Spring has returned to Long Island. I wake early and lace up the blue and silver New Balance walking shoes I bought a few weeks ago in anticipation of this year’s equinox. I’m hopeful that the exercise will strengthen my bones and jumpstart my goal to lose ten pounds. Waiting for the school buses and morning commuters to clear the neighborhood, I strap on the new Fitbit my daughter gave me for my 68th birthday.
The warmth of the morning is soothing. I wear only a heavy sweater over fleece-lined leggings and a worn pullover, removing my gloves three blocks into the walk. I round the corner on Anne Street and spot a man with a burly gray bread. His white robes are bellowing in the wind under a down jacket, and sandals expose his toes as he walks sluggishly down the other side of the street. We glimpse at each other with a brief curiosity and then walk on. I remember a movie I recently saw with Helen Mirren who played a woman wanting to learn to drive after her husband dies. She found a middle-aged man from India to teach her and after a few months, they had a loving but short-lived affair. I wonder where this man across the street hails from. Is he from India, Pakistan, or Tibet? Or is he wearing pajamas he bought at Kohl’s? That’s the trouble with the world, in a nutshell, assumptions. It’s like when I meet Asian people, I think they’re bi-lingual. Maybe I’ll see the man in the sandals again another day and I will speak to him and figure it all out.
Returning to my house, and still looking for my husband’s Honda Civic missing from the driveway, makes a dent in my heart and I sigh as deeply as a lion’s roar. His death was too sudden. How long do I grieve? Is there a timeline for loss? After enduring a dark winter, I look forward to sunshine in the days ahead. Sipping a cup of mango tea, I think about what to plant in my garden. Then I consider baking a loaf of sourdough bread and tomorrow I can eat it for lunch outside on the deck, after my walk.
The next day I lace up my walking shoes and head out. Walking alone each day becomes monotonous unless I have a diversion. I could listen to Spotify on my iPhone, but then I might miss a crack in the sidewalk and fall on the cement, only to break my hip or cause a head injury. Attempting to be mindful of the birds singing to each other, the luminous clouds in the sky, and the lovely homes with well-groomed lawns, my mind defies me. Stories and thoughts jump in my head and I struggle with this mindfulness matter. I survey the neighborhood as if collecting data for the census when actually all I’m hoping for is to spot the man in sandals. I turn the corner and see him across the street. We make eye contact and I smile, then we both walk in opposite directions.
Today I am bold. It’s been nine months since my husband David died. The same amount of time as gestation, the phase needed to grow a life. My morning walks have moved from days into weeks and my fascination with the man in the robe grows. I close the door to my home, take a deep breath and walk on the same side of the street as he. I turn the corner and we meet head-on. When we are face to face, I stop short and say, “Hello.”
His smile is broad when he answers, “Hello to you.” I hear the sharp /t/ and recognize a British accent.
I bet he’s from India, but dare I ask. I continue the beginnings of a conversation. “It’s a beautiful morning for a walk.”
“Indeed, it is.”
The man in sandals introduces himself. “My name is Aakash Devi.”
“My name is Barbara Fried.” After some hesitation, I ask, “Which way are you walking?”
He tilts his head forward; his eyes are dusty gray. “That way, would you like to join me?”
“Yes, thank you.”
We continue walking half a mile exchanging niceties and comments about the beautiful weather.
My curiosity takes over. “Are you visiting from India?”
“Not precisely. I am from India, but I’m not visiting. I now live with my son, here in Huntington.”
I’d like to know more about Aakash. I stop myself not wanting to overstep any boundaries, and so we walk a mile discussing neutral topics- the weather, local places, and music until we go our own ways. We continue to meet near Anne Street as if by coincidence but really on purpose. The spring is coming to an end and summer’s heat begins to encroach on our walks. We accept that our meetings are intentional and decide to meet earlier since the days are growing longer and so are our walks and conversations. I think it’s time for more personal questions.
“Is your wife with you at your son’s house?”
“No, she passed last year.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“What about your husband,” he asks. “Is he at work while you walk?”
“No. he had a heart attack last fall and died suddenly.” I want to run home. I haven’t said that out loud in a while, especially to a stranger and to a man, no less. I feel naked as if I’m standing without clothes and at the same time my skin is longing to be warmed by touch.
He slows his pace. “I’m sorry for you, too.”
“Thank you. I think I’ll turn down this block, my house is near the next corner.”
We part. I quickly walk home, pour myself a shot of Jameson on the rocks, sit on the couch and weep. My morning walks stop for the next few days, instead, I ride the stationary bike in my den. I’m too raw to walk in the wind and there is no amount of sunscreen that can protect me from nature’s rays. I wonder if Aakash will miss me on his walk or is he too feeling vulnerable and staying inside reading a book. It’s been a week now and my courage reservices on this lovely summer’s day. With my shoes laced up, I begin walking and spot Aakash at the end of the next block. I pick up my pace to meet him.
His gentle gaze is comforting, and he asks, “Are you alright? I’ve missed seeing you.”
“I’m fine. I was just tired.” We begin together at a slow pace.
“Would you like to sit on the bench in the park?”
“Yes, that’s a good idea.”
I sit back on the bench and let the shade of the oak trees cool me from the early August humidity. The park is full of small children and their mommies and nannies. Looking out at the children on the swings, I’m optimistic and filled with hope that I too can be free to glide in the air, secure that gravity will hold me up.
I ask Aakash, “Does your son have children?”
“Yes, three. One is already in college.”
“You must be very proud.” I’m an inquisitive person, eager to find out about things that may be none of my business. But then how do I build relationships if not by asking questions. “How long were you married?”
“Forty-two years. I hardly knew my wife before we married. I only met her twice, after seeing her picture. Arranged marriages are common in India.”
“I’ve read that in many arranged marriages, couples usually maintain a long and loyal relationship, learning to love each other by caring for a stranger. But I suppose we’re all strangers who become intimate in a marriage either by our choice or someone else’s plan.”
“Are you a philosopher?” We laugh, and I’m happy that the man in sandals is becoming my friend.
“What was your wife’s name?”
“Pallavi. She was from Amritsar, in the state of Punjab. My family is from Punjab. We lived in Chandigarh where the University is. My parents were professors.” Aakash looks up at the cloudless sky and then continues. “In India, most women are groomed to be a wife and taught to run the household, care for the children, and keep things orderly, those responsibilities were deep-rooted in Pallavi. Then when our children grew, she wanted to study at the university and become a teacher.”
“Did your wife become a teacher?”
“No, she got sick. It was a genetic blood disease.”
“That must have been hard for both of you.” I sit quietly for a few minutes. When I sense the heaviness lift, I continue, “I was like Pallavi, but the difference is I finished college before I married. I also raised my children and took care of the household. Then I worked as a teacher in an elementary school near my home.” After a pause. “What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m a physician, what you call internal medicine, a family doctor. I worked in our city and retired before I moved here.” He turns to look at me. Looking back at him, intrigued by his delicate, defined features. Our boundaries are becoming blurred. I feel a twinge-like hunger that morphs into a cascade of nerves, I stand up. “Let’s walk.”
The summer progresses and so do our walks and conversations. This morning when I leave my house, the sky looks threatening, and rain is predicted. I venture out anyway eager to see Aakash. We meet near the park. As we walk the rain begins, only a few blocks from my home.
“Why don’t we walk this way,” I point in the southern direction. “We can stop by my house and I can make tea if you would like that?”
“Yes, I would. You’re very kind.”
We enter the warmth of my home and I guide Aakash into the living room to sit on the couch. “Please make yourself comfortable, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
I return with a pot of honeyed Irish breakfast tea and a plate of cookies. I pour tea into matching mugs, give him the cup and sit on the loveseat across from Aakash.
“Thank you. The tea is lovely and those cookies look delicious.”
“I love to bake, It’s therapy for me.” I hand him a plate with three cookies.
He bites into one but cannot resist putting the entire cookie into his mouth. “I’ve never tasted this confection before. It’s very good.”
“They’re thumbprint cookies. The little dimple in the center is for all kinds of jam, but I use strawberry, my mother’s favorite.”
“Are your parents still alive?”
“No, my parents both passed away, but I have some of my mother’s recipes and this is one we used to make together.”
Aakash sips his tea and then asks, “Are your parents from America?”
“My father was American.”
“What about your mother?”
“My mother and her first husband were from Germany.” I pour more tea into his cup.
Aakash sips his tea. “I always wonder where people are from who live in the US. In India, we’re from the same place for many generations, but that hardly happens in America.”
“Well, during the war, my mother, her husband, and their little girl were sent to concentration camps. By the time the war ended, my mother’s daughter and husband were dead. She had nothing left to live for in Germany. A Jewish refugee organization helped her find relatives in New York and she came to America. She met my father and they married, and my older brother and I were born here.”
“I’m so sorry for your family. War and hate are terrible. In India, Islam is the minority religion in Punjab. We’re always threatened, our mosques burned and people are terrorized and killed. Fortunately, my family and I were safe. But after Pallavi died, my son was worried about me and insisted I come to America and live with him. I also have a daughter also lives in the US. She’s in Massachusetts with her family.”
“I guess we both have many stories to tell.” We smile at each other, a warm moment of connection.
Aakash sits back on the sofa and crosses his legs. “My son is making a 70th birthday party for me in a few weeks. I would be happy if you attended.”
“I would love that. Is it at his home?”
“No, it’s at our mosque, in their party room.”
At first, I’m uncomfortable not knowing what to expect. I’ve never been to a mosque, but I care for Aakash and want to accept his invitation. After a short pause, I respond, “Of course, I’ll be there.”
The next few weeks rush by. I try to decide what’s appropriate for a Jewish woman to wear to a birthday party at a mosque. After going through many outfits from my closet and debating with myself about buying something new, I choose my navy-blue suit with gold jewelry accessories. On Saturday, I drive along Jericho Turnpike and see a sparkling green dome up ahead, shining like morganite. It’s the Islamic Center. I turn into the street with an impressive beige stone building and powerful pillars. Red begonias line the entrance. After parking in the spacious lot, I go to the side door which opens to a long hallway. Walking in the direction of the loud voices and aromas of Chicken Biryani, I enter the room. Aakash waves to me and walks over in his shinny brown oxfords, no bare feet today. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“You look very handsome in your American clothes.”
“Thank you and you look pretty in yours.” We joke and I immediately relax. Then he leads me to a small table where his son and daughter-in-law are seated.
“This is my friend Barbara.”
His family warmly greets me. During our meal of kebab with lime, green chutney, basmati rice, garlic mustard fish fillet, and roti, we chat. The meal ends with a silky sponge cake and Masala chai tea. Aakash and I excuse ourselves and walk out on the veranda. The evening breeze is soft.
“I have something to tell you.” Aakash straightens his striped necktie. “My son is moving to Atlanta; he’s relocating because of his job.”
The ease of our time together stops, as quickly as it began. “I guess you’re going with him.” I swallow hard to restrain my tears.
“Yes. I have to.”
There are no words for a few moments, as I process this news. “I’ll miss our walks.”
“When are you leaving?”
“The end of December, before Christmas.”
In mid-December, a few days before Aakash leaves for Atlanta, I invite him to dinner. We relish the favors of roast chicken, braised asparagus, and baked sweet potatoes. We drink tea, eat chocolate ganache cake and talk about the similarities of our culture’s appreciation of food. I present Aakash with a gift of Marimekko Kukka stationery. He opens it. His even white teeth contrasting his silky brown completion, he says, “We can be pen pals.”
“That’s funny. I remember in elementary school I had a pen pal in Ireland. I enjoyed reading about her bike rides on the mountains and writing back to her about movies I saw.”
“I never had a pen pal, but I’d like to have one now.”
The evening ends and it’s time to say goodbye. “It’s been special to know you and I wish you only the best.” I’m not sure whether I should hug Aakash or just shake his hand. When I lean in, it’s as if I have no control over my body, I hold him and he returns the embrace. We separate, and the hazy light of dusk is a backdrop to the intense look on his face. “The pleasure of your company has been important to me; I will not forget you.” He puts on his coat and gently closes the door.
For the next few weeks, every morning after my walk, I check the mail looking forward to receiving Aakash’s letters. Writing back immediately about the neighborhood, news of Long Island, and my critiques of the documentaries on PBS. The last week in February his letters stop appearing in my mailbox. Nevertheless, I continue to write to him. In a couple of weeks in early March, when the daylight and the darkness are equal and the earth’s equinox is imminent, I receive a letter addressed in unfamiliar handwriting. I open it. Dear Barbara, I’m sorry to tell you sad news. Last week when my father was walking in the morning, he was struck by a car. He was taken to the hospital, but the doctors couldn’t save him and he died a few days later. I’m in disbelief as I re-read these sentences over and over again, my eyes moistening with each reading. I wipe my cheeks and continue. My father enjoyed your friendship and it gave him a pleasure to read your letters.
The rest of the day passes by while I re-read all the letters Aakash had written to me, I saved them in a file on the kitchen table. The next day I drive to the mosque where we spent Aakash’s birthday celebration and give a donation in his memory. I’m also searching for comfort and for answers, which do not exist. When I sit in my car about to leave the mosque for an instant I forget how to drive. I take a deep breath, wipe my tears and resume the presence of life.
In my weariness, I attempt to accept death as part of being human and experience my emotions as I comport with a renewal of the seasons. I miss Aakash when I take my morning walks. I opened up to make space available for new happenings and experienced a relationship that I wouldn’t have expected. Soon the Northern hemisphere will welcome springtime and I can consider which new trails I’ll take. Maybe I’ll join a gym, take a dance class, plant vegetables in my garden, and plan an al fresco cocktail party with friends late in the evening, as the sun sets.
Edna Schneider’s previous writing experience includes two non-fiction books (Living Thin, published by Jason Aronson, Inc., and Sure, a self-published memoir) as well as numerous published professional articles. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Dramatic Arts from Emerson College, Boston, and a master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology from C.W. Post, Long Island, NY. She has worked as a Clinical Specialist in Speech-Language Pathology at Rusk Rehabilitation/NYU Langone Health treating patients with stroke, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, concussion rehabilitation, and other neurogenic communication disorders. She was fellowship-trained at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific in Hawaii. Prior to a career in Speech-Language Pathology, Edna was a professional puppeteer working with Jim Henson’s Muppets, FAO Schwartz, and marionette companies in USA and Belgium.
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