The Immigrant Diaries – A story on H4 life – Edition 2
Friends, thank you for reading and commenting on Edition 1. I appreciate your comments and your spending the time. This is the second edition of the story – a work of fiction, by the way, based on experiences of life on H4 visa. Please let me know what you think. You can read the first edition here.
She waited a few minutes, the crowd flowing around her. The little nagging drop of doubt which had persisted in her mind started to swell. How much did she really know this man for whom she had left her country, her orderly life, the protective walls of her parents. And then the more practical side or her mind, or maybe the more romantic one, saying – maybe his car broke down, maybe he is just here stirred into the crowd beyond her sight. She remembered she had to get her bags. In them were slivers of home, wrapped up in old comfortable dresses, a few wedding gifts, colorful wall hangings, spices and pickles. She followed the signs to North Terminal Baggage claim, standing with her co passengers around the conveyor belt waiting for her two suitcases. Still no Arjun. She was appalled that she actually would have to pay for a trolley. She had though that American airports would have more services, not less. Still on Indian time and money, she balked at the idea of paying Rs. 50 for a trolley. Instead, she lugged her two suitcases, purse and strolley closer to the phone, trying to figure out how to call, how much to pay. She got connected in a heartbeat. That voice that she now knew but was not yet familiar. But it was there.
‘I’m on my way. It will take me half hour’ he said, ‘Just wait near the phones’
Just that. No explanation or excuses. Accusations, demands for explanation as to why he head left his new inexperienced wife stranded at the airport welled up in her but was pushed down by the still formal relationship. Let me not make it worse, she thought, and waited.
When he did come, there were smiles and small talk and then she was in his car racing into America. Convertibles, SUVs and huge trucks sped alongside them as they drove in and then out of downtown and into Norcross where they lived. On occasion she would see Billboards with unfamiliar names. Except when they started passing a few shops and strip malls, she didn’t see anyone. Used to the chaos and cramming of India, it looked strangely deserted.
Their apartments – two story villa styled buildings with four apartments in each – started with a pool and tennis courts, past the key card entry gate and fanned out amid green fields and colorful gardens. He must be doing well, she thought, we are rich.
‘That’s the one’ he pointed out ‘3577’ . An olive door behind a pink spray of flowers.
He had been sharing the apartment with a colleague, also Indian, who had moved out a week before. She stepped in expecting bachelor pandemonium but it was clean. And empty. The kitchen had one sauce pan. A shelf revealed four plates, four cups, four bowls, a few glasses and a stand for cutlery. Apparently the rest had belonged to Arjun’s roommate. The living room was empty except for a TV on a short stand. Below it was a collection of cassettes and CDs. The bedroom had a table for a computer, a laptop and on the floor a sleeping bag, split open to accommodate two, covered by a blue sheet.
She felt lost, stripped of the clutter of her life, yet needed. She went for a bath and when she came out, he had heated up some Alu paranthas and put out some yogurt. She added her new pickles, and they ate their first dinner cross legged on the floor of the living room.
The next day and the week that followed were a blur. Arjun would leave for work early, after which she would return to sleep, still in the throes of jet lag. When she got up, she would piece together an unfamiliar unappetizing lunch from items in Arjun’s fridge or leftovers from the night before. He had taken her grocery shopping but she had brought several exciting new things she didn’t want to make and some staples she felt to lazy to start on. She would take a Krispy Kreme over to her computer, mail and chat for a bit before sleeping more and then waking up to fiddle with the TV. She looked up shows she watched in India on STAR TV, happy to catch up to the latest season.
Occasionally relatives and friends based in other parts of the US would call to welcome her. These conversations were short, as they hardly knew each other, but positive sparks in her day. More frequently strangers would call, skilled in selling wares to the unwary. ‘Mrs. Arora?’ they would say. ‘Good Morning, I am from …. Company.’ Arjun had not warned her about them, but after the first few conversations she fended them off. The only time she succumbed was when a lady called from the Police Department asking for donations. Insecure in a new country, she agreed to a minimum donation. It was law enforcement after all. That made Arjun sign up for caller ID.
It was in two weeks when the jet lagged ebbed completely in ten days that the isolation of her situation dawned on her. She realized that she had gone five days with about half hour of conversation a day, meeting Arjun when he came home tired and alone the rest of the time. Other than venturing to the laundry room in their building, she had not stepped out. So other than him, she had met or talked to no one. She also realized that despite the many ‘Help wanted’ signs she saw, she could not apply for work. The significance hadn’t really struck her till then.
Back home, she would walk to places. Bazaars and shops. The milk booth. The post office. There were people, always people around her – pushing her, ignoring her, just passing by, but always people. Here in the suburbs there was no one. She felt the emptiness more than anything else those first week.
Just like her apartment with no furniture, all the extras, all the appendages of life she took for granted were gone. And it was down to the bare bones, an empty canvas, waiting for her to fill in.
She started venturing out as much as she could on her own. The gym which was mostly empty during the day was her refuge. She could set the TV channel to reruns of LA Law and work out on the treadmill or the step machine. She would be out by lunch time, when others claimed the gym, preferring it only when she was alone. She sat by the pool, alone, fully clothed, watching the blue water sparkle. She walked along the periphery of the apartment complex, checking out the landscaping. One Thursday, she ventured out of the gate, walking to the strip mall nearby. But the mall had nothing of interest. A shooting range, some restaurants and a Wendy’s.
She started asking Arjun about shops, and after dinner, they would venture out. 24 hr Walmarts, Grocery Stores were their favorite haunts. They bought a dining table and four chairs, more cooking equipment, and a potted plant for decoration. They filled the fridge with new grocery items and tempting heat-and-eat items. The shops would be mostly empty at night but sometimes she would encounter another Indian couple, on similar mission perhaps and they would exchange controlled smiles.
Around the apartment she kept a lookout for tell tale signs of Indian life. Sometimes she would spot a woman in a verandah or a man stopped at a trash collection. She never approached them, but she hoped that at some point they would be friends.
Then one day at the gym, she met Dolly. From Mumbai. Short and thin, and dressed in a long flowery flowing skirt and T-shirt that looked slightly out of place like her own. They became friends at once, relieved to have found a neighbor they could befriend. Dolly had been here eighteen months, but in Tennessee and had just moved to Atlanta.
Now suddenly she had someone to talk to, someone to go for a walk with in the late morning. Sometimes they would have lunch together, each bringing a dish, very informal. It inspired her to cook more. Dolly knew of places that mattered – the farmers market, the Indian store, where you could rent Bollywood DVDs. Dolly also took her over to a neighboring apartment complex where Shalia lived. Shalia did beauty services at home – threading, waxing, henna, all rituals dear to her heart. She was on H4, so she couldn’t work outside. At home, with cash only. And that was her first introduction to a shadow world of H4 life. One that was a collective secret. Known by all but never mentioned.
(to be continued)
I have posted the third edition here.
Other posts on H4 life – this one has more links.
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