Playing The Sheik

Winner of the 2008 Hyphen and Asian American Writers' Workshop Short Story Contest

February 19, 2010

RAHI'S FATHER is growing a beard for a role on Paradise Laws, a new crime show that's being filmed on O'ahu. Rahi only watches because Nathan Bell plays Bali Scott, the head detective, and he is the best surfer, runner, and swimmer in the world. Rahi wants so badly to meet Nathan, or at least get an autograph. Even though Rahi's dad is a geology professor who's stood in front of a camera only once at a lecture on geothermal energy at the Sheraton, Rahi's mother says she can think of no better man to play the part of a Saudi Arabian sheik/terrorist.

During dinner, Rahi's father rules out the competition. Mr. Sen, a Bengali botanist, will be considered too thin to be a sheik. Then there's Mr. Khan, who won't audition at all because he refuses to play a stereotype. "It's a bad time for people like us." This is what Mr. Khan told Rahi at the Diwali dinner held at the University last week, as though this fact were a revelation. "I won't be a part of the madness." Rahi was stoned, which is how he liked to attend all Indian functions, trying to remove a turmeric stain from the kurta he had to borrow from his father with club soda. "Your generation can change things for us," Mr. Khan insisted, placing a heavy hand on Rahi's back.

Tonight, beating his fork against the table's edge, Rahi's father makes demands. "All I want is pasta. And make sure the bread is buttery." Rahi catches his mother rolling her eyes.

Each day, a new layer of bristles overtakes his father's plump cheeks. At night, he strokes his chin like an expensive fur and barks words like "Akh-med!" and "lnshallah!" into the hallway mirror. He makes menacing faces and tries hard to scare his wife. She barely looks, no matter how hard he scowls.

Rahi spends most days after school at Sandy's, where the best surfer is Dewin, an Okinawan kid who was just kicked out of their high school for feeling up a fifth grader. Dewin has a hairlip and makes razor sharp cutbacks Rahi can't help but admire. Even if Rahi is off to the side, bodysurfing sets no one wants, Dewin makes sure to harass him. Today he drops in close and shouts, "Kook!" while grazing Rahi's head with the nose of his board. Before ducking under some whitewash, Rahi gives Dewin the finger, even though what he really wants to do is drag him out of the water and beat him senseless.

Eventually the sun lowers and Rahi and Al hitch a ride down the highway from a woman driving a pick-up. "That punk needs to wise up," Al says, throwing his boogie board into the back of the truck. He climbs in and dangles his arm over the side. "Let's kick his ass."

Rahi shrugs. Al's dad, the only full Hawaiian Rahi has ever met, is the head of the HPD, so Al can beat up whomever he wants. Rahi, on the other hand, doesn't need another fight. Last week, the one mosque on the island was vandalized for the third time, and then, in front of everyone, Rahi's history teacher asked him to explain what India will do about Pakistan now that Bush has invaded Iraq. Rahi returned the question with a blank stare, wondering why Mr. Bantam wasn't asking Chris, the black kid whose dad was an Army general stationed at Hickam. Bianca rectified the situation by answering for all of them. "India is on the side of the United States," she declared, too fast and insistent.

On the ride back to Hawai'i Kai, Rahi's house comes first. He hops out and thanks the driver, then sprints up his driveway, relieved that it's empty. He wishes his parents would repaint the house, which is still sky blue from the Jehovah's Witnesses who used to live there. Rahi drops his fins on the pile of slippers outside the door and brushes sand from his ankles. Inside, on the fridge, he finds a note from his mother: Gone to belly dancing. He heats up some daal and hard, leftover rice. He swallows the food quickly, along with two aspirin for his headache, and sinks into the saggy couch. It is mustard-colored and corduroy and was given to them by a professor friend of his dad's. Rahi remembers the grad students who hauled it into their living room, his father directing. They spoke to each other in Chinese and Rahi was sure they were talking shit. Nonetheless, he served them lemonade and showed them the bathroom while his mother watched and cried because for the first time in her life, she owned something, other than gold and diamonds, that once belonged to someone else.

Rahi turns on the television, flipping past reports on Bin Laden until he finds a special on Nate Bell. Local news is so comforting, he muses, cranking up the volume. The first clip is of Nate surfing against a Diamond Head sunset, his 3-year-old son propped on his shoulder. Nate is 40, but his body is ripped. Rahi looks down at himself, knowing that if he works at it, he can be just as hard. He has his father's soccer player legs, his broad chest. From time to time, his stomach resembles a six-pack, if he clenches. He taps it now. He flexes. He wishes he were in the ocean again, getting slammed into sand, his body flying between two walls of sea. In a barrel, no one can see me, he thinks, feeling his lids grow heavy.

When he wakes an hour later it feels as though a small animal is trying to escape through his ear canal, kicking against the side of his head. He sticks the tip of his pointer finger in his ear and wiggles it, tilting his head to one side.

The house is still dark, but the pain is unbearable. Rahi puts on a T-shirt, leaves a note that says "I'M DYING! Pick me up at Straub," and walks the five blocks to the clinic.

The Sunday night doctor on call is Dr. O'Regan, who looks more like a lumberjack with his huge thighs and burly arms. When he sticks a flashlight in Rahi's ear and tugs gently on the lobe, Rahi notices the small American flag pinned to the lapel of the doctor's coat.

"Spending too much time at the beach I see!" the doctor bellows. "You know, I used to long board at Waikiki."

"That's cool," Rahi says, thinking just the opposite. He shouldn't talk. His own parents don't even know how to swim. "My dad won't buy me a board," Rahi says, then feels guilty for talking about his family. He has heard American children do this, especially his girlfriend, Bianca, who calls her mother a bitch and her dad an asshole if she doesn't get the Saab on Saturday nights. Rahi sighs. "Otherwise I'm sure I'd rip."

Dr. O'Regan chuckles and squirts drops into Rahi's ear. They gurgle in his eardrum, coat his brain. Opening and closing his jaw, Rahi feels the pressure subside, and studies a photograph on the shelf above the sink. It's a picture of the doctor's family at the beach, stacked in a pyramid. The doctor is at the bottom with his two boys, holding up a wife whose face is hidden by hair and one, freckled little girl.

Rahi's mom is in the clinic waiting room, looking like she walked off the set of I Dream of Jeannie with her black leotard, footless tights, and netted belt with gold coins that jingles against her large hips as she hurries over to them. Her hair is pulled tight onto the crown of her head and dots of rouge are smeared on her cheekbones.

"The receptionist told me what happened," she says, motioning to the hapa girl with a blue streak in her bangs. Rahi thought she was cute when he first came in, but noticing her smirk now he thinks otherwise. "How could you leave a note like that?" His mother tries hard not to sound hysterical. Smiling at the doctor, she ruffles Rahi's salty locks.

"Mrs. Mankani, I presume?" Rahi's mother holds out her hand and the bells of her belt jingle. Dr. O'Regan taps his stethoscope over his heart. Rahi groans. She's still smiling when they reach the car, where she turns on the radio.

"Is this Bob Marley?" It's UB40, but he doesn't correct her. His mom thinks everyone is Bob Marley. "You're looking so handsome," she says.

"You mean more like you?" Whether he likes it or not, Rahi has his mother's arched brows and square jaw. Her high-class color he insists on darkening.

At home his mother strains pasta and mixes it with jarred sauce. Still wearing her dance clothes, she glides across the kitchen floor, shaking her hips, drawing circles and swirls with her arms. "Ana ho!" she exclaims, setting a big dish of noodles on the table. "That means, I am here."

"And I am a ready," his father says, patting his stomach. Tomorrow is the audition. Rahi's mother carries over a basket of baked crescent rolls, so soft they dissolve on his tongue like butter.

"Are you nervous?" Rahi says. "To audition with Nathan?"

His father laughs, tearing bread apart. "That bandar who refuses to live on land?" He shakes his head. "Those who are prepared have nothing to fear." When Rahi asks his father to get Nate's autograph, or at least try, his father stabs the pile of spaghetti with his fork and groans, "One thing at a time, yaar."

After dinner Rahi sits at the table to do his homework. It's the rule. It's tradition. It's also the only time he really studies his father - the triangle of moles on his cheek, the coffee stains on his teeth. Tonight, the beard seems to swallow his entire face, creeping down his neck in uneven patches. In between geometry problems, Rahi pauses, tapping his pencil against his skull. He wants to tell his father that Nathan Bell is a hero and that he'd better shape up. He'd better start lifting weights and running miles in the morning. "Legends don't speak our language, Dad," he wants to say.

After grading exams and lab reports, his father grades Rahi's work, putting X's next to the equations he did wrong. "Focus," his father says sharply, sliding back the marked pages. "With grades like this, you'll be stuck going to UH." To which Rahi answers silently, "Maybe I like it here. Maybe I don't want to leave."

Promising to correct his homework in the morning, Rahi excuses himself from the table. Right now he is dying to be good at something. "I have Spanish. I have History," he insists, getting up. These are subjects his father can't help him with and taught by the teachers who love him.

"How can we have guests?" his mother shouts. "How can we show our faces with a house like this?"

Later that night, in bed, Rahi squeezes his eyes shut.

"Please, Hasina," his father begs. "Just the head of my department. It can help, now that I'm up for tenure."

"And what do we have to show? Broken everything. A useless, black son."

A door slams, the lock on the bathroom door clicks. Rahi's dad will have to knock for hours.

"In Bombay, I had a servant for everything. One to tie my shoes even!" his mother once told him. "I'm not used to this life, Rahi."

Listening to his father plead, Rahi creeps out of bed. The sliding door is open so his escape to the backyard is noiseless. He walks down to Portlock, where rich people live in houses on the shore. He turns onto one of the sandy walkways, ignoring the homemade signs about trespassing until he is at the beach, where he strips down to his boxers and rests his clothes on the curved trunk of a palm. Slipping into the icy water Rahi shivers. He can hear the hum of a hot tub, an older woman's laugh. He floats, holding his legs above the rocky bottom. Eventually his breathing slows and he feels warm again.

After school Rahi takes the bus to Nu'uanu, and when he reaches the colonial style mansion he doesn't ring the doorbell. Instead he creeps around the side of his girlfriend's house, where big drops of water fall from the leafy trees to his face. Through a window, Rahi watches Bianca apply lip gloss in front of an oval shaped mirror. He taps on the glass, startling her. She lifts the pane so that Rahi can hoist himself into her room, where he pushes aside the books open on her bed. They roll around on her peach colored sheets until the garage door rumbles beneath them. Pulling back from her sticky kiss, Rahi stiffens. "Don't worry, it's cool with my parents," Bianca says, then twists quickly away from him. At the dressing table she fixes her hair.

Everything in Bianca's house is white and eyelet and antique looking. Rahi tours the four stories like he once did Queen Emma's Summer Palace, admiring the "atrium" and "trellis" and other things he didn't know had names. At the end of the tour he meets Bianca's parents, who are watching a documentary on the atom bomb. "Well, hello," they say, scanning his dark face. They breathe a sigh of relief when he assures them, in answer to their questions, that he is Hindu, not Muslim, and Indian, not Pakistani. Afterwards Bianca apologizes. "I told them already," she says, pulling him into her sundrenched kitchen.

Perched on a barstool, Rahi watches Bianca cut fruit. When her back is to him he kicks the dog, a black poodle Bianca's had since she was four. She pulls grapes off their stems and hacks pineapple, mixing everything together in a crystal bowl while Rahi imagines what it would be like if she ever came to his house. He laughs out loud, taking a chunk of crisp apple from her hand. He would let her touch all his parents' relics and pretend to know the stories behind each statue and prayer bead. He would take her to the couch and tell her a sad tale about his dad growing up poor. Living in a mud hut. She would probably like that. She would probably do whatever he wanted.

On the spot, Rahi's father wins the role on Paradise Laws. For dinner, they celebrate with calzones and lasagna at California Pizza Kitchen. Rahi's dad overtips the waitress, a sad-faced Filipina from Pearl City who pretended she couldn't understand a word of his English. The next day Rahi's mother covers the mustard couch with a silky bedspread and sews covers for the cushions.

All over the house Rahi begins to find scraps of paper - on them his mother has scribbled down calculations about his father's TV show salary and the things she will buy for the house and herself, so that neither looks like itself anymore. Afraid of what his father might say if he finds them, Rahi crumples and tucks the lists far back in his bottom dresser drawer, unsure about why he can't bring himself to throw them away.

One afternoon he overhears his mother on the telephone with Aunty Urna, discussing a pair of shoes she saw at Ala Moana. "Sixty dollars!" Rahi's mom proclaims. "But I'm sure they are worth it." When he tears through the pantry, sandy and bleary eyed, she says that she saw a help wanted sign at Foodland for grocery baggers. "Instead of swimming all day you could learn something. For once." At that moment, Rahi considers showing her lists to his father in some display of solidarity, but then, imagining another argument erupting, he takes his bowl of cereal to his room.

While his mother dreams of improvements, his father's beard grows like weeds, the hairs curling into black and white Cs all over his widening face. Rahi's mother reaches for it eagerly when he comes home at night. She flips through recipe books she hasn't opened since the '80s and wears dark red lipstick and mirrored robes around the house.

Finally, one night at dinner, Rahi feels bold. "Is Nathan Bell tall? Is he cool?" he asks, twisting a napkin in his hands. Today was his father's first day of rehearsal and Rahi is dying for details.

Wiping his orange lips, his father gives his wife a sly smile. "I'm bigger than him." Rahi's mom giggles. She swirls the sauce on her plate with a finger. She yawns and tells Rahi, "Clean up tonight. Thanks beta."

Once he is alone, surveying the smeared dishes, Rahi considers calling Bianca and Al to tell them the news of his father's role. So far, he has kept it a secret. On some level, he doesn't believe his father will make it to the screen. Something will go wrong, it always does.

"Does he get to kill anyone?" Al would say when he found out. "But your father isn't Arab," Rahi can hear Bianca say. "You don't want people to think he is, do you?"

Luckily, Bianca has the car tonight. "Be there in 20," she says over the phone. Rahi's already waiting outside when she pulls up. She hops out of the Saab cradling her poodle in her arms. "Can't I come in?"

"It's a bad time," he answers, and leads her to the park down the street, where Timmy nuzzles smashed, fallen guavas. Bianca plops down in the tall grass, batting away mosquitoes that buzz around her legs.

"Hey," she says, patting the damp spot beside her. Rahi lowers himself. He still has his school clothes on and worries what his mom will say when she sees the dirt on his khakis. He wonders why he can't tell Bianca that his father is playing the sheik. Certain words don't belong in certain places, he thinks, but his muteness frustrates him, in the same way that reading those lengthy emails Bianca insists on sending him while he's in Bombay, visiting his grandparents, make him want to toss his computer into the Arabian Sea. Despite her complaints, Rahi never answers her questions about what he's doing and eating, choosing instead to buy her jewelry to make up for his silence.

Suddenly Rahi wishes he were swimming, doing freestyle all the way to Moloka'i, like Nathan Bell did on the last episode of Paradise Laws. He could visit the leper colony, pay homage to the pandanus tree under which Father Damien was first buried before his remains were dug up and sent back to Belgium. If he died tomorrow, Rahi would want his ashes scattered over Sandy's, which is exactly what Bali Scott did for his partner after he was shot by a Samoan drug dealer. This episode angered Bianca because, as she said, "Not all Samoans are drug dealers."

Rahi imagines his father standing next to Nate Bell, looking swollen and confused, a keffiyeh looping his neck like a noose. "No," he blurts, then bends over to kiss Bianca, reaching inside her shirt where her heart thumps wildly beneath her cotton bra, her skin feverish. He squirms when she presses the puckered scar on his shoulder - proof of a booster shot he had in Bombay when he was three. When she tugs on his zipper, the dog barks. Rahi opens his eyes and hates the look on her face - so lost in the moment of touching something like him.

"The sheik will be killed," Rahi's father says the next day at dinner, dipping crusty bread into alfredo sauce.

"How?" his mother says, shuddering a little.

"Shot at the foot of the State Capitol."

Rahi pictures his father's body splayed on the building's marble steps, riddled with bullets, a line of blood trickling from his mouth. Panic waves through him. "By who? Homeland Security?"

"Bali Scott," says his father, and even though it's fake, Rahi feels guilty that his hero is also his father's killer.

"Do you at least get to blow something up?"

Rahi's mom slaps his hand. Since the war began, she's put American flags all over the house. She orders them from the Internet - stickers, magnets, and those small ones she puts in vases. "What about a Hawaiian flag?" Rahi asked, and his mother looked confused. "What about it?" she answered.

Rahi's father combs his beard now, missing a clump of creamy white sauce. He clears his throat.

"Apparently, this sheik is a monster. It will be a challenge to play him, but afterwards, surely I can call myself a thespian." He lowers his eyes. "The sheik will rape Mr. Scott's daughter."

Rahi stops chewing. He spits his food into a napkin, folds it neatly and places it on the heap of glistening pasta.

"I heard your girl fucks like a guy," Dewin says, his lips like a chewed piece of gum. "Guess that's how you like it." They are wading in the shoreline of Sandy's, fastening their leashes. Rahi pushes aside Dewin's board and drives his fist into his face. Blood spills from his nose like ribbons. A wave crashes over them both and Rahi feels Dewin's hands on his head, pushing him underwater. He fights his way up and yanks at the leash around Dewin's wrist, pummeling his chest with the other hand.

"Break it up!" shouts the lifeguard, who uses his blow horn even though he's standing two feet away from them, whitewash up to his knees. "I'm calling the cops!" he warns. A crowd has gathered. It's Saturday and the beach is packed, Yellow Man blaring from someone's radio. Above Dewin's lip, blood collects in a crooked strip.

"Next time, I'll bust up your fucked up face," Rahi says.

"Right on, sand nigger," Dewin sneers as Rahi trudges up the beach, chest heaving.

"I'll call my dad," Al says, hurrying up to his side.

"Just go," Rahi says, feeling the wind like a whip in his ear.

Rahi has to ride home with a cop who keeps asking him to repeat his last name. "Hard to say, yeah?" says the cop. When the car pulls up to Rahi's house he shakes his head. "I know this place. We get calls. You folks fight a lot."

They ring the doorbell, Rahi slumped at the policeman's side. The door swings open, and there stands Rahi's father in his costume - black robe billowing, white headdress cascading past his shoulders. Completely regal.

The cop stiffens, inhales sharply. A frown deepens like a knife cut between his father's eyes and suddenly the sheik has the face of someone who wouldn't be allowed on airplanes. Rahi surges with pride.

Stepping back, the cop stutters through a cursory explanation of what happened. A little scuffle, no one seriously hurt. Banned from the beach for a month. "The boy's parents might call you," he offers.

"Get cleaned up," Rahi's father says, grabbing him by the shoulder. Once Rahi is safely inside, his dad thanks the policeman profusely.

In the shower the water beats down on the spot where Dewin held Rahi earlier, digging his fingers into his skull. Rahi stays there longer than usual, afraid that his mother will have come home by the time he comes out. Thankfully, she's at belly dancing. "Set the table," his father says when he wanders into the kitchen. "Pizza's on its way." When it's time to eat his dad ties the headdress back with one of his mom's scrunchies and chews slowly, looping cheese around his pudgy fingers. Rahi waits for his father to explode into a furious rage or start knocking things over. But he doesn't, scarfing down three slices in complete silence.

Have you ever hit someone? Rahi wants to ask. Instead he says, "That cop looked like he was going to piss in his pants!"

His father rumbles with laughter, his old face returning. He slips three pieces of pepperoni into his mouth and says, "If only your mother could have seen."

After school Rahi and Al ride motorcycles. Rahi's not supposed to. The one promise to his mother that he has actually upheld, until now, was not to ride motorcycles, because she had a cousin who died that way, slipping on gravel as he rode home from college.

But these are days without water. Rahi doesn't want to go home to his mother, who shouted all kinds of curses at him when she heard about his fight at Sandy's. She always spits the same terms: besharam, bekhar. He's finally learned the meanings: shameless, useless.

Nor does he want to talk to Bianca. After school she invited him to go to the Art Academy, where they're having a special exhibit on the Nataraj, but all Rahi could think about was what was going to happen to Mr. Scott's daughter and how Bianca might be afraid to touch him. So he made up a story about chores and promised to take her to the State Fair on Saturday, a promise he knows he won't keep.

Now he's flying down Kalanianaole on a bike that costs more than his father's car, shouting profanities at the convertibles whizzing by, yelling "GO HOME" to bikini clad tourists on Vespas. There's no way they're getting busted. They go all the way to town and race each other up Tantalus. Skidding over mud, looping around the look out, Rahi's heart thumps. He watches houses and trees blur. The smallest shift in weight and the bike follows. It's a good listener, an intuitive partner. Fully aware that he may never have this power again, Rahi grips the throttle, lurching the bike forward so fast that he doesn't see the light turn red at the intersection. A car shoots out to make a left and honks. He brakes, but too late. The bike skids, drawing an arc on the road.

With his head inches from the pavement Rahi inhales the scent of tar. His leg is twisted behind his back, the cuts on his arm rainbow shaped, blood and dirt mixing together. "I can't go home like this," he says, inspecting the shredded skin of his palms. Luckily, the bike only suffered minor scratches. It sputters as they ride slowly to Al's house, where they pick glass from Rahi's knee before dunking his leg in a bucket of hydrogen peroxide. Rahi grits his teeth, eyes watering. Al lends him a pair of his father's sweatpants to wear home. "HPD" runs down the legs in big block letters.

"You'll be cool," Al assures, handing Rahi two white pills. "Mom's painkillers. Those will put a horse to sleep."

In the doorway Rahi hesitates. He wonders if he should offer to pay to fix the bike. He wonders what Al's father will think of him crashing. "Good thing your dad doesn't notice shit," Rahi laughs.

"Good thing yours already hates you," Al says, mouth full of his mother's special shortbread cookies.

The house smells elaborate, like spices his mom only pulls out on holidays or his dad's birthday. Rahi doesn't know their names, only that they make him sneeze. There are tea candles on the counter, and small stalks of heliconia on the table. Limping, Rahi drops his backpack on the floor. He swallows one of Al's pills and goes to find his parents.

He sees his mother first, at her dressing table. With her turquoise churidar kurta and gold leaf earrings, she looks like a princess Bianca once pointed out to him in a history textbook: Nefertiti. Your mom used to cause accidents, his father always told him. It was true. Once, in Bombay, when his mother was walking home from school, an Englishman driving past in a Fiat saw her and couldn't stop staring, ramming his car into a building gate. Afterwards he ran to Rahi's mother and said, "Madam, I insist you pay for it." This was his father's favorite story.

Tonight, Rahi's father wears a dress shirt and tie. His face is doughy, the beard concluding in a soft point on his chin. He stands behind Rahi's mother, looking calm and alive, appraising the image of the two of them in the mirror. A fat tyrant and his greedy queen.

Rahi still has on the sweatpants when the doorbell rings. They're baggy enough to hide the bandage he tied quickly around his knee at Al's house. He's exhausted, his leg stiff and throbbing. His parents won't even tell him who's coming tonight. It's a surprise, they claim. Since they're so dressed up, Rahi figures it's a foreign guest, another professor: British or Japanese. His mom worked the hardest for these two, even though the British always made her angry. She couldn't stop complaining after they left the house, because they hardly ate, and never complimented the food enough. Japanese brought the best gifts: sake, rice crackers in lacquered boxes. They were consistently thankful for anything his mother served. Tonight she worked exceptionally hard and the spread is impressive - gobi aloo, tandoori chicken, spinach and pulao. Pakoras even. Rahi sneaks a drumstick from the oven, just as his father opens the door.

Rahi chokes, the chicken lodging in his throat. In his doorway, underneath the fraying Ganesh garland his mother put up last Diwali, towering over his father, is Nathan Bell. Maybe he's lost. Maybe he's trying to find one of those pool parties the Tihati family is always throwing in their sprawling mansion. The Tihatis live at 65 Ku'ulei Loop, not 65 Ku'ulei Street, which is where Nathan stands now, at Rahi's house.

"Howzit!" he says. It's almost a shout. Nathan wears a white linen shirt and tan cargo shorts. He kicks off his Tevas and Rahi half expects him to pick him up with one hand and send him flying into the yard, just to show him he can. Maybe this is not a mistake. Maybe Rahi's father figured it out and told him: To my son, you're God.

Steadying himself against the kitchen counter, Rahi pretends he's used to famous guests. "What's up," he manages to say, trying not to flinch from Nathan's forceful grip.

Rahi's mother emerges from her room, smelling of perfume. She offers her hand delicately. "Hello, Mr. Bell."

"Call me Nate," his voice booms, but Rahi knows she won't dare. He's confused. Is this the guest? Nathan tilts his head forward and hands Rahi's mother a bouquet of blood orange calla lilies and a bottle of wine wrapped in cellophane, items Rahi hadn't even noticed before now. She pinches their waxy petals as if to make certain they are real, locking eyes with him. Nathan is recently divorced and rumored to be dating a 23-year-old beach volleyball star. Nonetheless his eyes dance gleefully over Rahi's mother - from the thick silver choker at her neck to the hem of her blue kurta.

"Surprise!" Rahi's father says, hurrying into the living room, tucking his shirt into his pants. He's changed. "Aren't you happy?" Rahi nods, embarrassed. "Let me give you the tour, Nathan."

As Rahi's father walks proudly over the paint splattered wood floors, pointing out the hung photographs he took on a research trip to Singapore, and tugging dramatically at the bamboo shades that rise unevenly to reveal a backyard with browning ti leaves and wilting gardenia, Nathan nods appreciatively. Rahi hobbles behind his parents and Mr. Bell, not knowing where to sit when they reach the living room. Nathan sinks into the couch first and reaches into the bowl of salted almonds, tossing a handful into his mouth. Rahi's father squeezes in next to him and despite his new girth, seems to shrink.

Hours later the adults are drunk. So is Rahi, but no one notices. His mother is sitting at the foot of the couch, her organza wrinkling, her dupatta strewn across her lap. Rahi remains standing because the pain keeps him awake. He refills the nut bowls and wine glasses, sneaking sips. He moves slowly, his lips rubbery and pulled apart in a constant grin. He can't believe that Nathan Bell is in his living room - promising to take his family on dolphin swims and helicopter rides.

Sneaking off, Rahi calls Bianca. "Come over," he slurs into the phone, "I have a surprise."

"Are you wasted?" She sounds upset. He wants to tell her that he hates the way she says his name, but the phone slips from his hands. He floats to the living room, where, on the couch, Nathan is turned towards Rahi's mother. A portion of the bedspread has slid off one of the cushions, exposing the worn, yellow upholstery. Staring into his wine glass, Rahi's father looks cloudy and confused. He doesn't look like the man who can squeeze a lava rock and tell you its age, or the man who has only to glimpse a shard of glass to know exactly how it broke. Yawning loudly, he covers his mouth.

"Excuse me," he says to Nathan. "I'm usually not so tired this early in the evening."

"Oh yes you are!" Rahi's mother corrects, almost joyously. "Whiskey, vodka, no problem. But after two glasses of red, the man can sleep through anything: Broadway musicals, sit down dinners, even tattoos!"

Everyone laughs. Rahi's pretty sure his father's never been to a Broadway musical.

"Tattoos?" Nathan says, "I'm intrigued."

Rahi's father flushes a little. He loosens his necktie.

"Tell the story," his mother coaxes. Rahi knows his father hates talking about his graduate school days in Missoula, where he washed dishes for a Christian family in exchange for room and board.

"Here's what happened. The girl's name was Blanche," Rahi says, "and my father took her to a very expensive restaurant - "

"What did you eat, again?" his mother asks, poking Rahi's father in the arm.

"Steak," his father admits. "I promised my mother I wouldn't touch meat when I got to America, but what to do?" He throws up his hands.

"Of course." Nathan nods. "Because you're Hindi."

"Hindu," Rahi snaps. "Anyway, they were in Missoula. So, after getting my dad super drunk, Blanche dragged him into a tattoo parlor, and then - "

"And then," his father continues, "the last thing I remember I was sitting back in a chair and Blanche had disappeared. A man with a beard was standing over me and I ... I woke up with this."

Rahi's father rolls up his wrinkled sleeve and props his elbow on the coffee table, showing off the blurry, faded green seahorse etched into his forearm. It's small and curled together, more like a shrimp that has been steamed.

"Sweet," Nathan says, peering closer.

"Is anyone hungry?" his mother says. "Rahi can bring out the food."

"I'm starved," Nathan says.

"Ok," says Rahi's father.

To reach the good china, Rahi has to stand on a stool. He almost slips, his knees buckling when he feels his wound tear open. The serving platters are heavy, the smell of chicken nauseating when he lifts the foil to reveal it, pink and peppery. Limping into the living room, Rahi juggles everything.

"Let's eat on the floor!" his mother exclaims.

"I'm with you," Nathan says. They clink glasses.

"Darling," Rahi's father says, touching his wife for the first time tonight. "I don't think we should - "

"It'll be more cozy," she says, emptying the rest of the wine bottle into her husband's glass. Rahi passes out napkins.

"Now, good people, tell me what we're eating," Nathan says, rubbing his hands together.

Rahi's mother reaches over to identify each dish on his plate. Accidentally, her finger falls into his spinach. Together, she and Nathan laugh. Rahi's father frowns, holding his knife and fork awkwardly above a chicken breast. Rahi shakes him by the shoulder. "Are you okay?"

"It's just the wine," his mother says, her mouth full, "he can't stomach it."

Rahi gives his mother the same look he gives her when they're at the supermarket and she's too friendly with the boy carrying out their groceries. The one he has to give her when she brags to Al's mom about her house in Bombay.

"You are fine folks," Nathan says, pressing his hands together in namaste.

Rahi's father shifts uncomfortably. He clears his throat. "You know, Mr. Bell, my son, he loves the ocean." For the first time, Rahi detects pride in his dad's voice.

"Is that true?"

"I'm a good swimmer," Rahi says, sitting erect. "I think I would love surfing. I just don't have a board."

"The way I see it," Nathan says, raising his voice a little, "in life we are all surfers, board or no board. Know what I'm saying?"

"Sort of," Rahi says.

"Ravi, my friend ..."

"It's Rahi." He corrects, his tongue like lead in his mouth.

"Right, Rahi my friend ..."

"Rahi," echoes his father, rolling the R as it should be, the way no one on this rock can say it. "It means traveler. My son. He is a great, great swimmer." His father smiles, his teeth stained purple. He pats Rahi's head.

"Well Rahi, I don't know what to tell you. The ocean is a powerful place. Full of sharks. Salud!" Mr. Bell raises his glass.

Rahi thinks of heroes he has worshipped from afar. Most recently, he's been fascinated by the older men who come to the beach alone. They wear goggles and then disappear for hours, making their pilgrimage into blue silence. When they return they're weathered and taut - wiser and stronger than when they left.

"Can I ask you something serious, Mr. Bell?" Rahi says.

Nodding, Nathan takes a big swallow of water.

"Do you have to kill my dad? And does he have to play a rapist?"

"Rahi," his mom scolds.

"Well ... er ... these are big questions Rahi, you know, plot, drama, excitement. It's all up to the producers. But you should know, your father is a natural. Not a natural rapist, of course, but the things he can do with his face ... amazing."

Rahi feels his nostrils flare, his eyebrows draw together. He wonders if he looks scary. Inside, his anger is stored like grain, like ammunition. But when he turns to his father, he finds him slumped over the yellow arm of the couch, snoring softly.

"Wake up." Rahi reaches over and nudges him with his elbow. His father's eyes are gently closed, his head against the wall, one hand resting on his swollen sheik stomach. Rahi's mother sighs. "Dad. This isn't funny." Rahi pokes him hard this time. The buttons on his father's shirt are on the verge of popping. A pink stain from the tandoori he didn't even eat is smudged on his collar, where a woman's lipstick should be.

"Let him rest," his mother says.

"Aren't you going to wake him?"

"Rahi," his mother says. She unpins her hair.

Rahi creeps up the stairwell and watches his mother feed Mr. Bell colorful food wrapped in rati. He watches the two of them make their way to the backyard, where Rahi's dad built a wooden swing when they first bought the house years ago. How his mother had whined and cried until his father began its construction, just so she could feel a little more royal, a little more at home.

Leaning into the banister, Rahi struggles back down the stairs. He's not ready to sleep yet. Through the hallway window he sees his mother pull a cigarette from Nathan Bell's silver case and blow smoke on her dying plants. He sees the kurta slip off her shoulder. He sees her pretend not to notice. Mr. Bell leans in, probably inhaling the scent of Ivory soap. Maybe he is telling her about surfing Pipeline or bungee jumping off Waimea Falls. Perhaps his mother is promising him a belly dance. It's almost poetic: two beautiful people, a swing, some smoke. There, passed out on silk cushions, a sheik.

If Rahi were at the beach right now, he'd swim out far, where the sharks would smell the blood of his leg. The Coast Guard would return his mangled body to his mother in a white sheet. She'd find his limbs hanging on by shreds. Or better yet, he could take Al's motorcycle and crash it into the dividers on H1, smearing his brains all over the street. His mother would never forgive herself.

"I'm dying!" he shouts through the window. His mother lifts up her dupatta, holding it across her face like a veil.

Rahi heads back to the living room, which feels too warm, the blades of the fan moving lazily. He surveys the mess before him, cursing the calla lilies for standing tall. He gathers the glasses left on the coffee table, the half empty nut bowl shaped like a koi fish. He rearranges the cushions on the couch, where Rahi's father sleeps with his eyes clenched together like an infant, the beard smooth across his face like grass. His lips move slightly. Perhaps in his dreams, he was reciting lines.

Rahi wants to wake him. He wants to tell him that a saleh chutiya is kissing Mom, and he'd better go outside and kick some ass. Fingering a soiled cocktail napkin he remembers the crumpled papers stored in his room, under his jeans, and thinks of unraveling them now, parading his mother's trash in front of their guest.

Instead, he hobbles up the stairs to his parents' bedroom. It doesn't take him long to find the costume in his father's closet. He steps into it the way he does water. It's a different kind of shroud, another way to hide. Emerging onto the staircase, he is drowned in black, his eyes blinded by the headdress. Even then, Rahi doesn't know what he will do when he gets to the bottom, when he gets outside and finds his mother with Nathan. He only knows that things are bad for everyone - Mr. Bell, his parents, the world.

Feeling his way in the dark, Rahi hopes he is terrifying. For his father's sake, he prays he is monster enough.

Writer Shivani Manghnani

Shivani Manghnani is a writer and English teacher based in Brooklyn, Honolulu, and soon, Brasilia. Currently, she is at work on a novel.

SHIVANI MANGHNANI drew on an incident from her Honolulu childhood for "Playing the Sheik," winner of this year's Short Story Contest co-sponsored by Hyphen and the Asian American Writers' Workshop. "My father appeared on Hawaii Five-0 way back in the day (and yes, he wore a headdress), and Jack Lord did come to our house," Manghnani says. In her story, she sought to depict the complexity of growing up in "'multicultural' Hawaii, where racism toward newer immigrant groups often comes from the 'local' Asian community." In 2008, the Brooklyn, NY, resident won the Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award.