“What do you mean?”
“I feel like everyone around me is dead,” he said, and his anger surprised me. “Like no one thinks anymore. Everyone seems satisfied with the most depressing shit. I don’t want to be like that.”
“I wouldn’t want to be like that either.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think you’re in any danger of that.”
“Oh,” I said, surprised. “Thanks.”
And then he said, “Have you ever had a boyfriend?”
—and I felt the moment freeze all around me.
I had never had a boyfriend, I said to him, no, I had not.
“Um.” I laughed. “Wow, where do I even begin with this? First of all, I’m pretty sure my parents would be horrified if I ever so much as intimated that I had feelings for a boy, because I think they still think I’m five.
“Second of all, I’ve never really lived in one place long enough for something like that to play out, and um, I don’t know, Ocean”—I laughed again—“the truth is, guys don’t, uh—they don’t really ask me out.”
“Well what if a guy did ask you out?”
I didn’t like where this was going.
I didn’t want to act out this scenario. Honestly, I never thought it would get this far. I was so certain Ocean would never be interested in me that I didn’t bother to consider how bad it would be if he were.
I thought Ocean was a nice guy, but I also thought he was naive.
Maybe I could try letting go of my anger—maybe I could try being kinder for a change—but I knew that even the most optimistic attitude wouldn’t change the structure of the world we lived in. Ocean was a nice, handsome, heterosexual white guy, and the world expected great things from him. Those things did not involve falling for a highly controversial Middle Eastern girl in a headscarf. I had to save him from himself.
So I didn’t answer his question.
Instead, I said, “I mean, it’s not a frequent occurrence in my life, but it actually has happened before. When I was in middle school my brother went through a phase where he was a total and complete asshole, and he’d go through my diary and find out about these rare, brave souls and hunt them down. He’d scare the shit out of them.” I paused. “It did wonders for my love life, as I’m sure you can imagine.”
And I don’t know what I was expecting him to say, exactly, but when Ocean said, “You keep a diary?”
I realized I hadn’t been expecting him to say that.
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah.”
“That’s really cool.”
And I knew then, somehow, that I needed to end this conversation. Something was happening; something was changing and it was scaring me.
So I said, a little suddenly, “Hey, I should probably get going. It’s late and I still have a lot of homework to do.”
“Oh,” he said. And I could tell, even in that small word, that he sounded surprised, and maybe—maybe—disappointed.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Okay.” I tried to smile, even though he couldn’t see me. “Bye.”
After we hung up, I collapsed onto my bed and closed my eyes. This dizziness was in my marrow, in my mind.
I was being stupid.
I knew better, and I’d texted him anyway, and now I was confusing this poor kid who didn’t have a clue what he was wading into. This whole thing probably seemed simple to him: Ocean thought I was pretty and he’d told me so; I hadn’t told him to go to hell, so here we were. He was trying, maybe, to ask me out? Asking out a girl he thought was pretty probably seemed like an obvious move to him, but that just wasn’t something I wanted to happen. That was drama I didn’t want, had no interest in.
Wow, I was stupid.
I’d let my guard down. I did that thing—the thing where I allowed cute boys to get in my head and mess with my common sense—and I’d let my conversation with Jacobi distract me from the bigger picture here.
Nothing had changed.
I’d made a mistake by opening myself up like this. This was a mistake. I had to stop talking to Ocean. I had to dial this back.
I bailed on Mr. Jordan’s class four days in a row.
I’d gone to my academic counselor and told her I wanted to withdraw from my Global Perspectives class and she asked why and I said I didn’t like the class, that I didn’t like Mr. Jordan’s teaching methods, and she said it was too late to drop the class, that I’d have a W on my transcript and that colleges didn’t like that, and I shrugged and she frowned and we both stared at each other for a minute. Finally she said she’d have to notify Mr. Jordan that I’d be withdrawing from the class. She said he’d have to approve the action, was I aware of this, and I said, “Yeah, that’s fine.”
And I just stopped going to Mr. Jordan’s class. This worked well enough in the beginning, but on the fourth day—it was now Thursday—he found me at my locker.
He said, “Hey. I haven’t seen you in class in a couple of days.”
I glanced at him. Slammed my locker shut; spun the combination. “That’s because I’m not taking your class anymore.”
“Okay.” I started walking.
He kept up. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
“You’re talking to me now.”
“Shirin,” he said, “I’m really sorry. I realize I did something wrong, and I’d really like to discuss it with you.”
I stopped in the middle of the hallway. Turned to face him. I was feeling brave, apparently. “What would you like to discuss?”
“Well, obviously I’ve upset you—”
“Obviously you’ve upset me, yes.” I looked at him. “Why would you pull such a dick move, Mr. Jordan? You knew Travis was going to say something awful about me, and you wanted him to.”
Students were rushing around us, some of them slowing down to stare as they went. Mr. Jordan looked flustered.
“That’s not true,” he said, his neck going red. “I didn’t want him to say anything awful about you. I just wanted us to be able to talk about stereotypes and how harmful they are. How you are more than what he might have assumed about you.”
“Whatever,” I said. “That’s maybe sixty percent true. The other forty percent is that you sacrificed my comfort just to make yourself seem progressive. You put me in that shitty situation because you thought it would be shocking and exciting.”
“Can we please talk about this somewhere else?” he said, pleading with his eyes. “Maybe in my classroom?”
I sighed heavily. “Fine.”
Honestly, I didn’t know why he cared.
I didn’t realize it would be such a big deal to drop his class, but then, I didn’t know anything about being a teacher. Maybe my complaint got Mr. Jordan in trouble. I had no idea.
But he just wasn’t giving this up.
“I’m sorry,” he said for the fifth time. “I really am. I never meant to upset you like this. I really didn’t think it would hurt you.”
“Then you didn’t think,” I said. My voice was shaking a little; some of my bravado had worn off. Here, separated by his desk, I was suddenly very aware of the fact that I was talking to a teacher, and old, deeply ingrained habits were reminding me that I was just a sixteen-year-old kid very much at the mercy of these random, underpaid adults. “It’s not much of a leap,” I said to him, speaking more calmly now, “to imagine something like that being hurtful. And anyway, this isn’t even about you hurting my feelings.”
“No,” I said. “It’s about the fact that you think you’re being helpful. But if you’d stopped to consider for even five seconds what my life was actually like you’d have realized you weren’t doing me a favor. I don’t need to hear any more people say stupid shit to my face, okay? I don’t. I’ve had enough of that to last me a lifetime. You don’t get to make an example out of me,” I said. “Not like that.”