I take off my white collared shirt and navy pleated skirt, rolling off my socks with the lace trim. I put my school uniform on the bed and grab the Winnie the Pooh tank top next to it, the one with pink hearts around the edges and matching pink shorts. I take my Barbie backpack into the living room of our Atlantic City apartment, placing it beside the white synthetic wood coffee table. The surface of the table is covered in water and Coke stains left from the bottom of drinking glasses, crayon markings, and grey eraser residue. Stacks of lined paper, Highlights magazines, and coloring books are underneath the table.
Ma never wants anything on the tabletop. If we want to keep something, we have to put it beneath the table, or she’ll throw it away. I learned that lesson one night when I heard the sound of paper crinkling and ran out to the living room, crying to keep my drawing of Takuma, my grandmother. But it was too late. “Don’t leave garbage in the living room!” Ma yelled, before she told me to go back to bed.
The living room rug covering the hardwood floor has a red and black Persian design and knotted white fringes. The walls are all white. The back wall has a hole in it where Dada, my older brother, threw a baseball against it. Chunks of drywall fall behind the sofa with an iron burn on it. The wooden ledge on top of the fireplace is covered in dust and chipped white paint, and there’s a paper bag tree and a sock puppet that Dada made. There’s also a bag of Hershey Kisses that Ma keeps out of reach. But I can get to it when I stand on my tiptoes on top of the broken treadmill.
Framed school portraits of Dada and me when we’re in kindergarten are on the ledge. Dada has a blue tuxedo on with a clip-on red tie and one of his front teeth is missing. I’m wearing a pearl necklace and an orange, puffy-sleeved Bengali dress with sewn-in white beads on the front. I have a purple heart-shaped clip in my bobbed hair, and my two front teeth are huge. I still have the same straight-across bangs, but my hair has grown to shoulder-length in the year since the picture was taken. Ma and Baba, my parents, want me to have bangs to cover up the dark moon-shaped birthmark on my forehead. They tell me never to show it to anyone since it’s my secret good luck charm.
Yesterday I came home from school and sat cross-legged beside Takuma on the chipped tile floor of our kitchen. I’m in first grade now, but Ma and Baba told me I’m not old enough to go to my friends’ houses. They said that they don’t trust any of my American friends and that the only true friends I’ll ever have are my family. So I spend most of my time after school with Takuma. I know she’s my real best friend.
In the kitchen, Takuma was squatting, knees bent upwards, heels flat on the floor. She leaned over a cutting board covered in flour, as she flattened dough with a rolling pin. It worries me whenever Takuma sits like that. She always walks unevenly from side to side, a result of chronic knee pain and decaying joints. But she still wanted to make me nimki, my favorite Bengali bread.
“Can I try, Takuma?” I asked, pointing to the rolling pin.
“Heh, asho Bunu!” she said. Of course! Come here, little sister!
I sat in front of her and dipped a ball of dough in flour, using my palm to flatten it onto the cutting board. I took the rolling pin and made a dent in the center of the dough, as I’d seen Takuma do before. She leaned behind me, with her chin resting on top of my head, and placed her hands over mine. I looked at the tendons and veins of her gentle hands, protruding through her delicate skin. My hands were much smaller, with polish-chipped fingernails and smooth, caramel skin. Her hands guided mine as we rolled the dough into an oval-shaped tortilla. I sprinkled kala jeera, black mustard seeds, on top of it.
“Khoob bhalo!” she said, kissing my cheek. Very good!
Takuma and I got up and stood by the stove as I held the thin tortilla. I handed it to her, and she slid it into the dome-shaped korai to fry. I watched the edges turn golden brown in the bubbling vegetable oil.
Last night, after we cooked nimki, Takuma and I sat in the living room while she rubbed coconut oil into my hair and braided it. A lot of girls in Bangladesh do that to keep their hair healthy. It bothers her whenever Baba, my father, takes rubber bands and ties my hair into a matted ponytail, with strands of straight black hair trailing down my neck and forming wisps around my ears. She made him buy coconut oil from the Bengali grocery store down the street. Baba always buys cans of jackfruit in bulk from there, since he knows that Takuma’s jackfruit curry is my favorite. Whenever she cooks it, my nostrils tingle from the cumin, cinnamon, and coriander in the air. The best part of Takuma’s jackfruit curry is the fried, fluffy balls of homemade cheese. I always save them on the edge of my plate to eat last. Ma gets mad if I eat the cheese before it’s cooked into the curry. But Takuma always sneaks me some in her sari.
I fell asleep while Takuma rubbed coconut oil in my hair, deep into the roots and ends. When Takuma feels sick, I tell her to lie down on the sofa, and I put all of my stuffed animals around her. I place wet paper towels on her forehead and arms, and she falls asleep. “I’ll never forget the kindness you showed me,” she’ll say, when she returns to Bangladesh at the end of my first-grade year.
Takuma took the braids out of my hair this morning, as I watched the tendrils unwind into crimped waves. She wanted me to look nice for the first grade spelling bee.
“Good luck, Bunu!” she said, waving goodbye and whispering a prayer, as she watched me walk to school.
I got a lot of compliments at school today. “Your hair looks so nice, Anuradha! How did you get it to look like that?” asked Mrs. Smith, my first grade teacher. She was in her fifties, with caramel skin and coarse white hair, wire-framed glasses and almond eyes. She was heavier set and always wore fleece sweaters, high-waisted pants, and floor-length skirts.
“My grandmother did my hair, since today’s the spelling bee!” I said.
“I wish my grandmother would do my hair!” she said, grinning at me. Later, before I went home today, she gave me a card with a dollar bill inside and a brand new box of Mr. Sketch scented markers. I smiled as I cradled the spelling bee trophy in my hands.
Takuma walks into the living room, past the chipped coffee table. She watches me as I twirl strands of wavy hair around my fingers. “How was school today?” she asks.
I pull the trophy out of my Barbie backpack. “Takuma, I won!” I say, flailing my arms, jumping up and down in my Winnie the Pooh pajamas.
“Oh Ma go!” Takuma says. Oh my God! She strokes my hair and gathers her hands into a prayer motion to thank God.
“I have a surprise for you!” I say. I help Takuma sit down on the green couch, the sponge cushions visible through the holes in the nylon. I pull a file folder out of my backpack, with “Takuma’s English Notebook” handwritten on the front. Earlier today, I asked Mrs. Smith for a folder to give Takuma so I could teach her English. Mrs. Smith smiled, handing me a green folder and sheets of handwriting practice paper, with the two solid green lines and a dashed red line in the middle. She also gave me an extra workbook with stories in it. When I got home from school, I tore out the perforated pages, folded them into booklets, and stapled them in the center. I’m not allowed to use the stapler because Dada got a staple stuck in his finger. But I didn’t want the pages to fall out of Takuma’s stories.
Inside, there are stapled-in sheets of lined paper, with spelling lists followed by my directions to “write each word three times” and “circle the correct spelling of the word.” There are sheets with “Spelling Test” written at the top, numbered from 1 to 10.
“Time for a spelling test, Takuma!” I say.
“What an honor! The spelling bee champion is teaching me!” she says, as we lean over the coffee table, my hand on top of hers as we write each letter. I always give her hints, whispering the phonetics for each letter. She spells all the words on the test correctly.
I show Takuma the Mr. Sketch markers. “My teacher gave me these!” I say, as I take a marker and draw a smiley face and an “A+” on her paper. I turn to a blank page and ask her to pick a marker, as her eyes widen.
“I’m so lucky today!” she says. We take a break and draw flowers, but hers are always prettier than mine. She always uses a pencil to outline flowers on cloth before sewing designs onto the blankets and pillows she makes for us.
Takuma and I practice reading next. I made sure I went to the library before I got home from school. “We’re going to read Green Eggs and Ham today!” I say. I point to each word with my finger, helping her sound out the letters. Sometimes she gets through whole sentences, but she always has trouble pronouncing the soft “S” in English since it’s never used in Bangla.
“I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them, sshh-am I am,” she says.
“Takuma!” I say, as I jokingly smack my forehead. She pulls her sari over her face, pretending to cry. “Ami pari na, Bunu!” she says. I can’t do it, little sister!
I rub her shoulder and gently pull her sari away from her face, pointing to “Sam” again. “Sam,” I say. “Try again Takuma.”
She looks down at the book. I always have her repeat the word back to me until she has it right. “Ssham. Ssssam. Sam,” she says.
“You did it Takuma!” I say, clapping my hands. She smiles self-consciously, hiding her protruding, discolored teeth beneath her puckered carnation lips. Sometimes I poke the sides of her mouth so I can see her real smile.
I always know how to shake my piggy bank at the right angle to get the coins to fall out. I reach into my backpack and pull out the small dry-erase board that I bought at the book fair at school today. It has a picture of Snoopy and Woodstock on the bottom. I hand it to Takuma to reward her for her reading. She wipes away tears with her sari and brushes my hair back, kissing the moon-shaped birthmark on my forehead. Seeing Takuma happy is worth more than the Chuck E. Cheese tokens I was saving up for.
Anuradha Bhowmik is a Bangladeshi-American writer and poet from South Jersey. She is an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech, and she graduated with a B.A. in Women’s & Gender Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015. Anuradha has been awarded a Grin City Collective Emerging Artist Residency, as well as scholarships to the New York State Summer Writers Institute and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Susquehanna Review, The Boiler, and elsewhere.