Hussain arrives first at Jay’s place. When Dmitri and Dante arrive, he is struck by how big they are and how cool they dress. He makes a note to buy white shoes and to stop wearing socks.
Jay is a gracious host. He has an easy smile and doesn’t talk too much. His living room has lots of plants and a classic Victorian window, through which one could see the bustling life of San Francisco’s Russian Hill district. Jay makes screwdrivers while Hussain introduces himself to the brothers. He feels at ease around them because they laugh a lot, and like Jay, they are not white.
They spend the first drink verifying that they speak a common language: where do you think LeBron’s going to play next year? What did you think of the new Drake album? Have you heard about Jay’s new girl?
Then, an old Jay-Z track plays over the living room speakers:
I’m from the streets where the hood could swallow ‘em / And bullets’ll follow ‘em / And there’s so much coke that you could run the slalom / And cops comb this shit top to bottom
Dmitri and Dante rap it to each other. Dante is black and Dmitri is Poly, but they introduce themselves as brothers. Hussain makes a note to figure out how.
And say that we are prone to violence / But it’s home sweet home / Where personalities clash and chrome meets chrome
“Our pops used to play this on repeat! He basically forced us to memorize it.”
Coke prices up and down like it’s Wall Street, holmes!
Hussain thinks about what he was forced to memorize. An old bearded man would come over on Saturday mornings to teach him and his brother how to read the Quran in Arabic. It wasn’t important that they understood the Arabic, only that they learned to make the sounds. It now seems absurd that he and his brother made indecipherable noises at an old man for hundreds of hours. He thinks about how much better it would have been to have had a teacher to rap Jay-Z with.
“My dad used to make me read the Quran,” he says softly, almost unconsciously. He didn’t really mean to say it, but the filter between his mind and his mouth is blurred now that he has had a couple of drinks. Hussain tells the boys the whole story. Dmitri and Dante quietly calculate how wealthy you’d have to be to pay for a private tutor.
They tell Hussain about growing up in East Palo Alto with the same father but two different mothers. So that’s how that works. At one point they were evicted from their home but still kept up their grades and held down after-school jobs. Dmitri remembers waking up in the dark, going to the bathroom, washing his face, and sleeping on his brother’s shoulder. Dante would brush his teeth and lean on Dmitri until they were both standing in the dark, fast asleep on each other’s shoulders. Hussain thinks of that book about grit that he never read and then takes a sip of his drink.
In what feels like an instant, Hussain finds himself pleasantly drunk in the backseat of a car. Through his purple-tinted glasses, he sees the San Francisco skyline disappearing and reappearing with each hill. He thinks about how time expands and shrinks when he’s drunk. It feels like when he was a child and a summer felt like forever. Now he could get through a ten-hour day of work in a single breath. He heard somewhere that you’ve subjectively lived two-thirds of your life by the age of eight.
“You guys know that you’ve subjectively lived two-thirds of your life by the age of eight?”
Jay turns the music down from the front seat. She couldn’t afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexis.
“What’d you say?”
Dmitri and Dante turn towards Hussain. Behind their dark shades, their eyes are only half open.
“You’ve lived two thirds of your life by eight because time is relative. It’s defined by objects in motion, and so your perception is more real than any universal clock.”
Jay seems to consider this.
“Hey, shut the hell up.”
Dmitri and Dante burst out laughing, maybe more than the situation demands.
“Man, this dude! Jay, what’s up with your girl, for real? Is she made up? We ever gonna get to meet her?”
Hussain takes a drink from a spiked Coke.
Time collapses again, and he finds himself at a summertime soiree on a rooftop in a fashionable neighborhood. He watches a gaggle of white girls sip on wine and discuss their things — are you coming to the beach? Did you try the grilled artichokes? Work is challenging, et cetera, et cetera. Always in motion, always another event.
Watching these girls, some gear turns in his head and clicks into place. Everything he thinks is important is in fact not important at all.
He always thought the distance between him and them could be explained in terms defined by his immigrant parents. Whatever you do, be the best at it. And so even though he dressed shabbily and had a straggly beard and was fat and skinny in all the wrong places, he thought everyone valued success above all, and because he worked hard and would one day be successful, the joke is on all of them. They don’t know who they’re missing.
But at this party, he looks at the girls in the floral dresses, and the tall boys with the big smiles, and realizes that nobody cares at all. Not now, and not ever. There is a different prism through which this could all make sense. Maybe being desirable is first and foremost defined by social grace. The opposite of awkward. But still there was something about them that isn’t quite right. There is something more that creates the chasm, something that irks him beyond simple whiteness that he can’t quite —
“Hussain! Look, there she is.”
Hussain follows Dmitri’s eyes to Jay. Jay is tall and dark and moves with ease, like a jaguar. He slinks his way over to a gorgeous, limber woman, with curly hair and skin the color of milky tea. She rises on her toes and he cranes down, so they can meet midway for a kiss. She is indeed as beautiful as they say.
“Wow. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You ever date someone that pretty?”
Hussain once again finds himself speaking words he intended to only think “Only girlfriend I ever had dated me for three weeks during sophomore year of high school. I remember it was the exact length of a haircut.”
Dmitri again laughs too much. He thinks Hussain is joking. She dated him only because she didn’t know how to say no when he asked. He had just moved from Pakistan and thought he loved her. She told everyone how much she didn’t want to be with him. People could be so mean that way. Or maybe he is too sensitive. He sometimes feels he lacks a standard-issue bubble wrap for his feelings. He grabs his drink.
Now in his twenties, Hussain thinks the real love of his life is a girl he grew up with in Pakistan. She was his neighbor. Even his father, a stern man of few words, loved her. She was there when Hussain turned eleven, and his father decided to teach him to drive. Hussain was nervously adjusting the seat in the driveway, too aware of his father’s looming presence. He knew every stitch of that dark grey suit. Right when he thought he might be getting sick, there was a tap on his window. It was the girl, holding pillows for him to sit on, so he could see over the wheel. She passed them through the window and wordlessly hopped into the back seat.
Namak. Salt. That’s what they were missing. He remembers when his mother dropped him at his Northeast college. She said, “Such good-looking kids. But no namak.” He looks around the party for namak. Dmitri and Dante have it. Their faces are seasoned with scars and and lines, but really it’s that little spark that makes them originals. But he knows their story. How could his mother claim to know who has what just by looking at a person? What does a crease under the eye mean or a crooked tooth or a lilting laugh? He resolves to be more conscious of falling prey to these unreliable heuristics. He sees Jay holding court across the rooftop, sun glistening against his broad smile. Namak? All he sees are glassy eyes, dark pools to nowhere.
One more drink.
The brothers make few friends, but they enjoy themselves just the same. It’s simple things for them, like watching red light bend across the Bay Bridge. They keep an eye on their small brown friend. They agree he is likable. He has a funny way of speaking and is remarkably weird. They agree this makes him someone they can trust. They play a game of beer pong and ingratiate themselves to a group of former lacrosse players. The brothers play rugby, alongside the other giants in their community. People want to be liked by them. Everyone wants a big guy as a friend. Maybe it’s an evolutionary desire.
After the game, they look for Hussain. He looks like he is walking away from a couple of girls. Floral types. They rush over to him.
“Did you just talk to some white girls?”
Hussain looks drunk and greasy. There’s a softness to him, but also something tense and unsettled. He slurs his words. “Nearly. Nearly did.”
The brothers explode again. “You’re hilarious man!”
Hussain wanders on.
Back at Jay’s apartment, Dante carries Hussain over the threshold, like a dad carries a sleeping toddler. They settle him under a blanket on Jay’s sofa. He whispers something about turning up the music. This is something the brothers understand. They need to hear some rap to wash off the Springsteen. I spit that Wonderama shit / Me and my conglomerates shall remain anonymous / Caught up in the finest shit
Jay pours them another drink but doesn’t make one for himself. The three of them sit together, looking at Hussain’s body, listening for his breath to take on rhythm.
Get that type of media coverage Obama get / Spit that Kurt Vonnegut
Dmitri, “So, your girl man. She’s uh, she’s really —“
“Yup.” Jay nods his head, still looking at Hussain. He likes the guy but regrets bringing him to the party. Hussain’s breath becomes regular.
Dante, “So, your friend man. Hilarious guy. Really likes to dr—”
“Yup.” Jay leans back in his chair and changes the song.
I’m lookin in longevity’s eyes / I play with Infinity’s mind / Forever’s my guy
Hussain drifts away, dreaming of the moment when he is finally driving without having to think about it.
His too-serious father realizes what’s happening and starts to laugh. He reaches over and pats Hussain on the shoulder. Hussain looks at his friend in the rear view mirror, and sees her giggle.
He tightens his grip on the steering wheel and roars down the Karachi road, escaping through a loophole in time.