Donned in a casual white tee and brown knee length shorts with a ponytail neatly tying his shoulder length blond hair, he stood in the queue at the billing counter. I got the side glimpse of his fair face and blue eyes. I felt the strong pounding in my head. My heart thumped wildly with million emotions pouring in. He loved India and had a plan to visit India-- Is it real ‘him’ or just my imagination?? A strong adrenaline rush tinged me and my lumbering steps with a heavy cart festinated at the speed of light. The items on my shopping list were dropped and I rushed to the billing counter. Standing behind him, I said an enthusiastic “Hi” with my voice and tone expressing a cocktail of emotions. He turned back and responded with a friendly “Hi”. It was not him.. All the emotions evaporated and what sublimated was an embarrassment. The blonde youth sensed it. Though he did not verbalize it, his bewildered eyes conveyed the message-“Are you Okay?”
Back home while arranging the grocery items, I felt the pinch. A hurt that was not profound and did not fit into umbrella of well defined ‘pains’ and ‘hurts’, but was there, unnoticed and uncared for. It was doomed within and needed the glimpse of that blonde youth at mall to surface.
With a cup of tepid coffee, I stood in my balcony. The rhythmic breeze soothed the inner turbulence. Memories flashed….
#163, 4949 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park, CA, USA.
This was my new address. We just shifted from Colorado. Though I missed the spectacular view of Rocky Mountains from my balcony, I cherished the pleasant weather of California. I was happy for my 10 months old daughter who demanded for open space to flaunt her new learnt walking skill. Heavy snow falls and quivering chill of Colorado limited our outings and staying indoors was making both me and my daughter cranky.
My husband was travelling to California since last 4 months. He chose an apartment at an optimal distance from his workplace and with all the amenities to suit me and my daughter- play area, gym, swimming pool, 24 hours laundry….. and most important of all – a library and supermarket at walkable distance. We were a single car family and walkable distance was a convenience.
But I missed my Indian friends – a bunch of new mothers at Colorado. A cosy comfort that we had as a group- a rescue team for each other’s new mother syndrome, worries and disasters. We had company for our children and that was the best advantage that we could avail from the group..
Here we had only one Indian family next door who turned out to be a senior from my school but the couple did not have any child. So I was worried about a playdate for my daughter..
After setting down the house in a week, I thought of exploring the neighbourhood. After seeing off my husband to office, I got ready with my little one buckled in pram for a stroll around our new neighbourhood. There were many unleashed pet cats in that apartment. Those well fed robust cats triggered my “cat phobia”. I accelerated my steps and came out of the apartment. There was a huge park adjacent to a school at the back of the apartment. I found an ideal treat for my young one and me to spend the idle afternoons in the lush green neighbourhood.
Feeling exuberant at my new discovery, I sat down under a lush green tree ,unbuckled my daughter and put her down on her feet on the cushy grass. She relished her walking skill and I relished her joy like any doting mother would do. The park was peaceful. There were very few passer-by in the warm afternoon. I noticed a tall and slim youth lying on the delicate grass basking in the sun. His attire seemed inappropriate for the season- a tight skinny faded denim with black shiny leather jacket studded with shiny mirror like stones along the sleeves. He had covered his face with his cowboy hat to avoid the glare of sun. His gaudy costume caught my attention at once. He was in deep sleep. While I was enraptured in the play with my daughter, I heard a warm “hi”. It was a dulcet voice and I turned my head. He had removed his cowboy hat exposing his face – pierced eyebrows with rings, a ring on his pierced lower lip, a tattoo of a serpent which covered his left side traversing from cheek to his neck….and did I notice a bright blue nail paint on his fingers???
I felt a pinch of discomfort, a sense of danger crossed my mind when I realized that there were no more passers-by. My prejudices blanketed my thoughts- Is he a transgender? Gay?? Sex predator??? I was numb. In pretence to be not aware of his presence, I buckled my child and rushed back to home. There was a bigger fear clouding my thoughts and I failed to notice those robust cats on the way back..
For another few days, I went for morning walk when the park was bustling with joggers and walkers. I met him each day and he greeted with his gesture each day. I tried my best to overlook him.
One day while going out for a grocery shopping, I was struggling to fix the car seat for my daughter. He came on his skateboard and offered to help. While fixing the car seat, he initiated a conversation-“From India or Pakistan?”. I promptly replied- “India”. “Your name?”-was his next query. “Arunima… Arunima Singh”- I replied with a big lump in my throat. Somehow his looks and flashy attire instilled a discomfort in me. “Hello Mrs. Singh! I am……..”. My pounding heart and turbulence in my mind did not allow me to listen to his name. I thanked him and hurried away.
I saw him several times skating in the campus, in the Laundry and jogging during morning. Except for the aversion I had for his looks, he seemed like any regular youth in his early twenties. He seemed like a popular youth in the neighbourhood. My fear had started fading away. I started greeting him back. He would say “Hello! Mrs. Singh”. I would reply back-“Hello….!” I could not ask his name again as I felt it would be rude.
One day I met him in the play area with three little girls of 5 years, 3 years and 18 months. I was taken aback when I found out that they were his daughters and he was a single father. He was too young to be a father???
My daughter found her playmates. After that we met a number of times. We strolled down to parks with girls, went to library every Wednesday for puppet show and storytelling and sometimes even walked down together to FRY’s store to pick up our grocery. I and my daughter looked forward for their company every day. Megan, Nicole and June were adorable and my daughter enjoyed their company. They called her as ‘Baby Moi’. The more I met him, the more I discovered his niceties. He was well read and fond of food and travelling. I found him a taster of life and more of a dissolute. He complimented me on my attires. “Mrs. Singh, your top is bright Bandhini from Rajasthan” or “Isn’t it worli art on your dress?” He was well read on various civilization, art and architecture and a variety of other subjects---sufi music, Egyptian Civilization…..the list was endless. He read voraciously. I was fascinated by his talk and loved to be his apprentice and a mute listener to his enlightening talks. He was a good story teller and could captivate these young girls for long hours with a story book. He was flawless with his tone and voice modulation. He sowed the interest and love for reading in my daughter which still continues.
He introduced me to ‘Sun’, a Korean High School girl, who needed help with English and Biology. She became my first student. Time flew by in company of these two youths. We spent quality time in library. We tried Indian cuisines at “Sanghreela”, an Indo-Nepalese restaurant in our neighbourhood.
Once I remember meeting his mother who had come to California to spend Thanks Giving holidays with her son. I met her in Laundry room with her son. She was a surgeon in Ohio. He introduced us. His mother’s sober attire and grace was a noticeable contrast to his shoddy ones.
From the bits and pieces I collected from our conversations, I got an incomplete picture of his life. He was a doting father of three daughters under the age of 5, was a school dropout, became father at 19, had lost his girlfriend to colon cancer, his youngest daughter ‘June’ was named after her mother, was attending an evening community college, was working part time and sharing an apartment with two other friends who also babysit his children when needed. His parents were banker and doctor in Ohio and he was their fifth child.
Why he dressed up like that? Was becoming a teenage father a mistake or a choice? Did he repent for it? Did he miss his girlfriend? Has he ever taken life and career seriously? Did he heed the advices of elders and doomed his life???......There were endless queries in my mind. I could never ask him and they were shrouded under mystery.
It was a friendship beyond expectations between two people who shared nothing in common and had their faith, beliefs, experiences and rules for life at starkly different realms. There was freedom to share and respect for each other’s privacy. A friendship that taught me to shed prejudices, to taste life and to broaden my lens of perception about people.
My husband got a new project in Phoenix, Arizona and we had to shift.
I got busy with my packing and could not go out for a week- no library and no park. We did not meet.
My house was empty as things were already shipped and we had a few much needed stuffs left for a night in two suitcases. I had dirty clothes piled over the busy week and thought to go to laundry at 10 in the night after putting my daughter to bed in care of my husband. When I came out of laundry at 11:30 PM, he was there entering the Laundry room at such odd hours.
I heard his dulcet voice –“Hi Mrs. Singh!!”. The excitement in his voice could not conceal his tiredness.
“Good to see you!!” he continued. I was glad to see him though it was totally unexpected.
“Got busy with my exams and June was down with ear infection”- he continued.
“We are moving to Phoenix tomorrow”- I interrupted. Was he frozen for a moment??
He extended his hand for a handshake-“All the best Mrs. Singh!! We are going to miss Baby Moi”.
I felt the warmth of a kin in his handshake.
I said –“Bye and All the best…..”( It was too late to ask for his name)
I turned back once before leaving the Laundry to see him for the last time.
He stayed in the faded memories till today..
I returned to my kitchen to put back my empty cup in the sink. If I could once shed my inhibition and asked for his name, maybe we would have stayed connected through social media.. A thought just flashed… Do these friendships on social media enamour the way this one does??
An anonymous friend who stays a part of cherished memories and silent prayers!!!