Neel N. Patel

These Things Happen

It wasn’t that I was a snob or anything; it was that Chloe wasn’t the girl you invited over to your house. She lived on the other side of town: where the houses were smaller, the sidewalks unswept, the cars parked on driveways instead of in the garage. I’d heard a rumor that her sister was mentally ill.

“I’m a mess,” she said. “But I won’t stay too long. Just a couple hours and I’ll be out of your hair.”

Technically, I didn’t invite her—my parents had gone to Australia for the semester, and I had thrown a party. Chloe was too drunk to drive home. She was huddling over their silk sofa as if it was the gateway to heaven. I knew what she wanted.

“Just make sure you lock the door,” I said.

She said nothing as I handed her a blanket and disappeared. Hours later, she was standing at my door.

“I can’t sleep.” She sat down beside me. “It looks like you can’t sleep either.”

She was wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt over cotton panties. She reached for my underwear and began sliding it down my legs.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Nothing,” she replied. She placed her hand on my thigh. “I’ve never seen one like that before—your dick—it’s different.”

“It’s uncircumcised.”

She said nothing for a minute or two, mulling this over in her head. Then she parted her lips.

“It’s beautiful.”The following Monday, I was late to work. Ray was waiting for me in the kitchen. He was the assistant manager of IHOP and he acted like it was the most important thing in the world. Sometimes he would give me a shove or a kick and I would have to pretend that it didn’t happen—that it was all part of the job.

“There are plenty of people who would want this job,” he warned.

“No one wants this job,” I said. “Even you don’t want this job.”

He told me to watch my fucking mouth and get back to work. Then he disappeared. I washed up in the basin—which was littered with cigarette butts, pancake batter, globs of cinnamon raisin oatmeal. My first customer stared at the menu like it was written in Chinese.

“Now let’s see,” she said. “Does the short stack come with bacon?”

There was a flash of movement across the room; someone was waving at me. I turned my head. It was Chloe. She wasn’t alone; there was a pretty girl sitting across from her looking painfully bored.

“What are you doing here?” I said, walking over to Chloe’s table.c

“I’m eating,” Chloe said. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

I grabbed her menu, making my way towards the kitchen; a few moments later I returned.

“Did you know I work here?”

“Of course, dummy. It’s why I came.”

“Why?”

“Because I wanted to talk to you.”

“About what?”

“About the weather—Jesus—I don’t know. Why haven’t you called?”

At this moment, Chloe’s companion dropped her fork onto her plate and rolled her eyes.

“My sister is mad at you because you fucked her and never called.”

I felt myself go red. A woman turned to stare at us and I quickly smiled back at her, reassuringly.

“Keep your voice down.”

She looked amused, as if she found the whole thing utterly comical. She doused her plate with syrup and resumed eating. I watched her silently. She wore an over-the-shoulder sweater, large gold earrings. Her hair was a cinnamon shade of brown. On her wrist was a plastic bracelet with her name on it—Tara Evans—followed by a barcode. She caught me staring at it and clucked her tongue.

“What?” she said, sharply. “Never seen a mental patient before?”Work the next day was usual: old women with frosted hair, college kids in colored jerseys, families with their screaming kids. The whole place smelled like coffee and smoke.

“You’re on cleanup duty,” Ray said. “Now stop fucking around.”

Cleanup consisted of washing dishes and hosing down vats full of bacon grease. I smoked a marijuana joint instead. When my shift was over, I walked out to the parking lot and discovered Tara leaning against my car.

“Hi.”

“Hi,” I said.

“My sister is in love with you. You know that, right?”

I shrugged. She offered me a cigarette and I took it from her. I looked for the nametag on her wrist but it was gone.

“So are you really a mental patient?”
She smiled.
“Are you asking if I’m crazy?”
She was wearing a black tank top over jeans. She was sweating. There were charcoal patches of mascara beneath her eyes. “This town is bloody boring,” she said, in a fake British accent. “More boring than I recalled.”

“My father says it’s good to be bored.”

“Your father is crazier than I am.”

I wondered if this was true.

“So are you?”

“Am I what?”

“A mental patient.”

She shrugged. The heat shimmered; sunlight dappled her face. She cut her eyes up to mine.

“I want to see where you live.”We drove in my father’s Mercedes, listening to Rage Against the Machine. Tara changed the station.

“This is shit,” she said. “My bloody ears are on fire.”

I wondered if Tara really was British. I wondered if she was adopted. Maybe that’s why she was crazy. There was a girl from our neighborhood who was adopted by two retinal surgeons; her name was Marissa and she was very fat. She looked nothing like her parents (who were trim and slender). Once, when we were little, Marissa marched over to me and lifted up her dress.

This is my no-no.

I had never heard of a no-no before, but then Marissa pulled her panties off and began dancing around.

No, no, no, she sang. No one can touch my no-no. No one but me!
I touched it anyways.

The next evening, when Marissa invited me over to watch The Little Mermaid in her parents’ basement, I touched it again.

By the time we reached my house the sun was impossibly high; the lake was like shredded silver. Tara glanced around.

“I figured it would be like this.”

She stared at the expensive tapestries, the cream-colored walls, the Hindu statues with their multitude of arms. She picked one of them up in her hands. “What’s this?” she said, smiling.

It was the goddess Kali. It was frightening-looking. My parents had bought it in India—along with other frightening things. I was embarrassed by it but then Tara shook her head.

“It’s beautiful.”