An invite to Melissa’s pool party sat in Ayana’s inbox.
She was lucky enough for her parents to be modernized enough to allow her to go to such a thing, I mean, some hijabi girls could only dream of going to a pool party. It wasn’t her parents who made her wear the hijab. Sure, they cared about other things. They cared about her going to medical school and getting all A's, and finding a good Indian husband, but wrapping her frizzy, black hair in the scarf wasn’t necessarily part of the deal.
Ayana had heard too many stories about girls who had gotten hurt. She’d watched too many movies where Muslim girls whipped off the hijab and went to parties and kissed boys- Ayana was happy enough to follow the rules. She knew she wasn’t a pretty girl, and it wasn’t like there were boys lining up to stick their tongues down her throat anyway. The hijab made her feel like she was a decent girl, and it hid her curly mane which she certainly didn’t want to deal with.
So, she’d resign herself to the fate of sitting along the sidelines of the pool in an oversized tunic sewed by her grandmother, trying not to ostracize herself further than she already was.
48 hours later, Ayana sits silently on the sidelines.
“Would you like an Arizona?” Melissa hands her an iced tea gingerly, eyeing Ayana’s bright pink headscarf, seemingly afraid to touch her. Ayana takes it, and sips discreetly.
“Thanks,” Ayana says politely. She’s used to the weird glances, and she’s certainly used to the “no touch” thing. Nevertheless, she rolls her eyes when Melissa turns her back.
“CANNONBALL!” A skinny white boy crashes into the uncanny blue water. His swim shorts are printed with the words ‘San Fran CA’ and his ribs protrude from his stomach in a gross way. He splashes Ayana as he falls into the pool, coming up a few seconds later to shake the water from his hair.
“Um. ‘Scuse me,” Ayana says, getting the boy’s attention, while he’s in the process of checking out a girl in her bikini across the pool.
“Oh, sorry Mussi.” His attention snaps to Ayana.
“I’m sorry?” Ayana raises her eyebrows.
“Mussi. Because, you know, you’re Muslim. Get it?”
“You think you’re funny, don’t you?”
“I guess you could say that. I’m Ezra. I’m new from Cali, my home town.” He points to the words on his swim shorts and pulls his hand out of the water and leans out of the pool to shake her hand.
“Wait. can I touch--?” He asks, coy.
“Yes, it’s okay,” Ayana says anticipating Ezra’s question,, grabbing his pruny, moist hand in a squish.
Nice handshake. Very firm. And good fingernails too. Not dirty.
After a few more minutes, Ayana was ready to go. She stood up, glancing around for someone she might want to say goodbye to; but there was no one.
The next day, Ayana woke up a little anxious, as she always was on the first day of school. Her first period was Science, after homeroom.
“Alright guys!” Ayana’s science teacher tried to get the classes attention. “8th grade Science! I hope everyone had an awesome summer, but it’s time to get down to business. Who’s ready?”
No one cheered.
“Whoo hoo! I’m excited!” Ezra blurted out sarcastically.
“Excuse me,” the teacher interrupted. “I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but that’s not going to fly in my class, thank you very much.”
“I’m Ezra Daniels. From San Fran, Cali. And am I ready for 8th grade Science!”
“Glad to hear it, Ezra. I’m going to let you all choose your seats for the beginning of the year, but if you guys chat, I do have the power to change them, ok?”
Ayana got up to move to a window seat. No one ever made an effort to sit next to her, unless they were directed to by a teacher. She was happy enough to be left alone by the window, with her thoughts, with her imagination. She was one among the trees. Sometimes she imagined she was a little girl in India, maybe a girl who’d never been inside of a school before. It was her first day in American school. She was like the little Rock Nine, but it was only her.
“Hi Mussi.” Ayana was shook from her daydream, as Ezra lightly brushed her shoulder with his hand. She shivered slightly. It was just cold in the classroom.
“Hello Ezra, from San Fran Cali.”
“My homegirl! You already know me.” He put out his hand for a fist bump. Ayana looked back out the window, ignoring the fist, a wave of heat suddenly surging through her body.
“I’m offended. Yesterday you touched me, so I know this isn’t a Muslim thing. This is just a bitch thing.” He smirked.
“I’m just confused. Why do you want to sit here?” She felt the surge fly past her bellybutton, to a place she where she’d been told to never feel anything- not even a twinge.
“I play soccer. I want to be the next Leo Messi, you know who he is? But my mom says I need to get at least a ‘B’ in this class. You seem smart. You know, because you’re Indian. Ha! I’m kidding, kidding. You just seem nice.” He lowered his voice to a playfully deep tone. “I want your curry, Ayana.”
Who does this kid think he is? Ayana forced herself to think, blushing just a little.
“First of all, it’s called kahri .”
“Ah! Forgive me. See, I knew I was missing something. You know, you learn something new every day.” He clicked his tongue, grinning.
Ayana knew this kid was about as cheesy as Tostitos dip, and ignorant too- but she couldn’t help but smile. His laughter and self assurance was contagious.
Ayana’s father was driving her home from school, along with her two brothers, Amadou and Mohammed, a few afternoons later that week.
“Stop talking so loud, you little f***ers!” The car swerved precariously.
“Apa, careful of the little ones, please.” Ayana whispered.
“What did you just say, kanjeri kay bachay*?”
“Please be careful of Amadou and Muhamed, you’re not straight right now.” Ayana said again, under her breath, teeth gritted.
“You realize, no one will ever love you, kanjeri kay bachay? No husband would settle for a dog like you, Aya!” The car jerked more aggressively. Ayana’s seatbelt suffocated her around her stomach. Ayana felt a cold, trembling sensation of fear creep into her throat.
“Pull over, Apa. You’re not well.”
“Maybe I should send you back to India, miye ki khala? Can you not keep your mouth shut? What do they call it here? W****? That’s what you are, Aya.” He took a swig of brandy, in the cup holder of the car, disguised in a steel water bottle which looked like nothing more than a lassi.
Ayana could sense the onlooking gaze of someone, as she could feel a burning sensation in her right cheek. She glanced over her shoulder, out the window of the passenger seat.
There, she saw Ezra. Walking jauntily from his bus stop, he had stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to watch. His eyes met Ayana’s, and he quickly turned away and kept walking. As quickly as her father’s car had jolted, Ayana felt the same twinge below her belly.
“Sooo…” Melissa turned to Ezra at lunchtime. “Two weeks in and who do you like? Is there any girl who’s- tickling your fancy?”
In a secret part of her conscience, Ayana’s fingers were crossed.
“Hmm… no, not yet.” Ezra said, blushing.
“Are you sure? Wait- did you have a girlfriend in California?”
“Yeah, I did. Her name was Samantha. We had to break up because, I mean, I moved away.”
“What did she look like? Oh my god, this is so exciting.”
“She had long blonde hair, and she spent a long time on the beach, so she always had this glossy tan…”
Ayana glanced away from the conversation. Her mouth felt a bit dry all of a sudden.
“Yeah, heh, she was.”
“What’s your type? Are you a butt guy or a boobs guy?”
“Definitely a butt guy. I could care less about what’s up top.”
Ayana’s cheeks grew warm with discomfort.
“That’s good news for Ayana.” Melissa giggled.
“What?” Ayana asked, abruptly involved.
“Well, she doesn’t have any, you know, boobage.” Melissa gestured around her chest area, laughing. “I saw that you sat next to her on the first day. But it’s not like you “like” Ayana, right, Ezra? You just want a good grade so that your mom will let you be the wonderful soccer star that you are.” Ezra flashed a toothy grin.
“I saw them laughing in Science class, though.” Jessi chimed in, winking.
“Ew, guys. What are you talking about?” Ezra glanced from Jessie to Ayana, and rolled his eyes. “Ayana? No thank you.”
Ayana stood up, head down, to take her garbage to the trash can. Suddenly, she put the garbage down, and raised her head, impassioned.
“You know what Ezra? I thought you were pretty decent, you know? You were funny, and to be honest, you are one of the only people that have treated me like I wasn’t an other… but I guess I was wrong.” She stopped mid rant, to gasp for breath.
Ezra was staring, pupils dilated, with a genuine smile pasted on his face. He looked… awed.
Ayana stopped mid breath to stare back. His flirty smirk had been replaced with the widest, most unbreakable grin she’d seen.
“Yeah, um. You were totally objectifying women just then, you know? You’re misogynist, you’re a player! That’s what you are, you’re a player!” She whipped her head a little too fast, and the tail to her hijab became unraveled. Embarrassed, she paused to fix it.
Ezra giggled. A childlike, innocent, honest to goodness giggle. No bells, no whistles- just in pure enjoyment of Ayana. The expression of awe was still there. Full attention. Just staring.
The expression suddenly broke.
“Ayana.” Ezra said.
The words echoed in Ayana’s ear. She shivered again. The shiver reached below her bellybutton.
The girls at the table now distracted, Ezra pulled himself close to Ayana.
He smelled like boy, like salty sea water and freshly cut grass. She winced at the thought that she probably smelled like last night’s kahri. Ezra lowered his voice.
“Maybe you would be more open minded towards boys if you felt more loved by your dad.” He said, half coy and half serious, meeting her eyes.
This wasn’t his place. How dare he get in my face like this. Right? Just a dumb, superficial boy. Just a dumb, superficial boy. He doesn’t like you. You’re homely, you have bad skin, you have dark frizzy hair which nobody sees. He likes blonde haired girls with glossy tans in California, not you. And even if he did, you could never like him back- don’t be miye ki khala, Ayana.
“No.” Ayana felt a tear prick her eye. “You’re wrong. You didn’t deserve to see that today.” She stood up, and left the table in a flash, not even taking her garbage. But after she left, Ezra’s words stuck in her head like peanut butter. They stung. They were true.
Ayana didn’t see Ezra for the rest of the week. It wasn’t until Monday’s humanities class, that they met each other's eyes once again from across the room. Ayana’s eyes darted quickly, avoiding contact.
“Given our semester study on health education, I wanted to have a conversation today,” Ms. G said, warming up the class for a discussion. “So here’s the question I’m going to pose. Addiction- is it an issue of moral failure, or is it a disease? I’d like you all to state your personal opinion, and we can debate on it a little after that.”
Melissa Gardner raised her hand.
“Well, it’s the alcoholic’s fault for picking up the drink, you know? They’re the one who chooses to go out and buy the bottle of whisky, so it’s inevitably going to be their fault.”
Ayana could feel her cheeks growing warm, but she kept her head down.
“I agree with Melissa,” Jacob said. “Addicts are bad. They ruin their own lives by doing drugs, or drinking. A disease is something that you can’t control, like cancer. But you can control whether you drink or do drugs.” The class nodded in agreement.
“Is there anyone who’d like to counter Jacob or Melissa?” Ms. G prompted.
Usually Ayana didn’t speak up in class. Usually Ayana kept her head down. Usually Ayana was afraid she’d stammer, or say something dumb. But an inhuman force had taken ahold of her somehow. She raised her hand, limply, but it was up in the air.
“I disagree with Melissa, actually. I think that alcoholism is a mental imbalance, and therefore a disease. The mental imbalance is something that an addict can’t control...and in that way, it’s similar to any other disease you’d name. When people are mentally ill, we don’t blame them for choosing to be. No one would willingly choose to be an addict.”
Ayana looked up, nervous. Ezra’s sparkling blue-green eyes were wide, looking right at her. The same expression of awe had overwhelmed his face.
Ayana’s large, brown eyes, like pools of dark chocolate suddenly looked up at Ezra. She paused for a moment, this time holding the eye contact, wondering if he remembered what he saw the other day with her dad.
It was only for a second. Ayana blinked rapidly, deterring the eye contact.
“That’s crazy!” Melissa called out. The class murmured. A couple of kids laughed.
“If you disagree, feel free to raise your hand and counter Ayana,” said Ms. G.
Ezra remembered how his skin prickled as he leaned in to Ayana a few days ago at lunch. She had smelled like a warm fireplace, like the spices that sat in his grandmother’s cabinet. Ezra raised his hand.
Ayana’s heart leapt.
“I actually want to agree with Ayana,” Ezra spoke much more confidently. He looked at Melissa scornfully. “She’s very smart, and she has a point.”
Ayana grew embarrassed. “The research on addiction has come a long way in the last twenty years, and we know a lot more about neurochemistry than we did before. I read an article which examined it, and supports addiction being similar to other diseases.”
Ayana allowed herself a little smile.
“Thank you, Ezra. You both have a very valid point.” Ms. G commented, continuing to lead the class.
I didn’t know he could spout that out. Maybe he’s smarter than I thought.
Melissa brushed past Ayana at the end of class.
“I was impressed with what Ezra said. Sorry for being so quick to disagree with you.” Melissa flipped her orange-highlighted blonde hair, and made a beeline for the door of the classroom.
Ayana looked around the classroom to look for Ezra, but he was nowhere to be found. She had wanted to thank him, but he had taken off.
“Thank you,” she whispered under her breath anyway.
That afternoon, Ayana walked down the main avenue on her way home from school. Instead of taking her usual route, she went down a side street which she usually didn’t take. She wanted to mix it up, she told herself.
Part of her was hoping she’d run into Ezra.
Midway down the street, she stopped. There was a tiny pink bird, dead, in the middle of the sidewalk. It looked like it had been dead for a while, and people had been walking over it. Now it’s carcass was exposed, just lying.
Ayana bent down to get a closer look. She grabbed a fuzzy green leaf from a nearby bush, and tried to move the bird over to the side of the street. Her mom had taught her not to touch dead birds, so she wrapped her fingers in the leaf to pick it up.
In a bed of dirt, Ayana dug a little hole for the bird. She heard footsteps come up from behind her.
“Ayana!” Ezra called. It was the first time since the pool party that she’d gotten a good look at him.
He knew how to dress himself. He had a white bomber jacket, like one of those old fashioned baseball looking ones. He wore grey skinny jeans, and cool sneakers. Every day, he had a different pair of sneakers.
“What are you doing?” Ezra asked incredulously, leaning down to look at the bird.
“Making it a grave,” Ayana said.
“You’re too cu-” Ezra started to say. “I mean, that’s really nice.”
“Thanks,” she responded. “Wanna help?”
“Sure.” Together, the both of them gathered dirt, and piled it gently on top of the tiny bird. They patted it down, making sure that the bird was lying flat underneath.
Ayana’s cracked, brown fingertips brushed Ezra’s clammy, thin hand.
They both looked up at the other, before quickly looking back down.
“We should name it,” Ayana suggested once they were finished.
“How about- Ezana?” Ezra said, giggling. “Like Ezra and Ayana.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!”
“Then what do you think is better?”
“Let’s call it Mussi.”
Ezra wrote Mussi in capital letters in the dirt, with his clammy, thin hand.
Ayana suddenly felt uncomfortable. She was with a boy, outside of school. She was touching a boy, she wasn’t pretty enough to be touching a boy. She was touching a boy she didn’t like, right? She didn’t like him… right?
“Listen, I’ve got to go.” Ayana got up abruptly, and started to walk off towards the direction of her house.
“Wait!” Ezra called. “Ayana!” He dashed after her, but she was fast. He finally caught up to the pink kameez flying in the wind.
“I just wanted to say… I’m sorry for what I said at lunchtime. You know, I think you're a really nice girl, but I'm not used to nice girls… and you can the bus with me any time. If you don’t want to ride with your dad, I mean.” He handed her a small strip of paper. “Here’s my number, like, if you want to know where the bus stop is, I mean.” His pale cheeks flushed.
“Thank you, Ezra.” Ayana said, grabbing the slip of paper from his sweaty palm. “But I wanted to tell you. The thing you said about my Apa the other day? About having a bad attitude towards boys? I think you might've been right.”
“Thank you, Ayana.” He said, as she stuffed his number in the nala waistband of her churidar.
Suddenly overwhelmed with a mysterious feeling of joy, Ayana skipped home.
Ayana rode the Q train home that night, to her two-bedroom apartment in Kensington. On the way home, she picked up a package of paneer for her mom to cook with that night. Still skipping, Ayana turned her key in the door to their apartment.
A rich, steamy waft filled with spices hit her.
Amadou and Mohammed had changed from their school clothes, and now were lolling around on the ground in their plain white kortas.
“Aya!” Amadou shrieked, wrapping his arms around Ayana’s waist in a squish.
“You got the paneer, Aya?” Her mother asked, outstretching her hardworking hand. Ayana gave it to her.
“Frozen? Aya, I wanted fresh.” Ama shook her head disapprovingly.
“I’m sorry, Ama.” Ayana said as apologetically as she could muster.
“Ja, Aya.” Her father chimed in. “You think that a husband would want his wife to get the wrong paneer? It’s your only job, I’m surprised you can’t handle it, miye ki khala.”
Ayana’s mother bowed her head guiltily, but she didn’t say a word.
“It’s not like boys are crowding around you anyway, Aya.” Ayana’s father continued, half performing for his sons, and half muttering to himself. “Ha! I can’t imagine a boy laying his eyes on your face, your dirty face.”
Ayana’s eyes darted to her mother. Her mother loved her, she knew, but she never stood up for her. Ayana never stood up for herself, either. She followed her mother’s example. She bowed her head, didn’t say a word.
“Do boys even talk to you? Do boys even look at you, kanjeri kay bachay? How are we going to find you a husband, Aya, if you look like such a kutta?” He chuckled to himself, getting a kick out of his own words.
Ayana was going to say silent. Ayana was going to walk away, do the dishes, do anything to make him stop. Suddenly, her mind flashed back to this afternoon.
Ezra. Ezra walking jauntily in his baseball bomber jacket and sparkling white Converse. Ezra’s look of awe whenever she spoke. The way Ezra looked at her. The way she felt when Ezra looked at her.
You’re wrong, Apa. One boy looks at me. One boy looks at me in awe. One boy thinks I’m smart. I didn’t see it before. You have taught me to be scared of men. But it’s only you, you’re the only one that scares me.
“I don’t need a boy to look at me to know that I’m not miye ki khala.”
“Oh, really?” Ayana’s father stopped mid rant, leaning into Ayana’s face with his threatening black eyes. Ayana could smell the alcohol on his breath. “Who told you that, then? A liar?” He leaned in even closer, gritting his tobacco stained teeth. Ayana felt a shiver of fear overwhelm her body.
“Sameeth.” Ama spoke. She picked up her head. She looked from Sameeth to Ayana, bobbing her head with disapproval. “Paagal, paagal. Aya is a young girl. She doesn’t need to be thinking about boys. Take walk, Sameeth. Take walk.”
Ayana’s father looked ready to pounce. He pondered what his wife had just said. Suddenly, as if a miracle had occurred, his shoulders untensed. He turned his body towards the door.
“Gandu,” Ayana’s father mumbled under his breath as he walked out. Ayana and her mother were silent for a moment, scared to even let out a breath.
Ama stroked Ayana’s hijab lovingly after several moments. “So sorry, beta. So sorry.”
That night, Ayana pulled out the slip of paper from beneath the nala of her churidar. She looked at the number, the smudged ink written in what looked like the neatest she’d ever seen a boy write.
Ayana felt a fluttery feeling when she thought of typing it into her Blackberry.
Should I call? Should I text? Ayana wasn’t much of a texter, it could never really express the reality of the matter. She decided she would call.
Ezra stared at his white and green iPhone that evening, after eating dinner with his family. He tapped his again, even though he had done it only a few seconds prior. Was Ayana going to text?
Ayana typed in the number to her phone, an excited feeling building up. Suddenly, she was overwhelmed with a feeling of doubt. Did Ezra just give out his number to everyone? Maybe he wasn’t that interested. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to think of what to say on the phone. This was too intimate.
Ezra’s phone beeped. His heart leapt. He picked up his phone eagerly, but it was just his friend from California. Damien. Shit. It wasn’t Ayana.
Ayana re-typed in Ezra’s number. She took a deep breath, although it was shaky. On the count of three, she pressed CALL.
Ezra’s phone rang. It was an unknown number. Could it be Ayana? Probably not. Probably just one of those spam calls. He picked it up anyway.
“Hello?” Ezra asked suspiciously. His voice sounded higher on the phone.
“Hi.” Ayana said, pausing for a moment.
“Hey!” Ezra said, his voice instantly softening.
“This is Ayana,” she said.
“Yeah, I know.” Ezra giggled. “I wouldn’t have said ‘hey” if it was a creepy spam call,”
“Sorry.” Ayana chuckled nervously.
“Wait- are you nervous?” Ezra asked incredulously.
“Maybe a little,” Ayana admitted to herself for the first time.
“That’s so cute. You don’t have to be. I’m glad that you called.”
Ayana’s face broke into a wide smile. She immediately untensed.
“Oh. You are?”
“Yea.” Ezra blushed. He was glad that Ayana couldn’t see him. “I heard a song today that reminded me of you. I’ll send it to you.”
“Thank you, that’s nice.”
“Why are you talking so quietly?” Ezra asked.
“My family is here.”
“How’s your dad? Can we talk about that?” Ezra asked timidly.
Ayana nodded. She realized that he couldn’t see that through the phone, and she felt stupid.
Ezra waited. She didn’t respond for at least five seconds, and he was worried that he’d offended her. Suddenly she responded out of nowhere.
“Do you ever just feel like, it’s crazy that people marry each other? Like, they just commit their whole lives to each other. I don’t think I’d ever be able to do that.” Ayana said abruptly, thinking of what her dad said to her earlier.
Ezra was taken aback.
“I mean, I can understand it if people love each other enough.” Ezra replied thoughtfully, a few moments later.
“I just don’t ever think that someone would look at me, and fall in love, you know? I doubt sometimes whether there’s someone out there.”
“Of course there’s someone out there.”
“You can say that, though. No one has any expectations for you otherwise. And, you’re handso- I mean, you won’t have any problems. But me, I don’t know.”
“Ayana, you’ll find someone.”
“Maybe... “ she started, reaching up to her head to touch the scarf. “Maybe if I was more… Maybe if I wasn’t so… ”
“I love the scarf. It brings out your eyes,” Ezra said, not completely sure how to respond.
That wasn’t what Ayana had meant. The scarf was Ayana’s security blanket. The scarf hid her insecurities.
And it was in that moment, for the first time, Ayana realized that she didn’t love the scarf. The scarf made her feel like she had to be a good girl, and wearing it was the only way. The scarf made her feel like she needed to rein herself in. She felt like she wasn’t beautiful enough underneath the scarf.
“I don’t love the scarf.” Ayana responded, deep in her own thoughts.
The scarf kept her tied down to the miye ki khala, kanjeri kay bachay.
The next morning, Ayana looked at herself in the mirror. Usually she just brushed her thick, massive mane and tied it up into a bun so that she didn’t have to deal with it.
But today, something inside of her felt different.
For the first time, Ayana looked up at her golden brown skin, dark, vibrant eyes and mass of black hair and thought that she looked beautiful.
She felt guilty for having the thought. Instinctively, Ayana reached for her hijab and started to wrap it, but an inhuman force seemed to overtake her. She felt like she didn’t need the scarf today to cover up. She didn’t need the scarf to hide herself. She was beautiful. She was beautiful. Despite the miye ki khala, she believed it.
Ayana unwrapped her headscarf.
Glossary (in order of appearance):
Kahri- yellow curry
Kanjeri kay bachay- prostitute child
Miye ki khala- w****
Lassi- yogurt drink Apa- Father
Kameez- A style of top worn by Indian women
Churidar- Tight pants worn by Indian women
Paneer- A type of Indian cheese which is cooked
Kutta- Dog (derogatory)