Earlier this December in 2018, after drinking my third cup of mocha coffee and ignoring the tightness in my stomach, I drove from New Brunswick to Jersey City, an hour each way. I passed the pawn shops and restaurants serving burgers and burritos. Gradually, the sunlight thinned and the houses and diners flipped on their Christmas lights. Although I wanted to keep going, the pain in my stomach grew, causing me to regret not taking my lactate pills. So, I rushed home instead.
A few weeks later, I invited Mark and Aslam on another mini-road trip. Originally from Pakistan, Aslam is a Ph.D. student like me while Mark has been continuing his education in public policy at Rutgers following his incarceration. Both enjoy dissecting politics, whether it be exploring concepts of justice and morality, which is a subject important to Aslam, or deconstructing the effects of capitalism, as Mark often does. Yet, as we drove past strip malls and gas stations glowing in the dark as if being beamed up by spaceships, our conversation gave way to debating what we should eat.
“If you give me some bread, some gravy, I’m happy,” Aslam said while in the backseat, his cadence measured.
Mark agreed, adding, “If it’s cheap, then I’ll go for it.” He laughed and so did Aslam.
We decided on an Indian restaurant tucked behind a Dunkin and just beyond the New Brunswick campus and afterwards, we drove to the nearby town of Somerville.
“New Jersey is a strange place,” Mark said, as we watched men wearing suits and women dressed in coats heading inside its main restaurants, “You can have a rich town next to a poor city, still segregated from each other.”
Eventually, we stopped for ice cream and talked until the avenue looked deserted. While Mark detailed growing up in Camden, Aslam would ask questions. Occasionally, Aslam would also, remind me to eat my ice cream before it would melt. I made sure to take my lactate pills before digging my spoon into mounds of chocolate.
. . .
The more I reflect on 2018 and what it may embody for us in the future, the less and less confident I am in identifying its significance, even in the present. The ending of 2016 and 2017 and what each year stood for was much clearer. By the end of 2017, we were drained. We organized with our union, attended rallies between teaching, and never ceased writing. Our hair begun to fall out and we’d spend hours at the Wawa parking lot, sipping on chocolate milk until our stomach would cramp up and we’d rush home.
Parts of 2018 did feel isolating and gray and it seemed like 2018 would be a repeat of the years before. But after passing exams and attending a two-week training on interviewing and social science research in Syracuse over the summer, we were beginning to re-assess. My girlfriend always encouraged meeting new people and as old friendships unraveled, I finally understood the significance of what she said.
Therefore, as the summer faded and as the world ends, I made it a top priority to set aside time for others. That meant getting to know my comrades from the Democratic Socialists of America beyond our time organizing. With Mark and Aslam, whom I grew closer to when we were all organizing for the Rutgers faculty union, I’ve texted more, called more, and planned future trips. I’ve even decided to share more time with my mom and dad, which often means watching overly dramatic Bengali shows with them.
I’ve also sought to be more in the moment with my girlfriend. We now cook together while listening to Anderson.Paak and we explore places we love like Jersey City, which is what we did to celebrate the end of 2018. We rented a hotel room and packed enough lactate pills to last us the weekend and spent all night and day exploring the local shops and restaurants.
. . .
I hope by the time you’re choosing to read this that the detentions of children and human beings at the border have stopped. I hope that the Democratic Party has been replaced by a party that is more daring and just. Most of all, I hope that more and more ordinary people have already been taking to the streets, occupying businesses, and confronting those who want to maintain the status quo.
Most likely, the problems we’ve been facing at the tail-end of 2018 have persisted. Most likely, 2018 to many people will be difficult to differentiate from previous years. Our minds are inundated with news, filled to the brim with both the sensational and disappointing.
Yet, in terms of what we can control, I hope you and I are still thinking fondly of 2018, especially its end. I hope you and I are still looking back at 2018 as the year we became more open to others, more willing to spend time with those we care about. Willing to spend hours debating movies and podcasts and different theories about liberation and education.
Hopefully, you read this every so often and don’t wait until it’s too late, until you’ve again, become isolated or, have given up on friends. I know you know that you and I know that’s definitely a possibility, especially given the times we’re in and how difficult it is to maintain connections with people while working and surviving. The frustration and sadness are always lurking and there are still days when we’re staring outside windows with the rain falling as if trapped within a meme. Our anxieties can still find ways to torment us when we’re by ourselves too long. A couple of weeks ago, I was too afraid to leave the house, thinking that I would be run over by a truck or a tractor for some reason. Of course, it didn’t happen but it took time for me to shake off the dread.
When writing this, I sometimes, close my eyes and imagine the kind of person we’d be ten years from now. I couldn’t quite see how you look (I’m assuming we still have our hair and haven’t grown any shorter…). In fact, I picture your hands, our hands, holding this letter after a promising day of writing and teaching and that your students have all joined the protests occurring outside city hall.
I picture you reading this and remembering to buy more lactate pills. You will put down this letter and head to the nearest pharmacy, excited for the night ahead.
P.S. And if you’re not where you think you want to be, if you’re not the kind of person you hoped to become, then put down the pen and shut off the laptop immediately and turn to those you love. Laugh with them. Cry with them. Be with them.
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Sudip Bhattacharya is a Rutgers University Ph.D. student and instructor in political science who focuses on race, class and social justice. He has a master’s degree in journalism from Georgetown University. His work has been published at CNN, The Washington City Paper, The Lancaster Newspapers, The Daily Gazette (Schenectady), The Jersey Journal, Media Diversified (Writers of Colour), Reappropriate, New Politics, AsAm News, Jaggery, The New Engagement, and Gaali Gang.