Quintessential American – IV

There was that time when waiting in line to go up the Washington Monument, just a few short weeks after my arrival in the country, I was spellbound by the couples standing in line ahead of me.  It was a hot summer day, one of those days when everything gleams, the grass appears greener, the sky at its bluest and there’s color everywhere with people picnicking on the grass, kids turning cartwheels, cotton candy sellers walking around – in short, the kind of day where a solitary soul feels that much lonelier or unloved, unwanted and foreign. 

The young men ahead of me had their arms wrapped around the waists of their girlfriends or wives.  One was caressing the small of his girl’s back at the place where the fingers could imperceptibly (unless someone in line, behind him, was intent on watching) breach the waistband of the shorts or skirts and reach in, just slightly, for a quick, barely noticeable brush of the place where the dimples in the back gently curve into the backside.  The girls stood on tip toes, every now and then, to lightly kiss the cheek of the boys or men they were with or they would gently rest their heads in the bend of the necks of their guys.  The touching was casual and intimate all at once. 

It was entrancing and distressing for me and it filled me with unbearable longing, underscoring my loneliness and otherness.  Even after all these years I remember the sharp pang of those moments so much more than the view of the Smithsonian mall from the top of the Washington Monument.

I had never approached boys in a way that signaled attraction.  Even in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, attractive female bunnies often approach good old Bugs, fluttering tiny balloon hearts out of long eyelashes, leaning forward, breathing desire.  But I possessed no apparent internal switch that told me to turn my girl on when approaching an attractive member of the opposite sex, neither was I ever approached in that manner, or so I believed.  My receptors were blocked and I was truly oblivious.  If I realize this state of oblivion now, it is only in hindsight.  Sure there was a boy in college who met me at the college library at the same time every morning for months, whose company I cherished, but nothing indicated to me that perhaps a signal to move things on to a different level, whatever that level might be, was intended by either one of us.  Whether this was a cultural manifestation or a personality trait was unclear to me.  Going after a man, sending pheromones his way, what a concept! It was a rather alien one.

But the move to America was all about embracing change, among other things.  The situation demanded further observation and an in-depth study of the art of signalling intent in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. 

The “rep room”, mentioned earlier, was as good a lab as any.  The words “political correctness” had not yet entered the American consciousness in the late 1980s.  Women in the workplace could still be called, “sweetheart” or “doll”.  Catcalls and whistles at a woman’s attire or general comportment were still commonplace and were even welcomed, or so it seemed to my foreigner’s eyes.  If a woman was promoted and advanced in her career at a faster clip than a male colleague, men, and women, issued snide remarks about her morals.  “He’s done her” and “it figures, she puts out” or, “oh yeah, I saw them making out in the supply closet”.  By the time I figured out what putting out or making out meant I was well into wondering whether this was an acceptable, essential and altogether indispensable career move for a woman or whether it was malicious gossip targeting successful women. 

I was twenty-one at the time and only had quarter-baked ideas about things.  The fact that women around me appeared accepting of these notions or even encouraged them was confusing to me.  I couldn’t figure out whether my confusion was a result of an Indian upbringing or whether something was straining at my inherent sense of right and wrong that had nothing to do with my culture or my roots.

I had shed some of my shyness and reticence after being here for a few months. I was still following my moral compass and had convinced myself that putting out or making out would not become my stepping stones to success.  I had decided on an informal and friendly approach toward everyone I met, men or women. I would laugh at their inappropriate jokes because humor didn’t bear censorship and because the first and only show I could watch on a cheap and unreceptive television set at that time, “Married with Children”, had desensitized me to all manners of inappropriate humor.  It was vulgar in a former life perhaps, not anymore. 

This approach, however, was fraught with danger, as I soon realized.  Three instances come to mind:

  • My boss, Dan, spent a lot of time helping me assemble my first few pieces of furniture, a roll top desk, an entertainment center and a bookshelf.  He even took me car shopping for my first car.  He was always around, offering advice, checking up on my well-being.  Sometimes his wife accompanied me and I had got to know her well too.  He often took me out to lunch during our work day and after one of these lunches one day he decided to go to his bank where his wife was a teller.  He chose the drive thru window option for depositing a check and withdrawing some cash.  On this day his wife was the teller who was working the drive thru window.  I looked up at her from the passenger side, waved and said, “Hi Tracy!”.  She didn’t wave back, nor did she smile.  She looked upset and angry and I felt extremely awkward with that unreciprocated greeting lying between us.  Dan looked a bit tense as well.  As we were driving back to work I asked him why Tracy looked upset and I was stunned to hear him say that she was jealous of me!  I stared at him in disbelief and asked, “Jealous of me? Why?” He just snickered and decided not to further enlighten me on the subject.

  • On another occasion a very helpful female colleague offered to help me move.  She said her husband would drive his pick up truck over and that they would be happy to help.  I was thankful.  The three of us worked well together, lifting, moving, hoisting and getting me settled in.  Her husband was handsome, his whole face lit up when he smiled.  I thought nothing of sharing this innocent observation and told my co-worker what a gorgeous smile her hubby had.  I thought she would be flattered but I saw the smile disappear from her face as I finished uttering my pronouncement.  Within seconds all I was left with was an angry glare, followed by an abrupt goodbye.  I was too young to realize my mistake back then, I just stood there, rooted in confusion, wondering what I did wrong.  Now that I am older and wiser I know not to publicly share an innocent appreciation of other people’s husbands! 

 

  • Then there was this co-worker who often brought her fourteen year old son to work after his school was over.  He used to sit in the rep room doing his work and a lot of times she asked me to help him with his Math or Science homework.  He was a good kid.  We used to kid around, talk about comic books or movies when I wasn’t helping him study.  One day our big bosses were in and I wasn’t able to spend time with him because we were tied up in meetings.  When I got out of the meeting some of the other ladies appeared to be in considerable distress because Sean, the kid, had had a temper tantrum of sorts and had yelled and screamed at his mom about something.  They had had a full blown, file folder and print-out throwing fight.  I asked what happened and was told that I was the reason for the tantrum.  I wasn’t around and he got very upset.  Someone remarked, “you turn him on”.  I had no idea how to react to that extremely embarrassing remark that was uttered without a hint of embarrassment by the person who said it.  It was a moment that ranks rather high in my list of awkward moments.

With these moments resting in my wake it was clear to me that I had a very long way to go towards earning a badge in American quintessence.  I was an ill-equipped candidate at the outset, one who had a rather Rain Man (or Rain Woman) like approach to man-woman relationships.  It was clear after these incidents that certain lines could not be crossed even if all that was intended was friendship and camaraderie.  There were limits, there were invisible lines that could never be crossed and one needed to tread with care and a level of discernment that was still not a part of my nature.

Several years later, after absorbing these invaluable lessons about avoiding jealous wives, hormonal teenage boys and other people’s husbands’ smiling countenance, I changed my ways to the best of my abilities.  I made sure the men I met were single and in their mid-twenties.  But this was when I became aware of expectations that elevated my concerns to an entirely new level.

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