Taja closed her eyes and took in the nauseating smell of smokers and mothballs. She knew this smell. All buses smelled like this, and normally, it didn’t bother Taja. But today, it reminded her of her parents. Her parents who took her on bus rides every Saturday to go to the Indian market she loved. The swirling chaos of it all, vendors sitting under tarps showing off their products, the spicy smell of chicken masala, the sweet and salty smell of chaat, filling Taja’s nose. She could taste the sweet honey from her favorite dessert, gulab jamun, on her tongue. She could feel the sponginess on her teeth. She remembered it all so clearly. Taja clutched her bus seat, her nails digging into the cheap leather. She felt very small. She stared out the window, sensing the urge to get off at the next stop, 14th Street, and make her way to the barren marketplace.
It had been years since she had been to the market. The last time, she had been with her parents, holding their hands tightly. Taja sniffled. The sun was hurting her eyes, and all she wanted to do was crawl under the bus seat. The Indian vendors had left three years ago. Taja remembered reading in the newspaper about the plans to turn the marketplace into a bowling alley. When the city council had finally kicked the Indian vendors away, sending them back to their country, it became obvious that there was not enough money for the bowling alley. Deep down, Taja wished that the bowling alley had been built; it would stop her mind from returning to her parents and India. Of course, if the Indian market still existed, maybe life wouldn’t be so melancholy either.
* * *
Taja arrived at the King Soopers fifteen minutes later. She stepped down the bus stairs and crossed the street to the big store. Shopping carts were stacked in rows in front of the two big doors. Taja found that the King Soopers was very convenient, it was right next to her university. She could do her grocery shopping, then go straight to classes where she majored in biology. Taja grabbed a shopping basket, then went into the store, directly to the frozen-food aisle, to get the most important food: naan. She reached into the cool fridge, goosebumps crawling up her arms. She pulled out her favorite brand. Over the years, she had tried them all. None of them were the same as the steaming hot, real naan that used to be sold at the market. The microwavable kind would have to do. Setting it into the basket, she made her way to the vegetable aisle to get some spinach. She would make saag paneer that night.
Taja remembered her last year of high school. The last year her parents would make her saag paneer. “We want you to get a good education, Taja,” her mother had said. “We will return to India for you. We will pay for you to follow your dream. Life here is expensive. In India, we can live for a lower cost, while you go to college. Taja, if you go to college, you could get a real job. You could make money, and one day, pay to return home to us!”
Taja had swallowed her paneer and looked down. “OK, Mama,” she had said.
Taja pushed the memory to the back of her head and continued down the aisle to go buy spices. Once her basket was full, Taja headed down to the cashier. She placed her items on the dusty conveyor belt and opened her handmade wallet her mother had sent her from India. The cashier looked up.
“Where are you from?” he asked suspiciously.
“I’m from India,” Taja replied.
“Yes, what’s wrong with that?” Taja asked. But the cashier didn’t answer. He stood up from his stool and bent down over Taja. His height was threatening.
“I don’t serve Indian customers here!” he bellowed. “You don’t belong here, go back to your own country! I don’t want your dirty little bodies in this store, so get out! Hand over those groceries and get out!”
Taja couldn’t believe his painful words. She stepped back from the counter, holding back the hot tears. She clutched her wallet, and gulped. The cashier glared at Taja, waiting to pounce on his prey. Then a lady with light blond hair and a huge cart full of food placed her hand on Taja’s shoulder.
“You have no right to say no to foreign customers, you little rascal! This poor girl just needs some food!” The lady’s voice was louder and sterner than Taja expected. “I expect you to give her the food for free as an apology for what you just said. Seriously.”
“You think you can boss a cashier around?”
“Do I need to call the police?”
The cashier, obviously taken by surprise, swallowed, then nodded. He grabbed Taja’s groceries, swiped them under the scanner, and never asked for the fifteen dollars they cost. Taja tried to thank the woman, but she never looked up from the edition of People she was about to purchase.
* * *
Taja left the store full of mixed feelings. Grateful, sad, mad, excited, relieved. Walking down the sidewalk towards her school, Taja looked down at her feet. Her long black hair shimmered in the sun, and all she could think about was returning to India. One more year of college, a few more years of working, then she could buy a ticket home. Home. No, Taja shook her head. This was her home. This was her home ever since she and her family had moved here in search of a better life. This was her home ever since she was a short little five-year-old, mesmerized by the tall buildings, the flushing toilets, the greasy hamburgers that didn’t exist in her small Indian village. This was Taja’s home, and she would have to accept it.