Archana Sridhar: Seeing Each Other

             Anuja and her friends decided to meet in midtown at that sports bar they liked so much – where they could get half-off draft beers at happy hour. They activated their phone tree and slowly assembled from across the city near Grand Central Station after work.
            Clustered in a corner around a stand-up table, they told their stories. There was the day of the attacks, and Anuja’s memories of racing uptown in near-paralyzing fear of another strike that never materialized. The day after, a couple of the guys in their circle were harassed on the subway by police officers roving the platforms – someone must have seen something and said something… about them. On the third day, another friend had endured an invasive search by the LaGuardia TSA officers while returning from a business trip. And the fourth day brought side-long stares from Anuja’s neighbors wondering about bombs and the Quran from their Gramercy townhouses.
            Deep into their second round of drinks, Anuja’s friend Raj pulled away from the larger group. His departure reminded Anuja of when her mother would pull a small knot of dough from a large blob to make rotis. Their friendship had brought them all together over the years through work on Wall Street and at nonprofits across the city. Raj split off and headed to the bar-rail to start off another round, hoping to switch out the credit card so they could spread the financial burden.
            From above, Raj’s red turban must have looked like it was swimming through a river of Yankees’ caps, like a fish heading upstream. His hand reached out for the bartender’s attention. Slowly, Anuja could see from a distance that a few blue caps began to drift over and circle Raj, shrinking in on him like plastic cling-wrap. She could see their pale pink fingers begin to poke at his turban and then at the brown flesh of his cheek and neck below. The bartender glanced up and chose to ignore the mayhem that was beginning to pulse at the end of his bar.
            A vibrating sound swelled over the crowd: “Osama! Osama! Osama!” They were chanting like hypnotized primates.
            Across the room, Anuja and her friends stood up in unison. Dropping wads of cash on the table, they moved towards the bar. As if on a rescue mission, they snuck through and around and under the surrounding arms and legs, reaching Raj, who by now was pressed up against the counter. Ignoring the maddening pack, Anuja and her friends urged him by the elbow towards the exit door. As they hurried out, they avoided eye contact with the horde. The flushed faces of the Yankees fans pressed against the glass. A few of the baseball caps followed them, shouting from the sidewalk. Their taunts – Osama, Raghead, Sand Monkey – rang out across the street for a few minutes, then faded into the setting sun.
            The next time they got together, Raj’s turban was gone and his hair was cut short. They all pretended like it wasn’t a big deal. But they knew the truth…They would have done the exact same thing.