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The man sitting in front of me seemed harmless enough. A walrus mustache testified further to his innocuity. He said that he would speak first and then let me have my say. I was delighted. I had been in front of countless hard-nosed interviewers who just wanted to interrogate from the get-go in their version of the Inquisition. So, relief swept over me.
The man started and wouldn't stop blabbering for another 10 minutes. I kept nodding my head, for my career coach had taught me that if an interviewer wanted to expound, to let him or her do so. Such an interview was seldom perceived to have gone wrong by the interviewer. And then he stopped, suddenly, and asked me to tell him about myself.
Never at a loss for words, I, strangely, gagged up. My tongue refused to wag. All I wanted was to flee the building. We were on the fiftieth floor of the John Hancock building, the tallest in Boston. The company maintained a corner office there. I had never before experienced any such urge. My ankles and feet started sweating, I felt alternately hot and cold. I started taking off my suit jacket and putting it back on as the whim fancied me. The guy in front of me goaded me, go on, I am listening. Still nothing came out of my mouth. I kicked off my shoes. Yes, all this during an interview, but it was all done unobtrusively, or so I thought.
Then some words eked out. Right, left, center, I kept mumbling something, incoherently, unable to explain cogently anything about myself. I just wanted to be out of this scary room and on the ground floor. I didn't want the job. As it is, when I had entered the office, I had been intimidated by the intensity of the environment. This seemed another start-up with 16 hour-days as routine, leaving one with no life at all. Forget about finding a girlfriend, I would be lucky to get time to eat. Or sleep.
But I couldn't just leave. The company was paying for my trip expenses, including the air fare, and if I quit midway, they could always refuse to reimburse me. So I soldiered on. The next interviewer was younger and friendly as well. I took out a photo of my Hindu guru and held it under the table, taking furtive glances at it from time to time. This interview too lasted for what seemed aeons, but was actually only an hour. Then it was the big boss's turn. I took the opportunity of a short break to rush to the restroom. There I met a young kid, who obviously worked for the company, with his mountain bike. Only in America, I thought, a mountain bike in a dinky bathroom on the fiftieth floor. I guess he had mistaken the building for a mountain.
I returned to the conference room. It was surrounded by half-length glass windows on three sides. When I had come in initially, I had taken in the view that Boston afforded me. All red and gritty. I for some reason thought that it was the height that was causing me problems. So this time I sat on the other side of the table, with my back to the sky and my face to the whiteboard. The honcho came in and went up to the whiteboard. He wanted to chalk and talk, to lecture and hector. I was just so glad to keep my mouth shut. Then after an hour and a half, the ordeal was over, almost four hours in all, and I could leave. They told me that they would get back to me. I said, sure, and quickly made my exit.
On the ground floor, I felt instant relief. Oh, it was something to do with heights after all. Aw, shucks, but that meant that I could have a problem with the flight. I reached the airport anyway. The company was definitely not paying for a train or rental car ride home. Boston to Atlanta, where I lived, was a 20-hour drive, non-stop. I had no option but the plane. My mom called from India asking how the interview went. I told her that I was a bit tense. I didn't say anything else. No point in scaring her needlessly. She said that I should meditate to calm down.
Boston Logan is possibly the worst airport in America. But it has one redeeming feature, a beautiful Catholic chapel. I asked someone where I could meditate. They pointed in the direction of the chapel. They were not suggesting that I go in, but I went in nevertheless. It was awesome. Growing up in convent (Catholic) school in India, I had missed the Jesus on the cross figure on the rare occasion that I had been to church in America, visits which had always been to a Protestant church. Not only did the airport chapel have Jesus on the cross, a sight that I instantly connected with, it also had the twelve stations of the Crucifixion, which I had never seen before. I sat down on a pew. An hour passed. No one came. I had the chapel all to myself.
I had bought a two-liter water battle, which I kept gulping from. It was time for my flight. I went to board, only to be told that the flight was two hours late. Two more hours to kill. I went back to the chapel, and took a careful round of the stations, making sure to read every word ever so slowly. I had never thought that I would get so close to Christ. But time too moved ever so slowly. I had nearly drunk my water bottle.
This time the flight was on time. I stood in line and almost barged in when my turn came. I took a seat next to the aisle, with a woman in the middle and her daughter by the window. I tried to strike up a conversation, something that has always made time pass for me on flights. The mother wasn't interested. What a bitch. I spoke to the flight attendant, a male, and told him that I was a bit nervous because I was going for an interview, and if he would check on me from time to time. I didn't hear from him afterwards. So I was left to my own devices. The flight took off and stabilized in mid-air. My feet started sweating again. I took my shoes and socks off in the hope that they didn't stink.
I took out my pen and notebook, and started writing. The pen had morphed into a weapon, I just wanted to poke my eye with it. I resisted the urge and kept writing. And writing. All about what I had seen at the chapel. I promised to make up with my brother, to give him respect at all times, and choose a $100,000 a year job, much less stressful than what I had been used to. God alone knows what I wrote, but the pages began to fill up. I did not look up even once, except to go to the bathroom, which was a task in itself. Nobody ate me there, nor did I get whooshed down the toilet, so I came back to my seat and resumed writing. I must have written about fifteen pages, when the announcement came that we were descending into Atlanta. Oh, what a relief.
I put pen and paper aside and waited for touchdown. As soon as we landed, the mother next to me started gabbing away. Oh, how cruel life is I thought; when I wanted to chat, she would have nothing to do with me, and now she wanted to talk when all I wanted was to rush out. I stayed calm and slowly made my way out of the aircraft. It was a muggy evening in Atlanta, but I was never happier to be back. I had been in and out of Atlanta many a time in the two and a half years that I had stayed there, and had never taken much joy in returning home. The city was nice, even beautiful in parts, but there was much too much hate all round. I myself had been repeatedly subject to prejudice.
No matter, I was looking forward to getting back to my ground floor apartment. There would be no worry of heights there. I asked the cabbie how the weather had been the day that I had been away. He said it had rained. We chatted all the way back home, something that I am wont to do with taxi-drivers. Home arrived, and I quickly got into the shower. But I felt like harming myself, so I took my butcher knife and placed it on top of the kitchen cupboard. At least it would take some effort to reach in case I decided to do something.
Mid-July in Atlanta is just about as hot and humid as it gets. Everything, work, play, people’s movement, slows down in the American South for the three months of July, August, and September. I had sustained a spinal injury a few years back, which prevented me from playing active sports. I therefore had taken to walking, long walks to an Indian grocery store, three miles each way. My neighbor, Chuck, a 65-year old man, thought I was crazy. He took me in his car to measure the exact distance. It came to 5.7 miles. I was lying by 0.3 miles.
When morning came, I decided that what had happened to me was a one-off, that I could shake it off by vigorous exercise and sweating. I put on my floppy hat, stopped by the deli where I would typically pick up a large cup of water with loads of lemon in it, and took off on my jaunt. Sweat wasn't that easy to come by. I passed by three guys running and sweating all over and envied them secretly. In any case, I reached the Indian store, and then headed back. In the afternoon, my building mate, Nina, called, asking if I wanted to go for a walk. She had been trying to line me up, but I had been resisting, simply because I was not attracted to her. But this time, I felt she was a God-send. I said yes immediately. We went for a stroll. Nina kept brushing her arm against mine, and I kept ignoring her advances. My mind was somewhere else. So I told her that she must pick up her phone in case I called.