Siren

Fiction by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

My lover is an ambulance driver. I look at him while he’s sleeping. Sleeping tensely, one might think—except he isn’t tense or vigilant. He sleeps like a baby. This fact of him, that he’s a physical being, more than metaphysical, more than poetic—this fact is far from something I would change. It’s why one day, in Central Square, at Harvest market, I selected him, as calmly and with as much certainty as I would choose a cantaloupe.

I’m in the business of hedging other people’s bets. Convincing a boardroom of white men that their hundreds of millions of dollars are well-spent in obedience of what I recommend. Pretty much blind obedience, for how much they really understand the risks involved, or don’t. Of drugs for schizophrenia (and other diseases they don’t understand). Cognition drugs failing utterly in the clinic, even though chimpanzees given the same drugs can demonstrate that they’ve been made smarter. Better able to build things, to show off the opposable thumbs that make them so much like us.

The white men in their suits pull out my chair and then tuck me back in again. They get me coffee, draw close to hear me. Even praise me with a raised thumb. When I first started my career, as a doctor for pharmaceuticals, I had the trick of speaking in the merest suggestion of a voice, more of a whisp than Betty Boop, so soft that everyone, women and men, had to draw near, had to be intrusive, even. This tactic I learned from a stiff-backed Belgian blonde head of Legal, whose studied whisper was a tactic of power.

Now ten years on, I’m known for talking softly right before I beat subordinates with a big stick. I don’t just carry it. Public firings, nearly as many public dressing-downs. Faced with the choice of being geisha or dragon lady, knowing I have to be these white men’s fantasy—I’ll choose the dragon, now that I have bloomed into a dragon, forty-eight.

My boyfriend is forty and runs marathons when he’s not clocking in for ambulance shifts. He’s never said how he feels when he runs red lights for his job. Or when he brings a person “dead on arrival.”

Hospitals are romantic to us. He asked me out to dinner the first time from in front of a ghostly vending machine that consumed five and ten dollar bills, to the eerily silent gloating of whatever animated the machine and allowed it to keep the gifts it held. David stood in front of the thing, swearing then cajoling. I took off my high-heeled shoe and clipped the thing hard on the side, like I was boxing some underling’s ears.

Nearly purring with obedience, it yielded peanut M&Ms, and the same night, after some effective fucking, more energetic than skillful, in the full truth, David fed me candy pieces one by one, laughing for how sweaty we were and how ill-advised it was to eat such processed things.

I probably earn about eight times what David makes. Though the operative word really is “probably.” Some fair chunk is in stock options for the biotech where I’m the CMO. Chief Medical Officer. Practically doctor for hire.

“Don’t you miss seeing patients?” old doctor-boyfriends use to waste my time by asking me.

David knows better.

One night I thought I must really love him, not just “j’adore” or any of the shiny advert things I like to say, because he looked so thoroughly bored but tolerant of the whining I couldn’t help doing. He was so far from both the “aren’t you guilty” doctoring of my white liberal primary care boyfriends—yet in no way the hypocritical lawyer type who liked to say things like, “As a physician in pharma, you’re saving millions of people, not just the relatively few patients that you as one doctor could see in your lifetime.”

David didn’t spare a dime for all that crap. “We’re sleeping outside,” by way of explanation, he might say, the longest he’d offer when I’d come into the bedroom and couldn’t find the bed.

Probably it didn’t help that I was drunk. But that’s what was expected, that’s what paid. Not only my super-saccharine, passive-aggressive talking so softly in staff meetings—all the while watchful for who looked away or talked to a neighbor, all the better to flagellate them later. It was the drinking with boys too, the knowing glance, the false opening I had to give, as fake as the breasts their wives bought to have a hope of imitating me. I’d had to drink with my boss more than once. Impose selective memory on what he did when he was drunk, which included his repetition of tedious proposals.

David had never been jealous until recently. A month ago, we had the talk, the resolution of which, if you could call it that, was that I’d keep on paying our rent. Then he could save up for a boat at the Vineyard. Nothing fancy, but just enough, he said, to fit the two of us, letting us sail as far out as we could on the ocean.

Then make love there, some people would say. But David knows me well enough to know: I don’t aspire to be one of those people.

Still, even for us, the talk came around at least once a month. Would marriage ever make “financial sense”, I asked him once, but he laughed and just said, “Little one, I know you’re testing me.” It’s not that he’s never had a penny of my wealth. If we go out to dinner, I pre-pay the bill. “Old habit,” I’ve explained to him.

But more often, pretty much any time of night that I get home, David’s made dinner from good things. Roasted fish and tomato. Rice-and-beans he says that he learned to make nice-hot from a Mexican girlfriend.

These mentions of girlfriends aren’t all that few and far between. It’s like the girlfriends all still live with us. Though I don’t mind them staying put here, like winter coats not needed in the summertime. And they’ve been generous, kind-smelling. One girlfriend’s recipes; another’s old T-shirt; a pair of worn-out Keds left by a third I could imagine taking on our boat. These made life comfortable. I’ve had no grudge with them.

White men who found me “always interesting,” like one of them e-mailed after hours, made David territorial. “Who is that guy to you,” he asked once, not as a question, but a threat, warning this guy away, who wasn’t even in the house with us.

“How can you be satisfied without a partner who really engages?” the same guy said. He didn’t know it, but he was already too late. A year ago, we’d met at Harvest in Central Square to “go over his resume”, he said, since he was “thinking of pharma.” He was and is a boring psychiatrist, whose sister was and is the head of Regulatory where I work.

Somehow in this guy’s Internet perusals of my life, and in the half-hour “mock interview” I conducted with him, using my most deceptively Love’s Babysoft voice to skewer his pharma ambitions without his knowing it, the guy decided I “interested” him, perhaps enough for an affair, and definitely more than enough for free psychoanalysis.

“You need stimulation, all the time,” I remember the man saying, as I tried to look polite, because of how good his sister happens to still be at her job, while also, at the same time, training my gaze over the produce department and the check-out line, on some instinct. “Training” is exactly the word I mean, because I was training myself, I realize now, to look beyond, to move beyond, because the full truth of it is, I was attracted to the psychiatrist. He reminded me of my mother, although his sister is a valued employee.

I knew at that moment that the attraction would be deadening. Knew that, quickly, I had to point my life elsewhere. And that’s when I saw David, standing in the checkout line at Harvest market, Central Square.

Since then, this year, David.

Except that shrink still e-mails me nearly every day.

I read the messages he writes, but don’t know how he is, because I haven’t met him since that single lunch. I have deadlines. Perhaps he knows that I have a lover. Not that I’ve mentioned that in my replies to him. Which I send once a week.

But always, the shrink seems like he’s coming for me, whispering cryptic words in three voicemails he’s left for me, over this entire year. Like hear it in the deep heart’s core. Like so sweet and so cold. Like I can be patient. I see his face, as well, when I watch Hitchcock, movies that David doesn’t mind having on in the background while he’s working out. The creepily charming Anthony Perkins scene (before the stab), brings the psychiatrist, who isn’t my psychiatrist, to mind.

Anger and desperation, total lack of confidence but also arrogance, boy-like yet condescending to the Janet Leigh character, saying, “Stay? Stay longer, why don’t you. Stay, just . . . for talking,” and doomed Janet before that asking him, though knowing full well the answer, “Is your life so empty, then?”

The Janet Leigh character is outrageous, a little provoking woman with a soft, sweet voice, and to my pestilent psychiatrist acquaintance, the one I don’t think I can afford to completely alienate, because his sister for sure is going to make it to Executive VP this year, women like Janet’s character, like me, might merit being stabbed.

He’s all right though, not a Norman, harmless, I think. Janet would likely call him “sweet.”

“Why the fuck is this guy calling you?” asks David, finally, to my relief, two weeks after the last time we had “the talk.”

“He’s not a work connection, right?”

I don’t answer. Rumor has it the guy’s sister’s husband is about to be brought in as the CEO, which would mean I’ll have to report to a new guy. To the brother-in-law of the psychiatrist who, let’s call it, has been stalking me.

“You wouldn’t be satisfied with a man who couldn’t understand you,” the man had said, over his business-related lunch with me in Harvest market a year ago, after I’d taken a cab the half-hour ride to Central Square, due west from the house that I now share with David in Back Bay.

David was buying medium-sized cantaloupes, his gaze steady. What I liked most was that he neither responded, nor looked annoyed by, the fat pale tattooed pierced young cashier girl flirting with him. She appeared, from that distance, to be telling him either many jokes or one long joke, and he was patient, simply waiting for his change, playing his role, which was “the customer” that day. Nothing more, nothing less.

I love you according to my bond/No more, no less.

I had no bond to this random psychiatrist, I realized then. There was no bond between us because he made me think of my mother, and not because he thought he engaged me, mentally, and also not because he wasn’t wrong. The mind can fascinate. Including his determination to get inside my mind. Including the kind of thoughts I suspected he had. But I was not bonded to him. I was uncaught, as wild as the salmon David was also paying for, the moment I selected David as alternative.

After I identified David that day, it was easy to excuse myself, to zone out and pretend not to hear that whiny psychiatrist, the brother of a woman whose opinion I care about a bit, when he called out to me words like, “Let’s get together,” and “when is good for you.” I walked with purpose, trying not to seem overt. In the cab I’d paid to wait, I followed behind David, who was driving his ambulance back to the nearby hospital, the very same hospital where the shrink worked, and I think, continues to work.

On the embankment leading up to where the ambulances parked, I had to be careful not to let David see me, or he might think of me as lost. Needy and lost.

As critical as a soft voice that people were forced to shut up and lean forward to properly listen to—that first impression. David’s first, uncritical look at me.

We wouldn’t have ended up in bed that same night, right away, to sate my need, if we hadn’t met cute and independent, even invincible, in the hospital cafeteria.

And so we did, and here we are.

“Do you think I should change my phone number and e-mail?” I ask him now. “I’m thinking about doing that, so that loser will stop trying to call me.”

David pulls me close, more interested, by far, in getting between my thighs than talking now. And proves again the possibility.

That a certain indifference can be a form of love.

That being disengaged can feel quite comfortable, and being engaged, mentally gripped, fascinated, the way I feel sometimes when I read and reread the shrink’s brief, lucid, conversational, descriptive, creative, curious, patiently probing e-mails—well, being engaged is like being engaged.

It’s not being married. It isn’t what I have to choose, or even admit that I want.

 

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About Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Chaya Bhuvaneswar's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Nimrod, The Asian American Literary Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Notre Dame Review, along with several web journals such as r.k.v.r.y., Redux, aaduna, Bangalore Review, and elsewhere. She is interested and in love with poetry, lyricism, moral reflection, racial and social justice, solidarity, courage, and humor (full range, from smirking to giggling to laughing out loud to smiling angrily and plotting insurrections).

Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is online at