YOUR HEART AFTER DARK
By Mahtab Rohan
God’s house is supposed to offer redemption and peace, but all it offers me these days is an eerie silence.
I keep waiting to feel the rock in my chest move, for some great wave of divine mercy to finally wash away the heaviness that’s made my chest its home. But although the masjid suspends my worries for a while, stepping outside will be like climbing out of a pool. Everything will cling to me, the weightlessness of the water replaced by soggy clothes.
I’m just here because it’s my turn on the cleaning schedule. I’m sweeping dirt from the white-tiled corridors with fierce focus, hoping God sweeps away my problems in the same way, feeling a twang of guilt because I don’t come here as much as I used to.
The masjid and I aren’t as familiar as we once were. While I was away, it underwent major renovations and I’m not used to this new look. I know it’s the same place where I used to pour my heart out but it feels too different. Even some of the people here have changed.
Tina Yasir and I used to spend hours playing double dutch in the gym while our parents offered the never-ending tarawih. Faiza Qureshi used me as a therapist to vent about her class bullies. Back in third grade, I picked a fricken lice from Aisha Suleiman’s hair. A lice.
But now, all these girls only meet my gaze fleetingly, offering terse smiles before quickly looking away. The cost of talking to me is an hour-long lecture from their moms. It’s just easier to accept that I’ve grown the wrong way, like a tree that merged with a metal fence instead of growing straight. I’m a pariah now. You’re not supposed to talk to me.
Some aunties try to talk to me—ladies who previously never acknowledged my existence. Now that I’m a reservoir of potential gossip they approach me with gleaming eyes, hoping I’m stupid enough to divulge my personal issues to them.
Other aunties safely whisper from a useless distance as I offer nawafil.
“Her dad took on a second wife.”
“Her mom used to be a beautiful woman but now she’s just a work horse.”
“My daughter says she’s always hanging out with boys.”
There are enough benevolent souls here to keep me rooted, though. People like Auntie Fatemah remind me that this place belongs to me just as much as anyone else.
She walks over to me as I empty the contents of the dustpan into the trash.
“Um, are you okay?” I ask after seeing her red face. “You look like you need a break.”
My friend’s mom is the only other person on cleaning duty today. Stray hairs are escaping her graying braids which travel up into a disheveled bun. Her lips are chapping pretty badly and she keeps pulling at the neck of her tunic.
“A break?” she muses after taking a drink from the water fountain. “I don’t want breaks, Maria. I had a break all my life in China. I had a break while they forced me to drink alcohol and slashed my dad’s beard. I had a break when my husband went missing and no one gave me answers. I don’t want any more breaks. I want to do things now.”
She splashes water from the fountain onto her face and, although she’s pretty serious, something about her ferocity makes me snicker.
“Okay, don’t take any breaks,” I suggest as I adjust my glasses. “But how about you sit down for a minute? I’ll grab some snacks from my bag.”
Auntie sighs and takes a seat on the metal folding chair next to the fountain. “It’s menopause, my girl. The hot flashes roast you like a chicken on a spit.”
Sidewalks are public property, so as I stand here I know I’m not on holy ground. One step in front of me is the path that leads to the entrance of the masjid, a break in the black iron fencing.
And if I take that step, there will be consequences.
I used to come and go here without issue. The beast in my veins was unpredictable but it hadn’t spilled innocent blood, it hadn’t tainted my energy with the foreboding flavor of death. I could visit any place of worship and it wouldn’t repel me.
But things are different now.
My energy is no longer the same.
I step towards the masjid and immediately feel the gravity of my existence multiply. My mind and body slow down as if I’m dragging a huge animal behind me. And in a way, I am.
Holy places make me feel the weight of what I’m carrying inside of me, of what normally has no weight at all even though it weighs me down more than anything.
The glass doors automatically part as I approach the entrance.
I catch sight of myself in a mirror near the reception and can’t recognize the face staring back at me.
My mom grew up barred from practising her religion. When we escaped to Canada, she always told me never to take my freedom for granted. And I didn’t. I witnessed what happened to her, to us, and to the millions of Uyghurs still detained in China. I know what that’s like.
I just didn’t think I’d go through it again and that the second time around, I’d be even more helpless than before.
I escaped people who stole my freedoms only to be trapped by a beast tainting my humanity.
When I look to the prayer hall, I only recognize it for an instant before it becomes unfamiliar and foreboding. My mind is turning against me, trying to eject me from this place.
I stumble towards the gym doors.
I’m dragging a wide cloth broom across the gymnasium when the men’s side door creaks open.
When I turn and see Ehmet Obad’s angular face, I imagine a person trying to stomp out all the sudden sparks catching fire in my stomach.
“There’s nobody here,” I announce so he can walk into the gym without fear of aunties descending upon him. “I mean, except your mom. Are you here to pick her up?”
Before I even finish asking the question, he disappears back behind the door.
“Alright,” I speak into the empty gym, “nice seeing you, too.”
Someone must’ve showed up or called for him.
It would’ve been nice to talk to Ehmet but honestly, as of late, our conversations aren’t exactly lit. We just share the same bag of chips while watching cars outside the gas station, our only comments about squirrels begging to get run over.
Our relationship-that-never-was has fallen out of reach. It was like watching something fall in slow motion but being unable to catch it.
I don’t know what went wrong and, of course, there’s no way to ask.
Hey Ehmet, just wondering if you like me or if I’ve just been imagining things since we hit puberty. ‘K thanks bye.
There was always the off chance that I was totally misreading the energy between us, but I didn’t pay any attention to that possibility.
I was naive.
And now, whatever that energy between us was, it’s… changed.
Ehmet is still tangled up with my heartstrings, though, and the heart strings are like bomb wires, and I’m the poor sucker in the movie holding pliers and trying to keep my hand steady.
There’s no easy way to stop loving someone.
I’ve played a variety of mental tricks to pretend like Ehmet doesn’t sit right next to me, such as convincing myself that I’m peripherally blind or telling myself that if I don’t look at him, he won’t exist. Solipsism at its best.
None of it works well, though. Our rows are adjacent and the meager space between us might as well not exist.
Upham’s math period is the only class we share this semester and ending up next to each other was like winning the assigned-seating lotto. But see, the universe only let that happen because it knew Ehmet and I would drift apart and that I’d eventually want to sit anywhere but here.
To make things worse, Yara, Queen of Dating/Dumping Popular Guys, Master of Spandex Shorts, sits in front of Ehmet and abandons no opportunity to whip her head around, ruffle her long brown hair, and ask him for an eraser.
A fricken eraser.
Yara moved here last year when I was away and she’s been shooting me glares ever since I got back.
“It’s Ehmet,” Brook explained. “They’re neighbors now and she’s got the hots for him. Big time.”
It’s general knowledge that Ehmet doesn’t date, just like everyone knows Tiffany Pennington has a nervous breakdown with anything less than an A- and Rick LaFontaine is still haunted by boogers he stopped picking a decade ago. But Yara is new here. Maybe she hasn’t picked up on any of this. Or maybe she just doesn’t care.
Krissy What’s-Her-Face decides to open the window next to her seat and the draft carries Ehmet’s traditional perfume straight into my nostrils.
My heel starts hammering against the linoleum.
Don’t look at him… Don’t look at him…
But I look at him.
The Uyghur jerk is leaning forward on one elbow, his chin resting on his knuckles. My eyes linger on his muscular forearms. A loosely fitted t-shirt is about as revealing as Ehmet gets and his wide shoulders only fit into oversized tops. He even swims with one on (i.e. I’ve never seen him topless). Sometimes he’ll wear long basketball shorts instead of pants but I don’t get a kick outta staring at his legs. I should have Ehmet’s smooth, hairless legs and he should have my hairy desi ones. But then how would the universe have its cruel way?
I finally look away before Ehmet catches me, or worse, before he doesn’t return my gaze at all.
Forward gaze, I tell myself. Focus fiercely on the pudgy and ill-tempered dragon teaching us mathematics.
As I fidget with my eyebrow ring, I end up in Kashi, The City of Light. They call it Varanasi now, or Banaras. The crossroads of multiple rivers including the revered Ganga Ma. The birthplace of Buddhism. The holiest of the Sapta Puri. A place they say is older than history, older than legend. The place where Shahrukh Khan sinks in self-pity after Aishwirya Rai marries the other guy. Yeah, that place. This is where I walk until I can’t walk no more, until the pain in my feet is greater than my need to explore the bustling cultures and iconic buildings along the riverbanks.
A warm tap on my hand brings me back to Windsor.
I blink quickly as I look over at Ehmet.
He’s staring at me, arm still outstretched. Then, with a nod of his head, he signals for me to look at Upham.
“Question six,” Upham says as I make eye contact with her, “from last night’s homework, on the board, please.”
I rub my forehead, feeling stupid for indulging in a daydream again. I’m supposed to be a clean-cut person now. No more outlandish dreams. No more hoping that I’ll ever get a chance in hell to travel the world.
During the beginning of class, I managed to cover a page in triangles and strategically-placed scribbles, making it look like I did homework. It saved me while Upham was making rounds for a quick homework check but if I copied this jargon onto the board, it’d sabotage me.
Now I can feel Ehmet’s eyes on me, but this time I’m the one who doesn’t look back.
Maybe I’m afraid of rejection. Maybe he isn’t looking at me like I think he is. Maybe I’ll ask him for help and he’ll roll his eyes in a bad way, like he’s annoyed or something.
But then a lined piece of paper enters my view, landing softly under my nose as if it was a feather blown in by the delicate summer breeze. It’s the answer to question six, written hastily but still legible.
I look sideways at Ehmet. His nose is already buried in his notebook, answering the next set of questions.
I sigh and grab the paper. And see, this is the problem. This is what’s making it so hard to distance myself from Ehmet Obad. He isn’t just any friend: He’s my jigri dost, a part of me, something irreplaceable, something I know what it’s like to lose.
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