by: Radhika Singh ((Header art by the incredibly talented, Jonathan Zawada.))
The lure of the adventure pitted against responsibility, and that place where once you get in, you can never leave…
Despite the air conditioning inside the Porsche Boxster blowing on full, beads of sweat formed above Hari Mohan’s thick brow as he held his breath waiting for the cramp to pass. In the crawling traffic, constricted by orange cones to a single lane on Interstate 280 North, red-tail lights glowed like angry lava rocks in squinting sunlight. Hari cursed himself for not searching more carefully for his sunglasses before leaving the house this morning. But Vita had been asleep and he had not wanted to wake her since their colicky twins had finally fallen asleep after crying through the night.
Instead, he had rushed through the brittle quiet of the house, scavenged for cereal in the messy pantry, while also seeking his sunglasses in the infinite disorganization of milk bottles, nipples, and pacifiers on the kitchen counter. He yearned for the time when he had lived sparse. Finding his sunglasses in the way he lived now was impossible. When he sat on a chair earlier this morning, it had given an annoyed squeak and he almost spilled milk from the bowl he held in his hand. A yellow rubber duck lay deflated at his feet. Why on earth was the bath toy here? All this mess before the boys had even learnt to walk. Imagine what the house would look like when they started walking! His mother, if she were able to come from Bangalore, would have kept the house in order. However, Hari’s father in India had objected to his only son marrying out of religion, caste, and community and forbade his wife from visiting even when Vita had the twins. Hari had resigned himself to their absence. He wished he could mark Vita’s mother absent too, but he was forced instead to resign himself to her interfering presence.
Hari had wanted to leave the house before Vita’s mother called to ask how his startup was faring. Hari sensed that Vita’s mother did not believe the optimism that Vita’s voice strained to radiate. She had threatened again last week to come from Los Angeles to visit them in Palo Alto and see how things were going. Hari cringed at the thought of her trim liposuction-induced figure and layered beach blonde hair working its way through their home, rearranging their lives like furniture.
“No, no! Tell her no!” he had mouthed urgently to Vita when he caught her eye as she talked on the cellphone while juggling one boy on her lap.
“Hari says your visit will be nice,” Vita said sweetly into the phone.
She turned her wide face to him afterwards, impatient with both the boy on her lap and her husband. Her auburn hair unraveled from the loose bun on the top of her head to fall in limp folds around her shoulders as she bounced the boy on her knees.
He wrung his hands in front of her.
“Oh! Don’t fuss! She’s given us her house to live in rent-free and use of the Porsche. She needs to know how we’re living. And if this startup thing isn’t going so well, you need to tell her. Maybe she’ll come up with a plan.” Vita’s voice had a pleading quality to it.
“I don’t want any more of her help. Why don’t you help out some? Put the kids in daycare and find work. Lean in, why don’t you?” Hari’s mood had turned foul, as if spoiling for a fight.
Vita sprung up from the chair, startling the little boy, who immediately started crying. “You bourgeois capitalist!” Vita said and stormed out of the room.
The traffic stopped ahead. Hari dreaded the thought of going to the empty office in San Francisco. He recalled how when he had pitched his idea for a startup to Sam Duvall, a strange hermit-like venture capitalist with a wiry tanned physique and a shock of shoulder length gray hair who lived in the mountains of Santa Cruz, Sam had slapped him on his back, signed a check for $1.5 million, and asked him to create something that would change the way people bought clothing online. Jeanie, his startup that let users purchase jeans online through a smartphone app by displaying the perfect fit for a body type, had acquired ten thousand users when he was the only developer working on it. With Sam’s money, Hari rented an office in the SOMA area of San Francisco and had quickly burnt through the seed money with a series of bad marketing decisions and three hires, all of whom had quit yesterday because he had been unable to meet payroll for the past four months. How could he tell Sam that he had blown through his money and it was all over?
Vita must have sensed that Hari’s life was leading him toward spectacular failure and she wanted to bring her mother in to fix this looming specter of ruin. She was used to her mother swooping in to fix her life. True, he was failing – and badly. But what wasn’t true was that Vita’s mother would be able to fix his life with the structure and rigor she professed to bring in her wake.
Hari’s stomach clenched into a knot again at the thought of Sam’s scheduled visit to his office next month and he shut his eyes momentarily waiting for the searing pain to bubble its way down. The Porsche swerved and he heard a loud honk. “Damn it! This is no way to live!” he exclaimed.
A gap opened up in the right lane. Without thinking, Hari nudged the car over and in a flash he was rolling past the other cars still backed up in a snaking line visible in the side mirror till they receded. It felt as if he had exited the workforce. Ahead, the road opened wide and the car flew at the speed it was designed for. He felt the throb of the engine roaring beneath him making him feel as if he were riding a white stallion, racing it toward a new possibility. Hari would meet Sam on his own turf, seek him out, and ask for help. Possibly, he might get a new infusion of money. He took a screeching U-turn toward Interstate 280 South and then floored the accelerator to take the Highway 17 exit toward Santa Cruz.
The GPS coordinates that Hari had entered into Google Maps had turned his iPhone into a worthless tracking device. It had correctly taken him off Highway 17 onto a paved road but then kept missing the turnoff between mile marker three and four. The reception was too spotty to retrieve Sam’s old email detailing turn off directions leading to the road toward his house. The last time he had visited Sam was a year ago. He tried to remember what he had done before. He stopped somewhere between the two mile markers and parked the car on the tilt of dry clay at the edge of the road. Here, the forest grew thick, redolent with the scent of bay laurel and pine. Majestic, relatively young redwoods towered above, filtering the sun through their flat, soft needles. He took a deep breath and immediately felt better. He walked on the dry clay on a slight incline growing steeper until he reached the top and realized he had surmounted a hill. A tin mailbox stood marking the cut off. He remembered it from before.
Hari walked forward, turning into the lane leading away from the mailbox. Yet another steep incline but it was shady and boxed in with prickly hedges bearing strange green oval fruit. Pineapple guava, he remembered. It was new to him and had looked inedible when Sam first offered it to him inside his house. He claimed to have picked it from his hedges. Hari picked one himself now and bounced it in his hand as an accomplishment marking his entry onto Sam’s property. The lane became a gravel path and his scrunching footfall was the only sound that broke the stillness. At a bend, a rambling house in the Mission style appeared. It was more villa than house with its terracotta-shingled roof, low sweeping arches, and drought-tolerant landscaping comprising rolling hills of native grasses. The tufted blonde fronds swayed in the cooler breeze as if a pack of lions had decided to rest under the gnarled olive trees, their manes ruffling under the warming sun.
As he walked up to the wooden door, Hari counted seven cars parked in the shade of olive trees to the right of the gravel driveway. He gathered his courage and raised his hand to ring the doorbell, then remembering there was none, banged on the door with his fist. No one answered. A fence lizard skittered out from behind the ivy covering the whitewashed façade near the door. He banged several more times and pressed his ear to the door but heard nothing. He was sweating now and the cool breeze licked at the sweat above his collar and made him shiver. He cursed himself for not announcing his visit earlier, he could have called or emailed before coming. Too late to backtrack now, he thought. He needed to see Sam. There was nothing to be done except to go around the back of the house and have a look around.
As he skirted the side of the house, the gravel ended and became a dirt path baked by the sun and set hard. To the side of the path, undulating ground dropped precipitously and then rose up again covered with overgrown ground cover – woody dried lavender, gnarled rosemary, rhododendron bushes that might have been planted for landscape interest at one time but now grew wild with a few dried blooms. All this merged into the rough understory of the forest beyond.
Hari heard voices, an urgency of activity, and a distinct splash. He hurried to the backyard. On the deck of an enormous kidney-shaped pool, nine men dressed in board shorts and nothing else were seated on deck chairs under the shade of two tan umbrellas. They were hunched over laptops and typed feverishly. The deck was buzzing with activity and a vibrant energy that made him forget why he was there. A thin young man with reddened slashes of unfortunate acne across his cheeks eyed a big pool clock with solemnity. “Start!” he shouted and the seated men typed faster. Two minutes later the man yelled, “Stop!” and the men stopped typing. A man raised his hand and a few others peered into his screen. “Hanuman!” someone shouted. A chant arose. “Jump, jump, jump, jump!” The chanting grew louder. A skinny bespectacled man with pale skin stepped forward. He removed his glasses and set them on a table. The man jumped into the pool, swam the length, and climbed out the opposite end. As he walked back, the water dripping from blonde hair plastered to his head reminded Hari of a puppy rescued from drowning.
The exercise was repeated. “Krishna!” someone yelled. An auburn-haired young man with a swarm of freckles across his face came to the water’s edge, as the chants urged him to jump. He jumped.
“What’s going on?” Hari couldn’t resist asking the first man who met his eyes.
“Hackathon. You get two minutes to solve a problem. Winner gets to jump into the pool,” the man replied.
“Join in,” said another.
“I didn’t bring my laptop,” Hari said.
“Grab one from inside. But remove your shoes when you go in. He gets mad about the shoes.”
“Of course,” Hari said, cursing himself for not remembering.
He removed his shoes at a sliding glass door framed by an old grape vine trained around a wooden arbor. The sun filtering through its leaves stippled the floor with bright spots. The room inside was cool and large, comfortably furnished with Asian décor and plenty of deep couches, upholstered chairs, and two bean bags for extra seating. Tibetan Thangka paintings hung on the walls along with Asian masks. The statue of a Buddha cast a serene gaze from the opposite end of the room. He could not remember being in this room. The last time he had been in the house, Sam had met him in a room that opened to the main door and he had left from there. Hari looked around for a laptop to borrow. There were none. Searching further, he noticed a room set to the side of a hallway and went there.
“They’re working here?” Hari marveled aloud, taking in the three rows of desks that fit snug, with the monitors displaying screensavers, pictures of snow covered mountains and ping pong balls, flitting from one end to another. A stack of laptops lay on a black swivel chair. He picked one up and opened it. At the password prompt, he paused. His eye went to the room’s whiteboard filled-out with box diagrams and acronyms he did not know, but on the top left corner a box outlined with red and green marker had the login information. Hari sensed that after a year of striking out with three employees who had never fully committed to his idea, he was ready for some camaraderie.
He started to carry the laptop outside but stopped when he heard a clattering noise of metal striking the floor and a muffled expletive. He walked towards the sound and found himself in the kitchen.
The kitchen was old, desperately needing a remodel. The white tile countertop interspersed with thick bands of brown grout was from another era. The window had a hand crank to open it, and the sink had a chipped edge. A woman was bent over mopping up a spill with paper towels on the gray stone floor. She had cropped blonde hair, a taut muscular body, and a firm behind framed like a perfect apple in yoga tights. Her tanned shoulders had white strap lines that disappeared under a thin white T-shirt. When she stood up he marveled at how tall she was, a few inches taller than his own six feet. She was barefoot and the contours of her feet were tinged with black dirt and cracked skin. She muttered another expletive and dumped the mess into the trash. When she washed her hands at the sink Hari saw her face in profile and noticed the determined set of her chin. He wondered who she was. She turned toward him and he was stunned by the perfect symmetry of her timeless face and by the presence of her ripe breasts, the outlines of which could be seen unrestrained by a bra. As she stepped forward he sensed an animal magnetism, a lioness sniffing him out for being an interloper. She dried her hands on her thighs.
“Come to see Sam?” she asked.
“He’s not here. He’ll be back next month.”
“Where is he then?”
“Travelling. Who’re you again?” she asked.
He introduced himself. He must have looked stricken because she asked if he was in any trouble.
“I burnt through all the money he gave me. I have no revenue. It’s all over,” he blurted out. He had not told this to anyone, not to his former employees for whom he had constructed an elaborate lie about not being able to touch a secondary source of funding for three more months, not even to Vita, who sensed his desperation but not the hard truth. Telling this woman standing in front of him made his heart lighter.
“Are you any good at fixing things?” She eyed him warily.
“I can code alright.”
“The boys out back can all code. Can you fix this?” She pointed to the chipped sink. “It just happened. I was holding this big heavy pot over the sink and it slipped. Ruined an entire batch of pineapple guava jelly too. The fruit grows right here on the hedges outside,” she continued.
He took in the chipped edge of the sink. Tiny spider-like cracks radiated from the porcelain cavity.
“That whole thing will need to be replaced,” he muttered.
She put her hands on her boyish hips contemplating the broken edge. “You’re no use to me,” she declared.
“What will you do?” he couldn’t resist asking.
“Wait for Sam.”
“That makes two of us.”
She grinned at him then and Hari found himself stepping back even as he felt himself being pulled toward her. He asked who she was.
“I was Claudia in my previous life. I am known as Parvati now. The boys outside call me The Mother of All Things. I’m Sam’s assistant. I manage everything in his absence.” Her tone was matter of fact.
The absurdity of her name and those Hari had heard in the backyard struck him now. What kind of goddess was she in her filthy feet and sculpted body? He found himself asking for permission like a little boy.
“Please can I join them outside? I have nowhere else to go.” Hari felt as though he was begging. Parvati raised a hand to dismiss him. Only when he was outside did he wonder if that gesture she had made was meant to be a blessing.
For nearly six weeks Hari commuted from his house in Palo Alto to Sam’s house in the Santa Cruz mountains. He always parked his car between the two mile markers because he liked the hike leading up to the house. Vita was suspicious. She wanted to know who these men were and what they were working on and when Sam was coming back. His answers were evasive because he really did not know and he also did not care to know. He was having fun.
“Good heavens Hari! Have you gone and joined a cult?” Vita asked, desperate for answers.
A cult? The word had a negative connotation, Hari mused. The men he worked with up in the mountains did camp out at Sam’s house, which as he visited more often, seemed to have a commune-like feel to it. Claudia who was Parvati was always walking around barefoot and braless, her Lululemon tights leaving nothing to the imagination. She was always cooking up great quantities of food, and asking a Hanuman or a Krishna to clean up after her. The men lusted after her, but only from afar, and took great pains to be courteous in her presence. He wondered if it was she who had given these white men Hindu mythology names.
Hari felt an intense attraction to Claudia who was Parvati. The dichotomy was appealing to him. That a person could have two different names could be taken to mean two different lives. Hari liked this duality. He, himself, was living two different lives. One that was constrained with Vita and the twins and another that was unfettered, like Parvati’s carefree movements around the mountain house.
What did he do there? Vita insisted on an answer to that question. He coded he told her. It was the truth. There was no purpose, the overall picture of what he coded was sketchy. Most of the time, a Shiva, or an Indra gave him a puzzle to solve and timed him on it and he tried to solve it to the best of his ability. A few times they had asked Hari if they could use his code in their software and he had said yes. It made Hari happy to say yes.
But Vita wasn’t happy. One evening Hari came home to an empty house. Vita had taken the twins and gone to her mother’s digs in Los Angeles. She said he needed to think about the kind of father he wanted to be, and she needed to think about whether she wanted him to be a father in the first place. She said a break was needed to think. She signed the note with “Hopefully.”
The next day Hari went to Sam’s house and found the guys were all working in the converted office. He said his hellos and went looking for Parvati. He found her at the sink washing another pile of pineapple guavas in a large colander. He approached her from behind, held her taut waist, and pushed into her. Startled, she dropped the colander into the sink and it made a clattering noise. She turned but did not push away and then jumped at Hari with a cat-like ferocity, causing him to have to hold onto the sink for balance. His hand grasped the sink’s chipped edge and its unsettling roughness bit into his palm. But Parvati was pressing into him and he welcomed the warm smoothness of her. She smelt of cinnamon, pineapple, and sweat. She pulled away and led him by a hand to a bedroom.
In the beatific haze that enveloped him as he lay on the bed with Parvati, Hari registered a loud bang that nearly shook the house. “Where is she?” A deep throated growling voice seemed to resonate even behind the closed bedroom door.
“He’s back! Get out of here!” Parvati whispered and threw Hari’s khaki pants at him. He pulled them on quickly in reflex. They could hear more doors being banged as if a beast was looking for them. “WHERE IS SHE!” the growl grew closer and the door of the bedroom opened and flew against the wall. Sam stood bracing himself against the door, looking as if he had returned from a long journey filled with tribulations. His salt and pepper hair was longer and hung as unkempt locks and deeper lines had etched themselves into his weathered face. His wild blue eyes took in Hari and then Parvati and he glowered at her. “You!” he raised a gnarled finger at Parvati, who carefully rearranged the band of her tights and did not seem bothered by this dramatic entry.
“Sam!” Hari exclaimed. The men crowded behind Sam straining to catch a glimpse of Parvati, hoping to catch her in a state of undress.
“Sam! I’ve been waiting for you. I spent the month here waiting for you and I’ve fallen in love with what you’ve been able to do here! I love this house, all these guys who live here, I’ve fallen in love with your way of life and I’ve fallen in love with your assistant Parvati!” Hari declared. The words spilled out of him in a rush. He meant every word he uttered and he had never felt so light hearted before, so free.
Sam turned his glowering eyes at Hari as if seeing him for the first time. A gasp went around behind him. “Fool! She’s his wife!” someone exclaimed.
Hari looked at Sam in horror.
“I…will…kill…you,” Sam said in a booming voice and leapt forward toward Hari. In reflex, Hari caught Sam and pushed at his waist. A gap opened up in the crowd behind as if the men were making space for the two fighters. Hari saw opportunity and ran through the gap.
“Get him!” Sam shouted.
But Hari ran through the open front door spraying gravel behind him with his bare feet. He ran all the way down the hill, hearing the footsteps fall back behind him till he heard none. Still, he ran on. The soles of his feet felt the sharpness of thorns, the smoothness of rocks, the yielding hardness of clay, and the scratchy sandpaper of peeling bark. He ran on ignoring the pain, enjoying the assault of senses in the soles of his feet, and when he reached his car parked between the two mile markers, Hari had never felt so gloriously, wonderfully alive.
The euphoria lasted until he reached his home in Palo Alto, and as he trudged through the messy rooms in his dirty feet, the emptiness hit him like a solidity that pressed its weight upon his heart. He crawled to a corner and brought his knees to his face and wept at the absurdity of his life. He was unemployed and broke, his wife and children had left him, and to his sons whom he had wished to bequeath a legacy, he was settling for a show of failure. “Damn it. This is no way to live,” he sobbed.
The phone rang in the hallway and Hari leapt toward it as if it were a lifeline. It was Vita.
“I want to come home,” she said. He sighed in relief.
“Please. I’m sorry. I want you and the twins back,” he begged.
“My mom said we need to start afresh. So, I’m going to have to bring her with me so she can make us start afresh. That’s the condition if I’m to come back,” Vita said.
“There isn’t any money left,” Hari told her.
“My mom will lend us some,” she said.
“Let’s leave this house, this place, this valley, your mom’s money, let’s go somewhere else and start afresh…let’s move to…Oregon!” he said.
“We can’t move. My mom will only let us live rent-free for another year. She said you’ll get another job soon enough.”
“Why don’t I try and find one in Oregon?” Hari insisted. He shuddered at the thought of Vita’s mother living with them.
“When will you learn Hari?” Vita asked him in a tired voice. “It’s like Hotel California, y’know, once you get in you can never leave.”
“Oh! Cheer up! There will be another adventure!” she said after a pause where Hari had fallen silent. He forced himself to rise at the sound of strained optimism in her voice.
After Hari hung up, a thought came to him unfettered. About how chance had again distracted him from doing the responsible thing of figuring out how to live like an adult and had pulled him back toward another irresponsible adventure. And as the thought slipped away into something half-remembered, he had a feeling of déjà vu, as if he had slipped between the crevices of time, the adventures merging into indistinguishable interludes within.
Radhika Singh is a fiction writer, day dreamer, and weaver of words. Silicon Valley is the warp and Asian Indian immigrant experience is the weft of the weaving. Her work has received an honorable mention in the Fictuary short story contest and has been published in The Milo Review, The Bacon Review, and Literary Mama.