When I’m seven, I take up cross-country running. I pound the suburban sidewalk every evening, down Coral Harbour Crescent, up Cypress Point Road. I can feel my father’s dull silver medals swing around my neck. He was a runner, too.
After training for a few months, I notice something l as I stretch my legs out in our scratched-up, robin-egg’s blue bathtub at night. As the soap bubbles build up higher and higher, I run my hands over my bulging calves, incredulous at my body’s change.
The next morning, I blurt out over oatmeal that I’m getting stronger, more powerful. I tell Dad to squeeze the muscles in my arm. I flex, he beams. He sips his double-double coffee and says, “Good for you, Muni. A regular physical regime is important. You need to keep your strength up for when you become prime minister.”
I qualify for the provincial cross-country championships that Autumn. It takes us two hours to get there by bus. The rest of the team joke around, but I’m not laughing. I’m going to give this race everything I’ve got.
As soon as the gun goes off, I run through the fall foliage, over moss-carpeted logs. Towards the finish line, I realize most of the runners are behind me. I come in third place.
I am elated, stunned.
When I get home, I show my Dad my ribbon. He holds it up high, exclaims in Hindi, “Are baap re, Muni!” I grin, he’s so proud. We dance together on the kitchen floor linoleum. Not prime minister yet, but third place will do. For now.
I treasure the ribbon, and keep it pinned up on my corkboard all the way through high school. I stare at it lovingly from my bed at night, the last thing I see before I close my eyes. A small prayer of hope.
I don’t think about the ribbon for years. But when my Dad dies, and I’m rummaging through his things, I find the decaying ribbon in one of his old photo albums, coarsely placed between two peeling plastic pages.
How did he know to keep this one silly momento?
This old, tattered ribbon.
* * *
When Dad died, I felt like my DNA was irrevocably changed.
My Dad died a few weeks after I found out my boyfriend had cheated on me. I thought Joel and I would get married. After I discovered his infidelity, I walked around Toronto in a haze until I found myself at Dad’s doorstep. I spent that night on Dad’s peacock-blue suede couch, the comforting smell of his burning agarbathi lulling me to sleep.
My father doesn’t say much when I tell him what happened. He knows better than that. But he dutifully calls me every day after, just to check in. He quietly arranges to have tandoori chicken, butter naan delivered to me at my apartment near the university every other evening. “I hope you’re eating,” he says to me. “Please eat. I’ve sent over your favourites.”
Three weeks later, as I am slowly healing, but still feeling raw, my Dad is discovered dead in his bed by a stranger. The concierge had wondered why my Dad wasn’t spotted going for his daily morning constitutional with his beloved Shih Tzu. The dog’s name was Simone, after my Dad’s favourite singer. I love the way she moves her little tushi, Muni.
The night before my father will die, alone, in his bed of a massive heart attack, the night before I learn of my father’s eventual fate, the boyfriend will come by my apartment, to try to make amends. He will ring my doorbell close to midnight. I will be reluctant to open the door, but I will have to admit that a small, disgusted part of me is secretly thrilled. The boyfriend will be sporting his best Harry Rosen suit, a Windsor-knotted maroon tie, freshly polished brown Oxfords. He will be clutching a bouquet of colourful helium-filled balloons with “Congratulations!!” embossed on them. He will look at me expectantly, face glowing.
He gets down on one knee, and proposes.
“In the morning, we can go to Tiffany & Co. and get you the ring you really want! If I can afford it,” he says.
I’m furious. I wonder why he thinks this is OK.
I slap his face, slam the door. I’m shaking.
He refuses to leave my front porch. He pleads with me to let him in. He is not quiet. I can hear him pounding the door on the other side, even though the door is heavy and made of oak.
I call my friend Sylvia in Vancouver, asking her what I should do. What she says is straightforward and clear. She says call the police, immediately.
I cower quietly on the stained carpeted stairs.
Aysha Taryam says: if a woman cannot be safe in her own house, then she cannot be expected to feel safe anywhere.
I wait what seems like an interminable amount of time until my boyfriend’s immaculate silver Jetta finally pulls away, in a huff.
When he leaves, I peer around the front door, and find myself slowly walking up Sussex Avenue, ostensibly to get a drink at the local pub to calm my frayed nerves. I instinctively call my father, even though it’s late. I tell him what happened.
He is silent, and then he mutters, “Chutya salah; madar choad.”
Then he says more brightly, hopefully, “Come over?”
I think for a minute, and then dismiss the idea; I don’t relish the idea of hopping on the Spadina streetcar to get all the way to the east end, to the Esplanade.
Instead, I tell him I’ll drop by sometime in the next few days. I’ll see you soon, I say. I promise.
I never speak to him again.
More than a decade later, I still remember exactly where I was when I hung up the phone. Every time I walk that street now, I stop in front of that decaying house. I murmur a small, quiet prayer for my Father in Farsi, the language of my other parent, my body pressing into the streetlamp, the city landscape now rife with painful meaning.
I am reminded by something that I read by the geographer Avril Maddrell once.
She said that grief, mourning and remembrance are experienced in and mapped upon physical spaces, including the public and private arenas of everyday life.
The geography of grief.
* * *
Not long after my Dad’s cold body is discovered the next day in his apartment, I call the boyfriend, and tell him I’m ready to forgive him, all is forgotten, I will take him back. I don’t have the strength to fight it anymore.
The boyfriend comes to the funeral, dressed to the nines, so eager to support me, my family. My girlfriends glower at him. No second chances there. He ignores them, grips my hand, guides me back to his apartment, gives me tender massages on his massage table while I sob uncontrollably. Then he demands that I get down on all fours, and roughly fucks me from behind.
I don’t argue. I’m not there.
While he pours into me, I think of the third-place ribbon in my father’s old photo album, yellowing with age, knowing with a deep certainty that I will never be cherished, nested, loved in quite that same way, ever again.
* * *
What do we decide to keep when someone dies? What do we throw away, keep? I find my Dad’s collection of fine cotton handkerchiefs in the top drawer of his dresser, perfectly folded, soft as a kitten’s ear with repeated use over the years, and decide to keep every single one. But still, the black garbage bags for Goodwill stack up, lumpy and large in the hall of his apartment, stuffed with dashing gabardine suits, once hanging impeccably in his closet, now crumpled and crushed.
My brother and I finally get his things into a U-Haul truck, head off to the Goodwill at Wellesley and Parliament, dropping everything off unceremoniously.
I feel victorious, clean.
The next day, dawn breaking. The pigeons clamor around me, loudly clucking on the dirty sidewalk where I sit, impatiently, on the ground. When the store manager unlocks the front door, I rush in and buy back most of the things I had given away the day before: heavy wooden placemats, cracked egg holders, some old cutlery. I gather them to my chest and pay for the items: two, four, ten dollars, the register racks up the growing cost.
I see out of the corner of my eye what looks like two frat boys eyeing my Dad’s peacock-blue sofa. They frat boys start to carry it out. They handle the sofa carelessly, laughing with mirth as they leave the store. I fight the urge to buy the sofa back. I see the gentle indentation in the cushion where my Dad used to sit, and I yearn to caress it.
* * *
Eleven years later, I’m rummaging through my storage locker where my Dad’s possessions are housed. In a beat-up cardboard box, simply labelled “Goodwill,” I find the items I bought back that day. I spill them out on the ground. I slowly sift through my motley collection. I spot Simone’s rhinestone dog collar.
Minelle Mahtani: "I am a writer, former radio host and scholar. I am a Muslim woman of South-Asian and Iranian descent and teach courses in critical race theory, journalism, feminist geography and critical storytelling at University of British Columbia. My book is entitled Mixed Race Amnesia: Resisting the Romanticization of Multiraciality. My work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and I have a forthcoming piece in Carte Blanche."