stage daughter

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stage daughter
STAGE
DAUGHTER
Sheryl Sorrentino
Sheryl Sorrentino
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places,
events and incidents are either the products of the author’s
imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to
actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely
coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 Sheryl Sorrentino
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1484173228
ISBN-13: 978-1484173220
“Defiance” (Teen Monologue, Role of Rebellious Female) based
on monologue titled “One Way Street” published by Splash
Media Group, LLC (http://www.ispgroupinc.com/monologues/
free-monologues-onewaystreet.htm).
“Go to Your Room” meditation based on exercise generously
contributed to the public domain by personal development
coach Steve Pavlina (http://www.stevepavlina.com).
Sketch of Korey (Chapter Seventeen) describes a sketch of “The
Joker” by Cory Smith, whose art can be found at
www.corysmithart.com.
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Stage Daughter
DEDICATION
This book is dedicated to all the devoted teachers and
phenomenal superstars-in-training at Oakland School for the
Arts, a one-of-a-kind creative oasis in a fabulously diverse city I
happen to call home.
iii
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I don’t know whether it takes a village to raise a child, but it
definitely took a small posse to produce this book. My fourth
novel, Stage Daughter, could never have come into fruition
without the varied input and unique perspectives of my gracious
early readers (whose in-boxes I blew up with a dizzying number
of successive rewrites). All my love and thanks go to Courtney
Blair, Shelley Doty, Alretha Thomas, Yalda Vahdani, and Randy
Wilson, whose generous offering of time and honest feedback
guided me in the development of this work. Steve Brauer
deserves special thanks for sharing his expertise on police
protocol, as does my editor, Linda Foust, for working with me
on a limited budget and picking out all the “nits.”
I am especially grateful to the staff at CreateSpace for
checking and re-checking my endless file submissions.
On the home front, a big shout out goes to my beautiful
daughter, Michelle, a “tormented” pre-teen who found it in her
heart to furnish an authentic twelve-year-old’s voice to the early
“Razia” chapters, as well as the 4-1-1 on adolescent lingo and
metal bands (the musical kind). And last but not least, to
Richard, my forever partner in crime, thank you for making it
possible for me to “have it all.”
i
In loving memory of George.
Chapter One
Two Holes in One
I fingered the small gold stud in my ear, twisting it gently.
Then I slammed my locker and heaved my backpack onto
my shoulder. My Doc Martens clomped on the wood floor
as I headed toward my first class.
“Hey, Razia!” my friend Chantal called out, prancing
gracefully like the dancer she was, ponytail swishing like—
well, a pony’s. “What’s wrong?” she asked, noticing my
sour expression.
I shrugged, pulling open the classroom door. “I got a
second hole in my ears and my mom totally flipped out.
She was all like, ‘You’re ruining your chances as an actress!
Casting directors won’t hire a girl with holes lining her
ears. It shows up on camera!’ She’s so annoying,” I sighed.
“Plenty of actresses have multiple piercings. It’s not that big
of a deal!”
I dropped my backpack onto the floor with a thump
and sat down. Chantal propped her butt on the edge of my
desk.
“That sucks. Your mom sounds so—”
“Horrible? Crazy? Oh, I get it—deranged?”
“I was going to say uptight, but yours work, too.”
“You wanna hear the best part?” I asked.
Sheryl Sorrentino
“What?”
“I did it myself,” I bragged.
“No way!”
“Way. I tried to go to the jewelry store up the block at
lunch, but the guy told me I needed a parent’s permission.
Like, screw that!”
Chantal’s eyes widened. “How’d you do it—with a
sewing needle?”
“Nope. No needle—just the earrings. And some
Anbesol and ice. After that jerk jeweler blew me off, I
bought a bottle at the Rite Aid and grabbed a cup of cubes
from the student center. Then I faked out my P-E teacher by
claiming cramps and went to the girls’ bathroom. After I
numbed my earlobes, I made two dots with a fine-tipped
marker and drove the suckers straight in. And lemme tell
you, they didn’t go in easy—I had to push a lot.”
“Awesome. Did it hurt?”
“Well, duh! So what do you think?”
Chantal leaned in and inspected my lobes. “I guess
they look swag.”
“I’d say they look as good as the ones my mom had
done when I was a baby,” I answered. “Talk about a
hypocrite! Why’s it okay for her to get my ears pierced to
make me look all girly when I was too little to say anything
about it, but I’m not allowed to make one stupid decision
about my own body when I’m twelve years old?”
“But aren’t you scared they’ll get infected or
something?”
“Not if I clean ‘em with alcohol every morning.”
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The first bell rang. Chantal grinned and got up. “I
gotta go. I still need to put my stuff in my locker. See you
third period.” She twirled her way out the door. I dug
around in my backpack until I found my sketchbook. I
smoothed my hands over the duct-taped, green cover, then
flipped through the pages until I found a blank one. I
pulled out a pencil and began to sketch a girl with
shoulder-length hair, a long-sleeved shirt, and multiple
earrings.
“That’s really good,” I heard a voice from behind my
chair. I turned around and saw Korey looking over my
shoulder.
“Dude, how do you do that?” I asked, quickly closing
my sketchbook. I hadn’t realized I wasn’t the only one in
the classroom.
“I don’t wear big, clunky shoes,” he said, pointing at
my combat boots. He had on a pair of gray Converse
sneakers. “And that was really cool. Don’t be afraid to
show people your art. Why aren’t you in the fine arts
department, like me? I mean, you draw good enough.”
I sighed. “My mom wanted to be an actress before she
had me, so now she’s making me become one.” I shoved my
sketchbook into my backpack and zipped it closed. “It’s just
her weird mentality.”
“Well, that’s idiotic. Stand up to her! You wanna
draw? Tell her that.” He went back to his desk as the second
bell rang. Kids began milling in and taking their seats.
My math teacher, Mr. Wallace, entered with a crafty
grin on his face. “Okay class. By now you’ve had time to
recover from Winter Break, Version 2013. It’s a new year—
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Sheryl Sorrentino
time to buckle down. We’re having a pop quiz, so put your
books away!” he called out over the din of groaning voices,
chairs scraping tile and books hitting wood desks. Great, I
thought. I’m screwed. I’m totally gonna fail.
“You may listen to music, as long as no one else can
hear it,” Mr. Wallace continued, “but no calculators. Begin
as soon as you get your test.”
When I got mine, I turned it over and read the first
question:
“The grocery store parking lot holds 1,000 vehicles.
Four-fifths (4/5) of the parking spaces are for cars.
When you went to buy groceries, there were 600 cars
and some trucks in the parking lot. The parking lot was
3/4 full. How many trucks were in it?”
Okay. Don’t panic. That jerk Wallace probably just started
with a hard one to throw us off. Do like Mom said—move along.
“Justin is making snowballs to build a fort on winter
break. Justin can build 15 snowballs in an hour but 2
snowballs melt every 15 minutes. How long will it take
him to build 210 snowballs?”
I let out a tense breath. I wasn’t sure how to tackle this
one, either, and a glance at the problem beneath it gave me
zero comfort. All the other kids were writing furiously, yet
I sat frozen in my seat, just like those snowballs. So I did
what any desperate artist would do—I started to draw a
snowman on my test paper. I gave it a handlebar
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Stage Daughter
moustache of spotted snakes, and big breasts with
strawberries for nipples. Okay, that was sick, but at least
my pencil was moving like the rest of them. I suppressed a
giggle.
“Something funny, Razia?” Mr. Wallace called out.
“No,” I answered, not looking up from my paper.
“Then please do not make any sounds during this
exam.”
I knew this was where I was supposed to say, “Yes,
sir,” but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I hated
Wallace. That butt wipe was always emailing my mom any
time I did a little poorly on one of his stupid-ass quizzes.
Why did I need to know this crap, anyway? I wanted to
draw!
My eyes began filling with tears. I looked up at
Wallace staring straight at me. He looked away. I supposed
for him, breaking my spirit was better than an apology. I
returned my runny eyes to my now-blurry paper:
“The recipe for mint chocolate ice cream requires 2-1/2
cups of cream for 5 people. You need ice cream for 8
people. How much cream will you need?”
The room felt hot. My mind began to wander. I sure
could go for some ice cream right about now. Strawberry would
be nice—hey, just like the nipples! I was so screwed.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
Chapter Two
More Piercings, Please
“I still cannot get over the stunt you pulled!” I bustled
about the kitchen, trying to get dinner ready while seething
over Razia’s latest act of rebellion.
“I don’t see what the big deal is. All the kids at school
wear, like, five earrings in each ear. I’m the only dork
whose mother wouldn’t even let her have two.”
“Because you’re destined to become an actress—you’re
going to be a big star someday! And stars don’t have rows
of puncture marks lining their aural helixes like bullet holes
from a miniature firing squad.”
“But Mom, all the kids my age are gonna grow old
with our aural helixes looking like they’ve been punctured
by a miniature firing squad.”
I might be adept with the anatomy jargon (from
working as a chiropractic admin for the past five years), but
lately, my pitiful attempts to outwit my daughter have
failed miserably. Razzi always did have a phenomenal
memory. That was how I knew she was fated to become a
famous actress—she could remember lines after hearing
them only once. Most kids’ first words are “mama” or “dada.” But not my Raz. Granted, she didn’t have a “da-da” to
call out to. But Dudley had sauntered through the cat door
once while I was reading to my baby, and I’d coodled,
“Hey, kitty cat!” And wouldn’t you know, the next day
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Stage Daughter
when I was nursing, that damned cat jumped onto the
futon and my adorable, three-month-old let my milky boob
drop from her mouth, looked me dead in the eyes and said,
“Hey, keykat.” She was a freaking genius!
As for her looks, well, she might not be as drop-dead
gorgeous as I once was, but she was even more exoticlooking, due to her father’s Middle Eastern ancestry.
Arresting. Spellbinding. Different. With a little makeup and
a good plucking, she’d be stunning (at least after she filled
out a bit more).
“Multiple piercings will be passé in another few
years,” I scolded. “Same as tattoos. It’ll date you when you
get older. Besides, there’s simply no reason you need to
have five holes in each ear.”
“I don’t want five, necessarily. But a few more would
be nice,” she argued.
“Well, by ‘a few,’ how many do you mean, exactly?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Three or four?”
“Excuse me?” I stopped sprinkling garlic powder on
my mound of raw chicken and turned to face her. “All
together, or per ear?” I asked out of morbid curiosity.
She hesitated before answering. “Per.”
“You want three or four holes in each earlobe?”
“Three or four more, yeah.”
“Four more would make six, Raz,” I sighed, as
dismayed by her seeming amnesia with simple math as her
freakish notions about personal adornment. “And that ain’t
gonna happen, so you can just forget it. I should be rushing
you to the doctor right about now to make sure you don’t
get gangrene from maiming yourself. But I’m too tapped
out from the holidays to even afford that.” Dudley rubbed
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Sheryl Sorrentino
against my calf impatiently. “Now, would you mind
feeding this animal?”
“Why should I feed him? He’s your cat! You had him
before I was even born!”
True, I got the handsome, striped tabby before I had
Raz. He’d belonged to my landlady upstairs—one of four at
the time. But shortly after I’d moved into this tiny onebedroom “in-law” apartment in the Berkeley hills, he
decided he liked me better and adopted me.
I’d found this semi-subterranean apartment just a few
months before giving birth (after scouring the classifieds
and learning that an “in-law unit” was a small room or
apartment, often on the lower level but sometimes detached
from a house, designed to be used by visiting or dwelling
in-laws. Only in the tight San Francisco Bay Area housing
market, people more typically turned them into rental
units, often illegally. Thirteen years later, I still lived in the
guest quarters of a Julia Morgan craftsman-style house—
with that pesky cat and no in-laws.)
“Please, Razia. I’m trying to get dinner ready. Just
open a can and take care of him.”
“Okay! Sheesh!” She stomped through the kitchen into
the laundry I shared with my landlady as I swirled a
tablespoon of oil around in the pan. Dudley continued to
slither between my legs, as indifferent to Razia as she was
to him.
“Go! Git! Razzi’s gonna feed you!” I gave Dudley’s
floppy belly a gentle nudge with my foot. I heard the creak
of the small cabinet above the washing machine where I
stored the cat food. Then I heard the crackle of the pull-top
can. A second later, I smelled the foul odor of Trader Joe’s
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Stage Daughter
cat food—a bargain at sixty-nine cents a can for the turkey
giblet, and only forty-nine a can for the tuna—competing
with the aroma of my sizzling chicken. Dudley apparently
smelled it, too. He bopped over toward the washing
machine, his belly flapping from side to side as he trotted.
“So, can I, Mom?” Razzi reappeared, tossing the empty
can in the recycling bin, her eyes brimming with hope. “I
mean, after you catch up with your bills and stuff?”
“Can you what?”
“Get a few more piercings.”
“You mean you’re still obsessing over that? No! You
cannot!”
“Why not?” she whined, immediately crestfallen. With
her tall build, my daughter was rather mature-looking for
her age, except when she did that pouty thing with her
eyes. Sure enough, Razia infused them with tears, right on
cue. (That was the other reason I knew she was destined for
stardom. She could produce tears at the drop of a hat—or
an earring.) “You are so unfair!” she howled. “You never
care what I want!”
“How can you say that? I got you into that school,
didn’t I? I paid for coaching and took you on three
auditions, even after you burst into tears each time!
Another mother would have given up on you!”
“Another mother would have realized I don’t want to
be an actress! You know I want to draw, Mom. Why are
you making me act—because you wanted to?”
“No, because acting is your talent. You owe it to
yourself—and the world—to develop it. Besides, you’d
have no future as an artist. A successful actress can make
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Sheryl Sorrentino
millions of dollars. Even a character actress or soap opera
regular can do well for herself—look at Susan Lucci.”
“Who’s that?”
“She was a big daytime TV star, from—I dunno—
before I was born. She played Erica Kane on All My Children
for something like forty years.”
“Big deal.”
“It is a big deal! She’s starred in several Lifetime
original movies, too, and she even got a part on Hot in
Cleveland a couple of years ago, playing herself.”
“So?”
“So, she’s the perfect example of a steady working
actress with a huge following. Even at her age, she can still
land a role. I read in People Magazine she was the highest
paid actor in daytime television. She raked in over a million
bucks a year. Plus, even in her sixties, with just a nip here
and a tuck there, she’s still hot.”
“Yeah, but what has she done creative, besides remold
her face with plastic surgery?”
“C’mon, Raz. Most actresses would kill to have her
career. So she needed some outside intervention to stay
fresh now that she’s getting older, so what? There are
worse things in life than being able to afford plastic surgery
and putting a little effort into your looks.”
I glanced at the freakish dreadlocks dangling
practically to Razia’s nose (her most outlandish insurrection
to date before the piercing debacle). The rest of her wild
tresses were likewise dying to meld into ugly clumps if
only I’d let her skip a day of combing (personally, I kept my
own sleek hair close-cropped). I couldn’t tell you where she
got that coarse mane or those naturally blonde highlights.
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But then again, being mixed-race and adopted myself, I also
couldn’t tell you what weird genes lurked within my own
family tree.
She looked down at her tattered sneakers and scoffed,
“That shit’s for girly girls.” Then, half under her breath,
“I’m a lesbian.”
Whoa. I didn’t know which to address first—the
“consequence”-worthy cuss word or the assured profession
of sexual preference. Before I could decide, a raindrop-sized
oil globule popped me in the face. “Ow!” I screamed. The
cat appeared in the doorway, licking his paw. “What do
you mean, you’re a lesbian? You’re twelve years old! You
don’t know what you are yet!”
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” she answered
nonchalantly, turning on her heel and heading toward her
bedroom. “You’re one.”
“Young lady, you come back here this instant. You do
not get to speak to me like that and walk away.” She turned
around but remained in place. “I am not a lesbian,” I said,
taking two steps toward her. “And neither are you.”
“Then how come you’ve never had a boyfriend?” she
asked.
“Because I choose to focus my time and energy on
raising you,” I answered.
“Yeah? Well, what about my dad?”
“What about him?”
“Where is he? How come I can’t meet him? Why
doesn’t he get a say about how many holes I put in my
ears?”
I sighed. “I’ve explained this to you a dozen times,
Razzi. The man doesn’t know you exist. He has a life. It was
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just a brief thing that didn’t work out.” I blinked. “A foolish
mistake, is all it was. Not having you—I didn’t mean that.
Just . . . me thinking your father and I could ever be
anything to one another. Besides, he was rather religious
and uptight back then. I don’t think he’d approve of the
whole piercings-and-tats look on girls your age.”
“I’m beginning to think you made him up,” she said.
“Some fairy tale, to prove to the world you’re not gay. Tell
me the truth, Mom. Did you and your girlfriend use a
sperm bank?”
“No, honey. I didn’t go to a sperm bank. And I’ve
never had a girlfriend. Not that that’s any of your
business.”
“Was I a test-tube baby, then?”
“You mean like your cousin Aaron? No! You think I
could’ve afforded to go through all that, even if I’d wanted
to?”
“Your parents got money,” she challenged.
“True. But you don’t see them giving any of it to me.
Don’t you think if they paid for artificial insemination
they’d see their eldest grandchild more than once a year for
our annual Thanksgiving blow-up?”
She looked at me wide-eyed. “I want to meet him.”
“Who?”
“The yoga guy. I have a right to know my father.”
I gulped. “Sweetie, you can’t. I’m sorry.” I took her in
my arms even though she stiffened and didn’t hug me
back. “Look, baby, I don’t know where all this is coming
from, but trust me. It’s best we let that sleeping dog lie.”
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Chapter Three
Pi in the Sky
“A D Razzi? Really?” I gaped at my daughter with the
sternest expression I could muster, while her math teacher
twiddled a pencil between his thumb and forefinger. Three
hours ago, I’d been obliviously keying tedious patient
information into my computer at work when the bad news
hit my in-box:
“Your child received a failing grade on my
latest quiz. Please contact ORCA right away to
schedule a conference.”
“Don’t you get it, Mom? I hate math! I’m no good at
it!”
“But you’ve always been good at math! You scored,
like, the highest grade on that statewide test you took
before starting middle school!”
“Middle school math does become notably more
difficult,” Mr. Wallace chimed in. Although scruffy in his
demeanor, this Wallace guy was rather handsome. My kid
attended the Oakland Regional Conservatory for the Arts—
more cleverly known as “ORCA,” a charter public school
that accepted only a select number of talented adolescent
misfits. Like many of the teachers in this artsy-fartsy school,
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Sheryl Sorrentino
Wallace was young, hungry-looking, and somewhat
offbeat. Sporting Dockers and a wrinkled shirt, his dark,
greasy hair was tousled—deliberately or carelessly, I could
not tell. “That’s when we begin introducing pre-algebra
concepts,” he continued. “Plus, we now have new
requirements for comprehension and expression that didn’t
exist before. Students are expected not only to do the work
and show their work, but to explain their logic and
reasoning.”
Razzi ignored him and spoke directly to me. “This
whole ‘explain yourself’ thing is just stupid! Besides, it’s
like, I look at the problems, and I just don’t care. They mean
nothing to me. I mean—why do I need to know this sh-crap?
I’m never gonna use it. I want to be an artist!”
“Actress,” I corrected. She rolled her eyes.
Mr. Wallace cleared his throat. “Math is an extremely
useful and vital skill, Razia. It comes in handy in all walks
of life, art in particular. There’s concepts of proportionality,
scale—”
I interrupted him. “Every successful actor needs to
understand math, Raz. Unless you want to be ripped off
and taken advantage of your whole life.”
“Artist,” she corrected me. This was hopeless.
“Look,” Mr. Wallace interjected, “there’s still time to
bring your grade up, Razia. I conduct a homework ‘helpshop’ on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. I suggest you
stay after school to attend.”
“Mo-om—no!”
He might as well have told her she’d be bused to juvie
twice a week. I, on the other hand, liked the idea of the
after-school whatever-he-called-it. It sounded like just the
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thing Razia needed. Besides, if she stayed after school, I
could work late twice a week and earn a few extra bucks.
Dr. Rodriguez, sweetheart that he was, let me leave work at
3:00 every afternoon so I could pick up my daughter. But
that left him handling the phones and front desk the last
three hours of the day, when all Razia did was plug into her
iPod the moment we got home and draw until she went to
bed.
It wasn’t easy being a single mom and dealing with all
this stuff on my own, especially when I hadn’t really
planned on becoming a mom at all, much less an unmarried
one. I’d pictured myself living the exciting life of a tortured
actress. Even so, if I had been looking for a random sperm
donor, I could have had my pick of just about any man to
father my child. But no, I had to select Aziz-the-ArabianKnight for my deadbeat baby daddy.
“I don’t want to hear another word about it, Razzi.
You’ll stay after school Tuesdays and Thursdays and go to
the workshop.”
“Help-shop,” Mr. Wallace corrected me.
“And you’ll pull your grade up to at least a B, or I’m
taking away your iPod and drawing pad.”
“But Mom—”
“Not another word.” Pleased with my firm and
decisive parenting, I smiled at Mr. Wallace (now rolling his
pencil between his palms, making an annoying “clackety”
sound with each pass over his wedding band). Razia
grabbed her backpack with an exaggerated jerk and
stomped out of the classroom on those stalky legs of hers.
Before I’d even unglued my eyes from her firm backside,
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Sheryl Sorrentino
Wallace cleared his throat again. “Sorry. I guess I should
get out of your hair, too,” I said, rising from my chair.
He remained perched on the edge of his desk. “No,
that’s all right. I mean, I’m available if you want to stick
around and chat?”
“About what? My daughter’s failing math, and she
obviously doesn’t give a crap. So tell me how to get her into
the after-school workshop and I’ll be on my way.”
“Help-shop,” Wallace corrected me again. Jeez, I could
see why Razzi hated this guy. He cleared his throat one
more time. “Would you like to grab a cup of coffee?” he
asked.
“You mean, like, now?”
“I’ve got fifteen minutes before my next class. But it
doesn’t have to be right now. Anytime, really. If you want.”
“What for? Is there something more we need to discuss
about Razia’s grade?” Then, it dawned on me: This guy was
asking me out—broke, married-teacher style! But why?
Could he possibly see me as some MILF on a mission? I’d
been a real head-turner in my day, and I still looked pretty
good for forty. Although I could count on one hand all the
men I’d slept with—including Aziz, I still remembered the
drill as if it were yesterday: If I went out with a guy and
pretended to like him, it gave me leverage. How else could
I have passed my “Reflections of Gender, Culture, and
Ethnicity in American Theatre” course (I lost my virginity
to my sophomore college professor at U.C. Berkeley)? Or
landed a minor role in Berkeley Rep’s 1997 production of
The Heiress (after graduation, I had a brief fling with the
casting director)? Or gotten my first steady office job at Cal
Performances (I dated the audience services manager for
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two years)? A beautiful woman could always get her way if
she played her cards right, and it had taken me all of five
minutes to figure out the rules of that game. Not that I’d
ever do it with Razzi’s teacher, mind you. I loved my
daughter to death, and would do just about anything for
her, but not that.
Besides, I’d sworn off men after Aziz. He apparently
played by a different set of rules, and even my most stellar
performance couldn’t live up to his standards. Otherwise, I
might be living a “normal” life with a straight-laced
businessman cum yoga guru, instead of being on my own
raising a smart-mouthed kid who couldn’t pass math.
Wallace rose from his desk. “Never mind,” he
coughed. “It was probably wrong of me to ask.”
“Yeah, I’d say so. If you were thinking what I think
you were thinking.” There was an awkward silence
between us. Wallace cleared his throat. Again. “You really
should do something about that cough,” I added snidely.
“That’s what happens when you earn a living talking
over kids all day long.”
“Sign Razia up for the ‘help-shop,’” I said in my sternmother voice. “She ain’t gonna like it, but that’s just too
bad.”
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Chapter Four
Vanishing Act
I had to laugh, recalling Raz’s theatrical performance that
morning. She’d stomped around the kitchenette howling
like a puppy being weaned off its mama, “Isn’t it bad
enough you’re punishing me with what amounts to afterschool detention? Do you also have to insult my
intelligence by calling it a stupid, euphemistic name? This
isn’t gonna help, Mom! It’s only gonna make me hate math
more!”
With Razzi unhappily tucked away in her tutoring
class, I was trying to finish inputting Dr. Rodriguez’s
patient notes into the new state of the art software program
he’d just installed. The faux doctor insisted that I input
every single customer (ahem, “patient”) he’d ever treated
since the dawn of time, even those he’d only seen once or
twice during his entire professional career. I’d been hunting
and pecking all day, and yet I was only on the Cs. My neck
and wrists hurt.
Trying to stay focused on the task at hand, I began
inputting Hillary Christiansen’s file. One of Dr. Rodriguez’s
few remaining regulars, she had been coming into the office
twice a week for as long as I’d been working here. I used to
suspect he was having an affair with her. But I saw from
18
Stage Daughter
her file that the good doc, Maurelio, had been giving her a
different sort of business: Hydrothermal Heat/Ice; Electrical
Stimulation; Adjustment five regions. You’d think after
doing the same exact thing eight times a month for half a
decade, the two of them would get a clue and try
something different.
At least he didn’t strike me as the type who’d cheat on
his wife, even under the worst of circumstances (which, if
you asked me, described his marriage). As far as I was
concerned, Dr. R. was the salt of the earth. He gave me this
job after I’d lost my gig as lighting designer at the
Paramount Theater, when production companies started
bringing in their own freelance people. I’d held that job
since shortly after Razia was born. (That was when I’d
finally abandoned my own dream of becoming an actress.
A small part of me hoped that by working in the
“entertainment world”—even behind the scenes—some
hot-shot producer or director might actually notice me. In
hindsight, that job was probably the closest I’ll ever get to a
stage.)
By 3:45 p.m., I’d had enough. I shut down my
computer and packed up my purse. “Good night, Dr.
Rodriguez,” I called out. No patients in sight, he was
tucked away in his office. His other loyal holdout—Mr. Abe
Silverman—wasn’t scheduled to come in until 6:00 p.m.
It had been an eerily slow day, and more and more
days had become like this. “Shut-ins,” Maurelio called
them. He said this was because insurance companies had
eliminated chiropractic coverage, making it unlikely that
any insured patient would come to him and pay out of
pocket. But that sea change happened years ago. From what
19
Sheryl Sorrentino
I could tell, Dr. Rodriguez’s professional downturn had
begun of late. It was probably just the recession, but even
so, now I had something else to worry about—my job. This
gig might not be especially glamorous, but it was flexible
and fairly cushy. The last thing I needed was to become an
out-of-work single mom in a still-fragile economy. And if
the stained carpet, peeling paint, and duct-tape-covered
adjusting table were any indication, Dr. Rodriguez’s
professional days were numbered.
I knocked softly on Maurelio’s door and cracked it
open. “I’m leaving now, Dr. Rodriguez.”
He looked up from his small, espresso-colored desk. It
was covered in coupons and supermarket circulars. Short
and curmudgeonly, he had a large head with neatlytrimmed dark hair balding in back, a thin waist, and
surprisingly broad shoulders for such a small frame. So he
looked rather comical sitting at that tiny, wood-veneer desk
covered with colorful flyers and scattered chits of paper. He
was trying so hard to front like everything was all right, but
the coupons were a dead giveaway. “Might as well get the
grocery list done while I’ve got some down time,” he said
in his charming Ecuadorian accent. “My mother-in-law
hasn’t been feeling up to chopping lately.”
“See you tomorrow, then?”
He nodded, looking down with a lost expression.
I felt sorry for Dr. Rodriguez. His 52-year-old wife,
Magdalena, had been diagnosed with a rare brain disease
two years ago. His 75-year-old mother-in-law cared for her
during the day. He never spoke much about his wife, but
the situation was a ticking time bomb. How long could he
expect an elderly woman to handle full-time care-giving? I
20
Stage Daughter
could tell his wife had been on a downhill slide lately,
because I saw the toll her illness was taking on him.
Maurelio’s dress shirts were tattered at the cuffs, and his
shoes were unacceptably worn. He needed to go chopping
all right—for new clothes!
ɚɚɚɚɚ
I had a comfortable five-minute walk to where I’d parked
my car, in the cheap lot near Razzi’s school. Leaving Dr.
Rodriguez’s building, I dialed her cell phone. It went to
voicemail. “Hi, honey. I just wanted to let you know I’m on
my way. I’ll be out front waiting for you when the, um,
math thing lets out.”
I started up my cranky engine, pulled out through the
gate, and drove the few blocks to ORCA. Since most kids
got out at 3:10, there wasn’t the crazy scene I usually
encountered in the afternoons. Still, there were more than a
few parents lined up in cars, waiting for their kids. There
were always afternoon auditions, after-school clubs, and
other activities—none of which my misfit daughter deigned
to participate in. I’d urged her to join Theatre Geeks, an
after school theater troupe that wrote and produced its own
plays, but she’d refused.
I pulled my schlocky 1999 Toyota Corolla behind a
brand-new Audi Q-5 SUV and settled in for what I
expected to be a short wait. I fidgeted with the radio
buttons, thinking I’d find a station Razzi liked. My car
didn’t have a CD player, much less a fancy MP3 or DVD
player, or one of those stupid GPS things. When, pray tell,
had life devolved into such a series of alpha-numeric
21
Sheryl Sorrentino
acronyms? Call me old-fashioned, but I preferred to focus
on driving when I drove, and I liked to learn my way
around without a computerized voice telling me where to
go.
I checked my watch at 4:30. Razzi should have come
out by now. She was probably punishing me by chatting it
up in the hallway with her fellow math-flunkers. I tried her
cell phone again.
“Hi, this is Razia. Leave a message.”
“Razzi, it’s Mom again. I’m outside waiting for you.
Could you shake a leg? We’re gonna hit hellacious traffic,” I
added before hanging up.
I looked through the window to my left and noticed a
woman smiling at me. I assumed she was the mom of
another ORCA student, so I gave a quick wave. Then—I kid
you not—she licked her lips and gave me the flirty eye!
This woman had short-cropped, artificially blonde hair
with a long black tuft hanging over one eye—very chic and
modern. Other than the butch haircut, she wasn’t obviously
dyke-y (until she did that thing with her tongue).
Now that I thought about it, I got that sort of thing a
lot. An attractive woman could expect it living in the Bay
Area. Berkeley was the worst—people didn’t call it “lesbocentral” for nothing!
Reddening in the face, I looked away as the woman
walked inside the school. Even through the corner of my
eye, I found it hard not to notice her shapely ass.
4:45. Okay, now I was really starting to get pissed. I got
out of my car and put two quarters in the parking meter.
Then I strode purposefully toward the school entrance.
22
Stage Daughter
Enormous Becky Potamkin—the “theatre parent liaison”—
was manning the front desk.
“Can I help you?” she asked, not recognizing me
through her maroon Clark Kent glasses.
“No, thanks. I just need to run upstairs to Mr.
Wallace’s room. My daughter stayed for the math helpshop; she must be dilly-dallying up there.”
“Who’s your daughter?” Ms. Nosy-Mom asked. Becky
Potamkin was built like an Amazon yet spoke in a
provincial Betty White voice.
“Razia Schoenberg,” I answered.
“You mean the tall biracial girl?”
Why in the world would she describe Razzi like that—
to me of all people? I’d always been called the “tall biracial
girl” (only in my day, they gave it other names, too).
Though I was adopted by a Jewish family as an infant and
was always led to understand that my biological mother
was white and Jewish, my skin was the color of a single
café latte. Could this lady not see that I might be offended
by such petty labels?
“Yes, the so-called ‘biracial girl,’” I answered in a
snotty voice.
“I think I saw her leave after school. With a boy.”
“No,” I countered, “you must be mistaken. My
daughter’s signed up for Mr. Wallace’s math help-shop. She
stayed after school for that. Look, I’m sure if I take a look
upstairs, I’ll find her in the hallway somewhere.”
“Suit yourself,” Becky answered. “But you need to sign
in first and take a visitor badge.” I leaned down and
scribbled my name and the time on the clipboard. But I
refused to stick one of those stupid labels on my clothing.
23
Sheryl Sorrentino
I didn’t know why these helicopter moms always got
up in my face like they did, but I seemed to set something
off in them. What was beyond me. They had husbands and
lived in real homes. I’m sure Becky didn’t dwell like an
illegal alien in a makeshift hovel rented from a well-to-do
white widow. And while many of them held down jobs,
they didn’t single-handedly hold up their entire household.
I could understand their hostility if I weren’t carrying my
load at school. But despite my work and personal
obligations, I still made time to help out with school
performances whenever possible. I baked lasagnas for the
cast parties, hawked tickets, hung posters, and handed out
postcards announcing the many shows. Maybe that wasn’t
good enough to satisfy their bloodlust for volunteerism, but
I did what I could—even if my own daughter hadn’t been
chosen to perform in a single production.
Climbing the two flights of stairs to the math room, I
recalled Razzi’s last audition, that time for the school’s
production of Glee. Razia hadn’t even seen that stupid TV
show. She hated musicals and didn’t sing or dance
especially well. Naturally, she hadn’t wanted to audition. I
made her. I mean, after all, why attend a performing arts
school if you weren’t at least going to try to perform?
Didn’t I deserve some bragging rights to post on Facebook?
But no, she’d come out of the audition in tears. Stormed
straight past me without a word of explanation.
A gaggle of girls in leotards clustered outside the
dance studio directly across from the math room. “Hi,” one
of them called out to me. I had to hand it to these ORCA
kids; they were nothing if not friendly. (Except my surly
girl, of course.)
24
Stage Daughter
“Hi,” I answered. “Say, do any of you know Razia
Schoenberg?” Who was I kidding, all the kids knew one
another at this school. It had a small student body, and each
kid was quirky and weird in his or her unique way, so
everyone stood out.
“I do,” a tiny thing with a pulled-back ponytail
answered. “Her locker’s next to mine. I saw her getting her
stuff after eighth period.”
“Do you know if she went to the math help-shop from
there?”
The girl shook her head, ponytail flapping to and fro.
“Okay. Well, thanks.”
“Good luck finding her!” a rail-thin girl called out.
Good luck, indeed.
Okay, now I was beginning to worry. I knew I
shouldn’t—kids were like that, after all. Maybe Razzi had
gone to the student center to wait for me. I headed down
there next.
“Hello again.” The mom who’d ogled me earlier
waylaid me on my way in.
“Hi.”
“I’m Nannette, Keshia’s mom.”
“Sonya. Sonya Schoenberg.” I waited to see the
surprise register on her face (as it always did whenever I—a
light-skinned Black woman by all outward appearance—
announced my Jewish last name). Nothing. I cleared my
throat. “I’m looking for my daughter, Razia. I was
supposed to pick her up after the math help-shop. I think
she’s hiding out somewhere—to push my buttons.” I
offered a lighthearted chuckle.
25
Sheryl Sorrentino
“I know Razzi!” Nannette answered. “She and Keshia
are good friends.” (Now, how come I didn’t know that?) “I’ll
ask if she’s seen her. Kesheeeeeee!” she yelled across the
room to a group of kids working on a mural of Billie
Holiday on the far wall. Keshia came sauntering over in
paint-splattered overalls. I tried not to stare, but it was
obvious she’d been adopted, like me. She was Black, while
her mother clearly was not.
“What, Mom?” she practically groaned, rolling her
eyes. I was glad to see it wasn’t just my kid who had the
‘tude.
“Keshia, this is Razzi’s mom.”
“Oh, hi,” she said, looking off into space.
“Have you seen Razzi after school today?” I asked.
Keshia rolled her eyes again and puckered her lips.
“Keshie, what is it?” her mom asked.
“Nothin’. I haven’t seen her since fourth period P-E.”
“Are you sure?” I prodded. I knew my own kid well
enough to recognize when another pre-teen was being
evasive.
“I dunno,” Keshia answered. “I might’ve seen her
talking to Korey outside after school.”
“Outside?” I practically shrieked. “She was supposed
to go straight to the math help-shop!”
“Don’t panic,” Nannette said in a calm voice, taking
my arm. “Let’s head up to Mr. Wallace’s room and see if
she checked in for that—whatever you called it.”
“I was just there!” I exploded. Then, after a quick
breath to calm myself, I panted, “I’m sorry. Good idea. Let’s
ask if she checked in.”
26
Stage Daughter
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Nannette added reassuringly.
“You know how kids are.”
Did I ever.
By the time we returned to the third floor, the door to
the math room was locked. I peeked through the small
window into the darkened space, looking for I-didn’tknow-what. Razia’s backpack, maybe? Now, why would I
expect to see that? Whether she’d shown up or not, she
wouldn’t have left her backpack behind. I guess I just
wanted to see something of hers to confirm that she’d been
there and was still wandering around somewhere inside
the school. I began to panic. Calm down, I told myself. It’s
only 5:15. She could be anywhere.
“Don’t worry,” Nannette said, as if reading my mind. I
looked into those big green eyes of hers. She was actually
pretty, with her bleached-blonde punk haircut and
peppering of beauty marks. She looked like a cross between
Pink and Miley Cyrus; I felt old and decidedly un-hip
standing next to her. “Have you tried calling her?”
“Now, why didn’t I think of that, Nannette? Of course
I called her! What kind of idiot do you think I am?”
Amazingly, Nannette didn’t flinch, which made me feel like
an even bigger shit. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bite your
head off. I’m just so stressed—”
“I know you’re worried,” she said soothingly, stroking
my arm. “But try to keep your head, okay? I’m sure your
daughter’s fine.”
“Oh yeah? You’re sure? How can you be so sure? She’s
now MIA for an entire hour; I’ve tried calling her cell twice
and got kicked to voicemail. And the only thing I do know
is that she was outside talking with some boy and may
27
Sheryl Sorrentino
have left with him after school.” I fumbled again for my cell
phone and punched in Razzi’s number. “Yeah, Raz. It’s
Mom again. Please—sweetie, please! I’m worried sick about
you! I’m here at school, on the third floor in front of the
math room. It’s all locked up. I’ve been down to the student
center and you’re not there, either. Please, if you get this,
meet me at the front entrance. I’ll be down there waiting.
And Razzi, honey, if you cut the help-shop, you’re officially
pardoned. I mean it—I forgive you. Please, baby, if you’re
hiding out or something because of that, don’t. Let’s just go
home and talk about it, okay? You don’t have to go if it
bugs you that much; we’ll figure something else out. I love
you.”
Ugh! I half expected to see her smug face rounding the
corner. Then I’d kick myself for leaving that message and
letting her off the hook so easily.
28
Stage Daughter
Chapter Five
Burnt Pizza
Dudley nuzzled me proprietarily while I anxiously eyed
the “Emergency Phone Tree” on the counter. You’d think
when I found myself alone and pregnant, I’d’ve known
better than to take in an extra mouth. But Dudley, then
barely out of kittenhood, had sidled up to me. He chose me,
and after being so casually tossed aside by Aziz, I needed to
be wanted, if only by a neurotic animal. “What do you
want from me? I fed you! Your box is fucking pristine! I
scrubbed that Goddamned cat fountain inside and out so
your water’s as clear as Niagara Falls! Can’t you see I’m
beside myself with worry? Can’t you give me a moment’s
peace?” I shrieked at the top of my lungs like a lunatic.
The cat looked at me with those wise green eyes of his,
unperturbed, as if to say, “I know; I know.”
I began to cry. I scooped him up and buried my face in
his fur, sobbing. He went limp in my arms. I felt him purr
in my neck. He reared back and nuzzled my hair with his
little face. Then he rubbed up against my cheek, his nose
surprisingly wet for a cat.
“Oh God, Dudley. What if Razia’s been kidnapped?
What if she’s run away?” I put the elastic animal down on
four outstretched paws, grabbed the phone and list of
names, and made my way to the living room (technically
part of the same room).
29
Sheryl Sorrentino
Nannette had stood with me outside the school until
after 6:00 p.m., before suggesting Razia might have gone
home with one of her friends. Then she’d run upstairs to
the office and returned with a copy of the student phone
directory, which she and Keshia pored over before letting
me leave, marking asterisks beside the names of Razzi’s
closest friends. After that, I’d circled the area for half an
hour, asking anyone and everyone on the streets if they had
seen her. I’d given up and gotten on the freeway trying to
convince myself that Razia wasn’t actually “missing;” I still
held out hope that she was with one of the kids on the list,
and everything would be cleared up with a few quick calls
once I got home.
By the time I pulled into the carport, fear had gotten
the best of me. So instead of calling Razzi’s friends, I dialed
the police as soon as I walked through the door. They tried
to calm me down and promised to come out and take an
official report, but I was still a bundle of nerves.
I began dialing kids’ numbers right after that, which
had gotten me nowhere. Apparently ORCA families are a
busy bunch, because either no one picked up, or I got
answering machines or voicemail messages.
I’d decided to fix a homemade pizza with anchovies, to
calm my nerves. Maybe on a subconscious level, I’d wanted
to woo Razia home. Maybe some crazy part of me hoped
she would sense I was cooking her favorite meal and come
bursting through that door. I’d slid the pizza in the oven a
little while ago to bake and again faced idle hands and an
empty apartment. Truth be told, even though the clock now
read nearly 8:00 p.m., the hopeful part of me still expected
Razia to come waltzing through the front door any minute,
30
Stage Daughter
perhaps stinking of boy. And while that thought surely
made my blood curdle, what I wouldn’t have given to find
out my daughter had “only” lost her virginity to some loser
who didn’t know his dick from his asshole, rather than lose
my own mind worrying over what other horrible things
might be happening to her at that very moment.
For what felt like the millionth time, I studied the
highlighted names on the phone tree, now dusted with
flour and flecked with bits of dried dough: Chantal, Koreywith-a-K, Brady (a girl). Milan (a boy—if you can believe
that). Zeus (not a friend, according to Keshia). I began
punching in numbers yet again.
“Hello?” A female voice answered.
“Um, hi, Ms. Anderson? I’m sorry to disturb you at
dinnertime, but—”
“For goodness’ sake! I’m on the ‘do not call’ list. We’re
not interested in whatever you’re selling.”
“Wait! Please don’t hang up. This is Razia
Schoenberg’s mom, from ORCA. Are you Chantal’s
mother?”
“Yes. Why? What can I do for you?”
“I couldn’t find my daughter after school, and she still
hasn’t come home.” A sob choked my throat. I couldn’t
bring myself to go on.
“Hello? Are you still there?”
I cleared my throat. “Yes. May I speak to your
daughter? I understand our kids are friends. Maybe Razzi
told her something?”
“Sure, hang on a sec. Chantal? Phone! Razia somebodyor-other’s mom.”
I waited patiently for Chantal to pick up. “Hello?”
31
Sheryl Sorrentino
“Chantal?”
“Yeah?”
“Hi, this is Razia’s mom. I was wondering if by any
chance she mentioned where she might be going after
school.”
“Oh, hi. No, I already told you, I saw her after eighth
period, but I figured she was heading home like always.”
“That was you? The dancer with the ponytail?”
“Yup, that was me.”
“And she never said anything to you?”
“Not today.”
“What do you mean?”
“Um, nothing.”
“Please, Chantal. If you know something, you’ve got to
tell me—anything at all! Listen, I understand how it is with
you kids, but if you promised Razzi you’d keep some secret
for her, please don’t. I’m begging you. She might be in
danger! I promise she won’t get in trouble if you’ll just tell
me where she is.”
“I don’t know where she is. Honest! She just—she’s
been mad at you, that’s all.”
That much I already knew. “So, was she planning to
run away or something?”
“No, not really.”
“Not really? Then what was she planning?”
“Nothing! Look, I don’t know, okay?” Her voice grew
testy. Her mom got back on the line. “Ms. Schoenberg, was
it?”
“Yes. But please, call me Sonya.”
32
Stage Daughter
“Sonya, then. Look, I understand you’re worried, but
Chantal doesn’t know anything. I suggest you try another
family now, okay?”
“Okay, sure,” I answered, duly chastised. “Believe me,
I feel guilty bothering strangers on a school night, but I just
had to do something. I called the police as soon as I got
home, and I’ve been waiting over an hour for an officer to
come out and take a report—”
“Wait a sec—Chantal just told me your daughter hangs
around with this boy, Korey. Have you tried calling his
house?”
“I got no answer the first time. So I guess I should
hang up and try again.”
“Good luck, Sonya. Let me know if there’s anything
we can do to help.”
“Thanks.”
I dialed Korey’s number. Still no answer. What should
I do now? Call the FBI? I started to punch in the next
number on the list, but hung up when I heard the shrieking
smoke alarm. I ran into the kitchenette—now filled with
smoke. I disabled the little white device and opened the
oven door to be greeted by my ruined pizza.
Determined not to read anything deeper into my
mishap than a burnt dinner, I walked into Razia’s tiny
bedroom, which still had a bunk bed from when I used to
sleep in there with her. Dudley followed me and skulked
around, knowing full well that Razzi didn’t like him in her
room. Whereas any other time I would have kicked him
out, on this night, I let him indulge his own futile search.
I noticed her green cell phone on the unmade lower
bunk, which Raz now kept covered with comic books,
33
Sheryl Sorrentino
video games, snack wrappers, and all manner of other junk.
I tried turning it on, but it was dead. I hunted for the
charger, then plugged the phone in after I found it buried
under her desk, behind the waste can.
Next, I fired up her computer. I immediately hit the
“history” button and discovered several recent visits to
Google Maps. Before I could click on that, the phone rang,
nearly molting me out of my skin. “Hello? Razzi honey?”
“Oh dear. I take it she still hasn’t come home?” a
familiar-sounding voice asked.
“I’m sorry. Who is this?”
“It’s Nannette.”
“Oh. Nannette. Thanks for checking back. No, Raz
hasn’t shown up yet. I called the cops as soon as I got home,
but they still haven’t sent someone out. I was in the middle
of calling the names in the student directory for the second
time when I decided to do a little sleuthing on my own. I
want to see what Razzi’s been Googling lately—it might
give me a clue where she could have gone.”
“That’s a wonderful idea. Do you need help? I could
come over . . .”
“No. Thank you, though.” Didn’t this woman have a life?
“I wouldn’t mind at all. Keshia’s with her other mom
tonight. I could be there in twenty minutes. You shouldn’t
be alone at a time like this, especially if you’re waiting for
the police to show up. They can be so intimidating with all
their questions.”
Intimidating? I hadn’t even considered that. Now
Nannette had given me one more thing to worry about.
Would the cops talk down to me like some neglectful
mother? Would they accuse me of harming my own
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Stage Daughter
daughter? I remembered all the news stories about
JonBenet Ramsey and how the police immediately assumed
her parents had killed her. Maybe they’d haul me down to
the station, offer me bad coffee and tear me to shreds under
bright lights. I began pacing back and forth between Razia’s
bedroom and the kitchen, trying to recreate the afternoon’s
events in my mind so I’d be prepared to relay the exact
timeline of everything that had occurred.
“I’m glad you’re covering all your bases,” Nannette
broke into my thoughts. “But still, isn’t there something I can
do? I’d really like to help.”
“No, Nannette. Listen, I’m sorry, I know you mean
well, and I appreciate your concern, but I need to get off the
phone and find my kid.”
“Okay, I understand. Try not to worry. I’m sure
Razia’s probably just off with friends. Kids do that
sometimes.”
“God, I hope you’re right.” Nannette’s words gave me
a sense of renewed optimism, but only for a split second. It
was replaced by a sickening feeling when I saw that other
missing girl’s face: Jaycee Dugard, smiling up at me from
the book review section of an old newspaper beneath
Dudley’s water fountain. Although I hadn’t eaten since
noon, I thought I might vomit right there on the kitchen
floor.
35
Sheryl Sorrentino
Chapter Six
Brothers and Sisters-In-Law
“Hello?
Of course Marlene would have to answer. “Marlene?
Hi, it’s Sonya.”
“Sonya! How nice to hear from you. What’s up?”
“Is my brother there?” I asked.
“He’s working upstairs. Big hearing tomorrow. Why,
is it important?”
A familiar impatience washed over me. “Yeah,
Marlene, it kind of is,” I answered, trying to keep my voice
steady. “Razia disappeared after school.”
“Well, she isn’t here.”
“I know that. That’s not why I’m calling. I’d like to
speak to Keith. Could you put him on?”
“Keith’s a busy lawyer, Sonya. He’s not a detective.”
My younger brother, Keith, was a hot-shot
environmental attorney at a large San Francisco firm. When
he wasn’t busy not saving the whales, I practically had to
make an appointment to speak to him. “He also happens to
be my brother! You know something, Marlene? For once I’d
like to call over there and speak to my baby brother without
a Goddamned inquisition from you!”
36
Stage Daughter
“I don’t know why you’re becoming so hysterical,
Sonya. I was just trying to avoid interrupting my husband
unnecessarily the night before a hearing, that’s all.”
“My kid’s missing, okay? My call is necessary. Do you
think I can talk to my fucking brother for a minute?”
“Adoptive brother,” she said, under her breath. As in,
he was the real Schoenberg; I was just a dark-skinned,
trouble-making imposter who had no business being in her
family.
“For crying out loud, Marlene! Just once, could you
miss an opportunity to remind me I’m not Keith’s fleshand-blood sister? Because here’s a news flash: I might not
have peach-colored flesh or blue-tinted blood like you, but
last time I checked, Keith and I are still family. You’re the
outsider. You’re just an in-law.”
“You don’t have to get nasty, Sonya.”
“Apparently I do. I’ve got a family emergency, and I’m
begging you for five friggin’ minutes of my brother’s time!”
“Okay, Sonya. Calm down. I’ll go get him.”
Calm down, my ass. She always did this to me; got
under my skin, worked me all up, then told me to “calm
down.” Marlene is some piece of work.
I opened and shut Razzi’s desk drawers one by one
while I waited for Keith to pick up. With my landlady out
for the evening, the house was eerily quiet. This was
perhaps the first and only time I’d been alone after dark
since before I’d brought Razia home from the hospital.
Nobody came then, either—not Keith, not even my mother.
He’d grudgingly accompanied me to a few childbirth
classes, but had to fly to New York for work on September
9th, and so wasn’t around when I’d gone into labor the night
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Sheryl Sorrentino
of the 10th. Then he got stuck there for nearly a week,
during which time our parents were so worried about him,
they couldn’t be bothered with me or my illegitimate, halfArab newborn (who came into the world at 10:37 a.m. on
9/11/2001).
To her credit, Marlene had offered to sub for Keith at
the last minute, before all hell broke loose. But I wanted her
in the delivery room like I wanted a C-section—without
anesthesia. Marlene’s always rubbed me the wrong way.
The daughter of a big-time stockbroker, she never worked a
day in her life (unless you count her dedication to seeing
me permanently banished from my family as her life’s
“work”). She had been trying to become pregnant herself at
the time, and more than a few hurtful remarks had slipped
through those collagen-enhanced lips about how “some”
people conceived so easily when they didn’t intend to,
while someone like her, who was “only trying to bring a
child into a stable, two-parent home,” had such a harder
time.
So fuck Marlene. I gave birth to my daughter alone
with no coach, no epidural—just one shot in the ass of
Nubain (a semi-synthetic opiate) during the final stage of
labor. I’d shrieked uncontrollably, knowing from both the
overhead TV and the nurses’ uneasy chatter that, along
with those two buildings, my own universe and the entire
world as I knew it had just come crashing to the ground
and would never be the same again.
“Sonya.” I heard Keith’s cool, clipped voice.
“Keith, hi. I’m sorry to bug you—I know you’re busy
with your big case and all. But Razia’s missing.”
“What do you mean, missing?”
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Stage Daughter
“She didn’t come out after school. She was mad
because I signed her up for an after-hours math class. Some
kids said they may have seen her leaving with a boy.”
“At least it doesn’t sound like she’s been abducted. But
still, have you called the cops?” Keith asked.
“Yeah, I called as soon as I got home. I wanted to talk
to you before they get here.”
“Why? So I can worry along with you now, and on the
night before an important hearing?” I heard him let out a
tense breath. “Look, I wouldn’t assume the worst. If she ran
off with some boy, she’ll probably show up before the
police do.”
“You think so?”
“That kid’s becoming a loose cannon. But that’s no
surprise, being an unplanned accident, having no father
and a constantly stressed-out mom.” Spoken just like my
smug baby brother.
“Keith—please! It’s been over twelve years. Can’t you
just this once not remind me how much you disapprove of
my life? You’re the only one in the family still talking to
me!”
“It’s not my fault Mom and Dad won’t take your calls.
Can you blame them? You have a one-night stand with
some Arab you barely know. Then when you find yourself
knocked up, you act surprised he won’t give you the time
of day, much less a dime in child support. So you spend the
next twelve years mooching off Mom and Dad. And me.”
“I have not mooched! I’ve always worked to pay my
bills.” Easy for him to have such a privileged life; he wasn’t
the unwanted mistake. Keith graduated Stanford Law at
the top of his class; married haughty happy homemaker;
39
Sheryl Sorrentino
and, with just a little scientific intervention, had 2.0 perfect,
purebred kids—boy, then girl. Now they could post their
expensive world travels on Facebook to show off to their
imaginary friends (I don’t know why I “friended” them,
since all their posts are inane, self-glorifying bullshit).
Not that my brother didn’t have his troubles, mind
you. After many expensive test-tube manipulations,
Marlene became pregnant with twins and gave birth to
Aaron (prematurely) a year after Razzi was born, but lost
Abigail, who was stillborn. Keith and Marlene were pretty
broken up about that, as were my parents. I may have won
the contest to produce the first Schoenberg grandchild, but
Marlene’s triumph-slash-tragedy trumped the birth of my
misbegotten daughter (who rated zero grandparental
attention or affection—then or now) and turned my
parents’ lives upside-down. To make matters worse,
Marlene became pregnant on her own within the year, and
gave birth to Abigayle #2 (note different spelling) a perfect
nine months later.
“Besides, if they hadn’t frozen my money, I could live
a little better and bother them less,” I added.
“If they hadn’t frozen your money, it’d all be gone by
now. You’ve always been irresponsible, Sonya, with your
pie-in-the-sky ideas about becoming an actress. When you
sank fifty thousand bucks into that doomed fourth-rate
stage production, it was the last straw. And for what? So
you could play the lead to an empty house. Then, for an
encore, you got pregnant by some Muslim terrorist. But
instead of taking care of it, you shamed our entire family by
bringing your little misfit into the world without a father.
In case you’ve forgotten, our family is Jewish. Our
40
Stage Daughter
grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and many of our
ancestors weren’t so lucky. Our family’s pro-Israel; we
support StandWithUs. Can you see how having a kid with
that towel-head might seem like a slap in the face to Mom
and Dad?”
“First of all, last time I checked, Aziz doesn’t wear a
turban. And secondly, with all the persecution in their
family tree, I would expect our parents to be a bit more
tolerant of other people who are ostracized for their
religious beliefs,” I argued.
“Not if they’re barbarians,” Keith shot back.
“Listen, Keith. Aziz may be a lot of things, but he isn’t
a terrorist or a barbarian. He’s become quite the successful
businessman.” I wasn’t sure why I was rushing to defend a
man who, for all intents and purposes, was a stranger to
me. We’d barely dated and hadn’t spoken in thirteen years.
But during that time, he’d become something of a local
yoga and spiritual celebrity. And so I’d jumped on his
bandwagon from afar, like a spurned groupie. I read
articles about him in the local papers and paid regular visits
to his website and Facebook page, though I had absolutely
no interest in yoga. (On a couple of occasions, I might have
taken a surreptitious run past his first and best-known
studio on Solano Avenue, but that was back when Razzi
was a toddler in a jogging stroller).
“Sounds like you’re still pining over the guy,” Keith
commented.
“I am not!” I retorted, a bit too defensively. “I’m just
sayin’, if I’d’a hooked up with Aziz a few months earlier, I
might be the wife of a successful business owner now,
instead of a forty-year-old single mother who’s persona non
41
Sheryl Sorrentino
grata with her own family. And you’d all be singing a
different tune. But that’s neither here nor there. At the
moment, my only worry is finding my kid! I called because
I need help, Keith. I need your support. Could you come
over? It would mean a lot to me to have you here when the
cops show up. You know how they can be.”
“No, Sonya, how can they be?”
I hesitated. “Don’t be naïve. Razia isn’t exactly your
all-American girl. And you know as well as I do the police
tend not to be as proactive when it comes to children of
color. I’m worried they’ll get here, see a Black single mom,
and not do their job. But if you’re with me—a hot-shot San
Francisco lawyer, a white man—”
“What is it with Black folks and the cops?”
“Seriously, Keith?” His words smacked me so hard, he
may as well have hit me in the face with a coin-filled sock.
“I’m just saying, it always amazes me how you and I
could be raised in the same household, by the same parents,
and you see things so differently.”
“That’s because we are different, Keith. Or have you
forgotten? I became the poor abandoned foundling once
you came along and snatched first prize!”
“Well, if that’s how you feel, Sonya, then why’d you
call me? To pick a fight? I understand you’re worried, but
maybe you should try to think positive and let the police do
their job.”
“Okay, Keith. Sorry to have bothered you. Listen, let
me get off in case Razia’s trying to call.” I slammed the
phone down and stormed back into Razzi’s room to
rummage around some more while I cooled off.
42
Stage Daughter
43
Sheryl Sorrentino
Chapter Seven
Runaway Train
I could have died! I just stood there like an idiot, terrified,
when I should have been savoring my first taste of
freedom. I was acting like one of those kidnap victims who
becomes strangely dependent on her captor.
“What’s wrong?” Korey sneered. “Change your
mind?” He stood beside me in front of the ticket dispenser
at the Downtown Oakland BART station while a line of
impatient kids and commuters formed behind us. I pulled
my hoodie over my head, not wanting anyone to recognize
me.
“No! Of course not! I—I—it’s just that—”
Korey’s eyes were red-rimmed, most likely from the
joint he’d smoked after school behind the parking lot
(where I’d spent hours simultaneously hiding and trying to
screw up my nerve for this big adventure). He had offered
me a puff “to relax,” but I figured I was gonna need my
wits about me for this ride, so I declined.
“You don’t know how to use the ticket machine, do
you?” he taunted. And with that, I broke into tears like a
big, freaking baby!
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Stage Daughter
“Stop teasing me! I’ve never rode the train by myself,
okay?” I admitted. “My mom drives me to and from school
every day.”
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” he said, taking the ten dollar bill
from my shaking fingers and sliding it into the gray metal
slot. He pushed a few buttons, which bleeped in a
surprisingly rich timbre. A second later, a blue-striped
ticket the size of a credit card popped out. “This oughta get
you there and back,” he said.
“Thanks. But if things go as planned, I’m not coming
back.”
“Oh, yeah? What do you plan on doin’ about clothes?”
he asked. “You didn’t pack anything.”
“I couldn’t. I had to make it look like any other school
day. Besides, when I find my dad, he’ll buy me all new
stuff—stuff that I want, not my mom’s idea of what a child
actor should wear to a photo shoot.”
Korey laughed. Then he said seriously, “You should at
least call her, you know. Moms freak out when their kids
don’t show up after school.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You have no idea what
she’s like. My mom’s an overprotective bitch! She won’t let
me go anyplace alone. She shows up at school—supposedly
to ‘volunteer.’ But it’s just an excuse to spy on me. And
she’s kept me from my dad, like, my entire life. If I call her,
she’ll freak out even worse.”
“Sounds like she cares about you,” Korey said. “My
mom’s always too busy huntin’ for her next boyfriend to
think about me. I never go straight home, and she doesn’t
even notice.”
“Well, I can’t call. I left my cell phone at home.”
45
Sheryl Sorrentino
“You plan this whole big excursion and you forget
your phone?” He shook his head. “Doesn’t bode well, if you
ask me.”
“I didn’t forget it,” I snapped. “It would’ve made it
easier for her to find me. These things have tracking devices
now.” Okay, truth be told, when I was about to leave this
morning, I realized I had forgotten to charge the stupid
thing (like I always did). So I’d left it sitting on my bed.
“You wanna borrow mine? To call your mom, I mean.”
I shook my head as we swiped our cards and passed
through the automatic entrance. The plastic barrier slid
open and shut.
“Do you even know how to get there?” he asked.
“Now, how dumb do I look? Would you ask me that
patronizing question if I were a boy?”
“Well, do you?”
“Of course!” I shot back. “It’s the El Cerrito stop.”
“You said the place is on Solano. That’s in Albany. El
Cerrito’s the next town over. I think you might need to take
a bus from the BART station.”
The color drained from my face. I hadn’t planned on a
bus ride, too. We rode the escalator down in silence.
“I could come with you,” Korey offered when he saw
the look on my face. We dropped our backpacks on the
platform in unison. He pulled out his iPhone and started
swiping with his long index finger. “Okay, I think this is it.
Number 7, El Cerrito del Norte line.” I flinched. It sounded
like someplace in rural Mexico. As far as I was concerned,
El Cerrito may as well have been a foreign country. “Wait,”
he said, swiping some more. “It looks like it’s only one
stop, so we could probably walk it.” He tucked the phone
46
Stage Daughter
in the outer compartment of his backpack, which he then
hurled over his right shoulder.
We? I hadn’t planned on an accomplice, much less a
boy. But Korey was offering me help. Mom always said not
to accept things from boys or men—that they frequently
had an “exchange” in mind, “If you get my meaning,” she
would add.
“So, what do you expect in return, if you ‘escort’ me to
my dad’s place?” I asked. I noticed then that Korey was
cute. He had some pimples, but they were the small,
rebellious kind. Not those big, pussy globules some kids
had. Just a few dots to let the world know he was above
worrying about his looks.
“I dunno,” he said. “That you get it out of your
system?”
I saw the train’s peeping lights approaching through
the long, dark tunnel. “Get what out of my system?” I
asked, grabbing my backpack off the dirty asphalt. The
train whooshed into the station. He let me get on first. For a
split second, I thought he might stay behind on the
platform and watch the doors close—a nasty boy trick. “Ha,
ha! Made you board!” Except no one was making me do
anything. This whole stupid thing had been my idea. The
doors slid shut behind us and Korey gestured toward a pair
of empty seats.
“You know,” he answered. “Your whole daddy
drama.”
“What daddy drama? I want to find my father, okay?
My mom’s kept him from me, like, my entire life! She’s a
crazy bitch! I can’t live the next six years with her hounding
47
Sheryl Sorrentino
me about my grades and becoming a successful actress. I
can’t put up with her for six more days!”
“Don’t talk about your mom like that!” he shot back.
He gulped, embarrassed now. “Look, I hear you about your
dad and all. It sucks—I get it. I don’t got a dad either, not
really. I’m supposed to see him on holidays and stuff, but
half the time he makes some lame excuse at the last minute
and doesn’t show. At least your mom cares about you. My
mom drowns her sorrow in booze and boyfriends. And
when she doesn’t have a boyfriend, I’m supposed to
comfort her. It’s really twisted. Maybe your mother’s a big
pain in the ass, but at least she gives a shit. Like when she
volunteered at the Glee auditions last term. You were all
nervous waiting your turn while she was busy checking
kids in. I’ll never forget how she had her eyes on you from
across the room, like you were the most important kid in
the place. Like—I don’t know—she was proud of you, but
she wanted you to be proud of her, too. Does that make any
sense?”
“Not really. I didn’t even want to be there. She made
me audition for that stupid show, and I didn’t get in
anyhow.”
“I think you should call her.”
“Fuck you, Korey.”
“Ain’t you the little potty mouth?” He bit the inside of
his cheek and nodded approvingly.
ɚɚɚɚɚ
“So what do you think?” Korey asked. “Is it him?”
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Stage Daughter
“How should I know?” I snapped. I hated Korey for
tagging along, and hated myself even more for feeling
relieved to have him with me. I hadn’t asked Korey to ride
the train with me all the way to El Cerrito. I’d tried telling
him goodbye and thanks and all that. But he insisted on
getting off with me when the train pulled into the station,
and walking with me to find the yoga place. Like he was
my boyfriend or something.
“It must be him,” I added in a nicer voice. “He looks
Middle Eastern, and he’s obviously some New-Agey yoga
dude like my mom described.”
“I thought his name was Aziz.”
“It is. Why?”
Korey pointed to storefront glass: “Who the hell’s
Bikram?”
I studied the name—Bend it Like Bikram—etched in the
window, hoping and not hoping the man inside might
notice me. “It’s a type of yoga, I think.”
“Oh.”
The instructor walked toward a shapely woman with
her butt in the air. He placed a hand on the small of her
back while saying something to the rest of the class—all
women. The students got up and began rolling their mats,
including Ms. Round-Butt. Then she followed him to the
front, all flirty-like, and stood on tippy-toes to whisper
something in his ear. Her hair was the color of sand and
tied in a high ponytail. They stood about six inches apart,
her perfect ass facing me. My man of interest wore a
sheepish look on his face; he shook his head.
The women began filing out, mostly in pairs. Except
for flirty-face. I wondered if she was the lady who beat out
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Sheryl Sorrentino
my mom before I was born. But she looked, like, ten years
younger than Aziz. And if that was my supposed dad’s
wife, why was she taking his dumb yoga class? I mean, that
would be like following your husband to work, right? They
stood near the doorway in back of the studio after everyone
else had left. Then she put her arms around his neck and
planted her mouth on his. They hugged tightly, and kissed
awhile longer, before she slid his hand down her butt.
“You think that’s his wife?” Korey asked.
“I doubt it. My mom said she’s from Pakistan or
someplace.”
“Yeah, so?”
“So, that lady’s white.”
“I think maybe they come in all colors in that part of
the world,” Korey answered, pinching my arm. “Just like
here.”
“Ow!”
After the two of them disconnected, she went through
the black curtain while Aziz (I assumed that’s who he was)
gathered a few stray brick-shaped blocks.
“So, are we goin’ in or what?” Korey asked after a few
moments. I realized I’d been transfixed, watching my dad
through the window. There was a deliberateness about his
movements that I liked. He had a little bit of a belly, and his
hair was thinning, but he was really good-looking for a
middle-aged guy and wicked graceful for a man. “He
seems to be all done snogging that woman,” Korey added.
“Shouldn’t you be heading home now?” I asked,
looking him up and down. When I turned back to the
window, Aziz was gone.
“Why? Am I botherin’ you?”
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Stage Daughter
I shot him another look.
After a few minutes, the lady made her way to the
front and pushed through the heavy door. She didn’t seem
to notice us standing there, me with my face practically
pressed against the glass. She strode purposefully toward a
boxy Honda Element parked halfway up the street.
Somehow, I now felt certain that wasn’t Aziz’s wife, even
though he had kissed her. And not one of those phony
cheek kisses, either. A long, smushy, right-on-the-mouth
kiss. Maybe he didn’t marry that other woman after all—or
maybe he’d divorced her since then.
“Let’s go in,” Korey nudged my elbow.
The studio was empty, except for our reflections in the
mirror covering the opposite wall. I wondered how it felt to
be twisted in one of those unflattering positions and see
your own ass in the mirror between your legs. What if you
lost your balance and fell over? Worse yet, what if you
farted on the person behind you?
“You think he’s coming back?” I whispered to Korey
after a couple of minutes. “What if he snuck out through
the back door?”
Korey shook his head. “He would have locked the
front door first. He’s got to turn out the lights and shut the
place down. Relax, he’ll be back.”
I nodded.
“What are you gonna say to him?” Korey asked.
“I don’t have a fucking clue.” And it was true. I didn’t.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
Chapter Eight
Father and Child Reunion
“May I help you?”
I hurled around. Why is it that after staring at that
motionless black curtain for what felt like an hour, the
moment I turned my back, the guy managed to creep up
behind me? I checked him out, head to toe. He had changed
into blue jeans and a leather belt with a big silver buckle—a
bunch of loops in the shape of a woman sitting cross-legged
with her hands resting on her knees, thumb and middle
finger touching.
Korey took the opening line when I didn’t immediately
speak. “Hey. I’m Korey. And this is my girlfriend, Razia.”
Girlfriend? Really? Apparently my dad had the same
reaction, because his left eye twitched.
“Hello. I am Aziz, the owner. What can I do for you
two young people?” Then I—who could never shut up
when I had something to say—couldn’t get my mouth to
work. Korey gave me a little poke in the ribs.
After another uncomfortable silence, Korey took the
next line. “We, um, came to meet you. Razzi here has
something to tell you.” Again he nudged me with his
elbow.
“Stop that!” I hissed.
“Yes, young lady? Are you interested in after-school
classes? We teach yoga at several area high schools,” he
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Stage Daughter
said, giving me the once-over. “Are you old enough for a
high school class?” He smiled, revealing perfect teeth.
“I’m not interested in yoga,” I mumbled.
“What, then?” he asked, looking me dead in the eyes. I
felt them burning with salty tears. Did I really mean to tell
this guy he was my father? And if so, how’d I expect him to
react? I turned to Korey, who looked right back at me with
raised eyebrows. He tilted his head, his face silently
screaming, “Tell him!” I shook my head.
“Could you, uh, give us a moment?” Korey asked.
“Surely,” Aziz answered, not budging from his spot.
Korey grabbed my arm and hustled me to the
doorway. He practically pushed me outside. “What’s
wrong with you?” he barked. “We came all this way, and
now you’re gonna lame out?”
“Nobody asked you to come, Korey! You decided to
tag along for whatever reason I don’t know. But let’s be
clear about one thing—you’re not my boyfriend!”
“Don’t you think I know that? You think I don’t see
how you put me off every single time I’ve tried to show
you how much I like you?” I flushed. “I just said that so
he’d know you had another dude in your corner—so he
wouldn’t try anything weird.”
“Like what?”
“Razzi, you don’t even fucking know this guy, okay?
So you need to tell him he’s your dad before he gets the
wrong idea.”
“What do you mean?”
“C’mon, Raz. In case you haven’t noticed, you look
older than twelve. And he’s obviously a middle-aged
horndog—”
53
Sheryl Sorrentino
“Maybe you should just go.”
“Are you serious? You really expect me to leave you
alone with a total stranger? You ain’t even told him who
you are, and you have no idea how he’s gonna react when
you do. Admit it—you’re scared to death!”
I shook in my skin, hating him for being right. Korey
took me in his arms, and I hated him for that, too. I mean,
how opportunistic can a guy get? “Let go of me!” I yelled.
(But I let him hold me an extra second before pushing him
away.)
“We can leave right now, Razzi,” he said softly. “If you
wanna turn around and go home, I’ll ride the train with
you and help you explain everything to your mom.
Otherwise, you gotta tell him. As soon as I’m convinced the
guy isn’t a total creep, I’ll leave. Okay?”
“This isn’t your responsibility. In fact, it’s really none
of your business.”
“You’re right, it isn’t. But I’m making it my business
because I care about you. Maybe you’re too big of a bitch to
appreciate that, but now that I’m here, you can’t expect me
to pawn you off on some asshole who could rape and
murder you. I’m not gonna be the one to explain that to
your mom tomorrow when your mug’s plastered all over
the news.”
I again looked through the glass at Aziz. My dad.
Somehow, in that instant, I just knew that’s who he was. I
couldn’t even tell you how I knew, but I did. Something
about the way he looked back at me, all conflicted and
puzzled, like he sensed it, too.
“Okay. I’ll tell him. But as soon as I do, I want you to
go.”
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Stage Daughter
He bit his lip. “Let’s go back in, then.”
“Okay,” I muttered.
Aziz was still planted where we’d left him. Before I
could lose my nerve, I blurted out, “You’re my dad!” I
swear, he actually flinched, like he’d been sucker-punched
in the jaw.
“Excuse me?”
“I—I mean, I think you are,” I clarified.
He quickly composed himself, but I noticed a bead of
sweat on his upper lip that wasn’t there a second ago. He
cleared his throat. “And why do you think that?”
“Because my mom told me so. Lots of times.”
“Who is your mother?” he asked, obviously trying to
hold it together.
“Sonya Schoenberg. She said you two dated a long
time ago. Before I was born.”
“Ah yes, Sonya.” He frowned. “I remember her well.
But—and please forgive me for asking this—what makes
you so certain I am your father?”
“It has to be you! My mom’s a lesbian!” I exclaimed.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” Korey jumped
in.
“I beg your pardon?” That was Aziz, at the exact same
moment.
“She always says she hasn’t been with anyone since
you. And it’s true! We live in this tiny apartment, she sleeps
on the futon in the living room, and she never goes out. Not
even with friends. All she does is work and micromanage
me.”
“Does your mother know you are here?” Aziz asked.
55
Sheryl Sorrentino
“Yes,” I lied. I knew if I said I had run off in search of
him, the first thing he’d do was call Mom. He squinted and
looked me up and down once more. I noticed what seemed
like a glimmer of recognition, just before his gaze hit the
floor.
“Perhaps it is best if you leave now,” Aziz said to
Korey. “This is clearly a private matter and—Razia was
it?—” I nodded, “—it would appear Razia and I have much
to talk about.”
“No way, man. Like I told you, I’m Raz’s boyfriend.
Anything you can say to her you can say in front of me.”
Aziz squared his shoulders and let out a little cough
from deep within his chest. “Well, if I am Razia’s father as
she claims, then you should know I do not approve of
young girls having boyfriends.”
If? I gulped back a lump in my throat, dying to tell him
a thing or three: Number one: He was so my father.
Number two: Korey was so not my boyfriend. And for a
third thing, who the hell did he think he was, doubting me
in one breath, and in the next telling me what I could and
couldn’t have? Where had he been my entire fucking life?
But then I remembered that he didn’t even know I
existed until a few minutes ago. Maybe if he had known, he
would have actually cared. I mean, after all of five minutes,
he was acting like an annoying parent, right?
“Get a load of this asshole!” Korey scoffed. “I told you
he was a jerk. Let’s get the hell outta here.”
“What? No!” I looked longingly into Aziz’s eyes.
“How can I just leave now?”
“Raz—” Korey began in a warning voice.
“Do you mind?” I said between gritted teeth.
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Stage Daughter
“What?”
“Stay out of it!”
“You are welcome to stay,” Aziz said to me. “I’d like to
take you next door for a cup of tea to get to the bottom of
this. But first, I must contact your mother and make sure
she knows where you are.”
“That’s all you got—a cup of tea and a phone call to my
mommy?” I shrieked. “I go to all this trouble to find you,
and you’re gonna rat me out?”
“I—I am sorry,” Aziz stammered, jolted by my
outburst. “I do not know what you expect of me.” He
looked at me as though I were a puppy he found adorable
but had to get rid of because she’d peed all over his favorite
rug. Feeling totally rejected, my eyes filled and the next
thing I knew, I was once again sobbing like an idiot.
Aziz forced a smile and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“You seem like a lovely girl. Any man should be proud to
have you for a daughter. All I meant was, let’s you and I go
next door so we can talk things over and figure this out,
okay?”
I looked up at him and nodded.
“Excuse me just a moment while I call my wife and let
her know I will be detained.”
“You mean that bimbo you were kissing?” Korey said.
Yoga Man ignored him and walked into the back room,
leaving the two of us standing there. As soon as Aziz was
gone, Korey took me in his arms again.
“Razzi, I think we should go,” Korey said. “I got a bad
feeling about him.”
“Well, I don’t.” I pulled away and wiped my eyes with
my knuckles.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“What? You saw how he touched that woman’s ass.
And now he wants to take you out for tea? Give me a
fucking break!”
“He was teaching a class! I’m sure he touches all the
students.”
“I meant after that. And what about swappin’ spit?
Does he do that with all his students? C’mon Raz, open
your eyes. I’m a guy. I know how guys are.”
“Well, maybe not all guys are like you!”
Before he could answer, Aziz reappeared. He
apparently overheard us, because he squared his shoulders,
clearly insulted, and said, “Whatever Razia decides, I will
not allow her to leave here with you. She will either go
home with her mother, or I shall drive her myself.”
Korey stared at me, awaiting my decision. I had to
admit, I was torn. Korey was really worried about leaving
me alone with Aziz. But he had ulterior motives, right? He
wanted to be my boyfriend. He probably expected Aziz to
blow me off and wanted to stick around to comfort me
afterward. But Aziz surprised him by acting concerned, so
Korey got all weird and possessive. “Korey, I’m sorry, but I
wanna stay and hear him out—”
He hustled me aside by the arm. “Are you out of your
fucking mind? You’re really gonna drink tea with that jerk
and let him drive you home? You don’t know anything
about him! You don’t even know if he is your father!”
“I’ll go next door with him, like he said. And if I don’t
like what he’s got to say, I’ll call my mom and ask her to
come get me.”
“You don’t have your phone,” he reminded me.
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Stage Daughter
“So? We’ll be in a public place. I’m sure someone’ll
have a phone I can borrow. You said once you knew he
wasn’t a creep, you would leave.”
“I’m not so sure he isn’t a creep! Child molesters are
some of the smoothest talkers in the world. Leave it alone
for tonight. He ain’t goin’ nowhere, so don’t you start actin’
stupid out of—” He stopped himself.
“Out of what?”
“Neediness. Desperation. It’s pathetic. Even for you.” His
tongue practically whipped me with those words.
“Fuck you, Korey! Do you hear me? Fuck you!” I
screamed, snatching my arm away.
Aziz was immediately by my side, placing his arm
around my shoulder and detaching me from Korey’s grasp.
“I think it best that you leave now, young man.”
Korey’s furious eyes darted between Aziz and me.
“Razia? Are you comin’ or not?”
I didn’t answer. He kicked the front door open and left
in a huff, leaving an icy gust of wind in his place.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
Chapter Nine
Panic in the Streets
Where were all these people headed so late at night? And
why did they have to be in my way? I’m sure none of them
was on a life-or-death mission to locate their missing kid.
It was now close to 9:00 p.m., but for the first time
since Razzi had “gone missing,” I had a clear purpose.
From her computer trail, I’d seen that she had been
Googling BART routes to Albany (California, not New
York, thank goodness!). Behind her laptop, I’d found an
envelope addressed to Aziz that had come back “Addressee
Unknown.” Inside, a letter she’d written to her father at the
beginning of fifth grade, a few weeks before she’d turned
ten. In it, she told Aziz she was his long-lost daughter, and
begged him to bring her a Wii game for her birthday!
I could have kicked myself for calling the police back
with this new information. Although the officer hadn’t
come right out and said so, I could tell he had bumped
down the priority of my call. With them being so budgetstrapped, it could be hours before they sent someone to my
house or Aziz’s place. So I’d grabbed Razzi’s coat (which
she hadn’t taken that morning despite my nagging), along
with my car keys and cell phone, and headed straight out
the door in a panic, leaving Dudley curled in a ball on
Razia’s pillow.
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Stage Daughter
I’d picked up her message a few minutes ago while
stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. And while it was a huge
relief just to hear her voice, I filled with dread at the
thought of my baby alone with that jerk after dark.
Naturally my first impulse had been to click on the
unfamiliar number and dial her back. But her voice
sounded nervous and strained; I even thought I heard him
prompting her in the background. I’d replayed the message
three times before deciding not to risk calling back and
setting him off. After all, I barely knew this guy and had no
idea what he was capable of. In fact, the more I thought
about it, it probably was best that I track Aziz down myself.
If the police got to him before I did, things could turn nasty
real fast. Who knew how he’d react if accosted by the
authorities? Worse yet, what collateral damage might
overreacting cops wreak when confronting a Muslim man
with a missing child?
After what seemed like an eternity sitting in traffic (the
result, I now saw, of an accident up ahead), I finally spotted
the first Albany exit. I pulled onto the shoulder, bypassing
a row of stopped cars and kicking up pebbles as I made my
way off the freeway. I knew it was illegal, but frankly, I
didn’t give a crap. I almost hoped a cop would tail me; then
I’d have to pull an O.J. by observing the speed limit
through town, but I’d have built-in backup if Aziz turned
out to be some nutcase who refused to return Razia to me.
But since I didn’t have a police escort, I tore through the
quiet streets until I saw the sign for Solano Avenue.
Albany was a sleepy town with mostly tiny houses, a
far safer place for Razzi to be roaming around at night than
either Berkeley or Oakland. There was ample street parking
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Sheryl Sorrentino
at that hour, since most of the stores had already closed,
their windows dark but ungated on this fashionable
thoroughfare. Razia’s phone message said she was at the
café near the yoga studio. I noticed a few people strolling
past the menacing, darkened storefront of Bend it Like
Bikram, and sure enough, there was an open coffee shop
two doors down.
I raced toward the shop and pushed my way through
the glass door. It made an old-fashioned jingling sound.
When I looked up, I saw bells hanging from the top, even
though Christmas had come and gone a month ago. My
heart sank to my knees when I found the place empty. I
practically rushed the guy behind the counter. “Excuse me!
Can you help me?”
Tall and skinny, twenty-something, and dressed all in
black, he looked up from his task of stacking clean glasses
and said, “The kitchen’s closed, but I can serve you some
tea and whatever you see in the cases. We’ve still got a few
premade sandwiches left over from lunch.” He wiped his
hands on a small towel before walking over to me.
“I didn’t come here to eat. I’m looking for my
daughter. Have you seen a twelve-year-old with dreadlocks
for bangs? She would have been with a man.” I yanked the
photo from my jacket pocket, the last one I’d taken of Razzi
when she auditioned for Glee. Her mug looked anything
but gleeful, but otherwise it pretty accurately depicted how
she appeared these days: Surly, with overgrown, clumped
hair edging eyes aflame with resentment and angst.
“Yeah, they were here,” the counter man answered.
“They left a few minutes ago.”
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Stage Daughter
My heart caught in my throat. “Was the man Middle
Eastern?”
He shrugged. “I guess he could’ve been.”
A heavy-set guy in his sixties appeared in the kitchen
doorway. He had a full beard, big belly, and balding head.
“That guy owns the yoga place up the street,” he
informed us. “I’m Jeff, the owner. Billy’s new here.”
“But it was definitely my girl? You’re sure?” I asked
Billy, pointing at the photo still in his hand.
“Yup, definitely her.” I gasped, hearing the certainty in
his voice. I had missed them! And now, who knew where
Aziz had taken my baby?
“Here, lemme see,” Jeff demanded. Billy passed the
photo to Jeff, who studied it. “Billy, get the lady a glass of
water,” Jeff ordered, coming out from behind the counter
and placing an arm around my shoulder. “C’mon,
siddown. I don’t know this Aziz character all that well—I
seen him at a few of the merchant association meetings.
Keeps to himself, mostly, though the ladies are all sweet on
him. ‘Course, these Abba-Dabbas like ‘em young. Don’t
they marry ‘em off at, like, ten years old in that part of the
world?” I shuddered at the thought.
Billy came out and placed a glass of water with ice on
the table nearest the door, just as Jeff pulled out a chair and
guided me into it. He yanked a napkin from the dispenser
and handed it to me. “Here, wipe your eyes. Your
mascara’s smudged,” he said. “Do you know where he
lives?”
I shook my head. “Back when I knew him, he lived in
Concord,” I sniffled. “But it’s been so many years.”
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“What’s his last name?” Billy asked from behind the
counter, already tapping on his fancy tablet device.
“Qureshi,” Jeff answered for me.
“Spelled like it sounds?” Billy asked.
“I think it starts with a ‘Q’. One of those freakin’ Arab
names. Here, wait a sec.” Jeff rose from the table and went
behind the counter and into the kitchen. He returned a
moment later holding a sheet of blue paper. “Q-U-R-E-S-HI. He’s listed with the shop owners in the Solano Avenue
Merchant Directory,” he explained, answering my quizzical
look.
“I think I found him,” Billy said. “4905 Buckboard
Way. Does your car have a GPS?”
I shook my head again.
“So write the directions down!” Jeff exploded. “What’s
wrong with these freakin’ kids nowadays?” He asked me in
a lowered voice. Then he yelled at Billy, “You went to
school, didn’t ya?”
Billy sighed in exasperation while hand-writing
directions for me.
“Write our number on there, too,” Jeff commanded.
Then to me, “So you can call back and let us know when
you find her.” I nodded. He hesitated a moment before
adding, “Why don’t you leave me your number, too,
sweetheart? Just in case.”
I started to recite my cell phone number, then stopped
myself. “Why do you want it? Razzi isn’t coming back here
tonight, and anyway, you’re about to close.”
“I meant, you know, so I could call you sometime.” He
winked at me. “You’re one pretty lady, you know that?
And I want you to know—I ain’t prejudiced or nothin’.”
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Stage Daughter
“Thanks, but I didn’t come in here looking for a date,”
I answered dryly. “I’m either gonna find my daughter
tonight or die trying. Either way, hooking up isn’t part of
the equation.”
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Sheryl Sorrentino
Chapter Ten
It Happened One Night
I felt so angry I found it difficult not to speed through the
nearly deserted streets. I was trying very hard to remain
calm for the girl’s benefit, but I simply could not believe
that devil Sonya Schoenberg. How could she pull such a
stunt on me? I should have known that woman was a
Shaytān the moment I laid eyes on her.
I could not help but wonder if she had put the girl up
to this caper, and the notion filled me with rage. For all I
knew, she had lain in wait thirteen long years to foist her
daughter on me like a hungry tiger sprung from its cage. It
was beyond sick, if this had been her plan all along.
I looked over at Razia, hugging her knees to her chest.
Her lips were slightly blue from the pie she had eaten, but
she was gorgeous, this little lioness. Far more attractive, I
hated to admit, than my own daughter with Fadwa. But in
fairness, Aleyah was more than a year younger, at a clumsy
age where her true beauty had not yet blossomed.
Was Sonya truly capable of hatching such a sinister
plot? Or did she really not know that Razia had contacted
me? I had immediately tried calling the phone number the
girl had none-too-willingly given me, but I got a busy
signal. Between sips of tea and listening to Razia tell me
about her life, I tried to reach Sonya time and again, dialing
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Stage Daughter
my phone beneath the table. I had begun to suspect the
child of giving me a wrong number. All the while, she had
grown increasingly agitated by my repeated (if
surreptitious) interruptions. I finally asked for her mother’s
cellular number, which went straight to voicemail. But at
least I heard the woman’s voice on the outgoing message,
which had left me completely tongue-tied. Given the
awkwardness of the situation—I had not seen or spoken to
her in thirteen long years, and yet there I sat, sipping tea
with her daughter—I did not think it wise to leave a phone
message in my voice. So instead, I handed my phone to the
girl. But even after talking for nearly an hour in the coffee
shop, Razia had become completely unhinged when I
insisted she tell her mother where we were, and that she
was safe. After that outburst, I’d decided it was time for me
to take her home.
Who could have imagined when I left my house this
morning that I’d have a troubled, restless child sitting in
my passenger seat at the end of a long workday? I again
wanted to ask whether her mother knew that she had come
looking for me, but she appeared so distressed and forlorn,
I did not want to say anything else that might set her off.
I thought back to the last time I saw Sonya Schoenberg.
I was supposed to take her to dinner—she had practically
demanded it. An aggressive woman, she had flown out of
my apartment in a rage after seeing the photo of Fadwa. I
figured she was jealous and left her to lick her womanly
wounds. How could I have known she was carrying my
child? When I did not hear from her again, I tried in earnest
to repent for my sin and put the woman out of my mind.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“I have a daughter nearly your age,” I offered,
breaking the silence. The girl—quite possibly my firstborn
child—met my gaze. But who was I kidding? As much as I
didn’t want to admit it, I had little doubt this girl was my
own flesh and blood. The way the streetlamps illuminated
her face, I couldn’t help but stare. The shape of her
eyebrows, the precise jerk of that insolent chin, the way she
looked at me through those beautiful green-flecked eyes—
these traits were all uniquely, biologically mine. Yes, we
have the benefit of DNA testing nowadays, but I felt certain
that would simply confirm what I had suspected from the
moment I saw her looking at me through the studio
window, trembling like a leaf. She had appeared to me then
like an older, more captivating Aleyah.
I felt an instinctive urge to tell her this and thereby
validate our bond—but not before speaking to her mother.
By acknowledging this girl as my daughter, would I not, in
a very real sense, also be committing to her? Only Allah
knew what havoc that attachment would wreak on my life.
Who knew what kind of life Sonya had led, or in what
frame of mind I would find her? And yet, Sonya must have
done something right to raise such an enchanting and
forthright child. After all, DNA only goes so far before
circumstance takes over to compose the tragic and
triumphant chapters of our lives.
“Her name is Aleyah,” I continued. “And her brother’s
name is Abdul Aziz. My son is seven. His name means
‘Servant of the Powerful and Dear One’ in Arabic.”
“You being the ‘powerful and dear one,’ I take it?”
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Stage Daughter
What a little scamp! She looked at me with an
expression I could not describe yet found inherently,
familiarly heart-warming.
I laughed. “No, it is meant to refer to Allah.” Now she
looked at me with genuine puzzlement. “Allah. The only
God, creator of the universe, and judge of humankind,” I
explained. “It is from Him that we all must seek guidance
and forgiveness for our transgressions.”
“Uh, okaay . . .”
“Well, we are here,” I announced, turning onto her
small street. I pulled up in front of the darkened house. “Do
you have a key to get inside?” I asked. She nodded, but did
not move. Instead, she looked at me expectantly. “I think it
best if I wait out here for your mother to return home,” I
explained.
“What for?”
“So we can straighten everything out.”
“Straighten what out?” Razia asked me. “I mean, what
part of ‘I’m your kid’ don’t you get? Either you accept that
and tell my mother what you plan on doing about it, or else
don’t waste my time!” she pouted.
Her brazenness and lack of gratitude shocked me. And
yet, I was struck by her raw emotion, like that of a
wounded animal. As far as she was concerned, I had done
her wrong. Yes, that was exactly how she saw my
impossible conundrum—as me failing her as a father. But in
spite of her impertinence, I was moved by her clarity, and
her honesty. These were righteous qualities, were they not,
even if the girl lacked the breeding and religious
background to form a more humble perspective? It was
obvious from her crass speech that she had been deprived
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Sheryl Sorrentino
of a proper home her entire young life, and this through no
fault of her own.
“I am sorry, but you must give me time to digest this,”
I said softly. “Unfortunately, the situation is rather
complicated. I am already a husband and father. Two hours
ago, I did not know you existed—your pronouncement has
changed my entire conception of my life. You must give me
time,” I repeated. It was almost a plea.
“To do what?” she demanded.
“To seek spiritual guidance, first and foremost,” I
answered softly.
“Whatever,” she scoffed.
“I am sorry if this hurts you,” I implored. “I can see
you have lived a lifetime of hurt and disappointment. Your
mother has kept us apart, and we have both been wounded
as a result.”
“Yes! That’s exactly how I feel!” She looked at me with
a mixture of relief and gratitude in those beautiful,
expressive eyes.
“Well, fret not, my dear. All things happen for a
reason. Allah has brought us together at long last. Whether
or not you are my daughter, you deserve no less than my
kindness. But if you are my child, then I must see to it that
you become a proper Muslim, as is your birthright.”
“Huh?”
“You will understand, in time. For now, I can assure
you of this much: In Islamic society, an illegitimate child is
as good a Muslim as any legitimate one. And like every
other person, he is liable only for his own acts. What
transpired between your mother and me was not your
fault. You mustn’t feel guilty.”
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Stage Daughter
“I don’t,” she said.
“I am glad to hear it. Even though you can never be
recognized as my legitimate child, I am afraid.”
“Why not?” she objected.
“Because, unlike my son and daughter with my wife,
your mother and I were unmarried at the time of your
birth.”
“What difference does that make?”
“It makes you an illegitimate child under Islamic law
and in the eyes of Allah. It means that by law you are not
entitled to share in my wealth. Not that I am a rich man,” I
explained. “But I can comfortably support my family,
Alhamdulillah.”
“Who cares about your stinking ‘wealth’? I want a
father!”
“What I am trying to say is, if you are my daughter—”
she opened her mouth to interject but I kept speaking, “and
I am not saying that you are not, I must take you under my
wing and strive to bring you to Islam. And this means I
must try to include you as a member of my family, which
will not happen overnight.”
She said nothing, but drew her body in close and
leaned against the door.
“Do not worry, azeezati,” I reassured her. “We will
figure this out, you will see. In the meanwhile, why don’t
you go inside and get warm while I try to reach your
mother again?”
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Sheryl Sorrentino
Chapter Eleven
The Call
I tossed my cell phone in the cup holder after trying the
house again and getting no answer. I started up the engine
and screeched away from the curb, running the yellow light
on the corner as it turned red and daring that cop to turn on
his flashing lights and come after me. I wasn’t about to let
traffic signals slow me down, even though I’d seen the
black-and-white police car sitting in front of Aziz’s closed
shop when I left the café, a uniformed officer inside
drinking coffee and writing notes. It was an Albany cruiser,
and I’d called Berkeley police, so it may have been a
coincidence. Still, I’d thought about rapping my knuckles
on his window, asking him to follow me to Aziz’s house,
and turning that sonofabitch’s life upside-down. Instead, I
decided to confront him on my own after imagining Razia
witnessing her father being arrested and shoved—head first
with hands shackled behind his back—into a patrol car
(and the entire neighborhood gawking in their pajamas). I
found that image quite satisfying, to tell you the truth, but
could see how it might traumatize my daughter for that to
be her first and only memory of her dad. (I could also see
the story making headline news tomorrow, Aziz’s photo
alongside Raz’s latest school shot plastered on the front
page of the morning Chronicle and going viral over the
Internet. My phone ringing off the hook at work—endless
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Stage Daughter
reporters and ORCA parents wanting the dirt on Razzi’s
biological father, the hostage-taking terrorist.)
As soon as I accelerated onto the freeway, my cell
phone rang. I looked down and practically swerved into
oncoming traffic when I saw “BLB YOGA” flash across the
tiny screen. An eighteen-wheeler honked menacingly as it
rumbled by, towering over my compact car. I turned on my
flashers, pulled onto the shoulder, and threw my jalopy
into “PARK,” hoping to catch the call before it went to
voicemail.
“Hello? Hello?” I panted, nearly hysterical.
“Sonya. Finally, I reach you. This is Aziz Qureshi. A
voice from the past.” Get a load of this guy! In a flash, I
remembered his stilted way of speaking. How typical of
him to state his full name, like his last name was supposed
to mean something to me just in case his first name didn’t.
He’d never even told me his last name! “I have your
daughter with me,” he continued. “But I suppose you
already knew that.”
“You’re damn right I know! I just left the café, up the
street from your shop. They saw you leaving with her.
What the hell were you thinking, kidnapping my kid?”
“Correction: Our kid. Or so it would seem. And I did
not ‘kidnap’ her. She came into my shop as I was closing.
Would you have preferred that I toss her out into the street
like a stray dog?”
“You should have called me as soon as she showed up
there! I could have had you arrested—I almost did!”
“I did try to phone you, several times. I got a busy
signal at your house—”
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“Yeah, because I was on the phone all night trying to
track down my missing child!”
“—and then I got voicemail when I called your cell.
Did you not get Razia’s message?”
“My cell phone must have rung in the kitchen while I
was busy tearing her room apart. By the time I heard the
message, I was already on my way to your studio.”
“Razia didn’t even want me to call you at first,” he
said. “She was angry and upset, as am I. Forgive me if I
became overtaken by natural curiosity when out of the
blue, a distraught twelve-year-old girl appeared at my
place of business claiming I am her father.”
“My daughter—excuse me, our daughter—is a
‘curiosity’ to you? Like some sort of novelty? I swear, Aziz,
if you hurt her in any way—”
I heard him scoff. “Sonya, please. What is this
expression you Americans have about a pot and a kettle?
We say something similar in Arabic: The camel cannot see
the crookedness of its own neck,” he spat.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that your secrecy—your preventing this girl
from knowing her father, your immoral betrayal of me—
these are the true causes of her distress. Nothing I said or
did in the last two hours of her life could have harmed her
nearly as much.”
I felt the wind drain from my lungs, as though I’d been
shoved against a wall. “The last two hours of her life? Oh
my God! Where are you? What have you done to my
daughter, you crazy sonofabitch?” I fumbled to start the
car, but my keys dropped from the loose ignition switch
and landed with a jingle. The phone went silent just as I
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Stage Daughter
groped around the floor mat to find them. “Hello? Aziz?
Hello!”
“How dare you accuse me of harming a child—one
who is very likely my own daughter, no less! Why would
you think such a thing? Because I am Muslim, you conclude
I am a psychopath?”
The anger in his voice knotted my stomach. “No! I just
meant—look, I’m sorry.”
“Razia is fine. I am in front of your house, and she is
inside,” he said in an icy voice.
“I’m coming right home!” I scanned the area, trying to
figure out how to exit and re-enter the freeway going in the
opposite direction.
“I should expect so,” Aziz answered coldly. “Just as I
expect you are satisfied with your little scheme.”
“What are you talking about? I didn’t put Razzi up to
this! She did it all on her own. She disappeared after
school—I’ve been worried sick!”
He took a moment to digest that. “I see. Well, calm
yourself, but get here as soon as you can, please. I am quite
late getting home, and I cannot have my wife finding out
about this fiasco just yet.” His voice grew nervous. “I told
her that I had to give a lift to the daughter of a yoga student
who was called away for an emergency. But that was over
ninety minutes ago.”
“You bastard! I’ve been raising our daughter alone for
more than twelve years! I’ve been worried to death about
her all afternoon and night! And all you can think about is
your dinner getting cold?”
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“I have long missed dinner. But surely you do not
expect me to drop this news bulletin on my family without
giving the matter more consideration.”
“Listen, Aziz, as far as I’m concerned, you don’t need
to give it another second’s thought. As soon as I’m sure my
kid is safe in her bed, you can just disappear and forget any
of this happened.”
“I have every intention of waiting here until I am
certain the girl has been returned safely to her mother. But
that is not the end of the story. Far from it. We shall speak
more about this tomorrow.”
“Like hell we will,” I growled. And with that, I hung
up on him and raced home.
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Chapter Twelve
Hunger Games
I immediately noticed the gray, late-model Saab parked in
front of my house, the back of the driver’s head silhouetted
in the darkness. Then I saw light coming through Razia’s
bedroom window.
My cell phone buzzed as I pulled into the carport.
“Hello? Oh my God—Officer Dimitri! I’m so sorry I
didn’t call you back. I think I found her—yes, I just got
home now.”
The door to the Saab opened and Aziz emerged like a
snail from its shell. He looked different from how I
remembered him—harder around the edges, despite his
thinning hair and previously-absent paunch. He was still
strikingly handsome, though. I gave him a quick nod as I
fumbled with my house keys.
“Sonya. You are looking well.”
Drop dead. “Where’s Razia?” I shivered from the cold.
“She is inside.”
“Razia, honey? Are you home?” I called out, bursting
into the house. I pulled the door shut behind me, leaving
Aziz standing in the carport.
“Why’d you let that damned cat sleep on my bed? He
scuzzed up my pillow!” Razia yelled.
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I choked back tears of relief and grabbed her in my
arms. “Officer Dimitri? Are you still there? Yes, it was all a
mistake, thank God. Razia’s home! She took off to find her
dad. I know, and I’m really sorry you sent a patrol car out
here for nothing. I should have called you as soon as I went
after her.” Razia broke loose from my grip. I looked her up
and down, and when I’d satisfied myself that she was
unharmed, gave her a mother’s stern eye. “It was very nice
of you to check in with me before going off duty. Right, I
will. You, too.”
I clicked off and marched to the carport to confront
Aziz. But he was gone. I heard his car start, then saw him
making a U-turn on my narrow street. After he’d gotten his
car repositioned, he rolled down the window. “It is late,
and I haven’t seen my own children all day. Since you are
obviously upset, let’s not argue any further tonight. But we
shall talk more tomorrow, you and I.” He rolled up his
window and pulled away.
When I got back inside, I found Razia’s bedroom door
closed, her way of making it clear she and I wouldn’t be
chatting tonight, either. That’s what she thought. I knocked
softly.
“Raz? Are you hungry? Come out and have something
to eat.”
“Mom, it’s late! I just wanna go to sleep.”
“But you haven’t had dinner,” I fretted. “You must be
starving. I could whip you up a sandwich or some
leftovers. We should talk about what just happened.”
“It’s almost ten o’clock. I’m not hungry, and I don’t
want to talk, okay?”
“When did you eat last?” I asked, opening her door.
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“Must you police everything I put in my mouth each
and every day?” she yelled down from her top bunk.
“You’re not gonna sleep in your clothes, are you?
Come down from there and take a nice shower.”
“Stop trying to micromanage me, Mom! Can’t you see
you’re driving me crazy?”
“I care about you, Razzmatazz.” I hadn’t called her
that nickname in years. She’d made me stop when she
reached fifth grade. “You can’t sleep in your clothes. At
least put on your PJ’s. Then come have something to eat. I
won’t sleep knowing you’re going to bed on an empty
stomach.”
Raz hesitated before answering. “Don’t worry about it.
I had some pie with my—with Aziz at the café up the street
from his place.”
“So that was your dinner—pie?”
“What do you care? Go feed your damned cat, if
you’re so worried about mothering something. You care
more about that stupid animal than you do about me!”
“Right. And you care more about your stupid animal
than you do about me!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I’ve spent the last six hours worried sick
about you! I was on the phone with other parents, with my
brother, the cops. I searched high and low for you half the
night in the cold! I was on my way to his house when he
called. How do you think I felt, finding out you’d gone
running after that piece of vermin?”
“Nobody asked you to do anything! You should have
just left me alone. Maybe then I could have had a little more
time to get to know my dad after twelve-and-a-half years!”
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“What for? So you can become part of his harem and
live out some Ali Baba fantasy?”
Razzi looked at me with an expression of utter
disbelief. “Are you freaking kidding me? I know you’re a
bitter, aging man-hater, but now you’re a bigot, too? You,
of all people?”
“Hey—you don’t get to insult me like that! I’m your
mother! And I’m not the one who’s bigoted. He’s the one
who rejected me—in favor of a made-to-order Muslim bride
he’d never even met! That’s how small-minded and
backward he is. And for the record, I’m not a man-hater.
I’ve just been too busy raising you to have a love life.”
“Right. Blame your pathetic existence on me, like you
always do.” She turned over and faced the wall.
“Why shouldn’t I? You blame me for the fact that
you’re not a part of Aziz’s life!” I shouted. And why stop
there? “A life that will never include you! Do you hear me?
What makes you think he’s gonna accept an illegitimate,
half-breed kid when he wouldn’t accept me?”
“Oh my God,” she said, turning around and looking at
me with pitying eyes. “I can’t believe you’re making this
about you, when I’ve wanted to know my biological father,
like, forever!”
“Fine. You’ve met him. You got what you wanted, so
it’s time to put the experience behind you and move on.”
“How can you expect me to move on now that I know
who he is?”
“Listen, Raz, don’t make him out to be some knight in
shining armor. You know what he is? A sperm donor! He
gave me a lousy squirt of potent semen I didn’t particularly
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want. After that, he never gave me anything—not one
damned thing. And he never will!”
Razzi flinched, and I saw the light drain from her face
like a curtain descending over an empty stage. I couldn’t
bear to watch her shut down like that. How ironic, to have
my daughter tucked safely in bed, in her room, yet see her
vanishing before my eyes more plainly than when she had
disappeared from school.
“Oh, so because you acted like a ho, I don’t get to have
a dad?” She yanked the covers over her head. A second
later, Dudley sauntered in, looking as stunned and
confused as I felt. He interrupted our standoff with a
tentative “meow,” so I scooped him into my arms. That’s
when I finally broke down and cried—bitter, burning tears
laced with frustration, anger, and relief.
“Get that stupid cat out of my room!” Razia shouted
from under the covers. “And don’t let the door hit you on
the way out!”
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Chapter Thirteen
Hunger Games 2
“Eat your cereal.”
“I’m not hungry,” Razia muttered, slouching in her seat
and stirring Cheerios around in her bowl.
“Eat it anyway,” I ordered. “You didn’t have dinner last
night and can’t go to school on an empty stomach. And sit
up straight.”
“You put too much milk in. You always do. Why can’t I
pour my own milk? I’m not a baby, Mom.” The phone
began to ring.
“Because you never put in enough. And you need
protein in the morning.”
“You know I hate soggy cereal,” she answered.
“So eat faster. Seriously, hurry it up so I can get you to
school.” It rang a second time, while I raced to finish
making Razia’s sandwich.
“I don’t wanna go today. Everyone’ll be gossiping
about how my crazy mother showed up yesterday and
made a scene.”
“If anyone caused a scene, you did. I only asked every
person in sight if they had seen you, because you nearly
gave me a heart attack disappearing from school!” The
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phone rang a third time as I cut the sandwich diagonally
down the middle and put it in a container.
“Aren’t you gonna answer that?”
“Hello?” I panted, pressing the “TALK” button and
leaving a smudge of mustard on the phone.
“Good morning, Sonya.”
It was him. “Why are you calling here? How’d you even
get my home number?”
“How do you think? Razia gave it to me last night.”
I looked at Razzi sitting there, still not eating. “Get
outta here,” I ordered. “Go to your room and get dressed.”
I wished I had someplace private to speak on the phone,
but since I didn’t have my own bedroom, if I ever needed
privacy, I either hid out in the bathroom or sent Razzi to
her room. And since she needed to get ready for school, the
bathroom wasn’t an option.
“That is a lovely name, Razia,” he said. “It means
‘contented’ in Arabic. Did you know that?”
I didn’t answer. I’ll admit I’d deliberately chosen an
Arabic name for my daughter when I was pregnant. Was it
to keep some pitiful connection to Aziz, just in case things
didn’t work out with his Arabian princess? Who’s to say
why any hormonally crazed woman makes the decisions
she does? And anyway, my daughter was anything but
content. Never happy with what I could offer her, she was
always looking for something more, better, or simply
different.
“Why are you calling here?” I said in a low voice. Razia
remained glued in place, gaping at me from the table. I
walked over to the futon, still open and unmade, and sat
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down next to Dudley, who was defiling my bed with his
fur and dander while he slept soundly in one corner.
“Why do you think? Because I want to see my daughter
again,” he announced.
“You saw her last night. That wasn’t enough?” I
motioned for Razia to leave the room, but she just sat there,
as impervious to my wishes as that stupid cat.
“I think you know what I mean, Sonya. Please do not
play games with me.”
“What do you want to see her for?” I whispered,
turning my back to Razia, who now sat up perfectly
straight, not moving a muscle.
“I am her father. I don’t owe you any more explanation
than that.”
I broke into a cold sweat and felt my heart pounding in
my chest. “Well, you can’t,” I answered. “I won’t allow it.”
“Why not?” he challenged.
“Because it would be too disruptive for her.”
“For her, or for you?” he asked.
“For both of us.” I heard clinking and turned to see
Razia filling her mouth with spoonfuls of soggy Cheerios. I
took the phone into the bathroom.
“Listen, Sonya, my daughter wants to see me, too. She
has a right to know her father.”
“She came looking for you out of curiosity. Don’t make
it into anything more than that.”
“I am entitled to visitation with my daughter!” Aziz
boomed with conviction, as though he’d done research
overnight.
“You have no rights, Aziz,” I answered as dismissively
as I could. The truth is, I didn’t know whether he had any
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or not. But I wasn’t about to admit that. “You have no proof
you’re her father. You’re not even named on the birth
certificate.”
“You know full well a birth certificate does not
determine—legally, scientifically, or morally—whether or
not that child is mine. Besides,” he went on, “it is a simple
enough thing to prove. All I need is a DNA test.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Then I will take you to court and have one ordered.”
My blood turned cold. “Why are you doing this, Aziz?”
“Why?” he practically roared. “Because the child is my
flesh and blood!”
Flesh and blood. Oh, how I hated that term! It was why
my adoptive parents had found it so easy to favor Keith,
their flesh and blood son, over me, their charity experiment.
Those particles of meat, fatty tissue, and hemoglobin
mattered more than anything else in this world, apparently.
“You can’t be serious!” I sat down on the toilet.
“I am quite serious. That girl needs a father. And I
intend to be a part of her life.”
“Don’t you think you’re a little late for that?” I snarled.
I heard Razzi knocking on the door. “Mom, I need to
get in there. I have to use the bathroom.”
“Just a sec,” I answered, not sure to whom.
“Whose fault is this?” Aziz barked back at me.
“Aziz, I gotta go. I can’t talk about this now. I’m trying
to get Razia off to school.” With that, I hung up on him.
“I cannot fucking believe the nerve of that man,” I said,
brushing past Raz on my way out of the bathroom. I tried
to act unruffled for Razzi’s benefit, but my throat was so
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constricted, the words came out pinched; my heart was
racing like an overheated engine.
“Was that my dad?” she asked when she emerged from
the bathroom a few minutes later.
“Who else? Why’d you give him our number?”
“So he could call you.”
“For what?”
“At first, he just wanted to let you know where we
were. But afterward, he said he would talk to you about
spending time with me.”
“Razia, why in the world would you want to spend
time with that man?”
“Because he’s my father. Duh.”
“Big deal. Any man can father a child. Let me explain
something to you, Miss Thang: Men are like dogs. They’ll
have sex with any woman who offers or allows it. Some of
them even force themselves on women who don’t do either.
A man doesn’t even have to like a woman to sleep with her,
and he does absolutely nothing out of the ordinary to have
kids. Men are biologically programmed to bed down as
many women as they can, as often as they can.”
“All men aren’t like that.”
“Yeah, they pretty much are, given the chance. Women
are the ones who carry and bear children. We have to quit
smoking and drinking for nine months and stop treating
our hair. We throw up every morning for God knows how
long. And then, when a woman finally gives birth, it’s
probably the most painful thing we’ll experience in our
lives.
“And that’s just the beginning. Afterward, you’ve got
to figure out how to care for this wriggly, temperamental
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creature who can’t walk, can’t even sit up on its own,
doesn’t sleep through the night, and can’t tell you what it
needs or wants at any given time. Then there’s sore nipples,
sleep deprivation—”
“Okay, I get it. It’s tougher being a mother than a
father.”
“You have no idea how tough it is! Once a woman
gives birth, behaving like a mom isn’t discretionary; it’s
mandatory. The point I’m trying to make is, a man has the
option whether to step up and act like a dad. A woman
doesn’t.”
“That’s so not true! It wasn’t mandatory for your
biological mom. She didn’t step up.”
“She still carried me and gave birth to me, even if she
gave me away. She stepped up by doing what she thought
was best for me. I’m sure she had her reasons.”
“Well, if being a dad is optional, then that means the
man gets to choose, right? And if Aziz is calling here, it’s
because he wants to be my dad! You’re the one who’s
stopping him!”
“Now you sit down and listen to me, Razia
Schoenberg, because this is how it’s gonna be from now on:
You’re going to set your nose to the grindstone with
schoolwork. You’re to go on auditions after school. There
will be no more jaunts to see Aziz. Is that clear?”
She studied the leftover milk in her bowl.
“I said, is that clear?”
She picked up the bowl and began chugging milk,
refusing to answer me.
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Chapter Fourteen
Electric Dreams
“You seem tense, Sonya. I would think you’d be relieved to
have found your daughter safe and sound,” Dr. Rodriguez
said.
“Am I tense?” I asked through gritted teeth.
“You seem a bit stiff, yes,” he answered.
“Well, if I’m tense, maybe it’s because my daughter’s on
a new campaign to spend time with her biological father. A
man who means nothing to me! A Middle Eastern yoga
fraud!” I flushed, realizing that I had been shouting at him.
“Sonya, you must try to take this in stride. I know it’s
none of my business, but every child has a natural curiosity
about her parentage. The more you prohibit your daughter
from knowing this man, the more she will want to defy
you. You must figure out a way to resolve your misgivings.
Otherwise, you run the risk of alienating her forever. They
do grow up, you know. And then, they are under no
obligation to have us in their lives, no matter how much we
may think they owe us.” He looked at me with serious eyes.
I fought the urge to tell him to mind his own damned
business. Maurelio didn’t even have kids. (But he did have
a point. Look at me and my parents.)
“I can’t, Dr. R. I can’t risk losing her to a man who’s
nothing more than a sperm donor. That’s all he ever was.”
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“Are you saying you used this man to become
pregnant?” he asked. (Now that was a bit too personal.)
“Not on purpose! It just—turned out that way. Which is
why I can’t understand why Razzi thinks he’s so great all of
a sudden.”
“How do you know he isn’t?”
“I know, trust me.” I felt my shoulders practically touch
my ears, and a sharp pain radiated down my neck. “Ow!
Ow—ow!”
“Sonya, what is it?”
“I think I pulled a nerve.”
“You are probably way out of alignment, given all the
stress you’ve been under. Come into the treatment room
and let me adjust you.”
“No! I mean—wouldn’t that be really unprofessional?
Not to mention weird?”
“Nothing weird or unprofessional about it,” he assured
me, taking my hand and leading me from my desk. Though
I could barely turn my head, the notion of this little man
snapping my neck filled me with dread.
As if reading my mind, he said, “Don’t worry. I will
attach you to the electric stim machine first. That will relax
your muscles. Then I will adjust you, and you will see you
feel much better.” There was something soothing about
Maurelio. I allowed him to guide me onto the adjusting
table. Next thing I knew, I was lying facedown with my
nose in the pit, the crackly hygienic paper absorbing my
facial oils. He lifted my sweater and planted what felt like
little electrodes at intervals along my neck, shoulder blades
and lower back. Before I could protest, I heard a hum and
felt the intermittent, tingling shocks. “Ooh!” I called out. At
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first, it jolted me—it was really quite stimulating. But then
it simmered down to twitching, pleasant-feeling vibrations.
“Is that too strong?” he asked. “I have it on the lowest
setting.”
“No—no, it feels good, actually. Crank it up a few
notches.”
He did. “How’s that?”
“Good. No, wait—make it stronger.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I can handle it. Hit me.”
“Okay. I’ve turned it up to number eight now. How
does that feel?”
I surrendered to twitchy electrical tremors prodding my
muscles, feeling perspiration forming under my sweater
from the concurrent heat. “I think I can go more.”
“Really? This is most unusual for a first timer.”
“What can I tell you? I’m an unusual gal.”
“Suit yourself. When you’re on my table, you’re the
boss,” he joked, giving it a final crank. “This is as far as it
goes. I hope it is satisfactory.”
“Aaaahhh.”
“I am going to leave you to relax for ten minutes or so.
When the timer goes off, I’ll be back.” And with that, he left
me alone to cook, twitching deliciously all over. I couldn’t
quite describe it, but those little nips were oddly relaxing. I
drifted into a peaceful sleep.
ɚɚɚɚɚ
I heard the phone ringing in the distance. Once, twice, three
times. Where was Maurelio? Why didn’t he pick up? I
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forced myself not to care. My back was toasty and
sweating.
“Ding!” The machine rang out like a rotisserie and
clicked off automatically. Dr. R. came in a moment later. He
wordlessly disconnected me, then got right down to
business. At first, a few crackles and crunches along my
spine—nothing too unsettling. Then he repositioned me on
my side and bear-hugged me, yanking my leg so hard I
feared it might pop out of its socket like the limbs of those
cheap, knockoff Barbie dolls Raz used to play with (before
she got wise to me). He turned me over and did the same
thing on the other side.
“Did you check voicemail, Dr. R.?” I asked.
“No, why?”
“I heard the phone ringing while I was under. It might
be a new patient.”
“I was here the whole time,” he answered. “Except for a
few minutes when I stepped out to use the men’s room.
Before that, I was on the phone with my mother-in-law.”
“Everything all right?”
He sighed. “As well as can be expected. Turn over onto
your back,” he ordered quietly. I did as I was told, scared to
death.
“Listen, Doc. That was great, and I really appreciate it,
but I would rather you not touch my—” Before I could
finish my sentence, his fingers encircled my jaw, his other
hand cupped the nape of my neck and pressed hard into
the ridges between my vertebrae.
“You will hear loud popping. Do not be alarmed,” he
said in a reassuring tone. “Please breathe in.” I did, too
terrified to speak. Next thing I knew, my neck underwent a
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sudden jolt as I heard it snap, crackle, and pop. He repeated
the drill on the other side. Then he helped me sit up, patted
my shoulder, and asked how I felt.
I tilted my head back and forth. “Better,” I answered.
“Thank you.”
“You are quite welcome. If you still feel any stiffness, I
could give you a massage.” His face was deadpan. Whether
this was this a come-on or part of his “treatment” I could
not tell.
“N-no, that was great. I should really pay you.”
“I’ll deduct it from your salary,” he said, still
expressionless except for the twinkle in his eyes. “I am
joking,” he said. “Just please work on inputting the patient
notes before you leave today, okay? You haven’t made
much headway on them since I installed the new program.”
“Sure, of course,” I answered, gathering myself and
leaving the treatment room. My cell phone was buzzing on
the desk. I ran to answer it. “Hello?”
“Is this Ms. Schoenberg?”
“Yes, who’s this?”
“It’s Mr. Holland. Middle school dean at ORCA.
There’s been an incident—”
“Oh my God!”
“— involving your daughter.”
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Chapter Fifteen
Air Supply
I raced the ten blocks to school and parked my clunker in a
yellow zone. A crowd had gathered around the front
entrance—an ambulance and fire truck blocked the
crosswalk. My heart pounded in my chest.
I pushed through the swarm of parents and kids.
“Hey!” someone called out, but I ignored them. The
security guard stationed at the entrance grabbed my arm
but I shook him off and made a bee-line to the student
center. “Let me through! I’m Razia Schoenberg’s mother!”
I saw Razia then—looking tiny and frightened on a
stretcher with an oxygen mask over her face. “Razzi, baby,
what happened?” I shoved my way toward her then
stopped dead in my tracks. Standing beside her, all six-feettwo of him, was Aziz. “What are you doing here? What’d
you do to my kid?” I gasped.
“I have done nothing. They called me here,” he
answered coldly.
“Who’s they?”
“The school. Who else?”
“How did they get your number?”
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He jutted his chin toward Razzi. “Apparently, our
daughter added my name to her emergency contacts list. I
gave her my cellular number last night.”
She did what? Even after our talk that morning? “Razzi,
what the hell happened?” I shouted.
Before she could answer, a familiar face appeared in
the crowd. “Sonya! Oh my God, I’m so glad you’re here!”
“Nannette.”
“This is just awful! We have got to put a stop to this!”
“Put a stop to what?” I noticed Aziz was wearing a
smug look; he obviously already knew what had happened.
“Your daughter passed out! She let another kid cut off
her air supply!”
“Mom—” I heard Razzi’s faint, muffled voice trying to
break through the din.
“You mean, like, strangle her?”
“It’s a thing now,” Nannette clucked, shaking her head
from side to side like a mother hen. (Although I had to
admit, she was a rather perky little fowl.) “They do it to get
high,” she whispered. Aziz squared his shoulders and
stiffened to about six-foot-four.
“Razzi, is this true?” I looked at my daughter, whose
eyes now brimmed with angry tears. “Who did this to you?
Was it that boy, Korey?”
“I asked her the same thing,” Aziz piped in.
A swill of fury bubbled in my throat like nothing I’d
ever tasted before. This bastard knew about Korey! How’d
he know what was going on before I did? “How did you
get here so fast? Are you stalking my daughter?” I shrieked.
The room suddenly quieted and all eyes turned toward me.
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“Sonya, you must calm down,” he said. “I was at my
North Oakland studio when they called. They said they
couldn’t reach you, so I rushed over here as fast as I could.”
“Ms. Shonberg?”
“Schoenberg. Yes.”
“Sorry. I’m Mr. Holland. I phoned you?”
“Apparently you called him first! This man does not
have my authorization to be here.”
“Mo-om . . .” That was Razzi’s pathetic, pleading voice.
“We tried calling you, ma’am. Several times, in fact.
We kept getting voicemail, so we left a message and
proceeded to the next name on the list. It’s standard
procedure.”
A wave of guilt washed over me. While I was
facedown being “stimulated” and Maurelio was tying up
the phone commiserating with his mother-in-law, the
middle school dean had been trying to get hold of me
because my daughter passed out. With as much indignity
as I could muster, I shouted, “The next name on your list
should be my landlady, Felicia Hansen. I’ll have you know
my brother’s an attorney, and he’s going to hear about this!”
I turned my fury to Razzi next. “Was it Korey? Did that boy
do this to you? I want to talk to him!”
“Korey Robledo was sent home early,” Nannette
chimed in knowingly. Her daughter, now standing beside
her, nodded in agreement.
“I met the young man last night,” Aziz said. “And
while Razia knows I do not approve of any daughter of
mine spending time alone with boys, he obviously cares for
her, and he did not strike me as the type to harm Razia for
sport.”
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I could see the look of surprise—admiration even—
cover Razia’s face when Aziz referred to her as his
“daughter.” Plus, he’d stuck up for a boy he said he didn’t
approve of, while dressing me down in front of all these
people. With that one line, Aziz stole three bases and
scored a home run.
“How come you know more about what’s going on
with my kid than I do?” I heard my voice break as my
throat constricted. Next thing I knew, I began to hiccup and
choke.
“This is a good question,” Aziz said sternly, yet half
under his breath. “I have been asking myself the same
thing.” I could not miss the fire in his eyes. I kept coughing
until tears began streaming down my face.
“Whoa—are you all right?” Nannette was immediately
beside me, placing a sympathetic arm around my shoulder
and handing me a tissue. I tried to shrug her off, but she
wouldn’t budge. And besides, her embrace—firm and
unashamed—was the most comforting thing I had felt in a
long while, next to Maurelio’s “stim.”
“I think I’m having an asthma attack,” I wheezed.
“Oh my God—do you have an inhaler or something?”
Nannette asked. I nodded, fumbling through my purse. She
grabbed it from me, found my inhaler buried at the bottom
and held it out to me just as I began to feel faint. I took it in
my mouth and drew in as deep a breath as I could,
instantly relieved by the mist’s bitter taste hitting the back
of my throat. Slowly, my lungs began to clear. Although I’d
managed my asthma with medication since I was a kid, my
pills had run out just yesterday, and stressful situations
could still trigger an attack.
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“Come here, you poor thing,” Nannette said, opening
her arms. I couldn’t help myself; I rested my head on her
shoulder, continuing to shudder and spasm while she
patted my back. Being a single mother, helplessness was
not a luxury I could indulge. But at that moment,
surrounded by so many people, I felt more alone and
scared than I had since the day Razia was born. All those
judgmental eyes, some filled with amused curiosity. Kids
tittering, adults whispering. My face flushed. I felt a
paralyzed mixture of embarrassment and ferocious rage—
at Razia for stressing me to the point where I’d have an
attack in public; at Aziz, for witnessing it; and now at
Nannette, for intruding on my private family drama.
“Ma’am, your daughter’s stable,” a female EMT with a
crew cut and a tattoo of Caduceus on the side of her neck
informed me. “Her vitals have been normal for the past
thirty minutes, and I don’t think the mark on her neck
should leave a scar. But we can take her to Children’s
Hospital as a precaution if you’d like.”
“I don’t wanna go to the hospital!” Razia called out in
a raspy voice.
My eyes met Mr. Holland’s. “That would be standard
procedure,” he informed us, shifting his eyes between me
and Aziz. “But you’re the parents, so it’s entirely up to
you.”
“I’m her parent—not him! I’m the one who decides!”
“Fine. So decide,” Aziz spat. “Who is stopping you?”
And in a flash, I almost wished he would help me
decide. In that instant I saw that what had passed for
decisiveness on my part had been nothing more than
twelve years of knee-jerk reactions to anything and
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everything that threatened my daughter’s well-being or my
unquestioned authority over her. Now I had to decide
whether to incur a thousand-dollar co-pay for an
ambulance ride and emergency room visit (thanks to
crappy health insurance I could barely afford), or let Raz
lick her wounds at home (when I obviously had no clue
what was going on with her). “What would you do?” I
asked Nannette, of all people. It came out a pained whine.
“She seems all right now,” Aziz interrupted—not
unkindly—before Nannette could answer. “But if it will put
your mind at ease and you want to take her to the hospital,
I will pay for it, if cost is an issue.” The pompousness of a
moment ago was gone. I heard something else in his
voice—guilt, I think. Nonetheless, I wanted to wrestle him
to the ground when I saw the electrifying spark his
concerned tone sent through Razzi’s bloodshot eyes. It cut
me like a knife.
“And then what?” I yelped at Aziz like a dog in pain.
“Are you gonna welcome Razia into the bosom of your
fucked-up, made-to-order family? Or are you just gonna
toss a few bucks my way to alleviate your guilt!”
“There is no need to insult my family because you
are—” he stopped himself.
“Go ahead and say it, Aziz. What am I, in your pious
eyes? An ungodly, wayward whore?” The entire room fell
silent.
“Mo-om, please!” Razzi begged. But at that moment, I
felt too threatened, confused, and judged to pay any
attention to her.
“That, and a fucked-up single parent,” he bristled. I
could tell how hard it was for him to utter the F-word, even
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in a language not his native tongue—how much anger and
hatred he’d had to muster to stoop so low. It chilled me to
the bone.
“You’ve got some nerve,” I glowered.
“Stop it! Just take me home, Mom,” Razia whimpered.
“I need to get out of here.” I broke away from Nannette’s
grasp, bent down and took my daughter’s face in my
hands. I brushed those silly dreadlocks aside and kissed her
forehead. She recoiled, as she always did, but I could
hardly blame her. Gagged by an oxygen mask and propped
on a gurney, she was now a minor player in our bigger
freak show—Aziz and me exchanging blows in front of this
ORCA crowd like lowlife trash on a live Jerry Springer
episode.
“Take the girl home, then,” Aziz decreed, as if he had
any say. “But when things settle down, you and I will talk.”
Nannette gave my arm a squeeze and leaned in close.
She whispered, “I have a name I can give you. We’ve had
some problems with Keshia, and this child psychologist we
sent her to was a godsend.”
Aziz bent down and whispered a few words to Razia
that I couldn’t hear. She nodded. Then he hesitated a
moment before placing a hand on her cheek. And she just
let him! He shot me a dagger, turned, and left without
another word. I stared at his rigid backbone receding
through the crowd and out the double doors.
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Chapter Sixteen
Bitch Slap
“Why’d you do it, Raz?” everyone wanted to know. My
mom, Korey, Chantal, Keshia. At school, I was what you’d
call a “cause célèbre,” like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian—
one of those high-profile idiots everyone gossips about
because they did something dumb. Only I did mine on a
dare, which made me even dumber.
Zeus, this ghetto boy who was in all my classes, had
been tormenting me from practically the first day of school.
Besides the fact that his name is totally stupid, he was so
obviously gay it wasn’t even funny. But of all the boys in
my grade, he was the one always grabbing his crotch and
gyrating his hips whenever I passed by.
Anyway, he claimed he knew this game that gave you
a buzz and an orgasm at the same time. He said it was a
way to get high without leaving anything in your blood
that could be picked up by a drug test. I wasn’t exactly sure
what an “orgasm” was. I mean, I knew from hearing kids
talk about it, but after a few attempts at diddling around
“down there,” I still didn’t think I’d actually “achieved”
one. I guess Zeus managed to figure that out, because he’d
been teasing me nonstop, calling me every dyke name in
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the book (“rug doctor,” “muffin bumper,” and “Cunt
Queen of the Nile,” to name a few). The boys all laughed,
but Keshia stuck up for me once. She’s as big as Zeus and
got all up in his face. That must have helped some, because
he stuck to calling me “chicken” after that, which was bad
enough. Then, when there were like ten kids surrounding
us in the student center, he dared me to try his stupid
choking game. He claimed it would be the experience of a
lifetime. He promised let go at exactly the right second. I
didn’t want to let that asshat strangle me, but all the boys
were egging me on—“Do-it-Do-it-Do-it!”—while the girls
stood around giggling and gossiping, obviously dying to
see if it really worked. If I said no, I’d look like a wuss. And
I was curious about getting high (I didn’t believe the part
about the orgasm, which was good because no amount of
curiosity could make me want to “achieve” one with Zeus).
So long story short, I said okay. Then, I managed to faint.
That was all it took for texts about my stupid experiment—
and pics of my lifeless bod—to go viral all over school (and
God knows where all else). And now, to make matters
worse, they’d opened a stupid investigation to find out
who did this to me.
I refused to tell—how could I? If Zeus made me
miserable before, I couldn’t even fathom what my life
would be like if I ratted him out. But the messed-up thing
was, everyone pointed the finger at Korey. He was the
logical suspect, since he was my accomplice when I left
school to find Aziz. Plus he got high and came from a
“troubled home.” But where was Korey when Zeus was on
my tail like a pit bull? The thing about boys is, they’re your
friend when no one else’s looking. But once there are other
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guys around, they’re nowhere to be found. To be honest, I
was a little mad at him for not sticking up for me with
Zeus. Maybe that was why I didn’t tell the middle school
dean that Korey wasn’t the guilty party.
I heard my mother doing her thing in the living room,
cleaning up, maybe. She usually cleaned when she got
upset. That meant she’d be standing in my doorway in
another second. I tried to tune out her noises by jacking up
my iPod volume while working on my latest sketch. I
wanted to finish my drawing of Korey before school
tomorrow. I figured if I gave him a fantabulous picture,
he’d forgive me for not ratting out Zeus to clear his name.
I picked up my charcoal stick and began smudging
some more around the eyes. His floppy, wavy hair fell
around the top of his head. I had his face all cut open,
revealing a crude topography of facial muscles—craggy,
like a dried-out riverbed. (Korey had this way of looking at
you from the inside out, which gave me the same feeling
when I looked at him—like I could see beneath his skin.)
His eyes looked up from the page in angry despair; his
smirky lips glowed bloody red (even in black and white).
And for the finishing touch, his forehead furrowed with
lines like the waves of an ocean.
And there she was, right on cue.
“Razzi, honey, I want to talk to you.”
“About what?” As if I didn’t already know. I slammed
my sketchbook shut.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
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“Don’t be fresh,” she scolded, as though I were four
years old. “I know you’re drawing; I meant, why are you
drawing? Have you finished your homework?”
“Yes, Mom,” I lied. “I finished my homework.” I sang
it out in the same stupid tone she’d used.
“Can I see?”
“You never believe anything I say!” I exploded.
“That’s because you don’t always tell me the truth,”
she sighed.
“Well, it isn’t something I can show you, okay? I had
reading assignments.”
“Razzi, I get the weekly status emails. I see that you
aren’t doing your homework.”
“I do it,” I snorted. “I just forget to turn it in.”
“Why would you sabotage yourself like that?” she
asked, playing therapist now.
“I don’t know!” I thought about trying some tears; that
usually got her off my back. But somehow, I felt too angry
to muster any.
Mom sighed again. “Razia, I’ve made an appointment
for you to talk to someone.”
“You mean, like a shrink?”
“Not a ‘shrink,’ a child psychologist,” she answered.
“Why? You think I’m crazy?”
She hesitated a long moment. “Of course not. But
you’re obviously going through a rough patch neither one
of us understands. And quite frankly, I don’t know how to
help you.”
“You can help me by leaving me the hell alone!” I
cried. I could tell she wanted to slap me really badly. She
never did, but part of her really wanted to. I saw it in the
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way she bit her lip and clasped her hands around that roll
of papers she’d brought in with her. I wished she would
just snap, lose her phony composure, and tear the damned
thing to shreds. Because I knew any minute she’d start
talking about whatever was written on there, and I didn’t
want to hear about it.
“Does this sudden rebelliousness have anything to do
with your father?” she asked.
“What? No!” She took two steps closer and handed me
the papers, just as I expected. “What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s a monologue. I’d like you to start memorizing it.”
“Why? I don’t have any auditions coming up.”
“I know. But you should have one prepared, just in
case. Besides, I thought it might—you know—help you
express whatever feelings might be troubling you, and get
you focused on something besides your embarrassment
over what happened at school.”
“I don’t want to learn another monologue,” I said.
“And I express my feelings just fine through drawing, in case
you hadn’t noticed.”
“Raz, you’re a drama student. That’s not what drama
students do.”
“I’m only a drama student because you made me be
one.” I tossed the pages on my bed, but I caught a glimpse
of the title: “Defiance” (Teen Monologue, Role of
Rebellious Female). Curious now, I picked the thing up
and read:
Lucy has just called her best friend, Kim, with another problem.
Lucy always has something to complain about, and often
doesn’t listen to her friends because she is too busy talking.
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Kim, on the other hand, has an active life, full of meaningful
relationships. She is a good listener, whereas Lucy is always
grumbling and criticizing. Although Lucy and Kim are best
friends, Lucy needs Kim more than the other way around, and
she often feels inferior.
Lucy: (On phone) Hey, girl! Why haven’t you called me
back? My mom’s throwin’ a hissy fit again . . . Oh, just her usual
drama. She’s trippin’ because I skipped school to go to the mall.
Last week, she freaked out when she found a pack of cigarettes
hidden in my underwear drawer, when she’s got no business in
my room anyway! And the week before that, she flew off the
handle because I snuck off to a party at night. (Beat) Yeah, with
Micky. I know, tell me about it! At least I have you to talk to;
otherwise I know I’d lose it. (Beat) I’m O.K., I guess. She’s more
annoying than anything. But I just feel like killing her when this
happens. What algebra test? . . . Tomorrow? . . . Nah, I’m not
worried; I can wing it like I always do. So, you wanna come over
and watch music videos? Kim—are you still there? Hello?
Hello? (To the audience) Why, that little traitor hung up on me!
Phone) Hey, girl! Sorry I haven’t call night to go to a party
out o
This is stupid!” I yelled. “Am I really supposed to
relate to this crap?”
“I tried to pick something you’d like.”I
“What I’d like is for you to leave me alone.” I tossed the
pages at her; they scattered on the floor between us. She
just stood there with her arms folded. Then she took two
steps toward me—I assumed to gather them up. Instead,
she grabbed my sketchbook. “What are you doing?”
“I want to see what you’re so busy drawing all the
time.”
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“Mom—no! I’m not ready for you to look at that.”
“Too bad! I’m your mother. I have a right to know
what you’re doing in here for hours on end.”
“But it’s private! Can’t I have one lousy thing in my life
that you don’t micromanage?” I started crying now—for
real. My mom left the room with the portfolio tucked
securely under her arm. I chased after her, snatching at it.
She stopped short and did an about-face.
“Go back to your room and do your homework,” she
commanded.
“No! You can’t just order me around like when I was
in first grade!”
“Then stop acting like a six-year-old. I’m going to fix
myself a cup of coffee before I look at whatever sick
masterpieces you’ve been creating. When you’re ready to
behave like a mature young lady, you can come join me in
the living room and tell me about them. Until then, get back
in your bedroom and do something productive.”
“That’s classic, Mom, calling my artwork ‘sick.’ Way to
make me feel understood and accepted!”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That was mean. And I apologize
for that. But if you’re going to spend all your time drawing
instead of focusing on your drama class or your homework,
I at least have a right to see what all the fuss is about.
Wouldn’t you agree?”
“No, I wouldn’t!” I shrieked.
“Why are you so angry, Razzi? Tell me what you’re
feeling right now.”
“Oh, so now you’re the shrink? You so totally suck,
words can’t express how I feel!”
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“Go ahead. Tell me how much you hate me. Get it off
your chest and break my heart like every girl’s supposed to
do once she turns twelve—just like I probably did to my
mother when I was your age.”
“I hate you doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel! I
wish you would die!” There. That made her flinch. And in
the next instant, I felt her palm make contact with my face
for the first time in my life, cuffing me hard enough to jerk
my head to one side. I heard the “thwacking” sound first,
felt the hot sting a moment later. I choked back a whimper,
the shock of it as bad as the pain.
I stood there, waiting for her to apologize in a million
different ways. Instead, the ice queen turned on her heel
and headed calmly for the kitchen. I guess she meant to
thaw out with that cup of coffee, with or without me.
“Aaarrggh!” I screeched as loud as I could, hoping the
neighbors would hear. I waited another second for the
phone to ring or our landlady to knock at the door, but
nothing happened. So I stomped back to my room and
slammed the door. Then I hunted through the junk pile on
my lower bunk until I found what I was looking for. “Please
don’t be dead. Please don’t be dead,” I chanted. When I spotted
my cell phone, I pressed the “ON” button and waited.
Finally, one faint bar lit up. The battery was low, but
charged enough for a single phone call. And that was how I
felt—like a death row inmate allowed one final call to save
her life.
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Chapter Seventeen
Judgment Day
I stormed into the living room and grabbed the mail. I was
so mad I couldn’t think straight, much less look at Razzi’s
drawings. I tried to settle down on the futon, taking deep
breaths while mindlessly flipping through bills and
circulars with shaking hands.
I still felt the sting in my right palm, my body’s
insistent reminder of how low I’d sunk. I’d never—ever—
laid a hand on Razia before. But what else could I do? I was
clearly losing control over my kid and literally had to
smack some sense into her.
I still couldn’t believe I had done it. I vaguely recalled
my own mother spanking me once in a while through my
clothing in grade school when I had misbehaved or talked
back. But I remember as though it were yesterday the last
time she touched me in anger. I was Razzi’s age. I had
given my class the slip during a field trip to see A Raisin in
the Sun performed at the San Jose Repertory Theatre. I’d
only wanted to meet the Black actress who played Beneatha
with such stridency and passion. That was when I’d first
envisioned myself performing on stage.
At the time, I couldn’t understand why everyone had
gotten so upset. I now know ten-year-old Kevin Andrew
Collins had disappeared from a San Francisco bus stop
about a month earlier after leaving basketball practice. So
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when my teacher did the head count and I was nowhere to
be found, the cops were immediately called, as was my
mother.
I hadn’t managed to catch up with the actress, but I had
found an empty dressing room. I’d sat down at the dressing
table and begun opening drawers while daydreaming
about my future as a star of stage and screen. When my
mom arrived about an hour later, I was discovered—drunk
but unharmed—in front of the speckled mirror wearing
caked stage makeup. I’d fallen asleep after chugging half a
bottle of rum I’d discovered in one of the drawers. My
mother was so angry she’d smacked me across the face in
front of my teacher and the few classmates who’d stayed
behind to help search for me. (But rather than teach me a
lesson, her punishment had only humiliated and infuriated
me—and made me even more determined to become a
famous actress.)
I realize it’s no longer okay to discipline a kid with
bodily force, but Raz had surely crossed the line. Telling
your mother you wished she would die? If that “lip” didn’t
justify a swat across the face, I didn’t know what did.
Dudley jumped on my lap and meowed loudly. In his
pea brain, whenever I sat down for a minute, it meant I was
available to pay attention to him. I stroked his fur absently.
Then I noticed the Express Mail envelope with the
computer-generated mailing label, “Bend it Like Bikram”
on the return address. What was so important that Aziz
would send me an overnight letter? I envisioned court
papers, a demand for a DNA test.
I turned the envelope over, debating whether to even
open it. Maybe it contained a deadly dose of anthrax. After
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what I’d just done, I supposed dying from a horrific disease
would be fitting punishment. Then Razia could go live with
her precious father. As far as I was concerned, the two of
them deserved each other.
With still-trembling hands, I opened it.
A check for $500 fell into my lap. No note, no memo,
nothing. Did that dirtbag think he could buy me off with
this pittance—or worse yet, bribe me into letting him do
God-knows-what with my child? I grabbed the phone and
dialed information.
“City please,” the electronic operator demanded.
“Albany, California,” I enunciated.
“Please state the name of your party or business,”
operator Jane responded.
“Bend-it-Like-Bikram,” I stated as clearly as I could. Next
thing I knew, the number was dialing.
“Namaste, and welcome to Bend it like Bikram,” a
chipper female voice answered. “How may I help you?”
“I need to speak to Aziz Qureshi.”
“He’s busy teaching a class, but I can help you. Are you
calling about the special? We’re offering twenty percent off
this week only for new signups.”
“Interrupt him. Tell him it’s important.”
“May I ask who’s calling?”
“Sonya Schoenberg. He’ll know who I am.”
“I can give him a message.”
“I said, interrupt him!”
She paused before responding. “I’ll see if he’ll take your
call.”
“Thank you.”
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After a few moments, he picked up. “Sonya, what is it?
I’m in the middle of a class.”
“I’m calling to let you know I got your check. And I’ll
be sending it back. If you think you can buy visitation with
my daughter, think again. And forgive me if I don’t spring
for Express Mail. Not all of us have money to waste on such
nonsense. You’ll get it in a few days.”
“I am not trying to ‘buy’ anything. The check is not
meant for you; it is for Razia.”
“Yeah, well, it’s made out to me.”
“Because you are her mother. I want you to spend it on
whatever she might need. It is obvious you are under a
great deal of strain.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“I cannot discuss it now. This is the second time my
class has been interrupted in five minutes. I need time to
consider everything that has happened, but I promise you
will hear from me soon.” And with that, he hung up.
Still fuming, I rose from the futon, spilling poor Dudley
onto the floor. He looked at me with what I could only
describe as consternation. I walked the few steps to Razia’s
bedroom and cracked her door open. She was on the bed
with her computer ablaze, her head covered with those
fancy headphones I’d gotten her for Christmas, swishing
the mouse around on a magazine doing double duty as
mousepad.
“Razzi! Do your homework!”
“I’m doing it!” she pointed to the computer screen.
“What is that?” I demanded.
“It’s the science website. The teacher gave us practice
quizzes.”
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I peered at the screen, but to tell the truth, I couldn’t say
whether I was looking at science or not. There were a bunch
of wandering, amoeba-looking things with multiple-choicelike bubbles underneath, but for all I knew, she might have
been playing a game. “Don’t you have any homework that
involves books?” I asked. She ignored me.
“Listen, Raz. About what just happened—”
Her computer pinged and bleeped. “Yessss!” she said,
half under her breath, abandoning any pretext of doing
schoolwork.
“I’m sorry,” I stated matter-of-factly.
She just rolled her eyes triumphantly—my cue to leave.
ɚɚɚɚɚ
My cell phone buzzed while I tried to catch up on those
patient notes that still hadn’t been input. “Dr. Rogriguez’s
office; may I help you?” I recited my office greeting without
thinking.
“Hello, Sonya. This is Aziz.”
I didn’t respond.
“Sonya? Are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Is there a reason you haven’t deposited my check?”
Three days after I’d received it, I still carried Aziz’s
check in my purse. I hadn’t cashed it, but I hadn’t sent it
back, either. I knew that was stupid, but I had actually let
myself believe that he’d sent that money as a way of
bowing out gracefully; I’d dared hope it was his way of
clearing his conscience and that I might never hear from
him again. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t returned it, either—I
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toted that bit of charged paper around with me like a
talisman.
“I’ve been meaning to send it back, but I just haven’t
gotten around to it,” I replied.
“I want you to cash it. I am sure Razia could use many
things.”
She sure could—new sneakers, braces, acting lessons.
Therapy. “Like you would know anything about that,” I
spat. I found myself battling the same out-of-control fury
I’d felt when Aziz first told me about his arranged
marriage—the feeling that he held all the cards while I had
no control over my own life. Thirteen years later, he had
money enough to toss a five-spot my way like it was
nothing, whereas I had to count every penny.
“Listen, I did not call to argue with you about the
check,” he said.
“Then why are you calling?”
“Razia phoned me the other day, just before you did.
She told me you hit her. Is this true?”
“What are you now, Social Services? Who appointed
you judge and jury over how I raise my kid?”
“So you admit to hitting her?”
“I’m not admitting anything. I don’t owe you any
explanations about how I parent my child.”
“No? Have you considered that your methods might be
having an adverse effect on her?”
“Look, it’s no big deal. I’ll admit, I lost my temper. But
it was the first time it’s ever happened, and I swear it’ll be
the last.”
“Do not minimize the seriousness of this incident,
Sonya. Our daughter is in great distress over it.”
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“Yeah, and whose fault is that? It’s because of you I’m a
stressed-out single mom! I’m doing the best I can.”
“I should say it is your fault,” he answered
categorically. “I have been in the picture but a week. And
Razia is confused and inculpable. So as far as placing
blame, that leaves you.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me. Razia’s anything but
inculpable. The kid let some nutcase nearly choke her to
death, then she gave me lip when I tried to talk to her about
it.”
“Razia is innocent. She may have acted foolishly for
attention, but you lost control and struck a child.”
“Innocent? You don’t know what the hell you’re talking
about, Aziz. So just shut the fuck up, okay?” My hands
shook and my heart pounded in my chest. Lucky for me,
Dr. Rodriguez was having another one of his “shut-ins,”
otherwise I couldn’t cuss at Aziz with such impunity and
keep my job.
“Ah, but I do know. The Qur’an says each child is born
guiltless, even an illegitimate one. An indisputable tenet of
Islamic faith is that no person share in the sin of another
unless directly involved in encouraging or assisting in its
commission. So how could Allah possibly curse this child
who has done nothing wrong? You are the guilty party,
Sonya. If Razia is troubled, it is due to your sins.”
“My sins?”
“Yes. Beginning with the illicit sexual relations that
conceived her. Razia had nothing to do with that. Don’t you
see? That immoral act was entirely yours, and Razia has
been paying the price for it ever since.”
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“Oh my God! What about you? How come you place all
the blame for our illicit sexual relations on me?”
“I was at fault, too, insofar as I played a role in your
despicable act. But I am not to blame for how you have
been raising our daughter the past twelve years, or for the
fact that you deliberately kept her from me all that time.
Besides, unlike you, I have been trying to repent.”
“You mean for being such a jerk?”
“No, for allowing myself to fall victim to temptation.
Sincere repentance lifts past sins,” he answered.
“What is it with you, Aziz? Is everything out of your
mouth a direct quote from the Koran, or else some twisted
version of Allah’s word that suits your needs? Are you not
capable of forming an independent thought?”
“Allah is all-powerful, and the Qur’an is His word, as
revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. So yes, when I find
myself in a difficult situation, I ask Allah what He wishes
for me to do. You might try it some time, with whatever
false god you pray to.”
“First of all, I happen to have been raised Jewish. But
for your information, I don’t pray, because I don’t follow
any religion.”
“Why not?”
“Because I don’t believe in them. Religion’s just a waste
of time.”
“How very sad.”
“Oh yeah? What good can your stupid prayers do for
Razia now?”
He drew in a thoughtful breath. “For starters, through
prayer I have come to see that my daughter needs me. And
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since I have the means, my devotion to Islam has given me
the resolve to step in—even at this late stage.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. A wave of apprehension
engulfed my stomach and throat. “Step in? What’s that
supposed to mean?”
“It means I intend to do everything in my power to see
that Razia gets well and develops into an emotionally
sound young woman. Otherwise, I might be held
responsible on the Day of Judgment.”
“Oh, I get it—you’re one of those Muslim extremists.
So, what, is this about you alleviating your guilt and getting
into Heaven or some such nonsense?”
“I simply wish to see my child raised properly, with
the involvement of her father. And yes, eventually I should
like to see her become a proper Muslim. But for now, I am
merely calling to tell you that I will be picking her up from
school tomorrow so we can spend some time getting to
know one another.”
“You have got to be freaking kidding me!” I shouted.
“Who the hell do you think you are? You think you can just
call me at work and announce that you’ll be taking my kid
for the afternoon? I swear to God, Aziz, you show up at
that school tomorrow, and I will call the cops this time. I
don’t care how much it embarrasses you.”
“Be my guest. If you wish to turn this into a legal
matter, I am more than happy to oblige. Much as I hate to
say it, Sonya, we are not evenly matched. I am a respected
businessman and father of two who has been kept in the
dark for over twelve years about the existence of my eldest
daughter. You are an immoral, dishonest, and quite
possibly incompetent—and dare I say abusive—single
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mother raising her child in a basement. Quite frankly,
under the circumstances, I would be justified in pursuing
custody of my child. Allah would consider it highly
praiseworthy, in fact.”
“Abusive? Are you serious?”
“You heard me correctly.”
“Then please tell me I did not just hear you say you
want custody of my kid!”
“Don’t worry. It is not my intent to destroy your life by
taking your child from you. My only concern at the
moment is that I be allowed to spend time with my
daughter, so she knows her father cares about her—that her
life matters more to me than the unfortunate culmination of
bodily fluids that created it. But please do not test me,
Sonya. If you do not cooperate willingly, I will get the
courts involved.”
Even through my fury, his words gave me pause. It
wasn’t just the calculating way he’d spoken them; it was
the calm, cold rationality of what he said. It was obvious to
both of us that I couldn’t afford a messy legal battle. That
was the last thing I needed. But everyone had their weak
spot, right? Including him.
“What about your wife?” I goaded.
“What about her?” His voice sounded an alarming
mixture of anger, defensiveness, and panic that left me
chilled.
“Were you planning on telling her you fathered a child
with me while you two were engaged?”
“In due time,” he answered in a more tentative tone.
“Not that this is any of your business. For now, my wife is
irrelevant to this situation.”
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“Irrelevant? You can’t be serious.”
“I am quite serious. I know she will have to meet Razia
eventually, but until that time comes, this does not concern
her.”
“Oh no? Exactly what do you plan on telling her—that
Raz is some orphan you found in the gutter?”
I heard him draw in a deep sigh. “Of course not. I will
have to tell her the truth. But for now, I only ask that you
give me time to figure this out and handle my wife my own
way. Fadwa is highly emotional. I simply cannot let her
know who Razia is just yet.”
“Then I don’t get the point of you wanting to spend
time with her!” I shot back.
“The point is, you heartless fool, that she is my
daughter!” The emotion in his voice was downright
frightening.
“Listen, Aziz, I know you think you mean well. But I
can’t have you filling my kid’s head with religious rubbish.
I’m trying to raise her to think for herself. And I don’t
happen to believe all your garbage about the ‘Day of
Judgment.’ Nobody knows what—if anything—happens
when we die.”
“Read the Qur'an, Sonya. Understand the Sunnah and
the life that girl is supposed to lead.”
“Just listen to yourself. You use religion to justify
everything you do. I’m her mother. That’s my religion. My
decisions are motivated by love for my kid, not fear of
divine retribution.”
“Then exhibit your loving maternal nature, Sonya, and
do what is best for Razia. All I am asking—for now—is that
you allow me to get to know my own daughter. You could
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at least keep an open mind, considering that you chose me
to father your child.”
“I chose you?”
“Yes, you did. Whether intentionally or carelessly I do
not know or particularly care. As far as I am concerned, the
only topic for discussion is whether you wish to pick Razia
up after our visit, or whether you prefer that I drive her
back home. I will call you tomorrow and you can let me
know then. That is all.”
The line went dead before I could ask that creep where
he planned on taking my kid—in his dreams!
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Chapter Eighteen
Mani-Pedi
“I feel so guilty doing this, Nannette.”
“I don’t see why. It isn’t costing you anything. I told
you I have a buy-one-get-one coupon. My treat.”
“It’s not the money. I meant sitting here having my
toenails painted after what just happened.”
“Sonya, you needed to calm down. Seriously. You two
practically came to blows! If I hadn’t dragged you here, in
another minute someone would have called the police, and
you would have gotten yourself arrested.”
“I wish someone had called the cops. I cannot believe
that man thought for one second he was gonna take my
daughter God-knows-where all afternoon!”
“I know how you feel, Sonya. But listen, eventually
you’re going to have to deal with this. I know it’s none of
my business, but as a fellow single-parent, I know of what I
speak. The train has left the station. Your ex clearly wants
to spend time with his daughter—”
“He isn’t my ex-anything,” I muttered.
“—and quite frankly, unless you have a good reason to
keep her from him, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about
it. The more you fight him, the more you’ll make all three of
your lives miserable.”
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“I can live with that,” I huffed. “They say all the
world’s a stage? Well, I just gave the best performance of
my life right in front of the school.”
“You caused a scene, Sonya.”
“So I caused a scene. Only in front of Razzi’s little
friends, the security guard, and that nosy Becky Potamkin.
Big deal.”
Nannette picked up a magazine. Good. I didn’t
especially want this woman up in my business, even if she
was fronting me a manicure. As for Aziz, he should be
grateful I hadn’t involved the cops. And that wasn’t
because of his stupid threat, either. I’d only kept the
authorities out of it because I didn’t want to turn him into a
martyr and make even more sympathetic to Raz.
As a consolation prize, I’d allowed her to go with
Keshia and a group of their friends to see “An Examination
of Sex, Gender and Race,” an art exhibition at “The Hive” (a
nearby artists’ studio and gallery). The pamphlet Nannette
gave me said it contained “mature content.” But after
having finally sent an infuriated Aziz on his way, I wasn’t
about to stand on G-rated ceremony with my equally
pissed-off daughter. I figured an adult-themed art
exhibition might be just the thing to salve Razzi’s ego while
satisfying her ever-increasing desire for independence. A
group of about ten ORCA middle-school students was
heading over there together, so if the retrospective was
deemed suitable by that many parents, I could probably
stand to loosen up a bit myself.
My manicurist’s nametag read, “Mi-Yung.” The little
Korean lady (who couldn’t have been older than twenty)
finished my pinky toe and rolled her stool close to paint my
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fingernails. She removed my spa gloves and began
massaging my knuckles.
“I haven’t had a mani-pedi since before Razia was
born,” I moaned.
“Well, then, you’re long overdue,” Nannette said,
looking up from her magazine. “Relax. Turn on the
massager chair.”
“The chair has a massager?”
“Here, you want I do?” Mi-Yung reached beside my
chair and pressed a button. Balls began rolling up and
down my spine as the chair vibrated against my tense
muscles. It felt wonderful.
As soon as Mi-Yung finished putting the second coat
on my last nail, my cell phone buzzed. I saw “BLB Yoga”
flash across the screen.
“What the hell could he possibly want now?” I fumed.
“Whatever it is, I guess the joke’s on him. I can’t answer
with wet nails.” I shot Nannette a self-satisfied grin while
wriggling my fingers.
“You want I answer for you?” Mi-Yung asked.
“What do you think, Nannette? Should I talk to the
jerk?”
“It’s up to you, but it couldn’t hurt to hear what he has
to say now that you’ve calmed down a bit.”
“Would you mind?” I asked Mi-Yung. She smiled,
grabbed the phone, and pushed the green “ANSWER”
button before placing it carefully in my palm. I hoped I had
a few bucks in my purse because this lady deserved a big
tip. “Thank you! Hello? Aziz?”
“Sonya. I am so glad I reached you.”
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“Why? Nothing’s changed in the past hour. You can’t
see my daughter today or any other day.”
“Do you even know where Razia is?”
“Of course! I let her hang out with friends at a local art
gallery. I’m picking her up in a little over an hour. Not that
it’s any of your business.”
“Think again, Sonya,” he said, before hesitating just
long enough to make me panic. “She showed up here about
ten minutes ago!”
“She did what?”
“Did you put her up to this?”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me! I just spent half an hour
fighting with you in the street because I won’t allow my
child to spend time with you! What in the world makes you
think I’d send her over there?”
“Perhaps to make a point. My wife answered the door.
And for the grace of Allah I was able to intervene before
complete chaos ensued.”
“You mean before Razia could tell your precious wifey
the truth?” I had to hand it to my Raz. She must have
Googled his address and ridden the train to his house all by
herself. Although part of me was purely infuriated, another
part admired her gumption. And if she disrupted his tidy
little life in the process, so much the better. “So what did
you do?”
He sighed. “When I came to the front door, she looked
at me with such pleading, puppy-dog eyes, I invited her in.
What else could I do?”
“Yeah, I know that look. But what did you tell your
wife?”
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“I told her Razia is the daughter of a student and that
she wanted a part-time job after-school. Which, by the way,
I hope to someday be true, because I would love for Razia
to help me at the studio if she’d be willing—”
“Well, I’m not. So you can just forget that. And since
you’re just makin’ shit up as you go along, tell me
something: Do you expect me and my daughter to play
along with your stupid lie?”
“I know it is unfair, Sonya, but I had no choice. I didn’t
expect for Razia to show up at my doorstep unannounced.
It is only temporary, until I can have DNA testing done.”
I bolted from my still-undulating Rolf-o-Lounger,
leaving those massager balls to knead thin air. “You
bastard! Do you really think I slept with someone besides
you?”
“You know as well as I that it is the prudent thing to
do. I am sure even you can appreciate that I’d prefer not to
turn my marriage on its ear until I am absolutely certain of
the facts.”
“Well, how about this, Aziz? I admit it! It wasn’t you! I
fucked someone else, okay? In fact, I fucked, like, fifty guys
that month! How do you like them apples? So you’re off the
hook—you’re officially not her father!”
The entire salon, which had been abuzz with ladies’
chatter, fell silent, and all eyes turned my way. Nannette
placed her magazine facedown in her lap, pursed her lips,
and shook her head.
“I should have known better than to expect any
cooperation from you,” he sighed. “I am afraid you leave
me no choice. I will have to involve my attorney.”
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“Do whatever you want—you don’t scare me.” (In
truth, he scared the hell out of me.) “In the meantime, don’t
you lay a hand on Raz! I’m coming right over.”
“Do not trouble yourself. I will drive Razia home.”
Now, you know I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity
to go to his house and kick up some dust. I was dying see
how Hot-shot Yoga Man’s life had turned out—what with
his dutiful Muslim wife and lucrative yoga business.
Maybe they had a pool, like on Lifestyles of the Rich and
Famous, and I could push her into it, fully clothed, like in
that classic Dynasty episode. I could practically picture her
stupid hijab floating on the surface like a dead skunk while
I held her face underwater. “That won’t be necessary,” I
said coldly. “Just tell Razia to stay put until I get there.”
“This is not a good idea, Sonya . . .”
“Why not? I said I’m coming to pick up my daughter! I
don’t give a crap about your marital dilemma!”
Aziz sighed again. “Okay, but please—I do not expect
you to lie, but I do ask that you not say anything to Fadwa
just yet. You won’t even have to meet her; I will be keeping
an eye out for you when you arrive.”
“Why should I do anything for you after you
practically stole my kid?”
“Listen to you—the woman who has robbed me of my
firstborn child for more than twelve years! Do you not owe
me this one small favor?”
“Whatever,” I scoffed, looking down at my nowruined nails. “Dammit!”
“You smudge!” Mi-Yung scolded. “I re-do.”
“I don’t have time for that! I need to get my daughter.”
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“Is she safe?” Nannette asked. After a moment, I
nodded. “Then sit back down and relax.”
“Sonya?” That was Aziz. “Listen, there is no need to
rush over here on my account. I have spoken to Razia, and
she understands why my wife cannot know the truth just
yet. Now that crisis has been averted, she is more than
welcome to stay a while longer.” He paused before adding,
“It is a joy to have her in my home. In fact, my children are
delighted by our unexpected visitor. She is quite the
colorful child, with many entertaining stories to share about
her school. So please, take your time.”
I hesitated. My kid wasn’t exactly what I’d call
“entertaining” at home with me—unless you considered
her fresh mouth amusing (which I didn’t). “All right. If you
take back your threat about calling your lawyer.”
“I do, for now. But only if you agree to sit down and
discuss this situation with me like an adult another day.”
“Fine. I’ll be on my way as soon as my nails dry. I
should be there in half an hour.”
Nannette looked at her watch. “It’ll be five o’clock by
the time we leave here. You might hit some traffic,” she
said.
“Okay, an hour then—tops.”
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Chapter Nineteen
Mail-Order Bride
It was nearly five-thirty and freezing by the time I reached
Aziz’s house, and yet he stood waiting for me on the porch
wearing only a woolen sweater. To be honest, I was rather
disappointed; I’d expected more affluence. Where was the
mansion, the curved driveway, the climbing vines?
Arrogant prick that he was, he didn’t walk toward my
car, even though I was pretty sure he’d seen me. I checked
him out for a few minutes from the driver’s seat. He was
still handsome, with a perfectly-trimmed goatee, deceptively warm laugh lines around the eyes, and that air of
conceit. He wore a black cotton top reaching down to his
knees, its button-down Mandarin collar embellished with
gold embroidery. Under that, some kind of loose-fitting
white pajama bottom—a get-up similar to the one he’d
worn the night this calamity got started (a shalwar kameez, I
would later learn). Whereas he’d seemed harmless enough
back then—just one of many quirky foreigners you might
meet in the highly diverse Bay Area, tonight he looked
menacing in his bomb-builder costume, like a human
Tower of Babel.
I thought back to the first time we’d met. I’d been
temping as a receptionist in downtown Oakland while
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trying to land auditions (something I’d done since
graduating college). He’d waltzed through the elevator
doors wearing a haz-mat suit and paper slippers with his
face covered in a head-case, just like in the movies. He
explained in a muffled, accented voice that he and his crew
were there to pull out the lamps, thermostats, and light
switches from the rear offices as part of a renovation
project. I’d thought nothing of leading these foreign
strangers to the vacant rooms in back, checking Mr.
Spaceman out over my shoulder while chuckling to myself.
Believe me, if the same thing happened at Dr. R.’s place
today, I would probably call building security. Back then, it
struck me as comical; now Aziz was anything but a
laughing matter.
I grabbed Razzi’s jacket (which she’d refused to take
with her after school), got out of the car, and walked
toward the stoop to confront him.
“Aziz,” I said in a flat voice, looking past him through
the front window of his modest two-story, bungalow-style
home. I didn’t see a TV or any form of electronics, just a
very austere room with a sofa, large dining table, and a rug
hanging on one wall. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw
Razzi at the table, notebook open and pen in hand. Aziz’s
kids sat on either side, also doing schoolwork.
“How are you, Sonya?”
“I’ll be just fine as soon as I take my daughter home.”
Raz looked so studious poring over her textbook. She never
did her homework at the table when she was home; when
she bothered to do it, she slouched on her bed. She didn’t
see me standing out on the porch—or maybe she did and
was putting on a goody-two-shoes routine for my benefit. If
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so, it was working; in that instant, I felt like a complete
failure as a mother.
“We always have the children finish their homework
before dinner,” Aziz explained. “Razia is working on her
math lessons.”
“Where’s your mail-order bride?” I asked.
Aziz turned to look inside. “If you are referring to my
wife, she must have gone upstairs. And I would appreciate
if you would stop with the childish insults. Didn’t you get
your fill of them for one day?”
“Yeah, about that, I’m sorry I lost it in front of the
school—”
“As well as on the telephone.”
“Right. So, where are you hiding the TV?”
“We do not own a television. Or video games.”
“Why not?”
“Because they are harmful to our kids. Parents are
supposed to spend their time engaging with their children,
not staring at glowing boxes that infect your home with
foul language and shocking images while robbing you of
valuable family time.”
Wow. They had two children and no TV? I, for one,
couldn’t have survived parenthood without television as
my built-in babysitter. “So, how old are your kids?” I
asked.
“Aleyah is nearly eleven, and Abdul is seven.”
Although I saw them sitting right there, in the flesh,
through the window, he nonetheless felt the need to pull
out his wallet and show me pictures. “These are from when
we visited family last summer,” he said, perhaps to explain
his full Arab regalia of starched nightgown and ringed
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headdress. Only I could barely look at the photos for my
shock over seeing that same wallet I’d thumbed through
thirteen years ago. It was creased and worn back then, and
it looked exactly the same now.
I glanced down at side-by-side shots of son and
daughter, embraced from behind by Aziz bearing an
adoring, self-satisfied expression. I flicked to the next
ones—a family shot of the four of them having a picnic. His
wedding photo beside it. And then, wouldn’t you know,
that same picture of what’s-her-name—the one I had lifted
from that very billfold on our bogus dinner date that never
materialized.
“I’m surprised a hot-shot guru scammer like you
hasn’t bought himself a new wallet by now,” I scoffed.
Aziz snatched his wallet away. He flipped it closed
and tucked it in his back pocket. “I see you are still at it,” he
snorted. “First of all, I do not consider myself a ‘hot-shot’
anything, nor am I a ‘guru’ or a ‘scammer.’ I resent you
calling me these things when you hardly know me. As for
my wallet, it is quality leather from Saudi Arabia that
should last a lifetime.”
“Is that where the pictures were taken—Saudi Arabia?
Is that where you’re from?” To be honest, I didn’t especially
care where Aziz came from. I merely wanted to deflect my
insult and get Razia out of his house (and him out of my
life).
“I am from Kuwait,” he clarified. “But I have been in
this country since I am twenty-five years old."
“That would make you—what—Iraqi or something?”
“No, that would be someone from Iraq. People from
Kuwait are Kuwaiti. But why the sudden interest in my
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heritage, Sonya? As I recall, the few times you and I—” he
hesitated, hunting for the right words—“saw one another,
you never once asked about my background.”
“That was before nine-eleven,” I blurted without
thinking. “I mean, where you came from didn’t matter so
much back then.”
“I see. And it matters now, why? How, exactly, has this
changed me in your view?” I stared at him blankly. “You
barely knew me then, and you most certainly don’t know
me now.”
My neck grew hot. “Look, Aziz. I didn’t mean
anything by it, okay? But listen, you got your visit, and I
can see that you have a nice little setup going here. I’m sure
the last thing you need is for my kid to upset your marriage
and disrupt your life. So can we agree it’s best I take Razzi
home, and we pretend like this never happened?”
“Ah, but it did happen. You cannot expect me to
simply forget about the daughter I didn’t know I had after a
single unplanned visit. It was wrong of you to keep her
from me all these years. You do realize that, yes?”
“What? You should be thanking me! I’ve been raising
our daughter alone so you could have your stupid prearranged marriage! You think it’s been easy for me,
managing on my own all these years?”
“I am sure it has not been easy,” he allowed. “But let
us be clear: You did not make this choice in order to
safeguard my life. You did it to punish me for marrying
Fadwa while maintaining sole dominion over our
daughter.”
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“You don’t know the first thing about me, okay? We
slept together one time! How can you even be so sure she’s
your kid?”
“Why? Did you seduce others?”
I flushed again, because he was right—I had “seduced”
him. But no, there hadn’t been any others. I hadn’t been
with a man for two years before Aziz, and I hadn’t slept
with anyone since. But there was no good response to his
question. However I answered, he’d either see me as a
whore or a lonely, desperate woman.
He sighed. “As I said on the telephone, I want a DNA
test to erase any shred of doubt. But I am fairly certain how
it will turn out. I can practically see my features in the girl’s
face. What I cannot for the life of me understand is, why
did you speak of me to her all these years, yet never once
contact me?”
“You were already spoken for! What was I supposed
to do? Come crawling at your feet like a beggar? And for
what? Money? A few crumbs of your time? You made it
quite clear I didn’t rate your affection—only some Muslim
bitch you hadn’t even met qualified for that privilege,
right?”
“But you did throw yourself at me, Sonya,” he shot
back, “precisely because you wished to manipulate my
affections. Isn’t that right? Once you understood the full
consequence of your actions, should you not have allowed
me the opportunity to offer affection to my own child?
Would that not have been the moral thing to do?”
“Where do you get off lecturing me about morals? You
slept with me while you were engaged to another woman!”
A bemused expression came over his face, which silently
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proclaimed his inculpability for doing me (okay, letting me
do him) while “Ms. Habib” waited in the wings. And yet I
was the one humiliated—even now.
“Who do you think you’re kidding?” I jeered. “You’re
a total hypocrite! You used your bogus Muslim prohibition
against premarital contact so I’d make the first move, but
you were a willing participant. I mean, you can’t get any
closer than letting a naked woman climb on top of you,
even if you did lie there as rigid as a corpse.”
Now he flushed. “Would you please keep your voice
down? My wife is inside.”
And speaking of the she-devil, I could see her skulking
around the dining table wearing a moo-moo, pretending to
check on her kids’ homework while she was really sneaking
glimpses at me when she thought I wasn’t looking. Even at
home at this hour, she wore a black scarf around her head,
like a fashionless cancer victim.
Aziz picked up on the flicker in my eyes and turned
around. She stood beside the table saying something to the
kids. Razzi looked up and nodded in response to whatever
the woman said. That could have been me, I thought. Stuck
inside this house with a scarf wound around my head, tied even
more tightly to this domineering Arab A-hole. Is that what I
would have wanted?
“You know something, Sonya?” he whispered. “I once
found you irresistibly attractive. You’d still be a beautiful
woman today, but your bitterness affects you with an
ugliness from within. I’ll go get your daughter.”
With that, he turned on his heel, leaving me standing
alone on the porch. I shifted uncomfortably as I watched
them through the window. He spoke a few words to Raz
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while she stuffed her notebook and text into her backpack
without so much as a glance my way. I tried to read my
baby’s face, but her expression remained neutral. I’ll bet she
knew I was standing in the cold and was deliberately
snubbing me like a cast-off BFF who’d just been replaced
with someone better. Now I remembered how it felt to be
an unpopular seventh-grader. She slung her backpack over
her shoulder and followed Aziz’s wife into the kitchen.
I stood on the porch several more minutes, peeking
through the window and pacing. After paying for my
“mistake” on my own for so many years, the very idea of
being banished outside while my child was inside that
man’s house—and in his wife’s clutches—struck me as
infuriatingly unreal, like a bad dream you knew you
wanted to awaken from but couldn’t.
What was taking them so long? Just as I was about to ring
the doorbell, Aziz reappeared with Razzi standing stiffly at
his side (and his petite, shrouded wifey slinking behind
them). The two kids craned their necks from the table when
not pretending to do their homework.
“Fadwa, this is Razia’s mother.” I noticed Aziz didn’t
introduce her to me, like he should have, much less utter my
name. I was just an invisible ghost from a past life,
haunting his family from beyond the threshold. And I may
as well have been a phantom, because without so much as a
word of acknowledgment (or an honest look in the eye), his
mail-order bride turned on her slippered heel and retreated
to the kitchen. I held out Razia’s jacket, but she shoved my
outstretched arm aside (just as she had done in front of
school) and stormed toward the car in silence.
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Chapter Twenty
In The Beginning . . .
I kept my mouth shut as I drove, even though I wanted to
strangle Razia for the stunt she had just pulled. But rather
than act the least bit repentant, smoke practically billowed
from her ears. What in hell was she so mad about? Was she
still stewing over my scene in front of the school, or did it
go beyond that?
So I hadn’t told her devout Muslim father his “moment
of weakness” had left me with a big problem. What had
been my alternative—to “take care of it,” like Keith
suggested? Maybe he thought that’s what my mother
should have done. True, I’d never felt particularly loved or
wanted by the Schoenbergs, despite their comfortable home
and considerable means. But I was glad to be alive, and
grateful that my birth mother—whoever she was—hadn’t
gotten rid of me. So when I found myself pregnant with
Raz, I never even considered abortion. And after living my
entire life carrying the sting of maternal rejection, I wasn’t
about to give up any baby of mine for adoption, either.
Given the circumstances, what would have been the
point of telling Aziz I was pregnant? He was about to
marry another woman! And in Islam, marriage is serious
business—both a social agreement and a legal contract.
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I looked over at Razia. Ears plugged into her iPod, she
ignored me and stared straight ahead. She really did look
like Aziz, especially when he was younger. I could see it
now, even in the dim light of my moving car.
I remembered the first time I’d gotten a good look at
him, when he’d appeared out of nowhere in the lobby
sandwich shop the day he’d shown up in the haz-mat suit.
He casually followed me toward a bench in the courtyard,
where we sat down together. He’d removed his head-case
to eat, and that’s when I was struck by how fine he was. He
had a thin, perfectly trimmed beard and moustache,
magnificent eyes, and a Hollywood-perfect profile. His skin
was about the same shade as mine; I thought he might be
Hispanic. And that hair—at the time, wispy at the neck, but
otherwise slicked straight back, revealing a slight but quite
charming receding hairline at the sides. I didn’t usually go
all gaga over men, even back then. I could take them or
leave them, to be quite honest. But Aziz was the perfect
male specimen, and I’d had to concentrate on not drooling
all over myself.
I decided to break the ice and ask his name. When he
told me “Aziz,” I laughed out loud, because it sounded like
a rapacious bumblebee buzzing around a delicate flower.
Except if I was the beautiful blossom, Azizzzzzzz wasn’t
closing in at all. He kept his distance, sitting on the far edge
of the bench and eating his sandwich in virtual silence.
So I asked him what was up with the space suit. He
explained that the light ballasts contained mercury and
PCBs, and some of the pipes and roof vent flashings
contained lead. Before becoming Hot-shot Yoga Man, Aziz
was Radioactive Man—up to his neck in toxins all day long.
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Aziz proved himself a man of few words. When he
finished eating, he got up and said, “It was nice meeting
you,” before walking away with an air of finality.
That was Friday. The following Monday, the same
thing happened—don’t tell me it was coincidence. Not five
minutes after I’d sat down on that same bench, Aziz again
appeared out of nowhere, and again positioned himself
next to me, leaving a respectable amount of space between
us. This time, he’d brought home-made leftovers in a
plastic container. We got to talking, and he mentioned that
he and his uncle owned that haz-mat cleanup company.
Hmmm. A steady, hardworking guy with a family business.
I could do worse, I’d thought. Back then, I was still able to
finagle some extra cash out of my folks whenever I needed
it (which was often). But more and more, I’d begun
clashing with my small-minded, fiscally-secure parents,
who belittled my dream of living a creative and artistic life
as an actress. “You’ll never settle down and have a family,”
Mom had warned. “You’ll never have children and lead a
normal life, and you’ll never stop depending on us.” They’d
been bugging me for years to “meet a nice man” so they
could “enjoy their golden years” without having to worry
so much about me. And while I didn’t especially want to
live out their narrow vision for my life, at the time, I
wouldn’t have minded a good-looking, financially stable
dude like Aziz to back me up. The fact that he technically
wasn’t white like them made him all the more appealing.
When I commented on his brown-bag lunch, he
explained that he was trying to save money to get out of the
chemical cleanup business, which he hated. “I do not like
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working with chemicals,” he said. “I dream of someday
opening my own holistic yoga and fitness studio.”
“Seriously? Muslims can be into yoga?”
“I cannot speak for all Muslims. But I consider myself a
deeply spiritual person.” Aziz sounded stilted and formal,
as though forming his words through a mouthful of
pebbles. But there was definitely something entrancing
about his voice. I could listen to it all day long. “Although I
am personally devoted to my Islamic faith, I would like to
help all you stressed-out Americans become healthier in
mind, body, and spirit, regardless of religious affiliation.
Yoga is a divine practice that has been evolving for the last
five thousand years. It can bring about a direct spiritual
experience for believers and nonbelievers alike.”
Now that struck a chord. My adoptive parents had
raised me in their Jewish religion (though they’d stopped
short of giving me a bat mitzvah), but once I’d left home, I
never set foot in a house of worship again. I became
instantly smitten by this man’s perfect blend of looks,
ambition, and spiritual groundedness. I passed him my
phone number before we went back to work.
But he didn’t call. The third time we met for lunch, he
showed up with a homegrown sandwich and sat stiffly
beside me. With this unnervingly handsome man not two
feet away, the word Ask (as in Ask.com) taunted me from
atop one of the office towers. It was obvious the man liked
me, but apparently if things were ever going to get off the
ground, I would have to grab the bull by the horns. So I
casually suggested we get together outside of work.
“This is going to sound strange to you,” he said, “but I
cannot take you out. I come from a traditional Muslim
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family. Dating as it is currently practiced in much of the
world does not exist in our culture.”
“Why not?” I’d asked, incredulous.
“Islam lays its social structure on the basis of a
permanent relationship between a man and a woman in the
form of a family,” he explained. “Islam prohibits all forms
of temporary relationships between the sexes. Especially
pre-marital ones. They are not considered respectful for
either party. In fact, a man and a woman are not allowed to
be alone together at all, and any physical contact before
marriage is strictly forbidden. So dating you is simply out
of the question.”
I found it hard to believe that anyone could be so
devout; I figured he was playing hard-to-get. Aziz was
among an elusive breed of men I considered “in my
league” (I’d been told by more than one casting director
that I was a dead ringer for Halle Berry), so I decided
perhaps this one deserved a bit more effort.
“So, what about this?” I flirted, wagging my index
finger in the space between us.
He smiled. “Technically speaking, we are not alone.
There are many people milling about.”
“Okay then, what about this?” I playfully scooted over
and allowed our thighs to touch, ever so lightly.
He immediately drew his knees together and stood up.
“Sonya, please. I do not appreciate you mocking my faith.”
“Sor-ry. But seriously, Aziz, how do you expect to find
someone to form this ‘permanent relationship’ with if you
can’t play the field a bit?” I slid back to my original spot.
“Marriages are often arranged by the bride and
groom's parents,” he explained, sitting down at the edge of
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the bench. “They, being older and wiser, are truly the best
judges of who will be a good partner for their son or
daughter.”
“You’re pulling my leg, right?” He looked at me
blankly. “Seriously? You actually believe that nonsense?” I
wasn’t trying to be rude; I was simply floored that he’d
turned me down. I was a stunning “looker” who’d always
had men blathering at my feet—men I didn’t want. And the
first time I actually wanted one, the guy pulled a teaser on
me?
I decided he must be too cheap to take me out, what
with squirreling away all his money toward that yoga
business. But whatever his motives, I wasn’t about to let
this pretty boy get away. I mustered my courage. “Well, in
that case, why don’t you let me cook you dinner? That
wouldn’t be considered a date, right?”
“You mean, at your house?”
“I live in an apartment, but yeah.”
“Will your parents be there?”
I laughed. “No, thank God. I haven’t lived with my
folks since I left home for college.”
“I see. You have a roommate, then?”
“Nope, I live alone.” (I didn’t mention that my parents
were subsidizing my latest apartment, because I’d tried and
failed to get along with roommates.)
He shook his head. “I’m sorry, but that really wouldn’t
be appropriate.”
“Why not? We obviously like each other. Take a walk
on the wild side, Aziz. Enjoy a home-cooked meal with a
lady friend. No strings attached, I promise. And I won’t
serve pork.” (I laughed, but he didn’t.)
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It took some work, but he reluctantly accepted after I’d
cleverly convinced him it wasn’t considered a “date” by
American standards if you just hung out and ate dinner at
someone’s house.
ɚɚɚɚɚ
“So, what was it like hanging out at his house?” I asked.
“Razzi?”
“Hmm?”
“Take off those damned headphones when I’m talking
to you! Tell me, what was he like?”
“Who?”
“Yogi Bear. Aziz! Who else?” I kept my eyes glued to
the road, not wanting her to see my face when she replied.
“Oh, I dunno. Strict, I guess. But nice, too.”
“So, did you like him?”
She didn’t answer right away. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
Not the response I’d hoped for, but okay. “How
come?”
“I dunno,” she said again. “Why does anyone like
anyone?” Now she looked pointedly at me. After a
moment, I met her gaze. “You liked him enough to have sex
with him,” she charged.
“I swear to God, Razzi, if I wasn’t driving this car, I’d
slap you again for that. And don’t think for one second
you’re off the hook for leaving the gallery without my
permission. We’ll deal with that when we get home.” But
despite my maternal bluster, she was right about this much:
I had liked him enough. I returned my eyes to the road and
drove in silence.
ɚɚɚɚɚ
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I’d sprung for an expensive bottle of wine that night, but
Aziz refused to touch it, explaining his religion didn’t
permit him to drink alcohol. (But no, he wouldn’t mind if I
had a glass.) I wound up drinking the entire bottle myself,
so I can barely recall our notorious romp—something he
later characterized as his “moment of weakness.”
The man obviously wanted me, like so many men. I
was used to that. But Aziz was trying so hard not to
succumb to temptation. Genuinely trying, with all his
Muslim might, not to breach his sacred rules, despite my
ruthless flirting. That made him a challenge, and I loved a
challenge. He’d risen to leave—several times, in fact. But as
with the date itself, after several calculated touches and a
bit of wheedling, I managed to convince him that it was
okay, as long as I did everything and he merely acquiesced.
(And, just like him coming for dinner, he pretended to
believe me.)
I did one thing after another to him, and oddly
enough, it was quite a turn-on. As far as I could tell, the
whole thing was just me acting out some flirtatious, drunk
fantasy, and him going along for the ride. But when he
finally gave in, he let me take complete control, and I liked
it. I was used to guys pawing at me, always trying to put
their hands where they didn’t belong. It was nice being “on
top” for a change, deciding where I wanted his hands, how
fast or slow we would go.
I should have stopped myself—I know that now. I
wasn’t on the pill, and he was one of those rare men who
didn’t walk around with a condom in his wallet. The last
thing I remember is him lying stiff as a board across my
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sofa, arms clamped at his sides with his dick ready for
takeoff, and me climbing on top of him and placing his
hands on my hips. I’m not proud of this, but I loved
watching this supposedly principled man battle his puerile
guilt, even as he begged me not to stop. He couldn’t resist
me, he’d panted once, in the thick of it. I was the only woman
captivating enough to make him violate the precious tenets of
Islam.
I stopped in my tracks when he blurted that out. Oh
my God—had he just confessed to being a virgin? How
could that possibly be? We were about the same age. How
could any red-blooded man resist the opposite sex for
nearly ten years of adult life—much less such a polite,
good-looking one as Aziz? He nudged me back into
motion, and a second later, it was all over. Apparently I
was so captivating (and him so red-blooded) he couldn’t be
bothered waiting for me.
Once the booze wore off, the whole thing came into
clearer view. The more I thought about it, the less I believed
I’d actually been his first. Aziz’s innocence was probably
just a big act, which I’d fallen for hook, line, and sinker—
just as he’d most certainly planned all along. Still, I stupidly
figured his thinly-veiled conquest had meant something to
him, and fully expected to see him again. (If nothing else,
he owed me a do-over.)
Only he didn’t call. He avoided me at work the next
day while his guys finished yanking out the fixtures and
stuff. And for three weeks after that, I didn’t hear from him.
I was pissed and hurt, and yet, I knew I was acting like a
silly college girl. I wanted to brush the whole episode off
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and move on, but like the proverbial careless coed, I was
late.
ɚɚɚɚɚ
“So after your little episode running away with Korey, you
thought it was okay to brush me off and go to Aziz’s house
without telling me?” I had planned to wait until we got
home to tackle this latest incident, but I just couldn’t help
myself; I had to know what that girl had been thinking.
“Sorry, but I really wanted to see my dad again.”
“Without my permission? I understand you’re curious
about him, Raz, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to
go about things.”
“There’ll never be any ‘right way’ with you! Aziz
already called you and said he wanted to pick me up after
school, but you wouldn’t let me go!”
“The least you could have done was check in from the
gallery before taking off like a traitor! You know how upset
I am with him!”
“Why would I do that? So you could come over there
and make another big scene?” Check and check-mate. I had
no answer.
“So, are you hungry?” I asked, softening my tone.
“No. His wife made some kind of lamb stew. I ate a
little of that.”
The very idea of my daughter consuming his wife’s
food made my stomach churn. “You ate that woman’s
cooking?”
“It smelled good, and I was hungry! You’re the one
always so worried about me being hungry.”
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I didn’t answer.
“Oh, and it had olives in it. I like olives.”
“Since when?”
“I’ve always liked olives. You just never noticed.”
“C’mon, Razzi. I notice what you like to eat. I cook for
us every day, and I make your favorite foods as much as
possible.”
“It’s not a contest, Mom.”
“Apparently, it is,” I muttered under my breath. A
futile contest I hadn’t willingly entered, then or now.
ɚɚɚɚɚ
I’d avoided facing the music for days. Finally, I picked up
one of those pee tests on my lunch hour. Then all of a
sudden, I needed to know so badly, I couldn’t even wait
until I got home. I learned I was pregnant sitting on the
toilet at work. I screwed up my nerve and called his cell
phone later that afternoon.
“Aziz?”
“Yes?”
“It’s me, Sonya.” There was an awkward silence.
“Sonya Schoenberg.”
“Sonya, how have you been?”
It was all I could do not to hang up, hearing him ask
that question—the implicit recognition of the time elapsed;
the unspoken acknowledgment that he hadn’t called after
we’d had sex—and saw nothing wrong about that. The
ugly truth now staring me in the face: There was absolutely
nothing between us except this unwanted embryo.
“Sonya, is something wrong? Are you unwell?”
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“I need to see you.”
Silence. Just when I was about to hang up on him, he
said, “I am so sorry about what happened. I feel so
ashamed.”
“Ashamed? Seriously?”
“I’ve thought about calling you,” he went on, “but as I
have already explained, I’m not permitted to date, so I did
not see the point. You are such a beautiful woman. I did not
want to risk succumbing to temptation again.”
Oh, please. “I’m not fishing for compliments, Aziz. I
just—I really need to see you. I’ve got something important
to talk to you about.”
He hesitated. “I can’t. Please understand, I live in a
small studio apartment in my uncle’s building; he lives next
door with his family, and his wife sees everything I do.”
“Take me to dinner, then. We’ll talk in a public place.
What harm is there in having another meal together? You
already slept with me!”
He sighed heavily. “I suppose I owe you this much.”
What the—? Now he was acting like a total dick—like
he’d fucked me out of charity or pity but was willing to toss
me a bone to wipe the slate clean and clear his conscience. I
was again tempted to hang up.
“There is a nice restaurant not far from here,” he said.
“I will give you my address. Stop by tomorrow after work,
and we can go there. But it must be the last time.”
ɚɚɚɚɚ
Razia distracted me, digging around in her backpack and
producing a sandwich-sized square wrapped in cellophane.
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“Fadwa gave me some kind of dessert thing she made
with dates and homemade orange-blossom syrup. She
called it baklawa. She makes everything from scratch. I tried
it—it’s really good!” Razia held out the package to me.
“How very quaint,” I sniffled. “I guess she doesn’t have
to work. But, then again, her husband owns four yoga
studios.”
“I’m pretty sure he said five.”
“Well, you don’t need to be accepting leftovers from
strangers. You’re not some charity case.” I unrolled my
window, grabbed the little plastic-wrapped bundle, and
tossed it onto the freeway (where it was met by antagonistic
honking from the car alongside me, its near-rabid driver
giving me the finger even as his tires detonated the baklawa
into a million pieces).
“Mom! I wanted that!”
“Sorry, I didn’t. We don’t always get what we want in
life, Razzi. The sooner you learn that, the better—for both
of us.”
She pressed her cheek against the window and sulked.
Good. I’d just as soon be left to privately bemoan how I
hadn’t gotten what I’d wanted from Aziz as argue with a
twelve-year-old over homemade baklawa.
ɚɚɚɚɚ
I’d shown up at his place after work. Sure enough, some
nosy lady poked her head out from the apartment next
door when I knocked. As soon as he answered the door,
Aziz again stressed—loudly enough for her to hear—that
we had business to discuss and our going to dinner did not
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constitute a “date.” Perhaps he was only trying to convince
himself as much as her, but he’d once again managed to
make me feel like a cheap hooker looking to settle up!
“I will be just a moment,” he said after inviting me
inside and shutting the door. I sat nervously on the handme-down sofabed in his one-room digs, waiting for him to
finish using the bathroom while wondering how he would
react to my news. A part of me hoped he’d be happy that a
weird and wonderful twist of fate had brought us together
again and would keep us connected through the new life
we’d created. A part of me figured a traditional Muslim
man would want to marry the woman he’d impregnated,
even if he barely knew her and she happened to be
“Western.” That was the right thing to do, wasn’t it? (Not
that I necessarily wanted to marry him, mind you; I just
wanted him to offer—as a gesture of respect.)
But what if he didn’t? Did I dare demand he step up
and be a father to a child produced from a one-off
encounter he obviously considered as meaningless as a
handshake?
I heard his heavy urine stream through the thin door.
His wallet lay innocently on the coffee table, along with a
set of keys and an unopened pack of Extra chewing gum.
For some reason, I felt mesmerized by that little leather
square—curved in the concave shape of his butt and
creased with the outline of a single credit card. What did I
really know about Aziz, anyway? Besides the fact that he
came from some faraway place, worshipped some weird,
foreign god or prophet or whatever, and was stiff as a
board in both the vertical and horizontal positions? (Oh
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yeah—that he was fertile enough to knock me up the one
and only time we had sex!)
I’ll tell you the one thing I did know: He’d made me
feel like a prostitute when he characterized our latest “nondate” as his way of paying me back for our tryst. The more
I thought about that, the angrier I got. However cavalierly
he might view our first (and, according to him, last) formal
outing, I needed to know something more about him before
dropping my bombshell, if only to prepare myself for what
could be a nasty reaction to my news.
I reached for the wallet, opened it. Nothing
interesting—just a Shell gas card, a driver’s license, and his
green card. No Visa or MasterCard. Maybe plastic was too
capitalistic for this Islamic holy-roller, but since he’d
invited me to dinner, he damned well better have enough
money to pay for it. However badly our evening might turn
out, I refused to be left holding the bag for his
“transgression” and picking up his dinner tab, too!
I just couldn’t stop myself: I spread the shiny, satiny
folds of his wallet and peeked inside. I was relieved to find
several twenties in there, but then I noticed a photo tucked
behind the bills. I pulled it out and held it up to the light.
Clasped in my fingers was the portrait of a woman in a
moss green hijab—an odd design in a splotchy, tie-died
pattern that made her look like a crocodile. Her face was
narrow, yet striking. Pointy chin, big nose, prominent
widow’s peak. But it was those eyes that got me—dark and
deliberately seductive. Despite being wrapped like a nun in
a garish habit, the woman was obviously trying to be sexy. I
studied the picture, spellbound.
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ɚɚɚɚɚ
By now it had turned dark, and I was lost in thought while
mesmerized by the hypnotic stream of oncoming headlights. I snapped to when I suddenly saw our freeway exit,
looked over my shoulder, and made three quick lane
changes amid the clamor of blaring horns. When I got to
the traffic light, I asked Razia, “Why do you suppose they
live in Concord if he owns five yoga studios? He obviously
earns good money. And yet their house is so spartan! They
don’t even have a TV or Nintendo.”
“So? They live a simple lifestyle. Aziz said that Islam
stresses simplicity and frugality,” she explained. “Instead
of buying stuff, they focus on their kids and saving for the
future.”
“And I don’t? It took me forever to pay off that Wii
game. And by the time I did, you didn’t even play it
anymore.”
She ignored me. “And Fadwa says it’s more important
for her to spend time with her family than whatever extra
money she could earn if she got a job.”
“Easy for her to say. Her husband owns five yoga
studios, remember? Besides, you don’t want to spend time
with me anyway.” I heard a car honking behind me, looked
up, and saw the left turn arrow had changed from red to
green. I whirled around and flipped the driver the bird.
What was it with people nowadays? My timing had only
been a few seconds off, yet some idiot was already leaning
on his horn. I made my turn with the car behind me riding
my ass. I guess my timing has always been a little off.
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Maybe that’s why I could never land a decent role, much
less a decent husband.
ɚɚɚɚɚ
I’d heard the toilet flush, the faucet turning on. Before I
could replace the picture, the bathroom door opened and
there he stood, gaping at me. His eyes flickered with either
accusation or guilt—I could not tell which. I supposed he’d
have every right to be angry at me for going through his
wallet, but in that instant, this much became crystal clear: I
had absolutely no claim to the man, no basis for being
jealous even though I was carrying his child.
Feeling hurt and confused, I went on the offensive.
“Who is this?” I snarled.
“She is to be my wife,” he answered simply. “Her
name is Fadwa.” He reached over and took the photo from
me and returned it to its rightful place inside the wallet,
which he then folded and slid into his back pocket.
“Your wife? You mean, you’re engaged?” I was
absolutely stunned. I’d expected him to be cagey; his
matter-of-fact answer caught me completely off guard.
“Yes. I meant to tell you tonight.”
“So, you were seeing someone else? While you and
I—?” I stopped short, unsure how to describe the brief
nothing that had transpired between us.
“I have not been seeing her. I haven’t even met her
yet,” he explained.
“Excuse me?”
“My parents have selected her as my future wife. She
will be arriving from Kuwait next month.”
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“You’ve got to be kidding me!” My jaw dropped.
“In my culture, marriage is not some Hollywood love
story, Sonya. It is considered more of a mutually beneficial
relationship. I thought I already explained this to you.”
“But you can’t seriously believe an arranged marriage
is a good idea,” I protested. “You’ve adopted American
ways. You’re part owner of a business, for Christ’s sake!”
He looked at me sympathetically—pitifully, almost.
“Many Muslims own businesses, Alhamdulillah,” he said.
“Praise be to Allah,” he clarified.
“But what about me? A good-looking guy like you can
have any woman he wants, and you and I—. There’s
something between us—you know there is!”
“What took place between us was a horrible
transgression. I blame myself for letting it happen. I must
try to put it behind me.”
“Meaning what? You used me and now want nothing
more to do with me?”
“I must put it behind me,” he repeated, “not because I
do not find you desirable; I would be lying if I said I didn’t.
But because I committed a sin. I fell victim to my own
lust—and you to its unfortunate timing.”
I choked back a sob. “So, you’re actually gonna go
through with it? This arranged marriage?”
“I must. I have already given my word.”
“And there’s no chance for us? Even though—” I
stopped myself, hearing how pathetic I sounded.
He lowered his eyes and shook his head. “I will always
remember you fondly, Sonya. But of course you must have
realized—even before tonight—that you could never be my
wife.”
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And there it was. I’d carelessly let myself get knocked
up by this Muslim jerk and had actually been stupid
enough to think he’d want to marry me because of it.
“So what was I, huh? Just a little unplanned diversion
before you got hitched?”
“Sonya, please. . .”
“You prick! You wanted me, and I gave myself to you!
You think I’m some appetizer you can sample and send
back?” Now I didn’t know what I was saying. My face grew
hot; he looked down at my shaking hands, but did not take
them. Instead, he remained glued to his spot, erect and
open-mouthed.
Embarrassed, scorned, and rejected, I did the only
thing a self-respecting woman in my situation could do:
Without another word, I ran out and left him standing there
looking like a thunderstruck Goliath crammed inside his
tiny apartment.
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Chapter Twenty-One
Tea For One
“Sonya.” He said my name as a statement, his intonation an
accusation the moment he opened his mouth.
“Hello, Aziz,” I said coolly. I noticed he’d already
ordered hot water into which he now steeped some stinky
teabag I guessed hadn’t come from this place.
“Thank you for agreeing to see me. We have much to
talk about. May I get you something?” He rose from the
table and pointed to the counter where you placed your
order.
“No, thanks. I can get it myself.” Before he could
answer, I turned and headed toward the case filled with
sandwiches, bottled juices, and pastries. Just like the first
time I’d come here, the place was empty. I guessed they
couldn’t compete with the Starbucks across the street. I
expected to see Billy, but instead a pretty college-aged
woman appeared. She looked Hispanic, with a round face
and full lips. Her cascading curly hair was tied loosely in
back with black ribbon.
“Hi, I’m Lourdes. What can I get you?” she asked.
“Let’s see. How about a double-shot latte?” I had no
intention of sipping tea with that A-hole, Aziz. “Oh, and
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maybe one of those.” I pointed to a chocolate-drizzled
croissant—a little dietary decadence to take the edge off.
“Coming right up,” she said, grabbing the pastry with
long tongs and setting it on a small plate, which she slid
across the high counter. “I’ll bring your coffee when it’s
ready.”
“Thanks,” I answered, disappointed. I’d planned on
waiting there a few extra minutes so I could put off
listening to whatever Aziz had to say. After Razia had
crashed his pad, I’d swallowed my pride and cashed his
check. I knew I’d regret it, but I needed the money to pay
for Razzi’s therapy. My parents had refused to take my
calls. I’d managed to get hold of Keith, but he said he
“couldn’t help me.” He’d barely gotten the words out of his
mouth when that bitch, Marlene, snatched the phone from
him. She explained in her syrupy-sweet voice that they had
two pre-teens in a very expensive private school and didn’t
have anything available for “extras” right now. People paid
small fortunes to buy cracker-box starter homes in the
stellar Piedmont School District where my brother lived,
but even that wasn’t good enough for Abigayle and Aaron.
They attended The Bentley School, where Keith paid close
to fifty grand per year on their tuition. Besides their
expensive private school, de rigueur braces, and Ralph
Lauren rack-rate clothing, Marlene booked all sorts of afterschool activities for those two brats every day of the week:
Piano, archery, tennis, horseback riding, and lacrosse, any
one of which probably cost more than Razzi’s therapy. So
how could my brother possibly cough up another 125 bucks
a week from his six-figure income and his wife’s trust fund
to help his only niece avert insanity? At least Aziz’s half-a155
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large would buy a month of weekly sessions; I figured he
owed me that much.
I’d taken Razia for her first session yesterday after
school. I sat in the waiting room not reading The Hollywood
Reporter, while she undoubtedly complained about me to
Dr. Princeton for a solid fifty minutes behind closed doors.
I’d expected some sort of debriefing after Razzi had
finished spilling her guts; instead, the woman just gave me
a weird look when they finally emerged from her office,
and said she’d be “in touch.”
Balancing the slippery croissant on the too-small plate,
its pointy ends hanging over the edge, I carefully made my
way back to the table trying not to let it slide to the floor. I
felt my cell phone buzz in my pocket. “Excuse me one sec,”
I said to Aziz, setting the dish down.
It was an email from Dr. Princeton. “MS. SCHOENBERG.
I APOLOGIZE FOR MY BRUSQUENESS YESTERDAY, BUT IN
THE INTERESTS OF MAINTAINING CONFIDENTIALITY AND
GAINING RAZIA’S TRUST, I WAS NOT PREPARED TO
REPEAT WHAT SHE TOLD ME DURING HER SESSION.
HOWEVER, I THOUGHT YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT MY
PRELIMINARY DIAGNOSIS IS THAT SHE IS CLINICALLY
DEPRESSED. I AM NOT QUALIFIED TO PRESCRIBE
MEDICATION, BUT ONCE I COMPLETE MY EVAULATION
(WHICH MAY TAKE SEVERAL MORE SESSIONS), I MAY
REFER RAZIA TO A PSYCHAITRIST WHO CAN DO SO.”
Medication? Psychiatrist? I felt my stomach tighten into
a knot and my mouth twist into a quivering grimace. My
baby depressed? How did a twelve-year-old become
“clinically depressed”?
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“Sonya,” Aziz began, “tell me, what have you been up
to these past thirteen years?” He attempted a smile which,
rather than disarm me, only made him come across more
menacing.
“What do you think I’ve been up to, Aziz? I’ve been
busy raising my daughter!” I shoved the phone back into
my pocket.
“When you answered my call the other day, you
mentioned a doctor’s name. Do you work for a doctor?”
“A chiropractor. I forgot I wasn’t answering his office
line.”
“I see. And what of your dream of becoming an
actress?”
“I guess that’s on hold for the moment. While I raise
our child,” I said.
“Is this why Razia is a drama student at Oakland
Regional Conservatory for the Arts? Is she following in her
mother’s footprints?” he asked.
“Footsteps. And no, not really.” He gave me a skeptical
look. “I mean, like I said, I had to give all that up when I
became a mom.” I wasn’t about to admit that Razia didn’t
want to be an actress. She didn’t know what she wanted
yet. How could she? She was only twelve, and now
“clinically depressed” to boot. “Look, Aziz, I didn’t come
here to be interviewed about my life. What is it that you
wanted to talk about?”
He cleared his throat and narrowed his eyes. “I called
you here so we could clear the air and hopefully work out a
plan for the future. As I have already told you, I wish to be
a father to my firstborn child. That is why I sent you the
check, to demonstrate the worthiness of my intentions.”
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“Well, if you’re looking for thanks or brownie points
or whatever, the truth is, I needed that money for Razia’s
therapy. And quite frankly, meeting you was what sent her
over the edge. That’s probably why she did that stupid
choking thing. So I’d say it’s only fair that you pay for it.”
“I am not looking for thanks,” he informed me. “But
Razia succumbed to peer pressure and agreed to be choked
on a dare. It had nothing to do with me.”
“She told you that?”
He nodded. “Yes, when she phoned me the other day.
It is obvious Razia needs a father in her life, Sonya. That
void has left her deeply troubled.”
“So now you’re diagnosing my daughter? I don’t know
what twelve-year-old girls are like where you come from,
but here, they’re all about rebellion. Razia has typical
twelve-year-old issues.”
“I beg to differ. Permitting yourself to be asphyxiated
is not a ‘typical twelve-year-old issue.’ The girl is
distraught, and sorely lacking in the guidance needed to
make sound decisions.”
“And now you think you can crawl out of the
woodwork after almost thirteen years to guide her?”
“As a Muslim man, I must be a part of my child’s life,
even after all this time. She is my responsibility, and I am
required by Islam to acknowledge her.”
“So that’s what this is all about? You being a good
Muslim?”
“There is nothing more important to me. Under
divinely mandated Islamic law, a man must bear full
responsibility for the care and upbringing of his children.
The Qur’an calls for a man to be the keeper and leader of
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his family. And those who willfully violate supreme law
will be held accountable on the Day of Judgment.”
I heard the espresso machine splutter and saw Lourdes
looking our way. She’d obviously overheard Aziz’s tedious
gibberish, and I felt embarrassed for him.
“Could you stop quoting the Koran and have a normal
conversation with me for just a minute?” I hissed over the
frothing noise. “We make choices, Aziz, that’s all. You
made yours thirteen years ago. You can’t expect to
backtrack now. You took the easy way out. I’m the one
who’s spent all these years trying to do right by that girl.”
“And I admire you for that. Truly I do. I have thought
many times about the night we last saw each other. Perhaps
I was dismissive of you then, simply because you would not
have made a suitable Muslim wife. And I apologize if that
hurt your feelings. But you are forgetting, I am not the one
who made this choice. You forced it upon me, by
withholding critical information that I was about to become
a father.”
“You were about to marry a woman your parents
handpicked for you! I’d say that disqualified you from
making any more choices, as far as I was concerned. Even if
I’d told you I was pregnant, you cared more about toeing
your stupid religious line than acting like a grownup and
being a man with me!”
“I made my decision to marry Fadwa, and I kept my
word. These are the hallmarks of a grownup—and a man.”
“So, what difference would it have made if I had told
you? You were going to marry her anyway. What was it
you said?” I lowered my voice in imitation of Aziz, “‘Surely
you must have realized—even before tonight—that you
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could never be my wife.’ I was only trying to hold on to my
last ounce of dignity, seeing as how what happened
between us meant absolutely nothing to you!”
Lourdes came to our table balancing my coffee on a
saucer. The croissant sat there untouched. “Everything all
right here? Can I get you something else, sir?”
“A bit more hot water for the tea, please,” he
answered.
Lourdes nodded and pulled our check from her apron
pocket. She placed it facedown in the middle of the table.
Aziz slid it toward him.
“You have no idea what I would have done, Sonya,”
he continued in a low voice after Lourdes had walked
away. “You decided in your own mind how you thought I
would behave, based on nothing more than the fact that I
am Muslim.”
“Oh my God!” I practically screeched. Lourdes looked
in our direction, then went into the back room. “If you
weren’t Muslim, you wouldn’t have married a woman your
parents picked out for you like a new suit! Easy for you to
rewrite history now,” I scoffed, “but I remember it well.
You didn’t give a crap about me. I was just a second-class
amusement—a last-minute jack-off before you married
your perfect Iranian import.”
“First of all, my wife is from Kuwait, like me. And
secondly, however I felt about you—and whether I would
have married you or not—you had a moral obligation to tell
me you were carrying my child. Children are a trust given
to parents, Sonya, and we are held accountable for that
trust on the Day of Judgment.”
“Again with your fanatical ‘Day of Judgment’ crap?”
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“It’s true. We are both—you and I—fundamentally
responsible for Razia’s moral, ethical, and religious
development. If I turn my back on this duty, I will be a
person of weak faith who has abandoned the Holy Prophet
Mohammed. Each day I live will be a sinful one—tainted
with hypocrisy.” I rolled my eyes. “I am serious, Sonya. I
must discharge this responsibility to be free of negative
consequences on the Day of Judgment, and so that my
daughter can receive her rightful place in the Hereafter, too.
For that, she needs to be acknowledged by her father and
be a part his life, so she can understand and assume her
correct place in Muslim society.”
“Her ‘correct place’? Meaning what? Being subservient
to a husband and having no say over what happens to
her?”
“This is not true. A woman is never forced to marry.
She must give her consent, just like a man.”
“Maybe here that’s how it goes. But what about the
rest of the Muslim world? Aren’t women still considered
some man’s property, with no control over their own
bodies?”
“Control? You mean like you had?” Aziz shot back.
I flinched, but refused to dignify his insulting nonanswer with an answer. “What about your wife and kids?
Why should I let my daughter be made to feel like some
second-class love child just so you can alleviate your guilt?”
“I intend to come clean with my family,” he declared,
“in due time. I realize it is better for my wife to find this out
from me than through another source.”
“And then what?”
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“I don’t know yet; I have to give the matter more
thought. You know, where I come from, a man might take
the mother of his illegitimate child as a second wife. But
you and I are so ill-suited, I do not think this would be
wise, even if it were permissible here.”
“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me!”
“Some think this is the only respectable way—perhaps
the only way to receive Allah’s forgiveness.”
“You’re insane,” I said. “But let me get this convenient
crock of male bullshit straight: You mean you’re allowed to
commit bigamy as repentance for cheating? I’d love to hear
what your wife thinks about that.”
“Under Islamic law a man may take another wife
without his first wife’s knowledge or consent, provided she
did not think to forbid it in the marriage contract. And
some scholars say that even if the marriage contract
prohibits subsequent wives, this is not binding on the man,
since it is his right to marry up to four wives for a proper
purpose.”
“A proper purpose?” I was beginning to feel like an
unwitting dupe on one of those TV reality shows. I halfexpected Aziz’s knife-wielding wife to burst from the
kitchen with a young Ashton Kutcher trailing behind
yelling, “You’ve been punk’d!”
“Essentially anything other than lust,” he clarified.
“Lucky me,” I scoffed. “Lust was the only thing you
ever felt for me, once upon a time.”
Aziz ignored my remark. “There is no more proper
purpose than being a father to one’s child. But for now, the
only important thing is that I not turn my back on my
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daughter. Make no mistake about it, Sonya: That girl needs
me, and she is as much my responsibility as she is yours.”
“Look, Aziz, I can see we’ve got a bit of a culture gap,
but you make no mistake about this: I’ve got the situation
with Raz under control. We don’t need your help, thanks
very much.”
“Oh, yes? What ‘control’ do you have over Razia’s
fragile emotional state?”
“I’ve got her in therapy,” I reminded him. “At least
until your money runs out.”
“Perhaps it is you who needs counseling,” he said.
“You know something, Aziz?” I said, rising. “Fuck you!
You and your load of religious cow dung. ”
“Sonya, please sit down. I apologize—I did not come
here to insult you. I am only concerned about Razia. Tell
me, what does this therapist say?”
I looked at him skeptically, stifled a cough, and sat
back down. “She says Razzi’s depressed,” I rasped, trying
to steady my breath so I wouldn’t have another asthma
attack in front of Aziz. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Depressed?” he asked.
“Yes. She thinks Raz needs medication.”
“You Americans and your pills!” Aziz thundered.
Feeling my airways constrict, I grabbed my inhaler from
my purse and drew in a quick puff.
“Are you all right?” Aziz asked. I nodded as calmly as
I could. Lourdes reappeared then and gave me a concerned
look from behind the counter. Either she’d forgotten all
about Aziz’s hot water, or she figured he was in enough hot
water already and decided not to bring it.
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“If that girl is depressed,” Aziz continued, “it is from
being denied access to her father and her true identity her
entire life! She is twelve years old. The last thing she needs
is to have her body and mind contaminated with
pharmaceutical chemicals.”
“I happen to agree with you. But you can’t just march
into my life like Desert Storm and tell me what to do. You
don’t know how to help our daughter any more than I do.
So where do you get off telling me what she needs or
doesn’t need? I’m the one who’s cared for her every day for
the past twelve-and-a-half years, not you!”
“And yet, I am her father, apparently. Does that not
give me the right to voice my opinion on how the child
should be raised?”
“You want to be a father? Then shut up for one minute
with your Muslim rhetoric and have a real conversation
with me, without lecturing.” I heard my voice break.
“You really believe this therapy will help Razia?” He’d
softened his tone, which startled me more than his original
outburst.
“I do. I think it’ll help her understand herself better.
She resents me right now—because of what you said. It’s
true I’ve discouraged her from seeking you out, when she’d
been curious about you for years. She obviously needs to
talk to someone about how she feels.”
“Why can’t she talk to me? I am her father; she should
know I am here for her.”
“You? You’re too—”
“Too what? Muslim?”
I winced. There was more than a grain of truth to that.
“I meant too close to the situation. Too invested in the
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outcome for all the wrong reasons. Razzi needs to talk to
someone professional and impartial.
“The thing is—therapy’s expensive. She’ll only get four
sessions out of that five hundred bucks you sent. After that,
I won’t be able to afford it anymore. And I’ll be the first to
admit I’m too emotional to handle this on my own. But you
need to admit that you’re part of the problem, too. You’ve
brought more conflict into our lives that I really can’t deal
with right now.”
“Why? Because my daughter wants to know me, and
you won’t allow it?”
I sighed again. “Yeah, I suppose that’s true. But I’m
only trying to do what’s best for Razzi—honestly. I just—
I’m confused. I don’t trust your intentions, and as her
mother, it’s my job to protect her. You’ve already got two
kids, Aziz. What do you want with Razia now? Everything
was great with your life before you found out about her.”
He looked down at his lap. Then he met my eyes. I
thought I saw a flicker of sadness there, but he blinked it
away. “How ‘great’ my life was before is beside the point.
The fact is, I did find out about her. And I shall make my
intentions perfectly clear, yet again: I only wish to spend
time with my daughter and model what it means to live a
proper Muslim life. And I am prepared to pay child
support for the privilege. It is as simple as that.”
“Model Muslim life, or try to convert her?”
“I cannot convert anyone, Sonya. I merely intend to set
an example in the hope that our daughter will make the
right decision on her own someday. And if it is five
hundred dollars you need each month for this therapist, I
will send it to you. But you must allow me to spend time
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with my daughter!” Now his voice cracked, and I felt oddly
touched in spite of myself.
“Okay,” I sighed. “We can try it out. But I don’t want
you taking her to see your family. Even if you tell your wife
the truth. That’s too much cultural immersion for my
comfort. Besides, Razzi’s been an only child her entire life.
She doesn’t need to see you playing favorites with your
own kids and making her feel second-rate.”
“Why would I play favorites?”
“C’mon, Aziz. You said yourself on the phone, she’s
your ‘illegitimate’ child.”
He sighed. “Perhaps so, but Razia is at a fragile age
where she is forming her identity and lifelong perception of
herself. I would never say or do anything to make her feel
inferior to my children. Nonetheless, I suppose I can live
with your terms, for now.” He loved using that phrase, as if
reminding me that his cool composure was merely the calm
before the sandstorm.
“So how do you want to do this?” I asked. “You want
to come to my place?”
“No. I wish to get to know my daughter without
interference from you.”
I eyed him suspiciously. “You know I can’t let you
spend time with her alone.”
“So I cannot see her with my family, and I cannot see
her on my own. Basically, you are saying I cannot see her
without you overseeing our time together.”
“She’s twelve years old, Aziz.”
“What are you implying, Sonya? That I wish to
sexually molest my own daughter?”
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His accusation stung. I hated him for uttering aloud
exactly what I feared most—even more than his thinly
disguised (yet so obvious) mission to convert her to Islam.
“Look, I’m just saying, I’m not comfortable with you yet.
You’re still practically a stranger to us both.”
“Fine. Then she can visit me at the yoga studio until
you no longer consider me a stranger. She can help out
with phones and paperwork.”
“So, what, you want to use our kid as unpaid labor?”
“Only to keep her occupied for a time. Afterward,
we’ll go for a walk, or perhaps a meal. In public,” he
clarified before I could object. “If that is okay with you. The
girl needs to feel purposeful. She is listless and spoiled.”
“Spoiled? Really? You have no idea how I’ve sacrificed
to give her what every other kid has so she wouldn’t feel
deprived! Just ‘cause your brats don’t get to watch TV or
play Nintendo—”
“I am not talking about material things, Sonya. I am
talking about her attitude. Toward adults. Toward
responsibility. Toward life. She does not appreciate the
things she has. But this is quite understandable. No amount
of stuff could make up for the fact that she has been missing
a loving male presence in her life. I intend to fill that void.”
“So what are you now, some kind of psychologist?”
“No. But it is clear Razia has become mentally
confined within the limited universe you have provided.
You produced a beautiful child, Sonya, but she needs to
expand her view of who she is. I can help her do this in a
way you simply cannot.”
“You know something, Aziz? Back when I first met
you, I thought you were an incredibly handsome man. But
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in the short time I’ve known you, I see your pompousness
gives those good looks of yours a bad stink. From within.
“And let me tell you another thing: You may be Razia’s
biological father, but you’re asking me to take a huge leap
of faith trusting you with my twelve-year-old daughter. So
listen up, and listen good.” I looked him dead in the eyes.
“If anything happens to my baby on your watch, I cannot
be held responsible for what I do to you. Do we understand
each other?”
He blinked, taken aback. After a moment he replied,
“Your child means more to you than anything in the world.
I understand completely. Or have you forgotten I am a
father myself?”
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Chapter Twenty-Two
Yogi Aziz
I brought Razia to my newly-opened studio on Piedmont
Avenue for our first official visit. I was teaching the
advanced yoga class, the one for the hardcore
housewives—really rich ladies who had both the time to do
the intensive follow-up work and the motivation to remain
in the fit physical condition necessary to attain the more
challenging poses.
My Fadwa constantly chastised me for continuing to
teach classes now that my business had so greatly
expanded. She thought I should leave that to my employees and focus on being an entrepreneur. Although I now
only taught a small handful of courses myself (having long
ago delegated the less demanding ones to my instructors),
teaching remained my passion, and this class was one of
my favorites.
I guided the women through a series of essential yoga
moves, with the goal of building power, precision, insight,
and ease. Unlike the beginner classes (which attracted all
sorts of curiosity-seekers who did not stick with it and
never progressed), this advanced class was all about
endurance and sequencing, to attain and hold the most
challenging postures. These women were the seasoned
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practitioners who had attained the relaxation and flexibility
that came from deep training in the various yoga
disciplines.
I had given the girl, Razia, various assignments to keep
her busy until I finished with the class. We were still in the
process of setting up the back office, so while she toiled in
the rear, I strolled slowly around the room, checking the
women’s postures but simultaneously deep in thought.
I hadn’t told Fadwa the truth about Razia yet; I merely
asked—in a casual way during dinner last night—whether
she recalled the girl who had come by last week. I told her
before my children’s innocent eyes that I had given Razia
an after-school job handling clerical tasks and answering
the telephone. This was all technically true—at worst a lie
of omission.
Fadwa had merely nodded and said, “You mean the
daughter of your student?” She had risen and begun
clearing dishes from the table. Now, no lie left my lips. But
one must have taken hold of my neck, because it caused my
head to bob—just once—up then down in affirmation. I
couldn’t very well tell her the truth with the children sitting
between us. But, then again, hadn’t I chosen that precise
moment to make my announcement in order to be so
censored?
“Seems like an odd sort of girl,” Fadwa commented on
her way back from the kitchen, bearing a plateful of
baklawa.
“Did you make this yourself, habibti?” I asked,
deliberately using the term of endearment she liked, even
while skillfully changing the subject. I took an obligatory
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first bite of the rich, sweet, layered phyllo pastry filled with
nuts and covered with sweet syrup.
She nodded. “You know I do not like the premade
baked goods from the makhbaz. They claim to prepare
everything fresh daily, but I can tell it is from the day
before. Besides, I use pistachio and orange-blossom water,
like my mother’s recipe. The bakeries cut corners by using
walnuts or pecans and adding ground cinnamon.”
“Delicious,” I said, “but I cannot eat another bite.” The
children, meanwhile, devoured theirs even after having
eaten a full meal.
Fadwa looked at me expectantly with a hurt
expression I outwardly attributed to my rejection of her
dessert, but which we both knew went beyond that:
Though delightful, her luscious concoction had not been
tasty enough to act as a truth serum.
But enough of my pointless musings. “Okay, ladies,” I
called out in my most booming-yet-soothing voice. They
were all—with the exception of one older renegade who
had informed me of a recent hip replacement—positioned
in a wide-hipped squat, with hands pressed lightly on the
mat. “Begin rocking gently. We are going to tilt onto our
elbows into Bakasana, also known as crow or crane pose.”
They began slowly tipping forward.
“Oops!” one lady tottered and collapsed onto her face.
“Please try again, Ms. Hutchins. This one takes
practice.” I circled the room to inspect. “Very nice. Now,
begin lifting your toes off the ground sloooowly, one at a
time at first. Yes. Ms. Cametti, please do not rush this. I
know you are capable of achieving the position, but this
preliminary work is key to your balance and endurance.
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Keep eyes frontward, everyone. Do not look down at your
mat, unless you wish to wind up in a headstand.” A few of
the ladies tittered. “Which is fine, I suppose, but not the
pose we are aiming for today.
“Okay, now rock forward, squeeze your knees and
hips, inhale. Good! Lift one toe off the ground . . . now the
other—up, up, up! Yes! Hold and breathe . . . good!” Ms.
Cametti balanced herself for a split second on wobbly
elbows, then dropped to the mat. “You see, Ms. Cametti?” I
said in a soft voice so as not to embarrass her in front of the
others. “You were not adequately primed. Please try again,
and take your time with the preparatory work.
“Okay everyone, hold the pose for a slow count of
three. And when you are ready, release down. I think this
will be enough for today. After that, please lie in Savasana
for five to ten minutes. Ten would be ideal. For those of you
who have the time, I will take you through a guided
meditation.”
The girl’s face poked out from the back office, pained
and expectant. She wasn’t merely observing; she clearly
wanted something. I walked purposefully toward the entry,
trying not to disrupt the calm, meditative mood of the
room.
“Razia, what are you doing?” I whispered. “You
mustn’t interrupt class like this.”
“But I’m bored!”
“Did you input the weekly schedule like I showed
you?”
“Yes.”
“Have you finished setting up the files for each
month’s bills?”
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“No.”
“Why not? Were my instructions unclear?”
“There’s so many of them! I did a few, and then I got
tired of it.”
“Razia, you cannot abandon a chore simply because it
becomes tiresome.”
“I didn’t come here to be your lackey,” she protested.
“I thought you wanted to spend time with me.”
“I do. And we will. Class is almost ended. After this,
we will go have dinner. But please, finish your work first.
Ambition, persistence, hard work, and excellence are core
values of Islam. That is how I opened this fifth studio and
built Bend it Like Bikram into the successful business you
see.”
“So? That’s your thing, not mine. You said yourself I
have no claim to your wealth. I’m an illiterate child,
remember?”
“Illegitimate. But speaking of literacy, have you
finished your homework?” I asked.
“No.”
“Well, then. If you do not wish to assist me with filing,
work on your homework until it is time to leave.” I gave
her a gentle nudge on the back. “My apologies, ladies,” I
said, returning to the class. “Thank you for your patience.
Corpse pose allows the mind and body to relax before you
transition into your regular activity and routine. There are
many benefits of Savasana, such as reduced blood pressure
and stress reduction. It brings clarity to the mind, reduces
anger and frustration, and allows the mind and body to
calm down and relax.” I took in a deep breath and peeked
toward the back office. Razia was digging around in her
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backpack. But instead of removing a notebook or text, she
took out some gadget and plugged its headphones into her
ears. “Excuse me again just for a moment, please. When I
return, we will begin our guided meditation, to bring the
attention inward to release stress and tension throughout
the body.” I continued talking as I edged toward the rear
exit. “We will be relaxing each muscle of the body in turn.
In the meantime, lie with your legs apart and palms to the
sides facing up. Take nice, deep inhalations and focus on
the body. With every breath, try to remain in the moment.
Very good.”
I went into the back office. Razia was twirling herself
to and fro on my swivel chair, humming along with
whatever she was listening to. I crept up behind her and
yanked the earbuds out.
“Hey! What’s the big idea?”
“Come with me. I have something for you to do.”
“What?”
“You shall see.” I led her down the hallway and
handed her a rubber yoga mat.
“What’s this?”
“Take it. I want you to participate in my guided
meditation.”
“Why?”
“Because it will quiet your mind, Razia. You have too
much unhealthy stimulus whirring around your brain,
vying for your attention. I’d like you to relax, follow the
sound of my voice, and focus your attention inward.” I led
her by the hand into the classroom. A few ladies opened
their eyes and looked at us with curiosity. Oh, how I was
tempted to present this stubborn, spirited girl to the class as
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my long-lost daughter! But I could not; word might get
back to Fadwa before I was ready.
I stealthily led Razia to an available space in back. A
few more ladies opened their eyes and turned their heads
toward me expectantly.
“Everyone, in case you are wondering, this is Razia,
my youngest pupil.”
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Chapter Twenty-Three
Deprogramming
“So, how was your visit?” I tried to sound nonchalant,
tossing the question out in a singsong voice while slicing
mushrooms at the counter for a pizza. But a day later, my
insides were still seething over how that man had so
cleverly strong-armed his way into my daughter’s life.
“I dunno. Boring, I guess. You didn’t tell me I was
gonna be a slave! He had me inputting all the instructors
and their class schedules on the website.”
“You like being on the computer,” I offered.
“Yeah, surfing the Internet! Then he made me file this
huge box of bills. I was filing, Mom, while he taught his
dumb class!”
“What can I tell you? You were the one who was so
gung-ho about hanging out with him.”
Razia scoffed. I heard the “clank, clank” of Dudley’s
collar tag knocking up against his ceramic bowl. Miracle of
miracles, for once Razia had fed him without me nagging
her.
“Well, did you spend any one-on-one time together at
all?”
“Yeah. He took me to dinner afterward. We talked a
long time.”
“About what?”
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“Religion, mostly. He claims that everyone is born
Muslim, but some parents convert their kids to Judaism,
Christianity or Magainism, whatever that is. What does that
even mean?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I answered. “Why didn’t you
ask him?” She shrugged. “You do realize that’s all
nonsense, don’t you? Every religion is man-made. Pure
human invention. And we can either consciously choose
one to follow, or else blindly follow it because we were
brought up that way. I decided to leave it up to you to
decide when you’re grown. That is, if you want to follow
any religion at all.”
“But are there, like, any rules handed down from
God?” She furrowed her brow.
I spooned Trader Joe’s marinara sauce onto my pizza
dough and spread it around with the back of the ladle.
“You mean, like, the Ten Commandments or something?”
“I guess. Did those really come from God?”
“They’re supposed to have—you know, Moses on the
mount and all that. But all religions think their particular
rules came straight from God’s mouth to some special guy’s
ears. All of them. Just remember, some things transcend all
cultures and religions. Like not going around killing other
people. And not taking what’s not yours.” I looked over my
shoulder but couldn’t tell whether she’d gotten my deeper
meaning.
“Well, Aziz said that the Law of Islam contains pretty
much the same rules as the Ten Commandments. But then
he was telling me about all this other stuff they can’t do.
And I was like, ‘How can you live like that? Why would
you even want to?’”
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“There are lots of silly prohibitions that ancient
religious blowhards made up to control us—like the
Orthodox Jews having to get home before sundown on
Fridays and not using electricity all day Saturday.”
“What about using your computer on battery power?”
“Nope. Can’t do it. You’re supposed to unplug
completely. You can’t even drive.”
“That would suck!”
“I know. Religions make up all kinds of rules to control
our morals. Like prohibiting sex before marriage, or saying
it’s not okay to have an abortion, or to be gay. But whether
you’re religious or not, we still need to follow our
individual hearts when making those types of decisions,
not leave it to some supposedly-sacred authority. And
when it comes to others’ personal life choices, I, for one,
think we have to live and let live.” Razia listened intently,
nodding. I loved that we were having such a serious
discussion, but I hated that it was because of Aziz and his
stupid proselytizing. Why hadn’t Raz ever talked to me like
this before?
“Listen, you don’t have to keep seeing him if you don’t
want to,” I said. “I’ll figure out some other way to pay for
Dr. Princeton. You do like her, right?”
“I already told you she’s okay.”
“Good.”
“But I don’t mind hanging out with Aziz.”
“You don’t?”
“No. I liked it, mostly. He’s so serious, like some kind
of wise man. He pulls it off, actually.” She giggled.
“And I’m not serious enough? Or wise enough?”
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“It’s not that. It’s more how he takes me seriously. He’s
always so even-tempered. He never even raises his voice,
no matter how much I rib him.”
“But he had you filing,” I reminded her.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t so awful, I guess. I didn’t finish,
but he said what I did do was a big help.”
“I have about a hundred things you could help me
with around here,” I groused under my breath, sprinkling
the sliced mushrooms on the pizza, then adding cheese and
some cooked ground turkey left over from last night’s chili.
I opened the squeaky oven door and was assaulted by a
whoosh of hot air.
The phone rang. Razia grabbed it while I slid the pizza
inside the oven. “Mom? It’s that lady from school. Keshia’s
mom.”
“Oh, okay.” I slammed the oven door and took the
cordless phone from her in my floured hand. “Hello?”
“Why’s she calling here?” Razzi asked, half mouthing
the words. I shrugged and turned my back.
“Hi, Sonya. It’s Nannette. I’m calling to see how you’re
doing.”
“I’m fine. Why?”
“No reason. Well, actually—and I hope this isn’t out of
line—Razzi mentioned to Chantal that she was working at
her father’s yoga studio yesterday. Then Chantal told
Keshie, and she told me. You know how these things get
around,” she chuckled. “I was just wondering how things
are working out with you two. You were so hostile toward
him the day we had the pedis.”
“You’d be hostile, too, if someone you hadn’t seen in
thirteen years took your kid out for pie while you were
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going crazy with worry, then announced a few days later
he planned to pick her up from school without your
permission. But why is this anybody’s business? Razzi!” I
called out. “Did you tell Chantal you were working at your
father’s studio yesterday?”
“I might have mentioned it in the hallway between
classes. Why?”
“Because now it’s all over school.”
“Sonya, please. It isn’t all over school,” Nannette
assured me. “Chantal just told Keshia. I’m sorry, I didn’t
mean to upset you. I was only interested in hearing how
you’re getting along with Razia’s dad.”
“Why, Nannette? Why are you so concerned about me
all of a sudden? Why are you getting all up in my
business?” I would have expected pouty silence—if not a
hang-up—but this one didn’t miss a beat.
“Because I like you. Is that a crime?”
“You like me?” I repeated.
“Yes. Why is that surprising?”
I didn’t answer.
“Sonya? You still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here. But listen, Nannette, I’m in the middle
of making dinner. I appreciate your concern, but—”
“I don’t want to keep you, then. I hate gabbing on the
phone myself. But I was wondering, would you like to grab
lunch or maybe a coffee this week? I know it’s rough being
a single mom. I do it myself, part-time mind you, but it’s
still hard. And it gets even harder when the kids start
having all these problems. I mean, give me diapers and
sleepless nights any day of the week!”
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“Amen to that,” I said, recalling my sweet angel when
she was a baby, then a toddler, then in grade school. It had
all flown by in a blur, while I was busy carrying the weight
of her whole world on my shoulders. I had been the sun,
the moon, and the stars in her little eyes. When had I so
fallen from Razzi’s good graces?
Nannette cleared her throat. “I feel like—forgive me,
but you really seem to need someone to talk to. Another
woman. And Sonya? For what it’s worth, your girl is lovely,
and perfectly normal. She just—she’s an adolescent, that’s
all. She’s testing her boundaries, to see how far she can go.
It’s so hard for kids her age to do that nowadays, what with
all the weird crap everyone’s into. But Razzi’s really a
sweet girl. She’s just trying to find herself.”
“Well, thanks, Nannette. That’s nice of you.” I knew I
shouldn’t let some stranger’s platitudes reassure me, but
somehow, it worked. It was good to hear that Razzi didn’t
have a rep as a terror around school, at least.
“So, what do you say? Can I buy you lunch tomorrow?
We could meet at Abbey Road. You know, the place on the
corner near school?”
“Yeah. I pass it every morning.”
“Noon tomorrow, then?”
“Sure,” I answered. “Why not?”
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Chapter Twenty-Four
Detention
“Raz and Korey, sittin’ in a tree . . .” Chantal and Keshia
chanted and clapped.
“F-I-T-E-I-N-G . . .” Zeus came in on cue.
“Shut up! He is not my boyfriend, and we did not have
a fight!” I squealed at the top of my lungs as a group of
girls surrounded my locker, egged on by Zeus. “And you
can’t spell,” I said to him.
“He’s cute, Razzi. If you don’t want him, I’ll ask him
out,” Chantal teased.
“Do whatever you want. Why would I even care?” I
snarled. I caught Korey’s eye then, as he slumped down the
hall toward his locker. I grabbed my theater uniform and
slammed my locker door. The gaggle of gossiping girls
followed me toward the disgusting, stinky bathroom,
where I had to change daily into a purple sweatsuit with
“ORCA” plastered in black, whale-shaped letters across my
chest and butt. When I reached the girls’ room, Korey was
already standing there, waiting for me.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
“I need to talk to you,” he demanded.
“I can’t. I’ve gotta change for drama—”
“You’ve got five minutes, just like me. This’ll only take
a second.”
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“Yeah, but the bathroom gets really crowded. And I
need a stall. I’ve got girl troubles,” I whispered.
He grabbed me by the arm and hustled me down the
hall toward the stairwell at the far end of the corridor. It
wasn’t near any classrooms, so nobody used it except for
confrontations and breakups.
Korey pushed the heavy door and held it open,
waiting for me to pass. I squeezed by him, entered the
vestibule, and leaned against a cinderblock wall, trying to
strike a nonchalant pose. “What’s up?”
“I think you know,” he answered.
“What do you mean?”
“C’mon, Raz. They’re doing a whole investigation over
your little ‘incident.’ Everyone thinks I strangled you.
You’ve got to tell them who did it! I could get kicked out of
school for something I didn’t do!”
“I can’t, Korey. If I rat, everyone will hate me!”
“Wait—was it one of the jocks?”
I scoffed. “Hardly.”
“Then who? One of your stupid Emo friends? Did you
let some loser almost strangle you to death so you could
prove to the world you’re an emotive hardcore? What’re
you gonna do for your next act—cut yourself?”
“Listen, I admit I’ve been checking out the Emos. But
people think being Emo is about being sad and suicidal,
and that’s not true. We just take our emotional reactions to
a more dramatic level than most.”
“Whatever. I am not swallowing the rap for the idiot
who choked you. I thought we were friends. If you won’t
rat out whoever did it, at least clear me. If you won’t do that
much, then we sure as hell ain’t friends—and never were.
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Take that to your next dramatic level.” He shoved his way
through the door while I stood there trembling.
After I’d changed, I trudged into the theater room. I
was all of two minutes late, but Mr. Garofalo stopped
talking—or should I say flitting around up front—and
turned to me. “Ms. Schoenberg, I see you’ve decided to
grace us with your presence today.”
“Sorry I’m late,” I muttered, taking my place in the
front row at the long table. I felt stupid wearing the bulky
sweats each day, and that bathroom was gross! It stank like
menstrual blood and pee. It smelled even worse when it got
crammed with sweaty girls.
“May I ask what your excuse is this time?” he
demanded in that nagging voice of his. Mr. Garofalo was
one of those men who looked perpetually pregnant—a big
beer belly slopped over supersized ORCA sweatpants. And
he always reeked of men’s cologne.
“It smelled in the girls’ bathroom,” I answered, which
was true. “So I waited a few extra minutes until the crowd
thinned out.”
“I see. Well, it’s gonna cost you half your day’s credit.”
I silently fumed as a few kids snickered under their
breath. Despite my supposed Emo leanings, I clearly had
no friends in drama class; all of my so-called friends were
either artists or dancers. I felt like a complete poseur.
“Okay, then,” Garofalo resumed. “Today our challenge
is to see whether you can learn to cry on cue. Please form
your groups.” There was a shuffling of bodies and scraping
of tables and chairs as we got into bands of six to listen to
Garofalo’s lecture. I hated everyone in my group: Gilbert,
Keane, Yanni, Brenda, and (naturally) Zeus.
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“Physically producing genuine tears is one of the most
difficult challenges for actors, especially those who perform
live on stage. How might you do it?” Garofalo looked
around the room, but didn’t call on any of the kids who’d
raised their hands.
“I’ll tell you how,” Zeus whispered in my ear. “Like
this.” He gave the flesh on my arm a good twist.
“Ow!” I yelled.
“Any tears yet?” Zeus taunted.
“Ms. Schoenberg! Do you mind?”
“No, sir.” I shot Zeus a murderous look.
“If I may continue, genuine tears are produced because
of extreme grief or pain; and sometimes when we
experience profound moments of joy. Actors can recall
these intense memories to elicit tears that spring from real
emotions. Think of a time when you had good cry—maybe
while watching a sad movie or after a break-up.”
Zeus’s hand shot up.
“Yes, Mr. Franklin.”
“Yo, don’t some actors use tricks? Like, staring at
something for, like, thirty seconds or rubbing Vicks on their
eyelids?”
“Yes, some actors might do that. But to cry real,
‘memory-driven’ tears, an actor must get in touch with his
or her feelings. During the rehearsal process, try recalling
an emotional experience. Before you say your lines, try to
connect the script with personal moments from your past.”
“What if you don’t have any personal moments that
relate to the script?” Renee, a short, always impeccably
dressed girl asked from the back.
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“Then you can’t think about actual events in your life.
The key is to focus on what the character is going through
so that you produce actual tears out of empathy for your
character and his situation.
“Some of you might be too young to have memories
strong enough to bring on a successful crying jag. If that’s
the case, before and during the scene, try imagining tragic
events that never actually happened but would be
devastating if they did. Like, if you lost a beloved pet or a
loved one. Or you found out that your mom or dad had a
terminal illness.”
“Or that your dad’s a terrorist,” Zeus whispered in my
ear.
“Shut up!” I yelled out. The rest of our group tittered.
“Okay, Ms. Schoenberg. That’s it! An hour’s detention
after school.”
Now that sucked, but at least I didn’t have my stupid
therapy appointment that afternoon. Mom would kill me if
I made her cancel at the last minute and lose her precious
hundred and twenty-five bucks.
“Where was I? Oh yes. Both of these techniques take a
lot of imagination and emotional awareness. But like all
acting techniques, they simply take practice to master. After
the break, I’ll show you clips from some tearjerker
movies—Message in a Bottle, Terms of Endearment. And a
couple of the classics, too.” The class groaned. “But for
now, I want you to give it a try with your groups. Open
your scripts to the scenes you’ve been working on.”
“Look at Razzi,” Zeus called out, pointing at me. “We
ain’t even started running our lines yet, and already she’s
crying!”
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“That’s amazing!” Yanni fawned. She always treated
me like a superstar, and I hated it. “How do you do that?”
“I just think about how bad my life sucks, and it makes
me wanna cry.”
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Chapter Twenty-Five
Tea for Two
My first sip of green tea made me gag. Nannette had placed
her order before me, and I, not wanting to appear
“politically incorrect” by ordering coffee made from beans
grown in some exploited third-world country, ordered a
cup of the vile stuff, too. “How do you drink this crap? It
tastes like pee.”
“How would you know?” Nannette flashed a
mischievous smile. “You’re not one of those people who
drinks her own piss, are you?”
“Of course not—that’s gross!” I shuddered. For some
reason I couldn’t quite pinpoint, I felt nervous in this place.
We were amid a motley crew of pierced, tattooed
nonconformists (many of them ORCA high school kids
breaking for lunch), working stiffs, and the occasional street
person. But it wasn’t the oddball crowd making me selfconscious; it was Nannette. I found her good looks
unnerving. I wondered if I was still pretty enough not to
look dumpy sitting across from someone as attractive as
her, especially in that low-cut, sleeveless top studded with
metal beads. Very chic, what with her bleached hair and
that one black tress cascading over her left eye.
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Stage Daughter
“Why would anyone do that?” I asked.
“What?”
“Drink urine.”
“It’s an alternative medicine thing,” she said.
“Obviously,” I answered. “I didn’t think it was
mainstream. You’d have to be nuts to drink your own
waste. Unless you had to, you know, to survive.”
“Contrary to popular belief, urine isn’t a waste byproduct. It’s, like, ninety-five percent water and five per
cent nutrients. It’s highly sterile. Some people believe
drinking fresh morning urine is beneficial for everything
from the common cold to cancer.” She lowered her voice
and leaned in. “Some folks even swear it boosts sexual
performance.”
“Yeah, well, give me a good cup of coffee any day. At
least I’ll stay awake while the douchebag gets his rocks
off.” Nannette shot me a strange look while taking a dainty
sip of her green pond water. “I’m sorry, but there’s no way
you can actually like that stuff,” I said.
“I like it as much as you like sleeping with
douchebags,” she answered. Not only did this one not miss
a beat; she didn’t mince words, either.
“Well, it has been awhile,” I confided. “Maybe men
have evolved since I slept with Razzi’s father.”
She raised both eyebrows at my implicit confession. “I
seriously doubt it,” she answered. “But then again, I
wouldn’t know, never having had sex with a man myself. I
knew I was gay from a fairly young age. As for the green
tea, I drink it for its many proven health benefits. I’d never
be able to stay this trim without it.” She winked at me as
she set down her cup. The stamp-sized teabag paper clung
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Sheryl Sorrentino
to the side like a wet bikini bottom. That got me wondering
what Nannette would look like in a wet bikini.
“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll pass on the green piss
and order myself a nice, strong cup of brown sludge.” I
rose to head to the counter. (Abbey Road was yet another
eatery where the waitstaff couldn’t be bothered taking your
order at the table.) Just then, a skinny, crater-faced waiter
wandered toward us, balancing a tray and looking lost
while scanning the twelve-inch, silver card displays on each
table, their numbered, cream-colored tags like a field of
amaryllis flowers (also known as “naked ladies,” it
occurred to me. Which got me wondering, how might
Nannette look naked? But only because of those perfectly
round D-boobs I suspected were fake).
“I think that’s ours,” she called out, waving him over.
He set two plates before us—one containing my tuna melt
on whole-grain bread; Nannette’s displaying some
disgusting, unidentifiable thing on an open-faced bun. In
my fascination over the brain-colored square, I sat back
down and forgot to order my coffee.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Miso tofu burger,” she answered, picking it up and
digging right in. Brownish liquid dripped down one side.
“It’s actually quite good. You want a bite?”
“No, thanks. I’ll definitely pass on that.” Clearly,
Nannette was one of those New Agey vegan health freaks.
And while I considered myself diet-conscious enough, I
hated the PC food police.
“Listen,” she said. “I didn’t mean to get off on the
wrong foot with the piss talk.”
“No worries. I was the one who started it.”
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“People are always so afraid to say what’s really on
their minds. We substitute small talk for genuine human
interaction, and that gets us into more trouble than just
being honest.”
“Why do you say that? Is there something on your
mind?”
She flushed. “Not really. It’s just that, you know, I’m
kind of afraid to talk to you about Razzi now. You got so
testy last night when I asked about her visit with her
father.”
“Sorry, but that man really gets under my skin.”
“I’ve noticed.”
“I’d rather not talk about him.”
“Okay.”
“But if you’ve got something to say about Raz, just
spill it.”
She lowered her voice again and leaned across the
table. “I just thought you might like to know, Keshia told
me the choking game is popular with the Emo kids.”
“The what?”
“Emos. The so-called Emotives.”
“Now, what in the world is that?”
“It started out as a music style, but it’s taken on a
whole new cachet with the oddballs and misfits trying to
differentiate themselves from the Goths.” Now she smiled.
“Sorry—I didn’t mean to suggest that Razzi’s a misfit. But
she clearly marches to a different drummer, even at ORCA.
And that’s a pretty hard thing to do,” she smiled again. “I
mentioned her to my ex—she’s a social worker, by the
way—and she agrees that Raz is pushing the envelope
trying to formulate her unique identity.”
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“I vaguely recall Aziz saying something about that.”
“You wouldn’t believe how cliquish that school is,”
she went on, taking another sip of tea. “There’s all kinds of
weird groups kids belong to.”
“Yeah? Like what, besides the same jocks, preps, and
nerd-geeks like when you and I were in school?”
“Well, for one thing, the Goths didn’t exist when we
went to junior high. They’ve only been around since the
nineties. But it’s gotten to where it’s not entirely cool to be
Goth anymore. The Emos have taken over as the avant garde
set. There’s even a subset—the scene kids. They distinguish
themselves by dressing in color, as opposed to Goths and
Emos who dress all in black. And let’s not forget the LGBT
kids—well, there probably aren’t any T’s in middle school
yet,” she laughed. “But being in the gay group is tricky,
because gay kids are often nerds, too. But at least they have
their own group now. In our day, we were invisible.
Remember?”
“I’m sorry—do you think I’m gay?” I asked.
“Aren’t you?”
“No!”
Nannette gave a knowing smirk.
“You think you know better than me what I am?”
“Oh no, of course not,” she said, pushing that black
shock of hair from her eye.
Now she was beginning to piss me off. I stared her
down while my tuna melt sat untouched on its plate. “Why
do gays and lesbians always assume everyone else is a
closeted homosexual?” I finally asked.
“We don’t.”
“Then why would you presume I’m gay?”
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Stage Daughter
“I made a mistake, okay? I just thought, since you’ve
never been married, and you just admitted you haven’t had
sex with a man since before Razzi was born . . .”
“So you leapt to the conclusion that I must be a
lesbian?”
“It’s not only that, okay? There’s something about
your energy. But let’s just drop it. I made a mistake. Sorry if
I’ve offended you.”
“Wait a second—did you mean for this to be some
kind of date?” I asked.
She flushed. “I meant it as whatever you want it to
be,” she answered. “I’m not going to apologize for liking
you. But I also meant what I said about wanting to be here
for you, as a friend. If you’re not gay or not interested in me
for whatever reason, fine. Let’s forget it and eat lunch.”
I looked down at my sandwich. By now, the slice of
cheddar had congealed to a waxy orange square with
greasy sweat dotting the surface. “I’m sorry. I guess I don’t
have much of an appetite today. Maybe I’ll just get that cup
of coffee after all.”
“Listen, I know it’s hard for you,” she said, reaching a
hand across the table and clasping my wrist.
“You’re back to your closeted-lesbian theory? Because
I’m not gay, okay?” I snatched my arm away.
“I meant raising your kid alone. I want you to know,
Keshia’s no angel. Her biological mom was a crackhead.
My ex and I adopted her when she was an infant. I didn’t
especially want to be a mom, if I can be frank. I wanted to
be a singer. That’s how I know so much about the urinedrinking thing. My voice coach used to do it.”
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“So how come you adopted a baby if you didn’t want
to be a mother?” I asked.
“Joann was the one all gung-ho about adopting. But
she expected me to stay home and care for Keshie, because
she had a full-time job and I didn’t. I was the one who had
to give up my dreams, because according to Joann, they
weren’t happening anyhow. But then, once I’d fallen headover-heels in love with that baby, Joann falls in love with an
intern at her office.”
“Just like regular couples,” I observed. “I meant
‘heterosexual.’ Sorry. All I’m trying to say is, it’s so typical
for new fathers to stray when the woman’s focused on a
baby. Not that Joann was the man in your relationship—I
didn’t mean it like that, either. Oh, Jeez.”
“It’s okay,” Nannette nodded. “You’re just realizing
how slanted our language is. We need neutral pronouns, so
that we can refer to a same-sex partner or spouse without
specifying their gender. Gays and lesbians have to pick our
words carefully, you know. If we use the opposite sex
word, that makes us implicit liars. But if we use the same
sex pronoun, then we’re gratuitously announcing our
orientation to the entire universe. Damned if we do,
damned if we don’t.”
“There’s always they,” I offered.
“Right. If your partner’s a member of the illuminati.”
I laughed.
“But getting back to your original point,” she
continued, “I’ve seen babies ruin lots of relationships—gay
and straight. It’s a major life change and puts a huge stress
on any couple.”
“That’s all I meant to say.”
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“Is that what happened with you and Razzi’s father?”
I shook my head. “Nope. He and I were never actually
together. Aziz was literally under contract when I got
pregnant,” I confided, flushing a deep red. “I never even
told him about Razia. And now that he’s some big shot, he
wants to be a part of her life. It just makes me so mad that I
sacrificed so much to raise my daughter without his help,
and now he thinks he can waltz into our lives and act all
high-and-mighty because he’s successful.”
“What’s he do for a living?”
“He’s a yoga hot-shot. He owns five studios. You may
have heard of them—Bend it Like Bikram?”
“I have. That’s Razzi’s dad?”
I nodded. “He’s even got DVD’s on sale at Target. But
he’s just a fraud. I’m surprised he hasn’t gotten sued by
Bikram Choudhury. He’s the big yogi to the stars. Aziz has
no right to use that guy’s name. It’s totally misleading!”
“Well, maybe he got the guy’s permission,” Nannette
said.
“Yeah, right,” I scoffed. “Aziz already got sued by
Rodney Yee. He’s another yoga guru from around here.”
“Him, I’ve definitely heard of. He was on Oprah and
endorsed by Donna Karan. Didn’t he leave his wife and
move to New York?” I nodded. “So why’d he sue Aziz?”
“It was a trademark infringement case a few years
back. Yee tried to block Aziz from calling one of his most
popular courses ‘Yoga for Fitness.’ Apparently, Rodney has
a video of the same name. But the court found in favor of
Aziz. They said the name was too generic to be a
trademark. So after flat out copying Yee, Aziz came out
smelling like a rose. Just like he’s conned my daughter into
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Sheryl Sorrentino
thinking he’s some kind of mystic after thirteen years in
hiding.”
“You do realize every successful business owner gets
sued eventually. Wasn’t Yee sued by a former instructor
over some sex scandal involving his students? That’s way
worse than trademark infringement,” Nannette said.
“Yeah, well, in fairness, it’s hard to get a fat, middleaged woman in true downward dog without placing a
hand on her crotch, right?”
“Artfully put,” she laughed. “But I know what you
mean about exes smelling like roses. Joann screwed me
over, and yet she came out ahead. I wasn’t the one who
wanted to adopt—I did it for her. I went along when she
expected me to stay home and be the primary caretaker for
Keshia. Then she felt neglected when I wasn’t there for her
like I’d been before. And then, she kicked me to the curb
when she met someone she liked better.”
“That’s rough. So you two split custody?”
“I insisted on it. Which may be why I’m a bit
sympathetic toward your—toward Aziz. Now that Joann’s
married her little chippie, I’m the outsider. Plus, I’m still on
my own whenever I’ve got Keshia, while she still has fulltime, built-in support. And to add insult to injury, now I
have two opinionated boss-ladies blaming me anytime
Keshia gets into trouble.” Nannette took a final bite of tofufake-burger and wiped her mouth with the napkin. Then
she pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and
middle finger, blinking back tears.
“It’s good to know I’m not the only one harboring a
grudge,” I observed.
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Stage Daughter
“Right. And now that I’ve spilled my guts, I’ve got
another confession.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“I have been on the prowl for a relationship. Not
necessarily a romantic thing. Just another woman in my
situation, so we can support one another. And if something
comes of that, great. If not, whatever. So I hope the fact that
I’m a lesbian won’t affect our friendship.”
“Oh, so we’re friends now?” I asked.
“Isn’t that why we’re here?” She shot me a startling,
evocative stare.
I cleared my throat. “Listen, it’s getting late. I should
head back to work. I usually skip lunch to make up for
having to pick up Raz. And on top of that, I’ve had to leave
because Razzi flunked her math test and had her little
‘incident’ at school. I don’t want my boss to think I’m
taking advantage of his good nature.”
“I understand,” she answered, digging around in her
purse. She pulled out a couple of wrinkled dollar bills,
which she left on the table. “I need to get back myself,” she
added. “But since I work across the street at Legal Aid, I’ll
be sitting at my desk in two minutes flat.”
My cell phone buzzed. I looked down and scoffed.
“On second thought, if you want to stick around for
dessert, I’m in no hurry after all. Seems I’ll be working late
this afternoon.”
I turned my cell phone toward Nannette. The text from
Razzi read, “B L8 AFTR SCHL. GOT DETNTN.”
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Sheryl Sorrentino
Chapter Twenty-Six
Reefer Madness
“So’d you bring it, Kesh?”
“I said I would,” Keshia answered, digging in her
backpack. She looked around furtively, huddled up close,
then passed me a small baggie filled with green stuff under
cover of my open locker door. “So, do you know what to
do?”
“Well, duh!” I answered. (I didn’t have the faintest clue
what to do, but I wasn’t about to tell Miss-Kool-Keshia
that.)
“You got papers?” she asked.
“No. Do you?”
“Lemme see,” she whispered, digging around in her
backpack once more. She produced a small packet of wispy
papers from the side pocket. “Here. Take a few of these.”
I took the pack from her. “These look sorta thin,” I
said, opening it. “They’re gonna get all smushed. Can’t I
just take the whole pack?”
“I guess,” she answered. “But I want ‘em back.”
“Okay.”
“Do you know how to roll?”
“Huh?”
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Stage Daughter
“How to roll the joint,” she whispered, closing her
locker quietly (as if that wouldn’t draw more attention to
our secret pow-wow than slamming it like every other kid
was doing).
“I—I don’t know. I’ve never done it before.”
The bell rang.
“Well, you’re on your own, Raz. I gotta get to class.”
“Thanks, Kesh.”
I stuffed the papers and baggie into my jacket pocket,
grabbed my backpack off the floor, and made a quick dash
through the crowded hallway toward the rear stairwell. I
had no intention of showing my face in drama class today,
after Garofalo gave me detention yesterday over nothing.
I took the stairs two-at-a-time, raced through the
corridor connecting my school to the old Falcon Theatre
(recently renovated to house ORCA’s numerous
performances), and left through a side door across from
Urban Oasis, a little park that separated our school from the
high-rise condos across the way. I headed for the most
secluded bench—the one by the life-sized, bronze statue of
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. standing behind a podium,
arms raised as if in debate with the sculpture of Malcolm X.
And who should I find sitting there, hair flopping over his
face?
“Hey,” he said, barely looking up from his sketch pad.
I couldn’t read his tone, but I hadn’t spoken to him since
he’d confronted me in the stairwell yesterday. I hadn’t
cleared him from the choking thing, and sure enough, he’d
gotten suspended pending a full investigation by the
powers that be. Even my near-perfect drawing couldn’t
make up for that.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“What are you doin’ out here?” he asked. “Didn’t
drama class just start?”
“I’m taking a break today,” I answered. “What about
you? Why are you hanging around school?”
He closed his pad, just as I caught a glimpse of a girl
with dreadlocks sketched in charcoal.
“Hey—was that me?”
Korey shrugged. “I gotta go,” he said, getting up.
“No, wait.” He shot me a look I’d never seen before. It
made me feel like shit. “Listen, I’m really sorry you got
suspended.”
“Whatever, Raz.” He started to walk away.
“Korey, wait!” I ran after him, grabbed him by the arm
and whispered, “I got weed. You wanna hang out and
smoke some with me?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Since when does ‘GoodyTwo-Shoes-Schoenberg’ get blazed?”
“I’m not a goody-two-shoes!”
“Yeah, you are. You’re just trying a bit too hard not to
be, if you ask me. When you should be a rebel, like dropping
out of drama to pursue your art, you lame out and toe the
line. But when you need to do the right thing—like telling
Holland and your mom the truth about who choked you,
that’s when you decide to turn wicked. It’s twisted, if you
ask me.”
“Okay, you’re right. This is my first time trying pot.
But I’m not doing it to be a badass. I heard it opens your
mind. I’m trying to figure out what to do about this mess.”
“You shouldn’t need to get baked to know the right
thing to do. That’s what a conscience is for. If you wanna
‘go deep,’ try meditating.”
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Stage Daughter
“I already tried that, with my dad. It was boring, and
stupid. I wanna get stoned, okay? Only I don’t know how
to roll a joint. Can you help me out?”
“You happen to be talking to the master jay-roller. But
seriously, Raz, why are you cuttin’ class to smoke grass? I’d
give anything to be sittin’ in my art class right now.”
“Yeah, because you love your major. I was forced into
acting.”
“Such a tragic diva, you,” he said in a fake British
accent. I guessed he’d decided to forgive me. I laughed.
Korey really was all right for a boy.
“Look at the pothead calling the kettle black! You get
high all the time!” I elbowed him.
“You don’t wanna do all the things I do. We might be
in the same math class, but I’m in eighth grade. And
besides, I’m a boy—”
“Yeah, so?”
“No one gives a shit what I do. At least you got a mom
who cares.”
“Yeah, and who drives me nuts. I’d swap you for a
little neglect any day of the week!”
“You say that, but believe me, you wouldn’t like it.
Anyways, we can’t smoke out here. Someone might see
us.”
“Okay. I know someplace private,” I said.
“Lead the way,” he said, taking my hand. We crossed
the street back to the school and stood in front of the stage
door to the Falcon Theater for about five minutes, until
someone came out. Korey grabbed the door before it locked
and in we went.
“Where are we goin’?” he asked.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“There’s a prop room that nobody uses during the
day,” I said. I led him through several musty hallways over
sawdust-coated wood floors until we came to my secret
spot. I loved the prop room; it was like a graveyard of
productions past.
“Wow—cool!” he said, pointing to the fake tree from
last year’s production of Of Mice and Men.
“Look at this!” I crouched under the old-fashioned hair
dryer from Steel Magnolias. “How did women stand these
things?”
“The same way they stand these things,” he answered,
picking up the fake ruby spike-heeled slippers from The
Wiz (which I’d seen with my mother when I was in fourth
grade. I think that’s what planted the idea in her mind to
make me audition at ORCA). “Here, catch!” He tossed me
the witch’s broom.
“Are you calling me a witch?” I flirted.
“Change one letter, and if the broom fits . . . But hey,
we didn’t come here to play with props. Let’s get down to
business—you got the stuff?”
“Here.” I handed him the baggie and papers. He took
the reefer, but left the Zigzags, saying, “I got my own.
Better quality than those onionskins.”
“Oh.” I replaced the packet in my backpack while he
skillfully rolled an even joint. He pulled a lighter out of his
pants pocket, lit the tip and took a long drag. I saw the
smoke go in, but nothing come out. His eyes bulged and
watered.
“You sure you wanna do this?” he croaked, pointing
the unlit end of the joint at me. A few puffs of stinky smoke
escaped from his mouth when he spoke.
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Stage Daughter
“Yeah,” I answered, less sure now. For one thing, it
smelled awful, and for another, Korey looked like his eyes
were about to explode in their sockets. I took the joint
between my fingers like a cigarette. He expelled a big
plume of smoke when he laughed.
“You hold a doob like this,” he said, clipping it with
his thumb and middle finger. “And when you take a hit,
you gotta hold it in.”
I stood there a second longer, positioning the joint
between my fingers like he showed me. But before I could
take a puff, he took it back. Without a word, he pinched out
the burning end with his fingers.
“Hey! What gives?” I asked.
“On second thought, I don’t think this is such a hot
idea. I know you. You’ll go all ganoobies, get caught, and
next thing you know, you’ll get expelled.”
“And what about you?”
“I’m already fucked,” he answered.
“So, what, you’re just giving up?”
“What’s the point? Everybody’s sayin’ I choked you.
My hearing’s next week, and no one who saw anything is
willing to speak up for me. I’m toast. Can’t you talk to your
mom? She’s the one eggin’ them on.”
“I know, and I’m so sorry. My mom wants to see you
expelled. She doesn’t even care whether you strangled me
or not. I think she wants to punish you for helping me find
Aziz. Only she’d never admit that, even to herself.”
“This totally sucks,” Korey said.
“I know it does.”
“Thanks to you,” he added, giving me the same look
he’d given me outside.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
I felt my eyes tear up. It wasn’t just the choking
“incident” or Korey being in trouble because of me. It was
how mad I felt at my mom, and how much I wished my
dad—religious weirdo that he was—could get me out of
this mess. Only I couldn’t possibly talk to him about it,
because he didn’t “approve” of Korey. “I’m sorry,” I
whimpered. “I must have caught a contact high.”
“I don’t think so,” he laughed. And then he took me in
his arms. “Listen, I’m the one who’s sorry. I shouldn’t have
said that.”
“It’s not you,” I said, stifling a sob. “It’s fucking
everything! Sometimes I feel like I’m going crazy!”
Ashamed, I buried my face in his tee shirt.
Korey lifted my chin. “You ain’t crazy. You’re just a
regular kid with a tormented soul. And one of the cuter
ones at that.”
Next thing I knew, his mouth was on mine. I felt his
warm, puffy lips; his arms pulling me in tight. Before I
could think about what my mom always said about boys
and their silly exchanges, he opened his mouth and his
tongue began exploring mine—gross! (Well, half gross; half
nice.) My very first kiss. Who’d have thought Korey would
be such a passionate smoocher? (He was being passionate,
right? As opposed to just boy-nasty?)
After a minute he pulled away. “Sorry,” he said. “But
I’d say you owed me that much. Now I’ll call us even.”
“Oh yeah?” I answered, literally too tongue-tied to
come up with anything more clever.
He planted another quick kiss on my lips, closedmouthed this time. Then the door burst open and Mr.
Holland, the middle school dean of students, barged in. I
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Stage Daughter
saw him behind me through a large, fake-antique stand
mirror. When I hurled around to face him, I knocked over a
coat rack, which crashed into the mirror and cracked the
glass in the shape of a Y.
“Well, what have we here? Ms. Schoenberg cutting
class with her alleged attacker. Haven’t you caused enough
trouble already? And you, Mr. Robledo, need I remind you
that that you’ve been suspended? You shouldn’t even be on
school property. And is that marijuana I smell?”
I remembered those famous words from TV, “You have
the right to remain silent,” and kept my mouth shut.
“I want both of you in my office. Right now.”
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Sheryl Sorrentino
Chapter Twenty-Seven
The Principal’s Office
I found it impossible to avoid the judgmental, condemning
eyes of Mr. Holland and Ms. Ackermann (the school
principal), even as I gaped at Aziz (who had no business
even being there). You gotta love this school! Now that they
had Raz’s “father” in their “system,” they called him right
away when Razzi got caught smoking pot in the prop room
with that loser, Korey. Even before they called me!
“Okay, let’s see what we have, Razia,” Holland began,
pacing up and back like a cop in an interrogation room. He
was a tall, stocky Black man with a short afro, creepy,
bespectacled bug eyes, and a pronounced butt straining
too-tight pants. “You’ve agreed to take a urine test, which
you’ve assured me will come back negative. You also swore
that you hadn’t been smoking pot, even though your eyes
were bloodshot—”
“That’s ‘cause she was crying!” Korey jumped in,
having apparently appointed himself Raz’s peer public
defender.
Holland ignored him and kept listing the charges:
“You’ve admitted to possessing an illegal substance on
school property, although you claim it was given to you by
another student, whom you refuse to identify.”
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Stage Daughter
“The weed wasn’t even on her; it was on me,” Kory
insisted. “Raz didn’t know nothin’ about it.”
“Anything,” Ms. Ackermann corrected him. Tall,
blonde, and German-looking, she reminded me of a lady
Nazi, what with those gold-rimmed glasses and icy blue
eyes. As for Korey, I didn’t know whether this boy had any
artistic talent, but if that didn’t work out for him, he
certainly had a promising future as a trial lawyer (poor
grammar notwithstanding).
“I already told you,” Razia mumbled. “It wasn’t his—
or mine. I was holding it for someone else.”
“Yes, but what were you two doing in the prop room?”
Ackermann asked. Aside from her role as grammar police, I
knew from Raz that she served as the school’s one-woman
chastity patrol. I eagerly awaited Razzi’s answer because, to
tell you the truth, I was perhaps more concerned about my
baby being taken advantage of by that lanky jerk than her
inhaling a curious puff of marijuana. I wasn’t much older
than Raz when I’d tried my first toke. (But then again,
weed’s potency—and people’s negative attitudes about
kids smoking it—had spiked quite a bit since then.)
“We went there to hang out. I was holding the pot for
another kid, but I got curious and decided to try some. So I
asked Korey to roll a joint for me. But after he lit it, I
chickened out.”
“I see. So he rolled it and lit it, but no one actually
smoked it,” Holland said, barely concealing his sarcasm. I
had to agree, my daughter did sound a bit like Bill Clinton.
“As soon as we both smelled how nasty it was, he put
it out,” Razia clarified.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
I grabbed Raz’s right arm, pried her clenched fingers
open and sniffed. Her black-enameled fingernails reeked.
“Right,” I muttered under my breath.
“Even if I believe you, which I don’t, you’re still guilty
of cutting class,” Holland said. Then he paused to make
some notes on a form, as though something brilliant had
just occurred to him. “And whether you ingested the
substance or not, you’re still guilty of aiding and abetting a
classmate in the possession of illegal drugs—whether that
be Korey or this mystery student!”
“You got it all figured out, don’t you, dude? Case
fucking closed!” That was Korey.
“You watch your mouth, Mr. Robledo,” Ackermann
warned.
“Why should I watch it? Nobody else pays any damned
attention to anything that comes out of it!”
“Do you have anything to say for yourself, young
lady?” Holland asked.
“Shouldn’t I have a lawyer or something?” Razia
answered his question with a question (one that never
would have occurred to me).
“Well, since Korey has declined a drug test, we cannot
confirm Razia’s version of these events,” Holland mused
out loud, ignoring her. “But it hardly matters. Either way,
you are both facing permanent expulsion for possession of
an illegal substance on school property. ORCA adheres to a
strict, zero-tolerance drug policy.”
“You can’t expel us!” Korey shouted. “This isn’t even a
hearing, and you two haven’t proved a thing!”
“I’d save my indignity for acting class if I were you,
young man,” Ms. Ackermann jumped in.
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Stage Daughter
Korey scoffed. “Goes to show what you know. I’m not
in the drama program. I’m an artist.”
“You are nothing but a slacker and a troublemaker,”
she answered coldly.
“Might I remind you,” Holland added, “you haven’t
been cleared of the choking incident. You are still facing
possible expulsion for that charge as well.”
“But he didn’t choke me!” Razia cried out.
Aziz had been standing quietly against the back wall,
taking in the scene without a word. He hadn’t met my
surreptitious glances or stolen any of his own. He’d
alternated his gaze among Razia, Holland, and Ackermann
the entire time. Now he shook his head and stepped
forward, taking Razzi gently by the arm. “What do you
think you’re doing?” I snapped.
“I would like a word with Razia outside.” Turning to
the faculty, he asked, “Would you please give us a
moment?”
Ackermann’s
eyes
widened
at
the
melodiousness of his voice. Holland nodded his assent, as
though I—Raz’s mother—weren’t standing right there. Aziz
led Razia toward the door, but I blocked their path.
“Excuse me? You think you can just show up here after
thirteen years and start play-acting like you’re her father?” I
hissed. “ORCA might have the best drama program in
town, buddy, but your pompous, self-important little
routine is over the top, even for this place!”
“Ah, yes. And we all see how effective your parenting
has been. Perhaps if you’d set aside your pride and
unceasing need for control long enough to consider the
needs of our daughter, none of this would have happened.”
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Sheryl Sorrentino
I felt my face turning fifty shades of whatever color I
became when I got infuriated.
“I am sorry, Sonya,” Aziz whispered, leaning in. “I do
not wish to insult you. But I will not tolerate your childish
name-calling when I only mean to help. Now will you
please step aside and allow me to speak to my daughter?”
I looked toward the door. “Fine. If you think you can
help, let’s you, me, and Raz go outside and get to the
bottom of this.”
“Sonya, please. I wish to talk to Razia alone.”
“Razzi, honey, you don’t have to listen to him. Talk to
me—I’m your mother!” I pled.
Aziz stepped around me and opened the door. Razzi
hesitated for a split second, then trotted out into the
hallway like a lamb being herded by her shepherd. I
wanted to scream. (Instead, after Aziz had disappeared, I
positioned myself by the door and kept it cracked so I could
hear every word they said, my eyes daring Holland or
Ackermann to say shit to me.)
“Razia, you must tell them the truth,” Aziz
admonished. “All of it. Lying is a sin. Your future at this
school is at stake, not to mention the future of your soul. So
answer me honestly, did you smoke the marijuana?”
“No. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll get expelled if I tell them
what really happened,” she cried. “And so will Korey and
my other friend. Besides, Mom will kill me! I wouldn’t even
care, ‘cause I don’t want to be in the stupid drama program
anyhow. But I do care about my friends. And besides—”
she sniffled.
“What is it?”
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Stage Daughter
“I’ve been working on my sketches. I was gonna
audition for the fine arts program in the spring.”
“So you like this school, yes?” Aziz asked. Razia
nodded. “And you have aspirations of becoming an artist?”
She nodded again. “Then whatever mistakes you have
made, I will do what I can to see that you do not get
expelled. We will deal with this together. But you mustn’t
be dishonest. Whatever happens in your life, you must
always tell the truth and deal with it. Using drugs to quell
your frustration is never the answer, azeezati. If you feel you
have artistic ability, you must direct these strong emotions
into your art. And learn to meditate. It cleanses the soul like
no drug can.”
Razia scoffed. “Korey basically told me the same
thing.”
“He is wise for his years. And you obviously have
feelings for him. But don’t you see? Whenever you are with
this boy, you get into mischief.”
“That’s not true! He wasn’t the one who strangled me.
And if it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have worked
up the nerve to come find you!” she protested.
“I owe him a debt of gratitude for that, it is true. But
nonetheless, you mustn’t continue to spend time with him.
You must focus on your schoolwork. And on fine-tuning
your drawing skills so you can get into the art program
come spring.”
How was that for audacity? Did it never occur to him
that Razzi and I had already been down this path, and I
decided that drama was best for her? I swear, I literally
wanted to kill him.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
Razia rolled her eyes. “We go to the same school.
How’m I supposed to avoid seeing him?”
“You know perfectly well what I mean, Razia. You are
way too young to be courted by a boy.”
“What do you mean, courted?”
“Courtship is when you spend time with someone
who likes you, in anticipation of marriage. And until you
are old enough to marry, Islam prohibits you from
spending time alone with a member of the opposite sex.”
“Okay, first of all, I know what courtship is. I just
meant, it’s not like that with Korey and me. And secondly,
all that stuff you said? That’s your religion, not mine! And
who said anything about marriage? I’m twelve years old!”
That’s right—you go, girl! Seems Razzi didn’t need my
help after all. She could handle that self-righteous bully all
by herself.
“Whether you choose to follow the edicts of Islam or
not, its principles are universal. They apply to everyone
because they are sound and guarantee the purity of your
soul. In time, you will come to understand that. But until
then, you must stop seeing him. Your future depends on
it.”
Razia scoffed. “I don’t even like him that much, okay?”
Aziz looked at her skeptically. “It is obvious to me you
like him quite a bit. But let us make a deal, shall we? I will
speak to your mother about your desire to draw.” Razia’s
face lit up. “But in exchange, you must do something for
me.”
“What?” Now she looked skeptical. “Never talk to
Korey again?”
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Stage Daughter
“Join my family for Maghrib prayers at the mosque.”
“Ma-who?
“Maghrib. It is the fourth of the five formal daily
prayers. We can go this Friday.”
“I don’t know . . .”
Un-fucking-believable! I’d specifically prohibited him
from taking Raz to see his family. But even worse than that,
he was trying to fill her head with religious mumbo-jumbo
just as I predicted!
“Truly, it is a joyful thing, giving thanks to Allah. He
listens to and sees everything we say and do,” Aziz
continued in a calm voice. “You and I have missed so much
time together. What better way to give thanks for our
belated reunion than to share our sincerest prayers for a
thriving father-daughter relationship and to pray for your
bright future?”
Razia scoffed. “My bright future? Yeah, right.”
“Razia, please. Do not be flippant. It is most
unbecoming.”
“I’m sorry,” Razia said, “but that sounded weird,
whatever you just said. And I don’t know about your
whole mosque thing. My mom’s never even taken me to
synagogue or church. She doesn’t believe in any of that
stuff. She said it’s up to me to decide what religion I want
to be—if any—when I grow up.”
Good for you, Raz. Stand up to him.
“It most certainly is,” Aziz said. “But heartfelt prayer
and gratitude are universal, whether one practices a
particular religion or not. I’d like the chance to introduce
you to Islam so you can experience them as I do and make
an informed choice when the time comes.”
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“Right. Like I’ll ever make a choice of my own as long
as my mom’s alive.”
“You will have to make many choices in your life.
Starting now—you must choose whether to tell the truth
and deal with the consequences or betray Allah and your
very soul by continuing to lie. Are you prepared to do the
right thing?” Aziz assumed a pensive stance and looked
down at her. Razzi lowered her eyes and nodded. “Shall we
go back in, then?”
“I guess.”
I ducked away from the door before they entered.
“Razia is ready to confess to what has happened,” Aziz
announced. He turned to her and said, “Go ahead, Razia.”
“I got the pot from Keshia,” she blurted out. “I mean, I
asked her for it, but then Korey talked me out of trying it.
And he didn’t strangle me, either. That was that creep,
Zeus! He’s always teasing me and daring me to do stuff!”
“Let’s stick to one matter at a time, shall we?”
Ackermann said.
“Keshia?” I yelled out at the same time. “You got pot
from Nannette’s daughter?”
“Zeus?” Korey blurted out in unison. “You let that Ahole strangle you?”
“Excuse me!” That was Aziz. “Could we all calm down
a moment and focus on the matter at hand?”
Holland shook his head. “I’m sorry, Razia. While I
appreciate your honesty, you were still in possession of
marijuana on school property. As I said earlier, we have a
zero-tolerance policy.”
“But this is the girl’s first offense,” Aziz pleaded in his
most hypnotic tone. “And she has been through so much
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these past few weeks. Her life has been in turmoil. You see,
I first learned that Razia is my daughter three weeks ago
today. I am sure this has been as confusing for her as it is
for me. I wish to be a stabilizing influence in her life, but
circumstances have made it difficult.” He glowered at me.
“Please, if you will pardon her just this once, I can assure
you there will be no more problems.” Now he directed a
stern gaze at Razia.
“Oh yeah? How can you promise that?” I challenged.
“I’ve been dealing with her for twelve-and-a-half years on
my own. You think you can just breeze in here like Aladdin
on his magic carpet, say a few words, and your perfect
genie daughter’s gonna fly out of your lamp and grant your
wish?”
“Ms. Schoenberg, please!” That was Ackermann. “We
are trying to foster an atmosphere of tolerance and respect
at ORCA. We will not tolerate hate speech at our school.”
“How is that hate speech? I just wanna know what
trick he thinks he has up his kaftan that’ll make my
daughter behave.”
“I am a bit curious how you propose to turn this
situation around, Mr. Qureshi. Razia has been on a
downhill slide since the beginning of seventh grade, well
before you came onto the scene,” Holland said.
“By guiding her in the principles of Islam. By
introducing her to the supreme and almighty Allah. None
of us can handle the challenges and heartbreaks of this life
alone. We all need something greater than ourselves to turn
to at difficult times. The girl has been spiritually adrift her
entire life. She has been denied the love and guidance of a
father—of a proper Muslim home. I intend to rectify that, as
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best as I can, under the circumstances.” He shot me another
look.
You would think Holland and Ackermann might be
put off by Aziz’s little sermon, but he had them completely
hoodwinked—they were nodding and hanging on his every
word! Apparently his “concerned father” routine was
convincing enough to trump his shameless Islamic
extremism. I swear, I wanted to lunge across the room and
tackle him to the ground.
“You sanctimonious bastard! How dare you attack my
childrearing skills! How dare you suggest you would have
done anything besides cast me and Razzi off like dirt—even
if I had told you I was pregnant all those years ago. You
were already engaged!”
“Sonya, this is neither the time nor the place to air our
dirty laundry. And in any case, you are wrong. I would
have given you my full financial and moral support. More
importantly, I would have been involved in our daughter’s
life, if only you had let me. Perhaps that wasn’t good
enough for you, because you are correct about this much: I
would have been unwilling to marry you. I can see you are
still hurt and angry about that. And because of it, you have
no use for me as the father of your child.
“But this is not about you. It never was. It stopped
being about you the moment Razia was conceived. And that
is where you have failed her as a mother.”
“Oh yeah? Well, let me tell you something, Mr.
Qureshi. You can act holier-than-thou all you like now that
our kid is two-thirds grown. I was the one who took the
high road back then and did it all on my own. Because it
was best for everyone. You have no idea how hard it’s
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been, and you have no idea who my kid is. Razia has no
use for you or your outmoded, sexist beliefs!”
I looked at Ackermann and Holland. Much as I hoped
they might back me up, I could practically see the dollar
signs lighting their eyes at Aziz’s mention of “financial
support.” This school was always hurting for money, and
in this gossip mill, they’d obviously heard who Aziz was. I
couldn’t afford to make monthly donations, as they
“encouraged” all parents to do. They sent letters and emails
regularly, urging me to contribute so the school could claim
“100% Parental Participation” (cleverly dubbed “100-P3”)
when fund-raising. Much as I would have loved to support
the school financially, I simply didn’t have a dime to spare.
Sure enough, Ackermann came in right on cue. “Mr.
Qureshi,” she said in her sweetest voice. “Unlawful
possession of a controlled substance is grounds for
expulsion. And while the middle school dean has the
discretion to impose appropriate disciplinary measures, I’m
sure you can appreciate that ORCA must enforce its rules
uniformly.”
“I do understand that, but—”
“If we were to treat Razia leniently, there would have
to be extenuating circumstances,” she said.
“I see,” he answered, clearing his throat. “And what
might those be?”
Holland interrupted. “This is a first offense, and we
recognize that your daughter has family issues at the
moment. But seeing as how Razia caused damage to the
prop room, it might make a pardon more palatable to the
other parents if, you know . . .”
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Holland’s words drifted off, but Aziz clearly got his
drift. “By all means, if my daughter was responsible for
damaging school property, I shall assume full financial
responsibility for the reparations.”
“But that mirror wasn’t worth anything!” Raz
protested. “It’s just an old storage room. All the stuff in
there is some castoff from a show they’ll never do again.”
“Shut up, Raz,” Korey whispered between gritted
teeth. “Don’t you get it? Your dad’s gonna pay them off.”
“How much damage are we talking about?” Aziz
asked.
“Oh, I dunno. I’d say about a thousand dollars worth.
Your daughter broke an antique mirror, after all.”
I tried not to gasp. Another grand? On top of Raz’s
therapy?
Aziz answered without hesitation, “That sounds
reasonable.”
“But Dad—that wasn’t an antique mirror! It was just
some cheap WalMart thing. All that stuff in the prop room
is donated, anyhow. They don’t pay anything for it.”
Dad? When, pray tell, had my sperm donor morphed
into “Dad”?
“No one is suggesting you caused one thousand
dollars in damage, my love. I am merely making a financial
contribution to replace the broken mirror, and anything left
over is to be considered a gesture of goodwill to the school,
as our apology for this incident. Does that make sense?”
“No, not really!”Razia crossed her arms indignantly.
Holland ignored her. “In that case, assuming your
mom and Ms. Ackermann are in agreement, I will
recommend that we place Razia on a six-month probation
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to give her time to, ahem, adjust to her . . . changed
circumstances. That will entail you signing just a few forms,
Mr. Qureshi.”
“Of course,” Aziz answered.
I couldn’t believe it! They were actually letting Aziz
buy Razzi a free pass! I didn’t know whether to feel
relieved or enraged. Holland spoke to Razia next. “That is,
provided your urine test comes back negative. And there
can be no more infractions of any sort. Is that perfectly
clear, young lady?” Razia nodded. “Ms. Ackermann, are we
in agreement?” he asked.
“Middle school is your bailiwick, Jonah,” she
answered, smiling at Aziz. “I’m prepared to defer to your
recommendation. Let’s just hope the broken mirror doesn’t
bring ORCA seven years of bad luck,” she snickered. “Mr.
Qureshi, are you familiar with that old superstition?”
“I am, indeed.”
“Then it’s settled,” Holland said. “All right with you,
Ms. Schoenberg?” I nodded. (What else could I do?)
“What about me?” Korey interjected. “Am I off the
hook for the stupid choking thing?”
The two of them became flustered, as though they had
forgotten all about him. They actually turned in unison to
see what Aziz thought!
“C’mon, man,” Korey spoke directly to him. “Cut me a
break. She just admitted I didn’t choke her. I was the one
who talked her out of smokin’ the weed, and you have me
to thank that she wasn’t raped or got her throat slashed
when she came lookin’ for you. She didn’t even know how
to stick her money in the freakin’ BART machine!”
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Aziz recoiled at Korey’s casual reference to Razia being
“raped” but otherwise seemed to consider his line of
reasoning. “I would be inclined toward forgiveness, if you
agree to stop seeing my daughter,” he said.
Korey looked at Raz and pushed hair off his eyes. Then
he gulped and said, “Fine! She’s nothin’ but trouble
anyhow.”
In spite of his blustery, indifferent air, I clearly saw the
face of a spurned, misunderstood boy. Much as I hated to
admit it, deep down, Korey was a good kid. I hoped when
Razia was old enough, she sought that quality in a mate,
first and foremost.
“Very well, then,” Holland said, closing his file.
“What about that Zeus kid?” Korey pounced. “Are you
gonna expel him for strangling Raz?”
“I can assure you he will be dealt with appropriately,”
Holland sighed before muttering to himself, “Close
Robledo’s file, open another for Franklin. All in a day’s
work.”
“This is for the best,” Aziz said to Razia. “You need to
focus on your schoolwork and on developing a relationship
with your father—and Allah.”
“Now, you wait just a minute, Aziz,” I snarled. “I
never agreed to let you take Razia to your stupid mosque.
We need to talk about that!”
Aziz’s eyes registered quiet surprise that I’d overheard
his covert invitation. But he ignored me and focused on
sealing his treaty amid a flurry of paper-pushing before
accepting a warm gush of back-slapping and hand-shaking
from both Ackermann and Holland.
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Chapter Twenty-Eight
Blow-Up
I was about to pull out of my spot when the sign for Bay
Area Legal Aid caught my eye from across the street. I cut
the engine, got out of the car, and dropped two more
quarters in the parking meter. Then I stormed the building.
After checking the directory, I took the rickety, old elevator
up to the fifth floor, itching to give that woman a piece of
my mind.
“May I help you?” the surly receptionist asked. She
was an older lady with thinning, gray hair and red
eyeglasses dangling from a beaded chain.
“Yes, my name’s Sonya Schoenberg. I’m here to see
Nannette.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No. I’m a friend. Or rather, our kids go to school
together, across the street. Tell her this’ll only take a
moment.”
The receptionist buzzed Nannette on her outmoded
white phone. “She said she’ll be right out. Please take a
seat.”
I turned around. Three of the four chairs in the small
waiting area were filled by an old Asian man, a slight,
hunched woman I assumed to be his wife, and a Mexican
woman with a sleeping toddler sprawled across her lap, his
legs splayed over the one empty seat between his tired221
Sheryl Sorrentino
looking mother and the anxious Chinese couple. The mom
started to move her son. “That’s okay. I can stand,” I said.
Nannette came right out, wearing a flattering gray
pantsuit over a black spandex top, which she’d
accessorized with a dramatic, art-deco-inspired necklace of
alternating black beads and silver chains.
“Sonya, what a nice surprise! What brings you here?”
“Not what—who,” I whispered. “Your daughter,
Keshia.”
Nannette’s demeanor instantly changed, from Ms.
Friendly to Ms. Businesslike. “Shhh. Not here,” she
whispered back. “Let’s go into my office.” She squared her
shoulders and said to the receptionist in a louder voice,
“Margie, if anyone’s looking for me, tell them I got called
into an emergency meeting.” She led the way down the hall
and closed her office door behind her.
“What’s this all about?” she asked, facing me in front
of her desk. She had Keshia’s school pictures all lined up in
a row along the windowsill, from kindergarten through
seventh grade.
“What, you didn’t hear?” I asked with a snide edge to
my voice. “Razzi practically got expelled from school
today! She was caught with that boy, Korey, smoking pot.
She swears she didn’t smoke any, but who do you suppose
gave it to her?”
“Who?”
“Your delinquent daughter!” I had a long list of
expletives ready to fling from my mouth, but when I saw
Nannette’s anguished look, I couldn’t bring myself to lash
out at her.
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“Wow. I’m very sorry to hear that.” Nannette shook
her head. “We’ve had problems with Keshia smoking weed
before. I thought she was all through with that.” Strange as
it may sound, I found her confession comforting. At least I
wasn’t the only parent whose seventh-grader had gone
rogue.
“I’ll need to discuss it with my ex, naturally, but rest
assured we will get to the bottom of this,” she added.
I didn’t know what else to say. Razzi had been let off
the hook with a thousand-dollar slap on the wrist; Nannette
had owned up to her kid’s role in the marijuana fiasco; and
yet I wasn’t satisfied. I was still so angry I wanted to hunt
Keshia down one classroom at a time and slap the living
daylights out of her. Now who was the delinquent?
“I don’t want to make excuses for Keshie, but the
breakup’s been hard on her,” Nannette continued. “This
whole pot thing started when she decided she wanted to
meet her birth mother. She’s been bugging us about it for
almost a year. I happen to think it’s her right, and it could
even be a healing experience. But Joann is dead-set against
it. She says Keshia can wait until she’s eighteen. But Joann’s
more touchy about the whole racial issue—she feels
threatened by Keshia wanting to know her roots.” She
stopped and looked me in the eye. “I’m sorry, but our
family situation has been a bit of a challenge for me. It’s
hard being a white, same-sex couple—excuse me, threesome
now—raising an African American child, and I’m not just
talking about hair-combing. We adopted Keshia through
the Social Services system when she was an infant. I think I
mentioned that Keshie’s mom had a substance abuse
problem? Well, Keshia’s had difficulties with learning and
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adjustment her entire life because of it. And the fun really
started when she turned twelve. She’s been having issues
with aggression and respecting authority figures. I feel bad,
because Keshia hasn’t had the easiest time. I know that
doesn’t excuse her smoking pot or giving it to another
student. And forgive me for spilling our entire life story. I
don’t know whether you can relate to any of this or not.”
“If you only knew,” I scoffed. “As you can probably
tell, I’m biracial. I’m told my biological mother is Jewish. I
was adopted and raised by a Jewish family when adopting
a half-Black kid wasn’t exactly considered a ‘cool’ thing to
do. Back then, I got teased a lot because I’m mixed. The
Black kids thought I was too smart and uppity, and the
white kids didn’t accept me, either. But because I grew up
in a privileged home in an upscale neighborhood, I was
supposed to identify as a white girl. Which I could do some
of the time, just not always.
“All my life, I’ve heard my adoptive parents tell me
how lucky I am. I guess they figured they were doing a
good deed and raised me the best way they knew how.
They assumed I’d be grateful to sweep half my identity
under the rug and live the life of a card-carrying, uppermiddle-class white kid. But when my adoptive mother got
pregnant and had the perfect son, I guess I didn’t measure
up. I didn’t even want to try. After all, I had all these extra
needs and issues their biological child didn’t have.”
Nannette smiled sympathetically. Encouraged, I went
on. “And wouldn’t you know, now Razia’s decided out of
the blue that I’m not good enough and she needs to find her
roots. I guess what goes around comes around. But it sure
has thrown my life into a tailspin. So yeah, I think I can
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relate just a little to what you’re going through with
Keshia.”
“Did you ever want to meet your birth mother?” she
asked.
“No. I can’t say I ever did. She didn’t want me, so I
saw no point tracking her down. I felt the exact same way
about Razia’s father: Once I found out he was engaged, I
wasn’t about to beg him to love me, or my kid.”
“Listen, I’ll definitely talk to Joann and Keshia about
this pot business. But I’d really appreciate if you don’t
make a big stink about it with the school. ORCA’s such a
wonderfully diverse place, and Keshia’s truly an artistic
soul. It’s been a great environment for her.”
“Same with Raz.”
“I’d hate to see her get expelled over this, so please let
me and Joann take it up with the powers that be. Hopefully,
we can figure something out. But in the meantime, let me
try and make it up to you. I’ve got Keshia this weekend.
Why don’t I take us all out to lunch? It’ll have to be
someplace cheap, though. Legal Aid doesn’t pay much.”
“I dunno. That might too weird for Razia, the four of
us having lunch.” Too weird for me, too. Like an intergenerational double-date. I cleared my throat. “But, um, I
want you to know—if I haven’t already told you—I really
do appreciate all the support you’ve shown me.”
“Then how about this? Let’s get together and tour the
graveyard!”
“The graveyard?”
“Sure. Mountain View Cemetery. Razzi will love it.
There are all these cool, old gravestones and huge
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monuments to famous business moguls. You can even walk
inside some of them.”
A stroll through the cemetery. Something my little
Emo might actually like. But should I go? Nannette
obviously had a thing for me—she already admitted as
much. I began checking out her office, walking toward the
credenza and picking up then setting down some sort of
humanitarian award plaque from the Alameda County Bar
Association. “So, what’s your story, Nannette? You one of
those do-gooder lawyers?”
“Me? No. I’m the case manager here. I screen the
clients and assign their cases. We get mostly domestic
violence and housing disputes. But sometimes health care
and benefits stuff, too.”
“My brother calls himself an environmental lawyer,
but he represents big oil companies.”
Nannette laughed. “Well, to each his own, right?”
“I suppose.”
She looked me in the eyes for a split second before
taking two startling steps toward me. Then she took my
hand and planted a surprisingly tender peck on my mouth.
Her lips felt supple and wispy, like cotton puffs. “And
what’s your story, Sonny?” she murmured in a soft voice.
“You ready to call it a date, or what?”
Flustered, I cleared my throat. “Um, sure. Let’s.”
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Chapter Twenty-Nine
Taqiyya and Kitman
Islamic scholars teach that Muslims should be truthful to
one another, unless the purpose of lying is to “smooth over
differences.” But my Fadwa is unaware of any so-called
“differences” between us. She has no idea I fathered a child
before we were married, and for the moment, I prefer to
keep it that way. Once I reveal that Razia must be counted
as one of my offspring, there will be no stuffing that cat
back into its sack; my infidelity will surely create
“differences” with my wife where none existed previously;
and there will be no “smoothing things over,” because I
believe the American courts would label differences of such
magnitude “irreconcilable.”
To further complicate matters, I have not informed my
student, Lydia, of my fib. And yet hers was the name that
automatically sprang to my lips when Fadwa asked me
about the child’s mother the other night. Must I now inform
her of my quandary as well, having invoked her name in
my deception?
I am in a state of torment. I know I must tell Fadwa the
truth. But when? Muslims are allowed to commit taqiyya
(that is, to say something untrue) and kitman (to lie by
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omission) when dealing with nonbelievers. Clearly these
tenets of Islam do not apply to Fadwa, a pious and dutiful
Muslim wife, but what about Lydia? Should I confide my
dilemma to her? Might she be a woman I could turn to for
advice and counsel if Fadwa is unwilling to step up to the
task of helping me guide this child?
But how can I possibly introduce Razia to the virtues
of an upright Muslim home without Fadwa welcoming her
into our family? How can I expose my eldest daughter to
the daily practice of salat under such false pretenses,
without my wife’s knowledge and support? Five times each
day, when I kneel before Allah to pray, I will be judged a
liar and a hypocrite.
“What’s wrong, Aziz?” Lydia asked, fetching me out
of my reverie.
“Nothing. I am fine.”
“You seem so distant today,” she persisted. “Is
everything all right with the studio? I know lots of
businesses are losing money in these hard times. Face it,
yoga is a discretionary expenditure. But don’t worry, this
recession has to end sooner or later. And I’m sure you’ll
bounce back as soon as it does.” She stroked my face with
the back of her hand and looked at me with sympathetic
blue eyes.
These American women. So disposed to removing
their clothing and running their mouths; so unwilling to
leave a man to his private thoughts. “My finances are none
of your concern,” I admonished with a cold breath,
knowing full well that my evasiveness would drive Lydia
to even greater apprehension. Although we had professed
our “love” for one another during one of our most
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passionate moments, I knew that if Bend it Like Bikram
were to go bankrupt, she would immediately move on to
the next man. But this was well and good, because it is best
not to become too attached to an infidel, and quite frankly,
she had outlived her tenure.
“I only asked because I care about you,” Lydia
protested. “And speaking of which, I hate to bring this up
again, but you really need to stop charging me for classes.”
“I cannot allow you to attend for free,” I retorted. “It
would raise suspicions.”
“Oh please,” she answered in a dismissive tone. “We’ve
been seeing each other for almost a year. I have to assume
everybody already knows about us.”
“My wife does not know. And she never will.” In that
instant, I knew Lydia would be of no use as a role model for
Razia. Besides, I would be a fool to expect solidarity from
my partner in carnal crime, since there truly is no honor
among adulterous thieves. I hoped Lydia would not choose
that moment to embark upon her tired appeal that I “come
clean” about our affair or—sillier still—divorce Fadwa to
marry her. This, of course, would simply never happen.
She sat straight up in bed now, allowing the sheet to
fall away and exposing her large breasts without shame.
Her immodesty did not encourage me to look away, so I
stared directly at them—a perfect pair of brick-red nipples
the size of silver-dollar pancakes. They gazed back at me
like two cartoonish eyes. Lydia’s blond hair, straight as
straw and the color of butter, fell down across her bare
shoulder. I had to admit, she was a flawlessly attractive
woman.
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“Don’t get all snippy with me,” she scolded. “I was just
expressing concern.”
“What is this snippy? It sounds like the name of a dog.”
“That’s Skippy,” Lydia laughed. She rose from bed, not
bothering to cover herself on her way to the bathroom. I
hoped she would shut the door this time; I truly hated
hearing those types of noises coming from a woman.
With Lydia gone from the room, my daughter’s image
entered my mind along with a string of gnawing thoughts.
I had arranged for Claire, one of my long-time instructors,
to oversee the afternoon’s classes and lock up the studio
this Friday so I could spend time with Razia after school.
Now, if I am to persist in desecrating my commitment to
Islam (not to mention my wife), Claire is the woman I
should be seeing. She is perhaps not as beautiful as Lydia,
and a bit older to boot. But she is a more serious individual
with a high degree of integrity. Which, paradoxically, poses
the greatest obstacle: Although I assume Claire knows
nothing of my affair with Lydia, she would nonetheless
spurn any advances I might dare attempt, due to the fact
that I am her boss—as well as married.
But getting back to Razia: I want to take her to sunset
Maghrib at the local mosque but have not yet told Fadwa,
which complicates things a bit. Although she doesn’t attend
mosque daily as I do, Fadwa often accompanies me with
the children on Friday evenings for the fourth of five daily
prayer services. How can I explain inviting Razia to
participate in our family prayers?
Naturally, I have not told Sonya of my plan, either. But
of this kitman I feel no trepidation whatsoever. As Razia’s
father, is it not my right to choose the activities for our
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visits, without hindrance from that woman’s unfounded
restrictions? And as a faithful Muslim, is it not my duty to
sway the young nonbeliever when she so clearly needs my
guidance?
Lydia returned from the bathroom wearing a green Tshirt and a pair of blue jeans. She did not appear to be
wearing a brassiere underneath, and I was fairly certain she
hadn’t bathed, either, as I had not heard the shower
running. Her shirt bore a medieval, red-leaf phoenix crest,
and the words “Breaking Benjamin” written in white
lettering across the chest. “Who is this Benjamin?” I asked.
“And why do you wish to break him?”
Lydia laughed again. Everything was funny to this
woman. At first, I had found it charming—an appealing
change from Fadwa’s constant seriousness and worry. But
after nearly a year, it had become irritating.
“It’s the name of a band,” she clarified. “An alternative
metal band, to be precise. But I don’t suppose you would
ever listen to anything like that. Remind me again what
type of music they like in Baghdad?”
Now she was really beginning to annoy me. This
woman, while most fulfilling in bed, could be extremely
grating other times. She did not show me the proper
respect and seemed to make a deliberate mockery of
everything I held dear. I sensed the time fast approaching
for me to cut her loose. “For perhaps the hundredth time, I
am originally from Kuwait,” I clarified. “Furthermore, I’ll
have you know I am not unfamiliar with heavy metal
music. It is considered a vice in most Islamic cultures. But
there is one Iraqi band—Acrassicauda—that has attained a
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measure of popularity in the Middle East and the U.S., and
I happen to like them.”
“Well, aren’t you a walking Mideast edition of Rolling
Stone magazine,” she said, puckering her lips and making
little kissy noises.
“I should shower now,” I answered, ignoring her.
“Where is my thobe?”
“You didn’t leave a robe here, but you could borrow
one of mine.”
“My thobe. It is a traditional garment worn by men
throughout the Middle East,” I explained.
“Oh, you mean that nightshirt thingie? It’s in the
laundry.”
I sighed. “Why must you wait until I am here to wash
my clothing?”
“What’s the big deal, Aziz? Why are you acting so
testy? I’ll loan you a T-shirt, okay?”
“My thobe helps me feel at home when I am at your
apartment.”
“Don’t I make you feel comfortable?” She sat on the
edge of the bed, leaned in, and rubbed her breasts against
my bare chest while grabbing my crotch through the
covers.
I swatted her hand away. “Stop that. You know I do
not feel at ease walking around naked. In fact, to be quite
honest, I do not feel particularly relaxed here at all.”
“Your seemed plenty comfy-cozy ten minutes ago
when your pecker was tucked away all warm and snuggly
inside me,” she teased in a baby voice. I could not help but
flinch at her brazen description of the intrusion she so
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readily allowed me to perpetrate upon her. “Besides,
what’s wrong with my apartment?” she pouted.
“You do not observe halal guidelines, despite my
having pointed this out to you on many occasions. You
keep liquor in your home—and pork products. And you do
not remove your shoes when you enter.”
A familiar look of hurt came over her face “So what?
I’m not Muslim, and this is my place. I’ve never stopped
you from taking your shoes off. I even bought you a pair of
slippers for Christmas.” I shot her a look. “Or Ramadan or
whatever.”
“Yes, but I must walk in them on floors that have been
sullied by outside filth.”
“You know something, Aziz? Seeing as how you’re so
uncomfortable here, maybe you should just leave. And next
time you get the urge to see me—that is, if you want there
to be a next time—you can just take me to a hotel. And I
mean a nice one, like the Ritz Carlton or the Parc 55 on
Union Square.” She crossed her arms over that silly crest.
“Since everything is so hunky-dory at the studio, and your
finances are none of my concern, that shouldn’t pose a
problem for you, now should it?”
I got up from bed, grabbed my trousers and shirt, and
walked toward the bathroom without answering. I could
practically feel her eyes scorching two holes in my buttocks.
But I knew the more I ignored her, the more penitent she
would become.
“I was only kidding!” she called after me. I closed the
bathroom door and began to urinate. I heard her knocking
softly.
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“C’mon, Aziz. I hate it when you work yourself into
one of your funks. I said I was kidding. Well, half-kidding.
To tell you the truth. I’d love to go on a romantic weekend
with you. How come we never do stuff like that? We’re like
an old married couple, always hanging around this
apartment and never going anyplace. I’m way overdue for
a facial, and you look like you could use a deep tissue
massage.”
I flushed the toilet (which Lydia had not flushed after
relieving herself and tossing a wad of toilet paper into the
bowl) and turned on the shower. She continued shouting at
me through the door.
“We’ve never once gone away together in the year
we’ve been seeing each other. Couldn’t we do that, Aziz? A
romantic spa getaway for two? What do you say?”
That woman’s ignorance never ceased to amaze me.
When had she ever known me to waste money taking a
paramour to a hotel? My first obligation was to my family;
my income was not my own to squander on such nonsense.
I lathered myself quickly, rinsed and dried off, and got
dressed. When I returned to the bedroom, Lydia had the TV
on and was flipping channels with the remote. I hated that
she kept a TV on her bedroom dresser, like a darkened
mirror recording me from behind whenever we fornicated.
I grabbed my bag and headed toward the door.
“Don’t I get a kiss goodbye?” she called to my back.
I took my leave without so much as a word of farewell,
leaving Lydia to resume her channel surfing and me to
ponder my predicament.
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Chapter Thirty
Salvation at 5:07
“So, what do you think, Razia? Won’t you join me for
Friday evening prayers?” Aziz finally broke our awkward
silence. We’d been walking side-by-side along the Berkeley
Marina for, like, twenty minutes, neither one of us saying a
word since he’d again brought up that business about me
going to mosque with him. Personally, I didn’t really care
either way; I was willing to do it to make him happy, but
the whole thing really had my mom up in arms. She didn’t
believe in religion and didn’t want him “indoctrinating” me
(her word) into Islam. As for me, I still didn’t quite know
what to make of this dude who obviously cared for me but
was also hell-bent on converting me to his religion and
saving my soul.
“My mom used to bring me here a lot when I was a
kid,” I said, avoiding his question. “She liked to take me to
the Adventure Playground so I could bang on things with a
real hammer.” Shivering, I looked across the bay at the
sailboats in the distance. It was always windy here,
especially in winter. A few fat seagulls swooped overhead.
One of them landed on the paved path and pecked at the
remains of a tortilla chip lying on the ground.
“Yes, we have brought our children there as well,” he
answered. “Abdul is still young enough to enjoy the
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hammering and sawing. And the zip line,” he chuckled.
“Aleyah is now too old. But we were speaking about
evening prayers. What do you think? Won’t you join us?
Fadwa is fixing a lovely dinner for after the service. You are
welcome to eat with us, too,” he added.
“So she’s coming along?” I asked. “I mean, if I decide
to go to the mosque with you?”
“Fadwa does not usually attend masjid services.
Congregational prayer is not required of women in the
same way as it is of men. But we often attend as a family on
Friday evenings, and she will accompany me tonight with
the children if you decide to come. I can tell you what to
expect on the drive home. We must stop there first, so you
can get your hijab.”
“My what?”
“Your headscarf.”
“Oh.” I’d seen women wearing those head thingies,
and they looked hot and uncomfortable. (Not to mention,
old and dorky.) “How come I need to wear that? I mean,
I’m not Muslim or anything. If I decide to go, wouldn’t I
just be a guest?”
“Yes, but all women must have their head and neck
covered the entire time they are in the masjid.” My dad
gazed absentmindedly across the bay, seeming to ponder
something way out there.
“Why?” I persisted. Aziz turned to me then, looking
half annoyed and half baffled.
“This is so that you do not pose a distraction to the
men,” he explained, trying his best to be patient. I
wondered why my head would distract anyone—and how
it was my problem if it did—but didn’t ask.
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“I’ve got a black wool beanie,” I offered. “I could pull
it down over my ears, like I sometimes do at school when I
want to keep a low profile. It’s in my backpack—you
wanna see it?” I asked.
“I do not know what is this ‘low profile’ of which you
speak, Razia, but you must cover your chin and throat,
too,” he answered. Now he definitely looked annoyed and
uncomfortable. I wanted to sass him a bit more but figured
I’d better not push my luck.
By now we had circled back to his gray Saab. He must
have had it washed that day because it glistened in the late
afternoon sun. He chirped the car alarm twice with his
remote, and the door locks popped up like magic.
ɚɚɚɚɚ
“Hello?” Aziz called out when we entered his house. “We
are here, Alhamdulillah.” Aziz gave me an anxious look—his
way of reminding me of what we had talked about on the
drive over: I wasn’t to let on that he was my father, not yet.
“Oh good, you are home. As-salam alaykum,” she said.
“And welcome to you, Razia. It is nice to see you again.
Aziz tells me you are curious about the masjid? That you
will be joining us tonight?” She was acting all friendly on
the outside, but I picked up something weird about her that
I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it curious,” I answered, looking
down at my boots and trying to avoid her eyes. She was
wearing a drab, floor-length gray skirt made of sweatshirt
material. On top, she wore a gauzy, light-blue tunic that
covered her hips.
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Fadwa looked at Aziz. “May I speak to you privately?”
she asked. “Please excuse us for a moment,” she said to me.
Aziz wordlessly led the way into the kitchen. They left
me standing in the living room. I turned to look out the
front window to give them a sense of privacy, but I could
hear every word they said.
“What is your interest in this girl, Aziz?” she
whispered. “Why are we taking her to masjid with us if she
has no curiosity about Islam?”
“Her father is Muslim,” he answered. Well, that much
was true. “He is a business acquaintance,” he added, equally
convincingly.
“I thought you said Razia is the daughter of one of
your yoga students—a single mother?”
“Yes, this is true,” he interrupted. “They are not
together. The man confided that Razia’s mother is
neglectful. She—she takes drugs and sleeps with many
men! She has not been raising the girl in the proper Muslim
traditions. He asked for my help.”
Wow. Aziz had quite a flair for the dramatic. I hoped
he didn’t expect me to commiserate with Fadwa about my
“neglectful,” drug-addicted ho of a mother (who somehow
had time and money for yoga class), or my “other” Muslim
father (who couldn’t be bothered taking me to maswhatever himself and so asked a “business acquaintance”
to try his luck at saving my soul). I mean, I may be studying
to become an actress against my will, but I didn’t sign on
for this role.
“Then why doesn’t he take his daughter to masjid?
Why must we become involved?” Fadwa persisted. “I
realize I am blessed not to have to work, and I am always
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happy to help those less fortunate. But if there is a father in
the picture, then why—”
“I am only trying to be a good Muslim brother, Fadwa.
Now if you please, I do not wish to be late. You know I like
to arrive early so I have time to read the Qur'an and do
dhikr while we await the congregational prayers.”
“Ah, yes. Always seeking extra rewards from Allah,
isn’t this so?”
It sounded like she was mocking him, but before I
could ponder it too much, they were back in the living
room standing in front of me. I felt my cheeks flush a deep
red. I cleared my throat. “Um, I don’t know if you realize,
but I could hear you,” I said, looking directly at Aziz.
“Yes, well, in case you were wondering,” he answered,
all innocence, “dhikr is recitation of certain phrases in
remembrance of Allah. The simplest one to do with the
beads is to make one round of Allahu akbar, one round of
alhamdulillah, and one round of subhanallah.” I’m sure my
face revealed shock at the balls it took for this man to talk
beads when his wife and I were both backing him into a
corner, but he just kept on going, like the Energizer bunny
rabbit: “A ‘round’ is ticking a bead each time you say the
word in question. Some people add an extra Allahu akbar.
‘Allahu akbar’ means ‘God is great.’ ‘Alhamdulillah’ means
‘praise be to Allah.’ ‘Subhanallah’ means ‘Glory be to
Allah.’”
“I hope you don’t expect me to remember all that. Do
you?” I asked.
“No, of course not,” he chuckled. “I am only telling
you so you will know what is going on if you see people
doing that.”
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“There is plenty of time for Razia to learn the dhikr,
habibi, once she decides she wishes to revert to Islam.” Then
Fadwa turned to me and said, “Come, let’s put on your
hijab.”
I followed Aziz’s wife—my stepmother, I realized—
upstairs to their sparsely-furnished bedroom. There was a
large mahogany sleigh-bed and matching dresser, and a
prayer rug in one corner. The walls were unadorned, except
for a large mirror in the shape of a minaret framed by
elaborate brass engravings. Downstairs, I heard the kids
coming in through the back door and Aziz urging them to
hurry up. Then footsteps on the stairs, doors closing, and
water running, as Fadwa hunted in her dresser drawer. She
pulled out two long scarves—one a black-and-white animal
print and the other an ugly brown-and-burgundy paisley
design. “Which do you prefer, dear?” she asked. I pointed
to the black-and-white one.
She returned the paisley to the dresser, then proceeded
to fold the chosen one into two uneven triangles. It felt light
and wispy when she placed it on top of my wild hair. She
gestured for me to stand before the mirror, then adjusted
the scarf so it was longer on one side. She produced a safety
pin from the top of her dresser and secured one end of the
scarf under my chin. Then she brought the longer side
around and over my shoulder. She tucked my dreads
underneath, covering my large forehead. “Wait a moment,”
she said. “I think I have just the thing.” She went back to
the dresser and opened a small jewelry box. Then she
pinned a brooch to my neck on the side where the scarf
hung over my shoulder. “Perfect!” she declared.
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I barely recognized myself in the mirror. My face
looked oblong and drab, my eyes narrower than usual,
giving me a vaguely Asian look. The brooch—a circle pin
with a crescent moon and star—reflected the light coming
through the one window. As I stood checking myself out in
the mirror, Fadwa watched me in silence from behind.
“You are a beautiful girl,” she finally said. “Especially
when you are properly covered. It adds to your air of
mystery. Here,” she went to her closet and pulled out a
black sweater. “Wear this, to cover your arms.”
The scarf now felt tight and confining around my neck,
but it gave me this powerful feeling of concealment, like
Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. I bet I could wander
straight up to Mr. Wallace, Mom, or even Korey wearing
this thing, and they wouldn’t even notice me. And yet,
Aziz’s wife now seemed to notice me more than before.
She took me by the arm and guided me back to the
living room, where she grabbed her own dark blue hijab
from the coat rack and expertly tied it on. Aziz was waiting
for us at the front door. When he saw me in my hijab, his
eyes gave off a weird combination of pride and panic. He
called up the stairs, “Abdul, Aleyah, are you ready?” A
moment later, they bounded into the room. Aleyah was
wearing a hot pink headscarf, which Fadwa immediately
adjusted.
“Technically, young girls are not required to wear the
hijab until puberty,” she explained to me. “But my Aleyah
has been wearing one since she is three years old. She liked
to play dress-up and copy her mother, and it has since
become a habit.”
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We piled into the car, mini-Aziz behind the driver’s
seat, Aleyah in the middle, and me behind Fadwa. Little
Abdul animatedly recounted his various exploits on the
soccer field that afternoon, while the girl quietly fingered a
Barbie doll mummified in black fabric whose head was
covered with a hot-pink scarf just like hers. (I thought
Aleyah just a bit too old to be playing with Barbies—but,
okay.)
“Did you remember my Qur'an and prayer beads?”
Aziz asked when the boy had finally finished his story.
“Yes, they are in the glove box,” Fadwa answered
quietly. Then she turned toward the back seat. “Now
remember, Abdul, when you recite the du’a, please no
asking for iPods or permission to watch horror movies at
friends’ homes.” She looked at me and explained, “The du’a
are free-form supplications you may recite before formal
prayers. But they are not to be used for greediness and
materialism.” She looked at Abdul once again. “You can
recite one of the many beautiful du’a composed by
important people.”
“Leave the boy in peace, Fadwa. He will be at my side.
I can see that he prays properly.” Fadwa nodded.
We pulled up in front of a plain, one-story building,
white with blue trim. There was no sign, just small green
Arabic lettering on the window above the front glass doors.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting, maybe grand arches
and colorful minarets scraping the sky. This unassuming
building stood next door to an automotive shop with junky
old cars in the lot.
“Here we are,” Aziz said.
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Fadwa turned to me again. “You know the men and
women have their own separate areas, yes?” I hadn’t
known, but I knew now, so I nodded.
“The women’s section is in the basement,” Aleyah
clarified, getting out of the car. Those were the first words
she had spoken to me, despite the many curious glances
she’d stolen when she thought I wasn’t looking.
“There is a beautiful masjid under construction in
Berkeley, near the university,” Aziz said, looking at me.
“There, the women’s area will be in the same large room as
the men’s. We will begin attending there once it is
complete. Won’t we, habib?” By now, I figured out that this
habib/habibi thing was some sort of lovey-dovey term they
used. But the way Aziz said it, he sounded almost sarcastic.
“We shall see,” she answered. “You know I am loyal to
Imam Al-Qasim. Aleyah, leave the doll in the car please.”
Fadwa turned to me and said, “You must remove your
shoes when we enter. There is a room where we may put
them,” she added, linking one arm through her daughter’s
and the other through mine as we entered the building.
Once inside, Aziz immediately removed his shoes and
handed them to his wife. Abdul followed suit, giving his
tennis shoes to his sister. “Razia?” Fadwa looked down at
my Doc Martens. I unlaced them and handed them over. I
prayed they wouldn’t get stolen while we were busy
communing with Allah or whatever, because Mom would
never let me hear the end of it. They were my birthday
present, and they’d cost her $164.58 with tax.
We split in two, Abdul wordlessly trailing his dad into
a first-floor prayer room, while I followed Fadwa and
Aleyah down the stairs in my stocking feet. I could hear
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soft male voices coming from the men’s area. I thought it
sucked that they made the women sit in the basement, but I
didn’t say anything.
“Most of the sermons are given in the men’s section,”
Fadwa said.
“Yeah,” Aleyah giggled. “It’s bigger. And they have
these special sinks to wash their feet.”
“Aleyah, show proper respect,” Fadwa admonished.
“This is so that the men can purify themselves before
prayers,” she explained. “You two go on in. I will put our
shoes in the other room and join you in a moment.”
We entered the small room, which was half-filled with
shrouded ladies and kids running all over the place. I
noticed a small kitchen adjacent to the women’s room, and
another door next to it. “Is that the janitor’s closet?” I joked,
but before Aleyah could answer, Fadwa returned and took
the seat next to mine. “That is the Imam’s office,” she
explained. “He delivers the prayer lecture in the men’s
room upstairs, but we can hear him through the speakers.”
“Oh,” I nodded.
She checked her watch. “It is nearly five o’clock. The
Imam should begin speaking at 5:07. The Maghrib prayer
begins just after sunset; it is the fourth of five formal daily
prayers performed by practicing Muslims. The daily
prayers of Islam comprise different numbers of units, called
rak'at.”
Aleyah was a loose, squirmy pile of bones in the seat
beside mine. “Aleyah, please stop fidgeting and begin your
dhikr!” Fadwa reached across my body to give Aleyah’s
arm a quick shake. “And keep your body parts close
together—your thighs should be touching, and your arms
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should be at your side, for modesty! You must excuse my
daughter,” Fadwa apologized. “She is not yet mature, like
you.” She looked me up and down.
At 5:05, the door to the Imam’s office opened and an
old, bearded guy nodded at us before passing through the
room. “Do you know what to do when the Imam begins
speaking?” Fadwa asked. I nodded—Aziz had run me
through the drill in the car on the way to his house:
“Minimize mental distractions and concentrate on the
prayers, even if you don’t understand their meaning.
Someday,” he’d said, “you will understand and even be
able to pronounce them yourself. But you mustn’t let the
unfamiliarity of this new experience frighten you, Razia.
Our prayers are spoken in Arabic because this is the
language of the Qur’an. But personal prayers may be made
in any language and in any posture. Allah will always hear
you when you pray from your heart. And while it is most
pious to pray on one’s knees, face to the ground, this is not
mandatory, either. Just concentrate on holding a position
until you are at rest in it, so you can remain still without
distracting others. Much like the yoga you have observed at
the studio, yes?”
“Every prayer recitation has different accompanying
movements,” Fadwa was now explaining. “We will be
constantly kneeling and rising in response to the Imam’s
words. Just do what everyone else is doing, and you will be
fine.” I nodded again. “And in between prayers, be sure to
pause long enough to say Subhanallah.”
“Glory be to Allah?” I asked.
“Yes, you have a good memory!”
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At precisely 5:07, the overhead speaker called to us
with a crackle. Everyone rose in unison and got down on
hands and knees—just like the “child’s pose” I’d seen in
yoga class. The harsh male voice began speaking in Arabic.
I just sat there, not knowing what to do with myself. The
energy felt strange and heavy. Fadwa nudged my foot, but
I couldn’t move; I just couldn’t bring myself to get down on
the floor. I totally felt like I didn’t belong and feared God
would see right through me if I tried to pretend like I did.
Thankfully, no one else paid any attention to me. All
the women were bent over with eyes closed and foreheads
pressed to the ground, except for Fadwa, who kept
shooting me puzzled—and then stern—looks. The women
murmured during the Imam’s pauses; a few held fidgety
children in place while they prayed.
Then everyone rose in response to something the Imam
said. I wanted to seize that moment to bolt from the room,
grab my boots, and run to the nearest BART station while
the women shuffled around. But then I remembered what
Aziz had said: I could pray in any language I wanted and in
any position that felt comfortable.
I whispered under my breath so I wouldn’t be heard
over the scratchy loudspeaker and the ladies’ voices. “Dear
God or Allah or whoever you are,” I began, “please help
me be normal. Make Mom stop being mad at me for finding
Aziz. Oh, and please find a way for them to get along.” I
paused before adding, “Subhanallah.”
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Chapter Thirty-One
Confession
“So how did things go with Razia this evening at the
masjid?” I asked my wife in bed that night.
She let out a troubled breath. “I don’t know. She seems
rather flighty. And insolent.”
“This is how the Americans raise their children. This is
why we need to assume a positive role in her life!” I noticed
a desperate edge to my own voice; apparently, Fadwa
heard it, too.
“You have never before mentioned this ‘business
associate’ who is her father. Is he a friend of yours?”
I hesitated. I had already fabricated a father for Razia,
thereby desecrating Allah’s blessing with my latest taqiyya.
Must I now elevate my impious fiction to the status of close
friend in order to preserve my marital peace? I sighed. “No.
He is not a friend. He is no one.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Just that he is insignificant. It is Razia who’s
important.”
“Why? Why do you feel such concern for her, if both
her parents are mere acquaintances?” My wife’s eyes
widened then, as though possessed of a horrible notion. I
feared she was already onto me, but I kept my mouth shut.
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Better I should wait for her to reveal her discovery on her
own. “Are you having an affair with her mother?” she
finally whispered.
I laughed, relieved. “Don’t be ridiculous. I have
absolutely no interest in the girl’s mother. I told you, she is
a student. I barely know her.”
Fadwa nodded, as if considering whether or not to
believe me. “Then why the sudden concern for her
daughter?”
I turned onto my side, with my back toward her, and
did not answer.
“This is quite an attractive girl,” she pointed out,
trying to keep her voice flat and steady. Instead, it came out
a shaky squeak.
“I suppose,” I answered noncommittally, pulling the
covers around my shoulder.
“Developing nicely for her age, too,” she added. “I’d
say she’s in full bloom.”
“Is she? I hadn’t noticed. Besides, I wouldn’t know
how a twelve-year-old is supposed to look.”
“You can see the difference between her and Aleyah,
who is almost eleven.”
“Razia is more than a year older, habib. Closer to two.
And puberty is a time of great transformation. But what is
your point? Why are we comparing our daughter’s body to
this other girl’s?”
“What is your interest in her? You are not thinking of
taking her as a second wife, are you?” Her accusation came
out a whispered chirp.
I sat up and faced her. “Of course not! Why would you
even think such a thing?”
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“Why else would you have taken such an interest? Do
her parents endorse this—this—courtship?”
“Fadwa, stop. I am not thinking of taking a second
wife, much less a twelve-year-old girl. This is the farthest
thing from my mind.”
“Then why—? I don’t believe you! I—I demand to
speak to the girl’s mother!”
“I won’t allow it.”
“Why not? What is the big secret?” Now she sat up
and stared pointedly at me. “I insist. I demand to meet the
mother again,” she repeated. “I am entitled to know the
woman whose daughter is accompanying my family to
masjid.”
“And if I refuse?” I challenged.
I could see her eyes machinating frantically like a
trapped animal’s, perhaps thinking of ways she might
locate Razia’s parents on her own. My mind began to
machinate, too. Had I told her my daughter’s last name?
Had Razia? Might they have exchanged telephone numbers
or email addresses before or after tonight’s service? Would
she dare call the studio and embarrass me by asking Claire
about my students—or worse yet, speak to Razia directly
on an afternoon when she worked there?
“I will take the matter to the Imam,” she answered
quietly. “We shall see what he thinks about you wooing a
child.”
“I do not intend to marry Razia!” I thundered.
“So you say. Then let us see what Imam Al-Qasim
thinks about you pandering to your lust for a twelve-yearold by feigning concern for her!” She met my volume and
raised me one.
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“Fadwa, please. If you were in Kuwait, you would not
say such things to your husband. You are becoming
completely irrational. Is this your time of month?” I
reached for her hand, but she snatched it away.
“Yes, but I am in America now. I thought I left such
antiquated notions behind. I am an educated woman. I did
not emigrate to America to marry a man who lusts after
twelve-year-old girls.” She jumped out of bed.
“Where are you going?”
“To phone Imam Al-Qasim.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It is eleven o’clock at night!”
“I consider preventing the ruin of your mortal soul a
sufficiently important matter for a late-night phone call!”
She choked back tears.
“Habib, please. You are working yourself up over
nothing. I swear to you on our children, I do not have
designs on this girl.” I softened my voice, and her eyes met
mine. “Please, come back to bed.”
“Do you promise to tell me the truth?”
I sighed again. “Yes. Yes, I do.”
Fadwa put on her robe and cinched it tight around her
waist. She sat on the edge of the bed and folded her arms,
waiting.
“Am I to speak to your back?” I asked. “Won’t you
please come to me?” I extended my arms.
“I will not allow you to touch me until you tell me
what is going on.”
“Look at me then, at least.”
“I cannot bear to look at you,” she shot back.
“Okay. Fine. The truth is, I am Razia’s father.”
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Fadwa turned to me in one quick motion. Her mouth
dropped open. “But—how?”
“I had relations with her mother exactly once—before
you and I married.”
I could practically see the mathematical equations
computing in her head like a high-speed currency counting
machine. “But—she is not yet thirteen years old. We would
have been engaged at the time.”
“I am not sure we were,” I lied.
“When is her birthday?”
“September eleventh, of all the inauspicious dates,” I
chuckled, trying to lighten the moment.
Fadwa’s eyes darted around the room, and settled on
my crotch. She shuddered. “We were married in June of
2001. We would have been engaged when you committed
this—this sin of fornication. You were unfaithful to me
before we even married! Have you been adulterous with
her the entire time?”
“It isn’t like that, habib,” I answered. “The woman
seduced me when I foolishly accepted an invitation to have
dinner at her house. I should never have agreed to it. I was
young—and stupid. I succumbed to a wicked woman’s
temptation in a moment of frailty, at a time when I was
feeling lonely and, yes, a bit ambivalent perhaps about our
upcoming marriage—nothing more than what the
Americans would call ‘cold feet.’ But I told Razia’s mother
immediately afterward that you and I were engaged.”
“Yes, but you have lied to me all these years.”
“No—no! I only learned of the girl’s existence for the
first time the night I drove her home. She appeared at the
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yoga studio that evening and announced that I was her
father.”
“Then at the very least you have been untruthful from
the moment you found out!”
“No, habib. I am not even certain this is so. I intended
to do a DNA test first, and tell you only if the results were
positive. I saw no point upsetting you otherwise. I was
trying to preserve our marital peace as long as possible.”
“So, are you saying you don’t believe her? And yet,
you brought the girl into our home, to our dinner table, and
into our masjid?”
I sighed once more. “No. I suppose I do believe her.
But a part of me was still hoping it isn’t so. Not because I
am not fond of the child, mind you. But because of how it
would affect you.” I reached my arm out to her again, but
Fadwa rose from the bed and began pacing the room.
“More than ‘fond,’ it would seem. You will be
disappointed—devastated even—if the test were to come
back negative. Is this not so?”
I did not answer her.
“Admit it! You already love this child, as much as our
own Aleyah, whom you held in your arms the moment she
was born.”
“Yes, I imagine this is true.”
“But why?”
“I do not know. Possibly because I missed her entire
life, and she needs me. Perhaps I am trying to make it up to
her now by loving her more than I should.”
“So, you have had a secret child all these years,” she
pondered aloud. “For thirteen long years we have been
living a lie. Our entire marriage is a farce!”
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“How can you say that? We have built a strong and
successful life, Fadwa. Allah has blessed us with two
beautiful children; we have made this home together. I
have nurtured my business with the sole purpose of
furthering our marriage and securing our future, you and I,
as one.”
“I want you to leave. Now. I want you out of here,”
she cried.
“All right,” I answered. “If it will help you calm
down.” I grabbed my pillow from the bed and went to the
closet to look for an extra blanket.
“No,” she said. “I did not mean for you to sleep on the
couch. I want you out—out of this house. You are nothing
but a liar and a coward, and I cannot stand to look at you.”
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Chapter Thirty-Two
Bachelor Pad
“Where are we going?” I asked when my dad pulled off the
freeway.
“I have a new place,” he answered.
“You mean you opened another studio?” That would
make six. My mother would definitely get her panties in a
bunch over that.
“No, sweetheart,” he said. He turned to me with a sad
look on his face, then made a right turn at the first traffic
light. “I am staying in an apartment for a while.”
“You mean, you got a man cave?”
“More like a temporary bachelor pad,” he laughed, “in
a building that provides short-term housing for students
and travelers.”
“But you’re not a bachelor,” I said.
“No, but aren’t we all students and travelers, in a
sense?” he asked. We pulled into an underground parking
garage. He swiped a card and the traffic arm lifted.
“So what are we doing here?” I asked.
He sighed but did not answer. He drove down the
ramp and circled a couple of times until he found a spot.
“It’s tight,” he said. “Be careful when you open your door.”
He grabbed his dry cleaning from the back seat and led the
way to the elevator.
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We got out on the fourth floor. All the hallways looked
down over a large atrium. The entire roofline was one big
industrial skylight. We walked around the corner and he
opened his door with a key. “Nothing fancy,” he said. “Just
a place to crash for now, as you young people say.”
“No, old people came up with that one,” I answered,
looking around at the shabby apartment with its outdated
beige tile countertops, funky gray-green carpeting, and
plain white walls.
“I know, it is hideous. I’d say it needs a woman’s
touch, but what it really needs is a man’s. To tear
everything out and start fresh.”
“Why are you living here?” I asked.
“I have differences with my wife,” he answered.
“Did you walk out on her or did she kick you out?” He
shot me a surprised look. “Wait—is this because of me?”
He sighed again and sat down on an ugly, sagging
couch whose horrible design of rust-colored flowers and
chain-link brown stripes was bested by a little granny skirt
hanging around the bottom. “Hey, Dad, like, the seventies
called, and they want their sofa back.”
He cracked up. “Where do you get your way with
words?” he asked, patting the space beside him. “Is this
from your mother?”
“I hope I don’t catch bedbugs from this thing,” I said,
reluctantly sitting down next to him. “But don’t change the
subject. What are you doing here?”
“I am renting this place from week-to-week. And to
answer your first question, my wife threw me out. As for
your second, no, it was not because of you. Yes, I told her
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the truth about who you are, and yes, she became quite
upset. But none of this is your fault.”
“So, you’re living here all by yourself?”
“For the time being. Fadwa just needs some time to
process my . . . situation, that is all. She thought she was the
mother of my only two children. Now she’s learned that
you were conceived before she came into the picture. She
feels betrayed, duped even, because I was . . . seeing your
mother when arrangements had already been made for her
to come to America to marry me. This is all quite
understandable. It is just going to take her a little while to
get used to the changed circumstances.”
“Yeah, but what if she doesn’t get used to it? What if
she files for divorce?”
“I do not think she will do that, Razia. But this is
nothing for you to fret over. It is an adult matter. I
shouldn’t have told you.”
“You obviously wanted me to know. Otherwise, you
wouldn’t have brought me here. We would’ve gone to one
of your studios, like we always do.”
“Yes, well. I have been spending far more time there
than I would like. Besides, you have now seen them all. I do
not want you to grow bored with me,” he joked.
“It’s a little late for that,” I dished right back. “What
could possibly be more boring than hanging around with a
middle-aged yoga fanatic? Wait—I know! Filing! Or is it
meditation?” A hurt look came over his face; I guess I’d
taken our banter too far. “I was kidding,” I said, placing a
hand on his arm.
He pulled me close—it was the first time he’d ever
hugged me. He felt stiff and solid, but not in a bad way.
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After a few seconds, he gave me a final squeeze and tugged
my hair, his way of telling me it was time to let go. But
instead of pulling away, I buried my face in his chest and
began to sob.
“What is it, Razia? Why are you crying?”
“I’m just like some kind of disease, aren’t I?” I sniveled.
“Now, why would you say that about yourself?” He
pushed my shoulders away and forced me to look at him.
“It’s true! Everything I touch turns to shit. Korey
almost got expelled from school because of me. Keshia’s
mom’s all pissed off at her over the pot, and Keshia won’t
even speak to me because she got two weeks’ suspension.
Plus she got banned from the Billie Holiday mural and
can’t display her work in the year-end art show. My mom’s
always pissed at me about something or other. And now,
because of me, your wife threw you out, and you’re living
in this hell-hole like some homeless person!”
“You must ask your friend’s forgiveness, Razia. Islam
treats tranquility and peace of mind as the ultimate goals of
human life—it is almost a form of salvation. That is why
Islam commands that one not remain vexed with another
person for more than three days. Until there is
reconciliation, both sides perpetually suffer the torments of
fear and revenge. If this Keshia is a true friend, she will
forgive you, perhaps not in three days, but in time.
“As for me living here, a homeless person would
consider this place a palace,” he said, looking serious. “I am
grateful I can afford it. I spent the first few nights sleeping
on the floor in my studio. And you know something? I was
grateful for that, too. Everything happens for a reason,
Razia. You remember that. We must always give thanks for
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the comforts we do have, even if they aren’t as many or as
bountiful as we might like. You Americans seem to have
lost sight of that simple principle. Perhaps that is why you
are all so dissatisfied.”
“So now you’re gonna lecture me? Don’t I get enough
of that from my mom?”
“My point is, Razia, I cannot fret over the loss of a few
creature comforts when I have made such a mess of my life.
I must figure out how to put things right with my wife, so
that she will accept you and I can return home to my
children.”
“So, like, have you even seen your kids?”
“Yes, Alhamdulillah. My wife is not a malicious woman,
thank goodness. She is just terribly, terribly hurt. As I said,
she feels betrayed. And with good reason, I suppose.”
“But you didn’t even know about me!”
“Didn’t I?”
“What do you mean?”
“Listen, my love. I do not want to burden you with the
ancient history that took place between your mother and
me. I am merely saying, I believe we know everything we
are supposed to know in this life. Allah keeps no secrets
from us, if we only open our eyes. After what transpired
between your mother and me, did I not know she had
something important to tell me? Did I not—subconsciously
perhaps—leave my wallet lying around so she would find
my wife’s photo, and I would be forced to tell her of my
plans to marry? Did I not then deliberately bury my head in
the sand by allowing her to leave in anger, rather than insist
she tell me what was on her mind?”
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“Sounds like you’re being awfully hard on yourself,” I
said. “You might be some kind of spiritual guru, but even
you’re not a mind reader. And when my mom gets mad
and goes on the attack, it’s impossible to feel too sorry for
her or focus on anything she’s got to say.”
“You are quite the understanding young lady,” he
said. “Considering that you have been the victim of your
mother’s deception and my ignorance.” He got up. “Would
you like me to make you some chai?”
“Sure,” I answered, following him into the small
kitchen. He filled a pot with water and placed it on the twoburner electric stove. To this, he began adding stuff—
cloves, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns. “What’s that?” I
asked.
“This is fennel. And cardamom.”
“Oh.”
“I will heat the milk and honey later. This must boil
and simmer for about five minutes first. You will like it.”
“Uh huh.”
“I have something for you,” he said offhandedly.
“What is it?”
“Here.” He handed me a bag. I opened it. Inside was a
reversible scarf—black on one side with a white skull
design; white on the other with black skulls. They were
small skulls, so from far away, it just looked like a blackand-white pattern; you had to look really close to see the
skeleton heads.
“It is a stylish hijab. I noticed you like the skulls,” he
said, pointing to the cheap earrings I now wore—despite
my mother’s constant nagging—in my second holes. “I was
hoping you might wear it. To this.”
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He handed me a small envelope. I opened it. Inside
were four concert tickets to see One Direction. I tried not to
groan. “It is Aleyah’s eleventh birthday next week,” he
explained. “She has been begging me for months to take her
to see them. They are very popular with girls her age. I
hope you will join us.”
“Who all is going?”
“Just me, Aleyah and Abdul. And hopefully you, too.”
“Does he like One Direction?”
“Not especially. But it is only proper that Aleyah’s
siblings celebrate her birthday in the way she wants.”
“But I hate them!” I protested.
“I was hoping you would come along for me. So that
this special outing with my children may be complete.”
Aziz leaned in and planted a kiss on my forehead.
“Discovering you are my child has for me been like finding
pearls on the beach.”
“Oh, so now you’re comparing me to some girly,
overpriced rocks?” I asked.
“I meant it as a compliment. Some people believed
pearls to be the tears of the gods. Others thought them
dewdrops filled with moonlight that fell into the ocean to
be swallowed by oysters. They symbolize purity and
perfection. My point being, you are a special girl. You must
understand your true worth. I don’t ever want to hear you
liken yourself to a disease again.”
I looked away so he wouldn’t see me flush. “So, how
does Aleyah feel about it?” I asked.
“You mean about you joining us?” I nodded. “She is so
thrilled to be seeing her little boy band, I could bring along
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Stage Daughter
the Devil himself and she would not care. I am sorry—that
came out all wrong. I did not mean—”
“Do I have to wear that?” I asked, pointing at the scarf.
“You do not have to. But I would like it if you did.
Since you are Aleyah’s older sister, you should set a good
example.”
He stared at me all proud and hopeful. As for me, I
didn’t think of myself as Aleyah’s older anything. I liked
being an only child and didn’t especially want to inherit
two younger siblings in one fell swoop, much less have to
“set an example” for them. But how could I tell Aziz that
after I’d hunted him down and wrecked his whole life?
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Chapter Thirty-Three
A Walk in the Cemetery
Nannette casually slipped her hand into mine as we
strolled along the trail, while Razia and Keshia played an
irreverent game of tag up ahead. They were circling an
imposing crypt in the shape of a pyramid, paying us no
mind. At first, Keshia had given my Raz the cold shoulder,
probably still mad over whatever punishment she got for
her role in the pot incident. But Razzi must have apologized
or something, because now they were acting like
inseparable sisters.
“Who the hell is so important that he needs a pyramid
built in his honor?” I asked, trying to detract attention from
the soft hand squeezing mine.
“C.O.G. Miller. He was the head of Pacific Gas
Lighting Company. The predecessor to PG&E, I imagine.”
“Well, aren’t you a walking Wikipedia?” I asked,
looking at her. The girls were heading toward us; I
discreetly removed my hand from Nannette’s grasp and
slipped it inside my jacket pocket.
“No, not really. It says it right there, on the plaque.” I
tried not to stare at Nannette’s butt as she studied the
inscription. She looked cute in her short leather jacket over
a nubby, beige turtleneck and blue jeans.
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“This place is just loaded with local history,” she went
on. “Anthony Chabot is buried down there. You know, the
Chabot Space and Science Center guy the regional park is
named after? And there’s Charles Crocker, the railroad
magnate. If you walk around and look at the plaques and
headstones, you’ll see lots of prominent Bay Area figures.”
“Just don’t tell Razia this is an educational field trip. At
the moment, she’s in absolute heaven among all these old
gravestones. This is right up her alley, like a B actress
landing her first role in a horror flick.”
“I love the headscarf,” Nannette commented. “Very
apropos for today’s outing.”
I scoffed. “Don’t tell her that, either. She’s been
wearing that stupid thing since her last visit with Aziz.
She’s even worn it to school.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much, Sonya. It’s just a symbol
of rebellion. I mean, she’s not into Islam or anything, is
she?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. She’s become so obsessed with
her dad, I don’t know what to expect from one day to the
next. Did I tell you his wife kicked him out?”
“The mail-order bride? Are you kidding me?”
I shook my head. “Nope.”
“She sounds like one assertive Muslim lady. You gotta
hand it to her.”
“Well, I, for one, wish she’d be a little less assertive.
Razia feels responsible, and she now wants to spend even
more time with Aziz to make up for it.” I looked at Razzi
and Keshia race-walking twenty paces ahead, pretending
not to know us. Razzi’s compact turbo-butt contrasted
nicely alongside Keshia’s double-wide one.
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“Maybe she just enjoys spending time with her father.”
“He thinks he’s gonna take her to see One Direction
with his other daughter. Well, he’s got another think
coming!”
“What’s wrong with him taking Raz to a concert? It’ll
be a great bonding experience for her.”
I stopped short and looked intently at Nannette.
“Don’t you get it? It’s not about the concert. I don’t want her
spending time with his kids.”
“Why not? She might bond with them, too.”
“That’s the last thing she needs! And how dare he
make those plans without asking me first! I don’t know
why Raz wants to go with them, anyway. She hates One
Direction. She’s been bugging me for months to take her to
see a band called ‘Slayer.’ And to give you an idea how
wholesome they are, their lead guitarist died of alcoholrelated liver cirrhosis. But I couldn’t afford to take her even
if I wanted to listen to that horrible music. We watched
their Gothenburg, Sweden, concert together on YouTube.
You should have seen it, Nannette! A bunch of long-haired,
post-pubescent men flopping their heads up and back like
cloth puppets screaming at the top of their lungs, ‘God hates
us all! God hates us all!’ But my point is, I’m the one who
needs to ‘bond’ with Razzi right now, not Aziz or his kids.”
“I understand you feel threatened, but let me give you
a bit of advice, as someone who’s doing the shared custody
thing. Sharing your kid isn’t easy, but trying to stop it is
like throwing yourself in front of a moving train. It doesn’t
work. The train simply keeps going, and you get
pulverized in the process.”
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“Who said anything about sharing custody? That
assumes two people split up after they were both parents to
a kid. As far as I’m concerned, Aziz is less than nobody!
This is like a bad dream where an anonymous sperm donor
changes his mind and appears at your front door wanting
to claim his offspring.”
“Except it’s nothing like that, and you know it. He was
never anonymous. You chose to keep him out of the picture,
but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s her father.”
I scoffed. “Hasn’t been proven,” I answered
dismissively.
“C’mon, Sonny. You know he is. You told me so
yourself. And it’s only a matter of time before a DNA test
confirms it.”
“And that’s another thing. Aziz has been bugging me
to have the testing done, but I don’t want to. Why should I
help him make his case?”
“What case, Sonya? Why are you turning this into such
an antagonistic thing? I’ll grant you the man sounds like a
bit of a religious zealot, but when you look beyond all that
noise, he also seems like a decent guy who loves his kids.
He only wants a fair shot at having a relationship with his
daughter after all these years.”
“Whose side are you on, anyway? You don’t know him
like I do.”
“Of course I’m on your side. But you don’t know him,
either. You said yourself you never even dated before you
slept with him. You could keep an open mind and give the
guy a fighting chance. You know, innocent until proven
guilty?”
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“Trust me, he’s a creep. A fundamentalist Muslim
nutcase with ulterior motives to brainwash my daughter.”
“To what end?”
“So she’ll join his subversive flock.”
“So he’s Muslim. Lots of people are. That doesn’t
automatically mean you’re a nutcase or a subversive.”
“Maybe not. But my daughter isn’t Muslim, and
neither am I. And yet, he’s done nothing but turn her
against me and try to convert her to Islam since the day he
came into our lives.”
“And how does Razia feel about getting the DNA
test?”
“She’s not crazy about the idea. But not for the same
reasons as me. I don’t want scientific proof on paper that
Aziz is her father. As long as there’s some doubt, there’s a
chance Razia will get over him, and he’ll forget all about
her. But I think she’s hesitant to do it for the exact opposite
reason. She’s afraid the test might come back negative, and
she’ll feel like a fool for letting herself care about him. And
also, I think she’s hurt by the notion that he’d want proof
he’s her father.”
“That all makes sense. She’s a kid—she just wants to be
loved. She doesn’t want it to depend on the results of some
genetic test.”
“I love her! I haven’t loved anyone else my entire life!”
“Maybe that’s the problem.” Nannette took my hand
again, only this time, I yanked it away. We were now on a
paved trail known as “Millionaire’s Row,” surrounded on
either side by stone mausoleums, each the size of the
Unabomber’s cabin.
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Stage Daughter
“Listen,” she finally said, “if you feel uncomfortable
about the guy, I could do a little recon.”
“Oh yeah? How do you propose to do that?”
“I could sign up for one of his classes. Get a good look
at him—see how he vibes.”
“That won’t work. He only teaches the advanced
courses now, and they’re hard to get into. He’s a local yoga
celebrity; he won’t sign you up unless you can do that shit.”
“Well, I happen to be a veteran practitioner. I can
practically twist myself into a pretzel.”
“A pretzel, or the number sixty-nine?” (I took a cheap
shot, which I immediately regretted. After all, she was only
trying to help.)
“They don’t look all that different when you think
about it,” she winked. “Except sixty-nine takes two; pretzel
I’ve been managing all by myself.”
I ignored her shameless come-on (having inadvertently
set myself up). “Look, even if you could get into one of his
classes, what’s that gonna tell us that we don’t already
know?”
“I suppose you’re right. Forget it; it was a dumb idea.”
“It wouldn’t have worked, anyhow. Aziz knows you
from school. He saw you the day Razia got choked, and
again the day we got the manicures.”
“Oh yeah. I forgot about that.”
“But I appreciate that you’d be willing to take one of
his stupid classes to help me,” I said. “That’s really sweet of
you.”
She must have taken that as her cue, because she
reached for me and took me in her arms. Nothing to it, I
told myself. Just two friends hugging in public on a chilly
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late afternoon in front of an otherwise unremarkable
monument to baseball player Glenn Burke, flanked on
either side by plastic bats, miniature American flags, and
wilted flowers. Except I totally wanted to kiss her (if only I
had the guts).
I shuddered, not from the cool Bay Area temperature;
but from the release I felt in Nannette’s arms. It was an
unburdening as familiar as a mother’s love—which wasn’t
familiar to me at all. No one had ever held me like this,
with every muscle in her body and every fiber of her being.
I could actually feel that, and it felt wonderful and
comforting and terrifying all at once. I breathed deeply and
took in the woman’s scent, trying to implant it on my brain.
Before I could think about where the kids had run off
to, Razia bounded down the hill with Keshia at her heels.
She spotted me wrapped in Nannette’s embrace and
stopped cold in her tracks; Keshia stumbled into her and
nearly knocked her over. I pulled my cheek away from
Nannette’s and gave Razia a dumb little wave (which she
ignored by giving me the stink-eye).
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Chapter Thirty-Four
Saved By the Bell
“You wanted a change of scenery, so here we are. I realize
this is not the Fairmont, but I hope you understand I cannot
afford such extravagances, especially now that I am paying
another rent on top of my regular expenses.”
“I said the Ritz Carlton or Parc 55. But seriously, Aziz,
at this point I’d take a Motel 6. That would be a palace
compared to this place,” Lydia said, looking around with
scorn.
“I’m only here temporarily,” I reminded her.
“I know that,” she answered, placing her purse and
workout bag on the sofa. “But I still don’t understand why
you rented this fleabag. You should have called me right
away when your wife threw you out. Didn’t you know
you’re welcome to stay at my place?”
“I appreciate that, Lydia. But—”
“The only question is, do you want to move in with
me, or would you rather we look for an apartment
together?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Listen, Aziz. This is the lucky break we’ve been
hoping for!”
She pressed her body into mine. I couldn’t help it; I felt
myself react, quite involuntarily, to the sensation of those
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breasts thrust against my chest, to her long fingernails
exploring my lower back underneath my jacket and shirt. I
pushed her long blond hair behind one ear, clasped her
head, and kissed her with a passion sorely lacking in my
relations with my wife.
No. No. I pulled away, reminding myself what I must
do. I’d brought Lydia to my apartment to break up with
her, not make love to her. I had stupidly thought it would
be easier to resist her in this distasteful environment—itself
a reminder of my failure as a husband and father, but now I
understood why many men say it is best to end things with
a woman in public. They may claim it is to avoid an
emotional scene, but this is not so. It is to avoid this.
Women make scenes in public places just as easily as
private ones. But a woman can only seduce a man this way
behind closed doors.
“Lydia, sweetheart, please stop. You know we cannot
move in together. I intend to return to my wife and children
just as soon as she calms down and I can clear up this
misunderstanding between us.”
“What misunderstanding? How come you won’t even
tell me what happened?”
“What goes on between a man and his wife is private,
Lydia. Someday if you ever marry, you will understand
this. And you will also realize that all married couples fight
from time to time.”
“Yeah, but all couples don’t separate. Face it, Aziz,
your marriage has been over since I’ve known you. You just
don’t want to admit it.” She pulled away and began
checking the place out, swaying her hips on her way to the
kitchenette, opening cabinets and drawers. She pulled out a
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glass, opened the refrigerator and helped herself to orange
juice. The audacity of that woman, acting like she lived here
when I, myself, did not feel at home in this place.
“Got any vodka?” she asked. Then she chuckled, “Oh,
right. I keep forgetting.”
“I am not separated from my wife,” I said, ignoring
her impudence. “I am simply giving Fadwa the time and
space she needs to cool off.”
“By renting a bachelor pad? C’mon, Aziz, just admit it.
You don’t love your wife anymore, if you ever did. And
that’s nothing to feel guilty about, pookie. What man
wouldn’t rather have this than some dowdy Muslim lady
who wears a scarf over her head all the time?” She posed
for me then, unbuttoning her blouse, placing a hand on one
hip, and wagging her other hand up and down to showcase
her offerings. “I mean, seriously. It must be like living with
a Catholic-school mother superior.”
“How utterly presumptuous of you,” I growled. “You
do not know the first thing about my wife, or my marriage.
And after one year, you still know nothing about me, or
you would not make crude references to Catholic school in
an attempt to be funny.”
“I only know what you’ve told me, baby. Or do you
forget the things you say to me in bed, grabbing my hair
and crushing my butt between your knees?” I cringed at
this careless picture she painted with her sultry words—
amazed by the feverish grasp she held over me, even now.
She snatched her glass from the counter and took a
long sip of orange juice, never taking her eyes off mine.
Then she put the empty glass in the sink and slowly made
her way toward me. “I think it’s time you gave me the
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grand tour . . . of the bedroom,” she whispered into my ear,
clasping my hand.
“Sonya, stop it,” I said.
She dropped my hand. “Sonya? Who the hell is
Sonya?”
“Lydia, I am sorry. I have a lot on my mind. Sonya is
no one, just someone I knew long ago. You reminded me of
her just now.”
“Yeah? How so?”
“The way you are acting like such a temptress. You
must listen to me—I did not bring you here to have sex. We
need to talk. This thing between us cannot continue.”
“What are you talking about, Aziz? You’ve left your
wife. Now’s the perfect time to take our relationship to the
next level and move in together.”
“I have not left my wife,” I answered. Then I heard a
knock at the door. “Excuse me,” I said, glad for the
interruption. I’d say I’d been “saved by the bell,” except
this lowly place did not even have doorbells.
I looked through the peephole and saw the distorted
image of three dreadlocks above a set of melancholy eyes. I
opened the door.
“Razia, honey, what are you doing here? Does your
mother know you’ve come?”
The girl shook her head, obviously upset. “I waited
until she went to the grocery store, then threw a couple of
things in my backpack. But I left her a note so she wouldn’t
worry.” She had on the hijab I had given her, black with a
whimsical design of white skulls and crossbones. (I know,
this is pure blasphemy. But since the traditional hijab now
comes in all sorts of patterns to appeal to modern Muslim
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women, I hoped if I presented Razia with a design she
favored, she might be inclined to wear it. After all, there
was plenty of time for more conservative headwear as she
got older.) Razia had carelessly tied the scarf around her
head like a pirate. I would need to ask my Fadwa to show
the girl how to wear it properly. But then I remembered:
Fadwa was not speaking to me.
I put my arms around my daughter. “Tell me what has
happened,” I said.
“I just needed to get away from her. I hope it’s okay
that I came here.”
“Of course, azeezati. But you must tell me why you are
so upset. Has your mother hit you again?” I pulled away
and examined her face. Razia appeared unharmed, but I felt
a rush of fury rise from my solar plexus at the thought of
Sonya slapping this beautiful child. I was also vaguely
aware that Lydia had left the room. Good for her. At least
that silly woman had sense enough to recognize when a
private matter did not concern her.
“We had a fight,” Razia said.
“About what?”
“The One Direction concert.”
“She still does not wish for you to come?”
“It’s not that, exactly. She claims she wants to take me
to a concert as soon as she can afford to. But she won’t let
me see anyone I want. When I asked if she’d take me to see
Deicide, she, like, flipped out!”
I reared my head back. “Deicide? As in murder of the
gods?”
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“Well, not exactly. I mean, that’s what the name
means, in the dictionary sense. But they’re just a death
metal band.”
“Death metal? Razia, my dear, I must agree with your
mother. Parents should not support music that glorifies
carnage and human suffering.”
“That’s pretty much what she said. So I said, ‘Fine.
Let’s compromise and see Slayer.’ But she said no to that,
too!” Razia now wore a look half hopeful and half impish.
“‘Slayer’ is better, how?” I asked.
She laughed. “I know it sounds bad, but they’re a
thrash metal band. The music’s entirely different.”
“I see.” And I did see—exactly what my little Raz was
up to. She had asked to see “Deicide” first—if such a band
existed—in order to shock me so I would be relieved to
learn she “only” wanted to see another band of infidels
called “Slayer.” I looked down into her pleading eyes.
Though I am not proud of it, my brain began calculating
whether I could suffer through a night of sacrilegious music
in order to win my daughter’s heart. I pondered whether it
would be worth compromising my principles to spend a
memorable evening together and make the girl happy.
After all, wasn’t that essentially what I was doing for
Aleyah by taking her to see those stupid British boys?
I drew in a deep breath. “I cannot promise you Slayer
without looking into the matter further. But if you get good
grades on your final report card—including your math
class, I shall take you to a concert to celebrate once school
lets out. Your mother, too, if you want. And I promise it
will be a band that you like.” Razia seemed appeased by
this. She hugged me tightly around the waist.
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“So, can I stay here tonight?” she asked. My heart
filled with joy upon hearing this. I have missed my children
terribly since moving into this horrible place. Although I
had rented a two-bedroom apartment in anticipation of
them visiting—and while Fadwa has allowed me into the
house to see them, so far she has not permitted the children
to come here. Even more delightful than the thought of not
passing another night alone was the fact that, for the very
first time, my daughter had asked to spend time with me all
on her own. With each of our previous visits, I’d had to
practically beg her mother beforehand.
“I would love nothing more than for you to stay.
Provided it is all right with your mother. We must call her
right away so she doesn’t worry. If she does not object, you
can use the second bedroom. I have it set up for Abdul and
Aleyah but I think you will be comfortable there.”
Razia scoffed. “Mom won’t even care. She’s too busy
carrying on with her girlfriend.”
“What do you mean, carrying on?”
“She’s been hanging out with my friend’s mom who’s,
like, a total lesbian. I even saw them hugging! I’ll bet they
do other stuff, too. Because, like, my mom says she’s going
to the grocery store or out to run an errand, but then she
takes a really long time and comes home with hardly any
packages. She used to drag me everywhere. Now she just
leaves me behind.”
“She leaves you at home unsupervised?” Again, I felt
the fury rise in my breast like acid reflux.
“Well, she tells the landlady upstairs she’s going out
and asks her to keep an eye on me. But yeah, I’m by myself,
pretty much.”
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“I see.” I tried to keep my voice steady, but it was
futile. I was fuming inside. I could not believe that
imprudent woman would be so careless as to leave our
daughter unattended after everything that had happened!
I kissed Razia’s forehead. “Do not worry, azeezati. You
can stay here tonight. And I will get to the bottom of what
is going on with your mother, I promise you that.”
“Yoo hoo! What’s taking so long, babe?”
Razia jerked from my embrace as though burned by a
flame. Then I saw Lydia, flanking the bedroom doorway
wearing nothing but one of my dress shirts, unbuttoned
down the front. May most merciful Allah forgive me, but I
had completely forgotten the woman was in my apartment.
“Oh my God! It’s that lady from the studio! The one I
saw you kissing!” Razia looked from Lydia to me, wearing
the most horrible expression of utter devastation. Lydia
pulled my shirt tightly around her when she registered the
weightiness of her interruption, but otherwise did not
retreat. “Aziz, who is that?” she asked. As if she had any
right to know! Razia grabbed hold of her backpack and
stormed through the door.
“Razia, no—wait! Come back!” By now Lydia had
approached and taken my arm, but I yanked it away and
chased my daughter down the hallway. “Sweetheart, no!
This is not what it seems!”
She did not break stride. She yelled out without
looking back, “No? What do you Muslims call it?” And
when she pushed the elevator button and the doors did not
immediately open, she headed straight for the stairs. I
followed in hot pursuit, not caring that I had left my
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apartment wide open with a half-naked woman standing in
the doorway.
“Razia, please. Do not run off like this. You must give
me a chance to explain!”
“Explain what?” she cried without turning around.
“That you’re a dog, just like my mom said?” She raced
down the three flights with surprising agility for a girl with
such long legs. I nearly slipped on Razia’s cast-off hijab on
the third floor landing. The garment had landed white-sideup, with its menacing black skulls peering up at me. I lost
an extra moment stooping to retrieve it, but managed to
catch up with her at the bottom of the stairs and shove my
hand against the door a mere instant before she opened it.
“Let me out!”
“Razia, calm down. Don’t do this. Don’t run away
from me, please.” I grabbed her by the shoulders and held
her firmly against the door. It broke my heart to see the
hatred and disappointment in Razia’s narrowed eyes as she
fought me, shivering and crying and flailing her head from
side to side like Aleyah used to do as a baby when she
wouldn’t allow Fadwa to feed her. I choked back a sob.
“Your mother is right—I am a dog. But I swear to you, I
only brought that woman to my apartment to end things
with her. It has been a long time coming.
“What am I saying? Astaghfirullah—may beloved Allah
forgive me! How can I expect a child to understand such
things?”
“I am not a child!” she shouted, stomping her foot and
practically kneeing me in the groin. “That’s the problem
with both of you! You still treat me like a baby!”
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“You are right, Razia. You are no longer a baby.” I
took her chin in my hand. “You’re practically a woman. In
some parts of the world, your father might be seeking a
husband for you already. But here, things are different. In
America, childhood lasts longer, and adolescence is a
confusing stage of every child’s life. You understand so
much, and yet there is much you cannot be expected to
understand.”
“I’m old enough to understand that you’ve been
cheating on your wife with that lady. And you didn’t even
bother telling her about me! You’ve just been ‘handling’ all
the women in your life, haven’t you? Your wife, my mom,
that lady upstairs—me! You’re a big fraud, like some
puppeteer at Fairyland—”
“Oh no, my love. It is not like that at all. I always
intended to be honest with my wife about you, and I was!
My honesty may very well cost me my marriage! And if I
haven’t told Lydia about you, it is only because I’ve been
planning to end our relationship for quite some time.”
“Then what’s she doing naked in your apartment?”
That was a very good question. And the girl was right.
I had not been honest with Lydia. Quite the contrary—I’d
succumbed to the pleasures of her flesh the last three times
I saw her, telling myself each time that I would break things
off the next time. I asked myself, would today have turned
out any differently had Razia not shown up at the precise
moment she had? How small must I look in my daughter’s
eyes—a pathetic man with no command over his
animalistic desires?
I fell to my knees, clasping her legs. “Razia . . . darling .
. . please.” I found myself at a loss for words. But now was
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no time for my brain or my heart to fail me—not with Razia
sobbing in despair above my head, clutching her backpack
as though seeking comfort from a sleeping child in her
arms. I could not bear it. I literally prostrated myself at her
feet. I felt my Adam’s apple lurch in my throat, even as hot
tears escaped from my eyes and landed in droplets on her
boots. I could not remember the last time I cried. Had it
been when my son was born?
“You must forgive me,” I grunted, not recognizing the
sound of my own voice. “You came into my life after nearly
thirteen years and turned my whole world upside down!
Don’t you see how you have captured my heart? The lies I
have told myself no longer make sense to me, and never
will again. Never. If I lose you now—over a woman who
means nothing to me—it will be Allah’s greatest tragedy.
My heart will shatter into a million pieces.” I felt as though
Allah himself were supplying me these impassioned lines
from beneath the staircase, like a consecrated Cyrano de
Bergerac. I got to my feet and looked beseechingly into
Razia’s flooded eyes.
“I wanna go home!” she cried.
“Then I shall drive you, at least.”
I heard the elevator chime and looked over Razia’s
head through the small wire-grated window. I saw Lydia
exit the elevator and leave the building, with her purse
slung crosswise across her body and her gym bag hanging
over the opposite shoulder. I gulped when I saw her shove
the door open with one hip, saw that perfect, firm posterior
wiggle its way through the entry, probably for the very last
time.
Perhaps I’d been saved by the bell after all.
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Chapter Thirty-Five
The Visit
I was in the middle of unpacking groceries when the
doorbell rang. I thought it would be Felicia Hansen from
upstairs, since it was the fifth of April, and I still hadn’t
paid my rent. I had the check all written out, but not
enough money in my account to cover it. And yet I would
have welcomed an awkward visit from my landlady on this
quiet Saturday afternoon over the sight of Aziz, all
dignified, standing in my doorway holding a small brown
bag.
“We need to talk,” he said when I cracked the door
open. “May I come in?”
“Is this about the stupid concert?” I asked. “Because I
don’t even care anymore. You’ve already turned my
daughter against me, so if she wants to see some sappy boy
band with you and your brats, fine. Like I just said, I don’t
care.”
“Thank you, but this isn’t about the concert. I need to
speak to you about Razia.”
“We can’t talk here! She’s just in the other room.” As if
on cue, Razzi came out of her bedroom. Only her face
didn’t light up at the sight of Aziz like it had before. In fact,
now that I thought about it, she hadn’t mentioned him once
since the other night when I’d come back from Berkeley
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Bowl to find her note. (Well, okay, I’d met Nannette for a
quick coffee in the café of the renowned produce mecca,
before pawing pineapples together along with the many
Berkeley lesbian couples who frequented that place. Every
one of them smiled and nodded at us, assuming we were a
fellow dyke duo. And by all outward appearance, we fit
right in. But whatever, the point is, I came home to an
empty house and a cryptic memo.) By the time I’d gotten
on the phone to call Aziz, he was at my door with Razzi by
his side, looking sheepish and tense, as if they’d just broken
up. He hadn’t said a word, and neither had she, and I’d felt
too guilty about my own little jaunt to prod either one of
them.
“Razzi, why don’t you take the rent check upstairs to
Ms. Hansen?” I said. “And bring her those cookies I baked.
Tell her I’m sorry the rent’s gonna be a couple more days
late, but to please not cash it until next Friday when I get
paid.”
“Sonya, seriously. Should you be putting the girl in that
position?” He hesitated for a second before saying, “As you
probably know, I now have yet another rent to pay. If this
situation keeps up much longer, I may have to lay off one
of my instructors. But if you’d rather spare yourself the
embarrassment of asking favors of your landlady, I can
make you a loan until Friday.”
“That won’t be necessary, Aziz. Ms. Hansen and I have
an understanding.” In fact, I knew exactly what would
happen when Razzi got up there. Felicia would offer her a
cup of hot cocoa. Then they’d eat my cookies together while
Felicia complained about the late rent and told Razzi how
financially irresponsible her mother was. She’d say that if it
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weren’t for Razia, she would have kicked me out years ago.
Then she’d make it all right by telling Razzi not to worry,
that she loved her like the granddaughter she never had.
(Ms. Hansen used to watch Razia when she was little, so
Felicia’s probably the closest thing my kid ever had to a
grandma.)
I handed Razia the check and the plateful of cookies.
“Bring my dish back,” I told her, as I always did. “Okay,
what’s up?” I asked Aziz after I’d closed the door behind
her.
“May I sit down?”
“Sure,” I answered, gesturing toward the futon. Then I
wished I had pointed to the table; the last thing I wanted
was to sit beside him on that small piece of furniture that
doubled as my bed.
Aziz sat down and crossed his ankles, still clutching the
little brown wrapper. I wondered if, unlike thirteen years
ago, he’d brought a box of condoms this time, just in case. I
grabbed a kitchen chair and sat across from him.
“Well? Spit it out.”
He raised an eyebrow before beginning. “My wife has
asked me for a divorce—”
“And, what? You finally want to marry me? Wouldn’t
that be a kicker!” I snickered.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Sonya. I am not here to ask you to
marry me, though I realize you speak in jest. Besides, I am
sure Fadwa only said that in a moment of anger and will
hopefully return to her senses.”
“You’re damned right about me kidding. Seriously,
now that I know you a bit better, I would never, ever
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consider marrying you, even if you were the last man on
the planet. So what is it you want?”
“I am here to ask you for joint custody of our
daughter.”
“What? Why? Because you’re lonely and looking to
replace your family?”
“No. But this turn of events with my wife has clarified
for me the type of relationship I wish to have with Razia.
Fadwa’s threat has made me realize that I love my daughter
and want to help raise her, whether I am married or not.
Eventually, it would have come to this either way.”
“You’re full of crap,” I said. “What about when you two
get back together, huh? Then what? You gonna kick my kid
to the curb once you get your real family back?”
“If Fadwa and I reconcile, she will have to accept that I
am father to another child and welcome her into our lives.
And if not, well, I cannot turn back the clock and erase
what has happened.”
“So, what are you talking about? I mean, are you
looking to have a say in decision-making, or—”
“I want joint legal and physical custody. I do not want
to have to make an appointment each time I wish to see my
daughter.”
“Joint physical custody? You’ve got to be kidding me!”
I looked around for Dudley, as though seeking out an ally,
but he was nowhere to be found. He must have been
stalking the steep hill out back, and his absence left me
feeling utterly alone.
“Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be, Sonya.
I am aware of your sexual perversion—”
“My what?”
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“—as well as your recent neglect of our child.”
“You bastard! Get the fuck out of my house this instant!”
I stood up and pointed at the door, but he didn’t budge.
“I understand this is coming as a shock to you, but it is
the way things must be from now on. I am not willing to
remain an outsider in my own daughter’s life. Especially
while you pursue an immoral homosexual relationship
with another woman. I suppose you are entitled to live
your life as you see fit, but as Razia’s father, I am equally
entitled to set a different example for her.”
I stormed into the kitchen and grabbed the first thing I
could find amongst the still-unpacked groceries—a
container of hummus—and flung it at his head. It missed
him by a few inches, but the plastic shattered against the
window, sending a shower of pureed chickpeas and tahini
all over the place, including Aziz’s face and hair. He rose,
murder inflaming his eyes, and strode toward me. I nearly
crapped my pants. An image of him grabbing me by the
throat flashed before my eyes; I envisioned Razia coming
downstairs to find her mother sprawled lifeless on the
kitchen floor.
I opened the drawer and groped around for the big
knife, which I then I spotted in the sink where I’d thrown it
after cutting up my pineapple that morning.
When he reached me, he shoved me aside and grabbed
several paper towels from the roll, which he wet at the
faucet and used to wipe his face. He looked down at the
knife, then up at me. “Have you lost your mind?” he asked
in a throaty voice. He threw the wet towels in the sink, then
folded his arms, waiting for what, I didn’t know. Was he
expecting me to apologize? Bow down at his feet? What?
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Still terrified, I held my breath and pulled two more
sheets from the roll. I took a careful step toward the sink
and turned on the tap, never taking my eyes off that blade.
Aziz stood perfectly still, saying nothing. I wanted to grab
that thing so I’d have a weapon in case he came at me
again. But somehow, with his infuriated eyes boring a hole
in my reddened cheek, I lost the nerve. Instead, fighting
back panic, I wiped a splotch of hummus from Aziz’s
throat with shaking hands, even as I felt my face burning
even hotter.
When I reached to wipe his head, he grabbed my wrist
and looked me dead in the eye. “What are you doing?” he
asked.
“I don’t know,” I whispered back. “Maybe trying to
apologize?”
“Well, whatever it is, stop it. You are not twenty-seven
years old anymore. And neither am I.” He dropped my
hand and left me standing there, shaking like a wet
Chihuahua with my eyes bulging just as large. I let out a
sigh of relief when he moved to the futon and picked up his
precious package, his hair still flecked with hummus.
Then the door opened, and Razia appeared in the
doorway. Her eyes grew wide when she took in the scene.
“What’s goin’ on?” she asked. I heard the “cachunk” of
Dudley’s cat door, saw him poking his head through the
small hole. He broke the silence with a loud “meow.”
“Where’s my plate?” I asked, trying to defuse the
tension.
“I forgot it upstairs. So, what’s going on?” she repeated.
Aziz and I looked at each other with what I could only
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describe as pure hatred. Dudley slithered the rest of his
body through the hard plastic flap.
“Nothing, my love,” Aziz answered calmly, walking
toward Razia. “But I need you to do something for me.”
“What?” she asked, crossing her arms.
He opened the brown bag and drew out a box, opened
the flap. Then he pulled out a sealed foil packet, which he
tore across the top. He took out what looked like a oneended wooden Q-tip.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I gasped. Dudley
sauntered over to the futon and, in one graceful leap,
landed on top and began licking globules of hummus off
the gray suede cover.
“Come here,” Aziz said to Razia, ignoring me. There
was a determination in his voice I’d never heard before,
and she must have heard it, too, because she glided toward
him as though under hypnosis. “Open your mouth,” he
said. She did as she was told.
“Wait—no!” I cried (not that it made any difference).
He swabbed the inside of her cheek, then put the thing in a
small envelope, which he sealed and placed in his pocket.
“That is all,” he whispered, kissing her forehead. She
drew back. “I know you are still angry at me, Razia, but I
meant everything I said the other day. Everything.
Forgiveness is truly a beautiful hadith in Islam.” He looked
at me, then said, “Many non-Muslims think our religion is
too hard, and that Allah is only to be feared. But in reality
Islam combines an equal amount of love, fear, and
hope. We are only humans, so inevitably we make mistakes
and sin from time to time.” Now, he took Razia’s face in his
hands. They both had tears in their eyes, and I knew Razia
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wasn’t play-acting, like she so often did with me. My own
throat tightened; I was finding it difficult to breathe.
“Whatever. I still won’t go to the stupid concert with
you,” she muttered as two tears slid down her face. Aziz
nodded.
“I understand your decision about the concert, Razia.
Perhaps it was wrong of me to ask this of you so soon. But
eventually, you must forgive me. Part of our being human
is that we don’t always do the right thing, even after we
become adults and should know better.” He spoke so softly
I could barely hear him. “You have heard this expression:
‘To err is human and to forgive is divine’?” She nodded.
“Well, both parts of this statement are very true. As human
beings we are responsible, yes, but we also make mistakes
and are constantly in need of pardon.
“Islam speaks about two aspects of forgiveness: Allah’s
mercy, and human compassion. We need both, because we
do wrong in our relations to Allah as well as in our
relations to each other. Fortunately, Allah’s forgiveness is
only a prayer away! We don’t need intercessors. If only it
were as easy to receive forgiveness from those we love here
on earth,” he lamented, blinking back tears.
“Mash’Allah, it is truly a beautiful religion, and a
beautiful way of life. I hope you will come to see this,
perhaps someday when you are grown. But in the
meantime, I pray that you will find it in your heart to
forgive your father well before then.”
ɚɚɚɚɚ
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As soon as Aziz left, I got on the phone. “Nannette, I need
your help.”
“What’s up, Sonya? Did something happen?”
I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Yes. Aziz was just
here. He wants joint custody of Razia. He knows about
us—he even swabbed her mouth!”
“What is there to know, Sonny? We haven’t done
anything.”
“Stop calling me that, okay? He knows you’re a lesbian
and that I’ve been hanging out with you.”
“Oh, heavens.”
“Nannette, this is serious. I could lose my kid. He
knows I left her home alone.”
“You said your landlady was standing by upstairs in
case she needed anything. Seriously, Sonya, you need to
calm down. Razia is twelve years old, you were gone all of
an hour, and she had an adult a flight of stairs away.”
“Mom.”
“Not now, Razzi. Can’t you see I’m on the phone?”
“Was that the DNA test?” she asked.
“I said, not now!” Turning back to Nannette I said,
“I’m gonna need a lawyer. That’s why I’m calling. Can you
set me up?”
“You mean through Bay Area Legal Aid?”
“Yeah.”
There was a long silence. “I don’t know, Sonya.”
“What—you’re the one always offering to help me. You
mean the first time I ask for help, you won’t do one little
thing for me?”
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She sighed a long breath. “It’s not that I don’t want to
help. We do handle some family law and custody cases. I
just don’t know whether that’s such a good idea.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Mo-om.”
“Hold on a sec,” I said to Nannette. “What is it now,
Razzi?” I hurled around to face her. Her eyes were
brimming with tears. “What?”
“How’s it gonna turn out?
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“The test—is it him? Are you sure it’s him?”
“Of course it’s him! How can you even ask me that?
What you should be asking is, do you want it to be him?
Isn’t that the real question you’re grappling with? Now
stop pestering me and let me finish my call!” She slunk off
to her bedroom and shut the door.
Back to Nannette: “Where were we? Oh yeah, you were
about to tell me why it isn’t a good idea for you to help out
your so-called best friend!”
“Oh, where to begin? First, because I think you should
work this out with Aziz.”
“I can’t work anything out with him. The man has gone
completely nuts! He was reciting Koranic verse like a
madman. He even came at me.”
“He did?”
“Yeah. After I threw something at his head—”
“You did what?”
“Just a container of hummus which, now that I think
about it, was very appropriate! But seriously, it got all over
his face and his clothes, and he was pissed.”
“So, did he strike you?”
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“No, but he shoved me aside to grab paper towels.”
“You’re lucky that’s all he did, Sonya. You said yourself
you barely know this guy! What in the world possessed
you to provoke him like that?”
“He just ticked me off so much, when he said he
wanted joint custody.”
Nannette sighed. “Listen Sonya, turning this into a
lawsuit is going to make it get ugly real fast. And Razzi will
be caught in the crossfire. I hate to say this, but Legal Aid is
understaffed and underfunded. We don’t pay the attorneys
very well, so they burn out really quickly, and the turnover
is high. You could wind up worse off in court than if you
try to work this out with him rationally. Please don’t tell
anyone I said that.”
“So what am I supposed to do? Just roll over and give
him whatever he wants? I need a lawyer, and I’m broke.
Beggars can’t be choosers, you know.”
She hesitated. “Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve also got a
selfish reason for not wanting you to use Legal Aid. I work
there. I’d be the one doing your intake and managing your
case file.”
“Is this a problem?” I asked.
“Not technically. Unlike the attorneys, it isn’t an ethical
violation for me to date clients. But still, I could see this
situation quickly becoming awkward and affecting our
friendship. I’ll be honest with you, Sonya, I want to have a
relationship with you. I don’t want you to be just another
client where I work. If you go the lawsuit route, this thing is
going to consume you. You’ll need my support as a
confidante and ally. And I’m willing to be that. But I don’t
want to have to deal with your problem as a professional at
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work, and then again after work as your friend. They’re two
completely different things, and I can’t do both. I’m sorry,
but that’s the truth.”
“Wow. And I thought you were my friend.”
“I could ask around the office and see if I can find you a
referral to an outside attorney who’s affordable. How’s
that?”
“Right. And when you do, mail me her card along with
the needle from the haystack where you found it.”
“I’m sorry, Sonya. Listen, this is entirely up to you. If
you want me to ‘set you up’ with Legal Aid, as you put it, I
will. I just want you to understand all of the ramifications
before you take that step.”
“What ramifications? I’m just trying to find out what
my rights are!”
“And you should. What about your brother? Doesn’t he
know any family lawyers? Maybe someone who’d take
your case pro bono?”
I scoffed. “The last thing I need is to involve Keith. He’d
probably say I’m getting what I deserve. He’ll say, ‘What
did you expect, Sonya? When you lie with dogs, you wake
up with fleas!’” I stifled a sob. “He might even think that
Aziz should get sole custody of Raz, so I can finally ‘move
on with my life, meet someone nice, and settle down.’ I
reached out to you, Nannette, because I don’t need to deal
with my family and their judgmental bullshit right now.”
“I’m sorry. Look, why don’t we both sleep on it and
talk some more tomorrow.”
“Forget it, Nannette. Just forget everything. I’m sorry I
even asked.”
“Sonya, please. Don’t be like that.”
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“Like what? Pissed off at you for turning your back on
me the one time I actually need your help?”
“I am not turning my back on you. I’m here for you. But
don’t you see? I want to be here as your friend—your
partner, even. If you’d only give me the chance. I don’t
want to be your Legal Aid liaison.”
“Whatever. You know something? You don’t need to be
either.” And with that, I hung up.
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Chapter Thirty-Six
The End of the Line
I cracked the door to Maurelio’s office. Today there were no
coupons; instead, I found him poring over a bunch of
glossy brochures. Maurelio looked like hell, like he hadn’t
slept or combed his hair.
“Good morning, Dr. R.,” I said. When he looked up, his
expression really threw me. He always gave me a warm
smile when I arrived each morning. Today he looked
downright shell-shocked. I moved in closer. “Is something
wrong?” I picked up one of the brochures. “Vista Gardens
Memory Care? What’s going on, Dr. R.?”
“My mother-in-law broke her hip this weekend.”
“Oh my God—I’m so sorry!”
“She was chasing Magdalena down the driveway,
trying to keep her from wandering out into the street. And
she fell.”
“Where were you when all this happened?” I asked.
“That’s the really horrible part. I am so ashamed,” he
said, looking down at his brochure. “I drove up the road to
have a beer while Magdalena was napping and Consuelo
was watching TV. I’d just sat down at the bar at T.G.I.
Fridays when the next-door neighbor called my cell phone.
They took my mother-in-law away in an ambulance.”
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“So, if you don’t mind my asking, what are you doing
here?”
“I have patients today. I still need to earn a living, you
know. And now more than ever. I don’t know how long it
will take Consuelo to fully recover—if she ever does. I will
need to place Magdalena in a home.”
“Who’s watching her today?”
“I got an aide to come to the house, for the time being. I
found her through an agency the hospital recommended. I
was on the telephone practically the entire night.”
His eyes began to water. I’d been fighting mightily to
keep my own tears at bay, but the empathy instinct must
have kicked in because they suddenly broke free.
“Oh dear, dear, dear,” Maurelio said, rising from his
chair and walking around the desk. He placed a hand on
my shoulder. “I am so sorry to have upset you with my
personal problems. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s not just you,” I sniffled. “I’m emotional myself.
Razia’s father came by the house Saturday. He’s
demanding joint custody of my daughter. Things spun out
of control and I threw a container of hummus at him. Then
he got all weird and—”
“What happened?”
I shook my head. “Nothing. But before he left, he
swabbed Razia’s mouth!”
“He did what?”
“He showed up with one of those home DNA kits.”
“I don’t think they’re admissible in court, if that makes
you feel any better,” Maurelio offered.
“Not really. He’s trying to bully and intimidate me. He
knows he’s her father. He only did it so when the results
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come back, he can threaten me with a lawsuit unless I agree
to joint custody. And that’s just the first step! That man
wants to take my daughter from me, I just know it!”
Maurelio put his arms around me, and I buried my face
in his neck, sobbing. It felt strange, him being half-a-head
shorter and yet holding me up. “No, no, no,” he murmured.
“You mustn’t assume the worst about Razia’s father. You
must give him the benefit of the doubt and not imbue him
with sinister intentions.”
I ignored him. “Oh, and to top it all off, I broke up with
my—best friend!”
“Sounds like we’ve both had quite a weekend,” he said
quietly, looking me in the eyes. He reached behind him and
grabbed a tissue from his desk. I held out my hand,
expecting him to pass it to me. But instead, he wiped the
tears from my cheeks.
“I’m a lonely man, Sonya,” he said, seemingly out of
the blue. “I have felt abandoned by my wife’s illness. It is so
depressing to be at home, watching Magdalena disappear
before my very eyes. I’ve relied on my elderly mother-inlaw for advice and companionship, but I want you to know,
you have become so much more to me than just an
employee. I have cherished our friendship.”
I nodded. “Me, too,” I answered, looking into his soft
brown eyes and seeing, perhaps for the first time, all the
pain and tenderness there. “You’ve been my only real
friend these past five years.” And it was true. He’d become
like family to me, more so than my own brother. (At least
until I’d foolishly allowed myself to let down my guard
with Nannette. And look how that turned out.) “You’ve put
up with my personal drama with Razzi, let me have time
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off whenever she got sick or I wanted to volunteer at her
school. You’ve been so flexible.” I chuckled at the irony.
“Which is kind of funny, you being a chiropractor and all.”
“Yes, well, me being a chiropractor, don’t think it has
escaped my notice that you still haven’t finished inputting
my patient files.” We both laughed, even through our tears.
“I’ve made progress, though. I’m in the middle of the
alphabet.”
“You know something? I don’t even care. When
something so devastating happens, you stop worrying
about everything besides simply getting through the day. I
shouldn’t have come in this morning. I don’t have any
appointments until two p.m.”
“I know,” I said.
“And I could have easily cancelled those.”
“I know that, too.”
“I should be home with my wife, but—”
“Listen, you don’t need to explain anything to me. I
know this place has been a safe haven for you.”
“Yes, it has. With things so bizarre and unpredictable at
home, I never know what to expect. My wife could be
normal for an hour or two, or she could be walking around
the house naked after having pulled all the books from the
shelves and strewn them across the floor, searching for
something she cannot remember while boiling all her
undergarments on the stove because she thinks they are
infested with fleas. My mother-in-law has helped me cope,
but she is old. She cannot control Magdalena every minute
of every day. This office, what is left of my practice, it has
been my refuge. And to be quite honest, when this
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happened yesterday, the only person I wanted to see was
you.”
“Oh, Dr. R. That’s so sweet.”
“I mean it,” he said in a pained voice. “You are the
reason I am here.” And then he kissed me—tentatively at
first. But then, his back stiffened, he drew in a breath, and
in went the tongue. It was the oddest thing, tasting him in
my mouth after so many years working for him, spending
seven hours a day with him, and never for a moment really
seeing him as a man. He probed my mouth with an
insistent hunger that I quite honestly found repulsive. Not
because he wasn’t a good kisser; I supposed he was. And
not because he tasted bad, either, because he didn’t. But
neither his skill nor his male urgency did anything for me.
Feeling our tongues intertwining in my mouth, I might as
well have been flapping my arms or blowing my nose.
Still, I tried to get into it—I liked Dr. R., and I hadn’t had
sex in over thirteen years. And that scene with Aziz
yesterday—I hated to admit it, even to myself, but it had
left me strangely fired up. I placed a hand at the back of
Maurelio’s neck and closed my eyes. But the image that
came to mind was me and Nannette kissing outside
Berkeley Bowl. Her mouth had tasted sweet, like
butterscotch Lifesavers. I hadn’t so much kissed her as
melted into her—a tender merging of tongues and breath—
just before we went our separate ways. I loved that little
mole on the right side of her mouth. And those breasts. She
had confessed to having gotten a boob job after Joann
dumped her. She said they turned out perfect, and I was
curious—no, more than curious. I was dying to see the
woman naked.
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She had invited me back to her place, and truth be told,
I’d wanted to go. But instead, I made up some lame excuse
about needing to get home. I’d tried to put the whole thing
out of my mind, but I hadn’t been able to stop thinking
about her since.
When I opened my eyes and saw Maurelio’s
mustachioed face, I jerked away. “Dr. R., stop.”
“I haven’t been with my wife in over a year,” he begged
in my ear. He began kissing my neck and tugging at my
blouse.
“Maurelio, please, no.”
“I am in love with you, Sonya. I fell in love with you the
moment you walked through that door five years ago.”
“You need to stop,” I said, pushing him away. “You
should go to the hospital and tend to your mother-in-law.
Then take the rest of the day off and deal with your wife.
I’ll cancel your appointments for you.”
He straightened his collar, looking both flustered and
disappointed. “Of course.” He cleared his throat. “You are
right. I don’t know what came over me.”
“It’s no problem. You’ve been under a lot of stress
lately. We both have. Let’s just forget this happened.”
“I certainly will, if you will. Thank you for
understanding.”
“Of course.” But in that instant, I knew what a couple of
liars we were. I saw the writing on the wall as clearly as the
embarrassed look on Maurelio’s face. Even if he managed
to keep his dying practice open a while longer, there was
no future for me here. Either way, it was all over because of
what just happened. So now, on top of everything else, I
would have to find another job.
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ɚɚɚɚɚ
I knocked a little harder when she didn’t immediately
answer. I honestly didn’t know what I was doing, but after
what Razia told me that morning on the way to school, I
had immediately called in sick and driven straight over
here.
I peered through the window and saw her walking
through the kitchen. She started when her eyes met mine.
She wasn’t wearing her head scarf, and I couldn’t help but
notice the lushness of her dark, straight hair; it looked like
strands of raven-colored nylon. As she walked toward the
front door, she pulled it back in a ponytail and tied it with
an elastic band she took from around her wrist.
She cracked the door about six inches. “Yes?”
“Fadwa? It’s me, Sonya.”
“Your name is Sonya?” She looked puzzled. “I thought
you are Lydia.”
“No, you and I met a few months ago, in late January.
My daughter was here, remember?”
“How can I forget? I just thought—never mind. What is
it you want?”
“I came to talk to you.”
Her eyes darted nervously. “I don’t think this is such a
good idea.”
“Please, I won’t take up much of your time. But it’s
important.”
She sighed, opened the door, and stepped out of the
way, allowing me to pass. I walked in and stood in the
middle of the sparse living room, not knowing what to do
with myself.
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“Would you like a cup of chai?” she asked, gesturing
toward the table. She wore a gorgeous green silk top with a
jacquard motif and crystal beads, and a pair of cotton jersey
pants in a matching green. Her shoulders were covered
with a flowing silk scarf, which she pulled tightly around
her.
“Yes, thank you. That would be lovely.”
“Sit,” she said. I took the same chair my daughter had
occupied the one and only other time I had come here. She
put a pot of water on the stove to boil, then pulled down a
canister of loose tea. From afar, it looked like a concoction
of dirt, leaves, and twigs. I hoped she wasn’t using
potpourri to poison me.
I suddenly felt awkward sitting at this woman’s table
while she scuttled around her kitchen. I didn’t know
whether I should start talking, or wait for her to finish her
complicated potion and come join me.
“Fadwa, on second thought, I think I’m going to pass
on the chai. I can’t stay very long. Would you mind sitting
with me just a moment?”
She turned off the burner without a word and came
into the dining area. She pulled out the chair next to mine
and sat down. “Since you apparently feel comfortable
telling me what to do in my own home, please say what
you came to say so I can go about my business.”
Wow. Her hostility caught me off guard. I assumed I’d
get unwavering civility, if not hospitality. I must have
pissed her off by rejecting her tonic. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I
don’t mean to be ungracious or anything. I just didn’t want
to put you to any trouble. If you want to have tea—”
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“Please forget the tea. I merely offered in an attempt to
be polite. What is it you want?”
I was again stunned by her directness. “I’ve come to ask
you to forgive Aziz,” I began tentatively. She said nothing,
and her face gave no reaction whatsoever. “I—I know you
probably think I’m completely out of line to say that, and
you’re right. I am. But you’ve got to take him back. What
happened wasn’t his fault.”
“Whose fault was it, then?”
I sighed. “It was all mine. I’m sure you don’t want to
know the gory details of what happened between us, and
believe me, I’d rather not go into them. But we were both
young. I didn’t know what I was thinking at the time. I—I
practically threw myself at him. He didn’t even want to, at
first. But—he’s a man. You know how men are.”
“I know perfectly well how men are. But what is your
excuse? Why would you do such a thing? You are a
beautiful woman. Why would you throw yourself at
anyone?”
“My excuse? I—I don’t know. I had something to prove
to myself, I guess. But I swear, I didn’t know he was
engaged! Not until it was too late, and by then I’d found
out I was pregnant. That’s why I didn’t tell him; I didn’t
want to mess up his thing with you.”
“How very generous of you, to tell me this now.
Perhaps if you had been honest back then, Aziz would have
told me the truth himself. Perhaps I might have been given
a choice whether to move halfway across the world to wed
a man who had already conceived his firstborn by accident
with another woman. Perhaps I should have had a say
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whether or not to marry someone already sullied and
spoken for.”
“Please, Fadwa. You’ve got to forgive him. I realize this
is no excuse, but things are different here. It was a stupid,
meaningless, one-night stand.”
“What is this one-night stand?”
“It’s when two people have pointless sex with no
strings attached—just because they feel like it, and it turns
out to be a one-time thing. But—just look around. Aziz has
built his whole life with you and your kids.”
“Yes, until you appeared on the scene. Then our whole
life became about your daughter. How to include her, how
to guide her, how to make sure she felt wanted and cared
for. I never signed on to pushing my own children aside so
your daughter could assume top ranking in my own
family!”
“And I agree with you completely! That’s why I came. I
don’t want Razzi to interfere with your family. I want her to
get over your husband and move on with her life.”
“But he is her father. How can you expect her to get
over a man like him? Every girl loves her father, no matter
how dreadful he may be. But Aziz is special. Any fool can
see that.”
Special, my ass, I thought. Unless you mean a special
asshole!
Fadwa looked at me expectantly, as though waiting for
me to agree. I gulped. Maybe she was right. There was
something “special” about Aziz. Hadn’t I been drawn to
him, too, way back when? All this time, I’d been looking at
the situation through my own jaded eyes. I had forced
myself to “get over” Aziz because to me, he was just a
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“thing” that hadn’t worked out. But he was Razia’s family—
a part of who she was. Never having known my own
mother or father, it was hard for me to understand why
Aziz and Raz suddenly meant so much to one another. That
stupid “flesh and blood” they shared entitled Razia to a
piece of his heart that I could never claim.
I drew in an irritated breath. “I promise you, Fadwa,
we’re on the same page, you and I. If you take your
husband back, I will fight him tooth and nail to prevent him
from ever seeing my daughter again.” I had no idea how I’d
manage that with no money, but that’s what came out of
my mouth, and I hoped she would buy it. “If you divorce
him, he’s only gonna fight harder to gain control over my
daughter. Don’t you see? He needs you and your kids to feel
his life has purpose. Without you, he’s lost. He’s trying to
make my daughter his replacement family.”
“What I see is how little you understand my husband,”
she said. “And how very selfish are your motives.” I
flushed. “You expect me to put my grievances with Aziz
aside to make things easier for you. But you are forgetting
something: Aziz fell in love with your daughter before our
marriage fell apart. He intends to have her in his life with
or without me,” her voice broke. “And that necessarily
means having you in his life, too, which is something I do
not think I can tolerate.”
I scoffed. “I’m not the one you should be worried about.
Aziz would like nothing better than to have zero to do with
me—”
“I came to this country to marry a man who claimed to
be free to wed unencumbered. We were promised to each
other as two faithful Muslims, pure of body and spirit.
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Nearly thirteen years later, I learn that you got your claws
into him first.” She looked me up and down. “How do you
think that makes me feel, knowing that you bore his first
child and not me? That you were his first—that he has been
comparing us in his mind all these years? On our wedding
night and every time since.”
“You have got to be kidding me! You’re actually upset
because your husband wasn’t a virgin when you married
him? We were together one time. It wasn’t the grand love
affair you’re making it out to be. Listen, if you want to be
jealous of someone, start with that student he’s been
banging!” Oh shit. Razzi had told me about that in
confidence. She made me swear not to say anything to
Aziz, and now here I was blabbing to his wife!
“So he has been having an affair. You think I didn’t
already know that? That woman means nothing to my
husband—some trollop barely older than you were back
then.”
“You know about her?”
She nodded. “I am not blind. I have tolerated my
husband’s dalliances because Aziz seems to have a need for
such—diversions. He has always been discreet, and careful.
With the apparent exception of you,” she said
contemptuously. “I used to think he was just like every
other man. Now I understand, he does this because of you.”
“Me? You’re blaming me because Aziz is a dog? Like
you said, he’s a man—a man who happens to be handsome
and successful. Women are naturally drawn to that.”
“Is this why you felt compelled to seduce him for no
other reason than your own amusement? You are the
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woman who first enticed him to breach his commitment to
me. If it weren’t for you, he might never have strayed.”
“You can’t seriously believe that.”
“No? You were the one who showed him just how
charming he is, and just how readily he could have any
woman he fancied in this country! Now it turns out that you
are the mother of his firstborn child. You bore the child who
has laid claim to my husband’s heart and ruined my
marriage! You have done all that; you—and your poor,
‘innocent’ daughter!”
Her eyes filled with angry tears, and she stood up.
“You have some nerve coming here, seeking my solidarity.
I have listened to what you had to say. Now if you don’t
mind, I must ask you to leave.”
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Chapter Thirty-Seven
Breakdown
I felt like a guest in my own living room. It occurred to me
that I had not felt so displaced since 1997, when I sat alone
on Jazeera Airways flight number 637, waiting on the
runway to leave my home and family behind to come live
with my uncle, who has no sons of his own. My family had
arranged for me to acquire a half-interest in his business
and eventually take it over when he retired. But I managed
to escape that fate and begin making my own way in the
world when my uncle sold his business in 2003 (thanks to
“9-11,” which made it virtually impossible for anyone with
a Middle Eastern surname to successfully conduct a
chemical cleanup business).
Since Fadwa had called me here, I’d let myself in with
my key. But I did not dare take my usual place at the dining
table. Instead, observing cereal crumbs on the floor, I sat in
the same seat I’d offered my daughter the afternoon she
first appeared at my front door. How ironic, I thought, to
have survived the 1990 Iraqi airborne assault on my small
Persian Gulf homeland, only to see my Northern California
home invaded some twenty-four years later by the careless
output of my own loins!
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“Fadwa, please. I do not have all day. I must return to
work,” I called out. I heard her footsteps overhead, but she
did not answer.
Sighing, I rose and walked awkwardly toward the
sofa. I noticed the bright red stain on the end cushion, the
result of spilled pomegranate juice from when Abdul
attacked me one evening during play. We normally kept
that cushion turned over. Had Fadwa grown so apathetic
about our home she no longer noticed such things?
She walked steadily down the stairs, looking quite
lovely in her emerald-green chiridar suit—my favorite outfit
of hers. She wore a pair of flat sandals with imitation
diamonds studding the ankle and toe bands, and I noticed
that she had painted her toenails an opalescent pearl shade.
How unlike Fadwa to beautify herself in such ways. Her
thick hair hung about her exposed shoulders.
“You look beautiful,” I said.
“I was paid a visit earlier today,” she announced,
ignoring my compliment but betraying with her eyes that
she welcomed such praise.
“Oh? By whom?”
“By your former bedmate,” she spat.
I panicked momentarily. Did she mean Lydia or
Sonya? Would Lydia dare show up at my home to harass
my wife? I had not heard from her in nearly two weeks,
since the incident at my apartment. She dropped out of
class without a word, except to email me a request for a
refund of the balance of her tuition. I directed her to the
BLB website, where our online policy clearly states that no
refunds will be issued except for good medical cause. I
would not put it past that woman to sue me in small claims
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court simply to make her point, if not to sustain a
superficial means of remaining in contact with me.
But if I were to make an exception for her, then what?
Many students drop out after just one or two sessions. They
realize they are no longer interested in yoga, are in no
shape to meet its rigorous demands, or have scheduling
conflicts. I would quickly go out of business if I
accommodated each and every one of their requests.
“Did you hear me?” Fadwa asked, interrupting my
thoughts.
“I did. I am waiting for you to elaborate,” I answered.
“She wants me to take you back.”
“I see.” I felt it best to keep my answers brief and
noncommittal until it became clear exactly of whom we
were speaking.
“So that you will drop your campaign to procure
custody of your child,” she clarified. Her voice caught in
her throat, and her eyes filled with tears. Very good; she
was speaking of Sonya. My relief overtook the fury I should
otherwise have felt at the notion of that woman appearing
at my home to pester and plot with my wife.
“And what did you tell her?” I asked.
“I said she knows you not at all if she thinks that such
a scheme would work. I told her that you intend to be a
father to your child regardless. Am I right?”
“Habibti, come here, please,” I said, taking two steps
toward her. She turned on her heel but not quickly enough.
I grabbed her and took her in my arms. Though she
resisted, I held her tightly while she sobbed—realizing
myself how much I have missed the comfort of her
embrace. “This is sheer foolishness,” I whispered, burying
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my lips in her strangely fragrant hair. “I am sorry. I made a
single mistake thirteen years ago—”
“—A mistake?” She pulled away and looked at me with
incredulity.
“All right, I committed a sin. And Allah has seen fit
both to punish and bless me for it.”
“I could have forgiven your initial transgression, in
time. But you lied to me, for the entire duration of our
marriage!”
“You are right, I did lie. I have been guilty of
deception, on top of my original offense. But only because
the episode filled me with so much shame. I did my very
best to repent and then banish it from my mind so I could
keep my commitment to you and focus on our marriage.
That is, until I learned of the child.”
“And how many others were there, besides her?”
Fadwa demanded.
“She was the first and only woman before you.” There,
that was both truthful and ambiguous. “But I refuse to
answer any more questions. You have no right to ask me
such things.”
“I have every right! I am your wife.”
“Yes, you are my wife,” I said, looking into her
glimmering eyes. “And as my wife it is your duty to
support and stand by me. You must stop this silliness. We
have a home and two children. I have indulged your desire
for space, but enough already. You are my partner, and I
need you.”
“You need me?” she scoffed.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“I do. I am lost without you, and I am man enough to
admit it—and to beg your forgiveness. Is this not enough
for you?”
“I suppose it has to be,” she said, trying to hide her
obvious disappointment. “I will stay with you, Aziz, but
only because it is best for the children, and because of them,
I perceive little choice in the matter.”
“Good. Then I will arrange to move back next
weekend.” I hesitated a moment, before adding, “Will that
be all right with you?”
“Why do you even bother asking? You do not care
what I want. You don’t have the faintest idea what that is.”
“Oh, but I do,” I answered, taking her hands. “And I
most certainly do care. You want me to be a good husband,
and I shall be. Just as I have always been, before this all
occurred. Yes, I have additional responsibilities now, but
that changes nothing between us. You have been a good
wife to me, Fadwa, and you are a good woman. I have
always known you to do the right thing. I realize I am
asking a lot of you, but I promise, as Allah is my witness, I
will do my very best to make it up to you.”
She shook her head. “That is not it at all.”
“What, then?”
“After nearly thirteen years of marriage, I should not
have to spell it out for you! It makes me ashamed—to have
to ask. I simply refuse to do it.”
“You want to hear me say that I love you? Is that it?
This is what you are so angry about? After thirteen years of
marriage, I should not have to say it! You are not the only
one who is angry, Fadwa. Perhaps it was wrong of me to
expect compassion from you, but now that the shock has
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worn off and the dust has settled, I have every right to
count on my wife being in my corner. I still have not heard
you say that we are in this together where my daughter is
concerned, and I will not move back here only to be treated
like a pariah in my own home. So I will ask you this only
one time: Are you with me or not?”
She answered me with her silence, and I let her hands
drop.
“You are a good husband and father, and I have little
doubt that you love me in your way. And as my husband,
you are entitled to my loyalty and my forgiveness. But you
may not demand that I gladly embrace what your infidelity
has wrought upon our lives—as you seem to. You
obviously do not care for me as much as you do your
daughter, or desire me as you do your mistresses. So no,
Aziz, you may no longer consider me ‘on your side’ or lay
claim to my heart.”
ɚɚɚɚɚ
Korey brushed past me in the hallway before lunch period
but said nothing. I gave him a quick nod, to let him know
we were still friends even if we hadn’t talked. I couldn’t
give a crap about that dumb promise he made to Aziz.
After the stunt my father pulled, he had no right to expect
anything from me. But, apparently, Korey was a kid of his
word. He hadn’t spoken to me since the big scene in the
principal’s office, and now I had so many questions and no
one I could turn to.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“Hey, Raz! Sit with us at lunch, okay?” That was
Chantal, bopping toward me down the hall, her ponytail
swooshing.
“Okay, hold me a place.” I ducked into the bathroom. I
grabbed a stall and tried not to gag at the toilet stuffed with
paper and bloody sanitary pads. Just like my life—a huge,
stopped-up mess. And I was the one who had made such a
muddle of everything. Mom was a nervous wreck and had
avoided talking to me since Aziz left last Saturday. I didn’t
know what was going on with her, but Nannette called a
few times, and my mom refused to talk to her. I also saw
her looking at jobs on Craigslist this morning, but she
snapped the computer shut when I came out for breakfast. I
wanted to talk to her so bad, on the way to school I told her
about what happened with Aziz. Only then, instead of
helping me figure out what to do, she just ignored me and
called in sick to work.
I had no one I could talk to about anything. How long
would that DNA thing take? If the test came back positive,
would I have to go live with my father? And if so, in his
funky apartment, or in Concord with his wife and kids?
Would I still get to go to this school?
The way I figured, once that test officially confirmed
that I had Islamic blood coursing through my veins, my
mom would have to turn me over to Aziz like a found
wallet to its rightful owner. I guess that’s what I deserved
for stirring up all this trouble.
ɚɚɚɚɚ
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Stage Daughter
Damn it, damn it, damn it! I tried turning the key again and
heard nothing but clicking. What a wasted day! After being
shown the door by Aziz’s wife, I’d headed straight to the
Alameda County Law Library to do some research about
my “situation.” Only I didn’t have the foggiest idea where
to begin or how to use those damned law books. At first,
the librarian was somewhat helpful. But after about fifteen
minutes, she told me she really couldn’t spend any more
time with me and that I needed to get an attorney. The
place was teeming with lawyers, so I approached one lady
over by a set of blue “California Codes.” But she told me
she was a bankruptcy lawyer and couldn’t help me.
And now, after accomplishing nothing, I was sitting at
an expired meter in a car that wouldn’t start.
My cell phone buzzed. I looked down and recognized
Nannette’s number. Why the hell wouldn’t that woman
leave me alone? Did she not get my message loud and
clear? I considered picking up, but only because I was
stranded and she might be able to help me get my car
started or give me a lift. But no. After she’d abandoned me
in my hour of need, I refused to ask her for any more help.
I considered calling Keith, but he was at work and
probably wouldn’t take my call. And even if he did, I
needed to save my favors for when I quit my job. I was
really gonna need his help then.
Despite our mutual promise to forget what happened
on Monday, things have been beyond weird with Maurelio.
He could barely look me in the eye at work, except when
hounding me about finishing the patient notes. I didn’t
know if he was mad at me for rejecting him, or if he was
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Sheryl Sorrentino
just distraught over his wife. Either way, I couldn’t think
straight when I was anywhere near him.
That left Felicia, and I couldn’t very well ask my
landlady for help when I hadn’t paid this month’s rent yet.
But I needed to quit my job—and the sooner the better. And
once I quit, in all likelihood I wouldn’t be able to pay the
rent at all. I laid my head on the steering wheel, refusing to
cry.
I had fifteen minutes to pick up Razia from school. It
was only a short walk from here, but then how would I get
us home? I supposed we could ride BART to Berkeley and
walk the mile-and-a-half uphill from the station. But if I left
my car here, it would surely get towed.
My cell phone buzzed again. Wouldn’t you know, BLB
YOGA popped up on the screen. Aziz and I hadn’t spoken
since the hummus incident the previous Saturday.
Although the last thing I needed was a dose of his bullshit,
I felt so utterly alone, I picked up.
“Hello?”
“Yes, Sonya. It’s me. I thought you should know, I got
the results of the DNA test.” (Dramatic, unnecessary pause.)
“It came back positive.”
“What did you expect?” (Another long pause.) “Hello?”
“I do not appreciate the stunt you pulled with my wife
this morning.”
“She told you about that?”
“What did you expect? Did you really think your
pitiful attempt to interfere in my marriage would work?”
I gulped. “So, what, you two are getting divorced,
then?”
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“Don’t be ridiculous. She is my wife. But that changes
nothing as far as you, me, and Razia are concerned. I will
have my lawyer draw up a shared custody agreement. And
if you refuse to sign it, then I will take you to court.”
I would not cry. I refused to cry. I felt my breath catch
in my throat and I began to choke, small, airless, spluttering
coughs.
“Sonya? Are you all right? Did you hear what I just
said?”
“I—I can’t talk anymore, Aziz. I’m stuck on Twelfth
Street, my car won’t start, and I’m having an asthma
attack!”
“Your car won’t start?”
“No. And I have to pick up Raz at 3:10,” I panted.
“Well, how do you plan on getting her home?”
“I don’t fucking know, okay! So you’ll have to excuse
me if I can’t deal with your stupid demands right now!”
“Calm down, Sonya. And use your inhaler.”
“It’s empty,” I rasped. “I need to have it refilled as
soon as I get paid.”
“I see. Then try to relax and focus on your breathing.
Calm breaths, in and out. As soon as you are able, call
Triple A. In the meanwhile, I will phone Razia and let her
know I will be picking her up. I cannot make it in precisely
ten minutes, but I will tell her to wait for me in front of the
school if I am a little late.”
“I don’t have Triple A,” I puffed.
“You are a single mother with an old car, and you do
not think it important enough to have roadside assistance?”
“I can’t afford it, you jerk!”
He sighed. “Is your battery dead?”
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“How the fuck should I know? I turn the key and it
just clicks.”
“It might be the starter,” he pondered. “You will have
to be towed.”
Yeah, right. Haul me away like a can of trash. Wouldn’t you
just love that?
“Well, sit tight. I will call you a tow truck before I get
Razia from school. I know a mechanic on Webster Street. I’ll
meet you there after I pick up Razia and drive the two of
you home.”
I didn’t know what to say, even though my heart had
by now slowed and my breath had returned on its own.
“You are welcome,” Aziz answered for me, before
hanging up.
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Chapter Thirty-Eight
Sonya Schoenberg’s Day Off
He appeared at my door at 7:45 a.m. sharp.
“You could’ve honked, you know,” I told him.
“I did not want to disturb your landlady,” he
answered.
“Raz! Hurry up—your father’s here!” Ugh. How I
hated the sound of that! “Listen, thanks for all your help
yesterday. And I appreciate you dropping Razzi off at
school this morning while my car’s in the shop.”
“It is no problem. I am happy for the opportunity to
spend time with my daughter,” he said. “As you know, I
have some fences to mend. And what about you? Do you
need a lift to your job?”
I was still in my sweats, so I couldn’t tell if he meant to
be sarcastic or nosy. “Uh, no. I have to go to into San
Francisco today. I’ll get dressed and walk over to BART as
soon as Razzi leaves.”
“The station is over a mile away. Do you need a ride? I
can take you if you hurry up.”
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary . . . Raz!
What’s taking so long?” I yelled out.
“I’m in the bathroom!” she called back.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“Sorry. She does this every morning. Welcome to my
world. It’s like pulling teeth to get her out of the house and
into the car.”
Aziz walked across the room and knocked softly on
the bathroom door. “Razia, honey, please hurry. You are
going to be late for school.”
I noticed the message from Maurelio in my in-box
while Aziz’s back was turned. I had emailed in sick again
this morning, claiming a stubborn flu. But I had also asked
if I could swing by later for my check. I hoped he wouldn’t
dock my pay, because I needed every last penny to cover
the rent. And now I had a car repair bill on top of that.
“Um, listen, Aziz. You offered to make me a loan last
week. I think I’ve got the rent covered, but now, you know,
with the unexpected expense of fixing the car . . . do you
think you could help me out?” God, I really hated the sound
of that.
“You think you’ve got the rent covered?”
“Things are a bit tight this month, but yeah.” His
remark made me feel small, like I’d always felt whenever I
asked my parents for money.
“How much do you need?”
“Your guy said it would cost around $350, including
tax and labor. Does that seem like a lot to you?”
“I have known Moustafa for many years. I do not think
he would take advantage, especially since I told him you
are a friend.”
I thought of Aziz as many things, but “friend” wasn’t
among them. I wondered whether he actually considered
us friends now, or if he’d used that “friend” bit to get me a
break on the price. (Was there any difference, really?) “So,
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Stage Daughter
can you help me out?” I asked. “Just for a few days—I’ve
got something in the works so I should be able to pay you
back next week.”
“Fine. I will swing by the shop after dropping Razia off
and take care of it. There is no need to repay me.”
“Why not? You think I’m some charity case?”
“This is not charity. You are the mother of my child
and you need transportation to get her to and from school.
As long as I am in a position to help you, I shall. And I will
leave you money to replace your inhaler. That you can pay
me back for, when you are able.”
“Thank you,” I grumbled. I hoped he heard it, because
I’d found it really difficult to get those words out. I hated
his paternalistic attitude, but I hated myself even more for
accepting his help. I cleared my throat. “Raz! You need to
hurry up!”
The bathroom door opened, and Razia appeared
wearing red skinny jeans and a black T-shirt with a big
white skull emblazoned across the front, all spindly arms
and gazelle legs set off against those pert little boobs of
hers.
“Um, hi, Dad. Just give me another second to pack my
stuff.”
“You should’ve been packed already! You knew Aziz
was coming,” I scolded. She rolled her eyes and scurried off
to her room.
Now Aziz cleared his throat. “Not that it is any of my
business, but is there a reason you are skipping work? Did
you lose your job?”
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“You’re right, Aziz. It isn’t any of your business. What
are you now, some kind of freaking detective? You’re
watching my every move?”
“Hardly,” he answered. “You came to my house
yesterday during work hours, then you got stranded in the
middle of the afternoon. And now, it is nearly eight o’clock,
and you are not yet dressed. It does not take a detective to
figure out that you haven’t been going to work.”
“I’m ready,” Razia said. “See ya, Mom.” She gave me a
quick peck on the cheek. Bless you, I thought. She always
cringed whenever I tried to kiss her goodbye, and I couldn’t
remember the last time she had kissed me. If she was
putting on an act for Aziz, then brava!
“See ya, sweetie. Don’t forget your lunch.” I handed
her the small cooler pack.
As soon as I heard Aziz’s car start, I went to the
computer and opened Maurelio’s email:
On April 11, 2014, at 7:49 AM “Maurelio
Rodriguez” [email protected] wrote:
Sonya, I hope your absence yesterday and now
today is not due to anything I have said or
done. As you know, I have been under a great
deal of stress dealing with my personal
situation, so please forgive me if I have
been quick-tempered, and certainly if I said
or did anything to upset you. Of course you
can pick up your check later today. If I am
not here, I will leave it in your desk
drawer. Please understand, I will have to
dock your pay for the two missed days. I
haven’t had many patients this week and had
to cancel half the few appointments on the
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schedule in order to assist my mother-in-law
at the hospital. It has been difficult
manning the office on my own, this week of
all weeks. I hope to see you bright and
early Monday morning, so please rest up over
the weekend and feel better. Dr. R.
Sent from my iPhone so please excuse any
typing errors.
On April 11, 2014, at 7:23 AM, "Sonya
Schoenberg"<[email protected]> wrote:
>Good morning, Dr. Rodriguez. I am sorry but
>I am still under the weather this morning
>and think it best that I take another day
>to recuperate. If I feel well enough, I’d
>like to stop by later to pick up my check.
>I hope that will be all right with you.
>Best, S.
Shit! Two days’ pay lost. I hadn’t taken a single sick day in
five years, except for the occasional personal day to care for
Razia when she caught a bug. Dr. R. had always paid me for
those, and yet, why was I not surprised he would dock my
pay now? I’ll bet if I had fucked him on Monday like he
wanted, he would have put a bonus in my envelope!
Another new email had arrived since Aziz left, a
Googlegroups message to “All ORCA Theatre Parents.” It
was probably from Becky Potamkin, looking for someone
to hawk tickets to the upcoming fundraising auction. That
one would have to wait. I needed to change into my nicest,
most conservative interview outfit, fix my hair, and get the
hell out of here.
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ɚɚɚɚɚ
I didn’t “do” fancy offices well, so I tried to steady my
breath as I examined the lobby directory at Four
Embarcadero Center. I didn’t see Keith’s name anywhere,
so now I had to search my brain while scanning the
alphabetical list of companies in the hope of jogging my
memory.
“Can I help you?” the uniformed security guard asked.
“I wish,” I muttered under my breath. Then to him,
“I’m trying to find my brother. But I can’t remember the
firm where he works.”
“Who’s your brother?” the beefy Black man asked.
Since 9-11, these four prominent towers have been under
heightened security. He was probably doing his security
guard thing—making sure I actually had legitimate
business there.
“Keith Schoenberg. He’s an attorney at one of the big
law firms.”
“Mr. Schoenberg? I know him. You’re his sister?”
“I was adopted. Obviously.”
He smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Nothin’ obvious
about it,” he said. “They’s all kinds of families nowadays.
Mix-raced families, blended families, same-sex families.
Shoot, for all I know, Keith coulda been adopted into your
Black family.”
“Right. So, how do you know my brother?”
“Just how you’d expect—seein’ him pass by the desk
comin’ and goin’. He stops to chat every now and then.
Most of ‘em don’t bother. Your brother’s one of the nicer
ones.”
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Stage Daughter
That was reassuring. I hoped he’d treat his sister as
nicely as he apparently treated this stranger.
“Anyways, he works on the twenty-first floor, at
Jameson, Buckley and Hawthorne,” he informed me.
“Okay. Thanks.”
“Sorry, but I need to check your bag.”
“Seriously?”
“Yeah. It’s standard procedure.”
I decided not to make a fuss and let him snoop in my
purse, even though plenty of people were “comin’ and
goin’” through those elevators without being similarly
hassled. He probably just liked me. And since I needed to
remain in my brother’s good graces, the last thing I wanted
was to create a scene in the lobby.
“Okay, you’re good,” he said with a wink, waving me
toward the nearest elevator and holding the door open.
“Thanks,” I said.
Twenty floors later, after many starts and stops, the
elevator opened onto the expansive reception area of
Jameson, Buckley and Hawthorne. The reception desk was
as big as the entire Legal Aid waiting room—a customdesigned square enclosure made of God-only-knew-howexpensive wood, with marble along the front. Five dramatic
brass lamps hung from the ceiling. Four modern leather
chairs filled the remaining space, facing each other two-bytwo in front of a wall bearing the firm name in foot-high
gold lettering. To the right, natural light beamed through
the windows of a large conference room filled with a
humongous table (made from the same endangered
rainforest wood, no doubt) surrounded by about thirty
high-backed leather chairs.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“May I help you?” the toothy receptionist asked. I
pegged her for about my age, but her damaged, reddishblond hair made her look older, and the over-the-head
earpiece made her look like a dowdy telephone operator.
“I’m here to see Keith Schoenberg.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No, but I’m his sister. I was in the neighborhood and
thought I’d stop in to say hello.” I realized I was taking a
big gamble coming all this way to talk to Keith. He had an
unpredictable schedule and, for all I knew, was out of town
or in a big meeting. But I hadn’t been able to work up the
nerve to call first. I figured I’d take my chances and just
show up. Hopefully, if he was here, he wouldn’t turn me
away.
“You’re Keith’s sister?” she asked, trying to hide her
surprise.
“Yes.” Normally, this was where I’d use my most
indignant voice to clarify I was adopted. Instead,
remembering the security guard’s remark, I held my
tongue.
“Keith never mentioned a sister,” she commented. I
merely smiled. Flustered, she began punching buttons on
her phone. “Keith? Hi, it’s Vicky up front. Your sister’s here
to see you?” She looked up at me. After a moment, she
disconnected and said, “Please take a seat. He said he’s in
the middle of something, but he’ll be out in a few minutes.”
“Thank you.”
I lowered myself into one of the stiff leather chairs. I
unbuttoned my blazer, smoothed my pants, and crossed
my legs, trying not to look as uncomfortable as I felt. After
thumbing through the Wall Street Journal and USA Today in
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Stage Daughter
an effort to blend in, I pulled my BlackBerry out of my
purse. Whereas the suited man across from me was
obviously wheeling and dealing on his handheld device, I
distracted myself by re-reading the weekly updates from
Razia’s therapist (which basically told me nothing),
deleting three unread messages from Nannette, and
catching up on the deluge of emails from ORCA. The one
from early that morning grabbed my attention:
JOB POSTING: ORCA seeks assistant creative
director for High School Theatre Department.
Preference given to parent of drama student
with hands-on production experience. Apply
online
or
in-person
at
high
school
administration office.
“Sonya, sorry to keep you waiting,” Keith said when
he finally came out in a navy blue suit and pink silk tie. I
never had a problem with men wearing pink; I found it a
bold and flattering color on most men. But it didn’t quite
work with Keith’s rust-colored hair and delicate
complexion.
“I thought all the law firms had gone business casual,”
I said. “Why so dressed up?”
“I’m meeting an important client in an hour. What
about you? What are you doing here dressed to the nines?”
He led the way through the glass hallways to his office at
the far end of the floor.
“I was just out and about and thought I’d visit my
baby brother. Can’t a gal stop in and see her brother, or is
there an environmental law against that?” I laughed.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“No environmental law that I’m aware of. But maybe
there ought to be a nuisance law. I know you, Sonya. You
wouldn’t just pop in here unless you had something on
your mind. Why aren’t you at work?” He gestured me into
his office and shut the door. Without a moment’s hesitation,
he sat behind his intimidating desk like a lawyer screening
a new client, rather than taking the chair next to mine, like a
loving brother chatting with his only sister.
“How’s Marlene and the kids?” I asked, ignoring his
question.
“Everyone’s fine,” he answered.
“Since you didn’t ask, Razia’s doing better. I’ve got her
in therapy. She had a few ‘incidents’ at school, but things
seem to be improving.”
“Look, Sonya, I don’t mean to be curt. But I’ve got a
busy day. I know you didn’t come by to chat about our
kids—”
“No, I didn’t. I’ve got something important to talk to
you about.”
“I figured. Would it have anything to do with the fact
that you’re not at work?”
“Sort of.”
“So, what, did you lose your job?”
“No. But I need to quit. I can’t work there anymore.”
“Why not? Did you sleep with your boss?”
“Goddamn it, Keith! Why must you always be so
fucking judgmental!”
“Would you please watch your language when you’re
in my office?” he said.
“Sorry. But no, I did not sleep with my boss. I just need
to look for another job, okay? His practice isn’t doing well,
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and his wife has health problems. I’ll spare you the details
of his domestic drama, because everything came to a head
for me last weekend, too.”
“How so?”
“Aziz threatened to file for joint custody. He took one
of those drugstore DNA tests, and it turned out positive. I
know they’re not admissible in court, but I guess he just
wanted to erase any shred of doubt in his own mind before
moving forward with a lawsuit.”
“I see. So you decide the best time to become
unemployed is when you’re about to face a custody battle?
And what is it you expect me to do? Find you a new job?”
I gulped. “I’ve got to get my ducks in a row before I
quit. I was hoping there might be an opening here. I’ve
been doing admin for Dr. Rodriguez for the past five years.
How big of a stretch can it be to work as a legal secretary?”
“Listen, Sonya. Even if we were hiring—which we’re
not—please don’t make me spend an hour listing all the
reasons why it would be a terrible idea for you to work at
my firm.”
“Please, Keith. I need to be gainfully employed when
Aziz makes his move. I’ll do any job—even a mailroom gig
at this fancy firm would look pretty good in the court
papers.”
“Sonya, no. You aren’t qualified to work at a law firm,
and this is an extremely demanding environment. I’m
sorry, but I’m not willing to stick my neck out just so you
can name-drop during a custody suit, then screw up or quit
at the first opportunity. It’s my reputation on the line.”
“Fine. Then talk to Mom and Dad about making me a
loan. It’ll be the last time, I promise.”
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“C’mon, Sonya. Don’t put me in this position again.”
“You have to, Keith. They wouldn’t even take my calls
when I needed help paying for Razia’s therapy. I had to
take money from Aziz!”
“Then why don’t you ask him for help now?”
“Be serious, Keith. I can’t take any more coin from him,
especially when things are about to get nasty between us.
Besides, he just shelled out 350 bucks to get my car fixed.
How can I ask him to pick up my lawyer’s tab so I can fight
him in court?”
Keith sighed and leaned back in his chair, interlacing
his fingers behind his head. “How much do you need?”
“That all depends. It could take months to find another
job; five thousand or so should cover my bills for awhile.
But I’ll need another five or ten grand to get Aziz off my
back. You tell me—you’re the overpriced attorney.”
“Why are you so hell-bent on fighting him, Sonya? You
got stuck holding the bag the past twelve years. If he wants
to step up and take responsibility for his kid, why would
you object? You just said he’s paying for Razia’s shrink and
your car repair. That doesn’t sound like a man with evil
intentions.”
“Listen to you—the one who called the father of my
child a terrorist and a barbarian!”
Keith drummed his fingers. “Okay, it was wrong of me
to say that. I was under a lot of stress the night you called.”
“I know—your big hearing.”
“Not only that. Mom had a medical scare the week
before. She had a small heart attack.”
“Oh my God—why didn’t you tell me?”
“She asked me not to.”
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“Why? Does she hate me that much? Her own
daughter?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Sonya. She’s just embarrassed
about getting older and needing help. She didn’t want to
worry you. She knows you’ve got your hands full. Anyway,
it was minor, and she’s fine now. But since then, she went
in for an angiogram and a stress test on the treadmill. Dad’s
been beside himself with worry. Maybe if you picked up
the phone and called them every once in awhile, you’d
know what’s going on. They’re still your parents, you
know.”
“I’m sorry, Keith. But you know how it is with us. In
fairness, they don’t make it easy for me to reach out to
them. I’m still recovering from Mom’s rant at
Thanksgiving. Every year it’s the same thing: I go there
trying to ‘make nice,’ hoping this’ll be the year they start
acting like grandparents and toss a crumb of affection my
daughter’s way. But instead, they criticize my ‘lifestyle,’
demand to know when I’m going to ‘settle down,’ and
remind me that I need to find a ‘respectable’ father for
Razia, all while fussing over your two kids and treating my
daughter like she’s got some sort of skin-pigment disease.
They don’t even try to hide their small-minded racism—
you saw how they totally disrespected me at the table in
front of Marlene and the kids!”
“Maybe you don’t happen to ‘click’ with our parents,
and yeah, they’re disappointed by your choices, which is
why they haven’t become emotionally invested in Razia.
I’m not saying they’re right, but they’re not racist. Lots of
parents and kids don’t get along. They just want the best
for you. They always have.”
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I scoffed. “Just because they adopted a biracial child
once-upon-a-time doesn’t mean they’re not racist. The
proof is in how they’ve treated me my whole life.”
“Oh, and how is that?”
“You know perfectly well! Like a second-rate, flawed
human being they rescued from ostracism and neglect. And
they’ve demanded my undying gratitude for it my entire
life! I swear, Keith, sometimes I think if they could have
given me back once they had you, they would have. So
while I do feel awful about Mom having a heart attack,
forgive me if I don’t feel the urge to rush to her side now
that the emergency has passed, especially since she
obviously didn’t want me there when it happened.”
“Well, a little gratitude is warranted, no? They have
rescued you your entire life.”
“Then one more time shouldn’t make any difference.
Will you ask them about the loan for me, Keith? Please?
They’ll listen to you.”
“Sonya, I’d really rather not get in the middle of this. I
think you should call Mom yourself. Ask her how she’s
doing. Heaven forbid you should go over there and pay a
visit.”
“They live all the way in Los Gatos, and I don’t have
the most reliable car. It broke down just yesterday, in case
you were wondering. And besides, how’s it gonna look if I
ask about Mom’s health in one breath, and beg for a loan in
the next?”
“You see, Sonya? This is why they won’t have anything
to do with you. You never call unless you need something,
and you’re always in crisis mode! The only reason you
stopped by today is because you need money. Maybe if you
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got your life together and called every once in awhile just
because, your family might be willing to help you every now
and again.”
“You know somethin’, Keith?” I started, rising from my
chair. “I used to think you were a sellout, with your fancyass job. But I see it goes deeper than that. You know why
you’re so successful at what you do? Because it takes a
certain kind of bastard to represent big oil companies—the
same kind that kicks his own sister when she’s down!”
The phone rang. “Excuse me while you calm yourself,”
he said. “I’ve got to take this.”
While he answered his precious call, I scoured my brain
for the nastiest, sassiest ghetto rant I could come up with. If
my own brother wasn’t willing to help me out, I could at
least bring him down a peg or two. (Except I wasn’t all that
familiar with ghetto tirades, having been raised in the hills
of Los Gatos. I’d have to settle for an unoriginal,
secondhand diatribe from Def Comedy Jam.)
“We lost? You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Keith rose and
stiffened—whether bracing for my attack or from the
drama on the other end of his call, I couldn’t tell. We were
the same height, and our eyes met in a tense beeline across
the desk.
“So the EPA’s gonna make us cease and desist? . . . I
know perfectly well they’re going to be upset—as well they
should be. Chevron spent half a million bucks in legal fees
for this one. If they have to yank out all those drills, they’re
gonna lose a fortune! And fracking is the next wave.
They’ve already made a huge investment in it.”
Ugh. I’d heard about fracking on NPR driving Razzi
home from school. Oil companies were now using a process
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called “hydraulic fracturing” to release petroleum and
natural gas from the earth’s underground rock layers.
Opponents—especially the sick residents living in the
vicinity of the drills—claim the process contaminates
ground water, affects air quality, and forces gases and
hydraulic chemicals to the surface, causing adverse
environmental and health effects for miles around.
“I know,” Keith said. “Now we’ve just got to do
damage control . . . I can’t believe the homeowners actually
won. It just goes to show, you never know how things’ll
turn out once something gets to court. Well, I’m meeting
with them in half an hour; I’ll break the news. Okay, Jim.
Right. So long.”
I had a long list of expletives ready to fire off my tongue
the second Keith hung up. But instead, I took a moment to
digest what I’d just heard. Besides underscoring the
odiousness of how my brother made his living, that phone
call taught me something more important: If a bully law
firm like whatever-the-hell-it’s-called couldn’t guarantee a
win for its half-a-million-dollar client, who’s to say I’d win
a case against Aziz? I had the motherhood advantage going
for me. And, let’s face it, his Middle Eastern ethnicity
would be a strike against him. But still, going up against a
stable business owner and father of two in court would be a
crapshoot at best.
Why did Razia have to open this can of worms?
Hadn’t I been a good parent? Lord knows, I’d tried my
best, working jobs I could barely stand, volunteering with
holier-than-thou alpha moms who made my skin crawl,
sleeping on a friggin’ futon like an unwelcome houseguest
so we could live in a nice neighborhood. All in the name of
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putting my daughter’s needs first. And this is the thanks I
got?
Why was Aziz even doing this? Was it to get even for
what happened all those years ago? Or simply to mess with
me? Either way, why bother? He could have sent Razia
packing the first time she showed up and gone about living
his life—with his wife none the wiser. Instead, he’d
deliberately muscled his way into my daughter’s heart like
a schoolboy smitten by the new girl in class, turning his
marriage upside down in the process.
“I know you’re going through a rough patch,” Keith
began, “and I don’t mean to seem insensitive. But you need
to hear this: You’re forty years old, Sonya, and a single
mother besides. You can’t keep acting like some pie-eyed
starlet flirting her way through life. I don’t know whether
you hooked up with that Arab out of flightiness or
rebellion, but it makes no difference now. Your kid
deserves to see her mother act like a grownup and at least
try to get along with her father. Like Judge Judy says, ‘You
picked him.’”
“Great. My brother the hot-shot lawyer’s quoting
crappy court TV.”
“Marlene watches that show. But don’t change the
subject. You can’t expect me to keep being your go-between
with Mom and Dad while you treat your life like a role in a
bad soap opera. You need to start modeling good behavior
and thinking about the future. Your daughter’s about to
become a woman. She’s at a crucial point in her life.”
“Yeah, I know. Aziz told me the same thing.” I felt my
throat close and my eyes smart. I was facing a whole new
ball game with Razia. What had worked before wasn’t
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cutting it anymore, now that she was nearly grown and had
a mind of her own. Aziz hadn’t known her when she was a
little girl; it was easy for him to blame me for Razzi’s recent
setbacks when he hadn’t witnessed all the physical and
emotional changes she’d been going through. Let’s see how
well he did when his daughter started giving him grief!
And that was when it hit me: I wasn’t the only one who
loved my kid. Aziz truly loved his children—all of them.
True, he’d gone a bit apeshit when he met Raz, but he cared
for her now as only a parent could. How could I fault him
for recognizing what a special young lady she was and
wanting to be part of her life? Despite her recent disasters,
she was sharp as a whip, authentically offbeat, and bursting
with all kinds of potential. And for all his annoying, selfrighteous blather, Aziz had been the one person there for
me, if only because of our shared interest in Razia. Yet he
was the one I wanted to wage war against, when the real
war was raging inside myself—just as it always had.
What was I even doing here? When had I become so
petty and spiteful that it was worth crawling to my brother
for favors to annihilate the father of my child? Was it really
better to pay in spades for a loan from my parents than to
own my connection to Razia’s father and let him shoulder
some parenting responsibility?
My vision blurred, making Keith look like a creepy,
red-headed kaleidoscope. He opened his drawer and
passed me a tissue. Without realizing it, tears had been
streaming down my cheeks. “Maybe you’re right about
Aziz,” I sniffed. “But you can’t expect me to just forget the
hurtful things Mom said to me. I’m her daughter—or at
least that’s what everyone keeps telling me. She needs to
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start accepting me for who I am, not whoever she wishes I
could be!”
“Mom’s getting old, Sonya,” he said in a gentle voice.
“Whoever’s right or wrong doesn’t matter anymore. She’s
the only mom you’ve got, just like you’re the only one
Razzi’s got. How would you feel if your daughter wanted
nothing to do with you when she grows up?”
That possibility had never occurred to me, and I refused
to entertain it now. “Well, that ain’t gonna happen, Keith,
because I have never treated my daughter the way that
woman treats me!” I waited for him to offer a reassuring
word, but he kept silent. Not that it mattered—Razzi would
agree with me, wouldn’t she?
I steeled myself for a fresh wave of tears, but swallowed
them back and refused to let them come. “All the same,” I
said, squaring my shoulders, “I need to focus on what’s
best for my own kid before I start extending olive branches
to Mom. I’ve got some big decisions to make, and before I
do anything else, I’ve got to find another job!” Keith
nodded. “But in the meantime, would you send my regards
the next time you guys talk, and tell her I’ll be in touch?”
“Of course.”
“You don’t need to show me out,” I said, drawing in a
deep breath. And with that, I turned on my heel and exited
the same way I came in.
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Chapter Thirty-Nine
Go to Your Room
I sat in the crowded student center in an uncomfortable
plastic chair, balancing a clipboard on my lap. While I filled
out paperwork, Razia sat next to me, putting the finishing
touches on her latest sketch.
“Do you think I should mention the stage production I
managed back in 1998?” I asked.
“How should I know?” she snarked.
“How’s your sketch coming?”
Razia drew in an anxious breath. “It’s pretty good. But
that doesn’t mean anything. The real test is when I get in
there. I don’t even know what they’re gonna ask me to
draw! I’ll have to pull something out of my ass!”
“Razia! Please watch your language.” The commanding voice from above took those words right out of
my mouth. I looked up to see Aziz, flanked on either side
by mini-Qureshis. The boy had on a soccer uniform, and
the girl wore a leotard under a too-big Laura-Ashley dress
hanging on her body like a sack. Her mother had obviously
shortened it, because her homemade hijab was sewn from
the same floral print.
“Hi, Razia,” she said shyly.
“Hey.” Razia looked up from her sketchbook.
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“I hope you don’t mind me bringing my children,” he
said to me. “Aleyah wants to dance. When I told her that
ORCA was holding auditions today and that her big sister
was trying out for the fine arts program, she wanted to
come along. So I said we could all drop by for a few
minutes before Abdul’s soccer game to wish her luck.”
“So, it’s okay for Muslims to dance?” I asked.
“Fadwa has her misgivings,” he answered, “but there
are several different perspectives on the performing arts
that vary according to one’s personal beliefs and school of
Islamic thought. Muslims in the modern world are not a
homogenous bunch, you know.”
“So I’m discovering.”
“And you? How is the next ‘Assistant Creative
Director for High School Theatre’ doing today?” he asked,
smiling at me.
I looked him up and down and scoffed. “It’s still a long
shot, Aziz. I’m one of three finalists, but I’ve got to fill out
this lengthy application packet, pass a full background
check, and then survive the final elimination round. That’s
when they’ll pick the best candidate for the job.”
“Well, you must think positive, Sonya. And for what it
is worth, please know that I am wishing you the best.” I
looked at his eyes, trying to see if he was being fake. He
cleared his throat. “To tell you the truth, I have another
reason for stopping by,” he said. “I wanted to give you
this.” He wore a dubious expression while handing me a
large manila envelope.
“I’ll take it under advisement, Aziz, as my brother-thelawyer would say. I need to have an attorney look it over
before I can agree to anything.”
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“I understand. And that is fine. I want you to take your
time and make sure you are comfortable with the terms.
And toward that end,” he cleared his throat again, “since I
am the one seeking joint custody, I am prepared to cover
your attorney’s fees. I do not want this process to cause you
any undue financial strain.”
“What do you think of this, Dad?” Razzi interrupted,
showing him her sketch (which she’d kept hidden from me
all morning). His face first registered surprise, and then
embarrassment. I craned my neck and nearly fell off my
chair when I took in Razia’s rendering of a woman standing
in a doorway wearing nothing but a man’s shirt, completely
open down the front. She hadn’t drawn nipples; just halfexposed, melon-perfect breasts above a washboard
abdomen. Raz had managed to conceal the woman’s pubic
area by fashioning her in a coquettish pose, with one knee
crossed over the other leg. It was tasteful, yet highly
suggestive.
“Razia!” I scolded, but Aziz just looked her dead in the
eyes and burst out laughing.
“It is fabulous, my love. You are a shoo-in for the art
program. I am so proud of you,” he said, hugging her
around the shoulder and kissing the top of her head. “And
to wish you good luck, I brought you something.”
“Not another hijab, I hope,” Razia grumbled, eyeing
him suspiciously.
“No,” Aziz answered, pulling a small box from his
pocket. “Just a little gift I hope will serve to remind you of
who you are.”
She opened the box; I gasped when I saw pearl
earrings in a beautiful half-gold, half-silver teardrop setting
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with a diamond accent on top. But pearls, for my tomboy?
What could Aziz possibly have been thinking?
“You remember what I told you?” he asked.
She nodded. “This is beautiful, Dad. Thank you.” She
squirmed in her seat, then rose to hug him. A look of relief
covered Aziz’s face as he took Razia in his arms. Turning to
me, she asked, “Can I keep them, Mom? I can wear them in
my second holes. They’ve healed completely—look.” She
took out one post and twisted her earlobe for me to see.
I still hadn’t forgiven Razia for her savage selfmutilation. But at least pearls would look nicer than those
hideous skulls she’d been wearing. “They don’t really work
with the dreadlocks,” I said, looking skeptically at Aziz.
Razia removed the other skull earring and inserted the
pearls into her earlobes above the small gold hoops I’d
given her two years ago for Christmas.
“I know,” Razia answered, sitting down. “Actually,
I’ve been thinking of cutting them off anyhow. I’m getting
tired of ‘em,” she shrugged, smiling at Aziz. I didn’t know
what secret meaning those gems held for the two of them,
but his peace offering seemed to transform my daughter
from surly child into poised young woman before my very
eyes—and remind me that I needed to let Razia become the
person she was meant to be, and not a poor substitute for
my own failed dreams.
“Hey, Dad, check out the kids singing over there,”
Abdul interrupted, pointing at three boys practicing their
act. Two of them were harmonizing while the third rapped
on top.
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Sheryl Sorrentino
Aziz turned to look in their direction. A small group
had begun forming around them. “I must say, they are
quite talented,” Aziz said.
“Can I go watch?” Abdul asked.
“Yes, but please behave yourself. Aleyah, go with your
brother and keep an eye on him.” He gave them each a little
pat before taking the empty seat next to Raz.
I spotted Nannette clutching a mixed bouquet, making
her way through the thick crowd of hover-parents and
auditionees. Next thing I knew, she was standing before us,
flowers in arms. I hoped she wasn’t about to embarrass me
by trying to “make up” in front of Aziz. She hesitated a
split second before handing over the flowers—to Raz!
“I’m so glad I caught you before your name got called,
sweetie! Keshia told me you were auditioning today, so I
wanted to bring you these, to wish you luck.” She leaned
down and pecked Razia on the cheek.
“What do you say, young lady?” Aziz immediately
admonished.
“I know!” she barked back. “You didn’t give me a
chance. Thank you, Nannette.”
Aziz eyed Nannette suspiciously but gave her a
grudging nod. She stood up a bit straighter. “And how
have you been, Sonya?” she asked in a prim and proper
voice, raising her eyebrow and tilting her head in Aziz’s
direction.
“Pretty good, all things considered. I’m applying for
the high school assistant creative director position. I’ve
already had my interview, and it went really well. I’m on
the ‘short list.’ But they gave me this horrendous follow-up
packet so they can probe me every which way from
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Sunday. I’ve got to list every place I’ve ever worked in my
life.”
“That’s wonderful. So what happened with the
chiropractor?” she asked.
“I’m still working there, but I’ve already given my
notice. Dr. Rodriguez had some personal setbacks and will
be closing his practice by the summer. He’s moving his wife
into a home in Phoenix and relocating so he can be near
her. He knows I’m just sticking around until I can find
another job. But it was time for me to move on, anyway.
Things just got too awkward between us after—” I stopped
myself, remembering who I was talking to, and who was
listening. Why in the world did I still find it so easy to spill
my guts to this woman at the drop of a hat?
“I can’t believe you actually want to work at my
school!” Razia groused.
“I haven’t gotten the job yet, Miss Razzmatazz. And
besides, it’s in the high school. You’ll never even see me.”
“Until I get to high school!” she protested.
“You should be encouraging your mother,” Aziz
jumped in. “I think it is wonderful that she is trying to find
work that she will enjoy. The best move I ever made was
opening my first yoga studio. And even though my uncle
had to sell his business anyway, my family did not approve
of my decision at the time. But I needed to follow my heart
and do what I loved. As for you,” he added, “if you do not
wish to see your mother during the school day, you should
be focusing all your energy and attentions on acing your
audition so you can get into the fine arts program. Would
you like me to say a prayer to Allah on your behalf before
they call your name?”
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Sheryl Sorrentino
“Dad, no! Please don’t—you’ll embarrass me.”
Aziz looked hurt for a moment, then said, “Very well.
How about I take you through a generic meditation
instead?”
“Um, I dunno. It’s kind of noisy in here.”
“When one meditates, you must tune out all the
distractions of the outside world. That is the beauty of it.
What do you say? Shall we give it a whirl?” He held out his
hand and closed his eyes. I gave Razzi a nod.
“Oh, all right.” She took his hand and closed her eyes,
too. Aziz started speaking over the din of conversation,
kids tuning instruments, and the doo-wops and beep-bops
coming from the opposite end of the student center. As
soon as Aziz began his mesmerizing chant, students and
parents in our midst began looking on in curiosity. (It was a
good thing Razia had her eyes shut!)
“I call this meditation, ‘Go to Your Room,’ and it works
for all belief systems. It is a visualization exercise for
communicating with your subconscious mind, your higher
power, your spiritual guides—call it whatever makes you
feel most comfortable. Keep your eyes closed and relax.
Imagine you are walking into an elevator and the doors
close. You are on the twenty-first floor, and you are on your
way down.”
The twenty-first floor? Was it mere coincidence that’s
where I’d had my own epiphany two weeks ago butting
heads with Keith?
“See the numbered display above the elevator doors,”
he continued, “and notice that the light for the twenty-first
floor is lit. Now you are going down the elevator, and you
see the light for the twentieth floor turn on. Breathe deeply
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in between floors. Next you see ‘nineteen,’ and so on. Feel
the motion of the elevator as you descend, see the
numbered lights counting down, and count them in your
mind as you breathe deeply once or twice in between
floors. When you reach the first floor, the doors open. Step
out.
“Now you see a staircase, going down. There are
exactly twenty-one steps. Imagine yourself walking down
the staircase, but pause for a moment on each step. Take a
deep breath before stepping down to the next one. Count in
your mind, and really feel yourself walking down the
stairs. When you reach ‘one,’ you are at the bottom of the
staircase.” He took a deep breath and paused.
“Now you see a door slightly ajar. Walk up to it, open
it, and see a brightly lit corridor with dozens of closed
doors along the way. A guardian is standing there. Ask him
or her to be led to ‘your room.’ Imagine you are being
guided down the corridor to your special room.
“Open the door and step inside. What you see in your
room is your future—entirely as you envision it. Explore
the room and take note of what you see in there. Are the
judges at this school wild with enthusiasm over your
audition sketch? Is your artwork on display at a famous
gallery? Whatever you see is fine. Just take note of it.”
I looked up at Nannette, standing awkwardly not
knowing what to do with herself. She probably wanted to
leave, but she couldn’t without interrupting Aziz’s
meditation. I wondered what she thought of our whole
crazy scene. But who cared? Who the hell is she, besides a big
poser? She’s as bad as my mom, some misguided do-gooder with
her adopted Black kid and her social worker ex-girlfriend. She’s
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Sheryl Sorrentino
just a big butt-insky, always sticking her nose where it doesn’t
belong. What was she thinking, showing up here with flowers for
my daughter? Like she means anything to us.
All these stupid thoughts whirled around my head,
along with the soothing sound of Aziz’s voice. I met
Nannette’s eyes and in that instant saw how scared I was. It
was rather ironic, how I’d been afraid to love my whole life,
and the first time someone came along who actually
understood me—deeply and patiently—it had to be another
woman! I suddenly saw my reflexive mental chatter for
what it was: A way to drown out my feelings for her,
feelings that had taken hold of my heart practically the first
day we’d met.
“Find a place to sit down and ask to speak to your
higher self,” Aziz continued, “or even your spirit guides.
See who shows up. Have a conversation with them and ask
them what they would like for you to know. Then listen.
When you are through, thank them and exit your room. Be
sure to close the door behind you. Backtrack your way to
the staircase and climb it, counting up from one to twentyone. Then step into the elevator and do the same, count up
from one to twenty-one and step out. Now let’s keep your
eyes closed a few more minutes, and really take in how it
felt to see your future in your very special room.”
What a character, that Aziz! A few short weeks ago, I
hated his guts. And now, here he sat, meditating with our
daughter, calming her—and me—before her big audition. I
took her free hand and tried to visualize my own future,
working with kids at this school and helping them achieve
their dreams. A smile came over my face. Just a small one,
but Nannette noticed.
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With Aziz’s and Razzi’s eyes still safely closed and the
three of us silently connected by conjoined palms, Nannette
extended a tentative hand. After a moment’s pause, I took
it. I felt Nannette’s cool fingers between mine. A nowfamiliar sensation of comfort and ease washed over me. I
didn’t even care that Aziz had by now opened his eyes.
“Hey, look over there!” a girl tuning a violin called out.
I turned toward the window facing out onto the street.
Even under the hoodie, I recognized Korey, shaking a can
of black spray paint.
“That vandal’s gonna spray graffiti on the plate glass,”
her father clucked. “What a shame.”
A small crowd assembled to watch. We held our
collective breath, awaiting whatever expletive or obscenity
would eventually emerge when he was done leaving his
mark.
It was over in a minute. Korey popped the cover on his
can and stepped back to admire his handiwork—a highly
embellished, two-foot-tall relief of graffiti-on-glass (scrolled
in reverse so it could be read from the inside):
RAZIA R♥
♥CKS!!
(I’M ROOTING 4 U!!)
XXXXXX
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Sheryl Sorrentino
I couldn’t speak for Aziz, but despite Korey having so
brazenly defaced school property, his message melted the
hearts of at least a dozen parents and kids like ice cubes on
a hot day, Razia’s and mine included. He jutted his chin
and mouthed “good luck” to Razzi before stuffing the can
in his jacket pocket and bowing for his audience. Then he
gave her a quick two-thumbs-up and took off down the
block as though his life depended on it.
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BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION GUIDE
1. In the Chapter Two, Razia accuses her mother of
being a lesbian. When do you think Sonya first
begins to question and ultimately accept her own
sexuality?
2. Sonya is leery of Aziz throughout this saga. She
fears he might harm Razia and is threatened by him
wanting to spend time with Raz. How much of her
concern do you attribute to protective parenting
and how much to the fact that Aziz is Muslim? Did
you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with
Sonya’s reservations about Aziz? Were you
suspicious of his motives?
3. The morning after Razia locates Aziz, Sonya
lectures her about the inherent differences between
men and women, claiming that acting like a father
is “optional” for men, whereas women have a
mandatory biological imperative to behave like
mothers to their children. Do you agree with her?
4. Is Razia “troubled,” as Aziz asserts? Or does she
have “typical twelve-year-old issues,” as Sonya
claims?
5. When Razia allows herself to be choked by a boy,
Aziz accuses Sonya of being a “fucked-up single
parent.” He also labels her at various times
“abusive,” “incompetent,” “careless,” and “imprudent.” Are his accusations valid? In what ways
is Sonya a good mother? A bad one?
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6. Was Aziz right or wrong to pay the school $1,000 to
keep Razia from getting expelled? Why?
7. Aziz asserts that Sonya withheld information that
he was about to become a father in order to punish
him and maintain control over their child (rather
than the selfless motivations she professes). Was
Sonya wrong not to tell Aziz he had a daughter? Do
you agree or disagree with her reasons? Do you
believe them?
8. Sonya is clearly an angry and resentful woman
whose closest relationships are largely antagonistic.
Why do you think this is? What is she most angry
about? How do you think Sonya’s being biracial
and/or adopted affected her interpretation of the
people and events in her life?
9. Aziz clearly places a high priority on being a good
father and a good Muslim. And yet he cheats on his
wife and lies to her. Were you able to reconcile
these ethical anomalies? Why or why not?
10. Is Aziz unhappy in his marriage? Do you think he
regrets foregoing a chance to marry for romantic
love in favor of the stability (and banality) of a
traditional arranged marriage? If so, is he justified
in compensating for that lack of passion by seeking
it elsewhere?
11. Sonya and Aziz are both attractive individuals. In
the past, Sonya has utilized her looks to best
advantage in her dealings with men. How has
Aziz’s attractiveness impacted his life? Do you
agree that good-looking people are treated more
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Stage Daughter
12.
13.
14.
15.
16.
17.
18.
favorably than average-looking or unattractive
ones? In what ways?
How does Sonya and Aziz’s relationship change as
the story progresses? How about the relationship
between Aziz and Razia?
Both Aziz and Fadwa accuse Sonya of “seducing”
him. Did Sonya cross a line by pursuing Aziz over
his supposed objections? If so, how does that line
differ for men and women—if at all? Does the fact
that Aziz is Muslim make Sonya’s actions more or
less blameworthy? What about Aziz’s responses?
In Chapter Seventeen, Aziz remarks that Sonya
“chose” him to father her child. What does he mean
by this, and do you agree with his statement?
Aziz feels no trepidation about introducing Razia to
Islam over Sonya’s objections. While he later comes
to acknowledge that Sonya is entitled to “live her
life as she sees fit,” he also believes that, as Razia’s
father, he is “equally entitled to set a different
example for her.” Do you agree or disagree with his
logic?
Aziz believes that “Allah keeps no secrets from us,
if we only open our eyes.” In what ways might you
have turned a blind eye to things that needed
attention in your life?
Sonya believes that her adoptive parents are racist.
Do you agree? Why or why not?
Sonya is the “black sheep” in her Jewish family
because she bore an Arab man’s child out of
wedlock. Does her parents’ disappointment in this
and her other life choices justify them keeping their
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Sheryl Sorrentino
distance from their daughter? Why else do you
suppose the Schoenbergs might have chosen not to
be supportive grandparents to Razia?
19. In Chapter Thirty-Seven, Fadwa gives a rather
impassioned speech in which she recognizes Aziz
as “a good husband and father;” acknowledges that
he loves her “in his way;” and concedes that, as her
husband, he is entitled to her “loyalty and forgiveness.” Do you agree? At the same time, she makes
clear that, since Aziz does not love her the way she
craves, her affection will not be forthcoming in the
future. How do you think Fadwa wants to be loved
by Aziz? What did she mean when she accused him
of “embracing” the consequences of his cheating
and “enjoying what his infidelity has wrought”?
Was her decision to remain married to Aziz driven
by religious conviction, financial necessity,
pragmatism, or something else entirely?
20. At the end of the story, Sonya and Razia each seem
to get a second chance at a previously failed
relationship (Sonya with Nannette, and Razia with
Korey). What do you suppose becomes of Aziz’s
marriage to Fadwa? Do you think he is able to win
back her heart? Does he continue to cheat?
21. The last chapter of Stage Daughter finds all three
main characters pursuing a personal or professional
objective. Do you think all of them achieve their
goals? Why or why not?
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sheryl Sorrentino is the author of three earlier works: Later with
Myself: The Misadventures of Millie Moskowitz; An
Unexpected Exile; and The Floater. A practicing attorney by
day, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband
and daughter. You can learn more about her by visiting her
website (http://www.sherylsorrentino.com), her Facebook page
(http://www.facebook.com//sheryl.sorrentino), or her Goodreads blog (http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5047869.
Sheryl_Sorrentino/blog). Sheryl welcomes reader questions,
feedback, and reviews, and is available for readings, book club
appearances, and interviews.