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White Dancing Elephants: Stories

"Talinda" (first appeared in Narrative Magazine, November 2017; Copyright: the author)



So, here I am sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, hoping no one talks to me or intuits why I’m fat, when the door that says on the outside DO NOT ENTER swings open and Talinda storms out, not long for this world.

The young, blond nurse stands there, bracing the open door with one hand, holding a clipboard with the other. “We should have the results back any day,” she calls, though it’s obvious my best friend isn’t listening. “Later this week. Do check,” her voice wafts out, like she’s a woman working in a shop. Not an announcer of life versus death.

Not long for this world. “Don’t say things like that,” I would’ve pleaded with Talinda, if she had said the words out loud. One of her usual angry and dapper turns of phrase.

“You’ll fight this thing,” I said when she first told me she had stomach cancer, and for once she nodded, not ridiculing the cliche.  That was a year ago, before I became this wretched person. A woman sleeping with her best friend’s husband, a woman waiting to take over a life.         

“Aren’t you full of surprises, Miss Narika Kandelwala,” Talinda would have said. “You’re not as boring as I thought.” If she had known.

But Talinda doesn’t know what her husband and I were—are—capable of. Cancer, though—she knows. How its cells lived as shameless parasites of the body, the dark and mocking children who’d never leave home. Talinda could caution you about genes that whispered false instructions. Genes speaking louder and louder over rivers of gushing new blood vessels, these rivers mindless and cruel as they crossed in confusing directions of their own, greedily serving the cells of destruction.

Talinda Kim: age thirty-seven, Korean American, born to a waitress in Flushing. Board-certified internist and geriatrician, married, no children, signet cell gastric carcinoma, stage four, prognosis six months.

Six months. If I weren’t betraying Talinda, I’d use what I know for her benefit. My arm around her shoulder, I’d describe Audre Lorde’s cancer journals, her dignity, her hope. Then Talinda would be forced, as usual, to turn on me with her mix of affection and contempt, the potent and honest combination that I’ve always counted on. She might say, “Narika, you don’t win any points for reading some black woman’s diary, whose problems you aren’t black enough to understand. Amazing how you’re trying to read books for a living. At some point you have to stop going to school and get a job. At some point, you have to accept it. The real world isn’t made of poetry.”

I’d urge her on in making fun of me. I’d do anything to distract her. Talk about Dadaist art or North Korean politics or Bette Davis movies, her favorites. Now, Voyager, with a childless Bette Davis trying to make do by being a cool aunt. Of Human Bondage, Bette as the pregnant, vulgar, coercive, determined Mildred. All About Eve. What it is like to have your life, bit by bit, stolen by a woman you trusted.

But all I do instead is slink down in the passenger seat of Talinda’s black Benz, hoping she doesn’t really notice me.

A real friend would take Talinda out to a movie, after her day at the clinic. Some Bette Davis old romance, but who was that actress, after all? Some skinny, overbearing, self-important white woman who bears more than a passing resemblance, I realize suddenly, to Talinda’s husband George’s mother. She’d never remarried after George’s father left her for one of his students, a beautiful Asian woman, the two of them traveling to go teach at a university in Singapore. All Talinda has is a mother-in-law who, like Talinda’s own mother, hasn’t been told anything about the cancer. A mother-in-law who’s expressed the wish, loudly at times, that George had never married Talinda. Who wished Talinda had never existed.

If I loved Talinda, really loved her, I’d tell her that her husband seduced me, and vice versa. That the three of us should get far away from each other. That she deserves a better life, friend, and lover. If I were good, I’d exit, pursued by a bear.

For once, I’d be the one with adult knowledge Talinda didn’t have, and I could tell her what was what. 

My affair with her husband began six months ago, well after she’d been diagnosed, after she’d tried to keep working as if nothing were happening but was fatigued and couldn’t stop losing weight.

I gave in after George called me in the middle of the night, crying for me to come help cook something she could eat. After George and I started meeting up in grocery stores, hospital cafeterias, places where we could help Talinda together, while she was going through surgery and modified chemo.

Tired by marriage—or maybe by his marriage to Talinda specifically, with its burdens, the heaviest of which was extreme privacy—George pulled me in. The lingering touch on my arm, my back, my hand. The grateful smiles that never felt straightforward. Then his expression when I told him how I’d tried and failed a few times to have a child with donor sperm. “I know what it’s like to hope and be disappointed,” he’d said. “To wait, and want, and not have children. To be the only people waiting in the world. Believe me, I know what it’s like.”

George and Talinda tried a lot too. Wasn’t clear now, if her in vitro might have speeded the cancer. She would’ve kept trying, but George was the one who made her stop, unable to bear how relentless she was. They’d just gotten to the point of discussing adoption when her new symptoms started. Then she had to tell George that she’d never make him a father.

Had she reached for him the way I reached for her, when I found out?

When she got sick, Talinda forbade her husband from getting his family involved. No mother, no sisters, and George’s father was long gone. So George kept making more and more frequent calls to me in the middle of the night, while locked in the bathroom or sitting in his car.

Many calls, talking alone, and then finally, we were alone. He lavished long, splendid kisses on me, after he’d undressed me at my place, more recently kissing my round belly.

Talinda isn’t one for gaining weight, not even back in her college premed classes when she didn’t leave her room for days. Even after hormone treatments, trying to get pregnant, she was all angles and petite, high-fashion sinews. George is tall, over six three, blue-eyed, ever so gentle with his slightly stooped posture. She was the one who’d poked fun at his rumpled-professor demeanor, complained behind his back about how low his salary remained even when he made full professor. She didn’t see him for how brilliant he was; she’d never really made him feel special, I told myself, even though I’d never touch the truth of them and I knew that.

Years ago, the only time that George ever came close to leaving Talinda—early on when they were living together but not yet engaged, during the harshest days of Talinda’s medical residency when she would stay at the hospital for four days at a time without calling once—she’d finally bucked the routine and come home before the end of her shift, trading with someone, running all the way. It was unthinkable to her not to work the hardest, not to dominate, not to be the best. Unthinkable to take the time to answer George’s calls.

 Even though George had said that if she didn’t cut down her hours, they’d break up.

That night, when she got home, she cried when she didn’t find George, calling me to come over so she wouldn’t “act like a dimwit” when he did show up. Disheveled, she sat at my feet waiting for him, saying that if I breathed a word about how desperate she’d become, she’d murder me. When he let himself in later that night, I saw how Talinda pretended not to care, but how she then came up behind him as he sat eating alone. How she touched him so gently, without asking anything.

Today, waiting for Talinda to be done at the clinic, by avoiding certain patterns of thought, by walking fast whenever I passed by mirrors, by keeping in my mind an image of Talinda not loving George, never really loving him, I made it all right that I would be the one having George’s baby. Just for a few seconds, I told myself that once I started really showing, I would tell her this was a baby conceived from donor sperm. Accept it when she teased me about using the sperm of a white man.

But it’s possible Talinda will be gone before the birth and never know my baby is half white. We’d have our joy once she was gone. Once our goddess Talinda had risen fully out of reach.

High in a white palace, the king’s daughter, the golden girl—

That image from a book the two of us read in high school. From an old story of infidelity and careless, childless adults.

By thinking of Talinda as always being high above me, I could sometimes think of her as being untouched by what I had been doing with George. Like she had too much pride to be hurt by it. Like she had better things to do.

But here I was, a little more than four months pregnant with a boy. With George’s son.



Many hours after Talinda’s doctor’s appointment, long after she’s started one of her eight-hour shifts at the hospital, George calls me at eleven p.m., exactly when he said he would.

I’ve done my good deed for the day, I tell myself. Sitting with her for hours, at the doctor’s. It doesn’t make me good for a second, but it was something she needed.

Now I’m tucked away and snug inside the little studio that goes for just two grand a month on Cornelia Street, not far from where we both teach. George found the apartment a month ago and paid to rent it in my name, since I’m still only an assistant professor, and I might not have a job next September. My tenure clock is running down. The signs are good, and George’s advocacy has made it easier. But nothing is certain.

I teach big courses in South Asian studies that use movies and music. I attract future photojournalists, Peace Corps volunteers, missionaries’ children. They’re good young people who wouldn’t condone what I have done.

George shuts a door behind him so he can be completely alone, even though Talinda isn’t there with him. He always tries to call from a bathroom, as if the bedroom would make this worse. Then he makes a silly liquid kissing noise into the receiver, joking, “That’s for the baby, not for you.”     

“We just have to sit and wait,” he adds. Then more softly, “Goddamn, I can’t stand watching all this. This is her third straight ER shift.  She just won’t rest. I don’t know what to do with her.”

“Why not tell her now,” I say, suddenly wanting to be mean, as if that is what I, what both of us, deserve. Both of us awful people, stuck with each other. “Tell her you’re shacking up with your pretty, plump brown piece. Tell her we did it just enough times to knock me up. Then did it extra, just for kicks. That’ll give her more strength to fight. We would be helping her if we made her hate us. Trust me, I know her.”

“What’s wrong with you?” he asks in a whisper. “If you weren’t pregnant, God—”

“Well, but I am,” I say, suddenly crying even though I don’t want him to come over. “I am pregnant, and I’m feeling impatient.”

“About what?” he asks. “You’ve got five months. You have to learn to be patient.”

“George, we’re too greedy and not cunning enough,” I whisper. “And she’ll find out.”

“No matter what anyone does, she hasn’t got more than another six or seven months,” he says, sounding like a different man, the kind who might have run a hedge fund with arrogance, instead of living as a Communist academic. I’d never suspected, before George, how much some men could yearn for a child, and how poorly that desire could match up with the women they married. Make vows more porous, less binding. On some level Talinda knows about this. She’s always joked about George’s running off with some coed. Some sociology major from the Midwest seemingly swept up in George’s work against police brutality. Some younger scholar who has really been a wife-in-waiting, praying to marry George and settle down, thinking it easier to shag him than compete for dissertation funding.

“We have to wait,” George repeats. Defensive, grim. “We don’t have rights to anything. We only have the right to wait and see. Just waiting isn’t hurting her.”

I want to say, Everything we’ve done is hurting her. But that would take hostage our whole night, make George come here this minute, only to pace, drink, and agonize for hours before we fuck, instead of just taking off my clothes without much talk, as I prefer.

After this morning Talinda might come over to see me tonight. Just to complain about that nurse who wouldn’t speed up her biopsy result. “Blondie couldn’t get into med school,” she’ll say, “and now she hates women doctors.”

George throws me another kissy-kiss, and I do the same over the phone, wishing that months ago we’d had the decency to stop at phone sex.

Once we hang up, I take the time to look in the mirror. In my otherwise tidy bathroom, where I have been talking to George on the new iPhone 6 he bought me, there’s a little blood in the sink from where I broke a glass. It looks worse than it is. I’m not that sort of person, never was. Crazy. Cutter. Unstable bitch. In general, I don’t tend to destruction.

I’m a decent—no, more than decent, good—academic with papers, even a book in press. I took loving care of my mother when she was dying of diabetes complications, one foot amputated and the other holding contagion, vision gone and fingers constantly tingling. When we were little I was the one who invited Talinda home, serving my mother’s mediocre Indian food to her in big portions.    

Whenever she came over, she smiled vaguely when asked if she’d have more, only to whisper, “We need to go to Taco Bell,” the minute my mother left the room.       

I was the only one who ever made sure Talinda didn’t have to eat dinner alone.                                              

I would have shared my father with Talinda too, if mine had stayed. And for years, though I barely knew Talinda’s younger-man husband, I was the one who told her to treat George kindly, to make sure he knew how intensely she loved him. A year ago, Talinda told me about the cancer and admitted to me, “You know, Narika, you are the first person I’ve told. Even George doesn’t know yet.”

A year ago, all three of us were different people. A year ago, I could have answered the question, Why do people want to have children so much? Now I don’t know. The instinct, the hunger to have a child—it’s no different from what drives the cancer growing inside Talinda. It’s involuntary and primal. Primordial. I’m an academic; I should be able to tell stories about foreign words that mean “ancient” and “first.” Instead the two words make me think of screaming, or of blood. But Talinda has been quiet so far, as composed as she was when she first understood that she might die.



The scene one night a year ago, around Easter: the night I found out my best friend was out of time, a woman I’d known and somehow loved since I was ten and she was a bossy but affectionate, precocious twelve. Setting: a Korean restaurant she’d picked out for dinner in Flushing. Characters: Narika, a well-respected Asianist, an up-and-coming junior faculty member in the social sciences, in the humanities. Not  much of a slacker, despite what Talinda implies. In certain circles admired. Also: Talinda, a well-manicured Flushing beauty, a local girl made very good, in line for the next junior chair of the geriatrics department of a prestigious university. A dedicated physician. Bill: Talinda’s first boyfriend, a train wreck, a playboy, luckily not present in person, but talked about, even lusted after, long after college. George: Talinda’s new love, at that point married to her for seven years. And me—the new me—nowhere in evidence. I was Narika the academic, not Narika the “friend.” Not me, the one who cut herself today on a piece of broken glass, not wholly by accident, in a flash of self-loathing and dread, the woman afraid to go swimming even though it might be good for the baby; the former respectable citizen. Now regressed to seeing the same old black-and-white movies I saw in high school, imagining Talinda gone so I can go and live in her big house in Long Island. Sleep in her big bed with her husband, when pregnancy will make good sleep harder to get. When sleep alone will comfort me.

I remember me and Talinda like from a movie. Scene, action, dialogue.

One year ago: “You’re late,” Talinda said. Narika slid into a fake leather booth. It’s where Talinda’s parents first met. Neither had lived in America more than a few years then. The laughing acupuncturist insisted that the too-serious, pretty girl who brought his food sit down with him. That was when the very idea of Talinda first began, frivolous as that was, serious as Talinda Kim is today. Hard to imagine Talinda’s sensible mother ever being pliant, giggly, tractable, but Talinda’s doctor father, telling strangers the story, always insisted she was. In a booth like the one where Talinda and Narika sat, the confident man, years before he would leave Talinda forever, must have pulled Talinda’s mother by the hand, maybe even caressed her roughened fingers. Charmed her enough to make her stay.

Several feet behind Talinda and Narika, near the sushi bar where two men of indeterminate age in white aprons and chef hats busy themselves cutting vegetables, one of the waitresses, chubby and tense, perched on a bar stool. She wore a red uniform with sausage-casing cleavage that looks highly uncomfortable. An alert, compact golden retriever sat at the woman’s feet, trim and obedient, panting when it saw Narika looking its way but not trying to get up. Narika was used to Korean food, but for a second she worried for the dog, saw grim images of paws floating in soup, the waitress’s thin fingers flicking a torn, shaggy ear. She shrugged it off; they came here often during childhood, when Talinda’s mother had to go back to work after Talinda’s father divorced her, disappearing overseas, leaving them without money.

Often Narika thought that the facts of her parents’ divorce have defined Talinda: abruptness, condescension, pride. Even bare-faced lying. A cynical indifference and yet a kind of quiet and unshakable loyalty, the same kind that made Talinda’s mother send money to her in-laws in Korea for years after the father absconded. Before leaving, he’d taken money from his parents as well. Talinda’s mother, eventually Talinda herself, sent them thousands.

Talinda is much easier to love than to like. But then again, Narika thought, she herself is not that easy even to tolerate.

“You’ve lost weight,” Narika said when minutes passed and Talinda did not speak or even make eye contact. The woman knows how to give a cold shoulder—actually, an icy one, as punishment for Narika’s being nearly half an hour late. Talinda looked up from the menu.

“No, I mean it,” Narika said. “A lot of weight—like, what, at least thirty pounds? Don’t tell me you did this on purpose. It isn’t chic. You look almost skeletal.” Narika aspired to be mean, as she often did in Talinda’s company. She’s always told herself that it’s only in anticipation of Talinda’s bona fide meanness, which she has been so interested in and enraptured by since the fourth grade.

It is bracing, watching Talinda eviscerate some stranger with verve. The last time they’d come to this cheap Korean restaurant, a few months before, Talinda sported a new, thin, but unmistakable magenta streak in her hair, like some Japanese teenager rebelling against her principal. Despite Talinda’s Chanel suit and pearls, Narika always half-expected to see her slinging a Hello Kitty knapsack across her chair. That time, Talinda had picked up a Korean brochure, with one phrase in English only: Water bar.

Mizu shobai is the Japanese name for it,” Talinda said. Narika remembered the contemptuous curl of her lovely lips. “It’s from an expression about good luck and bad. A matter of chance, as shifting as water. So, might as well live it up now with hot baths, massages, and you know what.”

“Wait, why do they call them water bars?” Narika asked.

“Don’t ask boring questions. Do I look like a tour guide?” Talinda snapped, just as a waiter came over to replenish their water glasses. Narika recognized him as the owner of the restaurant, his photo hanging near the front entrance.

He also had the appearance of being some daughter’s father. This is how Narika’s own father could have been—serene, present, working, instead of disappearing, unemployed, and indifferent. It had been Narika’s mother, and not Narika herself, who waited anxiously for letters and cards, not even insisting on a check; Narika’s mother who spent her modest salary on beauty treatments, facial creams, hair oils, expensive clothes, so that the house had to be sold to pay all the debts once her mother was dead. Narika’s mother who, upon hearing that Talinda had lost her father too, wondered aloud why Talinda’s mother hadn’t tried harder to persuade the man to stay.

“What are you nice girls doing, talking about water bars?” the genial man said, pausing with the half-full pitcher of water on his tray. “Those aren’t innocent places.”

For his intrusion, Talinda rewarded the man with a cold smile. “I’ll have the dinner plate,” she’d said, giving him her menu while looking straight at Narika. But the good-looking Korean man caught Narika’s eye, leaned closer than he had to, and said: “You know the secret of the water bars? They’re favorite places of water demons, the kappas. That’s why you should never go to a host club or, God forbid, work in a hostess club, near any body of water. The kappa will wait for you under the water, and then he’ll ravish you. Seduce you into giving him pleasure, maybe even give you a baby.

“You know the only way to avoid him?” the man had asked Narika, bedroom-eyed. Narika shook her head, ever the wide-eyed ingénue.

Talinda, weary, answered him like she was sick of his type. “Yes, yes, you have to be polite. Bow to the kappa as deeply as you can.” Talinda bowed her head to illustrate her meaning.

The man smiled, but Talinda was determined that he not be complacent, not be charmed. “The goal is to kill the bugger with your politeness; as soon as the water falls out of the cup on top of his head, he cannot move. He’s stuck there, and you move on, and then you’re free of him. I mean, totally free of that demon. Like you don’t ever have to talk to him again. Like he’ll know enough not to come near you. Ever.” Raising her eyebrow slightly, she glanced at the man as he stood there transfixed with his tray of water. He never approached their table again, not that night or any other night.

Talinda’s instinctive sharpness had been there since she was twelve. One day in homeroom, Talinda, a seventh-grade monitor, announced that the fifth-grade Narika’s generic puppy-themed lunchbox was no good, and if she was lucky she would get a better one on sale. Somehow, the very act of being criticized had comforted Narika. She’d felt that they were both marked as outsiders. Not just because Talinda was the new girl in school and, for a time, the only Korean, or because Narika remained the darkest brown girl in the class for all six years of elementary, but because they were both fatherless. Because they’d found a way to do without.

Twenty-five years later, Talinda has become a successful doctor specializing in the care of older people and writes influential papers about feeding tubes. Narika is an academic expert in Indian history—assistant professor, tenure track, not even adjuncting anymore. Anticipating the publication of her first book on Hindu women in politics and the ambiguous meanings of the mother goddess for Communists in India, a successful expansion of her dissertation. “I never know what you’re talking about when you try to explain what it is you do for a living,” Talinda often says. Or else drops one of her sayings—elusive, a pearl: “Narika, don’t try so hard to live inside a story that’s not yours.”

That evening, dinner a year ago, Talinda was, as usual, practical. “What are you doing these days, anyhow?” Talinda asked, probably just to change the subject from her weight loss. “Still chasing after dead bad white guys, or what?”

Often Talinda sounds exactly like Narika’s dead mother, comforting for her familiarity, for her constancy. Narika’s mother was stubborn. She’d held onto the house where she’d raised Narika until the end, though she’d been riddled with bad debt. She’d never stopped preparing herself for her husband’s return after he’d left them for another woman and another child. Narika was sixteen then; her father’s mistress, barely twenty. Only Talinda, out of all her friends, knew why he’d gone. Only Talinda knew how intensely Narika came to despise her own mother’s house, how peaceful it had been to finally be rid of it.

“I mean, I know you’re a teacher, a professor, I do understand that,” Talinda went on, emphasizing “that” and spitting a little when she talked, which Narika made a mental note of but didn’t comment on. “But the subjects you study? Something about colonialism, which I understand is over now in India and elsewhere in the world, and like, has been over for the last hundred years or so? What does that do for anyone, what purpose does that have? And are you at least teaching your students other skills? Like how to write term papers or do research, so they can do research on something that really matters?”

“Like curing cancer,” Narika said, unaware and trying to make Talinda smile. “Like being, oh I don’t know—a doctor?”

Talinda laughed. “Well, what’s wrong with that?” By then the waitress on duty, who recognized the subtlest changes in expression and mood of a table, had brought them water and sake. The liquor stung Narika’s throat and eyes. She never drinks except with Talinda—like so many other things, it is a ritual separate from her life, from her identity as a nose-ring-wearing Indian-origin academic. A dark brown woman who does yoga on the beach.

Talinda was impassive as she drank. She never seems to manifest the Oriental flush that is a peculiarity of cytochrome enzymes’ genetic heterogeneity, she always liked to say. But she never drinks to excess either, not like the Asian man who’d once sat next to Narika on a bus ride from Washington DC to New York with two six-packs on his lap, and who brought his sweaty arms and thighs too close to Narika as she sat next to him, trying to outline her lecture notes. There might be something Talinda had to tell her, Narika got the sense, but couldn’t be sure of, couldn’t force it out. It would probably emerge as they were settling the check. “Bill and I broke up” was how they’d finished a similar dinner eight years before, before Talinda met George, back when she assumed her college boyfriend Bill was the one.

That time, both of them still in their twenties, Narika only had two hours left before catching a flight to O’Hare for a conference. She’d tried in vain to get Talinda to “talk more about her feelings” (a phrase her friend uttered with a snarl) by taking her to a lovely candlelit dessert place in the Village, with a French name and little tables and perfect espressos served in demitasse with chocolate croissants. The coffee and the pastries had been fine, Talinda remarked afterward, but “please spare me all that psychological whatnot. Bill left me and that’s that. What am I going to do about it? Not a thing. Maybe it would’ve been different if his mother liked me. She was no fan of ‘slant-eyes,’ as she put it, but that’s fine. I’ll live.”

Perhaps the not-talking had worked, for only two years after Bill left, Talinda had met George at an art gallery, a show Narika dragged her to. George the academic, well read, definitely humanities—the kind of man Narika herself hoped she might marry someday. But back then, Narika was dating a woman, not the first. Something she and Talinda didn’t talk about. Either because it would spotlight, uncomfortably, how beautiful Talinda still was to Narika, even after so many years—or else because it would raise the question, equally uncomfortable, of what Talinda had intended when they were fifteen and seventeen, respectively, and Talinda, sleeping over at Narika’s house,  crawled into her bed to; watch and laugh at a slightly campy Roman Polanski movie where two beautiful women made love, and afterward they tried it themselves.

Narika ordered her usual Buddha’s delight—a vegetarian version of bibimbap with tofu instead of beef, a fried egg on top of tender noodles, sprouts, and lots of vegetables smothered in Korean hot sauce. Talinda’s mother was the one who’d made it for her the first time, along with Korean spareribs that Narika refused, first provoking mild insult then pity as the older, still lovely woman sat with Talinda and they contentedly tore into the meat, picking at the bones afterward, unselfconscious, pinching large pieces of pickled cabbage with gleaming black chopsticks and popping them into their mouths between bites of gristle and beef, even burping occasionally without casting a glance at Narika, their guest, who at age eleven had sat in shocked but amused silence.

Talinda ordered a small miso soup and another side dish with tofu.

“I haven’t decided yet; I’ll tell you in a while,” Talinda said to the waitress, speaking in English to prevent conversation, something she routinely does, with other Koreans. The waitress bowed and retreated as a busboy refilled their tumblers of green tea.

“You are starving yourself,” Narika said in triumph. “But now it’s going to stop. I’m not leaving here until you’ve had at least one order of either Korean spareribs or the bulgogi. Take your pick.”

Talinda shrugged. “So, tell me about this book of yours.”

“Well, it’s coming out finally, not that there’ll be any money in it. But there is a book tour if I take the initiative, and I think it’ll be taught at the undergraduate level.”

“That’s good.”

“And it ended up being shorter than the original five hundred pages, even with the photographs I took on my trip back to India—”

“What do you mean, ‘back’? Girl, you are not from India. You are from Flushing, Queens.”

I know that. But the publishers want to pitch me as Indian.” Their food came quickly, as always, the waitress giving another little bow, perhaps wondering if they’d be there all night, bickering and picking at their food, and what kind of tip, if any, they would leave. They must have looked to her like hometown girls, not businesswomen, not quite housewives or mothers, already well into their thirties and out by themselves on a Friday night, poor things.

“Have you ever heard of Jallianwala Bagh?” Narika asked, taking a sip of tea and thinking about what she’d order for dessert so she could get Talinda to share it.

“No, Narika. I’m educated, not a nerd. And I don’t have a big chip on my shoulder about a bunch of white guys, you know? In case you hadn’t noticed, I married one.”

“Haha. Well, this place I visited in India, it’s a memorial now. Thousands of men, women, and children gathering unarmed, for a peaceful protest, were literally gunned down by the British army. It was unbelievable.”

“Okay—I’m going to ask you something. Don’t get offended, okay? I mean, why didn’t they run? That’s the thing about Koreans. We know when to get away and go think about revenge. Why were the Indians so passive? Answer that.”

“But that’s the thing,” Narika said, cringing a little at the earnest sound of her own voice. “They couldn’t run. The British sealed off all the exits to this compound where they’d gathered. They tried escaping. They wanted to get out.”


“Terrible, isn’t it?”

Talinda played with her chopsticks, staring at a spot just over Narika’s shoulder. There was nothing there but the wood paneling.

“Well, I guess everyone dies,” she finally said. “Can we talk about other things?”

“Isn’t your mom worried about you? Especially with you being thin. You can’t convince me George likes you this way. How could you possibly try for a baby at this weight? Your wrists are like matchsticks. I can see your veins.”

“My mom is just glad I can fit into her stuff now,” Talinda said, deftly ignoring the mention of babies. “Her silk cheongsams and her oldie-but-goodie Chanel suits. She’s got a Pucci dress that would’ve been way too tight a year ago. It’s great. If you just lose thirty pounds, I’ll lend it to you.”

“Tell me what’s wrong, really,” Narika insisted, refusing the insult, though she knew losing ten pounds wouldn’t do her any harm.

Talinda sighed deeply and theatrically.

“I’ll tell you once we’re done eating,” she said. “I want to enjoy my food.”

Narika sat up, alert. “Wait, are you having an affair?” she asked, scarcely daring to believe it. “You’re cheating on George, of all people? And it’s guilt that stops you from eating? Or you’re just getting so much exercise­­—”

“I’m not even going to dignify—” Talinda began, but Narika, dramatic, interrupted, closing her eyes and holding her forehead with both hands, as if she were a seer.

“And don’t tell me—it’s Bill. After everything, you’re sleeping with Bill. Bill the jerk who ran off with one of your roommates during spring break, Bill the rich boy cliché, the trust fund baby who picked you up during freshman crush, who cried for you only after you were gone. Bill the screw-up whose only merit was his high-octane you-know-what.”

“About right, except one major correction. He could barely get it up even in college. I doubt he’s having any luck with his little thing now.” Talinda laughed.

“But you’re doing something that you haven’t told anyone,” Narika said, “and you’re ashamed, and will tell me. Is it money? That big pharma sellout you got into? Tell me, dammit. You’re driving me crazy. You know I’ll support you, whatever it is. Especially if it involves indulging your vices.”

“What vices?”

“Enough with the games—you need to eat,” Narika said, serious.

Talinda signaled the waitress and soon the menu reappeared on their table.

“I’ll tell them to add bibimbap to my order, just to shut you up.”

“Hey—do you remember in seventh grade, when that tall Korean girl—”

“You mean Hannah, Hannah Eun. She had a name. You should do better. You never liked it when people called you ‘that Indian girl.’

“Hannah had this whole thing about how small your feet were. She called your loafers ‘thimbles’ and your mittens ‘thumb-warmers.’ She’d complain that she looked like a giant next to you. Remember that?”

“Narika, you’re sad. You’re the only person in the world who remembers that. I bet even Hannah has moved on by now. I bet she has tons of short friends and doesn’t even notice it.”

“Is that why you’re so careful what you eat? Because you never want to be both short and chubby?”

Talinda shook her head. “Just that it takes me a while to eat these days. I feel nauseous a lot.”

Narika’s eyes widened in joy for a moment. “Oh, God! You’re expecting! You and George! Great!”

“No. No, it’s not that,” Talinda said, her eyes filling with tears.

Narika stared, waiting, breath caught in her throat.

“Columbia Onc isn’t sure yet, but they think I have cancer. Stomach cancer--the kind Asians get. If it’s signet ring, my prognosis is laughable. Even if it’s not, I haven’t got long. But who does? You’re the one proving that bad guys come and shoot people down. Isn’t that, like, the thesis of your book?”

Narika found she couldn’t move or speak. 

Talinda rubbed her own cheekbones, smudging her rouge. “This is why I didn’t want to tell you. I didn’t want a scene. I didn’t want to frighten you.”

Narika nodded, grabbing a napkin and dabbing her eyes, clearing her throat.

“In case you’re wondering, I was planning to tell George tonight, after I get the biopsy results. After I know how long.”

“That’s good,” Narika said, too fast. “You have to tell him. But maybe it’ll be negative. Maybe all of it is something else—not cancer. Not cancer at all. Like, isn’t there this thing where you can be pregnant, only it attaches to your stomach and not in the right place, isn’t it—”

“It’s not an ectopic,” said Talinda, cold. “Whatever this thing is, it’s going where it wants to go.”

Narika, chastened, could only nod her head.

Talinda, looking past her. “I wish I could feel the kind of childish hope that you still feel, I really do. The head-shrinkers who work at my clinic, they say denial helps at first. But none of that soft science matters now. Neither do feelings. ‘Tissue is the issue,’ like my pathology professors used to say. And if the tissue diagnosis supports the clinical, and imaging? Including the weight loss, and my loss of appetite? George won’t matter then. Love has no power in the place where I’m headed, Narika. Not even yours.”

“Love is all you’ve got, you idiot. You’re going to live. Even if the news is terrible, George will help.”

Narika, expecting Talinda to say, “Of course I’ll live, you silly bitch,” or even “I don’t need anyone’s help,” found it unbearable when Talinda bowed her head.

“Your mother,” Narika said quickly. “You’ve told her, haven’t you? She’ll want to come and stay with you.”

Talinda whipped up, alert and fierce. “Oh no, she won’t know anything. She’s in Korea now. Left just a few days ago for my grandfather’s eightieth. Told me she doesn’t see the point of coming back to the US. It’s perfect. She’s never going to know. After I’m gone, I’ll get George to send her a telegram saying I died in an accident, suddenly. That I didn’t suffer.”

“You’re not even going to—”


 “But even if it’s cancer, couldn’t you have time?” Narika asked. “With my grandfather’s cancer, he had years. He spent two years in India recovering. You shouldn’t work. You should adopt with George. Love a child. You should do everything you can to live.”

Talinda said, “If it’s in the nodes, stage three or four, survival is a year or less.”

Narika hid her face in her hands.

“Don’t think for a minute I’m not going to fight,” Talinda said, “I’ve got enough time to make a choice about chemo or not. They would do surgery in a few weeks to make the thing smaller. There’s an experimental protocol at McGill. Canada. They freeze the balls off the cancer. I may elect to do that one instead. So far, some of the subjects have a higher survival. A year or two. One outlier even lived ten years, and trials are still going. NIH is so miserably slow.”

“What’s NIH?” Narika almost asked. And then she thought of more questions, so many more questions, down to the detail of what kind of nightgown Talinda preferred if and when she had to take to bed, but only because she didn’t know anything, not because the answers would help anything now. Questions. There were more questions she could have asked, but now, choosing to be merciful, Narika shut up.

She tried to remember Talinda’s favorite dessert but couldn’t.

“Let me cry, okay?” Narika said. “I’ll stop in a minute.”

She put a hand on Talinda’s cold, white one, noticing as she always did the difference in their skin color. But this time it seemed like a ghastly difference between a living and dying thing—Narika’s rosy-golden-brown hand, unlined, against Talinda’s pale one.

Talinda took her hand away and pressed it against her temple, massaging.

“You’re not even forty. How is this possible?” Narika whispered in a fury.

Talinda’s smile: self-deprecating, cynical. Savvy. Reminding Narika of just how much reality her friend had seen.

“Just lucky, I guess,” Talinda said.


I wish I could say that something deep and abiding, like love for Talinda, is what united us, George and me. That she will live on when we’re together. That we will name our child after her—Kim Tae-Hyun. Her real, Korean name. But all of that would be a lie. What binds George to me is our years of baby hunger, real and plain. That little pirate, growing and greedy, in my belly--four months along now, his heartbeat softer but more regular than the gush of blood through Talinda’s cancer—that little person is a dream.

Inside me lives a healthy, plundering group of cells that wants what it wants, like George’s heart. Still I like thinking of me and Talinda having our dinner in Flushing, last year, before my son seized my affections. Even now, I enjoy replaying this scene, and the few weeks afterward, before I betrayed my best friend, remembering details like the texture of the dog’s fur, the taste of the food before Talinda told me about her diagnosis—how much I enjoyed the evening, enjoyed being with her. How, looking at Talinda’s lips as she mocked me, I relived the night in high school when she let me kiss her.

Then I think of the night I started with George, the first of only three nights that we fucked, hard, loud, and heavenly, before I got pregnant, as if I had been waiting all along, and I wonder if anything, anything at all, would have prevented what George and I have done.

Tonight--one year since she told me about her cancer, six months of lying to her face--Talinda knocks at my door. It’s past midnight. Nothing has announced her. My buzzer doesn’t work, along with the stove and one of the windows in this apartment, a casualty of the landlord’s smug indifference, a feature of this neighborhood.

I’m glad to see Talinda. Relieved that she looks beautiful, unchanged. I don’t ask why she’s come to visit me this late.

“The Canadian experiment’s not working,” she says. “The meds are shit.”

She takes off her scarf and shakes her hair loose. If her treatment were working, she wouldn’t have that hair, but as it is it looks exactly as it always has—lush down her back, black with red highlights, a dream-girl’s hair, an illustration for The Pillow Book. George must have fallen in love with it. He never runs his fingers through my hair, which is a witch doll’s powder puff, a mess of black curls that would be wiry if I didn’t take care with them. But always he touches my lips, which are darker than hers and just a bit fuller. And traces my profile, whispering, “Nefertiti.” And my dark nipples. Talinda’s, I happen to know, are the lightest, most delicate and softest pinkish brown. When we were teenagers, it felt like a miracle when she revealed them to me.

Now it’s nearly 4 a.m. and Talinda’s sitting on my bed, me on the floor, and we’re almost done watching Dark Victory.

“Wrong choice,” I’d said when she picked it. “Trust me, you don’t want to see that.”

“You’re making a pretty big assumption, aren’t you?” she said. “Like—thinking because Keanu Reeves isn’t in it, I won’t have a clue what it’s about?”

“I don’t want you to see it,” I said, feeling the tears.  “Come on. Let’s watch something else.” I wanted to distract her from the things she’d said, about how she’d chosen wrong with the Canadian protocol, now it was too late for surgery and too early for hospice, how all this probably meant she had three months at most. How she’d been vomiting and couldn’t stop. How the cancer has proven to be unstoppable.

But the movie Talinda chose plays on the screen and we’re both enrapt, watching the handsome, stocky doctor tower over tiny Bette Davis, like George towers over Talinda. George said to call him again before I went to sleep, but I won’t. I won’t betray Talinda anymore.

Without George in the picture, Talinda and I are back where we were, eating popcorn with Talinda queen of it all on my pillows. Me sitting on the floor at her feet, unable to move, waiting for her to look at me. In thrall to her. Smiling at the movie’s campy parts, loving the way she rolls her eyes.

It’s not until the end of the movie that she speaks.

“I know about you and George,” she says. “I know everything you’ve done.”

I say nothing. If I don’t speak, maybe she’ll think that I’m asleep.

“It must be that you’re pregnant, aren’t you?” she asks, not waiting for me to respond. “It won’t be long,” she says. “It really won’t be long. Just don’t tell me about any of it. I don’t even want to know if you’re pregnant.”

She must hear the sound of me crying, exhausted. Slowly, I stand.

“What can I do?” I ask, the way I should have been asking all along, the way I stopped asking months ago.

Talinda flicks on the light at the side of my bed, switches the TV off with the remote, makes room.

“Be close to me,” she says, patting the place next to her. “You’re what I’ve got.”

I move closer. But I can’t bring myself to sit on the bed next to her. Can’t risk that what is wrong with her will pass to me.

“There’s no way you have a cigarette, do you?”

I shake my head no.

“Then what are you reading these days, anything good?” Talinda says, picking up the book that lies on my bedside table.  “Ah yes,” she says, opening to a random page. “Sontag. Even I’ve heard of her. Good for you, starting to read people I’ve heard of. Not that Bakhtin or any of those names that sound like phlegm.”

“Oh, look at this, perfect,” she goes on, not looking at me. I’m holding the sheet against my front, even now protecting myself, keeping my flesh and the flesh of my flesh, the bone of my bone, separate from hers.

There is a baby inside me now, and without meaning to, I have forgiven myself.

“‘Illness is the night-side of citizenship,’” Talinda reads. “‘A more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick—’

“An onerous citizenship,” she repeats, now looking up at me. “I like that. Worse than the exam my mother took, when she became a US citizen. Once you’re sick, part of you, most of the time, more or less feels forced to keep trying to live, even when you stop wanting to.”       

I stand, ready to move away and save myself. Save him. My little love.

“What now?” I ask. “What do you need? Is there anything that I—? Forget George. I’ll break it off with him. It’s not about him. I am so sorry, Talinda. So sorry.”

Talinda stares at me, assessing. “You’re not going to be with me, are you?” she says. “Not really. Part of you is gone. You’re committed. You have become somebody’s mother.” Laughing now. “Congrats.”

I stand there anyway, waiting. The least I can do is try to be the loyal dog. A small, pudgy dog, simple in its love. Ready to serve.

 “Why don’t you fucking let me sleep,” Talinda says, rolling onto her side, but she doesn’t slap my hand away when I come close enough to smooth my bedclothes over her. “In a little while I’ll call my husband, and he’ll come here because I ask, because it’s right. And he’ll ignore you. And you can break up with him then, fine.  Sure, you will. But meantime, Narika, let me sleep. I mean, really, can’t you? Leave me alone to goddamn sleep.”

White Dancing Elephants: Stories
by by Chaya Bhuvaneswar