Thursday, November 26, 2015

Switching (3)

Wednesdays, Catholics leave school early to learn the catechism at St. Pancras. Fat Ms. McIntyre promises our first confession will be a piece of cake. 

Fridays, we have to wear a white shirt for assembly. If your class has 100% white shirt all year, you get a pizza party in June. At assembly, we have to sit boy girl boy girl but everyone switches when the lights go out. I open my mouth and make the sounds of the national anthem without knowing the words. This has nothing to do with the fact that I’m a foreigner and everything to do with the fact that the Star Spangled Banner doesn’t make any sense.  The same is true for Our Father who art in heaven hallowed by thy name. 

In the auditorium there is a portrait of a grim man and woman holding pitchforks: American Gothic. What kind of person hangs that in a school, even if the school is nestled in the cemetery belt of Queens, and is named after Richard Arkwright, inventor of the cotton spinning mill? 

“P.S. 91 is number 1,” says Mr. Lombardi, the principal. I long to ask him how he figures.

Our father is a carpenter by day. He brings home ends of intricate wood moldings. These live under the sink when we’re not playing with them. After the exterminator sprays them, we have to throw them out. 

Our father stops in travel agencies and brings us glossy brochures about African safaris and Norwegian cruises. We play school: perched on upside down beach buckets, we speak in praising voices of gazelles and other marvels. We wear red paper clips on our fingers in mimic of Mrs. D’Amato’s nails. These paper clips come from the Mack Truck offices on the other side of the cemetery where our father has a night shift. If we finish our homework, we get to come with. He does the bathrooms, while we change the garbage bags in the cubicles. 

The security guard’s midnight snack is a Table Talk apple pie.

Then Maria is born in a hospital in White Plains because Queens hospitals are dirty. It’s the early nineties, before Giuliani. Now we are three sisters. In the summer, we go shopping on Myrtle Avenue every day. Our mother complains that Anna and I weigh her down when we hang onto the carriage. “What am I, a refrigerator,” she says, if we ask for a drink. She takes advantage of sales and double coupon days. Her favorite cashier is an Asian woman named Lucy who never makes a mistake. “Are you re-enacting the Boston Tea Party?” asks Lucy when my mother buys Twinnings tea by the armful. Just kidding, she doesn’t, but if she, our mother would get it, because she is studying for citizenship.  

Weekends we go to Montauk Point because our father prefers empty beaches, or to open houses in the Poconos. We’re just looking. I keep a notebook called Our House, with floor plans and cutouts of jewelry from the Macy’s circular, emeralds in the green room, rubies in the red. On the long car rides I dream of a world in which I can teleport my pee to someone else. In real life Anna and I share a room and a closet. I draw a line down the middle of the rod. When her clothes cross the line, I shove them back.

Every few weeks or months, we "switch." By which I mean, switch sides (of the room). Randomly - especially if bored - one of us looks at the other and says, "Wanna switch?" And the game is on. If a neighbor drops in, our mom says, with resignation, "Zamieniaja sie," "They're switching." (Is she secretly charmed?)

We have a kinda trundle bed our dad built. (At first we had a bunk bed, but our mom made our dad cut it in half because she said it was too hard to take care of the one in the top bunk when we were sick. Then we moved and there was no space, so dad put the beds back together into a bunk bed, but mom didn't trust that it would hold. So dad built the trundle bed.)

Whoever sleeps  in the bottom bed, has to pull it out at night and shove it under in the morning. Two sets of pillows and comforters are piled on the top bed, rendering it extra high. So, we switch who sleeps in which one. We switch desks - they are immediately adjacent to each other, but one has the window. One side of the closet is worse - because the door derails often. One bookcase is close to the window our mom leans out of, to hang the laundry, so she keeps her clothespins on it, which is kind of annoying. And sometimes Scardinova, our landlady, lowers a bucket with something she'd baked, and we retrieve it through that window. Or she lowers the bucket further, to the ground, with something for the local cats.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Perfect attendance is a scam (2)

One day I decide it'd be weird if I suddenly spoke, so I resolve to wait out the year in silence. Then comes my mid-year report card: “Promotion in Doubt.” I understand what it means, even before my father opens the big dictionary.

Afraid, now, to get left behind in kindergarten, I must prove myself. So I write stories about the chicks that hatch in our class, how they try to get out of the enclosure we've built for them, with blocks.

And I get out.

In first grade, I score a part in the school play. I am one of many narrators, so I have just one line, about how the crocodile swallowed a clock so the lost boys could hear him coming.

I have a crush on Captain Hook and Smee, but I don't have the word “crush.”

For the rest of my life, teachers will seat various rowdy boys, including Hook and Smee, near me in hopes that my quiet will infect them.

I am the first foreigner in the school; my sister Anna is the second. Soon thereafter Yugoslavia splinters and we see a wave of southern Slavs. Bosnian, Serbian, Albanian – whenever there's a new arrival, the secretaries summon me to the main office to explain lunchtime and bathrooms. Because all foreigners understand each other, and these are the two most important topics.

Secretly, I enjoy my ambassador role. I tactfully don't mention Mr. Seiderman's threat that if we lose the bathroom pass, no one will be allowed to go the rest of the year. (It keeps me up at night. I go to the bathroom a dozen times before I fall asleep.)

Mornings, our mother inspects us at the door to make sure we're wearing undershirts so the wind doesn't blow up our backs. I catch sick, anyway. I am often sick, but I don't want to relinquish my tonsils.

I find it cruel that I have to walk thirty minutes to the doctor, with a blazing fever and sore throat. But the doctor near our house, does not take our insurance.

The kids in school don't believe when I say I nearly had to go to the hospital because my temperature was forty degrees. They claim fevers of one hundred and three, no problem. No one has explained Celsius and Fahrenheit to me.

I lay on the sofa and announce I'm consumptive. “Don't poison me,” says our mother. She knows we take our hats off as soon as we round the corner.

My mother puts a spoonful of vodka in my tea and bundles me in quilts and blanket so I can sweat it out. I grow addicted to the feeling of fever breaking in the stillness of our block between 9 a.m and 3 p.m., as if someone had sown poppies. (“Jak by makiam posialo.”)

In June I get a perfect attendance award, so I know perfect attendance is a scam.

Kids, give each other cooties. I tell them that I am immune to cooties because my hair is always braided, and therefore crossed. They look at me funny.

My hair is always braided, my mother won't have it any other way. The kids are always trying to let it out, because it's quite long, and that's what you do when you have long hair, you let it out.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Animal facts (1)

The lunch ladies are pear-shaped and tyrannical.

“Heads down,” they bellow, to hush us for the reading of the menu.

If you bring lunch from home, that's “cold lunch,” and you can't eat it till your classmates have been served “hot lunch.”

I listen to the roar of the cafeteria, and gaze at my unopened lunchbox.

The lunch ladies decide the order in which the tables are called to get hot lunch.

“Tell you what,” they say. “We'll make it up to you: since you were the last to get lunch, you can be the first to throw out your garbage.”

Other kids seem unfazed by the injustice. They throw out their Wondercrusts. I bring my crusts home; our father eats them as an appetizer. My sandwich is Polish rye because Wonderbread is cotton. Other kids have fruit roll-up and gushers; I have raisins in a little red box. All our fingers are sticky.

I bring my juice box home because there is an animal fact on the back. My mother washes the juice box and cuts out the animal fact for me. I collect the animal facts in rubber-banded bundles (like baseball cards) until one day we discover ants in my room. I know the ants came from the remnants of sweet juice, so I throw away the facts.

Anna and I believe that bugs will come to a picture, or any other representation of a bug. Even imagining one will summon it.

I tell our father that the lunch ladies make us hold up two fingers in a V for quiet.

“Don't do it,” he says. “Two fingers mean victory. We're not free here.”

After dinner he puts on his jacket. We ask where he's going. “Into the world.” But he comes back.

Every day at lunch I walk over to Marianna and tap her shoulder. “Bathroom?” she asks. I nod. She asks the pear lady for permission, and we go. We hold the stall doors closed for each other because the locks are broken.

“Just say it,” Marianna begs one day, “just say, 'bathroom!'”

But I don't speak. Every morning, the class sits in a circle on the floor to talk about the weather, and I want to say something, but nothing comes.

Every afternoon, as I change from school clothes to home clothes, our mother asks, “Did you say anything today?”


“Even Nadia talks,” says Mrs. Matia, Nadia's para. Nadia is in Mainstream, which means mostly Special Ed but some Regular. Nadia's voice throws me into a panic.

During nap time kids try to trick me into speaking.