I stared out of the white window of our living room onto the front yard of our neighbors across the street. Not that we could call them neighbors since we haven’t met them yet. Well, we had, but just the mother, who, given she had two kids the same age as me and my brother, seemed very curious about the newcomers at her children’s school. She regarded us with the air of interlopers and seemed genuinely perplexed by our names when she asked for them. “Amrita and Akshay” we had politely replied to which she brightly retorted that she would call us “A squared instead”.
She was out on the yard now, piling her family into a large van, a minibus in my opinion, but as I had already come to understand in my first month in this country, it’s a family’s main mode of transportation through the clean, freshly tarred streets where pedestrians were as rare as a wolf sighting. You knew they were lurking, but they didn’t want to be seen, and if you did chance upon them, you’d avoid them. Coming from a country where space was meant for people to nestle into, I didn’t get why space was so highly respected here. But there was a lot I didn’t get.
I now looked at the girl, my classmate, stepping into the car, her shiny yellow hair swinging straight behind her like a personal fan. She was wearing blue denim shorts, the kind that graced the Gap and Abercrombie and Fitch catalogs that had accidentally showed up in our mailbox. Appa had put them in the recycling bin but I had snuck them out of there and into my room to pore over before my first day at school. I saw pages and pages of girls who looked like the girl across the street, with their pencil-thin bodies poured in perfectly placed shorts elongating their porcelain legs. I looked down at my knees (usually hidden under jeans)- the same dark mahogany as my nipples - that sat starkly on my legs that were scarred with bites from mosquitos that came out at night at my grandmother’s home back in India. I didn’t know what girls with knees my color wore; I couldn’t find any in the catalogs, or in the copy of Teen Vogue I had begged Amma to buy.
I still hadn’t forgiven Amma and Appa for moving us across the oceans, from the buzzing streets of Mumbai to the lazing cul de sacs of Raleigh. I had left behind dozens of friends, my crush, and streets that felt familiar with the cacophony of my favorite chaat stalls and droning auto rickshaws. Here, on these vast, empty streets where greenery took up more room than people, I don’t know where I stood. The first week at school had been pleasant enough; not as horrible as I expected based on American high school movies where the popular kids go out of their way to haze the dorks. I’d learned later from a cousin who went to public school, that it wasn’t as surprising that the kids in my private school were polite. “They have rich parents who train them at golf clubs and dinner parties,” she scoffed before adding, “Hmmm, are you rich? How come you’re going to private school?” I wasn’t quite sure if we were rich; certainly, we were living in the biggest house we ever had, but looking around our neighborhood it seemed all American homes only came in this size.
It really could have been a lot worse that first week of school, I reassure myself as I watch the boy across the street, my brother’s age, dash into the car, lacrosse stick in hand. Mostly the week had just been awkward. Like when the English class teacher, Ms. Lindquist had stumbled with my name while welcoming me. “Uhh Ammm-reeta Shiekaren, oh goodness did I say that right?” Thinking it to be a genuine question, I proceeded to correct her, “It’s pronounced Uhmritha Shekharun.” Ms. Lindquist’s green eyes widened with bewilderment before saying, “OK great, well welcome to Green Hope, I am sure you will settle in very quickly, errr…A.” By the fifth time I went through this charade with other teachers and fellow classmates, I gave up correcting them, realizing my name was a burden on their tongue. And then there was the meeting with the guidance counselor who wanted to know if I had spent the summer prepping for the SATs? “The SA what,” I inquired to which she responded with a gasp. “The SATs, the single most important test you will take which decides which college you will get into, and really your future.” She stuck her hand out with glossy, long red nails and thrust a pamphlet for an SAT prep class into my hand. “You should sign up immediately; you are already behind your classmates who have been prepping for a year and a summer.” I nodded obediently, still not entirely clear what the SAT was.
Perhaps the most awkward moment had transpired at lunch that Tuesday. My classmate who had been assigned to be my buddy for that first week had invited me to lunch with her friends. Thankful that I didn’t have to skip lunch and hide in the library like I had done the day before, I walked onto the courtyard alive with high school chatter and looked around for Bryanna. After the customary hellos (and stumbles over my name), I took out my lunch salivating, remembering what Amma had packed for me that morning. She had spread coriander chutney on a bread slice before studding it with juicy tomato slices and dusting them all generously with chaat masala. Another bread slice with salted butter pressed down on the chutney slice making it my favorite snack that harkens me back to the streets of Mumbai where sandwiches like these were the perfect diversion on a monsoon afternoon. I unwrapped the sandwich and took an approving look at it before biting into it. The tomatoes burst in my mouth with the spice of the chutney hitting my tongue while the butter cooled it down.
“Eww…is that mold?” I snapped out of my food stupor. The girl to my right, a brunette with eyes to match who I recognized from my Chemistry class, was eyeing my sandwich with disdain. My stomach flipped as if I had eaten bad takeout. “No no,” I rushed to explain, “it’s just coriander chutney. Um well, I think you call it cilantro? It’s very popular for sandwiches in India. Do you want to try it?” I was poised ready to rip off a piece with my hand for her to try. The girl backed away as if I had just offered her poison before declaring, “It looks like mold, gross.” I sat suspended between my desire to eat the sandwich and to feel less like a hippo at a horse’s table. Shame seeped into my insides and whet my appetite.
The family across the street was finally stuffed shut in their mini-bus. The father, wearing bright red shorts that matched his face other than the outline of his sunglasses which now hung around his neck like a bib, maneuvered the car of their driveway and onto the culdesac before straightening it to point in the right direction. Suddenly, the sliding door unveiled a pair of long legs that jumped out and in my direction. I panicked as I realized that the blonde girl was walking toward my house. I duck reflexively wondering if I was going to be told off for looking at them. People were oddly protective of their boundaries here in a way you only can be when space is a birthright. Back in India, you always assumed five of your neighborhood ladies knew your whereabouts at any time, and news traveled faster through these gossip chains than through airwaves.
The doorbell rang and I felt my heart thump to the pit of my stomach. Amma and Appa were in the kitchen and my brother was playing video games in the den. I was closest to the door. I walk unsteadily toward it, keenly aware of the frizzy curls framing my face. My oversized Tweety t-shirtdress looked especially hideous at the moment. I willed everything in me to make it to the door instead of running up to hide in my room. I unlocked the door and there she stood, her lustrous hair catching the sun and gleaming gold.
“Hey, I’m Alex. I am your classmate at Green Hope,” she said all this like she was reading instructions from an IKEA box. I stood staring at her speechless all the while wondering if it would be more or less awkward to say my name which I knew she wouldn’t be able to pronounce. Fortunately, Alex didn’t seem to be waiting for a response from me. “I am having a pool and barbecue party tomorrow at my house. A bunch of our classmates will be there. My mom asked me to invite you.”
By this point, I had been joined at the door by my mother smelling like she had jumped headfirst into a curry bath. I noticed Alex crinkle her button nose slightly and I felt my eyes blur with the weight of embarrassment. “Oh hi, Alex. Thank you, so nice of you to invite Amrita. Pool party means you will play in the pool?”
“And will there be boys there?” Amma’s words cut through my haze like a blade and I winced. I already knew my mother was flabbergasted by the idea of me walking around in swimwear in front of a group of boys. For what it was worth, I was equally mortified at the idea but would have at least attempted a more refined response. Amma wasn’t giving me any such cover.
Alex, looking confused at the question, said, “Yes, of course.” The tone of her voice seemed to say, “Yea duh we are sixteen, what do you think?” Before amma could even consider a response, I jumped in, “Thanks for the invite, Alex. I will be there.” Alex turned around and galloped back toward her family’s car, her hair trailing behind her like a luscious mane. I already knew there was a fifty-fifty chance I would fake sickness and bail, but in the meantime, I needed to pore over my Teen Vogue copy for a pool outfit that would cover my knees.