We never see the world exactly as it is. We see it through whatever lens we choose. I never understood the difference until that sunny Thursday afternoon, the last day of April, when I stood face to face with Mariam in her driveway. In that moment the world became clear in all its stark ugliness. I was losing my best friend. Mariam Muhammad: my soul sister, lifelong neighbor, and general co-conspirator in all things.
My eyes fell to the driveway. It was ridiculous; even the pavement made me want to cry. We’d played hopscotch here. And there was no use spinning it as “Oh, she’ll come back to Arlington all the time.” We knew better, both of us. Seeing each other from now on would involve passports and expensive airfares, clearances and checkpoints. Also, eight time zones. The truth was that she wasn’t moving. She was fleeing. She and her whole family were now refugees--off to Dubai, the new Promised Land--an escape from Mason Terrace, a cul-de-sac so ridiculously safe and suburban that local real estate sites featured it to prove the entire neighborhood’s safety and suburban-ness.
Comical, if it weren’t so depressingly false.
When I looked up, Mariam was smiling, of course. Mariam the brave. Mariam the good. Cheery in the face of stress and sorrow. I lurched forward to hug her, the bright side of the Salma-Mariam moon. We were a unit in that way: visible yet detached, maybe a bit mysterious (we hoped)? Yes, we’d stay in touch. Through Twitter or WhatsApp or whatever. “Even old-fashioned letters!” she’d said. Mariam wouldn’t let me slide, even though videoconferencing was illegal in the UAE. Which didn’t help diminish the sudden and intense loneliness. Our moon would be all darkness now.
How am I going to survive the rest of senior year at Franklin without you?
“It’s going to be okay, Salma,” Mariam whispered in my ear.
I stepped away, wiping my eyes. “Can’t you just stay through till the weekend, till the grand fundraiser? I was thinking of raiding the mosque’s funds. Pay off your parents’ mortgage or at least get y’all a ticket for later in the month. I’ve never celebrated an Eid without you.”
“Yeah, pretty sure stealing from the masjid won’t go over too well with the Lord of the worlds,” she joked, trying to snap me out of my funk. “Besides, if you wanted me to stay that badly, you should have hacked into Air Emirates. Gotten us cheaper tickets.”
If you only knew, I thought miserably.
“Hey, look at it this way. Now you get to spend more time with Amir.” Mariam gave my hand a final squeeze. “And that brother is way too cute for you to be so sad.”
She was right about that, at least.
Amir and I began several months ago at one of Vanessa Richman’s legendary “Hey, my parents are out of town” parties. We were packed in the basement with thirty other kids from Franklin, mostly Vanessa’s friends, though I’d brought a couple of mine: the usual twosome, Lisa and Kerry. Or as they jokingly referred to themselves, “Dora and Boots.”
Lisa de la Pena happened to be my physical therapist’s daughter, but she had recently become my go-to party pal. Kerry Morrison, a willowy redhead with a Southern cowgirl style, was basically Lisa’s Mariam: like Mariam and me, they were a unit, BFFs since toddlerhood. The self-made Dora the Explorer nickname came in middle school. Apparently Kerry had come up with it after some idiots had bullied Lisa for being Latinx and accused her of being an “illegal.” (According to Lisa, Kerry was also unafraid to use her cowboy boots for “butt-whoopings” of bullying idiots, though I’d never seen her be anything but likeably goofy.)
Mariam’s parents had a sixth sense about parties and road trips and generally all things “haram”--so as far as Mariam was concerned, Vanessa’s place was never an option. But Lisa and Kerry were always game.
Point being: It’s always better to arrive with a posse. And Lisa and Kerry were in fine form that night. Maybe that’s why I was already feeling more comfortable than usual. Plus, after months of hounding, I’d finally convinced Vanessa to screen Fight Club for the obligatory 72-inch surround-sound feature presentation. I’d claimed I had a shameless crush on Edward Norton. Which wasn’t false. (He always looks so lost and vulnerable.) But the secret truth was that I’d wanted to share with Vanessa--a less judgmental friend than Mariam, I admit--this treasure I’d only recently discovered on the more secure chatrooms. Fight Club was the cult classic every hardcore anonymous online activist revered.
As it turned out, Vanessa had been hiding a hidden agenda of her own.
“I know a boy who loves that movie as much as you,” she’d told me the moment I arrived.
In typical Vanessa fashion, she refused to say who. But I forgot all about this mysterious boy once the movie started. Ten minutes in, the keg suddenly arrived. At first I thought it was a shared aversion to cheap beer; Amir ended up being the only other warm body to remain in the basement. We’d always been a part of the same social scene, the circles of friends that orbited around Vanessa. But I would have never pegged him as a fellow Fight Club fan. He didn’t exactly give off that vibe. He gave off the opposite, in fact--a hippie-hipster musician, with an old-school guitar pick and feather dangling from a slim black cord around his neck. Then again, I, of all people, should have known how deceiving looks could be . . . and his looks are fine.
I couldn’t help but sneak glances. He kept tucking loose strands of that thick, dark hair behind his ears. And he was definitely a Fight Club fan. He was whispering the lines.
Eventually I stopped paying attention to the movie.
I didn’t care how obvious I was being, staring at him. I couldn’t get over it. I couldn’t believe this boy I’d known but not known was a kindred spirit. But how kindred? Message-wise, the film was timeless. Take the general social commentary and apply it to Snapchat: As outward tastes are being engineered, so, too, our inward bigotries. Bam! Mind blown.
I wanted to test Amir. Test his knowledge. I scooched down the couch, just a tad, to better hear him.
He murmured another line. Perfectly.
I made a point to whisper the next line with him.
He did the same. All of a sudden we were in a quote-for-quote competition. He inched toward me, too. Soon it felt like we weren’t even at Vanessa’s at all, like there wasn’t a party upstairs. I started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” he asked me.
“That you know every line of this movie.”
He turned with a smile and leaned even closer, as if he were letting me in on a secret. “It’s not the movie. It’s Edward Norton. I love that guy.”
In that moment I was so Amir-struck that I almost forgot that we were speaking. I nodded mutely and stared back into his dark eyes . . . vulnerable maybe, but not lost. Then we turned back to the screen and sat snuggled against each other like that right up until the crucial scene where the two main characters, Tyler Durden (Norton) and Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) hold hands and watch their world collapse. “You met me at a very strange time in my life,” says Tyler Durden.
I turned to Amir. Without warning, he leaned in and kissed me. His long hair tickled my cheek. I pulled away, then leaned back in, returning his kiss, intoxicated. I had no idea how long we’d been making out when Vanessa appeared at the top of the stairs and drunkenly cackled, “Oh my God! I knew it!”
We jumped apart, faces flushed, moment ruined.
Vanessa then proceeded to turn off the lights, which for some reason shut down the massive TV system, too. Amir and I exchanged a few awkward giggles. We fumbled our way out of the darkness, holding hands. I let go only when we reached the kitchen, so I could stop by the sink to splash cold water over my red-hot face. I couldn’t stop smiling. Lisa and Kerry snickered and blew kisses at me from the doorway, and I still couldn’t stop. Then my back pocket buzzed. I assumed it was my parents checking up on me. But when I pulled out my phone, I saw Amir’s face.
My silly smile grew even wider. Vanessa had given him my digits in advance. That figured.
The next time we hung out alone, we made a point not to tell her beforehand.
Alone in the driveway now, I reached for my back pocket again. But I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone. What could I say that he didn’t already know? “Hey, I just lost my best friend to a one-way ticket from Dulles to Dubai because her dad can’t make a living anymore because people hate ‘Mooslims’ and that’s the shitshow we’re living now.”
No doubt he would answer with something annoyingly positive.
Amir had friends in the UAE. Online friends, like mine. Fellow musicians. (The tragic difference: I kept my online friends hidden from him, even after we became an official thing.) Amir plays the oud, one of the oldest instruments known to man. Literally: like beginning-of-time old. It’s a Middle Eastern guitar, a cousin to the lute. He would never admit how talented he is, but he first met these friends because of videos he posted--just him playing alone in his room. Naturally the cool people he met led him to believe that the UAE was a cool place: international, open-minded, stress-free. He kept insisting that Mariam was off to greener pastures. I knew he was trying to make me feel better. But I didn’t need gentle reminders of how lucky I was, that we were, that my parents were tenured professors at George Mason and his were comfortably retired . . . that we had stability. I didn’t give a shit about any of it. I wanted my friend. I refused to put on a happy face because I didn’t have to flee, myself.
How would you act, Amir? If you lost your soul brother, if you had a soul brother?
I took a deep breath and wiped my damp cheeks with my free hand. Definitely best not to call him. Why take it out on him? I shoved my phone in my pocket. No . . . better to wallow alone in a coma of self-reinforcing misery, and mine craved only one type of company: fresh buttermilk scones.
Twenty-three hours later (I’d been counting), I sat in our cushioned bay window, staring out at Mason Terrace. I hadn’t slept much. I hadn’t really moved much, aside from periodic scone binges. Luckily, my sisters and parents were thoughtful enough to leave me alone. All on our street was leafy green and springtime sunny, as it had been yesterday. Yet lifeless. Deserted. Abandoned. I was about to pull out my phone for the millionth time (to do nothing) when I heard a car approaching.
I sat up straight. There was a glint of shiny black metal at the cul-de-sac entrance. My heart jumped.
For a blissful delusional moment, I thought Mariam’s family had come back. A Ramadan miracle? Yeah, right. Stupid me. Funny that this was Friday, May 1. Mayday, mayday, mayday . . . No, it wasn’t Dr. Muhammad’s beat-up sedan. It was a new pickup truck hauling a trailer, its rear a collage of bumper stickers. i served irq. i served afg. pow-mia.
Military folk, like a lot of our neighbors.
After a brief pause at Mariam’s mailbox, my new neighbors pulled into the driveway where we’d said goodbye, rolling right over the past and my memories. I felt my breath catch. My fists clenched at my sides. I was itching to see their faces. I wanted to know who these infiltrators were. Okay, yes, I knew that they were simply the owners of a new home. (Mariam’s home.) Her family had sold it; this family had purchased it. Still, I wanted to stop them. The second they opened the front door--a door through which I’d passed nearly every day of my life--the whole thing would be official, irreversible.
What could I do, though?
I blinked a few times at the truck before it disappeared into the detached garage that mirrored our own.
I’d already tried to stop Mariam’s family from leaving. What I’d tried wasn’t crazy or anything. But it wasn’t exactly legal, either.
From earliest childhood, I’d spent an excessive amount of time fiddling with computers. As in the actual software on hard drives. It runs in the family; Dad is a professor of computer science. His unofficial job is fixing his department’s IT issues. All of his younger academic colleagues are theoreticians without any practical skills. He loves to joke how his job security is dependent on how backward everything really is. Especially infrastructure. He has a point; the Arlington internet hub--as in the actual machinery that makes it all work--is housed in a crumbling cement building that should have been condemned before I was born. “Good thing us old folks know how to repair a toaster oven,” he often cracks whenever we drive past it. “It’s the first thing you kids will need when your screens go dark.” Hardy-har-har. Gallows nerd humor from the Muslim tech guy.
On the other hand, that humor has made him something of a lovable dorky legend at work. So when Mariam first told me how bad it was for her father, I had a hard time believing her.
She rolled her eyes at first. Then she got mad. “Salma, his name is Dr. Muhammad Muhammad. It might as well be Dr. Evil-Evil. You’re so naïve!”
Never mind that he was the best chiropractor in Northern Virginia. Even my grandmother Titi--convinced that a spoonful of honey and nigella seeds can heal anything--swore by his talent. Nobody listened. The depressing truth about the Muslim community, at least ours, is that it sucks at supporting its own. We’re either trying to cope with our alienation or debating the legality of something ridiculous, like what qualifies as a “clean sock.” I’m not kidding. Our imam might hold the world’s record for discussing the virtues of doing laundry. Shoes come off for prayer at every mosque, yet somehow we here in Arlington, Virginia, end up with the halal sock police. (Of which Titi is a proud member. So I’m just as guilty of not listening to her sometimes.) All of which is to say that occasionally I’m forced to take matters into my own hands . . . or fingertips, to be exact.
Anyway, Mariam is naïve, too.