An excerpt from The Rumpus Book Club‘s August selection,
ALL THIS COULD BE DIFFERENT by Sarah Thankam Mathews
published on August 2, 2022 by Viking

In college I had not known how to get women. Not in person. In secretI’d posted on Craigslist in the sleepless reaches of the replied to a personal ad or two. These assignations had given me a degree of confidence. Were bulwark against the terror of total inexperience. Now I had moved to a new city and wanted the real thing.

Some damp July night, I walked an hour to a bar I had heard was right. I was wearing the makeup from work and a filmy blouse. It showed my body’s clean lines. My hair my collarbone.

It all gave the wrong idea. Dykes in hiking boots and windbreakers took one look at me, few that did not prefer white girls in that wordless unexamined way made a beeline.

No no no, to say, not you. We could be friends. Move together in a pack. shrugged off the tall butch in her brown vest who was bearing down on me, thumbing the curve of my waist. As bad as any man. I crossed toward the girl who’d just walked in. A white little face set against dark hair, a Pulp Fiction bob. An uncertainty in her eyes that made her soft. She was at the bar, drinking wine out of a doubles glass. I looked down at her red, bitten mouth and felt my clit jump.

I smiled a wolf’s smile with my eyes. In the past I had tried to be suave, elaborate, and things had gone a mediocre route. This time I simply said, hello. When she laughed, leaned close to me, I looked for the aging woman in the brown vest. Our eyes met and she looked so sour. In her mind Pulp Fiction and I both should have been hers. My lips twitched.

Washed-up old dyke. I knew how beautiful I was in that moment, felt it burned into me, a brand. This is how I felt: alone and powerful. This is what I felt: the shock of how your life’s longing can sometimes be smoothly realized, without great strain or cost, easy as buying a clock.

In undergrad I had been required to study a near- unreadable German novel about a young man who runs away from home to escape the pressure of his family’s desires for him. For years he roams around, joins a theater troupe, gathers the friends that become the extension of his family, but by the end he chooses his destiny, chooses the staid sensible life that his parents wanted, finds a wife, all of his own free will. That’s what a true adulthood had come to signify for me, a bowing down before the inevitable. For the lucky, this could be preceded period of freedom, the latitude of youth.

That’s what I have right now, I thought, tracing the outline of my debit card, leaning my elbows against dark acetate of the bar.

As we crossed the bar windows, I was sure Brown Vest would be looking, I gathered Pulp Fiction me, kissed her. This is what I remember, even now. Pulp Fiction. Who meant nothing to me. There was a safety in this nothing, gate around me. Black glossy hair. A vacant smile. Her lips softly parting for mine, her tender little throat exposed. Streetlights turned night the dark orange of a bee’s thorax. A slow delicious violence rose in me. I gathered the crown of her dark bob tight in my fist.

August turned ripe as a fruit. Sneezeweed and tansy brightened the sidewalks and my mother called to say my uncle had died.

Acute pancreatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. last year his eyes had turned the color of old urine, his calves to balloons. They were keeping the body refrigerated until possible ammai and achayan, from Dubai to Brampton, to Scotland, could fly back
to put him in the cemetery. The of my uncle’s croaking was notable. Right during our harvest His funeral falling on its most auspicious day. If I had been still, I would have taken a great and malicious pleasure in eating sadhya as though the day held only something to celebrate. Would have shoveled red matta rice and coconut parippu and beans into my mouth like a greedy little boy. Asked for seconds of sweet creamy payasam over the wails of the mourners.

To my mother, I said stiffly, I see. Sorry to hear this. I did not offer to come home, to support my parents. To support her.

My mother was crying. You are a very cold person, she said to me in our language.

His whole life my uncle had bullied her. Once in a drunken tantrum he had slapped her in front of my father, who summarily threw him into the rhododendron bushes. After that my uncle decided that I was a more strategic target. He was fond of me, in his way. An affection emulsified with something dark and rancid.

The memories tumbled back to me, rolled into each other like socks. My uncle waiting by the elementary school’s iron gate. How I would run to him, my schoolbag flapping up and down against my thin back. To the person who paid me the most attention, who laughed at my every joke, who said he loved me. A darting creature with huge eyes, Monchayan was. Wispy hurricane of hair circling the bare eye of his scalp. He would play Legos with me, then stamp on the house I had built. When he was especially jobless he would take me on his long ambling walks and pinch my nipple hard if I dawdled. There were other things, and I did not wish for a second to dwell on them.

And here my mother was, weeping for this useless man.

In the background I could hear the opening music of the Kannada serial my grandfather liked to watch from the bed. Thank god I was now far away, from the people who had hurt or overlooked me, the neighbors and cousins who had lionized my parents when they achieved a modicum of success and visibly scorned them when it had been taken away. I would never, if I could help it, live there again.

Yes, I said acidly to my mother, you are correct, very astute of you.

Once the phone went quiet I felt a wicked pang. Thinking of my parents, living two oceans away, with their slackening bodies, their private burdens. In silence I the kitchen counters, wrung the rag out in the sink.

The hands of the clock had stayed where they had been upon its fall. This seemed like a metaphor for how people were. Impulsively I had left it on display, propped up on a kitchen shelf. The nail it was supposed to go on angled upward in the drywall, bare and alone.

I longed for a friend. Thom had accepted Peter’s offer, would be starting in September. He did not so much as thank me. He’d left Madison, was now in Wauwatosa at his mother’s house, which he felt shame about, a shame I did not consider fully legitimate, given that where I originated, children stayed in the parental abode well into adulthood. But how did one meet friends in Milwaukee? Anywhere? I was irritated with the one person I knew near the city. Work did not seem like fertile ground for socialization, unless I wished to go to wine nights with
portly middle- aged Republicans named Susan.

And even if a certain perverse part of me did, the Susans treated me as if I did not exist. My own specific Susan, the project manager at the battery- making conglomerate, referred to me as the—I believe the term was— resource. To my face.

I wanted a friend. I wanted, too, a woman. I did not know if these longings were separate. Someone who would roll with me. A laughing woman, dapper, with a car.

Pulp Fiction had, after only a few weeks, abandoned me for greener pastures, pastures I sensed she enjoyed tantalizing me with in sporadic late- night texts. Returning to the bar, walking the hour there and back, I had not been able to replicate my success. I looked on Craigslist. Every poster appeared mentally unstable or a very expensive cab ride away.

I was already sick of taking the two buses to the Fortune 500 company’s HQ. Sixty- five minutes of commute, of waiting as SUVs—American cars that looked like they had been bred with trucks—sped past.

Sweat on my skin. I stared at the air- conditioning unit collecting dust in the corner of the paid- for apartment. Without specifying a timeframe, I wondered what would happen to me.


From ALL THIS COULD BE DIFFERENT by Sarah Thankam Mathews, published on August 2, 2022 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Sarah Thankam Mathews.

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