Loud. Bubbly. Enthusiastic. Confidence in the love of all those around won’t create any other qualities.
My name, Kalpana, full of meaning and chosen by parents wanting, waiting for a child to call their own. On a sultry, sweaty day in a hospital in their native India, “We’ll call her Kalpana, our dream come true.” I am the proud pulsing heartbeat of their imagination made real.
Our young family and our glistening brown skin board a plane to America. We only pack and take with us our hopes and fantasies of the land of opportunity and a rich, fulfilling life for us there. Later this hope swells to encompass the little brother newly blossomed in my mother’s belly.
My large eyes shine with glee at the sight of strangers, radiating the conviction that they, too, will adore. My laughter echoes down the length of hallways, bounces off the walls of whatever room I occupy, and seizes the attention of passersby.
I am two years old.
The big yellow school bus looms up in front of me suddenly and without warning as if all the cruelty, fear, and pain that festers inside it just burst into being. No one in particular is responsible for the dark cloud billowing down the aisle, snaking and weaving through the seats, trapping all poor souls within the closed, cold windows.
Maybe no one will notice me today. Maybe I’ll be invisible. Too bad there’s no color code alerts for social danger. Where am I safest? The front of the bus, the middle, the back? Situated strategically in the bus driver’s line of vision might be too obvious and begging for harassment.
What’s that old saying? They smell your fear?
They smell my fear.
Pinch. Pinch. A painful twist of the skin.
They are flat on their stomachs under my seat. A harmless, childish activity. Are they capable yet of malice? It certainly seems so as it twists and warps their hardly formed features each time they look at me. At this moment, though, they hide from my gaze. Probably makes it easier to do what they feel they must. They can’t see each individual tear as they ooze, reluctant, from my startled eyes and slide down each cheek. Slow and cold.
Their hands hurt less than their words.
“She’s so dirty and gross.”
“I’ve never seen anyone so brown before.”
“Do they take baths where she’s from?”
“Her name is so weird. I can’t even say it. Coconut? Cow patty?”
“I hate her.”
An extra spiteful wrench of the skin around my tiny ankle finally sets me to crying in earnest, though still silent.
“What’s going on back there?”
Relief. Adult intervention. The bus driver’s chin tilts upward as she attempts to make stern eye contact with the offenders in the oversized rearview mirror. They press their little bodies firmly against the floor as though squirming hard enough will allow them to vanish through the solid surface. Their giggles reaching my ears, I know I am the only one who really wishes I can disappear.
I am five years old.
New place. New town. New state. Unfamiliar faces. A fresh start. Awaiting the dreaded attendance call. The customary pause and scratching of the head. “Kal- Kup- Kap- Klap- Kaplanna? How am I supposed to say this—I’m sorry, can you just raise your hand?”
Anna Vangala Jones is the author of the short story collection, Turmeric & Sugar, forthcoming from Thirty West Publishing in May 2021. Her fiction has appeared in Wigleaf, Catapult, & The Margins at AAWW, among others. Visit her online at annavangalajones.com and on Twitter @anniejo_17.