- After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes
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On that first morning in Spain, Ali Azeem awoke to the smell of fish frying and no girlfriend lying next to him; he reached out a tentative hand and found only the cool sheet where Amy had lain. She was gone.
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Ali lay still, listening hard for Amy’s morning noises: the running of the shower, the tic-tic-tic of her typing, the smell of burnt toast. But there was only a thick, reverberating silence, broken by the sizzle of fish frying somewhere. It was fish, Ali was sure of it: an odor from his childhood in India.
He pulled on his sticky underwear and jeans from yesterday’s long flight and walked through the rooms of the shabby, unfamiliar apartment—they’d rented it, sight unseen, on the Internet—looking for a note from Amy, a few looping sentences written on yellow legal paper. But [End Page 11] there was no note on the tiny dining table or on the dusty television set. He saw that her sensible walking shoes were gone, as were her messenger bag and her beige cotton jacket. Amy was a great walker, would head off in Boston for hours on her own, but she always left a note.
Ali took out his cell phone, but there was no reception. He jerked open the glass doors of the living room and walked out onto the balcony; the stone tiles were uncomfortably hot under his bare feet. The sun was high in the sky, and he realized he’d slept through the morning. He dialed again, listened to the empty buzzing and realized with a flare of panic that their phones did not work in Spain.
The balcony faced onto a large, stone-flagged interior courtyard, and the windows on all four sides glinted at Ali, blank and expectant. He leaned his bare chest against the hot metal railings and looked down. The courtyard was empty except for a mangy orange cat that strolled slowly from light into shade and then disappeared.
Why had Amy gone off for a walk? He knew that her conference—an international gathering of Emily Dickinson scholars—did not begin for another day. Was she angry at him for sleeping so late? The night before, she had quickly brushed her teeth, worn her old nightgown and fallen asleep, but he had stayed awake, jazzed by the long flight from Boston and the taxi ride through the strange city. He’d moved in close to Amy, wanting to feel the curve of her long body, but she’d muttered in her sleep and turned away. Sleep, when it came for him, had been a series of jumbled dreams.
Now Ali stood alone on the balcony, listening to the hot hiss of fish frying somewhere. He could almost taste the overused, stale oil, and it made him sick to his stomach. He couldn’t stand the smell a moment longer and went back inside.
From their suitcase he moved aside their passports—her slim American one and his thick Indian booklet, stamped with an American work visa—and searched for his sky-blue linen shirt. It was at the bottom of the suitcase, deeply creased after being stored away for the Boston winter. Wearing it, he saw that at least his arms had stayed brown, unlike Amy’s, whose freckled summer tan reverted quickly to a pale white with bluish undertones. Thinking about her, he felt the panic again and hurried toward the door.
The creaking elevator smelled of cat’s piss, and when Ali emerged into the street he realized with a shock that Barcelona reminded him of Bombay. There was the same feeling of hurry and languorousness, the same light, heavy with dust motes and the same squat concrete buildings, their balconies crowded with dripping laundry. [End Page 12]
He stood in the hot sun, wondering where to go. They had brought a guidebook and a map, but apparently Amy had taken both. Ali did not mind; as was his practice, he had memorized the Barcelona street map before leaving...