The other day I was walking to drills with my friend Nicole when a couple of second years called out, “Watch out! Sleeper cells coming through!” because I’m Mexican and she’s asian. Usually she corrects people – she isn’t even Chinese, she’s Korean – but she didn’t say anything and neither did I. Ignoring comments like that is like an extra drill we just have to go through.
We’ve also been called “the Axis of Evil” and “brown nosers,” which irritates me the most because it doesn’t even make sense.
It got me thinking about all those Renaissance books we have at home, and how paintings of saints and the Virgin Mary and angels were all portrayed: blushing white skin and golden hair. Like you. That’s what dead painters long ago decided what holiness looks like. That’s what beauty is. No offense, but maybe I only ever thought you were beautiful because art books put that thought in my head. Maybe you’re not beautiful at all, except to dead painters and religious fanatics. Maybe I’m beautiful. (JK, I know you’re beautiful.)
I think Nicole and I would be better friends if we weren’t heckled every time we go out together. We’re all supposed to be part of the same team but I’ve never been so aware of my skin before coming here. Their words feel like a warning, or a threat. Like: you don’t belong here.
And we’re the lucky ones. It makes me wonder what life’s like for the people we’re policing.
It’s Thanksgiving week and the base is deserted. Most of the officers have gone to wherever home is and all of the cadets with families also got permission to leave for the holiday, so everyone who’s left is a lot like me: unmoored. It makes the tenor on campus different. The cadets who are left have a kinder vibe to them. Less aggressive. It’s a reminder that even though we’re trained to work together, we’re competing to stay here.
I thought I’d love having the base practically to myself, and I do in many ways. The air is easier to breathe without people like Jancy around, for one thing. But it’s also made me wistful in a way I never expected. It reminds me of nights spent at my window in Reno, watching life quietly pass me by and wishing I could take part in it all. Watching my peers board trains destined for joyous family reunions gave me fitful dreams of beings back at my house, at my window, only this time on the outside, looking in.
So I distract myself. Señora Chabela cooks a big Thanksgiving dinner for all the orphans on base – figurative orphans, like me, as well as the literal ones. Since we’re short staffed, we start prepping for Thanksgiving on Tuesday. And since a bunch of her sous chefs are gone, I’m in charge of more than just chopping things: I’m in charge of making the mashed potatoes, corn bread and sweet potato pie. What makes it even better is Zelda, Nicole and Ryann volunteered to help, too.
When we get done shaving 20lbs of corn from its cobs and boiling another 20lbs of sweet potatoes for pie, I get up the nerve to ask Señora Chabela the question I’ve wanted to ask all day.
“Señora Chabela, ¿Puedo mostrarles a mis amigos el jardín?”
I want to show them the garden partly because I don’t think my friends believe me when I describe how wondrous it is. To be fair, the fall crops aren’t the stunners that flowering fruit trees and armies of summer bees are, but it’s still a striking sight: purple cabbages that look like the centerpieces of gothic bouquets; kale a hue of green so deep it doesn’t grow naturally in Reno; pumpkins you could uncomfortably sit in.
I want Zelda to see the garden. I want to remind her of home. She doesn’t have a real birthday and I blew sharing mine with her. I figure no matter the day or the season, this would be a good gift.
“Si, podría usar algunas remolachas – cinco de ellos,” Señora Chabela says. She’s showing me kindness.
I give her a grateful smile, lead my friends to the back of the building, and throw open the door. Ryann and Nicole offer polite “oohs” and a “neat!” but it’s Zelda’s reaction to the acre-sized Eden I’m waiting for.
She takes a deep breath and clasps her hands to her chest. She leaves us to walk the rows of greens alone, occasionally stopping to bend down and rub a leaf between her fingers. Ryann and Nicole linger by the door. I show them where the beets are planted and how to uproot a few. Then I find Zelda.
“Let me show you where the fruit trees are.”
It’s far from peach season. What few leaves remain on the trees are deep red and gold. She approaches a tree and holds two hands up to its bark, hesitantly. I’d almost expected her to hug it. I kind of expect her to cry. She does neither. When she turns back to me, she’s the same old Zelda.
“Do you grow spinach?” she asks. “Popeye comics were my favorite as a kid – did you read those? He was a one-eyed sailor who would chug a can of spinach whenever there was trouble. His biceps would bulge, then he’d rush in, beat up the bad guys, and save the day. I’ve always wanted to see what real spinach looks like.”
I share all my knowledge about plants as we walk among the rows: broccoli, coriander, onions, arugula. When we reach spinach, I pick one tender leaf and offer it as if it were a rose. She bites into it and frowns.
“Hm, not what I expected. How are my biceps? Bigger?”
“No, but maybe that’s because there are no bad guys around?”
“There are always bad guys around, Rio. Hasn’t Understanding the Enemy taught you anything?”
I laugh like you do when you don’t know how else to respond. We make our way back to Ryann and Nicole, who’ve enthusiastically taken to rooting out beets.
“Look at all these beets!”
“Do you need us to dig up anything else?”
I do not – rather, Señora Chabela does not. Dusk is here and we have more prep to do. We’re almost to the door when I hear it: a rooster crowing.
“Do you hear that?!”
“What?” says Zelda, but I can’t bother to explain – I’m running to the back of the garden, to the outer wall it shares with the base. Like all the outer walls on base, this wall is concrete, at least 10-feet high and topped with razor wire and broken shards of glass. Despite all that, sitting on top is a flashy little rooster. He nods his scarlet comb at me once, puffs up his chest and releases another righteous crow.
I know he’s just an animal, not an omen or a totem or anything else worth shaking a mystic crystal at – I know that. But he still reminds me of all I’ve lost in the past year, and all I’m thankful for. I stare at him, fighting tears. I practice my Katercises and watch him preen and crow until Zelda fetches me to come inside.