As much as Shoma hated PM kindergarten, a few things delighted her: the size of the classroom, and the flood of sunlight from the windows along the length of the room, and a curved cloakroom hidden behind a sliding wall which doubled as a large blackboard. In the cloakroom, the pupils hung their jackets and bags on hooks, and Shoma imagined the jackets and bags and umbrellas, when it was raining, carrying on with each other in the shadow of the blackboard, talking and playing and having their own school.
Shoma liked to animate things. Ever since she knew there were namesShe was an imaginative and also talkative child until she started PM kindergarten. for objects she anthropomorphized them. She was an imaginative and also talkative child until she started PM kindergarten. When she was three, her mother lost her many times between Dum Dum and Kennedy Airport. One of those incidents was on a 747, after Shoma had wandered into the first class cabin. She was always found perfectly intact, engaged in conversation with some stranger just beyond her mother’s vision.
Other delights. The pink cheeks of the white children, which was everyone except Shoma and her teacher, Mrs. Wilson, who was white but not a child; her old ashy skin had a silver hue. Also, on occasion, a child had a birthday and brought little cakes for everyone. Shoma liked to eat the little cakes with her little carton of milk, until one day she ate too slowly and was answered in the negative after using one of the few English phrases she could articulate intelligbly. “May I use restroom?”
“The restroom,” Mrs. Wilson corrected before issuing her denial. Shoma finished her cake and milk, still sitting at the tables after the other children were already sitting on the floor in front of the piano for sing along. By the time she joined them her bladder was uncomfortably full. In the middle of “Grand Old Flag” she felt the release of hot liquid between her legs, and she and her neighbors scurried away as it pooled and ran along the tile like transparent earthworms. The commotion brought the music to a halt.
Mrs. Wilson hated to be pulled away from her piano, and this child, she hated to say, she thought this child was some kind of retard. Perhaps her rage was out of proportion but she flew off her piano stool, dragged Shoma She loved his cheeks even if they weren’t pink. They reminded her of the little birthday cake she had just eaten.to the door by her elbow, spanked her several times on her bottom, and threw her out of the classroom. Shoma sat in the hall crying until the young teacher from across the way invited her in, but only if she stopped crying. Shoma composed herself, realizing this was Thomas’s teacher and that was Thomas’s classroom. Thomas was a Chinese boy she loved. She loved his cheeks even if they weren’t pink. They reminded her of the little birthday cake she had just eaten. She wanted so much to dimple the spongy parts of his face with her fingers. One day she would also marvel at a fact that escaped her awareness for a long time — their names had five letters in common, an identical core!
She went into his classroom and played with him in the block area until Mrs. Wilson could have her back, and while other children told Shoma she smelled like pee, Thomas played by her side without comment. His English was as limited as hers, but even if he knew the words he wouldn’t have insulted her in that way.
When Mrs. Wilson appeared, looming over them, Shoma patted Thomas’s head and left him. She knew they would be reunited on the bus, but had no sense of how much time would have to pass before that moment. It wasn’t long at all. PM kindergarten was nearly over.
Thomas always saved her a seat in the front of the bus, near the driver. Perhaps he held onto some hope that one day, the bus driver would notice, just beyond his shoulder, the big boys standing in the aisle They held hands tightly until the bus came to a stop and the boys got off.even as the bus was moving. They were third grade boys, two or three of them looking monstrous with their big teeth and stringy bangs. When they felt like it, a few times a week, they leaned over Thomas and Shoma, calling one a nigger and the other a chink, their heads shaking back and forth until they stumbled over laughing. Every time it happened Thomas and Shoma scrunched their noses and shrugged at each other. They held hands tightly until the bus came to a stop and the boys got off. Then they could relax, relieved by their alone-ness. They could get off at their own stop and say goodbye to each other, confident that they would do it all again the next day.
But summer came. No more PM kindergarten, and soon Thomas’s belongings were packed in a big truck. Shoma stood outside his house with her mother, watching as Thomas’s father loaded his family into the car, and pulled off to follow the truck to some place from which they had no plans to return. Thomas looked out the back window and waved goodbye until all she could see was a flurry of hand. Shoma called pathetically after him. When the car turned the corner, her mother picked her up and carried her back home. The year was 1975. Shoma would endure this town for another five years, and for all those years and many more after, she would not have another friend like him.
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Chaitali Sen holds an MFA from Hunter College and currently teaches elementary school in Austin, Texas. Her short stories have been published by New England Review, Colorado Review, Juked, The Asian Pacific American Journal, Kartika Review, India Currents, and others, and is forthcoming from Five Chapters. “Dreamers” is the opening of a novel in progress about an Indian American girl’s coming of age.