What makes me so troubled? I mean, in grammar school I was a tough kid. I knew where I stood. Sure, I was a loud mouth and a back talker, but I think a kid knows early on when they are different from the rest of their peers. It’s not like I woke up one morning and said, “Today I am going to be strange and unique.” No, it’s a gradual process. It takes years to be different and to know it. Like I said, I knew when I walked through those doors, those big, scary, intimidating oak doors of the Catholic faith of St. Scholastica that I just needed to do whatever it took to get by. It might have all started in eighth grade when I became obsessed with Duran Duran, and started collecting all their posters. OK, that was the start. All the boys at Bethesda teased me horribly because I wanted to be like John Taylor, the guitar player of the band. So, what if I knew all the words to every single one of their songs? And so what if I didn’t realize it when I was singing them out loud that they were all about girls! It didn’t really bother me that much when the boys called me a homo. It didn’t make me cry.
None of the previous ridicule from the boys at Bethesda prepared me for the girls at St. Scholastica. I had attended Bethesda for eight years. I had grown up there. I had developed intellectually and emotionally there. Maybe not intellectually, but I developed emotionally. Never had I cried from any of the boys’ comments. Never had I felt as self-conscious as I did when I approached those big oak doors, stepping into an all girls’ high school. It scared the crap out of me. Boys are just jerks. Their bantering is an attempt at juvenile seduction. Girls' bantering tries to inflict permanent psychological damage, emotional scaring that can last for years. Girls are mean. Let’s take Vickie, my nemesis from the very first day of school.
Vickie sat there smacking her gum, holding her No. 2 pencil like it was a cigarette, glaring at me as I stood in the doorway looking for my seat. She had taken my seat, and she knew it. She had this smirk on her face, like she was just waiting for me to say something and start a fight. But she knew I was scared to death of her. I had seen her around after school waiting for her boy friend to pick her up. She hung with the other girls who were waiting for their rides, cigarettes hanging from the side of their painted red lips. I always had to walk past them on my way to the El; and for some reason Vickie always had to say some snide remark to me. The other girls ignored me, but not Vickie. She always had to say something rude. It was no different during school. The unfortunate part was that Vickie and I were in every single class together except for Religion and French. Vickie was one of those girls, the girls that really belonged in a juvenile detention center. What did I expect? Of course she’d be in all my remedial classes!
“Gianna what are you waiting for?” Vickie asked, her red index finger nail flicking at her pencil like a cigarette.
“Nothing.” I said, as I hurried to find another seat. Thank-God there was one in the back in the corner. I didn’t want to have to sit in front of Vicki. I made the mistake of doing that in English class, and every time I raised my hand, I heard Vicki say, “Where’s that odor coming from?” I stopped raising my hand.
“Nice socks,” she said, as I passed her on the way back to the room.
I pulled at my knee-highs, another bright idea of my mother’s. She felt that knee-highs were more suitable for the uniform. Well, at least I wasn’t wearing tube socks like some of the other girls in the class. I glanced at the door. Where was Mr. Jacobs? Why did he always have to be ten minutes late to class? I pulled out my math book and my homework assignment that I had quickly done in homeroom. It was easy; it was all a review from 8th grade algebra.
Mai walked in, right before Mr. Jacob. I gave her a smile and waved. She came and sat by me, which for some reason really pissed off Vicki because Vicki said, “Aww, look at the two love birds.”
“Screw-you, Vicki,” Mai said giving her the finger.
Mai didn’t take crap from anybody. I don’t know what it really was, maybe it was because Mai was dark like Vickie and that’s why Mai could get away with mouthing off to her. But I couldn’t. If, I had told Vicki, “to fuck off,” my ass would have been kicked after school. Mai had a presence about her that everyone respected and I was just glad I was her friend.
We met in detention. Like Vicki, she wore red nail polish, but she didn’t walk with Vicki’s crowd. In fact, she didn’t walk with any crowd. She has this melancholy air about her. She spends most of the time in class staring out the window. If Mr. Jacob calls on her, she just looks at him as if she has no clue what he is talking about. It really pisses Mr. Jacob off when she doesn’t give him an answer. He looks at her for a second and then shakes his head as if he can’t believe his bad luck, re-teaching basic algebra to a bunch of morons.
When I first saw Mai’s nails in detention, I got all self-conscious about my own bitten down nails and wanted badly to paint mine so bright. But my mother said that only whores wore red nail polish, young ladies never painted their nails. I didn’t think Mai was a whore, but I couldn’t say that about Vicki—not with the hickies on her neck that she came in with every Monday morning!
Compared to me, Mai was physically different in everyway imaginable way. She has long thick black hair and dark milk-chocolate skin with hazel eyes. No braces on her teeth. In fact her teeth are so white I wonder sometimes if they are real. Mai would never be caught dead in knee highs or un-matching stocks, and when she does speak in class, it is with an air of authority, likes she knows more than anybody else, but doesn’t want to be a show off. Mai is everything that I am not, so of course I attached myself to her.
She is half –Vietnamese, and didn’t know her father. Once, out of the blue, when we were having lunch in the cafeteria, she mentioned that when she was twelve she had found pictures of a black solider in a shoe box in her mother’s closet. She said after that, she never had any more questions about her father. She just figured it out by the photographs that her mother had gotten knocked up and this was how she and her mom had gotten out of South Vietnam. They came to Chicago when Mai was seven, in 1975.
At first it was hard to talk to Mai because we really didn’t have anything in common. She never talked about having a grandmother, or any loud drunkard aunts or uncles, no obnoxious cousins or annoying sister. We came from two different worlds in my mind because I never really ventured across to the other side of Sheridan Avenue; Mai lived in one of the run- down high rises somewhere between Argyle and Sheridan, in uptown. This was a place that I only saw from the back seat car window when driving down Sheridan Ave. to get to Lake Shore Drive which leads down town. In my eyes, Mai was my protector because I wasn’t used to girls like Vicki, who harassed me every chance they got.
But, I soon realized that Mai had troubles of her own. She, too, felt out of place. Once she revealed that she felt she was an outcast among her mother’s family.
“Nobody really accepts me,” Mai said. My mother’s people look down on me because I am half-black.”
It was true her skin was darker than most of the Asians at school.
“You are lucky”, she said flipping through her algebra book. I really don’t fit in anywhere.”
“What do you mean?” I asked
“Oh forget it; I don’t want to talk about it.”
So, I let it go. But I was still curious to know what she meant about not fitting in. I mean, in a way, we were all outcasts at St. Scholastica. We were all a hodge-podge of girls from different neighborhoods around the north side of Chicago—different backgrounds all coming together for a higher-education—but as I was figuring out, we all had our own individual troubles, too.
Mine, at the moment, was Vickie. I was becoming a nervous wreck. Every time I went to use the bathroom, I was so scared of seeing Vicki alone that I was having a hard time peeing. I had to force myself to pee. I had to close my eyes and imagine that I was somewhere else. Only then could I pee. But, then I would hear her voice and I would stop myself from peeing.
When I came out of the stall, she’d be there. At first she didn’t say anything, and then the sarcastic comments started. “Nice back-pack” or “love the hair,” or she would get real personal and say, “Did you enjoy yourself in there?”
My face would turn red and I would say something stupid like, “well, sticks and stones will break my bones and words will never hurt me…”
Vicki would just look at me, and laugh and say “What? Are we in 4th grade now?” And I would wish I was because if I was in 4th grade Ms. Bennet would have been in the bathroom and would have told Vickie to move on. But, I wasn’t in 4th grade I was in high school and I had to learn to stand up for myself. So, I thought next time when Vickie says something obnoxious I am going to say something witty and remarkable, but that never happened because for some reason whenever I saw that little Mexican I became a babbling idiot and nothing ever made sense that came out of my mouth.
And during class, I was always worried about being late, and having to sit in the front row. Whenever I sat in the front row, Vicki would either throw spitballs at the back of my head or flick already chewed gum at me. I would run to class just so I could make sure to get a seat in the back row. I was always being stopped by one of the hall monitors for running, and then I would do this fast walk like you do when you have to go to the bathroom in a hurry.
But, most times, Vickie wound up sitting next to me because our remedial classes were not very large. When I told my mother about Vicki, she suggested I ignore her.
Yeah, that’s what I have been doing, and it not getting me anywhere, because when I do Vicki would be like, “Are you ignoring me?”
And I was like, “yeah,” and she would then tell me she was going to kick my ass after school, which made me so paranoid that throughout the whole day of school I couldn’t concentrate on anything but what was going to happened to me after school.
Nothing ever happened after school except for the idle threats and rude comments, but one day Vickie started taking the “El” home instead of waiting for her boyfriend to pick her up. Mai told me that Vicki had broken up with her boyfriend and that she lived down on Clark St near Addison. And then I thought why was she even attending St. Scholastica? I mean she wasn’t even from West Roger Park. Why wasn’t she attending St. Benedicts? That was more in her neighborhood. Vicki ignored me for the most part because I was with Mai, and then we got off at the Loyola stop while Vickie continued on the El.
Mai would hang out with me for a while at the restaurant, helping me fold napkins and set tables. We’ve been friends for over a month now and she had never invited me over to her apartment. And it really bugged me that she didn’t invite me over, so one day, as she is helping me fold napkins and set the tables, I asked her why she has never invited me over.
“I don’t know, my place is boring.”
That just didn’t make sense to me. I felt that Mai was hiding something, but something made me stop asking her. So, we sat their in silence folding napkins, my feelings being hurt because I really felt that she was embarrassed of me for being white and that was the real reason why she didn’t invite me over to her apartment.
After awhile, Mai would leave and I was left alone to deal with my Aunt, who at this point of the day was usually drunk. Connie liked to take ‘a nip’ of the cooking sherry as my Nanna liked to say, but it wasn’t just a nip, most time it was a full bottle. I tried to keep my distance because if I got in her way, the screaming would start, and sometimes the throwing of silverware.
And then one morning I found myself alone on the El with Vicki. For the last months I had never seen her in the morning and there she was sitting right there when the train doors open, as if she knew she would be the first image I saw as I stepped on the train.
I could feel all the blood drain from my face. My heart was pounding so hard I was sure I was going to collapse from a heart attack.
“Good morning, Gianna,” Vicki said in a fake sweet voice.
I ignored her and went to sit as far away from her, but she followed me and sat right next to me. I was sweating so bad that I could smell my own body odor.
Where was Mai? I thought as Vicki’s shoulder pressed up against mine. I moved closer to the windowpane. Mai was always on the 7:30 train!
“So you got anything to say to me? Your little friend ain’t here to protect you this morning.” Still I didn’t say anything. I felt the tears start to roll down my cheeks.
“Aww, are you crying? Poor baby.”
“Leave her alone,” I heard a voice say from the back of the train. I didn’t bother to turn around to see who it was talking.
“Screw -off,” Vickie said to the stranger. I just sat there staring straight ahead, holding my breath until Howard Street, which wasn’t that long considering it was the next stop.
As soon as the doors opened, I leaped up out of the train and ran all the way to school. The whole rest of the day, Vicki just pointed and giggled at me. When I got to algebra class, Mai asked me what was wrong. I told her what had happened and she said that she had missed the 7:30 train because she had over slept. I sat there trying to muffle my tears. Mai tried to console me by saying that Vickie was taking out her bad mood on me because her boyfriend had dumped her.
“How do you know?” I asked between gasps of air. I was really wound up. Vickie really scared the shit out of me. I hated her more and more for making me feel so weak.
“I overheard her telling some girl in the bathroom that her good-for-nothing boyfriend had told her that if she did not start giving out that he was going to dump her.”
“Really? I thought she had already by the way she acted, plus she wears such bright red nail polish.”
Mai was quiet for a second. “Do you think that about me?”
“No, no, you are different.” I could feel my face turning red, I was so embarrassed.
Mai didn’t say anything as she went back to doing her homework.
That afternoon, Mai didn’t eat lunch with me. I sat alone in the cafeteria wondering why I don’t think before I speak, and why Mia had to be so mysterious about everything—like she is hiding something. Maybe she is—big deal! Why couldn’t she just say what was on her mind? I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings. I was just mad at Vickie for freaking me out.
After School, I told my mother about the daily harassments from Vickie. How I was having a hard time peeing at school, and was unable to raise my hand in fear of hearing a snide comment from her, All my mother said was “Hopefully, this Vicki girl will inspire you to get your grades up, so you won’t have to deal with her next year. And maybe you should wear more deodorant.
I then told her about Mai.
It’s odd; sometimes my mother can really be motherly. I mean, I know my mother wants me to be a better person, and sending me to an all girl’s high-school is for my own good, but I never really think of my mother as anything else than being my mother. So I told her about Mai and how she becomes silent whenever I ask her about her family. For the first time really, my mother spoke to me, or maybe for the first time I was listening. I don’t know but we were sitting at the kitchen table and she said, “Gianna, Mai is going to have a harder time than most kids.”
“But, why?” I asked.
“The Vietnam War was a big deal and a lot of people still have hidden prejudices against the Vietnamese.”
‘Well, it is mostly guilt—guilt for causing so many unneeded deaths-guilt for leaving without doing anything but causing more harm then good. It was a horrible time for everyone involved,” she said, and then she went back to being mother again and said, “Don’t they teach you anything at that school? For God sakes read a book about the Vietnam War, instead of watching the crap you watch on TV.” I looked at her, not saying a word. I guess it was a sore spot and I was going to have to find out on my own what the big deal was all about.