I have written dozens of similar stories, but haven’t had the courage to post any of them, until today. Therefore, if you enjoy this story, I encourage you to leave a comment, tweet at me, send me an email, share it on your preferred social media – anything.
It would mean the world to me. Enjoy.
Str8 Outta Mumbai
With my feet kicked up on my couch, I wiped the sweat from my forehead and sipped a glass of room-temperature water. Impatiently waiting for the air conditioning unit to replace the thick heat of my living room with comfortable, cool air. Stacks of folded clothes, organized by the drawer they’d be sorted into, were sitting on my kitchen table atop of an array of pens and papers that I’d forgotten to clean up before departing for the summer. The whiteboard hanging on my wall still displayed an artistically inept illustration of the abdominal aorta’s branches, which were tested on my final exam of first year. Suitcases and boxes and miscellaneous items were scattered across the wooden floor of my living room.
I was in the process of moving back into my apartment after a summer away from medical school. I had spent the last twenty minutes making trips up and down the outdoor iron staircase with as many bags and boxes as I could carry. A ten-minute break, I told myself, then I’d grab the rest of my belongings and start putting things in their proper locations.
As I surveyed my home, I noticed the dry-erase board calendar on the wall across from me. After setting my glass of water on the ground, I stood up from my couch and used my shirtsleeve to erase the word “May” from the top of the calendar. I then picked up the black Expo marker and began to write “August” before I was interrupted by a knock at the door. After a brief pause, I sauntered to the door and curiously peered into the eye-hole to inspect the source of the knock.
A brown-skinned man, roughly five feet and seven inches tall, wearing glasses and a blue tee shirt, stood carelessly gazing into the pink and orange and red colors of the setting August sun. After a moment of studying the unfamiliar man, I opened the door.
Hello, he said.
Hi, I replied with a curious tone.
He extended his hand and continued, I am your new neighbor. My name is Raja[-something].
I smiled and reached for his hand – Jordan. Nice to meet you, man.
Do you need any help moving your things inside? I do not have anything to do right now. I can help you if you would like.
No, that’s okay. I only have another trip or two. Thanks though, I really appreciate it. Did you just move in or have you been here all summer?
I have been here all summer. It is really great to meet you because no one was here over the summer.
For sure. I know how that goes. But damn, it’s hot as hell in this building over the summer. Must’ve been brutal.
I do not mind the heat, because it is hot where I am from. But I do not like the snow and cold.
So where are you from, exactly?
India. I am from a city called Mumbai.
No way. There’s actually a song called “Straight [Str8] Outta Mumbai” that I love. I mean, I don’t really know much about Mumbai, to be completely honest, but that song is… it’s really good.
Yeah, I mean, I like it. It’s by this super mysterious Indian guy called Jai Paul. Well, he’s actually British but he’s Indian. Anyways, it’s like, R&B with traditional Indian influence in the sound. I think. I don’t know, I’ll stop there because I ramble a lot about music. Never mind.
No, no, please. That is very interesting. I would like to listen to it.
You can find it on SoundCloud or something.
What is that?
Uh, it’s – you can can just Google it if you really want to listen to it. Here, I’ll write it down for you.
Thank you, he said. I will listen to the song.
Cool cool. So what brings you here, uh, R..aa…uh.. what was your name again? I’m sorry.
Oh, do not apologize, it is okay. It is Raj, spelled R-A-J. I am here for my PhD in molecular biology. What about you, are you a student?
Gotcha. That’s awesome. But yeah, I’m in the med school here.
Oh, that is great. The human body, very complex. How do you like medical school?
It’s pretty cool, definitely keeps me busy. He nodded his head encouragingly. Well hey Raj, I continued. Glad you said hi but I’ve gotta unpack my things, get moved back in and find something for dinner. I’ll see you around, okay? It was great to meet you.
Okay goodbye Jordan, he said with a smile.
See ya, Raj.
The next morning, I grabbed an extra wooden chair from my kitchen table and placed it outside, in the common space we shared at the top of the stairwell. It was my makeshift front porch. Each morning, I sat in my chair as I sipped a mug of Folgers and mentally prepared for the day. It was my little daily tradition.
As I sipped my coffee with my headphones in, Raj emerged from his front door with a smile. I took out my headphones and said – hey Raj, good morning.
Good morning to you, Jordan.
You don’t mind if I keep this chair out here right? I asked.
No, no. Of course not. Do you mind if I join you?
Not at all, man. What’s up?
He shut the door behind him and leaned against the iron railing. He replied, I just ate some breakfast and have to go into the lab soon. What are you doing today?
Well, we’ve got some second-year info sessions on campus in a bit, but other than that, not much. Classes really don’t start until tomorrow.
Oh okay, that is very exciting. Do you mind if I smoke a cigarette?
No, I replied. This is your space just as much as it is mine. Just, uh, try to blow the smoke in the other direction if you can.
He pulled a cigarette from his pack of Marlboro Lights and placed it between his lips. I am sorry, he said. I need to quit. It is just that everyone at home smokes.
I mean yeah that’s probably the right idea, but you’re good. I understand.
My goal is to quit by January, Raj replied through gritted teeth as he held a red BIC lighter to the tip of his cigarette.
Oh awesome, why January?
My wife, he said as he exhaled a cloud of smoke and showed me his gold ring on his left fourth digit. She does not like me smoking. She is going to move here and live with me. I hope, at least.
I see… That’s great. Is she back at home in Mumbai?
Yes, we have had some trouble with her visa. It has been a long time.
Damn. That has to be tough being so far away from your family and your wife. How often do you get to go home and see her? Actually, how long have you been here, in the states?
This is my second year here. I lived right over there last here, he said as he gestured to an apartment building across the street. I have only been home twice. I cannot get much time off from the lab and it is expensive to travel home.
I saw the despair in his eyes and tried to bring him any sort of comfort – I’m really sorry, man. That’s rough. I can’t imagine being so far away from everyone you love. I really hope everything works out.
Thank you. It is hard sometimes. Do you have a wife?
Uh, no. I have a girlfriend, but… someday. We talk about it pretty often. She actually lives a few hours away and I thought that was hard. So… I know how hard that must be for you. I mean, I don’t, but… I’m sure you miss her.
I really do. Do you get to see her often?
About every other weekend or so. She’s in her last year of college, the same college I went to. That’s where I met her. So, like every other weekend I’ll go there to visit her or she’ll come to visit me. I’m busy with studying all the time so it’s not too bad.
Oh that is great. Do you plan to live together after school?
Well, we probably wouldn’t live together for another few years, but we’ll at least finally be in the same city soon. All we have to do is make it through this year and we’ll be reunited once she graduates. Hopefully it flies by.
I am sure it will go very fast. It is not easy being away from the people you love.
Yeah, for sure, I replied. We both stared at the ground in silence for a moment, nodding our heads, sharing the same sentiment of yearning to be closer to our significant others. I broke the silence – alright Raj, I’m gonna go inside and hop in the shower so I can get ready.
Okay, Jordan. Have a good day.
Same to you. See ya Raj.
See you Jordan.
Raj came outside to talk to me while I drank my coffee the following morning as well. And the one after that. Every day, when he heard my door open, he came outside to join me. Like Pavlov’s dog. My morning talks with Raj became a daily staple of my morning routine. He smoked Marlboro Lights while I sipped my morning coffee, always wearing my navy-blue bathrobe or an oversized sweatshirt with my grey Nike slide-ons. Often a baseball cap to conceal my disheveled bedhead.
Some days he’d tell me about his wife and his family and about his home on the other side of the globe. Other days he’d ask me about my favorite places to visit in the United States. I’d ask him about the best Indian restaurants nearby. Sometimes we’d discuss his research or my medical studies. Being a guy living by himself, he’d often ask me for movie recommendations, which we’d discuss the following day. Often, we’d vent to each other about the stresses and demands placed upon us by our chosen career paths. Occasionally, I’d ask him to teach me a few sayings in his native language, which I’d ultimately butcher until we had a laugh about it. While he had an accent, his English was very good. Sometimes, though, he didn’t pick up on little nuances or slang – I’d always say, “see ya”, when ending our conversations, and he’d say “see you”. I found this oddly endearing.
Through our daily morning talks, I got to know Raj well and learned a lot about his native land and heritage. I’d ask him to compare the differences between our cultures. He noted that most of the Indian food around here was shit, but he did love the myriad of food options available. He even became a regular at a local calzone shop. But one of Raj’s favorite aspects of American culture was the holidays – he had American flag decorations on his front door for Labor Day, carved a jack-o-lantern for Halloween, and always talked about how excited he was for Christmas.
But what we truly loved talking about the most were our plans. How we envisioned our lives unfolding. How excited we both were for time to speed up so we could be reunited with the people we loved. While we were from opposite ends of the world, we shared the same station in life.
As the days and weeks and months passed, the air started to cool. The seasons turned the lush green summer leaves into the brilliant red and gold and brown hues of autumn. I started wearing sweatpants and long-sleeved tees under my robe. Steam rose above my mug from the hot coffee within.
But the weather wasn’t the only thing to change. My morning talks with Raj did as well. Our conversations became redundant. There was no point in asking what our plans were for the day or how our previous day had gone. It was the same thing every day. I studied. He went to the lab. I had become consumed with studying for my board exams. And while he didn’t say it, his isolation and loneliness were taking a toll on him. His infectious, happy-go-lucky smile had become a thing of the past. Some days, he simply smoked his cigarette gazing into distance.
Good morning, he said as he closed the door behind him and lit his morning smoke.
Morning, Raj. Heading into the lab soon?
Yes. Yes I am. And you? Do you have lecture?
Yeah but I’m just gonna hang out here and study.
What are you learning today, Jordan?
The eyes. Really boring stuff.
Oh okay. Very, uh, fascinating topic.
I guess so. Any plans this weekend for ya, Raj?
Well, I think I’m going to go into the lab on Saturday. But no, nothing too exciting. Are you doing anything this weekend?
Nah, just hangin’ inside and studying. The usual.
Yes, yes of course. Well, if it is not too much trouble, would you like to, perhaps, get dinner one night?
Ah I’ve got the exam coming up on Monday so I’ll probably just sit inside and study as much as I can. Gotta cram, you know? Sorry man. If I get tired and need a break,I’ll text you and let you know.
Yes, that sounds good. I understand.
He took one last drag of his cigarette, flicked the ashes into the unkempt boxwoods, tossed the butt into the makeshift mason jar ashtray and said – Good luck Jordan. See you.
See ya Raj.
I never did text him about getting dinner. It’s not that I didn’t want to get dinner with him or spend more time with him – he was a wholesome human being, a joy to talk to, and he was lonely. But to me, getting dinner meant wasting two hours of my evening. Two hours of studying. I made an empty promise to get some lunch the following week, but I didn’t follow through with that either. I was too busy, you know.
Two weeks later, on an early November afternoon, I came home from lecture early and ascended the stairs to my apartment to find Raj on the patio, cigarette in hand. He was wearing a great big smile.
He greeted me saying “Jord-annn”, drawing out each syllable dramatically. I shook his hand and said, how are you doing Raj? Home from the lab early?
Yes! Yes I am.
His glossy eyes bounced around. The smell of alcohol cut through the cigarette smoke.
Would you like a drink, Jordan?
Nah I’ve gotta study Raj, thank you though.
Oh no, please do have a drink. I will pour you a glass of scotch. It is the good stuff!
No really Raj, I mean I’d love to, but I need to study. Can I get a rain check on that scotch?
Yes, of course! Just knock on my door any time. You are always welcome.
Thanks man, enjoy your night.
Okay. See you.
I called my girlfriend after closing the door behind me and setting my backpack on the couch. Hey, get this – Raj is drunk, I said.
What do you mean? she asked.
Raj, my neighbor – you’ve met him before. He’s drunk.
Yeah I know who Raj is, Jordan. But, like, where are you?
I was just walking up to my apartment after getting home from lecture and Raj was out on the patio rippin’ a cig smelling like straight booze. He was slurring a little bit. Goofy bastard.
Oh, did he have friends over?
Nah, think he was just taking a personal day. I mean, the guy deserves it.
Awe, poor guy. Are you ever gonna hang out with him?
Yeah I am. I just need to find the time and actually go through with it. I feel like I’m just busy all the time.
I know. I just feel bad for him. It sounds like he’s going through a hard time. It can’t be easy being so far away from home.
Trust me, I know.
You really do need to spend some time with him, though. Even if it’s just lunch. He needs it. And so do you.
Yeah, he really does. I’ll talk to him tomorrow. What do you have going on today?
Okay good. I’m just about to leave for work and I need to get started on a paper later. What about you? Are you ready for your exam next week?
Haaaa. Um, no. I’m just going to do boards studying. I’ll catch up on all the class lectures this weekend.
Relax, I’ll be fine.
If you say so.
Trust me, I got this. Well, I’m about to open my computer and get started. Give me a call after work, sound good?
Yes of course. Study hard babe. I love you the most.
I love you too.
My phone alarm rang. I pressed snooze. Repeated this process for roughly an hour. Finally mustered the courage to drag my sleepy ass out of bed at 10:00 am. Slipped into my robe. Brewed a pot of coffee. Ate a cliff bar. Poured a cup of joe into my ceramic mug. Stepped into the autumn atmosphere.
Raj stumbled out. Hair sticking up in every direction physically possible. Wrinkled shirt. Eyes bloodshot red. Cigarette in hand. Bottle of beer in the other. It was 10:15.
Raj, early start today huh?
Yes Jordan. He looked into the morning horizon, raised his cigarette and beer and said, life is… life is too short.
No lab today then I take it?
I’ll take that as a no.
He looked at the ground and shook his head. I’m just so… so tired of it all, you know?
Yeah man, I definitely get that. Just gotta power through. Semester’s almost over. You’re almost there.
He looked at me and began to move his mouth to speak before fumbling with his words and awkwardly laughing to himself instead. I sat in my wooden chair scrolling through social medias for a minute or two. Raj was leaning against the iron railing, taking drags of his Marlboro in between sips of an IPA. I glanced down at the mason jar, which was now overflowing with cigarette butts.
Alright, Raj. I’m gonna head inside to study. You take care of yourself man.
Okay, Jordan. Good luck to you!
Thanks, see ya Raj.
I went inside and brushed off Raj’s behavior. I had bigger things to worry about. There was work to be done. After a few hours of studying, I went to campus for a mandatory small-group learning session. When I came home, I surveyed the floor of the patio and noticed cigarette butts scattered all over the floor because the mason jar had been stuffed to capacity.
At least he wasn’t still sitting outside drinking, I thought. He’s probably inside curled up in his bed sleeping off his midweek bender so he can wake up and get back to business in the morning.
However, the following morning, I drank my coffee alone. Every few sips, I’d glance at his door expecting it to open, expecting to see my unlikely friend and neighbor hop outside with a smile, ready to have one of our daily morning talks. The door didn’t open. I sat outside for ten to fifteen minutes longer than I usually do, waiting. Until I realized he wouldn’t be joining me. I thought that maybe he woke up extra early to head into the lab, but with his certainly vicious hangover, that option seemed unlikely.
After fifteen minutes of waiting, I walked back inside. I sat down at my kitchen table, several feet from the wall we shared, listening intently for sounds of floorboards creaking or doors opening or the microwave beeping or anything that signaled signs of life. I heard nothing. My concern was growing, so I texted him: Hey what’s up Raj?
I stared at my phone for five minutes, waiting for the three dots to appear, which would indicate that he was typing a reply. They didn’t appear. Realizing that I had studying to do and couldn’t dwell on it all day, I opened my computer and got to work. Every ten minutes or so, I’d check my phone to see if Raj had texted me back. He didn’t. Hours passed. I told myself that I was worrying too much, like a parent when their child doesn’t text them when they’ve safely arrived at their friend’s house. Or like a crazy boyfriend or girlfriend who freaks out when their significant other doesn’t respond for a few hours. It’s fine.
I continued studying until I received a call, in the early afternoon, from an unknown number. I answered and said, hello?
A woman’s voice on the other end of the phone answered and replied, hello, is this Jordan? Jordan Soze at building 9 unit 6 of Cedar Creek apartments?
Hi, this is Melissa from the front desk at Cedar Creek and –
Ah I’m sorry, I said. I’ll be in later today or tomorrow to pay my rent. I’ve just been super busy this week and it totally slipped my mind. But I promise I’ll have the check to you ASAP.
Um, thank you Jordan, she said. We’re glad to hear that, but this isn’t about your rent.
Your neighbor. From what I understand, you know your next door neighbor pretty well?
Well, over the past two days, we’ve received phone calls from his family in India trying to reach him. They haven’t heard from in nearly a week. Which they say is very unlike him. One of his colleagues from his program called as well, because he hasn’t showed up to work all week. We’re just wondering – when was the last time you saw him?
Well, I uh, saw him yesterday morning.
Okay great, did you notice anything abnormal, or… off… about him?
I mean, kind of. I think he’s been going through a hard time.
Have you heard from him at all since you saw him yesterday morning?
I texted him this morning, but he hasn’t answered.
Okay, can you do us a favor and knock on his door? Just see what he’s up to and tell him people are looking for him. If you could call me back afterwards, that would be great.
Yeah, that’s no problem. I’ll do it right now.
Okay, thank you.
No problem. Bye.
I hung up the phone, shoved my feet into my sneakers and walked through my door. Before knocking, I took a moment and paused, staring at the door. I had no idea what was lying behind that door. Cold fear flooded my arteries. I took a deep breath, exhaled, stepped forward, and knocked. I waited a minute. Then I knocked again. I waited a few seconds and knocked harder. I knocked and called his name – Hey, Raj, you in there buddy? Hey Raj, open up. It didn’t open. I stopped knocking and put my ear to the door to see if I could hear any signs of movement behind the door. Nothing. I started banging on the door, loudly and aggressively. RAJ, I yelled. RAJ, ARE YOU IN THERE?
After ten minutes of this, I walked back into my apartment and picked up my phone to call the Cedar Creek office. Hey it’s Jordan from building nine, I said. Yeah, I knocked and didn’t get an answer. And honestly, I’m kind of worried.
Melissa spoke: The last time you saw him, yesterday morning, did he say anything to you about going somewhere?
No, he didn’t. And he didn’t seem like himself. Listen, I’m getting really worried. I just know he was going through a really rough time.
Alright, Melissa replied. Thank you, Jordan.
Yeah, well what are we gonna do?
We’ll send someone out.
I hung up the phone and spent the next fifteen minutes nervously pacing around my apartment, only pausing to look through the peep-hole in my door to see if he’d come outside. At last, I heard a knock at my door. I felt a glimmer of hope. I galloped over to the door and hastily swung it open.
Two police officers were standing at my door.
They introduced themselves and asked me to tell them what was going on.
Raj, my neighbor, right there, I said as I pointed to his door. I don’t know how to put this. He’s from India, he’s a PhD student. Usually we see each other every day. We sit right here, at these chairs and every morning and talk while I have a coffee and he smokes a cigarette. Past few days, well, let me give you some background first – the guy is lonely, his wife and his whole family live in India, and I think he’s very depressed. So anyways, a few days ago, he started acting weird.
What do you mean by that, one police officer asked.
He was drinking, I replied. On Tuesday I came home from class early in the afternoon and he was drunk, just sitting out here, smoking a cigarette. Whatever, right? The next morning, yesterday, I’m having a coffee outside, and this is like, maybe 10:30 or so. He stumbles out of his apartment, with a beer in hand, slurring his words. He was drunk. Didn’t go into work. And I haven’t seen him since. Not only that, I haven’t heard a single noise come from his apartment. Haven’t heard the door open, haven’t heard the shower running – nothing.
The officers stopped me and said – ok, we get the picture, thank you – before sharing an ominous, understanding look with each other. One officer put his mouth to the radio mounted to his chest and muttered some police jargon.
They knocked at Raj’s door and identified themselves as the police. I watched from my doorway as they knocked and called for him. Minutes went by without a response.
I turned around, walked back into my apartment, shut the door, and buried my face in my hands.
I saw this coming. I saw his smile disappear and joy leave his eyes. I heard the hopelessness in his voice. I knew he asked me to get dinner because he was lonely, and his morning talks with me were his only true social interaction – I knew I was his only friend. And yet, despite all these signs, I did nothing about it. I knew that his weekday drinking was uncharacteristic of him and an obvious cry for help. I always thought, it can wait – he’ll be fine. I’m busy. I have problems of my own and I don’t have the time or energy for the problems of others. I was afraid to ask the uncomfortable questions, afraid to intervene, because I didn’t feel that it was my place to do so.
I paced around my apartment cursing under my breath, angry at myself, terrified of what might be lying behind his door. Please Raj, I begged, please be okay. Please just answer the door. Let us know you’re okay. Please.
I heard a door creak open. I jolted to my door and looked through the peep hole, and at last – there he was. Wearing the same clothes he was wearing the day before, hair disheveled, glasses missing. He looked terrible. But he was there. Not well, but he was alive. I exhaled a sigh of relief and shook my head. Thank you, I whispered.
The next morning, Raj joined me outside. I stared at him for a few seconds before saying, how are you feeling, buddy?
I feel like hell, Jordan.
I know man. People were worried about you.
Yes, yes – I know. I am sorry I didn’t answer your message.
It’s okay man, just glad to hear that you’re safe.
I do appreciate that. It means a lot to me.
I know things suck now, but man, you’re so close. Think of your wife. Think about how amazing you’ll feel when you finally see her. It’s what we’ve been talking about for months. It’s almost here.
I know, I just… His words drifted off and his eyes sank into the floor. I stepped closer and put my hand on his shoulder. You don’t have to explain to me, Raj. I understand.
He lifted his head and looked me in the eyes. Thank you, Jordan.
I patted his back. Raj, you don’t need to thank me for anything. I was just worried about you. Is everything okay with work and the lab? You’re not in any trouble are you?
No, no. They are giving me some time off, actually. Next week I am going home to India to visit my family.
Dude, that’s amazing. You need that. I can’t imagine how excited you are.
I really am. I just need to take a break.
Glad to hear it. Well hey – what are you doing Friday night?
I do not have anything planned, why do you ask?
I’ve got a bottle of twelve-year Glenmoranjie that I haven’t opened. We’ve had a hell of semester. I think I need a break too, so why don’t you come over for a glass or two Friday night?
He perked up and said, I would love to Jordan.
Fresh white snow sparkled under the streetlights on a cold January evening. After finding a parking spot, I put my headphones in my ears and played a James Blake song. I slung my backpack over my should, grabbed two bags of clothes that I had brought home for winter break, and hiked up the stairwell to get settled in for the new semester.
When I reached my door at the top of the stairs, I set my bags down to grab my keys from my pocket. The sharp, spicy aromas of Indian cuisine crept from under Raj’s door and filled the cold winter air with warm flavor. The mason jar of cigarette butts was nowhere to be seen. An evergreen wreath decorated with red bows and bells rested on Raj’s door. Twinkling Christmas lights were strung around the border of his window. Through an opening in his blinds, I noticed a small Christmas tree sitting adorned with red and green and blue bulbs in the corner of his apartment, next to his couch.
After opening my door, I carried my belongings inside and tossed them on the couch. Ravenously hungry after the long drive, I sat down at my kitchen table to eat the take-out dinner I had picked up before arriving at my apartment.
While sitting at my table, I felt bass vibrating through my chest. I took out my headphones to determine its source. Indian percussion reverberated through the wall I shared with Raj. I listened intently. The floorboards creaked with the sounds of dancing. There were two sets of feet. I heard laughter. Shouting. There were two voices. One was Raj’s voice. The other was female.
I laughed out loud to myself and smiled. I smiled because the last time I moved back into my apartment, a lonely man in a foreign land knocked at my door in search of a friend. I spent the semester getting to know, and even befriending this man, while I watched him progressively sink into an abyss of depression. But this time, he didn’t knock at my door. And I knew what this meant. He wasn’t lonely anymore. After nearly two years apart, he had finally reunited with the love of his life. She made it. They were cooking, dancing, singing, and loving each other. It warmed my heart on that chilly winter night. But I also smiled because I recognized the song.
Str8 Outta Mumbai.
Absolutely beautiful ❤ You should write books like Atul Gawande!
Hope you come back soon, love your writing man!
This really moved me, in a way I can’t really describe.
Absolutely phenomenal writing, you’re a great person and I hope you did really well with your exams 🙂
Much love ❤
Dude, this was phenomenal. The way it starts out so harmlessly and eventually descends into panic was awesome storytelling, and the conclusion was executed to perfection. I came to your site for the Step 1 advice but I keep checking back because of stuff like this. Keep doing what you’re doing. I’ll gladly pay money for a book of stories like these.
Wonderful story! Keep them coming!
Awesome job man always enjoy your stuff