The maitre d’

« No thanks, I don’t drink, » I say, putting my hand over the top of my glass. It’s a classy joint, so I don’t get the usual stink-eye. The maitre d’ (I told you it was a classy joint) offers me a Virgin Caesar, fizzy water, fruit juice. I settle on San Pellegrino, after he rattles off a bunch of choices. He brings it in a bourbon glass with a slice of lemon and a cherry for colour. My date is not impressed, clearly thinking I failed her.

She whispers, “You didn’t tell me you don’t drink.” I whisper back, “I didn’t think it mattered.” She huffs and puffs. “Well, I’m having a drink.” This simple interaction has become my personal acid test for new relationships. It exposes the insecurities and feelings of self-worth of my counterpart in subtle and obvious ways. At first, I was apologizing for my choice, explaining my motives, pretexting health issues. The truth is, I drink when I feel like it, and that has become less and less often with time.

My vis-à-vis grabs her drink and chugs it back with a vengeance. I attack my appetizer in silence. She seems to be seething. I am curious. I feel I am conducting a social experiment. The asparagus is tender. I love the taste of vegetables in season. And this chef is amazing. I am immersed in the sensations in my mouth. I glance up to ask my date if she’s happy with her choice and find her looking at me, glass in hand. She peers over her glass, “You’re not gay, are you?” (That’s a new one!) “Why would I be gay?” “You seem pretty intent on your food.” (Oh my, wait till I tell Emily about this.)

I thought I’d kept my face neutral, but the maitre d’ quickly appears at her side, concern etched on his features. “Is the appetizer not to madam’s taste?” Olivia has not eaten a bite. She dismisses him with a wave. You can almost hear the wind as she shoos him away. He floats off with a sad look, his eyes riveted to mine, sorrowful beyond words. When mom passed away, her will stipulated her three children must all be married within three years of her death before any of us may enjoy their part of the inheritance. The spouses stand to inherit half. Emily and Burton are already married, but I am stubbornly single. They have been presenting me eligible women to choose from, in the hope they can start benefitting soon from their inheritance. Of course, I can’t just marry anyone. They’d get a say in the way the fortune is spent. So I’ve been going on these dates with random women, some of whom are quite nice, others who are more “interesting.”

I look up at Olivia, fiddling with her Belgian endives, blue cheese and date. “You seem preoccupied, Olivia,” I say kindly. She rubs her toes on my shin, playing footsies under the table. The tablecloth hides the movement, but I still blush at her audacity. (What would Mother do?) I am not quick-witted. I am slow and deliberate. I am not my mother’s son as this fiasco painfully shows. Mother had warned me about vulgar ladies. The shoddily-applied lipstick was a dead giveaway. We’re just grabbing a bite before heading to the opera. I hope she won’t be disappointed. “How about we skip the music tonight?” she says, pressing her toes to make her point clear. I signal the maitre d’. He fills her glass as she smiles broadly. Minutes later, he comes to the table and whispers “An urgent call at the front desk.”

I excuse myself and follow him. The maitre d’, Burton, can tell when I’m distressed. He’s my brother after all. “What’s happening?” I explain my predicament. “I was looking forward to my evening at the opera, but she’s saying she won’t go. She wants to… you know.” I say, mortified. “What time does the opera start?” “In another hour.” “Take my place for the next 30 minutes. Ask to leave in 30. Emily will call in a replacement” It’s Emily’s restaurant, she’ll understand. We exchange uniforms. I am a bit heftier, so the uniform is tight. My suit looks better on him than on me. He’ll have more success with her. Did I mention we are twins? Nobody ever looks at the maitre d’ or sees beyond the uniform. We’ve traded places so many times in our lives, it just feels natural. Burton’s always seeing me out of a pickle. He walks back in and picks up where I left off. I clear away the plates.


I bring my impersonator the bill, adding a generous tip for fun. I can’t tell whose paying whom with what money. As always, the lines are blurred between identities as well as fortune. We have trouble drawing lines in our family and Mother’s will has made things worse. We’re always discussing, and the family now feels like a gelatinous mass in which everybody wades desperately trying to escape inertia. Burton surprises me by handing me the two opera tickets. Of course, they were in my shirt pocket which Burton ended up wearing. That was a close one. “I hear you enjoy Barber. Tonight, Vanessa is playing. It’s your luck that we are unable to make it. Please have my chauffeur come forward. We’re heading to a nightclub.” We both keep a straight face. My chauffeur has delivered a suitable replacement suit that I will change into for the opera as soon as the couple will have left the scene.

Vanessa is an obscure opera. Those are the ones I enjoy the most. It is perfect in the mood I find myself in, with endless intrigues and reversals. I feel that way about my life. Opera seems to describe me, one aria at a time. I vibrate and buzz, more than any drug could induce in me. The same cannot be said for Burton. Though extremely moral and extremely married, he considers it his duty to right a wrong. He tells me later they did go to a nightclub. Because she was looking around, he concluded she was looking for the ladies. He wanted to show her a good time and directed her to the powder room, in this club, the room with the powder i.e. cocaine. She came back sniffling and in a great mood. He had ordered champagne. “I told her I don’t drink!” “She forgave you. I said “I” didn’t drink… when I ate.” I grunt. “She loved the music, complimented me on my taste and stopped flirting with me. I invited others at the table and found her a suitable companion. I told her I had to leave but she could have my chauffeur drive her back when she was ready. The usual.”

We may be twins, but he’s the other side of the mirror, and my reputation doesn’t concern him as much as it concerns me. I’m seen as the bad boy because of his impersonations, yet I can’t manage without him. It’s Cyrano de Bergerac all over again and we all know how that ended. It wasn’t pretty. I may end up marrying loyal Mabel, whom Mother did not hold in high esteem. We’ve been to all the same schools, our families know each other, our grandfathers had a falling out after they tried to enter in partnership. Marrying her would tie our families closer than ever, which Mother did not want. I think Dad had an affair with Mabel’s mother, which would explain the antagonism. It’s a real soap opera. Maybe I should get both our DNA tested discreetly to ensure we’re not half-siblings. That would explain the attraction and the prohibition. Emily suggested I look into online dating sites. She said it in jest, but she may have a point. I am running out of suitable candidates and I am loathe to submit Mabel to the indignity of a DNA test. What if she were our half-sister? Then she should inherit too. My head spins. We only need to avoid procreating so we don’t inbreed.


I need to get this settled. I feel as out of place as an olive in a glass of beer. I move slowly, with the grace of an ocean liner, dignified and sturdy, ancient, classic. Two years have passed and time is running out. Emily and Burt don’t want to be cheated out of their inheritance. The three of us meet to discuss the issue. We bat around some ideas, a ball – I don’t dance – the Internet, I tried with no success. We’ve gone through our relations, distant cousins, younger women. None of the ideas please me until Emily lobs the tennis idea. I happen to love tennis. Emily will propose a tournament for eligible female bachelors. The cup they are competing for is my hand. At the end of the tournament, I will declare the winner. I fancy myself a good judge of character and sports to me are a great way to reveal character. In my view, mental toughness is what distinguishes the best players from the fray.

The tournament attracts thirty candidates, some unlikely, but I am willing to entertain them all. They know what is at stake and are fighting for my attention and affection. I watch every game, and take notes. The sore losers, the bad-tempered, the mild mannered, the poor players, the whiners, they all get a rating. I decide who makes it to the next round. In a game, sometimes both adversaries advance. Some get eliminated in the first round. It is exhilarating. I now have eight potential mates, all equally interesting. Some of the ladies who have been eliminated have hung around to see who the winner will be. I keep an eye on them as well. Mabel is in the rejects, which shows the high quality of the applicants. Their reactions are still interesting to me. They are all coached by their mothers, and that shows me the family dynamics as well. Every evening, I pour over my notes. It feels like a reality show. I feel omnipotent. We’re down to a quadrille. I decide to have them play double, on a whim.

It turns out to be an excellent idea. I rotate them to see how they interact. I can’t decide between Mia and Madison. They are both rated equally high tied in the top spot. We regroup and discuss strategy. At this point, Burt says to go to the one I am most physically attracted to. Emily counters that I’m looking for a life partner and that physical beauty fades, where internal beauty improves with age. I agree with Emily, but I don’t know how to proceed. I turn to her for more ideas, since she’s the one who came up with the tennis tournament. “Now you need to interview them separately. You know their temperament. They are both steadfast, tough, impassive, and display impressive sportsmanship. Now you need to know what they expect from you.” It is sound advice, as always. My twin is out of his depth, as am I. I decide not to meet them over a meal, seeing that I had so many disastrous experiences. I decide to go on a walk with Mia. We stroll on the compound and sit in the shade. We talk. I decide on Madison, almost instantly. We announce the winner.

I am asked by the mothers to explain what made the difference. I am ashamed to tell anyone, even my wife-to-be. I make up explanations. In my heart of hearts, I know it’s because Maddy is just like Mother. Strong-willed, righteous, tenacious, and so I love her and she, in turn, will love me. Both Emily and Burt rejoice. The inheritance is ours to share. Mother smiles in her grave. She will live on, through Madison’s spirit if we don’t have children. It is the perfect choice.

Pothole

Gail loved her life in the almost countryside, the gravel driveways and lush greenery. She was not as keen on the neighbours who drove too fast by the house. Her two girls played by the side of road, rode their bicycles, chased the dog. Gail had repeatedly asked the municipality for a speed bump or a traffic sign, but to no avail. She decided to take matters in his own hands.

She was a design artist by trade, had studied Fine Arts. She decided her best bet would be to create the illusion of obstacles. It was spring. Potholes seemed in order. Using the actual potholes as a starting point, Gail took pictures of them at different times of the day, in sunny and cloudy weather. She did not bother to capture their likeness under the rain, since the girls were seldom out in foul weather, and people were more cautious in bad weather.

One day, she came out with her paints and brushes and proceeded to create first her first trompe-l’oeil. Her project included three potholes, strategically placed to take advantage of the existing ones. The drivers would not know which were true and would need to slow down because of the uncertainty. She did one the first day, brushing the pavement to clean the surface, positioning her garden kneeling pad to protect her knee. Gail wore an orange vest and a sun hat and had positioned a few traffic cones to secure the area. The first car slowed down, waited, then went around. Amanda was driving the second car that went by. She rolled down the window, “What are you up to?” “Protecting the kids,” she answered laconically. Amanda parked her car in her driveway and took the groceries in. A few minutes later, she came by on foot, holding two popsicles. “Break?” she offered.

Gail got up, surveying her work with a critical eye. She took the orange popsicle, her favorite flavour, and took a few steps back. Two neighbourhood kids came by to look, one on his bicycle, the other on a skateboard. They looked at the paintbrushes, tilted their heads. “What are you doing?” “It’s a safety initiative,” she replied. “What does that mean?” “I’m painting things on the road to make people slow down.” He was rocking his bike back and forth, nervously. He couldn’t wrap his mind around it. “Do you think it will work?” “I don’t know, it’s an experiment.” “Will you change it over time? Add debris or sand, or pebbles?” “That’s a good idea. I haven’t thought this far ahead.” The boy who had been quiet spoke up. “You could paint water and the reflection of the tree there.” He pointed at a maple. Then the kids would want to splash around and they’d be all surprised when nothing came out.” She smiled. She had eaten the popsicle quickly, because of the heat, and was ready to go back to work. “Thanks for the ideas, guys.”

She knelt down and finished the painting. The boys stood watching and grunted their appreciation when she sat back on her heels, her work done. “When can we ride over it?” “Give it an hour to dry. I’ll remove the cones when it’s ready.” They rode off. When she took the cones away, they came racing down the street only to avoid the hole at the last minute, hopping over it. She clapped. They clapped back. “It looks real,” the cyclist said. “Hard to tell the difference,” opined the skateboarder. The three of them got out of the way. A car was coming. The driver slowed down to avoid the pothole. High fives all around. She waited a few days and painted a second one. She was more daring, and made it bigger, adding cracks in the asphalt around it. There weren’t many people around during the day. She felt safe.

The residents grumbled about the state of the street. Some took side streets, others complained to the municipality. Soon, a municipal truck came and a workman came out with an orange spray can. He circled the offending potholes, including the trompe l’oeils. Gail came out. “Excuse me, sir? Please, these are not real.” He stopped, annoyed. “Do you mind if I take a few pictures of you with the potholes?” “What for?” “To send to your superior.” “Go ahead.” “May I have their name?” He handed her a card on the back of which he scribbled the name and email address she required. The kids were back, listening, one on his bicycle, his friend on his skateboard. “You can’t put asphalt over this, it’s already flat. Look.” She walked over it. He raised an eyebrow and dipped his toe. Hard surface. “Well, I’ll be.” He crouched and passed a hand over the “hole”. “Did you do that?” “Yes, I called the city and they wouldn’t install a speed bump. The drivers weren’t paying attention to the speed limits posted. There are a lot of kids in the neighborhood.” She pointed to the boys. The man smiled. “Can you paint some in my street? I’ve forbidden my kids to ride their bikes at certain times. It’s just nuts.” “I’ll see what I can do for you,” he added. It was his turn to take down her coordinates.

That evening, the phone rang. A local journalist wanted to write a story on her “installation”. Would she be willing to be interviewed? After the article came out, her services were in high demand. Her art was very realistic. She started making larger pieces, speed bumps and collision debris. At first, she charged a nominal fee, to cover her material, but as demand grew, she started charging more. It was still cheaper than getting a crew to do the work and it tricked people into paying attention. Her own city hired her part time as a consultant, recognizing her efforts in making the streets safer.

The fakes had to be labeled, so the guys filling the holes would not get fooled into trying to fill them. They had been ridiculed enough the first time it happened, when a video went viral on the Web.

The Smell

Sir Lewis wrinkled his nose and turned his head this way and that. It smelled of animal waste, neglect and something overripe. He was wearing evening clothes, on his way to a concert. Perfume hid the highest notes of the ripeness, the rancid smell of unwashed body. Sir Lewis always arrived late to avoid the throngs. He was approaching a string of concertgoers, well-clad, the tail-end of the audience. He headed toward his personal box to which he never invited anyone. He went for his own enjoyment and that did not include offensive body odors, small talk and insincere smiles. He wore his own brand of formal wear. To an untrained eye, Sir Lewis could have been mistaken for the maestro in his black coat and tails, but the white silk cravat and elegant pin were uniquely his own.

He settled in his box for the soiree, as the lights dimmed. The concert was about to start. To his dismay, the cloying smell hit his nostrils just as he was opening himself to the first notes. He started wondering if it was emanating from himself and checked the soles of his shoes. He was relieved to find them immaculate. Other boxes were full of white-haired patrons, the ladies in evening wear sporting high-powered binoculars they trailed on the guests in the other boxes. The music was incidental to their enjoyment of the evening.

He tried to relax into the music, but he could only taste the villainy of the smell. Ten minutes in, there was the discreet knock as a bottle of champagne in its iced bucket was quietly wheeled in. Uncharacteristically, he turned to catch the wait staff’s eye. They were well-trained both in avoidance tactics and reading body language. This was a senior gentleman, soberly dressed with an impressive mustache. One expected to see him wearing a monocle. He was rotound, like the Monopoly man, and dressed similarly. Sir Lewis motioned him near. “Dear man, can you smell this foul odour?” The man inhaled, then wrinkled his forehead and nose in alarm. “Oh dear,” he uttered and raised a gloved hand to his mouth in alarm. He was momentarily flustered, but thinking on his feet he said “I will return shortly.”

True to his word, the door opened again before long and in he came accompanied by a young man with shoulder-length hair and a borrowed jacket. The young man nodded to Sir Lewis and methodically searched the floor with a flashlight, finally whispering something to the older gentleman who had been standing motionless by the door. The waiter approached Sir Lewis and murmured, “We are quite certain the smell is coming from the adjoining box on the left. We will attend to this. In the meanwhile, the dignitaries would welcome you if you so desire.” Sir Lewis was a man of action. He nodded his thanks and followed the gentleman to the dignitaries’ box where he was indeed welcome. He knew most of the faces, if not personally, then by virtue of their standing. All this movement was done in semi-darkness as to not disturb the musicians or people’s enjoyment of the concert more than necessary. He was painfully aware of the other bodies around him.

To mask his unease, he grabbed a pair of binoculars adorning his seat. Every armchair was similarly endowed. He watched the box where the old man and the youth were performing their cleverly disguised search. They had wheeled in a small cart with an assortment of drinks which they proceeded to offer. An old woman in a splendid sequined gray dress with matching pearls and badly applied lipstick was escorted out. He thought he saw a large dark spot on her backside. A lady-in-waiting accompanied her. Without waiting to be fetched, he hurried out to intercept the pair. As soon as he turned the corner, the stench hit him. He looked into her unfocused eyes. They were the colour of a stormy sea, and the fog in her mind blanketed them. She was impeccably coiffed, but missing a diamond earring. She had stuck a diamond stud in its stead. He bowed and said, “Madam” as the lady-in-waiting, crimson from embarrassment, hurried past him.

The old lady was inching by and he could ascertain without doubt that she was indeed the source of the smell.  She was shaking her head and complaining, “But why do we need to leave? I want to stay for the concert.” She whirled her cane in wild arabesques. She had stopped her progress and stood transfixed, humming with the music. He started listening through her ears and felt her performing in Venice in its splendid opera house La Fenice. He had heard her as a boy, transfixed by her virtuosity. He approached the women and addressed the white-haired dean. “Lady Daniella, I am Sir Lewis, a long-time fan. Champagne is waiting for you in my humble box. I hope you will not be disappointed with the view. I am afraid the choice of location was based on the best place to hear, not to see.” He took her arm and walked her back to his seat, and handed her a flute of champagne. The old waiter had seen the development, and he came back with canapes and extra flutes.

Sir Lewis was a true gentleman, quick to remedy his faux pas. He blocked out the smell. At the intermission, the lady-in-waiting and Lady Daniella exited. On their return, lady Daniella exclaimed, “Can you believe it? I’m wearing a diaper.” She pointed her cane accusingly towards her companion. “She said I smelled!” When he didn’t answer, she added, “My hearing is still exquisite, but my other senses fail me.” They chatted until the lights dimmed again and the music started in earnest. His charge had fallen asleep, mismatched earrings and all.

Broken Heart

I spent the first two years trying to forget and the following ones trying to remember. “Murderer,” she growled. “Murderess,” I corrected mentally. That attitude had gotten me nowhere. The cell was dingy, and it didn’t help that I had to share it with Belle. I had asked for a pail and water to at least wash my half, but the guard had laughed it off, saying something to the effect that dirt attracted dirt. I learned quickly not to retaliate in words or otherwise, and that bureaucracy is heavier than the weight of years.

My life derailed on that fateful night, but to be sure it had veered off course well before. The first hint that I was off track came when I told him “we” were pregnant, and he suggested we go out and celebrate. By that he meant get drunk and I didn’t think that was a great idea. He growled and complained when I explained it would harm the baby. The random beatings started soon after. Even then, I held out hope. I guess I started complaining to a higher authority and when the prayers didn’t work, I became the instrument of justice. Well, poison did.

It turns out in the end I lost the baby, him, and myself. Poison leaves a trace and I was deemed an unfit mother after I was accused of the crime. Most of that time is a blur, coming back to me in snatches with Dr Melissa’s help. I think Melissa is a lovely name, unlike the sordid ones around me. Melissa had me read regress back to my childhood. I was born in a well-off family. I have since revised my assessment that it was a loving one. Apart from basic physical needs, I was not offered much. Had it not been for Coco, I wouldn’t have turned out human.

A dog’s love will surpass your own tenfold. We had each other and she lived as old as she could. It was clear she did not want to leave me, even when she became blind and lame. But Mother had a heart of stone, and she dispatched her when I was away at College. The best part of me shut down that day, and for years it cried by itself, hidden away in a cave/cava; the left ventricle by all accounts. It’s a small room, that chamber. The perfect place to hide and never be found. I developed an irregular heartbeat around that time and was diagnosed with a faulty heart valve. It was not life-threatening in the short term, said my appointed cardiologist, but in time we would have to remedy the situation. A faulty bomb was ticking away inside me.

Surgery is what he had in mind. For the following years, I had to follow a strict regimen and be the subject of scrutiny. I allowed it, since I did not feel I quite inhabited that body anyways. When I met Jed, I was mesmerized. He was tall and strong, with a dove’s tattoo on his neck. He believed in world peace but had trouble controlling his anger. He was tender towards me, and easily jealous. Jed and I became lovers quickly. My body wanted his, and I obviously had already taken leave of my mind by then, so I didn’t object. The baby materialized quickly, as though she had been waiting for an excuse to come to me. I hoped it was a girl and secretly called her Colette, Coco for short.

I was eight months in on the day the Earth flipped. I had just come back from bringing our car to the garage. It had died on me, all lights flashing on the dashboard, a silent cry for help. A tow truck had delivered us to our mechanic who took pity on me and drove me home at the end of his shift, grocery bags and all. I hadn’t yet settled in to make supper when Jed arrived, famished, and started yelling the usual. Instead of cowering, I stood up to him for the baby’s sake. I did not want her to learn bad habits. I knew she was taking it all in and I wanted to be strong for her. I had made up my mind that I couldn’t stay with Jed, but what to do next was beyond ne. My family, never supportive to start with, had practically disowned me when they met Jed. I could see their point, in a way.

We lived in a shack. There is no other way to describe the kitchen with a dirt floor, a typical summer kitchen that was used year-round. Empty beer bottle cases were stacked on one wall. We used them as a makeshift counter. Another stack had the full bottles. The house was tiny; we slept on a mattress on the floor of a mezzanine – hot in all seasons. We had an outhouse. I was stubborn and called it home. There was another room downstairs, for resting. It had chairs and a table, and an ax and wood for the stove. Jed had carved a few things for the baby. He got lost in himself when carving and the toys were beautiful. I could see his tender heart through the dove and the car, and the little animals he fashioned out of wood scraps. We had mice. It was easy to understand how they came in but why they stayed baffled me. There was close to no food in the house, but of course what they considered useful was different. They ran on the rafters and I found droppings on the bed. I had visions of the baby getting eaten alive in its crib. Mice like soft clothes or down comforters. We had heavy woolen blankets and I am sure those would do just fine.

I had bought rat poison. I wanted to make sure we got rid of the infestation before the baby came. I had sprinkled some in the corners, all the while apologizing under my breath. I did not wish them harm, but I saw no other way to protect my baby. It was a lengthy affair, my movements slow, my feet heavy, one hand on my tummy, the other distributing poison. I had poured it in the salt shaker, to sprinkle it evenly. Under Jed’s screams, I hurried supper. He had gone outside to chop some wood, to calm himself down. I had made the usual, soup, and when came time to salt it, my hand paused by the shaker. That’s when the thought came to my mind. I didn’t use the rat poison – it doesn’t work on humans. It’s made to be bitter and elicit vomiting. No, a girlfriend had given me herbs to induce a miscarriage and, with a knowing look, told me the dosage and the likely consequences. She had told me to be careful of overdosing, explaining the dire consequences. I had been numb but taken in the information and the herbs, letting them dry alongside the rosemary and thyme. I ground them in a fine powder and added it to his bowl, along with honey.

It was a Friday, and he always had a few drinks. I set a bottle on his side and called him in. We ate in silence. He did not comment on the soup but drank a few more bottles. He slept poorly. I felt him toss and turn. Of course, by that time, with my big tummy, I hardly slept at all. He told me he had cramps, and I feigned concern. He was sweating profusely, and I pressed a cold compress on his brow. He was feverish. I did not want him throwing up and cleansing himself. I hushed him and made crooning noises. He fell into a heavy sleep, helped by the alcohol he had ingested. Morning had come. I cautiously went down the ladder, started the fire and put the kettle on. He stirred. I brought him more soup with the special herb mixed in. He drank it all. His body tried to reject it. He vomited but choked on his vomit which is ultimately what killed him. I went out in the snow to fetch a doctor. It was a long trek and the doctor concluded he died while I was out getting help.

I went into labour. His sister made the funeral arrangements. They were simple, in keeping with our means. I attended, with my newborn girl, dazed all the while, getting condolences and congratulations all in one breath. It would have made me crazy if I had been sane.

 

 

Bird

I am with my new friend Karen from school. She hung out with the not very popular girls. If I’d taken a minute to think about it, and shamefully, furtively, I did, I knew that the class divide ran along money lines. We lived in a suburb and the self-assured ones were rich. I was never quite sure where my family stood, where I stood, because we did not discuss money at home. To make matters worse, our home stood in a no-man’s land of a few houses, neither here nor there, but close to the bus stop where everyone congregated. Because of that uncertainty, I hung out with everybody. The popular ones were nice and friendly, but their easy familiarity made me cringe. The bulk of us were regular friendly. We had our gripes and our loud laughs. We did not try to be proper. The third group was flotsam, held together by chance and currents. They seemed rather sad, rather shy, a little bit slow and dull. They wore hand-me-downs from a long line of siblings. One girl always tried to look perky. She wore new clothes from a discount store, and accessorized but was not a full member of the middle group. I don’t remember the boys. They were just an unkempt, dusty, noisy mass with its own divisions. In class, we worked together, the bright and slow, the boys and girls, in teams of three that varied by subject. The teacher broke down our carefully constructed order to create teams of equal strengths. Nobody objected. We didn’t know we were allowed. We tested the waters, made do with the new friendships, the boys not that bad, the outcasts a good lot too.

I head out to Karen’s after class one day, to do an assignment there. She lives on a side street on which I’ve never set foot before, in a three-storey apartment building I didn’t know existed. The apartment has its own smell, as dwellings do, but my nose does not recognize what makes it different from ours. I am ushered in the family room and introduced to the adult there, an aunt, surely not the mother, as mothers are active and working. I don’t have a stay-at-home mom, but I do know that stay-at-home moms offer us kids freshly-baked cookies or healthy carrot sticks. I look around the tight space, cluttered ceiling-high with porcelain figures in coy positions. They are funny-looking, none of those high society ladies with pretty dresses. No, these are unfamiliar models, dwarf-like in their desire not to take up too much room. I stare at them curiously, wrack my brains to find something pleasant to say, come up with a lame “I love their colours,” which seems to do the trick. They’re all shiny, clearly loved, and I respect their status in the family. Knick knacks are not welcome in my home. “They gather dust,” says my mother dismissively. That’s not true, of course, only if you don’t love them.

On top of the massive television, an older model encased in wood, sits a bird cage and a bird called Tiki. Before she married, Karen’s mom was a waitress at a snazzy downtown bar called the Kon Tiki. “We served the best Mai Tai in town,” she says. I nod, suitably impressed, though I have never seen a live Mai Tai. “It’s an exotic drink, with an umbrella stick.” I smile and nod, feeling like a fool. “That’s where I met her father.” Her voice trails off. I’m not sure if the story is finished. I turn back to Tiki. We watch him jump from perch to perch, in a dizzying dance. Maybe I am making him nervous, my voice too loud, my smell offensive, my thoughts foreign. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I certainly feel I don’t belong, looking in from outside, navigating an unfamiliar terrain mined with unknowns. I don’t know how to be myself, so I resort to being polite which also feels wrong but safe. I look at Karen, who beams back at me. “Isn’t he funny, jumping like that?” she asks. “Does he do that often?” “Only when Tiger wants to play with him.” Tiger is a tabby. He’s lying on a frilly pillow, tail twitching, eyes unblinking. His ears perk up when he hears his name and he lets out a meow. I think the bird is sensing my unease as I watch it trapped in its cage. It’s a real cage, with bars, a small mirror, toys, a feeder with hulls swimming on the surface. The water may not have been changed recently, as debris mar the surface. Tiki is molting but I don’t know that. I see feathers littering the bottom of the cage, and half feathers poking through the bird’s plumage. Tiki seems to be pecking his wings as though he’s mad, like those girls who cut themselves. Or perhaps there used to be two birds and only feathers remain. I shudder at the thought.

I look for their bookshelf so we can swap stories but I see none and I suddenly suspect there is something deeply wrong with this place.

On my walk back, I can’t get the bird out of my mind. My friend laughed when I suggested we open the door. “Tiki doesn’t want to leave its cage, not with Tiger around. When we clean the cage, he grips our finger and never lets go. Poor Tiki bird! His wings are clipped so he won’t fly away.” I dream of Tiki, free, singing from joy, with other birds for company, doing what birds do. Instead, his best friend is his reflection in a mirror, his universe his toys inside, the cat outside. There is a rock in my stomach, and it weighs heavily on me.

Knitting Wars

JoJo wore knitted socks, and scarves and sweaters and hats. She made them standing up, sitting down, in the subway and in front of the television. Knitting was her passion and her life. When she had first taken up the craft, JoJo had given away her pieces, but they were not received with the gratitude they commanded so she stopped sharing them and soon her tiny apartment filled with her creations. She expanded her horizons to include progressively more complex patterns and became adept at modifying them to suit her fancy. In her mind’s eye, JoJo could spot any flaw as she scanned the instructions and computed the rows. She would rearrange colours and add a bit of texture here and there to create her own versions.

She embraced the Internet, and started contributing her own patterns, establishing a following of like-minded knitters. They competed for complexity and beauty. Those were exciting times in the knitting community. She met Darlene online, and their friendship bloomed. They shared their most cherished patterns and memories of successes and failures. Darlene was her one true friend until that fateful day. At first, JoJo thought she was mistaken, but when confronted Darlene admitted to the deed. She had been in a slump, unable to create anything new, and had resorted to reusing one of JoJo’s early patterns, altering instructions slightly and adding a few twists to make it hers. She was unapologetic which made matters worse.

JoJo was unravelled. She had thought they were so tightly knit that they could withstand anything. She tried to put the incident behind her, so precious was their friendship to her, but the hurt kept surfacing, like a mistake that glares at you in the first row, so much so that you have to start over. JoJo’s trust had been breached. She decided to test the waters again, and excitedly shared with Darlene a new pattern she had created for Halloween. It was intricate and challenging, a whimsical cat hat made with angora wool, complete with pointy ears and a long tail topped with a pompom. She could feel Darlene’s lust at the design. Sure enough, it pushed her over the edge again. Darlene changed a few stitches, added paws that trailed on the cheeks and a ball of yarn that attached under the chin. War was declared. For every design came a counter-design, a pathetic effort at creativity.  Darlene was standing on JoJo’s shoulder, letter JoJo do all the heavy lifting and sharing the glory. JoJo’s patterns reeked of frustration; Darlene’s stank of complacency. The result was an eccentric mix that made their followers go wild.

A newcomer to the knitting community had launched a campaign to cloth elephants that were suffering from the cold in India. Soon, all eyes were set on India. JoJo saw the elephants as giant billboards for her promotion. She poured over pictures of lavishly dressed elephants in the maharaja’s times and outdid them in colourful yarns. Hers were the prettiest, with an eye for using comfy wool against the cold. The art was ephemeral, as elephants scratched themselves against trees, leaving soft fluff behind. The birds loved the wool and used the long strands to build comfy nests for their brood. All over India, tattered elephant sweaters littered the landscapes and for years after the cold spell, knitted flowers were seen adorning nests, with JoJo’s signature cross-stitches. Those were seen as lucky omens. JoJo eggs became all the rage, said to bring riches to the ones who ate them. Unfortunately, she was never able to put her hands on one and had to settle with glory in faraway lands.

Paper

The ceremony was held without her body, to put her soul to rest. By the time he’d heard the news, she’d been dead and buried overseas. He had dreamt of her, pale and evanescent, which told him her ghost was unmoored. He wanted to set things right. He didn’t like the feel of paper on his lips. Having written the name of his late mother on a piece of paper, he wasn’t ready yet to see it go up in smoke. He let his lips linger longer than appropriate, a long exhale, like her last breath. He stifled sobs but the tears were streaming freely down his face, a flood of conflicting emotions. Her death had been sudden, unexpected. He had trouble accepting the reality of it. He lay the piece of paper in a gold bowl which the monk lit up amidst chants.

It was hot, where he was. Everybody moved slowly under the white sun, sleeping, no, collapsing, when it was at its apex. Even the bugs were drowsy, looking for shade. He thought the sand would turn to glass, a brittle layer burning the soles of his feet. He felt feverish, as though he had absorbed the heat and it was scorching his insides. He wondered if he was suffering a bout of malaria or grief. He could not tell.  Neither would go away. After the ceremony, he had another dream, of his mother still, this time floating on a boat down a river. He had the feeling of an underground river, in darkness and damp. She was unmoving, lying still on her back, the barge loaded with gifts. He woke up to see a servant with a concerned look on her face. She had put a wet, cool washcloth on his brow. When he opened crazed eyes, she held a cup of weak tea to his lips. He drank greedily and went back to his dream.

He was in a barge himself, alongside hers now. They had picked up speed, the current was trying to tear them apart. He had tied both barges together, but the knots kept coming undone and he was desperately trying to stay with his mother. He grabbed on to her barge and tried to climb into it, but fear overtook him. The river was boiling now, bubbling and stinky. The barge was hot to the touch. He let go and his mother’s barge sped ahead caught in a whirlwind that sucked her down and away from his sight. He woke up, heart pounding, sure that she was dead now, with a deep hollow in the pit of his stomach.

The worst of the heat had abated. He was drenched in sweat, perhaps feverish. He walked to the terrace and heard the muezzin’s call to prayer. So many ways to appease the gods. He poured himself a whisky. The drone of the prayer settled his nerves.