When You’re Thirteen, Everything is a Big Deal
Or at least, it feels that way.
I am thirteen years old and I live in Saudi Arabia. I hate Saudi Arabia. I hate the fact that I have to cover everything when I go outside, hate that they won’t let me ride my bike where I want to. I hate my parents for moving here, as if this isn’t the worst place in the entire world to be a thirteen year old girl.
I act out. I wear weird things around the house: a Strawberry Shortcake costume, a color-blocked Speedo with a crop-top over it. I cut my hair, shearing it so short, my raw, white scalp peeks through in spots. I lock my door and scream. I memorize all the words to the Beastie Boys License to Ill album and shout them at my reflection in a full-length mirror. One day, by the kitchen sink, I call my mom a fruitcake. I don’t remember why I call her that, but I do remember that I make her cry. I am a monster.
My parents and I live on the second floor of a four-story white apartment building inside a walled compound. We live next door to one Turkish family, and upstairs from another. There are Turks everywhere here. Turkish kids, Turkish boys. We have a Betamax video player and on weekends, the boys come over to borrow American movies. Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop and the latest Rocky. The boys hate me. I equal parts hate and like them. Sometimes, I want to be them.
On New Year’s Eve, I talk back to one of them and he beats me up. I go flying in the playground, gravel everywhere. I force myself not to cry. When my parents ask me what happened, I lie, tell them I did it to myself. I still have the scar on my right elbow.
I am ugly. I am ugly and sad, and I write sad, ugly poems and leave them around the apartment for my parents to find. My parents think the poems are cute and this makes me furious. They want me to be an engineer. I want to run away from home.
You wouldn’t know this to see me at the American school for expats. At school, I am quiet and polite. I ask my parents to buy me brand-name t-shirts so I won’t get bullied. I still get bullied. I get bullied because of my hair, because I have a habit of talking out loud to myself sometimes. One morning, members of the cheerleading squad will circle me in the locker room. They will laugh and point and jeer at the smallness of my breasts until I cry and beg them to stop.
I have a handful of friends. They are expats like me, Muslim like I am. My favorite among them is Tara, and together we are on the school paper. The paper saves me. Tara saves me. She makes me laugh until my ribcage hurts. She has a dirty mind and a dirty mouth and she says the word ‘vagina’ like it’s no big deal.
Years and years later, she will get married in the ballroom of a hotel in Buffalo, and I will be there to see it. I will stand with her three brothers, still laughing but crying now, too, as she looks at me and pulls a face. All around her people clap, and sing in Urdu.
But in junior high, I don’t know what I know now. I don’t know things will get better. All I have is a tiny sense, the smallest of hopes, that there will be more to life than cheerleaders and playground gravel and burqas. All I have is the hope I will eventually amount to something, whatever that means.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month.