WELCOME TO AMERICA
A Short Story Published In India Currents
BY SARITA SARVATE
It is my first week in America and I am in a state of excitement bordering on terror. All week, I have been embarking on little adventures; playing the pinball machines in the basement of the Berkeley Student Union, getting a first taste of American fast food, and drinking wine at a party. Now, waiting for Irena in the lobby of the International House, I watch young men in long hair and cut off jeans throw Frisbees in the air.
This morning, I called Irena's husband Ernie to ask him where to buy Tata's hair oil.
" Oh my sweet Asha," he chuckled. " American women don't use oil, they use conditioner instead. Why don't you buy some Long and Silky? Laura says it makes her hair shine." Laura is Ernie’s daughter. She is thirty years old, looks like Live Ulman, and is married to an Iranian named Saleem.
Irena picked up the extension then and said, " Hi, Asha, I am sorry we haven't had you over at the house yet; we've just been so busy. But I've just finished making lunch. So if you would like to join us, I'll pick you up in half an hour."
" Sure, I'd love to," I said, practicing my American English. So I am thrilled. I have been day-dreaming about the house in the hills, the rose garden overlooking the eucalyptus, the living room with pillars of glass filigree, and the dining table with starched linen, all of which I have seen long ago in pictures Ernie sent me to India. In those days, I used to open tattered zippy bags full of surprises; a can of corn, a jar of peanut butter, a bar of velvety Ivory soap that smelt like a flower I had not seen. I had kept the soap in the showcase alongside a marble replica of the Taj Mahal and a peacock feather fan. Ernie kept sending me food for quite a while, until he realized I wasn’t dying of starvation.
People say that in a previous incarnation, Ernie and I were related. That perhaps we were husband and wife. Or we were father and daughter. In reality, Ernie is my pen-pal. Years ago, I wrote him a letter from India asking for a paper in X-Ray Spectroscopy. " I didn't know a young (I assume you are young?" ) woman in India was studying Physics," he wrote back. He started sending me copies of Scientific American and Physics Today. After a while, Ernie became a distant confidante. I became a Catholic at confession and he was the faceless priest.
Over the years, Ernie's pictures made me want to see America. I wanted to ride the five lane freeways and to eat twenty three flavors of ice-cream.
So I made it here. I could not have made it without Ernie though. I could not have known what to say in the application forms, how to apply for visas, or where to stay when I got here.
Laura and Ernie picked me up at the airport in San Francisco. The first thing I noticed about Ernie was his baby-smile. And the freckled redness of his skin. He was a small man, all shriveled up. I was struck by the contrast between the youthful vitality of his letters and the very aged look of his body. " Welcome to America," Laura said with a face full of dimples. She wore a creamy split skirt and a low-neck sleeveless blouse tied in a knot at the groove of her breasts. To me, she seemed half-naked, like a cabaret dancer in a Bombay film.
The second thing I noticed about Ernie was the flush of sexual excitement in his face as he squeezed my hand and told me I was more beautiful than he had ever imagined. Laura took me to the bathroom then, and, applying blue eyeliner to her blinking eyes, she said, " I just want you to know Mom and Dad were planning to have you stay in their house for a few days while you got acclimatized but they have been getting on each other's nerves ever since Dad retired. So I hope you don't mind going to I-House right away." Then we went to the airport cafe and Ernie ordered me a tuna sandwich.
Now, waiting for Irena, I think of that sandwich. It had a heavenly taste. Some day, that tuna fish sandwich will become my first memory of America. That and the p.a. system announcing " so and so over the White Courtesy Telephone."
Irena walks in wearing green slacks, a flowery printed shirt, and high heels. I recognize her instantly. She has a sharp, poignant look about her. To me, she seems incredibly beautiful, like an older version of Ingrid Bergman. I extend my hand. She walks out of the lobby wordlessly. I follow her. Her yellow Volkswagen is parked with the top down against the red curb. She opens the door. I am in my only American outfit; orange bell bottoms and a green psychedelic shirt picked up in the Friday bazaar in Nagpur. I have trouble getting the enormous flares of my pants into the car. My hair is done in a long thick brown braid swaying against my hips. Beside Irena, I feel foolishly unsophisticated.
"Wear the seat belt please," she says, in a school-teacher voice.
"Oh, I am not afraid, I am sure you're a good driver," I say. The only time I ever wore a seat belt was on the plane ride over here.
"No one rides without a seat belt in my car," she says emphatically. Now she sounds like a school-principal. I sit back and fiddle with the seat belt. She jumps out of the car with a huff, walks around the back, and secures me with a firm hand.
We drive up the hill and soon we are on a cliff overlooking the Bay. Irena's eyes are on the narrow road; her face tense and distraught.
I sit back and think about things. I recall my panic of the last few weeks. " I don't want to go to America, I am too afraid," I said to Father and Mother. Secretly, I was worried about the tone of Ernie's letters. There was something odd but I could not put my finger on it. "What if I flunk Berkeley? What will I do then?" I kept saying. But everyone said, "You should take this opportunity. It won't come again. And even if it does, in a few years, you'll be too old to take it." During the past few days, my doubts have been enhanced. Ernie has been following me around Berkeley and he's beginning to irritate me. Much as I would like him to be available at the end of a telephone line, I don't want him to spy on me.
For example, on Tuesday, as I ordered a hot dog at the Giant Burger on Bancroft, I noticed Ernie out of the corner of my eye. He was watching me from behind a shelf of plastic hot dogs and bananas. " What are you doing here?" I asked him. The red blotches on his nose seemed to twitch with embarrassment.
"I was just walking by," he stammered. But I felt he had been following me, had in fact waited outside I-House watching my window. Ernie ordered a hamburger too in the end, and insisted on eating it with me. Afterwards, as I said goodbye to him licking tomato juice from my wrists, he asked, " where are you going?" in alarm.
"I am going to see Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. I haven't seen it."
"Can I join you please?"
"Oh, I am not going alone. I met this girl Cathy in my class. She said she would meet me there."
"I will come too. I want to meet Cathy; I want to share all your first experiences of America," he begged.
"But Ernie, now that I am here, I want to stand on my own two feet. I don't want you to hold my hand everywhere!"
He walked away, crest-fallen, a lonely old man. I went to the movie triumphantly. But afterwards, I felt so guilty, I could not enjoy the movie.
But now that we are going up to the house, my doubts are fading away. Everything is going to be all right, I tell myself. I am going to be a part of Ernie's family, just as I had imagined. I want to celebrate Christmas with them, and participate in an Easter egg hunt, although I am not quite sure what that is.
We are on top of the precipice now, surrounded by tall trees. We are hanging on the edge of the world. I am dizzy from the height. In the distance, I notice the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge. But Irena does not point these out like everyone else does.
Suddenly, she pulls the car up on the shoulder, and, for a moment, I feel we are taking a nosedive. I hold on to the window and take a gulp. She stops just short of the slippery gravel though, and turns the key in the engine. She takes a deep breath and stares ahead. I turn and look at her. " So this is it," she says. There are no houses here.
" Did you run out of gas?" I ask lamely.
" No. I wanted to talk to you first." The authority in her voice mesmerizes me.
" I wanted you to come up and see me and my husband together in our home," she says gravely. I nod. " Before you ruin my life, I would like to make a few things clear to you."
I stare at her
" You wrote him all those letters from India to snare him into falling in love with you so you could come to America," she says.
" But I didn't want to come to America. I had a good life back home. I miss India," I say.
I know he has been sleeping with you ever since you arrived here." Her voice is sharp now and her eyes are out of focus. " He says he is going to leave me and marry you. He says you are going to have a couple of kids with him." I think she is insane. I think this is a nightmare.
"I am not going to sit here and listen to this rubbish," I say. " You know very well that Ernie is older than my father." I try to push the door open. She grabs my arm. Her nails pinch my flesh.
"Don't try to get out, or I'll push you down the cliff," she says calmly.
She starts the engine and drives maniacally down a narrow, windy road until we come to a low, red house. The door opens and Ernie comes out wearing a brown, velvety bathrobe over white silk pajamas. " Hello, Asha," he says blushing a deep red. In that instant, I know Irena is right. Ernie is madly, hopelessly in love with me. How could I not have seen this before? How could I not have detected the chemistry through the black ink on his blue airmail paper? Ernie has fallen so desperately in love with me that he has been waiting for me all morning despite Irena's intentions. He simply can't bear not to see me.
Irena pushes me through the door. Ernie stands back to let me pass. " So this is her. This is the eighteen year old girl you want to marry," she says.
"I am not eighteen, I am twenty five years old," I say vehemently.
"I am going to kill you," Irena yelps like a mad dog. I have not heard a human being howl like this before. I feel no pain. I only see the pillars of mirrors and think of the Shish Mahal in Indore. Everything else in the living room is a blur. Irena dashes into the kitchen screaming like a wolf. She comes back with a knife. The wide, sharp blade sends a silvery beam on to the ceiling. Not a tear comes to my eyes. She walks towards me. " I'll kill you." I move towards a door. Ernie lunges forward and grabs her arm mid-air. I run into a room. It is the tiny study Ernie was planning to have me stay in. I locate the black telephone under a pile of books and papers. I know there is an emergency number but I have no idea what it is.
Then a miracle happens. My sixth sense awakens. I close my eyes and a number flashes behind by eyelids. 848-6722. It is Laura's number, the one I have written in the back of my phone directory. I dial it and she answers.
"Laura, come here quick," I say.
"Where are you?"
"At your house on Woodmont Avenue. Come now. She is going to kill me. " I run out the door, past the rose-garden, past the lawn, past the hedge against the curb. On the other side of the street, I crouch behind a clump of night jasmine on a lawn. I wait. I can see Irena looking for me from the door of her house.
I hear the roar of a car engine down the road. Laura pulls up in the middle of the street. "Laura, "I shout. She looks over her shoulder in surprise. I hop in the car and we glide away to a world of sunshine. There is a fragrance of eucalyptus oil in the air, the oil my mother used to dab on my handkerchief when I had a cold as a child.
She stops the car in front of a book shop. "I have to drop by here for a second, "she says. Tears stream down my cheeks. "I tried to tell you the other day, "she says.
"At the airport, in the bathroom. "
"You didn't tell me! "
"I tried. But you just wouldn't get it. It is just one of those things. My father just fell hopelessly in love with you. "
"But how could he degrade me like this? He is an old man! How could he think I would want him? Didn't he think of how I would feel? And why didn't you tell me directly? "
She shrugs her shoulders. "I don't know. "
"Was it because you also thought I was having an affair with him so I could steal his money? "
"Well, I wasn't sure. "
I get out of the car. "I better get back to I-House. "
"Can you find your way? "
"I have to look for the campanile, right? "
I walk all the afternoon and discover there are no answers. I walk through streets where clothes hang on lines and garbage is piled up on front lawns. I come upon a giant mural on the side of a building. It brings a fresh wave of tears. I have seen it in one of Ernie's pictures. I walk and walk. "Why did I come here? "I want to shout. They think I would sleep with anyone just to get to this wretched place. They think their streets are paved with gold. They think people from India would sell their bodies and souls for their money. This is what I can't get over.
But there are no answers. When I can walk no longer and all the tears are drained, I walk back to I-House.
Back in my room, I pick up the phone and dial Ernie's number. After twenty rings, he answers it in a hoarse voice. I can tell Irena has been screaming at him all afternoon. "Hell, Asha, "he says softly, "how about dinner tomorrow? " He still sounds like the ultimate man in love.
"You still don't get it, do you? You actually told her you were going to marry me? " I ask. A wave of nausea floats down my spine. "You and your wife are the stupidest people I have ever known, "I say, "I never want to see you again. And if you ever follow me, or try to talk to me, I'll take the first plane back to India. " I hang up. I know I will never see him again.