(Posted October 1, 2019)
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Stars and Stripes: Fireworks and Cellphones
It wasn't raining, thank God, as they had predicted, so the fireworks were on. For the millionth time, the forecast had shifted to another day and time. Ever since Trina had come to the US, she had never missed the July 4th fireworks. It was a routine she enjoyed and looked forward to like a child. In the summer dark, the night sky luminous with all the made- in-China sparkling beauties made her smile inside, never mind all that was in her head and heart, the prices she had paid to leave her familiar terrain and adopt another as her own. It had all been worth it.
The parking lot in the adjacent restaurant hadn't filled up yet , so she was able to get a good spot. Wouldn't be difficult to weave out when the show was done. Last year she remembered how it had taken a lot of her patience and the feel-good feeling which the show never failed to induce in her, to get to Deans Road via Georges Road and then onto Route 1 North. It had been a good one hour exercise for a regular fifteen minute ride to get home. But it was fine given the fact that her own township never had a display, cutting costs she guessed, and this was next door and very convenient
She hadn't forgotten the patio chairs this time and also a sheet to spread on the grass. It was on the field between Crossroads North and Crossroads South middle schools where there was enough open space to accommodate not only the South Brunswick residents but also those of the nearby townships . No surprise really hearing so many languages coming to her from the different corners of the grounds including her own Bangla, considering that this huge township was extremely immigrant rich and had a lot to offer diversity wise. After the early closing today she could grab some snappy dinner to come here and enjoy the cool breeze waiting for the dark to settle so the show could start. The kids were in a holiday mood with fries, popcorn ,soda and ice creams; the older ones all huddled with their peer group far from the controlling voices of their parents, while the younger ones caught fireflies in plastic containers and the toddlers watched on with admiring eyes while their older siblings blew soap bubbles all over the place. The rest entertained parents and strangers with their chatter. She loved this gay abandon every Independence Day, a pull she felt every year to come and be a part of these celebrations of a freedom that is missing, almost nonexistent in so many parts of the world today because of shortsighted views misguided zeal and vested interests. Freedom was precious and certainly needed to be celebrated if you were fortunate enough to be living in a free country, not a gift to be taken for granted and wasted away. For Trina, fireworks were a great way to feel the free spiritedness of a child all over again.
Rishi went looking for fries and popcorn while she settled on her patio chair.
" Let me go look what's selling in those stands."
She knew her husband. He was always hungry after dinner as if that was the only thing to look forward to in the hours before going to bed. People had all kinds of habits, she thought indulgently. In the same spirit she dug out some Bourbon chocolate cookies to munch on looking around at the sea of faces. The dark came suddenly descending like a bat while the music in the background continued. It would soon start but Rishi was somehow lost in the dark sea.
"Oh he'll find me when it's time." She was going to focus on enjoying the fireworks instead, and he could do the same whichever corner he was in.
But he was sauntering towards her right then with all the tempting, not-so-healthy fries and soda. Great, now she'd be tempted as well! This is what he always did; tempting her with food all the time while she tried her best to knock off some stubborn pounds from off her back and belly. But they were hot and unhealthy and she loved them and him for bringing them. She had to free herself from this stressing while she was here wanting to enjoy the freedom of the spirit. The fries were so good! Forget the carbs and the cholesterol; she could overthink tomorrow.
The fireworks began and surprised her like every other year.
'Ooh! Gorgeous!" It's as if the sparkle was coloring her mind sky, her heart; she clapped like a child and the contagion reached Rishi as well.
"They are all the same every year, right? No surprises."
She heard Hindi and looked to see an old grandma in salwar kameez speaking to her graying husband trying to hold on to a little child trying to break free.
Age is in the mind she thought, not in the datedness of the fireworks. Surprise is a state of mind which has nothing to do with reality. How else could someone in the seventies feel like a child in the presence of a kid? There were two kinds of grandparents: those who really enjoyed the lively companionship of their grandkids and became like them, or those who just baby-sat as a chore complaining of sore joints. She would never want to be like the second kind, God forbid!
"Every year these kids drag us here".
She heard the grandpa complain this time even though the parents of the kids were around too enjoying and not expecting much from the seniors except their company.What a waste of the celebration she thought to herself and wished she had chosen another spot to avoid these wet blankets, spoil sports! Can't enjoy a free fireworks show? What's wrong with them? Maybe only the Auroras would excite them? Or even then they would complain of the waste of a good night's sleep for a night in the open cold! Who knows? Complaining is also a state of mind.
She was determined to ignore them and have fun and color while they lasted.
The grand finale was awesome! Predictably so! Some routines come loaded with the same excitement every year. No deviation, only looking forward to. She would have to wait for another year now.
They were gathering their stuff and were preparing to leave when she heard a plaintive cry from behind them.
"Oh my God, can't find my cell phone! Could you please help me locate mine?"
"Sure", Rishi was digging out his from his back pocket.
'What's your number?"
Rishi punched in the number while the man started combing the purple green grass at the first ring. And then the phone died without a blink. Rishi's phone was all dark, darker than the sky now that the display was over. No one to her recollection looked more helpless, more desperate ever than this man with the lost cell phone. He had lost an essential part of himself.
"Could you please?" he was pleading to Trina now.
He had dropped it somewhere , a needle in the haystack, but it was somewhere he was confident. That wasn't much of a help she thought given the size of the dark field and the deserted grounds and the parking lot. The phone could be anywhere! All activity had shifted to the traffic backup on Kingston Lane now with the cars trying to trudge their way homewards.
"Ok let me try."
And then eyeing him closely with Rishi as a bystander she kept calling his number and moving with him all over to different corners , dark and unwelcoming the intrusion. She wasn't sure if all this wasn't some sort of a trap, she had to confess that she was a little uncomfortable, but decided to try until he gave up. And then after the fifteenth attempt she heard an ecstatic "Found it! It's here. Thank you so very much. You saved me miss."
" Happy 4th to you Sir. Glad you found it."
“To you too”, she saw his beaming face.
She threw a prayer upwards in thankfulness that her cell had retained its charge. What a relief truly. Also thankful that all her stupid apprehension was misplaced. Human nature had to be trusted always and not doubted without sufficient grounds for anything contrary. Silly me and thank God we were of some help to him.
Oh dear we are so bound to our devices, lost without them completely, and also to our groundless suspicions and fears. There's no freeing ourselves sometimes.
And then suddenly out of nowhere in the absolute dark from behind the parked school buses in the empty lot, emerged a teenage girl, alone, scared on the verge of tears trying her best to fight them.
"Hey what's up?" Rishi was concerned." Are you lost?"
She flashed a weak smile, so pathetic that all her attempts to look brave were useless.
"Yeah I'm lost. Am alone, all my friends left and my mom isn't here yet and I can't get her on the phone. I don't know anything around, I'm not from this township, actually from Plainsboro."
"Oh OK. Call her now my dear, she'll be here soon."
"My cell phone's dead. Don't know what to do. Feeling a little weird alone. Also don't know the area well enough."
Oh goodness gracious! Another cell phone crisis in the span of a couple of hours! Unbelievable! Three cell phones were dead by now already. What a lot of power the cell phone wielded! A bane and a boon both!
"Don't worry my dear. Auntie will call your mom," chipped in Rishi reassuringly.
"What's your mom's number?" Trina was wondering if her cell phone was the destined protagonist that night, the knight in shining armor to save souls from lurking disasters. Technology to save a man going into crisis mode and a modern damsel in distress!
"Hello, who's this?" There was an unfamiliar female voice on the other side, one whose voice betrayed a lot of emotion; could have been a combination of nervous fear mixed with frustration, and plain naked anxiety.
"You wouldn't know me. My name's Trina, just one of the many who'd come here for the fireworks like your daughter. My husband and I found her alone and clueless. Her cell's dead , so I'm calling so you can speak with her. If you want we can wait till you are here."
"Oh My God. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much. We've been trying to reach Shreeya but couldn't. So very nice of you if you can do that."
"Oh certainly, no problem. "
"Mom, I'm fine. No worries. Auntie will be here till you reach, and you can call her cell if you want."
"Mom's on her way. She asked me to thank you for her."
"That's fine. So what's the lesson learnt today?"
"To be with friends till I got my ride."
" Yes, there's always safety in number---"
But before Trina could finish, Rishi jumped in with more suggestions.
"You know never ever be in a dark place , but somewhere everyone can see you."
"Also try to look for the cops, the place was teeming with them tonight, all ready to help someone in this kind of a situation. They would have contacted your parents for you, you know." Trina could see relief writ large on Shreeya's face.
"Yeah, never thought of that. Never been in a thing like this before."
"Yeah, we all have our firsts, right?"
They started walking back to the Pierre’s parking lot with Shreeya animatedly discussing her future school plans. She was going to be a junior in the Fall and looking forward to a premed program in Temple or Drexel. She wanted to be a doctor someday, but wasn't a fan of all the hard work and long wait to become a successful pediatric surgeon. Oh dear wishful thinking and inexperience, thought Trina, but was sure Shreeya would soon get to know ground realities, so why break her fantasies yet? She was free to dream everything big today. Soon she would learn to love the unrelenting hard work to realize a dream, the worth of good work pursued for its own sake. That’s what this country instills in you, and rightfully so.
Trina could see the "broad stripes, the bright stars, the star-spangled banner" in the sparkling eyes of this sixteen year old. After all, they were all in the "land of the free , the home of the brave", and could dare to dream to make almost anything possible. Dreams live here waiting to take wing and soar.
Lovely celebration! This Independence Day was special, Trina thought contentedly as she headed home
[Author's note:This is a true and not a fictional story; it is based on an actual personal experience I had this summer during the July 4 fireworks in South Brunswick, NJ. The names, however, hve been changed to protect the identity of the characters.]