Alina scanned the street in front of her school, looking for her mom. “Where is she?” Alina muttered under her breath, feeling impatient and anxious. It was bad enough that her parents were making her take Mandarin class afterschool. She wasn’t even Chinese; her parents were from the Philippines! “It’s important to learn other languages,” her mom had said. But now she might not get home in time for something that was really important.
This can’t get any worse, Alina thought… but then she saw Zoe heading her way. As her fifth-grade classmate dropped her backpack on the ground, Alina froze. I was wrong, she thought. Things just got so much worse.
Now she had to stand there waiting there with Zoe… though she wasn’t exactly with Zoe. In the universe of fifth grade, Alina and Zoe were on different planets.
Here are the things that Alina knew about Zoe: she played soccer and did ballet, raised her hand in class a lot, had perfect vision, and had two best friends.
Here are the things that Zoe probably knew or noticed (or cared) about Alina: nothing.
And here’s what Alina knew about herself: she wasn’t good at playing any sport, she was nervous any time a teacher called on her, and this year she had to start wearing glasses. In addition, her BFF(Best Friend Forever) since she was four years old moved away last summer, and Alina didn’t even have one close friend at her school anymore.
The only thing that Alina was enthusiastic about was anime, and that was why she had to be home by 5:30 tonight. The creator of her favorite anime series, Breakfast Academy, would be doing a live question-and-answer session online and might even be teasing exclusive information about her latest top-secret project.
Alina heard Zoe sigh and wondered what awesome activity she had been doing that afternoon. Zoe wasn’t wearing a soccer uniform, and her hair wasn’t in a bun from ballet. Maybe she was doing an afterschool program in tae kwon do? I bet she’s a black belt, Alina thought. Alina considered asking Zoe about it, but what would she say? “What are you doing here?” might make her sound mad or mean. “Where are you coming from?” might make her sound too nosy. And what would happen if, after Alina asked her something, Zoe pretended not to hear and didn’t even bother to reply?
The awkwardness was unbearable.
Finally, with a huge sense of relief, she saw her mom heading in her direction. OK, Alina thought, I’m saved and we can get out of here. She bent down and scooped up her bag, prepared for a quick getaway.
When she looked up, however, Alina noticed her mom waving to Zoe’s mother, who was also walking toward the school. Before Alina had a chance to say a word, the two parents started chatting. Oh nooo! Alina screamed internally. She wanted to grab her mom and hustle to the subway station so they could get home. If her mother started a conversation, it would take forever to escape.
Fortunately, Zoe stepped in, pulled her mother’s arm, and implored, “Mom, let’s go!”
“Wait, are you heading to the train, too?” Zoe’s mom asked Alina’s mother. “That’s terrific, we can walk together!”
Zoe and Alina both rolled their eyes. Alina gave a small smile — at least they have one thing in common — but then she realized that she was now stuck with Zoe for the entire trip back to their neighborhood. Alina could only hope that this experience would be over soon. She called out to her mother, “Come on, mom, I told you we had to be home by 5:30. Can’t you walk faster?”
Alina’s mom whipped her head around and gave her The Look. Alina knew that expression. It meant that if she wanted to be allowed to hop online as soon as she got home, she should watch her tone—or better yet, keep her mouth closed.
As the girls trailed behind their mothers, Alina noticed her classmate checking the time. Alina imagined that Zoe was dreading being stuck with her and was fervently wishing that she were with her two best friends instead.
Both girls sputtered to a stop when they noticed their mothers pausing in front of a market. “Honey,” Zoe’s mom exclaimed, “we don’t have any fruit at home, so we’d better grab some here.”
“That reminds me,” Alina’s mom added, “I need to pick up some cereal for your kuya.”
“No!” Alina and Zoe screeched simultaneously. Alina wondered if her mom was trying to torture her on purpose. They were already running late and now she wanted to stop and get cereal for her older brother?
“Mom, can’t we just go home?” Zoe pleaded, adding, “The Breakfast Academy Q-and-A goes live in less than 45 minutes.”
Alina was astounded. Did Zoe know—and like—Breakfast Academy?
“Oh, right,” Zoe’s mom replied, “you did tell me you needed to be home for that.” She turned to Alina’s mother and said, “Anime is all Zoe talks about these days. She likes drawing the characters so much she even signed up for the afterschool drawing class. Is Alina also interested in anime?”
Alina’s eyes flew from Zoe’s mom to her daughter. “You like Breakfast Academy? What season are you on?” Alina asked excitedly.
“I’ve watched all of them!” Zoe responded enthusiastically. “But my favorite is season three.”
“Mine, too!” Alina said, her eyes lighting up. She couldn’t believe that the one other person in school who knew about her absolute favorite series was… Zoe!
Maybe that ride home wouldn’t be so awkward after all.