It was six a.m. and the city was already wide-awake. Old buildings mingled with the people to create something new. It was something I had never seen before. Everyone was so different. People in suits walked leisurely with brief cases in hand. Others were dressed in extravagant outfits with headdresses and sparkles. Some were in a group with a brass band following closely behind them. Music was everywhere. More than anything, I noticed that no one stopped for traffic. The pedestrians were in control. It was overwhelming.
The rain had died down but the paper with the school’s address had already smudged away in my hand. I was lost. I walked along one side of the street toward an outdoor café bustling with people. The best thing to do was to find a place with the most people, find a local, and figure out where I needed to be.
I had been on my own for a long time. I had always traveled with my parents, but once we reached our destination, the work consumed them, so being alone and lost was nothing new. I had done this a million times before. It was the horrible pit in my stomach that I could never get used to. Socializing had never been one of my skills.
Only inches of space were left between the tables, but I sat alone. Around me were faces of all nationalities. I spied on chattering groups of people and tried to pick out the tourists.
A worker appeared in front of me. She looked rushed. “Hi, welcome to Café Du Monde! Were you here to try the beignets this morning?” Her face was young and awake.
“Honestly, I’m a little lost.”
Her eyes darted around. I was holding her up.
I rushed on, “I just moved here and I’m looking for my new school. It’s called Dele Sale I think.”
“De La Salle High School?”
“That sounds right.”
She thought for a moment then grabbed my hand. “Okay, it’s way too complicated to explain.” I clamored into a few tables as she pulled me through the café. “Come on we have to hurry!” The claustrophobic feeling subsided as we ran out in the open street. She paused to assess our surroundings. “Shit! Come on we have to catch it!”
And I was running behind her. I had no idea what she needed to catch or why. I didn’t even know her name, but I followed her.
In the middle of the streets was a grassy area with train tracks. A lone train car was struggling along in front of us. Her dark curls were jumping around her shoulders as I realized we were trying to catch that train car. It wasn’t moving very fast yet. She pulled herself onto the back of the car and turned to grab my hands.
I was pulled into a seating area with a driver at the front. Everything had happened so quickly, I didn’t have time to think. My thoughts caught up to me all at once. The most pressing question on my mind was why no one turned around. The driver didn’t shout.
We made our way up to the front in silence. The large black man in the driver’s seat tilted his head in the direction of my companion.
“Shia, what’s your momma gunna say when I tell her you late again?”
She slid a card in a terminal. “Hey, I’m here aren’t I? I picked up a stray on my way. Couldn’t just leave her.”
I took out the money my mother left this morning and put it in the machine. I waited, but no change came back. Shia had already started moving. The driver shook his head and laughed. His eyes watched us in the rear view mirror as we took our seats.
“Exact change only. I should have told you that. Sorry.”
I looked at her in disbelief. I was out of breath and confused. “What. Just. Happened?”
The tiny train car rattled on as I tried to make sense of my morning. The ride was rough. Like most public school transportation it had no seat belts. I slid around, uneasily waiting for the answer to my vague question.
“So I’m guessing you aren’t just transferring schools then. You’re not from here at all.” She easily evaded my question with her own observations. I was as new to her as she was to me. The quiet gray weather existed on all sides of the window-lined car.
“I’m not really from anywhere.” I told her.
Shia slouched lazily in her seat. She appeared unconcerned by my own evasions.“Right. So this is a streetcar.” She laughed, pulling clothes from her bag. She began to change her shirt. I promptly looked back at the dreary rain, uneasy. “We’re gunna be there soon. Are you going to change?”
I felt my face contort into a more confused look. “Don’t tell me my parents got the dress code wrong again.” I mentally tallied their failures in helping me socialize appropriately to the ongoing scoreboard.
“We wear red.” I watched as she fluffed her ringlets of the droplets that hung in her hair. “Shirts I mean.”
The alarm growing inside my stomach ached. My heart had only just begun to slow back to its normal rate. I had coping methods for the situations my life had put me in, but the anxiety never fades away like the memories do. Every new experience is a potential disaster waiting to happen, and even though I’d started over dozens of times, I was still scared.
And in the wrong uniform.
I was a blue blob about to enter a sea of red masses already settled into their routine. My fingers fumbled nervously on the strap of my worn backpack.
“Earth to white girl from nowhere.” Shia’s fingers waved in front of my face. My eyes readjusted to reality and she came back into focus. “One, buy an umbrella. Two, this streetcar leaves at exactly six-thirty-five every day. Three, try not to look all terrified. This is our stop.” She was already up and walking towards the exit.
“My name is Ir….”
And she was gone. I felt invisible. She didn’t even know my name.
I think I had fallen in love with traveling. I loved the movement of it, the mobility. It was the attempting to get settled that ate away at me. It seemed impossible to make friends with no real background. I had lived my parents’ life for all of mine, so it was hard to say exactly who I was.
I took a deep breath. All eyes were on me. I could feel them watching, assessing, judging. In my bright blue shirt, I was a walking advertisement for the new girl. I’d have given anything to feel as invisible as I had getting off the streetcar.
I told myself not to panic. Humans were not complex creatures. Like any other creature in the animal kingdom, they lived by social hierarchy.
Football players and cheerleaders ruled in most cases. Dance team and lesser sports were the necessary jobs. Others who had been on a team and been injured or had to quit still remained popular. Those in the limelight had friends that rose above others based on their association with the “in” crowd. Others, like kids in band or clubs, existed outside of the inner circle, but still socialized with other groups.
And then there were those like me, that didn’t fit anywhere. The ones that came to school, attended classes, and went home. I knew my place. Soon, the lingering stares would look right through me. Like Shia, no one would know my name.
I found the office of the school with my head down. Real life wasn’t like the movies. No one would find me as if I were a hot commodity and claim me as part of their group. No one said a single thing to me. The conversation with the secretary was short. I was handed a map and list of my classes along with a pamphlet on proper dress-code.
I could feel myself drowning.