I was settling into a new routine in this town, and my anxieties about being friendless at school were beginning to fade. I was no longer a shock to the system; instead, I’d become a regular fixture at school, one that most of my classmates could now comfortably ignore. People still enjoyed referring to me as the Taliban as I walked by, and every once in a while I’d find an anonymous note in my locker telling me to fuck off back to where I came from, and occasionally someone would take the time to point out that towelheads like me didn’t deserve to live in their country—but I tried not to let it bother me. I tried to get used to it. I’d heard somewhere that people could get used to anything.
Luckily, breakdancing kept me busy in the best possible way.
I loved everything about it: the music, the moves, even the history. Breakdancing started back in the 1970s in the South Bronx, New York, and slowly, over time, made its way across the country to Los Angeles. It was an iteration, a simultaneous arm and evolution of hip-hop, and, coolest of all—it was originally used as an alternative to physical violence. In their fights over territories, gangs would have breakdancing battles to determine ownership—and that’s why the term battle still exists today. Breaking crews don’t compete; they battle. Each crew member delivers a performance.
Best b-boy—or b-girl—wins.
I threw myself into the work, hitting the gym nearly every day. When we didn’t have access to the school’s dance studio we’d break down oversize cardboard boxes in abandoned streets and parking lots, set up a boom box, and practice. Navid would drag me out of bed way too early on weekend mornings to do ten-mile runs with him. We started training together, regularly. Breakdancing involved extremely taxing physical work, but it was work that filled me with joy and purpose. In fact, I was so focused on this new life outside of school—and so tired after practice every day—that I hardly had time to be angry about all the assholes littered everywhere.
The educational aspect of school was pretty boring.
I’d figured out a long time ago how to get As without trying; my secret to success was that I genuinely didn’t care. I felt no pressure to perform, so I usually did fine. I’d stopped caring about school a few years ago, right around the time I was old enough to realize that caring about a school—its teachers, its students, its walls and doors and many hallways—nearly always ended in heartbreak. So I just stopped. I stopped remembering things. People. Faces. In time, the institutions and their many names all blurred together. Mrs. Someone was my first grade teacher. Mr. Whatsisname taught third grade. Who knew.
I was required by law and the wooden spoon my mom liked to whoop my ass with to show up every day, so I did. I showed up, I did the work, I dealt with the dependable, unrelenting microaggressions from the masses that influenced the emotional weather patterns of my day. I didn’t stress about getting into a good college because I already knew I couldn’t afford to go to a good college. I didn’t stress about AP classes because I didn’t think of them as any different from regular classes. I didn’t stress about the SATs because who gave a shit about the SATs. Not me.
I don’t know, I guess I always thought I’d turn out okay, no matter how badly my many schools tried to mutilate me. And I held on to that feeling every day. Two and a half more years, I thought. Just two and a half more years until I could get the hell away from this existence organized by school bells that, let’s be honest, didn’t even ring.
This was what I was thinking as I peeled another layer of soggy cat flesh away from soggy cat muscle. I was thinking about how much I hated this. How I was already anxious to get into the gym again. I was getting better at holding the crab pose now—I’d almost managed to hold my body weight up on my elbows yesterday—and I wanted to see if I’d make more progress this afternoon. I was headed to my first live breakdancing battle this weekend, and I wanted to feel like I knew something when I got there.
I finished my shift with the cat and peeled off my gloves, tossing them into the trash before washing my hands—for good measure—in our lab station’s sink. So far, our discoveries had been underwhelming, which was how I liked them. One of the groups in our class discovered that the cat they’d been dissecting had died pregnant; they’d found a litter of unborn kittens in her uterus.
This was a seriously messed-up school assignment.
“Your turn,” I said, glancing at Ocean, whose attitude toward me had changed, rather dramatically, in the last week.
He’d stopped talking to me in class.
He no longer asked me generic questions about my evenings or my weekends. In fact, he’d said no more than a couple of words to me in the last few days, not since that afternoon I saw him in the dance studio. I often caught him looking at me, but then, people were always looking at me. Ocean at least had the decency to pretend he wasn’t looking at me, and he never said anything about it, for which I was secretly grateful. I much preferred silent stares to the loud assholes who told me, unprompted, exactly what they thought of me.
But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little confused.
I thought I’d had Ocean pretty figured out, but suddenly I wasn’t so sure. Aside from the unusual name, he seemed to me like an extremely ordinary boy raised by extremely ordinary parents. The kind of parents who bought canned soup, lied to their kids about Santa Claus, believed everything they read in their history books and didn’t really talk about their feelings.
My parents were the exact opposite.
I was fascinated by canned food simply because that miracle of Western invention was never allowed in my house. My parents made everything from scratch, no matter how basic; we never celebrated Christmas, except that sometimes my mom and dad took pity on us—I received a box of envelopes one year—and my parents had taught us about the atrocities of war and colonialism since before I could read. They also had no problem sharing their feelings with me. They relished it. My parents loved telling me what they felt was wrong with me—it was what they called my unfortunate attitude—all the time.
Anyway, I couldn’t really get a bead on Ocean anymore, and it bothered me that it even bothered me. His silence was what I thought I wanted; it was, in fact, exactly what I’d been working toward. But now that he really had ignored me, I couldn’t help but wonder why.
Even so, I thought his silence was for the best.
Today, though, was a little different. Today, after a twenty-minute stretch of perfect quiet, he spoke.
“Hey,” he said, “what happened to your hand?”
I’d been trying to tear open a seam in a leather jacket last night and I’d tugged a little too hard; the seam ripper slipped and sliced open the back of my left hand. I had a pretty intense bandage taped over the space between my finger and thumb. I met Ocean’s eyes. “Sewing accident,” I said.
His eyebrows pulled together. “Sewing accident? What’s a sewing accident?”
“Sewing,” I said. “Like, sewing clothes? I make a lot of my own clothes,” I said, when he didn’t seem to understand. “Or, I mean, often I’ll just buy vintage and do the alterations myself.” I lifted my hand as proof. “Either way, I’m not great at it.”
“You make your own clothes?” His eyes had widened, just a little.
“Sometimes,” I said.
I laughed. It was a reasonable question. “Well, uh, because the clothes I really want are out of my price range.”
Ocean only stared at me.
“Do you know anything about fashion?” I asked him.
He shook his head.
“Oh,” I said, and tried to smile. “Yeah. I guess it’s not for everyone.”
But I loved it.
Alexander McQueen’s fall line had just hit stores and, after a lot of begging, I’d convinced my mom to drive me to one of the fancy malls around here just so I could see the pieces in person. I didn’t even touch them. I just stood near them, staring.
I thought Alexander McQueen was a genius.
“So—did you do that to your shoes?” Ocean said suddenly. “Like, on purpose?”
I glanced down.