When Saara heard the front door open and shut, she called down the stairs, “Did you bring the mail?”
A gust of cold air raced past her and she shivered. Winter had lasted too long this year. She was so ready for those cheerful little snowdrops to poke up through the hoary ground and announce that warmer weather was coming.
Sahil dropped the briefcase by the umbrella stand and headed straight for the bar. Every time he drew his right foot forward, he hesitated slightly before setting it down. He reminded her of that children’s story where the bear has a thorn in his paw. Was it the mouse who finally saved the bear? He didn’t remember.
While Sahil opened the cupboard and clinked the bottles around, he called back to her.
“Four o’clock in the post office is a mob scene. I’ll go after dinner.”
“We have to check the apartment too. The new tenant wants to move in this weekend, and I haven’t been there since Mr. Bakshi moved out.”
“Mr. Bakshi moved out?” He was joking.
It had taken them almost two months to convince Mr. Bakshi to leave. It had required daily consultations with him, at first one or the other of them on the telephone, eventually in tandem and in person. Two years ago Mr. Bakshi had wangled his way into the apartment with a sob story about downsizing and an ex-wife and a revolutionary invention that just needed some intensive investment of quiet time. Saara, the creative one, had sympathized. Sahil, seeing the softening of her frown, had simply scratched through the typed lease with the changes she suggested. Appropriate, she said, in light of Mr. Bakshi’s obvious depression. They allowed him to spread the deposit over two months and to pay less than the previous tenant for the first year.
Sahil’s warning aside, the reduced rent had eventually dwindled into no rent and convoluted written treatises on the evils of accumulated wealth. It had taken the threat of legal action before Mr. Bakshi had finally agreed to pack up his odd collection of thrift store clothes and computer equipment and disappear.
“I thought you went over last week?”
“I was working on a story.”
“Ah, of course. Writing’s more important than eating.”
“You, creep. You could’ve gone yourself if it was so damn important.”
Sahil kissed her “Let’s walk over after dinner. Supposed to be shooting stars tonight.”
“I haven’t started dinner.”
“I’ll do it.”
Saara poured herself a glass of wine and traipsed back upstairs to the neon computer screen. She might have time to finish this chapter. Sitting in the straight-backed chair where she’d spent the afternoon, she mused and typed sporadically. You couldn’t just spit out a novel. You had to think and arrange things in your head.
No one understood, not Sahil, not her mother, neither of her sons. Writing fiction took a lot of time. Some of the most successful writers said they were lucky if they wrote five pages a day. On a good day, she could write ten. Her writing friends loved this book, so she must be doing something right. It was the publishers she had to convince. Well, first an agent.
Directly below the study she heard water running in the kitchen, some pounding, a whirl of banging, and a fine-tuned whining. It must be the blender. In spite of Sahil’s comments about production—his business school background made him think dollars first—he supported her writing. More than merely funding a lifestyle that allowed her not to have a paycheck job, he listened to what she shared, made suggestions, and marvelled at the good parts. She sipped the wine, then read back over the last couple of paragraphs.
Her protagonist was a little flakier than she’d intended. Sometimes the characters did that all by themselves, distanced themselves from her in unexpected ways, the same way her sons had done. Anuj lived half way across the country, unmarried, but making a name for himself as an environmental engineer. At least that’s what he said in his weekly telephone calls. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe him. It was just that it was not easy to verify, and she wondered why he was driving the same old car he’d had in college if he was so sought after in engineering circles.
Samar, Anuj’s much younger brother, was very different. He spent months at a time with them, dragging around, berating the latest girlfriend or employer who never understood him, until Sahil would put his foot down and Samar would find another job. They would move him and his stuff, always within a two hundred mile radius of their house. She’d buy a week’s worth of groceries, and they wouldn’t see him for a year.
She reread the last paragraph again. Smells from the kitchen seeped through the floorboards of the house with the February chill. She slid off the chair and found a pair of Sahil’s wool ski socks in the laundry basket and put them on over her own socks. If they were walking to the apartment, she’d need a heavier sweater. She rummaged in the closet.
“Virginia Woolf, I presume?” Sahil announced, tie hanging loose from the open collar and his shoes in his hand. He was grinning.
She giggled. “Dinner’s ready.”
He leaned down to look at what she’d been writing. After blinking his eyes several times in front of the computer, he shook his head.
“You don’t like it?” she asked.
“I must need new glasses. It’s all blurry.”
“It’s the whiskey.”
“Oh, good,” he chuckled, “You just saved me hundreds of dollars.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Even the stars looked frozen in the frosty night. There was not a single cloud and no moon. They walked slowly, mostly, she thought, from the wine.
“What’s with your foot?”
“What’s the matter with my foot?”
“You’re favoring the left one. Like you stepped on a shell and cut yourself.”
Sahil didn’t answer. With his head tipped backwards, he gazed into the sky. “It’s damn cold out here. I hope he’s really gone.”
“Well, I thought he was packing time around.”
“He was, but there was still a lot of junk there. Plus, you know Mr. Bakshi. He could live out of boxes if his plans fell through and he had nowhere else to go.”
She began to dread their arrival. The apartment was only three blocks from the house. When the condo unit had come up for foreclosure, they’d bought it cheap. One year Samar lived in it when he had a local job. Sahil believed real estate investments were the best, but she hated the frantic phone calls when the furnace conked out or the disposal backed up. That had been one nice thing about Mr. Bakshi, the little things never bothered him. He had bigger issues to confront.
No lights were on, that was a good sign. While she stamped her snowy feet on the mat, Sahil unlocked the door. There were two mountainous garbage bags of trash in the front hall. Tenants were so lazy.
While she was checking the hall closet, Sahil shouted, “Saara, I need the plunger. Saara.”
Checking under and around the furniture they’d rented with the space, she passed through the living room, noticed the stack of Playboys, and shuddered. You never really knew anyone. On the tiny porch, suspended above the ski slope, she found the plunger, hanging upside down in a mangled metal clothes hanger. When she tugged it loose, loads of water flew out and smashed on the concrete. For all she knew, Mr. Bakshi could have been measuring rainfall for one of his kooky inventions.
“I’m coming,” she yelled back to Sahil who was still bellowing obscenities.
The smell was overpowering. She couldn’t stay to watch him. Back on the patio, she sucked in the fresh air and wondered if her boys ever took the time to look at the stars. Poor Sahil, it had been his idea to take this nice peaceful walk and Mr. Bakshi had intruded his cruddy personality one last time. She should be helping.
They dragged the trash bags out to the landing and contemplated the best way to manoeuvre two flights of stairs. The elevator was carpeted and she hated to risk leaving an indelible odour there, if one of the bags sprung a hole.
“Hello,” a bright voice spoke above her head. Saara looked up the stairwell at a young woman.
“Hello,” Saara answered.
“You haven’t seen Rahul, have you?”
“He lived there, in that apartment you’re moving into.”
“I don’t think so, Mr. Bakshi lived here.”
“Rahul lived with Mr. Bakshi.”
“Oh,” Saara said. The queasy feeling in her gut tightened into anger.
“Whoever the hell he is, he’s not here, but he left his . . . ah, garbage.”
The lady stepped back out of sight. “Jeez, lady, you don’t have to be so ugly about it.”
Sahil appeared, disheveled and red-faced. “Who are you talking to?”
“Some girl upstairs. She was asking about Rahul.”
“Who the hell is Rahul?”
Saara found the mop under the bed. She hated to think how it had ended up there. After she mopped the floor and put the mop out on the balcony to air, they locked up. Walking home, they held hands, despite their ski gloves.
“Sorry about that,” she said.
“How could he do that to you? You contributed to his fundraiser for endangered animals.”
“Never mind. It’s over. Let’s stop for the mail.”
The post office was empty. Low wattage bulbs made the corridor, lined with metal boxes and Most Wanted posters, seem more depressing than normal. Sahil extricated the key from his pant’s pocket and, without looking, he wadded the envelopes into his parka, zippering them inside the pouch in the front of his jacket.
“Did you call your mom to tell her we’re coming through next month?”
“Did you call the accountant about the taxes?”
“Yes,” she crowed, knowing full well he had expected another failure. She deserved it.
The telephone was her adversary, waiting in ambush, brazen and confident that she was too chicken to stop and dial. She hated the phone. That had been part of the problem with Mr. Bakshi. “I’ll call tomorrow. I promise.”
She could feel the heat from Sahil’s body, even in the wintry air. After this walk, they could’ve gone home and stripped for a communal shower, snuggled by the fire and fallen asleep in each other’s arms. If Mr. Bakshi hadn’t interjected the chaos of his life once again. The image of the filthy garbage wouldn’t go away. And who the hell was Rahul anyway?
Because Sahil went straight to the shower without a kiss, Saara stayed in the kitchen. While she waited for the kettle to whistle, she slit the envelopes and laid out the contents, one by one. The desirable address stopped her. It was the agent for her first book. A thin envelope, definitely not a contract. They really knew how to pick their weapon. She read it three times. According to this stranger, it lacked narrative tension and the characters were not consistent.
“Damn,” she said, “Damn, damn, damn.”
Above her head, the shower stopped draining inside the ceiling. She went up, passing Sahil in the bedroom. She swatted his rear.
“Feel better?” she asked.
He grunted and disappeared into the closet.
She ran the bath as hot as she could stand it. Lying in that pulsing heat, with her head back and the wine glass casting shadows on the white walls, the sad evening hovered in the shadows of her consciousness. Like a great bear, Sahil puttered around on the other side of the door, then sank onto the squeaky bed and snored almost instantly.
She dissected the sentences in the agent’s letter. The problem, she decided, was that island life, what she’d written, didn’t appeal to big city people. The slow rhythm of the beach and the sun—marguerites and mangoes—that life was too foreign for them to understand. She didn’t need to re-write. She needed another agent.
When the water cooled, she towelled off, dressed in Sahil’s socks and a flannel nightgown and returned to the computer. The phone rang. She rushed to answer it so it wouldn’t wake up Sahil.
“Saara? Why are you up so late?”
“It’s only eleven, Mom.”
“So what are you two lovebirds up to?”
“Sahil’s asleep, I’m writing.”
“Ach, you ought to be in bed with that man.”
“Me too, Mom. But the agent wrote today, and . . .well, it’s not good news.”
“They don’t want it?”
“They think it stunk.”
“Well, they, she said it had some problems.”
“I don’t know why you’re writing a novel anyway. I read an article about a woman who won a million dollars with a recipe. Why don’t you just write a recipe?”
Saara groaned. “Is that what you called to tell me, Mom?”
“Of course not, but you brought it up, about the writing and all. I wanted you to know that Anuj called and he sounds fine.”
“Thanks, I just talked with him Sunday.”
“So you’re glad he’s engaged to Julius”
Saara sputtered, groped for the wine glass on the side table, and gulped the rest.
“Sure, sure,” she answered, “Good news, eh?”
Her mother was uncharacteristically silent. Saara could imagine her standing with one hand on her hip, staring her down the way she used to in high school when Saara appeared at the breakfast table with a skirt that was too short.
“You like her?” her mother asked.
“We don’t even know her, but if Anuj likes her, that’s fine with us.”
“Hmmph,” her mother was breathing heavily into the receiver.
“I gotta go, Mom, I’m in the middle of something.”
“Fine. I am sorry about the agent. Maybe if you took a course at the University or something.”
Saara felt like crying. Instead she threw the 14th edition of the Chicago Style Manual into the trashcan. She’d better call Anuj. She always called him at the office, but, if he were engaged, he wouldn’t be working this late. He’d be with her. Julius.
She couldn’t find her purse. With Anuj’s home number. “Damn,” she muttered, yanking the closet doors wide and eyeing unlit corners. It wasn’t in the living room or on the dining room chair where she normally left it. She muttered as she went.
“That agent is an idiot. She doesn’t care about good writing. She just wants politely correct porno scenes, someone famous doing it with a minority drug addict.”
She raked her hand under the sofa. No purse. Tiptoeing into the bedroom, she checked her bureau. No purse. She must have left it at Mr. Bakshi’s. She pulled on jeans under her nightgown and laced her hiking boots over the heavy socks. She let the door close gently and stomped off across yesterday’s snow.
In the apartment she held her nose in the scarf while she searched without any luck. “Mr. Bakshi, you little creep. You and your stupid ideas and your illicit roommate. If you think you’re getting that deposit back after the garbage stunt, hah.”
She stumbled back to the house in the dark. The wind cut right through her layers. In those three blocks she could have become an ice sculpture.
Sahil found her on the sofa, her shoulders heaving. “Babe, what’s going on?”
“I can’t find my purse. I’ve looked everywhere. I thought I left it at the apartment, but it’s gone. And that guy Rahul, whoever the hell he is, has a key and by now he’s probably charging things all over town with my credit cards.”
“I thought I heard the phone.”
“My mother called to tell me I ought to be writing recipes.”
He looked at her crooked, started to smile, but didn’t after all.
“Poor Saara. Come here.”
He held her to him. Through the flannel she could feel his heart thumping, slowly, steadily. Hers flopped wildly. She tried to concentrate on aligning hers with his. She tried not to think about the purse and the agent and her flaky protagonist.
“I’m sorry about the mess in the apartment,” she mumbled.
“Do you think Mr. Bakshi and Rahul were . . . ?”
“Anuj’s engaged, and he told Mom and not us.”
“I always leave my purse on that chair.”
She pointed and they both turned to look, not letting go of each other. There it was, the black leather strap gleaming in the pale light of the stars.
“Shhhh,” Sahil said, like he meant it.
Image Source: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/duhhquagliato/2166907441/]