Ocean was trying to be nice, sure, but I knew that his sudden sympathetic heart was born only of awkward guilt, and that this was a road that would lead to nowhere. I found it exhausting.
jujehpolo: It’s okay
riversandoceans04: It’s not okay. I’ve felt terrible about it all afternoon.
riversandoceans04: I’m really sorry
riversandoceans04: I’ve just never actually talked to a girl who wears the headpiece thing before.
jujehpolo: Headpiece thing, wow
riversandoceans04: See? I don’t know anything
jujehpolo: You can just call it a scarf
riversandoceans04: That’s easy
riversandoceans04: I thought it was called something else.
jujehpolo: Listen, it’s really not a big deal. Can we just do the homework?
And I’d turned away for five seconds to grab the worksheets out of my backpack when there it was again—the soft double ding. Twice.
I looked up.
riversandoceans04: I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.
jujehpolo: I’m not uncomfortable.
jujehpolo: I think maybe you’re uncomfortable, though.
riversandoceans04: What? No
riversandoceans04: I’m not uncomfortable
riversandoceans04: What do you mean?
jujehpolo: I mean, is this going to be a problem? My headpiece thing?
jujehpolo: Is my whole situation just too weird for you?
Ocean didn’t respond for at least twenty seconds, which, in the moment, felt like an actual lifetime. I felt bad. Maybe I’d been too blunt. Maybe I was being mean. But he was trying so hard to be, I don’t know? Way too nice to me. It felt unnatural. And I just, I don’t know, it was making me mad.
Still, guilt gnawed at my mind. Maybe I’d hurt his feelings.
I drummed my fingers against the keyboard, wondering what to say. How to walk this back. We still had to be lab partners, after all.
Or maybe we didn’t. Maybe he’d just ask the teacher for a new partner. It had happened before. Once, when I’d been paired at random with another student, she’d just revolted. She flat out refused to be my partner in front of the entire class and then demanded to work with her friend. My teacher, flimsy pancake that she was, panicked and said okay. I ended up working alone. It was humiliating.
Maybe this time I’d brought the humiliation upon myself. Maybe Ocean would revolt, too. My stomach sank.
riversandoceans04: I don’t think you’re weird.
I blinked at the computer screen.
riversandoceans04: I’m sorry
Ocean appeared to be a chronic apologizer.
jujehpolo: It’s okay
jujehpolo: I’m sorry for putting you on the spot like that. You were just trying to be nice.
jujehpolo: I get it
jujehpolo: It’s fine
Another five seconds dragged on.
I sighed. Dropped my face into my hands. Somehow I’d made things awkward. Everything was fine, totally normal, and then I had to go and make it weird. There was only one way to fix this now. So I took a deep, sad breath, and typed.
jujehpolo: You don’t have to be my lab partner if you don’t want to be.
jujehpolo: It’s okay
jujehpolo: I can tell Mrs. Cho tomorrow.
riversandoceans04: Why would you say that?
riversandoceans04: You don’t want to be my lab partner?
jujehpolo: Uh, okay, I don’t know what’s happening.
riversandoceans04: Me neither
riversandoceans04: Do you want to be my lab partner?
riversandoceans04: I’m sorry
I stared at my computer. This conversation was giving me a headache.
jujehpolo: Why are you sorry?
Another couple of seconds.
riversandoceans04: I don’t actually know anymore
I almost laughed. I didn’t understand what the hell had just happened. I didn’t understand his apologies or his confusion and I didn’t even think I wanted to know. What I wanted was to go back to not caring about Ocean James, the boy with two first names. I’d spoken to this kid for a total of maybe an hour and suddenly his presence was in my bedroom, in my personal space, stressing me out.
I didn’t like it. It made me feel weird.
So I tried to keep things simple.
jujehpolo: Why don’t we just do the homework?
Another ten seconds.
And we did.
But I felt something change between us, and I had no idea what it was.
The next morning, my brother, who had a zero period and always left for school an hour before I did, stopped by my room to borrow the Wu-Tang CD I’d stolen from him. I’d been putting on mascara when he started knocking on my door, and he was now demanding I give him back not only his CD but his iPod, too, and I was shouting back that his iPod was far more useful to me during the school day then it had ever been for him, and I was still making this argument when I opened the door and he suddenly froze. He looked me up and down and his eyes widened, just a little.
“What?” I said.
I let him inside. I gave him the CD he was looking for. He kept looking at me.
“What?” I said again, irritated.
“Nothing,” he said, and laughed. “You look nice.”
I raised an eyebrow. This was a trick.
I looked down at what I was wearing. My sweater wasn’t new. But I’d bought these jeans from the thrift store last week and had just finished altering them. They’d been a few sizes too big for me, but the quality of the denim was too good to pass up. Besides, they’d only cost me fifty cents. “Sort of,” I said. “The jeans are new.”
He nodded. “Well, they’re nice.”
“Yeah. Okay,” I said. “Why are you being weird?”
He shrugged. “I’m not being weird,” he said. “The jeans are nice. They’re just, uh, really tight. I’m not used to seeing you in pants like that.”
“Hey, listen, I don’t care. They look good on you.”
“No, I mean it. They look nice.” He was still smiling.
“Oh my God, what?”
“Nothing,” he said for the third time. “I just, you know, I don’t think Ma is going to like seeing your ass in those jeans.”
I rolled my eyes. “Well she doesn’t have to look at my ass if she doesn’t want to.”
Navid laughed. “It’s just—sometimes what you wear doesn’t really match, you know? It’s a little confusing.” He gestured, vaguely, at my head, even though I hadn’t put on my scarf yet. Still, I knew what he was trying to say. I knew he was trying not to be judgmental. But the conversation irritated me.
People—and often guys—liked to say that Muslim women wore headscarves because they were trying to be demure, or because they were trying to cover up their beauty, and I knew that there were ladies in the world who felt that way. I couldn’t speak for all Muslim women—no one could—but it was a sentiment with which I fundamentally disagreed. I didn’t believe it was possible to hide a woman’s beauty. I thought women were gorgeous no matter what they wore, and I didn’t think they owed anyone an explanation for their sartorial choices. Different women felt comfortable in different outfits.
They were all beautiful.
But it was only the monsters who forced women to wear human potato sacks all day that managed to make headline news, and these assholes had somehow set the tone for all of us. No one even asked me the question anymore; people just assumed they knew the answer, and they were nearly always wrong. I dressed the way I did not because I was trying to be a nun, but because it felt good—and because it made me feel less vulnerable in general, like I wore a kind of armor every day. It was a personal preference. I definitely didn’t do it because I was trying to be modest for the sake of some douchebag who couldn’t keep his dick in his pants. People struggled to believe this, because people struggled to believe women in general.