The Mansion

The winds of fate don’t always smell so sweet.

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My wife and I were in consensus on how and where we first met. I was riding the subway when the doors slid open at Sheppard Station and she boarded in a dazzling party dress. Her eyes swept the interior and then hovered over the red seat next to mine, and her legs took her to it. That was the version sans sentimental tropes. My version. Hers, much longer and more adorned, was the one we’d chosen to tell people.

What my wife didn’t know, however, was why I was sitting where I was sitting.

It was thanks to some stranger three rows ahead, with whom I’d initially been seatmates. I was staring blankly at the opposite row of empty seats when the man farted. There was no question it was him; it wasn’t me and, at the time, no one else was in our proximity. I peered at him, expecting some apology even if veiled in a gesture. None came. I moved away to escape the smell, or the ensuing embarrassment, and I picked a seat that soon sealed my destiny.

Flash forward five years. I’d have forgotten that episode, it would have been as insignificant a cause as any other contributing factor — me deciding to brush my teeth again before heading out, my wife having a slice of pizza on her way to the station, et cetera — had I not seen the farting man on exactly the same line again, on a seat against the wall. Despite the brevity of our first encounter, I easily recognized his giraffe neck, high forehead, and eyes; especially the eyes, a pale pair fiercely fixed on the windows across the train, as if they were TV screens displaying the most exciting show. He was wearing shades of blue, more on the darker end, perhaps even the same clothes from the past, as if he’d been waiting for my return five years on that same train.

A handful of passengers were scattered in sparse spots, leaving me with several options. I chose against sitting next to him. It’d have been weird. Perhaps the workings of my subconscious were saving me in case history repeated itself exactly. Finally, I descended on a seat across the aisle, close enough to address him without the need to yell.

It took me two stops, Davisville and St. Clair, to work up the nerve. He’d crossed his legs, his hands resting on his upper thigh.

“Excuse me … um, do you remember me?” I asked.

He studied me and shook his head no.

I scrutinized him again. No, I wasn’t mistaking him for somebody else. He had the same curly black hair, sunken cheeks, and oblong face.

“Last time I sat beside you … you farted.” I whispered the last part.

He chuckled, unashamed. “That sounds like something I’d do.”

Emboldened by his insouciance, I told him what that incident led to. “You’re the only one who knows about this. Not even my wife.”

“Take that as my gassy contribution to your love life,” was all he had to say.

We laughed. It seemed it was the end of the story, but I was just getting warmed up. It was like I was meeting our matchmaker five years later.

So I told him how, at parties, my beautiful wife — I actually said beautiful, as if to stress the gaping change in my life — would steer the conversation towards the line, Have you heard how we met? And after registering a satisfactory number of curious faces while gulping down her wine, she’d croon, Oh, that would take the whole evening. Then, she’d embark on the story that grew more romantic and less real with each retelling.

Friday night. November 6, 1998. I’m all dressed up going to a house party in Rosedale. Objective: finding the One. I had a tip that there’d be lots of U of T art grads. It turns out that the One isn’t at the party. Then, she’d glance at me.

Through the years, I’d learned how to hold up my end of her performance. Taking hints from her lines, I’d roll my eyes, raise my eyebrows, lift my hands upwards and flaunt other gestures that might please the audience.

She’d continue, I get on the train at Eglinton and right away find an empty seat. Guess who’s sitting on my left? A rhetorical question. Her thumb would point at me, her eyes shut for a moment. Bookworm that I was, even with only four stops I couldn’t resist opening my book. Guess what it was? The Great Gatsby. And what page was I reading? Gatsby standing on his porch staring into darkness, with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver peppers of the stars. Her fingers would swim in the air, forming quotations, before aiming towards me. And then this guy next to me tells me it’s his favorite. So we talk, and I get to my stop. Not his. I say nice to meet you and he’s like, “I can get off too and walk from here. The weather is nice.” He was going to the college and it was freaking cold.

Right then, I would utter my practiced line, In my defense, it was only freaking cold to her in that short dress she wore hoping to bait U of T nerds.

She’d wave a hand, inviting the audience to ignore me and conclude her account: that we ambled together, that I helped her with the address in the streets carpeted with golden leaves still shiny from the rain, the setting sun — or the visible part of it — reddening the horizon. She decided not to go to her party, ditching all the artsy guys, so we continued walking, we found ourselves hungry, we searched, we found the Keg Steakhouse.

“Now every year on November the sixth we go to that Keg to celebrate our anniversary,” I told the man. “We don’t care much for our official anniversary.”

The man listened throughout, never allowing any entrance or exit at the stops to distract him. It was maybe his attention that kept me going, even if there was no clear hint of amusement, neither of joy nor of surprise. He didn’t interrupt me, no requests to elaborate, no pleads to recap. My pace seemed to be ideal. Or didn’t matter at all.

“Your wife treasures that night it seems.”

“She does.”

“Which Keg is it?”

His first sign of curiosity so excited me that I didn’t care how that could be relevant to the story. “This one is called The Mansion, because it’s a heritage building from two centuries ago.”

“The Mansion,” he whispered. His face contorted into lines around his eyes and on his forehead, like he was fishing something from his memory. “And you said November the sixth?”

He was more attentive than I’d thought. “Yes.”

“She’d be very disappointed if she found out her mansion is built on a fart. Maybe I should blackmail you.”

I jerked back my head. “What?”

“I’ll walk into The Mansion on November the sixth. Find you and your beautiful wife. You’ll notice me and walk me to the bathroom and will sign a check for the amount I’ll ask for then. If you refuse to do so, I’ll introduce myself and will tell her what you just told me. The unromantic part, I mean. The stinky part.” He droned on as if he was reading an obituary from a paper, bereft of any sense of enthusiasm or self-indulgence. There was finality in his words, like he couldn’t help it.

The train stopped at Queen Station.

I staggered to my feet. “This is my stop.”

It wasn’t. I left the car and turned. As the train lurched forward, through the shuffling passengers, I spotted him, still and straight, beaming at me.

 

There’s a fine line between amusement and obsession, and before I knew it, I’d slipped into the latter. The man’s face made appearances in my life, the nonchalant way he carried himself, the whole incident of seeing him again. It crept gradually, stealthily, ubiquitously. While at work or at home. Talking with my wife, making love to her. None more irritating than a feather’s tickle until she said she’d booked our “anniversary.” Same place, same time.

It was then that the man’s bulging eyes materialized, in an expression of vague undertone, asking me, Maybe I should blackmail you?

He knew nothing about me, no address nor a phone number, not even a name to look up online. All he had was the name of a restaurant and a date on a calendar.

I’d never told anyone about the original incident, even in the early days when I figured the young woman I’d met on the subway was but another girlfriend with an expiration date, when I would’ve laughed at anyone claiming how our destinies were about to intertwine. I didn’t divulge it to my guy friends who insisted on hearing how we’d found each other.

I considered changing the date, but if the man cared enough to go all the way to The Mansion only to find me, he could do the same on the day after and the day before. Then, if he could spare three days for such a mission, why not try it for a week? A week would lead to a month, and a month to a year. Why not while away his time in a restaurant instead of wandering the subway? A madman’s imagination has no limits. And by madman, I mean myself.

My wife would say, This might be the last year we go to The Mansion.

Dazed and frightened, I’d ask, Why?

The baby is coming, she’d say, remember? I’d sigh with relief before hearing her say, This dinner will be different. Again, I’d be at a loss, feeling exposed, until she’d ease my puzzled look: Wine — can’t drink it.

And it didn’t end there. Whenever she invited me to feel her belly, I’d place the palm of my hand on her skin, musing over the wonder of creation until the yet-genderless fetus would kick a bump and I’d cringe with the idea that this very creature, soon to be the love of our lives, wouldn’t have had a chance had it not been for the man on the subway, an association powerful enough to ruin the moment, to rewind our life, the fetus back to nothingness, to take me and my wife to where we were five years ago.

Or, where we were not.

 

Five candles were burning in thick, tall glasses. The table was in one of the rooms on the second floor. As we walked, I perused the many corners in that restaurant with sweeping glances. Then, I managed to guide my wife into sitting on the chair facing the wall. I could maintain my vigil from the other side; send the man a raise of eyebrows, mouth a pleading no, if it came to that. All assuming I could recognize him fast enough. I’d never seen him standing or walking. I wasn’t even sure if he was short or tall. He was a god who only sat on his throne on the subway, intervening in the lives of mortals, giving them things only to take back on his whim.

I had prepared a few topics to make sure I wouldn’t turn up suspiciously quiet. Once we received our drink order (her Coke, my Merlot), I started on the name, the favorite topic of any expecting parents. Then, leaving it at a roster of several incongruent names, we talked about mat leave, daycare, the possibility of hiring a nanny, and all the normal things that people at our stage in life would talk about. We envisioned our future, the next two or three years at least, while I monitored the landing in front of the stairs; the arrival of any new guest side-tracked me for a second before my wife pulled me back into conversation.

Our food arrived in all its aromatic glory. As was her habit, she began to meticulously cut each steak in half so that we could share. Digging into the food slowed our namedropping game. At some point I forgot about the threat I’d come prepared to fight off.

I remembered it only when, in a swift turn of conversation, she said, “I’m really glad that we met the way we did.” She sandwiched my hand between hers across the table. “I know I’ve said it a million times. But there’s something magical about our story. Perhaps this obsession borders on morbid curiosity, I don’t know. But it’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

I swallowed and looked around as if we were in the man’s earshot. He was the jack-in-the-box who would appear to hear my confession at last. I clinked my recently filled wine glass against hers.

“It is beautiful. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world,” I said, and I meant it.

It brought a smile to our faces. And something else: A foul smell crept up to my nose. I turned my head around. People were immersed in their red meat and conversation, and so was my wife, unmindful of what I was sniffing.

The smell stayed until it was overtaken by the burn of our candles when they flamed out and the aroma of the coffee that arrived to see us off.

 

It’s been 17 years. I have never heard from the farting man again, have never run into him on the subway either. But the smell still returns. Only I can feel its presence. It appears occasionally, whenever I make up small lies, when I raise my voice, when I flirt with a colleague, when I have ice cream by myself.

But that’s fine. I’ve made my peace with it, as long as it’s not too strong or too lasting.

We still go to the Keg Mansion, though after the 10th year they refused to give us candles (fire hazard). My wife still tells the story of how we met to the very few who don’t know it. And I’ve kept my stint as her assistant, employing my nods and gestures and inserts. Our daughter, en route to college soon, is the loyal audience to our story, a perpetual fan. Yet, in order to find boys, she prefers more convenient means. She slumps on the sofa for hours and swipes mug shots left and right. Her mother glares at her, advising her to wait for an unforeseen flame. If you don’t believe me, she tells her, ask your father what it feels like to find your partner romantically. They both turn to me and I concur with an irrefutable bob of my head as I hold my breath.

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Comments

  1. Mr. Kashani, this is one of THE most outrageous stories I’ve ever read on the Post’s Friday contemporary fiction feature. ‘Eleven Jewish Korean Vets’ still holds that title (at least for me) and I didn’t hold back my praise to the author, either. Wait’ll you read that one. Just go to the wonderful search bar and check it out!

    This story is the kind of dark humor I love. Something that appears within the realm of possibility despite the far-out aspects. Elements used in (say) ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Seinfeld’. Imagine Elaine on Seinfeld saying to Jerry every time she tries to order Chinese food in ANY NYC restaurant: “Eeeew that smell! Can’t you smell that smell?” “No Elaine, I can’t; only you!”

    I can’t BELIEVE how cleverly you not only worked that terrible smell into a story in the first place, but made it the centerpiece of it all! I’m shocked and impressed! Small lies, raising your voice, even having ice cream by yourself and that awful smell returns?! Well, I’ll just hold my breath for your next story. THIS great little jewel is perfect for the even stinkier 21st century!

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