A Girl in Three Acts
BY DIMA ALZAYAT
Girl’s grandfather died inside his wife. Her uncle died inside a woman who wasn’t his wife. Her dad died inside Mona. Girl had her door closed and earphones in, but she still heard Mona scream. It was different from her usual screams about Girl’s too-loud music or the dad’s too-much smoking. She didn’t sound angry, just scared, and when Girl walked into the bedroom Mona shared with the dad, she found Mona wrapped in a sheet and yelling into a phone. Girl’s dad was on the carpet beside the bed, and Girl couldn’t tell if Mona had pulled him there or if he had slipped off. She’d never before seen him naked and it was strange to sit down next to him like that, but she did. She pulled his head onto her lap, ran her fingers through his hair and asked him not to leave. That’s when Mona stopped yelling and moaned ‘Oh, Mom, oh, Mom’ into the phone. It made Girl wish she could do that, take all the sad she felt and tell it to someone else.
After Girl’s dad died, she was sent to live in a youth home. She’s been there for two years now and she likes it well enough. What she doesn’t like is the logoed minibus that takes the girls in the home to school each day, because it means she has to answer questions from other kids, those who get dropped off in SUVs and sedans or even walk to school because that’s how close they live.
‘Today we’ll start a new book,’ Mrs. Adler says. ‘The Witch of Blackbird Pond.’ Girl’s in the eighth grade and Mrs. Adler is her homeroom teacher. She wears Birkenstocks and silver-turquoise jewelry and makes Girl sit in the front row because she says she needs to keep an eye on her. ‘You always look like you’re plotting something,’ she said once. Girl has tried to tell Mrs. Adler that it wasn’t really her who pulled the fire alarm last year, or stink-bombed Mr. Ludwig’s car, or put fish in one of the sixth-grade lockers, or hid Mr. Ludwig’s glasses in one of the toilets right before his big speech on parent assembly night. But Mrs. Adler refuses to listen.
‘This looks dumb,’ Lien, who sits beside Girl, says as she hands Girl her copy. On the cover is a girl alone in the woods at night, and even though she’s looking away so it’s impossible to really see her face, to Girl, she doesn’t look like much of a witch. Her hair is too pretty and so is her dress. When Girl flips the book over, she’s careful to not look at the summary but lets herself read the sentence above it. THERE WAS SOMETHING STRANGE ABOUT AMERICA, SOMETHING THAT THEY ALL SEEMED TO SHARE AND UNDERSTAND AND SHE DID NOT. It makes Girl remember something her dad used to say, about being in the West and how the Arabic word for west was connected to the word strange. Isn’t that something? he would ask. Girl now wishes she had asked him what he meant – Isn’t west a direction? Doesn’t it depend on where you stand?
During lunch, Girl sits with Lien and Marcy and picks at the food on her tray. Each day the cafeteria serves meals from a different culture: Italian, Mexican, Chinese, and American. Girl knows the food is in fact the same soft noodles, that only the sauce changes. Today is Italian and the sauce is red and lumpy and tastes like ketchup. She stands up, carries her tray back to the counter, and hands it to one of the lunch ladies. ‘What’s wrong with it today?’ the lady asks.
‘I don’t eat pork,’ Girl says. The lady shakes her head and dumps the food in the trash.
At the table, Lien and Marcy unwrap homemade turkey sandwiches and open snack-size bags of cheesy chips and chocolate-dipped cookies. Marcy reaches over and hands Girl a few chips. Lien gives her a cookie. She eats them and pretends to not want the other things they offer. As she eats she thinks about her dad, who made fajitas and lasagna and curry, served big portions and ate his quickly. A few times Mona asked why he never made Syrian food and he said he didn’t know how, or that it was too hard. Girl could tell Mona didn’t believe him. A year before he died, Mona looked up recipes and made an entire Syrian dinner. Girl doesn’t know what it was because she refused to eat it, but she had sat with them and watched how for the first time her dad ate slowly and carefully, and she couldn’t tell if it made him happy or sad.
After lunch Mrs. Adler announces a lesson on World Religions and no one pays attention. Marcy braids Lien’s hair and Girl tries to not watch Ryan Delaney flirt with Isabelle Henning. She can see Isabelle’s hand in his, and him drawing something on it with a red pen. Ryan always draws things on Isabelle, and Girl wonders if she likes it. She also wonders how long it takes Isabelle to wash it off each night and why she never draws on him. Mrs. Adler shouts Girl’s name. A few students laugh and Girl can feel their stares. ‘I asked,’ Mrs. Adler says, ‘if you can tell the class what you know about Mohammed’s ascent to heaven?’
Ryan stops marking Isabelle and twists in his seat to face Girl. ‘Come on. No one can go all the way to heaven on a horse,’ he says. ‘How stupid.’ More kids laugh, and when Isabelle crosses her arms, Girl sees Ryan’s name written across the back of her hand. She feels her face grow hot and when she looks at Ryan chewing on the red pen and looking at her, she knows she’s close enough to lean in and shove it straight back into his throat if she wanted to.
‘Do you want to disagree with that?’ Mrs. Adler says. When Girl shakes her head, Ryan laughs and turns to Isabelle so she laughs too. Mrs. Adler tells them both to be quiet. ‘I knew you weren’t paying attention,’ she says to Girl. Girl feels her face get hotter and she wants to say something but has no idea what, tries to remember anything she’s ever heard about a winged horse or a trip to heaven or even Mohammed, but can’t.
From her dad Girl learned that her grandfather had spent over a decade preparing for priesthood. When he was twelve, his parents had caught him stealing a bottle of arak – booze only better, Girl’s dad said. He also said Girl’s great-grandparents loved arak and music and parties, and that’s how Girl’s grandfather began drinking in the first place. But, of course, he couldn’t tell his parents that what he’d done was their fault, so he blamed it on the devil. Satan himself had tricked him, he swore, and he couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t happen again. Girl’s great-grandparents didn’t want their only son to go to hell, or worse, prison, so they sent him away, to a boarding school, then a seminary so he could live a holy life. What about them? Girl asked. They stopped drinking, her dad said, for a while anyway, and sprinkled their house with holy water.
Girl wanted to know why her grandfather didn’t just admit he’d lied. It turned out he liked it, the Bible, the stories, all of it. He thought it would be nice to one day become a bishop and wear the red velvet capes and gold tassels and have people bow before him at the altar. But just before he was about to become a priest, Girl’s dad said, her grandfather saw the woman he would marry. She wasn’t dressed up or trying to catch a man, Girl’s dad wanted her to know. No. She was in a housedress and standing just outside her family’s courtyard, yelling at a neighbor who’d said something lewd to her younger sister.
In under a week Girl’s grandfather left the church, became a Muslim, and asked to marry the woman who would become Girl’s grandmother. Of course, his father had a heart attack and died from the scandal, and his mother disowned him. She saw him just one more time, Girl’s dad said, years later, when she was dying. She refused to receive the sacrament of the sick from anyone but him, and he agreed. Girl found that part of the story the saddest, that for so long her great-grandmother probably missed her son but had come to believe it wasn’t okay to say so.
After school Robert the counselor tells the girls that a group of potential foster parents will visit after dinner. He then pulls Girl aside and asks if she’s ready to get serious about being placed. ‘Listen, you’re both smart and pretty,’ he says. ‘You look like you could be anybody’s kid.’
Girl tries to go around him, but he moves when she moves and blocks her way. She lets him talk for another ten minutes, and then begins to groan. She folds herself in half, falls to the carpet, and groans some more. ‘I think I’m getting my period,’ she says.
Robert’s face turns red, but he does at last move. ‘I know what you’re doing,’ he says, ‘and I know that hasn’t happened yet. We keep charts of these things.’
Girl is happy when he leaves but she also feels bad for Robert. When his mother died he had brought her what he said were his mother’s favorite novels. ‘They might be what your mom might’ve given you if she could,’ he’d said. They were mostly romance thriller detective books and Girl didn’t like that the women all had names like Kendra and Alicia and spent most of their time running toward or away from men named Jake and Eli, but she read them anyway. It seemed to make Robert happy.
After dinner the girls gather in the living room alongside three couples who chat to them in turn and ask them about themselves. In a corner, Robert sits and watches. ‘You have beautiful hair,’ a woman named Anne tells Girl. ‘I could show you how to straighten it.’
Girl looks at Anne’s hair, and to her it looks stiff-straight and dry like dead grass. She wants to tell Anne she can show her how to not straighten it, but she knows Robert is watching. ‘Great,’ she says.
Girl’s dad liked to say that when he met Girl’s mother she had hair like dark woven silk, but in the two photographs Girl has of her mother, her hair grows like a thick shrub. In both pictures she has her head turned away, so Girl can only see half her face. But in each one she’s turned a different direction, so if Girl thinks of both photos at once she can nearly see her whole face.
Girl has had the same dream about her mother since she was five. In it the two are climbing a giant tree and Girl struggles to keep up. Each time she reaches her mother, her mother pulls herself even higher, and Girl gets scared she can’t keep up, that she’s not as strong. Like claws her mother’s fingers dig into the bark, and she can pull herself up three or four feet at a time. But Girl’s nails are broken and her fingertips are cut. Halfway through the dream she can no longer see her mother and has to climb on alone. At last she reaches the top, exhausted but not scared, her hands covered in dried blood.
Reading in bed before lights out, Girl decides The Witch of Blackbird Pond isn’t bad as far as school books go. In her book log she writes: This book is about a girl named Kit who moves from Barbados to America after her grandfather dies. The Puritans in her new village are a bunch of crazies who are suspicious of her because she wears fancy dresses and knows how to swim. Girl is at the part where everyone gangs up on Kit and accuses her of being a witch, and she wonders if they’ll burn her at the stake, or stone her to death.
‘I’m lactose intolerant,’ Girl says, ‘and allergic to cats.’ It’s her first day with her new foster parents, Anne and Mark, and she isn’t sure why she’s said what she has, only that it has something to do with Anne pacing around the kitchen clutching a drooling gray kitten to her chest and Mark not asking if she liked grilled cheese sandwiches before putting one on her plate.
‘Just eat the fries,’ Mark says. He gets up and whispers something into Anne’s ear, and Anne squeezes the kitten closer. Girl nearly says it’s fine, that she can learn to live with Mr. Snickers the cat, but before she can decide if she will or not, Anne leaves the kitchen. ‘She’ll take him to her mother’s,’ Mark says.
Girl likes Anne and Mark’s house. It reminds her of houses she’s seen in magazines, all creams and whites and plenty of carpets, cushions, seascape paintings and real flowers in glass vases. Unlike the rest of the house, her room is filled with color, purple walls and pink bedcovers, and when she and the social worker stood in the room that morning, Girl wondered why everything smelled like paint. ‘What color was it before?’ she asked.
‘The same. We just refreshed it,’ Mark said. He hovered in the doorway with Anne, and Girl began to say something about poisonous fumes but noticed Anne’s hands clasped together tight enough to turn her knuckles white so she stayed quiet. When the social worker left, Anne helped Girl unpack, and when she found in a drawer a photograph of an older couple surrounded by children, she removed it and apologized. ‘These are my parents and all of their grandkids,’ she said, and Girl nodded.
When Girl’s grandfather died it was on top of her grandmother. Girl’s dad didn’t say this to Girl, but to his friends, the ones who came to play cards and gossip and give Mona a hard time. Girl wasn’t allowed in the room while they played, but she snuck near enough to listen to what was said. Many of the stories her dad told she already knew, but she wanted to hear the ones she didn’t, and when he told the ones she did know, she wanted to hear how he changed the details.
Girl’s dad said that after his father’s funeral people swore they could hear his mother speaking to her dead husband as if he were still alive. When Mona asked what it was the grandmother said, Girl wanted to know too. But Girl’s dad couldn’t answer. ‘Didn’t you say they were all listening?’ Mona asked. Yes, he nodded, ‘They were all trying to hear his replies.’
On her tenth birthday Girl’s dad gave her a framed photograph of her grandmother. She recognized it as a large copy of the one he carried folded in his wallet. The creases from the original were now thick white lines that slashed across her grandmother’s face. ‘You look like her. You look like your father’s family,’ her dad said. Girl shook her head. ‘No, I look like my mother,’ she said, and as he turned away she thought she saw him nod.
On the television, the image of the news anchor cuts away to footage of people on boats. Girl sits on the sofa with Mark and Anne, and she wonders why the boats, with so many people on them, are the blow-up kind and not the real kind. The image cuts to the people getting off the boats. All of them are wet. Some cry. Some carry children. ‘It’s a shame,’ Mark says.
Girl wants to ask why, and what has happened to these people. ‘They’re running away, from danger, war,’ Anne says, sensing the question. ‘Some of them anyway.’
‘Will they stay there?’ Girl asks. ‘On the beach, I mean.’ Mark looks at her and nods. ‘Some will, nearby. Some will
keep traveling. And some will be sent back, if it’s not really dangerous where they’re from.’
‘Who decides what’s dangerous?’ Girl asks. Anne shrugs and so does Mark.
On the screen, a woman with a baby bends down and touches her forehead to the wet sand, kisses the ground, then the baby, and again the ground. Then she sits with the hand not holding the baby open, so her palm faces the sky, and her lips move.
‘The poor woman has lost her mind,’ Mark says as the same woman again touches her head to the ground, over and over, the baby still in her arms.
‘She’s praying,’ Girl says. ‘My dad prayed like that.’
‘Oh,’ Mark says, and turns to her. ‘We didn’t know that. That’s fine, of course.’ He clears his throat and smiles, then looks at Anne.
‘Of course, it’s fine,’ Anne says, also smiling. For a moment no one speaks, then Mark changes the channel. ‘Just know,’ Anne says, ‘that in this house, you can do what you like, and wear what you like,’ and her smile reminds Girl of the smile Robert would make when he was worried about one of the girls embarrassing him, or getting him into trouble, and she asks to go to bed.
Girl’s grandfather became a real Muslim, Girl’s dad liked to say, but he still named his three eldest sons, Samuel, Sammy, and Sam, after his father. Imagine what people thought, Girl’s dad said, three Muslim boys with names from the Bible! Girl didn’t understand. What’s the big deal? she asked, and he looked at her like it was the most obvious thing in the world. By the time Girl’s father, the fourth son, was born, Girl’s great-grandmother was dead, and there was no one left to make proud or upset, and Girl’s grandfather gave his youngest son, her dad, a Muslim name instead. And that’s the difference between my brothers and I, Girl’s dad said.
When Girl asked her dad about her uncles he shrugged or changed the subject. If he did speak of them, it was to tell her funny things from when he was young, and they were young, and long before Girl was born. If she wanted to know anything else, like where they were now, and why they never visited or even called, he closed his eyes instead of answering. To Girl, it looked like he was reaching down, all the way inside himself. Each time she hoped he would find something new, and each time he opened his eyes and told her another story, from long ago and far away, and she stopped asking.
In the passenger seat Anne’s entire body shakes but she does not speak. The one time she inhales deeply enough to make Girl think she might say something, Mark’s hand reaches out from the steering wheel and holds hers still. In the backseat, Girl wears a scarf, not around her neck, but over her hair and tied beneath her chin. She has her earphones in but keeps the volume turned low in case they say something, but they don’t. Looking at herself in the rearview mirror she thinks that with the scarf on she does after all look like her grandmother, at least a little.
In class, Mrs. Adler stops speaking mid-sentence and looks at her. She starts to say something, and stops again, and assigns the class quiet reading time instead. Marcy leans over and tells Girl she wishes she could wear a scarf over her hair too. ‘So dumbass people would stop asking to touch my braids,’ she says. Mrs. Adler shushes them both and tells them to take out their books.
Girl reads about Kit getting used to the colony: she teaches Sunday school classes even though she thinks church is boring, and she even gets engaged to a rich guy named William, who all the girls want to marry. But then she tries to make the Sunday school fun and has the kids act out a story from the Bible and Girl can tell all hell will break loose, and it does. The school shuts down and Kit escapes into the woods. There, she meets a woman named Hannah who’s not allowed in the colony because she’s a Quaker. Girl knows the best thing Kit can do now is stay in the woods with Hannah, but she also knows Kit won’t.
During lunch kids nudge one another and stare at Girl as she walks through the cafeteria. Marcy sticks out her tongue at some of them until they look away and Lien flips off a few until it makes Marcy and Girl laugh. No one looks as much as the kids at Ryan’s table and in the corner of her eye Girl sees Isabelle. She thinks of how, when they were younger, Isabelle’s mom would drive the two of them to school and Girl’s dad would pick them up and take them to the park or for ice cream. She remembers the sleepovers, and trips to the pool, and how they held hands everywhere they went.
At the counter, one of the lunch ladies shakes her head at Girl when she sees her. ‘What’s that on your head?’ she asks.
‘A kind of experiment,’ Girl says. The lady nods, like she understands, and when Girl asks for two chocolate milks, she gives them to her.
When Girl reaches Ryan’s table they don’t immediately notice her, and when they do, Isabelle’s eyes grow big and she looks away. ‘Do you want some chocolate milk?’ Girl asks her.
‘Go away, loser,’ Ryan says.
‘Do you?’ she asks again.
‘I said, go away, Osama,’ Ryan says, and his friends laugh with him.
‘Just leave the milk and go,’ Isabelle says.
‘Did you know my dad died?’ Girl whispers. Isabelle’s eyes turn sad, and Girl wants to say, It’s okay. I’m fine. It just hurts to swallow. ‘Why do you hang out with them?’ she says instead. Girl watches Isabelle’s eyes change back.
‘They’re not that bad,’ Isabelle says. ‘Anyway, you’re the one making a scene.’ Someone else at the table says something that makes the others laugh, and Girl walks away.
Back at her table Girl shakes her head at the sandwich Lien holds, but Lien puts it down in front of her anyway. ‘What were you even doing over there?’ Lien asks.
‘I felt bad for her. She always looks miserable hanging out with them.’
Lien rolls her eyes. ‘Girl,’ Marcy says, ‘she’s exactly where she wants to be.’ Girl thinks Marcy might be right, but that there’s still something about it that’s not, but she’s not sure what it is.
‘I’ll be back,’ she says, standing up.
At Ryan’s table again, she feels her face get hot and she tells herself to walk away, to go back to her own table. But she knows that already it’s too late, and before they speak or laugh, she smacks the milk carton down on the table and watches the cardboard break. Ryan screams and jumps straight up, but he’s too slow. Chocolate splatters on his arms and turns parts of his white t-shirt brown. His friends begin to yell, and Girl knows she’ll be sent to the principal’s office and begins to head there herself. When she reaches the cafeteria doors, she looks back one last time and sees Isabelle helping Ryan clean himself up.
Mark picks Girl up after school and tells her he has good news and bad news. ‘Seems your uncle is looking for you,’ he says.
‘He’s dead!’ Girl says, then remembers there are still two others. Mark laughs. ‘He sounded pretty alive to me. Listen, he wants to get to know you better, to become your legal guardian, have
you live with him and his family.’
Girl tries to understand but can’t. ‘I don’t even know him,’ she says. She looks at Mark, but he stares ahead at the road, and she wishes he would turn and look at her.
‘Don’t worry. They agreed to let you stay with us the rest of the school year. Everyone thinks that’s for the best. But they’re asking to fly you out to Milwaukee this weekend.’
Girl wants to ask Mark if he spoke to her uncle himself, what he sounded like, if he said why he’d never visited, if Mark thought he’d like her. ‘So what’s the bad news?’ she asks instead.
‘I’ll be sad to see you leave,’ he says. ‘I was hoping you’d be with us longer.’
Girl feels her chest grow tight. Through the window, she can see a small bird in a tree extend its wings like it might fly. Instead it draws them in again, the brightest feathers disappearing underneath the darker ones on top, and hops from one branch to the next.
When Girl’s uncle Samuel died, he was with his mistress, not his wife. This is a story Girl heard her dad tell Mona. They had come back late from dinner and she was on the sofa, pretending to be asleep. She could hear them in the kitchen as he crushed ice and poured drinks, and when they walked into the living room she stayed quiet and hoped he wouldn’t send her to bed. When Mona told him to wake her, he sat on the rug instead and asked Mona to sit beside him.
Girl learned that Samuel had mixed Viagra and cholesterol pills for what her dad said was a good time, and that the mistress was in fact a prostitute. Girl’s dad also said that when the mistress slipped out from under Girl’s uncle she smoked a cigarette before she called for help. After Samuel died, his wife took their only daughter and moved to Vienna where her sister lived. But she did this only after finding the mistress. Girl’s dad said the wife and the mistress talked for hours, all night and through the next day. When Mona asked how he knew that, he said, ‘Everybody knew!’ They even kept in touch, he said. Long-distance phone calls and letters pages long. It became a scandal, he said. But when Mona asked what was in the letters, he didn’t know. Girl lay on the sofa trying to keep still and also wanting the answer. Why had no one asked the women what they were writing, she wanted to know, what it was they said?
At the airport in Milwaukee, Girl is greeted by a man with a goatee and two identically dressed girls who look about five and seven. He holds a sign with Girl’s name spelled out, first and last, and she cringes as people connect her to it and the man. When he sees her, he flings the sign aside to hug her, and tells his daughters to do the same. He leans in and hugs them all, too close and too tight and Girl can’t breathe.
In the car the little girls scream in the backseat and Girl’s uncle speaks loudly over them both, but Girl doesn’t listen. She thinks only about how he looks like her dad, his goatee and its bits of gray, eyes that squint in the light. His nose flares when he inhales and when he says there it sounds like zere. She rolls down the window and rests her head against the door, lets the cold air hit her face as they move. ‘Are you okay?’ he asks, and she says ‘Yes.’
Girl thinks about what happens when someone has a heart attack. How the main artery becomes too blocked to allow oxygen to pass. That without oxygen, the muscle cells and tissues begin to die. She knows that sometimes a person can survive an attack. The muscle can heal like a skin wound, and like a wound, a scar forms over the damage. But after that, the heart just isn’t as strong. It can’t beat as hard, or as much. She also knows that sometimes a person can’t survive at all, and in that case, the heart just starves to death.
They spend half the day in the mall and the other half in front of the TV watching a movie with talking animals. Girl’s uncle laughs the loudest when a pig farts or a bird flies into a tree, and halfway through the movie, Girl’s aunt asks if Girl would like to look at photo albums instead.
Upstairs, the two of them sit on the bedroom carpet and the aunt lets Girl turn the pages. Most of the photos are of her uncle as a young man and of her aunt and uncle at their wedding. But toward the end of the album are a few with faded color or no color at all, and her aunt touches one of four boys standing in a line, their arms wrapped around one another, their smiles identical. ‘There,’ she says, and points to the boy on the end, the one holding a ball and looking at the camera.
Girl looks at the boy who’s also her dad and wonders what he felt like when the photo was taken. She knows he must have been hot because his face is shiny, that he must have been playing, running and sweating, when he was told to stop and stand still. His smile is wide and everywhere on his face, in his round cheeks and eyes. The alley behind the boys is mostly covered by their bodies, but she wants to know what it looks like, what it all looked like, so that maybe then she’d know how he felt. ‘Do you think he was sad he never went back?’ she asks.
‘It’s hard to know,’ her aunt says. ‘Do you think he was?’ Girl shrugs and flips back a few pages and points to one photo of a priest holding a baby, and then another. ‘Your cousins’ baptisms,’ her aunt says. Girl tries to not look confused, but she is, and she can tell her aunt knows, and so she waits. ‘Listen,’ her aunt says. ‘Your grandfather was Christian. That made your uncle Christian. It made your father Christian. Do you understand? It passes through the father. It doesn’t matter who converted and who named who what.’ Girl does understand. She understands this is why her father and uncle didn’t speak. But what about my mother? she wants to ask. What did she believe? But she senses that her aunt, even if she knows, will not tell. ‘Tomorrow we’re taking you to church,’ her aunt says. ‘You might like it.’
In church, the service is in Arabic and Girl understands nothing. Robed men and boys walk up and down the aisles, some of them slowly swinging chains attached to silver balls filled with smoke, and everyone looks tired.
When the service ends and people rise to leave, Girl does too. ‘Wait,’ her uncle says. He loops his arm through hers and leads her to the back of the church, to a room with rows of chairs, a chalkboard and a group of kids half her age. He says something in Arabic to the only adult in the room – a man wearing glasses and itchy-looking wool – smiles at her and leaves. Girl thinks about what it would feel like to follow him out, to scream and yell in the middle of that church. Then a kid her age walks in. He tells her his name is Danny and that he’s fourteen. He also says he’d rather be shooting his BB gun, watching football or kissing girls. ‘My mom just found God though,’ he says.
‘Where was he hiding?’ Girl asks.
‘Everyone, be quiet, please,’ the man with the glasses says, then he opens a book and starts reading from it in Arabic. Girl looks up at the clock and calculates the hours until her flight. She thinks about the next day and school, about Mark and Anne, Lien and Marcy, Ryan and Isabelle, Mrs. Adler. About her dad, her grandfather and her uncles, her grandmother and her mother. Always her thoughts lead to her mother.
Girl’s dad was married to Mona when he met Girl’s mom. He was from Damascus and Girl’s mom was from Aleppo, they met in Las Vegas, and she died soon after Girl was born. These are the things Girl knows. Each time she asked her dad for more he told her only stories about Damascus, her grandparents and uncles, other people she did not know. Many times, she tried to imagine what it was like when Mona found out, what it looked like when Girl’s dad came home with a baby in his arms. For a while, Girl wondered if at the beginning Mona had spoiled her, dressed her in skirts and bonnets and pushed her around the neighborhood in a stroller, if she had told people that Girl was, of course, her daughter. But Girl now knows that these things could not have happened. Because later, when Girl was older, many times she heard Mona tell Girl’s dad she would never forgive him. She would say it even if she saw Girl nearby, even if she knew she could hear her.
When Girl’s dad died, Mona at last decided that Girl definitely was not her daughter. A social worker asked if Girl had family but neither Mona nor Girl knew where the uncles were, or if they were even still alive. All Girl could do was show the social worker the two photos of her mother and explain how thinking about both at once would make it easier to see the full face, to know what her mother really looked like. The social worker tried to reason with Mona, told her thoughts like hers were normal and that they soon would pass. But Girl knew they wouldn’t, because Mona continued to look at her the same way that she’d always looked at her, like she was something heavy, that like plaque she would one day kill her heart too.
When Danny asks Girl if she wants to kiss she thinks about it and says ‘Yes.’ The two are alone in the rector’s office, waiting to be picked up, and he moves his chair closer to hers and leans over. Girl likes that his lips feel soft but his breath smells like onion rings and he’s not very good at moving his tongue. He pushes it into her mouth and shoves it against her cheeks and toward her throat, and she pulls away. ‘You’re making it hard to breathe,’ she says.
‘Sorry. Can I try again?’ She feels bad for him and says ‘Sure’ and this time it’s not much better and again she starts to pull away when the rector’s assistant walks in. He yells at them in Arabic until his face is bright red and they try to not laugh. Girl feels bad for him and tries to interrupt. ‘We don’t know what you’re saying,’ she says, but the assistant doesn’t hear or listen.
On the way to the airport, Girl’s uncle speaks only to quote the Bible and her aunt sits in the backseat, covering the kids’ ears. When they near the terminal, the aunt’s hand reaches from behind the passenger seat where Girl sits and squeezes her shoulder, and Girl wants to say she would like to stay, that she’ll go to any church or masjid, pagoda or fire temple, if they keep her. But the moment passes, and the aunt takes her hand back, and the uncle’s voice again fills the car. ‘Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!’
On the plane a man asks to switch seats with Girl so he can sit next to his son. Girl turns to the seat he points to beside her and thinks about moving, but the kid looks nine or ten and he’s watching his iPad. He doesn’t care where his dad sits. When she says ‘No’ the man looks surprised and asks again, and this time, his question doesn’t sound like one. She wants to tell him she has to sit next to the window, that if she doesn’t her chest will get tight for no reason at all, that it’ll be his fault if she has a heart attack right there on the plane in the middle of the flight. Even a child’s heart can stop, she wants to say. But then the boy looks up at his dad and then at her, and their stares make it hard to think, so she gets up and lets them have it. ‘Thank you,’ they both say, but she pretends not to hear, sits in her new seat, takes out her book and reads.
In The Witch of Blackbird Pond a bad illness kills off a lot of Puritans and it gets Kit in trouble. Girl is annoyed that even though Kit has nothing to do with the disease, she’s still blamed for it. But so many people are dying, and no one knows why, and they’ve spent so much time thinking about Kit and her dresses and how she can swim, and it all suddenly makes sense to them that she’s a witch and the reason behind all of their problems. Girl doesn’t like Kit enough to be sad if they kill her. But she wants someone to at least say, Listen, this is crazy, sure Kit wears fancy dresses and acts stuck-up and spends all of her time hanging out with a boring Quaker woman, but that doesn’t mean anything else.
In the baggage claim Girl expects to see Mark but instead it’s Anne and she looks nervous. Her hair is uncombed, and her eyes can’t focus. On the freeway she drives slowly and when a car honks, she doesn’t seem to notice. They don’t speak at all and when they’ve nearly reached the house Anne turns to Girl and tries to smile. ‘I’m glad you reunited with your family,’ she says.
Girl nods so she doesn’t have to answer, and when they pull into the garage, and the door comes down, she says, ‘Why don’t you and Mark have children?’ For a while Anne sits and doesn’t answer, then she begins to cry. Girl wants to say she’s sorry, but it’s dark inside the car and the porch light coming in through the garage window shadows Anne’s face, and Girl pretends it’s her mother’s.
In class the next day Mrs. Adler continues the discussion on World Religions and Girl does her best to pay attention. ‘Next up: Buddhism,’ Mrs. Adler says. ‘Lien, why don’t you tell us what you know about the dharma?’ The entire class turns to look at Lien. Marcy gives Girl a look to say, Here we go. Girl is tired and has felt sick all morning. Mrs. Adler’s voice scratches at her ears, and she feels her body grow hot.
‘So, we each have a body and a spirit, and the spirit can live in the body or not,’ Lien says. ‘And what happens to your spirit depends on your karma. Like if you help people you have good karma, but if you’ve been a big B, your karma’s definitely bad.’ A few kids laugh but Mrs. Adler nods along. Girl wonders if she’s even listening. Lien takes a deep breath to go again, and Girl feels her gut twist like someone is wringing it out. ‘And the nirvana is connected to the dharma, because if your dharma is good then you can reach nirvana,’ Lien says.
When Girl raises her hand, Lien stops speaking and Mrs. Adler looks at Girl but doesn’t call on her. ‘Go ahead, Lien,’ she says. But Lien doesn’t, and instead looks at Girl and nods.
‘She’s just saying words,’ Girl says. ‘Her mom’s Jewish, her dad’s an atheist, and she believes in UFOs. All that stuff is from an anime, about Jesus Christ and Buddha living together in an apartment in Japan.’
‘It’s a really good anime,’ Marcy says.
‘Girls!’ Mrs. Adler yells.
‘Also, Kit is a hypocrite,’ Girl says. She’s hot and dizzy and she doesn’t care what Mrs. Adler might do to her as long as she gets to speak. ‘I’ve been thinking about it. At the beginning of the book she’s sad because she has to leave her fancy plantation and live without slaves, and by the end of the book she’s learned that slavery is bad but she still calls Indians savages and I’m pretty sure she’d kill one if she had to, the same way the villagers wanted to kill her.’
‘What the hell?’ Lien says. ‘She can’t have slaves. She’s from Barbados. Marcy’s dad is from Barbados.’
‘Um, hello. She’s white,’ Marcy says.
‘I didn’t know there were white people in Barbados,’ Lien says. ‘Okay, enough!’ Mrs. Adler says. She points at Girl, then the door. ‘Principal’s office.’
Sweat soaks the pits of Girl’s shirt and her stomach hurts, and the principal has five students to see before it’s her turn. She’s told to sit in the waiting area next to the nurse’s office and when she asks the nurse if she can use the bathroom he tells her to stay put where she is. It’s only when she threatens to puke right there, on desks and chairs and floor, that he hands her the key.
Leaning over the toilet, she tries to throw up but can’t. All she wants is to lie down somewhere cool and quiet and without people. She pulls her pants down and sits but nothing happens, and the pain travels through her body in waves. It’s then she looks down and sees the blood fall one drop at a time and dissolve in the water. The waves grow stronger, crash against her insides, and she watches the blood drop more quickly until the drops connect and form a stream and she reaches out and touches it. It’s thicker than regular blood and sticks to her hand like glue. ‘You need to come out now,’ the nurse shouts through the door. Girl closes her eyes and tries to reach down, all the way down, past her dad’s voice and stories, to what he’s left out, the places between his words. To why Mona had to hate her and why her mother had to die, to why the men in her family died inside women, and why, when they did, it was the women who disappeared. She opens her eyes and stays there, sitting, as the nurse knocks, then pounds on the door. She thinks about cleaning herself up and asking to go home, about who will pick her up and where they’ll take her, about the kind of pain that comes with blood and the kind that doesn’t. She wipes her fingers and watches the blood dry on the toilet paper. This can be anyone’s, she thinks, not just mine or my mother’s. It could be Anne’s or Mrs. Adler’s. My aunt’s and grandmother’s. Mona’s even. She folds a long strip of toilet paper and holds it between her legs, pulls up her pants, and washes her hands.
When she opens the door, the nurse stands in her way. He’s tall and heavy and his body fills the doorway. But she doesn’t care what he’s saying. She ignores his words and pushes her way through. ‘Shut up already,’ she says, and when she looks back, his face is red and his eyes surprised, and she doesn’t feel bad for him. She feels good. She feels okay.