She was the kind one only sees in an Avon brochure. Light brown hair with a tint of gold, blue kinky eyes, straight nose, full lips, wide mouth and a dimpled chin. A woman she had come across years ago whom she re-called by the name of “that classy bitch”, had once classified her as the ideal woman of Anglo-Saxon lower middle class, quote, unquote. The bitch thought this to be insulting. It was not. Not to her. The only thing she objected to was the word `lower’ with the term middle class.
She was not only an ideal woman, she was also a wise woman. She had made it a point to enhance and preserve this image since her teens. And now, after about 25 years, she had reason to be proud of her efforts. Little things she had started doing then were now habits that she hardly noticed or paid attention to. Every four to six months, she would change the style of her hair to the most appropriate one at the time. Never too conventional, never too wild. What she did not change was its golden-brown colour. Like the deep blue of her eyes, the golden-brown remained the in-thing in hair colour for conventional fashion magazines.
The only thing that caused her some concern was her skin. It was white like the belly of a Salmon. As time passed by, the blue veins under her skin became more and more prominent. She never found the time or money to keep it tanned. But only her first boyfriends might have noticed that it was too white. She had evolved a useful method of delicately applying the correct combination of foundation cream and Oil of Olay on her body after her morning shower. It not only provided a thin transparent veil to the blue, it also gave a healthy and somewhat tanned look to her skin. None of her boyfriends, not even her ex-husband knew she had hair on her upper lip, arms and legs. The only noticeable hair was on her head and between her thighs. And she took good care of both.
She liked looking pretty. It made life easy on her. And pleasant. Except that she was unable to figure out why she had lost three men and was about to lose the fourth. She had wanted each one of them to stay. She knew she boosted their ego just by being with them. She knew they were all proud of having her. So then why did they always leave?
The man she was going out with was finding more and more excuses to spend less time with her. She recognized the symptoms. Last night he was to come and pick her up to go dancing. She wore her black dress with the burning red jewelry and matching shoes. A real sizzler. No one could help but look at her. But he never showed. When she called his place there was that fucking machine with tasteless loud music followed by his best voice saying `I am unable to come to the phone right now blah, blah, please leave your name and number…’. She almost drove to his place to find out why the hell he was unable to come to the phone but then she felt tired. Tired of keeping them in line. Tired of feeling outraged. Tired of the fear of being abandoned. Tired of the thought of dancing, of loud music, of attracting men, of encountering women. She went to bed and quietly slept all night.
Sleep is a great remedy. In the morning she was herself again and aghast at the fact that she had slept with her makeup on. She called him again from her workplace. He was ever so ashamed of his behavior last night but it was unavoidable. And, great news, wait till you hear this one, he had found the job of his dreams in the States and was leaving within a week or so. And then out came a rather weak and totally unenthusiastic `how about coming along?’. She said she was absolutely thrilled and yes, she would think about it. He said he was in an awful hurry and would really appreciate it if she told him by tomorrow at the latest. She said, she would.
She felt heavy. She knew there was no job and that the bastard was taking the easy way out. She still would have swallowed her pride and would have gone to the States with him but she wasn’t as free to do so. She had her mortgage to think about, she was still paying for her furniture. It was difficult to contemplate quitting her job. It paid well and was so easy. She was quite a success as it as well. Her ability to control people was not only used at work, it was also appreciated. She liked controlling people and did it almost effortlessly.
She would sit everyday in front of one of the doors leading to the office where officers conducted prearranged interviews in tiny bare cubicles; files were constantly fed to the computers, and office clerks busily walked back and forth. She loved this office. No alien could enter it without her consent. She unceasingly treasured and guarded the officers, files, computers, cubicles and all.
She always sat in a high chair behind a counter that encircled her and the door leading into the office. She had a phone, a ball-point pen and a register. Her world was made perfect by a good-sized smiling portrait of the Queen of England. Though she was quick to see deficiencies in women, she somehow never had a similar view about this one. She had a built-in sense of awe and respect for the Queen that she never found any reason to challenge. And it was only fair. After all this was not just any woman. She was dismayed at the royal choice of Diana and Fergie as daughters-in law of the crown, but she also understood the fact that there were some things that even Queens were unable to control. She kept her cool in that regard.
She kept her cool at all times. She never allowed any of them more than 60 to 120 seconds of her time. If there was resistance to that unspoken rule, she would simply sit and keep on repeating her standpoint without listening to what was being said. She knew what they were saying. If someone was dumb enough, which incidentally most of them were, not to get the message by that time, she would start punching her lines on the phone and get busy elsewhere. But the method she most commonly used was the one where she would unilaterally finish her conversation with one and would turn to the other with a `may I help you?’ uttered flawlessly to mean `what the hell do you want?’.
She had also discovered the benefits of knowing in advance if anyone standing in the line would pose problems. She was a good judge of character. She would know at a glance if they were irritating or aggravating. This way she was always prepared.
The only problem she faced at work was that she could never find any time to think. The line in front of her remained long no matter how efficiently she dealt with them. And the lunch break gave only enough time to eat. She was provided with coffee at her counter. Most of the time she liked this. Who needed time to think? But sometimes, like today, she wanted to think. She had to decide by tomorrow. No time yet she had to make a decision by tomorrow. This dumbo’s 60 seconds are over, she decided and turned to the next in line with her `may I help you?’
`Y–yes–uh–good morning Miss. I–‘
`What is it? Work permit? You have to pay 50 dollars. New rules.’
`Yes. I–I wanted to know if –if my open work permit is here please Miss—?’
`Have you passed your medical?’
`Yes, yes, I want to know if the result is on my file and if —‘
`We do not answer queries about the medical here, Sir. You have to find that out from the Ministry of Health in Ottawa’. She turned to the next, `May I help you?’
`Number is in the phone book, Sir’. She was still looking at the next one in line.
The next in line did not hesitate to come forward.
`Me meet officer, 9:30.’ He offered her a piece of paper.
She was opening her register to check the validity of his claim when her eye fell on a thin woman who was third in the line up. The look on her face unsettled her.
`Your name and file number, Sir.’
`Here, this. Here, this’.
She took the piece of paper, entered his particulars in the register but her mind remained on the woman.
`Take a seat. Your name will be called.’
She turned to the next. Now the woman was second in line.
`You need an interpreter? Which language?’
`Italy. Me Italy.’
‘Wait over there’ she indicated an open space for her to wait. Why do they come to Canada when they couldn’t say a word in English? She wondered several times every day. `May I help you?’ The woman was next after this one. What was it? She looked at her. Yes, it was the look on her face. The same look. Her eyes were clear and she stood as if she was standing in a line waiting for a bus to arrive. Yes she knew that look. It was aggravating. In fact she was disgusted with people like her. Stupid fools didn’t they know it was not a bank or a bus stop? Standing in this line was not a right. It was their Goddamn duty. But some were stupid. In fact they were all stupid. She suddenly hated them all. So many of them looking at her with expectation, with submission, like dogs. She hated dogs. Especially the ones that had no pedigree. She hated them. Her heart pounded and she wanted to be away from them. Away from Toronto. She wanted to be in California, absorbing all the sunshine that her body could need. Lying side by side with him, cooking together, walking together. She might even have a baby. `Your file number in Montreal, Sir?’ She did not have to listen to his groveling speech to find out that he wanted his files to be transferred from Montreal to here.
`Here is your appointment. Bring this paper with you when you come next time.’
‘Thank you, Madame.’
She did not call the next in line. It was her. The one with brown skin and black eyes. She absorbed herself with the appointment register. She needed a minute to set the ball rolling. She felt thirsty for coffee. But it wasn’t time yet. People in this line had apprehensive, disturbed, fidgeting or agitated eyes. Not the calm that this one had. It did not seem proper. No, it definitely was not proper. She couldn’t be a citizen. This was not the place for them. May be she was not even a landed. Let me see what her act was then, she thought.
`May I help you, Madame?’
At that very moment three young children came running towards the woman. And then the woman did something that was never done in that office. Instead of coming forward when she was called she started talking to her children. She made her wait for full 40 seconds. This was something she never took from anyone, especially aliens. And this one was not just an alien. She was an alien from Asia.
`Good morning. I am here for a work permit.’ She said as if she was asking for a pantyhose in a drug store.
‘Your job offer, please.’ She did not look at her.
`Here.’ She had the paper ready in her hand. Her hand remained extended for a while before it was taken.
`Okay, here is your appointment.’
`I need it today. The—‘
`The nearest space I have is for the same date next month.’
`Next month? Who will hold a job for me for a month?’
`May I help you?’ She dismissed her.
`No, you have got to listen to me. I have three children and if I lose this job I will have to go on government assistance. I cannot wait that long. I—‘
`Punjabi or Urdu?’ she asked dialing a number on the intercom.
`What is your mother tongue?’
I’ve got you now woman. She felt like smiling. `Oh, hi Cindy. Can we have a Punjabi interpreter out here? Great. Thanks.’ She put the phone down. So, the bitch doesn’t want to go on Welfare, too good for it, eh? She even calls it `government assistance’.
`Why did you ask for a Punjabi interpreter? I can speak a little English.’
She kept scribbling on the paper in front of her. Too good for it as well, eh?
`You asked for a Punjabi interpreter?’ The woman was white.
`Yes. could you please tell this lady we are booked until the same date next month. That is when she has to come back.’
`Certainly’. The interpreter faced the woman and said in English “We are booked until the same date next month. That is when you have to come back.”
`But who will keep this kind of job—‘
`We are booked until the same date next month. That is when you have to come back.’
`I have three children—‘
`We are booked until the same date next month. That is when you have to come back.’
`But you can’t do that to —‘
`We are booked—‘
The woman suddenly turned, gathered her children and started walking towards the door. And that is when she looked back towards the counter. Her eyes full of water. By the time she was out the door her cheeks must have been all wet. So much for parenting skills. Crying in front of her children. The woman disappeared behind the door but she could see her crying in the corridor. In the elevator. In the huge main lobby. On to University Avenue. Hundreds of people looking at her, watching her. She felt a sudden and unexpected urge to run after her and tell her about the other office where she could get a work permit the same day. No, she was not that soft. The creature asked for what she got. People watching. The woman crying. And then they think they have self-respect. It was only proper to do what she did.
Whenever she did something that was proper, she felt good. This was proper. It was good. That is what she liked in herself. She always did what was in her power.
Suddenly, there was no dilemma. She was strong and she had power. No, she did not need him. She would survive without him.
The decision came like an inspiration. Quick, easy and enlightening.
The Position of Her Power was written in 1988 in Toronto, and 30 years later, i feel motivated to blog it here. Though i was tempted at times to give it a light copyedit but i didn’t (except for removing an ‘a’). The story was first published in Diva: A quarterly journal of South Asian women (V1, Issue 1, April 1988, Toronto), and then in ‘Awakening Thunder, Asian Canadian Women’, Fireweed: A Feminist Quarterly (Issue 30, Spring 1990, Toronto). Most recently, it was selected to be a Finalist for Sequestrum’s 2018 Editor’s Reprint Award. ~ Fauzia
Edward Stefan Kuris is a painter, sculptor and poet who has exhibited his work since 1969 in many solo and juried group shows including Fergus, Elora, Toronto, Quebec, Slovak Republic, Cuba, and Japan. His paintings were used in a film by Academy Award winner Brigitte Berman. He is an Associate of the Ontario College of Art (OCAD) since 1970. Visit Ed’s facebook page.