Sunita slammed her locker shut. She was going to be late to Social Studies but she desperately needed some time alone. Liz would save her a seat. Bathroom stalls were the only private places in the entire junior high school. She needed some toilet tissue desperately, to blow her nose.
When Ingrid Bergman cried, tears glistened glamorously in her eyes. Streams of water certainly never came gushing out of her nose. Sunita had discovered the movie Casablanca a few weeks ago. She loved the black-and-black World War II setting, Bergman's exotic European accent, and of course, Bogart, sitting gloomily in some dark, smoky corner.
In the girls' room, LeAnn Schaeffer and Jeannie Adams were laughing together in front of the mirror. Jeannie was putting on lipstick and LeAnn had her purse-sized bottle of styling mousse in one hand and a hairbrush in the other. They stopped giggling when Sunita came in.
“Hi, Sunni,” said Jeannie, after an awkward pause.
“Hi,” mumbled Sunita as she hurried past them.
LeAnn gave her blond bangs one last brush. “Come on, Jeannie. We shouldn't be too late.”
Just late enough to make an entrance, thought Sunita, leaning against the door of the stall to keep it closed. Of all the people to see. LeAnn Schaeffer. Michael's new girlfriend. The thought hurt even though she knew it wasn't true ... yet.
Michael Morrison was whole reason why she was in this stinky stall anyway. And late for class on the second day of school. Michael had walked by her in the hall again without saying a word -- he'd deliberately looked away. They hadn't talked in a week. And somehow LeAnn had managed to attach herself to him, pulling him into her intimate circle of the most popular kids in the eighth grade.
Sunita's first romance, foiled by the arrival of an airplane from a distant shore. She cheered up a little. Bergman and Bogart's romantic good-bye in Casablanca had also been plane-related.
She stuffed yards of toilet paper into her purse in case her nose betrayed her in the middle of class. A long, private cry in her own room was in order, she decided. And then she remembered that she didn't have her own room anymore. THEY had taken it. The Wright brothers should never have invented the airplane. They should have foreseen the untold damage it would cause in the future. Especially in the thwarted life of Sunita Sen.
On her way out, she gave the mirror her best attempt at a seductive but innocent look. In every scene of Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman's face left men entranced with its' beauty. Sunita sighed in disappointment. A round, basically cheerful face was just not designed to allure. Even in the throes of heartbreak, it looked like it had been tailor-made to fit the name her first-grade teacher had given her -- “Sunny” or “Sunni.” Of course the name had stuck.
And there was just nothing particularly entrancing about the rest of her. Medium weight. Medium height. Brown eyes, dark skin, shoulder-length straight black hair. If only she could wear a little lipstick. But Dad said thirteen was way too young for makeup. Even though every other girl in the eighth grade wore makeup. Oops. Almost every other girl. She'd forgotten about Liz.
Liz had been Sunita's best friend since the first grade. But lately she had become another item on Sunita's list of top-ten worries. Liz always had her nose in a book. She actually enjoyed school work and didn't care if people knew it. And she still thought of boys as her buddies -- when she thought about them at all. Romance and Liz were like a pair of mismatched socks. Absolutely useless together.
Liz's confidence had carried her through seventh grade without much damage. But Sunita had vowed to do something this year. If her secret campaign -- “The Elizabeth Grayson Wonder Makeover Plan” -- didn't succeed, she and Liz might have to join the infamous group of Strange Kids and Social Rejects who spent their lunch hour watching old Star Trek videos in the library.
She peeked in through the pane of glass on the door. She hated to walk in late and have everybody look up and stare at her. The class was divided into currents events groups, discussing articles Mr. Riley had clipped out from the Chronicle. Liz was deep in a heated discussion with Kevin Chang. Her curly red hair was tousled and her glasses askew as she waved the article in the air to make a point. Sunita slipped into the seat beside her friend.
You'd think Liz would take advantage of a sister like Traci, she thought. Liz's sister Traci was ... dazzling. A mane of blonde hair cascading down her back. Clothes right out of Cosmopolitan magazine. A gang of swarthy guys lurking around the Grayson's house, trying to catch a glimpse of her.
“I like to live on the edge of danger,” she'd told Sunita once.
If only Sunita had a sister like that -- someone who would have worn Mom and Dad down a bit. Instead, she had Sangita, or Geetie, as everyone called her. Who put even more obstacles in her path. This past summer, Geetie had been furious at Sunita for shaving her legs. She'd delivered one of her famous feminist speeches when she'd found the razor.
Geetie was eighteen and in her first year of college at Berkeley. She wore her hair long and parted in the middle with no bangs. Her typical outfit was a Peruvian Alpaca sweater over jeans. Two or three Indian scarves draped around her neck. African earrings. And Mexican huarache sandals. No traditional “dates” for Geetie -- just political discussions or poetry readings over coffee in one of Berkeley's dark coffeehouses. And makeup was a symbol of male dominance -- as well as a waste of natural resources. She'd probably spend her life uniting all the tribal women in the world in one great big recycling project or something.
Suddenly, Sunita realized that Mr. Riley was standing in front of her desk. “Sunita Sen, right?” he asked.
Sunita nodded and took the colored tacks he handed her. She could already tell Mr. Riley was going to be a deadly consciousness-raising type of teacher. Yesterday, he'd pinned a National Geographic map of the world on the bulletin board. Each kid had been asked to find out where they had “roots.” And now he was handing out colored tacks. Not a good sign, thought Sunita, watching as he rolled up his sleeves, sat on his desk, and clapped his hands to get their attention. Not a good sign at all.
“Take your tacks and stick them on the map over your places of ancestry,” he announced, when the class quieted down.
As one friend after another put their tacks on the map, Europe got more and more crowded and Sunita felt more and more apprehensive.
Then Ilana Taylor's turn came. Ilana was black, tall and slender. At thirteen, she'd already started modeling in local fashion shows. Her pin went proudly into Angola, in the southern part of Africa.
“We don't really know where we come from originally,” she said. “But my dad thinks his great-grandfather must have been born somewhere near Angola. Before he lived in Alabama, that is.”
She shoved her other tack into the southern United States and strode gracefully back to her seat.
The class shifted uncomfortably. Nobody said anything. The kid who was next put his tacks into Germany and England with a guilty look on his face.
Kevin Chang, who'd been in Sunita's class since the second grade, went next and stuck his lone tack in the huge country of China.
“That's me. One-hundred percent pure-bred,” he announced to the class. “You guys are just a bunch of mutts.”
The class snickered nervously.
Sunita's turn came and she, too, put only one tack in the map -- right into Calcutta, India. Her eyes swept over the distance between India and Poland, where John Rostowski had put the pin nearest to hers. Even Kevin's pin seemed far away, high up in the northernmost province of China.
Finally, Mr. Riley stuck his own tacks into Ireland and England.
“Together, Sunita's, Ilana's, and Kevin's tacks represent two-thirds of the world's population,” he told the class. “Despite what we see in our neighborhood, most of the real world does not have black skin and European roots.”
As Mr. Riley went on and on, Sunita stared down at her desk. He would have to single me out on the first week of school, she thought. She would have given anything if Michael would turn in his chair and smile his crinkly grin at her. He would have if their friendship hadn't come crashing to an end. And she knew exactly when it had crashed. She could pinpoint the time to the minute.
It was when her grandparents had arrived from India one week ago. Only one week. But it seemed like forever to Sunita. She'd never forget it. It had been like a scene from a bad movie.
The whole family -- Sunita, her parents, Geetie, and Bobby, who'd driven to the airport from Stanford University -- watching and waving from behind the glass overlooking the international arrivals and customs area. Grandfather, wearing a traditional black dhoti -- a long piece of cotton cloth wrapped around his waist and legs. Grandmother, clutching her husband with one hand and a bag of mangoes with the other. Mangoes were her son-in-law's favorite fruit. The customs officer, patiently and then not-so-patiently explaining why she couldn't bring fresh fruit from another country into America.
Finally, they'd come out. And sometime during all the tears and embracing, Mom had stopped being HER Mother and had changed into being THEIR daughter right in front of Sunita's eyes.
“Sunni. Sunni! What do you think about the issue?” Liz interrupted Sunita's train of thought with a warning look. They were supposed to be back in their discussion groups and Mr. Riley had come over to watch their group. He expected all of them to participate, and said he would grade them accordingly. Sunita rallied, but could only come up with a fairly standard I-was-too-paying attention decoy response.
“Well, I agree with you, Liz, on your last point,” she said, leaning forward in her chair. “But maybe Kevin should explain his point of view one more time so that we all understand it better.”
A feeble but valiant try. It could be early enough in the year to fool Mr. Riley, but somehow Sunita didn't think so. She could swear he stifled a smile as he left to spy on another group.