In seeking truth, you have to get both sides of a story. At least, that’s what Walter Cronkite says.
He was the anchor who announced, on live national television, that President Kennedy had been assassinated. My gramma Weeza remembers exactly where she was when Cronkite made the announcement. She was in her kitchen, chopping onions. To this day, onions make her think of presidential assassinations. Sometimes, if I’m helping my mom cook, and Gramma Weeza is invited over, I’ll purposely leave out the onions.
They have too much baggage for her.
Gramma Weeza says we all have those Where were you when blank happened? moments, and then the blank is usually something about when Pearl Harbor was bombed or when 9/11 happened or when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Now I had one of those moments of my very own.
I was sitting in the living room, balancing a paper plate with a leftover taco on my lap, watching the nightly news. My mom had a talent for stretching leftovers into five-day territory. Even on day five, I still usually chose to eat the leftovers, because the other option was always instant ramen.
On the television, there was a press conference about a senator who had died in the arms of his mistress. It was a typical headline inside the Beltway of Washington, DC. My nine-yearold brother, Michael, wandered back and forth in front of the television, spinning a plastic hanger around his fingers, his gaze distant because he was in his own world. He was often in his own world.
My mom sat next to me, half watching the news and half folding laundry. She used to have a separate laundry room, with plenty of space for folding clothes, and even a midsize flat-screen TV on the wall for entertainment, but that was before the economy crashed and my dad’s start-up folded, leaving him with massive debt. Now the “laundry room” is behind a plastic beveled folding door in the kitchen, and the “folding area” is on the couch in the living room. My mom called us a typical middle-class family, but I think she did that to make us feel better about our situation. We were barely clinging to the lower half of the middle class.
“Pipe, why don’t you change the channel?” she said, using her hand to flatten a collar on one of Michael’s shirts. “This is so depressing.”
“But it’s news and it’s the truth. We shouldn’t be scared of the truth.”
I turned back toward the television. The monitor showed the questionable woman who had been with the senator when he had taken his final gasps. (When I become a reporter, I will never shove a camera in the face of a mistress. That is so tabloid.) As the woman shook her head in front of the press corps, mascara tears streamed down her face, making her look even more like a prostitute. Is that uncharitable? Maybe so. I’d have to cut that out if I wanted to be unbiased.
The next video showed the press hounding the senator’s wife, who insisted she’d had no idea of her soul mate’s infidelity.
I shook my head. “Everyone in politics has something to hide, and if a senator hasn’t been involved in a scandal, that’s just because the skeletons in his closet haven’t been discovered yet. The privileged always get into trouble. Rich people are bored people. And that equals trouble.”
My mom sighed through her nose. “You’re so cynical.”
“Reporters are supposed to be cynical,” I said. “That’s how we get the dirt.” I shoved another bite of leftovers into my mouth as I looked at my watch. I still had a half hour before my shift at the Yogurt Shop started.
The kitchen door opened and my dad walked in, looking war torn from his latest day at the Virginia Power and Light Company.
He used to be an investor in a company with a big contract to provide glass for smartphones. The problem was, most of his savings were tied up in stock, and he borrowed against it, so when the economy crashed, he lost everything. After that, he took what he could get: shift work at VP&L. He always said he felt safer with shift work.
I never understood how someone could start the day looking fine and end it looking as if he’d just been released by the Mexican drug cartel. He used to wear Armani and smell of Clive Christian cologne. Now he wore secondhand Men’s Wearhouse and smelled of quiet resignation. But he still always managed a wide smile when he walked in the door.
“How are my people?” he asked.
My mom smiled even wider than he did. “Piper was just telling me how every politician is dirty.”
He raised an eyebrow. “So, the usual?”
“It’s not me saying it,” I said. “It’s the news.”
My dad plopped the mail down on the kitchen table, and that’s when I saw it. The large white envelope with the red Chiswick Academy insignia in the corner.
I drew in a breath as my stomach fluttered. “That’s it,” I said.
“That’s what?” my mom asked.
I nodded toward the table. The rest of my body was frozen in anticipation. “Large envelope. Third from the top. Under the Economist.”
My dad made a move to reach for it.
“Don’t touch it!” I blurted out. “Sorry. I’m just nervous. Go ahead and touch it. But don’t open it.” I sighed. “Never mind. Open it. Not yet, though.”
I realized I had stopped eating my taco midchew. I didn’t mean to be so dramatic. It was just that senior year had started a month ago and I’d given up hope.
My dad picked up the letter delicately with two fingers, as if it were a bomb. “Is this okay?” he said, one corner of his mouth turned up.
My mom set down the shirt she’d been folding. “Odds are the school wouldn’t waste time writing you a letter if you didn’t get the scholarship.”
“Who knows what a school like that does?” I said, my voice noticeably higher than usual. “It’s Chiswick Academy. Seven-to-one student-to-teacher ratio. Forty-one countries represented in the student body. A faculty full of doctorates. And home to the Bennington Journalism Scholarship.” I said the last part with reverence, resisting the urge to put my hand over my heart. Winning the Bennington would mean a free ride to the school of my choice. No more hand-me-downs. No more leftovers.
My mom raised an eyebrow.
“I memorized the brochure,” I explained.
“If you’re not going to open it, I will,” my dad said.
I nodded. “And while you do, I’m going to eat my taco and act like I don’t care.”
“Well, then we have a plan.” My dad ripped the end of the envelope as I swallowed my bite of taco. He smiled as he read the first sentence. “You’re in,” he said.
And that’s why I will forever associate tacos with the end of life as I knew it.
I felt the bite of ground beef make its way down my esophagus and toward my stomach, and I wondered if the tacos at Chiswick would taste the same as the ones at my current school or if they would taste unfamiliar and elite. Or maybe Chiswick Academy didn’t even serve plain old tacos. Maybe they served something hoity-toity like tofu tacos. And maybe they called them “tofacos.”
I couldn’t wait to find out.
That night, I worked my usual shift at the Yogurt Shop with my best friend, Charlotte. We were also coeditors in chief at the school paper. When I got the job at the Yogurt Shop, she applied too, I think for fun. I thought of telling her about the Chiswick scholarship, but as I opened my mouth to do so, she raised a cup of frozen yogurt and said, “To the best coeditors Clarendon High has ever seen! Together forever!”
She always made toasts like that as an excuse to eat free yogurt. Nevertheless, I filled a cup and clinked with her, and decided to keep the news that we might not be together forever to myself, at least for the weekend.
The front doorbell rang, and we put down our cups as a man walked in.
“Chocolate milk shake,” he said.
Charlotte nodded and made the order, and when he put a dollar bill into the tip jar, I groaned. The label on the jar said, “Will sing for tips,” so any time we got a tip, we had to sing a song.
“Your turn,” Charlotte said.
I sighed and proceeded to sing “There’s No Yogurt Like Our Yogurt” to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and dreamed of the day I would win the Bennington and never have to sing for tips again.