I always ran into you on the days I least wanted to. You knew how to cut to the core of me, of everyone, of the weak- and strong-willed alike. Your bullshit detector was unsurpassed.
Foolishly, for a time, I thought I could anticipate your moves and quickly learned I would never be fast enough: you were always one step ahead. I tried valiantly to dodge your never-ending stream of inquisitions over standardized test scores, cumulative grade point averages, class rank, college major, graduate school, first job, starting salary, rent payment, home purchase, and potential spouse — I always failed miserably, stuttering, shot down and wounded on topics I would have never even thought to imagine. Like how much my student loan payments were. It always seemed easier to surrender immediately to your poison bite than to fight it and prolong my own demise, snared and tangled in a weak web woven of my own lies.
I always suspected you knew the color of my underwear, how much I’d paid for it and strongly disapproved.
I avoided Indian functions my entire senior year of high school because of you… …This was especially problematic when all I wanted to do was go to the temple to pray I would get into a far-off college to escape your evil clutches.
You were infamous. People in other cities knew you and were warned by their mothers to steer clear. You were a fast-talking, smooth-moving, sweet-smiling hustler. In my opinion, your greatest triumph was that — despite your status as an equal opportunity offender — you were still always invited to everything. But then, you also made the best payasam in a 4-hour radius and used heavy cream in your aviyal instead of just milk.
You remembered and verbalized details with a selectivity that borderlined on humiliating: where I didn’t get into college, what I wanted to be and wasn’t, and the other Indians you knew in my age group that did things better. Your questions were poison double-dipped in sugary innocence. I never realized what I’d just consumed in our conversations until it was too late.
Like Visa, you were everywhere I wanted to be. Once I saw you at the mall on a Wednesday night when I was on a clandestine date with my boyfriend. I pushed him into the nearest Foot Locker as you approached, but to no avail. Within an hour, I got a phone call from my mom asking who I was with, why we were holding hands and how I could have been so stupid. Another time, from the passenger seat of a moving car, you saw me jogging on a local highway and called my parents to let them know you thought it was dangerous. And also that my shorts were too short. I never jogged again.
Your role among your peers oscillated among the aunties between strictly functional and purely ornamental, breezing past both ends of the spectrum with an air of nonchalance so pungent it was rivaled only by your tea rose perfume. You always managed to be assigned a job by My Favorite Auntie that strategically placed you in the middle of the action but that you could also pass off at the drop of a hat.
You lingered. You listened. You smelled fear and attacked.
You missed your calling. As a Guantanamo interrogator, you would have extracted policy-changing confessions; as a CIA agent, you would have been the second coming of Mata Hari. And if the federal government put you on the trail of Osama Bin Laden, it is my personal belief that you would not only find him, but be able to report his SAT score, high school grade point average and record of admittance to Governor’s School.
My whole life I’ve believed that your line of vision resembled the viewfinder of an AK-47. You always had a target and, with the skill of a true gamesman, you never missed your mark. You taught me how to be coy, how to answer questions without really answering and how to play cat-and-mouse with alarming dexterity. The great flirts and politicians of our generation have you to thank.
I’m grown-up now. And independent. And though I have relatively little to hide, I’m still slightly afraid of you. But when I visit my parents, and see children, teenagers and adults alike running away as your silk-shrouded fin weaves through the crowd at community functions, I miss the simplicity of a long ago time when you were my greatest adversary.