Below is an excerpt from Love in English by Maria E. Andreu, a forthcoming YA novel (Feb. 2) that follows 16-year-old Ana, who recently moved from Argentina to New Jersey and finds herself struggling to express herself in her new primary language, and to navigate American high school politics.
X + Y = My Actual Nightmare
School smells different here. Back home, it was a sweet smell, something close to the sugared milk my mom made me when I was sick. Here it is like everything else: foreign. Like bleach and eraser.
By this third year of high school, I should be the girl who carries the flag in the processions, the one who gets away with just a little more than I could last year, with teachers who have known me since I lost my first baby teeth in my small school that went from kindergarten until the end of high school. All of that is erased now. But then there's this other feeling that ties have been unfastened, rules on stone tablets have been cracked. I have come to the land where everything is possible.
Math is the first class of the day. The classroom: too many posters, like a box lined with magazine ads. The kids: arm in arm and laughing even though the teacher is speaking. The teacher: fidgety and blackclad, impossible to understand.
Here's another thing: I'm overdressed. I'm in a stretchy black skirt, black tights, and a red bolero jacket. At home, I would practically be in uniform in this outfit. But here, the girls are in stretch pants and oversize sweatshirts, hair scraped up into scrunchies on their crowns, faces washed of makeup. One girl is actually wearing plaid pajama bottoms. I'm suddenly self-conscious of the extra time I took to elaborately curl and clip strands of my brown hair around itself so that it does more than just hang halfway down my back, not quite straight, not quite wavy, like it usually does. It would have been more fit for a party than for school even back home, but this morning it somehow felt like a good idea, like putting my best foot forward.
Now I realize I look like the only kid who listened to her parents and dressed up for a party. Like I'm trying much too hard.
There's this, though: a cute boy is sitting to the left of me. I'm relieved to have a normal thought, just: this is a cute boy. I let myself take a look at him sidelong.
He's wearing a burgundy T-shirt with a line drawing of an old-timey diving helmet. His hair is combed, starting to kick up at the neck like it's been a week too long since his last haircut. He is everything I imagined American boys to be: Netflix-series handsome, with angular cheekbones and wide, beautiful lips, his skin perfect except for a smattering of spots near his temple, just enough of a shadow on his jaw to make it known he did not shave this morning, but does. He looks relaxed, bored, even, leaning back slightly, flicking a pencil around in long, knobby fingers. He looks like the world is exactly the way he expects it to be. I've noticed that about the Americans in my new town. So many of them look like they've lived lives empty of bad news, of unpleasant surprises.
"Ana?" the teacher says, flipping the longer side of her hair back, looking at a list.
I look around. Could there be more than one?
"#### ########## ## #####," she says.
She waits, looking at me. She's expecting something.
My heart starts pounding. "#######," she tries again. To me, she could be saying anything. I took four years of English back home. I watched all kinds of subtitled American movies and television shows. It was one of the reasons I didn't worry about coming here: I knew this place before I got here. Or so I thought.
Hearing English here, so fast, it's impossible to understand. She's just written a problem on the board. Does she want me to give her the answer? I squint up at the equation. I do know how to do it.
I walk to the front of the class, wind-tossed trees for legs. I can feel eyes on me, and hear a few snickers in the back of the room. I hear one girl say, "Check this out." She means me. I'm the "this." I should take some comfort that at least I understood that snickering.
I stand next to the teacher, waiting for her to hand me the marker. Her badly dyed hair covers half her face. She looks at me, confused. Giggles are popping up like popcorn in more parts of the class, and so I pick up an extra marker and quickly begin the problem.
Two guys laugh louder in the back, and one slaps another on the chest backhanded. Still, the teacher says nothing.
I search my panicked brain for appropriate words, but all I can say is: "I do . . . math?"
The whole room bursts into laughter. A ripple goes over the teacher's face, and confusion is replaced with pity. She feels sorry for me.
"Oh, honey, no," she says. "###### ########## ####### #####." More words I don't understand. Finally, she picks up a book off her desk. She asks, slowly and greatly exaggerating her syllables, "You . . . have . . . book?"
She asked me if I had the book, not to come up to the board and do a problem. I clench a fist and rub out what I've written on the board with the edge of it.
More laughter. My insides turn to ooze and filter down to my knees. Please let me melt and slither away in a liquid version of myself. Preferably an invisible one.
She says something to the class that sounds scolding, but I can't make it out through the rushing sound in my ears, a sound like a river. I grab the book from her and make my way back to my desk.
Deep breath. Don't cry. Crying would make this so much worse. Still, the shame comes in waves and threatens to pull me down into full-on sobs.
The teacher talks, but I can't hear her, just the rushing in my ears. Then she sits down. Her desk seems too big for her. She's written a page number on the board, plus "1–7." People are scribbling. She must have assigned problems. I accidentally catch the eye of the boy next to me, the one with the burgundy diver's helmet T-shirt. He smiles at me.
I still want my desk to be sucked into another dimension with me in it, so I dart my eyes away.
I put my things in my bag. The book is huge and barely fits. I shove it in and close the zipper over it. I walk up to the desk. The tears are right under the surface.
The teacher looks up again.
"Bathroom?" I ask.
Thankfully, that word is a sentence all its own.