Fiction by Reena Shah
He hadn’t drawn anything in years, and his professors insinuated early on that his talent was limited by his preoccupation with realism, a lack of artistic vision.
As the IT Manager at ArtsConnect, Charles was accustomed to being left out of the loop. His department was the smallest, consisting only of himself and his boss Terry. His mother liked to tell relatives in China that he was a computer scientist, though she seldom mentioned that he worked for a nonprofit. To be fair, after two years, Charles was still unsure, himself, of the exact purpose of ArtsConnect. He knew it had something to do with connecting artists in cities (or was it connecting cities to artists?), but, as “the techie” — not to be confused with the Social Media Coordinator — other departments felt no compulsion to fill him in.
Charles sat next to Communications, a team that accounted for more than half of ArtsConnect’s IT and hardware complaints. Charles regularly cleaned up their machines after they’d downloaded too many dubious attachments or clicked on one too many malvertisements that rendered their cursors twitchy and sluggish. Their new coordinator (an excess, in his opinion, despite the team’s insistence that they were too short staffed to handle the uptick in international connections) would be no different.
But due to an HR blunder, the new hire was tied up in onboarding formalities and Charles was able to set up her workstation the way he liked: quickly and in peace. He tested internal server connectivity and the line to the coveted color printer where the other coordinators liked to print out personal photos that Charles sometimes found under stacks of invoices and press releases. Before he could return to his own desk, a windowless corner shielded behind a gray cubicle wall that he had requested to keep when the office transitioned to a more open configuration last year, Jim Blanch, Com Director, glided up beside him. A single nose hair peek-a-booed from his nostril, contrasting sharply with his bright blue glasses. To his left stood the new hire: a small, elfin woman with a pointy nose and an overwhelming mane of black hair.
“Charles. meet your new neighbor, Adi, our International Communications Coordinator.”
Adi’s brow furrowed. “Hello, Charles,” she said. Her unblinking brown eyes exuded warmth on an otherwise unsmiling olive-skinned face.
Charles stood up and blinked.
“Charles is our IT extraordinaire. He’s got you all fixed up from the looks of things, haven’t you Charles?”
Blanch stared at him. “The workstation, Charles.”
“That. Yes.” He motioned weakly to his cubicle. “If you need anything.” His eyes skimmed hers. He smiled, and his lips cracked.
For the rest of the day, Charles catalogued Adi’s every movement through the scratchy cubicle wall: the tap of her foot, her chair bumping against the edge of her desk, the rustle of her hair. He even detected a new scent in the office, something animal and bitter and vaguely minty.
She left exactly at 5:00pm. He heard her rise from her desk and walk briskly away. But a moment later she was back, her small head peering over Charles’s half wall. He smiled again. Wiggled some fingers in the air.
“There’s nowhere to eat around here.”
“Lunch. The delis suck.”
“Oh,” he said. Her eyes were too much, and the wall hid her mouth, leaving only her nose, a hair crooked, to look at. “You just have to know where to go,” he said.
“Know where to go?”
The next day, a blustery October afternoon, Charles took Adi to a Szechuan spot around the corner, the unfortunately named Soon Fatt, known for its dumplings. They got a booth by the kitchen and Charles sat with his back to the other tables. She’d recently moved to D.C. from New York via Mali. He tried to find out what she was doing in West Africa but she waved the question away, “Why does everyone always want to know what you’re doing in Africa?” She spoke quickly between small bites. She loved wonton soup but said she avoided pork. Charles did not point out the contradiction.
“Do you like it here?” Adi asked.
“D.C.? Sure. It’s quiet and easy.” He hated his words as soon as he spoke them.
“Hmm.” Charles hoped she would return to talking about herself. But she persisted. “So what do you do?”
“I’m the IT Manager. I-“
“No, not that. Other things.” She looked him straight in the eyes, her spoon in hand, a wonton precariously balanced on the edge of it. He wanted to push the dumpling back to safety with his chopsticks.
He shrugged. Discomfort gathered inside him.
“Oh dear,” she said, as if that settled it.
“I draw. Minored in Fine Arts.” This was, theoretically, true. He hadn’t drawn anything in years, and his professors insinuated early on that his talent was limited by his preoccupation with realism, a lack of artistic vision.
Adi smiled. “I can barely manage a circle. I’m writing a novel.”
She puffed out her cheeks.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
“It’s okay. I try not to jinx my process.” She wound her hair into a tight coil and held it by its tail.
Charles nodded though he didn’t understand how talking about it could jinx her process. He sensed she was not telling the truth, that there was no novel, just ideas, and felt both confused and exhilarated by their mutual half-truths.
As they walked back to the office, the wind whipped her hair, now free again, into loud shapes, and he tried not to look at her too often. She spoke about not knowing anyone and the difficulty of making friends in new places, though generally she did not believe in having lots of friends. “In college, all the South Asians hated me even though my family’s from Calcutta. And that was fine.” She had a habit of biting her bottom lip in a way that made him wince, as if any second she might pierce skin.
Over the following months, Charles found himself anticipating Adi’s, generally late, arrival and their daily small talk. He began examining his reflection more closely in the mirror, his round face – dark like his father’s – with a faint shadow lining his upper lip, which could easily be mistaken for discolored skin. On a whim, he bought himself a pink shirt to pair with khakis, even though he didn’t like how the fabric felt on his small paunch. Still, he took to wearing it on Thursdays when Adi would complain about her lunch options and he’d take her somewhere new: a palatable northern Thai restaurant near Georgetown, the taco truck outside Citibank, pho takeout in a poorly marked basement.
Adi asked him surprisingly little about himself except to inquire about his artistic pursuits, which Charles said were going well even though his art box remained tucked away on a shelf behind a dusty humidifier. He steered clear of asking about her novel, and she offered no updates. On occasion, she scrolled through pictures on her phone and showed him ones at random. A castle outside Paris. A dusty market in Bomako. Once, she held up a photo of her newly painted, alcove bedroom. “I did it myself,” she said, beaming. Bright, unrepentant raspberry. Paint dotted the ceiling like a herd of bloodied buffalo. He felt strangely touched by the sloppiness, though he would have touched it up immediately in his own one bedroom.
“It’s very… happy looking.”
Her favorite topic was the flawed characters around the office. Jim’s poor leadership. Carla’s fake tan. Abe’s unhealthy obsession with office supplies. Their after-work spa treatments on Fridays. “They are essentially endorsing modern day indentured servitude.”
Charles didn’t like to gossip but was pleased that the clique of coordinators held no sway over Adi. Maybe he just liked the sound of her voice.
On Sunday mornings, Charles called his mother. Their conversations consisted of meals and chores and the poor choices made by relatives that Charles had never met. He used to look forward to these chats, an easy way to feel like a good son, the kind who would eventually find a nice Chinese girl to settle down with, a life he didn’t want, though he saw no harm in playing along. Now, since meeting Adi, a new restlessness had set in.
“Are you using the tea cups?” his mother asked. “Charles?”
“Yes, mother. I am using them.”
“They are not for dishwasher. You handwash.”
“Yes, I make sure to handwash.” Charles felt his mother’s pursed lips through the phone. He stirred the touch of milk in his tea by way of response. The mug – white porcelain, thin around the rim with a single blue streak on one side, like a wound – was a souvenir from his parents’ last trip to Shanghai. The second mug, featuring an identical pink streak, lived in the back of the cabinet above Charles’ sink. His mother was the only one who ever used it on her occasional visits to D.C. She was petite with a wrinkled, kind smile, and when she held the mug she looked like a child, the large bowl overwhelming her small hands.
“What will you eat tonight?” his mother said, more statement than question.
“I haven’t decided.”
He heard her cluck. “No good fish market near your place. You lose all your good fat. Your father always have Sunday fish.”
“Actually, I may go out,” Charles said, and then added, without thinking, “with Adi, a girl from the office.” He felt his face flush.
“Oh.” His mother audibly inhaled and exhaled. “What name is that, ‘Adi’? Not Chinese name.”
Charles had overheard Adi say her full name over the phone only once, a name that sounded more like a phrase than a word, but couldn’t remember it later and wished he’d written it down, thinking it would be fitting, considering his feelings, if he chanted it to himself quietly under his breath before trailing off to sleep. In a staged version of himself, it was the type of thing he imagined he’d do.
“No, it is not Chinese,” Charles said. He imagined his parents sitting side by side at the kitchen table he’d known since childhood. “She needs computer help.”
“This Adi can’t wait for Monday? She make you run around on day of rest?”
Charles sighed. Of course there was no such dinner with Adi planned. He would find some decent fish to pair with udon noodles in a too-salty broth. He had hoped, foolishly, for a different reaction from his mother, one full of wonder and excitement, and now he felt bad about causing her unnecessary tension. He was an only child who followed and preceded miscarriages. He reminded himself now to purchase a birthday card for her later that day, preferably with flowers and the gold cursive writing that she enjoyed (“So elegant, cards in this country”). Charles always sent his card well in advance, knowing his father would make space for it among the solemn porcelain dolls and glass plants perched above the TV. “It’s okay. I don’t mind helping.”
“Well, I hope she pay for dinner. All this free work.”
As December approached, Charles discovered that Adi was, despite her tardy arrivals and punctual departures, a surprisingly capable and efficient worker. The task of acquiring visas for participants accepted in ArtsConnect’s upcoming spring conference had fallen to her, and she was effective, especially with the South Americans. She called embassies and consulates and returned calls promptly. Charles listened as she switched back and forth from English to Spanish, her Spanish voice more upbeat than her English voice, a sound that suited her. Judging from her confidence, he suspected that she couldn’t hear her own American twang. She maintained a tidy desk and labeled her binders in energetic block letters. She had a habit of posting notes to herself– call Chilean acrobats, Ecuador’s country code 593, brown rice for curry, Rodriguez the pan flautist? Charles wished he could collect these in his desk drawer.
Because of her efficiency, Adi sparked interest and apprehension around the office. She never joined Abe and Carla for lunch in the kitchen, despite their initial overtures. In fact, she only visited the kitchen to fill her pink water bottle or make coffee or pilfer through leftover lunch conference provisions. While Adi was not outwardly unfriendly (notwithstanding her biting comments outside the office), she did not display a need for acceptance. Worse, she was good at her job and found it easy and meaningless.
At times, Charles worried that this was the only reason Adi spoke with him at all. He was not a member of the coordinator clique and therefore an ally. Against a less tedious backdrop, Charles suspected that Adi would divine his own mediocrity, an unwanted reminder of his college studio classes. Given the choice, he would have enrolled in figure drawing every semester, where he could quietly go about capturing the shapes of things as they were. But there were other requirements: 19th Century Expressionism, the Rise of Cubism, Political Significance of the Surrealists. Charles studiously examined Picasso and Cezanne and made sure he could name obscure modern works, but he still earned a grade-inflated ‘C’ in Experimental Intensive.
His classmates assessed him dubiously, their gaze inching up from his shoes to his face. They expected that he would graduate and make copious amounts of money they outwardly disdained but secretly longed for. It didn’t matter that many of them also had other majors or that the college itself was middling at best as a fine arts institution.
Before the professor arrived, Charles would sit alone with his supplies at the ready, listening to the hum of camaraderie around him. He’d try to catch bits of conversations, snippets of intimacies, eager for someone to sit next to him and ask about his work or even just peek at it with curiosity. Had Adi been one of those classmates, had she walked into the studio and been forced to choose, Charles worried that she would have chosen the others. But the opposite scenario, had she pointed her perfectly imperfect nose in his direction and silently taken the seat next to his, left him simultaneously elated and nauseous, a sensation that grew stronger with each passing week. It was a feeling he could not help, and he knew that it would, eventually, require something of him, an action or decision.
For the office Christmas party, Adi brought a friend who she introduced as Mr. Thai, though Thai was the last thing he resembled. The job of photographing the event went to Charles, who was happy to have a task to keep busy. He took two photos of Adi that night, the first with Mr. Thai, as she requested, and the second zoomed in on just her face, Mr. Thai smiling for the camera, blithely unknowing that he was outside the frame. Charles uploaded the latter to his computer and printed a copy on the color printer, his heart pounding as he snatched it, still warm, from the output tray.
The next day, a Thursday, Charles had lunch with Adi at an Indian place on the Hill, and afterward, she wanted to walk. He could feel her tensing up next to him, her heels bearing down hard on the pavement, arms swinging, cigarette in hand. She reported that Mr. Thai was a self-involved, corporate bore who talked too much.
“Everyone here is. You walk outside into a land of Ann Taylor-J. Crew-Abercrombie uniforms,” she said.
“I hate it here,” She said quietly.
“That’s not true, is it?”
“I miss New York.”
“But didn’t you say you left to work on your-“
“I know what I said.” She stopped and turned to him. “I think the office air is tampering with my lungs, I swear.” He stared at her eyebrows that arched and then disappeared into nothing.
“But you smoke,” Charles said, pointing to the cigarette.
“That’s not how I mean.” She looked away.
On Friday night, Charles was falling asleep on his sofa, rain sliding down his windowpanes, when he received a text from Adi. “What are you up to?” Before he could reply, another arrived. “Home?” It was nearly 10pm. Charles hesitated. Three dots appeared, then abruptly disappeared. “Yes,” he wrote back. “Working on something.” The lie took his breath away.
Around 10:30 pm he heard urgent, impatient knocking on his door. She had not buzzed up, having snuck in behind someone else, probably catching the door just before it shut, something Charles was careful never to do. When he opened his apartment door he saw that her coat was soaked, water dripping off her nose.
“Are you okay?” Charles asked reflexively.
She shrugged and stepped into the foyer, a puddle forming at her feet. Charles took her coat and hung it in the bathroom. He could smell the alcohol on her breath.
“I’m sorry, I have nothing to drink except grape juice.”
She narrowed her eyes at him and then sighed. She wore a silver cuff on her wrist that looked like it required a key to remove. “Why do you assume I want something to drink?” she said. “Though I am starving.”
Grateful for the opportunity, he retreated to the kitchen, listening to Adi move about the apartment. He brought out a tray of fried noodles, a carton of grape juice, and two mismatched glasses. He poured. She placed a sweating glass on the coffee table without a coaster.
“What happened?” Charles ventured. They stood facing each other and Charles focused on the wall behind her.
“Don’t look so spooked. I’ll leave if you want me to. I thought we were friends.”
The statement offered no explanation but Charles accepted it. “Of course we’re friends.” He picked at a stubborn hangnail on his thumb, worrying the raw skin. “I’m sorry.”
“Please stop apologizing.”
Silence. Charles wanted to say that he was glad that she had come here. That she could always come here. But that’s not what he felt, and he interpreted this as a severe shortcoming. He never could grab at what was right in front of him, always deflecting, turning toward safety. He was, in short, afraid of her.
“Charles, you should get out more. Why don’t you ever go out?”
A flutter rose up from his belly. “I do get out.”
She looked at him accusingly. “How long have you been at ArtsConnect?”
“A few years.”
“That is just depressing.”
“It’s not that bad, Adi. The benefits-“
“Are a ball and chain? I know.”
She stood up and began walking around the apartment again, weaving between the practical sofa and hard backed chairs. “I thought by now that things would be different. That I’d be different.” She looked at Charles, tears pooling in her eyes. “But here I am at some nonprofit that doesn’t do anything.”
He could have walked over to her then, squeezed her arm or taken her hand. Friends can do that. But Charles felt frozen by both sadness and awe and instead pointed to a photograph, the only photograph in the room, on the bookshelf near where Adi stood. “Those are my parents.”
“What?” She took a step back.
“My mother and father. In that picture.” He shook his finger, beckoning Adi to follow.
“Oh.” She took the frame in both hands and regarded it. In the photo his parents stood side by side in front of the Queensboro Bridge, their faces unsmiling, shoulders squared to the camera, like overdressed guests.
“My father owns a grocery though he’s an engineer.” Charles sat on the edge of the sofa, the tray still in his hands.
“You’ve never mentioned that.”
She gave him a fake angry look and he shrugged. “You always live alone?” she asked.
“I’ve had roommates.”
She sat next to him and brought the glass of grape juice to her lips. They were quiet, facing forward on the couch, ice melting in their drinks. Finally, Adi spoke. “Show me something.”
He held the canvases up one at a time, starting with the larger pieces and then working his way to smaller sketches. She sat with her chin balanced on the heel of her hand. When he was done, she clapped and said she liked the bowl of rice best. She looked brighter, less weighed down by the night behind her. Charles was giddy and exhausted by her attention.
“You should show these somewhere. Or sell them online,” she said.
Charles placed the last painting back in his worn portfolio bag and fiddled with the handle. “I don’t think I could. They’re not good enough.”
“Of course they are.” She plucked a grape and held it between her teeth. “You’re just too lazy to try.”
Lazy? He had never been called lazy before, by anyone. His industriousness was one source of pride, and he was about to mention this fact when a rhythmic knocking came from his bedroom.
Charles busied himself with securing the clasp on his bag, which hadn’t worked in years. “That? The heater I think.”
When a neighbor began moaning, Adi cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “That’s no heater.” She kicked off her boots and leaned back, as if floating in a pool. “Lucky them,” she said and promptly fell asleep.
Charles retreated to his bedroom. The neighbors were now quiet, but Charles couldn’t sleep. He sat up in bed, the Christmas party photo of Adi propped up next to him, and started drawing her eyes, moving his own quickly from the photo to the Bristol sheet and back. He realized that they were not entirely symmetrical. She had a narrow gap between her teeth and a mole on her neck. When he thought about her asleep in the next room, he shivered, wishing he had the courage to tiptoe down the hallway to look at her. Instead, he kept working, and by dawn he had sketched a strong likeness.
He waited until 9:00am before slipping into the kitchen to make coffee, placing the mugs from China next to the pot. Adi was asleep on her stomach, her face buried into the sofa. She woke up looking disoriented. Charles tried his sunniest “Good morning.” She excused herself to the bathroom and emerged wearing her coat, which was still damp.
“Don’t you want to eat something? I have coffee.” Charles saw that traces of make up marked his sofa cushions.
She frowned. “I should go. Thanks for letting me crash.”
She left, the door slamming accidentally behind her.
Charles spent the rest of the day finishing the portrait. He took few breaks, eating little. Twice, he typed texts to Adi to check in, casually, like a friend, and both times he deleted them. What good would a text do? The portrait would suffice where words failed, a bold testament to all that he noticed about her.
He spent most of Saturday evening trying to nail down the troubling strand of hair that fell into Adi’s face. By midnight, not only had he shown how the curl reflected the light, but he’d also captured the mild irritation the strand caused her. The portrait was, he had to admit, striking. On Sunday, he found a wooden box at an antique store and painted it blue with white flowers. He avoided his mother’s calls and apologized to her in his mind. A short card seemed necessary, and he penned several phrases. “I have loved getting to know you this year” – too yearbook epitaph. “We should get together again some time” – too glib. He finally went with a direct statement in flawless script: “Dear Adi, Please accept this as a token of my love. Yours, Charles.”
On Monday morning, Charles arrived early. He kept the lights off in the main office and sat down at Adi’s desk, the box in his lap. She kept her stapler, pens, paperclips, tape dispenser, and sticky notes huddled together in the corner, and to the left, her hanging files in a hot rack, the labels handwritten in thick red pen. The notes had proliferated of late, written on scraps and quarter sheets, more frenzied with exclamation points and some just single words like “run” and “call” and “now.”
Without wanting to, he thought of his mother (she had called three times the day before leaving her usual curt voicemail messages – “Mom calling. Call back please.”). Right now she was probably taking a morning walk wearing sensible, thickly-soled, white tennis sneakers, her arms marching in straight lines by her side, her hair pulled back in a bun. She made a brisk loop each morning around the condominium community where Charles grew up in Flushing, never venturing off the block. His father would be in the living room, reading the paper with his notebook next to him, retired but fully dressed except for his shoes. When his mother returned she’d slip off her sneakers and head to the kitchen, as if living on her own, but would return with two cups of steaming tea in mugs identical to the ones she gave Charles. They would sit, his father reading and his mother holding her mug in both hands staring out the window. Charles didn’t know why the image struck him now while he sat at Adi’s desk, but he felt both warmed and repelled by it. He tried to replace his parents with himself and Adi in the picture, but the image was blurry at best and he could not see Adi’s face in the haze.
Charles placed the box carefully in the middle of the desk, mindful not to disturb her papers. He wanted it to look at home among her things, but it stood out completely. As he stepped into the space between his cubicle and Adi’s desk, Terry emerged, swirling a cup of coffee in her hand.
“Morning,” she said. “You’re here early.”
Charles nodded and tried to chuckle but produced only a short “heh.”
“Just as well. The servers reset.” Terry examined her orange nails that matched her blouse. “Blanch’ll be in a tizzy if we’re not online.”
“Right.” Charles waited, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“He thinks it’s all magic,” she said, circling a finger in the air. Her eye caught the box on the desk. “That’s new.”
Charles followed her gaze. “I hadn’t noticed it.”
Terry looked at him now. “Looks fancy.”
He shrugged, moving past her to his cubicle, turning on his computer and noisily clearing his desk. “Should I reboot?”
“Yes and then let’s test Blanch’s first,” she said.
“Give me an hour.” He felt Terry’s eyes on the back of his neck before she retreated down the hall. Small beads of sweat formed at his temples, like a kid in a shop hiding candy he intended to steal. He looked at his screen, but his mind was concentrating on footsteps.
By the time Adi arrived, Charles had run comprehensive diagnostics, cleaned out caches, and performed general maintenance. She was later than usual. He heard her say “good morning” to whoever she passed, her heels scraping the thin green carpet, and then retreating to the kitchen, probably for coffee. He pictured the act of pouring, adding milk and sugar, spilling some on the counter and wiping it up, adding more milk, more sugar. Finally he heard her heels again, the brisk walk, the rhythm of her step, the whisper of her clothes. Over his cubicle wall he saw the top of her head, her hair swept up in an unruly bun, thumb scrolling through headlines on her phone.
“Hello, Charles,” she said as she turned the corner.
“Morning, Adi,” Charles replied.
Then she stopped moving, and Charles, careful not to make a sound, slowly stood up. He saw her profile and her parted mouth. She sat down at her desk and placed her hands on either side of the box. She would confront him for sure, and then what? He hadn’t thought beyond placing the box on her desk. The possibilities of her reaction weighed on him, the sheer range of responses available to her. Finally, she opened it, gently lifting the top. She read the card in a hurry and then tore at the tissue paper. She picked up the portrait and stared at it, examined it from corner to corner, held it like a breakable thing. In the picture she was smiling, but now her jaw clenched. A second later Charles felt hopeful, saw a hint of release, the brow relaxing. But he couldn’t be sure, the line of her mouth no less ambiguous than a Miró or de Kooning. He tried to figure it out, and hoped that when she looked at him she might soften, her eyes agreeable and kind.
“Oh, Charles. Did you do this?” she asked. Charles nodded. She stood and looked past him. “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
She held the portrait out to him with one hand, and Charles froze. It hadn’t occurred to him that she might return it. “Why not? Don’t you like it?”
“No. I mean, it’s lovely.” She shifted her weight from one foot to another. “So… realistic.” She glanced to her left and then right, waiting for him to take the portrait. “But I can’t Charles. I don’t want it.”
Charles heard the disappointment in her voice and felt an electric jolt of pain course through his body. “The lunches,” he mumbled. “I thought…”
Was it a question or an accusation? Before he could decide, Adi settled it. “I see. No, just lunches.”
They locked eyes, and Charles saw that he had no choice. He placed the portrait in the bottom drawer of his desk, behind his color-coded file folders and granola bars. He thought she might keep the box, use it to store mementos or bills, if there was comfort to be had by it. The day turned to afternoon and then evening, like any other, and a sorry numbness filled his heart. She called Peru and then Ecuador, and Charles thought he heard a hint of sadness in her Spanish lilt. Or maybe it had always been there. There was no way to know. That night, he took the portrait home and placed it on his kitchen counter, propped up by his mother’s mugs on both sides. Even under the harsh fluorescent light, she shined.
Reena Shah is a writer and public school teacher based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in the Texas Review, Jet Fuel Review, Origins Journal, and Chalkbeat among others. She was recently named a semi-finalist for Nimrod’s Fran Ringold Award and was the runner up for the New Letters Fiction Award in 2017. She is also the author of the biography, Movement in Stills: the Dance and Life of Kumudini Lakhia (MapinLit). Reena holds an MFA from New York University, teaches 4th grade, and is the mother of two young boys. She can be reached via her website: reenadshah.com.