Stories and photographs by Jim Hamerlinck©2009, 2010, 2011

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


East Ballard, 2010

Sharvi Vajpai unfastened the seatbelt and let out a deep breath as she took in her surroundings.

"Oh, dear God."

She had lived in Lynwood all her life but hadn't known this stripmall existed until yesterday, when the man, Nathan, emailed her the address. It was in an expansive concrete and asphalt industrial park on the southern outskirts of the city, just off Highway 99. The place was deserted. Starbucks was open but a mattress outlet, a party supply store, a teriyaki joint and a gun shop were all closed or no longer in business. A pair of half-barrel planters sat forlornly on either end of the sidewalk, the dying petunias and begonias mostly hidden by chickweed and garbage.

The dashboard clock read 3:30. She was half an hour early.

Her mom had been driving her crazy at home, following Sharvi around, telling her what she should wear and how she should act and asking questions about Nathan for which Sharvi had no answers.

"This is not right, Sharvi!" she declared. "You are a beautiful, smart girl. You do not need to go begging for love from a stranger."

"Mom, you don't under--...."

"He's twice your age, Sharvi."

"He's only twenty seven!"

"It is too risky, Sharvi!"

"Jesus!" screamed Sharvi, "I c-c-can't stand this." She picked her keys out of the fruit bowl and headed for the door.

"Sharvi, wait!" her mom cried. "Where are you going?"

But it was too late. Sharvi was through arguing. She slammed the door and ran out to the parking lot.

Her mom stood on the condominium's tiny balcony, one hand on the railing, the other fighting the wind for control of her sari, and watched her only child drive off through the rain.

She shook her head.

"What would your father say?" she whispered, as she slid the glass door shut then returned to the couch and a golf tournament she had been watching on tv.

Sharvi called her mom before she got out of the car to tell her that she had arrived safely.

"Just be yourself, Sharvi," her mom advised. "Any man will adore you."

"Yes, mom," sighed Sharvi, before hanging up, "I know. I know. I know."

She entered the coffee shop--one of Starbucks' spare, no-frills stores--ordered a tea and sat at the small table in the middle of the room. She cupped her cold hands around the drink and thought how conspicuous and foolish she must look, in makeup and pretty clothes and fancy shoes with her hair trained just so, sitting here by herself on a Saturday afternoon, all tense and nervous. But a middle aged man and teenage girl, the only other customers, paid no attention to her and the barista was too busy behind the counter to care. "Just breathe," Sharvi told herself. "Breathe and relax. Be yourself."

Sharvi knew very little about Nathan, of course, but in his correspondences he came across as intelligent and funny, if not slightly insecure. He was 27 and, like her, lived with his mom. He was taking classes at Shoreline Community College and eventually wanted to get a degree in theology. He had posted one picture of himself on his profile, a rather blurry shot of him hugging a dog in the mountains somewhere, though he wrote--as if apologizing-- that it wasn't his dog. He was white, blue eyed, had some acne scars which he made a point of mentioning, was average height and had short brown hair. He professed to enjoy traveling--something he and Sharvi had in common--so she reasoned that, at the very least, they might have a harmless conversation sharing a few travel stories, shake hands, and part ways.

Sharvi was interested in many other things besides traveling, of course. She was an excellent student, taking pre-med courses at the University of Washington. She designed and made her own clothing. She played the guitar. She was researching her family history and, with her mom's encouragement, planned to go to India in the fall to investigate her father's mysterious death. She spoke Hindi and Italian and was learning Spanish. In the three weeks in which she had been active on the dating website, Sharvi had been contacted by several men who were impressed with her talents and interests and, she guessed, the photograph of her sitting with her attractive friends at a restaurant table under dim, flattering lights. However, these contacts had not resulted in one meet up, not one date. Sharvi figured that it was because she had been completely upfront with these men in her correspondences. She had presented herself to these men honestly, and they had chosen to not pursue her further. With Nathan, she decided to be discreet. Nathan would not discover the truth until he walked into the Starbucks and saw her.

Five years ago, Sharvi was diagnosed as having the degenerative muscular disorder known as Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Distrophy, or FSH. She had been experiencing a subtle weakening, a soreness, in the facial muscles around her eyes and mouth for almost a year until she finally mentioned it to her mom, who brought it to the attention of her doctor. Since then, the disorder had progressed to the point where Sharvi's speech had become slurred and her mouth, indeed her smile, was perpetually crooked. Her eyelids drooped, making her appear sleepy or tired. The muscles in her upper arms had weakened and raising them past a certain level was difficult. Her shoulders sloped. Her lower leg muscles had weakened as well, causing her to limp.

But, the good news--as Sharvi had to occasionally remind her friends and her mom--is that the disorder progressed slowly and that it did not affect one's life expectancy or intellect or imagination or sense of humor or the very essence of one's being. "You may have to put up with my neurosis for a hundred more years," she joked.

Nathan entered the Starbucks at precisely 4:00 and walked around the middle aged man and teenage girl, who were leaving. He spotted Sharvi, now the only customer in the shop, and stopped.

Sharvi took a sip of her tea, looked up, and waited for him to approach. But he just stood there, expressionless, his hands buried in the pockets of his long navy peacoat.

"Well, here we go again," thought Sharvi.

Nathan pulled his cell phone out, looked at it, and returned it to his pocket. He glanced out the window. Then, finally, he walked up to Sharvi and extended his hand. "Hi. Sharvi? I'm Nathan."

Sharvi moved her right hand from the tea cup and brought it slowly and deliberately to Nathan's. "Hi, Nathan," she said, "I'm Sharvi. You picked an...." And here Sharvi had difficulty ennuciating the word. "An...un...unu....unu...--"

"Unusual spot?" Nathan interrupted.

"Yes!" laughed Sharvi.

"I know," replied Nathan with a grin, slightly embarrassed. "Can I explain?"

"Of course," said Sharvi. "Take a seat. Make yourself"

"Thank you. I will." He took off his coat and as he set it over the chair his cell phone slipped out, dropped to the floor, and fell apart. "Dang it," he muttered. Nathan collected the pieces and stuffed them into the coat pocket. "Sorry. I'm a little nervous."

"That's okay," said Sharvi.

"Do you mind if I get a coffee first?" he asked.

"No, g-go ahead," Sharvi smiled. "I'll be here."

© Jim Hamerlinck.All Rights Reserved.

  • “There's nothing to be gained from passive observance, the simple documenting of conditions, because, at its core, it sets a bad example. Every time something is observed and not fixed, or when one has a chance to give in some way and does not, there is a lie being told, the same lie we all know by heart but which needn't be reiterated.” Dave Eggers