An excerpt from the middle grade novel by Michelle Kim
It’s August and the refrigerator is Nadine Ando’s dance partner. She puts her hand through its handle and swings it open to cool her body down. Plants her right foot on the floor, pulling her left leg behind her, her toes a perfect point. Then in one swift motion, she flips over and bends into a backbend and shows off her belly button to the ceiling. A dip into the clear bin, VEGETABLES, and then she comes up with one single carrot.
“I’m on a diet,” she says, and walks over to the kitchen table, where I am.
“Just trying to be healthy,” she says. Crunch. Crunch. “What are you eating?” Crunch.
I look down: Steaming-hot ramen noodles with ice cubes swimming in a salty, beige soup. The ice cubes are a trick I use to cool the soup down just a bit. They make large oily swirls around the white noodles. I like how the noodles look, blond and crimped, like my old Cabbage Patch Kid’s hair.
Jen, in the hall: “Hey, didn’t you eat, like, half a chocolate cake last night?” Jen is Nadine’s sister. She’s ten, a year younger than us. “Diet, my butt!” she says.
Mrs. Ando, somewhere in the house: “Everyone in the minivan now! And, Jen, watch your language! Christ.”
In the grocery store:
Mrs. Ando, Nadine, Jen, their little sister Megan, and me. Mrs. Ando is pushing a shopping cart down the canned-soup aisle. She picks up a can of clam chowder. Nadine gives me a look, as if saying, I hope that’s not tonight’s dinner.
She cups my elbow and whispers, “Let’s go.”
We run. Race ahead to the meat section, guessing which part of the cow’s body is mushed-up behind the plastic wrap. To the vegetable and fruit section, little sprinklers spraying a light mist on our faces. To the school-supply section, giving each other tattoos with black pens, then changing our minds, trying to rub them off, red skin, no luck. To the makeup section, where Nadine swipes a tester of red lip gloss across my lips. “You’re so pretty,” she says.
When school starts, Nadine and I will be in grade seven, which will be our last year of elementary school, which means we will be the oldest. So maybe I should start wearing red lip gloss.
I look in a mirror: It looks like I ate raspberry jam. It kinda tastes like jam too.
Um. Maybe I won’t get it after all.
We all meet up at the checkout counter. Each kid has picked something out: Nadine vanilla lip gloss, me some grape-flavored gum, Jen a newspaper, Megan a sniffle from the frozen foods section. And Mrs. Ando still has the clam chowder. Nadine flashes me a look, as if saying, We’re definitely eating at your house tonight.
The cashier is a tall blond woman. She looks like a model, even in her red-and-white uniform. She slides each item through the scanner. Beep. Beep beep. The lip gloss, beep. She keeps looking at us kids, at Mrs. Ando, then back at us kids.
She asks, “Are these all yours?”
“No.” Mrs. Ando laughs. “One isn’t. Guess which it is.”
The cashier points to Megan, whose skin is a lot lighter than the rest of ours. Mrs. Ando shakes her head and lightly places her hand on my head. “It’s this one.”
We jump out of the minivan as soon as Mrs. Ando pulls into the carport.
We run down the driveway. Nadine grabs my hand.
“Where are you going?” Mrs. Ando asks.
“Fraaaaaance,” Nadine hollers back.
“Are you having dinner over there?”
“Yeaaaaaaaah,” we sing.
There are six houses in our cul-de-sac. Six different houses, in six different colors, which have probably changed colors six different times: peach yellow blue green rose white.
My house is light brown, like a paper bag. And we have the largest front yard in the cul-de-sac, perfect for summer sprinkler run-throughs. There is the Cortes house, which is dark brown with caramel garage doors, like a chocolate bar. Then it’s the Chin house, which used to be Marty’s—it’s the exact same green as Green Timbers Forest, our favorite place to play hide-and-seek, a few blocks beyond the cul-de-sac. The baby yellow Singh house, then the lighter green Koffmann house (green tea ice cream), and finally, behind us, the prettiest house of all . . .
The Ando house. It’s a bluish-gray color and sometimes, when it’s about to rain, you can’t tell the difference between the house and the sky. It has two big front windows that look like two big eyes staring back at you. And when it does rain, the water slides down the glass, like tears; it’s so pretty. And through these windows, you can almost always see everything the family does, especially at night, when the blue flicker of the television makes dancing shadows glow.
We stop and look both ways before crossing the street. There never are any cars. It is a cul-de-sac, after all. But we look, or at least make it look like we’re looking, and dart across the circle of cement like mice on a kitchen floor. I hold my breath as we cross.
Nadine and I are sitting crossed-legged on my bedroom floor, chewing grape gum and making friendship bracelets for each other, weaving our favorite colors together. Pink is hers, purple is mine.
My ten-year-old brother, James, comes in to watch. The smell of bulgogi swirls up the staircase, into my room, and up our noses. This smell of garlic and sweet soy sauce means “Go downstairs.”
Standing at the top of the staircase, I hear familiar sounds. I can tell that Auntie Moon and Uncle Dong are over because Mom’s speaking louder. It’s like her volume goes up or something when she speaks Korean.
“Hello, Sara!” Auntie Moon says. I love Auntie Moon’s face. It glows, like a moon. But I think that’s just her moisturizer or whatever.
She and my uncle, who aren’t exactly my aunt and uncle, are sitting on the wooden stools that surround the kitchen island, watching my mother wrestle with opening a glass jar, throwing her head back, laughing loudly, the way she always does when we have people over for dinner. Dad is home early from work and quietly circles them, pouring red wine. Finally, Mom releases the jar’s strong smell: kimchi.
Nadine watches Mom.
“Your mother is the most beautiful woman I know,” Nadine once told me.
Mom stands at five foot four. She is thin, size 4, she once told me, which is weird because I’m a size 14 . . . but I guess that’s kids’ sizing. Her face is the shape of a flattened heart, with brown eyes, a small nose, and full lips, the only plump thing on her body. She never wears any makeup, except a deep red lipstick, two rose petals on her face. And it never comes off. Even when she eats, even when my dad kisses her, even at bedtime when she comes in my room to say good night.
“Sara Smith, did you practice piano today?” She furrows her brow, like she’s actually saying, “Get your act together.”
“Tomorrow. I promise,” I say. Her brow irons out a bit.
In the frying pan: The meat sizzles louder, then softer, depending on how my mother’s chopsticks slide across. Mom rips pieces of lettuce (water droplets fly!) and stacks each thin, crisp leaf on top of the others on a paper towel. Finally, the rice cooker’s red light turns off, giving us the go-ahead.
“Okay, everyone.” Mom laughs. “Buffet-style.”
Though we’ve done this a million times, I show Nadine how to hold the lettuce in her palm, spread hot rice on it, plop a few pieces of bulgogi on top, wrap it, and pop it in her mouth. “It’s called ssam,” I explain. We do this over and over again, and our mouths love the cold of the lettuce, the warmth of the rice, and the saltiness of the meat. And Nadine and I are glad that we decided to eat on this side of the street tonight.
I was just a year old when I first met Nadine Ando. We were the first families to move into the cul-de-sac. My parents were pushing my stroller down the driveway to take me to the edge of Green Timbers Forest to pick some blackberries because my dad wanted to make a pie. Mr. and Mrs. Ando were doing the same, carrying ice cream buckets and pushing Nadine’s stroller. Her younger sister, Jen, then only a few months old, was strapped to Mr. Ando’s chest. Mom said me and Nadine wouldn’t stop looking at each other. “It was like seeing your reflection in a mirror,” she said. “Right down to the mole above your lip.” And for a long time, I thought the way we and our siblings looked was totally normal. I think it’s because up until I was, like, five or something, I truly believed everyone everywhere had one Asian parent and one white parent.
This excerpt is reprinted from Michelle Kim’s novel Running Through Sprinklers (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2018). Top photo by freestocks.org from Pexels.