After last night's cold snap and rain, the weather had warmed up again, a final gasp of Indian summer. And from the way the sun was roaming on top of the water and the wind was carrying the carousel music up the Coney Island boardwalk, Elizabeth could tell this was going to be an American day.
There were days she felt more Arab. But this Saturday—as she put on a pair of denim cut-offs, a black tank top, and her Rollerblades and went skating down the boardwalk with her friend Merry Tyrone—she felt more American.
"Come on, girlfriend, shake that thang," said Merry, keeping pace with her in a blue Spandex tank top and tight navy shorts with the Adidas stripes down the sides. "Put some rhythm into it."
Elizabeth wobbled a little, hoping none of her family would see her like this. She'd had it with Nasser and the insanity of him going through her room. It made her just want to shuck off all the tradition, all the relatives, all the history, all the pressure of being part of an oppressed people without a real homeland. Enough already. She just wanted to skate.
She pushed off with her right leg and then her left, feeling the tendons and muscles stretch as she sailed past the hot dog stands and the old burned-down Dreamland amusement park, its disused Thunderbolt roller coaster shrouded in moss and ivy. The sun played lightly on her skin, making her shoulders shine and her arms look golden. She was wearing the new pads that Nasser had bought her but not the helmet. It was too small and it made her feel like she was suffocating. Besides, she liked having her hair in the salty breeze. She wanted the sensation of things rolling off her today.
The carousel music grew louder. Elizabeth pushed off on her left leg as they approached the entrance to the Aquarium. Four boys from school were standing there, some thirty yards away, smoking blunts and hoisting forties. One of them was that cute Dominican guy, Obstreperous Q, with the shaved head and the earring, and another was Ray-Za with the funky hair and the gangsta-style, whom Merry dated sometimes.
"Speaking of bad boys," said Merry, skating on ahead. "Excuse me a minute. I have to communicate with this fine young Nubian."
Elizabeth hung back a little, watching Merry's hips do the side-to-side swivel and wondering what it would be like to be so free and easy with your body. To be so relaxed.
To be a hot American babe, instead of a demure Arab girl. To have men stare at you, enthralled. She thought she'd seen Mr. Fitzgerald look at her that way once or twice. And why not? Why should she be different from anyone else? She had more in common with kids here than she did with her crazy brother from Bethlehem. She was raised in America, she had an American stepmother, she read American books, had American thoughts. But something wouldn't let her go all the way over to that side. The one night she'd tried hanging out on a street corner, drinking beer with Merry and a couple of other girls from school, she'd found herself getting restless and uncomfortable, liking the idea of what she was doing, but hating the actual taste of it. With boys, it was the same. She'd look at a guy for weeks, fantasizing about the absolute coolness of being on a date with him. But if he dared to approach her, she'd shrink away in terror.
What was the matter with her? She was seventeen years old, a healthy American girl, with a good mind and a good body. A rockin' bod, as the other girls in the class would say. A slammin' bod. So what was holding her back? Why couldn't she play? In fact, why couldn't she do anything she wanted? She wasn't wrapped up in a veil in a Middle Eastern village somewhere, about to be bartered away in an arranged marriage. She had the run of the country—the open sea on her right, the arcades, merry-go-rounds, and everything beyond on her left. She didn't have to stay home until she got married, though that was what Nasser and her father would have liked. She could go away to college, maybe even to Boston, where Merry was probably headed next year. She could have her own life, her own career, she could marry who she wanted. She could even make her own mistakes.
She started picking up speed as she drew closer to Merry, who was already sweet-talking with the boyz by the Aquarium entrance. There was nothing for her to be afraid of, she told herself. She wanted them to see her, to see she was just like them, and maybe even to chase her if they had the nerve.
But as she zoomed past the crew, and heard Obstreperous Q call out, "Ooow mama, I like it like that," she saw something that scared her. An old woman in a black head scarf feeding seagulls by the benches on her right. She couldn't see the woman's face, couldn't even tell if she was Arab, but for some reason, the thought came into her head that this was what her mother would have looked like. She turned, glancing back over her shoulder as she kept skating forward, twisting herself into a kinetic sculpture of confused emotions. She wanted this, she didn't want it. And so she tripped and fell.
© Peter Blauner