by Marlee Cox
Rashid’s mother, Abigail, was fair-skinned and blue-eyed. She had been raised in Northern Wisconsin; her parents were devout Baptists. But she wore the hijab. This was because Rashid’s father, who came to America on a student visa and never left, was an Egyptian Muslim and wouldn’t marry outside his faith. I met Abigail—and, more important, Rashid—when I was six years old, and I just kept thinking, She must love him so much. To me, this woman was the epitome of lovely. Yet she draped herself with her differences, and wore her beauty like a burden.
The kindergarten class where I first encountered Rashid was the second one I attended in four months—my family was in the process of moving uptown, from our rental condo to a respectable split-level. I use the word uptown very loosely here; Alkali, Ohio, was hardly any kind of town at all. It was a disconcertingly small—and slightly inbred—community of June Cleaver-esque mothers, and fathers who worked at the electrical company thirty minutes down the highway. It wasn’t the sort of place one came across latté-skinned boys who brought explosive pills of tart pomegranate seeds to school in an Iron Man lunchbox, or beautiful women who were losing their fairytale-blonde hair because it never saw the sun. I doubt there was a mosque within one hundred miles of Alkali. The entire family was a curiosity to me.
Rashid and I sat next to each other in Ms. Ailey’s class; she was one of those alphabetical types who matched names with faces more readily if the faces were placed in a recognizable pattern. Adams next to Anderson, Shalir next to Sheehan, and so forth.
For the first three days in Ms. Ailey’s class, I was communally ignored. The light that dripped in from the windows, sliced to splinters by the yellowed blinds, seemed to pass through me—through the vacant planes of my face; my freckles and my flat nose and my vein-colored eyes. I’ve never been very visible. On the fourth day, though, the dark-eyed boy who would become my best friend tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to look at him.
“You’re sitting where Liam used to sit,” Rashid said. I blinked, startled. “Liam cried all the time, and couldn’t write the words on the board. The teacher said Liam was behind, and had to go to a diff’rent class. But Liam’s mom got mad, and now Liam goes to St. Elizabeth’s. You sit where Liam used to sit. So everyone thinks you can’t write the words on the board, either.”
I sniffed, taken aback. “I can write,” I said simply. To prove it, I wrote my name on the backside my coloring sheet, with a crayon called “cerulean.” Katherine Sheehan. Ms. Ailey had been addressing me as Katie, which was entirely my mother’s doing. I was named for my paternal grandmother, whom she—my mother—couldn’t stand. I liked the way Katherine rolled over my lips, though, soft and regal, a disc of hard candy melting in my mouth.
Rashid smiled and selected a different crayon—“chartreuse.” He slowly spelled out, Rashid Shalir.
Later that day, near the swings, Rashid asked me to marry him. I said no—I was six; boys had cooties. He took this in stride, nodding solemnly, and then asked me to be his best friend.
I said yes.
Having a best friend, when you’re small, is uncomplicated. We told ghost stories, and swapped lunches (I developed an extensive international palate), and pretended to be spies or superheroes at recess. On one occasion, we stole my mother’s kitchen scissors and gave me a choppy, irregular crew cut to match his. We wanted to be alike. It was simple and innocent, unlike my older sisters’ turbulent friendships, in which everything was a competition and nobody ever seemed to win.
The year was 2001.
I visited Rashid’s house only once. It smelled heavy and dark, like a sandstorm. A special room, facing Mecca, was set aside for salat—one of the pillars of Muslim faith, a five-times-a-day prayer ritual. Mr. Shalir, an awkward sort of man with heavy eyelids and light footsteps, read the newspaper in the living room. A cassette tape played from the stereo in the corner, issuing sounds of pulsing bongo drums and whining flutes. I was endlessly fascinated; behind the Shalirs’ front door, there existed an entirely different universe than the one I knew. I felt like I was holding something small and fragile with an unsteady grip, knowing that, sooner or later, I would falter, and whatever it was would shatter at my feet. Often, I had dreams in which I stood inside a room made of windows. People pitched stones at me, and my hands bled unceasingly when I tried to scoop up the flakes of broken glass.
In first grade, three things collapsed in quick succession: my friendship with Rashid, two towers, and the illusion that we as a nation were safe and impenetrable.
It began on the first day of school, the first day I saw Rashid after he’d spent the summer with his grandparents in Wisconsin. With my friend gone, I played with the Triplets—Mary, Sarah, and Erica Widmann—who lived down the block. Their mother had a ludicrous habit of dressing them identically, and it took me forever to learn to tell who was who.
My butchered hair had grown out enough for my mother to tie it back in a sleek yellow ribbon. I stood on the playground, a rose petal pink backpack strung over my shoulders. The first wisps of autumn were beginning to blow through the air, but the sun still baked the metal slides and swings to a dangerous temperature. A group of boys compared their knots of scabs under the fragmented shade of the jungle gym.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Rashid standing on the lip of the playground, beckoning to me. For a reason that wasn’t immediately clear to me, I ignored him. Maybe the reasons would never be clear; or, even worse, maybe there weren’t any reasons. Barely realizing what I was doing, I let my feet carry me in the direction of the Triplets, and the elaborate double dutch game they had started on the blacktop. Rashid had been my first and greatest friend, but after having an entire two months to forget his round eyes and tufty black hair, he just seemed so different when I saw him that day. So isolated in his skin and identity; so foreign.
Looking back, I find myself with the belief that appreciation for such inequality is the only thing we learn in our first years of schooling. Not inequality, necessarily, as it relates to race or origin—just the many ways in which people can be above or below their fellows. I had teachers who spent hours lecturing on the importance of coloring inside the lines; teachers who threatened to hold me back a grade because of the odd way I gripped my pencil; teachers who assigned us numbers to stand beside our first names. Little kids are born with a shard of something primitive and whole and unfettered—an awareness that transcends and disregards the thorny path of supposed to. Elementary school is when we start to believe that there are rules for being human. They slide this belief into our pockets, along with the notion that some people are less than others because of the way they act or think or feel. Although they claim to do the opposite, they— whoever they are; that ambiguous and omnipresent they—make us all into the Triplets: identical and featureless and smooth. Standing there, on the first day of the first grade, my thought process wasn’t quite that sophisticated. But the formative bones of an epiphany were there. Suddenly, I found myself questioning my place in the elaborate hierarchy that is childhood.
It just happened. I don’t know.
We walked away. Maybe we had grown up; grown apart; grown tired of each other. Who cared? It didn’t matter anyway. That’s just how it happened—or, at least, it’s what I remember.
I didn’t speak to Rashid for two weeks. Our falling-out wasn’t as dramatic as it would have been if we were older. I played hopscotch with the girls who sat near me in class, and Rashid joined the group of scruffy boys who organized pick-up kickball games in the empty field beside the jungle gym. It went on.
Until the second Tuesday of September 2001.
I had been struggling through an addition worksheet when the classroom phone sounded. Miss Mattey—a young, slim woman with colorless eyes and a nervous mouth—answered it, and I watched the blood slither from her face. Alkali Elementary was going into lockdown. Her speech was frenzied, spilling out of her like a handful of pebbles, as she addressed us.
“Boys and girls,” she said, but then her mouth hung open, wordless. I think she may have been just as confused as I was. It had been the principal on the phone. There had been a national emergency, he said, and Miss Mattey needed to escort her class to the gymnasium, where the younger grades were gathering. “Please line up by the door.”
There was some jostling. A girl named Vicky Skaggs shouted that it was her turn to be line-leader, but Miss Mattey didn’t care; she simply shuffled us into some sort of formation and herded us down the hallway. Other teachers were doing the same. No one spoke; words had deserted us somehow. The dirge of our footsteps resounded against the high ceilings and art-bedecked walls. Rashid walked directly in front of me in line. We glanced at each other, a camaraderie of unawareness spanning between our eyes. There was no fear, no panic. Five hundred miles away, in New York City, indescribable pandemonium reigned; screams became a symphony and ashes fell like snowflakes. Alkali, though, remained silent. There was only a shallow kind of curiosity, and—for me, at least—tinted friendship .
On the way to the gym, we passed the sixth grade classrooms. They were watching the unfolding coverage on a small television set someone had brought in from the teachers’ lounge. I caught a glimpse—bloated smoke, rioting car alarms, a speck of a man leaping from the window of a crumpling building. Quickly, I walked on, feeling small and light as a gasp. Rashid’s eyes found mine again.
“Rashid,” I whispered hollowly.
“I know,” he replied. But he didn’t. Neither of us did.
That’s the last thing I remember about him.
I must have seen him sometime after that—in class, or around town. Maybe we even spoke to each other, or played on the same team for dodgeball in P.E. But those aren’t the things I bothered to keep with me, when the actual-Rashid was gone and the memory-Rashid filled his place. Instead, I have his bottomless eyes, like bitter chocolate, and an understanding of separation.
Rashid’s family left Alkali three weeks later. In a clumsy, misguided attempt at patriotism, someone had launched a brick through their front window. Written on its surface, in paint red as blood, was one word—Traitor. A man spat at Abigail as she walked down the street, and shouted, “Towelhead!” Mr. Shalir had been a legal American for fifteen years; his wife and son were born here—but no one cared. They needed an effigy; they needed to spoon the blame onto someone.
As for me, I never really comprehended what was happening. The word “terrorist” wasn’t in my vocabulary. I didn’t understand why the yellow ribbons were suddenly around trees instead of in my hair; I didn’t understand why Miss Mattey, whose little sister had been living in New York, trying to make it as a financial executive, had been replaced by a sallow-faced substitute; I didn’t understand what it meant to be at war. The world in which I lived had ducked beneath the cover of a thick screen, and nothing could break through.
We meet millions of people within our lifetimes—we speak to them; we help them along; we change them. We fall in and out of love with them, and we give them little gifts of knowledge and understanding, whenever we can. We experience with each other, and laugh and cry with each other. Humans are not meant to be singular; we’re what we are because of the ones we meet, and sometimes in spite of them. All those people; all that interaction; all those moments—but most of them don’t even matter. Those who aid us most, in our growth and in our age, are the ones that we’ll probably never see again.
Marlee Cox is fifteen years old and a junior at Mehlville High School in Saint Louis, Missouri. Recent writing honors include a Missouri Gold Key and National Gold Medal for poetry in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, publication in Teen Ink, publication in The Live Poetry Society's anthology Inside of Me, and being named a finalist in the Virginia B. Ball Creative Writing Scholarship Competition for Interlochen Arts Academy. Cox plans to study linguistics, creative writing, and political science after graduating from high school. Her writing is inspired by the notion that for everything that happens, there are infinitely many things that do not happen.