BETHANY: Are you there, Yahweh? (If that's being blasphemous, I'm sorry. But I'm Jewish and just calling you “God” didn't feel right to me. I guess you'll have to be “Yahweh” for the time being. I hope you don't mind.) It's me, Bethany.
I thought if I could discuss the situation I'm in with anyone, you were the best person to discuss it with. I don't think that my parents or my brother Jake would understand.
You see, it all began at a cast party last Saturday night. Cast parties are held after the final night of a play's run. (This time the play was “Romeo and Juliet” and it was performed at the Underground Theater here in Dandridge. It had a new actor in it named Andre. He replaced someone else and was really good as Romeo.) I wasn't one of the actors, but one of them, Terry, invited me to go to the party with him. (Just so you know, he isn't really interested in me. We're friends, but that's really it. He's much more interested in this tall, leggy blonde named Heather. I don't think he has a chance with her, but I haven't had the guts to tell him that yet.) That's where I met Sharif, a really cute, not too tall, and very nice guy.
Sharif and I got along really well almost right from the start. We found a quiet (despite the loud music) spot where we didn't have to yell to each other and talked like old friends. That wasn't the problem, though. The problem came when I asked him something that almost broke my heart.
“What's your name?” he asked. “If you don't mind me asking.”
“I'm Bethany,” I said, trying not to stare at his dark eyes. He must used to girls looking at him like I was. It didn't seem to bother him, though. “What's yours?”
“Sharif,” he said. “I don't remember seeing you during the play.”
“I wasn't in it,” I said. “I'm friends with Terry, who invited me.”
“You mean the guy who's trying to go out with Heather?” he asked, looking across the crowded room.
“She doesn't seem that interested in him,” he said.
I sighed. “But I'd probably hurt his feelings if I told him so. I guess he'll have to find out the hard way. From her.”
Sharif looked back at me and smiled. “His loss. I'm surprised he hasn't asked you out yet.”
“I'm not his type,” I said. “Romantically, I mean.”
“Again, his loss,” he said. “Some people don't know what they have right in front of them. And some, more fortunate, do know.”
I blushed, hoping he couldn't see it.
“Want a drink?” he asked. “Nonalcoholic, I'm afraid.”
“My parents would ground me for the next two years if they knew I'd had any alcohol before I turned 18,” I said.
Sharif gave me a puzzled glance. “How old are you, Bethany? If you don't mind my asking.”
“16,” I said. “I'm a sophomore at Dandridge High School.”
We walked over to the table with the punchbowl on it. There were several glasses nearby that were already filled with fruit punch. He picked up one, handed it to me, then picked up another.
“Thanks,” I said, taking a sip. It didn't taste like it had any alcohol in it. I took another sip.
He looked around and pointed at the row of chairs furthest from the live band. “Why don't we go sit down over there?”
I nodded agreement.
After we'd sat down, Sharif said, “In case you're wondering, I'm only 17. So alcohol is definitely not allowed for another year. No exceptions. Not even during Ramadan.”
I blinked and tried not to stare at him. “You wouldn't happen to be Muslim, would you?”
He nodded. “Are you Christian?”
I shook my head. “Jewish. My parents aren't going to be pleased about this.”
“Why?” he asked.
“They only want me to date Jewish boys,” I said. “Like alcohol, anyone non-Jewish is strictly forbidden.”
“Is your family orthodox?” Sharif asked.
I shook my head. “We lean toward moderate. What about yours?”
“Pretty much the same,” he said. “Though I still have to go to the Dandridge Mosque every Friday at 5 p.m. We could pray at home -- we have everything we need -- but my parents prefer to go to the mosque instead. Maybe they feel more comfortable praying to Allah there.”
“Would they be upset if they knew you were talking to a Jewish girl at this party?” I asked.
“Probably,” he said. “Talking with each other this openly probably will only start rumors. And if those rumors reach our respective parents . . . there could be problems.”
“They'd ground you for talking with me?” I asked.
“Maybe not just for talking with you,” Sharif said. “Maybe for thinking about asking you out on a date.”
I blushed again. I was definitely not used to this sort of discussion with guys I was attracted to. He must've known that I already liked him. If not, then I was a better actress than I gave myself credit for.
“You'd want to date me?” I asked.
He nodded. “I've talked with some of the other girls here, but they're not that interesting. Especially Heather. But you, on the other hand, are more than just interesting. You make me want to learn more about you.”
Flustered, I said, “I wouldn't mind telling you, Sharif” -- his name sounded like something out of a silent Rudolf Valentino movie; it sounded much more exotic and excitin than my name did -- “but I don't want to get you into trouble.”
He looked thoughtful. “Why don't we go outside and talk some more there? It isn't a cold night.”
“S-sure,” I said, stumbling on the word.
He smiled and I wished that he could be Jewish instead of Muslim. Then my parents (and his) probably wouldn't mind us being together.
We stood up and Terry chose that moment to join us.
“You two look like you're hitting it off,” he told us. “We're thinking of going out to eat at a local restaurant. Want to come along?”
Sharif and I looked at each other, then Sharif told Terry, “Maybe another night.”
“Definitely,” Terry said, and headed back to Heather.
“You still haven't told him,” Sharif said, once Terry was out of earshot.
“He'll probably figure it eventually,” I said. “It's not like she's playing hard-to-get. She just has eyes for someone else here.” Hopefully not Sharif. Give me a chance first, Heather. I don't have blond hair and tall like you are. I have dark hair and I'm at least five or six inches shorter than you are. I don't wear high heels like you do. You could probably take him away from me with your pinky . . . unless he meant it: that I was more interesting to me than she or any other girl here was. I hoped so.
Outside, all the parking spaces were filled, but there were plenty of trees to block overly inquisitive eyes from seeing us. From here, we could both see the reflections of lights and moonlight on the dark Poitier River as it flowed past. It felt like we were far away from the cast party, in a world of our own.
“It's nice here in Dandridge,” Sharif said. “So different from where I was born and grew up.”
“Where was that?” I asked.
“Beirut,” he said. “That's in Lebanon.”
“I've heard of it, but I've never been there,” I said.
“If we were standing in the small backyard of my parents' house in Beirut,” he went on, “you probably couldn't see the harbor, much less the Mediterranean Sea. Too many houses, roof antennas, vehicles, and clotheslines in between. You'd have to climb up to a high point, above the rooftops.”
“You sound like you miss it,” I said.
“A little,” Sharif said. “My parents had a cabin up in the mountains and we would go up there in winter. Plenty of snow and cedar trees. It's beautiful there.”
“I didn't know that there was any snow in the Middle East,” I said. “And not a lot of trees. Isn't it mostly desert?”
“Depends on where you are,” he said. “In the mountains in Lebanon, you'd think you were in Switzerland.”
“I've never been anywhere outside of here and where I was born,” I said, hoping I didn't sound overly ignorant and inexperienced to him. I mean, I was only 16. Maybe after college I'd travel to some of the places I wanted to visit. But that was still another three years from now. For now, I could only see them in photos, in books, on TV, or in movies.
“Where were you born, Bethany?” he asked.
“Chicago,” I said. “My father was a teacher, my mother was a nurse. We moved to Dandridge when I was five years old. I don't remember that much of Chicago. Really cold and windy winters, mostly. Dad is still a teacher and teaches at Dandridge State College. Mom is still a nurse and works at Dandridge Mercy Hospital.”
“Do you miss Chicago?” Sharif asked.
I thought about it and shrugged. “Not really. I wouldn't mind going back there someday, but I'm not in any hurry. If it happens, fine; if not, that's okay, too.”
I noticed that our hands had moved closer to each other. Did he also notice it? I couldn't tell from his eyes, which didn't look at me as much as they had at the cast party. Was he bored of me already? I hoped not.
“It's nice to be with someone who isn't in a rush to grow up,” he said. “Someone who wants to take their time, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells along the way.”
Until I met Sharif, I was one of those hurrying types. I wanted to get away from grade school, where I didn't really fit in, and go to college, where I hoped I'd fit in. But now that I was here, standing next to him, college felt like it could wait a little longer. I didn't want here-and-now to end too soon. The only fly-in-the-ointment was the possibility of gossip in the classroom and/or in the hallways and/or in the cafeteria. Only the most boring students seemed capable of avoiding being gossiped about. I'd tried to stay below the radar as best I could. That didn't seem possible now that I was here with Sharif. He probably received far more attention than he was happy with.
“You're very quiet, Bethany,” he said and I saw that he was looking at me.
“Just thinking,” I said.
“About?” he wondered and smiled. “Us, maybe?”
I blushed and nodded.
“I was thinking about us, too,” Sharif said.
“Oh?” I asked.
He nodded. “We might not be allowed to be more than friends, if we're even allowed to be friends.”
“Even if we try to hide it from everyone else?” I asked.
“If your friend Terry noticed, what are the chances he won't talk about it with anyone else at school or at his home?” he asked.
“He isn't a blabbermouth, if that's what you meant,” I said. “He's told me secrets and I've told him secrets. As far as I know, no one else knows about them except us.”
“And yet you aren't dating each other,” Sharif said.
“We did try a few times, but it just didn't work,” I said. “We decided it was better if we just stayed friends.”
“Nothing to do with Heather?” he wondered.
I shook my head. I didn't think it had to do with her, but I wasn't entirely sure, to be honest. It wasn't a subject that Terry and I discussed. Since he didn't want to, I did the same.
I felt his hand cover mine and didn't dare look down to make sure. If it was just my imagination, so be it, because the reality might be worse.
“Want to go back inside?” Sharif asked.
“Not really,” I said, hoping I didn't sound breathless. “Why? Is there somewhere else you'd like to go?”
“Yes, but I'm not sure if our respective parents would approve of it,” he said. “I'm glad we could spend this much time together. There might not be any more.”
I bit my lip. I'm not going to cry here, I told myself. Hear that, Bethany? Don't cry. Hold it in until you can get inside a ladies room or until you're back home in your bedroom.
“I'm glad, too,” I said and smiled as best I could.
He smiled back, but his dark eyes didn't look happy. Not necessarily sad, but not happy. I wondered what he was thinking about just then and whether I was in his thoughts like he was in mine.
“Let's go back to the party,” Sharif said.
“Right now?” I asked. “Or could we wait a minute or two?” For someone who always found running away and hiding to be the easy solution, where had this sudden courage come from? I didn't know.
“What did you have in mind?” he asked.
I turned toward him and put my arms around him. At first he stiffened, as if surprised by my gesture, then he put his arms around me. It felt good to me and I hoped it felt good to him, too. I laid my head on his chest and thought I could hear his heart beating.
“If only this moment could last forever,” he said softly and sighed. “Thank you, Bethany.”
“You're welcome, Sharif,” I said. “I hope we'll meet again someday.” As soon as possible.
“So do I,” he said.
We went back to the party after that. We tried to be careful not to stay too close to each other. There was probably already enough material for a week's worth of school gossip by now. No need to add to it if we could help it.
Before we went our separate ways, we spontaneously decided to share cell phone numbers and email addresses. Whether we stayed in contact with each other or not, only time would tell.
It's getting late, Yahweh. I need to go to bed. I'll talk with you again as soon as I can. Maybe more about Sharif and me. In the meantime, thank you for listening. I hope I didn't bend your ear too much. This is Bethany Weinberg signing off.
I looked at Sharif's contact information before I laid my head on a pillow and closed my eyes.
Sharif Darwish. That's a nice name.
And fell asleep with a smile on my face. My dreams were really nice that night.
SHARIF: I arrived at home and my mother asked how the cast party was. My father, as usual, said nothing, but I bet he still listened to us while he read the daily Arabic language newspaper.
“It was really nice,” I said. “Plenty of friendly actors and actresses. The guy who played Romeo wasn't there, though.”
“Maybe he doesn't like parties,” my mother suggested.
“Maybe,” I said.
“Any new friends?” she asked.
“A few,” I said. “None were Muslim, though.”
“You'll meet a nice Muslim girl someday,” she said. “Maybe someone at the mosque. I could speak to some of my female friends and see if they have any daughters who aren't dating anyone or married yet.”
“It's okay, Mom,” I said. “If I don't meet anyone in high school, there's always college.”
“Are you still sure about going to the local college?” she asked. “You could always go back to Beirut and go to college there.”
And no doubt plenty of available Muslim girls, I thought.
“I'll think about it,” I said. “I won't have to apply to a college for another two years, after all.”
“Don't delay,” she said. “Tempus fugit.”
My father nodded agreement.
As I climbed the stairs to the top floor, I could hear my parents speak in Arabic.
“I told you not to let him go to that party,” my father grumbled.
“Dear, Sharif is a sensible boy,” my mother said. “He's growing up. He won't do anything silly or dangerous he knows there are consequences.”
“Don't be so sure,” my father said. “We're in America, not in Lebanon. Kids are different here. They're allowed to do things here that they wouldn't dream of doing in Beirut.”
“Have a little faith in him,” my mother said. “He'll keep doing the right things. I really believe he will.”
My father harrumphed.
Upstairs in my bedroom, the door closed, I sat on my bed, lifted the lid of my laptop computer and turned it on.
I wasn't sure what to do yet. But then I thought about Bethany's contact information. I took the piece of paper out of my pocket and looked at it.
I probably couldn't call her at home. Not yet anyway. But I could email her, couldn't I?
I went to my email provider's website, entered the To: and From: fields and a short subject, and then typed a brief message:
Hi, Bethany. This is Sharif. Maybe we could meet at the school library and talk some more? If yes, could we do it at lunchtime? If not, that's okay.
I clicked on the “Send” button and waited nervously. What felt like moments later, I had a reply message. I clicked on it.
Hi, Sharif. Yes. See you there at lunchtime. -Bethany