When I wear shorts, Ma says I look like an ungainly ostrich with my drumstick legs and my scarred, knobby knees.

…….“Stop running,” Ma shouts from the window when she hears my feet on the concrete outside. “It’s not feminine. You’ll wake the baby with that thumping.”

…….She believes girls should pursue arts because she’s a classical dancer. Earrings like inverted umbrellas swing from her ears; anklets tinkle when she walks.

…….My little sister, Choti, studies the ridges on my corrugated knees. She can see images in the scored remnants of injuries: arc of the moon, zigzag of lightning.

…….I can sprint faster than my classmate Amy who wears short-shorts, a red baseball cap on her yellow hair, and has legs like marble pillars. 

…….When I beat her at practice, she says I won because her stomach hurt. “You’ll never win the actual race.”

…….After PE, she gives our teacher an open-mouthed smile so wide I can see the cavities in her molars. “Mr. Brown, I want to improve my speed. Can you help?” she asks.

Pa signs the permission slip for Sports Day. He drops us―Choti and me—at school, says he cannot stay because of work. I tell him I understand. I’ve learned to lie, saying one thing and feeling another. 

…….We live in a two-room converted apartment at the motel, a perk Pa says comes with his job as manager. Our uncle owns the motel. 

…….When we arrived from India three months ago, Ma said, “For this, we came to America? To live in a motel?”

…….Now she says, “For this, we came to America? To have you run in a parking lot?” 

…….Ma’s smile has disappeared. She sleeps hours and still looks tired. “Having a baby is like having an earthquake in your body,” she says.

I jog in place to warm up. 

…….Amy’s red baseball cap sits like a crown on her yellow hair. 

…….Parents whoop and yell from the sidelines. They carry banners, balloons, placards, even pompoms. They hug and high-five their children. 

…….Choti is my one-girl cheer squad. She jumps high and screams, “Go, Didi, go!”

…….When Mr. Brown sounds his whistle, I dash as fast as I can, mouth open, breath pumping. 

…….I race―nose leaking, legs burning―until, out of nowhere, a baseball cap comes flying and hits my shin. I take a sidestep, wobble, then collapse into a heap on the track, skinning knees and elbows. 

…….Amy’s way ahead.

…….“No!” I scramble, rise, ignore the bleeding, the throbbing. 

…….At the finish line, Choti tells me, “That was Amy’s cap.”

…….The judges say Amy was ahead by a big margin. “There’s no doubt she won.”

…….Mr. Brown pats me on the back. “Now, now, this is about learning sportsmanship, right? Amy won fair and square. Go, congratulate her.”

…….At home, Ma looks at my legs, says, “You know why girls shouldn’t run? You end up with ugly knees.”

…….Choti applies antibiotic cream on the broken skin. “These will bloom into waterfalls,” she says.

 

Sudha Balagopal’s recent short fiction appears in Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, Pidgeonholes, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of the novel A New Dawn. Her work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and the Pushcart Prize and is listed in the Wigleaf top 50.

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