The Wi-Fi was out: that was the first sign. The second was that my dress was an eyesore. Online it had appeared chic and trendy, but in person, at the mall, it was an egregious mistake.
“Bachelorette party?” the saleslady had asked.
“First date,” I’d said.
His name was Vibash, and we’d met online, through a dating website for Indians called Shaadi.com.
He was an engineer. He was thirty-five. He was handsome, with dark hair and dusky skin. The first time he messaged me, I told him all about my job as an interior designer, making it sound glamorous and important, even though it wasn’t. It was depressing.
Sometimes I would come home after staring at a blank wall for hours, wondering what to mount on it, and imagine my clients’ lives unfolding without me. Once, during a renovation, I took the spare key of a doctor’s beach house and drove there in the middle of the night.
I walked around the large empty space, which was sheeted with plastic, speckled with tape, and imagined myself living in it – with a husband, a dog, a child who looked vaguely like me. I stole a bottle of wine from their refrigerator and drank it in the front seat of my car. Then I backed into their mailbox.
I wasn’t always this way. But the friction of life has a way of turning sharp edges into smooth ones, smooth edges into sharp ones, until you’ve become a duller, slightly misshapen version of your former self. I used to be happy, in the way that people on Facebook seem happy, posting pictures of their husbands and friends.
I was the kind of woman who would say things like “I hope you get that promotion” or “I’m sorry about your grandmother” and actually mean it. No one ever told me that happiness was like a currency: that when it goes, it goes, and that few people are willing to give you some of theirs.
The cable guy showed up at seven forty-five. It was dark outside, black clouds hovering low to the ground. He looked Latin, or Persian, with a thick, scruffy beard. I stared at the tattoo on his arm – a skeleton of a mermaid surrounded by a school of dead fish – then up at his face.
“The Wi-Fi is out,” I said, closing the door behind us.
He followed me into the living room, where my modem sat next to a pile of indiscriminate wires. He looked me up and down. “Are you going to a party?”
“The dress,” he said, smiling. “It looks like you’re about to hit the town.”
I went upstairs and examined myself in the mirror. Earlier that evening, Vibash had asked me to send him more pictures, so I did: me on a sailboat, me on the beach, me looking sad, then happy, then cross, all in a little frame I’d put up on Instagram. He didn’t respond, and I thought I would die.
Then, just as I was about to delete him from my cell phone, my email, my life, he said I was beautiful. And it was funny how it could happen: how just like that you could live again.
I went back down and found the cable guy standing in a pile of thick cords and wires and plastic tubing. His tool belt was on the floor. His name was stitched across his chest in bright blue lettering: Ricky A. I wondered what the A was short for. Alvarez? Alvarado? I was famished.
“Are you almost done?”
“What? Oh, yeah. I just gotta clip this wire here and...”
I went back into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of wine. I thought about Vibash, about his thick dark hair that was graying at the sides, his wire-framed glasses, his black Mercedes-Benz.
He was six foot two – tall for an Indian – with a fine build and ropey muscles. His profile included a picture of him running a marathon, and the way the sweat had poured down his front, darkening his shorts, had made my thighs turn to water.
I was thinking about this when I felt Ricky A’s presence behind me. He was standing in the half-light, staring at a picture of Lord Shiva on the windowsill. His blue face stared back at us, serenely.
“Are you Hindu?”
“This picture. It’s a Hindu god, right? Are you?”
“No,” I said. “I mean yes, maybe. I guess so. My mother put that there.”
“My cousin is a Hindu; he converted. He lives in Orange County with a bunch of guys in an ashram. Are you close?”
“You and your mom. Are you two close?”
It was a personal question to ask, practically vulgar, and yet I found myself answering. “I don’t know. We used to be, back when I was engaged. Then my fiancé canceled the wedding and now she looks at me like I’m an alien.”
I wondered if he, too, would look at me differently. We stood like that for a while, Ricky and I, gazing at the picture of Lord Shiva, trying to decipher what lay behind his enigmatic smile, when my cell phone broke the silence. It was Vibash; he was waiting.
“Look, is it fixed or not?” I asked.
“Oh, sure. Why don’t you check it out for yourself?”
Ricky A followed me into the living room. I opened my laptop. I could feel his eyes on the back of my head. I could smell his cologne, too – a cheap-smelling fragrance that reminded me of the boys I went to high school with. I was nervous. I covered up my screen with my hand, embarrassed by the Match.com profile that suddenly popped up in the window. “Yep – it works.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” I said. “Look, I really have to go now.”
He followed me to the door. He scribbled something onto a receipt. Then he handed it over. “This is my cell,” he said. “If it acts up again, you just call me.” He stared at me for a moment, as if he were about to say something more; then he stepped out into the night. “Have fun at your party.”
Two years ago, I had it all: a successful career, a doting fiancé, and an army of well-wishers.
I didn’t realise the former two determined the latter. After Amal broke up with me, my friends dropped off like flies, making excuses for their absences: emergencies and scheduling conflicts and some horrific but convenient catastrophes.
Thank god for Valerie. We went from drunken sorority girls to drunken adults, functioning through our alcoholism. Then one day she got a boyfriend – Doug – and everything changed. Once, we were having brunch together when I asked Valerie if she ever wondered if Doug was gay.
“You know.” I smiled. “The mannerisms.”
She dropped her croissant on the table.
“Well, the way he moves, for one, and the way he talks, and his voice. It’s kind of nasally, right?”
I laughed, doing an impersonation. She stared at me.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
I was only joking about him being gay; I only sort-of thought he was gay. I wouldn’t have said anything at all if Valerie hadn’t been going on about the engagement ring they’d seen at Tiffany, and how it was perfect, and how Doug had wanted a destination wedding because that way fewer people would attend.
I just wanted to inject a little humour back into our lives, the way we did when we were girls, when life and all its disappointments were a million miles away from us.
She said it was best if we didn’t speak to each other for a while.
My Uber driver – Siddharth was his name – was lost.
“I am following directions and round and round we are going.”
It was dark out, stars glimmering across the sky like handfuls of spilled salt. I was an hour late.
“Listen,” I said. “How long is this going to take? We were supposed to be there ten minutes ago.”
He glanced at his wristwatch.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “I might as well have driven myself.” For weeks, while Vibash and I messaged each other, I had dreamt of this moment: at the office, the gym, while listening to music in the shower.
My previous experiences with dating had been disappointments – awkward dinners with stilted conversation – but Vibash was showing signs of promise. We already shared all the things in common two people could possibly share: a love of foreign films, hip-hop music, and Japanese food. We’d already had the requisite conversations, in which we divulged every embarrassing story from our youth.
We’d already told each other about the romantic failures we’d had, the mistakes we’d made, and, at thirty-four, I had already begun to imagine myself as a bride again, wearing the gold and ruby jewellery my mother had brought back from India, shortly before Amal and I split up.
It was pathetic.
Excerpted with permission from the story “god of destruction” from If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi, Neel Patel, Penguin Books.
Neel Patel is a first-generation Indian American who grew up in Champaign, Illinois, USA.