“Hey,” I said, “I wasn’t worried—” But she was already walking out the door. “Hey, seriously,” I said, “I actually like what I’m wearing—”
“Don’t do anything stupid today,” she said, and waved goodbye.
But I was about to do something stupid.
I mean, I thought it was stupid, anyway. Navid thought this talent show was awesome. It was apparently a big deal that we even got to perform; some committee had whittled down a stack of submissions and chosen, of the many, only ten acts to be onstage today.
We were up fourth.
I hadn’t realized how serious this was until Navid explained it to me. Still, there were, like, a couple thousand kids at our school, and they’d all be sitting in the audience, watching us—and nine other performances—and I didn’t understand how this could turn out to be a good thing. I thought it was dumb. But I reminded myself that I was doing it for Navid.
We were waiting in the wings with the other performers—mostly singers; a couple of bands; there was even a girl who’d be performing a solo on the saxophone—and for the first time, I was the only one in our group who appeared to have retained any level of chill. We’d changed into matching silver windbreakers, gray sweatpants, and gray Puma suedes—and I thought we looked good. I thought we were ready. But Jacobi, Carlos, Bijan, and Navid seemed super nervous, and it was weird to see them like this. They were normally so cool; totally unflappable. I realized then that the only reason I didn’t share their nerves was because I genuinely didn’t care about the outcome.
I felt deflated. Kind of bored.
The guys, on the other hand, wouldn’t stop pacing. They talked to each other; they talked to themselves. Jacobi would start saying, “So, like we all walk— Yeah, we all walk out at the same—” and then he’d stop, count something out on his fingers, and then nod, only to himself. “Okay,” he’d say. “Yeah.”
And every time a new act went up, I felt them tense. We listened to the thuds and squeaks that meant they were prepping the stage for a new performance; we heard the slightly muted cheers following the introduction; and then we sat, very quietly, and listened to our competitors. Carlos was always wondering aloud whether or not the other performers were any good. Bijan would assure him that they sucked. Jacobi would disagree. Carlos would agonize. Navid would look up at me and ask, on five different occasions, whether I’d gotten the right music to the AV tech.
“Yeah, but, remember—we changed the mix at the last minute,” he said. “Are you sure you got him the new one?”
“Yes,” I said, trying not to roll my eyes.
“You’re sure? It was the CD that said Mix Number Four on it.”
“Oh,” I said, feigning surprise. “Was it mix number four? Are you su—”
“Oh my God Shirin don’t mess with me right now—”
“Calm down,” I said, and laughed. “It’s going to be fine. We’ve done this a thousand times.”
But he wouldn’t sit still.
In the end, I was wrong.
The show wasn’t dumb at all. Actually, the whole thing was kind of awesome. We’d done this routine so many times I didn’t even have to think about it anymore.
We started out with all five of us doing a fully choreographed dance routine, and as the music changed, so did we. We broke apart and took turns taking center stage, each of us performing a different combination of moves; but our performances were fluid—they talked to each other. The whole thing was meant to breathe, like everything we did was part of a larger heartbeat. The boys killed it.
Our choreography was fresh; our moves were tight and perfectly in sync; the music was mixed beautifully.
Even I wasn’t too bad.
My uprock was the best it’d ever been; my six-step was spot-on, and I dropped into a crab walk that morphed, briefly, into a cricket. The cricket was a similar move; my body weight was still balanced on my elbows, which I’d tucked into my torso; the difference was that you moved around in a circle. The whole thing was pretty fast. I felt strong. Totally stable. I ended with a rise up, and then fell forward into a handstand, only to arch my back and let my legs curve behind me, never touching the ground. This was a pose called hollowback, and it was a move that might’ve been, for me, even harder than the crab walk. I’d been working on it forever. After a few seconds, I let gravity pull me down, slowly, and I jumped back up again.
It was my one routine. I’d practiced it a million times.
Bijan ended the whole set by doing four backflips across the stage, and when our performance was over we all had about half a second of quiet to look at each other, still catching our breaths. Somehow we knew, without speaking, that we’d done okay.
What I hadn’t been expecting, of course, was for the rest of the school to agree. I hadn’t been expecting them to suddenly stand up, to start screaming, to generally lose their shit at our performance. I hadn’t been expecting the cheers, the thunder of applause.
I hadn’t been expecting us to win.
Mostly, I was happy for my brother. He’d built this moment; he’d spearheaded this mission. And when we were handed a plastic trophy and a fifty-dollar gift certificate to the Olive Garden, Navid looked like he’d been handed the moon. I was so happy for him.
But then, I don’t know—
School became suddenly ridiculous.
For a full week after the talent show I couldn’t get to class without incident. People started chasing me down the hall. Everyone wanted to talk to me. Kids began waving at me as I walked by. I was cutting across the quad one day and one of the janitors saw me, said, “Hey, you’re that girl who spins on her head!” and I was legitimately freaked out.
I hadn’t even spun on my head.
I mean, I was happy they weren’t calling me towelhead anymore, but the sudden and abrupt transition from nasty to nice was giving me whiplash. I was confused. I couldn’t believe people thought I’d forget that just over a month ago they were treating me like an actual piece of shit. My teachers, who, post-Ramadan—when I’d wanted to take a day off to celebrate literally the biggest holiday in the Muslim calendar—had said to me, “We’re going to need a note from your parents to make sure you’re missing school for a real thing,” were now congratulating me in front of the whole class. The politics of school popularity were baffling. I didn’t know how they could change gears like this. They’d all seemed to have abruptly forgotten that I was still the same girl they’d tried to humiliate, over and over again.
Navid was experiencing a similar issue, but, unlike me, he didn’t seem to mind. “Just enjoy it,” he said.
But I didn’t know how I could.
By the end of January I had an entirely different social status than I’d had just weeks prior. It was insane.
I opened my locker and five invitations to five different house parties all fell out, onto my face. I was sitting under my tree at lunch, reading a book, when a group of girls shouted at me, from across the quad, to come sit with them. Guys had started talking to me in class. They’d come up to me after school, ask me if I had plans, and I’d say yes, I have big plans to get the hell out of here, and they didn’t get it. They’d offer to drive me home.
I wanted to scream.
I’d somehow, inadvertently, done something that’d given the population at this school permission to put me in a different kind of box, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. It was more than confusing—it killed me to discover the depth of their spinelessness. Somehow, I wasn’t a terrorist anymore. I’d leveled up. They now saw me as some kind of exotic-looking breakdancer. Our performance had deactivated their alarms.
I was deemed cool. Safe.
Threat Level Green.
And it wasn’t until Coach Hart passed me in the hall, tipped his basketball hat at me and said, “Nice job the other day,” that I felt suddenly certain I’d spontaneously combust.
I’d broken up with Ocean over this.
I’d walked away from one of the most amazing people I’d ever known because I’d been bullied into it by his coach, by his peers, by his own mother. My face, my body, my general image in his life had been hurting him. Had been a threat to his career. To his prospects.