Vinita took her last drag from the stolen cigarette. From under a tree outside the salon, she watched the morning ladies as they passed. She felt proud of how much smoother her own skin was, and how much flatter her stomach than theirs, even though she couldn’t tell if any of them had given birth, and she wouldn’t have judged their bellies if they had. But none of them here walked holding the hands of their children. These women paid others for doing the morning’s school-run.
“You really shouldn’t smoke here,” one of the women muttered, making brief eye contact with Vinita before walking on.
Being this close to so much money made Vinita want to smoke. She’d made sure that the purse she lifted the cig from was not only designer, but well-stocked, with packets of nicotine gum bursting from one of the pockets, so she could tell herself that by stealing she was helping the owner. Vinita wasn’t one to lie to herself, though. What she and Marco were planning had nothing to do with helping anyone. Maybe it wouldn’t even be a way to help themselves. But they were in it now; she’d taken the money. Now they had no choice but to finish it.
Later it would be tempting to offer up reasons like: “My father had a stroke and we needed to pay for a home-nurse” or “Marco was frightened that he’d be deported, because his visa was expiring in a month.” These were facts but weren’t exactly excuses. The real fact, the one she allowed herself to enjoy as much as the cigarette, was if they pulled it off, Vinita would never stand on this street corner again.
In this city, what counted for a city in this town, this single street that substituted for city streets that were riotous, out of control, lavish with loud inequalities, on this staid Newbury Street, Vinita had spent the past year hating herself but saying, in her mind, how much she hated everyone. It gave her flickers of amusement, sometimes, to think the words, “I hate you all” as she was smiling the smile that her boss Leo swore ‘guaranteed gratuity.’ To think those words while all along saying some comforting “mm-hmms” and “really?’s”, while Vinita settled some stressed-out customer in the deluxe manicure chair.
The regulars paid for manicures daily. Then on the way to the Common, stopped at the N’espresso store for coffee, nothing more, probably liking the absence of pastries, distractions. Then to the Taj Hotel, just near the park, for champagne brunch or a meeting. Maybe dressed down in new-looking jeans, high heels, sleeveless blouse under a blazer, if the woman was on the executive team of a biotech or pharma company or even one of the younger hedge funds or venture capital set-ups that had their unpretentious offices upstairs in some shop building on Newbury. God forbid, nothing too fancy.
But Leo. Leo’s name a jinx even to think.
Leo said Vinita looked a lot like Rachel Roy. The designer? The pert Indian girl born in the US? The one linked to famed black sportswear entrepeneurs, though her own parents were Keralite Christians, just like Vinita’s. Rachel with her ‘good’ straightened hair, which Vinita copied. Rachel the rumored “Becky with the good hair” from the Beyoncé video about Jay-Z’s cheating. More than once, Vinita imagined herself photographed like Rachel in a recent glossy W Magazine spread, draped in white silk, pushed down onto a couch with her young husband’s muscled and naked back showing. Like Leo’s back.
Vinita’s smoke-break was well-timed. A customer she loathed was just leaving. Soon three more women came to take that idiot’s place on a backbench. It wasn’t her obesity Vinita detested. It was the way the woman once accused Leo of stealing. That was a few years ago, under the previous owner, who’d thankfully let go of the whole thing when Vinita saw the supposedly missing gold chain dripping from the customer’s pocket. The thoughtless woman, who’d fallen asleep during her pedicure, had just forgot that she herself put it there to keep it safe. The woman grudgingly apologized without looking directly at Leo, gone on about the necklace having ‘sentimental value,’ but Vinita took it as proof.
That these people deserved to have things taken from them.
That perhaps it could be justified, how, using hacking skills she’d picked up in college, in much different circumstances, last night Vinita stole forty thousand dollars from this nail salon franchise’s overseas bank account.
Vinita’s boss – “don’t call him Leo,” she told herself, in her mind – was still away, still on a planned two-week vacation to a spa in San Francisco where he would be without Internet or cell phone until next week. His absence meant Vinita was unofficially in charge, overseeing the receptionists and front desk, making sure there were fresh flowers and water jugs containing lemon and lime slices within customers’ reach. Her boss was now the franchise owner of this nail shop, one in a chain. The others were in malls in Chicago, Detroit and Oakland.
Places Vinita knew she and Marco would have to avoid going to, once everything was all played out.
There were only seven or eight hours remaining in this day, her last at work if all went as planned. The normal routine to get through, including non-suspiciously taking her lunch break at around one, to bring her boyfriend Marco a sandwich like she often did, then come back with a bag from the dubious Indian “street food” restaurant, which would make her calling out sick tomorrow with “stomach problems” reasonably credible, giving her and Marco about an extra six hours to disappear, and to make sure that the metadata changes she’d made, so it would look like hackers in India were the ones who’d stolen the money, didn’t contain any mistakes.
Like checking over work before turning in a school exam. Like catching glimpses of others’ papers, whenever she could.
The owners of the nail salon franchise were rumored to be related to the heirs of a Malaysian syndicate. But far from being brutal overlords, these remnants of the pre-Mao Triad system didn’t interfere with the salons. The night Leo, drunk, told Vinita about the syndicate, she’d promptly looked up “Asian gangs” on Wikipedia. The salons, like other shell businesses, were where the syndicate supposedly laundered money. There was nothing visibly different about the franchise “miscellaneous expenses” bank account. Despite the accounts being set up as channels for illegal profits, their passwords had appalling security. The previous owner of the franchise, a chubby, comfy Mrs. Jairaman now retired to India, where she was from, frequently browsed non-secure bargain Indian websites, ordered cheap decorations from New Delhi cottage industries, and even used Indian Independence Day and her own birthday for the account login passwords. Every so often, a good-looking, slick-haired Indian male “relative” would come to visit Mrs. Jairaman, chatting about the weather with Vinita when she brought him tea. Then he’d leave with heavy looking leather briefcases.
The old laptop that Mrs. Jairaman had left behind in a closet, discovered by Vinita one day, still opened into the record of the bank account number and location when “Jairaman” was typed in, which Vinita tried doing once, long before the thing with Marco, simply out of curiosity.
“All I was hoping was to confirm the old biddy looked at porn,” Vinita said, showing Marco the printouts of the accounts past balances. Its maximum was in the tens of millions, she noted; its fluctuations, by week, varied by as much as four hundred grand.
“No one would ever notice, like, forty thousand,” Vinita said.
But Marco didn’t bother going there with her. He never even brought up having money, more accurately not having enough. All he said, looking at the papers with their tiny, narrow columns was, “Damn, am I lucky my girl’s a math person. Our children will be geniuses.”
Now Vinita had to hold onto the scheme for both of them.
Back inside now from her smoke break, pouring fresh water into the pitcher at each of the stations, Vinita mentally rehearsed the steps again.
At one pm, two and a half hours from now, she’d walk the four blocks down on Newbury, toward the direction where suburban commuters got on the Mass Pike.
Newbury Comics was very close to that Mass Ave end of the street. That was where she’d first met Marco almost a year ago. He’d surprised her by not looking at the usual vaporizing villains and big-breasted women kind of things, but actually reading Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese graphic novel. Very different than the ‘zap ‘em’ and ‘shazzam!’ stuff Vinita herself happened to be buying.
While Vinita waited her turn to get in line, Marco – barrel-chested, black-eyed, shaggy-haired with his soft beard – was staring at her from over the top of the novel he was finishing while standing up. When she saw the title and smiled, he hadn’t seemed to realize he’d already earned a thousand points toward getting her in bed.
“My ex-girlfriend was from Beijing,” he’d told Vinita, in a voice of needless and sheepish apology. “I just couldn’t deal with all her gambling. She even took her teenage sons out to Foxwoods. And no matter how I tried, I couldn’t love her food. I’m Mexican.”
Hesitant, he’d tried out Spanish on her, and Vinita answered, near fluent, admittedly a little formal, remembering her AP courses in high school Spanish. The ones she’d done in homage to the actress and lifestyle blogger Gwyneth Paltrow, who’d once lived with a host family in Spain.
Marco, chuckling, said he’d stick with English.
“Your parents came from India, didn’t they? Doctors or something, right,” he’d told her, like he knew this as a fact, though neither of her parents were doctors, and in fact there were no doctors in her family.
“Your eyes. Indian eyes,” he’d said. Like those two proofs that she was beautiful made it impossible for thirty-year-old bohemian Marco not to fall for Vinita.
Marco was a softie, no question. Vinita wasn’t going to think he was a wuss, though, not today. When for twenty-four hours, about two months ago, the two of them believed she was pregnant, Marco and not Vinita was the one crying his silly and impractical tears of happiness. Naming their daughter and praying out loud that she would have Vinita’s eyes.
Why he was so sure the baby was female, before it existed, she had no clue, except Vinita suspected it had to do with Marco being a poet. How else could one explain his joy in accidentally fathering a child with Vinita, who at that point he’d only been dating for a month?
Despite Marco’s deadening day job as attendant for one of the Early Bird Special! parking lots on Newbury, his mind remained both starry and suggestible. He still sent his poems, English with crucial Spanish words, the sound of which Vinita admitted she liked, to little magazines that she’d never heard of, nowhere that paid him actual money. Though he submitted poems widely, every week.
Marco could have stuck with it, writing poems eternally, for all Vinita would have cared. Probably, she would’ve become bored with him. She would have moved in with Leo. Let her cool boss be Damon Dash to Vinita’s beauteous Rachel Roy; get her nails done, like Rachel did, so she could scratch up his velvety skin. She would have broken Marco’s heart, left that old sentimental screw-up to languish.
But both their lives, Vinita’s and Marco’s, were going to be completely different now, maybe because of how zoned out Marco was on poetry.
All changed, “changed utterly,” Marco repeated, on the morning of the Monday of that week, and here it was the Thursday with only days before Leo’s – before her boss’s – return. Leo had somehow earned Mrs. Jairaman’s trust. He was the one responsible now for maintaining and securing the syndicate’s money, Leo was the one thugs would come after and punish, if those criminals did discover the paltry but still missing forty-grand.
The men of the syndicate were criminals, murderers, pimps, Vinita reminded herself. No different, except in sophistication about skirting punishment under the law, from any of the hedge funders and their wives on Newbury. Both types of criminals were people who should be stolen from.
Leo, the name she shouldn’t say. Leo the one who’d smiled so sweetly at her, when Vinita, looking through Paper Magazine, lingered for a while on an old photo of Madonna visiting Malawi, holding a beautiful black child Vinita hoped the pop star had adopted legally.
“Vinnie, let’s go and make us one of those,” Leo said, squeezing her shoulders.
Damn Leo for always being involved with someone else. For not seeming to care when she started dating Marco, as long as it didn’t stop her from going out with Leo too, for drinks, when he wanted. For never answering his phone in front of her, but always checking it for texts, for sexts, chuckling. Diversified.
“Decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse,” Marco had muttered, over and over, after the episode Monday, when he had almost killed a child. He hadn’t been drinking – he never drank. “Kills the brain cells I need for writing poetry,” Marco always said, when Vinita wanted to go out for a few beers. But that morning, Marco was distracted, there was no denying it.
Marco had been working on a new poem in his head. That was allowed, but he’d made the error of getting behind the wheel while daydreaming. The three-year-old son of some corporate vice president, a blond boy actually dressed in seersucker, Vinita saw from the newspaper photo, had nearly been hit when Marco had started to back a black Land Rover out of its space too rapidly. Marco hadn’t thought to check below, behind. The child was standing, unseen, watching God-knew-what. Maybe composing a poem too.
No harm was done, per se, the child quite startled by the black behemoth moving sudden and heavy toward him, not stopping, as if seeking him, the mother having to snatch the boy away, but the boy’s mother was nervous, a wreck for how she’d been texting on her cell phone and not holding his hand (“Probably sexting some tennis pro she’s cheating with,” Vinita said). The mother said Marco was “dangerous,” and now that Back Bay white woman was threatening to have Marco fired. And deported.
The woman’s famous portfolio manager husband hadn’t even donated to the RNC. Vinita checked his campaign contributions on the Internet.
“It’s the Trump age, what can you do,” said Anthony, Marco’s boss at the parking lot. A tall, mournful-looking man from Ethiopia, Anthony had sympathy for Marco, but just so much. Anthony hadn’t said anything when Marco pleaded, somewhat desperate, not to lose his job. “But we could all get deported,” Marco’s boss reminded him. “She could Homeland all of us. It takes one call. Thank God, your visa is still valid, for now. You have a chance to move out of her way. Take ten days, man. Settle things down. But please, do go. I’ll have your last paycheck next Friday.”
Marco, like Vinita and her parents had done twenty-two years before, was all-along planning to overstay his visa. He lived in a sublet in East Boston, in nice-weather walking distance from Newbury. His landlord never asked for reference checks, proof of citizenship, or any other kind of paperwork. He drove using a fake license that his cousin Hector, who’d become an American citizen last year, seeing where the election was headed, charged him a discount to obtain.
“If you can give me twenty-grand, I’ll get you and your lady to Canada, easy,” Hector promised, Monday night, when Marco couldn’t get the word “deportation” out of his head. Luckily, Hector didn’t know that by Wednesday, Vinita had stolen twice that amount.
Now it was just past one pm. Vinita eased on a delicate black cardigan to cover the skimpy camisole she always wore inside the salon. Her shoulders were hurting, as if she’d carried heavy loads, but all she’d done was lift bowls of water, the larger ones for clients having pedicures with special stone washes. One of the treatments even flecked their skin with gold. Vinita, hands still sparkling though still not wearing any wedding ring, slipped through the door of the salon, only to find her whole body pressed against Leo’s. He stood still in the doorway, blocking her from getting out, but looking, to anyone, like a macho boyfriend pressing flush against her front.
She almost moaned. She had forgotten the lemon and sweaty smell of Leo Jones.
“Too early in the day for dirty dancing, girl,” Vinita heard in the background, the receptionist tittering at the sight of her breasts crushed against Leo.
Leo, unsmiling, took Vinita’s hand and pulled her outside.
“What,” she said weakly, not questioning why Leo was back two days early from vacation, already accepting that he knew what she’d stolen.
But he didn’t. Or, rather – what he knew now would soon stop being relevant.
“V, I really, really, liked that Ashis Nandy shit,” he said. “I read the whole thing on the plane. The Intimate Enemy? Shame, and all of it? It would have resonated deep for Malcolm X. Thank you for giving it to me.”
Why had she given it to him? She couldn’t remember now. Probably there was a day he’d seen the cover peeking from the bag she carried, a tattered canvas tote, only something cheap. So out of place on Newbury, Vinita wore the old bag like a signature, for which Leo teased her. “That’s like your new berry,” Leo had said. “Your new thing looking so delicious.” She’d only started working at the manicure shop back then. Long before she’d ever seen Marco. “Sweet like your body,” Leo whispered, making Vinita giggle. The bag, so faded now, had once had vivid reds of cherries and strawberries on its front.
The books in her bag, including the one by the leftist sociologist Nandy, were from her father, who was once a literature professor in Khottayam, but now lived in their Brockton house, and often lived as if alone. The house had once belonged to crack dealers. It stood opposite a methadone clinic, where addicts reported every morning at seven am, oddly cheerful and carrying Starbucks, usually obediently lining up, but sometimes ugly and obstreperous. If it was a bad day, they’d stand in the street shouting oaths or even roaring incoherently. Vinita’s father couldn’t sleep through their tirades. Often she woke to him at the window, peering from behind white lace curtains her mother had begged Vinita to sew. Years before, Vinita’s mother had gone blind. But the lace, the touch of lace, like bursts of berries on her tongue, like sunlight still generous on her face and hands, all these her mother said she still enjoyed. Vinita’s father had supported the family. Worked night shifts as a janitor at a hospital. Taught adjunct courses in South Asian history, till he had his stroke. Her father could still see and notice everything. Vinita propped his chair near the window, and every morning, the most exuberant among the recovered addicts waved to him, calling, “Hey, Gandhi, what up?” and “See something you like?” They didn’t know how his expression, regardless of mood, would stare men down. Would stare Vinita down as well, when she arrived home from her bar nights with Leo, late nights when Leo told her about the syndicate, “the life.” Saying, “I mean, you need to know. Where all the money is. Where it comes from. ‘Cause one day, baby, I’ll train you to be like my right hand.”
That was before Marco. Marco and the peaceful temptation.
Now, back from his California vacation, on this morning when Vinita had already vowed to stop thinking of him, Leo tipped her chin upward, looked serious, asked, “Is your dad okay?” A few months ago, she told him about the stroke, one day she’d had to call in sick. Just once, Leo had even come out to Brockton. Actually, because of Leo, Vinita went back to the church. Only for a single service, but after long years.
It was the music that she loved. AME Church on Turner Street, Brockton. Vinita had worn a hat, hair tucked inside. Kind of a brown late-night-to-early-morning-impeccable sophisticate, with her well painted red lips and tailored dress, but punk nose ring. A sort of Indian Gwen Stefani, from No Doubt. With Leo like Tony Kanal, the brown boyfriend Gwen had long ago discarded. During the service, Leo took Vinita’s hand. Then during the singing, he was silent, “because I just wanted to listen to you sing. It was so beautiful,” he’d said.
Why didn’t she and Leo get together at the start, before they’d become “friends”? or at least move in together months ago, or even go on proper dates? They’d never even kissed full on the lips. Only the cheek tantalizers, as Vinita thought of them. Those moments of air kissing where Leo’s lips had come too close to hers, when with a bold lick of her tongue she could have tasted his soft mouth.
“I would’ve loaned you money. Why didn’t you ask?” she could hear Leo saying, in a conversation they would never have.
“Don’t waste your life,” her father always cautioned her. “None of us knows how long we’ll get to be ourselves.” Vinita, an only child, had been his hope. But then she’d only gotten into not that prestigious a college, and in that place, there’d been a small scandal where she had been accused of stealing her roommate’s diamond ring and emerald choker, the two together thirty-grand. Vinita hadn’t been able to prove it wasn’t her, and in the end, she’d left the college completely, muttering about “racism” and “mediocre assholes,” thinking to work awhile and save up, then reapply to somewhere really good. Now it was nearly two years after the incident and Vinita was twenty. According to her father, she was headed “nowhere.” Spending her money on things like Japanese hair straightening and a cable TV subscription, wasting her time reading Us magazine and watching e-News. Picking up extra shifts at the salon, where she would play receptionist, only to spend the money going out with Leo or more recently, helping out Marco with his rent.
Vinita resolved her father would never find out how she had paid for the home nurse. The one who’d sit, patient, and read to her father. The one who’d be paid to remember that her mother loved the sun. The nurse was supposed to start work tomorrow morning.
“I’ll take a quick lunch,” Vinita promised Leo now, on his first day back from vacation, as they stood in the sun on Newbury just a few steps outside the salon. Before he could answer, the receptionist poked her head out the front door, calling to Leo, “You need to come quick.” The girl in all black didn’t look at Vinita, didn’t say hello or excuse herself for interrupting them, or even make polite eye contact. That bitch had slept with Leo once, Vinita remembered. So had the other two girls at the desk.
With a quick nod to Leo before setting off, Vinita walked at her usual, preening pace down Newbury, carrying her old bag with berries painted on the front, sashaying just a little bit when gangs of European boys who liked the cafes on Newbury slowed to check her out.
The way Vinita sashayed for Leo’s enjoyment, sometimes. Watching her walk out of a room. His gaze on her felt like an oil spill. Viscous, too heavy. As if she’d feel too content with him to ask why he sometimes carried a gun. As if, once he pressed himself down on her, in bed, she’d never slide away. As if she would stay beneath him forever, her painted talons caressing his back.
When Vinita’s mother had first gone blind, she asked Vinita’s help to keep doing her nails. “I can’t see the color, but I can feel where they’re painted,” she’d said, smiling, still gentle. Her MS diagnosis was a fact of life by then, like where they lived. Vinita was a freshman then, before she’d been accused of stealing, when she was carefree in the dorm room, watching Rihanna videos.
Leo taking off Vinita’s camisole, nuzzling her young breasts. Leo in the salon backroom sitting before a laptop, reviewing the whole month’s take. No shirt, only his baggy shorts. Proud of his stomach too. As he ought to be, at thirty-nine.
She could hear Leo’s voice with hers now, talking in bed. As if they’d had a night like that, even one night, and she had not imagined it. As if they’d started living together. Even though she’d never been naked with him. “That’s some cool shit,” Leo muttering, settling back against the pillows, back into the Ashis Nandy book once he fucked her. “Check out how he starts up this thing. Camus. Through a curious interposition of the times, it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself.”
By two-forty-five pm that cool Thursday, instead of heading back to the salon, Vinita and Marco were driving down the Pike. She didn’t want to take the chance of those extra few hours; at two, from a pay phone, she’d called Leo, said she felt sick and had to go home for the day. Over the phone, he said nothing that wasn’t professional. He would take five hours from her sick days. In the background, she heard one of the front desk girls laughing with him. She would never see Leo again. Not hold him again. That was what she had decided four days ago, the morning Marco called her in a panic about being arrested. When it felt like it was too hard to have faith in any other choice. When suddenly it felt like rescuing Marco could be a way that she helped her parents.
Both her and Marco’s cell phones had been dismantled so they couldn’t be tracked, this van unmarked, bags and fake papers in the backseat, as Hector had organized. Vinita’s new name would be Kim, as in Kardashian. They were the bolder migrants, heading farther north. Canada. No Trump. And if the syndicate people pressed Leo, which they might not, and if he figured out she’d taken the money, which he had no reason to do, because he didn’t know her hacking skills, Vinita was sure Leo would never lead them to her parents. He’d find someone else to pin it on.
In the backseat guidebooks on the state of Alberta. The money left after paying their fixer was already in a Cayman account according to the new records Vinita set up and checked on the new laptop, right before she started driving. There was a nest egg, even after Hector was paid and also what Vinita had gathered, in college. Enough money remained after Vinita had also left a wad of cash in a drawer, with instructions to her father, whose facial droop and weakness all on his left side had left his major hand intact, right dominant. Two plane tickets for her parents to Cochin via Bombay, Cochin where Vinita’s grandparents on her father’s side still lived, vendors of the spice trade that had persisted over centuries. They hawked bottles of cinnamon from a roadside stall. Just in case the syndicate’s men threatened her parents, or ever came to collect what they considered debt.
There were glossy magazines in the backseat, pillows, chocolates. A day trip, two lovers, not a thing that could be objected to. There were hours ahead to drive, but she wouldn’t share them. She wouldn’t have trusted Marco to drive them anywhere, not now. But he didn’t mind. A passenger next to Vinita, he slept, indifferent, the lines of a new poem stretching themselves tight, plucking the music from his sleeping thoughts, closing his kind eyes.