Passing at Hyde

by Anasuya Krishnaswamy

The seventh graders at Hyde Junior High lined up single file to enter the planetarium. In the growing Northern California suburb, the wind blew in cold gusts that cut through the sunlight. Niv huddled with Jennifer, whose wavy light brown hair danced around in the winter wind, filling in the spaces between their shoulders, and Rei, whose reddish brown arms completed the circle. They had to discuss the implications of Niv and Brendan's kiss at the last dance.

Rei had set them up for the last number and when the DJ started playing Air Supply's "The One That You Love," Niv wandered over to Brendan without too much enthusiasm, avoiding a direct path to the place where he argued with a girl and pushed her hand away when she tried to touch him. He seemed relieved to see Niv, said Let's go, and pulled her out onto the middle of the gym floor. The sawdust, which started out as an even film across the hardwood boards, had accumulated in places, and every two steps Niv found herself shuffling through a lumpy pile. As the music progressed, Brendan pulled her closer even though they really didn't know each other very well yet; they only took one class together, Mr. Archer's fifth period science class. But she hadn't pulled away then or when he kissed her at the end of the song. It was her first real kiss. The first time it wasn't a dare or a relative.

And then she started to think about him. How he let his soft blond curls grow long, and she wanted to touch them. How his freckles punctuated his face, and the way his cheeks flushed when he got mad. This would be the first boy she liked who didn't hang out in the popular group, who didn't have ten other girls making excuses to talk to him and inviting him to their summer swim parties.

Now, inside the planetarium, Rei and Jennifer thought Niv should try to sit next to Brendan. Niv didn't want to be too obvious, so she decided to choose the spot that she liked best and wait to see what happened. When they shuffled into the darkness of the planetarium, Niv made her way around to the opposite side, and Rei and Jennifer followed her. They both sat to her left in the plush red seats, leaving the seat to her right free. The planetarium seats were rescued from an old movie theater that was recently shuttered.

The theater, built in the center of town in 1946, started its life by showing the latest films, then became a discount theater, then showed porn and later Spanish language films, eventually made a second run at first run films, and now stood vacant and shuttered. The future of the theater sat like the fog dangling off the coast, waiting for the interior to warm up and pull it in. Niv, one of two people with Indian ancestry at Hyde, could not predict that in twenty years the theater would show films from Bollywood with English subtitles. During its second run of premier showings, the theater provided the favorite indoor make out spot, and most kids who had older siblings could tell a good make out story. The seats in the new multiplex sported headrests and fancy drink holders and larger armrests, but discouraged making out, even hand holding.

All of the kids were in now and Mr. Archer closed the door, shutting out the sunlight. Just as Mr. Archer turned the lights down, Brendan slid into the seat next to Niv. She smelled cologne, not overdone, and mint.

Mr. Archer started his lecture with the details of who funded the school's planetarium, the history behind its founding, what new gadgets and equipment came his way. Finally, he started the music. A fan of jazz and big band music, Mr. Archer would set up experiments in the science room for the next day after school, shuffling about to the pluck of an acoustic bass or the beat of hands on a tom-tom.

"Some Dizzie Gillespie to get us started," Mr. Archer said, and then turned on the funny shaped projector with three large ball-shaped sections. The thing looked like some kind of submarine device.

"Do you see the Ram?" he asked.

Just as the first constellation, Aries, arced to the center of the night sky, Brendan slid his hand down Niv's arm and interlaced his fingers with hers. They fit perfectly. Then came Taurus.

"Taurus is the white Bull of Greek mythology," Mr. Archer said.

Niv held the rest of her body still enjoying the feel of her fingers touching Brendan's.

"Jupiter disguised himself as a white bull to attract Europa. But don't any of you get any ideas about that. Now, Orion you've probably seen on many nights, if you had the curiosity to look up and take notice. He's the Hunter."

When Cancer appeared, Brendan reached across with his other hand and turned Niv's head around to face him. She felt his warm breath, still fresh from the mint, and then his lips, not yet chapped or narrowed by coffee or cigarettes or life. Mr. Archer traversed the seasons.

"Leo. The Lion. A fire symbol in astrology."

Brendan's free hand explored under her shirt. Virgo. Libra. Scorpio. She decided to explore underneath his shirt, but it was tucked in and she was having trouble getting it out with out making a lot of noise. Sagittarius. Capricorn. Niv managed to work one hand under Brendan's shirt. Aquarius. Pisces. His skin was softer than she expected, and warmer. They finished the seasons; an explanation of the planetary system and the life span of the sun followed. Were her hands too cold?

"The planet will become super hot, too hot for anyone in this room to survive. Too hot for humans or any other life as we know it to survive."

Brendan kissed her again, longer this time, and she felt a wave spreading from her center up and down her body. She had no idea it wouldn't always be like that.

"But it's not likely that we'll be around to witness that!"

All the horns came in together now with the piano and drums, creating a sound straddling melodic and cacophonous. The sun expanded into a red giant; the red vapors spread across the ceiling of the planetarium and faded into black. Niv heard a click, and the lights flashed back on. Brendan released her. His shirttails flopped across his belt, but he tucked and smoothed them back into his pants.

The next day they had frost in the morning, by midday it was warm enough that you didn't need a coat, and by mid-afternoon the cold gusts from the north returned. Niv waited around a little longer organizing and shuffling papers, hoping that Brendan would stop by her locker. After losing some sheets to the wind and chasing after them, she finally gave up and rushed to the locker room to change for practice. Jennifer and Rei were already out on the floor warming up, waiting for Coach Johnson. Niv dribbled up to Rei to ask if Brendan had been in sixth period. Maybe he had left early.

"He's an asshole," Rei said, before Niv had said anything.


"I overheard them talking. Mario, Mike, Alden, and Ben. It was a bet. Who could get the farthest with a girl in the planetarium while Mr. Archer was boring everyone."

Niv felt something hot rising up and closing in around her neck. "I need to warm up," she said. She dribbled as fast as she could to the other hoop and ended by missing her lay-up. Rei and Jennifer each had a basketball tucked under one arm, and they watched Niv dribble back toward them.

"Guys suck," Jennifer said.

"Well this one does, anyway," Rei said.

"Let's just practice," Niv said. "We play Centerville on Thursday and we need to win that one."

They started their own pass and shoot drill, and after a string of misses, Niv finally hit a fifteen-foot swish shot. Then she started to make one shot after another. When she had worked up a good sweat, her neck began to feel cooler. She could sense her body unclenching, could feel her mind sliding into the flow where she would not be able to hear the things that didn't matter.

The next afternoon, as Niv stuffed papers and books back into her locker, a tap on the locker door interrupted her. She looked up to find Brendan standing there, a wide smile spreading across his face. His curls glowed from the light of the afternoon sun and framed his flushed cheeks.

"Did you enjoy the show?" he asked.

"What show?"

"The stars, Mr. Archer. You know."

"It was okay."

"Do you have practice today?" he asked.

She did not. And he knew it, because he knew all the schedules for the sports teams and would often come to practices. He did the scorekeeping at the games and wrote up the results for the school newspaper.


"So...we both cross the creek to go home. I'll walk with you."

She should have said, No thanks, you poser, you liar, you cheat, but she saw the sun highlighting his curls and said, "Okay." He took her backpack, and they walked through the courtyard crossing the long afternoon shadows thrown by the decorative palms and open corridors. The palm shadows reminded her of the cupolas and pillars of the Taj Mahal that Niv had seen when her parents took her to visit India the summer before. She remembered putting cloth coverings on her shoes to protect the marble floors inlaid with precious stones. Despite all the people clamoring to see the pillars and the walls and waiting in line to see the tomb below, the people coming up drenched in sweat because the high humidity, she remembered having a sense of spaciousness.

"You know the Taj Mahal?" Niv asked.

"Isn't that one of the seven wonders of the world? A palace or something? Hindi?"

"It's actually a mausoleum."

"A what?"

"A grave, a monument to a dead woman. Indian, but not Hindu."

They walked out through the staff parking lot, toward the creek where the high school stoners hung out. They were already at the bridge. Niv wondered if he was trying to think of an apology. He might say it was a bet, but he felt bad so he didn't take the money. Or he might say it was a bet, but it was easy for him because he liked her. He might say he couldn't refuse the challenge because he would have been called a wimp, and he felt bad so he didn't take the money. When they got to the corner where Niv would turn left and Brendan would turn right to go home, Brendan handed Niv's backpack to her, said, "See you tomorrow," and crossed the street.


"You little bitch!"

The girl stood on the other side of the courtyard from Niv and Rei. She looked like the one Brendan had been trying to get away from at the dance. Niv wasn't sure to whom the girl was talking. She walked in a little pile of other girls who seemed to swarm around each other as they moved down the hallway. A pink headband held back the girl's feathered short blonde hair. She wore a real Izod shirt and legwarmers to match her headband. Several different elementary schools filtered into Hyde Junior High. These girls were probably from Wynedale or Riordan, judging from the designer clothes and accessories.

She shook her head, her headband staying exactly in place, and pointed her finger at Rei and Niv.

"Don't think you can steal my boyfriend."

Another girl said something to her, and the foot attached to the pink headband stomped. She turned around, leading the group toward the outdoor amphitheater, the junior high smoking spot.


The gym at Centerville Junior High had been built in the forties, was the oldest junior high gymnasium in the school district and had earned the nickname The Pit. The floorboards were dark and worn and the lighting was poor. In the first round of games Centerville was the only team that beat Hyde, so if Hyde won this time, they would tie for first place. Making up this loss at The Pit was going to be a challenge. Not only did the poor lighting make important things a little fuzzy—the border of the key, the baseline, the rim of the hoop—but the home crowd was rowdy and distracting. A handful of fans from Hyde had made it to the game: mostly parents of the players, a few teachers, and the principal. Brendan sat behind the red and white crepe paper winding around the scorekeepers' table. The home team scorekeepers flanked him on his left and right sides.

Niv always felt like throwing up right before the ball toss. But as soon as the ref tossed the ball and the players jumped into the air, she went calm. Things seemed to be in slow motion and she could barely hear anything other than her teammates, the sound of sneakers squeaking on hardwood, the thud of the ball bouncing, and the slap of the occasional poorly received pass.

As the starting guard, Niv ran the plays and went for the occasional lay-up if the defense collapsed. Both teams started with two-three zone defenses, quickly shredded by the keen passing and swift-footed guards on both sides. By halftime the score was tied, and by the end of the third quarter they were playing one-on-one defense, substituting frequently to conserve energy.

By the end of the fourth quarter, the teams were trading the lead and with thirty seconds left, Centerville was down by three, but they had the ball. Niv called the play, Jennifer threw a crisp screen and Niv slipped past it for a lay-up that rang around the rim and fell in. She was fouled on the way up and had one shot at the line to tie it. The home crowd had been steady in their cheers and jeers for most of the night and Niv had been able to shut them out.

She stepped up to the foul line. She took her three dribbles, bent her knees, and lifted up for her shot.

"Don't miss, spic!"

The words cut through the hometown chaos reverberating around The Pit. Niv's right hand flicked too far to the left and the shot hit the right side of the rim and rolled off. Centerville grabbed the rebound and ran out the clock. Niv looked around for the face behind the voice and saw a pink headband shuffling out along the lower bleachers toward the gym doors.

On Saturday Niv went over to Rei's. Rei's father had bought fresh tofu from the San Jose J-town to make miso, and he had marinated some chicken in his secret sauce for the habachi.

"Her name's Angela Larson," Rei said, slurping up the tofu with her chopsticks.

Rei had a friend from the Buddhist temple that went to school with Angela at Riordan. Angela had been going with Brendan last year, but they had officially broken up. People still saw them together sometimes at the private pool in Angela's neighborhood, but it seemed more like Angela was dragging Brendan around.

The next time Brendan walked home with Niv, he walked her all the way to the corner of her court. Before he said good-bye he put two hands on her shoulders and looked at her very closely. She thought he was going to kiss her again and she could almost smell the mint.

"Don't let her rattle you," he said.


"Angela, the girl who yelled at you at the game."

"Is that her name?"

"Yeah. She went to Riordan and we used to go together."

The day after that, he held her hand when they turned the corner away from school. And the next day, when they turned the corner and he caught her hand, he stopped and pulled her to him to kiss her. He walked her home every day for the next two weeks.

By the end of two weeks they were very into kissing, standing on the sidewalk near the corner, out of view of her house and out of view of the school traffic. It was a Friday, and Brendan's family had tickets to the Globetrotters at the Coliseum.

"We'll pick you up at six," he said and gave her a last peck before dropping her hand.

Niv was about to turn around when she saw out of the corner of her eye Angela walking away, back towards school. Brendan hadn't seen her.

On Monday at lunch, Niv saw Brendan through the entrance to the gym. She went over and peeked in to see if he wanted to have lunch. He was checking out the scoring equipment for the final home games.

"Want some help?"

"No thanks," he said without looking up from the score table.

She thought the family outing had gone okay. It had been awkward at first, with his family saying polite things about her full name even though their expressions (combined with eyebrows twitching slightly) seemed to say, "That's weird." Then when the vendors came around with malted cups and Niv said it reminded her of the kulfi ice cream at outdoor stands in India, it took them a while to understand the word she'd said.


"Umm, no, kulfi."




She hadn't thought that it was that hard to hear, or say. After the big to-do about the pronunciation was over, they'd said how they didn't know Indians had ice cream, but wasn't that nice dear, for poor people to have such a yummy thing? By that time she didn't feel like explaining about the wealthy people in India, or the middle class. Brendan hadn't said anything during that exchange; he watched the warm-ups and picked at the cuticle on his thumb. When the conversation had turned to something else, he put his hand on her knee, palm up, so she could put her hand in his.

Niv hesitated at the gym door before she felt bold enough to ask, "Want to sit together for lunch?"

Brendan still hadn't looked up at her. "If I finish before lunch is over."

He worked through the lunch break and Niv began to wonder if maybe it hadn't gone okay with his family after all. After school she wondered if she should wait for him at her locker like she had been. She was debating this point with herself when he came up and tapped.

"Ready?" he said.


They walked through the school without talking, but once off the school grounds he said he thought they should keep things on the low down.

"Like a secret?"

"Not a secret," he said. "We just don't need to advertise it to everyone."

"I wasn't saying advertise it, I just—"

"I don't want to get anybody upset at me."

"You mean Angela?" Niv thought maybe she should tell him about seeing her the other day.

"We don't have to rub it in her face, you know?"

"You did officially break up with her, right?"

"Yeah, but it's just taking time for her to get it."

The heat began rising in Niv's neck like it had on the gym floor all those weeks ago, but when they turned the corner he held her hand. He kissed her as good as any other day, better even. There seemed to be more of something behind it. It was a little harder sometimes, and his hands wandered around her back more. She decided to keep what she knew about Angela on the low down.

After that, Brendan didn't show any signs at school that he and Niv were seeing each other. He didn't meet her at her locker, but would follow her and catch up after they were out of sight of the school grounds. Niv figured it would be this way for a while until Angela gave up and moved on to somebody else—probably someone with richer parents or on one of the sports teams. On the weekends, Brendan would meet her at the movie theater, or the mall, or the city playing fields to watch soccer. Niv joined the journalism staff mid-year and they came early or stayed after school for that. When Niv asked about Angela, Brendan would say to give her more time.

Easter was approaching fast and the flower sale had begun. At Hyde the student body raised money by selling flowers on all the holidays. For Thanksgiving you had yellow and orange carnations. For Christmas red, white, and green ones. For Valentine's Day red and white roses and carnations. For Easter, a variety of colors and flowers. Niv and her friends had given each other carnations on Valentine's Day to keep each other from feeling like losers. That was before Brendan. Niv was now hoping he would send her violet roses—she knew they'd be anonymous, but she was prepared for that. He might send carnations; she'd be okay with that too.

Niv was in math class with Rei when the runners rushed into the classroom. Her math teacher was writing the answers to the quiz on the board, copying each line of the problem in different color chalk, taking his time, as if he was making a Japanese scroll like the ones Rei's parents had hanging in their hallway. The runners called out the first name on the list, Suzanne Beatty. Then Dirk Carson. Niv would have to wait a while until they got to last names starting with R. She closed her eyes and imagined what she would say to Brendan to thank him, how he would look at her, how she would initiate a kiss. A runner called Blake Terrell. What? They had skipped R and S? Niv thought the names could be out of order, but as they handed out the last flowers, her name still hadn't been called. She looked at Rei, who was shaking her head and scowling, and the bell rang releasing them from their desk chairs. As they walked down the hallway toward their next class Rei said, "I don't know what his problem is." But Niv cut her off. "I'll just check the lists after school. It's probably a mistake."

Niv went after school to check for missed deliveries but her name wasn't anywhere on the list. She felt that heat in her neck and the same anxiety as before a game. She hoped she had missed something. As her eyes filed down the list again, they stopped where it said Angela Larson, pink rose, from Brendan Quinn.

Later that afternoon, Rei and Jennifer rode their bikes over to Niv's. They threw a frayed tennis ball to Niv's dog, a female stray that the family had taken in.

"The guy's a dog," Rei said.

"Don't insult Lady," Niv said, patting the dog's head and stroking her ears. "Brendan told me he gave it to her so she wouldn't have hard feelings."

"So what?î Jennifer said. "He didn't even give you one."

"Just not until after school. He gave me violet roses."

"I don't get why it has to be this big secret," said Jennifer.

"Maybe Niv doesn't fit his ideal girlfriend profile," Rei said

"What do you mean?" Niv said.

"You know, tall, blonde, et cetera. The all-American look."

It wasn't that it hadn't crossed Niv's mind, but she had let herself believe that his distance had something to do with Angela. Or the fact that Niv was a basketball player, which wasn't the most girly of activities. But she had spent a lot of time thinking about how it couldn't be that because he loved sports and thought she was a great player. They watched the games together. But then maybe it was okay in a buddy, but not in a girlfriend. Or how maybe it was the fact that she was good at math and science. Her father had told her that was intimidating for boys. Maybe he shouldn't have said it, but it was probably true. Most girls didn't show it if they were good at math and science, some even let their grades slip on purpose. But this other way in which Niv didn't fit the profile hadn't had a chance to take residence in her mind.

Later, when Rei and Jennifer had gone home and Niv sat outside with Lady, she knew she had to do something. Something to force the situation with Brendan and Angela, so she could see what was what. The spring social dance was coming up and instead of everyone going stag, the couples usually went together. Niv decided if Brendan agreed to go with her and be seen in public, she wouldn't break up with him. He agreed. Niv was relieved. Showing up together would make it clear to Angela that she should get a new boyfriend—that Brendan was into Niv now.

Niv wore a silk kurta that her family had given her when she visited India the summer before. She used a little hairspray and let Rei and Jennifer put makeup on her. Brendan's parents dropped him off at Niv's, and he and Niv walked together to the dance. When they got to school, they met Rei and Jennifer in the courtyard. Rei and Jennifer had decked themselves out in new culottes and satin shirts. Rei even wore heels. They seemed happy for Niv, and giggly, flirting slightly with Brendan. But Niv didn't mind. They were all a little early and the sun was low in the sky, shining on Rei and Jennifer's faces, making them squint. Jennifer shaded her eyes with her hand, looked at Brendan, and opened her mouth to say something, but stopped. Niv saw Jennifer looking past her between Niv and Brendan's shoulders.

Someone grabbed the back of Niv's kurta near the neck, and Niv heard threads tearing. She swung around without thinking and latched onto Angela's hand and tried to pry her fingers loose. But now, Angela grabbed her long hair from the back and yanked down on it. Niv grabbed her own hair higher up and tried to twist away. They twisted for a while, Angela trying to grab onto Niv's shirt, arms, pants, Niv wriggling away. Then they both toppled onto the ground. Angela had grabbed the back of Niv's neck and was trying to shove her face into the pavement. Niv smelled the tar of the black top mixed with the clay dust that had blown over it in the windy days before. She felt Angela's spiny hand on her neck, and some spit that had projected inadvertently out of Angela's mouth drooled down her neck toward her back. Niv was still holding herself up off the ground with one hand.

"Don't let her get you," Rei yelled. "Get up!"

"Is your Jap friend gonna come rescue you?" Angela said in a high-pitched taunting voice. She felt Angela's hot breath on her ear.

And then, as hard as she could, Niv swung her free hand in the motion of a shovel pass, landing her flat palm on Angela's ear so that it made a muffled clapping sound. Niv made another shovel pass and then another. There was a wailing noise in the distance. Niv kept making shovel passes, until she couldn't feel the spiny hand or smell the dust. Angela's body seemed heavy and Niv shoved it off her so that Angela fell onto her back on the black top.

When she stood up, Niv saw the hunched body and realized the wailing came from Angela. Rei and Jennifer called Niv's name and ran over to her asking if she was okay. She felt one hand on her back and another on her arm. She heard Rei say, "You really got her good." She swung around so the hands would not be touching her.

Niv stared at Angela, the wailing sliding into the background again. Angela cupped her hand over her ear, and Niv saw a trickle of red slipping down Angela's cheek below her hand. Angela's friends began to crowd around her, Brendan squatted next to her, and someone ran back toward the school. Niv took a step backwards. Then another and another, until the Angela crowd seemed smaller. She heard Rei asking, "Are you hurt?" Then Niv turned and ran toward the creek.

She ran through the mustard field, its yellow buds just starting to flower, all the way down the bank into the water, not stopping to take her shoes off, and sat down on the pebbly bottom. The winter run-off swirled around her. The cold water stole her breath for a moment, making her gasp. The creek sat in the middle of suburbia; older native species of oak and liquid amber, and more recent arrivals of eucalyptus, lined its banks. It was the creek that Niv fell into as a six-year-old, the one where swallows dived for insects and looked for small enough nest holes in the trees to keep the invading starlings out. The one that sheltered high-schoolers who smoked pot. The one that turkey vultures sunned themselves over and Mallard duck pairs swam in. The one that the Army Corp of Engineers cemented in places and the Save Our Watersheds group would later revive, reconstruct, and rescue from the way of thistle overgrowth and eucalyptus monopoly. The creek that would later claim a drunken football star's life. The creek that carried the winter rains from the hills out to the marsh and the bay.