ISOLATION IS AN ORGANIC COMPOUND
The cow’s eyeball floats in the formaldehyde. It’s disembodied, a part cut off from the whole, just like me, but there’s a difference between me and the cloudy orb. It stares out at the kids as though it knows the secret the rest of us are dying to find out.
McKenzie catches me looking at the jar. “Are you offended?”
“We killed a cow. Are you mad at us or something? Aren’t they sacred to your people or whatever?”
“I’m not Hindi,” I tell her for what must be the millionth time.
“It’s pronounced ‘offended.’” She slows down the last word and says it louder, like I’m both illiterate and deaf. Smiles, then glowers when I don’t smile back. “No one’s trying to hurt your feelings. We just like burgers.”
And right there is the reason that when I graduate high school, I’m taking off to a university that’s light-years away from this town. And once I get to that faraway place, I’m disowning my parents for moving us to a neighborhood where I’m the only brown girl in the entire school and have to put up with idiots like McKenzie King. I go back to my staring contest with the eyeball.
“Why?” McKenzie chews on her gum, blows a blue bubble until it pops.
“Why are cows sacred to your people?”
“They’re not—” Crap. She has me on a technicality. I’m not Hindu, but some of my people are. I sigh. “My grandmother—who, unlike me, is Hindu—says the cow represents growth, life, and
nonviolence. That’s why it’s sacred.”
“But you’re, like, Indian.”
“No, I’m Guyanese.” Judging from the look on her face, I’ve just fried her brain cell. Cell. Singular.
“Huh? But you’re Indian.”
“I’m from Guyana. So, yeah, I’m Guyanese Indian. West Indian. It’s a different thing than—”
Her face lights up. “No kidding? Ghana? I didn’t know you were African.”
The next time my parents ask me why my science marks aren’t higher, I’m going to tell them it’s because of McKenzie. Because if I were any smarter in physics, bio, or chemistry, I’d make a laser gun and vaporize the curly hair right off her pink scalp.
The bell rings, and I breathe out the tightness in my chest. For the next forty minutes, it’s physics and the origin of the universe, and I’m craving every second of it. Physics has to have the answer because the other sciences are letting me down.
Biology says the visual system of humans is fine-tuned and able to detect minute variations in color and surface edges. So why don’t the kids at school see me? Even McKenzie, who finds a way to get in my face every day, wouldn’t notice if I disappeared. If the police came and questioned her about a missing brown girl, she’d say, “Brown? Like Indian? That reminds me, I want a burger.”
The door opens, and the teacher comes in, but it’s not Mr. Tamagotchi. It’s a sub. “Sit down, everyone. Let’s take attendance and get started.” She flips through Mr. Tamagotchi’s agenda and laughs. “Oh, an overview of string theory. I bet he’s not talking about shoe strings or cheese strings.”
No one laughs at her joke. For a second, I feel a rush of sympathy. This school is full of kids who’ve been together since pre-K. They’re one collective brain, with acne and a BO problem. I’ve been at the school since my family moved to the neighborhood two years ago, and I’m still the one who’s alone in class when the teacher asks us to pair up or make groups.
“Bye-bye Nira Gee-Hani?”
The class titters.
“It’s pronounced Bee-Bee,” I say, glad my dark skin hides the flush of pink creeping up my cheeks. “And it’s Gah-nee. Bibi Nira Ghani. But I’m just Nira.” I keep asking the school to use Nira instead of Bibi on the class lists. So far, my request is as invisible as I am.
“Okay, thanks.” She moves to the next name on her list.
“Do you have any sisters, Bibi?” The question comes from one of McKenzie’s buddies.
“No. Only child.”
“Well, if you ever do,” she says, “you should tell your parents to name them Cici and Didi.”
McKenzie laughs. “They could go down the alphabet. Until they get to Zizi.”
Her friend can’t contain herself. “OMG. Can you imagine? Pee-Pee!”
“Double OMG, if it was Pee-Pee and a boy?”
In forty years, when I pick a senior citizen home for my parents—and I will because no way are those crazies living with me (and I don’t care what Guyanese culture says about respecting your elders)—I’m picking the crappiest home out there. And when my parents ask why, I’m going to hand these moments out like bitter candy.
“Nira,” says McKenzie, “we’re just joking.”
It’s not an apology. It’s what it always is, McKenzie being insensitive and justifying it by suggesting I don’t know how to take a joke.
“Okay,” the sub says when she’s finished with attendance. “Give me a second to read over your teacher’s notes.”
“Hey, Nira,” says McKenzie.
I hide my face behind my book.
“Nira, hey, Nira.” She won’t take the hint.
“Did you ever ride elephants when you lived in Africa?”
I go back to reading.
“Sorry,” says the teacher. “I may have missed a student. Who’s Nira?”
Seriously. When I talk, does the air from my lungs lack the necessary force and pressure to reach people’s ears? “Me.”
She frowns. “Aren’t you Bye-Bye?”
“I’m thinking of going bye-bye,” I mutter, wishing someone near me would hear and get the joke and smile my way. But when I look up, McKenzie’s gaze is on me, and there’s no smile, just an unreadable expression on her face.
“Your teacher says I’m not to call on you if there’s discussion or questions.” Her frown deepens. “Why is that?”
“Because she always knows the answer,” says McKenzie. “And he wants the rest of us to”—she takes a breath and mimics his nasal pitch—“‘try and put in an effort. Come on, people, give Nira’s vocal cords a rest.’”
McKenzie does a great impression. She even screws up her face the way Mr. Tamagotchi does when he thinks we’re not trying to reach our potential.
“Oh, uh—” says the sub.
“It’s not fair.” McKenzie leans back. “Real life is all about collaborative problem-solving.”
Unbelievable. Now she decides to grow a second brain cell. “If she knows the answers, let her talk. Her people have been oppressed enough. She has a voice, right? Let her use it.”
God, I hate my life.
My usual table’s waiting when I get to the cafeteria. At the back, in the corner. The other two walls are floor-to-ceiling windows, but only the popular kids get to sit in the sun.
Emily waits for me at the corner table. She’s blond and blue eyed with freckles, but she also has a scar from surgery on a cleft lip and thirty extra pounds from her love affair with chocolate bars. She waves when she sees me and points to the chair next to her.
I love her for that. I’m irritated with her for that. Waving and pointing. Like somehow the seats at that table are restricted access, instead of perpetually empty. I sit beside her but don’t open my lunch bag. The smell of tuna wafts from it. I glance over at the popular tables, where they’re eating pita pockets stuffed with deli meat, peppers, lettuce, and cheese. It looks so good; I can almost taste it.
McKenzie’s there. Watching. She’s always surveilling us. It’s like she’s part of the nerd police, the number-one detective of the uncool squad. I turn away so I don’t have to see her and her perfect lunch.
I open my bag and peer inside. Remind myself I’m lucky to have food when there are probably starving children down the street. But the sandwich squishes in my mouth. Mom hasn’t figured out the correct ratio of mayo to tuna. It’s either dry enough to use as a desiccant or so wet, I think it could bring the fish back to life. I’ve tried to tell her I can make my lunch, but she’s got this stupid hang-up about being a working mom. Like making my lunch makes up for not being there for parent-teacher meetings and assemblies, or baking me brownies after school.
Emily tips her cloth bag upside down, and four chocolate bars roll out. “It’s been a multichocolate bar kind of morning.”
“Four? What happened?”
“Rope climbing. This body’s meant for a lot of things, but holding on to a piece of rope and climbing for the ceiling isn’t one of them.”
Oh, man. If she had to do it for gym, then so will I. Rope climbing. I barely have the upper body strength to throw off my bed covers.
“Did you see?”
There’s the other reason Emily’s at this table instead of with the pretty people. Her habit of talking in half sentences. It’s like she’s constantly looking for her psychic twin, the one who can finish her thoughts by reading her mind. “See what?”
“The band poster. They’re doing auditions for jazz band.”
The sudden image flashes through my brain. Me, under the pink and yellow lights, eyes closed, wailing a solo on a shiny trumpet. Reality raises the houselights. My parents will never let me try out. “Oh, cool.”
“You should audition. You’re amazing. Every time you play, I think of Neil Armstrong.”
“You mean Louis Armstrong. He was the trumpet player. Neil was the astronaut.”
“That’s who I mean. You make me think of moonlight and defying gravity.”
I may have only one friend in the world, but she’s awesome enough to count for five. I tried to tell her that once, and she said, “Is that a joke about my weight?”
Which made me want to die until she laughed and said, “It’s so easy to screw with you.”
“You should try out.” She shoves the purple paper at me.
It’s a flyer advertising the auditions. Black musical notes border the edge, and in the middle are silhouettes of players holding guitars and saxes. My heart goes liquid at the thought of being one
of those figures.
“You’d nail it like a hammer from the heavens.”
I love playing trumpet, but I’ve never had formal training, never been tested by the Royal Conservatory. “It’s a hobby.” I get enough rejection in regular life. My ego’s fine with that. But I’m sure it’ll pack its bags and walk out if I set it up for extracurricular rejection by trying to compete with serious musicians.
“If I could play something, I’d try out.” Her eyes go dreamy. The candy droops from her mouth and a line of caramel forms a soft U.
“You should still do it. Maybe there’s room for a cymbal player or someone who can play a rain stick.”
“I don’t know. How will the audience see me if I’m hidden behind a rain stick?”
I don’t understand why she’s not at a table by the windows. She’s funny and not in an ego-beating way. Emily likes her curves. She likes them so much, she doesn’t mind laughing with them. With them, not at them.
My fingers find the tufts of hair growing on my jawline. I wish I liked my swarthy, dark face enough to joke about it. “Maybe we can drench you with hydrogen peroxide and luminol.” My fingers fall away from my face. “You’d glow like a firework.”
“We should do that for you, too. Then you can do an interpretive dance while I play.” She mimes shaking a rain stick and starts laughing, and her face lights up with joy.
I catch everyone looking our way and realize we’re too loud. Plus, Emily’s miming could look like she’s doing something a lot dirtier than shaking a stick. Before I can shush her or stop her movements, she elbows me and grunts. I follow the line of her gaze.
When it comes to me and dealing with the rest of the kids, we’re like positively charged magnets. We’re the same, and you’d think that would bring us together. But magnets of the same charge repel each other. Not Noah. His differentness isn’t a positively or negatively charged magnet. It’s a gravitational pull, and it keeps everyone in his orbit.
I’m probably the only straight girl in school who doesn’t lust after him. Not because I don’t think he’s attractive. He’s all dark curly hair (please, can I touch it?), intense brown eyes (did you just look into my soul?), and great body (hold it against me). I’m just smart enough to know when someone’s not just out of my league, but out of my universe, too.
“I heard he’s trying out for jazz band.”
Of course, he is.
Of course, he is.
“But he might be adding sax, this time.”
Shocker. Noah lives the life of legends and dreams. His dad not only gives him anything he wants, but he also takes Noah out of school for a week at a time. They go off and have adventures. Then Noah returns, carrying stories on his back, and wearing souvenirs on his arms and chest. Not the touristy kind. The other kind. The kind of shirts and accessories you get when you don’t just immerse yourself in a culture, but you become the culture itself.
He’s been gone for a few days. Today, he’s wearing a graphic tee, worn jeans. The magical object in question is a leather band around his wrist. McKenzie and her crew are already rushing to him, touching the band, their fingers playing against his skin.
What is it about his different that makes it better than my different? Part of it is what he wears. Clothes talk. They have a conversation with people before you ever open your mouth. It’s shorthand, but it’s a layered, exotic language. They tell everyone about your hopes and dreams, how you see the world, and what you think of yourself. The kids at school, their clothes say they belong, that everything is theirs. My clothes don’t say anything. They just apologize for my existence.
When the bell rings, I head to gym. It’s my least favorite class, but I like the egalitarianism of the red sweats and white cotton shirts. If aliens landed and looked at us, no one could tell I’m poor. No one could see I don’t belong. I finish dressing, lace my sneakers, and head into the gym. And I hold the fantasy of being connected as I walk through the doors. Clasp the daydream close until I’m forced to open my mouth and break the spell.
BAGGAGE COMES WITH REINFORCED HANDLES
Calypso music booms at me as I enter the house, so loud no one can hear when I yell, “Hello? Who’s home?” The smell of onion and garlic takes me into the kitchen where I find my mom and grandmother cooking dinner. Grandma’s seated at the table, her arthritic fingers prying open pea shells. Mom stands in front of the stove, a worn apron tied tight around her nursing scrubs. Oil sizzles on the tawa while a plate of cooked roti sits beside her. Candles of differing colors and competing scents cast light and shadow on the counter, the stove, the table. The window’s wide open, straining at its hinges. “What are we doing? Having a séance?” I blow out some of the candles.
“Nira! The smell—”
“Three candles aren’t going to do anything with the smell of curry in the house. We have to talk.” I shut off the music and sit next to Grandma. Since Mom’s attention is on the stove, I slip my grandmother a chocolate bar. Milk chocolate, her favorite.
She gives me a warm smile as she slides it in the folds of her sari and goes back to shelling peas.
“Something happened at school?” Mom grasps the half-baked roti between her fingers and flips the dough to its uncooked side. “Is it your grades?”
“No.” Not true. Something seismic happened at school. I decided to try out for jazz band. It happened when I was clinging to the rope, wishing I’d been gifted with upper body strength. Maybe it was the oxygen deprivation, maybe it was the humiliation of knowing everyone was staring and judging. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is jazz band. I’m good with a trumpet. Great with it. The sound of a trumpet is the sound of my soul. Every time I play, it’s like I’m communing with the molecules and atoms that make me, me. Maybe, if I play long enough, loud enough, good enough, my DNA will rearrange itself, and I’ll figure out how to be smart, popular, and worthy.
Getting into band might be a way to get all that and more. The only downside is that I need Mom and Dad’s permission. I have a better chance of scaling Mount Everest in a bikini and flip-flops.
“What happened at school?” She flips the roti in the air, catches and claps it, then throws it in the air again. Specks of flour and bread fly and settle on the counter. Her dark eyes hold my gaze. They see something is going on inside of me. “You need tea?”
Tea is my mom’s answer to everything. The world could be invaded by zombies, and my mom would say, “You need tea?” And if those zombies cracked open my skull and ate half my brain, she would pat my hand and say, “Yes, tea with extra milk and sugar.” Because dairy and sweetness solve life’s problems. Then she would say, “I expect your marks to stay the same.” Because that’s my family’s way. Whether you lose half your brain to a zombie or not, your grades must never suffer.
“I don’t need tea.”
She jerks her chin at the kettle and says to Grandma, “Put it to boil.”
“Old woman, I don’t need tea.”
“I don’t need—” Why am I fighting this? “Just a small cup.”
“What happened?” Mom’s concentration is back on the stove.
“Wash your hands and help me.”
Because you can’t just talk in my house. You talk and work.
“What am I supposed to do?”
Her brows pull together. “Find something.”
There’s a sink of dirty dishes. Over the rush of the water filling the sink, I watch the soap bubbles form a white castle. “I was wondering if maybe we could go shopping this weekend.” “You need something for school?”
“Kind of.” I shut off the taps. The bubbles spill over the sides of the plates. I have to be subtle about this. My parents can see a frontal attack coming from miles away. I need a soft volley over their front lines. Clothes are the way to do it. If she says yes to the request, then I know she’s in a good mood, and I can go for the Big Ask.
“I’d like a new pair of jeans. Maybe a shirt.” As soon as it’s out of my mouth, I regret it. Not because it wasn’t a good idea. But because now that I’ve asked, I want them so badly, I can smell the new clothes, feel the smooth slip of the size sticker on the denim.
One outfit, but if I pair the jeans with other stuff, and wear the shirt underneath, it could take my bargain basement clothes to the main floor. Maybe. All I know is having at least one outfit that has the right graphic and brand name would be like having a magical shield. Maybe if I look more like the other kids, they’ll pay attention. Imagine if I wore the outfit to the jazz audition. Me, a trumpet, and the right clothes? It would rearrange the stars and recombine my DNA.
“You don’t need more clothes.”
Mom’s words rip me from my daydream. “Yes, I do.”
“Your closet’s full—”
“Of clearance shirts from stores that are so inconsequential, they don’t even have a brand.”
My mother shoots a dark smile at her mother-in-law.
“Inconsequential. And I thought your making her learn a word a day from the dictionary wouldn’t pay off.”
Grandma shrugs and keeps shelling the peas.
“You’re making fun of me.”
“You’re making fun of yourself. You don’t need clothes.” She drops the roti on the plate and faces me. A thin film of sweat covers her forehead and chin. “And the money your father and I work for to buy your clothes isn’t inconsequential, either.”
“Why is it so bad to get a new outfit?”
Grandma rises and moves to the kettle as it boils.
“Why can’t I have clothes that look like everyone else’s?”
“Because it’s a waste of money.” Mom slaps a roll of dough on the counter. “Hundred-dollar jeans that you won’t even want next year—”
“Yes, I will!”
“And what will they be worth the day after you buy them? Twenty dollars.”
“I’m a good daughter.” My face feels hotter than the stove, and I’m holding my breath so I don’t scream. I haven’t forgotten about the audition, and I can’t risk getting her so mad she says no, but I can’t let this go. “Do you know how many parents would kill to have a kid like me? They would love to get me stuff in return for my high marks, helping around the house—”
“Get them to buy you the jeans.”
“I do chores—you think the rest of the kids in my class have to do chores?”
“We pay you an allowance.”
“Big deal. The other kids get more money, and they do nothing!”
She turns back to the stove. “When they’re forty, they’ll still be living with their mother because they can’t care for themselves.”
I love how she says it without a hint of irony that Dad’s mother lives here. Sure, it’s my parents’ house, but still, she’s sharing a roof with her husband’s mom. From the corner of my eye, I see Grandma dump two teaspoons of sugar in the cup. Her hand hovers over the sugar bowl.
“All I’m asking for is one outfit.” The words are spoken through clenched teeth. My heart is beating so hard I hear it in my ears. Grandma dumps another teaspoon of sugar in my cup and
adds more milk.
“That costs as much as a dinner out. The conversation is over. That money is for your university. That’s more important than jeans. We didn’t bring you to Canada so you could put on makeup and tight jeans. You’re here for the opportunities.”
I want to barf. I’m so sick of hearing this lecture.
“Canada is safe—you think it’s safe for you back in Guyana? You think the cops will protect you?”
“Stop.” I put up my hand. “Stop before you tell me—again—how they’re so corrupt you were able to buy your way out of speeding tickets.”
“They’re not all corrupt, but it’s not safe like it is here. There aren’t oppor—” Mom must see my eyes glazing over, because she stops mid-rant. “When you become a doctor, you can buy all the clothes you want. You can be a real star gyal.”
Guyanese for a girl who’s so good-looking, she can be an actress. My mother makes it sound like an insult. The fact I’m more likely to be cast as Quasimodo than Esmeralda adds a layer of sarcasm and cruelty to her barb.
“That’s a million years away.” My anger shoves the audition aside. I can be like my father sometimes. So caught up in the fight, I forget about the war. I feel his likeness, pounding around me, the shadow of him, warning me to shut up, but I can’t.
Grandma looks my way; her dark eyes take in my face. Another teaspoon of sugar falls into my cup. If I don’t have a brain aneurysm because of my mother, the tea is going to send me into a diabetic coma. On the bright side, either way, it’ll get me out of school.
“What’s a hundred dollars—and it wouldn’t even be that much.” It’ll be more like ninety-eight, but still, that’s under a hundred, right?
“Compound interest,” says my mother.
“Compound—What are they teaching you in school?”
Apparently not Negotiating with Stubborn Mothers 101.
“A hundred dollars invested over ten years, with ten-percent compound interest will get you two hundred dollars.”
“For less than a hundred dollars invested today will get me . . .” I stop. I don’t want to say “friends,” because it’ll look like I’m trying to buy friends with clothes. Which I’m kind of doing. Which makes me wonder why I want to hang out with kids who care more about brand names than my heart.
Oh yeah. Because I don’t want to spend my life alone and I want others to see me and Emily for the kind of cool people we are. If it takes a pair of hundred-dollar jeans or a graphic on a shirt, so be it.
“If the kids can’t like you for who you are, then they’re not worth it. Clothes don’t make the person.”
If she starts talking about what’s on the inside that—
“It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
Grandma hands me the tea and shuffles back to the table. She sits with a grunt and resumes the shelling of the peas.
I set down the mug. “Really? It’s what’s on the inside that matters more?”
Grandma shakes her head, stands, and moves my way. “Then why don’t you wear your pajamas to work?” I ask.
Mom stares at me.
“If clothes don’t matter, then why don’t you go in jogging pants?”
Grandma hip checks me to the side, flips on the tap, and refills the kettle.
“That’s not the same thing. Of course, clothes matter—!”
Her breath hisses through her teeth. “You have to wear clothes. You don’t have to wear expensive clothes.”
“If I want to fit in, I do. I’m the only brown girl in the school.”
“And you think wearing cool jeans will suddenly make you blend in?” Sarcasm laces her question. “You think they’ll walk in and say, ‘Oh my god! Nira turned white!’”
“No, but it would make me stand out less.” I take the tea.
“When we left Guyana, you gave me this big speech about the cosmos. Said how the sky was filled with more than just stars. It was filled with planets and meteors and comets. And I’d never learn about all those things if we stayed in Guyana and played with stars. Well, guess what, Mom. Saturn and Neptune don’t like to play with you if you look like a meteorite instead of like one of the planets.”
“You look like one of the planets to me. In fact, your head looks like it’s up Uran—”
“Juvenile. I should’ve guessed.” I continue my dramatic exit.
“So that’s it?” She calls after me. “You’re not going to wash the dishes?”
“You said talk and do something.” I make eye contact. “I’m all talked out, and you got the last word. Just like always.”
Her lips press together. In the background, the ghee sizzles on the tawa.
I leave the kitchen as Grandma ladles another teaspoon of sugar into a mug.
I sit on the bed, playing my trumpet. Technically, it’s a B-flat pocket trumpet. It has all the range of a regular instrument, but it’s smaller. In other words, “real” musicians don’t use it, except for practice sessions. Then again, “real” musicians didn’t learn how to play from watching online videos.
Still, it’s a trumpet. I know how to turn its valves and keys into music, and it feels good in my hands. Cold and metal. As long as its weight is on my palms, the world still makes sense.
I wish I lived in a world of music and not one of academics. Music makes sense to me. Notes are broken into whole, quarter, half. They always count for the same time, no matter what. Low notes take the bass side, higher ones get the treble. If I play one note and then another, it always makes the same sounds. A melody is always a melody.
The only thing in my world that’s remotely the same is math, but math doesn’t move me like music. I put the mouthpiece to my lips and blow a middle C. The sound is clear and pure. From there, I run the scale, then my fingers find their life, my ears wake to the sound, and not-so-suddenly, I’m playing “Georgia on My Mind.”
I hear the voice of Ray Charles in my head, crooning his love for Georgia. Telling her that she fills his thoughts and gives him peace. It’s my love song to my trumpet. He’s my Georgia, and he’s secure enough in our love that he doesn’t mind me calling him by a girl’s name.
Forty-five minutes later, Mom finds me in my cramped room.
She knocks but doesn’t wait for me to say anything before she comes inside.
I sit up and prepare for round two.
“Let’s go. Your father is home.”
For a second, hope lifts me to the sky. Is Mom taking me shopping? The chance to ask her about the band audition surges in my heart, so powerful it makes my chest ache, and my temples hurt.
But she doesn’t say “the mall.” She says, “Your cousin’s.”
I groan and flop back on the bed. Last year, my dad’s brother moved to town, complete with his perfect wife and perfect child.
When we left Guyana, the government kept our money. It was a tactic to keep citizens from emigrating.
But thanks to an election and a new political party in power, my uncle was allowed to keep his wealth. So instead of a too-small bungalow in an okay part of town, his family lives in a two story with a walkout basement, in the newest neighborhood.
“We’re leaving in five minutes, Nira. Brush your hair.”
Brush your hair, I mime the words at her back, then slam my mouth closed when she whirls to face me.
“I don’t like how you’re talking to me.”
Me neither. It’s not in my genetic code to talk back to adults or question my parents, but this life makes me feel like I’m a medieval prisoner, tied to four different horses. Myself. School. This country. My family. And everything is pulling me in a different direction. I don’t understand why there can’t be a compromise. Why everything I want has to be a losing battle. “I’m sorry,” I tell her because that’s genetic to every kid. We always have to be the ones who’re sorry.
She sighs and sits on my bed. “I know this isn’t easy.” She reaches into her apron and pulls out a twenty-dollar bill. “Here. I was young once.”
“For your jeans. Put it with your allowance money. We can go this weekend to the mall.”
The money suddenly feels hot as fire in my hand. I’ve won the battle, but the way my mother says it burns me. Like the cost of my win has been a small part of her soul.
“Take it back,” I tell her. “I don’t want it.”
“Nira!” The force of her turn makes the mattress bounce. “You come home, and you can’t even say, ‘Hello, Mom. How are you, Grandma? Thank you for making dinner. Thank you for putting a roof over our head.’ No, you come in and start yelling about how you need clothes and what terrible parents we are for bringing you here. Now you tell me you don’t want the money?” She storms for the door. “Your eyes pass me, girl.”
Your eyes pass me. Guyanese for disrespect of the highest order. The accusation stings. She’s the one who’s being disrespectful.
I didn’t want the money because it made me feel guilty. Now she’s making it like I’m a bad person for wanting to fit in. Like something’s lacking in me. She slams the door closed, and I’m not sorry anymore. I don’t care if giving me money cost a bit of her soul. She’s got loads to spare.
I pull the brush through my hair so hard it makes my scalp sting, then I wrench my hair into a ponytail. I’m going to be ready and waiting in the car. She’ll see, I’m a good kid, and then she’ll feel bad. I don’t deserve her yelling at me.
I’m so locked in the internal battle, so lost in the imaginary fight I’m having with her, I almost run into Grandma when I swing open the door.
As placid as a quiet stream, she moves past me to the bed.
“Come. Sit.” She glances at the floor and picks up a crumpled piece of purple paper. The jazz auditions. It must have fallen out of my pocket. She unfolds it, smooths the creases, then places it on my nightstand.
I sit beside her. “Thank you for the tea.”
She smiles and takes my hand, and I feel the squares of chocolate in her palm. “For you.”
“No, I buy the chocolate for you—” I pull away to inspect them. The packaging on the chocolate makes me pause. “This is Ghirardelli. I bought you them months ago. Aren’t you eating?”
“I eat and share them as I choose.”
A stab of jealousy goes through me because I know who gets to share with her. Farah.
She holds my hand, again. Her fingers are a world of their own. Soft and strong. Calloused and arthritic. I twine my fingers in hers and feel the breath between us.
“It’s not easy to be the only one who doesn’t fit in when everyone else has a place.”
I think of Emily and feel a pang of guilt. “It’s not just me who doesn’t fit. . . . It’s just, I’m the most different. And I got this idiot girl who keeps thinking I’m Hindi.”
She laughs. “If she asks hard questions, I’ll answer for you. Here.” She presses money into my hand.
I look at it and feel sick. Twenty dollars. That’s a hundred for her. “No, Grandma.”
“I’m not so old I don’t remember what it is to want a cute dress.”
“Yeah, but Mom gave me twenty and if you give me twenty—” I trail off and wait for her to understand.
“What?” she says. “You can’t do the math? It’s forty.” She sucks her teeth, a sure sign of her irritation. “And they think Guyana is backwater.” She shifts her weight, drives her hand into my thigh as she heaves herself up. “What are they teaching you in this country?”
“Obviously not as much as you can teach me.”
She looks back, smiles over her shoulder. Worry wipes it from her mouth. “Nira, you can want all the clothes and friends and romance you want, but those aren’t the things that matter. If you can read and write, that’s what matters. The rest of it is garbage to distract you.”
“I know, Grandma.” Education. The theme song of our family and it’s on infinite repeat on our playlist.
“Brush your hair and get in the car. There’s a bag of roti by the door, bring it.”
“I did brush my hair!”
“Do it again. You look like you’ve been electrocuted.”
“That’s the humidity.” I follow her out the door, arguing with her and trying to explain moisture and hair, and my need for hair products that Mom won’t buy, and loving my grandma for getting me even if she doesn’t understand me.
—Kate A Boorman, award-winning author of the Winterkill trilogy
—Kate A Boorman, award-winning author of the Winterkill trilogy
—Lisa J. Lawrence, author of Trail of Crumbs
—Lisa J. Lawrence, author of Trail of Crumbs