Quiet Nights

By Sapna Kumar

I wake to the whistling sound of a bus going past my home. My clock says 7:25. When I check, the alarm is set for PM, instead of AM. Now I’ll have to walk in late to school with my brother. He always oversleeps, and I never do.

We don’t have enough money to put the heat on too high, so I sleep under tons of blankets. School’s been canceled a lot this winter. It’s always cold in Cleveland. I wish I could stay in bed forever.

I can hear my mother in the kitchen as I put on my favorite green cords. Since it’s pretty quiet, I know my dad has already left for work. I hope Mom’s not cooking. I hate breakfast.

“Mommy, I missed the bus,” I say, standing in the center of the kitchen. She talks to herself in Hindi about how she’s going to pay the bills. Then she turns to me and says in English, “I don’t know.” I feel like a ghost.

“Mom, Deepak isn’t up yet, and we missed the bus.”

“I’ll wake him up. Prince needs to go for a walk.”

I take our dog for a walk every day. He’s a Lhasa Apso, and we named him Prince after the singer. My favorite song is “When Doves Cry.” Because we begged her to, Mom took us to see Purple Rain and covered our eyes during all the dirty parts.

“Prince, you want go out? Out?” I call. He grabs his leash in his mouth and comes running to me.

In the slushy streets, my socks get wet. My boots have tiny slits in the soles. I haven’t told Mom because I know we can’t afford a new pair.

The snow blows into my eyeballs, and I catch flakes on my tongue. The air smells like toothpaste and freezer burn. “Come on Prince. Go!” I say.

My feet get more wet, and my knees lock. Finally, the deep yellow mixes with white, and I stare at it for a while before kicking snow over the spot. My neighbors would be mad if they knew I let my dog pee in their yard. I don’t understand why. It’s just snow, and it won’t stick forever like other stuff does.

When I get back in our apartment, my brother is still not awake. It’s already 7:50. I rush to the kitchen to make our lunches—peanut butter and jelly with an apple for me and two plain jelly sandwiches for my brother. I fill my thermos with grape juice and his with Fazio’s cola. (Mom says it’s just like Coke.) My brother has a Spiderman lunch box, and I have a “Mork n’ Mindy” one. After school, we watch “Mork n’ Mindy,” and my brother does headstands on the sofa and calls Orson.

“Rehna, are you ready? Have you eaten your breakfast? It’s getting late. Let’s go,” Mom shouts from the bathroom.

I quickly grab my bowl of oatmeal and let it ooze down the kitchen sink while calling back, “Yes, I finished it already.” I put the kettle on the burner and set out three cups. Mom doesn’t put sugar in her tea. I have two teaspoons, and my brother likes the whole bottom of the cup lined with a bed of sugar. When Mom meets me in the kitchen, the tea is brewing.

“Oh, you made chai. Good for you. Deepak, eat your breakfast.”

My brother gets on the step stool and snatches The Fruity Pebbles. Mom puts these up high, and we only get to eat Fruity Pebbles during Saturday morning cartoons. Mom yells at him, but he eats the cereal anyway. Sometimes I hate his guts.

On the ride to school, Mom talks to herself the whole way. I say, “You know Mom, it’s okay to talk to yourself. Just don’t answer yourself.” I heard my science teacher say this once.

“Did you make lunch for you and your brother?” she asks.

When we get to Fairfax Elementary School, I remind Mom to write us a note about why we’re late. She quickly scribbles something on a small piece of paper from her purse, and we run into the school building.

At the front desk, the secretary glares at us. I take the note to her, and my brother demands, “Two passes please!” The secretary looks in my eyes and asks, “Are you okay?” I run my fingers along my bumpy cords, don’t answer, and take the pass.

When I get to class, my science teacher throws paper airplanes around the room. His name is Mr. Koke, and I like him. “Hi Rehna, did you oversleep today?” He asks. This makes me smile.

We get into small groups and make our own airplanes. No one asks me to be in a group, and Mr. Koke has to hold my hand and take me over to a circle of boys. One of the boys asks, “Are you sitting Indian style because you are Indian?”

“Not that kind of Indian,” I tell him. He sticks his tongue out at me.

We take rulers and measure how far our airplanes fly across the room and make a table of all the groups’ recordings. I get to go to the board and write down my group’s results.

I like this part of school. I’m smart, and I love numbers. Dad taught me long division before the other kids learned it. I also have almost all the names of the Ivy League schools memorized. There’s Harvard and Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Cornell, Brown, and I forget the rest.

Dad says I am very articulate, and he knows that I’ll be successful. On quiet nights, he explains politics to me and teaches me math. My brother tosses his Mattel cars all over the family room floor in front of the TV and makes car noises. Dad screams at him, and that makes me happy. Sometimes Deepak punches or kicks me. Dad acts like he doesn’t see. When Deepak is done playing, I clean up his cars.

At lunch today, I see my brother eating with the sixth graders. His friends call him D. They are the oldest and coolest of the school. He sits with a bunch of boys who suck Jell-O through straws. They play football by hitting paper folded into triangles through another guy’s “finger goal post.” They jump up and shout “TD.”

I sit at a table with the slow kids and a black girl named Lucy. She’s the only black girl in my grade. She has a brother in sixth grade too. Lucy and I don’t speak because kids who have cooties shouldn’t talk to each other.

Isabelle has cooties too, but she doesn’t sit with us. She sits near boys who make fun of her, and she doesn’t even care. Isabelle has long hair in a braid that goes down lower than her butt. When people ask her why she doesn’t cut her hair, she says, “Because I’m French.”

In social studies, we learned about the French and Indian war and kids make jokes about Isabelle and me fighting in it.

The sixth graders get done with lunch before us. A bunch of boys shout “retards” at my table. My brother chants with them.

At 3 o’clock, when school gets out, Deepak waits for me outside the fifth-grade classrooms. He clutches my hand, and we run. He’s never slow at the end of the day. Our bus doesn’t wait for kids that dawdle. Plus, if we miss the bus, we have to walk home in the snow because Mom doesn’t get off work until 5:00.

Once, when my brother didn’t come to school, I got on the wrong bus. The bus driver let me stay on until we passed the school again, and I got off and walked home. I cried the whole way, and my brother said that he had come looking for me. He was nice like that, when no one else was around to see.

After school, we go to Joey’s house and ride big wheels around his basement. Joey and my brother look at Playboy’s together. I look with them. Joey shrieks, “Hey, why does she look at these?”

Deepak tells him, “She’s not really a girl anyway.”

I don’t feel like a girl. Boys say to me in school, “Hey, shave your mustache.” When we had the money for me to be in a Brownie troop, the girls would say, “Hey, you’re a real Brownie.” Brown skin and fat legs with hair on my upper lip—this is me. I am not a girl. I am a thing with cooties who doesn’t like talking and does better on time tests than anyone in my grade. Mr. Koke says my head is a calculator. Maybe it is . . . And maybe that’s why it feels so heavy.

When I go to bed, I dream that I live in India, and I get to go to school with kids who look just like me—all girls too. Boys are too mean. In India, I don’t have a brother or a dad. My mom and I just live together in my grandparents’ house.

They own a tall building and live on the top floor. They have lots more money than other people in Bombay. I don’t remember what it’s like there that much. We’ve only gone to visit a couple times. But there are a lot of kids who don’t have clothes or parents. They beg for money in the streets. My Masi told me not to give poor people money because they’ll follow you.

When we went to the beach, I got to ride a camel and an elephant. I also saw a snake charmer. I tried telling the other girls in Brownies about India, but everything got caught in my throat. Mom says she wishes she could go back. Dad’s parents both died, so he doesn’t want to go with her.

Dad doesn’t think any of us will be able to go to India for a long while. He used to work for a steel company, but it shut down. Almost everyone in our neighborhood lost their jobs. Dad works another job now, for lawyers. I don’t know what he does, but it doesn’t make him happy.

When he gets home from work, he’s hungry. Mom gets mad if we bug her and don’t let her cook a meal. At dinner, my brother rolls his food up in a napkin and hands it to me under the table. I throw it in the trash. We don’t like Indian food. It’s mostly vegetables—mutter paneer or aloo gobi. If we complain enough, Mom makes us chini walla roti, which is just bread with sugar.

My parents speak Hindi at the table. I understand, but I can’t speak very well. Dad always makes me get up and get him more water or napkins. “Ek glass pahni, behti, please,” he asks.

I like it if we can finish dinner without a fight. Mom starts naming off all the rich men she could have married in Bombay, and then she wouldn’t have to work a job. Dad tells her to shut up. If he gets very mad, my brother and I leave the room. We shake from the sounds of plates crashing against the walls, and my mother wailing. Prince starts barking and won’t stop. He tries to get in between them.

I’ve tried standing in front of Mom. She cries, “Watch it, or he’ll hit you. One of these days, he’ll hit you.” That usually makes him stop.

On one side of my bedroom is the neighbor’s, and I can hear their TV through the wall. On the other side, it’s my brother’s room. He knocks on the wall, and we talk to each other like this at night until Mom and Dad stop their screaming.

Mom doesn’t let me hug her. If I find her crying in her bed, I try to tuck the covers underneath her body like she does for me. She just rolls over and tells me that she’s okay but I know she’s not.

Sometimes she comes and sleeps in my bed. She holds me as tight as I hold my teddy bear and whimpers into my shoulder. I can feel the wetness of her cheeks and her drool, but it doesn’t bother me. I can make it go away.

On nights like these, I clamp my eyes shut tightly, and I’m in India. There’s hot sun and little girls with no shoes who let me jump rope with them. I guess Deepak can come with us as long as he doesn’t bring his stupid cars or any of his dumb friends. I dream this dream over and over, and I know it will stick forever. I will make it go away, and we’ll drift into quiet nights.



About the Author
Sapna Kumar is an actor and comedian living in Los Angeles. She also holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Purdue University, and has recently started a blog at http://sapna-kumar.tumblr.com/.