Second Place Winner of Voyage’s Best Chapters Contest judged by NYT Bestselling Author Soman Chainani
“The green tea-macchiato ice cream,” I say, “with cherries.”
“That sounds ridiculous.” Raj flashes me a grin. “Can I have some?”
“You want me to share my ice cream?” My eyebrows lift, and I hope my tone conveys the extent to which my ice cream belongs to me.
I take out Dad’s credit card, wondering if anyone will notice the name on the front, but Raj is already unfolding his wallet. “I got this,” he says.
“You don’t have to.”
“I want to.”
I put the credit card away. “Fine. But you still have to get your own ice cream.”
We settle at a tiny circular table in the basement café of my favorite neighborhood bookstore, Facts & Fiction. It’s 4:30 PM, and people are already savoring round-bellied glasses of wine and chilled skinny glasses of craft beer. “Marshmallow wheat,” says Raj, reading the menu. “Wonder if that comes in a keg.”
“No fake ids at F&F,” I tell him. “I need to be welcome here.”
I don’t have a fake ID, of course, but Raj has several, variously implausible ones. One of them lists him as a thirty-four-year-old Utah resident, Roger Plover. His buddy’s idea of an amazing birthday gift. “It’s a gag gift and it’s practical,” Raj told me at the time, though I don’t think he’s ever managed to use it successfully.
It’s strange how easy it is to be with Raj right now, compared to how hard it was to be with Peter this afternoon. I don’t know if “easy” is the main thing I should look for in a relationship, but it’s got to count for something.
Our ice cream arrives in little glass dishes with pink plastic spoons. Raj has chocolate mocha. “A classic,” he tells me. “It knows what it is. None of this fusion stuff.” He takes a bite. “Yes, amazing, ten out of ten. Try some?” Raj holds out his pink spoon.
“I’m good,” I dig into the creamy green-tea fusion. “I have my own.”
“Okay,” Raj says. He watches me taste my ice cream. I can feel his eyes on me as I polish off the cold sweet dollop.
I watch him take another spoonful of chocolate mocha.
We’re watching each other eat. It feels a little intense.
“You know,” I say, “I’m going to browse around for a minute. Can you guard the ice cream?”
Raj lets out a breath. “Sure. I’ll be here when you’re ready.”
I walk away, conscious that Raj is watching me go. I know he likes the way I walk. He told me plenty of times, back when we said things like that to each other.
I can feel myself blushing as I imagine his attention to the sway of my hips.
This was probably a mistake. No, definitely a mistake. I am not ready for this much proximity to Raj.
To clear my mind, I consider the row of remaindered books down near the café. I’ve gotten books here before. They’re always a good deal, and there’s such an assortment, it’s hard to resist.
A WWI history book reminds me of Peter, who is obsessed with the time period. I slide the book halfway from the shelf, thinking I could get it for him. A war book could be a peace offering. But I don’t know if I’m ready to make peace with Peter. He made me feel like I had to choose between him and Raj. Even though I leaned on Peter in the hazy pain of last year, it doesn’t feel like Peter’s call to make.
The remaindered books aren’t working for me. I head upstairs to the main floor of the bookstore. I love how the people behind the counters are always reading, unless they’re ringing someone up. And I love how there are so many customers milling about.
Before I realize where my feet are leading me, I find myself at a small section. Sociology and urban planning. My finger runs along the shelf until I reach a very familiar book.
I pull The City at Arm’s Length from the shelf. It’s an exploration of D.C.’s microcultures from the past decades, in full color, photographs by my mother, Julia Stephen.
Still in print, after all these years. We have a few copies at home, though I haven’t looked through them lately. But now, I let myself open the book, its pages crisp and new-sounding.
I flip past the unlikely by-ways and oddities on its pages: the hidden lanes in Rock Creek Park, where the city resembles a wilderness. The nightlife down on 14th Street, where it’s hard to imagine my mom hanging out with a camera. Then one photo stops me. The flamingo sky over the Arlington Bridge. My mom saw it too. She saw it like I did.
Or now, seeing her photos, I see the world through her eyes. There’s no more intimate gift, maybe. Being able to see or feel what someone else does.
I swallow hard and flip all the way to the back of the book, until I find what I’m looking for.
Down at the end of the acknowledgments, Dad’s name, and my own. “To David and Clary Dalloway, you are my everything. You make life worth living.”
I feel a sob flutter in me. Quickly I close the book and slide it back onto the shelf, before I can defile it with tears. But somehow, I can’t pull my hand from the book’s spine. I stand there, trying not to cry, and failing, and holding onto the book that offers up the world as my mother saw it.
After a time, Raj finds me. He lays a gentle hand on my shoulder. He knows what the book is.
“Clary,” he says, his voice thick.
Raj folds me into a hug. He’s not flirting, not anymore. He’s just present: tall and solid and warm and Raj, and I need this. Even if so many things about it are wrong, Raj is what I need right now.
We hug for a bit longer and everyone in the store just walks around us, like it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to cry in the middle of a bookstore, because maybe it is.
When I’m ready, we head toward the stairs.
“My ice cream will be all melted.”
Raj shrugs. “Maybe not.”
“You ate it?” I’m not mad at him, only mock mad, and I’m pretty sure he can hear the difference.
But Raj just smiles.
When we get down to the cafe, I see our table. Raj has barricaded my little dish of ice cream with rolls of ice wrapped in cloth napkins, and placed his own, unfinished dish of ice cream beside it.
“Extra cold power,” he says as we approach.
“It’s not melted.” I feel a sob coming as I pick up my bowl.
“Hey.” Raj lifts a tear from my face with his finger. “You’ll get salt in your green tea macchiato.” He unfurls a cloth napkin and ice clatters onto the table. He takes the napkin and dabs my cheek. The cloth is cold. “You’re going to be okay, Clary,” he says.
Once we’ve got the table cleaned up and we’re working on our ice cream for real, I’m feeling almost shy with Raj. This is because my feelings are changing faster than I can keep up with them. If you had asked me yesterday—even earlier today—whether I’d consider getting back together with Raj, I would have laughed. And then said no, in case my laughing wasn’t clear. But now, I’m not so sure.
“Enough about me,” I say. “How are you doing?”
“Same old.” Raj holds up his hand as if he’s blocking out a newspaper headline in the air. “Only Son of Woodley Park Patels, Huge Disappointment to Father.”
Raj shrugs. “Dad wants me to join the family business. He wants me working with him after school, instead of at soccer. My mom supports me and it’s kind of alienating them from each other, which doesn’t feel awesome.”
Raj looks down at his ice cream. “I know I’m not going to make pro or anything, but one day, I’d like to coach kids.”
“I never knew that.” I consider him. “You’d be good with kids.”
“Me and an eight-year-old,” Raj says. “According to my parents, kind of similar.”
“Not what I meant!” I take a bite of my green ice cream, let it dissolve on my tongue. “Your parents like your sister’s music.”
“Yeah, for some reason, that’s okay. She’s younger, I don’t know. They’re going to have to start grooming her for the family business.” He looks at me. “You know she’s teaching me how to make websites?”
“She’s a genius,” I say. “Wish she could take Trig for me.”
“Wish she could distract my parents for me,” says Raj. “But my father doesn’t like my plan. I told him I want to stay in D.C., coach in the public schools.”
I nod. “You’d love that.”
Raj looks away bitterly. “Since when do I get to do what I love?”
He used to play the guitar a little, but he gave it up when Nita started teaching herself how to play, using his music books. Last year, before everything fell apart, I was trying to get him back to his guitar, telling him it didn’t matter how good he was, but only if he enjoyed it.
Then one afternoon, I was over at his house, being tolerated by his dad only because we had our math books open on the speckled granite kitchen island, and were pretending to study.
Nita came down into the kitchen carrying an instrument case, her dark hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. She took out her silver flute and without even saying hello to me or Raj or her father, began to play. It was a haunting tune, high pitched and mournful and when Nita played, I could feel myself transported. It seemed impossible that this small person, who came only to my shoulder, could know so much of the world and its sorrows. Raj didn’t even watch Nita as she played. He stared down into his math book, which is how I knew he was only pretending to be distracted.
There’s no way her music didn’t move him. It was that beautiful.
Nita let her last note linger, vibrating in the air. Then she lowered the flute and looked to her father.
Mr. Patel was sitting up very straight at the kitchen table where he had a newspaper spread out before him and was completing the crossword in dark ink. His posture was impeccable, as always, and a contrast to Raj’s familiar slouch.
Mr. Patel frowned at his daughter and stroked his mustache. He looked unwilling to reveal any pleasure. “Try the bridge once more,” he said.
Her face a frozen mask, Nita raised the flute to her lips and the haunting notes again filled the air.
It was an unhappy house, I realized that day. Raj was a carefree guy at school. Even to me, he had seemed pretty easy-going, except on the soccer field, where he played like his life depended on it.
But that was a facade, I realized then. Like everyone, Raj was just trying to survive.
“Forget about them,” I say to him and gesture with a spoonful of green ice cream. “Focus on what’s important.”
Raj looks at me intently. “I’m trying,” he says and gives me a small, slow smile.
Oh fuck. The flirting is back.
“What I meant was just focus on you. On what you need to be okay.”
“Yeah,” says Raj softly. “That’s what I meant too.”
I take a deep breath, thinking of how to steer the conversation. I wonder what would happen if I was just honest with him. “I don’t want to play defense,” I tell Raj and bite my lip.
Raj’s eyes widen as my meaning sinks in. “Oh. Okay.”
“I’m not ready for this to be any more than ice cream at the bookstore.”
Raj swallows and nods. “Message received.” He looks a little sad for a moment, and then he seems to shake it off. “Too bad you missed out on the supreme flavor of the day, which is clearly chocolate mocha, and not celery juice.”
“I don’t think there’s celery in my ice cream.”
He looks skeptically at the green dessert on my spoon. “Or frilly kale, maybe? With like broccoli sprouts?”
On impulse, I hold out the spoon for him to taste. “It’s good.”
Raj grins. “I thought that ice cream belonged to you.”
“I reserve the right to change my mind.”
Raj meets my eyes as he leans in and lets me feed him some green ice cream. “Damn!” Raj’s voice carries and the wine-drinkers at the next table look over in amusement. “Green-cream is tasty.”
After that, our dishes end up pushed together at the middle of the table. We’re eating each other’s ice cream. Chocolate mocha is a classic for a reason. I could stay here all day.
“How’s your dad doing?” Raj asks.
I hesitate, the spoon halfway to my mouth. “My dad?”
He cuts a sliver of ice cream from the glistening green lump. “You took him to the doctor,” Raj says quietly. “Everything okay?”
I set down my spoon with a slight clink. Raj flips his spoon and tongues it, listening hard to my silence.
The only person who knows anything is wrong with Dad is César, and that’s only because I know he doesn’t care. Not that he’s heartless. It’s just like he said, he has his own stuff going on. I don’t mess with his life, and he doesn’t mess with mine.
The reason I can’t tell Li or Peter is they care too much. They would have opinions, strong opinions. Li would probably have an ambulance at my house in fifteen minutes. Peter might feel morally-bound to say something to his mother, who might call the school. My life could change in an instant.
Raj is watching me. I don’t know what he’d say if I told him about Dad, if I really told him everything.
“Can you keep a secret?” I ask and his eyebrows leap.
“I can.” Raj’s face is somber, careful, watchful.
I let out a little nervous laugh and shift uncomfortably. It’s not such a big deal to tell someone a piece of the truth. “It’s nothing,” I say.
Raj looks at me. Now he knows I have something to hide. I brace for him to wheedle the truth from me, but he just sits there, waiting. An open presence, ready to receive what is.
“My dad is not okay.” The words feel cool and impersonal, coming from my lips. I flatten my hand against the tabletop, trying to contain my emotions.
Raj reaches out and gently places his hand on top of mine. His fingers are warm and dry, settling on top of mine.
For the next few minutes we just sit there, together.
Outside in the back parking lot, it’s starting to get dark.
“Your parents going to freak out?” I ask. Raj and his family used to have a lot of conflict about his schedule, back when we were going out.
Raj shrugs. “That’s their problem. What about your dad? Is he going to worry?”
“No,” I say sadly. “It’s more like, I worry about him.”
We’re going in opposite directions from here, but neither of us are moving.
“Yeah,” Raj says.
“Hmm,” I say.
He’s taller than I am, but he must realize I’m caught in his gravity, because he leans down, close but not touching.
That’s when I realize maybe I exert a pull, too. Maybe he can feel it.
We’re standing very close in the dimly lit parking lot. Raj stays just a few inches away. But that’s much too far.
I close my eyes and stretch up toward him.
My pulse races. I touch a hand to his chest and feel the solid warmth of him.
His lips are cold and sweet. Better than I remembered.