Authors: Julia Alvarez
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Family, #Adoption, #Fiction
Table of Contents
for the milagritos, who have brought more light into our lives
—especially for lizzi, nuni, lauri
and to the mothers & fathers, lost and found, the wrenching loss,
the amazing gift
allergic to myself
I TOOK THE CLASS where we wrote stories with Ms. Morris. It was a three-week elective we could do on the side with regular English class. I did it because, to be truthful, I needed the extra credit. I’ve always had big problems with writing, which I’m not going to go into here. I knew my English grade, a C, was rapidly gyrating into a D. So I signed up.
“Stories are how we put the pieces of our lives together,” Ms. Morris told us that first class. The way she talked, it was like stories could save your life. She was like a fanatic of literature, Ms. Morris. A lot of kids didn’t like her for that. But secretly, I admired her. She had something worth giving her life to. Except for saving my mom and dad and sister, Kate, and brother, Nate, and best friend, Em, and a few other people from a burning building, I didn’t have anything I could get that worked up about.
“Unless we put the pieces together we can get lost.” Ms. Morris sighed like she’d been there, done that. Ms. Morris wasn’t exactly old, maybe about Mom and Dad’s age. But with her wild, frizzy hair and her scarves and eye makeup, she seemed younger. She lived an hour away near the state university and drove a red pickup. Occasionally, she referred to her partner, and sometimes to her kid, and once to an ex-husband. It was hard to put all the pieces of her life together.
Ms. Morris had this exercise where we had to jot down a couple of details about ourselves. Then we had to write a story based on them.
“Nothing big,” she said to encourage us. “But they do have to be details that reveal something about your real self.”
“Huh?” a bunch of the guys in the back row grunted.
“Here’s what I mean,” Ms. Morris said, reading from her list. She always tried out the exercises she gave us. “The morning I was born, I had to be turned around three times. Headed in the wrong direction, I guess.” She looked up and grinned, sort of proud of herself. “Okay, here’s another one. When I was twelve, an X-ray discovered that I had extra ‘wing bones’ on my shoulders.” Ms. Morris spread her arms as if she was ready to fly away.
guys all shot a glance at each other like here we are in the Twilight Zone.
“So, class, a detail or two to convey the real you! Actually, this is a great exercise in self-knowledge!”
We all groaned. It was kind of mandatory when a teacher was this kindergarten-perky about an assignment.
I sat at my desk wondering what to write. My hands were itching already with this rash I always get. Since nothing else was coming, I decided to jot that down. But what came out was, “I have this allergy where my hands get red and itchy when my real self’s trying to tell me something.” For my second detail, I found myself writing, “My parents have a box in their bedroom we’ve only opened once. I think of it as The Box.”
Ms. Morris was coming down the rows, checking on our progress. “That’s great!” she whispered when she read over my paper. Now my face, along with my hands, turned red. “You could tell an interesting story with just those two facts!”
“I made them up,” I said a little too quickly. Oh yeah? All she had to do was look at my hands.
“Then write a story about a character for whom those two facts are true,” Ms. Morris shot back. You couldn’t get around her enthusiasm, no way.
I felt relieved when music sounded over the loudspeaker for the end of the period. That’s a telling detail about our school. Instead of bells, we get music, anything from classical to “Rock-a-bye, Baby” to rock. I guess we’re free spirits in Vermont. Bells are too uptight for us.
I ended up writing some lame, futuristic story about this girl alien whose memory chips are kept in a box that she can’t open because her hands need rebooting. Some idea from a late-night movie Em and I had seen on TV at her house, where her parents have a dish and get all the weird channels.
I could tell Ms. Morris was disappointed that I didn’t write about my own life. And though my hands kept breaking out in rashes, trying to tell me
Milly! It’s time!,
I wasn’t ready yet to open my box of secrets.
But sometimes, like with my allergies, it takes an outside irritant to make you react. My outside “irritant” showed up the next day in Mr. Barstow’s class.
He stood in front of us, head bowed, so you couldn’t really see his face. His skin was golden brown like mine gets in the summer after a few weeks in the sun.
Mr. Barstow, our homeroom/history teacher, was introducing him: Pablo something something something— he must have had about four names. “Let’s give our classmate a warm welcome!”
welcome was right. It was one of those freezer-compartment January days when even people who love winter have to ask themselves, Am I out of my mind? I wasn’t one of those people, winter lovers I mean. But from time to time, I had my own reasons to ask myself, Milly, are you out of your mind? Loving winter was not one of them.
“Hey, class, come on. You can do better than that!” When he wasn’t teaching World History or being our homeroom teacher, Mr. Barstow was the football-basketball-baseball coach. He could work up a crowd. He had less luck with ninth-grade homeroom in the middle of winter.
We managed a lukewarm applause.
Pablo wasn’t dressed for cold weather at all. He had on a short-sleeve khaki-colored shirt and a pair of new jeans that looked like they’d been ironed. Nobody at Ralston High wore jeans that were one, new; two, without a rip or tear; three, ironed. He looked so awkward up there. My heart just automatically went out to him.
Mr. Barstow was going on about Pablo, how he had two older brothers, how his parents were refugees....I shifted into classroom cruise control ... coasting along ... not paying attention.... But then Mr. Barstow said something that made my hands begin to itch and my face darken with self-consciousness.
Em, my best friend, sits one row over and three seats in front of me. I could see her shoulders tense up. She was going to turn around any moment.
I just couldn’t stand her drawing any attention to me.
But if Em looked my way, I never knew. I stared down at the graffiti on my desk until it began to swim under my eyes, reorganizing into the shape of the country where Mr. Barstow had mentioned Pablo was from.
Besides Em, I hadn’t told anyone in this room that it was the place where I came from, too.
“Hey, Milly.” Em put down her lunch tray across from me. Today, Em was having a plate of green salad, a couple of carrot sticks, and an apple. Em was forever trying to lose weight, which wasn’t easy, as my sister, Kate, would say, because
was Em going to lose weight, please? The only answer really was her hair. Em’s Tinkertoy skinny, but with very thick bundles of curly, strawberry blond hair.
Besides the rabbit food on her tray, Em also had three bottles of spring water. She had read somewhere how human beings need to drink eight glasses of water per day. Almost every period, Em had to ask permission to go take a leak. A lot of kids at Ralston thought Em was on drugs. But really, Em was addicted to nothing more than H
“I think he kind of looks like Brad Pitt.” Em had sat down and was heading straight for the subject I was hoping to avoid. It’s what I loved and hated about my best friend. “I mean, a very tanned Brad Pitt.”
“Who?” I said. I couldn’t let on, even to Em, that Pablo had been on my mind all morning.
“You know who.” Em was staring at the bouquet of lettuce on her fork. “But boy, does he need some help with his wardrobe!” Em giggled, then stuffed her mouth full of lettuce. She ate her vegetarian food like a carnivore.
“Well?” Em swallowed quickly, ignoring her rule about chewing each mouthful I don’t know how many times. “Don’t you think he’s cute?”
I shrugged. “I couldn’t see his face, he was looking down the whole time.”
Em leaned toward me and whispered, “Look now. He’s over there with Jake.”
I glanced over at the cafeteria line. Pablo was standing beside one of our close friends, Jake, who was scanning the room for a place to sit down. Our lunchroom is about as segregated as the pre-civil-rights South. The in-group always claims the booths, close to the food. We borderliners get the long tables by the recycle bins.
Oh please, don’t ask them over, Em,
I was thinking. Just having Pablo nearby was like shining a spotlight on a part of my life I had avoided for so long.
But telepathy with my best friend did not seem to be working today. “Hey, Jake!” Em waved for the boys to come over.
At first, Jake must not have heard her in the commotion in the cafeteria. But Em kept waving until Jake connected with her and nodded. He turned to Pablo and jerked his head in our direction to show where they were headed through the lunchroom crowd.
I looked down at my tray, a half-eaten burrito, a bag of chips, a brownie, a Coke, and the bottle of water Em insisted I drink. (“What good will it do me to be alive at ninety if my best friend’ll be long dead by then?”) There was no way I was going to be able to wolf it all down in the minute it would take ...
“Mind if we join you, ladies?” Jake was asking. Sometimes Jake puts on this act like he’s someone from our parents’ generation, which is funny since Jake looks younger than most anybody in our class. He’s on the short side, with freckles on the bridge of his nose and bright blue eyes and just the slightest smirk, like he’s about to crack a joke or something. “Pablo, these are two of the coolest ladies in our class.”
Right. Only a borderliner could say that about two other borderliners.
Pablo smiled shyly and slid in beside Jake. He
good-looking, in a way you don’t see around Ralston, dark and foreign, out of place. Maybe he’d only be here a few weeks before his family went back or moved away.
Em started peppering him with questions. What did Pablo think of the food? Ralston High? The United States of America? Pablo looked confused, like maybe he didn’t understand much English. Em knew that I could speak some Spanish. I hoped—telepathically contacting Em, telepathically contacting Em—that Em would not offer my services.
This time, telepathy worked with Em, but not with Jake. “Hey, Mil,” he piped up. “Aren’t you, like, good in Spanish?”
Why was Jake asking me? I shot Em this look. Had she betrayed my secret?
“Aren’t you in Advanced Spanish?” Jake persisted.
“But I’m not that good,” I managed.
“You’ve got to be better than me.” Jake shook his head at the state of his Spanish. Then, in his parents-throwing-a-barbecue-in-the-backyard voice, he added, “Pablo’s coming over after school. Why don’t you ladies join us and we’ll play some pool, raid the fridge, whatever.” Jake’s mom is a caterer who’s been written up in magazines. She sometimes brings leftovers home.
“Sure we’ll come,” Em offered for both of us.
“I can’t,” I said. “I have to . . . Mom asked me to help Nate. . . .” I was drawing a blank. What could I say my little brother needed help with? “Nate’s got this project . . . on the solar system—” My lie was lost because just then two more of our friends, Dylan and Will, had joined our table. Jake went through a new round of intros. “These are the two coolest dudes in the school.” Jake had a way of making everyone feel important. He was always saving the whales or getting us to recycle or pay attention to the people of the Third World. Pablo was probably his new cause. Em once teased Jake, saying, “If you were a car, you’d be full of bumper stickers.”
Jake had come back with, “And if you were a car, Em, you’d be full of gas.” Everyone laughed, but Em was upset because she wasn’t sure Jake wasn’t putting her down. That night we must have spent over an hour on the phone analyzing what exactly Jake might have meant with his remark.
While everyone talked, Pablo sat by, looking at whoever was speaking, trying to follow the conversation. Then, just like that, he was staring at me, not like he was hitting on me, but like he knew me. I told myself I was being paranoid. Even though we were both from the same country, we had nothing obvious in common. We didn’t look at all alike. My hair’s light brown, my skin a pale olive like some French Canadians’ in our town, except, like I say, in the summer, when I tan real dark. My eyes are actually the only unusual thing about me—they’re this golden color with brown speckles in them like pieces of amber with fossils inside. The point is: I totally pass as 100 percent American, and as un-PC as this is going to sound, I’m really glad. The last thing I want is people staring at my family and asking, “Oh! Where’d you get her?” My parents’ friends, the Hopkinses, adopted Mimi from China, and they are forever getting comments like that. So if Pablo was staring at me, it was not because I looked like one of his people or anything.
So why are you looking at me? I wondered.
As if to answer my question, Pablo leaned across the table.
“¿De dónde eres?”
he asked. Where was I from? It was so noisy at our table that for a moment I doubted whether I had heard him correctly. But he repeated himself,
From what country?
I did something I still feel bad about. I shrugged as if I didn’t understand a word he had said.
But Pablo kept staring at me like he wasn’t convinced. The rash on my hands was itching horribly. I had to get out of there fast. So I pulled an Em. I drank up my bottle of water in practically one gulp and dashed off to the john. I don’t know why I thought I had to
I had to go to the bathroom.
Em came in just as I was locking myself in my stall. “Hey, what’s going on? Are you all right?”
“Why?” I managed, trying to make my voice sound as normal as possible.
“The way you ran off. It’s like you’d seen a ghost or something.”
I have! I felt like saying. Instead, I said, “It’s my stupid period.” I hoped Em wouldn’t remember the tampon I’d borrowed from her a week ago. She had everything in that backpack.
Em flushed. “You sure you can’t come over to Jake’s?”
“I can’t, Em. I’ve got to go home and help Nate.”
“Oooh, poor baby,” Em wailed in a show of feeling bad for me. “I think I’ll go by for a little while anyhow.” She was at the sinks now. By the way she was spacing her words, I could tell she was looking at herself in the mirror. “Call me tonight, okay? You sure you’re okay?”