Sharing Space

Shefali Desai

Americans are not skilled at sharing space. My family of four learned this firsthand when a burst hot water pipe forced us to squeeze into a friend’s three-hundred square-foot guest studio. The tiny house that became our temporary home was essentially one large room that contained a full-sized bed, a European-style bathroom with shower, sink, and toilet in quick succession, and a utility kitchen with a plug-in hot plate that reminded me of my college dorm room.

At first, my eight- and five-year-old sons were delighted by the prospect of a days-long slumber party. That is, until the first night when I dragged a lumpy futon out from under the bed for the kids. Flopping his lean body onto the floor mattress, my older son complained it wasn’t comfortable and asked why he couldn’t sleep on the big bed. Eyeing my partner, who at six foot two made everything in our new residence seem miniature, I explained that daddy needed a good night’s rest for work the next day. When my younger son joined his brother’s protest, I reminded them of Little House on the Prairie, the audio book we were listening to in the car that week. Laura and Mary slept on a dirt floor until Pa was able to drag enough wood from creek bottoms to make a bed with his bare hands. At least you don’t have to sleep on the ground, I said, hoping they would buy it. Thankfully they did, and soon fell asleep. But I tossed and turned that night, jarred by a painful memory I had long since secreted away.

When I was twelve, we learned that my mother’s brother––my Maama––and his family had been approved for a green card and would be coming to American soon. This was big news. My mother had applied for Maama years ago when she became a citizen, but strict laws and quotas limiting the number of Indians who could emigrate to the U.S. in any given year made sibling immigration a long shot. Pointing to the sweet-faced boy in the black-and-white family photograph on her dresser, my mother’s voice released decades of guilt like a pressure cooker letting off steam as she declared that her brother would now finally have the same chances she’d had.

My parents invited Maama and his wife, whom I called Maami, and their two sons to live with us until they could afford a place of their own. They never paused to consider how their American-raised children might react to living with another family. In the old world, emotional needs were subsumed by necessity. It was September and still hot in Phoenix when their family arrived at our home in bleak, sprawling suburbs that bore little resemblance to the small, semi-tropical town they’d left behind. Maama, a man of heft and height, ducked as he entered the doorway so his head wouldn’t hit the thoran, a decorative talisman hung above entranceways of Indian homes as a sign of welcome and luck. He greeted us with a big smile, a hearty handshake and a booming “hello!” in British-accented English.

Beside him was a plump woman wearing her abundant hair in one, long, thick, black braid that hung down her back. Her milky skin was the lightest shade I’d ever seen on an Indian woman. I knew from snatches of overheard conversation between my mother and grandmother, who had come from India to live with us a couple years earlier, that my aunt was not a favorite despite her much-coveted fair complexion.

Standing just inside our doorway, Maami was inert by her husband’s side while two little boys peeked out from behind the billowy cotton skirt that fanned out from her ample hips. My cousins, who were about the same age my boys are now, stood on skinny brown legs that stuck out from under stiff, khaki shorts. Their big brown eyes eclipsed what struck me as emaciated faces, and their smiles were even fainter than their mother’s.

Trying to break the awkward silence, I rambled in English about how glad we were to have them here and asked if they wanted to see the rest of the house before remembering that neither they nor Maami knew much English. The boys looked at me with blank terror, retreating further into the folds of fabric until their father coaxed them to follow me and my siblings to the bedroom their entire family would share.

The house we lived in was a standard, split floor-plan with three bedrooms and a bathroom on one side separated by a family room, kitchen, living room, and hallway from a master bedroom and bathroom on the other end. As I watched Maama, Maami, and my cousins crowd into the bedroom my grandmother and little brother had shared, I felt guilty for having balked when my parents ordered me to share my room and its rainbow-canopied bed with my younger sister while my grandmother and brother took over the frilly white daybed in what used to be my sister’s bedroom. We would all have to make adjustments, my father had said, eyeing me sternly when I had groused about losing my cherished twelve-year-old privacy.

With ten of us now living in our house, the collision of space began almost immediately. The bathroom on our side of the house always seemed occupied in the mornings, and I’d have to trudge across the house, towel and toiletries in hand, to use my parents' bathroom. Often, by the time it was my turn to shower, there was little hot water left in the solar-powered tank. The kitchen overflowed with bodies because Maami insisted on making separate meals for her husband and children, who preferred her cooking. She hovered over her sons as they ate, plying them with second and third helpings as if she were racing to catch them up to the size of giant American kids. Worst of all, the house was now devoid of quiet spaces where I could curl up with a book. Adult conversations filled the common areas, and the television, which had hooked my cousins from the moment they arrived, blared into every nook and cranny.

Maama, who was a bank manager in India, started looking for a comparable job here but could only find work cleaning floors at a grocery store. At first my uncle resisted, but capitulated after my mother coaxed him into accepting the position, saying that he had to start somewhere. Maama began waking before dawn, dressed in a drab-gray uniform, and drove off with my father who would drop him at the Smitty’s before going to his own job in a particle-board cubicle at Honeywell.

As the weeks went by and Maama’s temporary job began to seem more permanent, his cheerful demeanor gradually slipped away. After work he no longer swooped into the kitchen to take his wife into his arms or play with his boys in the backyard. He’d change out of the itchy fabric of his uniform and sit motionless on the sofa opposite the television, turning the volume on high to avoid conversations that his wife and mother tried to have with him.

This only exacerbated Maami’s pent-up frustrations. She didn’t like being cooped up in the house all day with her mother-in-law, and she had no friends. Her brow creased in frustration when she tried to help her boys with their homework because she didn’t know enough English, which she couldn’t learn because she couldn’t go anywhere. She didn’t drive, and anyway there was no extra car for her to use, and the interminable suburbs left nothing in walking distance.

Maami’s only source of pleasure was when, on weekends, my parents marched us to whatever gathering of the expat Indian community was taking place that particular Saturday or Sunday. Sometimes it was the Gujarati Association picnic, often a birthday party, and every once in awhile a large-scale celebration for nominally religious holidays like Diwali or Navratri. Then my aunt’s eyes would light up, and she’d spend hours selecting one of her thickly brocaded saris, matching it with slender metallic bangles to slip onto her arms and finishing the outfit off with a fancy chandlo that had an adhesive on back for sticking on to the middle of her forehead.

But this was not enough to keep Maami happy, and it wasn’t long before her misery manifested as suspicion towards us American kids. She didn’t like it that we spoke to one another in English and told my mother she thought we were making fun of her behind her back. She admonished me and my sister for wearing shorts and tank-tops around her husband, and was upset when we declined her offer to lend us her long-sleeved, long-legged salwar-kameez dresses. Her face took on a more-than-usual look of disapproval when we argued with our parents or refused to follow an adult’s instructions. She worried out loud that our rebelliousness might rub off on her children and turn them into impertinent Americans too.

In hindsight, I could have tried to ease Maami’s discomfort. I could have spoken only in Gujarati, a language I was fluent in. I could have offered to help her with English. I could have tutored her sons. But I did none of these things. Instead, I fumed. It wasn’t fair for her to come to our country and expect us to accommodate her cultural needs. Pre-teen hormones raging, I set out to be as obnoxiously American as possible.

The funny thing is, at school, I was viewed as anything but American. While many of the girls in my class were being asked to dances or on dates by boys, I remained invisible to male attention. I was not popular, I did not wear the right clothes, and I did not have many friends. Most days, I sat alone at lunchtime hoping no one would notice. If only my aunt had known that my hyper-Americanness at home was nothing more than a charade. That I, too, was making the mistake of defining myself in opposition to what I thought I didn’t want to be.

Maami grew more irritable––and strangely, more bloated––as the days passed. And then the ketchup incident happened. It was a silly thing, really. I was in the kitchen when my aunt bustled in to fix her sons’ favorite after-school snack––ketchup spread thickly on slices of bread. Although this particular combination was revolting to me, I was a ketchup-fiend in other ways. When I saw that the bottle was nearly empty, I warned Maami not to use it all up. She whirled around to face me, tears springing from her eyes, and slammed the ketchup bottle back onto its shelf in the refrigerator. Then, with trembling lips, she told her sons they’d have to eat their bread plain today, that Americans did not like to share, and that they had been lied to when they were told this was a place of plenty. I slunk out of the kitchen, equally unable to defend my position or apologize.

Not long afterwards, instead of going to work one weekday morning, Maama and Maami climbed into my mother’s car and the three of them sped away without explanation. When I came home from school, my aunt was holed up in her room and didn’t come out for several days. No one said anything about this unusual behavior, but I pestered my mother until she motioned for me to follow her to her bedroom. My mother closed the door and said Maami had had an abortion. She hadn’t wanted to, but Maama had insisted given their financial situation.

My mother didn’t ask if I knew what an abortion was––I did, probably from school since she never talked to me about such things––nor did she attempt the kind of parenting conversation around sex that I would have with my children if the term “abortion” came up. Instead, my mother told me not to tell anyone and gave me her signature stare that conveyed the adequate warning I needed to keep my mouth shut. I’m not sure why she told me at all. Maybe it eased what must have been a heavy burden to carry.

My knees felt wobbly as I walked out of my mother's room. What if I hadn’t been so stingy about the ketchup? Would Maama and Maami have made a different decision? Would they have felt more comfortable bringing another child into our space? But I didn’t say any of this to my mother, who did not know about the ketchup incident. Instead, I stuffed my mixed-up feelings of guilt and anger and shame and sadness deep inside.

Once recovered, Maami kept mostly to herself. Even her grimace-like smiles disappeared, and she’d avert her eyes, ringed with dark circles, whenever I passed by. I tried to be extra kind to her boys, but they didn’t want to have anything to do with me or my family and clung more fiercely than ever to their mother's skirts.

A month later, Maama told my mother that he was very grateful for what she had tried to do for him, but it wasn’t working out and they had decided to go back to India. My mother begged him to wait a little longer, telling him that the beginning is always hard, that it would get easier. If for nothing else stay for your boys, my mother implored. Their English was improving by leaps and bounds, and they’d have many more opportunities here than they would have over there. Maama nodded and didn’t disagree, it was disrespectful to argue with an elder sibling, but he repeated what he had said before, that they had decided to go.

Over the next few weeks, I caught glimpses of my mother crying while preparing food or washing dishes or filling out stacks of patient charts late at night because she never had time to complete them at the bench that pretended to be a desk in the physical therapy room of the nursing home where she worked. As soon as she’d see me, she’d wipe the tears from her face with the back of her hand and ask me if I needed anything, deliberately steadying her voice. She never talked to me about her grief, just as she never talked about the pain she harbored for being the member of her family who had “made it.”

Large battered suitcases lined the hallway leading to the front door on the morning Maama’s family departed for India. When everyone was gathered by the murti, a hand-carved, black-rock statue of the goddess Sarasvati, my mother lit a handmade deevo and performed the ceremony for safe journeys. Each of us children took turns kneeling at the feet of the adults we were saying goodbye to, a customary show of respect. When it was my turn to pug-a-lag––literally to be at the feet of––my aunt, she turned away instead of placing her hand on my head and blessing me as my uncle had. I tried not to hate her, but I couldn’t help glaring. Maama quickly put his arm around her shoulders and led her towards the car. I didn’t wave as they drove away, watching my cousins’ stoic faces disappear down the cracked, asphalt street. They were being strong for their mother. Even then, I understood that.

Several years later, my mother told me that Maama and Maami and their sons had come back to America. This time, they had settled on the east coast where one of Maami’s relatives lived in a large Indian community. Over time, I heard from my mother that my cousins had found jobs, married, and one had American-born children of his own. Not long ago, that cousin contacted me by email. We exchanged pleasantries and swapped photographs of our families. He had two sons, just like me. I cooed over his beautiful boys, telling him I wanted to meet them and his wife. He said he’d like that but work was demanding and he didn’t get much time off. He didn’t say anything about his mother. I didn’t ask.

Then Donald Trump issued his infamous “Muslim Ban.” Frantic, my cousin messaged me because he and his family had tickets to travel to India the following week but were now worried that even though they were naturalized U.S. citizens, they may not be allowed to re-enter if they left. He wondered if, as a lawyer, I knew whether it was safe for them to take their trip. I looked up the newly issued executive orders, talked to an immigration lawyer friend, and told my cousin he should go as planned.

I was indignant that my cousin had to worry about coming back to his home because he was brown and not born here. I blistered at the intolerance of my fellow Americans––those nameless, faceless, Others who championed Trump’s xenophobic stance on immigration.

A few weeks later, my cousin wrote saying he and his family hadn’t had any problems at the border and that they were back home safe and jet-lagged. I breathed a sigh of relief, fell back into the busyness of my everyday American life, and didn’t think about my cousin again until that night in my friend’s guest house.

Laying in bed, I cringed thinking that there was something both I and Trump supporters had in common––our mutual difficulty sharing space. It wasn’t just the mere sharing of physical space that had presented challenges, although that’s hard enough for most Americans—it was the sharing of space with difference that had turned my big heart miserly. Maami’s foreignness had penetrated all the gaps in my American armor, leaving me mad and scared. Because I didn’t have the tools to examine that potent mixture of anger and fear, I retreated into what felt comfortable. So did my aunt. And so does much of this country whether we voted for Trump or not.

But living in the space of unchallenged identity is a fleeting comfort—one that is surpassed by the ghosts that haunt me: two little boys driving away from a life filled with clean air, plentiful water, abundant food, relative safety, and ketchup galore. All things I could have easily shared.

Shefali Desai is currently revising her hybrid memoir, which was selected as a finalist by author Lidia Yuknavitch in the 2106 Kore Press memoir competition. Her work has been published widely, including in Ms. Magazine, the UCLA Women‘s Law Journal, and the anthology This Bridge We Call Home. In addition to her creative writing, Shefali is co-authoring a legal paper on federal and state regulatory power over so-called sanctuary cities and litigating a gender-based asylum case. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter @shefalimdesai.
Published September 15, 2017
© 2017 Shefali Desai