When the girl wanders into the living room in the morning, her mother is seated cross-legged on the piano bench, phone pressed to her ear.
The girl toes the rattling skeletons of the open boxes. How can it be, she wonders, that as the boxes are emptied, the house only feels emptier? Does the emptiness come from the boxes? Is that the secret of moving? That you move the emptiness from one place to another? That you stuff boxes full of books and clothes and photographs and toolboxes, but the true heaviness comes from the emptiness, an emptiness that leaks from the boxes and sinks into the pit of her stomach?
“Okay, honey,” her mother says. “Good luck today. Give me a call when you arrive.” She snaps close her phone and places it on the piano and smiles thinly at the girl. “We have to be quiet. May is still sleeping.” The girl notices that her mother’s fingers, usually long and graceful and straight and proud, are, today, wrinkled and curled and limp and spotted with the dust from the moving boxes.
“Was that Dad?”
“Yes. He just dropped by your new school to see what kind of paperwork you’ll need. You’re going to need a uniform. We’ll go buy one when your grandmother is awake so she can watch May. Did you sleep okay? Are you hungry? What do you want to eat for breakfast?”
The girl did not sleep okay, but she nods and pretends to rub dream dust from her eyelids and stretches her arms as her mother cracks an egg on the rim of the frying pan.
“Is Dad at work yet?”
“No, no, he just left the school. It will take at least an hour to New Orleans. He said he’ll call when he arrives at work. It’s an hour to New Orleans. Do you want soy sauce with your eggs?”
After chewing mechanically and swallowing forcefully, the girl returns to her room and contemplates her boxes of books in the stillness of the morning. She thinks, How long have I wanted my own room! Before, I was squeezed in the old apartment room with May and my grandmother, envious of all of my friends with their own rooms. How long I have wanted my own bed and my own bookshelf and a door like this that I can open and slam shut whenever I want that others must knock on before they enter.
She sits on the floor and kicks a box heavy with books with her toe. But not like this. I didn’t want my own room like this, not here.
I miss my old apartment. I miss my old friends and my old school and my old teachers, and I don’t want to wear a uniform to school, and I don’t want my own room.
After her grandmother has woken, the girl sulks in the passenger seat as her mother drives and fills the car with the static of the radio.
At Walmart, her mother frowns at the price tags and selects two pairs of shapeless stiff khakis and two flag-like navy collared shirts. She sighs. “What kind of public school requires you to buy a uniform, I’ve never heard of anything like that before. We’ll buy a few sizes up so you can wear them for a few years.” She holds the shirt up to her daughter’s petite frame and imagines her daughter, bloated and stretched and filling the fabric.
“Mom, it looks really big.”
“No, this way you can wear it for a few years.”
“It doesn’t look like it will fit me.”
Her mother sighs. “Ella, you know we don’t have a lot of money now, after buying the house and moving here and everything.”
The girl shrugs as indifferently as she can and looks away.
She does not see a single Asian person in the store. She has not seen a single Asian person in the state in the days since they crossed the state line from Arkansas. Three days. It has been three days since they drove into Louisiana. She has been counting. They buy baby wipes, ninety-nine-cent bottles of shampoo, eyedrops, notebooks with cheap cardboard covers. The girl feels glances brushing her shoulder as the paintbrush of her mother’s foreign tongue pushes the shopping cart down the aisles.
The man behind the counter rolls his eyes at her mother’s accent, asks if they’re from China, throws the clothes into a plastic bag, doesn’t tell them to have a good day.
“That man was racist,” her mother says.
“Um,” says the girl. “I don’t know if he was.”
“No, he was. Did you see the way he was so rude to us? He threw our things into the bag, but he placed them very carefully for that white woman in front of us and smiled at her baby. That man was mocking us – mocking me, I’m sure of it, because of my accent. How dare he. Look at him working at Walmart, and I’m …” She doesn’t finish her sentence.
At home her grandmother is feeding May rice porridge for breakfast, transforming the plastic baby spoon into an airplane, into a ship, into a horse. Her grandmother looks tired but smiles widely when Ella returns and stands to bring the plates to the sink.
“Oh,” her grandmother says, “my lower back.”
The girl’s mother says, “You strained yourself too hard in the move. You shouldn’t have carried all those boxes.” She sighs and begins running a sponge over the bowls piled in the sink.
“My dear, it’s the least I could do to help my son and his family make such a big move across such a large country. Anything I can do to help because you give me a bed to sleep in and feed me and take care of me. I am grateful. So grateful.”
The girl’s mother tries to smile and returns to the dirty dishes and forces out, “Yes, and we appreciate your help too.”
“My dear, you and my son work so hard. I am so proud of both of you. Let me do the dishes.”
“No, it’s okay.”
“You work so hard. Let me do them.”
“No! I’ll do them.”
No, no, no; there is a cocktail of anger and frustration and determination veined in the flash of the girl’s mother’s response and the girl’s grandmother backs up and looks instead at the girl.
“Ella, come outside with me. Have you seen the backyard yet? Look how wide it is. In your old apartment in the city you wouldn’t have been able to buy all of this land. And definitely, this would not be possible in Korea. We are rich, we are so rich. And guess what I found this morning!”
Her grandmother, gray-haired and wrinkle-skinned, is vividly glowing as she breathes the deep green air, absorbs the hot heavy sun, crouches in the dirt.
“Look, it’s a toolshed, and the previous owners left behind a bunch of tools. Some are rusted and I’m not really sure what those are, but look, these shovels are perfectly fine, and this too, I don’t know what to call it, an axe? Here, one for you and one for me.”
“What are we going to do?”
“With all this land, what won’t we do? We can make a garden and plant whatever you want. I was thinking zucchini and cucumbers and melons. It’s December but it’s so warm and sunny, anything will grow well here.”
“What do we have to do?”
“Well, first we will need to dig up the grass and prepare the dirt and clear the land. Then we can plant our seeds. We will need to take care of them every day, sometimes twice a day – watering and weeding.”
“It sounds like a lot of work.”
“It IS a lot of work! Did you think being a farmer was easy?”
“Can we really plant all of that? And will they all grow?”
“It will take time – months of work. But if we are good to the plants, then yes, they will grow.”
The girl asks, “Grandma, why is Mom so mean to you?”
Her grandmother laughs. “She’s not mean, she’s just stressed. It is very hard to live with your mother-in-law. But I understand. Years ago, I lived with my mother-in-law for many, many years. Nothing I did was ever right. I was never good enough. I try so hard to not be like that, to be kind and respectful in your parent’s house, to not be like my own mother-in-law. But I guess it’s just hard living with your mother-in-law.”
“Well. I am glad you are living with us.”
“Me, too. I love seeing my granddaughters every day. Do you know how much it hurts my heart that I missed you growing up? At least I get to see you growing up now, and I get to see May being a child now. And once we have our garden and our plants, we will get to see those growing up, too.”
The next morning, she steps into the front office with her father, embarrassed by the ugliness of her shapeless uniform and by her father’s hurried quick stride. A deep frown is etched into his forehead and she rushes behind him, trying not to look too long at the sea of staring white faces.
She thinks, I’m embarrassed by how quickly he walks, I’m embarrassed by how out of place he looks. He doesn’t know anything about fitting in. And here. How difficult it will be to try and fit in here.
In the front office they are ushered into the office of the principal, Mrs. Walker, a strict-postured black woman with painted eyebrows arching over hard amber eyes.
“Hello, Mr. X, I remember you from yesterday morning.”
“It’s Dr. X,” the girl’s father corrects.
The girl sits in the chair beside her father and stares at her hands.
“This is my daughter,” her father says. “I have all of the paperwork.”
A folder slides across the table, a folder filled with the girl’s school records, medical records, birth records. The girl thinks, My entire life has been reduced to the contents of that folder.
Mrs. Walker rifles through the pages with two-inch long shellacked blood-red nails. The girl’s father eyes the nails distastefully and the girl eyes her father’s gaze distastefully. She thinks, Please don’t stare like that please don’t stare like that.
Mrs. Walker looks up for a split second, looks the girl up and down, doesn’t say welcome to this school, doesn’t say you must be scared moving to a new school in the middle of the school year, doesn’t say I’ll make sure you adjust well.
Instead, she says, “The lady who does the scheduling is out today, so she won’t be able to start school till tomorrow. Also, that jacket won’t work.” She jerks her chin towards the girl’s windbreaker, a blue jacket with white stripes near the pockets.
The girl’s father says, “What’s wrong with the jacket?”
Mrs. Walker slows down her cadence to enunciate each word to half its original speed. “Her jacket. It needs to be all navy. Solid navy. Those stripes, not okay. Color, not okay. Understand?”
“And why couldn’t she start school today?”
“Like I said.” Mrs. Walker is annoyed. “The lady who does the scheduling is out today. She is not. At. Work.”
The girl glances towards the office door and feels a deep relief that the door is shut and that no one outside can listen. She looks at her hands twisted in her lap.
Her father says, “But I was hoping I could go straight to work after this. I have a really long commute and bringing her home will add another thirty minutes. Isn’t it possible to start just one day without the necessary paperwork?”
Mrs. Walker employs her hands. “Your daughter” – points at the girl – “cannot go” – signals walking with her fingers – “to school” – flattens her palms and gestures the space in her office – “without Ms. Dixon” – points outside of her door to the rest of the office – “to create the schedule, and she is OUT today” – shakes her head.
The girl’s father’s glasses fog in fury and shame, but Mrs. Walker turns away and faces the girl.
“Also,” she says, not even pretending she can try and pronounce the girl’s name, her true name, the name on all of her legal documents in that folder in front of her, the name her parents have whispered and sang and crooned and yelled her entire life. “You can’t wear that.” She points at the gold heart necklace her father bought her at a rest stop somewhere in Maryland or Kentucky or Arkansas.
“We take the dress code seriously here. No jewelry on school campus. Don’t know about where y’all came from, but no jewelry allowed at the middle school, except for religious jewelry.”
“Yes. Like a cross. That’s okay.”
The girl is suddenly rebellious. “What about the Star of David? What about other religions?”
Mrs. Walker stares at the girl as if she cannot tell if she is joking or not, then points to a heavy stack of stapled papers on her desk. “You can read the student handbook. I don’t make the rules. They’re all outlined there. No jewelry.”
Mrs. Walker pushes her chair back and stands up and forces a handshake from the girl’s father. She opens the door to her office and walks them to his car. She says, “Will she need extra support in her classes for English language? If she is struggling, we can offer one-to-one after-school tutoring two times a week, but I’m afraid we don’t have enough resources for a personal tutor during school.”
Her father says, “She was born in in America. She can speak English perfectly.” His emphasis on the word “perfectly” stumbles and Mrs. Walker smirks and says, “Y’all have a good morning,” and she walks back to her office shaking her head.
The girl’s father is late for work and now he needs to make the extra detour to bring the girl back home and he will need to fight traffic two ways before he can even get on the highway to get to New Orleans. The girl knows he is only thinking about the sixty-four miles of highway and the traffic piling on like debt, and so she is silent and stares out the window. He drops her off at their new home, the one they spent every last penny on, and she walks out with her backpack slung over her shoulder. He doesn’t say bye; he pulls out of the driveway quickly, anxious to get to the highway at least one minute faster, and his glasses are still fogged with a frustration he cannot put into words.
“Read me something,” her grandmother says. “You’re always reading your books, and I am curious and want to know what it is you read all day with such concentration. I don’t understand English, but maybe if you read out loud for long enough the strange syllables will leak into my ears and I’ll magically understand one day.”
Her grandmother lies on her back and the girl lies beside her on her stomach. The book is opened to the middle of the story, the middle of a sentence, and she coaxes the heroine out from the thin paper. The heroine is a female knight pretending to be a man so that no one will treat her differently, and she must prove herself before she can reveal her true self. The heroine only shares her true identity to her closest friends, but is, essentially, all alone.
“Ella, I don’t understand,” her grandmother says, interrupting mid-word mid-story mid-breath mid-sentence. The girl’s life is a series of interruptions so she should be used to it, but each time the pill of annoyance seeps stealthily into her vein.
“It’s about a girl who likes to fight,” the girl tries to explain, unable to express the word "knight" in Korean. “She likes to fight but she has to pretend to be a boy, because once the boys find out they won’t let her fight anymore. But now one of the boys who is her best friend has found out she is a girl.”
“That’s not what I was imagining was happening. English is very difficult. Perhaps I will never understand. Maybe we should stop.”
The girl says in English, “But you wanted me to read to you.” She is more annoyed than she wants to admit.
Her grandmother says, “I don’t understand, Ella, please speak to me in Korean.”
The girl grumbles and continues to flutter her tongue over the alphabet, too slow for herself and too quick for her grandmother. She needs to know what happens at the end of the chapter. She reads quickly, words blending into each other.
When the girl stops reading, her grandmother’s eyes are closed. The girl sighs and shuts the book and flips onto her back and stares at the slow rotation of the ceiling fan. It’s just the same air being circulated, she thought. Just like it’s the same alphabet and words being circulated across the books. Is there anything new?
It is the first day of school and she is asked what feels like hundreds of questions about who she is, where she is from. No, she doesn’t eat dog at home, but they ask her anyway. No, her family did not bomb Pearl Harbor. No, she is not from China. No, she is not from Japan. No, she is not from North Korea, but they ask her anyway. She says, I was born here but my parents came from South Korea, and they only hear the latter part of the sentence and nod smugly: What a relief that you are from the good Korea.
The new school: peeling paint, cracked sidewalks, bathrooms stinking of cigarette smoke. White stone walls, built fifty years ago to be strong and riot-proof, faded to yellowing beige and streaked with the patterns of calcified dirt. Prison-like fences surrounding the perimeter, small plots of dead and dying grass allocated to students for fifteen minutes of recess after lunch. The smell: the unending heaviness of sewage-seeped swamp-flavored flatulence omnipresent in every room.
The classrooms are overflowing, and her section of the sixth-grade class has been placed in a repurposed old gym, called the Blue Gym, to distinguish it from the New Gym, the actual gymnasium where physical education classes are supposed to take place. Cheap pine walls and hallways have been added to the gym to give the semblance of classrooms, but they do not mask the gloomy light of the gym or the unending echoing of the walls.
There are three classrooms inside the Blue Gym. Her first class is in the far corner. When she walks through the door, she sees a room filled with students hunched sleepily over desks. A quick scan confirms mostly white students, several black students, and, unbelievably, one Asian boy in the corner. Of course she spots him immediately when she walks through the door.
The girl hands the seated teacher the slip of paper with her identity and schedule and name. The teacher stumbles over the girl’s name and the girl turns bright red and wishes she could sink into the walls. The teacher tries three or four different variations before the girl finally says, “It’s Ella. You can call me Ella.”
The teacher, a young pale-faced woman with short blond hair tucked behind her ears, sighs in relief. “Ella. Much easier. You can sit in that empty desk over there. We are learning about fractions and negative numbers today.”
A black girl in front of her twists in her seat and says, “I’m Jamala. You said your name is Ella? What the hell is wrong with the teacher?"
“I don’t know,” she says. It is too much to explain the nuanced difference between the name her family calls her and the name the rest of the world calls her, between given name and nickname. “Maybe she can’t read.”
Jamala laughs. “Teacher can’t read. I like that.”
A green-eyed mousy-haired freckled girl a couple seats over pulls the corners of her eyes back and sticks out her tongue. “Jamala, the better question is, can she read? English, I mean.”
The teacher snaps, “Lola, pay attention. I’m teaching.”
Jamala turns back around quickly.
There are worksheets and the students are grouped into pairs of two to check each other’s answers. The girl is with Chris, a black boy with a round black face. The girl is annoyed because her sheet is filled out with neat equations and his is filled with doodles and scribbles.
The girl says, “What do you think about question number 1?”
Chris says, “What do you think about Bobby?”
She glances up and knows exactly where to look. She has situated him in the correct corner.
“I don’t know,” she mumbles. “Did you get 4.4?”
Chris whispers excitedly: “I think he likes you. He keeps looking at you. I’m sure he does. You would look so cute together. Because you’re both Asian.”
The girl does not answer. There is a pit in her stomach churning and churning and churning. She twists her ankles around each other, squirms in her seat. “No, I don’t like him,” she says, but she blushes anyway.
She peers at Chris’s paper.
“You didn’t do any of the problems.”
“You’re good at math.” His eyes shine approvingly. “Much better than Bobby. He’s really bad at math. I guess you’re better at being Asian than him.”
Lola pretends to walk to the trash can to throw out some paper and in the process sidles by to talk to Chris. She rolls her eyes and crumples the freckles on her cheek and then grins over her shoulder. “Ridiculous.” The teacher is seated at her desk, supposedly ready to answer any questions about the worksheet, surrounded by a collection of girls with long blond hair tied with ribbons and bright blue eyes glowering, the cheerleader-types the girl finds herself staring at enviously: the way they laugh easily and cheerfully, the way they tiptoe in identical white-laced tennis shoes, the way their navy-blue-khaki-bottoms are tailored to tightly fit their thin waists and sharp hip bones and long proud legs.
Lola turns to the girl. Lola loudly snaps chewing gum between her teeth and says, “So. You the new girl?”
“Where you from?”
“Oh, you’re not from China?”
“You look like you could be related to Bobby.”
The teacher stands up. “Lola! Go back to your seat before I write you up.”
The bell rings and the same group of students shuffle from one fake-pine-wall classroom to another fake-pine-wall classroom. In the movement, the girl can’t help but cast a gaze at him, at the boy with a name now, staring at him for a rich second to memorize his features, to link the name with the posture and the slouch and the easy grin and the tanned skin. And then he turns to her and they make eye contact for a brief moment and she notices how smooth his skin is and how symmetrical his face is and she hates it and she hates how Lola giggles from across the room and how Chris and Jamala snigger in the doorway. The girl grabs her backpack and hurries out.
In the next class, the girl notices that Bobby does not match her quiet hiding in her books, her shy sliding into her desk. He sits across the room comfortable in his own skin and he laughs loudly with Lola and Chris and Jamala. He jokes with the cheerleader girls. He bumps fists with the to-be-jocks. He is the right amount of indifferent and the right amount of cool. He is marked up for speaking out in class and, before the next class is over, he is ordered out of the classroom with a slip of yellow paper, which he waves in the air like a flag of victory.
When the bell for the final hour of school rings – that piercing siren which has never sounded so melodic, so beautiful, worthy of poetry, worthy of weeping – Lola is charged with walking the girl to the buses. Lola loudly smacks her gum and traipses down the gravel path and the girl follows cautiously on her heels.
Lola says, “Bobby, you know. He really likes you. He thinks you’re pretty.”
The girl says nothing.
Lola says, “Do you like him?”
The girl knows she must respond. She averts her gaze, face hot and red. She thinks, How can I return to school? How can I ever return to school? And the forbidden thought: But does he actually like me? She must be just making fun of me. They all are.
Her face stays hot. She says, as nonchalantly as she can, “No, not really.”
Lola stares at the girl, then shrugs. “Okay.”
The girl learns that Bobby is the only other Asian boy in the entire 200-person 6th grade class. Someone has started spreading the rumor that they are dating. In the walks between classes and to the bus, Lola tags behind the girl, asking vulgar questions like will they spend the weekend together doing a bunch of nasty stuff. The girl cannot even imagine what nasty stuff is. She does not want to know. She feels humiliated; she hates every minute she sits in the plastic seats in the wooden-walled gymnasium classroom.
Bobby does not speak to the girl. He is too busy chatting with his friends and getting in trouble with the teachers. They sit on opposite ends of the classroom. He sits with his friends for lunch. She sits alone, in the corner, trying to vanish into her food. But sometimes. Sometimes she thinks that in the transitions between classes, he stares at the girl out of the corner of his eye, eyes glinting with something, something other than mischievousness, something other than malice. Maybe there is something there, she wonders, but does not wonder too long, because she feels hot and red and burning all over and hurries to her next class with her books under her arms.
“How do you like school?” her mother asks over dinner.
The girl replies, “I don’t like it,” but her mother isn’t listening, she has ducked under the table to pick up the glob of rice her sister has flung from her bowl with a toothy grin. Her father’s face is drawn and dark. Everyone has had a long day, but hers feels the longest. Only her little sister is smiling and having a good time.
Her father sighs. “Ella, it is hard for me too. It is hard for all of us. School will get better, I promise. You used to love school. I know it’s a new place here but once you make friends, you’ll like it.” But he doesn’t meet her eye and she knows he is thinking about the old buildings and the unfriendly stares and the rude words of the principal.
“Not here,” the girl insists. “I hate it here. They all keep asking if I’m from China. No one has even heard of Korea.”
The girl’s mother says, “When we first moved to America, it was rare to meet someone who even knew what Korea was. Not just here.”
“It feels different here,” the girl insists. “There, at least there were other Korean people. Here, there is no one.”
“No, when we first moved to Boston, over ten years ago, it was rare to find someone who had even heard of Korea. One time I was in JC Penney buying baby clothes for you, Ella, and then I heard someone speaking Korean and you don’t know how welcome it felt to hear it. I can’t remember that woman’s name but we exchanged contact information and she had an apartment somewhere – Tewkesbury? Topsfield? We even went to her house a few times but I can’t remember her name or her daughter’s name.”
May says, “You talked to a stranger? Mom you never talk to strangers.”
“Yes, not anymore.”
The girl says, “And you don’t like having friends.” Why this appendage? She immediately regrets it.
Her mother says, “You’re right. Yes, you’re right. I don’t have friends.”
The girl says, “I’ll never have friends here. Not at this school.”
Her grandmother says kindly, “Ella, you will make new friends, and it will be better.”
Her mother is tired from staying home all day, her mother’s back is aching from bending under the table picking up grains of rice dropped from May’s bowl. “Ella, stop complaining about school. You’re lucky to have one.”
But, but, but, but it doesn’t matter, her mother isn’t listening anyway, so the girl hides the tears that burn her eyes and eats quickly and hides in her room so that she can return to her book, to the heroine from the story, the one who is fierce and proud and strong and, like her, is also always so alone. No one understands her, and no one understands me.
On Friday evening, her father comes home with his face dripping with weariness. He sets down his bag and unzips his lunchbox and says, “Let’s go on a walk! The weather is very nice right now, let’s go on a walk.”
The girl’s mother crosses her arms. “Your mother is sleeping. She said her back was hurting. She exerted herself too much today – I told her not to, but she spent at least a few hours digging dirt in the backyard today. And she keeps insisting on unpacking and doing all these chores I keep telling her not to do.”
“She just wants to help. And she likes being outside. Okay, Ella, May, let’s go on a walk before the sun goes down. May, can you tie your own shoes?”
May says, “Daddy, how was work?”
“Tiring. It was a very long day, but I am glad to be home and to see you. What did you do all day, princess?”
“I helped Mommy unpack boxes!”
“Wow, May is definitely the most helpful member of this family!”
The family of four walks down a lonely street, the two children in front and the two parents in the back. The sky is pomegranate-pink and blackberry-purple and the clouds that decorate its palate are fantastical in shape and breadth. The girl holds her younger sister’s hand and listens to the little girl prattle about her invisible animal friends and storybook characters and television shows while eavesdropping on her parents’ hushed conversation behind her.
Her mother says, “Do you know how hard it is to take care of your mother, too? Who does all of the work in the house? Me. You go to work all day and Ella is at school all day and it’s just me at home taking care of a toddler, feeding her, cleaning her, teaching her ABCs. And at the same time, I have to take care of your mother and tell her over and over not to exert herself and to remember to take her medication. She never listens. You’re just like her. Oh, that I slaved so hard to get myself through so much school, and the conservatory, and all of those hours upon hours of sleepless practicing, and now, THIS. I hate housework, it makes me so tired and hurts my fingers and I cannot play the piano at all.”
“Yes, but now we have more space. Now we have our own house. Now you can play late into the night. I promise – it will get better. It is just the first week.”
“No, I can’t play late. We have children who sleep early. And I’m tired at night. Anyway, you knew we couldn’t afford it but we moved to a house so that your mother could have her own room now. And now it’s so much more for me to clean. It feels like I spend all day cleaning.”
“Ella has her own room now, too. She’s happy about it, isn’t she?”
“How long will your mother be with us? Tell me. How long do I have to take care of her? When she first started living with us, you said it would only be for a few months. Few months? It has been over two years. She came with the full intention of moving in. You know she did.”
“She’s old, and after my father died, she would have had to live alone. She is my mother. Try and understand.”
“That’s right. Your mother, not mine.”
“What do you want me to do? Do you want to go to the lab instead of me and spend all day doing your crazy boss’s bitchwork? Do you want to go instead of me? You’re not the only one regretting life choices. Do you think I studied physics so I could feed lab rats? How about this. I’ll stay home and take care of my mother and do the dishes and make the food and clean the house if you want to go to work instead of me, if you want to drive the three hours through traffic, if you want to stand on your feet all day, if you want to be insulted for everything you do. Is that what you want?”
He sighs. “I’m tired, you’re tired, we’ve both worked very hard all day. I’m sorry we had to make this move, I’m sorry my mother is living with us, I’m sorry you have to stay at home all day doing housework. I’m sorry about our situation, and I’m sorry you married me and I’m sorry about the life we have now.”
“No, I’m not sorry about the last part. I’m not. I’m just tired.”
“Yes, I know.”
“And it’s hard. It’s hard being in a new place like this. It was hard seeing Ella leave her friends and her life, it’s hard seeing her so unhappy, it’s hard seeing you drive so long and work so much. It seems that the only people who are happy here are May and your mother.”
“Yes, my mother loves how warm it is. I think it is good for an old woman to have so much sun. I just want her to have the peaceful life that she could not have in her youth.”
May is tired and so the family turns back towards the house. Neighbors mowing their lawn or walking their dogs wave and smile pleasantly but do not say hello. From the end of the block speeds a four-wheeler filled with five or six shirtless high school boys. They pump their arms and beat their bare chests and blare loud music. As they pass the family, one of them chants, “Egg roll egg roll egg roll egg roll.”
The girl’s father says, “What did they say?”
The girl’s mother says, “I don’t know, they were talking too fast. I’m still not used to the Southern accent. Ella, your English is the best, did you hear what they said?”
May says, “No, my English is the best!”
The girl looks away. “I couldn’t make out what they said.”
Her father knocks on her door and enters. He eyes the mess: the piles of books that never made it to the bookshelf, the stuffed animals still in the trash bag used to contain them in the trunk of a car, the clothes unsorted and unfolded in a pile. The girl lies on her stomach on her bed, scribbling.
“Writing again? Ella, now that you have your own desk you won’t use it.”
There is a redness around his eyes, and his jaw is heavy and clenched.
She shuts her notebook. “I’m done.”
Her father says, “Look. I know school’s hard but it’s because you don’t have friends yet and you’re new. It will get better.” His words are stiff. The girl refuses to meet his eye.
He says, “I promise. No more moving.”
“Look. I know we moved a lot and you’re at a new school but I promise. No more moving. We’ll be here for a long time now.”
He comes in and sits on the edge of the bed. He looks very tired. He says, “Ella. I need you to know. It has pained me for so long that we have never had enough money so you could have your own room like all of your friends and classmates. Your own bed. Your own desk. And that we had to move so much – always leaving behind friends and schools. But now. We bought a house. Have we ever had a house before? Our own house, our own backyard. We’ll be here for a long time. Your mother was telling me how May played outside today for hours with your grandmother. Doing cartwheels, making flower bracelets. At least your sister will not have to move so much as you.”
He stands. “Anyways.” He tries to smile. “I just wanted to say. Use your desk. It’s good for your back.” He walks to the door. He hesitates at the door, as if something heavy is hanging from his tongue but he doesn’t know how to release it.
“Do you want me to close your door?”
The girl hates it but she feels a jealousy pulsing inside of her, somewhere beneath her heart, a small black stone, thumping and thrashing against her ribcage, secreting a poisonous oil. Why does my sister get to grow up so happy in one place when I had to move so much? She hates the jealous rock because she loves her sister, she loves her sister so much, but the jealousy is alive and sweating blood and frothing at the mouth. Is May happy because she is a child, because she only knows how to be happy, because she gets to cartwheel in the backyard and roll around in the grass and make flower crowns with her grandmother? Does she know? Does she know that her future will be stable, in one place, no moving, no goodbyes to friends, no goodbyes to houses, no evictions, no starting new school in a new place, again and again and again and again and again and again –