Fiction

Post-Covid

by Sudip Bhattacharya
July 18, 2021

Moments before Gauri collapsed, before the dizziness that had been hounding her all day finally overwhelmed her, causing her face to collide with the apartment floor, moments before Gauri’s sister cradled her head, as the ceiling turned into a starless black sky, all Gauri could mutter was “Useless…” and the last set of images that flashed across her mind was of her on a stage, gripping a bullhorn, and below her was a crowd, a composite of people she knew, like friends she no longer texted, and coworkers she barely knew but relied on, all of them biting their nails until blood trickled down their hands. She also saw someone who reminded her of the mailman from a year ago, someone she promised to get a holiday gift for but never did. He was glaring at her, dressed in his bright blue uniform, his arms crossed, plotting his revenge. Next to him was Ashima, her little sister, also glaring, and for some reason, also dressed like a mailman.

And that was that. Face meets ground. The traffic humming and people arguing over how much toilet paper they needed, suddenly gone, replaced with absolute silence and darkness, as if she had been launched into the heart of space. At first, it was intimidating, but Gauri did feel what some would call peace. Some sense of finality.

The night before her body crashed, Gauri’s mind had already been weighed down, like a paper bag with grease dripping down the bottom, by images of aunties crossing their arms and shaking their heads at her, of fat-bellied uncles, burping between samosas and Darjeeling tea (the pride of Bengal!), informing her between each burp that the “sensible” thing was to start working straight after high school. What was the need in going to college? What was the need for seeking work beyond what her and her parents had been part of for decades now? Stocking shelves. Listening to customers whine about not finding the right type of chai they needed. Clearing up the storage space of cobwebs and mud. It wasn’t glamorous, no. But it paid the bills. Their parents, of course, supported Gauri or at the very least, never stood in her way. But maybe they should’ve? What if her parents were also naive, somehow, or worse, indifferent and confused and…? The questions piled high, as she staggered down the block, her mask dangling at her chin, to her favorite liquor shop. Favorite meaning it was the closest one to her and was open every day and everybody was scared of her, and kept their fucking distance. However, on the way back, all of the anxiety, the unbearable gloom, the pizza chunks still stewing in her stomach acid, the microwavable samosas filled with cheese, suddenly rushed out of her esophagus, gushing over some bushes, as god intended. She chuckled at this, as she wiped off the slime with the back of her arm, before noticing the bus stop a few feet from her, filled with women leaning on mops, wearing magic school bus yellow gloves, and glancing at her, some of them looking like…she heaved and ran and fell and scrambled to her feet and finally made it, slamming the door shut behind her, gasping.

Thin strips of chicken were waiting in the microwave, limp. Netflix trailers of couples arguing over how serious the other one really was in the relationship and cooking shows in which people cry because they failed in cooking the pho at the exact right temperature echoed from the laptop. Feet stomped across the ceiling, like there was a parade. Sweat trickled down her face as Gauri ripped out another can, popped it open, and threw her head back, letting the warm liquid cleanse.

. . .

Ashima, the hope their parents mention at the temple, even while the priests babbling in dead languages sprinkle water across bowed heads, woke up every day since the pandemic thinking she was still taking classes at Rutgers, that she would be back to campus in a few hours, the one place where she could talk and not have people raise their eyebrows at her, or experience people nod at her as they’d kept watching Desi sitcoms they uncovered over YouTube, where everybody’s eyes bulge whenever they do something “funny”, like mistake their wife for a coatrack. Ma and Baba often spent their time after work in front of the TV or messaging people family in Kolkata, or dissolving into the couch, cigarettes hanging from their mouths, sleeping pills swimming in their bloodstream.

Every morning, of course, the illusion would recede, giving way to reality’s blunt force, causing her to open a window for some air, even when it was too humid, her brushing her teeth eventually, the toothpaste splattering on her shirt, doing the minimal to touch off her face as she’d mentally prepare to serve boomers at a diner named after the road it was built on. She’d sometimes practice her smile and remember what it was like to be in a classroom, to be able to read and discuss topics and themes that she always wanted to explore, to debate Fanon against other students whose parents bought them laptops that could bend all the way back for some reason, students whose egos she could bruise finally, who had nothing to protect them from her exploiting their weakness, raising points that were obvious to her and yet missing in their “analysis”, who would glare at her, while she smirked, her shadow looming.

Now, she served their parents and versions of them, and would have to do so in the extreme blood boiling cheese curdling heat since Mr. and Mrs. Salvatore allowed for “loyal” customers to dine outside, letting them place their masks to the side, letting them sport fake smiles to one another and to her, as her heart raced, as she held back the panic brewing.

“What are you doing?”

“Reading.”

“I know. But why?”

It was a couple of weeks into the new semester and Gauri decided to drive Ashima to the local bowling alley, one of the last ones amongst the shopping malls and gas stations surrounding central Jersey, the land of neon lights burning holes into the night sky, the land of traffic and constant humming in one’s ears. The land of tinnitus and vertigo.

The bowling alley also included a large arcade and a whole section dedicated to laser-tag, which was something Ashima had done once before, as a kid when she was hanging out with Gauri and her friends, who would eventually leave her in the mostly dark room, competing against older couples on her own, promising they’d be right back. She kept playing for almost a half-hour, committed to completing the game, and having succeeded in scoring the most points out of everyone, although most other teams were too busy coughing from laughing so hard to notice. Eventually, she would exit and find Gauri and her friends in their oversized shirts with punk band names across them, bowling at one the lanes, and also trying to grab their breaths as they laughed. Once she got closer, she could smell it on them, their source of courage and humor, as they passed under the chairs, something in a brown bag. Gauri’s friends ruffled Ashima’s hair as she sat down beside them and stared up at the scoreboard and looked around at all of them, like a spectator.

But that was eons ago, right? That was what she told herself when her parents approached her after a long day, after they all took turns taking showers, as Bollywood music seeped through the walls from their neighbors, and she could hear an older man weeping, informing her that Gauri had agreed to take her out for a sister’s night out. Ashima was reading in the kitchen since the man’s weeping could be heard mainly in her room, and closed her eyes, took in a deep breath, pictured the jersey shore minus all the white people tanning, the waves crashing. She knew it was her parents’ idea for Gauri to spend time with her. She knew it was her parents always worried that she was always buried in some book or essay or preoccupied with pouring her insights and being onto a page, or rather, typing away on the laptop they all shared, and that she used the most, typing away like it was a piano. To them, she was odd, strange. Different. Not unique. Not talented. The laptop was some machinery, something that only one should use to Google a recipe, not to organize one’s thoughts.

But what was the point anyway of even trying to defy them? It would only lead to a needless argument over something trivial. In the grand scheme of life, her relationship to her sister was indeed trivial, having been set on a trajectory of failure and the superficial.

The most important thing was to work, save, finish school. Escape the neighborhood she was forced to call “home” when in fact, all it has been and will always be are blocks of one-floor houses, decaying front porches, and brown grass, with people inside them who’d spend weekdays on their feet and to come home either worn down and silent or rearing for an argument, and on the weekends, funnel what was left of themselves into their mosques and temples and into random gatherings called “parties” which would always devolve into some of the men grappling one another by the collar while slurring their words, their words slamming into each other, and most of the women pretending nothing was happening, blowing puffs of smoke into each other’s faces, until the smoke alarm shrieked.

If she wanted to start building a real life for herself, she needed to remain focused and ignore all the other indignities.

But Gauri was now hovering over her, Gauri’s shadow covering the page, the same page Ashima had been re-reading, amidst all the bowling pins clattering and arcade machines, for the past half-hour, and Ashima’s chest was starting to feel heavy. She took in a deep breath and looked up at Gauri, with a tray of fries greasy and glistening under the lights and smoothies, already dripping.

A lump had formed in Ashima’s throat. She wanted to say, “thank you”, and take the drink and sip and smile too, but instead, Gauri was beaming at her, and the lump metastasized into a boulder. She stared at the drink now, as if it had done something obscene.

“What the hell? What’s wrong with you?” Gauri exclaimed, the smile melting.

The stench returned, blowing in through Gauri’s teeth, and Ashima, as dramatically as one could, slammed shut her book, and rushed out of the bowling alley, back onto the asphalt sizzling under the sun, Gauri yelling after her.  

That was the last time they “hung out”. That would be the last time they pretended to have a good time, before Ashima would be the one cradling her Didi in her arms, a thin string of saliva sliding onto the floor. As the buses outside continued to groan. As Ashima would fight off the urge, with every fiber of her being, to run and to never look back ever again.

. . .

Their body began to shake and suddenly, tears were flowing down their face. They quickly hid their face in their hands.  

Gauri did not know what exactly to do when the man in front of her started to combust. His face contorted, the internal scream finally being released, twisting flesh and bone, as she held her breath, her own body feeling being weighed down by steel chains clasped around her arms and legs.   

With their face hidden, the man continued to make guttural noises, like a sea lion lost at sea, calling out for help. The noises upset her. Made her angry and annoyed. Her first instinct was to grab him by the shoulders and make him wipe the snot from his large bushy beard, and get himself in order.

Her mom would often cry when Gauri was growing up, sometimes while cutting vegetables and stripping tendon from lamb and chicken, sometimes while watching Hindi soaps. But the one time that stuck to Gauri, of her mom crying, was the time when they were visiting family in her mom’s ancestral village, and her mom was weeping and apologizing to Gauri for slapping her, causing Gauri’s cheek to sting for the first time.

Admittedly, Gauri’s mom would slap her again, and again, and again, but that moment was the one that Gauri would be dragged back to every time Gauri’s mom, or anyone in fact, would furrow their brow at her, or raise their voice, or inch closer toward Gauri without saying a word and while maintaining eye contact. Her heart would pound against her chest, as if someone was trying to burst through and run. Her cheek would start to feel warm.

Years later, she’d find out, from her Baba, that her mom on that same day had been yelled at by an older brother in front of the rest of the family earlier in the morning for something innocuous, and yet, when Gauri learned this, her first reaction was to excuse herself and to retreat into the bathroom, her chest pounding, tears forming, the urge to slap and kick her uncle until he begged for mercy. When she returned to sharing some chai with her father, she shifted the topic to her work as a labor organizer at Rutgers, and talked and talked and talked about her new job, about all the rallies she planned, the events she’d organize to bring people together, all the while her organs were shifting, her hands started to shake, beads of sweat formed on her forehead.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the man repeated, as Gauri retrieved some paper towels from the kitchen behind them, and shared them, and waited as the man, a part-time instructor she’d recruited for their union campaign, dabbed the snot underneath his mask, which was also soaked.

What shocked and annoyed Gauri the most was that the man in front of her, who was now crumbling under some invisible weight, had become one of the leaders of the campaign for faculty, including grad workers, to demand and receive the promised increase in funding and wages that the Rutgers administration had promised a year ago when they finalized their new union-administration contract. He had been on the frontlines, raising his voice above the din of crowds of people.

Since the pandemic, the university administration reneged on such promises, as capitalists are wont to do, having discovered loopholes above the dotted lines with an army of corporate lawyers, paving a pathway toward not only holding onto bonuses, but also in the ability to let go of countless employees, tossing them over the mast of the ship and into the ocean. And on cue, this man, along with others who she had spent so many countless hours with responding to their questions and mounting worries, was refusing to listen, instead losing himself to his anxieties and the crippling hopelessness. Gauri knew this job would be difficult but after years of hopping from one NGO to the next, and bagging groceries, cleaning toilets during the day, at least this time, she was in control of cultivating a vision of where people should be. At first, the other staffers supported her and some of the leading faculty but it was clear that many were conservative about what they could or should fight for. Some believed that negotiating over wages was the only thing a union should do, even when the world burns.

“What am I going to do now?” the man said, one of the few who believed in the vision, who attended almost all the meetings, who even did the one thing that all organizers do, which is start Google docs during meetings and take notes, all of which were on top of his duties at the lab. But he looked up now, his eyes staring right into hers. What the fuck? Instead of being courageous, cowardice had overtaken him. She wanted to grab him. Punch him. Send him flying across the room. She wanted to —

Gauri shifted into platitudes, doing what she thought was necessary to calm him down, reminding him he wasn’t alone. But as she spoke, the man’s expression gradually transformed, from a face sagging and into him glaring at her.

“I should’ve stepped away from the campaign like my wife said,” he suddenly stated, talking past what Gauri had been saying to him, “I should’ve…” he tried to repeat but his voice shook, and the glare disintegrated as quickly as it emerged. His face was buried in his hands again, and Gauri knew she had to extend her own hand and perhaps, place it on his shoulder, but all she could now think about was the glare.

Eventually, returning to her union office on the main campus, she popped open her company laptop at her desk, and stared at it, picturing another version of her slamming it across the room, banging it against the floor, until it was dust.

“Betaa, you don’t understand,” her Baba had said after he returned home at the break of down from cleaning some offices. Ma was still sleeping, her shift starting in the next few hours, so for a brief sliver of time, it was just her and Baba at the dining room table, a piece of furniture they found on the side of the street that they spent all day cleaning.

“You have to talk to other people who work with you about what happened,” Gauri implored, but her Baba refused, instead sipping on his chai, the steam fogging up his glasses.

After a while, Gauri wanted to scream, and so, she retreated to her own room, and listened to music as she finished some of her college homework and returned to the living room/dining room/kitchen when she heard the TV blaring. It was Baba watching old Bengali movies, the static crackling. He was leaning back on the couch, his cheeks glistening, and Gauri decided to sit next to him, as he muttered, “Useless, we’re all so useless…” when the movie was almost over and the main character, dressed in rags, was raising his fist against the heavens, demanding answers. Without saying anything else, her Baba searched for another film online and clicked and Gauri waited until her Baba fell asleep to slip outside, with the images flashing across him and the wall. The air smelled like something was burning. She sipped on her flask, and watched as others dragged out their garbage bags and others were perched on their front steps. They all looked like they were slouching, eyelids flickering. She gazed at them before heading down the block toward the hum of traffic, to watch the cars drifting through smog.

“Hi Amiri, how are you doing? I was hoping to talk to you about…Oh, yea, no. I understand. I’ll call back then at another—”

“Amanda! Hi! How are you doing today? Hello? Amanda? Are you there?

“Hey Sahar! It’s me, Gauri. I wanted to let you know about an upcoming town hall online. Yea, it’s meant for members like you to ask questions and to learn about updates and. I understand. So, would another day work for you?”

The lampposts outside the office flickered awake and with the campus having been mostly deserted, all that was heard was the sound of traffic, always sounding a few miles away. Gauri clicked off her phone, her laptop, and descended. The drive back was rather short and she picked up some snacks and some courage from the supermarket along the way. She microwaved some chicken tenders once back inside her studio and after trying to watch a show on Netflix about pasty looking people in a baking competition, baking snacks she never would eat, she clicked her phone back on, snapped open her laptop and went through the membership list, as people stomped on the ceiling, as others yelled at one another, even when asking basic questions about where the spoons and forks were, the music booming, shaking the walls. A few hours later, Gauri would also be on the floor, on her back, the laughter reverberating through her, her cell phone dead. Pieces of her laptop scattered across the floor.

. . .

She had arisen! Her Didi was reborn! After sprinkling some water on Gauri’s face, Ashima watched in awe as Gauri blinked open her eyes and the moment she looked up and she saw Ashima, Gauri threw her arms around her, tears running down her face.

She apologized profusely, promising she would be the kind of sister Ashima had always deserved, someone who finally understood that it was them against the world and all else are distractions.  

“Stop looking at me like that,” Gauri exclaimed, glowering as they sat on opposite sides of the room, Gauri on the sofa covered in crumbs and wrappers, and Ashima perched on a lawn chair, melting.

Gauri’s phone kept pinging, as Ashima didn’t utter a word, as she scrolled on her phone, reading messages from coworkers who were begging for her to take their early shifts the following morning since they were now feeling a cough lodged in the back of their throats, and wanted to see a doctor as soon as possible.

“I’m going to order some Pizza Hut cause it’s buffet time I think,” Gauri announced, causing Ashima to look up, although she felt scattered and stretched, as if existing in multiple situations at once.

“Why? I’m not hungry.”

“Why not? It’s the dirty Desi thing we used to do. It was fun.”

“I never liked Pizza Hut.”

“No one likes Pizza Hut. It’s cheap though and it does the job, you know.”

“I never liked it. I never liked going there.”

“Really? I used to think it was fun.”

Ashima turned silent and returned to staring at her phone, causing Gauri to glower and to grab her phone off the cushion, and pour over menus on a delivery app she barely used, given her diet was mainly chicken tenders, cut up fruit, and occasionally, some water, although even then, she preferred sparkling.

However, she had bookmarked some Indian restaurants, some Mexican that she had a sense Ashima would’ve liked to try, and so, she suggested a Mexican place that was a few blocks away, that had just re-opened, and had really incredible nachos, topped with cilantro and jalapeno, and once she suggested this place, and described some of the cuisine, Ashima slowly raised her head, beaming.

Suddenly, an uncle barged through the front door, his stomach protruding like an orb, chewing on paan relentlessly, and once looking at Gauri, her face sunken, her skin creased, her hair sticking to the side of her face, he bellowed and so did, Ashima, who laughed and laughed until she coughed, but even then, slapped her hands on her knees.

. . .

“I don’t want nachos. They fuck up my stomach.”

“How? Cause of the cream. We can ask for no cream.”

“I don’t want anything. You need to go to the hospital.”

“What about some bubble tea? There’s a place that can deliver in less than thirty minutes.”

Gauri paused and looked over at Ashima, clenching her fists over her knees, trying to take in deep breaths as she stared at the floor. Her mask was back over her face, and Gauri hesitated on what next to say, the words now lodged in her throat, like debris.

“Are you sure you don’t want to grab something at an IHOP or something?” Gauri asked, as she slowed down the car in front of the home they once shared, which now felt empty inside, as if there were no furniture, no stains on the dining room table. The rest of the block was vacant too, with the houses sinking into the earth, with the windows glowing now, but no shadows behind them.

Ashima, who had kept her gaze focused outside the entire ride home, exhaled and popped open the passenger door.

“I’m sorry, for whatever I did,” Gauri said, “Let’s just go and grab something to eat. Or, do you want to just drive around maybe? Or we could watch—”

“You don’t care. You care more about the losers at work.”

Gauri stared. “The teachers I work with? That’s my job.”

“You have happy hours with them. You organize events with them.”

“We are literally fighting for paychecks.”

“They don’t care about you. They’re useless. What you are doing is useless.”

Gauri tightened her grip on the steering wheel until the muscles in her shoulders ached. An ex-boyfriend sauntered by, blowing her a kiss and grinning, before turning back around and heading toward the distant hum of traffic.

The car door was slammed shut. Ashima rocked back and forth, her hands balled into fists, the sun bursting through the window, causing their skin to hiss.

Gauri’s heart stopped beating, as Ashima sucked in air between her teeth, eyes wide.

“What’s going on?” Gauri asked. Her ex and her boss at the last supermarket she suffered through getting drunk on some apartment rooftop somewhere, singing songs like they were French Libertines. Gauri shut her eyes, sticky, opened them, saw Ashima still rocking back and forth, still gritting her teeth. She saw Ashima slamming laptops, watching shows in the family living room, sleeping pills dissolving into her blood.

“What’s going on?” she repeated, but Ashima hopped to her feet, muttered something about being tired, and before Gauri could add a phrase to the mix, Ashima slammed the door shut behind her, causing cracks to form on the ceiling. The sun engulfed the sky.

. . .

Gauri called Ashima. Her head felt light, so she drank water, stumbling through beer cans and wrappers, and plates with ketchup dried into them.

It went straight to voicemail. Ashima kept rocking back and forth in front of her. She kept rocking back and forth, biting into her nails. An auntie loomed, twenty foot tall, but Gauri called, again and again, each time hanging up when the beep echoed, waiting a few moments before dialing once more, which she persisted in doing until the room started to spin and her stomach was screaming at her.

Ashima was rocking back and forth. Ashima was slamming laptops into the floor, and throwing her head back as she downed more false courage and stretched time.

Gauri knocked on the front door as the sun glowered. Her skin sparked, but finally, a window was cracked open where the living room/dining room/TV room was, and the voice asked what she was doing there, and Gauri responded that she wanted to see if they wanted to go to an event Gauri and some of the other staff were organizing for some of the membership.

“I hate happy hours…”

“It’s not that. It’s like a discussion, sorta? For what we’re gonna do next.”

“You don’t know?”

“Do you want to come?”

“Maybe another time.”

“I’ll come back then.”

“Sure.”

The window was shut and curtains fluttered, the patterns of gold and blue reflecting against the glass. People piled into cars, their uniforms creased but bright and clean. Someone waved at Gauri, as she was about to head into her car and drive off. She waved back at them, and soon, they were out of sight.

Her hands started to shake, so she headed to someplace nearby to get some pakoras and some laashi or maybe. Dust covered the floor. Computer parts. Her hands started to shake. Mango laashi on a hot day. Mango laashi on a  hot day. Mango laashi on a hot day. Ashima and Gauri drinking mango laashi and eating pakoras. Gauri’s side was burning.

Sudip Bhattacharya has been published at Current Affairs, Reappropriate, The Aerogram, and local newspapers across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. He is also an organizer with the Central Jersey DSA, and is pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Rutgers University.

Art: “Court for King Cholera,” cartoon for Punch by John Leech, 1852