Photograph via Flickr by Nick Hall
I was in the bathroom stall at the Armenian chicken place in Anaheim when I overheard Sarah say to her even more annoying friend Abeer at the mirror, where they were both putting on gobs of makeup, “I’m just going to kill myself, habibti, if I don’t make the triple axel at the championships next month.”
“Yeah,” I thought, “I’m going to kill myself if I don’t lose twenty-seven pounds next month, you straight-haired, straight-nosed, shallow bitch.”
Of course, I didn’t lose any weight. I even gained a couple of pounds because I became a vegetarian to save the animals and started eating a lot of hummus and pumpkin seeds. But Sarah killed herself. Which didn’t make sense because she landed that triple axel perfectly. Twice. And won the championship.
She won in grand style. From the LA Times to all the local TV shows and trendy blogs, she was toted out as the first Arab-American-Palestinian-Muslim-Southern Californian-vegan-left-handed champion skater. I understood where all the Middle East and Southern California labeling was coming from, sometimes with exclamation marks after them—there wasn’t a whole lot of ice in either place, and there was no time in Palestine for figure skating, and so many other more logical ways to spend your time in Southern California. And I know Sarah hadn’t eaten meat or dairy since seventh grade. However, I’m not sure that Sarah was really left-handed. That was probably a story my aunt made up so she wouldn’t be shamed by having a daughter who always stuck out the wrong hand to shake hands.
But you couldn’t tell which hand Sarah favored when she waved at bystanders from all the parade floats she was asked to be on, usually wearing a rhinestone tiara, usually speaking on behalf of an organization that helps sick or poor kids and sponsored her last competition. She looked like another perfect young, beautiful, talented, primed-for-TV, all-American girl, which, trust me, is nothing newsworthy in Orange County.
She smiled for the cameras when TV reporters asked her questions like, “So is there a particular kind of freedom you feel on the ice as a Muslim female?”
Things changed when the journalists, via touting from all those useless Islamic and Arab civic organizations, discovered her Muslim defect. They loved it. That made her a big underdog story. In return for all the media coverage, she smiled for the cameras when TV reporters asked her questions like, “So is there a particular kind of freedom you feel on the ice as a Muslim female?”
Yesterday, she became the first Muslim-Palestinian-Arab-Southern California-vegan-left-handed champion skater to kill herself. That was the flaw mother lode, which was why there were many news trucks outside our house.
Inside our house, at Sarah’s condolences, things like the dishonor, the sorrow, the sin of suicide were all being whispered while my other cousins and I went around serving people Diet Coke and apricot juice. No one was talking about her success on the ice.
I offered Ramzi’s mom the lone mango juice on my tray. She wore a hijab and had thought Sarah should, too, if she were going to keep dating her son, who was going to Princeton in the fall to be an engineer.
My father had called earlier and said Ramzi was at the men’s condolences, which my uncle in Garden Grove was hosting. “How is Ramzi doing?” I asked his mom.
“Why?” she said, afraid. I couldn’t tell if she meant why was I asking about Ramzi (I think she was worried of someone else in Sarah’s family wanting to date her son, especially another one who didn’t wear a hijab and was kind of fat for a vegetarian) or if she was asking the big why—the “Why had Sarah killed herself?” why.
“She’s dead because she knew she and Ramzi would be apart soon, and she couldn’t bear the thought of him meeting someone else,” I felt like saying. I was just making this up from a Russian novel we were reading at school. I wanted to be able to say something aloud that would make sense, even if it weren’t the real why. But Ramzi’s mom scampered away before I could give her an answer.
“She was probably slipped those pills by a Muslim hatemonger,” I heard one mom tell my mom between two kisses on the cheeks. My mom was crying so much her eyes were shrunk all beady and bloodshot like a pistachio. I hadn’t known she felt that much for Sarah.
“Thank you,” my mom said to her because there was delusional comfort in knowing Sarah hadn’t done this on purpose. “I’ll tell my sister you said so.”
I went to the bathroom. It was locked so I waited my turn until Ramzi’s mom came out. She jumped back, like I had said boo.
“I hope it was clean enough for you,” I offered. “I scrubbed it myself this morning. My mom made me. With bleach.”
Palestine. It always comes back to Palestine in our family.
She squeezed herself past my twenty-seven extra pounds, and I went into the bathroom. There was a silver soap dish filled with seashells on the counter from when we all went to San Diego last year for another cousin’s wedding, months before Sarah became the first Muslim-Palestinian-Arab-Southern California-vegan-left-handed champion skater. Until almost dawn that night, Sarah was dancing and laughing along with everyone else. Except for one moment. I was hunkered down in a corner so no one could see me downing the half-finished beer my uncle had left at his table when I saw Sarah suddenly stop dancing, just like that—just stood there quietly, face blank, not feeling the rhythm of the music. Then Ramzi tapped her on the shoulder and she turned to him and smiled and started dancing again, like a wind-up ballerina does when you open a music box. Until today, I’d almost thought I’d imagined it all.
“Instead of killing herself for nothing, she should have gone to Palestine and killed herself for something,” I heard a woman waiting her turn say on the other side of the bathroom door.
Palestine. It always comes back to Palestine in our family. That lady on the other side of the door wasn’t being mean and nasty on purpose. Palestine was what had given the past three generations of our family its breath. But somehow it had failed Sarah because she didn’t have any breath now.
I wish Sarah had said, in that bathroom at the Armenian chicken place, “I’ll just kill myself, habibti, if I can’t do something to help Palestine.” Palestine always needed help, so living to help it could keep you alive forever. That would have been better than any old triple axel, at least that’s what our grandfather, who spent more than half his life in an Israeli prison, would have said.
But maybe Palestine could drown you in its sorrow? What if it were Palestine that had made her stop dancing that night in San Diego? Palestine was at least a more noble excuse than my Russian novel explanation.
Sarah and I were born in the same year and we had had almost nothing else in common since then, aside from our relatives and Palestine. But she had never held that against me, like I had held it against her. See, she was nice, on top of it all. That simple, dull word “nice.” I wish I hadn’t thrown away the gift certificate for the facial she’d gotten me last Christmas after I told her it must be nice to have such a dewy complexion. But I’m glad I’d lied and told her on my birthday, when she got me another one, that I’d used it. She said she could tell, which was obviously an untruth that I wished I’d responded to more gracefully. Maybe by giving her a gift certificate for a foot massage in return, which I’m sure skaters could always use.
Who knows? Then she and I could have become better friends, and she would have whispered to me the reason she had stopped dancing that night, and I would have told her it—whatever it was—would be all right. Then we could have gone on with life and saved Palestine together. We could have spent the rest of our lives trying, at least.
I flushed the toilet again so no one would hear me cry.
Alia Yunis is the author of the novel The Night Counter. She grew up in the U.S., Greece, and the Middle East, particularly Beirut during its civil war. She has worked as a filmmaker and journalist in several cities, especially Los Angeles. She currently teaches film and television at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.