‘Why are you smiling?’ he said.
‘Nothing.’ I shook my head.
‘Listen,’ he said and placed his hand on mine. ‘You have to apply. Too many Indians come to this city and get overwhelmed. Don’t be underconfident. You can do it. You will.’
‘Thanks. And you will win Under Armor,’ I said.
‘Cheers to that,’ he said and we lifted our water glasses. The waiter arrived with our food—chicken noodle soup and vegetable fried rice. The soup seemed a little too bland for my taste. I stuck to the fried rice.
‘You aren’t having the soup. You don’t like chicken?’
‘I eat meat, but I prefer vegetarian,’ I said.
‘I am vegetarian too,’ he said.
‘I am a Bengali. For us, fish and chicken are vegetables.’
Both of us laughed.
We chatted through dinner. He told me about his parents in Kolkata. His father owned a printing press. It didn’t really make much money now. His mother stayed at home. Debu grew up dreaming about being a painter. He settled for commercial art as the practical choice. His parents had saved enough to send him to do a course in design and arts in the US. He secured his current job through campus placement.
‘Advertising sounds cool,’ I said, ‘that too Madison Avenue. Best place to do it in the world.’
‘It’s not as cool on the inside. There’s constant politics. The money isn’t great. I have been lucky to work on good campaigns. However, juniors don’t usually get much creative work.’
‘I am sure it is not just luck. You must be really good.’
He looked at me and smiled. He ate with chopsticks. I tried but failed. Mini-me told me not to make an ass of myself and use a fork and spoon. I complied.
‘Thanks for the compliment,’ he said. ‘Dessert?’
I saw the menu. It had choices like sweet red bean pudding and tofu ice cream.
‘Red bean pudding?’ I said. ‘What is that?’
‘Rajma,’ Debu said. ‘Rajma kheer of sorts.’
‘Yuck,’ I said.
‘Chinese desserts are not famous. There’s a reason—they suck,’ he said.
‘Bengali desserts are the best,’ I said.
Debu’s chest swelled with pride.
‘Bengali men aren’t too bad either,’ he said.
Did he just flirt with me? Is this flirting? Am I supposed to respond with something clever?
‘As sweet as their desserts?’ I said, one eyebrow up.
See, I can flirt back. Nerds can flirt.
He never expected a comeback. He took a second to take in my response.
‘Why don’t you try and find out?’ he said.
That’s enough, Radhika, this is going into dangerous territory, I told myself. Deflect, change the topic, fast. You don’t want to be judged as a slut on the first date. See, this is what I do. When I am with a man, I behave like I am sitting for a test. Answer the question properly. Act naïve as if I don’t understand his double meaning. Don’t just be. Perform.
‘Don’t know about the men. I’d love to have a rasgulla though,’ I said, my voice as innocent and dumb as possible. ‘Alas, this is Manhattan.’
‘Fear not. We Bengalis have left imprints everywhere. Would you like to go to a rasgulla place?’
‘Here? Now? In Manhattan?’
He nodded and smiled. The bill arrived.
‘Should we split?’ I said and took out two twenty-dollar bills.
He thought about it for a second.
‘Actually, no. Can I treat you this time?’ he said.
Isn’t that what dates are? I said to myself. But then, what about gender equality?
‘Why?’ I said. ‘We can split.’
‘No,’ he said as he took the money out of his wallet. ‘It’s not that much. You can buy the rasgullas.’
Debu and I took a yellow cab to 28th Street and Lexington Avenue, in an area called Murray Hill.
‘It’s also called Curry Hill,’ Debu said as we stepped out of the taxi. I could see why. Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani restaurants dotted both sides of the road. Some resembled roadside dhabas back in India, complete with bright tubelights and plastic chairs.
‘Is this even New York?’ I laughed.
‘It’s Midtown Manhattan,’ Debu said. ‘You like it?’
‘I love it. In fact, you could have just brought me here first.’
‘Darn, wasted money at Tao. Didn’t realize you could be a cheap date.’
Date. He used the word date. I am on a date. I felt thrilled at the prospect of being on a date. Even if at a ramshackle parantha shop called Lahori Kebab.
‘Can we have a parantha?’ I said.
‘Huh? Didn’t we just eat?’
‘I am Punjabi. Rice isn’t dinner.’
We walked into the shabby but brightly lit restaurant. Debu ordered two tandoori paranthas with gobi stuffing inside.
‘Green chillies on the side, please,’ I said, my mouth salivating at the prospect. I noticed four seedy-looking Indian guys in the restaurant. They wore neon construction-worker jackets. I caught them staring at my legs.
Yes, finally I have an audience for all that effort, I said to myself.
‘Let’s sit down,’ Debu said as he noticed the workers.
Nobody has ever checked out my legs, I wanted to tell him. Let me enjoy the moment. Oh well, better be the good girl, you exhibitionist, mini-me said.
The restaurant had Indian desserts. Post-paranthas, we had two rasgullas each.
You better skip lunch tomorrow, mini-me said, there is no point in waxing fat legs. Elephants don’t wax, do they?
‘I love how you eat. You are enjoying this,’ Debu said to me.
‘Sorry. I haven’t had Indian food in weeks,’ I said.
He wiped my lips with a tissue. I smiled at him.
‘There are a couple of Indian restaurants in Brooklyn too, where I live,’ Debu said. He was referring to another borough of New York, south of Manhattan.
‘You live in Brooklyn?’ I said. Most of my Goldman class planned to take apartments in Manhattan. They considered Brooklyn too far.
‘Yeah. Told you. Advertising is glamorous only on paper. They don’t pay. That’s the only place we can afford a decent apartment.’
‘We as in?’