Sunday, November 26, 2006

Scratching the Surface
- i -
It crossed Sophie’s mind for a moment that she might not make her flight. She sat in the back seat of the taxi on the way to Toronto International Airport doubled over and nauseous. She fumbled through the bulky knapsack at her feet, searching in vain for a hairclip, an elastic band, anything so she could pull her hair back into a ponytail. She was certain she was going to be sick, and she didn't want any of it flying into her hair. Hopefully, she would soon be on a fifteen-hour flight bound for Japan. As bad as she was feeling, Sophie had enough forethought to know that any lingering smell brought about by her present nausea would cling to her for the rest of the day and night. Digging deeper, she felt the fuzzy material of her headband at the bottom of the sack and pulled it out. She caught most of her matted hair in one hand and pulled it into a quick bun on top of her head with the other. A few whisps of blonde clung to the dampness on her face. She wasn't sure if she was sweating from the humidity or from the hangover that had completely taken over her body. The car lurched, and came to a sudden stop. Sophie's head butted into the headrest of the seat in front of her.

She let out a grunt and her backpack shifted enough so that much of the contents were now splayed on the floor beside her feet. She didn't think the driver had noticed, but he turned around sideways, looking apologetic.

"Sorry Miss. Heavy, heavy traffic. Maybe stuck ten, fifteen minutes." He turned to face the road again. Through the windows on both sides, Sophie could see the cars were lined up on the highway, not moving, practically touching bumpers. She checked her watch. She had planned for small time traps such as this. Panic wasn’t setting in yet. She tried to focus on things other than time and the sorry state of her stomach.

She looked at the back of the driver's head. A few strands of dark hair peeked out from under his tightly wound turban. The fingers of both his hands were wrapped firmly around the steering wheel as he looked left, then right, hoping to find a space in one of the packed lanes beside them. No luck. Sophie was pleased he was at least trying. Another wave of nausea swept over her, and she had to forget about the taxi driver while she leaned over to put her head between her legs. She tried not to make a noise, but something between a cough and a gag came out of her throat, and she jerked forward even more.

"You alright Miss?" The driver turned halfway in his seat to check her state in the back. She could sense his concern, but Sophie wasn't certain if it was for her well-being, or for the possibility that his maroon vinyl seats might soon be covered with the contents of her stomach.

"You want water?" Before she could answer, the driver was rifling around in a large plastic bag on the passenger seat next to him. Traffic was still not moving, and it was getting even more humid in the small space. He pulled a large plastic bottle out of the bag, unscrewed the cap, and swiveled around to pass it to Sophie.

"Don't worry. Brand new. Take it." He leaned over the seat and set it down beside her.

When she brought the bottle to her mouth she realized just how thirsty she actually was. In just a few noisy gulps, nearly half the bottle was empty. She looked up to see the driver staring intently at her, and for the first time she saw his face full on. He was beautiful. There was no other word to describe his features. Mocha skin, high-cut cheek bones, long, slender nose. There were feminine undertones delicately etched on his face giving him a certain softness. The fact that his hair was pulled back under a turban brought even more attention to his bone structure. But what struck Sophie most were his eyes. They were a deep ocean blue so unexpected that she sucked in a mouthful of air and bottled water at the same time. She began sputtering and coughing, trying to get the misdirected water out of her lungs.

"Miss, Miss? You want air?" The driver had turned around and was fumbling with the switches on the door beside him. Both front windows were already wide open, but since they weren't driving, absolutely no air was circulating in the car. Both back windows began to glide open smoothly with a mechanical sigh. Sophie immediately leaned over and hung her head out the side. The air wasn't really that much different outside, but having the option of getting sick out the window rather than on the seat brought her an immediate sense of relief. She coughed and sputtered a few more times, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and then brought her head back into the car. She leaned heavily back into the seat.

"Miss? So sorry. No air conditioning. Broken. You okay now?"

He had once again turned completely around to face her. He was looking closely at her. Sophie was struck silent by the incredible blue eyes staring back at her. She felt guilty. She didn't deserve his concern. She had brought this on herself. Bits and pieces of the previous evening started to come back to her.

- ii -
Last night had been her going away party. A handpainted sign hung on the front door of her apartment when she got home from the Japanese Consulate downtown. "Good Luck Sophie!" was printed in red and black block letters. Someone had taken the time to print the words in stylized Asian script, each letter ending with a calligraphy flourish. The last of her bags had been packed and her teacher's visa from the Consulate was firmly pasted in her passport. It was time to say good-bye to her friends. She had invited them over to her now empty apartment. There were about fifteen people sitting on leftover packing boxes and suitcases. All kinds of drinks, potato chips and pizza slices were spread out on the floor in front of them. Sophie was going to Japan for a year, and the reality of her decision to work overseas began to sink in after beer number five.

Beer melencholy took over and the sadness of the impending good-byes was welling up insider her. She looked around at the roomful of her friends. She took another swig of her beer, saying out loud what she had been thinking; "I'm going to miss you guys..." She swayed a bit as she spoke and then took a seat on an overturned empty milk crate.

Derek, her co-worker from Tower CDs was beside her in a flash, kneeling and putting his arm around her shoulders. “Ah Sophie, you’ll be fine. You’ll make friends. You’ll see. Trust me, change is good.”

Of all her friends, Derek probably knew best what she was going through. He was what was known as an “army brat.” His dad’s position in the Canadian army had Derek moving around from country to country, army base to army base from the time he was born. The past four years in university were the longest he had stayed put anywhere. He was still reassuring her when their other co-worker Elise made her way over. Judging by her lack of balance, she had probably surpassed Sophie’s five-beer mark quite awhile ago. She was carrying two beers, one in each hand, and passed one to Sophie.

“Cheers to you, Sophie.” Elise reached out to touch bottles for a toast, but misjudged the distance and instead swung her arm past Sophie’s bottle and was toasting air. Derek smiled and gave a bit of an eye-roll for Sophie’s benefit. Elise wasn’t paying attention. She pulled a crate over and sat down, putting her arm around Sophie’s right shoulder. Sophie was now sandwiched between her two friends.

Elise could still string a few sentences together. She swayed on her seat as she spoke; “Hey, you’ll be flying around on rickshaws and eating Peking duck by this time tomorrow.” Her arm was completely wrapped around Sophie now. Derek looked amused and stayed put, kneeling on the floor beside them. Elise gave Sophie’s shoulder an extra squeeze and leaned in closer. Sopie tried to stand up, but the weight of Elise’s arm and her own unsteadiness fed by the five beers forced her to stay put on the crate.

They may have all been drunk, but Sophie couldn’t let Elise’s comment slip by. Why was her friend talking about China?

“I’m going to Japan, Elise. Japan…” At least that’s what she tried to say. The beers had turned her tongue into a slab of numb rubber.

“You know, Japanese, not Chinese…” Was anybody listening? Both her friends were smiling. Elise put down her beer, stood up and did a little click of her heels before she started to sing a rhyme Sophie hadn’t heard since grade school.

“Chinese, Japanese
Dirty knees, Look at these!”

While singing, Elise pulled the corners of her eyes first up, then down, touched her knees, and in her final flourish, she pulled her blouse up and over her breasts. All eyes in the room were soon focused on her. Well, one part of the rhyme had certainly changed since grade school. Sophie remembered the eye gestures, but she certainly never got a peek of a lacy 36-D pink push-up bra. Elise soon had a crowd around her asking her to sing the rhyme again. Sophie pushed herself up and off her red milk crate with substantial effort, and made her way towards the empty kitchen.

The walls had clean square outlines where her Miro and Picasso prints had hung over the kitchen table. They had held the place of honour on the centre wall for the four years Sophie had lived here. They had seen her through from day one of of her freshman year right through to her graduation two weeks ago. Those prints, along with her books and freshly printed university degree were now nestled safely in boxes labelled “Sophie’s Stuff” in her parent’s suburban basement. She leaned against the kitchen counter, trying to absorb the mixture of emotions washing over her. Being drunk didn’t help matters much.

Derek walked in and put his empty beer bottle on the counter. He smiled at Sophie. “Ah. Just the person I was looking for.”

He walked over to her and took one of her hands in his. He looked her straight in the eye.

“I know you’re disappointed in Elise, in the group out there…” He gestured to the living room with his free hand.

She didn’t know what to say. She was indeed aware of how quickly political correctness went out the window when there were plenty of beers and no visible minorities around. But, was it affecting her so strongly only because she was going to Asia? She felt like a fraud and a hypocrite.

“Soph, you’re going to have to get a thicker skin. Soon, you’re going to be the one on the other side. Soon, nobody will know or probably even care if you’re American, Australian or Austrian. Won’t matter. You’ll be a foreigner and that’s that.”

She could always count on Derek for his honesty, and now was no exception. Two words stuck out for Sophie in what Derek had just said; thick skin. Along with Japanese verb forms and pronoun usage, it was now on her list of things to perfect.

The last of the well-wishers piled out at 3:00 a.m., taking empty pizza boxes and bags of cans and bottles with them. Elise had three different admirers vying for the coveted position of escort home. The only part of her little rhyme that anyone remembered was the last line; “Look at these!” Evidently people liked what they saw.

Sophie said her last good-byes, closed the door and looked at her empty space. Derek had pre-ordered a taxi for 8:30 am the next day. Everything was set. Sophie unrolled her sleeping bag, crawled in and stared at the ceiling. That’s when the nausea set in. It was a mixture of booze, fear and greasy pizza, and it looked like it was going to stay. She closed her eyes and tried to think of nothing.

It was the persistent buzz of the intercom that woke her to the stark brightness of the living room that morning. She lifted her head slowly from the floor and looked around her. No curtains, no furniture, just some empty crates, glaring sunshine and the promise of humidity in the air. She untangled herself from the sleeping bag and stumbled to the intercom.

“Hi, Hello?” She pressed her lips close to the mouthpiece on the wall.

“Yes, It’s taxi. It’s 8:30. I will wait.”

“SHIT!” She didn’t say that part into the intercom. She pressed the ‘speak’ button and spoke into the wall again.

“Give me 5 minutes. I’ll be right there!” She pressed ‘listen’ one more time.

“Alright. But airport traffic will be very busy.”

No shower, no trip to the coffee shop next door, not even a splash of water on her parched tongue. Sophie rolled up her sleeping bag, strapped her backpack to her shoulders and picked up her suitcases. She threw a last glance at her apartment, pausing when her eyes got to the white squares that used to house her favourite artists. She took her key off its “S” shaped keychain and dropped it in the mailbox of her landlady. The clank that sounded when it hit the bottom of the box signaled the end of an era. When she stepped into the taxi, she knew it was the beginning of a new one.

- iii-
“Miss? You okay now?”

Sophie snapped out of her reverie. The taxi driver was still turned around in his seat looking at her.

“I’m better. Thanks for opening the windows. It’s helping.”

He turned to face the road again and let out a little laugh. “Look ahead, Miss. Traffic is moving! We will go soon.”

Sophie began to collect the bits and pieces from her backpack that had fallen onto the floor of the taxi. Lipstick, tissues and a pocket dictionary of Japanese phrases were scattered at her feet. She put the tissues and lipstick back in the bag, but paused to look at the dictionary. She decided there was no better time than the present, and cracked it open to the first page. She started scanning “Greetings” when the car jerked forward. The traffic jam appeared to have come to an end, and they were beginning to pick up speed. The taxi driver took a look to his left, then right, then into the rearview mirror. Sophie caught site of those eyes again, and they still had the same effect. They took her breath away.

The driver took his cue from a gap in trafffic, and made his way over to the faster lane. The blare of the horn behind them was deafening. Sophie jerked around to see where it came from, and her driver quickly brought the taxi back into its original lane. In just seconds, a blue convertible, top down, pulled up to their left keeping the same speed as the taxi. The driver of the sports car appeared to be in his fifties. His salt and pepper hair and v-neck cardigan gave him the look of a tv sit-com Dad. The two cars were close enough for Sophie to see the crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes. They were not happy eyes. He was glaring at her taxi driver. There was no doubt about it. He was furious.

The man was wagging his index finger at the taxi, and his face was contorted with anger as he looked quickly straight ahead at the road in front of him and then to the taxi driver on his right. He kept looking back and forth, road to taxi driver, five or six times before his fury burst out of his mouth. The taxi’s windows were still wide open. There was no way to mistake what he was yelling.

“Fucking Paki! Don’t they have cars where you come from? Paki go home!”

His finger wagging turned into a middle finger salute, held high above his head and waving in the air as he sped ahead.

Sophie looked to the rearview mirror to catch sight of her driver’s eyes. She couldn’t see them. He was looking intently straight ahead. The back of his neck was scarlet.

“Miss?” He was now looking in the mirror, and Sophie looked up to catch his gaze.

“Are you okay Miss? I am so sorry for the shock.” He looked back to the road again.

Sophie wanted to say something, anything. She could think of nothing. She felt ashamed. She stared out the window in silence, watching the scenery race by and the airport come into view. The queaziness was still there, and she took another gulp of water. She realized then what it was that she wanted to say, but knew she wouldn’t. He wouldn’t have accepted it. She wanted to say “I’m sorry.”

As Toronto International Airport came into view, Sophie tried to collect her thoughts. She wouldn’t see this place for a whole year. Would she miss it? She knew she would, and she also knew she would be homesick for things she had not even thought of yet. She opened the door to her taxi. The driver had already placed her luggage on the sidewalk in front of her. As she struggled to get her backpack on, he came around behind her.

“Miss, let me help you.” He pulled the strap over her left shoulder and shifted the weight so that it was hanging evenly from her back.

“You have a safe journey, Miss.” He smiled, his eyes looking straight at hers. Sophie wanted to say something. She wanted to somehow acknowledge his kindness .

“You’ve been very helpful. Please, how do you say “Thank you” in Pakistani?”

He looked at her with a bit of a quizzical look on his face, his head tilting slightly to the side. And then he smiled.

“Miss, I don’t know about Pakistani. But in the part of India where I come from we say “Dev boren koru.”

It was Sophie’s turn to become red. She finally said what she had wanted to in the taxi. “I’m sorry.”

“Miss. You don’t worry. You will go on a plane. You will see. Everything will be good.”

He gave her a little pat on her shoulder, smiled, and turned to get into his cab. Sophie picked up her suitcases and walked towards the terminal and the plane waiting to take her to Japan. She stuffed the dictionary in her pocket. She knew it wouldn’t teach her everything, but it would be a start.

1 comment:

Patrick Jackson said...

Shows it's true about people who drive convertibles. Question is, was he Elise's Dad? Or Sophie's, trying to get to the airport to stop her going. Presuming of course that this story is in no way autobiographical as I am sure Western Woman has never had a hangover(;p)
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