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American Meal

Shoilee Khan

August 12th 2002, Los Angeles California. Heat. I roll out of bed and kick away the green and white patterned quilt. I struggle to my feet, rub my eyes and blink several times. The room comes into focus. Beams of sunlight cast striped patterns across rumpled sheets and squashed pillows. I wiggle my toes and stretch my arms. The glowing green digits on my cousin Aditi’s clock read 11:04 AM. I sigh. My second week of visiting my aunt, uncle and cousin in L.A., and I’m still sleeping in. I shake my head. Aditi left for summer school hours ago.
     I click the lock and throw open the bedroom door. Heat envelops my body. I hear the clanging of pots, sizzling of hot oil and the crackle of onion slivers crisping in butter. The pungent stench of frying fish, the sharp scent of garlic and the sweet wavering aroma of polau waft through the small apartment. A petite figure draped in a yellow shawl scurries around in the kitchen.
     “Dolon Khala!” I snap, glaring at my aunt. “It’s too hot! Why do you have to cook in the morning?” She looks up at me, her brown eyes wide and shining. I escape into the bathroom and splash cold water on my face. The California heat clings to my skin. I shuffle back into the living room.
     I gaze down at the babies my aunt takes care of for the couple on the ground floor. I pat their cheeks and kiss their noses. They crawl away to play with my ‘Welcome!’ balloon and the fuzzy Canadian moose toy I had brought from home. I saunter over to the kitchen and stand in the doorway. Dolon Khala bustles around in a worn blue cotton housedress. She yanks at her ill-fitting olive green apron every few seconds. Her shoulder-length black hair hangs in a messy ponytail. The red, white and blue elastic holding her hair together—threadbare and worn—threatens to snap at any moment. She jiggles a colander full of vegetables over a shiny metal saucepan. Carrots, cauliflower and chunks of Sicilian zucchini tumble into a pool of hot oil. They sizzle. I gaze around the small, enclosed kitchen. Carrot skins, potato peels, bits of raw beef and crushed sprouts of coriander litter the countertop. The sink overflows with pots and pans. Dolon Khala squats on the floor, gathers up morsels of onion and fish tails, and flings them into the pink garbage pail.
     “Are you done yet?” I whine. “Why do you have to cook now?” Dolon Khala struggles to her feet and rinses her hands in the sink. Selecting her favourite crystal drinking glass in one hand, she reaches for a yellow sponge with the other and squeezes bright green Palmolive dish liquid onto it. She scrubs. She speaks to me in Bengali, her voice chirping, her words thick and sweet.
     “What are you all going to eat if I don’t cook? What’s your Uncle going to eat when he gets home? And Aditi? They can’t live on cream cheese and bagels like you Cen-ne-diens.” She carefully places her crystal glass on the drying rack and runs her thumb over the “Made in USA” sticker to make sure it won’t peel off. She picks up a big black saucepan.
     “You would like Canada,” I reply. I yank the refrigerator door open and haul out the 4L jug of milk. Dolon Khala hands me a box of Cornflakes. I pour flakes into a light blue plastic bowl and dump milk over it. I carry my bowl to the glass-topped table and sink into a green velvet covered chair. Dolon Khala wipes the counter top clean and ladles lentil soup and fish curry into white ceramic dishes.
     “I like Bangladesh.” She replies in Bengali. She looks at me, her eyes searching my face. I nod. I remember my mother pressing the receiver of our red plastic phone to my ear—my heart pounding, my fingers pulsing—I heard Dolon Khala’s faint, jittery voice tell me that Aditi, my Khalu, and herself were going to leave Bangladesh and come to America. “Come.” I had never thought that they were “going” to America, only “coming” closer to Canada. To me, it meant they were that much closer to Canada, that much closer to me. That was seven years ago. I look down. The lingering smell of curried fish hangs in the air. I spoon soggy Cornflakes into my mouth. It tastes like wet cardboard.
     “You would like Canada too.” I insist. Dolon Khala hands me a glass of Florida orange juice. “It’s beautiful you know.” I take a sip of juice and wrinkle my nose. Too sour. Dolon Khala gently places her crystal glass on the counter top and pours filtered water from the Brita jug. She joins me at the table with her lunch, placing the glass carefully on the tabletop. I lick my spoon clean. Her fingers dancing around her plate, she mixes rice and lemon juice together forming rice balls packed with fish and lentils. She slips them into her mouth. She licks a finger now and then. “I want to see Bangladesh again. I will come see Canada too.” She speaks in English this time, enunciating each word carefully. A distinct lilt flutters about her words. I stir my milk and watch the corn flakes whirl around in circles. “We have to wait though.” She sighs and stares down at her plate and fingers the chipped edges. Mikasa—a gift they received from family friends when they first arrived in California.
     “Stupid Green Card—that really sucks you know?” I scrape back my chair and head back to the refrigerator. I grab a hunk of cheddar cheese and cut thick slices. I grit my teeth as a distinct memory of Dolon Khala’s face wavers at the edges of my mind. Her eyes drowning in lifetimes of thoughts—dark, flickering. Lips, dry and cracked. Cheeks, wet. My mother’s voice floats into the memory—“Dolon, you will see Ma again, you will.” Dolon Khala’s eyes darken in defiance—she will. Cheeks, wet. The memory flees. From Canada, I had waited along with them—raised my face to the Heavens every night and pleaded, “God, please, please give Dolon Khala, Aditi and Khalu their Green Card. Please, please God.” For me, their Green Card brought them that much closer to Canada, that much closer to me. That was four years ago.
     My aunt clutches the ladle. Her fingers stained yellow from curried fish and turmeric, she pours lentils onto her plate. She slides her tall crystal glass to the edge of the table and takes a sip of water. I notice the little “Made in U.S.A” sticker emblazoned with the American flag, peeling from the side of the glass. I nibble on my cheddar. “Dolon Khala, where would you rather live, here in America or Canada?” I savour the sharp flavour of cheese melting in my mouth. “I mean, do you like it here?” Dolon Khala nudges a morsel of rice into one-year-old Andre’s mouth. He smiles, his red lips shining with spit. The saliva dribbles onto the front of his Nike shirt. He crawls back to the balloon. She replies in English.
     “America is nice. Is beautiful—see?” She gestures out the window. Towering palm trees sway against the backdrop of a bright blue sky. I know if you press your face against the screen, look passed the chain-link fence that encloses a mess of brambles and fallen trees, gaze over mossy green hills dotted with bright white houses—and squint—you can make out the big white letters that form the famous ‘Hollywood’ sign. I nod. I find half a baked potato in the toaster oven and bite into it.
     “Yeah, it’s beautiful…but do you like it here?” I ask again. She presses her lips together and spoons another chunk of fish onto her plate.
     “It is nice. Your uncle have job—we have car—Aditi goes to school. I am happy.” She swallows hard and grips the crystal glass. She takes another sip.
     “So you like it.” I rummage through the top drawer for a knife. I want to cut up the potato and cheese to create ultra-makeshift poutine.
     “I have my babies—“ she gestures to the kids from the ground floor—Andre wrestling with the balloon and Jake sleeping on his yellow blanket. I open another drawer and fumble through the mess. I find a bottle of turmeric powder and a phone card stamped with the green and red Bangladeshi flag.
     “But I bet you miss Nanu.” I say thinking about my grandmother lounging in her hemp knotted chair on the veranda, staring into the bustling, smoke-filled skyline of Bangladesh—wondering where her daughters went. My Aunt wipes her plate clean, her fingers squeaking across the white ceramic surface. Her gaze shifts. She stares at the crystal glass.
     “I miss your Nanu—yes. I have to be thankful though.”
     “For America?”
     “For everything.”
     “So you like it then. You like it here in America.”
     Dolon Khala slowly scrapes back her chair. She reaches for her glass, rice clinging to her fingers. She grasps the glass. It slips from her fingers. It crashes against the glass tabletop. Shatters. She yelps. Her hand flies to her lips. Crystal glints and shimmers, winks and beckons. She gently lifts a large, jagged shard of glass from the gleaming pile. The “Made in USA” sticker still clings to the surface. I reach for the pale pink dustpan hanging on a rusty hook above the garbage pail. She takes it, lets the jagged shard slip from her fingers and brushes the broken bits of glass into the pan.
     “America? I like America?” she whispers. She dumps the shattered crystal into the garbage pail. Switching to Bengali, she bites her lip and whispers,
     “I want to go home.”

Shoilee Khan is a student at the University of Toronto in Mississauga, Ontario Canada. She is currently pursuing an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in English Literature and minoring in History and Professional Writing. She hopes to pursue teaching as well as a freelance career in journalism.