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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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THE SMART ONE AND THE PRETTY ONE

 

by Sandy Yang

 

 

I was still getting used to wearing glasses and most days I seemed to be fighting an ache inside my head. It didn’t help that I didn’t like the wire-rimmed frames I had eventually settled on, only because all the plastic frames kept sliding down my face. Your nose has a very small bridge, the optician informed me, as if that was a shortcoming. Afterward, after I could see far away again, I started noticing the faces of people on the street and how they all had that clear piece of bone protruding out from between their eyes.

 

Back in school, it was no surprise that no one commented on my glasses, though I wondered if Mr. Shore had noticed, especially when he called my name during that first week of my watery eyes and constant headache.

 

“Hannah,” he said, his voice rising above the chatter of students who were trickling in to his American History class. “Come here for a moment.”


I held the heavy textbook tighter to my chest, hoping that would block out any audible heart pounding the closer I got to Mr. Shore. He was sitting at his desk, angled in the corner of the room facing the whole class.

 

I felt self-conscious even though a pair of almost comically large black-framed glasses sat on the prominent bridge of Mr. Shore’s nose, in stark contrast to his fair skin and blonde crew cut. Sometimes I wondered if I would recognize him without glasses, which seemed to create a distinct look that his face couldn’t quite accomplish. I thought how great it was that he got to control the way he appeared to the world.

 

“Congratulations on getting into Berkeley; I knew they’d accept you,” he said, his smile was so wide little creases formed around his shrunken blue eyes.

 

“Yeah, thanks,” I said, trying to sound excited like last semester when Mr. Shore first beckoned me to come look at Berkeley’s website on his personal laptop and then told me about the Bay Area in California, where he grew up.

 

“You’ll meet lots of people from around the world and lots of other Asians too,” he had said at one point while scrolling the photos of the campus, which looked like a European tourist attraction, with its tall pointy tower and buildings surrounded by giant white columns.

 

“Are we supposed to have classes in there?” I had asked, and Mr. Shore laughed.

 

But what I’d really wanted to ask was why he’d left all that excitement and diversity to come here to Buckeye, a desert town so isolated they built a federal prison nearby.

 

“Can I show you some scholarship essays I’ve been working on?” I asked Mr. Shore, even though I hardly looked at the acceptance package, but maybe we could continue our conversation and he’d offer to take me on a tour of the city, the campus, the two of us looking like those students on the website, their faces beaming with a quiet but undeniable confidence. Now I wished I hadn’t spent so much time writing those essays for Damien, even if he did promise to take me out to lunch.

 

“Sure thing, what scholarships are you going for?” Mr. Shore asked, but before I could make up an answer, he called out Jennifer’s name.

 

Jennifer walked toward us, and I immediately tensed up. Her face looked the same now to me as it did when I couldn’t see the chalkboard or several lines of the eye chart. There was the icy blue smudged across her eyelids, her lashes so thick with mascara they reminded me of spider legs, the outline of a black bra under a thin white shirt, skintight gray jeans, vinyl boots that elevated her inches above ground.

 

There was a time when people couldn’t tell me and Jennifer apart since we were among the three to five Asians at school at any given time, but that was probably just freshman year when the two of us would pass each other in the hallway, kind of look at each other and then avert our eyes as if we were embarrassed, like two people wearing the same exact Halloween costume. Now no one ever mistakes us for the same person.

 

“I’m switching your seats,” Mr. Shore said. “Jennifer, please take Hannah’s seat up front, and Hannah, you can take Jennifer’s seat next to Damien in the third row.”

 

I tried to catch Mr. Shore’s eye, as though that would convince him to reconsider, but he was facing Jennifer anyway, and she looked like she was ready to curse him out. Maybe she was his new project or Mr. Shore had only seated me up front because I was squinting at the board. Now he could place a prettier girl in the spot closest to his own desk, as if they were two people sitting across from each other at a restaurant, sharing a private conversation, a few laughs.

 

In the end, Jennifer didn’t say anything and brushed past me to sit in my seat while Mr. Shore walked over to the door to corral the rest of the students. My head started throbbing again, and I headed to the empty desk next to Damien. He glanced up at me. I sensed surprise, perhaps disappointment, but I couldn’t bear to look at his face to find out.

 

After the bell rang, Mr. Shore began the lecture. He paced back and forth at the front of the class as he always did, and if he got to a part where Americans were the bad guys—championing slavery, uprooting Natives, denying fair wages to migrant farm workers—he’d stop pacing, take off his glasses and fix his eyes on a spot above our heads.

 

Today, it was opposition to women’s suffrage, and sitting farther away, I thought I’d get a better vantage point of what Mr. Shore saw when he looked up. I lifted my gaze to where he seemed to be looking, but I only saw a water stain.

 

“Hey,” Damien whispered.

 

My eyes flickered in his direction, and he leaned over.

 

“Do you have my essay?” he asked in a low voice.

 

I shook my head, panicked he would bring that up here and now, but also happy he turned in my direction so that his feet faced my desk. I looked back at Mr. Shore, who was still making eye contact with the ceiling.

 

“So you didn’t do it?” he asked, leaning forward even more, his green eyes the color of a murkily lit swimming pool.

 

“After class,” I whispered back.

 

That was when I saw Jennifer turn around and give us a look, as if Damien and I were conspiring to run away together. My face burned. I used to glance back at them in class, on campus, next to Damien’s beat-up red truck in the student lot, always talking and laughing, hugging each other hello and goodbye, though they dated other people. When I looked back at Damien, he was slumped in his seat again. I could see his face in profile, his nose with all its sharp and sloping angles like an abstract Picasso, which I imagined in that moment brushing against my cheek or pressed against my neck at the base of my pulse.

 

Jennifer also faced the front again as Mr. Shore put his glasses back on, just after he finished the section on the Nineteenth Amendment, a woman’s right to vote.

 

“Remember, your essays are due tomorrow,” Mr. Shore said.

 

I gathered my things before the bell rang and walked out the door as fast as I could. I had only taken a few steps outside the classroom when Damien appeared next to me, matching my stride, as if making fun of me for being half his size.

 

“Hey, squinty,” he said.

 

I craned my neck up at Damien, but he wasn’t looking at me, least of all to notice that I didn’t squint anymore, or had it always been an ethnic slur? I couldn’t see him saying that to Jennifer though.

 

I tried to walk ahead, but we slowed to a stop in the hallway as all the other students formed a bottleneck at the open double doors, all of us struggling to get outside when the days were still nice, the dry heat not yet catching in our throats.

 

“So, did you do my essay?” he asked, and I could feel him looking at me now.

 

“Depends,” I said. “Where are we going for lunch?”

 

“Where do you want to go?”

 

“Wherever.”

 

“OK,” he said as we joined the masses of students fanning out into the sunlight, most of them re-forming into a giant huddle at the cafeteria.


“You know, I can help you write your own essay,” I said. 

 

Damien made a sound like a laugh or a snort.

 

“When I get out, I’m working at my uncle’s garage,” he said. “There’s no fancy college waiting for me after this …”

 

Now I made a sound, the first syllable of a word that sounded like “buh,” and I realized that Berkeley sounded a lot like Buckeye if I didn’t have to utter the next syllable. I could have said that I wasn’t moving to Berkeley, that Berkeley was just another state university, but not in my state, and that I could stay here, I could commute to Arizona State just forty miles away.

 

“I just need to pass,” Damien continued. “I don’t need an A, anything you crap out would be so much better than anything I can do.”

 

I wanted to encourage him, offer my help once more, but instead we walked for a minute or two in silence.

 

“Can I see the essay?” Damien asked as we inched toward the front gate where the seniors flashed their lunch pass to the security guard and walked off the campus. “It’s just, you know, when we start talking out there, I’ll forget to ask you for it.”

 

“OK,” I said.

 

“Let’s go stand under that tree over there,” Damien said and nodded to the far right corner, away from the steady march of people behind us.

 

I followed him, and once we were no longer moving, I unzipped my backpack and considered pulling out the normal essay I had prepared, but reached for the essay with the long title instead.

 

Damien didn’t even look at it when he snatched the essay from my hand.

 

“I’m sorry, I can’t today,” he said as he walked away, quickly widening the distance between us.

 

He didn’t stop or turn around when I called out to him. I thought about chasing him, but my head hurt too much, and even if I caught Damien, he would just ask another girl to ride with him to the Dairy Queen.

 

I looked out at all the people waiting their turn to buy pizza and sub sandwiches, and I couldn’t bear to take my place in line. I took off my glasses and closed my eyes for a minute. I knew this would happen. I had even prepared for it, so why did I expect something else? I propped my glasses on the top of my head and the world lacked that intense focus again.

 

I wondered if Mr. Shore was still in his classroom, so I sped back to the hallway. But his door was locked, and still I kept squeezing the knob until it became moist and lukewarm in my hand. I knocked on his door, rapping the laminate wood with my knuckles and then with my fist, but nothing.

 

Finally, I sat on the floor against the lockers, resigned to wait for Mr. Shore. I took out my notebook and jotted down ideas for a scholarship essay, which I should have been working on instead of Damien’s essays, though I didn’t regret handing him the one entitled, “A Woman Can Be Smart or Beautiful But Not Both: Demystifying The Feminine Mystique.” If he had just taken me to the stupid Dairy Queen, he could have turned in a solid if forgettable essay on Dorothea Dix. Now I was counting on Mr. Shore to call on Damien to read my essay out loud.

 

I closed my notebook. I couldn’t concentrate. I glanced up anytime someone clanged open the doors at either end of the hallway, but the blurry figures always turned out to be girls talking about their boyfriends or boys talking about sports. I wondered if Mr. Shore was even on campus. Did he see me leave the classroom? Did he think I’d forgotten about him?


Outside one end of the hallway, a chain link fence faced the faculty parking lot. I knocked on the door one more time before going out to look for Mr. Shore’s Datsun hatchback, which had long faded from blue to almost white. I put my glasses back on and raised one hand to my forehead like a lazy salute. His car wasn’t there among all the gray and black sedans.

 

I leaned against the wall of the classroom building, which was the only way I could stand within its shade that at noon stretched long and thin across the concrete sidewalk. I played a game with myself of keeping my body as stiff as possible against the stucco so I wouldn’t create a shadow on the ground, not even of the tips of my fingers, the point of an elbow, a strand of hair. I returned the glasses to the top of my head so they too wouldn’t form a shadow.

 

It was then that I noticed Mr. Shore’s car entering the faculty lot, the sun glinting off its windshield. I wanted to walk up to the chain link fence, get as close to him as possible, like the times I’d see him around campus and try to catch up with him. But then I’d stop myself and hang back a few steps, and like a consolation prize, I’d try to look through his glasses from behind, as if I could glimpse the world through his eyes.

 

Maybe today I’d call out his name and he’d smile and walk over to me. I was about to wave to him when his passenger door opened and a woman stepped out, followed by Mr. Shore emerging from the driver’s side. I couldn’t move or breathe as I pressed my bare arms, the palms of my hands against the rough surface of the wall. I could only squint at her, make out her dark hair, a light-colored shirt and pants, but directly under the sun, I couldn’t tell what color anything really was, and soon Mr. Shore caught up to her and walked with her, side by side.

 

Perhaps it was just a teacher. Or it could have been a student. A girlfriend. Maybe even Jennifer. Maybe Mr. Shore was discussing college with Jennifer. Maybe he had taken her to the Dairy Queen to tell her about Berkeley’s storied campus at the center of a metropolitan city where we would never feel weird or lonely.


I looked at my watch after they left. Five minutes till the bell. I reached for my glasses still sitting on the top of my head and I put them back on to hide my eyes, which I had rubbed raw by now. I returned to the hallway where I slipped into the bathroom, which was hot and stale and felt as if I’d just entered the collective belch of the entire student body. And inside, standing over a sink, Jennifer was leaning so close to the mirror that she almost touched her own image. I watched her press a puffy white wedge to her eye and move it across her closed eyelid, and then she’d stop, look at herself and repeat. I could see the silvery blue color on the wedge so that it wasn’t clear whether she was removing her makeup or putting it on.

 

I continued to stand there, waiting behind a girl with a long dark braid to finish using the sink next to Jennifer. When the girl left, I stepped forward and let the cold water run over my hands. I tried to watch Jennifer from a sideway glance and determine whether she was the one I had seen coming out of Mr. Shore’s car. But I gave up trying to go unnoticed and I turned to face Jennifer directly, daring her to look at me and acknowledge me.

 

“If you have something to say, say it,” Jennifer said in the tone of an annoyed big sister as she continued to stare at herself in the mirror.

 

“Why were you in Mr. Shore’s car?” I accused her, but then lowered my gaze and turned off the water that was still running in the sink. I dried my wet hands on my jeans.

 

Finally Jennifer turned and looked at me. I didn’t think we had looked at each other like this in years, but now I saw that Jennifer had been removing her makeup, which surprised me since I hardly ever saw her without makeup anymore.

 

Maybe it was the constant motion of wiping at her face that had reddened her cheeks and the delicate skin around her eyes to pink splotches. She looked the way I imagined I had looked outside, trying not to cry under the shadow of the building.

 

“Is that what you think of me now?” she asked.

 

“I’ve always thought that about you,” I said and Jennifer’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve always wanted to be more like you.”

 

Jennifer laughed and she reached her hand out, and even though I saw it coming toward the side of my face, I didn’t try to get out of the way. I kept my gaze steady with hers, and I felt the pads of her fingers smooth down my hair, briefly touch the tip of my glasses behind one ear.

 

“Just go to Berkeley, will you, and leave me alone.”