The Campus Visit
On the bulletin board were sign-up sheets for biology tutors. Two girls with thick, black braids that reached their waists passed with their arms linked. A pashmina scarf was abandoned in the common area, crumpled like a cloth table napkin. As Pamela walked down the dorm with her campus host, a tiny, brown girl with cat-eyed glasses named Joy, Pamela understood. They had stuck her with the Indians.
Now, she was angry that she had checked the box. It had been optional, after all, and still, she had ticked it. Haven’t you heard of affirmative action, Melody had said. Melody was tall with mousy-brown hair, like all the other white girls at Pamela’s suburban high school. Melody’s secret to staying beautiful and thin was running just one mile a day in the excruciating Dallas heat. You better check that box, Melody had said, as she looked over Pamela’s application. Now here Pamela was, a prospective college student, a three and a half hour flight away from home, and angry at Melody, who Pamela had never actually seen sweat, or for that matter, run.
Even though Pamela and her host were both Indian, their mutual interests stopped there. Joy wore flip-flops everywhere, and from what Pamela could tell, Joy probably didn’t even realize that Mossimo was a brand they only sold at Target. Otherwise there’d be no reason to leave her clothes all over the chair where Pamela could clearly read the labels. Pamela also hated the poster Joy hung over her bedframe. It was a cartoon rendering of a pair of dolphins; shades of blubbering blue fading into a pink sunset. Joy seemed so straight-edge and girly, she didn’t look like a college girl at all. She likely listened to the Spice Girls, Pamela thought, non-ironically.
That morning, the first day of orientation for prospective students, there had been a sign-in table with Sharpies. Pamela could tell who she wanted be friends with just by what she saw on the stickers slapped to everyone’s shirts. Pamela wrote PAM in upper case letters like it were an acronym. Not drab enough to go by her first name, but not so self-serious to write out her last name either. Last names were good only when they sounded like accomplishments, like when Pamela saw a Charlotte Harrod sitting in the row behind her, and she made a note in her phone to look the girl up. At the end of the brief orientation speech, all the visiting students were picked up by their campus hosts, and Pamela saw Harrod go off with a surfery blonde who had a certain look to her, like she would die early in life of emphysema or a motorcycle crash. Pamela looked on longingly.
“Have you been to In and Out? I’m not even from California, but In and Out makes the best burgers.”
“No,” Pamela said. “I’ve never eaten In and Out.”
“Oh my god,” Joy said, revealing her donkey-like overbite. “You’re gonna effing love it,” and effing came out like a tire rapidly losing air.
* * *
In the car, Pamela fought with the window.
“You have to roll it down,” Joy said. “It’s not an old car. Just a no-frills one.” She pulled out onto the boulevard, craning her neck to look out. She had been driving with her left signal on for an entire block before she reached the turn. “Anyway,” Joy continued. “I don’t know if you knew this, but SCU has a great ballroom dancing team. There’s a meet tonight.”
Pamela flinched. Even though she went to school in a place where they did fencing and played MAGIC cards on lunch tables, she would have never imagined that something lamer than both of those things could exist on a college campus.
“I don’t ballroom dance,” Pamela said, exhaling so deeply that dance fell out of her mouth like something dropped from the top of the stairs. “Everyone else got matched up like they should—based on interest. You’re only my host cause we’re both Indian.”
Joy pulled into the In-N-Out drive-through. She said nothing as she worked her arm in multiple clockwise circles before the window came fully down. The speaker crackled with questions.
“Can you just get me fries?” Pamela asked.
Over the sound of revved motors surrounding them, Pamela couldn’t hear what Joy ordered. Scattered around the parking lot, there were squares of granite tables, awash in unfiltered sun. When they pulled up to the window and grabbed the food, Joy still hadn’t answered Pamela. Either she was angry, or she just had ignored her. Pamela rolled her eyes at her reflection in the side-view mirror. They got out of the car and sat at the only empty table, next to a garbage can.
“I know you asked for fries,” Joy said, passing her the bag full of food. “But there’s an extra burger in there. I hope you’re not vegetarian.”
“I’m not,” Pamela said. “My mom exclusively cooks meat.”
“Oh,” Joy said. “Mine too. We eat pernil for like dessert.”
Pamela looked at Joy. On the label on her shirt, she only noticed now that Joy hadn’t written her last name. You butthead, Melody would have said.
“I’m sorry. You look Indian.”
“I’m Puerto Rican,” Joy said. “But yeah, everyone says that.”
The two girls ate in silence. Again, Pamela took stock of the parking lot. She had never been to California before and she had expected beach, but what she saw was like home—landlocked, a wide expanse of boulevard. She dunked a French fry in ketchup, and remembered Melody’s explicit instructions to bring her a weed lollipop.
“You don’t smoke weed, do you?” Pamela asked.
Joy laughed a little. “No.”
“It’s for a friend. Weed isn’t legal in Dallas.” She licked the tips of her fingers, brought it down to the wrapper where small piles of salt had gathered. As the sun beat down on them, the girls took sips from their sodas.
“Can I ask you something?” Joy wiped her mouth with her hand. “What do you have against Indians? I mean, you can be honest. It’s not like I’m going to tell the AAPI Student Union.”
“Nothing.” Pamela thrust another fry into the ketchup. It had been a mistake to leave her sunglasses at Joy’s dorm. It was so bright outside.
“I mean,” Joy continued, “aside from the fact that they all smell like curry and have arranged marriages?”
Pamela stared at Joy, but in all that sun, she could hardly see her. “What?”
“I’m just saying.”
Pamela brought her hands together to rip a cuticle off her nail. She felt her shoulder stiffen, as if bracing for a fall. With both palms leveraged on the table, she tried as best as she could, without squinting, to look Joy in the eye.
“You’re right,” Pamela said. “My mom had an arranged marriage.” Between her teeth, she chewed on a piece of her skin. “But you’re Puerto Rican,” she continued, “so your parents never even got married, did they?”
Joy ripped into her cheeseburger. She said nothing. Invigorated, Pamela went on.
“And how many of your sisters are pregnant? I mean you’re probably pregnant too.”
“Well.” Joy straightened in her seat. She looked off past Pamela’s head and then looked back down at the table. She took another bite and through a chewed-up bite of beef patty, she pointed to her stomach. “That would explain this.”
Pamela laughed so hard a piece of gnawed potato dislodged from her back tooth. When Joy saw it flop onto the table, she started laughing too, and the sound was so high-pitched, it was like a teakettle whistling. Pamela laughed again, this time at Joy’s hilarious voice, and now, they were no longer sitting erect, their backs bent towards each other, so that the distance created by the sparkling granite table became a little shorter.
“I guess I’ll try it,” Pamela said, once she had composed herself. All of her fries were gone. She lifted the burger up towards the sky, and Joy held up her own soggy bun, as if the two of them were clinking wine glasses. “My first In and Out Burger.”
“The second tastes even better than the first. Next time you’re out here, you’ll see.”
Pamela smiled. She held her hand like a visor over her eyes, to be sure that Joy had seen her. “Cheers,” she said.
Driving back to campus, Pamela stuck her arm out the window, curling her fingers against the wind like it was something she wanted to hold. Orientation only lasted two days before she’d decide where to enroll. At seventeen, it was the biggest decision she’d ever been entrusted to make. In the car, she felt a new urgency. It hadn’t been weed or ethnicity or ballroom dancing, so there had to be another reason she was matched with her campus host. She wondered if, in the time permitted, she would be able to find out.
Stephanie Jimenez: "I am a Queens-based writer and former Fulbright recipient who formerly worked in publishing. My work has appeared in The Guardian, O Magazine, Vibe, Yes! Magazine, Entropy, and Label Me Latino/a. I am currently working on my first novel and am represented by Sterling Lord Literistic."