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Authors: Saleema Nawaz

Bone and Bread

BONE AND BREAD

SALEEMA NAWAZ

Copyright © 2013 Saleema Nawaz

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This edition published in 2013 by
House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina Avenue, Suite 801
Toronto, ON, M5V 2K4
Tel. 416-363-4343
Fax 416-363-1017
www.houseofanansi.com

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Nawaz, Saleema, 1979–

Bone and bread / Saleema Nawaz.

ISBN 978-1-77089-243-9

I. Title.

PS8627.A94B66 2013 C813'.6 C2012-905959-5

Cover design: Alysia Shewchuk

We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.

If you listen, you can almost hear the sound of my son's heart breaking. In the backyard, under the drone of the lawnmower, there's a dull clanking, a sick rasp of metal like
iron on bone, the chafing of something serrated. It could be
a fallen branch from the lilac bush or a stray rock caught against the blade, but from where I sit looking out the kitchen window, the muted noise of the mowing comes through like a throbbing ache.

Since my sister, Sadhana, died, we move through the house like tenants awaiting eviction, silent and worn with guilt, nerves frayed. I buy the groceries alone and unpack them in stealth, going slowly to keep the plastic from rustling, the cupboards from slamming closed. Our grief is distended, sluggish as Sadhana's illness, so that talking or eating — eating above all things — still seems like an affront to its fragile sanctity.

The sun on Quinn's face is giving him a squint that looks like closed eyes; with the mower he is like a blind man feeling his way through the world, an electric cutter before him for a cane. The yard is small, but the mowing seems to take forever. When Quinn leaves for university at the end of the summer, I will think about planting a garden, though it might be more work, not less. Maybe concrete. Maybe I'll be the one paving paradise. But the lilacs that line the inside of the fence are my heaven, so I remind myself to look into what else can be put in that will bring itself up and earn me no disgrace or ire from the neighbours.

If we were speaking more, it might be a project for Quinn, but in the past six months we've been like bad reproductions of ourselves, our conversations only shadow plays of the dialogues we used to have. Even before the unthinkable happened, we used to keep it light. No family-drama-sharing circles, only the diversions, the drippings, the scuff and froth of everyday life: pop culture, homework, occasionally the news. Now there is not even that. At nearly eighteen, he is tall and independent, and his inner world is mostly a secret from me, a fact that at alternating times makes me resentful and relieved.

He's a good kid. We are never taken for mother and son, rarely but more often for cousins, or brother and sister. He is thinner than me, and darker, with Sadhana's deep liveliness of expression and grace of movement. When he turns to push the lawnmower back into the peeling shed, his red T-shirt reveals patches of sweat across his broadening back. For his birthday last year, Sadhana bought him a gym membership. Coming back to the house, he returns my smile when I catch his eye, but he slips in through the screen door and up to the second floor without a word.

And that quiet inhalation, audible as he pushes past? That's the sound of him blaming me.

When I am sure that Quinn is upstairs, can imagine I hear his fingers skimming in a light patter over his keyboard, I bring out the notebook where I've taken down the message. Three days alone with it, held secret like a key around my neck. The woman with the lilting voice and the strange request. She says she wants us to meet.

Hello, this is Libby Carr calling. I'm hoping to get ahold of Beena Singh. I found this number online. Ms. Singh, if this is you, I'm not sure if Sadhana ever mentioned me, and maybe you wouldn't remember, anyway. But your sister — well, she was a very dear friend of mine, and I was hoping you wouldn't mind getting in touch. I'm sorry to be calling out of the blue like this. It's selfish, but I've been wishing I had someone to talk to. About Sadhana. I miss her all the time, really. And there's something else I think you ought to know.

She left a Montreal number. I wonder how long she had been waiting to call. It has been almost six months since the funeral. The name Carr doesn't ring a bell, though Sadhana had legions of friends and even more acquaintances, or so it seemed from my vantage point in Ottawa, where I'd hear about them only as a string of names over the phone line, first names, drizzled over a tale of a night out.

It seems as though the woman has found my name on the internet, on the modest web page for freelance editing services that Andrew, an old boyfriend, set up for me, with clean graphics and a couple of testimonials. I listened to the message three times before deleting it, taking it down along with the name and number, and I have stopped myself from mentioning it to Quinn. In his hands, everything is a puzzle to be teased out to its solution. Even Sadhana.

I hold the cordless phone in my palm, its smooth black case feeling heavier than usual, weighted with possibility. With its small antenna, sticking out like a pinky finger at tea, it reminds me of a walkie-talkie, of the ones Sadhana and I had as girls. Of trying to whisper from either end of the apartment, still so close together that we could hear the other speaking without needing to listen through the receiver. And of the newer, long-range ones that Sadhana bought when Quinn was thirteen, driving him out to the Gatineau Hills, where they used borrowed GPS units to play at geocaching, hiding and finding buried capsules at specific coordinates, radioing to each other as they hurried along the trails.

I remember Quinn coming home from that excursion filthy and exhausted. I could tell by the way he scratched and wrinkled up his nose that, even through the shelter of the trees, he'd gotten a bit of a sunburn, invisible on his brown skin.

Sadhana herself was giddy, exultant. This was during one of her good periods. She was thin but energetic, even more so around Quinn. She sat before me at the kitchen table and ate a plate of pasta and pesto I put before her. “That kid of ours is something else,” she said between mouthfuls. “Wading through muck. Climbing trees. You should have come with us.”

But we both knew that I hadn't been invited.

As I stare at the page where I've written the number, the name blurs in and out of focus. I blink, noticing the doodles I've scribbled around it, loops and triangles. Capital letters shaded in thick double strokes. I haven't really spoken to anyone about Sadhana, or about the hollow in our lives she left behind. Even Sadhana's things are still untouched, exactly as she left them in her Montreal apartment. I've been putting off the task of sorting through all her worldly belongings. Packing up, throwing out,
contending
with those things — my dread assignment.

After a moment, I return the phone to the cradle. There is nothing for me to say to this woman. At least not yet.

Tilting forward and back on the legs of the kitchen stool, I sigh aloud, a bad habit I've given way to in recent months. I've traced it to Uncle, whose chest often heaved with theatrical exhalations, usually to express irritation with me and Sadhana. If we were chattering across the table to each other at dinner, he would say, “Give a man some peace,” the thick fingers of his right hand curled against his brow. Uncle preferred to eat in silence. When we were teenagers, we viewed this as a mark of his misanthropy, but more and more I've found myself cultivating moments of perfect solitude, falling into them gratefully, becoming protective of my small preferences and routines. And the sighs just happen. So far, Quinn hasn't noticed. He hasn't been around enough. Then again, it could be that my new enjoyment of isolation is just a reaction to my circumstances, taking the path of least resistance towards self-preservation.

As usual, thoughts like this send me reaching for the phone. Thirty-four is too young to embrace seclusion, so I call Evan, the man I've been seeing. He is, of all improbable things, a cop.

“Hi,” I say. “You busy?”

“Sweet cheeks,” he says. This is a joke. “Beena. I'm glad you called.”

“How's it going? What are you doing?”

“I'm just pulling up to the gas station, then I'm heading into work.”

“Too bad. I'm feeling lonely.”

“That
is
too bad. Are you okay?”

“I'm fine. Just looking for some diversion from my melancholy.”

“I might fall into melancholy myself if I hear any more about this. You make it hard for a man to go to work.”

“Sorry,” I say.

“No, you're not,” says Evan. “You just want to make sure I'm thinking about you all shift.”

“Well.”

“Can I call you when I'm off? I should finish around midnight.”

“I'll be up,” I say. “Call my cell so it doesn't wake Quinn.” As if Quinn would be asleep.

“Sure thing,” he says, and hangs up.

Evan is twenty-six, halfway between my age and Quinn's. He seems older, though — something about the uniform. I find myself getting defensive when I think about him, preparing arguments to counter whatever teasing assault Sadhana might choose to set in motion, but of course there is no need. Even Quinn hasn't met him yet. We have decided for the time being to keep things quiet.

As if on cue, Quinn turns up behind me, close over my shoulder. I can smell the fresh scent of cut grass, along with something soapier and the peculiar odour of his loft bedroom, like sweaty sheets and dust piled and scorching on a hard drive.

“Calling your secret boyfriend?” he asks, seeing my hand on the phone, and I wonder for a moment whether he knows, until I remember that he has always used this term for my boyfriends, a jibe at all my failed attempts at discretion in the past.

“You bet.”

He's over my head, grabbing a glass from the cupboard, then he's in the fridge, pouring the orange juice with the door resting against his hip. “Hot up there,” he says, meaning his room. He closes the fridge and follows up the juice with cold water from the tap.

“If you say so. Hungry?”

“Nah. Later.”

I try to evaluate whether there's a new looseness here, something like our old easiness coming back. I wonder how he would react if I told him about the message, said Sadhana's name out loud, let it float at last through the air between us, its syllables finally turned into something that could be measured. Sound wavelengths in peaks and valleys like a chart of our memories, all the highs and lows.

“Want to go for a walk?” I ask. “Grab a coffee?”

“No thanks.” Quinn puts down his glass by the sink and in a moment he is back at the stairs, some barely contained energy propelling him up two at a time.

I pour my own glass of cold water. “I'm going out,” I call. “To work.” I grab my purse, a voluminous orange shoulder bag, tucking into its largest compartment the black padded pouch with my laptop.

“Bye,” I call again, and this time I hear a faint echo of it coming down to me from Quinn's bedroom.

The computer is heavy enough that I never go far. There's no need. It's enough to be out in the air. There's a diner I go to a couple of blocks up, with an inclined cobblestone patio and sloping green plastic chairs and tables, where after the lunch rush they don't mind if you linger for hours over two cups of coffee.

I head in that direction, closing my eyes for a moment to feel the sun warming my cheeks. The woman's voice from the message is still with me, her throaty civility, the exigent trace I think I can detect: an insistence in the chosen words that tells me how much she wants me to return her call. I can sense she shares some of our deep sorrow, that she is sensitive to the consuming occupation of grief. How she might have checked off the weeks as they passed, tracing an imagined progression of healing, how six months by her reckoning should have brought us all to an equilibrium, a weary peace. Instead of our fractured channels, the swooping pain. Insulating silence.

There's a tranquility in the city in the early afternoon. The streets are busier than at mid-morning but less frenetic, as though the people venturing out after lunch are doing so at their leisure, in pursuit of personal, rather than occupational, ends. Pleasure, in other words, instead of business. The luxury of being partly self-employed has never left me, and on the days I'm not doing my impression of a paralegal, I try to remain conscious of its simple enjoyments, like this — unfiltered light on my face in the afternoon, wrists free of any timepiece. I sometimes scan the faces of the people I see out at this hour, try to pinpoint the source of their workaday freedom. Students, some parents with children, usually mothers. The odd high school student cutting class, whose look of grateful freedom and barely suppressed glee most closely mirrors my own state of mind.

At the corner I make an abrupt right, away from my destination, curling back around my own block. I'm too distracted and the mechanical allure of work isn't pulling me today. I know already I won't concentrate on the editing, will have to read every sentence four times over instead of twice. My bag is digging into my shoulder and I give it a one-handed heave, curling my thumb in between to hold it. I pass a father and two children, little girls chattering as they skip along, peppering back and forth a piece of yellow chalk, leaping over it as it falls, ad hoc hopscotch on the run. The father, following them at several paces, left out of the game even as commentator, gives me a brief nod as I pass, and it hits me that I'm responsible for the silences in my house. A deep quiet has stolen in like the tide, insistent and stealthy, and, like any rocky shore, I've acquiesced. But however mature Quinn might be, however close in age we really are, it still falls to me to give the cues. Especially with this, with Sadhana.

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