Check Mate ROSALIA SCALIA
Lily Homer inhales the aroma of the cappuccino she’s holding. Zubarjit Singh made it especially for her – without the benefit of a cappuccino machine -- and she’s definitely impressed.
Her son Vincent and Zuber’s son, Harmanpreet, are watching an animated cartoon movie in the family room, its soundtrack ringing and vibrating around the living and dining rooms like a loud arcade game, and everyone waits for the elaborate Sunday lunch Zuber is cooking.
He sets the table for six to include his parents, expected to return any minute from the gurdwara.
“I’ve been practicing making risotto and have been making everyone eat it, too,” he says, laughing.
“Let me help,” she says, admiring his long, thick brown fingers -- piano fingers -- on hands that seem slightly too big for his body as they arrange forks, knives and spoons in their proper places. His eyes -- a striking shade of blue -- look bluer than her own which are the color of washed out sky. They appear almost an azure under the steel blue of his turban, the color of his eyes aglow, a contrast to the black triangle at the center of his forehead.
He waves away her offer. “You just enjoy the coffee,” he says, as if it is her job as the guest to do so. She’s never seen an Indian guy with blue eyes, she tells him, thinking he could easily be a model in any men’s magazine, but he shrugs. “My maternal grandfather has blue eyes, and my mother’s are green. Apparently, Alexander’s army stayed behind in Punjab and sowed their seed, and we’re among those descendants,” he says.
When he laughs, Lily smiles because she can’t tell if he is joking, the explanation plausible.
Zuber lights tall white candles in wrought iron candle holders at each end of the table, and sets a pitcher of iced water in the center. This is the first time she and Vincent have been invited to his house for anything, and the first time she’s meeting his parents.
Each week at the boys’ chess club, their boys’ knights, queens, pawns, and rooks battle each other over the game board. She mostly has read or studied while waiting for the chess gathering to end.
She’d noticed Zuber and they exchanged nods each week for months, neither of them speaking to each other, until one week when Zuber broke the ice and interrupted her reading by chatting about -- of all things -- the architectural highlights of the building where the chess club meets and of the Fells Point neighborhood.
Since then, they chatted themselves into a flirty friendship, and Lily began looking forward to the weekly chess club gathering as much as Vincent, but for different reasons.
Waiting in the chairs erected along the side of a large room where the boys play, she develops an appreciation for the eye-candy of him, the lithe movements of his slender body, his expressive face, and she likes him more than she should, she thinks, assuming he’s married.
As the weeks unfold, she appreciates his quick laughter, and his palpable sadness when he confides that his wife has “expired” from breast cancer three years earlier. Lily imagines all the things that expire -- prescriptions, driver’s licenses, memberships, coupons, yogurt, milk, credit cards, and marvels at the quaint expression. She whispers her condolences, meaning it sincerely, though tries to ignore the leap in her heart, the excitement that courses through her at the knowledge that he is, indeed, available and oh, the possibilities!
“My father likes to cook, too,” she says. “Perhaps that’s why I never learned,” she adds, mentally cataloguing the similarities between the two men.
“Can’t say enough good about Italian cookbooks. I hope you and Vincent like risotto,” he says, rolling the r’s in “risotto” as if he’s also studying the Italian language. She admires his precision about things.
“It’s hard to get sick of risotto! Each recipe offers a different taste from tomato to cream based, and all of them different from the steamed basmati I’m used to,” he says, sounding like a TV chef. She notices white, even bright teeth beneath full, kissable lips, partially hidden by his moustache.
“Vincent and I aren’t picky eaters, especially when someone else is cooking,” she says and laughs. Her many years as a hair stylist tells her that his beard is gelled and tied into place. Over the past few months, she’s noticed that it has been tied at various levels under his chin and she wonders how long it is.
“Do you see yourself moving to other culinary phases, like French, Thai or Mexican?” she asks.
“I measure everything exactly,” he says. “There’s still too much I don’t know about Italian, which in many ways echoes India with each region having its own traditions. I haven’t made it through even a third of one region yet, and I like the slow way of eating, or dining, a complete contrast to America where everything, even eating, is done fast, at breakneck speeds.”
“When I cook, I measure nothing, eyeball everything and I’ve never had the time to cultivate a cooking habit,” she says. “Other than hamburgers, mashed potatoes, pancakes and simple stuff. I draw the line at okra and hotdogs. Refuse to buy or serve them.”
She sips the cappuccino, it’s perfection swirling in her mouth.
“This is delicious! Amazing you made it on the stove.”
Lily tries not to stare at him as he moves as sure footed as a tiger between the kitchen and dining room.
“Steamed the milk the old fashion way, like an old Italian grandmother,” he says, beaming that she likes it. “It’s not all that different from chai masala, if you think about. After my Ruby died, it seemed appropriate for Harman and me to make a new start with new and different things. I didn’t want to eat the daals, rotis and paranthas and all those dishes that Ruby made better. And I didn’t want my mom cooking all those things that reminded me of Ruby either. So, I bought basic cook books for dummies and went from there. I never expected to enjoy it so much, that it would be a stress buster. What’s wrong with okra? It’s tasty if it’s fried.”
“Fried? Too fattening. And not fried, too slimy,” she says. “I’d rather eat something bitter than something slimy.”
Lily knows a furious battle with breast cancer defeated Ruby. She knows since his parents and he share the same house, his mother helps with some child and house care, but she works too, and things sometimes overwhelm them. Still, when she and Zuber began helping each other, it felt like a natural progression.
Lily, who has never been married, has juggled single parenthood with going to school and working since Vincent’s birth when she just turned 17. She knows she’s more practiced at it, though like Zuber, her parents often step in when needed.
After Vincent was born, Lily apprenticed and became licensed to style hair -- her first goal -- working in series of salons to pay her way first through undergraduate school and then law school. As much as she liked her job as a stylist, she didn’t love it and outright hated all the chemicals involved in hair care, coloring and perming it. And now, she can’t believe she’s achieved her goal of finishing law school and passing the bar exam even if it took Vincent’s entire lifetime to do it, and she loves her first legal eagle job at a shelter for victims of domestic violence because she feels she’s making a difference in people’s lives.
All those years of bouncing around the poverty line and even dipping far below, seem worth it since she can now provide a better life for Vincent.
Finishing the coffee, she sets the mug in the kitchen sink, where she sees a stalk of romaine lettuce, two red tomatoes, a package of radishes and other salad fixings sitting on the counter.
“I’m not totally bereft in the kitchen. I can make the salad,” she says, happy to have something to do with her hands. She’s not used to being idle. Lily knows enough not to chop the romaine with a knife but to tear the stalks with her fingers into smaller pieces. She asks Zuber for a colander, and he tells her where she can find a salad spinner. She quickly washes and spins the lettuce, peels and slices radishes, tomatoes and two thick carrots.
Aware she wants to impress him, that she wants his parents to like her, she dresses the salad with a vinegrette, one of her few good recipes. As he explains the inner workings of a new building from an engineering perspective, she imagines things between them are settled, and she’s cooking for Zuber and his family in the small, downtown galley kitchen of her rented row-house.
His parents bustle into the kitchen, and she notices his mother’s striking parrot-green eyes and sees that Zuber resembles her in the face but is tall and thin, broad shouldered like his father.
His father wears a white turban, and in his round, wire-framed glasses, the elder Singh looks like a college professor. Unsure if they speak English, Lily says hello anyway. Then she notices a tall, beautiful woman trailing his parents and the scowl that fleets across the woman’s face.
“We’ve heard quite a bit about you. Welcome to our home,” his father says. “Thank you for the care and kindness you shower on Harman when you’ve had him in your company. My wife and I noticed how meticulously he’s been cared for and how happy he is when he returns from your home,” he adds.
“Harman’s never a bother,” Lily says, asking the elder Singhs to call her Lily.
Though she’s never seen Zuber without his turban, she knows of his unshorn hair, and she’s noticed the bump of the thick coiled bun sitting neatly at the top of his head, barely discernible under the cloth of the turban.
She looks at the father, and can make out the outline of a ball, though smaller, atop his turbaned head. His beard is black -- he dyes it! -- she realizes, seeing the gray thinning hair disappear upwards into the turban at the back of his head.
Lily turns and glances at the beautiful woman, whose obsidian eyes telegraph anger and disdain, which Lily realizes is directed at her.
“Simmi, this is Lily. Lily, Simmi. Simmi’s dropped by for a second, a quick second, and then she’s leaving. Isn’t that right, Simmi?” Zuber says, his voice sounding more like a command instead of a question.
Using oversized red potholders, Zuber pulls from the oven a casserole dish of steaming risotto topped with portobello mushrooms and melted cheese and sets it atop the stove. He reaches deeper into the oven and his large hands emerge holding another simmering casserole dish, this one filled with chicken, green and red peppers, bit of fresh tomato, and a tomato-wine sauce, with an aroma filling the room with garlicky joy.
”Nonsense. And leave this sumptuous lunch?” Simmi says. “Zuber’s never cooked for me. Not a morsel, not a crumb,” she says, pushing her way into the kitchen where she lifts the lid from the risotto and inhales the aroma. “If nothing else, your culinary skills have certainly improved. They were less than abysmal before. One can only wonder if you’ve improved any other skills that were lacking before.”
Zuber’s mouth forms a straight line under his moustache, and he ignores the dig.
“Of course, Simmi is welcome to stay,” his mother says, filling the silence with the polite invitation. Zuber frowns.
“I can’t wait to taste everything,” Lily says, seeing that Simmi knows her way around the kitchen as she gathers plates and flat-wear to add a place setting for herself at the table. Simmi appears oblivious that Zuber’s mood has shifted and acts as if everyone else in the room revolves around her.
“I was driving by and saw that dreadful, old beat-up Toyota in the drive way and couldn’t help wondering who was here,” Simmi says, tossing her hair. “Then I saw Auntie-ji and Uncle-ji, so what perfect time to stop in and see for myself. It must be yours,” she says to Lily, who is shocked by the woman’s cheek.
“Oh, you mean Dionysus? A steadfast, sturdy old friend,” Lily says, making sure to keep her voice blithe and light. “That car -- my beastie -- has ferried Vincent and me through thick and thin, reliable as the sun for the past eleven years,” she adds, determined to sound cheerful against Simmi’s rudeness.
“You just happened to be driving by? How convenient,” Zuber says.
Lily excuses herself to collect the boys. Zuber’s mother places a medium sized bottle of root beer on the table next to the iced water. Except for the scraping of forks and spoons against the plates, an uncomfortable silence hangs over the five adults and two children.
Lily breaks the silence. “Compliments to the chef,” she says, raising her glass of root beer in a toast. “This is definitely one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. The chicken is so tender, it falls off the bone!”
“Yep, you’ve come a long way from cooking for dummies,” Simmi says. “You should have seen his earlier attempts. Awful, just awful. Your son? Or younger brother” Simmi asks, looking back and forth between Lily and Vincent.
“Son,” Lily says, her face reddening under the scrutiny.
“Lily, Zuber failed to tell us you look like a Celtic princess with that complexion and red hair,” his mother says. “Is it your natural hair color?”
Before Lily can tell her that her mother and grandmother have the same red hair, Simmi asks, “Is he adopted? He looks too young to be your son. Maybe he looks like your husband.”
How can Lily look too old to be Vincent’s mother when she’s only 28? Luckily, she has sailed past the issue of being an unwed mother long ago, and doesn’t feel the need to defend herself. Vincent, who is biracial -- half African-American -- and she shares the same features, if not the same complexion. His curls -- albeit coiled a lot tighter than hers -- are tinged red, reflecting her own hair, which is so thick with curls, it sits like an unruly bird’s nest, cascading to the middle of her back. Dealing with all those thick curls inspired her to become a hair stylist to work her way through school in the first place.
“Never been married. Your point?” Lily glares at Simmi and then glances at Zuber whose jaw seems clenched, and to his parents, who seem riveted by the exchange.
Simmi shrugs. “None.”
Lily refuses to explain the circumstances of her life and wonders why Zuber has never mentioned Simmi in any of their marathon talks at the chess club or on those occasions he’s asked her to retrieve Harman from his after-school program and watch for him until he could pick him up. On those nights, she’s gladly fed Harman dinner, helped with his homework at the same time she helped Vincent with his -- all of them seated at the dining room table working on school assignments.
She’s enjoyed combing and braiding Harman’s thick long hair, twisting it into a bun atop his head as the boy guided her, and retying the black cloth over it so the eight year old looked neat and clean when his father picked him up.
“How do you know Zuber, again?” Lily asks.
“I’m his future wife,” Simmi says with a pointed smile.
Barely able to swallow, Lily sets her fork on her plate. “I didn’t know you’re engaged,” she says, glad her voice doesn’t crack from the shock or sound like a croak.
“Oh, Simmi is such a joker,” Zuber says. “She is fond of telling that to everyone, but don’t believe it. We’re not engaged. Nor will we ever be engaged.”
“You just don’t know it yet, Zuber,” Simmi says, smiling. “We’re meant to be! We grew up with the same culture, the same traditions. We share the same values. I know what’s best for Harman.”
“We agree that Zuber must marry again,” his father says. “We don’t agree that Harman should attend a boarding school in India.”
“Boarding school in India? At age eight? Isn’t that a bit harsh?” Lily asks, unable to imagine being so far from Vincent, unable to contain her surprise that such an option would be considered.
Harman stops eating and begins crying, large tears rolling down his cheeks. Lily can’t help herself: she reaches for his little hand and squeezes it. Using her own napkin, she wipes his face.
“He won’t be far from his family,” Simmi says. “Certainly, a boarding school near Ruby’s family is an option. They’d be thrilled to be able to see him regularly, considering the loss of their daughter,” Simmi adds with a sniff. “My brothers both attended boarding school from age 7 on, and they turned out fine. It builds character.”
“I don’t want to build character,” Harman wails.
Zuber lifts Harman from his seat and cuddling the child, returns to his own.
“Judging by his penchant for crying at every little thing, boarding school is exactly what he needs,” Simmi says, sounding icy. “To toughen up. Be stronger.”
“Why do you talk about Harman like that in front of him? I can’t imagine sending Vincent away,” Lily says, shuddering. “Wrestling, or team sports, scouting, owning a pet, all build character. Why abdicate any child’s life to teachers, who then become de facto parents, who get to see all the firsts? I want to be present for all of Vincent’s firsts.”
Except for Vincent and Simmi, no one is eating. Zuber holds Harman close and whispers into his son’s ear.
CONTINUED TOMORROW ...
This story is dedicated to the spunky, blue-eyed, 91-year-old Sardar Damoder Singh who I know; he lives in Jammu & Kashmir.
[Rosalia Scalia writes both fiction and non-fiction. With a Master’s in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, she is currently an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. Her fiction has won several awards and prizes, and has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including Amarillo Bay; The Baltimore Review; North Atlantic Review; Pebble Lake; Pennsylvania English; The Portland Review; Quercus Review; Smile, Hon, You’re In Baltimore; South Asian Ensemble; Spout Magazine; Taproot; and Willow Review, among others. She lives in Baltimore with her cat.]
October 9, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Manpreet Singh (Hyderabad, India), October 09, 2012, 9:58 AM.
Awesome story ... eagerly waiting for the 2nd part. Please throw this Simmi character out of the window. I want to see Lily and Zuber together ... both of them are very caring and enjoy each other's company. Sorry if I am interfering ...
2: Abhitej Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), October 15, 2012, 12:49 PM.