Winter 2011

Table of Contents - Vol. VII, No. 4


Poetry    Translations     Fiction    Reviews   

Carla Sarett



Two weeks away from Christmas, and not a gift basket, tree or even one lonely Christmas card in sight-—the so-called office of Chitchat was a large dusty room with about forty people, all in jeans, with candy bars and cups of cappuccinos and sodas strewn about carelessly.
The branding debate had consumed an angry morning.  Some workers had declared their allegiance to Chit-chat, others to chitchat, and still others argued, tearfully, for the current Chitchat.
  Seeing the hour strike one, I concluded, in my most grown-up voice, “It’s a serious issue, and I see we have different viewpoints.”
Onwards and upwards to lunch with the management team—-it would be, I knew, a hurried affair in a run-down coffee shop.  Sasha Lewis, whom I had met in many other guises at other dot coms, never had time, or perhaps inclination, for a decent meal—although today, we were to meet with the company’s founder, Ariel Booker.  As I expected, we entered a seedy eatery that, like the offices of Chitchat, offered little in the way of holiday cheer.  
In his distressed leather jacket and jeans, Ariel Booker was a familiar type.  He might have been in his his thirties, although he might have been older or younger.  He adopted the style of a wayward child, bored by homework, and his curly corkscrew hair completed the picture.  As Sasha lectured to him, in schoolmarm fashion, he doodled on his napkin.
Ariel had quickly, and not incorrectly, thrown me into the bucket of people with no money to give him.  His world was filled with potential investors and here he was sitting with a woman who was not one of them. I saw his point. 
Some tinny music played in the background.  Like most popular music, it was unfamiliar to me and sounded whiny and unpleasant.  
Ariel tapped his fingers. "Along with Puccini and Stravinsky, the great music of the twentieth century."
Was he speaking ironically in the way people do these days, just to let me know he was deep-down a cultured guy?  Or, was it possible he was serious?
Sasha said, "Absolutely."
They almost laughed, leaving me in the dark about the intent of the comment.
Ariel looked at me. "So you get what we’re trying to do."
For a minute, he seemed wide awake, as if he were really trying to do something.  Perhaps, just for the moment, he imagined he was.  Then again, maybe he was testing the waters to see if I might accept equity instead of cash.  I looked back, not blinking.  
Sasha spoke before I ruined the moment.  "She absolutely gets it.  The research is definitely the key to defining what we’re doing."
“Well, I’ve got to get back to Philly—it’s going to be tough getting a seat.”  Seeing their blank faces, I explained, “You know, Christmas? Holiday shopping?  Santa?”
“They’d do better online,” said Sasha in a non-holiday way.
Outside was a torrential downpour, but the two Chitchat execs hopped into a taxi without offering me a ride.  I was soaked by the time I hit Penn Station and barely made the train.
The train was packed with holiday shoppers--large colored bags were everywhere. Well-dressed women sat together, happily chatting about the day's purchases.  Some mothers were accompanied by young daughters clinging to their American Girl dolls.  
Everyone was enjoying the season, it seemed, but mine was to be consumed with Chitchat. Not that I had children or family events, but even so, I loved the holidays-- twinkling lights, fruitcakes, the Santas at the supermarket, even the corny Christmas music.  And instead of luxuriating in the season, I was stuck with branding Chitchat.
I found a seat next to an older Indian man who, like many of the Indian businessmen in Central New Jersey, was immaculately attired in a crisp business suit.  When I rode the train, I looked forward to seeing these men, glowing and broad-shouldered.  Mornings, they carried lunches that their wives had made.  Surely, the wives admired their handsome husbands.  
I offered him a section from my Wall Street Journal, in part to signal that I hoped we could chat.  In those days, people often talked to one another in a normal tone of voice-- the ride was relaxing.  Nowadays, trains are filled with people shouting at co-workers on their cell.   
After reading for a minute, the man pointed to an article. "That is what the West does not understand-- much of the world needs development, electricity, clean water." Like many educated foreigners, his speech was crystal-clear -- and his accent made it musical.
"I think Americans don't understand that much about India in general-- it's a different culture, isn't it.  A different set of values."  I told him, I had many Indian research colleagues whose marriages had been arranged in India.   
Yes, he said, his own marriage had been arranged.  His first choice had been a girl from a good family who played piano and was beautiful as any girl in India.  But, his parents met with a famed astrologer who warned that his choice was in conflict with his path.  He could not marry with such a dark forecast ahead, and he and the girl were forced to part.
"That must have been painful," I said.
At the time, it was bitter, he told me, but he knew not to defy the stars. “It would have been a disaster—who knows what my future might have been?”
Two years passed before his parents and the astrologer found him another girl—also from a fine family and, at his request, also a skilled pianist.  But when he met her, he was at first disappointed-- she was a pretty girl, but by no means the kind of beauty of his first choice.  But then she spoke, and her voice was sweeter than any voice he had ever heard.  And her smile enchanted him as no smile had ever enchanted him.  He could not help but laugh and smile when he was with her -- being with her was happiness itself.
“But what happened to the first girl?” I asked.
“A sad story,” he said. “She ran away to England and married some man whom no one knew, and now she is divorced.”  He said the word "divorced" as if the woman were dead.  Obviously, the concept made no sense to him.
Everyone I knew was married to a man who had once been married to someone else.  I said, "People make mistakes--you're never going to have a world without mistakes."
He argued, if your choice was made in line with what was destined, you could not make a mistake.  “Your wife is your true wife, there’s no questioning that.”  
"People do change, though," I pointed out.  "Besides, there is death, even wives die." Not that I wanted to be morbid about it, but there is death.
“No, you do not understand,” he said.  He had Indian friends whose wives had died -- he was old enough for that--but he could not accept the fact that some had married a second time.  "This is wrong. Even if my wife predeceases me," he said, "I will never remarry.  She is my wife always, and she will always be with me.  I can only have one wife." 
I had never heard the word predecease.  It touched me to hear him say it so gravely.  And I said, "Men get lonely, they need to remarry.  It's not a betrayal."
He shrugged, "You are not lonely-- your wife is with you, even if she is not physically present."   He believed in reincarnation so he knew his wife would return.  I wondered how life felt with such a belief, even for a moment, but I would never know.  If either I or my husband died, the other would be alone because we had no faith.  We would be all alone, lonely.  
For a moment, the man and I were silent together with our different thoughts.  The man seemed homesick, at least to me.  And I also felt a kind of homesickness, although I have never thought of anywhere as my home.  But still, I too felt something like homesick.  
I said, "Indian women wear beautiful clothes--I’d love to wear a sari."
Before he left the train in Princeton, he said, "You should buy a purple sari.  Your husband will be happy to see you in such a sari." 
The train's crowd thinned out after Princeton and Trenton.  I checked voicemail with my giant cell phone -- and retrieved a breathless message from Sasha that Ariel was totally on board, call her later, she had important news.  Another client needed research done over the holidays-—it was urgent, it could not wait.
    When I arrived in Philly, I felt strangely heavy, as if I had been sleeping for hours or drugged.  Walking was difficult-- I was exhausted,  almost unable to speak. For once, there was no wait for a taxi. I gave the young Ethiopian driver instructions to my office and closed my eyes as we hit the expressway. 
I do not know how long we had driven when the car veered off the road, spinning.  I thought, this must be death-- all because of chitchat, and people who liked hideous tinny music. But, where were all of the images of beloved people that I was supposed to see? Wasn't my life supposed to flash by me?  Would my last thoughts be of chitchat and brands?
  The car came to a stop. Blood streamed down my face. I wondered if I would be disfigured or maimed forever.  I might limp for the rest of my life. My face might be scarred-- people would look away from me.  I heard voices and a hand reached into the car and helped me out.  I saw a middle-aged man and what appeared to me his daughter.  
He said, "I am a doctor, I saw your car turn over, you’re fine, you’re going to be fine."  
He gently wiped my face. He asked me my name, where I lived-- I suppose to make sure that my brain was not damaged.  I assured him that I knew who I was, what time it was, what day it was.
The young taxi driver said, "I am so sorry, I did not mean this to happen."
  The driver was unharmed, but frightened-- perhaps he was not a legal immigrant, perhaps this was not his taxi.  There could be many reasons for his terrorized face, aside from the suddenness of the accident.  He kept on repeating, "I am sorry, I am so sorry."  
I consoled him. "It’s not your fault."
The doctor said to me, "God must be looking after you.  This is one of the only places on the highway that has an embankment- a half mile up or down, you would have fallen."
We had not gone far from the city.  Where we were, off the expressway, the terrain was rugged, with rocks, trees, cliffs, the Schuylkill River beneath-- how amazing it was that men had built this road out of the jagged cliffs!   The fall would have been steep.   
I looked into his eyes and I saw faith, again.  
I said, "I guess this is my lucky day, tomorrow is my birthday.  Maybe I just used up one life and I'm on my second life."
An ambulance arrived within minutes—and those men had no problem defining their mission. The ambulance felt large and solid, the blanket unexpectedly soft.  Part of me wanted to ride with them all day in the nice warm ambulance. 
“A few stitches, and you’ll be good as new,” said the ambulance worker. 
   I felt myself being lowered into a chair, and I shut my eyes so everything went black—and all I felt was the icy air and the sensation of being steered ahead, smoothly, without knowing or even caring where I was going.  I kept my eyes closed tightly until the motion stopped. 
When I opened my eyes, I saw a nice fat Salvation Army Santa, with a wonderfully snowy-white beard that went on forever.  He waved at the patients in the hospital lobby with his kindly Santa grin.  He patted me on the shoulder, as Christmas carols emanated from his boom box-- Joy to the World, voices sang.
“Well, if isn’t Santa, at last.  I was hoping to see you,” I said, giggling like a child who has started unwrapping the presents. 
I stuffed some twenties into his donation box to thank him, just for being there, when I needed him the most.  I wanted to tell him about my amazing second life but I figured he must have heard that one a thousand times before. 
He gave a hearty Santa laugh and struck the chimes with as much force as possible. “I’m not hard to find,” he said.  “Question is--where have you been?”


© Carla Sarett



Poetry    Translations     Fiction    Reviews   

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