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Drita, My Homegirl

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Drita, My Homegirl

  DRITA My Homegirl

  DRITA My Homegirl


  g. p. putnam’s sons

  Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


  A division of Penguin Young Readers Group

  Published by The Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014, U.S.A. Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.). Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England. Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.). Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd). Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, India. Penguin Group (NZ), Cnr Airborne and Rosedale Roads, Albany, Auckland 1310, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd). Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa. Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England.

  Copyright © 2006 by Jenny Lombard. All rights reserved.

  This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Reg. U.S. Pat. & Tm. Off. The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Lombard, Jenny. Drita, my homegirl / by Jenny Lombard. p. cm.

  Summary: When ten-year-old Drita and her family, refugees from Kosovo, move to New York, Drita is teased about not speaking English well, but after a popular student named Maxine is forced to learn about Kosovo as a punishment for teasing Drita, the two girls soon bond.

  [1. Refugees—Fiction. 2. Emigration and immigration—Fiction. 3. Albanian Americans—Fiction. 4. Family life—New York (State)—New York—Fiction. 5. Friendship—Fiction. 6. Schools—Fiction. 7. New York (N.Y.)—Fiction.] I. Title. PZ7.L83315Dri 2006 [Fic]—dc22 2005013501

  ISBN: 978-1-1012-0054-4

  For my students


































  32Maxie and DRITA


  The story of Drita and Maxie has been coming together for a long time and many different people helped me along the way. I would like to thank:

  • The children I’ve worked with for teaching me so much about friendship, family and life.

  • The Wurlitzer Foundation of Taos, New Mexico, for providing a quiet place to work.

  • Henry and Wendy Owen-Dunow for recognizing the writer inside the first-grade teacher.

  • Jennifer Carlson of the Dunow Carlson Agency for her editorial insights and her unwavering support. Without her vision, this book would never have happened.

  • Susan Kim for her dramaturgical insight.

  • Kirk Lombard for the tough love and the basketball expertise.

  • Samantha Nelson for helping me understand what kids sometimes feel.

  • Persiana Cota for her linguistic and cultural knowledge.

  • John Rudolph, Nancy Paulsen and the editorial staff at Putnam for their commitment to this project.

  • Julian Marshall for inspiration.

  • Scott Marshall for foot rubs, spaghetti sauce and everything in between.

  DRITA My Homegirl



  FOR THREE DAYS, before I am coming to this country, I can’t eat. My mother is afraid I’m sick, and the Americans will turn us away when we get to New York City, but my grandmother said don’t worry: now that my father has his American job, no one can turn us away. She said it’s just the excitement taking away my appetite. For once my gjyshe is wrong about something: It’s not excitement that keeps me from eating my dinner, it’s worry. I keep wondering: What if I don’t know my own baba when I see him at the airport? It’s been almost one year since we are together with my father. The more I think about it, the more worried I get.

  Finally, on the day we are leaving for New York, I get so tired of worrying, I eat a big bowl of delicious trahana my grandmother makes for me. While I eat, I think to myself: this is the last food I will taste in my country.

  Our plane lands in New York in the middle of the night. At the airport, I can feel how hot New York is compared to the Balkans. Even the air feels different on my skin, sticky and wet. I close my eyes for a minute and take a breath. I think to myself, Now I am breathing American air.

  Even though it’s the middle of the night, this place is crowded with people. Then I see him: his face is all furry with a red beard he is growing, and he looks thinner, but he is still wearing his Albanian clothes. Now I know it was silly to worry so much. Of course I know my own father.

  “Mirë se erdhët,” my father shouts, welcoming us, and sweeps my mother and my baby brother up into his arms. My mother is crying and we are kissing him so much. My mother cried every day that we were in Kosova because we had to be separated from Baba for so long. For one year my father was alone in America, getting money for us to come here. Maybe now that we are together in New York City, she will stop her crying.

  My father kisses me on top of my head, and we follow him through the airport to the garage where he parked his taxicab. When we learned that my father’s first American job was as a car driver, we were all sad that a man who had trained as an electrical engineer had to take a job that was s’ësh të në dinjitetin e tij—not good enough for him. But when I saw my father’s taxicab, I thought it was lucky my father’s first American job was as a driver. Now we would have a pretty yellow cab to take us to our new home, just like in a movie.

  I look over at my grandmother. Gjyshe hasn’t said a word since we got off the plane, except to nod hello to her son. Now she looks at me and smiles a smile so big that it covers her whole face.

  “America the beautiful!” she says in English.

  Sometimes from the way she smiles and tells jokes, my gjyshe seems more like a girl eight years old than an old lady almost seventy.

  My father opens the trunk and puts our bags inside while the rest of us pile into the car. My grandmother, brother and I are in the backseat and my mother is in front.

  “Zonjë!” says my father and makes a li
ttle bow. Inside, the car smells sweet, like perfume. Gjyshe and I watch silently as my father drives the car down the ramps and tunnels of the airport. Soon we are on the streets, with the lights of America everywhere around us.

  How does my father know where we were going? He must have learned enough about America to fill a book. Does he have any American friends? While I think these things, my mother talks, talks, talks in the front seat, telling how it has been for us in the ten days since we left Prishtina: the crowded bus we rode when we left the city, the soldiers with their guns, the Albanian people we met living in tents by the side of the road, and finally the airport, where a man checked our visas and made her cry.

  My father just nods and keeps his eyes on his driving, and the dark and twisting streets of New York City move past us like a blur. Just looking makes me tired. I wish to see where Baba is taking us, but soon I am falling asleep.

  When I open my eyes again, it is morning. Now I have a new home and a new country, I think to myself. But as I look around, I begin to feel sad.

  My new American home is just an apartament, smaller even than our house in Prishtina. And everywhere you look in this new American house, there is something dirty and old: walls that have the dirt from cooking on them, a ceiling that has pieces of paint falling down, windows that have so much gray dirt, you can’t see from them. Even outside the glass there is nothing to see except an old dirty wall.

  At breakfast, no one is talking about our dirty new American house, but you can tell we are all thinking the same thing from the way my mother brushes off the chair before she sits down and Gjyshe stirs the trahana like she believes something is going to jump out of the pot. Even my baby brother sniffs his bowl before he takes a bite of his breakfast. My father looks at his family and puts down his coffee cup.

  “Zot! What could I do?” he says in Albanian. “This was the only place we could afford! We are lucky to have it—and this furniture too! Look at this table and chairs! All of it was a gift!”

  “All of it dirty, a gift for the poor,” my mother says with a sound like crying coming up in her voice.

  “Please, my wife! Let us enjoy our first American breakfast together.” But it is too late. My mother rushes from the table and into her little room, slamming the door behind her.

  “Dashi!” my father says, calling her by her first name. Now he is up from the table too.

  Through the closed door, I can hear my mother crying. I hear my father too, speaking to her in a quiet voice, trying to calm her. But it won’t help. I know why my mother is so sad.

  “Grandmother, is Cousin Zana e zhdukur?”

  My grandmother puts her arms around me. “Sshh, Drita. Not now.”

  Even worse than those who were forced to leave their homes, like my family, are the people who are zhdukur—disappeared. Because I am a child, I am not supposed to know about the zhdukur like my mother’s favorite cousin Zana. But of course I do. Everyone does.

  “Come. In a few days, you will start your new school, but right now I need your help.”

  My grandmother takes a big bucket and a yellow brush from under the sink.

  “Wah! Wah!” my brother yells as she fills the bucket with soapy water. Soon we are on our knees, cleaning the floor with a yellow brush. My brother helps too, stirring the water with his fat little hand.

  “Sillet Bota anembanë, njerëzia lenë vatane, dhe po shkojmë në kurbet…” my grandmother sings.

  At first it feels strange, listening to this old Albanian song in a dirty new American kitchen. But soon I begin to sing myself.

  “Të vendosim ardhmërinë, se e humbmë dashurinë, do të humbim dhe fëminë…”

  My grandmother is a very wise woman, I think. She knows that when you are sad and far away from home, the best thing to do is to sing a song in your strongest voice.

  I wish my mother knew that too.



  IF YOU ASK ME, the most unlucky, annoying day of the week has got to be Monday. Spelling quizzes, bad hair days, bologna sandwiches for lunch—it seems like the worst stuff gets saved up for Mondays. “Stormy Monday” is what my grandma always calls it. She’s even got a little song she sings around the house all about it.

  “Oh, it’s Stormy Monday, I’m feeling oh so sad,

  Lord, it’s Stormy Monday, I’m feeling oh so sad,

  Blues are raining down on me, and I’m feelin’ oh so


  When I was seven, I thought that song was just about a rainy day that happened to be on Monday. But now that I’m a fourth grader, I know exactly what that song means. It means Mondays are bad news.

  Today is no different. When I get up, my daddy is there, reading the paper while my grandmother makes some eggs. Usually my dad is gone by the time I get up, but not today.

  “Good morning, Maxie,” my dad says real cheerful and puts down his paper. I think to myself, Uh-oh, now what is this? My grandmother is in the kitchen acting all busy over at the sink, but I can tell she is hanging on every word.

  “Okay, what did I do this time?” I say, and I’m wondering if he looked in his pipe box yet and found out I broke his big fruitwood pipe. It really was an accident, I was just playing.

  “Haw haw,” Daddy says, rubbing on my head. “You didn’t do anything, my smart girl. Can’t a daddy talk to his only daughter?”

  Now I know it’s something really bad.

  “Maxie. I have a friend I want you to meet,” he says.

  “Who, you mean like Uncle Herbie?” I say, thinking maybe I’m going to go bowling again. My uncle Herbie is my dad’s oldest friend. He’s got a purple bowling ball with his initials on it and has a doorbell at his house that can play a whole song.

  My daddy coughs like he’s got a piece of toast stuck in his throat. “No, Maxie, not Uncle Herbie. A woman friend.”

  “Oh,” I say, and I look down at my eggs.

  “Her name is Lisa. She works at the bank with me. I think you’ll like her, honey. She even has a little boy, four years old.”

  I push my egg over to the side, looking for white stuff. Sometimes when my grandma makes scrambled eggs she doesn’t cook them all the way through, which I hate.

  “Baby girl, aren’t you going to say something?” Daddy asks.

  “Grandma, you didn’t cook these eggs enough,” I say.

  “Answer your father,” my grandma says.

  “Congratulations, Daddy,” I say, reaching for my juice, “can’t wait to meet her. I’m sure she’s a reeeeeeeeal fine person.”

  My daddy shoots Grandma a look, and no one says anything else about no Lisa after that, which is just fine with me.

  “Go on and get dressed, Maxie,” Grandma says. “And no dawdling this morning. I don’t want to be late.”

  “Dawdling” is what my grandma calls it when you’re late going different places like school and piano lessons. In my family, I got the reputation for dawdling. My grandma says it happens when I’m upset about something, but that’s not true. I just like to take my time doing things, like getting dressed in the morning.

  Inside my room, I open my top drawer to look for some socks, but it’s empty because my grandma didn’t do the laundry yet this week. Then I spy one of my new rainbow toe socks my daddy just bought me lying under my bookshelf. I really like those toe socks.

  Outside the door, Grandma and Daddy are talking.

  “Gerald, she needs more time…” goes my grandma.

  “How much time does she need? It’s been three years already,” my daddy says back.

  “Three years is nothing for a child,” Grandma says.

  Blah blah blah. Blah blah blah. It seems like my grandmother and my daddy are always fighting about me lately. Usually, my daddy is saying I’ve got to be more grown-up and my grandma is saying no way—I don’t because of what happened when I was seven. Sometimes I agree with my daddy, sometimes I agree with Grandma, but most of the time I think they both got a point.

  I star
t looking around for my other toe sock, but I can’t find it anywhere.

  “She needs to think of something besides herself once in a while—and I don’t mean that damn hamster!” my daddy says.

  “Gerald! Language!” goes my grandma because you’re not supposed to use curses in my house, even little ones.

  Over by the window, there’s Cupcake, waving at me from her Habitrail. Cupcake is my dwarf hamster. I named her that because she’s so white and fluffy that she looks good enough to eat. Ever since Cupcake escaped and hid under the radiator, I don’t think my daddy likes her too much.

  “Want to go in your exercise ball?” I ask her. Cupcake sticks her nose out of her nest and sniffs at me. In hamster language, that’s definitely a “Yes!”

  Real careful, I lift the top of her cage and take her out.

  “Squeak!” says Cupcake.

  I put her on my shoulder, because I’m trying to train her to ride around up there. The only thing is, she doesn’t really like that too much. She decides to run down my back.

  “Hey!” I say, and I lean over so she doesn’t fall off and hurt herself.

  “Where are you going?” I ask her, because now she’s running down my leg and onto the floor. She just wrinkles her nose and laughs at me. Then she goes right under the bed.

  “Wait,” I go and I dive after her.

  Wow, there’s a lot of stuff under here! I think to myself because now I’ve found about twelve things I’ve been looking for, including my light-up pen, last week’s science homework, and half a candy bar. I guess that’s why my grandma is always after me to vacuum under the bed when I clean my room. Then way at the back, almost to the wall, I see Cupcake sitting on my other toe sock. Real slow, I grab one end of the sock and start to pull her out.

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