It was on Frank’s advice that I put on the hijab: Frank, who the first time I brought him home, I introduced to my mother by his full name, Francis. “Never trust a Catholic,” she said after he left. I’m glad I didn’t listen to her.
Frank and I were the two big kids who stood like pillars at either end of the rows of seated, smiling pixies in grade school class photographs. We had “big bones.” We were brains, and tossed a frisbee alone at the far end of the school yard.
On weekends Frank and I hung out in the barn. We called it hanging out because that made it sound cool, but what we were doing was playing. We acted out stories from history class – The Battle of the Plains of Abraham, The War of 1812 – making up the words as we went along. We would have croaked if anybody had found out. We were engaged in illicit activities and had sworn each other to secrecy.
One day, as Frank was about to die as Wolfe and I was about to die as Montcalm, he said: “Tara invited me to her party.”
I was so surprised, I stopped dying. I stood up, hoping I didn’t look like the pillar in the school photographs. “To what?”
“Didn’t you get invited?” he asked.
I hated him. Everybody knew that snobby little Tara with her fake curls and her stuck-up friends wasn’t going to invite me. And this wasn’t just any party: it was the first party in our grade to which girls and boys were invited. I’m not counting birthday parties when we were little kids: this was, like, the first party for boys and girls, at night, with music, and maybe even dancing if everybody wasn’t a wallflower. Of course Tara hadn’t invited me! But why had she invited Frank? I glared at his big, square face the way I’d glare at my brother’s face, if I had a brother. He was pudgy. He probably wouldn’t be a good dancer. But he was tall and I guess that made up for being a geek who had the big girl for his friend. “I wouldn’t go even if she invited me,” I said.
Frank’s face changed. I didn’t want to see that change. I didn’t want to think that Frank would defend Tara. I went back to dying. Stretched out in the mow, with my head propped up on a bale of hay, I wondered aloud whether Montcalm had made a mistake by choosing a frontal assault on Wolfe’s army rather than a campaign of attrition.
“He didn’t have a choice,” Frank said. “Either way, he was going to lose. When both options are bad, you look for a third way. You go around the problem by doing the unexpected.”
I never asked Frank about Tara’s party, or the parties that followed it: Jason’s party, Fulvia’s party, Hermann’s party. … In Grade 9, Frank’s mother moved him to the Catholic high school. “I want Francis to keep the faith,” she told me, while Frank looked at his hands, “and I want him to get a better education. Sorry you’re losing your friend, Janet.”
I nodded. Inside I was dying like Montcalm. Montcalm took 24 hours to die of his wounds; I was in pain for much longer. The tone of Frank’s mother’s voice made me certain that she had moved him to the Catholic school to get him away from me.
All the girls got bigger in high school but in my case it was multiplied. I ate a healthy diet so I never got really huge, but my body sabotaged me. I didn’t see Frank any more. On weekends he played hockey and football at the Catholic high school. Our local paper ran a photo of him scoring a goal with a slapshot from the point. The caption said he was a defenceman. It hurt me to think of him as a defenceman, his brains forgotten and his brawn on display as though he were a bear at the zoo. Me, I felt like I was in the monkey house, with all those girls with their eyeshadow and their name-brand clothes and their tight little bums, and the boys oogling them from their lockers and giving them ratings out of 10 as they walked down the hall. I didn’t even want to think about what my rating was. I brushed my hair for hours, looking at myself in the mirror. When I was 16, I thought maybe a hefty guy like Frank would think I was pretty.
One Saturday night I went out with my dad to the big box store on the edge of town to get bolts for the new stanchions he was installing in the barn. Who should I meet in the aisle but Frank. He was wearing a jacket with crossed hockey sticks on the back. His fat had melted into muscle, his jaw jutted like a politician’s profile, and his right hand was holding the hand of a girl. The girl was lean and shapely, she had light brown skin and straight dark hair, and the brightest eyes I’d seen, and when Frank introduced her she even seemed nice. Her name was Miranda. She was from Venezuela. I wanted to hate her, but she was just too nice. In grade school I was the only kid who could have found Venezuela on the map, but that didn’t count for beans now. Frank told Miranda I was his best friend from grade school, which was nice of him, I guess. Their niceness made me feel like a charity case. My life was moving on. I was surrounded like Montcalm: all options were bad, and I needed to find a third way.
That was when I read about Muslims.
All I knew about Muslims was what I saw on TV: fundamentalism, violence and female circumcision. Then I opened the newspaper and read about this girl named Khadia in Toronto, whose parents were immigrants from Oman – I was able to find that on the map, too. Khadia had decided to put on a hijab when she turned 15, even though her parents said she didn’t have to, because “I want to make sure the boys in my class have the right idea about me.” She said she didn’t need all that pressure of boyfriends and girlfriends. She’d found a third way between having a boyfriend and not having one; she’d stepped out of the rat race, like my dad had done when he’d quit the insurance company to buy the farm. Khadia looked pretty. It was too late now to be like her – high school was going to keep on being a disaster – but I promised myself that when I went to university, my life would be different.
Then I entered the store, I was so nervous that I stuttered. What if they didn’t believe I was a Muslim? The ladies inside – only women were serving there – looked at me curiously, but they treated me like I was something precious, a fragile jewel. I found a hijab right away, but when I started to try on the long robes – I didn’t even know what you called them – it was obvious that I didn’t have a clue. I said: “My mum’s Muslim, but I wasn’t brought up in the faith. I’m finding my way back.” I’d rehearsed that lie, practising it in my room, because I knew I’d have to explain why the name on my debit card was plain old Janet Clark. The demure ladies, with their gentle manners and their soft accents, blushed. One of them stepped forward to help me. I left the store wearing the bluejeans that made my bum look humungous. When I got back to my room and stood in front of the mirror with my hair and most of my forehead covered by the hijab and the shape of my body smoothed and extended by long robes, I thought: Sweet! I was glad I’d come to university in Toronto, where I wouldn’t run into Frank or Tara or Jason or Fulvia. From now on, so far as anybody I met was concerned, I was a girl with a Muslim mother whose name just happened to be Clark. I tried not to think about what my mother would say if she found out.
When classes started none of the guys looked at my bum or snickered at my size; in fact, they looked straight through me. I was invisible. Within a week, boys and girls were dating each other to death like Wolfe and Montcalm; the smoke from the battle flowed over me like mist, dissolving against my robes. I saw the gooseflesh on the girls’ arms and legs as they went out in their party dresses on freezing Friday nights, and I felt relieved that I didn’t have to wear those clothes. Once, when I was downtown, some guy on Yonge Street called me a terrorist, but aside from that I hadn’t felt such peace since I first played with Frank. I did well in my courses, and I got a job in the university library checking out books. The librarian who hired me said: “We’ve just hired another Muslim girl. Next week you’ll be on the same shift.”
I was nervous. Would I be able to pass as Muslim with a real Muslim? Next week when I came into work the girl was standing there. She wore a blue hijab with a fringe that fell over her collarbone. Beneath it was a checkered lumberjack shirt that didn’t do a thing to hide her curves; beneath that was a retro-looking bluejean skirt. Her olive-coloured skin and dark eyes soothed me. I felt like she was already my friend. “Hi, Janet,” she said. “I’m Khadia.”
I was silent for a moment. “Was there a newspaper article about you … ?”
She turned red. “Oh no! Sometimes I think everybody in the whole world read that article.”
“I thought it was totally awesome.” She looked at me like she was afraid I was pulling her leg. “It’s because of that article that I adopted modest dress.”
She leaned close to me. “You know what it’s like when you’re 15? You get so hot and bothered. I had to do something to keep myself under control or else I’d make my parents ashamed.”
Students came to the desk with books to check out. We didn’t talk for the rest of the shift, other than to pass the check-out wand, or ask where to find books on the reserve shelf. The next time I worked with Khadia, this Middle Eastern-looking guy with a stubbly beard and a backwards baseball cap came to check out a book. He waited for Khadia to serve him. The guy came back the next time that Khadia worked, and the time after that. He would talk and she would laugh. I watched them, trying to figure out whether I’d missed something about being Muslim. The next day I went into the cafeteria, and there was Khadia having coffee with this guy. His hand crept across the table and covered her hand. Khadia’s smile looked like snow melting in the spring. I went to get my lunch.
On our next shift, I waited until we were both in the shelves behind the desk, hunting for reserve books, before I whispered: “Khadia. Is that guy with the baseball cap your boyfriend?”
She smiled and nodded and laid her hand on my elbow. Her eyes were almost brimming.
“But, Khadia, you’re a Muslim!”
“I am Muslim, but I’m also a woman.”
“But your parents … !”
“My parents want me to grow up, like all good parents. And anyway,” she said, with a laugh, “I’m not living with them anymore!”
“But you wear the hijab.” I must have looked shocked. In fact, I think I even looked aggressive, because Khadia became a little hostile.
“Yes, and I may continue to wear the hijab. Or I may not. Remember that it is always a choice.” Her hand closed around the book she’d been looking for. “Do you think you’ll always wear hijab?”
“Yes.” As I said it, I realized it was true: I liked my life better this way. I could even imagine going home to my mother dressed in my robes. I wanted to explain this to Khadia, but her eyes were already turning in the direction of the check-out desk. “You see, Khadia,” I said, laying my hand on her arm, “I feel better when I keep the faith.”
Stephen Henighan is the author of six books of fiction, most recently A Grave in the Air (Thistledown, 2007), and four books of essays and criticism. He is a professor and head of Hispanic studies in the school of languages and literatures, University of Guelph.