One of the beautiful things about humanity is that once in a while, some of the more disagreeable elements of our species, while making life miserable for the rest of us, eventually get to each other as well.
Four months into my immigrant journey, things started to unravel quite rapidly between the two main irritants in my home life at that time. My housemates from hell, Slovenly Misogynist and Fiefdom King, were not really feeling the love for each other anymore. I was a little surprised, as they seemed to get along famously in the initial few days. Nonetheless, I will shame-facedly admit to watching the proceedings with a devilish pleasure.
By that time I had taken it upon myself to stay as far away from them as possible, coming home only to sleep, leaving early in the morning, and ignoring them or giving a non-descript acknowledgement when I did see them. I was in this neutral space of not giving the proverbial vermin’s gluteus about them. I paid my rent and monthly grocery bill on time, so they didn’t complain. As a result, I wasn’t really aware of the trouble that had started brewing between them. I gathered from my other two, slightly more tolerable, housemates that tensions boiled over because of one of the original grouses we had with the place – we were all paying rent equally but Fiefdom King had his own room with every amenity possible, while the rest of us slummed it out in crummy, shared rooms.
It didn’t bother me anymore because I was leaving Erie and Gannon University by the end of the Spring 2003 semester. But it clearly got to the rest of them, with Slovenly Misogynist leading the pack. Apparently this was a tension that had been simmering for a while, but the way it boiled over was delightfully insane to witness. The classic Indian trait of conflict-avoidance had once again paved the way for the equally classic Indian trait of melodramatic eruption.
It’s what happens when suppressed emotions reach a boiling point.
I was napping on the torn couch one evening after pulling yet another all-nighter for a crucial exam I had taken that morning. My nap was rudely interrupted when Fiefdom King and Slovenly Misogynist barged into the house shouting, what I assumed were crass expletives, at each other in Telugu. Since I didn’t know the language, I merely rubbed my eyes and sat back to enjoy the entertainment as I would a badly made foreign movie without subtitles, adding them instead in my head. The argument continued rising in volume to the point where they were screaming at the top of their lungs, frothing at the mouth, red-eyed and quivering with rage. The battle theatre was in front of Fiefdom King’s room which was adjacent to the living room where I was napping, so I got a perfect view of the scene playing out without having to move from my comfy supine position.
Like I said, I’m not proud of having taken a malicious pleasure out of watching it, but I did nevertheless. It was like two painful warts on my ass canceling each other out in one sordid, tumorous potboiler. My two other housemates, who seemed opposed to Fiefdom King on principle, chose to also merely watch from the sidelines, glad that they didn’t have to step out of conflict-avoidance mode.
The argument quickly escalated to the point where I thought it was going to turn into a physical fight. Fiefdom King opened the door to his room and made to get in when Slovenly Misogynist, keeping with his disposition I suppose, told him in broken English to fuck his mother, to which Fiefdom King responded by insulting the town that Slovenly Misogynist came from. The insults increased in geographic and familial intensity to the point where Slovenly Misogynist kicked Fiefdom King’s desk-chair down, bringing a pile of unlaundered clothes placed on it tumbling down in a heap.
Yes, I thought in pre-teen glee. Fight, fight, fight! But Fiefdom King seemed to be more of a manipulator than a fighter. And, boy did he send an eerie vibe. His tone got much quieter after Slovenly Misogynist had dared to kick his chair. He gave an ominous-sounding warning, which included words in English.
“You’ll be sorry for this.”
And so saying, he went inside his room and slammed the door, seemingly ending the fight.
Thinking he had won, Slovenly Misogynist shouted through the door and laughed mockingly. I didn’t think this was a particularly good idea. Fiefdom King seemed to have a couple of tricks up his sleeve that my dim-witted bunkmate was unable to discern.
He then turned to me and said, “I’m staying with some friends man and will collect my things later. I’m not paying any more rent to this BASTARD!” shouting the last few words loud enough for Fiefdom King to hear.
If you’re going to cross a manipulator, you better think a couple of steps ahead, cover all your bases first, and not do it in a rush of anger.
The next night, while I was out smoking on the front porch, my bunkmate returned with his friend and a borrowed car.
“Is that idiot at home right now?” he asked, as he lumbered up the stairs to the front door.
I shook my head, exhaling smoke, and said, “No…I think you can grab your things now.”
The guy smirked.
“Fucking coward doesn’t want to face me.” he said with bravado.
I shrugged, preferring to be a curious bystander rather than active instigator. He and his friend went into the house. I had barely finished my cigarette when he came bounding back to the porch, ashen-faced and visibly scared.
“Hey Sri…have you seen my passport and visa documents?” he asked in desperation. “I normally always keep them in the nightstand drawer by the bed…and now I can’t find them!”
I shook my head again, this time with a little concern, and said, “No boss. Why would I have seen them? I keep mine…”
I then realized what had happened.
I ran into the house to make sure the slimy bastard hadn’t taken my passport and visa documents. I hadn’t taken visible sides in the argument, but there was no telling what someone like Fiefdom King would do to make his point. I hurriedly opened the suitcase that had all of my most important stuff and heaved a sigh of relief when I saw the leather folio with my passport and visa documents inside it, along with other important papers. I could not afford to let anything happen to them on account of some fight between two idiots I didn’t give a shit about. I was transferring to a new school and city in a couple of weeks, and realized that the safest place I could keep them was on my person. If the guy wanted my old clothes, he could have them, but my passport, papers, wallet, and cell phone were my lifeblood in that order of importance. I tucked the folio into my backpack and resolved to hold on to it at all times, night and day, until I was out of that crummy place.
I was so worried about my own documents that I temporarily forgot about the dolt standing next to me. I actually felt a little sorry for him. It was one thing to exchange heated words, but to actually jeopardize the immigration status of someone was going too far. Fiefdom King wasn’t kidding when he uttered his ominous warning.
“I know he’s taken it man!” Slovenly Misogynist frantically said. “And I can’t even prove it. Fuck!”
He was right. What the hell could the cops do? Fiefdom King must have hidden it well.
I helped the guy do a thorough search of the entire house, except for the most obvious location of Fiefdom King’s locked bedroom. Not surprisingly, it was nowhere to be found.
“Are you sure it was there? Maybe you took it to school or something.” I said, more out of a sympathetic feeling that took me by surprise than actual enquiry.
“Yes man!” he replied, now visibly quivering. “I know it was there. I saw it the other day before the fight and I didn’t take it anywhere.”
I didn’t have any words of comfort for him. For an international student, a new immigrant to the States, one’s passport and papers were everything. If they were lost then one had to jump through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops to get replacements from consulates and government bodies spanning different continents. This resulted in not being able to travel until those replacements came, and potentially having to return to one’s home country to go through the painstaking visa process again. There was always the risk that some shitty immigration agent would refuse it, forcing one to go through it again. And the time-consuming process would also put one’s studies on hold. It was not a good place to be in.
“Listen,” I said, trying to calm him down, “do whatever it is you need to do to get your passport and papers back. Put your stupid ego aside and ask him…nicely if needed. Who knows, maybe you will have to go to the police as a last ditch option. It might scare him to giving it back to you.”
The guy nodded, still agitated, and said, “Ok…I’ll wait for him and try to get it back.”
When Fiefdom King came home a couple of hours later, what transpired was the most discernible turnaround in attitude I had ever seen. The laughing braggadocio of my bunkmate was transformed into a sad, sorry groveling that was nothing short of pathetic, if highly practical given the circumstances. He bent down, almost genuflecting in front of the King.
Holding his hands in visible supplication, he pleaded, “Listen, please, please give them back to me. I’m sorry…you’re right, I am an asshole and I come from a stupid town and I fuck my mother and whatever else you called me is true. Just give them back to me, and I won’t complain about rent or anything else. Please, I beg of you.”
Fiefdom King was pleased. I thought I even saw the faintest of smirks. The filthy maggot didn’t hide it well enough though.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” he replied in a smooth, all-knowing tone, soaking in the temporary power he had procured for himself.
“But,” he added, a little too quickly, “I promise I’ll look for it, and if I see it, I’ll make sure to keep it safely and give it to you.”
That Fiefdom King had taken the documents was as clear as day.
Sure enough, the next day my staggeringly slow bunkmate came running to me in the computer lab after seeing me.
“I got it Sri!” Slovenly Misogynist said, delirious with joy. “He called me and told me that he found it in the house somewhere near our room. I am so relieved! God, I don’t know what I would have done without my passport.”
He was so giddy that he was practically bouncing, his fatty tissue jiggling in different directions. The guy didn’t feel even a smidgen of anger, and if he did, he was certainly suppressing it well. All he felt was relief. I guess that’s what cold fear could do to you.
It had ceased becoming funny though. Fiefdom King was a conniving weasel. He actually stooped to harming someone only to reassert his feeling of control. I told myself that he had to pay for his hubris, no matter how small. Just a tiny little hit to the little fiefdom he had created for himself, even if merely symbolic and, for the most part, only in my head. It was what he did that made me angry. I didn’t really care about my bunkmate. It was the gumption of Fiefdom King to rationalize his action that got my goat. I think I was even more pissed that he made me fear him stealing my own passport and papers. The fact that I had to walk around carrying them with me 24/7 was not a nice feeling.
I figured, possibly short-sightedly, that the easiest way to make him pay was for him to mysteriously lose one of his prized earthly possessions that he kept under lock and key in his room. The only problem was that, well, he kept them under lock and key in his room. He kept his room open only when he was home. How could I distract him long enough during that time? I realized that he would first need to see me as someone firmly on his side, a friend of sorts. I still had to pay my share of the last month’s utilities and grocery bill, which was due in another week, so I thought I’d give him the check early and endear myself to him.
The next morning, I knocked on the door to his office where he worked as an administrative assistant. He opened the door and was a little surprised to see me.
“Hey man,” I cheerfully said, “I just came by to drop of a check for the last month’s utilities and groceries. I’m going to be super busy for the next couple of weeks since I’m leaving, so I wanted to make sure I got this to you early.”
He seemed a little defeated and lonely, his earlier arrogance having disappeared since there wasn’t a perceived affront he had to pose for.
“Thanks Sri.” he said with a sigh. “At least you’re not against me.”
“No worries man.” I said, while awkwardly patting his shoulder.
He smiled a little, but only enough to further accentuate his pathetic disposition.
I then hesitatingly asked, “Listen, um…you, uh, you wanna grab a few beers and hang out on the porch tonight? It’s supposed to be a lovely spring evening.”
Clearly he didn’t have any friends because he was nodding his head in excitement before I could even finish my sentence. I felt a twinge of guilt seeing him in such a sorry state, but I wasn’t keen on backing down now from my plan. For one thing, I was also miserably bored.
Later that evening, he and I sat down on the porch with a six-pack. I made sure we bought Steel Reserve, a beer that tasted rather like gasoline but had an alcohol content of 8.8%. Knowing his tolerance for liquor was approximately that of an eight-year old boy, I knew that by the time he got to his second beer he would be quite smashed. Sure enough, as we started swigging down the potent beer, he was soon tipsy while I was still able to function quite well, having watched my intake.
And then, the ridiculously simple finale to my plan was about to be enacted.
“Hey man,” I told him, while he was in his happy place, “I’m just going to get a cigarette from my room. I’ll be right back, ok?”
“Of course…in fact, I think I’m going to have a smoke with you.” he said, partially slurring his words now.
I nodded and stepped into the house. I knew I needed to be quick. Looking back to make sure I could see the back of his head through the screen door, I darted into his unlocked room. One of the first things I spotted was a shiny, very expensive, Minolta camera that I had heard him brag about on a previous occasion. Apparently it was worth around a thousand dollars. That would have to do. Without a moment’s hesitation, I took it and hurried into my room, checking again to make sure I could still see him seated on the porch. I stuffed it into my backpack and, picking up my cigarettes, darted back to the porch. My breathing was hurried, and I could vaguely sense the Mission Impossible theme song playing in my head. It was quite the rush and one of the only times during my brief stint in that town that I realized I actually had this hormone called adrenaline.
I joined him back on the porch.
“What took you so long man? I’ve been dying for a smoke.” he slurred when I sat back in my chair. I could see two empty cans beside him now and he was already starting to work on his third. The guy was piss drunk.
“I forgot where I put my cigs boss. I finally found it in my backpack.”
The rest of the evening went by with me having to endure the insufferable worm whine on drunkenly about how no one appreciated him, what with all he had done for us newbies and the way he had welcomed us into the house. The ordeal finally ended and we called it a night. I went to bed with a splitting headache.
The next morning, I woke up a little earlier than usual and left for the university campus. I knew there was a Catholic charity nearby that helped families in need, runaway teens, folks with addictions issues, homeless people, and other marginalized communities. Jane had spoken quite highly of them, saying that they were a little more progressive than some other Christian charities, and not very dogmatic. I stood outside the door to the church where it was housed. I fished out the camera and took a good look at it. It was brand new and I could have easily sold it for about eight hundred bucks. The money would have been supremely useful to me. But it wasn’t part of the plan, I told myself rather weakly. Shaking myself out of my reverie, I stuck the camera back into my backpack and went inside. I introduced myself to the sweet old woman sitting behind the desk of the organization’s one-room office. She was a little surprised to see me, but extremely polite.
“Please sit down my child.” she said, her smile radiating through her voice. “How can I help you?”
“Well ma’am, I’d like to make an in-kind donation to your organization.” I said, still unsure as to whether I actually wanted to.
“Why, that’s very kind of you. What is it that you’d like to donate?”
I realized that I needed to come up with a convincing story to rationalize parting with an expensive, brand new digital camera, when I didn’t exactly look like I was made of money.
“So, um, I recently purchased a very good camera, but, uh…” I stuttered, “I…I got an even better one for my birthday from my parents, who didn’t realize that I’d purchased this one. So um…I thought I’d give this one to your organization.”
“God bless you my child.” she said with a truly blessed tone. “Our organization could certainly use such generous donations.”
I think she would have been that sweet had I come to donate a Snickers bar, but I got the sense that my fake story of altruistic redistribution made her particularly warm.
“Um…ok…cool.” was all I managed to say, in a voice that was anything but sure about parting with the camera in exchange for some amorphous blessing from a god I didn’t even believe in.
“Great.” she replied, getting up to fetch something from the shelf. “Let me get our donations registry, so I can give you a receipt.”
I nodded, a little nervously.
“What’s the value of the camera?” she asked, while reaching for the register. “We need to keep track of the approximate dollar-values of our in-kind donations”
“I believe it is worth about a thousand dollars.” I said, before quickly adding. “I’ve lost the receipt, so can’t give you an exact figure.”
She was visibly surprised at the cost.
“Oh my…that’s so generous of you.” she gushed. “And an approximate value is all we need. It’s primarily for our records with the church.”
She wrote out a donation receipt for the amount and handed it to me, thanking me again profusely.
“You’re very welcome ma’am. It’s a great cause.” I said, trying to sound gracious.
I got up to leave after saying goodbye to her.
“Um…my child…” she said, as she shook my hand.
“The…um…the camera…you haven’t given it yet.”
There was a pause, one that lingered for far too long, as I looked at her and semi-wondered if I should maybe make a bolt for the door. But I rapidly coming back to my senses.
“Of course! How stupid of me.” I replied, slapping my forehead, now a little embarrassed at my Freudian forgetfulness.
I took it out of my bag and handed it to her, looking at it again; my grip tightening as I realized how much it was worth. My reluctance was manifesting itself physically. The camera inched forward at the pace of molasses to the nice old lady across the table. And then when it did finally reach her, my hand refused to let go until she almost wrenched it away from me in a surprising show of strength, while valiantly maintaining her sweet demeanor the entire time.
“Thank you my child.” she said. “May the grace of Christ always reside in you.”
“Yeah…um…you as well ma’am.” I said, still looking covetously at the camera and wondering if I could trade in the grace of Christ for a couple of months rent at my next port of call.
There was another pause as I then looked at her glowing face, still smiling ever so gracefully.
Let it go Sri, I scolded myself, let it go.
“I’ll, uh…I’ll take my leave now.” I finally said with a sheepish smile, and walked out.
And thus, the cosmic payback that I had randomly determined by fiat to be meted out to Fiefdom King was done. With the benefit of hindsight, I realized there was a lot that wasn’t particularly pristine with the way things transpired. Apart from taking such a devilish pleasure in the painful conflict between two of my housemates, infuriating as they were, I think the biggest flaw with my hastily executed payback plan was that the King didn’t hear directly what a rat bastard he was. It was cosmic payback in my head, but I doubt it achieved much by way of changing him for the better or even making him vaguely aware of his manipulative ways. It was done to make me feel better. Not to mention also providing me a smidgen of excitement in that miserable place. The fact that I stole something bothered me lesser than the fact that the plan really didn’t live up to even the stretched vigilante-esque morality I used to justify its implementation.
For months after, I still remained in two minds as to whether I should have sold the camera and used the money for myself. It would have made life so much easier at that time. So much for that shaky morality, I suppose.
[Next up: The heart grows fonder and whinier]