"These stories have a sharp eye for the complexities of modern life, but Neel Patel writes with the wisdom and compassion of an old soul.”
Celeste Ng, New York Times bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere
"A joy to read, reminiscent of Jhumpa Lahiri and David Ebershoff."
Imbolo Mbue, New York Times bestselling author of Behold the Dreamers
In eleven sharp, surprising stories, Neel Patel gives voice to our most deeply held stereotypes and then slowly undermines them. His characters, almost all of who are first-generation Indian Americans, subvert our expectations that they will sit quietly by. We meet two brothers caught in an elaborate web of envy and loathing; a young gay man who becomes involved with an older man whose secret he could never guess; three women who almost gleefully throw off the pleasant agreeability society asks of them; and, in the final pair of linked stories, a young couple struggling against the devastating force of community gossip.
If You See Me, Don't Say Hi examines the collisions of old world and new world, small town and big city, traditional beliefs (like arranged marriage) and modern rituals (like Facebook stalking). Ranging across the country, Patel’s stories empathetic, provocative, twisting, and wryly funny introduce a bold new literary voice, one that feels more timely than ever.
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Neel Patel is a first-generation Indian American who grew up in Champaign, Illinois. His short stories have appeared in The Southampton Review, Indiana Review, The American Literary Review, Hyphen Magazine, and on Nerve.com. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he is at work on a novel. If You See Me, Don't Say Hi is his debut.
Read an Excerpt
god of destruction
The Wi-Fi was out: that was the first sign. The second was that my dress was an eyesore. Online it had appeared chic and trendy, but in person, at the mall, it was an egregious mistake.
"Bachelorette party?" the saleslady had asked.
"First date," I'd said.
His name was Vibash, and we'd met online, through a dating website for Indians called Shaadi.com. He was an engineer. He was thirty-five. He was handsome, with dark hair and dusky skin. The first time he messaged me, I told him all about my job as an interior designer, making it sound glamorous and important, even though it wasn't. It was depressing. Sometimes I would come home after staring at a blank wall for hours, wondering what to mount on it, and imagine my clients' lives unfolding without me. Once, during a renovation, I took the spare key of a doctor's beach house and drove there in the middle of the night. I walked around the large empty space, which was sheeted with plastic, speckled with tape, and imagined myself living in it — with a husband, a dog, a child who looked vaguely like me. I stole a bottle of wine from their refrigerator and drank it in the front seat of my car. Then I backed into their mailbox.
I wasn't always this way. But the friction of life has a way of turning sharp edges into smooth ones, smooth edges into sharp ones, until you've become a duller, slightly misshapen version of your former self. I used to be happy, in the way that people on Facebook seem happy, posting pictures of their husbands and friends. I was the kind of woman who would say things like "I hope you get that promotion" or "I'm sorry about your grandmother" and actually mean it. No one ever told me that happiness was like a currency: that when it goes, it goes, and that few people are willing to give you some of theirs.
* * *
The cable guy showed up at seven forty-five. It was dark outside, black clouds hovering low to the ground. He looked Latin, or Persian, with a thick, scruffy beard. I stared at the tattoo on his arm — a skeleton of a mermaid surrounded by a school of dead fish — then up at his face.
"The Wi-Fi is out," I said, closing the door behind us.
He followed me into the living room, where my modem sat next to a pile of indiscriminate wires. He looked me up and down. "Are you going to a party?"
"The dress," he said, smiling. "It looks like you're about to hit the town."
I went upstairs and examined myself in the mirror. Earlier that evening, Vibash had asked me to send him more pictures, so I did: me on a sailboat, me on the beach, me looking sad, then happy, then cross, all in a little frame I'd put up on Instagram. He didn't respond, and I thought I would die. Then, just as I was about to delete him from my cell phone, my email, my life, he said I was beautiful. And it was funny how it could happen: how just like that you could live again.
* * *
I went back down and found the cable guy standing in a pile of thick cords and wires and plastic tubing. His tool belt was on the floor. His name was stitched across his chest in bright blue lettering: RICKY A. I wondered what the A was short for. Alvarez? Alvarado? I was famished.
"Are you almost done?"
"What? Oh, yeah. I just gotta clip this wire here and ..."
I went back into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of wine. I thought about Vibash, about his thick dark hair that was graying at the sides, his wire-framed glasses, his black Mercedes-Benz. He was six foot two — tall for an Indian — with a fine build and ropey muscles. His profile included a picture of him running a marathon, and the way the sweat had poured down his front, darkening his shorts, had made my thighs turn to water.
I was thinking about this when I felt Ricky A.'s presence behind me. He was standing in the half-light, staring at a picture of Lord Shiva on the windowsill. His blue face stared back at us, serenely.
"Are you Hindu?"
"This picture. It's a Hindu god, right? Are you?"
"No," I said. "I mean yes, maybe. I guess so. My mother put that there."
"My cousin is a Hindu; he converted. He lives in Orange County with a bunch of guys in an ashram. Are you close?"
"You and your mom. Are you two close?"
It was a personal question to ask, practically vulgar, and yet I found myself answering. "I don't know. We used to be, back when I was engaged. Then my fiancé canceled the wedding and now she looks at me like I'm an alien."
I wondered if he, too, would look at me differently. We stood like that for a while, Ricky and I, gazing at the picture of Lord Shiva, trying to decipher what lay behind his enigmatic smile, when my cell phone broke the silence. It was Vibash; he was waiting.
"Look, is it fixed or not?" I asked.
"Oh, sure. Why don't you check it out for yourself?"
Ricky A. followed me into the living room. I opened my laptop. I could feel his eyes on the back of my head. I could smell his cologne, too — a cheap-smelling fragrance that reminded me of the boys I went to high school with. I was nervous. I covered up my screen with my hand, embarrassed by the Match.com profile that suddenly popped up in the window. "Yep — it works."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure," I said. "Look, I really have to go now."
He followed me to the door. He scribbled something onto a receipt. Then he handed it over. "This is my cell," he said. "If it acts up again, you just call me." He stared at me for a moment, as if he were about to say something more; then he stepped out into the night. "Have fun at your party."
* * *
Two years ago, I had it all: a successful career, a doting fiancé, and an army of well-wishers. I didn't realize the former two determined the latter. After Amal broke up with me, my friends dropped off like flies, making excuses for their absences: emergencies and scheduling conflicts and some horrific but convenient catastrophes. Thank god for Valerie. We went from drunken sorority girls to drunken adults, functioning through our alcoholism. Then one day she got a boyfriend — Doug — and everything changed. Once, we were having brunch together when I asked Valerie if she ever wondered if Doug was gay.
"You know." I smiled. "The mannerisms."
She dropped her croissant on the table.
"Well, the way he moves, for one, and the way he talks, and his voice. It's kind of nasally, right?"
I laughed, doing an impersonation. She stared at me.
"I don't know what you mean."
I was only joking about him being gay; I only sort-of thought he was gay. I wouldn't have said anything at all if Valerie hadn't been going on about the engagement ring they'd seen at Tiffany, and how it was perfect, and how Doug had wanted a destination wedding because that way fewer people would attend. I just wanted to inject a little humor back into our lives, the way we did when we were girls, when life and all its disappointments were a million miles away from us.
She said it was best if we didn't speak to each other for a while.
* * *
My Uber driver — Siddharth was his name — was lost.
"I am following directions and round and round we are going."
It was dark out, stars glimmering across the sky like handfuls of spilled salt. I was an hour late.
"Listen," I said. "How long is this going to take? We were supposed to be there ten minutes ago."
He glanced at his wristwatch.
"Jesus Christ," I said. "I might as well have driven myself."
For weeks, while Vibash and I messaged each other, I had dreamt of this moment: at the office, the gym, while listening to music in the shower. My previous experiences with dating had been disappointments — awkward dinners with stilted conversation — but Vibash was showing signs of promise. We already shared all the things in common two people could possibly share: a love of foreign films, hip-hop music, and Japanese food. We'd already had the requisite conversations, in which we divulged every embarrassing story from our youth. We'd already told each other about the romantic failures we'd had, the mistakes we'd made, and, at thirty-four, I had already begun to imagine myself as a bride again, wearing the gold and ruby jewelry my mother had brought back from India, shortly before Amal and I split up.
It was pathetic.
* * *
It was also premature. I made it to the bar and scanned the crowd of well-dressed men and women drinking chardonnay in their various shades of black, but Vibash wasn't there. He wasn't in the bathroom, either, and, after waiting for twenty minutes, my foolish hope began to deflate, like a voluminous hairstyle that fell flat on my head. Then a strange man looked at me from across the bar, smiling. "Are you looking for someone?"
"Yes," I said. "I am."
He pulled out a napkin.
"Are you Anita Gun ..."
"Gundapaneni," I said. "Yes, that's me."
He handed me the napkin. "He left this for you."
I stared at it until the words blurred and split in two, then snapped back into focus.
Sorry. Didn't see you. Had to leave.
My heart sank. I sent him a text message, Hey, come back! and waited for him by the bar.
He never showed up.
He didn't respond to my text, either, and, after waiting for thirty minutes, I decided to give up, ordering another Uber home. I was relieved when the driver turned out to be a young white woman with colored streaks in her hair. She drove a Mazda, and she was listening to a song from my past: "Where Do You Go" by No Mercy. Valerie and I used to dance to it in her room:
Where do you go, my lovely? I wanna know.
I thought about calling Valerie and playing the song for her over the phone, but then I pictured her at home, with Doug, watching Netflix, some contrived film she would later rave about over yoga, or brunch, or at a dinner party I wasn't invited to, and I fell asleep.
"Miss, we're here."
We were sitting outside my house. It was pitch-black. I let myself in, dropping my keys on the console and slipping off my heels. I poured myself a glass of wine. I didn't need it, but I was thirsty. All night I had been poised for it to happen, the transition, the moment my life would change forever. And now it hadn't. And everything was the same. I walked over to my laptop and went on Match.com, scrolling through my messages. Then I remembered that it was Amal's birthday. I'd seen it on Facebook earlier. I thought about calling him. It was a habit of ours, when we were dating, to be the first ones to greet each other on our birthdays whenever we were apart. I saw my cell phone sitting on the countertop next to my handbag and, when I made my way toward it, I tripped over something on the floor. I stared at it. It was a tool belt. I knelt down and examined it in my hands. It was made of dark leather and it smelled faintly of Old Spice, but I couldn't remember where it had come from, or how it had ended up on my living room floor.
And then, just like that, I did.
* * *
I went into the kitchen and grabbed my bag, searching for his number. I emptied the contents: Chapstick, eye cream, a firming lotion from Macy's, two lipsticks in the shades of coral and mauve. I couldn't find it. I was overcome with a kind of desperation. If I find the number, I thought, I will be saved. If I find the number, Vibash will text me back. If I find the number, my life up until now won't have been a mistake.
I found it: it was stuck to a gum wrapper with a piece of chewed-up gum in it. I dialed it at once. I stood in the living room, waiting and waiting and waiting, until he answered on the fourth ring.
He sounded tired. I glanced at my wristwatch and realized it was 12:30 A.M.
"You came to my house earlier, to fix my Wi-Fi?"
I heard some commotion in the background: the sound of a drawer banging shut, the bark of a dog, the chink of glass against wood, and finally, his deep, guttural sigh.
"You left something behind."
He was silent.
"A tool belt," I said. "You can pick it up if you want. I'm home now."
He seemed to consider this. "Shit, it's after midnight."
"I have insomnia," I said. "I've had it for years. I don't even need sleep, really." I was overcome with a sense of urgency. It had to be now, I thought to myself. It had to happen now. "Plus," I continued, almost breathlessly, "my Wi-Fi is out again."
* * *
He must have heard the desperation in my voice — he must have known — because within moments he was telling me to stay right there, that he would be right over. I unplugged some wires and spilled some wine on them just to be sure. Then I retouched my hair.
He arrived twenty minutes later, wearing the same shirt as before, as if he'd only grabbed it off the floor and sniffed it to make sure it was clean. I glanced at his tattoo, then up at his face.
"I'm glad you could come."
He walked into the living room and picked up the tool belt and knelt down in front of the modem. I didn't want to be near him when he discovered the unplugged wires, so I told him I would be upstairs.
"Just holler when you're done."
Only I fell asleep. I'd meant to simply rest my head, which wasthrobbing as if I'd banged it against a kitchen cabinet. I was still in my dress, my hair a bird's nest of curls, when Ricky A. walked into the room.
"Sorry, ma'am. You didn't answer. I'm all done down there. The cords were damaged. I replaced them with new ones — it's all set to go now."
He hesitated a moment before retreating. "So I guess I'll be leaving then."
I was too tired to speak, to tell him to stay, but then I heard his footsteps on the staircase and was jolted awake.
"Wait," I said, running down the stairs.
He was lacing up his boots when I stumbled into the hall. "Would you like a drink?"
It was clear what I was offering, the full, unbridled scope of it, and yet he crinkled his brows.
"Sure," I said. "As a thank-you. It's the least I can do."
He mulled this over for a while, as if he wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Then he slipped his boots off and placed them neatly by the door.
"A drink," he said, thinking. "Yeah, sure. A drink sounds good."
* * *
As it turned out, we had more to discuss than I thought. Ricky A. was funny, in the way that younger, attractive men can sometimes be funny. We sat across from each other in the breakfast nook and he told me stories about all the crazy shit he had seen as a cable guy, things you could never imagine, that would only happen on TV. I wondered if he thought that this, too, seemed crazy. He drank a beer, and there was a bit of foam hanging on to the slick dark tinsel of his beard. I was tempted to reach out and wipe it, but this was the type of bold gesture I was incapable of making, so I let it hang there for a while, nodding and laughing at all the appropriate intervals. I talked about myself: my checkered past, my road to becoming a designer, Amal and all the various ways in which we had disappointed one another. I wondered if he thought I was pathetic, if he would tell his friends later about the sad old woman he'd slept with, who wouldn't shut the fuck up. Then I realized that in actuality I was a lot bolder than I thought I was, that everything I'd done in my life was a form of mild rebellion, and that, in the grand scheme of things, the opinions of people like Ricky A. didn't matter, not in the end. So I did it. I reached over and swiped my finger across his lips, allowing it to linger against the wet pink surface of his tongue.
"You had foam on your mouth," I said.
He licked his lips and leaned in close so there would be no mistaking it, so that I could see the intensity in his eyes when he told me this:
"I know — I was waiting for you to do that."
* * *
We went to my bedroom and started kissing. I switched off the lights. Ricky A. switched them back on.
"No. I want to see you."
There was a sudden gravity in his tone, as if, in the time it took to wander upstairs, he had grown a bit, become more of a man, as if all the innocence from before was just an act, a performance.
I was melting inside.
"I haven't been to the gym," I said, shyly. And then, "How old are you?"
Ricky A. laughed. He took off his shirt. His body was brown and muscled, with tattoos everywhere, on his chest and his stomach and his back. A line of thick dark hair traveled down his belly and disappeared into the waistband of his shorts.
"How old do I look?"
He laughed again. "Take your dress off."
I did as I was told, wiggling out of it in a sort-of dance, aware of how the roles had quickly reversed, how it was he who was suddenly in control. He stared at me baldly, taking me in.
"Now your bra."
I couldn't remember the last time I had been naked in front of a man, and yet there was power in this, exposing myself to someone I had no interest in, who would never know the inner workings of my life. I flung my bra over the bed and, without him asking, my panties, too. He brought them close to his face.
"You smell amazing."
I smiled, vindicated. Then I asked him again, "How old are you?"
He said he was twenty-two.
* * *
He spent the night. I wanted him to. He pressed his naked body against mine and we stayed like that for hours. I had a dream that Ricky A. was actually a Ph.D. student who worked as a cable guy on weekends just to pay the bills, that we were married in a small but tasteful ceremony, and that we had three beautiful little girls. I woke up with a smile on my lips, turning over to nuzzle my face against the dark damp nest of his armpit, when I realized he was gone.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "If You See Me, Don't Say Hi"
Copyright © 2018 Neel Patel.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
God of destruction 1
Hare rama, hare krishna 19
Hey, loser 45
Just a friend 63
If you see me, don't say hi 79
The taj mahal 109
The other language 123
These things happen 139
An arrangement 153
World famous 163
Radha, krishna 185