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Continued from yesterday ...
“Only people who can afford it send their children to boarding school,” Simmi says, seemingly oblivious to Harman’s distress. “It’s a prestige thing -- something you wouldn’t understand -- and it’s obvious Zuber can well afford it.”
“There are multiple ways to measure cost, Simmi, losses and gains,” Zuber says, stroking Harman’s back.
“But you do need to remarry soon, Zuber. Harman needs a mother and maybe a sibling or two,” his father says. “It’s a practical consideration.”
“Meri gull sunno, ji ... don't worry! Things will change soon,” his mother says to his father. “I’ve been bursting to tell you the great news since arriving home. There’s a pileup of serious inquiries from our shaadi ad.”
“Progress,” his father says and resumes eating, using his spoon to capture the risotto from the plate.
“A shaadi ad?” Simmi asks, sounding angry, staring at Zuber and glowering at his mother.
Lily doesn’t know exactly what a shaadi ad is, though it’s clear that it’s related to some kind of marriage thing, and she doesn’t want to ask either. Disappointment over the way lunch unfolds pinches her, and she chides herself for expecting anything substantial could come to fruition with a man from a different culture, even if he has lived in the US since he’s been Harman’s age.
“It’s the best way,” his mother says, who looks regal as she speaks directly to Simmi.
“Really? Really? So lame, Zuber. Such a mommy’s boy!” Simmi throws her napkin on the table. “And rude! Considering …” Simmi pushes her chair back, not caring or noticing that it scrapes the floor, falls backward and clatters downward with loud crash. Without saying goodbye or thank you, Simmi grabs her purse and leaves, leaving the front door open behind her.
From the dining room window, Lily watches Simmi’s dainty, red-toe-nailed foot kick over two large flower pots, the soil spilling onto the walkway, her feet trampling the delicate blue flowers.
Vincent sees, too and his eyes widen at the sight of the destruction and mother and son glance at each other, Lily indicating with a subtle shake of her head that he remain silent about what he saw.
“Considering what?” Lily asks.
“A year after Ruby’s death, Simmi and I were engaged. Briefly. I realized that I wasn’t ready to remarry so quickly and that Harman ‘s best interest would not be well served if we did marry, so I ended it,” Zuber says. “None of us agree with her plans for my son. She has tortured me ever since,” he adds.
Zuber sets Harman back into his seat and announces “Dessert time!” Both boys want dessert and shout for it. Zuber tells them they can finish watching their movie, and he’ll bring cake and ice cream to them in the family room. They bounce out of the dining room like pair of noisy cubs.
“Zuber bought this cake especially for you. To thank you for helping with Harman,” his mother says. “Ruby’s loss has been difficult on all of us, but especially Harman. He’s always so happy after he returns from your place.”
“We enjoy his company,” Lily says. “He’s almost little brother for Vincent, who’s been wanting a sibling for the longest time. I promised him a puppy instead.” She emits a nervous laugh.
“A pile of inquiries?” his father asks. His mother’s face beams with excitement. “Yes, and many good matches. Zuber is good husband material. Why not a pile-up of inquiries?”
“Probably more interested in being in the US than in anything else,” Zuber says, dismissing them. “We can talk about this later, Mum-ji,” he says, setting a creamy chocolate cake in the center of the table. “Hazelnut. I didn’t make it. I bought it from the Italian bakery downtown. Harman’s been wanting a puppy, too. Are you going to get one?” He slices the cake, setting two in equal portions on large paper plates. He scoops vanilla ice cream, piling equal amounts atop each one and calls the boys in to retrieve their desserts.
Lily understands now that the purpose of inviting her to lunch is to say thank you, nothing more, nothing less. She loses her appetite for cake and ice cream.
“Yes,” she says. “In fact, I promised Vincent we’ll stop by the animal shelter after lunch today,” Lily adds. “So we need to be leaving soon if we’re going to get there before it closes.”
“A dog from the shelter?” Zuber asks, just as the boys tumble into the dining room. “Why not buy a puppy straight from a breeder?”
“Are we still going, Mom?” Vincent asks, hearing the tail end of the conversation
entering the room. “We’re going to get a dog? For real? This is the best day ever!” Vincent flashes a wide smile. “Y-e-e-e-s-s!” He balls his small hand into a fist and pulls his arm down swiftly: a win.
“Can I come, too?” Harman asks. “I want a dog, too, Baba!”
“Dogs are too much work,” his mother says, shaking her head. “No dog.”
Lily intends to keep her promise. “We like the idea of giving a home to a dog that needs one,” Lily says. “Now that I’m not in school anymore, it’s a good time to get a pet. Vincent’s been wanting one for a long time now, and he’s been pretty good. No reason not to have one.”
The phone rings, a jangling intrusion to dessert time. Zuber’s mother answers, then hands it to him.
“You know it’s not a good time. No. No. No,” Zuber says into the phone, followed by a long silence. “OK. I’ll come,” he says and shakes his head. He pushes air out his nose and scrunches his face in consternation.
“Seems Simmi’s car broke down on her way home. She needs a hand. I told her I’d help.” Irritation laces his words.
Lily smirks. “Doesn’t she have a BMW?” she asks. “Where did she break down?”
“Not far. Near the Starbucks on York,” he says.
Lily raises both eyebrows and wonders how he can be so smart and so blind at the same time. “Vincent and I should be leaving, anyway,” she says. “Thanks for lunch. Wonderful to meet you,” she tells his parents.
“I want to go with you to see the dogs,” Harman says, pulling on Lily’s hand. “Please, please let me come, too. I want to come too.”
Lily doesn’t believe Simmi’s car story, and she doesn’t want to be the de facto sitter while Zuber spends time with a former flame. She also wants the choice of the dog to be a special moment between her and Vincent. “Maybe you can go with your Baba,” she says, instead of offering to allow Harman to accompany them to the shelter. “Then later, or tomorrow maybe, maybe you can both come to see our new dog.”
Zuber smiles wide, the expression genuine and bright enough to illuminate the room and melt her heart. For a moment, she wishes they remained in their own silos, waiting quietly alone for their sons at the chess club because she knows her heart is going to be broken into a billion pieces. “That is a splendid idea,” he says.
At the shelter, she tries and fails to hide her moist eyes from Vincent. “Mom, what’s wrong?” he asks. “Too many wonderful dogs to choose from,” she croaks. “I wish we can take them all home!” she says, lying because Vincent is too young to know the truth about adult things and the confusing ways of the heart.
“Then can we adopt two then?” he asks, his lips spreading into a wide grin.
To her utter surprise, she nods her head yes because she doesn’t want to burst into tears and she loves it when he’s happy, and wonders what in the world she’s doing, agreeing to two dogs. “You’re going to have to help take care of them,” she says, trying to sound resolute and firm. “Two dogs are major responsibility.”
“They can keep each other company when we’re away,” he says, still selling her on the idea.
One of the shelter workers, a blond woman, helps Vincent pick two dogs that get along together. Lily automatically snaps into mother mode, peppering the woman with questions about temperament and history. She asks to see their shelter records, and she’s grateful to have something to focus on other than what won’t unfold with Zuber. Both of the dogs wag their tails like fans as Vincent pets them. She’s glad they’ll have two dogs to absorb her attention after work since she’s no longer bound by studies and school work.
Vincent picks a brown, muscular short-haired mutt with golden eyes that appears to have some terrier in him and a brindle-colored dog, another mutt, taller with white patches and four white socks that looks like a boxer but with a longer snout. The shelter worker tells Vincent he can rename them if he wants, but the brown dog is called Henry and the brindle one, which is a female, is named Rosie.
Vincent decides to keep their shelter names and he stays in the kennel near the dogs as Lily slogs through the paperwork. It takes forever -- all the papers she must sign, she thinks are more involved than if she were adopting humans. She has promised never to donate the dogs to a medical lab, among other things. The dogs already have their shots, are spayed and neutered and Lily promises to keep up with their yearly veterinarian visits. The shelter woman piles them with samples boxes of dog food, list of local veterinarians, dog obedience classes, and other dog related information and instructions. Lily pays the shelter fees, buys two leashes and collars, chew bones, and toys and doesn’t mind the expenditures when she sees the exuberance on Vincent’s face.
We’re both building character ourselves, she thinks.
In the back seat with both dogs licking him, Vincent can’t stop smiling as he pets his new dogs, repeating their names, “Henry, Rosie, Henry, Rosie ... You’re the best mom ever!” he says, barely able to contain his joy.
When Lily pulls up to their house, she’s surprised to see Zuber and Harman sitting on their stoop. Harman springs off the steps and runs toward the car. “Did you get a dog?” he yells, jumping up and down.
“Two,” Vincent yells through the car window, holding up two fingers. “Rosie and Henry!”
“Wow, wow, wow!” Zuber says. “Two! Two? When you decide on something you go all the way!” Zuber is now standing beside Harman, looking as excited as his son over the prospects of Lily’s new additions. Lily can tell, as she looks at him as he struggles with the puppies all over him.
“Vincent, make sure they’re both leashed. Don’t open the door yet,” she says. “We want to make sure it’s safe for Harman to let them both out at the same time. Wait till I get out and we’ll let them out one at a time.”
Lily exits the car, but before she can stand in front of the rear door to carefully escort first one dog and then the other into her house, Vincent shoves the door open, and both Henry and Rosie bound out like rubber balls. Harman squeals with delight as Zuber catches first one and then the second leash. The dogs are barking and jumping, licking Harman, Zuber, and Vincent, who are all hugging and petting the dogs as if they were long lost buddies. Lily breathes, relieved
that the dogs didn’t snap or bite either of the boys or Zuber.
Lily tosses Zuber the keys, and he adroitly maneuvers both boys and dogs into the house and then out into Lily’s backyard. Lily gathers the parcels of doggie paraphernalia from the trunk and drops them onto the living room floor. Zuber is washing his hands at her kitchen sink, while keeping an eye on the boys and dogs in the yard.
“The car trouble?” Lily asks, as she rifles through the packages to find the two new stainless steel doggie water bowls.
“Non-existent,” he says. “A ruse.”
Lily snickers, not surprised. At the kitchen sink, she gently pushes him aside and fills first one and then the other bowl with water and sets them in an empty corner of the kitchen.
“Two?” he asks, coming toward her, deliberately stepping into her bubble of space. The boys and the dogs shriek and bark in the yard. Lily can hear balls bounce against the side of the house, and she knows that something is changed.
“Unintentional,” she says.
He chortles, not surprised. “One for each child?”
“Absolutely not,” she says, unable to stop herself from smiling. “Not with your pile-up of shaadi ads. Even I can figure out they’re potential marriage candidates. One for me. And one for Vincent. We are a family of four, two people and two dogs.”
Zuber steps closer to her, and she finds herself looking straight up to see his face, his eyes twinkling under the same steel blue turban he wore earlier. She can’t help leaning into him as if he possesses some kind of magnet that pulls her toward him; she’s powerless to resist. She wants to touch his face, run her fingers across his arched eyebrows. She wants to touch the black triangle on his forehead and lift the turban off so that his coiled knot unravels. She wants to untie his beard to see how long it is.
Resisting, she does nothing. Instead, she inhales his spicy cologne mixed with his scent and trembles at the brush of his breath on her cheeks.
“Unfortunately, you can’t count,” he whispers, his voice low and soft. He folds her into his arms, his large hands smoothing the ginger coils of her tangled hair.
“Six,” he says. “Two dogs make six.”
“I can count just fine,” she says as Zuber bends forward and kisses the words out of her mouth.
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 10, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Satvir Kaur (Boston, MA, USA), October 10, 2012, 9:27 AM.
Wow. I like this Prem Kahani column. Wonderful story, Rosalia.
2: Manpreet Singh (Hyderabad, India), October 11, 2012, 3:17 AM.
Wow! Wow! Wow! beautiful story ... I am sad now because it's over. I was expecting Parts 3, 4, 5, 6 ... Thank you so much for writing this short story. I enjoyed it to the core.
3: Eddie DeVaughn (Baltimore, Maryland, USA), October 11, 2012, 9:10 AM.
What a GREAT STORY! Easy to follow - and INTRIGUING! "WE WANT MORE!"
4: S.K. Bal (London, United Kingdom), October 11, 2012, 11:38 AM.
Colored with strong emotions and feelings! Was hoping for a series ...
5: Izhaarbir (Madison, Wisconsin, USA), October 11, 2012, 9:01 PM.
Excellent short story. Thank you for writing and sharing it! I was saddened to see the word "concluded" after the last sentence. I second Eddie DeVaughn's sentiments in the post above: "We want more!"
6: Jagdeep (Punjab), October 13, 2012, 2:48 AM.
In love with this love story ...
7: Lucky (Catonsville, Maryland, USA), October 13, 2012, 9:11 PM.
I loved this story so much! We need more stories that reflect modern Sikh love and romance! Something I can identify with! Bravo! And like the previous comments, I would have loved the story to continue! I hope ms Scalia keeps contributing to the site, I love love love her stories!