“So-oo? You and your husband are a love marriage?” Amargit asked. Amargit is from India where families still arrange most marriages.
I didn’t know how to respond. She added, “Ye-es?” before I could. She seemed a little nervous about my “love marriage.” I didn’t want to tell her, or not yet, that I’d met my husband while hitchhiking Highway 101. He pulled over and, quite literally, picked me up.
I think back to that question, how I paused, and in my hesitation, I realized we were taking our first leap of faith, when we both recognized how, if we were to become friends, we’d need to jump from two very different starting points over a vast cultural divide.
So that’s what we did. We jumped. Being who I am, though, it didn’t feel like a jump, it just felt like being curious in a city where 40 percent of the foreign-born tech employees are from India. At first, we struggled to share the everyday in an everyday way. Our exchanges tread carefully, not even close to the kidding around we manage now.
And on that first meeting, before I could put romantic love into words for her, I was busy asking myself should I say something funny? No. Serious, then? No, again. Elaboration wouldn’t do. It was a simple question in need of a simple answer. “That’s right,” I said, finally. “A love marriage,” and because I couldn’t stop myself, I started to sing, “All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.”
Tilting her head to the right, she responded, “Ye-es?” lengthening the sound into two syllables again, making more of a question out of the word and, though not intentionally, more of a clown out of me. Funny, funny me. My stomach flip-flopped. Humor can be the most difficult disconnect between cultures; it really can.
Luckily, with no reluctance — none — Amargit moved us onto safer ground. “Sanelli,” she said, “you have a beautiful voice, yes?” Honestly, if diplomacy could speak, it just had.
It was Super Bowl Sunday. We were at Macy’s downtown. (I miss that store. I miss willing myself, sometimes successfully, not to linger in front of the shoes. Or the handbags. Or the jewelry bling always on sale, before taking the escalator up to the second-floor loo.) I was shopping for nothing, really, but Amargit was working, rearranging clothes on a rack. “You don’t like football?” she said, grinning. And when she pronounced her name, I pretended to grasp the sound, straining to remember it.
From the start, we intrigued each other. She wanted to learn more about the freedoms of American women now that she is one (I like to remind her), and slowly, over the years, we’ve chipped away at the bulk of our differences, only to find that underneath we are just two women who want to talk, laugh, complain, share. Four words that I believe are the definition of intimacy, the meaning itself. If lucky, we find it in a friendship. If really lucky, in marriage.
Now, I like to remember what was a big, big day for Amargit and me, when she and her husband, Tito, invited my love marriage, Larry and me, for dinner at their home on their one day off a week. If they take it. They and their two college-age sons (their education the reason the family immigrated) live in a basement apartment north of the city. As soon as I entered, I wondered if maybe this is why she’d hesitated inviting me here, needing time to make sure I’m not the kind of person who’d snub someone who lives in a two-room apartment off Aurora.
That night I was shocked to learn something else Amargit hadn’t disclosed. In India she didn’t need to work. By Indian standards, she had plenty of money. She employed several “domestic servants” (I admit, I gasped when she used the words) who waited on her family’s every need. Which all sounds very un-Seattle-PC, I know, but what better example of how much she wanted to ensure an American education for her sons. And now they, Amargit and Tito, husband and wife, work six, seven days a week waiting on others.
The feast spread out for us remains one of the eating peaks of my life. Which led to a story about how Tito removed his turban and cut his hair the first day on American soil, a ponytail that, since boyhood, wound around his head several times underneath his headdress. How relieved he felt. “I was freed from a religious and cultural law,” he said, “and much cooler. Life is more fair in America.”
Ah, yes, it is. Here is where I could have said how unfair it is that he still wouldn’t allow Amargit to go out alone, other than to work. Nowhere with me, certainly, not without him or my husband tagging along. And what fun is that? (Just kidding!)
But I decided not to wave my independent-woman flag so soon. Though I detect a bit of mellowing on his part. His younger son’s girlfriend joined us, an Afghan student who proudly told us that, yes, they date without chaperones. In a single generation, everything can change. She also told us how she, her parents and six sisters had left Afghanistan.
“Did you flee? I asked.
“Oh yes,” she said. “We took an airplane.”
“No, I mean from us, the Americans?”
“Oh, yes. There were many bombs.”
Another bomb, of course, was my question. But she was warm, not offended. Bless her for that. And later when I baptized Tito “old-fashioned,” he laughed. “Yes,” he said. “I am very ancient.”
Funny. Originally from a family of immigrants, I fought my whole life to get away from such old-world traditions. And then the years went by. Choices, choices, choices. And here I am facing all the same issues. But that’s Ok. It’s a new day. I am relearning my way around.
Mary Lou Sanelli, author, speaker, and master dance teacher, is the author of Every Little Thing, a collection of essays that has been nominated for a 2022 Washington State Book Award. Her first novel, The Star Struck Dance Studio of Yucca Springs, was released in 2020, and her first children's book, Bella Likes To Try, was recently released. Ask for them at your favorite independent bookstore. For more information about her and her work, visit marylousanelli.com.