The Clerestory Podcast S1 E25

The Oklahoma Tenant Farmer and Me
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The familiar bell pierces the dewy March air and everyone rushes into the gymnasium, sneakers and sweatbands at the ready. I pull my thick hair up into a ponytail, wincing as I touch the burn on my left ear, another casualty from my daily standing appointment with my straightener. I take a deep controlled breath as the two volleyball captains step out in front of me. Time to recount my traits: I am funny, I am nice, and I am smart. I stare straight ahead and pretend not to notice the thinning crowd around me, willing one of them to see me. Suddenly, I am alone. The captains share that wretched look, who has to take her? I feel a soft tap on my shoulder, but when I look there is no one there.

I cry into my mom’s lap as I ask her why they do not want me. She runs her fingers through my hair and tells me they will never understand. I should focus on befriending the girls who look like me, honor the warriors that I come from. I nod my head, knowing that the price of admission is the color of my skin. They would not dare turn me away. So I cover up my Joe Jonas posters, hide away my golf clubs, and create Bollywood playlists, desperately hoping that my resume meets the cut.

The following summer is beautiful. I find a group of girls who do not admonish the hair on my arms or laugh when I cry during a threading appointment. They are in love with Hrithik Roshan and do not retch at the smell of cumin. We laugh at our history teacher’s understanding of India’s independence and commiserate over the pressures placed on our pre-adolescent shoulders. When I look around the room I see some of the things that I am and I hope they see me too. One day I walk down the school hallway, stopping to notice a flyer for golf tryouts, when I hear the whispers. She only crushes on white boys, she eats meat, and her Hindi is terrible. A dictionary definition of a “coconut,” brown on the outside and white on the inside. I feel a soft tap on my shoulder and I tense up, ready to spit their vile right back at them. When I spin around, no one is there.

My dad is asleep on the couch when I slam the door open, heat emanating from my every pore. He listens while I scream injustices and rage over the blood betrayal. When I quiet down he asks me why I went to them in the first place. After all, I was born in America, I’ve lived my whole life in America, clearly I belong with the other Americans. I respond by gesturing to my physical attributes, and he clicks his tongue, telling me that Americans can be whoever they want to be.

I throw tarps over all the mirrors in my house and spend the evenings polishing myself head to toe. The neighborhood kids dive deep into mountains of browned leaves as I rehearse airy vocals. I strip and mutilate myself down to my bones and delight in their whiteness. The day of golf tryouts arrives. I hold my head high, demanding to be let in, and, to my surprise, they do.

Suddenly, I find myself in a whole new world, full of trips to the mall, dates with lacrosse players, and attempts at keg stands. They admire my ear piercings, and I admire their access to life. They claim an entitlement to luxuries I never knew existed. I let this new life envelope me like an old hoodie, thankful to be lost in it.

One day a new girl, Sunaina, shows up to tryouts. She has my curls, my hairy forearms, my hooked nose, and my sun soaked skin. Before I can say anything, I hear the same whispers, only this time they say them to me. Sunaina smells like curry and her dad works at a gas station, I don’t think she’d be a good fit for the group. They see the confusion and hurt on my face and quickly throw out, But not you! You’re basically white! I let myself go numb as the blood rushes to my head and I feel the tap on my shoulder. This time I do not turn to look.

I pack my bags and rush back home, only to find a closed door. I knock timidly and watch as the lights are extinguished one by one. Wrapping my coat tighter, I peer through the side window and see my brothers and sisters dancing in the clothes I grew up with, eating the food I crave, singing the songs in my heart. I stare until the glass fogs up and then turn away, tail between my legs. I could not fault them for leaving me behind, after all I was the one who pushed them away.

As I drag my bags to the end of the driveway, looking at the stars to give me hope, guidance, or even just some light, I feel the familiar tap on my shoulder. The pit in my throat finally dislodges, and I fall down to the curb, washing my shirt in tears. I feel my heart strain under the weight of a life I was never promised. And then, another tap, more impatiently this time. I look up and am surprised to see Sunaina. She asks me why I am crying and eighteen years come spilling out of my mouth. I tell her about my Joe Jonas posters and my favorite lenghas and the hockey season passes and my relationship with my parents.

By the time I am done, the first streaks of light have started to sprout over the horizon as the birds greet a new day. I let go of a breath I had been holding for many lifetimes and close my eyes. When I open them, she asks if she can be my friend.

Winter turns to spring, and I move into a new place of my own, thousands of miles from everything and everyone I know. The blank walls stretch around me as far as I can see, and I smile. Time to recount my affirmations; I am funny, I am nice, I am smart, and I am me. I sweep my thick black curls back into a bun and start decorating. I hang my Joe Jonas and my Hrithik Roshan posters up, carefully taping the curling edges. I cook my favorite dinner and am lulled by the cardamom, cumin, and red chilli peppers reaching into the corners of my home. I delicately hang my patterned silks in the closet, taking the time to run my fingers over the ones my grandma sewed for me.

Finally, I place a full-length mirror right across from the front door and observe what I see in the reflection. I see my hooked nose, my golf blisters, and my brown eyes and I smile; then, the doorbell rings.

Anushree is a Clinical Research Associate in San Diego, California. In pre-pandemic times she devoted her life to improvisational comedy and her tight knit San Diego community. She has used her writing to cope with the stress of life since high school and hopes that by sharing her story she can provide comfort to other survivors.

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