Sometimes I go through those stupid phases. You know, the ones where you think that everything means something? It's nice to think that everything is deliberate, to feel like there's a God out there who is penning our futures with literary analysis in mind. When I was younger, my mother told me that God's first creation was the pen, which he used to complete the rest of creation.
It was a sweet sentiment, when I was, like, five.
But consider, for example, Adam and Eve. The names instantly call images to mind, layers of definition. Eve's name means "living", or "life" which is pretty cool, when you think about it. I mean, if you believe that shit, she would be the first woman, the womb from which life springs forth or whatever, right?
Perhaps you'd like to know the definition of her spouse's name?
Adam means "dirt".
Fuck if I can make sense of that.
If there was a plan for my life, maybe things would be easier. Not everything happens for a reason; let me tell you that right now. Sometimes, crazy people do shit and people suffer and it's not for any greater cause and there is no such thing as divine justice. If there's any universal plan, it's an unplan. The Unplan of Suffering.
That sounds more melodramatic than I actually feel.
I know that my life does not have a plan. Maybe the other students have plans and goals, but they are in the cafeteria, socializing and eating and doing normal things.
I am hiding in a corner of the library, staring at Victorian literature that has been relegated here because no one bothers to read Dickens anymore. Not even I bother to read that shit. He wrote serially; no one who writes serially needs to be taken seriously, as I like to say. At least pick up a decent author, like Hemingway or Plath- something modern.
I don't read much, to be honest, but the library is generally the place to go when I want to hide and maybe work on my sketching skills. I much prefer the library to the hustle of the cafeteria. People are so hungry these days; they have no control.
And besides, if I ever get bored of sketching, at least I'll always have the option of picking up a book.
"What are you doing?" a familiar voice asks. I look up to see the leathery, wrinkled face of my librarian, and look back down at my notebook in shame. I don't like it when she notices me here; It makes me feel inadequate. She probably thinks that I come here because I have no where else to go, and that's not true. Like I said, I just like the corner with the boring old books.
"I'm drawing," I say. I stand up, knowing that I've been caught and that she's going to send me back to the cafeteria.
She takes my notebook from me and looks at it, her eyes raking over the page for a long, tense moment.
"It's a tree," she says.
"Observant and beautiful." This does not make her smile, so I try again. "Yes, it's a Tree."
"Why is there an airplane crashing into it?"
I flinch. There are a lot of things in the picture, and I wish she wouldn't focus on the plane. It's so typical of her. What about the apple? She didn't think to notice that, did she?
She stares at me and I know what she's thinking. She thinks that I'm troubled.
But what the fuck does she know, anyway?
My parents have a rule that you have to finish the food on your plate before you can leave the dinner table. Wasting food has always been something of a sin in our family, though I don't know why people bother eating past their limit when there's an obesity epidemic on the rise.
My mom promised that today's meal was "stick to your ribs" good, but somehow that made it even less appealing, because all I can imagine when I hear those words is a bloated body, pushing against the ribcage.
There's this woman who shows up on TV sometimes and talks about how she gave up a rib or two so that her waist could be smaller in her corset. I can never forget the look of her, the dramatically defined waist-line.
All it takes is a rib.
Everyone has left the table save for me. When my brother finishes washing his dinner plate, I run to the kitchen and shove my food into the trash can, hiding it with a few carefully placed paper towels.
It's not that I don't like to eat or anything, but my mom's cooking makes me sick. If I never have to eat rice again, it'll be too soon. I'm still just a bit hungry, but I love that feeling.
I hang around for a few minutes and wash down what little I ate with a glass of water, before following my family into the den. My dad is reading the paper and my mom and brothers are watching the news. I slide onto the couch next to my mom.
"Anything new, Ummi?" I ask her.
Here's the thing about the news: nothing ever happens on it, unless there's been a national disaster. My dad has probably learned more by skimming through the paper than my mom will by listening to hours of TV.
As I expected, she can't really answer the question. "Just, you know, the war," she mumbles, her eyes glued to the screen. Violent images flash across the screen. The bombs look more like fireworks, to be honest, as though they were made with TV broadcasting in mind. I recall burning magnesium in Chemistry class, the blinding light of it all.
I try to change the channel, but she objects. "No, habibti," she says. "This is important."
Maybe she thinks that if she watches the screen for long enough, the war will disappear or something. Maybe she thinks that President Bush will miraculously find Osama, and somehow the terrorists will all disintegrate.
Now they're interviewing some woman who says that moderate Muslims should stop the extremists from committing acts of terrorism. This thought makes me giggle; I picture peaceful American Muslims strapping on jet packs to fly to the mountains of Afghanistan.
It makes no fucking sense.
It's like holding white males responsible for serial killers or something. Responsibility by association.
My mom shakes her head, annoyed. "Do they really think that sin is inherited?" she asks. I don't answer her; after all, she's the one that wanted to watch the fucking news. The pictures soon go back to the Technicolor war, however, and we zone back into mindlessness.
It's funny that this can be so unreal. Apparently we're at war, but you wouldn't really know it, would you? I mean, there isn't a draft and there certainly aren't bombs blowing up everywhere... At least, not on home turf. Call me self absorbed, or call me The American Teenager, but it's the truth. I just want to watch some TV and forget about it.
At least, that's what I tell myself.
My counselor has a really wide set jaw. I wonder if that's what makes her voice sound a little hollow. She sounds like what you would sound like if you stuck a spoon in your mouth, held it convex to your cheek, and tried to talk. This thought distracts me enough that I don't hear most of what she's saying.
Luckily for me, she's got an attitude problem and snaps her fingers right in my face.
"I'm listening," I lie.
She rolls her eyes and then resumes talking in that weird voice of hers. "Do you bring a lunch to school?" she asks.
I shake my head. "I buy school lunches."
She smiles and her lips stretch across her teeth. She always makes this face right before she is going to scold someone, and I shrink back a little. "Your school credit shows that you haven't bought a single lunch since mid September. What are you doing?"
I shrug. I hadn't realized that they paid such close attention to their students. I mean, what is one kid out of a thousand? Maybe she thinks she can rehabilitate me.
I can't be rehabilitated. I can't.
She smacks her lips, as though she's been wanting to catch someone for skipping meals for quite a while. "You don't need to be slim to be beautiful, Leila," she assures me.
I try to stop it, but I can't help myself: I laugh. She thinks this is about beauty?
"I don't care about being beautiful," I insist, but she doesn't believe me.
She thinks I'm one of those crazy anorexic girls or something, and she makes me stand on a scale and takes down my weight before making me call my mother. I have to fill out forms and listen to stupid lectures from everyone about how beauty is from the inside, not the outside. Mother speaks to me in useless platitudes, like "beauty is truth", and I just nod and pretend to swallow it all without a filter.
I don't want beauty on the inside or the outside, but I can't exactly tell them that, now can I?
From this point on, I am monitored closely, and it becomes more and more difficult to try to fake eating. I get very good at making up lies, like, "I ate before I came". Being hungry is the only time I feel any power over myself.
In a way, though, I'm relieved that my counselor thought it was about beauty. It is so much easier to say that I want to be thin than to acknowledge the truth; I want to disappear completely.
English class is my first period, and I hate it. I always feel really fucking normal till I walk in to class in the morning and find twenty some pairs of eyes staring at me. The only person who isn't staring at me is now working her way through a large bagel, and it makes my stomach churn, because the strawberry cream cheese is spread thicker than could possibly be healthful.
I wonder if it sticks to her ribs.
The other girls act like I'm a ticking time bomb, deftly avoiding any talk of politics or religion when I'm around, as if that's supposed to make me feel better. It only serves to make me feel worse; a kind of Untouchable.
The boys are a different story. They tease me as much as possible. Today, it is Vinny who decides to try his hand at pushing my buttons. "I heard a good joke today, Leila," he says.
I ignore him. I ignore everyone looking at me and keep working on my drawing of the Tree. I am working on a demonic figure, snaking around the roots and dirt, and I pretend that it has my full attention.
Mentally, I make up excuses for their staring. Maybe I did my makeup wrong. Maybe I have food stuck in my teeth. Maybe there's something on my face.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
I look up at him. Sometimes I wonder how he would react if I told him that Vincent means "to prevail" or that Leila means "night". I wonder if he would realize our commonality; our shared pains and joys, translated into our differing tongues. Would there be peace if Latin could understand Arabic, or if we could speak in pictures? Would we forgive and understand?
Because underneath, you know, we're really all the same. It's such a fucking joke, because we spend our whole lives writing about our differences, but under the words and the walls, we're just beings of water, blood, and sentience.
"Leila, I'm speaking to you."
I flinch, snapping out of my thoughts. "Yes, Vinny?"
"Don't you want to hear my joke?" he asks. I am silent, and he takes it as a yes. "Well, Leila, since you asked so nicely, I'll tell you. See, in the year 2030, there's this guy who takes his son to a memorial of the World Trade Center buildings in New York. The little boy asks his father what happened there, and his dad explains to his son about how the Muslims killed a lot of people there."
There is a heavy pause as he clears his throat.
"You know what the little boy says then? He says, 'Daddy, what's a Muslim?'. Do you get it, Leila? In the future, people won't even remember what the word "Muslim" means. We'll wipe your people off the planet."
I stare somewhere over his head, not daring to look into his eyes. He's been trying to piss me off all quarter long, and it's been working.
"It wasn't very funny," I say. "Maybe you should work on your delivery."
Grabbing my notebook and a pencil, I rush to the front of the class and make the teacher sign me a bathroom pass, before hurrying out of the room.
I don't slow down till I am safely in a stall with the door locked. I become a bit nauseous, and for a few disgusting moments, I am dry heaving, trying to turn my stomach inside out. I take a deep breath of air through my nostrils and then let it out of my mouth, remembering a relaxation technique my mother taught me once. Even though I repeat it several times over, it doesn't really help.
I unlock the stall door and walk towards the sinks, where the mirrors are and examine my reflection. My makeup is perfect. There is no food in my teeth. There is nothing on my face. I knew all this before I looked in the mirror, but it hurts nonetheless. It pisses me off, because I shouldn't make up excuses for their staring. I know why they stare; it's because I look different, because I'm not white.
I always hope that I'll wake up one day and be the same as everyone else, you know?
Still in front of the mirror, I pull up my shirt around my midriff. The cool air gives me goosebumps across the expanse of exposed flesh, but I ignore it, looking instead to my ribs. The bones protrude against my skin and I count them; they are well defined.
I am sitting in the library once more, staring at the Victorian tomes. I wish they would wake up and devour me, but they simply stare back. No wonder no one bothers to crack them open, you know? I turn my attention back towards my drawing. I'm adding in a flying elephant at the right hand corner of the page. I feel like it adds some character and gives it more of a circus like feel.
Someone clears their throat, and I look up, expecting to see the school librarian scowling at me. However, it is my mother, and this surprises me. Her curly black hair is falling out of her usually neat bun, and she is dressed in her work clothes. I realize that she must have come here for her lunch break.
"Ummi?" I ask. High school has obviously helped me grow into an articulate young adult.
She quirks her eyebrow at me. "Well, who else were you expecting?" she asks and then sits down on the floor next to me to glance around. "Nice place, Leila. Full of knowledge." She has always loved libraries. She's also probably the only person in the world who still reads Dickens.
I nod, but don't know what to say. What is she doing here?
"Your librarian called me," she says, answering my unasked question. "Apparently this is the second time this week that you've skipped lunch to hang out at the library. I thought we decided you would start eating, habibti."
I ignore her endearment and look away. I don't want to explain myself to anyone, least of all her.
"What's bothering you?" she asks.
I shrug. "I'm not crazy, or troubled, or anything like that. I'm not. And it's not about being beautiful." I don't want to tell her what it is, because if she knows the truth, it might offend her. And besides, I won't be rehabilitated. I want to disappear, that's all.
She smiles, but isn't convinced, and grabs my notebook from me to stare at the picture I have drawn. She wipes off eraser dust with her long fingers and then traces the lines with her nails. "The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?" she asks. "How Christian of you."
I smirk. She's right that the story was never a part of my upbringing; Muslims don't believe in original sin, so the importance of the Tree is downplayed.
I was reading The Divine Comedy for English class, but I don't bother defending the religious nature of the piece. Instead, I tell her about what it means to me. "In the story, Adam and Eve have this moment, this enlightenment, you know?"
She nods; she was an English major, so of course she knows. They probably have to study "moments" like that all the time. Hers is the world of words.
"What I'm saying is that we all have these defining moments in our lives, for better or for worse."
The rest of my explanation is unspoken, but she knows what I am trying to say. "Do you feel defined by what happened in September, what those men did?" she asks. "I know it's bothered you."
She does not have to clarify what she means, her pointer finger resting on the inked airplane.
I look down into my lap. "I don't know. I feel so different from all the other kids at school."
It makes me feel like shit to tell my own mother that I'm ashamed of my heritage. It's like telling her that she made a mistake in giving birth to me, or something, you know? She takes no insult to the statement, however. She ruffles my hair and stands up, smoothing out the wrinkles in her suit.
"This is a turning point in your life, habibti, but you choose how people define you. Don't be ashamed of who you are," she says, before reaching into her pocket to toss me a small apple.
I am standing in front of my art class, trying my hardest to feel like I'm one of them. "...So yeah, that's my picture," I say, pointing to what was once a sketch and is now a fully inked work of "art", propped up on a table. I've just finished explaining my techniques and my tools, and am now awaiting judgment.
The teacher comments on my use of cross hatching and other ink affects, and points out the dark curls on the serpent. When he's done, he tells the class to ask questions.
It is Vinny, of course, who has to have his say. "Why is there an airplane crashing into the tree?" he asks. If his tone were different, I would answer him honestly, but he has left little room for good faith. There are a few stifled laughs throughout the room, though many of the girls look pained, as though they would much rather escape than be in the same room as me and Vinny.
I blush and look down, before looking up again to meet his eyes. The art teacher sees the tension and puts his hand on my shoulder. "You're free to go, Leila. That's enough."
He wants me to just sit down? Fuck that. I ignore my teacher and smile, never breaking our eye contact. I wait till I know my voice is strong enough to say my next words without a tremor.
"You know what, Vinny? I'm human, just like you." It feels good to finally say the words I've been thinking for so long, to see my ideas finally realized in a solid, audible form.
I'm human. I'm human. I'm human.
These are my words. I don't need to hide. I can't- I won't disappear.
He is shocked by the eye contact, as though he has never considered it before. The feeling is electric; a jolt through both of us. It's kind of like that feeling you get when you meet a gorilla in a zoo and realize you had a common ancestor, you know? It's as though I've finally conveyed something greater than the words I've spoken.
"I'm s-sorry," he says. I think he recognizes me as a fellow human being, and it frightens him. Or maybe he doesn't know what else to say, called out in front of a jury of his peers.
This is just the human condition. Our bodies are protective shells for our fragile insides, our humanity, and we spend so long looking at each other's shells that we forget that people are, well, people. I give Vinny my brightest smile, but it ends up looking something like a snarl. He is even more frightened of me than before, and for just one moment, I feel power.
I know that Vinny will never be rehabilitated. Already, I can see the familiar snide grin sliding back onto his face. This moment will be one he ignores and then later forgets. It is too much for him, for more than one instant, to think that I am on the same plane as himself, after all. He will continue being a bully throughout high school, and he will bully his wife and later his children, until the day he dies.
But I don't despair, and this is why: I realize that maybe, just maybe, I can rehabilitate myself.
Author Note: "Ummi" means "mother" and "habibti" means "darling" in Arabic, if you were wondering.