All This Could Be Different

All This Could Be Different

by Sarah Thankam Mathews
All This Could Be Different

All This Could Be Different

by Sarah Thankam Mathews



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Listen to Sarah Thankam Mathews in conversation about All This Could Be Different on Poured Over: The B&N Podcast.





Named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2022 by NPR, Vogue, Vulture, BuzzFeed, Harper's Bazaar, and more

One of the buzziest, most human novels of the year…breathless, dizzying, and completely beautiful.” Vogue

“Dazzling and wholly original...[written] with such mordant wit, insight, and specificity, it feels like watching a new literary star being born in real time.” Entertainment Weekly

From a brilliant new voice comes an electrifying novel of a young immigrant building a life for herself—a warm, dazzling, and profound saga of queer love, friendship, work, and precarity in twenty-first century America

Graduating into the long maw of an American recession, Sneha is one of the fortunate ones. She’s moved to Milwaukee for an entry-level corporate job that, grueling as it may be, is the key that unlocks every door: she can pick up the tab at dinner with her new friend Tig, get her college buddy Thom hired alongside her, and send money to her parents back in India. She begins dating women—soon developing a burning crush on Marina, a beguiling and beautiful dancer who always seems just out of reach.

But before long, trouble arrives. Painful secrets rear their heads; jobs go off the rails; evictions loom. Sneha struggles to be truly close and open with anybody, even as her friendships deepen, even as she throws herself headlong into a dizzying romance with Marina. It’s then that Tig begins to draw up a radical solution to their problems, hoping to save them all.

A beautiful and capacious novel rendered in singular, unforgettable prose, All This Could Be Different is a wise, tender, and riveting group portrait of young people forging love and community amidst struggle, and a moving story of one immigrant’s journey to make her home in the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593489130
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/02/2022
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: eBook
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 3,564
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Sarah Thankam Mathews grew up between Oman and India, immigrating to the United States at seventeen. Her work has been published in Best American Short Stories and she is a recipient of fellowships from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 2020, she founded the mutual aid group Bed-Stuy Strong. All This Could Be Different is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt


I would like to tell a story of a different time. I was twenty-two. A teak switch of a girl. I had finished college. There were not many jobs. The economy had punctured like a tire. Obama had won a second term. He said jobs healthcare national healing; he said, Trayvon Martin could have been my son. I was moved by this, thought that sort of imaginative exercise bravery. I would listen to his speeches on NPR as I dressed for work.

I had found a job. This set me apart from my college friends. I was a consultant, or going to be. This despite my arty degree. A consultant in training. Three toddlers hiding in a suit.

I did not consider myself a sellout. What I felt was that I had been saved from drowning. My classmates without jobs had moved in with their parents, were working unpaid internships at noble nonprofits. I wished them well. My parents were not with me, had left me to make my way in the new country. I was glad they did not, for now, need me to send them money. They had before.

My client was a baobab of a corporation. Fortune 500. They made car seats, heating units, pedometers, batteries. My boss demanded I wear pantyhose. You are a contractor, he told me, no benefits. Women who work for me wear makeup, that is how it is. My men wear suits. You must dress better than the clients, always. That is how they know we work for them. We get the client to their definition of success. People only want to hire a guy when they want to be him, a little. Remember that. Try some makeup. Just a little. Nothing tarty.

I listened dutifully. The pay was only okay. Billable contractor's wages, this despite the fifty-hour weeks. I had to file self-employment taxes. But my boss liked me. Early on he called me his rock star. This was funny to me, since in actuality rock stars get onstage, perform, fuck many girls, wreck the hotel room. I, meanwhile, sweated competence, a hungry efficiency. Waxed my arms, radiated deference, never met a Gantt chart I didn't like.

He had first offered me nineteen dollars an hour. His firm was tiny, only nine people. I said, Thank you, I will think on it. I walked to a good restaurant in my college town and drank a full glass of white wine in the middle of the afternoon. I called him back. I said, Hello, Peter. I have another offer but I want to work with you. Would you consider thirty. In the space between the gin bottles, the mirrored bar showed me a soft-featured girl, skin the color of Hennessy, eyes vacant with fear.

My boss said, like a god granting a boon: Twenty-three an hour. You'll relocate to Milwaukee, where your client is. I will pay for your apartment.

That sounds great, I said, may have added, I'm honored to get to work for you. All nonsense. Once I hung up I punched the air and yelled. I remember the restaurant as deserted, but it may not have been. This is not a story about work or precarity. I am trying, late in the evening, to say something about love, which for many of us is not separable from the other shit. As the summer began, I moved to Milwaukee, a rusted city where I had nobody, parents two oceans away, I lay on the sun-warmed wood floor of my paid-for apartment and decided I would be a slut.


Thomas Zwick was a compact bear of a boy a few months older than me. In college we had settled into an instinctive comradeship. Half Italian, half pure Germanic Sconnie, Thom had disliked me at first. Then mysteriously decided I was good. Could be one of his boys.

I had been very shy then around his girlfriend, who had dark wisps of hair and a beautiful face, as soft and malleable as a baby's. This, paired with an alarming kindness, left me barely able to speak. Thom I was comfortable with. At some basal level of emotion we were alike, even though Thom was a spiky version of what we called a bro, a man who would not veer from a masculinity at once laid-back and entrenched. He lived in sweats. Listened to death metal when he was not listening to yacht rock. Lifted weights daily to a podcast on Engels. Managed, with good humor, the flares of his irritable bowel syndrome. He gave good hugs. He called me his dude. I loved that.

In July, Peter said that we needed a new junior consultant on the project. Another me. I forwarded his email on. Thom was unemployed then. Still living two hours away in our college town. Going to free concerts at the Terrace, taking meandering bike rides around Madison's lakes. His inability to find a job startled me. He was the smartest person I knew. I comprehended at a technical level what a recession was, but not what it meant, truly meant, for the people tumbling into its maw. Some half of my generation never recovered.

thx my dude. will think on it, Thom replied, and I, in my sparsely furnished apartment, felt my anger flare.

I'd reached out in a bid to cement friendship beyond graduation and one-dollar drinks at bars and burgers at the Plaza. In remembered fondness, knowing he needed the job and that he was from around here. He, like me, unlike our most forceful, savvy friends, did not seem ready yet to flee Wisco for the coasts.

cool, I wrote back. you do that.

So far being a slut had returned mixed results, and I suspected that, like swimmers with small feet or curvy ballerinas, I was not built for the championship leagues. There was some part of me too sensitive for it and I was not yet confident I wanted that to die. At the same time I had an opposing instinct, this counterweight of anxious hunger. Like a timepiece, ticking always.

I made myself a dinner of saaru and box-origin idli. I masturbated for hours.

Then I walked an aimless zigzag around the apartment, avoiding the open question of a shower. I had bought a stack of books on the history of Milwaukee, thinking they would help me unlock this stocky city with its emptied streets. These I had not opened. I looked through the introduction of one door-stopper tome, turned some pages, and impatiently thumped it down beside me on the floor.

On my phone I read an article about how, in certain cultures, there are no separate words for the color green and the color blue, and if you showed someone a grass-hued paint swatch next to one the color of summer sky, they would say these were the same. Different shades of one thing.

My phone buzzed. A green (?) bubble hung from its ceiling. It said, Amy Downstairs.

Amy was the property manager of the apartment Peter was putting me up in. She lived, as noted, below me. When I had moved in, she had stood outside and watched me struggle alone. She had an asymmetric haircut, one half razored close to her scalp. The other a dark red swoosh. Maroon comma ending at her jutting chin. A frowning face. Thin grooves in it.

The haircut made me feel strangely hopeful. I walked over, said, Hello, I'm-

Yes, Amy had said flatly, cutting me off. I should tell you right now. We don't like noise. I work at home and I need quiet. We don't tolerate any parties. I'm the property manager. I'll be checking out all the maintenance and collecting your half of utilities promptly. It's a great neighborhood. Quiet, clean, full of-she took a breath before the word-grown-ups.

This was so needlessly hostile I almost laughed. Nevertheless I said something gracious and conciliatory, casting around for empathy. Perhaps she'd had bad experiences with younger tenants before. Maybe college kids had lived above her, doing keg stands, screaming obscenities. Mocking Amy when she pleaded for consideration. She could not be that old herself. In her waning thirties at the latest.

Amy said she would show me the washing machine in the basement. She nodded at a shadowy figure leading a large dog, up on the screened porch above us.

That's my fiancŽ. Tim. He'll install your air-conditioning. If you want that.

She had emphasized the word fiancŽ, said it in a fashion that meant, Stay away. So I'd read the haircut wrong.

Before I relate the text in question, I should pause to say that so far, all this has been me casting fishing line into memory's river, reeling in what bites. The truth is I remember every single thing this woman wrote to me. Close my eyes and I can see it still: ovaloid gray, lime green.

(Some people might have called it blue; it all depends on your frame of reference.)

What the text said was,

what is wrong with u. be QUIET

I held the phone with both hands as though it might detonate.

Excuse me? I wrote back. I haven't made a sound. Think you must mean someone / something else?

There was no response. Many minutes passed. I allowed myself to move from the middle of the kitchen, where my feet had frozen me.

I brushed my teeth, running the water at the quietest trickle.

Sweat on my palms, drying now. It was impossible that she had intended this for me. I had not been blasting loud music or moving furniture. I'd been padding around the empty apartment in bare feet.

She must be perishing with embarrassment. Must have texted me this utterly butterly paagal thing meaning to send it to a family member, to her big lunk of a fiancŽ. Thinking this induced sympathy on my part. I ate a creamy bowl of yogurt and made a plan for how to while away the evening, which stretched too long ahead of me.

By the time I set out the night felt like something cooling from an oven. My hair wet and clean. I did not have a car and was not able to drive one. I calculated the blocks ahead of me, having left my phone behind, and walked to Brady Street alone.

Do you know if the hardware store is around here, I asked a young man with a long, horsey face.

Two blocks farther, then one block over, he said. Just past the pink awning, you see it, says Sneha Dry Goods, a block west after that.

You pronounce it SNAY-hah, I said. He'd replaced the e with an i. But already he had returned headphones to his small pink ears.

A clock, that was what I wanted. I would put it on the yellow kitchen wall. Its face would watch me as I moved through time.

As I stood in the checkout line I noticed her.

A woman in a hurry. Almost vibrating. Darting through the aisles. Drill in one hand, still in its red box. Surge protector in the other. She was wrapping its pale cord around her wrist, staring up at something on a high shelf.

She wasn't my type. Blond hair almost white. A Virginia Woolf nose. Her skin was somewhere between henna and marigold, came straight from a sunbed. Still, something about her stopped my breath. I did not want to stare, and I had no other option besides. I paid, counting out my cash. The store was crowded, harshly lit. Against the warm soft night I walked back home.

Distant fireworks that celebrated the country's independence shot off as I worked to hang the clock. Wobbling violently on the folding chair I stood on, I yelped and clutched the wall I'd hammered a nail into moments ago. I dropped the clock. Half the glass of it smashed outward. Seconds later, coming up through the floorboards toward me, a loud cry of rage.


In college I had not known how to get women. Not in person. In secret I'd posted on Craigslist in the sleepless reaches of the night, replied to a personal ad or two. These assignations had given me a degree of confidence. Were bulwark against the terror of total inexperience. Now I had moved to a new city and wanted the real thing.

Some damp July night, I walked an hour to a bar I had heard was right. I was wearing the makeup from work and a filmy blouse. It showed my body's clean lines. My hair fell to my collarbone.

It all gave the wrong idea. Dykes in hiking boots and windbreakers took one look at me, and the few that did not prefer white girls in that wordless unexamined way made a beeline.

No no no, I wanted to say, not you. We could be friends. Move together in a pack. I shrugged off the tall butch in her brown vest who was bearing down on me, thumbing the curve of my waist. As bad as any man.

I crossed toward the girl who'd just walked in. A white little face set against dark hair, a Pulp Fiction bob. An uncertainty in her eyes that made her soft. She was at the bar, drinking wine out of a doubles glass. I looked down at her red, bitten mouth and felt my clit jump.

I smiled a wolf's smile with my eyes. In the past I had tried to be suave, elaborate, and things had gone a mediocre route. This time I simply said, hello. When she laughed, leaned close to me, I looked for the aging woman in the brown vest. Our eyes met and she looked so sour. In her mind Pulp Fiction and I both should have been hers. My lips twitched. Washed-up old dyke. I knew how beautiful I was in that moment, felt it burned into me, a brand. This is how I felt: alone and powerful. This is what I felt: the shock of how your life's longing can sometimes be smoothly realized, without great strain or cost, easy as buying a clock.

In undergrad I had been required to study a near-unreadable German novel about a young man who runs away from home to escape the pressure of his family's desires for him. For years he roams around, joins a theater troupe, gathers the friends that become the extension of his family, but by the end he chooses his destiny, chooses the staid sensible life that his parents wanted, finds a wife, all of his own free will. That's what a true adulthood had come to signify for me, a bowing down before the inevitable. For the lucky, this could be preceded by a period of freedom, the latitude of youth.

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