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Call me Mike
Priyanka Joseph

He was still telling people to call him Mike when the undergrad crowd filtered out the door. This got him the same reaction it always did: Denise, the always-frazzled waitress at the microbrewery, took in his polite foreign accent, his round face framed in too-short hair and repeated in exaggerated surprise, “Mike. Really? Mike?” Denise would always peck around him, pouring free refills and pointing out available girls. He didn’t mind her mothering, because it meant that what happened next happened at least twice a month: a nice girl smiled at him. She was all curly brown hair and a black turtleneck filled in like a tall glass of cherry coke, sitting three places down at the bar. He immediately took out a pen and began the ‘Charge’-- a trick that meant spinning the pen between his fingers so fast it looked like a wheel of light, and at the same took a sip of his beer. And she did exactly what all the other girls had done: putting her elbows up on the counter, she laughed and said, “So, where’re you from?”

Like he always did, he said “Japan!” just a little louder than the average bar conversation volume, without spilling a drop, continuing to spin the pen some more. Back in Ishinomaki he was called baka behind his back but in Tokyo, where he had been sent for schooling, he was what they called rōnin mawashi: a wandering pen spinner, a bum taking time off from college while his parents prayed he would join the family business. Being rōnin mawashi meant that his hands were a mini Cirque du Soleil. In Japan it meant he was hipster, penniless and not living at home, but in America it meant he was one of the rare foreign students who made the guys jealous and the girls excited, because he was always the only pen spinner in the microbrewery.

He liked being the only pen spinner in the microbrewery, hell—in this town. After a year spent being a pen spinner in Tokyo, he had wanted out. Tokyo was not far away enough from his father, who treated the quarterly reports from his whaling business with more concern than his pen-juggling son. This is why he had applied for and received admission to Iowa State in America. Another year and he had his fill of black ice, wind chill, college football and the sparse grass. He began craving salt so bad he was fired from his job at the local Chili’s for licking the rims of margarita glasses before setting them down before the bemused eyes of customers. At the registrar’s office, he had been nervous enough to spin a pen so fast and pretty that the lady there forgot to ask him why he wanted a transfer and pushed his I-20 across the table without a murmur, her myopic gaze trained on his hands. This was how he landed at this small New England university by the sea and subsequently, in this microbrewery.

This girl was nice. Fitted jeans, curly brown hair and that turtleneck, with a smile that said she had clean granny panties on and nothing to hide. She told him her name was Alice and that she was an English major with a minor in Sociology. Did he eat sushi often? He told her he could make sushi, not as well as his uncle though. “Maybe one day I make it for you?” As she was laughing, he said her name under his breath – Aris. He repeated it out loud - “Aris.” She gurgled like boiling water with the rice just thrown in. Things were going well. She spent the next hour trying to flip the pen 360 degrees and play footsie with him under the table at the same time, her failure at one only making her success at the other more adorable, to him. They left together, Alice pointing out the time on the wall. 1:36AM.

She smiled into his ear and repeated what she said was her favorite Bukowski poem, getting three lines wrong but ending it right. He didn’t understand all that she said, but picking up on “sleeping” “white cat” “not alone tonight”, he smiled at the right moment and squeezed her hand. This would be a good night, he thought—an American night, maybe with the radio on and Barefoot wine poured into Dixie cups. She went on talking, about Bukowski and Melville and a popular professor all the other girls had a crush on. He nodded, adjusting his glasses as he ran through a list in his head. His roommate had said he would be gone for the weekend. The room… never mind the room. She had her arm around him and felt so warm, just now. Should he stop at a packie now, or later? He smiled with pride at his usage of the New Englandism, planned an out-loud sentence in which to show it off to her so she knew he was just-enough foreign. Just as he reached out to hail a taxi, Alice, who had slurred only once all this time, suggested that they go whale watching together, since the season would end soon.

And he stopped right there in the middle of the pavement, his fists knuckled up to his eyes, which had suddenly filled with sea water. As she stood next to his elbow, her cold hands on his forearms turning into flippers, he saw it all again: his father with him on the deck of a Factory Ship, yelling, while he had unconsciously pulled out the pen that had been a snug comforting weight in his pocket. His father had grabbed it from him, flinging it into the grey sea surging just below. He had closed his eyes to the poised & ready grenade harpoon with his father’s big meaty hand on it, and the female Minke spouting ten yards away, hemmed in by smaller boats. His father called him by his given name and said a stereotypical East Asian Father thing: “Kansei! You bring shame to our entire community here in Miyagi! If you will not study, then you will fish!” His hands were numb next to his father’s great paws, a sick throb beginning to spin and spin in his gut. He gulped air and looking out at the water again, saw the whale’s great deep eye.

With a high-pitched cry he climbed the barrier and dove out. A wriggling eel, he set out for the Minke, gasping in the ripples drawn by her flukes. Before the seamen hauled him out, he had swallowed a pint of his tears while apologizing to her all the time—for his father, for the harpoon, for the name his father was still yelling into the cold October air, for the ugly sound it made when mixed with her calls.

He dug his fingers into the inner corner of his eyes, trying to focus on Alice’s face, but found nothing he could recognize anymore. She stood apart from him, solicitous, offering him tissues that he did not take. Mumbling good bye, he turned and made his way back to the dorm.  Three weeks later, she went back with a group of friends and pointed him out with a stifled self-conscious laugh, for there he was, pretending not to see her and still telling people to call him Mike as the undergrad crowd filtered out the door.


"I've put in work here and there- Perigee, Short Fast & Deadly, a couple of websites and one magazine in India that wanted a review of the show 'Outsourced'. Gave up the desk job earlier this year, and am currently working on an alternate history graphic novel with a friend in Lahore, a chapbook of apocalyptic love poems and writing more fiction, while staying open to freelance work."

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