I became a truant in fourth grade. That seems young, but you have to understand a few things: no one was keeping an eye on me, my 'teacher' was a rotating face, and I didn't think education was that important. I didn't know my multiplication tables, and while I could read and even liked to read, I didn't learn anything at school I couldn't learn at the library or at home. The ladies at the library were nicer than the subs, anyway, and the real teacher was on an extended pregnancy leave that she wasn't keen to come off of. I'm not sure, but I think she quit the next year.
Papi left for work before the sun was in the sky, and Mami was seeing her girlfriend when he was away. She would kiss me, my sister, and my brother after giving us each a slice of bread and say she was going to visit a friend. We all knew, even Raymond who was only five, that she came home with a brighter smile than a nice lunch warranted. I was the oldest, so it was my job to keep her secrets for the sake of peace.
After she left, Cherish and Raymond would start bickering over who got to use the margarine first, so I'd just butter their Wonderbread for them and make sure they got enough to feel a little fuller. I usually sent them out the door after that; they would walk to the busstop together, but one day Cherish asked me, "Why don't you come with us?"
"None of your business."
"I never see you in school. Kumar said he never sees you in school, either, and he's in your class." Cherish was in second grade, but she had eyes like a grandmother. Her hair was neatly plaited, and she ate slowly like Mami, with just her fingertips messy. "You're gonna be in trouble."
"Not if you keep your mouth shut." I sat down and stared at her while she stared back. Raymond kicked his feet, scraping the linoleum floor as his chair creeped away from the table. "Understand?"
"I'm staying home today. So is Raymond." Cherish decided. Before I could tell her no, she added, "Unless you want me to tell Papi. And I'll tell Mami if you hit me."
In all honesty, I could care less about what Mami thought of me. She was a whore, an unrighteous thing whose lips stained me when she touched them to my forehead. She was a dyke and a moron and couldn't speak English very well. Sometimes she had to ask me to read things to her, like fastfood menus, and I would flush because everyone would stare like I was a little martyr, burning my pride at the stake— but the threat to tell Papi pursed my lips.
I wanted nothing more than to impress him because I knew he expected it. He never had a word for Cherish, rarely looked at Raymond, but I was his unabashed favorite. He smiled at me and took me fishing and bought me books and called me his son. Cherish and Raymond were also his by blood, but he called them Mami's children. I was his son, and that came with a lot of things that I don't like to think about: I was the only one he never hit, but I was the only one to whom he whispered, "It's our secret. You can't tell anyone. It's okay. It's okay. Just stay still."
The thought of his breath made me nauseous, but Papi was smart. He spoke well. He knew English. He went to night school and liked great novels and told me all about the Presidents because American history was his love. He never wanted anything more than to be American, he told me, and I knew he would be sad if he knew I was being a bad American, so I nodded. "You can stay, whatever."
Cherish grinned triumphantly and finished her breakfast. After all the plates were rinsed and left in the sink, I got my shoes on. She looked at me funny. "Where are you going?"
"You're coming." I watched Raymond already following suit. He had lots of thick curls, a round face with rounder cheeks, and hazel eyes framed by mascara lashes. He was the beautiful one, Mami liked to say. He looked like her brothers, but he admired me so much that I couldn't hate him. "We can't stay here. Auntie comes and cleans during the day."
"Oh." Cherish put on my old jacket, and while we walked down the street, I held both their hands. They were small and cold, and Cherish's fingers wriggled between mine. She kept looking at me, and I ignored her. I was mad at her for interrupting my daily sanctity, but it was sort of less lonely walking with their steps in my ears.
We lived about a block from Chinatown. There were grandmothers who hung their clothes on lines, babies tumbling around on concrete yards. There were dropouts eyeing us, the ones that came up from New City to get their girlfriends and fuck them in cheap cars with a lot of flashy paint. I didn't look at them because that was the best thing to do, but if I did, some of them smiled. Raymond said hello to anyone who spared us more than a glance until I told him to shut up.
Autumn made the air thinner and the light paler. The brick houses crowded together, and I liked to see the white people moving into refurbished apartments. I liked to see the gringos that moved into the new development a few blocks away, but I wasn't going to take Cherish and Raymond through the freshly paved walkways to see the big gardens and clean windows. I took them down a lot of one-ways instead, until we were outside the Buddhist temple, the one in the square building with the gold statue of Buddha outside it, serenely meditating.
My brother ran to touch the holy figure, and I stopped him. Papi taught me to respect other people's religions like the cross, so I tried to respect Buddha like Jesus, but we weren't there for respect. All six of our hands were icicles, and I pulled my siblings down the alley, to the back of the building. While I was prying at the lock on a big black door my sister finally piped up, "What are you doing, Junior?"
"Are you cold?"
"Then shut the fuck up."
My cuss word made her quiet. Raymond was clinging to my shirt. I got the door open, and we all shuffled into the warm cramped kitchen, empty of people like it always was. I started to raid familiar cabinets. Raymond joined in, and Cherish watched, eyes wide with horror. "I don't want to be here."
"Are you hungry?" I looked back at her, and she nodded. We had the same sorry breakfast every morning, no lunch, and dinner was always leftovers Papi brought back from the kitchen he washed dishes for. Mami still needed a job, but I knew she wasn't really looking. I hated her more while I tore open a package of almond cookies, stuffed a package of egg noodles in my jacket, and lined my pockets with soy sauce packets. "Then come here and help."
Cherish was tentative, but she started to help, and I thought of Papi. He would be angry. He would say we weren't a charity case. Maybe I wouldn't be his favorite anymore, but I knew Cherish and Raymond couldn't tell on me. I knew I was being selfish, but I also knew I was thin. I knew Mami was somewhere fucking her girlfriend. I knew in the very dark place in my stomach, beneath bubbling bile, that I shouldn't care about what Papi thought because he was a bad man, but I thought about his glare like it was God's judgment. "Okay, let's—"
"The fuck?" The woman who stepped into the kitchen was young. She had a lot of shiny black hair and small eyes but her teeth were the tiniest thing about her, especially stuck behind her fat lips. Her flat nose and cheekbones were pretty, but I thought her outfit was weird: a baggy black sweater and neon red leggings, ankle boots and a huge bow in her hair. She gaped at all of us and then strode forward and grabbed Raymond because he was closest and already starting to cry. "Put all that back. What the hell?"
Cherish bawled, and I wanted to make a run for it. I had half-chewed cookie in my mouth and spit it in the garbage, put what I had taken back in the cabinets back on the appropriate shelves. I think the woman was surprised by our cooperation because her grip on Raymond loosened until she was just gently holding him. There was a lot of silence, and I want to tell you something: silence is never golden. Whoever coined that term is a fucking moron. I can think of one time silence was golden but most of the time it's shitty. It's using a roadside portapotty on a sweltering humid day. It's the minutes after a man leaves your bedroom and your thighs hurt like you can't explain. It's knowing you're wrong and won't ever be right.
"How old are you?" the woman asked. She pointed at me.
"Nine." I rubbed Cherish's shoulder. Her wailing was getting on my nerves, and I worried there were other people there.
"Have you done this before?"
She sighed and picked up Raymond, who clung to her like a monkey, burying his face against her shoulder. I wondered if she smelled good because she looked like she would. "You know, this is all charity stuff. Like, if you came in here through the front door you could have anything here? And actually cooked?"
I nodded again.
"Then what are you doing?" She took Cherish's hand, leading us all along, out of the kitchen and back into the alley. "You're lucky it wasn't my dad that caught all of you. Listen, I'm Emily. If you come back here again, come through the front door, and I'll take care of you. Just ask for me."
I realized something: she felt sorry for us. It was written all over her expression like some untalented artist had drawn her face on with a sharpie marker. She set Raymond down, and it pissed me off, the way she kissed Cherish's forehead to make her stop crying. I almost screamed. "I'm not a charity case."
"You're not." She shut the door behind her and reached into her pocket. She gave us each a little red bookmark with an image of Buddha on it, surrounded by intricate flowers and vines. The address for the temple was on the back. Raymond stuffed his in his pocket, and Cherish traced hers with loving detail. I gripped mine so hard it wrinkled and cracked because Emily kept talking. "You're human. Go home, come back after the school day is over, and I'll make you something to eat. Capiche?"
Violently, I shook my head and wrenched my brother and sister away from Emily, back along the streets that seemed to longer, marked with gazes that made me feel like nothing, marked by stop signs that judged my hot furious tears with their hot furious color and all capital letters. When we got back home, marching inside with wind-scorched cheeks and dry knuckles, we felt Auntie's scorn and pretended that we had been at the park. She believed us, and when Mami came home, she whipped us all, especially me. She told me it was my fault, and if I was going to be an idiot, not to involve my sister and especially not my brother.
When Papi came home, he yelled at Cherish and Raymond, didn't give any of us dinner, then took me to his bedroom where he whispered that he was disappointed and stroked my hair and jaw. Mami was in the living room watching a soap opera that I could hear when someone raised their voice. I looked at my feet and memorized the stains on the carpet. There were six big ones, all from liquor, and I could draw their shapes if you asked me to.
I didn't go back to the temple until I was fifteen and stumbled past it, recognizing it by chance in the blur of my vision. I was high on something I can't remember, dizzy, and walked into the warm cube's bright belly, greeted by worshippers and beggars. I walked up to a woman I thought I recognized, one with long black hair and fat lips who was passing out food on paper plates.
"Emily..." I apologized frantically to a bewildered girl until the real Emily appeared from the kitchen, flushed with my embarrassment.
"Hey kid. I see you met my sister." She hastily took me outside because someone yelled in a flurry of other-language, and it was summer out there, drenched with reeking garbage and meandering figures.
We stood by statue of Buddha, and I started to cry. I didn't know why, couldn't fathom anything other than a pain in my sinuses, a rush in my head, but I sobbed until my guts felt sore. I sobbed until my lungs were going to burst, until my knees felt weak, until Emily put her hand on my wrist and smiled weakly. The streetlights jaundiced the sidewalk, and I buried my face against her shoulder. She hugged me, sounding the same, smelling like perfume. "You're human, you know. It's okay to be human."
I know, Emily. That bookmark is still at the bottom of my drawer, crumpled but elegant.