And when he asks me what my plans are — what’s a girl my age doing so far away from home? — I tell him about my college plans, and he leans back in his seat with this slow smile on his face (I should have seen this coming).
Engineering is too hard for a woman, he tells me, and the gleaming teeth of his smile are meant to be helpful, I know, fatherly (I want to spit in his face and shake him, tell him You Are Part Of The Problem, tell him about the countless girls I’ve met in life who aspire to nothing because of men like him. I don’t). So I raise an eyebrow and say excuse me and his explanation isn’t an excuse because his ignorance is tangible and I grit my teeth — this is my job and I can’t be insulting (and I feel violently sick, suddenly, because I’m unable to defend myself — I know too little; he’s an electrical engineer, I’m a student out of high school).
(How dare he turn his education into a weapon.)
I’m a nineteen year old girl, and I stand in the sun for hours after (his words are searing in my brain — the first out of many, I predict. I’ve heard what they say to women like me; women who dare aspire to more) trying to stay hydrated, checking my watch. Summer is asphyxiating.
They are a small Muslim family, Arabs from the village nearby. The mother nods amiably when I tell her the rules and proceeds to break them immediately — her daughters laugh (I want to smile. I don’t). I take a swig of water and watch the people file out, tourists with casual eyes, no longer easily impressed, people who reply to a hello with a hard stare that lasts just one second too long.
The women approach me soon after, just before they leave. The mother is laughing, and the eldest daughter asks me my name. I tell her — she laughs. She has large shining eyes and a smile that transforms her entire face; her hijab is tight around her head, her body shrouded — in my short-sleeved shirt, I burn and blister in the heat. She laughs. Her name rhymes with mine.
The mother asks me what my plans are — what’s a girl my age doing so far away from home? — and I tell them about my college plans. The mother smiles and turns expectant to her eldest daughter; her smile widens even more. I’m going to study civil engineering, she tells me.
(Over her shoulder, I glimpse a couple posing for their wedding photographs. The bride is my age, if not younger — the groom must be approaching fifty. Her smile is exquisitely painted violent red, like a painting more real than the canvas. Their eyes never meet.)
I look at the girl and smile. She takes a picture of us together, our arms around each other. We’re the same height, and she smiles with her eyes as well as her lips as they leave; her younger sister shouting my name as if we’ve been childhood friends.
(I forget her name soon after. I don’t forget her smile.)
(She was nineteen years old, too.)