SHARIF: I was just leaving my Third Period class when I heard my name on the school P.A. system.
“Sharif Darwish! Sharif Darwish! Please come to the school office!”
One of the school bullies shoved me against a nearby wall and said in my ear, “I figured they'd catch up to a Moslem like you someday. They should've deported you and your parents after 9/11 happened. If I were you, Sharif, I wouldn't try to wiggle out of whatever you did wrong this time. Because if you do, you'll have me to deal with. Get me?”
I freed myself from him and said, “You can't scare me, Glen. And I'm not in trouble.”
“Oh yeah?” he said. “So why are they asking you to go to the school office?”
I shrugged. “I won't know until I get there. Unless you want to explain why I was late, I'd better get going.”
He fumed but knew I right. Try to stop me and he'd get blamed (and maybe have to do detention after school again). I heard him yell (a little too late), “Just watch your butt, Darwish! I'm onto you!”
I didn't answer. He wouldn't have heard by then anyway. I was too far away.
I reached the school office a little out of breath. I started to apologize for being late when the secretary interrupted. For a moment, I wondered if Glen was right after all.
“You aren't in trouble, Sharif,” she said. “In fact, this doesn't have to do with you.”
“Oh?” I said. “Who, then?”
“Bethany Margolis,” she said. “Friend of yours? Because she mentioned you by name.”
“We just met yesterday,” I said. “She didn't also tell me her last name. Just her first name.” I looked around. “Where is she?”
“Nurse's office,” she said. “I'll let your Fourth Period teacher know where you are.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Mr. Gregorian probably won't mind that I might have to miss his class, but I'm glad he'll know where I'll be.”
When I arrived at the nurse's office, the nurse was just coming out of the examination room. I couldn't see who else was there. Just the lower half of a pair of jeans and a pair of sneakers. The nurse was about to shut the door when she saw me.
“Hi, I'm Sharif Darwish,” I said. “I was told to come here. Is Bethany sick or something?”
The nurse shook her head. “You'll see.” She opened the door for me.
Bethany was lying on the room's only bed, holding a bag of ice wrapped in a washcloth against her left eye. She looked half-relieved and half-defensive when she saw me.
“Hi, Sharif,” she said. “Please don't get mad at me or tell me I shouldn't have.”
“I have no intention of doing either, Bethany, until I know what happened,” I said. I sat down in the chair the nurse must've been sitting in. It was still a little warm. “Is this why I didn't see you in the cafeteria after Third Period?”
She nodded. “I shouldn't have belted her one. But she hit me first, so I thought I had every right to punch her in return.”
“Punch who?” I asked. “Why don't you start at the beginning rather than in the middle?”
She sighed. “Okay. Here goes.”
BETHANY: He should be here by now. His classroom isn't much further away than mine is. Sharif, where are you? Come on. You agreed to this meeting. Don't get cold feet. Please don't.
One of the bigger girls -- big shoulders, big arms, really muscular -- plopped down across from me, right where I wanted Sharif to sit. “What's wrong, Bethany?” she asked. “Your Moslem boyfriend too scared to sit here? Doesn't he like Jewish girls?”
I made a face. “Back off, Tanya. What he likes or doesn't like is none of your business.“
She smiled, but not in a nice way. “Oh really? Maybe I should tell your parents about him.”
“Don't bother,” I said. “They already know.”
“And they're okay with it?” she asked.
“You're a lousy liar, Bethany,” Tanya said. “And I bet his parents aren't okay with it, either.”
“Leave us alone,” I said.
“Or what?” she asked. “Little Bethany will threaten me? With what? Those skinny hands and feet? Right. Oh sure. Want to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge while you're at it?”
I looked over at the cafeteria monitors' table. One of them was looking in our direction.
“You might want to keep it down,” I suggested, even though the buzz from the other tables probably covered most of what Tanya said.
“What if I don't want to?” Tanya demanded. “What is little ol' Bethany gonna do? Scare me? Ha!”
The monitor was walking toward our table.
“Good going,” I said. “Now we're both going to be in trouble. Something you're probably quite familiar with.”
Tanya snarled, stood up, came around the end of the table and grabbed me by the arm. “If you think anyone is going to protect you from what's coming to you, you can forget it.”
The monitor reached our table and spoke in a low voice, “If I were you, I'd let go of her, Ms. Miller. Unless you'd rather end up in after-school detention again or -- worse -- risk getting suspended again.”
“She started it,” Tanya complained.
“From what I could see, you started it,” the monitor said. “Why don't you just leave the cafeteria and I'll pretend this never happened?”
It almost looked like Tanya was going to do it, but then her facial expression changed.
“And if I don't want to?” Tanya asked.
The monitor put one hand on Tanya's left shoulder. “Don't do this.”
Tanya jerked her shoulder away from the monitor. “You wusses don't scare me. If you had any backbone, you would've expelled me a long time ago. But you don't have what it takes to do it.”
“Don't be so sure,” the monitor told her. “This could be the time when it actually happens.”
“Oh, I'm so scared,” Tanya mocked, then sneered. “Prove it.”
I stood up. “Tanya, you're making a big mistake.”
“I am?” Tanya asked me. “I'm so sick and tired of this. Fine. I can take on both of you. Come on. Let's see what you're both made of.” She balled her hands into fists and held them in front of her chest. “That is, if you aren't just going to run away from me.”
No, this wasn't going to end well. I guess I should've seen it coming long before now. I tried diplomacy. A word that apparently was missing in Tanya's personal vocabulary.
I glanced back at the monitors' table. It was empty. The other monitors seemed to be heading our way. The usual cafeteria conversation buzz suddenly went silent. Plenty of eyes were looking at us and not just the monitor's.
Tanya threw one fist at the monitor's face. She narrowly missed it. I tried to hold Tanya's other arm with my right arm and keep it away from the monitor. Tanya grabbed my right forearm and at the same time tried to kick the monitor in the shins. The monitor grunted but didn't retreat.
The other students quickly got up from their tables and backed as far away as they could. Some students took the chance and fled from the cafeteria. As they did so, some of the monitors guided the rest of the students to the cafeteria doors. The rest of the monitors hurried over to us.
“There's still time to stop,” the monitor told Tanya. “Stop now and you probably won't get expelled.”
“It's a little too late for pleas,” the latter said, and spoke to me. “As for you, pipsqueak.” She punched me in the left eye before I could block her. It really hurt. I punched her stomach, but it felt like stone.
“Apparently,” the monitor said and put hand and arm around Tanya's neck. Not to injure Tanya but still hoping to stop her. “You always did prefer violence over thinking.”
Tanya tried to butt her head backwards, but found she couldn't. I watched one of the monitors go behind Tanya and crouch on the floor. One of the other monitors distracted Tanya, while another monitor pushed Tanya backward. It seemed absurdly simple. Too simple to work, but work it did.
Tanya landed on her back, almost dragging the monitor behind her down with her. The other monitors pinned Tanya's arms and legs to the floor.
One of the monitors not involved in the fight put a wet washcloth on my left eye. “Hold it there. I'll tell the school nurse to expect a patient.”
Then I remembered Sharif. “I was supposed to meet a friend here for lunch.”
“Student's name?” the monitor asked.
“Sharif Darwish,” I said.
“We'll find him for you and send him to the nurse's office,” the monitor said. They picked up my backpack and escorted me out of the cafeteria.
The rest of the lunchtime students parted so that we could walk between them.
When we reached the nurse's office, the nurse took over and showed me into the examination room.
“Lie down on the bed,” she said and went to get something. She returned with a bag of ice wrapped in a washcloth. She handed it to me and I gave her the wet washcloth.
The monitor placed my backpack near the bed and wished me well. They and the nurse glanced at each other and the nurse nodded. The monitor quickly left. Heading back to the cafeteria or to the school office? Did it really matter right then? Probably not.
The nurse and I both heard over the school P.A. system, “Sharif Darwish! Sharif Darwish! Please come to the school office!”
“He should be here soon, dear,” the nurse told me.
I nodded. “I'm sorry for being so much trouble.” I could only imagine what my parents would think when they saw my black eye. Disapproving, probably. They didn't approve of violence.
“No trouble at all, dear,” the nurse said. “From what I understand, it wasn't your fault. Tanya has always had trouble controlling her temper. This time wasn't any different, unfortunately for her.”
“Think she'll get expelled this time?” I asked.
The nurse sighed. “Probably. She's already been suspended three times. Some people just never learn from their mistakes. Even when they have the 'No Child Left Behind' law to protect them.”
“What about her parents?” I asked.
“They'll have to be told, of course,” the nurse said. “But don't you worry about any of that, Bethany. Let the school office take care of it. You just get better, okay?”
Soon after, we both heard someone enter the outer office.
“Looks like your friend is here,” the nurse said. “I'll get you something to drink.” She left the examination room.
SHARIF: I wasn't used to this sort of thing. Not at this school, anyway. I tried to remember what it was like at the school in Beirut. It hadn't all been bad there, nor had it all been good.
“If only it hadn't cost you a black eye, Bethany,” I said.
“You mean it wasn't worth it?” she asked.
The nurse returned with a styrofoam cup of soda. Cola? Ginger ale? Root beer?
The nurse turned to Bethany. “I've told your teacher. She and the principal both agreed that you could go home early if you want to. The same goes for you, Sharif.”
“Don't skip the rest of the day just because of me,” Bethany told me and sipped from her cup.
“Even if I think it was worth it?” I asked and smiled.
“You like me,” she said.
“And you like me,” I said, “or else you wouldn't have stood up for me in the cafeteria. By the way, Tanya looks worse than you do. Remind me not to pick a fight with you.”
She didn't look happy, though. “I wish she hadn't forced it. She could've backed out almost immediately and been allowed to stay in school. Detention after-school for a month probably, but no suspension or expulsion.”
“Maybe people like her can't back out,” I suggested. “Once they get the ball rolling, sometimes it's really hard to put on the brakes or jump out of the way. I had a friend back in West Beirut that reminds me a little of Tanya. It was when I was still short of five feet tall. Some of the kids would make fun of my short height, saying that I'd never reach my full height. I'd be like a midget. They'd laugh. But I got the last laugh.”
“You did?” Bethany asked.
I nodded. “I grew four inches when I was fourteen and another four inches when I was fifteen. You should've seen the looks on their faces when that happened. They didn't pick on me much after that.”
“Were you happy when your parents said your family was moving to America?” she asked.
“Sort of,” I said. “I'd read about America in books. I'd taken English as a foreign language. I'd watched American movies and TV shows dubbed in Arabic or French. But even then it was nothing like the real thing when we arrived at the airport in New York City. So many people. So many tall buildings. I was almost afraid that all of America was like that. Thankfully it isn't.”
“What about us, though?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“What if our parents try to keep us apart?” Bethany asked. “Especially if we become more than just friends.”
“We live in America now,” I said. “There are different rules here.”
“Law-wise, yes,” she said. “But culturally? Our parents grew up in the Near East, not here. Maybe it's not as strict in Lebanon, but in Israel, I don't think any of the Jews would let me be with you. At least my parents aren't ultra-orthodox. What about yours?”
“They still go to the mosque every Friday at five p.m.,” I said. “They also pray every day.”
“That's religion,” she said. “What about relationships?”
“They weren't happy to learn that I'd met you,” I said. “Especially my father. His grandfather told him what it was like during the war in Lebanon in the 1970s. That, probably more than anything else, convinced him that no child of his would ever have a relationship with someone who wasn't a Muslim. And yet I have.”
“Would you end it if he asked you to?” Bethany asked me.
The nurse returned. “Sharif? Your mother is in the school office. She said that she'll take you both home.”
“What about my parents?” Bethany asked the nurse.
“They'll be at home when you get there,” the latter said.
“Were they mad when you called them?” she asked the nurse.
The latter shook her head. “They're concerned for you, Bethany. As for the rest, you should discuss it with them.”
Bethany nodded unhappily.
“Concentrate on healing,” the nurse went on. “Return to school when you feel ready to. Do you need any help getting to the school office?”
Bethany glanced at me and shook her head at the nurse. “I think I'll be okay.”
The entire way home, my mother said nothing. In my family, sometimes silence is worse than a storm. I wondered if it was like that in Bethany's family.
We stopped at her house first. Her parents were standing on the front porch, waiting for her. I couldn't tell if they were happy or not.
Before I helped Bethany out of the backseat of the car, my mother turned to me and said, “Sharif, your father and I discussed your situation this morning.”
“I'm not backing out, Mom,” I said. “This isn't Lebanon. This is America. If Bethany is willing to stand up for me, I'm standing up for her, too.”
My mother glanced at Bethany.
“I'll call you this evening, Sharif,” the latter told me. “I hope it'll be good news.”
“Same here,” I said.
BETHANY: The rest of the day was quiet. My mother made sure I was okay and that I did my homework. She put a portable table across my lap and placed my backpack next to me. All that time, my father silently stood in the bedroom doorway. He backed away to let my mother leave my bedroom. My mother turned and asked if I wanted dinner brought up to my room and I said yes. My father still didn't speak. The door closed between us and I wondered: Would they argue once they went back downstairs to the living room? Or would there be no argument?
I sighed and unzipped my backpack. At least I had homework to distract me. Maybe I could call Sharif before dinner. That might be better than after dinner.
SHARIF: Homework was done. Time to wait for Bethany's phone call. I asked Dad if I could answer it in his home office. He reluctantly permitted it.
Please call before dinner, Bethany, I thought. Before, not after.
My mother was in the kitchen, preparing dinner, when the phone rang. She answered it, then called, telling me that it was for me. She didn't say who it was.
I shut the door to my father's home office before I picked up the phone. “Hello?”
“It's Bethany.” Her voice was soft. I couldn't tell if she was happy or not.
“Good news or bad news?” I asked.
“A little of both,” she said. “Which do you want first?”