Published in the anthology “Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America.”
She saw me eying the empty seat next to her at the back of the bus.
As I walked up, she tilted her head back ever so slightly, her eyes narrowed and stared into mine, and while no words came out of her mouth, her face unmistakably said, “Ex-c-u-u-ze me, but I hope you don’t think you’re sitting next to me!”
For a second I nearly lost my nerve. On most occasions, I confess that the idea of sitting next to an attractive woman intimidates me. But today I was tempted. On this cold December morning, the woman was undoubtedly freezing, but the glow on her dark brown face and her frosty breath took shape in my imagination as inviting as a fresh cup of coffee, poured steaming hot. She was stylishly dressed, though I couldn’t really see much of her. Her body was wrapped in a long, red wool coat, and her hair hidden behind a black hat, the kind that had a scarf coming down from inside covering her ears.
I took a deep breath and settled in next to her. When I had first looked around the bus, I thought I had seen something about her that said, go ahead, take a chance. Besides, I was now curious why she had reacted so strongly to me.
“You goin’ near or far?” I asked, flashing her a smile to see if that would break up the ice that had formed between us.
“To Akron.” She paused. I could almost hear her debating whether to stop the conversation right there. My heart halted for a moment.
But she continued, “And you?
“I’m headed for Detroit. That’s where I live. Right now, anyway.”
For the next four and a half hours we shared the Greyhound ride to Cleveland. Somewhere along the way I would learn that her name was Felicia. She’d had two weeks off from work, when her factory took its annual shutdown. In Buffalo she had visited an uncle who she hadn’t seen in a while. Though the trip went better than she had anticipated, this had not been her first choice.
“Two of my girlfriends said they’d go with me on a car trip to California. I was really looking forward to that. But at the last minute, they chickened out. Said it was too long a drive.”
Pausing for a moment, she added, “They left me stranded.” Time off from work was precious and the thought of staying home during Christmas break had nearly crushed Felicia’s heart. She decided to take off for Buffalo.
Although she was going home by bus, she had come by Amtrak. The train ride had taken 26 hours. Akron and Buffalo are only a few hours apart. If you drive or take the bus. Even less if you fly. But there are no direct trains between the two cities. Felicia had to first go to New York City, lay over for three hours, and then switch to the Chicago-bound train that passes through Buffalo. She opted for that even though it cost more than the air fare between the two cities.
It seemed like quite a roundabout way to get there. I must have looked baffled, because she tried to explain, “I had never been on a train before.” She noticed that I still wasn’t convinced, but she simply shrugged her shoulders. To me it sounded as if on this Christmas vacation, Felicia had wanted a trip that took a long time to get to wherever she was going.
“You want to know something?” I said, “Buffalo wasn’t my first choice either. I’d planned to fly to Kansas, but the air fare was over $400. Then I saw an ad saying I could fly to the island of Fiji for $600. Hey, I thought, why take snowy Kansas when you can get sunshine and ocean for only a couple of hundred more?”
“You didn’t do too well, did you? I have no idea where Fiji is. But I see you ended up in Buffalo where we probably had more snow this week than Kansas. So what happened to Fiji?”
“Oh it was just a dream. I might do it someday. I came to see friends here. And you know, on Greyhound the price was right.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
Felicia wanted me to know that it wasn’t unusual for her to do something like leaving home during the holidays. She said she was frequently struck by the “ramblin’ blues.”
“As often as I can, I like to get away. There’s so many places in the world beyond Akron I’d like to experience. Last year I got motivated to go to Myrtle Beach. That was one fun trip. But it doesn’t always work out right. Another time I drove down to Cincinnati. I have a sister there, but when I arrived Sis’ didn’t seem to have any time for me. I hung around downtown by myself and then went home.”
“I’m somewhat the same way myself,” I ventured, opening up another part of me to her. Her eyes lit up, and the smile that formed on her lips this time came from somewhere deep inside, like she was finally glad that the stranger she’d opened up to was turning out to be a kindred soul.
“Yeah? Tell me some of the places you’ve been.”
I rattled off a few. Oklahoma City. Boston. New York. Chicago. Dallas. Los Angeles.
“W-h-e-e-w,” she whistled, “You’ve sure been around.” Then her smile faded away as she said, “But it don’t seem like we’ve ever touched down in any of the same places.”
“Sure we have. Just this past week. In Buffalo,” I reminded her, “And I’ve been through Cincinnati a few times. Had a brother living there some years back.” I went on to describe an afternoon I’d hung out in Fountain Square, watching black teenagers dance and pretend like they were models on a runway, accompanied by music from a boombox.
Now the worlds we visited in these cities were most likely far apart, but Felicia found it reassuring to know that her seatmate, with whom she’d discovered she shared an adventurous spirit, had been in a few of the same places. Her whole face broke out into a grin while I told the story about downtown Cincinnati. I wondered if she took heart from the fact that for both of us, Fountain Square wasn’t just an image from the opening scenes of WKRP in Cincinnati but a place where we had both hung out, taken a walk, seen folks sing and dance.
Felicia already had other trips sketched out in her mind. Some of her friends had brought up the idea of a cruise. She wasn’t sure about that, since she preferred solid ground under her feet. Besides, there was only so much that her sense of adventure could handle. The layover in Penn Station had made her nervous. She had wanted to go outside and get a glimpse of New York City, but she only saw escalators going up and out. She couldn’t see how she was going to get back.
“I think I know how you felt,” I said, “When I first came to this country I landed in Boston. Now I’d never seen a subway system before. I was supposed to change trains at this one station, but when I got there, instead of finding my way to the other train I found myself standing in the middle of the street outside.”
“But you know what else?” she continued, “The folks at the train station looked strange. The ladies at the coffee shop looked black. But they weren’t. They talked different.”
Felicia had never met black people from the Caribbean before.
“Hey, the first time I came across some Indians from Trinidad I didn’t know what to make of them either!”
“Where’s Trinidad?” she quizzed me.
“If it isn’t the same place, it’s probably close enough to where those black ladies in the coffee shop were from. The Caribbean.”
“You ever been to the Motor City?” I asked. She shook her head. A bus she had once been on had stopped in Detroit. She would have liked to stay over, but she didn’t know anyone there.
Then, with her eyes focused on mine, she said real slowly, “But now I know someone.” And her mouth widened into a smile suggesting satisfaction as well as a hint of playfulness.
The factory where Felicia worked employed over a thousand workers. They made plastic kitchenware. Because of all the injection molding machines there, the place was always hot. Even in winter the workers wore T-shirts and shorts. She worked the day shift, but frequently stayed for overtime. She also took overtime work during weekends. I did some mental calculations. Felicia must have been working nearly 70 hours a week.
Seeing the puzzled look on my face, she explained, “Oh the work isn’t too hard, and I enjoy it. I don’t have to do the same thing all the time.”
“Do you need the money that much? Or is it ’cause you have your friends there?”
“The money helps. And yeah, my friends are there, but it ain’t on account of them that I spend so much time there. I just like keeping busy.”
While we talked she pointed to her wrists and hands. They were thin and pretty. A small gold watch adorned her left wrist. I noticed a thin wedding band. A couple of more rings on her right hand. Long red fingernails, with gold glitter on some. “My own,” she said proudly. But Felicia wasn’t simply asking me to admire her nails.
“My hands hurt. I think I have that carpal tunnel. They did some tests on it last week. Stuck some needles and electricity….” She searched for a word.
“An electromyogram?” I suggested.
“Yeah. They don’t have the report yet.” Then her eyes narrowed and all emotion drained from her face.
“Why, you a doctor or something?”
“Not even something,” I replied, bewildered about what could have possibly returned Felicia’s face back to that icy glare, even if it had been for an instant.
I went on, “A couple of years ago I went through some of those same tests. One of my wrists hurt awful bad. I think I injured it from too many years on a keyboard.”
“So are you all recovered now?” I realized that there was more than curiosity about my wrist in that question. She wanted to have some idea about what her chances were.
“They gave me some cortisone shots. Since then I’ve managed. The pain only comes back once in a while.” I didn’t tell her that her pain sounded worse than anything I’d experienced.
Felicia had been at this factory for five years. It was the longest she’d worked in one place.
“Funny thing ’bout it is that I hadn’t planned on working there. I took my son in to get hired, but the company gave me the job instead.”
“You … have a son old enough to work in a plant?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she replied, “He’s 26 now.”
“No?! I thought you were in your 20s. You couldn’t possibly be….”
“What, 43?” she finished my question, relishing the pleasure she’d had in deceiving me with her youthful looks.
I looked at her face again. This time I stared. I swear, the woman didn’t even look 30.
“And what ’bout you?” she asked, “It’s your turn.”
“Oh, I just turned 40 last month,” I said, my voice trying to match the cool with which she’d revealed her age.
“Damn, I thought you were my son’s age!”
“Hey, it looks like we both thought we were your son’s age!”
“And what’s your secret? How do you keep yourself looking so young?” she asked.
“Certainly not with 70 hours of factory work, that’s for damned sure.”
By this point we must have become pretty loud, because the teenagers behind us started to giggle.
The bus stopped in Ashtabula for ten minutes. Some passengers, Felicia and I included, walked out for the break. When we returned to our seats, I thought I’d finally ask her the question that had been rolling around my head.
“When I first got on, did I imagine it, or did you really give me a look that said, ‘I hope you don’t think you’re sitting down next to me’?”
“I did,” she replied without hesitation.
“From what I’ve seen, Indians don’t care much for black folk. If you ask me, they seem stuck up and act like we don’t exist. Even though y’all are colored, you seem to think you’re white.”
As she alternated between “they” and “you,” her eyes revealed a mixture of anger and hurt. And confusion. She wanted to express her anguish and disapproval about what she had perceived about “my people,” but she didn’t seem sure where I fit into the picture. Though I knew her charge wasn’t directed at me, I was still taken aback. When I had wondered about why she had been so icy toward me as I first approached her, I’d thought it was perhaps because she simply wanted to have the whole seat to herself. It just had not occurred to me that when Felicia first saw me she had judged me on the basis of my ethnic origins.
“If I thought about it I could probably come up with some way to explain it, but it wouldn’t satisfy either one of us,” I confessed to her.
Her reaction should not have surprised me. To her experiences I could have added dozens of my own. I could recall the wealthy Indian family in suburban Detroit who’d threatened to ship their daughter back to India if she didn’t stop hanging with the black students in college. Then there was the Bengali physicist – himself a “revolutionary” in his younger days in Bangladesh – holding forth at a dinner party about how blacks were poor parents, a conclusion he’d drawn from some incident he’d witnessed in a supermarket line. Clearly the man had learned a lot from his scientific training. And how could I forget the distress I’d myself felt when a relative, upon hearing that I was dating a black woman, nervously remarked, “I hope it isn’t serious.” She’d never said that about any of my white girlfriends.
I threw my hands up in the air and simply offered, “Okay, there are some, perhaps many of us, who act ignorant. But that’s still not all of us.”
She thought for a moment and nodded, “It wouldn’t be fair to say that I’ve only had bad experiences. When I was getting my GED I had an Indian teacher who was good to me. And she was a great teacher. But then, there are these people in suits, some of the doctors I’ve come across, some of those in the offices of the factory….”
I sensed that with those “people in suits” Felicia had been a victim of both racial and class prejudices.
“You know, some of those people in suits don’t know what to make of me either. And for sure, they look down on our own people who do manual labor for a living. If you don’t drive fancy cars or live in expensive suburbs, they don’t think you’re worth much. Just last month my boss, an Indian engineer, told the secretary at work that he couldn’t understand why at 40 I’m not ‘more successful’.”
Felicia replied, “If he’s so smart why couldn’t he figure that one out? Heck, even I can tell. It must be ’cause you spend your time hangin’ with lazy-assed black folks like me.”
“So tell me, Felicia, have you lived in Akron all your life? Is that where you got married and stuff?” I asked, feeling that she might now be comfortable enough to venture into more private areas of her life.
“Oh, you noticed my ring.”
“Hey, don’t all men do that?”
“I s’pose. No, I moved to Akron from a small town in Mississippi when I was 17.”
“What brought you north?”
“I was pregnant. I wanted to finish high school. You couldn’t do that in Mississippi. Not in those days anyway. So I came up to live with my dad who’d moved to Ohio. My mama died when I was small. Never really knew her much. Grandma raised me and my sisters. She worked in the town cafe. It was a place where black folk had to go in through the back door. You know what I did when I went down there a few years back? I went to the cafe and, like always, I went to the back. Without thinking. But they turned me away. The cook came and told me, ‘No, you can’t come in this way. You gotta come in through the front door’.”
“You hadn’t gone back in a long time, had you?” I asked.
She nodded. As she went on, I learned that Felicia hadn’t left home just because she was pregnant and wanted to finish school.
“My son’s father would beat me. He was only a couple of years older. He’d go with other girls, but when I griped ’bout that, I only got a beating. I wasn’t about to stay in a place and get beat all the time.”
The move north wasn’t easy. It took Felicia three trips to make up her mind about staying in Akron. The differences were unsettling, and she was often homesick. But the move also held out promise for her. The excitement of the late 60s was in the air, and Akron signified freedom to this wide-eyed country girl from Mississippi.
“This may sound crazy, but one of the first things I wanted to do was to hang with a white boy. Never could do that in Mississippi. In Akron I found one with no trouble at all. But he lied to me. Said he was 19, when he was only 15. I didn’t leave beatings in Mississippi to settle for lies in Akron.”
“You know, I left home at 17 too. With me, it was in the middle of a war. In the country we were part of back then, we were the ‘niggers’. The people who ruled us were taller, bigger, and lighter-skinned. They called us darkies and black bastards. And when we wanted our freedom, they murdered us like dogs.” I tried to give Felicia a picture of what life had been like for Bengalis in Pakistan during the years of revolution and war.
By this time she was no longer surprised to hear of the parallels in our lives. She thought about what I’d said for a moment, then offered, “We also had our war, even if it wasn’t your kind.”
She reached back into her childhood memories and recalled Mississippi as a place of violence. There were the daily racial humiliations and the periodic terror of the Ku Klux Klansmen. But the violence was even closer. Her dad had gone away to the army, and by the time he returned her mother had given birth to another man’s child. Her father couldn’t hold back his jealous rage. He stabbed her mother, who lost a lung. She remembered other stabbings as well.
Felicia had seen her share of blood as a child. More than I, I thought to myself. During my war, I had heard the gunfire, seen the flames, heard the cries, and seen some of the bodies. But she had seen more blood close up than I. And of loved ones, no less.
Once she had made a new life in Akron, Felicia eventually found a man she liked well enough to marry. She had now been with him for 17 years. Two more sons had come along, the youngest now 14. But she didn’t talk about her children much. With some bitterness, she described her home as empty. She did not mention physical abuse. Not for a moment did I think she would tolerate that anyway. She’d already made it clear to me that she had left that life behind in Mississippi.
“The man doesn’t want to go nowhere, do nothing. Every day he just comes home and turns on the TV. It ain’t right. He’s five years younger than me. I’ve raised three kids and been through a lot more than he has. How come I still have the energy and he doesn’t? Don’t get me wrong. He’s a better man than many. But somehow he’s let his spirit be drained away from him.”
When Felicia was home – and she tried her best to stay away as much as she could – she simply slept a lot. Still she always felt restless. She said that she’d like to learn how to play the piano.
“I used to play the guitar once. Back in Mississippi. For a teenager I was good. Learned it from an uncle. You should have heard some of those blues licks coming out of my fingers. But it’s been a long time. Sometimes I wake up and feel the music way down inside of me. I’d like to do something with that feeling. I worry about the pain in my wrists but I can’t let the pain get in the way of something I need for my soul, can I?”
She confessed that she shopped a lot. Mostly clothes. Always new. “No Salvation Army for me. I had enough of other people’s hand-me-downs when I was a kid.” She had also bought a computer. She used it to learn typing. And to play games.
“What do you play?”
I shouldn’t have asked.
Overtime wages paid for shopping and her trips. She had also bought a new car. A Mustang.
“What color?” I asked, already guessing the answer.
“Of course. Is there any other color?” I laughed.
“It’s either shopping or having an affair,” Felicia described how she saw her options. “I’m more comfortable with shopping.”
She stopped for a moment, thought about what she’d said, and softly added, “Maybe I haven’t yet met a man I’d consider having an affair with.” Her eyes met mine, and they lingered there for a while. We both let the conversation pause. And then together we both broke out into self-conscious grins.
The bus came to a stop in Cleveland. We were both getting off, to catch different buses. Felicia only had five minutes to make her connection. As she squeezed past me, we said a hurried goodbye and her lips brushed mine.
“Hey, if you ever want to wander somewhere together, give me a call,” I whispered to her. I doubted that would ever come to pass, but I wasn’t ready to accept that this stranger with whom I’d so easily become comfortable would simply be in my life for a four and a half hour bus ride.
“Yeah, sure. But the next time you tell me why you get the ramblin’ blues.” She yelled as she rushed away, flashing me her smile for one last time.