Stout Sister Flavian is at her desk as I enter the classroom. She shoots a glance at my shirt, wrinkles up her nose and barks, “Monica, come here!” My ears heat up; trouble’s brewing. Every head in the classroom turns. My toes curl inside shoes that are one size too large—for growing into, my mother said.
I’m sure Sister doesn’t wrinkle up her nose because of the smell from my shirt; I took it off the clothesline this morning. The nuns at my school are particular about uniforms—white shirts, navy skirts, white socks and black shoes. They are particular about our nails, and our hair. They are particular that notebooks should be covered in brown paper, labels stuck on the top right hand corner with our first names, last names, subject and grade level inscribed in all capitals.
My mother bought my uniforms a year in advance in a larger size—five shirts, five skirts. She knows the rules and sends me here for education and discipline.
“Was this shirt washed?” Sister asks. I stare at the mole on her round chin. The white hair in the center of it wiggles when she talks. “I said yesterday that shirt is more yellow than white.”
When I tell my mother Sister Flavian says my shirts are more yellow than white, I don’t think she hears me. Mother’s always busy with the babies, or in the kitchen. Everyday, I take the public bus with friends from my neighborhood.
Sister lifts my arms. Sweat stains make semi-circles. I pray someone flings a paper rocket across the room.
“Early hormones,” she says.
I don’t know what she means.
“Yes, it was washed,” I mumble.
I want to tell Sister I don’t wash clothes. I’m nine.
The nun’s thick finger lifts my collar. “Tsk, tsk. Your collar has a ring. Needs scrubbing.”
She turns to one of my classmates.
“Pia, when you go home for lunch, take Monica with you. Get her a clean shirt.”
I want to learn how how to faint.
Perfect Pia is not my friend. This girl wears shiny, polished, black shoes. Blue ribbons thread through her tight braids. Her navy skirt has pleats ironed into sharp creases. She gets the highest grades. Perfect Pia, teacher’s pet, sits behind me in class.
I study the once-white, now gray, socks on my feet. Will Sister ask Pia to give me a pair of socks as well?
Pia doesn’t say a word as we walk to her home. The place is as perfect as she is. The apartment has clean, tiled floors. I’m afraid my shoes will leave dirty marks. Six red cushions sit in a row on a beige couch. A red table cloth drapes the dining table.
Pia asks the maid for a white shirt and one appears, crisp, bright, and ironed. I change in a bathroom with shiny faucets. I abandon my yellow-white shirt by the sink.
The maid places cheese sandwiches, sliced apples and glasses of milk on the table. We eat lunch and walk back to school. I thank Pia but she won’t answer.
The next day, Pia’s shirt goes into the pile of washing and I wear one of my other yellow-white shirts. Sister clenches her teeth.
“Pia, can you take her home again? I will send your mother a note.”
I’ve heard Pia is the only child of busy lawyers. Again, we only see the maid. Again, I thank Pia and she won’t look at me. I change into her white shirt, and leave mine behind. I eat a cheese sandwich, gobble up the sliced apple and drink strawberry-flavored milk.
Sister nods in approval when we get back. Anything less than a brilliant white is imperfect.
Three days later, the nun wrinkles up her nose again. “Why can’t your mother get you new shirts?” she asks.
By now, I’ve learned not to feel bad when Pia whispers to her friends. I imagine row upon row of white shirts and navy skirts hanging in her cupboard. Her mother won’t mind giving me a few. They are rich.
When I take off my tired shirt, I see someone has pinned paper on the back of my shirt. It reads, “Monica is stupid.” I dump my shirt on the floor.
I have three white shirts now. But then, we get a couple of rainy days. Two of Pia’s shirts hang damp on the line and one waits to be washed. I know what to expect from Sister.
We go through the same routine. Sister wrinkles up her nose, shakes her head. Pia makes a face but takes me home.
I try hard to stick to the four white shirts I now possess; Sister leaves me alone.
Until my mother gets the flu. Four days of clothes remain unwashed.
I tell my mother I don’t want to go to school. She tells me if I stay home, I’ll get sick too.
I wear the fifth and last of my old yellow shirts. Will someone stick another note on my back?
Sister gets that glint in her eye. Pia makes a face, again.
After I change, I drop my last yellow shirt in the bathroom sink. In a way, I am relieved. I have five white shirts now, one for each school day.
My mother gets better, washes the mountain of clothes. White shirts shine in the sun. She irons them too, not a crumple in sight.
I come to school, confident. Hoping to receive a smile, I grin at plump Sister. She ignores me,
Instead, she wrinkles her nose at imperfect Pia who wears a yellowing, white shirt.
Sudha Balagopal’s short fiction has appeared in Peacock Journal, Foliate Oak, Superstition Review, and The Tishman Review, among other journals. She is the author of the novel A New Dawn and the two short story collections There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com.