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We Want What We Want
Excerpt

from THE BROOKS BROTHERS GURU

John Lorimer wants to be friends on Facebook.

Amanda isn’t sure whether to accept. It’s a long night like any other, her bedroom blue-lit by devices, laptop and phone and iPad scattered on the comforter, earbuds nestled as she listens to Songwriters/Folk on Pandora; this is how she goes to sleep. She has three or four windows open on the computer; she’s watching a movie and reading reviews of it at the same time.

They have zero mutual friends.

In his profile picture, John stands, left knee bent, hands on hips, on a rock rising jaggedly from the ocean like a broken tooth. His short haircut looks military, his posture commendably rigid. He smiles like he’s never been happier. Amanda’s own picture shows a cartoon cat with its back rounded, fur up. She doesn’t like to give too much away. In John’s square jaw and dark brown hair she can barely make out traces of the gawky cousin she last saw — when, exactly? It would have been that summer in Virginia, when they were sixteen, both of their mothers sucking down gin-and-tonics as if alcohol were oxygen — years ago. Then John’s mother died, then hers, sisters so close they succumbed to the same disease within a year. The funerals were blurred and washy to her; when she tries to remember them, she can summon only feverish sweat and a churn in her stomach, no visuals at all.

Now she spends summer vacations with her father’s family in Delaware, those cheerful extended relatives with healthy genetic history and aged grandmothers and aunts, a family where nobody knows what BRCA stands for, where nobody has been getting yearly mammograms since they were twenty.

She doesn’t think they look alike. She confirms his request.

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Home of the Floating Lily
Excerpt

A GOOD FAMILY

She was a divorcee. After her husband left her for an old flame, Rubina became a hot topic of discussion for people in the building. She was beautiful, pulling off leggings and kameezes as elegantly as she sported her jamdani saris, making her look, at the age of fifty, like a thirty-year-old. Some speculated it was her overly friendly nature that destroyed her marriage. Perhaps she was a little too generous with men, they said. Others wondered why she couldn’t tie her husband down with her good looks.

Shumi would overhear these comments by her neighbours while she washed her clothes in the common laundry room on the first floor, before she got her own personal washing machine. Sometimes, they’d stop as soon as she walked in. Other times, they would continue, not realizing she could hear them. They used all kinds of adjectives for Rubina’s family — they said that it was a broken home, a disturbed family, that she should have worked harder on her marriage for the sake of her daughter.

Shumi had told Asif only once, in passing, that some women from the building washed less and gossiped more in the laundry room. So, with the landlord’s permission, he’d immediately bought a portable washing machine for her and had it delivered all the way up to their eighth-floor apartment early one morning. She was relieved, of course, to be able to do her laundry in privacy, away from the congregational discussions of Bengalis about other Bengalis. But it was Asif who’d seemed thrilled as he cut open the box and flipped through the manual. “There you go! Now you don’t have to worry about being around those petty people.” It was the first time her husband had expressed his distaste for their neighbours. On most occasions, he spoke too little for her to be certain of what he disliked and what it was that excited him.

So, this morning, when he phoned from the office and said he’d like to have biryani for dinner, Shumi wasted no time. Within half an hour, rice was washed, spices were ground up, meat was marinated, and by noon her stovetop was hot and crowded with various pots and pans — bubbling chicken curry, rice boiling in cinnamon water, and onions browning and burning in a pool of oil.

Outside, sunrays were tearing through the clouds after a morning downpour. Finally, blue was bleeding back into the sky, exposing the Toronto skyline from beneath a film of darkness. Shumi ran to the washroom, pulled out her laundry, and carried the pile to the balcony. A chilly autumn wind blew toward her. One by one, she hung the jeans and T-shirts, saris and salwars on the laundry wire, struggling to secure them with clips as they flapped rebelliously. She was in no mood to battle. The kitchen needed her attention, and in no time she would have to come back out to check if the clothes had dried — her routine excuse to watch Asif ’s white Honda pull into the parking lot. Again and again, she thought about his phone call, feeling the butterflies each time. “Can you make biryani tonight?” he’d asked. “I want to celebrate. I have a surprise for you.” Surprises from her husband were also rare.

She stepped back inside, keeping the balcony door open. Turning off the flame, she assembled the rice and chicken, finishing with a sprinkle of fried onions and a prayer. “Please, Allah, let it be perfect.” The biryani was ready to go into the oven for the final bake. Cooking still made her nervous, a skill she was never asked to acquire when she was an unmarried woman in Dhaka. How foreign those times seemed now, when life was all about studies and badminton games and shopping sprees with girlfriends. Not that Asif ever complained. She could feed him the blandest food and he’d eat it without any fuss. She was lucky that way. But a request brought more pressure.

Only Rubina could help her now. It was her recipe, after all. Rubina ran a home catering business from her apartment on the sixth floor, supplying food for birthdays and dinner parties for Bengalis all over Toronto. This woman had a recipe for everything, a quick fix for every occasion.

Shumi reached for her phone and dialed.

“How’s it going?” Rubina said.

“It’s ready to go in,” she replied. “But I feel like something’s missing.”

“Want me to come up?”

“Sure, that’d be great. If you’re not too busy.”

* * *

“Oh, it smells great!” Rubina announced as she paraded into Shumi’s kitchen.

Shumi handed her a teaspoon. Rubina dug into the mixture, picked up a few grains, and began to chew. “Everything’s perfect. Salt, spice, everything.”

“Something isn’t right,” Shumi said. “What if Asif doesn’t like it?”

“Just wait till it comes out of the oven. It will be just fine!”

That was all she needed to hear.

The way Rubina said, “It will be just fine!” — animated, bright-eyed, smiling — instantly put her at ease. Shumi remembered the day they first met, a few days after she’d arrived in Canada as Asif ’s sponsored, immigrant wife. They were in the elevator, pressed against the wall behind a crowd of sweaty men and women. That exact same smile. Warm and welcoming. Like a gush of cool air through an open window. What would she do if Rubina hadn’t started the conversation that day, if she hadn’t asked her name and how long she’d been in Toronto and what her apartment number was? Who would she talk to, or visit for a cup of tea on lonely afternoons, if Rubina hadn’t shared her phone number? To find a parent figure in a foreign country, one had to be fortunate.

Rubina pushed the pot of biryani into the oven.

“Okay, darling. Must go now,” she said, hurrying toward the door. “Lots of work to do.”

“Aunty, why don’t you join us for dinner?” Shumi asked.

“Oh, my! No way. Two big orders today. You know how it is. Aaliyah’s not here to help me.”

Shumi looked at her as her smile faded. Rubina never accepted invitations. About two years ago, when her daughter, Aaliyah, took up a new job as a mechanical engineer and moved to Calgary, Rubina’s workload doubled. Aaliyah was a fantastic cook, too, Shumi’d heard, and helped her mother with her business while she was in Toronto. With Aaliyah gone, Rubina worked around the clock on weekdays and weekends alike. Nowadays, she was preoccupied with finding a husband for Aaliyah.

“Have you found someone for Aaliyah yet?” Shumi asked.

“Nope, no luck. There are barely any proposals.”

Shumi took her hand and placed it between her palms, pressing it tightly.

“I’m sure you will find someone soon, Aunty,” she said. “You mustn’t worry so much.”

“I cannot help it, Shumi. It’s how we mothers are. We worry for our children’s future as soon as they start breathing inside our wombs.” She paused and let out a sigh. “Especially me. I have a lot to worry about. You know how it is. Our family’s not the most popular.”

“But it’s not your fault,” Shumi said.

“It doesn’t matter, believe me.”

Shumi felt sorry for her. With so much grief, so many responsibilities to carry, of course she’d be least bothered about invitations. Asif had said the same thing, when she told him about all the lunch and dinner offers Rubina had declined. “Let it be, Shumi. One needs to be happy to enjoy such things.” Though Rubina always welcomed Shumi into her own home, it was Shumi who would leave after a short time, seeing how busy she was. Whenever she visited, after a quick cup of tea, Rubina would begin attending to the large aluminum pots that always occupied her kitchen and living room floor, checking the taste of the many curries she made in bulk, transferring them one by one into trays and containers of all sizes.

Standing by the main door, Rubina scanned Shumi’s living room as she put on her slippers.

“Oh, you have put on the cushion covers from Aarong!” she said, looking at Shumi’s couch.

She’d teased her once, Shumi remembered, for bringing cushion covers and coasters and bedsheets all the way from the popular handicraft store in Dhaka. She didn’t think it would go well with the Ikea furniture Asif had bought.

“It looks beautiful, actually. What did Asif say?”

“He didn’t really say anything,” Shumi answered.

“You’re very talented, Shumi. You really know how to bring harmony to a place. Asif is a lucky man.”

She’d never thought of it that way. Back in Dhaka, they all spoke about her good fortune. How many girls were lucky enough to find a handsome, well-educated, and decent suitor from Canada? After Rubina left, Shumi pondered her words as she sank into the couch and observed all her little touches in the living room — embroidered rugs framed on the wall, miniature rickshaws and boats from Aarong on the bookshelf. They actually looked nice. She picked up her telephone receiver, dialed her own home phone number, and let it ring until Asif ’s voice message popped up. Crisp. Clear. Each word reaching her ear as though it wasn’t a recording, as if he was sitting right next to her, stating he was unavailable, promising he would get back in touch as soon as possible. She listened to it over and over again. His Canadian accent, the way his r’s and t’s and l’s rolled off his tongue, made her heart flutter. Normally it embarrassed her, reminding her of her own flawed English. Not that her English was poor. In Dhaka, she had friends who went to English-medium schools, and she watched American TV shows and read English books here and there. But her grammar could use improvement, her vocabulary needed a boost, and her accent — it was nowhere near Asif ’s. At the end of the day, she had a bachelor’s degree in history. She’d studied in Bangla-medium all her life. He was an IT graduate of Ryerson University, a Canadian man. But none of it seemed so bad at that moment. It felt just fine.

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