I’m getting ready for work when he shows up at our door with a chocolate bar and a copy of Crime and Punishment, and I’m both delighted and confused because I haven’t told anyone it was my birthday – not even Zelda. My smile is so big and dazzling it could make a sunflower moon in my direction.
“How did you know it was my birthday?” I say.
“What?” FL Stewart says but I hardly hear, I’m already reaching for the book.
“I’ve read this before but it’s been years –”
He pulls back. “Cadet –”
“And chocolate –”
“Rio!” he nearly trips in his rush to get away from me. “This isn’t for your birthday. It’s for my mentee.”
“Mentee?” Because I’m an idiot I still don’t get it. Another veil of delight, this one fueled by pride, slips over my eyes. Out of everyone, he wants to be my mentor!
“Yes,” he says. “Is she here?”
I’m confused. “Who.”
“Zelda. Is she here?”
He’s looking for Zelda. Not me. Of course. A hot flush of embarrassment from my face down my chest to meet the pumping pit of jealousy my heart has become.
I’m glad I can’t see his eyes. I can’t even make eye contact with his shoes.
I swallow. Then I swallow again. “Uh, no. Zelda is at the library I think.”
“Ok, thanks.” He’s still standing there and I don’t know why, when every fiber of my being is willing him to leave and never come back.
“Happy birthday,” he finally says.
“Yes.” I shut the door.
“A pity party is no party at all without cake.” That’s what Vivian used to say when Peasant and I were still young and we’d get particularly stir crazy about being confined to our ragged little house all day and night. Usually, the next morning when she returned from her shift, she’d bring us something small to distract us for a brief precious while – never cake, but a ragged puzzle or new book or a yo-yo.
I leave early for work because I don’t want to run into Zelda when she gets home. But I torture myself with imaginging it anyway.
He’ll find her in the special collections section of the library. It’s her favorite spot on base. I think all the books make her feel at home. Professor Munger said after D.C. was bombed, everything that could be salvaged from the Library of Congress was sent to military libraries inland, while art and other museum-y stuff was sent to the military casinos.
She’ll be alone, unless she’s studying with Ryann or Nicole or Marcus. She’d probably like it better if there was an audience. Who wouldn’t? Maybe he’ll get down on one knee to present her with Crime and Punishment. I wonder where he even got the copy – non-library books around here are hard to come by. Everyone’s bags are searched when you leave the library for that very reason.
Maybe she’ll cry. No, she probably won’t cry. She’ll nod once and say “yes, thank you.” If she’s alone, he’ll sit there awhile. Maybe they’ll break the No Eating rule and share his chocolate bar gift while discussing Raskolnikov's superiority complex and subsequent alienation from society. Maybe she’ll tell him about her family. Maybe he’ll tell her about the accident that put him in that helmet, and the years of surgeries and skin grafts he’s rumored to have had. The only thing I know for certain is that I don’t want to know the details.
I try my Katercises to calm my racing heart but I don’t have the patience for them right now so I curl my fists, scraping my fingers along the scabs forming on my palms. The pain helps.
Mrs. Anand is flattening balls of dough into large discs and humming to herself when I arrive. I don’t want to interrupt her quiet, so I make myself useful by sharpening knives. Mrs. Anand is in charge of preparing the officer’s meals – they eat real food, all the time.
“Rio, would you please bring to me the ground cardamom from the pantry?”
Cardamom is a spice that tastes like flowers smell. She uses the large green pods to make a drink called chai – which she let me taste once – but favors the ground spice in her baking. I bring her the jar and then just stand there, watching her graceful hands manipulate the large sheet of dough.
“Can I help you with something?” she asks me, which is her polite way of saying “what do you want?”
“It’s my birthday,” I say. I don’t know why.
“Ah.” Her hands still. “And how old are you today?”
“I guess.” The past year feels decades long. A year ago, I was working up the nerve to leave my yard. Now I don’t know if I’ll ever see home again. I feel older, like I’ve learned lessons but I’m not sure they’re the right ones. But I don’t feel like an adult.
“And how did you celebrate your birthday when you were at home?”
“I don’t know. Last year my sister stole me some potato chips.”
“It’s important to have traditions. It helps connect your past to your present and remind you to give thanks for both.”
My thoughts return to Zelda. “We did have one tradition,” I say. “Before the war, my mother used to make peach pie for our birthdays.”
Mrs. Anand smiles. “How fortuitous. I am making cardamom apple samosas – hand pies. There are jars of canned peaches in the second pantry from the right. If you’d like, we can make you a birthday pie of your own.”
I nearly skip to the pantry and back. Mrs. Anand shows me how to pinch off two small balls of dough and stretch it between my hands until they are slightly larger than my palms. We lay the smaller of the two on large baking trays. When I open the peaches, a slick of syrup runs down my arm. Lapping it up with my tongue stirs a childhood memory of eating canned peaches with cottage cheese. Mrs. Anand instructs me to fan the slices out, so that every inch of dough is covered, and then she sprinkles cardamom on top. We then cover the peaches with another layer of dough and pinch the edges tightly together to form a little pocket.
“The last step is to score the top so that steam from the peaches can escape,” Mrs. Anand explains, cutting three neat lines into the domed top. “All finished.” She turns and smiles at me. “And now that you’re an expert, you can help me assemble the rest!”
“I’d be happy to, ma’am.”
I set up a pie-assembling station across the table and get to work. Since my hands are still a bit scabby, Mrs. Anand makes the crusts while I fill, pinch, and score the pies.
“Are these a family tradition of yours?” I ask.
“No, my family is from South Carolina. We embraced the American tradition of eating out whenever possible. My favorite was bbq. I didn’t learn to cook until after the war started.”
“Who taught you?”
“I learned on base. At home, I was just another mouth to feed and that is heartbreaking for a family of starving people, so I enlisted when I turned 18 and they placed me here.”
“But–” I want to ask where she learned to cook Indian food but I don’t want to be rude.
“Yes? You can ask your question.”
“I’m just curious, you cook a lot of Indian food. I’ve never had most of the stuff you’ve cooked before.”
She cocks her head and studies me a moment, her expression thoughtful. “You are Mexican, is that correct, Rio?”
“Half-Mexican. But I’m not from Mexico. I’ve never even been there.” Never in my life have I felt the need to clarify that but I do now, on this base with these people.
“Do you consider yourself to be American?”
“So do I. My great-grandparents emigrated to America from Punjab. I’ve never been to India. Yet for some people, that is the country that is first associated with my identity.”
“I bet that’s frustrating,” I say, trying to be agreeable.
She considers a moment. “Yes and no. I see it as an opportunity, really, although it took me a long time to get there. When I enlisted, people first saw the Indian in me, as opposed to the American. They expected certain thoughts and behaviors from me, and often corrected me on what the ‘real American’ ways of doing things were. That was exhausting. But I looked around on this base and saw other people – a few, not many – who were probably going through a similar experience as me. And I realized that the way to best represent who I am is to not hide my heritage, because being American doesn’t mean eating more hamburgers than your neighbor. It means that your ancestors, no matter who you are, emigrated here for the mythic potential this country offers: economic prosperity. Religious freedom. Battles won and dreams fulfilled. I cannot assimilate because there is nothing to assimilate to – I have always been American.”
I wanted to say “but no one looks at you as the enemy – the U.S. has never been at war with India” but I didn’t.
She seemed to know this. “I won’t pretend to know what you’re going through. Your experience here is very different from mine and being Mexican has its own set of associated prejudices and stereotypes I have never had to battle.
“But through years of cooking together, Chabela and I have found that if you can subtly educate people on the cultures that have taken root and thrived in the U.S., and give them fond memories of food from those cultures, it is harder to hate or dismiss them as ‘other.’ Of course we still make hamburgers and spaghetti because who doesn’t like hamburgers and spaghetti? But with our cooking, we try and remind powerful people ‘we are here, too.’ We have always been here.”
“But how did you learn how to cook Indian food here?”
She shrugs. “I checked out books in the library, same as anyone could do. Although my nani would throw a fit, as I don’t cook much Punjabi food. I much prefer northern Indian cuisine. But no one here makes those distinctions. It’s enough that I’ve taught people to appreciate some Indian food, as it takes commonality to build compassion. It’s easy to label people from other cultures as ‘different’ and thus treat them differently. That takes no thought, no training. It’s much harder to try and untangle the roots of another’s experience to understand where they come from, and from that, find common ground. Food gives us that foundation.”
When I join my friends for dinner – breaded fish with creamy coleslaw and rolls – Zelda’s face stands out. She is beaming. My other friends eye my tray, looking for treats. Their eyes light upon the three apple pies I brought for them to share, next to my birthday peach pie.
“What’s that?” Marcus asks, his expression hungry for pie.
“They’re hand pies. Apple. Mrs. Anand and I made them for the officers, so you’ll have to share.”
When I bite into my pie, the happiness drains from Zelda’s face as quick as if she’d been slapped. Peach juice is dribbling down my chin but no one else seems to notice. She can smell the pie, I know it, and it gives me a stab of cold satisfaction. I eat my delicious pie in three huge bites as the others devour their own. All except Zelda, who won’t even look at me.