He smelled really nice. My heart was being weird again.
But his eyes were worried. He opened his mouth to say something and then, very suddenly, changed his mind. Looked away.
“What is it?” I said.
He shook his head. Smiled at me out of the corner of his eye, but only briefly. “Nothing. Never mind.”
I could tell that something was bothering him, but his reluctance to share made me think I probably didn’t want to know what he was thinking. So I changed the subject.
“Hey, how long have you lived here?”
Unexpectedly, Ocean smiled. He seemed both pleased and surprised to be asked the question. “Forever,” he said. And then, “I mean, I moved here when I was, like, six, but yeah, basically forever.”
“Wow,” I said. I almost whispered the word. He’d described in a single sentence something I’d often dreamed about. “Must be nice to live in the same place for so long.”
We’d started walking again.
Ocean reached up, plucked a leaf from a tree we were passing, and spun it around in his hands. “It’s okay.” He shrugged. “Gets kind of boring, actually.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It sounds really nice. You probably know your neighbors, huh? And you get to go to school with all the same people.”
“Same people,” he said, nodding. “Yeah. But trust me, it gets old, fast. I’m dying to get the hell out of here.”
“Really?” I turned to look at him. “Why?”
He tossed the leaf, shoved his hands into his pockets. “There’s so much I want to do,” he said. “Things I want to see. I don’t want to get stuck here forever. I want to live in a big city. Travel.” He glanced at me. “I’ve never even left the country, you know?”
I smiled at him, kind of. “Not really,” I said. “I think I’ve traveled enough for the both of us. I’m ready to retire. Settle down. Get old.”
“But in my heart I’m a seventy-five-year-old man.”
“Wow, I really hope not.”
“You know, when I was eight,” I said, “my parents tried to move back to Iran. They packed up all our shit and sold the house and just, took a leap.” I adjusted the backpack on my shoulders. Sighed. “Ultimately, it didn’t work out. We were too American. Too much had changed. But I lived in Iran for six months, bouncing between the city and the countryside. I went to this really fancy international school in Tehran for a while, and all my classmates were these horrible, spoiled, dipshit children of diplomats. I’d cry every day. Beg my mom to let me stay home. But then we spent some time farther north, in a part of the country even closer to the Caspian Sea, and I went to class with a bunch of village kids. The entire school was a single room—straight out of Anne of Green Gables—and of the twelve schools I’ve attended in my life, it’s still my favorite.” I laughed. “The kids used to chase me around at lunchtime and beg me to say things in English. They were obsessed with America,” I explained. “I’d never been so popular in my life.” I laughed, again, and looked up to meet Ocean’s eyes, but he’d slowed down. He was staring at me, and I couldn’t read his expression.
“What?” I said. “Too weird?”
The intense look in his eyes evaporated. In fact, he seemed suddenly frustrated. He shook his head and said, “I wish you’d stop saying things like that to me. I don’t think you’re weird. And I don’t know why you think I’m going to have a sudden epiphany that you’re weird and start freaking out. I’m not. Okay? I genuinely don’t care that you cover your hair. I don’t. I mean”—he hesitated—“as long as it’s, like, something you actually want to do.”
He looked at me. Waited for something.
I looked back, confused.
“I mean,” he said, “your parents don’t, like, force you to wear a headscarf, do they?”
“What?” I frowned. “No. No, I mean, I don’t love the way people treat me for wearing it—which often makes me wonder whether I shouldn’t just stop—but no,” I said. I looked off in the distance. “When I’m not thinking about people harassing me every day, I actually like the way it makes me feel. It’s nice.”
We’d officially stopped walking. We were standing on the sidewalk, next to a sort of busy road, where I was having one of the most personal conversations I’d ever had with a boy.
“I mean, I don’t know,” I said. “It makes me feel, I don’t know. Like I’m in control. I get to choose who gets to see me. How they see me. I don’t think it’s for everyone,” I said, and shrugged. “I’ve met girls who do feel forced to wear it and they hate it. And I think that’s bullshit. Obviously I don’t think anyone should wear it if they don’t want to. But I like it,” I said. “I like that you have to ask for my permission to see my hair.”
Ocean’s eyes widened suddenly. “Can I see your hair?”
He laughed out loud. Looked away. He said, “Okay.” And then, quietly, “I can already kind of see your hair, though.”
I looked at him, surprised.
I wrapped my scarf a little loosely, which made it so that a little of my hair, at the top, sometimes showed, and some people were obsessed with this detail. I wasn’t sure why, but they loved pointing out to me that they could already see an inch of my hair, like maybe that would be enough to nullify the whole thing. I found this fixation kind of hilarious.
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, I mean, that’s usually all it takes. Guys see an inch of my hair and they just, you know”—I mimed an explosion with my hand—“lose their minds. And then it’s just, like, marriage proposals, all over the place.”
Ocean looked confused.
He didn’t say anything for a second, and then—
“Oh. Oh. You’re joking.”
I looked curiously at him. “Yes,” I said. “I’m super joking.”
He was looking at me just as curiously as I looked at him. We were still standing on the sidewalk, talking. Staring at each other.
Finally, he said: “So you’re trying to tell me that what I said was stupid, huh? I only just got that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’m usually more direct.”
And he laughed. He looked away. Looked back at me. “Am I making this weird? Should I stop asking you these questions?”
“No, no.” I shook my head. Smiled, even. “No one ever asks me these questions. I like that you ask. Most people just assume they know what I’m thinking.”
“Well, I have no idea what you’re thinking. Like, ever.”
“Right now,” I said, “I’m thinking you’re so much ballsier than I thought you’d be. I’m kind of impressed.”
“Wait, what do you mean, than you thought I’d be?”
I couldn’t help it, I was suddenly laughing. “Like, I don’t know. When I first met you? You seemed really—timid,” I said. “Kind of terrified.”
“Well, to be fair, you’re kind of terrifying.”
“Yeah,” I said, sobered in an instant. “I know.”
“I don’t mean”—he shook his head, laughed—“I don’t mean because of your scarf or your religion or whatever. I just mean I don’t think you see yourself the way other people do.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m pretty sure I know how other people see me.”
“Maybe some people,” he said. “Yeah. I’m positive there are horrible people in the world. But there are a lot of other people who are looking at you because they think you’re interesting.”
“Well I don’t want to be interesting,” I said. “I don’t exist to fascinate strangers. I’m just trying to live. I just want people to be normal around me.”
Ocean wasn’t looking at me when he said, quietly, “I have no idea how anyone is supposed to be normal around you. I can’t even be normal around you.”