There is nothing as distinctive as the smell of Indian food. I sat at Indian Flavor, a local restaurant munching on some chaat papri, a delectable mix of potatoes, chick peas, yogurt and tamarind sauce, mentally calculating the number of calories I was consuming and how much time on the treadmill it would take to make up for it. I had come to work early to research my latest assignment and was on my way back to make sense of my notes when the aroma of Indian Flavor lured me in. It was pretty quiet at 2:00 p.m.; the lunch crowd was fading. It was the first time I had been back to our place, alone. I shook off the memories of the last time we were here. I pulled out of my briefcase my laptop and an old copy of South Asian News. On the cover was the picture of a young woman—badly beaten, eyes swollen shut, bruises all over her face and neck.
That’s what Fozia Azize had looked like when they found her in dumpster last year behind a popular Indian night club. She wore a traditional Muslim head scarf but you could tell she was an attractive girl, a sophomore in college. I wasn’t with the paper when the story came out but I felt drawn to it, not just because it caused a sensation in this Toronto suburb that prided itself on diversity, and not just because it had happened so close to the anniversary of 9/11 but because among other things we shared the same name, Fozia. Not at all an odd coincidence, it was a fairly common name. Perhaps I thought of her as a parallel version of me, wondering if this could happen to her who else could it happen to. They never caught the guy who did it. A year had passed and we were no closer to solving the case than we were on day one.
My pondering came to a halt as I saw Priya approaching, turning more than a head or two with her trendy outfit, long legs, glossy lipstick—”the London look,” I thought.
“Mmm… that looks good” said Priya, pulling up a seat and eyeing my chaat papri and gesturing towards the waiter. “I’d like to have what she’s having, and a mango lassi.”
“You look great,” I said. “Maybe, a little thin though. Have you lost weight?”
“I have to sweetie, the camera adds ten pounds.”
“I always felt like it added fifty on me.”
Priya just laughed flashing the perfectly white teeth that she had just got capped, a recommendation from her agent. “Fozia, you’re too much. You know you’re adorable.”
“So, are you all packed, ready for London?” I ask.
“Almost, I have packed half my stuff, the other half my parents will ship over. Anyone you want me to look up for you?”
I let the question dangle. I had no time for ghosts.
“So, have you heard anything,” she said between mouthfuls of chaat papri.
“No, nothing,” I said.
“Don’t worry, he’ll cave soon.”
“Don’t you go and do anything now… It’s better this way anyway.”
“I mean it Priya.”
Before she had a chance to answer her cell began to ring. “Yes… I know… Oh my God really…” She snapped the phone shut. “I have to go sweetie, I’m already late.”
Priya got up and gave me a big hug.
“You’ll keep in touch right?
“Of course,” she said in between tears her mascara running down her cheeks.
Just like that my best friend was gone. I was left alone still munching on my chaat papri with a vague sense of emptiness and déjà vu. I wondered if Fozia had felt lonely. Had she felt her life crumbling around her in the moments before she died, the way mine did right now. What had been the events that led to this tragedy or had it really been just bad luck—randomness being caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. Was the universe random or had there been meaning to Fozia’s death.
Still uncertain of my angle I went back to work. Our tiny office was located in the town of Markville, a largely desi suburb. I walked to my desk, which looked like a hurricane had exploded all over it. A stale donut and coffee occupied an ever-sticky corner of the desk. I drank the last remaining bits of cold coffee and was about to bite into the half-eaten donut when I saw Kamran peering over a mountain of research.
“Hey,” said Kamran, the columnist for international news. “Don’t eat that crap; there are some fresh Krispy Kremes in the kitchen.” My stomach started to growl. “No, thanks,” I said. Instead I pulled out an unopened package of rice cakes that had been sitting in my office for a while and started munching.
I sneaked a glance at Kamran who was still munching on his donut. He’s one of those tall thin guys that never gain weight. He had powdered sugar all over his shirt as he gingerly went through his third and then fourth Krispy Kreme.
“Kamran,” I said. “You were around when the Fozia Azize story broke?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Are you writing something about the Fozia Azize case? What’s your angle?”
“Not sure. I just think it didn’t get a fair shake you know. It must have been scandalous. She seemed to come from a pretty conservative family.”
“Yeah, he paused. “Her family, her fiancé was devastated.”
“She had a fiancé?”
“Yeah, she was engaged to someone in Chicago. He was stunned, especially since her body was found in the dumpster behind Tantric.”
“Did I ever tell you I was at Tantric the night Fozia Azize died?”
“No you didn’t.”
“Ya,” I said. “Like two ships that pass in the night…”
I remembered that night well. Tantric was a hot new urban club known for a bhangra hip/hop mix frequented mainly by East Indians. It was Priya’s favourite spot on a Thursday nights. The music was blaring. Priya had just broken up with her boyfriend and was guzzling vodka martinis and chainsmoking Marlboros. Her ex could not stand cigarettes. We were two single girls on the town. It was my night to let loose as well. I wholeheartedly worked out the frustrations of my week on the dance floor. Having been born rhythmically challenged I hoped like hell I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew. As we sat at the bar to cool off, the waiter put two drinks in front of us.
“We didn’t order anything,” I said.
“It’s from that gentleman in the corner,” he said.
We both turned around to see a good looking guy nod in our direction.
“Wow, he’s hot,” said Priya licking her lips. “This will help me get over what’s-his-face in no time.”
I caught my breath as he came over and introduced himself. He looked at me and smiled as if I was the only one there and asked me if I wanted to dance.
“I’m a bit out of breath,” I said, surprised by the lilt of his accent.
How strange it seemed coming out of his mouth.
“That’s all right,” he said. “We can sit somewhere and talk.”
I will never get over the sound of his voice and how it made everything he said sound like music.
Exhausted, I decided to call it a night and head home. I sat for a while looking at our large double garage house in an affluent suburb. How quickly we adjust to our circumstances I thought, remembering crammed apartment buildings with multiple families in one unit and the smell of curry lining the hallways, the sounds of Urdu and Punjabi seeping through the corridors.
As I pulled into the driveway I could see the light on in the kitchen. It meant that my mother must be preparing something elaborate. The smell of curry as I walked into the foyer confirmed that my mom and my grandmother had been cooking all day. I wondered what was up.
“Fozia berta, you’re finally back. I was wondering when you were coming home. You have to go upstairs and get ready quickly. Saroj auntie is in town with her son, the one attending Harvard Medical School and I’ve asked them to come over for tea. Hurry, I want you to look nice when they get here.”
Why was I surprised with my father out of town for a couple of weeks it was only a matter of time before the aunties started coming over. I went upstairs too irritated to say anything to my mother. She had already laid out what she wanted me to wear. I looked at the pretty turquoise suit that was meant to set off my hazel eyes. I always thought that was my best feature.
“No, your best feature is your smile,” I could hear him say, sitting on a stretch of grass by the harborfront. “When you smile you light up your whole face. Without your smile your eyes are just a set of cold jewels.”
I heard the doorbell ring. I knew they were here. Better start getting ready…
“Yes, I remember that family. They did very well in the Middle East,” said Auntie Saroj. She was a fair-skinned woman who wore a lot of jewelry and too much make-up. She seemed perfectly comfortable with my cat curled up around her feet. Well, if Einstein likes her, she can’t be all bad. “In fact, my younger sister-in-law married one of their relatives around that same time,” she continued.
I sat listening to the chatter of the three women. I looked up at Mr. Harvard. He seemed pretty social, contributing in the conversation of the three women and genuinely looking interested. It was more than I could say for myself. Try not to space out too much and smile when someone tells a joke, I kept telling myself. I looked up to see him smiling at me from time to time but I couldn’t tell if he was interested or just being polite. Before they leave, mom takes Auntie Saroj out to the back yard to give her a clipping of her new plant. They are both avid gardeners.
We were both standing in the foyer waiting for our moms to come in from the backyard when he handed me his business card.
“It was nice meeting you,” he said. “Feel free to keep in touch.”
My mom definitely thought the evening was a success. She could not stop raving about the family. I helped clean up. Thursday night, tomorrow was trash day. I stepped outside into the cool air. It was a clear night. The stars were out. The neighbors had mowed their lawn recently and it smelled nice. I stood at the curb, garbage bag in hand smelling the air when a car pulled up.
Kris stopped and rolled down the window. “Hey, isn’t it past your bed time?”
“Hey, I never see you out anymore,” I responded.
“I guess I’ve been kinda of a hermit lately,” he said.
“Well, you know what they say about all work and no play…”
“You’re right,” he grinned. “Care for a ride…”
We stepped into a cool air-conditioned room where brightly-colored walls lit up the place. Teenagers sat giggling across the room. We were seated at a booth at the far end overlooking the traffic. Kris and I had not been here in ages. We ordered our usual and laughed about old times. Kris, looked older, more mature these days, but the eyes were the same reflecting his wild past. After his father’s heart attack Kris had decided to stay home and run the family business. The responsibility was starting to show, after only a year he looked older, more settled. He wore it well. I had never felt this comfortable around him before. It was nice. It was like being with Priya.
When Kris drove me home, it was almost midnight.
“So what are you working on these days, you still with South Asian News?”
“I read one of your articles. It was pretty good. Are you writing anything right now?”
“I’m doing one about Fozia Azize or at least using it to tie into a larger issue.”
“That was a tragic,” he said. “She seemed like a nice girl.”
“Did you know her?”
“I knew a guy she dated.”
“But her fiancé lived in Chicago?”
“No, this was someone else. He wasn’t from your community. They were really into each other. I don’t know what ended up happening with them. I don’t think they could have continued given how different their backgrounds were.”
“Wow, I had no idea.”
I was trying to wrap my head around Fozia with a boyfriend when Kris added slowly looking straight ahead. “How’s Priya doing?”
I felt awkward even though I knew it wasn’t my fault. “Priya, left today…” I said. “Are you going to miss her?”
“Do you miss him? Does it matter, they left us anyways. No matter what I did, I always knew she’d end up somewhere I couldn’t follow.”
When I got home it was past midnight. I tossed and turned for a long time before I finally fell asleep, and that’s when I saw him one last time sitting at the bar at Tantric. He was talking to me, only it wasn’t me, it was Fozia, the other Fozia with her headscarf, her black eye and bruises around her neck, looking exactly as she did the day they found her. She turned around and looked directly at me. I felt a shudder go through my body but it wasn’t Fozia I was afraid of. It’s not her ghost that still haunts me.
Still groggy I woke up to the sound of my private line ringing. It was Priya.
“Priya, its 5:00 a.m. what are you doing?”
“I couldn’t wait. Guess who I ran into?”
“Priya… No.” I whispered.
“Oh, I wasn’t looking for him. I was at dinner with a bunch of girls and guess who was sitting at the bar?”
“He asked if you were there… He really misses you Fozia. I think you should hear him out. I told him to call you.”
I don’t remember what I said next or how the conversation ended. It was 10:00 a.m. in the morning. I’ve slept longer than I wanted to. My private line was ringing again and I could tell from the tone it was a long distance call. How did Fozia choose between the one she loved and the one she was supposed to love or did her destiny choose her?
I reluctantly picked up the phone. “Hallo,” said the lilt of a British accent on the other end.