Excerpts for Towelhead


Chapter One

My mother's boyfriend got a crush on me, so she sent me to live with Daddy. I didn't want to live with Daddy. He had a weird accent and came from Lebanon. My mother met him in college, then they got married and had me, then they got divorced when I was five. My mother told me it was because my father was cheap and bossy. When my parents got divorced, I wasn't upset. I had a memory of Daddy slapping my mother, and then of my mother taking off his glasses and grinding them into the floor with her shoe. I don't know what they were fighting about, but I was glad that he couldn't see anymore.

I still had to visit him for a month every summer, and I got depressed about that. Then, when it was time to go home again, I got happy. It was just too tense, being with Daddy. He wanted everything done in a certain way that only he knew about. I was afraid to move half the time. Once I spilled some juice on one of his foreign rugs, and he told me that I would never find a husband.

My mother knew how I felt about Daddy, but she sent me to live with him anyway. She was just so mad about her boyfriend liking me. I told her not to worry, that I didn't like Barry back, but she said that wasn't the point. She said I was always walking around with my boobs sticking out, and that it was hard for Barry not to notice. That really hurt my feelings, since I couldn't help what my boobs looked like. I'd never asked for Barry to notice me. I was only thirteen.

At the airport, I wondered what my mother was so worried about. I could never have stolen Barry away from her, even if I'd tried. She was 100 percent Irish. She had high cheekbones and a cute round ball at the end of her nose. When she put concealer under her eyes, they looked all bright and lit up. I could've brushed her shiny brown hair for hours, if only she had let me.

When they announced my flight, I started to cry. My mother said it wasn't that bad, then pushed me in my back a little so I would walk onto the plane. A stewardess helped me find my seat, since I was still crying, and a man beside me held my hand during takeoff. He probably thought I was scared to fly, but I wasn't. I really and truly hoped we would crash.

Daddy met me at the airport in Houston. He was tall and clean-shaven and combed his wavy, thinning hair to one side. Ever since my mother had ground up his glasses, he'd started wearing contacts. He shook my hand, which he'd never done before. I said, "Aren't you going to hug me?" and he said, "This is how we do it in my country." Then he started walking really fast through the airport, so I could barely keep up.

As I waited with Daddy at the baggage claim, I felt like I didn't have a family anymore. He didn't look at me or talk to me. We both just watched for my suitcase. When it came, Daddy lifted it off the conveyor belt, then set it down so I could pull it. It had wheels and a handle, but it fell over if you walked too fast. When I slowed down, though, Daddy ended up getting too far ahead of me. Finally he picked it up and carried it himself.

It was a long drive back to Daddy's apartment, and I tried not to notice all the billboards for gentlemen's clubs along the way. It was embarrassing, those women with their breasts hanging out. I wondered if that was how I had looked with Barry. Daddy didn't say anything about the billboards, which made them even more embarrassing. I started to feel like they were all my fault. Like anything awful and dirty was my fault. My mother hadn't told Daddy about Barry and me, but she had told him that she thought I was growing up too fast, and would probably benefit from a stricter upbringing.

That night, I slept on a foldout chair in my father's office. There was a sheet on it, but it kept slipping off, and the vinyl upholstery stuck to my skin. In the morning, my father stood in the doorway and whistled like a bird so I would wake up. I went to the breakfast table in my T-shirt and underwear, and he slapped me and told me to go put on proper clothes. It was the first time anyone had ever slapped me, and I started to cry. "Why did you do that?" I asked him, and he said things were going to be different from now on.

I got back into bed and cried some more. I wanted to go home, and it was only the second day. Soon my father came to the doorway and said, "Okay, I forgive you, now get up." I looked at him and wondered what he was forgiving me for. I thought about asking, but somehow it didn't seem smart.

That day, we went looking for a new house. Daddy said he was making a good salary at NASA, and besides, the schools were better in the suburbs. I didn't want to go back on the highway because of all the billboards, but I was afraid to say no. Then it turned out that the billboards on the way to the suburbs were for new homes and housing developments. The prices started at one hundred fifty thousand dollars -- almost three times as much as my mother had paid for our town house back in Syracuse. She was a middle-school teacher, so she couldn't afford very much.

Daddy listened to NPR while I watched the road out the window. Houston seemed like the end of the world to me. The last place you would ever want to live. It was hot and humid and the water from the tap tasted like sand. The one thing I liked about Daddy was that he kept the air-conditioning at seventy-six. He said that everyone he knew thought he was crazy, but he didn't care. He loved walking into his apartment and saying, "Ahh!"

Some news about Iraq came on, and Daddy turned up the volume. They had just invaded Kuwait. "Fucking Saddam," Daddy said, and I relaxed a little that he would swear.

We went to a housing development called Charming Gates and looked at the model home. A realtor named Mrs. Van Dyke gave us the tour, which ended in the kitchen, where she offered Daddy a cup of coffee. She talked a lot about the beauty of the home, its reasonable price, the school district, and safety. Daddy tried to bargain with her, and she said that wasn't really done. She said if he were buying an older home, that sort of thing would be fine, but that new homes had fixed prices. Back in the car, he made fun of her southern accent, which sounded even funnier with his own accent mixed in.

For dinner, we had thin-crust pizza at a place called Panjo's. Daddy said that it was his favorite and that he ate there a lot. He said the last time he'd been there, he'd come with a woman from work, on a date. He said he'd liked her quite a bit until she took out a cigarette. Then he realized she was stupid. I thought she was stupid, too, not because she smoked, but because she'd gone on a date with Daddy.

That night, on the vinyl bed, I thought about my future. I imagined it as day after day of misery. I decided nothing good would ever happen to me, and I began to fantasize about Barry. I fantasized that he would come and rescue me from my father, then we would move back to Syracuse, only without telling my mother. We would live in a house on the other side of town, and I could wear whatever I wanted to the breakfast table.

In the morning, Barry hadn't arrived yet. It was just my father, standing in the doorway and whistling like a bird. "I don't really like that," I said, and he laughed and did it again.

That day, we went to see more model homes. And more over the weekend. On Sunday night, Daddy asked me which one I liked best, and I picked the cheapest one, in Charming Gates. He said he agreed, and a few weeks later we moved in. It was a nice place with four bedrooms -- one for Daddy, one for me, one for an office, and one for a guest room. Daddy and I each had our own bathroom. The name of my wallpaper was "adobe," since it looked like all these little earthen houses, and my sink and countertop were cream with gold glitter trapped underneath. It was my responsibility to keep my bathroom clean, and Daddy bought me a can of Comet for under the sink.

Daddy's bathroom was twice the size of mine. It connected to his room and had two sinks, plus a walk-in closet with one rack on top of the other, just like at the dry cleaner's. Some of his suits were even in dry-cleaner bags. His toilet was in a little room with its own separate door, and right away, after we moved in, it started to smell like pee. He didn't have a bathtub like I did, but he had a shower stall with a door that made a loud click when you shut it.

There were formal and informal living rooms, as well as a formal dining room and a breakfast nook. We started using everything for what it was named for. Breakfast in the breakfast nook, dinner in the dining room, TV in the informal living room (which also had the fireplace), and guests in the formal living room at the front of the house.

Our first guests were the next-door neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Vuoso and their ten-year-old son, Zack. They came over with a pie Mrs. Vuoso had baked. Daddy invited them to sit down on his brown velvet couch, then brought them all hot tea, even though they hadn't asked for it. "Oh my," Mrs. Vuoso said, "tea in a glass."

"This is how we serve it in my country," Daddy said.

Mrs. Vuoso asked him what country that was, and Daddy told her. "Imagine that," she commented, and Daddy nodded.

"You must have some interesting opinions on the situation over there," Mr. Vuoso said. He was a very clean-looking man, with short, glossy brown hair and a black T-shirt. He wore jeans that looked ironed, and had very big arm muscles. The biggest I'd ever seen. They got in the way of his arms lying flat at his sides.

"I certainly do," Daddy said.

"Maybe I'd like to hear them sometime," Mr. Vuoso said, only it sounded like he didn't really want to hear them at all.

"Not today," Mrs. Vuoso warned. "No politics today." She wore a tan skirt and flat shoes. Her face was young, but her short hair was totally gray. I had to keep reminding myself that she was Mr. Vuoso's wife, and not his mother.

"Do you know how to play badminton?" Zack asked me. He sat between his parents on the couch, his legs sticking straight out in front of him. He looked a little like his father, with short brown hair and neat jeans.

"Sort of," I said.

"Do you want to play now?" he asked.

"Okay," I said, even though I didn't. I was more interested in staying with the grown-ups. I kept wondering if Mr. Vuoso was going to beat up Daddy.

The Vuosos had a badminton net in their backyard, and Zack kept hitting the birdie into my boobs and laughing. "Cut it out," I finally told him.

"I'm just hitting it," he said. "I can't help where it lands."

I let him do it a few more times, then I quit.

"Want to do something else?" he asked.

"No thanks," I said, walking to his side of the net and handing him the racquet.

We went back to my house, where the Vuosos were just getting ready to leave. "Who won?" Mr. Vuoso asked.

"I did," Zack said. "She quit."

"We don't say she when the person is right beside us," Mrs. Vuoso said.

"I don't remember her name," Zack said.

"Jasira," Mr. Vuoso said. "Her name is Jasira." He smiled at me then, and I didn't know what to do.

After they left, Daddy told me that Mr. Vuoso was a reservist, which meant he was in the army on the weekends. "This guy is something else," Daddy said, shaking his head. "He thinks I love Saddam. It's an insult."

"Did you tell him you don't?" I asked.

"I told him nothing," Daddy said. "Who is he to me?"

There was a pool in Charming Gates, and Daddy felt strongly that we should be using it. He said he wasn't paying all of this money just so I could sit around in the air-conditioning. I told him I didn't want to go, but when he asked me why, I was too embarrassed to say. It was my pubic hair. There was getting to be more and more of it, and some of it came out the legs of my bathing suit. I'd begged my mother to teach me how to shave, but she said no, that once you started, there was no stopping. I cried about this all the time, and my mother told me to can it. I told her that the girls in gym class called me Chewbacca, and she said she didn't know who that was. Barry said he knew who it was and that it wasn't very nice, but my mother told him that since he didn't have any kids of his own, he could go ahead and butt out.

Then one night, when my mother had parent/teacher conferences, Barry called me into the bathroom. He was standing there in his sweats and a T-shirt, holding a razor and a can of shaving cream. "Put your bathing suit on," he said. "Let's figure out how to do this." So I put my bathing suit on and stood in the tub, and he shaved my pubic hair. "How's that?" he asked when he was finished, and I said it looked good.

When it came time to shave again, Barry asked if I remembered how to do it, or if I needed him to show me one more time. I told him I needed him to show me, even though I did remember. It just felt nice to stand there and have him do such a dangerous and careful thing to me.

My mother would never have found out except that after a while, the tub got clogged. She called the plumber, and when he used his snake, all that came up were my black curly hairs. "That happens sometimes," he said. "It ain't always the hair on your head." Then he charged my mother a hundred dollars to pour some Liquid-Plumr down the drain.

"Take off your pants," she said when he left, and I did. There was no use fighting her.

"Did I tell you you could shave?" she asked. "Did I?"

"No," I said.

"Get me the razor," she said, and I told her I didn't have one, that I'd snuck and used Barry's. When he came home, she made me apologize to him for taking his property without asking. "That's okay," he said, and my mother grounded me for a month.

Then, a week later, Barry broke down and told her the truth. That he had shaved me himself. That he had been shaving me for weeks. That he couldn't seem to stop shaving me. He said the whole thing was his fault, but my mother blamed me. She said if I hadn't always been talking about my pubic hair, this would never have happened. She said that when Barry had first offered to shave me, I should've said no. She said there were right and wrong ways to act around men, and for me to learn which was which, I should probably go and live with one.

Finally Daddy forced me to go swimming. I figured he would probably like all my pubic hair, since it made me look ugly. But then, when we got to the pool and I took my shorts off, he said, "This bathing suit doesn't even cover you."

"Yes, it does," I said, looking down at the low-cut legs.

"No, it doesn't," he said. "You're falling out of it. Put your shorts back on immediately."

I put my shorts back on and sat on my towel, watching Daddy swim laps back and forth in the single lane that had been roped off for adults. Once, a little kid got confused and drifted under the lane divider, and Daddy had to stop in midstroke. I thought he would probably yell at the kid, but he just smiled and waited for him to get out of the way. I saw then that everything would be fine between me and Daddy if only we were strangers.

School started, and a lot of the janitors, who were Mexican, talked to me in Spanish. I couldn't really understand them, but I signed up for Spanish class so I could learn. Then Daddy made me change to French, since that was the only other language his family back in Lebanon spoke, and maybe one day I would get to meet them. I didn't talk very much in any of my classes, except when the teachers called on me. When the other kids heard my accent, they asked where I was from, and I said New York. They said, "New York City?," and since they were kind of excited about that, I said yes.

I got a job babysitting Zack Vuoso after school. Mrs. Vuoso worked in the billing department of a doctor's office, and Mr. Vuoso ran his own copy store at the local shopping center. He came home at a little after six, and she came home later, around seven. They called the couple of hours I spent with Zack each afternoon "keeping him company."

It made Zack pretty mad to have a babysitter. He was always pointing out that I was only three years older than he was, and also, when we played together on the weekends, his parents didn't pay me anything. "That's because they're home on the weekends," I said, but he was still insulted.

To make it seem like he wasn't being babysat, he had an idea one day to go and visit his father at work. I didn't want to, but Zack just started walking, so I followed him. I thought for sure Mr. Vuoso would fire me on the spot for not doing my job, but he seemed happy to see us. "Just in time," he said, and he put us to work in the back room, collating packets about how to knit a Christmas stocking.

After a while, Zack got bored and starting xeroxing different parts of his body. He stuck his face under the lid, then a hand, then a hand flipping the bird. "Maybe you shouldn't do that," I said, watching this, and he pulled his pants down and xeroxed his butt. Then he brought all the copies over and started collating them with the knitting packet. When Mr. Vuoso came back to check on us, he asked what was the meaning of all of this. I said I was sorry, and Mr. Vuoso said, "Did you make these pictures?" I shook my head, and he said, "Then you have nothing to be sorry about." He told Zack that he could go ahead and redo all the packets from scratch by himself, and that we would be up front waiting for him when he was done.

I didn't know what to say to Mr. Vuoso at the front of the store. Sometimes a customer came in and I didn't have to say anything; other times I just sat there on the stool he'd given me, trying not to be so quiet. I knew from Daddy that it was bad to be quiet. Except other times, when I talked, he didn't like that either. The worst thing about him was that his rules were always changing.

Finally I said to Mr. Vuoso, "I'm sorry I'm so quiet."

He laughed. He'd just taken an order for a thousand business cards, and was finishing up the paperwork. "I'll tell you what," he said. "There's nothing worse than talk for the sake of talk."

I nodded, then relaxed a little. It was nice to watch Mr. Vuoso do his job. He didn't seem to notice that I was there, and I was glad. I was tired of being noticed.

When Zack finally finished up his packets, we closed the store and rode home in the Vuosos' minivan. Mr. Vuoso told me to sit up front, even though Zack had called shotgun, and when he started kicking the back of my seat, his father told him to cut the shit. For a joke, Mr. Vuoso pulled into my driveway and dropped me off, even though we lived next door to each other. He said, "Zack and I are going to have a talk tonight about authority. I think you'll find that tomorrow will be a better day." Then he leaned over and opened my door for me.

The next day, Zack only seemed angrier. We played badminton, and he kept hitting me in the boobs. When I told him I was quitting, he called me a towelhead and stormed in the house. I went inside to find him, but he wasn't in the living room. "Zack!" I called, but he didn't answer. I went upstairs then and found him in the guest room, sitting on the edge of the bed and looking at aPlayboy.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Leave me alone," he said, without looking up.

The closet door was open and I saw a whole stack of magazines in there. Some of Mr. Vuoso's army uniforms hung from the rod above. "C'mon, Zack," I said. "Put that away."

"Why?" he said. "I want to look at it."

"You're too young."

"Don't you want to look at it?" he asked.

"No."

"Then you can go downstairs," he said. "You can go watch TV."

I went downstairs and turned the TV on, but I couldn't find a show I liked, so I went back up to the guest room. "Okay," I said to Zack, "put it away."

"Look at this," he said, and he held up a picture of a woman who was riding a horse naked.

"That's stupid," I said.

He shrugged and went back to flipping through the pages. After a moment, I walked over to the closet and got my own magazine. I took it back to a wicker chair with me and opened it up to the beginning. There was already a woman without a shirt on in the Table of Contents. I closed the magazine again, then opened it back up to the middle, where the centerfold was. I didn't unfold it, but I looked at the pictures on the pages before and after it. The woman had a funny haircut between her legs. A thin strip that ran up the middle, like a Mohawk. She was wearing clothes, but they were pushed aside so you could see her private parts. There was some writing next to the pictures, different opinions that the woman had about men and dating and food that she liked. Then there was the name of the man who had taken the pictures. When I saw this, I closed the magazine again and put it back in the closet. I went downstairs and sat in the living room. Soon Zack came down, too.

"Did you put everything back the way it was?" I asked him.

He nodded, then lay down on the couch.

"You can't look at the magazines anymore," I told him.

"I can do whatever I want, towelhead."

"Stop calling me that," I said.

"Why?" he said. "You're a towelhead, aren't you?"

"No," I said, even though I didn't know what a towelhead was.

"Your dad is," he said. "If your dad is, then so are you."

I got it then, only it seemed stupid, since Daddy didn't wear a towel on his head. He was a Christian, just like everyone else in Texas. One summer, when I was seven, he'd taken me to the Arab church and had me baptized in a bathtub. I'd cried for days beforehand, scared that I would have to be naked in front of a bunch of people I didn't know, but the priest gave me a robe to wear. In the car on the way home, Daddy made fun of me for worrying about nothing, and I knew then that he'd known about the robe all along.

Zack fell asleep on the couch, and I went back upstairs to make sure there weren't anyPlayboys lying around. I was disappointed when there weren't, so I went to the closet and took one out. I sat down on the edge of the bed and opened it up to the centerfold, this time unfolding it. I was starting to get used to the pictures a little. They didn't shock me as much as they had earlier. I especially liked the ones where the women had hardly any pubic hair. If I squeezed my legs together when I looked at them, I got a good feeling.

Mr. Vuoso came home and asked if I'd had any problems with Zack, and I told him no. "That's what I like to hear," he said, reaching for his wallet. I thought I might feel more nervous around him now that I knew what kind of magazines he read, but I didn't. Instead, I felt more comfortable. I felt like he didn't think there was anything wrong with breasts or bodies at all.

When I got home, there was blood in my underwear. At least I thought it was blood. It was kind of orange and rusty. I got on the phone and described it to my mother, and she said, "That's definitely blood."

"What do I do?" I said. It was the one thing I'd been most afraid of, getting my first period with Daddy. The night before I'd left Syracuse, my mother had given me a couple of her pads, but they weren't going to last.

"What do you mean, what do you do? Just put on a pad and tell Daddy when he gets home. He knows what a period is."

"Can't you tell him?"

"Why would I tell him?"

"I just don't want to talk to him about it."

"Why not? You're going to have to talk about it sometime."

"You don't understand," I said. "Daddy doesn't like my body."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I don't know."

"You're making a big deal out of nothing," she said. "Pull yourself together."

We hung up, and I went to my bathroom and put on one of the pads. As I walked around the house, I kept thinking I could hear it making little crinkling noises in my underpants. They'd shown us a movie in school saying that this was a special day, but mostly I just felt like a baby in a diaper.

When Daddy pulled into the driveway at seven o'clock, I met him at the back door. "Hi," I said.

"Hello, Jasira," he mumbled. Daddy was rarely happy at the end of the day. The people at NASA bothered him since they didn't work as hard as he did. It was best to stay out of his way and let him cook dinner by himself, only I was worried about my pad supply.

"Daddy," I said, as he set down his briefcase, "I need to talk to you about something."

"Not now," he said, untying his shoes. Then he headed for the kitchen and got a beer from the fridge.

I went in the bathroom to check my pad, which was beginning to fill up. Plus, my stomach hurt. Not my real stomach, but the part below it. It felt like someone was reaching a hand inside of me and squeezing something they shouldn't. I went back out in the kitchen and said, "Daddy?"

He was unwrapping a piece of steak and listening to a small radio on the counter. He probably heard me, even though he didn't say anything. I stood there for a while, waiting for his news report to end, then said, "Daddy?" again.

He sighed. "What is it, Jasira?"

"I have to talk to you about something."

"Just say it, would you?" he said. "I don't need all the introductions."

"Okay," I said, taking a deep breath. "I got my period."

"Your period?" he said. Finally he looked at me. "You're too young to get your period."

"I'm thirteen," I said.

He shook his head. "My God."

"I called Mom. She said to tell you."

"Well," he said, "what do you need? Do you need to go to the store?"

"Yes."

"Right now?"

"I think so."

He took off his apron and went to put his shoes back on. In the car, he said, "You can't wear tampons until you're married. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"

I nodded, even though I wasn't sure I did.

"Tampons are for married ladies," he said.

We passed the pool, which stayed lit from underwater at night. It always seemed sad to me that it was closed when it looked the prettiest.

I had hoped that he would give me money at the drugstore and let me go in by myself, but he turned the car off and got out. In the feminine hygiene aisle, he said, "Let's see," and started pulling down all different kinds of pads. Finally he turned to me and said, "Would you describe your situation as light, medium, or heavy?"

"I don't know," I said.

"What do you mean, you don't know?"

"Can't I pick them out, Daddy?"

"Why?" he said. "What's the problem?"

"Nothing."

"You're not going to wear tampons, if that's what you're thinking."

"I don't want to wear tampons."

"When you're married, you can buy all the tampons you want. Right now, you'll wear pads."

A thin, older saleslady came over to see if we needed any help. "We're fine, thank you," Daddy said.

I looked at her, and she smiled at me. "These for you?" she asked.

I nodded.

"Well," she said, reaching for a green box, "this is the kind my daughter likes."

I took the box from her and started reading the side panel.

"What's wrong with these?" Daddy asked, showing the lady his box.

"They're just a little thicker. Not as comfortable."

He looked like he didn't believe her.

"Can I get these?" I asked, holding out my box.

Daddy took them from me and said, "How come they're so expensive?"

The lady put on a pair of glasses that were hanging on a chain around her neck. "Well," she said, looking at the price sticker, "that's probably the comfort issue I was referring to earlier."

"What a rip-off," Daddy said.

"You getting cramps?" the lady asked me, and I nodded again. "Here," she said, handing Daddy a box of Motrin. "Give her these."

"We have plenty of aspirin at home," Daddy said, putting the pills back on the shelf, but the woman grabbed them and gave them back.

"I'm telling you," she said, "she's going to need these. Aspirin won't work." Then she took the box of thick pads out of Daddy's arms and put that back on the shelf, too.

I could see he was mad at her, only there was nothing he could really do about it. In the car on the way home, though, he told me that from now on, I could pay for my own feminine hygiene. He said he hadn't realized how expensive this stuff was going to be, and anyway, now that I was working for the army, I could afford it. That was how he referred to my job at the Vuosos'. It still bothered him that Mr. Vuoso thought he loved Saddam. If there was anything he didn't appreciate, Daddy said, it was people making assumptions about him.

That night in bed, I fantasized again that Barry would come and save me. I figured he probably wouldn't, but still, thinking about him always made me feel better. He was someone I knew for sure liked me. Even more than he liked my mother. He liked me so much that she had to send me away, since she was jealous. This was my favorite part. The part where no matter what happened, I was better than my mother. Boys liked me better than they liked her.

In art class the next day, when I pulled my drawing tablet out of my backpack, a maxi-pad fell out with it. I tried to hide it, but it was too late. The three boys at my worktable had already seen it. They grabbed it and started tossing it around, while I tried to get it back. Then one of them opened the packet, pulled off the adhesive strip, and started wearing it on his forehead. Mrs. Ridgeway told him to take it off, and he did, but then he put red watercolor on it. A rumor started going around that it was real blood, and that I was such a dirtball that I carried around used sanitary napkins.

I didn't have any pads left then, so I went in the bathroom and put a bunch of toilet paper in my underwear. I cried a little, and one of the lady janitors heard me. "You okay in there?" she asked. I told her the problem, and she said for me to wait. A couple of minutes later, she came back and passed a tampon under my door. "I don't think I can wear that," I said.

"Sure you can," she said. "It's very small."

Then she stood outside the stall, asking a million times whether I'd gotten it in yet. "Just relax," she told me, and finally it slipped inside.

When I came out and she saw it was me, she started talking in Spanish, and I had to tell her that I couldn't understand. "Your parents don't speak Spanish at home?" she asked, and I said no, and she shook her head like it was the saddest thing in the world.

For the rest of the day, I thought a lot about what Daddy had said -- that you had to be married to wear tampons. I guessed he meant that when you got married, you had sex, and when you had sex, it made more room for a tampon. Only there was already some room now. The lady janitor had said there would be, and she had been right. I started to wonder what other wrong things he had told me.

After school, Zack asked if I wanted to look at magazines, and I said okay. He sat with his back to me on the edge of the bed, and I sat in the wicker chair. I read all the interviews with the women very closely, hoping they'd talk about something important, like getting your period. But it was more of the same -- descriptions of how they liked to have sex with their boyfriends, or how many times a week they liked to do it, or what color hair their boyfriends should have. I didn't realize I was pressing my legs together until Zack turned around and said, "Stop creaking the chair."

The women also talked about having orgasms, which I didn't understand. I assumed it was the feeling I got when I pressed my legs together, only that didn't seem like such a big deal. As far as I could tell, it was just a nice sensation, like when Barry had shaved me. Not some kind of actual event.

"Look!" Zack said at one point, and he came over to show me a picture of a woman with light brown skin and dark brown nipples. There was a headline above the picture that said ARABIAN QUEEN.

"So?" I said.

"She's a towelhead, just like you."

"Stop saying that," I said. "It's not nice."

He took the magazine back. "Maybe you could be in Playboy someday. You have big boobs."

I shook my head, remembering the names of all those men photographers.

"My dad even thinks you're pretty," he said, heading back to his spot on the bed.

"He does?"

Zack nodded. "He says you're going to have a lot of boyfriends, and your dad's going to lock you up."

"He is not," I said, feeling alarmed.

"Wait and see," Zack warned.

That afternoon, when Mr. Vuoso came home, I felt more nervous than usual. "Hi, Jasira," he said, and I said, "Fine, thank you." Zack thought this was the funniest thing he'd ever heard and wouldn't stop laughing. Even Mr. Vuoso laughed, but it wasn't mean. He just said, "Well, you're getting a little ahead of me there, but good. I'm glad you're fine." Then he went in the kitchen.

"You can go now," Zack said.

"I know when I can go," I told him.

At home, I checked my underwear. There were a few blood spots, so I put a pad on for safety. I didn't want to take the tampon out yet. Not until Daddy came home and I could walk around in front of him while I was wearing it.

"Stop walking everywhere," he told me later that night.

"Sorry," I said, and I took a seat in the breakfast nook.

"Don't you have homework?" he asked. He was standing at the kitchen counter, fixing our dinner. Tonight it was weird Middle Eastern food.

"I already did it," I said.

"Well," he said, "I'm listening to the radio right now."

"I'll be quiet."

After a moment, he said, "How's your period?"

"Fine."

"Did your cramps go away?"

"Uh-huh."

"Your mother used to have cramps," he said. "It was like she was dying or something."

"Mine weren't that bad," I said.

"I always thought she was lying about it," he said. "To get attention."

I nodded. I had actually seen her like this and thought the same thing.

"I would ignore her, and she would get mad at me and say I was heartless. I'm not heartless. I just know a liar when I see one."

I thought about my tampon then, and how he didn't really know a liar at all.

"Come and help me chop this salary," he said, which was what he called both the vegetable and his paycheck, and I said okay.

After dinner, I went and took the tampon out. It was pretty soaked, and a lot of other blood fell into the toilet with it. I had to use extra toilet paper, and when I flushed, the water wouldn't go down. I didn't know what to do, so I yelled, "Daddy! Help!" He ran in, saw what was happening, then ran out again. By the time he came back with the plunger, pink water was overflowing onto the beige carpet.

"Jesus Christ," he said, starting to plunge. This sent more water and bits of toilet paper onto the rug. Soon, though, the bowl began to drain. At the end, it made a little gurgle, then shot out a teeny bit of clear water. "Go get me a plastic bag," Daddy said, and I did, and he put the dirty plunger inside it. Then he pointed to the floor and said, "What's that?"

I looked down and saw my tampon. It wasn't as bloody as it had been when I'd taken it out, but it had still clearly been used.

"Pick it up," Daddy ordered.

I reached down and grasped its cotton body. I didn't really want to touch it with my bare hands, but Daddy was blocking the toilet paper.

"Where did you get that?" he demanded.

"At school," I said. "Some kids -- "

"What did I tell you about tampons?"

"That they're for married ladies."

"Are you married?" he asked.

"No," I said.

He looked at me for a second, then said, "Follow me." In the kitchen, he opened the cupboard under the sink so I could throw the tampon away. "Now take the trash out," he said, and I did, and when I got back to the house, the door was locked. I went around to the front, but it was the same thing. I rang the doorbell, but no one answered.

It was hard to know what to do then. I checked the car doors, but they were locked, too. I thought about going over and ringing the Vuosos' doorbell, but I worried that somehow, if they knew that my father had locked me out, they would fire me.

In the end, I decided to take a walk to the pool. I remembered that there was a pay phone just outside the locker rooms, and I used it to call my mother collect. She accepted the charges, then asked what the hell was going on down there.

"I'm locked out," I said, and I started to cry.

"Well," she said, "your father just called and said you ran away."

"I didn't run away," I told her. "He locked me out, and I went to the pay phone to call you."

"Where's the pay phone?" she asked.

"At the pool."

"You shouldn't be calling me," she said. "You should be calling your father. He has no idea where you are."

"But he locked me out!"

"Listen to me, Jasira. You and I both know your father has problems. He overreacts. That means you have to adjust your behavior to take that into account. If he locks you out, you're just going to have to wait a while until he lets you back in. Do you understand me? I mean, I just can't be getting these phone calls all the time. What's the point of you even living there if I have to fix everything?"

"I don't want to live here. I want to come home."

"You haven't given it enough of a chance."

"I have," I said. "I gave it a big chance."

"What you need to ask yourself in a situation like this," she said, "is, Why did Daddy lock me out? Have you asked yourself that?"

"Yes," I lied.

"Really? Have you really?"

"No," I said.

"Because if Daddy tells you that you shouldn't be wearing tampons, and then you wear tampons, what do you think is going to happen?"

"What's wrong with wearing tampons?" I said.

"Well," she said, "that's not really the question, is it? The question is, What's wrong with wearing tampons when Daddy explicitly told you not to? Because there's definitely something wrong with that. Just like there's something wrong with shaving when your mother tells you not to."

I didn't say anything.

"Or asking someone else to shave you," she said.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"I don't want to talk about it," she said.

"All right."

"Hang up now and call Daddy. He'll come and get you."

I hung up, but I didn't call Daddy. Instead, I stood there in the passageway between the men's and women's locker rooms, pretending this was my house. The soda machine next to the pay phone hummed like a refrigerator. The smell of chlorine reminded me of the Comet I used to scrub my sink.

On the walk home, I fantasized that something terrible would happen to me. That my body would be found after a long search, and that my parents would feel awful about it for the rest of their lives. But nothing happened. I made it home safely. And though the front door was still locked, the back was now open.

Copyright © 2005 by Alicia Erian

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