by Emma Wunsch
They call each other Obi-Wan-Kenobi-Aloo-Gobi, and Chicken-Vindaloo-Chewbacca I-Love-You, and Sag-Paneer-Artoo-Come-Here, and after Sag-Paneer-Artoo-Come-Here, one of them rolls on top of the other and buries a nose into skin into armpit down to stomach and then, they stop calling each other names for a while.
But first they have early morning math.
Half the class is in advanced and the other half is regular. Since Mr. Petoesky has been teaching forever, he has them correct one another’s tests, which is the only reason Marshall even starts talking to the girl in front of him. Late September, Pyria and Marshall wordlessly switch papers; Marshall gets 100% and the bonus question, but Pyria only gets 42% even with the additional ten points she gets for taking the advanced test since Mr. Petoesky never makes an easier exam for her half of the class.
Marshall doesn’t think much of Pyria’s 42% or his 100%; early morning math meets at 7:10 a.m., the swim team didn’t get back till after midnight, and he’s tired. But Pyria obviously thinks a great deal about her 42% and Marshall’s 100% because when she hands Marshall his test, she looks like she might throw up.
“My father is going to kill me,” she says. “He might send me away.”
Marshall doesn’t know what to say. These are the first words between them. But then he stares at the neat little check marks Pyria has made next to each question on his test and feels strangely bad. “I could help you if you wanted,” he hears himself tell her.
“Really?” Pyria asks. “You’d help me?”
“Sure,” he says. “If that’s what you want.” He hopes she won’t agree because they don’t know each other and he can’t teach any better than Mr. Petoesky. Marshall’s not a teacher; he’s just good at math. His whole family is. They’re also vegetarians and excellent swimmers.
“That’d be wonderful,” Pyria says.
“Oh, Marshall, that’s wonderful,” his mother says, piling squash on his plate. “Make sure Mrs. Rosen puts this tutoring program on your transcript.”
“Mom,” Marshall says, trying to swallow squash that has been baked too long, “it’s not a program. It’s just a girl in my class.”
“Marshall,” his mother sounds serious, “you’re helping another student, correct?”
Marshall looks at his father, but he’s attacking his squash with the overly enthusiastic gusto that indicates he’s not getting involved. “Yeah,” he replies dully.
“So your guidance counselor needs to tell the colleges not only are you going to be ranked in the top one percent of your class, you’re practically the best butterflier in the state, AND you’re tutoring a Chinese girl.”
“Mom.” He wants to tell her to stop talking about SATs and colleges and Alexandra Simmons who he’s currently tied with for salutatorian.
“What?” His mother beams and puts more zucchini onto his plate.
“She’s not Chinese. She’s Indian. Or something.”
But his mother is too busy telling his father that even if Alexandra Simmons manages to become salutatorian since she doesn’t do any of this math tutoring, Marshall will definitely have an advantage if they both apply to Harvard.
They meet before early morning math since the swim team practices till 7:00 p.m. and Pyria says her parents are strict about letting her go out at night. The first morning they meet, Marshall drives to school half asleep. When he gets there at 6:20 a.m., Pyria hands him a muffin from one of the vending machines outside of the cafeteria. “I thought you’d be hungry,” she says. “Maybe you didn’t have time to eat breakfast.”
“Oh,” he says, taking the muffin. “Thanks.” No one has ever given him a vending machine muffin before. He’s surprised and oddly flattered. But this feeling goes away when he discovers that he has nothing else to say to Pyria and he hates himself for agreeing to help this girl. “Do you want to go over the homework?” he asks because it seems like the easiest thing to do next.
She nods and shoves her notebook towards him. He hasn’t bothered to do the assignment since Mr. Petoesky never collects it, but he knows instantly that Pyira’s answers are wrong.
“So…” Marshall says, not wanting to hurt her feelings.
“I’m stupid, I know,” she says woefully.
“You’re not stupid. Math is stupid. Maybe we should just review from the beginning.”
He’s amazed to discover that Pyria has never learned the most basic equations. For some reason, he gets kind of excited as he explains to the wide-eyed girl next to him how learning all the old rules will make everything better. When he looks up, he doesn’t believe that Mr. Petoesky is already scribbling on the blackboard.
During class, Marshall looks at the dented muffin on his desk and Pyria’s healthy, soft brown hair. She has really nice hair, he thinks. His hair, like everyone in his family, is fine and blonde. Marshall sometimes worries, especially under fluorescent classroom lights, that fifteen years of chlorine has made it green.
After class Pyria asks if she can copy Marshall’s notes.
“Sure,” he says even though Pyria’s notes are much neater than his. “Do you want to meet again?” He’s surprised that he’s offered to tutor her again so quickly. Maybe he should tell his counselor.
“Yes. You’re so nice.” She grins and he wonders if his hair looks less green now that they’re in the hall.
He eats the muffin walking to his next class; it’s much better than he imagined and he wonders why he has never thought to buy one.
“If you can just breathe less,” coach Jim says, tapping a kick board, “then you can get there.” He shoves a stopwatch under Marshall’s nose. “All you have to do is practice, practice, practice. Swim, swim, swim. Shave off that 1/36th of a second, you’ll beat the record. You’ll do it,” he says, hitting the kick board so hard it falls on the floor.
“Yeah?” Marshall replies lifelessly. He’s the only one who’s had to stay late and he wants to get in the shower so he can use the fancy chlorine-free shampoo he borrowed from one of the girls.
“You know what I think?” Coach Jim lowers his voice. “You beat the record and I bet you’re a sure thing at Harvard. Even if you don’t beat Alexandra Simmons.”
At his coach’s insistence he goes to extra early morning practice for the next two days so he can’t meet Pyria again till Friday.
“How long have you been going here?” He asks her when Mr. Petoesky comes in.
“Since freshman year, same as you. I went to Newton for junior high.”
“You did?” He had no idea that he’s been in school with Pyria for the past five years. “That’s where I went, too.”
“I know,” she says shyly. Then she tells him that she moved from India when she was eight, lived with relatives in Canada for a year, moved to Florida, and finally up here when she was twelve.
“What are you doing this weekend?” he asks when their teacher looks at them from the top of his Math Counts! mug.
“Probably nothing. As usual. What about you?” she asks with forced cheerfulness.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Not much.” This isn’t true. He has a swim meet, a party, and he promised his mother he’d go over The 50,000 Most Common SAT Words even though he did almost as well on the verbal section of his PSAT as he did with the math.
She smiles like she knows Marshall is lying. “My parents are really strict. They hardly let me do anything. Not anything normal.”
“They don’t know how it is. They moved to America to have all these opportunities but then they don’t let me do anything. Except study,” she says.
“Me too,” he tells her even though it’s not exactly true. Good grades and extraordinary aptitude test scores are simply expected in Marshall’s family. It’s normal. Like swimming. Something they all just do.
“What makes it worse,” Pyria continues, as if Marshall hasn’t spoken, “is that my brother, Karim, always had good grades. He’s in medical school.”
“Grades aren’t important,” Marshall says.
“Not for someone like you.” Pyria’s tone is matter of fact and Marshall realizes that although he hasn’t known Pyria existed for the past few years, she knows all about him and for some reason, all of a sudden, he feels incredibly embarrassed by his academic and swimming records, sitting with a girl from India who tells him that she’s only allowed to go to the mall when her cousins visit from Bayonne.
At the meet that afternoon, Marshall beats Harry Martin but loses to Seth Blackwell and everybody has something to say about that. Coach Jim talks his ear off the entire bus ride back and when he finally gets home, his mother has a million things to say, too. After a lifetime, he’s allowed to shower. He uses the salon shampoo his sister left when she went to college, but when he looks in the mirror not only does his hair still look slightly green, it feels like hay. Is it worth it? All this swimming? Marshall touches his hair. But he can’t spend long brooding because his best friend, Fred Jacobs, a backstroker, is honking outside. Fred doesn’t want to talk about the meet, but the party they go to isn’t much better. On his way to find the keg, Marshall overhears two sisters talking about splits, but can’t figure out why the numbers are so large. When he asks, the sisters laugh.
“Not swimming splits,” one explains, “SAT splits.”
“You know, when like you have a seven eighty math and six fifty in English. That’s a hundred and thirty split, which colleges don’t like.”
“So we hear,” the older sister says, putting a Princeton mug filled with vodka back on the table.
Then, the second Marshall leaves the split sisters, he runs into Leslie Jane, a nosy, slightly manic, slightly hyperactive girl in his class. Marshall, like most of his friends, finds Leslie Jane incredibly annoying, but never questions why she is always around, at every single party.
“Should you be drinking during training, Marshall?” Leslie asks.
“It’s one beer,” he tells her glumly. “It’s Lite.”
“Yeah, well, I’m sure Alexandra is having one too, wherever she is,” she replies sarcastically.
Marshall’s tempted to remind her that he, like everyone else, knows that she was left back in second grade, but decides to take the moral high ground and goes to find Fred. He wonders what Pyria would think of the scene—all these smart kids puking on their hooded Ivy League sweatshirts, comparing SAT sob stories, silently calculating one another’s GPA and final ranking. She’d probably think it was weird. Maybe it is, he muses, watching a boy with a Cornell baseball cap kiss a girl in a Swarthmore tank top. But when he finally finds Fred, he finds the scene more depressing than strange. Between bong hits, Fred reads aloud from the host’s guide to colleges. “Dartmouth,” he shares through a cloud of smoke, “gets three stars for its condiment bar. Harvard, though,” Fred pauses to pass the bong, “only has two.”
“You do love mayonnaise,” a freshman tells him through her coughs.
At that, Marshall tells Fred he’s leaving and has no choice but to get a ride home with Leslie since she’s the only other person going home so early.
Early the following Monday, Marshall happily eats the muffins Pyria has given him. These muffins are not from the vending machine but are homemade and although she swears she followed a recipe, Pyria’s muffins taste different, slightly spicy. Marshall likes Pyria’s muffins; he’s pretty sure they’re the best muffins he’s ever had.
“Who’s that?” Pyria points to Marshall’s tee shirt.
He looks down. “This? It’s R2D2. Don’t tell me you’ve never seen Star Wars?”
“Really? I don’t know anyone who hasn’t seen Star Wars. I mean it’s like….” Like what, he wonders? Like a girl who spent the first eight years of her life in India? A girl whose parents don’t let her go to the movies or parties? Marshall and Pyria might be in the same math class in the same suburban high school but there are worlds between them.
“I’m a freak.”
“You’re not a freak. I mean not for not watching Star Wars. Maybe for other reasons.” He smiles so she’ll know that he’s kidding.
“How many times have you seen it?”
“Too many too count,” he says, sliding his arms over the page of equations. “At least a thousand. Definitely saw Empire that much.”
“A thousand?” Pyria’s large eyes grow larger. “You saw a movie that many times?”
“Sad but true. In fifth grade, Fred and I watched Empire Strikes Back every day after school. At least twice on weekends. When we weren’t watching it, we’d recite it to each other, line by line.” Marshall shakes his head at the memory.
“Oh,” Pyria says. “Didn’t your parents think it was weird to watch the same movie every day?”
He shrugs. “As long as we did our homework, they didn’t care.”
Pyria sighs and looks at the day’s equations Mr. Petoesky has put on the board. But Marshall doesn’t feel like talking about math yet.
“Empire is the best.” He looks at her. “Of the three. You should see it, you have to. ‘Asteroids don’t concern me, Admiral. I want that ship, not excuses.’”
“Empire Strikes Back,” Pyria says seriously.
“We could watch it sometime.” He looks at her. “I have the trilogy.”
“I don’t know. My dad gets like weird about stuff like that.”
“I could just lend it to you or something,” he says quickly, not believing that he has just asked Pyria to his house. This was supposed to be a one-time extra-help session and now they’re spending most of the time talking about movies she really should have seen.
“It’s not that I don’t want to,” Pyria tells him, “but my dad is strict.”
“Right,” he says. “Your dad.” He imagines her father, a tall Indian man with a long beard talking like Darth Vader: study or I will destroy you. Or maybe Pyria’s dad is like Yoda: study good for focus, he would say. No study no good. Dark side no study.
“Yeah, my dad,” she says curiously, looking at him with her deep dark eyes.
But two weeks later, when Pyria gets an 81% on a test, she tells Marshall that her dad’s away and her mother says they can meet after school for a change.
“You only have practice right? Maybe we could go to the diner when you’re done,” she says excitedly.
“Yeah.” Marshall tries not to sound too happy. It would be weird for him to be happy about helping her.
While Mr. Petoesky drones about infinite statistics, Pyria hands Marshall a note: R2D2? Tonight? Electric pricks dance around his fingertips when Pyria’s hand grazes his. Marshall scribbles back: Luke, go to the Dagobah System. There, you will learn from Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed me.
“Let’s skip the rest of the day,” he tells her as they walk into the hallway. “Let’s watch Star Wars at my house. Now.”
“Cut?” she repeats like he said rape, murder, and pillage. “Cut our classes?”
“Yeah.” The early November rain is smacking the sides of the school and Marshall can imagine nothing better than curling under fleece blankets and watching Star Wars. With Pyria. “Nobody’s at my house.”
She looks skeptical.
“You’ve never skipped a class have you?” he asks accusingly. “Come on. It’ll be fun. You have nothing to lose. I’ll drive you home right when school would get out.” It’s strange how badly he wants her to come over.
“I don’t know,” she says, but he can tell she’s weakening.
“We’ll study,” he concedes. “After the movie. We’ll like, review for the SATs or something.”
He finishes the SATs with time left over. He knows he’s done well, could feel the right answers emerge as he went through it. But Pyria is struggling; even though he’s sitting three rows behind, Marshall can see lines of increasing worry deepen and line her face.
“Shit,” she says when she finally leaves the auditorium and finds him in the hallway staring at the collection of athletic trophies in the glass display. Who were all those people, he wonders. What happened to the fastest swimmer 1952? The guy who jumped the highest in 1977?
“I really blew it, Marshall. It was so hard.”
“You did better than you think,” he says, looking away from the trophies.
She continues to shake her head as they walk through the school and into the parking lot.
“We’re going to the diner,” Fred yells from Leslie Jane’s car, which is overflowing with people. “I’m starving after that bullshit.”
“Want a ride?” Leslie asks.
“Nah, I drove,” Marshall says. “I’ll, uh, meet you there.”
Leslie and Fred stare at him before peeling out of the lot.
“Your friends seem nice,” Pyria tells him.
Marshall shrugs. “They’re okay.” But not as nice as you, he wants to say. And not as pretty. They’d never make me muffins. When did he start thinking she was pretty? How did he not notice before?
“Well, go with your friends, go eat. You must be hungry. You’re always hungry.” She laughs.
“I’m not hungry.” When Marshall looks at Pyria his stomach knots like it does before sectional races.
“No,” he replies firmly and finally, after all these weeks, moving toward her.
It’s amazing that somewhere between trigonometry, the 500-meter relay, all the talk about SATs, ACTs, and Alexandra Simmon’s GPA, Marshall is pretty sure that he has fallen in love with the Indian girl in his early morning math class.
He thinks about her all the time, imagines she’s swimming alongside him. Coach Jim says he needs to strengthen his lungs, so Marshall does seventy-five meters underwater, then one hundred; at one hundred and fifty he starts thinking about air, but he won’t come up, not now, not yet, not with Coach Jim pacing the length of the pool, tapping a kickboard, watching him. Marshall thinks about Pyria, how her eyes crinkle when she smiles, the smell of her hair, the way she laughs at his terrible jokes. He’s swum two hundred meters now, but he’s going to keep going, keep thinking of Pyria, his girlfriend whom he loves more than anything, and when he can’t take anymore, when he’s done two hundred and fifty meters completely underwater, Marshall will burst to the surface sweating, burning with love.
Then, just when things are so good, when Alexandra Simmons misses a week of school because of stress, and he beats Seth Blackwell, and his hair seems to be a lot less green, things get even better because Pyria’s parents go to a wedding in Toronto and her brother calls to tell his sister that he has the flu and can’t come home to watch her.
“I promise I won’t tell mom and dad,” Pyria tells Karim before she hangs up the phone. She walks over to Marshall who is looking at an enormous photograph of her family in India. It’s the first time he’s been in her house and he’s not sure where he should sit, where he should go. The picture is more than a foot long and the only decoration on the Cherin’s white walls. “I had sixty cousins when I left India,” she says. “I probably have like a hundred now.”
“Yeah?” Both of Marshall’s parents are only children and when he stares the millions of relatives that surround seven-year-old Pyria, it seems amazing and outrageous to be related to so many people. The older people, presumably her grandparents, don’t look like they know how to smile, their mouths are taut, their brows furrowed, skin creased and wrinkled. It’s crazy, he thinks, that nine years from the moment the picture was taken, the oceans between them could carry Pyria here.
“So, what I think,” Pyria says softly, “is that you should stay here. Tonight.”
“Tonight? I have a meet at six.” He looks at his watch.
“Skip it,” she says in a lower, deeper voice. “You’ve never skipped a swim? Cut a meet? What do you have to lose?” Pyria asks, pulling his index finger.
“You can’t tell anyone,” she tells him much later. “Not about any of this.”
“About math?” He grins. “Your atrocious inability to divide trigonometric equations? Your top secret muffins?”
“Marshall,” she says softly.
That’s all it takes. His name in her mouth. He pulls her on top of him, wanting to swim back into her soft brown thighs, wondering how to fight the urge to shout that he’s in love with Pyria Cherin. Until Pyria, he thought he’d want to shout about the sex, about finally getting to do it, but what he feels is heavy, deep, and almost quiet. It’s like being underwater, but with waves of flesh and fingertips.
Next thing he knows is that Pyria is whispering in his ear.
“What?” He can’t believe he fell asleep.
“I dreamt you were drowning.”
He isn’t sure if it’s morning or still night. “Yeah?”
“Drowning,” she says again. “We were somewhere far, with all these swimming pools, lakes, and rivers. We were walking together, but you kept falling into them and drowning. I tried to pull you out, but you were heavy. You kept sinking.” Pyria sounds afraid.
He puts his arms around her. “I love you.”
“I wasn’t strong enough to pull you out.”
“I’m a really good swimmer,” he whispers. “Do you know I’m like 1/36th of a second away from breaking the record for 100 meters of butterfly? Do you know how little 1/36th of second is?”
“My whole family,” Marshall continues, talking faster and louder, “are like amazing swimmers.” Why has he started talking about his family, the first morning he is no longer a virgin? “Maya and I started swimming before we were five. Not little kid stuff, but real laps. We went to a competition in Hawaii when I was nine.”
“Why?” Pyria asks rather sharply.
“Why did your family swim laps all the time?”
Marshall pictures his family swimming, all their races, awards, math IQ’s, and M names. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “I’m not sure.” It’s weird, he thinks, that around Pyria—Pyria whose father doesn’t let her go the mall or talk on the phone, Pyria who until three weeks ago didn’t know who R2D2 was—everything about his family seems absurd. Lying naked next to the girl in his math class, Marshall wonders if maybe it’s his family that’s different, foreign, strange.
“Who’s the girl, stranger?” Maya asks, swapping mashed turnips for the Tofurkey.
His sister is home for Thanksgiving.
He gulps sparkling cider. “What do you mean?”
“Apparently you’ve been loopy for weeks. Mom says you missed the meet against Shelton High, that you hover around the phone, go outside to talk.”
“So what’s the deal? Who’s making you so freaky?”
“Nothing,” he says, taking an enormous mouthful of scalding turnips.
“Yeah? We’ll talk,” Maya laughs.
But they don’t end up talking because the phone rings just as the squash pie is being served and it’s Pyria, calling from her uncle’s in Tenafly, to say she misses him and wanted to hear his voice and since the women are washing the dishes and the men are watching TV, she doesn’t think anyone will notice that she’s gone.
“No one will notice,” Marshall says and they stay on the phone till his family goes to bed and ice cream congeals on his pie and he falls immediately asleep, dreaming that he and Pyria are in a pool with an enormous graph that Coach Jim keeps telling them to stand on.
He is going to tell Maya about Pyria, but when he finds her the next morning, she and her new boyfriend, Ryan, are stretching in preparation of something called a power run. Since college, Maya has stopped swimming and started running.
Marshall wonders if it has something to do with her hair.
His sister and her new boyfriend run for a long time and when they come back they hole up in her room for an exam they supposedly have to study for.
Marshall can’t help but wonder if Maya and Ryan are doing it and since he doesn’t want to think about his sister doing it, he thinks about doing it himself. He masturbates and calls Pyria but hangs up when her dad answers.
At dinner Ryan compliments his mother on the leftover Tofurkey. “I’ve only been vegetarian for like two months and I miss burgers, but Maya says it gets easier.”
His mother beams. “It will certainly get easier. We’ve been vegetarian for so long we don’t even think about meat anymore. Right?” She looks at her family for confirmation.
“Sure,” Marshall says.
But he’s lying.
“Dhuaan-Daar Murgh, which is chicken with garlic and tomatoes and stuff. This is lamb curry and this is dhania fish.” Pyria opens plastic containers from her parents’ freezer and puts them on Marshall’s desk.
“Danka for the Dhania,” Marshall says. It’s not even seven, but he’s starving.
“Refrigerator,” she says as he dives into a second container. “Garbage disposal.” She touches his stomach. “Swimming makes you so skinny.”
He swallows a piece of chicken, savoring the way the heat remains on his tongue.
“Maybe I need to swim,” Pyria says. “You eat so much, but I’m fat and you’re thin.”
“You’re not fat.” He puts down the plastic fork into the now orange stained container, slides his hand under her sweater, and onto her belly. “You’re beautiful.”
“Round,” Pyria says, “I’m round. I got big hips.” For once it doesn’t seem to bother her that he’s being affectionate in school.
“Perfect. You’re perfect.”
“And you,” Pyria replies, “if you were in the compactor with Han Solo and Luke and Chewy, you would eat all the garbage.”
He is immensely pleased that Star Wars has been such a hit.
All during Christmas dinner he longs for Indian food and picks at the meatless loaf on his plate.
“Are you sick?” his mother asks.
He shakes his head, gets up, and dumps his food into the compost bin. Maybe he is sick. He wants Pyria so bad he can almost taste her. He’d be happy just sitting with her in an empty classroom looking over math equations. Anything to be near her. Why is her dad so fucked up? It’s so unfair. Ryan is with Maya under their organic tree and seeing them together makes him miserable.
Later, when Pyria calls to wish him a Merry Christmas, he reminds her to tell her parents about New Year’s.
“They can’t stop you from doing everything,” he says. “You said they brought you here for opportunities. It’s an opportunity.” An opportunity to be together, he thinks, even if the party is at stupid Leslie Jane’s house. “Besides, who will you kiss at midnight?”
“No one, probably.”
“There’s not some other guy is there? Maybe you have a dozen boyfriends and you say your dad is strict so you can see all of us.” He laughs but she doesn’t say anything. “Pyri… I’m joking.”
“You don’t get it, Marshall.” She sounds angry. “You don’t understand. They expect so much and they can’t see it any other way. They can’t imagine any other way. And Karim is perfect—”
“No, I’m not, but I don’t even know that I even want to go to college, right?” She’s talking louder and faster than he’s ever heard her. “But my parents can’t even imagine that. It’s like people living on Pluto or something. My grades might be shitty this quarter and that’s not the plan. My parents’ plan is that their children go to good colleges, get good jobs, and when that’s all happened, my father will talk to a friend who has a friend in India and soon there’ll be a guy whose parents know my parents and you know….”
“Marshall, this is how it works.”
“Where does it work? Here? India? Where do your parents think you live, Pyria?”
“It’s complicated, Marshall.”
“It doesn’t seem complicated. Not with some guy destined to show up to give you little Indian babies because that’s what your families agreed. The only complication seems to be why we’re wasting our fucking time when it’s so mapped out.”
“Well?” Marshall asks.
“I don’t know,” his girlfriend whispers.
He hangs up.
Screw it. He’s sick of Pyria. He should get a new girlfriend, one whose parents let her go to parties, talk on the phone, watch movies. Maybe he should call Alexandra Simmons. They could go on power runs together and he could convince her to become a vegetarian if he let her be salutatorian. He doesn’t give a shit about his fucking rank anyway. It’s stupid. Swimming, school, meat. The whole thing is ridiculous. All that matters, really matters, is Pyria.
They live in New Jersey for God’s sake. Not some third-world country where women can’t show their faces and men have to have beards. It’s an injustice that he can’t have a normal girlfriend, a normal relationship where he might eat dinner at his girlfriend’s house every once and a while. He walks into the living room where the members of his family are looking at textbooks. Are they actually doing math problems for fun? How crazy are they? Not as crazy as Pyria’s family, that’s for sure. At least Marshall can drive his car, go to the mall, skip a class or two. Problem is, without Pyria, he doesn’t want to do anything at all.
He walks into the kitchen and eats a carob-chip cookie. How could he hang up on Pyria? What if she hates him? Maybe he deserves it. Maybe he shouldn’t convince her to skip classes to hang out at his house. It can’t be helping her grades, he knows, but when would they ever be together? Between her father, his swim meets, and a million other stupid reasons they’d never get a chance. Shit. Okay, if Pyria forgives him, he’ll chill out, he won’t pressure her to stay on the phone when her father walks into the room and he won’t try to convince her to skip classes. He’ll be better, he has to be.
Several hours later, he’s staring at the phone, wishing for her to call so hard that when it rings he doesn’t fully believe it.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I’m so sorry. I love you so much.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I’m sorry. I love you so much. I shouldn’t have hung up on you. I feel terrible.”
“But I shouldn’t have said all that stuff. It’s not your fault that my parents are freaks. I don’t know.” She sighs. “I just have to deal with it. I just hope my grades are okay. My dad said something about sending me back if they didn’t improve.”
She laughs. “India, I don’t know. He just gets angry sometimes.”
“India.” Marshall thinks of the long photograph in her house. Those old women, wrinkled and squinting, the men with the long beards. “That’d be crazy. That’d be so far away.”
“Well, you’re a really good swimmer.” She forces a laugh. “Anyway, guess where I’m calling from?”
“Where?” He feels really nervous all of a sudden.
“Bed,” she pauses, “and I’m naked.”
“My brother bought my parents a cordless phone for Christmas. Isn’t it great?”
“Yeah,” Marshall says feeling like he might explode from love and relief.
And in a way he’s kind of relieved when he returns to school in January and hears Leslie Jane telling someone that she heard from someone who happened to be in the principal’s office that Alexandra Simmons is going to be salutatorian after all.
“She got a lot of studying done when she had her nervous breakdown,” Leslie tells Marshall before class starts. “You’re being punished because you’re mentally stronger. I heard she has tutors for everything anyway.”
“Yeah?” Marshall says, happy to see Pyria walking in. “Tutors aren’t so bad. I don’t really care. Rank doesn’t really matter anyway.”
They call each other Obi-Wan-Kenobi-Aloo-Gobi, and Chicken-Vindaloo-Chewbacca-I-Love-You, and Sag-Paneer-Artoo-Come-Here, and after Sag-Paneer-Artoo-Come-Here, one of them rolls on top of the other and buries a nose into skin into an armpit, and down to stomach, and then they stop calling each other names for a while.
But first they have early morning math.
And before math starts, Marshall is going to ask Pyria to the junior prom. He tells Fred about it on the way to school. He tells Fred everything about him and Pyria, and why he hasn’t been hanging out. Fred is mostly pissed that Marshall hadn’t told he wasn’t a virgin anymore.
“It’s April,” Fred practically screams, “which means, that for what, five months you don’t tell me, your bestest friend?” He punches Marshall playfully on the shoulder.
“Yeah, well…” Marshall squirms. He promised Pyria he wouldn’t tell anyone, about any of it, and he hasn’t until now.
“Well okay, buddy. I thought something was up anyway. Anyway, I don’t know Pyria, but like she seems nice and all. Quiet.”
Not when you get to know her, Marshall thinks. When you know her, you know that she talks a lot and laughs a lot and knows exactly when to hold your hand.
Fred pulls in the parking lot. “Hey, maybe we can share a limo since I have to go to the prom with Leslie since neither of us have dates.” Fred scowls. “Think she’ll sleep with me? Not that I want to or anything.”
Marshall grins. “Not a chance.”
And everything is back to normal.
Except Pyria’s not in class.
She’s not there Tuesday either.
“Are you sure I haven’t had any calls?” he asks his mother when he gets home.
By Wednesday he is frantic and calls after math and again after biology. He lets the phone ring twenty-nine, thirty, fifty-one times as he mentally makes his way though her house, past the gigantic TV, maroon couch covered with plastic, and the shelves in the pantry with jars of spices he has never heard of.
“Do you want me to call her parents?” his mother asks.
“No.” He doesn’t ask how she knows it’s a her that he’s upset about or why she hasn’t said anything about him being home instead of at swim practice. It’s a ridiculous. His mother on the phone with Pyria’s father? It’s absurd, but it gives him an idea.
Ryan answers the phone in Maya’s dorm. “What’s up, Mars Man?” he asks enthusiastically.
“Nothing,” he replies briskly. “I need to talk to my sister.” He knows he’s being rude but can’t really care.
“Marshall?” Maya sounds surprised.
“I need you to do me a favor. Right now. Call this number. Gotta pen? 738-3195. Ask for Pyria.”
“Yeah. Say you’re in Pyria’s math class. Tell them you have to talk to her, tell him, it’ll probably be her dad, tell him it’s important that she get the info.”
“Pyria,” his sister repeats. “Math class. Important homework information.”
“Yeah. Maybe say something about a test. Do it right this second, Maya. And call me right back.”
After he hangs up, he walks around his room, stands in all the places Pyria stood, then sits at his desk. Sometimes, after sex, Pyria would sit at his desk and study. He’d watch her, fascinated by the way her shoulders folded in her back when she sighed, how the ends of her hair curled slightly.
“Come back to bed,” Marshall would say. “I miss you.”
And sometimes, if he said it enough, if he whined, got out of bed, and put his arms around her, she would.
Shit, why hasn’t Maya called? Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe she’s talking to Pyria right now, learning that Pyria’s been sick with the flu that’s going around and has been too weak to pick up the phone. Or maybe her father found out about him and won’t let Pyria use the phone anymore. If that’s the case, it was really smart that he had his sister call because now Pyria is explaining that she’s going to stop living with her mother and father for a little while. Pyria is telling his sister that Marshall should come pick her up because she’s going to move in with Marshall’s family, teach his mother how to cook curry. That Maya has not called back is a good sign, Marshall tells himself. The phone rings.
“Weird,” his sister says. “A woman answered but when I asked for Pyria, she didn’t say anything. Then a young guy told me Pyria wasn’t there. But he sounded unsure.”
“The father got on, then. I know it was the dad because he sounded like one. So I told him I was in his daughter’s class and that there was a really important test, but he said Pyria would not be taking the test. He thanked me for calling and hung up.”
“That’s all? He didn’t say anything else?”
“What’s wrong?” Maya asks. “Is this your girlfriend? Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“I have to go,” he tells her, having difficulty getting the words out and breathing.
“Marshall?” His mother stops him in the hallway. “Where are you going?”
“I lost something.”
“Is this about the rankings? Alexandra? I wondered when it would finally hit you.”
Marshall shakes his head. “Nothing hit me,” he tells her, “something disappeared.”
He drives to her house even though he knows he won’t be able to ring the doorbell. What would he say? What can he do? Even in New Jersey, with a 3.997 GPA, and the state record for 100 meters of butterfly, there are some things you can’t do. It’s too late for Marshall to do anything but drive. His tank is full so he can drive forever. No, not forever, he thinks. If X= the number of miles and Y= the amount of gas, then Z= the number of hours. Or is it circles he’s supposed to be measuring since he’s been driving in circles round and round Pyria’s house. Slow down, he hears Pyria say, I don’t understand, I don’t get it. When Marshall slows down, he sees that to go all the way around Pyria’s house, he must pass three stop signs, seven houses, and six two-car garages. 3+7+6+2, Marshall thinks. He can add it all up, all night long, round and round till it’s time for school.
All this, Marshall decides, as the sun comes up, is just another math problem.
And since he’s always been very good at math, he goes to school and sits in Mr. Petoesky’s classroom without a book or calculator or pencil until Mrs. Rosen appears and Mr. Petoesky motions to keep busy and quiet.
A few minutes later, Mr. Petoskey slides back into the room. “Class,” he clears his throat. “I have some news. One of your classmates will not be attending anymore.” Mr. Petoesky clutches a textbook that presumably Mrs. Rosen has given him. “Pyria Cherin,” he says, like knowing the name of a student who sat in the front row for seven months is something to be proud of.
“Where is she?” Leslie Jane asks.
“Apparently she’s gone home.”
“You mean her family moved?” Leslie glances at Marshall.
“Apparently, Pyria’s family sent her back to India. Where they’re from.”
“Did they go with her?” Fred asks.
“I take it from Mrs. Rosen that the rest of the family is still here.” Mr. Petoesky shifts back and forth on the balls of his feet. “In New Jersey.”
“That’s crazy,” Leslie pronounces. “You can’t just send someone back. People don’t get returned to foreign countries.”
“Well, I’m sure we’ll miss her. Meantime there are still negative diametric angles. Page 221, please.”
But Marshall doesn’t have his book so he stands up and walks to the door.
“Where are you going?” Mr. Petoskey asks him half-heartedly.
Marshall shrugs, opens the door. How can he know where he’s going when his whole life has been spent going back and forth in a box of water? Back and forth was just going back and forth and no matter how quickly he went from one side of the pool to the other the distance never got him anywhere. He looks past the rows of metallic blue lockers reflecting on the freshly waxed linoleum floors. It is an ocean, he realizes, which means Pyria was right the whole time. All this time, Marshall only thought he was swimming, but now that he finally knows how wrong he’s been, Pyria is much too far to save him.
Emma Wunsch lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two young daughters. Her fiction as been published in The Brooklyn Review, Lit, J Journal, The Best of the Bellevue Review, Inkwell, and Fugue. She is currently writing a young adult about mental illness.