pest control: a memoir

When I stepped into my Pune apartment, I wasn’t just hit by the dust, bugs, and general mayhem. I was also struck with an almost reminiscent loneliness. I didn’t have reason to be lonely, really – I’d just spent most of 2020 in D.C. with my parents, whom I genuinely enjoyed living with as an adult, and as a side benefit was closer to my oldest friends than I have been since college, almost a decade ago. I teach at a school dedicated to empowering young women, so I’d decided to fly back to Pune when my high school decided to reopen physical school. Even away from my family, Pune was just a short plane ride (or longer car ride) away from Bangalore, which houses two of my closest friends. But nevertheless, I opened the door to my apartment and was overwhelmed with the feeling that I’d made the wrong decision, that I’d come to a place where I had no one. I suspect that the feeling was less about the fact that I had no one, and more about the fact that I was still unhappy with the reality that I no longer had him.

Hours before, I landed in an airport in Mumbai and followed the liveried chauffeur to the car. I watched the now-familiar route from the Mumbai airport pass me by, looked down at my phone when passing his dorm in Mankhurd, and onto the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. Three hours later, I got out of the car, checked into my temporary hotel room, showered, and crashed.

The next few days were hard. Everything from the remnants of sundried tomato pesto from an August 2019 mother-daughter trip to Italy and homemade pickle from my aunt and grandmother to the undone laundry and half-graded exam papers suggested that I would be away for a couple of weeks, rather than close to a year. I had reading for Harvard classes to study for, lesson planning for Avasara classes, and a never-ending list of chores to make my apartment habitable after ten months of absence. Indian apartments get dusty quickly, but the added complications of an unplanned evacuation to the U.S. and an active construction site next to the building meant that the regular dust was multiplied alongside cockroaches, dirty laundry, and a full and moldy refrigerator.

This was just the second time I’d made the trip from Mumbai to Pune without stopping in Mankhurd. Just the second time that I had no one to call when I landed at 4am, no one helping out with the cleaning or the chores.

In general, I think the conversation around relationships and breakups is wanting (with the exception of some really good literature). In the U.S., we talk about our romantic pasts, but somehow, I still feel ashamed to admit that, 18 months after my three-year relationship ended, I still stop breathing when I drive past his house, still feel lost when I think about my future without him, still sometimes hopeless about meeting someone else that will make me feel as safe, as supported, as optimistic about my future. In India, we simply don’t talk about it – I see squirms when I mention an ex (or, honestly, even a current) boyfriend. With a handful of others, I see a benevolent passiveness – a lukewarm smile that is pasted on their face as I mention an ex, even when I take care to only mention serious, monogamous relationships with presentable men. I see a nodding and a smiling, accompanied with a barely hidden desire that I stop returning the conversation to this depressing subject.

But often, I need to talk. I went from planning our engagement and figuring out an alternative (and shorter-term) contraceptive to my IUD to nothing without warning. I no longer try to construct a narrative of why – that he didn’t want to be with me is a clear enough indicator that we were no longer headed for marriage, I didn’t need to also invent a reason – but I’m still stuck. I yearn for a mildly melancholic meditative peace, not the forlorn emptiness I feel saddled with, instead.

Two years ago, when we were still together, I visited his dorm room and signed in with the security guard, as I did each time. As always, I wrote “friend” where the logbook asked me for my relationship to the resident. Just above my entry was Deepika’s – she’d married his best friend about a month earlier; she’d written “wife” just above my “friend.” The difference between our two relationships on paper startled me, and it frustrated me. I’d known him for four years and we’d been dating for two, and I’d witnessed his friend meet Deepika, date, propose, and get married in a span of 9 months. In many ways, our relationship had more history and depth, but I still had to lie to the security guard so that I’d be allowed inside.

That evening, we argued. It was a minor argument, one that I’d processed as one of the many debates that showed how old-married-couple-y we were, but that he must have thought was indicative of our flaws. I had mentioned that even after we marry, I intended to write “friend” in that logbook. That despite – or maybe because of – the awkwardness I’d experienced in the afternoon, I wouldn’t take advantage of the social advantages of being married. That I didn’t want to reify marriage or impose the same sanctimonious superiority that I experienced daily from some of my younger (but married!) female colleagues. He’d thought that I was overthinking it, that I was making everything about feminism once again, that if he were me, he’d use the “wife” title and relish the benefits that it could garner. He didn’t mean it as a criticism of my feminism, a stance he largely agreed with, but rather as an observation that my politics shouldn’t get in the way of life’s more practical realities. But he hadn’t spent years as a young woman whose marital status was always, always salient – I had.

That day still sits with me – it was the first time that I’d articulated – to myself or to anyone else – the frustration I felt when women I liked used their marital status to signal more experience, stability, or success. In the months since the breakup, I’ve thought about it a lot – that much of my community in India thinks of me as half-finished because of my singleness. The rest see me as some sort of “feminazi” who is destined for singledom because I believe in sex education and talk openly about my romantic past.  

Neither is fully false. I am a feminist. I care about my career, my classroom, and my students. I pursue excellence. I don’t plan on dialing back hours or apologizing for my ambition and commitment to work. I think about how to model, for the young women I teach, the careful balance of agency and wisdom required to navigate Indian society and fight for happiness. I try to be honest with my students about the tradeoffs that the world throws our way, that sometimes it isn’t possible to be both firm in what I believe and be considered realistic or agreeable. I also fulfill gendered career expectations as a teacher; I am unapologetic about crying in public or mothering my students.

I am also single. I can admit that I’d like to get married someday, and wish that I was still on track to get married soon.

Perhaps that’s where the loneliness comes from. From the constant feeling that I’m misunderstood. From always defending myself when others see my breakup as either inevitable or tragic.

Or, perhaps, it’s simpler. Maybe I just opened my door to my apartment and wished that, as I’d come to expect, someone had been with me, insecticide in hand, so I wouldn’t have to decontaminate my apartment alone.  

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