Rebecca was glad she could wear jeans and a t-shirt to work, and now it was even warm enough for sandals. She walked on a footpath through a forest in Weston, MA, and when she reached an electronic gate, a voice asked for identification. The gate opened itself. She climbed onto marble steps, crossed a valeted driveway, and passed through a service door. She took off her shoes and entered a nine-year-old’s bedroom, where tea and fresh-cut fruit were brought to her on fine china. On Memorial Day weekend, another family flew her out to Miami. She checked into a five-star hotel, interviewed a seventeen-year-old, then sat by a pool, working on his college application. She stepped past manicured lawns, rare flowers, and well-swept courtyards. Massive, hidden residences spread out before her. Each of her lessons began with the same hushed welcome. Growing up as the last of five children, Rebecca couldn’t have imagined a life like this. Her parents had come to America for a better life, but being an immigrant was too much for her father, and he went back to his home country. In the States, his abandoned wife took on two jobs and became as distant as possible from her children. One of her jobs was raising other people’s children. Ever since their father left and now that their mother was mostly gone, the siblings bound themselves tightly together, waiting with one another in county hospital emergency rooms for twelve or more hours, spotting one another cigarettes, and picking one another up from part-time jobs and sometimes, the police station. Instinctual loyalty mixed with involuntary obligation until the two were difficult to tell apart. Pent-up disappointment and anxiety exploded on whomever was closest. That is, the neglected children loved and hurt one another deeply. All except Rebecca. Like the single blossom that the gardener nips all the other buds to produce, Rebecca was different, set apart. As soon as her legs were long enough to walk longer distances, she spent her time in parks and libraries by herself. Standing between the bookshelves, she fantasized about leaving home. She imagined what it would feel like to have her own room, her own apartment, to go to the airport, fly on a plane. She pictured herself meeting foreign dignitaries, though she couldn’t shake off their cartoonish monocles, and her yellow ballgown looked suspiciously like Belle’s from Beauty and the Beast. When it was time to eat or sleep, she returned home to find her siblings and mother screaming at one another, but her eyes did not see what she was looking at. She walked around them to the fridge, to her top bunk, as if she were in an invisible bubble that nothing could enter, which blurred the world around her. Other than the bruises she got from walking into things, she was mentally and emotionally protected. But sometimes, the numbness would lift. The myopia would call attention to itself, and the weight of her present situation would press upon her as if the bubble momentarily disappeared. Her siblings’ and mother’s faces, pains, and demands from life stirred her soul, such as the way her older sister sold drawings at school to save up for a new backpack. In other words, Rebecca’s life would feel real when she told herself it wasn’t, when it was supposed to be blurred and vague, when it was supposed to have nothing to do with her. Unable to sleep, she snuck into the backyard under the cover of night and crouched into a hidden corner on the lawn. Her hands absentmindedly pulled up blades of grass, exposing the dirt underneath, and she immersed her fingers in the cool sod. The distraction of her physical senses brought some relief from her thoughts. She lifted some dirt to her face and inhaled. She licked some of it, and its flavors and texture filled her senses, pushing everything else to the back. After swallowing a few handfuls, she felt much better. The bubble returned, and Rebecca returned to seeing her home life as a dream she would wake up from soon. The world was big, and this wasn’t it. With the dirt smell on her breath, she wiped her mouth, returned to her room, then went to sleep. Maybe Rebecca was right. Her test scores showed that unlike her siblings, she had been reading at a college level since the sixth grade. She remembered and flawlessly repeated back to her teachers all they taught her. A hustling shooting guard, she led her league in steals, deflections, and 50-50 balls. She had a propensity for starting extracurricular clubs. Like a light breaking over the horizon, she appeared poised to go far. When her teachers told her she was exceptional, Rebecca’s world began to seem clearer, sharper, realer, a rich place of desires and risks that staked a claim on her. But she resisted her craving for dirt this time, not wanting another tetanus infection. When Rebecca was fifteen, her SAT scores caused a flurry of college brochures to be mailed to her house. They formed a large pile on the kitchen table, declaring shiny things and inviting Rebecca to join them. To Rebecca’s mother, who now had three jobs, these brochures were the only form of communication with her youngest child. Even so, the contents couldn’t hold Rebecca’s mother’s attention, as she instead asked herself whether the car or the shower needed to be fixed first. Their landlord ignored their requests to fix the shower and bath taps that gave small electric shocks unless turned with a dry towel or cloth, but if Rebecca’s mother didn’t fix the car, it might explode on her. One day, a fat envelope told Rebecca’s mother that Rebecca had gotten into Harvard, Early Decision. Rebecca was sixteen. Then Tina, the second sister, got a DUI. Angie and Stephen, the eldest sister and second brother, were meeting with their pastor to help them resist an incestuous relationship. Tina was digging through the eldest brother Jonathan’s things to take back her Nintendo 64 when she found and swiped a bottle of Vicodin for herself instead. A week had passed before anyone noticed that Rebecca had left. Her mother called her, alarmed, and Rebecca reassured her she won an extra local scholarship and Harvard paid for the flight. Then Tina quit night classes to work overtime and pay back her DUI expenses, for which her mother had taken out a small loan. Meanwhile, Rebecca started her freshmen year of college. Yes, she thought. Real life has begun. The year Rebecca matriculated was the first time in Harvard’s four-hundred-year history that it gave full scholarships to students whose family incomes were less than the tuition. A year of Harvard’s classes was worth more than a year of Rebecca’s family’s livelihood, but if one considered her family’s debt, Harvard’s classes were worth substantially more than her family. The financial aid officers took note of this when calculating Rebecca’s expected contribution for room and board. At Harvard, Rebecca learned mathematics from a Fields Medal winner, economics from a MacArthur grant winner, and mid-century utopian architecture from a Pritzker Prize winner. Rebecca had to look up what all these awards meant. Her dining hall had two crystal chandeliers on its ceilings and hundreds of colonial-style chairs worth a thousand dollars each. The students were smart, too. One of Rebecca’s classmates volunteered two-hundred hours at a school for the blind in Cambodia, then was recruited to be a hedge-fund manager for Morgan Stanley. Rebecca’s roommate interviewed the president of Sierra Leone for the school newspaper, and a 300-pound coke-dealing senior had the lacrosse team run a train on her. “Running a train” meant “gang bang.” Lacrosse was a sport invented by Native Americans. The Saudi prince had a British accent, and the Budweiser heir was handsome but not very bright. Bertrand Russell’s great-great-goddaughter yelled, “I love Black cock!” from the top of a stairwell. A girl on Rebecca’s floor who looked like a life-size Barbie had interned the previous summer with Donald Rumsfeld, who was a family friend. Some junior invented Facebook, and now Yale and Princeton were getting it, too. New subsets of the English language and gossip permeated Rebecca’s membranes as if by osmosis. Then there was the fishbowl discussion in which a thin blonde lady sat the nine recipients of the inaugural Harvard Financial Aid Initiative together in a circle. The lady asked them how they were fitting in and if they were having trouble making friends. She handed them all a little booklet, Harvard on a Shoestring! Rebecca tried not to look at any of the other students, but she met eyes with the boy sitting across from her. He worked in Annenberg, the freshmen cafeteria, wearing a hairnet. Rebecca couldn’t unlearn any of these things. Information accumulated more quickly than she could process. At the end of her first semester, a civil rights activist she had seen in her AP US history textbook came to talk to her ten-person seminar. At his suggestion, Rebecca attended a forum that night about conquering global poverty. A best-selling doctor philanthropist researcher and a Nobel prize-winning economist debated whether human rights rhetoric or first-mover opportunism was the better method for mobilizing donor nations. How to talk about poor people to get rich people to care. In the audience, Rebecca remembered how ugly the welfare glasses she wore as a child were compared to the other frames in the case. Her mother had told her to be thankful, but Rebecca shoved her glasses into her pocket. Then Rebecca remembered overhearing her mother telling Tina how a doctor and intern shoved a metal rod into her urethra without anesthetic and discussed her condition over her screams, assuming she didn’t understand English. After which Tina told Jonathan about a second doctor, who blurted curse words when he saw what had happened to their mother, who was now incontinent. Legal recourse was beyond their financial and emotional capacity. Rebecca zoned out the rest of the debate. She slept through winter break in her dorm and had trouble staying awake in her classes the following semester. A TA woke her up, and Rebecca wiped the drool off her desk. He had a work opportunity for her and slipped her a phone number. Over coffee, an elegantly dressed woman with orange French-tipped nails asked Rebecca a question in the same accent as her mother. Rebecca’s mother was an immigrant, and this woman was an ex-pat. The woman asked Rebecca to tutor her daughter. If Rebecca agreed, her year’s room and board would be paid for up front, in cash. Soon, one mother after another introduced herself to Rebecca, and Rebecca became a sought-after tutor in the Greater Boston area. After her physics class, she helped a fifth grader build a rocket. After feminist theory and post-colonial narratives, she discussed gender and race with a twelve-year-old. The ex-pat mothers clapped their hands. They loved the Harvard tutor who taught their children fancy things. Rebecca had her mother’s job—rearing wealthier people’s children—except Rebecca made in a few hours what her mother made in a week. This was progress. Rebecca was quoted in the Financial Aid brochure saying, “Harvard’s Financial Aid Initiative opened doors I had no access to before.” It showed a picture of Rebecca wearing a Harvard sweater, her grin placed directly above the superimposed text. Before summer started, a mother wondered if Rebecca could help her son build a health clinic in Africa, something to put on his college applications. Since Rebecca had not won any of the fellowships she applied for and an unpaid internship was out of the question, she said yes. She got contacts from her roommate and began emailing healthcare professionals and NGOs in Sierra Leone. She looked up flights and ate lunches alone. As the world once more blurred itself around her, Rebecca confirmed to herself none of this was real. Rebecca had not woken up yet. She had heard someone say that the real world started after college. Bright blue skies shone on tin roofs. There were no sidewalks, only dirt paths. Along an undulating river of trash, shacks made of wood, plastic, and corrugated tin leaned against each one another. It did not smell. Rebecca’s shoes clapped lightly in the wet dirt as she descended into Kroo Bay, the largest slum in Freetown. Small children pointed and yelled at her, giggling, “Opotu! Opotu!” A pig waded neck-deep in the river, and the floors inside the shacks were made of dirt, which Rebecca thought would have been too tempting. A concrete building rose over her. It was the only building in the vicinity with a solid roof and walls. Its royal blue paint was bright, like the sky. Inside the blue building, it was instantly cooler and darker, much to her relief. Nurse Fatmata and internist Dr. Bangura introduced her to Earnest, a respected local whom everyone in Kroo Bay knew and loved, now a college student at Fourah Bay, the most prestigious university in the country. Earnest’s quiet voice boomed slightly, as if it required effort to hold back the full volume that he was capable of. He shook Rebecca’s hand. Earnest told Rebecca that Catholic missionaries, who had long since left, had built the blue building thirty years before. The neighboring parishioners sent enough money for Earnest to prepare boiled eggs, which he used to cajole neighborhood children into the building to study. Earnest was their tutor. Dr. Bangura and Nurse Fatmata shared what they could accomplish with the promised funds from her student’s family. They set an agenda of goals, costs, timelines, networking, and publicity. Rebecca said yes to everything. Earnest chimed in when they discussed best practices for assessing needs and keeping track of services. Rebecca asked if there was a professional photographer available to document their progress, as the student’s mother demanded. After Earnest left, Fatmata sighed at his retreating figure. “I don’t think he fits in at the university. He’s the only one there from Kroo Bay. He has no family and not many friends, so he spends so much time tutoring. But some of his little protégés have gotten into the best secondary schools on scholarships.” Rebecca asked Fatmata how old he was. “Twenty-six.” The ten-year war had delayed his education, a common story. Rebeca felt a sharp urge to talk with Earnest, but also felt nauseated at the thought. She connected their similarities and differences and thought of subjects she wanted to hear his perspective on, but if she approached him so openly, he would become real to her. It was too dangerous. That night Michael, now a high school junior, arrived from New York. Rebecca picked him up from Lungi airport and gave him a quick update on his health clinic. During his brief stay, Rebecca introduced him to Dr. Bangura, Fatmata, and Earnest. Every evening, Rebecca gave him literature about the region, along with writing assignments to get his thoughts organized, but he would sneak off and get drunk in the hotel lobby with diamond barons who found him entertaining. In a few weeks, the clinic was established. Rebecca flew back to Boston, and Michael flew back to New York. Rebecca selected and heavily edited one of Michael’s writing assignments to become his personal statement. She would manage the rest of his college application as well. It was a part of the deal. The goal was to have Michael join Rebecca at Harvard next year. She was his Sherpa. Back in Cambridge, the sleepless nights returned. Rebeca found herself thinking of Earnest, her siblings back home, and her mother and father, accompanied by a craving for dirt. In t-shirt, jeans and sandals, Rebecca walked in a sleep-deprived daze through a privately owned forest in Weston, MA. She had almost reached the electronic gate, but glancing at her phone, she saw that she was fifteen minutes early. Public transportation called for leeway, so Rebecca did what she usually did. She sat on a stump to wait for the thirteen minutes to pass before she could ring the buzzer. It was then that, in the corner of her eye, she saw a small girl playing in the dirt. The little girl was tanned, and her dress was faded and worn thin. Rebecca knew she was not a member of her student’s family, and she was too young to be without adult supervision. Eventually, the child looked up and stared back the way that children do—without shame. “Hey,” Rebecca said in a clear, bright voice, the type of voice adults used when speaking to children. The girl stared. “Where’s your mama? Does she know you’re here?” Rebecca asked. The girl said nothing. “I’m Rebecca, Isabelle’s tutor. Do you know Isabelle?” The girl nodded. Rebecca smiled. “What’s your name?” They looked at each other quietly. Rebecca looked away first, but her mood remained upbeat, as if she were in no rush. When the small girl continued her silence, Rebecca said, “What do you have in your hands? Did you find a cool bug?” The little girl walked over to Rebecca. She opened both of her fists at once to show Rebecca its contents. “It’s dirt,” Rebecca said. “Want some?” “No.” “I know you,” the girl said clearly. “You come on Saturdays. And you’re different today.” “Oh yeah? How?” “You see me.” The girl dropped the rest of the dirt and clapped her sticky hands together. She climbed onto the stump and sat next to Rebecca. Then the girl began to bring her soiled hands to her lips, where her tongue stuck out to lick the remaining dirt off her palms. Rebecca slapped the girl’s hands away. “Don’t do that,” she said. Looking down, Rebecca recognized the birthmark on the girl’s arm, identical to her own. The girl’s purple dress with blue triangles was her old favorite as well. Then it happened. Patterns and motifs appeared and disappeared before Rebecca’s eyes, her position and value varying in relation to each one. Instead of fading into a dream, all the moments between her earliest memory and where she stood accumulated into the endlessly unfolding present. Everything was jarring and cacophonous with alien harmonies. Random details floated to the surface—her siblings’ and her characteristically shapeless lips and tear-shaped eyes; rising into a sunset on her first plane ride to go to college; Earnest’s cool, dry hand as it touched hers. Then the trees, the electronic gate, and the small girl rushed with sharpness into her vision. Everything looked so real. Invisible strings leapt out of Rebecca’s chest and anchored themselves onto the girl in front of her, onto the dirt on the girl’s hands, the girl’s small mouth. Rebecca stood up, wobbly. She put her face in her hands and breathed slowly. After a moment, she reached into her purse and glanced at her phone. She took a deep breath and walked away from the little girl. The invisible strings broke one by one. The electronic gate asked for identification. The gate opened itself, and Rebecca walked in.
JB Hwang‘s fiction and translation can be found in The /tƐmz/ Review, The Denver Quarterly, and the forthcoming Reunion: The Dallas Review. She is an MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of Florida.