***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Sonya Lalli
Nani opened the front door as I was still crossing the lawn. Her nose twitching, she looked me up and down as I forced myself up the steps.
"Is that what you're wearing?"
I shrugged and glanced down at my weekend jeans, my favorite checked shirt. It's what I always wore home during one of my weekly visits, but I supposed today wasn't an ordinary day.
I was twenty-nine today, and walking into an ambush.
"I was hoping you would dress up, nah? We have guest."
A guest. A guest implied a cup of chai and a tray of sweets quickly defrosted from the Deepfreeze. A guest was small talk, compliments, gossip.
A guest was not an unannounced blind date chaperoned by your grandmother.
"What kind of guest?" I asked evenly, deciding not tell her that my best friend, Shay, had already warned me about the blind date. Nani didn't answer the question, clucking her tongue as I bent over and brushed a kiss on the top of her head. She smelled the way she always smelled, like cocoa butter and roasted cumin. A touch of garlic. She stepped back and continued her evaluation, her tiny fingers pinching at the fleshy part of her chin as I kicked off my shoes.
"Find something more suitable." She flicked her hand up the staircase, and I bounded up the stairs to the second floor, knowing full well there was nothing nicer in my old room. Too-large T-shirts from summer camps and music festivals where my favorite band that year had headlined. Jogging pants, the type with black or white snaps running up the leg. My old trumpet.
It was odd how little of me I kept here. But of all the places I'd lived since moving out—a dumpy apartment with Shay; a shared flat in London; and now, a new condo with my name on the mortgage—it was this house that I'd always considered home. I heard Nani calling, her voice staccato and sweet, and I ran a brush through my hair and then made my way back downstairs.
She looked up at me expectantly. "Nothing?"
"All my clothes are downtown."
She arched her brows. "Anything in guest room?"
Again, I shook my head. Mom's old room. Starch white walls and a beige linen duvet, not a trace of her left in the closet. Nani sighed as I reached the bottom step, evaluating my outfit one last time. And then she shrugged, squeezed my hand, and said, "Still my pretty girl. Even in that."
Anywhere Nani lived would always be home.
I tucked in my shirt and followed her through the kitchen, ducking my head beneath the crossbeam as we took the eight steps down to the lower level. To the "entertaining room," as Nani called it: orange corduroy couches wrapped stiffly in plastic; the walls packed with street art bought for a few hundred lire on my grandparents' one trip abroad; Lord Ganesh presiding on the mantel, a choir of porcelain Siamese cats chiming in unison. And our guest stood at the room's rapturous center, awkwardly in place, his dark brown skin the same shade as the varnish on the wood paneling.
"Raina," said Nani, clutching my wrist. "Meet Sachin." She dragged me closer until the top of his forehead was square to my mouth, and I tried to ignore the dull sensation in my belly. He looked vaguely familiar. Perhaps someone I'd known as a child, or seen in the stack of pictures Nani had started leaving on the kitchen table. He was quite short, albeit symmetrical—handsome even. He smiled and brought his palms together at his chest, bowing slightly to both of us.
"Hello, Raina," he said, like my name was a word he'd invented.
"Sachin drove far to come for your birthday lunch."
"It's your birthday?" His face stiffened. "I didn't mean to intrude."
"No intrusion, dear." She pinched his cheek. "My Raina and I are so happy you joined. Nah, Raina?"
"Raina is such a good girl. Always coming home from her busy job to take care of her nani." She gasped and turned to me. "Sachin is a busy man, too. Raina, did you know he is doctor?"
"No, I didn't." I turned to him. "My best friend is a doc—"
"I'm a cardiologist, actually." He glanced away. "To be more precise."
I clamped down on my lower lip. Precise, or just plain arrogant?
"Subspecialized at Columbia," he said.
"Mhm." I tried not to roll my eyes. "Is that right?"
He nodded, fingering his wristwatch. "Diverse city. Beautiful campus. One of the top programs in the country—world, even. Some might say."
"I think I've heard of Columbia." I folded my arms across my chest. "Is that in Cleveland?"
"Actually, New York—"
"And you're the kind of doctor that cleans teeth, right?"
Nani jabbed me on the arm, and I tried not to laugh.
"No, no. It's—"
"Cardio-logist. Oh! You're a sports doctor."
He shifted from side to side. "Actually, cardiac electrophysiology is a—"
Nani clucked her tongue, waving him off. "Don't listen to her. She's a silly one, my Raina." She wrapped her arms around my waist as if she were a coconspirator in the charade.
"Oh," said Sachin.
Evidently, they didn't teach sarcasm at Columbia.
"Dear," Nani said, turning to Sachin. "Would you like chai before lunch?"
"Chai sounds lovely, Auntie."
She waddled up the stairs, leaving me alone with him, and I sat down on one of the couches, the plastic screeching beneath me as I settled onto the cushion. Sachin joined me a moment later, his legs spread so wide he was nearly touching me. To my dismay, he actually smelled pretty good: the way rich men tended to smell, like Dev used to smell. An understated potency that still dominated the entire room.
"Your nani is very sweet," he said after a moment.
"She's the best."
"What's her name again?"
I looked straight ahead, deadpan, trying not to look at him out of the corner of my eye.
"Is that . . . Bengali?"
"No," I sighed. "Her name is Suvali."
"But, you just said—"
"It was a joke."
"A joke, right"—he let out a stiff laugh—"good one."
Growing up, everyone just referred to family friends as auntie or uncle, but I still felt mildly offended on Nani's behalf that he didn't even know her name. I reclined slightly on the couch, and stared straight ahead. Lord Ganesh—eyes, trunk, and all—stared right back.
Upstairs, I could hear Nani bustling around in the kitchen. She would be setting out her favorite teacups on the silver tray Nana had bought her as wedding present, placing teaspoons equally spaced along the paper napkins—garish, a bold red and gold—that she'd once bought in bulk at a discount store going out of business. Fifty packages for a five-dollar bill.
"Raina, hey, listen," Sachin said after a while.
He played with his rounded fingernails, picking beneath them. "I really hate to ruin your birthday, but—"
"You have to go?" I asked, a little too eagerly.
"No." He flashed me a smile, two rows of square white teeth. "Don't worry. I'll stay for lunch. But I would hate to mislead you on my intentions." He looked up at me quickly, and then back at the floor. "I'm not interested."
"You seem like a really nice girl, Raina. Really nice. And I don't mean to hurt you." He sighed again. "I'm just not in that place, you know? I'm not ready for the kind of commitment that our families—that you—seem to be after."
I bit my tongue. The only thing I was after was for him to leave.
"I know, I know." He stood up and paced in front me, his hands partially shoved into his pockets. "I'm a doctor, I get it. The biology of it all just isn't fair. It's harder for women. More pressure after they—uh—reach a certain age?"
I let out a deep, writhing sigh. "It's so hard."
"And your nani finding you a single doctor is—" He paused and looked me dead in the eye. "Well, it's the dream, isn't it?"
A dream? More like a nightmare.
"But really, Raina, you seem like a nice girl." He knelt down in front of me and petted my knee. "Really nice. And I'm sure you will find someone—soon."
I resisted the urge to tell him what I really thought of him, and studied him as he crouched at my feet. Sachin was the definition of the man Shay and I had spent so many years avoiding: the Westernized Indian. The one who used to be captain of the chess club or math team, and although brutalized for it in high school, now threw out the stereotypes about his culture as an anecdote to make the C-cups and hair extensions laugh as he chivalrously paid for their drinks. He was the archetype who watched sports and drank beer, had the uncanny ability to mock his father's accent, yet would still want his wife to learn how to make curry the way his mother did. He was the hybrid of east and west; the immigrant mentality distilled and harnessed, his arrogance the forgivable by-product of ambition.
Sachin looked up at me and heaved out a patronizing sigh. "Are you going to be okay?"
He was also the type of man that any nani would want her granddaughter to marry, and as I patted his shoulder reassuringly, I tried to convince myself that Sachin—that his type—wasn't what I was interested in, either.
There seems to be a great deal of misinformation around the modern-day arranged marriage. I am often bombarded with questions by coworkers or middle-aged women sitting next to me on long-haul flights after they've picked up on the fact that I'm half Indian. After explaining to them that I was raised by the Indian side of my family, and that whichever white guy fathered me was never in the picture, they smile and tell me that being Indian is all the rage these days. And in an exertion of worldliness, I am cited anecdotes they've picked up in the frozen food section at Costco while buying paneer, or watching twenty minutes of Dil Chata Hai on the Bollywood channel that comes with their deluxe cable packages. They love the bright colors and gold chains. The eccentric music. The food—oh, how they love the food. And of course, they are curious about my love life. They want to know more about this whole "arranged marriage" thing, whether soon I, too, might be enlisted.
But the protocol of today's arranged marriage in my community is less glamorous than they might anticipate. It is choosing from a roster of carefully vetted men, men whose family, religion, background, values, and sometimes even astrology match your own. It is having parents who want their children to marry into the "culture," and so they hurl them against a brick wall of blind dates until one finally sticks. It is arranged dating, really; an agreement to decide quickly whether you are in love.
I grew up with dozens of girls who went this route; women fast-tracked down the aisle, business class on a nonstop flight toward happily ever after.
And they seemed happy.
After all, they tell me—their mouths full of champagne and vanilla cream cake, cocooned in flowing bridal lenghas worth as much as a new car—what was the big deal about being set up by your family? Isn't "today's arranged marriage" equivalent to being set up by a friend, or an algorithm in your go-to dating app? Aren't their chances of having a successful marriage as high as the girl who ends up marrying her one-night stand? Or the one who met her leading man in college? I am one of the very few in my generation still unmarried in my hometown, and I never know what to say. How much to smile. And so I help myself to another drink—sometimes, another piece of cake—and reverently congratulate them on their Bollywood ending.
But I always wonder what happens after the ceremonial fire goes out and the guests go home, stuffed and slightly drunk on Johnnie Walker. Nani's marriage was arranged, and unlike today's blessed nuptials, she didn't have much of a say in the matter. Her father showed her a black-and-white photo of a lanky boy with round wire spectacles, and later, someone smeared red powder on her forehead, and just like that—well, nearly—she was married. It was simple. Clear-cut. A transaction performed not out of love for a would-be spouse, but for one's own family.
But wasn't an arranged marriage beneath me? I wasn't really Indian, after all. I was Canadian. A girl who refused to feel out of place in her mostly white, middle-class suburb in west Toronto. I had Rollerbladed and held lemonade stands, rolled my eyes on "Culture Day" at school when Shay and I were forced to wear lenghas, the other kids crowding around us for a chance to paw at the fake crystals sewn onto the sleeves. I only saw other Indians when I was dragged to dinner parties, and at temple every Sunday. When we went bulk grocery shopping in Scarborough because the corner Safeway didn't have the right brand of lentils or coconut milk. And even though Ravi Shankar always seemed to be playing on the radio at home, and my clothes perpetually reeked of masala, I grew up fully committed to my role in what otherwise seemed to be a white narrative. I played a girl who couldn't believe in arranged marriage—not only because of the cliché of her own family shambles, but because the cynicism of her Western world, the literary fiction on her bookshelf, barely allowed her to believe in marriage at all.
So I resisted. I resisted the idea of a planned union that might make me happy. That might make Nani happy.
"Did you like Sachin?" she asked after he had left. She stood beside me as I washed the dishes, the side of her head lightly resting on my shoulder.
Did I like him? I didn't dislike him. After he told me he just wasn't interested, and Nani came back with the tea, the pressure had evaporated. It wasn't a chaperoned date, a three-hour festival I'd have to immortalize in the diary I'd outgrown so I could one day tell my daughters about all the silly things their father said the first time our eyes locked.
It was just lunch.
"Will you see him again?" Nani asked.
"No." I shook my head. "I don't think so."
"Don't think so?"
I didn't answer, and she leaned forward on her tiptoes and turned off the tap.
"You got along with him, nah?"
"I don't know." I turned to face her, not quite sure how to tell her I'd already been rejected. "What did you think of him?"
"Only you know what you need in husband, Raina. What you need to be happy."
"I am happy."
She wiped a fleck of foam off my neck and stared at me, attempting to read my expression the way she attempted to read English.
She grimaced and glanced away, as if she'd heard it, too. The urgency. The insistence. I attacked the rice cooker, knuckles and steel wool, my palms burning red in the hot water. The suds washed off, and I held it up, set it sideways on the dish rack. Why did I sound like I was trying to convince myself? I was happy, wasn't I? I had everything, less the one thing that, to Nani, defined the rest. The boxes for college and career had been ticked; only marriage remained.
She rolled up her sleeves and handed me a frying pan. Staring at it, she said, "You agreed to this."
"I know. But I said thirty."
"You're twenty-nine now, Raina. What difference is one year?"
"Yeah, what is the difference?" I squirted dish soap onto the pan, and set the bottle down firmly. "What's the difference if I get married now, or in five years, or never—"
"Don't talk nonsense."
"Really, Nani. What's the rush? Kris isn't married."
"When he's ready, he will."
"It's because he's a man."
She didn't answer. She walked around me and inspected the rice cooker propped up on the drying rack. Tapping on a spec of white caked onto the side, she handed it back to me.
"Just because he's been married before, or just because he can have children whenever he feels like it, and his sperm—"
She finally met my eye. The slight scowl that had formed on her face vanished, and she reached for my cheek. "A husband, a family—it will bring you so much joy. You remember how happy your nana made me?"
I wasn't so sure I agreed, but I was too tired to argue. Her hand was soft, slightly wet from the dishes, and I let my head rest against it.
"You remember, I told you, when I was young, my father was in army and we had to move. Moving, moving constantly—and I never had anything of my own." She nodded, pressing her lips together. "And then I had your nana. I had family of my own."
I turned back to the sink.
"And don't you want children?"
I sighed. "I do, but—"
"Beta, you are getting older. Your auntie Sarla, everyone at temple—they always ask me: Why is Raina not married? Why always at that office? You cannot marry your Blueberry!"
"It's called a BlackBerry, Nani. And I'm not picky. I'm just not ready."
"You work, and work, and life is passing by. Men are passing by. Tell me, when is the right time? When will you be ready?"
I watched the pan fill with water, bits of brown bubbling in the froth. To Nani, a man unmarried in his thirties was fine—but for me, it wouldn't be. I took a deep breath, and willed myself not to fight back.
She reached for my hand, and as her slight brown fingers interlocked with my own, that's when I realized that in my silence, I was being complicit. I realized how much I truly loved this vivacious, slightly insane little woman, and what I would do to be the only person in her life never to break her heart. I would go along with it. I would live up to her expectations, and that promise I made to her two years ago—brokenhearted and desperate for my life to make sense once again—that if I wasn't married at thirty, I'd let her make the arrangements for me.
"So we will try again?" she asked. "We will find you someone else?"
"Sure, Nani." I forced out a smile. "We'll try again."
She dried her hands on her slacks and headed into the den. "Good, stay there," she called. "I am bringing the list." A few moments later, she reappeared in the kitchen, light steps on the hardwood, a piece of loose-leaf paper fluttering like she was bidding at an auction.
Was my future husband's name somewhere on that list?
She sat down at the kitchen table and pulled out the chair next to her. Dragging her thumb along the edge of the page, she muttered names under her breath.
Did I want it to be?
I abandoned the sink and sat down next to her. Looking through the list, I feigned interest as she enthusiastically explained who each of the candidates were. Going on these dates would make Nani happy, and I supposed it didn't really matter who I wanted—or who I still wanted. This was happening, and with only three hundred and sixty-four days to go, the arrangements had already begun.
Sachin—Reetu's son in Scarborough, some kind of doctor—birthday lunch??
It was light out now when I left; summer, it seemed, was on its way. I ran most mornings before 6 a.m., before the commuters clogged the streets and the city became a mess of traffic, delivery trucks, and the hammering from a nearby construction site. I loved the feel of bare concrete and unbreathed air, of the urban sprawl temporarily abandoned. My legs twitched, and I picked up speed, nothing but the sound of my feet beating against the pavement. I headed north past the still-closed shops, St. Michael's Cathedral, then cut through Queen's Park. The paths were damp and crusted in last season's leaves, and as the sun peeked through the branches and the sweet scent of dew filled my lungs, I exhaled and smiled into the light. Running was how I survived sitting upright in an office chair, sometimes eighteen hours a day; how, as a child, I had learned how to survive.
I ran home through the university, the boundaries of four years of my life walled in brick and mortar, paper and pencil, the glare and hum of a screen. I brushed by the buildings dotting St. George Street, each of which harbored memories that became vaguer with each run: the eastern brownstone where I had a class on political economy and advanced econometrics; the building perpetually under construction where I took a seminar on microfinance in the developing word.
Had it really been over ten years since I started university? I thought back to myself in those days: slightly skinnier, commuting back and forth from Nani's house on overcrowded buses, highlighting textbooks and writing in the margins as I awkwardly stood in the aisles. There hadn't been wild frat parties with beer pong and hours of missing memories, or shots of tequila after a Monday evening lecture.
I'd studied. I'd graduated. And, exactly according to plan, I'd gotten a well-paying job.
I was soaked by the time I completed my loop. I sprinted up the stairs of my building, and each floor greeted me with a new smell. Week-old garbage and wet dog. Compost and fresh bread. I heaved my body up the last few stairs and smelled curry—like Nani's, but tangier—from the Sri Lankan family who lived across the hall. I opened my front door, and for a moment just stood in the entrance, panting as I tried to catch my breath. It never failed to strike me how, two years after moving in, my condo still smelled of absolutely nothing.
Only a shadow of me even lived here between scenes at the office in this catalog-clean condo with two bedrooms and a view, a gallery of wicker and eggshell and midnight blue accents. Here, there were only egg whites and salsa in the fridge, vodka in the freezer, and thanks to the previous owner, everything seemed to match but me.
I'd bought it as is a month after flying home from London and hadn't changed a thing except for the handful of framed photos I'd nailed indiscriminately to the walls. Shay and our group of high school friends at graduation next to the fridge. A rare, complete family photo hanging in the front hall: Nani and Nana, me in a frilly dress sitting on their knees, Kris and Mom standing just behind. If anyone asked, I wouldn't know how to explain each of these characters in a way that made sense, or my relationships to them all. Kris is your uncle—but grew up with you like a brother? And your mom is alive, but didn't raise you?
I poured myself a glass of orange juice, and, leaving the empty carton on the counter, I finished it in one long swig. But no one ever asked those questions. In the two years that I'd lived here, I hadn't had anyone over who didn't already know the answers.
I showered and changed into a linen suit, and by the time I left again, the city was awake. I turned south on Yonge Street toward downtown, maneuvering through pedestrians and lampposts as I answered e-mails on my BlackBerry. Shay was already at the diner, slumped over in our usual booth, and I slid in across from her.
"Already ordered." She leaned back, her eyes half closed, and I grabbed a sticky newspaper off the seat. There were mornings when neither of us spoke—when I read, and Shay, straight from a night shift at the hospital, napped at the table. We'd been coming to the same diner since we moved out together into a shared apartment in the building above it. At the time, she was still in medical school, but tired of living with her parents, and I'd received my first big-city paycheck. I'd get home after work and find her studying her medical textbooks at a booth, and we'd nurse our free refills of coffee beneath the neon light of a decorative Hollywood sign, Shay learning how to make a differential diagnosis, while I kept her company, and stuck straws in my nose and tried to make her laugh.
Our usuals arrived: black coffee, three fried eggs and ketchup, crunchy breakfast potatoes, and four thick slices of rye, and for a while, we ate in silence. She looked exhausted, and I waited until after she'd had her first cup of coffee, and was well onto her second, to bring it up.
"Aren't you going to ask me how it went?"
"Sorry." She smiled groggily, and then nodded her head. "What was he like?"
I shrugged. "He was okay, I guess."
"Are you glad I warned you?" Shay asked, setting down her fork. She was nearly finished her meal, and she rested her elbows on the table. "I was worried you wouldn't turn up."
Somehow, Shay's mother, Auntie Sarla, had found out Nani was inviting Sachin over—and, of course, Auntie Sarla had told Shay. Seemingly, there were no secrets in our community, and nothing Auntie Sarla wouldn't involve herself in. She was my best friend's mother, and one of Nani's closest friends, but it was hard to be in the same room with her. She judged and criticized and berated, and treated Nani and me like inferiors. She was particularly critical of her own children, even though Shay and her brother, Nikesh, had lived up to every expectation.
Sarla was a matriarch of our community, and in a way, she represented everything that was wrong with our traditions. At the same time, Nani owed so much to her—making it difficult to despise her.
After they moved to Toronto, Nani and Nana made their living as restaurant owners, running an Indian café that is now called Saffron. But the trendy, upscale establishment was nothing like it used to be: strip mall locations and empty plastic seats, Nani and Nana packing up yearly, rifling through the classified pages of the Toronto Sun after getting evicted. They were a homely couple, food (not business) savvy, and intent on viewing the world the way they were themselves: honest. Business parks were rezoned, neighborhoods gentrified, but more often than not, landlords took advantage. And back then, the idea of taking a slum landlord to court, asking an authority in broken English for help, was simply too foreign a concept.
It was Auntie Sarla who had turned things around for them. One of the useful features of a woman who never shut up was, well, she never shut up about their food. She and Nani became friends, and Saffron grew to be the unofficial caterer to the Indian doctors, professors, and obnoxiously rich that populated Auntie Sarla's inner and outer circles. Gradually, as Nani and Nana could afford to move the business to Roncesvalles, and brand their humble business as more grandiose, they graduated from being one of Auntie's philanthropic pursuits into full members of their community.
"Would you see him again?" Shay asked after a moment.
"Maybe. I'm not sure. But it doesn't matter, because he's not interested in me." I reached for my coffee. "When Nani was in the other room, he said he wasn't interested."
I nodded. "In me."
"Sachin, in the middle of your date, actually told you he—"
"Can we drop this?"
Shay bit her lip, and then nodded slowly. "Sure. Sachin doesn't matter—"
"Because I have someone else for you."
"Tell me he's not a cardiologist."
"He's one of Julien's groomsmen," she said, her mouth full again. "He spent the last ten years abroad teaching, traveling—something like that."
"You want to set me up with a drifter?"
"Asher's not a drifter. He's amazing. He's—"
"Don't be bitchy."
"You're being skeptical, Raina. You're single, it's okay, but you need to start giving guys a chance. Asher, or"—she gestured to a balding man eating alone at the counter—"that guy over there. Can't you just try and date, or do something—for once?"
I groaned at Shay's authoritative voice. Just because she had her own love life sorted, my best friend was allowed to control mine, too?
When Shay and I had lived together, I'd never taken the men that stumbled out of her room too seriously. They were disheveled, red-eyed boys who groggily waved to me as they slipped past the kitchen, Shay still sound asleep. At first, Julien seemed no different. But unlike the rest of them, he kept coming back, and recently, proposed. And so Shay got to skip the queue of suitable Indian men Auntie Sarla had been lining up for her since birth, opting for the debonair French Canadian boy in her class, the fellow pediatrician.
She didn't need an arrangement. And I couldn't help but think, then why did I?
Shay's eyes flicked back from the balding man and onto my plate, and I pushed my last piece of toast toward her. She lunged for it, watching my face as she stripped the edge off with her teeth.
"So Sachin's a no." She looked up at me hopefully. "Asher is . . ."
She took another bite of toast. "Last week I met a few residents from South Africa. There's one who might—"
"Actually," I said, looking at my hands, "I've already decided to start dating."
"Really?" Shay nearly screamed.
"Nani gave me this . . . list. I told her I'd look it over, maybe start making a few calls."
"Can I see it?" She grabbed my purse. "Is it in here?"
I watched her rifle through my bag and dump its contents onto the table—Kleenex, pens, tampons, passport and all. She eventually found it, and started scanning the list.
"Nani knows them through the temple, or they're friends of friends, or—"
"My cousin Rohit is on here!"
"Have I met him before?"
She shook her head. "No. He is such a jerk. Even Ma knows that. I don't even want him at my wedding."
"Why would Nani put him on the list then?"
"I guess because he's"—Shay shrugged—"well, single."
"So she'd rather have me be with some Indian guy nobody likes, than be alone."
"She just wants you to be happy—and open. You don't only have to date Indian men"—she shook the paper—"from this little list."
"My birthday was three days ago, and do you know she's called me every day just to ask if I've met anyone from the list yet? If I've emailed or called any of these guys?" I shook my head. "A date I find online, or one with Asher or that bald guy, isn't going to be enough."
"So you're really going to do this then. Date, and"—she hesitated—"marry one of them?"
I didn't answer, and watched Shay as she deliberately crossed out Rohit's name with my pen.
"So this is . . . it," she said after a moment.
"I guess so."
"But I've never pictured you with an Indian, Raina."
I shrugged, and reached for my coffee. An Indian—one, in particular—was the only man I'd ever pictured myself with.
Rohit—Sarla's nephew, lawyer in Boston
"So here we are," Vishal said, tugging at the sleeves of his white collared shirt, which were sticking out from his navy blue suit. I looked down, wondering what kind of omen it was that I was wearing virtually the same outfit.
"Have you been here before?"
I shook my head. "It just opened, didn't it?"
"It's been two years, actually."
"Two years?" I glanced around the coffee shop, one that I could have sworn until recently used to be a take-out sushi joint. "Are you sure?"
A waiter brought us each a latte, and I tried to brainstorm conversation topics as I laconically stirred a packet of sugar into my cup. Had it only been one week since I turned twenty-nine? For a woman who once spent three months deciding on what handle she wanted as an e-mail address, Nani sure didn't waste any time. Within days of receiving "the list," I'd received a text message from Vishal—the fellow Bengali boy who also liked "business things." Unfortunately, he happened to work in the building next door to my office, and I wasn't able to find an excuse not to see him.
I thought I'd be nervous, but I wasn't. It was like having an awkward meet and greet with a client, or a job interview for a position you really didn't want. He wasn't that short, and sure, he was handsome—but within thirty seconds of shaking hands, I could tell we lacked chemistry. Or for that matter, failed to have anything in common. Funny how Nani thought that we could be a match made in heaven just because we both worked on Bay Street and understood how the stock market worked. The conversation was stilted, awkward, but eventually we found some things to talk about. Afterward, I insisted on paying for my own coffee, and then he walked me back to my office. Shaking my hand, he held eye contact just a bit too long. Was he also thinking about how he would spin this date to his family? I was about to joke that we should make up an excuse together for why there wouldn't be a second date, when he sighed loudly.
"Look, I'm dating someone. I have a girlfriend."
I guffawed. "Are you kidding me?"
"Don't say sorry to me," I said, crossing arms. "You should be saying that to your girlfriend!"
"I know, I know . . ."
"What on earth are you doing?"
"My mom doesn't like the fact that she's not Indian. And she's been on my case to meet you for months." He shrugged. "I just thought this would make everything easier."
"On you, maybe."
"I know." He shrugged. "This was a stupid idea."
"Stupid is an understatement, Vishal."
He smiled at me for the first the time. He didn't seem so dull when he smiled, and I half wondered whether we would have been friends had we met under different circumstances. Vishal ran his hands through his hair, and I wasn't sure what to say to him. Shay was right; Nani wouldn't care one way or the other if the guy I ended up with wasn't Indian—but that was Nani. Not everyone was lucky enough to have that.
"It sounds like you need to call your girlfriend," I said after a moment. When he smiled, I added: "And maybe stand up to your mom?"
"Perhaps." He cocked his head to the side. "But it's not like you wanted to meet me, either. I mean, how many times did you check your BlackBerry in the last forty-five minutes?" I hesitated, and he continued. "Sounds like you need to stand up to someone, too."
I nodded, even though I knew I wouldn't. What was the point of standing up to Nani? So I could let her down like the rest of her family had?
I didn't have a boyfriend, or even a prospect. The only men I met were through work—and they were all married, or single for a reason. And Dev . . . Well, Dev was nothing but a memory.
Vishal—Bengali boy, also likes business things—but maybe too short
The humidity of early summer was starting to set in, and the air conditioners were ill prepared as the sun arched over Bay Street and streamed in through the windows. I heard the usual chatter of the break room across the hall; the slow drip of the percolator, the opening and shutting of the fridge as Emma from reception gossiped to someone in a low whisper. I sat back down at my desk, and as my wrists hovered above the keyboard, I realized I'd completely forgotten what it was I'd been working on before I'd left for coffee.
To me, work meant doing a lot of sinfully boring things that, regrettably, I'd once found interesting enough to get me through a minimum eighty-hour workweek without dabbling in self-mutilation. These days, I wasn't sure what kept me going. Everything had become routine. Work meant graphing variables and predicting outcomes for clients. Analyzing NASDAQ figures, Excel spreadsheets, and financial statements, and researching and sourcing investment products. It meant keeping my passport on hand and an extra pantsuit at the office just in case I needed to fly somewhere last minute to talk to or learn from people who did largely the same thing.
I'd once tried to explain to Nani the macroeconomic world and how exactly I fit into it, but she'd smiled sweetly, blankly, and then turned back to the television. She enjoyed strangers' reactions when she told them her granddaughter worked at a multinational investment bank, but that was as far as her pride went. She didn't want to understand what my job really was, or why choosing this career meant I had so little time for her, let alone anyone else.
It had been a few weeks since my date with Vishal, and I'd started texting with two other men on Nani's preapproved list. It felt wrong to have more than one guy "on the go," but Nani insisted. "Sprinkle your seeds, and see which flowers grow," as she liked to say. Arjun seemed normal, as did Jayesh—although with conflicting work schedules, I had yet to find a good time to meet either of them.
I'd overworked myself on my morning run, and my thighs and lower back throbbed. I reached up my arms and stretched, then closed my eyes. When I opened them again, Zoey's face had appeared in the doorway.
"Have a sec?" Without waiting for me to respond, she pushed through and closed the door behind her. She sat down in the chair opposite my desk, stretched out both legs, and drummed her stomach with her palms.
"You all right?"
She shrugged, and then glanced up at me slyly. "I accidentally saw Alice last night."
"Accidentally?" I laughed.
"How many weeks did I last this time?" She started counting on her fingers, and then gave up.
"Six," I said. "It's been six weeks since you last broke up."
"And I did really well. I didn't see her once—"
"Until last night!"
"Raina, she just showed up out of the blue. Handed me a bottle of wine, and waltzed in like nothing had happened. Like we had never broken up. And then . . ."
"And then?" Zoey didn't reply, and I grabbed a pen and gently lobbed it at her to get her attention.
She caught it, and, blushing, set the pen down beside her. "It's fine. I'm fine. Really. It'll be—it'll be different this time. Won't it?"
"I may not be the best person to give you relationship advice."
"No one's perfect. You can't be worse than anyone else."
I laughed, trying to figure out what to say. Zoey was several years younger, the most junior—and intelligent—analyst on my team. I'd been assigned to train her on her first day, and by the time I'd showed her around the office and she'd laughed at one of my jokes, we were friends. Over a year later, she'd become more than that. We'd confided in each other quickly, and she'd told me about her life growing up in Canada's prairies, the difficulties she had experienced coming out as gay to her family, her on-again, off-again relationship with Alice—a law student she'd met her first week in Toronto.
I'd always considered Shay to be my best friend, but these days it was Zoey who seemed to know me best. She was the person beside whom I battled each day. These days, when Shay and I saw each other, we talked about her wedding plans, or she analyzed my text messages with Arjun and Jayesh—and then she'd lecture me about how I needed to be more "open." But Zoey and I actually talked.
My cell phone vibrated. It was an unknown number, and tentatively, I answered it.
"Hi, is this Raina?" The voice paused. "It's Sachin."
I covered the receiver with my palm and looked up at Zoey. She'd heard all about the birthday ambush, and when I mouthed to her who it was, she swiped the phone from my hand and set it on the desk with a thud. She pressed the speakerphone button, and his voice, the tone now less formal, blared out.
"Hello? Hi? Is anyone there?"
"Hi," I said, slowly. "It's Raina."
"Yeah, hi! It's Sachin, the, uh—"
"Cardiologist. I remember."
He cleared his throat, his voice scratching through the room, and I tried not to laugh as Zoey gestured vulgarities at the phone.
"And how are you today, Raina?"
"I'm fine. And you?"
"Great—great, thank you. Well, no." He cleared his throat again. "Actually, I lost a patient this morning."
"I'm so sorry . . ."
"It happens." His voice trailed off, and as I caught Zoey's eye, her hands dropped slowly back to her lap.
"I had a great time with you and your nani a few weeks back," he said after a moment. "I'm sorry it's taken me so long to call."
"I didn't know you were planning to."
"Yeah . . . About that. I'm sorry I was so rude to you. My mother only told me that morning about the lunch, and I was annoyed with her. I shouldn't have taken it out on you. I'm sure you understand."
I did understand, but I didn't say anything.
"I really shouldn't have said that I wasn't interested. I hadn't even met you yet, and—well, you really are a nice girl, Raina. I am interested in getting to know you." I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out, and after a few seconds of static, he spoke again. "Would you like to have dinner with me?"
"Did your mother tell you to call me?" I blurted.
"No, I wanted to."
"You're intelligent and forthright and attractive and—well, frankly, there's no reason why I shouldn't want to get to know you. So will you have dinner with me?" He spoke quicker, as if he had somewhere to rush off to. "Just dinner. With no pressure or anything. Just a normal date."
I listened to Sachin as he breathed heavily over the speaker, to Zoey's fingernails against her BlackBerry as she seemingly grew bored waiting for my answer.
Except for my coffee with Vishal—with whom I'd had less chemistry than my toaster—I hadn't been on a date in years, and I wasn't sure I'd ever even been on a normal date. My brief relationships in college had started in the library, at a frat party—and then there was Dev, although nothing about that date had been normal.
I could barely even remember the last time I was alone with a man. Last winter, was it? The securities seminar Zoey and I had flown to New York for last minute. Zoey had been on a break with Alice then, and she'd briefly disappeared with a woman she'd met at the hotel lobby a few hours before the flight home. Sitting there alone, I'd somehow become tipsy chatting to a broker from Atlanta. I could vaguely recall his hand grazing my waist next to the empty coat check, ignoring the longing in his glances when I refused to take a later flight home. But that was as far as it went: turning away from the kiss, forgetting the business card in an airplane seat pocket. I never let it lead to normal. I leaned forward against the desk and stared at the phone. Getting to know each other over dinner. This was what normal meant. Later, we'd go for more dinners, movies, and lunch dates—and then what? Months of sex and the superficial? A natural segue into the serious?
"Dinner," I repeated slowly, conjuring up Sachin in my mind. Indian. Intelligent. Handsome.
If I was going to do this, really going to do this, then it might as well be Sachin. And squinting into the glare from the window, I said, "I could do dinner."
Sachin—Reetu's son in Scarborough, some kind of doctor—birthday lunch??
*Dinner 9:30 p.m., Tuesday @ Eldorado
My boss, Bill, was pissed that I left work early, but Nani had insisted I come see her before my date with Sachin. After nearly an hour battling through rush-hour traffic, I arrived home to find that she wasn't even there yet.
She'd left all the lights on, and I walked around the house turning them off and then put the kettle on to boil. My head throbbed, and I flopped down on Nana's side of the couch and closed my eyes. I knew I was imagining it, but the sofa still smelled of him. I could picture him there reading me Little House on the Prairie, my head resting against his knees, impatiently tugging on the cuff of his trousers whenever he stopped mid-sentence to sip his tea.
No one was home with Nana the morning he died, and I don't think Nani ever forgave herself for believing him when he claimed his chest pain was merely indigestion. Watching her lose him was harder than dealing with my own grief. The horror of finding her collapsed sideways on the stairs clutching to his parka, her wet eyes and nose buried in the garlicky tobacco scent of the goose down, would never leave me. She became a widow at the age of sixty. An arranged life drastically rearranged, Nani had to start over; create a life from scratch that didn't revolve around the man to whom she'd been assigned.
It took her years, but her vivacity returned, as did the color in her cheeks. She was always practical and compassionate—most of all toward Nana and I—but these days it wasn't strange to find Nani teasing the busboys and running Saffron better than Nana ever did; driving her Mini Cooper from an afternoon tea to temple, from one charity project to another. I suppose she had to find a new balance in the equilibrium that life had imposed on her.
In a way, Nani and I grew up together. Discovered each other all over again as adults. I'd learned the way she watched the Ellen show, her toes wiggling in her pressure socks whenever Ellen DeGeneres and the audience danced. The way Nani showed she loved you through food—and then, through more food. The way she only called me beta when she was upset, or irritated. How she pronounced "vegetable"—veg-ee-table—or invented idioms like to "take a sleep" or "open the light." English was her fourth language, she liked to remind me, after Bengali, her mother tongue, Hindi, and Punjabi. English for her came last, not until 1969 when Nana moved his new bride across the world to Canada. To the land of opportunity.
To the land of, well, land.
I also learned that Nani could be vain, ignorant of what didn't concern her or her own family. I'd switch on the news, or buy her a book I thought she should read, and she'd sigh like the idea of something new tired her right out. For a while, I'd tried to get her interested in politics, coming home on election night—provincial, federal, American—and she'd cluck her tongue and leave the room, annoyed that I'd disrupted her favorite Hindi soap. She thought the oil sands were polluted beaches and didn't understand why Palestine and Afghanistan, and not India, was on the news so often.
Nani had never been like the other "aunties" in the community. She wore Western clothes most of the time—Sears pantsuits and polyester sweaters—and had refused to stay home and play house. She'd worked side by side at the restaurant with Nana and kept her chin high when her teenage daughter brought home a baby. She was modern, generations in front of so many of her friends—small-minded women who gossiped and pettily talked about one another's children. But still, for Nani, getting married and having children was a woman's one true path.
Her daughter had become a mother too young, and now she feared I'd become one too old or not at all. But couldn't she try and understand how it worked now? Women didn't have to get married and have children anymore—and even if they did, it didn't always mean they were happy.
I was tired of arguing with her, but at the same time, maybe Nani and Shay were right: Work consumed my life, and I was lonely. So what reason did I have to resist?
I heard the back door open, and I leaped up. I beat Nani to the kitchen and had the tea poured into two china mugs by the time she sat down at the table. She sighed as she brought the cup to her lips, and I watched her face, the fine lines dancing and stretching as she blew on the tea.
"How was work?"
She smiled, and sank back in her chair. "I am very tired."
"I can make dinner?"
"But you will eat with Sachin, nah?"
"Sure, but that's hours from now."
"Aacha. Make some rice, and we will heat up dal I have in freezer." She took a sip of tea, and then shook her head. "But first we must discuss Sachin. I called his mother today."
"You did what?"
"She is in my sewing group with temple, nah? I had to call anyway. And then I mentioned your dinner tonight, and she grew very happy."
I groaned. "Nani, I asked you not to tell anyone."
"Reetu is his mother. She has every right to know where her son is."
"But Sachin and I said we wouldn't involve the families yet, that it wasn't any of their business until—"
"None of our business?" Nani snapped. She stared at me, and I shrunk back into my chair.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"
"None of my business." Nani's glare tore through me, and then landed on her hands. "Your mother used to say this to me."
"I'm not like her, Nani," I said, and for several long minutes, she didn't answer.
I drove back downtown and found the door to my condo unlocked, and Shay going through my wardrobe. Nani had put me in a bad mood. Her trump card for any argument: comparing me to Mom. Telling me that I, too, wasn't good enough.
I mindlessly changed in and out of outfits Shay selected for me. Leather pants I'd bought on a lark and never wore; skinny jeans from college that, when I sucked in, still sort of fit. Work blouses paired with too-short skirts I hadn't worn since London; dresses Shay brought over, silky and static, tight or loose in all the wrong places.
"You look great," Shay said as I stood in front of my mirror, only a wisp of pale peach chiffon differentiating me from a nudist. "I'm jelly of your legs."
I whipped around. "My legs look like jelly?"
"No, it means jealous." She bit into an apple, crunching loudly. "It's what the kids in my ward say."
I turned away slowly, pulling down the hem of the dress. The evening before, I'd waxed and filed and moisturized and polished. Groomed and straightened. Shay, lying sideways on my bed, still in hospital scrubs, nodded or shook her head vigorously at each outfit I tried on—but still, everything felt so wrong. My clothes felt like costumes, designed to impress the guy that may or may not become my husband. I just wanted to wear one of my work suits, what I felt most comfortable in and most like myself, but I had the feeling Shay wouldn't agree.
Through the mirror, I saw Shay lean down from the bed and smirk as she felt my smooth leg.
"You're going to sleep with him."
"No, Shay." I pulled at the hem of a skirt, forcing it down past my thighs. "I'm not going to sleep with him."
"It's an urban myth that men won't call you after."
"And they always called you?" I saw her stick out her tongue in the mirror, and I turned around. "Sorry. I meant . . . I meant I don't even know if I like him."
"Then why do you care so much?"
"Nani's the one who cares," I grumbled.
"You did this with Dev, too." Shay got off the bed and started walking toward the bathroom. "You built everything up in your head before you even knew him."
"If you came over just to lecture me, you didn't need to bother." I turned back to the mirror, and a moment later, I heard the bathroom door shut.
I sat down on my bed. I felt the skirt digging into my stomach and the sides of my thighs. I groaned, and rolled over and grabbed my BlackBerry from where it was charging on the nightstand. I had one new text message from Zoey wishing me luck on my date, and a handful of grumpy e-mails from Bill.
I could hear Shay still in the bathroom, and so I scrolled down to Dev's last message. For more than a year after we broke up, we'd stayed in touch, emailing every few days or at least once week from our work accounts. But then weeks turned into months, and that last message I'd sent him more than four months earlier had gone unanswered.
It was only a few sentences: I'd told him about Shay and Julien's engagement, a new coworker in the New York office, and then asked after his family. It was small talk; really, it was nothing. Then why was I still unable to bring myself to delete it?
I heard the toilet flush, and I stuffed my phone into my bag. A moment later, Shay appeared in the doorway. The irritation had disappeared from her face, and now she just looked tired; the dopey blue of her hospital scrubs poking out from the top of her hoodie. I wasn't sure if she'd come over straight from work, or was on her way to a night shift; I'd forgotten to ask.
She flopped onto the bed beside me, and put her arm around my neck. "Okay. It's going by quickly."
"When are you done your residency again—less than a year, isn't it?"
She nodded. "I'll be done just a few weeks before the wedding. It's perfect timing."
Her arm felt heavy, and I shifted away from her on the bed.
"Raina, my ma set the date. It's—"
"I know," I said, holding the top against me in the mirror. "Nani already told me. Don't worry about it."
Auntie Sarla had confirmed Shay's wedding date. The day Shay got married to the love of her life and fulfilled her mother's wishes would be the day I turned thirty.
I grabbed a cardigan from the closet, nearly tearing the sleeve as I ripped it from the hanger, and walked back to the mirror.