Immigrant Bengalis

Welcome to California

Manisha Roy

My fieldwork in India was over. After four years there, I was returning to America – to the southernmost campus of the University of California – for further studies. I had never lived in California before; I chose to now because, remembering the hard winters of the Midwest, I preferred a mild climate.

A letter from a woman named Joyce Wallace had reached me in India, inviting me to stay at her home in California for the two or three weeks before the start of classes.

Joyce was part of a volunteer organization of stable families who opened their doors and hearts to foreign students and helped them adjust to the new environment. My family looks forward to providing you with a “home away from home” at the beginning of your stay. We’ll help you move to wherever you wish – to the campus dormitory or to a private apartment. Please let me know the date and time of your arrival. I’ll be at the airport to welcome you personally…

I was impressed by this gesture. The first time I went to America, no one had sent such a letter; no American family had welcomed me then. Of course, it had been the cold Northeast, not friendly California.

As soon as I got my plane ticket, I wrote to Mrs. Wallace and accepted her hospitality. The day before I left, I spent the afternoon finding an appropriate gift for her. I chose a beautiful length of silk, embroidered with gold, ideal for making a dress or shawl.

When I arrived at the airport in California, I looked around for an eagerly waiting family or for a sign bearing my name. Since no one appeared, I went to baggage claim. I had always thought it would be embarrassing to see my name in bold letters on a cardboard sign, held up above the heads of a crowd. Right now I wouldn’t have minded at all. I was tired from the twenty-one-hour flight over a continent and an ocean. It would be good to go somewhere and rest.

I wheeled a luggage cart toward one of the exits and spotted a telephone booth. Nearly twenty minutes had passed since I landed. Perhaps Mrs. Wallace had forgotten. As I looked in my handbag for the telephone number, I saw an attractive woman in her thirties walking toward me, dragging a little girl. She kept brushing the girl’s long blonde hair.

“Welcome to California,” she said, extending her hand. “Sorry we’re late. Jennifer insisted on coming too and I had to pick her up from school – then she insisted on changing before coming to meet you. Say hello to Manisha, honey.”

Jennifer came forward and handed me a small bunch of red oleanders. I thanked her and tried to shake her hand, but she disappeared behind her mother.

“Is this all of your luggage?” Mrs. Wallace asked. She began to wheel the cart through the exit.

Once in the car I relaxed, but felt even more tired. The forty-minute drive seemed interminable. Mrs. Wallace called my attention to various points of interest – buildings, museums, hospitals, parks. “Here is the largest park in the city. It includes a magnificent zoo. We’ll have to bring you here as soon as you’re rested. Right, Jenny?”

“Mommy,” said Jennifer, moving up to the back of our seats, “where will Thomas sleep if she sleeps in the guest room?”

“Sit back, Jenny, you’ll hurt yourself.” Then, “Thomas is our cat,” said Mrs. Wallace to me. “He likes to sleep on the guest room bed. Do you mind? I’ve heard that Indian people are not that keen on animals. Is that true?”

I did not feel much like talking about Indian people and animals, but I did want to tell her that sharing a bed with Thomas, even if he was only a cat, was not something I would choose. It is, at least, true of people in India that their pets do not sleep in the same bed with them. But before I could say anything the car had entered the driveway of a huge ranch-style house with a three-car garage. The driveway was lined with bushes of red oleander. We stopped at the front door to unload the bags, and then dragged them to the guest room, next to the living room. I was relieved to see there was no cat on the bed.

“Would you like anything to eat or drink?” Mrs. Wallace asked. “Dinner won’t be for over an hour.”

“Yes, thank you, Mrs. Wallace,” I said. “I’d like a glass of water, please. I am not hungry. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to skip dinner and go to bed. I’m so tired and sleepy – must be the jet-lag.”

"Please call me Joyce. I feel I know you already. I feel good vibes from you. It’s perfectly okay for you to sleep through tonight. Don’t worry about a thing. You can meet Jim and John tomorrow at breakfast.” She stepped out and returned in a minute with a glass of ice water. “Sleep well. Yell if you need anything. Lock the door if you don’t want a visitor tonight.” She winked before leaving.

“Good night and thank you for everything, Joyce,” I said. Jennifer stood there for a few more seconds before following her mother.

I was pleased to have an attached bath, fully equipped with fresh towels and soap. After a hot shower I felt clean and ready for bed. I had not forgotten to lock the door.

*** *** ***

I awoke in the grey light of early morning. The ceiling was not that of my Calcutta home. A quilt of geometric design, whose pattern I had never seen before, covered the warm bed. Vaguely, I recalled that I was in another country, not in familiar surroundings. I opened my eyes wider. The clock on the bedside table read four. On the dresser across the room was a framed photograph of two children and a cat. I was in California, in the guest room of the Wallace family.

I rose, feeling fully awake, and suppressed an impulse to calculate the time in Calcutta. I knew it was long past morning there. I opened the venetian blinds to peer out. It was still dark. Street lamps glowed through the fog. My room looked out on the driveway. I had a desire to go outside and explore the area. The fog bestowed a look of mystery on what had seemed quite ordinary a few hours before. I had not known that California had fog as in the hills of Assam. Of course, I thought, one might expect it in a coastal town.

Suddenly I was hungry, very hungry. I had eaten nothing since breakfast in Hawaii the day before. I put on a bathrobe and slowly opened the door. There was no sound except the faint hum of a refrigerator. Following the hum to its source, I located the kitchen, beyond a formal dining room. I opened the large refrigerator.

“Meow.” Something furry touched my ankle, startling me. It must be Thomas, I thought, hungry after his nocturnal adventures. On two shelves of the refrigerator were cartons of yogurt – in rows – peach, orange, strawberry, even mango. On another shelf were half a melon and a few cartons of cottage cheese. I did not feel like cold fruit or yogurt early on a foggy morning. Were the Wallaces a family of staunch vegetarians? Perhaps they thought I was. I recalled what I had heard about Californians – the Wallaces could easily be “health food freaks.” I closed the refrigerator.

I heard a small crunching noise and found Thomas eating from a plate on the floor of a pantry. Good, I thought, perhaps I can find something here, some bread or cookies maybe. But the shelves held only cans and bags with pictures of cats on them. In this house a cat had better luck finding something to eat than a guest did, it seemed. I went back to my room.

I had bought a bar of chocolate when the plane from Calcutta had stopped in Singapore. It was still in my handbag and I looked for it. Thomas had quietly followed me and was now securely on the bed, in the place where I had been only minutes earlier. He looked very content and satisfied, and closed his eyes. By the time I found my chocolate bar, the cat was fast asleep – a half-moon bundle of fur. I opened the blinds again, sat on the chair and watched the California sun rise slowly through the fog, beyond the hazy street lamps.

I must have dozed off. A knock on the door woke me. “Are you up yet?” came my host’s voice.

“Yes. Please come in.” I was gazing at the oblique ray of sun on the carpet when a pair of pale bare feet with painted toe-nails moved into view. I looked up to see Joyce standing in front of me – without any clothes. I was now wide awake.

“Good morning,” she said. “The sun is out. Isn’t it lovely? It can be quite foggy around here all morning. You’ve brought the tropical sun with you. I see Thomas found his way in. How about some breakfast?”

“Good morning,” I answered, with my eyes averted. “I would love some breakfast, thank you.”

Joyce left for the kitchen. So she was not going for a swim or anything like that. Was this the usual practice here? What about the rest of the family? Mr. Wallace? I got up from the chair, washed my face, and changed from my robe to some real clothes.

When I got to the kitchen table, Jim Wallace was at its head, leafing through a newspaper and drinking his coffee. Jennifer was sitting next to a boy slightly older than her, who was John. They were eating cereal and talking. Joyce was at the counter, preparing toast. Everyone but Joyce was fully dressed and seemed unaware of her unclothed existence.

“Good morning, everyone,” I said, trying to sound normal. Jim Wallace lowered the pages from his face and stood up.

“Good morning,” he said. “Have you slept well? Sorry I have to rush – I’ve got an eight o’clock meeting. See you later. Enjoy your stay. I’m sure Joyce will show you around.” After giving Jennifer a peck on her cheek, and ruffling the boy’s hair gently, he hurried out. Not a word or gesture to his wife, I noticed.

“How do you like your tea, Manisha?” asked Joyce. “With milk, or black?” Sugar? Would you rather have herbal tea?” I felt like saying I liked my tea with clothes on. For some reason it seemed sacrilegious to stand naked in front of the stove.

“With milk, please. I can make it myself if you like.” I was trying to be helpful – or perhaps to bring a sense of normalcy to the kitchen.

“Sure, help yourself,” said Joyce. “We’ve got all flavors of yogurt. But you may want a hot breakfast, eggs and toast or such.”

“That’s a great idea. I’ll make some eggs. Actually, I’m very hungry. I woke up early this morning and came looking for food. Did you hear me in the kitchen?”

“You must be famished,” said Joyce. “I should have shown you where to find stuff for snacks. You see, I don’t eat those things myself. I’m on a macrobiotic diet. Jim is the other extreme, a meat and potatoes man. And the kids will eat anything. So you get every kind of food in this house.”

I wanted to ask what “macrobiotic” was, but decided to concentrate on making a hearty breakfast. The children got up, leaving half-finished bowls of cereal on the table. John pulled on his backpack and headed for the door, but Joyce ran after him with his lunch box and gave him a hug. She then combed her daughter’s long tresses and tied them in a rubber band. Jennifer kissed her mother and said goodbye to me.

“It’s the next-door neighbor’s turn to give the little kids a ride this morning,” Joyce said after Jennifer left. “We carpool. I wanted this morning free to be with you.” She gathered the dishes from the table.

“Thank you,” I said as I finished my breakfast. “That’s very nice of you. I’d like to see the campus and find out about dorms and so forth.”

“I’m going to take a quick dip in the pool first,” she said, walking out to the patio. “Do you want to join me? The campus offices won’t be open until ten. We can leave by nine or nine-thirty.”

“No, thanks,” I said, rising, and followed her to the door. “I think I’ll wait till later for a swim. Maybe in the afternoon. You go ahead.”

Joyce had stacked the dishes near the sink. I took the opportunity to wash them, though I realized there must be a dishwasher. I wanted to be useful. Something about the family was strange – and sad, at the same time. I began to feel sorry for Joyce. Her nudity began to bother me less already, as long as I was not expected to behave as she did. The children seemed at ease with it. I could not be sure about the husband. She is so friendly and helpful, I thought. It must be my own inhibitions. I was almost envious of her easy-going manners. She was quickly making me feel at home.

When we were ready to leave, Joyce took me around the house. She was now fully clothed. I was struck by the size of the bedrooms. Most impressive was Joyce’s bathroom. Not only did it have magenta carpeting, wall-to-wall, but the fixtures were all similarly colored as well. There was a huge circular bathtub in the center of the room. I was astounded to see a magenta telephone on the wall next to the toilet.

“I have never seen a telephone in a bathroom before,” I commented, unable to help myself.

“You find them more and more here as new homes are built,” she said, taking my incredulity in stride. “It’s actually very convenient. My friends call me all hours of the day and night. Let’s go to the pool this way.” She led me through a narrow corridor that ran from her bathroom directly out to the swimming pool.

Outside, she told me that she preferred not to wear anything around the house because her skin needed to breathe fresh air. Also, she wanted her children to be brought up seeing adults naked and natural. Jim, of course, did not agree with her on this. It was not only Jim, though. The neighbor behind them was very weird, she told me. He kept looking at her through the fence when she sunbathed or swam. He had come from Italy not too long ago, she said, adding that he must be some sort of pervert.

“So, feel free to take your clothes off around here. No one will mind.”

“Thanks. I feel quite comfortable with my clothes on. Besides, it’s a bit chilly for me. I had no idea that September in California could be so cool.”

“It is in the shade. Wait till you’re in the sun.”

We spent most of the day running errands and picking up information. We learned a lot about both on-campus and off-campus housing. I had a feeling that I should move as soon as possible, preferably to a small studio of my own. Adjusting to Joyce’s unconventional ways might not be that easy, no matter how much I admire her, I thought.

In the car Joyce began to talk about her marriage. I knew something like that would come, because she obviously lacked a sense of discretion – and made no distinction between private and public matters. She told me how Jim’s values and hers were worlds apart. He didn’t care a bit about natural living, nutrition and friendship. He was set in his ideas and was interested only in his career and making money. Sure, he had provided Joyce and the kids with all the comforts imaginable. But she would have liked to share her life with him a bit more.

“What do you think, Manisha? Do you think he respects my ideas? What’s your impression?”

“Joyce, I saw him barely a couple of minutes. It’s hard to have an impression in such a short time.” I didn’t know how to handle the subject.

“You saw how he totally ignored me,” she persisted. “Not even a goodbye.”

“How do you think he feels about your inviting a total stranger into the house? Is he also part of the organization that welcomes foreign students?” It was a question that had been on my mind since morning.

“Oh, that’s no problem,” countered Joyce. “He gives me full freedom about the way I want to live. He is very supportive that way. Or, maybe indifferent is the word. I can invite anyone anytime, as long as Jim doesn’t have to be involved. Sometimes I wonder if he isn’t having an affair.” She paused a moment. “Even with the kids, he is not really there. He just buys things.” Joyce stopped, looking rather emotional and upset.

Despite my sympathy I began to feel uncomfortable. I had no idea that being a guest for a week meant being a confidante. My natural curiosity about people made it easier for me to be pulled into such conversations. But with Joyce, I had no way of telling how far this involvement might take me. Later, I came to realize that sharing such personal matters with a stranger was not unusual for a Californian. It was part of the ethos of “open communication,” and not necessarily a sharing of confidence.

The thought of finding my own place as soon as possible became firmer in my mind. In the afternoon, after a lunch of wild rice, bean sprouts, tofu and yogurt, I took a nap. My jet-lag had not entirely lifted yet. I felt better after the nap and unpacked a few things. I gave Joyce the silk piece I had bought for her. She was visibly pleased.

For the next few days I looked for an apartment. Joyce was very helpful. Along with her usual chauffeuring of the children to their various activities, Joyce drove me around a lot to various places: Jennifer to school every other day, John to after-school basketball games, clarinet practice and math tutorials. I was impressed by the amount of driving a typical housewife in America did. Joyce seemed to do it all with grace and without complaint. She seemed infinitely patient with the children. They were almost never disciplined. I saw Jim Wallace rarely, since I did not get up early enough to have breakfast with them, and in the evenings I would eat early, then go to bed to be alone and read a bit. Since I was hearing so much about his marriage, I felt uncomfortable facing him. Even when we ran into each other he did not initiate any conversation. In his eyes I must have been another of Joyce’s passing whims.

That week I answered an ad placed by a chemistry student who wanted to share a cottage close to the ocean. I liked her open and relaxed approach to things. She said I could move in as soon as I was ready. I liked the place so much that I put a deposit down immediately, promising to move in that Sunday. My classes would start a week later. That would give me just enough time to settle in. I was happy with the location and the view. The cottage was large enough for me to have some privacy. I already began to compose letters home, describing my room overlooking the wild rose bushes and only a few steps from the Pacific Ocean. The best part was the rent – only seventy-five dollars a month.

Joyce planned a party for me that Saturday. “It’s nice of you to go to all this trouble,” I told her. “But isn’t it too much bother – and in such a short time?”

“No problem,” she said with animation. “I’d like to introduce you to some of my friends. They’re hip – you’ll love them. It will be no sweat, really – a pool-side, potluck party. We’ll do some neat things, you’ll see.”

I was so grateful that I volunteered to make an Indian dish. The idea of a pool party with “hip” friends of Joyce scared me slightly. I did not dare ask about the dress-code. I was in such a good mood that I could accept whatever might happen. When in California ….

On the night before the party, Joyce told me that Jim would be away for the weekend on a business trip to Palm Springs. “It’s for the better. He doesn’t enjoy my friends anyway. May I ask you a favor, Manisha?”

“Of course. What is it?”

“Would you wear a sari tomorrow? Not many people here have seen real Indian women in real Indian costume. It would be a treat.”

“I was thinking of doing just that,” I told her, which was the truth.

On Saturday, Joyce helped me shop for ingredients for the dish I planned to make. I insisted on paying for them. The dish was to be raita, a salad of yogurt and raw cucumbers. Joyce stood by in the kitchen that afternoon, helping me put it together. Then she took John and Jennifer to a neighbor’s house, where they would spend the night. When she returned, it was time to dress for the party, and Joyce asked if she could watch me drape the sari.

“Wow!” she said, amazed, as I showed her how it was done.

“How do you ever keep it from slipping off? I could never keep it on.” She herself wore a denim jumper.

“I suppose it’s a matter of practice. After a while it becomes second nature.” I assured her that there were no special tricks involved.

“We’ll see,” she said, and winked slightly, hurrying to answer the front door. The guests had begun to arrive.

By four most of Joyce’s friends had come. They had gone immediately to the pool. Some sat on the edge, drinking iced tea. Others took off their clothes and jumped in. I thought I detected a pair of eyes through the fence. Joyce kept warning me that there would be a great surprise for me later in the evening. One of the rooms in the house had been readied for that purpose. I was asked not to go there yet.

About twenty people, mostly couples, gathered around the buffet table with its assortment of food: many kinds of salads including salads with seeds and even flowers. I had a hard time recognizing the people I had seen at the pool now that they were dressed. Though I was not drinking, I felt dizzy in this loose and vague atmosphere. No one seemed interested in conversation. Few introductions were made. After a “Hi, how’re you doin’?” they scattered in different directions.

We served ourselves on paper plates and ate with plastic forks and spoons, sitting wherever we found places to sit. One man stuffed spoonfuls of raita into his mouth. He was still in his swimming trunks, dripping all over the furniture. It seemed incongruous. “Gee, Joyce, it’s good stuff.” That was the extent of compliments on the raita, given by a few of the nameless women. Some of them stood around me, asking how I draped the sari. “Is it tailored like that?” they asked. No one seemed interested in the new dish they were served – or in much else, for that matter. I kept convincing myself that this must be a very special crowd – at the university I would meet serious people with greater interest about newcomers.

After dinner, all the plastic plates and plastic ware and other waste were quickly dumped into a large garbage bag. “Now is the time for the surprise,” whispered Joyce into my ear, and disappeared in the direction of her bedroom.

“Friends, please come to the room with the sign ‘Wonderland’ on it,” came Joyce’s voice over the intercom, a few minutes later.

In the week I had been there I had not heard anyone use the intercom. Nor had I explored the other rooms of the house. I had kept away from the area of Joyce’s bedroom since the day she told me about her marital problems. Once she asked me to help with Jennifer’s hair. On the way to Jennifer’s room I had passed John’s. It was cluttered with sports equipment, comic books, sneakers and musical instruments. There were large posters of rock singers. Jennifer’s room was a lot neater, with a double bed covered with stuffed animals in various sizes: teddy bears, monkeys, dogs, cats, even a snake. One wall had a built-in stereo system. Another wall had a walk-in closet full of clothes. I could not believe my eyes. So many clothes for a six-year-old!

Now we all walked down the hall, passing the children’s rooms, entering still another part of the house. A door on our left bore a sign reading WONDERLAND. A faint smell of incense emerged from the room. Joyce stood inside the half-open door, wearing the silk piece I had given her. She wore it in a wrapped-towel fashion – held by her left shoulder – exposing her right breast and quite a bit of her left thigh. The material was only a yard wide and three yards long, not enough to wear as an Indian sari – or as a Roman toga. So, I wondered, is this the surprise?

“How about it, eh?” said Joyce, giving me a hug. This movement loosened the silk from her shoulder and it dropped in a sleek pile at her feet. Men clapped in enthusiasm. The women smiled knowingly.

“Give me a belt or a string,” I said, picking up the silk and trying to tie it around her bare body. “I can help you.”

“Thanks, Manisha. I don’t know how you keep that thing on yourself so long.” A young man took off his own belt and handed it to me. I managed to hoist the silk on her shoulder again. A breast remained uncovered. The dim blue light of Wonderland made it less noticeable.

Why was I so squeamish? I had seen plenty of bare-breasted women in tribal India. What was the big fuss, anyway? After all, I had been seeing Joyce’s naked body every morning for a week. The words of a famous Bengali author flashed through my mind: A savage is beautiful in the wild just as a baby is in its mother’s arms.

Now fairly secure in her silk sarong, Joyce settled on a bean-bag chair in the middle of the carpeted room, which had no other furniture but large pillows. “Hello, everyone,” she said. “Welcome to Wonderland. I have a great surprise for all of you wonderful people. Tonight we’ll show my new friend from India how we Californians are free to enjoy ourselves. I suggest we pair off with the person next to us and touch each other everywhere, nicely and gently, with love and affection. I also suggest that that it would be easier if we take off our clothes. Feel free. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to touch another human being with freedom and love. Right?”

“Right.” Voices resonated in unison through the room. I saw trouble.

“Come on, Manisha,” said Joyce. You can begin with me, if you’re shy.” The young man who sacrificed his belt earlier was still at my side. He took my wrist.

“Oh no, she’s mine,” he said. “I’ve never touched a saried woman before. “Sorry, Joyce!” He laughed at his own pun. Now I saw big trouble.

“Let me just go to my room for a second,” I said. “I’ll change into something simpler so that I am more exposed. I’ll be back in a minute.” Before they could object, I went out and closed the door. In my room I did change – into a pair of blue jeans and a sweater. I went back and quietly peeped in the door of Wonderland. I saw that everyone was touching someone else. Joyce had lost her silk piece again and the young man without the belt had lost his pants. They were doing more than touching. The room looked like a tub of seething white and tanned flesh. I closed the door before my undigested salad had a chance to come up.

I left the house and walked out into the cool evening. After about an hour I turned back. It was getting cold. All the cars were still in the driveway. I tiptoed into the house, went to the kitchen, and took out some leftover raita. I sat on a stool in the pantry to eat. Thomas came and rubbed his jaw against my ankle. Tonight I might even let him sleep in my bed above the quilt, I thought. It would be easier to do this than to participate in the Wonderland party. Thank God it was far enough from my room. I can sleep without any disturbance. Thank God I leave tomorrow. I reminded myself to apologize to Joyce in the morning.

*** *** ***

I saw Joyce again in November. We had lunch and she told me that she was having an affair with a Mexican-American construction worker. Jim had asked her for a divorce. The news did not surprise me.

I have mixed feelings for Joyce. I admire her natural friendliness and lack of inhibition – as long as I don’t have to live that way. But then, Joyce never pushed me to conform to her ways. I cannot help feeling sympathetic toward someone whose totally unselfconscious behavior made her unique even among the free-spirited Californians. I find it hard to judge her.

(Posted April 1, 2014)

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Comments from Sumit Roy received on August 2, 2015:

"Great story, great telling. As expected."