I’m thrilled to introduce Tara Alavi as our new Payroll and Benefits Administrator. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Accounting from Polytechnic University of Tehran, Iran. In her previous job in Vancouver, she worked as the head of finance for a small start-up. A newcomer to Toronto, Tara enjoys travel, books, movies and singing. A RANDOM FACT about Tara: back in Tehran, she organized a film club that continued to exist long after her immigration to Canada.
Signed by the head of finance, the email is sent to the entire staff. This time, no grinning headshot is attached. So, there’s a slim chance that this Tara Alavi is not the one with whom I came to Canada nine years ago, hand in hand. Just a namesake perhaps. But wait. Two Tara Alavis in Canada with finance backgrounds who both ran a film club back in Tehran?—and let’s not bring up the fact that we started that movie night together. What are the odds? And singing, really? My Tara never even bothered to hum along to anything. This whole thing is a surprise. A chilling one, of the kind that would make Bogart say, Of all the companies in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
I stare at the computer screen until Skype messenger starts flashing. It’s from Pete. He sits across from me, but sometimes prefers the privacy of online chat over yelling. Looks like u r not the only Iranian anymore.
No, I’m not, I type, and punctuate it with a winking emoji, as I’m aiming for the pretense of coolness, which belies my gut-wrenching unease. What if he asks the inevitable: Do you happen to know her?
He doesn’t. Instead, he ambles off towards the kitchen. Coffee time—his first for the day at least. But, hardly does this mean I can evade the question much longer. People tend to think I’m supposed to know all Iranians in town. Hey, we have a new Iranian concierge. You might know him? Oh, what about my Iranian Uber driver?
This time, I can’t say no, and if I say yes, the next question will be a variation of, In what capacity? Which then raises the question of, In what capacity does she want me to know her, if any? And let’s take one step back: did she know I worked here when she applied for this position?
She probably didn’t. After all, she was the one who got the restraining order.
At the time, I had no idea what that meant. I was perspiring on an elliptical when my phone rang. A gruff voice introduced himself as Tara’s lawyer and informed me that I should attend court for a hearing about her restraining order request. Like I said, I didn’t know what it was, but the words lawyer and court sounded serious. It’s not that I was unfamiliar with the concept. I’d seen Cape Fear and knew how Nick Nolte was able to secure something of the sort against the sinister De Niro. I just didn’t know the English term for it. Later, I texted Tara and asked whether she knew what on earth she was doing. Normally, she was always up for our endless squabbles but this time she didn’t respond—following her lawyer’s advice probably. Provoked by her slight, I unleashed a deluge of texts and emails, enlightening her that whatever I did was out of love, a love whose manifestation I showed in every act I’d done which, in this modern world, had been mislabeled as harassment. That was how I, as my friends later told me, willingly left evidence. To Tara’s credit, she never took advantage.
Anyway, I open a browser tab and look her up. It’s been quite a while since I’ve done this, probably the first time since my marriage. A sign that I’m cured, you’d say? Not really. I shouldn’t get much credit for relinquishing this habit, neither should Canada’s justice system. It was simply thanks to Tara’s firm, if sad, decision to put an end to her cyber presence. She never blamed me for that, but if I was her incentive, she owes me big time for all the hours she’s salvaged on the web.
Still no sign of her online, not even on LinkedIn. But, right then, out of the corner of my eye, I notice some movement fifty feet past my monitor. It’s Markus from Finance escorting Tara towards the sales team pod. I recognize her easily from behind. Tall on black heels with the same hunch, as if to compensate. With me, she never wore heels.
This expedition is a highly-regarded ritual in our company, to introduce new people to every individual interspersed in the office, which requires the new person to cram dozens of names into their head. The members of the sales team stand up one by one to shake her hand. She’s in a dark blue blazer and a matching pencil skirt. Tara’s doing it by book, like Tara does, though she seems a bit overdressed for us, even on the first day. Well, she didn’t ask my opinion.
Her posture, her confident gait, the graceful manner with which she extends her hand, they’re all impressive and, to me, refreshing. Even though I can’t hear from this distance, it is apparent that she’s communicating well with the boisterous sales team. They laugh at what she seems to say, and she reciprocates. This makes me remember the early days after we’d first landed. How we faked laughter, surprise or sympathy, guessing at the emotion expected in response to things said in English that we didn’t fully grasp.
Markus leads her forward to the pod next to ours and I slip out of my chair. I can’t confront Tara now, not without knowing if she knows I work here, and not in front of others. Her astonished face might be too much to recover from. And if she knows… if she really knows I’m here, what are her plans? Why didn’t she give me a heads-up? This doesn’t bode well.
Aware of the fact that I’m enacting a familiar slapstick scene, I take shelter in the men’s room on the other side of the office. No one is at the urinals and only one of the two stalls is taken. I occupy the free one, sit on the toilet and cradle my chin in my palm. I’m still getting used to the idea of Tara parading somewhere inside these walls. Too soon to decide if fate brought her here, to Toronto and, of all the thousand enterprises in need of a finance administrator, to this company. But if not pure fate, then what? After court, she didn’t even have the guts to talk to me in person. For three months, I was a criminal roaming Vancouver’s streets, until I received an email from her, in which, she offered an apology, an admission of exaggerating her claim, and notified me that, the next morning, she’d go and request the order be lifted. In the postscript, she left a hint of how much she blamed me for driving her to that point.
In hindsight, I concede I’d gone too far. I might have made a scene by raising my voice in public; I might have “run into her” while she was having coffee with some guy and acted like he was the intruder, not me; I might have said nasty things behind her back. Yes, I might have gone overboard, and then she had raised the bar.
“One of those days, ha?”
A coarse voice breaks the silence. It comes from the man in the next stall—whose shiny shoes I can see through the crack. It must be Bassam from IT, who never misses a chance to poke fun. He’s Syrian, though he tends to hide it. Whenever Syria is on the news—which is most of the time these days—people gather around him to sympathize and he only bobs his head. Every time I run into him, my mind automatically seeks some bad news to share. Today, the bad news is a she.
“For me, it’s probably something I ate.” As if to prove his point, he lets out a high-pitched fart.
The anonymity of the stalls and my growing desperation tempt me to tell him everything, to commiserate, but following through with the comic mood, I only return his fart.
My cautious trip to my desk is uneventful and the area clear. I scurry back, dying to find out what happened when Tara was introduced to our team.
“Man, you missed her,” Pete cries out. The rest of the team raise their heads.
For a second, I misread him, his usage of “to miss sb/sth”. A familiar, distant rage bubbles up. I never missed her, I almost scream. No idiot, the other meaning.
I put on an idiotic face. “Missed who?”
“Oh, the new hire.” I take a breath to find the most neutral follow-up question. “How did you find her?”
“Pretty nice.” He turns towards the others for approval and receives emphatic nods in response. “I told her you’re Iranian.”
“Did you give her my name?”
“Wasn’t necessary.” He points at the sign hanging above my telephone. “She took a good look at that.”
I could spend a whole day analyzing what he said, reconstructing Tara’s face when she saw my name. Her expression would branch out depending on whether she knows I work here or not. I can picture each scenario, simulating what sort of emotions her synapses would pass along, which hormones would explode. This is an unparalleled ability of mine, according to my assigned therapist at the time.
For his next comment, Pete resorts to Skype. “She’s goood!”
The triple o, masquerading as a typo, is all that seeps through the dense strata of Pete’s political correctness. Bland as it sounds, this is his way of saying Tara is hot. She indeed is, and also so comfortable with being hot. Enjoys it even. Slut was the word I used in our fights.
My phone vibrates and shows the happy face of a young, blonde woman drinking a mojito through a straw. She’s pretty and happens to be my wife. We’ve developed this habit of calling each other during the lunch hour, a routine soon to be disrupted, considering she’s in her seventeenth week. We don’t usually have much to say; it’s more like a confirmation that life is hurtling forward as planned. It climaxes in a moment of silence broken by one of us saying, Okey-dokey honey. This time, though, it’s different. I want to share this scoop. I take refuge in a free meeting room to shield myself against the risk of being overheard. I know it is a matter of a delicate nature and my wife is now the last to find out. Besides, unknowns remain to be discovered. But, people say I’m best at making the worst decisions.
A note about my wife: she is the emblem of respect for one’s privacy, the best at not digging into the past. And yet so enviably at peace with her own former life. She still keeps her correspondences with her ex-lovers. All in the open, it was easy. No password or anything. No redacted gaps in the flow of conversations.
As for my life, she knows a bit about Tara and nothing about the restraining order. When I say, “a bit”, I mean, “We came to Canada as a couple and soon drifted apart” with no dwelling on that drifting apart business. Why should I have told my wife at all? Because she has the right to know? Maybe. But what about my right to live decently, the promise of the second chance? Had this been a Hollywood movie, I would’ve gone to Mexico with a new identity and a Tom Selleck mustache after Tara. I did the equivalent within the confines of the real world: I banished myself to a new city; I vanished from my circle of friends. The price I paid to cure myself. If only Tara hadn’t materialized. Toronto with its satellite cities is not big enough for the two of us. And now, we are supposed to cohabit eight hours a day in two thousand square feet of office space. An open-concept office, no less.
The silence preluding the okey-dokey act settles. My tongue turns to say, Guess who my new colleague is, when a loud cohort barge in and kick me out of the room. That’s the Universe’s way of saving the day, which I stubbornly counter by suggesting to my wife that we should go out for dinner tonight. She welcomes the offer. Her doting husband’s way of pampering his pregnant wife, she probably thinks.
It’s around three and Pete is gone for another one of those coffee-related absences. When he scampers backs, the aroma of caffeine reaches me before his voice: “She’s in the kitchen, if you want to meet.” He blows the steam off his cup like he just shot somebody with a gun.
So far, I’ve snuck by the finance area twice, only to find Tara busy with her teammates. The last time, she was squinting into her monitor, following Markus’s finger as he, towering over her, explained something animatedly. Never before had it occurred to me how tall Markus is. With him, Tara would look good in high heels.
I receive Pete’s proposition with a nonchalant shake of head, as if to say if you really want me to. A moment later, I’m in the kitchen.
Tara is finally unaccompanied. She’s examining the array of tea boxes next to the coffeemaker.
“Salaam!” I say, muffling the quiver in my voice.
She turns around. The shock ripples across her face, lingers for some time until it stales. I savor every second, my power over her, the upper hand I’d lost for a long time. I smile at the Marilyn Monroe mole on her left cheek, somehow glad she still has it. She takes a few short steps and offers me her hand, still clutching a box of Moroccan Mint tea with the other. “Salaam! Tara!”
This, I didn’t expect. Afraid that someone might come in and see her stretched hand, I shake it, our first physical contact in seven or so years. I anticipate her signature laughter. Explosive.
“You don’t have to play safe,” I continue in Farsi. “I’m the only Persian speaker here.”
“You must be Nader then? I came to your desk. You weren’t there.”
I’m the one yielding to laughter. “Yes, I am Nader. Still!”
She straightens her back. “Have we met before?”
There are certain moments, scarce in a lifetime, when a slew of contradictory feelings, like a discordant orchestra, take form, each of which twists and turns a few facial muscles, the sum of all yielding to a quizzical expression. My face must look like that confluence now, a battlefield of emotional urges, utter shock versus absolute hilarity versus devastating confusion versus inexplicable rage as she stands there, her mouth o-shaped like she’s about to kiss me any minute. Genuine wonder on her face easily devours the authenticity of her mole, her hunch, her look, and all the memories I have of her.
What I do next is not planned and I surprise myself as I do her when I bring my phone to life and tip its display towards her. “I’m married now. We’re expecting our first child.”
The picture, my phone wallpaper, shows my wife in the foreground with me behind her and my hands bracing her not-yet-protruding belly. Tara bends forward and wrinkles her brows to scrutinize the picture with a seriousness that I take as curiosity.
“Finally, I get to meet you!” This is Bassam, standing at the entrance of the kitchen. “I wasn’t around when you were introduced to my team.” He casts me a conspiratorial glance, and I can’t help inspecting his potbelly.
I shove my phone into my pocket and take one step away from Tara, secretly ashamed of our height difference. Still a bit distracted, Tara musters a smile and goes for a handshake as Bassam draws closer.
He notices the tea box in her hand. “If you’re a tea-drinker, you’ll love this company. What about coffee? We have two machines: the noisy one that creates great coffee and the quiet one that spits out shit.”
He then swerves the discussion into the features that our kitchen has to offer. I’m left out of the conversation and, while observing them with disinterest, I analyze what just happened between me and Tara. I wonder if she would have behaved differently had she been a total stranger. Even the mere thought of her being a different person is ridiculous, verges on impossibility. How could I forget a face that used to be so engraved into my memory that I saw her in the form of all strangers on the streets and even as mannequins in shop windows? And it wasn’t only due to our miserable breakup. Granted, it was, in part, the malady of a forlorn heart. But what exacerbated it was the court order. The fear of running into her. The fury I had to quell.
No, she can’t not be my Tara.
The two of them are looking at me now, but I’m not sure since when. I’m supposed to say something. I excavate a recent image where Bassam pointed at the kitchen TV which is now showing some Trump speech. So, politics must be a safe topic.
“Did you know that Bassam is Syrian?” I ask Tara, avoiding Bassam’s likely glare.
“Oh, it’s really sad what’s going on out there,” she says to the gentle bob of his head.
Still a couple hours before calling it a day. I forbid myself to take another break. Even the path to the washroom is a minefield now. I slouch over my computer screen with uncharacteristic resolve, doing almost nothing. The charade she put on in the kitchen! What was going on in her head was what I once craved to fathom. What murderous thoughts had I nurtured: kidnapping, interrogation, torture, these and more, while my therapist glared at me. All to answer one simple question: Why she left me? And now, her brain is back with new surprises. I hover the cursor over her name, recently added to the company Skype list, tempted to type, what was that show about? Then I push the mouse away, sending the cursor to some corner. Maybe she wanted to start with a blank slate. She knew I worked here and it was her way of saying we’re good. Or maybe it was easier to deny everything. What if I’m wrong though and she’s up to no good? Revenge has no expiration date. But I want my job, she can’t take it from me. The framed certificates I received from Microsoft and Cisco stand on my desk. I rub my sleeve on their surface to clear the dust away.
My date at the restaurant with my wife is approaching. I’m waiting for Tara to leave first, to save both of us the embarrassment of sharing an elevator (“Hey,” “Hey,” “You survived your first day,” “Barely,” “Same here”). Her status on Skype has shifted between available, busy and idle. This kind of stalking is pretty convenient compared to the excruciating pursuit I embarked on when she moved out of our home. All I had of her was her work address at the time and that was how I learned things about her I wasn’t supposed to; that was how her hostility reached a new sky.
Finally, she logs out of Skype. I give it five more minutes and only then do I head out.
The restaurant is four subway stops away. At the station, pressed in the rush-hour crowd, I can’t help but turn my head all the time, afraid I’m being watched. Any activity in the periphery of my vision makes me jerk, seeking the source. Everyone is a stranger on the platform, and later, on the train. Like a fugitive finding my haven, I slip into the restaurant.
My wife is there when I arrive. I excuse myself and use the bathroom. I splash water on my face and then run my hands through my sweaty hair, trying not to remember whatever has happened today and is bound to happen again tomorrow. I pretend I won’t have to walk to a town hall meeting with Tara, that we won’t cross paths, that my paychecks won’t be signed by her pen. I straighten my back, pose a confident look and stride back to my wife like a gladiator.
I kiss my wife and sit across the table. It’s a Greek restaurant, one that boasts of their home kitchen. Her favorite. It does feel homey indeed, at least to us, who are considered loyal patrons. The place is quiet, not even half-filled; a family of four are at the adjacent table, an old couple in a near corner and a woman at the far end all by herself.
My wife asks about work, only casually, and she immediately busies herself dousing bread in vinegar. There are multiple ways to spill the truth, all the various shades of it. I can come clean, but why should I when Tara has decided to rewrite—more like erase—history? Why should I violate the peace of the moment for something that needs to be forgotten? I look at my wife’s belly, half concealed behind the edge of the table, but still displaying the suggestion of a bump, of new life.
“The usual,” I say.
And it’s then my eyes, well trained to find objects of interest, travel farther past my wife, all the way to the other corner of the restaurant and land on the lone woman, hunched over the restaurant’s sleek menu. Her long, shiny hair fans out over her shoulders. I can’t see her face, but I have no doubt she’s wearing her Monroe mole, glistened beneath a film of sweat as she must’ve had a hard time catching up with my pace, like in the past, when she cautioned me it wasn’t proper to walk so fast next to a lady. Though she couldn’t complain now as she was following me, stalking me, curious to see my life and my wife. Yes, it’s her.