After I spent the summer working at a bookstore on Queen Street, my return to York University, for my third year, filled me with dismay. The university’s hideous grey buildings were scattered about a windswept landscape and reminded me of large boulders that a glacier had abandoned as it drew back. York had been erected in the 1960s and ’70s and held relics of the era’s worst architectural excesses—massive, starkly functional, a paucity of windows, a predominance of concrete facades. York had been established during a period of great student unrest and so the campus was designed to keep us on the move with very few places to congregate—lots of corridors and hallways, few common rooms and courtyards. The centre of the university, if indeed there was a centre to this haphazard scattering of edifices, was the Ross Building, a lumbering mass built in the style of Brutalism, its inner and outer walls exposed cement. With its tiny slits of windows, it resembled the secret service department in some fascist country, where unspeakable things were done to people. It was impossibly depressing that this campus would be my milieu for the next nine months.
With the intention of broadening young minds, York University required that arts and humanities students take one science course. I decided to face the inevitable and registered for Man and Nature, which traced the evolution of humans along with the other species around them. The class was held in one of the vast Curtis Lecture Halls in the Ross Building. From a narrow strip of floor, where the professor stood, tiers of orange plastic seats rose in a vertiginous slant. The walls were of the ubiquitous exposed concrete.
On the first day I was early and I sat on my own, aware, as I often was in class, that a lot of other students had registered with friends. I was spinning my pen between my fingers, staring at the cover of the course textbook, when I looked up and saw, among the students coming in through the doors, a man who had blond hair that started a rich golden colour at the roots and reached almost whiteness at the tips that fell over his forehead. He had the kind of fair skin that absorbed light and held it glowing within. His features—a strong jaw line, straight nose that flared aristocratically at the nostrils, a finely shaped forehead and full lips—gave him that type of British period beauty epitomized by Rupert Everett in Another Country. As if to accentuate his particular beauty, he wore white cotton trousers, a pale pink and white striped shirt with a white collar and—this distinguishing him from all the other students—light blue suspenders with a pink central stripe and a matching bow tie. He looked out of place among the rest of us with our scruffy sneakers, bomber jackets and too brightly coloured sweaters, as if he had arrived from an afternoon of punting on some river in Oxford. He seemed to me—who, after a year of being out in the gay world, was firmly ensnared in the worship of beauty—like a god travelling unrecognized among mortals.
As he ascended the steps of the hall, I noticed that his arms were curiously jointed, his palms facing backward. This gave him a languorous grace, as if he was walking through waist-deep water, pushing it behind him with his hands—an effect heightened by the tilt to his chin and dreamy expression. As he drifted closer, I saw—with a jolt of joy and terror—that he wore a hoop earring in his right ear and so was gay. I must have been gawking for, as if drawn by the intensity of my stare, he looked up for a moment. Our eyes met, then he glanced away with a subtle smile, as if graciously accepting my adoration. I wanted to turn and follow his progress but I was afraid to appear lascivious. Finally the urge to look at him was too great. I dropped my pen and, under the pretext of picking it up, glanced over the tiers above me. He was sitting a few rows up. He did not appear to notice me, but there it was, that same smile on his face. He was seated alone.
The science course was on a Thursday afternoon and, as I made my way toward the bus stop afterward, the autumn sun spread its slanting rays across the grim buildings, the brightness it cast only accentuating their raw surfaces. There was a bustle of energy among the students, a sense of celebration at the impending weekend. When I passed the Founder’s College Residence, a party was in progress, one of the rooms jammed with a tangle of bodies, the students jumping up and down to the beat of Annie Lennox’s Sweet Dreams, shrieking and laughing. A woman with a shaven head leaned out of the window and yelled, “Paaarty!” I drew my jacket about me, feeling my loneliness intensely, which seemed to have been heightened by the sight of that man who lived, I was sure, in one of those charmed coteries I saw at bars—men good looking like himself, to whom I was invisible.
Things were not going well for me. After that initial euphoria of coming out, I had begun to feel a sense of hopelessness settle over me.
My feeling of despondency only grew worse when I got home and found our house crowded with my sister’s clique, which consisted mostly of my cousins and the various school friends they had all known back in Sri Lanka. There was a game of poker in progress at the dining table, the stakes dimes and quarters. People clustered around their chosen player, offering advice and cheering him or her along. Jaya, my sister Kamala’s boyfriend, was lying spread out on the sofa with Kamala cuddled next to him.
When the others saw me they cried, “Shaan, come, machan, sit with us,” “Shaan, my, you poor thing, you look so tired, nah,” “Shaan, why didn’t you come with us to the film last Saturday?”
“Why the hell are you all here?” I asked rudely, in that way close families are off hand with each other. “Don’t you have another house to hang out in?”
There were general cries of disapproval, my cousins telling me to be polite and not to get above myself, the older ones reminding me to be respectful, one of my girl cousins getting up to cuff me lightly on the side of my head. I grinned to show I was delighted to have got that reaction from them. In truth, this sullenness was just a cover for my fear that something in my behaviour would unmask me and they would know I was gay.
“Shaan, you rude thing, come and join us,” Kamala cried, gesturing toward the chair next to hers. She spoke in a slightly strained, over-bright manner, not meeting my eye. She was uneasy when I was around her circle, worried that I might come out to them, as I threatened to do when we fought about her refusal to tell them (though I was just as afraid of telling them as she was).
“My, you think you are too good for us, too expensive, Shaan,” my cousin Latha cried, pouting. “We never see you any more.”
“Yes,” my cousin Mala cried, “you’re such a snob—putting parts and everything.”
This was a cue for the rest of them, and they cried in unison. “Clarice!” My secret girlfriend, whom they had invented.
“Ah-ah, putting it to Clarice were you?” my cousin Rajan guffawed.
“How is your lovely Clarice today?” another cousin cried.
“Ah-ah I think I saw you in the Scott Library with your darling Clarice.”
There were shrieks and bellows of laughter as the colour rushed to my face, Jaya getting up from the couch to slap me on the back. My cousins were laughing too and I felt suddenly beside myself with anguish.
When I finally escaped to my bedroom, I threw my bag on my bed. I went to stand in front of my closet mirror. With my grey jeans from Thrifty’s, my blue and grey striped sweater from Bargain Harold’s, my K-Mart sneakers, I looked like I belonged in this poor, immigrant suburb. I found myself thinking of the way that man had been dressed, with his bow tie and suspenders. I had yearned, for some time, to dress exotically like that. When I went to Kensington Market, I would often try on an outfit—a tuxedo shirt, some smart jackets with tassels and epaulets (I had particularly fallen for a red marching band jacket, with gold trim), an interesting bowler hat or a fedora with a feather. Standing in front of the changing room mirror, turning from side to side, I would feel such a longing to go out dressed in that outfit in public. Yet I would not buy it even though I could afford it. I knew, from wandering around the market and being at the bars, that the men and women who dressed like this belonged to cliques of friends who were attired in the same way, cliques that paraded like flocks of strident birds of paradise, showing off their finery to each other and the world. I would look like a lonely, pathetic fool standing alone in a bar dressed like this. As I looked at myself in the mirror, the word “parvenu” would enter my mind, that word antiquated here but so prevalent still in Sri Lanka. My dark skin reduced these clothes to a parody on me, like that proverbial crow with peacock feathers.
Later, after my sister’s gang had left, Kamala, under the pretext of bringing me some of my clothes she had found in the dryer, came down to talk. I was lying on my bed reading and she stood close by, looking at me meaningfully. “What to do, Shaan,” she said shaking her head. “Sri Lanka is a conservative society and it is not going to change. We must be careful for Amma and Appa’s sake. If people found out they had a gay son, it would ruin their position in the community.”
I didn’t say anything for a moment, seething over how my mother never brought up the subject of my sexuality at all, over how my father expounded, between puffs on his pipe, on school boy crushes and how, in the school he and I had both attended, “cupping”—a form of sexual frottage—was common among boys on the rugger and cricket teams and, in fact, a junior was often picked to be the “cupping boy”—all this to tell me that what I was going through was an extended form of adolescence that I would ultimately outgrow. I was about to accuse Kamala of being disloyal, of being homophobic, say that I wished I had never come out to my family, that they were hypocrites pretending to be supportive when I first told them, but then becoming less accepting, when something in the way my sister had spoken a slight oddness to her tone, made me scrutinize her. She looked away embarrassed. I saw that she wanted to talk to me about something that had happened last weekend, but did not know how to broach the subject.
Kamala bent down and picked up her empty laundry basket. “Well . . .” With a small wave, she went upstairs.
Last Saturday, I had gone to a bar, got very drunk and allowed myself to be picked up by a tubby, middle-aged man. After sex, which I barely remembered, I had fallen asleep and only woken in the early hours of the morning besides this snoring stranger who stank of body odour and stale alcohol. I quickly left his apartment but then, a taxi to the suburbs being far too expensive, I had to wait on the street for a couple of hours until the subway opened. This was the first time I had stayed over at a man’s house and I did not know what I was going to tell my family. I was desperately worried that they would have noticed my absence and be in a panic.
When I got home, my mother and father were in the kitchen making breakfast. As I came in through the door, they stared at me in astonishment. “But Shaan, where have you been so early?” My mother asked. “We thought you were asleep downstairs.” She took in my dishevelled clothing and her mouth fell open before she quickly returned to washing the dishes. My father too stared at me, appalled, before turning away. Kamala was at the dining table reading the Toronto Star and she came to examine me as I removed my shoes. I mumbled something about “a friend,” and hurriedly went downstairs.
Since then, I had noticed my family watching me, worried and also oddly sad. Without a word passing between us, they had understood, in that way families comprehend so much about each other, that my encounter had been with a stranger. For them, who considered mere pre-marital sex taboo or, in the case of my sister, something to be undertaken with great thought and caution, what I had done was so degraded that it made me alien to them. And no matter how much I told myself they were prudish and old fashioned, that I should pay no heed to their silent judgement, in a secret part of me I felt as tainted as they thought me to be. The term “soiled goods” kept whispering itself to me—that expression used for promiscuous women in Sri Lanka, the phrase conjuring up the feverish, hopeless manner of those women. In these last few days, under my family’s silent worry, I had come to feel frightened that I had become like those women, my soul despoiled beyond all repair.
I had not been alone with my mother since that incident. The next afternoon, being Friday and our regular shopping time, we set out for Bridlewood Mall. As we walked along, I could feel the tension between us. We were halfway there when my mother spoke. “And yes,” she said, as if we were in the middle of a conversation, “this AIDS is an awful thing. My goodness, the terrible consequences of getting it. Why, poor Rock Hudson, when he died last year, it was a great shock. Such a handsome man throughout his life and then reduced to a walking skeleton. The problem is people just don’t know how exactly it is transmitted.” She had taken on that sermonizing tone I hated. “The newspapers and the health authorities say it can be avoided with precautions. But how do they even know these precautions work when they don’t understand the cause of it? I for one would be very careful about what I would do if—.”
“I think I know how to avoid AIDS,” I said in a very cutting tone, desperate for this conversation to end.
She looked at me startled, then her face collapsed into worry. “Shantha,” she said using my full name, “aiyo, do you have to practise being gay? Can’t you just be gay and not . . .?”
“I really don’t want to talk about this.” I increased my pace, yanking the shopping buggy along.
“But son,” she pleaded, following me, “if you were to get this disease my heart would break. You are so young. You could be dead in a few years. And what for? Just momentary carnal pleasure.” She steeled herself before continuing. “Using a condom, you know, for . . . for . . . sodomy, it is not fool proof. Just one pin-prick of a hole can seal your fate.”
“Would you stop!” I yelled, coming to an abrupt stop. She looked miserable and I saw just how worried she was to have broached the unmentionable subject, not just of sex, but gay sex.
My mother swallowed hard, then asked in a whisper, “Have you . . . had the test?”
I scuffed my shoe against the buggy. “Um . . . no.”
“But why?” she asked, a flutter of agony crossing her face.
I looked away. “Because I . . . I have no need to.”
She frowned, puzzled. I could see that she assumed all sexual relations between men involved “sodomy.”
“I have been very careful.” And yet, even as I said it, I could not stop myself from remembering how I had once let a man come in my mouth. Every time I thought of that indiscretion, a little voice in me nagged that there might have been a nick in my mouth. I waved this thought away, as I always did, and, pushing down my panic, I walked toward the mall.
I expected that my mother would urge me to get the test, but she said no more on the subject. I felt that she dreaded the results as much as I did and preferred to live in this limbo of not knowing, rather than face the tragedy of my possible sickness.
At the next class, I was late arriving and, as I hurriedly made my way up the steps of the lecture hall, I glanced up and saw the man seated where he had been the last time. The places around him were free. I stopped in my tracks, causing the students behind me to jam up and curse. He turned slightly in my direction, then looked away, lowering his eyes. I walked up to his row, pushed past a couple of women at the end and said, as I got to the seat one over from him, “Um, is this taken?”
He regarded me frankly. “No, not at all.”
I sat down and, by now, I was shaking from my daring, feeling I had breached, with sheer hubris, a forbidden world.
I could not bring myself to look at him but, instead, gazed sideways at his hands. They were surprisingly coarse, with scabby knuckles, yellowed fingertips, palms that were flushed. He had on a cologne that was tart like lemons but sweet at the same time.
The professor of Man and Nature was a bumbling scientist named Mary Sisler—a diminutive, skinny woman with a nest of curly hair, thick glasses, buck teeth and an incongruously voluptuous bosom. She wore a microphone on a cord but, since she talked with her head turning back and forth to the blackboard, only parts of her sentences breezed out to us. Sometimes, she walked too far, unplugged the microphone and continued on unaware. There was a continuous buzz around the hall as students tried to piece together what she was saying.
Today I was finding it even harder to follow her lecture, distracted by the proximity of this man, nervously expecting a sneering look or remark, as if the same rejection I had experienced in bars, from men like him, would recur here in this hall. My companion threw down his pen and the sound of its clatter made me glance over. He was waiting to catch my eye and he grimaced to say that he too was struggling with the lecture. He leaned across the vacant seat and said with hushed wonder, “Did she just say man became erectus in one million BC?”
I gaped, then snuffled.
He shook his head. “No, no,” he continued in the same tone, “I get what she said. Man has been erectus since one million BC.”
I giggled, mostly out of nervousness at being addressed by him. He looked pleased with his joke, his lips pursed in triumph as he went back to trying to keep track of the lecture.
The professor soon came to the end of her talk, which was mercifully short since, beginning with this class, half our time was to be spent in a lab tutorial. A teaching assistant called out the names of the students, dividing us into various groups. My companion had not said any more to me and I was still too nervous to look at him, for I feared that he might see my attraction and be put off. I raised my hand when my name was called for the third group. Soon after, the TA said, “James Sambourne” and my companion declared, “Ah, voilà, we are in the same tutorial,” as if he, like a magician, had produced this very effect.
“Great,” I said, my voice cracking.
“We can be lab partners.” He announced it definitively, then held out his hand. “I’m James, by the way.”
“Shaan.” His hand was soft and damp and warm.
“Shaan!” he said. “Lovely name.”
James had that accent of gay men, a slight British intonation, a languid drawling out of some words for emphasis, contrasted with a rapid patter. I noticed the pattern on his bow tie and suspenders—little black skulls and cross bones against a yellow background. “Do you like them?” he asked and I nodded enthusiastically. “I got this set at the second-hand clothing store where I work on Queen Street. I don’t know why, but I have a real thing for bow ties and suspenders. Oh, mon dieu, I have about fifty sets of them.” He had swivelled around to face me, his legs apart, his pants bunched up around his crotch, one hand over the chair between us. I would have found his affected tone and his French words tiresome in another gay man but, in James, I felt they enhanced the elegance of his movements, his poise and, of course, his great beauty. I admired him for the confidence he had to wear that gold earring, so calmly declaring who he was. A silence had come between us but he seemed perfectly at ease with it, looking away with a far-off expression, his lower lip pushed out as if he was pondering something. I wondered if he knew I was gay and then, with an inner start, I realized he did know. With his earring announcing his sexuality, his clothing, no straight man would have sat next to him. I wondered why he was favouring me in this way, given our relative status in the gay community. The TA had finished calling out the groups and the class was beginning to disperse. James stood up and declared, “Eh bien, we are done here.”
The lab, to which our group was being led, was in the Steacie Science Building. When we left the Ross Building, James brought out a packet of cigarettes, green with white lettering that said “More Menthol.” He drew out a brown cigarette that was much longer than the usual ones and offered the pack to me. I shook my head. After he had taken a few puffs, pursing his lips to blow the smoke out, he told me that he was studying visual art and was in his third year. I told him, in return, that I was studying English literature. Then we walked along in a silence that I assumed he felt comfortable with, but that made me feel awkward. I could not stop from glancing at his body, his smooth golden neck, the pink tips of his ears. I felt guilty for doing so, as if I was violating his good faith in me.
Our assignment that day was to dissect a dead mouse, which was on the lab table, pinned down in a tray, its white chest and belly exposed. I felt sick at the smell of formaldehyde, appalled that we were expected to cut this animal open. James regarded it with a grimace, then rolled his eyes and turned from it. He began to complain about these mandatory courses, saying that York had invented this requirement so it could give work to all the “deadbeats” with tenure who, according to James, filled this university. I nodded earnestly. When he mentioned the psychology course he had been forced to take in his first year, I told him I had taken the same one, but in my second year. “Oh,” James cried, “one of the TA’s was a real looker. Was he in your year too? His name was Claudio.” He said the name as if it was a kiss. “From Italy. He had such a sexy accent and his skin was olive and his hair, ah, a halo of soft black curls.” He was looking at me intently; he had brought up this Claudio to affirm that we were both gay.
Wanting to assure him I said, “Too bad he wasn’t around in my year.”
“Dommage,” James said.
“But,” I said recklessly, “there was a really good looking Indian TA. Did you have him?”
James shrugged indifferently to say he did not remember.
Yet, now that I was on this trajectory, I could not stop myself. I squeaked out, “And you, do you . . . have a boyfriend?”
He looked at me with mock prudishness, his hand on his chest. “Me?”
“Yes,” I said, ashamed but unable to stop.
He flapped his hands from side to side in the gesture of the Charleston and began to sing, sotto voce, “The Boyfriend,” waggling his eyebrows at me teasingly. I forced myself to grin at this silliness, completely embarrassed.
Later, when I was on my way home, it began to rain, water streaking the grimy bus windows, the floor muddy from the tramping of wet shoes. The suburbs I was passing looked desolate, their greenery rapidly dwindling, the sidewalks clotted with soggy brown leaves. After our class, James had left with a friendly wave but made no mention of meeting outside our class the next time, to go in together as other students did. I felt my teeth on edge when I thought of how I had involuntarily asked him about his boyfriend, particularly as James had seen right through my question. Then there was the Indian TA, whom I had made up just to test his desires. I cringed to have entertained a hope so foolish.
No, I chided myself, I was just someone he passed time with in class and our relationship would go no further. He had his other life with men like himself. Yet I, who was so experienced now at being spurned, knew—though I did not understand why, given the different strata we inhabited in the gay community—that James had not completely rejected me. This, combined with my craving for him, which would not die, made me decide that I would go looking for him in the Fine Arts Building on Monday.
I usually worked at the bookstore on Saturdays, but I had exchanged shifts with another clerk and found myself at loose ends. In the morning, I stayed in my basement reading Crime and Punishment for a class. Because it was the weekend and I was feeling indolent, I found it hard to give the book my attention and I frequently went upstairs for juice or cereal or crackers. My family was busy with their Saturday chores. My father was preparing the elaborate rice and many-curried dinner we had on the weekend, my mother vacuumed and dusted the living room and Kamala, who seemed best able to concentrate in the midst of chaos, sat at the dining table, typing an essay.
On one of my trips up, my mother stopped the vacuum and asked, “Shaan what are you doing this afternoon?”
“Why?” I replied. My sister stopped typing so she could follow our exchange, pretending to frown as she looked over a page. “I don’t know. Why are you asking?”
“Well, if you’re not doing anything, which I clearly see you aren’t, I want you to come with me and the aunties to carry bags for us. We’re visiting Gerrard Street to shop for Aunty Chooti’s daughter’s arangetram.”
“No, I don’t want to do that.”
My mother gave me a look that was both desperate and demanding.
“I don’t blame him,” my father added, picking up his pipe to take a break. He had to put it down while in the kitchen because my mother forbade him to “suck on that wretched thing” while cooking, as tobacco flakes always found their way into the food. “A day with the Delilahs is surely a day in hell.” He lit up the pipe and stood puffing it at the window, ignoring the furious looks my mother was throwing him. The Delilahs my father was referring to were the five Samson sisters, of whom my mother was the oldest—a fierce lot who, though they fought frequently, always closed ranks when it came to the outside world. The husbands were helpless against their combined power.
“You could try and support me, Reggie,” my mother said.
“It wouldn’t make a difference,” I cried. “I am not going.” I stalked off to my bedroom and sat on the edge of my bed. The vacuum started up and, after some time, Kamala came upstairs. I leapt up and pretended to go through a drawer.
She came and stood by me. “Why don’t you humour her and go?”
“I know what this is about.”
Kamala sighed. “She’s just worried. That’s all. We’re all a bit worried, Shaan.”
“But surely you must have expected that, when I told you I was gay, I intended to . . . practise.”
“I suppose. But, to be honest, I thought it would be with a boyfriend. Not . . .”
“Well, there’s nothing to worry about,” I replied gruffly.
For some reason I could not lie to Kamala and remained silent. She gazed at me with such concern and longing that I found myself saying, “Oh, fine, fine, I’ll bloody go.”
Aunty Chooti was the youngest Samson sister and had been the one to sponsor all the other sisters to Canada, after the 1983 riots that had forced many Tamils out of Sri Lanka. She and her husband had been here twenty years and so liked to lord it over the rest of us, who had only arrived a few years ago. They were chartered accountants, and they thought a little too well of themselves. Aunty Chooti—who real name was Venetia, but who was called “chooti,” little one, because she was the youngest—had a cloyingly sweet way of talking to people she felt beneath her, a tone she used with my mother and the other sister since they arrived here, a tone that drove them mad. Aunty Chooti was chairperson of the Sri Lankan Association—what she called “our community”—and was always roping in her sisters to help her with various tasks—something they all resented but also enjoyed, basking in her senior position in the community. My mother was often away on weekends with her sisters doing various things for people. It was always Kamala who got dragged along to help decorate a church basement for a wedding, or participate in a sewing bee. This was the first time I had been asked.
While we waited for our ride, my mother, as if I was still a teenager, straightened my collar and patted my hair down and I, in that aggrieved tone of an adolescent— a tone we always take with our parents, no matter what our age—complained about being co-opted.
“I don’t see why I have to be dragged around like this,” I grumbled. “Anyway,” I added, puzzled, “what on earth is an arangetram?”
“Oh, listen to this boy,” my mother said, addressing the heavens. “He knows nothing of his own culture. An arangetram,” she said to me slowly, as if I was stupid, “is the recital and reception parents throw for their daughter when she has finished her training in Bharatanatyam. To display their daughter’s talent to the community.”
“Especially to other parents who are looking for a prospective bride for their son,” Kamala added from the dining table.
“Sounds barbaric,” I declared. “Why don’t they give their daughter ballet or piano lessons, like other normal people do? In fact,” I said, warming to my theme, “if Aunty Chooti was in Sri Lanka, that is precisely what she would have done. None of this Bharatanatyam rubbish. Pretending to a culture they would never have practised back home. Did you ever send Kamala for Bharatanatyam? I lived for so long in Sri Lanka and I never heard of an arangetram.”
“You children, because you grew up in Sri Lanka, know who you are. Aunty Chooti’s daughters were born here and have very little connection with their homeland. It’s important they have something of their own culture. Especially as, no matter what Canadians say, they will never consider those girls truly of this country.”
There was a tone of satisfaction as my mother said all this. She and the other aunts, under the pretence of sympathy, were always talking about Aunty Chooti’s daughters as neither “fish nor fowl,” saying they were very glad their children knew firmly who they were and had not grown up in this country.
Aunty Chooti’s minivan soon pulled up in the driveway, crowded with the other aunts who had also been corralled into helping. The Samson sisters had the most improbable Edwardian names. Besides my mother, Letty (short for Leticia), there was Aunty Arabella (for some reason called Bunny), Aunty Clotilda (Clotty), Aunty Petronella (Pet), and then Aunty Venetia (Chooti). When the aunts saw me they clucked and twittered saying, “My, you have brought Shaan,” “How sweet of him to come along,” “Come here, darling, and give your old aunty a kiss,” “I remember when I used to wash this little fellow’s backside,” “Now let us squeeze over and give him some room.”
Aunty Chooti—who looked like a Christmas tree in her green sweater that had silver mohairs hanging all over it—had reserved the front seat for my mother, as she was the oldest. I was sent to the last row, where I squished in next to a fat, middle-aged woman in a sari, a coiled bun at the nape of her neck. She stared at me through her thick glasses, a predatory smile on her face, before she declared, “My name is Mrs. Karthigesu, but you must call me Aunty Poones.”
I bobbed my head respectfully before telling her my name.
Mrs. Karthigesu was what the other Samson sisters called “one of Chooti’s catchers”—some woman she had befriended so she could patronize and make a dogsbody out of her. These women were almost always socially inferior to my mother’s family or, if from an equal family, had fallen on hard times. The old hierarchies still persisted here. The Samson sisters, because they were Anglican, from a Colombo Tamil family in Cinnamon Gardens, considered themselves a cut above the Methodist Colombo Tamil families. Both groups, however, considered themselves far above Catholic Tamils, who were almost always from the Kariyar caste. Then there were the Jaffna Tamils, to which group I could tell Mrs. Karthigesu belonged from her accent. Colombo Tamils like the Samsons had a complicated relationship with this lot. On the one hand, they considered the Jaffna Tamils (JTs, for short) crude and countrified folk, who did not use deodorant and soaked their hair in gingelly oil. On the other hand, they regarded JTs as the real thing, authentic Tamils, saying the way they spoke the language was “classical” and “pure” compared to their own bastardized Colombo Tamil. They often used the words “chaste” and “classic” to describe the way JTs spoke the language. As Aunty Chooti drove off, she said in that cloyingly sweet tone of hers, “My, how good your boy is, Letty, giving up his Saturday afternoon to help us old women.”
“Yes,” my mother said, glowing but humble, “I have never had a day’s trouble with him.”
The aunts all turned to look at me, approvingly. I could particularly feel Mrs. Karthigesu’s eyes on me. “He is a very fine boy,” she pronounced. “I am a good judge of character.”
“Oh, yes,” my mother agreed, forgetting her humble manner and growing boastful. “He is very obedient, Poones. Most boys these days, aiyo, you know, alcohol, drugs, loose living.”
Mrs. Karthigesu tsked in agreement. “Fortunately all my children are married and settled.” She examined me. “What is your boy studying? Is he in university?”
“Of course,” my mother said, as if there was nowhere else I could possibly be. “He is studying English literature.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Karthigesu was less impressed.
“But that is good, Poones,” my mother enthused. “Why, with an English degree you can become a teacher in this country, nah. Seventy thousand you end up making.”
“Really? My, how different from Sri Lanka.” I had gone back up in her esteem. “Girlfriends and such things?” she asked, at which Aunty Chooti called out, in a warning tone, “Now, Poones, leave the boy alone.”
“Of course not, Poones,” my mother said, pretending to be shocked. “Chee, chee, he has no time for such nonsense.”
“Ah, very good—very good,” Mrs. Karthigesu said. “Especially in this country. White women are always after our men, you know. Where will they find husbands like our boys.” She appraised me again. “No girlfriend. Very good, very good.”
“And also excellent in his studies, Poones,” my mother continued. “The professors love him.”
I stared out of the window with a fixed smile, wishing my mother would stop. Fortunately Aunty Chooti, who had grown increasingly annoyed by Mrs. Karthigesu’s questions, said in a sweet, icy tone (which warned Mrs. Karthigesu that there would be no more quizzing), “Now let us talk about something else, hmm?”
My mother must have felt ashamed of her lies because, when we were finally on Gerrard Street, she pressed some money into my hand and said, “Go treat yourself to a samosas and faluda. Aunty Chooti likes to look in all the shops first, before she decides to buy anything. So we won’t need you for a while.”
I was relieved to leave the women and go off on my own.
What was commonly referred to by South Asians as Gerrard Street was actually a few blocks devoted to Indian stores. Since it was Saturday and the weather still warm, the pavement was crowded with families who had come to shop or have a meal. I squeezed by women who stood in front of racks crammed with gaudy salwar kameezes and saris, which the women held up for inspection with a look of contempt that was always the first step in the fierce bargaining that would ensue. Outside a couple of restaurants, waiters were roasting corn marinated with lime and chili powder on a barbecue. The large families around me seemed to all be eating something, the men chewing on paan as they wheeled the strollers, the children licking kulfi popsicles, the mothers with tubs of chaat, which they greedily consumed, occasionally offering spoonfuls to their husbands and children. I had to watch where I was going because a group of Sikh teenagers, their topknots tied in colourful cloth, skimmed and ducked through the crowds on roller skates, followed by little boys on tricycles who were all dressed up in waistcoats, shorts and ruffled shirts, little girls making up the rear of this troupe, skipping along with ribbons and sparkling barrettes in their hair, shiny bindis on their foreheads. There was a smell in the air of frying chickpea dough and incense mixed in with the fumes from the passing cars.
The Fine Arts Building was an anomaly among York’s concrete outcroppings. One wall, entirely of glass, slanted down sharply and allowed a flood of sunlight into the visual art and dance studios. A passerby could see the students at work, painting, sculpting, practising their pas de deux. The inside, with its exposed pipes and rafters, gave the feeling of being in a barn or a vast loft, and the colourful student art hung on the walls created a vibrant mood.
I took up a place in one of the horseshoe-shaped nooks on the ground floor, my knees drawn to my chest, Portrait of a Lady balanced on my thighs, my eyes raised to the second floor where the visual art studios were. From one of the dance rooms below, I could hear a piano playing the same piece of music over and over again.
Just when I had given up hope of seeing James and felt I should be leaving for my Victorian novel class, he appeared, strolling along the open corridor of the second floor. He was wearing a white painter’s smock spattered with colour, his lower lip pushed out in preoccupation.
Now that he had materialized, I was too nervous to call his name and I could only stare at him mutely, hoping he would notice me. James, with a little shake from his thoughts, glanced down, saw me and stopped. “Hello,” he called and beckoned me to come up.
He stood at the top of the stairs, a small smile on his face. “So, what brings you to this building?”
I blushed happily, foolishly. He seemed gratified and gestured toward the studios. “Come, I want to show you what I’m working on. Do you have the time?”
James led the way through a maze of makeshift partitions. “The professor has given us an exercise. We have to take a famous piece of art and interpret it in our own way. Make it fit our life. I’ve chosen Gaugin’s Chair, by Van Gogh. Do you know it?”
I shook my head.
As we walked along, James explained that Van Gogh, who lived a lonely life in the country, had invited the more famous and sophisticated Gaugin to come and paint with him, in the hope of forming an artistic community. They had been friends for a while but then had fought. Gaugin abandoned Van Gogh and returned to the city, which led to the famous incident when Van Gogh cut off his ear and sent it to Gaugin. Soon after, Van Gogh completed Gaugin’s Chair.
We had reached a large studio, where students were chatting to each other as they put away their work.
“When I was young,” James said, guiding me across the room, “my grandmother, my mémé—I am French Canadian on my mama’s side—used to often come down from Quebec City and spend time at our home in Montreal. My father bought a La-Z-Boy chair, just for her to sit in and watch television. That’s the way I always think of my darling mémé, sitting in that La-Z-Boy, wearing some nice print dress and a pale cardigan she had knitted herself. I so missed her when she died and I want to capture my sense of loss.” He said all this in a sentimental way, but now that we were in front of his easel, he dropped his sad tone and cried, “Voilà!” pointing with great pride to his painting.
The La-Z-Boy looked out of place in a living room full of antique settees and chairs upholstered in rich red brocade. The chair appeared lean and self-contained and was a yellowy brown colour, with a pair of knitting needles and a ball of wool on the seat.
“What do you think?”
“It’s wonderful,” I said with awed enthusiasm, to compensate for the fact that I did not know much about art—what to make of the deliberately distorted and engorged antique furniture—and I might be diminished in his eyes.
James nodded, gratified. “Yes, I do like my inspirational idea to use sepia for the La-Z-Boy. It gives a feeling of nostalgia for something past.” He made a face, jabbing at the antique furniture. “Isn’t it hideous? Very Westmount, from mon papa’s side.”
I had no idea what he meant by Westmount, but I nodded nonetheless.
Another class was coming in. James lifted his painting off the easel. “Enough of this. How about coffee?”
I nodded happily. My Victorian novel course had started long ago.
“Have you been to the Blue Ainger?” he asked as we left the studio.
I shook my head.
“Really? It the only decent place on this awful campus.”
“Yes,” I replied, “York really is unbearably ugly, especially if you’re used to somewhere like Queen West.”
“Mon dieu, certainly,” James replied.
I felt pleased how he had accepted, without surprise, that I would be familiar with Queen West. Emboldened, I pushed on, saying, “In fact I work on Queen West at a bookstore near John Street. It’s probably not very far from your clothing store, I imagine.”
James took out one of his More Menthol cigarettes and lit it.
“We should meet,” I continued, a fixed smile on my face. “I could come by for lunch or after, for coffee.”
“Yes, we must,” James said, looking around distractedly. Then he cried, “Hah! I remember what I’ve been dying to tell you. I was saving it for our next class.”
“What?” I said, thrilled that he had thought about me in the last few days.
“I have come up with a name for our prof. Doctor Dickhead. And she comes with a husband. A Mr. Penis Dickhead.” He looked at me drolly, to say he was being silly and childish but this was fun.
I laughed to please him. “That’s jolly good.”
“Yes, I knew you would like it,” he said, as if he had suspected all along I was cool enough to not worry about acting sophomoric occasionally.
The Blue Ainger, unlike the other dining halls at York, with their long Formica tables, metal chairs and unpalatable food, turned out to be a proper café. It had square wooden tables, wooden stools and a counter from which one could order vegetarian fare and coffee or tea. There was a smell in the air of toasted sesame bagels.
I insisted on buying the coffees. As I stood at the counter waiting for them, I noticed a mirror posed above at an angle. James was watching me, unaware I could see him. There was a speculative look on his face, as if he was seeing me for the first time or had become aware of me in a different way. I turned involuntarily and he quickly changed his expression, nodding and smiling. Something about that look emboldened me and, once I had set the coffees between us, I said, “And so yes, I was wondering what you were doing this weekend, if you wanted to get together.”
“Weekend?” he said, as if he did not even understand the word. Then he cried in a jubilant whisper. “Oh my god, look at the way that woman is eating her sandwich! The egg salad is pasted all over her chin. What a cochon.”
I looked over and giggled dutifully, but then continued on. “Yes, the weekend. Are you free at all? I have no plans so far.”
“Oh, I cannot,” he said rather breathlessly, “a friend . . . from out of town . . . he might be coming in.”
“Well, if you are free, please call me.” I wrote my number on a paper and slipped it to him. He folded the note with a nod of thanks and put it in his pocket. An awkwardness came between us. He had not offered his number. “You know what,” he said, as if he had made a sudden decision. “Perhaps I will call. This friend, he’s so busy, it’s always touch and go if he will come. So we might as well have some fun. Yes, expect a call from me on Friday.”
But James did not call me on Friday. When I was at work, the next day, I telephoned home frequently to ask if there were any messages. My father promised he would get in touch with me at the store if there was one, but I still kept calling. I made no plans for Saturday night, turning down an invitation from my sister and my girl cousins to see Heartburn, a movie I had been eagerly anticipating, as it starred Meryl Streep. I sat in my basement reading and, every time the phone rang, I jumped to get the extension. It was usually for my mother.
On Sunday evening, I got home from the Toronto Reference Library to find that James had called to say we were to meet the next afternoon for coffee at the Ainger. I should have been angry with him for this long silence but, instead, I felt only relief and meek gratitude.
When I arrived at the Ainger, James was seated with his cheek resting on his hand, his shoulders slumped. “Hi,” I said eagerly as I came up to him.
He roused himself and gave me a weak smile. “Hi,” he said dolefully, as if seeking sympathy.
“Are you ill?”
“Ill? No, I guess I’m not really ill.”
His eyes were slightly bloodshot and I realized, with a sinking feeling, that he must have had a riotous weekend and was hung over. I felt a stab of despair, thinking of the world he belonged to, a world into which he would not grant me entry. I had planned to buy the coffees again but now decided not to. I sat across from him with a stony expression.
“Had a good weekend?” he asked after a moment.
“No, not really.”
“I did think to call, but I was just waiting and waiting for my friend from New York. I was so sure he was going to come.”
I made an impatient gesture, not caring to hear his excuses.
We sat like that a little while longer. Then James stood up. “I suppose I should go to class.” He gave me a look, like a dog that had been whipped and was begging forgiveness. “So, are you coming to class on Thursday?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Do you want to meet outside?”
“Yes,” I said and, though I appeared unrelenting, I was pleased. “See you then.” I held out my hand but, in reply, James leaned down and kissed my cheek. I kissed him back quickly, feeling his soft golden stubble against my lips, breathing in his cologne and cigarettes and the sweet, rubbery smell that was his own scent. He ruffled my hair and smiled. “I’ve come up with a name for you. Mon coco.”
“What does it mean?” I asked grinning.
He waggled his eyebrows. “That, mon coco, is a secret.”
Of course, the moment he left, I went to the Scott Library, got out an English-French dictionary and looked it up. Coconut. Further down, under “colloquial usage,” it said the term was sometimes used as an expression of endearment. I leaned on the library counter, the dictionary open before me, gazing out the window at a cement quadrangle. I felt that James, despite his absence, was fond of me, though to what extent or why I did not know. I had an odd feeling that there was some code of behaviour, some protocol, that I was not getting because I was a non-white foreigner who did not understand the mores of James’s world. If I kept still and watched carefully, I was sure I would figure it out and then he would be mine.
Over the next week, James and I became inseparable. I woke each morning thinking of him, we spent all our spare time at York together, and he called every evening even though we had only seen each other a few hours ago. We talked about nothing really, in the way teenagers do, re-hashing the same events, lifting the mundane and trivial to high drama. He made a mixed tape of his favourite groups, bands I had never heard of with odd names like Romeo Void, The The, Echo and the Bunnymen, Fad Gadget and Tones on Tails. It was not my kind of music, but I listened earnestly because I wanted so much to emulate James and I wanted him to keep liking me.
Sometimes, when I got home in the evenings, I would stand in front of my bedroom mirror looking at myself, as if I expected to have grown more beautiful for being graced by James’s attention.
Then, one Thursday, James was not at our science class. I waited outside but he did not turn up. Finally, wondering if he had gone in and we had somehow missed each other, I interrupted the class by entering after the lecture had started. I made my way up the steps slowly, scanning the room, not caring that I was being rude and disruptive. Later, sitting alone in the lab without a partner, I felt angry at him, an anger that grew when I realized that I could not get in touch with him as he had still not given me his phone number, despite this seeming closeness between us. A day hanging around the Fine Arts Building also produced nothing.
On Saturday, my mother asked me to help on the day of the arangetram. Aunty Chooti had, evidently, requested me. I doubted this claim but found myself saying yes, though why I agreed, I could not explain to myself.
Aunty Chooti and her husband sought any occasion to display their wealth and they had rented a wedding hall with a stage and were getting a Sri Lankan feast catered. My mother had volunteered to make a number of chocolate biscuit puddings as well as put together the bombonieres that were to be placed on every guest’s plate.
When Aunty Chooti picked us up, she declared with sweet joy, “Aiyo, what lovely puddings. You have gone to such trouble for my little daughter, Letty-Akka. I don’t know how I will ever thank you.”
“It’s nothing, Chooti,” my mother said crossly. “What is this, ‘I don’t know how to ever thank you’ nonsense? I am your oldest sister for goodness sake. You talk to me as if I am a stranger or a Canadian.”
“Nothing!” Aunty Chooti said, ignoring my mother’s scolding. “But how can you say that, Letty-Akka.”
The two women sat in front and I in the back, making sure the puddings did not slide off the seat. Once we were on our way, my mother, to put Aunty Chooti in her place—a thing she considered her duty as the oldest sister—began to boast about Kamala, but under the guise of complaining. “Aiyo,” she said, “how serious young people are today. Kamala is studying too-too hard. Her head is always buried in a book. I tell her, ‘Kamala, child, have some fun. This getting A pluses in all your courses is fine and good, but your youth is slipping by.’”
Aunty Chooti was not about to let my mother get away with that. “True-true,” she cooed, “my Sharada is at the top of her class at the Bishop Strachan School, even beating the Chinese.” Aunty Chooti always said the entire name of the school so no one would forget it was a private school, where the elite went. “And she too is studying-studying all the time. Terrible, nah, how hard our children have to work. Why, when we were young, we were so gay and carefree.”
This fortunately shut my mother up. I was dreading her boastfulness would spill over into lies about my academic brilliance.
The wedding hall was a grey, squat, windowless building in Markham, the suburb north of where we lived. It was surrounded by a parking lot and, beyond that there was a wasteland covered in goldenrod and grass, which had taken on that scraggly, charred, autumn look. I helped my mother and Aunty Chooti carry the puddings and the boxes filled with items for the bombonieres. The foyer was decorated to resemble a grand entrance hall in some imaginary Italian palazzo, with gilt embroidered panels on the walls that featured frescos of Roman ruins, nymphs and rolling Tuscan countryside. Gold-painted pillars were spaced at regular intervals and, to cap it off, there was a marble fountain in the middle of the room. The caterers were setting up in the dining hall, spreading tablecloths and laying out cutlery. My other aunts and various “catchers” were busy putting together the flower centrepieces.
Once we had put the puddings in a refrigerator, Aunty Chooti directed us to a trestle table where we set down the boxes. She explained how she wanted the bombonieres done. Each one was to contain three items—a small Body Shop hand lotion, a sachet containing two Godiva truffles and a Parker ballpoint pen. We were to put these gifts in little cardboard boxes, which we would then wrap in pink tissue paper and tie with a white ribbon. She was in the middle of showing us how to lay the things in a box when we heard someone calling out, “Hulloo, hulloo,” and there was Mrs. Karthigesu bustling toward us, waving as if we were dear friends she had not seen in years.
“What did I tell you, Letty,” Aunty Chooti said between gritted teeth, staring daggers at the approaching woman. “On guard, on guard.” She turned to Mrs. Karthigesu, gave a brilliant smile and declared, “My, Poones, how can I thank you enough for helping with this humble event.”
“Oh, it’s nothing, nothing,” Mrs. Karthigesu said briskly, not in the least flattered or abashed by Aunty Chooti’s praise. She looked into the larger boxes and pronounced, “You will be needing some help.”
“No, no,” Aunty Chooti cooed, “I’m sure Shaan and Letty can handle it.”
But Mrs. Karthigesu had sat down and she gave Aunty Chooti one of her predatory smiles that had the effect, much to my surprise, of shutting my aunt up.
“Well, if you must,” Aunty Chooti said, after a while, struggling to keep up her sugary tone, “though I do think it is unnecessary, as Letty and Shaan can manage quite well alone.”
“Very good–very good,” Mrs. Karthigesu declared, a non sequitur that left Aunty Chooti no room to manoeuvre. I could see why she disliked Mrs. Karthigesu, who was not the least intimidated by her.
The caterer had come over and Aunty Chooti was forced to go off with him to examine the chafing dishes.
Mrs. Karthigesu gave my mother a friendly nudge. “Now here we are, ah. Jolly good—jolly good.”
My mother looked nervous, but did not seem to mind this intrusion.
Mrs. Karthigesu took over. I was assigned to gathering the items together and passing them to my mother who would place them in the box. Mrs. Karthigesu was responsible for the pink tissue paper. “But,” she cried, “we do need someone to tie the ribbons. Someone with artistic flair.” She stood up and called in a stentorian voice, “Anoma, Anoma!”
A young woman rose from a large armchair whose back was turned to us, and began to make her way toward us. Unlike the other young women of our generation, who dressed no differently from Canadians or, if they were from more traditional families, wore ankle-length skirts and long-sleeved blouses, this woman’s outfit was a casual, elegant mixing of East and West. Over her jeans, she wore an expensive white kurtha decorated with elaborate embroidery known as Lucknow chicken. Her jewellery was expensive but understated—a single thick gold bangle, a bracelet of Ceylon stones, a chain with a cat’s eye pendant. She was beautiful, with a rich golden brown skin, delicate yet slightly patrician features, thick eyebrows and curly hair, pulled into a knot at the back, wisps left around her forehead. She had not picked up the hurried scuttle that the Canadian cold imposed on everyone, but walked with a slight dragging of her Indian leather slippers, a swing of her hips, as if it was a hot, Colombo afternoon.
“This is my niece, Anoma,” Mrs. Karthigesu said with great pride. She presented her to my mother, who had been watching the niece approach with an appraising look, trying to measure her against some standard. My mother shook her hand and said, in a fairly reserved way, “It’s very nice to meet you, dear.”
“Thank you, Aunty,” she murmured.
Then I was presented, and I rose to my feet, blushing for some reason as I shook her hand. She kept her eyes lowered, a slightly amused twitch on her lips.
“Now Anoma, you are artistic, nah.” Mrs. Karthigesu declared. “You sit across from us and tie the ribbon.”
There was no chair and my mother nudged me. I leapt up and brought one from nearby. Anoma gave me a decorous smile, still not meeting my eyes, and nodded her thanks as she sat down. Her demureness surprised me, as I had expected her to be forthright like my sister and female cousins.
My mother, I realized, already knew about this niece because she said, “I went to school with your aunt Aggie. I have lost touch. Is she still practising as a doctor?”
“Yes, aunty,” Anoma said softly, as she tied the ribbon on a bomboniere, “but now she is in Australia.”
“So they moved there after the riots?”
“Ha,” Anoma said. Such a village expression of agreement seemed utterly false and I shot her a quick glance. My mother, however, appeared to have thawed toward the niece. She gave Mrs. Karthigesu an approving look and the latter glowed with pleasure.
Mrs. Karthigesu turned to me and said, “Anoma is at the University of Guelph, but I am urging her to transfer to York University. You are there, nah?”
“Um, yes,” I said.
“Very good—very good. Perhaps you can show my niece around, ah? After all, if she knows someone at York, she will be more willing to transfer.”
My mother was not surprised by this request and, remembering how she had known about Anoma’s family, I was suddenly on alert.
“So, will you do this favour for me and my niece?” Mrs. Karthigesu asked.
My mother shot me a desperate look and I had no choice but to answer, “Yes, yes, of course.” Anoma continued to tie ribbons, that same demure, distant smile on her face.
“It is better for Anoma to be here with her family rather than away,” Mrs. Karthigesu declared. “She can stay with me and go to York.”
Anoma did not even react to this.
We worked in silence for a while, my mother studiously avoiding my eye. Mrs. Karthigesu soon grew restless and began to fill my mother in about the other women present. “See that one,” she said indicating a woman who was helping with the flowers. “Her daughter married a vellakaran.” She shook her head mournfully at the disaster of marrying a white man. “Such tragedy, nah. Once the daughter is forty, then patas,” she clapped her hand together, “the vellakaran will be off with some flighty thing.”
I felt a foot against my shin and moved my leg away, thinking that one of the women had accidentally nudged me.
“Yes—yes,” Mrs. Karthigesu continued, “we have to be very careful with our young in this country full of temptations.”
I felt the nudge again. A quick flicker of a smile crossed Anoma’s face. I gaped for a moment, then hurriedly bent over my work. Anoma was watching the two women. When she was sure their gaze was elsewhere, she gave me an exaggerated look of helplessness and made a quick gesture, two fingers against her lips. She wanted to smoke. I was so startled that I dropped a pen on the ground. As I bent down to pick it up, Anoma gestured under the table urgently.
“I . . . I think I’m going outside for a moment,” I said. “I need some fresh air.”
“Anoma,” Mrs. Karthigesu immediately declared, “why don’t you go too. It’s not good for young people to be indoors all day.”
Anoma stood up, grabbed her bag and we made our way silently toward the entrance. The moment we were outside, Anoma grasped my wrist without any ceremony and said, “Let’s go around the side.”
We stood behind a dumpster. Anoma fumbled in her bag, drew out a packet of cigarettes, offered me first and, when I shook my head, she lit herself one. She sucked on it hungrily a few times, then she looked at me under her eyelashes. “So are you my intended?”
She began to laugh at my dumbfounded look—a high, slightly frenetic laugh. “Killing, isn’t it?” She patted my arm. “Don’t worry, I have no intentions on you.”
“Oh, good,” I said with relief.
“I already have a boyfriend at university. A big, white lout. A vellakaran.” She made a mocking face. “A Buddhist and a vegetarian. I think he was rather disappointed that I was not able to levitate or something like that.” She laughed again and continued in her rather feverish way of talking, “Heavens, the first time he saw me eating meat, he nearly passed out. Silly fellow! He thought, because Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, everyone was a vegetarian there. But anyway he’s thorough fun. Of course, I have no intention of marrying him. Chee, I don’t want to live in this cold, awful country. The moment I’m done, I’m going home.”
I felt she was telling me all this so I could relax around her. “Well,” she waggled her eyebrows at me, “did I pass with flying colours playing a demure, Jaffna maiden?”
“Flying colours,” I said, grinning. “Although I felt the ha was a bit too much. It gave you away.”
“Honestly, that cow,” she said. “She calls me her niece, but she’s some sort of distant cousin. I never met the Sacred Cow before I came here. She lived in Jaffna and I refused to visit that awful backward place. Imagine having to use squatting toilets and bathe at a well. Chee. No,” she declared, “I’m a Colombo girl and I make no apologies for it. I will not stay in any place that is below three stars.” She nodded at me as if I would agree with her, and I found myself nodding back. Despite this bit of snobbery, I liked her, mostly because I felt she had taken a liking to me.
We soon drifted into talking about Colombo and, though I had never been to the nightclubs and hotels she frequented, I played along, pretending I had, pretending interest in a new bar called the “Blue Elephant” that had opened up at the Hilton Hotel and was all the rage.
When we came back to the table, my mother, exchanging a glance with Mrs. Karthigesu, declared, “My goodness you were both away a long time.” Later, once the bombonieres were done, Mrs. Karthigesu and Anoma took some, my mother and I the rest, and we split up to distribute them.
“So,” I said as we reached the first table, “you were thinking of setting me up with that girl?”
My mother pretended astonishment.
“Anoma was certainly under that impression.”
She placed a bomboniere by a plate. “Just play along, Shaan. What do you want me to do? Tell Mrs. Karthigesu you are so inclined? She asked if you were available and then mentioned her niece.”
“You could have said no. You could have said I was still studying.”
“I did say you were still studying, but that woman won’t take no for an answer. Even Chooti can’t budge her, nah.”
I could not deny this.
“She mentioned the niece when we were on Gerrard Street,” my mother continued. “Then she insisted you must meet this Anoma and give her a tour of York.”
“Well, just in case you get any ideas, forget it.”
“No, of course not, Shaan. I am not a fool, I know what is what.”
Yet, somehow, I did not believe her, and my doubts were confirmed when my mother asked, after we had moved on to the next table, “Is she a nice girl? You seemed to have had a good time.”
“She’s a very nice girl,” I replied cuttingly. “And has a very nice boyfriend too. A vellakaran.” My mother’s involuntary disappointment told me all I needed to know.
“Sorry to ruin a perfectly ridiculous plan.” I spoke sarcastically but I was troubled that my mother, who was always so sensible and clear minded, could entertain the possibility of a marriage proposal for me. Did she believe that I might agree to it?
When we arrived at the arangetram, later that evening, the foyer was full of people. My parents drifted off to talk to their friends, my mother linking her arm through my father’s. My cousins and their friends were near the door and, when my sister and I joined them, they teased me about not coming to a party last Saturday, the usual jibes about Clarice.
I did not notice Anoma until she was right by me and had taken my elbow. “Hello, you,” she said with an intimate smile, as if we were alone in the room.
My sister and cousins gawked. She was the only woman of our age who was wearing a sari and not dressed in western clothes. The sari was a diaphanous, greyish-purple silk with a silver border, and Anoma carried it with grace. She had put her hair up, a small, white lily tucked into her top knot.
“Oh, hi,” I said and smiled back. “You look very nice,” I added.
“Why, thank you, sir,” she replied. “Always such a gentleman.”
As I introduced Anoma to my sister and cousins, the men looked with abject lust at her naked midriff and low-cut blouse, visible under the transparent palu of her sari.
When the introductions were done, Anoma said, “Do you know what I’d like, Shaan?”
“I do,” I said.
“Let me get my purse, and I’ll be back.”
The moment she disappeared into the crowd, Kamala asked, “Who is that? Where did you meet her?”
“When I was helping out, this morning,” I said, uncomfortable under everyone’s scrutiny.
“But you didn’t mention her,” she said almost accusingly.
I shrugged as if to say it had not been important, all the while aware of how my male cousins were regarding me with envy, my female cousins as if they had not reckoned my worth before. I felt oddly pleased.
“Lucky you, machan,” one of the men said. “It looks like that luscious bird has a thing for you.”
“Yes, lucky you,” some of the other men murmured.
“A gorgeous bit.” Jaya, my sister’s boyfriend, gave me the thumbs up. “You’re a sly one, machan.” Kamala looked cross and he hurriedly added, “I mean, I’m just saying it because I’m happy for you.”
“Shaan, I wondered about you,” another male cousin said teasingly, “but I see you were holding out for the big prize.” I smiled and shrugged, pretending non-chalance but very pleased.
Once we were standing behind the dumpster and she had lit a cigarette, Anoma said, “Your cousins all seem so close. It must be nice to have family here.”
“It’s suffocating. I can’t stand them. They’re so vacuous.”
She let out a soft “hah,” then regarded me speculatively.
“The men think you’re good looking. Or rather, now how did one of them put it? Ah, yes. You’re a gorgeous bit.”
She laughed in her rather feverish way. “Tell me, Shaan, do you like dancing?”
“Dancing?” I said, surprised by the change in conversation. “Yes, sure I do.”
“Which bars do you go to?”
“Oh . . . various ones, you know.”
“Various ones on Isabella Street, perhaps?”
She nodded and smiled at my shocked expression, as she blew out smoke. “My best friend in Guelph is gay. I can spot one. Besides, you’re too nice to be straight. And too good looking.”
“Is it really that obvious?”
“No, but I am used to men trying to paw me, so when they don’t I wonder.”
“If you are in the mood for a good pawing, I can happily introduce you around.”
She made a nauseated face, then nudged me. “I hope you’re going to be chivalrous and protect me from all that.”
I bowed. “It would be my pleasure.”
When we returned, the foyer was empty and the Bharatanatyam performance had started in the dining hall. “Oh, god,” Anoma groaned, “let’s avoid that tamasha.”
She took a nearly full bottle of red wine from the bar, I grabbed two glasses, and we went outside to sit on a pylon at the edge of the parking lot. As we sipped our wine, Anoma asked me how long I had known I was gay and if I had a boyfriend. I said I did not. Then, thinking of James’s disappearance from my life, I told her that no worthwhile man wanted to be with me. She was surprised and, after I told her of my various failed affairs, of my low status in the gay world because of the colour of my skin, she took my arm and leaned her head against my shoulder. “Poor you,” she said.
“And is your white lout the first?”
She shook her head.
“Did you have a boyfriend in Sri Lanka?”
She was silent for a moment, nursing her glass, her smile strained. Then she said, her eyes luminous, “Soon after I finished my A levels, I met this boy who was from Australia. A Sri Lankan who was raised there. My parents objected. Everything was wrong, he was Sinhalese, Buddhist, not really a correct family. Worse, they made inquiries through a relative in Melbourne and found out the boy was an out and out rotter. Even had a police record for driving drunk. And,” she said indignantly, as if talking about someone else’s life, “not even good looking. Thin like a rake with long hair that always looked dirty.” She lit herself another cigarette. “Despite all these defects, I fell for him. Can you imagine? So we eloped to Australia.” She made a face that was vicious with disgust. “Do I need to tell you how it went? He beat me black and blue and finally, one cold winter day, he threw me out on the street. Neighbours found me just sitting on the curb. After that, relatives contacted my parents, a divorce was arranged, and I went back home.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
She nodded and blew out some smoke.
By the time we had finished the bottle and come back inside, the performance was ending. We waited until the applause started, then slipped into the hall. We had decided to sit at a table of strangers so we could keep talking to just each other. As we crept around searching for such a spot, my mother signalled us over, her eyebrows raised to say she had noticed our absence. I ignored her and led Anoma to two empty seats at another table. Aunty Chooti was looking on with disapproval.
Once we were seated, Anoma asked, “Had a quarrel with the mater?”
I was silent for a moment, then I said with drunken vehemence, “I hate her.”
Anoma frowned inquiringly, her head to one side.
“It . . . it’s so fucked up that she would think I might agree to a proposal of marriage. It’s just crazy. It’s as if she’s gone mad.”
“I mean, she is an educated woman, she knows what gay means. She knows that the ‘right woman’ can’t cure me.”
“But Shaan,” Anoma pressed my arm. “You’re not thinking of it from the Sri Lankan perspective. I have an uncle whom everyone knows is gay. But he is married and has two children.”
“She doesn’t seem to mind. It might be a relief, you know, not having some man press his attention on you. And if he is kind and you can be friends, isn’t that the most important thing? Especially in Sri Lanka, where you consider yourself lucky if your husband doesn’t clout you. My aunt seems much happier than my mother, to be honest. She leads her own life and does as she wants.”
“So would you agree to marry me?” I demanded.
She laughed. “Are you asking? After all, I do come with a thumping dowry. You’d own half of Colombo.”
I grinned. “Pity you’re not a man.”
“Well,” she replied pertly, “pity you’re not a ‘man’ either.”
All the time we had been talking, our heads bent toward each other, I noticed that my parents and Kamala were watching us. Dinner was over by now and the DJ began to play “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Partly because I liked the song and partly because my drunkenness had turned into belligerence against my family and everyone else here, I jumped up and said, “Do you want to dance?”
“Would love to,” she replied.
When we were on the floor, she leaned toward me and said, “You still seem angry.”
“I am. Pissed off.”
“Oh everyone, just everyone.”
“Well, as long as you’re not mad at me.”
“I mean it. Never. Don’t you dare think such a thing.”
When the song was coming to a close, the DJ segued into “The Girl Is Mine.” I was going to suggest we leave but Anoma put her arms around my neck. After a moment, I placed my hands on her hips. She drew closer and I could feel the softness of her sari brushing up against me, the feel of it under my hands. She smelt of jasmine perfume and fruity shampoo. The lights had become dim and other couples were dancing around us, including my sisters and their friends. From her table at the edge of the dance floor, my mother was staring at me with mute hope. Wanting to mock that hope, to punish my mother by tantalizing her, I drew Anoma closer to me. She did not resist but put her head against my shoulder, a dreamy expression on her face.
“Is this okay?” she asked in a whisper.
“It’s just fine,” I replied.
As we swayed to the music, the disco ball sending a thousand shards of light skittered about the floor, I thought, “This is what normal looks like.” I wondered what it would be like to be married to Anoma, to be in love with a woman so beautiful, poised and graceful. I would be the envy of other men, but also have their approval. I had got a quick sample of that when my male cousins had patted me on the back and said I was lucky, calling me a “sly one.” Then, there was the happiness of my family, my mother glowing with contentment, her pride in her son. How easily an intimacy that had sprung up between Anoma and me. What would the furtherance of that intimacy be like, lying in bed after making love and just talking, my arm around her shoulder as she smoked? Then, of course, there was her great wealth, the fact that my life would be taken care of, all the worries of regular people—a house, a job—no longer of concern. Anoma had said she did not want to live in Canada and I found that returning to Colombo as her husband would be very compelling as it would get me away from my unhappiness in this country.
The song had come to an end and Anoma eased away from me. “Thank you, Shaan,” she said. “That was lovely.”
“Listen,” I said, as we went back to our table. “If you want that tour of York, I’d be happy to oblige. It would be great to have an excuse to see you again.”
“You want me to transfer to York?” she asked teasingly.
“No, no,” I protested and then added. “Though it would be wonderful to have you around on campus.”