Wrong Words

By Tehmina Khan

I am scared.

Tomorrow is the first day of school and I want to stay home with Mommy.

“School will be fun, Zoha,” says Papa, as he changes channels with the remote. “You will make friends and you will learn English.” He doesn’t see me shake my head. His eyes are fixed on the screen.

 I only want to play with Mommy. When the two of us go to the playground, we play together. I run, slide down the slide, and climb fast up the stairs, while she runs after me. And when she catches me, we both laugh, and then I chase her. When other children are there, I don’t play, and Mommy just stands around. I see people looking at her; her black burqa, her brown eyes. I go to her. She shoos me away.

“Go, play. Play with other children.”

But I remain close to her.

I have two friends; Anum and Zohaib. They live on the seventh floor. Their birthday is on the same day. We go to their apartment and they come to ours. I like it when they come to our place because then we can play with all the toys, whereas when we go to their place, they don’t let me play with the best toys.

“Don’t touch.” Anum puts away her new Barbies. “You just came to Toronto from Pakistan. Did you ever play with a Barbie there?” I shake my head. “I don’t want you to spoil my new ones. They cost a lot of money, you know.” She hands me a naked Barbie; it doesn’t have a head. “Practise playing with this one first.”

I complain to Mommy.

“Never mind, Zoha.” She pats my head, and smiles at Anum and Zohaib’s mother. “The three of you, sort it out amongst yourselves, and don’t fight. Be nice.”

Papa will go with us to school tomorrow. He works at McDonalds, but he will work at night, so that he can go to school with me in the morning. Sometimes he works there all night. I ask Papa if people eat burgers in the middle of the night and he says some people do. I wish Mommy would let me eat in the middle of the night but she doesn’t listen. She, also, doesn’t let me eat in bed. Sometimes, Papa brings happy meals. I love happy meals. I have so many happy toys. I keep them on the windowsill from where they can look out onto the street.

I have my own room, but soon, I will have a baby brother or sister, and will have to share. Mommy is growing fat making the baby. Her stomach is big like a ball and she doesn’t carry me any more because she says I am too heavy. The baby’s things are in my cupboard, little clothes that are not for playing, but she let’s me fold them. Sometimes, I take them out, look at them, and put them back in the cupboard. Sometimes, I show the baby clothes to Anum and Zohaib.

“Don’t touch,” I say. “Mommy washed these clothes. She would not want them to get dirty.”

Anum and Zohaib will also start kindergarten tomorrow and Papa says I can play with them at school. The school is down the road from our building and we can see it from our balcony. Mommy says that she will watch me from the balcony when I am in school so I should not be scared, but I want to watch the school from the balcony with her.

I have a bad dream at night in which, Papa and I walk to school together. A clown opens the door and takes us to a white, empty room with two chairs. I sit on one of the chairs and the clown sits on the other. Papa turns around and leaves the room. I want to run after him but I cannot get off the chair. The door shuts with a loud bang, so loud it makes me jump in that chair. The clown smiles while I cry.

Mommy wakes me up, wraps her arms around me, and sings; her voice soft like her hands on my back.

“Come, Sleep,

Why don’t you come?

Come, Sleep,

Why don’t you come put Zoha to sleep?”

She hums in my ear, her breath tickling the back of my neck.

Morning comes quickly, and I have to dress for school just when sleeping is at its best. Mommy takes me to the bathroom and we brush our teeth together. I copy her and move my brush up and down my teeth, so they shine like hers. I watch her put makeup on. She has little boxes, full of magic, and soft brushes of different sizes, which she dips into the boxes, and then puts on her face. When she is putting makeup on, her eyes scrunch up and her lips become a thin line. My favourite part is the lipstick. She leans in close to the mirror and paints her lips. She sprays perfume on both of us. I wear my favourite red dress with yellow flowers on it with matching red socks.

 I have Lucky Charms for breakfast and I save the marshmallows for last.

“Don’t worry, Zoha,” Mummy says. “You will be fine. There will be other children there, and you already know Anum and Zohaib. If you feel sick or get hurt, the teacher will call me. The teacher will be nice. She will look after you.”

“Will she like my red dress? Will she like me? What if she doesn’t like me?”

“Of course, she will like you. Why would she not like you? Everyone likes you.”

“Azra, towel!” Papa shouts from the bathroom. Mommy rolls her eyes and I giggle. He has, yet again, forgotten to take a towel with him.

When it is time to go, I put on my new shoes, and pick up my new school bag. We bought the bag from Fairview Mall. My bag is light blue and has Elsa from Frozen on the front. Olaf smiles at me from my matching lunch bag. Mummy puts on her burqa. Sometimes, I crawl inside her burqa so that no one can see me. Her burqa is like a dark room with the two of us inside. It smells of food and flowers like a summer picnic. Her burqa smells like her.

School is a big, brown shoebox from the outside. Inside, the ceiling and the floors are gray and white, and the walls have lots of posters with pictures and words. I do not understand the words. There are so many corridors with lots of doors. I see lots of children. I hear lots of children. They are loud and they all look bigger than me.

My parents take me to a large room where a lady meets us at the door. She smiles at me and points to herself and says that she is Ms. Toni. I like her smile. Standing behind Ms. Toni, is another teacher. He is a boy and his name is Mr. Yang. He shows us where to hang my bag.

My parents kiss me and I see the tears in Mummy’s eyes. I begin to cry. Mummy takes a step towards me, but Papa’s hand moves to her back, and he guides her towards the door. Ms. Toni closes the door, and I cry louder. She says things to me, which I don’t understand. She makes strange sounds, opening and closing her mouth. She pats me on the back and puts her finger to her lips. She breathes deep, puffing up and down. She is funny. She brings Anum to me.

“Sit on the carpet. Keep quiet. Stopping acting like a baby,” Anum tells me in Urdu, before returning to sit with Zohaib on the other side of the carpet. Ms. Toni does not like the way I sit; knees spread, elbows resting on knees, bottom in the air. She rearranges my body, so that my bottom and legs are now touching the dirty carpet, and she puts a finger to her lips. She says something to Anum and Zohaib. They sit next to me. Before sitting down, they each cast me an angry look.

This room is large and has big, gray windows along one wall. There are lots of posters on the opposite wall. On one side of the room is Ms. Toni’s desk with a black and gray carpet next to it. This is where we have to sit quietly while Ms. Toni talks. Mr. Yang sits on a chair behind us and his job is to keep all of us quiet so that Ms. Toni can hear herself talking.

Next to the windows are bookshelves full of colourful books. There are five tables in this large room. Each table has many chairs around it. All the chairs wear tennis-balls as shoes.

The back wall of the room has shelves where we hang our bags. This is the best part of the room. I see a sand table and a play kitchen set. There are also lots of large wooden blocks and shelves full of toys, which we are not allowed to touch. It reminds me of Anum and Zohaib’s home, where there are so many toys, locked away in a glass shelf. Zohaib removes his toy cars from the shelf, polishes them with a soft cloth, and so carefully, arranges them back on the shelf.

I was wrong. This is not like Anum and Zohaib’s home. After Ms. Toni finishes talking and singing to herself, she lets us play. I go to the sand box. Mommy never lets me play with sand. We have to take turns, so after a few minutes, I move to the kitchen play set where I pretend to make roti like Mommy. I offer the rotis to Anum and Zohaib.

“Don’t follow us,” hisses Zohaib, and they walk away.

I offer the rotis to another girl but she doesn’t understand my words. I have the wrong words. Papa said I will learn English in school but I am in school and without English. I talk to myself, making sounds which sound like English. I talk fast and nod my head. That’s how people talk on TV.

I don’t know where to go to pee-pee. I ask the teacher with my English sounds but she doesn’t understand me. She calls Zohaib over. I am too embarrassed to tell him that I need to pee.

“I want to go home,” I say, in Urdu.

He tells the teacher, who shakes her head. I can’t go home and then I pee in my new underwear. My pretty red underwear. Warm pee runs down my legs into my new shoes. It makes a puddle on the floor. Zohaib’s face turns red and he turns away. Ms. Toni takes me to a tiny bathroom in the corner of the class. She hands me a bag, which has my clothes in it. The bathroom is so small that I have to stand against the wall, pushed up next to the toilet, to shut the door. The toilet is stinky. I do not like standing next to it. I cry. My beautiful red dress is dirty and so are my matching red socks. I don’t know what to do. Mommy always helps me dress. I don’t know how to clean myself. There is no water in this tiny bathroom for me to use for washing myself. At home, Ami always keeps a jug, full of water, next to the toilet. There is no jug here. I want to go home. No one in school likes me. No one wants to be my friend, and now, I have pee on my favourite dress. I cry so hard that I start hiccupping, and then the Lucky Charms in my stomach come up through my mouth and land on the ground. My morning treat has turned into a stinky mess.

Ms. Toni comes back and says things to me from the other side of the door. I don’t understand her words. She opens the door and sees the mess. I can tell she is angry. Sometimes, you don’t need words. She brings a brown paper roll and wipes the floor. She is wearing gloves on her hands. She pulls my shoes off, removes my red socks and my pretty red dress, which she throws on the dirty floor. She gives me clean underwear to wear, but I am still dirty. She wants me to wear clean clothes without washing. I put on the pants and shirt. She hands me a plastic bag and points to my clothes on the floor. I put them inside the bag. She walks me to a sink where I wash my hands.

Another lady comes to our class and Ms. Toni and Mr. Yang leave. All the other kids sit at the tables and eat. I sit and cry. The other lady opens my lunch bag and points to the food. I have to eat. She put her finger on her lips. I have to be quiet but it is hard to stop crying. I don’t know how to be happy when I am sad.

Ms. Toni and Mr. Yang return after we have all eaten and been to the sticky, stinky bathroom. They take us to the playscape, where I sit on the bench. Ms. Toni points to the playscape because she thinks I don’t see it, but I shake my head. She points some more, and I shake my head again. She nods and goes to watch the other children. All of them are playing with each other; screaming, calling out, running. If I am still enough, may be they won’t notice me, won’t notice that I am alone. From the bench, I can see our building.

The balconies are empty.

Tehmina Khan is a Canadian of Pakistani origin. She holds degrees from Kinnaird College, Lahore, and Faculté des Sciences Humaines et Sociales de Tunis. She now lives in Toronto with her husband and two children,and is author of a short collection, Things She Could Never Have, available here