Stories in the Language of the Fist by Anuja Varghese
At the Starbucks across from the Four Seasons Centre, Farrah waited for her grande non-fat chai tea latte. Her phone buzzed in her bag and she pulled it out. A text from Melissa: u still there? grab me a flat white!
Farrah looked at the lineup. She texted back the thumbs up emoji. “Chai for . . . Arya!” Farrah picked up the cup the barista put down in front of her and took it to the back of the line. Ten minutes later, she carried both cups outside and saw Melissa waving, cut off by the rush of people emerging from the underground entrance to Osgoode Station. As her friend approached, Farrah had a flashback of a girl on skates, ponytail flying behind her. Farrah sometimes forgot they had known each other for so long.
“Thanks babe, you’re a lifesaver!” Melissa said, taking her drink with one hand, and extending the other in a half-hug. “Great suit!” she said, looking Farrah up and down.
The tailored blush pink pantsuit had in fact cost Farrah a small fortune, but she reasoned that it was a necessary expense. If she was going to be promoted to management, she felt she ought to look the part. She had paired the suit with white heels, white purse, silk blouse, pearl studs, pink lips, bright smile. Striding down the street, Farrah felt powerful, purposeful, each breath drawn with confident ease. “Thanks,” she said.
“Are you ready?” Melissa asked, as they entered the revolving door of the Sheraton.
“I think so,” Farrah said. “Although I’m not sure what the point is of presenting to the staff. It’s not like they understand the analytics anyway. Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to present these numbers to the board?”
Melissa shrugged. “It’s a new thing they’re trying. The execs just want to make sure that management is, you know, relatable.”
Relatable to who? Farrah thought, as they crossed the lobby and headed downstairs into the meeting room. Farrah surveyed the faces, some she recognized and some she didn’t — Bill and Mark, Carol and her assistant, Yumi who answered the phones at the Mississauga Office Front Desk and twenty or so other staff she didn’t know. While Melissa made small talk with Bill and Mark (her husband golfed with them on Sundays), Farrah gave her memory stick to Carol, who gave it to her assistant, who set it up to play Farrah’s presentation on the projected screen.
“There’s coffee,” Carol said, waving her hand in the direction of a table in the corner where a spouted box of Tim Hortons coffee and a platter of pastries sat mostly untouched.
“I’m okay, thanks,” Farrah replied, holding up her Starbucks cup. “Got my chai latte right here.”
Carol wrinkled her nose. “Too sweet for me,” she said. “But it must be nice to have a little taste of home for you.”
Farrah laughed in the non-committal way that all non-white women learn to master. Inside her chest, the Fist from which she had learned to hide, in heels and pearls and linen and silk, and all the other camouflage handed down to her by parents who knew what it was to be a target, began to flex. From the other side of the room, Melissa texted her a gif of a baby dancing with the caption, U got dis grrrl!
“Alright everyone, can we all take a seat, please?” Carol’s voice bordered on shrill. Farrah kept smiling. “As some of you might know, Farrah Chad . . . Oh, Farrah, help me out so I don’t butcher your name.”
“Chaudhry,” Farrah said. “But it’s fine, just Farrah is fine.”
“Right, well, Farrah is going to share some of the really great market analysis she’s been doing that’s going to help inform our local strategy and our expansion out west, which, I think, some of you know about?” Carol glanced at Bill, who shook his head slightly. “Anyway, it’s so important to us that you all feel like you’re a part of this conversation, because we all have a role to play in this company’s success, right? From our VP —” Carol pointed at Mark, “— all the way down to . . .” Her eyes scanned the people seated in plastic chairs. “Well, everyone.” She glanced down at her notes and then back up at Farrah. “Okay, take it away, Farrah,” she said. “It’s all you.”
Farrah stood up, tall in her white heels, and faced the room. Be relatable, professional, breathe. Be assertive, not aggressive, breathe. Be yourself but be like them but not too much like them but not too much different, breathe. It’s all you.
Farrah smiled and began to speak.
It was a standoff on wheels — Jessica #1 and #2 on their bikes, Melissa on rollerblades and Farrah shifting her weight nervously on the skateboard beneath her.
“So, like, where are you from?” Jessica #2 asked.
“Montreal,” Farrah replied, even though Mr. Ryan had already mentioned that in his introduction of her to the class earlier that day. “I mean, I was born in Vancouver but I’m from Montreal.”
Melissa pulled her hair free of its elastic as she made easy figure eights around the other three. “No, like, where are you actually from?”
Farrah froze, not fully understanding the question. “I guess . . . my parents moved here from India,” she said. “But like, a long time ago.”
The Jessicas smirked at one another. “Told ya,” #1 said to #2, before giving Farrah a once-over that served as both insult and inside joke at once. It was a hostility for which Farrah had no name, not yet. “We gotta go,” Jessica #1 said, smacking her gum. “See ya round.”
Trailing the Jessicas and skating backwards with the elastic around her wrist, Melissa looked at Farrah with something akin to pity. “She told us she knew something smelled like curry,” Melissa said with a slight shrug that conveyed apology and apathy in equal measure. She tightened the hoodie around her waist and turned to catch up with the others, so that they made again an Abercrombie and Gap clad trio, sailing together along the Midtown sidewalks on a Monday afternoon.
Farrah was halfway around Deer Park, her house just across the street, before she realized what they had meant — that she smelled like curry. It was her. She left her board on the front porch, sniffed the sleeve of her sweatshirt, and then inhaled the air in the foyer as she kicked off her shoes. Her clothes smelled like CK One. The closet smelled like leather and wool and the hallway smelled like lilies from the arrangement on the dining room table.
“Lasagna for dinner, Farrah?” Mum called from the kitchen. “Or Daddy can do tuna steaks on the BBQ?”
“Whatever,” Farrah yelled as she went up the stairs. She locked the bathroom door and shed her clothes, then stood under a too-hot shower, scrubbing at her skin with a soapy, sea-green loofah. That was the day the Fist unfurled from Farrah’s ribs and fastened itself around a lung, not so that she couldn’t breathe, but just so that she would always be aware of breathing, of the way things smelled, so that she would always keep air freshener, deodorant and perfume in her purse, just in case. Just in case it was always her.
“Are there any questions?” Farrah paused and looked around the room. Melissa and Bill were chatting quietly, Mark was looking at his phone. Only Front Desk Yumi gave Farrah a small smile and shook her head. The others were a row of blank, bored faces.
“Well, actually Zainab has reminded me that we forgot to do the land acknowledgement thing that we said we should do at these things — right Mark?” Carol looked at Mark who looked up from his phone, caught off guard.
“Right, sure. Go ahead,” he said.
Carol stood up and put her glasses on, squinting at the page in front of her. “We acknowledge the land we are meeting on is the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the . . . Anish . . . Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the . . . Haden . . . okay, well, the Native people.” She glanced up and seeing Bill tapping his wrist, let the sheet f lutter to the table, relieved to be rid of it. “I think we get the gist,” she said. “Sorry about that.” It remained unclear whether her apology was for forgetting the acknowledgement in the first place, only getting through half of it, or subjecting them to it at all.
Zainab the Assistant slid a piece of paper towards Carol, and after looking it over, Carol announced, “According to our agenda, we’re supposed to take a 10-minute break. So, everybody please help yourself to refreshments, visit the loo, and then we’ll meet back here for some exciting announcements about our upcoming Employee Celebration Day!”
Half the group left the room, and half stayed, pouring the weak coffee and chatting with others they knew. Melissa approached with a grin. “You
killed it, babe!” she said. Then in a lower voice, “Mark and Bill were very impressed.”
Farrah flushed with the pleasure of the compliment. “You think so?”
“For sure,” Melissa said. “I think someone is going to be joining the management team very soon! Oh my god, Farrah, you’ll love working at Head Office, it’s literally the best.”
Farrah shifted her weight, her pinched feet already starting to ache. “Sounds amazing,” she said. “Not that I mind our little Mississauga office. It’s like a five-minute drive from the house.” She looked down at her phone. A text from David: How’d it go???
“We’re probably closing the Mississauga office as part of the local strategy restructuring anyway,” Melissa said absently, scrolling through her Facebook feed on her phone. Farrah saw her own face fly by, tagged in a picture with Melissa and her kids at Cherry Beach.
“Wait, we are?” Farrah asked. She looked back at the other people in the room. A brown-skinned woman, older than Farrah, darker than Farrah, caught her eye and for a moment, it looked like she might come over and try to join the conversation. Farrah did not know her and turned her back. She could hardly be expected to make friends with everyone.
“Well, obviously. I mean, they’re your numbers, babe. Anyway, I still can’t believe you moved out there! Brad and I keep meaning to come and see the new house, but it’s such a trek and with the baby and all, you know how it is. We’ll do it though, soon, for sure.”
“Yeah, anytime,” Farrah said. “David and I would love to have you. Speaking of which, I’m just going to give him a quick shout, let him know how it went.” She touched Melissa’s arm lightly as she brushed past, noticing the elastic around her wrist, as if it had always been there, a permanent fixture for the last two decades.
Farrah took her phone into the lobby and sat at a small table beside a fake forest encased in glass. She FaceTimed David and his head popped up on the phone’s screen. “Hey, you!” he said. “So, am I married to the new Analytics Manager, or what?”
Farrah laughed and shook her head. In the bottom right corner of the screen, she noticed the way the light was hitting her face was making her look beautiful and she turned a little more fully towards the false sunlight streaming into the glass enclosure. “They haven’t said anything officially, but Melissa thinks it’s a done deal.”
“Well, she would know,” David said. “Brad goes way back with Bill and Mark and all those guys.”
Farrah ran a hand through her hair, her fingers combing easily through the silky, flat-ironed strands. “How’s your day going?” she asked.
David launched into a tirade about the inefficiencies of the administration at Mississauga Hospital, and Farrah focused on the way his mouth moved, of how handsome he was even under fluorescent hospital lights. At one point, her face in the corner grew pixelated and froze, mouth half open, eyes half closed. Farrah panicked. She didn’t want David to see, to think her ugly, frozen face was funny. She hung up abruptly, then texted David to say sorry, the wifi must be spotty and she would see him at home.
Farrah stood up and smoothed out her crisp, pink pants. In the women’s bathroom, she re-applied her deodorant, her lipstick, her anti-frizz spray. She breathed in and out, the reflection in the mirror convincing the Fist in her chest to stay unfurled. She walked back towards the meeting room, ignoring the pain that every step in the right direction cost.
To read the full story order your copy of issue 290 today: