There was something about the boy's back that caught my eye, that made me pause on the way to the used-books stall and watch him string lights over a painted wooden stand at the annual school fair the summer I turned fourteen. Hours later, when the air cooled and the sky darkened, the lights would flash red, blue, green, and yellow and hordes of students would squeeze into the parking lot at Qala Academy's boys' section in Sharafiyah to stuff their faces with popcorn and cotton candy, buy bangles and DVDs, and throw darts at colored balloons to win cheap two-riyal toys made of old sofa foam and lint-covered velvet.
Maybe it was the translucent white polyester of his shirt that revealed the absence of the white undershirt worn by most schoolboys. Or the breeze that pressed said shirt to the long, smooth indent of his spine: a tunnel that trailed from nape to waist, flanked with thick muscle on both sides. Or maybe it was simply the novelty of being able to leisurely stare at a boy, without Masi constantly hovering around me like an overprotective bulldog.
"She's growing up fast," I had often heard her complain to Masa. "Too fast."
Too fast based on the looks she said I got from boys and even from some men at the deli, the supermarket, and the mall. From the way I walked, my "hips swaying like a loose woman's," if the boy that followed me home from the DVD store when I was eleven was any indication — even though at the time I had not known what it meant to be a loose woman.
Too fast, like my mother. A woman who, even as a teenager, wore no sudreh under her clothes and tied no kusti around her waist.
"How could she?" Masi's voice would boom through the house, as loud as a priest's at prayer time. "With those small-small shirts that she wore? 'It wouldn't be fashionable,' she would always say."
According to Masi, the story of my birth could have been made into a tragic film for Indian parallel cinema. My mother had worked as a bar girl in Mumbai, a woman who danced to remixed versions of popular Hindi songs in a shower of Gandhi-faced rupee notes, accompanied by drunken compliments and whistles. After my great-grandfather's death, it was the only way she could make money to support herself and her younger sister, my masi — not that Masi was ever grateful. My father worked as a hit man for a Mumbai don. He and my mother fell in love, did not marry, but had me. Then my father abandoned my mother, went off to Dubai, and got blown up by a pair of guns. The End.
There had been several articles in the newspapers about my father's death. "Fugitive Mumbai Gangster Shot Dead in Dubai." "Massacre in Deira." "Suraj Shinde's Final Salaam." On a trip back to Mumbai, I looked up these headlines one afternoon in the archives of a public library and even managed to find a small color photo of him — a broad-shouldered man with a square jaw, warm brown skin, and a frown exactly like mine.
My mother's death, on the other hand, was not documented anywhere, except perhaps in a Mumbai morgue. I would hear Masi talking to the Dog Lady about it at times over the phone — how some of my mother's bar patrons had shown up at the funeral — until the talk inevitably turned to me and the way I behaved after my mother died. "Never even cried, that girl," Masi would always say. "You'd think she had no feelings whatsoever. She makes me so angry sometimes. Keeps egging me on until I hit her."
My uncle had never approved of her hitting me. I had heard them fighting about it once a couple of years ago, when she'd left a bruise on my cheek for failing a Math test. But apart from that, he rarely, if ever, intervened about any other form of punishment Masi doled out. My disobedience was something he didn't approve of either; he often told me that Masi and I would get along better if I listened to her more, if I tried harder at school, if I didn't make her so angry by being argumentative.
In any case, Masa could never stay mad at her for long. The night they had argued, Masi woke us up with her screams. "I won't let you!" Masi's body jerked upward as she struggled against my uncle's grip on her wrists. Her teeth gnashed. White drool gathered at the corners of her lips. "She isn't — she isn't going with you!"
I'd watched Masa gently coax her out of the episode, the way he had several times before in Mumbai. "It's okay, Khorshi. It's okay. Did you forget your medicine again?" It took him two hours to make her take the pills and then soothe her back to sleep, crooning an old Hindi love song. A lullaby for a grown woman. Neither of them seemed to notice that I was there, watching from behind the partly open bedroom door.
I, on the other hand, never screamed when I had a nightmare. Neither Masa nor Masi knew about the cold sweats I woke up to late at night when I first came to live with them in Mumbai, or the ones I sometimes woke up to even now in Jeddah. Most nights I dreamed of my mother, saw candles glowing, tasted chocolate flakes on my lips. "Smile!" she would say, and a flash would go off repeatedly, until I woke up with a start. Other nights, I would have different dreams. Scarier ones of a man tossing me up high into the air. A loud cracking sound. A woman's scream. But then, just as quickly, the mornings would come and Masi's voice would rise, sonorous in prayer. I would turn once more into the Zarin they knew — a girl who no longer cried or jumped back in surprise when her aunt gave her a beating.
One day she made me so angry that I stuffed my underwear in a clothes drawer, allowing the navy-blue cloth of my academy kameez to touch my skin without hindrance, resisting the itch of the rough cotton. It had been worth it to hear Masi screech when she saw the outline of my nipples through the cloth — even more satisfying than the way her face purpled each time I winked at a boy at the mall or exchanged smiles with one at the supermarket.
It no longer mattered what Rusi Masa said in her defense — "She means well!" or "It's for your own good!" By then, I was fourteen and I already knew the truth: that Masi's protectionism stemmed not out of a genuine concern for my well-being, but from a paranoia of having males around me, especially those who reminded her of my "good-for-nothing gangster father."
It was basic psychology, Mishal Al-Abdulaziz told us at school. Girls were often attracted to boys who reminded them of their fathers, and boys, in turn, to girls who reminded them of their mothers.
But that day, at the academy fair, I was not looking for a fight with my aunt. I glanced around quickly, scanning the faces of the growing crowd of fairgoers for the glint of her big gold-rimmed spectacles or my uncle's bald head. I couldn't see either, which meant they were still talking to that man from Masa's office on the other side of the fairgrounds. It had been the man who'd suggested the used-books stall when Masa told him that I liked to read.
"Let her go," Masa had told Masi. "Maybe she can find those Harry Potter books the kids are always talking about."
Masi had frowned for a moment, but to my surprise, she did let me go, probably unwilling to create a scene in front of Masa's colleague. "No wandering around," she had told me in her curt voice. "We will join you very shortly."
The faint call for the maghrib prayer floated through the air from a nearby mosque. It would soon be followed by the rustle of prayer mats being rolled out in front of the stalls on the tarmac, the snap of shoelaces and the scrape of Velcro as men slipped off their shoes, splashed their faces, hands, and feet with water from a bottle, and stepped onto colorful rectangles with paisley designs, their heads covered with kerchiefs or netted skullcaps.
The sound of salah was one I always associated with Saudi Arabia, a time when work came to a pause and shops rolled down their shutters for several minutes, five times every day. In Mumbai, life went on as usual, the blare of traffic horns competing with mosques, temples, and churches alike. In Jeddah, however, a sort of stillness fell over everything. Here, prayer's melody was distinct, audible over every other sound. As a six-year-old, I'd often fallen asleep listening to a salah after a nightmare. Even as I grew older, the sound had never failed to ease my restlessness. Until now.
The boy stretched back his arms and then leaped off the chair, his sneakers throwing up dust as they hit the ground. Unlike the men near the stalls, he didn't kneel or turn in the direction of Makkah, but spun around to face me.
Black hair. Tanned skin. Narrow jaw. But it was his eyes that caught and held my attention, the irises hazel, almost pale gold in the fading afternoon light. They traveled over me: from the top of my scarf to the tips of my sneakers peeking from underneath the black abaya. I was aware of the shapelessness of the garment, the worn laces of my shoes, the boyish crop Masi had been forcing on me ever since I was four years old. For a moment I wished my abaya was fancier: a pastel shade of white, sky blue, or yellow instead of the usual black, or embroidered and sequined like the ones Mishal and her friends wore. I wished I could, like some other girls at the fair, feel bold enough to leave my abaya open at the front and show off glimpses of a colorful new outfit. But even underneath the abaya, my clothes weren't much better — an old T-shirt and the cheap jeans that Masi bought by the dozen from Manara Market.
"It's not like anyone's going to see what you're wearing," she had always said and I had never found a reason to question this rationale. Until tonight.
The boy tilted his head slightly and then flashed me a smile — white teeth, a dimple deep in his left cheek.
My face warmed. It was ridiculous, really. I had never blushed in front of a boy before — not even in Masi's presence. Smile back, my mind told me. Smile back.
However, by the time I felt the corners of my mouth turn up, the boy was distracted by other matters, more specifically by the head girl, who jogged by us with a money box clutched in her hands, her big breasts bouncing like a pair of water balloons.
"Nadia!" the boy called after her. "Hey, Nadia, do you need some help?"
"Farhaaaan." I'd never heard the head girl sound so breathless. She held the box out to him. "Oh Farhan, you're a lifesaver. May Allah forgive me for missing my prayers today, but I've been so busy! Could you please get this to the headmistress for me?"
"Of course, Nadia." This time his smile was for her, only turned up in brightness. The dizzy, megawatt grin of a guy who'd finally been noticed by a girl he'd been eyeing for ages. Instead of walking away, they continued to talk, the head girl giggling at something the boy said, seemingly oblivious to the glares they drew from the praying men. By the time they walked off, the salah had ended and voices around me rose again, indicating that the stalls had reopened for business.
"There you are." Masi's voice floated to my ears a moment later, as pleasant as the snap of a rubber band on skin. "We've been looking everywhere for you."
I turned away from the boy and the head girl, my face burning. My aunt and uncle approached: Masa, smiling, with plastic packets of blue and pink cotton candy in his hands, and Masi, frowning, her magnified bifocal eyes focused somewhere over my head.
"Who's that boy?" she asked.
"You were staring at him. Clearly he isn't no one."
"So is it now a crime to look at people?"
"Stop it," Masa interrupted. He gave me one of the packs of cotton candy. "Stop it, both of you."
I tore out a chunk of the spun pink sugar with my fingers and stuffed it into my mouth, barely listening to Masi's lecture about bad manners. To my relief, we did not see either the boy or Nadia again for the rest of the evening — not that we stayed there very long.
Hours later, I pulled out the school yearbook in my bedroom, turning page after page until I came across one with his photo. Farhan Rizvi. Captain, Qala Academy soccer team. Second-place winner at the regional school debate held last year in Dubai.
His smile didn't seem that special now. It was too toothy, I told myself, too white. Like he was modeling for a toothpaste commercial. His nose looked like it had been modeled by a plastic surgeon, it was so perfectly shaped and centered. Fake, I decided. Completely fake.
I stared at the photo for a few more moments, remembering the way his gaze had traveled over my body, almost as if he was mapping it, the slight narrowing of the eyes, as if something was missing, as if there was something about me that fell short of his expectations.
"It will be difficult," I'd heard Masi telling Masa once, in reference to me. "So difficult to find her a good boy once they find out about her family."
"That happened a long time ago. It won't matter."
"Not everyone is like you, Rusi." It was the first time I'd heard her sound sad, resigned. "Most boys listen to their parents. And they are not going to ignore her past."
The taint of bad blood, the Dog Lady called it. It didn't matter how good your reputation was or how pretty you looked. Though I had never thought about marriage before, I could imagine what the Dog Lady and Masi would say when the time came.
"She will be lucky if she can even find someone," the Dog Lady would say in her patronizing tone. "As is, it is so troublesome, you know, Khorshed dear, when it comes to finding someone for a child from a mixed marriage, and in her case ... well, you know how people talk."
Of course Masi knew. I knew as well.
Illegitimate. Half-Hindu. Gangster's daughter. I'd heard the words before.
I looked at Farhan Rizvi's photo again. Blood rose to my cheeks and I was suddenly angry with him for reminding me of these things. For ogling me first and then chasing after the head girl. For flashing me his perfect smile: a crumb of affection for a lovesick little girl. Pain flickered deep inside my chest. I snapped the yearbook shut and tossed it aside.
* * *
The first time I smoked a cigarette, it felt like I'd swallowed a piece of burning coal. Asfiya, the girl who'd offered it to me on the academy roof, did not seem surprised by my coughing fit.
"It happens," she said in a gravelly voice. "You'll get used to it, though."
It was the longest thing she had said to me since I'd started coming up here, halfway through Class IX. Neither of us had planned that first meeting. In those days, I would skip Phys Ed and sneak off to a quiet stairwell on the second floor, where I read a novel I had borrowed from the school library. One day, however, instead of going to the stairwell again, I'd climbed up to the top floor of the academy, a roof terrace that acted as storage for broken desks and blackboards, and a water tank with white paint chipping off its sides. Atop the water tank sat Asfiya — a senior I knew only by her first name mostly because everyone kept saying she was a bad student and a smoker. A smoker! You'd think she was Satan incarnate, the way the girls in my class spoke about her.
She had been blowing smoke rings into the air, one short puff after another, squiggly white circles that rose toward the blue sky before dissipating into nothing. I had expected her to stop when she saw me, maybe even yell, but she hadn't done either of those things. We had stared at each other for a long moment until I pointed to the base of the water tank and asked: "Can I sit here?"
Asfiya had shrugged and simply said, "Whatever."
As the weeks went on, it became a sort of ritual — me sitting at the base of the water tank and reading, her sitting on top and smoking, both of us with a bird's-eye view of three of the four whitewashed buildings that made up the enclosed Qala Academy girls'-section complex, and parts of the neighborhood that lay beyond — shadowy apartment buildings with their clotheslines and dusty satellite dishes, the crescent tip of a mosque glinting in the sunlight. On windy days, I didn't read and Asfiya didn't smoke. We simply sat together, enjoying the respite from the moist Jeddah heat, and watched the grounds below, where girls played volleyball, basketball, and cricket, their voices high and thin from down there, the sort of voices I imagined dolls would have if they ever came to life.
"Is it interesting?" Asfiya asked me a few days after she gave me my first cigarette. "That book you're reading?"
I looked up. "It's pretty good. Animals making up their own rules. Running a farm. The pigs are kind of creepy though."
"Hmm, I guess. Not much of an animal person myself."
I stared out into the distance, my vision blurring slightly in the heat. "I had a kitten once," I said. "I found him here in the academy four years ago, in the second-floor corridor. His mom had died."