The Unbearable Lightness of Being
It had been less than a week and the world was new again. Everything I saw in the US, heard, felt, ate or drank exceeded my expectations. I was still in my teens. I had come to the United States with three things in mind. I wanted to drink coca cola, ride in an Impala and see Elvis Presley.
The first of my two needs were met instantly upon my arrival. It was 1970. The price of gas in West Texas floated between 19.9 and 23.9 cents a gallon. Almost everybody drove around in cars that resembled large ships, sailing silently on calm oceans blue. The Impala was not the only fish in the ocean. There were a dozen other brands that I had not heard of when I was in India, like Pontiac Bonneville, Cadillac Deville and the list goes on. The Golden Arches of McDonalds had yet to appear on the American landscape in a big way. I found myself ‘dragging’ Main Street in Borger, Texas in a Mustang Coupe with my new friends, helping ourselves to burgers, fries and Coke floats from the local ‘mom and pop’ joint.
I lived with my cousin, Mangala di and her husband, Dr. Anil Sircar. He was a chemist at a local chemical plant called Huber Inc. Mangala di did custom needle point work for the ladies’ garment department at Sears and Roebuck. Their boys were in the local school system. Their daughter, Polly was a freshman at a local junior college, Frank Phillips.
The Sircars were well liked in this West Texas community. Dr. SIrcar was a member of the Rotary Club. He had been elected President of the local chapter, a responsibility he took very seriously. He conducted the weekly Wednesday morning meetings, a task that was very challenging for a man born in a village in Bangladesh. Through his interactions in the professional community, he was also developing his spoken English skills. In hindsight, I believe the local chapter elected him to that position so Dr. Sircar could have an opportunity to develop his English language skills and be integrated into the community.
Perhaps the event that really took my breath away was when Tom called to take Polly on a date. They were going off to Dallas for the evening to attend a concert! Dallas was about two hundred and fifty miles away. I wondered how they would go to Dallas and be back on the same evening but I kept that thought to myself.
Around four that Saturday evening, Polly asked me if I could give her a ride. I was glad to help and we drove off in Dr. SIrcar’s ’57 Chevy. Being fresh off the boat I thought it better to keep quiet and just follow her directions. Within a few minutes, we arrived at the outskirts of town.
A single-engine, blue and white Cessna 172 landed on the modest strip and taxied towards us. Polly ran up to the plane. Tom opened the door and Polly got in. Not missing a beat, they were off for the evening to their concert in Dallas!
Tom was a graduate student at West Texas State University in Canyon Texas. The Higleys were farmers in the neighboring town of Dumas. Their ranch was big enough that they had to have a plane to scout around their property, mostly looking for lost cattle.
From that afternoon on, nothing surprises me about America.
Mr. Gerald York would often drop by to ‘chew the fat’ with Dr. Sircar on Sunday afternoons. He hardly seemed the Ph. D. chemist type but was always welcome at the Sircar residence. It soon became obvious to me what Dr. Sircar and Mr. York had in common.
Mr. York was a handy man par excellence. He always brought his tools over with him and taught Dr. SIrcar how to fix things around the house. I was told by Dr. Sircar, plumbers charged $18 per hour and that price was considered by him to be highway robbery. The knowledge Mr. York imparted was Dr. SIrcar’s passport to domestic self- sufficiency.
I was eager to learn too, so often I would hang around with them to learn a few tricks of the trade in home repair. Without warning, Mr. York turned to me and asked, ‘Would you like to meet Miss America?’
‘What?’ I exclaimed. Being fresh off the boat, I kept my excitement hidden. Calm and collected, Mr. York continued fixing the shower.
In a little while, we heard a car pull up outside. Mr. York wiped his hands free of the dirt and rust. ‘Let’s go see Miss America,’ he said.
We walked up the driveway. With some hesitation, the car door opened. I held my breath.
An old woman got off the car. She periodically rested on a walker and ever so slowly, made her way towards us. Mr. York was beaming. He sang out, ‘And there she is, walking on air, she is the fairest of the fair, there she is, Miss America, Miss America.’
The lady smiled as best as she could. Mr. York lent her his shoulder and she made her way to the SIrcar residence.
For a while I was stunned as I did not fully comprehend what I was seeing. Hindsight gives me greater clarity.
The Yorks were children of the rural poor, their parents barely made a living in the semi-arid mesquite lands of West Texas. The Great Depression had dragged their youth into squalor. He had learnt his trade in the Army during the war. Back home, by sheer determination, they had survived. Mr. York became known locally as an honest handyman. He held the family together with his meager income. The boom years of the fifties and a loan from the GI Bill had allowed the family to move into their own home. Their children were grown and gone now. Old age and sickness had become a way of life.
I marvel now at a man who in the autumn of his years could serenade his sick and hunched-over wife, who for better or for worse had stood by him. The culture of America allowed an old man to proclaim, unabashed, his feelings for his life partner. He had made her smile through her pain and feel his warmth in her soul. His song was true magic, more wonderful than the love songs of Elvis that moved me in my youth.
For immigrants coming to America, the charm of affluence becomes second nature. In a dozen years or so, we feel that the affluence is our birthright. We defend our position because we work hard, pay our taxes and raise our children to attend good colleges. They in turn, we hope, will carry on with our material abundance. I must confess, I too took my professional success as a statement of my life’s decisive measure.
My affluence allowed me to travel to India at the drop of a hat, just to party with my friends. If there was a restriction to my travels, it was the lack of time, not money. In time, the economy class on the magic carpet seemed too pedestrian. The Business Class met my approval.
Many of you may remember the days when the Maharaja stopped briefly at London on the way to Bombay. Heathrow Airport Duty Free was the place to stop and pick up a bottle of Baileys for friends at Tolly Club. There were chocolates to take back for their wives. If there was any disruption to the stopover, it was the ‘desi’ crowd from the economy class who found it difficult to navigate their way around Heathrow and back to the plane on time.
I waited for the ‘desi’ crowd to board, walk back to their seats and the cacophony to subside before I came on board. At the gate, a stunning English beauty collected the boarding passes, checking off the numbers in her flight manifest. Without looking up from her manifest, her stiff British collar in place, she bid every passenger a safe journey home.
When she reached for my card, I asked her politely, ‘Is this the plane to Hong Kong?’
The stiff upper lip quivered. ‘O my God’, she said under her breath. ‘Follow me.’
Her high heels clicking time, I ran after her though Heathrow as she waved aside uniformed airline personnel, sundry shop keepers, a few startled babies and frightened passengers out of our way. She completed her Olympic dash in record time. We stood at the gate of another 747 that was about to pull away.
I caught up with her, a little out of breath. She looked triumphant and motioned me towards the plane.
‘So, this is the plane to Hong Kong.’ I paused and looked at her. ’Looks just like my plane to Bombay.’
For a split second she was perplexed. She caught on quickly and it broke her formal stance. She wagged her finger at me. ‘You’ she said with mock seriousness, ‘you are trouble with a capital T.’
I did have a safe flight home. We opened the Baileys at Tolly Club and I partied with friends.
It was more than a year before I found myself passing through Heathrow again. Her stiff British upper lip was in place. I leaned over towards her and asked, ‘Is this the plane to Johannesburg?
She did not look up but held out her hand for my card and asked, ‘Where were you for a whole year?’
It was not enough to say I am sorry. In an instant I learnt that you cannot make a woman run across the terminal at Heathrow and not care. You cannot make her smile and warm her soul and not show up for a year. She knew and I knew, I could have looked her up, if I wanted to. I had been swept up in my colorful life in New York. I was boarding a plane but it was the lightness of her being that could make her fly if she wanted to.
It rained in Calcutta and the party at Tolly Club was a wash out.
One forgets that the curtain one draws aside in moving from economy to business is only a curtain. It is not a wall which keeps you safe and ahead of the mob. One can travel in either direction and in the United States, one does. I did. Decades later I found myself reaching out and collecting airline coupons for stranded passengers, staying at The Quality Inn in the backwoods of South Jersey.
Mariella’s flight had been held up at the Philadelphia airport due to bad weather and she had come in only for a night. Next morning, she could not get up from bed and decided to stay on a day longer. The local doctor sent her to Cooper Hospital for further tests. She had to be hospitalized.
Mariella checked back into the motel as she continued her treatment at Cooper. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons, I played my piano by the swimming pool to entertain the motel guests. Mariella would show up on a few occasions. On good days, those doe like Italian eyes spoke volumes, but I could tell that cancer was eating her away. She wanted to join in the festivities and sing like the other guests but her voice was hoarse from the ‘chemo’ and she was embarrassed. At my urging, she hummed along with me. She was having fun and it showed. The audience of sun worshippers clapped after her brief performance. Mariella lit up.
Where were her children and grandchildren, I wondered? If I did not see Mariella for a few days, I would have a house-keeper check in on her. Sometimes the poor Spanish ‘housekeeping’ women would be in panic as Mariella would be passed out on pain killers in her room. On more than one occasion, I had to call in the EMS to confirm she was still with us.
It was nearly the end of summer. I did not call the EMS but they had mysteriously arrived. Mariella had overdosed on opioids and had to be revived with Narcan. Not wanting to take chances, the EMS determined that they would move her to the hospital. I felt a tinge of concern for Mariella that I had not felt till then. I knew she was in pain.
I called Jack, our handyman and asked him to bring my keyboard from the swimming pool enclosure. I set up the keyboard outside Mariella’s window and played a silly Elvis Presley love song for her, a song she had liked and had hummed earlier.
As they were taking her away, Mariella motioned to the EMS technicians to pause. She wanted to speak to me. This was no time to be concerned for the few possessions she was leaving behind in the room. I assured her, in her absence, all her possessions would be taken care of.
But Mariella was not done. She whispered, ‘Thank you for the music. I want to come back in my next life as your wife. Will you look for me?’
There was a lightness in her being. No one came back for her few possessions she had left behind.
Mariella had made me smile and I felt her warmth in my soul. In my next life, I am certain, I will look for her.
(Published August 1, 2018)
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