By Shannon Lowe
In the three years I knew Asal, I had never seen her face. It remained hidden behind the black fabric of her niqab with only her blue-green eyes visible. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Asal arrived at our house for English lessons with Mom, always waving at me as I worked on my homework in the living room, before she disappeared into the study where her and Mom’s muffled voices would fill the air for the next two hours.
We shared very few words. Of course, that could be because she was in her late-seventies and I was only ten years old. I didn’t find most “old people” interesting. So what I did learn about Asal was from overheard conversations she had with Mom: she had three children, all living in Seattle, and eight grandchildren; she had emigrated from Saudi Arabia a few years after her youngest did; and she prayed several times a week, especially on Fridays.
When I met Asal, it was the summer after first grade. The sun blazed for three months in a row, with the average temperature in the mid-80s, and I spent most of my time cannon balling into the nearby YMCA pool. So, when I saw her wearing her face veil and boysenberry, long-sleeve dress, I thought--boy, she must be hot!
She hobbled up the driveway to our two-story A-frame, as I dribbled a basketball in the carport, and she asked in a thick, unfamiliar accent where Mom was. I directed her to the study without much thought. After all, Mom always had strange people coming to our house for English lessons. I didn’t find Asal any different than the Spanish speakers or the Thai speakers or the Korean speakers.
It was after six months or so that she joined us for dinner. Platters of mostly noodle and vegetable dishes squished together in the center of the kitchen table, and a piping-hot pot of freshly brewed coffee sat between Mom’s and Asal’s spots. There was no meat except for in a long but shallow ceramic bowl, shaped like a boat, that Asal brought. Steam rose from blackened chicken on a bed of yellow-brown rice, dotted with red and green peppers and cashews.
“What’s that?” I pointed to the dish.
“Kabsa,” Asal said. “Traditional dish in my country.”
“Mmmm,” I licked my lips with anticipation.
She continued to have dinner with us, once a month, and brought other exotic foods: kleichat tamur, cookies filled with dates; murtabak, minced meat and eggs stuffed inside a folded pancake; muhallabia, rice pudding topped with crushed nuts; and dozens of others with names I couldn’t remember. Trying whatever Asal cooked became something that I looked forward to.
That changed soon enough.
After school one day, my best friend, Mac, and I walked to the town’s Shell station and spent ten dollars on Pepsi sodas, Nerd Ropes, and Big League Chew. Then we headed to a nearby park, kicking rocks at cars along the way, and climbed onto one of the slide’s roofs before seeing who could spit sugary saliva the farthest as we chomped on our gum. The overcast sky sprinkled rain but soon drenched us with fat, icy drops. Goosebumps formed on my bare arms, and I asked Mac if he wanted to play Xbox, maybe watch a movie or two, at my house.
“I’m not allowed to go to your house,” he said.
“Why?” I asked. I couldn’t recall doing anything that would warrant a ban from my house. Was it the time we got caught looking at nude photos? Those belonged to Mac’s brother. If anything, Mr. and Mrs. Conley should be mad at him for having them, not at us for finding them.
“Dude, the girl your mom’s teaching—she’s Muslim.”
I blinked, confused.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Don’t you watch the news?” Mac asked.
So we went to his house on a mission. It was only a couple blocks from mine and a similar A-frame style but tan instead of deep blue. While Mr. Conley worked-out in the basement and Mrs. Conley chatted theatrically over the phone, we snuck to his older brother’s bedroom and hopped onto his laptop. For the next hour, Mac showed me video after video, article after article, of the most gruesome, terrifying, and downright inhumane acts involving people who looked just like Asal. Stomach churning, I could feel bile rise in my throat, the burning bitterness nearly causing me to gag. I begged Mac to stop.
Making sure our browsing history was deleted, Mac guided me to his brother’s futon, and we watched TV for the rest of the afternoon. Yet, my thoughts lingered on the videos. The violence ingrained so deeply in my mind. At any moment, it felt like we’d be attacked. Like I would be one of those lifeless faces staring into the sympathetic lens of a journalist or news broadcaster.
I had to get out.
Pretending Mom had texted me to come home, I left his house. Rain still plunged from the darkening, gray sky. My tennis shoes slipped on the roads, slick with putrid car oil and grime, and I couldn’t care less when my jeans soaked up to my knees with water. All I wanted was to get to my house, my room, my bed.
On Tuesday, ten minutes before Asal’s next lesson, light taps on the front door alerted me that she was here. I snatched up my homework that sprawled the glass coffee table in the living room and stuffed it into my bookbag. I wasn’t fast enough, though. Asal let herself into the house, and her eyes locked onto mine.
Asal looked just like them.
Spinning around, I abandoned my bookbag and raced upstairs to my room. My chest heaved as I dove into bed and covered my head with a pillow. There was no way I could face her or listen to her practice English—not after … .
I avoided her from that day on.
During her lessons, I stayed in my room; during our monthly dinners, I snuck off to Mac’s house. On the rare occasions that I came face-to-face with Asal, I kept my gaze to the floor and hid behind Mom. I pretended that her delicious meals didn’t fill the house’s air with spices. And as December approached, I looked forward to the three weeks that Mom designated for “winter break.”
One evening, deep into the final month of year, pots clattered and sizzled in the kitchen, and I could taste the garlic even from my room. Thundering down the stairs, I found Mom hovering over the gas stove of our checkered floor, wood panel kitchen, stirring pasta in her mini wok. Her heart-shaped face pinched together, and sweat dotted her forehead. A floral headband pushed back her chin-length, sandy hair. She grinned at me before pointing to the table.
It was set for three.
“I invited Asal,” Mom said.
My heart dropped.
“We’ll have pasta with pesto, garlic shrimp, boiled baby potatoes, a salad, and a fruit bowl,” she said.
“I-I’m not really hungry.” It was the truth. I lost my appetite.
“Are you feeling sick?” Mom asked.
Puckering out my lower lip, I nodded and wrapped my arm around my stomach. I don’t know if Mom actually bought my act, but she grabbed a popcorn bowl from on top of the refrigerator. Handing it to me, she pointed to the living room.
“At least say goodnight to Asal before you head up to bed.”
“She’s here right now?” I must’ve walked right past her.
“Yep,” said Mom. “No TV, no computer. If you’re sick, you stay in bed.”
I hesitated. Did I really want to spend the rest of the night bored in bed? It was just after six o’clock, several hours until I normally went to bed. Before I could negotiate, Mom disappeared to the basement, saying something about needing to find the tea kettle. My breaths came out short and fast at the idea that I was alone with Asal. Peeking through the archway that led to the living room, I saw the top of her head over the tall backrest of an oatmeal recliner. I bit my lip to bottle the panic that bubbled inside of me.
She looked just like them.
Holding my breath, I tiptoed along the wall and behind the chair she sat in. If I was extra quiet, I could get to the stairs without any confrontation.
“I know you are afraid of me,” Asal said.
I froze and cursed for being caught.
“Because of this, most people are,” she stroked her niqab. “They act like I have something to hide—like I am a monster, strapped with bombs and guns under my skirt.”
My tongue felt too heavy to offer some lame excuse for my behavior. For a moment, I considered ignoring her and retreating to my room, pretending that she hadn’t spoken to me. Yet, an inkling of guilt kept me from cowering. A voice in my head whispered, I know who this woman is. I’ve known her for years.
“It would be easier to just take this off, but I refuse to silence my beliefs,” she said. “To express one’s self—isn’t that what everyone wants? To let the world know ‘this is who I am.’”
“Sensationalism often hides the truth,” Asal said.
Clutching her niqab, she slowly pulled it down.
Her face was like the tawny-beige surface of a mountain cliff, jagged and riddled with thousands of cracks—striking and beautiful—and illuminated by her wiry, gray hair. Her blue-green eyes which had always seemed expressionless twinkled with bemusement as I leaned forward with mouth-dropping awe, and her cheeks protruded as her thin lips tugged into a wide smile.
“Now tell me, do you see a monster?” Asal asked.
Shanna P. Lowe is an ESL tutor for Thai speakers, living in the Pacific Northwest. Her fiction has appeared in Teen Ink printed magazine, and her poetry has won an award from Scholastic’s Alliance of Young Artists & Writers.