One day, his world had no Kavita in it, and then just like that, it did. She stood atop a crowded subway platform waiting for the 7 train, the first time he saw her, glancing at the time on her cell phone. She claims she usually tried to avoid being that person, the one tapping her foot, running a nervous hand through her hair, or glowering at everyone else, though they weren’t to blame for the frustration of waiting for a late train. That day, however, she was that person, and she put full gusto into the performance. She rolled her eyes, she cleared her throat, she did what New Yorkers do and stepped over the yellow line, so dreaded and respected by tourists, to lean all the way over the tracks. He watched as she craned her neck in the direction of what should have been an oncoming train. She, like him moments earlier, saw and heard nothing. No lights. No loud blaring of a train’s horn to warn her of its approach.
Just empty, wet tracks with candy wrappers, newspapers, and torn plastic bags strewn across them. Rats scurried up, over, down, and under each crevice, trying to squeeze themselves into invisibility when in a spot illuminated by the station’s bright lights from overhead. They then strutted for the stretches where they were shrouded in darkness. Kavita didn’t even blink at the rats. He’s a big guy and they still make him shudder. He asked once why they never bother her. She said after nine years in the city—she had spent the first seven of her life in a coastal town in South India—she’d come to feel they had just as much a right to be there as she did. As long as they stayed down below on the tracks where they belonged, she was fine. If she were to ever see one anywhere near her on the platform, however, their mutual agreement to do no harm would be null and void.
There was something about the endurance and resilience it took to live on the greatest island in the world, rats and all, that made city kids like them feel a cut above, justified or not. For a fellow high school student, she looked important to him. Like she had somewhere consequential to be. She was also beautiful. It was then he noticed the visibly drunk, maybe homeless woman making her way towards her.
Kavita didn’t even realize right away that this increasingly aggressive lady further down the platform was yelling at her. Uncomfortable onlookers backed away as she weaved slowly in Kavita’s direction, her shouting growing louder.
“Yeah, you! I’m talking to you, you goddamn terrorist! Get out of my country!” The woman’s voice grew gruffer and deeper with each new sentence of hate that she spewed. “I know what you did on 9/11. I know you did it! How dare you stand there, you brown animal. Get out of my country!”
He waited all of ten seconds for one of the many surrounding adults to intervene and protect this teenage girl from a raving, racist lunatic, but sadly and somewhat predictably, everyone was looking the other way. He saw one or two camera phones start filming as he quickened his pace to reach her in time. Just as Kavita turned to come face to face with her angry accuser, he slid in between them.
“Why don't you just shut up and leave her alone?” he said to the woman. “She's not doing anything.”
“Don't talk to her,” Kavita whispered through gritted teeth behind him. “You'll just get her more pissed off.”
“Don't you be her bodyguard, you goddamn traitor. If you think she's so great, you can go with her!” The woman reached out like she was going to shove him, but reconsidered his size and thought better of it. She settled for sneering instead.
“Maybe I will—” He felt a hand on his arm.
“I told you to cut that out,” Kavita said. “Just stay and talk to me, if you want to help.”
Agreeing that this seemed more productive, he turned back to face her. “Sounds good to me. I’m Jae by the way.”
“I'm Kavita. Look, the train’s coming. She’s already chilled out a bit. Thank you though.” It was true. The woman was still ranting, but more in a sustained grumble now. She had already backed away several steps as the 7 finally pulled into the station.
“You been here long?” Jae asked. “You have a little bit of an accent.” He squeezed into the car and tried not to let himself be pressed up against her as she leaned on one of the center poles, and he reached up to hold one of the overhead bars. He didn't want her thinking he was some subway groper creep, posing as a nice guy.
“Long enough. We came over here from India when I was seven. We live in Flushing. What about you?” She squinted up at his face. “You don't look totally white, but I can’t tell.”
He laughed. “Yeah, my dad’s white and my mom is from South Korea. They met when he was stationed over there. He married her and brought her here years before I was born. I’ve never left New York City.” This surprised her.
“Not even to go back to Korea?”
“Wouldn’t really be going back, would it, since I’ve never been? Nah, my parents don’t have a lot of money, so they don’t go, and I’ve never considered going on my own.” She nodded politely, but Jae still felt ashamed and compelled to make up for his lack of interest in his mother’s place of origin. “Maybe someday.”
“Don’t go for my sake,” Kavita said. “I’m just some stranger on the subway.” She held the pole a little tighter as their express train rushed past the local. “I hear you about lack of funds for travel. My dad drives a cab and my mother’s a cashier at Macy’s.” She fiddled with her messy ponytail. “They pretty much left everything behind in Vizag so I could go to school here. But my grandfather, aunts, uncles, and cousins are all still there in Andhra Pradesh, so we go back every couple years.”
“I don’t know my Korean relatives too well,” he said. “My mom’s mostly kept in touch with them by phone and now e-mail and FaceTime. I think they came to visit when I was little, but I don’t remember it much.”
She smiled. “Never too late when it comes to family.” She motioned to an empty pair of seats that had just been vacated by a pregnant woman and her son. They snatched them rather ungracefully, beating an irritable man in a suit to it.
“So you don’t seem too shaken up by that jerk back at the station,” Jae said. “You’re pretty tough, huh?”
“Not tough,” she said. “Just used to it. Besides, I know she’s ignorant and nasty to think and talk that way, but it’s also sad she has no place to go home to. I don’t know what happened in her life for that to be the case. So I guess she has to be mad and blame someone.” Kavita shrugged. “My family might struggle a bit, but we’ve got a roof and food, you know? So she feels like outsiders have taken what’s hers. Not fair to take it out on me, but she’s got to make sense of it somehow.” Kavita was always trying to empathize with everyone. He admired that about her, but couldn’t emulate it.
“I guess. It’s nice of you to give a crap though. I still don't think she has a right to treat you or anyone that way. It’s your city, too.” He was disappointed to admit, “My stop is next.”
“Okay. Hey, thanks again. I know you didn’t have to step in, and everyone else ignored it.” She started to reach in her pocket for her headphones, as she still had several stops to go.
“Wait.” He couldn’t help it. He had to see her again. “I know we just met and we go to different schools, and different neighborhoods in this city may as well be different states—,” she laughed here, which he appreciated, “but can I give you my number?” She made a face. The train started slowing down. “That way, I don’t have yours if you decide you don’t want to talk after all, but you have mine if you want to use it.” She hesitated, but the next thing he knew, she was handing Jae her phone.
“Go ahead and add your number in.” Kavita’s eyes were narrowed but playful.
He typed the digits in fast and returned it just as the doors opened and he stood up.
“And I’ll hear from you?”
“We’ll see,” she said as he slipped out onto the platform, just before the crush of people outside started surging in past him.
Kavita’s first text almost two weeks later had Jae thrilled but stressed, turning to his dad and friends for advice on what to write back. Most of them told him to play it cool and wait a day or two. His mom said to wait until he got into college and not to get distracted.
“Keep your focus, son. There’s time for girls later. You’ve worked too hard to fool around now.”
He wrote Kavita back after a space of about three hours. It felt much longer to him.
They kept it to just texting for almost a full month before he finally tried using some of what they’d chatted about, interests they had in common, to casually propose a first date, without calling it that of course. She agreed to “hang out” with him at the MOMA and try his favorite falafel place in Hell’s Kitchen after. Soon, these get-togethers started happening every weekend, then every few days after school, at the expense of their homework and much to the chagrin of their parents.
It was after he tried to impress her by ordering the spiciest dish on the menu at the Chennai style hole in the wall she took him to in Flushing and she laughed at his watering eyes and burning mouth, that she attempted to make it better by kissing him. They were on the subway platform after dinner, shivering and debating Jae’s tolerance for hot food—“Korean spicy is not the same!” Kavita insisted—when she did it. It was just a quick one, but it was good and everything he’d been waiting for. She pulled back to look at him for his reaction, but she didn’t have much time before he had his arms around her and was finally kissing her without stopping. He was breathing her in as much as he could, his hands in her hair, on the small of her back, tracing the contours of her jaw, before a group of teenagers younger than them passed by and suggested, “Get a room.”
Kavita extricated herself from his embrace and touched her lip. “Well,” she said with a grin, “I’m glad to know you’re not a total gentleman.”
“Hey, don’t blame me for how long it took,” Jae said. “I just wasn't sure what you wanted.”
“Are you kidding? I've been waiting for you to make the first move for ages.”
“You’ve always been pretty stand offish whenever I touch you,” he said. “And half our recent weekday dates have turned into study sessions for AP exams, so it hasn’t been easy to read your mind.” She was laughing. “You don't exactly seem like the PDA type!”
“I know, I know,” she said. “I’m just giving you a hard time. This was kind of perfect anyway. Our first kiss on a dirty subway platform. Just like how we met.”
“Yeah, and I’ve been wanting to kiss you since then, so this works out.”
They continued dating all through high school and were inseparable the summer after graduation. Their happiness enabled them to hide in the bubble so common to young love and ignore the escalating anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment in their midst. Race-based incidents had been increasing around the city, and though they were horrified and discussed it all intellectually, it didn’t overtly affect their day to day.
It was on a sweltering, humid afternoon that Kavita texted Jae from the hospital. A passenger in her father’s cab had attacked him, badly. She said the young man had started yelling at her dad and then, out of nowhere, was punching and hitting him in the head until he was unconscious.
After her father had recovered enough to be discharged and was resting up back home, she asked if she could come over to talk. Jae buzzed her up and opened the door to find her standing there, crying hard. He slipped his arm around her waist and guided her inside to the couch. “They’re not even calling it a hate crime,” she finally said, her words garbled by the tears in her throat.
“What? How the hell does that work?”
“They said that the guy claims he and my dad were fighting about his fare before he did it, so they’re saying it was based on that. But that never happened. We told them what my dad told us, how the guy said, go back where you came from. And how he shouted, learn some English, as he was beating him. But they say because of the concussion, that my dad’s memory of what preceded the attack can’t be used as reliable evidence.” She shook her head and when she looked up, her eyes were no longer helpless but glittering with disgust. “Isn’t that perfect? He attacks my dad for being brown, but he gets to say, oh that’s not why I did it, and what my dad says doesn’t matter because the guy hit him hard enough that his word doesn’t count.”
“That’s so fucked.” Jae paused like something more eloquent might come to him. “I’m sorry, Kavita.”
“My parents have decided not to stick around for whatever’s going to happen with the case anyway.” He noticed her eyes start to wander around the cramped room, made smaller and tighter by his mom’s hoarding problem, with knickknacks and junk piled as high as the low ceilings.
“What do you mean?”
“They want to go home,” Kavita said. “To Vizag. They said I’m going to college in the fall anyway. They were getting scared already after that Indian man got pushed in front of the subway train. And now this. We’ve been here legally so long, but none of us are citizens yet. Now they’re just not going to bother. No point.”
“How do you feel about that?” He tried to take her hands in his, but she awkwardly chose that moment to smooth her hair back from her face.
“It makes sense to me. My mom says she can’t bear the fear every time my dad gets behind that wheel, that he might not make it home. Or at least not in one piece. Depending on which passengers feel he deserves to be here driving them or not.” Kavita seemed to be edging away from Jae now, he noticed, though it was hard to tell.
“Well, I get how terrified she is right now,” he said. “This is traumatic. But she’s got to realize there’s risk everywhere—”
“Oh, grow up, Jae,” she snapped. “Spare me. This isn’t theoretical for us anymore. This is real now. And this threat will only get worse and more constant. It’s not going away.” She stood up and walked over to the window, which only allowed her to look across the alleyway at the brick wall of the building next door. “Besides, I agree with her. Things have been changing. It doesn’t matter if we loved it here. For now, this is what’s best.”
“You mean for them.” He stood up, too, but remained where he was, unable to move closer. “It’s best for them, your parents.”
“I’m sorry, Jae.” She turned back around. “I’m going, too.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We’re going to stay at my grandfather’s house on the coast with him. He needs taking care of anyway.”
“Kavita, this is insane. You’ve already said yes to Amherst. You’ve got an amazing financial aid package. And—” Jae paused, hoping she wouldn’t make him say it. The silence ballooned between them, keeping her at the window. “You’ve got me.”
“I don’t want to be here without my family. And anyway, I feel like I fooled myself into thinking this place was my home, and now I’m surrounded by angry people who want everyone who looks like me to be thrown out. I’d rather go on my own terms before that literally happens.”
“Kavita, that’s not going to—”
“And we’re not even Muslim! Imagine what it’s like to be them right now. But soon it won’t make a difference. That’s just how it starts. They’ll need new scapegoats when they run out of their first choices. What will matter is that we’re all brown with funny names and accents. That guy didn’t stop to check with my dad, oh what religion are you before I beat you senseless? His skin and his voice were enough.” She returned to sit on the couch, but still would not meet his eye. He lowered himself down to one knee. She looked up, caught off guard and almost recoiling.
“I’ll marry you,” Jae offered. “Then you can stay here, but you won’t be alone. You’ll have me. I’ll protect you.” She looked like she knew she shouldn’t laugh, but she did anyway. It came out sort of part laugh, part hiccup, and the rest a sob.
“You’re very sweet.” She continued to avoid his gaze with the careful perfectionism she applied to most tasks and studied her shoes instead.
“Not sweet. Just in love with you.”
“Your love won’t make me feel like an American, Jae. Not one who’s wanted here anymore anyway. Please get up.” He did and sat beside her again.
“Kavita, what happened to your dad is horrible. I know that. And it’s obviously wrong that this bullshit is happening more all over the place.” She nodded. “But that’s no reason to let terrible people like that guy win. No reason to let hate chase you out of your home. Don’t run away.”
She stood up and her eyes were cold. “Don’t you ever accuse us of running away. Do you hear me? You can’t relate. You don’t have the faintest idea what this kind of danger means, how it feels. They are my family. You won’t shame me into staying. And you’re being selfish anyway. You want me to stay for you, Jae. Not because it’s what’s right for me.”
She had him there. But he wasn’t the only one.
“Kavita, your parents didn’t come here for themselves. They came here for you. Do you think your dad expected any great success in his own lifetime driving cabs here? No. He drove it all these years, knowing how people treat him with his accent, so that you could have more than he did. So you could have any kind of life you wanted. They did their part. Now you have to do yours. You throwing that away, their sacrifice—that’s selfish. You’re being selfish. Because you’re afraid.”
“That’s enough. We’re never having this conversation again. Got it? It’s over.”
Jae waited a month to send the first letter because she’d been so angry with him before leaving. Kavita had cooled down enough that she let him accompany her and her parents to the airport. But things still felt off and false between them. Too polite. Too distant. They hadn’t recovered from that last fight.
After the first few stilted and formal exchanges, they slowly but surely picked up where they’d left off, the letters increasing in length, familiarity, and frequency. Jae went on exactly one blind date with a friend of his college roommate, but never returned her calls and texts for a second one. All he could think about all through dinner was Kavita—what she’d have been wearing, what they would have talked about instead, which jokes she’d have caught and appreciated, and which gaps she would have filled with some of her own. The fear that she was in India without him, meeting and settling down with some faceless guy there and cementing it as her true home, eventually became corrosive and swallowed up Jae’s every waking moment. He rooted around for information on this front, but her responses skillfully evaded his efforts and left him in painful doubt.
The last letter he sent ended with, “I miss you more than I can live with anymore. Forever yours, Jae.” His mailbox and he couldn’t wait for her reply.
The series of flights that took Jae from New York City to Visakhapatnam gave him plenty of time to grow anxious and question his impulsiveness. He gave the address he’d been writing letters to for months to the auto rickshaw driver on the last leg of his journey. He settled back for the bumpy ride, his clothes damp and sticking to him with sweat.
It wasn’t very long before they passed the beach, the beauty of which Kavita had described to him in minute detail, only a few miles from her grandfather’s home and visible from his terrace. She and her parents walked there every morning. Jae sprang forward and shouted in choppy Telugu for the driver to stop and pull over. He was less startled by Jae’s butchering of the language and more by his having tried at all.
“I speak English, okay.”
“Sorry. Will you wait here just a minute? I want to walk to the water’s edge and then I’ll come right back for the rest of the ride.” The minute the driver’s brow furrowed, Jae knew a no was coming. The man rocked his head to and fro like a small boat perched atop calm but powerful waves, like Jae had seen Kavita’s father do just before he turned down her requests for a later curfew or some extra cash. “Oh, c’mon.” Jae headed him off. “I won’t be long and I’ll pay you extra for any of your time I’m wasting.”
“No, man, no. Too late at night for a walk on the beach. You could be weird. No. You come back here in the morning by yourself, man.”
“I’m not weird though,” Jae said. “I promise. Just a few minutes.”
“I’ll take you to the house at this address or I’ll leave you here. Your call, man. You going or staying?” His impatience nipped at Jae’s heels as he climbed out and stood to face him in the road. Jae contemplated his answer as the man’s frown deepened. Jae reached in for his bag and dug out some rupees.
“Staying. I’m not ready.”
Whatever was going to happen when he reached, after he bared his soul to her and let her do to his heart as she pleased, would be waiting for him when he got there. But first, there was the hot sand, the endless Indian ocean, and the indigo shades of sky greeting water in twilight, and they would all last forever if he only asked them to. He traversed the steps of her morning walk until the water was close enough that he could smell the salt. He removed his shoes and let his eyes adjust to the luminous darkness. He lay himself down on the earth, and he waited.