The afternoon before the first day of school, ten-year-old Magdalena Towne’s mother told her that eating carrots gave children pretty eyes, so Magda ate three, even though she hated how they snapped between her teeth, how their skin was bumpy and gristly, and how they didn’t taste like anything. Afterwards she rushed to her bedroom mirror and waited for her eyes to turn blue.
By bedtime, her eyes were still slanted and dark, her eyelashes were still short and stubby, and she vowed to never eat carrots again.
“Your grandfather is Chinese,” her mother said, when she asked why her eyes were so slanted. “You’re lucky. Very smart.” She tapped her forehead.
“No one else at school has slanted eyes,” Magda mumbled, more to herself than to anyone.
The Townes lived in south Louisiana, which was where Magda’s father was from, and all the children there were either black or white. Even the ones with brown skin weren’t the same color brown as her.
That night, Magda prayed that she would make a new friend. She’d had only one friend since first grade, Jenny Baker, and Jenny was one year older than her, which meant she’d gone on to middle school. But Jenny didn’t really count as a friend because she was her cousin on her dad’s side, and Jenny never really wanted Magda around. She was only friends with Magda because their fathers were brothers, which meant they were family and she would get in trouble if Magda told anyone that she wouldn’t let her play chase or sit at the table. Instead, Jenny did the next best thing to forgetting that they were related: She pretended Magda wasn’t there and when they played chase, she never tagged her. After being around Jenny for a while, Magda had come to believe that her middle name was “Has-To.” “Magda Has-To sit with us; she’s my cousin,” or “Magda Has-To play too, or I’ll get in trouble,” or “My daddy says Magda Has-To come with us, or we can’t go.”
But Jenny was better than no one, and now that she was gone, Magda had no one. She wanted to make a new friend, but not just anyone — she wanted to become best friends with Danielle Tiptree. Danielle reminded her of those fancy porcelain dolls she would see at the hobby shops. Her skin was creamy like milk, and she had long blonde hair that she tied in silky ribbons. Her eyes were big, blue, and round. Very American.
At lunch the next day, Magda went straight from the lunch line to Danielle’s table, where three other milky white girls sat. All of them pulled neatly packed peanut butter sandwiches from shiny Coca-Cola lunchboxes. They barely looked at Magda when she sat down and opened her own lunchbox, which she did very quickly so they wouldn’t notice that it was the same one that she’d had since the end of second grade.
The white girls didn’t say a word to her until she opened her Tupperware full of boiled chicken and cabbage, which her mother had cooked the night before.
Danielle scrunched her nose and pointed at the Tupperware. “What’s that? It stinks.”
“My lunch,” Magdalena said.
“I’ve eaten at lots of Chinese restaurants and the food never smelled like that.”
“I’m not Chinese,” Magdalena said.
“I don’t care if you’re an alien from another planet,” Danielle said. “Your lunch stinks. What is it?”
Magda shrugged and closed the Tupperware. “Just some gross stuff my mom made.”
Danielle pinched her nose. “Put it away. We can still smell it, and we don’t want to lose our appetites.”
Magda slipped the Tupperware back in her lunchbox. Once the chicken and cabbage disappeared, so did she. Danielle and her friends kept talking like she wasn’t there.
There were other things to eat besides the chicken and cabbage. Her mother had also packed an apple and some orange slices, but Magda was afraid to take anything else out. She didn’t like being invisible, but hated being singled out even more. What if she took out an apple slice and the edges were slightly browned? What if she bit into the orange wedge and some juice squirted out? Best to sit silently.
She put her arms on the table and leaned forward just a little, then looked around the lunchroom. That’s what she usually did when she sat with Jenny, because it made her look like she was part of the conversation.
At a nearby table, a third-grader flung a spaghetti noodle at one of his friends and the teacher scolded him. At another, two girls looked at something on a loose leaf paper and giggled. And in the corner of the lunchroom was Raven Baker, the darkest and heaviest girl in the class. The other children called her “Butterball.” Raven had a lunchbox in front of her, but she wasn’t eating anything. Raven never ate anything at lunch, even though she was twice the size of everyone else. Instead, she read books. And she always sat alone.
By the time the bell rang, it felt like there were knives in the pit of Magda’s belly. The other girls picked up all their leftover trash and left the cafeteria in a group; she followed slowly behind, carrying a lunchbox heavy with food.
That night, when she saw her mama shoveling more chicken and cabbage into a Tupperware container, she asked if she could bring a peanut butter sandwich instead.
“Why peanut butter and jelly?” her mother said. “You love chicken and cabbage.”
“I know, but I’m tired of eating it. I want to bring something else.”
“In the Philippines, children don’t tell parents what they want to eat. Parents tell the children. That’s the difference between Filipino children and American children.” Once the Tupperware was full of food, she snapped it shut all the way around and put it in Magda’s lunchbox.
“Can I at least have a new lunchbox?” Magda asked.
“What, new lunchbox?”
“All the girls in school have Coca-Cola ones.”
Her mother examined all the corners of Magda’s lunchbox. “Don’t need new one,” she said. “Nothing wrong with this.”
The next day, Magda debated whether or not to sit with Danielle again and starve or sit somewhere else and eat.
She decided to sit somewhere else and eat, but the only available chair was next to Raven Baker. Before she sat with Raven, she glanced back to see if Danielle and her friends were watching. They weren’t paying any attention to her, so she sat down.
Raven looked surprised, but didn’t say anything.
“What book are you reading?” Magda asked. Instead of answering out loud, Raven closed the book and showed her the cover. Magda examined it closely, even though she didn’t really like books much. “What’s it about?”
“A girl who goes back in time,” Raven said. She looked at all the stuff Magdalena had taken out of her lunchbox. “Whatcha got for lunch?”
“I brought an apple and a juice box. And this is chicken and cabbage. It doesn’t smell too good.” Magdalena debated whether or not she should open it. Her tummy grumbled. ”What do you have?”
Raven’s lunchbox hadn’t been opened.
“Oh, I’m not hungry,” Raven said.
Magda ate her apple, then sat back and looked around.
“Aren’t you gonna eat your chicken?” Raven asked.
“Yeah, but I don’t want to gross you out or anything.”
Later that afternoon, while Danielle and her friends took turns on the monkey bars, Magda found Raven and asked if she wanted to play hopscotch. After school, they sat together at the pick-up line. They faced each other, cross-legged, with booksacks in their laps, occasionally glancing down the line of cars to see if they saw their mothers. Every time Magda glanced back, she also looked to see if Danielle or any of her friends were there, even though she knew they usually took the bus.
“Are you Chinese?” Raven asked.
“No. I’m Filipino.”
“My mom is from the Philippines.”
“What’s the Philippines?”
“A bunch of islands in the Pacific Ocean.”
“Oh. Is your dad from there, too?”
“No. He’s white.”
Raven touched her stubby ponytail. Her hair was coarse and dry and pieces on the side had fallen out of the ponytail and stuck out in all directions. “I like your hair,” Raven said.
“Thank you,” Magdalena said, and she looked at Raven’s booksack. She could tell it was brand-new. “I like your booksack.”
“Thanks,” Raven said. Magda’s mother appeared behind her in the family sedan.
“My mom’s here,” Magda said. “I gotta go.”
“Okay. See you tomorrow.”
When Magdalena got in her mother’s car and shut the door, she waved at Raven, who was still sitting there with her booksack.
“Who is that?” her mother asked. They made their way out of the school’s driveway and onto the road. Magdalena turned around to see if she could still see Raven. She couldn’t.
“My new friend,” Magdalena said. “Her name is Raven.”
Her mother pointed at a group of white girls that were walking along the sidewalk.
“Oy, Magda,” her mother said. “Why couldn’t you make friends like that?”
At morning recess the next day, Raven asked Magdalena if she could braid her hair. Raven sat behind her under the shade of one of the enormous magnolia trees, then separated Magda’s long black hair into three groups of locks.
“I wish I had good hair,” Raven asked, as she twisted and pulled. “White girls always have pretty hair.”
“But I’m Filipino.”
Not really, Magda thought. White girls don’t have slanty eyes and stubby eyelashes.
“Do you wash your hair everyday?” Raven asked.
“Yeah. Don’t you?”
“No. My mom wraps it for me every Sunday.”
“Wraps it in what?”
“She puts all kinds of stuff in it and then she wraps it in this headband thing, and then I go to sleep and she fixes it the next morning.”
Magda had no idea what she was talking about, but she didn’t ask.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Raven asked.
“I don’t know. What do you want to be?”
“I want to be a dancer.”
“Do you take dance classes?”
“No. My mom won’t let me. She says they’re too expensive.” She continued twisting and pulling. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“No. Do you?”
“I have a brother. He’s in the Army.”
Danielle and her friends had been out of sight when Raven and Magda sat down, but a game of chase now brought them near the magnolia tree. When Danielle saw them, she whispered to her friends, walked over, and put her hands on her hips. Her legs stuck out of her denim skirt like two twigs.
“You shouldn’t let Butterball touch your hair,” Danielle said. She leaned on one leg. “You’re gonna get lice.”
Magdalena didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing.
“I’m serious,” Danielle said. “You’re Chinese, so that means you have pretty hair. And you shouldn’t let someone like Butterball touch it.”
“She’s not Chinese,” Raven said.
“So? She looks Chinese to me. Except she’s got dark skin. So maybe she’s black-and-white mixed.” She stuck her tongue out and pretended to be puking. “But she still has pretty hair. And now you’re gonna give her lice.”
“I don’t have lice,” Raven said.
Danielle looked at Magda, told her that she better wash her hair the minute she got home, then disappeared down the playground with her friends.
That afternoon, when Magda and her mother pulled out of the school driveway, Magdalena asked her mother what “lice” was.
“Bugs,” her mother said, and she immediately looked in the rearview mirror. “Why? That new friend give you lice?”
“No. I was just wondering what it was.” She looked in the side mirror at Raven as they pulled further away.
When Raven was out of sight, she unbraided all her hair.