Alice – Episode 6: Meeting the Neighbors
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
That first day, we made quick polite stops at every house on the block, both sides of the street. Like Jack had figured out, it was a bedroom community, so most houses we ended up tucking the flyers into the edge of the front door. I was going to put the first one in a mailbox, but Jack stopped me. “That’s a federal offense,” he said in that serious lecture tone he shared with Mom. “They probably wouldn’t care, but it’s best to avoid trouble when you can.” I was burning to know more about Jack and trouble, considering all Mom had shouted when he first arrived, but I hadn’t even figured out what to call him. Grandfather was way too formal, Grandpa didn’t really fit either. I thought of him as Jack, but I didn’t normally call adults by their first name – at least not anyone over thirty. “We’ll go back out in the evening,” said Jack. “After dinner. And on the weekend. Take our time and let people get to know us.” That evening, Jack went straight for the house where he’d seen the girl with her head covered. It turned out one of the Apu families was Muslim, from Pakistan, but the other was Hindu, from India. Their dads were doctors at the same office. There was a Hindu girl my age, Ambar, and two Muslim brothers a little older than us, Yusuf and Karim. While Jack chatted with the fathers, Ambar and I sat in her backyard talking with the boys. Her mother kept an eye on us from the kitchen. “I’d never have been allowed to have Muslim boys for friends if we were still in India,” Ambar said. “And when it’s time for me to marry, my parents are going to insist on a nice Hindu boy.” Yusuf, who was sixteen, laughed. “Our parents would be furious if they knew how casual we are at school with the other kids. They wouldn’t want us marrying outside our religion, either.” “I don’t know if I’ll ever get married, and I don’t even go to church,” I said. “We celebrate Christmas, but that’s because everybody does.” “Don’t tell our parents,” said Karim. “That’s worse than being a Christian!” “Definitely,” said Ambar. “So you girls are going to be in high school with us this fall,” said Yusuf. “You’ll probably get Mr. Zeller for math,” said Karim. “He’s a complete burnout—he should have retired years ago. Whatever you do, don’t correct him if he makes a mistake.” We chatted for an hour about the different teachers and what high school was like. We were all friends by the time Jack finished talking with their fathers and said it was time to head home. I told him how nice they all were. “I can’t believe they’ve been on the bus for three years and they never talked to me before.” “They were probably waiting for you to make the first move, Nina. After all, they’re in a country where half the people see someone whose skin’s a little different, who talks with an accent, and immediately they’re suspected of being a terrorist.” I considered that. “Maybe. And I’m usually doing homework or reading.” I started to wonder what other potential friends had never tried to talk to me. “I don’t talk much with anyone else on the bus, either.” “Well, don’t feel bad. They’ve had each other for friends.” Jack laughed a little and slipped into teaching mode. “That definitely wouldn’t have happened if their fathers hadn’t gone to med school together. When India and Pakistan were split apart by religion, the lines weren’t as clear as the politicians tried to make them. It got ugly.” Mom using that tone would leave me bored and looking for a way out. Jack made it feel like he was sharing important secrets, so I didn’t mind. I wanted to share, too. “Ambar wouldn’t be allowed to be friends with the boys anywhere else.” “I’m surprised they let it happen here,” said Jack. “But maybe they figure it’s unavoidable, and they can manage it this way.” It was too late to go anywhere else that night, but we went out every evening after dinner. Three of the houses we visited later that week belonged to university professors. Jack talked with the couples about new developments in stem cell research, globalization vs. isolationism, and the social resistance techniques of Gandhi. In the last discussion, Mr. Parker, a young professor of Social Justice classes, eagerly listened to Jack describing the Berkeley protests he had participated in, with Mom strapped onto his chest. He asked if Jack would be a guest speaker in the fall. “I’ll have to let you know,” said Jack. When I told Mom how much Jack knew about so many different things, she still said he was full of shit. She used that word a lot whenever he was near her, and they argued almost every time they were in the same room—about personal stuff or world affairs, anything and everything. Jack’s check came to our house the first of July and he insisted on giving Mom some of it for room and board, which was probably why she quit saying he had to leave. She was getting more and more stressed about money and not having a new job lined up for the fall. She was on the computer all day every day, putting in applications all over the country. She told Jack she wasn’t putting our house up for sale until she knew where she’d be working in the fall. There was still a chance a French teacher would leave mid-summer, somewhere close enough for her to commute. I finally decided to call my grandfather Jack, like Mom did. I tried it out on him alone first, then at dinner. Neither of them noticed. At least they didn’t say anything about it.
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