Her voice sliced through bar chatter. “A shot and a beer.”
She pointed to the special on the board. The bartender nodded, sanctioning Kareena’s boldness with the movement of her half-ponytail.
“Do you take credit?”
The woman’s look of approval vanished, leaving Kareena’s body to deflate. Now she hesitated as she dug deep in her pocket for coins; quarters, loonies, the tip she never gave the cabbie. The bartender grabbed at the change, some of it fell onto the bar. There were three women in the whole establishment besides her, two alongside unshaven men. Groups of brawny dudes watched the game, flanking her on the left and right. She glanced at a yellow-haired couple, the man’s chair leaning back against the run-down polyester-looking wallpaper.
The shot materialized. Kareena chugged. Courage revived.
Her arm breast-stroked past the man on the stool next to hers. She slipped his chips into his salsa, while his head lay crumpled onto his forearms. The bartender scowled at Kareena, who had been nursing her cheap pale ale for hours. Kareena scowled into the beer and picked up another chip, breathing in mildewed bar air. Her phone pinged; more texts from her mother. She turned it off, shoved it to the bottom of her bag. Half-watched the soccer game on her ripped stool, her butt adjusting to the arrangement of the pulled out stuffing. Followed the bartender’s movements, bobbing around from the backroom to the sink to the bar.
Kareena froze. A tall, dough-faced man, anticipation in his eyes, lumbered toward the bar past the blonde couple, directly in her path. She drew back and picked up her bag, which was leaning across the stool legs.
“Hey!” the man said again. “Kareena!”
She felt sick to her stomach.
“Hi.” Her greeting managed to debut unfazed.
Who the fuck was he? Indistinct blue dress shirt, too loose but still revealing gut. Something familiar about the hooded lids and deep blue eyes.
“What are you doing in BC?” He rolled up the sleeves of his dress shirt as if he really wanted to get into it, and sat down heavily on a stool next to the sleepy drunk man. Her legs shifted to the other side.
“Visiting a friend.”
“And drinking alone?”
“Haha. Drinking alone is a fun hobby of mine. Actually, my friend,” she searched for a name, “Rachel… she’s supposed to meet me after work.” Kareena shrugged and tapped her glass. “Should be here any minute.”
He didn’t move. The sleeping man somehow understanding the overture, woke up and headed to the bathroom.
“Lucky day for me.” His grinning teeth were like stones smoothed over by the tide, with more than a hint of gray. He took the drunk man’s seat and leaned in close.
Kareena leaned away.
“Buy you a drink?”
Her right foot had been angled at the door, ready for a getaway, but her mouth stumbled, “…Okay…”
“I’ll have a…” she strained to see the list, “Hopacalypse Meow?”
“You’re into hoppy beers? Me too! Two meows,” he signalled the bartender.
While she continued to pretend to watch the game, Kareena scrutinized the man via peripheral vision. He was checking her out. Dread passed through her body like a phantom.
“You don’t remember me?”
His mouth, a frown, opened to suck in air. The disappointment startled her.
Kareena thought of saying ‘How could I forget you?’ and then admonished herself, ‘You don’t owe him your memory,’ when that tiny missile hit her in whatever part of the brain remembers miscellanea.
“How’s your knee?” she asked.
He grinned, widely, this time showing pink gumline. “Pretty good! Got the whole range of motion.”
A patient from Dr. Favell’s clinic. The name escaped her, but she remembered him coming into reception. He had been injured at a pick-up basketball game. He hadn’t seemed like the type.
The man flexed his left knee and his calf brushed her leg. “They weren’t sure, you know, if I’d be a hundred percent.”
She felt the rigidity of her thighs as they tightened. Her arm reached out for more chips from the bar, hoping he would ask if she wanted something off the menu. She was Barney from The Simpsons; her stomach shimmied, making pointed signals. Kareena couldn’t remember when that morning she’d eaten that fried egg and there had only been pretzels on the plane.
“Kev. Your drinks.”
Kareena could have kissed the bartender for saving her. His name was Kevin! He must be a regular, she thought, as his body heat radiated next to her. She turned to him while scraping her barstool backward.
“You live around here, Kevin?”
He smirked, taking it as invitation.
Fuck. Her eyes narrowed as she mentally kicked herself. “I mean, do you come to this bar a lot?”
“Not a lot. I work downtown. Associate at Johannsen and Walker.” He paused, measuring her sugar daddy barometer.
“That’s why I left Montreal—chance to make partner. I just like coming here for an after-work drink. I like to have one, once in a while.”
Or many, pretty often, she thought.
“Hey!” he exclaimed, as if his doughy brain was exploding. “You like bluegrass?” He brushed his fingers through his crew cut and gave her that goofy smile.
While Kareena mulled, playing with the zipper on her purse, a crash shifted her attention from Kevin. She turned, taking in two blue shadows moving against each other in the far reaches of the bar. The blonde couple arguing—a plate had shattered, now the woman slammed her glass on the table.
Kevin scooted his stool closer, their elbows kissing. “Great place, not far. Actually, there’s a seafood restaurant near the venue. I mean, they do serve food here, but it’s pretty greasy stuff.”
The woman was yelling at her companion, who looked down at his plate of fries.
Kareena realized her pint glass was empty. The chips had made her very thirsty. Raising his voice over the angry back-and-forth, Kevin ordered more drinks without asking. Thank God.
“How long you in town?” he asked.
“Haven’t decided.” She gave him a half-smile, wondered what he would do with it. She pictured his apartment, his bedroom. Big? A bachelor, maybe no real furniture. Somewhere far from her mother’s place in Kitsilano.
“You don’t have to get back to the clinic?”
“I was… I’m thinking about taking a hiatus.” She was shaking her head and felt herself swaying on the stool. People came up behind them, between them, to shout drink orders.
“That’s great! You should stay here. Let’s have a drink to celebrate!” Like it was a done deal. Kevin’s gesticulations spilled part of his pint on her loafers. He wiped his hands on his dress shirt, his droopy eyes looking down at her shoes and then up at her chest. His nose and mouth widened apologetically.
The bar blazed with heat. Kareena took off her cardigan to reveal a black sleeveless top. The free drinks made her feel rootless and almost wonderful. Images of her mother standing at the arrivals section of the Vancouver airport shuddered up inside of her, but she blinked them away.
“Don’t get me wrong. Dr. Favell was great, but the rest of the staff,” he whistled. “Even as a patient, I could see that they weren’t treating you well.”
Kareena flinched. “They weren’t that bad.”
“Not that bad?!”
“I… made, make a lot of mistakes.”
Kevin’s reply was a questioning look.
Kareena had in fact been waiting for that gentle letdown from Favell:
“You do know why we have to let you go, don’t you?”
He was so apologetic that she couldn’t help but console him. “I never got the hang of it, did I?”
He shook his head, forlorn, his arm around her neck, grazing her right breast, tweaking her nipple. She couldn’t even ask him about her last paycheque. From the tiny shelf under the receptionist desk, she pulled out her purse and her tennis sneakers. It was only later that she remembered her tuna salad sandwich in the fridge.
“You deserve better.” It felt like a reprimand coming from Kevin: “You need to know when you’re being treated badly. You need to know when something good comes along, when someone good comes along.”
“Right.” Kevin was right. Kareena sat up a little. “You’re right.” She held onto the bar to keep from slipping off the stool.
“I wouldn’t have let them…”
The bartender interrupted to see if they wanted more drinks. They did. She definitely did. She looked at Kevin with new eyes.
The couple was still jumping out of their skin, screaming. Kareena listened to Kevin saying his Christmas bonus was going to double this year, but was drawn in by how the woman’s face alternated between angry and crestfallen. She tried to read lips and thought that they were arguing about their daughter. They looked tired in the wan light of the bar with their bleached, pale faces. The woman, spectral hair tucked behind her ears. Her hair matched her face in the way that one could tell it wasn’t coloured. As a baby, she had probably been compared to cherubs. Kareena thought about her mother, but thirty years earlier.
“What do you think they’re fighting about,” she asked Kevin.
“Ooh,” he said, “I like that game.” He paused. “Probably over the bill.”
“Maybe she didn’t meet her mom at the airport. Maybe she just left without saying anything.”
“What?” he asked.
She laughed and laughed. While Kevin got up to use the bathroom, Kareena thought about how much the blonde woman, who was swatting the man with a napkin, reminded her of her own non-blonde mother. Her mother had midnight hair and dark skin and rarely smiled.
“Why do you ask me questions I don’t have answers for?” Her father, bent over eight-year-old Kareena, so that she had clearly seen the balding, pinky-brown oval on his head, checking her temperature even after the nurses had done so. “You don’t have to stay.”
Her mother, visibly irritated, eczema patches reddening under her eyes. “Well, what are we waiting for? Scans, tests for something?”
“A beautiful girl like you,” said Kevin with the gray smile, who had returned from the toilet, adjusting his belt, trying to bring her back.
Kareena’s forehead itched from the compliment. She scratched it with stubby nails. Woman could not live by beer alone. Her stomach answered the thought, made more pitiful noises.
“So bluegrass? Seafood? On me. You were born in Delhi, right? There’s an Indian place down the road.”
Kareena frowned. She had no accent to betray; her parents had moved her from Delhi to Bristol as a child, and then at nine to Vancouver where she lived until eighteen. “Seafood’s fine.”
No one at home had cooked Indian food. Her father had ordered take-out and forgot she needed to eat. He was of the fatherly kind that forgot birthdays and pick-up times and solved everything with repentant cupcakes. Her mother hadn’t been home. She was searching—jobs never satisfying, not as an emerging doctor at a mega hospital, not as a top surgeon at a smaller city hospital. Even divorce didn’t satisfy her. Her interactions with her daughter were nonplussed and awkward. Kareena’s panic attacks were just another issue that threatened to dissolve all three of them as a family. Her parents yelled over her head at each other while she had watched, as if the hospital bed was an island unto itself.
She felt her cheeks redden from the booze and the steady stream of flirting. They moved from the bar to the door. She was surprised to like the feel of his large, clumsy hands touching her back, grazing her thigh. The bar was teeming, people off work with that ‘just got my paycheck’ attitude. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her into the street. She wanted to go somewhere even more crowded, wanted thousands of voices drowning her mind, more drinks to keep her fuzzy and floating. Kevin was instructing her that she deserved better. Better what, she wasn’t sure.
His dopey smile pressing into her neck helped. Kevin told her how his parents met at a racetrack. “My mom liked to gamble. My dad, he had come down with his friends and lost them in a crowd.” He asked about her parents.
“Passed away.” It came out just like that.
He seemed horrified. “An orphan?”
She smiled and dug in. “She was a laundry maid and fell down the stairs of a hotel where she was working. It crippled her, but it was the pneumonia that did it. The winter when I was fifteen.” Power surged through her once again.
It felt like karma when her mother had called, the same day she lost her job at Dr. Favell’s clinic. Kareena had forgotten to screen and was jolted on her metro ride home when the honeyed voice hummed in her ear.
“And how come you’re only spending a week in Vancouver? You stayed with your dad and that hussy for two weeks last year.”
“Mom.” She wished Dad and Shelly had let her come this year.
“You haven’t visited me in six years.”
“You haven’t visited either,” she half-whispered.
From there, Kareena had felt her heart rate pick up, and shallow breaths followed. She made it to her apartment and lay down on the thin mattress. Hugging her pillow between her legs, her body shook. Mitzi watched from the windowsill. Kareena wished, not for the first time, that she could replace her short-haired tabby with ET, the Irish setter of her childhood who would curl up on her feet and fall asleep.
The sky drizzled over them. Kevin said he wished he had a jacket to give her, but he left all his jackets at the office. Kareena worked through the logistics, head spinning, as the rain seeped through her blouse. She nodded and agreed with everything he said. Tonight she was feeling that same panic she had had when she dreamt her father had died. She couldn’t help the prophetic feeling that came over when something awful happened in a dream. Waking up, snot dripping down her cheeks. She didn’t want to sleep with Kevin but she needed a place to stay. She could fumble around on the couch for a while and say she wasn’t ready or pretend to fall asleep. From the look on his face, the way he was appraising her, up and down, down and up, she knew what he thought was on the table.
As he sauntered into the bright, lantern-lit restaurant, Kareena was suspended mid-step. Her gaze stretched across the street to a woman standing alone in an elegant sweater set, carrying a transparent umbrella.
Half of the woman’s face seemed to turn to confront Kareena, the other half still in shadow. Kareena staggered back toward the brick wall of the restaurant.
Her mother. Under that streetlight across the street. Five metres away.
She hadn’t seen Kareena. Why wasn’t she at the airport? Her mother did not look rushed. She was dawdling in front of a boutique window.
Kareena couldn’t breathe. Her body gasped. Her fingers were tingling. No, not now, she told her body. Not now.
“Kareena!” It seemed an hour had passed before Kevin reappeared, her name foreign and loud on his tongue. “You having a smoke?” he asked, wondering why she hadn’t followed him in.
She pushed him in the direction of the entrance, belatedly breathing again, and she plodded behind, not stopping to see whether her mother had heard or seen.
Kevin had ordered her a giant steak and mussels. She said she wanted to see a menu and hid behind it for a few minutes until she had control of her voice. Then said she would try what he had ordered anyway. She let him chat more about his office life as they waited for their twin meals.
“How did you know I was born in Delhi?”
She repeated the question, more curtly this time.
“What?” A glob of steak in Kevin’s teeth made his face look innocent.
“You mentioned Delhi. Earlier.”
He laughed. “I might’ve asked at the clinic. That’s how I knew they were jerks. They all said terrible things about you.”
“Oh.” Kareena determinedly chewed each bite, saying fuck you to her mother with each clamp of the jaw. Who knew when she would eat again?
“I told them to lay off. I told them you were great.” He twisted his chair so they were side by side while they ate. “Your mother,” he said, as if reading her mind. “Tell me more about her.” He had his elbows on the table.
“My mother,” she repeated. “Should we go to your place?”
As they left the restaurant, Kareena studied the street and beyond. She saw no one that matched her mother’s description. Only drunken couples parading down the sidewalk.
Kevin’s condo at Richards and Davie surprised her: the couch and armchairs in navy leather, the clean kitchen with only two dishes in the sink, paintings with orangey-reds swirling around in abstract. She thought she could make him pee his pants a little with excitement, or at least spill the wine. But he had grown confident, had taken her arm on the way to the cab, opened the front door of his place with a flourish. She tripped into the living room. They fell onto the couch.
Later on in their lives, Kevin would repeat the story of their serendipitous meeting so often that it physically repulsed her.
“She never even told Rachel she eloped!”
At parties, to strangers.
“Is that right,” the women would say, or the men would say, around an oval dining table or over a coffee table.
On one particular night, Kevin was bemoaning her orphan status for Kelly and Kieran who would never meet their grandparents. He was leaning on the arm of the living room couch with his glass of wine, while Kareena glanced sideways with Loki, Kevin’s Irish setter, resting at her ankles. He just couldn’t get over it, he told a colleague in a white turtleneck. The woman nodded. Kareena stared out the bay window as the guests chatted.
The West End condo overlooked the water. Full of rugged gingham and dark leather, the only pops of color were from paintings that had lived in Kevin’s old place. Kareena might have described it as sleek. When she and the children were gone, she imagined one could almost forget they lived there. As she turned from the window, a green jewelled brooch on the woman’s white sweater caught her eye. It distinctly reminded her of one her mother used to wear.
Mona’a Malik completed her MA in creative writing at Concordia University. A past recipient of an Arts and Letters NL award for poetry, she has published poetry in Paragon IV and Landwash, fiction in The Fiddlehead, the Coming Attractions 15 Anthology, Matrix, Qwerty, Joyland, and Event, and has fiction forthcoming in The Fiddlehead and The Puritan. She adapted her short story “Dead Pumpkin,” through the Young People’s Theatre Grant. Sania The Destroyer was produced for Theatre New Brunswick’s 50th anniversary season (2018-2019). She lives in Tiohtiá:ke/Montréal on the unceded land of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation.
Bre McDaniel completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts at Emily Carr University in 2013 with a focus in illustration. She works in a range of traditional media including watercolours, ink, graphite, and acrylic paint. She is a founding member of Open Book Art Collective, and her experience as a support worker has influenced her passion for inclusion in both her songwriting and visual art practices. Her portfolio can be found at: www.bremcdaniel.com