dripping with oil. My mother had given me money in case I got hungry or had an emergency all by myself. I settled on a bench to eat my slice and survey the street. It was the first time I had been alone in the city. In my imagination, Manhattan was a special place where we shopped for good leather shoes or summer reading books at the flagship Barnes & Noble on Eighteenth Street, where we went for dumplings in Chinatown. The Upper East Side was a different Manhattan. Old women with painted faces walked tiny dogs on leashes. The high school Spence girls paraded around in unsupervised packs, laughing and sipping sodas from tall paper cups. To me, they were glamorous, these older girls in dainty ankle socks, their uniform skirts rolled up to their thighs. I wondered if I would ever be like them, as the oil from the pizza dripped over my fingers, and I kept an eye out for my parents who were coming to take me home. It would be months before we heard whether they had decided to let me in. The idea of spence was both problem and promise for my family. My aunt warned my mother against sending me to school with rich kids. They got themselves into the kind of trouble that would slide off them and stick to me. White Upper East Side kids got their hands on drugs easily; they stole vodka from their parents’ liquor cabinets; they had sex in Park Avenue apartments where they spent their afternoons bored and unsupervised. Most of them didn’t believe in God. They lied, cheated, stole, and talked back to their parents. My parents were used to protecting us from the dangers of our neighborhood, Fort Greene. All they had to do was keep us inside. It bothered my younger brother that we couldn’t play in the back of our building like the other kids, but our parents promised us one day we’d thank them for protecting us from something big, like getting shot, or something small, like picking up curse words and the crude habits my mother called malas mañas . Even at my grandmother’s railroad apartment in Bushwick, I was relegated to the couch, where I watched cartoons or soap operas while my grandmother cooked, and my brother enjoyed a few clandestine hours playing basketball down
the block with our male cousins. My grandmother’s logic was simple: the street wasn’t for girls. I was accustomed to this life of tucking into my books, smiling my good-girl smile, and keeping still. In my mind, for someone to say I was tranquila was the highest compliment any little Dominican girl could
of my education my whole life: my mother recited my spelling words with me and learned them herself; my father fought to get me into the best school in our district and the gifted program; he quickly stepped between me and any kid who tried to intimidate me, the rare teacher who doubted my potential.
My aunt warnedmy mother against sending me to school with rich kids. They got themselves into the kind of trouble that would slide off them and stick to me.
get. My rebellions were small, fleeting, and largely unnoticed. Once, I snuck out of the apartment into the hallway where my cousins were playing soccer, and I was so angry at being excluded that I found a way to steal the ball and kick it as hard as I could, up to the ceiling, where it knocked out the hall lights. My uncles came into the hallway, swinging their belts and yelling. They spanked everyone except for me. There would be a repair to pay for, a super to pacify. No one suspected I was the one who had knocked out the light, and while my brother and my cousins got beat, I sat back on the couch, where I should have been all along, while an uncle patted my hair and asked whether I was all right. I was a prized child, especially on my mother’s side, where I was the first granddaughter and the first of our family born in the United States. My aunts, uncles, and grandmother praised and coddled me, kept me on the couch. They warned my mother, “Don’t let her go. You won’t be able to watch her. She’ll change.” My mother sent me all the same. She had dropped out of high school to come to the U.S. to support her family at seventeen. She had worked in factories in industrial Brooklyn and finished college only after she was a mother of two, learning English as she went. My father, a teacher in East New York, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, had a sober sense of what might await me if I didn’t take this leap. They had been champions
They knew how much Spence would ultimately offer me, even if, by the end, it might upend my sense of self. When the acceptance came, and I stepped off the ledge of my old life, they dropped into a freefall too. On the day of my orientation, I went to the annual Spence Family Picnic in the afternoon. My mother and brother met me at an athletic field at the farthest edge of the East Side, by the river. My mother was younger than the other parents, and she likely wore one of her silk blazers, the enormous shoulder pads accentuating the fact that there were just over one hundred pounds of her. I stuck with the other new girls, making jokes and telling little lies to win them over. Elle was the first to approach me. She had rust-colored hair, an explosive laugh, and braces. She ran across the field to welcome me. And there was Cate, who, like Elle, was a Survivor—she’d been at Spence since kindergarten. She was soft- spoken with milky skin and long blond hair, a ballerina whose sisters also went to Spence. And there was another new girl, Kristen, who was transferring from a Hebrew primary school. We sat on benches and strolled around the Astroturf, and I felt surprisingly free, making corny puns and talking about my life in Brooklyn, combining evasion and exaggeration to render what I wanted and keep the rest concealed. It was easy, and I felt like my
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