Nayma pushed the door open and crossed from the bus ranks toward the school. She was up near the main doors, and down the gentle slope that eased toward the football stadium she could see people loitering around their cars, talking and flirting and ensuring their collective tardiness. Someone was playing Taylor Swift. Someone was playing Eminem. Her classmates were already self-segregating into their American lives. There were jacked-up pickups with fog lights and boys in Carhartt pants. The girls in Browning jackets of pink camouflage. There were stickers that read MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN and WE HUNT JUST LIKE YOU—ONLY PRETTIER! and FFA jackets from the thrift shop—no one was actually in the FFA—and trucker hats from the rack at the Metromont (MY HUSBAND THINKS FOREPLAY IS TWENTY MINUTES OF BEGGING). Beside them were seven or eight vintage Ford Mustangs—the Stang Gang with their bad skin and BOSE speakers, the bass dropped to some heart-altering thump. They looked underfed and in need of haircuts and she could practically see the crushed Ritalin edging their nostrils. Beside them were the athletes, few in number but easily identifiable by the swish of their warm-up suits. The school’s dozen black kids in football jerseys and Under Armor. Bulky red-headed lineman with arm zits and man-boobs. Cheerleaders with their fuck-me eyes. The rich kids—the lake kids—were in Polos and second-hand Benzs. It was a mark of late teen sophistication: the 90s German engineering, the chatter about diesel versus gas.

There were no brown kids. Or very few, at least.

It hadn’t always been like that. There had been a moment, brief as it was, right before the great INS raid when sixty or seventy kids made a little Mexico out of the right quadrant of the parking lot. They were mostly older than Nayma, and she had watched them congregate and laugh and play the same pop you heard in the D.F. She had watched them go, too, all but a handful deported with their parents, and when they were gone, they were gone. And so too was the world they had made. There was no more gathering. The dozen or so who, like Nayma, stayed in the States had drifted to the edges of existence, a few quietly dropping out, a few quietly graduating or returning to Mexico. All governed by an abiding sense of bereavement, a mourning so softly realized it hadn’t been realized at all. Nayma hadn’t been part of it, but she felt it then, and felt it still. Even knowing what she knew, knowing what she was—the smart girl, the girl with a future—didn’t help. Knowing didn’t make her happy.

That was the thing, maybe.

She could watch them—her classmates, she meant—classify them, dissect them, in her secret heart—her real heart, the one she kept tucked behind what she considered her public heart—she could mock their choices and dismiss their lives as sleepwalking clichés (like her analysis was anything more than an 80s movie replayed on TBS—you could find sharper insight on Wikipedia; these groups had their own sociological studies and trends, they had their own Tumblrs, for god’s sake). She recognized their inherent ridiculousness. But crossing toward the main doors of the school she was also forced to recognize their happiness.

She entered the great stacked, rocked cathedral of the school’s foyer with its trophy case and barely-noticeable metal detectors.

Most days that galled her. Most days it sent her into fantasies of returning to Mexico, but never Mexico as it was. What she dreamed about was some idealized homeland, some creamy rainbow’s end without the roof dogs and fireworks and the women holding posters showing their disappeared sons. In her dreams there were no cartels. There were no beggars or bag ladies with deformed feet or children dehydrating and lost somewhere south of Nogales and then not dehydrating and lost but dehydrated and dead, past tense. There was no room for that. But then there didn’t seem to be any room in her dreams for Nayma either. She was always some ethereal floating thing, a gauze of veils hovering just beyond imagination’s reach, watching.

The bell sounded and the languor of the hall began to fray, kisses, goodbyes, speed-walking to first period. Nayma moved forward at the same inexorable speed. She was the senior assistant to Dr. Agnew’s sophomore English course and that was where she was headed.

Bullshit started early, she thought.

But also, more accurately: bullshit never stopped.

And here was the worst of it: Dr. Agnew had scooched her desk right up against his, like she was his junior partner, his little frizzy-haired sidekick, and together they could survey the vast sea of indifference that was English II at 8:15 in the morning. Maybe that was the worst thing—though admittedly her choices here were legion. For Nayma there was a hierarchy of embarrassment, a sort of great chain of humiliation that she would sometimes finger when Dr. Agnew went on a particularly long and tangential rant about Keats or Sylvia Plath or white shoes after labor day or the way gentlemen no longer wore hats and why is that, Nayma? I’ll tell you, my dear, I’ll give you a hint, it is linked—is it not?—to the decline of moderate political beliefs in the tradition of western enlightenment philosophy which has hitherto stretched from Copernicus and Francis Bacon to LBJ’s Great Society and you, Connie Cayley, I don’t know what you’re laughing about, my dear, no ma’am, I don’t, why if I found myself giggling in peach culottes with a sixty-four quiz average and an apparent inability to comprehend the mere definition of allegory in the work of George Orwell I believe I might be inclined to seek if not sartorial at least ecclesiastical intervention, don’t you agree, Nayma?

She did not. But that didn’t mean she didn’t love the man.

He was the local community college’s lone humanities professor until the local community college lost state funding and evolved into a start-up incubator slash pet-grooming salon with two tanning beds in the back. Now Dr. Agnew was the overeducated, overweight chair of the high school English department. A long-suffering, put-upon Log Cabin Republican who was sarcastic and erudite and slowly losing a war with his diabetes. He was overweight and, though Nayma had never seen him in anything other than a suit and a vintage NIXON ’72 straw boater worn, perhaps, out of a sense of irony so over-developed it had become sincere, quite slovenly: shirt untucked, hair a mess, somehow barely avoiding tripping over his untied Keds as he lumbered into the room leaning on his four-stoppered cane, sighing contentedly, as if the only necessary supplement to truth and beauty was a charge account at Ken’s Thrifty Pharmacy and Medical Supply.

Have you seen this year’s line of Rascal scooters, Nayma? My Lord, they are sleek creations, compact and carbon-neutral. I imagine them conjured in some modernist fever dream of glass and brushed steel, let us say the aerospace industry, headquartered in Orange County, circa 1953, whisking Baptists through the aisles of Walmart, baskets laden with Chinese manufacturing. Why it almost tempts a man to eat his weight in organ meat and simply be done with this bogus charade we collectively describe as walking.

Today they were discussing, or Dr. Agnew was free-associating on, Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”: “A poem, my children. A sonnet. Fourteen lines following a strict rhyme scheme and structure. Sing it with me. Give me your tired, your poor. Come on, children, we all know it. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” He cupped his ear. “I know you know it, my sweets.”

But if they knew it they were offering no sign. That much was evident from Nayma’s perch at the front of the room. Equally evident was the deep dislike radiating off the face of Stinson Wood, a dislike that appeared on the verge of crackling like sparked dryer-lint into full-blown hate. He was one of the rich lake kids, and, as if to prove it, had the shaggy salon-dyed blonde locks generally associated with Orlando-based boy bands. In a class of tenth graders he was the lone senior, not stupid so much as lazy, entitled into a catatonic stupor he broke only to thumb indifferently through his Facebook newsfeed. But today he was alert, today he was all smirk, all dismissive superiority and all of it aimed at Nayma. She got this, she did because:

A. in case anyone had failed to notice, she was decidedly brown in a decidedly white
world, and Stinson Wood—who appeared to be of Swedish extraction, or perhaps
of something even whiter (an Icelandic Republican from, say, Tennessee?),
should something whiter exist—didn’t exactly come across as someone with what
might be referred to by Dr. Agnew as an open mind bound to an open heart,

And:

B. she was ostensibly Stinson’s peer, yet here she was seated at the front of the
room, occasionally called upon by Dr. Agnew to provide the right answer after
Stinson Wood supplied the wrong, or more likely no, answer.

It was surely both A and B, and just as surely didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was staring at her, staring with a freakish intensity that would have implied amphetamines were it not for his sociological preference for designer drugs filched from his mother’s purse.

Dr. Agnew seemed to catch it too.

“Why Mr. Woods,” he said, “and top of the morning to you, good sir. What a pleasure to find you both diurnal and present. To what do we owe this rare convergence of the twain? Were you, perhaps, musing on the possibility of encountering a mighty woman with a torch? Because I am here to assure you, my son, that the likelihood of such is something just short of none, though I grant you that with some focus and persistence on your part it may yet approach not at all.”

“What?”

“What? A Swedish diphthong and an interesting one—its interest is beyond refute. Though perhaps not terribly illuminative as to our current state.”

“I’m just watching her,” Stinson said.

“And to whom, my child, might you be referring?”

“Her,” he said, and thrust his chin at Nayma. “Chiquita Banana there.”

“You mean Nayma?”

“Whatever her name is.”

“Her name is Nayma. Child, are you slow? Are you of addled mind? Did, perhaps, your mother pass to you some derivative of the coca plant, smoked, perchance, in a glass pipe, while you nestled in her womb? Mr. Wood? Dear Mr. Wood?”

But Stinson Wood said nothing. He just stared at Nayma with his lopsided grin, nodding so imperceptibly it was possible she was only imagining it. But she knew she wasn’t. He was entitled. He was privileged. He was exactly the sort of person who hated people like Nayma. The non-white, non-male, non-southern, non-straight, non-whatever it was that Stinson Wood had been declared by the accident of his birth—it still went on, the hate, the bigotry, only it was softer now, it was subtle. It was patronizing and—the look on his face told her—it was smug.

Dr. Agnew was off discussing the poem again. “A woman with a torch,” he was saying, “let’s talk about this image, let’s talk about this French woman standing in the harbor with her copper robe and patrician nose…”

Stinson had gone back to his phone, but every so often he would look at Nayma and wait for her to look back. Then he would smile that smug smile and look away, like he couldn’t believe how ridiculous she was there at the front of the room with her obese mentor (was that what he was?) rambling on about the world’s most irrelevant shit.

She went back to the poem. I lift my lamp beside the golden door! it finished, and she imagined that golden door, that place at which she might finally arrive. Did it exist? The cynical side of her said it did not. But the truth was, she believed in it. By the standards of Walhalla she appeared as un-American as you could get. But she was more American than all of them put together. She was more American than all of them by dint of her belief, and by dint of her arrival, by dint of her parents’ sacrifice. By dint of—

She sensed Stinson’s head snap up with a reptilian quickness. He had the sort of green eyes and pale skin that made her imagine him as cold-blooded in the actual biological sense. He was looking up now, but not at her. He was looking across the room at Lana Rogers, a freshman in sophomore English (whereas Stinson was a senior in sophomore English).

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