Fiction

The Nerve

Illustration by Robin Cameron

Theo Sophistron was in the sky. He didn’t like it. One thing Theo understood was gravity. Things weighed on him. He feared he was making a mistake leaving Montreal. He knew you couldn’t guess by his name or to look at him, so whenever conversation turned awkwardly to personal roots he joked his Jewish ancestry was most prominent in his temples, dribbling with telltale existential sweat.

He had his mother’s panic attacks. That’s how he explained it to Shaan Rawal—a long-lost friend of Theo’s son Liam—who sat and watched the gnashing and gagging all the way to Vancouver. Last time Theo saw Shaan, the teenager had reminded him of Mickey Mouse, an androgynous punk in the middle of everything, blessed with luck and fragile self-satisfaction, whose friends were all fair-weather dopes and assholes and mooches—Theo’s son, his late son, Liam, biggest quack of the bunch. A decade later Liam was gone, and Shaan had fresh salt in his hair, more load to bear on his hips, and the Vancouver office of AOL under his management. Shaan kindly turned an office purchase of Sophistron Inc.’s software into a perfect excuse to visit Montreal and then drag Theo all the way back across the country to explain time tracking, file sharing, and back-end input fields to helpless employees and interns.

Maybe Shaan felt pity for his old friend’s old dad, or maybe it was the Jameson’s, but for the rest of the flight he confessed to Theo plenty daunting fuck-ups in his own life, including a girl across two bridges raising his three-year-old son. My wife, Fatima, doesn’t know, Shaan said.

Theo didn’t want to know. Theo wasn’t perfect either—buried a son, divorced a wife, never learned to drive, plagued by swivets. By the time they pulled away from the luggage conveyor, he had lost his appetite. Still on the hook to go straight from the airport to Shaan’s house for dinner, though, somewhere deep in the forested West Coast suburbs, be introduced to the family Shaan was deceiving, and, of all things, what finally won Theo over: a chance to taste authentic kosher Jewish–Indian cooking from a woman descended from One of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Jatiq Kalaa Sima Divekar’s ancestors fled Galilee—the seven Hebrew men and women were shipwrecked off the Konkan peninsula, south of Mumbai. Twenty-one hundred years later, Jatiq washed ashore in Shaan Rawal’s basement. She was best friend to my mom, like an auntie to me, she knows everything, Shaan told Theo. Jatiq’s husband, Avinash, had left her for another woman, a Nobel-winning ethnobotanist, eleven months previously.

When they got to Shaan’s house, Theo was still disoriented from the flight. His eyes felt like the last smoke off two guttered candles. There wasn’t much light in the entrance either, and he put his luggage down on a pet. Theo meant to apologize but instead he said, A spoiled dog never attacks. Shaan laughed good-naturedly and said the remark reminded him of something Liam would say.

Next Shaan introduced his wife Fatima and the woman living in the basement, Jatiq Kalaa Sima Divekar. Her black hair fell in blooms from her narrow face, and two eyes shone out from the shadows like candle flame. Theo said, Y-yes, hi, I was sure—. Shaan wanted to know where his daughter Anu was. Jatiq hurried to fetch her, and Theo, feeling his tie relaxed, noosed himself up, and pursued Jatiq. When he got to the living room, his smile was stiff and his knees were slacking. Shaan told me a-all. But after disciplining six-year-old Anu, Jatiq hurried back to the kitchen. She was in a hurry, fine. Theo perched himself on the nearest chair and waited. He felt like a gull with a shell in his beak, watching it slip, fall, and vanish back into the ocean. Filmis from Hindi movies played on the flat screen. Shaan and Theo were content with whisky to watch whatever Fatima felt like. Fatima sat on the carpet in front of the sofa where Shaan was stretched out, rubbing his leg so gingerly, as if to remind herself her husband was home.

Fatima wondered if Theo liked the movies. Theo thought every song was more beautiful than the last. But he also realized he wasn’t following along very well. He leaned away from the chair, and gravity did the rest. In the kitchen, Jatiq was busy on every burner, while also mixing fresh herbs into a bowl of fragrant rice. Looks good, is that gefilte? said Theo, startling her. Would you pour me a glass of water, please? She lifted one eye over her shoulder to look at him before going back to her cooking—like a gold moon rising over the mountain of her soft black sweater, the aol logo embroidered over her heart like its reflection on a night lake.

Shaan usually cooks, he prefers his mom’s style, Jatiq said. He called and asked for the Divekar family specialty tonight—malida, special Indian-Jewish prayer meal… in honour of your visit. Jewish rice? said Theo. Malida rice you marinate all night in coconut, ghee, cardamom, onycha, and honey, she said. He watched her dress the steep plate of rice with an apron of fresh produce, plump raisins, almond flakes, sweet dates, rosewater and rose petals, and banana slices, followed by orange and lime wedges and all topped with myrtle leaves, and suddenly his heart jumped like the thought of a hungry bird, and he had to say it, Jatiq, Jatiq, I don’t want to leave tonight and never see you again. I’m in town three days and… I mean, anywhere you want… I think… Jatiq lifted the glass of water he’d poured her and drank all but a drop that ran down her cheek.

You’re more like the kids, she said, you skip straight to the filmi. He fell mute. I shouldn’t see you, it’s not a good idea. Later tonight after you leave, go around back and knock on the glass door, and—she paused, snatched the jewellery from around her neck—hang this in the spruce and go to the gazebo by the far fence and wait. She scooted him out of the kitchen. He pushed the necklace into his pocket and sat for dinner.

Tradition had them do a prayer to the prophet Elijah before Shaan could dish out the malida. And so the great heaping plate of fragrant rice decorated with ripe fruit lay untouched on the table a moment longer as Theo and the Rawals sat and listened with watering mouths and emotions to Jatiq’s clear and musical recitation of the Hindi-fied Hebrew. The words had a mysterious symmetry to them, like the raft a lullaby provides a baby, something ancient carrying Theo to the centre of himself. His first taste of the malida was an indecipherable song.

Shaan did most of the eating and talking, he was confident with many plates of both. Liam’s unpredictability I loved, Shaan mused while chewing, even his compulsive lying. And money loved Liam. Wherever Liam went, money followed. What could Theo say to that? He said he loved the meal. Jatiq was blushing. Fatima was laughing nervously. Anu would only eat roti. And Shaan wondered if Theo knew his son rented a railcar apartment on Saint-Marc all through high school to sleep with his freshman girlfriends and host Nintendo parties on the weekends? No, this was the first Theo’d heard. Liam didn’t kill himself over debts, Shaan had a theory that he never expected to pay anyone back.

Look at the time, midnight, Theo clapped his hands, said his thank yous and goodbyes. See you at the office tomorrow, Shaan said half-asleep at the table. And with a mix of fury and shame and desire, Theo asked the cabbie to drop him off somewhere in the heart of town. There’s no heart of town around here, said the cabbie, not that I know of. Drive me to a gas station then. He bought a pack of Polar Ice gum and gnashed at two pieces until they were one.

He chewed all the way back to Rawal’s house. Thinking gingerly while taking the flagstones around the house, damned if he didn’t alert the motion sensors. More gingerly to the backyard and the glass double doors under the deck. He knocked three times, then hung the gold necklace on the dappled spruce, and crossed the muddy lawn to the broken-down gazebo. Patience, heart. Patience.

A whirlwind of almond flakes caught his eye, a little nebula twinkling closer. Jatiq appeared out of night’s dark reminders and sat beside him on the wrought iron bench. And she didn’t object to Theo’s hand on hers as they looked up through a veil of branches to the clear sky.

The nerve of the universe for bringing us together, said Jatiq.

Were we happier apart? asked Theo.

Jatiq Kalaa Sima Divekar smelled like the fallen petals of a gulab rose. She poured the necklace into his hand, and held his vaulted fist.

Theo could not sleep that night, and the following day he ran blindly through tutorials of the online management application for Shaan’s team at AOL, and, as if it went well, Shaan took him shopping at Urban Lifestyles after work and asked Theo what he thought of his life, Not bad, huh? he said before Theo could answer. My career is solid, got great staff under me. Really, Jatiq’s my lifesaver, without her—whole edifice crumbles.

Theo imagined the night ahead when he would knock on Jatiq’s glass door, decorate the tree, wait in the gazebo. She did meet him and slipped the necklace to him right away. It stopped raining, so they ventured out onto the road, away from the shallow hum of the highway toward Sumas Mountain. Another panicked landing for Theo—sliding into a booth at the restaurant beside the Days Inn hotel. She asked him if this was his hotel, and he said, Yes, it was, and she said,… I can’t. Then come live with me in Montreal, he said. We can visit the Rawals any time, Jatiq. She pressed her fingers to her mouth, We haven’t even kissed…

I can’t think of anything else, Theo said, I’m no use to Rawal or AOL or anyone until I kiss you. She avoided his eyes by studying the rose lip stain on her cup of hot chocolate. Ever since Shaan was eight years old, Jatiq said, he always ran away from home. He’s still restless, like your Liam was. Shaan is the closest I have to a son.

After marinating in all-night television in room nineteen and a full day of the AOL staff’s condescension, Theo wasn’t sure he was prepared to visit Jatiq for a third night in a row. He stared at her necklace, at the gold elephant and what looked like a sword or lion-headed hammer in the elephant’s trunk. Perhaps a yad or flint knife? A tiny spear of hope?

The third evening began with another long, quiet walk through farmland and suburbia, and when the rain came he held her peacock-print umbrella over them both. The rain helped explain away the dribble on Theo’s temples. The ditch was full of blackberry bushes, and when they finally embraced it was while unsnagging Jatiq’s clothes from barbs of nettle. Careful not to cut her. Skin as soft as a newborn rabbit’s, smooth as a dune. He finally kissed her, a kiss that wanted to be three or four or five kisses all bound together.

At the strip mall, they ran into Little Goody’s Lovely Sweets and ordered a lassi and a plate of sticky pink, yellow, and orange laddu and waited out the rain. No hurry, rain. No hurry. But the rain had stopped an hour ago, and it was nearly time for Theo to hail a taxi to the airport. Halfway to Shaan Rawal’s, they realized they’d left Jatiq’s peacock umbrella behind. She slumped into his arms. What are we going to do, Theo asked, kissing the warm part in her hair. When Shaan told me you were coming for dinner, I knew I would fall in love with you, she said. I thought you smelled a man drenched in despair. You were pushy enough in the kitchen. I had to woo you even in my despair. Knowing is worse than despair, Theo. We can’t be together. We can’t be apart. But we can stay connected. She pressed the necklace into his hand. This is all I have left from Mumbai. Take it—my elephant needs to feel at home.

Jatiq Kalaa Sima Divekar, her eyes were like the sun on the Days Inn sign next to the highway. Three days before, his taxi had passed the other way down these rainy, tree-lined roads, but now the pines looked like rows of peacock umbrellas. The flight home gave him nastier swivets than the flight out. When he landed in Montreal, he lay his Visa on the ticket counter and boarded the next flight—due to arrive at 1 a.m. He got to Rawal’s house feeling radically wilted and afraid he’d made a mistake. He proceeded gingerly along the flagstones to the glass doors under the deck. The doors were open. Strange, he thought, and went inside, hoping to find Jatiq asleep in the dark, quiet bedroom. He saw clothes on the well-made bed. He picked up her sweater and stared at the galaxial oval of the AOL logo embroidered on the flannel. Theo Sophistron got dizzy, all he could see was her eyes, and he dropped the sweater and the necklace and went running to the old, broken-down gazebo. Then where? Theo sat down on the bench in the dark, wanting ubiquitous signs of her. He waited. The scent of rose, only the rosebush. Theo wanted to know the right prayer, the one that would protect Jatiq’s eyes, those calm pools marked by the sun, the cosmos, all.

Lee Henderson, an associate writing professor at the University of Victoria, published the award-winning novel The Man Game in 2008.