A north facing balcony meant that no sunlight would enter there. A deep-in-the-heart-of-the-forest green pine tree, over-fertilised opulence extending its midriff, filled the view from the balcony.
There was no window, only a balcony glass sliding door which might have let fresh air in, and released second or third hand air and the kinds of odours that build phantoms in stuffy apartments. But it remained shut. Not locked, but stuck shut in decades of other renters' black oily grit and grime which had collected in the grooves of the sliding door frame.
Vijai knew that it would not budge—up, down or sideways. For the amount of rent the husband paid for this bachelor apartment, the landlord could not be bothered. She opened the hallway door to let the cooking lamb fat and garlic smells drift out into the hallway. She did not want them to burrow into the bed sheets, into towels and clothes crammed into the dented cream-coloured metal space-saver cupboard that she had to share with the husband. It was what all the other renters did too; everyone's years of oil—sticky, burnt, overused, rancid oil— and of garlic, onions and spices, formed themselves into an impenetrable nose-singeing, skin-stinging presence that lurked menacingly in the hall. Instead of releasing the lamb from the husband's apartment, this larger phantom barged its way in. Vijai, engulfed, slammed the door shut. She tilted her head to face the ceiling and breathed in hard, searching for air that had no smell, no weight. The husband was already an hour late for dinner. She paced the twelve strides, back and forth, from the balcony door to the hall door, glancing occasionally at the two table settings, stopping to straighten his knife, his fork, the napkin, the flowers, his knife, his fork, the napkin, the flowers. Her arms and legs tingled weakly, and her intestines filled up with beads of acidic shit formed out of unease and fear. Seeing a smear of her fingerprint on the husband's knife, she picked it up and polished it on hert-shirt until it gleamed brilliantly, and she saw in it her mother's eyes looking back at her.
Sunlight. I miss the sunlight—yellow light and a sky ceiling miles high. Here the sky sits on my head, heavy grey with snow and freezing rain. I miss being able to have doors and windows opened wide, never shut except sometimes in the rainy season. Rain, rain, pinging on, winging off the galvanised tin roof. But always warm rain. No matter how much it rained, it was always warm.
And what about the birds? Flying in through the windows how often? Two, three times a week? Sometimes even twice in a single day. In the shimmering heat you could see them flying slowly, their mouths wide open as if crying out soundlessly—actually, they would be flicking their tongues at the still air, gulping at it and panting, looking for a window to enter and a curtain rod to land on and cool off. But once they had cooled down and were ready to fly off again, they could never seem to focus on the window to fly through and they would bang themselves against the wall, and on the light shade until they fell, panicked and stunned. I was the one who would get the broom and push it gently up toward one of these birds after it looked like it had cooled off and prod prod prod until it hopped on the broom, and then I would lower it and reach from behind and cup the trembling in my hand. I can, right now, feel the life, the heat in the palm of my hand from the little body, and the fright in its tremble. I would want to hold on to it, even momentarily, thinking of placing it in a cage and looking after it. But something always stopped me. I would put my mouth close to its ears and whisper calming shh shh shhhhs, and then take it, pressed to my chest, out the back door and open my hand and wait for it to take its time fluffing out right there in my open hand before flying away.
But here? There are hardly any birds here, only that raucous, aggressive old crow that behaves as if it owns the scraggly pine tree it sits in across the street. This street is so noisy! Every day, all day and all night long, even on Sundays, cars whiz by, the ambulance and fire trucks pass screaming, and I think to myself "Thank goodness it couldn't be going for anyone I know"— I don't know anyone nearby.
Too much quiet here, too shut off. Not even the sound of children playing in the street, or the sound of neighbours talking to each other over fences, conversations floating in through open windows, open bricks. Here even when doors are open people walk down hallways with their noses straight ahead, making a point of not glancing to even nod "hello."
Oh! This brings all kinds of images to my mind: the coconut tree outside my bedroom brushing, scraping, swishing, against the wall.
Green, blue, iridescent lizards clinging, upside down, to the ceiling above my bed.
And dinner time. Mama's voice would find me wherever I was, "Vijai, go and tell Cheryl to put food on the table, yuh father comin home just now." Standing in one place, at the top of her meagre voice she would call us one by one. "Bindra, is dinner time. Bindra, why you so harden, boy? Dinner gettin cold. Turn off that TV right now! Shanti come, girl, leave what you doin and come and eat. Vashti go and tell Papa dinner ready, and then you come and sit down." Sitting down, eating together. Talking together. Conversations with no boundaries, no false politeness, no need to impress Mama or Papa.
But that's not how it was always. Sometimes Papa didn't come home till long after supper time. Mama would make us eat but she would wait for him. Sometimes he wouldn't come for days, and she would wait for him then too.
But there were always flowers from the garden on the table. Pink and yellow gerberas, ferns, ginger lilies. That was your happiness, eh Mama? The garden, eh? And when there were blossoms you and I would go outside together. You showed me how to angle the garden scissors so that the plant wouldn't hurt for too long. We would bring in the bundle of flowers and greenery with their fresh cut garden smell and little flying bugs and spiders, and you would show me how to arrange them for a centre piece, for a comer table, for a floor piece. The place would look so pretty! Thanks for showing that to me, Mama.
Mama, he's never brought me any flowers. Not even a dandelion.
I don't want him to ask how much these cost. Don't ask me who sent them. No one sent them; I bought them myself. With my own money. My own money.
He's never given me anything. Only money for groceries.
I jabbed this lamb with a trillion little gashes and stuffed a dove of garlic in each ore with your tongue, your taste buds in mind. I spent half the day cooking this meal and you will come late and eat it after the juices have hardened to a candle-wax finish, as if it were nothing but a microwave dinner.
I want a microwave oven.
Mama why did you wait to eat? If I eat now would you, Papa, he, think I am a bad wife? Why did you show me this, Mama?
I must not nag.
Vijai remained sleeping until the fan in the bathroom woke her. It sputtered raucously like an airplane engine starting up, escalating in time to fine whizzing, lifting off into the distance.
Five thirty, Saturday morning.
She had fretted through most of the night, twisting, arching her body, drawing her legs up to her chest, to the husband's chest, rolling, and nudging him, hoping that he would awaken to pull her body into his and hold her there. She wanted to feel the heat of his body along the length of hers, his arms pressing her to him. Or his palm placed flat on her lower belly, massaging, touching her. He responded to her fidgeting once and she moved closer to him to encourage him, but he turned his naked back to her, and continued his guttural exhaling, inhaling, sounding exactly like her father.
Eventually, Vijai's eyes, burning from salty tears that had spilled and dampened the pillow under her cheek, fluttered shut and she slept, deep and dreamless, until the fan awakened her.
When the sound of the water in the shower snapping at the enamel tub was muffled against his body, she pulled herself over to lie in and smell his indentation in the tired foam mattress. She inhaled, instead, the history of a mattress: unwashed hair, dying skin, old and rancid sweat-not the smell she wanted to nestle in. Neither would the indentation cradle her; she could feel the protruding shape of every spring beneath the foam.
She debated whether to get up and thanklessly make his toast and tea, or pretend not to have awakened, the potential for blame nagging at her.
She slid back to her side of his bed, the other side of the line that he had drawn down the middle with the cutting edge of his outstretched hand. Vijai pulled her knees to her chest and hugged them. When the shower stopped she hastily straightened herself out and put her face inside the crack between the bed and the rough wall. Cold from the wall transferred itself onto her cheek, and layers upon layers of human smells trapped behind cream coloured paint pierced her nostrils.
Vijai was aware of the husband's every move as she lay in his bed: water from the kitchen tap pounded the sink basin, then attacked the metal floor of the kettle, gradually becoming muffled and high pitched as the kettle filled up. He always filled it much more than was necessary for one cup of tea, which he seldom drank.
The blow dryer. First on the highest setting, then dropped two notches to the lowest, and off.
The electric razor. Whizzing up and down his cheek, circling his chin, the other cheek, grazing his neck. Snip, snip and little dark half moon hairs from his nostrils and his side burns cling to the rim of the white sink basin. Wiping up, scrubbing, making spotless these areas, and others, before he returns, are her evidence that she is diligent, that she is, indeed, her mother's daughter.
At that precise time she always expected a handsome aftershave cologne to fill the little bachelor apartment, to bring a moment of frivolity and romance into the room. In one favoured version of her memories, it is what would normally have happened from her parents' bathroom at this point in the routine. But the husband would only pat on his face a stinging watery liquid with the faintest smell of lime, a smell that evaporated into nothingness the instant it touched his skin.
She held herself tensely, still in the crack between the bed and the wall, as he made his way into the dark corner that he called the bedroom. The folding doors of the closet squeaked open. A shirt slid off a hanger leaving it dangling and tinkling against the metal rod. Vijai could hear the shirt that she had ironed (stretched mercilessly tight across the ironing board, the tip of the iron with staccato spurts of steam sniffing out every seam crevice, finely mimicking the importance of mission which she had observed in her mother) being pulled against his body and his hands sliding down the stiff front with each buttoning.
Then there was a space empty of his sounds. The silence made the walls of her stomach contract like a closed up accordion. Her body remained rigid. Her heart sounded as if it had moved right up into her ears, thundering methodically, and that was all she could hear. She struggled with herself to be calm so that she could know where he was and what he was doing. Not knowing made her scalp want to unpeel itself. Then, the bed sagged as he mounted it, leaned across and brushed his mouth on the back of her head. His full voice had no regard for the sleeping or the time of morning. He said, "Happy Birthday. I left twenty dollars on the table for you. Buy yourself a present."
The thundering subsided, and her heart rolled and slid, rolled and slid, down, low down, and came to rest between her thighs. She turned over with lethargic elegance, as if she were just waking up, stretching out her back like a cat, but the apartment door was already being shut and locked from the outside.
...she pulled herself over to lie in and smell his indentation in the tired foam mattress. She inhaled, instead, the history of a mattress: unwashed hair, dying rancid sweat—not the smell she wanted to nestle in. Neither would the indentation cradle her; she could feel the protruding shape of every spring beneath the foam.
The streets here are so wide! I hold my breath as I walk across them, six lanes wide. What if the light changes before I get to the other side? You have to walk so briskly, not only when you're crossing a wide street but even on the sidewalk. Otherwise people pass you and then turn back and stare at you, shaking their heads. And yet I remember Mama telling us that fast walking, hurrying, was very unladylike.
I yearn for friends. My own friends, not his, but I'm afraid to smile at strangers. So often we huddled up in Mama's big bed and read the newspapers about things that happened to women up here- we read about women who suddenly disappeared and months later their corpses would be found, raped and dumped. And we also read about serial murders. The victims were almost always women who had been abducted off the street by strangers in some big North American city. Mama and Papa warned me, when I was leaving to come up here, not to make eye contact with strangers because I wouldn't know whose eyes I might be looking into or encouraging, unknowingly. It's not like home, they said, where every body knows everybody.
No bird sounds-and there are not quite so many different kinds of birds here. Yes, Papa, yes, I can just hear you saying to stop this nonsense, all this thinking about home, that I must think of this as my home now, but I haven't yet left you and Mama. I know now that I will never fully leave, nor will I ever truly be here. You felt so dose, Papa, when you phoned this morning and asked like you have every past year, how was the birthday girl. You said that in your office you often look at the calendar pictures of autumn fields of bales of hay, lazy rivers meandering near brick red farm houses, and country roads with quaint white wooden churches with red steeples and think that that's what my eyes have already enjoyed. "It's all so beautiful, Papa," I said and knowing you, you probably heard what I wasn't saying. Thanks for not pushing further. I couldn't tell you that he is working night and day to "make it", "to get ahead" to live like the other men he works with. That he is always thinking about this, and everything else is frivolous right now, so we haven't yet been for that drive in the country to see the pictures in the calendars pinned on the wall above your desk. He doesn't have time for dreaming, but I must dream or else I find it difficult to breathe.
The fence around our home and the garden. That's the furthest point that I ever went to on my own-from the house at home, winding in and out of the dracaenas and the philodendrons that I planted with Mama many Julys ago, feeling the full firm limbs of the poui, going as far as the hibiscus and jasmine fence, and back into the house again. Any further away from the house than that and the chauffeur would be driving us!
And now? Just look at me! I am out in a big city on my own! I wish you all could see me! I wish we could be doing this together.
Papa, you remember, don't you, when you used to bring home magazines from your office and I would flip through quickly looking for full page pictures of dense black-green tropical mountains, or snow covered bluish white ones? Ever since those first pictures I have dreamt of mountains, of touching them with the palms of my hands, of bicycling in them, and of hiking. Even though I never canoed on a river or a big lake with no shores, I know what it must feel like! I can feel what it is to ride rapids like they do in National Geographic magazines. Cold river spray and drenchings, sliding, tossing, crashing! I still dream of bicycling across a huge continent. I used to think "if only I lived in North America!" But here I am, in this place where these things are supposed to happen, in the midst of so much possibility, and for some reason my dreams seem even further away, just out of reach. It's just not quite so simple as being here.
This land stretches on in front of me, behind me and forever. My back feels exposed, naked, so much land behind, and no fence ahead.
Except that I must cook dinner tonight.
What if I just kept walking and never returned! I could walk far away, to another province, change my name, cut my hair! After a while I would see my face on a poster in a grocery with all the other missing persons. The problem is, then, mat I won't even be able to phone home and speak with Mama or Papa or Bindra and Vashti without being tracked and caught, and men who knows what.
Well, this is the first birthday I've ever spent alone. But next time we speak on the phone I will be able to tell you that I went for a very long walk.
I think I will do this every day-well, maybe every other day, and each time I will go a new route and a little further. I will know this place in order to own it-but, still I will never really leave you.
Mama. Papa. Vashti. Bindra. Shanti.
Mama. Papa. Vashti. Bindra. Shanti.
Mama. Papa. Vashti. Bindra. Shanti.
Twenty four years of Sundays, of eating three delightfully noisy, lengthy meals together, going to the beach or for long drives with big pots of rice, chicken and peas, and chocolate cake, singing Michael Row Your Boat Ashore, and You Are My Sunshine, doing everything in tandem with her brother and sisters and Mama and Papa-this particular character of Sundays, was etched deeply in her veins.
(Not all Sundays were happy ones but recently she seems to have forgotten otherwise.)
It would be her twenty fourth Sunday here, the twenty fourth week of marriage.
The only Sunday since the marriage that the husband had taken off and spent in his apartment was six ones ago, and since he needed to spend that alone, Vijai agreed to go to the library for at least three hours. Before she left the house, she thought to use the opportunity to take down recipes for desserts, but once she began walking down the street she found herself thinking about rivers, and mountains. She bypassed the shelves with all the cooking books and homemaking magazines and found herself racing toward valleys, glaciers, canoeing, rapids and the like. She picked up a magazine about hiking and mountaineering, looked at the equipment advertisements, read incomprehensible jargon about techniques for climbing, and after about forty minutes, not seeing herself in any of the magazines, became less enthusiastic, and eventually frustrated and bored. She looked at her watch every fifteen minutes or so and then she started watching the second hand go around and counting each and every second in her head. When three hours had passed she remembered the "at least" part and walked home slowly, stopping to window shop and checking her watch, until an extra twenty minutes had passed.
The strength of her determination that they not spend this Sunday apart fiercely warded off even a hint of such a suggestion.
What she really wanted to do was to go for the five hour drive up to a glacier in the nearby mountains. That way she would have him to herself for at least five hours. But he had worked several twelve hour shifts that week and needed to rest in his apartment.
She went to the grocery, to the gardening section and bought half a dozen packages of flower seeds, half a dozen packages of vegetable seeds, bags of soil, fertilizer, a fork and spade, a purple plastic watering can, and a score of nursery boxes. She brought it all home in a taxi. Enough to keep her busy and in his apartment for an entire Sunday. She was becoming adept at finding ways to get what she wanted.
He never asked, and Vijai did not tell, that from her allowance, she had paid a man from the hardware store to come over and fix the balcony sliding door. She stooped on the balcony floor scooping earth into nursery trays. He sat reading the newspaper, facing the balcony in his big sagging gold armchair that he had bought next door at a church basement sale for five dollars. She was aware that he was stealing glances at her as she bent over her garden-in-the-making.
I wore this shirt, no bra, am stooping, bending over here to reveal my breasts to you. Look at them! Feel something!
I might as well be sharing this apartment with a brother, or a roommate.
She feels his hands on her waist leading her from behind, to the edge of his bed. Her body is crushed under his as he slams himself against her, from behind, grunting. She holds her breath, taut against his weight and the pain, but she will not disturb his moment. She hopes that the next moment will be hers. She waits with the bed sheet pulled up to her chin. The toilet flushes and, shortly after, she hears newspaper pages being turned in the sagging five dollar gold armchair.
Deep-sleep breathing, low snoring from the bedroom, fills the apartment, dictating her movements. She sits on the green and yellow shag carpet, leaning against the foot of the husband's armchair, in front of the snowy black and white television watching a French station turned down low enough not to awaken him.
Something about listening to a language that she does not understand comforts her, gives her companionship in a place where she feels like a foreigner. She is beginning to be able to repeat advertisements in French.