Rahul hesitantly steps out of his father’s second-hand car, looking at the row of bungalows. No way Steve stays here. Steve’s father is the owner of a chain of hotels but Rahul didn’t think he could afford to live here, in this locality. Maybe the accommodation is sponsored by the company. As far as he knew, only rich Arabs, Americans, and Brits lived here. He already feels guilty for making his father drive all the way from Gudaibiya to Budaiya. He looks at the basic Nokia phone in his hand.
A loud growl from a big black gate to his left startles him, making him drop his father’s phone, ‘Shit! Shit!’ He notices the eyes first. A huge black dog stares at him from behind the gate, as if knowing Rahul is a trespasser. He doesn’t even know the breed of the dog. He is almost sure the dog has a room of his own. He picks up the phone quickly, turning back to see if his father saw the phone drop.
His father’s head is tilted towards a huge jeep by a golden gate. Rahul exhales in relief. Steve steps out of the golden gate. Rahul’s jaw drops and his eyebrows shoot up involuntarily. He wipes the screen of the phone on his jeans and calls out to Steve, waving his hand. There are two cracks on the screen, he knows his father can’t afford a new phone. He will just have to manage with this. He feels sorry for him. He can envision the lecture he will get on returning home. All about the ‘sacrifices’ his parents have made for him as migrants in the Gulf.
Inside the house, Rahul feels like he is in a maze. There are five spacious rooms. The size of two rooms makes up his small flat in Gudaibiya. Steve was aloof in class but his body language is different at home. Rahul pays attention to the way Steve’s hands swing behind him carelessly. Steve begins to say something but something else has caught Rahul’s attention—the furniture. The couches at his one bedroom rented apartment are second-hand. They have a history. The fabric had stains on them when they got it. This couch looks like it’s custom-made for Steve and his family. A throne. Gold fabric stretched from end to end makes Rahul feel like he is in a Sheikh’s palace. He is glad he didn’t invite Steve to his house. Even the thought of his crumbling leaking small flat in a crowded locality filled with South Asian migrants makes his skin crawl.
The huge grandfather clock in Steve’s living room, clearly an antique piece, tells him the time. The clock in his own living room is a complementary Coco-cola clock. His father must have reached office by now. Rahul pictures him settling down on his swivel chair to begin his work as the office secretary. His workload could be divided between ten employees, and he isn’t even paid enough for one. Rahul’s mother helps out by taking tuitions for kids. They had dal and rice at home most of the time. And chicken once a week. Rahul snaps to the present when the cold AC air from Steve’s bedroom hits his face. When Rahul hesitates by the door, Steve whistles, inviting him into his luxurious life.
Steve bites sunflower seeds and then spits the shells out, aiming for his TV. Rahul realises Steve is only imitating the Arab boys from class who sat in the last row, aiming the sunflower seed shells at the heads of students seated in front of them. Sitting on Steve’s large bed with the assignment paper in his hand, Rahul thinks of a way to prolong his stay. He couldn’t let this end here. He makes a deal— he will do all of Steve’s assignments as long as he gets to spend time at his house. Steve narrows his eyes, and stares. He spits the shell of a sunflower seed in reply. When the shell hits Rahul’s forehead in the center, Steve does a fist pump and exclaims ‘Yes!’ He smiles, turns away and refills his mouth with more seeds. Through a mouthful he says, ‘Canyouwritemyboardstoo?’
Later, Steve’s father arranges for Ali, his Arab driver, to pick and drop Rahul as Rahul’s father is held up at work. Rahul feels queasy when he leaves the house. What if he doesn’t get to come back? But in the car, as Ali starts talking to Rahul, the sinking feeling floats. Ali shares that he has a son of his own. A small boy.
‘Too much mareed. Doctoor put fire in baccha. Leg. I no see. I go out. Baccha okay now. Mashallah.’
Ali then explains that he doesn’t prefer to visit doctors in hospitals, he likes to visit the traditional doctor in his village who had her ways of healing. Rahul has never heard of this before. He asks Ali to share more stories about life in the village as Ali becomes the designated driver for all of Rahul’s visits at Steve’s. Over the next two months, Rahul and Ali become close friends.
Rahul also gets introduced to Steve’s friends. They are guys who could get whatever they wanted. Being around them makes Rahul hope for a world where he gets a room of his own with his dream girl, Stephy, beside him. She’s a classmate, but he is sure she hasn’t noticed him. He had overheard her telling her friend that she is only into Catholic guys. Rahul knows that Steve and Stephy go to the same church. What he would give to be Steve!
Steve and his friends have a wannabe American accent that Rahul envies. An argument brews when Steve accuses one of the boys of faking the accent. Rahul decides to play referee, ‘Hey, but can you guys do Sean Paul? Temperature?’
Steve sings a line and Rahul looks at him, ‘You know what’s missing. Tattoos. Then you will look like a rapper.’
Steve gives Rahul a look, and whispers, ‘I’ll never get a tattoo, dude.’
‘Why? My parents would never let me. Your Dad wouldn’t mind at all.’
‘Mom hated it. It’s Catholic thing, dude. Fuck it. You won’t get it. Some body is the temple of God shit.’
Rahul is taken aback by the mention of his mother. He has never spoken about her before. A friend from the couch shouts out, ‘Yo that’s not how Sean says it. We can understand you! And no one gets Sean!’
Steve takes it as a challenge. It’s mutually decided that the next time they meet, the one who gets the accent right and the lyrics right without prompting would get three exclusive hours on Steve’s Playstation, and they could pick their favourite game. Everyone envies Steve’s collection. The other boys have strict mothers who would only let them buy limited games. Rahul doesn’t even have a Playstation. All he has is a brick game that is confiscated because of the approaching boards.
Rahul asks his father to print a few lessons from the office printer. He slips in the lyrics of Temperature in the bunch. Having no room of his own, his mind stays in Steve’s house though his body is in Gudaibiya. His mother catches him with the lyrics and tears the paper. He wonders when this constant surveillance will end. His parents are more paranoid than ever as the board exams are nearing. His mother has also changed her tuition timings so he can study. They remind him of the sacrifices they make every minute as migrants.
When he yells, ‘‘LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE! I want a room of my own,’ his mother slaps him, ‘This Steve is spoiling you!’
‘Don’t use that word ever again in this house or stay with him forever,’ says his father.
Rahul calms down after sometime and apologises to his parents but secretly he hopes he can live with Steve forever.
At Steve’s house, Rahul watches Jerry Springer on the weekends. He is surprised by how sexually active American teens are. He has never even touched a girl yet. He has had dreams of spending time with Stephy, at Water Garden, feeding the ducks or at Marina Beach, sitting on the rocks and soaking in the salty air blowing from the sea. He always manages to wake up before something intimate could happen, even if it’s just touching hands. As the days pass by, Rahul is introduced to porn on Steve’s computer. He finds photographs and films of different women. Steve confides they are the women who come to satisfy his father who ‘can’t get it up’.
Rahul then finds a big closet full of medicines. Steve confesses that his father has tried all sorts of potions and food to improve his chances of getting an erection. Even the genitalia of exotic animals. Rahul learns that Steve’s mother went to India on vacation and never returned. She was apparently the one who decided that Steve would study in an Indian school so his status wouldn’t get to his head. Steve claims he has her eyes.
When noodles slip from Rahul’s fork, he can feel Steve’s eyes burn holes into his fingers. Steve pulls the fork from Rahul’s hand. ‘Why are you eating like a beggar, dude, you might as well eat with your hands dude. Look, here! Gosh!’
He twirls the fork on the plate. The noodles wind around the fork’s tines. Rahul’s eyes pop. He chokes on his Coca-cola,‘Whoa! Where did you learn that, dude?’
Steve stuffs the fork full of noodles into Rahul’s agape mouth. ‘Dad, who else?’
After dinner, Rahul wanders into Steve’s kitchen, and opens his fridge. His mouth waters at the variety of pastries on display. Steve appears behind him, putting his arm around Rahul’s neck, ‘I’m fed up of this shit. I see it every fucking day. Eat anything you want. Tiramisu, Date cake, Blueberry…’
Rahul picks the date cake. Steve heats it in the microwave for 30 seconds, ‘This is the right way to eat it. The caramel tastes good when it’s warm. Trust me.’
When Rahul bites into the slice, the caramel sticks to his tongue. ‘Mmm—so good man,’ says Rahul, taking another bite.
‘You can take some for your parents too,’ he raises his beer can in a motion that makes Rahul lift his Coke bottle and clink it. ‘Cheers’
When Ali doesn’t appear for a few days because of a curfew in his village, Rahul questions his father. His father looks at him as if he has asked a ridiculous question,
‘You focus on your studies. Listen from one ear. Remove from the other. We are here to do our best. Locals will always have problems. Shia Sunni. Fight will never end. You don’t worry. Don’t get involved with anything.’
Rahul misses Ali. The replacement driver doesn’t speak much. The board exams are nearing, Rahul is under home arrest. He finds his mother fasting more than usual, doing pujas more often. His father has quit watching TV so Rahul can completely focus on his studies.
At the end of the last board exam, for the first time, Steve puts his hand on Rahul’s shoulder, acknowledging him in public, ‘Hey, coming home?’
Rahul goes through Steve’s collection of photos on his computer. He is surprised to come across photos of the class picnic from earlier that year. He notices a photo with Stephy leaning on Steve. He comments, ‘Fuckk! I bet she will do anything you say dude. She really likes you.’
‘Who?’, Steve comes over to see the photo. ‘Oh, you think so?’
‘I have an idea bro’.
A handful of classmates get invited to Steve’s private farewell party. Stephy is one of the first to arrive. Rahul can’t take his eyes off of her. She has worn a black sleeveless dress. Her hair is straightened. He hasn’t seen her outside of uniform before this. His hand trembles as he takes a shot of vodka to brace himself for the night. He has rehearsed his lines in front of his cracked bathroom mirror so many times that he can’t remember the words anymore. He didn’t work this hard even for the boards. His vision blurs but he notices Steve taking Stephy into his bedroom. He wonders if it’s the drink. Sean Paul is blaring on the speakers and it’s dark. My lovin’ is the way to go, my lovin’ is the way to go…
Steve exits his room after a while with Stephy tagging behind him. He stops the music to announce ‘Game time’. A couple of men bring out an array of chafing dishes. Rahul squints. His heart beats rapidly. Steve hadn’t told him anything about this.
‘You will not find such exotic dishes anywhere else. Make the most of it. The winner gets to go with me to Hawar Island for the holidays after the boards. Who is willing to have a go? Stephy? Why don’t you set the ball rolling?’
Rahul’s heart skips a beat. This can’t be it. Not possible. Steve’s smile says it all. Rahul now realises why Steve invited Stephy in the first place. His own words come back to haunt him ‘I bet she will do anything you say dude.’
The crowd cheers as Steve films Stephy attempting to eat the tough animal penis. Rahul wishes Steve’s mother was around.
On his way home, Rahul keeps thinking about Stephy. He should have stepped in and stopped it. He should have done something. Steve will circulate the photos and videos for sure. Rahul couldn’t let this happen to her. He had to think of something. His eyes glaze over Ali’s hand on the steering wheel. He has been quieter since he’s back. On reaching home, Rahul’s parents interrogate him,
‘Are you drunk? Did you drink at the party? How many times have I told you, Rahul? You have to be responsible now. The world is not easy. You need to get good marks or no college will give you admission.’
Rahul’s head buzzes. Steve’s father hasn’t told him a word about trying to prove himself. He has already been admitted to a college in the US. All he has to do is board the flight. And then he will meet girls. Girls who will allow him to do anything he wants to them. The stuff of Jerry Springer shows. He will not need to see it on TV anymore, it will be a part of his lived reality.
After freshening up, when Rahul knows his parents have gone to sleep, he finally finds the courage to call Stephy despite having her number for a long time. She answers on the third call. He feels ashamed of himself as he hears her voice in between sobs. As he had dreaded, Steve had kissed her in his bedroom, hinting at the possibility of a relationship. Winning the food challenge would have sealed the deal, he had implied. Rahul holds his face in his hands. ‘I’m so sorry, Steph. He—I never knew—’
Rahul is unable to sleep after the call. He thinks of all the ways in which he can teach Steve a lesson. He finds himself dozing. He is in an empty dark lane. A van slows down, and drops a bag on the pavement. Rahul watches the bag move. He is in a dilemma, should he ignore it? He slowly approaches it, and unzips the bag with trembling hands. It’s Rahul.
On the day of the school farewell party, Rahul waits for Steve outside the school gate. Steve gets out of a van, limping his way to the gate, he looks sick. Rahul holds his hand and walks towards the passage behind the auditorium. When he comes back to the front, most of the students have already reached. Rahul looks for Stephy. When he spots her, he walks over. She looks at him and smiles.
‘It’s done,’ he says, beaming
‘He is miserable,’ he adds. ‘By the way, you are looking really beautiful. Love the cut. What’s it called?’
‘Cool. Suits you!’
‘Where’s Steve? I won’t believe it until I see it.’
Stephy follows him. Rahul goes back to where he left Steve. Steve is crying, he has taken off his blazer. Underneath the blazer, his white shirt is torn in places. Rahul looks at Stephy, with a big smile, ‘There are photos too. Everyone has it by now.’
She has tears in her eyes.
‘What have you done? What are these on his body? Are these tattoos of penises? What’s wrong with you! You monster. He’s…he’s beaten up…Are you fucking crazy? Help! Help!’
Michelle D’costa is the author of the poetry chapbook Gulf (Yavanika Press, 2021). Her debut novel is forthcoming from Westland (Tranquebar) in 2024. She co-hosts the author interview podcast Books and Beyond with Bound. She was born and raised in Bahrain, and currently writes and edits out of Mumbai. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Litro, Eclectica, Out Of Print, and others. She is an alumna of the Seagull School of Publishing, & the Kolam Writers’ Workshop.