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First thing you need to know about Edgehaven is that no one called it that. Anyone who’s anyone knows: It’s “The Pits”.
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I stood outside the office. Ma was inside talking to the counselor. Bits of their conversation floated past the door, but I was too focused on the cockroach in the corner. It was massive. Its body glinted where the light struck. If not for its antennae that twitched ever so often, I would’ve mistaken it for dead.
Black Mary Janes pivoted. Could cockroaches squeal? My gaze rose up white socks, a pleated navy skirt, white polo shirt, smooth brown skin and then her face, expressionless. Her black hair was tied in a high ponytail of stiff, straight wisps. We stared at each other.
“You new?” she said. Maybe it was the way her bottom lip jutted out, or the arch of her eyebrows, or the way she stood with her hands on her hips, feet spread, cockroach underneath—something about her demanded presence.
I nodded. She looked me up and down.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Reah.” Ray-uh. “What grade you in?”
“Fifth,” I replied.
The Pits were what they sounded like. The stinking armpit of the otherwise gleaming highrises and quirky brownstones of New World City, it was where all the ethnic ghettos met in a confusion of borders and intersections. Nothing matched. Nothing was planned. Everything appeared a chaos of noise and colors and smells. Some streets, you could clearly see the division. Not on Main Street though, where Granny Le’s Little Vietnam squatted next to Kreole Kitchen, which threatened to be overtaken by the standoff between Caliente Kimchi and The Fried Chicken Shack, all the while The Taj Mahal, a little hole in the wall, asserted itself with an aggressive flexing of garlic and turmeric and cumin. “The smell never leaves,” Mrs. Kim from Caliente Kimchi would mutter, but when she opened their kimchi storage room, the whole street swayed.
“Psst. Sara. Sara!”
Reah’s head popped out from behind the corner. My foot hovered by the classroom door. “Wanna dip?”
I had only been in school for a month, but already, I was getting tired of it. Reah and I had developed a kind of friendship. We would both finish the classwork quickly, check our answers with each other, ask to go to the bathroom five minutes apart, then spend the rest of the period wandering the halls. But skipping school?
I had never skipped school before. If Ma found out, I was dead for sure. But I wanted to get closer to Reah. I wanted to make a real friend.
It wasn’t hard sneaking out. A quick walk brought us to the neighborhood playground.
There, we found four people on the jungle gym.
“Hey, this is Sara. Sara, this is Michael and Jaime. They’re in middle school,” Reah informed me. Michael, long and lanky and lounging on the swings, nodded cooly at her. Jaime, cat-eyed with close-cropped hair, slept at the lip of the slide next to him.
“There’s one more of us,” Reah said. “Where’s Daniel?”
“He’s there,” Jaime replied, eyes still closed. And a minute after, there he was, bouncing down the street swinging a bag full of candy.
“Jaime knows magic,” Reah whispered.
“Want some?” Daniel tossed the bag onto the ground with a ring-pop-adorned hand. “I got some Mexican candies too.”
I glanced at Reah. “The crew’s all together now,” she said. She was glowing. It was the first time she looked just happy.
It was the small things: Michael tossing me vero mango lollipops without me asking. Reah completing my sentences and I hers. Popping the car tires of the old man who looked at Jaime, their hair, their slender body, and said loudly, now what the hell are you? Going to the playground on my own to find the others there, waiting for me. The days waxed and waned, school was boring on the days I decided to go, my grades began to drop, but it didn’t matter to them, so it didn’t matter to me. Hardly a day passed where I didn’t see at least one of the others, but some days, I didn’t even see Ma or Ba. Most of us were like that. Our parents existing as the door slamming in the morning and the keys jangling at night. But who even cared? The neighborhood was our playground, The Pits our guardian angel. We, our own family.
Granny Le stood in front of Little Vietnam with hands on her hips.
“Here, I have some things you might like.” She gestured to the cardboard box at her feet. I looked in. It looked like a heap of attic memories, the kinds so useless they could never be thrown away. I picked up the aviator goggles.
“If you like, you take,” Granny Le said.
“Where’d you even get these?” said Reah. She turned a dusty diadem over in her hands and wiped its star-shaped gem with her shirt.
Granny Le shrugged. “Just found them.”
It was Daniel’s idea to come up with the names. “Come on, it’ll be cool! Like we’re superheroes” He had taken a necklace with a yellowed wishbone from the box. “Call me Y-man,” he proclaimed. “You know, like, why, man?” He laughed so hard he choked on his spit.
That’s how Reah, sticking with the diadem, turned to Ree, and Michael, reluctantly picking a headband with Mickey Mouse ears, became Mika. I stared at my reflection made alien by the polarized lenses, then pulled them on. “Spacey,” I said, and it felt right.
Jaime smiled. In their hand was a whistle the color of orange juice. “June,” they said, and blew the whistle. The sound split the air, and I swore The Pits vibrated in the aftermath.
“Here, I take picture of you all,” said Granny Le. She bent and fished out a polaroid from the box. “1...2….”
Honestly, the photo was kinda crappy. Ink faded, our faces blurry—but you should’ve seen us. Y in front, mouth frozen in a howl of laughter. Smirking Ree with an arm around June, holding the whistle to their face, hands touching as if in prayer, eyes plotting. Michael had his arms outstretched, encircling us all in a hug. And then there was me. I wasn’t even looking at the camera but at everyone else.
Something changed that day. We became something more. We were superheroes. Protectors of The Pits. We made our mark on the walls in chalk and made sure everyone knew. Yeah, we thought ourselves bigger than life. More eternal than time. Unmatched. Unbreakable. Undefeatable.
Who knows when things began to unravel?
“Hey, did you guys hear?” Y was panting from running. It was one of those summer days, meaning we were starfished around the playground. The heat was a sedative.
“The deal went through. The company here last week—East River Company or something—bought all of Lewis and Parker Street. They want to make a—I dunno, like a shopping center or something. You know what this means?” Y’s eyes jumped nervously from one face to another. “Everything on those streets will be gone. The shops, the apartments, my home…”
Summer came and went and came again. Mika, the oldest of us, turned 16 and got his working papers. Granny Le didn’t speak to him for a week when she found out he was skipping school to work. But what else could he do? His parents’ divorce went through, and he had four little sisters and a lola with diabetes and a mother who could only do so much. We didn’t see him much at the playground after that.
“How’s school?” Ma asked casually one night. I had started high school three months ago.
“It’s okay,” I mumbled into my rice.
“Really? Then what’s this?” She threw my report card on the table. I was failing half my classes.
“You didn’t care in middle school,” I muttered after she was done yelling.
“I didn’t come to America and make the sacrifices I did so you could run around on the streets. You think I work 14 hours a day for that? That Ba works on weekends for that?”
The doorbell rang. I shoveled all my rice into my mouth and scrambled to the door. It was Ree.
“Hi Mrs. Kong!” Ree called sweetly. She knew Ma didn’t really like her.
“No,” Ma said to me in English.
“Come on, just this last time?” I pleaded.
“Where are you going? The Northwest side again?” Ma switched back to Chinese. “That side is dangerous. The people there are all lazy and drug addicts. I was mugged there last month, you know?” Her voice softened. “Look, Ma and Ba just want the best for you. You’re young so you don’t understand now, but when you grow up, you will thank us.”
“But Reah lives on the Northwest side—”
“I’m saying in general.” She sighed. “No, you can’t go. Absolutely not.” Her eyes flicked to Ree. “And don’t hang out with her anymore.”
I swallowed hard and turned to Ree. “Sorry, I can’t come tonight.” She searched my face. “What did she say?”
“Nothing,” I replied quietly. I never wanted to crawl out of my own skin so badly.
Ree smiled reassuringly. “It’s okay…see you tomorrow Spacey.”
I slumped back to the dinner table.
“Maybe—” Ma set down her bowl and chopsticks, “—it would be better if we moved you to a different school.”
I suppose you should know. I come from a family of movement. Ma began leaving at seven to attend school in the next village over. Ba started moving around that time too, except through fields of rice and cotton. After marrying, they left China together for Australia, then after a few months for Canada, then to America. Always coming. Always going. When you do that for long enough, everything becomes a kind of leaving. I learned that quickly. You might stay in a place for four years, but that was just a four year process of leaving. I was sick of it.
Where was home? Where was I from? I guess home was The Pits. But it also wasn’t. I was leaving, and only after four years. And while four was a quarter of my life now, that fraction would get smaller and smaller with every year passing.
There was talk of fighting back. Resisting. The question was: how?
A townhall was declared at Granny Le’s. Business owners, factory workers, restaurant waiters from all down Main Street, college students back for summer, and more. Whole families attended. It felt like all of The Pits was squished into Little Vietnam.
Ma and Ba didn’t go. They took the time to look for houses in Ashland, the suburb just outside the city.
They called themselves the Main Street Coalition.
After that, the Pits rolled with a new energy. Never before had “united” and “fight back” been said so many times. Someone started a petition. A group was formed to bring our case to court. Hopes were high. There was a sense of togetherness, like we were all family.
“We’re moving in two months,” Ma told me one day after I came home from school.
A month passed. The petition was received. The case heard. Nothing changed. Word was East River Company had made a number of donations, some to political campaigns. Anyways, the people of The Pits were from The Pits, and that meant something.
The losses were a blow to the Main Street Coalition. They had come together finally after all these years, and for what? The college students clamored for protest, the workers were tired, and business owners from different parts of The Pits fought among each other. Meetings, called every other day, always bled into the early morning with people shouting themselves hoarse and nothing agreed upon.
We continued meeting at the playground like always, but now, heavy with the weight of immanence.
On TV, all the mayor could talk about was developing The Pits. It was announced that he would be bringing the annual city parade to The Pits this year, meaning he would stop and speak.
Meanwhile, eviction notices infested Lewis and Parker street. Rent hikes crawled onto Main. Developers and investors slithered in.
“Don’t sell to them.”
Granny Le laughed. “If I don’t, they take. Business now not that good. Rent is up, but nobody will pay more for Vietnamese food. And I’m getting old. I was here before you were born. You think doing this is easy? Ask Manny too, he tell you the same thing.” She looked at Mika’s face and laughed again. “Life is just like that. What can you do?”
I came up with the idea.
“Ugh, it’s perfect weather on Parade Day,” Ree said. “Why couldn’t nature at least rain the mayor out? Ruin his stupid parade?”
“Is the Main Street Coalition planning anything?” asked Y.
Mika shook his head. “They can’t agree on anything. At this point, nothing’s going to happen.” Uneasy silence surrounded us.
“Wait,” I said. They all turned to me. “Why don’t we do something? Like, us...”
Ma liked talking these days: “In Ashland, we’ll be able to own our own property. Not right away. In a couple of years, after we pay off mortgage. Ma can garden. Ba can take walks. You’ll have a good school to go to. Ha! Chinese peasants owning American land. Who would’ve thought?”
“But how can we leave at this point, Ma? Everyone needs us,” I protested. Ma turned from chopping vegetables.
“Everyone?” she echoed. “Who’s everyone? What have they done for us?”
Turns out I was moving the day after the parade. Just two weeks before, we spent an entire day pasting up flyers declaring loudly Thunderstorms on Parade Day. Beware! and calling news outlets to spin tall tales of doomsday-degree storms spinning through the forecasted sunshine. I felt so happy I thought my heart could burst. What would happen if I told them I was leaving? I didn’t want to think about it.
Looking back, it was kind of stupid. The youngest of us, Y, was still in middle school. Mika, the oldest, was a high school junior. If the Main Street Coalition, made up of business owners and college students and organizers, couldn’t do anything, how could we?
Parade Day came and it all happened so fast: we managed to get on the mayor’s float. Mika’s can of spray paint burst in a shower of red. Y fell on balloons. Pops, sharp in the air. The crowd’s screams and cheers bled into one another and became a single, indistinguishable column of sound. Everything was a chaos of noise, colors, and smells. Police panicked. Clubs raised. Ree screamed. Somewhere in all that, June fell.
We moved out the next day early in the morning. I never got the chance to say goodbye.
It’s not like I didn’t want to call or visit. I just couldn’t.
Instead, I daydreamed.
Of my return: Y holding out whole bags of vero mangoes. Mika getting misty-eyed despite himself. June with the same smile. Ree hugging me. Welcome home.
Or: Y’s awkward laughter. June shaking their head. Mika not meeting my eye. Ree, a face of scorn. I should’ve never brought you in.
Or: Them all, moving here to Ashland. It’d be like old times. Except us against my new classmates, whose speech was riddled with unfamiliar references to TV shows and movies, who looked at me and my clothes with sympathetic scorn, who asked me for help on the math homework but never sat with me during lunch.
Yeah, right. Don’t you see? How could I have gone back?
I think back to The Pits still. Those times may have truly been the happiest, despite everything. Playing on Main Street. The days that stretched long and infinite. And who could forget Manny weaving through cluttered streets with his rainbow paleta cart, or Halal stand Sam and his red sauce that conjured fire both on its way in and out? Even away from Main Street, The Pits asserted its life: roaring mothers, screaming children, hooting aunties, blaring TVs, creaking stairs, slamming doors. Look up and you would see the weaving telephone wires, national flags flapping like tethered birds, clotheslines heavy with underwear and white T-shirts waving like truce flags, and beyond that, a sliver of the bluest sky.
We were the Parade Day Rain: Y, Ree, Mika, June. And also me. Yeah, we were tight. Closer than crossed fingers and pinky promises. We were the swarm. We dropped from the sky. Adults feared us. We terrorized babies. We ruined chess games, townhall meetings, community BBQs. We were stronger together, but just try and pick a fight with anyone of us and you’d see.
“Ready?” June asked.
I looked around: Mika’s eyes narrowed, a can of spray paint in each hand, Y had both wrench and ring pop in hand, Ree gave her bat a few practice swings. I snapped my goggles on. From up here, the parade seemed a part of another world. The crowd appeared like a pulsating amoeba, wind whipping their screams far away. The clouds, pregnant with cotton, swam above us. The mayor was a speck that appeared through swaying balloons. The procession inched around the corner.
June blew her whistle. The wind stopped.
Then we descended.