39.1 SNEAK PEEK: Neel N. Patel

The Taj Mahal an excerpt

It was Mallory who introduced us in the first place: at the shopping mall, then her party.
It was winter; I was visiting from L.A.
“L.A.,” Mallory said. “Wow.”
There was nothing wow about it. The hospital had put me on leave—something about “indecent behavior.” As far as I was concerned, I was the best OB/GYN they ever had.
“You’ve unraveled,” Dr. Barnes said. “The rest of the staff feels uncomfortable around you.”
“On what grounds?”
“On the grounds that you exposed yourself to Dr. Rosenberg.”
“I did no such thing.”
“You offered him sex.”
“That’s preposterous,” I said, glaring. “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
Then I took off my blouse.
It wasn’t always this way; in high school, Mallory was the adventurous one. Mallory was the one who got drunk off rum punch and Strawberry Boones. Mallory was the one with the tattoo; now she wore rust-colored sweaters and khaki-colored slacks, looking, at thirty-two, like the type of woman we swore we never would. We ran into each other at Target, on a Saturday afternoon. Mallory was pushing a shopping cart.
“Sabrina? Is that you?”
After high school, I had become glamorous while everyone else in my class had faded out of their glamorous time. Mallory included. She had a thick waist, loose skin; her blond hair had faded to brown. Meanwhile I was bronzed like honey, my hair the color of an espresso bean. I wore extravagant clothes, too. The night of Mallory’s party, I wore a raspberry cocktail dress from Neiman Marcus.
But it was meant to be a casual party.
I told her there was no such thing.
The party was typical: cheese boards next to a platter full of crackers and grapes. Mallory had strung up Christmas lights—colored ones, not gold. All night long she chased me around the house carrying store-bought appetizers and boxed red wine. She introduced me to her friends. They were the usual sort: the type of women who wore Christmas cardigans over stone-washed jeans. Their makeup was of the drugstore variety. Probably they were schoolteachers or nurses and probably they were afraid of me because I was a surgeon. A specialist. A God.
Sabrina lives in L.A. Can you imagine?
They couldn’t imagine. They couldn’t imagine that a week ago I had gone to a dive bar and popped a Klonopin into my mouth—then gone home with the DJ. His name was Yousif, and the next morning, four hundred dollars went missing from my purse. They would never understand me, these women, so I smiled at them, and nodded my head, and answered their questions about the traffic in L.A., and then, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I opened my bag and popped another Klonopin into my mouth. Then I started drinking. When I returned, Mallory had opened a bottle of champagne. Happy holidays everyone! I imagined spilling it on her floor. I wondered if she would get on her hands and knees to clean it up. I was thinking about this when Mallory’s boyfriend walked into the room, opening a can of beer, and suddenly, just like that, I began to think of something else.
I had no boyfriends of my own: I’d hoped Dr. Rosenberg could be my boyfriend. One morning we were sitting in the doctors’ lounge when I happened to show him a book I had read on giving really good blowjobs. Dr. Rosenberg had laughed, but later, when I showed it to him again, he didn’t seem so amused.
“I’m with a patient, Sabrina, and you’re being very inappropriate.”
Mallory’s boyfriend would have laughed. Mallory’s boyfriend worked for a tire shop called: Geeks on Wheels. He had a finely trimmed beard. There was something intriguing about him. He wore an Illinois sweatshirt over jeans. He had a dab of Brie on his chin. He stood near the cheese plate and avoided conversation. After a few moments, I walked over to him and spilled my drink on his shoes.
“It’s okay,” he said. “They’re not fancy like yours.”
I laughed louder than necessary.
“I’m Sabrina,” I said.
“Mallory’s friend, right?”
“Classmate. We went to high school together.”
“Right. I’m Dave.”
“Dave,” I said. “The boyfriend.”
“Well, Dave-the-boyfriend. I could really use a smoke right now. Know where I can make this happen?”
He pointed towards the kitchen.
“Back porch. You’ll see a life-size cutout of Santa Claus. You can’t miss it.”
“That’s where I’ll be.”
I could sense him watching me as I made my way into the kitchen, onto the patio beyond. When I stepped outside the giant Santa Claus was staring me in the face. The backyard was silver with moonlight and the branches were stripped bare. After a few moments, I heard the squeak of a door.
It was Dave-the-boyfriend. He was holding a beer. From an open window I could hear someone suggesting a game of Taboo.
“It’s supposed to snow tonight,” he said.
“I like the snow.”
“I guess you don’t see much of it where you’re from,” Dave said.
We were silent a moment; then Dave sat next to me and stared at my cigarette.
“Want one?”
“I can’t. Mallory wants me to quit.”
“Mallory’s not here.”
He smiled.
“Aren’t you some kind of doctor? Shouldn’t you be condemning this?”
“I’m an OB/GYN,” I replied. “Are you pregnant?”
“Then as far as I’m concerned you have nothing to worry about.”
He took the cigarette from my hands. His nail beds were dirty. I found this irresistible. After lighting up he exhaled a plume of smoke; then he closed his eyes.
“God, I needed that.”
“Remember,” I said, crossing my fingers. “It’s our little secret.”
We stayed like that for a while, Dave and I, until the cigarette was finished and the evening turned cold. Then he flicked the cigarette into the bushes and brushed off his jeans.
“I better get back inside. Don’t stay out here too long.”
I followed him inside. Mallory was in the kitchen, opening a bottle of champagne. She looked even larger than I had remembered; her waist had ballooned. “My god!” she said, pouring me a glass of champagne. “You’re shivering!”
The thing about being an OB/GYN is that everyone wants to talk to you about their vagina: how to get pregnant, how not to get pregnant, how to get rid of embarrassing smells.
“Your vagina is like a self-cleaning oven,” I said. “Stay away from harsh soaps.”
The women flocked to me. They admired my shoes and my bag. They asked me about my makeup—I told them it was my natural glow. Then Mallory linked hands with Dave and paraded him around the room.
“It’s supposed to snow tonight,” she said.
“So I’ve been told.”
“So what brings you in town? Are you visiting your parents?”
My parents were dead; they’d died in a car accident last year. Nobody knew. When the clinic put me on leave, the first thing I did was purchase a last-minute fare to Urbana, Illinois. Then I got drunk in my room. I planned on sticking around for a while, putting the house on the market. I did not plan on running into Mallory or Dave.
“I’m just home for the holidays,” I said. “It being Christmas and all.”
“I see,” Mallory replied, going back into the kitchen.
Dave was staring at her, narrowing his eyes. I wondered if he was in love. Then I realized that nobody who loved somebody would smoke a cigarette behind her back.
So I opened my bag.
“Let’s smoke another one.”
Someone had decided to play Christmas carols on the hi-fi system and there was a game of charades in the living room and so no one noticed when Dave and I slipped out through the back door. The night felt colder; Dave offered me his coat. His sleeves were rolled up and I could see the tattoo on his arm.
“I have a tattoo,” I said.
“Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah. But you can’t see it.”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s on my vagina.”
He spit out his drink. We sat down in front of the life-sized Santa Claus and Dave was looking at my legs. Suddenly I wasn’t so cold anymore.
“I hate Christmas,” I said.
“I’ve never heard that before.”
“That’s because you’re dating Mallory.”
“Which reminds me,” Dave said. “Back there, inside, you said that you and Mallory were classmates.”
“I asked if you were friends.”
I stared at him quietly, smashing my cigarette onto the steps. Then I narrowed my eyes.
“You’re not just a mechanic, are you?”
“I dropped out of law school.”
“Because I’m an idiot,” Dave said, putting out his cigarette. “And because I thought I was in love.”
He went inside to get more beers and we drank them one-by-one, crushing the cans. The music grew louder, and every few moments there was an undulating cheer. Dave was getting drunk; I could tell. His eyes had glazed over. Meanwhile I was barely buzzed. On a normal night I had a whole bottle of wine to myself. Sometimes I would get so drunk that a piece of forgotten memory would return to me in the middle of the night. Once, I had woken up wearing someone else’s brassiere. I was thinking about this when an idea suddenly sprang to mind. I grabbed Dave by the arm.
“Let’s get out of here. Let’s go for a drive. No one will know.”
“I don’t know…”
“I’ve got ecstasy,” I said, dropping my voice to a whisper. “And marijuana.”
Suddenly there was a loud crash from within the house. Mallory was screaming about the turkey. She began running around the kitchen and calling Dave’s name.
But it was too late.