Immigrant Bengalis

Chance Encounters: A Girl Named Maria

 Benoy R. Samanta

 This is the story of a girl whom I barely knew and only had short conversations with in the brief period of time I knew her in Washington, DC. Her name was Maria. Just about everyone in that high-rise apartment building where she lived with her father knew her for her unusual beauty and grace. I too was a resident in that building. I was fresh out of engineering college from India and had just arrived in Washington for my graduate studies. I decided to live off campus and moved into an apartment in the same building for convenience and easy access to public transportation. My apartment was just a few doors down from Maria’s.

The apartment building was located at a busy intersection of two major streets at the heart of what is now known as the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington DC. Everything was conveniently located. There were two large grocery stores, a drug store, a major bank, a newsstand, a fast food restaurant and a Nickel and Dime store where Maria had a part-time job. Nickel and Dime stores are no longer seen in America today, most likely because they have been replaced by today’s 99 cent/dollar stores.  Additionally, the area had many small businesses on the main street, including a barber shop, a tailor, a TV repair shop, a shoe repair shop, and a Mexican grocery store. The neighborhood was diverse, but a significantly large percentage of the neighborhood population was from Central and South America. The population of the apartment building itself was not much different from the neighborhood, where a large number of people spoke only Spanish.

The apartment building was safe and was guarded by a security guard in the lobby. He was African American and his name was Clarence. Clarence stood tall and erect, wore light blue short-sleeve shirts, dark blue pants and a cap, and he carried a pistol in the holster. He looked just like a cop. Though his demeanor was tough, he was indeed a very kind man and a man of very few words. An equally kind, affectionate and an endearing person was his wife Emma.  Emma treated me very affectionately. In the evening, she would come down from their apartment to sit next to her husband in the lobby. She knew my schedule and sometimes would wait with freshly baked cookies in her hand wrapped in paper towels to hand to me when I returned from school. She once saw me not wearing a coat on an especially cold day. Realizing I might not have anything heavy to wear during the winter months, she bought me a parka the following day that I wore for a few more years. Emma always had a lot to say to me, and in her presence, Clarence turned from a man of few words to a man of no words at all.

There are no scales to measure beauty. We know it only when we see it. Maria was incredibly beautiful. I was not the only one who felt that way -- the entire apartment building did. It appeared that Maria had no friends. She didn’t associate with anyone in the building. She had a mixed aura of beauty, grace, and personality that kept everyone at bay, particularly the boys who were just crazy about her. She seldom ventured out alone, except to go to work at the nearby Nickel and Dime store. Other than that, her only companion was her father. In the evening, they would often be seen all dressed up and going out together holding each other’s hand. This closeness didn’t sit well with Emma. She would make comments such as, “Why would such a beautiful young girl be with her father all the time? She should be with her boyfriend.”

On a few occasions, I found Maria alone in the elevator. If I said ‘good morning’ to her, she would softly respond in kind. If I said anything after that she would simply say, “No comprende,” meaning “no comprehension” or simply, “do not understand.” Not only did she not speak much English, it also appeared to me that she was not interested in making any conversation. She wasn’t rude, but I felt as though she just wanted to be left alone. I visited the store where Maria worked a few times when I needed essential items. She attended the cash register and treated me just like any other customer. She bagged the items that I purchased, took my money, gave me back my change and was immediately ready for the next customer. All without a smile or even an acknowledgement that I was one of her next-door neighbors. Maria’s father, however, was an amicable man. He was strikingly handsome. I didn’t know what type of work he did, but I would always see him in the morning wearing dark trousers with a spotless white shirt and a bow tie. His English wasn’t perfect, but he could communicate with greater ease than Maria could. He once asked me where I headed to each morning with so many books under my arm. I tried to explain that I was going to class and that I was working on my master’s degree, but wasn’t quite sure what he understood. He did, however, smile and nod his head in approval. He seemed happy that I was going to school somewhere.

1969 was a tumultuous and exciting year in America. In January, Richard M. Nixon was inaugurated as the 37th President of the United States. Neil Armstrong became the first man to land on the moon and I was able to watch the event live on television. In April, the war in Vietnam peaked with 543,000 US troops. There were lots of antiwar protests on college campuses throughout the country. And on one windy afternoon in November, I walked several miles from my apartment to witness one of the largest antiwar protests in US history when as many as half a million people attended a mostly peaceful demonstration on the Washington Monument ground. Foreign students, such as myself, largely stayed away from such demonstrations, but it was still exhilarating to live in the nation’s capital during such an eventful time in history.

I slowly became much too busy with my graduate studies and my two part-time jobs. I left home early in the morning and returned late in the evening. I didn’t see Maria for months and I also didn’t visit the store where she worked as frequently as I did before, due to my schedule. After a year or so in that apartment building, I saved enough money to buy my first car, a used Plymouth Valiant, and decided to move. Having my own wheels meant that I didn’t have to rely on public transportation anymore. I was able to rent a larger place in the suburbs of Washington, DC for the same amount of money. My personal belongings were few and on a quiet Sunday morning, I moved out of that building. However, something unusual happened one day prior to my departure from the building. I returned home late one evening to a small brown paper bag on my doormat. I first thought someone had left some food for me, maybe it was Emma leaving a few cookies for me. But there were no cookies. Instead, there was a brand new paperback ‘English to Spanish’ and ‘Spanish to English’ dictionary. The purchase receipt was also inside the bag, but there were no names, no notes. I didn’t know who left it, and though I had no use for such a book at that time, I kept it with me.

I lived in the Washington, DC area for another seven years and except for visiting Clarence and Emma once, I never went back to that old neighborhood. In those seven years, my life also changed. I graduated, got my first job as an engineer, and got married. Then one day in January of 1978, my wife and I packed our newly purchased car, and drove nearly 3,000 miles across the country to start a new job and a new life in sunny Southern California.

We lived in Los Angeles for another eleven years. In eleven years, I became firmly rooted in the area and it became our home away from home. I was enjoying my work and the life in the area, but that wasn’t going to last long. I was offered an assignment overseas that I simply couldn’t refuse.

It was during one of those days, on one Friday in fact, while I was on my way home from work, I stopped at my bank to withdraw some money from the ATM. The sun had gone down, but still there was some light. The sky displayed the most spectacular colors. Most of the stores, even the bank I stopped at, were closed. There were hardly any vehicles driving down the wide palm tree-lined street. With the onset of dusk, everything seemed to have come to a sudden stop. I parked my car in front of the bank, withdrew some money from the ATM, and as I headed back to my car, I heard a female voice from the back say, “Excuse me?” As I turned around, she continued, “Did you ever live in Washington, DC?” In the dimness of twilight, I didn’t recognize her at first, but it took me only a few seconds. It was Maria.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I am a manager at this bank,” she said, “I stay late most evenings and I have been watching you for a while using our ATM every Friday. Once I made sure it was you, I wanted to speak to you, but by the time I got up from my chair to come outside, you were gone. Today, I was waiting outside for you, hoping you would return to the ATM about the same time.” Maria continued, “I wanted to ask you a question. Why did you leave that apartment building without ever saying goodbye to me? And when you graduated from the university why didn’t you come and see me?” She knew which university I attended, what I studied, and exactly when I graduated.

I simply couldn’t believe what she was saying. My mind raced back to those days, eighteen years ago, and I started wondering if she was the same person I used to see in that apartment building all those years ago. However, in an attempt to avoid answering those questions, I ended up saying,

“You look a little different now.”

Maria smiled faintly and said, “I was only eighteen then. Now I am thirty-six and mother of three children.”

“You didn’t speak any English back then.”

“No I didn’t,” she replied, “But I went back to school. My father insisted on that. After high school, I went to a community college and got an associate’s degree and got my first job with the Riggs National Bank. I never left the bank and slowly moved up in rank. Later, while working, I finished the remaining two years of college. By the way, did you ever learn to speak Spanish? I left a book on your doormat.”

I was taken aback. I told her that I had no clue that it was from her, that there was no name or a note left with the book. Trying to change the subject, I asked, “How is your father?”

“He passed away,” she said, “He didn’t live very long. He had stomach cancer. I tried everything possible within my means and so did the doctors, but at the end, nothing could be done to save his life.”

“Didn’t you have any other family members?” I asked.

“I had my mother and two younger sisters. They were in Mexico waiting for their immigration papers. However, I was able to accelerate the process and get them to come to the United States before my father passed away.”

Maria spoke about her move to California and asked me a few questions about my whereabouts during the last eighteen years. It seemed as though she had all the time in the world to stand there on the sidewalk under the lamp post to speak to me and catch up after so many years. But I didn’t have much more to talk about and I needed to get home. As I was about to leave, something very strange happened. Out of nowhere, a shirtless, dark complexioned little boy with head full of curly hair, wearing only shorts and sneakers, came running down the street and grabbed her legs.

“This is my youngest one,” she said.

Where did he come from? I wondered. Here we were talking outside a bank, her place of work on a main street. Maria perhaps noticed the bewilderment on my face and she mentioned an Indian sounding name and asked me if I remembered anyone by that name.

“I don’t,” I replied.

“Sure you do. You couldn’t miss him,” she insisted.

She was right. There was a young fellow I would always see loitering in the streets, always hanging out with a few Latino boys on street corners. He looked like someone from India and, presuming he was a student like I was, I walked up to him one day to speak to him. He wasn’t interested in speaking to me and the only thing I learned from him was that he was from Sri Lanka. In the late 1960s, the Indian population in Washington, DC and for that matter, in the entire country, was quite low, so I was naturally curious about where he came from. In appearance, the young fellow was tall, very thin, extremely dark complexioned with a pronounced overbite and with a head full of curly hair, similar to their youngest son’s. I wasn’t sure he had a stable home as he was seen in the streets throughout the day and night. If ever he wasn’t in the street, he would be seen sitting around at the barber shop or with the tailor or at the TV repair shop. Not quite understanding what Maria was driving at, I asked,

“What about him?”

“That boy was after me,” she said, “He would always be standing outside my apartment building waiting for me. My father spoke with him a few times, asking him to leave, but he was defiant. He kept coming back. I quit my job and stayed home. I couldn’t come out of the house. We finally reported him to police and he disappeared for a while, but he came back. We just couldn’t get rid of him, and then, against my father’s strong objection, I decided to marry him. He seemed sincere and genuine, and was clearly interested in me. I married him alright, but soon I faced a serious problem. He had no education and no skills and couldn’t find any work. Even if he found some odd job, he couldn’t hang on to it. When he was little, he had learned to repair radios in his country. So I sent him to a vocational training school so he could learn how to repair TVs and VCRs. That’s what he did, and now he has become a good repairman. Recently, with my savings, I bought him a small business just around the corner. The schools are closed for the summer and the children are with him at the shop.” Maria then pleaded with me to give him some work if I or any of our friends needed any help with our TVs or VCRs.

The story was unbelievable, but now it made sense where that little boy came from. However, it was about time for me to leave and Maria sensed that. She finally asked,

“Are you married?”

“Yes, and with two children,” I replied.

“I would like to visit you one day and meet your wife.”

Having said that, Maria reached into her handbag, took out a business card, handed it over to me and said, “Come back and see me.”

I didn’t expect an encounter like this, even in my wildest dreams. America is a nation of immigrants and there are millions of immigrant stories of struggle, perseverance, and eventual success. Maria’s story is perhaps not that unique. But what fascinated me the most was her marriage to that man from Sri Lanka. In appearance, if Maria was the symbol of beauty and elegance, he was the complete opposite of that. I couldn’t figure out a single reason for her to marry him except to think that she perhaps thought the man was honest and sincere and that he genuinely loved her. The problem she faced after marrying him was serious. But she was undaunted. She herself struggled and persevered and she wasn’t willing to give up on him. She made sure he received the proper training he needed to become a good repairman, and with her hard-earned savings, bought him a business so that he too could stand on his own two feet and live a life with dignity and honor.

I also thought about this country that we live in and call America. People from all walks of life and every corner of the globe have come to America for work, for opportunities, to start new lives. To all those people, American has offered an incredible system that has given everyone a fair chance and opportunities to both release and realize their full potential.

After coming home, I first thought of inviting Maria and her family over to our place to fulfill her request to meet my wife. On second thought, I didn’t see any usefulness for such a meeting. It was indeed a strange coincidence that I would see her again after so many years, and so far away from the place where I had seen her first. But I decided to leave that past in the past. For the remaining few weeks I was around before I left for my new job overseas, I never visited that branch of the bank.

One more time, I left without ever saying goodbye to her.


Note: A slightly modified version of this article has been published by the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture in Gol Park, Kolkata, India.

(Posted August 1, 2017)

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