by HAFSA ARAIN
There was a time when I used to be someone else, someone who used to play outside all day until my skin was as dark as mahogany. I tan so easily. I used to climb trees until sap glued my fingers together. I used to run in forests so that the trees would lovingly slash my forearms.
I am obsessed with the idea of who I used to be and am not anymore. I used to live in Hinsdale, Illinois from the ages of 4 to 9. These years were the most formative years of my life. As far as I can remember, I spent all of these years out of doors. My memories of sitting in front of the television, of reading books in my bedroom, or even of playing with Barbie dolls with my sister are fuzzy. They wane into the background as brighter moments are happily recalled.
I grew up in a small, 3-bedroom, rented townhouse in front of an abandoned hospital campus. On one side of the campus were thickets of forest in a district park, and on the other was a massive field with a single tree in the middle. The tree, a solitary symbol of stability, had once been struck by lightning in the summer of 1992. It had a gash across its bark that I used to run my fingers over to feel the break in roughness. I remember the thunderstorm well, because it had been the first thunderstorm where I had learned to count the seconds between lightning and thunder. Each second that passed meant that the storm was farther away.
The field used to sprout dandelions in the summer. These were weeds, of course, but I have always thought of dandelions as beautiful weeds. They peppered the green grass with yellow. I used to call them sunflowers.
Adjoining our house were two rental apartments. Our neighbors to the left were a Bosnian family my uncle had sponsored through a Muslim charity to live in America during the war. A mother and her two older children, they shared with us their Bosnian bread. Their son, Nihad, had lost both his legs during his service, and rode around in a wheelchair. Above them lived a middle-aged man named Mr. Carson, who used to entertain us with illegal fireworks shows every Fourth of July.
The only other people who lived in the small townhome complex were my extended family: aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. Over the years in the early 90s, we had all come to be in that complex. One family at a time had packed up its life and left Karachi and unpacked it in Hinsdale, Illinois. We were a band of kids, now that I think of it. All of us were just children learning to live in a new world.
We used to spend all of our time out of doors. We did this, because when we were young, we ached to be free.
We were all afraid of that lightning tree, for it was surely haunted with at least one or two jinns, but not quite as afraid of it as we were the abandoned hospital building. It loomed behind our houses – we could see it from our back patios. It was a constant reminder that we did not own this place, that this place was a soon-to-be decrepit piece of property that we would abandon. It would be replaced with something shiny, new, and subsequently unused.
Katharine Legge Memorial Park was a park for people richer than us, but we snuck into it through the gaps in the fence. We watched dog owners walking as we played tag among the bushes and in the playground. I once met Ruby Bridges in the Katharine Legge Community House. I had begged my mother to go see her. She signed a copy of my book and told me to be a brave girl. I wanted to be like Ruby, because she was a little black girl that was brave. I was nothing like Ruby; I was shy and sensitive. But I was equal parts afraid and empowered by my education, like she was.
When we told each other ghost stories, we told them as dusk fell and as the lightning bugs emerged. After a while, we would gather them into our palms and through the slit between our thumbs we would watch them. Once we had had our fill, we would let them free. Sometimes, though, they would die in our hands, and we would bury them two inches into the dirt. A brief moment of silence for the life lost, and then a celebration of life in the form of freeze tag.
At school, we went to our separate classrooms and sat into our separate seats. We divided our lives between home and school at a young age. I would cry in school on more than one occasion. Once after a fellow student had pushed me off the swing set, another time when a boy had told me my mother smelled bad. Another time when I was told no one wanted to play foursquare with me. But at home, I would sit on the warm portable dishwasher plugged into the sink faucet and tell my mother I got top marks in penmanship that day. I would tell her in Urdu, and after I was finished, I did not think about school until the next day.
We were not afraid to talk about school with each other, but school was irrelevant. Only when my cousin was reprimanded for forgetting English did we joke about it, but even then we forgot soon afterwards. We had no time to think of school, we had only time to climb trees or ride our bikes around the circular driveway for hours.
Sometimes, when we felt daring, we would elect someone to walk into the abandoned hospital building. When I was elected, I cried for ten minutes until everyone told me I didn’t have to go in. I cried later, too, but not because of the hospital. I cried because I was a coward.
When one of my cousins would walk into the hospital, they would scream loudly at only fifteen feet in and run back outside to join us. There were dead birds in there, with their eyes staring blankly at the rusting ceiling tiles. We would peer in through a broken window to stare down at the black feathers on the ground, before someone would shrug and say, “Let’s just get out of here before someone catches us.” None of us were allowed to go into the abandoned hospital building. Then we would go play house, where we pretended to serve each other hot dogs, even though we never ate such things for dinner.
Summer in Chicago is warm and muggy. We would pile into the grey van our uncle had bought for our collective use and drive to Highland Queen in LaGrange to fill ourselves up with soft serve ice cream with peanuts and chocolate sauce. It became a tradition for us, and we hastened to get seated in the grey van after dinner during summer vacations. The cashiers would stare agape as twenty brown faces stood in line.
Even in the winter, we spent our Christmas vacations outside if the weather permitted. Bundled up in brightly colored snowsuits with plastic bags over our boots to keep the snow out, we had snowball fights and built snow forts. We were particularly unsuccessful in making a snowman: for some reason our round snowballs would fall apart. An older cousin, in America for college, once had the brilliant idea of using an empty trash bin, the giant ones we used to keep in our garage. Handfuls at a time, we stuffed the trash bin with snow. We pressed on it to pack it in, and once we were finished, we turned it upside down. As we pulled the trash bin up, a rectangular snow pillar remained. We put carrots on it for a nose, stones as eyes, sticks for arms.
When we were at home, we spoke Urdu, but with one another we spoke a combination of Urdu and English. We learned English in school through a speech tutor the district had hired to help students with lisps or reading disabilities. We were treated like we had a disability, too, because when it was time for us to have our English lessons our teachers would tap us quietly on the shoulder. We would walk silently through the hallways as the other students stared through the open doors. We were stuffed into a small office, where we would then learn English words with a thick Chicago accent.
And so, one word at a time, we became Chicagoans.
When they tore down the houses, they built a subdivision over the land and the surrounding field. Though sometime around 2008, the property development company went bankrupt and the project was postponed until a later date. We never drive that way anymore, and no one was ever sure if there were other people living over the abandoned hospital building or where the lightning tree used to be.
They had torn everything down: the berry trees where my mother used to pluck blackberries and hand them to us to eat, the climbing trees next to the fence, our stone back patios where we would watch Mr. Carson’s illegal firework show.
We were not there to save the abandoned hospital campus next to the small, old, brick townhomes. We had slowly moved out of Hinsdale, family by family, to nearby Westmont. Westmont was where we owned our own homes that came with dishwashers attached, where the schools were diverse enough to have Asian kids like us, where we each had our own backyards with old trees. We had left behind the Bosnian family who used to give us bread, Mr. Carson grilling on his deck.
The longer we lived in Westmont, the more English our parents learned, and more Urdu we forgot. It was a gradual shift, but now we speak English with one another as freely as if we had never needed the speech instructor. We went through middle school and high school as those parts of our existence slowly took over everything else. You can be who you want to be outside of elementary school, but high school is a place that controls every part of you.
When we see each other now, it is subdued, but familiar. When you know who people were as children, and when they are your blood, you can never un-know them. We are older now, most of us past college age, and enveloped in lives that were unforeseen for us as children. We are young professionals, students, artists, soon-to-be doctors or engineers. And one by one, we become part of the blend, unable to stand out any longer.
"Dam Mast Qalander" - Nusret Ali Khan (mp3)
"Wada Na Tod" - Lata Mangeshkar (mp3)