Mehnaz had an early morning meeting that Wednesday. Normally she caught the 8 a.m. FS bus going to San Francisco and by that hour the sun’s rays were embracing the sky and the free Berkeley Daily Planet and East Bay Daily News were already in their boxes alongside the other newspapers, ready to be taken and read. However that day when she waited at the bus stop at 6 a.m. the sky was as dark as her black woolen coat, the one she had purchased at 30 percent off at Nordstrom Rack. Come spring she would get herself a new coat—a bright red one—with the raise she hoped to get at her Wells Fargo Bank job.
Yes, Tina, the girl with the short blond hair and extra-tight blouses advertising her bosom, had already got a promotion, but then she was the boss’s favorite. Mehnaz felt it was not fair. She understood the options and projections for loans and investments better and did not make careless mistakes. In fact, when one of the others had a problem they often came to her. Of course, she realized this was a post-9-11 world and a name like Mehnaz did not help. Besides, even if she changed her name to Mary her wheat-brown skin and onyx black eyes would still make people place her.
“Ma’am, can I get some change? Whatever is in your heart to give a hungry man.”
Her body stiffened as the homeless man took a seat on the bench beside her. His breath was laced with alcohol. His hair was uncombed. He had a frayed woolen sweater that appeared as if it had not been washed since the time the Mughals ruled India.
She slid to the edge of the bench and gazed downward, hoping he would disappear if she did not look at him. He plunked a garbage bag, perhaps containing his belongings, between them. A few empty beer cans tumbled out of the overstuffed bag and fell with a clink to the ground. She stood up and moved behind the bench to create more distance.
He stomped his feet. “Damn, I just ask a woman for some change and she freaks out.” He turns and pierces her with his stony eyes. “Bitch,” he yells.
She freezes. For once she wishes she had on a burkha like her mother wore while in Pakistan. That way he would not be able to see her fear.
As luck would have it, the FS bus pulled up at that moment. Mehnaz let out a sigh of relief as the bus door opened. She wondered what would have happened had the bus not arrived in time. Would he have attacked Mehnaz? Would she have screamed and fought back? Would someone have heard her and called 911, or would they both have stayed at the bus stop with the orange alert level but made no real move till the bus arrived? She yawned in her seat as the bus took off. She hadn’t even seen him coming.
* * * * *
After the early meeting on risk assessment the morning went as usual except for her manager piling extra work on her desk. Tina went on being Tina with male customers eyeing her bosom while the constant stream of customers who came to Mehnaz for assistance were those who liked facts and figures. These were mostly South Asians. Patricia? The Hispanics preferred her. Her mother had grown up in Oaxaca and she spoke broken Spanish and waved her hands around. If not to Patricia they went to Juan. He flirted with all the women in the bank, even with Mehnaz. She liked him. Yes, he was a flirt but he was kind. On evenings when she stayed working late he often worked late too and waited with her at the bus stop till her bus arrived. Only after that did he board the next bus.
She stared down at the pile of work on her desk. She had been a business major. She’d work for some time, gain experience, then try to get an MBA. Of course, her parents wanted her to marry a nice Muslim boy. If she had a love marriage her father would disown her.
Tina’s voice suddenly broke into her thoughts. It seemed shrill, tense, not Tina-like. She looked towards Juan. His eyes were frozen, staring at something near the door. Mehnaz began to turn but felt something cold and hard on the side of her head.
“Hands up. Don’t make a sound—you there.”
Two men with ski masks and gloves passed her by. They too had guns in their hands. She wanted to look at the man behind her but she dared not move. For a split second she wondered if the finger on the trigger was black or white, what was its race or religion, but then she realized that it did not matter.
Roopa Ramamoorthi is a scientist and poet who is working on a collection of interlinked short stories.