My Dream Ghai

It seems almost common knowledge that, for a first date, getting drinks or a coffee is infinitely preferable to dinner. But I had a gut feeling that this date was going to be different. Special. It was, unfortunately, that same gut that chose Cheesecake Factory as our restaurant for the evening, a decision that continues to impress none of my friends. But maybe there’s a reason we were there.  And I wouldn’t change a thing.

Texas (1992)

There we were, mother, father and son arriving at the Houston Airport, the Friday after Thanksgiving, 29 hours after setting out from Newark airport in New Jersey. In case you’re wondering what the hell happened—because it wasn’t weather—you probably need some background. My mother has spent her career in the travel business.  Even when times were tough, the chief perk of her job allowed the three of us to travel for free, anywhere in the world, but always as standby passengers.  This meant every vacation included an overture of us bouncing from gate to gate as mom sweet-talked the ticketing staff, dad played bad cop and exaggerated how long we’d been bumped around from flight to flight, and I would play the role of Dickens era sympathy wretch. At the perfect moment, I was expected to say something like:

“Mummy, all I want—more than anything else—is to see auntie’s face when we she sees us.” Then I’d turn. “We will get to see auntie, right Mrs. Gate Lady, ma’am?”

After mom’s honeyed urging, dad’s histrionics, and my Oliver Twist-ian display, we’d ultimately get onto a flight that we were already bound to get onto or we’d get pushed back to yet another flight. Either way, we’d congratulate ourselves or ruminate over what we could’ve done better as if we actually had any say in the matter. This time, we had lost one too many battles at every gate and Thanksgiving was spent at Newark airport.

“A holiday is about us being with each other not a date on a calendar,” mom justified every time this happened and then would hand me a happy meal, Cinnabon or some pacifying equivalent.

But that didn’t matter now, I was excited to be in Texas, where everything looms larger, where I intended to eat my weight in food like the chubby little fatty I was and dispose of the Tiny Tim airport charade I wasn’t.

“Are sugarmama and sugarmami picking us up?” I asked mom for the fifth time with a huge, self-satisfied grin on my face.

“That’s your masa and masi. And don’t go calling them that when they’re here,” she snapped back.

To this day, I’ve refused to learn the intricacies of familial relationship terms in hindi/gujurati.  Mama, mami, masa, masi, kaka, kaki, fua, and, well, what I’d hoped would be foo-ey since that’s my thoughts on the many ways of saying just aunt and uncle in India…but it’s actually foi.

Also, sugarmama and sugarmami was a deeply layered pun that needn’t be bridled with such useless things like accuracy.

You see my uncle was a nuclear engineer and chief breadwinner of his family, hence sugarmama. Mom’s sister worked for Coca Cola which made her instantly the coolest aunt ever and, of course, a sugarmami. If that wasn’t already enough, add to the mix that they lived in the town of Sugarland and you’ve got what this eight-year old at the time was convinced was comedy gold. And I imagine it only got funnier for all parties every time I repeated it on our flight.

A quick note about Sugarland, a suburb outside of Houston. Its massive sprawl spans four unique zip codes and boasts the highest concentration of Asians in Texas.  Of course, “Most Asians in Texas” might initially seem as unimpressive as the “Spiciest dish in Sweden,” but the numbers are staggering.  In fact, the Indian American population in Sugarland is so large that it’s commonly referred to as the Edison, NJ of the South.  Admittedly, I may be the only one referring to it that way, but I doubt anyone else would care enough to disagree.

But this is all to say when we opted to not eat Thanksgiving leftovers from the dinner we missed the night prior—sugarmama suggested an Indian restaurant. I knew this wasn’t an empty threat since we were in Sugarland, so I launched into a tantrum.

“I came to Texas for Texas food. We eat Indian food at home, we eat Indian food in Edison.  It’s been 32 hours in airports and airplanes.  Give me American food!!!”

It was not my proudest moment and it turns out I was being messed with. We were already headed to a brand new restaurant that had just arrived in Houston but hadn’t yet taken the country by storm.

Cheesecake Factory.

At the time, knowing nothing about this place, I had so many questions. Cheesecake. Factory. Were we going into some kind of food production plant? Would there be entrees? And, even if it’s a rulebreaking dessert-for-dinner place, does anyone in my family even like cheesecake? Will there be crayons and a wax paper table cover to draw on? To be fair, I asked that last question about every new restaurant when I was eight, but I was confused about this place.

We took our seats and I opened up the 25-page tome of a menu.

I felt like God was my charioteer and the universe was unfolding in front of my eyes.  Tacos, pastas, shrimp dumplings, avocado eggrolls, steaks, some healthy travesty called lettuce wraps, and of course, two pages of cheesecake varietals. Everything you could imagine. The waitress came by for our order.  Frenzied and crippled by choice, I reminded myself that I was in Texas, got composed and asked, “What’s the largest dish you have?” She began to describe the factory burrito. Like a snowball, it seemed to gather ingredients from all of its surrounding dishes: rice, lettuce, black beans, pinto beans, three types of cheese, avocado, sour cream, chicken, steak, pulled pork, and shrimp. It arrived 20 minutes later and my eyes grew wide at the spectacle. I grabbed my fork and knife and inhaled.

After the fog of war was lifted, I sat motionless save for my labored breathing. Some of the burritos innards were still splayed across my plate, but, for the most part, I had eaten the entire thing. Beads of sweat were all across my face which was a bright red. Turns out adding raw jalapenos without finding it necessary to mention on a menu is fairly commonplace in Texas. Shame and pain were present, but also pride.  The waitress said she’d never seen anyone finish it. Dad too was beaming with admiration.

“Potu barla?” he asked.  At home, when my parents asked me if my tummy was full, I would lift up my shirt, slap my belly, and say “potu barla.” I knew not to do it in public. Of course not.

But, then again, I felt a triumph I’d never felt before, a surge that couldn’t be contained.  So I stood up and, with the askance eyes of Texas upon me, lifted up my dark blue Coca Cola Polar Bear shirt my aunt had gifted me. I beat my belly and yawped “POTU BARLA!!” up towards the ceiling and heavens.  Minutes later I would be sprawled out in the back of sugarmama’s Buick, likely having a dream far less interesting than that burrito.

“So, are you vegetarian?” she asked me, back at the scene of our first date.

We had been chatting for a while now, and I’d found out that this girl from Erie, Pennsylvania was something else entirely. Her last year of college, she cycled from South Carolina to Santa Cruz, California. Two and a half months of about 80 miles a day. At every “rest” stop—worth putting in quotes—they stopped at Habitat for Humanity sites and also built homes along the way. She had spent half a year living in Rajasthan, teaching orphaned and victimized girls basic school lessons and how to paint. The fact that she was pretty was also an issue. It was safe to say I had no chance with her. But, like Mowgli at the outskirts of a jungle, I was transfixed.  I couldn’t even focus on her questions.

“Well, are you?”

I imagined she knew that many Indian people are vegetarian. I assumed the fact that I was not gave me some kind of competitive advantage.

“Nope,” I responded proudly.

“Even beef?” she said, wide-eyed. I ignored the warning sign.

“Oh yea, I’ll eat the biggest burger they have right now.”

“But that’s guy,” she looked hurt.

But that’s guy. I ran the words through my head, trying to process.

What did it mean? Are burgers only made from male—or guy—cows? I guess that would make sense since milk comes from girl cows. Does she only care about male cows? Would that be sexist? Did I miss a word in-between? Am I having a stroke?

“You don’t know guy?” she pressed on. “You know, ghai, like cow in hindi?”

She was vegetarian and spoke Hindi too. I began to wonder if she was even more Indian than my own parents.  I had to process all of this.  Her continent-traversing biking, her deep forays into Indian culture, her stunning artwork, her ability to be amazed by my stories even though they paled in comparison to all of hers. How could all of these ingredients exist with one person.

That’s when I realized…she was my factory burrito. And I’d been looking for her since I was a kid.

“So, what should we order?” she asked me. I didn’t have to think too long.

“The lettuce wraps.”

Happy birthday, Melissa. You’re all I need to make my potu barla.

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