Shishir - 2023 Stories - Reena Kapoor


American Chopsuey

By Reena Kapoor


Lopa’s already at the baggage claim. I see her anxiety in the way she turns her body to check all the exits in her sight, looking for me. There’s something different about her.

I remember the first time we’d met. I’d noticed how tall she was, despite her slight hunch. In those days in India she’d tower over most, scaring boys and men in particular. When we became friends, I’d pressure her to stand up straight, “Stop apologizing for being tall. Let the guys tremble!”

That’s it! She’s lost the hunch. Somewhere in the last decade she’s overcome the habitual apology she once embodied. I guess we’ve all changed in ways we didn’t predict.

Yet I can still read her anxious self-talk: Did she forget my flight time? Or got caught up in something? Can’t be... She’s always there for me. Yes, I’m always there for her. Like I was when Raghav left. I’m the one who helps her navigate back. Point the path ahead.

Lopa sees me. We wave madly, rush over and embrace. Sisters from tears and fears witnessed over two decades. She knows more about me than necessary to acknowledge. Now I let her see me when I choose. But she’s seen my lows. Especially the one particular low we don’t mention anymore. When I was ditched. Yup. Like being shoved into a ditch; and then being unable to get up, or even get out of bed. For days on end.

We were in college, in Delhi, in the girl’s hostel. Most college students lived in hostels, which is what college dorms are called in India. Quite unlike American college kids who can rent off campus housing. The only “off-campus housing” available to us then was our parents’ home, if they happened to live in the same town; or an aunt or uncle who’d accommodate us in the name of family, while charging our parents above market rent.

For the rest of us, the hostel it was, along with hostel food from the single option kitchen, which offered carelessly, spiced goop passing for lentils or vegetables of various ilks. We ate our meals in the mess - the communal dining room for students in the hostel - where the goop was served.

Finding a sly hair or two in the goop was not uncommon. On one particularly bad day, someone found a cockroach. We avoided the mess that day. A few girls whined that even if a cockroach was found, why was this fact shared broadly? Such sharing spoiled everyone’s appetite. Most of us agreed. Compromise was the key to survival.

When I was ditched, I refused to leave my room. So at mealtimes Lopa would bring me a plate of food. Like the mess food, my days became indistinguishable from one to the next. Except for when Lopa would run out to bring me American Chopsuey from the Chinese food truck that occasionally stationed itself outside the campus gates. This was a dish we both loved, its greasy and unwholesome origins notwithstanding. Besides it broke the goop monotony while cementing our friendship.

Peppery noodles with shallow fried vegetables finished with a mysterious desi tarka. We assumed it was a poor facsimile of something with forgotten roots in China. Claims were made - and lightly believed - that an itinerant American had brought the dish to India.

But in America I discovered that even that was a lie. Here American Chopsuey was a pasta casserole made with ground beef, macaroni and a seasoned tomato sauce! So a bastard dish adapted out of recognition to fool whichever regional palate it encountered. Genesis unknown. The comfort food of a friendship which is neither authentic nor challenging.

Last year when she was in Delhi, Lopa tagged me in a photo, of a sizzling platter of it, on Instagram. Bless her though, she’s never as much as mentioned the despair I felt in those days. Thankfully I came out so much stronger from that time. Nearly unbreakable. Even my father’s passing was tearless. My father had always done too much for too many. And too many wailed for him when he went. Why cry when suffering ends?

As we hug, I sense Lopa’s relief. Something’s up. She’s crying. I hold her away to ask, “All ok?”

She nods, “So sorry about your Dad.”

I nod. We hug some more.

I look up to see a man watching us. Indian? Pakistani? Indian. The fraying red threads on his wrist. Hail Mary equivalents, to counter whatever the traveling fates may bring. Brimming with curiosity. Our age? He looks older but with that prosperous paunch it’s hard to say. I stare back at him. Takes him a minute to look away. He looks back to see if I’m still guarding my moment with my friend. Finds my stare and pretends he’s reading signs behind me. Indian men! Really better off without them.

My mother used to cringe at my mouthing this opinion. She wanted me “settled”. Like my three “fully settled” sisters as she loved to declare. All three in desiccated marriages with self-soothing platitudes and performance monkey children. My child does this, my child can do that...

But I scared off the few suitors my mother surreptitiously arranged for me to encounter. Much like the “fake encounters” that Indian police are often derided for: mete out justice in a land where it escapes all too often like sand from a tight fist. My foul mouth, as my father used to call it, came to my rescue. That was then.
Lopa and I stare at the baggage belt that hasn’t started to move. She apologizes. “Sorry! I should’ve brought a carry-on. But I wanted to bring you something…”

“It’s OK,” I say. “How was the flight?”

“Good. Southwest is the best…”

“Ugh! I hate Southwest - the way they board. Like cattle...”

She laughs. She almost never openly disagrees with me. It’s comfortable this way.

I harbor a lifetime of opinions. Feminism. India. Men. Politics. All of it. At any given time I’m only a breath away from expressing them. I don’t regret it. Who’ll speak up if women like me don’t?

The luggage belt shudders to life. A wave of humans surges forward like a tide for the moon. A great heave-ho to collect our literal baggage. I feel a shove on my left and see the same Indian man.

“Excuse me!” He offers with an ingratiating smile. “Sorry! I need to leave A-S-A-P… Emergency!” he claims, spelling it out. Liar.

“Geez!” is all I say and turn away.

Lopa’s nervous laugh begs me to let it go.

We stand back from the belt and wait. The Indian man is soon nowhere to be seen. Banished, like the rest. Good! Whatever it is with me and Indian men got worse after the ditch. The shock and horror of being the ditch-ee. Truth is, the romance with Sunil had lost its luster. I’d started to wonder how long I could stand it. But then Sunil got ahead of me in the ditchers’ queue. Afterwards he wouldn’t tell me why.

I’d thought my mother would be upset for all the wrong reasons. But she’d soured on Sunil. His prospects weren’t ambitious enough. Any suitor had to have it all. A family man who’s successful yet savvy in a corrupt world. Someone she could be proud of materially, emotionally and intellectually. Who could get there? Sunil failed her tests miserably.

When he cut me loose, I felt relief, then curiosity, and finally anger. What reason could HE possibly have? That he wouldn’t tell me was the last straw. Coward. Typical Indian man. Eventually I got over the hurt - mostly in the five years during which I met my ex-husband, married him and let him go - much to my mother’s dissatisfaction. Poor woman departed waiting for my grand “settling”.

I suddenly realize Lopa is lugging her bag off the belt by herself. I rush over to help, “Sorry!” She gives me a smile - already forgiving me. We head to the parking lot. Finally we’re home. She’s been here before but she looks around. For signs of what, I wonder. We’ve both been through our own journeys of separation. Raghav left her and I offloaded my ex. We’re both better off.

I help get her bags into the guest room. I go to the bathroom and I can hear her setting up in the room. I come back and she’s staring into space.

I ask, “Penny?” But she just laughs.

“Shall we go out to eat? I’ll make your favorite rajma-chawal tomorrow?”, I offer.

She loves that comfort food of Punjabis - red beans and rice. She’s Gujarati but grew up in Delhi. Delhi culture is Punjabi culture. And no resident is immune. The Delhi-fication of her palate was complete long before we met. When we met she told me how much she loved our Delhi-Punjabi food. Who knows its exact origins or even when it was invented given the multi-layers of invasions and sackings and migrations the city has assimilated. Another comfort food of our friendship.
Lopa nods, gets off the bed and looks for something in her handbag. Her hairbrush. I go to the kitchen. Soon she follows with her hair brushed and lipstick on.

I stare at her, “I’ve stopped wearing make-up. Just done with all that. Who for?”

She laughs, “I’m enjoying it.”

I’m surprised at her soft objection. She follows me to the door as we lock up and head to my car. We arrive at Queen House in Mountain View, a Chinese dive for old times sake. We laugh, wondering what they’d bring out if we asked for American Chopsuey. We bond on how the peppery taste from that truck still teases our memory tongues.

“The things we did! That’s one I don’t regret”, she says and rapidly looks away.

Puzzled, I ask, “What do you have to regret?”

She just shakes her head. We dig into the food.

“Did you ever think we’d both be here, still connected, both single again AND not looking…”, I ask.

She spits nervously, “I’m dating again!”

I give a little laugh, “Really? Who? White guy?”

“No, “ she says, “desi...”

I’m dumbstruck for a bit. “Who?”, I ask, trying to absorb my feelings.

She laughs, “Met him online, dating site. Actually, met again.”

“Again?” The back of my neck is heating. I need to understand this. Be generous! Don’t say a word. Listen.

“Don’t know if it’ll work or go anywhere this time…”, she offers tentatively.

“This time? What do you mean? Thought we… er… you were done! And another Indian man? Who’s he?” I sound more angry than I like.

I try again, “After Raghav, how can you …?”

She looks at me, “Raghav was a blunder. I couldn’t have made it without you…”

“I guess I’ll be dying alone!” I declare. My eyes are feeling prickly. I hate it.

She places her hand on mine on the table, “Never! I’m always here for you…”

“I’ve always been there for you!” I abandon any pretense, “Then WHY?”

She looks unhappy and astonished, “I, I just want a life partner...”

“Really??!!” I exclaim. “Why? Haven't we both been through enough? How much more evidence do you need? Sunil alone should have taught us both what scum Indian men are…”

“Sunil was OK”, she’s refusing to look at me.

She sounds unrecognizable to me. I rush, “What’re you saying? He’s the guy who left one morning, giving me no explanation. Never had the courage to man up and talk to me that assho…”

“You were going to dump him anyway?”, she cuts me off.

I pause, “What?”

“Actually, it’s Sunil I met again, online. I’ve been wanting to tell you…”, she stumbles.

I’m standing up now, pulling out cash from my wallet to pay the bill. Lopa grabs for my hand, “Stop. Just listen to me…”

I snatch it away and walk out. She signals to the wait staff and follows me. I’m walking blindly. I can’t recall where we parked. I walk up to a bench and sit down. She sits down and puts her hand on mine. I shake it off.

“Listen to me. You’re the first person I’m telling. Please…”

I raise my hand. She stops talking.

“How long ago? Why’s he looking? Thought that jerk would’ve found a slave of a wife.” I laugh, “Ha! Maybe he has..” I spit.

“Sunil always wanted to tell you what happened…”, she continues, ignoring my insult.

I look at her daggers, “Tell him to never come near me.”

“OK, but can we talk?” she begs.

I look at her, “Why’re you crying?”

“I betrayed you!” she says between sobs.

She’s not making sense. But I guess this feels like betrayal. And I know she’ll come back whining to me.

I get up, “Let's go home. Where did we park?”

She follows me. I find my usual parking lot but I’m lost. I hold up my key to unlock, listen for the sound of the car to locate it. I hear a soft beep and head in that direction. We get in. I start driving.

Once we’re home I go to the bathroom to breathe. Yes this feels like a betrayal. I’ve stood by her, shown her how to get out of the Raghav mess. Did my advice mean nothing? How could she? She’ll learn when Sunil treats her no better. She’ll go into years of depression. I’ll be called at all hours of the night and day.

Good thing she sees it as a betrayal too. She’s been dating after her divorce with Raghav and hasn’t told me. Just weakness. That lifetime imprinting. Marriage, marriage, marriage. But I should be gentle. Breathe in. Breathe out. Remember I’m the strong one. She needs me.

I walk out of my room. She’s standing in the kitchen, drinking water. She turns to look at me. “You OK?” she says.

“Yeah. Let’s talk. This is a…” I offer.

She braces, “There’s something else…”. She comes up and faces me, “I want to come clean. I want to tell you everything.”

I move away from her. “I get it. You want to date and you want to marry again. Go ahead but I just want to warn you of what happened with Raghav. And for me with Sunil!”

“But you wanted to dump Sunil anyway.” She insists.

“Yes, but I would’ve done it differently. Owned up to it, told him why. He ghosted me. Refused to tell me why! What kind of scum… coward does that?”

“No. Sunil’s a good man! A very good man.” She declares with sudden defiance.

I stare at her. She stares back.

“I need to tell you what happened..” She says.

“I went on dating sites a year ago. I came across Sunil’s profile. I’m the one who reached out. I wanted to make amends…”

“What?!” I listen carefully. “What for?” I pull out a dining chair and sit down. “Are you confused?”

She sits down in another dining chair across from me. “Sunil dumped you in college because… well… because of me. He and I … we got together.”

“WHAT!!?!!” I’m standing up now. The back of my neck burns! “What’re you saying?” I stop. My heart is beating so fast I have to sit again.

Words pour out of her. “It just happened. AFTER you told me you were going to let him go. I thought he was a nice guy. But there was nothing between us until … The seniors' farewell night you got drunk and nearly blacked out. Sunil and I brought you back to your room. He and I’d been drinking too. He came to my room to sit down for a bit. And it just happened. I was so ashamed. I told him to never tell you. He wanted to see me again but I told him I’d never have anything to do with him. I made him he broke off with you but kept his promise. It was all my fault!”

My hands are ice. “Get out of my house.” I tell her calmly.

She’s crying, “I had to tell you. When I met Sunil again I realized I still had feelings for him.... ”

“GET OUT of my house! NOW!” I motion to the door to ask her to leave. She sobs.

She goes to the guest room. Reassembles her belongings and is soon at the door. I haven’t moved. She stands at the door where she can see me, “Can we talk in a few days?” I don’t answer. I hear her Uber coming. She softly shuts the door and leaves.

She’ll come crawling back. She’ll need me. She’ll be betrayed. Or she’ll shrivel up like my sisters. Love, they all claim. Just fear of being alone. Not for me.
I walk to the guest room. There is something large and flat on the bed. Looks like a framed photo. I walk over. It’s a framed collage of photos of us over the years. Double matted, professionally framed. Would have been perfect above my desk.

It bears a caption: “The American Chopsuey Sisterhood - 1992 to Eternity”.



Reena Kapoor from U.S., grew up all over India as an “army brat” and that wandering sensibility is reflected in her debut poetry collection Arrivals & Departures. Reena’s poetry and fiction has been published in The Bluebird Word, Discretionary Love, Potato Soup, Ariel Chart, 433 Magazine, Literary Yard, Tiny Seed, Visible, and India Currents. Four plays by Reena were produced by EnActe Arts in 2021. Reena has also been a Citizen Historian with The 1947 Partition Archive collecting oral histories from witnesses of India’s Partition, for over a decade.


Our Contributors !!

Some of our writers!

  • We occasionally invite writers to send their musings. Do send in your work, and we will host it here.
  • Do visit the Submit page to submit your work.