Sunday, January 21, 2007

Old Wounds

The third and final part of the Cold Attic series

Meeting Clara and Mahesh again

V was so terrified that I feeding her a line about the intent and length of stay at her house, that she decided misbehaving with me was the best pre-emptive action. The things that bothered her were quite strange. Clara and Mahesh were over at their home one weekend.

Clara was shopping near Trenton for some kind of specialty wood for her furniture and had stopped by at V’s. We got chatting after a late Sunday brunch – it was mostly about my situation and I was telling Clara how things had been during and after my deciding to walk out of my marriage. It was pedestrian conversation at best. She was curious about what it was to be in my situation in India and seemed to understand why I was so desperate get out of there.

At the time, I felt so detached from the event and the dramatis personae that I could as well have been narrating a third party observation of facts. V stayed on the living room futon not bothering to join us at the dinner table and I could see her rage mounting by the minute.

A few days later she tells me “You are so upfront about your personal life – you can talk about it with everyone – even Clara – who is she anyways , you don’t mind discussing your problems with my husband using him to get job leads – so why can’t you be just as upfront about how long you plan on staying here. Why do you need to be so ambiguous about that ?”

Explanation Redux

I went over the situation all over again with her for the nth time because she had been browbeating me around the same issue ever since I had come. For the nth I explained to her that I had not planned much – things had just fallen into place the last day when I was at the client’s site. Out of the blue I had a headhunter call me and offer to process a work permit. As always, she just refused to believe me. Her theory seemed to be that I had slyly wheedled my way under their roof without disclosing my real intent.

That morning like many other times before, V managed to reduce me to tears. For better or worse I will remember those few weeks in Philadelphia for how many times I cried and how much when after the end of my marriage I used to think I had no more tears left to cry. I came to realize that you never know if there are still more tears to come, only time can tell.

Maybe doing that made her feel like she was even with me - I prayed for deliverance each time I cried –“God, take me out of here while I still have some pride left, while I still feel human” It hurt like hell to have to stoop so low trying to survive.

Three Years Ago

Another interesting detail came out during the course of my stay. V told me why she had been upset me with for quite some time – maybe a couple of years or more – I must have been too tied up with my own problems to notice the difference in her behavior with me. When she had visited us (me and my ex when we were still newly married) she looked so frazzled –a bundle of nervous energy trying to do everything on her own that it got me really upset.

Back in the day, my cultural sensibilities were entirely desi – I was too new in this country to have assimilated anything. The fact that I had only recently come out of a long period of stress related to my parents trying to find me a match without success – made the wound pretty raw – my heart went out to her because she had been through much more than I had and God had not thought it time to give her a break yet.

I felt the deepest empathy for her but no condescension or pity and there is a world of difference between the two. She was always confident, smart and perfectly capable of taking care of herself. She had no “need” of a man to take care of her. I wished ardently that she would find the companionship that she did need – have a home and family of her own.

After spending the weekend with us, she was to leave for Washington DC to renew her passport and left at the crack of dawn. When she called from DC to tell me she had reached safe and the breakfast I had packed for her was good – something about the way she spoke anguished me so much that I cried – I really wanted her to find someone who would take on some of her strife – I must have cared that much about her to feel her pain like it were my own. For a moment, I felt I could have been in her shoes, if I had accepted the job offer in DC four years ago.

V had an entirely different slant on the incident. She was already low and I had pushed her decisively into the lowest nadir. I realized then that the other reason and perhaps the more important one for her being so upset at my staying over was that she thought of me as an unlucky omen that would be a harbinger of bad luck.

She definitely would not want my shadow to fall upon her home and matrimony and blight it. It takes a while for anyone I think to realize that they are looked upon like an ill-omen – they try hard to think this is not for real – it’s just in their magination. I know how hard V had to belabor the point with me until it actually sunk in.

The here and now

We all evolve with time – I must have changed in fundamental ways that may not be obvious to me. V has become this very superficial and artificial person, making polite conversation with everyone – inflecting her voice just right to portray concern for everyone just the same way. She probably has no real friends and if I ever was one that is obviously history. Losing a good friend is always hard thing for me to accept – when I was younger I would try again and again to go back and start anew – over the years I have come to realize how futile those attempts at restoration were – I don’t try anymore.

For a while I feel the absence of someone that was once important in my life – just the force of old habit maybe but then I withdraw. With V, I don’t have much to do because she had shoved me far away from her thoughts with much violence and deliberation making sure that all the doors leading back are bolted and secured. She is not the type that will leave anything to chance. It hurts my vanity a little to think that I, as a person was not of consequence enough for her to even feel any loss at the end of a decade long friendship. Well, such is life perhaps.

While at V’s I meet with this uber-cool desi dude by name VeeJay. He gave me hope and inspiration to continue with my job-hunt which to most people was no better than a wild-goose chase. He is in the recruiting business and thought I’d ace any interview – provided I got one. I felt much better hearing him say that – he also gave me plenty of leads and contacts for jobs. His wife is quite a smart lady too – studying something to do with Bio- informatics – they make an interesting though not a very compatible looking couple.

Chazzez and Dechazzez

I also had a chance to see the widely published “unemployment statistics” up close and personal at a Philadelphia career fair. Endless streams of unemployed or underemployed humanity lined up at the fair from 10 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. There were three companies only and they merely chatted with candidates for 2-3 minutes, took their resumes for their “database” (read trash bin).

The whole scene reminded me of the employment exchange and the jobless hero standing in a serpentine queue so poignantly portrayed in old black and white Hindi movies. Here I was in such a queue myself and having any hope was potentially impossible. The air was so thick with desperation and depression that I was glad to be back "home".

In the meanwhile, V gave me a dead-line of 21st March to find another place to go and live. Her general behavior with me goes through ups and downs. If she is pleasant for a few days – my hopes are up and I start to think maybe she will not evict me on the 21st after all – maybe I can stay a little longer and get my visa before I decide to do anything else – and I start to relax a little.

The moment she perceives that I am getting too comfortable with the status quo her attitude changes dramatically and once again I’m frantically looking out for a place to live. I call Madhavi, an acquaintance from the city I last lived with R. She very firmly says “No, it won’t be possible”. She comes up with what she thinks is a smart move. A month ago she was not sure if she is even going to India for a visit and I could come over whenever I was done with my client assignment. However, now she was on her way out of America for good and could most definitely not accommodate me.

I’m not sure what kind of emotional insecurity leads her to do this but there I was being given out hope and then when I needed help the most – I was just told that was all make believe. I’m getting used to people playing these little mind games with me – and I’m not even surprised. There is no better way to know somebody than to reveal your weaknesses to the point they can take advantage of you. I’d advise Madhavi to become a little more secure and sane before getting married – that way she’d spare a man’s life from being trashed unnecessarily.

In their shoes

Sometimes I think there is this thing about making one’s bones in the US that makes people the way they are. Most new immigrants start out being gullible and na├»ve – get hard knocks every inch of the way – hardening little by little until there is no tenderness left at all. It is as if the human element vaporizes to form an impentrable crust of stability. The good beneath their feet is firm at last and it will be over their dead bodies that someone will disturb it.

Everything turns calculated and cautious – you have to look out for yourself if you want to survive – no one wants to take a chance and risk what took many years to build. Sometimes, this gets taken to an extreme point that its strikes one such as myself as motivated cruel behavior when perhaps it is not.

Both V and Madhavi are worried that I have no future – that I am on this kamikaze mission trying to get a visa and a job in a market where people with many more years of experience and much better legal standing have been jobless for months sometimes years. What if I want to stay on with them as an illegal ? They could jeopardize their future harboring an illegal immigrant not to mention the costs of doing do – they’d much sooner not have anything to do with me.

I see where they are coming from but they’ve gone through too much to even care to look at it from my perspective. Ego-centrism is the primary bane of this country and is what makes it such a cold and bloodless society. Madhavi and V have definitely assimilated this part of the American character very successfully. I don’t want to become like them – but who knows it may well be inevitable.

A room of my own

I contact my terminally ill American friend A next– she is more than happy to have me over but she lives in an assisted living home and is not allowed have guests for more than 3 weeks. I check out the air-fares to Phoenix – I just can’t afford it. By train it would be four days before I even reached – I did not have that kind of time – and what after the three weeks were done ?

S and V suggest that I move into a transitional home for women – but they take only battered women in an immediate crisis and I am not a candidate – the next suggestion from them is to get a cheap student accommodation near the University – but that does not feel so safe – all the money I have is in cash plus there is an expensive laptop.

I feel sad that a friend from ten years ago does not think twice about telling me to go to place full of traumatized women out of marriages and relationships that are figuratively if not literally killing them – that she does not think that my mental state would be affected living in a place like that. I find it laughable when V says that I must stop driving myself so desperately and return to a normalcy – unless a transitional home is her concept of normal life.

I can’t believe that she has really grown so heartless – she tells me “ I can’t put my life on hold – I’ve wanted to visit Minneapolis for a weekend and this happened long before you came over, so those plans cannot change now. You need to figure where you can stay that weekend.” And then a few days later S tells me “ I want V to go out and do volunteer work, meet people around Philadelphia – she can’t stay home all day. We’re not comfortable with you living alone here all day.”

Here is someone draining their life away to get a toehold in a hostile environment, an eighteen month old baby far away in India who is counting each day to when they can be together again – and what seems infinitely more important than all that is “volunteering” and “getting to know the city” and the “planned weekend at Minneapolis”. Life's a bitch like my ex mother-in-law or maybe I am one hell of a self-entitled bitch. It would have helped me immensely at that point in my life to know which of the two was true.

Relative Priorities

This is revelation to me and I’m glad God gave me the opportunity to know the people I thought I could count on. I keep trying to place myself in her shoes and think – what would I have done. Common sense says anyone with even an iota of reason would not ruin their career and their future by staying on indefinitely in a country as an illegal. With a baby back home I could not go on job-hunting forever– things would have to reach closure before my business visa expired. Was that asking for a lifetime ? Was I being so unreasonable in my expectations ? I really do want someday to be in their shoes just to know myself - would I do the same too ?

I post ads everywhere to look for room-mates – am very scared doing so because I’m revealing my identity on the internet and maybe my co-ordinates will be known to my ex after all my efforts not to let it out. They have pushed me to a corner so I have no choice left. I create fictive mail ids and put out the ads. As the days run out, I have to divide my time between job-hunting and roomie-hunting while panic and uncertainty grip me like a vice.

Nitin and Mike continue to hound me about giving a firm date of return to India and taking charge of my newly expanded team that is floundering without a manager. I make up creative reasons for not being able to provide an exact date. I have a single thread of lies running for their benefit – a complete scenario verified for accuracy by A who had been through the same situation - and I stick to it like my life depended on it because in a way it did.

At a time like this I call Naina and ask her if I could stay over at her place. She has her mother over and is hesitant but says we could manage for a week or so. By an amazing stroke of luck, I have also found a room-mate in the DC area so that gives Naina an idea that I would be with them only for a bit – she is okay with that and so is her husband. She sounds happy that I’ve worked out something so she does not have to say no to my request.

The journey thus far

Through out this long journey alone after walking out of my marriage – I know I have been the object of envy to both friend and foe, men and women. That people living in what is generally termed as normal lives should even think of me as an object of envy never ceased to surprise me. I think the reason is my state is closer to nature and God.

I am a very fulfilled mother blessed with a lovely child. I have respect for the child’s pedigree - my marriage was no youthful folly or a regrettable error of judgment. I could not live with this man because in he equated love with control. Unless he could be my puppet master, I did not love him enough.

I felt emotionally abused by him and this touches a raw nerve in most married women because they are emotionally abused to varying degrees though they may choose to be in denial of it – as is the case with most abuse. I chose to walk out because I believed I could give my child a much better life if I were alone - that I would be freer and happier alone than in a marriage that suffocated me.

I have accomplished what is at best a dream for most women – I may not be wrong in saying this is their most cherished utopia. They cannot believe that someone can actually do it and do it well. They envy me and would not like me to be happy because that would only prove while they are entrapped , I have set myself free – and I had the guts to do it and they don’t. In nature the father is usually gone after the mating season while mother and cub fend for themselves – what is natural is perhaps Godly as well.

I have also mailed out my papers for the work permit to my new employer – the lawyer comes back with questions and the filing takes place two weeks after it was originally supposed to. I feel the pressure mount on me and a sense of agitation. There is a choking pain in my chest sometimes – I have read somewhere it has to do with prolonged grief – as I write this I have not felt it in a while.

The cold at V’s bothered me too – it was close to being out in the open in winter – the heating duct did not work – I tried to sleep with a woolen cap at night for a few days – and my head was still stone cold when I woke up in the morning and it felt like a dead weight. I mentioned the heating a couple of times and then figured they were skimping on gas so it was best not discussed. Interestingly, they have asked me a few times about my medical insurance coverage and I have told them I am covered by my company for the time allowed on my business visa. They are anything but convinced. I feel worried because I don't want suspected illness to be another reason they get desperate to throw me out.

Goodbye, V

My telling them that I was all set to go to Washington DC on 21st had an amazing effect on V and S. They were at once warm and cordial all over again and kept insisting that if I did not like it there for whatever reason I should feel free to head back. I could not help feel amused. Here was Naina bailing me out of an impossible situation and I was supposed to think that they were not treating me like royalty like I was used to being treated here. That was a hoot !

Anyways, I made the best of the brief respite from tension this gave me and concentrated once again on the job hunting. The visa papers were sent out to INS in the meanwhile and the lawyer thought it looked fine in all respects. I was to have my permit by 2nd April, giving me enough time to deal with Nitin and Mike.

I came away from Philadelphia – with a heavy heart – whatever V’s compulsions to behave the way she did has sealed the fate of our friendship. Nothing that either of us do would make any difference anymore – it would be a strenuous exercise of trying to keep a dead thing alive through artificial respiration of pleasantries. I am also worried for her – she is anything but happy – her depression spread a pall of gloom all around her – if there is anything at all about her present life with S that she finds happy, it would have lifted the clouds.

I am worried about how she is going to turn out – she is probably not going to tell me because she feels no emotional connect to me anymore – or has severed it during my stay at her home – knowingly, unwillingly or however – but the act is committed all the same. I feel like I have lost a friend – a very good one. We can still depend on each other for logistics but there is a much more to life than that. In my heart I know she regrets it too.

Hard Times

I decide to take the 12:00 noon bus to DC instead of the 10:30 a.m. because of a seven hour layover that would force me to take. V and I hang around at a nearby mall and I pick up a crafts and hobbies book for Naina from Waldenbooks. I guess this will be a nice gift for her – maybe God did not will for me to go to their home empty handed. I gifted V and S a small bottle of Godiva liqueur and a volume of the “Rubaaiyaat of Omaar Khyyam.” as a token wedding gift – which they really appreciated.

V is a little wistful seeing me off – there is something final about my going away – the lady at the counter asks me “One-way or Round Trip ?”. I pause a brief while and say with conviction “ One-way” – V probably did not expect that. I also make a surprise discovery – my driving license is still valid - I had been sure it had expired a year ago.

V is astounded that I could miss something as obvious as that. The date of validity is printed clearly on the license and I never noticed it. She exhorts me to check that my passport and visa are valid – just be sure that they are. Well, everyone misses some in life – and mine has been a roller-coaster so I guess I’ve missed a few extra.

Naina had asked me to come to Arlington because that would be closer to their home – this meant yet another change of buses. I was tired from lugging my belongings all the way and the waiting for the bus connections. I had an interesting experience as I got ready to board the bus to Arlington – there were two African American guys helping stow the luggage in the luggage compartment.

One of them starts to speak with me in Spanish and the other interjects “She is no Spanish” and then he tells me “Your luggage is over-weight. You’ll have to pay extra”. I say “I came all the way from Philadelphia and no one said this was over-weight” He replies “But it is and you have to pay extra – or we don’t take this. Maybe you can work something out with this guy here” he says pointing to the other chap – this I realize is a blatant attempt to collect a bribe.

I tell him “I can ask someone to pick me up from here, that way I don’t have to go to Arlington.” The guys says “It’s ok , We’ll take it”. I’m a little surprised at the experience but figure it’s probably natural in economic depression and joblessness.

These are desperate times for many of us and we may all be excused for what it drives us to.

Part 1 : Cold Attic
Part 2:
One NYC Trip


ggop said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ggop said...

I hope these days of adversity never return in your life HC. I wish the years ahead are full of joy and happiness.
I'm so glad you settled down, got J to join you here in the US.
It must have been such a tough time in your life. To know what V really felt about your being a bad omen must have been heartbreaking. You put it so beautifully.

Prerona said...


sent you a email but not sure if you will get it.

The story is sad, but so well written, takes my breath away.

Anonymous said...

i've commented (and emailed) you about how much this story moves me. i can almost see the suffocation of that cold attic.
but i have to ask.. are you in touch with V? is this a way of saying goodbye?


Heartcrossings said...

ggop - Thanks for your good wishes for me and my daughter. I believe the worst has long been over and we are in a better place today. This was written a few years ago, when the wounds were still raw. It just did not feel right at that time to post it.

Prerona - Yes, I got your mail and thanks for sending the note. Pain is always diminished by sharing which is perhaps my selfish motive in posting this.

N- Thanks for stopping by. I did not get your email though. I haven't been in touch with V since I left her house. It was too painful to pretend that nothing had changed after I had been hurt so much. We never said a formal goodbye.

Posting this years later is trying affirming to myself that I am over the pain and the hurt, that I can view the past dispassionately.

Anonymous said...

I guess these are the kind of experiences that change us forever. And we are always watchful, lest things dont get to that again. Something like Scarlett's fear in Gone with the Wind... About V.... She had a chance to step back and see the bigger picture but she chose momentary pettiness.


cheti said...

HC !!!

THis series is a revelation at so many different levels.

For some one who has gone through it and come out of it and left it in the past, your strength of character is amazing !!! Inspiring !

Heartcrossings said...

Sharda - You are right. This was a life changing experience for me but I thing I have come out of it stronger.

Cheti - Thanks :)

SFGary said...

This is an amazing story, you showed a lot of courage and tenacity to get through a hard period in your life. Good luck.