The fall you moved with your family to America, you were diagnosed with TB, and the old white doctor pointed at the five inch red rectangle on your forearm and said, "That should be three inches smaller." He put you on a battery of medications which worsened your acne, made you gain thirty pounds, and gave you an overall sense of impending death. As usual, your Mama was jealous of you, and wanted to be the one dying instead; it was her first time without a piano, and your first time without friends to comfort you. TV was full of commercials, and your family went to McDonald’s too often; the first few times you were excited to be eating hamburgers, then a few months later you realized that it was a nasty fast food restaurant. When you went to the movies, you had to explain to your parents why the jokes were funny. Long after the credits had begun to roll, the three of you still sat in the dark, you translating the movie’s murder mystery into Arabic. There’s nothing sadder than a fourteen year-old explaining a movie to her middle-aged parents. In America, you think, not understanding a movie is the same as being illiterate. It could break your heart if you really thought about it, so you should never think about it, you should just go to school, eat your lunch on the floor outside the library, then go into the library and spend the rest of the period reading the dictionary.

One day, Jennifer Alvarez wants to have lunch with you. Soon, so will Jessica and Aisha, who is black and Muslim and wants to hang out with you during Ramadan so y’all can give each other support. When these girls call the radio, they give you mad shoutouts. You don’t know what a shoutout is, but you like that your name is on the radio, even if they mispronounce it. They are sixteen and drive beat-up cars and want you to hang out at the park with them when it’s dark. You tell them your Baba doesn’t allow it. "She said her papi don’t play that," they’ll translate to each other.

There were things that made it bearable: that bicycle your mother and father bought you when you weren’t looking, its handlebars shiny, nothing like the tattered, rusty bicycles you had to rent from the hashish fiend at the souk back in Ma’moura; Oreos; MTV; but mostly, the letters you got from Fakhr Eldin, your best friend who was still back in Alexandria renting bicycles from the hashish fiend at the souk in Ma’moura; letters that always began, ‘I miss your face your eyes and your smile what is America like is it cold there and do you like the blonde boys better than me and my big nose?’

You write back that it’s a total let down, that there aren’t any cute blonde boys, and he’s the best. You’re lying; there are blonde twins that are straight out of a movie, and they’re gorgeous, and one day you drop your box of charity chocolates so one of them can help you pick them up. "Hey, I read about you in the newspaper," he said, and you blushed. "Did you used to live in a tent, and stuff?" You lose your breath, then say, "no actually, a glass pyramid." "No kidding? Right on…" and he walks away. What a fucking waste, you think to yourself. Damn it.

You finally have a locker, something you’ve been dreaming of since you saw that seven-up commercial when you were nine. But lockers can’t make a girl happy forever. When, one weekend afternoon your father comes into your bedroom with a letter from Fakhr in his hand, you brace yourself. There is a huge harangue. Girls should not be addressed this way, he tells you. And this boy says he misses kissing you. Did you actually kiss this boy? "No!" you say, a memory appearing in your head like a movie of yourself rolling around topless with Fakhr in an abandoned beach cabin. "Absolutely not!" you shout. The letter was torn up and discarded, and you were officially cut off from the Pride of Religion.

When Jennifer and Jessica and Aisha insist that you go to a rap concert with them at Stubbs, you are met with complete resistance. 

"Enough, man," Mama tells your Baba. "Let the child go, she’s suffocating here." 

"You, you be quiet, the girl’s not going to rap concerts and getting drunk and pregnant. No, no, and no. Full stop." And to seal it, he’d farted three times.

"I want to have friends!" you scream, and run to your room.

"We are not here to make a friend, we are here to study and get the best out of America!" This is your Baba’s mantra the entire time you are living under his roof. This is why he was in America, but not you. You wanted a "life," a concept you’d just learned of.

You all go to the McDonald’s drive-thru, and upon inspecting his cheeseburgers and finding them with pickles, your Baba backs the car up and yells into the intercom, "I said no bickles, you pitch!"

One morning, after listening to Nirvana half a dozen times, you pack a bag, kiss your brother’s forehead, and sneak out of the house, balancing the bag on your bike’s handlebars. You wear the bowler hat you’d bought when you first moved here, with your mama from a street vendor by campus. Your bike flies downhill, and in your jeans’ back pocket is your father’s stolen credit card and around your neck every single gold pendant you’ve ever owned hanging from a sturdy gold chain. 

The solution is to be a taco vendor, you decide as the day nears to a close and businessmen in their suits are flooding the avenue. You go to the place off of Congress to apply for a cart, and the man asks you how old you are. 17, you lie, and he asks if you’ve got proof. No, you say, and that’s the end of that.

But I’m a taco vendor, you say, I need to sell tacos, it’s part of a bigger plan to unite all people, especially Palestinians and Israelis. Oh really, he wants to know, and smiles. He’s almost as old as your father, and he wants to know if you want to go home with him because he can take real good care of you and you wouldn’t have to worry about a thing. You turn around and sprint to a pizza place, your mini suitcase banging against the asphalt, its wheels worn.

Selling the gold is the next logical step, you think, so you go into a small shop and give an older man with little hair your chain. He weighs it and tells you $60. Sixty bucks? you yell. Man, I know I should’ve gone lower, he says. No fucking way, that’s all my gold, that’s all I’ve got in the world! Only sixty bucks? You think of your mama walking around with all that gold hanging from her ears and wrists; does she know how little it’s worth here in America? You snatch the necklace back and clip it around your neck, and as you turn away, the man tells you if you came home with him he’d buy you a new dress and you could have a place to stay for free.

Quickly realizing you are prey, you walk to the nearest motel, a shit hole, and check in under a fake name, Madonna Nirvana. The man looks jaded, and wearily gives you a key. In your room, you decide that you’re fucked, and call your parents.

"Goddamn you, we thought you’d been kidnapped!" your baba yells.

"It’s her, thank God!" Your mama says.

"Where are you, we’re coming to get you now!" he says.

"Not so fast, buster," you say, can’t believe you just called your dad buster.


"I have conditions."

"There’s no condition, you give us direction, we come get you right now, little girl."

"Bye," you say and hang up. You call back five minutes later.

"OK, OK, what is your condition?"

"Curfew extension."

"Nine p.m. is the final offer," he says.

"And resumed contact with Fakhr el-Din?"

"No, no, and no!"

You hang up again. This time you wait about an hour, strolling down to a shop on the drag and using the stolen credit card to buy a dog collar.

"OK!" he yells when he picks up the phone. "Letters allowed between you and Fakhr el-Din, but there is absolutely, positively, no dating allowed!"

"Fine," you say, "I’m in a seedy motel on Broadway." In less than one year, you will regret not having negotiated more on the dating bit.

When they arrive, you are waiting on the street corner, sleepy and hungry. Your mother gets out of the car to hug you, and you see her face is pale like your sitto’s white cheese. You hug her hard and cry; you wish you hadn’t hurt her. She thought she’d lost you, she says, and you tell her you’re tough. She laughs and tells you to get in the car, and sits in the back with you.

That night, you hold her hand and look out of the window and at the city’s lights fading away, and see for the first time how you were braver than your mother. As though she’d read your mind, she slips out a ‘yikhrib baytik,’ and then whispers in your ear, "I’ve kept all the letters for you anyway. You never asked for them!" So you’d never seen that she was an ally. It was really your fault. 

Your Baba puts in a tape of Abdel Halim singing sawah but in the middle of it, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch comes on, and your father says he heard it on the radio and had to tape it because he thought it gave him a good feeling. The night folds over, your head settling on your mama’s shoulder, as you fall asleep and dream of a new life, an existential restart button, and a slice of pepperoni-less pizza. 

[Forever after at


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