When the Storm Clouds Break

In the summer between kindergarten and first grade I moved. It wasn't a long move -- only a few miles, from one white, suburban neighborhood to another. I entered the new school full of promise, and I was chosen by the first grade teacher as her attendance helper. I would give her the attendance sheet, and then while she was taking the attendance I ran back to my desk and hid under it.

I thought it remarkably funny, yet didn't make a sound as the coarse carpet dug into my hands and knees. My homeroom teacher, a woman with half-curled, shoulder length auburn hair, would say, "Where's Arwen? Has anyone seen her?" as the rest of the class stifled their giggles, and I felt an odd feeling of satisfaction. But this didn't last long; only a week, and then another kid took over.

My confidence didn't last long either. While I was eager, willing, and able to make friends, the would-be friends were not so willing. Most of the kids at my school knew each other from kindergarten. They were comfortable in their sameness; they didn't need disruption, so I spun round and round trying to find a sympathetic ear and smile, someone to spend time with, to be my friend. But they were too busy whispering among themselves, sharing secret smiles and hugs. I wanted them, too, but they weren't willing to divulge the information. So I was separate, alone, and consequently a target. Just like my mother must have been: a poor girl in a rich school. And later, a poor and foreign girl in an equally rich school.

Mom was always very sensible. She never used to let my brother or me have happy meals or even soda; milk and water had to be good enough for us. Clothing was the same way. She'd make clothes for us by hand or get some from discount racks. It was probably a by-product of the days in which she lived in Hong Kong, the oldest child of six in a nine-person, one-room home. They were overjoyed when they got a got a watermelon the size of a softball, she told me, and they would eat all of it, including the rind. Grandpa had to shovel driveways for only a quarter. Grandma had her hands full taking care of all the children. Mom, herself, had to babysit and cook meals when she should have been doing her homework. And on and on and on...

I never cared. I just wanted her to shut up. That was then, this was now, and I had a life to lead.

I envied Marisa, the girl across the street and my best and only friend for the longest time. I would go to her home and see an American life, a real American life, not the fake one my parents were feeding me. She had friends, she had soda and a Nintendo and a family that ate sandwiches and cookies instead of chicken and rice for lunch. I would go there and eat Twinkies and drink Pepsi, not because I liked them, but because I never had them. Maybe if I did, I'd be accepted.

It wasn't going to happen. Not like that. I knew I couldn't change my mother's mind with any amount of good behavior or pleading. Throwing a tantrum didn't even occur to me. (Dad told me, once, that I did throw a tantrum when I was three. My parents ignored me.)

But I wasn't about to give up without a fight. I looked for a friend, and Linda offered to be it, for a fee. I searched through the brown and yellow couch cushions for enough, and one day I pushed through a crowd of older kids trying to get into the school to reach Linda, and I finally found her, standing by the wall next to one of the two staircases. I gave her a paper cup filled with pennies, dimes, nickels, and quarters, and she nodded. I waited for her at recess, but she went off to play with some other girls to play Chinese jump-rope, and when I approached her she laughed at me for going to Children's World, a day care, after school instead of being picked up by my mom or dad.

They worked late. I would stand, heat from my breath and forehead fogging the glass doors as water poured from the bleak, black sky. My younger brother of three years would sit on the floor, leaning against the desk, and after staring for a while I sometimes joined him in watching the clock. It looked just like a school clock, with a white face and black hands and big numerals for the twelve, three, six, and nine. It reminded me of school. For all intents and purposes it was school, because it wasn't home. And while Children's World closed at six, the clock would read six thirty.

But I would usually stare at my reflection. I had dark, dark brown eyes, almost black. Chinese eyes, but wider. I wanted to be Chinese, all Chinese, and I would tug at the corners of my eyes in a futile effort to slant them. They looked sad. Except for when I smiled, I looked sad. And at school I rarely smiled. I had pale skin, like a ghost, and freckles that dotted my face. Black bangs (which turned brown in the sun) almost covered my eyes. I wished they would. Maybe if I didn't look at myself I would go away. Instead, I felt the coolness of glass against my forehead and listened to the patter of the rain on the roof, watching the dark sky grow even darker.


The room was dark as well, and all my classmates' eyes were fixed on the television screen. We were watching a short science fiction film after reading the poems we had worked on for the past few weeks in front of class. Our teacher didn't hold us to a particular pattern like we were held to in grade school. We were in Junior High, she said, and we could handle varying our methods of poetry.

My hands clutched the yellow sheet of notebook paper until the knuckles turned white, and I read in a stumbling voice my poem about a mocking bird. As I read, I sweat. Even my skill at hiding myself didn't do any good when some twenty-odd pairs of eyes were boring holes into my trembling body. I tried saying it all in one breath, but I had to pause to take another, and then another. Why did I have to write the longest poem in class? And then it was over, the last word tripping over my tongue.

No sooner had I deflated in my seat than Brian Coston was there, peering down at me. Brian peered down at everyone, actually; he was probably one of the tallest, if not the tallest, boy in school. I heard he played basketball, though I never actually went to one of the school games.

"That was a nice poem," he said.

I blinked in surprise; that was the last thing I expected to hear from someone like him. "Thanks," I replied, my voice quiet and tentative, not sure what to make of this praise.

"I bet you copied it from somewhere." I reeled from the blow. How could he think I was so low as to plagiarize? I looked up at him, up and up and up, and he was smirking. Then I felt it. Tiny little pinpricks, tearing under my skin, like when I was standing in front of the class. And I knew without looking that everyone was watching me, their eyes laughing.

My mouth hung open. I didn't know what to say.

"Brian Coston? Back to your desk." The teacher's eyes were hard. "Now."

Brian nodded and scurried back to his seat, but not before glancing my way and throwing another twisted smile. My stomach was in knots; I put my head down on my desk for fear that I'd become dizzy. I didn't plagiarize, but who would listen to me? Who ever listened to me? I didn't even want to be listened to most of the time. Speaking out meant drawing attention, and drawing attention meant attracting ridicule.

Then the lights turned off and I faced forward, glad to be shrouded from those gazing eyes. I distantly heard the teacher tell us that we finished presenting early, so she was going to show us a special treat. Then she turned on the television, and all our eyes were glued to the staticky snow onscreen. Movies were rare, so we devoured what we saw.

A group of children out in the pouring rain, more water coming down than anything I'd ever seen, playing kick the can. Then their teacher, a tall, blonde-haired woman with a kind smile, calls them inside. It's made apparent that they're on Venus, and that the sun only shines for a few hours every seven years, and that it was going to happen tomorrow. She helps prepare the children for the inevitable, giving them sunglasses and sunblock. The last to go up to the teacher is a redheaded girl with freckles and pale skin and glasses. The next day, one of the boys decides it'll be fun to lock the redheaded girl in the closet. The other kids go along with it, and they succeed.

And then, it happens.

A great parting of the clouds, an enormous, painfully bright sun bursting onto the screen. The kids forget all about the redheaded girl; they run outside, hooting and hollering, leaping and laughing. They gather flowers, armful after armful of them. They sing and dance and play... and then it's over. All too soon, the sun disappears.

They return, happy and fulfilled, carrying flowers and burnt to a crisp. And there they see them: the teacher and the redheaded girl, watching silently.

There is a pause. One of shock and dismay and betrayal, and then one of the boys, the most reluctant of the kidnapping group, steps forward and gives the girl his flowers. The others follow suit, until she's practically covered with them, her face stunned with surprise.

I wipe at my eyes in vain. The movie made me cry, and that was a weakness I couldn't afford to show. Crying was for babies. Around me, I could hear the lights click on and the white buzzing of the classroom. Once satisfied as to the state of my face (my cheeks, at least, were dry) I glanced around... and my gaze met that of one Brian Coston.

His eyes watered and his face was damp and flushed with embarrassment. We looked, nonblinking, for seconds, minutes... You too?

I forgave him. He never approached me again.