The year my father built his Zerega house—a two story ramshackle with mirrors for walls and fake marble chips in the rose beds—was the year I joined my storytelling contest. It was my mother, really, who pushed me that way, but it was my fifth grade teacher who was right. Your destiny was laid out for you, if only you chose to read the signs.
My father, plunging the toilet, complained early on that she had picked “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters” because she was black. My mother, wiping the tile sludge around him, declared, “You sound like an Indian girl telling a Xhosa story in a Bronx accent.” But in her sun washed classroom every afternoon, Mrs. Chapman wound her hair into a bun and reassured me it didn’t matter what I read, so long as I told it right.
So every night, as my father hammered those mirrors into walls, I orated to sea critters I imagined in the basement; and all weekend, as my mother held a flashlight over him, I thumbed through fairytale books for girls like me. Storytelling Scheherazade, lost ‘lil Thumbelina, and the surprise Princess and her surprise Pea. Even my parents, who could recite Wordsworth poems and name forty Ahom kings, batted the Funny Mystery of Me over the marigolds they were digging.
“The teacher,” my mother muttered, “called Nirmali shy in class, wild at recess.”
My father tapped his forehead. “The daughter of Buddha will do great things in the world.”
“The hospital,” my mother declared, “gave us a demon child.”
My father glared at her. “Our last name means dynasty of king.”
“Sure,” my mother said, handing me a trowel, “we’re royalty.”
What were we doing, living on a Lydig block of old Jews, midway between the white Italian mafia houses and the highrise clotheslines that fluttered panties and Puerto Rican flags? Why were we fixing a dirty brick house we weren’t going to keep, that we meant to sell to the only sort of people who’d move to Zerega, black and brown? My why bother to reply parents fretted over the three hallway arches instead—turtling one arch per week—giving up when the wood cost more than they expected. It’s ok, they told each other about that last unframed arch. Buyers would remember what they saw first. But I thought, no, even with my crooked eyes, I’d notice the plain arch, the way the fancy front made the naked back look bad.
My father pointed me to the mirrors and grunted, “Go watch yourself talk.” He never noticed how I tripped over the toolbox, how I pressed against the glass to focus the tears zigzagging down my cheeks, how I heard my girlfriends’ dirty chanting over my humdrum words. Aboard the public school bus, they had drawn stick figures undressing and doggie humping. The fact that two people would go through all that trouble only to regret me meant I was out-of-this-world.
[Continued in Confrontation 111]