The Bridge of Eternal Happiness
Dinesh was humming one of his own songs in the next room as Savitri lay half-naked on their bathroom floor. She'd thrown up on her sundress and felt too sick to move. He'd come home from a night out with friends at the annual reggae festival on the beach and hadn't yet noticed their empty bed.
Savitri's shoulder-length black hair was damp and matted to her face, her left cheek pressed against the floor. Even in this tropical Goa weather, she was shivering from the stinging cold of the concrete, wishing bathroom rugs were a thing in India, where instead bathroom floors were bare and always a little wet, between the stall-less shower in one corner and the water faucet and mug for washing one's ass in the other.
She wanted to get up, wipe the vomit off her mouth, vomit that she was now lying in, seeping into her bra and underwear. She looked at her sexy black dress lying crumpled beside her, the dress she'd worn earlier that night to make him believe she was fine.
She knew white people came to India for salvation. But what state of nirvana was she achieving, here on the bathroom floor?
When Savitri first fell in love with Dinesh in New York, he was married. A godsend. They couldn't fail each other. Her feelings didn't need to be proven real or false. Just being was enough.
She'd been married before, lived through decaying, codependent, toxic love. Watched a spark she thought would last a lifetime, flame out. Had even visualized a deathbed scene with her ex during a hippie dippie work retreat she'd been forced to attend for her nonprofit job, believing as she did in forever back then.
Dinesh—in the death throes of his own broken marriage—enjoyed himself with her. Didn't hide. Treated her like a discovery, picking up objects in her Brooklyn apartment and staring with wonder. The self-love magnet on her fridge, the polyamorous love poem on the entryway bench where he put on his shoes before heading back to his wife. The books she read, the scraps of paper with bolts of inspiration for stories she never wrote, the Post-its where she noted her daily to-dos, including, buy condoms.
She remembered walking into the subway at West 4th when he called to say his wife had left him. Texted her a snarky haiku about the death of love. How tightly he held her the next night, passed out after sex on a blanket on his living room floor—a wall of Polaroids from his life with the other woman staring down at her. It was too soon to "make love" in their bed or take those Polaroids down, he'd whispered, but he couldn't be alone, could she hold him forever?
Savitri awoke that night with a start. Her back ached from lying on the floor. She watched Dinesh sleep, his head poking out from the scratchy wool throw he'd pulled off the couch. She wanted to reach over and touch him, but stopped herself. Should she have come just because he called? Dinesh's friend had raised an eyebrow in disapproval when she showed up at the bar. "You shouldn't be here," he hissed.
"Babe, you awake?" Dinesh rolled over and looked at her.
"Hey," she smiled and ran her fingers through his black curls. "You okay?"
"Yeah." He kissed her, his tongue slowly finding hers, a hand slipping between her legs. He let out a small murmur, happy to find her still naked. She wrapped her arms tightly around his neck, thrusting her hips into him, his long, thin guitar-playing fingers inside her. The mixtape she'd made for him played on loop, The Weeknd's "What You Need" scoring her middle of the night fantasy. She felt like she was underwater, unable to breathe as he entered her, searching her face, kissing, biting, caressing. "I see you, Savitri." Behind him, first light filtered through the living room curtains, illuminating his dark brown skin.
She held onto images of that fall—the last time she'd seen Dinesh before he moved to India. After he left on his clichéd ABCD pilgrimage to find himself, the memories took on a deeper meaning. She missed him. Months later, when he called to say he loved her and hadn't stopped thinking about her, she decided they were meant to be. Their brown love bringing each other back to life in the wake of doomed marriages to white people.
Just over a year since they'd last seen each other, Savitri left for Goa. It was a lot to wrap up a life. One of the hardest people to break the news to was Raqim—her queer bestie never thought anyone was good enough for her and he hated their so-called homeland, particularly Goa for being "overrun by goras" and not worth the time for anyone serious about experiencing the real India. They said goodbye at her neighborhood bar in Crown Heights.
"I can't believe you're really leaving." "I love him."
"I just don't think he's serious about you. You're giving up everything for him—what's he doing for you? Your ex may have been a clueless white boy from the one percent, but at least he worshipped the ground you walked on."
Savitri's stomach tightened as she ignored the reference. "The timing with Dinesh was just bad before. We're in the same place now."
"Mm-hmm." Raqim put a hand on Savitri's shoulder. "Are you running toward this dude or just running away from your life?"
But what was holding her in New York? A recently married best friend too caught up in a new relationship and the bureaucracy of queer adoption to maintain the close connection that had gotten Savitri through her divorce, a dead-end job at a big nonprofit that cared less and less about making real change and an ex-husband who still stalked her dreams from California.
It was time to commit to something again. And she needed the change of scenery. Isn't this what she'd been saving for?
When she landed in Goa, Savitri wanted to give the taxi driver an exact address—her new address. Dinesh told her only that he lived by the big church in Anjuna, and he'd direct her from there. She knew the South Indian state had been colonized by the Portuguese and retained a Catholic influence. But Savitri couldn't wrap her mind around Christians in India, having been raised by Bengali Hindus in the Bible belt American South. She wasn't sure whether Dinesh or his South Indian family were Christian; among background details they never discussed.
The road from the airport to his house unfurled like any road in India, tourists of Goa be damned. Her driver swerved to avoid hitting objects in his way—goats and their herders, cows, pigs, bicycles, three-wheeled auto rickshaws, roadside street vendors, pedestrians and the two-wheeled motorbikes known as scooters. She sucked in her breath to push away the anxiety of returning to a country she barely belonged to, and hadn't visited in years.
In the distance, Savitri glimpsed a bridge over a shimmering, silver ribbon of water with the moon rising just above, the river's banks crowded by dense, leafy green vegetation. A road sign read 11 kilometers to Anjuna. She messaged Dinesh. He responded with his usual 7-count heart emojis, the stock response when in a rush. Unable or unwilling to say more.
She saw he was still typing and let out a relieved sigh. "I can't wait to tell you how happy I am to see you."
Once at the church, she called Dinesh and he guided the driver the rest of the way to his house down a dirt path, surrounded by tall palm trees, hidden from street view.
Savitri coughed anxiously when she spotted him, his blonde hair now back to its natural black, his curls grown out in a way she'd never seen. He sported a thick beard that suited his angular face.
She hugged him and pulled back before he could kiss her. It felt too soon. She hadn't seen him in 13 months. Their conversations about getting back together—if it even qualified as a "back" together—had taken place mostly over text message. She'd only heard his voice a handful of times, and it got her every time.
The sound of a man who made a living with his voice but was also a lifelong smoker, a daily smoking practice that started around the same time as his daily singing practice. At age 14, the smoking inspired by a first kiss with a blonde European who tasted of Chiclet gum and cigarettes, the songwriting inspired by heartbreak when she moved onto the next exotic man of color to piss off her parents. That combination of melody and rasp had drawn her in from the moment he'd said hello to her at an open air concert in Brooklyn, introduced by mutual friends.
Savitri toured the modest two-bedroom house Dinesh had taken over from Scandinavian girls who'd painted the walls while high on acid, which he'd redone in white before moving in, keeping only a brightly-colored side table covered in amorphous designs.
They sat on his porch, drinking Old Monk and Coke and sharing a joint. "I can't believe you're here," he exclaimed, "I'm so happy to see you."
"Of course I came. I missed you." The rum was neutralizing her stomach acid and the joint was helping calm her anxiety.
He leaned over to kiss her and she moved her mouth, a reflex, as if he was a stranger at one of her go-to Lower East Side bars where she spent one or two nights a week, a stranger she'd prefer not to go home with. She'd been relieved to give up that existence.
Dinesh didn't react, telling her about his gigs, his burgeoning music career, recent interviews in major magazines like Rolling Stone India. He'd started a weekly residency at an established rock venue with a fellow Indian musician who was a legend in Goa, his face painted on the walls of its most iconic café.
"I don't know what you'll think of my life here." He watched her for a response.
"You seem happy. I'm glad." She edged closer to him, kissing him full on the lips this time, already high on his smell. Their tongues were tangled now, he was biting her lip, she was moving a hand up his back, underneath his shirt.
He pulled away, "I'm hosting a party tonight. I'm excited to introduce you to everyone."
She watched his lips. How often she daydreamed about kissing him, a memory of a makeout session in Fort Greene just before they got ticketed by cops for trespassing after the park was officially closed, their names run through a police database to prove they weren't criminals, forced to appear in court to make the misdemeanor charge go away. He'd dyed his hair blonde and shaved his beard a few days later, saying he needed a change after his divorce.
But Savitri hadn't come to Goa to meet his friends. She adjusted her bra and fingered her lobes to check which earrings she'd put on at the airport bathroom, when she'd stopped to apply makeup and fix her hair. Sure, she looked cute, but she wasn't a musician, didn't have any obvious tattoos or anything that made her stand out as cool with the Goa "it" crowd.
The first week was a blur. She was on his schedule—gigs nearly every night in Anjuna or some other beachside town, drinking and doing drugs with his friends until early in the morning, a quick lovemaking session before sleeping through the day, a late lunch followed always by watching the sun set. In those first days, Dinesh's good friend and manager Rohan admonished her when Savitri suggested an outing—away from the beach—during sunset hour.
She learned that among this non-tourist, non-local, semi-permanent party crowd, Goa was divided in half. Those who found enlightenment through coke or else acid, unified in an effort to enjoy night after night of sunsets and sex and music and a denial of all that normal life required.
She'd come for her own high. Dinesh's smell was intoxicating and if she could have bottled it up and worn it as cologne, she would have. Whispered this in his ear so many times during foreplay. When he asked her to suck on his balls and nudged her head in that direction— even that skin and hair smelled good. Further proof they were destined for each other.
At his concerts, an invisible spotlight shone on Savitri. He sang lyrics just to her, reflecting the way he made her feel—the brown girl with a lingering Southern accent, long legs and silky black hair. She loved to watch him on stage, fully alive and present to the world. She would sit apart from his friends, dancing alone, her cheeks flushing red, laughing, smiling, willing those moments to last forever.
Each full moon was observed with an all-nighter on Molly. They swam in the warm ocean, marveling at the moon, making plans for their life together. Joking about whether they'd ever change their minds about not wanting kids or a traditional life, brainstorming which of their hot friends they might invite to bed for a threesome. These were their best nights.
Savitri woke up with a terrible stomach ache, lying on the mattress near the front door that doubled as living room seating, typical of how most living rooms were arranged in India. She'd made it from the bathroom to the living room in the middle of the night, using her crumpled black dress as a pillow. Dinesh gave her a kiss as she rubbed her eyes awake. "Babe, why'd you sleep out here last night?"
"I don't feel so great—weak American stomach I guess. Can you get me some bananas?" Savitri had fallen back asleep when a knock on the door woke her. It was Rohan. At 46, he was only a decade older but could have passed for her grandfather, his face shriveled from too many years of hard living. Gray whiskers scattered across his cheeks and chin, as if he'd shaved while high. She sat with him on the porch while they waited for Dinesh. It was the first one-on-one conversation they'd had since she moved to Goa seven months earlier.
"Dinesh says you've never dropped acid. You have to try it, at least once. Preferably many, many times." He offered her a joint. She waved him off, staring at his necklace with the bright orange glass charm that signaled he was carrying.
"You seem like you've done your fair share. You're from Goa?" "Bombay."
"You still have family there?"
"Yeah, but we don't speak. After my brother and his wife had their first kid, they told me they didn't want me to visit anymore. A bad influence I guess. My lifestyle and all that." He gestured at the squat one-story house made of concrete, the coconut palms rustling in the light breeze, the bright blue sky. "It doesn't matter. All of this, it's not real. Nothing lasts."
She took a sip of her tea. "That doesn't mean it's not worth fighting for."
"Why not just enjoy it—we're in paradise. What do we need to fight for?"
"To make it so everyone can enjoy things. To have relationships. To have love. Not everybody gets to have the life you have. There is a world outside of Goa."
"Are you in love with Dinesh?"
"And you love Goa. So what's the question?"
"No question. I'm here."
"But you're not really here." He leaned forward to stub out the rest of his joint.
The sun would set in the next couple of hours. Her stomach tensed. She needed to get back. He would notice if she wasn't there. Fuck sunset culture. Fuck Goa.
A nurse called her name. "The doctor is ready for you." Savitri glanced at the mix of young Indian women and European tourists sitting in the waiting room, looking uncomfortable in hospital-grey plastic chairs, their faces distorted by flickering, fluorescent tube lights. She walked quickly to keep up with the nurse, who disappeared through double doors to an examination room.
She was glad it wasn't going to be pill-induced. A friend had described the horror of being out dancing one night and having to expel the fetus in a dirty nightclub toilet. The medical procedure was more uncomfortable, but at least when it was done, it was done.
She knew it would be difficult to hide the cramps afterward, though he barely paid attention to her these days.
"Hey," she sat down next to Dinesh on a cushion on the floor of their usual beachside café hangout where he was already stationed with his sunset friends, pulling a joint out of his mouth and handing it to a fellow musician, to give her a kiss.
They were all musicians or artists of some sort, and she'd come to hate them. Up close, they'd lost their charm, like the good friend who turns out to be an awful roommate. Indians. Europeans. Americans. It didn't matter. She hated their smugness. Their air of being over it, being beyond and above this material world. In a realm where they crowned themselves goddesses and gods, inhabited past and future lives, hovering just above the earthly creatures all around them, who seemed to not yet have mastered real living. Poor fools who still went to day jobs, championed political causes, provided for families.
Lucky for this Goa crew, they lived off their gigs—their art—and managed to make just enough to pay for their beer and coke and acid and leave the rest of the worries to the mere mortals who supported their lifestyles—the locals they pretended not to see. Well, she was done.
Her own modestly conveyed talent seemed to pale in comparison and she hated how the words "I'm a writer" sounded now, coming out of her mouth. Goa hadn't inspired her to write, it just destroyed her illusion of the artist's life. Who did they think they were fooling, using art as an excuse for their laziness and apathy. All they'd managed to create was an idea of cool.
Anyway, her savings had run out and it was time to face real life.
They must have felt her judgment, because no one offered her a joint anymore. She desperately wanted a shot of whiskey but the doctor told her to hydrate, rest and be careful of what she ate or drank for the next few days. She ordered a fresh lime soda and nachos for the table. She hated that it still meant something to have them like her.
"You okay," Dinesh whispered into her ear. The intimacy of the gesture surprised Savitri. He'd barely spoken to her in weeks. Maybe she'd been the one keeping quiet, agonizing over her decision, reaching out to the women in her life. Taking solo walks on the beach, headphones on, wading into the waves. Admiring the lone seabird always perched on a rock by the water, its long black neck craned skyward, not needing anyone.
On the phone the week before, her mom had said, "You love him, so what's wrong? Don't make problems where they don't exist. You don't want to end up alone."
She'd told her mother about Dinesh right away, only the second person she'd ever really loved. Leaving out the inconvenient detail that he'd been married when they first started dating. And now, failing to mention her being pregnant with his child.
"Yes, Ma, but how can we have a real future? He doesn't even face his present. He's like Peter Pan. I just wanted this love to be real, the one that worked."
Her mother paused, "You know, I had a love, too. Not your father, of course." Her parents' broken arranged marriage was well-trodden territory for them. "You remember Mohamed uncle and his wife Betty?"
"Sure." Savitri recalled a tall and lanky Bangladeshi man with sharp, pointed facial features. The first Bengali Muslim she'd ever met, and the first interracial couple she knew.
Her mother recounted the months she and Savitri had been alone in their big house in Atlanta before they moved to a much smaller condo in southern California. Her father had moved to Los Angeles ahead of them, for what they'd hoped would be a better job. Savitri was finishing the 7th grade while her mother worked to sell the house. She remembered praying to the universe to convince her mother to stay in Georgia and leave her father, who she'd had a strained relationship with from a young age.
"One day Mohamed showed up. You were at school, and I'd taken the day off of work, waiting for the realtor. I ran to the door with a towel in my hair from the shower. He knew we were moving, and he didn't want me to go. He said he'd been having problems with his wife, and he didn't think he could be with a white woman anymore. They were fighting about everything—religion, culture, whether they wanted a family. She'd been trying to get pregnant and it had been taking time, and now he was changing his mind. He knew once they had a child, there would be no question of leaving her." She hesitated, imagining the scene from decades ago.
"I told him we shouldn't talk in our house and drove him to a coffeeshop. I admitted I was fond of him, too. But there was no future for us. I urged him to work it out with his wife. I gave him a hug, kissed him on the cheek and sent him home."
"You never spoke again?"
"No. I know they stayed married and had a child—I saw it on Facebook. Their son is a doctor now, like Mohamed. See, I never took a chance for love. Your father and I—"
"I know, Ma." Her parents were married in Kolkata in the 1970s, introduced to each other a week before the wedding, their families having met through The Statesman classifieds. Forty years on, they lived in opposite ends of the same house and barely spoke, except through their only child.
"That's why I admire you. You take the chance. You have the choice I didn't."
After sunset, Savitri wanted to curl up in a ball and take refuge alone in their house. Dinesh's friends left the café for a rave down the beach, but he stayed back.
She'd been lying down and sat up now to look at him.
"Hey, I know." He furrowed his eyebrows as he fiddled with a pack of cigarettes.
"You think I didn't notice—the private phone calls, the secret trip to the clinic, the cramps, the mood swings. I'll be honest, I didn't right away, since you barely talk to me anymore, and then Monami pointed it out. She'd been to the same clinic, had the same cramps."
"Don't make this about her."
"Sure, our relationship anarchy has nothing to do with it."
Dinesh had encouraged them to follow relationship anarchy—it was supposed to be about being in the moment with someone, not worrying about the past or the future or other lovers, choosing to be together every day, not out of obligation or social rules. She'd fallen in love with the idea under a full moon, but now it just felt reductive and callous.
"Can we have a real conversation? Instead of you reacting to things I haven't actually said." He stubbed out his cigarette, raising his eyes to meet hers. "You're really not going to talk to me about the baby?"
"What is there to say? You know what happened, you know why I did it. You want to tell me I made the wrong choice?"
"So, what now? Seven months and we're done?" She looked away from him. "Congrats, Savitri. You assumed the worst about us and voilà, it came true."
"It's not all of a sudden. I've made an effort. I came to Goa for you. I've tried with your friends. It's not my fault that I don't want to snort coke or drop acid all the fucking time. Maybe that's why I don't have the illusion that I'm the Kali goddess reincarnated or whatever. And I happen to enjoy being sober sometimes."
"Wow, okay." He pulled matches out of his pocket and lit another cigarette.
"Well, what if we were in New York. What would you be like with my friends? How would you have fit into my life there?"
His eyes narrowed, his face a mixture of sadness and disappointment. "You could have talked to me. But you didn't even try."
The river came into view before the bridge. From Savitri's vantage point, it looked like a vast lake, stretching across far enough to contain fully inhabited islands. The islands were as green as the land on either side—palm tree forests dotted with tropical fruit trees, bushes, small concrete homes, narrow lanes winding through and connecting each island back to the mainland on the southwestern side of the river. The color of the water was an opaque teal. Through her sunglasses, the color was an even brighter and deeper shade of blue.
"It's been hard for me in India. It's been a fucking uphill battle to get taken seriously as a musician—to them, I'm a silly, gay American boy, with my painted nails, my tightfitting and colorful clothes, my accent." Goa hadn't been easy, Dinesh explained—beaten up for appearing queer, denied gigs in favor of white European musicians, robbed of payments by Russian and Israeli club owners. "Anyway," his voice softened, taking a deep breath, "whenever I go over this bridge, I tell myself I'm going to be happy in this moment, no matter what else is going on."
Savitri wrapped her arms around his waist, inching closer on the scooter. He'd asked her to hold him tight while riding, but she couldn't bring herself to do so before. She still felt nervous around him, these first few days. Now she leaned against his back, smiling into his neck.
Years later, on a subway train home to Brooklyn crossing the Manhattan Bridge, she would fight to call back this moment. How green were the trees? How blue was that sky? Had there really been islands floating inside the river? Islands with pigs and goats and thirteen different shades of green?
You see a thing happen so many times, in your mind's eye, you don't mind living it, again and again. And when a different scene is possible, beyond you, just out of—or is it just within?—arm's reach, you assume it's too far away to matter. You continue living the life you know, and are grateful you have anything to do at all. Grateful there is one foot to go in front of another, steps to be taken, a life to be lived. But maybe the present is all there is—a life raft, or perhaps a bridge, between what came before and what happens next.
At the airport, Savitri's phone beeps. The plane will board soon, the announcer says. She pulls her hair back in a ponytail. She's wearing her travel sweatshirt and jeans. She's still feeling pain from residual cramping, pushing away visions of a holographic baby urging her to make a different choice, waiting for the Ayurvedic medicine the nurse had given her to kick in.
She wishes she could call her mother. She keeps seeing the forceps, the sterile white of the doctor's coat, the shining metal of the stethoscope hanging around her neck.
"Final boarding call for American Airlines flight 734 to JFK. Passengers are kindly requested to report to the boarding gate, or else they will lose their seat. Final boarding call."
Savitri picks up her phone without reading the message and switches it to airplane mode. She grabs her backpack and passport to get in line, or the queue as they call it in India—one more Indian English term she'll soon be able to forget. She hopes the long flight will give her time to sleep.