13th May 2022
19 minutes read
13th May 2022
19 minutes read
Let me tell you about the first time I experienced love. She had red hair, black eyes, wore striped socks, and one of those shapeless, Little House on the Prairie-type dresses. Her name was Ann. She smelled like yarn and clean fabric.
When I lifted Ann’s dress for the first time,
I saw something else besides her knickers.
Instead of tugging her dress up higher, I unbuttoned it from the back. Ann just kept smiling at me. The dress came off easily, and there she was in just her old-fashioned drawers. Above them, printed on her chest like a tattoo, was a large heart and in it the words, I love you.
It took me a while to get used to the sight. I took peeks down her collar. Not often. I savored it, like the Russell Stover chocolates I got in the heart-shaped box for Valentine’s Day, taking tiny bites each day and carefully putting back the rest, wanting the joy to last forever. Raggedy Ann might have just been a doll, but I sat with her on our fire escape in Brooklyn, read to her, talked to her. In our one-bedroom apartment, where I slept on the couch, I turned towards the backrest at night and whispered to Ann. My parents urged me to play with another doll, who wore a meticulously embroidered dress that Grandpa had sent from Hungary. After I checked her chest and found no declaration of love, I deposited her beside the TV set. She sat stiff, not caring either way, staring with a sense of wonder at a corner of the ceiling, her lips slightly parted.
I wouldn’t share Raggedy Ann with Katie, my friend downstairs whose mother, Regina, watched me after school. Katie and I had been in the same class at private school until my parents ran out of tuition money and I transferred back to public school for fifth grade. My new classmates coddled me and pet my long hair that hung in a braid below my butt, swinging like a tail as I walked. I was only nine when I began fifth grade, sent to school at age five. The kids in my class, all black, were a year or two older than me, taller and wiser. Most of the time I had no idea what was going on, either socially or on the blackboard, whose erasers I liked to clap in the yard during recess. I floated along as directed by Maureen, Selina, Tomika, Nikki, Maurice, and Lakeisha: my “family.” Maureen with her neon orange purse and Maurice in his high-top Fila sneakers were our self-declared mom and dad. They called me Baby G since no one could pronounce my Hungarian name, and I wasn’t too crazy about them trying. We had our desks pushed together, face to face in a long row. I gladly cleaned out and organized the desks of my family when they let me, tossing out Bazooka Joe and Jolly Rancher wrappers, stacking textbooks, notebooks, and Trapper Keepers in the narrow opening beneath each desk. Lockers we’d get in middle school next year, I was told. I sharpened pencils and checked pens for ink.
Tomika, two heads taller than me, had short, straight hair that was like cotton candy and could be folded or shaped any which way. It didn’t work like my hair, which was heavy and wavy. When Mom left after Christmas to be with Grandpa who was sick in Hungary, I wasn’t allowed to wear it loose during school. She said Dad had a lot of things to do and couldn’t fuss over my hair every morning.
Tomika’s desk faced mine directly, and I always emptied the round container in the top right corner of her desk where the inkwell used to be and into which she collected rolled up balls of her hair, which she kept picking at and tearing with her long, tapered fingers. Tomika and I called each other “sis,” dropping into the role dictated by Mama Maureen and Daddy Maurice, and now, instead of whispering to Ann at night in bed, I imagined things I would tell Tomika at school tomorrow.
“She’s in school with the black kids again,” I overheard Dad saying to his Hungarian friend András on the phone. He said it with the same venom as when he talked about Romanians.
He told me he’d been oppressed in Transylvania as a Hungarian minority in Romania, but I couldn’t visualize what “oppressed” meant. Had the nation of “the black kids” somehow oppressed Hungarians, so now he was mad?
I asked Tomika one day, as I chewed my slightly flattened peanut-butter-on-whole-wheat in the cafeteria.
“What nationality are you?”
These words I had not thought about last night in bed. She pulled her thumb and index finger down from her scalp along a few strands of hair. She had no lunch except for a purple-colored liquid in a plastic container, rather appealing to me, especially because my parents would never let me drink such a thing. She laid the backs of her hands down on the stainless-steel cafeteria table which looked like it had been scratched by a thousand dog and cat claws trying to escape the vet’s examination table. Between her fingers, she rolled torn pieces of hair.
“I’m American. Aren’t you?”
“Yeah? You were born in Hungria?”
“Hungary,” I corrected. “No, I was born in New York.”
“Then you’re American.”
“No, I’m Hungarian.”
“I dunno, Sis. I see you’re not hung-ary because the bell just rang and you still have half your sandwich.”
She polished it off it by the time we walked up the steps out of the basement cafeteria.
Back in the classroom on my desk was a folded piece of loose-leaf paper. I opened it up and inside was a $5 bill and a Snickers. On the page in neat penmanship was a note: “Do you like me? Yes or no. Love, Gary.”
I shoved the paper and its contents into my desk and didn’t dare look at Gary, who sat at the other end of the classroom. Not a part of our family. Close-cropped hair, a quiet voice, and the only boy who’d worn a suit and necktie for our class photo. There was that word again. Love. But without the “I” and the “You” that Ann had. That day, I clapped the erasers very hard during recess and sneezed. I didn’t have a Kleenex so I wiped my nose on the bottom of my shirt.
Regina collected me after school in her station wagon. I sat in the back with Katie, who was in the same uniform I’d once worn. Regina fed us TV dinners and we watched Benson. Then I cleaned Katie’s room until Dad came to fetch me after work.
On Saturday morning, while I was watching Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Dad sat down at the table beside me to balance the checkbook. I had turned the pretty Hungarian doll to face the wall, so she wouldn’t look at me while I watched cartoons. I hoped he wouldn’t notice. The Snickers had melted and firmed three times in my bookbag by the time I mustered the courage to show Dad the note and the five-dollar bill, which I had spent in my mind a hundred times over. I’d wanted to eat the Snickers very badly, but I knew Dad had to look at it first, like the Halloween candies he examined for needle marks or rips after I came home from trick or treating.
Would it taste different because Gary had given it to me?
I had read about love potions mixed into food in the old-fashioned fairy tale book Mom had sent me, and which I had to read aloud every night to practice my Hungarian. Would I suddenly fall in love with Gary if I ate it? Dad would know.
“Who is this Gary?”
“He’s my classmate. Gary Coleman,” I said, hoping Dad would decide it was okay to eat the candy now.
The anticipated taste of the chocolate soured on my tongue.
“You have to give it back.”
A frustration descended on me, like when Dad told me to read one more fairy tale, my lips squeezing out the difficult words as I squirmed on the chair.
I stared at the checkbook on the table. The numbers blurred.
“Sweetie, you have to give it back. You can’t take money from boys.”
“But it’s only five dollars.”
“Some girls take money from boys and that’s not nice.”
“Why is it not nice?”
“Then the boy will think that you must love him. Do you like this boy?”
Love, Gary had made me look at myself for the first time, outside of my own head. I never seemed to realize I had a body or a face before, outside of scraped knees, chapped lips, or tangled hair. How could he like me? I wasn’t black. Blacks liked blacks and whites liked whites. That’s how it always was in films and cartoons. I knew there were exceptions, like the married couple my dad worked with, where the husband was black and the wife was white. Dad has said, “Clement is different. He’s an educated man.” Tomika was a straight-A student. Was she a different black too? Dad wrapped the snickers and the money in the loose-leaf paper and handed it back to me.
On Sunday, we went to the International Baptist Church where my stomach rumbled and I was happy when the time came for communion because we got grape juice in cups and balls of bread that looked like Tomika’s hair. After communion, anyone could come forward and ask the congregation to pray for them if they had a problem. On previous occasions, I had asked for freedom for Hungary, my grandpa to get better so Mom could come home, for Katie’s blind and deaf dog Kelsey not to throw up on my bookbag anymore, and for Dad not to lose his job again, until one Sunday after church Pastor Reichert kindly asked Dad to tell me to do my sharing in Sunday school instead.
Dad and I walked to Regina’s station wagon, which she lent us every Sunday so we could drive to church. We always stopped at a tiny drugstore where the manager, Laurynas from Lithuania, had a Twix ready for me and an ice-cold root beer for Dad.
Dad and Laurynas shook hands and talked about the damned commies for a few minutes while I looked sidelong at the magazines with naked ladies on the covers and inhaled the warm newspaper, candy, and coffee smell.
In the car, I held Dad’s root beer while he drove. He took sips at the red lights, when I was able to push my Twix a little further out of the wrapper and take a bite. My thighs stuck to the plastic seat and the front seat belt extended up by my jaw and beside my ear. My fingers were numb from the cold root beer while the Twix melted in my other hand. The car stank, littered with dog fur, disintegrating plastic chew toys, Katie’s rubber finger puppets, and McDonald’s Happy Meal garbage.
On Monday, before joining Tomika at our usual spot in the cafeteria, I put Gary’s package back on his desk. I hadn’t answered if I liked him, the Snickers was mashed, and the five-dollar bill was creased. I thought about Gary’s kind smile and his chipped tooth.
In the cafeteria, Tomika didn’t have her purple drink. I gave her a dollar to buy some milk. I watched her shuffle over to the cafeteria lady’s counter. If she took the money, does this mean she has to love me? When she came back, she opened her carton of chocolate milk and beamed at me. I guess you didn’t have to be a boy for the love money to work, though she had given me back my change. When she wiped her lips on the back of her hand, the smile seemed to fade with it.
“You know what happened this weekend?” she said.
“My house burned down.”
I looked at her blankly. I’d never seen Tomika’s house, nor imagined her living anywhere. Thinking about Tomika’s house in flames made me think of Hansel and Gretel in the witch’s oven.
“We’re all okay though. The fire department came and everything.”
“Maybe you could come live with me till you rebuild your house?”
“Oh my God, I love you! That would be great!”
So, we started planning how I would make space for her beside me on the couch. I knew I would show her Raggedy Ann and then tell her I loved her, too.
That night, during our dinner of split pea soup, I dropped a piece of bread into the bowl and watched it soak up the soup. I pushed it around with my spoon. Then I scooped it up, but stopped, mid-move.
“You know what happened this weekend?” I asked.
“What?” asked Dad.
“My best friend Tomika’s house burned down.”
“Tomika? Another money boy?”
“Isn’t Tomika a boy? Tomika. You know, like András’s son. Little Tomi.”
“No, I gave money to Tomika, and she’s a girl.”
“You gave her money?”
“Just to buy milk at the cafeteria, because her house burned down.”
“Tomika Beach?” he teased. “Like Jones Beach and Miami Beach?”
The spoon slipped from my hand and landed heavily in the soup, splashing my dress and the table. Dad jumped up to get a washcloth from the sink. He cleaned me up. I smoothed my dress and pressed on.
“I said maybe she could come to live with us while they rebuild her house.”
Dad stood with his back to me, rinsing the cloth for a long time. Then he turned back to me and leaned against the edge of the sink, passing the dishcloth from hand to hand. Drops of water fell onto his sneakers. We stared at each other. Then, he kissed my head and wiped the soup from the table.
“Why don’t you invite her to church instead?”
We stopped Regina’s car at the curb in front of Tomika’s house. It didn’t look burned down at all. A piece of black plastic flapped in one of the windows. I rang the doorbell and a very tall woman opened the door.
“Hi, I’m here to pick Tomika up for church.”
“She’s not going.”
“Oh. Is she sick?”
I focused past her into the darkness. Was that Tomika in there? The smell of burnt toast and hair oil wafted out. The woman squinted and leaned over me to look at the car. She wore a pink robe and my eyes were on a level with her breasts. I heard the plastic fluttering in the wind and glanced at it sidelong.
“You’d better run along, honey.”
I scampered back to the car, put my seat belt on, and said we could go.
“Tomika can’t come. She’s sick.”
As we moved off from the curb, I saw the lady standing in the doorway, her arms crossed, watching us go.
Dad drove in silence. I looked out the window at the used-car lots with their rows of multi-colored, triangular flags. I saw the Chase Manhattan Bank that had the bullet hole in the window which I liked to push my finger into while I waited for my parents. I saw a bunch of garbage cans filled with tin cans that Katie and I would have loved to collect for the 5 cents we could get for them. I saw the English Shepard with the collar that said, “I am a self-walking dog.”
In church, the sermon was about Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden. “Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves,” Pastor read from the Bible.
I made a mental note of that. Maybe Tomika and I could sew fig leaves together for our final crafts project. After communion, I asked the congregation to pray for my friend Tomika, whose house had burned down.
Tomika sat with some other girls on Monday at lunch. I sat with our family. I chewed my sandwich, looking in between Lakeisha and Niki at the cloud of Tomika’s hair as she sat with her back to me. In the classroom, she always seemed very busy. After a few days like this, I began to sit at the edge of our family table at lunch, reading my new favorite book, The Mouse and the Motorcycle.
I still hadn’t learned how to skip rope Double Dutch with the others, so I stood by myself in the schoolyard during recess, looking out at the street through the chain-link fence. One day, there was a loud screech of brakes, then I saw a car backing out of the street. I squinted, and in the middle of the road was a puppy. A crowd gathered around it as it twitched spastically and bled. The bell rang and it was time for class again.
Dad started coming for me after school on his bike. He helped me into the little child’s seat in the back, which I had ridden in since first grade, my hips barely squeezing between the metal armrests now. Regina got a job, so she couldn’t come to pick me up anymore, and Katie had catechism classes. We biked to Brooklyn College and from then on, each afternoon, I sat at the back of a classroom while Dad gave bassoon and oboe lessons.
Trying to talk to Tomika had not worked, so after I finished The Mouse and the Motorcycle, I put five dollars of my tin can money between the pages and wrapped it in a loose-leaf page.
“Sis, Did I do something wrong? Will you forgive me? Love, Baby G.”
I left the package on her desk which I had cleaned so many times, but now the inkwell hole was full of her hairballs. I thought to myself, good Christians always forgive. It would be okay.
After recess, I came back to find the book on my desk, the five dollars torn up on top of it, and a note from Tomika, written beneath my note in an unsharpened pencil.
“You can’t buy me back. I’m not your sister anymore. My name is Tominika now.”
I shoved the whole thing into my desk and opened my math workbook.
I started noticing she wrote Tominika Beech at the top of the page on her test papers, and after a week, Mrs. Cimino also got used to calling her that. I also saw that she now got Bs, Cs, and even Ds on her tests, along with comments in red pen, like, “Tominika, you can do better than this!”
Mom came home from Hungary to see me graduate from elementary school. Before the ceremony, I ran back upstairs to our empty classroom to take one last look. It seemed foreign, bleak, and echoey, so I walked around, touching my finger to each desk, naming who had sat there. When I got to Gary’s desk, I saw there was a mashed Snickers inside. I stood for a moment, then put the candy bar in my dress pocket. Next year, we would be in middle school with all different people.
At graduation, our whole class sang a song we had been practicing for weeks. “What’s more American than ice cream, chow mein, pizza pie, Virginia ham? What’s more American than OK?! I am, I am, I aaaam!” Then, awards were handed out, and I was surprised when I was called up on stage to accept the Presidential Academic Fitness Award, which came with a little pin and a certificate signed by Ronald Reagan himself. I didn’t understand why I got it. I wasn’t particularly fit or into fitness. They should have given this award to Mama Maureen, who always beat everyone in the sprints during gym class. I looked at the certificate and saw that all the accents were missing from my name.
At home, I took out a black marker and corrected the certificate, putting dots on the O and an accent on the E. There. Gyöngyvér. But the certificate looked wrong somehow. So, I took out an eraser and started rubbing at the dots and the accent until the paper began to thin out. Now, there were almost two holes in the paper above the O and the E.
I examined what I had done.
I re-dotted the O and accented the E. I sat there with the marker in my hand. What a mess I had made. I walked over to the couch, pulled Raggedy Ann out from beneath the folded duvet, hiked her dress up, and looked at the words on her chest. I touched the felt tip of the marker to the hollow of the O, just to test it out. The blackness bled into the fabric, filling up the space that had been empty before.
Ildiko Noemi NagyMore about the author