The wind tore across my face, forcing my eyes to water. As I trudged down the rocky cobblestone path, hand in hand with Elham, she adjusted her hijab anxiously.
“You okay?” I asked.
She stayed silent, staring at the stones on the ground ahead of us as if she was suddenly very interested in them. I wasn’t sure if she did not hear me because of the angry wind, or if she was trying to block out my voice and focus on her own thoughts. She does that a lot. It is frustrating for me, because it makes her so difficult to read. I wish I always knew what she was thinking so we could talk about it. She is not a talker.
As we approached the end of the winding driveway, she broke from my grasp and walked around the car to the passengers side, climbing in and slamming the door.
I sighed. This was going to be a long, painful drive. I started the car and we pulled out of my neighborhood.
“Do you want to go to Panera?” I asked.
“No,” she said quietly.
“Ashley..” Elham started. I looked over at her anticipatingly as she bit her lip.
“...you’re going very fast.”
I glanced at her with a bewildered look on my face.
“I’m going...too fast.”
“Is that all you wanted to say?”
“Are you sure?”
“No...I mean yes. I don’t know, I guess.”
“Which is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Yes. I don’t know.”
I sighed, for what seems like the millionth time today. The car was flooded with suffocating silence. We pulled up in front of Elham’s house, and I parked the car. I saw her reach for the door handle, then hesitate. Her hand lingered there, in the space between her lap and the handle. She stayed still as a statue. Finally, she placed her hand in her lap.
I was relieved. I did not want her to leave. I wanted to talk about what had happened with my parents back at my house. I wanted to talk to her about our relationship. I wanted to ask her if she still loved me.
“Do you still love me?” The words spilled out of my mouth as soon as the thought crossed my mind. Me and Elham are very different. I always say what is on my mind.
She looked at me, a thousand different emotions flashing in her intense deep brown eyes all at once. Anger, confusion, desperation, sadness. We held each others gaze.
“I love you,” she said, almost inaudible.
“Okay,” I said in the same tone.
She bit her lip again.
“I love you, Ashley. I do. Even if your parents do not love me, I love you.”
“My parents do love you. Well...they will. They will love you. I will talk to them.”
“And say what, Ashley? Will you change the beliefs that they have had, that they have been raised with, their entire lives? It is not that easy, I wish it was.”
“They know how I feel about you. I can convince them!”
“Habibti…” she whispered and shook her head. ‘Habibti’ means ‘my beloved’ in Arabic. I love the way she says it, but not this time. The way she is saying it now sounds like she is giving up. My stomach is in knots.
“I am Muslim. They know this because I wear a hijab. I have darker skin. They know this because...well, it is apparent. But what is most important about me, is that I have good values. I am a good person. I have gone through many hardships, and I have come out of them beaten and bruised, but I have come out of them stronger. And you see, they do not care about that, because they see my hijab. They see my darker skin. They see me in a relationship with you, loving you dearly, more than they ever have, and it makes them angry because they think that my people are incapable of love.”
I felt tears begin to well up in my eyes. I wondered why my parents are the way that they are. I wondered why a beautiful soul like Elham had to suffer because of their ignorance. And even worse, my parents are not the only ones that feel this way. El continued to speak.
“I do not know who or what caused this hatred in your mother and father’s hearts, but I pray Allah will forgive them. I forgive them.”
“Because they are not the first and they are not the last that will come before me and regard me with an anxious, uncomfortable look in their eyes. An angry look in their eyes. You cannot live life hating the people who hate you, especially if it is for no good reason. I am better than that, don’t you think so?”
“Of course, El.”
Elham is not a talker, about her feelings, I mean. But when she does, everything sounds perfectly right and good. I never want her to stop talking.
“Okay then,” she said.
We sat in silence.
“Do you want me to walk you…”
“You don’t want me to stay with you tonight?”
“I’m fine,” she repeated. “Go back to your family.”
“How can I face them? I’m so disappointed and angry, I will only say something that will hurt them. When it comes to you, I can’t control my emotions.”
“I am pretty irresistible, aren’t I?”
Elham cracked a smile and wiggled her eyebrows. I giggled, but half-heartedly. I could tell she was trying to lighten the mood so I could leave her on a good note, but it was impossible to shut out the way Elham meeting my parents had gone. She could tell that I wasn’t going to play along, and she sighed. She started to lean over to kiss me, then hesitated. Why did she hesitate?
“Why did you hesitate?”
She tried to smile, but it was not real.
“I love you,” she said. She got out of my car and started up the hill leading to her bright blue house.
I watched as her parents answered the door. She must have been crying because as soon as her father came outside he had a shocked and concerned look on his face, immediately embracing her and bringing her in their home. I saw her mother glance at my car with an expression that I could not read. Maybe disappointment. Her parents love me, but of course, they want to protect Elham from everything. I do too. Unfortunately, one of those things she needs protection from is my own parents. I buried my head in my hands. Elham is strong, but the misconceptions people make of her certainly must take a toll somehow. She is only human, after all.
I wiped my tears and started the car.
Pulling up to my house, my heart was racing. I was angry, so angry. I am not the kind of person that naturally has a hot temper. But the way that I felt, I was positive that if they said one foul thing about Elham, I would blow up. And I knew that they would. I was preparing for the worst.
Walking into the house, I heard hushed voices in the other room. Once they heard my footsteps, they went quiet. That’s what I thought. I kicked off my shoes and started up the stairs before they could say anything to me.
Crap. Well there goes that. I waltzed into the kitchen where my mother and father were sitting, with concerned and upset looks on their faces.
“Yes, parents?” I muttered through gritted teeth, with the fakest smile I could possibly manage plastered across my face.
They exchanged looks, as if they were saying, ‘Okay, remember, just like we rehearsed it.’ My father began.
“Ash, we’re...worried. About you.”
“Is that so?”
“Don’t play with me, Ashley. You know what you did.”
And so it begins. I can feel my blood slowly start to simmer.
“What I did? What are you accusing me of, exactly? Falling in love? Being happy?”
My mother and father winced.
“Honey,” my mother says quietly, “you do not love her.”
“I don’t? Or I can’t?”
There was silence.
“You can’t,” my father stated in a flat voice, as if there was nothing else to say.
I bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted blood. I felt the tears beginning to rise, but I could not cry. I could not look weak. I held back my emotions and tried to reassume the eyes that I always use with my father: cold and distant. No emotions, no weakness. He will not have an advantage over me.
“And why is that? Why am I not allowed to love?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You are allowed to love, but not...her.”
“You told me that I could be with girls.”
He suddenly looked uncomfortable. I felt my insides rotting. He was probably remembering why he finally agreed to allowing me to be with girls. How he realized that he could not change me, even after he had tried...I wanted to throw up. My mother was oblivious.
“I did say that,” he murmured, regaining his composure.
“So, tell me. Why does Elham not meet your standards? It isn’t because she is a girl. So what is it?”
My father suddenly looked exasperated. He has always been very impatient.
“Jesus Christ, do I have to spell it out for you, Ashley? I’m sick of cutting corners with this.”
He rose from his seat and marched towards me. I wanted to run, but I was frozen in place. I looked at my mother in desperation. Please, please, please. Please, just this once, don’t stand by. She pursed her lips and looked at the floor. I am alone. He raised his hand and I closed my eyes. The blow across my face shook me to the core, and I crumbled to the ground. My vision is blurred with tears, stinging my cuts as they roll down my cheek. My father grabs my shoulders and shakes me violently.
“Have we taught you nothing? That girl is trash. Her black skin and that scraggly scarf she wears on her head...all signs of evil. We do not associate ourselves with those kinds of people.”
“Elham’s parents never laid a hand on her,” I screamed. “You treat me like your own personal punching bag. And she is trash? You’re disgusting.”
My father growled and slapped me, shaking me again.
“I am your father. I am telling you to stay away from that girl, before you become a useless piece of waste like them. You will ruin this town's view of us.”
“This town does not care about my personal life. Stop speaking like you’re some kind of king. No one knows us, because you isolate us. We live on the very edge of town, away from everyone. I am homeschooled. You are the only one that would know, and the only one that would care.”
He slapped me again and threw me to the ground. I could still feel his tight grip on my shoulders, and I knew that there would be bruises there in the morning. He stomped up the stairs, whispering something.
“I’m gonna kill her. I’m gonna kill her.”
I did not know if he meant Elham or me.
I heard the door slam upstairs. He would probably be in his room for the rest of the night. I was still laying on the floor. Now that my father was gone, I had no reason to get up or show strength. I thought about staying there all night. I almost forgot that my mother was still sitting there, in the same spot, looking at the floor and fidgeting with her diamond bracelet that my father had given her. One of many, probably. He was always giving her gifts to make her stay. She is forgiving and stupid, and he is calculating and manipulative. A match made in hell. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her get out of her chair and begin to approach me.
“Stay away from me,” I croaked.
My mother was still cautiously at my side. It reminded me of Elmah and the car door handle. She was torn between staying and leaving. Both choices would have consequences. Elmah is not as different from my family as they think she is.
Sometimes, I would feel bad for my mother. Anyone who would stay with my dad has to be pretty messed up in the head. Especially now, with the mental abuse that my father has caused her, she is too far gone to ever leave him. So sometimes, I would feel bad. But this was not one of those times. I rolled over, my shoulders aching and my entire face throbbing and burning. I began pushing myself off the ground. My mother put her arms out several times to help me, but I would always reject her. I was finally standing straight up, and me and my mother were face to face. She looked at her feet.
“Look at me,” I said. “Please, look at my face.”
She shook her head and tears fell from her cheeks.
“Ashley...I can’t. I’m sorry.”
I walked towards her, inches away from her face.
“If you can’t stand to even look at me, then stop him. Do something, for the love of everything on this earth!”
She stayed quiet. She still did not look at me. She never did. I hated her for it.
“Mother,” I whispered, “do you hate Elmah?”
She looked anxiously up at the stairs, trying to find my father's face. I guess she decided the coast was clear.
“I do not know her.”
“Dad hates her.”
“So why don’t you?”
“Because she is good to you.”
“Then when she came here, why did you make degrading remarks towards her race and religion, acting like you were just joking around? Acting like it was funny to dehumanize her?”
“Your father told me to say those things.”
She was speaking almost inaudibly now.
“I love her, mom. Don’t you care? Don’t you love me?”
This whole time, she still has not looked at me. I turned my back on her and walked slowly up the stairs.
After my father had gone to work, I left the house early enough so I could get breakfast with Elham before she had to go to school. We met up at McAllister’s, our greetings to each other seeming distant. The deli was empty, with only a short old woman standing behind the counter, yelling into the phone in what sounded like Russian. Immediately, Elham noticed the bruise on my face.
“What happened to you?” She asked worriedly, caressing my cheek. I winced, so she pulled away.
“I got into a fight with some kids I know.”
“Every time you have marks on you, you say you got into a fight. I’m sorry, but I don’t see you as a fighting type. I mean, don’t get me wrong, your body is killer, but...you get what I mean.”
I felt bad lying to her, but I couldn’t tell her the truth about my dad. She would feel like it is her fault, and I can’t put all of that weight on her shoulders. We are both dealing with enough.
“So,” El began. “Did you talk to them?”
“No. Not yet.”
“I am not lying.”
“I’m guessing this means that it didn’t go well.”
I sighed, exhausted, pinching the bridge of my nose.
“Are you going to break up with me, Ashley?”
“I was thinking to ask you the same thing,” I said sadly as I took both of her hands.
“Well, are you?” She asked, her voice wavering.
“No,” I exclaimed. “...Are you?”
“No. I can’t even imagine it.”
“But we still aren’t...okay.”
“Of course not. I don’t know if we ever will be. But you are my best friend and the moon of my life.” She smiled a small, genuine smile. “There has to be a way.”
“We could run away,” I said. “We could leave this town and these people and my parents and everything. We can leave it all behind and just be together.”
“Ashley, don’t be ridiculous. I have duties in my home and to my family. I have school, a real school that I attend. I would be leaving too much behind. How can you be so willing to leave your home?”
I shook my head sadly.
“This is no home to me.”
Elham’s eyes softened.
“I know that you are somewhat...separated from the social aspects of the town more than I am, but I still just cannot understand.”
“I don’t expect you to. I am home when I am with you.”
She smiled a great smile, flashing her teeth, her beautiful dark skin turning even darker as she blushed. She was looking down at our hands intertwined. Suddenly the glimmer in her eyes darkened and turned sad. Her mesmerizing smile melted off her face. She looked up at me.
“Ashley, where do you get your bruises, really?”
My heart dropped. She had never asked about them so suspiciously. She had always just accepted my answer of, ‘I got into a fight’.
“Um, what do you mean? I told you.”
“You did. You told me a lie. Now I am asking you to tell me the truth.”
My stomach was doing backflips. Not right now, please, not right now.
“Not right now.” I whispered. Sometimes, I couldn’t help but say what I was thinking. I didn’t know why.
“What?” She asked.
“It’s not...important, right now. Let’s just forget it.”
“Ash, are you hurting yourself?”
“God, El, no! You think I could give myself something like this on purpose?” I demanded, pointing at the dark purple and blue crater on my face.
“Anything is possible! Look, I’m sorry if I’m making you upset, but I just want to make sure that you’re okay. Is someone else hurting you?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I asked you. Like anyone. I am assuming you would know who.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know who keeps giving you these bruises? So, what, you’re getting jumped by a guy with a ski mask everyday or something?”
“No, I mean, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about and why you are stressing out so much. These are my problems, let me deal with them. Now can we stop talking about this?”
I couldn’t tell if Elham was disappointed or annoyed. Probably both. I don’t blame her.
“No problem,” she said passively, getting her bags together. “I have to go to class soon anyways.”
“You said class starts at 9,” I said, confused. “It’s only 8.”
“JJ High School is like, 5 minutes away.”
“I know. I have been there.”
She swung her bright patterned bag on her shoulders and stood up from the booth.
“El, hold on…” I reached for her arm, but she pulled away.
“No,” she exclaimed. “You’re supposed to be the talker, remember? What’s holding you back this time? Is this is how we are going to be from now, keeping secrets from each other?” Her eyes brimmed with tears.
“No, Elmah,” I said sadly, pulling her into a warm hug. She began sobbing violently into the crook of my neck, her arms wrapped tightly around my shoulders. I couldn’t help but wince. That was where my father was grabbing me. I don’t think she noticed, though. She wasn’t only crying because I wouldn’t tell her about my dad. She thinks that she is losing her grip on our relationship, or that I am trying to distance myself from her. That’s the last thing that I would want to do. I had to make a decision. I pulled away from Elmah, sat her back down in the booth and got her a pack of Kleenex from the old woman behind the deli counter. She eventually composed herself, adjusting her hijab and wiping her eyes and nose. I took a deep breath.
“I’m the talker,” I sighed.
Elmah looked up expectantly.
“It’s about my dad.”