I drove home from the store, where I had stopped for a pound of coffee, when I noticed a garage sale. A short fat Indian man sat in a lawn chair, and his wife, wearing a salvah kameez, arranged items on a fold-up table. I stopped and parked. The skin under the man’s eyes was ashy black. His cheeks were pockmarked. Perhaps, he had a pox as a child. I remember as a boy in New Delhi, the posters on poles of a child with the pox, and a few words in both Hindi and English, Fever and Rash – Inform at Once – Small Pox?
“Hello,” I said, browsing around business books and cheap novels, an old printer and snakes of obsolete cords. I wasn’t interested in what they were selling, but I continued to flip through a pile of old pop music CDs.
“You are Indian,” the man said.
“Yes,” I said. “As a child I lived in India.”
“Which part?” he said.
“Kerala, my mother is from Kerala,” I said. He closed his eyes slowly.
“We are in Delhi,” he said. “My son lives here, but he’s moving back home with us.” By now, the man’s wife had come around and she was nodding her head to the conversation.
“You are married?” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Your wife, American or Indian?” she asked.
“American,” I said. “She’s from near here, Utica.”
“Utica,” the man repeated, but he said it almost as if he enjoyed the sound of the word. I was sure he didn’t know where it was.
“Your wife, she has job?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” I said. “She’s an interior designer,” and then I added, “she helps people make their homes look nice.”
“OK OK,” the woman said.
“So, your son is moving home,” I said.
“Yes, you know job here is not so good,” the man said.
“Cheh,” the woman scolded her husband. “Job is fine. He is very lonely,” she said to me.
“Job is just a job,” the man said, but he was talking to his wife. “When he comes home he will work in my business,” he said. I wanted to ask what kind of business, but his wife stepped forward, as if confiding something.
“Here, if you are in the house, the doorbell never rings, the phone never rings, it is so quiet. In India, there are always people. The dood wallah comes, the dhobi comes, the sweeper, the ayah. Sanjay has lost so much weight.”
“It is the fashion here to be thin,” the man said.
Just then, their son, Sanjay, stepped out. He wore a Dan Marino Miami Dolphins jersey. He was clean-shaven and his hair was combed back. His brow was high and his eyes, nose, and mouth were a little crowded in, like his father, only the son was taller and more athletic. There’s something that happens initially when Indians meet each other in the U.S., a reserve. For me, it’s because I meet so few Indians in the U.S. that there is a sensation of looking in a mirror, but in a place where one might not expect to find a big mirror, such as when standing in a crowded line. Sanjay, like me, had an American accent. But while I tried to maintain some boundaries to my Indian-ness, he fully sought to assimilate.
“Your parents said you’re moving back to India,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “You know, the economy sucks here, and it’s hard to meet women. I mean, I’ve had a few girlfriends, but the spark was missing.”
“We will find him a nice wife in India,” his mother said.
“Oh,” I said. “Arranged marriage?”
“I know, it sounds weird, a lot of my friends don’t get it.”
“Your father and I had arranged marriage and we are married 30 years,” his mother said.
“Hey pops, did you ride to the wedding on a white horse?” Sanjay said. I had been to a few Hindu weddings, three-day affairs, where the groom rides in on a horse.
“Yes, yes, of course,” his father said. “In those days, I struck a smart figure seated on a horse.”
Sanjay chuckled and winked at me.
“Love takes time, but it comes,” his mother said, in a reverie.
Sanjay kissed his mother’s cheek, and waved at his dad.
“I gotta run,” he said. “I’m meeting the guys at the wing’s place for the game.”
“Who will be there? John? Brian? Give them my regards,” his father said.
“Sure thing, pops,” Sanjay said.
He jumped into a new-looking Lexus and drove off. The yard had become very quiet and I could hear the birds now.
“Isn’t this his sale?” I asked. “But he just left to catch the game with his friends.”
“It’s OK,” the father said, picking up an old GQ magazine from a stack and fanning himself. “He is young, he should be with friends, having fun.”
“It’s the Indian way,” his mother said. “We take care of him now, and when we get too old, he will care for us.”
“The Indian way,” I repeated.
I wandered around the garage. In the back I found boxes of sophomoric DVDs, like American Pie, and Police Academy 3. Nearby, in a corner, I stumbled upon a few low round stools, squat like foot stools handmade from sweetcane stalks and grass rope. As a child, these traditional stools were ubiquitous in every house in India. There were two of them and I picked them up and took them to the table by the lawn.
“I remember these stools from my childhood,” I said. “I used to sit on one in the back of the house as a child. There was red dirt and I watched the monkeys in the trees.”
“Yes, yes, of course, this chair. Very popular in India,” the father said.
“How much,” I asked.
“Ten dollars,” the man said. But when I put out the money, the woman intervened, blocking the transaction with her hand.
“Free,” the woman said. But then she and her husband argued in Hindi, the man gestured from the stools to the house.
“I don’t mind paying,” I said.
“No, please, don’t listen, you take, they are gift, we are Indians here,” she said.
Ten minutes later, I carried the stools into my house. Even on this warm day, it was cool inside, the sun lighting the big living room without heating it. Outside an awning of grapes shaded the windows. My wife loved Scandinavian designs and our home was extremely orderly. When I overheard her discussing work, she talked about lines. I looked around the uncluttered room, as if I saw it for the first time. It all looked linear, lots of rectangles, a stone coffee table, cream leather couches, a lamp suspended from a long cantilevered rod. I looked at the sterile, perfect room and wondered where I might fit my stools. The best place, I reasoned, was on either side of the coffee table. There was space there. Like I said, as a child in India, I used to sit on a stool like this on the smooth cement behind the house. The earth was red brown and it was very hot and I used to watch the large black ants scuttle across the floor. Sometimes, the cook came out and sat next to me and cut onions.
I must admit, I envied Sanjay. He was so comfortable pretending to be American. He had a place with his family – I was sure he would be equally comfortable in India. Now that I was in our house I felt what someone who has been on vacation feels upon returning home. The illusion gone of another life, in a different place, under separate circumstances unencumbered by ruts and patterns and emotional ties.
I was arranging the stools, when Sally came down the stairs. She wore clogs and a tight dress over her full figure, her straight hair neatly clasped in the back.
“What’s this?” she said.
“They’re my new stools,” I said. “I met an Indian family, they were having a garage sale, and they gave them to me. I sat on stools like this as a child,” I said.
“That’s wonderful,” she said, smiling. “But you’ll need to move them.”
“I like them here,” I said.
“They’re lovely,” she said. “But look at this room. It’s an aesthetic based on angles and proportion and straight lines. I’ve put a lot of time and thought into it, and circles just don’t fit.” She smiled with her lips closed, her head turned a little, her eyes full of apology.
“They were a gift,” I said.
She stood very still, hands on hips.
“This house is part of my portfolio.”
We stared at each other for a very long time, like two desperate statues.
“I live here too,” I said. “I should get to express myself in my own house.”
“All you do is express yourself,” she said, her composure suddenly broken. “All day long, you’re mad about a woman who mistook you for someone else, or some guy who couldn’t pronounce your name. It’s hard, I know, but let it go. Get a hobby, or make more friends. Find some joy.”
“It’d be easier if I didn’t live in a showroom,” I said.
She folded her arms.
“I like the stools,” I said.
“They don’t belong in this room,” she said. I looked around, my eyes falling on the only other curve-shaped fixture in the room, a vase that held a few white roses. She was right. How silly these stools looked in this Scandinavian-themed room, just as I probably looked silly wearing cooking mitts and carrying in a hot-dish to her family barbeques, easing into a conversation with her brothers about NFL football, an Indian man passing for American.
I picked up my stools, two in each hand, and I took them to the car. I started the engine, but left it in park. I wanted those Indian parents to adopt me, and I could return to India with them and work in the family business. I thought about driving down to the wings place and joining Sanjay, John and Brian, for wings, beer and the game. But instead I sat in the car with the engine running, nowhere to go.