Tuesday, September 10, 2019


 Mama was about to drive away after having dropped Ankita off at the skating rink for the day when Mrs. Coach flagged her down, asking if she could possibly stay at the front office and play receptionist and accountant for the day as both had had family emergencies and they had found no replacements yet, “Pleeeeease.”
            “Sure, “said Mama, mentally canceling her hair appointment to cover gray roots a month old, turned around and parked. There really wasn’t much to do. She tidied up her sari some, put a bindi on from the packet of maroon bindis she always kept in the glove compartment for just such emergencies and decided she didn’t look too shabby. A couple of kids came in to get drinks at the soda machine, one needed a band-aid, one had to call her mother, one had lost a baby tooth and asked for a zip lock bag so the tooth fairy could see it. The phone rang perhaps twice. Mama got comfortable in her new role by midday, made herself a pot of coffee, got on the internet to check her email, and even put her feet up. There were notes from family, friends, the usual junk mail to delete, the dentist’s reminder, a newsletter, some chain mail, the usual stuff, and a picture of an exotic pet her new book club friend always sent. This was something that irked Mama even more than chain mail. She had, over the years, met many a decent soul who wanted to make friends by sending her pictures of cute but wild and exotic animals in Santa hats, on treadmills, in swimming pools, and so on. It always cut through the many layers of civil tolerance and made it to the fresh raw core of her being and IRRITATED her. This was perhaps the first time she was able to look past the inartful use of the internet and look into the heart of the person sending out these cute and fuzzy photos of pandas and tigers to see a fellow human being. She replied. They planned to meet for lunch.
            A family walked in. Mama thought a section of a Las Vegas convention of celebrity look-alikes had wandered in. The father was a dead ringer for Evander Holyfield with a Midwestern accent, the mother looked like Oksana Baiul and didn’t say a thing, and the daughter was a little Surya Bonaly. Mama said hello and asked how she might help, in her best imitation of a receptionist doing a great job. The father said he had called earlier in the week to meet Anya (Mrs. Coach) and set up a schedule for his daughter who had been skating now for three years in Minnesota. They had just moved here with a job transfer and he was thrilled to find out they taught figure skating the old fashioned way. His wife seemed very enthusiastic but didn’t speak. In the meantime Mama had surveyed both of ‘Evander’s‘ earlobes and determined he most definitely was a look-alike and not the genuine article, the real deal, sashaying about town using an alias. She got up and went looking for Mrs. Coach.
            Mama finally found Mrs. Coach and walked back to the office with her to introduce to her the new family. She entered the room after Mrs. Coach. Mrs. Coach was rooted to the spot and blocked her way. The father was speaking rapid-fire Russian. The room tilted on its axis. Eventually, they got the paperwork done, Mama brought them coffee and juice, following which they left for a tour of the premises, Mrs. Coach speaking animatedly.
            Later that day Mrs. Coach explained it was the mother who had called her a few days earlier to pick a day to meet her. She said she was from Belarus. And that had been the content of that conversation. Today she told the rest of her story. She had met her husband in Belarus when he was studying Russian and practicing weight lifting, fifteen years ago. Meeting her husband in school was her first time meeting a real American, and over the five years together he had won her heart and her whole family over. They, of course, thought he was the exception to the rule. It was all those Russian lessons and the discipline acquired from years of weight lifting that had made him un-American and almost Russian, for he played the accordion too, and learned to sing along with Raj Kapoor in Awaara like the rest of them. They had moved to the USA three years ago, to Minnesota at first because it was cold enough there to feel like home. Over the years she had become used to the summer heat spending Augusts in Iowa, so when his office made him an offer he couldn’t refuse they moved. Since she was a stay at home mom and they spoke Russian at home and watched Russian T.V. via satellite her English was still shaky. It helped to be able to get the basics of grocery shopping and skating taken care of in Russian. She could hardly believe the town actually had a Russian store and two Russian restaurants. Growing up she had been under the impression that America was very different from what it really is. “People here are so warm and gentle, not the bloodthirsty crooks I had imagined they were”, she had remarked.
            Mama thought about the time she had been to Kenya, before Ankita was born, on a safari vacation with Papa and everywhere they went people addressed them as Mr. and Mrs. Patel. Or that time she had ordered pork fried rice at the mall and two or three people around her keeled over dead. Or the time her niece had sung Lee Ann Rimes’ ‘Blue’ at the talent show at school and nobody clapped at first when she finished. Three seconds later there was much clapping and cheering and a second-place trophy. And that time her cousin who lived on a farm in Montana was visiting with her three-year-old, and they had all gone out for dosas to this large Indian restaurant packed with customers. The little one had dropped the abbronzato bomb in a loud voice,” What are all these peanut butter people doing over here?” completely overlooking the fact he was as brown as the rest of the room. Growing up in the relative isolation of rural Montana he had never seen another brown person outside of family. And maybe he never really looked in the mirror poor baby.

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