Authors: Veera Hiranandani
“If you had to choose,” she says.
I just stand there with my mouth partly open.
Alisha’s bus pulls up. “Tell me tomorrow,” she says. “Hey, do you want to come over after school? You can ride home with me on the bus. It’s really not that far away. The bus just takes a while.”
“Oh,” I say, surprised. It sort of seemed easier to have our friendship right here waiting for the bus, separate from class, separate from our houses, separate from Kate. “Let me check
with my parents.” Her face changes from happy to serious. “I just need to make sure someone can pick me up.” She smiles again and I notice my heart’s beating a little faster. I wipe my sweaty hands on my jeans.
“Okay, call me tonight,” she says, and runs up the steps of her blue and white bus.
Maybe it would be easier to just be Indian and not have to explain the Jewish part. Mom doesn’t seem to think being Jewish is that important, otherwise she would have done all the things Sadie does—belong to a temple, have Shabbat dinner every Friday night, and send me to Hebrew school. Why didn’t she do those things for me? Why couldn’t she have raised me really Jewish like Sam, so I wouldn’t have to think so much about it? Now it’s too late.
When I get home I skip watching SpongeBob with Natasha and go to the phone in the kitchen. I hold the receiver until my hand gets stiff. I finally dial and Sam answers. We haven’t talked in two weeks, the longest we’ve ever gone since we’ve known each other.
“I knew you’d call me today,” she says.
I want to ask why she hasn’t called me, but I don’t. “Tell me everything I’ve missed,” I say.
She sighs. “I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to remember.”
“You can remember one thing, can’t you?”
“One thing. One thing,” she repeats, thinking. “Okay, how about this: Jack picked me to be the lead in the play this year.”
“Wow, that’s so great,” I say, feeling hurt. “How come you didn’t tell me?”
There’s silence on the other end for a second. She clears her throat.
“I just found out,” she finally says, but that doesn’t answer my question, or at least answer it in the way I want it answered. “So what’s going on with you? Have you made lots of new friends?” Her voice sounds squeaky.
“A few, I guess. I tried out for cheerleading.”
“Cheerleading?” she says, and laughs.
“What’s so funny?”
“I just can’t picture you as a cheerleader.”
“Why?” I ask. “I’m pretty good at it.”
“Do you have to wear some silly uniform?”
“I don’t know if I’ve even made the team.” I hadn’t thought much about the uniform and whether it would be silly. “I’d better go, I’ve got a lot of homework,” I lie. But Sam lied too. She said it wouldn’t happen to us.
All through dinner, the conversation with Sam sits like a rock in my stomach, along with the half-burned meat loaf Dad made. I eat the salad and rice and push the slice of brown mush around my plate. Dad is talking about the news.
“This country’s in trouble,” he says. “Big trouble.” I want to ask him why, but I don’t. It scares me the way he says it,
like he knows all these important secrets about the world that nobody else knows. Then he starts talking fast about gas prices, and terrorism, and the downturn in the economy.
Many times Mom and Dad will debate what they heard on the news like a game of Ping-Pong. It’s fun to listen to them even if I don’t understand what they’re talking about. But now it’s like he’s talking to the air. Mom nods at him, but she doesn’t try to argue with what he’s saying. Her eyes squint like something’s hurting her. Natasha takes a big bite of her meat loaf, chews it up, and shows it to me.
“Ick!” I shriek. Dad stops talking and jumps as if someone just slapped him. Normally Mom would tell Natasha to stop it, but instead she says quickly, “Sonia, how are you feeling about cheerleading? You’ll see the tryout results tomorrow, right?”
“I feel good,” I say, and put my fork down. I didn’t think she had any idea that I would find out tomorrow.
“Well, all that matters is that you tried,” she says, looking off into the distance.
“Whatever,” I say.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mom says, and suddenly looks sad. Her eyes are watery, like she might cry. I feel bad for her. Nobody’s been very nice to her lately, but then again, she hasn’t been that nice either.
to make it. I’m really good, believe it or not, and it does matter to me.”
“That’s not what I meant, I just meant it’s good that you tried even if you don’t make it.”
“No, it’s not good! It’ll suck.”
I said it. I said the word that Mom and Dad hate more than anything. In my house it’s even worse than the other S-word and maybe even the F-word, even though I never dare to say them.
Mom opens her mouth to say something, but Dad gets up fast, takes my dinner into the kitchen, and throws the whole thing, plate and all, into the garbage. He points upstairs and says through gritted teeth, “You can eat when you decide to show your mom some respect. I don’t want to see you again tonight.” I get up on shaky legs, feeling the rest of my family’s eyes on my back, watching me. I go up to my room and curl up into a ball on my bed.
Later that night, I can hear Mom getting Natasha ready for bed and the soft sounds of her reading
Where the Wild Things Are
through my closed door.
After a little while there’s a knock at my door. She comes in with Natasha, which is kind of weird.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I say, tears flooding my eyes. I am sorry, yet I meant what I said, even the “suck” part.
“Me too,” she says. “We haven’t been connecting well lately. It’s my fault.” She sits in my desk chair, takes off her glasses, and starts cleaning them. Natasha plops down on the floor. “Things have been hard for all of us, and we should talk about
it.” Her voice cracks slightly. I know what I’m about to hear is bad. I know it the way you can see a thunderstorm coming, in the darkening sky, in the
of wind rustling the trees.
She clears her throat. “Remember when I said Dad was going through a difficult time?” she continues.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Is he sick?” asks Natasha.
“Well, there are different kinds of sick,” Mom says. Then she goes on to explain what’s wrong with Dad, how it’s sort of like having a flu in your mind, that he’s been feeling down for a while, and when bad moods last too long it’s called a depression.
“Your father is depressed, girls.”
“When will he feel better?” Natasha asks.
“Soon. He’s seeing a doctor who will help him. A therapist,” Mom says, and rubs her face the way she does when she’s tired, like her whole face itches all over. Then she stops rubbing. “I promise it’s going to be okay. And you can ask me anything you want.”
“Does this mean he’s not going to get a new job?” I ask, hoping Mom means I really can ask anything I want.
“Eventually.” Mom puts her fingers on her forehead like she has a headache. “Dad has been depressed before, but this time it’s a little worse. His doctor will help him through it, and as soon as he’s feeling better, he’ll find another job. In the meantime, I’m going to have to work more.”
I take a deep breath in and let it out slowly. I try to think about other times I’ve seen Dad like this, but I can’t.
“When was he depressed?” I ask.
“A long time ago, before you were born,” Mom says. “But please don’t talk about it with other people. Dad needs his privacy. We all do.”
Natasha climbs on my bed. Mom comes over and puts her arms around us. We sit quietly for a little while until all I want to think about—all I
think about—is sleep finding me.
She kisses me on the cheek and says softly, “I’m sure you blew the judges away.” Then she leads Natasha out of my room.
I never ask if I can go over to Alisha’s house.
When the tryout results are posted on Friday afternoon, I see a crowd of twenty or so girls looking for their names on the list in the girls’ locker room. I watch Kate run up to the list, bounce on her toes, and clap her hands. I watch Jess look at it, squeal, and hug Kate. I watch some other girls look at it, hang their heads, and walk away. I watch Christina, the girl I met at Kate’s house, look at it and start crying. I push my way to the front. Kate comes up out of nowhere and puts an arm around my shoulders. My eyes scan the list. I don’t see my name, and I swallow hard to make sure not one tear sneaks out. Then way at the bottom I see two names. One is mine. It says in bold capital letters
. “Alternate.” It’s a word I’ve never really heard of before, in the sense that someone could be one. Yet I am.
I’m not sad, I’m not happy. I’m an alternate.
“What does it mean?” I ask Kate.
“It means you’re totally on the team!” she says, hugging me.
I see Jess and some other girls who’ve made it huddle around one another, talking fast with flushed faces. I was better than Jess, way better. I was better than most of those girls, maybe not Kate, but better than most. Maybe it doesn’t just have to do with how good you are. Those girls aren’t new. They have names everyone can pronounce. They know exactly which lunch table they belong at.
“But how is it different?” I ask Kate.
“Don’t worry. I’m captain, and as far as I’m concerned, you’re on the team just like anyone else,” she says. Then she grabs my arm and thrusts me into the circle of the other giggling cheerleaders. Their voices blur into one shriek of excitement, one high-pitched sound that rings in my ears.
I find out later from the other alternate, Ann, what it really means. It means I can practice with everyone, but I only cheer in the games when one of the real cheerleaders can’t make it, which is probably not very often. Ann doesn’t seem upset by this, so I pretend I’m not either and stand with my hands in my pockets with a stiff smile on my face. I’m half Indian, I’m half Jewish, and now I’m half a cheerleader.
I’ve avoided eye contact with Alisha all day, but here I am waiting for my bus with no escape. She comes up to me, but before she even says anything, I tell her why I didn’t call her.
“I kind of got into a fight with my parents last night and I never asked them about coming over. I’m sorry,” I say.
“Was the fight about coming over to my house?” she asks.
“What? No. Why would you think that?”
“I don’t know,” Alisha says, and walks off to where her bus pulls up.
I trudge off to my own bus and wonder if Alisha will ever want me over again.
At home nobody rushes to ask me if I’ve made the team or not. Natasha is locked in her room again, banging on her drums louder than I’ve ever heard her. Mom is busy making dinner, and for once I’m happy to see her cooking even if she’s preparing something with lots of tofu and spinach to make up for lost time. Dad’s outside in his navy blue bathrobe sweeping leaves off the patio.
It’s strange how robes and pajamas can seem so cozy at the right times and so sad at the wrong times. I open the sliding glass door and feel a surprising chill in the air. It smells like cold dirt, like snow about to fall, like winter.
“Can I help?” I ask him.
He turns around and then I see it, the cigarette in his mouth, the smoke in the air, curling around his head. He might as well be naked. I’ve never seen him smoke. I didn’t
even know he did. I wonder what other things I don’t know about my dad. A quick sweat breaks out on my forehead. I grip the doorframe to steady myself.
He holds out his broom to me, sits down on the picnic bench, and presses the cigarette into the stone patio until it’s out. I begin sweeping fast. I want to finish and leave this stranger smoking on our patio.
“Did you make the team?” he asks.
I stop sweeping and watch as the last of the smoke curls out of his mouth. Through the haze I catch a glimpse of my old father with his crow-eyed smile.
“I only made it as an alternate,” I say, and wonder if he’ll know what I mean. I cough a little with my mouth tightly closed.
“Are you happy about that?” he asks.
“I’m not sure.”
“It’s better to be an alternate than nothing at all. Nothing’s worse than being nothing. Remember that, Sonia,” he says.
“Okay,” I say. “Dad?”
I want to ask why he’s smoking, if he feels depressed right now, if he feels like nothing. “I’m going to see if Mom needs help with dinner,” I say instead.
“Good,” he says, holding out his hand to take the broom back, and I let him have it. I walk away and close the glass
door behind me. When I’m far enough away from the door I turn around. His back is facing me. The broom is propped up against the picnic table. He’s crouched over a bit, the smoke once more rising above him. I don’t go into the kitchen to help Mom. I go into my room and start on my homework even though it’s Friday.
On Monday morning Dad’s in a suit drinking coffee and rushing around the kitchen. Mom hands me a plate of scrambled eggs and wheat toast. I take it and sit down across from Natasha. We both stare at our parents over steaming plates of food.
“Hey,” Natasha whispers.
I take in her big brown eyes and dark floppy hair that Mom has given up trying to control. I forget sometimes how little she still is. In fact, the way she looks now, with her cheeks rosy and big, I can remember what she looked like when she wore diapers. I suddenly want to hold her hand and sing to her like Mom used to let me do when she slept in a crib.