Robert sat motionless on a black vinyl drum throne the tips of his drum sticks resting against the head of the snare. He lifted a stick above his ear and spun it between two fingers. Robert’s mother had gone out and the house was dead quiet, he was almost reluctant to break the silence. He dropped the sticks against the snare letting them bounce, tightening his grip to press the bouncing into a controlled roll, he increased the pressure and then ended, dead stop, with a rim shot. Robert let the sound echo against the concrete walls of the garage. Bent over, his stringy blond hair in his eyes, he turned one ear toward the snare as if divining a rhythm from it.
Then he began, simply at first with kick and snare, buh-pff – pff – pff-pff-buh-pff. Then adding a closed hi-hat, tik-tik-tik and the thrum of the double bass, buh-duh – buh-duh. Now double time on the hat, alternately opening and closing the cymbals ti-tik-ti-tik-tch-tik-tch-ti-tik-ti-tik-tch. Throwing his head back he raised his left arm above his head before bringing the stick crashing down and coaxing a throaty bark out of the snare. He let the hat open fully and double-pedaled the kick into a dull roar.
When he had finished he wiped his face down with a hand towel and threw it across his neck. Checking the time, Robert grabbed his bike, slung his army surplus rucksack over a shoulder and coasted down the driveway toward the street.
tip-pit-ty tip-pit-ty tap – tip-pit-ty tap – tip-pit-ty tip-pit-ty tap
The scowling elderly Ukranian lady suddenly turned in her cream colored hard plastic chair her head rotating neatly like the girl from the Exorcist.
Robert had been unconciously drumming his fingers on his wooden desktop, a nervous habit.
“I’m sorry.” Robert flushed and felt his ears get hot. 19-years-old and he was still easily flustered.
Ramya looked over and gave Robert a friendly smile, his face darkened further.
scritch-scratch – tick-tap – squeak-scratch – tap-tap
The professor, Thomas, was at the blackboard simplifying equations the sleeves of his pinstriped salmon over-shirt rolled up to his elbows. He’d lost much of the class five minutes earlier, students of all ages signed up for a community college night class in algebra. Thomas was a brilliant young German-born grad student pursuing his PHD in theoretical math at UPenn. He was lost in the tangle of letters and exponents that stretched across the board.
Two x squared plus four.
Robert saw where the string of simplifications was heading and jumped to the solution. He was good at math, it was one of the few things he’d taken to naturally.
“And therefore—” Thomas began, his excellent English betraying a light Germanic accent “—the equation can be reduced to twice x squared plus four.” he finished while turning around and adjusting his trendy glasses with a chalky finger on their thick black rims.
Robert doodled in the corner of his notepaper while Thomas made his way around the classroom to quell the rising objections from the other students. He started sketching a crude penis but felt self-consciously juvenile and quickly scribbled over it.
“Hey Robert.” Ramya leaned over and tapped him on the shoulder. “Did you follow all that? Nice, um, fish.”
Ramya pulled her chair over while Robert awkwardly tried to explain the rows of equations on his worksheet. As she leaned closer a tendril of dark hair brushed his neck. She apologized and tucked it behind an ear. Robert felt hot and became hyper-aware of her closeness. He couldn’t help noticing how the sateen material of her russet colored top fell open at the neck as she leaned forward.
“So, my band is playing the Khyber on Thursday, if you’re interested I could probably get you on the guest list.”
“Hey, thanks, but it’s not really my scene.”
“No problem.” Robert continued quickly.
“But thanks for inviting me.” Ramya soothed.
After class Ramya stopped Robert in the hall.
“My friends and I are going out to a club tonight, do you wanna come with us?”
“Sure, yeah, sounds cool.”
Robert pulled his bike up in front of the “G” Club and locked it at a street sign. The bouncer looked him up and down as he approached the front door: sneakers, bluejeans, and a vintage Slayer T-shirt . “You can’t park your bike there.” The bouncer shook his head and decided not to push the issue. “Got ID?”
Robert made his way toward the dance floor where the DJ was playing a mix of hip hop, Bollywood and Bhangra dance music. Groups of well-dressed Indian men and woman eyed him from raised platforms to either side. Ramya called out to him from a booth where she was sitting with a group of friends. Robert slid onto the leather bench across from her and she quickly introduced him. She took a sip of her drink and made a face “Awful.” she said. She slid it across to Robert. “I’m going to get a better one, be back in a minute.” Her two girl friends quickly excused themselves and followed her to the bar awkwardly leaving Robert and Ramya’s two guy friends all squeezed on one side of the booth.
They were talking about cars. “It’s a scam. Higher octanes are a waste of money. I always use 87.” Said the man closest to Robert.
“Maybe so, but I wouldn’t put anything less than 91 in my LS10.”
The first one turned to Robert. “How about you, have you bought into the ‘premium gasoline’ myth?”
“I don’t know—I ride a bike.”
“Cool, man, cool. What kind of bike you got?”
“It’s a Bianchi.”
The conversation lapsed into uncomfortable silence and Robert took a sip of the cocktail in front of him. He poked the floating ring of pineapple with a swizzle stick.
Happily, Ramya soon returned. “The bar is mobbed, but the dance floor is empty, comeon, let’s go.” She grabbed Robert’s hand and pulled him up, he followed gratefully.
Robert found himself fascinated by the complicated sub-rhythms of the music but utterly confused by the dances. Everyone except him seemed to know exactly what to do. He tried to copy the hand motions of the premium gasoline guy who rolled his eyes and quickly changed styles. Ramya saved Robert from having to decide what to do with his hands by throwing her arms around Robert’s neck. She stretched up on her toes to speak in his ear “You’re a natural—you have good rhythm.” Robert was sure she was just being kind, but it was nice to hear.
Robert excused himself early, Ramya and her friends showed no signs of slowing down. “Thanks for inviting me.” he said, in all sincerity.
“I’m glad you could come.” Ramya gave him a chaste peck on the cheek.
As he rode his bike home, Robert’s heart pounded with a Bhangra beat.
th-thump-thump – thump-thump – th-thump-thump – thump-thump