I shook my head. Sighed. “Different guy,” I said.
Navid raised his eyebrows. “Different guy?” He glanced at his friends. “You three hearing this shit? She says it was a different guy.”
“These kids grow up fast,” Jacobi said.
Bijan grinned at me and said, “Damn, girl.”
“Oh my God,” I said, squeezing my eyes closed. “Shut up, all of you. You’re being ridiculous.”
“So who’s the different guy?” Navid asked. “Does he have a name?”
I opened my eyes. Stared at him. “No.”
Navid’s mouth dropped open. He was half smiling, half surprised. “Wow,” he said. “Wow. You must really like him.”
“I don’t like him,” I snapped. “I just don’t want you bothering him.”
“Why would we bother him?” My brother was still smiling.
“Can we just get started on practice? Please?”
“Not until you tell me his name.”
I sighed. I knew my evasiveness would only make the situation worse, so I gave in. “His name is Ocean.”
Navid frowned. “What the hell kind of a name is Ocean?”
“You know, people wonder the same thing about you.”
“Whatever,” he said. “My name is awesome.”
“Anyway,” I said, “Ocean is my lab partner in another class. He just felt bad that Mr. Jordan was being a jerk.”
My brother still seemed skeptical, but he didn’t push it. I could feel him begin to pull away, to lose interest in the conversation, and it made me suddenly anxious. There was something I still wanted to say. Something that had been bothering me all day. I’d been deliberating for hours whether or not to ask the question—even how to ask the question—and, finally, I just gave in and made a mess of it.
“Hey, Navid?” I said quietly.
He’d just turned to grab something out of his bag, and he looked back at me. “Yeah?”
“Do you—” I hesitated. Reconsidered.
“Do I what?”
I took a deep breath. “Do you think I’m pretty?”
Navid’s reaction to my question was so absurd I almost don’t even know how to describe it. He looked somehow shocked and confused and hysterical all at the same time. Eventually, he laughed. Hard. It sounded strange.
I was mortified.
“Oh my God, never mind,” I said quickly. “I’m sorry I even asked. That was so stupid.”
I was halfway across the room when Navid jogged—slowly, dragging his sneakers—after me, and said, “Wait, wait, I’m sorry—”
“Forget it,” I said angrily. I was blushing past my hairline. I was now standing way too close to Bijan, Carlos, and Jacobi, and I did not want them to hear this conversation. I tried desperately to convey this with my eyes, but Navid seemed incapable of picking up my signals. “I don’t want to talk about this, okay? Forget I said anything.”
“Hey, listen,” Navid said, “I was just surprised. I wasn’t expecting you to say something like that.”
“Say something like what?” This, from Bijan.
I wanted to die.
“Nothing,” I said to Bijan. I glared at Navid. “Nothing, okay?”
Navid looked over at the guys and sighed. “Shirin wants to know if I think she’s pretty. But, listen,” he said, looking at me again, “I don’t think I should be answering that question. That feels like a really weird question for a sister to ask her brother, you know? Maybe you should be asking these guys,” he said, nodding at the rest of the group.
“Oh my God,” I said, half whispering the words. I really thought I might murder my brother. I wanted to close my hands around his throat. “What is wrong with you?” I shouted.
“I think you’re pretty,” Carlos said. He was retying his shoelaces. He’d said the statement like he was talking about the weather.
I looked at him. I felt slightly stunned.
“I mean, I think you’re scary as hell,” he said, and shrugged. “But, yeah. I mean, yeah. Very cute.”
“You think I’m scary?” I said, and frowned.
Carlos nodded. He wouldn’t even look at me.
“Do you think I’m scary?” I said to Bijan.
“Oh,” he said, and raised his eyebrows. “Definitely.”
I actually took a step back, I was so surprised. “Are you serious? Do you all feel this way?”
And they all nodded. Even Navid.
“I think you’re beautiful, though,” Bijan said. “If that helps.”
My mouth fell open. “Why do you all think I’m so scary?”
They collectively shrugged.
“People think you’re mean,” Navid finally said to me.
“People are assholes,” I snapped.
“See?” Navid pointed at me. “This is the thing you do.”
“What thing?” I said, frustrated again. “People are flaming pieces of shit to me, like, all day long, and I’m not supposed to be mad about it?”
“You can be mad about it,” Jacobi said, and the sound of his voice startled me. He seemed, suddenly, very serious. “But, like, you seem to think everyone is horrible.”
“That’s because everyone is horrible.”
Jacobi shook his head. “Listen,” he said, “I know what it’s like to be angry all the time, okay? I do. Your shit—the shit you have to deal with—it’s hard, yeah. But you just—you can’t do this. You can’t be angry all the time. Trust me,” he said. “I’ve tried that. It’ll kill you.”
I looked at him. Really looked at him. There was something in Jacobi’s eyes that was sympathetic in a way I’d never experienced before. It wasn’t pity. It was recognition. He actually seemed to acknowledge me, my pain, and my anger, in a way no one else ever had.
Not my parents. Not even my brother.
I felt suddenly like I’d been pierced in the chest. I felt suddenly like I wanted to cry.
“Just try to be happy,” Jacobi finally said to me. “Your happiness is the one thing these assholes can’t stand.”
All afternoon, I’d been thinking about what Jacobi said to me. I got home and I took a shower and I thought about it. All through dinner, I thought about it. I sat at my desk and stared at the wall and listened to music and thought about it and thought about it and thought about it.
I locked myself in my bedroom and thought about it.
It was just past nine o’clock. The house was still. These were the quiet hours before my parents demanded I be asleep—the hours during which all members of my family performed a small mercy and left one another alone for a while. I was sitting in bed, staring at a blank page in my journal.
I wondered, for the very first time, if maybe I was doing this whole thing wrong. If maybe I’d allowed myself to be blinded by my own anger to the exclusion of all else. If maybe, just maybe, I’d been so determined not to be stereotyped that I’d begun to stereotype everyone around me.
It made me think about Ocean.
He kept trying to be nice to me and, in an unexpected turn of events, his kindness left me angry and confused. I pushed him away because I was afraid to be even remotely close to someone who, I was certain, would one day hurt me. I trusted no one anymore. I was so raw from repeated exposure to cruelty that now even the most minor abrasions left a mark. The checkout lady at the grocery store would be rude to me and her simple unkindness would unnerve me for the rest of the day because I never knew—I had no way of knowing—
Are you racist? Or are you just having a bad day?
I could no longer distinguish people from monsters.
I looked out at the world around me and no longer saw nuance. I saw nothing but the potential for pain and the subsequent need to protect myself, constantly.
Damn, I thought.
This really was exhausting.
I sighed and picked up my phone.
hey. why weren’t you in class today?