckles threading the arms, shoulders and face, a passing brown lower back accented by an umlaut of dimples, faded pink nipples that look pasted or painted on, erratic black hair peeking from underarms, a warm bulge of belly shaded by a thin line of travelling hair, wrinkled thighs and necks creating folded patterns, an orange head of hair paired with orange wisps over delicate parts, and stubby dotted legs that slid on wet floors.
Remember the night she undressed you? Korean donors in suits had visited your work place, studied the profiles of students, pledged more money, and celebrated over chicken lollipops and large bowls of fruit punch. The insidious kick of the alcohol sent you stumbling home. She found you fiddling with the padlock on the chain gate. When she asked you if you were okay, you threw up. She dragged you up one flight of stairs and leaned you against the doorframe of the bathroom as she took your clothes off. In that drunken blur, you remember thinking how you had never been naked in front of another woman. When you changed your clothes around others, you did what every girl in your village was taught to do: turn around, put your hands in your blouse, sling a new shirt over your head, slip your hands through the sleeves, and peel the first shirt off your back. But for the first time with sore clarity, you knew what you wanted. You wanted her to look at your body. The way you looked at hers. How her legs strung by silver stretch-marks, widened and joined her hips, which rose and then dipped into her waist that circled up to touch her breasts as they fell away softly pulling down her birth-marked shoulders. But instead, she was fidgeting with the tap and calling you names: Donkey brains! Donkey brains! She drained out what felt like the largest cupful of brown water and rinsed you methodically. You were dried, tucked inside a thin dhaka shawl and left in front of the living room fan.
Don’t think about that morning after, when you walked into her bedroom to apologise for your drunkenness. She stirred and turned around to face you. As she lifted her blanket to let you into her bed, your I’m sorry dropped gently on her pillow somewhere. Half asleep, she shook her head, draped an arm around your neck pulling you into a hug, as you felt her nipples soften against yours. Shhh, let me sleep, she said with breath like the worn insides of an old plastic bottle. Winter had taught the two of you to huddle for warmth in the mornings but you had carried this ritual into the summer, and past the rains. Sometimes you slipped into her bed. Sometimes she floated into your room with her sun-dyed hair in a mess about her neck, her eyes barely open. You two laid in bed longer especially on weekends when you felt no guilt about the day passing outside the window: her cousin in the office downstairs screaming on the phone Forget Me Not Travels, Namaste!, the children playing marbles and fighting over discarded cycle tyres, the neighbour’s chickens clacking and dodging city wheels, the pressure cookers whistling an indication of midday meals. Then, you two went to Rupa didi’s store to buy a packet of milk, bread and vegetables for a late afternoon meal. She chopped and you cooked while tuning into English songs on the weekend FM stations.
Stop asking yourself how you got here. What if she hadn’t seen you, a sixteen-year-old then, standing in school uniform waiting for glasses of sweet yogurt with raisins and pistachio at the lassi place in Asan? What if she hadn’t been the only one to ask you how you liked the new school, the other students, Kathmandu, as though she read your homesickness in the sweaty lines of your palms? What if she hadn’t told you about the time she travelled with her father to your village? If she hadn’t asked after your Kalpana didi who sold the best churpis that hung hardened on thick strings yet melted milky in the mouth? What if, after that lassi day, you two hadn’t spent the rest of high school sitting in the back rows of classes giggling and tipping your chairs on two legs, your arms pushed against the walls, and your fingers locked? What if Sundays weren’t days when she invited you over to her house, and you two walked up to the rooftop with bags of oranges, laid on your bellies, and did your homework until your elbows turned ashy and worn from resting on the concrete? What if you hadn’t spent all your pocket money calling her every evening from the phone at the knick-knack pasal outside the hostel? Pressing your lips so close to the receiver, as though you weren’t going to see her jump right off that school bus at 7:15 the next morning. What if she hadn’t left for America? What if you hadn’t stayed in the city? What if you had kept in better touch? What if you hadn’t seen her five years after high school — Americanised in her short hair and loose clothing– at a fundraiser party in Thamel where you asked linen-clad tourists to sponsor an education? What if she hadn’t recognized you? Hadn’t asked you where you were living or told you about her father’s death, or about taking over Forget Me Not, or about the empty family-owned apartment above the office in Lazimpat? What if, when you agreed to move in with her, she hadn’t kissed your cheeks and nose and eyes so blindly and hugged you so tight you swore a part of her entered you? You felt like she never left in the first place.
Forget about the night you discovered that feeling lodged in your chest, in your breasts, that suddenly spread deep into your armpits. You felt its sharp yet vacuous presence grow as she told you about an American hiker, a man who had walked into Forget Me Not looking for an adventure. You initially dismissed it as nothing: another white man who wanted to learn Nepali for a minute, who had finally found his place in the world, and was now ready to open himself to a Nepali girl. But she wasn’t any Nepali girl. In just the year you had lived with her, you watched her revolutionize her father’s old travel agency by hiring only women staff and guides, and providing cheap eco-friendly trips. She had even appeared on the local women’s magazine cover as one of Nepal’s “youngest social entrepreneurs;” her interview was so full of English words, you had a hard time sounding them out in Nepali letters. The feeling in your chest and breast and armpits returned when you found out that her American hiker had done more than just inquire about a tour package. He had affected her in a strange way. One day, you found her stuffing her face with daal bhat and talking about foreign penises. Did you know that a non-Nepali penis doesn’t carry with it an extra cloak? The tip sticks out like a head. It wears a little cap. Like, like a mushroom. Her one flight-of-stairs long commute from the office below was now filled with laughter as she spoke into the mobile phone in her renewed American accent. You had never imagined she would find a home in a random stranger. A home built on just one tiny hair of a fact that they had both read an obscure book written by yet another foreigner, a book about solitude of one hundred years.
Erase the memory of how the American, slowly and quickly became a part of the clanking of kitchen utensils. His cologne mixed with the smell of your chickpea potato curry, a dish she loved because she claimed only Arunn could get the chickpeas to the right softness. She used to be your garlic chopper, your dish-wiper, your green bean snapper, your can opener. But in what seemed like seconds, yet weeks and months, he had taken over parts of your role. He insisted on doing the dishes as she wiped and he said cans didn’t need openers; they needed a real man’s muscles. She laughed at his cocky jokes, as you stirred the chickpea curry to puree.
Clean up. Do things. Stuff the clothes she left behind in plastic bags, suck them skinny, and give them away. The other things that remind you of her, such as her toothless comb, her yellow plastic gun earrings, the hardened lentil gravy stain on the stove, three precious baby photos, her bathroom slippers, her pink nail clipper, the wooden stool, the smell of coffee in the apartment; pack the packables, eat the eatables, throw the throwables, give the giveables, keep the unkeepables. Like that memory of lining up for a warm samosa and milk tea in December, keep that.
Don’t check the phone. She will call once she is completely settled in her new place. Somehow without anyone else’s permission, you had imagined a home for the two of you. You had imagined yourself as an old lady on Saturday afternoons, squatting and scrubbing her back in the sun, counting her raisin-like moles. You had imagined carrying hot water bags into bed to soothe your aching backs. You had imagined learning how to knit socks for her so that she wouldn’t slip around the house. But the American had other plans for her. You remember the moment she told you, teary eyed, about how exciting the journey had been. How ready she was to take the American seriously, their lives seriously. You remember asking her should I leave too? In that you meant, didn’t it make plain simple sense that you would go wherever she went, that remember, you two were stitched that way? But she heard something else. She told you to feel free to stay here, that the place was empty anyway. But you know there is no space in this apartment for loss.
Forgive her for her language, her gestures, her love. Don’t think back to her moving away party when she introduced you to the American’s friends as her girlfriend, in English, and it validated your feelings for once. She spoke with you and around you as she recounted stories of how we loved to sleep late into the day over weekends, and how we lived right next to the best samosa joint in town and how Arunn is the best masseuse and how her chicken curry, boneless, is simply to die for. You noticed the way she jumped back and forth from present to past tense. But remind yourself to forget of how she let your palm linger on the small of her back, and how when everyone had enough to drink, she pulled you to the sticky dance floor and swayed side to side guiding your arms to wrap around her waist, her right knee between your legs, her head on your chest, we better find each other again, she said.
Answer her call. She means it when she says she misses you. It was not her fault that she didn’t feel the pain in your chest, your breasts, your armpits. The pain you never revealed to her. When you visit her some day, you will see that she has set her new living room in the same way she set yours. Extra cushions on the ground next to the sofa, the tables tall enough to slip legs under, the wind chimes made out of bangles singing near the windows, the baby aloe vera plant above the TV. You will find that she has lined the kitchen cabinets with newspapers, folded to fit perfectly. She will make tea with not enough milk and too much sugar. But you will drink it and tell her about how one of the students from your village is thinking of taking up taekwondo so that he can impress the girl he sees every morning at his bus stop. She will tell you how she misses Rupa didi’s store. Then, concerned, she’ll ask you if you’ve found a new roommate. You’ll pretend to make a joke about how no one can ever replace her. She’ll laugh and slap your knee.
Sleep, Arunn. Because ever since she left, you’ve spent your nights looking for her. You remember waking up to find yourself in the living room, standing in front of an empty sofa, because somehow your muscles didn’t forget. They got used to you turning the TV off, nudging her awake, pulling her up by her arms onto her feet, walking her to bed as she muttered, you’re the best, Arunn, then tucking her in, closing her door shut and walking away. Into your own room.