The water was everywhere.
His arms were red and blue. His hands curled purple at the fingertips. He peeled at his arms, hands, and in the hug of his fingers. He peeled until he couldn’t peel. Until his skin was red with the sting of acrylics. Then he shoved his arms under the faucet and lathered them in warm water and soap. You’re going to be late! He heard from below. He scrubbed until there was no more paint. Then he scrubbed at the white porcelain. You’re going to be late. Come get your breakfast. He looked in the mirror and smiled. It was his first day. I’ll be right down, Dad.
The first day of public school was a new beginning for Aaron. A fresh start. No more uniforms. He traded in his dusty gray slacks for blue jeans. His button-up oxford for his favorite The Queen is Dead t-shirt. No more tacky black dress shoes that squished his toes until the balls of his feet split into blisters and filled his socks with blood. Today he had the freedom to wear his new pair of red Chuck Taylor high-top sneakers, and he felt cool. He stared in the mirror once more. Aaron, are you coming?
He made his way down to the living room, where the newscaster talked about sunshine and Dow Jones and the rise of the American economy. He spooned a helping of oatmeal into his mouth. Whaddya think? I added blueberries to sweeten it for you. Aaron looked at his dad, knowing the oats tasted awful, knowing that sometimes this was the best a single parent could do. It’s great, Dad. Thanks. You really didn’t have to. His dad smiled proudly like this was some sort of culinary triumph. Like he had bought, stuffed, and prepared an entire Thanksgiving turkey from scratch. It was just oatmeal, but Aaron didn’t want to hurt his dad’s feelings, so he finished the entire bowl of mush.
Stephen F. Austin was the nicest school in the district. Dad lied about their residence, put down Grandma’s address, just to get him in. Dad said it was just a white lie, a lie that served a greater good. The good of getting his son into the best college below the Mason-Dixon. Aaron didn’t care much about the academic advantages of Stephen F. Austin High. All he cared about was finally getting a girlfriend. The girls at Calvary Baptist Academy knew Aaron since kindergarten and would sooner think of him as one of the girls than boyfriend material.
His friend Stephen gave him parting words of advice about public school girls. All these private school girls are stuck up, man. They think they’re better than you. But when you go to public school, you’ll see. You’ll have more to choose from. Stephen was no Casanova. He’d dated the same girl since the 2nd grade, and she’d dumped him the summer before 10th grade. Maybe she’d finally realized that the Bible didn’t ordain you to marry your first kiss.
Carlos, on the other hand, was a legend at Calvary. Carlos was Stephen’s older brother. He got kicked out the year before, and now he was this cool publicschooler with his own car and two girlfriends. Aaron felt confident. Amazing. Through the roof with the possibilities. Then Dad pulled him back down. Aaron. Aaron, are you listening? Aaron was absently nodding his head along for the whole car ride. He was busy daydreaming about public school girls. Aaron, we need to talk about public school. There’s gonna be some rules. Aaron was annoyed. Even when he daydreamed up a girlfriend, she disappeared. What, Dad? Aaron looked out the window.
The car ride was long and winding. Driving through his city, Aaron took count of the surroundings. Breckinridge Park, where he had family picnics. Feeding mallards, sneaking small bits of white bread when no one was looking. Counting stars in the purple black sky. Walking the trails on summer nights, mosquitos or not. Sometimes he’d count over ten mosquito bites, but he never regretted a single one. Public school is different than private school. Dad liked to call it private school, so it sounded elite. In reality, Calvary was the most affordable Christian school in their city. I’ve enrolled you in all honors classes. That’s why you’re here in this country. Education, Aaron. Never forget the importance of education.
They passed the abandoned mall. They’d renovated the old Sears into a bowling alley. Everything else stood vacant and vandalized by teenagers. I know there will be girls, Aaron. Don’t think I haven’t thought of that. But that’s not why you’re here. No girlfriends till college, Aaron. Nothing serious. Remember that. It’s not who we are.
On the left, he saw Mike’s Car Wash, the oldest carwash in the neighborhood, still making business somehow. When he was five, his older sister squirted him with the soap. Rainbow colored soap that looked like cake icing, until the day he tasted it. Are you listening, Aaron? Aaron looked away from the window. Yes, Dad. I’m listening. And he was now. Good. Ok, this is important. I really need your attention for this. Aaron looked over at his Dad.
If Aaron painted a portrait of him, everyone would think his dad was depressed. His thin hair clinging to his nearly bald head, the stress lines, and the bags under his eyes a distinct darker brown than the rest of his face. What’s up? His dad cleared his throat and turned down the talk radio. He pulled a right down the main road, got over in the left lane, and waited till the cars passed. Dad? His dad drove silently onto the campus of Stephen F. Austin High and pulled up to the drop off area. This is the most important thing, Aaron. Don’t make waves. No matter how tempting it is, no matter how cool you think you’ll become. Don’t make waves. Try to fit in. I know it may be tough at first. These kids come from a different world than you. But don’t, no matter what feelings you have, don’t make waves. Do you understand? Aaron’s eyebrows squished together like two tiny caterpillars. Aaron could tell this meant a lot to his dad, even more than the approval of his sad breakfasts. Ok, Dad.
Aaron didn’t know what his Dad meant by all these waves, but he had an idea. He looked his dad in the eyes, and there it was. An admission of knowing. Dad knew that Aaron’s expulsion from Calvary was no accident. It was a carefully plotted plan. Carlos fucked up on accident, by unsuccessfully sneaking his dad’s bourbon to gym class to share with his friends. He thought hiding it in a Dr. Pepper bottle would do the trick, but it turns out the PE teacher was a recovering alcoholic and could smell the bourbon the minute Carlos walked in the gym. He got by with a warning the first and second time, but the third time, Carlos was expelled from Calvary.
Aaron purposefully did things not quite that bad to get the principal’s attention, to get his dad’s attention, to get sent to public school. He got into a loud yelling match with his science teacher for skipping the evolution section of their Biology textbooks. Aaron stood up at his desk and gave an impassioned speech discrediting the existence of God in front of the entire tenth grade class. He wasn’t even sure where he stood on that issue, but he did know that atheism and irreverent behavior wouldn’t go over well at a Baptist school. He skipped his World Geography class to read divisive books in the bathroom while the potheads did their thing, but he never touched the stuff. He purposefully put himself in situations where he’d be around these kids, kids he never spent any time with before, that were the ‘wavemakers’. He did it all on purpose, and now Aaron realized his Dad knew.
Aaron’s hand rested on the door handle. He looked at Stephen F. Austin High. The lies were worth it. The redbrick building, the clock tower, and the greenest buffalo grass he’d ever laid eyes on. How elite could Calvary be? It didn’t look half as fancy as this place. Okay, bye Dad. Thanks for the ride. He opened the door right as his dad grabbed his shoulder. What, no hug for your old man? Aaron looked out on the lawn. The public school kids were watching. Was it uncool to hug your dad? Aaron wasn’t as skilled at cool as Carlos was. Sure. He leaned in over the cup holders and hugged his dad. Have a great day, Aaron. Remember, you’ll have to walk home today. I’m working late. Be careful on your walk home. Call if you need a ride. Just take the main roads. Don’t go anywhere else. Go straight home. His eyes glanced back up at the clock tower. Yes, Dad. I gotta run.
The students were everywhere.
Aaron stood in front of Stephen F. Austin High. The building was layered with redbrick and concrete. The clock tower stood lofty at the center of campus. The grass was greener up close, and Aaron nudged his sneakers into it. The blades of grass plopped down and then up. He placed both of his hands in his pockets, then just one, then one on the strap of his backpack and one in his pocket. Finally, he wiped the sweat from his hands on the back of his jeans. He looked around to see where he should stand. The eager nerds stood by the entrance cupping their faces and peering inside the glass doors. To the right, a group of boys in red and black letterman jackets tossed a football around. To the left, there was a flagpole with students sitting under it. Aaron stood at a distance observing his new peers. As he stood beneath the clock tower, by himself, he began to notice a pattern. He looked around at students sitting on the lawn, under the flagpole, near the building, tossing the football, everywhere. He looked and looked to prove himself wrong. Am I the only brown person here? Aaron thought to himself.
Like a game of Waldo, but with people of color, he drove his eyes into a squint and peered around the campus. His eyes zoomed in and out to the nearly three hundred students that populated the front of the building. Aaron thought how could this be? Even Calvary, as Southern Baptist as it was, had students from all different backgrounds. Immigrant children from Europe and Asia and black kids and white kids and mixed kids and every type of kid you could imagine. His neighbors, friends, classmates, and church congregation came from all walks of life with a shared interest in the Big Three: Jesus, education, and family. He took a closer look at the flagpole. Two girls sitting together, texting on their phones looked like they might be Chicanas. Aaron had about five minutes until the bell would ring and the doors would open. He didn’t want to walk in alone.
He approached the flagpole. Hi, I’m Aaron, he managed, with only half a squeal. The two maybe-Chicana girls looked up at him and rolled their eyes. They went back to their phones. He looked to his left and said hi to another group of students in Chuck Taylors and cut up jeans, who were chewing snuff, but they didn’t respond. One guy spat a wad on the ground and then a few girls shook their heads and turned away. He looked back down at the maybe-Chicana girls and noticed that they could just have really tan skin and he could be engaging in false hope or suffering from wishful thinking. He looked at them, and they didn’t even flinch. It was as if he disappeared completely. The bell rang.
Class sizes at Calvary were tiny in comparison to public school. His current class, if he’d stayed, would have been roughly thirty-five or forty students give or take a few transfers. So when the bell rang and something like three or four hundred students crammed their way into three sets of double glass doors, Aaron tried his best to maneuver. He squished his way to the doors, whispering, Excuse mes and Thank yous. But the students just kept pushing their way through. One of the letterman jacket boys elbowed him in the ribs. Aaron was sure it was just an accident until seconds later he heard a distinct Got him. But still, Aaron thought nothing of it. At least he wasn’t invisible. To be seen, noticed, even for the wrong reasons, was the clear choice in the battle between fear and love.
Aaron made his way down the hallway, past the fleet of students, and into the registrar’s office. He was supposed to pick up his class schedule, a campus map, his student ID, and finish any necessary paperwork for his start at Stephen F. Austin. He walked inside the office and looked around for the secretary. As he made his way up to the countertop, he noticed a smallish old secretary sitting in her chair, reading what appeared to be a romance novel. He looked down and smiled. She kept on reading. Hello? He asked. Just a minute, she replied. Finally, she dog-eared the page, closed the book, and sighed. Yes?
Aaron looked down at the nameplate. Hi, Mrs. Smith. My name is Aaron. I’m new here. I was told to come to the Registrar’s Office to…She looked up at him, squinting her eyes behind her glasses and interrupted. Oh, you’re the new kid. You transferring from Roosevelt? Aaron was only familiar with Roosevelt High from hearsay. It was nicknamed Suicide High and graduated drug dealers, criminals, and slackers. No. I’m from Calvary Baptist. We moved to the area recently. A white lie. It’s my first day. Mrs. Smith looked up from her desk. Stood on her feet slowly and said It’s Ms. Smith. I’m widowed. Wait here. Aaron was surprised to hear the word ‘widowed’ outside his own home. Oh, I’m so sorry. Ms. Smith did not reply.
Ms. Smith returned to the counter with a file full of paperwork and looked up at Aaron. And what’s your current address? Aaron practiced this white lie for weeks, but suddenly he felt a lump in his throat. He couldn’t remember if it 3352 or 2353 or 3225? 3523 Longcourt Circle. He took in a deep breath. Ok. I could have sworn you were one of those Roosevelt kids. She looked down at his transcript. Calvary, huh? She handed him the campus map, then the class schedule, then told him to wait again. Aaron looked at his watch. It was five past eight. He needed to be at homeroom by 8:15 according to his class schedule. Aaron looked at the map, trying to find the room, but everything was abbreviated and in tiny font. Can you tell me where my first class is? Ms. Smith stood at the file cabinet. What, they didn’t teach you how to read at that fancy school of yours? Aaron’s eyes widened. Yes, ma’am. It’s just the font is so tiny and…She walked back in front of him. If I can read the font, at my age, so can you. We don’t like slackers here. Aaron was perplexed. He’d just asked a simple question. You can’t be lazy here. Stand on the X. There was a yellow X made of tape stuck to the ground on the left side of the desk. Aaron stood in front of the tiny camera and Ms. Smith said Smile, so he did. It’ll take a few minutes to print. Have a seat. Aaron looked back at his watch. It was 8:11. My class starts in four minutes. She sat at her desk and opened her book as the printer made a loud juddering noise. You should’ve gotten here earlier then. Aaron wondered how that would have been possible. I came in as soon as the bell rang and came straight here. I thought I’d have enough time. She walked over to the printer and pulled out a paper with Aaron’s face on it. Well, now you know. No slacking here. Not like your old town. The way she said your old town made Aaron cringe.
Aaron felt discouraged walking to his first class over ten minutes late. He felt bad that his first day at his new school wasn’t off to a good start. He tried to remain positive. When he got to 1st period History, his teacher scolded at him for being late and said This isn’t Roosevelt. We don’t accept tardiness here. Aaron was starting to hate any and all things related to Roosevelt.
At 2nd period Biology, he got to class five minutes early and tried to sit down, but his teacher said: You’re early. Wait in the hall like the rest of the students. So Aaron walked back outside and waited by the door until the bell rang. When class was about to start, he reached to open the same door, but it was locked. When he tried to get back in, the door was locked. He had accidentally walked out the back door. He walked around to the front door and walked in and the teacher said, You’re late and handed Aaron a demerit slip to fill out. Aaron tried to plead his case with the teacher, explaining his newness, but the teacher had no sympathy.
3rd period English went okay, but every time Aaron raised his hand to answer a question about Shakespeare, or Golding, or Homer, the teacher called on other students. English was one of his favorite subjects, so Aaron was sad when the teacher didn’t even welcome him to class. She just read roll call and made little tallies in her notebook like the other teachers. Maybe because Aaron saw this practice displayed on TV shows and maybe because he’d never been to a new school before, he had certain expectations about first days. He’d seen it on The Simpsons, when Lisa’s rival came to Springfield Elementary. Even apathetic Ms. Hoover said Everyone please welcome, Allison! Doug Funnie, Rory Gilmore, Connie Souphanousinphone. Even Cousin Oliver got a welcome on the Brady Bunch. Aaron wondered why this didn’t apply to him. At this point, he was determined to just get the day over with.
Next up, lunch. Aaron turned his campus map upside down, right side up, and attempted to read the abbreviations. Finally, he found a large rectangle labeled CAF. He stared down at the map and squeezed through the crowd of students. As he turned left to enter the staircase, Aaron accidentally stepped on a boy’s sneakers. Aaron yanked his foot back. The boy looked down at his now scuffed shoe. Aaron was about to apologize when the boy gave him a nasty smile, his face reddening by the second. Watch it, Nigger. Aaron’s eyes widened. Excuse me? But I’m not… He looked at the boy. The room was still. Everyone’s eyes were on Aaron. The first time he’d been given any real attention all day. You heard what I said. The boy shoved his shoulder into Aaron’s arm as he walked away. Aaron fell backwards onto the ground. The crowd disappeared as the lunch bell rang, and the boy ran off with her friends. They laughed and walked down the staircase together. Aaron sat on the floor, cradling his backpack.
As the crowd disappeared, Aaron ran down the stairs to the cafeteria. He looked in the small rectangle window and played Waldo again. He began to cry. Small, stingy tears ran down his face. He turned to leave the cafeteria, when a man yelled out Gotta pass, son? Aaron ran into the bathroom across the hall.
He turned the faucet on, water ripping through the steel piping. He turned the nozzle until it wouldn’t turn anymore. He put his hands under the water, cupping his fingers together and smashing his face into the puddles in his palms. The water soothed his heated face. He kept doing it. Over and over again. He grabbed some soap with his left hand and let the water flow over it. Bubbles emerged and Aaron threw the bubbles at his face, his eyes pierced by small bit of soap. He clenched his eyes tight and reached for the paper towels. He pushed the lever down hard and grabbed the paper with his hand. He let the paper soak up his tears, the soap, the water. He wiped his face dry and looked down into the sink, breathing heavily. There were brown flakes of paint everywhere. Had he not cleaned his arms close enough this morning? He stuck his index finger out and felt the paint. But it didn’t feel like acrylic. He looked up into the mirror and noticed his face.
Tiny parts of his face were missing. His brown skin had peeled off with the wash. His face was now almost completely white. Not white like ivory or eggshell, but white like the faces he’d been surrounded by all day. He raised his hands, peeling from behind his ears. His skin fell off, layer by layer, like cheap paint. He scratched and peeled and wiped away his brown skin until it was no more. His body felt warm. His tears stung. His breath slowed to a normal pace. Aaron looked at his reflection. It looked just like him, if he had been born white. His hands were nearly white too, from the soap and water. He grabbed some paper towels and wiped away at his arms.
Aaron grabbed his backpack from the floor, his eyes still painfully stinging. He glanced one more time at the mirror and walked out. The old man who’d called him from down the hall earlier was standing in front of the cafeteria. Sorry, I don’t have a hall pass. I needed to use the restroom before lunch. The man looked at Aaron and smiled. That’s no problem, son. Go right ahead. It’s pizza day! Aaron smiled at the old man and walked through the cafeteria doors.
He got in line and grabbed his tray. He looked down at the options of corn, green beans, pizza, and puddings of different varieties. He grabbed a slice of cheese pizza and chocolate pudding. A girl behind him said, Hi there! Aaron looked down in fear. She wore cuffed boots, fishnet tights, a pink miniskirt, and a Mellon Collie and Infinite Sadness t-shirt. This was no Christian schoolgirl. Aaron looked around, thinking this must be some sort of a prank, but no one was looking on.
She smiled. Are you new here? I haven’t seen you around. Aaron smiled back. Yes. He thought for sure the day could only get more difficult, but then it got so much easier. The girl insisted that she buy his first meal as a ‘Proper Stephen F. Austin Welcome’. She walked away and waved back, each of her fingers flirting as they wiggled toward him. He waved back and saw his white fingers wiggle too.
When Aaron left the lunch line, worried where he’d sit, he was waved over by the Art Club president. He sat with the art kids and discussed different mediums of acrylics versus oils versus watercolors. Aaron insisted watercolor was the most difficult.
Then when he got to art class, Mrs. Johnson introduced him to the class. Class, let’s all give Aaron a big Stephen F. Austin Welcome. Aaron waved at all his new friends. He even got to choose his brushes first. He let his thumb ride over the bristles of horsehair. During class, he drew an outline of his left hand and looked at the whiteness of the sheet behind the thick black lines.
In 5th period Algebra, he was also welcomed to the class and given first dibs on the used textbooks. He chose the one that looked least like it was desperately falling to pieces. In 6th period Health, the jocks at the back of the class looked at him as he walked in. They said Hey, new kid. As soon as Aaron scanned the room for his sneaker nemesis and didn’t find him, he said Yes? They laughed at his surprise and said Sit back here with us, man. So, Aaron grabbed his backpack and sat in the back. We wanted to invite you to the party Friday night. Chad’s parents are going out of town. This is Chad. Chad looked exactly like what you’d imagine a ‘Chad’ would look like: letterman jacket, stupid handsome, blonde spikey hair, and a dopey smile. He’s throwing a rager. You gotta come. Aaron smiled at his newfound camaraderie. Sure, man. I’ll see if I’m free. Stephen’s “don’t be too eager” mentality taught him that trick.
At the end of last period, Aaron stood up to give Chad a cutout piece of notebook paper with his phone number written on it. He ripped the edge of his notebook and looked down at the paper. The numbers were printed in blue ink. When he handed the note to Chad, he caught a glimpse of his hands. Spots of brown were starting to appear on his wrist. Aaron ran out of the room. See you later, guys! He pushed through the crowd of students. He ran down the winding streets to his house. He ran so hard and tried to hold back tears. Why is it coming back? Aaron looked down at his arms as he ran and saw the white disappearing. The brown took over the small of his wrists, the backs of his palms, and his fingers. He knew his face couldn’t be long behind. Aaron ran the whole way home.
And when he got there, he raced upstairs to his room and collapsed onto his bed. He raced his fingers over his hand and turned his hand over. Tiny brown blemishes bleached the tips of his fingers and they fell like liquid to his pillow. He ran his right hand over the back of his left hand, as he lay flat on his back. The feel of skin-on-skin comforted him. Soon, Aaron was fast asleep.
The next morning, when he woke up, Aaron thought this was all one strange dream. A fear dream. A dream to teach him a lesson. His dad knocked on the door. Aaron, breakfast is ready. I let you skip dinner last night, because you were passed out. Must have been an exciting first day. Aaron thought about the word exciting. He sat up in bed. Be right down, Dad. He raised his hands in front of him. They were brown. Not a little brown. Not partially white. All brown. He ran into his bathroom. Tiny specks of reds and blues were leftover from the previous morning. He looked at his reflection in the mirror. His face was brown.
Aaron thought about this maybe dream. And then he thought about the reoccurring dreams where he lost all of his teeth. How he’d race to the bathroom and look in the mirror and gum at his teeth with his tongue. He grabbed a small piece of paper towel and wet it under the faucet. He turned his palm upright and wiped a small line across his wrist. Like paint, his original skin came off. And there was white. Aaron, breakfast is ready. His dad called from below. I wanna hear all about your first day. Aaron thought of his dad. Aaron thought of his new classmates. He turned the nozzle of the faucet up high, first hot water, then cold water. He looked at his wrist and played with the brown paint on the paper towel. It wiggled in between his fingers. He stared into the mirror. He had to choose. The water was everywhere.
Suhasini Yeeda is a writer, visual artist, and an unapologetic addict of cooking competition shows. She is a first generation Indian-American who grew up in Dallas, Texas. She is the Assistant Web Editor/Distributor for No Tokens Journal. She graduated with her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in 2015. Her debut story Dream State was published at the Madcap Review in 2016 and subsequently nominated for the Pushcart Prize XLI.