You are in America now, six years old, in second grade at Sacred Heart, and you’ve managed to wheedle not one, but two pets. A cat, Cocoa, and a gerbil, Catherine, named after your teacher, a nun.
America: land where anything can and does happen. Doors blow open by magic when you step on a rubber mat. Crayons come in enormous boxes with built-in sharpeners. In Vienna, for instance, if you needed to plug in an iron, you had to unplug a light. Here in America, in Massachusetts, every few feet there’s a way to plug stuff in. You could have lamps, radios, toasters and television sets all on at the same time.
America feels like being tossed into the deep end of a swimming pool after wading in puddles. The family that lives in the main part of the house attached to your apartment drives something called a station wagon, which is a cross between a bus and a truck and a car. Some of the nine kids in the family get to pack themselves into the back-back of the long vehicle, and they don’t even have to sit in a seat. Also, food. In Vienna, the only kind of cereal was cornflakes. Here, there’s boxes upon boxes of multi-colored breakfast food on grocery store shelves. You beg your mother to buy the one that features a tiger named Tony who wears a neck scarf. You’ve seen it advertised on television. Your mother won’t buy it because, sugar.
Speaking of television, one of the best things about America is that there is more than one choice at any given time. A dial to turn for a different program if you don’t like what’s offered, and some of the programs are in living color. Unfortunately, your mother only lets you watch for one hour per day. You are so enchanted by television that you beg and beg for more time. You try to explain that the proximity to all of this magic is the only thing keeping you from crying because at school, there is no magic. At school, it’s torture all day long. Especially recess on the blacktop where girls and boys each have their own sides, but sometimes you get pushed over the line to boys’ side when the nuns aren’t looking. You don’t tell your mother this, though. Instead, you just say that all the other kids you know can watch as much television as they like. Which is a lie, because you’ve never been invited to anybody’s house, so you have no idea how much TV they watch.
You are a year younger than your classmates. In Vienna, all the kids in second grade would be six, but here, you’re the only one. In Vienna, at The English School, kids had all sorts of accents. Mostly British, but some German, some Italian, some Indian. Your friends from New Delhi, Apu and Bante, for instance. Here, instead of father, they all say faaaather. As in, “Bless me faaaather, for I have sinned.”
You practice flattening your “a” sounds, but it’s hard. It makes you sneeze to talk through your nose that way.
In your living room, rotating the dial through program after program, you can pretend that you never have to go back to school at all. It’s almost as if your favorite show, Bewitched, is real. If you close your eyes, you too can be Samantha Stephens, riding her broom sidesaddle, a full moon lighting her way. With a twitch of a nose, your heart’s desire manifests. But you need some sort of catalyst for sorcery. A wand. A broom. A stick. A barrette. The first time you try to harness the witchery of Samantha Stephens, you cram the metal end of one of your barrettes into an outlet. A zapping, black boom knocks you backwards. Your fingertips turn charcoal and a puff of flame shoots out of the wall. “What happened?!” screams your mother as she races into the smoky room, her eyes scanning the charred barrette, and you scooting backwards on your butt.
You get a spanking. Your very first. And then a hug. And then a shake as your mother asks if you’re okay and what in the hell were you thinking and how can a six-year-old be so dumb, all at the same time.
You blame Disney for the next stupid thing you do, what with its continual insistence on anthropomorphizing critters and pairing predators with prey. The end game here is friendship. Lion lying down with the lamb. You carry Cocoa the cat up to the gerbil cage and give her a sermon, using phrases and ideas recently learned from the priest at Sacred Heart, where you are on track for your First Holy Communion. “Love,” you lecture, “is God’s gift to us all.”
Cocoa’s back paws scratch your arms. The cat licks her lips, and her eyes are the bulgy sort of eyes like Don Knotts in The Incredible Mr. Limpet, which you just watched on television last Saturday, the only day you’re allowed more than one hour. You tighten the grip on Cocoa with one arm, and unlatch the metal cage door with the other. The gerbil skitters to the far end of the cage. “It’s awl-roight, Catherine,” you declare in a spit-spot, Mary Poppins voice. You take note of the sound you are trying to banish. You practice again: “It’s all right, CaaaathRIN.” There. Better.
But Catherine is making a squeak noise and frantically clawing on the bottom of her cage, as though attempting to dig a hole. Cocoa, meanwhile, is making a low, groan-growl sound. Not a purr or a mew, like a normal cat. You reach in to pet the gerbil, and she turns around and sinks her long front teeth into your finger, her tail slicing cedar shavings like a windshield wiper.
“Ouch!” you yell, jerking your hand back out the door of the cage. Catherine is still attached to your finger though, and Cocoa lunges forth, pouncing on the gerbil, snapping it up in its mouth. The next few seconds are as blurry as if you, yourself, are Mr. Limpet, under the sea. Blood from the gerbil bite dribbles out of your finger and the whipping gerbil tail sticks out of Cocoa’s mouth as the cat lopes away.
America is a liar.
After you unwittingly orchestrate Catherine’s untimely death, things go from bad to worse at school. According to Father and Sister over at Sacred Heart, stupidity is a venial sin. You figure out that had you willfully fed the gerbil to Cocoa it would have been a mortal sin. The good news is, your soul will not be damned. The bad news? Sister Catherine Gerald, who’d been your protector from mean classmates, starts to turn on you.
Your British accent, the fact that you’re a year too young for second grade, the pixie haircut your mother thought would be popular, but isn’t. You’ve been picked on since day one, and now, your eye twitches like its doing some sort of Morse code. Before, every time a spit wad hit the back of your head, or a rubber band flung its way to your uniform-covered body, you told Sister Catherine and she rooted out the troublemaker and sent them to the office. But lately, she’s decided you’re a tattletale. “Perhaps,” she tells you, “you should simply ignore them.”
You wish you were Samantha Stephens and could nose-twitch these horrid children into toads. Maybe your eye is working on it.
You have no friends in your class. Not one. But you do make a friend outside of class, and her name is Tottsy. She’s eight, and you meet her at church. Not Sacred Heart, but a church your mother starts taking you and your sister to, now that she’s finally learned to drive. This church is more like a living room, and everyone there has brown skin, and there’s lots of singing. The members of this church are not exactly like those brown-skinned people in the apartment building in Vienna, with their straight black hair. These people have frizzed hair called “afros.” You ask your mother why you are going to this church with all the “coloreds,” and she says, “They’re not colored. We’re colored.”
One day, after church, Tottsy comes home with you and your mother and sister. In the car, her arms are folded and she turns away, like she’s been forced into this situation. But once you’re back at the giant house that your family rents a tiny part of Tottsy warms up because your mother does something she’s never done before. She produces—as if by Bewitched-type magic—bottles of purple Nehi. It’s early October, and it’s what your mother calls unseasonably warm.
Tottsy and you sit cross-legged on the lawn next to a small pile of rocks left over from a stone wall that got just built on the property. You sit under the shade of a tree whose leaves are a golden yellow, each with your own sweaty bottle of grape soda. After a few minutes, the sweet fizziness of your Nehi still tingling your tongue, you get a shudder of courage and ask something dumb, like, “What did you do on your summer holiday?”
Tottsy’s face wrinkles up like she doesn’t understand the question, and she says, “How come you talk so funny?”
You look at how pink your shins are compared to Tottsy’s shiny dark legs. She’s wearing a red blouse with no sleeves, and her blackness next to that blouse is like the first time you saw color television. Everything else around you seems foggy and dull. You want to ask her what about your voice sounds funny, because the way she asked it wasn’t in a teasing voice, more like she really wanted to know. All you can say back is, “The English School.”
She lifts her soda up and puts it near her eyes, like sunglasses. “Where’s that at?”
Your eye starts in with the twitching again. Far away, you want to say. You have to take a boat to get there. You want to tell her that in Vienna, at The English School, a lot of kids sound like you do. You want to tell her that you hate it here. That America is stupid, and the kids are mean. But you don’t. Instead, you just shrug. Pick up a small rock and hurl it toward the road in front of the house for no particular reason. Tottsy does this too. You both do it again and it reminds you of the time, back in Vienna, when you threw apples with a bad boy from the apartment building. You keep doing it, throwing the rocks, and they bounce closer and closer to the actual road. You still have a couple swallows of the grape soda left when one of your rocks hits an actual car, and then, you hear a screech.
Tottsy jumps up, letting the rest of her Nehi spill onto the lawn, and she runs behind the house. It’s too late for you to run, because the driver of the car, a man with a face as red as Tottsy’s blouse, is lumbering up the sloped lawn, and his finger is pointing toward where Tottsy ran off to.
“Where’d she go?” puffs the man as he approaches. “The colored girl? Where is she?”
Before you can think of what to say, here comes your mother, toward you, holding your little sister’s hand. “Is something wrong?” she asks.
The man is huffing and puffing still. “There was a colored girl, threw a rock at my car. Could have caused an accident.”
Your mother’s voice goes low and punchy. “Were you throwing rocks, Suzy?”
Shaking your head would be like blaming Tottsy, when you were the one who threw the rock that hit the car. Also, afterwards you’d have to confess about the lie, because Father is having the whole class practice telling him what they did wrong in preparation for God’s forgiveness, and you’re thinking that this lie could be inching closer to being a mortal sin. But the man standing in front of you is so mad. His fists are in balls. You quickly think up a lie that’s more on the venial end of things. “We were just playing catch.”
Since you’ve already done several stupid things, your mother doesn’t find this far-fetched. “Suzy, really,” she says. And then, to the man, “Is your car damaged?”
“That’s not the point,” the man says gruffly, but his hands are beginning to unfist.
You look at the ground and apologize. You say, “Pardon,” and then, “I mean, I’m sorry.”
The man still stares at the house like he’s looking through it to where Tottsy is hiding, and then he turns away and walks back to his car, shaking his head.
After he leaves, your mother finds Tottsy, who is trembling and crying. “Nobody is going to hurt you,” your mother tells her in a soothing voice. It’s then that you realize that Tottsy is way more afraid of the man than you are. You are only afraid of being in trouble and sinning. Tottsy doesn’t stop crying until you go inside and turn on the television to watch Speed Racer, a cartoon you actually can’t stand, but nothing else is on. You ask your mother if this has to count as your one hour, and, even though you threw rocks and hit a car, she agrees to extra programs that day.
The kids at Sacred Heart continue to not choose you until last for Red Rover. They still, when Sister’s back is turned, make fun of your accent and your twitch, which is even more pronounced because your twitchy eye is bigger than your non-twitchy eye. You pretend to be sick a lot in order to stay home, and count the days until Christmas vacation.
When at last the holidays do come, there is talk of your mother taking you and your sister to your grandparent’s house. Your father is doing his internship and has a bunch of on call nights scheduled, so he will stay in Massachusetts.
Your mother just learned to drive and she’s nervous. In Vienna, only your father drove, and he let you and your sister hang out the windows when it was nice out. It’s not nice in Massachusetts. There are icy roads that your mother doesn’t want to negotiate, but everyone poo-poos the idea of her staying put in Pittsfield. Oma and Opa have begged to see their grandchildren, and the drive is only three hours away. So you go. It’s on the return trip, halfway up the Taconic, that your mother loses control of the Plymouth Barracuda and flips it.
Upside down, strapped to the back seat, you watch dime-sized splotches of your blood fall to the ceiling of the car. Shards of glass sting your face, but you’re afraid to brush them off because blood on your hands reminds you of Jesus dying on the cross. Your mother is calling your name. Your little sister sobs in your mother’s arms. A stranger unbuckles you and pulls you from the wreck. All you can see is reddish-brown smear as warm blood floods your eye. Sirens reverb in your ears and cold wind pierces your skin. Someone says something about gasoline. Your twitchy eye stings.
An ambulance takes you to a hospital that’s not the hospital where your father works, and they sew your torn eyelid back over your eye. You have a fever, so they keep you over night. Observation, they call it, and probably because you had seizures as a baby they need to take pictures of your brain.
The only good part of this ordeal is that once school resumes, you still get to stay home until you recover. Your mother makes a nest for you on the sofa and you get to watch television for hours a day instead of only one. Your eye is all puffy and you can’t see that well out of it, but it stops twitching.
A few days after school gets back in session, someone’s mom comes over with a big cardboard box filled with handmade get well soon cards. Apparently, all the kids in your class were ordered to make these, and they are fancy. Big hearts, crayoned angels, drawings of a small girl with short hair and a big smile—you?—holding hands with stick figure characters in a line that looks like the Red Rover line. Is this a joke? Also, there are crucifixes and Disney birds and prayer hands. The cards are full of glitter, construction paper and the gasoline smell of rubber cement that reminds you of the frozen ground of the accident. You smile at the mom, and thank her and she smiles back and says, “What an adorable English accent she has.”
Your mother offers the woman coffee but the woman says she has to go. After the other mother leaves, your mother cozies up next to you on the sofa. She sifts through the cards, suggesting that the kids are so thoughtful, so kind. But you wish she would just leave the room so you could resume the game show you were watching.
You don’t realize that tears are oozing out of your eyes until she says, “Suzy, what’s wrong?”
You shake your head. You don’t know what to say, and even if you did, you wouldn’t want to tell her about the shame of being picked on. Of being pushed and spit at.
Your mother pats your head and gives you a sideways hug. You close your eyes and picture the kids at Sacred Heart outside at recess, which is where they would be right about now. Girls’ side and boys’ side. In your mind, a scene slowly forms. Sister Catherine Gerald strides out onto the blacktop, her habit making a sush-sush sound, whistle around her neck, rosary beads clacking at her hip. She blows the whistle and all of the children flock around her for whatever announcement she has for them. She tells them that she has bad news. Their eyes widen. She tells them, “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this.” They hold their breaths. “Our dear class member,” Sister continues, “Suzanne Freisinger,” she says, “is dead.”
In your scene, one after another of your tormentor’s mouths fall open. Sister continues, “It’s too bad you were all so mean to her while she was alive.”
You curl up closer to your mother. Your eyelid pulses. In your head you practice saying your name with an American accent, not knowing that New England voices sound much different from Long Island ones, which sound different than California ones, which are not at all similar to how people sound in upstate New York. These are the places awaiting your childhood. If you were Samantha Stephens, you’d know this.
But Bewitched is just a TV show. You are a character in real life. An American. The summer after next you will be in a room full of other Americans watching the astronaut step on the moon and everyone around you will be proudly waving red, white and blue flags as the astronaut plants the American flag on the moon. You will wonder what Apu and Bante are doing at this historic moment. Your Indian friends, back in Vienna, are they cheering or are they sad? Does the moon belong only to Americans now? Maybe this is what it really means to be American. That you are a winner. That you will always be chosen first for Red Rover. That everything, including the moon, belongs to you.
TORCH is a monthly series edited by Arielle Bernstein devoted to showcasing personal essays and interviews about immigrant and refugee experiences. You can visit the archives here. For more information on submitting head here.
Rumpus original logo art by Jyotsna Warikoo Designs. Additional photographs provided courtesy of author.