I was wearing what used to be a pair of simple white Nikes, but I’d drawn all over them. And my backpack. And my binders. It was just something I did sometimes. I’d lock myself in my room, listen to music, and draw on things. Sometimes it was random doodles, but lately I’d been experimenting with graffiti—tagging, specifically—because some tagging techniques reminded me of highly stylized Persian calligraphy. I wasn’t like Navid, though; I’d never graffitied public property. Not more than twice, anyway.
“Yeah,” I said slowly. “I did that on purpose.”
“Oh. That’s cool.”
I laughed at the look on his face.
“No, really,” he said. “I like it.”
Still, I hesitated. “Thanks.”
“You have another pair like that, too, huh?”
“Yes.” I raised an eyebrow. “How’d you know?”
“You sit in front of me,” he said. He looked me right in the eye and he almost smiled, but it looked like a question. “You’ve been sitting in front of me for two months. I stare at you every day.”
My eyes widened. And then I frowned. I didn’t even have a chance to say the words before he said—
“I didn’t mean”—he shook his head, looked away—“wow, I didn’t mean that, like, I stare at you. I just meant that I see you. You know. Shit,” he said softly, and mostly to himself. “Never mind.”
I half laughed, but it sounded weird. “Okay.”
And that was it. He didn’t say anything else worth remembering for the rest of the period.
I was dropping off my books in my locker after school—and grabbing the workout clothes I’d stashed in there with my gym bag—when I heard a sudden swell of voices. The halls were usually pretty quiet at this hour, and I rarely saw people after school let out, so the sounds were unusual. I turned around before I could think it through.
There were three of them. Very pretty and peppy. They weren’t in official cheerleading uniforms—they were wearing matching tracksuits—but somehow it was obvious that they were cheerleaders. Interestingly, cheerleaders had never been mean to me; instead, they ignored me so completely that I found their presence unexpectedly comforting.
I turned back around.
I’d just slung my gym bag over my shoulder when I heard someone call out a greeting and I was very certain that whoever was talking was not talking to me, and that even if they were talking to me, that I’d turn around only to be met with some new creative bullshit, so I ignored it. I slammed my locker closed, spun the combination, and walked away.
I kept walking, but now I was beginning to feel a little creeped out because the voice did seem to be focused in my direction and I didn’t think I wanted to know why someone was trying to flag me down right now. All the people I knew at this school were waiting for me, at this exact moment, inside of a dance room in the gym, so whoever this was, they were almost certainly trying to bother me and—
I froze. This was an unusual development. Generally, the assholes who harassed me in the hallways didn’t know my name.
I turned around, but only halfway.
“Hey.” It was Ocean, looking a little exasperated.
I had to make a physical effort to keep from looking too surprised.
“You dropped your phone,” he said, and held it out for me to take.
I looked at my phone in his hand. Looked at him. I didn’t understand why the world kept throwing him in my path, but I also didn’t know how to be mad at him for being a decent person, so I took the phone.
“Thanks,” I said.
He looked at me and his expression was somehow both frustrated and amused and still he said nothing, which would’ve been fine, except that he looked at me for just three seconds too long, and suddenly it was weird.
I took a deep breath. I was about to say goodbye when someone called his name. I looked past him to see that it was one of the cheerleaders.
I was surprised but tried not to show it.
And then I left, without a word.
That night, after a particularly exhausting training session, I felt too wired to sleep, and I couldn’t explain why. I was sitting in bed, writing, writing, writing. I’d always kept a pretty intense diary.
I scribbled in that thing every day, multiple times a day. In the middle of class, even. During lunch hours. The thing was so precious to me that I carried it around everywhere I went, because it was the only thing I could think to do—the only way to keep it safe. I worried that one day my mom might get her hands on it, read it, realize her daughter was a complicated, flawed human being—one who often disregarded the dogma of religion—and have an actual aneurysm. So I always kept it close.
But tonight, I couldn’t focus my mind.
Every once in a while I’d look up, look at my computer, its dead, dark face gleaming in the dim light, and I’d hesitate. It was really late, maybe one in the morning. Everyone was asleep.
I put my pen down.
The old, hulking computer in my room was a bulky, unwieldy thing. My mother had built it, piece by piece, a couple of years ago when she was getting some new level of certification in computer programming. It was a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, except that it was my mother’s monster, and I’d been the lucky recipient of its great girth. Quickly, before I could change my mind, I turned the thing on.
It was loud.
The screen lit up, blinding and ostentatious, and its CPU component started whirring like crazy. The fan was working too hard, the hard drive was click-clicking away, and I immediately regretted my decision. I’d heard stories of parents who let their kids stay up all night, but I didn’t know them. Instead, my parents were always on my case, and always suspicious—though generally for good reason; my brother and I weren’t very good at following rules—and I was sure that they would hear me tooling around in here, barge inside, and force me to go to sleep.
I bit my lip and waited.
The damn computer had finally turned on. It took like ten minutes. It took another ten to click around and get the internet to work, because sometimes my computer was just, I don’t know, obstinate. I was weirdly nervous. I didn’t even know what I was doing. Why I was doing it. Not exactly.
My AIM account logged in automatically, and my short list of buddies were all offline. Except one.
My heart did something weird and I stood up too fast, feeling suddenly stupid and embarrassed. I didn’t even know this guy. He was not—would never be—even remotely interested in someone like me and I knew this. I already knew this and I was still standing here, being an idiot.
I wasn’t going to do it. I wasn’t going to make an ass out of myself.
I turned back to my computer, ready to hit the power switch and shut this whole thing down when—
riversandoceans04: You’re online
riversandoceans04: You’re never online
I stared, finger frozen over the power switch.
I sat down at my desk.
riversandoceans04: What are you doing up so late?
I started typing, I don’t know, before I realized my answer might be way too obvious. So I tried for something generic.
jujehpolo: I couldn’t sleep.
riversandoceans04: Hey, can I ask you a question?
I stared at the messaging window. Felt a little scared.
riversandoceans04: What does jujehpolo mean?
I was so relieved he hadn’t asked me something super offensive I almost laughed out loud.
jujehpolo: It’s, like, a Persian thing. Jujeh means small, but it’s also the word for a baby chicken.
jujehpolo: And polo means rice.
jujehpolo: I realize as I’m typing this that that doesn’t make any sense, but it’s just, like, an inside joke, I guess. My family calls me jujeh, because I’m small, and jujeh kabab and rice is, like, a kind of food . . .