“Hey pretty guy, you got a boyfriend?” the cabbie asks in the rear-view mirror, his eyes flooding its rectangle with that green, bruised light belonging to all the storms I waited for in our Rockland County house, nose stuck to the window, the smell, rise, and whoosh of air squeezing in through the geometry of the screen, while outside everything somersaulted in answer to forces it could not see.
I don’t say that the laminated taxi license has offered me his name, Malik, though he will murmur the gift of it after the long curve home from west to east to the Little India where I live, just off Lexington Avenue. That will happen on my building’s top stair as I am deciding whether or not to unlock the front door, sniffing the musk of him next to me, hearing the cab below us huff because Malik will have left it running, unsure of the “yes” he thinks he wants from me yet certain enough, almost, to insist, leaning in: “I can fuck you and still call myself a man.”
But now, jostling against the back seat, not yet pronouncing the “no boyfriend” he wishes for, I want to tell Malik how I visualize his return, say every six months, to Karachi, to the village-girl he married when she was on the cusp of sixteen, to the three boys she produced for him, who recognize their father only as that man who comes back, the one who speaks too sternly to them in the dark, at bedtime, since he yearns to lie with the near-woman who can’t quite know the man she must call her husband. I wish to say: Safiyyah, your wife, knows more than you guess, and she learns it from the gently waving way in which the waters of the Arabian Sea lap and lick and exercise care for the land, bolstering it, propping it up, even if, millennia ago, all this ground was liquid, heaving. On a few late afternoons, she walks to where the earth ends, while her sister from the village that Safiyyah continues to feel taut in her bones watches over the boys, steams their rice. Turning her head, sometimes, to look back, Safiyyah thinks that the land would rather be aflame than become this element that will always be its origin. More than once, during his many home-visits, when he comes to her later than she has ever hoped, Safiyyah finds another man’s sweat, acrid, dried quickly to a kind of ash, lingering among Malik’s chest hair, in his armpits, on the fingertips he shoves between her teeth as, down below, he pushes into her.
I wish to tell Malik how this preference for burning is the back story of my “no, no boyfriend” that parts, that hefts his lips to the moist W of a smile; that all the men with whom I have chafed and rubbed fire into fact have been outdone by a virus that is its own sort of blazing; that, compelled to burnish, spark, and flare, together we chose cinders over re-emplacement in ancestral waters, just as Safiyyah’s earth would, if it experienced the capacity to choose. I want to describe for him the ways in which my lovers were fevered, wasted, snuffed out by what their blood could only go on carrying, to confess that I remain here, in the back seat of his cab, due to the democracy of latex in combination with my seeing, in the flesh of every man edging close, the ashes that must come after, to add that the irony of envisioning death in all of them has allowed me to escape the wasting and fastened me to the living “no” I was unaware of having chosen.
As the taxi swerves on to lower Lexington, Malik greets it with a hail, though I am thinking of the sudden blazes that shot through those houses neighboring ours in Upper Nyack, under the shadow of Hook Mountain, one late September, when my mother meets me with her car outside the grammar school. She is not going to detail my father’s appetite for the woman with saffron-colored hair, his longing for the tributary veins that collect at the seam above her yellow lashes, his noting their duplicates in a whorl around her ankles, so that the skin seems to forecast what he might claim to be his, if he were to eat her. She is not going to indicate that my father would have abandoned home, wife, child in favor of these alimentary couplings with a personal assistant in his textile firm, had the former not declared; “wifehood doesn’t interest me.” She will not explain that my father stands suspended between the marriage he thought he wanted and a freedom for which he will finally be unprepared or, her belly heaped against the steering wheel, present my brother’s forthcoming birth as proof that something can be made of suspension.
She will, on our drive to the Hudson, brake swiftly at a traffic-signal, raise her right hand, point through the windshield at what she calls the “albino boy,” whose radiance quivers within the crosswalk, about to combust, to restore him to the sky, this generator of heat and air and late summer fires that appear to torch each roof on either side of us.
I rethink that restoration before my building’s front door, unlocking it now, while Malik aims his “take all of me inside you” at my ear; while I touch the meeting-place of his lips with my hand; while afternoon sun descends in angled wands between us, invoking the luminescent boy who tells me that we survive radiating light, without combustion or dispersal, by remembering how the earth that once was water sustains us, its continuity of motion not to be mistaken for seeming stasis, its always moving the “yes” we live by— regardless of our ability to uphold the saying of it.