Jason Talley tightened his fingers on the handle and prodded with the point of the knife, looking for signs of life. He held the blade ready, his nerves tensed to react to any movement. Across the room Vidya Sundaram narrowed her almond-shaped eyes, a thin white smile peeking out between her red lips.
“Go ahead, smart ass,” she said, half whisper, half growl. “Make fun of my cooking and see if I ever invite you up again.”
Jason continued to poke the pan-seared, gelatinous cube with his knife. “I’m not making fun,” he said without looking up. “I’m just curious.”
“The problem with our friend here,” Sriram Sundaram said, waving his fork in Jason’s direction, “is that he is too picky. Look at me. Do you ever see me shy away from any of my wife’s cooking? No sir, not one bit. And does it bother me that a good south Indian girl prefers to cook like she’s a Rajasthani princess, with all those thick sauces and spiced yogurt? Dig in, Jason. If it doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger.”
“And you be careful too, my sweet,” Vidya said as she sat down next to her husband. “I might decide to try Mexican cooking next.”
Jason pushed the edge of his knife into the top of the cube, which split open to reveal a smooth light tan interior. “Is it chicken?”
“It’s sheep’s brain,” Vidya said, smiling as Jason’s mouth dropped open. “It’s tofu, you silly ass,” she added. “You had it last week.”
“You said it was chicken.”
“I tell you everything is chicken.” She closed her eyes for a silent moment of prayer before stabbing into a pile of peas with her fork.
Jason inched a sliver of the sheep’s brain/tofu around his plate. “Next week why don’t we plan on dinner at my place. I’ll cook for a change.”
Vidya and Sriram concentrated on their food, each trying to outlast the other. Sriram broke first, his loud laugh startling the cat off the sofa in the adjoining room. Vidya clapped her hands together as tears welled up in her large, dark eyes.
“What? I can cook.”
“And you can order pizza, too,” Sriram said, slapping the corner of the table. “You fill two recycling bins each and every week with those big boxes from Salvador’s.”
Vidya dabbed her eyes on a blue cloth napkin. “We were beginning to think you had a crush on the delivery boy.”
“Very funny.” Jason skewered a larger piece of tofu as he spoke. Like every meal at the Sundarams’, one taste led quickly to a second helping. “I happen to like pizza.”
It was Vidya’s turn to laugh, her voice rising and falling with a musical cadence that Jason found both exotic and alluring. “What you like, my dear, is the fact that all you have to do is pick up the phone. In twenty minutes there it is, right at your door. It’s wonderfully predictable and it fits nicely into your schedule.” The way she pronounced schedule—dropping the c and d and adding a z—gave an Oxford flair to her Indian lilt.
“You should see his day planner,” Sriram said, opening a can of Odenbach lager with one hand. “Every moment of every day accounted for. The man is a model of efficiency.” He opened a second can and handed it to Jason.
“Guys, it’s not like that,” he said and took a long pull on his beer, the pungent spices having their usual effect on his vanilla-based taste buds. “I just like to have things planned out. It makes the day a lot easier if you know what’s coming next. In my job if you’re not organized you can miss one step and if you miss one step then the whole file is messed up and the loan never closes. Besides,” he added after another sip, “you’re a freakin’ computer programmer so don’t tell me you don’t like things orderly.”
“Order has nothing to do with it. What makes us tick is the irrational and disorderly. And the truth is, I am not a programmer. I am a wizard. I make the impossible, possible.”
“Oh god, you had to get him started.” Vidya rolled her eyes. Sriram ignored the interruption. “The owner and I, we’ve been developing a new computer chip, all top-secret stuff. Nothing so revolutionary as the company propaganda would have you believe, but quite helpful for a few key niche markets. Trust me, it’s magic.”
“Sure. I finally get a laptop and you’re ready to introduce the next generation. I’ll be obsolete by the end of spring.”
“It’s not the next generation,” Sriram said, waving his fork like he was conducting a tableside orchestra. “It’s just a profitable little second-cousin that will make its mark on the current computer generation. And it all fits in a chip no bigger than a postage stamp.”
“Domestic or air mail?” Vidya said, opening her own beer. “Well, congratulations, Sriram.” Jason raised his half-empty beer in salute. “I bet the boss is quite pleased with you.”
Sriram and Vidya exchanged glances, their smiles leveling for a second but returning twice as wide. “Oh I think he’ll be quite surprised,” Sriram said, returning the beer-can toast.
Like everyone else in Corning, New York, Jason knew the story behind Raj-Tech, how Ravi Murty, an American-born Indian, using funds earmarked to lure computer-based industries to rural parts of the state, had opened shop five years ago. Building a specially designed plant in a tax-free zone, he had convinced the local government to underwrite most of the operating cost, with as yet unrealized promises of jobs and economic windfall. Many in the community had begun to doubt Murty’s claims but Jason has remained hopeful that the plant would spark a long-overdue local recovery.
“It’s amazing,” Jason said, dishing out a tofu-laden second helping. “You grew up way over in India, I grew up ten miles down the road, and here we are, having dinner at your apartment. And it’s all because of your job. You ever wonder how your life would be different if you hadn’t met Mr. Murty in college?”
Sriram nodded. “I think about that all the time.”
“You could still be living in India instead of in America. I’d call that lucky.”
Sriram considered the idea and after draining his beer said, “Yes, I guess you would say that.”
“Okay, enough shop talk.” Vidya jumped up from her seat. Dressed in black jeans and a gray sweatshirt she looked more like a co-ed than a thirty-year-old substitute teacher, her degrees in classical Indian literature from an unpronounceable university more of a résumé liability than an asset. “I have two choices for dessert. The first is keer, a soupy rice pudding based on a recipe I learned from an old blind woman from Jaisalmer. The second is an apple pie I picked up at the supermarket this afternoon.”
Sriram leaned back in his chair till he was balancing on two creaking legs. “My dear, you are wasting your breath. Bring Mr. All-American his over-processed, chemically enhanced apple pie and bring your loving husband enough keer to make me seriously think about getting a membership at the health club.” He patted his stomach, the soft base of a future beer belly already in place.
“If I knew that’s all it took to get you to join a gym I would have made keer ages ago,” Vidya said, kissing her husband on the forehead before returning to the kitchen.
“Please note,” Sriram winked at Jason, “the clever use of the verb ‘think’ in that sentence.”
# # #
Two hours and three cups of herbal tea later, Jason stretched his arms above his head and stood to leave. With the entire couch now to itself—not just the three quarters it had claimed when it leapt down from the windowsill—Bindi, Vidya’s gray and white cat, mimicked Jason’s stretch, adding a haughty tail flick.
“You should get a cat.” Sriram bent down to scratch behind Bindi’s ears. “Women trust men who have cats, a real sign that they are secure in their manhood,” he said before heading to the kitchen.
“I don’t think a cat and I would get along.” Jason watched the cat watch him, its green eyes locked on his.
“He couldn’t tolerate a cat like Bindi.” Vidya gave a dismissive wave. “Far too independent and absolutely can not be trained. You couldn’t take the ambiguity that comes with a cat.”
“Actually the cat wouldn’t tolerate him,” Sriram said from the kitchen. “Not with his mind-numbing predictability. Cats need mental stimulation. Living with Jason would be like watching paint dry. The poor thing would go batty.” The white plastic bag made a loud sucking sound as Sriram pulled it free from the tall garbage can.
“I hate to disappoint you both by being so predictable,” Jason said, checking his watch against the digital display on the DVD player, “but I got to head downstairs. Tomorrow’s the last day to get loans packaged for closing this month and every real estate agent for a hundred miles around will be calling.”
“You should quit that job,” Sriram said over the noise he made in the kitchen. “If they haven’t noticed you by now they never will. And what’s the best they could do for you, some dead-end middle management position in the same office? You have a degree….”
“Just an associate’s,” Jason said.
“…and you are a hard worker,” Sriram said, ignoring the self-depreciating comment. “Get a job with some multi-path mobility options that maximizes your earning and productivity potential.”
“Does he always talk like that?” Jason said to Vidya.
“Sad but true. You should hear it when he tries to get romantic.”
“Maybe I should apply for a job at Raj-Tech,” Jason said. “Use you as a reference.”
Sriram’s booming laugh echoed off the kitchen’s tin cabinets. “You don’t want to do that.”
“Perhaps Jason is happy where he’s at, Sriram. He is, after all, the only male in the office of what, fifteen women?”
“Ten,” Jason corrected. “And if I was looking for a pear-shaped, middle-aged woman with two or more kids, I’d be in heaven. Any good-looking young women at Raj-Tech?”
“No, just devilishly handsome men like Sriram.” Vidya looked towards the kitchen. “And as for you, don’t think you’re going empty handed.” She reached around into the kitchen and retrieved a shopping bag filled with a half dozen Tupperware bowls of various sizes and shapes.
“Vidya, I still have the containers from last week.”
“Do you have any idea how many extra containers a determined Indian housewife can fit in one kitchen?” she said, spinning the bag shut and tying it with a flick of the wrist as she walked across the room. She hung the bag’s handles over Jason’s wrist and planted a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thank you for enduring yet another one of my culinary adventures.”
Jason shifted the bag to his fingers, wrapped his free arm around her narrow shoulders and gave her a hug. “Vidya, if it wasn’t for you I might have starved to death months ago.”
“What’s this, what’s this?” Sriram said. “My wife and my dear friend cavorting in my very own living room? Have you no shame? Get a hotel room like all respectable adulterers.” He held two trash bags closed in his fists, a smaller bag tucked under his arm. “At least be so kind as to get the door for me.” He pointed with his dimpled chin.
Jason gave Vidya’s shoulders one last squeeze, then held the door open as Sriram edged past blowing kisses to his wife. “Don’t lock me out, dearest.”
“Too late,” she said with a laugh and shut the door.
The apartment building, identical to every building in the complex, consisted of four units—two one-bedroom apartments on the left-hand side and two two-bedroom apartments on the right. Across the hall from the Sundarams’ large second-floor apartment, Mrs. Dettori was already asleep. An ancient woman who lived alone, Mrs. Dettori spent much of her day watching television, the volume so loud it rattled the lone picture frame on Jason’s living room wall. Down the split-level flight of hallway stairs, the garden view apartments looked out into the roots and twisted trunks of the thick yews that ringed each building in the complex. In the winter, when the snow drifted up every vertical surface, it could be months before low-angled natural light shone through the windows. The basement apartment across the hall— two bedrooms and almost twice as expensive—was vacant.
Jason went down the stairs first, setting the bag of leftovers by his apartment before pushing open the spring-loaded metal fire door that led to the building’s coin-operated washing machines and trash containers. Sriram followed behind, letting the heavy door bounce once against the white garbage bag before it closed behind him. Jason held open the lid of the chest-high container while Sriram swung first one then the other trash bag up and inside, the small bag under his arm dropping to the floor. Jason scooped the bag up off the floor, banking it off the row of humming electric meters and into the still open trashcan.
“Hey, watch it.” Sriram snatched the bag out as soon as it landed. “This is expensive.”
“What? It’s special garbage?”
Sriram held the bag up to the light, checking to ensure that no grime from the trashcan stuck to the plastic. “This is not garbage, it’s a gift for my mother.”
“So what are you doing taking it out with the trash?”
Satisfied the bag was still clean, he said, “I’m not throwing it out, I’m sneaking it out.”
“Of your own house?”
“I don’t want to get Vidya upset. If she sees it she’ll be crying all night.”
Jason shook his head. “She’s jealous of your mother? That’s weird.”
“She’s not jealous, you idiot. If Vidya sees this, she’ll know that I’m going to India. She gets very upset when we are separated like that.”
Jason put on his most sarcastic smile. “Gee, won’t she know eventually? She’s a bright woman. She’ll catch on after, oh, a couple days.”
“Yes, I’m going to tell her.Tomorrow. Butif she sees it tonight….” He shook his head to indicate the trouble it would cause.
“So what are you going to do, leave it here in the basement?”
Sriram rolled his eyes. “Yes, I’m going to stuff a specially woven, hand-embroidered gift behind the dryer. Here,” he said, holding the bag out to Jason. “Hold on to this for me until tomorrow night.”
“Can’t you just hide it in your apartment?”
“Can’t you just not be an ass? Here.” Sriram gave the bag a shake.
Jason sighed as he took the bag. “What is it anyway?” he said, peering inside.
“It’s a sari,” Sriram said. “It’s what women wear in India.”
Inside the bag Jason could see a tightly wound bundle of rich, red fabric with thin lines of an intricate gold and silver embroidery just visible on the edge. He didn’t want to be in the middle of a domestic deception, helping a husband hide things from his wife, afraid of losing the friendship of either. “Do you really have to go all the way to India? Wouldn’t it be simpler just to mail it? What would it cost, like twenty bucks, maybe fifty if you Fed Ex-ed it?”
Sriram looked up at the ceiling, his hands coming up to cover his face then dropping back down to his sides. “Not everything in life is so simple, Jason. I don’t expect you to understand, but this is an important Hindi tradition and it absolutely must be hand delivered. Vidya would agree—I must take this to India.”
“Why doesn’t she go with you? I’m sure the school district could get by with one less substitute for a while.”
“It’s something I must do alone. Part of the tradition. Sons go to great lengths to hide the sari from sight, never letting on to anyone where he’s hidden it, never telling anyone about it.”
“But you’re telling me all about it. Don’t I count?”
Sriram didn’t say anything but smiled in a way that Jason could read many ways. Jason looked at the package, “Well, if it’s that important to you….”
“It is truly that important to me.”
“Just make sure you get it tomorrow and don’t tell Vidya I had it.” Jason turned to open the service room door.
“You have my word, my friend,” Sriram said. “I will never tell a soul. Just be sure that you do the same.”