PHOTOGRAPHS OF A GIRL
The girl has a book. Her brother wants to play trains but she doesn’t want to play trains so she puts her book on top of the wooden tracks. The girl is still taller than her brother then, which means she decides. Her brother doesn’t mind yet, just picks up the caboose and turns it into the driver. It can go a semicircle before it hits the book again. This is okay.
The tracks are laid out on the mayda. That’s the little table the girl’s ba made for her to play cars and trains and eat without a high chair. Once the girl was eating a cup of yogurt and when she finished she crawled under the table with a pen and copied some letters off the empty container onto the leg of the mayda. The letters said “ADVENTURE”.
When the girl is older she doesn’t use the mayda anymore. She doesn’t play cars and trains. She builds things out of broken scooters or skateboards and calls them go-carts. One day she needs a piece of scrap wood for her go-cart and she finds one with the small crooked word “ADVENTURE” written on it.
But here the girl is still four. She is reading. Her ma says she can’t read but she proves that Ma is wrong by saying all the right words and then turning the page. She doesn’t know that Ma knows she is fibbing because her eyes are in the wrong place. Her brother can’t read yet. He still says his name “Nini” instead of Munir. Her ba gets mad when she calls him that though. Her ba says no nicknames. “He is Munir. You are Samia. No shortcuts.”
When the girl goes to school, her teachers always ask if they can call her Sam. The girl says they’re not allowed. “Just Samia.”
It might be Halloween, but it’s probably not. The girl is dressed as the Cat-in-the-Hat in a hat that her ma made and a droopy bow tie. Her brother is supposed to be Thing 1 but looks too innocent for the role, squirming merrily under the brim of his own striped hat that muffles his floppy curls.
Both the girl and her brother have eyeliner whiskers that their ma draws on with a chalky-smelling pencil. “You have makeup?” the girl asks her ma in surprise.
Her ba says girls shouldn’t wear makeup, not even nail polish, not even if every other girl in kindergarten does. When the girl asks why her ba says because it suffocates her. “I can still breathe,” she protests, but Ba says that every part of her needs to breathe and it can’t if it’s all covered up. He also says that when she puts scarves around her head to pretend she’s Muslim like Ba’s ma. Probably because the girl has asthma. She has to be careful about her breathing.
Ma says this makeup is just for whiskers, though. That’s probably okay.
They find these clothes in the cardboard box under the stairs, where Ma keeps all the costumes from holidays or birthdays. Often the girl picks out hats from the costume box to wear when she goes places with her ma. Not the Cat-in-the-Hat hat, but sometimes the white beret with big purple flowers, or the blue-and-white checkered sun hat with the floppy brim that she imagines she would wear if she were the girl from The Little House on the Prairie. Sometimes, there isn’t much difference between dress and dress-up.
Later, the girl will ask Ma, “Why couldn’t you tell me no one else in this country wears berets?” and Ma will laugh and say, “Because you’re you, sweet pea, not everyone else in this country.”
The girl is gardening with her ba. It must be July because the colors are so saturated they might condense. Under deep reds, tomatoes and strawberries sag heavily on their vines. At a touch, they fall effortlessly into the girl’s small hands. Both the girl and her ba are tan from weeks outside under the sun. Ba is always dark, but even his colors seem to have deepened, and his Algerian skin gives off a glow. The girl’s skin is usually pale like her Irish mother’s but the summer always turns her more like her father. When she is older, her brother who is brown like Ba will tease her and say she is off-white. Neither white nor brown.
When the girl and Ba go inside after a day in the garden, Ma cries, “It’s Samia Bou-seed and Bachir Bou-weed!” She thinks it’s funny because their last name is Bouzid, and they always laugh. Ma’s allowed to change their names but when the girl plays House with her neighbors and calls herself Amy or Sarah, Ba gets sad. “Do you wish you had one of those names?” he says.
She says no, Ba. It’s just pretend.
Ba says anyone can be Amy or Sarah but that she is the only Samia.
But when the girl is in middle school Ba changes his mind. One day when girl is eating alone in the cafeteria a boy from English class leaves his friends to sit down next to her. He says, “I know your dad’s a terrorist.” She looks at her food. He leans in close. “I hate terrorists,” he whispers, and then smacks the table as he gets up to leave.
We are different, Ba says, but we have to blend in.
The next day Ba comes home with American flags for the lawn and the cars. “This is an American family,” he declares, though no one asks. He sits the girl down.“What do you say if someone asks where you are from?” he rehearses with her.
“Levittown,” she says solemnly.
“But your dad looks kind of different. What about him?”
He nods and pats her shoulder. “Good, bentee.”
The girl and her brother are digging holes at the Magic Beach. The Magic Beach is not really its name but that’s what their ba calls it, after a beach in a storybook he reads them sometimes. The tide is still low but it has risen since they began. The girl’s brother is standing sullenly in a few inches of sandy water that have spilled into his hole and pooled around his feet. The girl is still digging, but she knows in a few hours her hole too will be smooth sand again. It always happens that way.
Ba says water is the most powerful thing in the world. Everything in the world needs water, he says. Even the cactus on their windowsill. Even the Sahara where he is from. But water can cover whole towns. Water, he says, covers the whole space between New Jersey and Algeria. Algeria is where his family is, but he tells the girl they can’t go because there’s no bridge. Her brother promises to build them a bridge to Algeria one day. When he’s grown-up, he says. Maybe when he’s ten.
Ba says okay. Will there be a toll?
Like her ba, the girl knows water always wins. She knows that to the sea she is like a broken shell, a grain of sand, but still she carves her name in the sand and builds holes on the water, until it reaches for her.
fiction poetry "fact" photography