Photo by Neelab Mahmoud

Not That Kind Of Girl

– Story by N.I. Mahmoud

I bit my lip. I’m American … ”

Too early in March to think of spring, winter hung bitter in the air. From the old station, I drove up Main Street—baskets and trinkets, dusty shops showed quaint window displays and did their best to be charming. In another month, oaks and maples lining the sidewalks would bloom, helping the downtown escape bleakness.

Shadows stretched across the mountains, the dark perimeter made it hard to imagine another place. But I was stubborn. I wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else. Today I felt Los Angeles calling my name. Just like in the movies, I wanted to be surrounded by palm trees, polished cars and shiny people. Digging my feet into the sand, I would watch the big orange sunset over the ocean. 

Stuck in a worn-out factory town on the other side of the country, I parked my car next to a truck streaked with salt—inside J’s Picture and Frame, the fiber optic lights around the windows were a nice touch. The neon colors continued inside, snaking through six aisles, shelves stacked with printer supplies. Toward the back, a register sat on a massive counter. Jack was at the helm. He was wearing his Chicago Cubs cap. Even though he’d been living in the Valley for years, patronage to his favorite team was his way of making sure everyone knew he was a city boy at heart.

He glanced up. “Morning, doll, want to grab me my pliers?” 

I found his toolbox and brought it to him. Beneath his thick mustache and beard, Jack mumbled thanks. Acknowledging and dismissing me all at once, if I didn’t’t know better I might have been offended, but it was obvious Jack liked having me there. I did my job and rarely complained. Spending my time in the backroom with the computer and printers—drawers full of paper—for twenty hours a week, that was my domain. My being there gave Jack time to work on the frames, landscapes, portraits and shadow boxes; baby clothes, scraps from dusty basements, people long gone, a myriad of oddities, the mementoes had an archaeological quality that I liked. 

I hung up my coat, and found my name tag—Parvin, the Pleiades, a constellation of sisters, white letters on blue plastic, I wished my parents had spelled my name with a double–ee like Parveen Babi. Bookish and short, my glasses scooted down my nose. I pushed them back into place. I would never be mistaken for a Bollywood beauty.

I scanned the project list Sally Davis from headquarters had emailed. Standard prints, albums and a photo canvas, I began sifting, sizing and color correcting. Families, vacations and pets against the rhythmic hum of the machines, whirring color onto paper one sheet at a time, Jack stood at the doorway. “I’m going to the bank. Man the counter till I get back.”

I waited a few minutes after he left before I pulled out my book—Professor West had promised the test would be thorough. History of genetics from monks to Watson and Crick, I turned to page 67.

My phone vibrated. “Are you at work?”

I put down my book and texted, “where else would I be?”

Writing, thinking, revising, the phone showed the time it took my mom to reply, “I don’t like that tone.”

Our constant back and forth was the problem with living at home. It wasn’t by choice. The school I’d wanted to go to was too far from family. The local community college was my only option because I was a young woman, not to be trusted on my own. From father to husband was my parent’s plan. I understood the injustice enough to be annoyed— “I gotta get back to work.”

“Good luck on your test,” mom replied. She wanted me to be like my sister. A successful doctor, dutiful wife and mother, I retrieved my book and opened to where I’d left off. A black and white photo of a man with a large beard, Charles Darwin had embarked on adventures all over the world, studying the edges of distant lands, I became so taken with his story that I was startled when the door opened. 

I recognized the guy who entered—average build, brown hair and a vintage coat, his name was Peter—he graduated high school the year before me. Class of 2004.

I put down my book. “Hi, need help finding anything?”

“I’m good,” he didn’t look at me. He didn’t recognize me. They never did. I didn’t look like girls with names like Claire, Linda or Jane, girls with sleek ponytails and bubblegum lipstick—dark skin, frizzy hair and off-brand corduroys, I was never going to be that girl. 

Peter came to the register. His hands were covered with black primal scrolls.

I rung up his toner and box of paper clips, “I like your tattoos,” I said.

“Thanks,” he took his bag and left. 

I bit my lip. I would never be that girl, but I was certain that events were conspiring on my behalf, and that new experiences would soon bring me closer to a sense of purpose. All I had to do was be brave like Darwin, and write daring words like survival of the fittest. The clarity of his assertion gave me goose bumps. It was the big idea. 

The door opened again. This time a woman, blue and white checkerboard coat, thick-framed glasses, approached the register. “I’d like to pick up my photos,” she said.

Do I look clairvoyant, I wanted to ask, but politeness prevailed. “Name?” I asked.

“Edna Banks—started coming here last month when my old shop closed down.”

Finding the order, I placed it on the counter. “You know how it is, shops round here open and close all the time, but Jack struck a deal with a web company, he’s been their local store for the last few years.”

“Jack must be a decent business guy.” Mrs. Banks said, lifting her hand. Then she winked at me, “I’m looking for one of those, is he married?”

I smiled. “Only if you count the shop, Jack is hopeless.”

“That’s just how men are sometimes and they stay lonely that way. Anyway, wonder if you mind,” Edna squinted, “I’ve not seen your name before, how do you pronounce it?” 

Before I could answer, the door opened and a man entered. He picked up a couple reams of paper and stood in line—Edna turned to him and smiled, “It’s been awhile, Bob, how you been?”

“Just fine,” Bob mumbled.

“Guess everyone’s shifted over to this shop now that Sammy’s gone.”

“Been here before, but looks like things’ve changed,” Bob looked at me pointedly. “Jaclyn Brooks used to work here, but I don’t see her now.”

“Jaclyn still works here, just not as much—her hip’s bummed out,” I said.

Bob didn’t reply, and Edna returned to our conversation. “So you were telling me about your name, where are you from?”

I glanced at Bob. Coarse grey hair, canvas coat and thick boots, he stood rigid like an old soldier. 

I bit my lip. “I’m American.” 

Mrs. Banks persisted. “Of course, but I thought your name was Indian?”

“Afghani,” I replied.

“Well isn’t that interesting. Don’t meet too many people from that part round here. How did y’all end up in the Valley?”

“My uncle, my mom’s brother, moved here for a job with Centco— few years later we followed them here.”

“That’s how it happens,” Bob muttered. 

Mrs. Banks met my eye, but didn’t say anything. 

“Them people, and those people, there’re too many people,” Bob continued. “Coming in, taking jobs, they don’t even speak English half the time.”

This time Edna snapped. “It’s clear the girl’s been here for a while, I don’t even hear an accent, which in my mind makes her just as American as you and me. Tell him, hon, when’d you come over?”

I started to say I was born and raised in the Valley, but Bob didn’t give me the chance— “I bet her parents still have accents.”

My parents would have told me to stay quiet, but I wouldn’t let Bob insult my family. “It’s not like my parents wanted to leave their home…” 

“Must be hard given that whole situation,” Mrs. Banks shook her head.

“Sure it’s hard, but it’s not our fault,” Bob crossed his arms. “We shouldn’t have to let every sob story in, we need to take care of our own.”

“It’s complicated,” Mrs. Banks said. “Whenever I watch the news, it breaks my heart what’s happening in this world.”

Bob’s eyebrows came together. “Can’t trust the media, Edna, they only tell one side of it. They don’t show how we struggle here in America, and the world don’t care about us hurting.”

I wanted to say the world extended outside the Valley, and Bob should go see what it’s about, but this time I kept my mouth shut. Things had changed since 9/11 and the wars. People didn’t used to act this way. The realization made me feel older than my 20 years, as if the world had shifted and I had to adapt—pretend to be someone else, anyone else, then maybe I could surpass the expectations and limitations that slathered me like an oily layer I couldn’t wash off. 

“Pay no mind, hon,” Edna patted my hand. “We all need to be more tolerant of each other, that’s all.”

Bob turned red. “Not everyone can be let in. It’s simple math. There’s already too many of them, and everyday we’re becoming less our own, so you tell me, Edna, who’re your grandkids going to be?” 

Before she could answer, Bob put down the paper and stomped off. It was only after he’d gone that I realized I was covered in sweat. Hands shaking, I finished ringing up Mrs. Banks. “Thanks for sticking up for me, you didn’t have to.”

“Bob isn’t a bad guy. He got laid off a while back, and he’s not been the same since, but that don’t excuse him for being nasty towards ya.”

Mrs. Banks left, and I was alone again. In a shit town in the middle of nowhere, people had always been curious. I wasn’t black, white or Latina, and so I was used to sharing my story. Up until now, it hadn’t been interesting enough. The American baby, I failed curiosity. 

I was also overindulged and took it all for granted—at least that’s what my family said because I failed them too. I hadn’t seen the refugee camps or war first-hand. All I had was my funny name and long skinny nose. 

I pulled out my book again. Darwin understood the struggle, life and death, but there had to be more. I kept reading. Searching for some other truth or way out of the problem. To quit my job and leave behind the mountain town, to travel and hunt down diseases in rural villages— then Jack returned and I got back to work. Printing, stamping, shipping, I was sure Jack would be sympathetic, but I didn’t say anything about Bob. Filing receipts and job numbers, at 4:30, I was finally finished. My test was in an hour, and I didn’t want to get stuck in traffic. 

Putting on my coat, I rushed past Jack. “See you next week.”

“I’ll be here,” he called out.

Outside, I shoved my hands into my pockets. A car coming out of the parking lot too fast almost hit me. The driver glared at me as if it were my fault, before turning onto the main road. It looked like Bob, but that couldn’t be right, he’d left the shop hours ago.

I walked quickly. Then stopped. From front to back, GO HOME had been sprayed in big red ugly letters across my car. 

The sticker mom gave me on the back bumper, a prayer from the Koran to keep me safe, the Arabic had been crossed over with the words head-banger. I started to laugh. I’d heard the slur before, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d prayed. I laughed until I didn’t see the irony anymore. Tears ran hot down my cheeks. They dried quickly in the cold, and I wiped the salt crystals away. I needed to call the police. I needed to let them know about seeing Bob drive out the parking lot—I thought maybe someone saw something, and I glanced around. People were staring, but I didn’t see anyone willing to help. Instead, I sensed their fear. I didn’t understand why they were scared, though. I’m just a girl, what could I do? I couldn’t change who I was or where my parents came from, and suddenly I became angry. Filing a report would mean I’d miss my exam, I’d have to explain the reason to Professor West, and then we’d have to find another time for me to make up the test.

I got behind the wheel, and pulled out of the lot. People continued to stare at my car as I passed by. It didn’t matter, people had been looking at me funny my whole life. I kept my eyes on the road. At the traffic light, the sign pointed to 34-W. It led up the mountain to the community college. The light turned green. I started to take my turn, then I stopped—34-E was the way out of town. I made the right turn and drove until I reached the exit. Onto the highway, the lanes slipped past the mountains, over the Valley, I was on my way to the City. Just a couple of hours away, it didn’t have the glamour or excitement of Los Angeles or New York, but it was big enough that I was sure I could start fresh and be someone new. I’d find a job, make friends, wear stylish clothes, and the injury of Bob with his ignorance would fade away until it didn’t exist anymore. The idea was exciting enough that I drove for another half hour before I remembered why I had to turn around—I had a test, I had a job, and I couldn’t just become someone I wasn’t.

I took the next exit that put me back on the other side of the highway. One hundred-eighty degrees back toward my home, eyes on the road, driving back to reality, except it didn’t feel hopeless. My heart was still racing with anticipation, like dipping my toes in the water to test its temperature, one day I would dive in, swim away and never look back. But today wasn’t the day— I’m not that kind of girl, not yet anyway.

***

N.I. Mahmoud

 

N.I. Mahmoud enjoys exploring conflict; the mundane or the spectacular, in the present, future or past, she believes there’s no limit to how far a story can travel.