On Friday afternoon, Pooja tried to kill herself. But the canal wasn’t deep enough. She stood up, surprised, and tried to walk back to the edge. Then she slipped and hit her head against the wall.

~ ~ ~

The Indian girl came up to me.

Maya, she was Indian-American, second generation or whatever you call them, the ones who are filled with angst and a longing for a homeland they don’t even know. But that’s a different story. And I don’t really care about that story.

What happened to your friend? Your family friend? She meant Pooja. She knew we were having an arranged marriage. Maya probably laughed about it and told everyone else.

She’s gone back home, I said. She wanted to spend some time with her family.

I know how that feels, Maya said.

I’m sure you do.

She didn’t spend much time on me. I saw her scurry back to the group. She was reading the wine menu with two other girls. And they were whispering to each other. One laughed. I think Maya looked back towards me. I reached for the vodka tonic and nudged Massimo to a corner.

What happened, he asked me, I got your text. Everything okay?

She’s gone. Gone back home; her mom came to Amsterdam to pick her up.

Mom picked her up? So the marriage is off?

I don’t know. Maybe she doesn’t want to hurry. I didn’t want to get married anyway.

Did you guys do it? Wasn’t that why you went to Amsterdam together? So did you do it?


Which means you held hands?

No, which means I pulled it out, last minute.

I thought that sort of thing doesn’t happen with your arranged marriage scene.

The pulling out?

No, the sex before marriage, because you don’t really know each other.

I knew her. I got to know her.

So the sex happening isn’t so rare?

Stranger things have happened. And I think she started liking me.

And you?

I guess. She was nice, but slightly messed up.

Why don’t you call her? Is she coming back to her job in London? Maybe you guys can still meet. Even try dating? Like normal people?

Maybe I will. I don’t want to lose any of my options.

How many options do you have?


You mean right hand or left hand?

Shut up, Massimo.

He laughed. The two spots on his temple lit up. When Massimo was a teenager, he crashed his bike. He had broken his skull into twenty pieces; they screwed it back, held together with a steel frame. He spent more than a month in hospital. His mamma prayed for forty days, kneeling in the pews of her church, hands together, nails scraping each other clean. When he went back to school, he had all the girls pitying him, rubbing his back. But that’s not where he wanted their hands.

His mamma found his marijuana tree when he was in hospital.

She let it grow. If that will bring him back, let it stay, she thought. And he came back, with a spaceship on his head for a year.

Mamma died when he moved to Rome. Not because he moved to Rome, though one never knows with Italian mammas. His father was still around, smoking his pipe in the backyard where the tree grew to ten feet. Smoking his pipe and wondering why he felt so happy every evening. And that’s why Massimo had the two grooves on his forehead. That’s where the spaceship was attached to his head.

When the spots on Massimo's temple stopped glowing, we went back to the group. They were taking photos with their iPhones. Some smiled, but mostly they kept their faces at about 30 degrees from the camera. Pretending it wasn’t there. Pretending they didn’t care, and they wouldn’t spend hours obsessing over the photographs after they’d been tagged. Everyone tries the casually disinterested look. I look good from 30 degrees too. And with the crooked smile, or smirk. It was the French-Mauritian or Mauritian-French girl taking photos. Celine. I knew what she’d do – blur out the edges with instagram, add the scratches and upload them in a day. Hazy photos of a bygone era. Manufacturing nostalgia. About the good times.

Celine with Maya. Rome 2012, la dolce vita. Like.

Liesbeth lays out a plan for malnutrition in Tanzania. Like.

Me in apartment, scrolling down phone book. No one to call. Like.

Rome, with angel statues and Michelangelo. Like.

Massimo with head split open. Fractured leg, blood dribbling out of penis. Like.

Pooja in canal, slightly stunned. Like.

How many photos can you like in a lifetime? How many can you share? How nostalgic can you get about yesterday? About five minutes ago? These people could be nostalgic about dinner by the time dessert comes.

I was flipping through photographs. Real ones. On paper, in a magazine. I saw Michael Douglas. He had throat cancer. He was in a white linen jacket and a pink shirt, looking all dignified and sexy while he announced it. Throat Cancer could be a fashion line he looked so good saying it. Stage Four from the House of Cancer. Five thousand victims in the US every year. Must be a hundred thousand in India. Throats roasted and lungs fried out of order, like in the pictures on the packets. Eighty per cent chance of survival, they said. He had a sore throat for a month.

Holy shit. I had a throat ache. Had one for three weeks. Could feel it every day. I tried to read but the lines were fading away. I blew through the straw into my vodka tonic and it burped back.

I cleared my throat. It hurt. Don’t think about it. Don’t panic. The lines came back: other symptoms include numbness in the face. I stretched my jaws. Swallowed. No spit, but something was going down. But these were the stories that happened to other people. Alien abductee. Young software billionaire. Young cancer martyr. The good ones always die young. 'He was such a good soul, couldn’t hurt a fly. But you know, those are the ones God wants back.' Somewhere Charlton Heston has a stable full of young men and women.

I tried taking a sip of the vodka. Tried to feel it swirling inside my mouth. Rolling down my throat.

Some girl came to me.

What does your name mean? I looked up. Krantik? It means the fighter. Fighting against what? Against oneself, against the universe, I think. Wow, that’s so profound. I smiled at her. This could have been my chance. But I didn’t have the time. Could I feel my cheeks? I wasn’t sure. I pulled Massimo out of the group.

We went outside and he rolled a joint. He could roll in a minute flat. Mix in palm, slap on paper, roll, lick, twist end closed. We were in the alley behind the kitchen. There was a couple kissing in the dark end. We might have looked cool, like figures out of an indie movie. Sometimes I couldn’t remember if a video was on YouTube or in my memory. Everything was an image of an image of an image. But that’s not why I smoked. I liked it.

Then I remembered. I think I may have throat cancer, I told Massimo.

Don’t be stupid, Massimo said.

What do you mean? Have you even noticed: I’ve had this sore throat for a month. I can’t swallow properly.

Have a paracetamol. He wasn’t even interested; he looked at the couple. Now they were moving and grinding against each other. I thought I heard the guy fart.

I had to show a doctor. Or maybe I shouldn’t. Or maybe I would be a fighter. Shaven head, thirty kilos lighter, but always a brave smile on my face. All the nurses in the cancer institute nursing their mega-crushes on me. Krantik. The lion-hearted young man. His story can’t end now.

I might be dying, I said to Massimo.

Aren’t we all?

I’m serious.

Listen, I have some brandy at home, maybe we could go over after this. Good for your throat too. We went back in.

The party people were all there. They were like the Internet. They were everywhere, I could ask them about anything in the world and they’d have some answer. But I couldn’t get to know a thing about myself. I had to leave; I wasn’t feeling well. Maybe everything was okay, but then why did I feel a ball of lead in my chest?

I had to get back home. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life talking to deer.

Excerpted with pemission from No Direction Rome, Kaushik Barua, HarperCollins. To be published in May 2015.