Young, undecided and quiet, my loft-mate Mark represented an America that was antithesis to the wounded American psyche of that time. Back in India, I grew up with the events of American involvement in Vietnam. And I followed it intimately till the day the last American helicopter flew out of that country. The fall of Shah in Iran, leading to the American embassy workers being held hostage in Tehran only accentuated the crushing pride of American invincibility. It is in this background that I arrived in America. But down in our little dig on Lake Boulevard, we several (older) boys were busy with our studies and homework and everyday household chores. One day Mark invited me to see a baseball game with them: “Its very American game.” Steve, who mentioned that he visited India and saw the disheveled crowd from the Howrah station and the slums along the rail trucks, gave us the ride. I felt a reserved and succinct distance in his approach. After the ball game, from the visitor’s gallery we had hot dogs, corn chips and coke, all very American foods.
I have never been very fond of sports. The world of the books had shut me out from many other vocations of life. But Mark seemed to show me a piece of the Americana that he knew. He was interested about my life back home. He knew that Hindus don’t eat beef and he asked me if I had ever tasted it before. I told him that I did not. Once he brought beef briskets that his family had cooked at their home. And he wanted me to try it if I would like. I tried a tiny piece. And I liked it. To me it tasted like one of the favorite Bengali fish dishes; that of the Hilsa fish.
Like all people traveling to a foreign land from India, food became an issue when I first came in this country. In fact, I had difficulty choosing foods from the fast food restaurants that I knew: the McDonalds, the Wendys and the Arbys. Those were the only kinds I could approach or afford. For many years I chose only fish fillet, French fry and, on occasion, the apple pie. Fish is like a staple in Bengali diet, and I thought that fish fillet at McDonalds would be a nice replacement. But it tasted very different. And the flavor of the tarter sauce felt pretty strong in my palate and I found little similarity of it with my favorite staple. Though I did not mind a chicken sandwich, I don’t remember it being offered at that time.
It did not take my housemates long to figure out that I was a book worm, unable to manage my daily affairs and careless about my look and clothing. I could feel that they sympathize me that they go home practically every weekend and for over a year I never went anywhere but the school and my room. But I could also sense that they had very different opinions about India than they were expressing to me. And those were not very appetizing.
Just like Mark was showing me his country, he wanted to know about things he had heard about my country. As naïve as we were, Mark wanted to know if I have ever seen any tiger in India roaming around. He took care not to belittle my feelings.
“In the zoo,” I replied. “And sometime in a circus.”
“How about elephants,” he enquired. Initially I could not get him well. I knew he was sincere. And looking back, I know he was cautious not to sound racial. But then I realized where he was coming from. Based on what he had heard, Mark thought that tigers and elephants roam about in the streets in India.
“Where did you hear about these?” I asked him once. And he mentioned that he met folks at the church, who were in India on missionary work and that they told him. It appeared that many of my American friends got to know about India from their missionary friends and people discussed about it in religious gatherings. My friends at Lake Boulevard knew more ill things of India: sati, holy cows roaming on the streets and the grinding poverty, than I ever knew or thought about. They knew about the population problem. Mark offered me a nice reason for that too! He told me that couples have many children so even if some of them die of poverty and disease, there would be some left for them to rely on during their old age. It sounded patently solid a reason in a poor country where there was no social security for old people. Issues he mentioned were the ones I never quite knew or thought seriously. Being a science student, I might not have learnt these facts from my very short social studies class. I was rediscovering India through the eyes of Mark and Robert, Damien and Steve.
That first spring in America was so memorable. Life seemed to have sprung from the death bed of the winter. Never before I saw the amazing vigor of a naked dogwood tree displaying its pretty flowers out from the morose of the snow. There was a distinct feel of life in the air. The birds twittered and the daffodils peeked. The cloudy days finally gone, the sun seemed to grow warmer and the icicles in the eves started to melt. Young college girls could barely wait for warmer days for sun bathing in their bikini costumes.
On a summer evening that year one day, coming home from the grocery store, carrying two bags full of groceries, as I stepped up the stairs from the street, I was startled by a moving naked pair lying on the lawn, strung in embrace; visible but hardy discernable. I could figure them out as Randy and Lisa making love on the green grass of the front yard, the soft darkness of the young night barely showing their glistening white bodies. Shocked, I hurriedly went inside our apartment through the side door. The pair appeared to be less concerned of my presence than I was of them. From her looks and taste, Lisa appeared to have come from a well-off background. Her red BMW convertible, parked next to Richards Volkswagen in the backyard lot, indicated that she was fond of fancy things of life. To my eastern upbringing, her living with Randy was just a western phenomena that we newbie’s were slowly getting accustomed to. And sometimes I joined my housemates in their juicy discussion about Lisa and Randy.
In the following winter, in a cold and snowy night, at around three o’clock in the morning, there was a loud altercation in front of the house and a man was knocking hard on the front and then on the side door loudly asking someone to open it. And I heard a baby crying nearby. Most of us got awakened by the noise and some of us jostled in the kitchen area, not knowing how to respond. But not knowing who it might have been at such late night, we did not dare opening the door. After some time the man appeared to have left. Next day, after we came back from school, Damien was in the kitchen talking secretively to Mark about the incident last night.
“Manik,” Damien called me. “Did you hear the bang on the door?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I could not sleep after that.”
“It was Lisa’s ex,” Damien smiled wearily. His voice lacked the usual buoyancy that he showed when talking about Lisa. It became apparent to us that Lisa was married and that she had a baby with that relationhip. For reasons that was beyond any of us, she left them and came living with Randy. Living a carefree life of a young woman, she would drive in her red convertible, her dark hair would fly in the summer wind. That was the picture of Lisa we knew and we commented about. In that January night, as the baby was crying for the mother, her husband wanted to bring the baby to Lisa and was knocking hard upon her door to open. That was the altercation. But no one, I learned later, opened the door.
Several of days later, while returning from school, I saw Lisa sitting on the stairs in the backyard, staring blank. She had a beer bottle in her hand; her puffy eyes were red, there was deep black smear below her eyes and her hair wilted. I had never seen Lisa that way before. The pain of a mother in her, it seemed, has brought down the sexy swinger down to the earth. After that incidence, we never felt the urge to discuss about Lisa anymore. The image we cultivated of her lost its seductive sheen. Somehow the cries of a little baby in the dead of that chilly night had left a bitter taste in our imagination! And we seemed to have grown mature and wiser about life!
That spring Mark and Damien graduated and left the college town. Richard had left earlier – I did not know where. Steve left even earlier; his mother, unwed and single, could no longer support him; and Steve never knew his father to ask for any help. And before long, the house was sold to a new owner. One day soon after, Randy and Lisa moved out. I did not know if they moved out together or not. And the new owner brought a lot of changes. I decided to move to a single room in the second floor. Not the place where I initially wanted to move: the room that Richard vacated; the one with the attached balcony, from where I once touched the maple leaves dancing in the summer breeze. That room was already rented out to Edward. I moved to the room next to the bathroom; it was where Damien lived. And the room next to mine was rented out to a girl named Pauline. In the upstairs attic, the whole attic, came a senior lady. The house thus became a coeducational place, where I started the next phase of my life in this country.
Pauline was medium built with a thin malnourished frame and had a full head of thick brown hair. Shy and quiet, she was a part time student. In the evenings, Pauline worked as a receptionist at a local restaurant and would return home late. Except on some weekends I never remember meeting her in the mornings. In the early evenings, when I used to return home, I would often come across her at the door. She would be leaving for work in her work uniform: a white frock with red ribbon checks; beneath which some loose crinkly threads of her silky white legging would shine. And would be visible a white soft leather shoe that she wore. Passing each other, we would smile and I would smell the perfume Pauline applied; mixed with the pungent tobacco smell. She was a smoker. I often thought why so tender a girl of her age would smoke. Did her family ever ask her to stop?
Edward, our other floormate, was in his mid thirties; medium built, with salt and pepper French cut beard. He was from Toledo, the industrial town on Lake Erie; in an area called Vienna Junction. “It’s close to the Michigan boarder,” I remembered him mentioning that to someone. Ed was born and brought up there till he finished high school and spent few years in the college. But he did not finish the degree. Ed moved to Central America with a church group to work for the under-privileged native people. Back in the USA, and still single, Ed came back to the school and ended up with us on Lake Boulevard. He rented the room Richard vacated; in between the kitchen and the stairs. Edward was instrumental in my buying a camera, a new Nikon model.
“It’s a good camera,” Edward said. “I wish I could get one.”
“Why don’t you buy one?”
Ed pushed his right thumb nail with his forefinger and threw it up as if flipping a coin.
“Money,” he said. “I need a job.”
Photography became my new hobby and a healthy distraction from the monotony of my student life far away from home. I experimented with the technicalities of the camera: its focus, the shutter speed and the lens aperture. I played with the aesthetics of photography, delving into the nuances of light and shadow. The bone jarring chill of the autumn wind mellowed as I got up in the morning to catch the sublimity of a dew drop on a rose petal. And the yellow and the crimson of the mid-western Fall took a new hue. Even at minus twenty five degrees, the white glow of the winter snow felt warmer through my view finder as I went outside to immortalize the gray barren day. I wanted to capture the history of my time through my photography. And in some freak unknown turn of events, Pauline ended up being my unintentional model. I took her pictures in the kitchen and next to the study table in her room. Playfully, she would pose for my camera, her arms stretched out like a ballerina. She seemed titillated and warm and I became the photographer of an undiscovered beauty. Immersed in the emotion of our youthful game, I didn’t know when, I found myself one evening slowly caressing her lips with mine on her stretched warm body in her bed, as she nibbled with her nails on my back. The door remained open and the time passed by as her warm embrace kept me lost in her silky soft body. Drunk in sensuality, I forgot the passage of time, till she slowly pushed me up. “I got to go,” she murmured softly. “I have the evening shift.”