On the Side

I’ve never seen this one before. She’s short and blond and chubby. It’s October, too chilly for shorts, but she wears them anyway. Pink basketball sneakers and a St. Bridget’s sweatshirt. Too much makeup and a camouflage backpack.

“Hi, cutie,” she says. “Professor Jannetti around?”

I start to say, No, he was called away on an emergency, when he walks up behind me.

“Come on in, Marie,” he says, all business. “I see you’ve met my daughter Leah.”

My adoptive mom is away. She’s a bookseller, and right now she’s in Utah addressing people from the National Park Service.

“How old are you, Leah?” Marie asks as she closes the front door and unshoulders her backpack.

“Yo tengo diez años,” I say.

“She’s ten,” my father translates.

“She speaks Spanish?” Marie asks.

“Her latest passion,” my adoptive dad tells his student.

Marie bends in close to him to confide. “But she’s Chinese.”

“Es verdad,” I say.

“We’re going to be working in the den,” he tells me. “You can find something to keep you occupied?”

I shrug.

“Only be an hour or two,” he says.

This is not that unusual a thing. My father has been tutoring students on the side ever since I can remember. But when my mom’s away, they’re all girls. When she’s home they come to the door smelling like Fritos and Red Bull. When she’s not, they smell like the soap in the guest bathroom.

It’s a Saturday so I flop on my parents’ bed and watch an old Saved by the Bell. I’ve seen it a million times, but suffer through another half-hour.
Marie comes up looking for the bathroom. Apparently, my dad’s using the one downstairs. She wanders into my parents’ room, sees me stretched across the bed. She smiles and says, “¿Dónde esta la baño?”

“El baño,” I correct her, and point toward the open bathroom door.

When she comes out, I’m watching SpongeBob on Nickelodeon. “This show is awesome,” she says, then stands there waiting for me to make a comment. Eventually, she catches on and leaves. I hear her going down the stairs, but she doesn’t fall and crack her head open. One more wish unfulfilled.

That night my dad - as he usually does under these circumstances - plays Father of the Year. We order pizza and I get to call the toppings. We defrost a Sara Lee pound cake and cover it with strawberries and ReddiWip. We guzzle Pepsi and burp out loud.

The bribes are unnecessary. It’s not as if I’m going to tell my mom. Because what is there to tell? Dad had a student over? She knows this. She encourages it. It pays for the groceries.

He lets me stay up late and watch two hours of Sabado Gigante on Univision. At ten, as I put on my pajamas, he peeks into my room.

“A little privacy?” I say. “¿Un poco de privacidad?”

“Sorry,” he says and closes the door.

Ten minutes later he knocks. I’m already in bed with the light off, but nowhere near asleep.

“Want me to tell you a story?” he whispers.

And I fight back the urge, in both English and Spanish, to say, You’ve already told me one.

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Deserving Citizen 104: White Nightmare »

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