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Stepping out of the plane, that first day in America, it was the vastness that first struck me. I took in the wide blue skies, the unending green lawns, and the circuitous freeways as we drove from the airport in Arun’s convertible top-down silver gray mustang. I took in the magnificence of the ocean as we drove alongside it and the dreamy skyline of the city rising above a thick fog as we entered the city. We drove much slower now on the narrow roads lined with victorian houses and curious little shops and restaurants. I observed the moving kaleidoscope of images. Pointy mohawks, lacy skirts, long boots, large strollers, little dogs and quirky, colorful people.
All those sights, however, could not prepare me for the sight of the beautiful tree in full bloom right outside Arun’s apartment. It stood as if in welcome, strong yet graceful. Tiny clusters of delicate, pink blossoms covered the meandering branches that reached all the way to the sky.
I couldn’t pry my eyes away from it. “That’s the cherry blossom tree,” said Arun as we walked into his apartment with our bags. If this had been at my home in India, Amma would have stood with a plate with a camphor lit lamp and waved it at us in slow clockwise circular motion to ward off the evil eye. We would have entered the house using the right foot to mark an auspicious beginning to our new life. I tried to remember now which foot I had used to enter the apartment a few seconds back. Maybe if things didn’t go right, I could blame it on the moment my cursed left foot had dared to go first.
While Arun climbed up and down the little flight of stairs getting in the rest of the luggage from the car, I stood by the window and toyed with my black beaded necklace – my wedding signet. Above the line of trees right outside, the streets of San Francisco undulated up and down like dancing ribbons. They stretched endlessly until the horizon where they met the Pacific Ocean. A large ship floated lazily on the water. In the distance, on the left, I could see the visage of a beautiful rust colored bridge teasingly peeking from a crown of clouds.
Arun was in the kitchen now making some instant coffee. I could hear him beat the coffee and water mixture rhythmically with a spoon. I heard the milk being poured and the beep of the microwave as he heated it. But when Arun offered me a cup, I couldn’t help longing instead for a cup of slowly brewed ginger and cardamom tea.
The cup was huge and covered my hands spreading some warmth into it. I stood facing the tree and slowly sipped the coffee. “Still looking at the tree?”Arun asked. “The cherry blossoms originally come from Japan you know, but now it is our own” he continued. “You will catch sight of them in little pockets here and there. They are lovely in the springtime in California. In full bloom beginning about now. We are so lucky to have one right outside our door, isn’t it?”
A sudden wave of petulance overcame me. I wanted to say, “Bah! What use is a tree if you can’t climb it?” Outside my house, in my village, we have a little backyard with jasmine creepers, hibiscus blooms, and a large mango tree. The mango tree was my favorite hideout. On lazy afternoons you would find me perched there with a book. During the summer holidays, I collected little mangoes before they went fully ripe and handed them to Amma. Then she would sit by her grinding stone and fold pungent spices into a fiery red mixture and soak little pieces of the raw fruit in it. After a few months, we would eagerly open the porcelain jars filled with this concoction. The scent would hit us first and then when we put a piece of the spicy, sour pickle in our mouths, the taste would linger on for hours.
“Did you say something?”Arun asked me. I shook my head and placed my cup a little roughly on the glass topped side table with ivory colored legs. The cups tinkled as he picked them up together and took them back to the kitchen.
I stole a glance at him as he walked away. He looked very much like the picture. The picture Amma had shown me a week before the wedding. He didn’t have jet black eyes; his eyes were a deep brown. He didn’t have soft long fingers; his fingers were coarser and smaller. He didn’t have long wavy hair that flowed when the wind blew around him; his hair was more curly and he was balding a little.
Arun excused himself to go freshen up. I walked around the apartment examining it in more detail. I opened the doors of the cabinets in the kitchen. I looked at where Arun stored his lentils and flours and ginger and tea powder. I wandered to the TV room now. There was a massive brown leather recliner and I sank into it. I pushed a button on its side and my feet began to be lifted up while my upper torso sank down. “Everything is a button away in this place,” I mused irritably to myself. When I heard Arun turn the bathroom door, I tried to get out hurriedly. But I couldn’t figure out how, so I ended up awkwardly climbing out of the stretched recliner, hoping Arun hadn’t seen my ungraceful struggle.
When Arun came and joined me, I was looking at the collection of books he had in the pearl white bookshelf in the far corner of the living room. “Do you read?” he asked. I was just going to ask him about the Khalil Gibran on the upper shelf when he said “They are not mine, most of them. They belonged to my old roommates actually. I just didn’t want to throw them out when they left them with me.”
The phone rang. Arun handed it to me. It was Appa and Amma. I went into the bedroom and closed the door to talk to them.
“Did you reach?” Amma asked
“Did you sleep well on the flight?”
“How is America?” Appa interjected, taking the phone from Amma
“Do you like California?”
“No.” I wanted to say. “I don’t want to sit in leather recliners. I just want to sit on our wicker sofa with the old frayed moisture ridden cloth cushions. I didn’t want to drive in Arun’s prized convertible. I just want to take the auto and haggle with the driver about the fare. I didn’t want to eat cold bagels and cream cheese in the airports. I just want to eat Amma’s hot idlis and coconut chutney. And I didn’t want to be Mrs. Arun. I..”
“Appa, I”, I began shakily
“Don’t spoil this”, Appa hissed. “Our honor is in your hands now.”
I suddenly felt out of breath and hung up. I leaned back on the mountain of pillows on the bed. Too many different sizes and shapes and textures. I touched the soft comforter and the red velvet throw on the end of the bed. The tag was still attached to it. Arun had obviously been shopping before the trip.
Arun knocked at the door. “Want to step out for a walk?” he asked.
“Just a minute,” I said. “I need to wash my face.”
I picked up my purse and closed myself in the bathroom. I pulled out a piece of yellow paper with a number scribbled on it. The digits danced before my eyes threatening to wedge themselves into the permanent corners of my memory. I shook my head trying to empty it and turned the paper over. Then I ripped it into small pieces. I scattered the little pieces, a few at a time, into the sink and opened the tap. The water washed them to a unshapely pulp. Some tiny bits clung to the ceramic. I pushed it down the drain, one by one.
Arun was waiting for me when I stepped out. “Look, the sun is setting,” he said.
The sky was covered with long lines of pink and orange. The evening sun made a last show of brilliance bathing the cherry blossom tree in golden light. From the top of the tree, I saw a long line of connecting dots of light all the way from the mango tree in my backyard. The branches swayed and the translucent pink flowers shimmered and danced with the gentle wind.