—You're a sparkling wine kind of a girl.
—Have you used that line before?
—umm . . . no, just picked it up. It works.
He paused to let Miley's choric refrain fade. Party in the USA. She was still bobbing her head in the moderate tempo of the jazz guitar chords. Before the jukebox could burst the next song, extending his hand, he interjected: Saaed. She made a failed attempt at crossing her legs while on the bar stool and then shook his hand.
—Mohona. I'm not even 21. Know nothing of sparkling wine.
—Wow! How did they even let you in here?
—Saaed, are you muslim?
She sounded awfully like those who picked him for random security checks at the airports.
—In your religion, I know, drinking is haram. So, we are even.
—I wouldn't ask the bouncer to throw you out even if you hadn't pulled that on me.
Removing his gaze from the girl next to him, who now seemed far from effervescent, Saaed ordered a spiced rum-and-coke over the bar counter.
Friday nights at the Scholar's Bar were busy. Even more so at the beginning of the autumn semester when the euphoric incoming students and the worn out older ones returned to the campus after the summer break. The two bartenders were struggling to keep up. A frat bro slipped on the drink spilled on the floor and fell while continuing to laugh vigorously. It was that time of the night. On getting his drink, Saaed asked the bartender to close his tab. His roommates were in no hurry to leave but he could walk alone to his dorm. It was only a mile away. He was waiting for the bartender to return his credit card when the girl called out to him.
—Hey! Are you leaving?
—In a bit, yes.
—Where do you live?
The primary clientele of Scholar's Bar was the group of students who lived on the university campus. There weren't many residential areas around and the bar neither boasted of interesting ambiance nor of fancy drinks. The jukebox's playlist wasn't always on point either. She must have guessed his answer because she followed his response with a request: I live in the Wilson Tower, must be on the way to your dorm, right? Do you mind if I walk back with you? My friends over there are still celebrating. I am bored. I need sleep. Oh wait, you are with friends, aren't you? It'll be weird then, I guess. Forget it.
Saaed considered what Mohona was saying. She was completely at ease walking back with a stranger she met a few minutes ago over an awkward conversation. Was she flirting? He did not have to ponder much longer. Following his train of thought, Mohona raised her eyebrows and muttered, I don't want you to think your line worked.
Away from the bar abuzz with intoxicated banter, Saaed and Mohona's conversation charted a different route. By the time they reached Wilson Tower, Saaed had informed Mohona of the best joints to satisfy her craving for desi food. Though a freshman, she was past her infatuation with French fries and burgers. Saaed was a senior with thorough knowledge of eateries in and around the quaint Midwestern university town. Though these restaurants were nothing like what he got at home, in Lahore, there were a couple of places he could count on to mitigate his urgent need for halwa poori, kebobs, and samosas. To Mohona's dismay he could not recommend a place for phucka, which had been her lifeline during all those years she spent in Kolkata. It did not take them too long to figure out that they hated Bollywood and cricket with identical passion and in a month, Mohona had become an active member of the South Asian Students' Organization (SASO), which was presided over by Saaed.
As the autumnal nights grew longer, they spent hours poring over books in the library. They reserved one of the seven group study rooms on the twenty first floor with such regularity that the assistant at the library's help desk learned their university ID numbers by heart. The study rooms had glass walls on all the sides. At night they could see the few high rises lining the four blocks, which constituted the entire downtown, stick out against the black sky. They were children of crowded cities, with little appreciation for the bucolic. They often wondered aloud how they had ended up in this small town in the middle of the Great Plains.
Notwithstanding all that they had in common, Saaed discovered that Mohona was interested in people for the ideas they represented to her. She obsessed over details having to do with where people came from and speculated about who they could have been. She pursued friendships as if she were on some sort of mission. The Midwestern university town offered abundant opportunities for her social experiments. She would come to Saaed and boast of her new conquests from Costa Rica or Mexico; even when referring to classmates who had been born and raised only a couple of counties away from where the university was located, she would painstakingly identify their paths to Americanness. Her local friends were always "German-Americans," "Italian-Americans," and so on. Then there were the black "poets," the Persian "sculptors," and the desi "science-types." Saaed dared not ask where he fit in her cabinet of curiosities.
After finding her way through schnitzels and tacos, Mohona eventually reached the land of sparkling wines. She started seeing Zacharie, an authority on the subject. When meeting new people, Zacharie made sure to mention that he came from one of the smaller champagne houses in France. Though Zacharie hoped to impress his acquaintances with the information, it usually had the converse effect. While some refused to believe him, others took him to be pompous. Despite his lack of popularity on campus, Zacharie's cheek bones, which according to Mohona was unusually high and according to Saaed, barely visible, made an impression on Mohona. Following Zacharie's entry into the scene, Saaed thought that the reduced contact hours with Mohona would be in the best interest of his final semester's grades. However, those who did not know how to prioritize their commitments annoyed him and so, he took her to task when she failed to meet the deadline for an article to be published in SASO's newsletter and refused to volunteer for the involvement fair at the onset of the spring semester.
Zacharie was not crazy about Saaed but he tolerated him alright. They signed up for the study abroad program to France the following summer. It was for a literature elective, which Mohona was required to take. After exploring literary locations of Southern France for a month, guided by two professors from the literature department, Zacharie would go home to Reims for a week. He invited Mohona to come, stay with his family, who in turn suggested that Saaed should join them, and he agreed.
It was a summer marked by incessant rainfall in the champagne valley. The smiling angel perched on the façade of the Reims cathedral had not ceased weeping. For as long as Zacharie could recall, this was the season when the city center teemed with eager visitors—cameras dangling around their necks—but it was evident that the squares were registering significantly low footfalls that year. No sprightly bikers on the cobblestones either. As they sped past the city, they were welcomed not by the green vineyard covered hills, which Zacharie had left behind, but puddles of the color of aged wine.
Storm clouds and thunder showers were no strangers in the valley, observed Marc, Zacharie's father. He assured them that the champagne producers were always prepared. Yet, Saaed could not help detect a note of concern in his voice. It was the same when, after raising a toast to his son's health at dinner, Marc insisted that the family was always thrilled to host friends. The dinner table was large enough for ten people but there were just about enough chairs to accommodate the family of four and the two guests. Saaed reflected on the arrangements that would need to be made when Angèle, Zacharie's cousin, visited later that week. Among other delectable dishes, the spread consisted of lardons and bacon. Mohona watched closely as Saaed skipped the items. She was continually ticking off boxes in some invisible form to organize the folks in her closet. It reminded Saaed of the night at the Scholar's Bar when her kohl lined eyes and highlighted pixie had grabbed his attention. As Mohona waxed eloquent about the texture of the chaource, which Saaed couldn't tell from cheddar, he looked beyond the table. Through the translucent curtains of the main window, he could catch a glimpse of a row of white and beige houses fitted with rose colored roof tiles. These were home to people he would never know. Meanwhile, Marc was spelling out the only house rule: one's glass should never be empty at the dinner table. The spurts of laughter during the meals at this table reminded Saaed of clacking bangles. On their first evening, Mohona declared to Saaed that they were in a gothic romance.
Golf, fishing, strolls through the local market and lush woods, were among the many activities Zacharie had promised his guests. However, the torrential downpour, with hail storms in tow, ensured that they spend miserable hours huddled around the fireplace in the villa or absorb what they could when they peered through the car's window. Visit to the family's fermentation cellar was one of the two chief recreational activities that the motley could pursue. The first time they visited, Zacharie's brother and Marc poured them hearty glasses of filtered wine—fresh off the tank—that tasted like hard candy. Between boasting of the state of the art technology of his cellar and the intuitive knowledge he and his elder son brought to the assemblage accounting for the body of their house champagne, Marc recounted Zacharie's brief career as a cleaner of the large tanks. Zacharie was not amused. So as to divert attention from such insufferable trivia, he devised another pastime.
On the second day of their visit, Marc had led them through the family's underground cellar, where the pressed liquid was left in bottles to ferment with the yeast for years. The cellar was in a chalk quarry that stretched for miles. Such tunnels were commonplace in the region and Marc mentioned that those had served as homes and hospitals during the great wars of the last century. Ever since, whenever the three walked through the underground aisles flanked by the racks that held the wine bottles, Zacharie asked Saaed and Mohona to conjecture how lives and deaths might have played out under those chalk ceilings. At the outset, Mohona excelled in this game as she spun vivid yarns featuring howling children, broken families, and wounded soldiers pining for their long lost beloveds.
Nonetheless, when their jaunts to the chalky tunnels began to last several hours, their ingenious tales gave way. The stories came closer to home, resulting in petty quibbles. Zacharie smirked about something Saaed had said and Saaed retaliated with unsolicited information. Long before they knew Mohona, they had taken an advanced calculus class together and Zacharie had not exactly passed the course with flying colors, or so Saaed asserted. While the showers continued to ruin the summer's crops, Saaed discovered that Mohona had befriended Zacharie when she was appalled by his increasing proximity to a friend of hers.
On the fifth morning, the sun appeared for the first time in months. Marc left early to spray the vines that had not been wiped out. Saaed, Mohona, and Zacharie were sitting on the porch in silence when Angèle walked in, smiling ear to ear. Her perkiness stood in sharp contrast to the drawn faces of her companions, who she finally managed to drag out for a walk around the country. Soon they were on the dirt road cutting through the valley, on their way to the river bank, where Angèle and Zacharie fished during the summers. Even as the soft mud trapped her heels every now and then, Angèle held on to Zacharie's arm and bounced her head in delight over every word he uttered. Now that's a sparkling wine kind of a girl, Saaed told Mohona. They stopped to watch as Angèle prodded a weathered tire lying by the road with a damp twig. Angèle was making this vacation what it ought to have been. During the previous couple of evenings, they were impatient to get away from one another and retreated to their bedrooms as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Angèle, however, made sure that her cousin and his friends would be up late, polishing off cups of espresso, and reminiscing the times when they had embarrassed their families.
The espresso shots took their toll on Mohona. When she eventually went to bed, she kept twisting and turning on it. She rose at the slightest glimmer of morning light and for several minutes, stood by the window. One of the houses around the corner had a circle painted darker than the rest of its wall. Inside this circle was the picture of a bottle of champagne with its cork attached to a rainbow colored parachute. The canopy carried the little wooden plug through the ether after it was thrust upward by the frothing drink. Inspecting the sky above the rosy tiles, Mohona saw that the clouds had returned. She wanted to breathe in the moist fields one final time before they left the valley.
The door to Zacharie's bedroom opened with the slightest push. Angèle was fast asleep on the bed, while Zacharie's head rested on his right arm stretched along the edge of the bed. He was sitting on the floor and snoring. They must have continued to chat long after Saaed and she were off to bed. She then barged into Saaed's room. His eyes were heavy but he noted a stray drop of tear on her cheek. When Mohona reported what she had just seen, Saaed detected no cause for resentment or tears. He rolled over to another side, trying to sleep some more. She was wiping her face with the frills of his bedsheet when Zacharie appeared. He had no inkling as to what had triggered the scene. When he asked, Saaed deferred to Mohona. She, on her part, stated that it was about Saaed and her and Zacharie had no business meddling in it.
By the time they finished breakfast, the valley was out of bounds. So they descended into the underground cellar. Angèle enthusiastically related her earliest memories of walking through the grayish-white passage ways. Her cousin used to scare her with tales of thirsty spirits haunting the tunnels. Zacharie and Mohona were not talking. Saaed was responding in monosyllables but these were sufficient encouragement for Angèle. He was tired of the sinusoidal temperaments of the other two. Suddenly Zacharie spotted something behind one of the racks and halted. Then he took Mohona by the hand and advanced toward it. Still giggling, Angèle shouted, Don't you try to rattle me. In the blink of an eye, Zacharie and Mohona had disappeared among the horizontally lined bottles of fermenting wine.
Saaed stood by Angèle, who had decided to ignore what she anticipated to be one of Zacharie's tricks. Can't believe I'll follow this guy to the US, she mumbled. Speaking partly to Saaed and partly to herself, Angèle remarked that though Zacharie never admits it, he had left home in order to mortify his family. Saaed tried to conceal his astonishment at this piece of information. He was telling Angèle about his own plans of returning to Lahore for good when something hit him.
Angèle's chuckles no longer rang in his ears. The light bulbs hooked to the slender wires that hung from the ceiling flickered. He could barely muster his voice to scream. The sudden impact forced him to step back and lean on a frame, which came crashing down. For a split second, Mohona appeared, clutching an open magnum, but the contours of her face vanished in the ensuing darkness. He felt a burning sensation as cold shards tore his skin. He gasped for air but only fizzing liquid slithered through his nostrils.
Never open the door. That's what they say. Even if I peek through the eye hole and spot the skinny, bespectacled man in navy blue jacket with the yellow shoulder pads who knocks either at 8 am or 6 pm every day, I am not to touch the door knob. You see what I'm saying? I bet I'm the only one who's got to deal with this. No wonder Alicia, Dylan, and Preet won't come over. These rules, and mummy's always like don't touch this, don't open that, and we have no Lego. Take that! Oh, and no sleepovers.
So obviously they were pissed when I let the stranger in. I couldn't tell if papa was mad at me or mummy. It all started with him leaping from the bed as soon as he guessed I'm at the door. He had come home at 8 that morning. Graveyard shift. His eyes were red. Must have been a busy night at the gas station. It was the wrong day for me to go up against him like that but I did anyway. By the time he got hold of my hand and tried to drag me away, the stranger had pushed the unlocked door open. There he was, asking for mummy.
It only gets worse from there. Papa goes who are you at the stranger. Mummy climbs up from the bedroom and repeats papa's question. The stranger knows mummy's good name. Now if you've ever taken mummy's double-double order at Tim's, you don't know this name. She must've told you the other one (the shorter one), which I didn't know existed until we got here three years back. Sweat climbed down the stranger's sideburns. He wore the turban like Preet's papa. He was asking for some Balwinder, as if this person was hiding under our bed or something!
Well, I lied. Actually, we don't have a bed. Only a mattress and a box spring. We never brought the bed from our old house in Vashi. Air Canada's luggage limit per person was only 23 kgs and nana said that the bed will not fit in my suitcase. My bed had a white frame. It was so cool. Wish I could show it to you. Mummy said no one owns beds in Toronto. Of course, that's not true just like so much else they say. Like we don't actually live in Toronto. Like not everyone here in Brampton lives underground, even though that's what they told me when I refused to enter this house. Come on, I am scared of rooms with windows dug into the ground. Who wouldn't be? Like on the phone they will tell nana that dad's working in a bank just as he did while in India when he actually works at the gas station. Well, he did work at the bank as a security guard for the first few months but I guess that didn't work out. It was the same with mummy's "India Kitchen." Everyone said it's a neat idea and mummy's a good cook, I can give her that, but it didn't take off.
You can hear papa's voice over everybody else's when dining at Express Dhaba, even with gal dil di or pind de vich bellowing from their 5.1 speakers on Friday nights. Now imagine how our house boomed with his voice even as mummy and the stranger talked at each other before mummy figured that Balwinder was indeed Baly. She knew Baly. I knew Baly. Baly threaded mummy's eyebrows, upper lip and chin, and trimmed my hair. Just so you know, I am not allowed to have long hair. That's another rule at home. The moment fringes reach my eyebrows, they go chop-chop-chop. Dylan—he's a guy and still gets to have long hair but Baly's scissors take care that my ears and neck remain stark naked. But that doesn't mean I don't like Baly. She lets me eat as many macadamia biscuits—which you call cookies I suppose—as I want and surf channels on my own while she plucks tiny bits of hair from mummy's forehead rather attentively. She uses up her stock of mango pulp to serve me cold lassi even when it's snowing outside. Mummy would never do that. At Baly's though, mummy's eyes are closed as she rests on the facial bed wearing nothing but a robe while Baly does her thing. So, I don't like it when mummy goes to Baly's while I am at school.
That's what I thought mummy was doing over the past month because I had not been to Baly's in a while. I thought of asking mummy about it a few times but you see I have been very busy myself. I have joined a reading group that meets every day after classes. Every day. It's kind of awesome. Only smart kids were allowed to join it and I am the only one among my friends' circles who made it. Preet would have never made it with her English, of course. But guess what, even Alicia and Dylan did not make the cut. I was sad for them but not really. I mean, when they first heard me speaking in class they had asked if I've had difficulty learning English because I spoke funny. I never spoke funny. Preet speaks funny. Preet's father speaks funny. Baly speaks funny. Mummy also speaks funny sometimes but Papa and I speak good. They let me join this reading group for nothing and it's taught Dylan and Alicia a thing or two. Now all I have to do is keep up with the readings so they will let me stay on the reading group for the next term.
The stranger refuses to believe that mummy knows nothing of Baly's whereabouts. He says he will call 911 if mummy doesn't tell him. Baly had told him that mummy is the leader of a group that supports women who want to leave their husbands. I don't think mummy belongs to any such faction. The only group that mummy works with is the crew of aunties who cook for Sunday langar at the Gurdwara. And that's why we have unlimited lunch there every Sunday!Papa threatens to call 911 on the stranger instead because he is being unreasonable and rude. Stranger counterattacks saying he will complain about mummy to Shankar uncle who lives in the other part of the house—the part that's above the ground, with many rooms. Mummy deceives innocent women, that's what the stranger will say. But guess what, in place of scolding the stranger, papa scolds me for standing there idly. I slowly climb down and mummy shuts the door to the stairs behind me but I can still hear them. Stranger shouts some more and then lowers his voice. I have to press my ears to the wall to listen.
Did Baly ever mention anything about any other friend or relative? he asks.
No, says mummy, and she's not lying, I know.
Did Baly ever mention him?
Yes, says mummy.
Really? What did she say?
You don't give her a phooty cowry and stay away. The threading business pays for her bread.
What a bitch! What a bitch! Baly set up a parlor business from an apartment for which he is the leaseholder even though she had no work permit, jeopardizing his and her statuses but he never complained. And then, this is what she told people behind his back?
Well, mummy, or I, never saw him around. So, we do not care what he says about Baly behind her back.
If he was not supporting Baly then how come she was living on the tenth floor of a fancy apartment complex? The couple of bucks she earned from her threading and facial could pay for it all? Really? Does mummy believe it? Is she effing stupid?
The apartment was not fancy. It was on the tenth floor, yes. Mummy should have said that in response to his allegations.
Fancy is the house across the street. It has a sprawling lawn with a sign that says "luxury apartment for sale." You can see the insides of the house from the glass windows that stretch from the floor to the ceiling. You could say Dylan's house is fancy as well. It's not like the luxury apartment but at least, they have all of the townhouse to themselves. No Shankar uncle hovering over them. Baly's apartment was, however, far from fancy. The couch where I sat and watched TV had holes.
Stranger says that he married Baly when no one else would in their village. He brought her all the way to Canada. What does she do in return? The woman simply cares for money. Can't even cook daal. She said that he was never around? Oh well, she was the one who pushed him away. He had to go for long hauls because the simpler things he did were never enough to satiate her greed. A woman like that would ruin any man's life.
He ruined her life, mummy asserts. Papa asks mummy to join me in the room downstairs while he handles the matter. Mummy refuses to leave and the stranger also seems interested in knowing more about mummy's and Baly's last conversation. Mummy says she hasn't seen Baly in three weeks. Whenever she called Baly for appointments, she would be redirected to her voicemail.
At this point I can start calling the stranger our guest because papa asks him to come inside—not to our room—but now he is allowed to stand beside the shoe rack and close the main door behind him. So the guest tells mummy that it was the same with his phone calls, which he was making while on his work trip. When he came back the previous night he found Baly was not home even though her cellphone and wallet and everything else was home. He thought she must be around, just about to come, but he was tired and dozed off. When he woke up this morning, Baly was still not around. That is when he started looking for her. Mummy was the only client Baly ever mentioned.
Baly had many clients from our neighborhood. So, that's a surprise. He had not called the cops yet because he thought, if Baly was with mummy, then the matter could be resolved among friends. Now that he is certain she is not here he would call the cops. Papa says he can do whatever he wants once he leaves our house. So he does. Papa wonders how mummy got entangled in this shady affair. Baly has the lowest rate in the entire neighborhood. Will papa pay 5 times what Baly charges if mummy goes to fancy parlors? Papa says it's better not to go to parlors at all. If mummy goes once in a while then she can go to a nice one from where she wouldn't bring such problems home. There's enough on papa's plate as it is. Liability for a missing woman be better not added on to it.
Papa and I bump into the guest at the grocery store later that week. We had gone to buy a small packet of basmati grains but they do not stock packets weighing less than 5 kgs. So, papa was doing some mental math before going over budget. This is when the guest pushed his trolley in our direction and greeted papa. He let us know that he didn't call the cops after all because he figured on his own that Baly must have fled with some other man. He was so disarmingly forgiving of Baly on this occasion that it was impossible to think of him as the flaming, raging, sweating beast who had knocked our door not so long ago. He even said that he is satisfied because at least one of them has found the means to be happy. The man has a large heart, papa tells mummy. Mummy does not say a word.
One afternoon as the remote control at Baly's had died, I went past the curtain veiling the facial bed to ask her what to do. She was rubbing mummy's shoulders with a fragrant oil and mummy was asking Baly to let her husband go. Many others would be lucky to have Baly. Would mummy, if she were a guy, want Baly? Mummy placed her right palm on Baly's hand, which had a firm grip on mummy's shoulder. They were both smiling; not looking at each other but smiling. They saw me and mummy quickly pulled the strings of her robe. Baly showed me how to change the channels without the remote. Whenever I hear of Baly, and now that I am telling you about her, I think of her smile right before she saw me that day—mummy's hand on her hand. Her eyebrows were knit as though she was uncertain and expectant all at once. These days mummy cuts my fringes at home but the bridge between her eyes is full. Now everybody knows of mummy's unibrow.
Torsa Ghosal is a Bengali author currently based in Columbus, Ohio, where she is pursuing a doctoral degree in English literature. Her poems and stories have appeared in Poydras Review, Unsplendid, Himal Southasian, Muse India, and Truth about the Fact.