Sunday Stories: “Pet Culture”

Pet Culture
by Aditi Natasha Kini

Every time she had been broken up with before — because Karishma had never ever broken up with anyone, it was too difficult — her friends seemed to not care. It was funny to her, actually, how little they cared, and at its core, comforting. It made those breakups feel inevitable. But maybe it meant her friends didn’t actually care.

Then her big Breakup happened, and she was all of 30, too old to be broken up with so catastrophically, she thought. Every year counted, said the basic bitch in her, every year. (She didn’t even know if she wanted children yet; she barely liked pets.)

Her friends bore the wounds of the betrayal even more explicitly than she did.

“I can’t believe it,” said one, again and again, as she wept on her roommate’s velvet green West Elm sofa. The sofa cost a lot of money, the roommate would remind her, in the fast New Yorker way Karishma had had to make peace with over time. She had been in the city for over ten years and it was still jarring, especially when she was half asleep. Half of my monthly salary, said the roommate, who wore her hair in pigtails (Bushwick!), and at age 22, floated around their shared home like she was invincible and nothing could go wrong. Arti’s parents had paid for the sofa.

Karishma would not have chosen to live with a grown woman who wore pigtails every day, but the opportunity to only live with one other roommate, and not four, was so monumental that she felt compelled by a force grander than most. This will be your home, it said, and in a much quieter voice: if she moves out, Jonathon can move in. And you will be happy forever.

Forever was one of those cursed words that continued to haunt her the year after the Breakup. It was a prominent word in their shared dialect. I love you forever, they’d repeat at each other, parrots enjoying their mirage of safety. Forever quelled their death drives.

Being lied to is the worst betrayal, she’d repeat, forgetting how much worse could and did happen to everyone around her. But her despair made her even more self-indulgent than she normally was. Everything was the worst, including her.

And then lost time. Karishma would find herself at a party, and someone would ask her in the offhand city way of a person who only saw you twice a year: “What have you been up to?” She’d pause in a way she hoped would come across as cool, like she had been so busy that the past year was just a fucking blur, you know how it goes, and then she’d say: some Personal Shit, and I’ve been working on this series, it’s about buzzword one, buzzword two, trying to find representation—

“Listen, men are bullshit, you should date women. I would too if I liked cunts,” said Tom Gallagher at an “art party,” punctuating the word “cunt” with the same disdain straight men in the US did.

“I do date women,” said Karishma, but flatly, because she had never really tried that hard. Dating women was hard, Karishma would complain to straight women, you never quite know if a woman is flirting with you or not.

Women have so much more trauma, confided another bisexual friend in her, it’s easier to date men. (Especially white men who don’t have all that racial trauma either: a later addendum.) (They felt terrible after a mutual acknowledgment of their personal cowardices.)

And that’s why Karishma dated men, though she would never tell that to Tom, not Tom Gallagher, who owned a pink silk suit and somehow knew everybody’s gossip, including hers. Tom and she were never friends: once they saw each other on the L train and both pretended they hadn’t. Karishma was prepared to spend 5 stops with him until she “had” to transfer to a less convenient train, but Tom just pivoted and moved 10 feet down until he was positioned to get onto the next subway car. Until recently, Karishma had worked at an unglamorous office as an administrative assistant at a real estate agency, and Tom had failed up into an art director role at a women’s magazine where he counted as diversity.

“Oh hun, of course, I forgot,” said Tom, sneeringly, maybe. It was hard to tell the difference between genuine pity and schadenfreude. Both produced a similar, reserved smile.

“Let me set you up.”

Karishma shuddered.

“Her name is Jennifer, and You. Will. Love. Her,” said Tom, as though he was commanding Karishma to do so. “She works in real estate, like you do.”

“Tell me more,” said Karishma, hoping Tom would list one of her dealbreakers. “Short, cute, dark hair,” — and then he did — “white.”

“Ah,” said Karishma, almost dramatically. “I’ve sworn off white people.” Tom prickled ostentatiously, as if to hide his real anger under a more theatrical and thus figurative one. “Not like me you mean?”

“As if you’re an option!” She winked, tapping him on the shoulder in the way she knew some gay men liked women to do. It must feel so powerful, to be wanted like that—unattainably so.

Karishma had sworn to a friend three things: she wouldn’t date someone without their own fire, someone who lied, and someone who was white.

“It’s just too much emotional violence,” said the friend, an Arab writer who would later sleep with Karishma in a drunken scrambling of limbs and tongues. “You’d have to explain yourself too many times and after a point it gets too verbal.” Karishma explained herself to him in a way that might have seemed expository to a witness. She went to great lengths to illustrate how she, as a rather self-involved visual artist, was also “doing good” in the world like him, a journalist specializing in conflicts in the Middle East.

“I hope you at least pretend to reach for the purse,” said Harshil, a Sri Lankan friend, who was very forthright about how “Asian” girls “loved” white men, when he heard that Karishma had been on four dates and none of them were nice. Or too nice. Karishma had carefully paid for every coffee.

Harshil’s number got deleted, but a text from him cropped up unexpectedly a week later, where he admonished her for not clarifying if she ever tried to date non-white (read: South Asian) men. She wanted to say that Asian men hadn’t treated her well in the past because she wasn’t prized the same way white women were. But she knew her argument was pointlessly generic, and that there was no convincing men who felt not being fucked was the worst of oppressions. She didn’t respond.

“I’ve recently become closer friends with an Indian man,” she told her therapist glibly. Her therapist laughed! Every therapist told her she was entertaining! Pankaj seemed safe, and he was also brown, so when they talked about family there were unsaid things that were just baked into the conversation: context with no need for clarification, she would write about excitedly in her diary. “He complimented my hair!” Her therapist would rejoin: “And he’s not white!” Her therapist was white.

Arti, tired of seeing Karishma between tears, her face soggy with emotion, asked her if she was going to kill herself. “Whatever you do, don’t do it in the house,” she said sardonically.

But the months passed and her roommate forgot that Karishma had ever been in a relationship. Karishma had to text Arti whenever she had an overnight guest, a ritual that was as humiliating as it was impractical. She never knew if the hookups would actually spend the night, which apparently was more intimate an act than penetration.

Arti, for all her faults, at least didn’t foist a pet on Karishma: pets in roommate situations end up being the responsibility of all, with the good parts only reserved for the true owner. You’d clean up the shit of the house dog and he’d still climb into bed of his one and only.  Cats too. Karishma was compelled to take care of Jonathan’s dog when he went to visit his family in Texas and she had grown to hate caretaking. In New York, everyone seemed to need a comfort animal, but what of the animal’s needs? The animals themselves grew neurotic, surrounded by hard concrete and loud noises, isolated while their owners went to work happy hours and maintained a busy, full, best life.

Karishma now would tell anyone that she had espoused a lifelong suspicion of how hardwired their evolutionary wiring was, of the people who needed a little tiger in their homes to feel not alone. Nevermind that the domestication of animals is closely linked to human civilization. Nobody countered her when she would rant about pet culture at parties, it was just so rare someone would critique pets that the novelty served as a shock. Besides, it was probably entertaining to see someone alienate others for no real reason. Fearless!

Pankaj was everything Jonathan wasn’t, Karishma surmised, and so did her therapist: he was Indian, he was tall, he could grow a beard, he didn’t spend all of his time working out, he was a product manager at a startup and not a writer of bad poetry. She wouldn’t feel tokenized by him because ethnicity was just not a factor.

“I’m moving on!” Karishma announced gleefully one day. “You are!” said the therapist back, basically clapping with her voice.

Pankaj was involved in the being of life, Karishma told her therapist, he was too busy living to be caught up on the optics of queerness-as-coolness like Jonathan had.

Pankaj fell head-over-heels in friendship with Karishma — he had never kissed her, never tried to — and they went to Mexico together, the same places Jonathan and she had visited during their honeymoon period where everything felt magical, including a minor car accident in Cancun. (“We’re so blessed to be alive!” they both rejoiced.)

They took unironic photos of food and margaritas and the cenote where all the families looked so happy. Pankaj panicked when the hotel only had one room left, and Karishma deftly placed a pillow between them and turned to sleep, hoping he would remove it, touch her shoulder. He didn’t.

The next morning, Karishma reviewed their pictures. Pankaj looked very hot in a picture of them on a boat. Another tourist had offered to take it for the “young married couple,” because everyone assumed the 30-something brown pair were married. What would they be waiting for? His lip curled in a half-snarl that made him seem at once dangerous and darling. She posted it on Instagram, and it got a hundred likes and she usually only got thirty. She wanted badly to be seen as wanted, especially if it was common knowledge she got fired for something so pedestrian as a breakup. She also wanted to see Pankaj’s reaction.

But of course it was someone else’s reaction that crushed her. Two days later, Jonathan, who she had yet to block, posted a photo of him kissing the new girl, also Indian. Karishma lost her cool, even her queer cool. She went to a bar and fucked a man who was twice her age whose skin felt soft and papery at once. She couldn’t tell if it was just the whiskey, but it felt different.

Pankaj didn’t like it either, because he texted her asking where she was and she replied, lol drinking w my new HUBBY!!! He has two cars. This dude Mark did, to be fair to Karishma, but that was because he lived in the suburbs and was only visiting after dropping his young daughter off to her first apartment. So much had she achieved in her ten years in New York: two exhibits, two failed relationships, an apartment with only one roommate, and now, sex with a suburban dad.

The weekend was pretty much the same: Karishma did molly for the first time, and a straight woman asked her to fuck her. Saturday she spent dancing at a punk rave and Pankaj showed up, worried about her lack of intentionality in her texts.

“I can’t even,” she said, throwing her bony arms around him. She had been working out and instead of looking stronger, she was starting to look more like a bird.

“I can’t even with how connected we are.”

He peeled her bones off of him and asked her to sober up.

“We can’t,” he said simply, though that was no explanation. Shaken out of her stupor by the slam of rejection, Karishma accused him of only dating white girls.

“It’s easier,” he said, offhandedly, no shame. (Maybe shame is feminine.) (Maybe nobody admonished him.) (Maybe Karishma acted too white, with none of the trappings.)

“Nobody thinks we’re married, and they’re way more grateful.”

Karishma got a cat. She named it Dog, and nobody found that funny, not even her.


Aditi Natasha Kini writes creative nonfiction, scripts and other text objects from her sunny apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. With essays forthcoming in Denver Quarterly and Vice, her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Lithub and elsewhere. Co-founder of After Party Press, Aditi is working on her first book, The Killing of a Tiger.

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