Even the air smells different in Ohio.
Especially the air smells different in Ohio.
You realize this as you wait for the bus, the first bus you have ever waited for in your whole life. True, there were buses you have ridden in the past, but it wasn’t the same. You didn’t wait for them at the end of a long stone drive to a farmhouse where you were forced to move. You never waited for a bus to begin your new life.
Back in Missouri, there was that trip to the zoo when you were in the second grade. Most of the elementary went to that one—your favorites were the reptiles. Six buses, seven buses, at least two hundred third graders in downtown St. Louis. You knew everyone, if not by name then at least by face. Brown faces, black faces, yellows, and reds, surging through a crowd of whites like water over rocks.
“What are you?” someone had said that day. He was Japanese with straight black hair.
“Juneau?” He looked at you curiously.
“Honolulu!” cried another boy. Third graders memorized the capitals in school.
“Thank you. That was be·nev·o·lent,” said the Japanese boy.
“Or,” said the other one, “was it gen·er·ous?”
Flush from a spelling bee, you all laughed as you entered the zoo.
So, you guess you’ve been on three buses that you can remember, all of them clean and comfortable, not boy-smelling, like this one will be, with dirty socks and jock straps, with creased leather seats that will stick to your skin in the summertime; with windows that won’t close in the winter; with drivers, stinking of cigarettes, who will yell at the kids when they’re being bad, when they won’t sit down in the seats, and who will pull the bus over when they start to throw things. Maybe that’s what this one is doing now. The bus skids in front of you. The bus driver stands. She’s facing herself toward the back now, and she points her hands in front of her. Curly hair with fuchsia and mauve sprinkles down her shoulders.
This is your mother’s home, a home you used to visit in the summertime. Your dad lost his job in St. Louis and now you’re here for good. Ohio. Farm-stink Ohio. Ohio with its cornfields, its pollen that makes you sneeze in the summertime. Ohio with its guns and trucks and deer antlers stuck up on the backs of those trucks. Ohio with its feed stations and weigh stations, with its combines and tractors. Ohio in the summer, rank with scent of manure.
A gossamer curtain is drawn tight over the window. Your mother sat with you at breakfast that morning, not talking, drinking coffee. You ate your raisin bran. You drank your orange juice. It could have been a day in St. Louis. The sun was just starting to peek, and you could’ve been meeting your friends outside. They’d be meeting now, walking the mile or so to school that once seemed so long but which you came to know as much as you knew your own house, maybe more so. There’d be chatter between the three of them. Maybe they’d wonder what you were doing now. Maybe they’d be worried about the first day of school. Fifth grade, in the bigger building, the sixth graders lording over them like wardens in a prison. No more recess. School lunches longer, in an auditorium where the tables get packed away for assembly. But you are not with them. You are here.
The driver turns to you now with a cool, even gaze. She’s almost forgotten you were there, if she ever knew at all. And when you look at her, staring up to where she stands on the raised rubber platform, your two faces are framed in the door. There you are, brown and slender, your thick hair cropped close to your ears. And there she is, squat and meaty, a broad white face looking down at you with skin made wrinkly by the sun. Her hair is lighter than what you’d guessed outside, and her mouth is closed.
The door rearing open makes a sound like a moan. Rubber lining tears. You risk a look behind you. The gossamer curtain is drawn. “Well?” she says, her voice a cricket.
“Is this the bus to school?” your own voice barely a whisper. You see the faces in the windows now. They pop up from behind the glass like gofers in a Whac-a-mole. Soon the whole bus is staring, the faces so white and the dark bus behind them like the inside of a haunted house. You imagine looped recordings of organ music, you imagine spilled candy and caramel corn. The bus driver glances behind herself. She smirks, so you say it louder: “Is this the bus to school?”
Years later, at a job interview, you will recall this very scene. The air, how cold it was, and the way it smelled to you, like smoke wafting from a distant fire. You will see the bus driver’s face on the secretary in front of you. “Well?” she will say, and you’ll ask her, “Is this the right office?” your voice croaking from a throat that is suddenly tight. And as she responds, her hair, spray-dyed and curly, just as the bus driver’s was, with that tint of mahogany and purple, will slide down her shoulders so that when she brushes it aside, glancing backward as she does so, a reflex more than anything, you will feel your knees start to quaver and your heart start to throb. “Right this way,” the secretary will say, but you will be gone before she stands up from her desk.
Faces in the office will stare at you as you go.
But that day on the bus, there is nowhere to go. Your mother, watching you from inside, wears a nightgown over a pale, doughy body. In the summertime, her legs, like eggshell columns, grow red where yours turn dark, and that morning she picked at a scab on your neck, her fingernails scratching your skin. You’d been outside too much, she was saying. You force yourself not to look behind now.
As you forced yourself not to call to your father. You had heard him stumbling about that morning, making coffee and packing a lunch that he’d not have time for later, and just as your alarm was ringing and you washed the fogginess from your face, his car pulled out of the drive, the taillights yet visible as you ran to the window to watch. You saw his face, chalky from the time he spends inside, up before dawn, back after dusk. You put a hand to the glass as he drove away.
“How did that make you feel?” your therapist will say, twenty years later in an office cramped with books. Your therapist will be younger than you, you’ll think, and you will also think he is gay. You’ll be glad he is gay. A white man with no anomalies couldn’t possibly understand you.
“Bad,” you will say. You won’t be particularly talkative that day, and the textbook questions he will ask will seem superfluous and droll. You will have caught him yawning once, trying to hide it through a closed mouth, his eyes fluttering to the clock on his desk. You will want to say something—but of course you won’t.
Just as you don’t say anything now when the bus driver looks at you. “Coming or going?” she finally says. “I don’t have all day.” So you walk up the stairs instead, three big stairs lined with thick grooves of rubber. She reeks worse than cigarettes. It’s like a house fire is caught in her blouse. The bus rumbles as you stand there. The gossamer curtain swishes.
In the classroom now, four desks to a quad. You are at the back, watching the kids come in. Nametags on all the desks, and you’re wondering who’ll be with you. A girl walks in wearing a Mickey Mouse print. Another with holey jeans rolled tight at the cuffs. A boy is soon behind them in an underwear shirt. He has shorts that hang loose and ragged, with pockets sown up with string. These are not the clothes you’re used to, these are not the clothes you wear. Spiffy khakis and pleated pants. Shoes that you can shine and starched shirts ironed straight. Suddenly one of them sees you. Is he James or Matthew, two of the nametags in front of you? Are the girls Amy or Sarah, the nametags on your right? Something surprises them. They start whispering. A tall boy walks in with hair down to his neck. “What?” his eyes seem to say, and the three of them point to you. If you were in St. Louis, you’d look behind you now. You’d know the kids who’d be talking, and you’d want to be in on the joke. But you know here that they are looking at you. Because you are not from here, because you are not like them.
It was like that on the bus not ten minutes before. Ten minutes the preview of the rest of your life.
Last night, your parents had argued when they’d thought you’d gone to bed. “He’s got to learn,” you heard your mother saying. “If not now then when.”
“It’s the first day,” your father replied. “I don’t see what the harm in—”
“It’s the second day. He already missed the first day."
“He wasn’t feeling well. Anyway, I don’t see what the harm in driving him—”
“We’re not doing that,” she said flatly, and you could almost hear her crossing her arms, in that way that she did when the argument was over, in the voice that she used with only you and your father, a voice that withered in other arenas, a voice that shrank when others were bold, but here, in this house, in your grandma’s house where you were forced to move, it was strong. As it was back in St. Louis when the doors were closed and it was just you three.
Your father trudged up the stairs, then, his shoulders sagging from work, tired of the fighting with her, tired of the trying. You ran to your room. You closed the door. You clicked your lamp off and you turned on your side. Then the door opened and there he was, his shadow splintering from the hall light behind. Stewed carrots and brisket came wafting through the door, the smell of the dinner your mother kept warm, complaining all the while that he was at work. “Your father works too much,” she had muttered. This after complaining all summer that he hadn’t found a job. That after complaining that he’d lost his in St. Louis.
“How did that make you feel?” Your therapist again, in that cramped corner office.
“Bad,” you will say.
“Bad,” he will say.
But not as bad as that first day at school, sitting there at your desk while the other kids stare at you. And not as bad as that first day on the bus, walking down the aisle, the bus rattling below your feet, not one person moving as you made your way backward, pausing at a seat to see a face turn benignly away. You paused at another, and that one shook its head. Another said no. A fourth said to keep on moving. Until you were at the back, thirty seats and only half of them full, nobody caring, nobody kind. Those steps you’ll remember, your legs unfamiliar. Buckling as they would at that interview years later. “Find a seat, goddamnit!” the bus driver yelled.
“Take your seats, kids,” the teacher commands, most of them in the room now, all of them clustered up front. A whole sea of desks, and not one of them full. Save yours.
You see James and Matthew exchange a look. James is wide. He has buzz-cut hair. Matthew is tall with blond hair left long at the back. The brunette is Sarah. Amy sits across from her. You stare at your desk. You know they are staring at you.
James writes something on a piece of paper and passes it to Matthew. Matthew reads it, looks up at you then passes it to Sarah, who passes it to Amy who passes it to the boy beside her and then to the girl in front of him until one by one the entire class has read it, save you, each looking up, scanning the room until they see you, and then passing it on to the next.
“Okay class,” says the teacher. She is broad-shouldered, smelling sooty, even from where you’re sitting. “We’ll start with state capitols.” She eyes you. “Ah, yes. Seems we have a new student. You were supposed to come yesterday, yessss?” She draws out that last syllable. You’re not sure you like reptiles anymore. “Well?” she says when you don’t answer, eyes from the other faces worse than your mother’s nails. “At least stand up. Tell us your name, where you’re from.”
You don’t move.
“Stand,” she says. “Come on.”
Then, looking out over the kids, most of them a full head shorter than you even when you’re standing, you say, “St. Louis,” a term as foreign to them as be·nev·o·lence or gen·er·os·i·ty.
“No, no,” says the teacher, impatient now, giving you a cool, even glare as the bus driver had before. “Before,” she says. “Where did you come from before?”
But there was no before. There was St. Louis, then there was here. The faces are staring at you, some curious, many mocking, a few in outright disdain. She means Hawai’i, you realize. So you say it: “Hawai’i.”
The whole room laughs. Your face, brown, unable to blush, feels a redness that seems to splinter from your chest.
A kid at the front drops a paper on the floor. The teacher seizes on it, holds it up to the class. “A note?” she says. “Is someone passing notes?” The paper is folded, she pushes it back at the student. “Will you kindly read it?” she says. “Aloud.” Silence now, not a single student breathing. “READ!”
The kid unfolds the paper. Looks back at James, looks back at Matthew.
“READ!” the teacher commands.
He is nervous. The faces watch him. Matthew cracks a smile. So does James. So does the kid eventually, and he holds the paper up. A single word, scrawled across it so that even you can see. “Nigger!” he proclaims, the whole class exploding again.
“It means black,” says your mother when you tell her about it at home. A cast-iron pot is scorched on the side. She scours it with a sponge. “Told your father we needed new pans,” she says. “And now look.” She holds it up to you. “Never supposed to wash cast iron.”
“It means black?”
She shoves the pot down in the water. “Oh for the love,” she says, looking back at you. A cool, even gaze. “They thought you were black.”
“But I’m not.” You think of your friends back home, Donnie who lived up the street. Kevan, not one block over.
“No,” she says. “So it doesn’t matter.”
The pot moans as soap bubbles frost its sides.