Brooke does not take the virus seriously at first.
She is in a chapter meeting when her phone buzzes with a text: There’s a virus from China that can kill people. Very contagious. Two cases have been found in the USA so far, one in Seattle and one in LA. Wash your hands pls and remember to be careful.
Attached to the message is a link to a news article: Deadly flu-like virus spreads from China to the United States.
The text is from her father, who had recently sent her a video that claimed smoking marijuana caused blindness. Now this. Despite his business acumen, he is an avid believer of any legitimate-seeming information on the Internet.
Brooke smirks a little, not bothering with a reply. She loves her father, but she’s long since learned to consider him a source of fake news.
She turns her attention to the front of the room. Rebecca, the sorority president, is giving updates about the formal that is happening a month and a half from now. Formals are a big deal for Alpha Nu. There’s always a strict dress code; each girl has to get her dress pre-approved by the Standards chair at least a week beforehand. Brooke finds comfort in this strictness, like she is part of something bigger than herself. It’s nice that there are people outside of her family who care enough about her to have an opinion on what she should wear to events.
“Remember, the theme is ‘Whiteout,’” Rebecca says now. “That means white dresses and neutral shoes. Send pictures of your outfits to Standards — that’s Laura over here — by February twenty-sixth at the latest. She’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”
Laura, a willowy junior with just enough of a resting bitch face to seem intimidating, waves. Brooke’s mind immediately jumps to the dress she picked out last weekend. It’s a vintage prom dress from the nineteen-fifties, with a sweetheart neckline and a skirt made fluffy by layers and layers of tulle. She spent half a month’s savings on it — way more than she’d meant to — but once she’d seen it, she simply couldn’t wear anything else.
Brooke has yet to show it to Laura. There’s something about the older girl that makes her throat close up. But she needs Standards’ stamp of approval, so Brooke wipes her sweaty hands on her jeans and promises herself that she’ll take the dress to Laura by the end of the week.
By the time the meeting adjourns, Brooke has forgotten all about the deadly new virus from China.
“You’ve got such pretty hair,” Brooke’s roommate Delaney says enviously as Brooke gathers her long black locks into a perfect topknot.
“It’s the Asian genes,” replies Brooke with a wink. She’s the only non-white member of Alpha Nu. In the year that she’s lived in the house, she’s grown used to her sorority sisters’ unsolicited awe over her thick hair, which seems to grow three inches a month, to the way eyeshadow disappears into her eyelids, to the fact that she never has to shave her legs or put on deodorant, no matter how sweaty she gets. Brooke feels warm and glowy every time in the house compliments her features.
“Speaking of Asians …” Brooke scrolls through her text messages until she finds the still-unanswered text from her father. “My dad sent me this a few days ago. Pretty stupid, huh?”
“Deadly flu-like virus spreads from China to the United States,” Delaney reads aloud, tapping through to the article. “This article says that the virus originated in a Chinese food market that sold exotic animals, such as dogs and bats and kangaroos.”
Brooke makes a face. “Do you think that people were buying them to eat?”
“I mean, that is an Asian thing, right?”
“Have you ever —”
“No!” Brooke exclaims. “I’m American.” She uses her thumb and index finger to stretch her eyelids as wide as she can. “My dad moved here, like, twenty years before I was born. I’ve never even been to China.”
“Chill, it was just a question. I know that you’re white on the inside.”
Brooke and Delaney exchange a smile. All the tension in the room evaporates.
“Do you think that the virus is, like, a thing, or is my dad just being paranoid?” Brooke asks.
Delaney shrugs. “The story is still developing, isn’t it? There have been no deaths in the United States so far. I don’t think we should be worried yet.”
“You’re right,” Brooke concurs.
“Enough about that,” Delaney says. “Wanna see what I’m wearing to the formal?”
Delaney walks over to her closet and pulls out a white dress covered in iridescent sequins that wink and shimmer, even in the room’s ambient light. It reminds Brooke of a figure skater’s costume, with its high neck and twirl-worthy circle skirt.
“I ordered this pair of nude stilettos that should be here tomorrow or Tuesday,” Delaney says, looking at the dress with pride. “Laura already approved the outfit.”
“That’s beautiful, Delaney. You’re going to look gorgeous.”
Her roommate beams. “What about you, babe? Have you picked your dress yet?”
“Yeah, I have.”
“Can I see it?”
Brooke feels her throat constrict again. She’s not sure of the reason; when she’d tried the dress on in the store, she’d twirled in front of every mirror she could find, soaking up the attention as all the shop associates oohed and ahhed over her. Why doesn’t she feel excited about showing Delaney?
“Sure,” she says, after a pause. The tulle layers rustle as she carefully takes the dress out of its garment bag. It’s even more beautiful than she remembers, with tiny pearls stitched into the bodice that she hadn’t noticed before.
“Wow,” Delaney breathes as Brooke holds it up in front of her.
Brooke smiles and chides herself for having been so reluctant. “I got it at the vintage store down the street. It’s definitely the cutest thing I own.”
“You’ll look like a ballerina princess, or Glinda the Good Witch.” Is that envy in Delaney’s voice? “I’ll bet you money that every single girl in the house has wanted a dress like this one at some point in her life.”
Brooke gently runs her fingers over the delicate beading. “I certainly did.”
“Only —” Delaney stands back further and rests her chin in her hand, squinting at the dress. “This may be really nitpicky, but don’t you think that it may be, like, a little too yellowish to be considered white?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, it’s kind of cream-colored, isn’t it? Rebecca was pretty adamant that all dresses had to be white. Did Laura give it an okay?”
“Not yet.” The constricting feeling is back.
“Oh.” Delaney studies the dress some more. “I don’t know if Standards is going to be all, like, ‘nah.’”
The dress is indeed an off-white; the more Brooke looks at it, the more off the white becomes. “I think it’ll be fine,” she says with forced nonchalance.
“Hey, I like it, and I think it’s beautiful. I’m just saying, you know? That deadline is coming up, and it would be a real shame if you spent all that money and had to get a new dress. You should probably check with Laura as soon as possible.”
“You’re right.” Brooke fits the garment bag over the dress again and gently tucks it in the back of her closet.
The dress, for all its beauty, has suddenly lost its radiance.
“Xin nian quai le!”
Brooke’s father leans against the bare walls of his bedroom, beaming through the FaceTime screen, holding the camera at what Brooke secretly thinks of as the ‘dad angle’: with both hands at a distance below his face, making him appear as though he has three chins. He wears a bright red hoodie in honor of the holiday.
“Happy Chinese New Year, Dad.” Brooke’s velvet party dress, the only red clothing item she has with her, is a little too tight at the top. She carefully rations her breath so that her father won’t notice her discomfort. “How’s the store doing?”
“Very well, very well. Mrs. Thatcher asked about your grades yesterday. I told her that you made the Dean’s List last quarter. She says that you’ve come such a long way since you were that unfocused little fifth grader in her class. We’re all very proud of you, honey.”
Her father is the sole Wong behind Wong’s Convenience Store, a popular neighborhood gathering spot. Older people like him because he’s never too busy to have a conversation, younger people like him because he sells alcohol at half the price that his competitors do, and everybody loves his made-to-order subs. Brooke cannot recall her dad missing a single day of work. He’s been behind the counter, cheerfully greeting customers, every day since her mom died when she was two.
“Thanks, Dad. I’ve been working very hard. I think I’m going to run for an officer position in Alpha Nu next quarter.”
“Jiayou! That’s my girl. You know, I was worried that you would be distracted from your studies when you told me that you wanted to join this social group, but it seems like it’s made you work even harder. Great job. I love to see it.”
Brooke looks around to make sure that Delaney isn’t within earshot. She times her calls with her father when her roommate isn’t around — her dad can be embarrassingly enthusiastic about her life sometimes. Delaney, who has never once called home, would definitely tease her if she overheard him say stuff like ‘distracted from your studies.’”
“You’ve been washing your hands, right? Did you read that article I sent you? It’s terrible out there. You have to be careful.”
“Oh, yeah. That.” Now Brooke is extra grateful that Delaney isn’t around to ask about the dogs and bats and kangaroos.
“Everyone around you can be contagious. I’m supposed to receive a shipment of face masks for the store tomorrow. I’ll send you one in the mail. Officials are saying that the virus spreads through coughing, sneezing, or touching.”
“But nobody’s died here yet, right?”
He makes a tsk-ing noise. “That’s not what’s important! People are dying. It’s only a matter of time before this thing comes to us. We have to stay alert.”
“You’re right.” Brooke doesn’t bother arguing. She can be as stubborn as her father; if she starts something now, the two of them will debate it long into the night, and she has exams to study for. “I’ll be careful, I promise.”
Her father leans forward so that only his face is visible on-screen. “Your uncle was going to visit your grandmother for Chinese New Year, but he cancelled the trip. They’re starting to shut down travel and quarantine people in China.”
Brooke raises an eyebrow.
“More than fifty people have died. It’s no longer a trivial matter.”
The implication of all this makes Brooke go silent. Then a notification pops up — Delaney and a few others are going out for boba, would she like to join? — and she snaps out of it. Virus or no virus, she has a life to live.
“I gotta go, Dad,” she says. “I love you. Happy Lunar New Year.”
“Happy Lunar New Year, Brookie.”
Her father looks visibly distraught as Brooke ends the call.
And then, almost suddenly, the virus is no longer a trivial worry or a back-of-the-mind concern: someone in the county tests positive. Awareness of the deadly new disease seems to spread through the campus overnight. The administration sends out emails advising that students cover their faces when going to events with over thirty people. Some professors start holding their classes online.
Alpha Nu wastes no time taking precautionary measures. Laura sends an article of potential symptoms and numbers to call to the sorority mailing list. Rebecca calls an emergency meeting and distributes face masks to every girl present.
Delaney meets Brooke afterward, eyes wide. “Okay,” she says. “Now it’s time to be worried.”
An anxious, charged energy runs through the house. No one in it has dealt with an epidemic before.
It’s Friday night, but no one is in the mood to go out.
Please recognize that any of the following can be normal reactions to the spread of the virus, reads an email from the university’s wellness center. In a sterile sans-serif font, it states that students may go through periods of anxiety, social withdrawal, panic, helplessness, worry, difficulty concentrating, and anger in the foreseeable future.
In the immediate paragraph below:
You may also experience xenophobia, or fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia, as well as guilt regarding those feelings.
That last bit draws enough ire to make the national news. Elite university declares xenophobia a ‘normal reaction’ to the spread of the virus, declares one headline. Xenophobia normalized in email warning by top school, proclaims another.
Twitter is on fire. Brooke scrolls through her feed on the bus, the sinking feeling in her stomach growing with each passing update. People are tweet-storming left and right, writing incendiary screeds accompanied by images of themselves crying or standing solemnly. #IAmNotAVirus is one of the top trending hashtags.
“Horrifying stuff, isn’t it?” asks the boy sitting next to her. He looks to be about her age. A white surgical mask covers the bottom half of his face. “My aunt and uncle live in Wuhan. My little cousin, too — she just turned five. They had to explain to her why none of her classmates could come to her party.”
“I’m so sorry.” Brooke feels a pang of pity for the boy. She has no relatives in Wuhan.
“They say that everyone there is scared to death. There aren’t enough hospitals or even face masks to go around.” His eyebrows twist together in concern. “I haven’t seen my cousin since she was a baby. What if I never see her again?”
I’m sure you will, Brooke wants to say, but she isn’t sure, and she doesn’t want to lie.
“Anyway … yeah. Sorry for being intrusive. It’s just hard not to freak out.”
Brooke shrugs and offers a small smile. “We’re all freaking out.”
The boy lowers his mask to take a sip of water right as the bus lurches forward. He chokes, immediately erupting into a loud coughing fit.
People turn to stare. A blonde woman catches Brooke’s eye and raises her eyebrows. There’s a coldness to the gesture that Brooke cannot place.
Without a word, and without another look at him, Brooke gets up to find another seat far away from the boy, whose coughs seem to go on and on and on.
Brooke had been mistaken for an international student only once, during Rush Week the previous year. She’d walked through the stately doors of one sorority and seen the clear confusion in everybody’s eyes. There hadn’t been a single brunette in the room, let alone a person of color. They’d been nice enough, but they’d spoken to her as though she only half understood English.
After that day, Brooke, whose personal style had been based on that of her favorite J-pop girl group, swore she would never be so outwardly Asian ever again. She’d gone home and thrown all of her Korean beauty products in the trash. Out went her oversized pastel sweatshirts, her pleated skirts, her black stockings. Out went her manga collection. That same week, she got a bid from Alpha Nu; over the next year, Brooke self-tanned regularly and filled her wardrobe with Greek shirts and yoga pants. By the end of her self-imposed makeover, she was virtually indistinguishable from every other girl in her sorority.
She remembers this now, unable to shake the encounter on the bus from her mind, unable to shake the way that the blonde woman had looked at her, as though she and the boy were together; as if she were dirty, contaminated. She hates the boy for talking so loudly about his family in Wuhan. She wants to go back and shake him for coughing without even bothering to cover his mouth.
Brooke lies back in her bed, clenching and unclenching both fists, digging her nails deep into the palms of her hands. She decides that she will keep as much distance as possible between herself and them from now on, especially in public. It isn’t so much out of the fear of catching the virus as it is of being seen as one of them, fresh off the plane from China, so ignorant to the customs and ways of America.
Because she is nothing, nothing like them.
Her school was right. She has never felt so hostile toward another group before. She wonders if it still counts as xenophobia if she is technically part of that group. She wonders if it still counts if she feels no guilt about it at all.
A text arrives at six in the morning the next day from Brooke’s father: 362 people have died now. Wear your face mask whenever going outside pls
He’d sent Brooke a mask in the mail, as promised. It sits in her nightstand drawer next to the one that Rebecca gave her. Brooke refuses to wear a mask out of principle — it isn’t like anyone other than the international students from China are covering their faces, anyway.
For sure, she texts back, feeling only slightly bad for lying to her dad.
Instead of returning to sleep, Brooke opens Instagram to check the engagement that she’s received overnight. She smiles when she sees that her last picture, a close-up of herself in a pink sweater with the caption Happy February from Alpha Nu, now has over three hundred likes. Before she joined a sorority, she’d barely cracked fifty on each post.
She lazily looks through the comments, tapping the little red heart next to each one … and stops short. There, nestled between a fire emoji and a declaration of how “iconic” her look is, is a comment from a handle she doesn’t recognize.
Shouldn’t u be in quarantine lol go back to china and stop infecting us
Brooke feels as though she’s been doused in ice water. Heart pounding in her chest, she takes a screenshot of the comment, then taps on the user’s icon. It’s obviously a throwaway account — this person’s username is a jumble of letters and numbers, and they have no posts and no followers.
Who can it be? Is it someone she knows? Someone in her sorority?
Why are you reporting this account? Instagram asks. Brooke selects It’s inappropriate.
The comment, along with the account, is gone within ten minutes. The twin horrors of fear and shame stay with Brooke for the rest of the day.
Virus update, reads the subject of the wellness center’s email.
Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,
A student at a neighboring university tested positive for the virus early this morning. They contracted it after traveling to an affected area over winter break, and they were in classes and around campus for a few days before they displayed any symptoms.
All campus-wide activities are cancelled for the next two weeks. Classes for undergraduates will be moved online. We advise that all members of the community prepare for a potential epidemic by storing a two-week supply of water and food. We also urge you to make sure that you have all needed prescription medications filled for that period.
According to the most recent updates from the World Health Organization, “the risk of catching the virus from someone with no symptoms at all is very low.” While we are not imposing a quarantine on campus, we encourage you to stay indoors as much as you can.
Face masks will be available for pickup at the wellness center, and in all student lounges, between 9 AM and 5 PM on Mondays through Saturdays. We will continue to take all necessary precautionary measures following the advice of public health officials, as we prioritize everyone’s health and safety.
Rebecca holds another emergency meeting to announce that the formal has been postponed until further notice.
“Yeah, it sucks,” she says, “but we have to think about everyone’s safety first. We’ll throw a bigger, better one as soon as this awful virus goes away.”
Brooke is secretly thrilled by this news. Amidst all of the panic, showing her dress to Standards had completely slipped her mind.
That night, Delaney pleads with Brooke to accompany her to a frat party happening across campus.
“Come on,” she coaxes. “We don’t even have formal to look forward to anymore. It could be the last time we’re allowed to go out before we’re quarantined for God knows how long.”
Brooke’s phone has steadily been going off with texts from her father, who wants her to drop everything and come home. They are probably going to put you guys in lockdown, better come stay with me.
Her dad certainly wouldn’t approve of her trekking across campus with no face mask on, standing in such close proximity to strangers, many of whom could have come in contact with that student over the past few days … which is precisely why she chooses to go. Delaney is right — their days of freedom are probably limited. She will allow herself one more night of fun before everything goes to shit.
Nobody at the party is wearing a mask. As usual, kegs of beer stand unattended, save for the people crowded around them. Brooke’s first order of business upon arrival is filling a red cup to the top of the twelve-ounce line. Pretty soon, the pleasant haze of inebriation washes over her. The anxiety of the past few weeks melt away, and she is once again a carefree college student, swaying to the sound of the music.
God, how she’s missed this. She starts to dance with a handsome guy she’s seen a few times before at similar parties. He’s usually with someone else, or has an audience around him. Brooke is aware of several pairs of eyes on her as he puts his hand around her waist and pulls her in closer.
He’s trying to say something, but Brooke can’t hear him over the noise. She takes his hand and leads him out onto the balcony. She is now three or four beers in — a place she refers to as “the sweet spot” — and as she turns to face him, she feels the crackling anticipation of something about to happen.
The light from the half moon spills across the guy’s smooth face, making him resemble a noir film star. They’re both leaning against the balustrade, faces barely an inch apart. Brooke reaches up to touch his right cheek and he holds her hand there, a small smile on his lips.
“So,” he says.
“So.” Her voice is barely above a whisper.
He clears his throat. “I don’t want to, like, ruin the moment or anything, but I don’t have to worry about getting infected if we hook up, right?”
Brooke’s insides turn to ice. Without skipping a beat, she yanks her hand away from his face, leans over the edge of the balcony, and throws up until there is nothing left in her stomach, until she’s just violently dry-heaving and crying, snot blending in with tears and vomit as all three fluids slowly drip their way down to her chin. She stays like that for what seems like an eternity. It’s not the alcohol — it’s something else that she’s trying desperately to get out, something that will not come no matter how hard she wills it to.
The guests on the balcony are unsure what to do. Brooke hears their voices in snatches, fading in and out:
“Shit, are you okay? Is she okay?”
“Maybe we should take her to the wellness center.”
“Nah. For all we know, she’s got the … you know.”
“Yeah, we don’t know if she’s been around that infected student. It’s probably better not to touch her, just in case.”
“If she’s been near an infected person, why the fuck would she come to a party where there’s open containers everywhere?”
“Bro, you never know with these people.”
“Yeah, let’s not touch her. Better get away while you still can.”
“Contagious bitch,” someone slurs in her ear. Brooke wants to whip her head around to see who it is, but the smell of alcohol on the person’s breath triggers another wave of nausea, and she slumps back over, emptying the last of her stomach’s contents onto the gray marble below.
When she finally lifts her head back up, she notices that the guy, along with everyone else outside, has gone back in. She will never know who said those things about her, or who it was at her ear. She is the only one left on the balcony.
Delaney does not think that what happened at the party is a big deal.
“He was probably joking,” she says. “You know, like how people give us shit sometimes for being basic bitches when we’re wearing our letters and getting lattes at Starbucks? It’s probably just like that. Frat boys can be total assholes, especially when they’re drunk.”
“This is different,” Brooke protests. “He was assuming that I’d ‘infect’ him, just because I’m Asian. And those people afterward! I was literally throwing up, and none of them wanted to help. Someone called me a ‘contagious bitch’ to my face.”
How can she explain to blue-eyed, all-American Delaney the impact that this incident has had on her? That now, no matter where she is, or when, or how, she will never be able to escape the associations that people have with her face? That she has not and will probably never again feel safe just existing? That, from this moment forward, she will always second-guess herself before she talks to a new person or posts a picture on Instagram?
“Maybe they’ll stop if you dye your hair blonde?” Delaney suggests, her glossy lips twitching at the corners.
“What the actual fuck, Delaney?” Brooke’s voice wavers, sending a new wave of disgust through her system. She is not going to cry in front of her roommate.
“I’m kidding, obviously. God. You’ve become so sensitive lately. Weren’t you the one who always made fresh-off-the-boat jokes about yourself when you first got here?”
“This isn’t the same.” Brooke doesn’t know why she thought that Delaney, who constantly shares posts about how un-woke white people are, would get it. She also doesn’t know why she ever made so many self-deprecating Asian jokes in the first place. Did she really hate herself that much?
That last thought brings fresh tears of anger to her eyes. She has to get out of here, now.
“Never mind,” she says, forcing her voice to stay calm and even as she makes a beeline for the door. “It’s fine.”
If only she could trade bodies with somebody.
No, not bodies. Faces. No one would be able to tell that she is Asian without her high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes.
I don’t have to worry about getting infected if we hook up, right?
You never know with these people.
Brooke watches the water from the showerhead rinse the foamy white suds out of her hair, leaving behind an aqueous black mass. It’s almost as if it weren’t hair at all, but the ink out of her grandfather’s calligraphy pot, thick and dark as the night.
Let’s not touch her. Better get away while you still can.
Shouldn’t u be in quarantine lol go back to china and stop infecting us
She has never wanted to be white so badly.
All this time, Brooke had never noticed a difference between herself and them — she’d thought herself just another averagely pretty brunette girl who liked to get drunk on Friday nights and sleep in on the weekends. She liked meetings with Rebecca and talking about clothes with Delaney. She’d assumed that the only differences between herself and her sorority sisters were those of personality.
She knows now that she was wrong. Rebecca, Delaney, Laura, and every other girl in Alpha Nu will never understand what it feels like to have their faces inspire groundless hatred in other people. They don’t care enough to listen when she speaks about it — and, worst of all, they may not even believe her when she does.
Brooke lathers her body down with the bathroom’s peony-scented body wash and scrubs harder than she means to, ignited by an energy she has never felt before. It is as though she had been sleeping for her entire life, and has just been violently jolted awake.
She has never felt so alive …
… or so angry.
Her body, which has been shaking since she left for the shower, feels like it could run ten miles, or snap the necks of every person who has made her feel like she was nothing more than a walking disease, like an entity less than human.
She takes a deep breath in, waiting for the feeling to pass. But it doesn’t pass. Instead, it rises and bubbles over until she can no longer stand still.
Before she can even fully register what is happening, Brooke balls her right hand into a fist, pulls back her arm, and punches the shower wall as hard as she can.
The smooth white tile is tougher than it looks. Brooke enjoys the way the pain explodes through her knuckles, interrupting her thoughts.
CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!
Over and over she punches the wall, thinking of the guy, of the people on the balcony, of Delaney’s impassively amused face as she says, Maybe they’ll stop if you dye your hair blonde.
He was probably joking.
“Who’s laughing now, huh, Delaney?” It is her roommate’s face that she imagines as she gives the wall her hardest punch, throwing all of her weight behind it.
Her hand is a mess by the time she’s done. There’s a spot of blood on the wall — less than she’d expected, but still satisfying. She turns the showerhead onto the spot and watches the blood wash away, mixing with the bubbles at the bottom of the drain.
Brooke stands under the water until her breathing is back to normal, until the last of the soap has washed off her body, until the blood has gone from her hand, the torn mass of skin visible underneath. Then she turns off the water and wraps a towel around herself, feeling as calm as the glassy surface of an undisturbed lake.
She knows what she has to do now.
“You’re dropping out of the sorority?! Why?” Rebecca is so shocked by the news that her green eyes are almost black. It’s a new look for the ordinarily composed sorority president.
Brooke explains the incidents with the Instagram comment and the frat party — the guy’s assumptions, the comments of the people on the balcony, Delaney’s reaction afterwards — everything, really. She sees the concern register on Rebecca’s face, but it is the concern of someone who cannot understand, who cannot truly empathize because she has never and will never be put in such situations.
The president of Alpha Nu looks at Brooke for a long time before she speaks next. “I’ll talk to Delaney,” she says at last. “And I am so sorry about all of the other stuff. Unfortunately, my hands are tied when it comes to people outside of the sorority, but I can look into it and bring up this concern with that frat’s president.”
Brooke shrugs. “I have no idea who those people are, anyway. They’re probably not even members of that frat. There’s a deadly virus going around; you should probably worry about keeping everyone in the house safe instead.”
Rebecca nods solemnly. “You know, that’s what I admire most about you, Brooke. You never let your issues get in the way of what’s best for everyone. You could be a great sorority president next year. I’d endorse you personally.”
“Except I’m leaving.”
“Except you’re leaving,” Rebecca sighs. “Don’t you know what you’re giving up? This is a network, Brooke. It’s about more than just the four years you’re spending in this house. Alpha Nu is one of the most respected sororities in America, and you’re one of our top members. I remember when we were deciding whether to give you a bid or not, and we gave a yes because you were such an obviously perfect fit, even though we’ve never had a —”
“Never had a what?” Brooke challenges, the knuckles of her right hand pulsing. She’s come to Rebecca’s office directly from the wellness center, where she’d been told that she was lucky she hadn’t broken anything.
“Never mind.” Rebecca’s eyes glitter. “Is there anything I can do to make you stay?”
Brooke shakes her head, and, driven by that same force that had come over her in the shower, leans forward until she is right in Rebecca’s face, until she can see the other girl’s miniscule pores up close. She recognizes the smooth texture of Rebecca’s foundation with a start — she’s almost certain that it is the same brand of foundation that she tossed last year after that awful day during Rush Week. Does Rebecca use Korean beauty products herself?
“No,” she says. “But you should consider unlearning your obvious biases before recruiting another non-white member. Don’t let your issues get in the way of what’s best for everyone.”
Brooke turns and floats out of the office without waiting for a reply, feeling lighter than air.
The vintage dress looks gorgeous, even under fluorescent light.
Delaney was right. It is a little too cream-colored to be considered white. Laura probably would have rejected it on sight. But it matches Brooke’s skin tone perfectly — pure white washes her out — and she can’t wait to find an occasion where she can wear it for real. In the meantime, it’ll be on display in her room so that she can admire it as much as she wants.
Brooke gives the dress one last loving glance before she puts the lid back on the garment box that she’s specifically bought for this occasion. The original hanging bag couldn’t be trusted to keep the dress safe during a long flight. She’s careful not to disturb the thick gauze that covers her entire right hand, wrapped in such a way that her fingers can still move a bit. Then she turns to look at the grey, low-hanging sky outside, grateful that she got the window seat.
Her father will pick her up in a few hours, and she’ll be away from all the dirty looks, the people who don’t understand, the self-consciousness that had become unbearably obvious after that night on the balcony. She will confine herself to her father’s store and the little apartment above it — places that she grew up in, places that she called home for the last twenty-one years — not because she needs to be quarantined, but because they’re the only places left where she can be herself.
She will stay there, helping out and doing assignments remotely, for as long as she wants to. When she returns, she will move out of the Alpha Nu house for good.
Out on the tarmac, two Asian guys in fluorescent safety vests give the plane a final checkup. Brooke wonders if they’ve ever been called contagious, if they have family that they’re worried about. Her cheeks heat up as she thinks of the boy on the bus. There’s nothing different between herself and him, really, and yet she’d been embarrassed to be around him, to be associated with him.
She vows to get rid of that urge inside her — the one that makes her want to prove that she’s white enough, normal enough, American enough. Despite everything, it’s still there, waiting to pop up during unsuspected moments. She will have to be more mindful of it going forward. Leaving Alpha Nu was only the first step.
“Excuse me,” the old man sitting next to her says loudly to the flight attendant, bringing Brooke back into the present. “Do you think I could be switched to a different seat?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but the flight is fully booked. Is there a reason you need to move?”
The man’s eyeballs dart between Brooke and the person on his other side. “I … er … never mind.”
The petite Asian woman sitting in the aisle seat wears a face mask that conceals everything but her dark eyes. She and Brooke exchange a knowing glance as the plane begins its takeoff. ✦
Art director: Algae Rua Aleksandra
Model: Marty Noel Chenyao