“What Are You Doing Here, Sister?”

Circle this city and tighten the gyre. I wait in the separate queue for foreigners, a long line that curls several times in its pen. I refuse to miss people and places. 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. For a more honest friendship, I just needed to tell her, that’s all. Drops her head to my shoulder and we hold each other. How are you liking this city? Asks if she can hug me. 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. Flashes a smile. Can they tell from how long I lingered in front of the magazine? 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. 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. 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. Her hand reaches for my face, the backs of her fingers graze my cheek, her perfume — gardenias I think — curls around me. The border agent’s eyes narrow and his mouth purses: he stares at me, waiting to see if I flinch. Walk through cobbled lanes, snaking wide streets with rundown houses until we get to Dosa Garden. Will he want justifications? If you were a guy, things would be different. In the shade under the subway tracks, I pass uncles drinking chai, aunties choosing fruit and little kids riding tricycles. Eventually satisfied, they let me go. The occasional brief snowfall that covers the streets in white dust. I broke my rule of refusing to apologize for things I am not part of because he was holding my packages hostage. The overhead lights flicker on. For a protest a few months ago, after a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who killed Garner. I’m biking home from Brooklyn one beautiful spring night. I have it down pat. I duck into a relatively less crowded grocery store. Will he bring up Islam? Peek inside apartments in Brooklyn. “You look beautiful,” I say. Brief glimpses between fences of houses with lawns and driveways with cars, the city a comfortable commutable whisper. My brother comes to visit, and I decide to tell him I’m queer. But she. 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. Easing the yearning of my heart for this city. You look beautiful. She stepped out of the march to get me chocolate custard when we passed Shake Shack, and my friends asked if we were together. I arm myself with this love. Come again, they say. 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 knows, she must know what she’s doing to me, what she has been doing to me all month. Park around the block, and I say, that’s cool. My ears buzz and I catch only phrases. Not the rice that is the gloopy brown stuff in my dorm’s dining hall, but chawal: individual basmati grains, fragrant and perfectly steamed. I’m flattered. This has gone on too long, I’m going to tell her, I’m going to do it tonight. On humid days, on nights before trash days, on corners with throngs of people and halal food carts, it even smells like home. The infamous secondary questioning. Store signs with scripts that I haven’t seen in months. Thank you. I’m led into a sterile side room. “Welcome to John F. She knows exactly what she’s doing, this white girl from Maine. I share, too. 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. This feels like the perfect time. 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. Why am I traveling alone? Park ourselves on the rear deck of the ferry for the best view of the city as the boat pulls away. I hand over what I owe and leave quickly, into the anonymity of the city. I pause at the top of the bridge to catch my breath. 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. That here, so far away from the people I know, I can invent myself anew. IN THE BEGINNING, there was a plane; 22 hours in flight, and two layovers, and finally, finally, a slow descent. V. III. I wait. When did you come here? Replace my antiquated diction — thrice, fortnight, and so on — with short hard words that spit off my tongue and don’t draw titters. Queer, which feels more ambiguous, more true — or gay, which requires no explanation? The indulgence of a day off while the imaginary people in skyscraper windows work and work and work. It’s clear that he’s being responsible, thoughtful, and I’m infinitely less worried. A few days ago, a man — seemingly ordinary, in a Yankees T-shirt — stood in the middle of the bike lane as I approached. The East River underneath, a black abyss, and above it, the city. Why this university? 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. 14,   Special Legal Issue
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I. I call it sibling day, and take my brother to Staten Island. For my first view of this city, this infamous city, this city that will become home. With fluorescent lights and steely officers and large signs forbidding the use of cell phones. Wind on our faces and the wake of the boat in the water. She emails me photos of elaborate instructions written out in her barely legible cursive. 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. That my soccer teammates are dating each other openly, brazenly. 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. Look at this city. I learn to stretch out my vowels to sound like I’m from here. I coo at a customer’s baby. 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 called up to the desk. Underneath the table, we hold hands. But then we’re on the New Jersey turnpike, distracted by the city rising in front of us in all its Saturday night glory. 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. Her lips graze my jaw somewhere between my chin and my ear lobe. 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. 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. 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. Central Park alit with trees changing color, a bite to the air that’s perfect for running. Use this time to catch up to finally being stationary, my body still wading through viscous air, my ears still faintly humming. The people inside take an extended look at my sloppy jeans and hesitation and immediately offer to help. In the beginning, there was a plane; and then there was an airport. Turn onto the Brooklyn Bridge. “Nah.”
II. The tip of the island, with tall blue buildings reflecting the water, the weak wintery sun. And look at this city from here. Gets a few laughs, easy. There are two officers this time and they have more questions: What do I want to study? I got this, I tell myself, how hard can this be? Open my window slowly to temper the sudden flood of sunlight, kiss the tip of my nose to warm plexiglass, and look down. Hard plastic chairs, and in them, people of different shades of brown. Later, when the groom’s cousins put on an elaborately choreographed dance, she slips her hand into mine. 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. It has been a wonderful night. There is a pause. 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. The anger, the despair of the crowds that day, the callousness of the police trying to control us in the interest of this city. But something is different this time, maybe it’s the dull ache of possibility. Parks and playground and brown families wheeling double strollers home. 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. Our conversation peters out and I tell myself I’ll do it when this song is over. On my cheek. Where am I meeting my uncle? This queer city, this brown city — this queer brown city. I pedaled away as fast as I could. We arrive in Staten Island soon after. I muster up all the bravado of my 17 years of living. I wander around a little. I decide at that moment that I’m going to tell her I’m in love with her. It’s been a weekend of straight-backed chairs and playing straight. We eat and head back — we’re early for the ferry so I take him on a detour. Alit with the constellations of yellow bulbs in skyscrapers windows. Never before have I been so happy to see someone I hardly know. Have you been here before, my brother asks, and I tell him I have. 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. What words do I use? I have to remind myself to breathe. Photos of her writing — half transliterated Urdu, half English, all love. This is a city I have loved from afar, its culture and chaos telecast across an ocean and written into books I have devoured. In the beginning, there was a plane and an airport, and then there was a white-tiled room. I’ve said it aloud to the mirror. I’m starting to tell some friends here and there, but I’ve never bought into this idea of coming out. I tell her. 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. Intricate gold designs all along the pallo, shimmering eye shadow and a dusting of gold glitter on her face. The Lincoln Tunnel is my last chance. We reach my building. My brother comes to visit. Peddle and puff on this rusty, heavy bike that has lived better days. But it’s hard to translate the words to movements of lips and tongue and air. Ferry ride, Sri Lankan food, distance from the everyday stuff of life: it’s the perfect adventure. 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. The woman restocking the shelves gives me imli candy. “Thank you for telling me,” she says. Friends pull me aside all night to yell at me that my get up is not feminine enough. Shimmies her shoulders at me, and my lips curl upward; we weave our own private cocoon in this pulsating party of 300 people. But this is my last chance, I tell myself. I smell the gardenias on me for days. 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. I’ve written it out. 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. She turns slightly to look at me, one eyebrow raised. I ask my mother for recipes. 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. She’s too slow at typing, she says, so these photos will have to do. She finally turns to look at me, and there’s something unreadable in her eyes. When it’s my turn to pay, I am suddenly shy. She insists that we rent a car to get to the wedding. Do I have his phone number? “I’m glad you like M. 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. 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. My burgeoning consciousness and my tears and my rage. 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. Won’t look at me while she recites the standard rejection. Can they see through me, these people who have been so helpful and kind? The F runs express in Queens and I sway holding the bar for long minutes until my stop. “Did you have any trouble at immigration?” he asks. I decided to read a safe piece. She is silent. Killed him as he pleaded I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, 11 times over, I can’t breathe. I wear a kurta — masculine cut, and plain and the most comfortable of all the brown clothes I own. 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. Neighborhoods with names exotic to my teenage tongue: the Upper West Side, SoHo, Flushing Meadows. Bridges and tall buildings, a statue rising out of the sea. 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 have a really, really huge crush on her.”
“Oh,” he says, unflappable. 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. 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. The contours are too familiar, too similar to the city I have left behind. I’m shaking again. I make my way to the winding line at the cash register. A border between me and the city, and guarding this border, a grim line of immigration booths. 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. But by then we’re too busy comparing notes on the food, on the people. 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. “Thanks?”
“Really. 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. Gray skies that threatened to break asunder and pour rain on us. Besides, I’m too busy teaching myself American. Goes into my bedroom with her duffel bag and emerges wearing a black silk sari. Visit us soon. Merge on to 278 West, and the neighborhood is laid bare. It’s my first journey out of Manhattan, my first solo trip on the subway. 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. And started wearing a helmet when I bike. Part involuntary response, part relief. Did anyone besides me pack my bags? I end up standing up out of my seat too early, right after the train pulls out of the station before. To Bay Street, at the tip of this island, where Eric Garner died, to the makeshift memorial of candles and photos and flowers. 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. And then there was a language. 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. 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. The chain stores dotting the streets and the gray lights of office buildings. My brother is coming to visit, and I want him to be able to talk to me. Study hard, beta. Terrorist, he hissed after me. I play hooky from work one day. Of course, I say. I pick it up and wheel it through customs and the gate, and then finally, finally, I’m through. She pulls away after a while. And then, the fears: Will he ask questions I’m not ready to answer? I find myself craving daal-chawal-bhindi. All night, at this wedding, I can’t tear my eyes away. My suitcase has arrived before me at the carousel. The words tumble out as soon as we emerge out of the tunnel, into the streets of the city. What town, what neighborhood, who are your people? So, of course, I fuck up. 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. It’s been a rough week, and I’m reeling still. But then. I can’t stop shaking. 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. I have a crush on her.” I look out onto the water so that I don’t have to face him. 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. It’s a crisp November — my favorite weather, my favorite season in this city. The sentence — a death sentence — that I will remember for the rest of my life. Look at the way it rises and wanes, peeps in between trees, houses, highways. That’s the easy part, the deciding. Tells me that though he’s still worried about things, he is better. She catches me staring while we’re standing in line for dinner. In this city where anonymity is not a luxury, where queerness thrives, but brownness is marginalized, criminalized, surveilled. Once the words are said there is no going back with family, no cut and run. Approach from the north, through the Bronx. It’s my brother’s turn to talk and he does. Each one, a shard of glass, and then. “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. Where are you from, beti? It’s my first time reading my writing aloud. Through Queens, with its buildings close enough to touch. I appreciate our friendship. 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. Look at this city from here. This beauty, accessible to me so tenuously, depending on which of my identities is showing. 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. The windows framing lives playing in parallel. 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. On to the Triborough bridge. I learn to blend into a thrilling anonymity. He doesn’t skip a beat. 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. Short and straightforward, about brown aunties and my faltering Urdu. A left turn and an embarrassing walk down the row of people being more successfully questioned. I ask him who his favorites are, and then. On the ride back, we sit on a bench on the side of the ferry. Speed through the last level stretch of this bridge, and take my feet off the pedals into free fall. “See you at the dinner thing on Tuesday?”
“Yeah.” I say as I get out of the car. I ride the train with a practiced calm. Daal, I have almost forgotten the taste of. When I open my eyes, which I didn’t even know were closed, her face is right next to mine. But after a while, I get tired of the food. 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. She kisses me. That’s cool. Together, we sweat fear and feign nonchalance as we sit in an expectant silence, broken only by the butchered announcement of our names. I pretend that none of this exists and get back on my bike. I can’t tear my eyes away, and she smirks at my embarrassment. “Oh really. In this case though, my decision to tell is strategic. I have to do it, I have to do it tonight. 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. VI. 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? 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. “Did you like M?”
“Yeah, she’s really great.”
“Isn’t she? I’m never homesick, never culture-shocked in this city. Why this city? He talks. Shahrukh Khan greets me as I step out of the station. We set off early — right after rush hour, when the subway is languid and exhales in the empty spaces left by panicked morning commuters. She pulls me close. 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. “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. My plan has worked. Would they be as loving if they knew? And then there was a city that taught me to live. Finally, finally, I am home. He flips to the shiny new student visa in my passport, and then looks down at me from his glass-enclosed dais. His head, alongside some brand of fancy watch, both blown up to unnatural size. JUNE 7, 2017

Originally published in the LARB Quarterly Journal: No. It’s not like I haven’t practiced what to say, I have. “Queer Muslim Show and Tell,” a brilliant idea by my friend, where we’ve all shared something we’re passionate about. IV. I whizz through red lights, even though I am in no hurry to get home. 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. Lighter with each mile covered, my constant, controlled panic lifting as we travel closer. I wobbled, but caught myself. And, uh, I have to tell you something.”
“Okay.”
I do it. 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. 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. 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. A pen for the poorest, the most marginalized who cannot afford bail. Circle this city. Late enough on a Saturday that the city is still, dark streets aglow with the gold of streetlights and barely any cars. I’m thankful to the rock of the boat for hiding my tremors. 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. 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. I tell myself I’ll do it when we reach the freeway. I’m eerily calm. Tall, crumbling apartment buildings framed by exposed power lines and smoke stacks. I’m ready to be back. 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. (And just behind, the jail complex of Rikers Island. 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. It’s either a car or a hotel room, she says, and the car ends up being cheaper, so car it is. That I’m surrounded in school by women who identify with words that still feel strange on my tongue: lesbian, bisexual, queer. (I don’t. 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.