A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a story inspired by the true events of my life. Ultimately, this is a work of fiction, but Shirin’s story is an amalgamation of real experiences. I was a freshman in high school in 2001. I used to breakdance. On the first day of my sophomore year I was starting at my third high school. The world around me was cruel and xenophobic and racist and people had broken my heart so many times that by my sixteenth birthday I could no longer find the words to articulate my anger. This book is an attempt to capture this emotion—and its evolution—on paper.
This is a departure for me, especially because most readers know me from my Shatter Me series—but I always knew I’d end up here. It’s always been my hope to change the perception of Muslim women in media. When I was a teenager, I only ever saw ladies in hijab on the news; Muslim women were depicted only at the forefront of controversy. We were allowed a voice—a platform—only if we used that voice to remain within the confines of religion or culture or what was considered our oppression. As a young person, I desperately longed to see a Muslim woman break free from those stereotypes. I wanted to see her recognized for more than her knowledge of politics and/or religion. Establishing myself as an author separate and apart from my identity as a Muslim woman was a feat I once never thought possible. But this—this book—is also a feat I once never thought possible. Because even though I knew I would write this book, I never knew if it would find an audience.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea is about giving a voice to the Muslim-American teenager in a world where they’re seldom given a chance to speak. It’s about love and hate and breakdancing. It’s my story, and I’m happy to be sharing it now.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea
We always seemed to be moving, always for the better, always to make our lives better, whatever. I couldn’t keep up with the emotional whiplash. I’d attended so many elementary schools and middle schools I couldn’t keep their names straight anymore but this, this switching high schools all the time thing was really starting to make me want to die. This was my third high school in less than two years and my life seemed suddenly to comprise such a jumble of bullshit every day that sometimes I could hardly move my lips. I worried that if I spoke or screamed my anger would grip both sides of my open mouth and rip me in half.
So I said nothing.
It was the end of August, all volatile heat and the occasional breeze. I was surrounded by starched backpacks and stiff denim and kids who smelled like fresh plastic. They seemed happy.
I sighed and slammed my locker shut.
For me, today was just another first day of school in another new city, so I did what I always did when I showed up at a new school: I didn’t look at people. People were always looking at me, and when I looked back they often took it as an invitation to speak to me, and when they spoke to me they nearly always said something offensive or stupid or both and I’d decided a long time ago that it was easier to pretend they just didn’t exist.
I’d managed to survive the first three classes of the day without major incident, but I was still struggling to navigate the school itself. My next class seemed to be on the other side of campus, and I was trying to figure out where I was—cross-checking room numbers against my new class schedule—when the final bell rang. In the time it took my stunned self to glance up at the clock, the masses of students around me had disappeared. I was suddenly alone in a long, empty hallway, my printed schedule now crumpled in one fist. I squeezed my eyes shut and swore under my breath.
When I finally found my next class I was seven minutes late. I pushed open the door, the hinges slightly squeaking, and students turned around in their seats. The teacher stopped talking, his mouth still caught around a sound, his face frozen between expressions.
He blinked at me.
I averted my eyes, even as I felt the room contract around me. I slid into the nearest empty seat and said nothing. I took a notebook out of my bag. Grabbed a pen. I was hardly breathing, waiting for the moment to pass, waiting for people to turn away, waiting for my teacher to start talking again when he suddenly cleared his throat and said—
“Anyway, as I was saying: our syllabus includes quite a bit of required reading, and those of you who are new here”—he hesitated, glanced at the roster in his hands—“might be unaccustomed to our school’s intense and, ah, highly demanding curriculum.” He stopped. Hesitated again. Squinted at the paper in his hands.
And then, as if out of nowhere, he said, “Now—forgive me if I’m saying this incorrectly—but is it—Sharon?” He looked up, looked me directly in the eye.
I said, “It’s Shirin.”
Students turned to look at me again.
“Ah.” My teacher, Mr. Webber, didn’t try to pronounce my name again. “Welcome.”
I didn’t answer him.
“So.” He smiled. “You understand that this is an honors English class.”
I hesitated. I wasn’t sure what he was expecting me to say to such an obvious statement. Finally, I said, “Yes?”
He nodded, then laughed, and said, “Sweetheart, I think you might be in the wrong class.”
I wanted to tell him not to call me sweetheart. I wanted to tell him not to talk to me, ever, as a general rule. Instead, I said, “I’m in the right class,” and held up my crumpled schedule.
Mr. Webber shook his head, even as he kept smiling. “Don’t worry—this isn’t your fault. It happens sometimes with new students. But the ESL office is actually just down the—”
“I’m in the right class, okay?” I said the words more forcefully than I’d intended. “I’m in the right class.”
This shit was always happening to me.
It didn’t matter how unaccented my English was. It didn’t matter that I told people, over and over again, that I was born here, in America, that English was my first language, that my cousins in Iran made fun of me for speaking mediocre Farsi with an American accent—it didn’t matter. Everyone assumed I was fresh off the boat from a foreign land.
Mr. Webber’s smile faltered. “Oh,” he said. “Okay.”
The kids around me started laughing and I felt my face getting hot. I looked down and opened my blank notebook to a random page, hoping the action would inspire an end to the conversation.
Instead, Mr. Webber held up his hands and said, “Listen—me, personally? I want you to stay, okay? But this is a really advanced class, and even though I’m sure your English is really good, it’s still—”
“My English,” I said, “isn’t really good. My English is fucking perfect.”
I spent the rest of the hour in the principal’s office.
I was given a stern talking-to about the kind of behavior expected of students at this school and warned that, if I was going to be deliberately hostile and uncooperative, maybe this wasn’t the school for me. And then I was given detention for using vulgar language in class. The lunch bell rang while the principal was yelling at me, so when he finally let me go I grabbed my things and bolted.
I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere; I was only looking forward to being away from people. I had two more classes to get through after lunch but I wasn’t sure my head could take it; I’d already surpassed my threshold for stupidity for the day.
I was balancing my lunch tray on my lap in a bathroom stall, my head in a viselike grip between my hands, when my phone buzzed. It was my brother.
what are you doing?
bullshit. where are you hiding?
in the bathroom
what else am i supposed to do for 37 minutes? stare at people?
And then he told me to get the hell out of the bathroom and come have lunch with him, apparently the school had already sent out a welcome wagon full of brand-new friends in celebration of his pretty face, and I should join him instead of hiding.
no thanks, I typed.
And then I threw my lunch in the trash and hid in the library until the bell rang.
My brother is two years older than me; we’d almost always been in the same school at the same time. But he didn’t hate moving like I did; he didn’t always suffer when we got to a new city. There were two big differences between me and my brother: first, that he was extremely handsome, and second, that he didn’t walk around wearing a metaphorical neon sign nailed to his forehead flashing CAUTION, TERRORIST APPROACHING.
I shit you not, girls lined up to show my brother around the school. He was the good-looking new guy. The interesting boy with an interesting past and an interesting name. The handsome exotic boy all these pretty girls would inevitably use to satisfy their need to experiment and one day rebel against their parents. I’d learned the hard way that I couldn’t eat lunch with him and his friends. Every time I showed up, tail between my legs and my pride in the trash, it took all of five seconds for me to realize that the only reason his new lady friends were being nice to me was because they wanted to use me to get to my brother.
I’d rather eat in the toilet.
I told myself I didn’t care, but obviously I did. I had to. The news cycle never let me breathe anymore. 9/11 happened last fall, two weeks into my freshman year, and a couple of weeks later two dudes attacked me while I was walking home from school and the worst part—the worst part—was that it took me days to shake off the denial; it took me days to fathom the why. I kept hoping the explanation would turn out to be more complex, that there’d turn out to be more than pure, blind hatred to motivate their actions. I wanted there to be some other reason why two strangers would follow me home, some other reason why they’d yank my scarf off my head and try to choke me with it. I didn’t understand how anyone could be so violently angry with me for something I hadn’t done, so much so that they’d feel justified in assaulting me in broad daylight as I walked down the street.
I didn’t want to understand it.
But there it was.
I hadn’t expected much when we moved here, but I was still sorry to discover that this school seemed no better than my last one. I was stuck in another small town, trapped in another universe populated by the kind of people who’d only ever seen faces like mine on their evening news, and I hated it. I hated the exhausting, lonely months it took to settle into a new school; I hated how long it took for the kids around me to realize I was neither terrifying nor dangerous; I hated the pathetic, soul-sucking effort it took to finally make a single friend brave enough to sit next to me in public. I’d had to relive this awful cycle so many times, at so many different schools, that sometimes I really wanted to put my head through a wall. All I wanted from the world anymore was to be perfectly unremarkable. I wanted to know what it was like to walk through a room and be stared at by no one. But a single glance around campus deflated any hopes I might’ve had for blending in.
The student body was, for the most part, a homogenous mass of about two thousand people who were apparently in love with basketball. I’d already walked past dozens of posters—and a massive banner hung over the front doors—celebrating a team that wasn’t even in season yet. There were oversize black-and-white numbers taped to hallway walls, signs screaming at passersby to count down the days until the first game of the season.
I had no interest in basketball.
Instead, I’d been counting the number of dipshit things people had said to me today. I’d been holding strong at fourteen until I made my way to my next class and some kid passing me in the hall asked if I wore that thing on my head because I was hiding bombs underneath and I ignored him, and then his friend said that maybe I was secretly bald and I ignored him, and then a third one said that I was probably, actually, a man, and just trying to hide it and finally I told them all to fuck off, even as they congratulated one another on having drummed up these excellent hypotheses. I had no idea what these asswipes looked like because I never glanced in their direction, but I was thinking seventeen, seventeen, as I got to my next class way too early and waited, in the dark, for everyone else to show up.
These, the regular injections of poison I was gifted from strangers, were definitely the worst things about wearing a headscarf. But the best thing about it was that my teachers couldn’t see me listening to music.
It gave me the perfect cover for my earbuds.
Music made my day so much easier. Walking through the halls at school was somehow easier; sitting alone all the time was easier. I loved that no one could tell I was listening to music and that, because no one knew, I was never asked to turn it off. I’d had multiple conversations with teachers who had no idea I was only half hearing whatever they were saying to me, and for some reason this made me happy. Music seemed to steady me like a second skeleton; I leaned on it when my own bones were too shaken to stand. I always listened to music on the iPod I’d stolen from my brother and, here—as I did last year, when he first bought the thing—I walked to class like I was listening to the soundtrack of my own shitty movie. It gave me an inexplicable kind of hope.
When my last class of the day had finally assembled, I was already watching my teacher on mute. My mind wandered; I kept checking the clock, desperate to escape. Today, the Fugees were filling the holes in my head, and I stared at my pencil case, turning it over and over in my hands. I was really into mechanical pencils. Like, nice ones. I had a small collection, actually, that I’d gotten from an old friend from four moves ago; she’d brought them back for me from Japan and I was mildly obsessed. The pencils were delicate and colorful and glittery and they’d come with a set of adorable erasers and this really cute case with a cartoon picture of a sheep on it, and the sheep said Do not make light of me just because I am a sheep, and I’d always thought it was so funny and strange and I was remembering this now, smiling a little, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. Hard.
“What?” I turned around as I said it, speaking too loudly by accident.
Some dude. He looked startled.
“What?” I said quietly, irritated now.
He said something but I couldn’t hear him. I tugged the iPod out of my pocket and hit pause.
“Uh.” He blinked at me. Smiled, but seemed confused about it. “You’re listening to music under there?”
“Can I help you?”
“Oh. No. No, I just bumped your shoulder with my book. By accident. I was trying to say sorry.”
“Okay.” I turned back around. I hit play on my music again.
The day passed.
People had butchered my name, teachers hadn’t known what the hell to do with me, my math teacher looked at my face and gave a five-minute speech to the class about how people who don’t love this country should just go back to where they came from and I stared at my textbook so hard it was days before I could get the quadratic equation out of my head.
Not one of my classmates spoke to me, no one but the kid who accidentally assaulted my shoulder with his bio book.
I wished I didn’t care.
I walked home that day feeling both relieved and dejected. It took a lot out of me to put up the walls that kept me safe from heartbreak, and at the end of every day I felt so withered by the emotional exertion that sometimes my whole body felt shaky. I was trying to steady myself as I made my way down the quiet stretch of sidewalk that would carry me home—trying to shake this heavy, sad fog from my head—when a car slowed down just long enough for a lady to shout at me that I was in America now, so I should dress like it, and I was just, I don’t know, I was so goddamn tired I couldn’t even drum up the enthusiasm to be angry, not even as I offered her a full view of my middle finger as she drove away.
Two and a half more years, was all I could think.
Two and a half more years until I could get free from this panopticon they called high school, these monsters they called people. I was desperate to escape the institution of idiots. I wanted to go to college, make my own life. I just had to survive until then.
My parents were actually pretty great, as far as human beings went. They were proud Iranian immigrants who worked hard, all day, to make my life—and my brother’s life—better. Every move we made was to bring us into a better neighborhood, into a bigger house, into a better school district with better options for our future. They never stopped fighting, my parents. Never stopped striving. I knew they loved me. But you have to know, right up front, that they had zero sympathy for what they considered were my unremarkable struggles.
My parents never talked to my teachers. They never called my school. They never threatened to call some other kid’s mother because her son threw a rock at my face. People had been shitting on me for having the wrong name/race/religion and socioeconomic status since as far back as I could remember, but my life had been so easy in comparison to my parents’ own upbringing that they genuinely couldn’t understand why I didn’t wake up singing every morning. My dad’s personal story was so insane—he’d left home, all alone, for America when he was sixteen—that the part where he was drafted to go to war in Vietnam actually seemed like a highlight. When I was a kid and would tell my mom that people at school were mean to me, she’d pat me on the head and tell me stories about how she’d lived through war and an actual revolution, and when she was fifteen someone cracked open her skull in the middle of the street while her best friend was gutted like a fish so, hey, why don’t you just eat your Cheerios and walk it off, you ungrateful American child.
I ate my Cheerios. I didn’t talk about it.
I loved my parents, I really did. But I never talked to them about my own pain. It was impossible to compete for sympathy with a mother and father who thought I was lucky to attend a school where the teachers only said mean things to you and didn’t actually beat the shit out of you.
So I never said much anymore.
I’d come home from school and shrug through my parents’ many questions about my day. I’d do my homework; I’d keep myself busy. I read a lot of books. It’s such a cliché, I know, the lonely kid and her books, but the day my brother walked into my room and chucked a copy of Harry Potter at my head and said, “I won this at school, looks like something you’d enjoy,” was one of the best days of my life. The few friends I’d made who didn’t live exclusively on paper had collapsed into little more than memories and even those were fading fast. I’d lost a lot in our moves—things, stuff, objects—but nothing hurt as much as losing people.
Anyway, I was usually on my own.
My brother, though, he was always busy. He and I used to be close, used to be best friends, but then one day he woke up to discover he was cool and handsome and I was not, that in fact my very existence scared the crap out of people, and, I don’t know, we lost touch. It wasn’t on purpose. He just always had people to see, things to do, girls to call, and I didn’t. I liked my brother, though. Loved him, even. He was a good guy when he wasn’t annoying the shit out of me.
I survived the first three weeks at my new school with very little to report. It was unexciting. Tedious. I interacted with people on only the most basic, perfunctory levels, and otherwise spent most of my time listening to music. Reading. Flipping through Vogue. I was really into complicated fashion that I could never afford and I spent my weekends scouring thrift stores, trying to find pieces that were reminiscent of my favorite looks from the runway, looks that I would later, in the quiet of my bedroom, attempt to re-create. But I was only mediocre with a sewing machine; I did my best work by hand. Even so, I kept breaking needles and accidentally stabbing myself and showing up to school with too many Band-Aids on my fingers, prompting my teachers to shoot me even weirder looks than usual. Still, it kept me distracted. It was only the middle of September and I was already struggling to give even the vaguest shit about school.
After another exhilarating day at the panopticon I collapsed onto the couch. My parents weren’t home from work yet, and I didn’t know where my brother was. I sighed, turned on the television, and tugged my scarf off my head. Pulled the ponytail free and ran a hand through my hair. Settled back onto the couch.
There were Matlock reruns on TV every afternoon at exactly this hour, and I was not embarrassed to admit out loud that I loved them. I loved Matlock. It was a show that was created even before I was born, about a really old, really expensive lawyer named Matlock who solved criminal cases for a ton of money. These days it was popular only with the geriatric crowd, but this didn’t bother me. I often felt like a very old person trapped in a young person’s body; Matlock was my people. All I needed was a bowl of prunes or a cup of applesauce to finish off the look, and I was beginning to wonder if maybe we had some stashed somewhere in the fridge when I heard my brother come home.
At first I didn’t think anything of it. He shouted a hello to the house and I made a noncommittal noise; Matlock was being awesome and I couldn’t be bothered to look away.
“Hey—didn’t you hear me?”
I popped my head up. Saw my brother’s face.
“I brought some friends over,” he was saying, and even then I didn’t quite understand, not until one of the guys walked into the living room and I stood up so fast I almost fell over.
“What the hell, Navid?” I hissed, and grabbed my scarf. It was a comfortable, pashmina shawl that was normally very easy to wear, but I fumbled in the moment, feeling flustered, and somehow ended up shoving it onto my head. The guy just smiled at me.
“Oh—don’t worry,” he said quickly. “I’m like eighty percent gay.”
“That’s nice,” I said, irritated, “but this isn’t about you.”
“This is Bijan,” Navid said to me, and he could hardly contain his laughter as he nodded at the new guy, who was so obviously Persian I almost couldn’t believe it; I didn’t think there were other Middle Eastern people in this town. But Navid was now laughing at my face and I realized then that I must’ve looked ridiculous, standing there with my scarf bunched awkwardly on my head. “Carlos and Jacobi are—”
I ran upstairs.
I spent a few minutes considering, as I paced the length of my bedroom floor, how embarrassing that incident had been. I felt flustered and stupid, caught off guard like that, but I finally decided that though the whole thing was kind of embarrassing, it was not so embarrassing that I could justify hiding up here for hours without food. So I tied my hair back, carefully reassembled myself—I didn’t like pinning my scarf in place, so I usually wrapped it loosely around my head, tossing the longer ends over my shoulders—and reemerged.
When I walked into the living room, I discovered the four boys sitting on the couch and eating, what looked like, everything in our pantry. One of them had actually found a bag of prunes and was currently engaged in stuffing them in his mouth.
“Hey.” Navid glanced up.
The boy with the prunes looked at me. “So you’re the little sister?”
I crossed my arms.
“This is Carlos,” Navid said. He nodded at the other guy I hadn’t met, this really tall black dude, and said, “That’s Jacobi.”
Jacobi waved an unenthusiastic hand without even looking in my direction. He was eating all the rosewater nougat my mom’s sister had sent her from Iran. I doubted he even knew what it was.
Not for the first time, I was left in awe of the insatiable appetite of teenage boys. It grossed me out in a way I couldn’t really articulate. Navid was the only one who wasn’t eating anything at the moment; instead, he was drinking one of those disgusting protein shakes.
Bijan looked me up and down and said, “You look better.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “How long are you guys going to be here?”
“Don’t be rude,” Navid said without looking up. He was now on his knees, messing with the VCR. “I wanted to show these guys Breakin’.”
I was more than a little surprised.
Breakin’ was one of my favorite movies.
I couldn’t remember how our obsession started, exactly, but my brother and I had always loved breakdancing videos. Movies about breakdancing; hours-long breakdancing competitions from around the world; whatever, anything. It was a thing we shared—a love of this forgotten sport—that had often brought us together at the end of the day. We’d found this movie, Breakin’, at a flea market a few years ago, and we’d watched it at least twenty times already.
“Why?” I said. I sat down in an armchair, curled my legs up underneath me. I wasn’t going anywhere. Breakin’ was one of the few things I enjoyed more than Matlock. “What’s the occasion?”
Navid turned back. Smiled at me. “I want to start a breakdancing crew.”
I stared at him. “Are you serious?”
Navid and I had talked about this so many times before: what it would be like to breakdance—to really learn and perform—but we’d never actually done anything about it. It was something I’d thought about for years.
Navid stood up then. He smiled wider. I knew he could tell I was super excited. “You in?”
“Fuck yeah,” I said softly.
My mom walked into the room at that exact moment and whacked me in the back of the head with a wooden spoon.
“Fosh nadeh,” she snapped. Don’t swear.
I rubbed the back of my head. “Damn, Ma,” I said. “That shit hurt.”
She whacked me in the back of the head again.
“Who’s this?” she said, and nodded at my brother’s new friends.
Navid made quick work of the introductions while my mother took inventory of all that they’d eaten. She shook her head. “Een chiyeh?” she said. What’s this? And then, in English: “This isn’t food.”
“It’s all we had,” Navid said to her. Which was sort of true. My parents never, ever bought junk food. We never had chips or cookies lying around. When I wanted a snack my mom would hand me a cucumber.
My mother sighed dramatically at Navid’s comment and started scrounging up actual food for us. She then said something in Farsi about how she’d spent all these years teaching her kids how to cook and if she came home from work tomorrow and someone hadn’t already made dinner for her we were both going to get our asses kicked—and I was only forty percent sure she was joking.
Navid looked annoyed and I almost started laughing when my mom turned on me and said, “How’s school?”
That wiped the smile off my face pretty quickly. But I knew she wasn’t asking about my social life. My mom wanted to know about my grades. I’d been in school for less than a month and she was already asking about my grades.
“School’s fine,” I said.
She nodded, and then she was gone. Always moving, doing, surviving.
I turned to my brother. “So?”
“Tomorrow,” he said, “we’re going to meet after school.”
“And if we get a teacher to supervise,” Carlos said, “we could make it an official club on campus.”
“Nice.” I beamed at my brother.
“I know, right?”
“So, uh, small detail,” I said, frowning. “Something I think you might’ve forgotten—?”
Navid raised an eyebrow.
“Who’s going to teach us to breakdance?”
“I am,” Navid said, and smiled.
My brother had a bench press in his bedroom that took up half the floor. He found it, disassembled and rusted, next to a dumpster one day, and he hauled it back to one of our old apartments, fixed it, spray-painted it, and slowly amassed a collection of weights to go with it. He dragged that thing around with us everywhere we moved. He loved to train, my brother. To run. To box. He used to take gymnastic classes until they got to be too expensive, and I think he secretly wanted to be a personal trainer. He’d been working out since he was twelve; he was all muscle and virtually no body fat, and I knew this because he liked to update me on his body-fat percentage on a regular basis. Once, when I’d said, “Good for you,” he’d pinched my arm and pursed his lips and said, “Not bad, not bad, but you could stand to build more muscle,” and he’d been forcing me to work out with him and his bench press ever since.
So when he said he wanted to teach us how to breakdance, I believed him.
But things were about to get weird.
It happened a lot, right? In high school? Lab partners. That shit. I hated that shit. It was always an ordeal for me, the awkward, agonizing embarrassment of having no one to work with, having to talk to the teacher quietly at the end of class to tell her you don’t have a partner, could you work by yourself, would that be possible, and she’d say no, she’d smile beatifically, she’d think she was doing you a favor by making you the third in a pair that had been very excited about working the hell alone, Jesus Christ—
Well, it didn’t happen that way this time.
This time God parted the heavens and slapped some sense into my teacher who made us partner off at random, selecting pairs based on our seats, and that was how I found myself in the sudden position of being ordered to skin a dead cat with the guy who hit me in the shoulder with his bio book on the first day of school.
His name was Ocean.
People took one look at my face and they expected my name to be strange, but one look at this dude’s very Ken-Barbie face and I had not expected his name to be Ocean.
“My parents are weird,” was all he said by way of explanation.
We skinned the dead cat in silence, mostly because it was disgusting and no one wanted to narrate the experience of cutting into sopping flesh that stank of formaldehyde, and all I could think was that high school was so stupid, and what the hell were we doing, why was this a requirement oh my God this was so sick, so sick, I couldn’t believe we had to work on the same dead cat for two months—
“I can’t stay long, but I have a little time after school,” Ocean said. It felt like a sudden statement, but I realized only then that he’d been talking for a while; I was so focused on this flimsy scalpel in my hand that I hadn’t noticed.
I looked up. “Excuse me?”
He was filling out his lab sheet. “We still have to write a report for today’s findings,” he said, and glanced up at the clock. “But the bell is about to ring. So we should probably finish this after school.” He looked at me. “Right?”
“Oh. Well. I can’t meet after school.”
Ocean went a little pink around the ears. “Oh,” he said. “Right. I get it. Are you— I mean, are you not allowed, to, like—”
“Wow,” I said, my eyes going wide. “Wow.” I shook my head, washed my hands, and sighed.
“Wow what?” he said quietly.
I looked at him. “Listen, I don’t know what you’ve already decided about what you think my life is like, but I’m not about to be sold off by my parents for a pile of goats, okay?”
“Herd of goats,” he said, clearing his throat. “It’s a herd—”
“Whatever the hell kind of goats, I don’t care.”
“I just happen to have shit to do after school.”
“So maybe we can figure this out some other way,” I said. “Okay?”
“Oh. Okay. What, uh, what are you doing after school?”
I’d been stuffing my things into my backpack when he asked the question, and I was so caught off guard I dropped my pencil case. I reached down to grab it. When I stood up he was staring at me.
“What?” I said. “Why do you care?”
He looked really uncomfortable now. “I don’t know.”
I studied him just long enough to analyze the situation. Maybe I was being a little too hard on Ocean with the weird parents. I shoved my pencil case into my backpack and zipped the whole thing away. Adjusted the straps over my shoulders. “I’m joining a breakdancing crew,” I said.
Ocean frowned and smiled at the same time. “Is that a joke?”
I rolled my eyes. The bell rang.
“I have to go,” I said.
“But what about the lab work?”
I mulled over my options and finally just wrote down my phone number. I handed it to him. “You can text me. We’ll work on it tonight.”
He stared at the piece of paper.
“But be careful with that,” I said, nodding at the paper, “because if you text me too much, you’ll have to marry me. It’s the rules of my religion.”
He blanched. “Wait. What?”
I was almost smiling. “I have to go, Ocean.”
“Wait— No, seriously— You’re joking, right?”
“Wow,” I said, and I shook my head. “Bye.”
My brother, as promised, had managed to get a teacher to sign off on the whole breakdancing thing. We’d have paperwork by the end of the week to make the club official, which meant that, for the first time in my life, I’d be involved in an extracurricular activity, which felt strange. Extracurricular activities weren’t really my thing.
Still, I was over the goddamn moon.
I’d always wanted to do something like this. Breakdancing was something I’d admired forever and always from afar; I’d watched b-girls perform in competitions and I thought they looked so cool—so strong. I wanted to be like them. But breakdancing wasn’t like ballet; it wasn’t something you could look up in the yellow pages. There weren’t breakdancing schools, not where I lived. There weren’t retired breakdancers just lying around, waiting for my parents to pay them in Persian food to teach me to perfect a flare. I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to do something like this if it weren’t for Navid. He’d confessed to me, last night, that he’d been secretly learning and practicing on his own these last couple of years, and I was blown away by how much he’d progressed all by himself. Of the two of us, he was the one who’d really taken our dream seriously—and the realization made me both proud of him and disappointed in myself.
Navid was taking a risk.
We moved around so much that I felt like I could never make plans anymore. I never made commitments, never joined school clubs. Never bought a yearbook. I never memorized phone numbers or street names or learned anything more than was absolutely necessary about the town I lived in. There didn’t seem to be a point. Navid had struggled with this, too, in his own way, but he said he was done waiting for the right moment. He would be graduating this year, and he finally wanted to give breakdancing a shot before he went off to college and everything changed. I was proud of him.
I waved when I walked into our first practice.
We were meeting in one of the dance rooms inside the school’s gym, and my brother’s three new friends looked me up and down again, even though we’d already met. They seemed to be assessing me.
“So,” Carlos said. “You break?”
“Not yet,” I said, feeling suddenly self-conscious.
“That’s not true.” My brother stepped forward and smiled at me. “Her uprock isn’t bad and she does a decent six-step.”
“But I don’t know any power moves,” I said.
“That’s okay. I’m going to teach you.”
It was then that I sat down and wondered whether Navid wasn’t doing this whole thing just to throw me a bone. Maybe I was imagining it, but for the first time in a long while, my brother seemed to be mine again, and I didn’t realize until just that moment how much I’d missed him.
He was dyslexic, my brother. When he started middle school and began failing every subject, I finally realized that he and I hated school for very different reasons. Words and letters never made sense to him like they did to me. And it wasn’t until two years ago when he was threatened with expulsion that he finally told me the truth.
Screamed it, actually.
My mom had ordered me to help him with his homework. We couldn’t afford a tutor, so I would have to do, and I was pissed. Tutoring my older brother was not how I wanted to spend my free time. So when he refused to do the work, I got angry.
“Just answer the question,” I’d snap at him. “It’s simple reading comprehension. Read the paragraph and summarize, in a couple of sentences, what it was about. That’s it. It’s not rocket science.”
I insulted him.
He insulted me back.
I insulted him more.
“Just answer the goddamn question why are you so lazy what the hell is wrong with you—”
And finally he just exploded.
That was the day I learned that my brother, my beautiful, brilliant older brother, couldn’t make sense of words and letters the way that I could. He’d spend half an hour reading a paragraph over and over again and even then, he didn’t know what to do with it. He couldn’t craft sentences. He struggled, tremendously, to translate his thoughts into words.
So I started teaching him how.
We worked together every day for hours, late into the night, until one day he could put sentences together by himself. Months later he was writing paragraphs. It took a year, but he finally wrote his own research paper. And the thing no one ever knew was that I did all his schoolwork in the interim. All his writing assignments. I wrote every paper for him until he could do it on his own.
I thought maybe this was his way of saying thanks. I mean, it almost certainly wasn’t, but I couldn’t help but wonder why else he’d take this chance on me. The other guys he’d collected—Jacobi, Carlos, and Bijan—already had experience in other crews. None of them were experts, but they weren’t novices, either. I was the one who needed the most work, and Navid was the only one who didn’t seem irritated about it.
Carlos, in particular, wouldn’t stop looking at me. He seemed skeptical that I’d end up any good, and he told me so. He wasn’t even mean about it, just matter of fact.
“What?” I said. “Why not?”
He shrugged. But he was staring at my outfit.
I’d switched into some of the only gym clothes I owned—a pair of slim sweatpants and a thin hoodie—but I was also wearing a different scarf; it was made of a light, cotton material that I’d tied up into a turban style, and this seemed to distract him.
Finally, he nodded at my head and said, “You can breakdance in that?”
My eyes widened. For some reason I was surprised. I don’t know why I’d thought these dudes would be marginally less stupid than all the other ones I’d known.
“Are you for real?” I said. “What a dick thing to say.”
He laughed and said, “I’m sorry, I’ve just never seen anyone try to breakdance like that before.”
“Wow,” I said, stunned. “I’ve literally never seen you take off that beanie, but you’re giving me shit for this?”
Carlos looked surprised. He laughed harder. He tugged the beanie off his head and ran his hand through his hair. He had very black, springy curls that were slightly too long and kept falling in his face. He put the beanie back on. “All right,” he said. “All right. Okay. Sorry.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, but he was smiling. “Seriously. I’m sorry. That was a dick thing to say. You’re right. I’m an asshole.”
Navid was laughing so hard. I suddenly hated everyone.
Jacobi shook his head and said, “Damn.”
“Wow,” I said. “You all suck.”
“Hey—” Bijan was in the middle of stretching his legs. He pretended to look hurt. “That’s not fair. Jacobi and I didn’t even say anything.”
“Yeah but you were thinking it, weren’t you?”
“Navid,” I said, “your friends suck.”
“They’re a work in progress,” he said, and chucked a water bottle at Carlos, who dodged it easily.
Carlos was still laughing. He walked over to where I was sitting on the floor and offered me his hand.
I raised an eyebrow at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “Really.”
I took his hand. He hauled me to my feet.
“All right,” he said. “Let me see that six-step I keep hearing about.”
I spent the rest of that day practicing simple skills: doing handstands and push-ups and trying to improve my uprock. An uprock was the dance you did while you were upright. Much of breakdancing was performed on the ground, but an uprock was given its own, special attention; it was what you did first—it was an introduction, an opportunity to set the stage—before you broke your body down, figuratively, into a downrock and the subsequent power moves and poses that generally constituted a single performance.
I knew how to do a very basic uprock. My footwork was simple, my movements fluid but uninspired. I had a natural feel for the beats in the music—could easily sync my movements to the rhythm—but that wasn’t enough. The best breakdancers had their own signature styles, and my moves were still generic. I knew this—had always known this—but the guys pointed it out to me anyway. We were talking, as a group, about what we knew and what we wanted to learn, and I was leaning back on my hands when my brother tapped my knuckles and said, “Let me see your wrists.”
I held out my hands.
He bent them forward and backward. “You’ve got really flexible wrists,” he said. He pressed my palm backward. “This doesn’t hurt?”
I shook my head.
He smiled, his eyes bright with excitement. “We’re going to teach you how to do the crab walk. That will be your signature power move.”
My eyes widened. The crab walk was exactly as strange as it sounded. It was nothing at all like the sort of thing they taught you in elementary school gym classes; instead, it was a move that, like much of breakdancing, challenged the basic rules of gravity. It required total core strength. You held your body weight up on your hands—your elbows tucked into your torso—and you walked. With your hands.
It was hard. Really hard.
“Cool,” I said.
Somehow, it had been the best day of high school I’d ever had.
I didn’t end up getting home until around five, and by the time I’d finished showering my mom had already shouted at us several times that dinner was ready. I made my way downstairs even though I knew I had a bunch of worried, and later, exasperated, text messages from Ocean waiting for me on my phone, but only because I didn’t have the kind of parents who allowed me to ignore dinner—not even for homework. Ocean would have to wait.
Everyone was already assembled when I made it downstairs. My dad had his laptop out—the ethernet cable dragging all across the floor—and his reading glasses on his head; he waved me over when I walked into the room. He was reading an article about pickling cucumbers.
“Mibini?” he was saying to me. Do you see? “Very easy.”
It didn’t look particularly easy to me, but I shrugged. My dad was a master of making things, and he was always trying to recruit me to join him in his projects, which I didn’t mind at all. In fact, it was kind of our thing.
I was nine the first time my dad took me to a hardware store, and I’d thought the place was so cool my brain just about exploded. I began daydreaming about going back there, about saving up the money I would’ve otherwise spent on Lisa Frank notebooks and instead purchasing a piece of plywood just to see what I could do with it. Later, my dad was the one who taught me how to work a needle and thread. He’d seen me stapling the cuffs of my jeans to keep them from dragging, and one night he showed me how to properly hem a pair of pants. He also taught me how to swing an ax to split firewood. How to change a flat tire.
But sometimes my dad’s mind worked so quickly I almost couldn’t keep up. My father’s father—my grandfather—had been an architect in Iran, responsible for designing some of the country’s most beautiful buildings, and I could see that same kind of brain in my dad. He devoured books even faster than I did; he carried them around with him everywhere. Wherever we’d lived, our garage became his workshop. He’d rebuild car engines, for fun. He built the table we were currently sitting around—it was a re-creation of a mid-century Danish style he’d always loved—and when my mom went back to school and needed a bag, my dad insisted on making one for her. He studied patterns. He bought the leather. And then he pieced it together for her, stitch by stitch. He still has a scar, spanning three of his fingers, where he accidentally sliced his skin open.
It was his idea of a romantic gesture.
Dinner was already on the table, slightly steaming. I’d been able to smell it from upstairs: the scents of buttery basmati rice and fesenjoon had flooded the whole house. Fesenjoon was a kind of stew made of walnut paste and pomegranate molasses, which sounds weird, I know, but it was so, so good. Most people made fesenjoon with chicken, but my late aunt had reinvented it with bite-size meatballs, and it had become a family recipe in her honor. There were also little side dishes of pickled vegetables and garlic yogurt and the still-warm disks of fresh bread that my dad baked every evening. There was a plate of fresh herbs and radishes and little towers of feta cheese. A bowl of dates. A cup of fresh, baby walnuts. The samovar, gurgling quietly in the background.
Food was a fixture in our home, and in Persian culture in general. Mealtimes were gathering moments, and my parents never allowed us to break this tradition, no matter how badly we wanted to watch something on TV or had somewhere else we wanted to be. It had only occurred to me a couple of years ago, when a friend of Navid’s had come over for dinner, that not everyone cared about food like this. He thought it was kind of crazy. But this—here, on the table tonight—this was the extremely stripped down version of a Persian dinner. This was how we set a table when we were really busy and no one was coming to visit. For us, it was normal.
It was home.
When I finally made it upstairs, it was past eight, and Ocean had hit peak panic.
I cringed as I clicked through his messages.
this is ocean
i really hope this is the right number
this is ocean, your lab partner, remember?
it’s getting late and now i’m getting worried
we really have to finish this before class tomorrow
are you there?
I’d only gotten a cell phone a few months ago, and it had taken a great deal of begging—everyone I knew got theirs the year prior—before my parents finally, begrudgingly, took me to a T-Mobile store to get my very own Nokia brick. We had a family plan, which meant our limited bundle of minutes and text messages were to be shared by all four of us, and text messaging, though still kind of a brand-new phenomenon, had already caused me a lot of trouble. Somehow, in my excitement to experience the novelty of text messages (I’d once sent Navid thirty messages in a row just to piss him off), I’d gone way over our limit in the span of a single week, racking up a bill that caused my parents to sit me down and threaten to take away my phone. I realized far too late that I was being charged not only for the texts I sent, but also for the ones I received.
One glance at Ocean’s long string of messages told me a lot about the state of his bank account.
hi, I wrote. you know these text messages are expensive, right?
Ocean wrote back immediately.
i nearly gave up on you
sorry about the texts
do you have AIM?
AIM was how I figured we’d do most of our talking tonight. Sometimes kids used MSN Messenger to connect, but mostly we used the tried-and-true, the one and only, the magical portal that was AOL Instant Messenger. Still, I was always a bit behind on the technological front. I knew there were teenagers out there with fancy Apple computers and their own digital cameras, but we’d only just gotten DSL in my house, and it was an actual miracle that I had an old, busted computer in my bedroom that managed to connect to the internet. It took me like fifteen minutes just to turn the thing on, but eventually we were both logged in. Our names now lived in a little square messaging window all our own. I was really impressed Ocean didn’t have some kind of douchey screen name.
I checked his profile automatically—it was practically a reflex—but I was surprised to find that he’d left it blank. Well, not blank, exactly.
It said paranoid android and nothing else.
I almost smiled. I wasn’t sure, but I was hoping this was a reference to a Radiohead song. Then again, maybe I was imagining something that wasn’t there; I really liked Radiohead. In fact, my AIM profile currently contained a list of songs I was listening to on repeat last week—
- Differences, by Ginuwine
- 7 Days, by Craig David
- Hate Me Now, by Nas
- No Surprises, by Radiohead
- Whenever, Wherever, by Shakira
- Pardon Me, by Incubus
- Doo Wop, by Lauryn Hill
—and only then did I realize that Ocean might check my profile, too.
For some reason, I quickly deleted the contents. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t explain why I didn’t want him to know what kind of music I listened to. It was just that the whole thing felt suddenly too invasive. Too personal.
riversandoceans04: Where were you today?
jujehpolo: I had a really busy afternoon
jujehpolo: I just saw your messages
riversandoceans04: Were you really breakdancing after school?
riversandoceans04: Wow. That’s cool.
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t really know how to respond. I’d just looked away to grab my backpack when I heard, once again, the soft double ding that indicated I’d received a new message, and I turned down the volume on my computer. I checked to make sure my door was closed. I felt suddenly self-conscious. I was talking to a boy in my bedroom. I was talking to a boy in my bedroom. AIM made things feel unexpectedly intimate.
riversandoceans04: Hey I’m sorry for thinking you weren’t allowed to do things after school.
riversandoceans04: I shouldn’t have said that
And I sighed.
Ocean was trying to be friendly. He was trying to be a friend, even. Maybe. But Ocean was all the traditionally pleasant things a girl might like about a guy, which made his friendliness dangerous to me. I might’ve been an angry teenager, but I wasn’t also blind. I wasn’t magically immune to cute guys, and it had not escaped my notice that Ocean was a superlative kind of good-looking. He dressed nicely. He smelled pleasant. He was very polite. But he and I seemed to come from worlds so diametrically opposed that I knew better than to allow his friendship in my life. I didn’t want to get to know him. I didn’t want to be attracted to him. I didn’t want to think about him, period. Not just him, in fact, but anyone like him. I was so good at denying myself this, the simple pleasure of even a secret crush, that the thoughts were never allowed to marinate in my mind.
I’d been here so many times before.
Though for most guys I was little more than an object of ridicule, occasionally I became an object of fascination. For whatever reason, some guys developed an intense, focused interest in me and my life that I used to misunderstand as romantic interest. Instead, I discovered—after a great deal of embarrassment—that it was more like they thought of me as a curiosity; an exotic specimen behind glass. They wanted only to observe me from a comfortable distance, not for me to exist in their lives in any permanent way. I’d experienced this enough times to have learned by now that I was never a real candidate for friendship—and certainly nothing more than that. I knew that Ocean, for example, would never befriend me beyond this school assignment. I knew he wouldn’t invite me into his inner circle where I’d fit in as well as a carrot might, when pushed through a juicer.
Ocean was trying to be nice, sure, but I knew that his sudden sympathetic heart was born only of awkward guilt, and that this was a road that would lead to nowhere. I found it exhausting.
jujehpolo: It’s okay
riversandoceans04: It’s not okay. I’ve felt terrible about it all afternoon.
riversandoceans04: I’m really sorry
riversandoceans04: I’ve just never actually talked to a girl who wears the headpiece thing before.
jujehpolo: Headpiece thing, wow
riversandoceans04: See? I don’t know anything
jujehpolo: You can just call it a scarf
riversandoceans04: That’s easy
riversandoceans04: I thought it was called something else.
jujehpolo: Listen, it’s really not a big deal. Can we just do the homework?
And I’d turned away for five seconds to grab the worksheets out of my backpack when there it was again—the soft double ding. Twice.
I looked up.
riversandoceans04: I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.
jujehpolo: I’m not uncomfortable.
jujehpolo: I think maybe you’re uncomfortable, though.
riversandoceans04: What? No
riversandoceans04: I’m not uncomfortable
riversandoceans04: What do you mean?
jujehpolo: I mean, is this going to be a problem? My headpiece thing?
jujehpolo: Is my whole situation just too weird for you?
Ocean didn’t respond for at least twenty seconds, which, in the moment, felt like an actual lifetime. I felt bad. Maybe I’d been too blunt. Maybe I was being mean. But he was trying so hard to be, I don’t know? Way too nice to me. It felt unnatural. And I just, I don’t know, it was making me mad.
Still, guilt gnawed at my mind. Maybe I’d hurt his feelings.
I drummed my fingers against the keyboard, wondering what to say. How to walk this back. We still had to be lab partners, after all.
Or maybe we didn’t. Maybe he’d just ask the teacher for a new partner. It had happened before. Once, when I’d been paired at random with another student, she’d just revolted. She flat out refused to be my partner in front of the entire class and then demanded to work with her friend. My teacher, flimsy pancake that she was, panicked and said okay. I ended up working alone. It was humiliating.
Maybe this time I’d brought the humiliation upon myself. Maybe Ocean would revolt, too. My stomach sank.
riversandoceans04: I don’t think you’re weird.
I blinked at the computer screen.
riversandoceans04: I’m sorry
Ocean appeared to be a chronic apologizer.
jujehpolo: It’s okay
jujehpolo: I’m sorry for putting you on the spot like that. You were just trying to be nice.
jujehpolo: I get it
jujehpolo: It’s fine
Another five seconds dragged on.
I sighed. Dropped my face into my hands. Somehow I’d made things awkward. Everything was fine, totally normal, and then I had to go and make it weird. There was only one way to fix this now. So I took a deep, sad breath, and typed.
jujehpolo: You don’t have to be my lab partner if you don’t want to be.
jujehpolo: It’s okay
jujehpolo: I can tell Mrs. Cho tomorrow.
riversandoceans04: Why would you say that?
riversandoceans04: You don’t want to be my lab partner?
jujehpolo: Uh, okay, I don’t know what’s happening.
riversandoceans04: Me neither
riversandoceans04: Do you want to be my lab partner?
riversandoceans04: I’m sorry
I stared at my computer. This conversation was giving me a headache.
jujehpolo: Why are you sorry?
Another couple of seconds.
riversandoceans04: I don’t actually know anymore
I almost laughed. I didn’t understand what the hell had just happened. I didn’t understand his apologies or his confusion and I didn’t even think I wanted to know. What I wanted was to go back to not caring about Ocean James, the boy with two first names. I’d spoken to this kid for a total of maybe an hour and suddenly his presence was in my bedroom, in my personal space, stressing me out.
I didn’t like it. It made me feel weird.
So I tried to keep things simple.
jujehpolo: Why don’t we just do the homework?
Another ten seconds.
And we did.
But I felt something change between us, and I had no idea what it was.
The next morning, my brother, who had a zero period and always left for school an hour before I did, stopped by my room to borrow the Wu-Tang CD I’d stolen from him. I’d been putting on mascara when he started knocking on my door, and he was now demanding I give him back not only his CD but his iPod, too, and I was shouting back that his iPod was far more useful to me during the school day then it had ever been for him, and I was still making this argument when I opened the door and he suddenly froze. He looked me up and down and his eyes widened, just a little.
“What?” I said.
I let him inside. I gave him the CD he was looking for. He kept looking at me.
“What?” I said again, irritated.
“Nothing,” he said, and laughed. “You look nice.”
I raised an eyebrow. This was a trick.
I looked down at what I was wearing. My sweater wasn’t new. But I’d bought these jeans from the thrift store last week and had just finished altering them. They’d been a few sizes too big for me, but the quality of the denim was too good to pass up. Besides, they’d only cost me fifty cents. “Sort of,” I said. “The jeans are new.”
He nodded. “Well, they’re nice.”
“Yeah. Okay,” I said. “Why are you being weird?”
He shrugged. “I’m not being weird,” he said. “The jeans are nice. They’re just, uh, really tight. I’m not used to seeing you in pants like that.”
“Hey, listen, I don’t care. They look good on you.”
“No, I mean it. They look nice.” He was still smiling.
“Oh my God, what?”
“Nothing,” he said for the third time. “I just, you know, I don’t think Ma is going to like seeing your ass in those jeans.”
I rolled my eyes. “Well she doesn’t have to look at my ass if she doesn’t want to.”
Navid laughed. “It’s just—sometimes what you wear doesn’t really match, you know? It’s a little confusing.” He gestured, vaguely, at my head, even though I hadn’t put on my scarf yet. Still, I knew what he was trying to say. I knew he was trying not to be judgmental. But the conversation irritated me.
People—and often guys—liked to say that Muslim women wore headscarves because they were trying to be demure, or because they were trying to cover up their beauty, and I knew that there were ladies in the world who felt that way. I couldn’t speak for all Muslim women—no one could—but it was a sentiment with which I fundamentally disagreed. I didn’t believe it was possible to hide a woman’s beauty. I thought women were gorgeous no matter what they wore, and I didn’t think they owed anyone an explanation for their sartorial choices. Different women felt comfortable in different outfits.
They were all beautiful.
But it was only the monsters who forced women to wear human potato sacks all day that managed to make headline news, and these assholes had somehow set the tone for all of us. No one even asked me the question anymore; people just assumed they knew the answer, and they were nearly always wrong. I dressed the way I did not because I was trying to be a nun, but because it felt good—and because it made me feel less vulnerable in general, like I wore a kind of armor every day. It was a personal preference. I definitely didn’t do it because I was trying to be modest for the sake of some douchebag who couldn’t keep his dick in his pants. People struggled to believe this, because people struggled to believe women in general.
It was one of the greatest frustrations of my life.
So I shoved Navid out of my room and told him it was none of his business what my ass looked like in my jeans and he said, “No, I know—that’s not what I meant—”
“Don’t make it weird,” I said, and closed the door in his face.
After he left, I looked in the mirror.
The jeans were nice.
The days continued to dissolve, and quietly.
Aside from breakdancing, pretty much nothing had changed except that Ocean was suddenly different around me in bio. He’d been different ever since that first, and only, AIM conversation we’d had, over two weeks ago.
He talked too much.
He was always saying things like Wow, the weather is so weird today and How was your weekend? and Hey, did you study for the quiz on Friday? and it surprised me, every single time. I’d glance at him for only a second and say Yeah, the weather is weird and Um, my weekend was fine and No, I didn’t study for the quiz on Friday and he’d smile and say I know, right? and That’s nice and Really? I’ve been studying all week and I’d usually ignore him. I never asked him a follow-up question.
Maybe I was being rude, but I didn’t care.
Ocean was a really good-looking guy, and I know this doesn’t sound like a valid reason to dislike someone, but it was reason enough for me. He made me nervous. I didn’t want to talk to him. I didn’t want to get to know him. I didn’t want to like him, which was harder than you’d think, because he was very likable. Falling for someone like Ocean, I knew, would only end badly for me. I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
Today he’d been trying really hard to make small talk—which I guessed was understandable, as it was otherwise awkward to sit around for an hour saying nothing while you picked apart a dead cat—and he said, “So, are you going to homecoming?”
I’d actually looked up, then. I looked up because I was amazed. I laughed, softly, and turned away. His question was so ridiculous I didn’t even answer him. We’d been having pep rallies all week in anticipation of the homecoming game—it was a football thing, I think—and I’d been skipping them. We were also, apparently, having class spirit competitions, whatever that meant. I was supposed to be wearing green or blue or something today, but I wasn’t.
People were losing their minds over this shit.
“You don’t really do school stuff, huh?” Ocean said, and I wondered why he cared.
“No,” I said quietly. “I don’t really do school stuff.”
There was a part of me that wanted to be friendlier to Ocean, but sometimes it made me really, actually, physically uncomfortable when he was nice to me. It felt so fake. Some days our interactions felt like he was trying really hard to overcompensate for that first error, for thinking my parents were about to ship me off to a harem or something. Like he wanted another chance to prove he wasn’t close-minded, like he thought I might not notice that he went from thinking I couldn’t even meet up after school to thinking I might show up at a homecoming dance, all in the span of two weeks. I didn’t like it. I just didn’t trust it.
So I cut the heart out of a dead cat and called it a day.
I showed up to practice a little too early that afternoon and the room was still locked; Navid was the one who had the key that would let us in and he hadn’t arrived yet, so I slumped down on the ground and waited. I knew that basketball season was starting sometime next month—I knew this, because I saw the posters plastered everywhere—but the gym was, for some reason, already busier than I’d ever seen it. It was loud. Super loud. Lots of shouting. Lots of whistles blowing and sneakers squeaking. I didn’t really know what was happening; I didn’t know much about sports, in general. All I heard were the thunderous sounds of many feet running across a court. I could hear it through the walls.
When I finally got into the dance room with the other guys, we turned up the music and did our best to drown out the reverberations of the many basketballs hitting the floor. I was working with Jacobi today, who was showing me how to improve my footwork.
I already knew how to do a basic six-step, which was exactly what it sounded like: it was a series of six steps performed on the ground. You held yourself up on your arms while your legs did most of the work, moving you in a sort of circular motion. This served as an introduction to your power move—which was your acrobatic move—the kind of thing that looked, sometimes, like what you saw gymnasts do on a pommel horse, except way cooler. Breakdancing was, in many ways, closer to something like capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian form of martial arts that involves a lot of kicks and spins in midair; capoeira made kicking someone’s ass look both scary and beautiful.
Breakdancing was kind of like that.
Jacobi was showing me how to add CCs to my six-step. They were called CCs because they were invented by a group of breakers who called themselves the Crazy Commandos, and not because the move looked anything like a c. They were body rotations that made my legwork more complex, and just, overall, made the routine look cooler. I’d been working at it for a while. I’d already learned how to do a double-handed CC, but I was still getting the hang of doing a one-handed CC, and Jacobi was watching me as I tried, over and over again, to get the thing right. When I finally did, he clapped, hard.
He was beaming.
“Nice job,” he said.
I just about fell backward. I was on the ground, splayed like a starfish, but I was smiling.
This was nothing; these were baby steps. But it felt so good.
Jacobi helped me to my feet and squeezed my shoulder. “Nice,” he said. “Seriously.”
I smiled at him.
I turned around to find my water bottle and suddenly froze.
Ocean was leaning against the doorframe, not quite in the room and not quite outside of it, a gym bag slung across his chest. He waved at me.
I looked around, confused, like maybe he’d been waving at someone else, but he laughed at me. Finally I just met him at the door, and I realized then that someone had propped it open. It happened, sometimes, when it got really hot in here; one of the guys would wedge the door open to let the room breathe a little.
Still, our open door had never attracted visitors before.
“Uh, hi,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
Ocean shook his head. He seemed, somehow, even more surprised than I was. “I was just walking by,” he said. “I heard the music. I wanted to know what was happening.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You were just walking by.”
“Yeah.” He smiled. “I, um, spend a lot of time in the gym. Anyway, I honestly didn’t know you’d be in here. Your music is just super loud.”
“But I figured I should say hi instead of standing here, watching you like a creep.”
“Good call,” I said, but I was frowning. Still processing. “So you don’t, like, need something? For class?”
He shook his head.
I stared at him.
Finally, he took a deep breath. “You really weren’t kidding,” he said. “About the breakdancing thing.”
I laughed. Looked at him incredulously. “You thought I would lie about something like that?”
“No,” he said, but he seemed suddenly uncertain. “I just, I don’t know. I didn’t know.”
“Are these your friends?” Ocean said. He was staring at Jacobi, who was shooting me a look that said Who’s the guy? and What’s going on? all at the same time.
“Sort of,” I said.
“Yeah.” I was so confused. “Um, I should go.”
Ocean nodded. Stood up straighter. “Yeah, me too.”
We said awkward goodbyes. As soon as he was out of sight, I closed the door.
Jacobi was the only one who noticed me talking to Ocean that day, and when he asked me about it, I said it was nothing, just a kid from class who needed something. I wasn’t even sure why I lied about it.
I was totally perplexed.