Nisha K. Sethi

A Line Before The Other

by Dina Hendawi 

Artist: Nisha K. Sethi

“When are we going to stop calling these terrorists the fringe and realize that they’re the mainstream.”

Everyone around the staff table is uncomfortably quiet.

Trent is talking to Allen, but really directing the conversation towards us. It is hard to tell if he is baiting us for his own amusement. There is a glint in his eye, however, that reveals a taste for destruction.

“Am I the only person at this table that will admit it?”

Allen glances at me and Camille. He thinks we should speak. Camille is steadying herself, gathering information, noting the precise moment that Trent will present himself fully. She slept with him last Tuesday. There was a word he used that did not sit right with her.

Body,” she told me.

“How did he use it?”

You’ve got fuckin’ body.

I could pinpoint it then – his gaze on her body. The way he interpreted her curves, relishing his hands on her brown skin.

“Why didn’t you stop?”

She shrugged. “It’s not like I’m going to marry him.”

“That wasn’t real desire, Camille.”

She hated when I became didactic. She called it an irksome consequence of our profession as teachers. I tried not to be offended, knowing when she employed the inclusive we or us, she was really saying you.

“I’m not judging you if that’s what you’re thinking,” I said, before I realized it – and so did she: I was judging her.

“He’s not the first guy that tried to own me,” she said dismissively.

I intoned to show my disdain. Cam-ILLE. She knew it and reciprocated with a kind of backhand. Tit for tat. BAS-ma.

“It’s just not that simple Trent,” Allen argues, his eyes darting between us, waiting for us to take our place. The water cooler gurgles in the corner.

Trent changes his posture, puffing his chest. Camille and I read it as a tactic between men.

Allen is the sort to dismiss bravado. He has a feminist mother after all.

Trent holds me and Camille in his keen line of sight before exacting his response. I examine his facial pockmarks, imagining his pivot from adolescence to adulthood. The anxious boy becomes the sneering, self-assured man.

“You are being politically correct, Allen, but not the least bit honest.”

Allen gets flushed when he drinks too much and when he knows he is being watched. He asked Camille out once on a proper date.

A movie and some dinner. Trent lives in the same building and showed up at her apartment asking for some beer. She let him in and they talked for less than an hour. He put his hand on her lap and when she did not remove it, he jammed his tongue in her mouth.

“What could he have possibly said that interested you?” I asked Camille once.

Again she shrugged. “You tire me Basma. Stay the virgin, but it won’t make your life better.”

“You just can’t generalize. We teach Muslim kids for god’s sake,” Allen says, growing flustered.

“You think we are teaching them? We were hired to represent the American standard in Dubai. The American standard but with conditions,” Trent retorts.

Trent’s lack of reluctance troubles me. I wonder if sociopaths exist easily amongst us.

Allen feels Trent’s statement does not warrant a response and remains silent. I appreciate for only a moment what Allen is hoping to do, but Camille and I know what this is: White Savior Warfare.

It never really is about being the hero.

“Don’t you see it? We are paid to represent a brand. An American education. The best of the best. But we can’t dare say what’s wrong about this place – about these people.”

Camille has heard enough. I feel her body slacken beside me. I put my hand on hers.

“Trent, all Muslims are not terrorists,” Allen asserts.

“Not all – but a majority of them support terrorist sentiment.” Allen is amazed. He alerts us both to his utter amazement. He drops into silence again, incredulously looking between me and Camille.

“I am interested to know what you girls think,” Trent says, smugly.

Allen looks resigned, but also waits to hear from us.

The school bell rings. The sounds of students herding themselves through the halls spur an instinct within us to get up and move. It is a game of chicken. None of us move.

I can sense that Camille is quibbling with herself. I remind myself to never be that person that says “I told you so.” She deserves a better friend than that.

“No, you’re not,” I say to Trent.

He falters. “Pardon?”

“You are not interested in what we think. And we are not girls.”

My hatred for him grows more wretched as I speak. A historical volume of degradation begins to flow through me. Raghead, Camel Jockey, Arab Scum, Osama, Terrorist. I feel I could scream.

“Sure I’m interested.”

“Let me save you the trouble. In a moment you are going to proclaim that you are not a racist,” I say.

I am a little satisfied with the way Trent flinches. Allen offers a look of condolence to Camille.

She does not reciprocate knowing what he wants more. I grow tired of it all.

“You got next period?” I ask Camille.

Trent charges at me with the gusto of his semi-bruised ego.

“I’d like to finish this.” His voice is hard, menacing.

“I’m not interested in what you would like,” I say, pulling Camille’s hand.

“Camille?” Trent gives her a look of faux-sincerity. I feel a jerk in my chest and decide I will never marry.

Camille recalls the way he thrusted her body around in bed. She hated it, but did not stop him. She now peers at his face, allowing her revulsion to surface. His nose is bigger than she remembered.

“I’ve got to go,” Camille exclaims and then encourages me to move ahead.

“Me too,” Allen says, pulling his carrier bag over his shoulder. He is still red-faced.

“You all have just confirmed that I am right,” Trent says, self-satisfied

The second bell rings. I hear a student yelp in the hall. Camille tightens her hold on my hand before turning back around.

“Do you know why I let you have me?” she nearly shrieks.

Trent leans back, smiling, expressing his triumph to Allen.

“It is because I hate you.”

I will myself not to cry. Camille never told anyone but me of the time she lost herself. It was her sophomore year at Brown University. He told her he had never been with a Muslim girl before.

She had to wait in the emergency clinic, her body torn below. The doctor could see what had happened, but Camille refused to talk to the police.

“Really? I’m not sure I believe that,” Trent challenges. He is toying with her. Sadistic foreplay.

Camille can see his gratification and begins to heave with despair.

“Enough Trent,” Allen shields us. “Don’t be a dick.”

“I’m just engaging in a dialogue, Allen.”

I cross ahead of Allen. “Do you know where you stand in this world?”

Trent is enthralled. He wets his lips with anticipation for what I will say next.

“You live to degrade.”

Trent attempts to deflect. I press on before he can counter. I have to get the better of him.

“You are a waste.”

I disorient him – and he has to look away. I catch it then. A look in his eyes. A vulnerable center. Maybe some woman put his heart in a blender and rendered him hollow. Or maybe he learned to hate without ever knowing why.

The post-silence bears down on us all. Camille and Allen determinedly wait for Trent’s capitulation. I then have to say it – again and again.

“You are a waste.”

I am trembling with rage. Camille moves her hand to my arm – she knows my pain too. We are sisters in it.

“Let’s go Basma. We have to go.”

Dina Hendawi 

Dina Hendawi is the recipient of the Madalyn Lamont Award in Creative Writing and has publications in The Bangalore Review and CC&D Magazine as well as upcoming work in Confluence and The Gravity of the Thing. She lives in Germany with her husband and two children. 





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