BY CHAYA BHUVANESWAR
Nowadays, as a psychiatrist, much of my day is spent being engrossed by others’ mental struggles, reassuring them of the benefits of reality, coaxing temporarily (often unhappily) psychotic patients back to our shared world.
But years before going to medical school or even having the idea of becoming a doctor (despite or perhaps because of my being Indian-American, and therefore vigilant against any passive acceptance of ‘my fate’) – I spent many hours with as much or more concentration on the objects of my passionate, usually secret and always unrequited devotions.
My official reason for this, starting in junior high, was that I was already committed, by my immigrant parents, to having an arranged marriage. The word “committed” there was no accident, with its psychiatric resonance of mental hospitals – to me, at thirteen, “arranged marriage” was pretty much an institution in which I found myself, locked in, and not yet bold enough to do more than imagine.
But imagine I did! To the point where I paid little attention to the appearance and adornment of my actual, physical self, the one that lived in this world, in a Queens neighborhood, where plenty of young femme fatales were beautiful Asians, were glamorous in ways I finally caught onto my freshman year of college, when I gave up on the imagined and started dating, first in secret, then with PDA inflected with a spirit of vengeance.
Yet even when I started, at eighteen, to have a few actual boyfriends (the kind that one could fight with, burp in front of and be severely disappointed by) – I still, at the same time, had co-existing imaginary boyfriends, who offered me the comfort of ‘imaginary homelands’, to use Salman Rushdie’s evocative phrase, which he draws from G. V. Desani’s novel All About H Hatterr, to make the point, about South Asians in diaspora, that ‘We are here. We are here.’
Even as, in our imaginings of a different country, to which we also belong, we are not here.
At thirteen, not long after I first got my period, by my telling everyone, from behind thick glasses, glaring from under equally thick and severe brows, that I was promised to someone of the exact same caste, class and language group my parents hailed from in India (before their own arranged marriage decades before) – I was appealing to an imaginary homeland, claiming its comfort for myself. Nerdy, chubby, prickly, and often humorless and under confident as I was, I was going over my Manhattan hipster classmates’ heads and connecting to a grown-up form of exclusion. I knew a world they couldn’t imagine, let alone see up-close or firsthand.
I was also covering up activities that, in retrospect, seem vaguely stalkerish and unhinged, in connection to the roster of imaginary boyfriends I accumulated, in my mind, by aligning myself with my brown, dignified parents, who’d never ever be mocking about my lack of coolness, and who shared their ethnic nostalgia with me fairly freely, especially if I listened, passive, on the periphery, comprehending Hindi and Tamil but never demanding to know exactly what they so intently argued and lectured each other about.
In this imaginary homeland of mine, situated in Flushing, Queens, on the one hand; but also in Harikeshanallur, my grandfather’s South Indian village, on the other, I could be satisfied by reading books, then writing awkward epistles to imaginary loves – but then, with the foolish encouragement of equally-nerdy (but eventually also glamorous) classmates, progressing to sending some of these letters to real-life boys who occasionally seemed to fit the contours of my young imaginary loves, and even (a few times) to making “anonymous” call-and-hang-up-when-he-answers, that could have led to normal dating if real voices hadn’t fallen so short of what my imaginary boyfriends could sound like, inside my head.
It's hard for me, now, to be that angry, as other South Asian women writers have been, that actors like Kumail Nanjiani, Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minaj and others only pursue their own imaginary girlfriends (invariably – white Pixie Dream Girls) – when I remember how absorbed I was, even through my early twenties, with my imaginary boyfriends. None of those (rather short, and not at all physically rugged, no offense) brown men would have fit the bill – I really wouldn’t have given any of them a second look. Though my imaginary boyfriends really represented a diverse range of physical and emotional types.
There was Bohemian imaginary boyfriend, with whom I’d move into an apartment on the Lower East Side and co-write angry political dramatic works with. He had a lot of dark or dark-blond hair (either one would’ve been acceptable), wore a bandanna but not necessarily with combat boots, knew how to build things like a carpenter. David C., a shyly-charming, musically-talented, Beatles-impersonating Korean-American classmate came awfully close to this ideal, close enough, even, to inspire my first published poem.
But his diffident manners, his own unrequited crush on a white (Pixie Dream girl), a histrionic but compassionate sweetheart who grew up to become a celebrity yoga teacher, got angry when she didn’t grow tall enough to be picked as a model, and who walked the subways to our high school often without wearing shoes actually made her more like my Bohemian imaginary boyfriend than David could ever be- a fact that left me confused but oddly gratified.
Norse God imaginary boyfriend was a complicated breed. I’d first developed a keen interest in him when, at sixteen, I got picked for a summer academic scholarship that somehow translated to being one of only five or six teenage girls to live for two months on a ranch in an isolated Nevada town with about twenty young men, age nineteen to twenty-two. It is a real testament either to my nerdiness, self-control, or perhaps to the lure of my imaginary boyfriends, that I emerged from that summer still a virgin.
But in that summer, perhaps because a man-boy whose name I don’t remember had the kind of blond hair that turns a beautiful blond-white in the sun, and because he had a Latina girlfriend who physically resembled me, I developed a real curiosity and interest in Nordic god imaginary boyfriend – blond or red-haired (either one OK), possibly bearded but not intimidatingly so, and of course, light eyes, nothing like mine, that somehow combined the gentleness of Thor and the aggression of Loki.
Not surprisingly, Larry Z., who happened to be blond, bearded, humorous and kind, and who asked me out only to encounter a decisive ‘no’, just sounded nothing like this demi-god, the exotic pale creature whose DNA, I was certain, could combine with mine to produce a Golden Child. Larry was fun as a classmate, said things to me like, “Don’t worry, you are as brilliant as you yourself think you are, I’ve never doubted it” – but just didn’t fill out Norse god dimensions. Other candidates for this role were Astrid H., a beautiful German blond taller than her slightly nerdy/ cheating ‘real world’ boyfriend whom I would’ve experimented with in a heartbeat; No-name College Runner, a too-thin blond college freshman when I was a junior who ran the same loop as me every day, occasionally smiling but not asking me to stop running and never saying more than a quick “hello,” whom I left a love-note for in a ‘romantic’ gesture I now struggle to understand, and can only chalk up to my nineteen-year-old growing desperation that my family might actually call my bluff and go ahead with arranging my marriage. Only Marian W. allowed me one night to more fully pursue this ideal – in a bar she was bold, aware, funny, as if she somehow knew about Norse god and me, and was there to tell me she’d personally found he couldn’t measure up.
At the time, when I was gripped by real yearning to be with these imaginary boyfriends, to bring them home so I wouldn’t have to confront my parents and their friends alone, to have a face to put on my intended disobedience – it actually hurt to have imaginary attachments, to call up boys who on a given day, in the eighth grade, seemed like they might be Him, or maybe even close enough. I shed tears over these crushes, not in humiliation about not being pursued, but because I began to understand that there might not be real boyfriends (or girlfriends, soon enough I started to be quite open to either) who would ever really be worth imagining.
I did have an affair with a woman – Indian, even South Indian, as it turned out. Gigi, as she was called by her best friends in Melbourne, Australia, where we met ‘cute’ at an academic conference about South Asia, was a combination of Bohemian boyfriend and Norse god – a hiker, well-read, physically strong, yet sensitive. But not quite sensitive enough. When I had to leave after a few days to go back for the spring semester of med school, she had no interest in ‘doing long-distance’, even though by then (unlike in junior high) Face Time and Instagram and Skype could’ve brought us closer, by far, than I had ever been with anyone else I’d ever imagined.
Now, married, in love, both with my husband and my two children, I marvel at how much time I had to devote to all of these long-lost, imaginary loves. Whole notebooks, pages of dialogue we’d say to each other, even the plans I drew up for the house I would build to live with “Christopher” – another imaginary hybrid of Norse god and Bohemian, inspired by the classical guitarist Christopher Parkening but somehow with magical architectural powers, to boot – God, the hours I spent meticulously detailing how I would live daydreams with these inhabitants of my imaginary homeland, the one I crafted for myself and didn’t have to simply inherit from parents.
It feels good, now, not to have time. To be pulled at by people for whom, in my absence, I am the one who is the imagined, perfect love. And yet, as a psychiatrist, I feel that it is possible these imaginary boyfriends made my current present possible – married for eighteen years to a man whose language I’ve begun learning, whose cultural resonance with me I couldn’t ever have begun to imagine. Who takes the time to explain ribald jokes, reads my writing and looks me in the eye and loves me tenderly, instead of ever leaving me alone to imagine.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, jellyfish review, aaduna and elsewhere, with poetry forthcoming in Natural Bridge, apt magazine and Hobart. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color. She recently received the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a Henfield award for her writing. Her work received four Pushcart Prize anthology nominations this year. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77 including for upcoming readings and events.