I turned away. I wanted to cry but I swore I wouldn’t. I promised myself I wouldn’t. Instead, I whispered, “What’s going on, Ocean? What’s happening right now?”
He shook his head. He looked devastated. “This is my fault,” he said. “This is all my fault. I should’ve listened to you, I never should’ve let this happen—”
And just then some guy I’d never even seen before walked past us, slapped Ocean on the back and said, “Hey man, I understand—I’d hit that, too—”
Ocean shoved him, hard, and the guy shouted something angry and fell back, landing on his elbows.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Ocean said to him. “What happened to you?”
They started yelling at each other and I just couldn’t take it anymore.
I needed to leave.
I knew a little about digital cameras, but I didn’t own one myself, so I couldn’t, in that moment, understand how people were sharing photos of me so quickly. I only knew that someone had taken a photo of me without my scarf on—without my consent—and was now passing it around. It was a kind of violation I’d never experienced before. I wanted to scream.
It was my hair, I wanted to scream.
It was my hair and it was my face and it was my body and it was my fucking business what I wanted to do with it.
Of course, nobody cared.
I ditched school.
Ocean tried to come with me. He kept apologizing and he tried, so hard, to make it better, but I just wanted to be alone. I needed time.
So I left.
I walked around for a while, trying to clear my head. I didn’t know what else to do. There was a part of me that wanted to go home, but I worried that if I locked myself in my bedroom I might never come out. I also really, really didn’t want to cry.
I felt like crying. I felt like crying and screaming all at the same time, but I didn’t want to give in to the feeling. I just wanted to push through this. I wanted to survive it without losing my head.
I knew, hours later, that things had gotten bad when Navid started texting me. If Navid had heard about this, things had to have blown up. And he was worried.
I told him I was okay, that I’d left campus. I’d ended up hiding in a local library. I was sitting in the horror section on purpose.
Navid told me to come to practice.
because it’ll help get your mind off things
how bad is it?
A few seconds later:
well, it’s not great
I slipped back on campus only when I knew school was officially out. I went to my locker to grab my gym bag, but when I opened the door, a piece of paper fell out. I unfolded it to discover that there were two pictures of me, printed side by side. One with my scarf on, one without.
I looked confused in the latter of the two, but the photo wasn’t otherwise unflattering. It was a perfectly okay picture. I’d always liked my hair. I thought I had nice hair. And it photographed well, actually, maybe better than it had looked in real life. But this revelation only made the whole thing more painful. It was more obvious than ever that this was never meant to be a silly stunt; the point here was never to make me look ugly or stupid. Whoever did this had wanted only to unmask me without my permission, to humiliate me by intentionally undermining a decision I’d made to keep some parts of me for just myself. They’d wanted to take away the power I thought I had over my own body.
It was a betrayal that hurt, somehow, more than anything else.
When I showed up to practice, Navid just looked sad.
“You okay?” he said, and pulled me in for a hug.
“Yeah,” I said. “This school blows.”
He took a deep breath. Squeezed me once more before letting go. “Yeah,” he said, and exhaled. “Yeah, it really does.”
“People are so fucked up,” Bijan said to me, shaking his head. “I’m sorry you have to deal with this.”
I didn’t know what to say. I tried to smile.
Carlos and Jacobi were sympathetic.
“Hey, just point me in the right direction,” Carlos said, “and I’ll happily kick the shit out of someone for you.”
I actually smiled, then. “I don’t even know who did it,” I said. “I mean, I saw the girl who took the photo of me, but I don’t know anything else. I don’t know anything about her,” I said, and sighed. “I don’t know people at this school.”
And then Jacobi asked me what happened, how the girl had even managed to get the picture of me, and I told them that I’d been in the bathroom, cleaning up, because some guy had thrown a cinnamon roll at my face, and I tried to laugh about it, to make it seem funny, but all four of them went suddenly quiet.
“Some dude threw a cinnamon roll at your face?” Navid looked dumbstruck. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
I blinked. Hesitated. “No?”
“Who?” It was Jacobi now. “Who was it?”
“I don’t know—”
“Son of a bitch,” Carlos said.
“And Ocean didn’t do anything?” Bijan, this time. “He just let some guy throw food at you?”
“What? No,” I said quickly. “No, no, he, like, I don’t know, I think he started fighting with him but I just walked away, so I didn’t—”
“So Ocean knows who this guy is.” Bijan again. He wasn’t looking at me, he was looking at Navid.
“I mean, I think so,” I said carefully, “but, like, it’s really not—”
“You know what, fuck this shit,” Navid said, and he grabbed his stuff. So did the other guys. They were all packing up.
“Wait—where are you going?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Carlos said to me.
“I’ll see you at home,” Navid said, squeezing my arm as he walked past me.
“You’ll be okay walking home today?” Jacobi now.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, but—”
“All right, cool. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
And they just left.
I heard, the next day, that they really had kicked the shit out of this guy, because the cops showed up at my house, looking for Navid, who shrugged it off. He told my horrified parents it was just a big misunderstanding. Navid thought it was hilarious. He said the only people who ever called the cops over a street fight were white people.
In the end, the kid didn’t want to press charges. So they let it go.
Navid would be fine.
But things, for me, just kept getting worse.
It was one thing for me to have to deal with this sort of thing. I’d been here before. I knew how to handle these blows and I knew how to walk them off, even as they wounded me. And I took great care to appear so deeply, thoroughly unmoved by the whole photo debacle that the mess defused itself in a matter of days. I gave it no life. No power. And it withered easily.
Ocean, on the other hand, was new to this.
Watching him try to navigate the at once overwhelming and heartbreaking experience of the unmasked mob—
It was like watching a child learn about death for the first time.
People wouldn’t leave him alone, suddenly. My face had become notorious overnight, and Navid kicking the crap out of one of these kids for throwing a pastry at my head had complicated everything. I mean, I didn’t love Navid’s methods, but I will say this: no one ever threw anything at me, not ever again. But kids now seemed terrified to even be near me. People were both angry and scared, which was possibly the most dangerous combination of emotions, and it made Ocean’s association with me more outrageous than ever. His friends said awful things to him about me, about himself—things I don’t even want to repeat—and he was forced into an impossible position, trying to defend me against slanderous statements about my faith, about what it meant to be Muslim, about what it was like to be me. It was exhausting.
Still, Ocean swore he didn’t care.
He didn’t, but I did.
I could feel myself pulling away, retreating inward, wanting to save him and myself by sacrificing this newfound happiness, and I knew he felt it happening. He could feel the distance growing between us—could see me shutting down, closing off—and I felt his panic. I could see it in the way he looked at me now. I heard it in his voice when he whispered Are we okay? on the phone last night. I felt it when he touched me, tentatively, like I might spook at any second.