I trudged into the elevator, miserable with stomach cramps and a half-assed fever which made my body the same temperature as this 100 degree day. In my hands, an austere haul from Whole Paycheck: a four-pack of Reed’s “Extra Ginger” Brew and a wheat baguette. I have food poisoning, the worst case I’ve had in years.
My body was still in revolt as of 3 am; I slept for four restless hours and then forced myself to get up for work. In exchange for not calling in sick on my third day back after two months of medical leave (which allowed me to walk again), I allowed myself to wear my “Are they or aren’t they”-yoga pants. No, they are not from NuNu Nimbu. I don’t know where they are from, but they are clutch as hell. From five or six feet away, they look like pants. I have them in charcoal, too.
I calculated that no one would be scrutinizing my lower half based on my hideous reflection in the bathroom mirror. Black under-eye circles, dazed red eyes, green skin. Merry goth Christmas! If anyone made it past my face, the black Alternative Apparel v-neck which makes my boyfriend look like a euro-trash hipster would distract my coworkers. On me it looked like the raiment of a round woman who had given up on life. At least I’d be comfortable as my innards putrefied.
As I reached for an elevator button with a shaking hand, manicured fingers swept past my sallow skin.
“Oh! You got it before I could.” The innocuous comment was punctuated by a curious smile.
I slowly turned my head, reflexes dulled by…well, you know.
It’s why my spider sense didn’t tingle in time, either.
“You have…very interesting…skin.”
The way she paused before uttering “skin”. It was almost as if she hadn’t decided exactly what she would choose to “compliment”. It was an awkward moment to hesitate. Does she mean “color” because I’m greenish toda-
“Where is the origin of skin like that?”
Uh?Deep— I can’t believe this shit. I also can’t believe the timing of it– if I were my normal, pert, lethal self, I wouldn’t have been able to refrain from cocking a brow, narrowing an eye, somehow visibly demonstrating what I thought of that query. But I feel like crap. I’m lethargic. Slow. In pain. Hold up, did she really just go and ask about the “origin” of my skin like it’s some foreign object? Or an unfamiliar wine? And what exactly does skin “like that” mean? Dark? Hairy? Foreign? She’s got long glossy, blown out blond hair waving away from her face, which is pale. She looks about 45. Of course it’s foreign to someone like that. Wait, why should I assume she’s unfamiliar with brown skin? She could have an adopted South Asian kid for all I know. Oh, I hope she doesn’t. Wait, that’s mean. Is an ignorant but well-intentioned parent better than no parent? Of course it is. What am I going to say to her? — …breath.
Without realizing it my lips parted and I hear myself reply, “My parents are from India.”
“Oh! INDIA! I would have never guessed.”
Ah. She wouldn’t have guessed. She already knows what she thinks I am, she just wants me to confirm it. Got it. I’m not going to ask her what she would have guessed. I just want to sit down and drink this ginger juice before I’m sick again.
“I would have guessed that you were Iranian. With your skin. Like that. Iranian.”
Wow, really? I haven’t gotten that one in a hot minute, and by minute, I mean 32 years. I’m so surprised and perplexed I forget to be sick for a moment.
“Well, it’s your hair that threw me…don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful”, she adds hastily. “But it made me think you were…”
At this point I was staring at her numbly. We were out of the elevator, heading to separate ends of the floor.
“Your hair…and your skin like that…I wouldn’t have thought ‘Indian’ by looking at you.”
What does THAT mean? Indian hair is some of the best hair on earth. Ask all those trollops in Holly-would with extensions imported from Tirupati.
“Well…I’m 100% Indian.”
“And what a beautiful Indian you are!”, she muttered before taking off.
I shook my head, to clear it like an etch-a-sketch, as I walked back to my desk at the job where I proudly and gratefully cover racial issues for one of the largest NPR stations in the country, in a fragile city which buckles under the twin stresses of class and race.
Discomfort. It’s right outside my door…even here.
photograph: me at age four in San Francisco–the last time my “hair” and “skin” led people to believe I was “Iranian”.