San Francisco, California, 1978
THE pungent aroma of curry had saturated the air of the warm and crowded apartment, doing a fine job of masking the distinct odor of blood. Dad’s white shirt was spotted with blobs of dark red, desiccated evidence of the crime scene that had occurred only one hour ago. Mom and Auntie Mira sat on either side of him, clutching his hands in fear.
It was a Friday night, the start of the weekend, and Dad and his partner, Ashok, had decided to celebrate with a six-pack of Budweiser. They’d removed their Kevlar vests before leaving the station and had walked into a liquor store during a robbery in progress. The perp had fired indiscriminately, and Uncle Ash had died in my father’s arms. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the very worst time, he explained to Auntie Mira, who received the news with the stoic resignation inherent in being a policeman’s wife. She pointed out, in her melodious Indian accent, that it was all a part of Uncle Ash’s karma, a word I’d never heard before. It seemed to bring her a small measure of comfort despite the tears that ran down her face in rivulets. I was eight years old when I sat on the opposite sofa with Naveen, trying to comprehend what had just happened.
It was 1978 and approximately ten years past the flower power era. Dad and Ashok Patel had been roommates in college and had become best friends. They’d demonstrated against the Vietnam War and had been active in the entire hippie culture, which involved sex, drugs, and music, usually at once. My mother, Zoe, had entered the mix when the two friends had stumbled into her tattoo parlor on some acid-induced high and had talked the pretty brunette with the Elizabeth Taylor eyes into working on their psychedelic designs for a reduced price. By the time she was done with Dad’s tattoo, he was already halfway in love with her.
The friendship between the three had outlasted the shop, and that entire sub-culture, and when the men had signed up to join the San Francisco Police Academy, they’d surprised their old anti-establishment friends but slipped into the role of law enforcement quite easily. The only residue of their hippie days was the occasional toke they’d share after work. Auntie Mira had come into the fold after being flown in from Mumbai for the prearranged marriage, and despite the odds, she and Uncle Ash had fallen in love. The four of them became inseparable. They did everything together, and when Mom got pregnant with me, Auntie Mira followed suit. Naveen and I were born about four months apart. We were raised like brothers, sharing toys, food, and parents. I was as comfortable shoveling daal down my throat as Naveen was licking peanut butter off a spoon in my mom’s kitchen.
Our innocence lay in tatters after one random act of violence, much like the shawl Auntie Mira had shredded in a moment of extreme sorrow. Naveen was thrust into adulthood rapidly as he took on the role of chief mourner. They’d shaved his head, and he sat beside the flower-draped casket, along with the Hindu priest who intoned the necessary prayers prior to the cremation. Uncle Ash was dressed in a white kurta and pajama rather than his policeman uniform. It was all part of the antyesti samskara, the burial ceremony. I sat between Mom and Dad and watched in somber silence as the tragedy unfolded.
I’d never seen a dead body before, and truth be told, Uncle Ash just looked like he was resting, no different from the way he appeared when he’d fall asleep watching TV, minus the snoring. They’d placed him in an open casket with his head pointing toward the south, which was the direction of the dead, according to Auntie Mira. I had no idea why the dead would even care which direction they were pointing. Coincidentally, Daly City was south of us, and the location of Duggan’s Serra Mortuary. Auntie Mira had laid a garland of fresh flowers around Uncle Ash’s neck, and there were more flowers blanketing his lower body. He had a smudge of ash on his forehead, part of the ceremony, I’d been told, and I observed Auntie pouring drops of liquid into her beloved husband’s mouth. Later, I was informed that this was holy water from the river Ganges, and the sacred ash, bhasma, was a symbolic rite for the worshippers of the Lord Shiva. Uncle Ash’s larger than life photo, resting on an easel beside the casket, had pots of flowers around it, and there was an oil lamp which had to remain burning for the first three days following his death.
Despite the sorrow, there was an underlying sense of celebration. Auntie Mira explained the Hindu belief in reincarnation. “Beta,” she said, using the term of endearment I’d come to expect. “Death is not considered the final end, but a move from one body to the next on its path to Nirvana.” Auntie Mira was infinitely patient with my barrage of questions, explaining her religious beliefs as simply as possible so that my eight-year-old brain could assimilate some of it. Dressed in a white sari and devoid of all makeup, she looked like a pale replica of the vivacious woman who was usually draped in gold bangles and dangling earrings with the red beauty mark on her forehead.
“Hand in hand with the premise of reincarnation is our strong conviction in karma,” she said. “Do you know anything about karma, Mick?”
“It’s an ancient word meaning action or activity and its subsequent results.” She explained that it was a term to denote the entire cycle of cause and effect as described in the philosophies of a number of Dharmic religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. It never occurred to her that I might not understand the scope of her beliefs and that I was too impressionable to overlook the macabre aspects of death.
In the Hindu faith, cremation is the conventional way of disposing of a body. The burning signifies spiritual release, and the fire symbolizes Brahma?the God associated with creation. I tried to understand the custom, but the thought of Uncle Ash being burnt to a cinder was difficult to comprehend. How would he be reborn without the body he now occupied? Auntie Mira explained that the burning of a dead body released the spirit so it could move freely on to the next world. She didn’t bother going into detail as to how this was supposed to happen. My imagination couldn’t move beyond the burning portion of the explanation. Years later I would appreciate the significance of getting rid of the old to take on a new and improved physicality.
We rode in a big, black limousine, accompanying the hearse on its way to the crematorium, passing by familiar sights that were important to Uncle Ash. Cops lined our street, and the police station’s flag was flying at half-mast. It was eerily quiet but for the sound of the six motorcycles that led the way for the mourners.
When we arrived at Duggan’s, they opened the casket once more and adorned Uncle Ash with sandalwood and more garlands of jasmine and marigolds, literally burying him in a sea of sweet-smelling flora. To this day, I associate the sickeningly sweet smell of jasmine with death.
Naveen and the priest walked around the casket three times, saying some kind of prayer before he hit the button that moved the heavy gray casket forward into the jaws of the horrific fire that would be the end of the man I’d called uncle for eight years. Despite the words of reassurance that tumbled from my parents’ and Auntie Mira’s mouths, I was heartbroken and cried desperately.
After that, we drove back to San Francisco. I was told that I had to bathe and cleanse myself before changing clothes and going back to Naveen’s house to participate in the thirteen-day mourning period, which would commence as soon as the priest performed a ceremony with incense and spices to purify the premises. It was the longest two weeks of my life, but it gave me the opportunity to learn more about the word karma, which had piqued my interest.
Our Catholic faith wasn’t remotely close to the Hindu beliefs, but our association with the Patels had opened up new vistas that brought comfort in this extremely sorrowful time. Reincarnation made much more sense to me than the notion of heaven and hell. It didn’t seem fair that a good man would be cut down in the prime of life without a second chance. The idea that Uncle Ash would be reborn to enjoy life once more made me happy. Likewise, if karma was truly a concept of reaping what was sown, then Uncle Ash’s new life would be nothing but good. My uncle was a kind and loving man who’d brought happiness to many people, my family especially. He was generous with his time, money, and knowledge and had been a good friend and partner to my father. He would be sorely missed.
Auntie Mira and Naveen left San Francisco after the thirteenth day, and we never saw them again. For years I wondered what had become of our special Indian friends, but after the first few months of heavy correspondence, news started to come in trickles. When we moved to another part of the city, the mail from India ceased altogether. Yet the short amount of time I’d spent with them had influenced my life significantly. The magnitude of the word karma wouldn’t be felt for years, but the seeds had been planted in my fertile, young brain. They would continue to grow unfettered until I had my own reasons to hope and believe that theory would in fact become truth.
Mick and Paul
Long Island, New York, 1988
I WAS jostled by several football players, shoving and punching each other playfully on their way to the lockers underneath the stairs. They were intent on releasing some of the testosterone trapped inside their hulking bodies, and I must have looked like an easy target. My long, dark hair and kewpie doll eyes always fooled them into thinking I was one of those sensitive types, more likely to entertain them with song and dance than raise a hand to defend myself. They were in for a rude surprise when I turned on the biggest in the bunch and pushed him back roughly. “Fuck off, will you?”
“Whoa! He has balls,” the leader of the pack exclaimed. “You don’t want to mess with us, fruit!”
“I won’t if you leave me alone. Why don’t you go and bash your head against a goalpost?”
The group was so shocked by my defiance they started to laugh instead of picking me up and shaking the piss out of me. They ended up cuffing me and walking away, impressed by my in-your-face attitude. I flipped them off and moved to put away my books when I noticed the blond leaning up against the bank of lockers. “You have a death wish or what?” he asked. I was about to reply with a snappy comeback but stopped when I realized the guy was really curious and not just another asshole preying on a new student. There was even a hint of admiration in his eyes. I gave him my full attention and rewarded him with a grin. His answering smile lit up his face. I couldn’t help but admire the bone-straight hair that fell over his forehead, a studied look I’d never been able to achieve because of my corkscrew curls that wouldn’t lie flat no matter how much gel I used.
“I can’t stand jocks who think they rule the earth.”
“Those three happen to be the top of the heap around here. You’re either very brave or dumb as fuck.”
I shrugged. “My dad is a great believer in love and peaceful negotiation, but when all else fails, brute force always works.”
“He lets you get into fights?”
“No, but he taught me how to defend myself, along with every song the Beatles ever wrote. Being the product of a flower child and former resident of Haight-Ashbury does have its advantages.”
“No kidding! Your dad is a hippie?”
The blond looked at me in awe. “Does your mom make Alice B. Toklas brownies?”
My laughter erupted, filling the hallway. “You’ve been watching too many old movies, dude.”
“Seriously, aren’t all those ex-hippies burnt-out loadies?”
“My dad’s an upstanding citizen at this stage in his life, but they do like their occasional weed. They stash it underneath Mom’s lingerie.”
“How come you know about it?”
“I caught them smoking once, and I was determined to find out where they were hiding the paraphernalia, so I ransacked the entire house and found it after a long and boring search.”
“Do you have some?”
“Not on me, but I can always get it when I need it.”
“Cool. How about sharing? My name is Paul Alcott, by the way.”
“Hey. Mick Henley.”
“I haven’t seen you around before.”
“We just moved.”
Paul hefted a couple of thick textbooks out of his locker and slammed the door shut. “That must have been hard on you, moving in your senior year.”
“I wasn’t too happy, but after moving six times in seventeen years, you sort of get used to it.”
“I have no idea what that’s like. My family’s lived here for a hundred years.”
“Shit!” I was amazed. We never stayed in one place long enough. By the time our house needed any repairs, we were on the move again. “Did your folks come over on the Mayflower?”
“No.” Paul looked insulted. “They probably owned the Mayflower, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m not a pilgrim, if that’s what you want to know.”
“You hardly look like one,” I flirted, forgetting myself.
“Yeah? What do I look like?”
“Like someone who owns a yacht.”
“I do.” Paul’s smile was wide and unrepentant. “How could you tell?”
“I’m a writer, dude. I notice everything.”
“So am I,” Paul exclaimed. “I’m editor of the school paper. Why don’t you join us?”
“I’ll think about it. What would I have to do to join?”
“Let me read something of yours and then sign up. It’s not like you’re applying for a job at the New York Times,” Paul smirked. “Besides, I have the final say, so it doesn’t matter if you’re good or not. I’ll get you in.”
“I’m very good; I don’t need any special favors.”
“Promises, promises,” Paul teased. “Follow me.”
“Yeah. Do you have anything better to do?”
“I have to be at the gym in about twenty minutes.”
“Meet me at lunch, then. We can talk about it.”
“Okay,” I said, giving in easily. I finally got my locker open and pulled out wadded up shorts and a T-shirt with the school logo on it. “Fuck, these clothes reek.”
“I know. Mine stink too. I keep meaning to bring them home to be laundered but never get around to it.”
“Laundered? Doesn’t your mom wash your clothes?” Now I was really intrigued.
“Don’t have a mom. Baxter takes care of my stuff.”
I whistled. “Didn’t I say you owned a yacht? I guess having a butler is part of the package.”
“Hey, let it go, okay? It is what it is.”
“Sure.” I gave him some space, knowing he was probably sick of people sucking up to him ’cause he had a few bucks. “See you at lunch?”
“Okay. One o’clock outside the cafeteria.”
“Later,” I mumbled, glancing back to look one last time.
I COULD feel him watching me walk down the hallway, which made me stand a little taller, even throw my shoulders back instead of slouching. My mom’s nagging voice replayed in my head, telling me to stand straight instead of slinking around, as I was prone to do. I’d learned years ago to be unobtrusive so I could watch the people around me and take mental notes for future reference; all part of my quest to become a world famous novelist, or journalist, depending on which way the dice fell. It didn’t always happen the way I planned, and lately, I seemed to be getting more and more attention when all I wanted to do was blend in to my surroundings. I suppose it had to do with my appearance. I’ll admit that I wasn’t half bad in the looks department. I’d inherited my mom’s dark hair and purple eyes, a combination that always stopped people in their tracks and made them gawk at me.
Moving so often had taught me how to deal with strangers comfortably, and I never fell over myself trying to impress the latest cliquey group in a new school. They’d come to know me eventually, and if they wanted to make me a part of their crowd, it would happen. Just like Paul did. He appeared to be a mover and a shaker, no doubt one of the popular kids. Being editor of the school paper placed him in a key position, so he must have some talent besides his Ralph Lauren looks, which were hard to ignore. He was hot, and I was attracted to him. I wondered if he felt my interest or if he even leaned in that direction.
We’d just moved from San Francisco, which was a comfortable and more accepting city. It had allowed me to explore the burgeoning feelings that were starting to take hold without making me feel like I was some sort of freak or pariah. I’d never confided in anyone about my orientation; nonetheless, I was pretty confident in my skin and not overly concerned with society. It helped that my parents were liberals and had all manner of people traipsing in and out of our home. I could only surmise that Paul’s background was far more rigid and conventional.
WE SAT across from one another in the cafeteria, having met outside as planned. Gym had been the usual contest of wills until I showed the Neanderthals that I could actually dribble the ball and shoot it into a hoop. They were always taken by surprise when that happened, underestimating my athleticism because I looked like someone who’d rather fondle balls than throw them halfway across the gym in a three-point landing. It was a rite of passage I’d endured at every school I attended. Once I proved that I wasn’t just a pretty boy with girly hair, they left me alone, so I tried to get it out of the way early on.
I wondered if Paul was gay. I sat there and scrutinized him blatantly, picking out every detail of his yuppie face, starting with the shiny mop of blond hair that fell over his forehead in a gentle sweep. His eyes were bluish-gray, gunmetal blue, I thought, searching for the perfect descriptor. Paul’s skin was baby-butt smooth with hardly a trace of facial hair. He probably shaved twice a week, nothing compared to my daily regime. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to rub my scruff against that tender face. I’d probably scrape him raw—a vision that only enhanced my growing interest. I pushed the thought aside for now.
“Have you thought about my offer?” Paul asked, pulling me back to reality.
“Yeah. It sounds interesting. What would I write about?”
“A little bit of everything. We try and throw in some personal tidbits about the student body each week, plus any unusual information about upcoming events.”
“Would I have to interview people?”
“It helps to make it more personal.”
“Don’t the students mind?”
“Not unless they have something to hide.”
Did Paul have anything to hide? He looked innocent, but I was picking up signals. “I’d like to interview you first.”
“Me?” Paul exclaimed. “I’m not that interesting.”
“Sure you are. I’ve never met anyone who owns a yacht, and I’m sure none of the kids in this school have any idea what it’s like to have a butler.”
“It’s really not that big of a deal.”
“To you, maybe, but to us poor peons, it’s a different world, and one worth exploring. I will contrast and compare a typical day in our lives. When I get home from school, I have chores. Do you?”
“I just have homework.”
“Have you ever delivered newspapers or pizza? Do you mow the lawn? When was the last time you washed a car?”
Paul laughed and shook his head. “No to all your questions. I haven’t the foggiest notion how to mow a lawn. The gardeners do it, and if you saw our estate, you’d know why.”
“See,” I retorted, “who the fuck uses the word ‘estate’ when referring to their house?”
Paul threw an apple at me, and I caught it easily. “And that’s another thing. Can you play any sports, or are you just a pretty face?”
“I am not pretty,” Paul huffed.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” I said. “Can you?”
“Can I what?” Paul said, never taking his eyes off me.
“Can you play ball?”
Paul shook his head vigorously. “No.”
“Don’t you play tennis or golf? Most rich people do.”
“My dad’s pushing tennis. How did I become the topic of the day?”
“I’m naturally inquisitive,” I said, defending my Curious George personality. “I don’t mean to pry.”
“Sure you do; inquisitive is a nice way of saying you’re nosy as hell.”
“I’m practicing my reporting skills. Don’t you expect me to be tenacious?”
Paul threw his arms up and said, “I give up. You’re hired.”
“When can I visit your estate?” I smirked. “Do I have to wear anything special, or can I go in jeans?”
“Are you crazy?”
“I thought you people dress formally all the time.”
“Ya think we stroll around the grounds in three-piece suits?”
“Now you’re being obnoxious.”
“Nah.” I tried dazzling with my smile. “Just fucking with you.”
“Stop it. I’m the editor, and I should be doing the interviewing, not the other way around.”
“How about we interview each other; that’s fair, don’t you think?”
Paul was defenseless against my persistence. I had a natural talent for putting people at ease, and if his behavior so far was any indication, I’d have him eating out of my hand in no time. “Come home with me after school today,” he said abruptly. “You can get some of your questions answered.”
“Okay. I’ll call my folks and tell them. Shall I meet you in the parking lot? You do have a car, don’t you?”
“I have a Beemer.”
“Of course you do. Is it red?”
“How’d you know?”
THREE hours later, we were on our way. I was suitably impressed when we passed through the massive wrought iron gates with the big “A” scrolled into the design. The house itself was English Tudor, complete with the fountain and circular driveway. I’d only seen these types of homes in magazines and couldn’t imagine what it must be like living in a house this big. The thought of having to dust or vacuum the place was mind-boggling; then again, Paul probably didn’t even know how to operate a Hoover.
“Holy mansion!” I exclaimed when we finally got to the front entrance and parked. “Do you ever get lost around here?”
Paul cuffed me on my ear playfully. “Shut up!”
He moved the stick shift into park and got out of the car, pulling his backpack along with him. Some guy in a dark suit held the door open, and greeted us with a polite hello. He reminded me of Cadbury, Richie Rich’s butler, minus the English accent. The novelty of even having a butler wasn’t lost on me.
“Hey, Baxter. This is Mick.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Baxter replied automatically. “Would you be interested in a light snack, Paul?”
“Bring us a pizza and a couple of Cokes, okay?”
“No. My bedroom.”
“As you wish.”
“You get pizza anytime you ask for it?” Shit, in my house it was a special treat and usually delivered.
“I’m sure they’re frozen, but they appear miraculously whenever I want them.”
“Must be nice.”
“It is, actually,” Paul replied. “Baxter takes good care of me.”
“What about your mom?”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I never knew her.”
“Okay. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“I’m an only.”
“Me too,” I admitted. “Another thing we have in common.”
“But I’m sure you’re not as spoiled as I am,” Paul challenged.
“My parents happen to spoil me rotten,” I countered. “Shall we compare our spoilage?”
“Let’s keep the material stuff out of the equation.”
“Then how can we compare?”
“How often do you hear the words ‘I love you’ in a given day?”
Paul just stared at me.
“Does Baxter leave you notes telling you what a great job you’ve done with last night’s dishes and cleanup?”
“Of course not! I don’t clean anything.”
“Okay. When was the last time you and your dad went to watch a ballgame?”
“I don’t do sports,” Paul said stiffly. I guessed he was realizing rather quickly that he was about to lose this contest.
“Do you and your dad do anything together?”
“We have dinner.”
“At least twice a week,” Paul defended.
“That ain’t a whole hill of beans, is it?”
“It’s rather pathetic, come to think of it.”
“Let’s change the subject,” I said, feeling sorry for him suddenly. I threw myself on Paul’s bed and crossed my arms underneath my head. “Are you a virgin?”