Watch Us Rise(5)

The train pulls in, more crowded than I expected. I squeeze myself into the jam-packed car. The door closes just as I bump into a man who is trying to keep his balance by holding on to the silver pole that is covered with sweaty hands of all colors and sizes. The train jerks forward, and I grab on to the man’s arm so I don’t fall. “Sorry,” I say.

“No worries.” He steps back as much as he can to make room for me and moves his hand an inch up the pole. I hold on. Then he looks me up and down, leans forward, and says, “I like ’em big.”

I really, really wish I was invisible.

I refuse to look at him. I just stare ahead at the woman right in front of me whose back is to me, so all I can see is her twisted hair pulled back into a bun. I study her neat bun, wondering how she got it to stay that way.

The train chugs along, stops at 175th Street. I wish I could get off here, but the walk is too long. I can feel sweat seeping through my clothes.

The man keeps talking. Maybe to me, maybe to himself. “I sure do like ’em big.”

An elderly woman sitting in front of us clears her throat, loud. I look at her—she eyes me to move to the other side of the train. “There’s a seat over there,” she says, pointing. I can barely squeeze my big body through the maze of people standing. I make my way to the seat, wondering the whole time why this woman told me to move instead of telling that man to shut up.

Once I get to school, I go straight to the auditorium where club sign-up sheets are. We’re allowed to change every year, but pretty much everyone chooses the same club, so when Meg Rivers comes up to me and says, “Oh, so you’re choosing the ensemble again?” I don’t answer her. I mean, I’m literally writing my name on the list when she asks me.

Meg is the best singer in the school—and she knows it, which makes me like her voice a little less. She’s white and rich and thin and so many things I am not. She’s always looking at me with a smile that seems forced, a high-pitched tone in her voice laced with pity or maybe disgust. I’m not sure. I finish writing my name.

As I walk away to find Chelsea, Meg says to the girl next to her, “It’s so brave of her to keep joining the acting club. I mean, it would be one thing if she was just working backstage, but she actually auditions for leading roles.”

My phone buzzes with a text from Chelsea. I walk faster. Their laughter trails behind me, lingers like cigarette smoke.

I find Chelsea at the sign for the poetry club. She hugs me all dramatic, like she didn’t just talk to me this morning. I guess I’m more irritated about how today has started than I realize, because Chelsea lets go of me and says, “What’s wrong?”

On our way to our lockers, I tell her about the man on the subway and the woman who told me to move. And Meg Rivers.

“I hate it when women reinforce sexism,” she says. “And you should have said something to Meg. I mean, she can’t treat people that way.” Chelsea is all fired up now. “If you don’t confront Meg directly, you should at least talk to Mr. Morrison,” she says.

“I am absolutely not going to say anything to Mr. Morrison.”

“Why not?”

“Chelsea, if I spoke up every time someone at this school said a micro-aggression against me, I’d always be saying something. Sometimes for my own sanity, it’s just better to walk away.”

When I say this, Chelsea’s eyes turn sad and she stops nagging me about it.

I used to be so confused that at a school all about social justice, there was still a lot of racism and sexism—and actually all kinds of -isms. But I guess we’re all here to learn how to be better because we know we need to do better. Maybe that’s the whole point.

Just before we get to our lockers, Chelsea says, “Oh, I almost forgot. Isaac asked me to give this to you.” And when she says Isaac, she drags out the syllables and adds extra emphasis. She hands me a brown paper bag. Inside there’s a glazed lemon poppy seed doughnut wrapped in thin, white wax paper. My favorite. I pull it out and take a bite. Chelsea says, “Why is yours so fancy?”

I laugh.

When we get to our lockers, Isaac and Nadine come walking toward us. Nadine’s mom is a celebrity stylist, so Nadine wears the most fashionable outfits out of anyone in this school. Her mom is Japanese, and her dad is Lebanese. She speaks Arabic and Japanese fluently, and she has been to more countries than any of us because she gets to travel with her mom for photo shoots and fashion shows.

We all hug each other, and the first thing Isaac says to me is, “How’s your dad?”

“Okay today,” I tell him. I take what I need and leave the rest of my stuff in my locker. Chelsea does the same.

We all walk together, making our way to our classes.

“What club are you doing this year, Chels?” Nadine asks.

Chelsea says, “Um, if you have to ask I think we need to reevaluate our friendship.”

Nadine laughs. “I was just checking to see if any of us switched it up.”

“I did,” Isaac says.

Chelsea, Nadine, and I all say, “Really?” at the same time.

“Yeah, I wanted to do something different, so I switched from Art and Social Justice to the August Wilson Acting Ensemble.”

“Really?” Chelsea sings. She grabs my hand, squeezes it.

Isaac acts like his decision is no big deal, but we all know how much he loves to draw, how he is always doodling in his notebook. “What about you, Nadine?” he asks. “Still doing Music that Matters?”

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