Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Cold Attic

V and I had been friends for ten years before the end of my marriage and the start of hers undid it. I miss talking to her, sharing my life’s highs and lows with someone who got me. She lives within a couple of hours from my town, is doing well professionally as I had always expected her too. The husband lives half way across the country. She stalled on starting a family because she wanted to go to b-school first.
She used to carry a Dennis clipping in her wallet for years and say “ I’d love to be mom to a kid like that”. She called it her talisman and good luck charm. No one who knew her would believe that she would not want be a mother even in her mid thirties. There was always another goal, another milestone, another level of independence, self-actualization to achieve before that.
When I saw her last, it seemed like she was wetting her feet in the marriage, trying to assess if it was indeed for the long haul. I respect V for her many talents, her fine intelligence and her magnificent drive to accomplish goals in her life. V was always unstoppable.


Arriving at V's

I arrive in Philadelphia an hour ahead of time, tried to call V but she was not on her phone. Leave a message and began to wonder if they’d show up at all. My faith in people wavers irrationally these days. I can trust V with my tax documents and know that she will get the job done but I am not so sure if she’d pick me up and take me home. I decide to wait an hour. There is no place to sit – it is too crowded and my bags are rather big. I stand there and wait watching people come and go.

I wonder what her husband will be like whether he would appreciate me staying over. I have not told V that my plans are extremely fluid and I have no idea exactly how long it take for me to find sponsorship to work. She does know though that my business visa will expire in three weeks and that comprises the entirety of my window of opportunity. We all know that the job market is at its all time low and it would take a miracle to get an employer to sponsor me in a time when layoffs are rife and outsourcing is the mantra for business to stay afloat.

They arrive a little late – but I’m relieved that they even came. He (S) is a complete disappointment – visually unappealing and to top that he has a bleak voice. He reminds me of the man that I was forced to leave in more ways than one and that is a very disturbing thought. His car is very untidy and unkempt – another similarity with R(my ex). I am seeing V after a couple of years – she looks wonderful. Marriage has given her skin a lovely sheen, her burgundy Nine West coat that looks perfect on her. Her fashion sense has improved dramatically. The new hair-style becomes her. I am almost about to reverse my first impression of S – surely he must have helped in this amazing transformation.

We drive up to their home – V keeps up a lively conversation and seems happy and content – or should I read that as relieved. She is now a permanent resident and she did it on her own without any help from S – that must bring satisfaction. The house is in the poorer part of town. They have an ancient futon in a shabby slip cover and an old chair in the living room – the signs are getting more and more ominous. There is squalor and impoverishment writ all across. But they stop by en-route to buy a couple of dozen bagels and an assortment of spreads from Panera Bread in what feels like a complete misfit with their lifestyle overall. I can’t tell immediately where that’s coming from but I would discover very soon.

Old Friendship New Discoveries

V has plans for me already. I’m not sure why she’s done this – its not like her. Back in the day we could have relaxed with some chai and caught up on the past two years. We go out to watch “Chicago” at a movie-plex nearby with two of S’s female friends who are now V’s friends. It’s all rather cozy and V is being made very welcome into S’s circle of friends and the city of Philadelphia. I get the sense that they’re observing her and thinking to themselves – how little she knows – I wonder how much she knows about him or his past or even his present.

He looks like someone with a lot of history, closed doors and dark little secrets veiled in that bleak voice. I feel sorry for her already and there is no earthly reason for me to feel that way - I tell myself that my judgment is colored and does not count at all. V is distracted throughout the show and keeps mumbling about the water that’s leaking in her basement. She checks her cell phone frequently to see if S or the plumber has called. She also says “Chicago” is highly over-rated and she sees nothing great about it. S's friends love it and I find it quite fun despite the many preoccupations I have.

Something or more than something is bothering her and I can feel it, I find it difficult to have any conversation with her at all. I think we’ve both outgrown each other. I know in my heart this friendship is really all over – we’re just going on from the sheer force of habit but it won’t last a lot longer. And honestly I am too tired to even care. I don’t feel close enough to her anymore to ask her what’s wrong though I can tell a whole lot is.

The first few days go pretty well, I have a place to stay and continue my job hunt and I get to eat home style vegetarian food. It’s a major relief after Philly cheese steak and chicken sandwich for five weeks that I had to survive on at the client’s cafeteria. I could never shop enough provisions to cook at the motel because I had no idea of long I would be staying. Mike, my manager in the US knew my situation and was trying to stall my return to India so I would have a fighting chance to find sponsorship to work. N, my boss back in India was pressuring him to wrap up the assignment quickly so I could take charge of my newly expanded team. Every extra day that I got counted and timing was running out rapidly.

I ate almost a pound of turkey breast the last evening before getting on the bus because I did not have the heart to just throw out the food and had nothing to carry it out in. But there was more than that as well - I was depressed to the point that I did not feel like eating four meals a day and made do with just a couple. But it was such a gross feeling eating so much meat at one go that the veggie food was the welcome andidote.

Overstaying Without Plans

I find fairly quickly that they expected me to be gone in a week – bags and all. These were bags I had left behind at V’s when I had gone back to India with J a few months after she was born. Back then, I had no definite return plans - I counted my blessings to be able to escape a marriage that was killing me. I tell V and S that I am not sure how the deal with the one employer who had agreed to sponsor will pan out. Having put my money and time into it – I want to stake it out a few more days. I try hard not to be in their way, locking myself upstairs as long as S is around the house. I make myself useful in the kitchen, generally try to blend with the background and be as unobtrusive and helpful as possible.

However, not having been trained in the art of being a butler I slip up sometimes and get too busy in my own world trying to make sense of my life's mess. One memorable incident is V telling me not to mind the sounds coming out of their bedroom at night. She proceeds to describe the creaking sounds their bed made. I am not sure why it is necessary to impress upon me that they were married and had sex - is that not a given ? It leaves me quite dumbfounded.

This is shortly after her tirade about how I had misrepresented my real intent of the stay - apparently they had thought I was vacationing with them before returning to India. She berates me about how I should have had firm plans about leaving before I came. I beg for three weeks which is the most my visa would allow.

I am woman of slender means. I have saved up on the small daily allowance my company provided for my business trip and have some money in a bank from two years ago. My survival depends on being able to manage my limited resources well until I find work. I remember how she did not look convinced when I said "You do realize that I have a one year old back home and a job so becoming an illegal in this country is not an option I am considering."

Having managed expectations of difficult clients, bosses , husband and in-laws I had not counted on this one being exceptionally tough –but by God on the tenth day the dam burst and V gives me a real dressing down. It is couched as a well meaning and friendly advice but the simple summary was “You’ve overstayed our hospitality and you better find out when you’re getting out of here”.

She is clearly acting under duress and I have no heart to even be upset at her. Later that evening we have a more detailed discussion with S and they think I should consider moving to a woman's shelter for the rest of my stay. They will be glad to give me a ride to the place. "I don't think I would qualify for a woman's shelter. They are for women facing a domestic situation threatening their lives."

The Fringe Existense
I am unable to comprehend how that could have seemed an option to them. I want to tell V that "those women" are not lepers, you too could be one of "them" very easily - that "they" were not fringe people and neither was I. All we needed was to be given a chance to regroup and pick up the broken pieces of our lives. "They" just like you had once been married, possibly even happily so. I hold my peace instead. I let V bask in the ivory tower of marriage.

I have been dealing with her mood swings on a daily basis even before this happened. There were days when she’d get her own breakfast and not even bother to ask me to help myself.

I usually went upstairs with a glass of water which I assumed was gratis. She’d do the same at lunch time and her mood was so foul that I did not dare to ask her what was wrong. I feel like a beggar having to slouch to the fridge and pick up something to appease the raging hunger – obviously she does not think it was worthwhile cooking for one such as myself and I eat whatever was left over in any order – I have to merely sustain myself to be able to continue the fight that I have started. I wonder if my cause is indeed worth all this.

The attic where I sleep at night does not have any heating and it is the middle of winter. Some nights I put all my coats, gloves and socks in many layers and still shiver. I mention the room heating or the lack of it once and V says it is working just fine – they will toast alive in their bedroom if it is turned up any further. I pray to God to spare me coming down with pneumonia or worse. The last thing I want is to fall ill and be at their mercy.
Every time my energy flags or I feel like I could go no longer, I call my mother – just to hear her voice gives me strength and to hear J say “Mammam” makes the impossible seem suddenly within reach. Between the two of them, even from ten thousand miles away - they keep me going. Every day is a lifetime and every inch is a light year.

And yet there wer times when I felt that I could not live in that live wire tension anymore and would ask if I had done had upset her – I just wanted to feel like a human being with some self respect and dignity – I was amazed at how low I had stooped and I wondered at my feelings for the man who had caused this to happen.

Cold Fury
Is it not natural for me to feel murderous with rage ? Why did I not feel anger any more ? What had suddenly been sapped of my system ? Anger in it’s latent form is like coiled energy and I have none of it left – it was all dissipated a long time ago. I am like a snake without venom and I feel the need to build some up. All at once I realize that I can never do it again –it is gone for ever. I don’t have the any strength left to even get angry. Most of those conversations ended with me crying until I could cry no more - I am desperate, I am lonely and I need someone to tell me that it will work out for me - that it will all come together in the end. V asks me to stop and get a grip on myself.

In sharp contrast to this mode of operation was another in which she and S were genuinely trying to help me in any way possible particularly getting me job leads, taking me out of myself – talking to me , trying to think of various options and how I could build my future. Those were warm, friendly discussions and took place in the kitchen or their living room and I felt like I was an integral part of their family.

They had just started living together after a year of being married and never once did anything that made me feel like I was in the middle of someone’s honeymoon. At those times I felt blessed to have such wonderful friends. I did not feel like a guest at all and S would go all the way to make my dosa just right so I’d take a second helping. They introduced me to their friends and family and I felt nice and included.

This was so like the pattern of abuse in my marriage. One day R would be the most thoughtful, generous and loving husband a woman could want – it was living a Hallmark card moment in real life. Within hours the same man could be a viscous monster who could drain everything positive from our relationship turning our verdant garden into a stony wasteland.

The day I left, V said to me "I hope you will let me know when things ease up in your life - when you might someone again. I don't want to be the person you think of only when times are bad." I said "Ofcourse I will, V. We go back a very long way to ever forget each other".

Thinking of V
Over the years, I have thought of V specially about the state of her marriage that concerned me even back then. When things have been rough, I have thought about my nights in her cold attic and consoled myself that I have been through much worse and survived it. As much as she did not want to, V will remain associated with my life's lowest nadir and the three weeks in her home will remind me of the strength and resilience I never knew I had until the odds had so fully stacked up against me.
Part 2: One NYC Trip
Part 3: Old Wounds


Anonymous said...

very moving... wish there was more that i could say ..

ggop said...

What? I'm gone for a month and there is a new template :-)

I've personally had couple of friends/acquaintances move in with me because they underwent similar experiences where they were staying.
And while I'm a slacker (never make any hot breakfast for guests) I sincerely hope I have always made my friends welcome...

Thanks for sharing,

Heartcrossings said...

Hey ggop !

Welcome back and hope you like the new template :) Hot breakfasts are a nice little bonus but to have a room in someone's heart is more than enough.