July 16, 2001
Touch me like only Shiva can!
by Brian Wallace
hen Lady Liberty asked for the world's tired and poor and its huddled masses yearning to breathe free, I wish she had added a stipulation that they'd have to give a young man like me an even chance. Thanks to American TV, the rest of the planet tends to view this country as a place where all the culture rests in a cup of yogurt. Still, playing the instant citizenship game at a Las Vegas drive-thru has become a national pastime.
It's disappointing when a man learns that his love life is little more than a scientific test designed to prove that the women of the world are averse to dating him. And when I say 'of the world,' I'm not just letting my degree in history and interest in anthropology exaggerate for me - I have the Berlitz receipts to corroborate my efforts across almost every border.
While not adamant about dating only women from other countries, I can't deny the appeal of commiserating with people from distant shores. An avid fan of world travel, I find that I don't get about too much anymore. This I attribute to an acute condition I have, known in some circles as 'laziness.' Then again, having been born in the South, the odds are that I just want to have dinner with someone who has a harder time with English than I do.
When working as a press agent in New Jersey (I meant to get off at the exit for Nashville, but what are you gonna do?), I quickly learned that the Garden State is in fact a basket of infinite variety and abundance. And as a vegetarian, I suspected that I might stand a better shot than most at this human horticultural buffet. When I met a young Hindu woman from India, I thought we would probably like most of the same things, and I wouldn't have to splurge on filet mignon or leg of lamb.
She was a print journalist, and quite honestly, one of the best writers I've ever read. Kipling himself would have left India in shame had he been forced to contrast his own work with hers. But then we'd have lost Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and my fear of snakes would remain uncured.
Though worried for the first twenty minutes as to whether pursuing her would create a professional conflict of interest, my affections were genuine. On the other hand, the prospect of not being accepted by a traditionalist family, of being judged as an untouchable at best and an imperialist Westerner at worst (destined to make a living as a towel boy at the Ganges), did give me pause. But I ultimately decided I was putting the cart before the horse in this matter.
I always figured that if I were to become involved with a foreign woman, she would be from a country I would have liked to live in at the time, maybe France or Japan or England. Heck, I'd even been open to a Canadian immigrant or someone from east Texas. But India? Sad and unfair as it is, most of the stories that gravitate to North America don't make life there sound very appealing. So I watched some awful Patrick Swayze movie about a thousand times to work up my nerve, and then I went for it.
'Parvati' (she would be named for a goddess) was not guarded behind the veils of secrecy, however. In her late twenties, she had spent a few years living abroad. She dressed in Western clothes, and even confessed to me that she wore leather shoes and ate shrimp from time to time. Although peppered with an exotic accent, her primary language was English, and I got the sense that she could feel at home in a place like New York.
So we began a semi-frequent series of lunch meetings - about six or seven in total, each lasting about an hour and a half. Altogether I think we discussed 'official business' for roughly three seconds. And as she was the most stimulating person I'd ever met, I looked for subtle ways to prolong our time together, even reading no fewer than eight books about India in two weeks, and daring her to quiz me. A documentary on Gandhi I found at the library convinced me to give fasting a try in order to test my priorities. But evidently the human body requires something, like food, to stay healthy, and after a couple of days I came down with a cold. Yet when Parvati suggested that we get together again, I made a quick recovery.
Looking back at my love life I've decided that socialism doesn't have a romantic arm: there isn't necessarily somebody for everyone. This is very much a survival-of-the-fittest game. Though not an avid reader of Marxist philosophy, I have urged my congressman to implement a host of new federal programs. I'm thinking of different spins on soup kitchens and Head Start, where the awkward can be trained in the latest pickup lines and learn which wines go with which entrees. Doubtless these extra tax dollars would do wonders for my Casanova factor. Right now the fact that I often cannot tell when I'm being flirted with makes me about as successful as a fork salesman in China. Friends joke that if a naked woman wrapped herself around me, the boldest remark I could make would be, 'Do you know what time it is?'
On an exceptionally enjoyable lunch with Parvati one rainy afternoon, I was reminded of this observation. She was telling me about going to a bar one night with a friend of hers (I recall that a new bhang tavern had just opened - this must have been the place). This friend had developed feelings for a man that had the bad habit of playing hard-to-get. When Parvati described how passé and ridiculous she found those who play this game, her chocolate brown eyes gazed into mine, intentionally or not, making Bambi's mother resemble a pit bull in comparison. Then she ate food from my plate and offered me food from hers.
It was then that time stopped for me. I can only equate the experience in my head to the Buddha's first taste of nirvana… or perhaps that psychedelic scene in the Blue-boy episode of Dragnet. There I was, my lunch half-chewed, friendly jokes about my amorous naiveté spinning in my head, and the suspicion that I was expected to read between the lines. Things got a little hazy, and I don't think it was the Ethiopian spices. I closed my eyes and rubbed them like a cherub, and when I opened them back up, all I saw was Parvati wearing a helmet and waving two orange flashlights in my direction.
'Oh, great heavens!' I said, I think just to myself. 'This is it!'
'… After all, when you like someone,' she murmured, 'I think you should just come right out and say it.' I didn't need a translator to tell me what to do next.
'Funny you should say that, Parv…,' and then I proceeded to tell her, in a very low-key and non-threatening way, that I kind of liked her. A little bit. I was nervous, so I stammered a little, and I probably said too much. But it wasn't the Gettysburg Address with '2 Good 2 Be 4 Gotten' added on to the end. (However, I have since had second thoughts about the interpretive dance I choreographed, using bread tongs, to express my emotions.)
I finished up by asking her how she felt. I thought this was only fair. Even though I had nothing vulgar in mind, I expected her to jump onto the tabletop and scream, 'Yes, Brian! Touch me like only Shiva can,' mainly because s/he has eight arms. But instead she just blurted out, 'Bhaghaa.'
Now this 'Bhaghaa' sound requires some explanation or description. Parvati didn't speak fluent Tamil, so I ruled out the deluded possibility that she was saying 'I feel the same way' in her native tongue. I can only equate the sound, which sported an upward inflection on the 'ghaa' syllable, with one that an unsuspecting pigeon, under the influence, might make while digesting 250 grams of force-fed gelatin mix (as evidenced by a miscalculated science project in my youth).
Then there was a pause. I say 'pause,' but Pinter himself has never endured such a silence. All cosmic forces in the universe came to a standstill, much like the culmination of the Big Crunch that will take place five billion years from now. Parvati looked down at her salad, then around the room. Then she giggled self-consciously and stabbed at her greens with such determination that I began to question her commitment to vegetarianism.
'So… how are things at work?' she asked.
My nervous system wrapped its arms around me and shook. 'Whoa, back up,' I wanted to scream, 'back up,' but it was a nice restaurant with lots of family atmosphere. I had to tell her that I didn't know how it was done in India, but in America you can't just change the subject like that. When somebody says they like you, you have to say something. Even if you don't feel the same way, you have to let them off the hook. It doesn't matter if they look like walking afterbirth or have the social graces of Pat Buchanan at a Black Panther rally. At the very least, they're trying to be nice to you.
'Well, Brian,' she said, and then I started to think about how much I loved it when she said my name, and missed most of what she said after that. But I snapped out of it in time to hear her remark, 'it takes me a long, long time to get to know people. I like you as a person, but I can't give you more than that right now.'
I was cool about it, at least as cool and nonchalant as anyone who counts Neil Diamond as one of his favorite entertainers could be (I can't help it, I just love to hear that man sing). And I told Parvati that too. I said, 'Listen, that's fine with me. Take as long as you like and I will just sit under a tree in the lotus position until you have your epiphany. No rush.' Then I remembered that in the Upanishads, a 'long, long time' often stretches into a thousand years, or until they stage something original on Broadway, whichever happens first. So I quickly added that I was apt to take frequent breaks from ascetic meditation for coffee and to go to the bathroom.
I could tell she wasn't keen on continuing this line of conversation, and she could tell I was simply humiliating myself by trying to do so, and offending twenty percent of the world's population in the process. Parvati calmed my fears that I had been too forward and ruined our burgeoning friendship just before she made a run for the bus stop. But as this wasn't The Graduate, the bus wasn't arriving at that very moment for her to escape. So innocently ignoring the hint, I waited with her. It was at this point that I tried to subtly list my virtues, noting everything from the organ donor card I keep meaning to fill out to my benevolent views on water purification.
Before stepping on the bus, Parvati shook my hand and it was all I could do to let it go. Sitting alone in the corner, I noticed the cherry tree above me was beginning to bloom. I contemplated getting started on that waiting-in-patience idea. But I probably would've lost my job if I had stayed at lunch for a thousand years, because they'll never put another new play on Broadway. Besides, my face starts to itch if I stop shaving.
Walking back to work, I silently tried to reword the lyrics to 'Sweet Caroline' to fit my own situation. But I abandoned this when I realized Weird Al Yankovic probably has all the material he can use. This isn't to say that I wasn't let down, of course. After all, this was proof that my romantic radar was about as sophisticated as an Atari video game - if not the cup and ball. Not only that, but somehow I still got stuck with the check.
However, nothing assuages the loss of an old love like a new love. Not that I've found one, understand. All the letters I send in response to ads about Russian brides get stamped 'Return to Sender.' That's probably because I ask to see naked photos right up front, a habit I've never outgrown (but trust me, it was considered charming and precocious when I was five).
The most surprising thing is that Parvati and I still get together, which is a completely foreign experience for me - pun definitely intended. We routinely go out for coffee, tea, saffron, and loads of other Indian exports. Not all that many potential boyfriends are so mindful of a partner's GNP.
So if nothing else, I came out of it all with a new friend and enough Hindi to recognize the dirty words in the average Bollywood flick. That's not exactly 'losing,' because all I wanted to do in the first place was enjoy some of her qualities, and I still do. Parvati is kind and accommodating, and every so often she even grabs the check. I bet I could even get her to teach me to play the sitar, though I'd have to wait until she learned it first.
Besides, that might conflict with my bagpipe lessons. See, I met this girl from Glasgow last week, and we're supposed to have lunch pretty soon.
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