Home > A Very Large Expanse of Sea

A Very Large Expanse of Sea
Author: Tahereh Mafi



We always seemed to be moving, always for the better, always to make our lives better, whatever. I couldn’t keep up with the emotional whiplash. I’d attended so many elementary schools and middle schools I couldn’t keep their names straight anymore but this, this switching high schools all the time thing was really starting to make me want to die. This was my third high school in less than two years and my life seemed suddenly to comprise such a jumble of bullshit every day that sometimes I could hardly move my lips. I worried that if I spoke or screamed my anger would grip both sides of my open mouth and rip me in half.

So I said nothing.

It was the end of August, all volatile heat and the occasional breeze. I was surrounded by starched backpacks and stiff denim and kids who smelled like fresh plastic. They seemed happy.

I sighed and slammed my locker shut.

For me, today was just another first day of school in another new city, so I did what I always did when I showed up at a new school: I didn’t look at people. People were always looking at me, and when I looked back they often took it as an invitation to speak to me, and when they spoke to me they nearly always said something offensive or stupid or both and I’d decided a long time ago that it was easier to pretend they just didn’t exist.

I’d managed to survive the first three classes of the day without major incident, but I was still struggling to navigate the school itself. My next class seemed to be on the other side of campus, and I was trying to figure out where I was—cross-checking room numbers against my new class schedule—when the final bell rang. In the time it took my stunned self to glance up at the clock, the masses of students around me had disappeared. I was suddenly alone in a long, empty hallway, my printed schedule now crumpled in one fist. I squeezed my eyes shut and swore under my breath.

When I finally found my next class I was seven minutes late. I pushed open the door, the hinges slightly squeaking, and students turned around in their seats. The teacher stopped talking, his mouth still caught around a sound, his face frozen between expressions.

He blinked at me.

I averted my eyes, even as I felt the room contract around me. I slid into the nearest empty seat and said nothing. I took a notebook out of my bag. Grabbed a pen. I was hardly breathing, waiting for the moment to pass, waiting for people to turn away, waiting for my teacher to start talking again when he suddenly cleared his throat and said—

“Anyway, as I was saying: our syllabus includes quite a bit of required reading, and those of you who are new here”—he hesitated, glanced at the roster in his hands—“might be unaccustomed to our school’s intense and, ah, highly demanding curriculum.” He stopped. Hesitated again. Squinted at the paper in his hands.

And then, as if out of nowhere, he said, “Now—forgive me if I’m saying this incorrectly—but is it—Sharon?” He looked up, looked me directly in the eye.

I said, “It’s Shirin.”

Students turned to look at me again.

“Ah.” My teacher, Mr. Webber, didn’t try to pronounce my name again. “Welcome.”

I didn’t answer him.

“So.” He smiled. “You understand that this is an honors English class.”

I hesitated. I wasn’t sure what he was expecting me to say to such an obvious statement. Finally, I said, “Yes?”

He nodded, then laughed, and said, “Sweetheart, I think you might be in the wrong class.”

I wanted to tell him not to call me sweetheart. I wanted to tell him not to talk to me, ever, as a general rule. Instead, I said, “I’m in the right class,” and held up my crumpled schedule.

Mr. Webber shook his head, even as he kept smiling. “Don’t worry—this isn’t your fault. It happens sometimes with new students. But the ESL office is actually just down the—”

“I’m in the right class, okay?” I said the words more forcefully than I’d intended. “I’m in the right class.”

This shit was always happening to me.

It didn’t matter how unaccented my English was. It didn’t matter that I told people, over and over again, that I was born here, in America, that English was my first language, that my cousins in Iran made fun of me for speaking mediocre Farsi with an American accent—it didn’t matter. Everyone assumed I was fresh off the boat from a foreign land.

Mr. Webber’s smile faltered. “Oh,” he said. “Okay.”

The kids around me started laughing and I felt my face getting hot. I looked down and opened my blank notebook to a random page, hoping the action would inspire an end to the conversation.

Instead, Mr. Webber held up his hands and said, “Listen—me, personally? I want you to stay, okay? But this is a really advanced class, and even though I’m sure your English is really good, it’s still—”

“My English,” I said, “isn’t really good. My English is fucking perfect.”

I spent the rest of the hour in the principal’s office.

I was given a stern talking-to about the kind of behavior expected of students at this school and warned that, if I was going to be deliberately hostile and uncooperative, maybe this wasn’t the school for me. And then I was given detention for using vulgar language in class. The lunch bell rang while the principal was yelling at me, so when he finally let me go I grabbed my things and bolted.

I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere; I was only looking forward to being away from people. I had two more classes to get through after lunch but I wasn’t sure my head could take it; I’d already surpassed my threshold for stupidity for the day.

I was balancing my lunch tray on my lap in a bathroom stall, my head in a viselike grip between my hands, when my phone buzzed. It was my brother.

what are you doing?

eating lunch

bullshit. where are you hiding?

in the bathroom

what? why?

what else am i supposed to do for 37 minutes? stare at people?

And then he told me to get the hell out of the bathroom and come have lunch with him, apparently the school had already sent out a welcome wagon full of brand-new friends in celebration of his pretty face, and I should join him instead of hiding.

no thanks, I typed.

And then I threw my lunch in the trash and hid in the library until the bell rang.

My brother is two years older than me; we’d almost always been in the same school at the same time. But he didn’t hate moving like I did; he didn’t always suffer when we got to a new city. There were two big differences between me and my brother: first, that he was extremely handsome, and second, that he didn’t walk around wearing a metaphorical neon sign nailed to his forehead flashing CAUTION, TERRORIST APPROACHING.

I shit you not, girls lined up to show my brother around the school. He was the good-looking new guy. The interesting boy with an interesting past and an interesting name. The handsome exotic boy all these pretty girls would inevitably use to satisfy their need to experiment and one day rebel against their parents. I’d learned the hard way that I couldn’t eat lunch with him and his friends. Every time I showed up, tail between my legs and my pride in the trash, it took all of five seconds for me to realize that the only reason his new lady friends were being nice to me was because they wanted to use me to get to my brother.

I’d rather eat in the toilet.

I told myself I didn’t care, but obviously I did. I had to. The news cycle never let me breathe anymore. 9/11 happened last fall, two weeks into my freshman year, and a couple of weeks later two dudes attacked me while I was walking home from school and the worst part—the worst part—was that it took me days to shake off the denial; it took me days to fathom the why. I kept hoping the explanation would turn out to be more complex, that there’d turn out to be more than pure, blind hatred to motivate their actions. I wanted there to be some other reason why two strangers would follow me home, some other reason why they’d yank my scarf off my head and try to choke me with it. I didn’t understand how anyone could be so violently angry with me for something I hadn’t done, so much so that they’d feel justified in assaulting me in broad daylight as I walked down the street.

I didn’t want to understand it.

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