“That’s my wife,” he replied.
“She died in a car crash.”
He met his wife at a bookstore, where he worked as a service assistant. It was her first week in New York and she was shopping for guidebooks to the city.
“I became her guide to New York,” John Gaaru said, glaring at the picture. They were married for sixteen years and had no children.
“When did she die?”
“It’s almost three months now.” I was mortified. While my husband had died more than six months ago, his loss was more recent. I at least had a son to shelter the remainder of my life. But John Gaaru when he becomes old would have no son to visit him in an old age home in New Jersey. While I didn’t have words to comfort him, I was glad I had invited him for tea in the afternoons.
That night, I didn’t serve the children and didn’t pay attention to their discussion. I stood near the table thinking about poor John Gaaru.
“Amma,” Pavan said, raising the tone of his voice, “did you hear what Sunita just said?”
She is pregnant,” he declared, “We knew it only a few days back.”
I was happy and sad at the time. I was happy because I’d have a grandchild in seven months, a reflection of my husband if it’s a boy or my mother if it’s a girl. I was sad because we were moving out of New York. Sunita had decided to quit her job and stay home and Pavan had decided we needed a bigger house for a cheaper price.
“When are you moving?” John Gaaru asked, when I told him the next afternoon.
“In two weeks,” I replied.
“But you haven’t seen any of New York.”
“Do you want to show me more from your window with the camera?” I asked.
“No, I want to take you there. I want to show you the city.”
“How about tomorrow?”
“Yes, tomorrow afternoon.”
I had never before traveled with anyone whom I only knew for six weeks. Also, I never traveled with a man who was unrelated. Even as a young girl, I never had any friends who were boys. It was my father who took me to Rajamundry Government School every morning on his Atlas bicycle, my mother strictly instructing me to “keep away from boys,” every time I ventured out of the house. Other times, my brother would take me to Telugu movies at Raja Talkies and would sit two seats away from me so that no one knew he was an escort to his little sister.
Once I had reached adolescence, I remained at home learning sewing, knitting and cooking from my mother, training to be a good wife. It was again after marriage, I had traveled on rare occasions with my husband on his Vespa scooter- refusing to hold onto his shoulders in public, even on the bumpy mud roads of Rajamundry. Once Pavan was born, I took him to fairs in town every January and November. He would buy plastic framed eye glasses, and soap water sprinklers- splashing water bubbles all over my face.
On the day of our trip, I got out of my room just before the children were leaving for work. “I need some money,” I asked Pavan for the first time in my life. I had given all the travel checks to him upon arrival.
“Amma, make sure you don’t go too far. There are some stores a block away from us,” Pavan said, giving a note from his wallet. It was greener yet duller than Indian currency, with a portrait of an old man named Jackson on one side and a picture of a white mansion with bushes and trees named The White House on the other. It was a twenty dollar note, my first amount to spend in America.
“Maaji, do you need more?” Sunita asked stepping out of the door, searching through her purse.
“No,” I replied.
I wore a red bordered yellow cotton sari, the last one my husband had bought two weeks before his retirement. I wanted to tell John Gaaru that it was a special sari, but I didn’t. He took the apartment keys from me, locked the door and handed them back to me.
“Take this,” I said, handing my twenty dollars to him.
“Take it for expenses.” I was not sure if that was enough, but I had no more to contribute.
“No, that’s fine.”
“Okay.” He replied stashing the note in the chest pocket on his heart, where it remained for the rest of the evening.
We took yellow taxis, underground trains, buses with blue seats and boats that were called ferries. We went to a place called Times Square. It reminded me of Devi Chowk, the green and blue clock tower in the center of the town- the busiest junction in Rajamundry- where, every morning, hundreds of vendors open their stalls for business. However, at Devi Chowk building windows are not made out of televisions. We also went to a train station that seemed more like the Mysore Palace, to a park from where one could see the river and the bridge that connects John Gaaru with his father and to an old church at Wall Street. We had coffee three times at the same shop called Starbucks, but at three different locations. He told something about every place we went, but I don’t remember much of it. What I remember, however, was our trip on the boat named Ms. Liberty to see a statue with the same name as the boat.
“They have the same one here that you have in your studio,” I pointed out, looking at the far away green statue as our journey to Ms. Liberty on Ms. Liberty began.
“Yes, they do,” he said, smiling back.
Ms. Liberty, the statue, was of a woman with edgy cheeks, sharp nose, perfect lips, wide open eyes and a crown on her head. She was wearing a loosely tied sari wrapped from right to left, holding a book in her left hand and raising a torch with her right.
Ms. Liberty, the boat, was three floors. John Gaaru did not want me to see the view from the first two floors. We walked up the stairs to the third floor and since every seat was taken, we stood under the open sky. Ms. Liberty roared and moved over the bumpy waters and though my feet were firmly planted on the floor, my body began to jolt- forwards, backwards and sideways- threatening to topple me down.
“You can hold onto me, if that’s okay with you,” John Gaaru said, seeing that I was having a hard time keeping myself from falling.
“No it’s okay,” I said, but I accepted his offer after I had a few more knocks. I held my wrist around his upper arm, tightening the grip every time Ms. Liberty thumped.
It’s been a few years now. I never told Sunita, Pavan or anyone else about my teatimes with John Gaaru. He is the only thing about New York, I know better than most. I wanted it to remain that way.
Today I have a two year old grandson. I am busy changing diapers, giving him oil massages, lukewarm water baths, dressing him in traditional dhotis during South Indian festivals, singing lullabies in Telugu for afternoon naps and making faces to see a smile on his face. I don’t have much time to think about John Gaaru.
But on occasional summer afternoons, I still make the best tea I could offer- a cup of water, half a cup of milk, three spoons sugar, two spoons Assam tea powder, three seeds of cardamom and few pinches of ginger- and I think of him drinking tea in the big porcelain cup.
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas