She looked down at her fingertips sticky with lemon juice. It was a feeble attempt at getting rid of her old habit of chewing them off whenever a problem arose, but she had to deal with it now, and conveniently many were staring at her head-on.
She padded to the couch clutching her old Samsung as if it were a lifeline. A couple of candles flickered on the coffee table, spread a good distance away from the fake plastic flowers. She had learned her mistake from last time and it had taken a priceless hour to scrub the plastic off the painted wood, but the flowers had to live with it. It was an effort at making the drab apartment smell less like cigarettes and look more homey, comfortable, and she put together whatever she could.
Picture frames were turned flat against the counter, their contents tucked away where they couldn’t bruise her anymore.
She switched on her phone to be greeted with a string of notifications. One caught her eye as she struggled to enter the passcode.
Words swam in front of her eyes. Her mouth formed the words if that would better help her get a grip on it. She shaped the letters the best she could, slurring them together as she had seen on television. She grabbed the remote in frustration and jammed her fingers on all the buttons to turn off the cursed ESPN blaring through the tv. The announcer's ever-rising intense tone meant nothing, the ball being tossed around the screen made no sense.
She sunk back into the couch, the flimsy fabric doing nothing to bar the springs from digging into her. She laid her head back and closed her eyes to calm the ever raging storm inside her head. She sucked a deep breath in and held it.
Her phone buzzed once again in her hand. She lazily opened her eyes and checked if the message was worth looking at. She found an email above the unread messages and missed calls. Her finger found the power button as the harsh light blinked off.
Her eyes flicked to the fridge where she was reminded of the spoiled milk and rotting lettuce festering for a couple of days now. It seemed to be mocking her.
She sighed as she got up and swung open the door with a little too much force. The compartment on the side tumbled onto the floor, clattering against the tile. She slammed the door shut in frustration and it let out a wailing groan while shutting.
She slid to the ground as a tear slipped from her eyes. “I can't do it, god please tell me why I can’t!” she yelled to the ceiling, a salty taste evading her mouth.
Her knees felt knobby against her chest, her head resting on them. She sat there for a while, letting her thoughts wash over her and sweep her away.
She scolded herself for being so stupid as she wiped the water off her face. She stood up as she opened the fridge again and grabbed the milk and lettuce. She gagged as a putrid stench slapped her in the face.
She threw them in the trash and grabbed her keys, stopping for a moment to look in the mirror above her key stand. Dark tear-stained cheeks stared back at her. A nest of black hair worthy of a family of raccoons was balanced on her head. She stared for a minute before turning to the bathroom.
She swerved into the coffee shop, almost forgetting what side of the road to drive on. She contemplated going in or not before deciding her need for coffee was much too important. She grabbed her wallet and strode into the shop.
Her foot tapped on the wooden floor as she wondered what so many people had to do with coffee 9 at night. Lights strung across the ceiling, flooding the place with a warm glow. She inhaled the scent wafting from the counter. She eyes the baked goods teasing her from behind the glass.
The baristas smooth perky voice interrupted her thoughts. “Hey there, welcome to the Bliss Bean, what may I getchu?”
She shook her head as she eyed the girl staring at her expectantly. All the words evaded her head. The vocabulary she spent months poring over, strung into sentences, that she just couldn’t say out loud. Her heart paced in her chest as she tried to sound like a local. Embarrassment bloomed in the pit of her stomach as nervousness took over.
“Umm, excuse me?” She scraped up whatever she could as she attempted to redeem herself. “Can you... repeat. Please?” She smiled inside at the words that had left her mouth now hanging in the air. She smiled at catching herself to say please, to turn her voice up at the end just slightly.
Her small victory was short-lived.
Emma, the nametag read. She tested that with her mouth, forgetting for a split second that she was in public. Emma let out a forced laugh before repeating, “Welcome to the Bliss Bean, what can I get you?” Her words were slow, spaced out, an indication she had caught onto her struggle.
She hated it.
She wished they talked normally, she wished they wouldn’t look at her like that. She wished the teenagers studying in the corner hadn’t turned their heads then whisper to laugh at her accent.
She wished to be back home.
Her hands fisted in frustration as she asked quickly, “One hazelnut iced coffee.” She kept her words to a minimal, humiliation creeping up on her.
She looked at her feet while Emma bustled around the equipment, new scents left lingering in the air.
She didn’t smell them this time though.
She fiddled with the hem of her shirt as she struggled not to throw up. She looked up at the girl. Her flawlessly tanned skin had not a blemish. Her hair was curled into beach waves falling down past her shoulders in golden locks. Her wrists were adorned with bracelets, her fingers carried rings.
“Do you want some cream, whipped cream, on your coffee?” Her voice was still robotic but hadn’t lost the slight twang laced into it.
The twang that she yearned to have.
Her look now seemed to scrutinize, combing through all her features, her crooked nose, her too dark skin, her hair that had too much oil, her clothes that were too wrinkled, her jewelry that was so obviously not American.
She shook her head up and down, offering an artificial smile. The best smile she could give then.
Another feeling crawled into her as she gazed at the Emma. It pulled at her, ridiculed her, mocked her. Her coffee was set in front of her and she stared at it in shame as envy ate away at her.
Emma called out, her voice filling the space, “Next!”
She jerked as she grabbed the cup and forced herself to walk slowly out the door.
She could still hear Emma chatting with the customer she didn’t know. She could still hear the real laugh the stranger joked back effortlessly.
The bell jangled as she walked to the safety of her car.
She sat in the brittle freezing air, contemplating what just happened. She rested her head on the steering wheel as tears fell onto her shirt for the second time. The humiliation, the embarrassment, the discomfort. It all finally fell out.
She looked up at the moon spilling its silvery light into the frigid car.
She didn’t fit in.
“It’s gonna get better Ahina. Just stay strong.”
Ahina: A word for strong in Arabic