“Cathlin! Are you happy in your life?”
I stop mid-stride, halfway up the stairs. What kind of a question is that? And from my hotel manager? I've only seen the guy a few times, I don't even know his name, I've never really stopped to speak to him, and suddenly he's asking me if I'm happy in my life? I turn and lean over the rail of the stairs to look down at him as he sits there next to the hotel desk, skinny arms and legs sprawled out and huge eyes looking back straight into mine. “What?”
“Are you happy in your life?” Okay, so that really is what he said. I try to play it casual, smiling back at him “Most of the time” I say. I planned to just say it, smile, and turn back up the stairs. But even though I know I should turn around then and walk up to my room, even though I know I'll probably regret option number two, I can't seem to help myself. Like a moth flying straight into the mesmerizing light of the fire I ask “Why do you ask?”
And of course, he pats the velvet chair next to him. Yes, obviously that is what I should be doing right now. I should be sitting in the reception area of a little hotel in Cochin, South India, talking about my life with a strange Indian man who, unbelievably, is a huge Billy Joel fan. So I do. I walk down the worn wooden steps in my bare feet (shoes off at the door, as always) and sit down next to him. He starts gyrating again as I make my way to him. All angles and bones as he throws out his arms and waggles his head to the sweet perfection of Billy Joel's greatest hits. He goes on grooving even after I sit down next to him, and I have to lean a little bit away to avoid getting an elbow in the eye. Then he stops suddenly, turns to look at me full on and says “You are a very simple person, is it?”
Now, I have absolutely no idea what he means by that. It has any range of meanings from “You're kinda dense, aren't you?” to “You radiate the simple perfection of divine knowledge, don't you, Oh wise guru?” I try really hard to come up with some brilliant reply, but I eventually just nod my head and say “sure.” Clearly leaning toward the first option.
He nods back, and says “Yes, I can see it. I am watching you here when you come and go and I see in you. You like the simple life, simple person.” Then he starts wiggling his boney extremities again. After a few more bars of “River of Dreams” he stops and says “You know the piano?”
“Sure” I say again, because hey, that reply seemed to work pretty well last time.
“The black keys and the white keys, you know?”
“Yeah” I return, jazzing up my one word replies through variation.
“The black keys” he says, making piano-man motions in the air, “make sad song. The white keys are happiness. You play both together, is beautiful.”
“Uh-huh” says the genius from America.
“You” he says now, focusing once again on the giant white girl sitting, transfixed, beside him “You play more black keys in your life.”
Okay buddy, what the freak is going on here? I play more black keys than white? I'm not sure whether he's about to read my palm or hit on me at this point, but I'm hooked. I have to know where this is going. I have to know why this strange man has singled me out of my group as the girl who plays more black keys than white in her life.
“Is it right?” He asks, no longer moving to the beat but leaning forward in his chair.
“Well, I guess so. Yeah.” Why, oh why am I having this conversation?
Another head nod, as if he already knew I would assent and was merely waiting for me to figure it out. “What does it mean, the black keys?” He asks now.
Now I'm totally hooked. I don't know what the black keys in my life mean, but somehow I am positively sure that he does. And I have to know, I just have to. So I stutter “I...uh...I dunno...I'm not sure.”
And then he turns to me and says “I think it is to do with your parents. A small problem with your parents?”
And then I'm reeling. Dizzy, freaked out and fascinated all at once. Sure, since Freud the whole “blame it on the parents” thing is pretty cliché and it wouldn't be a devastatingly original guess. But still, this is pretty weird. I decide I've had enough soul-reading for the night so I try to end it. At least, that's what I meant to do. What I meant to say was “No, no problem.” But what I really said was “No small problem” with particular emphasis on the “small”, and then he gets up and walks around the desk to turn down Billy. He gestures to the chair he has just vacated which is closer to the desk than my current seat, and I get up and move into it.
“So tell me” he says “tell me about the problem with your parents.”
And, for no rational reason I can possibly think of, I find myself talking to a complete stranger about the fact that I haven't spoken to my father in over four years. I try to keep it short, leaving out most of the explanation, because I'm more interested in what he has to say that whining about my paternal issues. When I finish, he bobbles his head and points to the bag of cashews in my hand. Oh yeah, I forgot about those.
“You want plate?” he asks, and then gets up to find me one before I can reply. Which is just as well, I've already run the gamut of my brilliant one word replies. When he comes back, or rather when his torso comes back from the cabinet to his left, I am trying to pull on the “tear here” tab of the bag.
“No, no wait” He says and starts rummaging in a drawer to his right. He produces a small pair of scissors then and, reaching for the bag, continues “We do it simply, simple way, your way.” And I'm thinking “Well, I do want you to cut the bag open with those scissors rather than let me hurt myself trying to rip it open with my hands. So yes, this must be my way.”
“There is another package here” he says, gesturing to the inner wrapping within the bag that has been air packed to keep the cashews from breaking against each other. I stutter a reply about keeping the air out, feeling somehow that I ought to apologize for not having bought a “simpler” bag of nuts. It's okay though, this guy is his own simple bag of nuts.
“This is safe” he tells me “like us, it is safe in here. No air can get in, no water. Safe, like us here” and he cuts open the smaller bag. Then he pours a few cashews onto the plate between us and starts wrapping the rest back up in the bag. He folds the plastic tightly and then secures the whole thing with a rubber band from the drawer which he wraps around the package twice even though I'm pretty sure one wrap would have done it.
“Thanks” I bobble at him.
“Like you” he tells me, “like your heart. You keep it wrapped up tight and safe, not get hurt.” Then he puts the bag of cashews next to my arm and pats it. “Like your heart” he says. And I smile back at him. Because, at this point, there are really no simple answers left to give.