There’s a streetlight near my parents’ store, and I hear the click, a shutter snapping as I round the corner. My gaze swivels up, but there’s nothing. Just a white-eyed orb, a lamp, ticking. The dim sky floating behind. I shiver, tell myself it’s all in my head. Nothing.
Hunching my shoulders, I hurry down Thirty-Seventh Avenue, the sweat warm against my sweatshirt hood—past the thin shed of a shop with glittery bangles and cheap plastic frogs swimming in plastic tubs, past Mr. Rahman’s table of beads hung on metal hooks, folded prayer rugs and little engraved Qurans. He, along with the other uncles who stand on the street, scans me, disapproving. They know. I’m up to no good. I’m not working in my parents’ little store, as I should be.
I did spend most of the afternoon there, my stepmother hovering by the cash register, pretending to tally the day’s earnings, but really she was grazing me like a worried searchlight. Her pencil tapping the side of the register. I know that look. I see you.
Usually when it isn’t busy in the store, and I’ve finished tying up the old newspapers and moving around the milk cartons, I sit on a crate in the back, next to the humming refrigerator, textbook balanced on my knees. But today it was hard to focus. My brain danced; I got antsy, thinking of where I’d rather be.
The store was quiet. Only one customer—a desi guy, tweed jacket, jeans, blowing on his Starbucks coffee. He comes in a lot. “You have Post-its?” he asked. My stepmother shook her head. Disappointed, he bought some Tic Tacs.
Then my phone vibrated against my thigh. I always keep it on silent when I’m in my parents’ store. Meet me at the mall 4:30, Ibrahim texted. Urgent! It’s always urgent with Ibrahim.
Slamming the book shut, I jerked up from the crate. My concentration was shot. Whenever I hear from Ibrahim it’s like a bowling ball cracking into the pins in my head, all my thoughts toppling over. There’s no hope of picking my way through pre-cal equations.
“Hey, Ma.” I said this shyly, the way it always is between us. “I gotta go. Anything more you need?”
She glanced at me, alarmed. The eraser on her pencil did a little bob. “What about studying?”
“That’s what I’m going to do,” I lied. “Meet a friend. We’ve got pre-cal finals coming up.”
Here her expression went sad, wistful. “Calculus, yes,” she sighed. “When I was in high school I am getting eighty-five in this subject.”
I feel bad for Amma. I call her Amma, as if she is my own mother, not my stepmom. She’s always speaking English with me, not Bangla, trying to show how she was almost like an American-born, going all the way through twelfth grade, until her parents arranged a marriage to my father.
I knew Amma just wanted me to keep her company. But I couldn’t help myself. I needed to get out of that little gloomy corner, everything so dusty and sad. Even the lottery ticket flyer—the only reason folks come in here—is peeling off the wall. The boxes of sugar cubes that have sat on the shelf since the store opened up. Abba, who buys sugar cubes? I want to shout. He’s lost track of what they’re doing with this place. It kills me, seeing all the customers hurry into the store across the street, the one that has the fresh new awning and fancy lettering, plastic chairs outside, and is always changing its stock, offering discounts. Or their friends, who have gotten together and opened a food mart with huge fish tanks and a halal butcher. They have capital, my stepmother sighs. We have nothing.
“Wait, I am showing you my outfit?”
I shot her a puzzled look.
I shook my head. “Ma, it’s six weeks away!”
“No matter. Shop is having sale.”
She bustled to the back of the store, where she’d hung a shalwar kameez on a hook on the back of the door, then brought it to the front, spreading the rustling plastic across the counter. “See!” she said proudly. “I even have it dry cleaned, so it is all ready.”
This made me sad and angry too. Amma saved every bit of extra money—fifty cents here, a dollar from the groceries, stowing it in her empty tin of Darjeeling tea leaves. The outfit was beautiful—sea green, with blue beads dangling from the yoke like ice drops. But half the reason she was making such a big deal over this was because of me, and half because of her, all she gave up to marry my father.
“That’s really nice, Ma.”
“And your father, he is inviting many people to celebrate.”
We both looked through the window, where we could see my father standing just outside the store, under the awning. His hands were tucked at the small of his back, his stomach pushed forward. More and more that’s all he does: opens the store, puts away the Snapple bottles and milk cartons, and then leaves the rest to Amma. He sighs. He walks the pavement. Chats with the other shopkeepers. Complains about his bad knee. Mostly, he stares off at the rooftops, as if trying to glimpse something, just beyond, that escapes him.
The watching, it seeps into everything in our neighborhood. It’s like weather, the barometric pressure lowering. Before the monsoons came in Bangladesh, you could feel the air thicken and squat on your head. A constant ache behind your eyeballs.
For the past few years there’s been another kind of pressure: a vibration around us, the air pressing down, muffling our mouths. We see the men, coming down the metal stairs from the elevated subway, or parked in cars for hours on end: clean-cut guys, creased khakis, rolled‑up sleeves. The breath of Manhattan steaming off their clothes. They aren’t from around here—that we can tell. Not like the young couples with their big padded strollers. Or the girls with peacoats and holes in their black tights, who moved to the nice part of Jackson Heights, carry yoga mats in cloth bags from stores I’ve never heard of. No, these people are different. They stroll into stores, finger the edges of the newspapers in their racks, check out flyers taped to the side of the fridge.
One day two of them came into my parents’ store, pretended to buy some gum, and then asked a few questions about the travel agency upstairs. Where is the man who runs the place? Mr. Ahmed? How often does he come in? Does he stay after hours?
Abba shook his head. “I do not watch my neighbor so much. He is from Pakistan, that is all I know.”
“Yet you hold packages for him?”
“Yes, but that is because they are not open all the time. It is favor.”
The man consulted a tiny notebook. “You attend the same mosque? Al-Noor Masjid?”
At this, Abba froze, fingers resting light on the register, staring at the door. “No, we are praying at different place.” It hurt my heart, hearing this. Abba’s English, when he spoke to strangers, was halting, yet proper. He’d studied some English in Bangladesh and hated sounding uneducated to Americans.
“Abba?” I whispered after the detectives left, and touched his arm. “You okay?”
He stirred and blinked. “I am fine.” But his voice was rough at the edges.
It’s his accepting, his hemmed‑in air, his giving up that makes me crazy. The way he makes that sad gargling noise at the back of his throat, just stands here, rocking on his shoes. Or shuffles to the back of the store to pray. Lets those men scare him. It’s in Allah’s hands. Nothing more to do, he says.
Fight them! I want to cry. Fight me!
But he doesn’t. He’s too tired. Tired of his own years, first doing construction in Dubai, then in Brooklyn, long days up on the scaffolding scraping cement, a new wife and son, now the store, where every month he and my stepmother lean their heads together, write the rent check. One more month, he sighs. Then maybe we close up.
“I gotta go, Abba,” I said, standing beside him now. I pointed to my backpack, as if to prove myself.
He just turned his face away.
Now I’m moving fast, just as I like it, wind cooling the sweat around my neck. I turn the corner, heading into the thick of the neighborhood—Seventy-Fourth Street—where the big grocery stores and sari shops with decked-out models and jewelry places draped in shiny gold are. I avoid the old men who know me, the ones sitting on crates, handing out laminated ads for astrology readings, phone cards. This is what I like, what I need. To move, always.
Once more the phone vibrates against my hip bone. Are you coming?
Annoyed, I text back. Yes!
Ibrahim forgets. He forgets I’m still in school. He’s not. Or he is and he isn’t. He’s two years older than me and he’s supposed to be at LaGuardia Community College, studying business. But who knows what he’s actually doing. He’s always got plans. A wireless store with his cousins. Maybe a restaurant.
It’s not like Ibrahim and I are really friends. We’re not. More on and off.
He texts me out of the blue, drives up outside the high school in a gleaming car, leans forward in his aviator shades and grins, and we spin off to a diner or taxi haunts. Maybe a movie, sitting deep in the bucket seats, gorging on a jumbo popcorn. Man, does that feel good. How many high school seniors get a pickup like that?
Just as I’m passing Mr. Khan’s market, there, in the bins, next to the green and orange mangoes, the spindly okra, is a mound of glistening purple-blue plums. I can’t help myself. My fingers shoot out, swipe one into my palm. Just a stupid little thing, easy to steal, now stowed in my sweatshirt pocket. Mr. Khan would give it to me if I asked. But that’s no fun.
Before I can back away, a smiling Mrs. Khan is pushing through the doorway, strips of thick plastic bouncing against her broad shoulders. “How is your father?” she asks.
“Okay.” I step back, anxious. The plum is nestled in my pocket, against my belly. Weirdly, I like the sweat pricking the back of my neck, the corkscrew of fear in my stomach.
“Business not so good, hah?”
“No. Not really.”
“And where are you going?”
I point to my backpack. “Studying with a friend.”
“Such a handsome boy!” she says, smiling, which makes my cheeks go hot. “Your parents, they are so proud of you. I am hearing you are in some kind of play?”
My heart gives a little pinch. Proud. I wish that were so. “Yeah,” I tell her. “I was in Grease. At the high school.”
“Very nice, very nice.” She squints. “But this is not job. You are studying what?”
I stare down at my feet, frustrated. How many times have I had this conversation? With Abba, with the uncles and aunties who all want us to major in accounting or be doctors. That’s just not in the cards for me. That much I know.
“It’s just for fun, Auntie,” I say.
She turns stern, leaning in. “But I see you one day with that girl? The Spanish one who washes hair at salon?”
“No, Auntie,” I groan. “That was just a goof. I walked her home, that’s all.”
“Be careful,” she warns. “These girls, they are always wanting to get boys like you with such nice hair. They think you make nice husband. You should stay and help your parents. When it is time for girl, they will find.”
She smiles in a crinkly way that seems like a frown too. A lot of the elders in this neighborhood are like that—their joy is always laced with worry.
“Go on,” she tells me. “You have work to do.”
Relieved, I hurry away, only to see a cop strolling down the street right toward me. My bones seize up. The plum bumps chilled in my pocket. He looks like a nice guy—a little pudgy, thumbs loose on his belt, enjoying the sari shops, the old aunties pulling their cloth-covered carts, expertly pressing eggplants, checking for bruises. I remember what my stepmother always says: You see a policeman, you never run, you understand, beta? They are not like policemen in Bangladesh, always asking for bribe. But still you smile at them nicely.
The cop passes me, not even a glance. It’s weird, this watching. You sense your own body, all its flaws, blown up, as if pixelated on a screen. I can see my neck, which is geeky-long, the soft flaps of my ears, which stick out as if I’m still four. I’m lit up, noticed in ways I don’t want. This happens all the time.
Over at the playground park, the cops park their squad cars at an angle, eating their lunches inside. I can see their eyes, hidden in the cool cave of their cars, on me and my friends. Or sometimes when I’m late for school, I’ll see some kid not much older than me, with his hands splayed on the greasy subway tile, cops giving him a pat-down. I feel dirty on his behalf. I just want to wash myself clean.
Two blocks away, the elevated track rises, throwing its shafts of broken shadow. I can hear the shuttle and clack of a train sliding into the station. I’m sure Ibrahim is at the entrance to the mall, tapping his sneaker, furious.
At the turnstiles, I see another cop, whose eyes bore straight through me, see the plum, radiate it, poof, in super-hero smoke. Fingers shaking, I start to slide my MetroCard.
“Let me see.”
He saunters over, glances at my card with the student seal, gives me the once-over. I wish I had a chance to hitch up my jeans so the band of my underwear doesn’t show. But I can’t. Reaching for my waist—he might take it the wrong way.
“You a student?”
“Yes, sir. Newtown High, sir.”
My right knee is jiggling something bad.
“Okay. Go ahead.”
Then I’m dashing up the platform, fast, sneakers blurred. It’s only when the train slides out of the station that my heart stops thumping like a bass and my cell phone vibrates in my pocket, against my thigh.
Where are u???
Coming, I tap back.
I bring out the plum. It’s still sweaty cold. I touch it to my mouth, break the skin. It’s sweet.
Copyright © 2016 by Marina Budhos. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.