Apr/May 2006  •   Fiction

Dr. Patel's Planets

by Richard Grayson

It was April in Rockaway, early Saturday evening after a long day of rain. They'd spring ahead that night into daylight savings time, so if tomorrow were sunny, it wouldn't get dark till maybe 7 o'clock.

He was standing by the glass sliding doors by the terrace looking out from the eleventh-floor apartment he'd grown up in. The door still had the little flower sticker his grandfather had put in it to make sure nobody would walk into the door.

It wasn't quite dark yet, and he could clearly see the waves churning the Atlantic. Ten blocks over, around Beach 90th Street, the surfers in their wetsuits might still be out there. The boardwalk was deserted except for an old jogger wearing a blue tracksuit. Did they still call them tracksuits? He was so old.

Too old to be listening to the song playing, the first track of a CD by Boys Night Out, recommended to him by a college student he met online, a girl in Norfolk whose last e-mail said she thought she was falling in love with her best friend. "All the guys I fall in love with turn out to be gay." Writing her back, he'd quoted that line and wrote under it, "The same thing used to happen to me."

The song was called "I Got Punched in the Nose for Sticking My Face in Other People's Business," and he liked the young, whiny, screamy voices.

When the phone rang and he didn't hear anything right away, he didn't hang up as he usually did when he knew it was a telemarketer taking a while to respond to the computer dialer. He felt like talking to someone, because he hadn't all day, except to exchange some pleasantries with the woman at the Korean grocery store on Beach 116th when he'd come in for some fruit and skim milk and salad bar.

"Hello," a male voice said. "May I speak with Mr. Cooper?"

"I'm sorry, he's in Chandigarh this week," he told the telemarketer. Using this line was something he'd started doing recently, trying to discern whether the caller would be surprised or not. If they were in India, they'd know Chandigarh, and he wanted to see if he could get them to admit it.

No reaction. "Is this Mrs. Cooper?"

He had a very high voice and was often mistaken by telemarketers for his own wife. This sometimes was an advantage.

"No, there's no Mrs. Cooper."

"Is this someone authorized to make decisions regarding Mr. Cooper's phone service?"

"No," he said, "I'm just his boyfriend, and the government won't let me do that."

"I'll call back at another time," the telemarketer said. "Thank you."

He hung up the phone, knowing how stupid he must have sounded. He couldn't help himself sometimes, like when neighbors he barely knew would ask him in the elevator how he was, and he'd reply, "Oh, I have a touch of cancer."

Grandma would have chastised him for making another person feel uncomfortable. Of course Grandma didn't know the word "chastised."

Right about this time she'd be asking him, "So should I make you eat now?"

It wasn't till he was around 40 when he realized the expression "making you eat," using "eat" for "dinner," was probably a result of her spending the first ten years of her life speaking Yiddish. "Essen" must have meant a meal, or just eat.

Grandma came to the US with her own grandparents when she was still young enough not to have an accent. Her brother, just two years older, had had a terrible Jewish accent. But Grandma, with the red hair, pug nose, green eyes and freckles he'd inherited, was often mistaken for Irish by the people in the neighborhood. For a couple of years when he was a teenager, guys his age he didn't know would wave to him on the boardwalk and say, "Hey Connor!" although that wasn't his name. He'd always wanted to meet the boy he kept getting mistaken for.

This part of Rockaway had once been called Irishtown, and when he and his grandparents had moved into the new co-op in 1967, the three apartment buildings had been just about half Irish and half Jewish. It eventually turned into what Grandma's social worker called a NORC, a naturally occurring retirement community. Now the last of the old people were dying off, and most of their offspring had moved away. There were still some young Irish families and people like him, who didn't want to give up their inheritance of the last state-subsidized housing for the middle class under the Mitchell-Lama program, who stayed on after their parents had died.

He had moved back when Grandma entered the adult home in Woodmere in 1990. But even when he was living in the apartment in Jackson Heights—first alone, then with Vish, then alone again—he'd come back at least once a week to stay for dinner and overnight on the sofabed where he'd slept as a teenager.

Grandpa had died in 1982 of lung cancer after being a heavy smoker since his Navy days. Grandma smoked cigarettes only when she felt nauseous, and she stored them in the refrigerator. Unlike his grandparents, he had never smoked, except of course for marijuana in college and for a few years afterwards until he'd gotten hold of a joint laced with something nasty that made him so paranoid he had trouble teaching his remedial writing class at La Guardia Community College the next morning. He was maybe 26 when he stopped getting high.

He'd started up again because of the chemo. It did help. Dr. Patel, his oncologist, said it couldn't hurt.

He wasn't going to die, Dr. Patel told him. But a lot of the time he didn't care. He hated being a patient, being reduced to helplessness.

When Grandpa was in Peninsula Hospital towards the end, he kept telling the Filipino nurses, "I was in your country," and they assumed he had dementia until he explained he'd been there for years when he was in the Navy.

When Grandma was in St. Joseph's in Far Rock, just before they put her in the adult home—she'd fallen again, but luckily hadn't broken anything—he came to the hospital one day and a young doctor told him his grandmother was senile because she wouldn't respond to any questions.

The doctor, a Puerto Rican, tried to demonstrate by going to Grandma's bedside and asking her, "Sophia, tiene hambre?" Grandma looked at the doctor blankly and blinked. The doctor exchanged glances with him, using his eyes to indicate his diagnosis of dementia had just been confirmed.

"Why are you talking to her in Spanish?" he told the doctor. "She speaks only English." He turned to his grandmother and said, "The doctor wants to know if you're hungry."

"No, I'm not hungry," Grandma said. It turned out she thought the doctor was insane when he kept questioning her in a strange language, but she didn't want to be rude, so she kept quiet. Unlike her grandson, she didn't enjoy making other people uncomfortable.

Some mixup had led to a notation on the medical chart that his grandmother spoke only Spanish. He didn't want that to happen to him. Of course he had the benefit of his vocabulary, his careful research on the Internet and in medical journals.

He was going to live, Dr. Patel kept assuring him. Dr. Patel was a smart man, younger than he was, as nearly every doctor and nurse seemed to be. From the photos on his desk, he knew Dr. Patel was married and had two kids, and he liked to ask the doctor about his family. Dr. Patel was an amateur astronomer, and he kept trying to interest his son in the telescopes he kept on the deck of their Long Island home. The boy was into soccer and couldn't care less about stars and planets and the Perseid meteor showers and whatever comet had just been discovered.

Of course, Dr. Patel's telescope could barely see anything, even if the lights from the New York metro area didn't block out most of the objects in the sky. But Dr. Patel kept note of all the new planets being discovered around other stars, the ones they could tell about only from the way the stars—the distant suns—had strange movements. There were dozens of giant extrasolar planets, Dr. Patel had told him, but then nobody really knew what a planet was, not even in our own solar system. Was Pluto a planet? Sedna? 2003 UB313?

He told Dr. Patel about Vish, who was of course Guyanese and had never been to India, where Dr. Patel grew up and went to medical school. Vish's great-grandparents or whatever were part of the Indian indentured servants sent to the Caribbean in the 19th century. And he told Dr. Patel how Vish had been a student of his at York College, in a night class, and the rest. How all there was back in the '80s was AZT and how Vish didn't hang around long enough for the drugs that really worked.

He could remember, over ten years ago, being in the men's room at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center on 13th Street—the bathroom covered with Keith Haring drawings of ownerless penises—and learning about the coming medical breakthrough from a guy from GMHC.

Well, he could remember a lot now. When asked his age, he'd use the Vera Charles line from Auntie Mame, "Somewhere between 50 and death"—except that Vera Charles said forty, not fifty. Fifty was the new forty.

For a while it seemed like someone would die every five years: Grandpa, Vish, then finally Grandma, and nobody was left but him. He didn't try to go out anymore. He looked in the mirror and knew he'd be invisible. He was too old now to ever get a full-time college teaching job. His Ph.D. in English from the CUNY Graduate Center—dissertation on Katherine Mansfield—qualified him only for the adjunct work he'd been picking up at colleges all over New York for more than a quarter of a century. He liked to say that: "a quarter of a century." He liked feeling old. He even liked the idea he was going to die, which was anathema to Dr. Patel.

"I can't grasp how your mind works," his doctor had told him.

To Ashley, his college student friend in Virginia who made him mixed tapes and told him what music to listen to and what blogs to read, he had first described himself as "an old white man." The very irrelevance of being a white man over 50 felt delicious to him. What he loved about New York and the 21st century was the world had come to him. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he'd never left his hometown, never gone to a foreign country, even back in the early '70s when his friends backpacked through Europe or explored Asia. He'd had a fascination with India, but he wasn't a traveler and knew he'd be one of those tourists for whom "India" would stand for, "I'll never do it again."

But he had Dr. Patel's stories and his students from India and every corner of the planet—which belonged to them now, not to people like him. It was fine. He was the kid who when he was twelve wanted to go hear Malcolm X speak at Columbia—and he always knew Malcolm wasn't an anti-Semite because of how he responded at that panel discussion to an audience member who berated Jews—and he supported affirmative action even though it probably cost him a few full-time teaching jobs, although sometimes he assumed when administrators told him they'd needed to hire a woman or a minority, that was just the way they tried to make third-rate white male scholars not feel so bad.

He hadn't been a scholar in a long time, and he never used "Doctor." Dr. Patel was a doctor. He was barely a mister, and sort of proud of it.

Not long before she died in the adult home—it wasn't a nursing home because Grandma was basically healthy until just before she died, and she and her roommate and the other people in the home had to get up every day and go to the dining room on their own for meals; otherwise they'd have to go to the real nursing home next door—Grandma had once said that in her mind she felt about 27 most of the time. He thought of the girl with bobbed hair and a beaded flapper dress and great legs in the photo Grandpa took of her at Coney Island before they got married. Well, sometimes he felt really young, too.

When he visited Grandma in Woodmere, he'd always take the dollar jitneys driven by Haitians instead of the Q-22 bus. Usually he was the only white person. Most of the Rockaway was African-American. He watched the young kids on the jitney in the early 90s. Once a boy about 12 next to him took out a huge wad of bills to peel off a single for the fare. It must have been money he'd made as a lookout for the crack dealers who ruled Arverne back then. He had wanted to tell the kid something, talk about Malcolm X or whatever, but of course that was just a stupid impulse. Funny, he was around 40 then, but he didn't think about being old.

Now he'd lurk on message boards where young people hung out. He wanted to know what they thought, how they related to each other and the world. On one message board, he'd read something from a girl named Tamika in a Brooklyn high school who complained about being subjected to a "racist slur." The slur was "Yankee." He puzzled over that, finally figuring out from the following posts that the Caribbean kids at her all-black school called the African-American students "Yankees." It was like the way the Hindus from India, like Dr. Patel's family, looked down on the Hindus from Guyana, like Vish's family.

Vish's family blamed him. They all lived together in a big house in Jamaica Gardens, and they were never really friendly, except for Vish's aunt who was actually the same age as him. She was the only one who'd come to their apartment. Vish never wanted him to go to the temple in Flushing on Diwali or anything, things he would have liked to do. But he understood, because he'd never officially come out to his grandparents. He thought if he'd had parents, he would have, but his grandparents were so old.

Actually, that was a lie. His grandmother was only 39 years older than he was, and today many of the women he went to college with, who were around his age, had young kids. His friend Steve—in 1972 they'd gotten Mike elected as a McGovern delegate to the Democratic convention in Miami, and he'd gone along for the trip—recently had a baby with his third wife, a Japanese pediatrician, even though his older kids were in their 20s.

Anyway, he knew his grandparents knew, and they knew he knew they knew, so what did it matter? His grandmother was the one person he never liked to make feel uncomfortable, and she'd done more for him than anyone else in the world. She and his grandfather didn't complain about his shoulder-length hair, his staying out late, the music he listened to, his long trips to the Village—it took over an hour on the subway, from the elevated station at Beach 105th Street on the Rockaway shuttle to Broad Channel, and then changing for the A train for the endless ride to West 4th Street. He just didn't have to tell them what he did in the Village. They knew he was a good boy.

And he had been a good boy. He had stopped thinking of himself as a boy a long time ago, not liking the idea of grown men who called themselves boys, or who dressed like boys, or who used "boy" as part of their screen names. Anyway, nobody looking at him at the hospital when he went for treatment would ever imagine he was ever a boy.

Back in the same apartment where he'd lived as a teenager, he rarely looked at old photos, but a few days before he found one of himself at the beach, just across the street, right at the steps of the boardwalk. He was about 17, with long wavy red hair and muscles he didn't think he'd had at the time. It made him remember the photographer he met at Washington Square Park wanting to take those pictures of him. The guy was a nice man, an older man, but younger than he himself now was.

Maybe the photos were somewhere on the Internet by now, to be summoned by a search of images on Google. "Naked teen boy"? He wasn't going to look.

It would be a short night because of the change to daylight savings time. He'd better make the salmon croquettes his grandmother used to make him for dinner—except she didn't serve jicama or wasabi—so tomorrow he could get out and go to Chelsea or to Williamsburg or to even to East Harlem, which had suddenly turned Mexican. An occasional evening in his head in Rockaway wasn't so bad—even fun in a perverse way.

But while he was still alive and able to use his MetroCard, he needed to be around the people whose planet it had become.