I was twelve and the girls in my class laughed at how I pronounced my last name. It was last period, English class, and I had just moved to Kuwait two months earlier. They would ask me what my full name was just to hear how my mouth wrongly fused together the syllables of my last name: Al-Banaa. The walls of the classroom were covered with cat posters inscribed with empty “never give up”s. When I was thirteen it was no different. I had long, brown waist-length hair and my cousins wearing hijab stared at me in a way that was incomprehensible. As I grew older I realized it was jealousy, admiration, a twisted kind of love. All I know now are twisted kinds of love.
I used to be friends with my cousins when I had first gotten to Kuwait, as I failed to make friends with the girls in my grade. I could understand bits and pieces of their quickly spoken sentences in Arabic––I could grasp the main idea. I had always been good at main ideas of things. We bought gummy strawberry rings and ate them in the backs of our older cousins’ cars as they talked in hushed tones about boys they thought were cute. Haram.
A handful of years later, I am the definition of the word to those girls, that are my family. I have two tattoos. I smoke out of the window of my apartment. Some of the shirts I wear would be deemed too low cut for their eyes. That is my home though. I feel out of place, here, in these cities where I look like I may belong, but it’s never quite enough. There is a jabbing ignorance in sharp questions asked about where I am from. I think of my cousins’ faces, eyes now smeared in a kohl similar to my own. A twisted kind of love. I am from a twisted kind of love that I call home.
At around 8 pm on weekends in high school, without fail, my father would ask me where I was planning on going. I had a list of lies, perfectly memorized, hiding in the back of my mind. A friend’s house, I would say, choosing from the 20 or so girlfriend’s names I knew he knew. Our living room reminded me of my father’s disposition. The beige couch and matching carpeting demanded seriousness, as did he. My father was uneasy if I ever tried to drop in a boy’s name with the girls I had listed. And there was no way he would let me be with a boy alone. I was a Kuwaiti girl, even if not all of the other Kuwaiti girls accepted me as one. I would embarrass him. The small wooden clock my father received from being on the board of the Islamic Club in Cornell reminded me that it was almost 8:30. He was probably expecting me to be at his house soon. Riding in the car, on the way to do something I was not supposed to, the houses, the hills of sand, even the trees all blended into one. But there were small things, the garbage can on the side of the street covered in ‘graffiti’ spelling out “Fuck,” the short man selling dates in the middle of a round-a-bout, that gave the neighborhood its character. Those are the details you actually remember when you’re older, as you’re telling someone about how something was. You remember how it is in your mind––that’s how it always will be.
This unnamed boy came to visit me during his first weekend of college. Both of us had left Kuwait to go to school, with an approximately 4 hour-long cramped bus ride separating us. Later on he would use the distance as an excuse for the vanishing act called love. We stayed in a small hotel with small soaps. We ate pizza at 1 am in a restaurant with a dirty glass window. Sometimes, oddly, with no clothes on, my face near the edge of his arm, I’d think of what my family would think, my father, my cousins. Haram. The mixed girl of the family, the mutt, sleeping beside a naked boy. I’d think that they didn’t understand love, but maybe that was me, because I was the one who thought it never ended. We smoked a joint while sitting on a grassy hill behind the hotel, staring into the forest. It knew something I didn’t. The trees moved under the blue lights and I could feel them inside my chest––their shadows scraping at the impending something between us. I got so high that I cried. I told him he felt different, not in a physical way. We fell asleep.
I was eight. I didn’t understand my history. I didn’t understand the patterns of flowers on my grandmother’s hands. All I knew was that the tea she poured me with milk and sugar tasted good in those gold cups. We used to visit Kuwait every other summer––the hottest part of the year, where every room in every house had the air conditioning on so high it cooled your bones. One time my cousin and I cracked an egg on the sidewalk and it cooked. I used to imagine the soles of my shoes sticking to the asphalt and melting.
Abiadh. The first time I heard that I had no idea what it meant. Later I would realize I had been called that. I was eight. I ran around the front yard of my grandparent’s house: a concrete slab, enclosed by more concrete slabs that made a fence. My brother and I used to say it wasn’t a real yard. Abiadh. I heard my cousin say, pointing at finger at me. The small hairs on my arms stuck up. The splintering fragments of light illuminated my skin, and how much lighter it was than theirs.
My father cracked a watermelon open on the marble countertop. I noticed the pink flesh of the watermelon surrounded in a white skin. Some of the seeds spilled onto the floor.
“Daddy, what does abiadh mean?”
“Habibti, it means white. Why are you asking?”
“You should probably do something about the hair between your eyebrows.” The purple long-sleeve Abercrombie shirt was itchy on my arms. It was a Friday night, when I usually went off to a sleepover in some girls’ television room. I looked down at the dirty carpet stained by bright colored splotches. I wondered if one of the stains came from a cup of pink lemonade.
“Hello? Sophia? I’m talking to you.” This was when I started to note my differences. In third grade, my arms started to sprout small, dark hairs that my light-haired friends didn’t have. My hair was thick, typically braided down my back. My mom used to sit me in front of the mirror and brush it as I cringed, the pain pink, throbbing behind my closed eyes. I remember watching her in the mirror, envying her wispy, blonde hair. And, apparently, I was now growing a unibrow. I picked up a spoon, looking at myself in the metallic reflection. I felt like I was always looking for something to fix.
“See? Right…there.” My friend Elizabeth leaned over and grazed the middle of my eyebrows with her index finger.
“Okay.” I swallowed, thinking of how badly wax strips hurt.
When I graduated from high school I was eighteen. My graduation was in a ballroom, lit up by gold chandeliers, draped in white, with red velvet chairs. As each student’s name was called, their families erupted from their seats, shouting with excitement and underlined with a certain, hidden sadness. I remember my parents’ faces, staring up at me from the faces I didn’t know the names of. They looked proud, my mother’s smile lined in a pale pink. They looked worried, my father’s brow slightly furrowed, pinched in the middle like a piece of pottery. I remember trying to imagine the first time my dad saw my mom and how she probably looked so different but so beautiful to him. I want something like that. A person to love me because I scare them, because I am nothing they know. I can see my dad meeting my grandfather and not looking him in the eyes because that’s how he showed his respect to an elder. It was a foreign custom and so was he. I want that love. The love that is haunting because it’s what people say “isn’t right.”
Sometimes I still dream about my orange bedroom at home, the dust storms lingering outside of my window, the crooked Arabic graffiti marking the school across the street. When I was in tenth grade I had stayed in my bed for a whole year, only leaving once to go on a family vacation to a beach resort. It was the first time I got sunburnt––my skin turning olive to a blistering red. So many layers of myself lie in that bed.