Everything is Yours - A Short Story by ROSALIA SCALIA
Qurban Singh ties the strings of his new, bright red running shoes just as Max steps out of the shower and enters the bedroom. A towel wrapped around his torso and another in his hand drying his hair, Max drops both to the floor, and while Qurban admires his partner's taut six-pack abs, he winces as the wet towels fall.
He's lived in America since he was age 9, and still couldn't understand things people took for granted, like two, sometimes three towels per shower. He always uses only one, even with his waist-long hair, now tied neatly into a topknot and covered by a black patka.
Qurban scoops the towels off the floor and makes his way toward the bathroom to hang them up. He does not live here with Max, but he's here often enough that the apartment reflects his passions, like the art photo of the Golden Temple and the brass khanda on the hallway wall, his grandfather's 19-inch regimental sword, called a kirpan, brandishing the living room wall above the tv, some black and white art photography, and his penchant for neatness.
Wearing black spandex gym clothes, he's ready to hit his cycling class before work, his long-time morning routine, the opposite of Max who goes to the gym after work and who teaches the most popular of evening group cycling classes.
"I'd have picked them up, BooBear-ji. You didn't give me a chance," Max says, stepping into a pair of boxers.
It's 5:15 a.m. and Max, an on-air reporter for a morning tv news show, must arrive to work too early to squeeze in a morning workout. Qurban drapes the towels over the shower curtain pole, and when he emerges from the bathroom, Max, pointing to Qurban's shoes, screams with delight.
"Holy crap, can they get any redder or louder? They look like clown shoes! A person can't help but notice them! They're awesome!"
Qurban shrugs, offers a half smile. "I liked the color, and the price. On sale. Rare to find Nikes anywhere for less than $30."
Max laughs with real joy. "Honey, there's a reason no one bought those shoes, and you found them on the sale rack. They're so bright! It's not going to kill you to pay retail for something every once in awhile, but I love how nonchalant you are about wearing fire engine red shoes. You've got to wear a red turban to match," he said, his blue eyes twinkling. "I wish I had the courage to wear something that bodacious," Max says, dressing quickly, pulling on a tank undershirt, his light blue dress shirt, the pants to his black pin-stripped suit, adjusting his shirttails in his pants.
"They are considered loud?" Qurban asks. He kisses the top of Max's head and Max hugs him quickly, saying, "Late, late, late." Qurban packs the red turban, neatly folded into a large square into his gym bag, with a nod to Max, along with his hospital scrubs, jeans, a tee-shirt and a red bandanna. "Red turban, as per your suggestion," he says. "Black fifty, though," he holds up the long tie-like fabric that fills the triangle in the front of his turban. Max nods approval.
"Funny how you can wear these screaming-notice-me-or-die- red shoes, but you can't tell your family about us. Don't you think they already know?" Max asks, nodding at the shoes. He straightens his tie, adjusts it in the mirror one last time. "They can't possibly just think you're just cheap. I bet your brother knows," Max says, examining his reflection in the mirror.
Qurban shakes his head. "Absolutely not. Not on the radar. I don't want to hurt my parents," he says. "They've been through enough without me adding more complications."
Max, who's combing his hair into the poofy tv look sets the brush on the bed and faces him. "How does being truthful complicate things? You forget, I'm half desi, and I know the tune. They're going to start pushing back all your flimsy excuses for avoiding marriage, if they haven't already. And then what? What about the four years we've been together? You going to complicate that by adding a wife and kids? I'm not doing that. Just so you know."
"Your family is different. No comparison. Your whole being advertises how different your family is. Your mother's not Indian, and you grew up here," Qurban says, sounding sharper than he wants. "You have no idea," he adds, softening his tone.
Max blinks, and stares at him with his piercing eyes, and Qurban knows he's hurt him, but says nothing. He instead continues to pack his after-work clothes into his bag, glancing up at Max, who has not yet moved. Max is beautiful, a cocktail, his father's thick Indian curly hair and light brown skin contrasting with his mother's intense blue eyes, straight nose and dimples.
Qurban has seen both women and men press their numbers into Max's hands, invite him places, to parties, and Max flash his beautiful, dimpled smile, making them each feel important, but later tossing the numbers, saying, "I've got my own personal Sardar. Why would I want anyone else?" Qurban's heart beats faster when Max says this. He loves this man, like no other.
"Why can't you be authentic?" Max asks, buttoning his shirt. "Why can't you be yourself, or am I and what we have together some kind of holding pattern until you start living your real life with a wife we both know you don't want?"
Qurban zips his gym bag. "It's not like that," he says. He sets the bag onto the floor. "It's not want you think."
Max shakes his head. "I'm a bit tired of being your hidden friend. Four years now, and everyone in my world knows you, knows who you are. I haven't even met your parents, your brother, and you haven't invited me to your house for any of the high holidays. Not even diwali." Max picks up the brush, the same one he uses to brush long strokes in Qurban's loosened hair and hurls it across the room. "Damn it, BooBear-ji. It's not right."
Qurban knows this is true and says nothing. He knows he first liked boys when he was in 6th grade and waited for the feelings to fade away. He knows he told himself that he liked girls, too, like his brother and pretended, acting like his brother around girls who visited his family, but the day never came when he felt as excited about any girl the way he did for boys. He was still waiting for the feelings for boys to fade away and for girls to develop in college when he finally realized that they would never fade and girls would never excite him, and that he was gay. But he hasn't told his parents, so fixated on children, on expanding the family, especially after so many were lost. He hasn't considered children, or fatherhood, or marriage, emotionally tied to Max but to his family, too.
Qurban imagines Max playing with his hair, oiling it, wrapping a hot wet towel around it, and then running his fingers around his temples and through his beard to his chin, and he imagines the massages, and Max's tongue turning him into quivering jelly, and his own hands touching Max and his lips kissing him and every cell in his body loving him. Qurban feels his heart burst. He imagines all the papers that Max has helped him with, all the books they've read and discussed, and the museums they visited, the trips they've taken, the plays they saw together, the meals that Max has prepared for them. He can't imagine life without Max, but he also can't imagine one with their relationship open, and he doesn't want to choose between his family and Max. He's stuck in a terrible spot, and he wonders what awful things he did in a previous life that put him into such a quandary in this one.
Qurban retrieves the brush from the floor and hands it to Max, whose fingers sweep his, sending an electric jolt through him. "Got to go, or I'll be late and won't get a bike," he says, softly.
"And the answer is no," Max says, sounding cross. He's checking his brief case. He disconnects his cell phone from the charger and drops it in his black satchel.
"No, what?" Feeling antsy to leave, wanting to get to class in time to get a bike but not wanting to leave Max feeling angry, Qurban waits.
"No. I'm not playing that age-old game of Let's Pretend after your parents push you into a marriage you know is dishonest. Pretend you're straight and see me on the side. I'm not doing it. It's not fair to any woman who thinks she's getting a straight
husband, or to me. And I'm not sure I want to keep doing it now, you still stuffed in the closet but out enough to wear those damn notice-me-already shoes," Max says, pointing at Qurban's feet.
Qurban picks up his gym bag. "Can we talk about this later?" he asks, wanting to avoid the subject. For a moment, he envies Max his mixed-up, cocktail family, Indian father, English mother, raised in the US, his sister and her Chinese husband and their jokes about their “Chindo” baby, a veritable United Nations in one family.
Qurban’s family is just his parents and his brother, all lucky to be alive, and he wants to protect them, shield them as he couldn’t when he was 8 years old, huddling with them, his grandfather and uncle, and aunties and grandmother and most of their neighbors, at the Delhi gurdwara for safekeeping that wasn’t safe at all.
Max sits on the bed, his hands rubbing his face, what he does when he’s extremely upset. “We can get married, you know. It’s legal in a growing number of states,” Max says, but doesn’t take his hands from his face when he does. He avoids facing Qurban as he drops the marriage bomb. Stomach clenched in a knot, Qurban wants to go to him, to comfort him, hug his BusyBee-ji tightly in his arms and murmur how everything will turn out alright, to whisper how he wants nothing more than to spend the rest of his life with him, but he knows it’ impossible, and he isn’t sure if it will be alright, so he doesn’t want to give Max false hope that will hurt him later, or be pushed down a road he can’t go.
“Please understand,” Qurban says, keeping his voice low, lest it crack. Leaving a large piece of himself behind with Max, Qurban shuts the bedroom door quietly, though his heart thumps harder and faster than any dhol drum he’s ever heard.
In the car, in his gym bag, his phone chirps. Max has sent a text. “please understand: ilu,” their shorthand for “I love you.” He texts back, “me2,” unwilling to tell Max the entire phrase, fooling only himself and not Max, because Max knows how much Qurban loves him after four years, and he doesn’t want to hurt Max in the event he does find himself agreeing to an arranged marriage, after all.
Later, after cycling, after he showers and steps into his surgical scrubs, Qurban uses the mirror to re-brush his hair, retie his topknot, retie his black patka and tie on his red bandanna. The gym lacks doorknobs so he'll tie his turban on when he gets to his office in the surgical unit. In the mirror, the image staring back at him is not unpleasant with large, dark eyes that Max says shine like black diamonds. He considers his nose too prominent but it fits his face, and years of strength training and cycling turned him muscular and lean, solid and strong. Women have hit on him, too, asking him to join them for lunch, or dinner, or at some stage event for which they happened to have two tickets. He always declines because he wants to spend his precious little free time only with Max.
In the mirror, Qurban flexes his biceps, and smiles because Max sometimes calls him "Maharaja."
On Penn Street, Qurban walks toward his surgical unit at the University of Maryland Medical Center and hears the Shock Trauma helicopter rumbling over head, its engine deafening as usual. He always looks up when he hears the yellow and green air ambo, but today he looks down at his red shoes, watching them on his feet to see if they do look like clown shoes, watches them on his feet while he walks north on Penn Street toward the medical school building. He pulls his jacket tighter over his scrubs because the wind bites as it swirls piles of leaves and litter around his feet. Quarban side steps the piles to keep his shoes clean.
He thinks of Max, but then tries not to think of him sitting on the bed rubbing his face with his hands, or the marriage-word bomb. He tries not to think of losing Max, his stomach tenses at the thought, and he tries to resolve the situation in the methodical way he thinks through a surgery.
First step. He tells his parents yet again that he doesn't want to get married.
Second step: He sees disappointment cloud their faces, hears his mother ask, "Well, what's the hold-up now? You're 37, babu, and not getting any younger."
Third step: He introduces Max, a nice half- Indian boy who charms the socks off them the way he works his magic with everyone, his dimples like parentheses around his smile, and then he imagines his mother asking Max why he isn't married at the ripe age of 40.
And step four: Max, without hesitation, blurts he's gay. Just like that, and that's where the method ends. Why should they know at all? Why hurt them needlessly? It's not the trajectory he's supposed to follow. Maybe it's best to avoid all trajectories, he thinks, this way no one gets hurt. Not Max. Not his parents. He wonders if his brother surmises as Max has suggested, then dismisses it. Amrit carries his own burdens, weighty ones; events at the gurdwara so long ago have cast its long shadow, enveloping his veerji, older brother, into the gloom of drug abuse. Heroin, opiates in any shape or form, painkillers all.
CONTINUES TOMORROW: Part Two ...
[Rosalia Scalia writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in The Baltimore Review; North Atlantic Review; Pebble Lake; Pennsylvania English; The Portland Review; Quercus Review; Smile, Hon, You're In Baltimore; South Asian Ensemble; Spout Magazine; Taproot; Pennsylvania English; and Willow Review. The story that appears in Taproot won first prize in its annual literary fiction competition for 2007, and "Uncharted Steps" merited a 2010 Individual Artist Grant from the Maryland State Art Council. "Sister Rafaele Heals the Sick," first published by Pebble Lake Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005, appeared again in an anthology titled City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press, May 1, 2010), a collection of stories by 32 Baltimore writers, including Poe, Anne Tyler, and Alice McDermott, among others. Scalia, who earned a masters in writing from Johns Hopkins University in 2003, lives in Baltimore, Md. "Everything Is Yours" is her second short story to appear on www.sikhchic.com.]
[Copyright: Rosalia Scalia]
November 12, 2010
Conversation about this article
1: Aniji (San Francisco, California, U.S.A.), November 12, 2010, 8:28 AM.
2: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), November 12, 2010, 8:39 AM.
In many ways, a conventional love story nicely told with great sensitivity. The topic, though, remains toboo in many societies, including Punjabi Sikh. Yet, gays exist among Indians of all stripes - Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. So, I would urge readers to not embrace the first gut-reaction which may be horror and rejection: How dare the editor post such a story and shed some light on a corner of well-hidden reality? In this culture, as we know so well, denial doesn't rule; "let it come out of the closet" does. Not that a gay gene has been clearly documented; nevertheless, biology indicates that gay behavior may not be much of a choice that one can make. And that, I suggest, would tell us to be compassionate and open to all, without compromising one's own values and practices. Rosalia Scalia has woven an intricate and well written story. In our complex society today this too deserves a place; it, too, deserves to be heard, read and thought about. It is reality and it is good literature - well crafted.
3: Sahib Kaur (Chandigarh, Punjab), November 12, 2010, 8:58 AM.
First of all, I want to congratulate Ms. Scalia for a well-thought out narrative ... based on good, solid research on things Sikhi too. Simply can't wait until tomorrow for its continuation: it's a good read. Secondly, I want to thank sikhchic.com for its unprecedented leadership in publishing such a story. You have truly kept your promise of inclusivity. Everybody may not agree with or laud your decision today ... but time will show that you have shown extraordinary foresight. Keep up the good work!
4: Gurnam Singh (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), November 12, 2010, 10:26 AM.
I am not gay. Nor can I fully appreciate what it means to be gay. This beautifully written piece brings home to me, within the context of my community, what it means being gay on a day-to-day basis. Or, at least, a glimpse. Thank you! Look forward to the next segment.
5: Vikrant Singh Grewal (Byron Bay, Australia), November 12, 2010, 2:03 PM.
I just wanted to add my voice to the chorus. This is a really well written piece thus far, on issues that as a community we avoid like the plague or, even worse, hold people involved in contempt.
6: Rimpy Kaur (U.S.A.), November 12, 2010, 6:19 PM.
I have nothing against gays nor the writer. I would just like to point out that relationships before marriage are not consistent with the principles of Sikhi. In the article, the way it is written, it clearly suggests pre-martial relations took place.
7: Lucky (Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A.), November 12, 2010, 9:39 PM.
Love this story! Being Sikh, my parents always said that Sikhism is a young religion - a simple and inclusive one free from needless rituals and encouraging disrespect of others. The gay issue is a non-issue as far as I am concerned. It's a story about a Sikh man. And a good one.
8: T.J. Singh (Gurgaon, India), November 15, 2010, 10:28 AM.
Stellar crafted piece of love, humanity, emotions, relationships and sentiments!
9: Happy Sohi (Colorado, U.S.A.), December 22, 2010, 11:17 AM.
Loved it. Especially today with DADT being signed into law. Being gay is such a non-issue. It is about who the person is, what has made them who they are, and what they choose to do with it. Your story highlights all of that so well. Thank you for writing about issues that need to be discussed openly!