The term “SWUG,” suffocatingly popular, has swept our campus, and now, the entire nation like a pandemic. Its exploding popularity has thrown the rest of us out of the spotlight and under the bus, and we feel a profound injustice. Here’s a list of key Yale terms that will hopefully help bring us, too, from anonymity to acronym.
SWOO: Senior Without Options. The senior slowly realizing her/she has no career or romantic options after graduation.
BOYS: Burnt Out Yale Student. Took six credits one too many times (once) and needs a full year off to recover.
BaCK: Bass Cafe Kid. Do you even do any work, or do you just sit in the brown chairs and wait for friends to show up?
LiSH: Liberated Senior Honey. Often confused with a SWUG, a LiSH is a fly girl or boy who has realized college is too short to do anything (or anyone) other than what he or she wants .
SWOS: Student Without Standards. It’s hipster. Don’t worry about it.
FatBro: The frat guy who drank so much he’s no longer robustly athletic, he’s just fat.
DKE-Scusting: The ninth circle of male unattractiveness. Probably wearing a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off.
Life of PiPhi: The sorority girl who muploads her every waking moment.
SHAP: Should Have Attended Princeton. Where are all the husbands and eating clubs?
BoCAG: Banking or Consulting After Graduation. Interests include: designer suits, spreadsheets and gold stickers.
SWAH: Sophomore Who’s Always High. Hunh?
CATSIP: Considers Acceptable To Sing In Public? Oh, you have jam next week? Why pay $5 for milk when I got the cow for free all semester?
JOWJ: Junior, Only Wants a Job. Will evolve into a BoCAG.
SAPS: Student Always Protesting Something. Cross Campus = second home, portable whiteboards = critical possession, believes = all other Yalies are heartless jerks.
SWONF: Senior With Oddly No Friends. What have you been doing for the past three years? Realizes he has been befriending extracurriculars and not people.
SSLaR: Secretly Sexy Lab Rat. That super hot person you’ve only seen in Sterling Chem Lab.
UGH: Unreachable Gay Hottie. Doesn’t play for your team, and thus the main source of your angst.
SIDH: Sneaks Into Dining Hall. Time to get on the meal plan.
DOB: Drinks Only in Bass. Nothing like a few shots to get pumped for a problem set.
DJAL: Dat Junior Ass-Licker. We didn’t know there was a varisty social climbing team.
PW: Percy Weasleys. Takes IMs/College Council/tour guiding too seriously.
“I’m introducing myself as KiKi, and I’m a freshman. Just go with it.”
I laugh, and consider my classmate in front of me, decked out in tiny American-flag-print shorts, neon athletic shoes and a Yale sweatshirt. I can’t help but notice that her legs are really, really long.
It’s a bit after 2 p.m. on a blustery, blue-skied autumn Saturday in New Haven. We’re in the backyard of the house of a sports team, surrounded by a couple dozen of Yale’s finest male specimens. Currently, they’re all wearing slim-fitting slacks and tweed sports-coats while drinking champagne out of clear plastic cups. Eighty more bottles of champagne are chilling in ice-filled metal buckets. A freshman on the team is passing around a wooden tray of cheese and crackers. It’s college, but it’s classy, except for the Top 40 music pumping out of the speakers.
And, it has to be said, except for “KiKi.”
“KiKi” isn’t a freshman, even if that’s how she’s introducing herself to the cute new Aussies on the team. She doesn’t care what these young men think of her. Besides, they wouldn’t kick her out — she’s friends with the guys that matter. So unlike the dozen 18-year-old girls present in their pastel party dresses, high heels and hats, KiKi — who clocks in at the ripe old age of 22 — came straight from the gym. To hell with the dress code.
KiKi’s real name is Chloe Drimal ’13. She’s a Yale senior. And she calls herself a Senior Washed-Up Girl: a SWUG.
Unlike Chloe, I followed the rules and dressed up.
Like Chloe, I chat with the guys I know and use my seniority to cut the line for fresh-grilled sausages. But that’s about all either of us are getting.
Just by virtue of my age and the fact that I’m at this party drinking cheap champagne before cocktail hour, I, too, am a SWUG. Wish I had a freshman alter ego.
BOYS ON THE SIDE?
Back in August, journalist Hanna Rosin wrote a story for The Atlantic entitled “Boys on the Side.” Searching to recast the hookup culture of college campuses in a positive, feminist light, Rosin included interviews with some Yale women because she thought we were emblematic of the “modern” type of highly educated woman: the one who wants it all. Today, we want both casual sex and academic success; someday, we’ll want a happy family and a high-powered career. “Feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture,” Rosin writes. “And to a surprising degree, it is women — not men — who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind.”
Rosin continues: “One sorority girl … whom I’ll call Tali, told me that freshman year she, like many of her peers, was high on her first taste of the hookup culture and didn’t want a boyfriend. ‘It was empowering, to have that kind of control,’ she recalls.”
That’s me — Tali.
The previous year, Rosin, a friend and I plopped down on a patch of grass in the Law School’s courtyard to make sense of what was going on at Yale with women, relationships and sex. That conversation become fodder for Rosin’s trend piece.
We all know that college is as much about self-discovery as it is about academia. Bring together 1,000 high-strung young adults. Add the pungent kick-starter of alcohol, splash on some loud music, stick these bodies together in a dark room. Stir.
When I was a freshman, I took full advantage of that scene: I certainly thought there were plenty of fish in the college sea. Plus, all the attention was fun. Then, like many of my friends and peers, I slowly realized that “fun” wasn’t enough for me.
“Sometime during sophomore year, her feelings changed,” Rosin writes of Tali. “She got tired of relation-ships that just faded away, ‘no end, no beginning.’ … When I asked Tali what she really wanted, she didn’t say anything about commitment or marriage or a return to a more chivalrous age. ‘Some guy to ask me out on a date to the frozen–yogurt place,’ she said. That’s it. A $3 date.”
I’m 21 now; to be honest, I’d prefer to be taken out for a drink. But I — along with most of the women I spend time with, and many men here too — am farther from getting asked out on that drink than I was four years ago, when it wouldn’t have even been legal.
You could say that being a SWUG has something to do with it.
The Rosin narrative suggests that feminism exists most progressively and positively when women just stop caring about having serious relationships with men. At Yale, where success is more highly valued than probably anything else — where ambition is a given, achievement an expectation and hard work a mantra — participation in the hookup culture might be a way of liberating oneself from the constraints of the traditional boyfriend-girlfriend mumbo-jumbo. Not caring is a form of empowerment, one that we use more and more often.
And a SWUG — a female Yalie defined by a “don’t-give-a-fuck” or “DGAF” attitude — should be the modern young feminist ideal.
But for SWUGs like Chloe and I, that’s not quite how it pans out. Whatever empowerment we’re supposed to be deriving from this version of the feminist moment is looking pretty thin on the ground. Another Atlantic piece, published just a few weeks ago, pushed back at Rosin’s argument: “I hear young women’s mixed feelings about relationships,” writes sociologist Leslie C. Bell. “Some young women deeply desire meaningful relationships with men, even as they feel guilty about those desires. … To do so feels like a betrayal of themselves, of their education and of their achievements.”
It’s confusing to be a young woman right now — especially if you buy into the traditional narrative of American womanhood. Are we supposed to “Lean In” with Sheryl Sandberg or resign ourselves to the fact that “Women Still Can’t Have It All,” per Anne-Marie Slaughter? Even The New York Times is heralding “The End of Courtship,” in a piece my concerned mother emailed to me. I think she wanted me to tell her the Times was wrong — but I realized I couldn’t.
In a survey I conducted of over 100 Yale students, almost all of the single respondents, ambition be damned, said they were currently seeking a relationship involving dating, commitment or, at the very least, monogamous sex. Basically, the types of relationships which just don’t seem to exist for those of us who are senior ladies, outside of the already-coupled.
Only 33 percent of the senior women I surveyed said they were currently feeling “very” or “a lot” of empowerment in their sexual choices and decisions.
Sixty-six percent of that same group of women recalled feeling “very” or “a lot” of empowerment back when they were freshmen.
My senior year is almost over. I’ll soon go to my last sorority formal, my last frat party, my last night at Toad’s. And at the end of those nights I’ll probably be resigned to going home vaguely dissatisfied and very alone — except, of course, for the company of my sympathetic suitemates. When it comes to my love life, I’ll be leaving Yale in not so much a blaze of glory as a blur of disappointment.
Welcome, then, to SWUG life: the slow, wine-filled decline of female sexual empowerment as we live out our college glory days. Welcome to the world of the ladies who have given up on boys because they don’t so much empower as frustrate, satisfy as agitate. Welcome to what “KiKi” likes to call “SWUG nation.”
The SWUG phenomenon isn’t new. We all see it coming. I came back to campus this fall ready to wear my SWUG status proudly: Now, I too could be one of “those” senior girls who seemed to live with such expansive abandon. And yet. Guys rolled their eyes. “SWUG nation” didn’t seem to quite represent me. As my friends and I hashtagged our tweets “#swug4lyfe,” were we just celebrating the carefree side of seniority? Or were we actually signing on to a self-fulfilling prophecy tied to something a little more sinister?
When Chloe published an op-ed headlined “Profile of a SWUG” back in September, she threw caution to the fickle winds of the Internet and described her version of SWUG life to the rest of Yale.
“I was jealous of them when I was a freshman. They were on a nickname basis with the hottest guys at Yale and danced at the bar of DKE with their shirts off. But looking back on it, I realize the boys were trying to get with the freshmen, not the SWUGs,” Chloe wrote. “She is the last one at every party, because hey — who is she going home with? … She doesn’t give a hoot. She’s single because she wants to be; her daddy told her there’s more fish in the sea. She is a SWUG, and SWUG life is pretty awesome.”
Online commenters were vicious, calling Chloe silly, shallow and self-hating. The article was sent around on email lists like wildfire. Suddenly, it seemed, Chloe had publicized the SWUG idea and made it into a campus meme. She even set up her own website: swugdiaries.com, a home for anonymous swug confessions.
Four days later, another senior girl, Michelle Taylor ’13, published her own News piece about the meaning of SWUG. In it, she attempted to broaden the definition — to show how it could apply to more than just the inebriated and the fraternity-frequenting.
“I don’t like that it continues to be defined by relationships to men at Yale,” she said when I spoke with her later. “If it stays a female term, it has more potential to become derogatory.” By trying to extend it beyond female Yalies, she hoped to break down that bias and to encourage a carpe diem attitude — instead of Chloe’s more aggressively DGAF ethos.
In the survey I sent out, I asked respondents to define “SWUG” for themselves. The results skewed towards the sexual — and the sexist. “Over the hill. Can’t get any play!” one male respondent wrote. “I feel like it’s an umbrella term for sad senior girls,” said another. The word “pathetic” came up in a number of descriptions and “the village bicycle” was also tossed out. The idea of “not giving a shit” or being “over it” was also popular, as was the image of a senior girl who hooked up with younger guys in a futile attempt at romance. A full 49 percent of respondents said it had negative connotations for them.
I also asked how students had first heard the word “SWUG.” About a quarter said they had discovered it through Chloe’s article. None mentioned Michelle’s.
My friend may be a junior, but she sees SWUG existence looming ominously on her horizon — just as I did last year.
During freshman year, she tells me, she was pleasantly surprised by how little effort she needed to put in to find a guy to hook up with. “Empowered isn’t really the right word, but there was an easiness,” she says.
We’re both sitting cross-legged on the lofted bed in her room. It’s a mess. Laundry is drying on hanging racks slung up over the doors and windows, and the hardwood floor is barely visible under piles of discarded sweatpants, tank tops, notebooks.
I ask how she feels about hookup culture now.
“When you get older, you want something different.” She has yet to find that perfect alternative. She has been using the term “JWUG,” the junior version of SWUG, for a while.
Hearing our voices, one of her suitemates peeks in through the open door, munching on an Oreo. When she realizes what we’ve been discussing, she makes a face.
“I would be so happy with myself if I could just feel nothing,” she says. She just wants to not care anymore — to be able to get to some kind of a Zen, SWUG state of mind. But is that even a thing? If that’s what being a SWUG is supposed to be providing me with, I’m not so sure it’s living up to its own reputation. I think back to Hanna Rosin’s thesis of female empowerment through not caring.
The truth is, I still care. And everyone I know still cares.
“It’s almost like being a SWUG is a way to cope,” I offer, thinking of myself, and the nonchalant way I try to react to men these days. I pretend I don’t care, because that’s what a SWUG does. A SWUG is supposed to be so over boys. A SWUG is supposed to be liberated, independent.
And yet here I am, often defining the SWUG experience by the men I am not dating. Michelle Taylor wanted us to get past the SWUG-is-a-girl-who-can’t-get-no-love association, but I find myself stuck there.
Hoping to give my friends some peace of mind, I tell them that SWUG may be a defense mechanism.
Both nod thoughtfully in dejected agreement.
A LOT’S IN A NAME
Back when Laura Wexler, professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and film studies, was 21, the women of her generation were dealing with a different kind of challenge as they approached graduation.
“There would have been a marriage panic,” Wexler says. “You were in college to get an MRS degree. By the time you were a sophomore if you didn’t have a big ring…” she trails off. “There’s been something all the time. It just is.”
I’ve sought her out to discuss whether my and my friends’ experiences have any kind of parallel with those of young women before us. I lean closer to hear her over the coffee grinder at Starbucks — Wexler doesn’t raise her voice.
“Is it normal to peak and then come down?” I ask her. “So, women sort of decline as they age, whereas men — ”
“As you age?” she interjects. “What are you talking about? You’re 22, 23? That’s really a body blow. … Who would accept that script? What a terrible — you get initiated into that as a freshperson, you don’t know what it’s going to mean, then this comes back to you later, and you’re trapped in it.
“I would reject that, myself.”
I have to agree with Wexler. Suddenly the whole thing — the combination of the gendered term SWUG with a carefree, liberated approach to senior year — feels weirdly anti-productive, patriarchal, problematic. Wexler has activated the anthropology major in me, reminding me of something deeper, more unsettling: Words and names have power and resonance. They perpetuate cultural narratives and associations that we either play along with or reject. We may try to reappropriate a term, but that’s much easier said than done.
“You want to call yourself SWUG?” Wexler asks me, audibly cringing. “It feels to me like cutting. Like you’re cutting yourself. But maybe it expresses something. I wouldn’t say don’t, I would never say don’t. But then, you have to think about what it is.”
HOW TO BE A SWUG 101
I don’t really know how I end up sitting in a banquette in the back room of Viva’s, alongside Chloe Drimal and two senior guys as we face a room of a few dozen other seniors, mostly women. Chloe and I keep making passes at the nachos set in front of us; they’re quickly disappearing.
The four of us are panelists for an event entitled “SWUGLIFE: A Colloquium.” We joke that we need margaritas before we get started, but we make do with a pitcher of water.
The “Colloquium” was the brainchild of Natalie Papillion ’13, my suitemate and one of 40 communication and consent educators (CCEs) selected by Yale administrators and trained to improve the sexual climate on campus through open dialogue. Natalie had earlier emailed Chloe’s column out to the other CCEs and their directors, which sparked interest in discussing the term further in a public space.
Then she asked me if I would be a panelist, knowing that I could be counted on to wax poetic about the meaningful side of SWUGdom.
I said yes.
So here we are at Viva’s. I avoid the audience’s gaze. What can I possibly tell my peers that they don’t already know? This event is about taking back SWUG and turning it into a positive. We’re trying to make SWUGlife be associated with FUNlife (gender-neutral, all-inclusive). Let’s go, reappropriation. Is that something I can do?
We start with the basics: what a SWUG drinks (“Tequila and ginger ale,” says Chloe), a SWUG’s favorite late-night food spot (“Ivy Noodle for the dumplings,” I supply), a typical Saturday night for SWUGs (local bars, frats and being alone in our beds figure heavily in the responses). Our audience titters. The CCEs try to steer the panel in a more serious direction, asking what the negative associations with SWUGdom might be.
“That we’re desperate, washed-up, boring,” I answer. “But it’s important to find the positive things.” I mention that it frees us up to care less about what others think of us, and allows us to spend our time doing what matters more to each of us individually.
Afterwards, though, I wonder if I’ve been completely honest. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Aren’t those positive things just natural byproducts of the confidence and self-knowledge that should come with age and experience? What about Wexler’s point about the harm we might be doing ourselves?
Later, I ask Natalie how she felt about the discussion. “SWUG is a term that could be so pejorative, but at Yale, certain communities and groups are working to change that,” she says. I push her further, wanting to know if she thinks Yale women have actually succeeded in appropriating the word in a positive way. “I’m biased, but I do,” she answers. “Labels are problematic, but that being said, the way we communicate has changed so radically for our generation. … Turning these ideas into phrases makes it easier and more lighthearted.” By giving the sentiment a label, we’ve created a sense of camaraderie — and that’s a good thing, in Natalie’s opinion.
As a CCE, Natalie has spent more time than most thinking about problems of hookup culture and gender dynamics on campus. And of course, she too is a senior girl. For her, SWUG life is both theory and reality.
“Do you consider yourself a SWUG?” I tease. She arches an eyebrow.
“Have you looked it up in the dictionary? Didn’t you see my picture?” she shoots back.
THE MALE GAZE
“Does SWUG mean ‘fat’?” jokes the guy across the table.
“Senior Washed-Up Girl, so … sort of,” says my friend, deadpan. He’s kidding, but only just.
I’m at lunch with an athlete friend and two of his teammates. I had hoped they’d provide some male perspective on SWUG.
Now, I almost wish they hadn’t.
“Have you heard of the X-graph of desirability?” I ask, crossing my arms in an X-shape to illustrate the popular theory I outlined for Wexler. As boys age, their desirability rises; as girls age, theirs goes down. “Is that a thing?”
“Yes,” both boys agree. “Spring semester senior year, it’s a fire sale,” my friend says. I groan. “That’s the whole thing — guys don’t get SWUG,” he adds. “Girls are the problem. They all go for older men.” And according to him, the senior girls, the SWUGs themselves, lower their standards to accommodate their newly limited pool of options. So it’s a win-win for the guys.
A few hours later, I run into another senior guy friend in the library. Standing in Bass Cafe, I start questioning him. He doesn’t really think this whole SWUG thing has anything to do with him or guys like him.
“It’s a way for girls to draw attention to themselves,” he says, referencing Chloe’s column. “It can be derogatory if taken literally, but … it’s more of a female psyche thing.”
Oh. I guess that’s one way to see it, maybe one that would come more readily to a guy: This is a crisis of female self-confidence at a challenging time, when Yale women are faced with our real-world futures even as we try to live out our expectations of college. And the clock is ticking.
“I think girls feel jealous of the new breed.”
Yes, but it actually is hard out here for a SWUG, isn’t it? It’s not all in my head, is it?
“Sure, the sexual marketplace gets more competitive. Girls yearn for that youthfulness.” He sees the whole SWUG idea as something of a “cop out” — a way for senior girls who are frustrated to blame some vague societal force of evil. I mention that it can feel like a trap, living this so-called SWUG life where I’m not supposed to care, so I can’t care, and nobody thinks I should get to care.
“Trapped by SWUG? That’s ridiculous,” he says. I frown, trying to figure out if he’s right.
Responding to my survey on sexual experiences and conceptions of SWUG, 78 percent of men said they wouldn’t have a problem hooking up with a girl who considers herself, or is considered by others, to be a SWUG. Still, 22 percent said no. Their reasons?
“Anyone who would self-identify as ‘washed up’ probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea,” said one.
“Unattractive,” said another.
“Because my friends would make fun of me,” noted a third.
And then: “I prefer women who respect themselves.”
I like to think that I respect myself. Yet this whole SWUG thing is starting to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Can I call myself a SWUG if I want to be treated as something more?
THE SWUG SISTERHOOD
I’ve never met Olivia Milch ’11. But I email her anyway. I hear she was at the vanguard of bringing the word SWUG into vogue at Yale, and I want to know where exactly it came from. She responds with a lengthy message.
“What I can say is that the term, for us at least, was about a certain attitude toward life in our senior year,” Olivia wrote in her email. “SWUG is about female camaraderie.” She mentions that it had a positive, friendship-oriented ring to it for her group of friends. That sounds a lot like what Natalie and Michelle want it to mean. Like what I would like it to mean. A kind of feminist banding-together, a recognition of friendship and solidarity. I think back to Wexler’s comment about the “marriage panic” of decades past. Is SWUG-ness a response to that — a way to deal with biological insecurities and to rebel against society’s traditional expectations of women? A fuck-‘em-all, let’s-do-what-matters-to-us kind of attitude that has nothing to do with the images of lackluster sex and desperate partying that it’s grown to encompass?
I wish. Maybe it was that way once. But right now, SWUG’s social meaning at Yale remains about the hooking up that we women are — and aren’t — doing, and how little we’re supposed to let that bother us. It’s become a signifier of not caring. It might exist as a barrier only in the minds of women, but it’s there, and it colors our actions and experiences.
* * *
Dinner is spaghetti with red sauce, an arugula salad and a magnum bottle of cheap white wine. We are six young women in mismatched chairs at a kitchen table in an off-campus apartment, Taylor Swift playing in the background on tinny iPod speakers. We are all, by most definitions, SWUGs: single, given to heavy drinking on occasion, willing to wear sweatpants to the library.
For two blissful hours, we talk endlessly about how much we do care. About the people in our lives. About the things we are doing and will go on to do. About being respected. About becoming empowered. About learning to love and be loved by significant others — and each other.
We are not any old SWUGs, I decide as I carry empty wine glasses to the sink. And we do want it all — equality and individuality, power and humor. If we label ourselves, it’s only because the language has yet to catch up. As the generations of women before us did, we’ll make sure it does.
Go to www.yaledailynews.com next Friday for a series of exclusive ‘WEEKEND for YTV’ interviews with the author and some of Yale’s other finest SWUGS.
I drew a picture of Henry and then began to put posters up around our school. We listed the main attractions — the Dalmatian mice, the Indian King Cobra, the Peacock, the White Lion and of course Henry, who we painted to match Francis’ fur for the grand opening. We charged 500 Rupees as an entrance fee; Ajit wanted to do 1,000 but I thought that was too much, don’t you think? I was going to get all the profit so I could run away from my father. You know, the zoo never would have happened, all you people would have never gotten to be so intimate with such beautiful animals if it weren’t for my father — that’s Ganesh’s doing.
— What do you mean?
She narrowed her eyes. I’m not an idiot; I know you read the gossip section of the papers.
— I’m sorry Miss Hart. I didn’t mean to offend you; I just wanted to hear your side of the story, not the newspapers’.
She sighed. Why don’t we pull out a smoother bottle of scotch? She got to her feet and walked back towards the bathtub. A year before we came up with the idea for the zoo, so when I was 13, my father started coming into my room at night. The first time he just kissed my feet, stared out the window. Hart yanked out a new bottle of Scotch from the tub then turned and walked back towards me, keeping her eyes on the new bottle. But then he started doing other things. I guess he thought it was okay because I wasn’t his actual daughter. I’m not entirely sure if my mother knew, if she realized his half of the bed was empty for long periods of the night, but that’s when I started looking for my real parents. Hart poured herself another glass of scotch. Ajit’s grandfather tried to help me, though I never told him about my father’s night visits. Dada just didn’t particularly care for my parents. He didn’t care for anyone who didn’t have family dinners. Hart took a long gulp of her scotch.
— Did Ruby notice?
Oh, Ruby was gone at this point. Yeah, they let her go when I was nine. I guess Ajit’s family raised me more or less after that.
At this point in the interview the 15-pound pig strutted out of Hart’s bedroom and sat in front of the couch squealing. She picked him up with a huge smile.
Aw Franny, baby. How was your nap? Hart put her nose up to the pig’s snout — the pig licked her back. The pig was indeed miniature and his fur was indeed this strange intricate pattern of red and blues, like nothing I have ever seen before. I kept blinking my eyes to make sure it was real.
Franny, this is an officer who helped to lock that wretched old man away. The pig began to squeal more. Then Hart looked me straight in the eye.
I’m not affected by it you know, I turned out perfectly sane.
The pig settled down on the empty cushion between Hart and me on the Victorian Couch. Hart stroked the pig as she continued.
Everyone in our entire grade came to Ajit’s apartment building on opening day — 88 14-year olds. Everyone had heard whispers of Ajit’s animals, but I was the only one who had actually seen them outside his extended family. Ajit and I split our customers up into two groups and lead guided tours of the animal floor, which now had signs throughout which said “Don’t Feed the Animals” or “Don’t Touch the Cobra’s Case,” or “Please ask an Attendant for a List of Animal Names, Animals Appreciate it When they are Called by their Proper Name and not their Species Name” — Ajit put that one up, I thought it was a little much, but then again it wasn’t my zoo.
People started coming every Saturday. People we didn’t even know, like you. We started to sell monthly memberships. We brought out a tall ladder we found and placed it next to Henry under the Banyan tree so our clients could climb up the ladder and pose on Henry’s back; I would snap their photo with Ajit’s Polaroid camera. We charged 200 Rupees. Ajit also had me take a picture of every animal he ever had. We covered the walls of the front entrance with them. Underneath the pictures we wrote their birthdays with a dash, sometimes their death dates were on the other end of the dases.
— Where were you planning to run with the profits from the zoo?
Well, I found out about my mother at some point during the year we ran the zoo. My real mother. Sometimes you just find out about things if you want to know them bad enough — Ganesh must have helped me with this one. My mother is from South Carolina and was 15 when she had me. Her parents shipped her off to live with her grandparents in New York when she started to show. I was never in an orphanage; it was some sort of private adoption. I’m not sure how that all works. Maybe she wanted to keep me; maybe it was just her parents that made her abandon me and not her at all.
— Are you still going to look for her?
I’m not here to talk about my future, only about Ajit.
— Sorry, Miss Hart.
Anyways, I don’t know how my adopted parents found out about the zoo and the fact that I was collecting Rupees under my mattress, they didn’t know about anything else going on in my life. I don’t even think they remembered my birthday once Ruby left. But somehow my father found out and walked down the road to Ajit’s that Saturday. He was drunk, and as usual, an angry drunk.
Hart bit her lip.
Ajit was the only one who knew about my father’s night visits. I only told him, because I wasn’t entirely sure if it was wrong or not. If that was something that all adopted kids had to endure.
— What did he say when you told him?
Hart stroked her pig, who began to inch farther away from me and nuzzle its snout underneath one of Hart’s needlepoint pillows.
He said he would pay.
Hart poured herself more scotch.
Ajit isn’t a dangerous person. How could anyone that loves animals be? But sometimes I think he understands his animals more than humans, and thinks that it is acceptable to handle life the way animals do.
— So your father coming to the zoo …
Yes. There were only about 20 kids roaming the second floor that day. I remember I was standing in front of Pirima’s case explaining the importance of the Indian King Cobra to a boy about 3 feet tall when my father walked in. I don’t like seeing people out of place, and my father certainly did not belong in Ajit’s zoo; he taints all magic in the world. He stumbled over towards me and all our clients started to move out of his way. Ajit just stared at me from across the room.
— Did he say anything? Yell at your father?
In a way, but my father can’t communicate the way Ajit and I can … My father started saying awful things. I don’t know if I even knew what cunt meant at 15, maybe I did. But I just remember knowing he knew my plan to run away. He knew everything. He lunged at me and squeezed my neck with both hands. I probably would have been knocked to the ground, but Pirima’s glass case stabilized me. I remember not being able to breathe, my world started to spin; I started writing the first line of my obituary. Fifteen-year-old American girl choked to death by drunken father, sandwiched between him and an Indian King Cobra case.
But then all of the sudden I could breathe again. All of the sudden my father was on the floor, his eyes wide open staring at the glass ceiling above, with Pirima latched onto his left hand. She held on tightly, long enough to get an adequate amount of venom into his blood stream to send him into a 10-day coma, but short enough so that he wouldn’t die. When she was done, she released her grasp and slithered over towards Ajit.
And then I ran. I ran all the way to the Vipassana in Igatpuri where I had gone to with Ajit once. I guess I assumed Ajit would come find me when the time was right, when things with my father were settled. But he never came. And then I read about his disappearance in the newspapers.
— But Miss Hart, what about the case, the cobra, how did he get out to bite your father?
Her name is Pirima. And you figure it out, you’re the detective, Ramaj, I was the girl being choked.
— I’m sorry Miss Hart. I paused. Expecting her to continue, but she only stared at me. So, how did you get here?
Hart looked at the pig and then took another sip of her Scotch.
Well Francis found me after about a year. I came back from painting meditation and he was just sitting outside the door to my bedroom, as beautiful as ever.
— Do you think Ajit brought him there?
Maybe, or maybe he just told Francis where to find me. It doesn’t really matter.
— Ajit never came?
You are fully aware he didn’t … After two years I received a telegram from Ajit’s grandfather telling me about how my father had embezzled from the American Embassy. Dada told me it was safe to come home. So I did.
When I got home, I went into my bedroom and checked the mattress to see if the Rupees were still there. They weren’t. If my father was going to steal from the American Embassy, you better believe he’s going to steal from his adopted daughter.
There was a note though. A note from Ajit. It was an address.
This is it. This is the address. Ajit bought me an apartment, it’s in my name, but I didn’t pay a dime for it, and I have no mortgage on it.
That’s the last contact I’ve had with Ajit.
Are we done now?
— Wait, Miss Hart, What about Ajit’s grandfather. Did he ever tell you where he is?
No. When I saw him that first day I came back we talked about happy things. He gave me a sterling silver cigar case and a necklace with a Ganesh charm. He died the next day, the day I was planning on prying more about Ajit.
Hart finished her scotch in one big gulp.
I don’t know exactly why Ajit disappeared. Maybe it was Ganesh’s doing. Maybe he left because I left. Or, maybe he was worried people would ask questions, because a snake doesn’t just bite a hand. A snake doesn’t just put enough venom in its prey to put it into a coma but not kill it. Maybe that’s why Ajit ran, or maybe he knew Pirima would inevitably be kicked out of the apartment building, and he wanted to make sure she found a new home. Ajit would do something like that; he would spend seven years finding Pirima the perfect home.
You know, Ramaj, magic is like a drug, once you get a taste for it you’ll only want more, but I have a feeling you know this.
I wanted to kiss her, no I had to kiss her. I lunged at her. The pig squealed, but she kissed back and I lost feeling in my toes. I saw her world, her story. I saw her and Ajit as children, lying across the highest branches of the Banyan trees staring at my younger self, staring into my soul. And then I let go. And all she did was smile, take off her sunglasses, get up and walk towards the front door — the pig followed close behind. I quickly grabbed my notes, put my tape recorder in my pocket and followed her, not knowing what would happen next, hoping she would pull me into her bedroom, I wanted another taste, I needed another taste.
But, she opened the front door.
Thank you … I always knew.
At the time, I didn’t know what Miss Hart was thanking me for, but then again I also didn’t understand why I was the only detective in Mumbai that still wasn’t able to let the Agarkar case go.
Stella Hart disappeared a week later. At first I just searched for her at the corner teashop where I had first found her. But then I was able to get a warrant for her apartment. It was barren, except for the bathtub in the back corner.
I walked closer towards it and stopped when I heard a female voice whisper my name. I sent the other officers away telling them to wait for me outside.
I took a deep breath, and continued to walk towards the tub.
And there was the King Cobra curled up in a ball.
She looked up towards me and then slivered up and around my body to rest on my shoulders, like an old friend.
Place: Malabar Hill Police Station, Ridge Road, Mumbai, India
Interviewer: Detective Ramaj Nitu
Interviewee: Stella Hart
I’m the only one who was ever able to interview Stella Hart about Ajit Agarkar’s disappearance, something I now understand they did on purpose. It took Agarkar being gone for six years and my buying Hart a cup of tea at the teashop on Apollo Street every day for a year in order for her to allow me to step into her sunroom with my tape recorder.
I thought if I had Hart, I would have Ajit. But that was silly of me. No one will ever have Ajit except Miss Hart herself. There was something potent in that sunroom that day, something so potent I was scared to stay too long, yet couldn’t leave Miss Hart, and I think she knew it.
Stella Hart. If you could meet her, you would understand that words can’t describe her. Her mystery, her beauty.
I saw Stella Hart for the first time when I was twelve and she was eight. She was one of three Caucasian girls at our school, but she still dressed in bright yellow saris more than she wore Western clothes. She had something about her, even at eight, which I can’t really explain. We all started noticing her and Ajit when we spotted them lying across the highest branches of various banyan trees at recess. No one understood how they got there; even us boys four years older than them were never able to climb so high, and I still don’t think I would be able to. But we didn’t just notice them because of how high they climbed. We noticed them because they were just looking out at us, and then past us into all of India. We noticed them because they never talked to each other when they were up in those banyan trees. It was as if they spoke to each other in a language we didn’t understand, a language of silence, a language I longed to be a part of.
During the interview, we sat on a yellow couch in the middle of the blue-tiled room. There was a bathtub in the corner of the room, which was filled with tattered books and Polaroid snapshots of animals. There was a puja table next to the bathtub, although when Hart caught me staring at it, she made it clear that she was not a Hindu. A long slinky dress covered her petite 5-foot-5-inch frame. She wore big translucent sunglasses, even when the sun started to set. She was twenty at the time.
Hart hasn’t been seen since September 1998.
– Ramaj Nitu, Oct. 3, 1998.
— How did you learn about Ajit’s disappearance?
I read about Ajit in the newspapers like the rest of the world. Well, yes and no. It’s hard to explain. You all came to question my father eventually. I was hiding at the Vipassana in Igatpuri; you know, the one three hours outside of Mumbai. I know the man that runs it. He kept me safe. My mother had fled the country, so my father was the only one your people could ask about Ajit in relation to me. I’m sure they regretted even trying. Detective Cornwell found him in a booth at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel bar overlooking the Arabian Sea, twirling a gin and tonic in his right hand. His left was probably still bandaged up.
— Where is your mother now?
My mother didn’t leave a note, and I don’t expect her back. I think she was born with a kind soul, but even kind souls can be damaged by the stampede of time.
Hart kicked off one of her heels, revealing navy blue toenails and a henna-covered left foot.
I think she was just lost amongst a culture that wasn’t hers, a sea of colorful silk and elegant bindis, which put me at peace.
She taught me how to keep my nails clean and ordered dresses from New York for me to wear, but she looked at her feet when her drunk husband told the other parents, on the small bleachers lining the fourth-grade soccer field, that I was adopted, that his wife couldn’t carry a child. All she did was pull me out of soccer.
She liked to pretend to be a socialite and had tea with women who didn’t like her. My father was obviously busy at the embassy, so they paid an African lady to raise me. Ruby. God, I miss Ruby.
This was the first time I saw Hart truly smile, other than when I saw her at Ajit’s zoo.
I was always jealous of the tone of her skin, of the way she never burned, didn’t have to wear a huge floppy hat under the Mumbai sun like my mother, didn’t turn red like my father. I felt it made her stronger, richer than anything else I had ever seen. Ajit always came over for Ruby’s cooking. He loved watching her pull at the dough with her hands when she was baking bread. He wouldn’t come over when she was breading chicken legs or boiling lobsters, though. He loved animals too much.
— Can you tell me a little more about life with your parents, life with your father?
It is not important to the story of Ajit’s disappearance. Frankly, it’s not important or interesting for that matter. Ruby is more important.
— Do you think there is a chance of him being released?
You’re the officer, you tell me.
Hart looked me straight in the eye. I looked out the window. She continued once I looked away.
My mother told Ruby not to pack sweets into my lunch, but Ruby chose not to listen. Sometimes she packed me those chocolate Hostess cupcakes with icing in the middle from New York; sometimes she packed homemade oatmeal cookies. On Fridays, she would ride her bike to my international elementary school and drop off a warm lunch in the front office. Sometimes, it was lasagna; sometimes, it was takeout from a restaurant she stopped at en route. My favorite was when she brought me linguini with white clam sauce. At least once a month, though, it was a whole pizza pie with a note taped to the box that said to share it with Ajit.
— Ah. Ajit.
Hart smiled, kicked her other heel off and crossed her legs Buddha-style on the couch at the mention of his name.
I think I met Ajit in kindergarten. I can’t remember, to be honest. We were little, though. I liked him because he could catch butterflies and birds in his brown hands, something I could never do.
Ajit gets along better with animals than he does with people.
— There are rumors that he claims he can talk to them.
Ajit would never claim anything. Even if he can, he would never even share that secret. Some of the magic in life is meant to be kept to oneself. That’s what Ajit’s grandfather told us on the abandoned street when we found the miniature pig with intricate blue and red designs all over his skin, as if he had jumped right out of a painting. The pig squealed by my side the rest of the way to Ajit’s apartment building.
“Stella,” his grandfather whispered to me when Ajit had run ahead to play with the fireflies. “This isn’t something you tell your friends over the cafeteria table, and especially not your parents.”
I looked down at the small pig and picked him up in my arms, he stopped squealing immediately. “Stella, I love you, Ajit loves you, and now this little one loves you too.”
I can’t believe I’m telling you about Francis. Well, you will probably see him anyway.
Anyways, as I said we named him Francis. He is my pig, but we had to keep him at Ajit’s for obvious reasons.
— Where is he now?
Taking his siesta… Can I get back to Ajit?
— By all means.
I was the one that came up with the idea of Ajit’s zoo. He already had the necessities for the zoo, but I helped him organize it. I made it famous. The story of how Ajit’s animals came to be is unclear to me. His mother once told me over Sunday tea that when Ajit started talking, all he wanted was animals, not cricket bats or Legos — animals. It started with dogs, but then dogs turned into boa constrictors and serpents, those turned into Dalmatian mice, and then those turned into larger animals, like his white lion and brown panda bear. Eventually, his grandfather surprised him with an elephant we called Henry.
Hart began to reach over towards the coffee table and opened up a sterling case with a large S engraved on it. She pulled out a cigar.
You don’t mind if I have one, right?
It was Ajit’s grandfather who taught us about cigars and scotch.
Hart began to light the cigar. She walked over to the bathtub in the corner, reached underneath the tattered books and Polaroids and pulled out a bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold Label.
Do you care for some scotch?
Hart walked back over towards the couch.
It may make this story a little more practical.
Hart crossed her legs, allowing her long dress to slide up and reveal her bare skin. She poured me a glass.
For the record, I don’t smoke cigarettes. I think they’re trashy. Only cigars. And I don’t like Madonna.
Ajit and I liked to smoke cigars under the large banyan tree in his backyard. Francis and Henry were always with us. It was always just the four of us: a little petite white girl, a slightly chubby Indian boy, a smiling elephant and a miniature pig whose fur was an intricate design of red and blue. We started smoking cigars under the banyan tree when we were fourteen. We started combining them with Ajit’s grandfather’s scotch when we were fifteen.
— What was Ajit’s grandfather like?
Ah. Dada. I wish he were still alive. Ajit’s father doesn’t care for me very much. He thinks I’m the cause of Ajit’s disappearance, which I guess is true. But Dada would have stuck up for me. I take care of Ajit’s animals, you know.
— I didn’t know that. I assumed they had caretakers.
Well, they do. But I make sure Ajit’s animals are constantly being called by their proper names. It’s the only thing Ajit cares about with him being gone.
— What do you mean? Have you talked to him?
She smirked and looked at me with those big eyes, and her dress seemed to somehow slide further up her legs.
Yes and no … but back to Dada. My favorite memories of Dada are under the banyan tree. He taught Ajit and I the seven chakras of the body and made sure we knew all the different deities. Ajit’s and my favorite has always been Ganesh, with his elephant head — just like Henry. Henry was our personal Ganesh. We liked the idea of his big belly being able to digest whatever life brought. Whatever my father brought, or the summer monsoons. We liked to think that every obstacle put in our paths was put there just for us, that Ganesh had some big adventure for us in the end. I like to imagine him as yellow, like the sun, but Ajit swore he was pink. What color do you think he is?
— I always thought he was yellow.
Ajit always had to be different. But, I guess, so did I, in a way.
We came up with the idea for Ajit’s zoo underneath the banyan tree smoking Dada’s cigars from Havana. At this point, Ajit owned every type of wild animal that existed in India.
— Is that an exaggeration?
Not at all. You’ve been to the zoo. How can you even ask that?
— I didn’t think you would remember.
I remember everything. He kept them in the second floor of the apartment building that his family shared with his grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles on his father’s side. Henry, of course, stayed in the garden — he enjoyed the shade of the banyan tree.
— Was the Agarkar family ever worried about the animals getting upstairs?
Oh no, not at all. We locked the doors to the staircase and even Sacha the chimp never was able to figure out the elevator. At first, we tried to have some sort of organization for the animals. First we thought to organize them alphabetically, but Ajit said that friends, even if they were different species or looked different, like Ajit and I, shouldn’t be separated. So, in the end, there was really no organization, which made it hard for newcomers but put the animals at peace.
— But how did the animal floor become the zoo?
I drew a picture of Henry and then began to put posters up around our school. We listed the main attractions: the Dalmatian mice, the king cobra, the peacock, the white lion and, of course, Henry, who we painted to match Francis’ fur for the grand opening. We charged 500 rupees as an entrance fee. Ajit wanted to do 1,000, but I thought that was too much, no? I was going to get all the profit so I could run away from my father. You know, the zoo never would have happened, all you people would have never gotten to be so intimate with such beautiful animals, if it weren’t for my father — that’s Ganesh’s doing.
— What do you mean?
She narrowed her eyes.
I’m not an idiot; I know you read the gossip section of the papers.
— I’m sorry, Miss Hart. I didn’t mean to offend you. I just wanted to hear your side of the story, not theirs.
Why don’t we pull out a smoother bottle of scotch?
She got to her feet and walked back towards the bathtub.
A year before we came up with the idea for the zoo, when I was thirteen, my father started coming into my room at night. The first time, he just kissed my feet, stared out the window.
Hart yanked out a new bottle of scotch from the tub, then turned and walked back towards me, keeping her eyes on the new bottle.
But then he started doing other things. I guess he thought it was okay because I wasn’t his actual daughter. I’m not entirely sure if my mother knew, if she realized his half of the bed was empty for long periods of the night, but that’s when I started looking for my real parents.
Hart poured herself another glass of scotch.
Ajit’s grandfather tried to help me, though I never told him about my father’s night visits. Dada just didn’t particularly care for my parents. He didn’t care for anyone who didn’t have family dinners.