Authors: Rita Williams-Garcia
For Stephanie Elaine and Asha Imani,
who can laugh, laugh, laugh.
And for girls who cannot.
Did you ever cross your fingers and play that
game in your head: If the last Life Saver in the roll is pineapple, then the letter will come this week. If the phone rings only twice before Dad yells, “I got it!,” then the letter will come this week. If I can count to ten at my normal counting speed before a floating dandelion hits the ground, then it's for certain: Victoria's letter will definitely come this week.
Ever play that game and the last Life Saver is pineapple, Dad yells for the phone in time, and the dandelion is still crisscrossing above the hydrangeas on the count of twelve, and still no letter from Nigeria?
For two days straight I watched the mailman push his cart by our house only to leave a few Dear Occupant envelopes and a letter from our state assemblywoman.
Today, however, I was ready for him. Instead of watching from my bedroom window, I was stationed downstairs behind the living-room curtains. He was one of those new guys who was filling in while our regular carrier was on vacation. When I got through with him,
he'd know that I was expecting an important letter and that his duty was to be on the lookout for anything from Nigeria. Victoria's stamps didn't fall off on their own, I'd explain. Some stamp collector was dazzled by the mighty Chief Obafemi Awolowo or the baobab tree smack in the corner of Victoria's letter and took those stamps for his private collection. I had to remind the mailman that even if the stamps had been taken offâand chances are they hadâit was his duty to deliver Victoria's letter through rain, sleet, and from across the Atlantic Ocean.
So when the mailman pushed the cable bill and a leaflet from our councilman through the mail slot, I swung open the front door before he could get away. Dad says I have Girl Warrior rising, meaning I leap into action like a super-shero when action is needed.
“Mr. Mailman,” I called after him. “Can you check your bag to see if there are any letters from Nigeria, postage due?”
I didn't even get a chance to tell him to be on the lookout for Victoria's letter and to deliver it even if Chief Obafemi Awolowo had fallen off the corner. Mom snatched me back into the house. Not with her hands. She didn't believe in yanking or spanking. But with her voice.
Girl Warrior fell to earth with a thud. I closed the door quicker than I had opened it.
“You know better than to talk to strangers.”
I came inside and sat down on the sofa to sulk. I
couldn't see what the big deal was. After all, during the school year I walk to school and back with a key around my neck, advertising to anyone that I'm a latchkey kid. I ride my bike all over town and no one ever messes with me.
Mom should have let the mailman answer, because now my mind took off into the wild blue yonder as she scolded me.
Victoria's letter had fallen off the mail barge and was floating up the White Nile. It had survived hippos and crocodiles only to drown in Khartoum, where the White Nile meets the Blue Nile. I could see the envelope sinking, sinkingâ¦but I snapped out of it because Victoria wasn't in Sudan.
“I should have enrolled you in that math and science camp up at York College instead of keeping you homeâ¦.”
That thought sent me back on the trail of Victoria's letter. Back across the Atlantic Ocean to the African continent.
I saw a rickety truck climbing the mountains of Kenya on bald tires. Mailbags bounced as the truck made its way up the rocky dirt road. A mailbag jostled open. A trail of letters dotted the road like Hansel and Gretel's bread crumbs.
“I thought spending more time together would be a good opportunityâ¦”
But Victoria wasn't in Kenya or in Egypt. She wasn't in the Congo, or in Madagascar or Botswana. Victoria was in Nigeria, visiting her grandmother. She and her
family had been in Nigeria since June twenty-third, the day I marked on my calendar as the start of Victoria's great journey. It was now August. Two months and only two letters.
Mom was still talking. “Clearly, you need more activities.”
I went over our plan to stay in touch, which was, first she'd write, then I'd write, then she'd write, and I'd write, until she returned to Queens. The plan was going well. She wrote. Then I wrote. Then she wrote. Then I wrote. Then two weeks passed since my last letter from Victoria. Then three weeks. I wrote again, addressing the envelope in my clearest handwriting, to make sure it would be delivered, but it was no use. Her letters stopped coming. No more loopty-loo
s and jolly
stems. No fat-dotted
I went over everything in my mind, like a rice inspector sifting through barrels of rice. Was it something I wrote in my last letter? I told her a joke I got off the Internet. I asked about the special dinner in her honorâI mean, that's all I heard about before the Ojikes left for Africa: “There will be a special dinner to celebrate my coming-of-age.” That was what Mrs. Ojike told Victoria and that was what Victoria told me, over and over.
I admit, I felt jealous and left out. After all, there was something important going on in Victoria's life, and I wasn't a part of it. I was jealous, but I didn't act like a brat. I even asked her about her dressâwas it an American dress or an African dress, like her mother
always wore. Of course, I asked about Nelson and how he looked. Then I wrote to her about soccer camp and how that stupid Juwan Spenser used every chance he got to kick the ball at me, not to me. But I got him back, and I wrote in detail about that in my last letter.
None of those things would have been enough to make Victoria stop writing to me. Besides, I'd said much worse things to her face and we were still friends, so I knew it wasn't my letter.
I tried to recall everything she said before she left for Nigeria, but nothing strange came to mind. Then I panicked. What if the Ojikes weren't coming back to Queens, and Victoria figured it was pointless being friends if we didn't live in the same country? After all, they left Africa to live in England when she was born, then moved to Queens two years ago. If the Ojikes could hop from country to country so easily, it was only a matter of time before they left Queens for good, wasn't it?
I needed my questions answered. After lunch I got on my bike and rode three blocks up to the Ojikes' rented house to look through their window. All of the furniture was still there, although I realized that could be rented as well. But then I saw Mrs. Ojike's
cloth hanging on the wall.
cloth is woven on a loom with different-colored threads. My mother admired that cloth so much that Mrs. Ojike took it down to give to her. Then Mom got all embarrassed and wouldn't take it, but I knew she wanted it.
“They're not home.”
I turned around. It was Miss Lady from across the street. Her real name is Miss Dorothy Boothe, but you know how you pick a name for someone when you're little and it just sticks? Miss Lady was my sitter when I was little, which I don't understand, because Miss Lady doesn't like kids. She never comes to the door on Halloween. She just lets her dog, Gigi, bark at us.
“I know,” I said, still looking inside.
“You shouldn't be playing in their yard.” Her voice was nearer. She had crossed the street.
“I'm not playing,” I said, not really meaning to back talk, but that's just how it came out. “I just want to seeâ”
“See what? There's nothing to see.”
“If they're coming back.”
“You can't see that from there. Nowâ¦” She was telling me to leave before she called my mama.
Girl Warrior pulled back from the window and rode away. I was already in enough trouble with my mother for talking to strangers.
Summer days were extra long. Not because of
daylight savings time, but because Victoria was not a part of them. All I had to look forward to was soccer at the Y and finishing a math workbook. Mom never brought home a fun workbook with creative writing exercises.
Imagine you are on an islandâ¦. Imagine you are leadinga wilderness expeditionâ¦. Imagine you made the discovery of the centuryâ¦.
About my need to stretch my imagination, Mom would say, “There's a notebook on your desk. Write.” Then she'd take my math workbook and check it. Sometimes I got a science workbook to break the monotony. This summer I started with fourth-grade math for review, then I did fifth-grade workbooks to be on top of things.
I snuck a peek at the sixth-grade workbook Mom had waiting for me, just to see what the future looked like. Instead of going chapter by chapter, I flipped to the advanced section in the back and found algebra. Unh, unh, unh. All those years of doing real operations with
real numbers only to have it all thrown out the window for some
s. It just doesn't seem right. Like pushing the world's most humongous boulder up a hill because you have nothing better to do.
I've never seen the cashier count back
change. None of Mom's recipe cards say to measure 2
cups of flour, nor do dress patterns call for sewing along a 5/
I looked at the equations and shook my head. Letters mixed with numbers. Unh, unh, unh. There are some things I'm not ready to understand.
This was the boringest summer ever. I banged my legs along the edge of the lawn chair and chanted, “Boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring.” I sounded like a rusty, broken spring.
Boing. Boing. Boing.
Mom set down a tray with tuna sandwiches cut in quarters next to our lounge chairs and went back inside for the iced tea. She was keeping me from the front yard, which was where I sat and waited for the mailman or for the Ojikes to return from Africa. Mom said, “What's the sense in having a backyard patio if you just stare at it all winter?”
Sometimes we sit in the backyard and paint each other's nails, recline like movie stars, and sip iced tea.
Both of our chairs were fixed in the upright position, so we weren't doing manicures today. When Mom brought out the raspberry tea and sat down, I stopped saying “Boring, boring” and crossed my legs.
She said in her lazy voice, “You know, girlâ¦”
I answered, equally lazy, “What, girl?”
This is how we begin our talks. You don't think my mother would let me call her “girl” in the front yard out in public? Calling each other “girl” is strictly for the backyard. We started when I was five and had Kool-Aid tea parties with animal crackers out on the patio. Now we sip on real herbal tea and talk about anything we want.
Once I untangled myself from missing Victoria, I started feeling how nice it was back here, even with a few flies buzzing around. I remembered how Mom came home from work a mess just before the last day of school, trembling and crying. She said she couldn't believe someone could do
to their own daughter. I asked what, but neither she nor Dad answered. They just shooed me up to my room. Anyway, she took a leave from her job at Child Welfare and hasn't been back since.
“Ahhhh.” I sipped my raspberry tea with extra sugar. At this moment I loved being an only and having my mother to myself. We wouldn't be enjoying any backyard tea talks if I had brothers and sisters every which where like my cousin Pearlina has. Pearlina is in the middle of nine brothers and sisters. Auntie Cass only has time to tell my cousins what they better do and not do. Pearlina always says I am so lucky.
Mom set her glass down. She said, “It's time we had this talk.”
Her tone sent me racing to think of things I had forgotten to do or had done wrong. I had already been
properly scolded for talking to the mailman, so I knew that was over. My room is always neat. Sort of. I couldn't think of anything we had to talk about.
“We're early bloomers,” she began.
I wiped the huh-what? off my face and tried to follow what she was saying. I consider myself lightning quick, but I was looking stupid until she said, “You're already starting your changes. You're so much like I was. I bloomed early.”
I knew it was happening, but I didn't want to bloom. Have you even seen a rose in full bloom? All the petals open as wide as they can and then they fall off. I will not bloom. I will not bloom. If I bloom, someone will try to pick me. Yank me from my stem andâ
“Akilah. Focus. Listen to me.”
I didn't want to focus. I wanted to take off on one of my trips into the wild blue yonder. Unfortunately Mom knew this and kept my feet on the ground.
“Those little stomachaches you're getting are your body's way of preparing for your menstrual cycle. I'm telling you about it now so you won't panic when your first period comes.”
“Why do I have to think about that now?” I said. “I still have two years to be a girl.”
“Two years to be a girl?” My mother looked at me like she hadn't heard me correctly, which wasn't possible. She can hear me muttering under my breath in the next room.
“Victoria and I aren't in any rush to get our periods.
We're getting it at twelve like everyone else.”
Mom started to laugh. She felt bad for a minute, stopped, and then laughed anyway. “I have news for you,” she said, wiping her tears. “This is nothing you can control. You will get it when it comes, and chances are, that will be when you're eleven.”
I know a little more about periods than I do about algebra. Debra Wells, this sixth grader, told Victoria and me that girls get their periods and boys get stupid. She said there are fifty kinds of sanitary pads, but just call them Kotex when you need one. Everybody does.
After our talk with Debra Wells, Victoria and I had to check out the mystery of sanitary napkins for ourselves. We snuck into the teachers' bathroom with a quarter and bought a Kotex from the vending machine. We opened the wrapper and dissected the napkin like it was our science project. When we saw that it was just cotton wrapped in cotton, Victoria said, “We should have bought gum with the quarter.” She was right. We could have split the gum.