Excerpted from the story “American Life,” this section from my newest novel, Before We Visit the Goddess, about three generations of women in a family, describes how Tara, a young Indian American who has lived in the US all her life, feels about her boyfriend, with whom she lives:
After our first fight, I made a list to remind myself why Robert is special:
4. He’s a great cook. (I’m not.)
3. I love his hands. I’ve loved them ever since he ran them over my naked back at our very first meeting. (This is not as risqué as it sounds. I was at Bodywork for the Weekday Half-Hour Special, which Blanca had bought me as a birthday gift.) He gave me a full hour and then invited me to dinner. Over souvlaki and ouzo, we discovered that we shared a passion for sci-fi movies. A month later, he asked if I’d move in with him.
I knew it was too soon. Plus I’d never lived with a man. Yes, I said. Oh, yes.
2. He’s an intriguing mix of contradictions. He loves literature. (On our first date, we discussed Paul Auster.) Yet every Friday night he gets together with his high school buddies to play pool. Sometimes it bothers me, how he has these different compartments in his life. (He hasn’t introduced me to the Friday buddies. Not that I want to meet them. But still.) I wonder which compartment he’s placed me in.
Are these frivolous reasons? How about this one, then:
1. Robert is nothing like my father.
The reason for my fight with Robert is a stuffed raccoon. He won it from Victor, his best buddy, the result of a pool-playing bet involving something called a bank shot with throw (the intricacies of which I fail to grasp), and installed it on our chest of drawers two weeks ago. Apparently, the raccoon is valuable. More important: Victor had shot and stuffed it himself, and he was terribly cut up at having to part with it. He offered to buy it back from Robert for two hundred dollars.
“And you refused?” I eyed the creature with disbelief. Its upper lip was lifted in a snarl, and one front leg was shorter than the other (though that could have been the result of Victor’s taxidermy). It appeared ready to spring off the chest of drawers and launch itself upon us.
“Naturally,” said the love of my life. “You should have seen Victor’s face.” He ran his hand over the raccoon’s back. “Feel the fur—it’s incredible, soft and bristly at the same time.”
I declined. The only thing I found incredible was that he expected me to sleep in the same room with this monstrosity.
“Want a shower?” Robert offered as a peace gift.
I considered sulking, but I love showering with Robert, his fingers unbuttoning my clothes, letting them drop where they will, the way he holds me as he soaps my back, as though I were a child who might slip and fall.
But afterward, I couldn’t sleep. I stared at the sliver of moonlight that had edged through our window, illuminating our belongings: secondhand waterbed, two gooseneck lamps that didn’t match, chest of drawers, a teetering stack of books. Coming from my parents’ overcrowded home, I’d felt proud of our minimalism. But tonight it frightened me, how either one of us could walk out the door and not feel we’d left behind anything we cared for.
Except, now, the raccoon.
I became aware of a musky odor. The raccoon? Surely it couldn’t smell, except of whatever embalmment Victor had used. Was it the scent of another woman? I couldn’t stop myself from imagining Robert at work, his hands caressing female curves. What did he say to them? What made him the most popular massage therapist at Bodywork?
The raccoon’s glass eyes glinted. Its tiny teeth shone, so white they could have been in a toothpaste ad. I pushed myself closer to Robert and held him tightly until he gave a drowsy grunt and twitched away.