Minerva missed seeing the Pacific Ocean that first time because she was asleep. When she landed at Los Angeles International Airport after twenty hours in the air, she had felt Carl’s large hand on her shoulder. Wake up, wake up, we’re here, we’re home.
Where was the Pacific Ocean? she’d asked, disoriented, mouth dry and breath bad. He laughed at her because – while the Boeing 777 was dropping out of the clouds toward the City of Angels – her head was lolling like a string puppet not in use.
She had walked through a long corridor at the end of which President Obama’s confidently friendly but distant face welcomed her to the Land of Opportunity. What a nice smile he had, and such white teeth! Then she was hit by a smell. It was more than a smell, it was a sensation – one that pricked the insides of her nostrils, and made her want to sneeze.
It was the sensation that the atmosphere she was walking into was clean, like the village shop in India with its sharp paint-like smell, which also made her nostrils tickle but in a different way.
She remembers now how hard it was to find pure white fabric in the village. What the shopkeeper sold to you as “pure white, safed” always had a purple tinge to it. It was as though they were keeping the cloth ready for the brightening power of Ujala fabric whitener. Just four drops of Ujala would give your clothes the whiteness they deserve. There was, too, a picture of a woman in a dazzling white sari, and a child – also in a white dress – who popped up over the woman’s shoulder like a friendly demon.
The bottle was right. Just four drops of purple liquid turned the brown water from the pond dark blue. When the white fabric that happened to be purple went into that water, it turned into white, yes, white – not blue. What do you mean by blue? After it dried in the sun, there would be splotches on it like purple prickly heat. But everyone called it white, and when Minerva wore such a shirt to school, the teacher said, look how nice and white her shirt is today!
But here in America, everything that is white is white. White-white.
When her fiancé Carl had written that he lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a city called Canoga Park in California, she had imagined wide streets lined by palm trees, lush green parks, beautiful blonde women with big sunglasses and flowery dresses walking on every corner, and houses with swimming pools.
Their one-bedroom apartment was on a street called Independence Avenue in Canoga Park, a little hole in a big, grey beehive with many other apartments that surrounded a patio. There was a blue swimming pool in the shape of a kidney bean around which stood a round table, a few white plastic chairs, and a BBQ grill. A fake palm tree – with lights on it that glowed red and green like Christmas at night – rose into the colorless sky. The name of this apartment complex was “The Americana Independence”, and when she had called and told Papa, he had been very impressed.
After they packed away all her things in the one big closet that Carl very kindly said she could have, he spent two days at home with her, taking her to a grocery store two miles away called Albertson’s – where she saw more food in cans and bottles than she had ever seen in her life – and then Carl went back to work. She was all alone in her Americana Independence apartment.
The first two days, she put away all the MDH masala spices she had brought with her in small bottles, which she labeled. Then she began to read her three Sanjeev Kapoor cookbooks to determine which dishes she could cook for Carl. She could only make those dishes that did not require too many exotic Indian ingredients. She made a list each weekend of everything she needed and Carl took her to Albertson’s. At first, she followed him respectfully with the grocery cart and listened with the reverence of a churchgoer as he pointed out the difference between fat free and not, organic and not, dill pickle spears and chips, and so on. After two weeks, she knew what and where everything was, but she wanted him to feel that she relied on him. She thought maybe he wouldn’t like it if she said she didn’t need him to point out where things were. Until the day he got confused in the refrigerated section, looking for his Ball Park hot dogs.
Sorry, she said, as if it were her fault. Right there, under the Oscar Mayer wieners.
I knew they were there all along, he said. I wasn’t paying attention.
When would she learn how to drive? She wondered. When would she go to the big Westfield Mall with endless shops that sold more things than she could ever learn to ask about or buy? Carl said that it was easy to drive but he hadn’t offered to teach her. He said she should learn to read a map first and even though she had tested the highest in Geography in the state of Tripura, she had never learned how to read a map. She had only memorized names of places and wrote lengthy essays about the population distribution in Europe.
A week after she arrived, Minerva had asked Carl what it was like to drive. He produced a book called The Thomas Guide. He said, Los Angeles is a huge city – as big as a country. It’s easy to get lost and end up in the wrong neighborhood.
He showed her different squiggly lines that stood for important highways (freeways, he called them). Then he tested her. Which freeways will you take to get to Santa Monica?
Her best friend in the village was a girl named Monica. She had started threading her eyebrows before anybody else, sang classical ragas, and played the harmonium. And here was a city named after her friend. She thought it a good omen. She found Santa Monica on the map, and next, the 10 interstate. But somewhere in the collision of red and yellow and gray lines, she got lost. A ringing noise inside her head got loud, as Carl laughed.
She threw the book across the room. Not at him. How could she?
The thing about Ujala was that the bottle promised to make your clothes white. Even the TV advertisement had a promise to it: of happiness. There was the woman in the all-white sari chasing the child also-in-white, through rooms with all-white curtains fluttering, all in slow motion. Minerva had always wondered how a widow in white could be so happy. But maybe she wasn’t really a widow; maybe what she was wearing was not really white but a trick of the TV. Now in America, Minerva thinks that the Ujala ad may have been a lie.
Her father had said that she could prepare a Western dinner for the son of his friend from his seminary days in the USA who had arrived at this remote, opposite corner of the world to find purpose in life. Carl would be teaching at the local mission school for three months. Americans struggled to find true meaning in life, her father told her, because they had too much money.
She made boiled potatoes and carrots with Amul butter, and roasted chicken in the Hawkins pressure cooker. She made custard and crumbled Britannia biscuits and sliced bananas over it. Carl’s eyes were green like a pond with old water but through his thick glasses, she saw a dim light. Her father looked pleased when Carl said that the food Minerva had made was the best he had ever had – since he came to India, that is.
They are complicated, these Sanjeev Kapoor recipes. Dishes she had never heard of at home in northeast India, which was not really India except in name. “Connected to the mainland by a strip of land known as the Chicken’s Neck,” declared Geography textbooks from New Delhi. Inhabited by people referred to openly by those in the mainland as “chinkies.”
Saag Wala Gosht, Paneer Jalfrezi, Khaman Dhokla…Carl calls them all simply by one name: curry. She used to find it funny. At home, she’d only cooked for fun because Papa liked to cook all their meals. Her mother had died when Minerva was seven, of typhoid. She does not remember anything except the dead body, so pretty in its red silk salwar kameez. The made-up face was a caricature of her mother, with painted eyebrows that made her look surprised and possibly about to laugh at a big joke.
Papa learned to cook. Damn anybody who made jokes about a man who cooked, try bringing back my wife from the dead, he said. People suggested maids, but he did not want to have another woman in the house. It gave the appearance of evil, he said, and as a devout Christian, he abstained from all appearance of evil.
He also washed his own clothes. Minerva never learned how Papa got exactly four drops out of the Ujala bottle. And his shirts were always Ujala white with no splotches ever.
She has been living in the Americana Independence for six months now and sometimes Minerva feels like it is a hotel. She doesn’t know the names of any of her neighbors, even though she hears the faint buzzing of their TVs, their occasional shouting, and children crying. In India, she knew the names of all her neighbors not just in her lane, but also in the other lanes up and down the main road.
One day, as Minerva walks behind Carl after an Albertson’s outing, a girl pops out of the apartment two doors down. She walks away proud as a horse, her majestically round buttocks poured into a pair of leathery black pants and she is wearing a tube top. Minerva catches sight of it, just then. The golds, reds, and yellows of a sunset splayed on a back as expansive as the sky; giant cartoon-like ocean waves lapping her shoulders; sea gulls flying on her neck and disappearing into black hair; a bridge-like structure that goes nowhere on the left part of her upper back, with a Ferris wheel just like the kind that would come through the village in Tripura for the annual mela.
The whole magic scene is alive on the girl’s olive skin.
What is that? she whispers to Carl, pointing at the receding back.
The Santa Monica Pier – a tattoo, he says, loudly.
That night she has a dream in which the girl with the pier on her back appears. Minerva is sitting in a room full of boxes: of food, spices, and books. She wants to get up but can’t; her body is heavy and she is stuck to the floor. All of a sudden, a back with a vista on it rises up like a snake, right out of an open Sanjeev Kapoor cookbook. Minerva admires the pier without fabric cutting it off. She reaches out to touch the Ferris wheel but wakes up to find herself stabbing the air with her index finger. Carl’s dreadfully affectionate snoring enters her consciousness.
The train has left the station, she says out loud.
They always went everywhere together, Minerva and Papa. When she was little, she sat on his lap. She sat on his lap even until she was fifteen or sixteen. If the bus was filled to the door with people and they had to squeeze in, her Papa shielded her from men who tried to fondle her buttocks or touch her breasts. As the bus bumped and swayed – and time lost relevance because you couldn’t even look out of a window to see where you were – she felt his presence behind her, the sharp smell of Old Spice and sweat, his arms keeping her body away from danger. And now she realizes that she never even learned how to buy a bus ticket on her own.
She asks Carl again how difficult it is to learn how to drive as he eats a meal of chicken jhalfrezi and jeera pulao. She’s also made him a side salad of iceberg lettuce, croutons and Hidden Valley bleu cheese dressing, per his request. She watches a bite of food make its way down his gullet like a knee straightening under a blanket.
LA is nuts, Carl says. I’d wait to drive if I were you, he says.
She wants to say something but her throat feels tight. She hears the crunch of his teeth on a crouton and wonders how he can possibly eat a salad – and that hideous white dressing – with Indian food. Minerva forces a smile, and heads to the kitchen to clean the stove. Indian food always leaves such a big mess and requires heavy cleaning.
The next morning – as she opens the blinds to look at the vertically sliced view of Independence Avenue and the sign of the “Thrifty Wash” opposite the Americana Independence – she decides that she will go outside for the first time. On her own, that is. Unescorted.
As she walks out of the gate of the Americana Independence, everything feels different. The air is hot. She pauses at the sidewalk, and can’t decide which way she should go. She goes right but looks carefully left first. At the end of the block, there is a crosswalk. In school, she had only seen pictures of such a thing in a book, it was called a “zebra crossing”. But here is a pole next to it with a metal button, and a small screen mounted on the opposite side shows a hand, which suddenly turns into numbers. She is uncertain. A man comes up beside her, running, and Minerva jumps aside. Sweat darkens a patch the shape of the African continent on his T-shirt and he thuds on to the crosswalk without even looking at her. She plunges in behind him, and a feeling of pride swells up in her, making her smile like an idiot. When she gets to the other side, there is a gas station. “USA GAS” says the sign, declaring its allegiance. Minerva sees rows of chips, magazines with pictures of blonde women with big breasts and orange skin, and drinks behind a cold case. She fingers the quarters in her pocket and thinks she will get a soda. At home in India, the petrol pump stations did not sell anything.
HEY. A strong voice brings Minerva back to the present. It is the girl with the sunset-ocean-pier on her back.
Hello, good afternoon, Minerva says to her. My name is Minerva.
I’m Maricela, says the girl.
Marcella, repeats Minerva. The girl shakes her head, no.
Ma-ri-ce-la, the girl says, dark red lips moving over her pearl-white teeth like a serpent. She rolls the “R” like the Hindi “R.”
Minerva laughs. She gets Maricela’s name perfectly, then.
She is glad Maricela showed up because in the six months she has been here, she has not yet bought anything on her own. At the grocery store, she watched as Carl confidently swiped a debit card to pay for their purchases – she tried to memorize the sequence of things so she would know how to do it when the time came – but he had not yet offered to get her a debit card. When she asked him once, he inserted his index finger into her curls, and said there was no need for her to worry her pretty little head.
Maricela buys a six-pack of beer, producing cash from the back pocket of her leathery pants that cling to her body like a second skin. She stands aside, watching as Minerva timidly picks a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum. Minerva sets out four quarters, two of which the store-owner pushes back across the counter, as he points to the sign under the stack of gum that reads “50 cents.” Her face feels hot.
As they walk back together, Minerva is suddenly conscious of the pavement under her feet, and gets a whiff of something like roses and candy from Maricela, who says that she always smells delicious food from Minerva’s apartment. Minerva feels a balloon inflating in her chest, and says she is about to make some chicken tikka masala. Would Maricela like to taste some?
She finishes up the meal early, three hours before Carl would come home. She pours the golden curry into a Ziploc container, spoons some rice into a packet of tinfoil, and walks over to Apartment Number 19.
The apartment is painted a dark red to match Maricela’s lips. There is nothing in the living room except a black leather couch and a coffee table, and no decorations on the walls save one, which has mirrors of various shapes on it. Minerva has never seen red walls or so many mirrors in one place. Does Maricela like to look at herself? Minerva wonders.
This is the first American person Minerva has met on her own, even though she is not white. Minerva used to think all Americans were white like Carl. Now she knows better.
After they chat a little about Indian food (Maricela promptly took it to the kitchen, where she stuck it in the freezer, to Minerva’s surprise), Minerva falls silent. She is unsure of what kind of topics someone like her can discuss with someone who has a color painting on her back, wears tight trousers with no shame and buys beer like a man.
Minerva is conscious of her own brown-marble eyes, pale yellow skin, and hair almost the texture of steel wool. She feels so ordinary when she looks at Maricela, whose shiny black hair is pulled back so that Minerva can now see clearly the seagull that flies into her hairline. She sees, too, a streak of blue in Maricela’s hair, like the color of water into which only four drops of Ujala has been dropped.
Maricela asks Minerva if she would like a beer. Minerva feels ashamed – Papa would be shocked if he knew she was making friends with a woman who drank alcohol – but Maricela is the first person in this country who said hello to her (other than store clerks). Minerva wonders how beer tastes: does it bubble in your mouth, make you lose your mind? She wants to ask Minerva to give her only a little, but what would Papa do?
No, thank you, she hears herself say. Only water, please, no ice.
Maricela settles next to Minerva on the couch with a brown bottle, and stretches out her long legs till her feet rest on the coffee table. Minerva asks her what she does for a living. She says she models part-time and works – also part-time – as an admin for a design studio in Santa Monica. Minerva wonders what kind of an administrator dresses in such a way and spends so many days at home. She also wants to ask what kind of design takes place in a studio, that of clothes and houses being the only kinds she is aware of. But Minerva does not want to reveal her ignorance.
Maricela tells Minerva that she really likes the green kurta she is wearing, and says it is “so cool” of Minerva to bring her some curry, and that India is on her bucket list, whatever that is.
When Minerva leaves, she smiles all the way to her door. She looks at her HMT watch and sees that they talked for an hour and a half, and yet it seems like only twenty minutes. She scrubs the wok in which she had cooked the tikka masala with a happy feeling that she has not felt since she landed in this clean country. For the first time, a full hour goes by that she does not think of Papa.
Minerva replays their conversation in her mind as she washes the dishes. She wants to go back and talk to Maricela some more, but she understands that in this new country, people don’t just drop by unannounced. Cars fly by in the street in front of her kitchen window with a last burst of speed before they roll to a stop at Parthenia Street (what a dignified name, she thinks). Rear lights flash importantly red. Usually, there is only one person inside these vehicles, and they always look very busy and preoccupied. As they wait for the light to turn, they keep glancing down at their crotch or something in it; when the light turns green, one or two horns honk to remind the one in front to move. It makes her homesick, because at home, horns honk all the time. Po-po-po-po. She wonders if there are many people waiting for all these busy, important people wherever they are going. She wonders if they will cook a meal when they get home.
That evening when Carl walks in, Minerva has just sprinkled a handful of chopped cilantro on the golden-red meat. She now says “cilantro” instead of “coriander”. Carl laughed at her the other day in the grocery store and said, Aren’t you all American now? When he said “American”, he rolled his “r” in a fake Indian accent that made her angry, she wished she had said “coriander” instead.
He greets her at the door with a forgetful kiss on the head, a squeeze on her buttocks and a comment of, Oh, curry again! When he walks in, his dirty-looking brown hair – neither the color of mud nor the color of an almond but somewhere in between – has flakes of white paint in it. His brown work trousers (tan as they like to say here in America, as if brown is a bad word) bears the proud smudges of a day’s worth of work with his father’s paint and drywall business, which is run out of a home office in Simi Valley. She has been there to visit twice. Once, the five employees of said business all wanted to eat an Indian breakfast. She had fried some hamburger buns in butter, and made pav bhaji with Sriracha chili sauce. Paw bhaji, they said and drank it all down with ugly black coffee.
Carl wears glasses. She asked him once if it was difficult to work with his hands while wearing glasses, but he gave her a look somewhere between anger and disgust, so after that she never asked him. His glasses enlarge his green eyes and when she sees through them, a slice of his face does not exist. Through the glasses, she watches his emotions as though on a movie screen. Exaggerated and magnified.
She sits opposite him at the small laminate-top table and watches him eat. She tells him that she made a friend today.
He looks surprised.
Carl says that Maricela does not seem like a “nice girl”. Minerva isn’t sure what he means by “nice” but he is talking in his loud voice and she doesn’t feel like asking. She watches him polish off his plate as he jokes about Maricela’s back and her tight pants. He makes a comment about how Hispanic women dress like that. Also, he says, what would that tattoo look like when she is old and everything is falling apart?
The very next morning, Minerva decides to venture outside again, on another walk. She hopes to run into Maricela. When she stands outside in the dry air of Independence Avenue, she looks right, then left. Towards the left, all she can see are apartments, other beehives like the Americana Independence. To the right, at least there’s the gas station. She turns right. No Maricela today. She walks into the gas station, picks up a magazine with a bold yellow headline: Dr. Phil Caught Cheating!
She lingers in front of the beers and wonders if the quarters in her pocket will add up to the price of a bottle. If she were to buy one and drink it, where would she dispose of it? Would Carl smell it on her breath? Like Papa, he is a devout Christian and does not drink anything stimulating. He likes Mountain Dew, and that’s all he drinks. She leaves empty-handed.
Carl walks through the screen door and says, Curry again! A couple flecks of white paint come floating off his head toward the tan carpet. Minerva walks away to dish out some food for him, and he asks if she would please make some salad too.
She sinks a big stainless steel spoon that she brought from India into the virginal white rice. It brings up a nice blob, filling the room with its sweet fragrance. She had mixed in a cup of Jasmine for him. Would he know the difference, she wonders, and should she point it out to him? She serves him a round mound of white rice perfectly shaped in a bowl and then overturned; a bowl of chicken curry; a plate of cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce; and on the side, bleu cheese dressing.
He eats it all noisily in their dining area, as she watches.
Papa did not like for her to go outside alone. Because you are beautiful, he said, and boys will come after you; they will kidnap you, and make you sleep with them and then you will have to marry them. So, she only left the house with him, and they rode the bus together: to school and to the town fifteen miles away and anywhere in between. Wherever the road ran.
One day after that first dinner, Carl came by for tea before they all went to their New Life Fellowship Church, and Papa happened to be in the bathroom. It was the first time she had been alone with another man. When she handed him a cup of tea, her fingers brushed his, a shock pierced her belly, and went out through her toes. At the end of his three months, many dinners, many cups of tea, and many church services – in which he sat in the pew directly in front of her – Carl approached her father to ask if he could “court” Minerva. She had listened behind the wall, and was in awe that he had used the word “court,” it made her feel like a heroine in olden times. A year and many phone conversations later, he returned to ask Papa for Minerva’s hand in marriage. Papa asked Minerva to pray about it but she saw the smile on his face. She had never felt like this before. There were only two eligible Christian boys in her church: one was uneducated, the other had bad breath and chewed paan. Papa had also told her such wonderful stories about America and who knew what she might become in the Land of Opportunity? The shirts Carl wore – unbuttoned at the top – were pure white. His breath smelled like pudina and new milk. She decided yes.
One week and three days after her first walk outside, she sees Maricela when she steps out to read her devotional Our Daily Bread in a chair by the kidney-bean pool. Minerva hesitates, and then invites Maricela to their apartment for a cup of tea. The teacups will be washed by the time Carl gets home, and he does not have to know.
A number of white threads from her torn denim shorts dangle over Maricela’s bronzed legs and she is wearing a top with too-large holes for the arms. Minerva makes tea with elaichi, bay leaves and cloves. Maricela says it’s the best tea she has ever had.
Chai, Minerva says.
Chai, Maricela repeats like a tape recorder.
Minerva asks Maricela about her parents, and Maricela says she does not know who her father is or where he is. Her mother lives in Arizona. Minerva tells her about Papa and how he took care of her, and Maricela looks away, but not in an unfriendly way. They talk and talk, and after the first ten minutes, Minerva forgets to look at the wall clock.
Finally, Maricela says, You wanna come with me to Santa Monica one of these days? I love the beach…we could just hang out…it’s such a happy place.
Just then, Minerva jumps up, because Carl’s shadow is visible through the blinds of the lone front window. The door creaks angrily as he walks in. His green eyes look cloudy, and his brows crowd in towards each other.
Hi, he says to Maricela. It is the shortest sentence. He walks into the kitchen and they hear the fridge door slam, and then the abrupt pop of a soda can.
What are we eating for dinner? he asks, loud, without appearing. As if Maricela isn’t even there. Maricela sets her cup on the table.
Sorry, she says, and leaves.
Last night, Minerva had called Papa from Carl’s mobile phone using an African Queen calling card. He asked her if she had found any Ujala to make sure Carl’s white shirts stayed really white. She had laughed at him and reminded him that here, they washed all their clothes in a laundromat in the building, where all the whites got washed with bleach and came out real white, not fake white.
There was silence on the line and she saw Carl gesturing to have his phone back, so she said, Papa? His small, distant voice said, Be a good girl, take good care of Carl. Then: a beep and a hum.
They fight. Carl says he does not like having a woman like Maricela in his home. She cries and says, I have nothing to do, no friends, I am nothing…I am just a housewife and I don’t even have a car to go anywhere.
Later that night, she feels Carl’s hands reaching for her – they make love on a bi-weekly basis, when he is not tired from working sixty hours a week – and he claims her, in a way more tender than usual. She is glad that it is dark because she is staring at the ceiling, wishing she were somewhere else instead of here. Maybe back home with Papa, maybe not. Maybe at the beach in Santa Monica.
For three days, she does not step outside the apartment. She sleeps till two in the afternoon, and then wakes up to dust the furniture, scrub the toilet and make dinner for Carl. On the fourth day, as they eat dinner in silence, Carl says that his father has an older but well-functioning 1990 Toyota Corolla, and he says that Minerva can have it.
She does not look up from her stainless steel plate but through the rice and curry, she sees her own face. She sees hope.
Wow, wow, wow, says Papa on the phone. What a lucky girl you are!
It is second-hand, Papa.
Second-hand? Don’t forget we only rode buses! Be very grateful, child…what a wonderful husband you have. God bless you both.
That night, Minerva has a dream in which she is washing Carl’s shirts in a bucket of water with only four drops of Ujala in it. When she pulls them out, they come out perfectly white – American white-white, not Ujala Indian blue-white. She wonders what would happen if she put in six – no, seven drops. Plop, plop, plop, plop, plop, plop, plop. Minerva drowns one of his perfect white shirts in the purple water. It emerges spotty like a leper’s face rendered in purple. She wakes up laughing.
The Toyota Corolla is beautiful, although it has a dent and the seats have towels stretched across for covers. Carl appears to have some doubts about her readiness to drive – he pulls out The Thomas Guide again and quizzes her on her knowledge of the local streets – and she cries for an hour after he falls asleep, exactly ten minutes after he had changed into his ridiculous Charlie Brown pajamas.
While she is learning how to drive, she does not see Maricela often. One afternoon, Minerva heads out to the gas station to buy Circus Peanuts and she runs into Maricela, who is striding out her door with a duffle bag.
Nice to see you, Minerva says.
Maricela looks sad.
One of these days, she says, when you’re free, we can have fun together. She says “free” as if she is talking about the Quit India movement. She leaves right then, as if she knows that Minerva is struggling with the question of how to tell her that she wants to invite her for a cup of tea but can’t. Maricela says goodbye – or just bye? – so fast that Minerva is not sure she heard it at all.
It takes her one month with the Dollar Training School and three failed tests at the Department of Motor Vehicles, which almost reminds her of an Indian bank with its long lines and bored clerks. And then, one day – one day – she pulls over in a gray driveway and an old DMV employee with a long braid looks over his checklist and shakes her hand. You passed, he says, his ‘a’ coming through the nose.
Great, Carl says, with a small smile. Now you can go to the grocery store on your own.
Minerva asks Carl if they could go to Santa Monica beach. She has never been to a beach or seen the ocean but he says that he really hates traffic on the 405 and the 10. What is the hurry, he says, since she lives in LA now? Someday, when he has more time, they will go. It is too crowded of a place and just overrated, he says.
She knows she will never ask him again.
Minerva only drives the car to the grocery store two miles away and she carries cash with her, fifty dollars. She carefully reads all the labels and adds the prices as she goes along to not go over her budget. Carl claps her on the back when he gets home every Wednesday and says what an American she is turning out to be. She does not know how to pump gas and since she doesn’t drive anywhere else, he fills the gas tank for her every three weeks.
A month after her first drive – as she cruises along at thirty miles per hour to Albertson’s – she looks at the freeway sign for the 101 South leading to Santa Monica and she wonders if she can do it. She turns on the left indicator and segues into the left lane. A half-minute before she would curve upward to join the roaring traffic, she returns right.
Her Papa had told her that she must always obey her husband, just like she obeyed him. A good girl, raised right, obeyed her elders; and when she was married, her husband. If she didn’t do so, it meant that she did not love her elders and also that she had not been raised right.
Now she washes all Carl’s white shirts in a machine with bleach. And she even has her own car. But she wants to be busy, too, and go places where there will be other people waiting for her. Albertson’s is such a small store once you get used to it. She no longer has to look at the signs in the aisles to know which one for beans and rice, which one for the readymade Hamburger Helpers and DiGiorno pizza, with the fat crust Carl likes.
On a day like any other except that Minerva stays in bed thirty minutes past two, Maricela leaves the Americana Independence.
She has a new boyfriend, she says, and he asked her to live with him in his apartment in Santa Monica. Minerva feels helpless, she feels as though she should stop Maricela from making this big mistake – from living in sin – but no words come. She does not know how true they would sound anyway.
Here, Maricela says, shoving a piece of paper at Minerva. Here’s my address and number…come visit me sometime, now that you’re driving and everything. She plants a kiss on Minerva’s left cheek. It feels as if a butterfly has entered Minerva’s skin.
When she walks away, the sunset on her back glows in the ordinary beige light of the Americana Independence like a goddess’s avatar come to unworthy human earth. The vision disappears in front of Minerva’s eyes.
That evening Minerva makes Carl a Hamburger Helper meal. She has gained a quick familiarity with the ready-made meals available at Albertson’s with the most appetizing pictures on the boxes. At dinner, she is not hungry.
I want to work, she says. I have an MA in Geography.
He looks at her, stops eating, and takes off his glasses, as though that could help him see her better.
And now I can drive, she adds.
Carl says that she should be grateful she does not need anything. That he works fifty hours a week and overtime, so that she can stay at home and be comfortable, go for walks or read or whatever. She reminds him that she had been a part-time teacher at a high school in Tripura, and that it only takes her two hours during the day to cook, clean, scrub the toilet, and take care of their three potted tomato plants.
I can drive now, she says, again and again.
And where exactly do you go? he says, in a tone she would have used to ask her students in India where the Himalayas were.
He repeats the question, and begins to laugh, because he thinks that she is about to laugh too. In reality, she is trying not to cry. No, she decides, this time she will not cry. She will drive. And she will not go to Albertson’s.
When she walks out, grabbing her car keys, Carl does not stop her because he thinks she is putting on a show. He keeps eating brown Hamburger Helper.
She pulls out The Thomas Guide from inside the glove compartment, and copies down the directions to Santa Monica Beach on the back of a receipt from Albertson’s. 101 South, 405 South, 10 West. She memorizes them.
As she guides the Toyota Corolla into humming flight on to the freeway, no fear – no fear – fills her, just a feeling of being headed where everyone else is. The vibration of cars flying past her…the red of the brake lights glowing like fireflies…the heat in her head…the growing warmth in her hands…the emptiness in her heart… Santa Monica Beach is just ahead, she tells herself. A place Maricela said was a happy place. Minerva wishes she had a mobile phone so she could call Maricela when she gets there. She will see if she can find her on the beach.
Finally, she comes to a street called Ocean. She sees the Pacific Ocean for the very first time in the distance, like a wall of grey-blue glass that will come crashing down on the world any minute. The sun carves a tunnel of orange light through it. It makes her want to weep.
She drives along very slowly, taking in the palm trees, people on a wide path with their legs slicing confidently back and forth on rollerblades. She sees many women wearing flimsy clothing and who don’t look ashamed of it at all. She pulls over to a curb but realizes that she is not sure where to park or how to pay for parking. At Albertson’s, she just parks in a lot and she has never operated a parking meter. She pulls away and as she turns a corner, she sees the pier stretched out into the ocean, a magical accident.
The sky turns a dark blue as if too many drops of Ujala have fallen in, then orange just like on Maricela’s back. The Ferris wheel at the end of the pier glows like a never-ending smile. Minerva wishes again that she had a mobile phone, that she knew where and how to park; because if she did, she would walk onto that pier, and get on the Ferris wheel.
Then she would look out, and watch the sun set over the mighty Pacific, as it rose over her Papa where he was washing his shirts to get them white. Ujala-white.
Maybe even Maricela is waiting there.
Image Credits: Grace Singh Smith