‘Shouldn’t be singing such a song, Ravi knew. But what to do? Inspiration, that was what was happening to him. He couldn’t help it. Had to let it out. He was artist. Couldn’t be always thinking about wars and horrors.’
December 4, 2015
Ravi had big-big dreams in America. Number one place for dreams. Number one place for having fun. He was having fun that minute itself, banging his hands on the wheel of the car. Lot of dirty looks from other drivers. Ravi didn’t care. Rocking his shoulders, head also rocking. Singing. Practicing. Going to be somebody someday, why not singer somebody? Follow up every dream, that was the trick. Music dream, actor dream. Meantime pizza boy, that was okay. Marking time.
Ravi wasn’t the going-to-piano-lessons type of singer. That all too much trouble. Like University. All old-fashioned stuff nothing but trouble. Ravi was a modern type. In love with all American things. Rap music. That was his top pick, look, anybody could do it. Like ordinary fellows they looked. Simply say whatever you like, shouting type of voice. Ravi enjoyed talking like that. In America he could, nobody to scold him, say he was “talking back” or “talking big,” like back home everybody all the time said.
Land of liberty, that’s what it was all right.
Only last few months a bit worrying. Getting a bit scared.
Scared, worrying, driving, singing.
Grammy stuff for sure. Wonderful: “F-1 AWOL, terrorist-ish, lockup strict, double-quick! No phone call, mustn’t call. No ‘one phone call’.”
Suddenly realized people blowing horns. Alamack! Light green. Quickly-quickly better change gears, start to driving. Funny looks from next car. If he got put into the lockup that would be the end of everything, no more double-quick: no driving pizzas from the lockup. Call boss from lockup? Terror-type suspicious hard case maybe no phone call allowed. If allowed also, make trouble, get boss into lockup for hiring illegals. Boss too old for lockup.
That was his trouble, what he sang in his song. He was F-1 AWOL. This was the type of thought Ravi was thinking all whole time: suddenly nearly had a heart-attack, he was getting out of car in front of pizza parlor, next to parked police car, policeman also in the car, and Ravi big mouth open, words coming out, quite loud: “F-1, AWOL, terrorist-ish, lockup strict …”
Policeman turned away. Ravi was relieved, but at the same time feelings were also hurt. All these old fellows totally no taste, couldn’t even hear his music. But lucky, this time. Lucky for him.
Shouldn’t be singing such a song, Ravi knew. But what to do? Inspiration, that was what was happening to him. He couldn’t help it. Had to let it out. He was artist. Couldn’t be always thinking about wars and horrors. He had sensitive temperament. Read it in a book, University days, so it was right. Sensitive, artist-type temperament. That was him.
Ideas one was girlfriend. First-class brain, wow! He, and girlfriend, and best friend together, best team. Soon, for sure, becoming big-big stars. Girlfriend was in his bed when she made the suggestion. Otherwise maybe he would have thought twice before saying, “Yes!” Would have been afraid grandmother or aunties would get to know. But how to look gift horse in the mouth? And girlfriend wasn’t horse. Girlfriend was five-foot nine, blond goddess-type, magazine with brown-paper cover type. After her, all other girls invisible. That’s why only Girlfriend, like saying Goddess. Type of girl never in his wildest dreams did Ravi think he would ever smell. Type of girl he looked at sideways all the time once he came to America, trying not to look as if he was looking. Truth to tell, type of girl that scared him. Until girlfriend.
Movie idea also like that. First scared, then realized, no problems.
Best friend showed him videos. Wow! Better than Thai videos he found under youngest uncle’s bed back home. American girls all so bold. Talking out, walking like a man. Type of girls he used to wonder about in schooldays. Of course schooldays wondered about all types of girls, but Asian girls all around, he could see them. Uncle’s videos. Mother’s Indian film magazines, full of pictures, of course with clothes, but could put two and two together. Not stupid, never mind what family said. But never seen blond Aryan goddess type until best friend’s videos. Never imagined he would wind up with that type of a girl. Thought for sure his fate to land up with somebody just like all his girl cousins, plus it would be somebody for sure wouldn’t fool around type, because would be grandmother’s or mother’s or aunties’ pick.
His good luck finding own girlfriend. Still didn’t know how it happened, but thank God for it, she must have spotted him looking. Came right up to him, he didn’t know whether to do a bunk and run away, or what. Looked at shoes. His own shoes. Didn’t dare to look at hers.
She said, “Hello, tiger.” And that was that. He had a girl. Him, Ravi. A real American girl. Not name-only Americans, like all the Indian and Asian girls in University, who behaved just like the ones back home. This girl was honest-to-God American: blue eyes, blond hair, McDonald’s apple-pie American.
After that, all ideas hers. Acting, flat, everything. Only car he thought himself. Wonderful woman.
Ravi loved her idea. It was A-1 thrilling suggestion. He loved movies. And this was extra-special movie, type from the high number channels he saw on the stolen cable. So wonderful what all a person’s body could do, and now he was the one to do it, and extra funky weird, his best friend also would be there. Bit funky, two boys one girl, but after all they had to get a chance out of people, then only they could show their star quality. Best friend was handsome movie star type of fellow, soft in the skin but bone also had underneath. Ravi enjoyed whole thing. Only natural. Girlfriend of course was best deal, but what’s the harm to see other side?
That was the beauty of America.
He would be Tiger Asia. Girlfriend put name. There was not a single one he saw in the films, Indian porno stars. Not in the upper-class made in USA type of deal. He, Ravi, would be first one. Very happy. At first very happy.
But now not so happy. Not good time to be an illegal with dark-dark skin so somebody who never knew a Muslim in their life might start wondering. All the Muslims he knew were just poor ordinary buggers like him, live and let live, that’s all anybody wanted. The only terrorists Ravi knew were his mother and his grandmother and his aunties, whole life terrorizing him; and they would kill him if they found out what he was up to, and these days harder to hide. All kinds of people asking all kinds of questions.
Ravi didn’t know what was going to happen to him: finish.
These nights only one pizza he could eat. Boss let him eat all he wanted. But temperament all upset. Ravi knew any decent fellow would be worried, what about all the people in the towers? Still digging, there. His grandmother would say for that alone, not thinking first for those people, for sure he was going to hell. Ravi was ashamed, but own skin also had to think. Supposing policeman one day asked, “Why are you working in pizza parlor, what for have you come out of University, Visa F-1 class only for Universities, proper students, not like you, you bugger must be up to some big mischief.” Then what should Ravi say?
Ravi was all F all right, university-wise. Not only F-1. All F. Straight F. That’s what they gave him. And then his college dean said, “Okay, you can jolly well go home now, not wanted here any more. Thank you very much. Goodbye.”
If Ravi had went home he would have got killed by grandmother and aunties. Now looked like staying in US also would get him killed. Lose-lose situation.
But tried to be confident. Positive thinking was the ticket. In America, anything was possible.
One year already, he was put out of the University. After that no more fees to pay. Fees money came from home. Aunties and mother and grandmother sending money, thinking he is in University. Ravi bought a nice car. Fees money enough for car, second-hand type. He and girlfriend had small apartment together, girlfriend taught him how to drive car. Pizza parlor salary enough for his half of rent. She also worked. He was everything sitting pretty. Family didn’t know anything, still same area in the US he’s living, address, phone number, that’s all.
But now he was sweating. Cold weather or not, he was all the time sweating. First everybody, all his American friends, suddenly all crying, lighting candles. Himself also crying. How not to cry? So pitiful.
But also Americans all angry all the time. People looking at Ravi one kind when opening the door. Just grab the pizza, push money at him, tips also going down; one man asking straight to his face, “Don’t you Muslims feel ashamed?” Ravi said, “Not a Muslim, sir, Church of England, sir. High church.” Didn’t know what that meant, not church type, but grandmother always said it. Man said, “Never heard of it.” And slammed the door as Ravi was saying, “I think it’s like Catholic, sir.” In Ravi’s face.
Made Ravi feel so bad. Two weeks before the towers came down, same man all smiles, big tip. How to understand people? As if Ravi was the one stole the airplanes and blew them up.
Could still remember, peacefully sleeping on 9/11 morning, previous day late-night big-tip shift, dreaming, sleeping, pizza smelling, gear-stick shifting, yesterday’s shift full up in his head dreaming. Morning sun irritating, cigarette-smelling, sticky bed; girlfriend waking up, hair-dryer buzzing, coffee smelling. Morning news blaring, she putting on radio. Otherwise wonderful woman. What to do. Pulling pillow over head, cursing, turning, bed-sheet twisting. Girlfriend screaming.
Girlfriend screaming. Red light. Hurry up putting brakes in car. Again girlfriend screaming. Terrible dream. Car radio changing, ambulances screaming, people shouting.
Girlfriend shaking him. Girlfriend screaming.
Towers falling. Okay, now interesting dream. Like movie, type grandmother used to say, “How do they come up with these ideas?” If Ravi had ideas like that he could go up from Tiger Asia porno to Mr. Hollywood. Maybe director, even.
Only why should girlfriend be shaking him so hard? It was his dream; his movie.
In the end, he didn’t wake up fully until she slapped him. Woken up. Shaking head, throwing water on face. Watching television. Feeling sick.
It would have been nicer if it was a movie. Even full price he would have paid, for it to be a movie.
Best friend came over. Meantime over and over on TV towers falling. Still like a dream. Best friend said he was going to sign up. Join the Marines. Next thing girlfriend was saying she also was going to sign up. She, also, going to be a Marine. Girlfriend wasn’t that type. Best friend wasn’t either. Ravi’s head was spinning. Imagination boggling. His maths master at home used to say that, “Ravi, looking at your test papers and wondering how you manage to put on your pants in the morning makes the imagination boggle, you are such a dull fellow.” Now first time Ravi understood boggling: picture of girlfriend wearing boots, guns, all that. No way Jose.
But in the end best friend did join. Ravi said, “I’ll come too.” Best friend said, “You’re illegal, man. You can’t come.” Which in a way was a relief, couldn’t imagine himself in the army. But couldn’t imagine best friend either. But also a bit ashamed. Especially when mother telephoned and said, “Did you know there was one of our local girls also there, in the World Trade Center? Just think how proud her parents must have been, daughter doing so well, now what they must be feeling.” And then, which gave him a fright, “Don’t know what’s happening in this world, you better come home.” Best friend also said better go home, see what happens in the world. Ravi’s good luck airports all closed. And by the time airports open again, mother said, “Stay, carry on, you already went, don’t waste the chance. Think of those who don’t have a chance any more. So many died.” Which made Ravi feel, a thousand times, over like dirt. Impossible after that to say, “Not going to University any more, actually.”
At least girlfriend didn’t go to Marines in the end.
But whole world upside down.
Ravi remembered family used to all the time tell him he was going to land in trouble if he didn’t pull himself up, buckle down, all that. But he was so happy in America, before. He outsmarted whole family, he wasn’t doing what they told him but he was okay. Happy. Dreaming.
But hard to keep dreams going now. Ravi hardly felt any heart to go on, but what to do, had to suddenly start thinking how to keep out of trouble, now all foreigners lumped into one, he also was dark. Sometimes in his flat, if girlfriend wasn’t around, Ravi would cry and think what would his grandmother say if she knew people were asking him, “Are you Muslim?” Probably would slap his head and say if he was behaving like a good Christian boy nobody would be asking such questions.
Then after crying he had to sing. Otherwise completely loony-tunes he would have become. “F-1 AWOL first-class nut-case.”
Singing and remembering.
Grandmother gave him a cross before he left. Ravi took it off as soon as he got on the plane and was out from family’s eyes, made him feel like she was hanging around his neck watching every move. There were things a man wanted to do that grandmothers shouldn’t see. But now better put it on, show he was also a Christian, maybe no questions asked?
Next he would have to start going to church. His grandmother went to church, twice a day sometimes. Mother’s Union, everything. Lord God Almighty, what for mothers needed unions? They already ran the whole show. Should be a children’s union, then there would be some justice in the world.
Meanwhile he was sweating.
People were still looking at him funny. Delivered another pizza to grumpy fellow, fellow said straight out, “Never saw you wear a cross before.” Giving a hard look.
“Grandmother phoned, sir. Was worried about terrorists, promised her I put it on.”
Grumpy fellow still giving hard look. “Sure you’re not one of them Arabs?”
“No, sir. From Malaysia, sir.”
“That’s near Vietnam, isn’t it? I was in ‘Nam. Not the friendliest place.”
“No sir, Malaysians like America.” Sweating again.
“Sure you’re not an Arab?” Only small-small tip.
Ravi got back to the car, radio saying, “Police are investigating all foreign nationals between the ages of 18 and –” Turned it right off. Didn’t even want to find music.
Cross was turning out nothing but trouble. First suspicious customer, then cop. Ravi walking into pizza parlor, cop sitting there eating. Cop asking, “Did you always wear that cross? Never noticed it before.” And Ravi nodded, bobbed his head, “Oh, yes, sir, always, sir. Grandmother gave me before I left home.” Which at least that part was true. But other part not true. Two mortal sins now he had done, no church since arriving, now lie – no, three, sleeping with his girlfriend – oh God help him, four, is spending of money somebody sent it to you but not the way they think you’re supposed to spend it – that makes four if it’s stealing. He was greedy for all this food, was that five, Oh God, Oh God…
Cop asking, “You go to church?” Ravi continuing to tell lies, what to do, “Oh, yes, sir, every week, grandmother taught me right, sir!” Wondering if two lies in one conversation was one mortal sin or two.
Never used to bother about things like that before, but now in so much trouble at least needed God on his side. But not sure he had much chance.
Maybe he could go to confession, say “Forgive me father for I have sinned,” listen to the scolding – sure to be a scolding, going to priests just the same as going to aunties, what to do? He was willing to go through anything, say one hundred Hail Marys. Say one thousand. Crawl on knees up steps of church. If only all could be back to normal. So scared. Ravi was so scared.
Telephoned to Malaysia. Big uncle came to phone, said, “What’s this? What’s this?” Very loud. Ravi coughed. Voice always went funny when talking to big uncle. Said, “People simply being rounded up here, Uncle. Students like me.”
Uncle said, “I know all about that. USA PATRIOT Act. We also got, here. Government always has to watch out for trouble. Why are you bothering about that?” Should have known. Uncle was big-shot in government, of course would side with government wallahs here. Meanwhile grandmother was coming on the phone. Ravi should have kept mouth shut.
Grandmother said, “Don’t disgrace us, mah.”
By the time all finished talking, Ravi had a stomachache.
Girlfriend said, “Go and see your old Dean, explain.” Ravi couldn’t do it. He remembered: “Thank you very much, goodbye.” Could just imagine what Dean would say. Imagine was enough.
Girlfriend said, “Go to your embassy. They’ll have to help you.”
Embassy in Washington D.C.. Girlfriend said, “So we go to Washington.”
Took a train. Bought map. Found embassy.
Said, “Have a problem with my visa status, sir,” to man who opened door. Man breathed out big breath, like very sad. Said: “First thing Monday morning!” and shook head. Looked at girlfriend. Said, “And you, Miss?”
Girlfriend said, “I’m his friend.” Man said, “Tchk!” and shook his head.
Told Ravi and girlfriend, “Sit there.” Disappeared. Long time.
Terrifying time. Sitting in small office, watching one man looking at Ravi’s passport, F-1 stamp, everything. Next thing two men, next thing three. All listening to Ravi stammer out his story, his explanation, Ravi had no explanation, ten thousand times saying sorry. Frowns coming on all the faces, saying, “Alamack! Better phone the Ambassador.” Shaking heads. Saying, “What a bloody nuisance these children can be.”
Ravi thinking, Oh My God.
Then one man said, “They could get married. Solve the problem.” Girlfriend looked at Ravi, eyes all big. Ravi felt own eyes also big. Suddenly happy. From F-1 AWOL to married? Not bad. Embassy fellows not all bad. Smiled at man.
But other man, first man, spoilt everything. Said to girlfriend, “Do you want to marry this boy, Miss?” And shook his head. And girlfriend’s eyes not so big then.
Girlfriend looked confused. Scared. First time looked scared. Ravi didn’t like to see. Girlfriend said, “Well… I don’t know.” First man said, “Better go home to you parents, Miss.” And held open door.
Girlfriend looked embarrassed at Ravi. Hesitating. But door still open. First man standing there. Saying, “Go along, Miss.” Ravi looked at floor. Didn’t want to watch girlfriend walk out.
Men still talking, right in front of Ravi as if he wasn’t there, just a nuisance, package to wrap up and ship home, only bothered what should they put on the papers.
Nobody offering him makan. One o’clock already. Fellows going out one by one, coming back wiping mouths. Ravi’s stomach making noises. Stomach empty. Mind also starting to wander. But not nice wandering. Not like usual. Usual daydreams all good things. Now, hungry. Tired. Scared. Very scared. Like small boy waiting in Headmaster’s office for caning.
Suddenly somebody shaking him. “How can you be sleeping at a time like this?” Fellow didn’t understand Ravi, didn’t understand sensitive temperament. Fellow said, “Ambassador can’t come till late. You better go and eat.” Pointing. “Outside there.” Pity on face? Ravi got up, went to door. Bumped against door. Embarrassed. Glanced over shoulder, did anybody see? Saw man who woke him making signs, pointing finger at side of head, moving it in circles. Heard a faint: “Screw loose, lah. Poor bugger.” Double-dose embarrassment. Went outside.
Outside room, secretaries all staring. Showed him makan place. Wonderful smells. Home food. Good to eat home food. Ravi thanked God for small mercies, at least none of the ladies was Indian, if he had seen one sari coming rolling at him on top of big round hips he would have broken down completely. Then saw faces. Didn’t make a difference, Indian or not Indian. All the same. Tight mouths, lips turning down at the corners. Like Ravi’s mother’s face. Grandmother’s. Aunties’. Where did ladies learn, all to make that same face?
Ravi’s appetite also gone. But what to do? Man also has to eat. But stomachache coming for sure. Wanted to cry. But couldn’t cry. At least one final disgrace must avoid. Screw-loose name better than crybaby. Even terrorist name better than crybaby.
But still wanted to cry.
Girl-friend and best friend liking him was first, first time anybody bothered about him. Before that, every time he did things with other people it was always a balls-up. Schooldays soccer, inside his head, crowds cheering, “World Cup Final goal number four, scored by Ravi Maniam, ladies and gentlemen, Ravi Maniam best scorer of this year’s World Cup!” Outside head, nobody let him near the ball no matter how much he tried, made fun of him all the time, couldn’t kick for toffee, all that. Then ball landed on his feet by accident one day, and he gave it a big whack to the nearest goal and scored and shouted out and did a big dance and all his teammates came running and grabbed him, he waited to be hugged and they beat him up. Wrong goal.
Always a balls-up. Yesterday Tiger Asia dreams, today sitting with tail between legs. Balls-up.
Finish eat, back in small office. First man gone. Other man, nice man, saying to him, “Listen, you better tell me everything before he comes back and Ambassador also comes. What all you have been up to. Better tell first. Otherwise if they find out and you didn’t tell, you’ll be in even worse trouble. Just a boy, what could you have done? Pizza job, what else?”
Ravi closed his eyes. “Yes, sir,” Ravi imagined himself say. “Made porno home videos, sir. Already many-many sold, sir. Sure to be big star, sir.” Imagined what man would say. No doubt nice man, but still, could just imagine. Imagined what first man would say. Then Ambassador. Mother, aunties, grandmother.
Maybe best to break out of the embassy and go and find CIA and turn himself over to CIA; CIA wouldn’t send him home, guaranteed. But didn’t know how to find CIA. Almost made Ravi wish he was a terrorist; terrorists for sure would know how to find CIA.
Ravi started singing. “F-1 AWOL, terrorist-ish…”
First man, nasty man, came back in, closed door. Said, “What is he singing?”
Door opened. Secretary poking in nose. “That American girl has come back,” she said. First man said. “Send her away.” Ravi stopped singing, sat up. Door starting to close. Ravi said, “Wait a minute!” Pushed secretary, went out of door. Girlfriend was back. He felt brave. Anyway, how many times embassy wallahs could kill him?
Girlfriend there, outside door.
Ravi felt tears come. “You came back!”
She grabbed Ravi’s hand. “Come on, Tiger.”
Ravi said, “Where?”
Girlfriend said, “We’re getting married. I found out. Drive to Maryland – half an hour – wait two days, and you’re legal.” She smiled at him. “Easy as pie,” she said.
Embassy wallah coming out behind him. Shaking head. “Wait a minute, miss. I already told you, lots of trouble. Definitely must file report, all that. Better wait –”
Girlfriend looking at Ravi. “Come on, Tiger!” type of looking. Girlfriend pulling at Ravi’s hand. Looking at car. Girlfriend telling, “Run!”
Ravi held her hand tight. Ignored embassy fellow. Ran. Girlfriend the ideas one. Top of the charts.
Embassy fellow shouting. Embassy guards also shouting….
Ravi and girlfriend running faster.