Crossroads

 

By Meera Prahlad

 

(Names and places have been changed to protect the privacy of persons involved)

“Don’t forget to pray every day,” my mother had said tearfully as she hugged me at the airport, as I got ready to board my flight to California. “You must light a lamp every day for Lord Ganesha.  He will protect you.”

However, the thrill of being in a new country, newly married to a man I barely knew, and experiencing a new role had left no room for old India to creep in. It was an exciting time, when I watched everything with wide-eyed wonder and took in everything that was new and different – a time where I would learn new ways and customs, understand new accents and a time when my perceptions would be turned upside down.

It was my first month in California when my husband Mayur and I were invited to a barbecue.  As we drove past a neighborhood, Mayur said, “Roll up the window. We are coming to a sketchy neighborhood.”

Looking around, I saw houses with doors and windows that had bars.  Cars that looked a bit run down were in driveways and on the street.  The houses were small and chain-link fences drew borders around the front yards. Each house was a different color and had a uniqueness about it. 

It annoyed Mayur when I said that I liked the houses and that they reminded me of my grandmother’s neighborhood in India. 

“You’re kidding me, right?”

Something in his tone made me not insist. A new bride had no voice in realms outside the kitchen.

“Roll it up. Make it quick!”

I obeyed.

We came to a stop at an intersection as the lights were red; we were first in line.

“Just you watch.  The minute we cross this road, the whole city changes.” Mayur was eager to show me the upscale neighborhood where his white American friend was hosting us in a local park.  I was nervous about meeting his friends.  Would I understand their accents? Would they understand mine?  Was my salwar-kurta appropriate attire for a barbecue?

“Don’t wear anything Indian,” warned Ratna, my friend from college in India, who had been in the country for two whole years, making her an authority on all things American.  “Your name and your outfit will both be foreign.”

“So, what then?”

“A dress or shorts?” she said.  That was new – the way Ratna had begun to end her sentences to sound like a question mark, as if she was not quite sure of herself.  That made me uncertain about what she meant and I decided to wear what I felt comfortable in.

I smoothened my grey and white batik flared kurta.  “Do you really think my outfit is okay?” I asked Mayur.

“You look beautiful,” he said generously, wearing a look of relief at having reached the defining borderline between danger and delight.

When the light turned green, the Toyota Camry began to move forward.  We hadn’t progressed more than a few feet when we felt a jolt.  A blue truck had run the red light and come speeding from our left and hit the front left bumper of our car.  In seconds our car had changed its heading; we were now facing North instead of West and found ourselves facing a gas station. Luckily, neither of us was hurt.

The driver of the truck was a young white girl, plump with curly blonde hair.  She looked teary-eyed and apologized profusely.

My husband was looking at the damage to his gleaming, new car. 

“What were you thinking?” he asked.  “Do you know you ran a red light?”

She looked distraught. “I know. I really am sorry.”

Mayur wanted to call the cops, but the girl began to cry.

“Please, I just got my license.  My mom will kill me.  Please don’t call the cops.”

We both felt sorry for the girl.

“I’m Alice. I’ll give you my number.  My mother will pay you I swear.”

Mayur asked her to pull off the road into the gas station so they could exchange numbers. 

I remained in the car shaken, when a rap on my window startled me.  A dark face stared in at me.  The middle-aged man was indicating that I roll down the window. I stared back alarmed, thinking of what my husband had said about the neighborhood.  Whatever would befall us next?  Would I be mugged?

“My friend Nikhil was mugged in Chicago and was beaten within an inch of his life. All for $20.  He should have known to cross the road.” Sensing my alarm my cousin had consoled, “California is not Chicago. Just remember to cross the road.”

I rolled the window down a crack.

“You need a witness?” said the middle-aged black man with his salt and pepper hair.

I strained to understand the accent.

“Sorry?”

“I saw what happened,” he said.  “I can be a witness.”

Nervously, I accepted a piece of paper with his name and number and put it in my handbag hastily.

“Why were you speaking to that man?” Mayur asked when he returned.

“Nothing. Did you get her number?” I changed the subject.

The mood had soured, but we attended the barbecue as it was around the corner.  I was quiet and Mayur’s friends probably thought that I couldn’t speak much English or that I was a shy, Indian bride. 

We went home sooner than planned and called the number that Alice had given us.  A woman answered the phone – Alice’s mother.  Mayur said he was calling regarding an accident involving her daughter. She was unperturbed. He then explained that Alice had run a red light and had hit our car.  If we had expected the mother to be shocked or apologetic, we had another think coming. 

“Alice said you were the one who hit her truck.”

The lie was downright shocking.  After all the tears and pleas, had the girl lied to her mother?  Or was the mother lying to cover up for her daughter?

Mayur tried to convince the mother that that was not what happened.

“Did you report this to the police?” she asked.

Mayur said he hadn’t because Alice had begged him not to and that she had said that her parents would take care of the damage.

“Why would I do that? It wasn’t her fault.”  And the phone had clicked.

Mayur and I were both aghast. We held hands and sat down in silence, wondering what to do.  The car was insured, but as new immigrants we had no idea of what to expect.  What if our premium went up? We simply couldn’t afford any more demands on our single-salary budget.

I suddenly remembered the paper in my handbag. 

“Mayur, we might have a witness.”  I explained that the man at my window at the gas station had stopped to say that he would be a witness if we needed.

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?!”

“You’d warned me about the neighborhood,” I defended myself.

Now elated, Mayur called Alice’s mother back to say that we had a witness to the accident.

“You have a witness, do you?  We can produce a dozen that will take our side.”

We had been thrilled at having an eye-witness, but I had heard plenty about the divide between the Whites and Blacks.  Would a black man’s testimony hold up against the dozen witnesses that Alice’s mother had threatened to produce?

Deflated we gave up and decided to let things take their own course.  The insurance company stepped in and got our statements.  We gave them the name and number of our witness.  They assured us that they would get to the bottom of it.  There was nothing to do but wait and hope for the best.

Our case went to Court quickly – what a change from the snail-paced legal system in India!  A few weeks after the distasteful incident, my husband called me from work. Unusual for him. The insurance company had called him with the ruling. 

“It went in our favor!” Mayur was excited.  Not only that, the other insurance company had given us $300 to “take your wife for a nice dinner”.  How thrilled we were at the amount which seemed so enormous twenty years ago.

“Did our witness show up?” I asked.

“You won’t believe this,” Mayur said and relayed to me what he had learned. The insurance company had said that witnesses for both sides had shown up – one witness who testified for us, and five who testified for Alice.  Yet we had won?!

“The insurance company said that we got super lucky.” What Mayur conveyed next is forever etched in my memory for one doesn’t often experience miracles such as this.

“Guess what? The insurance agent laughed and said we had a very credible witness.  Do you know why? He happened to be the Mayor of the city!”

That evening, I lit a lamp for Lord Ganesha.

 


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