I founded the club the summer after my junior year of high school, on a Friday night when my parents were on the two-story deck behind Charita’s mini-mansion, chowing down on catered Punjabi food. My brother was in the basement, playing video games, trading PSAT and SAT scores with the other Indian boys. The girls, Charita, Jyoti, Shilpa and I, all sat in Charita’s room on her scratchy pink carpet, hashing out the mission of the V-card club. It had a nice ring to it, V-card, the card you must hold to get your man. We agreed on two key rules:
- You can date, but you cannot have sex before marriage
- You have to marry an Indian, so only date an Indian
‘Your virginity guarantees your happiness,’ my mother had explained numerous times. ‘Rich husband, big house, fancy car. Stay thin, stay a virgin, you’ll never worry.’ I took her advice seriously. Although I had the security of my parents’ upper-middle-class money, I saw ahead to a time when they would stop feeling obliged to take care of me. Everyone in the club was expected to marry, expected to make our parents proud that their first-generation Indian-American daughters were settled, and so much richer than them.
None of the girls stayed in Massachusetts. Charita: Stanford, Shilpa: UPenn, Jyoti: Dartmouth. They studied or, in Shilpa’s case, cheated more than me. The club dissolved by default.
Despite the certainty that I’d be rejected, Columbia was my first choice. My parents had taken me to New York when I was twelve and we had looked at the school for my older brother. I admired the statue in front of the school’s black iron gates – a woman reading, flowers braided around her head. We took a tour of the main library, and my father thought he saw Monica Lewinsky sitting at one of the long, wooden desks. He was so excited pointing her out to my mother, brother and me. ‘Look, the bimbo,’ he’d said, pointing. She didn’t look like Monica Lewinski. The only thing they had in common was their skin color (pale white) and their hair (straight, thick, dark brown). My father had said if he were still a young man, he would want to attend Columbia, and I wondered if it was because the school was clean and vibrant and motivating or because he thought Monica Lewinsky studied there.
We stayed for two nights at a hotel in Times Square. We saw Phantom of the Opera the first night and Les Misérables the second. My parents couldn’t understand anything the actors said, but my mother liked the music and my father enjoyed the choreography. Both mornings, I walked with my father to the coffee shop across the street from our hotel for tea. How glamorous I thought I was! In New York City with my parents, seeing shows, drinking tea out of paper cups. I prayed my brother would go to Columbia so I’d have a reason to come back to New York. He ended up at Harvard, so I went to my second choice, NYU.
On move-in day, my father said, ‘Aarti, girls who have sex before marriage are whores. Don’t forget.’ As if I needed a final reminder of his world views before he drove away. I met S that same day. He was my orientation counselor.
I never spoke or wrote his full name. When you’re as attracted to someone as I was to him, it feels wrong to say their name out loud, or write it even, sort of like using the first name of a king. He was a senior, pre-med, and he had many friends. He wore a purple T-shirt that said volunteer in white capital letters, army-green cargo shorts, and black flip-flops. He said he was from upstate New York. I knew he was Indian and Punjabi by his surname, and by his light-brown skin and large, sharp nose. He was a few inches taller than me and his chest and arms were lean. ‘You must be Aarti,’ he’d said. He, too, could spot a fellow Indian. He smiled at me warmly, his eyes glinting green-ocean.
By October, I’d found Prem – a distraction from thinking about how much I liked S, and how out-of-my-league an Indian with green eyes was. I knew I wouldn’t be attracted to Prem. He was an FOB: from India, fresh off the boat. During our first phone conversation, his thick accent reminded me of my father. His online profile was sappy. ‘Looking for my Indian princess’, he wrote. I rationalized the date as a free tablecloth dinner to boost my self-esteem. He had an MBA and a job as a consultant, which meant the restaurant would be nice and he wouldn’t expect me to pay.
My roommate, Courtney, was unable to understand my reasoning for meeting Prem. White girls are raised to believe in themselves as individuals separate from their parents, gender and childbearing properties. As a result, they have nothing to hide, nor does it occur to them that perhaps there are some things they should hide. They believe in splitting the bill, and they care about a man’s appearance as much as his educational level. Courtney would’ve gone out with someone she wasn’t physically attracted to. She was exceptionally bright, here on a full scholarship. We got along well enough. We didn’t fight over things girls on our floor fought over: whose hair clogged the drain, who drank all the diet Coke, whose boyfriend slept over too much. Then again, we had more space than the other girls. The school gave us, only us, a fancy suite with a living-room area because they deemed us so smart. I got a partial scholarship because of my math score. I’m not good at math, not for an Indian at least. My score was impressive only by American standards.
I was getting ready for my first date with Prem when Courtney began wailing from the floor of our room, ‘Why does this always happen to me?’ I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror putting on makeup. I looked into the mirror at her reflection – toned, milky white legs; bright, sky-blue eyes; wild, curly red hair. She cradled our puke-beige phone in her arms, as if physical affection might make it ring.
‘You have to be confident and firm,’ I said. ‘Never go home with a guy unless you’ve been out at least five times.’ She glared into the mirror to roll her eyes at me.
‘American guys aren’t like Indian guys, Aarti.’
I decided not to point out that Indian guys, sometimes, are also American guys, because I, too, called myself Indian instead of American.
‘They’re not going to keep going on dates if you give them nothing in return,’ she added.
‘Who?’ I asked. ‘Indian or American?’
I wondered if she was right. I finished swiping bronzer across my face and turned around to face her. ‘But you are giving them something in return, Courtney, my darling.’ I spread my arms wide and hugged myself. ‘They get the privilege of you! Your company! Don’t you see?’ I laughed. She laughed louder. One of the most important things my mother taught me is that if you don’t believe in yourself, at least pretend you do. Otherwise, no one ever will.
I knew that aside from my physical appearance, I wasn’t an interesting person. But I also knew that if I listened to what a man was saying and nodded, providing intermittent responses indicating that I was in fact listening, that he would recall me as not only smart, but lovely and desirable too.
‘You’re such a prude,’ Courtney said. She crawled like a cat and grabbed my leg to pull me down to the floor. ‘Skip the date, little princess. Hang out with me.’
She started calling me her little princess when I told her I was a virgin. ‘How do you not want it?’ she’d asked.
‘I don’t,’ I lied. ‘How can I want something I’ve never had?’
She treated me more gently after she learned I was a virgin, rationing my drinks at bars, telling the guys who approached me that I was her baby.
In truth, I thought about sex often. But when I did get close to that point with someone, I pretended I was no longer interested in them. I was afraid of sex. Countless atrophies ran through my head – the dean express-mailing a letter to my parents with photographic proof, a flashing red light casting across the campus, pointing towards me wherever I went, or worst, an STD boiling across my lips and vagina.
One of the girls from my club, Jyoti, already had a boyfriend, pre-med. He said he was willing to wait for her. She called to tell me the week after school started. They’d met at orientation, too. ‘I’m in love,’ she’d said. ‘I can wait as long as it takes.’ I hadn’t asked if she could.
I guess that’s why I felt so comfortable with Courtney. She was different from the Indians I knew, never judging. Shaving her pubic hair, wearing shirts that sometimes showed her belly button and the sides of her stomach, sleeping with strangers from bars. She’d store her books on the floor, a sin for Hindus because we’re supposed to treat books as an extension of God. Often, she studied at the library until three in the morning, walking without fear back to the dormitory in the middle of the night. She spoke in a loud, clear voice. Her laugh was low and deep, guttural, with her head tilted back, and her mouth wide open. I felt that if I laughed too loud, boys would think I was ugly. My father told me my teeth were too large and I should smile with my mouth closed. I still think of this whenever I laugh.
When I was with Courtney, I could be less rigid than my Indian self – skipping my morning bath, wearing a short skirt, defacing a textbook with doodles – and still be the good girl. ‘Poor Prem,’ Courtney said. She slapped my butt and laughed.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He has no idea what he’s not getting.’ But he did know, because he had to know. He had to understand the unspoken rules of the Indian dating pool: the men buy dinner, the women look pretty, nothing progresses further than kissing for at least the first three dates.
I saw S on the way to the train. He was holding the seat of a bicycle, talking to another boy from the track team. He didn’t see me. I stepped closer, waiting for him to look my way, to pretend I’d just noticed him. He didn’t. I walked right past him like he was a celebrity I’d be pathetic to approach.
I caught the F train as it pulled into the station, and once seated inside, checked my lipstick in my compact mirror to make sure it hadn’t smudged onto my teeth. I sat back in my seat and looked at the Indian couple sitting across from me. They were young. The woman wore thin, gold bangles, and her black hair lay curved around her shoulder, plaited long like a majestic tail. Red vermillion powder marked the center of her scalp. The man wore a tucked-in, collared shirt with dark brown pants and nondescript brown shoes. I thought about how if I’d grown up in India, I’d probably already be engaged to someone my parents had picked for me. She looked up at me, and I smiled with my mouth closed. She looked on, expressionless, as if she refused to recognize that we were the same. Then, she looked down at my legs. Her thoughts rang in my ears – skirt: too short; sweater: too tight, too much gook on my face.
The restaurant was called Shaan, which means pride in Hindi. It was one block away from Rockefeller Center, and it was my favorite Indian restaurant in New York because they had large, crystal chandeliers, and a sitar player who sat on a white mattress in the center of the dining room. Prem stood inside by the hostess’s podium. I was annoyed that he didn’t grant me the courtesy of waiting outside.
I met Prem on the internet. I was young to start online dating, I didn’t need to, but I was lonely, and the response my profile received was flattering and comforting, and nobody had to know. I fantasized about getting married. About having sex every day, and having a man tell me twice a day that he loved me. Of course that’s what marriage is like, stupid me thought. Prem’s face lit up as soon as I walked inside. His pants were the same ugly brown as the FOB’s on the subway. ‘Aarti,’ he said. He reached his arms out to hug me. I stepped back and extended my hand for him to shake. How do men think they can hug a woman before they’ve even met her? I looked forward to when the date would be over, and I’d be back at the dorm enjoying leftover saag paneer. ‘Nice to meet you,’ I said.
When I corrected Prem, that I wasn’t from New York, he said, ‘Oh, wow. Massachusetts. That’s far.’ I laughed. ‘What’s so funny?’ he asked.
‘A man whose family lives seven thousand miles away is telling me Massachusetts is far.’
‘Right,’ he said. He didn’t get the joke. ‘How often do you see your parents?’ I held my breath for a moment, hedging whether he’d eat silently in disgust for the rest of the dinner if I told him I hated going home, that I avoided my parents’ calls, or whether he’d be honest, divulging his own issues, perhaps that nothing he ever did was good enough for his mother because he hadn’t become a doctor.
I know. I wasn’t being fair. The thing was, I really liked S. He was from here, not India, and we looked right together. Both attractive, both Indian-American, both light-skinned. And when you really like someone, you can’t think about anyone else. Even if the other guy is nice and cute and has a good job, he’s simply not the one you want.
I hugged Prem good night – the fragile, fake hug we give people we’re not close with yet – after two glasses of sparkling water and a barely touched plate of garlic naan, saag paneer and chicken tikka. ‘I had a great time,’ I said, leftovers in hand. I practically sashayed back to the subway. I couldn’t wait to be back in my room, donning sweatpants and a baggy tee, recapping the date with Courtney.
‘Would you like to get ice cream somewhere?’
I did, but not with him. She wasn’t there when I keyed into the suite. I picked up the note on my bed.
Hey sexy, went out with Diane and the boys upstairs for drinks at Poseidon. Join us!
C @ 9.30 p.m.
I made a plate of the leftovers, sat on the sofa in the common room, and turned on the television. I have never understood girls who can eat during a first date, who can converse and look pretty and coy all at the same time
Belly full, mind numb from the food coma, I shut the television off, and slid underneath the covers of my bed. In the brief time apart from Prem, his accent, his dark skin, his plain, brown pants had grown on me. He was chivalrous throughout the meal, serving me each dish before taking food for himself, and I felt a fondness or potential for intimacy that I hadn’t felt before. Like perhaps I could be myself with him because he’d like me regardless: I was four shades lighter than him and a US Citizen, after all. I contemplated what it would be like to go home with a man I barely knew. I touched my breasts under my shirt and kissed the back of my hand.
I woke up the next morning to Courtney. ‘I met someone,’ she declared, jumping onto my bed. I braced myself for a story about some guy she’d lose interest in after seven days.
‘Did you kiss him?’
‘Don’t you want to know his name?’
‘Sure,’ I said, sarcastically.
She ignored my tone. ‘Jake. He’s gorgeous. And he’s a chef.’
‘Did you kiss him?’
‘Did you kiss Prem?’
‘It was our first date.’
‘You know what your problem is, Aarti?’
‘Did you kiss him?’
‘You’re afraid of yourself.’
Afraid of myself. She makes broad statements, that’s just her way. I knew she was right though. I wished I could go out on a Friday night and sit at a bar drinking foamy beer with a group of people, and then have casual sex. Indian girls date Indian boys and Indian boys propose. We get married, give up the V-card, buy a big house, an expensive car, and make brown-skinned, over-achieving, well-behaved children. That’s how it works.
‘Did you sleep with him?’ I asked.
‘I did more than kiss him.’
We walked outside for coffee and bagels and sat at a table in the back of the cafe down the block from our dorm. Two guys from our dorm walked in and sat with us. I wasn’t wearing any makeup. I felt uncomfortable talking while they looked at my bare face, so I left to get ready for class. Nothing is wrong with my face, I’m attractive without makeup, but I’m prettier with it. Most people are.
That semester, I had two classes on Thursdays: World Culture and Economics. I went to the library after Econ to do my reading for World Culture, I always saved it for that break. I sat down at my favorite table in the corner of the room. A misty green lamp was attached to each of the tables and I took pleasure in tugging on the gold-beaded chain to turn it on. I ran my fingers over the ‘J sucks’ someone carved into the wood of my table. I arranged my backpack against the table’s leg, and took out my book and highlighter. How is it that when someone you like approaches, you sense it, and automatically look up? S smiled and waved. I would have seemed so much cooler if I hadn’t looked up.
‘Can I sit here?’
‘Of course.’ I looked down at my book, too nervous for eye contact. He took his laptop out of his bag and plugged it into the long rectangular outlet resting at the base of the lamp. I felt heat emanating from the right side of my body towards his. I wondered if he felt as hot as I did. Neither of us spoke for the next hour. I highlighted every word and all of the space between the words while my armpits seeped sweat into the fabric of my cotton shirt. By the end of the hour, I’d highlighted one page completely yellow. I closed the book, irritated that the neon ink would stain the pages before and after.
‘See you later,’ I said.
‘What class do you have now?’
I said history because history is easier to say than world culture. It meant I didn’t have to hear him say, ‘Wow, that sounds cool’ or something obligatory like that. I waved goodbye even though he was sitting next to me, and then I spent the entirety of World Culture thinking of all the normal things I could have said, like, ‘What class do you have next?’ or ‘World Culture’ or ‘How are you?’ ‘How are you’ is pretty basic.
I went with Courtney to Poseidon that night. A few other people from our dorm were going too, and she told the chef, Jake, to meet us there. He was cute, tall, with wide, blue eyes and blond, curly hair. He wore light colored jeans and a white T-shirt ripped along his oblique abdominal muscles. They resembled brother and sister, and in that gross way, they looked right together. Jake bought us multiple rounds of drinks: vodka cranberry for me and for Courtney, a beer the bartender poured from the bar’s tap. Halfway through the first round, my head began to buzz in a sizzling, contented way.
‘So I run into you twice in one day. How lucky am I?’ S grasped my shoulder and spun me around. If a blush could show up on my brown skin, this would’ve been the time. I reached up to kiss his cheek, pretending I was the sort of girl confident enough to do such a thing. He leaned down receiving my kiss as if it were perfectly normal. He was used to these social interactions. He was more American than me.
He shook hands with Courtney and Jake.
‘And you are?’ Courtney said, though she knew my obsession with S. I stood next to him, listening to Courtney tell the two men about her day, and it felt like a date in that moment. After a while, S left to talk to some friends and Jake began rubbing Courtney’s back underneath her tight blue shirt while she spoke loudly about education reform. I felt uncomfortable watching her newest fling touch her skin directly. As if by watching, I was contributing to the devastation she’d feel after the affair ended.
I am not sure how it happened that my legs moved my body over to where S stood. I remember telling Courtney that I would be back. I remember opening my mouth, forming words, him doing the same, though I cannot remember what we said. He wore one of those got milk T-shirts that everyone was wearing then, with midnight-blue jeans and black sneakers. I remember walking back to the dorm together holding hands, that he said, ‘You are so delicate’ to me at a traffic signal we stopped for, and I wanted to ask if that meant small or feminine or frail, but I did not. We kissed at that corner and missed the walk signal twice. I remember I smelled rain on the street, but it wasn’t raining, and I remember running down the sidewalk laughing, fingers entwined like a double rope. I tried to tell him a story about a boy in World Culture, the word that boy was using to sound smarter than he was. Was it altiplano? Animism? Apartheid? It began with the letter A. ‘World Culture,’ S said. ‘That sounds like a cool class.’
‘Thirteen hours ago I called it history,’ I said, bursting out laughing, a guttural sound, full blown. He didn’t get it, but he started laughing anyway. As if he read my mind, he said, ‘Your laugh is great.’
In the elevator, he pressed the buttons for my floor and his. My legs refused to move when the door opened at mine. His hand touched my back over my shirt.
‘Aarti, should I take you to your room?’
I don’t remember if I said yes or no, so probably, I said nothing at all. We rode the next six floors fingers still linked, and by the time he keyed into his room, the alcohol had left my brain. I became nervous, but I was excited as well, and I began to sweat. I remember thinking that what I was about to do would be wrong, and brushing my concern aside out of exhaustion debating who I was supposed to be. Maybe it was time to say goodbye to all the pressure – the V-card, the rules, the notion that I had to be preserved like a plastic doll in a gaudy box.
His room was clean, orderly. A poster of John F Kennedy and another of Mahatma Gandhi were taped to his walls. Textbooks lined the top of his desk, organized by color. I sat down on his twin bed and rested my hands on the comforter. It felt scratchy, like the comforter in my older brother’s room. It was the same shade of blue.
‘Would you like something to drink?’
I shook my head, and he sat down and kissed me. His lips were soft against my skin, like the velvety cover of a razai blanket. He told me again how delicate I was, and this time he added ‘soft’ and ‘pretty’. I thought about how much grander it is to be beautiful. I admired his broad back.
‘Let’s lie down together,’ I said. I don’t know why but at that moment I felt powerful. I remember he looked at me surprised, as if my command had changed his understanding of me. I felt bold, intelligent, sexy. I felt like Courtney. I felt American. I nuzzled into his stubbled cheek and the crook of his neck. His breathing became harder and I pressed my body to his, closing up the empty space between us. I told him to take off his clothes.
I remember he removed my shirt and bra and kissed my breasts. I felt tingly, prickling burning sensations, little jolts of pleasure, like the crackle of rock candy in my mouth, but all over my body. I was outside of myself, as if a clone was experiencing this, while the Aarti who knew better hovered above staring silently, knowing that if she said a word, I might stop. I wondered if Courtney felt this scandalously absorbed with the strangers she met in bars.
‘Do you like me?’ I asked. I prayed, silently, hopeful for a sign that what I was about to do wasn’t crazy.
‘Do you like me?’
‘Of course I like you, Aarti. I like you a lot. You’re half-naked in my bed.’
I laughed. ‘But what do you think of me?’ I held my breath, waiting.
‘I think you’re pretty,’ he said. ‘Gorgeous.’
‘I want you inside of me.’ Yes, I used those words. The alcohol made it easier to say this, but I was not drunk. He asked me if I was sure and I said I was. I slid off my jeans and underwear and felt his fingers on the sides of my waist, moving in a fluid motion, to my thighs, my butt, and I thought he would head to my vagina, but instead, his hands reached back up, to mine. His hands surprised me. They were warm and thinner than I’d expected, and as smooth as my own. I had imagined them drier or rougher. I closed my eyes to stop Aarti from thinking and kissed him harder. He reached into his nightstand and pulled out a condom. How many times had he done this? I listened to him tearing it open. He slid it onto himself under the comforter. He got on top of me and tried to put himself inside. It hurt a lot. It felt like someone was pushing my skin so hard that it would be drawn into my own body and never come back out. I screamed sounds that had never come out of my mouth before, that I had only fantasized about making. I could see then, how naturally those primal sounds begin, pain and arousal washing over the body. He moaned and moved back and forth on top of me about ten times, which looking back, was nothing extraordinary. He came, shaking, as if he had been outside, desperately cold, and for a moment, I saw him not as S, the boy too good for me, but as a person like myself, trying to block out the pressures, obligations, fears of our world. He lay flat on top of me. He kissed my forehead and said, ‘You were so wet.’ My stomach churned from what I’d done. He reached down to take off the condom.
‘Aarti, you’re bleeding.’ His face depicted horror or concern, I didn’t want to know which. I felt sticky and cold. I asked him for a towel. I was too embarrassed to look at him. I stared at the Gandhi poster, at his round, gold-rimmed glasses, the way his black, black eyes glimmered discipline, honesty, nobility. What a joke I am, I thought. S brought me a pale blue towel from his dresser and I wrapped it around my body like I’d just come out of a shower.
‘I’m going to get ready,’ I said.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Yes, could you close your eyes?’ He sat next to the circle of blood on the fitted sheet, eyes closed, as I dressed.
‘You should’ve told me you were a virgin.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
‘Don’t be sorry.’
‘I shouldn’t have done this,’ I said.
He opened his eyes and walked to where I stood by the door and tried to hug me. Perhaps I should have let him, maybe we could have been something, but I didn’t. I stepped back. ‘Please don’t tell anyone. Promise not to tell anyone.’
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Are you okay?’ He touched my forearm and I flinched.
‘I need to go,’ I said. I opened the door, avoiding his eyes. When I got back to my room, Courtney’s bed was empty. I cried on my bed and it felt like my tears were staged, as if I was acting, since no one had seen what I’d done. I prayed Courtney would come home, so I could tell her, so I could make my angst real, but I waited for a long time, crying, checking the time, crying again, and as more and more time passed, I felt stupider, uglier, pitiable, how vulnerable and pathetic I felt. Why should I tell Courtney? I took a deep breath of air. ‘No one will know the difference,’ I told myself. It was this that willed me out of bed.
I took a shower and made the water as hot as I could. The soap felt medicine-clean against my skin. I stayed under the shower head for a long time, watching patches of my arms and thighs go red, then I wrapped myself in a towel again, and wiped the fog off the bathroom mirror. My face was still my olive, oval face. My neck and arms were still smooth and fair. I still looked pretty.
‘I am still a virgin,’ I said to the mirror.
When Courtney came home the next morning, I pretended S and I had only kissed. ‘He was an awful kisser. He nearly vacuumed off my whole face.’ She laughed, told me the story was hysterical. It was funny. As if someone else had lied, I watched myself laugh with her, relieved at the separation I had created between my truth and what I told the world.
Image © su-lin