by Rosalia Scalia
We all sit on the floor in a house in Northern Virginia eating roasted goat, curried vegetables, and steamed rice during the Festival of Lights party. Next to me, Soros, who came to America almost a year before I did, eats with his fingers like back home. I use a plastic fork provided by the host, a white American lady whose name I can’t remember or pronounce. Wanting to embrace new ways in America, I practiced using a fork and knife before coming to the party. She worked in my country as a veterinarian in the Peace Corps, and now back home in America, she stays connected to people from my country by hosting holiday parties for newcomers, and everyone who’s attended in the past is invited. A lady from my country lives with her, but something doesn’t add up with them. They hold hands sometimes in the house, but not in the same way ladies hold hands at home. The lady from my country should already be married, but she’s here in America going to school when she should already be a mother. All the traditional foods from my country cover the buffet table, cooked by ladies who have been in America for a while, and I can’t stop eating it. It tastes like home. I don’t realize how much I miss these dishes until I’m eating, and the tastes and variety cause a rush of memories to crash into my brain. I put the plastic fork down and begin eating with my fingers, like at home, and lick the sauce from them. I came to the party with a friend of a friend of a friend, a guy I met for the first time tonight, who’s lived in America almost forever, long enough to own a fancy car, stylish clothes, a beautiful house, and an American nickname, Max.
Max looks like a movie star, with his hair slicked back and cowboy boots. He and the hostess talk in the kitchen, where she passes out hard candies to Americans who find the food too spicy-hot. Tears run down their cheeks from the hot chili powder that’s in every dish. The candies counter the fire of the chili powder. Americans use plastic forks and knives because they don’t know how to eat with their hands, how to form the rice into a bite-size ball, grab some vegetable and meat, and plop the ball into their mouths.
While we eat, Soros tells me about his pizza delivery job, a dream-come-true kind of job. Soros says he’s earning $300 every day he works, delivering pizzas to people so lazy they can’t drive in their own cars to the pizza store to pick it up themselves. He works seven days per week, twelve hours a day. I want to be like Soros and earn money from lazy rich people who pay others to do things for them. Like pick up pizza. Back home, people work a whole year to earn $300. I can’t even imagine how long it would take to earn $2,100 back home where it’s beautiful. I miss the thick green jungles, the loud rivers gushing down from the mountaintops at breakneck speed. I miss the crackling, crisp air and the sky thick with puffed white clouds. Everywhere you look back home, you see the mountains, and the moon appears close enough to stroke. The giant third eye of the Buddhist stupa watches over the city closest to my village, but the eye is blind to the hungry bellies, to the small children working by sweeping dust off streets to earn a few coins, to the starving, bony dogs, ignored, roaming around searching for food. The rich suffer a lot less than people like my family, and my secret stays locked inside me: the name on my visa papers is fake, but I’m real.
I can tell by his last name that Soros belongs to one of the higher castes. Back home, he wouldn’t be speaking one word to me, much less sitting on the floor next to me, and certainly not eating from the same dishes. The strange harshness of America, where only a few others look like us and even fewer speak our language—the differences magnified back home vanish here. The minute we return to our country, the barriers rise without fail, like the sun. When people here look at Soros and me, they see two brown men, foreigners. They see all that makes us similar and fail to see the divisions inherent in our surnames. My fake name is of the highest caste, and. I smile inwardly, remembering that back home, I’d have to wipe off my seat when I leave it before someone like Soros could sit down. I wonder if Soros would sit next to me on the floor of this white lady’s house if he knew the truth about me, obvious in my real last name, which he’ll never learn. People told me that America has no castes, but people everywhere divide themselves. We’re new here and can’t see it yet. When Soros sees Max in the kitchen holding a beer, his expression changes.
“Look at that asshole Manos with his fake American nick. We came together when he was still Manos.”
“You mean Max?” I ask.
“Max in America. Manos back home. Married a white lady to stay in America legally, and then divorced her one month after he made citizen. I know he didn’t pay her. He cheated her. Did you know that?”
I didn’t. Nor do I care. Was he judging Max for his fake marriage, his fake American name, or for his legal status as an American? Soros’s status stopped being legal months ago. If Soros knew the name on my papers is fake, would he judge me too? I know with certainty that back home, Soros would be expecting me to wipe my seat before he sat down, and he wouldn’t be drinking or eating out of the same serving bowls.
America has seduced me with indoor toilets and hot showers; with orderly streets and cars that stop for red lights; with fast-food drive-throughs, big-box stores larger than whole villages back home; with its streets empty of animals—no cows, no pigs, no monkeys, no goats roaming around, shitting wherever they go. Or fucking when they’re in season.
“What do you need for this pizza job?” I ask.
Soros laughs. “A driver’s license, a car, and insurance.”
“Sounds easy enough,” I say.
He smirks. “It’s not. It’s tough. I had to do some maneuvering to get the proper documents for the driver’s license. That’s the hardest part. Especially when you have no papers. But even in America, everyone has a number.”
Inside I laugh. My whole life back home requires maneuvering from one bottom rung to another bottom rung. What do they call us? Dalits. Untouchables. The name itself robs us of our humanity. Knowing this, I take Soros’s empty paper plate and bring it to the kitchen to throw into the trash bin. Interrupting Max, I speak to the hostess, thank her for having all of us at her house, and introduce myself as “Bill.” She knows this isn’t my true name and asks what it is. I wink and smile at her. “In America, I’m Bill.” I don’t tell her that in America, I’m also bold, now with two fake first names.
I bring Soros a fresh plate with more rice and vegetables, more goat, passing it to him with my untouchable hands, and inside I’m dancing. Of my father’s three wives, I’m the youngest son of six children born to the third, the only one who could have children. No money, no status. No car. No refrigerator. No glass in our windows. No stove. We collect water at the village well and carry it home in metal pots, careful not to spill a single drop onto the dirt floor. My family maneuvers every day to survive. I maneuvered myself into a visa and passport with a higher-caste name, and I maneuvered myself to America.
“Some maneuvering?” I ask Soros, wondering if other newcomers in the room are like me and Soros—here to stay, regardless of all obstacles. I imagine myself maneuvering this and that, just like back home, except here in America, I’ll eclipse both Soros and Max. And all the other newcomers too.
Rosalia Scalia’s fiction has been published in numerous literary magazines and has won several literary awards. She lives in Baltimore, Md.