“Better Latte Than Late”
by Rekha Valliappan
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon.
Rila works from home at Author, Self-Published. She was a motorbike rider once, in the days when Harley-Davidsons looked a whole lot different than they look today. But she wants to grow a jardin potager—a French urban herbal garden, and sip dynamite charcoal latte the livelong day. So she can write books. Motorbikes is where she derives her courage from—to face life on concrete terms like a man. Where she comes from girls, cradle to grave, do not even ride bicycles, although some books written a hundred years ago suggest women bicycled their way to freedom. Where she comes from girls are taught to care for vegetable patches. And grow food. Then cook food. And nibble at food. Food gives one perspective. Easy to lose track of time–on this significant insight. Oh well!
Her aunts remind her a girl’s place is to complete a job and not complain. She wonders if that is how her Mamma is in leg braces. Rila is mulling over life’s vicissitudes and the courage it takes to live life to the very end. It is the year a spate of tragedies is invading their quiet community on Hoopoe Island. Like a locust attack in biblical times, says her aunt, who is knowledgeable in such matters. Some are actual suicides, others extraordinary accidents, later also concluded to be suicides¾starting with her Mamma’s.
Skeptical Rila, intimidated by it all, cannot pluck up the wherewithal to learn the truth, as her all-knowing aunt says. When pain consumes her Mamma, no one is to know that disease will waste her so critically. Mamma’s exit is a brave one. Rila’s subsequent visit to some old rivers where they meet up with a couple of others—one invisible since it flows underground—solidifies her three-prong strategy. Triveni Sangams, quotes her aunt. Bad luck goes in threes. Good luck also comes in threes. Three roads divide in the lonely woods. And one esoterically stays hidden.
In her spare time Rila often gives advice to a couple of old-timers who regularly call for advice regarding HAAPI, not happy but harp-y, their mutual social club, a buzzing network of several like-minded, and not so like-minded active and inactive folks, out to do good to others. Brainchild of one happy engineer whose ancestors must have sailed on the Mayflower. The club has been in existence for over half a century. Older founders are grand-parents and some great grand-parents. Newer members have no memory of its history, or how it was founded.
Rila lacks the expertise to give advice but is constantly sought by the two, having briefly earned her stripes running Suicides Anonymous, a charitable call center in the heart of the big city, which has since been displaced. One fine Sunday, without warning the entire building is shut down for a roach infestation. A good supply of millions of German roaches defying regulatory enforcement made their occupancy known. The landlord, caught between a rock and a hard place, shoves them all out to roll, with nowhere to scatter except two rivers. One on the right looks less appealing than the one on the left. It resonates. Black and white. Yin Yang! Classic espresso or steamed milk combo.
She thinks she is turning harp-y like the rest. Rila wonders how Anita can tell Choli that they are still good friends after all that has happened. Tricky-murky business it is, separating chaff from grain with a runcible spoon. Or a houseplant from its pot. Anita is a small-sized baby boomer, with skin the color of olives only soft as a baby’s, thinning hair so thin she wears a bouffant wig, also the color of olives. Rila met her ten years ago when she first joined HAAPI. Old members were living down their bohemian days then, when the world was a hippie-happy-harp-y place. Coming of age was a grim unconventionally spiritual activity. All have been aging variously since. Rila is put in charge of helping new arrivals acclimatize to the new land. She faces an onslaught of familiarly unfamiliar English-masala tongues.
Anita walks in one day, wobbling like a Congo Square jazz performer improvising a melody. She comes to SA to pick up some pamphlets, although in reality to talk to Rila, but is so embarrassed to be seen in the suicide center. Rila can easily tell by the shifty way her eyes dance–movement like a jeweled harness. Rila thinks she may need stitches and a tetanus shot, the way her eyes are limbering, watering, playfully rotating, never directly looking at Rila. That was eight years ago. Rila is trained to not gaze-freeze into embarrassment new applicants directly in the eye. But Rila being Rila it strays in from her Harley Davidson days, and she gives a welcoming smirk. Talking to Anita is like living through an episode of “X-Files,” disturbingly unhinged, Scully-less or otherwise, evidenced by some pre-algebra geometry Bermuda Triangle theories Rila is testing on the side. An equilateral triangle has three equal sides. Three! Always three!
“I need a new life plan,” Anita voices, wrinkling her pert and pretty nose around the shabby office in distaste: “Eeewww, smelly.”
“Like, insurance?” asks Rila, gaze-freezing the unannounced walk-in. “I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong . . .. ”
“Certainly, I need some masala chai.”
A pregnant pause, to make the other side blink. No such blink emphasized.
“Restaurant is on the ground floor.”
“I’m worn down. How about some coffee then? You know, a latte infused with charcoal?”
Rila’s aunt, who was a dentist for the major part of her life, could read body language very, very well. An overly long pregnant pause was always the aftermath of dramatic tension caused by the hostile environment created by a root canal. In fact, sixty-five percent of Americans preferred going to their financial adviser rather than a visit to their dentist.
“Coffee is the real deal. Turkish. Tea isn’t going to cut it. Ridding the bloodstream of last night’s poor decisions.”
“No, I mean why a new blueprint for life?”
Anita calmly opens her expensive crocodile-skin leather handbag, like she’s at a Billy Bang sold-out jazz show at Cleopatra’s Needle, lights a cigarillo, pops sunflower seeds into her mouth, and bursts out laughing. Simultaneously.
She is rehearsed. It looks artful. The question “Why?” is complicated.
One day Choli, equally jazzed up, comes in. Choli is another aging baby-boomer but pretends not to know it or show it. Rila asks her why they cannot get along. Choli explains Anita comes from wealth, not born wealth but new wealth, you know, flashy wasteful, boutique bling, clothes-horse sparkle kind, which makes her ungrateful to others. Choli believes smoking money dreams is giving regular people wealth-popping greed, like hyenas feeding on dead carcasses. You know hyenas? Those old dogs, always laughing. It is not Rila’s intention to dig up more dirt. But Choli is unstoppable. Cradle to grave is the long road of life, but story is the same. Here, have more latte. Sugar and cream?
Choli usually is supportive. She stands by Anita even during HAAPI elections. Harp-y time compounded. Every year. When this stage is reached, the whole of HAAPI rapidly shuts down for three full months. HAAPI-watching is a happy pastime. Rila is familiar with how the system works, but lets Choli explain. It does not go well because Choli over-explains, which is her habit. Once Choli was asked a simple question: why sand flies are biting everyone in India. Non-stop. She recounts the full story behind the Taj Mahal, which the whole world knows, how the beautiful Begum Queen was bitten (this a historical fact no longer in history books), but her narration cannot stop. She has reached eucalyptus oil–good for bee stings. On and on and on. Record-breaking. She talks and talks, from cosmic position to consciousness concept in Om. Seven hours her story takes. This is a bad habit she uses to shut everybody up. Nobody asks Choli Why after that.
Anita silent all the while. Since Rila is present, she tells Rila all that happens. What she says has as many holes as Choli’s overstuffed explanation. Rila hears it all. Now Anita is angry. It gets what becomes weirder. Anita is so angry at Choli that she bites her finger. It cracks a long ridge on Choli’s “Steel Magnolias” glossy nail polish. She has spent many hours on the artwork for ten well-shaped fingers and ten not-so-well-turned-out toes. She joins the fight. After that their rift widens with no hope. Choli refuses to step into the new HAAPI Center to attend club meetings. The Center is a new acquisition. It has been fought, bought, re-done, wallpapered, painted, vacuumed, billboarded and set up for business, which is the express purpose of conducting meetings, and some tantricmeditation and Kundaliniyoga.
All are conveniently using the new HAAPI Center for positive vibes and energy-awakening. Except Choli. People are coming from far and near, through rain or shine, traveling bridges and tunnels, by Amtrak trains and by road, overcoming all latent side effects of radical infusion into crowded overextended large cities. But alas, HAAPI Center unhappily unfits itself. Anita, doubling down, discovers a startling piece of news, that Choli was lying through her back teeth all along and has not supported her during the prestigious HAAPI elections. Choli declares the elections are rigged. Anita is outraged. She is vying for an explicit important post, dangled before her by some aging stalwarts. Choli is teamed up with the opposite camp. Choli’s affair with the enemy group is what has caused Anita to bite her finger.
Three abstentions later, Choli returns to re-attending meetups at the Center, on Rila’s advice. She is on the brink of removal from HAAPI’s honorable executive board. A most unusual step. HAAPI’s coming of age is a painful process. Other disbelieving stuff follows. Some know-it-alls stage a walkout, that turns wild. Others not wanting to be caught in the fray absent themselves for the remainder of the year, when HAAPI preps for another round of fresh elections. By this time the Center that created the happy show for all in HAAPI to enjoy, unwavering in its capacity to deliver, is looking a little bit rundown, food-bombed by excessive pizzas, cholla baturas, Cokes and lattes, and not enough plastics disposal. Also, it has turned festival time again. Diwali. Center is swinging with joy, chock-full of laddus andlights. Party is also in full swing. Night is growing wilder, overflowing with gol guppas, tandoori, flatbreads and biriyani, washed down with tankards of beer, goblets of wine and after-dinner lattes. And they’re off to a very boozy start. The music, the crowds, the colorful revelers, the brisk buzzing atmosphere. Flashing flesh, no official dress code, clutching drinks, soaking up the high spirits, letting loose like no one is watching.
HAAPI’s many singing groups are gustily delivering their ‘melodiest.’ Singers with matching tattoos fiercely belting out raucous song. Some older, fitter members who never quit are doing cha-cha. Others are into granddaddy long legs modern downtown jazz beats. Bollywood moves are super-vibrating, movie style. All are celebrating all night long. All are on the dance floor in high-gear fashion dresses, robustly moving arms, thighs, legs, in Zumba workout infectious thrusts. London Thumakda and Desi Girl are mixing with Break Free and Save The Last Dance, making thin necks swivel and heavy hips gyrate convulsively in blissful abandon. HAAPI lets their hair down during festivals. Literally. All festivals in HAAPI are dance festivals.
Then, in the midst of colorful festivities the inevitable occurs. Return bite. Choli sinks her molars with jaw-crushing determination into the back of Anita’s leg, severing a tendon. It happens in this manner. Anita’s jumping leg creeps into Choli’s face, blocking her line of vision just when she bends to retrieve her emerald dangling earring from getting crushed on the dance floor. Return bite—so looks like all will be forgiven. Only problem is, now Anita’s in the hospital, hysterical, and she’ll have a limp. Albeit temporary. The limp grows on account of nerve crimping caused by the bite, and a wrong diagnosis which results in rabies shots being given. Arguing with the doctor is considered an option, then deferred when Rila explains. Rila comforts Anita that all doctors have duties to perform per the Hippocratic Oath: that all shots are painful, and all bites of unknown origin usually require tetanus shots to prevent risk. HAAPI is overflowing with doctors. Every member is a doctor, or related to a doctor, so Anita accepts the explanation in good faith.
But she is not convinced. She understands Rila means to be kind. She complains Choli’s disease has driven the woman mad. Dog-rabid mad, like a wolf. Despite being fitted with porcelain teeth, she can still deliver a good-sized bite. At the end of prolonged back-and-forth, and picking at different pieces like of a puzzle, Anita is treated for rabies as if bitten by a real werewolf. Not at all shy as when she first walks into the Suicides Anonymous Center alone, she shares her story with everyone in HAAPI. Natural outcome is, it spreads like a scorching fire on the prairie. Every glass of gritty steamed milk mixed with chicory-blend roasted Bru coffee, has a narrative. Anita’s cattle tale goes far and wide. From New York to Dubai and beyond.
Several unhappy HAAPI baby boomers, choking on the rabies story, recall their own belly-buttons of over half a century ago, when foot-long needles stabbed some folks who were vastly braver—multiple stabs. There is considerable disagreement as to how they survived, whether it was ten twenty-two or fifty-one times. Whatever the final number agreed upon, it is a matter of great baby-boomer pride, HAAPI’s aged gatekeepers of the club declare. Stunning changes occur in HAAPI after that. New goals in courage are set. All bitten HAAPI members will get werewolf pack rankings. HAAPI Howlers 1, 2, 3 . . . and so on and so forth. Many are unhappy, even the happy HAAPI harp-y ones, particularly those who believe dogs are land-dwelling unclean animals, unfit for consumption, generally unhygienic, also unfit for domesticity. Period. But the old stalwarts within striking distance of their bastion of liberalism, get their way.
New rule: only no one in HAAPI has a clue how to change the HAAPI constitution. They pour over the writings, the By-Laws, the Manuals. Nothing adds up. They change it anyway. Some happy HAAPIs are well set—high up the totem pole—by the new law. Choli’s inclusion is a non sequitur. Sheteeters and bumbles her way in on the basis of her non-feral finger bite. Once a brown recluse spider shaped like a violin had stung her face. She suffered chills and sweating for months afterwards. She fears being bitten.
The world is very large and very diverse. Smelling the roses and jacaranda is magical, but there is always the possibility of encountering new flora and fauna. Life happens everywhere. Later, a baby bat is found actually sleeping in Anita’s bedroom. It has been dwelling there, for how long only Anita and the mamma-bat who delivered the baby flying-fox knows, which is why PEP in the deltoid is administered to Anita. And not for Choli’s bite. Right diagnosis. It is a discredit to any reliable sworn eyewitness to think otherwise. Anita knows of the bat. She knows a bat causes rabies just as surely as a dog. She gets a glimpse of what it is like to not get rabies.
But she is cultivating her crazy exit from life. Not from actual disease, still, thrashing some hills is the best way there is. And, holy crap, her wish comes true. Rather than bat baby, it is Choli who opportunely bites her calf, thereby putting her out of her suicide misery. Vigorous debate follows. Anita, torn between her life’s desire and desires of life, remembers her friendship obligations and responsibilities, rethinking the things that are important in life: friends, parathas and an absurdly happy HAAPI. Or parathas, friends, then happy HAAPI. Whatever it is, happy HAAPI has to come third. Always third. Three prongs. Three roads. Three rivers confluence. The list goes on. Always one hidden. It is the latte way in black and white.
Rila urges Anita to keep the bat problem under control. “They live in their part of the world and we live in ours. The two don’t mix,” she cautions, thinking of her aunt. Only time will tell how much of Rila’s philosophy is truly sinking into Anita’s cigarillos-and-latte-soaked head. But better latte than late—never to receive advice, as her aunt would say.
Anita is scheduled for therapy at the rehabilitation center. Rila wants to help them both. She does not suspect a dark canker somewhere, in terms of escalation, considering what the three of them have been through. She cannot help but notice the mosh-pit alacrity and wriggling, radioactive, etiquette the two possess, knocking lumps out of each other. She visits Anita regularly in the hospital, carrying armloads of French herbs and flowers. Anita likes her celebrity status and treats, all jazzed up and crisp. All smells sweet, including the runcible spoon. But mood swings are a constant. Anita is not wholly into sweetness in her current post-bite, recovering frame-of-mind state, and who can blame her, from almost walking into the rabid hole . . . err, rabbit hole. She complains that Choli’s addiction to sweetened lattes and chocolate eclairs swimming in lattes has mired her in sweetness diseases, like diabetes. Even her breath smells sickly sweet. Rila cannot figure Anita out at all, her whopping tick-tock tick-tock, but practices patience. Fundamentally, the mood swings are giving Rila whiplash.
Rila is torn between suggesting Anita give up cigarillos altogether—the fad contributing to Anita’s slow recovery—which has hit HAAPI hard. Or be open to more rabies-like treatments. Anita is beyond caring whether she gets diseases, drowns, is riddled with bullets, pops a blood vessel, sticks her head into the electric oven, or simply drops down dead. She badly wants to die. Die!!! Awash in glamor! Sweet release from fragile mortality. All the rage on the internet.
Rila notices an increase of trickledown-effect broken-heart syndrome in happy HAAPI circles, when they hear what Anita says. No more death jokes making the rounds. Certain existential issues just cannot be brought mainstream. The syndrome is contagious. Particularly among aging baby-boomers whose mental state brooks no dark humor where death is concerned and stigmatizes suicide hotlines. It mimics a typical heart attack, which has a poor prognosis for permanent cure. Worse, it contradicts the club’s only mission statement, which is to be happy, written in stone. The frequent misery of daily life, scary as it may be, must be embraced.
She is not surprised by Anita’s outburst. Choli’s husband Hish, an intense crane-like-looking man with a long neck and a small tuft on his head, introduces cigarillos to all women of HAAPI. Hish lunges around the parameters of the Center in flips and spasms, making banter and noise, his white tuft bouncing in waves, so charged with electricity that he needs cigarillos to calm him down. After that all of HAAPI get addicted. One half are rendered calm, the other non-smoking half, unable to slow down or sit still, turn into dancing dervishes tapering at the top.
Rila makes a poster of the Surgeon General’s warning and thumb tacks it near the air conditioner, which has quit working. It’s one of those things always happening at the Center. She thinks it cannot be missed in this strategic location, not even if one’s eyeglasses or contacts are missing. Which happens. Nose blind. Eye blind. It’s Friday night. Fashionable hand-bags go missing. Latest Kashmiri hand-woven slippers go missing. Even iPhones go missing. All later found. All are happy! All in HAAPI take to endlessly complaining about the non-functioning air conditioner. Poster reads, “TOBACCO COMPANY – Surgeon-General’s Warning – Smoking can cause head-banging and non-manic euphoria – Also skin damage and wrinkles! Smoke at Your Own Risk.” Rila thinks of giving everyone a suitable jolt. The wrinkles should do it. Anita refuses to be distracted. Without knowing a single jazzed-up dance move Anita wants to know what business Choli has dropping onto the dance floor on all fours, scuttling like a hyena in heat, to bite her leg in the manner of a rabid animal, which laughs. And then actually laughs, upon biting, like an idiot!
Choli, feeling guilty, wants to visit, but thinks she better wait till Anita’s bright red capillaries wriggling so noticeably on her flushed face have a chance to subside. Choli has aura vision and knows when Anita is embarrassed. Rila approves. Only embrace. Grow up! Some adults take longer to come of age. This sudden love-fest emboldens Anita to continue with her HAAPI president-of-the-club campaign. The ongoing saga of Bimiti Hana! Chapter Sixty-Four. Anita does not want her thunder stolen. Like Hedy Lamarr meets Rita Hayworth and a star is born. Rila encourages Choli to assist. This time Anita will not ask for assistance, demented or not. It is a matter of deep happy harp-y HAAPI pride to walk the baptism of fire alone, from cradle to grave. Essentially, all three never cease wondering at the health benefits of charcoal latte, or the depth of friendships or the soundness of esoteric knowledge that had rubbed off on them. Three rivers. Three tangibles. And one always hidden. Nor of the truths that hurt, which are worth suffering for. Or that one must love not the dream but the dreamer. And never too late. And that the road traveled leads to the meeting-place, the confluence, of the three. Because every road traveled is the bloodstream, sea to sky, and leads somewhere. Even those that stay hidden, or are mired in time. And some journeys begin where the road ends.
Rekha Valliappan is a multi-genre writer of short fiction and poetry. A former university lecturer at three colleges in two countries, she has won awards for her writing, been shortlisted, long-listed and published in international magazines and anthologies, including Liquid Imagination, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, GHLL, Rabid Oak Literary Journal, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Lackington’s Magazine, Theme of Absence, Ouen Press, Coffin Bell Journal, Five:2:One Literary Magazine of Art & Culture, Locust Magazine, New Reader Magazine, The Punch Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Boston Accent Lit, Across The Margin, Indiana Voice Journal, ColdNoon Journal, Eastern Iowa Review, Mercurial Stories, and elsewhere. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee 2018.