It was a quiet day at the admissions office at NYU. Somwattie and Devika stood at the front desk, speaking to a female administrator about Devika’s acceptance to the MFA studio art program.
“You’re not eligible to apply for financial aid. You’re illegal,” the administrator told Devika. Devika might well have had a flashing neon “I” printed on her forehead.
“What are the fees for one year’s tuition?” asked Somwattie.
The officer ran her finger down a column on her paperwork. “Forty-one thousand and forty-four dollars. Then there are supplies and living expenses too.”
Somwattie may have been semi-literate but she was sharp when it came to numbers, due to all her small business schemes back home in Guyana. With the total of five hundred and fifty dollars she brought home each week from six cleaning jobs, it would take her years to even earn that amount. All of her savings had gone toward putting Devika through Queens College.
“There must be some scholarship, or some way you can help us.”
The administrator shrugged. “There’s really nothing we can do. Without a social security number, we can’t legally accept a financial aid application.” Then she said, “The application for the fall semester is due in soon, but I can make an exception for you and give you until August. More time to figure something out.”
They went back home to their one bedroom apartment in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens. When Somwattie first arrived in New York with Devika, leaving behind her two older children in Guyana, they had stayed with Somwattie’s aunt in Jamaica and Devika enrolled in the nearby Hillcrest High. Somwattie overstayed her tourist visa. Then they moved into their own place and Somwattie took up house cleaning to pay the bills. She liked living in Jamaica, having the convenience of West Indian stores nearby. She didn’t like living among so many blacks. Most of the kids at Devika’s school were black. Her daughter brought these kids home, talked like them, brash and loud. In Guyana during the sixties, Africans and Indians clashed. Somwattie said that the two races could never get along. Devika called her a racist.
Later that evening, Somwattie called up her siblings in Guyana to ask their advice.
“Why you worry?” said her brother. “She’s twenty-two years old. She should be thinking about marriage.”
Her sister agreed. “Don’t make her wait till she’s old. Her beauty is fading. Soon she’ll get fat and ugly.”
They didn’t know that Devika wanted to be an artist. Somwattie pleaded with her daughter to apply to nursing school, something practical. But Devika spent all the money from her babysitting jobs on paint and canvases. The paintings were stacked up around their small apartment: strange pictures of severed hands, cherubic brown babies, and floating eyeballs. Somwattie felt embarrassed to invite her friends over. Her headstrong daughter insisted on applying to art school for a masters, one of the best art schools she proudly told her mother when she received the acceptance letter from NYU. But what was the use when you couldn’t pay for it?
Devika lay deflated on the couch, her long black hair trailing over the pillows.
Somwattie moved a pillow and sat down next to her. “Why don’t you do a course in selling real estate or life insurance? Learn some useful skills.”
On Commencement day at Queens College, Somwattie woke up early. She eased her wide feet into a new pair of brown suede flats and brought out her dry-cleaned crimson silk blouse. She was heavyset, in an athletic, muscular way. Her hair was wispy with hints of gray and she had dark rings under her eyes, but her smile hinted at the beauty she once was.
Somwattie wanted her daughter to wear her graduation gown on the Q25 bus, despite the soaring pre-summer temperatures. She had taken on extra jobs for weeks to afford the cap and gown rental. Somwattie wanted the bus driver, the matronly older lady with a walker, and the two kids playing video games to know that she was the mother of a graduate. She fussed with her daughter’s hair, arranged and rearranged the velvet collar on the gown. For once, Devika didn’t complain.
The quad was still fairly empty when they arrived. Somwattie took an aisle seat. The sun beat down and she fanned herself with her folded program. Her feet felt itchy and uncomfortable in her tight new shoes. Soon the seats around her filled up with the jubilant, noisy families of graduates.
The orchestra started up a slow paced processional and the graduates began to march to the front. Somwattie looked out for her daughter until she finally came into view, her petite frame hidden beneath folds and folds of black gown, her wise eyes matched by the solemnity of her scholar’s cap. Devika was an old soul. Even as a child, there was something about Devika’s eyes that made Somwattie feel she had been in this world already.
Devika spotted her mother and waved. Somwattie felt her face wet. She was not a sentimental person. But she couldn’t stop the tears that ran down her cheeks and left damp patches on her blouse. This girl — the granddaughter of a cane cutter — was a college graduate. Somwattie’s mother had died young and her father couldn’t afford to send any of his ten children to high school. They were pulled out of school one by one to help in the cane fields or be married off. And Somwattie too had put her older son and daughter to work in Guyana, earning extra money to help pay the rent and bills. But Somwattie always made sure that Devika could study. She would prepare roti, dal, chow mein, or curry chicken for her daughter, and leave her to her studies before going off to another cleaning job. She waved back at Devika. For this moment alone, it was all worth it. If her father was alive he would’ve been proud.
Somwattie eased her swelling feet out of her shoes. She would soak them in warm water at home. As the speaker droned on and on, Somwattie’s mind started to wander. Without her papers, Devika couldn’t go to art school. She couldn’t even get a job that would recognize her degree. Somwattie had gone over the options endlessly in her head. She had seen the immigration lawyers’ offices along Liberty Avenue. But the lawyers took hefty fees and promised nothing. She couldn’t take the risk. What if they got deported? There had to be another way. After the ceremony was over, they waited on Kissena for the Q25.
“Why don’t you marry for a green card?”
Devika looked aghast. “Like putting an ad in the paper and interviewing prospective husbands?”
Somwattie considered the idea briefly. “No, no. We put the word out with friends here and in Guyana. Your uncle and auntie will be pleased.”
“Never. I don’t want to be tied down to a deadbeat like you were.”
Somwattie was quiet. “There are good men out there. You’re a very pretty girl. Believe me, plenty of boys will be knocking on our door.”
“You were married to someone who stole from you, beat you, and cheated on you until he finally left you. Now you work yourself like a dog just to pay the bills. And you want me to marry?”
Somwattie had lived a tough life, maybe it was karma. Her father – a man with a proverb for every occasion – would have said: “If you plant plantain you can’t reap cassava.”
Mother and daughter rode the bus together in silence. The cap and gown lay balled up in Devika’s shoulder bag.
On Monday of the following week, Devika accompanied her mother to her cleaning job at an Upper East Side condo. Her cap and gown regalia replaced by a faded sweater and an old pair of jeans. What else was there for the girl to do?
They arrived at a building with an elaborate ornate stonework entrance. The doorman greeted them. He had a strong square jaw and dark skin, and was somewhere in his mid-twenties, his short afro covered by a black hat.
“Where’s my dhalpuri?” There was a Caribbean lilt to his accent. He winked at Somwattie. “You know I can’t let you in the building till I have my dhalpuri.”
“You don’t have no shame, you young kids,” Somwattie shot back, as she brought out a plastic container of flaky flatbreads stuffed with ground up split peas. “I spent a couple well hours yesterday making these for you.”
The doorman took the container. Devika cleared her throat.
“Oh, yes, this is my girl Devika. A college graduate,” she added proudly. “And this is Mr Owen.”
“Pleased to meet you. A graduate, huh? What are you doing now?”
Devika looked down at her faded clothes and laughed. “Well, I’m not exactly going to work as an investment banker or corporate executive dressed like this, am I?”
“I didn’t mean to…” Mr Owen stammered.
Devika waved her hands. “No shame in cleaning houses.”
Somwattie used her keys to open the door to the Paulson family’s eighth floor apartment. She always fumbled with the high security locks designed to keep out any intruders who could make it past a twenty-four hour doorman guarded entrance.
They crossed the foyer and entered the spacious living room with white padded sofas, drooping buttercups in a vase on the coffee table, and wall to wall bookcases with more books than Somwattie supposed anyone could read in a lifetime. She was proud of the apartment. It looked this way because every week she vacuumed the sofas, polished the flower vases, and dusted the bookshelves.
The kitchen sink was piled with dishes from the weekend. Somwattie opened the cabinet under the sink to take out the cleaning supplies. She shook the Ajax tin, it was almost empty. Her employer had forgotten to get a new one.
Somwattie sighed and fished out a five dollar bill. “Devika, go to the supermarket on Madison and pick up a new tin of Ajax. Make sure it has bleach. And don’t forget to ask for a receipt.” Even Ajax was expensive around here. If it was on her dime she would try to find it on sale at Walmart or one of the 99 cent stores in her neighborhood.
After Devika left the apartment, Somwattie stopped for a moment to savor the stillness. She was accustomed to having the apartments to herself while she cleaned. It was so different to the noise and chaos of the factories where she had worked in Guyana. Clocking on. Clocking off. Sitting all day in an assembly line sticking labels on containers. Supervisors breathing down your neck telling you to work faster. No time to take bathroom breaks or have a sip of water. Here she was her own boss. No one told her what to do.
She had only met Mrs Paulson once, it was during the job interview. Mrs Paulson was a brisk, pleasant woman in her mid-forties. “Somwattie. I’ll never remember that name!” she had exclaimed. “Can I call you Stephanie?”
Somwattie started in the children’s bedroom. She had never met the Paulson children, but from the copious toys and clothes that she picked up every week, and the photos on the wall, they looked like they were a girl and boy about six and eight years old. There was a trail of clothing leading from the little girls’ unmade pink bed to the door. The girl must have stepped right out of her underwear and pajamas as she undressed. Somwattie picked up the discarded clothes between two fingers, shaking her head. American kids didn’t know how to pick up after themselves. When she was growing up in Guyana, her father would be in the fields from morning to night, and the children would have to look after each other. The oldest would feed and bathe the youngest. By the age of five or six you had to start helping your older siblings with fetching cow dung, cleaning the chicken coop, and cooking breakfast. And here a six year old couldn’t even put her dirty underwear into the clothes hamper.
After she finished picking up all the toys and clothes, Somwattie vacuumed the circus elephants rug. It was hard to grow up kids in this country, she thought. You couldn’t beat them. Somwattie raised three children as a single mother in Guyana because she could keep them in line. If they left underwear on the floor or threw food from their plates? Smack. And not just a dainty slap but a good resounding whack. They wouldn’t do it again. Americans were too scared to hit their kids. They worried that they would damage them. And instead they made them spoiled and lazy.
Somwattie finished mopping the floor and dusting the furniture in the children’s room. She looked at her watch. Forty minutes had passed. It shouldn’t take so long to buy a tin of Ajax.
She started on the living room. As she bent over to pick up action figures and books from the floor she felt a sharp pain in her lower back. “Bend your knees when you pick things up. It’ll put less pressure on your back,” one of her employers had instructed her once. Thanks for your concern, she had thought. How about you pick up your own things, that’ll put even less pressure on my back. The pain in her lower back had gotten much worse over the years. She didn’t have health insurance to get x-rays or see a chiropractor, so she treated the pain herself by drinking homemade beet juice – her personal remedy for everything. And maybe one day her daughter would be a famous artist and take care of her. She could finally retire, go on one of those temple-organized trips to India to see the Ganges and the Taj Mahal.
The Paulsons were messy people, but they paid her well. The Niemanns and the Garners didn’t give yearly raises or holiday bonuses. Last year, when the Niemanns went to Italy for a month, they told her they wouldn’t be needing her services while away. But she had to pay her rent and bills too. She never said anything, even though Devika pushed her to. Karma comes back around.
Finally the front door opened and Devika walked in, looking flushed.
“Where were you? I thought you got lost.”
“No,” Devika was out of breath. “I… I just couldn’t find the store. But here it is.” She produced the tin.
“Ok, go start on the bathrooms. And hurry up, we don’t have no time to waste.”
Later that evening, Somwattie and Devika were at home in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner. “I’ve been thinking about about getting married for papers?”
“Mmm hmm.” Somwattie didn’t look up from the pot that she was scrubbing.
“Maybe a green card marriage might be my only hope. But just for the papers. I’m not going to cook and clean for him or have babies.”
Somwattie smiled into her pot. She didn’t know what had produced such a sudden change of heart in Devika, but she wasn’t asking.
“Fine. I’ll make a few calls tomorrow.” Somwattie’s voice was as steady and casual as she could manage.
That same night, Somwattie got the word out with lightning speed. Even once a green card application was in, she had heard that it could take several months to get issued a social. Besides, she didn’t want her daughter to change her mind. Devika had a photo taken at a studio on Hillside Avenue with a fake sky background provided by billowing tie-dyed blue bedsheets. She posed with crossed legs, her long hair pulled back in a clasp, her almond-shaped eyes serious. Somwattie shared the photo among her circle of friends.
Some weeks later, inquiries started coming in. They settled on a few prospective suitors. Somwattie wanted to set up meetings, but Devika preferred to “chat” online with them first. You can get to know them better that way, she explained. What’s there to know? argued Somwattie. You see them, you like them. End of story.
As Somwattie got ready for bed, brushing her teeth and saying her prayers, she would hear the tik-tik-tik of keys as Devika chatted with her suitors. After a week, she announced that she had a date with Sonny, a cargo worker at JFK. He came over on Friday evening, an eager and skinny young man with a goatee and short spiky hair.
“Where were you born? Are your parents here in the US? What does your father do? How many years you been working at the airport?” Somwattie barraged him with questions. Devika rolled her eyes.
“How much do you earn?”
“Moooom!” Devika had enough. “What’s up with all the questions?”
“Well, some of these boys, they just like plenty girls but they don’t have no good prospects.”
“Goodbye.” Devika grabbed Sonny’s arm and steered him out the door.
When Devika returned home after the date, she was coy and impenetrable. She wouldn’t answer Somwattie’s questions. “Are you going to meet again? Did he take you to an expensive restaurant? Do you like him?”
But as soon as Somwattie had gone to bed she heard Devika on the computer again. Tik tik tik, tik-tik-tik-tik-tik-tik. Pause. Tik-tik-tik-tik.
All through June, Devika accompanied Somwattie to her Monday cleaning job. The girl was a help, but she took her time getting ready: applying eyeliner and lipstick, and trying on several pairs of pants. “You don’t have to nice yourself up. It’s just a cleaning job.” She liked to get an early start on her jobs. While cleaning, Devika would find frequent reasons to take breaks. Somwattie just shook her head. Her daughter could spend hours doodling away on those canvases, but give her some real physical work and she couldn’t handle it.
On weekends, Devika went on dates with Sonny. But Sonny didn’t come to the apartment anymore to pick her up. “You scared him, mom,” Devika joked. Instead, they would meet for their dates in Richmond Hill or downtown Manhattan. Somwattie waited up for her daughter, scanning the passing cars for Sonny’s platinum-colored Infiniti. But all she could see were the jeeps and vans of the black kids on the street, pulsating with the rowdy music they liked. Eventually she gave up, closed the windows, pulled down the shades, and went to bed, still listening for the sound of her daughter’s key in the front door. Devika came home from her dates with gifts – an emerald green purse, a pretty silver bracelet, a box of Godiva chocolates.
On weeknights, Devika would stay up late chatting online, with Sonny again, Somwattie supposed. She urged Devika to set a date to get married. With less than two months to go, they had to act quickly if she wanted to get her papers in time. Devika simply smiled and told her not to worry. It drove Somwattie crazy that Devika never talked to Sonny on the phone. That way at least she could eavesdrop. But it was always the online chatting, the tik-tik-tik of computer keys. Even if Somwattie had known how to use a computer, she was not a strong reader. She had only studied up to the fifth grade, and it took effort to sound out the words, put them together into sentences.
There was no denying that the girl was happy. She smiled at Somwattie, tolerated her frequent pestering, even ate her extra spicy curry chicken without complaining. On Sunday afternoons, she painted in her room, humming a tune. When Somwattie came home after a long day, Devika had a bucket of warm water ready and she rubbed and kneaded her mother’s sore feet.
Somwattie started dreaming of weddings. While at the temple in Ozone Park one Sunday, she imagined the ceremonies in detail. She wanted her daughter to have a proper bamboo wedding in traditional Hindu style. She would hire out a hall with a real maro canopy for the puja ceremonies. Only the tender young bamboo leaves and shoots were used for the maro, the overlapping sheaths forming protective layers. She would purchase the saris and jarjamas for bride and groom and prepare a banquet of potato curry, puris, dal, and spinach for cook night. No matter if she would have to do it all on short notice. It was important that this girl be married right. Somwattie couldn’t marry her other two children in Guyana. Her siblings had organized their weddings a few years back. Since she had no papers, Somwattie couldn’t even travel back home to attend their weddings or see the three grandchildren that she now had.
She remembered back to her own sham wedding. Her mother-in-law rubbing tumeric into her body, the ceremony barely over and her new husband back at the rumshop. No dig dutty offerings to Mother Earth or the saptapadi seven steps. Her father was not present, nor her siblings or relatives. Her father disliked the boy from the beginning because the boy’s father was a drunk and they lived in a small mud floor hut. So she met with him secretly. Then one night her older sister dreamt that Somwattie was pregnant. Her sister told her father about the dream. They noticed that for two months, Somwattie had not washed and hung her menstrual cloths out to dry. Her father didn’t speak to her again. On the day she left home, he was planting ochro in his little garden, his face hardened in disappointment. That was the last time she saw him alive. Her siblings summoned her many years later, on the day he lay brain-dead in the hospital.
Somwattie was leaving the temple when she saw her friend Mrs Ramdas. Mrs Ramdas had introduced them to Sonny. She rushed to embrace her warmly.
“It was so good of you to introduce us to Sonny, such a nice young boy. He and my daughter are to marry soon, god willing,” Somwattie said.
“What are you talking about?” Mrs Ramdas looked perplexed. “His mother told me that they only went out once and then he never heard from her again.”
“But how can that be?” Somwattie’s head was spinning. The dates. The chatting. The gifts.
“I’m sorry, dear. That’s what his mother told me.”
She couldn’t believe it. Mrs Ramdas had no proof. Anyway, Somwattie knew the youthful glow of infatuation. As she rode the bus back along Liberty Avenue, she gazed wistfully at the store-front mannequins decked out in embroidered wedding saris of gauzy crepe and red georgette.
On their way to the Paulson’s place the next morning, Somwattie and Devika sweltered on the subway platform. It always felt ten degrees hotter on the platform than outside. When the E train arrived, Somwattie was relieved to see that the subway car in front of them looked almost empty. But once inside the air was stifling. People were melting into their plastic seats. They had boarded the one car without air conditioning. Now they would have to sit and fry like chickpeas dry roasting in a pan.
Mr Owen was waiting outside the building when they arrived. His eyes crinkled in a smile and he opened his arms when he saw the women approach.
“My two favorite ladies,” he grinned. Devika giggled.
“I brought homemade coconut rolls for you today Mr Owen,” Somwattie handed over a thick packet. “I grated the coconut myself.”
Mr Owen’s eyes widened. He took out one of the pastries with its sweet bread and moist red coconut filling. “Thank you. I’ll enjoy this at my tea break this morning.” He glanced over at Devika.
“Enjoy!” said Devika extra brightly, as she pulled her mother inside.
Upstairs, Somwattie decided that they would begin cleaning in the living room. It might give her a chance to get more information from her daughter. Somwattie sprayed Windex on the glass window and rubbed away at it with some bunched up newspaper. Her eyes teared up at the fumes.
“Mom,” Devika watched her. “Why do you use those strong chemicals?”
“I’m fine. I’m used to it.” Somwattie continued scrubbing. “Come on, let’s just do it. We’ll get it done faster together.”
“Not without a face mask. I’ll get one at the hardware store on Madison.”
Somwattie exhaled, exasperated by the girl. “Forget it! Just go dust in the bedroom,” she called after Devika but the girl had already slammed the door shut on her way out.
The chemicals had affected Somwattie’s eyes and skin over the years, though she wouldn’t admit it to her daughter. The Windex fumes stung her eyes and the back of her throat burned as she worked. She went to the kitchen for a drink. There she noticed that water was seeping out from under the fridge and pooling around the cabinets. She quickly mopped it up and placed a few rags around the edges of the fridge and then she went to call downstairs for the super.
The intercom was in the living room. Somwattie hadn’t used the device before. There were a lot of buttons. She mistakenly pressed one that was marked “listen” and suddenly her daughter’s laughter floated up through the speaker.
Why don’t you wear the red blouse I bought for you when we go out this weekend? I want to see it on you.
Where are we going? To another party?
I thought we might go to the Nicki Minaj show.
Somwattie’s hand was shaking as she pressed the “speak” button.
“Mr Owen, send my daughter upstairs. Right. Now.”
Devika’s eyes were defiant as she walked into the living room.
“You…you… lied to me,” Somwattie said, stuttering, her face hot.
“How could I say anything?”
Somwattie scrubbed the window furiously with the newspaper. “So are you in love with Mr Owen, the doorman?”
“We’ve only been dating for a month. But I like him a lot. And he understands my situation. He’s willing to help me get my green card.”
Somwattie didn’t reply. Devika picked up a Swiffer duster and started dusting the bookcases.
“You can’t marry him.”
“Why not?” Devika looked her mother in the eye. “You know Owen. You like him. You cook food for him. What’s the problem, mom?”
Somwattie sprayed more Windex on the window pane. “He’s black.”
“Yeah, he’s black, so what? According to you, all black people are violent thugs and freeloaders. Well, news flash, mom. Dad was all those things. And he was Indian.”
Somwattie reached for some fresh newspaper and scrunched it up with her hands. “Devika, you don’t understand. You don’t know what happened during the riots. The black men raping Indian girls. Killing Indian children.”
“But Owen’s not even Guyanese. He’s a Trini! What does he have to do with riots and children being killed?” Devika stabbed at the top of the books with her duster.
Somwattie gathered the pile of soiled bunched up newspapers. They left smudged black print on her palms. Her eyes were red and irritated. “Well, Mr Owen is not a Hindu,” she said, weakly. “You can’t have a bamboo wedding.”
Devika put down the duster. She reminded her mother that this whole plan was her idea, a way to get a green card and go to art school. It was never about having a traditional bamboo wedding.
Somwattie kept her voice low. She didn’t want the neighbors to hear them arguing and report it to the Paulsons. “This plan was a bad idea,” she said. “You don’t want to marry someone just for a piece of paper because then you’re stuck with that person forever. I married a sweet-skin, good-for-nothing man because I got pregnant and see how much I’ve suffered. I don’t want you to suffer too.”
Devika sat and held her face in her palms. “Owen is not Dad. He’s nothing like Dad.”
Somwattie turned quietly back to her work. Devika would forget about Mr Owen soon enough. And maybe there would still be time to contact the lawyers, enter a green card lottery, find a relative willing to sponsor her. Anything but this.
Somwattie and Devika didn’t speak much that evening. After dinner, Devika picked up the phone to call Owen. No more tik-tik-tik of the computer keys. There was nothing to hide now. Somwattie stuck her head in the fridge and pretended to sort through last week’s leftovers. Devika held her hand over the receiver. “Mom, can I get some privacy?”
Somwattie nodded reluctantly and went into the bedroom, shut the door. She fought the urge to pick up the other receiver and listen in, it would be too obvious. She settled for putting her ear to the door. She could make out a few fragments, the low buzz of conversation occasionally transmuted into patches of phrases.
“…happened so quickly…we’re young…”
Devika’s voice was muffled and Somwattie strained to hear. She blocked her other ear and concentrated hard on what her daughter was saying.
“…just to get into art school…rushing things”
“…see each other…don’t care…be together…” Then there was an airplane cruising overhead and police sirens and Somwattie couldn’t make out anything else.
In early September, the final letter came from NYU. Somwattie brought the mail on her way in from a long day with two back-to-back cleaning jobs. Her daughter was out at a babysitting job. She opened the envelope. “We regret to inform you that NYU has offered our position to one of the candidates on the waiting list. We wish you good luck with your future endeavors.” She tore up the letter, first into big pieces, and then smaller and smaller pieces. No art school. No bamboo wedding. And her daughter dating a black man. She didn’t blame anyone but herself. There was no getting away from one’s misdeeds in the past. The thought provided her some relief. She didn’t have to struggle anymore. She put her tired feet up on the couch and closed her eyes.
As she reclined, she felt a figure hovering above her. It was feminine, but she knew it was her father. She could tell by the faint smell of hospital disinfectant. She heard a cough in her ear, and then felt a light pressure on her shoulder. She reached out with her arms, wanting to grasp him, to ask if he regretted turning her out, if he had missed her. But he was gone just as quickly as he had appeared. She smiled faintly, rubbing her shoulder as if to connect with his touch. Then she slipped into a sweet dream where she was a little girl again, playing on the floor while her father made sugar cakes. She felt good here, in her innocence, in her father’s love.
Image Credits: Gwen John | Public Domain