The Niagara River
We were in the backyard, my father and I, having our weekly Bible study. Sitting at the picnic table. Mid-prayer. Hands in formation. Then I saw the girl, she was beautiful and strange, standing in the backyard behind ours. Never seen her before in my life. My father’s eyes were closed, he was praying. But she was waving. I did not wave back.
Her name was Bhanu, I learned this later on, and she was Bangladeshi. Her family had moved around the corner days before. And before too long she would become the only thing I could think of, the only thing that could take my mind away from my mother, and her cancer, and from my best friend Issy who had disappeared one early Sunday morning the summer before. As if he’d fallen into a hole.
Bhanu approached the fence. She waved. I looked at my father, his eyes still closed, his head down.
Why didn’t I wave?
Was I embarrassed?
Absolutely. We were doing something strange. My family was strange. I was strange. And I’d sort of already known it, but also had been coming to better know it every passing day at school, because strangeness can pass in grammar school, in fifth grade and sixth grade, but junior high? Not a chance. I was the “Jesus freak.”
But I should have waved to Bhanu, because that one simple wave might have saved me years of trouble—all that time trailing her like a sick dog on a very long leash. I started following her at school, and in the neighborhood. I threw balls and Frisbees over the fence, into her yard, just to have a reason for climbing and standing on possibly the same spot where she’d stood. Once, I waited behind her at a corner deli. I was holding a small grape drink and praying she would not turn and say hello. She bought a pack of black licorice and an orange juice (the only thing I found unattractive about her, which in itself made such a gross mix attractive, because clearly I was the one who was wrong). She paid, and turned, said: “Hi, Josiah.”
I couldn’t say a thing, not a word.
She shook her head. “You’re so weird.”
She left the store, and I stood there looking into the space she had just taken up, at the air itself, the dust in the air, like a cutout shape of her, until the woman behind the counter said, “What you want?”
I bought black licorice and an orange juice and I ate them at the very same time, like two kinds of medicine at once. It was disgusting. But I finished it. I was in love. Or what felt like love. Who knows what it is when you’re so young? I mean, real love has a long-burning fuse, but those first flares burn like hell. And they hurt, and snuff out all too soon. She would have nothing to do with me for years, Bhanu. But that didn’t matter. Because everything else fell away. School. Bullies. Issy. Even Mom’s cancer.
Love is a lot like faith, because you surrender yourself, fully, with no expectations. There is hope, yes, but never expectation. It was years before I finally opened my mouth and said hello back. This was in high school, and I found her smoking in the lower stairwells with the Goth girls and the metal girls, all lips painted black but hers. Slayer and Christian Death band patches on their denim jackets and backpacks. I was entranced. They all seemed so evil and romantic. I was fifteen!
Inspired, I said: “Hello.”
She laughed. “Took you long enough. He lives on my block!” They all could barely stop giggling.
One of the girls high-fived her, and said, “Isn’t he that freak? Aren’t you, like, a Jesus freak?”
Another girl said, “No, he’s the one with the mother. His mother has, like, cancer.”
Bhanu said, “Shut up.”
We walked home together that day, and she said Goth was stupid, but Slayer was cool, and the girls were mostly smart and she liked them okay. We shared from a 25-cent bag of potato chips, and I tried to place her particular and lovely smell—and then one day, a long time later, this was years, decades later, I was offered a coconut milk to drink, and I smelled it, and time caught me up like a trap. Here was Bhanu.
A few weeks on, my father spotted us walking home from school and asked me if I’d made a proper witness for the Lord. Surely I had shared the gospel with my pagan friend? But I must’ve betrayed myself and showed how it had never even occurred to me once. He shook his head in disappointment.
That fall, we started cutting school together. We hid deep in the woods of Forest Park, and watched truancy vans roam along the park roads. We kissed sometimes, and I wondered if God would one day open up the earth and drop me in for loving a pagan.
Because while I knew Bhanu wasn’t a Christian, I didn’t really know what that meant. I didn’t want to think about what it meant for her, or for me, for us, or my family, and so I decided it was easier to just not think about any of it at all. We only talked about it once, and I asked if she thought it was weird. We were trying cigarettes for the first time, stretched out on the cement floor of the Forest Park band shell. We passed the cigarette back and forth like it was delicious, and she coughed. I didn’t. I had a talent for them, right from the start. I liked how the nicotine made everything slow down and go foggy. I rolled my head to one side, and blew smoke in her face. She laughed and slapped at my leg.
I said, “Is it weird that we’re different?”
She didn’t understand. “You mean how you’re so white?”
Now I laughed. “I mean my family. You’re not Christian.”
She looked at me like I was kidding. “You mean how you’re not Hindu?”
I looked up at to the sky, but there was no sky. Instead, I saw the top-ridge lip of the band shell and I thought of a giant clam.
She started to say, “I like you, Josie, even though you’re not a Hindu—.” But she lost control of her voice in a coughing attack made worse by the fact she could hardly stop laughing. I thought of a giant clam, and imagined we were lying prone on its tongue.
It was a long year, and much of what transpired at home with regard to my mother and my father has fallen out of my head since, forgotten. Mom went into remission that year, but I spent most of the year with Bhanu anyway, in and out of school, because she was alive and love was all around me. And I’d thought I’d done a good job of obscuring her presence, even though she lived around the corner. But it wasn’t like my mother was blind to it. She occasionally mentioned “the Indian girl around the block.” When I think back on this sort of behavior, it seems so unlike her. And yet she even claimed once I chose Bhanu because she was Hindu, to make her angry, and that Bhanu must have brought “all of India with her,” because the neighborhood was becoming more and more “brown.” Never mind that Bhanu’s family had moved from Brooklyn. I think she was using the anger as fuel to drive herself onward, and maybe even to burn off cancer cells, for all I know. Dad fell in line just fine.
The two of them started unashamedly hankering aloud for the old neighborhood, bemoaning the fact that in the last few years our corner of Queens had become a haven for not just Bangladeshis, but Indians, Pakistanis; and there were rumors that the construction site around the corner was the future home of a Sikh temple. This was a new strain in my parents. I didn’t like it. Then again maybe it was connected to Mom’s remission, maybe she felt a debt to her Heavenly Savior and nothing less than the purest of Christian worship would do. They talked on and on about the old days, before the high trill of Hindi ragas, before the tap and pounding dance of tablas all of a sudden sang from car stereos all summer long. Before the teenage Hindi boys in shell-top Adidas made out with white girls on brick front porches. The corner store had put up a sign in their window: Fresh Goat Meat. This absolutely horrified them both because, what, now everybody’s too good for hamburger? Dad turned hot dogs on our backyard grill, and the neighborhood barbeques smoked hot yellow curries.
The faces at church changed too. As many brown faces as there were pale, and I could practically see the gears of my parents’ brains turning, trying to process the new information. But I spent most of those services thinking about everything but worship. I thought of school, and graduation, and of leaving our house. I thought of Bhanu. I invited her a few times, but she’d always decline and then invite me to their temple, to which I politely declined. I told her there were people like her at our church now and she should try it at least once. It wasn’t like I was trying to convert her, as I hardly paid attention anymore myself.
One particular Sunday, the minister onstage spoke of all the doomed unbelievers, and I couldn’t help but think of Bhanu. That maybe she was doomed. The elder on stage said they were hiding in our homes and in our neighborhoods, the Devil music-listeners, and the adolescent masturbators, the false clergymen of neighboring churches, and closeted atheists, the New Agers and yoga practitioners, even casual dabblers in the abominable Oriental religions: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs. They would all be punished if they didn’t open up their hearts to the Lord. And then I saw Bhanu’s lovely face. I thought of her mother’s bindhi, the blood-red dot decorating her forehead like the center of a bulls-eye target—she who always had milk and jellied sweets waiting for us in their kitchen, ever since the first time I met the woman, in their kitchen, baskets of peppers hanging from the ceiling, when she first took me into her arms and said with her lilting voice: “So this is the young man who has my daughter in a spell. Let me see you.” She set me in front of her like a melon she was considering for purchase. She said, “Okay. Be good to my Bhanu and I’ll be good to you.”
I sat there looking at the elder and I watched his mouth moving but I couldn’t hear a thing. I imagined Bhanu’s front porch collapsing in the swell of a blood-river wake caused by some warring Millennial and Messianic Chariot. I thought of her hair smelling like coconut and I sort of swooned right there in my seat. I refused to entertain any more thoughts of violence to my virtuous girlfriend. I wanted to run out of church and do something totally dramatic, like yell into the sky and dare Him to touch one hair on her head.
Later that year, there was a high school field trip to Niagara Falls. I didn’t tell my parents, and just went. Forged their signatures. It was the event of the year, for Bhanu and me, and it would be that all day long, with no real adult supervision, somewhere else entirely, outside of Richmond Hill, outside New York City. For the occasion, I bought a Ramones t-shirt from the Aqueduct Flea Market on Rockaway Boulevard, even though I’d never even heard one song. Bhanu mentioned them once and said they were cool and she was going to get their tapes. I never had the nerve to wear it. It looked too clean and too new. On the bus ride upstate I told her all about my friend Issy, how he had disappeared the summer before on his way to the store getting milk for his mother. I told her how much I missed him, and was that weird? We were sharing a tall black vinyl seat and it felt like nobody could see us, we were all on our own.
She said, “You’re weird, but that’s not.”
I told her how I always wanted a brother, and she gave me a kiss on the cheek. What a shame kisses on the cheek never matter so much as you age!
“Now you have me.”
We slept alongside each other there in the daylight, on warm black vinyl, until we got to Niagara. The bus parked. We stepped off and felt the mist in the air, heard the rush and gushing of the falls. We walked toward one of the railings, and the great void in the center of the falls. We wiped water from our faces and stood there, spray raining upward and needling our foreheads. We clasped our hands together and were silent. We looked at the white implosive hole.
She asked if me I’d ever read a short story called “The Wish.” Bhanu loved to read. I didn’t read much, then, so I lied and said I’d heard of it. She said it was about a small boy who played make-believe and actually fell into one of his make-believe holes. I thought twice before telling her the story this reminded me of. But then I did. I told her about the biblical story of Korah, once a wise man of God, who bared his teeth, screaming for help, as the Good Lord punished him and turned the hard ground beneath him into a hole, a gaping and gorging mouth that swallowed him up with all his possessions, even his wife and small children. I told her how it took up two pages in my children’s Bible storybook, accompanied by comic-book-like illustrations, and that I’d seen it performed in full costume onstage at Bible conventions.
At some point she’d stopped me, and said, “That’s a horrible story.”
Her mouth was open and the upward rain was on her tongue and teeth. I moved closer to her, my mouth closer to hers. The mere idea of a kiss! The possibility was so charged—I was surprised every time she let me. We stood there and we watched the rushing falls, and I imagined the observation deck collapsing and sucking us under, and I was okay with that. This was the asshole of the world, and I looked away toward the river, the Niagara River, who ever mentions the poor river? It came roaring at us like water spilled from a bottomless bucket, incoming nonstop across a long and winding table. And then all of sudden, I knew somewhere inside, but could not say, that love was the greatest salve, but just a salve, and I knew that the river was death. Not death, not exactly, but as much as death can be seen in this world, and it was coming for us, all of us, no matter how small; for my mother, remission aside, and it would sweep her under in a year; and for my father, eventually, old age and broken heart would take him; even Bhanu, one day, and then me. Oh to be young again! And stupid! And we were so overtaken by the drama of it all, that I promised I would never let anything bad happen to Bhanu, for as long as I was alive, and then we held hands, and looked down at the falling water, and into the hole, where Issy was, and we would go, and then we looked away to the oncoming water, not knowing what unforeseen things awaited in the days still river-ing for us, and we cued up our Walkmans accordingly.
Scott Cheshire is the author of the novel High as the Horses' Bridles (Henry Holt), and teaches at Queens College, CUNY.