It’s July. Surveillance state season, Layla calls it. Everyone is watching, or threatening to: the feds; our parents; the aunties on WhatsApp; the gora boys at Wawa. Always, of course, Allah. Before I leave the house, Ma throws salt on my face to ward off the jinn and says no boys or else: “When a boy and a girl are together, the devil’s the third.” What about when a girl and a girl are together, I don’t ask. Is an angel with them instead?
We ride our bikes up and down the Henry Hudson Trail, though we spend more time looking down than up. Needles, cans of Red Bull, plastic hangers—the path is littered with shit and if we’re not careful we’ll go flying.
Once, we almost do.
“I knew it,” Layla says, jumping off her bike. “Of course it’s him.”
By him she means Trump, or at least the campaign sign with his name that’s half-attached to a squashed metal stand. She pulls a Sharpie marker out of her bra and starts drawing a giant dick on it, a detailed one, with tiny hairs and everything.
“Gross,” I say.
“I know,” she goes. “He is, isn’t he?”
I nod, though he’s not all I meant.
We walk along Keansburg Boardwalk, rolling our jeans into capris and eventually shorts. Tourists tap our shoulders and tug our arms. Which way is the Lost Lagoon? How far is the nearest porta potty? Where are you from? Your parents? India, Iran? Oh, Pakistan, they say when we respond, if we respond. That’s where they found Saddam, right? Or was it Osama?
We pass a vape pen back and forth under the trees along the trail. Plastic bags hang from the branches instead of leaves, and they fill with traces of our smoke. She flicks her tongue before putting her mouth on the pen, and heat rises in my chest, my legs, places I thought would only ever remain cold.
“It’s not a lollipop,” she goes when it’s my turn, when I keep my lips pressed against the imprint of hers. “You need to open your mouth.”
We read aloud from a book of Rumi poetry. I hold one end; she holds the other.
“Know that my beloved is hidden from everyone,” I say. “Like the shadow I am and I am not,” she says back.
It’s my idea to cover the book with a book sock. The galaxy kind, so our parents think we’re studying for AP Bio in the fall.
“Why?” she goes. “It’s not like we’re reading a porno.” Still, whenever the fabric slips, she readjusts it and when it finally tears, she duct tapes the wound.
We flip through essays from the appendix. Who was Rumi’s lover? One scholar says a woman with a Marilyn Monroe mole. Another says Allah. A third says Shams.
“Who’s Shams?” I ask. “A man,” she says. I’m not sure if the book shakes because of her hands or mine. “His teacher.”
We get our mustaches waxed at Raheela Aunty’s parlor. Aunties crane their necks from the waiting area as we wince. They wear oversized t-shirts from The Dollar Tree that say “Jersey Girl” in neon-lime print and read us news from their WhatsApp group chats.
Turmeric cures PMS. Princess Diana was murdered, did you know? Sana Masood took a leave of absence from Rutgers because she was depressed. Her poor family. Shame, shame. They tell us what they like about us and what they don’t. Big nose. Tip top brows. A bird’s frame. Hazel eyes, under the vanity lights. Mashallah, mashallah.
We pick up halal meat from Shahnawaz Grocery. Uncles sit on concrete benches outside and play Snakes and Ladders, yelling beinchodt! sisterfucker! when they roll a number they don’t like. They turn to one another as we pass.
“Whose girl is she again?” they ask, though it’s unclear which of us they mean. “Women,” Layla hisses after we lose sight of them. “We’re women.”
“Are we?” I go.
“Duh,” she says, raising her finger to my chest. My nipple is hard, and her eyes widen when she feels it. “How else do you have these?”
We share a stuffed pretzel from the express case at Wawa. Salt falls from the corners of her mouth onto my lap. In the parking lot, gora boys snort crushed Adderall from Altoids tins and shout Princess Jasmine! or sometimes just Jasmine. Twice, Malala.
“At least they got the country right,” Layla says.
We buy anti-aging eye cream from CVS.
The cashier tells us, “Don’t bother.” Her sister is a gyno and has seen it all. Babies with our skin, our blood, whatever. Alive for five seconds, but with those dark circles? It’s like they’ve lived for fifty years.
“Straight from the womb,” she says. “Born tired.”
We play Fuck, Marry, Date. Date, not kill, because of the verse in the Qur’an that says killing one person is like killing all of humanity. She picks the people. Michael B. Jordan. Idris Elba. Liam Hemsworth. His brother. Sometimes she throws in wild cards. Like Tariq, our name for the jinn under her bed, or Johnny Bravo.
One day she says, “What about Red?”
“Huh,” I go, pretending not to hear. It’s what we call the Wawa boy with orange-red hair that’s more orange than red.
“He seems like a decent fuck,” she says, and my throat dries. “Not perfect, but decent.”
We watch Bollywood movies: Bajirao Mastani and Desi Boyz, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Devdas.
“What are you looking at?” she asks.
“Their dance moves,” I say. “Their saris. Their henna.”
We take Buzzfeed quizzes. I take “Which Kardashian Are You?” again and again, and though I change my answers I get Kendall every time.
Layla gets Kylie.
“You’re such a Kendall,” she says. “You mean I’m a model?” I tease.
“No,” she says too quickly, and when my face falls her voice softens. “I mean you should play basketball.”
We eat frozen kabobs and blizzards from Dairy Queen for my birthday. Layla comes over and wears a dress covered with flying clocks. It’s new, and I wonder if she got it especially for me, for today. “See,” Ma says and rips the checkered snapback off my head. “She looks like a daughter. What about you?”
The three of us sit on the floor and eat off a bedsheet covered with Looney Tunes characters. Ma flips between The Sound of Music and Fox News. She flinches when Bill O’Reilly speaks but doesn’t change the channel when we ask.
“We have to know what they think of us,” she says. “How else are we going to survive?”
Ma says she hopes my dreams come true and that hers don’t. Not the one she had last night, anyways. The one where I was doing hanky panky with a boy. My chest tightens. Ma is always having dreams like these, and always someone visits her in them. Her own Ma, her Abu, her Abu’s Ma, her Ma’s Abu, her sister. All of them in her dreams and all of them in the grave.
“What kind of boy?” Layla asks. Her words slur like they do when she’s nervous or excited.
In my room, we play SZA and turn the tower fan on full blast. Dust particles from the blades land in our eyes. “Hopin’ my 20 somethings won’t end,” we sing.
Layla is fifteen and, as of today, I am too.
We lay side by side, her leg pressed against mine. I can’t tell whose stubble I feel. She gives me a gift: The World Almanac and Book of Facts: 2000.
“Where do you think we were then?” she asks. We were born a year later.
“Wherever we’ll be once we die,” I say.
She reads me fact after fact. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie got married, just not to each other; eHarmony started; the number nine carries the vibrations of all the numbers that come before it; one plus two plus three plus four plus five plus six plus seven plus eight equals thirty-six and three plus six equals nine; Boo Radley was a jinn.
“No way,” I say, and she laughs before handing me the book.
“Your turn,” she says. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
I flip through the pages, but the ink blurs, and all I see are the words in my head.
Allah made me one way and everyone else thinks I’m another; I didn’t kiss Dylan McCormick in sixth grade, I just said I did because you said you wanted to; your name means ‘night’ in Arabic and mine means ‘light,’ and shouldn’t that count for something, anything, maybe even everything?
“The world was supposed to end,” I say.
“I thought that was 2012?”
She sounds disappointed, deflated, or maybe that’s my own voice.
“2000, too,” I go. “Because of the Y2 computer bug. They thought planes would fall from the sky, nukes would launch, power plants would turn off. Everything pitch black. All the electricity gone.”
“Well, aren’t we lucky.” She turns her back to me. The jagged edge of her pinky toe scratches my skin. I pray for a scar to form though I know the cut isn’t that deep.
“Glad we weren’t around to see that.”