I am learning to speak.
To give myself a way out. A way in.
When I learned the Spanish word for succeed, I thought it was kind of ironic that the word exit is embedded in it. Like the universe was telling me that in order for me to make something of this life, I'd have to leave home, my neighborhood, my friends.
And maybe I've already started. For the past two years I've attended St. Francis High School on the other side of town, away from everything and everyone I love. Tomorrow is the first day of junior year, and you'd think it was my first day as a freshman, the way my stomach is turning. I don't think I'll ever get used to being at St. Francis while the rest of my friends are at Northside. I begged Mom to let me go to my neighborhood high school, but she just kept telling me, "Jade, honey, this is a good opportunity." One I
couldn't pass up. It's the best private school in Portland, which means it's mostly white, which means it's expensive. I didn't want to get my hopes up. What was the point of applying if, once I got accepted, Mom wouldn't be able to afford for me to go?
But Mom had done her research. She knew St. Francis offered financial aid. So I applied, and once I got accepted, I received a full scholarship, so I kind of had to go.
So here I am, trying to pick out something to wear that doesn't look like I'm trying too hard to impress or that I don't care about how I look. St. Francis doesn't have uniforms, and even though everyone says it doesn't matter how you look on the outside, it does. Especially at St. Francis. I bought clothes with the money I made from working as a tutor at the rec center over the summer. I offered Mom some of the money I earned, to help with the bills or at least the groceries, but she wasn't having any of that. She told me to
spend it on my school clothes and supplies. I saved some of it, though. Just in case.
Mom comes into my room without knocking, like always. "I won't be here tomorrow morning when you leave for school," she says. She seems sad about this, but I don't think it's a big deal. "You won't see much of me this week. I'm working extra hours."
Mom used to work as a housekeeper at Emanuel Hospital, but she got fired because she was caught stealing supplies. She sometimes brought home blankets and the small lotions that are given to patients. Snacks, too, like saltine crackers, juice boxes. Then one of her coworkers reported her. Now Mom works for her friend's mother, Ms. Louise, a rich old lady who can't do much for herself. Mom makes Ms. Louise breakfast, lunch, and dinner, gives her baths, and takes her to doctors' appointments. She cleans up the accidents Ms. Louise sometimes has when she can't make it to the bathroom. Ms. Louise's daughter comes at night, but sometimes she has a business trip to go on, so Mom stays.
I know Mom isn't here just to tell me her schedule for the week, because it's posted on the fridge. That's how we communicate. We write our schedules on the dry-erase board and use it to let each other know what we're up to. I close my closet, turn around, look at her, and wait. I know what's coming. Every year since I started at St. Francis, Mom comes to my room the night before school and starts to give me the Talk. Tonight she's taking a while to get to it, but I know it's coming. She asks questions she already knows the answers to—have I registered to take the SATs yet, and am I still going to tutor at the rec, now that school has started?—and then she says, "Jade, are you going to make some friends this year?" Here it is. The Talk.
"Yes, really. You need some friends."
"I have Lee Lee."
"You need friends who go to St. Francis. You've been there for two years. How is it that you haven't made any new friends?"
"Well, at least I haven't made enemies," I say.
"I have friends there, Mom. They're just not my best friends. It's not like I go to school and sit all by myself in the cafeteria. I'm fine," I tell her.
"Are you sure?" Mom asks. "Because I swear, it's like if you and Lee Lee aren't joined together at the hip, you act like you can't survive."