“In Right Sam, Raj Waghmare employs a lively, engaging, dynamic narrative touch…a page turner.” – Lawrence Hill, winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, and author The Illegal, and The Book of Negroes
I hurried into the cafe, checked my watch, and cursed. At the back of the line, teens in trendy parkas debated the pronunciation of ‘macchiato’. Ahead of them, a grown woman with pom-poms on her boots listened to an iPod, as she tapped a platinum card in four-four time. At the counter, an elderly man squinted and recited orders from a crumpled page. I checked my phone, hoping my watch was ahead. No luck. I was already late. I opened the door, and as the wind stabbed my cheeks, I heard it: a giggle, followed by sweet hiccups of laughter. I turned. At far end of the counter, a pony tail danced out of a red baseball cap, the inscription on the back a sucker-punch to my gut: Montreal. I stepped back inside, and waited at the door, as the woman held open a palm, accepting change from the blemished barista.
There was a time when I couldn’t shake it; I’d wake, and say her name, before my eyes could open – before my first breath. I’d scald myself in the shower, trying to wash her away, and then print her name with my finger on the steamed glass. And in the sleepless dark, I’d move the radio’s dial between stations, and wait for the white noise to bury my thoughts.
She stepped to the side and snapped a lid onto her cup. She took two steps away before I noticed the exit on the opposite side of the cafe. My phone rang. Kristen. I muted it and shoved it into my pocket. I stepped around the teens just as the grown woman extended her arm and dropped her credit card onto the counter. She looked up and put her hands on her hips, her winged elbows blocking my path.
I tapped her shoulder: “Excuse me, please.”
Uninterested, she shrugged, and pointed to the white wire that fed buds into her ears. I cursed again, hopped over the rail, and pushed open the door into the snowy night.
The feeling faded slowly – insidiously – like the colours on a sun-drenched photograph. It took months. Maybe years. Finally, in the summer of two-thousand and six, I returned to the Junction, and listened to an aging folk-singer sing Billy Joel’s Piano Man.
A block ahead, a lipstick-red scarf crossed its arms around her. A young man hurried past, then slowed, his eyes giving chase as she walked quickly along King Street. Dress shoes pinched my toes as they slipped on ice and tried to keep pace. A sprint cut the distance as she strutted along – clip-clop, clip-clop – like a model on a catwalk. She made it across the intersection at John Street just as the light turned red. I bolted to the light, waited five seconds, then zigzagged through oncoming traffic.
The return was subtle at first, like the early signs of disease – fatigue, night sweats, weight loss. It started with Kristen’s candy apple shampoo. I cupped it in my hands and inhaled it, dipping my nose, then my tongue into the bitter syrup.
“Do you have apple juice in your hair?” Ollie had asked her one Saturday morning.
“Oliver Twist,” she’d said, hands planted on his cheeks. “You’re the cutest.”
Then, it was the movie last Valentine’s Day: the lead character shared her upturned lips and her name. And a month later, in the lobby of the Ritz, a boy, confident and unshaven, sat at the piano, and turned an eighties’ pop hit into one of the most beautiful ballads I’d ever heard.
Some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere to relax their restless flight.
She shaded my thoughts, like a dark cloud lining my skull. She filled my lungs, hampering each breath. Just a week before, I’d sworn it was her, at a crowded convention in Chicago.
Jogging now, I bumped a heavy man and knocked him right over, briefcase opening, and papers flying. “Sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.” I gathered his papers and pulled him to his feet. “You okay?”
“Hey,” he pointed, smiling. “I know you. From that magazine -“ His finger traced the letter ‘u’ close to my jaw line. “I like the stubble. Looks punk.”
I patted his shoulder and dashed ahead. I opened the Concourse doors and shot down the stairwell. At the first landing, I spotted her in a swarm heading toward the subway. I wanted to call her name – just yell it out. But I’d done that in Chicago, and just as it escaped my lips, she vanished. I weaved through until I was blocked by the locked hands of a young couple.
“Excuse me”. They didn’t hear me. Arms swung back and forth as they shuffled apart, blocked the crowd, and blew kisses back and forth.
I high-jumped over their locked fingers, crossed a set of doors and arrived into another tunnel. Twenty feet away, she parted the stone-faced herd that spilled from the station. My heart raced like a baseball card spinning through bicycle spokes. A teen elbowed his buddy, as the two turned, necks swivelling, braces grinning, as she passed them. I hustled through the mob – a running back cris-crossing through the defensive line. A briefcase knocked my knees; a stiletto stabbed my toes; an elbow jabbed my gut.
A dozen bodies ahead, she slid a card, and passed through a turnstile. A descending escalator transported her out of view.
An arriving train rumbled at my heels. I had no tokens, no passes, and no change. The lone attended booth was lined fifty people deep. I bypassed the line and flagged down a teen, his hoody practically wrapped around his face. I pulled out my wallet. My words raced as I pinched a bill: “I’m in a hurry! Twenty dollars for your token.” A security guard eyed me with suspicion. “Forty!” The teen stared right through me, his head dipping in and out as a headphones decimated his eardrums. As the guard approached, I unbuttoned my overcoat, pulled the badge off my belt, and held it in the air. I lied: “It’s an emergency.” He waved me over to a locked gate, then buzzed me through.
I shoved through another crowd and bulleted toward the lower level. I prayed for the train to wait. Steps were covered two, then three at a time. No one remained on the platform. Hope plummeted. Reaching the last few steps, the silver edge of the train came into view. It was still there. Thank God.
Then, like a swift jab, the subway let out a hydraulic sigh. The doors began to close.
I sprinted ahead and yelled: “Wait!” The doors continued to close until they kissed. I was at the train. I looked left, then right, searching for an operator who could open the doors. And then, the train began to move – chug, chug, chug. I slapped the thick window, then jogged along-side, peering through the glass, scanning every face. Passengers stared, and then looked away. The train picked up speed, as I slowed, palms to the skies, watching it disappear into the tunnel.
I’d lost her. Again.