Ashok had found that waiting for a convenient time to come out to his father was an altogether impossible act. After all, his father used the word dowry with him like it was a cool catchphrase. And so Ashok contrived the coming-out. He and his family had been on a vacation for the past week in Los Angeles, a sun-washed fantasyland far from their breezy berth in Chicago, and Ashok, determined to be done with it once and for all, asked his father to have lunch with him the following day.
Vhy? his father said when, in line at In-N-Out Burger, Ashok posed the idea of a father-son meal. Ashoks father was a shameless carnivore, having grown up in a meat-eating household in Chandigarh where a leg of lamb was thought more voluptuous than a womans bosom, and when the Aggarwals passed the fast food restaurant in their rented Chevy Malibu, his father swerved over three lanes to take the exit. It was the one culinary act he had on his agenda for the trip. Sure, he had planned other activities -- he now owned a new wardrobe emblazoned with phrases like WISH THEY ALL COULD BE CALIFORNIA GIRLZ -- but the only food he wanted was a beef patty slathered in ketchup and stuck between two plump buns that looked ironically like the aforementioned bosom.
Why? Ashok echoed. Normally, an opportunity to spend some one-on-one time elicited a hearty response from his father, Prem, who would take out his Canon camera and photograph the scene of the invitation for future nostalgia. Because I feel like we havent had time to sit down and talk for quite a while and, well, I would like to discuss something with you.
His fathers face dropped suddenly, and Ashok felt his insides squeeze. He was sure now that his father could foretell what this proposed lunch was for, and Ashok felt in that moment that it was all over, he had terrorized his father with the threat of gayness and now his father was going to drop dead of shock on a white tile floor covered in the graffiti of sneaker burn and spilled, sticky Coke. But when his father turned to the counter and yelled out desperately, I forgot to order fries! it seemed that the root of his shock was merely an absence of fried potato.
Now they were seated at the Belmont on La Cienega, a cozy lounge that Ashok had spotted two days before while loafer-shopping. Then, he had ordered a latte that he sipped daintily and a pain chocolat that he ate in morsels pinched off with his thumb and forefinger; now, he and his father had ordered a pair of Bloody Marys. That is, they had initially ordered a pair. His father was now on his third and was not what one would call sober.
Ashok had already come out to the rest of his family, and the revelation, oddly enough, had been greeted with little drama.
He told his older sister, Rekha, first. That was four years ago in New York, where she was working at McKinsey and he was interning at Goldman Sachs for the summer. They were hanging out in a bar in Nolita with some of Rekhas Dartmouth friends when Ashok, tipsy on whiskey and certain that her friends were in the ladies room, blurted it out.
Oh, please, Rekha said, throwing back a Heineken. I just assumed youd lost your cherry to my Totally Hair Barbie.
Actually, I lost it to Molly. Molly had been Rekhas Cabbage Patch Kid, a bucktoothed, bespectacled pillow with titian-colored yarn for hair.
Rekha laughed and said I love you when Ashok said this, but it was sort of true. At 12, he had shot one of his fledgling loads all over Mollys naked ass -- how prophetic -- then had to spend half an hour getting it out of her cloth body before Rekha came home from khatak rehearsal and showed him her new dance moves.
He told his older brother, Arun, a few months later, when he came to visit Ashok at Yale. It was an equally fast, tidy confession:
OK, where do we find us some desi pussy?
Arun, that is the tenth time you have said pussy tonight. Please stop. And while youre at it, stop saying desi, too. This is Yale. If youre getting anything, its not going to be of color.
Ill say pussy whenever I want.
For the love of God, please stop.
Wait, Arun said, stopping in his tracks, looking like someone who just realized his fly was open. Youre gay, arent you?
Now Ashok stopped. Ummmwellyes.
There was a slight pause, then Arun walked up to Ashok and hugged him the way he always did, with his hands drumming Ashoks back. He was drenched in Acqua di Gi cologne. Still love you, chotu. And at least gay guys are good at making friends with girls. To that end, lets go find me some pussy.
His plump mother, Manju, whose delicate, round face he shared, cried for 12 hours after he told her in a crowded Indian restaurant back home. (His father had been at a cardiologists conference, thank God.) At midnight, after hearing her sob into a cushion all evening, Ashok went to the bathroom and had to exhale the smooth, crimson mush of his chicken tikka into the toilet bowl, wondering if shed ever stop. The next morning, a Saturday, she baked two dozen blueberry muffins laced with masala, whose delicious aroma filled every crevice of the house. She did this every few weeks, and when Ashok awoke to the smell, he knew his mother had healed.
When he walked into the kitchen, she said, I guess Ill take my profile for you off Shaadi.com, referring to the Indian matchmaking site. Then she hugged him with oven-mitted hands. And I love you. Scene.
Bhaita, vhat did you vant to talk about? his father asked, raising his glass to clink Ashoks. Ashok didnt raise his, however. He was too busy looking around to see if the people around them knew his father was tanked. They did.
Well, Dad, Ihave something that I need to tell you. His heartbeat felt like a throbbing choker around his throat. He wished he were on the Hollywood Hills tour with the rest of the family right now.
His fathers eyes had glazed over entirely, vodka-rimmed, and the copious sunlight made them sparkle. Ashok had never seen him like this; his father had two beers tops when he spent time with other Indian men, but he had evidently seen this lunch as an opportunity to throw alcoholic caution to the wind.
It dawned on Ashok for just a moment that this might be the best condition in which to come out. His father would hear the words but wouldnt have the faculties to give them their due spanking. And from then on, it could be acknowledged that Ashok had made the effort to tell his father but his father had been at fault for not being in the state to do the confession justice. It would be relatively painless for both of them, a win-win situation.
Really? his father said. Youve met the right voman? He cackled, swished more red-orange fluid down his hatch, and ran a hand through the gray tufts of hair he had left.
Not exactly, Ashok said. Would this have been easier, he thought, if he had met the right guy? He was 25 and perpetually single and was still working his first real job as a banker.
And then his fathers eyes cleared. It was like a magicians trick, the way the clouds disappeared from his irises and left them black and stern.
Dont vorry. You vill meet the right voman.
Slowly, he had taken Ashoks wrist and was squeezing it tightly.
Ashok realized in this instant that, subconsciously, he had always expected his father to take the news as simply as the rest of them. Of course Ashok had envisioned several scenarios in which his father smashed things and screamed until the veins in his neck popped out. He had even envisioned this very restaurant and his father overturning this tiny table in fury. He saw now that deep-down he had foolishly expected the torrid events of this day to stay confined to this day. Yet the consternation in his fathers eyes, this stare smacking of a surgeons precision, told Ashok that there are revelations that should never be made, transactions that are incomplete. Rekha had shown him how to dance. Arun had drummed on his back. His mother had baked muffins. But what had his father -- what had this one-track carnivore -- done?
Ashok pulled his hand away and took a sip of his drink.
Vell, vhat is it? his father said.
I just wanted to say that I love you, Ashok said.
I love you, too, bhaita.
They both ordered steak sandwiches, which they proceeded to eat steadily, and silently.
Rakesh Satyal is the author of the novel Blue Boy (Kensington, 2009) and has been published in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies, including the Lambda Awardwinning collection The Man I Might Become. He is a graduate of Princeton University and an editor at HarperCollins, where he works with such authors as Paulo Coelho, Clive Barker, and Armistead Maupin. He lives in New York City.