Authors: Veera Hiranandani
“Hi,” I hear behind my back. I whip around. Kate stands there, her hands on her hips, blue eyes shining.
“Ready?” she says.
“Yup.” I close my locker and clutch the paper bag. Her hands are empty. I wonder if she doesn’t eat lunch and then I remember that the cafeteria sells food. Yesterday tons of kids lined up for chicken nuggets, hamburgers, and hot dogs. My old school didn’t have a cafeteria.
“Oh, you brought,” she says, eyeing my lunch bag.
“Uh-huh,” I say, like I’m carrying a bag of dead rats. Jessica comes up to both of us and we join the flow of the crowd shuffling toward the cafeteria as all the kids pour out of their classrooms. Out of the corner of my eye I see Alisha meet up with some of the other kids from Bridgeport.
“So I heard Peter Hanson likes you,” Jessica says to Kate. Then she flashes her eyes over me, doesn’t say a word, and turns back to Kate as she twirls her thick ponytail. Her fingernails are painted bright red. Mom would never let me wear red nail polish, even though my ten-year-old cousin has worn nail polish since she was like four years old. But Mom says nice Jewish girls don’t.
“Shhhh,” Kate hisses, “he might hear you.” Then she bends toward me.
“That’s Peter. Right. Over. There.”
I glance over my shoulder in the direction of where she’s pointing. She grabs my arm.
“Don’t look!” Jessica whispers fiercely. I’m not sure why everything has to be so top secret. And it’s not that I don’t like boys. I do. I’ve even been in love before.
Connor O’Reilly was one out of four boys in my old class. The other boys were just my friends and so was Connor, until one day out of the clear blue sky I noticed how long his eyelashes were. Last fall, our whole class took a hike to an old cemetery to do grave rubbings. Connor and I had stopped in front of the same gravestone. At first I noticed the stone because there was a big dove imprinted on the front that was perfect for a rubbing. Then we looked closer. It said:
Our precious little bird. Too short a flight
May God keep you in peace
I sucked in my breath when I read the dates and everything around me went slow and heavy. The other kids stepped around the crushed leaves and sticks with their rolls of paper and charcoal. Grace Wheeler’s whole life had only been five years long. Connor knelt beside me and traced the dove in the stone with his finger. I looked at him and his eyes were down. They were the most beautiful eyelashes I’d ever seen. Suddenly I felt shivery and warm and wanted to hold his hand. It made me feel okay about Grace Wheeler, because Connor and I were there together, sitting with her. After that, Connor wasn’t just Connor anymore. But Sam liked him too, and since there were six girls and only four boys in
our class, everyone had to share. I was sure I loved Connor more than Sam did, but Connor said he liked us both the same.
We make it to the cafeteria and the noise is deafening. Teachers are calling out things like “Slow down, everybody” and “Shhhhh” and “No running!” Jessica and Kate go over to the line at the lunch counter. I don’t know what to do. It’s stupid to stand in line if I’m not getting any food, but I don’t want to go and sit at the table without Kate.
“Hey, stand in line with us,” she says, and pulls me toward her and Jessica. She’s a little grabby, but in a good way, like she’s stopping me from falling.
“Who told you about Peter?” Kate asks Jessica. She seems calm now, like she doesn’t care. Jessica’s eyes light up.
“Ann told me. She heard it from Liz.”
I reach the lady at the big metal counter and back away to let Kate and Jessica order. The lady is very fat, with cheeks as red as tomatoes. She has her hair bunched inside a net and looks really angry. Kate and Jessica order the same thing—chicken nuggets and M&M’s. Mom would flip if I ate like this. The only junk food we ever have in the house is ice cream or oatmeal cookies. The fat lady turns around and grabs packs of candy off a shelf, and little cardboard containers of the chicken nuggets from under an orange heat lamp.
I walk behind Kate and Jessica as they march over to the same table they sat at yesterday. It’s all girls. At Alisha’s table
the boys and girls sit together. I sit on one side of Kate and Jessica sits on the other. Most people have cafeteria food, but one girl starts unwrapping what looks like a bologna sandwich. I can tell from the pink Band-Aid color, the round edges of meat. A bag of corn chips sits by her too. Another girl has potato chips and cookies and some kind of sandwich, possibly turkey, on white bread. The rest have chicken nuggets.
A group of boys in our grade sit at the table right behind us. One of them, Peter Hanson, throws a paper airplane over at us. It floats above my head and lands right on top of my tuna sandwich.
“Open it,” Kate says, her voice hushed and excited.
My fingers feel shaky as I unfold the airplane because everyone at the table is staring.
, it says. I read it out loud. It all seems so funny—the airplane note, the little pieces of chicken nuggets, the round bologna meat, the boys at one table and the girls at the other. I roll my eyes. Kate starts to laugh. Then I start and I can’t stop. My laughter spills over to Kate and she grabs me again, holds on to my arm, and we both tumble around in our sounds for a few more seconds before we stop, wiping laugh tears from our eyes. Jessica just stares at us.
“What’s so funny?” she asks over a mouthful of M&M’s.
“Nothing,” Kate says, and grins. A leftover giggle ripples through me. The cafeteria must be a hundred degrees.
Kate crumples up the airplane and tosses it behind her. I don’t dare turn around to see where it lands. Then I catch Alisha looking at me all the way from her table, but she turns away. She unpacks her lunch and takes out her notebook. She bends over it, pen in hand.
When I get home from school, Dad’s study door is closed and Mom’s not home. I open the fridge and take out a small carton of hummus and a bunch of baby carrots. Natasha’s already watching TV in the den because she gets home a half hour earlier than I do.
“Mom said only an hour a day,” I warn as I flop down next to her on the couch.
“I know,” she says, making a face. “I have a half hour more.” She holds out her hand for some carrots.
“Get your own,” I say, shoving her hand away. I look back at the TV. Tom’s building a mousetrap for Jerry out of matchsticks. Then Tom catches Jerry in the mousetrap and strikes a match, but Jerry chews his way out the back of the trap before it bursts into flames and catches Tom’s tail on fire. I sit back, certain of what’s coming next. I feel the rush of energy
from her before it happens. Natasha turns and tackles me. The carrots and hummus go flying. Even though she’s smaller than me, she’s strong, a “little powerhouse,” as Mom says. I grab her arm and twist it.
“Ow! Cut it out!” she yells.
“You made me drop everything!” I yell back, and twist her arm more before letting go. She grabs my hair. “Get off,” I say, and grab her arms again. We fight a lot lately and for some reason it feels good. I’m not even that angry with her. I wonder if she likes it too. We both keep on yelling, shoving, and grabbing. My hand goes into the hummus. I’m about to wipe some on her face when I hear Dad.
“Girls!” Our father appears at the door like a big, dark shadow. He’s still in his bathrobe. His face looks gray as stone. We freeze for a moment to take him in, and then yell over each other, trying to explain the fight, blaming each other for different things.
“I don’t care what happened!” Dad yells so loud I feel sick. “Clean up this awful mess!” he says, and kicks a carrot on the floor. It springs up and hits the closet door. “Stay in your rooms until dinner.” He leaves the den, slamming the door, making the whole room shake.
Natasha and I quietly gather the carrots and I run to the kitchen to get a sponge for the hummus. Natasha looks at me wide-eyed, an embarrassed smirk on her face. I continue wiping up as if it’s no big deal, even though I can hear
the blood pulsing in my ears, feel my throat getting tight. But I swallow it back, the thought of crying. I swallow and swallow.
Dinner is quiet. Mom makes vegetable lasagna, which I normally love, but tonight I can barely taste it. Natasha squirms in her seat and eats with her hands until Dad reaches out, brushes her hands away from her mouth, and points to her fork. I concentrate on my food, shoveling in forkful after forkful.
“Mom,” I suddenly say, “can I buy lunch at school from now on?”
“Why?” she asks.
“Because everybody does.”
She looks at me and chews.
“That’s not a great reason,” she says.
“Forget it,” I say, and try to look really sad.
“I made a new friend today!” Natasha declares.
“That’s great, sweetie,” Mom says. “What’s her name?”
“Oh, a boy,” she says.
“Yeah, and he likes more colors than I do.”
I slouch and roll my eyes. Now Natasha’s off talking about all her strange art stuff that Mom finds so fascinating. For the rest of dinner I know they’ll be talking about all the
colors of the universe. Natasha loves to paint and draw and she’s obsessed with colors, weird ones like fuchsia and lime-green. She actually makes some pretty cool pictures, but I’m not in the mood for Miss Artist and her new color-loving friend.
“Please let me buy lunch tomorrow,” I try again. “I won’t get any candy. My lunches smell.”
“Did someone tell you that?” asks Mom.
“No, they just do. I can smell my tuna from the next room.”
“Well, what would you buy?” she says, putting her fork down and leaning back in her chair.
“Chicken nuggets,” I say.
“And an apple.”
“You need more than that.”
Mom starts eating again and chews slowly on a green pepper from the salad.
“You know it’s okay to eat differently from other people if you like what you’re eating.”
Dad drops his fork onto the plate with an angry clang. We all jump.
“Just let her buy the darn lunch,” he says.
Mom glares at him. He keeps his eyes down, picks up his plate, and brings it to the sink. When he’s gone, Mom looks
at both of us. The corners of her lips twitch up into a faint, embarrassed smile.
“What’s wrong with Dad?” Natasha asks.
“He’s just having a bad day,” Mom says, her lips straight, her voice low.
That night I can’t sleep. I creep downstairs long after Mom kisses us both goodnight and stand outside my parents’ bedroom. I don’t hear the TV, but the light is on. I inch closer to the door, trying not to make a sound. The floorboard creaks. I hold my breath and freeze. After a minute I crane my head to look in the bedroom. I see my dad sitting on the far end of the bed, his back toward me, his face in his hands. Mom’s sitting next to him rubbing his back. They’re both quiet. Dad probably just misses his job.
The next morning there’s a note by my bowl of Cheerios with a five-dollar bill.
Enjoy lunch. Love, Mom
Kate and I sit together at lunch a few days in a row. We get each other laughing about random things, like some boy’s funny hat or the way chicken nuggets can actually bounce. Then, on Friday, Jessica, who I’ve noticed everyone calls Jess, starts to ask questions. She announces over a mouthful of M&M’s that her mom said Community is a school for hippies and asks if I’m a hippie, and then says, “What kind of name is Nadha-whatsee anyway?” When I say my name the right way and tell her it’s Indian, some boy at the table in back of us pats his mouth and says, “Ahhh, ahhh, ahhh.” No, I tell him, calling across my table over to his, not an American Indian, which is what I assume he means when he does that. I’m half Indian, I say, Indian from India.
Then one of the other Jessicas pipes up. “Do you, like, worship cows?” she says, and I say, “No, I’m Jewish.” As if
that’s not enough, another Jessica who calls herself Jess too says, “How can you be Jewish and Indian at the same time? That’s really weird.” The chicken nuggets I’m chewing start to feel like cardboard and my head gets all floaty like I might rise up off my seat and out of the cafeteria. “You just can,” I say, and wish I had a better answer.