Fiction: Sasenarine Persaud
Sasenarine Persaud is an essayist, novelist, poet and short story writer. He dubs his aesthetics Yogic Realism. His most recent books are In a Boston Night (2008), Unclosed Entrances: Selected Poems (2011) and Lantana Strangling Ixora (2011). He has been called, “one of those rare poets who gets the recipe of humanness exactly right” (Canadian Literature) and “dauntlessly brainy… T.S. Eliot mixed up with Rabindranath Tagore.” (The Halifax Chronicle Herald).
It was some time in the summer of 2000 that I met Jenny. The sense of being witness to the arrival of a new millennium and of being at the cusp of a great new era was still with us. Great things would happen to the world, to us. Little did we realize that we were at the dawning of the wireless era, the era of cell phones and blackberries, of nooks and spindles and kindles; of camera phones and apps for handheld devices—mini supercomputers—that could do, not quite everything, and yet anything. It was with this feeling of being on the threshold of a great new age that I accepted a promotion and a new position in executive correspondence, as it was known, then, in the summer of 2000.
Part of the executive office was being migrated from New York to Tampa, where the Bank of Manhattan had a large presence: a complex of three buildings at Fountain Square. To the west of the fountain square complex, the bank had just bought another building called the J building across from the Tampa International Airport. This property was prime real estate in a time when the real estate boom and building bubble were well under way in Tampa Bay and everyone was speculating and salivating on the sale or purchase on every bit of vacant, or unused property. Perhaps, that millennium effect, too, contributed to the buying and selling frenzy that was at the root of the Great Recession. We all thought that the J building acquisition was a real coup for the bank. The J building included a fitness center and a one mile walking trail on the property which wound its way through small patches of hardwood hammocks at the northern and southern corners that included large, hundred-year old live oaks. During my lunch break, I would walk that trail. Jenny, too, wanted to walk that trail. I think the fierce midday sun got to her.
Despite owning these four buildings, the bank still had to lease space in two other buildings for its mortgage, auto-finance and fraud businesses. In addition to substantial tax breaks from the state and county, the bank had received $75 million to relocate 3000 jobs to the Tampa Bay Area. Under a new CEO, Jimmy Dukakis, in a merger largely seen as a takeover of the Bank of Manhattan in all but its name and name brand recognition, most of these jobs were later outsourced to India, or moved elsewhere within the United States. Dukakis, who had been fired by his one-time protégé at another colossal bank, later sold the J Building and all the attached property. That was a while yet, in 2005 just before the bubble burst and that handiwork of the bankers and speculators, the Great Recession, hit us. In retrospect, the acquisition and sale of the J building was an extraordinary move blessed with insight, or luck, or both.
But in the summer and early fall of 2000, everything was in transition and in ferment and in a state of flux at the Bank of Manhattan in Tampa Bay. There were great expectations. New people were being hired almost every month. Employees of the bank in New York were following the migration of jobs, taking the opportunity to move to the warmth of Florida and a new start. There was the searching for and finding and outfitting of new office space and new homes. Another colossal bank, then, the largest bank in the world, was also moving jobs to Tampa. Several other financial entities were doing the same. All those people that moved from New York and Chicago and from other places in the cold north, and from the south and from all points of the globe were looking for homes. It was one of the things which contributed to the hyper-inflation of home prices in Tampa and its environs. This in turn led to the inevitable market correction, which helped along the Great Recession. New Yarkers— everyone noticed that they pronounced “o” as “a”—accustomed to higher house prices in the New York City area were dazzled to find that they could purchase a new home, which was double the size of their fifty or hundred year old home in New York, for a third of the price and with a swimming pool and a two or three-car garage to booth. They didn’t negotiate. They bought on the spot—cash—so to speak.
This was in the time of the good old Bank of Manhattan, which was then headed by a southerner and, as Jenny loved to say, “A true gentleman.” Josh Harris, originally from North Carolina, didn’t think only of himself and his executives and shareholders. Or, perhaps, he did and saw that being generous to lower level employees contributed most to the bottom line; lower level employees did all the work, while executives and managers worried about their next promotions and how to spend their fat-cat salaries and bonuses. New York employees whose jobs were being moved to Tampa and who decided to relocate were having moving costs paid by the bank; the bank gave a monetary incentive to move and bought their New York houses at market value. They could come to Tampa and buy wide-eyed, no questions asked. Some people started flipping houses, and the builders started increasing the price for houses.
And so, in 2000, there was that general air of optimism. Jenny, among the first hired for the new, relocated executive office—by a couple of weeks—seemed to feel she had seniority. In the training center, she helped us set up. Even, then, in that first week, her impatience and her need to get things done quickly, hurriedly showed. This may have been due to the ease with which she learned things. She expected everyone to learn as quickly as she did. I believed that from the moment I walked into the training center conference room that first morning, our eyes locked over the heads of those seated around the table. I thought I saw blue-brown eyes, a weird combination of colors. I thought that it was a mirage of reflected light and the suddenness and intensity of our locking eyes. I would later learn it was from the tint of her contact lens. She had contacts with different tints. Colors or colours, what did it matter? You see in a glance, sometimes, all your failings, your whole life of unacknowledged desires, the need to fall in love and to be loved; or you see the lust you have concealed all your life behind the muslin of “soul connection.” Perhaps, we were both romantics at heart, with a need to have this spiritual bonding. Whatever it was we felt in that first glance, we never lost.
In addition to blue-tinged eyes, what I saw that first day was a blond head, wavy hair rolled into a bun, a narrow face with noticeable cheekbones tapering almost to a point at her chin. It all added up to something exquisite in that flash and first glance. There was a little cleft in her chin, only evident later, close-up. After the introductions and during the course of the morning, I tried not to let my eyes stray across to hers. She had a law degree, she said, with the trace of an accent I could not place. I wanted to laugh at myself for thinking of her trace of an accent. Who didn’t have an accent? Trump that, she might well have stated, when referring to her law degree. Never mind it was a law degree, online, from some university we’d never heard of. She had not worked in a bank before. Occasionally, when my guard was down, I would glance to the back of the room where she sat. She was focused and centered in herself and in learning all the systems that were new to her.
During the break, as she squeezed past behind me in the training room, I got a whiff of her powdery scent, felt the swish of her dress on my chair back, her hand casually placed on my chair arm-rest. After she passed, I too turned to get up and to look without seeming to. The dress was more than a couple of inches above her knees revealing the lean muscles at the back of her thighs. If that morning I didn’t think her dress particularly short, it wasn’t, compared to what she came to work in later—very short and revealing dresses and shirts and low-cut tops, especially after her surgery. Her red heels contrasted sharply with the black, high pumps she wore. There appeared to be no fat on her rear, or any part of a body that fitted snugly in her dress. At the door, she turned suddenly and looked me straight in the eyes and smiled. It was a cat’s smile, knowing-unknowing, caring-uncaring. Mohammed Ali’s, “Catch me if you can” flashed through my mind.
Jenny’s last name was Duncan. She was separated from her husband—“the idiot!”—a policeman and going through a divorce. “Only beers, and TV—and that horrid, violent game called football!” she said to everyone. “And how can you butcher a language like this. The French play football; the Europeans play football! Not this foolish thing Americans call football!” There must have been something at some time, in the beginning, between them. There is always something there in the beginning. That dangerous time of that dangerous thing we call love. That time we walk around with blinders. Or was it just a marriage of convenience after she has been knocked up, or a marriage guided in part by the need to secure a green card? I didn’t think she really cared who thought what of her, or knew that she had married for a green card. Another day, she announced, “I have my card now, and my passport! He can go to hell!” She had been a stay-at-home wife and mom earning her law degree in the process. She now had a job.
On the phone, she abused her husband when he called, shouting at him for not keeping up with payments for their daughter, Calista; for taking her on weekends when all he did was have beer parties, barbeques, football and his women. “I will not have my daughter exposed to this debauchery!” She slammed the phone. And, yet, she kept sending their daughter to stay with him almost every other weekend. Everyone in the office could hear her tirades. She didn’t care who heard her. “I want nothing more to do with this idiot! Why does he keep calling me?” We all wondered why she kept answering him.
Esther, who sat across from her, asked her one day, “So, are you going to drop his name after the divorce?”
I am not sure she was aware of the irony in Esther’s question.
“No. Too much trouble to change it.”
I think she liked “Duncan.” She liked the mainstream sound of the name rather than her maiden name, obviously, apparently Jewish. It was the same way she loved and adopted “Jenny” as her first name. I had always thought that Jenny was her given name and a shortening, or variant of Jennifer. As if reading my mind, she said one day, “I don’t have time for foolish questions. I have custody of Calista. If she is Duncan and I am something else—well, you know. I don’t have time for questions and mickey-mouse games.” She was true to this. She never really had time for anything. While she was doing a task, you could sense her already looking ahead to the next. And she was direct. She spoke her mind. In this, I saw an earlier version of myself.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, made many Islamophobes. But even before the terrorist attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon on September eleventh, she was clear in her feelings for Islam.
“These people are swine, butchers. They cut people’s heads off! They should be exterminated!” Proud as she was of her French birth and upbringing, she must have forgotten about the role of the guillotine in the French Revolution. She held nothing back. Not even with customers. She screamed at them on the phone on occasion. The divorce might have been a bad time. It didn’t get better after. As a single, working mother of a six year old daughter there were babysitting issues, school issues, pre-school, school, drop-offs and pick-ups, influenzas, sleepless nights —all sorts of issues—compounded by the need for a little space for herself, for sex, for love. I thought I understood; I cut her some slack. We all did, at least at first. I showed her what I could of our systems, much of which were new to her. Others helped her with her letters to clients, with system and application issues. But I was glad that our cubicles were at different ends of the office.
She was aware of the history of repression and cruelty of the Islamic Turkic and the Islamic Arabic rulers on the Indian subcontinent. My flawed obsession with the devastation caused by the thousand-year rule of Islam in India deliberately ignored other negative aspects of Indian history, but this strengthened our bond. Like everyone else, on first coming into contact with me, she assumed that I came from India. I made the mistake of telling her that the Taj Mahal was not built by Shah Jahan, a Muslim Moghul, but was appropriated from a Hindu, Raja Jai Singh.
“Shah Jahan made cosmetic changes to make the Taj look like an Islamic creation: The insertion of Arabic inscriptions—the Moghuls stripped the floors of the upper rooms and chambers for matching marble on which to write the inscriptions, then sealed the stripped upper chambers and rooms, which still remained sealed after five hundred years; the removal of the sacred Shiva lingam in the central hall; the crude sealing of the luxury apartments made for rajas and ranis and visiting royalty, clearly visible from the side of the Taj facing the river, where very few visitors ever venture—luxury apartments in a structure meant for a tomb! And, then, there are the sacred Hindu kalash and the trishul-trident of Shiva on the very pinnacle of the Taj, which before the advent of high powered, digital cameras Moghul propagandists touted as a sickle moon, symbol of Islam. After the sacred Hindu symbols could no longer be concealed, they tried damage control! They said: The Taj was a blend of Hindu and Muslim architecture by the Islamic Mughals! Then, a design matching the trishul-shaped Hindu pinnacle of the Taj on which was mounted the sacred Hindu kalash was found carved and set into the courtyard tiles by the original Hindu builders and architects, a thing which the Islamic erasers of the Moghul rulers, not understanding the complexity of Hindu thought and architecture, missed, too.”
“What! Are you kidding! Is this for real? Doesn’t surprise me!”
“As clear as daylight, the documentation is on the Internet,” I said. “This and scores of other Hindu buildings, which they took as spoils of conquests, converted and claimed they built; exactly what they did in other parts of the world. The Greek orthodox Basilica, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was appropriated around the same time of Islamic conquests. At least, the Turkish government, in 1931, admitted this fraud and theft and ceased to use the Hagia Sophia, after almost four centuries, as a mosque, opening it as a museum. This was what the Indian government needs to do to the Taj—open it to scientists, to the public—all of it, so the world could see that it was a Hindu temple palace, the Tejo Mahalya. Successive Indian governments have been afraid of sectarian violence, afraid of the revision of the Islamic conquest, the exposure of the brutality and deception of a thousand years, more, in India at the expense of Buddhists and Jains and Sikhs and Hindus!”
I rattled off all this as we sat one beautiful fall morning on a fiberglass bench overlooking the pond and the fountains. It would become out special bench. There was a clear view of the circular walkway around the large pond connecting the three building. There were royal palms on either side of the bench at the top of the courtyard, facing north from which we could see other palms placed around the fountain. You could hear the roaring wind in the palms, and the thunder of water from the three powerful fountains at the center of the pond; and birds of all description in the nearby shrubs. And there were always lilies and rushes blooming in the brackish water.
After my impassioned Islamic-fundamentalist-Hindutva outburst, she said, “Wow! Why am I not surprised?” We didn’t speak for some time. The calls of blue jays and cardinals and Carolina wrens seeped into our consciousness and a flock of ducks circled and landed like seaplanes on the black water. An Air Canada airbus was coming in to land to our right. My bitterness slowly left me. Who could stay bitter, or negative, or sad in such an environment for any length of time? Above the engines of the plane landing, we could hear the wind in the nearby royal palms. Several turtles surfaced for air before diving under again.
“You know, we might have been on a pavilion in India,” she said. “If it could always be as beautiful as this! Why do we have to work? You have to take me to India, you know.” No matter how many times I told her I had never been to India, that I was not born there, I was still Indian to her; I was still as one born and raised there, I was still one who knew India intimately. She said this to me in one form or another several times in the years that followed. “You have to take me to India, you know.” There was always something about the way she said this that made it enchanting and wistful and unreal and yet real. We would never go to India together and, yet, we would go to India together. And I teased her; she who had never gone to her ancestral land, as I, too, had never gone to mine.
“And you will have to take me to Israel. Honey and figs,” I said. “Honey and figs.”
“Yes, honey and figs,” she repeated. We were half turned to each other on the long bench. The contacts she wore that day were clear. You could see the real colors of her eyes were brown like honey in a glass jar with sunlight streaming through. For the first time I saw how round her eyes were. We had never touched lip to lip, but we could have then, and, yet, we couldn’t in that open, public space at work. I looked away to the fountain. I was reading Shirley Kaufman’s, Roots in the Air: New & Selected Poems. When Kaufman wrote of the figs—the banyans—of her holy land, she was also writing of the banyans/figs of my holy land, India, which she had visited. The ficus ficus was, after all, a fig of Indian origin taken and planted and indigenized in Israel and all over the world. Our longings to visit India and Israel were wistful and weren’t. My desire to visit Israel, the seed, through the Bible, of much of western civilization, was deep-seated and as genuine, I realized, as hers to visit India. I made a promise to myself that I would take her to India. That view of India of pavilions and palaces, of the holy Ganga, of saints and sadhus was a romanticized one. It was the India of the British Raj perpetuated in twentieth century novels and Holly-Bollywood films.
“You could always marry a rich man, next time around,” I said.
“I plan to!” Her response came instantly. It was teasing and light-hearted and yet it wasn’t. Every once in a while she spoke of her sister, Rachael, who had married well and who lived in a new, massive house nearby, in Brandon. Rachael’s husband was a surgeon. We stood up, our break over, and headed back to our desks.
When there was a news item of a bombing in Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem on a bus, in a café, in a marketplace and she wanted to vent about Islamic terrorists in Israel, or in any part of the world, she sought me out. And she vented aloud so that the entire office could hear her. I believed she was called into HR about this. The Bank of Manhattan was very vigilant on diversity issues and had mandatory diversity classes for all employees annually. There was almost a zero tolerance policy for anyone who flaunted the Bank’s diversity policy. It was one of the many good things about the Bank of Manhattan. I would not have been surprised if Rita had made a compliant.
Rita’s husband was an Afro-American Muslim. Her sons were given Muslim names. Rita’s parents were from the Islands. Her mother was Jamaican and her father Barbadian. I assumed that, like her husband, she was Muslim, too, although she never took a Muslim name. I never asked her about this. I figured that if and when she wanted to tell me she would. There was a bond between us because of our connection to the English-speaking Caribbean. Rita told me, later, casually and in confidence that because her husband was Muslim and was outspoken he had had issues with people in New York about his views and religion, especially after the September Eleventh terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Florida was a welcomed break for them. This part of Central Florida was more tolerant. There was less scrutiny in Tampa because, overwhelmingly, the population came from elsewhere. Tampa, too, was in transition, searching for itself. We were all, largely, strangers running away from traditions and pasts and yet bringing those traditions and pasts; and we were all in the process of creating new ones. Anything went in Tampa. Anything was acceptable. Rita, born and raised in New York, once remarked she had never seen any other city with as many mixed race couples, mainly white girls and women with black men, as Tampa.
When Jenny toned down her anti-Islamic remarks—and I say toned down because she never stopped anything for long; she did as she pleased, when she pleased—she moved onto “wasps, like my ex!” and Republicans.
“My body is mine! Nobody can tell me what to do with it!” she said anytime there was a news story on abortion and “Lifers.” At the printer, regardless of if her documents came out first or last, she would rifle through all of the documents on the printer tray for hers, even if there was someone waiting before her. She didn’t care if she mixed up the documents of anyone else. This infuriated everyone, particularly Julie. “Rude,” Julie whispered one afternoon, when she returned to her desk from the printer. Julie’s desk was next to mine, on the other side the cubicle wall to my right. Another day, Jenny mixed up Julie’s documents again and Julie said something to her. This resulted in an altercation. I don’t think anyone in our office was surprised. Julie was affable, but outspoken. She was from a small town in New Hampshire and had married early and divorced early. Her college-age daughter lived with her ex-husband, “a deadbeat” former marine who had seen combat in the first Gulf War. Nobody, at the time, really knew much about the effects of post-combat trauma on veterans. Julie had remarried. Once, when we were on a team-building boat cruise on Tampa Bay, she turned to me and said, “Did you know I’ve worked as waiter and barmaid for many years?” We laughed as she followed the direction of my eyes on the retreating blond waitress who had taken our orders. The walls of our cubicles were four feet tall. We were almost completely enclosed. You could, however, hear conversations from several desks away. To see someone, you had to stand. When we wanted to speak to those next to us, we would stand, or walk to that person’s desk. That day, as soon as I was off the phone with an attorney who had written the Bank on behalf of his client, I stood up in time to catch the last of the altercation.
Julie said, “Honey, this is real.” She held her hair. “The roots of mine are the same color as the tips. What you see is what you get.” Julie was a natural blond. And it was she who made me aware of why Jenny’s hair sometimes appeared off-putting even when neatly combed, or styled. Little black hair-roots on a blond head like stubble on a man’s face were distasteful. Almost as soon as Julie walked back to her desk with her documents, her phone rang. Our manager had heard the exchange with Jenny. I didn’t think anything of this call and the interviews that occurred until much later.
This was just after Jenny’s second traffic incident. It was apparent that Julie’s parting remark was also referencing that second traffic incident. Jenny was impatient with the world and you felt that she felt that everyone needed to get out of her way so she could do what she had to, or wanted to do. The world was hers to take; the world was at her beck and call. She knew she was attractive and could be very charming and she knew how to take advantage of this.
“Men are so gullible,” she said one morning, making her usual breezy entry through the door, whipping off her thin, short scarf. It seemed she always had a scarf, summer, fall, winter, or spring. The penchant for scarves might have been a European, or French thing. Jenny always whipped off, or loosened her scarves as she waltzed through the door. It gave the appearance that she made a grand entry. You were supposed to take notice. She sounded pleased with herself that morning, although she was later than her normal start time at eight. I tried to get in at seven, using the hour before most of the others got in, and when it was quieter, to work my more difficult cases. I could get more work done in that hour as there were no interruptions. I had just closed a particularly complex case that came to us from the Office of the Attorney General of Connecticut and was standing at the printer, just having retrieved my letter. The printer was separated from her desk by another cubicle and the aisle between the next configuration of work stations. She was smiling as she walked to her desk. She logged on to her computer, still standing, waiting for an audience, waiting for someone to ask.
“So, what’s up Jenny?” asked Tessa. If anyone wanted an example of a New Yorker accent, there was Tessa’s.
“I just got stopped for speeding.”
“How fast were you going, Jenny?” Tessa asked again
“I was doing about fifty-five in a forty zone. I didn’t see the cop behind me. He put on his flashing lights and pulled me over. I flashed him my smile. Told him I was soo sorry. I wouldn’t do it again. He let me go with a warning.”
“You’re lucky,” Tessa said.
“It’s the Jenny charm. I tell you, anytime a cop stops me all I have to do is work my charms on him.” A month later, just before her altercation with Julie, she was stopped and taken to the police station. A motorist in front of her had stopped to make a left turn across oncoming traffic. It was rush hour and Jenny, as always, impatient and in a hurry and not wanting to wait until the driver made the turn decided to drive around him; her right car wheels riding the curb and sidewalk. The narrow road had a single lane in each direction. A policeman in the oncoming lane saw her. He put on his flashing lights and turned around behind her. Almost everyone coming into work at that time using that entrance to the Bank of Manhattan complex saw her being stopped—a few hundred people. She was seen getting into the police cruiser.
I can’t remember who conducted the Internet search. But it was Julie, hush-hush, who told me, Look on the Internet. Look at the City of Tampa-Hillsborough County detention-arrests page. The officer who puller over Frenchie must have seen through her smile, or must not have looked at it. What the officer did do, while leaving Jenny fuming in her car, and with his flashing lights running and several hundred Bank of Manhattan employees rubbernecking on their way into work, was put her information through his computer system. He found a hit and a match for an unpaid, bounced check for Macy’s that went into collection. It was not for a large amount. But that didn’t matter. An unpaid, bounced check that went into collections and was still unpaid was a misdemeanor and a felony if the check was for more than $150.00. Smile or no smile, charm or no charm, the officer had no choice. He had to take her into custody. She was booked and held in detention and it was all there in the public record. I never asked her about this incident, or how she got out of this. Perhaps, she called her ex-husband, “the idiot” cop to get her out, or her sister. Keith, who sat in front of me, said she was more than a cat; she had more than nine lives. Wasn’t this ground for termination? Nobody would tell on her. Or so we thought.
“You know those sons-of-bitches were trying to fire me!” she told me much later, just after it was announced in January 2005 that the site would be closing and our jobs moved elsewhere. “I had to go to HR here. I went over their blasted heads to HR in New York. They don’t know me! Well, we’re all in the same boat now! Good riddance to this place and these vindictive, petty people! O, not you though, sweetie. Not you, sweetie!” She placed her hand on my shoulder, and them on my upper forearm. I was touched. This was, perhaps, a part of that which we saw and recognized in each other that very first morning we looked into each other’s eyes—we could never become part of the dog-eat-dog world of corporate America. Beneath everything, she possessed a rare honesty and integrity and warmth for people. Perhaps, she needed the emotional support after the news we had just had. We walked this way around the fountain to “our” fiber-glass bench near our office overlooking the pond. What did it matter now, who saw us like this. We had just come from the meeting, with the Vice President visiting from Chicago—Jenny called her the new CEO’s hatchet woman—who had just broken the news that most of the jobs at the site were being moved to India. A number of people wept. Our unit was going to Chicago. We should have known that something significant was happening; there were news crews and vehicles from CBS, NBC and ABC and a host of other smaller local stations outside the perimeter of the compound that morning. Security from the Bank of Manhattan had set up blocks at all entrances into the complex to prevent the press from getting into the compound and every employee entering had to stop and produce their Bank of Manhattan photo ID before being admitted into the compound. We thought there had been another bomb threat. But I’ve gone ahead, yet again.
If I ran into Jenny at the printer, or if she came and found me there, I stepped back and let her grab her documents. “You are such a gentleman, Anand.” Perhaps, I was half-unconsciously seducing her, or attempting to. Who could seduce Jenny? There was nothing gentlemanly in the gesture. I didn’t want to give her a chance to rant about Muslims, or Republicans, or WASPS, or our boss. I gave her little compliments here and there. Nothing pleased her more. “Mr. Sharma, you know you are a flirt,” she would say. She did everything quickly. She had no patience. She worked quickly, talked quickly. She walked taking short, quick steps like the newly arrived immigrants from Hong Kong in Toronto on the eve of the return of Hong Kong to China. On my break, I would sit on one of the benches between the FS1 and FS2 buildings, or in the lunchroom with its panoramic view of the campus and watch as she walked around the pond and fountain for her exercise, or as she walked across to the Cafeteria in the FS3 building. The walkway around the pond connecting the three buildings formed a circle—an aesthetically pleasing configuration. It was fascinating to see how quickly she walked in high heels. When I went on my lunch break and my walks on the trail around the J building across the street, she wanted to come with me. I always found some excuse. I didn’t have a fixed time; I took my break at a time when it was a good time, when I had closed a file, or case. I think she understood that as we all worked like this. But more than anything, I didn’t want her accompanying me on my walks because she talked incessantly. And I didn’t want her prying into my private life. We all knew that she exercised little control over what she said. We all knew that if there was anything we wanted known across the campus, all we had to do was tell it to Jenny. She knew almost everybody on the campus, it seemed, especially the men. She made friends easily.
She talked openly about her men friends. We all knew when she got laid. She would talk to Tessa about the pros and cons of her lovers. One was a pilot. Another was an investment banker. Another was a married securities broker. None of her lovers slept over if her daughter was home. Only on those weekends her daughter stayed with her ex-husband, or with her sister, Rachel, did she allow her lovers to stay the night. Shortly after my fifth book was published, I invited our unit to a reading and talk I was giving at Borders Bookstore on Dale Mabry Highway. She approached me as I was at the printer.
“I had no clue you were a writer! You are talented and brilliant! What are you doing here?”
“The starving artist must eat and pay bills. Poets make no money.”
“I know sweetie. Well, congratulations!” She hugged me in the middle of the office. It was a natural thing to do, and a seemingly normal a way of offering congratulations. One of her small, firm breasts pressed my arm. I, with my baggage of untouch and touch and the sacredness of touching another from my Hindu and conservative British and Caribbean backgrounds was embarrassed, but electrified.
“I will definitely come to your book launch.”
She didn’t come to the book reading, but two weeks later she came to my desk with all my books and asked me to autograph them. She was the only person at the Bank of Manhattan who bought all my books. There was a subtle change in her attitude to me after this. She wasn’t as bossy, or as aggressive around me. If I were at the printer waiting for documents, even if her documents printed before mine, she waited until the printer stopped printing before rifling through the printed material. When she needed help with a letter, she came to me occasionally, or if there were any projects in which she had to do a lot of writing. Another day, as I was standing in the lunch room looking at the news on one of the two television sets, she came up behind me and brushed something off my shoulder.
“Hair,” she said.
“You’re welcome Mr. Sharma.” And she was gone, getting a coke from the vending machine and heading back to her desk. The lunch room was filled as it was raining heavily outside that day.
A few days later, Julie said, “I see Frenchie has her eyes on you.”
“She has her eyes on everybody! That is trouble.”
“I hear yah!”
Things happened suddenly and quickly around Jenny. There seemed to be no permanence in her life. You expected something to start on a whim and end on a whim. Her relationships were like this, too. She had just come out of a marriage in which she was unhappy and constrained. She wanted the freedom to do, or not, as she pleased; drop a lover, take a new one. Through all of this, her daughter, Calista, became a center for her and gave her stability. She would put nothing and nobody ahead of Calista. When Calista started school, we heard of every progress report on Calista. She decorated her cubicle walls with drawing and illustrations and little verses by Calista. When Calista wanted a cat, Jenny got a cat—two cats. Rachel, her sister, was also important as were her parents. If there was a Jewish holiday and her father made some Jewish food, she would bring some to the office and share it. She was proud of her father’s cooking. She went out of her way to bring, or make vegetarian dishes for me. She knew, when we had “food days” or potlucks in the office, I would only take chips and juice, things where I could see the ingredients. I had a good excuse for avoiding homemade foods. I was vegetarian. Most of the homemade foods brought by others had meat, or seafood, or eggs. But there was that other issue. Julie had a dog. Flora had a dog. Teresa had a dog. Nelly had a dog. Chris, our VP, had a dog. Their dogs lived in their houses, clambered on their beds, sofas, around their kitchens. I couldn’t bring myself to consume any food prepared by them. Often, there was dog hair, or cat hair on their coats. Was there dog hair, or cat hair, or other pet sheddings in the foods they prepared? And while cooking would they not be handling and cuddling their pets, which roamed their houses? And did they wash their hands, their persons? Jenny would bring vegetarian dishes to my desk. I always took her food. I was never hungry just then. I always told her I would eat it later in the day. I always told her that the food was good. I never ate any. I think she suspected. I could never bear to tell her that I didn’t want her food, couldn’t eat her food because of my hang-ups about pets and cleanliness.
“I love sweets especially those Indian sweets you make for the Hindu festival when you light up.”
“Diwali,” I said.
“Yes, yes, Diwali. I had an Indian girlfriend in college, you know.”
The only food I took from her and ate were chocolates. When almost all the women in our office were conscious of their weight or health and their intake of any sweet, Jenny reveled in sweets. One day she came to my desk and saw Cadbury chocolates.
“O-oo my favourites!”
I had gone to Walgreens to get razor blades and they were on sale for ninety-nine cents. “Here, take it,” I said. “There are my favorites, too. And Lindt. From my Toronto years.”
“I have more. They were on sale.” I opened my desk drawer and showed her.
“In that case…”
She opened the wrapper and we both ate chocolates at my desk. After that, when she had Cadbury’s she would come to my desk and I would partake with her. It was the only edible she brought me that I ate in front of her. And that was another thing. She had the memory of an elephant. She forgot nothing. When she visited her girlfriend in Toronto, she had me autograph one of my books for her girlfriend. On her return from Toronto, she came to my desk.
“A little something for you, my dear.”
It was Lindt chocolates. I opened it at my desk and we both had before sharing it with the others.
“By the way, Mr. Sharma, she loved your Toronto stories! She says you are a genius. After I went to bed the first night, she stayed up and read all your stories right through. She recognized Eglington Flats where there were all those geese and other places here and there!”
“And your trip?”
“We had such a wonderful time! She was my best friend in school, in Paris. She lives in Vaughn, just north of Toronto. And her daughter and Calista’s the same age.”
Jenny rarely mentioned her mother. At first I thought that her mother was dead, or separated from her father. It might have been a miscommunication. One of the rare mentions of her mother came during one particularly hot summer, when everyone, except me, was complaining about the heat.
“You guys shouldn’t complain, you know. We have AC in our cars, in our offices, in our homes. When I was growing up, we didn’t even have AC in our home. Our floor was concrete. My mother would pick up all the rugs in a room and spread a layer of water. You’d be surprised how that cooled down that room and house. But we didn’t have AC and in France the summers can be brutal!”
One Friday, she came into the office with curlers in her hair. Her head was wrapped in a scarf. She was wearing track pants and slippers. Fridays were dress down days. This was so much unlike her normal chic appearance and, yet, it didn’t seem unusual for her. Anything was possible with her. I hadn’t seen a woman with curlers in her hair since I was a boy, since my mother died. It was a strange experience for me. For the first time after many years, I saw in her that morning something I didn’t know but sensed about my mother. And what that was I still didn’t quite know—a combination of the smell of the lotion applied to the hair, the little slip of paper, the click of the blue and blue-green and pink curlers locking into place, the bird-nest curls in the hair when the curlers came off, the longing for something else, another life, another place, change from the routine and yet an acceptance, and yet again a refusal to be beaten down by the day-to-day. I loved to watch my mother curling hair, her own and that of her friends, but I couldn’t understand why they did it. In Jenny, I finally understood, accepted. It was the same feeling I had, when as an adult I saw the movie, “Steel Magnolias” in which one of the characters had curlers in her hair. Another Friday, she came to work as if she had just rolled out of bed. She was wearing what looked like a cross between sleep pants and track pants and thick furry slippers that looked like bedroom slippers. I believed one of the managers talked to her. Shortly after, the site manager sent out a memo with the dos and don’ts for casual Fridays.
“I’m going to be off for a couple of week, you know,” she said another day. We were on our favorite bench overlooking the pond. As if anticipating my question she said, “O, nothing serious. Minor stuff. Will you miss me sweetie?”
“Yes,” I said. “I will miss you.”
“You never know when they will cut our benefits. I need to do all my little things now, you know.” I thought that she was referring to the billions the bank had lost in the Enron scandal and to the new CEO, Dukakis, who was cutting benefits left and right. In five years, the stock of this company will be back at $100.00 per share, or I will eat my hat, he said in a memo and press release, which was quoted by the Wall Street Journal.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” she said. “I hope he has a spare hat!” This was the summer before Dukakis closed the site down. Perhaps, she had uncanny intuition to see into the future. Dukakis conveniently forgot about that pledge as did the media all through the Great Recession, when he became the poster boy for good financial stewardship and the highest paid CEO on Wall Street. There were published reports that he was a favorite of President Obama and rumored to be in line for an appointment as Treasury Secretary, or Chairman of the Federal Reserve. The office was quieter while she was away. Staff meetings were less lively. When she returned to work, her face looked unusually pale and her eyes, wide, watery, and weak. She was out again for a few weeks. Her eyes were not as dilated on her return and she was her old, perky self.
Julie said, “Frenchie is back! Isn’t she vain! Chest enhancement, that’s what it was!”
It was not something that I would have noticed immediately. But in the coming weeks, it became apparent. Jenny wore low cut frocks and blouses and her breasts were noticeable. The implants changed her appearance. Her breasts were, now, too large for her slender body. I felt that if she leaned forward too much, it would pull her down. And the extra exposed cleavage made her look like a cheap prostitute, a French courtesan in the days of the Monarchy. We were sitting on the bench outside overlooking the pond again, on a break, and she caught my glance at the top of her breasts. She laughed and looked around. Nobody was outside.
“It’s been a long time, Mr. Sharma. Wouldn’t you like to have them, see how they feel, taste.” As she had said when we had first met, she didn’t have time for mickey-mouse games. She was direct. “Don’t be a stranger now. Call me. Come around. I am still at the same place.” It was lunchtime and others started pouring out of the buildings. There were laughter and chatter and colors and movement. It was like a carnival. And if you looked around carefully, there were glimpses of office romances all around.
The announcement in January 2005 that the site would be closed changed all our lives. I was not going to stick around hoping for a temporary job in another department. I had had been offered my old position, if I were willing to move. I said that I was not going to go back to the cold north, to the greater Chicago area, where our office was being relocated. I took my small severance package and left in the first wave. But, in one of those ironies of life, I did go back north, spending some time in New York and Boston before returning to Tampa. Jenny opted to leave in the last wave. Our small group kept in touch, mainly by email. Boston was a wonderful city in more ways than one. The fall reminded me how much I missed and loved that other great city, for me the greatest city in the North America, Toronto. Even in the Boston winter, I saw good things, felt good things. Unlike the Toronto winters, which always felt unending, the Boston winter felt short. When the spring came, and to me it came early that year, I was stunned by the sudden transformation of the city and by the profusion of flowers of all variety. I wrote as I hadn’t written in years: poetry, fiction, essays. And to our former group at the Bank of Manhattan, I sent the occasional “Dispatches from Boston.”
Something must have happened in that time when I left in June and the time Jenny left in October. Once she left, she did not provide her personal email to anyone. Tessa said that she kept in touch with Jenny and forwarded my dispatches and notes. She said that Jenny loved my “dispatches.” The following year when I returned to Tampa, we all met for lunch. Everyone, that is, except Jenny. Everyone seemed to be doing well and had reentered the workplace and/or was optimistic about doing so in a short while. Using a one-time education grant that the Bank had provided to employees who were let go, Jenny was doing a degree in medical technology and working at a hospital part-time. It wasn’t something I could picture her doing, or associate with her. But, I had learned to accept that with Jenny, anything was to be expected. In this, too, she was true to form. We have been meeting almost every year since for lunch, to network, and to catch up with each other. Jenny never attended any of our lunches. I knew she must have had her reasons. I sensed that she must not have been doing that well. Tessa mentioned at one of our lunches how her husband had to get Jenny when her car broke down. Jenny was on her way to Tessa’s for Thanksgiving. Tessa’s husband had to take the car for servicing. Of twenty-five, only about twelve of us kept in touch. A few moved to other states, or other parts of Florida. And the Great Recession came. This last time, we hadn’t met in more than a year. I kept meaning to send an e-invite and never did. And it seemed our group had fizzled, lost interest. The Great Recession overshadowed everything pulling us to more pressing issues.
During this past year, in my new job, our new managing director insisted that we needed to take at least two weeks of our vacation consecutively. For the first time in a decade, I would be on vacation for two weeks. There were many things I wanted to do in those two weeks: start another book, put in hardwood flooring in one of the rooms of my house, and/or edit a book of poems. In the end, I did none of these. My siblings would be in New York City in July. We had met separately over the years, but this would be the first time, if I travelled to New York in July, we would be meeting all together in more than two decades. I drove to New York intending to overnight in Washington DC and visit a friend, but by the time I got to DC, I thought, it is only four-five hours to New York. I would stop in DC on the way back. I had planned to spend a day in New York, then head up to Boston for two days and nights. I told everyone that I had written a book on Boston and wanted to see how much of what I wrote of the physical Boston remained the same, to see if I needed to revise, update what I had written. The truth is that I didn’t know for sure why I wanted to go to Boston. There was no lover waiting. There was no old flame to see. I just felt a sudden, strong urge to go to Boston.
But New York was, as always, seductive. And where are you headed, everyone said. You just got here. And what unfinished business have you got in Boston that can’t wait? Okay, well go next week, before you head back to Tampa! And Boston more important than family! I rescheduled my reservations in Boston from July 27 and July 28 to August 3rd & 4th. On July 28, my brothers and I had lunch at an Indian restaurant and visited a cousin before heading to my brother’s house. Why I checked my email that evening, I will never know. I had always maintained that on vacation I wanted nothing to do with emails. When I saw the subject line “Sad News” from Tessa, I thought that her husband, who was not in the best of health, was admitted to hospital. She wrote: “I have a very heavy heart and it is with great sadness that I have to deliver this kind of news; Jenny (Zana) Duncan passed away tonight.” Tessa was referring to the night of July 27. A night I had planned to be in Boston.
I was stunned. I had not seen Jenny in six years. I couldn’t believe someone so young, attractive, energetic, restless and full of zest for life was dead. Dazed, I got up and went outside saying I was going around the block for a walk, that I’d had too much to eat and needed to burn some calories. I walked around in the dusk barely hearing the blue jays, the wrens, the cardinals and sparrows and the traffic and the planes roaring into the JFK International Airport. My brothers were siting on the front landing when I returned. Who is Jenny? They asked. You left the laptop on. You didn’t sign-out. You okay? Who was Jenny? You need a drink? I shook my head. An old friend; former colleague I haven’t seen in years! I said. And I can’t believe she’s gone. The next days went by in a flurry of visits into Manhattan, the Met, MOMA, cousins, friends, dinners, dancing, barbeques, Liberty Avenue, late nights, reminiscences of incidents from our childhood, piecing together the little we remembered of out mother, old aunts and uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, all the quirky characters in our childhood neighborhoods. It was like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle, with the pieces jumping out of our memories and minds seemingly at random. This was one of the most wonderful visits I had in New York City. We would have late nights and late mornings. Mostly, breakfast was in my brother’s back yard in the cool summer mornings, on his tiled patio, in the shade thrown by the high concrete fence to the east and that cast by the large umbrella and the foldable canvas tent. If I had read about the haven you can create in small spaces, this was it. If yard spaces in Queen’s were small, his was smaller than most. The lawn in the center was thick and lush. And on three sides shrubs and flowers bloomed, in particular were the giant sunflowers, with the wrens and finches and other birds pecking at the seeds. One morning at breakfast, my brother played a CD of Mukesh songs from the fifties and sixties that were our father’s favorites, which we all knew from our childhood. It created a special bonding amongst us, the memory of our father in the background as we talked and planned and looked ahead to our activities for the day. And Jenny, so young and beautiful and gone, came to inhabit that background space, too. She was there not-there, like my father. As always with any trip to New York, there was never enough time. I ended up canceling my trip to Boston and because I stayed an extra day with my siblings, had to skip visiting my friend in Washington, DC.
Shortly after my return to Tampa, there was another email from Tessa. Jenny’s sister, Rachael, had organized a memorial service for the following Saturday morning and she hoped that we could come. It would be a private memorial on the property of Rachael and her husband. I replied that I would attend. All week, even at work during breaks, I thought of the things I would say, wanted to say about Jenny. Nothing I wanted to say seemed right for a memorial. Many of the things I wanted to say, events I wanted to remember could be misinterpreted. How do you say Jenny was funny and hilarious and made grand entrances without it coming off as saying she staged her entrances, or craved attention? How would those closest to her interpret the perfume spraying incidents? When anyone burnt popcorn in the lunchroom, and as our desks were closest to the lunchroom, and despite a separation of two doors, the stifling-burnt-cloth smell entered anytime someone opened the door. The stench suffused our unit. Someone from another department burnt popcorn almost every other day; they would place the popcorn in the microwave oven and be absorbed by something on the television, or become engrossed in a conversation with a colleague. Everyone in our unit complained. One day Jenny whipped out a bottle of perfume and sprayed the space around her desk furiously. She must have emptied the entire bottle. That scent engulfed us and neutralized the burnt popcorn; it was as stifling as the scent it replaced and made us as nauseous. But who could dare tell Jenny. Afterwards, every time someone burnt popcorn, Jenny would whip out a bottle of perfume and spray furiously. “Damn, stupid popcorn!” she would say. While everyone complained, she did something. She meant well. Well was not always the outcome. This was not something you could say at a memorial service.
I knew that the least I could do for Jenny, now, was attend her memorial. I was the last person to arrive. The service was in progress, when I finally found the property. The GPS located two streets with similar names, but the house lot was on neither. I drove through both streets twice, slowly. Both short streets ended at the water’s edge. I could locate the lot numbers before and after that which Tessa had provided; I couldn’t locate the actual house. I had driven more than an hour from north Tampa to Sarasota. I was not going to go away. I was going to find this place. Circling back for the third time, I saw a long driveway lined with cars just off the main road. I knew it had to be the place. About fifteen cars were parked in a single straight line on the long driveway. I parked on the side of the road and walked along the red-brick driveway and up a flight of stairs. It was a while after I rang the doorbell before a middle-aged woman opened the door. I am here for the memorial, I said. She nodded. She was dressed in black. I followed her, walking through the house. Most of the west wall of the house was floor-to-ceiling tempered glass and provided a sweeping view of the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone was gathered in a small circle almost on the water’s edge. It was a summer morning that you dream about. If there is such a thing as a perfect setting for a memorial, this was it. Some of the men in the circle had ties; none wore a jacket. I left my jacket on a chair by the door and followed the lady down the back stairs and out to the circle of people on the thin strip of sand. The circle shifted slightly to accommodate me so that I stood facing west to the Gulf and almost directly across from the portly man in the yarmulke, who was conducting the service. Tessa and her husband and Kate and her husband were to my right. They didn’t look up when I joined the circle. The man in the yarmulke conducting the service, I learned later, when Tessa introduced him, was Ivan, Rachel’s husband, the doctor. He was reading verses in a language, I guessed to be Hebrew. But what did I know. It could have been Yiddish. Everyone was dressed in black except for a slim man who looked to be in his late thirties. He had a yarmulke on his head and wore a white short-sleeved shirt similar to the one I had on. Almost all the males present wore yarmulkes. The attractive young woman in her early twenties I recognized from a picture Jenny had once brought to the office. Jenny was proud of this niece, who wanted to be an actress; and annoyed at her brother, the girl’s father, who didn’t want her to pursue an acting career.
Wherever you are Jenny, this is what you would have wanted. Ivan ceased speaking. He seemed to be finished. Tessa started to speak and, then, started crying. She dabbed at her eyes and continued. Jenny was like a sister to her and Jenny’s daughter, Calista, was like her own daughter. Tessa had no children. When it was Kate’s turn the tears flowed freely down her cheeks. I understood only later her close brush with death. She had recently completed another round of chemo and the cancer seemed to be in remission. Recent studies had shown that people who consumed curry regularly had a greatly reduced risk of cancer. It was the turmeric in the curry. Some kinds of cancer were even neutralized in the test groups. Would eating more curry help? But how do you ask this, suggest this and not trivialize chemotherapy, or Kate’s cancer. Kate couldn’t read her eulogy. Her husband took the page and read. This was all too serious for me, for what I wanted to say. And what exactly did I want to say. I didn’t have time to decide and as I was deciding they bypassed me. There seemed to be a sudden urgency to get the memorial over with. Did they have to finish the service by noon, as was the case with some Hindus? The circle dispersed and Tessa and Kate came over. I told them about the mix-up with the street name. Kate said the same thing happened to them.
“Which one is Jenny’s daughter?” I asked.
“Not here!” Tessa replied.
“Not here! I’ll tell you after.” She shook her head sideways. “Come.”
I followed her. From a large vase, everyone was taking long-stemmed roses, stepping up to the wooden patio on the water’s edge and throwing the flowers into the ocean. She gave me a rose.
“When was the funeral?” I asked.
“There was none. This is it. She asked to be cremated.”
Like a Hindu, I thought.
“She always said that whenever she died, she wanted to be cremated—like a Hindu,” Tessa added as if reading my mind. “She wanted her ashes scattered in the ocean. Ivan and her father are going to do that now.” Ivan, Rachael’s husband and another man walked along a gravel trail parallel to the shore linking all the adjoining properties. They reappeared with a double kayak, hurrying down to a small inlet in another adjoining property then pushed off. Everyone had thrown their roses into the water. I went last. When I stepped out onto the narrow walkway outside the gazebo, Jenny’s brother, the one in the white shirt, was sitting with his feet dangling over the rocks and cement boulders below. Closer, he looked to be in his early thirties, perhaps, closest in age to Jenny. He was looking out to the Gulf. The surface of the water was about fifteen feet below us. It was very choppy. I broke the petals apart from the flower as I had done when I had gathered my father’s ashes, intermingling petals and ash and minute fragments of fire-cleansed pelvic bones. I offered the petals to the water, to Jenny, to nobody, to everybody, to the universal Self. I thought Jenny would be pleased if I offered, in my mind, an ancient mantra. The petals fell on the cement water-breakers below, but soon the waves claimed them. The two of us watched from the edge of the gazebo as the two men in the kayak paddled hard in the rough waves. They handled the kayak well, turning into a trough. The older man at the back emptied the ashes, tied in a scarf of Jenny’s, into the water. Tessa later said that it was a veil that Jenny had picked out for her wedding—a wedding she was planning for the late summer, in two months. I left the brother sitting with his feet over the water and rejoined Tessa and Kate. He needed his space. I couldn’t share grief and I didn’t want grief overtaking me.
“So where’s the daughter,” I asked Tessa.
“In Boston. She refused to come for the memorial. O, you haven’t heard the half of it! Jenny was living in Boston for the past several months. She had moved in with her boyfriend. A man she adored and a man who adored her. They were engaged, about to be married. This is such a tragedy. After all she went through. She was finally getting her life back together. She had set a date for the wedding, picked out a veil. They were coming out of a Target store, in the parking lot when she got bit by a bee. She went into shock—anapalegic shock. Her fiancé’s a doctor. He had an ambulance rush her to the hospital. Apparently, they didn’t know she was allergic to bee stings. A few hours later, dead! Just like that. Dead! Calista, her daughter, moved in with her girlfriend from school, her best friend, and doesn’t want to leave Boston. Doesn’t want Rachel, or any relative to be appointed her guardian, but wants her friend’s mother appointed her guardian. And the friend’s mother doesn’t mind. If this isn’t crazy-crazy!” We had come to the end of the smooth gravel trail at the foot of the back stairs.
I was stunned to learn that Jenny was living in Boston. I had assumed that she had died in Tampa. I was stunned to learn that Jenny had died in Boston on a night I had planned to be in Boston. And I was sure that it was the Target just across the Charles River, across from the mall and the Home Depot, where I had gone several times. When I had gone to that Target store, I always parked at the far corner instead of wasting time searching for parking close to the entrance. I always had a queasy feeling walking across that parking lot. It was not just the constant traffic, the careless young drivers from Harvard and MIT. Was this all just a coincidence? Did my dispatches and writings on Boston have anything to do with her move to Boston, with any of this?
When we entered the house, Tessa introduced me to, or pointed out relatives. The lunch was catered. I helped myself from the veggie and fruit platters. Tessa continued filling us in.
“Ivan flew to Boston the next day to make all the necessary arrangements and oversee the cremation. Jews like to get everything done within twenty-four hours.”
For the first time, I saw Jenny’s mother. She was a petite, pretty woman. She sat by herself staring out to the Gulf of Mexico through the western floor-to-ceiling glass wall of the house. Jenny’s father, also, sat by himself in another chair staring out to the ocean. What can you say to console a parent who has lost a child? But I wanted to offer condolence. The father perked up, and became alert momentarily. The mother looked up. They both nodded in acknowledgement, but didn’t speak. Their eyes said all. I retreated to the group made up of Tessa and Kate and their husbands. Cousins and nieces and nephews coalesced into one group. Ivan and two other men were in animated conversation in another group. Tessa flipped back and forth between groups. Only three of us from the Bank of Manhattan had made it to the memorial. I felt filled and heavy and numb with the things I had just learned about Jenny and her last days in Boston, the cremation and with the view of the ocean from the affluent, new house. And, yet, at the same time, I felt empty. What else what there to do say? What else was there after death? I said goodbyes all around. Rachel walked me to the door. Close up, the resemblance to Jenny was uncannily clearer. It was disconcerting. I felt that I was looking at Jenny, looking into her eyes.
“Thank you for coming, for remembering, Jenny,” Rachael said. It was the least I could do. I couldn’t think of any suitable words, or any suitable response. I, too, nodded.
Walking down the stairs and down the long driveway, I remembered a conversation we had had after seeing a documentary on cremations on the banks of the Ganga.
“It’s kind of messy, isn’t it,” Jenny said.
“Well, that’s India,” I replied. “Here in a crematorium, it’s clean. It’s environmentally friendly, and it’s fast. There are no worms. A real cremation is the most life-altering and profound thing you could see. You make the pyre, then, place the body on it, place more wood over the body. They put dried coconut shells around and lot of Ghi and samaghri. The samaghri and Ghi make a wonderful scent in the fire. There is no scent of burnt flesh, none whatsoever! The heat’s intense, the flames leaping high into the air, ten, fifteen feet, more. But at the end there is nothing—maybe one or two tiny fragments. The body ash is distinctly different from the wood ash. It is real ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The soul-consciousness has no reason to linger. The body it has inhabited for so many years is gone. After my father’s cremation, we waited a day for the ashes to cool. We mixed flowers with the ashes and I took it out to the ocean, with an ancient Sanskrit prayer. It was the most beautiful thing I could do for my father, to honor my father, to honor myself and that universal Self.”
“You kept no ashes?” she asked.
“None! And why? When you’re dead, you’re dead. I want no tomb, no mausoleum, no marker, no coffin. Why waste money on a coffin—go to Home Depot buy some wood, make a brier and place my body on it. Cover my body with cotton. Cremate it all. Scatter my ashes in the ocean…”
“You are so poetic and yet so clinical Mr. Sharma,” she said. “You should have been a surgeon. Well, death and not wanting monuments is all well and good for you, but I am going to live to be a thousand years. I shall never die.” We laughed together. She had once told me that through my poetry I would live to be a thousand years, like my thousand-named Vishnu and my thousand-manifested Hindus Gods. Who could ever correct Jenny? We were on our favorite bench looking over the pond and the three fountains forcing water upwards. As we got up, she slipped her arm through mine. It was my last week at the Bank of Manhattan, the last time we spent together.
We never said goodbye. Goodbye, Jenny. Goodbye.