We were both silent for a minute.
Finally, she said, “I’m really sorry about what happened. With that picture. With Ocean.” She was sitting cross-legged on the grass, leaning against my tree, and staring out toward the quad in the distance. “That must’ve been really awful.”
“I thought you said I was a terrible person.”
She looked at me, then. “People in this town are so racist. Sometimes it’s really hard to live here.”
I sighed. Said, “Yeah. I know.”
“I kind of couldn’t believe it when you showed up,” she said, and she was looking away again. “I saw you on the first day of school. I couldn’t believe you were brave enough to wear hijab here. No one else does.”
I broke off a blade of grass. Folded it in half. “I’m not brave,” I said to her. “I’m scared all the time, too. But whenever I think about taking it off, I realize my reasons have to do with how people treat me when I’m wearing it. I think, it would be easier, you know? So much easier. It would make my life easier not to wear it, because if I didn’t wear it, maybe people would treat me like a human being.”
I broke off another blade of grass. Tore it into tiny pieces.
“But that seems like such a shitty reason to do something,” I said. “It gives the bullies all the power. It would mean they’d succeeded at making me feel like who I was and what I believed in was something to be ashamed of. So, I don’t know,” I said. “I keep wearing it.”
We were both quiet again.
“It doesn’t make a difference, you know.”
I looked up.
“Taking it off,” she said. “It doesn’t make a difference.” She was staring at me now. Her eyes were full of tears. “They still treat me like I’m garbage.”
She and I became friends after that. Her name was Amna. She invited me to have lunch with her and her friends, and I was genuinely grateful for the offer. I told her I’d look for her around school tomorrow. I thought maybe I’d ask her to go to the movies sometime. Hell, I might even pretend to give a shit about the SATs when she was around.
It sounded nice.
I saw Ocean for the first time the next day.
I’d gotten to the dance room a little early, and I was waiting outside for Navid to arrive with the key when Yusef showed up.
“So this is where the magic happens, huh?” Yusef was smiling at me again. He was a big smiler. “I’m excited.”
I laughed. “I’m glad you like it,” I said. “Not many people even know what breakdancing is, which is kind of heartbreaking. Navid and I have been obsessed with it for, I don’t know, forever.”
“That’s really cool,” he said, but he was smiling at me like I’d said something funny. “I like how much you like it.”
“I do like it,” I said, and I couldn’t help it—I smiled back. Yusef was so buoyant all the time; his smiles were occasionally contagious. “Breakdancing is actually a combination of kung fu and gymnastics,” I said to him, “which I think will work out well for you, because Navid said you used to fi—”
“Oh—” Yusef looked suddenly startled. He was staring at something behind me. “Maybe”—he glanced at me—“should I go?”
I turned around, confused.
My heart stopped.
I’d never seen Ocean in his basketball uniform before. His arms were bare. He looked strong and toned and muscular. He looked so good. He was so gorgeous.
But he looked different.
I’d never gotten to know this side of him—the basketball player version of him—and in his uniform he looked like someone I didn’t know. In fact, I was so distracted by his outfit that it took me a second to realize he looked upset. More than upset. He looked upset and angry all at once. He was frozen in place, staring at me. Staring at Yusef.
I started to panic.
“Ocean,” I said, “I’m not—”
But he’d already left.
I found out on Monday that Ocean had been suspended from the team. He’d gotten into a fight with another player, apparently, and he’d have to sit out the next two games for disorderly conduct.
I knew this, because everyone was talking about it.
Most people seemed to think it was funny—it was almost like they thought it was cool. Getting into a fight on the court seemed to give Ocean some kind of street cred.
But I was worried.
The second week was just as bad. Awful. Stressful. And it wasn’t until the end of the week that I realized Ocean had not, in fact, switched any of his classes.
He was just cutting class. All the time.
I realized this when I showed up in bio on Friday, and he was there. Sitting in his chair. The same one he always sat in.
My heart was suddenly racing.
I didn’t know what to do. Did I say hi? Did I ignore him? Would he want me to say hi? Would he prefer that I ignore him?
I couldn’t ignore him.
I walked up slowly. Dropped my bag on the floor and felt something in my chest expand as I stared at him. Emotions, filling the cavity.
“Hey,” I said.
He looked up. He looked away.
He didn’t say anything to me for the rest of the period.
Navid had been working all of us harder than we’d ever worked in practice. The talent show was in two weeks, which meant we were practicing until really late, every night. Every day it seemed increasingly stupid to me that I’d be performing in a talent show for this terrible school, but I figured we’d just see it through. Get it over with. Breakdancing had been my only constant through everything this year, and I was so grateful for the space it gave me to just be, to breathe, and to get lost in the music.
I felt like I owed Navid this favor.
Besides, the stakes were higher than I thought they’d be. It turned out that the talent show was a really big deal at this school—bigger, it seemed, than at any of the other schools I’d been to, because it took place during the actual school day. They shut down classes for this. Everyone came out. Teachers, students, all the staff. Moms and dads and grandparents were already standing around the gym, anxiously snapping pictures of nothing important. My own parents, on the other hand, had no idea what we were doing today. They weren’t here cheering us on, holding bouquets of flowers in sweaty, nervous hands. My parents were so generally unimpressed with their own children that I really believed I could, I don’t know, win something like a Nobel Peace Prize, and they’d only reluctantly attend the ceremony, all the while pointing out that lots of people won Nobel Prizes, that, in fact, they gave out Nobel Prizes every year, and anyway the peace prize was clearly the prize for slackers, so maybe next time I should focus my energy on physics or math or something.
My parents loved us, but I wasn’t always sure they liked us.
Mostly, the vibe I got from my mom was that she thought I was a dramatic, sentimental sort of teenager whose interests were cute but useless. She loved me, fiercely, but she also had very little tolerance for people who couldn’t sack up and get their shit together, and my occasional lapses into deep, emotional holes made her think I was still uncooked. She was always waiting for me to grow up.
She’d been getting ready to leave for work this morning when, as she was saying goodbye, she caught a glimpse of my outfit. She shook her head and said, “Ey khoda. Een chiyeh digeh?” Oh God. What is this?
I was wearing a newly altered, totally revamped military-style jacket with epaulets and brass buttons, and I’d embroidered the back, by hand; it read, in a loose script, people are strange. It was not only an homage to one of my favorite songs by the Doors—but it was a statement that deeply resonated with me. The whole thing had taken hours of work. I thought it was amazing.
My mom cringed and said, in Farsi, “Is this really what you’re going to wear?” She craned her neck to read the back of my jacket. “Yanni chi people are strange?” And I didn’t even have a chance to defend my outfit before she sighed, patted me on the shoulder, and said, “Negaran nabash.” Don’t worry. “I’m sure you’ll grow out of it.”