Creative Nonfiction by Charmaine Arjoonlal
Each country has its own interpretation of curry, the spicy vegetable and meat dish which originated in India. Curry has a strong odor which lingers long after the meal is finished.
Memories that are brought on by smells are called scent memories.
“Teach me to make your curry?” my son Finn asked when he was home visiting at Christmas. Normally the smell of curry brought back difficult memories but the thought of teaching Finn filled me with warmth.
“The trick is to burn the curry,” I said, turning on the stove. Finn is a blend of my South Asian and Portuguese heritage with the Irish of his father. At 25 and meticulous, he keyed my words into his phone.
“We’ll make Guyanese-style curry,” I explained, showing him how much West Indian curry powder and water to put into a bowl to make a paste. “I learned how to make this type of curry from Sanjay, my first husband.”
I glance sideways at Finn who is looking intently at his phone. He knew that I had been married before but didn’t know the details. Something sparked and smoked on the burner, the smell acrid.
“But I first learned about curry from Johnson, my boyfriend at university.”
I want to say Johnson was a fierce love, that left me hollow in places like only a first love can do. But I say nothing.
Finn turned to look at me.
“Teach me how to make your curry!” I demanded of Johnson after seeing the package of West Indian curry his mom had sent in the mail. Johnson’s parents were of Chinese descent and had emigrated to Toronto from Trinidad when Johnson was 16. They were still under the impression he was dating a Chinese girl.
Johnson and I had met a few months earlier. I was 18 and selling tickets in the Wilfrid Laurier University concourse, a student meeting place alive with chatter. I heard a high-pitched giggle—like a girl, my father would have said. I looked up to see a short man trying to be tall, wearing cowboy boots. I felt a tingling I had never felt before. It felt funny but it was a nice kind of funny. He’s the laughing Buddha, I thought. Johnson and I were together after that—snap—like the crackle and pop of the breakfast cereal I ate every morning.
Shortly after we met, I had shared with Johnson that I was transracially adopted and while I knew my birth parents were from the West Indies, I didn’t know my ethnicity. When Johnson told me his ethnicity, I misheard and thought he said I was Chinese.
“No,” he giggled, his laugh lines rippling, “I’m Chinese. You’re Indian—probably from Trinidad.”
I had felt a quiet deep inside of myself, an opening into something new. My background was likely Trinidadian like Johnson’s. Our skin colors were different but we had something the same.
I had taken to wearing bracelets thinking they made me look like the South Asian women I had seen around campus. I admired their glowing brown skin, shiny black hair, gold bangles and feisty sparkle as they chattered amongst themselves moving through the corridors. They seemed so sure of themselves and their place in the world. My bracelets weren’t made of gold, but of cheap plastic I had purchased at the Dollar Store but they still jingled and jangled as I moved, making me feel important somehow, like I mattered.
I liked the idea that I might be of South Asian descent from Trinidad. If I made food authentic to this ethnicity, I felt it would transform me into who I wanted to be, who I thought I could be.
“The trick is to burn the curry,” Johnson said, as he shook out some yellow curry powder into the oil sizzling in the wok. The fragrance filled his kitchen and hallway, infusing its way into the bedrooms which he rented to other students. Johnson was five years older than me and had worked a few years as a mechanic before going back to school. I worked part-time in a group home in Cambridge, an adjacent city, and when he realized I was taking a voyager bus back and forth to work, he drove me in his red Camaro which glittered in his driveway. I desperately needed to be with him, breathing in his scent, soaking up his energy, receiving his caresses. He filled me up.
I moved behind him to peer over his shoulder, enjoying his warmth. We were the same height.
“What does ‘burn the curry’ mean?”
“Fry it until it turns dark brown.”
“What if you don’t have a wok?”
“All Chinese have a wok.”
“I’m not Chinese.”
“I’d marry you if you were Chinese.”
I stopped breathing. I couldn’t make any words come out. So I said nothing.
“The trick is to burn the curry,” Sanjay said as he bent over the stainless-steel pot in the waning November light, in our tiny one-bedroom apartment in Toronto. Sanjay’s brown skin, darker than mine, gleamed yellow in the fluorescent lighting. Of South Asian descent, he had emigrated to Toronto from Guyana when he was young.
As I neared the end of my final university semester in April and still dating Johnson, I had needed full-time work and at that time Sanjay was executive director of a Toronto group home with the same organization I worked for in Cambridge. When he called in March to invite me to a job interview, his voice was lyrical, full of curiosity and new possibilities.
Something happened to Johnson and me after we finished university in April when I was 21. It was like we chose to take a break from each other without talking about it first. The pain of this sat deep in my core, but I didn’t acknowledge it, didn’t call him, didn’t try to see him. He had moved back in with his parents who maintained certain Chinese traditions and as their eldest or first son, Johnson was expected to marry a Chinese girl and assume the family business. His family situation had always been a weight over us, pressing, until we couldn’t breathe.
When Sanjay lived in Guyana, he had learned to cook by watching his mother and sisters but because they put in a little of this and a little of that, he had figured out a workable recipe as he went along. It didn’t turn out quite like theirs but he figured it was close enough. Because I was a woman and his wife, he now expected me to assume the cooking. Johnson and I had broken up in April and it was now November. I was 21, newly married and wanted to please him.
In the pot, there was more cooking oil than curry paste but the excess oil disappeared as the paste turned a dark brown. It reminded me of brown sugar fried in butter but the brown sugar looked gloopier. The odor of frying curry elicited memories of Johnson whom had first told me the expression, “burn the curry”. But Sanjay’s jealousy simmered, his violence unpredictable. I had learned to choose my words carefully and pretended it was the first time I’d heard the expression.
“Burning the curry just means to fry it for a while?”
“Yes, I think so.” He paused and then added. “Yes, curry has to be fried first to release the flavor. Then add the meat. Once the meat is mostly cooked, add water and then the eggplant.” He threw in a handful of chopped green onions. Most of the smell escaped through the rasping stove fan but some permeated our apartment furnishings to remind us of our previous meal.
Stirring the rainbow mixture he mused, “Goat makes the best curry but because we don’t have any, we will use chicken.” Sanjay spoke with precise English, avoiding the use of Guyanese creole like it was rancid. The lights buzzed and flickered, the shadow of his dimples like craters.
“I need to buy you a sharper knife!” my son Finn exclaimed as he watched me sawing apart the chicken thighs. I was too scared to use our cleaver. I liked my fingers and thumbs attached to my hand.
“Here, let me do it.” Finn moved in to help, pushing aside various crinkly packages of green onions, yellow split peas and cumin, slamming shut a kitchen cabinet I had left open which had almost caught him in the eye.
“Does it matter what type of chicken?” Finn asked, the cleaver already clattering onto the counter. He carried the cutting board full of chicken pieces to the stove.
“Thighs or drumsticks are the best. But you can also buy a whole chicken and cut it up. I don’t bother removing the skin. It adds flavor.” I spoke like I knew what I was talking about but I didn’t, not really.
When I had arrived at the Toronto group home for my job interview in March, Sanjay opened the door and held out his hand. His face looked soft and beckoned to be touched. I had never touched brown skin before. I reached out and grasped his hand instead.
Once inside, I sank into the plastic-covered couch laced with the features of group living—sticky, crumby, piles of mismatched mildew-riffed pillows and that smell created by urine-filled pants and diverse humans, forced to eat and play together and the required casualness of it all. I looked around, noting the plexiglass windows, bare countertops, the lack of books and knickknacks.
Sanjay shared that he had first trained as a Pentecostal minister and joined a large Toronto congregation. But when he was overlooked for a promotion, he left the church to become executive director for this home, which opened to support people displaced by deinstitutionalization in Ontario. While I was surprised that he confided in me, I was more intrigued by his apparent lack of resentment.
There was something about Sanjay that seemed out of place in a group home. Maybe it was his shiny pale blue three-piece suit with matching tie. Maybe it was his reflective black shoes entangled in the fluorescent orange shag rug. But his friendliness and easy-going manner were compelling. I was confident, poised and sure and gazed at Sanjay in eager anticipation of the first interview question. I had worked with people with profound cognitive and behavioral challenges since I was fourteen years old. I was ready.
“How did you get a name like Gilmour?” I was taken aback, perplexed to be asked this question by another person of color. I didn’t yet know how to give half-truths or partial answers. I could have just said “it’s my birth name,” which wasn’t entirely true even though it was the name on my birth certificate.
“I was adopted.” As I shared my story, I felt warmed by his interest. Sanjay hired me on the spot for a full-time position to start in May after completion of my university exams.
“Is this how you spell jeera?” Finn asked, showing me his phone screen.
“J-e-e-r-a. It’s cumin in Hindi. When I knew Sanjay…before I met your dad…his family still used some Hindi words, especially when cooking.”
Finn accepted my answer without asking any questions. I admire that in him. I seem to ask incessant questions. Maybe I’m curious how some people come to be confident, at ease with others and are able to speak up for themselves. They seem so self-assured. What’s their secret? I’m proud of Finn, who while still young, is much more grounded than I’ll ever be.
“First you chop the onion, garlic, kū míng and hot pepper really, really fine.” Johnson used a knife like he went to cooking school, not the business program in which he attended. “Don’t touch your eyes,” he said, pretending to cry, then giggled, a grin lighting up his face. “Scrape the curry paste into the wok.”
“What’s kū míng?” I asked.
“Cumin,” he said.
Slam! I jumped as Johnson took a cleaver to the drumsticks.
Chicken drumsticks make the best curry,” he said between slams. “Cut ends off but watch for broken bones. Remove skin.” I watched him expertly rip the raw skin off the bones and dump the drumsticks with a gurgling plop into the frying curry paste. He added some water to the pan and stirred everything together, the scent settled into my pores.
Johnson took a scrub brush to the already clean-looking rice cooker. I looked out his window at the apple tree whose apples we had picked that morning. I hadn’t been interested in cooking, preferring to eat potato chips or pizza from Pizza Pizza, but I wanted to absorb the parts of Johnson’s culture that I chose to make mine. His culture would connect us.
“I told my mom I was dating a Korean girl.” Johnson giggled. Growing up in a home without laughter, I had been drawn to his giggle. He was always giggling.
“She say, Korean like Chinese.” English was Johnson’s second language and he sometimes clipped his words.
“Why would you say that to her!?” He shrugged.
“Just teasing you.”
A few nights before, Johnsons’ friends from Toronto had come to visit him in Waterloo. I hadn’t been invited but felt drawn to walk by his house after dark. I had observed their shadows dancing behind the opaque drapes on his window. The intensity of my longing had compelled me to stop and watch them. They looked like they were laughing. I thought they were laughing at me. I felt forlorn, torn and abandoned like the leaves skittering along the sidewalk. I don’t know why I hadn’t asked to join them. I guess I just figured he didn’t want me there because his friends were all of Asian descent, who only dated others of Asian descent, and he was embarrassed by me. I looked up at the quarter moon and tilted my head. The moon changed into a smile. Or was it a jeer?
After I was hired at the Toronto group home, Sanjay put in a good word with the building manager of the apartment complex where he lived and I was able to move from my student housing in Waterloo into a tiny one-bedroom apartment in St. James Town, not far from the Toronto downtown core.
St. James Town consisted of multiple buildings, filled to the brim with people from all over the world. I was fascinated by the cooking smells that lingered in the hallways like they belonged there, making their way to hang out in the elevator which became a smorgasbord of scents, curry by far the strongest. Sanjay and I were in different buildings but often encountered each other at the Parliament or Wellesley subway stops. When he still worked at the group home, we chatted on the way to work.
At 31, Sanjay seemed to have an understanding of people that eluded me. I was a naïve 21-year-old, choosing to remain in the moment, going from one day to the next. In many ways, it was a wonderful way to be—to think well of people, be positive and have fun. Yet I had childhood trauma tucked into my deepest parts that created blinders when making life choices.
Johnson and I sat down on the stone steps of the Wilfrid Laurier University registrar building, not worried at all that we’d get dirt on our graduation robes. It was a blistering day in June, but the stairs were cool, welcoming. Perspiration had gathered under my arms and lower back and I could feel a trickle behind my ears. While having spent many hours talking on the phone, it was the first time we had seen each other since we completed our university coursework two months earlier.
We had agreed to meet up at our Convocation ceremony. Our parents were in attendance but we decided it was too complicated to introduce them. After crossing the stage to receive our degrees, we had stolen a few minutes for ourselves.
I looked at his profile. His stubby nose, chubby cheeks and short eyelashes. His cowlick had started to protrude in the heat. It wasn’t his looks that had first attracted me. It was his energy, his vitality for life, his joy in everything around him. He turned his head to face me, his rounded cheeks flushed with the heat.
“Will you marry me?”
A few hours ago, when we hugged and I smelled his familiar scent, I felt a type of ecstasy, I was so overjoyed to see him. I loved him with a love that ate at me from the inside out and the only way to assuage it was to be with him. I still loved him but now my love hurt. My insides felt mixed up, tangled, like the vines on the brick building. Sanjay had been wooing me, leading me on a romantic adventure and with him, I didn’t feel like my brown skin inhibited me from succeeding in life.
I leaned forward to rest my elbows on my knees, now chilled in the shade, my black robe like a shroud. “But your parents. I thought you said they’d disown you. That everyone would hate you.”
“I’d give up everything for you.”
I didn’t believe him. He, the eldest son, turn his back on his parents?
Overhead the sky was a sharp blue and a breeze stirred the nearby trees. We were covered in dappled sunlight, the spots moving across my gown like they had a purpose, like they knew the answers. I studied my black high heels, the cracks in the pavement seemed to engulf us.
Why couldn’t he have asked before we finished school, when I yearned for him like no other? When I would have given everything up for him. When I would have absorbed myself into him, into his life. Lost myself.
Goosebumps prickled my arms and legs. The situation demanded that I say something but I couldn’t find the words. The fact that my ethnicity didn’t inhibit my budding relationship with Sanjay, confirmed that Johnson and I wouldn’t last together. Even if he gave up everything for me, I felt there would come a time when he’d regret it. He’d miss his family and community and traditions. He’d miss his father’s business sense and yeah, miss his father’s money. It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought of these barriers before. But sitting there on those steps, in that moment, in the absoluteness of youth, I was sure of them. Our relationship couldn’t work.
“Are you seeing someone else?” His voice was perfunctory.
“Well,” I paused. “I’ve been hanging out with Sanjay a bit. But we’re just friends.”
I looked away. His silence crashed like bricks between us.
Making a curry meal was a big process for me, usually taking at least three hours. There were multiple dishes each with a number of steps. And I had a bad habit of entering my own thoughts and spending time there, until the hiss of something boiling over jolted me back.
Finn, however, didn’t have that problem. As I described a chickpea dish called Channa in Guyana, he intuitively soaked up the subtleties of the dish. He was a natural cook, precise, with an exactness that I didn’t have. It just wasn’t in me.
I moved from my apartment into Sanjay’s one bedroom apartment after we were married. I thought my apartment was a better choice since I hadn’t seen the scurry of cockroaches with the flick of a light but Sanjay preferred the layout of his, even though his kitchen was squished into one corner.
He taught me to make a version of a Guyanese dish called callaloo. It was an easy dish to make and consisted of spinach, onion and small shrimp but the trick was to get the salt just right. Sanjay and his family didn’t measure anything, just gauged the amount by the quantity of the ingredients.
One evening, I put a layer of spinach in the pot and sprinkled in some salt. After adding another layer of spinach and some water, I felt there still wasn’t enough and with a flourish, added more salt before tossing in the previously-fried shrimp and onion. The spinach steeped and then it was ready. Confident, content with what I had cooked, I didn’t think I needed to taste it.
Sanjay was sitting in front of the TV—our kitchen was too small to eat in—and I proudly served him a dish. Still looking at the TV, he put a spoonful into his mouth and then gagged, coughing his mouthful back onto the plate. His eyes narrowed, twisting his face. He leapt to his feet and shoved me hard in the chest. The floor came up to meet me.
He bent over me, his fist in front of my face. “Too much salt. You can’t do anything right!”
I lay crumpled like the husk of the cockroach in the corner. I knew how it felt.
“So, I learned how to make dhal the way the Guyanese do,” I said to Finn. Sanjay told me that when people of South Asian descent emigrated to Guyana from India, lentils weren’t available, so they used yellow split peas instead.”
Finn, absorbed with his phone, didn’t reply. He has a huge social network so I figured he was texting a friend.
I repeated, “No lentils I guess,” and shrugged my shoulders. Finn was still looking at his phone. Maybe he needed the distraction to process what I was saying. I decided to keep talking.
“Sanjay’s family poured dhal on top of rice, like a sauce—part of the curry meal.”
Setting his phone aside, Finn dumped the pre-soaked yellow split peas into a pot of boiling water. Water droplets popped on the burner.
“Where’s Sanjay now?” Finn asked, bending over the pot as it came to a foamy boil, the steam teasing his dark brown hair into curls. I loved seeing some of myself in his features.
“I have no idea”, I responded after a pause. I realized that my stomach was churning, cramps etched their way across my abdomen. “I’ve searched Google and Facebook but his name doesn’t come up. But he used different names. It’s been a long time.”
Rubbing my stomach, I paused to watch Finn. Six feet tall with olive-colored skin, he carefully scraped off the foam from the peas with a metal spoon.
“Now pound down the peas with this,” I said, showing him a wooden meat tenderizer with a large flat bottom. “Sanjay’s family boiled the peas until soft then squished them with something like this—I waved the tenderizer—which flattened them, which then thickens the broth part of the dhal.” I felt a little queasy and sat down on a kitchen chair.
“I left Sanjay when I was 23 but essentially had to disappear.” As usual when Finn needed to process something, he said nothing.
I looked around the West Indian restaurant while I chewed. I was 23 and Sanjay and I had been married for a couple of years now. When we met, I had been attracted to his gregarious nature and ability to work with people with profound intellectual disabilities. He had a gift like I’d never seen before. Johnson, on the other hand, had told me people with severe disabilities should be killed at birth. I was shocked and broke up with him but we got back together when he said he didn’t mean it.
I thought back to Sanjay’s marriage proposal in the revolving restaurant at the top of the CN tower. It was September and I was 21. He had gotten down on one knee and I felt my world spin. I remember how the sparkle of my engagement diamond reflected in the restaurant glass which also mirrored Toronto’s downtown lights far below. I was like a princess who stepped into a fairyland to find her prince and felt as bright and shiny as my new ring.
“Stop looking at that man. You’re disgusting.” I jolted and my knee hit the underside of the table bringing me back to the reality of two years of marriage with a man who never was a prince and certainly was never my prince. The fairytale had long ended.
“I wasn’t looking at him, I was just looking around.”
My stomach clenched. Nausea churned which made me gulp. I swallowed a few times and looked at the curry and dhal-covered rice in front of me. I don’t know why I bothered to defend myself. The damage had already been done.
The previous evening Sanjay had punched me in the shoulder and held me in a corner, the spittle of his rage hitting me in the face. He was careful to only punch me where the bruise stayed hidden. Usually after such an episode, he took me out to dinner. I forgave easily in those days or perhaps I was just good at avoiding certain thoughts, choosing to look at the bright side. I also believed strongly that marriage was a covenant made with God and if I were unhappy, it was my fault somehow. Sanjay had told me repeatedly that I needed to submit to his authority as ordained by God and by doing so, I would experience joy.
“Smile. People are looking. You’re embarrassing me.”
I blinked rapidly, terrified a tear would drop. I forced my lips, then my cheeks into a smile. My face felt tight and stung with the injustice of it all. I glanced at my husband’s handsome face. He had hit me for the first time on our honeymoon. I had realized then that his insides were twisted, damaged in a way that he couldn’t always hide. He had been an abused child, both physically and psychologically, his parents preferring his older brother, their first son, and for some unknown reason they scorned him.
“Eat your food,” he growled under his smile.
I picked up my fork. My fingers were shaking. I stabbed a piece of curried chicken and put it in my mouth. It tasted greasy but I chewed and chewed and forced it down. I imagined I heard the plunk when it hit the bile in my stomach. I coughed and Sanjay glared at me. He was good at glares. Quick, deadly, to the point. Then he put on his smiling face which he showed to the world.
“This is my favorite part ‘cause I love the smell,” I gushed to Finn. “Chop these gloves of garlic…like…fine.”
Finn went to work with a knife. It wasn’t sharp enough to dice so he carefully cut the squished pieces smaller and smaller.
“Ok, pour a little oil into the frying pan and scrape the garlic into it.” The frizzle of browning garlic filled the air.
“Now pour a little jeera into your palm and dump it in with the garlic. You can’t fry it too long or the dhal will taste burnt.”
“How much jeera?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Fill your palm.”
“But my palm is bigger than your palm.”
It was true. Finn is a big man with massive shoulders and huge hands.
I filled my palm and showed him. He made notes on his phone.
Finn took his eyes off the frying garlic and jeera to look at me. “So, where’d you go when you left Sanjay?” Finn’s eyes were bright blue when he was born but they had gradually turned brown by the time he was six months old. Now they were the same color as mine, dark brown, more like black.
In retrospect, the worst thing about my relationship with Sanjay was that I had ignored the red flags. I had seen them. I had felt them. But I was blissfully caught up in the walks and dinners and adventures. Sure, he might have dissed my friends or had inflated bursts of jealousy but he was an exciting tour guide and I saw Toronto, what I felt was the real Toronto. Where to get the best cuts of meat at Kensington Market, where to eat in Chinatown, where to buy the best Madras curry, where unique items could be found at Honest Ed’s Warehouse. It was a whirlwind romance and the parts that weren’t, well, I tolerated them. I was attracted to Sanjay’s adventurous spirit and lively wit and the fact that he had no qualms about marrying a woman with brown skin. Being wanted superseded any misgivings I might have had. I believed that once we were married, all would be well.
“You are stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” Whack, a half-rotten turnip bounced off my stomach, then a withered carrot, then what Sanjay called eddoes, one after another until my stomach pulsed and the floor was littered with half-rotten vegetables. The kitchen smelled putrid.
“You need to look,” he’d screamed pointing to the crisper. “Look. Do you have a brain? Think!” He thrust himself towards me and forced my head towards the fridge, wrenching my neck. His screams entered my body and stayed there, bouncing around my organs, bruising my heart.
“Think,” he had screeched. I had plenty of time to think while cooking and cleaning for hours in the evenings after getting home from work while Sanjay lay on the couch watching TV even while unemployed. His anger and resentment no longer hidden, he openly blamed everyone else when he quit a job or was fired—it was always something that had been done to him.
I thought about plenty. I thought about my friends and aging parents who Sanjay refused to let me see, yelling and swearing and calling me vile names if he thought I’d contacted them. I thought about how I agreed to sign my pay cheques over to him to be put in an account in his name only. I thought about my sister asking me to be the Maid of Honor for her upcoming wedding but Sanjay’s refusal to let me attend any of the bridesmaid meetings or be present when she chose a dress. I was too terrified to refute him.
“Keeping track of the food is your job!” Sanjay had shouted. My back was pressed into the kitchen corner. My knees quivered. Sanjay half knelt in front of the open refrigerator blocking my way out of the narrow, rectangular kitchen. I was mortified at the possibility that our next-door neighbor heard his frenzied screams. Embarrassment burned in me, drying my tears.
Sanjay’s rant slammed like a fist into my already-wounded stomach. I stole a glance at his face. It was an ugly thing, scrunched and bent. The kitchen swirled in and out. I blinked a few times. My stomach ached, a deep ache that was beyond damage from vegetables that felt like baseballs.
The sharp smell of jerra brought me back to myself and I shifted my focus to Finn. Looking at him, I’m reminded there’s still kindness in the world.
“Quick, scrape it into the pot,” I say pointing to the almost-too-brown garlic and jerra sauteing on the stove, the fragrance making my stomach growl. Finn bent to grab an oven mitt and scraped the frying pan contents into the bubbling pot, the split peas now covered in froth.
“Turn the burner to simmer. It’s kind of like oatmeal when it thickens, it tends to stick easy.” Bubbles opened like craters, spitting, then disappearing. Finn snagged a wooden spoon, stirring rapidly.
“So, you asked where I went after I left Sanjay. By then I’d resigned at the group home and worked in an office. One day I pretended to go to work but actually waited around the corner until I knew he had left. Then I went back and got my stuff and stayed with my friend Beth. He didn’t know where she lived but he would wait for me at work when I got back from lunch. Or he would leave handwritten letters on my desk pleading for me to come back….” I paused to catch my breath. “In the letters he said that God had forgiven him—transformed him—and that I should forgive him too. I didn’t believe him. I changed jobs again and that’s where I met your dad. We eventually left Toronto together.” I realized I had been talking fast, maybe too fast.
Finn grabbed a clean knife to slice green onions but the knife was dull and he ripped them instead. He sighed, dropping the knife onto the cutting board.
I rummaged around in our knife drawer filled with blunt knives and the occasional barbeque tool tossed in for good measure, the clink and clank of my search adding to the ker-plunk of the dhal behind me, creating a beat of sorts.
“This one probably isn’t too bad,” I said, handing him a knife that I hadn’t seen in months. Finn gave me a long look and finished slicing the onions.
My heartbeat strummed in my ears. The fear had come back. Maybe it had never left.
“A knife is not a knife unless it’s sharp,” Sanjay shouted, jabbing the knife towards my chest. I backed up as far as I could and froze, not daring to move, afraid that he would actually kill me this time. My body erupted in tingles, sharp jabs of warning running down to my toes. I imagined the knife sliding into my body, the pulse of blood releasing me from the shame of feeling trapped in a situation of my own making.
Standing rod still, back pressed against the wall, lips pressed together, I waited until his anger abated. Silence was submission. After, I’d normally say and do anything to make myself feel safe again, even if it was fleeting.
But that day with a knife to my chest, I felt something shift in me, an awakening of sorts. The realization that I didn’t have to stay, that my feet could move forward and find a new life, hit me like a gust of fresh air.
After breaking up with Johnson, I had impulsively married Sanjay for the wrong reasons. I was never in love with him. I needed connection and a sense of belonging. He had hidden his true self behind the veneer of good looks and charm.
Sanjay had turned me into something that mostly functioned but my true self was gone. His rages, his fury, his need to dominate and humiliate me, extinguished me as surely as if I were already dead.
I had nothing left to lose. It was time to make a plan. To disappear.
“Should I make some rice?” Finn asked, pulling me back to the present.
“Sounds great,” I replied and thought about trauma. How it never fully goes away. How it lingers and embeds itself like curry, triggered by sounds or smells or certain words.
I breathe deeply through my nose, the curry scent entering my cavities, and deep into my brain. Maybe the smell is creating new pathways. New memories of this time with my son when I’m finally able to let go of the past and conceive hope for the future.
I look at Finn with motherly pride.
“You’re the curry maker of the family now,” I say to him and giggle. “Be creative.”
Charmaine Arjoonlal is a writer and social worker who lives with her husband and two spoiled dogs in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. When she’s not squeezing in writing, she enjoys hanging out in coffee shops, biking and swimming in cold lakes. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, MUTHA, Last Stanza Poetry Journal, Chaotic Merge and elsewhere. You can find Charmaine on twitter @Arjoonlal, on Instagram at @charmainearjoonlal or visit her website charmainearjoonlal.wordpress.com.