Fiction

Hold On, Sour Grape

There was no such thing as failure—only starting over a million times and then some.

Our apartment building in Williamsburg was razed to the ground after a year and a half. We got $4,000 to move out, which at the time seemed no different from $1 million, but later we realized how paltry a sum it was, and how little we had been valued. We spent the money on the apartment in East Flatbush.

I didn’t like my new school. On the first day, my teacher sent me to ESL even though I was born right here in Mount Sinai hospital on East 96th, and I wanted to tell her that I knew English better than her stupid round sweaty thin-lipped veiny bulging-fat-yet-still-flaccid sagging face did, but I didn’t say anything and while everyone else was in art and music I spent two hours in ESL class, where I was forced to participate in activities so humiliating that I understood why the kids in Special Ed acted out all the time.

We had to do things like write out the word chair and then draw a picture of a chair underneath the word, only I drew pictures of women with huge breasts and big dongs so big and fat that they went off the page, because I wasn’t going to let the stupid administrators of PS 84 bully me just because my parents weren’t present on the first day of school to tell the ladies in the main office that I was a native speaker. I had only been left back because I sucked at school in general, not at speaking English.

I hated school so much that by the time winter rolled around, I was only going to school two or three days a week. My parents let me skip school whenever I wanted, and they thought all of my reasons were valid, just like they thought it was OK for me to get Cs and Ds because they knew they weren’t there at night when I was supposed be to eating dinner with my parents, and they weren’t there when I needed them to check over my homework, and they weren’t there to read me bedtime stories so that I would love reading, and most of the time they were gone before I woke up in the morning for school.

***

When my third grade teacher, Mrs. Heyward, sent my mom the “FOURTH AND FINAL” notice that she needed to attend a parent-teacher conference pronto or else I was in danger of being left back again, my mom tore up the notice and said, “I’m worried we aren’t letting you grow up. Are we stifling your development, baby girl?”

“Let me worry about that, Mom.”

“Let you worry about that? You can hardly be the one worrying about yourself.”

“Why not? I’m me. I know what’s bad for me and what’s good.”

“Wrong,” my mom said. “That’s exactly what you don’t know.”

“How?” I said.

“How what, my stone-tough peach?” asked my dad, coming in through the front door on his day off with two bags of groceries in each hand.

“What took you so long?” I said, running up to him. I took a bag from him and carried it to the kitchen. “Mom thinks I should sleep by myself tonight.”

“You know I agree, tartberry,” my dad said, unpacking the groceries, which were all nonperishables because our refrigerator wasn’t working well and all the food we had bought the week before had soured.

***

The only good thing about sleeping by myself in my own bed in the Williamsburg apartment was, firstly, it was just a smaller mattress on the floor next to my parents’ bed, and, secondly, I was still close enough to hear them whispering to each other in the mornings when they thought I was asleep. Sometimes, my fraudulent sleep lasted for what felt like hours, but there was not enough time in the world to help me understand what they were saying. I gave up at some point on trying to figure out their whisperings and would instead bolt straight upright and start to get dressed, knowing my mom would ask me to stop what I was doing and slide in between her and my dad just like I used to when I was itchy all the time, and I would say, “How come you don’t need me to be independent now?” and she would say, “I want you to be the hot dog and your dad and I will be the bun,” and I would jump in between them, and my dad would say, “Or what if our lovely daughter is turkey and you’re cheese, my lovely wife, and I’m the lettuce?”

“Then who’s the bread? And who’s the mayonnaise and who’s the mustard?” And the work of parceling out who was who and what made each type of sandwich or burger or hot dog or any sort of meat-between-bread thing so delicious was a project that we devoted ourselves to until the morning sun became the afternoon sun and our arms were cramped from holding each other, and I knew somehow that I wasn’t supposed to like this, that I was supposed to want to go over my friend’s house, and I was supposed to want to paint my nails and play tag and jump rope and do the things that kids my age did, but the truth was, I only ever wanted to be sandwiched between my parents. I only ever wanted them to need me, and I only ever thought about them and all the ways I could please them or, better yet, impress them with how much I wanted to remain their daughter and how much I wanted them to remain my parents.

“You know,” my mom said, “one day you’ll be a parent, and you won’t feel so much like our daughter.”

“That’s right,” my father said. “Because you’ll also feel like a mother. And the feeling of being a mother can be so much more extraordinary than the feeling of being a daughter.”

“And your own daughter won’t ever look at you and think that you must also be a daughter, you know what we mean, sour candy?”

“I think so,” I said.

“That’s why I wish you could stay this age forever,” my mom said. “What if I could always be 32 and you could always be nine and your father could always be 35. What if, honeybee?”

“I’ll do that,” I said right away. “I’ll stay nine. I don’t want to be someone else’s mom.”

My mother pulled me close to both her and my dad. “You can’t give up the rest of your life to stay this way.”

“I want to. I like the idea of staying here.”

“Oh, honey.”

“I really do, Mom. This is what I want. To stay like this forever.”

“Let’s ask the gods for help,” my father suggested.

“OK,” my mother said, and we got out of bed and into a circle, the three of us, and we stomped our feet and shouted, “Let us stay, let us stay, let us stay, let us stay,” until our voices got hoarse, and the next day mine was squeaky and my mom’s was sultry and my dad liked the way she sounded and I saw them holding hands and my dad fixing my mom’s shirt collar in the morning and I felt like this was the reason why I would never want to get older, because why move forward when it was so brilliant to just remain as we were?

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14 Comments

  • doikoon February 28th, 2014 3:13 PM

    When I saw that Jenny wrote this I gripped my school laptop my eyes went wide, and I swear I didn’t breathe for I like twenty seconds.

  • Hallie I February 28th, 2014 3:52 PM

    i mostly like this story, but i don’t really feel great about the cheap objectification of the latina women in Christina’s neighborhood- she came to admire them because of the deep-v of their asses??? i expected more from rookie and i’m not sure what purpose that was supposed to serve other than to compare “Those Women” with her milky white skinny mother (who i realize is also a woc).

    • Maryse89 February 28th, 2014 7:55 PM

      I think you have to consider that the perspective of the story is that of a little girl who has probably absorbed a lot of the ugly stereotypes surrounding her as she’s grown up (as most of us do to an extent when we’re kids…)

      I think the views of the author and the character are clearly separate in this case

  • ahowl February 28th, 2014 4:24 PM

    I’ve never posted anything on Rookie before but this resonated with me so much that I can’t passively consume it like everything else. This reminds me so much of my childhood, but you write about it in a way that’s never pitiful. Feeling alienated, sour, deviant in a my parents are trying to make rent every month while you’re preoccupied with going snowboarding over the break, not nice but not evil, full of misplaced pride and anger. As an immigrant child growing up in North America, you’ve validated all of these things that I thought I alone had to bear the weight. Jenny, you’re my hero.

    Just, thank you.

  • Jesss February 28th, 2014 5:07 PM

    Jenny I really love your writing! This was amazing, like, really amazing.

  • izzywayout February 28th, 2014 5:55 PM

    whenever i see a piece of fiction written by jenny, i know it’s going to become one of my favorites, and this was no exception. you are brilliant.

  • dumbpling February 28th, 2014 9:32 PM

    i havent even read past the first page but i was just so excited when i saw the name jenny at the top of the page. this sounds a bit strange, but i have seen so many connections to my own life in previous pieces that i almost feel like i know you, and everything you write just really resonates with me and its all so beautiful and relatable.

  • DianeK February 28th, 2014 11:07 PM

    You’ve managed to make a superficially depressing narrative into a very human, life-affirming story. Although this piece made me cry, I felt uplifted. It was cathartic.

    The ending was absolutely brilliant. Xie xie ni for transferring these undescribable, nuanced feelings into a story that feels so familiar.

  • eza_236 February 28th, 2014 11:08 PM

    This is unbelievably beautiful, it paints a picture of a place and time I’ve never known, but at the same time feel like it was my life she was describing.

  • marysilverbells March 1st, 2014 8:00 AM

    so beautiful

  • mangointhesky March 1st, 2014 12:46 PM

    This was such a good story!

    http://theconfettireport.blogspot.com

  • teafandoms March 1st, 2014 8:37 PM

    This really was superb, good job Jenny!

  • llamalina March 2nd, 2014 3:30 AM

    Jenny, you are, without a doubt, one of my favorite writers- not just on Rookie but in general. Your pieces resonate so soundly with me as an Asian-American teenage girl. This story was no exception and I found myself seeing parts of the hardships in my own childhood. It’s amazing how much I can relate to your writing, and how beautifully you can word the simplicity of a child’s perspective and the complexities of Christina’s situation. You’re an incredible writer and I will always look forward to reading anything from you.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • fluorescentyesterday March 2nd, 2014 9:39 PM

    I will never tire of Jenny’s work, and this piece was just too good.