Remembering Rudrakshi Bhattacharjee / by Peter LaBerge

BY PETER LABERGE

Nothing makes us happier than witnessing growth and passion in emerging writers. When we came across a startlingly fresh, unique writing sample from a high school student named Rudrakshi Bhattacharjee in 2017, our jaws dropped, and we knew she had to claim a seat in the program.

We are heartbroken to share Rudrakshi’s unexpected passing at the end of last year, during her junior year at Greenwood High School in Bangalore, India. To pay tribute to Rudrakshi’s extraordinary promise and potential, we have asked her mentor, Andrew Gretes, to reflect on his time working with her, and are fortunate enough to share a short story of hers below.

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On Rudrakshi’s Passion and Drive: A Brief Reflection

BY ANDREW GRETES

Working with Rudrakshi last summer was truly a joy. Her energy and passion for writing were contagious. She’d toss out a spry semantic observation—“I really like the word ‘human’ before ‘urgency’”—and I’d find myself mulling over the line and thinking to myself, Well no wonder that story I’m writing isn’t working; I’ve placed the human after the urgency!

There’s a wonderful maturity in so many of Rudrakshi’s sentences. When I read a line like, “Sometimes she used to think her parents were like characters from different plays who came to rest under the same roof,” the whole drama of being a child (half-offspring, half-spy)—our desperate quest to decode our parents—it all comes swirling back to me and gives me chills. Rudrakshiki’s fiction is littered with such lines.

Her imagination, her verve, and her ability to evoke such human mysteries will be deeply missed. In her writing statement, Rudrakshi spoke of an “intense belongingness” she found in reading the Adroit Journal. I smile at the thought of a young writer reading Rudrakshi’s fiction today and feeling that same jolt of intensity and belongingness.

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This is How It Took Place

BY RUDRAKSHI BHATTACHARJEE

 

           This is how I remember Anthony.                                                                                                                                                             Sentient and aberrant. Curved chin, topaz jaw, hair sprouting out of his bottle-shaped head. Not beautiful, never that, but intriguing. Rising up from beneath the water, his arms on mine, the veins in his neck bulging, like thin green snakes trying to push their way out of his skin. Laughing sometimes; throat quivering, chapped lips and a mouth suddenly penetrable. His laugh has always been a quiet, rustling sound, you could hear it only if you tried. Then he is beneath the water again, absolved, as if he was never there at all.

           I don’t remember how I started cheating on Mark with Anthony but I remember it happened very fast.  I knew Anthony’s apartment address in a day, his allergies (pollen and tobacco sauce) in another, his relationship with his parents (non-existent) in a week. Somehow my life formed a routine. I spent my days with Mark and my nights with Anthony. Comedy shows and then Goddard films. Discussions about Central Park and then the Met. Loud buzzing groups with mimosas and then a solemn bottle of wine.                                                                                                                                                             Sometimes I liked to pretend that they were the same person and that he was just different in the morning and the evening. Two sides to the same person. I’ll never get bored, I told myself. Its like the perfect partner. A two in one deal. I repeated this to myself continuously, in cabs, on the subway, standing on pavements as I stared at the reflection of my face in rain puddles wondering when I had started looking as drained as a rotten grape. They were very similar thought, and this made it easier to pretend. Mark liked his coffee with no sugar, as did Anthony. Both of them loved the idea of winter but realized that a hot summer was easier to bear. They had both been on their school swimming team. Both of them worked in sales, although one was a cashier, the other a regional manager. They could have almost been best-friends. Meeting on the C Train, drinking chilled beers after work, kicking back their feet, and loosening their collar and discussing women and sports. I like to think of them that way: old friends fitting into each other comfortably, always laughing at a joke I had told.

           An example of a conversation with Anthony:

           “We spent our nights on the streets, just walking and looking at the guys selling their paintings. It was beautiful in a way I don’t think I’ll ever experience again.” Anthony pulled at my earlobes the way Mark pulled at my toes.

           “Did you ever buy a painting?”

            Anthony sighed, smoke blew into my face. “We were broke and in college. English majors. We still can’t afford paintings.”

            “You’re not a failure. And you can now.” “It’s almost as if you think I love you because you flatter me.”

“You were young and dumb then, I’m sure you bought some obscure painting. Half a breast, face of a lion.”

            “We were young.”

            We were young.

            Anthony said this often and only when I had not met him for a few days. It was a sore point for him. That he is forty five and I am twenty seven and Mark is twenty eight. I told him it’s scandalous. I told him age looks good on him. I told him I’ll love him when he’s grey. I told him all the things I’m supposed to tell him.

            His eyes gleamed, his fingers jokingly reaching for an aspirin lying on the table because he knew that I knew that later he would rummage for Benzedrine in his bathroom cupboards.

            I wish I could describe the pathos that Anthony’s tired figure evinced from me anytime I touched his pulsing warm body as he talked in a flurry of drunken murmurs even though he had not touched a drop of alcohol. Anthony’s guzzling brown iris dilated, the whites of his eyes disappearing. I was always rapacious with Anthony’s eyes, I imagined myself swallowing them while I lay with Mark.

 

            An afternoon I spent with Laura in a Fifth Avenue restaurant I could barely afford:

            My friend Laura called Anthony the Mysterious Musician even though I told her numerous times that Anthony had never played a music instrument. “That doesn’t matter,” she’d said, “he just has to be the type.” I told her she had been watching too many romantic comedies.

            Laura didn’t find the age thing strange as I thought she would have. But then again, her husband is six year younger than her; she cannot judge. Laura met Anthony once. She said he was gruff and smug and and she made me wonder when I had stopped seeing him in the way everyone else saw him. We argued.

            “But Mark’s so much better for you. He’s so nice.”

            “I think so too.”

            “Then why not drop Anthony.”

            She cupped my face. She thought I liked it when she treated me like her daughter, she thought I had never been shown affection without lust accompanying it. All this analysis from a psych class she had taken in community college more than three decades back. I called her Grizzly Bear in my head and not only because she never shaved properly so she pricked my skin anytime she brushed her legs against mine. “And stay with Mark. I understand the need to break out and try a dangerous thing but its been a year now. I mean I gettit, the literature thing. But he has the personality of a brush.”

            “I’m just enjoying myself.” She petted me disconcertedly before licking the large brownie on her plate and gulping it down.

            As I stared at the thin wrinkles on her face that made it look like she was always squinting and the alarming whiteness of her hair, I wondered why I continually surrounded myself with people who were at least ten years older than me.

            “Just don’t get too attached. What happens if Mark doesn't forgive you?” I didn’t see her much after that.

 

            Places I Have Visited With Mark:

A deli in a street in Chelsea that we found by accident

Coney Island

a Youtube Space Gordo’s Bar

An open mic night at an LGBTQ friendly bar where Mark sang “My Heart Will Go On”

The Strand

Mark’s parent’s house on the Upper East side Staten Island

            Places I Have Visited With Anthony:

His apartment

 

            When I first told Mark I loved him it was because of how he smelt that day. He smelt like detergent and smoked ham. He reminded me of the liveliness of a Sunday brunch and the openness of cafés with rooftop seating. He reminded me of houses with long hallways and mirrors running from end to the other. He reminded me of baby blue walls and bright orange curtains and white fruit bowls and marble kitchen islands.                                                                                                                                                              When I first told Mark I loved him, he bought me a gold pendant. When we fought I gave it back. When we made up, he gave me a new one. This is how it was with Mark. Endless chances and charity donations. A life of two kids, country clubs and a tennis court on which he would let me win if I asked.

            Anthony, I knew I would never marry. It wasn’t even because we rarely agreed or because there were always aching silences between us or because he was always so angry that he needed to chew Benzedrine to sit upright. It wasn’t even because anytime I kissed him I had to pretend I could not taste the sour bite of a previous cigarette or because I never knew what he was going to do until he did it. It wasn’t even the age thing, although I had wondered about that at first. It was because when I told him I was with Mark, he scowled and then laughed and said, “I’m sorry that this has happened. And I’m sorry that I love you as well.”

            Towards the end of my relationship with Anthony and the start of my marriage with Mark, Anthony finally began to share his poems with me. He was like a more callous Allen Ginsberg and sometimes I found him dry and witless. But I liked the idea of having my very own beat poet, tightened and caged and leashed to me. I only seemed to live for the idea of things, I was slowly realizing, I never had any time to give to the reality of situations.

 

            The reason I broke up with Anthony and spent three weeks in misery while Mark rubbed my back, and applied ointment and combed my hair before finally proposing to me was because of what Anthony said once when I told him I didn’t want to choose between him and Mark.

            He said, “And that’s another thing I hate about women. A woman finds a million ways to tell a man he’s useless without having to say it out loud.”

            I told him I always knew he hated women. He chuckled. It was a really ugly, throaty sound. I only thought it was a chuckle because it was easier to think that than think of it as something harsher, like the clearing of his throat. “Even my barber knows that.”

            I told him he was a homosexual. Then I told him I didn’t mind if he was but that I’d known all along.

            “I’m not gay,” he said. “I’ve let you into my house for so long, haven't I?”

            I asked him why he was so angry about Mark. He’d never said anything before. Why was he asking about Mark now?

            “Because I didn’t realize I could until today.” Then I left his apartment, not even turning around once.

            Within three months I was back. It was eleven, I took a cab even though the fare was 60 dollars but with my new name and bank account of Mrs. Mark, I had been promised that money did not matter. We would have to save, yes, but not in the way I had been when I had lived in Brooklyn.

            “You can withdraw and withdraw," Mark had said to me in the way you tell a child he can have as many red toy truck as he wants. “Anything you need,” Mark smiled, and his teeth suddenly seemed alarmingly white to me, as if he had had them removed and replaced with a shinier ivory set he thought would look much better.

            When I spoke to Anthony, he scowled at me the entire time I talked. The hollows of his cheeks gaped at me, his dark eye circles glowered. I wanted to touch his face and feel its bristly edges. I wanted to kiss him right above his chin where he had cut himself shaving. I wanted to scream at him that it wasn't fair that the reasons I had fallen in love with him were the reasons I couldn’t stay.    

            He said, “I did miss you.”

            I said, “I was in Paris. Love and all that.” He said, “My subscription to the Leopard’s Review got over.”

            I said, “I’ll buy you a new one.”

            He said, “Buy me a new fridge too while you’re at it.”

            Sometimes I thought about poisoning Mark while I sat at my desk in the library, making no justice to the managerial position he had got for me. I thought of slipping some antifreeze in the cranberry juice I would give him while we would sit on our terrace, watching the building opposite where Mark wanted to live because it had bigger rooms and a bigger terrace and more floors. I would love him then, I decided, I would be so kind to him that day. I would purr at every joke he told, I would rub his back, I would do all the things he had done for me. I would feel sad, maybe even cry a little once he was dead but the thrill of taking away his life, of being so powerful lit a sort of burning desire in me. My body suddenly felt alive and jocular: it was like I had been reminded that my body was my own and my life was my own and I could do whatever I wanted. It seemed like a tremendous finding to me, this simple thought that I could do what I wanted, that tomorrow I could run away to Bali or throw myself off a cliff because my life was mine. I had forgotten that I had a pulse for so long that now when it became apparent to me once again, I felt it with a such a deep and powerful throbbing that it seemed impossible to ignore it. It became more and more clear to me that I could only love Mark if I was going to leave him.

            This is the way in which Anthony becomes angry:

            First he will shake his head slightly and scoff, releasing a sudden whoosh of air from his mouth. Then he will sit down on whatever is near him, be it a table, a chair, sometimes even the ground. Then he will stare at me, threatening me to continue. I will continue. Then he will look down and close his eyes, and I will imagine that when he opens his eyes again they will glow a violent shade of red and he will sprout out fingers like Edward Scissorhands and slice me into thin creamy pieces of flesh so he can keep me cooped up in some jar he has forgotten to clean in his kitchen.                                       

  But he will not do any of this. Instead: he will laugh, and take me into his arms and I will apologize and he will say, “you do like me, dont you,” and I will say, “not always, not now, maybe yesterday” and he will smile because he finds me funny and I will stay there sprawled out on his chest, chin up, watching his rubbery purple lips murmur something in Latin, and I will say, “why did you learn a dead language” and he will say, “to impress you” and I will not say anything because now in this moment we are in a movie, in a romantic comedy and I can feel nothing except this sort of bubbling happiness because to love and to know that you are loved is enough, its enough for me, and we will stay like this till Anthony’s skin withers away and flakes of his dead skin fall to the floor, and I will stay there buried in his skeleton until that too breaks and I am left with only this memory of him and then I will mourn, mourn, mourn.                                                                                                                  

 

            This is the way in which Anthony tells me he's leaving:

            “I’m going back to Kansas.” He’s eating the maple sugar and honey oats I bought him from CVS, and is picking out the dried raisins because he thinks they look like dead insects. “My mother’s dead.”

            “I thought you lived in Missouri.” “Kansas City,” he growls. “Anyway, I’m leaving soon, my brother wants me there for the funeral to say a few words. And I haven't seen my nephew in a while, so I’ve bought a bike for him. This is pretty much my last day with you. I’ll be home for a while.”                                                                                                                                                              I watch him. He looks as haggard as always with his ruffled hair and his untucked shirt and his blue Under Armor boxers which he has worn every time I’ve met him. But there’s something different, something so out of place it’s disconcerting. He’s grinning. His face looks like those lopsided colorful smiley faces children make with play doh. He looks like Mark. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry to put you through all this. Don’t forget me.”

            “How could I forget a poet as famous as you,” I say and I am supposed to sound bitter but I just sound pathetic. Like I’m begging him to stay.

            He laughs. It is settled.

            When I get back home to Mark, I tell him I have been having an affair for the entirety of our relationship. I tell Mark about Anthony’s retarded brother, his alcoholic sister, his dead mother, his broken cobblestone home, his favorite yogurt shop where he was kissed by a senior girl and the park nearby where his friend was shot. But then I am crying, because I am getting mixed up, because Anthony’s brother might have been a construction worker, he may not have a sister, he might have lived on a farm, and his friend might as well be alive and well and working in Goldman Sachs. I can believe anything I want because I will never know the truth again.

            “Why did you marry me?” Mark says. He is making a sandwich with only lettuce and chunky pieces of cream cheese between the bread.

            “I love you,” I say. It’s like another way of saying sorry. “I love you.”

            “Why did you marry me?” he says again and takes out taco shells from the cupboard. Mark once told me he loves Mexican food because the best days of his life were the holidays he spent with his aunt in Tijuana. He helped her sew when she couldn’t anymore because of her arthritis and in return she would give him Cochinita pibil which he would give the boys near his aunt’s house so that they would agree to playing soccer with him. When he told me this I suggested we go to Chipotle.

            “I am not particularly rich, or handsome, or clever. Why did you marry me?” Mark does not get angry in the way Anthony gets angry. When Mark gets angry he bites his nails, or peels off his scabs or cooks sporadically. When Mark gets angry he does not shout, he discusses.                                                                                                                                                              “Oww!” he yelps suddenly, his fingers have brushed the pan inside which he is making tomato sauce. His iPhone beeps and he flinches in surprise. I cannot think of a life without him.

            Weeks Later:

            Anthony emails me pictures of him with his family. He looks like a child in all of them. He is eating corndogs and making silly faces with his sister. I email him back and ask him if he has found a writing job there yet. He tells me his brother got him a job in construction.

            Your mother is dead, I want to remind his smiling face. But I don’t say anything and I delete his contact from my phone.

            What Mark and I do on Saturdays when we are both home:

            When Mark asks me why I did it, why I hurt him like I did, I am not sure how to respond. He is looks at me expectantly, waits for me to say something like i have so much love that I cant contain it but I disappoint him. I say ‘I’m sorry’ and he says, “I know you are but what am I” and he laughs but he rarely comes home now, he spends all his time in his office or at the gym. Sometimes I go through his phone when he is in the shower, quickly skimming through his messages. So far I am safe, Mark only texts his friends things like account numbers and questions about holidays, there are no women. There is one other text he sends every Friday, where he asks ‘how much’ and the response comes ‘$250 for an ounce of MJ’ and Mark says ‘meet at the location’ but I don’t mind. Mark and I are happy.

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Rudrakshi Bhattacharjee was a student at Greenwood High School in Bangalore, India, and she studied with Andrew Gretes in the The Adroit Journal 2017 Summer Mentorship Program.