Suneer’s eyes opened at 5am as they did everyday, his internal clock tuned to the schedule he’s followed for nearly 27 years. With long slow blinks he pulled himself from the lull of dreaming and wriggled his way up to a seating position, pausing every few seconds to wait for the ache in his joints to subside. He spends the next minute coughing a dry painful cough, the unmistakable hacking of a smoker’s lungs. It had been two years since he quit, since his doctors told him the coughing would become easier to bear. Have you thought of retiring anytime soon? They asked him.
After drinking his morning chai and washing his face, Suneer left his small boutique apartment and waddled to his restaurant. Each step sent a wave of misery up his leg to his waist. The stairs leading up to the door of the restaurant would be the worst, a single set of 15 steps which are a bit larger than normal.
The ink-black sky of the late November morning flickered with stars and the moon hung heavy on the horizon and the cold wind sent goosebumps down Suneer's back. Soon the land would be awash with the pink glow of the sunrise, and Suneer paused for a moment at the doors of his restaurant to catch his breath and stare into the dotted void above. For a moment he could smell it, the crisp air of Nanda Devi, the sacred Himilayan mountain, where he resided in his ashram and survived as a Yogi in his early years. The sensation wet his jaundiced eyes and brought a small smile to his lips above his massive beard. Another brisk wind and cough broke his longing and he shuffled inside, grabbing the mail on the way in.
He didn’t see the envelope then, his routine engrained. He tossed the pile of letters and flyers onto the desk and made his way to the kitchen, where he stoked his tandoor oven and prepared ghi for naan bread and vegetables for his curries. An hour later his wife arrived, dragging a fifteen kilogram bag of onions, her own pain stretched across the wrinkles of her face. She left the bag on a piece of cardboard on the kitchen floor and made her way to the desk, keeping her balance on the countertops and anything else she could grasp. She sat down heavily and exhaled a tired wail. She shuffled through the mail.
“Rent is due soon. And so are taxes.” she said while picking out the bills, loud enough for Suneer to hear. He pretended he didn’t. “There’s a letter for you here.” Even when the world was quiet, her voice hardly registered with Suneer anymore.
“Take the chairs down and wipe the tables,” he said to her from the kitchen. He hadn’t realized she’d already done it. He took a small container from the refrigerator, opened it, and scooped out a cold gelatin with two fingers, a little concoction he had whipped up a few days prior. He grimaced at the bitterness of it, and tossed it in the garbage.
With the prep ready, he came out to sit at his desk and watch the news on his old computer, a fresh chai in a brown mug. He saw the letter then, sitting atop his keyboard. The envelope was light dijon in colour, and had “Baba-ji” written in hand drawn calligraphy. He opened the envelope with a nearby pencil and took out the card inside.
You are cordially invited to join Henry Kobayashi at a celebration of his retirement and honourable career as an esteemed guest.
The event will be held in the ballroom at the Ritz Motel in Carleton,
Saturday November 30th at 7:00pm.
Please RSVP at 844-349-5091
Henry’s signature graced the bottom of the letter. Suneer took a deep breath and closed the card.
“That’s for Henry’s retirement party isn’t it? When is it?” asked his wife. Suneer turned on his computer and waited for it to load.
“Saturday,” he said.
“That’s our busiest day, you can’t go.” his wife said. Suneer stayed quiet and just watched his TV until noon, as customers began arriving for lunch. In the broiling heat of his small kitchen he made curries and naans while his wife prepared side salads, took orders and brought drinks. The two of them toiled from noon until eight without rest, just as they had for the past two decades.
As his wife collected her things to leave for the night, Suneer told her he was going to the retirement party. She sneered, mumbling that he could pay for rent and the girl’s schooling with his own earnings before leaving for her small house, where Suneer hadn’t stayed for nearly twelve years.
After shutting off the lights, Suneer moved a table and extended a bed hidden in one of the booth seats. As he sat down the blood rushed back to his swollen feet and knees, and he brought them up to massage them with his thumbs.
He looked at the invitation on his desk. The rush of the wind outside turned into an image in his mind: a Canadian forest, with tall trees dancing in the wind, a storm approaching with a rumbling calm. He and Henry Kobayashi had fashioned a shelter out of their canoe and a tarp, from which marijuana smoke escaped in plumes from the bottom. Then, as rain began pelting the ground like needles and thunder roared above, Suneer and Henry shared secrets, hopes and dreams. They spoke of where they were going and where they would hope to be. What they would do in the event of each other’s death, and the kind of pacts best friends make.
Another round of coughs ripped Suneer from his memories. He laid back down and wheezed himself to sleep.
On Saturday he closed the restaurant at 4:00pm and returned to his apartment. He ate a small dish of potato and cauliflower curry with rice, drank chai, showered, and pulled out an old box from the bottom of his closet. Inside he pulled out a dazzling red and yellow kurta, purchased 10 years prior when he had returned to India for his mother’s funeral. Suneer put on the kurta and did up his hair with a level of care he believed to have long since forgotten. He wrapped his hair in a silk turban which protruded high up, then looked at himself in the mirror. In an instant he found himself back in the small high end shop in Delhi, the ghost of his mother reflecting in his eyes. You look so handsome Suneer, she whispered.
The taxi dropped him off at the Ritz at 6:45pm. The driver helped him out of the cab and handed Suneer his cane, for which Suneer smiled and thanked him. Suneer made his way inside and took a seat at the nearest bench, leaning forward with both hands on his cane. He noticed the new light fixtures and the front desk, the carpeting and wallpaper. It had all changed significantly since he was last here. He sat in the lobby and waited for 10 minutes, looking for Henry. He saw many well dressed people. a few people that had come into his restaurant a few times, and even recalled some of their names. A few came to say hello, asking him about his restaurant and his wife, promising to come for a meal soon. He did not see Henry.
A voice echoed from down the hall. “If everyone could please find their seats, we will begin the celebration shortly.” With a grunt Suneer got up to his feet and waddled to the main ballroom. He was not sure what to expect for this celebration, but he certainly did not expect this. The ballroom was filled with blue and white balloons and hanging decorations of all kinds. Two dozen tables with six to eight seats each filled the ballroom with a name assigned to each seat. At the front was a stage with large blue curtains at the back and a giant hanging banner which spelled out “Congratulations Henry!” in sparkling letters. Suneer scanned the room for Henry, but could not see him. His legs were already weighing him down.
“Excuse me, brother,” he said to a passing hotel employee. “Could you help me find where I sit? My leg not so good.”
“Uhh, sure, what’s your name?” asked the pimple-faced employee, looking over his shoulder at the other staff rushing in and out of the door with drinks.
“Alright, please wait a moment.” The young server sped away. As Suneer waited he continued to look for a familiar face, but all he could see was a sea of strangers, even if some weren’t strangers at all.
There was a time not too long ago when his restaurant was more than just a place to have a meal. It was a community center, comedy club, and not-so-legal drinking establishment. He had been in the local paper a number of times for his volunteer work, and his curries were revered all over the east coast. Friends would bring family or other friends from overseas so that they could try his famous coconut masala or attempt to finish the super hot curry. And Suneer always try to come out from behind the kitchen to greet his guests, asking them about their families and complimenting them on anything he found beautiful about them. But over the past few years, many familiar faces stopped coming, and fewer and fewer of his friends came to have a meal or even just a chai.
Standing there, he remembered one particularly rowdy night, where friends sang and danced on the tables in various forms of undress, laughing and drinking. One of those people was Henry. They were celebrating his promotion.
“Never forget what we discussed under the canoe that night Suneer,” he had told him, “No matter what.” In the ballroom Suneer smiled. He remembered.
“Excuse me, sir?” The young employee had snuck up on Suneer, who turned around in a kind of confusion, as if he was hearing voices.
“I’m sorry sir, but I can’t find your name at a table. I brought you a chair to sit on while we prepare a place for you.” Suneer was unsure how to answer. Esteemed Guest, as it said on the card. The young man was already gone, whisked away by his duties.
Perhaps his seat at a table would be ready in a moment.
Suneer was still sitting on the chair at the back of the ballroom by himself when the lights lowered slightly and the celebrations began. A man came to a podium up front, the MC for the evening. He spoke of the years he had spent with Henry, of the bonds he had created with him. He spoke of the hardships and tribulations they had suffered together. He spoke of a friendship unlike any he had ever had.
Finally, he invited Henry up on stage. Suneer perked up and smiled at his old friend of over 30 years. Henry's speech began as speeches often do, by thanking those he worked with and the organizers of the event, friends and family, the most important by name. Suneer listened for his name, but it never came. Nevertheless he continued to listen, admiring Henry’s accomplishments in the field of medical science, of his Nobel prize winning research.
“It’s so great for you all to be here tonight.” said Henry, his speech wrapping up. “You’re here because in one way or another, you’ve had a profound impact on my life. So profound in fact, that I can call you more than just my friends. You are my brothers and my sisters.” Suneer remembered saying those exact words to him, under that tarp. You are my brother, and we are connected not by blood, but by… “our hearts.” Henry said. "And there is a person in the audience today, one whom without I wouldn’t be the man I am today."
Suneer smiled, his eyes moistening and his heart full. Then, Henry said a name he did not recognize. It was the MC. Henry invited him up to the stage and they hugged. There was a standing ovation. Suneer, unable to stand that fast, stayed seated.
After all the speeches were said and done, Henry walked around the room greeting people. With the help of his cane Suneer stood, and began walking towards Henry. Once he came into Henry’s field of vision, Henry opened both of his hands and cocked his head to the side, smiling a strange smile, one that Suneer did not recognize.
“Suneeeeeer! So good to see you!” Henry said.
“Good to see you too brother! You look so thin man, what happen to you?” Suneer said.
“Oh, just my doctor. Tells me to lay off of the sugar. It’s helped a lot.”
“You look great man! Listen, I want to say something to you. I remembar when-”
“Suneer, have you thought about retiring?” Suneer froze at the question.
“Retire man? You crazy? If I retire I die!” he said, followed by a belly laugh. Henry didn’t laugh back.
“Suneer, it was wonderful to see you. I’ll be by to have some curry soon eh?”
“Wait, Henry brother, do you remembar what we said to each other?” But it was too late. Henry was already five steps away, shaking someone else's hand. People followed him, and Suneer stood alone.
Henry hadn’t yet come in the three months since the retirement party, when Suneer found his wife collapsed on the floor. She was pronounced dead at the hospital a few hours later.
That night Suneer returned to his restaurant, sat at his desk and cried. It was four in the morning. He found Henry’s number on the phone and dialed it. It went straight to voicemail.
After a while Suneer returned to the kitchen and finished cleaning. Then, he whipped down the tables, put up the chairs and turned off the lights. He locked the doors behind him and walked back to his little apartment. The pink glow of the morning light filled the entire sky. There was no wind and Suneer was not cold, and there was little pain in his legs.
He laid down on his futon and stared at the ceiling with his fingers crossed. He thought of all the smiling faces which came into his restaurant over the years and all of the laughs he shared over full bellies and drunken heads. He thought of the birth of his daughters and the joy he had felt holding them for the first time. He thought of the moment he first met his wife, of her beauty in the Indian moonlight, when she visited his ashram all those years ago. He thought of Henry and the promise they had made together in that storm, the one he knew Henry had forgotten.
Finally, he thought of his mother. On her deathbed she had said: One day you may have to retire your body, my dear Suneer, but remember never to retire your heart.
That day, Suneer finally retired.