by Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer
On the day of the last game, Sunny climbed into the car with a black eye. The discoloration was barely noticeable on his skin, which was only a couple of shades lighter than mine, but I could not miss the bruise because of the puffiness of his right eyelid.
I pretended nonchalance, although there was a compressed sensation in my chest. Sunny tried to heave his backpack onto the back seat, panting, his breath smelling of orange soda. It took seven attempts because the pack was heavy and almost as big as his torso, and because he had to contend with his coordination skills. I gripped the steering wheel to curb my urge to help.
When the pack finally landed, Sunny attached his seat belt without making eye contact, even with the good eye.
“Good to see you, man,” I said. “How was the day?”
“Great,” Sunny said, staring through the window to where two kids were waving to him in slow motion. I recognized one of them: Bryan Scardino, also a sixth grader, a boy with dirty blond hair that fell in a perfect bowl around his head and teeth that seemed determined to push past his braces. Bryan was of nondescript height, and quite slender, but he had a pugnacity that made him vicious on the basketball court. I gunned the engine. As the car moved towards the two waving boys, I noticed that Bryan was mouthing something.
Sunny turned his face to them as the car moved past, and then he clasped his hands together above his head in the Brown School salute.
“What was he saying?” I said. In the rear view mirror, I could see the two boys laughing.
“Oh, Bryan. That kid,” Sunny said. “He’s a riot.”
“Was he the one that made the black Hindu comment?” Ayomi and I had been speculating about this possibility for a while, given the child’s behavior on the basketball court, but there was nothing we could do without confirmation from Sunny.
Sunny squeaked his fingertips across the dashboard. “I don’t exactly remember,” he said.
This had been the standard response to any probing question since Sunny had started middle school, or rather, since the black Hindu incident.
I decided I would do less harm if I let it go for the moment.
There was still the other, and possibly related, matter. “So we got a call from school,” I said, as casually as I could manage. “We heard you got hurt.”
“Yeah,” Sunny said, presenting me with a waft of orange soda breath and a full, and distressing, view of his face. “See? Black eye. Like Percy Jackson. But it’s minor.”
“Exactly how did it happen?”
“I fell down against the music room door knob.”
“No, Dad,” Sunny said, turning his face to the window.
“Okay, but can you tell me who was with you?”
“Sunny? Was anyone with you when it happened?”
“Maybe,” Sunny said. “Maybe not.”
“Ms. Rienzo said you insisted you were alone when it happened.”
“If I said someone else was there, you’d go and talk to Ms. Rienzo and Mrs. Langley, and tell them someone pushed me.” His voice had gone high-pitched; that should have been warning enough.
“Sunny, I’m just trying to find out if someone else was with you.”
“I don’t exactly remember,” Sunny said. “I think I was alone. I was carrying my trumpet.”
“How can you not remember if anyone was with you?” The words rushed out before I could stop myself.
I knew the conversation was over before Sunny said, “I just don’t,” in a voice that seemed squeezed from a tight space, before he crossed his thin arms across his chest with an air of finality and pressed his lips closed, sealing in the orange soda smell.
Sunny still did not know that we planned to move him from the Brown School to Loyola, a private school not far from where Ayomi worked. Moving Sunny to a new school was the only way we could protect him from what seemed to be happening at Brown, but I knew that convincing him of this was going to be a near-impossible feat.
For some time, Ayomi and I had been second-guessing our relocation to Sandhill, despite its proximity to both our new New Jersey workplaces, and the shining reputation of its public schools. On the Friday before the school year began, at an ice cream social for incoming middle-schoolers and their families, I had noticed how poorly named the Brown School was. I saw two or three children apparently of East Asian origin, but only one child besides Sunny with skin darker than the beige walls of the school corridors. I was relieved to see her: a girl with thick kinky hair and an air of supreme confidence who I thought might be African-American.
Sunny seemed to see nothing amiss. Insisting on independence, he had roamed the unfamiliar school hallways ahead of us, examining the travel routes of Magellan and Vasco da Gama displayed in smudged glass cases outside the library, trying to slide over the varnished blonde flooring of the gym, and admiring students’ art work, which appeared to be tributes to the styles of Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso, pinned to the walls.
When school began, Sunny’s enthusiasm calmed my apprehension at first. Every day, he came home full of talk about Ms. Portenoy, his language arts teacher. This was a woman who regaled her classes with the ostensibly true exploits of her two cats, suspiciously named Mettie and Allie, short for Metaphor and Allegory. Within the first month, a passion for writing burgeoned in Sunny. In elementary school, he had procrastinated over homework assignments for hours, sitting at the dining table drawing stick figures doing jobs he claimed needed no writing: chefs, carpenters, shoe store clerks, rangers, video game testers. But under Ms. Portenoy’s influence, he scrawled page after page in his awkward cursive. Sunny tended to write about bullies and feeling left out, but he said his stories were all fictional. Most of the books he read were about things like that, he said.
Even Sunny’s aversion to science disappeared. This seemed due to the fact that his science classroom opened onto an inner courtyard, where two bird feeders swung from a small maple tree. One was filled, a little at a time, with seeds, and the other with a sugar solution for hummingbirds. The science teacher, Ms. Marasco, rewarded attentiveness and hard work with trips to the courtyard to fill the seed feeder; if kids were lucky, a hummingbird would come by to the other feeder while they were outside. Sunny, intent on winning this privilege, worked harder than he ever had before.
I only began to worry when Sunny mentioned, over dinner one evening, that someone kept calling him a black Hindu.
“Well, isn’t that something,” Ayomi said. She ladled a heap of fish curry onto Sunny’s rice. Since Sunny had started at Brown, she had been making more Sri Lankan meals, filling the house with the insistent smells of curries she had previously made only on special occasions. Meatloaf, spaghetti carbonara, and macaroni and cheese, formerly dinnertime favorites, had been given a back seat.
“It’s an insult. But that’s not right, is it?” Sunny said.
“I can’t count the ways that’s not right,” I said.
“Those words are not insults,” Ayomi said.
“But he says it like an insult. And we are not Hindu, right?” Sunny said. “Hindus go to the temple, like the one Arjun Uncle took us to. They don’t go to church.”
“Right,” Ayomi said, pushing Sunny’s bean mallun to the center of his plate, despite his protests.
“But we are black,” Sunny said, sounding unsure. “Even though you and Dad are blacker than me.”
“Well, we are all dark,” Ayomi said, trying to frame things right. She took the Goldilocks approach to race: you needed to think about it, but not too much, and not too little. “But our race is not black.”
I floundered for a while, trying to answer Sunny’s questions about what exactly race was, until Ayomi said, “Race, well. It has to do with where people are from.”
“More or less,” I said.
“And you know where we’re from,” Ayomi continued. I wondered why the discussion seemed so much more uncomfortable than the dozens of others we’d had about the origins of our family.
“But we’re American,” Sunny said.
“Sri Lankan-American,” I said.
“And that means not black Hindu,” Sunny said.
“I’m not surprised someone at Brown would say this. The level of ignorance,” Ayomi said, sotto voce.
“It was just some clueless kid,” I said, although I had been thinking the same thing.
“But that means the parents…” Ayomi said. “I told you, we should look around at other schools. What if this is only a small symptom?” And to Sunny, “Who said this, anyway?”
“Just some clueless kid,” Sunny said, looking at her over his water glass. Then, “Why do you want to look at other schools? Brown is the best school.” He clasped his arms over his head in the Brown salute. He did it at least once a day, it seemed. “Ignorance is like a headache. If you give it enough time, it goes away.”
That made me laugh. Sunny was like a sponge; I never knew where he picked up the statements he would let out.
“True, sometimes a headache just goes away,” I said. “But sometimes it means something more serious.”
“Brain cancer,” Ayomi muttered, too softly for Sunny to hear. “That’s why we need to know who said this,” she said more loudly. “So we can make sure he understands.”
“Remember the thing about bullying?” I said. “You have to tell us, so we can help. Or put you in a more suitable school.”
“I am a man now,” Sunny said, licking a curry splatter off his wrist. “I can deal with things. And Brown is the best school.”
“Sure you can,” Ayomi said. “And Brown is pretty good. But we need to know.”
“So who said it?” I said.
Sunny swallowed the last of his rice and curry. “I don’t remember exactly.”
After that evening, Sunny’s daily reports about school became less detailed, or rather, more positive. On several occasions, he came with injuries, a weal here, a bruise there. Getting nothing from Sunny, Ayomi and I went to see the principal, Mrs. Langley, a gray-haired woman with a placid demeanor and under her frilly clothes, the physique of a wrestler. She wore white ankle socks with her black pumps, which made her look incongruously child-like.
“There have been no reports involving Sunny,” she said, evening out a stack of papers on her desk. “But kids and accidents, you know how they are.” She hesitated. “And some of the kids—I am not sure about Sunny—they’re still developing their coordination. You know, sometimes I’m walking behind someone on the stairs, or even in the corridor, and then they’ll trip. Just over their own feet.” Mrs. Langley laughed. “It’s that age, isn’t it?”
I was sure Mrs. Langley had walked behind Sunny on at least one occasion. Sunny had a knack of tangling on his own feet and falling flat.
“Sunny’s getting a lot better, though,” Ayomi said. I could see she was not buying the principal’s placating attitude. “Which is why we were wondering why he still has so many scrapes and bruises.”
“He participates in the games, right?” Mrs. Langley said.
“Oh, he loves the basketball,” Ayomi said. The YMCA that adjoined the school had after-school sports programs for children from Brown. Sunny was on a basketball team. “We’ve tried to persuade him to wait for the soccer season instead, because then height won’t limit him, but he says basketball is what he wants.”
“Well, good for him for sticking it out,” Mrs. Langley said, rising to her feet. “And don’t worry so much. He’s doing great. The teachers would know if there was a problem.”
But Ayomi and I both knew it was not that simple, and that a kid could be ostracized or even bullied without teachers having a clue. We knew this because we had grown up as first-generation immigrants, Ayomi in Tennessee, and I in Alabama. We had met in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we had gone to college to escape our school histories, and where we had remained until coming to Sandhill. In the Bay Area, we had only had to go to the market to be instantly surrounded by people speaking in the languages of five continents.
Sunny said helicopter parents were a pox on kids, and that stunted independence could follow a kid forever. I reassured him, but I worried, watching the way Sunny emerged alone at the end of the school day, the way kids like Bryan Scardino did stupid things like wave in slow motion or laugh after Sunny walked by, the way no one passed him the basketball at the after-school games, and the way the welts and bruises continued, unexplained.
At the YMCA’s entry door, Sunny keeled over, apparently tripping on air, before bouncing up and rocketing indoors. His lime green tee-shirt had the name of the team sponsor, ‘Hefty Hal’s Hauling” on the back. The shirt looked like a mean joke on his small frame, and his black eye, purplish now and more visible, did not help his appearance.
“He could very well have got the shiner on his own,” I whispered to Ayomi.
“Or not. I wish we could ask the parents. I bet they would have heard something,” Ayomi said, but we both knew the other parents were not going to tell us anything. A clannish backwater, Ayomi called Sandhill. Being less than an hour from Manhattan, it was not a backwater, but it was clannish. Most of the parents were at least second-generation Sandhillers, and they roved in cliques that were closed to newcomers.
The game had already begun when we entered the crowded section of the gym where Sunny’s team was playing. The place reeked of Doritos.
“Aagh. Red again,” Ayomi muttered, as we hurried past the packed bleachers to the end area where we usually sat. This was the fourth time in the twelve-week season the greens had played the reds. I felt the same disgust. Bryan Scardino was on the red team, along with a friend of his, Cameron Wilder, a child with a loutish build and muscled calves that could have belonged to an eighth or ninth grader. When those two were there, I never stopped anticipating trouble. I perched on the edge of my bench, determined to call out the perpetrator if I saw another foul.
Sunny was the shortest kid on the court. The next shortest was a slightly bow-legged but outstandingly athletic child named Grayson, also on the green team, who could leap high enough to knock the ball from the tallest players’ hands. Sunny not only did not have that ability; he seemed barely able to stay on his feet. What he lacked in athleticism, he made up for in enthusiasm, though. As soon as the whistle blew, he was ready, his knees bent, prancing, and occasionally wobbling, from foot to foot, his arms outstretched. He kept screaming, “Here, over here!” This was how it always was. His eagerness was painful to watch.
As usual, I kept willing someone to pass him the ball. On one level, I could understand why no one did; they were competitive little twerps, future stockbrokers and corporate lawyers, no doubt, and they wanted to win. The two or three times Sunny had managed to snatch the ball off the floor, he had lost it within seconds. His dribbling skills left a lot to be desired, and his throwing aim was pitiful. But I wanted someone to give him a chance. He was barely eleven, for Christ’s sake! Couldn’t they see he had to mess up a few times to learn to play?
The parents nearby were yelling instructions and encouragement as they always did, not only to their own kids, but to those of others as well. They seemed to know everyone’s names. I had never heard any of them call Sunny’s name, but then Ayomi and I did not call his name either. We sat in our corner of the Doritos-scented bleachers, Ayomi biting her nails and I with my back tensed, our eyes fixed on Sunny and the ball that never went to him.
“How’s the eye?” Ayomi said in the half-time break, when Sunny came to get a drink of his orange soda.
“Mom!” Sunny whispered, looking around surreptitiously. This embarrassment had only appeared recently; before Sandhill, he had wanted to describe every ache and pain he had. “It’s fine.”
“Feeling tired, man?” I said. “You’re really moving out there.”
“I wish someone would pass me the ball,” he mumbled.
“You can’t keep waiting for it,” I said. “Go after it. Knock it out of someone’s hands.”
“I’m trying, okay?” he said, and I realized he was about ready to cry.
In the back of my mind had been the idea that a bad experience at the season’s last game might catalyze a readiness to leave Brown. Loyola kids had their own after-school programs, so they did not play at the Y. But now, I wanted Sunny to get passed the ball at least once, and I wanted some child to make a jackass of himself trying to bully Sunny in full view of everyone. Sunny could leave Brown vindicated.
Sunny had to sit out the third quarter; with eight kids on each team, some had to sit out a quarter. I could see he was livid about it. He sat cross-legged courtside, his hands clenched between his knees.
The game was getting heated. The green team coach, a rangy guy wearing a Knicks hat sideways and track pants too low on his hips, was no more than a kid himself, probably a high-school senior. Clearly, he was determined to win. He sprinted by the side of the court, hollering directions. Whenever a kid missed an obvious opportunity, he clutched his head in both hands as if it were about to explode.
At the three-quarter time break, the score was 8:10, with red leading. Sunny was already pacing, waiting to get back on the court. I called to him, waving the soda bottle as an incentive. Clambering reluctantly up the bleachers, Sunny tripped on some unseen obstacle. For a second, he lay there, ignoring the hands of two nearby parents who had reached out to him. I could see how discouraged he looked. When he got up, there was a bleeding, dime-sized scrape on his knee, the pink easily visible on his skin.
“Okay, man?” I said, when he reached us and grabbed the soda bottle.
“Yes, fine,” he hissed, although his eyes had filled with tears. Then after glugging soda and swatting at the orange stream of it that cascaded down his tee-shirt, he said, “It doesn’t even hurt.”
“Okay, you listen to me,” I said in his ear. “Go out there and play. Remember, that ball is yours. Don’t wait for someone to give it to you.”
Sunny nodded and clomped off, his face set. He tripped on the bottom step, but managed to catch himself before he fell.
When the game resumed, Sunny kept trying to grab the ball, although his efforts came to nothing. Even when half of the quarter was gone, when I thought he had to be tiring, he jumped at the ball in Cameron Wilder’s hands. He could have been a gnat for all the trouble he caused Cameron. But Sunny did not give up. He ran after the ball, tripping over his own feet and springing up, clawing crazily at the air whenever the ball was in someone’s hands.
The problem, besides the lack of coordination, was that he did not have the reach he needed.
When the ball reached Bryan Scardino, Sunny leaped high, trying to bat it away, and Bryan elbowed him aside. Sunny fell as easily as if he had been a cardboard cut-out, but when he landed on the floor, there was a resounding thwack that echoed across the gym.
“Foul! That’s a foul!” I shouted, and only then realized I was on my feet, my fist raised. There was a lull in the parents’ chatter. In the hush, I heard my heart racing, and the crackle of my shirt sleeve as Ayomi tugged at it, trying to get me to sit down. Bubble gum popped nearby.
“Don’t go nuts,” Ayomi whispered.
But I stayed standing. “Are you going to call it?” I called, raising my voice further.
The coaches, green and red, were staring up at me. The referee waved as if he had already been moving forward to call the foul. Sunny was on his feet, pretending he did not know who I was, although that was futile since Ayomi and I were the only people there who matched his skin color.
“Good on you,” one of the parents sitting near us said. He was a beefy gentleman with the look of an aging skinhead. His ears stuck perpendicularly out of a head shaved smooth.
“I think he would have called it anyway,” said another parent, a woman with ropy arms and dark hair scraped into a high pony tail, who seemed too painstakingly dressed for a kids’ basketball game. “That one, he couldn’t have missed.”
“What’s your son’s name?” the woman sitting next to Ayomi asked her. The bubblegum was hers; she popped it again. Its smell, strawberry, drifted over to where I was standing.
I went back to watching the game rage on. The green coach had got more excitable, and the parents were yelling from every direction. Sunny was hanging back now. Instead of sitting back down, I ran down to the side of the court, ignoring Ayomi’s attempt to hold me back.
“Sunny, get in there!” I yelled. “Move up, over there.”
Sunny turned, looking horrified at my intervention, and then he ran into the thick of it, swiping energetically at the air near the ball. The ball was passed, but to Grayson, not Sunny.
There were chants of “Shoot, Grayson, shoot!” from the parents. Sunny was yelling too, with his fists pumping, so I joined in, shouting, “Grayson, shoot!”
Grayson shot and made the basket and the parents began to cheer and howl. Sunny sped over to thump Grayson on the shoulder, although he could barely manage it with everyone else’s long arms in the way. The grin on his face was as wide as when he beat me on the Wii, playing Super Smash Brothers. He ran in a little circle, pumping his fist and saying, “Yes! Yes!”
When there were only three minutes left on the clock, I realized we had lost the chance for a win. The red coach had whipped the reds into a single-minded ferocity, and they dribbled and passed with a feverish focus, moving ever closer to making the final basket that would win them the game. All the green team had to do was keep them from doing that, I thought. Sunny would be okay with a draw. I stood courtside, and joined the other, seated, parents in shouting directions to every kid who had an opportunity to get in the reds’ way.
Ayomi came down from the bleachers to stand beside me. “Calm down,” she said, but then she got caught up in the urgency of the moment too, and started screaming to Sunny and Grayson and the rest of the boys whose names we knew from the parents’ yelling.
When there was less than a minute left, amazingly, the green team got the ball. They started to pass it to each other. Sunny, Sunny, pass it to Sunny, I willed those boys. But it was to Grayson that the ball went. He was almost under the basket. No reds were around. Grayson took aim carefully, and shot. The ball headed straight for the basket. And hit the rim. It bounced and went rolling away, amid a collective groan from the parents and the kids. Only ten seconds were left, not enough time for another try, but I was confident that Sunny would at least be pleased the reds had not won.
People had begun rustling in the bleachers, laughing and consoling each other about the draw and gathering their things, when a slow thudding began. Then I saw Sunny. He was hunched awkwardly over, dribbling with low careful bounces, moving slowly towards the basket. Time took on a different meaning. Nothing else seemed to move, not the coaches nor the referee, not the boys on the red team nor the boys on the green. Only Sunny moved, slowly, bent over like a feeble old man, and the ball, with its heavy thuds. Yards away from the basket, Sunny straightened with the ball in his hands and aimed. The ball sailed through the air, seemingly in slow motion. There was no time left for it to reach the basket, but it did. The sound of it sliding in was lost in the long beep of the clock hitting zero.
A dumbfounded quiet descended. It lasted only a moment, and then the place erupted with a roar that rose to a deafening pitch. Behind me, parents were on their feet, cheering and applauding. The green team rushed Sunny; in seconds, he was teetering on their shoulders, beaming, his teeth stained orange from his soda, his hands raised in the Brown School salute. He was only there for a moment, and then he toppled down, giggling, scattering the group of kids.
It was Bryan Scardino who reached to give him a hand up. “Hey, good job,” I heard Bryan say.
I climbed the bleachers to gather our belongings. Ayomi was wiping her eyes.
“That was fantastic!” the pony-tailed mother said, squeezing Ayomi’s arm.
“I’ve been waiting all season for him to do that,” the egg-headed man said, extending his hand. His name was Dudley, it turned out. He said his family owned the bakery on the corner of Pinecrest Road.
“And with that shiner,” another man, who introduced himself as Bruce, the father of twins, Dean and Grace, said. “Grace said she saw him fall against the music room door today. Acted like a tough guy, she said. Not a peep out of him.”
I nodded. “That’s Sunny,” I said, watching Sunny doing the Brown School salute. I slipped Sunny’s orange soda bottle into my jacket pocket. I had a feeling that Sunny had been right about Brown; sometimes headaches were not worth too much thought.
Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer‘s short fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and her essays and short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Notre Dame Review, The Summerset Review, Quiddity, Stand, r.kv.r.y, Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, and several other venues. Her website is: www.ruvaneevilhauer.com.