“Fuck this town,” he said.
We hadn’t really talked about it since then, and not because he hadn’t asked. I just didn’t have the vocabulary. My feelings were still inarticulate, comprising little more than tears and expletives.
So we practiced.
We didn’t have access to the dance rooms at school over winter break, and we were really sick of the cardboard boxes we’d used on weekends, so we splurged on an upgrade. We went to Home Depot, purchased a roll of linoleum, and jammed it into Navid’s car. It was easy to unfurl the linoleum in deserted alleys and parking lots. Sometimes Jacobi’s parents let us use their garage, but it didn’t really matter where we were; we’d just set up our old boom box and breakdance.
I’d mastered the crab walk pretty well, believe it or not. Navid had started teaching me how to do the cricket, which was a level of difficulty slightly higher than that, and I was getting better every day. Navid was thrilled—but only because he had a personal stake in my progress.
Navid was still really invested in the school talent show—something I no longer cared even a little bit about—but he’d been planning it for so long that I didn’t have the heart to tell him I didn’t want to do it anymore. So I listened to his ideas about choreography, the songs he wanted to mix for the music, which beats were best for which power moves. I did it for him. I officially hated this school more than any other school I’d ever been to, and had absolutely zero interest in making an impression. But he’d trained me so patiently all these months; I couldn’t turn back now.
Besides, we were getting really good.
The first week of winter break seemed to crawl by. It was impossible to deny, despite all empirical evidence to the contrary, that there wasn’t a massive cavity in my chest where my emotions used to be. I felt numb, all the time.
I stared at Ocean’s text messages before I fell asleep, hating myself for my own silence. I wanted desperately to text him back, to tell him that I loved him, too, but I worried that if I reached out to him, I wouldn’t be strong enough to walk away again. So many times, I thought, I’d tried to draw a line in the sand, and I was never strong enough to keep it there.
If only I had.
If only I’d told Ocean to go away after he followed me out of Mr. Jordan’s class. If only I hadn’t texted him later that night. If only I’d never agreed to talk to him at lunch. If only I’d never gone with Ocean to his car maybe he never would’ve kissed me and maybe then I wouldn’t have known, I wouldn’t have known what it was like to be with him and none of this would’ve happened and God, sometimes I really wished I could go back in time and erase all the moments that led to this one. I could’ve saved us both all this trouble. All this heartache.
Ocean stopped texting me on week two.
The pain became a drumbeat; a rhythm I could write a song to. It was always there, stark and steady, rarely abating. I learned to drown out the sound during the day, but at night it screamed through the hole in my chest.
Yusef had become a good friend of Navid’s, and I’d been completely unaware of this until he started showing up to our breakdancing practices. Apparently Navid had sold him on the art of breakdancing, and he was now interested in learning.
We were practicing in the far corner of a rarely frequented Jack in the Box parking lot when Yusef first showed up, and I was upside down when I saw him. Navid had been in the middle of teaching me to spin on my head, and when he let go of my legs to say hi, I fell over on my ass.
“Oh my God,” I shouted, “What the hell, Navid—”
I shucked off my helmet, readjusted my scarf, and tried to sit up with some dignity.
Navid only shrugged. “You have to work on your balance.”
“Hey,” Yusef said, and smiled at me. His eyes lit up; his whole face seemed to shine. Smiling was an objectively good look for him. “I didn’t know you’d be here, too.”
“Yeah,” I said, and tugged absently at my sweater. I tried to smile back but wasn’t really feeling it, so I waved. “Welcome.”
We spent the rest of the week together, all six of us. It was nice. Carlos and Bijan and Jacobi had somehow become my friends, too, which was comforting. They never really talked to me about what happened with Ocean, even though I knew they knew, but they were kind to me in other ways. They told me they cared without ever saying the words. And Yusef was just—cool. Friendly.
It was kind of amazing, actually, not to have to explain everything to him all the time. Yusef wasn’t terrified of girls in hijab; they didn’t perplex him. He didn’t require a manual to navigate my mind. My feelings and choices didn’t require constant explanations.
He was never weird with me.
He never asked me dumb questions. He never wondered aloud whether or not I had to shower with that thing on. One day, last year—at a different high school—I was sitting in math class and this guy I barely knew wouldn’t stop staring at me. At all. Fifteen minutes passed and finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I spun around, ready to tell him to go to hell, when he said,
“Hey, okay, so—what if you were having sex and that thing just, like, fell off your head? What would you do then?”
Yusef never asked me questions like that.
It was nice.
He started hanging out at our house all the time, actually. He’d come over after practice to eat and play video games with my brother and he was always really, really nice. Yusef was the obvious choice for me, I knew that. I think he knew that, too, but he never said anything about it. He’d just look at me a little longer than most people did. He’d smile at me a little more than most people did. He waited, I think, to see if I’d make a move.
On New Year’s Eve I sat in the living room with my dad, who was reading a book. My dad was always reading. He read before work in the mornings and every evening before bed. I often thought he had the mind of a mad genius and the heart of a philosopher. I was staring at him that night, and staring into a cold cup of tea, thinking.
“Baba,” I said.
“Hmm?” He turned a page.
“How do you know if you’ve done the right thing?”
My dad’s head popped up. He blinked at me and closed his book. Removed his glasses. He looked me in the eye for only a moment before he said, in Farsi, “If the decision you’ve made has brought you closer to humanity, then you’ve done the right thing.”
He watched me for a second, and I knew he was saying, without speaking, that I could tell him what was on my mind. But I wasn’t ready. I still wasn’t ready. So I pretended to misunderstand.
“Thanks,” I said. “I was just wondering.”
He tried to smile. “I’m sure you’ve done the right thing,” he said.
But I didn’t think I had.
We went back to school on a Thursday, my heart lodged firmly in my throat, but Ocean wasn’t there. He didn’t show up for either of the classes we had together. I didn’t know if he’d gone to school that day, because I never saw him, and I suddenly worried that maybe he’d transferred classes. I couldn’t blame him if he had, of course, but I’d been hoping for a glimpse of him. Of his face.
School was, otherwise, anticlimactic. I’d become a photoshopping error, and our two weeks away on break had given everyone some kind of amnesia. No one cared about me anymore. There was new gossip now, gossip that didn’t concern me or my life. As far as I could tell, Ocean had been returned to his former status. There was no longer any need to panic, as I’d been surgically removed from his life.
Everything was fine.
People went back to ignoring me in the way they always had.
I was sitting under my tree when I saw that girl again.
“Hey,” she said. Her long brown hair was tied up into a ponytail this time, but she was still unmistakably the same girl who told me I was a terrible person.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to say hi to her.
“Can I sit down?” she said.
I raised an eyebrow, but I said okay.