I wanted to tell them I lived down the block. I wanted to tell them I’d never been to Afghanistan. I wanted to tell them I’d only met a camel once, on a trip to Canada, and that the camel was infinitely kinder than the humans I’d met.
But it never mattered what I said anymore. People talked over me, they talked for me, they discussed me without ever asking my opinion. I’d become a talking point; a statistic. I was no longer free to be only a teenager, only a human, only flesh and blood—no, I had to be more than that.
I was an outrage. An uncomfortable topic of conversation.
And already I knew that this—whatever this was with Ocean—could only end in tears.
So I didn’t call him.
I didn’t think I was doing the right thing by ignoring him again, I really didn’t. I just didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t have all the answers. I cared about Ocean, and in my own, confusing way, I was trying to protect him. I was trying to protect the both of us. I wanted to go back to being acquaintances; I wanted us to be kind to each other and call it a day.
We were sixteen, I thought.
This would pass.
Ocean would go to prom with a nice girl with an easily pronounced name and I would move on, literally, when my dad inevitably got a higher-paying job elsewhere and would announce, proudly, that we’d be moving to an even better city, a better neighborhood, a better future.
It would be fine. Or something akin to fine.
The only trouble with my plan, of course, was that Ocean did not agree with it.
I showed up to Mr. Jordan’s class on Monday, but I almost certainly failed that particular session because I said nothing, all period, and for two reasons:
1. I was still getting over the inexplicable heat in my head, and
2. I was trying not to draw attention to myself.
I didn’t look at Ocean in class. I didn’t look at anyone. I pretended not to pay attention because I hoped that Ocean would take the hint and stop talking to me.
It was a stupid plan.
I’d only just escaped the classroom, and I was darting down a deserted corridor when he found me. He caught my arm and I turned around. He looked nervous. A little pale. I wondered what I looked like to him.
“Hi,” he whispered.
“Hi,” I said.
He still hadn’t let go of me; his fingers were wrapped around my forearm like a loose bracelet. I stared at his hand. I didn’t actually want him to let go, but when he saw me staring he startled. Dropped my arm.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“For whatever I did,” he said. “I did something wrong, didn’t I? I messed something up.”
My heart sank. Flatlined. He was so nice. He was so nice and he was making this so hard.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. “I promise.”
“No?” But he still looked nervous.
I shook my head. “I really have to go to class, okay?” I turned to go, and he said my name like a question. I looked back.
He stepped closer. “Can we talk? At lunch?”
I studied his eyes, the pain he was trying to hide, and I realized then that things had gone too far. I’d let things get too far and now I couldn’t just ignore him and hope he would go away. I couldn’t be that cruel. No, I’d actually have to tell him—in clear, focused sentences—what was about to happen. That we needed to stop this, whatever it was.
So I said okay.
I told him where my tree was. I told him to meet me there.
The thing I had no way of anticipating, of course, was that someone else would already be waiting for me.
Yusef was leaning against my tree.
Wow, I’d nearly forgotten about Yusef.
I still thought he was a really good-looking guy, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wondered about him once or twice in the last couple of weeks, but, for the most part, he’d slipped my mind. I had no reason to keep thinking about him, because I so rarely saw him around school.
And I had no idea what he was doing here.
I wanted him to leave, but Ocean hadn’t yet arrived and I was already nervous enough about the conversation we were about to have; I didn’t want to have to deal with asking Yusef to go somewhere else, too. Plus, it didn’t seem fair for me to lay claim to public property. So I pulled out my phone, made a sharp left, and started texting Ocean to meet me elsewhere.
Yusef called my name.
I looked back, surprised, the unfinished text message still unsent. “Yeah?”
“Where are you going?” He walked over. He was smiling.
Maybe on a different day, at a different time, I would’ve been interested in his smile. Today, I was far too distracted.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m looking for someone.”
“Oh,” he said, and followed my gaze.
I was squinting out toward the quad, where most of the student body gathered for lunch every day. The quad was, as a result, a place I nearly always avoided, so I didn’t really know what I was searching for as I looked around. But Yusef was still talking, and I was suddenly annoyed, which wasn’t fair. Yusef couldn’t have known the deep preoccupation of my mind. Nothing he’d said to me was offensive—it wasn’t even unwelcome—it was just bad timing.
“I wanted to come back and check on my tree,” he was saying. “I was hoping you’d be here.”
“That’s nice,” I said, still frowning into the distance.
Yusef tilted his head into my line of sight. “Anything I can do to help?”
“No,” I said, “I just—”
I spun around. My sudden relief was replaced, in an instant, by apprehension. Ocean had arrived, but he looked confused. He was staring at Yusef, who was standing too close to me.
I put five feet between us.
“Hey,” I said, and tried to smile. Ocean turned in my direction, but he still seemed uncertain.
“This is who you were looking for?” Yusef again. He sounded surprised.
It took a concerted effort to keep from telling Yusef to go away, that this was obviously a bad time for small talk, that he clearly had no idea how to read social cues—
“Hey man, what’s going on,” Yusef said, the question almost like a statement, and reached forward to shake Ocean’s hand. Except he didn’t shake it, exactly. He did that thing that guys do sometimes, when they pull each other in and do a kind of hug-slap. “You know Shirin?” he said. “Small world.”
Ocean allowed the gesture, accepting Yusef’s friendly bro-hug involuntarily, and I was guessing only because he was a nice, polite person. His eyes, however, looked almost angry. Ocean didn’t say a word to Yusef. Didn’t offer an answer or an explanation.
“Hey, um,” I said, “I need to talk to my friend alone, okay? We’re going to go somewh—”
“Oh, okay,” Yusef said. “I’ll be quick, then. I just wanted to know if you’ll be fasting next week. My family always throws a massive iftar on the first night and you and your brother—and your parents, if they’re up for it—are welcome to come.”
What the hell?
“How did you know I have a brother?”
Yusef frowned. “Navid is in most of my classes. I put two and two together after the last time we talked. He didn’t tell you?”
“Okay, um”—I glanced at Ocean, who looked suddenly like he’d been punched in the gut—“yeah, I’ll have Navid get in touch with you. I have to go.”
I only vaguely remembered saying a proper goodbye after that. Mostly I remembered the look on Ocean’s face as we walked away.
He looked betrayed.
I told Ocean I didn’t know where to go, that I wanted to speak with him somewhere quiet and private but the library was the only place I could think of and you’re not allowed to talk in there, not really, and he said, “My car is in the parking lot.”
That was all he said. I followed him to his car in silence, and it wasn’t until we were sitting inside, doors closed on our own little world, that he looked at me and said, “Are you”—he sighed and turned suddenly away, studied the floor—“are you dating that guy? Yusef?”