Subtleties add up. Alone, they are meaningless. Together, they are strong!
-- Hari Patel
The snow was melting, and the air was clear. A magazine lay open to its horoscopes, upon the wet sidewalk. The wind was absent, and the sun was down. Darkness struggled to enfold the metropolis, black tendrils of night encroached upon the alleys and houses. Yet, it could never breach the eternally lit streets. However, coldness would soon follow. That was something the streets could not avoid.
"You don't know, do you?" A woman's voice, laughing. Surely, he can guess.
"You might as well blindfold me," replied a man. Keep it up...
They turned a busy street corner, hand in hand. Her skin was dark, browned like the wet pavement. Frizzy hair fell down her shoulders. And though she looked African, her nose was not flat.
"Must you really take me somewhere special?" There was a mild, Russian accent, and a playful tone. He was obviously enjoying himself, "Anniversaries are so arbitrary!"
She squeezed his hand, "I am not so petty. This has nothing to do with the year we've been together. My culture is what's important right now."
"You are pretty," he said, teeth glinting playfully. And sexy...
"Alexei," she patronized, "Your English isn’t that bad. I said petty."
Of course, Alexei usually ignored the street signs, but now he took them in. The cityscape was lined with them: bright, colorful, flashy, concise reading material. He smiled toothlessly, on the right side only.
"You see," surely.
Alexei's free hand fumbled in his pocket nervously. The ring...
The wind whistled down the street in a mild gust.
"Yes," he confirmed. "The Ethiopian restaurant district."
There were five within view, though the signs of two were not legible to Alexei. Those that wanted non-Ethiopian patrons used English on their signs. However, there was also a third script on one, which seemed to be Italian.
Alexei made a mental projection, "You owe your nose to Mediterranean invaders of Ethiopia?"
"Yes, that is one of the many things that makes Ethiopia unique."
His mind whirred, as a restaurant door opened. Not now, not yet...
They had been seated for thirty minutes, sipping strong coffee. Intimate conversation flowed freely, and finally, a joke was told. It had been an attempt to allay some awkward silence. Alexei had almost snorted his coffee in uncontrollable laughter. And now, the silence returned. And through it, they smiled at each other. Her pearly teeth shone in the dim light of their booth, despite the coffee stains that marked her teeth.
Ayana, will you marry me? Alexei wondered, his left hand once again fumbling around in his pocket. The fuzzy, magenta box was rough. His fingers grazed against the golden opening. Not here, not now.
Suddenly, the waitress came in a thin, white dress. She had the look of a farm girl, and the rich, brown skin of an Ethiopian. Alexei looked away. Nothing about her reminded him of Ayana.
A platter for two was set in front of them, their coffees shunted to the side.
"Ayana, shall I bring him cutlery?" The waitress asked, calmness in her young voice.
"No thank you. I will teach him."
The waitress giggled, and walked away.
Alexei looked down at the platter. It was small, circular and lined with breading. The thin breading was flat on the side facing down, and bubbly like a sponge on the side facing up. And upon the spread, were dollops of various kinds of food.
His cologne had barely managed to compete with the incense, and roasting of coffee beans. Now, it was beset by a myriad of smells.
This is what tells all, she thought. If he enjoys this, he's the one.
"Ayana, may I ask what each item is?"
She came to, abruptly, "Oh, certainly!"
A dark, bony finger with a beautifully trimmed nail pointed at each section, one by one. It moved about, skipping around and commenting.
"This, here, is yellow lentils. They are relatively bland."
Her finger moved to the next item, meaty bones and a pale, round egg covered in a reddish brown sauce, "These are chicken legs, stewed with a lot of spice. The egg with it is usually given to the youngest, in my family. But I'll let you have a third, if you want."
Alexei's tongue darted out, licking its lips at the mention of the spiciest item.
"This here, well, is salad. No mistaking that." Ayana moved on. "These are red lentils, fairly hot. Beside them, are beef tibs. And... that, that's tr-- I'll tell you after you discover how nice it tastes." Tripe.
Alexei struggled to swallow his sip of strong coffee as he politely stifled a laugh. "And the greens?"
They were interrupted, as the waitress returned. She resumed her giggle, and placed a small plate between their coffees. Upon it, were half a dozen rolls of the breading.
"Precisely that, Alexei. Collared greens."
The waitress left, shaking her hips to the ambient music.
"And these rolls?" A sour scent...
"An Ethiopian staple, injera. It is a bread product, from the teff cereal. I know, you probably think it looks like carpet under-padding. I assure you, it is quite eatable."
The waitress passed by, back towards the kitchen, a quiet giggle echoing from behind the door.
"No cutlery?" He asked.
"No cutlery," she confirmed. "Tear the injera rolls, or that which pads the tray, and use it to scoop up food from the platter."
She handed him a roll, and then demonstrated with her own piece. Bubble-side down, the gray breading picked loose meat off the chicken bone, and then deposited itself and the chicken into her mouth. Ayana's hand never touched the chicken or the items, only her own injera.
"Thank God that SARS is over with." An attempt at comic timing.
She glared, playfully. We're in a restaurant!
Hands danced gracefully over each other, and over a brilliant rainbow of food. Incense burned, music played, and the coffee stayed warm into the night. Eventually, it became more provocative. Hands started to deposit food into the mouths of others. And as the night grew still, the platter became bare.
The injera that had soaked up the juices was fragile and greasy. With the final roll, Alexei scooped up the last few shreds of the platter's padding. He chewed, slowly, as Ayana finished her coffee. There was silence between them now, and the conversation relied entirely upon body language.
Grreyht, grrh. Alexei's stomach complained, for it was bloated. He savored the wafting scents one, last time. And as he exhaled, he could tell just how much the sour teff flavour had saturated his body.
And as he sat there, aware only of her deep, brown eyes; his left hand unwittingly reached for a box, the third time that evening.
Thud! He smacked it lightly against the table.
A wordless exchange of body language answered the marital question, before the box was even opened. Ayana's hands moved away from the bill she was settling. Both bodies moved together, across the table, as one. Their lips met, and the ring lay hidden inside the box.
Andrei sat crouched in a large laundry hamper, men's clothes in disarray around him. With a flashlight, he read a psychological thriller. And, whenever he heard a noise, he looked out from under the piled clothes. From the dark, recesses of his brother’s walk-in closet, he could see the whole bed.