Just A Cleaner

The people who clean our home pass through several houses in one very long day. On some days, when the teenage son is not in school, he too is part of the cleaning crew, busting cobwebs and dusting ledges. Jose and his wife chuckle and laugh and chatter in Spanish while they go about washing the sink, wiping the pendant lights and fluffing up our pillows. I watch them at work and I wonder whether my husband and I would laugh with each other all day if we were going about our duties together every day. 

Mostly, my husband and I are like Putin and Obama. Like the two leaders, we are remotely aware that we’re serving a common larger goal but like the two leaders, we’re busy polishing our knives towards smaller “side” agendas.  Sometimes I wonder if the cleaning couple that knows every nook and cranny of our home may be saying, in Spanish, that this Indian couple could use a summit like the G-20 to cleanse their lives. 

They never fail to ask after our children and now, after almost eight years of association, they know about the big issues that wrinkle our lives.  The scent of Palmolive and Pine tides away my  troubles, at least momentarily, and I do look forward to the mornings my housekeeping service arrives—even though I’ve noticed how I often find myself cleaning before the cleaners arrive.  

I still remember the time I texted the couple ten minutes after they had left our home. “Hey, you forgot to mop the sun room today,” I said, annoyed about their slip. “Do please do it next time, thanks!” Jose was back at my door in minutes. He did not like to be told he had missed a spot. He was as particular as I was about a job well done. I hated myself that morning.   

Today, while vacuuming our family room, Jose asked after my son in Europe. We talked about Paris and then we ended up talking about the attitudes of people towards immigrant communities. I told him that despite the issues around immigration, America remained one of the most welcoming and broadminded nations in the world. He agreed. But it was also a matter of perspective, he said. All Americans were not that fair-minded or accepting of others and it depended on where an immigrant was on the totem pole.

“Some of the houses that I visit,” he said. “People won’t even honor me with a greeting. They don’t treat me like a human being. For them, I’m just a cleaner.”

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The i-Marriage

“Look at so-and-so,” I said to my husband the other day while talking about a married couple who must have been conjoined at birth. “They use “we” whenever they talk about their lives. They do everything together.”

The we-Couples I know always walk together. They are one entity with one head, four hands and four legs. While he cuts vegetables, she cooks. While she puts the dinner away, he loads the dishwasher. They take the garbage out together: she collects all the trash in the house; he rolls out the carts. They make grocery lists together. They hold hands at Safeway. And of course, while they do their taxes together every April, they also itemize the todos of every ordinary day, always watching that they don’t tax each other out. I hear only one note in their marriage: the harmonious "we" note.

On the other hand, we, my husband and I, are the i-Couple. I leave notes for my husband on some mornings like this. “You’ll get your tea after you empty the dishwasher which has been waiting since Alexander The Great crossed the Hindu Kush Mountains into India.” Sometimes I leave a red rose by the note. I’m sweet and all.

These days, when we drive places, the GPS lady comes between us. He listens to her. Note that in a we-Marriage, the GPS lady is one of a threesome, directing the couple towards the perfect union of their souls. In my marriage, the GPS lady seems to have a different angle on everything. She has Occupied the third vertex of our love triangle.

It follows that my husband and I do not walk together. The last time, my man got ready to walk, right about the time I set out for my walk, I warned him. “You know, I won’t talk when I walk,” I said. “I’ll be busy with Michael Krasny or Ira Glass or Salman Rushdie.” So he plugged his device into his ears and marched on ahead. I picked my podcast. I turned right in the direction of De Anza Boulevard. He turned left towards Scotland Road.

Our singular marriage has most relevance in bed. By midnight, my husband may be found in his natural habitat, huddled inside the double layers of comforters, finger pulsating over his phone. I lie down by his side, my iPhone in hand. We are in an i-Marriage.

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All Ears

When I tell some people that I’m a writer, they respond with a smile and a raised brow. Then, a second or so later, they let it drop that they too have a book in them. They confide, in a low, serious voice, that they too would have written a book had they only had the time to do so between their endless professional commitments, their family life and their daily chores.

Isn’t it interesting how everyone thinks it’s easy to be a writer? Writing is not about putting words down on a page. It’s about conveying meaning and driving change, one word at a time. The easier something reads, the harder it is to write.

“It’s the same story with my profession,” Gurdeep Kaur Chawla said to me over coffee last evening. “People think they can be interpreters too.”

Gurdeep’s job is to listen. Sometimes, she has the luxury of a pause before a translation. Not always. For 20 years, she has been like a funambulist, testing the tightrope of the limits of language as she crosses between islands called English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.

Listening is one of the hardest things in the world to do well. I live with a man who always listens with all neurons on fire. He listens to the radio intently even though he isn’t having a conversation with it. He listens to my daughter’s ramble on weekends and overanalyzes her barbs. He listens to the GPS woman with complete attention—and she is not even his wife and her directions are not always more accurate than mine. He has that way of listening, I think, with all of his ears and all of his body. You could say that he listens like a cricket (which, by the way, has ears on its knees).

Most of us listen absently. If we were to analyze our manner of listening, I suspect there would be gaps in hearing, comprehension and analysis. And the juice of every job is in the analysis before a big next step. This is why I don’t dare discount the years people have invested in their careers, or their missteps and failures, often unknown, en route to their minor victories and major triumphs. That is why Gurdeep’s life of sudden interpretation seemed to defy interpretation. Even on deadline, writers had the luxury of sufficient time—to revise, polish and edit again.

“When I’m on the job, I’m all ears,” she said. No one wants to be asked to repeat something that they just said, especially when they’re in what one might call “a flow.”

What if your job depended on listening, analysis and simultaneous translation? What if you were helping broker deals in a lawyer’s office or at the United Nations? What if you had to bring in your experiences with life, your knowledge of world leaders, past and present, and your awareness of the globe you live in, of all the old news and all the new news, of the latest attack on an embassy building, of the crisis in Syria and of the term, in Hindi, for “technology outlook”?

“If I miss just one word, I cannot catch up,” Gurdeep said. The last time she felt that way—even though she didn’t exactly have time to dwell on it—she was seated between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a private chatter at a big white house.

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Bitter Sweetener

So, once again, today, at Starbucks, my husband told me that I could not get a coffee cake or a marble cake slice along with my cappuccino. I don’t take well to being told I cannot do something. He did the same thing at Peet’s the other evening.

This afternoon, he gave me an Orange Alert even before we queued up behind a couple of others at Starbucks.“And you don’t need to eat all that,” he said, in his grim airline counter voice, pointing to the cakes. “You know you just had a big meal at the wedding an hour ago.”

“But there was no dessert.”

“No. There was burfi.”

“But that was big. Too big.” My husband doesn’t get it. I cannot eat burfis the size of South Dakota along with lunch.

“And, in any case, I wanted something sweeter,” I said. “And smaller.”

“There was that kheer.”

“That was before. Long before lunch.”

By now, it was our turn at the counter and the Starbucks lady seemed to be enjoying our bickering. “I’d like a small cappuccino,” I said, turning to the woman.

All of a sudden, I felt the inner glow of all the women who had gone before me. I heard the strident cry of Rani of Jhansi asking me to fight for my craving. I heard the slam of Kannagi’s anklet on the stone floor. I heeded Betty Freidan’s whisper: “The real enemy is women's denigration of themselves.” Then there were the words of Gloria Steinem in my ears: “Once we begin to ask [questions], there's no turning back.”

While the Starbucks clerk stood in front of me nonplussed, I broke into a crazy laugh. “You know what? I do want that coffee cake—the slice, not the other kind that looks like a muffin—AND I want a small cappuccino, extra hot.”

And while I hurried away from the counter, my good man pulled out his wallet, his face churlish. He remained that way for a while afterward although he knew that I knew that a giggle hovered at the edge of his lip.

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The Senior Moment

The girl at the movie counter blinked when I asked her if I'd get two tickets at the cheaper, matinee price. I couldn't believe the price she quoted. I'm only at the movies to see Daniel Craig's nipples and six-pack. That's about every two years.

"$10.49 for a ticket?" I asked of the girl. "Is that the going price for movies these days?"

"Oh yes, that's the price of a regular ticket," she said, "Unless..." Her voice petered out as she looked to my right.

My husband had appeared by my side at that prescient moment. The next thing she said gave me hope for a future full of exciting discounts. "Unless of course one of you is a senior. 60 and above."

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