I have something to tell you, a secret.
I don’t want to tell you, not really, but something, or perhaps someone, is trying to make me. This thing or one is whispering in my ear, sticking needles in my arm, poking me in the side.
Go ahead. Tell them. Tell them everything.
But who is this person, this whispering presence, this force driving me to be the opposite of what I am? Sometimes I think my real face has been painted over, again and again, like stage scenery that’s been used for many seasons. I can no longer remember what I’m supposed to look like.
Father asked me to get milk and a bag of onions from the grocer. I took the usual route through the wadi, across the sand, around the green apartment buildings. I passed the crumbly shacks where the laborers live, with bedsheet front doors, clothes hanging on metal racks in overgrown thickets, old carpets pounded into the dirt. This leads to an alleyway that smells of sewage and spoiled milk. You can see into the silent homes without doors. Untended children, as young as two, play with broken toys and discarded furniture, while cars race down the narrow lane and delivery men shuffle past on ancient bicycles. Between the mosque and the white walls of a large villa, the alley becomes dark. Trees and vines clog the passageway.
This is where Yahia and Percy called out to me. Something told me to keep walking, but something else made me stop and listen and walk into the squat stone building. There were no lights, but after a few moments I could see. Broken light bulbs and bottles, tin cans, brown paper bags, straws, newspapers, chicken bones, two mismatched shoes. A dead bird lay on the windowpane as if it were only sleeping.
There was a smell, hard and clean and violent. There was a bucket of yellow liquid and Yahia had to turn off his phone. Percy came up behind me and grabbed my arms, twisting them into a painful knot behind my back. I tried to speak, but Yahia hit my face. I remember how his eyes found it so difficult to find my own. He spoke but I could not hear the words, or rather I could hear the sounds but could not assemble them into the correct shapes. I only noticed what his face was telling me: that he had something to do but was afraid and compelled to do it. I felt sorry for him, even as I discovered what this thing was.
Percy tightened his grip and reached under my abaya. He pulled down my underwear. Yahia reached under his dishdasha and was doing something. It seemed to take great effort. His eyes were closed, his jaw clenched.
Percy was breathing hard. His breath smelled like cardamom, ginger, and curry powder. Yahia opened his eyes and stepped forward. I could see what he’d been doing under his robe. The room was suddenly bright. I saw the white flashcards Mother had bought three years before when I was having trouble with multiplication and division. Yahia touched me. He tried to kiss me, but I turned my face away. He lowered himself, pushed up inside me, and that’s when another girl came to take my place. She was a holy person, a superhero. She took my place and carried my suffering. I felt bad for her, but it was impossible for me to stay. I had to get home. I had to buy milk and onions for dinner. Mother would worry if I was late, and Father would be upset.
I have always had a weak memory, but an hour later, eating dinner, I had somehow managed to forget everything. I was still a normal girl. Nothing bad had happened. Everything was okay.
I ate as though I had never eaten, as though it were my profession, as though I had not been watching my carbs and calories for more than a year, weighing the pleasure of each cracker and biscuit against the future unhappiness of fat. Mother smiled and patted my arm. She is old fashioned and superstitious. She thinks it is healthy to eat as much as you can force into your mouth. My older brothers seemed confused and slightly disappointed. They looked to Father, but he only stared at his plate. He left the table early without finishing his meal. He went outside and did not come back for many hours. He does not take alcohol, of course, but when he came home early the next morning, his eyes were red and he smelled of cigarettes, beer and things for which I have no name.
Later, I began to remember. I turned on the radio so that no one would hear me cry. I was glad, for once, to be the only daughter because it meant I had my own room. I began to see what had happened, one image at a time, like a video running on a slow computer.
The girl was quiet and still, a corpse. She did not scream or kick. Her eyes changed color as soon as it began, wearing the knowledge that it was useless to fight. It would only make things worse.
Our bodies do not belong to us. I see that now. This is something else I see in the girl’s eyes. She is beginning to understand. If I stop and squint at the first image, I see this, a dull yellow speck in her eye.
They own our bodies and they always have. I was too stupid to see this before, or maybe I saw but did not understand. Or maybe I understood but pretended not to.
My body, especially the unnameable part, is not my own. I cannot even touch it now, or feel it, or see how it is connected to me. It is a diagram from one of Father’s anatomy textbooks, or an exhibit in one of those museums where strange objects are pickled in old jars. It is a cadaver at the medical college, a thing to be probed and cut and divided from itself. At best, someone, a struggling medical student, will see my body’s weight and substance, the screams that make no sound, and he will be moved to nausea.
I’d thought I was safe here, I really did. How could I have been so foolish?
I’m ashamed of my stupidity. I’m almost sixteen years old. I should have known better.