I felt a jolt of feeling flood through me. It left me a little breathless. The way he’d called me baby, the way he’d said it, it was nothing and everything all at once. There was so much emotion in the word, like he wanted me to be his, like he wanted us to belong to each other.
“Please,” he whispered. “Let’s just be together. Hang out. I want to spend more time with you.”
He said he promised he wouldn’t try to kiss me again and I wanted to say don’t you dare promise not to kiss me again but I didn’t.
Instead, I did exactly what I said I wouldn’t do.
I gave in.
School was suddenly weird as hell.
I’d gone from being the kind of person people pretended they weren’t staring at to being the kind of person who was openly gawked at. Some students didn’t bother to hide the fact that they were talking about me as I passed. Some of them actually pointed at me as I walked by.
It was suddenly very good for me that I’d had so much practice ignoring faces. I stared at nothing as I walked; I looked at no one. Ocean and I had no plans; we hadn’t discussed what today would look like simply because he was so certain it would be fine, that we were surrounded by idiots and none of it would matter. I knew he was wrong, of course, that all of it mattered, that we were actively swimming in the sewage that was high school and it wouldn’t do us any good to pretend otherwise. I knew it was only a matter of time before it bubbled up into something ugly. But that first day, at least, was fairly uneventful. Sort of.
My first four periods were easy. I zoned out completely; hid earbuds under my scarf and listened to music while the world droned on. It was fine enough. Plus, Ocean and I had never really engaged each other in Mr. Jordan’s class, so the whole thing was pretty low-key. Ocean found me after the bell rang, smiling so bright it lit up his whole face. He said hi. I said hi back. And then we split up. Our next classes were in different directions.
It was right around lunch when things hit peak weird.
This random girl cornered me. It was fast. Totally unexpected. She just about knocked me into one of the outdoor picnic benches.
I was stunned.
“Can I help you?” I snapped at her.
She was a beautiful Indian girl. She had long, dark hair, and really expressive eyes, and she was using those eyes today to express to me that she wanted to kill me. She looked livid. “You are a terrible role model for Muslim girls everywhere!” she said.
I was so surprised I actually laughed. Just once, but still.
I’d imagined today going badly in any number of different ways, but wow, wow, I had not been expecting this.
For a second, I thought she might be messing with me. I gave her a chance to take it back. To suddenly smile.
“Are you serious?” I said.
“Do you know how hard I have to work, every single day, to undo the kind of damage people like you do to our faith? To the image of Muslim women in general?”
Now I frowned. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You are not allowed to go around kissing boys!” she cried.
I looked her over. “Have you never kissed a boy?”
“This isn’t about me,” she huffed, “this is about you. You wear hijab,” she said. “You’re disrespecting everything you’re supposed to stand for.”
“Um. Okay.” I squinted at her. Half smiled. Flipped her off and kept walking.
She followed me.
“Girls like you don’t deserve to wear hijab,” she said, matching my pace. “It’d be better for everyone if you just took it off.”
Finally, I stopped. Sighed. I turned to face her. “You are, like, everything that is wrong with people, you know? You,” I said, “are what’s wrong with religion. People like you make the rest of us look crazy, and I don’t think you even realize it.” I shook my head. “You don’t know shit about me, okay? You don’t know shit about how I’ve lived or what I’ve been through or why I choose to wear hijab and it’s not your place to judge me or how I live my life. I get to be a fucking human being, okay? And you can go straight to hell.”
Her jaw dropped open in such dramatic fashion that, for a second, she looked like an anime character. Her eyes went impossibly wide, her mouth shaped into a perfect o.
“Wow,” she said.
“You’re even more horrible than I thought you’d be.”
“I’m going to pray for you.”
“Thanks,” I said, and started walking again. “I’ve got a test after lunch, so if you could focus your energy there, that’d be great.”
“You are a terrible person!” she called after me.
I waved goodbye as I left.
Ocean was sitting under my tree.
He stood up when he saw me coming. “Hi,” he said. His eyes were so bright—happy—in the sunlight. It was a beautiful day. It was the end of October; fall had officially arrived. There was a chill in the air, and I loved it.
“Hi,” I said, and smiled.
“How was your day?” we both said at the same time.
“Weird,” we answered in unison.
He laughed. “Yeah,” he said, and ran a hand through his hair. “Really weird.”
I tried hard not to say I told you so, because I didn’t want to be that person, but I really had told him so, so I settled on a variation of the same thing and hoped he wouldn’t notice. “Yeah,” I said. “I, uh, figured it might be.”
He grinned at me. “Yeah, yeah. I know.”
“So,” I said, and smiled back. “Are you sorry yet? Ready to call it quits?”
“No.” He frowned, and looked, for a moment, genuinely upset. “Of course not.”
“Okay.” I shrugged. “Then let the shitshow begin.”
The first couple of weeks really weren’t that bad, except for the fact that I’d started fasting, which just made me kind of tired. Ramadan was, honest to goodness, my favorite month of the year, despite how crazy that sounds. Most people weren’t big fans of fasting for thirty days—each day from sunrise to sunset—but I loved it. I loved how it made me feel. It gave me a sharpness of heart and mind; I experienced clarity then as I rarely did during the rest of the year. Somehow, it made me stronger. After surviving a month of serious focus and self-discipline, I felt like I could overcome anything.
Any obstacle. Mental or physical.
Navid hated it.
All day long all he did was complain. He was never more annoying as a human being than he was during Ramadan. All he did was whine. He said fasting messed up his carefully balanced diet of simply grilled chicken breasts and staring at his abs in the mirror. He said it made him slow, that his muscles needed fuel, that all his hard work was being flushed down the toilet and he was losing too much weight, getting leaner every day and what about all the bulk he’d worked so hard to build? Besides, his head hurt, he was tired, he was thirsty; he’d stare at his abs again and make an angry noise and say, “This is such bullshit.”
All day long.
Ocean was, unsurprisingly, curious about the whole thing. I’d stopped using the word fascinated to describe the way he engaged with me and my life, because the pejorative iteration of the word no longer seemed fair. In fact, his affection felt so sincere that I could no longer bring myself to even tease him about it. He was easily wounded. One day he’d asked me about Persian food again and I’d made a joke about how funny it was that he knew so little, how he’d really thought falafel and hummus were my thing, and he was suddenly so embarrassed he wouldn’t even look at me.
So I tried to be gentle.
True to his word, Ocean really didn’t seem to care about the general weirdness surrounding our situation. But then, we were also being really careful. Ocean’s basketball commitments were even more intense than I’d expected—he was busy pretty much all the time. So we took it day by day.
We didn’t do much at first.
I didn’t meet his friends. I didn’t go to his house. We didn’t spend every moment together; we didn’t even spend all our lunches together. To be clear, these were my suggestions, not his. Ocean wasn’t thrilled about the distance I kept between us, but it was the only way I could do this—I wanted our worlds to merge slowly, without chaos—and he seemed resigned to accept it. Still, I worried. I worried about everything he’d have to deal with. What he might’ve already been dealing with. I’d check in with him daily, ask him if anything had happened, if anyone had said anything to him, but he refused to talk about it. He said he didn’t want to think about it. Didn’t want to give it oxygen.