A Primrose Excerpt
Fourteen Primrose Street: Kevin
“I don’t know Justin, it’s…”
“Amiritha, please, just go and see what the situation is. I just can’t leave work until I finish analyzing this one slide in the lab. Probably late, and that could be too late. Know what I mean? Please.”
“He doesn’t like me, Justin. He won’t like me being there without you.”
“Oh Ami, that’s not true.”
“It is, he’s never even said my name out loud. You just want it to be different.”
“Maybe, I don’t know, but please just go over and see if the cat is really dead. I wouldn’t want him to bury her alive. Come on, you know you’d like an excuse to get out of the apartment. And it will give you a fresh look at your work when you get back. Please?”
“It’s all very weird, but okay, for you. And you’re right, I could use a break. I’m a little stuck. But if there is a problem, will you at least keep your phone right beside you? I don’t want to be dead too.”
“He’s not that bad, Ami. He is just a kid.”
“He’s a big boy, Justin, and has a bad temper.”
“You just haven’t seen the other side. It’s just, well, listen they’re calling me. Please, Ami, please just check.”
“Fine, I’ll go.”
“Call me, okay?”
She put down her iPhone and looked out the window. It was dull and grey, but she had come to accept that the sun hid more in North America than in Asia. She wondered if there would be any sun shining at Justin’s house today. She just dreaded going over there alone. His son, Kevin, was surly to say the least. His other son had already left home and rarely returned to visit. Justin’s divorce had been ugly. But after a year, Kevin had made it clear it was his house and Amiritha wasn’t welcome.
She looked out the window to see what coat she should take. She couldn’t get used to trees with no leaves. And she couldn’t get used to so many different wardrobes for so much different weather. The daffodils in her neighbour’s yard were poised to unfurl into spring, and the trees would soon follow with their greenery, but it was never soon enough for her. She loved the swaying, laughing daffodil petals. They really were a celebration to the end of winter. Seasons were new to her, and she loved them. They meant life had rhythm and colour and shape and change. Where she had grown up, it was like one season, one temperature, one set of clothes and footwear. Seasons. It was one of the many things she was coming to love about this place, this country. And then there was Justin. He was like no man she had ever met, with his unabashed shows of affection and how he really listened to her, a woman. New and radiant territory to be sure.
She went in search of her running shoes and her coat. It was still chilly outside. Crocuses and daffodils were famous for sporting a little leftover winter frost or snow, but she would need her winter coat. She loved how warm and soft it was; she had been tempted to wear it to bed in the really cold months. It was one of the first things she had bought after arriving from across the ocean.
As Amiritha turned the key in the lock of her small basement apartment door and stepped outside the house onto Richmond Street, she felt the winter spring breeze around her shoulders and pulled her coat closer to her face. The one thing she had loved about those cold winter days were evenings with Justin by his fireplace. He would snuggle her tiny frame against him on the couch, and they would watch silly movies together and laugh. She loved how he smelled of wood and work and maple syrup with pancakes. Now there was a food she had come to love; it was so different from the flavours she was accustomed to.
Her first year had been hard with no friends, and being the oldest in her class at the university didn’t make that any easier. Winter had been a shock. She hadn’t felt her toes for at least four months. This past winter had been warmer and more bearable because of Justin. She would have left months ago if it hadn’t been for him. She smiled to herself. Who would have thought slipping on an iced-over puddle could change your life? When everyone else just stared at her, clutching at her ankle and crying in pain, Justin had walked right over, offered his arm, and taken her to the hospital emergency room. He smiled warmly as she struggled with her English and her tears, helping as much as he could. Pain and fear made it difficult to remember the new and foreign language. She was glad she wasn’t alone. They wrapped her sprained ankle and gave her crutches, which turned out to be highly dangerous on the ice, but Justin steadied her as they left the hospital and took her for a coffee. They had met often since that day, Justin using the excuse that he wanted to make sure she was getting along okay with those crutches.
She walked along the sidewalk and was still surprised that she drew attention. She never could tell exactly why. Her skin colour? Her walk? Her manner? They couldn’t smell food she prepared walking down the street, or how she worshipped. Sometimes it didn’t feel like she had immigrated from another country — it felt like she’d travelled to another planet. People looked similar — they had two eyes, a nose, a mouth, ears on either side of the head, two arms and legs — but that was where any similarity ended, it seemed. Nothing was familiar outside of that. People talked about their feelings, they looked you straight in the eye, they talked behind your back, they were afraid of skin colour. Trains were on schedule, banks took less than two hours to meet your needs, food was easy to get and plentiful, and there was such variety, houses were big, sewers were hidden, water was clean, women had rights. And now here she was being asked to go and see if a cat was really dead because a teenage boy was not willing or able, hard to know. Justin didn’t want the cat buried alive. It was all incomprehensible to her, but she had great respect and admiration for Justin, and this must be really important in ways she couldn’t understand, or he wouldn’t have asked. She felt a warm glow all over her body these days when she heard his voice or pictured him in her mind.
She daydreamed as she walked. She wondered if her mother was making her favourite foods that day. She so missed shahi tuukra, a dessert so delicious. And her mother could make the best naan. She could buy that in the big city, but not in Martineville. She had been able to make some good daal because lentils were easy to get, and stew was good in these cold temperatures. Justin loved her daal. And he liked it when she made biryani with different meat each time.
“You’re such a fantastic cook,” he would say.
“Only because my mother isn’t here. To taste her food is to taste food. If you ever come to Pakistan, I will ask her to make a chicken karahi. That is good cooking.”
“Well, in the meantime, I will keep enjoying yours. And maybe we’ll drive into the city once in a while to pick up some naan for you and other spices you need.” And that was one of the many reasons she was falling in love with him, and why she was walking over to check on a boy and a maybe dead cat.
She missed her mother. And her brother. But she had been accepted to study engineering at the local university on a scholarship, and she would never have had that chance in her home country. She was past the marrying age, past the anything age, and apparently no one wanted her now at the ripe age of twenty-nine. She had become a disgrace to her family. Her mother said otherwise, but she knew how deep her culture ran. No matter — she didn’t want what they had to offer anyway. Coming abroad opened her world, and she had met Justin. But she was homesick. Sometimes she didn’t really know why. There was less fear here, no lack of food or entertainment, more opportunities. And yet the land didn’t speak to her. She was lost in a world with different-coloured soil, different-coloured people, white blankets outside in winter, evergreen trees, tiny occasional flowers, and a temperature that always left her cold.
She rounded the corner of Richmond Street and turned onto Primrose Street, making her way to the front door of Justin’s house. She walked down the sidewalk and waved at Cora Burke.
Gently, she knocked on the door. No answer. She tried a few more times. No answer. She was reluctant to continue, but she had said yes, so she opened the unlocked door, which meant Kevin was home. She stood on the threshold and listened.
She heard some shuffling upstairs and a muted voice. She went up the stairs like a feline hoping to avoid its predator.
“Kevin?” Nothing. “Kevin?”
“In here,” came a quiet, flat voice. Not the Kevin she was familiar with. She followed the voice down a cream-coloured hall with some small, framed drawings pencilled by children hanging on the wall. She stopped in the doorway and peered around the frame. There, sitting on the edge of the double bed, was the large frame of a rather lost youth hunched over a furry grey bundle in his lap, his long, brown, curly, unkempt hair falling onto the side of his pale, tear-streaked face. She moved over and sat down beside him, not saying a word and barely making an impression on the blue comforter. She folded her hands in her lap and waited as she had been instructed to do time and time again as she was growing up. Waiting was what women in her culture did best. Waiting to speak, sometimes for hours. Waiting to eat until Father took the first bite, or husband, which might be after he finished reading that page of the newspaper. Waiting for the bus, not knowing if it would even come that day. Waiting for her mother to lift her eyes after a man had left the room. And so she waited.
They sat like that for a long time. Finally, she reached up and put her hand tenderly on his shoulder. He was shaking ever so slightly, as a leaf on a maple tree in autumn almost ready to fall to the ground.
“She was a good cat, you know.” He pulled his nose. “She used to sit on the back of the chair in the living room and lick my neck, like I was one of her kittens and she had to clean me. Mom thought it was disgusting when she did that. But Bubbles was looking after me.”
“I’d see her waiting in the window for me as I walked home from school, and then when I came in, she would be at the door, waiting beside my mother. When Mom was passed out on the couch, it would be Bubbles alone waiting at the door.”
Amiritha put her hand back into her lap.
“I’ll miss her,” he barely whispered. Silence. Waiting.
“She knows,” Amiritha carefully offered. He turned and looked at her, maybe for the first time.
“How do you know?” But he wasn’t being rude or condescending — he was searching. He wanted to know about this little friend he was cradling in his large arms.
“Because all creatures have a soul, and they never forget a kindness.”
“Does she know I loved her?”
“Yes, she does.”
“How can I make sure she remembers me?”
He pulled the cat closer. Back home, a man of his age would probably already have a wife, children, a job, and years of experience, not always pleasant. Here at the same age most people had more education, studied at universities, and were well on their way to a career, but they didn’t have a sense of self or family or community. And here she was, sitting beside this boy/man who was asking the questions of a child. Amiritha reached over to check the pulse on the cat’s neck. Very lifeless and getting colder quickly. Dead for sure.
“Well, maybe you could think of something special that we could put into her grave with her.”
“Something to take with her into the next world for comfort and memories.”
“What could it be? What could I give her” He was like a small child trying to make meaning out of a painful loss. Something he had not been able to do with his past.
“What do you have that we could wrap into the towel she’s lying in?”
Silence. Waiting. Kevin stood, cradling the cat, which was getting stiffer with every minute, into the crook of his arm, and left the room. She waited. He returned with a small pair of scissors and stood facing her.
“I don’t really have anything small enough, but how about cutting off a small piece of my hair? She liked to chew it when we’d play on the floor. Would that work?”
He had accepted her offering so easily, and she felt touched and honoured. She was cautious and slow with her words.
“Yes, that would be perfect. I think that would be very special to her.”
He handed her the scissors, and she stood up on her tiptoes to cut a piece off his hair at the back. She took the lock and laid it carefully beside the cat nestled in the towel.
“Kevin, we can’t bury her today, the ground is still too frozen. But we don’t want her to, well, get worse. What do you think?”
“Can we put her in the freezer until the earth softens? Can you come back to help bury her then?”
She smiled. “Yes, I’ll come back. The freezer is a good idea until then.”
“Can you come downstairs with me?”
Bubbles, the dead cat, a bridge between cultures. The missing ingredient that made her feel like maybe, just maybe, Martineville could be her home. So off they went, down the cream-coloured hall, past the pencil drawings, down the stairs, through the kitchen, down more stairs, into the basement, and into the room with the freezer. They stood before it as it if were a coffin lined with gold. Kevin opened the lid and carefully laid his precious bundle wrapped in the towel with his tresses into one of the freezer’s food baskets near the top. The lid closed, and years of tears filled his yes. Amiritha reached up and put her arm on his.
“Shall we say a prayer for her?” she offered with more confidence. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“We hope that Bubbles will be cared for in the next world as she was cared for here and that she will know how much she was loved. Amen.”
He started to cry. And soon his big body was draped around her tiny figure, sobbing and shaking. She was a little worried that she would not be able to support him, but he clung to her tightly. And she waited.
They stayed like that a long time, until finally he straightened and began wiping his eyes and nose on his sleeve. He was hunched over and looking down. Something needed to be said, so she reached out to her mother for help and remembered her rich and warm hugs and words that would hang like honey around her when she was scared or lonely. She spoke softly.
“Thank you, Kevin, for sharing this with me and trusting me.” A tear slipped down her dark-skinned cheek.
He straightened out of his hunch and looked directly at her.
“No, thank…” and the moment suspended itself like a hovering dove, “thank you… Amiritha.”