• Goodbye, Obama

    Sheba Karim

    Winter 2023

    Ruby was close to orgasm in the pickle aisle of Patel Brothers Indian grocery when her phone rang. Miles, her high school crush who had aged deliciously well, lifted his head from between her legs and said, “Do you think you should answer that?”

    “No, I think I should come,” Ruby said, her fingers clenched in his curls.

    Miles let her dress fall. “What if it’s an emergency?”

    The word echoed—emergency emergency—the phone kept ringing, Miles evaporated, the aisles of Patel Brothers fell like dominoes. Ruby was back in bed, holding her phone. It was her mother.

    “This had better be an emergency,” Ruby told her.

    “As’salam alaikum to you too.” Leave it to her mother to turn a salutation of peace into a reprimand.

    “Yes, yes, salaam shalom what is it?”

    “Farhan got engaged to Tasneem’s cousin’s friend’s niece. She’s Pakistani, a dermatologist.”

    Ruby knew how the news of Farhan’s engagement must have traveled through the Auntie grapevine on its way to her mother—Poor Azra, she must be feeling so bad, Farhan getting remarried and her daughter forever a single mother, whatever happened between Ruby and Farhan, who knows but that Ruby always was so rebellious. She felt a fleeting empathy for her mother, forever attached to this vine that both fed and choked her, an umbilical cord around the neck.

    “You called me in the middle of the night to tell me my ex-husband is engaged?”

    “It’s not even ten p.m. Ruby, when you got divorced, what did I say—”

    “Sorry, Mom, gotta go.”

    A moment later, there was a text from her best friend, Ali. My friend Samir just saw on Facebook that Farhan got engaged—did you know?

    Between Facebook and the Auntie grapevine, there was no such thing as escaping your past. Ruby decided to ignore Ali’s message and get high. Earlier that evening, alarmed by a reality TV episode she and Noreen had watched about hoarders, she’d sorted through old boxes in the garage and discovered a bong from grad school, close to a foot in length, with Yoda’s head as its base. At the time, she’d laughed and placed it in the discard pile, but now she understood Yoda had reemerged for a reason.

    Twenty minutes later, after a YouTube refresher on how to use a bong, Ruby was stoned in the garage, reflecting on her marriage. It had been fifteen years since she’d signed the papers, a rutabaga-sized Noreen somersaulting in her belly. She remembered so little, an entire relationship distilled into memories that were scattered and mostly spiky, like her leg hairs after several rounds of laser. She recalled the bitter end the most, of course, and some of the beginning, and the occasional scene from the long, unhappy middle, when the resentments piled up like the dishes he never washed. He never took out the garbage either, oh no, he’d observe from the couch as she carried it out. She’d trudge back up those three tenement flights, thinking, maybe, this time, he’d have put a new liner in the can, but he never did, and she’d kept silent—except, she remembered now, for that one time. She’d been shaking out a fresh liner when she exploded, threw the bag on the floor, stomped on it like Rumpelstiltskin, kicked the trash can on its side and yelled, Do you have any idea how it makes me feel that I always take out the trash and you can’t even put in a new one?

    From the couch, Farhan exhaled a plume of pot smoke and said, Don’t start something you can’t finish.

    Ruby had forgotten this fight. Or maybe it was that she’d stopped trying to remember. She shivered; the garage was chilly, she wanted a jacket, but she was like Farhan on the couch, too stoned to move. Once, she remembered, he’d given her the silent treatment for three whole days. Then, when he’d deigned to speak, he’d refused to say why he’d been upset. So many years and thousands of dollars in therapy, and all it took were a few memories to feel it all again, the anger, shame. The shouldas Greek chorus: You shoulda shoved the trash into his arms. You shoulda run when he said I love you on the third date, when he lied about being employed. You shoulda never married him.

    But that, of course, would negate Noreen.

    Her old therapist, a fan of visualization techniques, would tell her to put her anger into a suitcase, put the suitcase onto a sailboat, and watch the boat sail away.

    Ruby looked down at Yoda in her lap. Yoda looked back with his wise, Jedi eyes.

    Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. 

    Sail away, sail away, sail away.

    “Mom? Why are you sitting in the garage?”

    The best thing to ever happen to her stood in the doorway, wearing an oversized hoodie and—how very apt—Ruby’s decades-old Trashcan Sinatras T-shirt.

    Ruby slid Yoda behind her chair. “I was looking for that shirt,” she said. “You know I flew—”

    “All the way to San Francisco to see them play with Radiohead,” Noreen said. “Is that a bong? I hope that’s not how you’re planning to cope with the Orange Lord.”

    The Orange Lord was their name for their new president. Every time Ruby heard his voice on public radio, she had to switch over to 80s hits, belt out some Bananarama and Tears for Fears until the bad taste left her mouth.

    “Me and Yoda are just sharing a fond farewell,” Ruby said. “Tomorrow, I’ll donate him to some needy frat house.”

    Noreen rolled her eyes. “I was going to heat up some biryani. You in?”

    “I was born in.” She needed to tell Noreen about her father’s engagement, a conversation better had with some food in one’s stomach. Her phone buzzed with another message, this time from Shilpi Joshi.

    Hi Ruby! I know this is out of the blue, but is it possible for you to come over Friday evening? Ravi and the kids are away and I need help with something.

    “Weird,” Ruby said. “What the fuck does Shilpi need my help for?”

    “Who’s Shilpi?” Noreen asked.

    “We were besties for a hot minute in college. My Mercury has got to be in retrograde. You go ahead, I’ll be there in a sec.”

    Last year, she and Shilpi had reconnected at a benefit for the nonprofit Ruby worked for. They were both dressed in saris, tipsy on gin. Shilpi told her she’d just removed her thong because her butthole was allergic to the lace, Ruby said she wasn’t wearing underwear, and one joke rolled into the next, just like old times. They’d exchanged numbers and promised to meet up but until now had only communicated through heart and fire emojis on Instagram. How could Shilpi expect her to say yes to her cryptic request without providing further details? Plus, Friday night Ruby had plans with Ali. They’d already paid thirty bucks each for tickets.

    Hi Shilpi! About Friday, I’ll have to see if I can switch some things around. What’s going on?

    Shilpi replied immediately. I really hope you can make it. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important. I wish I could say more but I’ll explain Friday!

    This last text left Ruby no choice but to go find out what the hell was afoot. Whatever it was, it had better be worth missing Bollywood Drag Bingo.

    Spring semester of their junior year at Penn, Ruby and Ali were supposed to study abroad together in London. Over the holidays, Ruby’s mother discovered a letter from Liz, who was studying abroad in Alicante, that detailed a night of getting high, dancing, and hooking up with a Spanish football player. This is why you want to go to London? To smoke marijuana and open your legs like your friend? her mother said. Over my dead body.

    Ali left for London, and Ruby remained in Philly without her best friend—lonely, furious at her mother, and suffering from crippling FOMO.  Tuesday and Thursday mornings, she attended History of the Mughal Empire, where she sat in the back corner dressed in dark, angry clothes and drinking black coffee out of an act up thermos. The boys of the South Asian elite sat center left, wealthy sons of industrialists from Delhi, Dhaka, Karachi, Bombay, who drove sports cars and lived in luxury apartments off campus. Front and center were the Penn Indians, a group of mostly pre-meds who dominated the Holi and Diwali shows, performing dances in elaborate matching outfits.

    Shilpi Khanna was a member of this crew. She was secretary of the South Asia Society (which, despite its name, was 99% Indian), and penned a Bollywood review column for its monthly newsletter. Not only had she performed in every Diwali and Holi show, she’d emceed two of them. Though Shilpi struck Ruby as one of those petite, peppy, goody-two-shoes Indian girls, she loved watching Shilpi dance. At the afterparties, as Ruby danced on the periphery, close to the bar, she’d catch glimpses of Shilpi killing it on the dance floor, awed by her ability to perform every Bollywood role—coy virgin, poetic courtesan, bold vixen, blushing bride—with vivaciousness and grace.

    One fateful morning, Shilpi entered class, walked all the way to the back, and chose a desk one over from Ruby. Accustomed to having her corner all to herself, Ruby bristled: at the intrusion; at Shilpi’s thick, black, straight, and glossy desi-heroine hair; at her symmetrical black eyeliner; at the gold Tiffany heart necklace hanging over her turtleneck. But then Shilpi greeted her with a warm smile.

    “Ruby, right?” Shilpi said. “I know we’ve met but I don’t think we’ve ever actually talked. What do you think of Herr Jägermeister?”

    Professor Jäger was a geriatric German South Asianist; he was also a genius who was becoming more unintelligible with each passing year.

    “He can be hard to follow,” Ruby said, “but I like the readings. These South Asia classes are great for learning all the shit your parents never tell you.”

    Shilpi’s laugh pierced Ruby’s I-don’t-need-anyone armor, a ray of light to the lonely girl underneath. Could it be that Shilpi Khanna wanted to be friends?

    “I understand, like, like 10% of what Jägermeister says,” Shilpi continued. “But I like most of the readings and it’s a guaranteed A.”

    Professor Jäger opened class by talking about the Timurid and Mongol lineage of Babur, the first Mughal emperor. Almost immediately, Vivek, one of the Delhi boys, raised his hand. Professor Jäger could be easily sidetracked, and the sons of the industrialists made a sport of leading him down rabbit holes.

    “A small question, Professor,” Vivek said. “In his memoir, Babur writes about how he enjoys getting high on ma’jun and chilling with his friends in beautiful meadows. My question is, does ma’jun refer to marijuana leaves or to the resin, also known as hashish?”

    The highlights of Babur’s memoir included a brief, lustful obsession with a boy he saw in a market, boisterous wine parties, and frequent consumption of the intoxicant ma’jun. Professor Jäger explained that ma’jun may have been a mixture of opium, ghee, and sugar. As he elaborated in excruciating detail on the various medieval and early modern Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit sources that spoke to the nature and usage of opium by the ruling classes, Shilpi passed a note to Ruby.

    Jägermeister, she wrote, can even make drugs boring. Ruby laughed so loud that Vivek turned around to see what he’d missed. When class ended and Ruby knelt to tie the laces of her combat boots, she looked up to find Shilpi still there, waiting.

    “You want to go dancing sometime?” Shilpi said.

    Ruby felt happiest while dancing, and she’d recently discovered that the parties thrown by wealthy international students from the Middle East and Latin America had the best music. In fact, folded in her back pocket was an invite to a monthly party hosted by the Beirut Boys.

    This month’s theme was Jungle Boogie. In small, bold print, the invite promised that the party would be:




    “Pandemonium personified,” Shilpi repeated as she read the invite. “Who are these Beirut Boys?”

    “Lebanese twins. I don’t know their real names, but their parties have killer music. And you never have to buy your own drinks.”

    “I’m down,” Shilpi said. “What should we wear?”

    They decided to shop for sexy animal print dresses, give themselves mehndi tattoos, and stick bindis on their foreheads—two rare and exotic girls, roaring for a good time.

    Shilpi lived in a luxury high-rise on the Upper East Side, two blocks from the Eighty-sixth Street station. The shiny elevator doors opened, and Ruby stepped out into a small hallway. At the opposite end, Shilpi waved at her from the apartment doorway. “Oh my god, hi! That one is for guests.”

    The hallway was lined with custom-made racks for shoes and coats and umbrellas. There was only one door, which meant, Ruby realized as she hung up her black coat, badly pilling across the shoulders, that Shilpi’s apartment took up the entire floor. Only then did it occur to her why there was no letter after the apartment number.

    “Look at you!” Ruby said. “You’ve barely changed, you sexy mama.”

    They hugged, briefly; Shilpi was never one for physical affection between friends. When they used to hang out in bed talking, they stayed on their respective sides.

    “You look the same too,” Shilpi said.

    “That’s kind of you,” Ruby said. It was also a lie. While Shilpi had maintained her slender figure and lustrous hair, Ruby had become softer and wider and, she was convinced, a little shorter, thanks to her shitty posture. Throughout the day, she’d begun reciting a corrective mantra, spine straight, stomach in, shoulders back. She did this now as she followed Shilpi into the apartment.

    Once inside, Shilpi turned to face Ruby in the narrow foyer, framed by a wall of family portraits displayed in chronological rows. Directly above Shilpi’s head was a photo of Shilpi, Ravi, Kartik, and Ishika midair in matching lumberjack shirts, jumping over a pile of autumn leaves.

    “I have a big favor to ask,” Shilpi said. She pressed her palms together in low prayer. “We do outside and inside clothes. Like you do with shoes, only with clothes. The thing is, I love New York, but it’s filthy, so many people touching everything. If I take an Uber, my butt is on the backseat where all these other people have been, and whatever was on their germy-ass butts is now on mine. Normally, I don’t make guests change, of course, but tonight I really need to feel comfortable.”

    Ruby laughed. “You’re nuts.”

    Shilpi smiled. “You’re nuts.”

    Back in the day, this had been their daily version of I see you. “Do you have something I can wear then?” Ruby asked.

    “Wait here,” Shilpi said. She returned a minute later with a neatly folded cashmere lounge set. “It’s an extra small, but very roomy,” she said.

    Ruby went into the guest room, holding the clothes at arm’s length so as not to contaminate them. Sometimes, while at a tedious work meeting about VAWA grant money, or during that anticipatory hush at a play before the curtains open, a small part of her felt the urge to disrupt order, to cause a spectacle, to tap-dance on the conference table or run down the theater aisle yelling profanities. This same part of her now wanted to walk into the living room in her outside clothes, rub her dirty booty all over the couch, and tell Shilpi, “By the way, I took a train and two subways to get here.” She would never do it, of course, because it was untoward and impolite and because if she did Shilpi might die. She’d come tonight to help her old friend, not kill her.

    By the time Ruby was five, she understood that fair-skinned Pakistani girls would have an easier time finding a husband. She learned this by listening to her mother, spending time with the Aunties, and seeing the heroines in Bollywood films. By the time she was eight, she understood that while a boy’s bad reputation could be excused or overcome, a girl’s would forever haunt her. By the time Ruby was thirteen, she understood the rules, the main one being to steer clear of boys until close to marriageable age, at which point she was to seek out a well-educated Pakistani boy from a respectable family, either through introduction or on her own. And once she found a boy, she was to be both crafty and strategic, to act with haste to seal the deal without seeming forward, cunning, or desperate, or risking any stain to her family’s honor.

    An Ivy League school, Ruby’s mother kept reminding her, was an ideal place to secure a suitable boy. But Ruby had come to college with no intention of playing the marriage game. After graduation, she aspired to travel and live abroad, break the hearts of a string of international, dark-eyed lovers, and not settle down until she was very old, like thirty.

    Shilpi, on the other hand, had arrived at Penn determined to graduate with a dual degree, BA-MRS. Unlike most of the overachieving desi girls at Penn, she had no interest in a career; her great ambition was to marry well, be a devoted stay-at-home mother for her (preferably three) children, and sit on charity boards. Ruby had never met someone like Shilpi, who drank whiskey and made dick jokes but also held some very traditional views of marriage, caste, and class. She was fascinated by this dissonance. Sure, Shilpi was chasing some of the very things Ruby was running from, but Ruby had not met anyone aside from Ali who made her laugh this much, and what were a few feminist objections in the face of their dancefloor synergy?

    In History of the Mughal Empire, by the time Emperor Babur died and his son Humayun ascended the throne, Ruby and Shilpi were going out together every weekend. Shilpi thought Humayun was a druggie wimp of an emperor, foolishly forgiving his brothers even after they repeatedly betrayed him, but Ruby held a soft spot for Babur’s eldest son. While Humayun could not inspire troops or carry one man on each shoulder like his father, he was a loyal and kind ruler who adored opium, books, and women.

    Sheba Karim is the author of four young adult novels. Her most recent novel, The Marvelous Mirza Girls, received the South Asia Book Award. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is a Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University.

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