Catfishing in America
“Really,” I was saying. “I thought I was the only Sanjana Satyan in the world.”
“Don’t feel bad,” Sanjena Sathian said. “You are, technically. I’m just almost the same. But we’re still our own people, with our own individual identities, our own combination of letters. You've got a Y. I’ve got an E, an H, and an I. Hm. I guess I do have more than you.”
I examined her for differences. Her complexion was clearer and lighter than mine. Were her eyelashes thicker? I thought my teeth might be whiter. Our hairstyles varied: she wore hers short, almost pixie cut, daring to expose much of her long neck; mine hung past my shoulders, straight and unassuming. She wore a small silver stud in her right nostril. My nose was rounder. In a cute way. I thought—I’d have to check back home—that I had a tiny beauty mark in the left corner of my chin.
Yes. We were altogether distinct.
Not long before this meeting, I received an email from Sanjena Sathian. She said she’d heard of me and couldn’t help but want to say hello as she was new in town and felt we might have something or two in common. (Haha, she added.)
I replied and there we were, sitting in a badly lit café down the street from the town’s junkiest motel, me sucking at the dregs of my iced coffee.
I was, perhaps, too hopped up on caffeine, which I’ve found can warp reality.
“What do you do for work?” I asked.
She said she’d be starting a job at the salon down the way pretty soon.
“You should come by. I’ll give you a deal. You need some cleanup-schmeanup,” she said. She reached out to touch my brows.
I have always been nervous around women who feel they can touch other women without invitation. They seem to see something in you that you do not see in yourself. Her fingers were slightly wet with condensation from her own iced coffee glass.
“So, you’re a writer.”
I nodded; I had already told her this over email.
“Are you writing a novel or something?”
“I write for an airline,” I said.
“What does a person write for an airline?”
“Things we say to customers, the blog, tweets, the security pamphlet, the signs on the tray tables, the scripts for the welcome-aboard videos and thanks-for-flying-with-us messages. You’d be surprised how sensitive it all is. When people get on a plane, they’re thinking about all kinds of nasty things: crashes, terrorism, food poisoning from the chicken, getting locked in the lavatory. You’ve got to tread carefully.”
“Can I have an example?”
“Well. I wrote a little sign for the exit stairs that says, See you later, alligator! And I renamed our in-flight magazine. It’s called Cloudy with a Chance of Adventure.”
“So, uh, no novel? Just for fun?”
Once, I had thought about these things. A long time ago. Another life, another self. I had an English teacher who told me writing books in America required grand ambition. The river of American voices ran rapidly, roughly, was always brimming over; it was easy to drown. However, if you succeeded, your book made for a pretty little raft that carried people downstream on sweet, sunny days.
My mother advised against the pursuit, wisely. There were easier ways to live.
“No,” I said.
“You don’t dream of, like, working for a magazine, or something?”
“No,” I said.
“Not even a limerick, huh.”
Sanjena was living in the motel, like a refugee. She was a refugee from her mother, and tradition, and her mother’s idea of America as the kind of place where you imported your old nation whole and planted it down and made your daughters and sons the seeds and you the soil. When it came time for her to begin blooming in her mother’s America, she ran away and started living in that motel, hiding while her mother called everybody she knew because the potential grooms’ portfolios were stacking up on the kitchen counter and her daughter had fled her borders.
“Sometimes you just want more for yourself,” she said.
“Sometimes,” I agreed. “Me, for instance—I’m taking up a hobby.”
I told her about the summer course at the community college. The title of the course was: Catfishing, the Great American Pastime. Mostly the college’s continuing education classes were about cultivating a new leisure interest, many of them related to the river that cut around the southern part of town. They taught boat maintenance and stream hiking and something called Water Observation Techniques.
“Catfishing, huh,” Sanjena said. “I grew up a strict vegetarian.”
We said goodbye. “Sure,” I found myself saying when she said we should definitely totally catch up again soon. “Anytime.”
Like Sanjena, I’d been a lifelong vegetarian until recently, when the girl at the health food store told me I was suffering from a major protein deficiency. “Is it a cultural thing that you won’t eat meat?” she asked.
I considered. “I guess by now, it’s just habit. My mother never ate meat, so I didn’t either.”
“But you could give it up? The vegetarianism?”
I considered again. My mother, if I ever told her, might flinch. But she would say nothing. Children change; America changes them; she had accepted that long ago. “Sure,” I said. “People change.”
The girl gave me some fish and told me how to cook it: olive oil, cayenne. I stood over my white tile kitchen counter, held my breath, ate it alongside a quinoa/brown rice blend, and realized perhaps I’d never felt full in my entire life. I wondered what other Great American things I had been missing out on.
The class cost $275. It met at night, twice a week. The instructor sent a note about what to bring to the first session. River-friendly boots, waterproof pants or outerwear, a flashlight.
After meeting Sanjena, I went on over to the Everything! Emporium to pick up supplies. I encountered a doleful, green-vested man by register seven whose job apparently consisted of being ignored by passing customers as he asked in an eerie, flat voice: “May I direct you through our wares at the Everything! Emporium?”
“Yes sir you can!” I said. His name was an aristocratic Vernon.
“Oh,” he said, surprised. “Uh. Know what you’re looking for?”
As a scripter myself, I recognized a person who’d lost his script. The Everything! Emporium folks had apparently stopped short of giving Vernon a full set of lines, and now he was lost under the blinking yellow by aisles ten through twelve.
“Vernon, you a fisher?” I asked.
“Been once or twice with my dad. Old man loves it. Not my thing. C’mon. Aisle ten.”
We walked around under the Everything! fluorescent lights. In every aisle, mannequins demonstrated the use of products. A boy and girl occupied an on-sale tent, their faceless heads pressed romantically together. A Barbie-breasted mannequin in a wig cooked dinner on a stainless steel stove. EVERYTHING! YOU NEED FOR A MODERN LIFE, a sign read.
Two hours later, I was at home cooking a whole-wheat low-sodium spaghetti Bolognese. The sauce flecked out of the pot onto my too-white tile. I took a rag to it, dabbed like I was mopping up a sliver of blood from a paper cut, and thought about how soon I’d be feeding dead bait to soon-to-be dead catfish and then eating that catfish as a soon-to-be-dead human myself. I’d say to the catfish, One day the universe will eat me, too. That seemed like a big relief.
Everyone I knew was gone. Left town or married. Married was as good as gone. In this town, marriage was a great ambition, a great achievement, to be celebrated and toasted. Marriage was the easiest way to make a life.
The girl at the health food grocery had told me she’d be moving to Yorktown. For a guy she’d met on GreenDating dot com who “seemed like a pretty good match.”
She was my last lonely person.
Once I overheard a conversation between twiggy Patricia Morand and Ken-doll Willem Orfin in the lunchroom. Patricia was wrinkling her nose in a delicate fashion and saying her father was taking her hunting that weekend. Willem replied that a person should never agree to eat something they couldn’t kill, skin, gut, etc., himself. Or herself, he allowed.
The night of the first class, I packed up my trunk at dusk. It was late summer, and the light persisted well after eight; the chorus of small-town, thick-heat summer bugs—cicadas, crickets, katydids—jabbered like they were cheering me on. Good for you, I thought, going in for something new. Not shacking up. Making an effort to make a life.
When I got to the classroom, I found a guy drawing a fish on the chalkboard. He was writing Mister No One in the fish’s belly. The chalk’s scraping muffled the pretty insect chorus erupting outside.
“I’m Jack,” he said. “Don’t think about calling me Mister. Always someone wants to call me Mister. I am Mister No One, alright?”
He repeated this to each person as they came in.
“This here’s our crew,” Jack said when we were assembled. We were: myself; a father in a camo hat with virile shoulders; his teenage daughter, sporting pink acrylic nails; and a bald man of retirement age.
Jack asked us how many’d never caught a catfish for themselves before, not ever. I raised my hand. Jack stared down the teenage daughter. Her father lifted her elbow. “Amy’s never, not yet.” She rolled her eyes. The dad had a minor paunch and a summer tan, a clay mix of brown and red.
“Well, ladies, y’all are gonna get your own catfish really soon. Big ones for dinner or wall mounting or what have you.”
Baldy whistled. “Ladies who can catch themselves catfish, well,” he trailed off as the dad looked at him sharply. Baldy then expressed doubt at Jack’s affinity for night-fishing.
“Fishing’s a state of mind,” Jack said. “And nighttime is the damn best state of mind around, you ask me.” Cooler weather, quieter wind, hungrier fish, he said.
Then he showed us pictures of blue cats, the kind we’d be chasing down. The sonar images looked like ultrasounds of alien fetuses: gray, staticky, twitching with emerging signs of life.
“Excuse me,” the daughter said at a pause. “Can you tell me how come you like killing these innocent catfishes, huh?”
“Catfish, m’dear. Catfish are catfish and people are people, that’s why,” Jack said.
My mother sent me off with a neighbor’s family to go trout fishing when I was a kid. She believed it was an essentially American experience and hoped not to stand in the way of my acclimatization to the national culture. This was her way. My mother, incidentally, had never spoken of grooms’ portfolios. She had not imported her homeland. She had never even put me on a plane to visit it. Poor Sanjena, I thought, reflecting on this.
The family took me out on a long splintery boat onto the broad, silt-riven river. We could not see the creatures bobbing around beneath us. What bodies were we about to pull up, out of their mucky lives, into our foreign light? I cried watching my eight-year-old neighbor learn to gut a fish, squeezing along its belly to eke the feces out in a thin eyebrow shape. I cried so hard I made the whole group troop home earlier than planned.
I slept through my morning alarm. I couldn’t remember hitting snooze. I only woke at the ding of a new text message. From Sanjena. Hang out come by see you soon, or the like.
A half-mile from the office, I pulled into a gas station lot. I was exhausted. Maybe I could down some murky coffee or something sticky and neon, just for today. The convenience store smelled of garlic. They were out of coffee.
“Need to wake up?” the pimpled kid behind the register asked. I nodded.
He took a thumb-sized black-and-red bottle from the front counter by the rack of gum. “Eighteen-plus, but you look it,” he said. I laughed a pimpled-kid-friendly laugh. “It’s good. Keeps you awake whether you want to be or not. I use it for exams and stuff.” He looked far from eighteen-plus.
I shelled out the four dollars and downed it. It tasted like fizzy children’s Tylenol.
“Haaave a really really good one,” the kid said as I jangled out, and I thought he had the voice of a potentially excellent flight attendant, provided someone gave him a damn good script.
“SAH-TEE-AN,” Jerry, my boss, boomed across the cubicles. “My office.”
I sat across from him. He emitted a small burp. “I just got back from Le Piccino’s.”
“Is that French or Italian?”
He looked at me like I’d said nothing. Maybe I’d said nothing. “Sah-tee-an, tell me something. Tell me, what’s your greatest ambition? Forget this airline, or wherever. Maybe you want to write movie screenplays or be on friggin’ Wheel of Fortune. Go big. What do you most want to do with this short life?”
“I like this job,” I said. The fizz of the morning’s drink seemed to be running up and down my midline like a column of bubbles, keeping me awake. “I’m happy here.”
Jerry laughed, leaned back in his white ergonomic chair. He said this was a great town for a family man like himself, but I was still a smidge young, if I didn’t mind his saying so, and don’t go making that into something it’s not, since he was just a man observing that a woman who works for him is of a certain age.
“Sure,” I agreed.
“Anyway,” Jerry was saying. “If you’re a person who likes this work and you’re a person who likes to fill up your life with work, I’ve maybe got something for you. It’s not yours yet, understand—this is an ‘invitation to apply.’” He air-quoted with meaty fingers. “It’d get you out of this town, for one. And into the skies above.”
There was a job available. Its title was Shadower. They put you on flights and you took notes on what is-slash-isn’t translating from the vision of the In-Flight-Experience to the reality of the In-Flight-Experience. Jerry said I’d be good at it. Not so good if I were a Big Personality, no offense, he’d said. A Shadower has gotta blend in.
He asked, did I have ‘it’?
“It?” I said.
“The drive. The X-factor. The hunger. The ambition. Do you got it?”
I opened my mouth to reply.
“That’s what they call a rhetorical question, Sah-tee-an,” he said. “There’s nobody can answer it but you, and nobody can hear the answer but you. Think Dr. Phil said that.”
The first time I removed hair from my body I did it because of a boy. The boy did not know of me. I saw him in a magazine, kissing the smooth, hairless legs of a blonde woman. I thought if ever I met that guy, I’d rather have legs like that woman than not.
The moment before a waxer puts the hot viscous stuff on your body and rips it away always makes me shiver. Not because I know the pain is coming, but because lying there, on the waxing bed, is a statement of intent. It says: I have decided to make space for the potential that someone may kiss me in the smooth parts.
I thought that was a kind of ambition.
I went by Sanjena’s salon to have my eyebrows done. They were starting to look like the bristles in an etch-a-sketch.
When my turn came, Sanjena examined my face like a surveyor scouting a new landscape. Then she was pressing and stretching and squeezing my skin, searching for every clot, hair root, or sign of purulence. She said my skin was super-super-icky-clogged. She said I was makeover material. She told the register boy to unlock the private room in back. It had an ominous yellow door, the color of congealed wax.
I was going to call out her name to object—I did not think I needed a makeover—but I stopped. I mean, my name wasn’t Stacy or Wendy or Kimberly or something. I’d never called anyone else by my name. It seemed an embarrassing prospect, so I shut up.
I lay back on the starchy medical paper they always put on waxing beds. I waited. It felt an awfully long stretch of time to be alone with myself. The neon drink had abated. I closed my eyes, assenting to the heaviness of afternoon sleepiness. I thought I heard the beginnings of a summer thunderstorm. I wondered how catfish experience a thunderstorm.
Sanjena finally jiggled the knob on the back door. She took to my face with the thread and then she moved beyond my eyebrows, attacking the baby hairs along my forehead and chin and even the skin above my lip. It normally hurt, a lot. But she made the pain feel distant. The sound the thread made was like the hum of a hair dryer in the next room. “Good,” I heard Sanjena say. “Relax.”
Soon, her breath against my cheeks receded. I opened my eyes and gave a start. I saw my own face on Sanjena’s head, with Sanjena’s hair framing it. She’s taken my face! I thought. Then, she lowered the large handheld mirror. “You look good, right?”
I said I thought I did. “Done?” I sat up.
She laughed. “Clearly, you have never had a makeover,” she said. “These things take time.” She gripped my shoulders with surprising strength and pushed me back on the table.
Her latex gloves and a flat piece of cotton blocked my line of vision. Her features loomed. She squeezed my forehead; she pressed my nose upward; she pulled my cheekbone taut; a series of minute somethings emerged like little worms from my pores. I felt excavated. Lighter. “You feel clean, right?” Sanjena said, and I nodded. It was as though a film had been lifted from me. The recycled air in the waxing room tickled my upper lip, my forehead, my new cleanness. Sanjena held up a latexed finger. “Grosssss,” she said. “That was in you.” I saw the tiniest glint of black.
“I don’t mean to get too philosophical about it,” she said, “but I always feel like these little-bitty things inside us, stopping us up, are what prevent us from becoming who we want to be. You know?!”
She giggled, shook her head.
“Oh, Sanjana,” she said. “You look totally awesome.” And she went out of the room to ring me up. I looked again at the handheld mirror. I really thought I’d had a tiny beauty mark in the corner of my face. But maybe it had just been a speck on my bathroom mirror.
Once, when I was a teenager, the Everything! Emporium held a beauty expo. A friend and I wanted to get makeovers, very badly. We traipsed up and down the aisles eyeing the makeup saleswomen. The friend said we had to catch their gaze just right and seem like the exact-right mix of pretty but improvable, with money to spend. No one called us over, so finally we picked one woman. She was flour-pale and wore purple glimmering lipstick. We touched the plastic coverings on all the eye shadows spread out on her table, the little humps of them, gazed at the crimson and electric-blue underneath. Still the woman did not offer us a makeover.
“Hey,” said my friend. “She needs to learn how to put on makeup. Because there’s no one in her house who will teach her how. She’s Indian. So maybe you could do a makeover?”
The woman pursed her purple lips.
Suddenly I could not look at anyone. I stared up at the fluorescent lights. I looked over my shoulder at a mannequin head onto which someone had stuck long black false eyelashes—nothing else, no face, just the eyelashes.
“I would, honey,” the purple-lipped woman was saying. “But every powder I have is too light for her skin tone. She’ll look like a ghost.”
The next day at work, I thought I was going to be sick. I had a pile of samples of our redesigned airsick bags in my drawer. Cream, trimmed with royal blue. Subtly, I made use of one.
For the next catfishing class, we were supposed to bring our preferred type of bait. It stank up the room. We placed our offerings on Jack’s desk. Hot dogs, leather soaked in WD-40, processed catfish dough in a red jerky packet, raw bacon, three-day-old shrimp left to bake in the garage heat, chicken liver. I had with me two plastic bags with shad swimming around. The bald retiree snorted at this; he had brought the chicken liver and the shrimp.
“Almost,” Jack said when he got to me. Baldy frowned. “Fresh, good. But, ah, not so alive next time.”
Jack told us we’d be going to the spot where the two regional rivers met, where the warmer water touched the cold. “Place is pretty as hugging your mother,” he said.
“Say,” said the teen girl’s father as we walked out to Jack’s SUV. It was dark already and we weren’t even on the water yet. I yawned. “Where you from?” he asked.
I told him from right there in town. Moths flitted around a streetlamp’s yellow light. It lit up his features, which were attractive, in a local politician kind of way.
“I’ve never seen an Indian lady into fishing,” he said.
“Pleased to meet you.”
“Aren’t you Indian? I mean, the dot-kind?”
“Dad!” the girl said. “You can’t say that.”
I said that, seeing as it was a free country, he could say whatever he liked.
“Good lady, taking a joke,” the dad said. “Don’t be such a bluenose, Amy.”
We shook hands. His was broad and surprisingly soft. I was disappointed when he let go.
On nights we got on the water, Jack backtracked on his promise of being Mister No One. “Mostly, I’m Mister No One. But sometimes, you’ve gotta listen to Some One, and for now I’m Some One. If I tell you to stop, y’all stop. If I tell you not to lean out the damn boat, you don’t lean out the damn boat.”
Baldy didn’t come very often, then stopped coming altogether.
“Finds night fishin’ creepy,” Jack said, when we asked about him. “Takes a creep to know a creep.”
The dad told me he and his daughter needed a good old-fashioned summer hobby, now that it was just the two of them.
“Lost her mom,” he said, nodding at Amy’s back. Jack was helping her into the boat. She had long, pale legs that were creamy in the moonlight. The dad told me he didn’t have a problem with taking direction from Jack, that it didn’t impact his masculinity or anything like that. “I like fishing, because you’re looking for something really specific. Everyone agrees on what you’re looking for, no fussing around. But it’s okay if you don’t find it. People go to all this trouble most of the time in life to agree on a goal. Right?” I agreed. “But in fishing, no fighting. That’s a nice thing.”
I started getting to know the pimpled kid at the gas station. I stopped by a lot. He always seemed to be on duty. Sometimes I went at night, after class, instead of in the morning. There’s an American fellowship about a gas station at those blue-black hours. The only cars in the parking lot are trucks or lonely people’s beat-up sedans. You nod at each other.
Sometimes the kid suggested alternate substances. He was becoming my personal chemical apothecary. In return, I gave him Sanjena’s name so he could see her about his skin.
I had to meet the interviewer for the Shadower job. I almost overslept. I never used to oversleep.
The interviewer’s blonde dye was dulling at the roots. A strip of thin brown ran down the middle of her scalp, like a skunk stripe.
We sat in a conference room on the third floor, above my regular cubicle. Light angled in through the windows. I could see just the outlines of our reflections on the pane. The vista of our town filtered in through the shapes of our bodies. We were empty figures on the glass, and we contained in us the whole town, the gas station attendants and the salon workers and the boats and the river and all its fish.
When the woman asked me about my ambitions, I remembered another person with a face like mine and a body like mine and a small beauty mark—a definite beauty mark—in the left corner of her chin; I recalled that this person with the beauty mark on her chin had once wanted to write books that floated people downstream on clear American days.
I said I’d really like nothing more than to spend my hours sitting in the blue cloth seats on gray domestic planes, ensuring that everybody from flight attendants to pilots were saying all the right lines at all the right times. I swore I was ready to take to the skies.
“You know some catfish can walk?” Jack told us as the boat settled onto still waters. I leaned against the white railing, pressed it into my kidneys. “Really.” (Jack directed this to Amy.) “Some’v been killed by cars. Those kinds’re illegal here in America, though. Inn-vay-sive-spee-sees. One guy, he ran a whole dang business bringing them over from godknowswhere in Asia, and had ‘em all up in his house in Florida and guess how they caught him?” I shook my head to say I did not know. “A catfish got loose, and somebody caught it just walkin’ along outside his house. Crossin’ the street. Why’d the catfish cross the road? Things we’ll never know, huh.”
Amy did not laugh. Her dad and I did.
“I’ve always suspected they know what’s coming to them,” Jack said, this time to the dad and me. He held up a fish by its middle, avoiding the fins. A soft yellow light spooled out from our Coleman lantern. I could see the eye taking us all in. It was an amoral kind of eye. It was flapping about, but not desperately. It was kind of just doing its duty, a prisoner of war who wanted to be able to report that it had not simply submitted, should we throw the creature back. This catfish seemed ready to meet its end.
“These are smart fish, contrary to popular belief,” Jack explained. “They can smell an earthquake before it happens. They hear things you and I don’t. I re-fuuuuse to believe they just dumbly swim on over to our bait. I think the fish we catch have got themselves some kinda existential death wish, and I think we’re doing right by ‘em.”
“It’s a dark thing to say, but I get the sentiment, sometimes,” the dad said to me, softly. Jack re-started the boat. The dad and I leaned over the railing and the ocean sprayed us and my skin was clear and caught the fresh water and I blinked, I felt awake.
“Me, too,” I whispered. I couldn’t see the full map of his face but I caught his profile; behind him, a waxing gibbous moon. He was still summer-tanned, and his chin was broad and solid.
Jack turned from the wheel and lifted his voice over the water to call to Amy. “That answer your old question? ‘Bout why we do this? It’s all about the wishes of the universe here, m’dear.”
I kept running late for work. I worried I had moved beyond sleep. Caffeine had stopped affecting me; nothing helped, not the gas station drinks, not the Styrofoam-inflected coffee at work. Perhaps I would never again be awake. It took a lot of work to be awake. My sheets were cool in the mornings. I wanted to stay there longer, longer. Going to work was just a performance: I would flop around like a captured catfish, just to show that I was trying, and then die anyway.
Finally one evening, I took a nap. I was supposed to be on the water that night. I set an alarm so I’d wake up for the class. When I awoke, it was three in the morning. My duvet had muffled my phone. I regretted missing the class, but when I went to work in the morning, I was grateful for the extra hours of sleep.
I had forgotten to bring lunch. I was trying to work on some new signs for the cockpit, stuff that would dispel imaginings of a turbaned terrorist sprinting down the aisle with knife in hand and the destruction of Western civilization in his heart. I had drafted a few in blue fountain pen ink on cream cardstock. My favorite so far was: Hey, friend, leave your worries behind, we’re headed to the skies. I couldn’t concentrate. My stomach growled. Then, around twelve, Ken-doll Willem came by with the Tupperware I always keep in the fridge and said how I looked hungry and I shouldn’t forget to eat. I could’ve sworn I’d forgotten my lunch.
Jerry passed and said he was en route to Della Fromage for his own midday supper. He did not invite anyone.
“Your sister stopped by and dropped it off this morning,” Willem said, running a tan hand through the side part of his sun-lightened hair.
The lunch was couscous, with catfish.
I made up my mind. That night on the boat, I would say something charming to the dad. I would maybe touch his arm with mine. I would give him my number.
Amy wasn’t there. “She does this sometimes, disappears, shuts the door and won’t come out. Since her mom died. Say, maybe I should ask you. You’re a woman.”
I agreed that I was.
“You close to your mom?”
I thought about it.
“Sorry if that’s personal,” he said.
I told him a few things about my mother, uninteresting, skeleton things, the kind of outline he could fill in however he desired. I told him about the boxy ballroom dance of our relationship—the way we held our arms just so and kept enough breathing space between us but became strangers when the music stopped.
When we were unhooking the boat from the back of Jack’s minivan, he said: “People’ve been saying I should see a shrink. Or she should see a shrink. Or we both should. You know how many specialists they have for these things? They’ve got children’s therapists and family therapists and grief counselors and people who have spent years doing nothing but talking to the daughters of recently-dead mothers. So people say, here, I’ve got a name for you, and you go and see the lady and she’s got all these degrees on her wall and she really seems to control the room, you know? She looks at you like you’re a child yourself and she says something like, ‘Okay Dad, I’ll take it from here.’ And then she sits with your daughter in a room for an hour talking about godknowswhat and that gives you even more stomach troubles, but people just say how good it is you’re getting help, like help’s a box you buy online and climb into and boom, everything’s okay.”
I was quiet and he was quiet and we got on the boat and he started fiddling with the Coleman lantern.
“I thought,” he continued, his voice so close it was almost in my brain itself, “I thought, maybe if me and my daughter get on the boat together, maybe we’ll learn something more than any shrink can tell us. We’ll both agree on what we’re hunting for.”
You sometimes can tell if you’re in a dream. In my dreams I never see my own face. But there weren’t any mirrors around and the water was too dark to check.
“Hi,” said someone, giving me a hug from behind. My hand gripped the cold boat railing. It was a woman, warm, slender but soft, and Amy wasn’t here, and I didn’t know anyone these days who would hug me.
“Hi,” I said to Sanjena. I turned and saw that her hair was longer than that pixie cut it had been in the first time we met. Now it was past her ears. Soon it would be as long as mine.
We got to fishing and I stood next to her as she cast her line. I didn’t ask her how she’d gotten here or whether she’d showed up at my office and talked to Ken-doll Willem or if she thought the dad was cute. “Did I have a beauty mark on my chin?” I asked her.
She laughed. “Why would you ask an almost-stranger that?” she said. “Don’t you look in the mirror?”
Jack came over and stood between us and threw an arm over each of our shoulders and said how nice it was I’d brought my sister and how we even looked a bundle alike and that last class when I didn’t show but she did, everybody mixed her up with me for a hot second.
The pimpled kid wasn’t at the gas station in the morning. Instead there was a Sikh man.
“Where’s the other guy?” I asked.
The Sikh shrugged. “These kids come and go,” he said.
I was a finalist for the Shadower job.
“Congratulations,” Jerry said. “I can tell you’ve got planes in your blood.” He said I must have been a frequent flier my whole life because you can’t teach someone how an In-Flight-Experience is supposed to feel, you’ve got to know it in your bones, it’s got to fill your bones.
I told him I’d never actually boarded a plane before joining the company.
“Not even to go back to—where are you from, again?”
I told him from right here in town.
I told him from right here in town.
He laughed a big belly laugh, placed his hands on his paunch, leaned forward in his white ergonomic chair. “I get it. You’re an American. That’s why I’m gonna tell you this: I know you’re a word girl and not a music girl but if you get this job, listen to those songs they play at takeoff and landing. Just listen. Those songs, they’re America. Some airlines play the Beatles or Swedish bullshit. The reason this little domestic airline is great, if you ask me, reason we’re almost as proh-fit-ubble as the big guys who swoop all over the Middle East or what have you, is that we play the soundtrack of this God-bless-ed country.” He leaned back in his chair, satisfied. “Not to take away from your scripts,” he added.
Then I went to a meeting where the topic of discussion was flight attendants with difficult-to-pronounce names. I suggested replacing Adjoa with Alicia and Xiao with Alexander. I felt the beginnings of a doze coming on.
I considered not going, but in the end I did. I thought I’d tell her off, tell her to stay away from my boat and my office and the dad. I was going to tell her I knew she had taken my beauty mark. A spell or a curse or an allergic reaction, maybe. If she could take it away, maybe she could put it back and the world would un-tilt.
I arrived at the salon. The same boy as last time sat at the register.
“Where’s Sanjena?” I asked.
“Perfect timing,” he said.
He motioned to follow him to the back room. This was not the same room where Sanjena had attacked my skin and my hair the other day. It was an altogether different room. The door was not sickly yellow but ivory white. In place of the waxing bed was a dinner table, covered with a pale lavender cloth. An orchid in a vase rested in the center. I realized I was meant to sit in one of the chairs by the table and I did. The lights dimmed a bit, becoming wintery, and mulling cello music began to play somewhere. There was something I was forgetting, some intention or ambition about my visit here.
The man who walked into the room was wearing a white lab coat and carried a light-brown leather medical bag. He was tall, Indian, neither handsome nor ugly; I had trouble, honestly, in the dusky light, making out his features, but there was something comforting about his shoulders—a few inches wider than mine, big enough to cup my head if I were to lay it on him while we slept. He said how suited we were for one another, him being a dermatologist and me being an expert in the alchemy of women’s skin. We ate some bland risotto in companionable quiet. I asked him what was required to remove a beauty mark.
“Well,” he said. “I’d need to be on consult for you to do that. A person needs to excise it. It’s a process. Scalpels are involved.”
He said he could show me some videos of his procedures soon. I said I’d like that.
I thought of how easy it might be to be a wife. I thought somehow I might sleep better with a body next to me, and I forgave the girl at the health food store for leaving town. I thought of how simple it would be to become a mother, naturally so, because I had all this space in me, all this emptiness rattling around. On the wall I thought I saw a couple of shadows resembling reality, two people in a cave having dinner a thousand times.
“Well, you certainly are a suitable girl,” the dermatologist said. “Like your mother promised.”
On the way out, I remembered there was something I had to do. I asked the boy again where Sanjena was. The dermatologist laughed and the boy laughed and the boy said he had no idea why the dermatologist and I had decided to have our little date here in the salon but that he’d see me tomorrow morning, have a good night.
“Show me the names of everyone who works here,” I said. I knew this was important.
The boy pulled out a clipboard. “Tomorrow’s shift lineup,” he said. “Best I can do.”
There was no Sanjena on his list.
There was a Sanjana on his list.
“Did someone just quit?” I asked, with effort; my head ached dully, I needed caffeine.
The boy said yeah, um, and pointed at the chair first from the right, where Sanjena had been working that day I came in. “She got a new job,” he said, as though I should know this already.
A hairstylist I didn’t recognize with a dark bob and teal highlights walked by, packing up for the night. “Never could place her, could you? Some kind of runaway. You just wait, someone’s going to show up in here saying that girl stole their credit cards. A fishy one.”
I asked if either of them knew what her new job was.
“Something at that airline,” the boy said.
My dermatologist and I stepped outside onto the sidewalk. It was raining. You couldn’t fish on a night like tonight.
Across the way was the Everything! Emporium, stocked full of Everything! a person needed to last a whole lifetime. You could stay in there forever, I thought, like those mannequins camping out and cooking and wearing great black false eyelashes and being good Americans and it would almost be like real life. It could be just as real as real life if you wanted it to be.
A guy in the Everything! parking lot walked to his car with a couple of big bags on his arm and a gangly girl—a teenager, a daughter—next to him. Someone got out of the passenger seat and started helping him pack up the trunk. Under the dim streetlamp in the lot, I saw that she had black hair, but I could not make out its length, or whether or not she had a stud in her nose. They were rushing against the rain, going somewhere. The dad and his daughter and the girl, Sanjena, if ever that was her name, drove off.
My dermatologist mentioned that he had not loved the risotto.
“I’ll cook next time,” I said. “Fresh catfish.”
Sanjena Sathian is an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and an alumna of the Clarion Writers' Workshop. Her fiction has also been published in Joyland and Boulevard and has been first runner-up for the Boulevard Emerging Writers' Short Fiction Prize. Prior to Iowa, she worked as a foreign correspondent in Mumbai.