“What Are You Doing Here, Sister?”




Originally published in the LARB Quarterly Journal: No. 14,  Special Legal Issue

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I.

IN THE BEGINNING, there was a plane; 22 hours in flight, and two layovers, and finally, finally, a slow descent.

The overhead lights flicker on. I wake up to the artificial morning of the aircraft: breakfast service and a line for the bathroom and the sounds of restless sleepers stirring. Open my window slowly to temper the sudden flood of sunlight, kiss the tip of my nose to warm plexiglass, and look down. For my first view of this city, this infamous city, this city that will become home.

This is a city I have loved from afar, its culture and chaos telecast across an ocean and written into books I have devoured. Bridges and tall buildings, a statue rising out of the sea. Neighborhoods with names exotic to my teenage tongue: the Upper West Side, SoHo, Flushing Meadows. Swatches of color outside my airplane window, the gray of roads and blue of ocean grow closer and closer until out of nowhere the tarmac comes into view and there is the familiar bump of wheels hitting ground. “Welcome to John F. Kennedy Airport,” the pilot’s voice booms, “We hope you fly with us again.”

In the beginning, there was a plane and then, there was the airport. A border between me and the city, and guarding this border, a grim line of immigration booths.

I wait in the separate queue for foreigners, a long line that curls several times in its pen. Use this time to catch up to finally being stationary, my body still wading through viscous air, my ears still faintly humming. At my turn I step up to the booth and plaster on a smile, but I can immediately tell that the border agent does not appreciate the combination of my disorientation and my hijab and my brown skin. He flips to the shiny new student visa in my passport, and then looks down at me from his glass-enclosed dais. Pulls my eyes into full contact with his ice blue gaze and asks for the address where I’ll be staying for the week before college starts. At my uncle’s, I say, but I can’t remember the house number, street, or suburban town; can barely remember my uncle’s face from the last time I saw him.

There is a pause.

The border agent’s eyes narrow and his mouth purses: he stares at me, waiting to see if I flinch. (I don’t. But my stomach, always first to betray the physicality of my nervousness lets out a long, low growl.) He steps out of the booth and asks me to follow him. A left turn and an embarrassing walk down the row of people being more successfully questioned. I’m led into a sterile side room.

In the beginning, there was a plane and an airport, and then there was a white-tiled room. The infamous secondary questioning. With fluorescent lights and steely officers and large signs forbidding the use of cell phones. Hard plastic chairs, and in them, people of different shades of brown. Together, we sweat fear and feign nonchalance as we sit in an expectant silence, broken only by the butchered announcement of our names.

I wait. Not very long — but long enough to map out how I would face the embarrassment of being sent back; long enough for my insides to liquefy. I’m called up to the desk. There are two officers this time and they have more questions: What do I want to study? Why this university? Why this city? Where am I meeting my uncle? Do I have his phone number? Why am I traveling alone? Did anyone besides me pack my bags?

Eventually satisfied, they let me go. My suitcase has arrived before me at the carousel. I pick it up and wheel it through customs and the gate, and then finally, finally, I’m through. There is my uncle and he looks exactly like the hazy picture in my mind and he hugs me tight and hands me a giant bag of Doritos that he remembers me loving when I was eight years old. Never before have I been so happy to see someone I hardly know.

“Did you have any trouble at immigration?” he asks.

I muster up all the bravado of my 17 years of living. “Nah.”

II.

I’m never homesick, never culture-shocked in this city. The contours are too familiar, too similar to the city I have left behind. The chain stores dotting the streets and the gray lights of office buildings. On humid days, on nights before trash days, on corners with throngs of people and halal food carts, it even smells like home.

Besides, I’m too busy teaching myself American. I learn to stretch out my vowels to sound like I’m from here. Replace my antiquated diction — thrice, fortnight, and so on — with short hard words that spit off my tongue and don’t draw titters. Shed stiff button-down shirts for soft tees, easy two-piece hijabs for light printed department store scarves wound twice around my head and held with pins. I learn to blend into a thrilling anonymity.

I refuse to miss people and places. But after a while, I get tired of the food. Dining hall fare first, the pizza and pasta that are the standard unimaginative vegetarian default at every meal, then the creamy, oily curries that pass for South Asian fare at the restaurants nearby. Even Doritos I get tired of, when I overindulge on a giant bag of Cool Ranch after a day of missing all normal human meal time hours.

I find myself craving daal-chawal-bhindi. Not the rice that is the gloopy brown stuff in my dorm’s dining hall, but chawal: individual basmati grains, fragrant and perfectly steamed. Okra I have barely seen, once in a while in a stew but mysteriously slimy and dull and tasteless, nothing like my mom’s shallow-fried, crisp bhindi smothered in caramelized onions and buttery potatoes. Daal, I have almost forgotten the taste of.

I ask my mother for recipes. She emails me photos of elaborate instructions written out in her barely legible cursive. She’s too slow at typing, she says, so these photos will have to do. Photos of her writing — half transliterated Urdu, half English, all love. I arm myself with this love.

Go to Jackson Heights, I am told, take the F train to the 74th Street–Roosevelt Avenue stop and walk around there and you’ll find stores with what you need. I got this, I tell myself, how hard can this be?

It’s my first journey out of Manhattan, my first solo trip on the subway. I ride the train with a practiced calm. Arrange my face into the blasé of someone who does this every day, sneak multiple checks at the sign on the platform that says Uptown/Queens, hide that I’m checking the map at every station we stop at to make sure I’m going the right way. I end up standing up out of my seat too early, right after the train pulls out of the station before. The F runs express in Queens and I sway holding the bar for long minutes until my stop.

Shahrukh Khan greets me as I step out of the station. His head, alongside some brand of fancy watch, both blown up to unnatural size. Store signs with scripts that I haven’t seen in months. Tears in my eyes at the snatches of words floating in the air: inshallah, ayyo, rukh-ho, full throated letters that shove into my chest and settle somewhere between my heart and my stomach. The unmistakable odor of deep fried pakoras that seeps into my jacket, and suddenly I’m crying and I’m not sure if it’s from the pop of my taste buds or because it’ll be so hard to get rid of the smell.

I wander around a little. In the shade under the subway tracks, I pass uncles drinking chai, aunties choosing fruit and little kids riding tricycles. I duck into a relatively less crowded grocery store. The people inside take an extended look at my sloppy jeans and hesitation and immediately offer to help. Where are you from, beti? What town, what neighborhood, who are your people? When did you come here? How are you liking this city? They help me decipher the names of spices from my mother’s recipes, translate from Urdu to English to visual, pick out the transparent sleeves of powders. I coo at a customer’s baby. The woman restocking the shelves gives me imli candy. Offers opinions on snacks, on where to eat in the area, where to pray nearby now that I’ve spent so long in this store and sunset is approaching.

I make my way to the winding line at the cash register. There’s a panel of magazines alongside, and one catches my eye while I’m in line: a beautiful cover featuring some famous woman I half recognize, seductively turned toward the camera, eyes shiny and smiling, lips slightly parted. Probably an image that has caught my eye half a million times, and my body responds the way it always has: a slowly suffusing of warmth in my lower stomach, my eyes widening.

But something is different this time, maybe it’s the dull ache of possibility. That I’m surrounded in school by women who identify with words that still feel strange on my tongue: lesbian, bisexual, queer. That my soccer teammates are dating each other openly, brazenly. That I’m beginning to recognize my feelings for women as desire, that I’m beginning to realize that these feelings have always been there and will never go away. That here, so far away from the people I know, I can invent myself anew.

When it’s my turn to pay, I am suddenly shy. Can they see through me, these people who have been so helpful and kind? Can they tell from how long I lingered in front of the magazine? Would they be as loving if they knew? Come again, they say. Study hard, beta. Visit us soon.

I hand over what I owe and leave quickly, into the anonymity of the city.

III.

My brother comes to visit. It’s a crisp November — my favorite weather, my favorite season in this city. Central Park alit with trees changing color, a bite to the air that’s perfect for running. The occasional brief snowfall that covers the streets in white dust.

My brother comes to visit, and I decide to tell him I’m queer.

I’m starting to tell some friends here and there, but I’ve never bought into this idea of coming out. Have never thought I would tell someone who was related to me, never felt the need to, and besides there’s the terrifying permanence of kinship. Once the words are said there is no going back with family, no cut and run.

In this case though, my decision to tell is strategic. My brother is coming to visit, and I want him to be able to talk to me. He’s been having problems of his own: he has moved back home and things seem better, but it’s hard to know what’s going on because he won’t talk to us. I want to support him as best as I can, my little brother whom I love, I love, but I need him to confide in me first. Maybe if he sees me as a complex person with issues of my own, and not just as his intimidating older sister — so I decide to tell him that I’m queer.

That’s the easy part, the deciding. It’s harder to figure out what to say: how much to reveal to my brother who, despite our closeness, I have never talked to about any romantic entanglements, his or mine. What words do I use? Queer, which feels more ambiguous, more true — or gay, which requires no explanation? And then, the fears: Will he ask questions I’m not ready to answer? Will he want justifications? Will he bring up Islam?

We’re busy for the first few days after he arrives making lists, and doing touristy things, and meeting my friends, and there just isn’t time to sit down and talk.

But then. I play hooky from work one day. I call it sibling day, and take my brother to Staten Island. Ferry ride, Sri Lankan food, distance from the everyday stuff of life: it’s the perfect adventure.

We set off early — right after rush hour, when the subway is languid and exhales in the empty spaces left by panicked morning commuters. Park ourselves on the rear deck of the ferry for the best view of the city as the boat pulls away. The tip of the island, with tall blue buildings reflecting the water, the weak wintery sun. Wind on our faces and the wake of the boat in the water. The indulgence of a day off while the imaginary people in skyscraper windows work and work and work.

This feels like the perfect time. I lead the conversation to the night before when he had met a few of my close friends, almost all of them visibly queer. I ask him who his favorites are, and then.

“Did you like M?”

“Yeah, she’s really great.”

“Isn’t she? I have a crush on her.” I look out onto the water so that I don’t have to face him.

He doesn’t skip a beat.

“Oh really. That’s cool. I also really liked F, she has great taste in music.” Keeps talking and I’m not sure he’s grasped what I’m trying to tell him, so I try again.

“I’m glad you like M. I have a really, really huge crush on her.”

“Oh,” he says, unflappable. “You should ask her out.”

And then we talk about someone else, but I can hardly remember who or what, all I remember is shaking. Part involuntary response, part relief. I’m thankful to the rock of the boat for hiding my tremors.

We arrive in Staten Island soon after. Walk through cobbled lanes, snaking wide streets with rundown houses until we get to Dosa Garden. We eat and head back — we’re early for the ferry so I take him on a detour. To Bay Street, at the tip of this island, where Eric Garner died, to the makeshift memorial of candles and photos and flowers.

Have you been here before, my brother asks, and I tell him I have. For a protest a few months ago, after a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who killed Garner. Killed him as he pleaded I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, 11 times over, I can’t breathe. The anger, the despair of the crowds that day, the callousness of the police trying to control us in the interest of this city. Gray skies that threatened to break asunder and pour rain on us. My burgeoning consciousness and my tears and my rage. I tell my brother this at the spot where I saw two kids at the protest, two brown kids, two angry kids, two rightfully angry kids get brutally arrested. I’m shaking again. I can’t stop shaking.

On the ride back, we sit on a bench on the side of the ferry. It’s my brother’s turn to talk and he does. Tells me that though he’s still worried about things, he is better. He talks. It’s clear that he’s being responsible, thoughtful, and I’m infinitely less worried. My plan has worked.

IV.

She insists that we rent a car to get to the wedding. It’s not that far away, I argue, we can take the PATH to the hotel, maybe bum a free ride back to the city. But she is insistent, refuses to wear her finery on the train and is indignant about my brilliant plan to change in the bathroom at the station. It’s either a car or a hotel room, she says, and the car ends up being cheaper, so car it is.

“What finery are you planning on wearing anyway?” I say when she shows up at my place with a duffel bag to do this thing women apparently do together called getting ready. We’re going to our friend’s wedding, the first of our friends to get married, my first brown wedding without the buffer of my parents to ensure that I’m following social code.

So, of course, I fuck up. I wear a kurta — masculine cut, and plain and the most comfortable of all the brown clothes I own. Dress it up with a silk hijab and wear a real bra even, but it’s not until I get there that I realize that I am significantly under-dressed. Friends pull me aside all night to yell at me that my get up is not feminine enough.

But she. She knows exactly what she’s doing, this white girl from Maine. Goes into my bedroom with her duffel bag and emerges wearing a black silk sari. Intricate gold designs all along the pallo, shimmering eye shadow and a dusting of gold glitter on her face. Long earrings that brush her neck when she moves, long hair that caresses the strip of soft skin between the bottom of her blouse and the top of her skirt. I can’t tear my eyes away, and she smirks at my embarrassment.

She knows, she must know what she’s doing to me, what she has been doing to me all month. At my first Dyke March, a few weeks before, she’d accompanied me — as an ally, she said — to block photos, or for company in case I was overwhelmed and wanted to leave. She stepped out of the march to get me chocolate custard when we passed Shake Shack, and my friends asked if we were together. Some days later at a birthday party I had taken her to, where she didn’t leave my side all night, where she kept whispering snarky comments in my ear and I couldn’t stop giggling, friends asked if we were together.

All night, at this wedding, I can’t tear my eyes away. She catches me staring while we’re standing in line for dinner. Flashes a smile. Shimmies her shoulders at me, and my lips curl upward; we weave our own private cocoon in this pulsating party of 300 people. Later, when the groom’s cousins put on an elaborately choreographed dance, she slips her hand into mine. Underneath the table, we hold hands. I have to remind myself to breathe.

I decide at that moment that I’m going to tell her I’m in love with her. This has gone on too long, I’m going to tell her, I’m going to do it tonight.

It’s not like I haven’t practiced what to say, I have. I’ve written it out. I’ve said it aloud to the mirror. I have it down pat. But it’s hard to translate the words to movements of lips and tongue and air.

The words won’t come out of my mouth, not when we’re finally alone and collapsing into the car at the end of the night, not when she takes off her heels and hitches up her sari to settle into the driver’s seat, not when she warbles along to the radio as she pulls out of the parking lot. I tell myself I’ll do it when we reach the freeway. But by then we’re too busy comparing notes on the food, on the people. Our conversation peters out and I tell myself I’ll do it when this song is over. But then we’re on the New Jersey turnpike, distracted by the city rising in front of us in all its Saturday night glory. Alit with the constellations of yellow bulbs in skyscrapers windows. The Lincoln Tunnel is my last chance. I promise myself I’ll do it as soon as we’re on the other side of the fluorescent monstrosity because who wants to be told they’re loved under the dirty waters of the Hudson, under the harsh glow of endless fluorescent lights. But this is my last chance, I tell myself. I have to do it, I have to do it tonight.

“You look beautiful,” I say. The words tumble out as soon as we emerge out of the tunnel, into the streets of the city.

She turns slightly to look at me, one eyebrow raised. “Thanks?”

“Really. You look beautiful. And, uh, I have to tell you something.”

“Okay.”

I do it. I tell her.

She is silent. Through a difficult left turn that makes her furrow her forehead and stick out her tongue in concentration, and then she is silent through a tense red light. Won’t look at me while she recites the standard rejection. My ears buzz and I catch only phrases. Thank you. I’m flattered. I appreciate our friendship. Each one, a shard of glass, and then. The sentence — a death sentence — that I will remember for the rest of my life. If you were a guy, things would be different.

We reach my building. Park around the block, and I say, that’s cool. I say the words that I’ve practiced too — the ones for the aftermath of her rejection. That I hope this doesn’t change our friendship, that I just had to do this for myself. For a more honest friendship, I just needed to tell her, that’s all. I’m eerily calm. She finally turns to look at me, and there’s something unreadable in her eyes.

We get out of the car, she to grab her wallet from her bag in the back seat, me to leave, and she grabs my fingertips. Asks if she can hug me. Of course, I say. She pulls me close. Her hand reaches for my face, the backs of her fingers graze my cheek, her perfume — gardenias I think — curls around me. When I open my eyes, which I didn’t even know were closed, her face is right next to mine. Her lips graze my jaw somewhere between my chin and my ear lobe. She kisses me.

On my cheek.

Drops her head to my shoulder and we hold each other. Standing on a street corner, enveloped by the anonymity that this city affords us, this dark Saturday night in this quiet neighborhood, we’re just two girls, holding each other.

She pulls away after a while. “Thank you for telling me,” she says. “See you at the dinner thing on Tuesday?”

“Yeah.” I say as I get out of the car.

I smell the gardenias on me for days.

V.

I’m biking home from Brooklyn one beautiful spring night. Late enough on a Saturday that the city is still, dark streets aglow with the gold of streetlights and barely any cars. I whizz through red lights, even though I am in no hurry to get home.

It has been a wonderful night. “Queer Muslim Show and Tell,” a brilliant idea by my friend, where we’ve all shared something we’re passionate about. Things that we didn’t know about each other: my friend who is a serious academic reads us the poetry that she writes in her free time; another friend brings a comic book collection to show us; another talks about the anti-violence project she’s starting up at her mosque.

It has taken me a while to find these people, this group of queer Muslims who will spend a Saturday night sharing parts of themselves. It has taken me years dragging myself to lesbian bars and pride and dance parties and all that this city has to offer, these places where my Muslimness, my brownness feel acutely out of place. These places where, once, a white lesbian once petted my hijab like I was an exotic creature, where this other time, a Moroccan bouncer looked me up and down and said, “What are you doing here, sister?”

It has taken a while to find this group of queer Muslims who have become family.

I share, too. It’s my first time reading my writing aloud. I’m nervous and more than once I bumble the words, but the audience had been supportive, and it energizes me as I bike up the Manhattan bridge. Peddle and puff on this rusty, heavy bike that has lived better days.

I decided to read a safe piece. Short and straightforward, about brown aunties and my faltering Urdu. Gets a few laughs, easy.

But all I can think of as I make my way up my favorite bridge, my thighs burning, is what I had wanted to share. It’s been a rough week, and I’m reeling still. A few days ago, a man — seemingly ordinary, in a Yankees T-shirt — stood in the middle of the bike lane as I approached. I figured he’d move out of the way, and he did, but not before I’d almost reached him, not before he’d stuck out his arm and pretended to punch me. Terrorist, he hissed after me. I wobbled, but caught myself. I pedaled away as fast as I could. And started wearing a helmet when I bike. Then, yesterday, the mailroom guy at work who I make small talk with stopped me and asked what I think about ISIS. Muslims think they’re evil too, right: You think they’re evil too, right? I broke my rule of refusing to apologize for things I am not part of because he was holding my packages hostage.

I pause at the top of the bridge to catch my breath. There’s a viewing deck there, a small semi-circle to rest tired legs, and I get off and sit on the ground with the city splayed before me. The East River underneath, a black abyss, and above it, the city. The buildings lining the curve of the island, the lights in windows in the buildings and the people wrapping up their Saturday nights and the people still working and the people cleaning the hallways and the bathrooms for the next day and the people driving cabs to take tipsy revelers home — the beauty of this manmade ecosystem that somehow works, the beauty of this frenzy.

This beauty, accessible to me so tenuously, depending on which of my identities is showing. I’m getting ready to graduate, trying to figure out what’s next and it hits me again how soon I might have to leave this city, this country. So I do that thing I’ve been doing to cope, which is to pretend: that my visa doesn’t expire soon, that I don’t have a set number of days I can be unemployed before I must leave, that I might not be able to build on these roots I’ve started to send into the ground. I pretend that none of this exists and get back on my bike. Speed through the last level stretch of this bridge, and take my feet off the pedals into free fall.

VI.

Look at this city. Look at this city from here. Look at the way it rises and wanes, peeps in between trees, houses, highways.

I’m on a bus, on my way back from visiting my nearest of kin this side of the ocean — distant relatives that I only half know. It’s been a weekend of straight-backed chairs and playing straight. The tedium of a conservative suburb so white that it sharpens the contours of my brownness, so small that it is impossible to go to the grocery store without running into someone my relatives know.

Approach from the north, through the Bronx. Brief glimpses between fences of houses with lawns and driveways with cars, the city a comfortable commutable whisper. Merge on to 278 West, and the neighborhood is laid bare. Tall, crumbling apartment buildings framed by exposed power lines and smoke stacks. Factories missing windows, faded graffiti, all remnants of the black and brown communities torn up and replaced with highways for easy access into the city.

I’m ready to be back. Lighter with each mile covered, my constant, controlled panic lifting as we travel closer. Easing the yearning of my heart for this city.

On to the Triborough bridge. The city laid out in front, the luxurious waterfront apartments of the Upper East Side, the wealth of the island rising, rising into the pinks, the blues, the striking purples of the sunset sky. (And just behind, the jail complex of Rikers Island. A pen for the poorest, the most marginalized who cannot afford bail. Waiting for trials, waiting for acquittals, those who live, die, give birth while waiting in this monstrosity.)

I’m ready to be back in this city, in this fragile balance I know. In this city where anonymity is not a luxury, where queerness thrives, but brownness is marginalized, criminalized, surveilled.

Circle this city. And look at this city from here. Through Queens, with its buildings close enough to touch. Parks and playground and brown families wheeling double strollers home. Peek inside apartments in Brooklyn. The windows framing lives playing in parallel. Circle this city and tighten the gyre. Turn onto the Brooklyn Bridge. A last view up the river — the sky settles into a deep cobalt blue and the lights in the windows in the buildings flicker on.

In the beginning, there was a plane; and then there was an airport. And then there was a language. And then there was a city that taught me to live. This queer city, this brown city — this queer brown city. Finally, finally, I am home.


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