by Aarti Monteiro
They met the year Rani started taking photographs. She had just bought a used digital camera, and took every chance she had to walk around Brooklyn with it. She was coming home from one of these walks when she noticed an older woman outside her building on Sterling Place digging through a purse. The woman wore a maroon coat and stood next to a full cart of groceries, plastic bags bulging from the grates. Her white hair stuck out underneath a lopsided hat. Rani jerked open the front door and held it for her neighbor.
“You shouldn’t open the door for people you don’t know.” The woman smiled, her teeth wide between her lips, as she pushed the cart over the incline. “The neighborhood’s changing, dear.”
Rani introduced herself as they waited for the elevator. She’d noticed the woman in the building before, as she did all South Asians, but they’d never spoken. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. …”
“No need to be formal,” she said. “You can call me Sunitha. Where are you from?”
“Chicago,” Rani said. “Well, outside the city, via Bombay, and Delhi, kind of.” She named the handful of cities she’d lived in before moving to the U.S. She usually didn’t tell people her history, but something in Sunitha made her think she actually wanted to know. Rani braced herself for the question of why she moved around and what brought her family to America, but Sunitha didn’t ask.
She helped carry the groceries to Sunitha’s apartment on the third floor. Entering a stranger’s home was intimate, and yet she felt oddly comfortable. Art books and magazines were stacked in piles everywhere. Books on a big wooden shelf were pushed together, seemingly without order. Rani appreciated the clutter; it made the apartment feel more welcoming. A table covered in small Kali and Ganesh figurines sat at one side, a small altar of sorts. Photographs of different sizes lined the walls. One picture was of a fisherman bent over a net full of fish. In another, a woman sat cross-legged, stringing flowers together, her hands the only part in focus.
“I took those of people I met on trips around India,” Sunitha said. “That’s the only one I’m in.” She gestured to a framed photograph leaning against a pile of books. A man stood in a brown suit. The woman next to him was a young Sunitha, her toothy smile the same. Her hair fell to her waist in a long braid and she stared at the camera. The two weren’t touching, just like in the wedding photographs of Rani’s parents.
“I just started taking photographs.” Rani held up the camera hanging from her neck. She told Sunitha she wanted to capture the people around her but was afraid of being intrusive. She especially wanted to photograph her older brother and parents, though they didn’t allow it except on occasions when everyone was dressed up. But she liked the in-between moments, when it wasn’t planned. “I don’t know, I feel like if I don’t record them,” she said, “no one will.”
Sunitha listened, her gaze barely leaving Rani’s face. “I want to show you something.” She sifted through a stack of books and papers on her desk before lifting out a large photography book. Rani flipped through the glossy pages. Most of the images were of people alone in their homes. Many of them looked directly at the camera. They were more vulnerable that way, Rani thought, as if inviting you into their private lives. Had the photographers known the subjects? She was drawn to a striking image of an older couple, sitting on an unmade bed. There was melancholy in their downturned mouths, but the way they sat close together felt hopeful. That’s what she wanted, to take photographs like that. To be someone a subject felt comfortable around.
Rani nodded thank you and put the book on the table. She hadn’t met a photographer before. She wanted to ask more questions, but didn’t know where to begin. “How long have you lived here?”
“Thirty-four years,” Sunitha said.
Rani couldn’t imagine living somewhere for so long. Sunitha’s apartment had the feeling of someone settled and rooted. Rani had never gotten so comfortable anywhere; she’d learned to prepare herself to leave at any minute, never putting up art on the walls nor fully unpacking.
The teakettle whistled loudly. She followed Sunitha into the kitchen and watched her remove two mugs from a cabinet. One had a lake and the John Hancock building with “Chicago” written in a cursive font. The other displayed a map of Texas. Sunitha poured hot water over a teabag. Before Rani could say anything, she spooned heaps of sugar and splashed milk into both mugs. She handed Rani the Chicago mug and they sat down at the table. A bottle of medicine rattled as Sunitha brushed it to the side.
“My sons gave the mugs to me,” she said. “That’s where they live with their families.” Rani ran her fingers over the letters that were slightly raised on the smooth white mug, and rested her thumb on the cracked lip. Rani’s own family lived in the Chicago suburbs. She liked that she and Sunitha had this in common. “Do you visit them?”
“No, since my husband died, I don’t travel much.” Her voice turned quiet. “My eldest, Arun, comes to New York for work every once in a while.”
Rani sipped her too-sweet tea. Sunitha was probably older than her mother, and yet she lived alone. Like Meera Aunty back in Bombay. Rani felt her chest hollow out for a moment. No one talked much about her aunt or her illness, and Rani suddenly felt an urge to tell Sunitha. But she swallowed the feeling, gulping it down with the tea.
Rani walked down the long hallway back to her own apartment and found her roommate reading on the couch. Lizzy was the final result of a prolonged online search when Rani needed a place to live after college. They didn’t have much furniture—a scratched-up coffee table found outside a neighboring brownstone, a bookshelf from Lizzy’s grandparents, a beat-up blue couch the previous tenant had left behind, and a bed each. The corner of the couch was the only part of the living room that got sun in the morning, and she and Lizzy took turns sitting there. They’d been in the building for almost a year, but compared to Sunitha’s, their apartment looked barely lived in.
“Where’ve you been?” Lizzy asked.
“Nowhere.” Rani headed to her room. “I need a couple minutes and then we can leave.” She washed her face and lined the bottom of her eyes with kohl. She stared at herself in the mirror. Her hair frizzed no matter what she tried. She put on new lipstick but it felt unnatural. She quickly rubbed it off with a tissue and turned off the bathroom light.
They walked the few blocks to a new music venue where Lizzy curated the shows. Rani shoved her hands in her pockets and looked at the sidewalk, her camera resting against her waist. She felt small and dark walking next to her roommate. It didn’t happen with everyone, but there was a particular femininity of white women that made her feel too masculine. She knew better than to believe that her brown skin was unattractive, and yet years of her grandmother telling her not to go outside in the sun had seeped into her consciousness.
The venue was nearly empty, and the only person she knew there was her friend Malak. She was more interested in photographing the events than listening to the actual music. At first the audience members were aware of her and stiffened up, but after a while everyone stopped noticing the camera. She thought about Sunitha’s book and tried to capture people’s expressions. A few tapped their feet or swayed slightly, their eyes half-closed. She played with the shutter-speed to see how it changed the photos in the dim light. It gave her something to do.
When she got tired, she sat next to Malak. They’d met in a South Asian Religion class in college—the only two South Asians there. He was a couple years older and lived only a twenty-five minute walk up Bedford Ave. His skin was lighter than hers, and he was much taller, but people often mistook them for siblings.
After the show, Malak bought a six-pack and the three of them took the bus back to Sterling Place. They couldn’t control the heat and the radiator was on full blast, so Rani changed into shorts. Lizzy went to sleep early. Light from a streetlamp hit the side of the building across from them.
Rani settled into the couch next to Malak and listened to him talk about his mom’s new boyfriend. His curls gathered around his face and the nearby lamp brightened his brown eyes.
“Tell me about your parents,” Malak said. “You never talk about them.”
She didn’t like talking about her family. Her American friends couldn’t understand how different they were from their white suburban neighbors. Malak was the closest to being from someplace else. Though he was born in Maryland, his mother was from Pakistan. They didn’t talk much about it, but she felt lighter around him.
“My dad has always seemed kind of sad to me.” She lifted her feet onto the coffee table. “I remember once, a few months after we came to America, my mom bought him a sweater—one where you can see the stitches on the outside, you know? He put it on and asked whether he was wearing it right and I told him I thought so. And he said, Are you sure? I don’t want anyone to say, ‘That stupid Indian doesn’t know how to wear his clothes.’”
It was embarrassing. Her dad didn’t talk much about being different but it was obvious that he didn’t feel at home in America and probably never would. Somehow her neighbor Sunitha was settled and didn’t need anyone to say she belonged. How had she done that?
Malak put his warm hand on Rani’s thigh, where the soft hair lay flat against her skin. “My mom never says anything like that,” he said quietly, “but I know she feels it too.”
Rani felt his eyes on her, but she stared at her hands in her lap. A warmth ran through her. A part of her wanted something to happen. But not like this. Not when they could pretend it was a drunken mistake.
“I should go to bed.” She moved her feet off the table. Malak’s hand fell. She walked him to the door. His palm lingered on her shoulder for a moment before he left.
The next morning, Rani rushed to her job at a diner, camera in hand. She was always running late because she stopped to take photographs of the sunlight against buildings, the geometric patterns she saw on the street. Walking through Brooklyn this way made her feel like she always had company. Like she was communicating something, even though she didn’t show anyone the photographs.
The diner had opened years before, and served both people who’d been living in the neighborhood for a while and the newcomers. Sometimes customers would ask where she was from and what she was doing in New York. She told them she was from Illinois. They looked at her blankly, either because the Midwest confused them or because they wanted a more exotic answer. They then told her about the Bollywood movies they’d seen, or asked her about the best places to get Indian food. Sometimes they’d try to speak to her in languages neither of them spoke. Each time she forced a smile and her heartbeat climbed up her throat.
Once, an older white woman told her she was interested in Hinduism. When Rani told her she was Catholic, the woman looked taken aback. “I thought you were Indian,” she said.
“I’m from Goa,” Rani said, “which used to be ruled by the Portuguese.” As soon as it escaped her mouth, she wished she hadn’t engaged. Everything seemed to require an explanation, her existence a history lesson.
“Oh! I’ve heard there are spectacular beaches there. I’d love to go someday.”
Rani nodded and refilled her coffee, hurrying away before the conversation continued. Her mother said people were just curious and didn’t know better, but Rani hated being on the receiving end of others’ curiosity. Malak, meanwhile, said she should milk it for a better tip. Lizzy suggested she find another job where she wasn’t constantly exoticized. But she needed the money, so she stayed.
Later that week, Lizzy, Malak, and Rani ran into Sunitha in the hallway. Rani invited her in, ignoring the confused look she saw pass between her friends.
She watched as Sunitha glanced around, taking in the sparse furniture and bare walls. She wished she’d taken out the recycling bin overflowing with beer bottles. A soapstone Ganesh sat on a mostly bare bookshelf, and she wanted Sunitha to notice it. It was the only Indian thing Rani owned, given to her by a classmate who’d traveled to Delhi.
“It looks different than it used to,” Sunitha said as she sank into the couch.
“Have you been here before?” Lizzy asked. She sat cross-legged on the floor. The tattoo of a small lavender plant on her ankle peeked out.
“I knew the couple who lived here before you,” Sunitha said. “They moved in with family in Canarsie after the rent went up.”
Lizzy began to talk about the changes in the neighborhood and how it just needed to include more people. Better supermarkets and restaurants were good for everyone. “There’s not much we can do,” she said, “but at least we’re aware of it.”
Rani was surprised Sunitha didn’t counter Lizzy’s comments. She felt a pang of guilt. She was pushing people out too. But where was she supposed to go? She didn’t belong in any of the cities she’d lived in. There was nowhere she wasn’t an outsider.
“Arun,” Sunitha suddenly said to Malak. “Bring me some chai.”
Malak looked confused. He stood up without saying anything and went into the kitchen. He glanced at Rani tentatively, grabbing a jar of cardamom as though he knew how to make masala chai. Rani shook her head at him and he put on the kettle instead.
“Aunty, that’s not Arun,” Rani said. The “aunty” slipped out before she could stop it.
“Yes, yes, Rani, I know.” Sunitha fidgeted with a loose thread from her sweater. “I should go home now. I’m tired.” She got up to leave before the water began to boil. The door whimpered shut behind her.
“That was strange.” Malak turned off the kettle.
“Alzheimer’s can be so sad,” Lizzy said.
“She’s fine,” Rani said. Sunitha was just forgetful. Her parents mixed up her and her brother’s names all the time.
Then, one Saturday, Rani woke up to an empty apartment. She moved to the couch and flipped through a photo book she’d borrowed from the library. One of the photographs reminded her of Meera Aunty in Bombay—the woman’s short hair, a shadow partially covering her face, her shoulders rounding forward.
Lizzy entered an hour later in the same clothes she’d worn the previous day. Rani knew before she said anything that she’d slept at Malak’s.
“It’s casual,” Lizzy said. Her green eyes gazed down at Rani. “Nothing serious.”
Something tore beneath Rani’s ribcage. She shouldn’t have been surprised. But a part of her had hoped it would be different. Maybe if she’d been more forward or had given into the desire when she’d had the chance. Everything was different now. She tried to smile, chapped lips tight, then left the room, mumbling that she had to get ready for work.
It wasn’t long before Lizzy and Malak were spending all their time together. Rani visited Sunitha a few days per week, bringing her a strawberry milkshake from the diner or making her tea. It started to snow, but Sunitha still wanted to take walks. They wore extra layers and scarves and huddled together as they drifted through the neighborhood. Rani always had her camera and photographed Sunitha and the streets, trying to capture the places that had always been there. She began to see the neighborhood through Sunitha’s eyes. She took a photo of Sunitha choosing oranges from a fruit cart, laughing with the owner in the radiating dusk. Sunitha against a vacant storefront, her gray hair standing out against the blues of the gate. She loved the curves of Sunitha’s face, how the creases around her eyes gathered at her hairline. Sometimes, as they walked, Sunitha pulled her arm through Rani’s, and she imagined everyone around them thought they were family.
They were sitting in Brower Park when Sunitha asked how she liked Illinois. The shadows of the trees looked like dark rivers in the snow.
“It’s not really my home.” Rani picked up a twig from the ground and moved it between gloved fingers. “I lived there for middle and high school, but that’s it. Before that we were in Calcutta, Bombay, and Dubai.”
“That’s a lot of moving for a kid,” Sunitha said.
“You get used to it.” Rani looked up at her. “Well, maybe you don’t get used to it, but it becomes less of a big deal. None of those places felt like home to me, but you begin not to expect that.”
“My husband and I moved here from Madras, and even though we were coming from a big city, New York felt much bigger. I remember I’d be nervous to ride the subway. I’d watch people use their tokens until finally I could do it on my own.” Sunitha laughed. “This is home now.”
Rani’s parents would never feel like that. They had come to America too late, in their mid-forties, and she couldn’t imagine them feeling at home. If she didn’t, how could they? She pictured staying in Brooklyn for the rest of her life, wandering the same streets and knowing the same people. Maybe she could keep living on Sterling Place, or she’d find an apartment alone somewhere else. She’d paint the walls and buy nice curtains and hang up photos as though her home were lasting. If she stayed here long enough, maybe she could say she was from here.
“You should be capturing all this, you know,” Sunitha said. “You’re the recorder of the family.”
“I don’t think my family wants me to. Whenever I try to talk to them about these feelings, they aren’t interested. It’s like we’re living these isolated lives, not wanting to give voice to being outsiders. Saying it out loud makes it more real I guess.”
“It’s hard for them to acknowledge,” Sunitha said. “But I bet you have more in common than you think.”
The wind picked up. Rani dipped her shoulders down to keep warm. Sunitha said she was hungry and suggested they go to a deli a few blocks away.
“You’re going to love it.” Sunitha stood up and straightened her coat. “The owner’s been there since before you were born.”
Rani liked to know the real places in the neighborhood, not just the ones new folks like her visited. They walked the three blocks to the deli when Sunitha stopped. She looked around, double-checking the street signs. What must have been the deli at one time was now a yoga studio and cafe. They cupped their hands to peer through the cold glass and saw that it was mostly full of young white people. A handwritten menu on a chalkboard hung above the register.
Sunitha’s arms dropped down to her sides.
“Should we find somewhere else to eat?” Rani put her hands in her pockets and curled her fingers to keep warm. She was ashamed that the menu intrigued her. She wanted to photograph the remnants of the deli sign peeking through the new sign but kept her camera in her bag.
Sunitha shook her head and headed back to their building. Rani tried to say there were still other places in the neighborhood—bodegas and shops, businesses that everyone could enjoy—but Sunitha was dazed. She looked small, a stillness enveloping her.
“That deli was where I’d take the boys when they were young,” Sunitha said, pushing the glass door open. “We always go there when they’re back.”
Rani followed her into the elevator in silence. Home was changing. It happened after her parents left Bombay, after her grandparents left Goa. Sunitha didn’t need to leave Brooklyn for things to change here, too.
Rani went to Lizzy’s venue that weekend. She leaned against the side of the small, cramped room, and watched most of the show through her camera. The white paint on the walls was flaking, the wood floor beneath them scratched up. Everyone there was probably around her age or slightly older, dressed in trendy sweaters and boots, and had moved to Brooklyn in search of some idyllic artsy life. She and Sunitha would have shaken their heads at this crowd. She wanted to pursue art too, but all the visible self-indulgence bore into her. She at once hated these people and wanted to be like them.
After the show ended, Lizzy, Malak, and the musicians stayed in the plastic chairs and talked about how they wished there were more spaces for them.
“To perform, you know?” the piano player said. “Brooklyn is getting too expensive.”
Everyone nodded along. Rani flipped through the photos on her camera so she didn’t have to talk to anyone.
The bass player turned to her. “Got any good shots?”
“She always does,” Lizzy said. “She takes photos all the time. A real artist over here.” Lizzy draped her legs over Malak’s and his hand ran through her hair. They didn’t seem to care how it looked to anyone around them. Rani couldn’t imagine living so freely.
“She never puts the camera down.” Malak smiled. “Maybe if she did, she’d meet someone.”
Everyone laughed. Rani thought she saw a hint of regret in Malak’s eyes but she refused to acknowledge it. She had no connection to any of them. She’d felt it all her life, this rootlessness. It was like she was outside her body, watching herself go through the motions.
She brushed her hands on her pants as she stood and took a step towards the door.
“We’re going back in a little bit if you want to wait,” Lizzy said.
“It’s not safe to go home alone, Ran,” Malak said.
“Don’t be sexist,” Lizzy said. “She’s a grown woman.”
As they argued about whether or not it was safe, Rani grabbed her camera and left. The bus wasn’t coming, so she walked. The cold air filled her lungs, as if she’d been holding her breath. She loved Brooklyn at night. People didn’t look at each other, but their presence made her feel safe. She imagined her parents walking around Bombay at her age; it felt fitting that she too was living in a huge city. She barely knew anyone and could walk without interruption. It was too dark to take any photos, but she could feel the weight of the camera in her bag, begging her to try.
Sunitha and Rani sat at Sunitha’s kitchen table the next day. The afternoon sunlight highlighted a houseplant’s dying leaves. Sunitha’s face was paler than usual, and she wore a dress that hung loosely over her body.
“It’s hard to be around Lizzy and Malak,” Rani said.
Sunitha stared into the dark well of her tea.
Sunitha looked up as if remembering she wasn’t alone, her eyes vacant. She pushed her chair out from under her and announced she was going to bed.
“Do you need any help?” Rani followed her towards the bedroom, but Sunitha closed the door. Rani washed the two mugs before shutting the apartment door behind her.
The weather was finally getting warmer, but the next few times Rani suggested they go to the park, Sunitha was too tired. Her shoes didn’t move from the pile by the front door, and she often wore the same clothes as the previous day. Sometimes the door was unlocked, and Rani let herself in to find Sunitha in bed. The apartment had become messier: mugs of half-drunken tea in the living room, an overflowing garbage bin, unfolded blankets everywhere. Rani tidied up as Sunitha sat in her armchair. She would begin to open the shades but Sunitha would say to leave them. Sometimes when Rani knocked, her friend’s muffled voice told her to come back later, but Rani never asked why. She was afraid that, just like everyone in her family, Sunitha had a hidden part of her she wouldn’t let anyone see.
As the summer heat returned in full force, Rani visited Sunitha less and less. The diner became more popular, and she worked extra shifts. She came home smelling like bacon and grease every day. The smell had seeped into her skin and no matter how much she tried she couldn’t wash it off.
One night Rani came home to find Malak and Lizzy drinking whiskey on the couch. She was too tired to refuse a glass. She sat with them and listened as they talked about the future.
“I want to travel,” Lizzy said. “You’re lucky you got to live in so many cities, Rani.”
Rani took a sip of her drink.
“I want to go to India. Malak, let’s plan a trip.”
“You know I’m not Indian, right?” Malak said.
Malak and Rani looked at each other and burst out laughing. It was like old times for a moment.
After midnight, they heard a soft knocking on the door. Rani stood. The room spun around her and she fell back onto the couch.
“Relax,” Malak said. “It’s late.” He and Lizzy guided her into her room, and she fell asleep in the denim shorts and t-shirt she’d been wearing all day.
The next morning her head was pounding. The sun shone on her face and she covered her eyes with her hands. She stumbled into the kitchen for a glass of water and heard Sunitha’s voice in the hall. She opened her front door but no one was there.
“I told you, Amma, you need help,” a voice was saying as Rani approached Sunitha’s apartment. The door was slightly ajar. The smell of cologne hung in the air.
She straightened her back and shoulders and rapped her knuckles against the door. The voices went quiet for a moment.
“Yes?” a man asked. “Who is it?”
“It’s Rani,” she said quickly. “I live in 3H?”
She heard shuffling and murmuring. A tall Indian man opened the door. He was broad-shouldered and well-dressed. His short hair was combed back and his beard neatly trimmed.
“I’m Sunitha’s—Ms. Sunitha’s—friend.” Rani said, self-conscious of her messy hair and sleep-wrinkled shirt. She pulled at her shorts, trying to make them longer.
“Invite Rani in, Arun,” Sunitha called from behind him.
Hesitation flickered in his eyes, but he opened the door and motioned her inside. Sunitha sat in her armchair. Her eyes were sunken in, her body frail beneath a knit blanket. The shades were open and for the first time in weeks Rani could see the apartment fully. The pile of dirty dishes had grown and spread from the kitchen like weeds.
“My son, Arun.” Sunitha gestured toward the man.
Rani and Arun nodded at each other, neither smiling.
“He wants me to move with him to Houston.” Sunitha pulled the blanket to her chest. Her cheeks curved inward and the lines on her face were even more severe. “I told him I’m fine here.”
“You’re not fine, Amma, look at you. You aren’t eating. You’re sleeping all the time.” He looked around the room. “You can’t take care of yourself.”
Rani was surprised by his American accent, how pronounced it was. She thought he’d sound more like his mother, the Indian lilt holding on.
“What happened?” Rani asked.
Sunitha and Arun exchanged a look. Sunitha shifted her weight and said, “You can tell her.”
“My mother hasn’t been taking her medication.” Arun sat down and his pants lifted slightly. “Her depression has become much worse. I flew in this morning and found her sitting in this mess. She hasn’t left her apartment in weeks.”
Rani vaguely remembered the night before. How had she not noticed? She thought of all their afternoons together, their conversations about Rani’s problems, Rani’s life. It seemed obvious.
“I’m sorry.” She dug the tips of her nails into her palm.
“I’m not leaving.” Sunitha told Arun. “I’ve been living here for over thirty years. I’m not going anywhere just because I’m getting old.”
“No one can help you here. What if something happens?”
“Rani’s here. She can take care of me.”
“She can’t help you!” Arun stiffened. “She’s not a nurse. She’s just a young girl who’s bored and comes to see you sometimes. She’s not family.”
Rani didn’t know what to say. Sunitha had lost so much weight. She’d always been a small woman, but now the flesh on her arms drooped like wet dough. She’d gotten much worse, and Rani hadn’t done anything. The two continued to argue. Rani wished she could be different, someone who could speak up. But the silence pushed her down like snow.
She wanted to tell her friend that leaving would only cause more trouble. Sunitha couldn't give up. She had made a home here; how could she do it again someplace else? Rani would take care of her, make sure she took her medication, help her go to the doctor. Be a granddaughter to her. And then, one day, if all went according to plan, Rani could become Sunitha, finally comfortable where she lived.
She sat up, about to say that Arun was wrong: she wasn’t bored. Their friendship was real. She looked from Sunitha to the elderly woman’s son. Concern bloomed on his face. He looked like his father in the photograph on the shelf. Where was Rani’s family now? Why had they all left each other behind? She thought of Meera Aunty in her small Bombay apartment, constantly asking when Rani’s mother would visit next.
“Aunty,” she said. “Maybe you need to be closer to your family. They can take care of you.”
She searched Sunitha’s face for a glimpse of betrayal. But Sunitha only looked defeated. Rani wanted to say she’d visit or that they should keep in touch, but she’d said goodbye to more than enough people to believe they could maintain a real friendship from across the country. She was usually the one leaving, not the person left behind. She couldn’t help but wonder who would move into the apartment next.
Sunitha stood and went to her room, shut the door behind her. Arun and Rani, left in the silence, began to clean.
Aarti Monteiro is a fiction writer and educator. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Rutgers University-Newark and her work has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue. Born and raised in India and Illinois, she currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.