Isabel sat at the back of the Adult Beginner’s English class with other Filipinos who already knew how to speak English, that language of the colonizers the second time around. They were joined by a smattering of Nigerians, Indians, Panamanians—The U.S., the U.K., what did it matter, which Western nation landed on whatever third-world country’s soil? All that mattered was that the English language had been deposited and, with it, the knowledge that the West was superior in every way. After all, Isabel and the other Pinoys had studied English from first-grade to college. Common vernacular: Disneyland, McDonald’s, Tom Cruise, and MacArthur’s “I will return!” And now, here they all were, the West’s bastard children, in an ESL classroom that overlooked the Flatiron Building. An international mish-mash of twenty-five adults of varying states of Fresh-Off-The-Boat-ness, some who’d arrived a mere two weeks ago and some who’d already come to loathe the “Land of the Free.” Or at least see right through it.
Isabel had been in the U.S., give or take, for one year. After her three-month tourist visa expired, the pretense of being an English-language student was the cheapest way to stay in the U.S. legally. Isabel scribbled her homework on the 7 train, squashed between a man eating French fries, whose sour ketchup smell she did her best to ignore, and a woman whose bony elbow jutted into Isabel’s face as the lady coated her eyelashes with mascara. Jilted by the stop- start of the train, Isabel scrawled her responses to the assignment:
Directions: Write eight sentences in the simple past and present tense. Past tense: I lived in the Philippines.
Present tense: I live in New York City.Past tense: I ate rice.
Present tense: I eat dollar pizza.
Past tense: I worked as a chemist. Present tense: I work as a nanny.
Past tense: I watched Tagalog movies. Present tense: I watch American movies.
Though the last pair wasn’t entirely true, Isabel couldn’t think of anything else to jot down. In fact, the night before, she and her cousin, Sheila, who Isabel lived with in Jackson Heights, had watched a Tagalog rom-com titled, I Love You, I’m Drunk, pirated off a site where one wrong click led to Japanese porn. Sheila was born in America—New Jersey, to be exact. They found a version of the movie with English subtitles, put on for Sheila’s sake. Isabel corrected the subtitles whenever they were wrong.
“It should be, ‘Where are you taking her?’ not, ‘Where have you gone,’” Isabel said in a precise English that would have made Antonio, her Colombian, Shakira-loving ESL teacher, cry for joy.
Whenever Isabel and Sheila watched the rom-coms, Sheila, who was four years younger than Isabel’s thirty, usually made comments along the lines of, “What a shocker. He picks the girl with lighter skin. I mean, that chick doesn’t even look Filipino.” Sheila still had the deep tan from when the two of them spent an entire day at Coney Island.
“Cuz, you need to ditch that skin-whitening crap,” Sheila said when she noticed Isabel’s Porcelana White lotion by the bathroom sink. By then, Isabel had been in the States for a two weeks. “I mean, Christ, bleach is the active ingredient.”
The two had trudged to Coney Island Beach on a ventilationless F train, clutching their towels, an umbrella, and, at Isabel’s insistence, a bag full of snacks—Doritos and dried mangoes.Why spend more money? Spreading her towel imprinted with Miley Cyrus’s face, Isabel had been shocked by the bikinis and men with tattoos etched on their bodies like drawings done in faded marker. Isabel herself planned to swim in a loose t-shirt and shorts, as she didn’t own a swimsuit and wouldn’t think to buy one anyway—In the Philippines, they were considered showy and immodest. Isabel marveled at the women who squeezed their dimpled bodies into bikinis of every kind: leopard-print, hot pink the color of a highlighter, or bikinis with ruffles lining the cleavage and crotch.
Isabel was embarrassed to show her own thighs and legs, which she thought too short and chubby. Still, she liked that in America, people were unselfconscious enough to do things like that.
Next to her, Sheila sunbathed in a bikini printed with flowers. Her cousin was pretty by standards Isabel was used to: slim, with thick hair that fell down her back. Sheila had large, expensive teeth by way of quarterly trips to the orthodontist as a teen. And although her cousin was a darker complexion, Sheila didn’t seem to mind.
“My aunts called me a ‘brown beauty’ when I visited the Philippines,” Sheila said. “But come on—I’m the color of freaking almond! I mean, imagine what they would call Ajay?” Ajay was Sheila’s boyfriend from Barbados, an island Isabel had never heard of until he visited one evening and pulled up a map on his phone for her. Isabel learned the Caribbean was filled with islands—St. Lucia, St. Martin, Guadalupe—though not as many as the Philippines.
Compared to her American cousin, Isabel was on the shorter side and taba, plump, by Filipino standards, which meant she was not really plump at all, but that she had some flesh on her bones and wasn’t all angles. She’d taken a liking to wearing a pair of cowboy boots she found at Salvation Army.“Anong ba? What the hell are you wearing?” said Roz, Isabel’s best friend from ESL
“What? Don’t you like them?”
Roz had grown up in Manila, the Philippines’ smoggy capital and, unlike Isabel, had parents who were doctors. Which meant that they paid for Roz’s ESL tuition and, by extension, her pass, the magical, all-powerful F-1 visa, to stay in The Land of the Free for two years.
But the tall, haughty Ukrainian girls in Isabel’s ESL class, the ones who actually needed to learn English, liked her boots. Isabel thought them elegant, dressed in their faux-fur vests and gold bangles. She loved their icy eyes. So she preferred to listen to them instead of Roz in the matters of style.
In the Philippines, Isabel had worked in Makati, the wealthy business district of Metro Manila. She tested pharmaceutical medications, drank fresh coconut juice from street vendors and soda in plastic baggies with straws poked through. She was twenty-five pounds thinner, wore collared shirts to work, and took a jeepney, a World War II army truck repurposed as a bus and painted with loud obnoxious colors, to enter Makati. The jeepney drove through humid streets, past shacks made of tin and boys wearing jeans and flip-flops, the soles of their feet dirty. It snaked into the city center with billboards of celebrities with bouncy, extensioned hair and milky skin advertising Dove products (“Whiter Skin From Within,” the ads promised). The jeepney drove toward skyscrapers that rivaled buildings in New York City, and was a mode of transportation, a “bus,” if you could call it that, with no official stops whose ceiling you clanged on with your knuckles, shouted, “Para!” for the driver to come to a halt. And then you stepped out.On Sundays, Isabel and her boyfriend, Al, went to mass at San Agustin, the Catholic Cathedral. After mass, bodies streamed onto narrow, dirty sidewalks, and people genuflected beneath the Virgin Mary sculpture, her palms kissing, her head bowed.
That was when Al was still with Isabel, before he dumped her over Facebook and started dating a girl in his office. But who could blame him? By then, Isabel had lived in the U.S. for eleven months, with no definite end in sight. And perhaps Al’s patience had dwindled or he had realized, though it went unsaid, that Isabel might not ever return. Home.
Such things often happened whenever Filipinos “went abroad.” Isabel’s brother, Rigo, had gone to work in Bahrain, her sister, Judy, to Saudi Arabia, her Aunt Marlin to Canada. And many, many others. Said goodbye to their spouses and kids, indefinitely, and “hello” in the form of monthly remittances. Anywhere was better than the Philippines—At least you could make a living. And Isabel was young, without a husband and kids to tie her down—so what if she and Al were long-distance? She was making American dollars. What could be better than that?
Until Al dumped her. It was the first time Isabel had been single in seven years. She said to Sheila, “If he’d given me a ring, I would’ve flown back.”
On a crazy, desperate day, a week after Al had stopped answering the calls Isabel made in the middle of the night to reach him during his lunch break, she tried to convince her ESL friends to help her make a video.
“What kind of video?” said Roz. “Just as long as it’s not a porno.”
“Tama na! Stop it! I want it to be a proposal video,” Isabel said. “For Al. I’m going to ask him to marry me.”
“Oh, Isabel,” said Roz. And then Isabel’s idea crumbled, was swept away and tossed into the trash, leaving her empty-handed, once again.
Mid-July in New York City. Which meant that the streets are lined with garbage bags that reeked more than usual as Isabel strolled down them, that sunburnt people on bikes and skateboards nearly tramplde her sandal-encased feet. Isabel had agreed to walk from ESL school to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village with Roz and her other classmate, Zahir.
“Where’s Zahir from?” Isabel asked his friends, rather than Zahir himself. She’d never spoken to Zahir before and was too embarrassed to ask him.
“Sri Lanka,” said Prakash, who wore a denim jacket with the words “Brooklyn Gangsta”
emblazoned on the back. “He speaks Tamil, like me.”
Isabel also didn’t ask Zahir directly because she thought him lovely. Sexy, even, but she wouldn’t admit that to herself. He was a shade lighter than cinnamon, with pale green eyes. Tamil with some Dutch thrown in, his friends had told her. She learned he’d been a botanist in Sri Lanka and now worked in a deli making New Yorkers sandwiches when they scurried in for lunch.
“I’m a scientist, too,” Isabel told Zahir as they sat in Washington Square Park eating gelato. Around them, nannies chased non-biological children as mothers lounged, inert. Roz had left by then, saying, “Bahala na! Enough of this. It’s too hot, I’m going home.”
“I’m a chemist, you know,” said Isabel. “Yes,” Zahir said. “I heard.”
“We took the Staten Island Ferry together,” Isabel said to Sheila as her cousin placed a frozen pizza and low-fat milk into their shopping cart. They were at Food Dynasty, the supermarket. “But then Zahir had to go home before his brother got suspicious.” Isabel thought back to how, on the ferry, Zahir had mimicked his older brother, saying, “Come straight home after class and work and that’s it!” She laughed at his impersonation as her hair whipped every which way from the wind blowing over the fart-scented Hudson River. It was then that Zahir had called her beautiful.
“Lovebirds,” said Sheila, tossing in a box of Frosted Flakes.
Standing in the cereal aisle, Isabel noticed two women dressed in burqas. They were veiled in black from head to toe, save for the slot that revealed their eyes. One woman held her son’s hand. Isabel felt distaste in her mouth. The women’s somber gowns brought to mind the influx of Muslims—Filipinos Muslims—that had flooded her hometown. The refugees arrived in the months before Isabel was to leave for her new job in Makati. They’d migrated from the Southern-most island, Mindanao, fleeing terrorist groups like Abu Sayyaf and other violent separatists that wanted Filipino Muslims to form their own country. Bombings, kidnappings, and even behadings abounded in Mindanao. Two men held her father at gunpoint in his grocery
store, twice. Shot him in the abdomen. Everyone, including Isabel, attributed the rise in crime to the new Muslim migrants. Isabel had felt resentment toward her then-neighbors. And in the States, glancing at the women clad in black, she wondered, why couldn’t they just dress like everyone else? Why make other immigrants like her look bad?
“Isabel—Stop staring,” hissed Sheila.
Although Isabel would never admit it out loud, she didn’t like to associate with the
Muslim girls in her ESL class. Yesterday, Isabel had been paired with a Muslim classmate tocomplete a writing and conversation exercise. The woman wore a navy hijab, long, elegant fingers and polished nails, a pin holding her headscarf in place toward the top of her head. She smiled at Isabel as she approached her desk.
But Isabel looked at Zahir across the classroom and saw that he was without a partner. Before the woman could say hello, Isabel quickly walked over to work with him instead.
Directions: Describe yourself and your family members using the following adjectives:
Sheila is pretty and successful. My mother is old and kind. Zahir is hardworking.
I am _____.
As the clock ticked, Isabel forgot all about the woman. After all, Isabel was a woman in love. She glanced over at her usual seat. The woman was still there, writing her answers and erasing them, her hands brushing the shavings away, alone.
“Oh fuck!” Sheila shouted that night, and rushed into the apartment. “What happened?” said Isabel. She was watching Titanic on Netflix. “I’m getting married!” her cousin said.
Isabel caught sight of the diamond ring as Sheila spun her in a circle. “Wow,” said Isabel. And then: “I’m so jealous!” Smiled—that girlish act of mixed-signals. And it was true, she was jealous. Not that that mattered much. Not that Sheila noticed.
At Sheila and Ajay’s engagement party, Isabel wore black pantyhose beneath her knee- length satin dress. The pantyhose cinched her belly and made it difficult to breathe after severalpigs in a blanket. She watched Sheila and Ajay’s friends arrive at the bar in Astoria, hugging the radiant couple. Isabel was determined to have a good time. To put on a happy face. Not so much for herself, but for Sheila.
Plus, Zahir had come as her “plus one.” The two of them had four lychee martinis each, and Isabel, who’d hardly drank so much as a San Miguel in the Philippines—she’d grown up a provincial girl, with provincial values, and provincial girls didn’t drink—plopped the lychees at the bottom of the glass into her mouth. Zahir whispered, “What would my mother say?” and pulled her close.
Isabel forgave Sheila for getting engaged and leaving Isabel in the dust, if “forgive” is the right word—she wasn’t mad at her cousin, not really—when her cousin came over, held Isabel’s hands and shouted over the music, “Let me show you how to salsa!” And she did. Isabel
stumbled along, laughing, as the trumpets blared and the singers sang in a language not unlike Tagalog. She danced with her cousin and then Zahir, Ajay, a few of their friends, and ended up back in Zahir’s grip. The two lovebirds left the bar, beat.
On the corner of Astoria Boulevard, swaying from the alcohol, Isabel kissed Zahir, and did it like an American, unbridled and out in the open, until it grew darker and the bodega lights flickered off.
They took a taxi back to Sheila’s apartment. Although Isabel and Zahir had thrown their arms around each other and laughed in the backseat and up the staircase, they grew quiet when they stepped into the living room. Isabel tugged off her pantyhose by the toes, and then became embarrassed that Zahir was present to witness her clumsiness. Her embarrassment faded when he kissed her shoulders. Over her body, his breath trailed like a piece of string.
Isabel and Zahir. They are both old virgins, they are both thirty, from two different cultures that preach chastity and purity before marriage, cultures that preach abstinence—that hard-edged, anti-septic word—which they do away with, uncertainly yet eagerly, on the small couch. Isabel stripped away Zahir’s glasses, taped at one juncture, her too-tight satin dress. Would it be like the movies? The Hollywood movies?
“Wait,” said Isabel. She ran into Sheila’s room where she remembered, after catching sight of them one day, the condoms her cousin stored in her jewelry box. They had left Isabel embarrassed and shocked. Now, she needed them.
She didn’t feel that juvenile pain, didn’t expect blood, and didn’t feel fear, but certainty when she pushed her body into his. Together they emitted a sweet and boozy lychee scent. Isabel’s muscles tightened like a rubber band. She cried out. Cried again.
But this is not the story of girl meets boy. Although Isabel—to use the American phrase—is on “Cloud Nine” for three weeks because she and Zahir are inseparable, her happiness lasts for just that stretch. Three weeks.
She sat with Zahir in Central Park on a sunny day, unremarkable in its bland beauty, except for the fact that it was to be the day they broke up.
“Iz. My brother told me to block you on Facebook. He’s tracking my phone. He told my mother you’re not Tamil, or even Indian. I ignored my mom’s calls, but then my dad got through. ‘Who’s that whore that’s making your mother so upset?’ my dad said. I hung up. Thenext day, I got an email from my mother. Photos and resumes of brides. And a voicemail from my dad that said, ‘It’s us, or that whore.’”
Isabel was still. She watched children tossing limp kites into the air that flew for ten seconds until they fell and their lines tangled. “What did you tell them?”
“Iz…Please.” Her lover’s voice was soft, light-years away. “Tell me,” she said.
“It’s them. They’re my family. But I still love—”
In a daze, she rode the subway back to Sheila’s. She didn’t notice the homeless man who stood next to her, his hunched back rocking, dancing with no one, nobody at all.
I just want to be friends, Isabel begged. Just friends. Voicemails and texts that Zahir doesn’t answer. She tried to reach him at the sandwich shop. His brother picked up the phone and said, “Please stop calling here. You know Zahir’s situation.”
When Isabel hung up, she realized that she was Zahir’s “situation.”
To compensate, Isabel rendered herself hyper-visible and happy on Facebook. She posted photos of herself biking through Governor’s Island, eating a New York bagel, posing in front of fake a Brad Pitt and Justin Bieber and Gandhi at Madame Tussaude’s Wax Museum in Times Square, singing at Do-Rei-Mi Karaoke Bar in K-Town with Roz and her classmates (in the photo, Isabel is self-consciously holding a microphone and pretending to sing into it), jumping into piles ofleaves with Nolan, the kid she nannies in the Hamptons, when the summer heat transforms into cool September air. Look at me! Look at how much fun I’m having! the photos seem to announce to Zahir, to Al, to her siblings in the Philippines, to nobody at all. Look how awesome my life is! See how I am stealing that American word, “awesome!” See how happy I truly am!
She doesn’t exhibit: photos of herself scrubbing the Cunningham’s, her employers’ toilets and watching the water turn brown, ordering take-out from Mr. Tang’s for three weeks because she doesn’t have energy to cook, because she just burrows into bed. She doesn’t parade on Facebook the laundry multiplying in the corner of her room, or the dead mouse she found in her closet, or the picture that Nolan, the kid she nannies, drew of Isabel on a plane going back to Hawaii where he insisted she was from. No photos of the night she drank too much with Sheila and vomited on the floor of the 6 train. She deleted the comments her sisters left on her Facebook photos saying, “How fat you’ve gotten!” A year and six months in the U.S. and Lady Liberty has stretched Isabel’s thighs and stomach. She hates those comments, but hates more so that they are right.
Zahir changed his schedule and transferred out of all her classes. Isabel tried not to think of this as she lay in bed after class one evening. Her cellphone buzzed. It was a text from Roz, who Isabel avoided the past month since her breakup with Zahir. Roz’s previous messages read:
Chimma’s bday 2nite! U coming?Roz, Sept. 17, 3:28 P.M
Craving halo-halo. Nakoooo. Come w me 2 Woodside? Roz, Sept. 24, 1:16 P.M
Isabel had invented excuses to not come. This time, her best friend texted:
Thought we wer going 2 do visa forms 2gethr. Where r u??? Roz, Sept. 27, 8:09 P.M.
Iz??? Answer naman! Roz, Sept. 27, 8:30 P.M.
2 tired. U go ahead. Sry. Isabel, Sept. 27, 8:31 P.M.
R u crazy??? Forms r due in 4 days!! Come on, Iz!! Roz, Sept. 27, 8:32 P.M.
Isabel turned off her phone. She heard a knock on the door.
“Look what I brought,” Sheila said. She held up Isabel’s favorite dessert, malagkit, a purple sticky rice purchased from Krystal’s, the Filipino grocery store, and two pints of Haagen- Dazs ice cream, mint and green tea. “I thought we could do a movie night—I’m tired of trying to figure out if there’s a difference between lilac and lavender for the bridesmaid dresses, and I’m starting not to give a fuck.”
On the couch, they watched one of the many Mission Impossible movies, followed by Forrest Gump, and finally, The Wedding Singer—Where Drew Barrymore’s character with her dimpled smile and egg-yolk colored hair is about to marry the wrong guy. Isabel watched as Adam Sandler serenaded Drew on her flight. “I wanna make you smile, whenever you’re sad,” he lisped to the teary-eyed Drew. Isabel thought that even Adam Sandler could be guapo. And that, guapo or not, if she married an American she could stay in the States, visas be damned.But to marry for love? That would be a different story.
On screen, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore kissed, and Isabel thought, Americans are unstoppable. Even when someone is engaged to be married to somebody else. “They want what they want,” Isabel said out loud, “and they get it. But it’s not like that for the rest of the world.” She turned to Sheila. “Lucky for you.”
Sheila sat quiet for a moment. The passengers on the plane applauded for Drew and
Adam, mid-smooch. “Yeah,” Sheila said. “Lucky me.”
Slumped at her desk in class the next day, Isabel scrolled through Facebook while Antonio, her Shakira-loving ESL teacher, lectured on the future tense. By now, Isabel and Zahir had been “kaput” for five weeks. Glancing at her phone, Isabel halted at a photo of a woman with sexy arched eyebrows and luminous golden skin. Examined the photo closely. Zahir’s arm was draped around her waist, an unsure half-smile on his face. Next to him stood his beaming parents.
Zahir’s mother had written the very first comment:
It’s official! Zahir and Pooja are engaged!!!!!
Isabel stood up in the middle of Antonio’s lesson. She ran to the bathroom. She locked herself in one of the stalls. Began to weep.
She wept because she loved Zahir and made the mistake of sleeping with—or why not use the American phrase?—of fucking him, too, and then he had left her. She wept because she was wasting her time “learning” English and nannying an American brat, who she loathed. Shewept because she was twenty-five pounds stockier and her sisters had called her fat, had proclaimed it on Facebook. But she wept because she missed her sisters, too.
She wept because she didn’t know what she was doing here in the States. Because even though she knew it would be hard, no one told her she would be this miserable. Or maybe they had, but she hadn’t listened. She wept for the dreams conjured by her younger idiot self: of an America like the Hollywood movies, bright and breezy, with herself as Tom Cruise, who always wins. Stupid, stupid dreams! And Isabel wept because, still—still!—she wanted it all.
Her sobs echoed in the bathroom and she babbled in Ilocano to soothe herself. Ilocano, a language familiar to her as her own skin. Familiar as the loneliness she’d grown accustomed to in the States. She wept in her native language, which didn’t demand of her the stretching and pulling and remaking required by English. To be something, someone else. Her cries lessened, and she stepped out of the stall, eyes swollen. She saw that she wasn’t alone in the bathroom as she thought she’d been. By the mirror, a woman touched up her lipstick. Isabel saw that it was the lady from class, the Muslim woman with the elegant hands who Isabel ignored. The woman turned around, a flicker of softness in her eyes for whoever had been crying. She had heard the sorrow. But when she saw that it was Isabel, her look changed. Her eyes narrowed. Isabel felt shame. The woman packed up her makeup and left without uttering word.
The next morning, Isabel skipped class. Rode the Q70 to LaGuardia Airport. She went into McDonald’s—or, “MacDoh,” as the fast-food chain was nicknamed in the Philippines—located across the street from the airport. She ordered a Big Mac—no sides of rice on the menu here.Instead, she requested medium french fries. Tomorrow I’ll stop eating these, she thought. Oil seeped through the red carton.
Isabel took her eight dollar and sixty cent meal and sat at a table by the parking lot. She’d woken up, drained, save for a feeling of homesickness and a desire to flee. Eating her burger, she watched the airplanes rising, roaring, like giant metal birds. Her eyes followed plane after plane, and she imagined the people on them. Visiting home. She wanted to be the woman who visited home, who traveled back to see her elderly mother, brothers, sisters, nieces, and grandparents in Baguio, and presented herself a wealthy woman. She wanted to return, triumphant, and dole out toys, chocolate, t-shirts, sweaters, and caps branded “NYPD.” “Made In The U.S.A.” She’d take all forty members of her immediate family to dinner. A successful woman, American in her own right.
Isabel bit into a french fry. But I have nothing to show for my time here, she thought. By nothing, she meant “no money.” No husband, no apartment, no glamorous job. Still, maybe I could go back. Everyone would disappointed. But that wouldn’t be so bad. I could start my own pharmacy. Maybe find Al. Have kids. Not be alone.
Her phone chimed.
Visa forms due in 2 days!! Did u submit urs? Roz, Sept. 29, 11:43 A.M.
Visa forms—Who cared? Isabel didn’t. She gazed at the sky for two more hours, tracking the planes that cut across and vanished. Returning to Sheila’s, she googled one-way flights from
JFK, New York, to Ninoy Aquino, Manila. Cheapest flight, which left in a week: $587—The last of her savings. She clicked the “Book Now!” button, filled out her credit card number. Erasedeverything. Filled it out again. Erased and filled it out. Isabel felt as if her brain would split in two. She shut her laptop, downed two Advils, and decided to walk around the neighborhood to clear her head.
Isabel passed the old Greek men playing checkers on a foldable table outside their building, Chinese grandmas scavenging plastic bottles from the trash, girls in ripped jeans and boots headed to clubs in Hell’s Kitchen. The broad mix of people had surprised Isabel when she’d first arrived. It wasn’t the America she’d envisioned with wide lawns, huge houses, and everything, everyone, gleaming white. The accents, the colors were so different from what she was familiar with, what she’d expected.
“You’ll find someone,” Sheila had said after they watched The Wedding Singer. “Or, who knows? Maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll make your way without a guy. Forget men,” she said. “Look, cuz—You talk non-fucking-stop about The States. How it’s the best thing since my mom’s beef kaldereta. But I envy you, Iz. I can hardly speak Filipino, and there’s a shit-ton I don’t know about the Philippines that I wish I did.”
Stepping past the graffiti murals on 34th Avenue, Isabel thought back to what Sheila had
said that night. It was true—There was a “shit-ton” Sheila didn’t know. Would never know.
Sheila would never know what it felt like to watch the Cordillera Mountains rising, majestic, on the winding roads, the rock faces so huge the clouds obscured their peaks, and what it meant to call this place home. She’d never know how to have a proper conversation with her grandparents and hear stories about how they grew up. Or what it felt like to wake up to the sound of vendors selling sweet rice at sunrise, shouting Bikooooh! Biko! Biko! or remember Saturday mornings wringing laundry and hanging up shirts to dry beneath a thirty-four degree Celsius sun. Sheila would never know the excitement, the fear, the uncertainty of leaving homein order to try and call another place home—if only for the meantime. She’d never know the strength it took. But Isabel knew these things.
At the International Students Office, Isabel dropped off her visa forms along with its stack of necessary documents: a copy of her passport, bank statements, proof of an interview scheduled with the consulate, her tuition deposit for next semester. She left the building and caught sight of the Muslim classmate with the elegant hands, clad in a peacoat and scarf. A few paces ahead, the woman didn’t notice Isabel. She walked north, toward the Times Square station. Isabel trailed behind and followed her.
Isabel was a silent shadow as the woman climbed the escalator to reach the 7 train to Queens, the same train as Isabel. On the platform, she watched the woman read a magazine with a politician’s face on the cover. Isabel worked up the nerve to approach her.
“Excuse me,” Isabel said. The woman looked up. “I think we’re classmates…” she
began. And then the words fell out of Isabel’s mouth. “I’m sorry—the other day in the bathroom, I was so homesick. You must think I’m crazy. I…” Isabel shut her mouth. She wanted to say, “I shouldn’t have ignored you in class,” and “It was cruel,” but she didn’t know how to say either. This woman was a stranger. Isabel turned and walked away.
The woman called. “Wait,” she said. She held out her hand. “Shiraz.” Shiraz, Isabel thought. Like Sheila’s favorite wine.
On the train, the two women chatted. She learned that Shiraz worked as an Arabic interpreter at hospitals and clinics around the city, that she lived with her younger sister, aunt,and uncle in Elmhurst, was thirty-three, married, and waiting for her husband’s papers to be processed.
“He’s still in Syria,” Shiraz said. “But my sister and I arrived seven months ago.”
Shiraz told Isabel, “We left just as the bombings were beginning. They bombed the clinic where I worked in Damascus. We hid in my uncle’s basement for two weeks and after that grew unbearable, we drove to a safer town. On the road, all I saw were debris, toppled buildings, and bodies lying in the street. Damascus was the city I’d grown up in, but I couldn’t recognize it at all. My sister who lived closer to Aleppo said she saw worse things.”
“My sister’s daughter—my niece—came home from school. She’d seen six men hanging from a pole in front of the police station. By chains. My sister pulled my niece from school. Kept her home. But my family was fortunate,” Isabel heard a note of bitterness in Shiraz’s voice. “I had an uncle who worked at the embassy, and our application was reviewed quicker, without any questions.”
“Those left behind,” Shiraz began, but does not finish her sentence.
Isabel and Shiraz walked along the boardwalk at Coney Island. It was February, and the turquoise sky somehow brightened the grayish planks of wood, the rollercoasters penned away by chain-link fences. The ocean, too, was flat, the low tide carrying small waves that crept over the sand.
The landscape reminded Isabel of the movie Requiem for a Dream, which Isabel decided to watch after Sheila admonished her, saying, “Enough of your blockbuster movie crap.” Requiem for a Dream had frightened her and made her sad, the man who lost his limbs, blew allthe money he and his girlfriend saved on cocaine. The movie had no heroes. After, Isabel looked up the word “requiem,” which meant: a solemn chant for the repose of the dead.
The two women stopped in front of a shop with a fading awning, painted with a mermaid. From the shop issued the crackling sound of something being deep-fried and the scent of grease and sugar, which interrupted the winter chill. They purchased a funnel cake, to share, for six dollars. Isabel and Shiraz sat for a few minutes on a bench overlooking the ocean and the sand. They tore pieces of the crisscrossed dough, which burned Isabel’s fingers and tongue. Powdered sugar coated their mouths. “For some reason,” said Isabel, licking her fingers, “I thought it
would taste sweeter.”