Last Dinner Party
The new bulb cast a brighter light in the bedroom, revealing even the tiniest of hidden corners and was far better than the old one that was purchased at the corner drug store. After a lengthy argument stemming from my husband’s great reluctance to spend more money, he finally brought home brighter bulbs and slowly changed each bulb in our apartment. I could now see myself clearly in the bedroom mirror and noticed that I had not wrapped my sari around my waist tight enough, requiring me to unravel some of the layers. As I readjusted my sari, I heard a faint voice growing more audible in the back of my mind, a voice asking if what we were doing was wise. I rewrapped the unraveled layers until they sat snug around my hip, and I held tight onto my sari’s pleats. The voice stopped growing and turned into a tickle of nervousness that was difficult to shake, an inescapable uneasiness overtaking the body. I think it was telling me something. Something about the party we were going to.
My husband voiced from the other room his opinion that the older bulbs were far cheaper and saved us money on our monthly bill. I agreed, but he was not the one who spent most of the time inside the apartment. It was October, and by the evening, when the sun went down, the old bulbs produced too dim and yellow a light to cook under. When I mentioned how the dimmer bulbs affected the preparing of meals, his reluctance faded.
“I’m not changing all of them,” he said. “Just the two in the kitchen and the one in the living room. The rest can be done when the old bulbs go out.” His voice reverberated throughout the apartment.
“Acha, I need one in the bathroom,” I said.
“That one is fine. There’s enough light in there.”
“Acha, please change the one in the bathroom. I can barely see when I’m giving Bobby a bath. There’s not enough light.”
“This is ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with the bathroom light, but I’ll change it. Otherwise, I will never hear the end of it.” His continued grumble faded into a muffled echo when he went into the bathroom, and I couldn’t make out the exact words.
I had laid three of my best saris on our bed, and the brighter light made their vibrant colors pop: a navy-blue cotton sari with floral patterns printed as light-blue flowers edged with a lace border, an orange chiffon sari peppered with various gold designs, and a mustard-yellow cotton sari with gold-printed borders. All the colors and fabrics sat like landscape over the bed, forming a map of different terrains, of different states, all belonging to one common country. The one I dressed myself in, a cream-colored silk sari with a crimson-gold border and a red blouse, was my favorite, yet I loved them all. Shouldn’t everyone love in such a way? Imagine nine yards of delightful fabric wrapped around to form a unique dress that accentuated one’s natural beauty. Though I did own clothing other than saris, nothing made for women in this country could compare.
I looked at all the different colors and designs, enjoying the topography of it all, and my thoughts went back to Kerala, where as a young woman I longed to have a dresser full of saris. There was something empowering and life-changing when you wore your first sari, and I remembered my first time. My mother surprised me one night when, after all her cooking was done and the kitchen was cleaned, she went to her brown suitcase under her bed and gave me one of her best saris. At first, I refused, but then she insisted, which I was happy for. I held that blue sari in my hands as if it was magical, and it was. I hugged my mother and rushed to my room to wear it. Such a special gift, a sign that you were no longer the little girl, no longer a child in your mother’s eyes, but a sacred being taking her first step into a world of womanhood. After that, I received three more, two from my father and another from my uncle. The nicer ones I reserved for the weekend, mostly for church. The older I grew, the more frequently I wore my saris, and over time it seemed immodest to wear only a blouse and skirt, clothing only a young girl would wear, so I gave my old clothes to younger girls in our family and to some of my younger friends who lived along our road.
Two of my saris, the two my father gave me, were made of materials that were not soft or delicate but were tolerable to dirt and stains, and a bit stronger to last the hours of school, of required kitchen work, of necessary farm work before the day was done. I found it strange that my father would know that I would need saris of this type for everyday use. This meant I had only two good saris to wear for special occasions or for church. But that was then. Now, I had many more. I kept them all in my mahogany dresser by the corner of the bedroom, all 12 saris of various colors, materials, and uses. Four of them were my best, so I used them for church on Sunday or for Saturday night prayer meetings. Six of them were good for visiting friends or family or even for shopping at the market or at the department stores. And then there were two that I wore around the house, the ones I wore for cooking or cleaning, though sometimes I preferred a housecoat for the ease of changing in the mornings.
After I managed to complete the wrapping around my waist, I tucked the pleats that I held in my hand into the skirt portion of my sari, adjusting the pleats to sit slightly above the lower half of my belly. Then I gathered the rest of the sari that would hang over my shoulder.
“Are you not finished yet?” my husband asked. He poked his head through the doorway to see if I was done getting dressed.
“This takes time. I’m getting ready as fast as I can. Where’s Bobby?”
“Men are always ready faster. He’s in the living room playing with blocks.”
“I had to feed and bathe and then dress your son before I could get ready. Of course, you are faster.”
My husband stood by the bedroom door and watched me as I folded with great care the rest of my sari and pinned it to the shoulder of my blouse. He, on the other hand, was satisfied and proud to own clothes of this country and wore a clean white shirt, a blue tie with black polka dots, and navy-blue slacks. His smile was gentle, but his eyes looked at me with a strange concern.
“Don’t you have any nice American outfits?” he asked.
At first, I could not find the words to answer him and stood silent much like the way I stood in the kitchen, preparing dinner a few days ago when he first told me that we were going to a coworker’s dinner party. I had hoped at that time that this need to attend a party of someone who we both were not entirely familiar with would subside and drift away, but here I stood dressed in my best sari, feeling a bit ashamed, and the voice within pushed forth, surprising me with its bluntness.
“Acha, I don’t want to go to this party.”
“Is it because of what I said?” he asked. “What you’re wearing is fine, if it was our people. But, you know, I just thought you would wear something different.”
“Why? I don’t have anything nice like that. Won’t this be fine?”
I hesitated but thought I should ask. “Acha, why do you want to go?”
“I’ve never been asked at the office. It will be a new experience for us.”
“Are you sure?”
“Am I sure of what?”
“Are you sure you were invited?”
My husband’s smile fell from his face and was replaced with a stern glare, a look that I was more comfortable with. He was always more outgoing than I was, always looking to talk to people he met on the street, on the train, always exploring, always curious.
Bobby waddled into the bedroom, and I gave him a surprised look when he showed me the block he held up. I loved staring into his bright brown eyes. I gestured with my hands and asked him where the rest of his blocks were. He looked at me for a while then waddled out of the bedroom. I couldn’t look my husband in his eyes, so I looked at our scratched wooden floors.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I meant no offense. I’ve never been to a dinner party. I don’t know what to do or even what to wear to something like that.”
“I don’t know. This is the first time someone from my office, someone who isn’t Indian, has invited me to anything. She invited everyone from the office. I thought it would be nice. Maybe they have something special to tell everyone. Why else would you have one? Maybe they are having a baby. It’s a party for that.”
“She is pregnant?” I asked.
“No. I don’t know.”
“I am nervous. We don’t know them. We don’t know what is expected of us.”
“How will we ever learn then, if we don’t go,” he said. I could hear his impatience growing in his voice. “We will learn only so much by observation. We have to mingle. We came to their country.”
He was right.
I did not work. I stayed home with Bobby and only ventured out to walk with him in the park or to go shopping at the supermarket or browse the department stores, but I refrained from conversing with people for too long, especially with ones I didn’t know. At the park, I would sit alone on a bench and watch my son play. At that moment, he was all I had. He was the one person in that whole place who made me belong. Everywhere else I looked, I saw only strangers. The other children playing on the slides and the swings, their mothers who sat together laughing, the old couple who sat on the park bench across the playground, always feeding the pigeons with breadcrumbs from brown bags, that mustached grocery store owner by the corner who stood outside by his stands of apples, pears, and half-ripe bananas, watching the kids play in the park, and those tenants in the apartment that would gaze downward from their open windows like small birds poking their heads through brick caves, they were all strangers to me. They were all foreigners with their foreign customs and foreign habits living in this foreign land. Or maybe I was the foreigner. They became a constant reminder that though this country was beautiful and welcoming, with stories of its greatness and opportunity, and though my husband through the United Nations was given employment and the visa to bring his family to start a better life for ourselves, for our son, I was still an outsider and I felt I couldn’t make a home here for myself.
“I understand,” I said. “Do you want me to change?”
“No, it’s fine. We have to go soon anyway.”
* * *
The apartment building where my husband’s coworker, Vicki, lived was far nicer than our apartment building in Queens. I could see even from the hallway with its white paint and wallpaper, with the bigger floorboards above which white paneling ran up to a chair rail, that the monthly rent must have been much higher than ours. My husband rang the doorbell, and with each ring, I felt my heart pound harder as if what waited behind that white door was so hideous, so terrifying, that when opened, I would collapse from sheer fright.
“I’m nervous, Acha.” I said.
“Don’t be. They are just people.”
The door opened, and a man with brown curly hair and flat facial features but a prominent nose greeted us. He was tall, but most people are taller than us.
“Well, hello,” he said, almost startled. “I’m Jack, Vicki’s husband.”
“Nice to meet you,” my husband said, and in that same breath he grabbed Jack’s hand with both of his hands and shook it.
“Well, come right on in,” Jack said.
His eyes looked past my husband and became fixed in my direction. My husband with eagerness stepped into the apartment, and as I walked toward Jack, who held the door open, I felt the heat of his eyes on me. A sudden wake of awareness hit me, and I could feel my sari against my skin. I felt what should have been soft fabric scrape against my skin like sandpaper. Among our own people and friends, I would not be so self-conscious, but here I felt I had already made myself out of place. I should have worn something better to blend in, but instead, I stuck out and regretted the decision of wearing the sari, and of even coming to this party. It was like holding a sign, letting everyone know of my foreignness, yet when I looked up at Jack’s eyes, I realized he was no longer staring at me, but he was looking at my son, who sat straddling on my hip.
Half an hour passed since we came into the apartment. It was dim, barely lit with a few lamps, but I believed it was on purpose for they had a 12-light chandelier that was turned off and no one seemed to care to turn it on. I could see that the apartment was furnished with great thought. There was a sense of balance to where the shelves stood alongside the various paintings and sculptures, as well as how the suede sofa sat perpendicular to its matching pair and aligned to the rug underneath. I could smell the aroma of different foods intermingled with a faint odor of alcohol and smoke, which I found unsettling. The song that now played on the record player was sung by a man who kept saying the words very superstitious. I couldn’t make out the other words, but I knew that it was a popular song for I had heard it before on our radio. I believed it was either Vicki’s or her husband’s favorite song for I could tell that the record was worn with all the hisses and pops that interweaved with the music. Almost all the rooms were filled wall to wall with people. We sat in a side room, maybe an office, that was open to the vast living room and the rest of the apartment. I sat on a brown-leather sofa with Bobby in my lap while my husband stood a few feet away with a soda in his hand, looking into the living room where people stood or danced.
“There’s hardly anyone here from the office,” he said. “I constantly see Vicki’s husband, Jack, walking around, but I haven’t seen Vicki yet.”
My husband was preoccupied with the glaring fact that though Vicki had invited everyone from the office, no one had shown up, or at least my husband hadn’t seen anyone familiar yet. I wondered if she was even liked by her coworkers. I felt that my husband was not intuitive in that sort of way. It must have slipped by him that Vicki may not have been as popular or even well thought of as my husband perceived. Although this was a pressing matter for him, I had a more urgent concern to bring to his attention in case this, too, managed to slip by him unnoticed.
“There are no children here,” I said.
“I don’t see anyone I know.”
“No one brought any of their children.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Or do any of them have children? Are we the only ones?”
“I am not sure.”
“They must have older children,” I said. “Or maybe they left them with family? Acha, no one brought their children.”
“It’s OK. It’s fine. Stop making a fuss out of it.”
I didn’t say any more. Bobby wiggled and fidgeted in my lap, so I brought him closer to my chest to settle him. In 30 minutes, it would be about the time we would eat dinner, after which Bobby would be put down for bed. I wanted him to calm himself, but the music and the loudness of all the talkative people, the clinking of glasses, the shuffling and dancing of feet, the faint smell of food and smoke, all contributed to alerting him that there was a world around him that he had never witnessed before, and his curiosity to explore could not be hampered by a mother’s regard for his sleep. He was a good boy, so he sat still against my chest, but like all boys overwhelmed by their surroundings, he kept his eyes wide open and moved his head to and fro in an attempt not to miss any sight. It was at this moment that I decided to pay more attention to all that was around me. I not only noticed the white eyes from the crowds darting back and forth, but I also heard their voices rising out of the darkness.
“What is she wearing?”
“I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“She didn’t get the memo about the kid.”
“Where are they from?”
The voices were muffled but audible, extending outward like smog resonating from silhouettes of people. I looked down, and I no longer liked what I was wearing. Something had taken away all the joy my sari brought me. Maybe it made me stand out, like being under a spotlight on stage all alone. Maybe it reminded me that I was still a foreigner, a stubborn one, or one that had no clue how to adapt or blend in. I felt my husband’s distance from where I sat was an indicator that maybe he too thought that I was incapable of adjusting, only being able to cling to my old customs, something he could easily leave behind.
I looked up, and I saw two men approach my husband. One had blond hair and a blond goatee which were in stark contrast against his tan complexion. He wore a tweed khaki jacket with patches on the elbows and a pair of pants of similar material with the same patches on his knees. The other was shorter, and his brown hair looked darker against his white skin. He wore a blue turtleneck shirt which made it seem that he had no neck at all. They extended their hands and introduced themselves, mumbling their names too quickly and in such a way as if their names were easy to understand. I heard their names as Patchy and Neckless. My husband shook each of their hands and introduced himself, me, and Bobby to them.
“Couldn’t find a sitter, could you?” Patchy asked.
“A sitter?” my husband asked.
“No problem, then,” Neckless said. “By the way, we were having a discussion with some of our friends over there.” He pointed into the direction of a group of people I could barely see. They stood dark, and any distinct features blended together into a black mass of moving heads, arms, and legs.
“And we were just wondering where you came from.”
“India,” my husband said. “We come from the southern west part of India.”
“Wow, India,” Patchy said. “We thought maybe Mexico. Someone lost a bet.” He sang the last word and looked back toward the dark crowd and chuckled.
“Actually,” my husband interjected, “we both come from Kerala state in India.”
“What?” Neckless asked.
“Kerala. It’s a state in India.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Well, it still exists,” my husband said.
“You people eat curry, right?” Patchy asked.
“Yes, but there are also other dishes we prepare.”
“I bet,” Neckless said. “Have you gotten used to our food yet?”
“Well,” my husband said, “we usually make our own food at home, but there are some American dishes that we have tried and are still getting used to. We both really like that American food, what was it, yes, pizza.”
“Oh, pizza is great, isn’t it?” Patchy said.
“We enjoy it when we go out for a treat,” my husband said.
Then they looked at me.
“Does she speak English?” Neckless asked.
“My wife knows English well enough.”
“The silent type, right?” Patchy said. “I wish some of our ladies would be silent like that.”
“You’re so going to get us in trouble with them,” Neckless said. They both started chuckling and jerking their bodies in laughter like cackling monkeys.
“Well, it was nice talking to you,” Patchy said.
“Yes, we’ll talk to you later,” Neckless said.
And they walked back to their dark group with giggles and hushed whispers.
My husband stared at the two men as they walked away. He stood there watching all the people, hearing their laughter, watching the dancing silhouettes against the opposite wall, and I could see what he was feeling as if it formed a sign on his back. I saw a longing of an immigrant wanting to be part of a world he had left his home for, wanting to be loved by a people he had left his family for. I wanted to reach out to him and touch him, but Bobby had fallen asleep in my arms, and I didn’t want to wake my son with any sudden movements. For the first time, I saw my husband as how he must be at his job, working for those who have no kinship with him, those who find his culture strange and customs bizarre. He must feel alone there like most immigrants do. My husband turned and walked toward me.
“I think we should go home,” he said. “Let me go and at least say bye to Jack.”
The sign that formed on his back was now visible in his eyes. I nodded and watched him walk off into the dining room.
I felt something stir up within me, something bubbling to the surface. I felt a wave of happy anger to be able to leave this party which held no interest for me. There was food everywhere on the counters, plates of different types of sandwich meats, assortments of colored cheeses and crackers, stacks of small sandwiches, platters of various pastries, and bowls of odd-colored sauces. I wasn’t sure if any of it was meant to be a full meal, but I thought it strange that people just grabbed what they could and walked around with it. Such chaos. Why couldn’t we sit together around a table to eat, sharing news or stories? I’d had enough of these people and their strange behaviors toward us as if we were oddities that came to town to perform in some circus.
I felt it in my heart that this was not a party we should have come to, and now I knew for sure that these were not the people we should be mingling with. I had known it in my body from the beginning, that first instance when my husband told me in the kitchen, and my muscles stiffened. I should have known it was a sign that my body knew something that I did not, and I should have obeyed it instead of thinking that my husband knew better. We were foreigners, and though we came to this country to make a better way for ourselves, we did not belong to these people. Could this be any more dreadful? Would we one day be treated as if we were unwanted, unwelcomed, or, worse, like enemies to be eliminated, though we came here for hope, for life, for freedom, like many of their ancestors once did? We owed them nothing. I stood up from my seat and turned my back to the dark crowd that would never know or even witness my grievance and my defiant act toward them.
“Oh, are you leaving so soon?”
I swung around with a gentle movement as not to wake Bobby to see who would even care that we were leaving. She was much older than any of the other guests at the party, and she seemed to be wearing a faded green dress that looked plain, something usually worn at home. The lines on her pale forehead and around her eyes seemed etched by time, showing the years of her hard life on earth. She was smaller than me, only coming up to my shoulders, and she looked frail. Yet, she wore a kind smile which gave a sun-like glow to her worn face.
“I believe you must be from work,” she said. I noticed that she had an accent when she spoke, but there was no way for me to know where she was from. I knew she wasn’t from England or born in America. I had never heard anything like it.
“No, my husband works with Vicki,” I said. “We haven’t seen her yet.”
“I’m so sorry, my child, Vicki is somewhere. This apartment is very big so she must be in one of the other rooms, maybe the library. She should have greeted you. I’ve taught her better than that. Don’t mind her.”
Her inflections were melodious and the way she pronounced words delighted me. I could have listened to her talk all day.
“Are you her mother?” I asked.
“Yes, I am,” she said and smiled. “I’m Mary. I live here with Vicki and her husband, Jack.”
“Jack greeted us at the door, but we haven’t seen Vicki yet.”
“I see. I’m afraid Jack has always had better manners than my daughter. Don’t get me started, but that’s enough of them. Are you leaving now? Is it because of us?”
I looked into her eyes and wanted to tell her that we would never treat people in such a way. We would never invite someone to a gathering, then leave them to a corner, never caring to see their faces. I wanted to ask her why Vicki would invite her coworkers to a party and not care that they show up. Or did Vicki even know that she was so unlikable at her workplace?
“Oh, no, it’s not that,” I said. “My son has fallen asleep, and we just wanted to get him home.”
“He is so beautiful,” she said. “He looks very peaceful sleeping like that. And look at those eyelashes. So long. Precious thing.” She touched Bobby’s hair and brought the back of her wrinkled fingers to caress his chubby cheeks.
“I love what you are wearing,” she said. “The embroidery is beautiful. I love how the gold design is worked on top of the red border. It makes the whole thing stand out. I was standing there on the other side of the apartment, and I caught it with my eye. I had to take a closer look, and I’m glad I did. It’s far better than anything anyone else is wearing, dear. Such a beautiful sari it is.”
“Thank you,” I said, but I wasn’t sure if I heard the last word correctly. With a gentle touch, she felt the sari’s fabric between her fingers and stared at it. I saw in her eyes a longing as if she were seeing an old friend after a great long time.
“Where in India are you from?” she asked.
I was startled at her question. Everyone else was oblivious as to our nationality, but she seemed to know right away.
“We’re from Kerala.”
“Where exactly in Kerala?” she asked.
“Even if I told you, how would you know? Have you been there?”
“Yes, dear, I have,” she said. “Where in Kerala? Where are your families’ houses from?”
At first, it didn’t hit me, the enormity of such a question, but weeks later, I would be sitting in my living room, drinking a cup of chai, in deep thought, and trace back, recalling her exact words, and my mouth would hang open in disbelief that a pale white women would even ask such a question that held a deeper understanding of our culture back home, of how our families were remembered either by their house name, a name given to their household, or by the region where they came from, a means to distinguish and trace our ancestry farther back than any of us can remember.
“I’m from Thumpamon, and my husband is from Punthala.”
“I’ve heard of Thumpamon,” she said. “But I haven’t ever heard of Punthala. Is that the house name?”
“No, it’s a small town near Pandalam. How do you—”
“When I was a wee lass,” she said, “my family often traveled to various parts of India: Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, and Mysore. My father went as a missionary. Well, he was also a businessman of sorts, trading for spices and rice he did. Though I was young when we left home, I felt an immediate awareness of a vast difference within my being as I lived in your country with your people, your foods, and your customs. The awareness was not of anything ill, dear, but of wonder—that a place like yours existed with a place like mine. We were different and the same. At first, my mother had difficulty making it her home, but I believe she took a liking to all the various fashions and styles of clothing with all of those bright colors. I remember my father one day bringing my mother a handful of saris, and I was given my first lehenga, green and gold. Beautiful it was. At that age, all I knew was that my father earned money selling something while sharing the Gospel on street corners, but as I grew older, God bless him, I learned that he was far more interested in the nationalist movements in your country.”
“He was in politics?”
“Yes, dear. We were from Ireland. He was trying to get your people to rise up against being a colony. He wanted Indian sympathizers to support the Irish plight as well. He considered India to be his country’s brother nation for we both were in a struggle against a common oppressor: the British.”
“But you were of the same skin color,” I said. “How could they oppress you?”
“They were the British, my child. We suffered a great deal under them.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“We have more in common than you think,” she said and smiled.
Mary continued with her story of how her father, along with her family, traveled between Ireland and India for years, but, eventually, Ireland broke her father’s heart. She said that before World War II, her father’s country went down the path of staying neutral, and it was confirmed when the war started that Ireland would not fight against the Axis forces, a greater evil in her father’s eyes. Her father thought Ireland would lay their anger aside like India, to show Britain that they deserved their independence. I was mesmerized by her voice, a harmonious music of accent and inflections upon words that intermingled my people in a story with hers.
“Oh, you cannot blame Ireland,” she said. “To have to fight alongside those who almost wiped them out. My father became disillusioned and left to come to America when I was 28. I have been here ever since.”
“Have you ever gone back?”
“Yes. Many a time to Ireland and India. They are both my homes. Unfortunately, my children do not share in this love and mutual history, a trait they acquired from my late husband. Once I had them, I had no choice but to leave my homes behind. I made America my new home. But my children are different, a generation raised at a different time.”
“I didn’t know.”
I noticed a dark form coming up behind Mary, someone walking with a quick stride. He looked at Mary and nodded, then I recognized the eyes and that face when he walked toward me.
“We really must be going,” my husband said.
I nodded, but I wasn’t ready to leave. I wanted to hear more of her stories, of a time when our people were on the same side, fighting for a common good, fighting for life and freedom, conjoined regardless of their vast divide, a people forging toward their commonality.
“I’m sorry, Mary,” I said. “We must be going. I have to put my son to bed.”
I followed my husband through the dim room to the front door. A flood of light from the hallway rolled in when the door was opened, and I squinted my eyes while they adjusted to the brighter light. I turned to say good-bye to Mary. She stood in front of me, illuminated by the hallway light. I could not see anything beyond her as if the rest of the apartment behind her fell into a black void and she stood on the precipice.
“Simply beautiful,” she said. “In the light, you are even more radiant in that sari.”
“Well, it was nice meeting you, dear. I hope to see you again someday.”
“Thank you,” I said.
She stepped back into the apartment, and I watched her face disappear into the darkness as she closed the door. I held Bobby closer and followed my husband down the hallway to the elevator. He pressed the elevator button and turned to look at me. His face was flushed with anger. I looked down.
“I was wrong about them,” he said. “They are not like our people.”
“No, Acha,” I said. “I was wrong. They are just people. Just like ours.”
As we silently reflected, the elevator door opened, waiting for us to step in.