The watercolor sky of each seemingly endless June day bled into the next. The sun turned the other girls red and left their skin bruised and tender. They slathered on aloe vera and emptied cans of spray-on sunscreen, but flakes of flesh still ended up on the front porch and in the bathroom sink. I did the same; smeared on layers of protection against the angry sun, anxiously waiting for my skin to get burned too. I felt the suffocating weight of warm air on my face and a stream of water droplets rushed from the roots of my hair to the back of my neck, but the pain did not come. Instead, I glittered in the sunlight and could see my pale skin darken into the sweet honey of summer. The sunscreen I had used to guard myself dripped away until my body shifted into shadow.
Two girls posed for a picture on the front steps of the bunk. I drifted into a corner and pretended to reorganize the pairs of sneakers lined up by the door. My head swiveled around periodically, waited for a half-second to be invited into the exclusive photoshoot, then went back to occupying myself with more arbitrary tasks. The girls held clenched, closed mouth smiles. They stuck their elbows out and threw their shoulders back. Their arms were wrapped around each other, but one girl’s fingers barely grazed the other’s back. They stood perfectly still while drops of sweat collected into shallow puddles on the ground. After a single click of the shutter, their shoulders slumped back down. They started to fake laugh for a second pose and soon their forced giggles grew into uncontrollable laughter. Another click. One girl rushed around to the back of the camera to see what she looked like.
She let out a high pitched cry for help. Her voice was burdened by the agony of summer heat and the insecurities she tried so hard to suppress. She hated the way that her eyes narrowed into dark slits whenever her smile was genuine. She complained to her friend that it made her look Asian. She said Asian like she was spitting out rotten food. The disgust in her voice sent an earthquake through my spine. Could she see me? Did it matter? I stood speechless on the porch. Her words took refuge inside of my mind. My tan skin blended into the wooden walls and I hoped that if I closed my eyes she wouldn’t be there when I opened them. I stopped adjusting the shoes and kicking the dirt into piles. I walked into the corner of wet towels and bathing suits and tried to take up as little space as possible. Thick teardrops rolled down my cheeks but I couldn’t lift my hand high enough to wipe them away.
The sun dried my tears and left thin lines of salt on my face. I positioned my head towards the shade so my eyes wouldn’t squint. Every muscle moved with calculated caution. I stared at my arms. Now they looked like they had been muddied and no matter how hard I scrubbed, the layers of contaminated skin refused to fall off. I ran my fingers across my eyelids and failed to find the same deep-set eye creases and long lashes that the other girls had. I silently cursed the sun for making me different. They were beautiful in a way that I could never be. Yes, they burned. But they burned together.
As the day faded into night I sat on the front porch and watched streams of girls walk by and gossip and giggle. One girl’s face blurred into another whenever I took a second to blink. They didn’t need to look at their arms or trace their eyelashes. They could see themselves by watching each other. There was a security in their sameness but they paid no attention to it. Some girls sat down next to me to see the stars, and I half smiled at them. Their eyes were pointed in every direction but somehow avoided contact with mine. I retreated into the darkness. In the midst of our closeness, I was still inevitably alone. The sun rose the next morning and my fingers trembled because they were scared to touch the light.
Arden Yum is a junior at Trinity School in New York City. Her favorite subjects are Latin, English, and Math. She enjoys photography, teaching, and oatmeal. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing awards.