The High Life

by Nick Sweeney

Honorable Mention, 2020 Fiction Collections

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Whatever I’d planned for the evening I met Faria, I dropped it as soon as I saw her board the train at White Plains, in a yellow dress with a yellow pattern in it. It was a pleasing idea to me, of things hidden, yet on show. She was carrying a case for a small musical instrument.

At Fordham, announcements overlapped, from the driver and on the track, the sense of it all being: stuck at Fordham for the unimaginable future. Did it really say that? I imagined my future. Faria was in it, but only if I said the right thing.

“Commuter blues,” I nearly said. Faria could have pointed out that, as a white twenty first century American, my claim on the blues was questionable. But my life was stilted and lonely; the blues suited me, no matter my time, my place, or my race. I just raised eyebrows at her.

“It’s a pain.” She ran the words together, said them without looking at me.

“It is.” It wasn’t; I’d been waiting for a moment like this not just since White Plains, but all my life. I banished the ghastly people-pleasing expression that often hijacked my face.

“Subway right there.” Faria nodded toward a sign.

“Yeah.” I stopped myself saying that inane awesome, whose absurdity I only noticed when said by others.

We walked. She said, “Do I look weird?”

“No.” The question in my voice could have been mistaken for doubt.

“No, really, but do I look weird, though?”

“No, really, you don’t. Why?”

“People keep looking at me.”

Beautiful brown girl in bright yellow — why wouldn’t they?

“Just tonight?” I wondered. “Or — you know — always?”

“Just tonight. But — you know — sometimes it’s always.”

I knew what she meant. “They’ll stop now,” I said. What I was thinking was that we were in New York — not in some… backwater, like White Plains — and it was exhausting for New Yorkers to remark on every passer-by, because everybody there was remarkable.

We had the subway’s ticket hall to ourselves, apart from a guy banging and swearing at a ticket machine; it was kind of a Bronx thing to do. He paused to wish us a good evening. I thanked him, and turned to Faria, and her face told me that we were about to have one.


Sometimes Faria did look weird. Something odd invaded her eyes when, I fancied, she was on the point of blurting out a secret. Her secrets weren’t those of a gossip, I sensed, or an attention-seeker. They were true secrets, never to see the light of day. I was getting only a version of Faria, but you only ever have the right to know as much of people as they want, even if you love them.

She was vague about her work, said she didn’t like to talk about something so mundane. She reminded me of those people who lose their jobs but can’t let on, so leave the house each day, kill time, then bring home generic day-at-the-office stories.

In her background were India and Iran. She mentioned an uncle who’d made a fortune in cargo, a cousin who’d made one in foodstuffs, all lost to floods, earthquakes, corrupt officials, the mercenary troops of warlords or the boy soldiers of rebel armies. There was an array of cousins, uncles, aunts and in-laws, who may or may not have been actual relatives.

I think the blatant nature of Faria’s evasions was deliberate. It was her way of telling me that they hurt nobody, and that I shouldn’t fear them; I should, rather, collude in them to make her happy.

I was always prepared to do that.


My mother refused to use the stores near her, because they were run by Asians, whom she didn’t trust, from years of knee-jerk prejudices. Seismic changes would have to shake her world before I could introduce her to Faria. The thought troubled me all the way to the Saturday before Christmas. I thought I might take advantage of the season to descend on her with Faria, but my mother had a talent for frosting politeness into a weapon, and to hell with the occasion.

“She’ll feel let down,” Faria understood. “And it’ll screw up your relationship with her.”

“Sure.” I hugged her in gratitude. I knew I couldn’t put off introducing her to my mother forever — we lived in a multi-racial society, blah blah, for Christ’s sake. I felt ashamed of Faria’s absence when I described my life to my mother.

I said, “My mom’s life is kind of… empty.” My mother was unhappy, partly from choice: not to marry again after my father died, or to get out and engage with the world and to ignore relatives and old friends for no good reason. “It’s… grim.”

“Nah.” Faria laughed heartily, puzzling me. “Grim is… different, Shakespeare.”

Faria called me that because I was a writer, of sorts. I wrote for charities: funding bids, media adverts, the leaflets that agencies’ doorsteppers swapped with their victims in return for account details, even the scripts those annoying pledge-seekers followed. It was as far away from poetry as you could get, and tragically lacking in comedy.

“Nah.” Faria’s laugh vanished. “I will show you grim.”

“Where?” I was alarmed.

“I’ll show you joy first.” She pulled her top off, undid her skirt, let it drop. “But later, Shakes, I’ll be the Ghost of Christmas Present’s ghost.”


I met Faria’s father that same afternoon. He lived above some ramshackle stores in the South Bronx Hub. The junk around his apartment suggested trade: flattened cardboard, plastic pistols, boats and whistles in cellophane, disposable toothbrushes and razors, boiled candies turning white, pralines that became dust on opening, torches that worked for an hour, Halloween make-up; variety-store crap.

He sent Faria out, urging her, “Buy Christmas stuff — those terrible pie-things they eat.” He meant mincemeat pies, and me. “I’ll make coffee. Or you want a beer?” It was afternoon, though, and it wasn’t summer. I was kind of picky about the whens and wheres of beer. Faria’s old man looked like the kind of guy who drank four-for-three-dollars room-temperature beer out of cans. In the event, he forgot both beer and coffee. He waved me into a lumpy armchair facing his TV. He sat down in its companion and spun out a tale about a guy he’d met on a Woodlawn Line train who’d promised him a Christmas hamper for nothing — his original wish, I assumed — or at cost, the mention of which was surely the guy’s way of getting rid of him.

He told me to call him Dav. He was sixtyish, though his face was nearly unlined. He had the unmanageable gray mane of a man not used to grooming. He was dressed smart-casual, but in clothes he’d worn too long.

Faria came back. She relieved her irritation at having to wash cups and brew coffee by making faces behind her dad as he recounted his ailments — diabetes, arrythmia, and ”bad feet.” “And chronic mentalism,” she added.

“You’re ridiculous,” he called back. He grinned at me as he turned to his TV.

This mutual disapproval set the tone for most of our visits to Dav. Their rambling conversations, always in English, ended up in merry bickering, with much repetition of “You’re ridiculous, ji, I tell you.” The word had a melodious poetry that made it both censorious and affectionate.

Dav necked a lot of his warm beer. The aluminum evidence often showed his progress round the apartment. Faria disapproved of his kind of drinking. “No wonder you have no friends,” she said to him sometimes. She added once, “And no wife.”

That shut him down. He sank into his chair, repeated, “No wife.” He looked combative for a moment, but raised a palm, said, “You’re right.” He pleaded tiredness, and — a first — bade us to go home.


Dav brought up his wife not long after that visit. Faria was out shopping with Dav’s tattered money-off coupons, and complicated instructions about which two-for-one deals to get, and which storekeepers to seek out or avoid. She usually ignored them, and worked out a way of giving him the change he thought he was due.

“Listen, Shakespeare.” He searched my eyes anxiously with his own. “Faria’s mother. Tell me God’s honest. She’s not here, is she? In New York?”

Faria rarely mentioned her mother, and when she did she stuck to terms that could have described anybody’s mother. I said, “Not as far as I know.”

“Now.” He stared me out, wagged a finger.

“No. Really.”

“Toxic woman,” he stated. “Uppish bitch. Listen.” He took a furtive look around.  “I want to talk to you.”

“Sure,” I said. “What?”

“Shakespeare, you like Faria, right?” Again, those theatrical, searching eyes. It was irksome. “You like my daughter?”

“Sure I do.” I gave him some eye-language in return, a well-work-it-out-Einstein look.

“You married? No Mrs. Shakespeare? What was her name? Juliet?”

“Anne Hathaway.”

“I knew it.” He looked both pleased and disappointed — he often did, as if each pleasant thought was immediately countered by a negative one. “Cottage, isn’t it. I’ve seen it a few years ago. Trip to England. Or maybe the TV. No, be serious with me, now. Are you legally married?”

“Of course not. Nor illegally.” I thought I’d better rescue the conversation from its Shakespearean confusion. “Why?”

“Why don’t you marry Faria? You like her, you said.”

“I like… giraffes, too.” I didn’t, particularly. “But I don’t want to marry one.”

In truth, though, I’d have loved to marry Faria. By then, we were comfortable together. We liked and laughed at a lot of the same things, were happy with talk or silence, enjoyed the usual distractions of movies and bars and walks. In our apartments we junked the TV for books. Faria always had several on the go, and could concentrate despite the interference of the radio. She liked my few friends. Our arguments were infrequent, and soon made up. Sure, I could have married Faria, but it was a little too soon for me to have thought about it.

“Listen.” I could see that Dav was wary of Faria’s return. I knew it was serious when he killed the sound on the TV. “If Faria doesn’t get married here, her mother will marry her off.”

“Eh?” I wondered if he’d just watched a televised run of Jane Austens. “Who to?”

“Ah, Shakespeare. You think it’s all happy endings.” Dav ranted with such enjoyment that I sometimes questioned his actual annoyance. “All Romeo and Juliet. Nah. That woman has a different ending planned for Faria.”

He said Faria’s mother was from Zahidan, in Iran. Their marriage had been part of an alliance between Parsi families there and in India. I’d never heard of Parsis, and knew next to nothing about either Iran or India. Dav rolled out a tale of trading dynasties, business and family friendships, feuds and factions, agreements made and broken, and vanishing money. I gathered that Dav and his wife had been separated for some years, for reasons to do with any combination of what he called the ‘troubles’. The qualities he’d attributed to her couldn’t have helped.

The essence of it was that Dav’s wife’s family was mortally in need of cash. She’d run out of options, it seemed: her only recourse was to persuade Faria to marry somebody from a rich family. “And she’ll do it.” Dav worked those eyes. “She is a wilful, evil… jinx of a woman, and she’ll do it, Shakespeare — prostitute her daughter to some uppish… clown — unless you make a proposal, and keep Faria here.”

“You have to be kidding, Dav,” I said. “Dav?”

I followed his gaze. The TV was showing a re-run of some old show. For a minute, we watched a middle-aged couple in comic thrall to a man who, despite being in a hospital bed, was wearing a leather jacket. I nudged Dav. He turned, explained, “I like Fonzie.”

I’d been mesmerised by Dav’s tale. My first reaction was that it was plausible. He was ignoring one factor, though: Faria didn’t fit the profile of those girls who surfaced in the press, wide-eyed and victimised, manipulated into arranged marriages.

Her feet sounded less than dainty as they propelled her up the stairs. She burst into the apartment, weighed down with bags. She said, “I will swing for you.” She held up a bunch of receipts, walked over to Dav and scattered them in his lap with as much violence as the throwing of scraps of paper allowed. “Three-month grocery store bill,” she recited. “Eighty five dollars in the liquor store. Twenty owed at the newsstand. And, because none of them take cards in their grubby little tax-dodge economy, and because there are no banks in this sink-hole, I had to walk a mile to an ATM.” She set a chair wobbling when she grabbed her coat from it. She shoved herself into it, beckoning me into mine. “We’d stay for dinner, Dad,” she called back into the room. “Only, you can’t afford it.”


Faria didn’t really mind shelling out for her dad’s debts, but was sore at being duped into it. She’d also felt stung by the mockery in the eyes of those vendors of out-of-date cookies and overripe fruit, peddlers of alcohol to people they despised for drinking it. I didn’t dare bring up Dav’s tale with her.

I didn’t see her for a few days. The single phone call we shared was light-hearted, and I didn’t want to break its mood. By the time we met, the drama had gone out of Dav’s story, and with it the alarm it had sparked in me. All the same, I preambled by gabbling about my mother, with whom I’d spent the previous evening. I finished with the question: “What about your mom?”

“What about her?”

“Well, I mean, where is she?” What I meant, of course, was, who is she, and is she really the scheming witch your father warned me about?

“Mumbai, I think.” Faria looked at me, alert. “Where are we, what, end of April? Yeah, she could be in Mumbai by now. Why?”

“Has she ever come here to see you?”

“No.” Faria snorted. She had the expressive snort of a scornful little boy.

“What, she wouldn’t want to?”

“She’d want to. But do you know how much it costs to get here? And stay? And no way she’d get a visa.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t remember. Something… irregular in her passport, last I heard. Why? Do you want to meet her, as well as my dad?”

“Oh, I’d love to. She sounds charming.” I knew I’d rung an alarm. Maybe I wanted to be caught out, in the interests of advancing the conversation. Faria knew that anything I could say about her mother could only have come from Dav, so I recounted nearly all he had told me, leaving out his assertion that his wife would try to get Faria married.

“They had an arranged marriage.” It was like she was reading my mind. “I don’t think they saw each other till their wedding day. And neither of them was impressed. How old is your mom?”

The question took me by surprise. “Fifty… eight?” I had to think. “No, fifty seven. Why?”

“Mine is nearly forty.”

Faria was twenty four.

“Men who marry children get what they deserve,” she said. “They get a child. A generation before, maybe, those children would’ve been poor enough and grateful enough to at least pretend they liked it. Not now, though. So don’t listen to the beating of bad blood, Shakespeare. Specially my dad’s, with his irregular heartbeat.” She rolled her eyes, a hand to her heart. “All that stuff about the missing money is possibly true, but, you know, they all love a bit of tale-telling — you get me? I keep out of it.”



“You wouldn’t get into an arranged marriage, would you?”

“Shakey.” Faria offered me a conspirator’s smile, or so I imagined. “You arrange one, and I’ll see what I can do.”


Mid-May, no answer from Faria’s phone, and no response to texts or e-mails. I didn’t need to go to her apartment to check that she was gone. I went, anyhow. I searched every closet, each drawer, the garbage, even the icebox, for any clues to her disappearance. There were none. My anxiety gave way to anger, and then to a shocking vacuum in my chest, my body conjuring up the manifestation of a broken heart.


Dav’s pleasure in having been right faded quickly from his face. He sat still, said nothing. A game show blared, its host and contestants jabbering like gibbons, hailed by audience laughter. I rummaged in the gap between Dav’s thigh and the arm of his chair, found the remote and switched the TV off.

“I still can’t believe it.” It was a banal thing for me to say. Dav didn’t mind. “I can’t believe she’d go along with such a thing.”

“What thing?” It took him five minutes to come up with that; he was fully occupied in missing Faria. “The marriage? Yes. I told you.”

“But she’s not like that.”

“Like what?”

“So easy to… manipulate.” I could have believed that Faria would leave for any number of reasons: she’d tired of me, met some high-flyer, got pissed off with her dad, had it up to the neck with White Plains — I didn’t know — anything. “Bullied into marriage — I mean, that’s just crazy, Dav.”

“Faria won’t be bullied.” Dav looked at me properly for the first time.

“Yeah, but… she’s not going to agree to it just because your wife wants money. Is she?”

“Ah.” Dav became bright-eyed. “Listen, Shakespeare ji, and let me tell you what went on with Faria the year she was… nineteen. She was at college here, living with my sister. Long story, but my sister got sick, went home. I don’t know all this, okay — I’m away, I’m working, I’m sending every penny home. Two years, maybe. I detour here — big detour, let me tell you. Where’s my sister? Where’s my daughter? Phone calls. I go to Bhiwandi.” He saw the question in my face, said, “Near Mumbai, Shakespeare — Bombay. Family place. I say, where’s my wife? Where’s my daughter? People telling me lies. More bloody phone calls. Those… jackals laughing at me everywhere I went. I track my wife down in Tehran. I tell her to get over to Bhiwandi and stop fooling around. She has money problems, family problems, medical, she’s waiting for this, for that — yah, of course. Many many blah blahs. So I go to Tehran. That poisonous bitch has the lap of luxury, has a servant drop dates in her painted mouth. Where’s my Faria? That woman has sent her away to college, she tells me. But it wasn’t college.”

Dav had sunk into his chair. I noticed then that we were almost in darkness. Perhaps we wanted to be hidden, we deserted men, so as not to have to look at each other’s shamed faces.

“What, then?” I asked. “Where was she?”

“Escorting. In bloody Qatar. Making cocktails, dancing in her bikini, playing her clarinet, entertaining bastard Americans and emirs while they traded the oil they stole in Iraq.”

“Clarinet? Faria plays the clarinet?”

“Of course.” Dav shone out a touch of pride. “Like concert clarinet.”


“Yes, yes.”

“She doesn’t — she… didn’t have one.”

Then I remembered our first night out, and the instrument case Faria had carried. She’d opened it to reveal books, an mp3 player, Kleenex, pens, a notebook, lip balm, pantyliners, painkillers and all the junk usually found in handbags.

“No. It broke, or she sold it.” He acknowledged the look I gave him, admitting, “Well, in fact, I sold it. But anyhow, forget that. In Qatar, Faria learned the high life, Shakespeare. I stopped my wife’s high life right then. I sent her back to India, fourth class — hanging off the side of the train with the coolies, she was. Hah! I got Faria back here when her contract ran out in Qatar. But she had a taste of the high life.” He raised a finger. “Remember that.”

“The high life?” Faria had lived in a low-rent apartment, and had been at ease in drab bars, content to eat add-water meals and drink that four-for-three-dollars beer. And one of the things I’d loved was her lack of snobbery and her ability and willingness to talk to anybody and be at ease with them. “That’s not her at all, Dav.”

“Fellow, I’ll tell you a thing you don’t understand about the high life, and it is this. People get exposed to it, nah? You see it every day in the papers. One guy gambles. Another takes his secretary to a top-notch hotel. Some other idiot thinks he’s a — what is it? — a gourmet, goes to tip-top restaurants. They get a taste, you see? Then it’s skim a little from the joint account. Then it’s shake some out of the cashbox in the office. Then it’s work the expenses. Next is embezzling the clients. Faria’s mother was like that, a little taste — yes? — then more money, and more trouble. Faria was not like that, but… people change.”

I reminded myself that I’d known only a version of Faria; I’d coincided with her in transition.

“Faria will do this marriage thing,” Dav said. “But she’ll escape — of course. Smart girl. Five years, max, she lives with some… nincompoop. But then?” He finger-and-thumbed a money gesture. “Big settlement. Penthouse. Swimming pool. The works.”

“In Iran, though?” I associated Iran with pious revolutionaries, and women in purdah, not with the trappings of luxury.

Dav said, “These people have as little to do with Iran as possible, Shakespeare. They live in Paris, Milan, maybe London. For many Parsis, Iran is the mother country, even though they haven’t lived there for centuries. They like to say they belong somewhere. Just on the slim chance somebody might give a damn. Then they forget all that.” He laughed harshly. “And mix cocktails. Discuss the bloody tennis.”

I joined him in his laugh, or at least made a noise. I’d lost a version of Faria, but Dav had lost the whole blueprint. And for the second time.

We sat in the dark. I heard Dav’s breathing, wondered if he’d fallen asleep.

You married a kid, I remembered, a shocking, ugly thing to do. You shouldn’t have. It’s your culture and all that — I know. But you still shouldn’t have. You married a kid. Ugly, shocking.

“Faria was waiting,” Dav said softly. “It’s like sometimes when you wait at the train station? And the train doesn’t come? And you get talking to the other person there? You share something from their world. Isn’t it? Might be ten minutes. Then the train arrives, and you have nothing anymore together. And you forget them.”

It was like Dav had held up a distorting mirror to my face, deflected a prism of searchlight into my memory. The train for Grand Central had indeed arrived, and I thought I’d been on it with Faria. Maybe I’d imagined it. But then how had I got there, sitting in the reek of unwashed clothes, and of stale beer and takeaways, in the pokey apartment of a man who’d done a shocking, ugly deed? I got up. I couldn’t stay a second longer with such a man, but all the same I only went as far as Dav’s kitchen. I popped open two cans of beer, came back, and handed him one.

end of story

© 2021, Nick Sweeney Go to top