I rounded the corner of my subdivision and slowed to a stride as the fatigue of the jog set in. The Texas heat was alive with fury and ready to suffocate those who didn’t take cover soon.
Fifteen minutes of non-stop jogging was my goal. My watch informed me that I had only been running for seven. Instead of collapsing onto the concrete, I balanced my hands on my knees and gasped for air, and it wasn’t until my heart slowed that I noticed an unfamiliar car in my driveway.
I wasn’t able to think fast; the sweat stung my eyes and my body wanted nothing more than to crawl inside an air conditioned room. Slowly my observations started making sense of the scene. The car, a golden foreign vehicle, perhaps ten years old, had a thin layer of dust on it, likely from a long drive. It was early--not the time for a random visitor. Johee would’ve been inside, alone, to greet the stranger.
Instinct told me to quit peering and start moving. I grabbed the morning paper and approached the side entrance to my home slowly, pushing the door just with enough force to step inside silently. The smells were familiar--Johee’s potpourri, fresh toast, and strong breakfast tea--but the sounds were not. There were muffled voices, Johee’s among them, speaking in Hindi, politely. My discount sneakers must have squeaked because soon enough Johee was calling my name.
I entered the sitting area and to the left of Johee sat a middle-aged man in faded jeans and a buttoned-down shirt struggling to maintain its form. He stood up and brought his hands to namaste as Johee introduced him.
“Arun, this is Javed Bhai. He just arrived from Louisiana.” That would have been a three hour drive. He was an early riser, I concluded.
I apologized for dripping with perspiration and avoided shaking his hand. I sat in the armchair across from Johee, telepathically knowing that she would have liked to have put a towel under me.
“Javed Bhai’s family are neighbors of Arun’s parents, and he was driving through San Antonio,” Johee explained in a voice only I would know was reticent. “Arun’s parents gave him our address in case he needed anything.”
I nodded and smiled pleasantly so as not to reveal that I didn’t know where the story was going.
“And what did you need, Mr. Javed?” I asked courteously. “It’s so early.”
Javed shook his head apologetically. “I sincerely am sorry to disturb you so early. I tried to call from the payphone at the gas station but it appeared to have been violated by someone who had just used the restroom.”
Johee rose to pour some tea. “I felt so bad because Javed Bhai drove all the way only to hear that Arun is away.” She handed me a cup and smiled like nothing was strange.
“Aunty and Uncle warned me that Arun was hard to keep track of,” Javed said as he brushed crumbs from his pants.
“Yes,” I hummed. “He is what they call here a rolling stone. He’s been like that since Uni.”
“Well he seems to be a generous friend, allowing you to stay here with your beautiful wife.”
His comment had the charm of a mosquito.
“We will pass the message along to Arun, when he decides to call, that you came to visit him.” A lie to protect rather than deceive was forgivable, I knew all too well.
I prayed that Mr. Javed had to move along and not stay for lunch, as supporting a double life required much energy, and I was unsure how long I could feign interest. A look of relief pass Johee’s face when he said he should leave. We did our obligatory Are you sure’s? and offered to pack him a lunch as he humbly rejected our gracious offers.
After walking Javed to his car and seeing him off to his destination, my mind wandered to a scenario in which Javed saw past Johee’s loosely tied bun and morning clothes and realized that she was in fact Arun. My heart began to race and my bowels loosened thinking he could have attacked us and then would reveal our true identities to our family back home. But then I looked over to Johee, who looked as calm as a Buddhist monk. She always said I tortured myself by wading in hypothetical situations.
She had shaved that morning, luckily. If Javed only knew the disruption and panic he had caused in us through his inconsiderate visit. Who comes without notice this early? The early morning hours are for one’s pure privacy. But Johee’s family and friends were never one for privacy.
I learned that early in our relationship after attending a dinner with Johee’s family. Gracious as expected, they fed me a plateful of food and acted offended when I didn’t ask for seconds. Later Johee--although she was Arun back then; it’s hard to see her as anyone but herself--and I talked politics with her parents, even patting each other’s thighs like good friends do as we lobbied wisecracks. At one point we held hands, and I squeezed hers longer than her family could detect. Across from me her nephew laid strewn across Johee’s brother. The women sat in the corner, away from the men.
Johee and I were school friends, and it was easy to show affection to other men back in the motherland. There, homosexuality was so hidden that everyone acted like it didn’t exist. Now if a man and a woman held hands, they might as well be stoned.
When we got to Texas, we got strange looks for holding hands as men. After Johee transitioned to a woman, our public display of modest affection was greeted with warm smiles.
What a joyous thrill to be able to see Johee become herself. And to be a couple openly relieved so much stress for me that I was able to stop taking my blood pressure pills.
“Why don’t you shower, and I’ll prepare breakfast,” she said. On my way to the bathroom, I heard a car door close. I felt dizzy, as if the floor was tilting. Pulling back the curtain, I see Javed heading back to the house.
I yelled for Johee to put her head scarf back on while I rushed to the door and opened it before he could knock.
“You’re back?” I asked. Javed jumped back.
“I think I left my bag in your living room,” he said. I didn’t believe him.
“Check your trunk first.” Javed looked confused.
“Can I just check to see if it’s inside?”
What if he tries to take pictures? What if he wants to hurt us?
Javed gave me Namaste hands. “I can stay outside. Will you check for me?”
I closed the door, locked it, and rushed to the living room, almost pushing Johee over. Next to the sofa was his bad. I rummaged through it ensuring it didn't have a recording device and then ran back to the door, opened it quickly and tossed it to Javed like it were a grenade. And just as I slammed the door he propped his foot against the base.
His eyes looked wild as if he would go animal at any moment and I felt the blood drain from my face.
“You’re not hurting me,” he said. His words ping-ponged in my head. He continued, “How you live your life doesn't threaten mine. I won’t tell.” And without any more pause, he walked back to his car and drove away.
Johee came behind me and put her hand on my shoulder. “Things are not always what they seem,” she said. “And others are exactly as they appear.”
I looked at her comforting eyes and melted into them. “Let’s finish breakfast she said.”
We went back inside, the smell of brewing tea welcoming us.
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