E has been home sick from school for three days now. Her fever is in the high 30s, numbers I always have to type into a Celsius-Fahrenheit converter to appreciate. Our liquid and chewable Tylenol are packed away somewhere in St. Paul, and there’s probably Children’s Tylenol to be had here but I’m not sure where and I don’t want to leave her alone. So the two of us are largely holed up here, waiting out the fever, E eating her yogurt with a mashed-up Advil mixed in and playing with the few toys I picked up yesterday (but forgot to look for Tylenol) – a puzzle and Dominoes and a matching game.
I play the Current radio station through my laptop and we hear the outlook for the coming day in the Twin Cities when ours is well underway.
Each morning at 7:40 a.m. the twin girls from the upstairs apartment come to fetch E to walk the one block to school with them. I hear their voices coming down the stairs and I rush to open our door but they always beat me to the horrid buzzer that makes us jump every time. I open to see two nearly identical faces smiling up at me, looking past me to see if E will be going to school today.
They dress alike and even share their sneakers, so the one who was wearing red Converse yesterday may be wearing the blue ones today, and I can find few clues to tell them apart. The taller one is in E’s class, but if they’re not standing right next to each other I can’t tell which one is taller.
I tell them that E “ist immer noch kranke,” which she tells me means “still sick,” and they crinkle their noses at my funny-sounding German and sneak looks past me, trying to see into the living room.
What they’re looking for, I’m not sure, other than our little oddities, clues to who we are and what we’re up to in here.
I’m reminded of my friend Serene, back in fifth grade, a newcomer who joined our class a week after school had started. She had the thickest black hair I’d ever seen, and she lived on the same campus I did, where my dad worked and her dad was a student. The first time I stepped into her apartment was like stepping into another country, a humid assault to the senses of spices I now know to be cardamom, turmeric, mustard seeds—a pungent aroma that hung in the air and seemed to seep from every pore of her sari-clad mother.
I could not get enough of the differences, the sounds of the strange music coming from their hi-fi, the bright fabric draped over their couch. Her mother’s English may have been impeccable, but her accent was so thick I could hardly understand her. Outside Serene and I rode our roller skates in the parking lot and talked about classmates, but inside her apartment was another world to me.
Though our cooking is not nearly so aromatic and our clothes and ways fully Western, we exude difference, I realize, to these small girls, who drink it all in with wide eyes. I can’t see what they’re seeing, but I feel it now after three days cooped up, our little world of all-English, where the same radio station is playing that would be on back home, all the markings of America stamped around us in ways I can’t even see. We just are. And our American-ness pours into the hall when I open the door to these two little girls whose faces tell me we come from another world.