He Always Ate Alone

Fiction
Farha Hasan


It was not going as well as she had imagined—college in this crisp white town, Aysha thought as she cleared the tables and scraped off dishes while impatiently looking at her watch. Three hours left. For the first time in her life, it was dawning on her what it was like to be different: her name, the color of her skin, her faith—most of all her faith. She was not like them. She knew it and they knew it.

Until now she had taken for granted the diversity that had insulated her in her gritty hometown, but it was different here. Here people believed what they heard on the news. The quaint old world campus that had seemed so ideal in the brochures was coming up short—literally. In fact, it was only by bussing tables at Oliver’s that she was able to make up the difference between her scholarships and her student loans.

The clientele at this upscale bistro was not unique considering its location. Oliver’s was situated in between campus and the financial district, attracting both academics and investment bankers, and in a couple short weeks Aysha had learned to identify just about everyone—everyone, that is, except him. He was not like the others, too young to be a professor and too casual (rough-looking jeans with a nice shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbow) to be an investment banker. Yet something about him reeked of money. There was a planned carelessness about him that could only be spelled designer and she had been watching him intently: his easy strides, his dark features, his warm smile. Every time he walked into the restaurant she could feel her palms sweat and her pulse quicken. Today he was seated at a corner booth away from the activity of the restaurant. He always ate alone, that’s why it never occurred to her that he might be waiting for someone—and then she walked in.

After all this time Aysha finally noticed the glint of his wedding band as he stood up to greet her, this well-coiffed young woman not too much older than Aysha herself. The woman, Aysha noticed, was a tigress with a luxurious mane of honey blonde and a self-satisfied smile that reminded her of a well-fed cat—albeit one that came with very sharp teeth. She carried herself with a poise and experience that went beyond her years and when the man greeted her coolly, she seemed not to notice. For a moment all Aysha could do was stare—that is, until her supervisor noticed her vacant expression.

“Aysha, table three needs clean-up,” he said, his gruff voice breaking her trance.

She turned and nodded in his direction.

He gave her a look that meant “right away.”

She wiped the sweat off her brow and headed to table three, suddenly feeling self-conscious about herself, her clunky shoes, her dark complexion, her wild hair that always seemed to be spilling out of her ponytail. Of course she would deserve him, thought Aysha, as she brushed back a stray lock. They made a handsome couple, Ken and Barbie, perfect for this plastic town.

Clearing table three, she looked up again at the power couple; the two were now immersed in a heated discussion. At first, the woman spoke calmly, stroking his hair and kissing him lightly like old lovers do, but the man rejected her advances.

“Cut it out, Angie. You had an affair. I’m not just going to forget that…”

A cold look crept into the woman’s eyes and Aysha could see that her mouth had turned into a snarl as she hissed her response. The man remained calm, although the pleasantness had drained from his face and he looked at the woman intensely. Although Aysha tried not to listen, she couldn’t stop the sound of muffled words being spit into the air like bullets, ugly words like pre-nupsettlementscandal. Even as she made her way to the kitchen she could feel the tension in the booth rising and seeping out like acid and although the tigress still wore that hungry smile, her words made the man’s eyes darken and jaw tighten.

Aysha was relieved that her next table was all the way across the room where the air was still light and the conversation still pleasant. A party of ten had just finished a lunch for a colleague. Humming softly to herself she began to clear the table—the unfinished drinks, the half-eaten chocolate cake. Chocolate cake had always been her favorite while Zeba, her best friend, had always preferred cheesecake. Now Zeba was married and living in another country and Aysha was on her own, friendless, loveless, with only this mysterious man to occupy her interest. She watched him, thought about him all the time.

Absorbed in her own little world, she started thinking about the man who had unknowingly become such a large part of her life. She started to wonder what it would be like to be sitting in the booth next to him, to smell his cologne, to feel his breath. She let these thoughts warm her soul and became lost in the depths of her own imagination. When she suddenly looked up, he caught her gaze. Her heart stopped and a slow blush crept across her face. The man noticed her embarrassment and bestowed upon her an amused smile, until his wife’s cold words wiped it off and turned his face to stone. The tigress slammed her hands down on the table and was about to leave, when he grabbed her wrists and forced her to sit back down.

Aysha hurried into the back, glad that it was time for her cigarette break. Downstairs in the dark parking lot she could close her eyes and take a deep drag of her cigarette, letting the tension leave her body. When she returned to the cool air-conditioned restaurant, Aysha could see that the couple’s discussion had gotten worse and before she could understand what was happening, the woman flung her wedding ring at the man and began to storm out.

The diamond-encrusted wedding band bounced off the booth and landed in the aisle where it spun round and round until a two-year-old from a neighboring table grabbed it and promptly stuck it up his nose. Unruffled, the man straightened his shirt before sitting down, ordering a scotch, and finally finishing his meal. The restaurant was now quiet and would remain so until the dinner crowd trickled in.

What a friggin’ crappy day, thought Aysha as she packed up and got ready to head out, looking forward to finally getting off her feet, going home, and sinking into a bath and the half-finished novel she had left by her bedside. But before she could exit, her manager caught up with her.

“Hold up a minute,” he said, giving her a little wave that seemed unusually delicate for such a large man.

Aysha panicked, afraid he was going to reprimand her for eavesdropping or worse, but before she could explain, he said, “Good job, next time we’ll let you waitress a couple tables and, by the way, can you change your shift to Friday instead of tomorrow?”

“Sure,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief.

“And,” he continued, “I was wondering if you could train—” But he was interrupted by the blaring of his cell phone. He handed her a small envelope. “Before you leave, this belongs to the gentleman in the corner booth.”

Paralyzed, Aysha stood there for what seemed like an eternity, holding the tiny envelope in her hands. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak. Finally, after much deliberation, she gathered her nerve and cautiously approached the alluring stranger whom she had only watched from afar.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, holding out the envelope. “This belongs to you.”

He looked up at her, making Aysha catch her breath and feel a little lightheaded—as if she was floating.

“Why don’t you keep it,” he said, and walked out the door.

pencil

Farha Hasan is a librarian living and working in Boston. She has come back to writing fiction after a brief stint in advertising where she was involved in copywriting, casting and strategic planning. Her short stories have been published in various ezines and small circulation presses such as Samizdada, Down in the Dirt and Toasted Cheese. E-mail: fzhasan[at]gmail.com

The Two of Us

Beaver’s Pick
Farha Hasan


There is nothing as distinctive as the smell of Indian food. I sat at Indian Flavor, a local restaurant munching on some chaat papri, a delectable mix of potatoes, chick peas, yogurt and tamarind sauce, mentally calculating the number of calories I was consuming and how much time on the treadmill it would take to make up for it. I had come to work early to research my latest assignment and was on my way back to make sense of my notes when the aroma of Indian Flavor lured me in. It was pretty quiet at 2:00 p.m.; the lunch crowd was fading. It was the first time I had been back to our place, alone. I shook off the memories of the last time we were here. I pulled out of my briefcase my laptop and an old copy of South Asian News. On the cover was the picture of a young woman—badly beaten, eyes swollen shut, bruises all over her face and neck.

That’s what Fozia Azize had looked like when they found her in dumpster last year behind a popular Indian night club. She wore a traditional Muslim head scarf but you could tell she was an attractive girl, a sophomore in college. I wasn’t with the paper when the story came out but I felt drawn to it, not just because it caused a sensation in this Toronto suburb that prided itself on diversity, and not just because it had happened so close to the anniversary of 9/11 but because among other things we shared the same name, Fozia. Not at all an odd coincidence, it was a fairly common name. Perhaps I thought of her as a parallel version of me, wondering if this could happen to her who else could it happen to. They never caught the guy who did it. A year had passed and we were no closer to solving the case than we were on day one.

My pondering came to a halt as I saw Priya approaching, turning more than a head or two with her trendy outfit, long legs, glossy lipstick—“the London look,” I thought.

“Mmm… that looks good” said Priya, pulling up a seat and eyeing my chaat papri and gesturing towards the waiter. “I’d like to have what she’s having, and a mango lassi.”

“You look great,” I said. “Maybe, a little thin though. Have you lost weight?”

“I have to sweetie, the camera adds ten pounds.”

“I always felt like it added fifty on me.”

Priya just laughed flashing the perfectly white teeth that she had just got capped, a recommendation from her agent. “Fozia, you’re too much. You know you’re adorable.”

“So, are you all packed, ready for London?” I ask.

“Almost, I have packed half my stuff, the other half my parents will ship over. Anyone you want me to look up for you?”

I let the question dangle. I had no time for ghosts.

“So, have you heard anything,” she said between mouthfuls of chaat papri.

“From who?”

“From him…”

“No, nothing,” I said.

“Don’t worry, he’ll cave soon.”

“Don’t you go and do anything now… It’s better this way anyway.”

“Who… me?

“I mean it Priya.”

Before she had a chance to answer her cell began to ring. “Yes… I know… Oh my God really…” She snapped the phone shut. “I have to go sweetie, I’m already late.”

Priya got up and gave me a big hug.

“You’ll keep in touch right?

“Of course,” she said in between tears her mascara running down her cheeks.

Just like that my best friend was gone. I was left alone still munching on my chaat papri with a vague sense of emptiness and déjà vu. I wondered if Fozia had felt lonely. Had she felt her life crumbling around her in the moments before she died, the way mine did right now. What had been the events that led to this tragedy or had it really been just bad luck—randomness being caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. Was the universe random or had there been meaning to Fozia’s death.

Still uncertain of my angle I went back to work. Our tiny office was located in the town of Markville, a largely desi suburb. I walked to my desk, which looked like a hurricane had exploded all over it. A stale donut and coffee occupied an ever-sticky corner of the desk. I drank the last remaining bits of cold coffee and was about to bite into the half-eaten donut when I saw Kamran peering over a mountain of research.

“Hey,” said Kamran, the columnist for international news. “Don’t eat that crap; there are some fresh Krispy Kremes in the kitchen.” My stomach started to growl. “No, thanks,” I said. Instead I pulled out an unopened package of rice cakes that had been sitting in my office for a while and started munching.

I sneaked a glance at Kamran who was still munching on his donut. He’s one of those tall thin guys that never gain weight. He had powdered sugar all over his shirt as he gingerly went through his third and then fourth Krispy Kreme.

“Kamran,” I said. “You were around when the Fozia Azize story broke?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Are you writing something about the Fozia Azize case? What’s your angle?”

“Not sure. I just think it didn’t get a fair shake you know. It must have been scandalous. She seemed to come from a pretty conservative family.”

“Yeah, he paused. “Her family, her fiancé was devastated.”

“She had a fiancé?”

“Yeah, she was engaged to someone in Chicago. He was stunned, especially since her body was found in the dumpster behind Tantric.”

“Did I ever tell you I was at Tantric the night Fozia Azize died?”

“No you didn’t.”

“Ya,” I said. “Like two ships that pass in the night…”

I remembered that night well. Tantric was a hot new urban club known for a bhangra hip/hop mix frequented mainly by East Indians. It was Priya’s favourite spot on a Thursday nights. The music was blaring. Priya had just broken up with her boyfriend and was guzzling vodka martinis and chainsmoking Marlboros. Her ex could not stand cigarettes. We were two single girls on the town. It was my night to let loose as well. I wholeheartedly worked out the frustrations of my week on the dance floor. Having been born rhythmically challenged I hoped like hell I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew. As we sat at the bar to cool off, the waiter put two drinks in front of us.

“We didn’t order anything,” I said.

“It’s from that gentleman in the corner,” he said.

We both turned around to see a good looking guy nod in our direction.

“Wow, he’s hot,” said Priya licking her lips. “This will help me get over what’s-his-face in no time.”

I caught my breath as he came over and introduced himself. He looked at me and smiled as if I was the only one there and asked me if I wanted to dance.

“I’m a bit out of breath,” I said, surprised by the lilt of his accent.

How strange it seemed coming out of his mouth.

“That’s all right,” he said. “We can sit somewhere and talk.”

I will never get over the sound of his voice and how it made everything he said sound like music.

Exhausted, I decided to call it a night and head home. I sat for a while looking at our large double garage house in an affluent suburb. How quickly we adjust to our circumstances I thought, remembering crammed apartment buildings with multiple families in one unit and the smell of curry lining the hallways, the sounds of Urdu and Punjabi seeping through the corridors.

As I pulled into the driveway I could see the light on in the kitchen. It meant that my mother must be preparing something elaborate. The smell of curry as I walked into the foyer confirmed that my mom and my grandmother had been cooking all day. I wondered what was up.

“Fozia berta, you’re finally back. I was wondering when you were coming home. You have to go upstairs and get ready quickly. Saroj auntie is in town with her son, the one attending Harvard Medical School and I’ve asked them to come over for tea. Hurry, I want you to look nice when they get here.”

Why was I surprised with my father out of town for a couple of weeks it was only a matter of time before the aunties started coming over. I went upstairs too irritated to say anything to my mother. She had already laid out what she wanted me to wear. I looked at the pretty turquoise suit that was meant to set off my hazel eyes. I always thought that was my best feature.

“No, your best feature is your smile,” I could hear him say, sitting on a stretch of grass by the harborfront. “When you smile you light up your whole face. Without your smile your eyes are just a set of cold jewels.”

I heard the doorbell ring. I knew they were here. Better start getting ready…

“Yes, I remember that family. They did very well in the Middle East,” said Auntie Saroj. She was a fair-skinned woman who wore a lot of jewelry and too much make-up. She seemed perfectly comfortable with my cat curled up around her feet. Well, if Einstein likes her, she can’t be all bad. “In fact, my younger sister-in-law married one of their relatives around that same time,” she continued.

I sat listening to the chatter of the three women. I looked up at Mr. Harvard. He seemed pretty social, contributing in the conversation of the three women and genuinely looking interested. It was more than I could say for myself. Try not to space out too much and smile when someone tells a joke, I kept telling myself. I looked up to see him smiling at me from time to time but I couldn’t tell if he was interested or just being polite. Before they leave, mom takes Auntie Saroj out to the back yard to give her a clipping of her new plant. They are both avid gardeners.

We were both standing in the foyer waiting for our moms to come in from the backyard when he handed me his business card.

“It was nice meeting you,” he said. “Feel free to keep in touch.”

My mom definitely thought the evening was a success. She could not stop raving about the family. I helped clean up. Thursday night, tomorrow was trash day. I stepped outside into the cool air. It was a clear night. The stars were out. The neighbors had mowed their lawn recently and it smelled nice. I stood at the curb, garbage bag in hand smelling the air when a car pulled up.

Kris stopped and rolled down the window. “Hey, isn’t it past your bed time?”

“Hey, I never see you out anymore,” I responded.

“I guess I’ve been kinda of a hermit lately,” he said.

“Well, you know what they say about all work and no play…”

“You’re right,” he grinned. “Care for a ride…”

We stepped into a cool air-conditioned room where brightly-colored walls lit up the place. Teenagers sat giggling across the room. We were seated at a booth at the far end overlooking the traffic. Kris and I had not been here in ages. We ordered our usual and laughed about old times. Kris, looked older, more mature these days, but the eyes were the same reflecting his wild past. After his father’s heart attack Kris had decided to stay home and run the family business. The responsibility was starting to show, after only a year he looked older, more settled. He wore it well. I had never felt this comfortable around him before. It was nice. It was like being with Priya.

When Kris drove me home, it was almost midnight.

“So what are you working on these days, you still with South Asian News?”

“Yeah,”

“I read one of your articles. It was pretty good. Are you writing anything right now?”

“I’m doing one about Fozia Azize or at least using it to tie into a larger issue.”

“That was a tragic,” he said. “She seemed like a nice girl.”

“Did you know her?”

“I knew a guy she dated.”

“But her fiancé lived in Chicago?”

“No, this was someone else. He wasn’t from your community. They were really into each other. I don’t know what ended up happening with them. I don’t think they could have continued given how different their backgrounds were.”

“Wow, I had no idea.”

I was trying to wrap my head around Fozia with a boyfriend when Kris added slowly looking straight ahead. “How’s Priya doing?”

I felt awkward even though I knew it wasn’t my fault. “Priya, left today…” I said. “Are you going to miss her?”

“Do you miss him? Does it matter, they left us anyways. No matter what I did, I always knew she’d end up somewhere I couldn’t follow.”

When I got home it was past midnight. I tossed and turned for a long time before I finally fell asleep, and that’s when I saw him one last time sitting at the bar at Tantric. He was talking to me, only it wasn’t me, it was Fozia, the other Fozia with her headscarf, her black eye and bruises around her neck, looking exactly as she did the day they found her. She turned around and looked directly at me. I felt a shudder go through my body but it wasn’t Fozia I was afraid of. It’s not her ghost that still haunts me.

Still groggy I woke up to the sound of my private line ringing. It was Priya.

“Priya, its 5:00 a.m. what are you doing?”

“I couldn’t wait. Guess who I ran into?”

“Priya… No.” I whispered.

“Oh, I wasn’t looking for him. I was at dinner with a bunch of girls and guess who was sitting at the bar?”

“He asked if you were there… He really misses you Fozia. I think you should hear him out. I told him to call you.”

I don’t remember what I said next or how the conversation ended. It was 10:00 a.m. in the morning. I’ve slept longer than I wanted to. My private line was ringing again and I could tell from the tone it was a long distance call. How did Fozia choose between the one she loved and the one she was supposed to love or did her destiny choose her?

I reluctantly picked up the phone. “Hallo,” said the lilt of a British accent on the other end.

pencil

F. Hasan is a Canadian currently living and working in Boston as a Librarian. E-mail: fzhasan[at]gmail.com