After I lived in Treadway hall for my first few weeks in America, Unni helped me look for a private room near the school campus. He gave me a ride in his sky-blue car, a big old sedan. Long bereft of its youthful glamour, the car sputtered profusely when it was cranked. “It runs,” Unni assured me with a shy smile, as he turned the key while looking far through the windshield, as if to feel the pulse of the car from the sound it made and hold the key for the right length of time. He mentioned that he got the car not long ago. With dents all over its body and rusty on the hood and around the fenders, it was one of those student cars that had been handed down from generations of graduating students to their juniors. That day I learned the plight of the cars that our senior students owned when they left for America and became the subjects of our pride and amazement back in India. But the car did start; and we went around without a hitch. The semester being in full swing, the available rooms close to the school had all been rented out. I had to settle for an attic of a two storey house on Lake Boulevard . The owner of the property, a middle aged gentleman, whom Unni had called, showed us around. “You are going to pay your rent to Randy,” the owner mentioned. “He lives in the first floor.” I was introduced to Randy, a rather rough looking man in his early thirties with semi-curly hair and a brownish mustache that seemed to have a purplish hue. As Randy opened the door, a little white poodle jumped out through it and a lady came out calling the dog, “Twinky, Twinky.” The dog seemed to obey her and it stopped and returned inside the room. “Hey Lisa,” Randy introduced me to the woman, “this is Manik.” His pronunciation sounded more like manic than ‘Ma’-nick that my name really would sound. But I had gotten used to it by that time.
“Hi,” Lisa shook my hand. I felt off guard by her stunning look and had difficulty moving my eyes away; she was such a vivacious beauty! She had a chiseled flawless face and thick black hair. Randy appeared to notice my reaction.
“My girl friend,” he winked at me with a sly smile. His moustache seemed to quiver and the purplish hue became more apparent. The house owner, standing nearby, seemed to be hiding his smile too. “Let us know if you need anything,” Randy told me. “Welcome.”
The entrance to the second floor was from the north side of the house and the stairs started right at the door. As you reach the second floor, the bathroom is right in front. A common kitchen was on the left of the bathroom. There were three individual rooms as well. From this second floor, the stairs just moved on; there was no door to the attic. But the attic was fairly spacious with a wooden separation, with many tiny holes in it, standing between two beds. Thus the space was for two tenants. The right side of the separation, with a view of the street, had already been taken. I got the left side, the side where the stairs ended. But it had plenty of light from two extra-wide windows over the backyard. The yard below, covered in snow, had several junipers and a tall maple tree; sign of withered tulip bush and a wild rose beckoned near the fence. Dried maple leaves peeked through the white snow; the lifelessness of the winter was everywhere. A narrow concrete path ran from the first floor door to the other end of the yard. There was a graveled parking lot, barely enough for three cars, outside the fence. And the road next to it was full of potholes.
As I was moving my belongings to my new place, a tall, lanky white guy with long disheveled hair stretched his hand towards me. “Hi, I am Mark,” he said. “Mark Deaver.” A few red splotches from acne marked his face and his gold rimmed glasses appeared to indicate his quiet demeanor.
“I am Manik,” I replied, shaking his hand. “Nice meeting you.”
“Welcome,” Mark said. “Hope you won’t mind sharing the attic with me!”
“No,” I smiled. “Not at all.”
Mark helped me putting my suitcases along the wall, that acted as the headboard of the bed. The bed was made of sturdy metal frames with green paint on it. It had a solid mattress and covered with a checkered white and navy blue cover. The contrast between the beds and the attic was pretty apparent. Much later, when we were there for more than a year, Mark and I agreed that the house owner might have bought the beds from a hospital auction.
At the bend of the stairs and on my side, an electric light bulb hung from the ceiling. The zigzag irradiating yellow filament of the light stared nakedly through the thin clear glass bulb; the white ceiling stooped above but did not feel suffocating. An oval shaped thick rug, made from circular loops of green, blue and purple fabric was spread near the bed. But the floor near the window was bare wood. From my bed on that third floor loft I tried to spread my gaze through the wide window, but the barren trees and the snow covered roofs of nearby houses obstructed its stretch.
The room rent was sixty dollars a month, ten dollars cheaper than the private rooms in the second floor. The common kitchen there had two double-pane glass windows, one facing the backyard and the other a grey white wall of the house next door. The bottom panes of the windows could be raised to bring in outside air through storm screens. White paint on the rim of the panes had gotten thick over multiple layers; you could feel uneven beads in some areas. A refrigerator stood on the right of the kitchen entrance; the gas cooking range and the kitchen counter with drawers underneath followed side by side. The range had four stoves on top and an oven underneath. Some caring renter once wrapped aluminum foils around the burners to protect it from cooking stains; but over time it had collected dry brown splotches all over and the crinkles on the foil had gathered black oily dirt. An oval shaped dinning table with four chairs around stood near the entrance. The chairs had brown faux leather seats; the sides of which were brittle and torn and the yellow sponges underneath peeked through the holes. The floor was covered with brown linoleum with yellow colored diamond patterns.
Besides the two of us in the attic, we had Damien, Steve and Richard living in the second floor. And except me they were undergraduate students, all born and brought up in America. Damien and Richard were African American, Mark and Steve white and me the brown Asian. On week days, after we returned from school, there would often be a small gathering of some of us around the kitchen table; eating afternoon snacks or sharing the school stories, which would often stretch to Randy, our manager downstairs, and his beautiful girl friend. The manager only served as the start the story, I must say, the main subject was always Lisa. “Oh, that’s called a beauty,” Damien, the most gregarious of the group, would shower his affection. “How Randy could manage to be her boy friend?” he would tease. “I want a foxy lady like that.” With half closed eyes, he would stretch out his hands in mock embrace to his dream girl, laughing loudly. He combed his bushy hair with a spade like comb. “Manik,” he would pretend to be serious, “do you Indians fall in love?” I could often guess where he was heading. “Or your parents always arrange the girls you would marry?”
“Randy must be showering Lisa with costly gifts,” Mark quietly intervened. “Did you see her BMW?” We looked through the window for the red convertible, often parked behind the backyard. Richard, the oldest of us five, would smile silently and often retreat to his room. In his late twenties, Richard served in Vietnem and was attending the school with his veteran administration scholarship. Reserved and mature, he was the only one among us owning a car. And he was a picture that belied my typical, I must say racist, notion of an African American.