Pig dissection. Muslims should be exempt, technology makes virtual pigs available, but tax cuts don't allow for this. Roxy wants to do it. With Noor as lab partner, Roxy will have to do all the touching. Justin sits across the isle. Mr. Bayard holds the midterms. A graph displays class averages on the chalkboard. Nicely done Roxy, top of the class as always.
The piglet's legs, a strange hue of tampered pink, reach stiffly upward. Stunted untested eyes pinch shut, tiny forming whiskers line a slightly open mouth almost grinning, waiting to taste air. The piglet smells unnatural, dense, soaked in chemical suspension. Noor's eyes water. She covers her mouth and nose with her scarf. Don't be a baby Roxy jibes. I can't believe you're touching it Rox. Noor disapproves. I'm not eating it, Noor. Touching is allowed. Roxy uses scissors to cut the chest open. Perfect line, perfect break, grey fallow heart and lung exposed. Noor diagrams as Roxy dismembers. Noor leaves before class is over. Roxy wraps things up.
Nice job. Justin stands too close. Roxy feels warmth flood her face. We call our pig Wilbur. He sounds nervous. That's original. She sounds mean. He needs help with Science. Sports teams require C average. He runs track. Yes she knows. Can she help him? She doesn't think so. A note deftly passes to him says otherwise. After school, he can drive them to Starbucks. He smiles at her and retreats back to his corner. Roxy tries to sit still. She's not sure of him but tires of rules, sick with being walled in. She will be okay. She fears the wanting of it. Worse yet, a girl her age un-kissed. Worse yet...
Time to go home. Roxy feels suffocation. Noor stands closer than usual. What will she tell her parents? Is she really going to do this? Will this really make her happy? Roxy looks to her friend. Of course she can't do this. She wants to take it all back. But then he pulls up.
Justin drives a jeep. He honks, motioning for her to join him. Noor giggles. He is cute! You can tell your parents you're studying with me. A co-conspirator makes things more comfortable. Still, Roxy's stake is sharper, will run deeper if it hits the mark.
Hi Baba, I'm studying with Noor after school. Her mother will drop me home. Roxy's father doesn't even question. A lie of great magnitude should not be so simple in execution. Tell me everything, Noor demands with a hug. Fists and stones churn in her stomach. Justin honks again. In front of him, her bus waits to take her home. Roxy's fingers draw circles across the safe smooth membrane of her silk scarf. She hesitates, feeling the warmth of sheer material. Her bus lurches away. Justin waits. Roxy breathes deep. Hands trembling, she unwraps her scarf. It rests loosely on her head. She can still call home. Her Baba will come for her. Her steady heart loses rhythm tapping for attention against her ribs. Justin smiles. The scarf flutters. Her breath catches and she shuts her eyes to fight back tears. Their daughter would never do this. But, is that all she is? Before she can change her mind, she slips the scarf off and grips it tight. She feels bare, wrong, happy, brave. She waits, expecting someone, everyone to notice. Students pass her, talking, laughing, not noticing. Teachers get in cars, not noticing. The world keeps moving just as it had before, not noticing. But a kernel of guilt takes root. Her face flushes. Her pulse slows. Are you coming? Justin waits. It all waits. She carefully folds the scarf and puts it away.
The faster he drives the more animated her hair. He likes to drive fast. Her locks, impossible to restrain, seduce wind, elevate, whip back and forth, strike her face, and cover her eyes. Her hands fight the more important battle of keeping inside the Jeep. Feet braced, body bouncing, conversation thankfully impossible. Finally, Starbucks. Thrown left, almost on top of him, they park. I party like a rock star. Look like a movie star. Play like an all-star. Fuck like a porn star. Music bellows sending bass tremors through her toes. Justin silences it embarrassingly. Hip-hop, he loves Pit Bull. Does she know Pit Bull? Roxy nods, sure I do.
Roxy rushes to the bathroom. Starbucks seems crowded and small as Roxy slips between bodies. She frantically sprinkles water on her hair. Pulling fingers through, she begs it to behave. Knocks from waiting women rush her.
Justin, two cups of coffee, a brownie, a cookie and her chair far too close to his, waits outside. Roxy pulls her seat a safe distance. So, you're from I-Ran right? Eeran, yes. Any family there? Of course. They didn't get hurt, you know, with the war and all? That's Eeraq. I-Rack, oh yeah, sorry. You're Muslim? Yes, didn't you want to study Biology? Not really. He's been trying to get her to hang out a while now. Her cheeks flush. She knows, but opens the Biology textbook to chapter 3, Pig Dissection. His fingers rough against her palm she tries to focus.
Sus Scrofa Domesticus anatomy. Pig structures are strangely similar to human. Lungs, liver, kidney, all with slight deviations but they won't be tested on those. Roxy's curl wraps itself around his index finger. Both hearts have four chambers, four valves. What about her heart? Yes, four chambers, four valves. His laugh paints her cheeks blush. Does it belong to anyone? Roxy requires a more inventive approach, yet she smiles shyly. His fingers sweep hair out of her face. It wasn't in her face and she seems not to care. Her eyes shut. Her limbs go tense as she feels him inch closer. Her fingers grip cool chair metal. She feels naked, exposed. She wants to stop, to move, but the kiss lands before she can. His lips rough, she thinks of offering ChapStick. Then, distraction disappears beneath the shock of his tongue, coffee, bitter, a hint of smoke, yet soft, restrained. Her stomach wiggles. She worries she doesn't know how. His hand rests on her neck, pulls her in. A tickle reaches through her. Curiously, her ears burn. When he reaches deeper, panic pulls her away. His gloss coated lips smile as he draws the back of his hand across them. She wipes her own mouth with a napkin, her eyes darting back and forth. Shrinking into the chair, she forces them both back to Biology and waits for the flush to leave her body.
Hours pass and Roxy's tension sheds layer by layer. She finds her laugh, not the nervous giggle, but a deep enticing sound. She lets him play with her hair, her fingers, answers his questions more willingly. She becomes amused at his stealth attempts to move in again. She toys with her ability to say no, while still keeping the door open for an eventual yes. Finally, tables begin to empty, shifts change. Roxy must get home.
She gets out two blocks from her house. Tight brick and siding homes mirror one another in her suburban neighborhood. Neutral colors, modest manicured yards, respectable-sized houses, everything middle class tidy. In daylight hours, children ride bicycles or skate boards along with the occasional roller-skater, wobbly arms and legs covered in safety pads, oversized helmets. Mothers take trash out as fathers arrive home from a hard day's work. Occasional road kill blights the perfect picture but never for very long. At night, the road empties, outdoor lights flicker protectively as families assemble around dinner tables.
Second kisses less frightening, more worrisome, Roxy waves goodbye to Justin. The scarf, back out of the bag, breathes deep, wrinkled, smaller. Kinked gold strands dull beneath fading light. Cinnamon, silk, sheer, all doze in the late hour. Roxy knots the loose ends beneath her chin, her hair somehow not willing to be covered otherwise. Kleenex sweeps away Khol, gloss, almost all her mascara. Roxy's heart catches. She realizes her jacket lies sprawled in Justin's back seat. Mother will kill her. Will she know? Can she smell Justin on her? Is that possible? What should she say? What can she say? Each thought slips into a bead of sweat. Her breath refuses to calm. She stands, staring at a door that seems unfriendly now.
Roxy's mother slams drawers, angrily cleaning, the kitchen a war zone. She's cooking Khoresht-e-Karafs. A tangy smell of celery, fresh lamb cubes, parsley, cilantro, turmeric, lemon, cinnamon, a dash of salt travels the house. The air moistens with the steam of Basmati rice simmered to a fluff, hard crisp lining the bottom of the pan. Rose water, a staple in their household, is sprinkled across the counters, sweet and light. Roxy's father waits quietly in the family room. She sits beside him on the couch, her heart leaping against her ribs. The radio is on NPR. She made your favorite, he says. She cooked all day. Roxy's sorry she didn't keep better track of the time. Maybe she should tell that to her mother. Another crash, a curse or two, Roxy looks to the kitchen wide eyed. Maybe later her father suggests. They both laugh quietly.
"A Soldier's Life for a Mother and Her Daughter." The NPR announcer begins the story of a mother in The Marines, and her daughter in The Army, two generations proud to serve their country. Good for them, Bravo.
Roxy smiles as her father practices his words aloud. He always struggles with "W". World not "verreld", watch never "vaatch", words words words, instead of "verds, verds, verds". The angriest she's ever seen him was at the DMV. Wayheekal, madam, my wayheekal. Just say "car" Baba, but he won't. He never lets her help.
You know, he instructs her, these veemen are not so different from the veemen of The Rewolution. A long pause, for effect. They all like to fight, he finally concludes. Roxy laughs with her Baba. Then he grows serious. No Sanna, you don't know. I pray you never understand. He shakes his head as memory takes hold. Allah's women flooded the streets, the Shah's men the airports, his favorite saying.
Her father still wears the same brown Perry Ellis suit. Gold cuffs, the Sun Lion of Reza Shah, keep guard at his wrists. Paco Rabanne scents his neck, lightly touching a white starched collar. On their walls, his framed George Washington University degree in engineering hangs alongside a picture of Reza Shah shaking his hand. Her father looks handsome in his white naval uniform, young and confident, all aviator glasses and dimples. The large captain's hat covers his already thinning hairline.
She recognizes his tone, a lecture about to come, usually involving opportunity. The difference is great between a green card and American Passports. Having gratitude and walking the tightrope without falling becomes harder every day. Roxy can't concentrate on the tightrope. All she can think of is Justin's face, his laugh. She should feel guilt. She might even wonder if she likes kissing him. Instead, she panics over what to wear Monday, if he will find her, or will he expect her to find him? What if he doesn't? Does she act like she doesn't care? Are they even dating?...Sanna, ver have you gone? She jumps back to attention. Yes Baba, I know, I know. Allah has been good to us. We must be thankful. Devil girl, her Baba jokes, you veren't listening. Don't say it that way Baba. It doesn't make sense in English. So, vat vere you tinking he asks. Roxy blushes, nothing, just tired. Then get to bed, before Madar finishes in the kitchen. Night Baba. Night Sanna, he kisses her forehead. Her stomach stabs her ribs.
Lights click off and Roxy unfurls. Her chest aches, head pounds, tears stain her cheeks. She relives Justin's nagging kiss. And they don't think, for one second, it is possible of her to do such a thing. She is their daughter, and she is good. A cold restless thought unfurls. She doesn't feel bad.
The Islamic Center of Washington nestles among Mass Ave.'s ancient trees and deep roots. The gray stone mosque angles square and sharp, small jagged points running across its silhouette. Bright flags of global Muslim Nations line themselves along the front. Round arches traced with handmade turquoise tile create the illusion of moving water. A minaret grows central, 160 feet, ending with small soft bulbous forms at its pinnacle. A steel rod rises even higher, a familiar crescent moon announcing purpose. Neighboring red brick buildings keep respectful distance, sensing something even older than they within the wrought iron fence bordering the perimeter.
Roxy's mother complains of her scarf, sheer, too sheer, inappropriate. What color is it anyway? A young girl should not wear...even though grandmother sent it from home. Roxy sees in her mother an edginess that seems unnatural.
People fill the main prayer room. Tall ceilings catch chatter, throw it back against white pillars, more turquoise tile along bases. Long lattice shutters allow light to speckle onto enormous Persian carpets, donated by the Shah of Iran at the mosque's completion in 1957.
Shoes off and placed carefully in racks along the outer walls, men and women separate. The men move to the main prayer area, forming neat rows. Roxy's mother takes her hand and they both retreat to the small zone sectioned off by six-foot wooden walls: The Woman's Area. The current moves fast among the women, rushing to catch up before things get going. Does she look different? Will her friends know? Should she tell?
Prayer seems especially long; kneel, bend, forehead to floor, wait, pray to Allah, sit up, kneel again, and again and again. Imam's deep voice spreads wide across the floor, reverberating bass up the walls, over the partition. Roxy's toes tingle. I party like a rock star. Look like a movie star. Roxy's stomach tightens. She thinks of Justin, Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Alexander and Roxanna, her namesake. An elbow jabs her ribs. She sits when she should bend. Correcting herself, she dances between worlds until finally prayer ends, and socializing begins.
The women congeal while their daughters scatter. Noor wants to know everything. Did you kiss? Does this mean you have a boyfriend? Did anyone see you? Was he a good kisser? Roxy, pioneer among peers, smiles but says nothing. Such events are not proper to discuss at Mosque. She promises details later, maybe in school. Noor's hug, tight and oppressive, leaves a film of girlhood envy. When fathers and husbands call for daughters and wives Roxy stands a bit taller in the wake of her friend's awe, but the Imam catches her eye as she leaves and she fights back tears.
Homecoming, a stupid name for a dance, pulls Roxy's peace of mind apart. Justin expects her to go with him. Noor and her other girl friends from Mosque will go as a group. It is suggested that she could lie and meet Justin there. Half-truths, deceptions, she is tired of swimming upstream. Roxy spends hours flipping through the pages of a translated Qur'an. The Imam says all answers rest between the covers of Mohammad's gift to his followers; Allah's blueprint. There seems to be a hole in the architecture. Baba, where does it say that women must cover their heads? It is Allah's will. But where does it say it? Ask your mother. But she told me to ask you. Circles, running, walking, stopping, never a straight line. She wants to ask the Imam, but that would be improper, so her mother believes. Roxy wonders that her mother never had such questions. She worries. If headscarves top the unseemly topic list, kissing boys, going to dances, anything from that general genus must be wrath worthy.
Justin insists he must come to her door and introduce himself to her parents. She tries to convince him that there is no need for all that. It just makes it harder for her to decide. Decide what? How to do this. Not the right answer. Are they together or are they some slimy secret? She has found the one teenage boy that wants to meet the parents.
To be or not to be says Hamlet in her English class. That is not her question. Opposites attract in Biology. Attraction is not her problem. Distraction settles in her mind and everything slips. Noor tries to help, but her choices are neatly folded and put away. Either way Roxy loses something.
Tucked in bed she feels unsafe. Sleep won't put down roots over prickly thoughts. Justin's kiss, his rough hands, his scent. These things have crawled beneath her skin and grip tightly. She loves her Mosque. She needs her friends. She wants to make her parents proud.
The house has been dark for hours. Roxy's chest aches, head pounds, tears stain her cheeks. Roxy maneuvers along dark hallways, counts steps carefully. The fridge door creaks open and light falls everywhere. She opens the Pepsi can, a fresh snap killing the silence. You too? The intruding voice reaches from across the table. Why aren't you asleep? Startled, shaken, Roxy almost drops the can. Darkness spoiled under shallow light. Baba sips amber tea. Dip sugar cube, pop in mouth, sip tea, repeat. What troubles you Sanna? His voice a comfortable place she longs to crawl into. So many things Baba. He chuckles. You are too young for so many things. Tell him, tell him, tell him. Do you really want to know? Tell me.
The words spill out of her. Everything. All of it. She doesn't pause for fear of his response. Once she voids all her transgressions, when her crossroad is laid bare, she stops. Nothing. Blood rushes. She shuts her eyes. Her tears fall tapping on the can. Baba's silence chills her. Her fingers trace aluminum, thin lines, sharp edges. Confusion strips the room of air. Roxy's indignance begins to grow in the vastness of his quiet. She's not sorry, won't ever be, even if it breaks them. Kissing a boy, not a big deal. Not in her world. They can't know. They don't see. She wants. What does she want? Proms, boyfriends, medical school, her own practice, to show her hair, all of it, freedom, freedom, do you remember it Baba? I remember it Sanna. She knows his disappointment, can touch his anger. They sit. She waits for him to say more. Finally, Baba stands, shuffles to her. She flinches ready for punishment. His hands rest on her shoulders, steady, strong. Surprise courses through her. Go to bed, sleep, tomorrow is tomorrow. She feels him smile into her hair as he kisses the top of her head. Tomorrow is tomorrow.
Roxy comes home from school. They wait for her. Her father frowns. The fight between her parents lingers in the air. She takes off her scarf, hangs it in place. How was school? Her father asks every day. But today he doesn't look at her. Roxy drops her backpack. Fine. Her long wiry legs threaten to buckle. She looks to her mother, who also avoids her gaze. Maybe you can have this boy for dinner. As her father speaks, her mother gets up and leaves the room. A confused shame washes over her but she can't reason what she's done wrong.
The concession comes at a cost. No one talks. They all go to bed early. Through thin walls, her parents resume the argument. They came here for a better life so her father says. This is no life, her mother yells. What is? Arranged marriage? Throwing her to this world an innocent? His voice hoarse with something Roxy has never heard before. Good, corrupt her, yes that's much better. Mother can be sharp. He calls her overly dramatic. She calls him lost. Roxy pulls the covers over her head. Her growing pains tear through them all.
I can't go with you. Justin looks down. His face flushes red. He's angry. You're letting them win. His resentment stabs at her. It's not like that. What's it like? How can he understand? For her to win, her parents lose. And what about him? Her limbs ache. She can't help crying. The night, the dress, the dances all slip away and she can't reach. I don't know what to do. Justin leans in. He wipes her tears. He kisses her lightly on the lips. You know what I want. The bell rings. He walks away.
Her father knocks. She wants desperately to be alone. Come in. He sits beside her on the bed. She smells garlic and honey. She loves that scent. He worries for her. His voice is low, unsure. I'm not going. She didn't really know this until just now. Her father hangs his head. But you are not happy. He is not asking her a question. This way no one gets hurt. Even me. She shakes her head. It would never work anyway. He's so different. It would never work. Her father's eyes hold her gaze. Yes, probably not, he agrees. It's safer to stay what we are. But you must not always be safe. She looks away. Grand gestures terrify her right now. Sometimes I wonder why we came. He is wistful now. Her father's footsteps litter memory lane, hers dragging behind. It was your mother who wanted this. He motions to the room, but means the world around it. I would have stayed where we were. She wanted better for you. For you. But what does better looks like? It's hard question. Roxy nods. Hard. It is hard. Let some other girl do this. No Baba. Don't worry. I am not going.
Justin doesn't talk to her. Two weeks go by with silence between them. The dance comes close. Her grades drop. Her appetite disappears. Her friends talk to her constantly. On some sort of self-imposed watch, they don't leave her alone. It doesn't matter. All she wants to do is sleep. All she does is think. She knows exactly which dress she would have worn. Her walls hide under magazine cutouts of teen hairdos. Roxy builds Justin in her mind. He looks so handsome. He smiles at her and she melts. Her father gives her over to him. Her mother takes pictures. They dance and dance and dance. But then she remembers who she is and the picture fades to nothing.
She hears a sigh from her doorway. Her mother stands with a laundry basket of freshly folded clothes. Without asking she enters. Roxy turns her back. She feels her mother's weight on her mattress. Gentle hands rub her back. Without hesitation, she turns and hugs her mom. Her tears received with tears. I'm sorry Madar. No. Don't be. Roxy looks up at her mother's soft face. Curls frame beautiful deep eyes. A frown line Roxy never noticed makes her mother look even more perfect. Don't be angry with me Madar. Her mother smiles. It's sad, but comforting. Angry? I'm proud of you. Roxy sits up and pulls her knobby knees to her growing chest, confused. I remember a girl once. It's unusual for Madar to trip down the past. This girl I remember, she used to sneak out of her parents' house to go be with a boy they didn't approve of. Roxy's eyes grow round. Her mother smiles mischievously. There is a spark in her that Roxy suddenly clings to. She was so young that girl. Until now, I forgot all about her. The kiss is gentle, soft on Roxy's brow. You remind me of that girl Sanna. I won't lie to you. That frightens me. Her mother shrugs. But, like she did, I suppose you will find a way to get what you want without losing who you are. Roxy doesn't know what to say. Her mother actually winks at her. Go to your dance, she says. She gets up to leave the room. This woman Roxy doesn't know turns at the door. This conversation is our secret. They have a secret. Roxy smiles. Goosebumps rise across her shoulders, tumble down her skin.
The doorbell rings. Her dress is long, pale pink with long sleeves and a modest neckline. Her mother helps with the makeup. Blush, with soft glossed lips. Her hair piles atop her head, falling down over her shoulders. She wears her mother's pearl earrings. Small drops with diamonds at her earlobes. A gold chain holds the word Allah in Arabic exactly in the nape of her neck, a gift from her father. Roxy looks herself over. Her mother knocks. He's here. She actually sounds excited. And he's handsome. Now she sounds surprised. Roxy smiles and blushes. Come on come on you look perfect! I'm coming. Her mother goes back down. Roxy opens her drawer and pulls the scarf out. She's bought it with her allowance. It matches the material of her dress perfectly, with small red roses hand sewn all throughout.
Downstairs, there is no embracing. Her father chooses to stay in the other room. Roxy looks for him, but her mother ushers her to where Justin waits. The formalities are stiff. Inexperienced with these things, her mother doesn't have the camera out. You look beautiful Justin says with reserve. She sees the nerves settled on him and smiles. Have fun. Be home by eleven. But Roxy isn't quite finished. She looks in the mirror. She takes the scarf and drapes it over her hair and loosely around her shoulders. Her mother's tear filled eyes smile. Justin looks surprised. Now we can go Roxy says. She leads the way out the door.