His wife has left him. Her sports car is not in the driveway, the pool area normally cacophonous at this hour with the screams and laughter of his daughter Zafira and her neighbourhood friends is strangely forelorn; there's no sign of the kitchen having been in use recently, and there are four phone messages, the first one from 12:12 as one of their friends precisely logged it. And there is this note on the table in the family room. I've gone away for a while with Z, will call you later. I want to think things over for myself. ---A. How serious is it? He puts his chilled beer glass to his chin and mulls over that, feeling suddenly uncontrollably tearful. It's the tiredness; you want to come home at night to pour out your frustrations and be comforted, not for this. What did it mean? Was it coming? Had he seen the symptoms? She had taken to making certain kinds of statements lately, in humour--so he had interpreted them. One of these days I should leave you. It had seemed unthinkable. These remarks would needle him, for how easily they came to her; why make them, he had thought, why the empty threats? Not so empty now. And right in the midst of a major deal worth millions, many millions perhaps...right when the world was his, theirs, for those with the guts and the smarts to take it and hold it in their hands; opportunities, vistas were opening up before them one after another without end; why would she want to put brakes on that, deny him all that?
The telephone rang, quickly he picked it up. It was his father. Nazir's fingers tightened round the receiver; just what he needed at this moment, like a hole in the head, to comfort his lonely old father in his cluttered room at the Victoria Park senior citizens' apartments. Did you take your walk, he asked dutifully, calmly, you need the exercise--yes, said the old man, grateful for the attention, he had walked the length of the corridor three times; are you going to mosque today, you should, to get out--the bus steps were too high for his arthritic knees, he could go if had a car ride; take a taxi, then, haven't I told you you can? And so on. Following which, critiques of various people. The cleaning woman Zarin had stolen his slippers and he had asked her not to return. Why would Zarin steal your old slippers? How should I know? It was no use arguing with him. Let him ramble on about the woman across the hall, the Pakistani man two floors above, the other woman who was only pretending to be a senior for the cheap rent, but she had the strength of a horse... And after that, a list of things required from the shops--soap, paper flowers, paper plates... Nazir imagined himself physically exploding while listening to all this, his blood gushing out of his heart and ears, his guts spewing out all over the place, and his father's crackling voice going on and on and on like the rusty springs of a rickety truck on an endless road... Give the man a chance, he's lonely.
By the time his dad hung up, there was a message waiting, from his own son in Montreal. He called, found Shaf.
Hi, Dad. Mum told me--
Where is she?
I can't tell you that--
Why not? Don't you care about me--about us? About the family unit--
Take it easy, Dad. I promised. I can't tell. Not now. Give her a chance, let's work it out.
You tell me where she is and I'll work it out with her, I promise you.
Like he'd done all these years. Given her everything she wanted, and more. A million-dollar house all their friends drooled over; a sports car of her own; a house maid; the kids in private schools; dinners ordered in or eaten out; parties; cruises, holidays... They had gone from rags to riches in two decades, together, why would she do this to him? All he asked for was the time to do what he had to do. And that had been her constant quibble, you're not home long enough, like other husbands and fathers. Do they have what we have? he would ask hotly. Of course not.
No mean achievement that, rags to riches. They had done the immigrants' apartment route in Don Mills, gone hustling after sales from one end of town to another, considered themselves fortunate to be consuming fast foods and calories as a treat...all that, and at work hit the glass ceiling early on, she in a lawyer's office where a British accent and white skin meant you were visible and up front, while she was relegated to the dungeons of the archives at the back, too reserved, frightened to ask for more, for her right to opportunity; and he as a loan clerk in a bank downtown where the manager craved nothing more than to push him out, which he eventually did. But he, Nazir, a grocer's son, did two things right; bought a rental unit on Spadina when property there was dirt cheap, in partnership with three others, a Bengali and two Chinese, and just before property prices went boom in the eighties; and while at the bank he was smart enough to invest in the money market, watching how others made their money. Then one day he told Almas, Love, you don't have to work for those sons of bitches, you stay home and bring up little Shaf here and that girl who's on the way. Where we're going there's only the sky to stop us, and if you recall your high-school science, even the sky's an illusion. And he himself told his manager to piss off, to put it mildly. He was managing the savings of ten people. He sold those off for profit; with his partners he renovated their joint property, converted it into an international hostel, sold it. He was rolling; skating. Bought a bigger hotel that was badly managed and losing money on the Don Valley; and made more money. He was growing; his partners were growing; Toronto was growing. And now to spurn that, for some sentimental reason, because he didn't have time to play baseball with the kids...or sit with them for dinner, because he was out there making sure his kid had his Honda Civic to take to college and his fees would be paid in Harvard if he made it...which he didn't, but McGill wasn't so bad either.
After a couple of whiskies with crackers and cheese and a previous day's meat samosas, he watched Star Trek on tv. It was one of the few things he shared with his son Shaf. What he liked about the trekkie stories were the limitless vistas in them, the endless universe so to speak; anything was possible; there were no traditions to hold you back, no boundaries. Of course the details in these stories were most likely all wrong or too trivial; but it was the attitude that counted. There's no limit. Think big; think smart; think new.
He had been hurt, initially, and smarting at his wife's desertion; he now felt angry. How dare anyone try to rein in someone, against their very nature; try to cage a lion. He had been to a zoo once in his life and hated it. To see lions in cages! When he'd seen them stalking, chasing a herd of zebra on the Serengeti, jumping on the poor helpless one at the back, caught unawares!...
The tv was on mute, the house was deathly quiet; the phone refused to ring. Tears fell freely down his cheeks. However much he valued his freedom, he knew that he needed his family, the stable base it provided, from which he could head off in whatever direction he wished. His victories meant nothing without being able to share it with them. That's why he had given Almas everything he could, toned down his wild habits, turned away from women he could have had on the side, and become a pussy cat at home. He loved his family, his children. His wife? In a way, yes.
Because I knew her love for me was not really of the passionate kind, any more than mine was for her, there were some regrets there, on both sides, I always felt that and so I had to have my own personal passion. She was a Nairobi girl thrown together with us Dar guys and girls in the early seventies in Toronto when we lived at Lawrence and Don Mills, and everyone was getting paired off and there seemed not much choice. We liked each other; and she was smarting from a love back home of which I have only been able to guess so far. We married but I could always sense her admiration for the easygoing types, the professors and intellectuals who liked to gab; but I was a grocer's son, and I'm going to conquer the world, I told her cockily. Why don't you simply enjoy life, she would say. Easy to say that, but she always liked luxury, the nanny and big houses and the flashy cars.
The next day he woke up to a cold bed beside him; he choked at the prospect that this would be a permanent state of affairs. He washed, dressed and went for coffee at a nearby cafe. He wished to brood over the situation, plan a course of action to woo her back. It would not be easy, but it could be done. Meanwhile there was today's meeting, claiming urgent attention, the time to go with it... A group from out west was in town with a prospect for his group of hoteliers. They were medical people, doctors with flourishing careers, money pouring in, and the itch to invest big-time. The proposal was ambitious: to open a full-facility medical hotel for the wealthy and those privately covered. Insurance companies from Hartford were in town and willing to listen. The Ramada chain were sniffing at the edges. This looked big, if it worked out, with enormous, international potential.
The guy who had approached him with the idea was currently from Nanaimo, BC, originally from back home and a year younger than Nazir. And this is just what he couldn't stress enough for Almas: the money's for the grabbing out there, people with half the balls are raking it in, do you want me to sit on my butt watching the sun set and feeling my life ebb away with every breath?
Walji--he was the guy who had brought him the multimillion dollar scheme; they used to have a small goods store a couple of blocks away back in Dar. As grocers Nazir's parents were marginally better off than Walji's; Nazir recalled a short, frail-looking guy walking to and from school with his brother and sister. The snivelling sort, no guts. Nazir would tease the three siblings sometimes, occasionally throw stones at them, on the way home, for he was the rough type. Now here was the same Walji running a doctors' syndicate, just as he Nazir ran a hoteliers' and property managers', and they shook hands and let's take it away from here. What a world. What a country. What d'you mean I think only of making money, I am building this country for you and me, I'm paving the road with velvet for you kids to walk on with ease.
That was the problem, wasn't it; these kids had everything they needed, everything taken care of, all they lacked was ambition, drive. What a disappointment. Same thing for her. So much at hand, time to fritter away, to learn new things, and all she worries about are the kids, and what other people think, and then she feels lonely with nothing to do. Here, he said once, take this round sum of money, play the stocks, make money, or lose it, make life interesting. But every decision she made she would first confirm with him, all decisions--buy this, wait a while longer for that, buy Dell, dump Eli Lilly--had to come from him.
Hi Shaf...calling his son over the mobile. Hi Dad. You going to tell me where she is hiding herself? Remember you saying once that what you hated most was your mom and dad fighting? I can't, Dad. I promised. Jesus, where are your priorities? Please Dad. Alright--are you coming home to visit? Maybe.
Maybe. What did that mean? Were the three of them in on a conspiracy now--against this big bad guy who thinks only of money and can't spare a moment for them? God, the distraction of family life...and yet you couldn't do without it, that part of existence needed to be taken care of...like sex. Yes, that too. It seemed he had rediscovered it in recent months, was reliving his pubescence; as if the body had realized time was short and in desperation was cashing in the reserves. And now she's gone, what to do.
That morning at the meeting they came upon a possible stumbling block: a floor or two of an upscale hotel turned into a medical unit, would that keep regular customers away? Who wants to be close to the sick and possibly dying even if they're rich? The sites for such units would be crucial. Perhaps have entire hotels dedicated to medical care? More research was needed, meanwhile, the utmost secrecy--from competitors, and from media and the NDP types who hadn't realized the days of socialized medicine were over. And perhaps Intercontinental or Hilton or the Oberois would have to be brought in for their access to quality clients. Lunch was too heavy, after which a tour of the hotels, then an informal exchange of ideas. A full day, exhausting, just the way he loved it. At night, alone, nobody waiting up for him, except his bottle of scotch. And Star Trek and the outer edges of an expanding universe.
He dreamt. What's more, he remembered it when he woke up in the middle of the night, heart thumping, in a cold sweat. God God God... They were on safari in Africa, they were standing with other people in a field of sorts, he saw Zafira running out of the crowd and in front of a pride of hungry lions under a tree, while the others watched fascinated, and only he, he Nazir could sense the imminent danger, knew the lions were hungry, and he shouted at her frantically, then dashed after her to pick her up just as a lioness came bounding up to take her away...
He couldn't sleep after that. Would half his bed be vacant always, right through old age; would this lovely house be empty; was it a condominium for him after all...or another woman, but he didn't want to start over again, with another shape, another face and smell beside him...he was too much a creature of habit, especially now. Perhaps there could yet be someone somewhere who would really love him with a passion, perhaps he should give himself that chance...though did he have time for love?
He recalls a reunion among friends, his old pal Haji visiting from the States; Haji the handsome, free and easygoing academic; and she once calling Haji by her husband's name, Nazir; and his ears pricked up, and he hurt a little, but only for a moment, there was so much on his mind, and what could you do about such a situation, such a buried feeling anyway. Only he wished she could see what was obvious to everybody else there, how envious Handsome Haji was of what Nazir had made of his life, how hungry these professors were for just a little more money, and at the end of the day what did they have to show for themselves...no Einsteins among them, that was certain.
The first thing next morning, a call from his father. Yes, yes, Dad, I'll do your shopping, can't you give me even a day, but he knew all his dad wanted was to speak to him...and the more his dad called for no reason at all, which meant just to be able to speak to somebody, the more impatient Nazir got with him.
And so, coffee and croissant at his neighbourhood cafe; a tour of his properties. On Elm Street at Crescent International Hostel, the Portuguese manager was obviously skimming off some, letting rooms without recording them; which was expected, but there was an Albanian he had earmarked for the job, a former engineer no less, who looked trustworthy. But the Portuguese had to be watched. Perhaps a job at the hotel on Don Valley, a promotion of sorts, and as soon as he showed his true colours, as he was certain to do, push him off.
Bad business at the hostel on Danforth. They were converting it into upscale, in an area fast growing fashionable and touristy; which meant the former occupants had to be squeezed out with higher rates and room renovations to go with them. There were three units left now to be converted, their occupants a single Indian woman, another woman who was a single mother of two, and a retired Bangladeshi couple. That's what the manager reminded him over the mobile. When he arrived at the manager's office, the tenants were sitting outside to appeal against the notice of rate hike. They didn't have a legal option to speak of, Nazir knew. The single mother was a white women of thirty or so; and the Indian woman...he glared at her, avoided her eyes, looked away.
But she latched on to him. Mr Nazir, I know you; in Gujarati. Help me please, we are as one-- It's not in my hands, he told her, throwing glances at the other tenants; then in English: Pay the new rate and you can stay. But how can I, Mr Nazir--
He felt dirty, he shouldn't have come. Hadn't he resolved he was beyond this low-level supervision? But for a business to run successfully you have to be in touch at all levels. Dirt was part of the risk, the cost of business.
But that look from her, piteous. How can you do that, Nazir. But this is the business I entered into; it has to be done right. Someone else in my shoes would do the same; or worse. Give them a month's notice of the new rates, he told the manager. If they can't pay they must vacate.
On his way to his parked car, he paused at a neighbouring building that had begun to interest him recently, a dilapidated structure but for that very reason full of potential. Preoccupied by its possibilities, he drove off to shop for his father.
Paper flowers; aloe extract; fruit loops--"good for my digestion"--pure bull; peanut butter, for rubbing into his arthritic knees; parafin for laxative; vacuum cleaner bags; deboned chicken, which he normally wouldn't buy, but his son was paying; tortilla wraps to use as rotis...
The apartment was hideous, reflecting his mother's aesthetic sense when she was alive. Oversized and excessive furniture mostly with artificial veneer, assorted gewgaws to add decor, from plastic flowers to statuettes; the tv was on purely for its noise value. A heady mix of odours always in attendance: milk and perfumed bathroom cleaners.
Nazir put the shopping bags on the dining table, looked around, said, If you're not watching the tv why don't you turn it off, which his father dutifully did, saying, Sit and I'll bring tea. To which Nazir said, still standing, Do you need anything else? Yes, but sit for a while, won't you--you must be busy, I guess... Yes, I have still a few things to do. You youngsters do too much, no rest, no time to sit down and chat, always busy... Well--I'll give you a call later, Nazir told him; then after the briefest pause for a response, he left, feeling guilty as hell.
There was simply nothing to talk about. When they met, they didn't shake hands, didn't exchange hugs. No heart-to-heart between father and son, no opening of a couple of beers and talk of old times, learn family history before it was too late, no long walks together to discuss the kids and their future. He felt awkward before his father. He could not recall when he had last sat down with the old man, laughed with him over something. The truth was that he felt no love whatsoever for his father. That was the truth, naked and brutal. Why brutal?--because it wasn't right, he knew that. But he couldn't help it. Of course this made it easier to forget the old man's existence between telephone calls. And no one else at home had any love for father-in-law and granddad either. Nazir had thought often about it, his coldness, his lack of tenderness towards his father, mulling over it usually in the traffic, while returning from visiting Dad, or having just made his dutiful daily call on the mobile. Had he felt anything for his dad, ever?
Father sat in their grocery shop day in day out, in striped pyjama pants and white singlet, except when relieved by his mother, when he had his lunch and took a nap afterwards. He liked to pick his crotch, luxuriously, in that pyjama of his. The shop, and the mosque in the evening, kept him occupied, and the children--four boys and a girl, who was the youngest--did not spend much time in his presence. Once a month he gave them all their school fees, with some ceremony, until they were abolished after independence, and as the boys grew older they went to him for permissions, to visit friends or see the occasional movie. One evening he discovered Nazir jerking off, alone, sitting in bed, a magazine in front of him, caught him at just that moment of ecstatic release, and with a crushing, sneering look upon his face gave his son a resounding slap and picked up the magazine with two fingers as if it were a dirty rag and took it away to deposit in the garbage. The humiliation, the sneer. No word exchanged between father and son. And the son always felt the heat of his father's gaze, the knowledge of his secret guilt, upon him.
Perhaps it was that, that humiliation that scarred their relationship forever afterwards. Why Nazir could not draw into himself to feel pity for his father; why he could not sit down and exchange a five-minute banter with the old man and bless his day, the entire week, the short remainder of his life, with happiness.
The garden care people had come, as had the swimming-pool maintenance gang; both had left calling cards and bills. A few telephone messages from Zafira's friends; a family friend with an invitation to a qawali concert at his home. Nazir was famished, ordered Chinese take-out. Before that he had a quick swim; had to watch his heart. The delivery boy came to the back, to the pool area, where he was drying himself, whisky close by.
No word from her. He was too proud to call her family, though they should know where she was; they hadn't called at all. So is this what it was going to be: divorce. All that wealth he had accumulated, gone after, now to be divided between them? She had been his partner, and that's what the law required. Though he had perhaps shortened his life a few years chasing opportunities. And he would go on chasing them with half the capital. She could just relax with her portion, no worry, no heartburn, no high blood pressure to worry about. But she wouldn't know how to spend it; she would waste it away on her brothers; and she didn't know how to have fun. So far all the initiatives had been his, where to go on holiday, which restaurant to go to, which club to join; hell, what decor to put in the house...
Sitting by the pool, he thought about the woman he was evicting on Danforth, who had said to him "we are one." Her face was familiar, she must be from Dar; she would be his age, he guessed, but looked much older. Years in the new country had done nothing to her looks, her clothes, her demeanour. Where was her husband? Dead, or more likely he had left her. That woman must have been unhappy from day one, as soon as she reached maturity...at home perhaps looking after younger siblings and cooking while parents struggled with their livelihood; given away in a doubtful marriage in the hope of some stroke of luck somewhere; husband was probably a drunkard or a gambler, visited whores on the side...beat her up... All that, Nazir thought, he had seen on her face...a frantic unhappiness, grasping at mercies.
He brooded over that face for a while, gazing into the amber in his glass that was so much a solace lately. He decided to call up his manager tomorrow and tell him to move the woman into one of the renovated apartments, her family having paid off a year's rent in advance. She would be his charge from now on.