Beyond Vassar

The Last Taxi Ride by A.X. Ahmad: An Excerpt

August in New York City. The place is a ghost town, thirteen thousand cabs desperately roaming the streets in search of a fare.
Ranjit Singh sees the woman in the white dress waving at him from the other side of Broadway and swerves his yellow cab across a lane of traffic. Horns blare and a bicycle messenger shouts Asshole! as he screeches to a stop.

A bare brown arm reaches for the door handle. It clicks open and the cool air-conditioning leaks out, replaced by the smell of hot asphalt, sweat, and the faint, pungent odor of melting bubble gum.

Ranjit watches the woman get into the cab, the same way he watches all his passengers, looking for signs of trouble. Seasoned New Yorkers barely even notice Ranjit’s red turban and full beard, but out-of-towners gape at him, reassured only by the hack license posted on the plexiglass partition. The crazies, of course, want to talk and talk.
This woman is different.

One long leg enters the cab, wearing a white wedge-heeled sandal, each toenail painted a perfect crimson. Her crisp white dress reveals bare brown shoulders, her face is obscured by large oval sunglasses, and her glossy black hair cascades to her shoulders.

“Seventy-second and Central Park West, please.”

Her voice is low and modulated, but there are Indian undertones to it, as familiar as the voice of a long-forgotten lover.

I know this woman, he thinks, then corrects himself. That’s absurd.

He nods in acknowledgement and pulls out onto Lower Broadway, thinking of the quickest route: right onto Prince, swing over onto West Houston, cut through the Village on Sixth Avenue, and then a straight shot through Midtown to Central Park West. After two long years of driving a cab here, the city’s streets are burned into his brain.

They turn and hit a red light. The taxi is caught in the seething, rumbling flow of traffic and Ranjit feels an equivalent disturbance inside himself. The woman in the white dress is looking out of the window, lost in thought, biting down on her plump lower lip.

A memory floods through him. He was still a cadet at the Military Academy in Chandigarh, and on one stifling hot Sunday he wandered into a cinema, bought a ticket, and sank down into a seat, enjoying the air- conditioning.

He’d entered in the middle of a film, a romance, apparently, because the heroine was waiting under a concrete overpass for her lover. Unlike the other Bollywood actresses, with their ample bosoms and pale complexions, she was dark-skinned and slender, with vulnerable, doe-like eyes. As she waited, it began to rain, and she shrank back against the concrete, biting down into her lower lip. Transfixed, Ranjit sat through the rest of the movie, then bought another ticket and watched it again.

He was twenty-two then, and the actress on the screen was barely nineteen.

The woman in his cab must be in her late thirties now: her voice is an octave lower, her slim figure filled out into womanly curves. Ranjit wishes that he could see her eyes, which are hidden behind oversized sunglasses.

The light changes to green, and the taxi nips around a bus, accelerating so hard that the woman in white is pushed back into her seat. She takes off her sunglasses and clutches them, and he can see her face clearly now. There is no mistaking her long-lashed, liquid brown eyes.

Shabana Shah catches him staring and smiles tiredly. “So you’ve recognized me. If you want an autograph, okay. But I cannot get you a movie role, or introduce your nephew to some producer, okay?”

—The novel will be published this summer by Minotaur Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press.