hen we were alone together, Dinesh would let me paint halos around his eyes with kohl shadow and coat his nails with black polish. I would then line my own full lips with crimson pencil, fill them in with a matching lipstick, and mark his olive skin with my kisses.
If I got him drunk enough, he would consent to a few Polaroid pictures taken of him in this state. If he was not drunk enough, I’d make love to him and wait until he was sleeping to take my photos. I stashed them in a box, underneath my grandmother’s diaries.
I waited until Dinesh and I were in the seventh month of our relationship to introduce the skirt. It was a black, beaded wraparound made in Taiwan. I had gotten it in a Chinatown boutique, discounted at twenty percent. I thought it had the look of an eel’s skin as it swims in moonlight.
“Do you think me one of your girlfriends, Sylvia?”
I didn’t answer Dinesh. I simply put the skirt away. And even though seven is a holy number, it didn’t protect me from that immediate disappointment. Dinesh left me two weeks later.
He had met another girl, a pretty girl, with indigo eyes, skin the color of baby powder, and fine, yellow hair that crawled halfway down her back. She didn’t want anything from him, except for him to make her feel like a woman.
“Not the other way around, Sylvia,” Dinesh teased. “I can really love this girl.” We were kissing each other goodbye. It was not platonic, this kiss. We were putting our mouths together harshly. We were still hungry for each other.
“She doesn’t understand you,” I said, as he left me at the curb outside my apartment building. I was not pleading with him; I was only telling him the truth.
Dinesh’s father had been a soldier in the British Army during the Korean War. He was a doctor, originally from Bombay, and he was old when he met Dinesh’s mother. She was a brown-haired nurse from London and was very quiet, good at keeping the secrets of herself. She fell in love with Dinesh’s father when they worked together at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in East London.
Shortly after they married, however, Dinesh’s parents regretted their decision. After the first blush of love had withered away, there was nothing left to bind the old man to his young woman, the Hindu to the Catholic, two very smart people who preferred thought to feeling.
To try and rekindle their passion for one another, the couple had a child together, a son whom they named Dinesh, in honor of his paternal grandfather. A baby’s shoulders aren’t fit to carry the weight of a marriage, though, and his parents resented Dinesh for that weakness.
The two dissolved their union when Dinesh was five. They had given him just enough time to learn how to suppress his feelings. He didn’t see his father again until he was leaving London to attend Columbia University in New York.
“We were having tea, and in an envelope beside my saucer was a check to pay for my bachelor’s degree and living expenses,” Dinesh confessed the night I introduced him to mascara. He had black eyes that looked like drops of oil, and the mascara made his lashes like a gypsy’s veil. “The day was ending, and so half of his body was in the shadow of the restaurant while the other half was fighting off the sun.”
That is how Dinesh remembers his father. The old man had a heart attack ten months later. He had never hugged his son, told him he loved him (if he loved anyone), or had even said he had missed Dinesh all those years. What he did say was that Dinesh should have chosen Harvard and majored in medicine, instead of going to Columbia for law. He said Dinesh had the hands of a surgeon.
Dinesh had thin hands with knotty knuckles. His fingers were long, and the skin sagged off of them a bit. His nails were wide squares, and while we were together, they were well-manicured. This new girl of his would let them go all to hell.
Inside of a year, Dinesh and Jennifer moved in together. She methodically cut me out of his life - missing my carefully planned dinners and parties - and I was reduced to getting scraps of information about him from mutual friends.
I heard he had given up the guitar lessons he had been taking for three years; was more grim and sober than he ever had been; and had taken to vegetarianism. The last bit surprised me the most. His father being a vegetarian and Dinesh subconsciously wanting to identify with everything opposed to his father’s beliefs, Dinesh had always relished a good steak or roast. He liked his meat nearly raw, said he liked the taste of the blood. Now, he was settling for big salads and eggplant dishes.
I saw him one morning on the subway platform in the end of Penn Station near the post office on Eighth Avenue. He had dark circles under his eyes, and his face was ashen. He was holding a large coffee and a brown paper bag in his left hand. I could smell the sugar, so I supposed he had ordered a cake donut, split, with butter on each half, lightly toasted. That was what he liked to eat in the morning when we were lovers.
He didn’t smile when I stood next to him, and we didn’t hug. But his eyes did relax as they went over my face, and I didn’t feel like he was examining me for changes as much as he was remembering what was.
“Your hair is different,” he remarked. I had stopped straightening my hair and had gone with my natural curls.
“Do you like it?”
Dinesh stared ahead and shifted his weight to the right foot. The C train pulled into the station. He took an end seat, and I stood near the door across from him. After a few minutes, he came and stood beside me.
“Where are you going?” he asked quietly.
“To the doctor.”
A pause. “Are you all right?”
I nodded. He lowered his shoulders and leaned back on the doors. He was tall enough to partially obscure the sign warning against such action.
“It’s just a physical,” I offered.
“You’re all right then. That’s good.”
Another pause. I asked after Jennifer, to be polite and have something to say.
“She’s fine. She’s in France right now. Some sort of film festival.” Only Dinesh would describe Cannes as some sort of film festival. Jennifer was a PR associate at Lambert & Matthews, and one of her clients was the hot, young independent director of the moment.
“How are you, Dinesh? Are you happy?”
He smiled, revealing a slightly crooked row of bottom teeth. He had gotten them bleached. It had been a long time since I had seen such a display of emotion from him. I was mindful of it.
“Are any of us really happy?” he replied as I knew he would. It was one of his favorite philosophical questions. I always argued on the side of happiness.
He would say even moments of happiness are not pure because you know they will end. I countered with the idea that pure joy comes in knowing pain cannot sustain itself indefinitely. I reminded him of this before he stepped off the train at Columbus Circle. The doors were almost closed when he turned and said, “Call me, Sylvia.”
I didn’t call him—at least, not that night. Instead, I paced my bedroom floor, holding the wraparound skirt up against my chest. It was a walking meditation.
After Dinesh moved in with Jennifer, I took up with this sweet kid named Michael. He looked like a male Audrey Hepburn: same strong eyebrows, willowy body, and charming smile. I enjoyed his company, and he was willing to wear the skirt. In fact, he put it on himself before I even suggested it.
I should have expected he would. Michael was building a new version of himself. He had given up Wall Street for art, had sold his suits for ten percent of their value, and had broken off a sixteen-month engagement. The idea of wearing a skirt didn’t frighten him.
“What do you think?” he asked, as he modeled the wraparound for me the first time. He had seen it in the closet, said it called to him. Even though he tied it tightly, it still hung off him around the hips.
I was sitting in the living room, reading about the early days of Christianity. It was boring text, but I had not attended church in about two weeks. And since I had not been practicing my religion as regularly as usual, I was reading about it. Michael was a revelation in the skirt, and I could no longer concentrate on St. Peter’s tyrannical hold over the Church at Macedonia.
“I think you look beautiful.”
“Considering that I’m standing before you in a skirt, a better choice of words would probably have been ‘handsome’,” Michael said, rocking back and forth on his bare feet. He was naked, except for the skirt, and his hair - pushed back into a pile on the nape of his neck - was still wet from the shower. His chest was small, and there was a deep groove running down the middle of it, where more muscle should have been. He was indeed beautiful. I put down my book and went to kiss him before he got self-conscious.
“You’re over-dressed,” he whispered, as my lips went over his neck.
I stopped to pull off the camouflage-print tank top I was wearing and decided to ask permission for a photo before we began.
He agreed but took my face in his hands and asked why I liked him this way. I volleyed my own question in answer of his: “Why do you enjoy dressing this way?”
He released me and searched for the answer in his mind. While I was loading film into the Polaroid camera, I heard him say, “I wonder what Amy would think of me like this.”
Michael had been living with Amy, his former fiancée, in a two-room studio on the Upper East Side. He was in training then to be a Stepford husband, a real Man in the Gray Flannel Suit for the Millennium. She was a nice enough girl, though, who wore pearl earrings and ripped jeans at the same time, and in one of the photos Michael had of them together, she was wearing a cardigan sweater about her shoulders, with the arms tied together in the front. He said that was her favorite top - the little pink cardigan set. It said so much about her, and when I guessed that she was an Episcopalian, Condé Nast editor who had lived in Boston at some point in her life, Michael was amazed. She had, in fact, gone to Boston University. The Boston part was always a little iffy with girls like that, but there was something in her eyes that screamed Copley Square.
Amy had underestimated the male fear of marriage and its ability to force true love into a hasty retreat. It seemed quite natural to her that after dating for three years (including the year Michael had spent studying abroad in Italy) they should get engaged. She forced him into proposing. It was a fatal mistake. Michael thought he was happy to do it, but his free will took over, tearing his subconscious apart. He loved her, but then, somebody made an off-the-wall comment at one of their dinner parties that made Michael question his entire life.
If I can recall correctly, the person said, “This is great onion dip, buddy. You’ll get to have this dip for the rest of your life.” Michael panicked, quitting his job at Merrill Lynch. He backed out of the engagement and took to the easel, a childhood fascination. The bulk of his savings went to his fiancée out of guilt. He was now working as a guide at the Museum of Modern Art to help me pay rent. I had offered to let him stay on for free, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
I was still thinking about Dinesh a couple of days later - dreaming of him in the skirt, with his eyes made up as black as Oedipus’ after he had taken a good, hard look at his love life - when Michael came home from work. I had put the skirt away and was lying on my bed, looking at old pictures of Dinesh. The sheets always smelled like his cologne when we lived together. The scent was a combination of sandalwood and the ocean, and the smell of it made me more content than a pound of my mother’s chocolate chip cookies. I tucked the pictures of Dinesh under my pillows and put my head down.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Michael said, progressively getting quieter the closer he got to the bed. “I didn’t know you were sleeping.”
I didn’t feel like explaining that I hadn’t been, so I rolled over and yawned and spoke as if I was just waking up. “It’s O.K.”
“Well, now that you’re so rested, you can come with me to this gallery opening tonight.”
“I can’t, sorry. I have to get up early tomorrow.”
He took off his shoes and got on the bed, straddled over me as he sat on his knees. “Why not? Tomorrow’s Saturday.”
“I’ve got to go see Tommy.”
“Oh, I forgot about Tommy,” Michael said. He had never met Tommy. “When did you say he was getting out?”
Tommy would be released from prison in three weeks. I had been going to visit him every Saturday morning at Rahway prison in New Jersey for the past five years. I had known Tommy ever since we were in kindergarten together. He was a true, All-American kid: fresh-faced and bright-eyed.
But his hair color bridled my sensibilities when we were little, and so, every day for a year, I’d make him get into a garbage can for about five minutes during recess. It must have had some kind of impact on his self-esteem. He became a criminal, and he got caught rather easily. People always picked him out, the kid with the flaming red hair.
I had tried to talk him into dyeing it another color, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Dinesh said I should have tried talking him out of committing the crime in the first place. I should have thought of that as a moral human being, but it had never occurred to me.
“Where’s he going to stay when he gets sprung?” Michael asked. He was ironing a black shirt. It was one of the few designer items he had kept.
“I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it. He might stay with us for a while and sleep on the couch.”
Michael nodded. “Should I be jealous?”
“Of Tommy, no,” I said. The thought of me and Tommy together made me wretch. We had never kissed each other full on the lips, not even at the height of our hormonal drives. I was sure Tommy was considered handsome in some circles but not to me. He was too pale, and he was a real bruiser. His nose had been broken twice, and it was spread out now, with a bump on the bridge of it.
“You like fags, Syl,” Tommy told me once. “I don’t get it. You’re a good-looking girl.”
I explained to Tommy that I leaned more toward men who seemed delicate because I thought they were more likely to wear the skirt. The men who agreed to wear the skirt had a strength in them that I found attractive. Unlike other men, they weren’t disconcerted because there wasn’t a thin piece of fabric hiding their private parts. The men who wore the skirt for me were unafraid. One guy even said to me, “This is how I’m dressed in my dreams.”
The only unfortunate side effect of freeing men enough so that they wear the skirt is they seemed to leave me shortly thereafter. I became a weigh station for men in transition. Tommy was the only constant.
I had missed Tommy while he was in prison. He was funny, and when he suffered a mood swing toward the more violent end of his nature, he never took it out on me. He had been the only white boy my father gladly accepted into the house, and my father had been the sole positive male influence in his life. Tommy’s own father had been an alcoholic and a wife-beater. He always told Tommy that if he hadn’t been born, his family would never have had to live in a nigger neighborhood.
When my father passed away, Tommy howled for half a day, and when he wasn’t cursing God, he was getting drunk. It was a bad time for us. I kept quiet. I didn’t talk to anyone for days. Every time I looked into the mirror, I saw my father’s face: a round shape with sienna eyes and a nose that looked like it had stopped growing before it should have.
Michael dressed for the gallery opening in his Prada shirt and a pair of my khakis. He had a bookbag slung over his shoulder and across his body. He looked like a teenager going to school. When I awoke the next morning to visit Tommy, I was alone. Michael hadn’t made it back.
Tommy was uptight and paranoid when he sat down across the table from me in the visiting room. His skin was sallow, and he was fidgety.
“I can’t let them keep me in here, Syl. Nothing’s gonna keep me from getting out of here,” Tommy said in a whisper, looking over his shoulder.
“What’s going on?”
At that, Tommy slumped further in his chair and pulled out a box of Newports. As he lit one of his cigarettes, he shook his head. “Nothing.”
He didn’t want me to worry. He never did. I kept plugging at him, though, because I, too, could be a pitbull on behalf of the people I love. I told him that I would not only continue to worry if he didn’t let me in on what was happening with him but I would speak with the warden about my concerns as well.
“Damn, you’re hard-headed,” Tommy said, taking a drag and shifting his eyes slowly from side to side to see if anyone looked like he was listening. “Some of the guys in here keep messin’ with me. You know, they tryin’ to get me to hit them or somethin’ to mess up my parole. But I only got three more weeks. I ain’t gonna let ’em get to me.”
“Don’t Tommy. They’re not worth it.”
“I know. Some of the Brothers down on Block 8 got my back. It’s them Nazi assholes who keep messin’ with me. They say I ain’t down with my race, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. I say, ‘Fuck that. I don’t even want to hear that.’ ”
“When did you start cursing so much?”
“In here, Syl, you gotta talk the talk. Otherwise, it’s a beat down for your ass,” Tommy said. “Things is gonna change, though. A change is gonna come.”
I asked Tommy, before I left, if he was going to move in with me until he found his own place. I told him he was welcome to the couch. He said he had already gotten an offer.
“Really? Are you staying with your mom?”
“Nope. Dinesh said I could stay at his place.”
Shock of shocks. Though they had only met a few times - when Dinesh had come to the prison with me - the two of them had gotten along. I didn’t know they had gotten along well enough for Dinesh to offer Tommy the guest room in his apartment.
When I got home, I checked the answering machine. Sure enough there was a very cryptic message from Dinesh, following a sweet apology from Michael.
Michael’s message said: “I’m sorry I didn’t make it back last night. I hope you can forgive me for that and many other transgressions. We need to talk. I got the biggest surprise of my life last night.”
Dinesh’s went like this: “Hello, Sylvia, I suppose you’ve gotten wind of one of my intentions this morning. When we meet for lunch, I will fill you in on the rest of them.”
Dinesh always says “when.” He thinks “if” is a waste of time. He was so certain I would meet him for lunch. Sometimes I hated his cockiness. But he was right. I did agree to meet him at our favorite restaurant.
Restivo’s was a small Italian eatery on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 22nd Street, near the Irish Repertory Theatre. Dinesh and I had our first official date there. The food was authentic Southern Italian and so were the waiters, with their thick accents and dark, curly hair.
Dinesh was sitting at the bar alone, drinking what looked like vodka, but when I took a sip, it turned out to be very flat soda water. I had forgotten that Dinesh thought it unseemly to drink alcohol before six.
“Sylvia, I’m stunned; you are on time.”
“I was very curious.”
“I am glad to see your doctor’s appointment went well.” He was still concerned about my health.
“I told you, Dinesh, it was just a run-of-the-mill physical.”
“I know, but we discover things about ourselves all the time,” he said, finishing his drink. “Sometimes, we get caught off-guard when we think everything is all right.”
With that, he called the host over and requested a small table in the corner. The restaurant was empty, and the host wanted to put us near the door to attract other patrons. But Dinesh was determined and didn’t want to whisper what he had to say.
“I need to know, Dinesh, before I die of curiosity. Why did you ask Tommy to move in with you?”
We had talked about everything else during our barely palatable lunch. Jennifer had left him for the young director. He realized in three days that he did not really care, and the first meal he had in his new apartment was a T-bone steak. He had quit the firm where he was on the fast-track to partnership, when he decided to switch from corporate law to civil rights law. He was using part of his inheritance to go back to school.
“I had a talk with my father.”
I reached out for Dinesh’s hand, and he didn’t pull away. I knew then he had, indeed, changed. “How, Dinesh? Tell me.”
“I had a dream, and we were in that restaurant again. The sun was as vital as it was then, and my father was sitting across from me,” Dinesh said, looking at himself in the mirror across from us. “He didn’t tell me he loved me, Sylvia, but I could see it in his eyes, those bloodshot, wrinkled eyes. He vowed to me that he would get it right in the next life. I believe in that now, reincarnation, not the rest of it, but that, yes.”
“That’s good. I’m glad you’re happy.”
“There you go again with the happiness.”
“Why Tommy? Why’d you ask him to move in with you?”
“Because I knew you would come to see him.”
I walked home to Union Square after my lunch with Dinesh. He had offered to pay for a taxi ride, but I refused. The weather was warm for late September, and the sky was clear. My shoes were comfortable, and I was feeling optimistic. One day, in a few years maybe, I would get to see Dinesh in the skirt. His tone of voice, his demeanor during our meal had promised that much.
I knew the way Dinesh’s mind worked. If he truly accepted the idea of reincarnation into his core beliefs, then he would not abandon me in this lifetime. He already had to come back to resolve his relationship with his father; he would not want to have to deal with me as well. I could be happy with this. I was happy with it.
In the hallway outside my apartment, I could hear old, obscure disco playing, and I knew Michael was home. I walked in the door and found him dancing in the living room. His easel was out, and he was painting happy faces in different colors all over the canvas.
“Hey, beautiful,” Michael said, turning down the music. “Where have you been?”
“That’s funny, coming from you, stranger. Where have you been?”
“You’ll never guess who I saw at the gallery opening.”
“I can’t imagine.”
Amy. Of course.
It seems Amy - after burning her pink cardigan sweater set - had begun to follow Michael around after their break-up. She couldn’t let him go. She loved him, and after all, her favorite psychic had told her that they were meant to be husband and wife. In the short time she was apart from Michael, Amy shed her ego and learned to like what Michael loved. Michael was taken with the new Amy and suddenly remembered that she made a great onion dip, whereas I couldn’t cook at all. I couldn’t begrudge him his destiny, since I was so sure Dinesh was mine.
“We’re going to take it slow, though,” Michael said, reminding himself of that fact as much as he was telling me. “Would you mind if I stayed on here and slept on the couch?”
“Stay as long as you want.”
“What about Tommy? Where’s he going to live, when he gets out.”
“Oh, he’s staying with Dinesh, my ex.”
Michael scratched his hand, and I noticed the fading imprint of an ink stamp, a smiley face. When they left the gallery, he and Amy had gone to an after-hours club to discuss their future together.
I looked at him and thought he could go as slow as he wanted with Amy but he’d wind up in the same place. They’d get married and have exactly two children. He would put his art away, and she would get fat. At night, they would both wonder, before they drifted off to sleep, if they made the right choices during this reckless time.
“Seems like this is the weekend for the return of the ex,” Michael said, picking up a paint brush and putting it down, absentmindedly.
“I guess it is.”
“If we stayed together and shut them out, it wouldn’t last. Would it?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Nothing lasts forever.”
Copyright © Pia Wilson 2003. Title graphic: "Let Me Think About It" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2003.