Sunday, May 19, 2013

EDUCATING Z - Chapters 36-39


            Z was Amtraking to a friend’s wedding. Bored with looking out the window she pulled out a book and then put it away as the lady next to her looked like she was about to start a conversation with her, and Z mostly preferred chatting to reading when distracted and soooo did not want to appear rude. Through the small talk (about Z going to a wedding) and its meanderings she gathered that the lady and her friend were not married but a couple, and would not marry since the institution of marriage was suspect. Her boyfriend nodded in agreement with everything she said. She said she had been raised to believe in equality and love for all. Z began to really, really like the people. They were moral to a fault about their vegetarianism which made Z squirm about being a token vegetarian and essentially a bogus animal lover because she ate one every now and again. They were so kind to her she felt weird having gotten used to being the kind one in any interaction all of her life. They were very knowledgeable, and had clearly defined ideas about life, politics, and everything in between unlike our inadequate flaky little dilettante who was always ‘one the one hand but on the other’- ing anything of consequence. Z felt, by and by, like she had promises to keep and miles to go before she sleeps, literally and figuratively. How often in life do we have prophetic moments that we don’t know were meaningful in any way at the time, let alone profound? ♫The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind. ♫ The beautiful couple had reminded her of a pristine innocence she had begun to lose since the day Ma died. They had awakened in her a long forgotten dream, a soulful song, an idealism, a can-do activism she greatly admired but had not been able to cultivate in her own persona, a wisdom, an extra special brand of humanism that was heady and sweet.
            An elderly gentleman sitting next to this wonderful man looked like he should be wearing his shirt collar backwards but he wore the loudest pink tartan shirt, blue jeans, sounded exactly like Dennis Haysbert and made people around him feel they were in good hands. He nodded and smiled and flicked off imaginary motes of dust off his saxophone in the aisle and tolerated the young people.
             The lady excused herself to go to the smoking car. Z buried her nose in her book. Just a few hours more and she’d be a bridesmaid with Rachel getting married and most likely ditching college to move to another continent to be with her war correspondent husband. Z thought Rachel’s not getting that degree she’d worked toward for three and a half years was silly but she was happy to see her so happy. Z wished she could be half as happy.
            The elderly gentleman cleared his throat and struck up a conversation with the young man. “Man talk,” thought Z and stayed out of the interaction. But blowin’ on a wind came to her this astute observation by the younger of the two men who upon being asked why he was ideologically opposed to concept of marriage said, ”Now why would you buy the cow if you could get the milk for free?”


            Z was very happy Aunty S, Uncle V and the LP would be coming to her graduation. Daddy couldn’t come because they had already planned a huge party for their fourth wedding anniversary and it was too late to cancel, RSVPs having already come in by the dozens. “It would’ve been nice to have Daddy here too and then go back to the big celebration at home, since it was a catered event at a club anyways,” she thought. But he said they had to be there to make sure the caterers got things just right. So much for missed celebrations. She had missed every diwali, holi, pujo, almost every birthday and wedding since she’d left for college. Everybody does that. And valedictorians cannot, unless they’re superhuman, be partying at school and at home.
This last year of college behind her she would be ready for the real world. Being a real person in training can get very tiresome, even boring, and embarrassing, by the time one turns twenty three, like having training wheels too long. Gung ho about doing the resume and pantyhose routine she had to rein in her mind and keep it on the job at hand, graduate.
            ♫Graduation Day♫ dawned hot humid hazy like a large pot of crawfish on the boil. It was surreal. The graduates were deliriously happy and a little anxious, or most were. Some kids just know how to navigate this world. They do not get the willies. But then there are the multitudes who go through life with varying degrees of insecurity slowing them down to varying degrees. Some do a better job of concealing it, that’s all. Miss Z was the kind who could hide nothing. Her jitters and her joy showed in their full glory, mixed emotions sending out mixed signals. When most of the population learns to get better at concealing their thoughts and emotions and motives Z spent her youth becoming more transparent. Was that good thing or a bad thing? Was this Existential Dualism at its dysfunctional best/worst? You the reader are the judge of that.
            The party of four was making their way to the outdoor arena set up for the ceremony. They were just a little late because the women had to share a single hair dryer. So now they had to park several blocks away and walk. Just around a corner they came upon a little group of people. They thought it might be the place to pick up programs or water bottles but it wasn’t. This was a bake sale. No ordinary sale too. It was Z’s first sighting of a real bake sale of this variety and it did something to her somewhere deep in her soul. Very quickly however, between her rational self and her spiritual self there was a compromise she didn’t like but accepted anyway. The loss of dignity her soul experienced was quickly glossed over with an urbane “But this is the real world.” And she walked on in her high heels, daring the muggy day and mortarboard to mess with her hairdo. She’d sprayed it so liberally with Extreme Hold that it stayed in place as good as Hillary’s. As her spikes sank into the soggy lawn she had a song starting to play in her head. She couldn’t remember where she’d heard it or how exactly it went, but the line♫ It suck to be me ♫ kept coming back to her like a refrain when she really ought to have been mentally rehearsing her speech.


           All packed and ready to leave for home she still had one favor to return to an aunt, by way of which she had to go on a customary blind date with her aunt's colleague's brother whose uncle knew her Daddy, a "nice fair Brahmin boy", as her aunt had described him. South asians, by the time we are twenty-two, master the art of meeting and greeting an assortment of oddballs sent their way by well-meaning relatives. One more or one less means nothing to us. It's the price we pay for fresh biryani and we are okay with the trade-off. Not wanting to make it the formal occasion families in India will turn it into bringing out the best china and silver and silks Z's aunt decided they would meet at a restaurant, so if things didn't work out, it would remain just another introduction, rather than ending up on the chalk board as a strike out. She instructed Z to meet him at a given time at a given place and so Z sat there reading a "Calvin and Hobbes" when he showed up. Z thought to herself, "Auntyji, not this one in a million years."
With that decision having been made Z was completely at ease and made an effort to help the poor unfortunate soul from Nebraska find his peace so he could stop stuttering. Over the course of dinner he told her about his family and asked her about hers. With a plane to catch in three hours the meeting was hurried and Z got up to leave. He excused himself to go to his car to bring back a camera. As he walked in the door Z looked up and was startled to hear Da Voice again,"Whether you like it or not, this is your husband."

39.  BILLS

Funding for the arts had been cut so even merit scholarships in the field were fewer than ever. Realistically speaking money was a necessary evil. Daddy was not going to say no if she asked but would she want to ask for two more years of college? And then there was this ultimatum from Daddy one Sunday afternoon when he had come out of his bedroom, a gin and tonic in hand, he had walked up to her as she sat at the dining table eating her lunch alone after a morning out with friends, “Marry the bloke from Nevada or else. He is my friend’s nephew. If you don’t, expect nothing from me. You are on your own. You will not be married from this house. I have done enough for you.” The unknown quantity from Nebraska was suddenly the unopened unknown Christmas gift. At least one could hope. Then there was the little matter of the pact she had made with herself years ago, to ask God for nothing for herself. Following which a few years ago she had left the dilemma of the ‘who’ and ‘when’ of matrimony in God’s hands. Now, pushed to make a decision, she had given herself a deadline as suggested by most of her family, her twenty-fourth birthday. She made up her mind to accept as divine verdict that which came her way by that hallowed day. And here it was, approved and stamped by the family, most friends, and Da Voice. She was just being ‘selfish’ or ‘stupid’ or ‘swollen-headed’ if she was going to wait any longer. Then there was the question, ”Do I go do the Greenwich Village thing or do I do the yuppie thing? Bohemia? Academia? Suburbia? Which? Which witch is which witch? Dorothy was confused. She had definitely strayed off the yellow brick road. Here were no ruby shoes, no Toto, no body that understood the aftermath of a tornado. The chorus at home sang sweetly of the luckiest girl alive who had been blessed by the gods and her dead mother in spite of being so spoiled and bratty. Hear again, hear again the Greek chorus speaking of Z’s luck. In an effort to stay alive among other things she caved in and went with the traditional wisdom of getting married “at the right time” because her aunts were getting gray hairs worrying she’d be too old to marry off once she turned twenty-five. The white picket fence and the baby carriage had never before been such a source of angst and hope. Academia could never provide enough distraction to take her thoughts away from the thoughts of applesauce and lullabies. “Bobos in Paradise we shall be” was her new mantra. So one afternoon she picked up the phone and accepted the proposal of marriage from Nebraska.   
Friends would have to be informed, good byes had to be said, she wouldn’t be able to meet them for cappuccinos at fifteen minutes notice any more.
She received thirty five overwhelming be-knight-ments on the occasion of her earning an Mrs., many more than she had received on earning her baccalaureate and two scathing reviews. Two to thirty five the nays lost. One from Rashmi, Rush Me, of the Rush Me and Slow Me duo from Ma’s circle of friends, recently widowed after eighteen years of being married to Mr. Chips. She predicted that with that kind of attitude she’d last no more than six months in Nebraska, so either her attitude had to change or her decision had to be revoked. “Have you any idea how happy I was when I was engaged to be married? Have you any clue how happy most any girl is at this time in her life? You look like some one just died.”
“If happiness is an attitude and not an emotion,” thought Z, “ I can develop a happy attitude,” and left.
The other nay came from Bill, Rachel’s husband, who had surmised she was thinking about getting hitched eavesdropping on Rachel’s side of the conversation so when he came to the phone he had a strategy forming in his head, it became apparent to Z a little later. He made no attempts at small talk, launching straight into, “Remember the after campaign party before we were given the shove off and sent to the kiddie table. We were at my parents’ table fifteen minutes. Every body who was at that table wants to know what you are doing with your life. The Governor’s wife asked if you’d read the Whitman book she asked you to read. She told me to ask you. My father wants to know if you minored in music. The new campaign in underway. My parents would be delighted to have you travel with them. And Zach. Rachel does not want me to say another word about it but now I will. She’s saying something about religious convictions. What are you doing girl? What has happened to you in the last six months? Have you lost your mind?”
“I have lost my way. This is my best hope yet. Ever body else, in my family, seems to think so too.”
“And you, what do you think?”
“I think I’ve made a good decision.”
“You didn’t tell me you had already made your decision, or I wouldn’t have said what I just said.“
“It’s okay. Friends need to be honest with each other no matter what. Since you’ve cut to the bottom line, to put your mind at ease I’ll tell you the real story. I have a complicated set of convictions, part country, part rock ‘n roll, between cultures, between generations, and what I need most in my life right now to just stay sane and alive is the pitter patter of little feet. If all else was pared away from my life I could live with the loss, but this one thing consumes me day and night. I won’t expect you to understand this if you can’t, but please just hear me out. Your brother is one of the finest people I’ve ever met but he’s as passionate about his beliefs as I am about mine, and let’s not pretend that three of every four of our fundamental beliefs run contrary to one another.”
As she was talking she realized Da Voice had been right. She was doing what he had said she would, and how. Things were falling in place effortlessly. She was edging closer and closer to her new life and didn’t know how.
 She had needed to know more about what her new life would look like, so over fifty phone calls she figured she was to spend most of the day in the wigwam, associate with academics, and get used to the new skyline, which she knew from hearsay and T. V., was beautiful, remote, flat, beautiful.
  “Worrying about the inevitable is the stupidest thing in the world so worrying is not on my agenda. I’ll give it my best, and like anything else, when you give something your best, it gives its best back to you, and so will marriage,” she proceeded to sermonize to Bill.
“If you were to bear witness with your own eyes, just once, the lives of people here among famine and war you would change forever. You would no longer have this skewed perception of life. I can try to talk my Dad into getting you a hall pass of sorts but I doubt he’ll oblige. So imagine for a moment you are not you, but someone documenting your life. The first thing you’d do is stop feeling so f^%!^) sorry for yourself.”
“I’m not feeling sorry for myself.”
“You’re acting like you do. Victimhood has claimed you ha?”
Z hardly knew what to say. She had been accused of pretty much everything in her short life, but playing victim was something no one had ever thought of accusing her of before. Here was Bill, in a war zone, documenting the lives of children there, telling her over a satellite phone she was playing victim. She hated him. She was “playing”? What bullshit. He’d never understand so might as well let it go, get to downtown for trousseau fittings.
She began winding down the conversation to a farewell speech at the end of which he said, ”You can be trusted to make the right decision even with a gun to your head so I guess you made the right decision. Have a good life.”
Z decided that now that Bill and Rachel were living in a place where people thought so differently from the way they did, by and by they’d understand her decision and absorb the underlying principles behind arranged marriages. They’d stop thinking she’d turned into this icky mail order bride. With that she got up to check the to-do list for the day and figured it would be best to take the train into town.
With an hour to kill she bought the daily newspaper and opened it to her favorite section. The bloke sitting next to her was surreptitiously reading the headlines she gathered as she put the paper down to look out the window and he tapped at the picture of carnage in a populous area, and said, “Why does brother blow up brother in these parts of the world?”
“Very astute, very forthcoming, very American,” thought Z, and decided she’d like that discussion. She knew she could pass for Arab with just the right emphasis on her  ‘kh’ ’s. Or Latina if she pleased, but she decided to put away that childishness and act her age. She didn’t say much except mirror his sentiment. She thought to herself, ” These issues are waaaaaay toooooo complicated for a ten minute discussion. Cain and Abel are still under scrutiny and no body knows for sure yet why that whole sad story came about. If people born of the same parents can kill one another what is to be said of neighboring nations? And then there’s the problem of identity. Thakuma gets so agitated hearing of the ongoing violence between India and Pakistan. Perhaps her identity includes both nationalities, having being born in Bangladesh. To her the division of India seems a questionable decision in light of its aftermath. And all that questioning comes from fifty years of being an American most likely. Yet brother fights brother in every century in every part of the world. Why? Why do people select one something from all applicable labels to represent themselves? And go to war over it? If you ask Thakuma where she’s from she says’ Fairview’ or ‘India’ or ‘Bengal’ depending on who you are. To a Bengali she’s ‘Baangaal’, meaning from the region now known as Bangladesh. My violin teacher chose western classical music as her sole source of identity and has no patience with any other definition of herself, and that is after being Polish, Russian, German, Russian again, American, atheist, agnostic, and a semi-believer exploring Judaism, Orthodox, and Baptist faiths at subsequent points in her life, having lived in Minsk for fifty years or more before moving to the USA. What if these two old ladies met for tea? For a samovar and glucose biscuit summit?”
She’d reached her destination and it was time to ponder sequins and petticoats, and ask again,
-  “Am I happy?”
“Yes I am. Rashmi, thank you for that.”
- “Am I a victim?”
“Not in the least. I made a decision based on popular vote, and the resounding applause thereafter, and that little oracle Da Voice.”
She skillfully excised from her awareness the fact that those who had cast their ballot in favor of this decision had never ever met the man they had made the decision in favor of. They had spoken just once to a friend of the family from the old country who had known the boy for three months and decided that their daughter would be blissfully happy with him despite her misgivings.
Like the sands that slip noiselessly through the narrow waist of an hourglass, Z slipped through the eye of a needle from one world into another. “This is the real world, and in this world this is how the wheels turn.” She had thought that thought a bunch of times ever since Ma had died. That thought was getting as comfortable as an old shoe. She lost sight of the larger perspective of the larger world and favored the miniscule details of daily humdrum things.
            Over the years she would, every time she encountered an uncomfortable truth about herself, excise it from her awareness and it would look an awful lot like an eyeball staring into space so she’d feel all wrong about throwing it away, so she’d save it in a jar filled with formaldehyde. One day the jar would turn Argus eyed, a thousand watchful eyes staring back at her, she who was once a thousand points of light had dwindled to a single point of stillness.
She had allowed the power of consensus and the power of convention to hold complete sway over her individuality. She had surrendered her personal vision to the care of those convention said knew better. That was logical enough for now no matter how soul-killing that was. All her failings had been pointed out to her so many times by so many people she could not possibly be right about anything she imagined. If her whole being was revolting at the thought of abandoning every hope she had ever had of doing just a little more than housekeeping and such or of being in a relationship she looked forward to, those hopes had to be quelled into submission. Some one who could not even walk or talk properly surely couldn’t do any thing of any worth in the real world, could she? The voices of encouragement had been so few and so far between, the lies she had been told by those she trusted so outnumbered the handful of truths they had told her she was lost in the fog of falsehoods but didn’t know it. She was tied up in knots like a contortionist gone to seed trying to bend this way and that to accommodate each lie in her ken and was told yet again she who knew not how to walk or how to talk needed a man, any man, or she had no place in the world.
Not designed to use force, not against something as tender and ethereal as a dream, she did not beat her dreams into pulp, instead she took each hope each prayer each desire she’d held dear to her heart since she could remember, and set them free like a thousand butterflies. They flew up to the sky and turned into a constellation of a thousand dimly lit stars to guide her on her way. One came down, a falling star, and she caught it, kept it in her pocket, saved it for a rainy day. The nine hundred and ninety nine blinkers in the sky were deaf mute sentinels that would stay awake with her all the years she couldn’t seem to find any zzz’s. That constellation represented structure, permanence, design, destiny, rationality, ethics, morals, values, and little angel eyes she worshipped with every breath she took. Be sure the mind has a thousand eyes and the heart but one. Shutter that one lazy eye and you’re doing fantastic in the real world. 
The real world is a university apart from the educational institutions of this world. It'll teach you things you never knew you never knew :)

   The End

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