Neel N. Patel
These Things Happen
“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.”
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.”
“Because I wanted to talk to you.”
“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,” 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?”
“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 feminist, Venkat. I want it—I want it for my room.”
I wondered what a room in a mental ward was like—I pictured a padded white cell with metal bars on the windows—but then Tara put the statue down and gave me a look.
“Got any weed?”
We smoked outside. After three hits I was gone, blinded by the sheen of Tara’s legs. I hadn’t even noticed that she had taken off her clothes. She was wading through our swimming pool in her panties and bra.
“Get in,” she said. “The water feels amazing.”
I watched her like a shark. I watched her and she watched me back. Her hair was flaxen, fanned out like a jellyfish. Her eyes were liquid green. In the sparkling light she smiled at me.
“No I’m not.” I giggled. “—I’m not.”
“You are. Prove it.”
I undid my pants, sliding them down to my feet. Then I peeled off my t-shirt and jumped right in. The water was cold, freezing my spine and making my nipples shrink like raisins. Tara swam over to me immediately.
She slipped her hands into my shorts, rubbing the tip of my cock. I was harder than hell. When she pulled away, there were little rivulets of mascara running down her cheeks.
“You could fuck me, you know,” she said, kissing my lips, my chin, the dark hair on my chest. Then she drifted away. She stepped out of the pool, water sluicing off her legs.
By the time I turned around she was gone.
That night, I drank two Jack and Cokes and watched a marathon of Mad Men on TV. I thought about my parents. They had emailed me from Cannes, and later from Sydney, where my father had gone snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef. My emails back to them were full of lies, stories about school, about a math exam I had taken and how I had gotten the highest grade—in reality I had missed the exam, and my math teacher, Mrs. Beaumont, had left three messages on my parents’ machine. On Sunday morning I slept through my alarm, burying it under my sheets, and at ten-thirty Chloe called.
“You’re making a huge mistake.”
“My sister—I know you’ve been seeing her.”
“So she’s crazy.”
The light outside my room was blinding. I got out of bed.
“She lies, you know. One time, she told my parents she was teaching English abroad and then later we found out she was working at a diner in Illinois.” She paused. “And then there’s the other stuff.”
“What other stuff?”
I crept downstairs. The kitchen was in disarray. There was a box of half-eaten pizza on the stove.
“I’ll tell you later,” Chloe said.
“You’ll tell me now.”
“I’ll tell you in person. When can you meet?”
“What for?” I said, growing impatient. “What do you want from me, anyways? What’s wrong with you?”
She was silent.
“I just want to talk.”
I hung up the phone.
The next day I looked out for Tara but there was no sign of her. I waited for her in the parking lot but she never came. I circled the diner and drove by her house and after stalling for twenty minutes I drove back home. Then I lit up a joint. Chloe called six times that evening. I need to talk to you. She left voicemails I deleted, sent text messages I ignored. She wrote emails with the subject heading: please read now. I discarded each one. After a few days of this, I blocked her number altogether. Then I started drinking again, a few Jacks here and there; sometimes it was so much I couldn’t remember where I was. Once, I swallowed a handful of molly and woke up hours later in my parents’ garage. The phone rang and I answered it. It was Tara.
The first time we fucked it was raining: one of those hot summer rains that soak through your skin. The streets were slick and glistening and the clouds were like clumps of steel wool. Tara was aggressive in bed.
“I like it this way,” she said. “And from behind.”
She visited me at work, planting herself in the back, reading thick yellow novels by Russian authors she loved. She wore the same combination of t-shirts and skirts. Her arms, long and thin, were covered in bracelets. She never took them off. I didn’t know what Tara did; she’d spent a year in college before declaring it a doomed enterprise, a waste of her intellect. And then she went crazy. I didn’t know about her past, about the mental wellness facility or why she was there, but then one day she took off her bracelets—gold, pink, silver, blue—and showed me the scars.
She said the first cut was scary in the way most good things seem scary at first—like diving off a cliff or a bridge. But the fear quickly changed into something else. Something she couldn’t describe. It had happened in college, during the spring of her freshman year, and her roommate had found her lying on the floor.
“My parents didn’t know what to do with me,” she said. “And I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
We became entwined like those trees in the forest that bind together to form one giant tree. I continued to skip school, a result of Tara’s exhortations, and the messages mounted on my parents’ machine. We had picnics at my house, feeding each other with our hands. We kissed for hours in the back row of foreign films. Sometimes we would get drunk and go to the park and play on the swing-set and gaze up at the stars. Once, Tara showed up at my work wearing a trench coat.
“I’m naked underneath.”
We fucked in the backseat of my car. In the moonlight Tara’s raised scars looked like streaks of mother-of-pearl. She asked me to kiss them and I did.
“It feels the same,” she said, shivering. “It feels just like before.”
I told her I felt it, too. Then one evening, I was alone in the kitchen when I started thinking about Marissa and The Little Mermaid. I don’t know why. Maybe it was one of those things: one thought follows another, naturally. I wiped the image from my mind. Then I called Tara on the phone. Later that evening we were drinking absinthe by the pool.
“What’s it like?” I said.
“That place—the one where you used to live.”
“The loony bin?” She laughed. She was wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt over denim shorts. She was shivering. “It’s like summer camp,” she said. “Except that everyone’s crazy. And the counselors have PhDs. And every morning you have to fill out these stupid questionnaires.” She lit a cigarette in her hands. “And no one writes to you. Your parents stop pretending you exist.
They visit you every now and again but never ask you how you are.”
“My parents do that anyways,” I said. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“It’s worse.” Tara shook her head. “It’s like being in a zoo. But it doesn’t matter, anyways, because I’m never going back.”
She walked over to where I was sitting and kissed me openly on the mouth. Then she sat on my lap. We stayed like that for a while, Tara and I, until the sky bled purple and orange and pink. Later that morning, I told her I loved her.
It was like that for a while: sex and talking, talking and sex. We never went to Tara’s house; instead she slept over at mine. I figured she was embarrassed of where she lived—once, Tara had asked me what my parents did for a living and when I told her my father was a cardiologist she had made a snide remark. And then there was Chloe. She still emailed me from time to time. Sometimes she would call from private numbers. Once, we saw her car parked outside my garage.
“And I’m the crazy one,” Tara said.
It was gone by morning. Tara made French toast with caramelized bananas, and we ate them in my parents’ bed. Her dream was to study pastry in New York, open a bakery of her own. When she asked me what my dreams were I didn’t know what to say.
“A boy without a dream?” She began kissing me all over. “Now that’s the saddest thing I ever heard.”
Then one day, Tara disappeared. It was seven o’clock; we had planned to meet at the park. The sun was setting and the sky had turned the color of blood. I was sitting under a tree, watching a group of teenagers playing touch football near the swings, when I began to lose hope. I called Tara’s cell phone; there was no answer. I sent her a text message. There was no reply. The sun dipped behind the trees like bright molten lava. I smoked a cigarette and left.
The next morning, I ate Cheerios in front of the TV all day and waited for Tara to call—she didn’t. I went to her house and she wasn’t there. I waited three more days and heard nothing. Then I drove to school.
She was standing by her locker, a smile on her face. She saw me approaching and the smile disappeared.
“Where is she?” I said.
“Tara. Where did she go?”
She said nothing.
She let her purse slip from her hands. “I called you—I called you about a million times. I sent you text messages. Emails. I thought maybe you were dead or something. You could have just told me to get lost.”
“I’ve been busy.”
She shook her head. “Well you won’t be busy anymore. She’s gone, you know—Tara—you won’t be seeing her again.”
“What do you mean she’s gone? Where did she go?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“Because I’m her friend—that’s why. I have a right to know.”
“Her friend.” Chloe laughed. “Tara doesn’t have friends. She doesn’t stick around long enough to make them.”
I could see it in her eyes: the smugness. I wondered what would happen if I punched her in the face. Then I remembered how she had snuck into my bedroom that night and done what she did. “You’re wasting your time,” Chloe said, packing up her things. “But I think you realize that by now.” She stood back and shook her mane of platinum blond hair and I caught a whiff of her body wash or her shampoo. Then she spun around.
“She’s back in the hospital,” she said, giving me a look I would never forget.
“She cut herself again.”
At the hospital, I was greeted by a short black woman sitting at an information desk lined with silver frames.
“I’m here to see Tara Evans.”
“Tara Evans. She’s on the psychiatric floor.”
She glanced at her computer. A family rushed by carrying silver balloons. Suddenly, I was reminded of the time my father took me to the hospital, seating me in the doctors’ lounge, handing me a stethoscope in hopes that I would become a doctor as well. I remembered the day we drove four hours to visit the Ohio State University. I was only twelve at the time, but I had roamed the campus anyways, sharing a coffee on the quad, and after dinner my father gave me my first taste of beer. The next morning, there was an application for the six-year medical program at Ohio State University sitting on my desk at home. I pinned it to my wall. I knew what was expected of me. I knew what he wanted. There was never any question of that.
A few minutes passed and the woman looked up at me with a frown.
“I’m afraid the patient is no longer here.”
“She checked out this morning.”
“Where did she go?”
“She’s been transferred.”
“She’s been transferred to Graves,” the woman said. “The mental wellness facility.”
I was motionless. She offered to write down the name and number as well as a set of rudimentary directions to take with me, but I told her that wouldn’t be necessary. I would find it on my own.
For three days I did nothing. I sat by the pool, drinking cheap wine. I got fired from the IHOP. I called Tara’s cell phone about a million times. Then one day I got an email from her. It said that she was sorry, that she didn’t mean for it to happen, that she loved me and that if I loved her back I would find her—if I had the time.
It was all I needed to hear.
The facility was sixty miles away, in a town I had heard of but never seen. It was nicer than I had expected. The walls were made of glass and steel. A woman with sculpted blond hair told me to sign in—visiting hours were just beginning—then she directed me to a waiting room out back. There were other visitors: women in business suits, grandmothers with their dogs, young girls wearing sweatshirts over name-brand jeans. They looked nothing like I had imagined. The facility, with its antiseptic gleam, looked nothing like I had imagined. And then I realized something: Tara’s family wasn’t who I thought they were. I took a seat by the windows. I stretched out my legs. I glanced at the coffee table and picked up a magazine. The cover featured a pretty young girl standing in a field with a question mark floating above her head: “Do I belong?”
“No,” I whispered, turning the page. “You do not.”
Moments later, a woman in a white coat led us down a long hall. My stomach began to turn. I thought about that night in my car, the dazed look on Tara’s face. I thought about Marissa and The Little Mermaid. It had been years since it had happened, but the memory was still fresh in my mind. It was her parents who’d caught us. We were in Marissa’s basement, on a cot reserved for visitors, in a corner of the room they wouldn’t have thought to look in. “Sex-play” is what they called it. This was what they explained to my parents that evening, sheepish yet calm, their smiles frozen beneath designer frames. They said it was perfectly natural: these things happen. But only I knew the truth. Only I knew what I had done to her. Years later, I could still hear her cries. I could still feel her rigid body beneath my frame. I realized that this was what Tara noticed when she saw me that first day at the diner.
I realized we were the same.
After a few moments, the woman in the white coat opened the door and everyone filed into a room—mothers, daughters—everyone but me. I stood outside and waited. I shifted my feet. I swallowed the lump of coal that lodged itself in my throat. Then I peered into the room. Tara was sitting quietly with her arms folded across her chest. She was staring at the wall. I could almost hear her breathing. Earlier that morning, the secretary had told me that Tara was expecting my visit and that it was nice to see someone finally show some initiative for a change.
She never saw me leave. By the time I reached home, the clouds were gray and the rain came down harder than it ever had before, lashing my skin. I can think of one other time when it rained that hard. The time I saw Chloe. It was the Saturday after homecoming; I was drunk at a bar. Chloe was with her friends. She spent the whole evening giving me weird looks from afar, until finally, just as I was leaving, she reached for my hand.
“Take me home.”
I did as I was told. By the time we reached Chloe’s house my pants were around my ankles and we were fucking in the backseat of my car, as if nothing had ever happened. Two days later, I got a letter in the mail. It was from the six-year medical program at Ohio State University. It was a letter of regret. I took it inside. I placed it on the stove. I poured myself a whiskey and went searching for a knife. Then I took the knife onto my parents’ patio and locked the door. For an hour I did nothing. It was not Chloe who saved me, or my neighbor, Mrs. Williams, but my parents, returning home from their vacation, prying the knife from my hands.¨