I had been following the house for almost two miles and, while trying to pass it almost ten minutes back, saw its cross-sectioned insides laid open like a dollhouse. I half expected to see a family posed stiffly at a dining table, their legs straight out beneath the tabletop. But instead, a piece of cloudy plastic sheeting whipped out from the living room like a flag, waving me back behind the house at its crawling speed as it inched into the outskirts of Laramie.
It was then that I looked out the window and saw them in front of me. Their black heads like notes marching up the scale of the shoulder. They walked two by two and one of them wore a long scarf that flapped like the plastic sheeting. I scanned ahead. The oversize load sign on the back of the flatbed hung unevenly and the flash of the pilot car blinked into the dusk. I was going nowhere. I passed the quartet of girls and looked into my mirrors.
Yes. They were Indian. I pulled my minivan onto the shoulder. The house continued up Grand Avenue to where the road turned into interstate, headed perhaps for a foundation in Cheyenne.
I rolled down the passenger side window and called out to them as they passed.
“Do you need a ride? Where are you going? To Wal-Mart?”
They stopped and huddled like Christmas carolers outside the window. The thinnest one looked into my empty car and then stopped on my face. She smiled. “Are you Indian?”
I didn’t answer the question. I unbuckled my seatbelt and moved across the passenger seat to open the door. The thin one repeated her question, “Are you Indian?” I pulled the door handle open.
The girl tried again, “From India?”
I looked into their expectant faces. “Yes.” And they began to climb in.
The thin one’s name was Rani Mukherjee and she had been in the country ten days. The other three deferred to her. Their names were Suparna, Vidia, and inexplicably, Bunny, which I found very funny. Bunny was very fat and wore the scarf, which she wrapped around her neck like a mummy. Rani Mukherjee looked me up and down and declared I was from the South of India—she guessed from Kerala.
“Madras,” I told her.
“It’s Chennai now,” she said.
I could tell that Rani Mukherjee was used to being right and being the leader of the pack. But I could also tell that Laramie had thrown her off a bit. I wondered if it was the wind or the altitude. She asked my parents’ name and scrunched up her face when I told her Mike and Ellen Henderson.
“And my name’s Faith,” I added.
“Faith.” She held it in her mouth like a wad of chew, then turned to the backseat and looked at the others.
I told them the short version. Left at a church. Adoption. Raised all my life in Torrington. No, I had never been back to India. I didn’t know if I liked Indian food. I never knew my birth parents. I told them I was finishing my BA in communications.
They had been walking to Wal-Mart to buy things for their new apartment. They were all living together as graduate students in a small place off 3rd Street. They were all teaching assistants. But only Rani was going into the classroom that fall. The rest of them had flunked the incoming Summer ESL test at the University. Their grammar was beyond perfect, their knowledge of English far superior to that of any Chinese (who were common on the UW campus) or American graduate student, for that matter. But the speed with which they talked and the wrong stresses on syllables bought them a year of lab work rather than teaching. I wanted to tell them this was good. That I had had a teaching assistant for Computer Science who was Indian, and all of us had tuned him out. We laughed when he said simple words like hardware. Hardvare he would say. And we would all roll with laughter. Another boy would do his own imitation of the teacher, stressing all his words like the Count on Sesame Street—all the v’s emphasized like a DJ. It was better none of them was teaching. I could see Bunny would be eaten alive.
All of them except Bunny were in engineering. She was a mathematician. Which again, I found funny. We talked about their programs and they asked me if I remembered India. And what could I say? I lied.
There was for me a kind of memory of India. Of a place where I lived for two years before being adopted by Ellen and Mike Henderson of Torrington, Wyoming. Before I went to live with Mike the veterinarian and Ellen who worked at the sugar factory. My memory was like an encyclopedia of facts. I knew I was born in Madras (population 6.9 million), abandoned (on the doorstep of St. Joseph’s, population 230), colicky (which affects 22.5% of newborns), not newborn (almost 7 months, the May 1st birthdays of Saints James and Phillip had been pronounced my birthday), and Hindu (there was a caste mark on my head when left). And then there was the fiction of memory.
When people asked me if I remembered India, I would always say yes. Yes, of course. And I would lay out my memory like a list: I remember the sounds of the orphanage, the calls of the washerman outside, the smell of rice and sounds of bare feet slapping the cool tile floors, the Mother Superior’s voice and the lullabies she sang. Sometimes in my head, I hear Hindi, I would say. Years later, I realized Hindi was not spoken in Madras. I must have heard Tamil. And so my story changed. But it all didn’t matter much. My memories were not mine. They were my mother’s; they were Ellen Henderson’s memories. Ellen had told me about how they had chosen me. That there was a woman who brought a cart of groceries to the side door of the orphanage. Her cart was filled with long beans and mangos. She told me about the lullabies, the sound of the man who did laundry, how the whole place smelled like cooked rice. She also told me I was special.
And there were the pictures. I had studied them all. Ellen and Mike took only one roll in India. They were odd photos. Of children begging, people sleeping on the street, a cow with flowers around its neck, food and a cup of tea with a thin skin on its surface—pictures later shown on a screen as white as a block of ice, in our church basement as a slideshow. I had seen this slideshow over the years since I joined the Henderson house. When the church was raising money for some place, some place far away from Torrington, Ellen would bring out the slides like a roulette wheel and spin them onto the screen. If the church was lucky, the collection baskets would be brimming with cash.
And there were orphanage photos. Of its yellow and white façade. And there was Ellen, wearing a poorly draped pink sari over her skirt and white long-sleeved top, holding me. I was not Faith then. But Ranjani. And there is Ranjani before she was Faith, she would voice over as the slideshow moved to its dramatic climax. It’s true I was skinny as a toddler and my shaved head gave me a grim look. In a tomato red dress, my hair shorn, I look like a little black sheep who had met with an accident. My feet are in small orange plastic sandals. Mike holds one of my feet like a hoof. I would see him hold the feet of many animals over the years; it was his doctor’s tic. He would hold the feet of dog and cow alike, looking at their paws or hooves as if they would give him a clue as to what ailed them, like they were some sort of koan. Mike is wearing glasses that were fashionable at the time, the frames big and round like pockets; he wears a suit even though it is hot and the air is thick. I would see that suit a handful of times before Mike and Ellen divorced twelve years later. Once when their other child, their real child, Cammie, made her first communion, once at a veterinary convention, and at an Elks dinner. Most Sundays for church he wore a dress shirt and slacks.
Ellen and Mike hold me like a prop in the courtyard of the orphanage. Mother Esther must have taken the picture. All of our legs are cut off. Mike and Ellen grin wildly. Ranjani’s—I mean my—face is blurred, but it looks to me like I am frowning.
There is only one more photo from that day. I sit crooked in the arms of Mother Esther and some other staff whose names Ellen didn’t write on the back of the photo. None of them are smiling. All of them, except one, wear white saris. The odd one wears a smocked white dress and white handkerchief on her head; she looks as if she is crying. I am like a spot of blood amongst the whiteness of their clothes. Their faces are the color of wet dirt. The kind of brown soil that collects in the grooves of horseshoes, packed until you pick them out. Later I will think about that photo while working in the barn over some Christmas break.
The photos taken afterwards are clichés. Now I am Faith, asleep in new clothes on the plane. Here is Faith eating her first bit of Western food! Here is Faith with a woolen cap on her head and new too-big coat! It is cold where you are going, they cooed to me on the plane. Here is Faith arriving with Ellen and Mike in Denver. The next photos are taken by Ellen’s parents. Of me, Ellen, and Mike in the same pose as in the courtyard, but this time I am smiling. Cammie is there too. A little tadpole in Ellen’s stomach. Cammie and I both were conceived in a country far away. Cammie and I both took our first moments of being in India.
We walked around the Wal-Mart. We looked at the pots and bathmats, and Bunny made conversions for them. When they converted from rupees to dollars, they walked away. Only Bunny bought anything, a disposable camera. She wanted to take pictures to show her family back in Pune. They all stopped at the jewelry case and made cracks at the quality of the gold jewelry.
“Nine carat!” This seemed to strike Vidia as inexplicably funny. I had a nine carat cross around my neck. It was a high school graduation gift from Mike. Vidia had a mouth of crooked teeth and a bob cut on an angle. Her hair was like origami, all lines. Her teeth were like crumpled paper. There was no symmetry at all.
I suggested the Dollar Store and when we arrived, I saw this was much more up their alley. Vidia and Suparna were practical, buying plastic trash cans, sponges, a fake plant. Even Bunny bought discount shampoo and a bucket. I was not sure what the bucket was for. Rani circled the aisles, taking it all in. And then slowly filled her cart. With two liter jugs of no-name pineapple and strawberry soda, clothespins, instant coffee, and also, a bucket. I asked them if they wanted to go to the Salvation Army. It was downtown, not too far from their apartment.
They were not as impressed with the thrift shop’s wares and I could see why. The shelves were piled with odds and ends—decorative plates, figurines, old fishing reels, kitchen gadgets in immeasurable numbers. In the lined sections were sleeping bags with faded rainbows and army trucks on them, hand-tied quilts with patches frayed. Records, books, clothes—there were rows and rows of junk. It was all the debris of small town America. But then, they began to see the prices. Rani pulled out a thin silver phone and dialed. She spoke in quick tones to someone and then smiled at me.
“I told the boys they should come down here.” She pointed to a chair marked $5. “There are many more Indian boys than girls at the university.”
I knew this already. I had seen them playing cricket in Prexy’s Pasture most nights before the snows came and turned the pasture into a slushy mess. Prexy’s was a huge grassy area in the dead center of campus. It was first created for cowboys so they could tie their horses up there while they went to class. It was still in the university by-laws that they could. But I had never seen a horse there. Instead, in the late afternoon, one could hear the whack of bat against ball as a whole group of Indian men played cricket. When I walked by, none of them would make eye contact with me. I tried to smile, even stop and watch, but they all looked away. I looked Indian all right. I even had long black hair. But perhaps it was something in the way that I walked. In my lace-up cowboy boots, in my ranch girl jeans that said, No she is not.
Rani came back to me holding a large pot like a baby. It was a pressure cooker and she was thrilled. It was $3.
“I can make curries in this,” she said as she turned it over, inspecting its bottom, which was a little scarred with char marks. Suparna and Vidia also had their arms full—with wooden spoons, smaller pots, a full set of Correlle ware. Bunny stood by a microwave, her hand on top of it, staking it out as if she had summitted its peak and wanted to mark the occasion.
The boys arrived, and more negotiations began. I was only brought into the conversation as I had my van, which could hold all the objects they were coveting.
“I can carry anything!” I said. And I meant it. I wanted them to have cozy places with pots and La-Z-Boys. Rani saw a mattress that was fairly clean and talked to a boy I would know later as Ash about whether buying a used mattress was, indeed, sanitary.
It took three trips in my van to carry all their loot home. In the end, they had a fairly complete kitchen. They also bought two chairs, one mattress, the microwave, and a small TV with a grainy picture. Suparna purchased a painting of an abstract scene—all blacks and reds. But it was $5 and would give their home something more. She held the painting in her arms with an odd smile on her face, and I was not sure what she saw in it. The leering colors or the fact that she had been in the country not even two weeks and owned a painting. I thought, she is the one I should know.
My own mother Ellen also loves paintings. She would march down to the Goshen County Library once a month and check one out. They had a whole back room with racks of poorly framed posters and reproductions, waiting to hang in living rooms across the county. Ellen favored older artists. One month, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers would be the centerpiece of dining room, the next month Monet’s Waterlillies would set the tone. She stayed away from abstracts and tried always for a motif of flowers and gardens. It was after Mike moved out and when I started calling them both Ellen and Mike and not Mom and Dad, that she moved onto Western Art. Russells in particular. Now we ate under the view of cattle drives and rodeo riders, prairie scenes with only a horse and rider blurring by.
“Haven’t we seen enough animals?” I’d ask. Mike’s practice was only down the road, and we lived outside of town, but not quite in the country. Occasionally when he had a particularly sick cow or horse, he’d tie it up in the corral we had in back.
Ellen would look at the scenes dreamily. “No,” was all she would say.
When the last load was dropped off, I stood awkwardly in the door of their apartment. I hadn’t taken off my shoes—they were boots—while carrying in the chairs. Now the girls stood in a row in front of me. It was Bunny who finally spoke.
“When we get settled, you must come and eat with us! We’ll cook you all kinds of curries.” She smiled warmly.
“Thank you!” they all chimed in unison.
I imagined us sitting around the table they did not yet have, eating out of the pots I had helped them find. Even though they were all dressed in jeans and t-shirts, I saw us all in white saris, just like the picture from India. I envisioned us sitting sharing food, laughing at white people. This last bit was a surprise to me. I had pretty much known only white people (except for Florence Little John, who was real Indian, native Indian. We had spent the years of grade school taking turns being Mary in various school Christmas pageants, since Mary was Middle Eastern). And even Florence, who was Arapahoe and also adopted, had already began to talk freely about whites as if they were non-entities. She ripped “Wyoming Native” stickers off bumpers and told me that if I was smart, once I finished school, I should go back to where I came from. That all of the US would burn in the apocalypse. I told her for a native she sure wasn’t embracing a philosophy of smudge sticks and spirits. She told me to fuck off. Poor Florence. But what could I say? I felt ready not to be in the minority, and standing in the crappy kitchen of the 3rd street apartment I realized that, for the first time in my life, I was not.
I was called a week later to move two more mattresses. Another week passed, and I brought them a card table and chairs. And then, there was silence. At first I figured they were all settling into school. Maybe their landline hadn’t yet been connected. But I remembered that silver phone of Rani’s and knew they had a way to reach me. I had written my number on sheets of paper for all four of them. And my email. They just weren’t calling.
Then, I got a late night phone call from Suparna. She was over in the engineering lab, she thought she was sick—could I come? She might need to go to the hospital. I drove over. Suparna was waiting for me outside, even though the nights had begun their mountain cool down. She now also had a scarf wrapped tight around her neck. I thought about the painting she bought. The red splotches, the insistent black lines—enough to make anyone sick.
“It’s my heart,” she said, and then began to cry.
“How do you know?” I said. She looked perfectly healthy.
“Or it’s something in this building. My heart goes bad when I am here.” She motioned inside as if she was scared to go in.
“What do you feel like?” I picked up her hand and held it the way Mike held a foot. It was cool and dry.
“I am walking, and then, I get these shocks. Right through me.” She stopped crying and dug into her pocket for a handkerchief. “I’ll show you,” she whispered.
We entered the building and walked along the hall. Outside the elevators that led to labs, she touched the metal door sides and swooned. I touched the same spot and felt a small shock, the familiar feeling of static. Of the combination of dry air and altitude. This was the same static Cammie and I delighted in when we were kids. We’d climb under the covers and shake our flannel nightgowns like flags. The green sparks and the crinkle of static kept us laughing till Ellen would come in and tell us to pipe down. That she had had a long day at the sugar plant, where she did the books.
“It’s static, Suparna. It’s not your heart, everyone feels it. It’s just part of being in Wyoming.” I had no better explanation. I was not the engineer. I was in communications.
Suparna touched the elevator door again, and the same odd smile she made when looking at her painting came over her face. Her brown hands moved over the buttons pointing up and down. She turned to me and put her hand over my heart and held it there. She began to cry again.
“I miss home,” she said.
“I do too,” I said. My eyes filled with tears.
She took my hand and held it and we stayed that way for a long time.
The invitation for Diwali came forwarded by email from Rani. It was being held the first weekend in November, in the community center at Married Student Housing. Those apartments looked like low barracks, and I found them depressing. I could see that Ash was the organizer—his upbeat tone dominated the email:
COME TO DIWALI!
BRING A DISH! (enough to share with 10-12)
DRESS IN TRADITIONAL DRESS!
Dinner to follow festivities!
There was no address to RSVP to, and someone had stuck poor clip art of crude flames around the text. I wasn’t sure about the festivities or even what Diwali was, but I was happy to be invited. It was nearly Halloween and except for seeing Vidia once in the bookstore, I had not run into any of them on campus in weeks.
That fall, there had been only one or two light powdery snows which melted, and feeling bold, I called out to Ash while he was playing cricket. He came over with a smile on his face. I didn’t like him at all. He had a way of looking at me.
“I’m coming, I wanted to tell you I am coming to Diwali.” I pronounced Diwali the way it was spelled.
“Di-va-li,” he corrected. I thought about the computer science teacher I had. With his hardvare and softvare talk. His checked shirts and grey pants. His one black cardigan which he wore throughout the fall.
“Right, Di-VA-ali,” I repeated. I had spent nights learning the stories of the Ramayana off the internet. I knew it was Hindu New Year. I was Hindu once. I even was trying to teach myself some of the prayers I found on religious sites. I had downloaded a recipe for tandoori chicken, bought the sauce from the Whole Earth Grainery on Ivinson.
“Have you seen the girls—Rani and Bunny?” Suparna? I asked.
“Yeah, we eat there most nights. We’re like a family, you know, since our family is so far away.” He eyed the action on the field and I could tell he was losing interest in me.
I had imagined them too busy to cook, heating Ramen in their microwave. And now I knew they were having family meals. Was I not part of the family? I was Indian once. I thought of Suparna and me holding hands. I had tried to call her a couple of times and even left her a note in the engineering building, but she had not returned any of my messages.
“But come to Diwali. And you can bring anyone.” Ash looked at me before he hurried back to the game. He turned back, “It’s weird. You don’t look Indian to me.”
“Yeah, well, I’m from here,” was my lame reply.
My boyfriend Cal had said the same thing to me almost two years earlier. He still lived in Torrington and we saw each other about once a month. I would go up, as I liked to check on my horse Bigger Bigger, who I feared was getting fat. Cammie and Ellen certainly didn’t ride him, and Cal took him out about once a week, but Cal was busy on his dad’s place. They farmed sugar beets and ran a small head of cattle. My first two years of college I had been at the community college in Torrington and boarded Bigger with me at school. I wanted to live in a dorm and all the ranch kids were allowed to bring their horses with them. So after packing my bedding, books, and knick knacks, I packed Bigger into a trailer. Since I was a townie, I usually spent most holidays, Thanksgiving, and Easter watching the horses of ranch kids. It was a great job. The campus was quiet, the stables with just me and the horses. It was cold all right, but I loved bringing hay and feed down to the barns and looking at all those brown coats and black eyes watching me knowingly.
Sometimes Cal would come with me and we’d inevitably end up making out against the stable doors, near where the hay was stored.
One Thanksgiving, post 9/11, I had been walking on campus when a group of boys whizzed by in a pickup. “Go back to your own country!” they yelled. I didn’t have the time to think up a good comeback. I just stood there being mad. Because I was not Middle Eastern in any way. That day had been unseasonably warm—I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Did Muslim women dress like this? But I was mostly mad because of my own country? What did that mean, India? That wasn’t my country anymore. Faith Henderson existed to prove that. Ranjani perhaps belonged in India. Faith did not. Faith barrel raced, played volleyball, and was a member of the FFA.
I told this to Cal as we finished making out that night. He was tall and skinny with a mess of brown hair that his mother cut in uneven strokes. The white skin on his face was almost always tan and freckled from being outside. “If I knew who told you that, I’d kick their asses.” He asked me again to describe the truck. Did it have any bumper stickers on it? Did it have a hitch? All details that were lost to me, as I had immediately looked down at my feet and flip flops. “I don’t know,” was all I could say.
Cal took my face in his hands and looked at me like he was about to tell me the most important thing ever. “You know Faith, I don’t even see you as Indian. I see you as Faith.” His thumbs stroked my temples.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know, I don’t see you as brown.”
Rani called to invite me to their house before the Diwali ceremony. I felt touched by this, until I realized they all needed a ride to the community center.
“How many can you fit in your car?” she asked.
And then it was my turn to ask her for a favor. I had gone home to Torrington the weekend before and found the pink sari Ellen had worn at my adoption. I wanted to wear it.
“If I come early, can you help me get dressed?” I had no idea how to put on a sari but was taken by the idea of it. Of starting a new year in November, of wearing pink, of eating Tandoori chicken. Of trying out my knowledge of the Ramayana.
Rani insisted I come at 6 that evening, but when I arrived, no one was home. I sat on their stoop and waited. My chicken was in a covered casserole in the car, but the night was cold enough for it to keep.
Near 6:30, they all came giggling out of a house across the street, and I realized the boys had moved in nearby. Rani wore a pink sari like Ellen’s, but the bottom of it had birds embroidered in gold and the pink was deceptive: as she moved, shots of blue came through the silk. Bunny wore a long shirt and pants, with yet another scarf, and the front of her shirt was an armor of small mirrors. Vidia’s sari was dark blue and very plain. Suparna wore a red sari with blue diamonds on it. It looked like a quilt that Ellen owned.
They looked at my blue Wal-Mart bag filled with Ellen’s sari and a slip I had bought earlier that day. They ushered me inside and I was confused to see that the apartment was still quite empty. No pictures hung on the wall, not even Suparna’s abstract. Besides the two chairs and the card table, there wasn’t much else. Their mattresses were lined up on the floor. There were no dressers, and they all appeared to be living out of their suitcases.
“Where’s your painting?” I said to Suparna.
“Rani made me take it down. She thought the red dot looked like a bindi and she didn’t want the third eye watching us. I’ve moved it to my office.” She adjusted the bangles on her wrist.
“Is everything okay over in the engineering building?” I asked.
Rani answered for her. “Of course it is. We’re all doing fine. Now, let’s dress you.” She pulled out the sari and looked dismayed. It was rayon and quite cheap. Ellen had thought of using it for curtains in Cammie’s and my room later, but never got around to it.
“Do you have a blouse? Or a slip?” she said.
I pulled out a pink tank top and the elastic waist slip I had bought.
“Hmm, this won’t work,” she said, holding up the slip. “It’s too loose.” She eyed my jeans. “They’ll work better—you need something tight at your waist.”
They all took turns holding the tank top and each of them brought out an array of other blouses with more modest sleeves, each made by tailors in India. Except for Bunny’s, none of their tops fit me. Years of barrel racing and riding made my shoulders broad and muscled. Bunny’s blouses poofed out in front of each breast.
In the end, I wore the tank top and jeans, and they all got me ready. I turned as they dressed me like a wound. They tucked the pleats of the cloth into my jeans and pinned the part that went over my shoulder to my tank top. Suparna got a brush and pulled my hair back in a tight bun. Vidia rolled up a tube of bright red lipstick and made a little dot between my eyebrows. Rani told me to take off my cross, which I did.
They stood back and took me in. They all looked to each other and began speaking in Indian. “What?” I said. I was tired and my hair felt tight.
Rani stopped talking and moved me in front of their bathroom mirror. My legs were cut off. But I saw myself.
“I’m Indian,” I said out loud.
They all began to laugh.
The community center was only a short drive away, and yet I had to pull the sari up when driving. It felt like Christmas in the car, and Vidia brought a tape of Hindi film music to listen to. We laughed and giggled at the odd bursts of English that each song had. Rani held the pressure cooker she had bought that first day I met them. Suparna clutched a stack of bread that had cooked poorly due to the altitude. Bunny had a box of chocolates and Vidia two liters of pineapple soda.
When we arrived, it seemed like every Indian student at UW was there. And a few Indian professors and the man who owned the University Inn. There were maybe twenty-four of us, but I had never in my memory been in a room with that many Indians. There were a few white people, some of them also dressed like Bunny in long shirts and pants. I would later find out one was an anthropology professor who had done her fieldwork in India; the other couple were Ash’s host family.
A table was designated for the food and I put my chicken on it. I sat on a low couch and watched. The community center was actually very bare, just a big room with tables and a small kitchen. Ash and the others had put candles on all the tables. Confetti sprinkled the tabletops. Vidia told me in India they had sweets, lit clay oil lamps, and had sparklers. Sparklers were not allowed in Albany County.
I was ready for the ceremony to begin. I went over in my head the traditions of Hindu New Year, the Festival of Lights, how Ram and Sita’s epic was finally over.
Ash took to the front of the room and began to talk. He was one of the only men dressed in traditional dress—also a long shirt and pants. Most of the other men were in dress pants and button-up shirts.
“Welcome everyone to Diwali! The Indian Student Association of the University of Wyoming welcomes you!” he began.
I hadn’t known there was an association, and I wondered if I could belong. I thought about Florence Little John and how she told me to fuck off. Fuck off, I would say to anyone who asked.
Ash droned on about how welcoming UW was to them and then began to thank tonight’s special guests. He asked his host parents, the anthropology professor, and me to stand. We clearly were not associated. The anthropology professor and I looked at each other. I think we were both embarrassed to be wearing Indian clothes. Looking down, I saw my sari was stained and realized that stain was made in India. I wondered what Ellen had spilled on it.
“And now! The special part of the evening! For our entertainment, we are going to have a Quiz Bowl! Then we will eat all of the wonderful dishes prepared by the members of the ISA.”
And so Ash began his questions. It was a Jeopardy-like game. He barked out questions about cricket scores, which movies Preity Zinta and Shahrukh Khan had been in, Indian politics—all things I had never heard of. I learned that Rani shared the name with a famous actress. Where were the questions on Ram and Sita, the meaning of the holiday? Bunny answered enthusiastically and in the end won a bar of chocolate. She squealed with delight.
When the meal was served, I waited last in line. I wanted to see how they all served it up, and I watched plate after plate fill with everything but my chicken.
“I followed an authentic recipe,” I called up the line.
“You need a proper tandoor oven for it to be authentic,” said Rani.
Suparna looked at the chicken and its rusty hue. “It’s not that. I’m sure it’s very good. It’s just that, most of us eat veg—we are vegetarians.”
All of us special guests ate the chicken. Ash’s host parents told me it was real good. And then they asked me about beet production and how things were in our irrigated farming district. The old man had been a farrier and we talked about shoeing. He knew of Mike. The anthropologist was interested in how Torrington now had a sizeable Mexican population with the sugar plant. We sat at one table while everyone else moved from table to table.
Soon, round two of the Quiz Bowl began. Ash continued to bark out questions and I realized I didn’t know any Indian film stars or how many test matches India had played against England. My car had been the only thing valuable about me that night. I walked outside and left the laughter and lit candles behind me. I began to walk to my car, but then continued towards the interstate. The sari was hard to walk in. I stopped and unwrapped it and carried the ball of cloth in my arms. The night after Cal told me he didn’t see me as brown, he back peddled. The next day, he told me I was exotic, and that was what he liked. I didn’t know what was worse. Exotic.
Every year in Mike’s practice exotic pets would come in. Pets who’d not adapted. Alligators, snakes, hedgehogs, sugar gliders, monkeys. All kinds of birds: lorikeets and macaws, cockatoos and galahs. Mike wasn’t always so sure what to do with them, and he would make calls to bigger clinics asking for help. Sometimes I would help hold them while he inspected them, looked for the hurt. “People should not keep exotic pets in this place,” he would say.
And then one holiday, while I was watching horses, I saw this llama in the barn. Ranches all over Wyoming have started using them. Some say they guard sheep better than dogs. The climate doesn’t bother them, they are loners and need little care. One guy up in Lusk imports them from South America. It always made me laugh to pass a pasture and see a llama in the field. The sheep would usually be in a little circle, the llama out a bit away from them. The llama like a right angle propped up next to the geometry of ranching. And here was one in the barn. I walked over to the creature and began to change the water. It had a mean underbite and thin face. The next thing I knew, I was covered in warm vomit. Mike later told me it was spit. Instead of being angry, I respected it.
As I walked, I thought about that llama, which I later watched out in the corral while the Ag classes learned about that kind of sheep management. It was always away from the group; looking and watching. It watched the sheep with detached interest, but those sheep didn’t dare move. People stick to their own kind. And when they don’t have kind? Then they are exotic. I turned around and walked back toward the community center. The girls would need a ride home. I stopped outside. Rani laughed with Ash, Bunny ate her chocolate, Vidia and Suparna huddled with a group of older girl graduate students. I stood outside until I realized I only had a tank top on, and it was freezing. But still I didn’t move. The light shone out the windows. I gazed in at them and watched.