|Apr/May 2013 Nonfiction|
Artwork by Clinton McKay
I had no idea until the very end that a terrible sense of disenchantment with the natives had been simmering beneath Armin's cool exterior. It became apparent during our afternoon coffee break in the cafeteria of our company's Austin office the day before our project was to end in 2004.
"What's wrong with the people here?" he said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, we've been here six weeks, but we're yet to feel welcome in this country; don't these guys ever socialize outside work?"
There were six of us on this project. We had been nominated by our company to write a book on a soon-to-be-released software product. I was the only one from the U.S., and the rest were from the company's offices elsewhere. Armin was one of the two from Germany, and there was one each from Argentina, the Czech Republic, and South Korea. This was their first trip to the U.S., and they came without their wives or girlfriends.
Armin, six feet tall with perpetually disheveled hair and unmarried at 40, was the most articulate of the group. Gregarious and endowed with a pleasant demeanor, he loved to fraternize with people and was always on the lookout to make new friends. He had sensed a general standoffishness among the locals he knew, and that irked him. I wasn't surprised at the remark he made at our coffee break. I had heard similar comments from some of my other friends who had moved or visited here from other countries, but it did sting me since I was one of the "people" he was fretting about.
If my wife were still alive, this group would already have been invited to our home, and the invitation invariably would have included a sumptuous dinner personally cooked by her. Both my wife and I loved to socialize with people and often threw lavish parties. After her death, I didn't have the desire or the confidence to stage parties on my own.
The book we had been nominated to write was not finished yet. We had only a day left to complete it, and there were still a number of loose ends to tie up. After the coffee break, as I tried to set my mind to the tasks at hand, Armin's caustic remark kept swirling in my mind like a giant gyre. I didn't want him and the rest of the team to return home with an uncomplimentary opinion about my country and its people.
"What are we doing to celebrate the end of our mission?" I asked.
"Nothing," the answer came in unison.
"How about we celebrate with a dinner in my home tomorrow?" I said, despite my aversion to host any party.
The consent was quick and unanimous.
"Any preference for food?" I asked, as if I possessed great culinary skills.
"Anything, even if it crawls or wiggles." I heard a few chuckles.
The immediate acceptance of my invitation led me to believe these guys had had enough of being cooped up in their offices and were eager to see a different aspect of American life. I gave them the directions to my home and told them I would see them around 6:30.
The next day I finished my part of the project in a hurry and left the office early. I tried to remember what it was that Chhoton, my wife, did to prepare for a party besides cooking the food. First of all, I had to tidy up the house. There was clutter all over, an unmistakable sign of a bachelor's pad. After two hours of painstaking, back-bending labor, scouring and vacuuming and mopping, an activity I didn't at all relish and wasn't accustomed to, the house looked spic and span and exuded some semblance of civilized living.
I hadn't yet decided what I was going to serve for dinner. My friends knew I was a widower but didn't know I did not cook. They might have secretly harbored the thought that, because of my Indian background, I would cook some exotic dishes. My plan was to order takeout. I was torn between Chinese and Indian cuisine, although I didn't know if my friends had ever tried either of the two, or if they would like it. What if they didn't? I decided to take a chance and ended up ordering Indian with the instructions to the restaurateur that the food be made palatable for western palates.
I was ready to welcome my guests well before the scheduled time. The weather had suddenly turned ugly. It had been sunny and clear all day, but now the sky was thick with black clouds threatening to drench the earth any minute. My house was in a part of the city where there were no streetlights, which made the house numbers hard to read from the street. To make matters worse, sheets of rain had started to come down heavily. Would my friends be able to locate my house in the rainy darkness? Would the food delivery guy make an excuse of the bad weather and not show up? I got uptight and restless as I thought of the looming possibility that my maiden attempt at throwing a party on my own might end up being a total fiasco.
Shortly after 6:30, there was a knock on the door accompanied by a cacophony of indistinct voices. My heart started to beat faster with anticipation as I looked through the peephole and saw my friends. They were all here. I ushered them in.
"Do you guys want to take a look around the house before you sit down?" I asked after we were finished exchanging greetings in the foyer.
Since none of them had ever been inside an American home before, I thought they might be interested to see one.
"Yeah," someone said.
"Our houses back home are seldom this large." There was a consonance of comments on the size of my 3,000 square-foot house.
"Shiv, how do you keep it so clean?" Armin asked. He didn't know why I had left the office early, or how much time I had spent in the afternoon to spruce it up!
"I've a cleaning lady who comes once a month."
In the living room, Armin sat on the carpeted floor, and the rest perched themselves on the sofas. Except for Armin, they were all in their early 30s.
Adrian, the Czech, at five feet and four inches with a round face, was the shortest of the group. Although he had a slight accent, he spoke English very well. He had a girlfriend back home whom he was going to marry on his return. Quite an adventurer and daring, he took off one Friday afternoon in his rented car and headed alone for the Big Bend National Park, a ten-hour drive from Austin on unfamiliar highways. He came back that Sunday night and resumed work the next day. He was the joker in our group and told many Czech jokes, some of them quite ribald.
Seonglui, the South Korean, on the other hand, was a man of few words. Soft spoken and overly respectful of others, he often talked about his wife and his two kids whom he missed a great deal. Technically, he was the savviest of the group. He was our savior whenever we got bogged down in seemingly intractable issues.
Marcos, the Argentinean, married with a kid, had a heavy accent and was the hardest to understand. Maybe he was conscious of this because he spoke less but listened more. He laughed the loudest at Adrian's ribald jokes.
Michael, the "other German" as we called him, was close to Armin's age and was married. He was the most jocular fellow in the group. He had a sense of humor that was almost infectious. He would often tell a joke and burst out laughing even before we had a chance to absorb it.
Remembering what Chhoton used to do at this stage of hospitality, I had laid out a variety of snacks on the coffee table, and plenty of drinks to go around. Some of my favorite pop songs from long ago ("The windmills of your mind," "Bridge over trouble water," "The raindrops keep falling on my head") were playing softly in the background. As we munched away the snacks, washing them down with our favorite drinks, we babbled and blabbered endlessly about whatever came to mind. We talked about life in general in the U.S. and in their countries, political and economic situations around the world, and of course, girls. We were ever so alert to avoid saying anything that had the faintest hint of superiority of one country over the others.
"Will any of you be coming back for another project?" I asked, curious to know if their disenchantment with the natives would discourage them from embarking on another trip to the U.S.
"It's hard to stay away from the family for so long," Seonglui said.
"Besides, it's not easy to get time off after you've been away once," Michael added.
"I'll definitely try," Armin said. "Being single has its advantages."
From time to time they stood up and stretched and walked around, looking at the myriad books on my shelves, and at Chhoton's photographs hanging on the wall.
"She was a beautiful lady," someone said.
"What did she die of," Seonglui asked.
"Cancer," I said.
"Do you have any children?"
"Yes, I have a daughter," I pointed to her photograph on the mantel. "She's a doctor and lives in California."
The food arrived on time. I arranged it buffet style on the center table in the kitchen and put the plates, the cutleries and the napkins at one end of it, just the way Chhoton used to have me do whenever we threw parties.
Seonglui had been clicking away the shutter all evening.
"These look so colorful," he remarked as he took photographs of the exposed food items.
We stood around the center table as we ate our dinner. Though there were only six of us, I had ordered the takeout for eight and hoped it would be enough. There wasn't much conversation during the whole time we ate except for frequent compliments on how tasty the food was.
It turned out none of them had ever had Indian cuisine before. They must have liked it a great deal because every single item was squeaky-clean by the time we were done. I was so happy my gamble with the choice of food had paid off. I was especially amused to see Michael scarfing down with great relish. After he had found out I might serve Indian food, he told me with a chuckle, "Come to think of it, Shiv, I've another engagement I have to attend at the same time. I'm sorry I don't think I can make it to your party."
"Anybody for liqueur?" I asked as we were about to return to the living room after dinner.
Marcos and Adrian had some Cointreau.
"I'm full to the gills," Michael said. "I haven't had such a meal in a long time."
"I'm so happy you liked it," I said. I didn't want to ruin his expansive feeling by revealing he had just had Indian food.
Our conversations continued though with less zing than before. It had been a long day for all of us. Seonglui and Adrian looked bushed, and Armin and Marcos let out huge yawns every five minutes or so. Michael dozed off in the corner of the sofa, awakened from time to time by the burst of elevated decibels of our banter.
Time passed quickly. It was close to midnight. The neighborhood was dark and quiet. Only a few houses still had their lights on. The rains had stopped, but it was still quite windy. I could hear the oak in the backyard sway and rustle.
"I think we should call it quits for the night," Armin said as he got up. Since he was the one with the car, the others had no choice but to yield even if they wanted to linger a bit.
"This was a wonderful party, Shiv. Thank you so much," Adrian said in his slow lazy voice as I walked my guests to the door.
"Yeah, I agree," Armin whispered into my ear as he stepped out of the house.
"It was my pleasure," I said, grinning.
As the group was about to walk towards the parked car, I was seized with the sudden realization perhaps I would never see them again. I became somewhat emotional and hugged each of them and said so long.
As Armin's car snailed out of the driveway and melted into the darkness, I sauntered back inside the house and locked the door behind me. Overjoyed at the success of the party, I imagined my wife standing in front of me with raised hand waiting for high fives and smiling her winsome smile. I too raised my hand and gave her high fives, screaming an exultant "Yes!" that crisscrossed between the walls of the living room and reverberated in the stillness of the night far beyond those walls.
I turned off all the lights and slipped into an adjoining sofa in the living room. As the wind whistled outside, I leaned back and closed my eyes, and in the ambient darkness, let my mind wander through the corridors of memories. I remembered the parties Chhoton and I used to host at the beginning of each fall semester when I was a graduate student. We invited all the new arrivals on the campus from India. They met each other for the first time in our home. Chhoton cooked multi-course dinner for them all by herself. I helped out by tidying up the house and setting the table. And when the guests started to arrive, she was already tricked out in her best, looking gorgeous in her beautiful sari and makeup. Soon the house was filled with laughter, music and loud cheery voices. The parties went on for hours until the pace of the conversations gradually slowed down, laughter erupted only in dribs and drabs, and the stereo system ran out of music. Chhoton and I, worn-out and jaded, sat together and chatted for a while after the last guest had left, promising, tongue in cheek, never to host another party again, knowing fully well we would start planning our next one the very next morning.
It has been a few years since our book project ended, and my friends departed. Relatively speaking, ours was a brief encounter, but my encounter with Chhoton was not brief. It spanned across 35 years, and during that time, we had become quite dependent on each other, I more so than she. Until the night I had my friends over, I doubted my ability to do many of the things on my own that Chhoton and I used to do together. I had lost the desire to even try.
Not too long after the night of our gathering, the house once again began to dance to the music of days gone by. Though my wife's absence never ceased to lurk in my thoughts, such festive occasions helped me deal with the enduring anguish of loss and grief. Not only did I feel at ease at entertaining people on my own, I started to return to some of the other fun activities that Chhoton and I used to do together. I also revived a tradition that was close to her heart and mine while I was a graduate student: I started hosting parties at the beginning of every fall semester for the new arrivals from India on the campus of the local university.