Sometimes, when I find myself in the company of city friends I remember the Brooklyn house. It wasn’t a house really, but that’s what we used to call it, five people crammed into our tiny one bedroom apartment atop a flight of stairs. There was a luxury to it then because we weren’t yet accustomed to more. We had mice and cockroaches that co-habited our digs, but we made it work. I would hunt down the mice with my mother till they were trapped in a corner looking up at their deaths, with shoes and hammers I would smash them. This is what my mother and I did for the most part of the day. She would cook before my father came home and I would practice my letters. On laundry days she would dress me up and take me with her to the Laundromat, but sometimes I got lucky and she would give me a big pile of clothes to wash with me in the shower. I would throw them on the floor of the tub and stomp with my tiny little feet watching the colors mixing their way down the drain. She would always set aside an hour or two for later when she would pick a library book and make me follow the words till I understood what it meant. It was difficult to concentrate over the noise of the TV but I seem to have managed. We had thin red carpets spread across two rooms, tiles in the kitchen, a full sized mattress, a sofa bed, a dresser, a TV and a fridge. The bedroom had two closets, one right next to the other. I remember my father putting in a plank of wood above the clothing rack so we’d have a shelf to store our winter things when the weather picked up. I used to climb up there and hide amongst the tiny stacks of clothing my mother gathered thrift store hunting and rummaging through thrown out bins of garment factory clothing. This was before old, used clothing was in style.
The garment factories were around the back of my house, between second and third avenue on thirty-sixth street. My mom found a job in one when I was in elementary school. There’s a stereotype in the United States of Asian women working in garment factories, created by the capitalist first world and the convenience of sweatshops and secondary human beings in the third world, but my mother was far from just another statistic. Emigrating from Bangladesh to a country where the language was foreign and the skills needed were not ones she had known, she got a job at the only place she could, the first world sweatshop down the block. She would come home sometimes and say the Spanish women who go into the manager’s office get paid more than she does. I didn’t know then what she meant. I didn’t know of the world yet, or things.
My brother used to walk me to school then, P.S 172, our very own beacon of excellence. I was his pet dog and he would wrap his fingers tightly around my neck, arm outstretched, squeezing harder if I wasn’t walking fast enough. Sometimes we would pass other kids from my class and I would find it difficult to smile so I would look down and pretend I didn’t see them, but they always saw me and they always knew better than to ask about the red marks on my neck between our intervals of work.
There was that one day when I was in the first grade and my brother had left without me so my mother reluctantly allowed me to walk myself. Determined at heart but I walked with caution and fear, always looking back to see if there was anyone around but making sure they were far enough from me that they couldn’t do me any harm. When I was about a block away from school, a police car on the street turned on its siren. I didn’t trust cops, not even then so I kept walking trying not to walk faster but definitely not slowing down. One of the officers stepped out and called to me, told me to get into their car. I froze. I was not going to get into a car with two strange men; it didn’t matter to me that they had badges and a uniform because underneath it all I knew they still had cocks and fingers. There was a mother on the sidewalk walking her daughter to school and she told the officers she would walk me the rest of the block to the school. They reluctantly agreed and followed closely in their vehicle. At the entrance I thanked the brown haired Hispanic woman, more with my eyes than my mouth, signed my name in the late book and raced up the stairs to my classroom.
By the time I got settled, put my backpack in the closet, my first grade teacher asked me to leave; “go wait for me in the auditorium,” she said. I went into the giant room full of empty seats, the sounds of my tiny feet tapping and echoing. I waited for what felt like a good half hour. When my teacher finally came she asked me in a soft voice if I knew why I was there. I shook my head. Her pupils dilated and the floor shook with the sound of her roaring voice, her plump face as red as a ripe cherry ready for picking and her crazy curls bobbed on top of her head. I didn’t understand the words spitting out of her gigantic mouth, I just saw the foam gathering by in the corners of her lips and her face as fat as a balloon getting so big and red I thought she’d explode.
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