Getaway Reads: Fifty-Fifty by Roberta Clipper

This entry is part of Getaway Reads, a weekly e-mail series curated by Stephanie Cawley that features the writing of the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway faculty.
 

Fifty-Fifty

by Roberta Clipper

That’s what I call myself. My mother’s a mongrel. That’s what she says: ancestors from so many different parts of Europe that she can’t tell where she got the same name as Dad’s. It’s true! It’s on her birth certificate—Gillian Ann Gill. As southern as the William Williamses and Jo Ann Joneses of the West. I tease her: “If you’d hyphenated it, you’d be Jill Gill-Gill.” Her light brown eyebrows come together. Dad likes to say she got the best of Europe—height, pure blue eyes, naturally blonde hair. She was one of those tall, beautiful blondes that scare boys half to death. I’m like her. Except my hair is brown; my eyes—I’m, like, a twelve-month tan. My grandmother tells them, “Don’t let Rosa stay out in the sun,” or the Punjabi equivalent. “She will turn black.” So what do we do? We move to the eternal sun—San Jose, California.

My father’s Sikh. That has its own priorities: milk, meat, muscles. Dad grew up in India, came for graduate school, met my mother, and stayed. Then in Jersey he went through a mid-life crisis and quit Ortho to buy a Midas muffler franchise in California.

California, the promised land. Once New York was the end of the rainbow. Then Dad got a job in the suburbs. That’s where I was born. New Jersey. It’s a green place, in the summer anyway. We had the whole side of a hill, trees, a little pond with crayfish and frogs. And in the winter, ice. Then Dad saw the rainbow stretching clear across the country and decided that the end with the pot of gold must be on the other side.

I don’t like it here in San Jose. I miss the snow. We drive up to Tahoe, and we ski, but it’s not the same as waking up one morning and getting a day off. As soon as I graduate I’m going back—Princeton—Ivy League like my cousin Shawn. He’s at Harvard. My cousins Kunti and Nitasha went to Rutgers. Mom says if I have to go to a state university, I might as well stay in California. Dad has his eye on Stanford, just up the road. He wants me to be a genius, not to change from the little girl I was in Jersey, look American, but don’t act too American. He hates it when I come right from school to work, and his mechanics look out from the undersides of cars and call out, “Rosie! Hi! How’s high school?”

“Dad’s like, “You be careful who you talk to.”

“Dad! Those guys work for you. They’re human.”

“Do you have homework?”

“Homework?”

I hate my new school. I could teach sophomore English myself. I told my teacher, “Yeah. I like Judy Blume. I read all her stuff. When I was twelve. (Including Wifey, don’t tell Dad!)  But—I was expecting, maybe, Scarlet Letter? It’s in video?”

The teacher’s face got all red, like that letter on Hester Prynn’s chest. “Your English is good. What kind of accent is that?”

“What accent?”

“We’ll be reading ‘Cinderella’ next. You’ll like that.”

“Grimm?”

“Oh, no. I mean, it’s uplifting. More than Blubber.”

“I mean the German—get me out of here!” I leaned across the empty desk.

She shot back, hugging her roll book and that slim paperback, straight blond hair falling behind her shoulders. “You have to pass English to go on to junior year.” It was almost a whisper.

Math was easier. And in New Jersey algebra had been my worst. Dad used to stand over me at the kitchen table. The glare of the tiffany lamp turned the paper blue. “This is simple. And important. Master maths and you can do anything—medicine, engineering . . .”

Mom understands me better. She pays cash for every A I get.

The girl next to me, her hair bleached as light an orange as she could probably get it, red nails four inches, couldn’t follow long division. She gaped at the board, numbers piled up, blue on white, the latest in chalkboard technology. I asked her, “Haven’t you ever subtracted the remainder before?”

I caught the teacher before she made it out the door. “I think I’m in under my head. I mean, I know it. Couldn’t you get me into some math I can’t do?”

The hall was filling up with bodies, rushing by like water through a pipe. “You’ll have to speak to someone in the office.”

I skipped lunch. The secretary was even busier than she had been when I’d enrolled myself in the summer. Mom was back in Jersey then, selling the house with its high, latticed windows, its tile kitchen and my big, light room with its own bath. If she knew that Dad let me walk to the school myself, on a day so cool and dry I couldn’t believe it was summer, she’d have thrown a fit. But he was already working fifteen-hour days! Now that it was fall and school was in session, California was hot. Clerks and teachers milled around the secretary on the other side of a high counter. Students nudged my elbows, whined. I whined louder.

“You’ve got to stick with it, honey.” She leans on the counter, dirty blond ponytail separating on the back of her neck. “It’s only the first day.” And she laughs, kind of loud and horsy.

“No. I need an upgrade. I do better.”

“Sure you do. Your English is perfect.”

“If my English is so perfect, why can’t I get through?” And I thought about the kids who came in with only Spanish, Chinese.

I walked home. Couldn’t stand to face another class. Mom was standing on the back of the couch hanging fully lined, brocade winter curtains from New Jersey. My grandmother, her dyed brown hair pulled back in a bun, sat on the couch in front of her leaning toward the television, on which a perfectly groomed male, blond hair moussed and jelled, spoke in low tones with a woman with cap-like, cream-colored hair. I slammed the door. “School is just too dumb! We’re doing arithmetic in math, and English has us reading books I memorized in grade school.”

“Didn’t they put you in gifted and talented?” Mom looked down across our shimmery, white sofa. My grandmother said something. I was too upset to figure it out. Even my aunts, Dad’s sisters, spoke Punjabi; then they criticized me when I couldn’t speak it. But where would I have learned it? Mom went on: “Do they have gifted and talented?”

“The secretary didn’t even ask. And I gave her my report cards.”

Mom stepped onto the shiny floorboards and crossed the dining room into our cubicle-sized kitchen. “Dad should have gone over there with you,” she said, picking up the phone.

“He was working on his golden touch. Besides, I’m five foot six, fifteen, reasonably intelligent, of sound mind and body—”

“You’re growing up too fast.” Then she told the school she’d had to pick me up for a doctor’s appointment. She was sorry. She forgot she was supposed to tell the office in advance. She’d be happy to come in and explain it to the principal. The superintendent if he wasn’t available.

——————————————–

They couldn’t give her an appointment until Friday. By then I think I might have made an impression. “You’re the best in the class.” More than one teacher told me that. “Your parents must be proud.”

Even the kids were impressed. “Hey, kid. You from Albuquerque or something?”

“No. I’m from New Jersey.”

“New Jersey? That’s in New York, right?”

It was the kids who told me that there was “gifted and talented.” I’d been placed on the slowest, most remedial track. Julio told me, “That’s why this stuff is boring.” His hair and eyes are as dark as mine, his skin as tan. “Flipping burgers at the ’King is more in-ti-lec-tu-al.”

“Why are we in here?” Ms. Haldemann was lecturing on values, what they are and how we so desperately need them.

Julio’s like, “Why? These Mexicans. They don’t speak English. Know what I’m saying?”

“What are you?”

“Chicano. You some kind of Cuban? Hablo espanol?”

“No. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

“What’s that?”

“German.”

“I knew you was a foreigner.”

I took to the Mexicans. Always going on about something or other, laughing. Just like Dad’s side of the family. When they’re in a good mood. I wished I’d signed up for Spanish instead of my mother’s German. But the Mexicans stick to themselves in that school. So do African-Americans, turning into larger groups in the hallways and the cafeteria.

There I stood, tray in hands, burrito losing heat, milk gaining it, right beneath my nose. Voices rose as one loud, long mumble-jumble. Where did I fit in? There were even tables of Asians—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese. I caught sight of a long, narrow table lined with girls in jeans, T-shirts, hair unpermed, uncolored, rings only in their earlobes. I took the path of least resistance.

“Hi. I’m Rosa Gill.”

“Where you from?”

“New Jersey.” They looked at each other. Green eyes, blue eyes, brown. “Are you all from California? Weren’t any of you born out of state?”

“Lisa is from Indiana.”

Must have been Lisa, fluffy blond hair, small, who jabbed the tall girl who had spoken in the ribs.

The girl with brown hair said, “My ancestors come from Jersey. Where did yours?”

“All over the world.”

“Well, we don’t have an all-over-the-world table. But the South Americans sit over there.” Lisa pointed toward a table bubbling over with words I couldn’t understand.

I told them what they wanted to know: “My father’s Indian.”

“Oh!”

The tall one goes, “You know Rajeev?”

“This is only my second day.”

“Rajeev is Indian.”

I stood identified. I looked around for faces of the color I’d been boiled down to and saw one table anchored by a Sikh, his topknot wrapped in a swatch of black cotton—what my cousin Shawn called a bubble, like the one my cousin Ranjit used to wear.  I’d never seen one on my father, since he’d cut his hair even before he’d met my mother. I walked over and told them I was Rosa Gill.

Hands shot out European fashion. “Oh, Gulab, Gulabi,” my name translated. “Where you from?”

“New Jersey.”

“I have an uncle in New Jersey.”

“Haven’t seen you in class. What are you taking?”

When I told them I had Haldemann’s English, Johnston’s math, they laughed; brown hands slapped the table. “New Jersey schools must be as bad as Jersey air.”

“What did you say your dad does? Auto mechanics?”

“Does your Mum work? Or is she in India?”

“My mother’s not Indian.”

“American?”

“Do you know Chitra?”

She’s half American.”

Brown eyes searched for the fifty-fifty table.

I thought about my cousins in the San Fernando Valley. Hundred-percent. I wondered how long that bloodline would stay pure. We had driven down to L.A. for my aunt’s annual brothers-and-sisters party. A disk jockey announced in Hindi soundtracks from the latest Indian movies while my cousins danced. In my jeans and T-shirt I felt underdressed. Even the kids pranced around in wide, long trousers, pink, red, yellow and electric blue, matching tunics shining with embroidered beads. The girls, that is. The boys wore jeans like me or chinos like my mom and dad.

On the long drive home I asked my grandmother why she never gave me Indian clothes.

My mother said, “She used to bring me suits. They never fit—too short and wide. I didn’t like any of them enough to wear them anyway. You want to look nice when you’re going out.”

“You don’t look good in loose clothes anyway,” my father said, his eyes on the most boring highway I have ever seen—parched brown fields on either side, towns that might have been more comfortable in the plains Dad and I had crossed on our drive across the country.

“Your father prefers the svelte look,” my mother said.

“On you maybe,” I said.

“Girls should dress like girls,” he said. “Biji gives you skirts.”

What everybody calls my grandmother. Sitting next to me in the back, she patted me on the thigh and said something in Punjabi I didn’t understand.

“She says she’s going to buy you a suit,” my father said.

“Oh. Great,” I go. “Thanks.”

——————————————–

When we got a chance to tell Dad about Mom’s appointment with the principal, he was furious. “It’s those jeans you wear! You should wear skirts! Plaid! And pleated!”

“They don’t have uniforms in American public schools,” my mother said, passing him the shrimp. “They don’t have dress code either.”

“If I dressed the way you wanted,” I told them, “everyone would laugh.” I thought about the girls I’d eaten lunch with. I looked down at the pasta on my plate.

Biji said something, but Mom and I couldn’t understand her, and Dad wasn’t listening. He even passed her the shrimp, which she would never eat. She called it “insects.” “Agh,” she gagged.

“Did they see your report cards?” Dad asked. “Your test scores?”

“I’m not sure they can read.” I twirled a forkful of spaghetti.

“I should have gone with you.”

“You’re never home.”

He had no manager that he could trust, so how could he leave Midas even to argue with what he called the headmaster of the school that had placed me wrong? Mom had to argue on her own.

When I came home, she beckoned and pointed upstairs, where we always went when we wanted to talk without Biji interrupting. “Have I been promoted?” I go, flopping onto the king-sized bed, covered with a homemade patchwork quilt Mom picked up at the New Jersey State Fair.

“When you were a baby,” she said, “people used to ask me how I’d managed to adopt you.”

“Oh, God, you’re not going to tell me they switched me in the hospital. I look exactly like Dad’s sisters. Before they got fat.”

“No, you’re a Gill. On both sides.” She joined me on the bed, stretching her long legs next to mine across the green and lilac patches. “I told that to your principal. He could hardly hide his disbelief. And I don’t think it was the name. He even said, ‘But you’re American!’”

“Why is everybody in California so convinced that I’m a foreigner?” I asked.

“It occurred to me halfway through the conversation: they thought you were Mexican.”

“Mexican?”

“We gave you a name both grandmothers could pronounce. Trouble is around here Rosa sounds Spanish. And you don’t look Scottish enough to be a proper Gill.”

“What does this have to do with ’tard English and math?”

“‘Tard?”

“As in retard? Duh!”

“Oh, Rosa, that’s as bad as putting down the Mexicans. Or Indians.”

“Do I get out of it?”

“I’m quoting: ‘You see, Mrs. Gill, that community is not in general interested in the school. Or education, for that matter.’”

“How can they be interested in school? They need every member of the family working in order to pay the rent.”

“Dr. Floystrup told me, ‘We try our best to instill the work ethic in all of our students. If they want college preparatory classes, they can sign up for them along with all of the rest of the students. It’s because of them that we even have a vocational track.’”

“I didn’t want to move here,” I said. “I wanted to stay in Jersey.”

Mom sat back on an Indian pillow studded with tiny mirrors and looked up at the ceiling. Sunlight pouring through the window hit the mirror work casting reflections on the smooth white ceiling, hundreds of flickering stars. “It reminds me of the school I went to,” she said. “We were farmers. All of my sisters got good grades. We had to. My mother hung over our homework at the kitchen table every night.”

“Like Dad. Before Midas.”

“No matter how well we did—A’s in English, B’s in math and science—we never got into the honors classes—they called them honors classes then.”

“God, did they think you were farmers, you didn’t need to go to college?”

Mom shrugged. “When my sisters and I told the teachers we wanted to go, they suggested county colleges, state teachers colleges. Your aunt Lena went out of state, the University of Tennessee.”

“Well,” I said, “at least they weren’t racist. Your uncle was a Nazi.”

“Not an officer,” she said, “and on the Russian front. But that’s not the point. How did we get into that? As of tomorrow you go to Classics of English Literature.”

“Yes!”

“And Trigonometry.”

“Ouch!”

“There’s a price to be paid for acknowledging that you are Asian.”

——————————————–

But I’m not Asian. I find that out from Jenny Tanaka and Simon Chen in Trig. I’m not even Southeast Asian, like Joe Nguyen. They lump me in with Rajeev Patel, full-blooded, of such a different ethnic group from us Punjabis that my grandmother is always passing comments about Gujarati food, Gujarati clothing, “Gujarati!” she says. Rajeev’s parents might call us pushy and materialistic. Even the white kids in the class, Peter Fradkin and Jennifer Miller, among others, can’t believe that every new equation makes me break out in a sweat.

“Must be the European blood,” I tell my father, “Savoir faire, Sturm und Drang.”

“Must be you’re paying too much attention to dressing up and dances, not enough attention to your studies.”

“That’s bogus. Totally.”

It kills him when I put on a pair of leggings and an exercise top and go back to school at night. But I can’t even dance with Julio or Jamal without the Asians, Anglo-Saxons and Jews from Classics of English Literature shouting in my ear above the drums and bass line, “Rosa! Why are you hanging out with them? Be careful! You’re too young to have a baby!”

The difference between New Jersey and California, as I see it, is in California it’s in to be a group. And the stereotypes are different. We have different Hispanics. But I don’t have to live in groups that I do not believe in. I’m fifty-fifty. Only half Californian, and against my will. At least half easterner. North-easterner. Half intellectual. The other half likes the way that Julio calls me Indo-dweeb and urges me to dance: “Dance! Forget about what goes on in that pretty head of yours! People are people. All of us will one day be some kind of fifty-fifty. All of us will speak the same language. Spanglish.”

“Punjablish.”

Rajeev requests a record popular in England, and the Indian kids, like my cousins when they hear this stuff, go wild. “What the hell is this?” says Julio, and his hips stop swaying.

I show him how to stick his butt out, shift his feet and twist his hands up high. “It’s the kind of music my father danced to. At weddings. In India. Before I was born.”

“When do I meet this funky muffler man? I could use a job.”

I laugh. I see this boy shouting “Rosie! Rosalita!” from beneath a chassis. Dad glares. But he doesn’t need to worry. Julio and I can’t do much more than dance. His family would kill him.

“Just wait till I ace Trig,” I tell him. Get into Princeton and Dad might just stop worrying I’ll turn out like my cousin Kunti, the single mother in the family, or her brother Ranjit, the addict. If King Midas lives to pay for it. By that time the east coast may be just as clannish. California is a trendsetter.

But I can never eat my lunch at just one table. I will always be fifty-fifty: what other people perceive me to be, and what I am. The best of both worlds. Me.

 
 

© Roberta Clipper. Originally published in Fifty-Fifty, Silicon Press, 2003.

 
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Roberta Clipper has published two novels-in-stories under the name Robbie Clipper Sethi, The Bride Wore Red (Picador, 1997) and Fifty-Fifty (Silicon Press, 2003), as well as short stories in The Atlantic MonthlyMademoiselle, the Philadelphia Inquirer and a number of literary magazines and anthologies. Her fiction has won a National Endowment for the Arts award and two fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Robbie teaches fiction, poetry, expository writing and literature at Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ and on a Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship spent a “monsoon semester” (August-December 2009) teaching creative writing at the International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad, India. To read some of her work, visit robbieclippersethi.com.

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Want to study with Roberta Clipper? At the 2014 Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, Roberta will be leading the Visions and Revision: Fiction & Creative Nonfiction workshop. Click here to find out more.

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Advance your craft and energize your writing at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway. Enjoy challenging and supportive sessions, insightful feedback and an encouraging community. Learn more.

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