It all started out with an innocent little game—if you can call blasphemy innocent, that is. It was a game we created for fun called, “If you weren’t Muslim, would you blank.”
Now before you start gasping and crying out for the youth of today, it wasn’t really as bad as it sounded. It was like wondering what would we do if we had a million bucks or if we were invisible for a day. We knew it would be highly unlikely to happen–scratch that—impossible, but it posed enough thought-provoking questions for lazy summer days for two 15-year-old girls suffocated by overbearing, hypersensitive parents and eager for the freshman year of high school to arrive.
“If you weren’t Muslim, would you be a cheerleader?” Narmin had mumbled amidst munching Hot Tamales that were caked inside her teeth. She sat on a fat blue beanbag across from me on a yellow beanbag inside her bedroom. A muted rerun of Sister Sister was on TV, Narmin’s pet rabbit Coco was twitching in her lap and a crumpled Netflix envelope was teetering on the corner of her desk chair. I have an annoying habit of noticing and remembering tiny details like this even years after especially if it’s during a situation of heightened emotion to the point that seeing an image or smelling something could immediately make me laugh or throw up.
Narmin’s question had me crinkle my eyes. Most of the girls in my school who were cheerleaders were not like me at all, although there was one girl who was in several of my honors classes. I always wondered if she felt left out when hanging around the squad chanting nursery songs with unappealing rhyme schemes, tossing pom-poms while gossiping about football players.
“Well, Marwa?” Narmin said with a huff. Narmin was terribly impatient and expected everyone to run on her schedule, otherwise known as “Narmin time.” I am still surprised she never petitioned to create her own time zone.
“I’m sorry, five more seconds.”
At the very least cheerleading involved some sort of physical activity and promoted teamwork, which was admirable, so I finally nodded my head.
“Yea, I think I would too. But only if I was the one at the top of the pyramid. No one looks at the girls underneath and I’d hate to let another person stand on top of me and be the star, while my hands are on the ground like a slave,” Narmin said.
I rolled my eyes. “Ok, my turn,” I said, straightening myself up from the beanbag. I didn’t like how I seemed to sink down so fast in beanbags unlike Narmin. I think because she had a smaller waist, it probably gave her a better posture than me. I didn’t look that much heavier than her, although I had been eating dinner pretty late for several nights. I certainly wouldn’t be put on top of the pyramid anytime soon…
“If you weren’t Muslim, would you ever… get a tattoo?” I said.
Narmin pretended to stroke an imaginary beard on her chin.
“You know I hate hate needles, but if they were able to put me to sleep, then I’d get a small tiger,” she said.
“Why a tiger?” I said.
“So everyone will know they can’t mess with me. I’m fierce. I’m a force to be reckoned with, like a tiger,” Narmin said, as if it was the simplest explanation in the world.
“Okay, but where?”
“On my ankle.” She hiked up her jeans to point to the spot.
I shrugged and sucked on a Sour Patch Kid candy.
“I wouldn’t put anything because it’s permanent and I could never come up with one thing that defines me. I read in a magazine you should never put your boyfriend’s name as your tattoo ever, because in case you broke up or got divorced or whatever. You think people would think about that before, but they’re so overly romantic about everything it makes them stupid, I guess.”
Narmin laughed and then wiggled her eyebrows suggestively, something she had recently started doing to make herself look intriguing or cool. To me, she looked like she was having a face seizure after smelling something gross since both eyebrows didn’t quite sync up nicely.
“If you weren’t Muslim, would you ever have a boyfriend?” she asked.
A boyfriend. The very idea made me blush and suddenly dream of sun-drenched laughter, twinkling glances and fresh flowers left outside the windowsill. None of which would ever happen in my world, but I had observed the like in movies and books. The girl always looked so put together at every moment, no glasses or frizzy hair or retainers. The boy was a charming loner with a crooked smile and nice teeth. I’m not sure how and when chick lit authors decided a crooked smile was attractive. I had never seen an actual boy with both a crooked smile and nice teeth—it was either one or the other.
And then there was all the handholding and kissing and crying and cheating and fighting… and my parents!
“No way,” I said with a firm shake of the head that slapped my ponytail against my cheek. “I don’t need a man!” I added, trying to copy Destiny’s Child independent woman mantra. I learned a lot from listening to their albums, things my mother said weren’t going to help me get married though.
My indignant response slowly wavered as a strange pause hung between us. I didn’t feel so cheeky after the words left my mouth. Narmin hadn’t chimed in or made a sign of approval. It didn’t usually take her so long to decide.
“I would,” she said, slowly. She glanced at me and then to the flickering TV screen. I looked too. It was funny I could still tell what the actors were saying in the scene even with the volume off.
“Oh,” was all I could muster up in return. I scratched my diamond shaped scab on my elbow. What had just happened? Technically, a person’s response in the game was appropriate whether the other disagreed or not. Each person’s opinion was duly noted after several minutes of exaggerated, indulgent debate or sometimes less and then we moved on just like that.
But this time it was different. Something else had occurred with this question that I could not explain and I felt for a strange reason that I had somehow broken the game, the moment and the whole purpose with my answer.
Wasn’t this all just a childish setup for us to escape and ponder our alternate realities for a little while? You can’t dream of the impossible if you’re thinking of possibilities. This had been a complete role reversal in the game. I had responded so quickly and surely and Narmin, hesitantly after me. I had misspoken because I had forgotten who I was and done it wrong. The Sour Patch Kids must have corrupted my brain with cavities before I could stop them.
Confidence didn’t mean you were supposed to be serious; it meant you were supposed to be fun and exciting and I by saying I wouldn’t have a boyfriend had committed the former mistake. I had made myself look stupid by ruining the flow of the game and by making Narmin look promiscuous and weak. It’s not like I was the most religious person at that age, if you consider religion a fully responsible practice by an individual out of pure personal interest. Why did I have to suddenly be such a prude and think about having fun for once? The game was about if we weren’t Muslim, so that’s what we supposed to respond like.
I know Narmin and I both felt a sense of anguish and mistrust after that night over sharing our impulses with one another. I have felt the consequences of it ever since then. In fact, I base that night on all my later behavior till the present on my desire to atone for my feelings of guilt over my condescending attitude. It wasn’t me or at least it wasn’t all of me.
Narmin and I were two halves of the same person, although she liked to say that she was my better half. I think our relationship could have been better described as a Venn Diagram, where she lay in the middle overlap between me and the real world. There was a world of experiences I could never share with Narmin, so I had to either go out on my own or chase after her hoping she would realize life wouldn’t be the same without me. But, three’s a crowd, they say. Everyone hates the third wheel, which is why I think boys became my new objects of hatred and fascination for the remainder of high school.