How do I look?

I used to think that judging moods was easy; the instructions for it were written in the face; the colour and texture were addenda, but nonetheless easily read in the bodily postures: the nervousness of the stance, a glimpse at the hands, the tenseness in the voice -the sort of knowledge that we all learn over the course of a life. I used to assume the patterns were universal, no matter the country, the politics, the culture involved. I even went so far as to crystallize it in an essay I posted back in 2020 ( ) But I got it wrong with Harjit, my friends tell me.

A group of us often meet for coffee Monday mornings at McDonald’s -some of them because they’re retired and their wives needed some time to re-establish their marriage-long daytime identity, but one of them -me- simply because I was bored and needed somebody to talk to. Actually, I’m the only singleton in our pack, and the sole entity forcing me out of my house was loneliness.

There were three of us that usually showed up: me, David, who had once been a psychologist, but in retirement was left with only his memories and a bald head he says, and Jonathan, a lifelong car salesman -if that can be called a career- who ended up retiring because, as he put it, a man with grey hair shouldn’t be telling lies.

Harjit was a fourth, and appeared most Mondays, but often late if he came at all. He lived a mile or so from the McDonald’s and had to walk because his wife drove their only car to work every day at 7 A.M. The rest of us lived close by, and although on rainy or snowy days I phoned and offered to drive him, he usually refused politely but graciously. Harjit could always find an excuse to justify walking. Sometimes, he said he needed to go to the cash machine on the way, or to pick something up at the pharmacy before he forgot. One time, he even told me he had to hang around until his friend the plumber arrived, but I suspect they were all excuses.

Harjit is a very private man, and I don’t think he wants to mix his private with his social life. Jonathan thought that maybe he was ashamed of the neighbours where he lived, but David would only roll his eyes as if Jonathan had not yet retired his need to spin more webs. Me? Well, I have to admit I felt a little upset that Harjit wouldn’t let me help him; after all, helping is a win-win proposition for a bachelor like me: Harjit gets a ride, I get someone to talk to. David rolled his eyes at that, too; maybe it’s how psychologists were trained in his day.

“Perhaps he simply enjoys the exercise, G,” he said one day as he studied me with a wry grin. Harjit hadn’t arrived yet, and it was just starting to rain. “It’s not a bad idea for men our age, you know,” David added, glancing  out of the window at the street.

I was tempted to roll my eyes, but David owned the gesture and I didn’t want to offend him. “I was just trying to let him know I’m happy to help…”

David sighed, and although I’m sure he tried to disguise it, I could see the dark-blue sweatshirt he always wore tighten around his ample midriff. “Sometimes…” -he hesitated, trying to assemble the appropriate words- “…For some people, an offer of help is an admission of… well, of an inability to provide it for themselves…” He fixed me with a plaintive stare and shook his head as if he shouldn’t have had to explain. “Pride,” he added to make it even clearer for someone like me.

David made it sound as if I had insulted Harjit, or something, but I suppose he was just explaining another of those societal taboos that I’d never thought about. When you live alone, you pretty well make your own rules. “I phoned him again this morning, but he sounded a bit irritable, so I didn’t insist.”

“Probably wise,” Jonathan said, making sure he was included in the conversation. “Harjit’s usually in such a good mood whenever we see him; he’s always got a smile on his face.” He had a quick sip of his coffee. “It’s like it’s painted on.”

The two of them nodded in unison.

I didn’t say anything; I knew how Harjit had sounded on the phone.  

Then, the ever watchful David pointed to the line at the counter. “There he is, G… Time to see if you were right.”

But I was: there was no painted-on smile, no twinkle in his eyes, and he wandered over to the table like a man with something serious on his mind. His demeanour was unmistakeable; even his gait was… stiff. Something was obviously bothering him .

I glanced at David with a knowing little nod and slid over on the bench in our booth to make room.

“Hey Harj,” Jonathan said and smiled. “Walk all the way over here in the rain again…?”

Harjit smiled and sat down. His face seemed tense, despite the smile, but he nodded at each of us as he always did. “Yes!” He said the short word with the delightfully clipped Punjabi accent he sometimes put on for us. His vocabulary and command of English grammar was better than Jonathan’s though, so any slip-ups in his pronunciation were usually intentional and thrown in for effect. He was born in Canada of Punjabi parents; Jonathan was Iraqi -albeit briefly and only as a child.

“Sorry I’m late again,” he added without the accent, as if he felt he needed be serious to apologize. “But I had a lot of thinking to do on the way.”

David -still the psychologist- stroked him reassuringly with his eyes and said nothing.

Me? I blundered in with an observation and was immediately nailed to my seat by those same eyes. “You seem worried, Harj,” was all I said. I mean he wouldn’t have mentioned his need to think about something if he weren’t inviting us to ask about it would he? I was just trying to let him know that I, at least, had noticed and was willing to help.

His face looked puzzled at my question, and he glanced at the others to see if he had somehow given us the wrong impression. Not David, however -he was smiling- and Harjit’s face had already broken out in a wide grin.

I was my turn to look confused, and I didn’t disappoint. “I’m sorry,” I managed to mumble  in embarrassment. “Did I miss something?”

Harjit’s eyes suddenly twinkled and he began to laugh -the Harjit I was used to emerged as if by magic. “My daughter is pregnant, G, and I’m really happy! But she lives across the country and it is my wife who is worried because she is having morning sickness. Me, I figure it’s all par for the course.” He shrugged nonchalantly and picked up his coffee cup for a tentative slurp of the hot liquid. “It’s a girl, apparently,” he continued, “so I’ve been thinking of names for days now… That’s what I do when I walk.”

“And…?” I just had to ask.

“Well, I hoped she’d be called Amn…” He hesitated for a moment. “But she has decided to call her Anne.” Disappointment was written on his lips as he spoke, and his forehead furrowed like a freshly ploughed field.

“But isn’t that what you wanted?” I interrupted.

He smiled, rolled his eyes, and then glanced at David, the acknowledged owner of the signal. “No, Amn: A-M-N. There are many translations I suppose, but I’ve always thought it meant ‘the one who is peaceful’… My daughter was not one of those when she was a baby,” he added with a good natured chuckle.

I had to wonder how his mood could change so quickly… Or had I been judging shadows all along? Maybe all cultures have shadow faces, shadow clothes that they wear sometimes -opaque curtains they can pull for privacy. I think mine, though colourful, are still too transparent, though… I must ask Harjit about that sometime.


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