by Michael P.
A young immigrant deals the religion, intolerance and betrayal.
|Something squeezes my heart as the phone rings, the tinny bell replacing the gentle rustling of the newspaper I read. My wife is asleep, and my first thought is that my daughter isn’t home yet. I tell myself to be rational but am overruled by my rapid heartbeat as I walk across the room to where my phone lies on the console. I don’t recognize the number; I consider not picking up the phone. If this weren’t late at night, I’d let it go to voicemail. I reach for the phone, my hand blends with the light oak stain of the wood surface.
“Pillay residence, hello?”
My accent sounds thick. Nerves make my tongue rebel against the foreign syllables. Relief that the caller isn’t a police officer is replaced with curiosity when I hear the voice on the phone.
The accent is my own, but a few seconds pass before I make sense of the greeting.
Twenty-five years have passed since I last heard that voice. The memory erases the years and I am a young immigrant boy again. I smell coconut from the shaved ice kacang Aaran, Maryam and I used to eat, first under the shade of the merbau; then, after immigration, under the unfamiliar cypress of south Florida. Maryam appears in my mind as she was at sixteen; flowing black hair frames her angular cheekbones, gold flecked brown eyes and wan skin, raw from using bleach.
During our freshman year of high school, Maryam told some kids she was Hawaiian. Her status as one of the prettiest girls at school meant the lie was accepted as truth. I used to wish I could so easily discard my foreignness too. Aaran never had that problem.
Maryam and I were born next door to each other in the state of Sabah, Malaysia. Sabah was where the Christians of Malaysia came to live amongst themselves. Our mothers would do the wash together while we played with plastic toys and soccer balls in the gated patio out front. Aaran moved in across the street and attended the same bilingual school as us. Aaran and his father were the only men in our neighborhood who wore a Songkok, they stood out with their flat-topped, black velvet hats.
Maryam had a birthday soon after Aaran and his family settled in our neighborhood. We were playing in a room filled with party decorations. Aaran was throwing the ball in a game of Batu Seremban, when Maryam took hold of his night-dark arm and held it up to the multicolored balloons scattered around us.
“Look how dark your skin is,” she said.
Aaran gently withdrew his arm from her grasp and adjusted the Songkok sitting atop his short-cut black hair. Our three mothers stood in the kitchen in matching pastel sundresses and heels, an extravagance of black hair. I approached them, yanked on my mother’s hand and asked if I could have a hat like Aaran’s, they all laughed, and my mother shooed me away.
After our initial curiosity and investigation, Aaran, Maryan and I became inseparable. In 1979, The summer before we left Malaysia, we fell in love with disco. Maryam had a portable am/fm cassette deck that we used to record songs from the local radio station. We spent hours catching fireflies in the streets to fill empty Sarsi bottles to make disco lights for our bedroom dance parties. I had a patch on my school backpack that said Disco Robot, Aaran’s said Jive Machine. Maryam wore bell bottoms her mom gave her for her birthday.
One evening our parents were out at a local disco club. Men entered the nightclub and began attacking Christians there. Aaran’s recognized some of the men from his Mosque, he was able to get their group out safely. That night when my dad came home there was blood on his shirt. My mother’s shoes were lost, as she walked into our home, bloody footprints flowered on the tile behind her like misshapen roses.
After the attack there was an eruption of religious intolerance in Malaysia. Our church sponsored our families so we could move somewhere safer. We flew on a cramped propeller plane to Kuala Lumpur. There we transferred to an American airplane that was like a house in the sky with stairs that you could climb between levels. It delivered us to Miami.
The first few years in the United States were difficult for each of us.
Maryam’s English improved very quickly. She worked hard to soften her accent and always pushed us to celebrate the Fourth of July. She read People magazine and kept up with which celebrities were dating. She became a fan of American movies after we stumbled on a theater in our neighborhood on the opening night of E.T.
Aaran was the least affected, he rooted himself in the religions of his parents. He continued to wear the Songkok like his father. He attended Lutheran church with his mother on Sundays and met with the pastor of the church weekly. He practiced the cleansing ritual of Wudu in the mornings so that he could perform his daily Muslim prayers and carried both a Koran and a Bible in his backpack. He was always ready with soft words of patient advice.
I was left somewhere in between. I still loved Disco, but it set me apart from the kids in school, so I hid my disco robot backpack away in my closet. One day, a boy named Jackson invited me to a political meeting at school. The room was filled with white faces, but a different kind of white from my own yellow-pearl skin.
“This is my new friend, Iesa.” Jackson introduced me.
“Hey, Iesa.” The voices were friendly, curious.
They asked me about where I was from, how I came to the USA.
“Are you Christian?”
“Sure,” I told them. “I’m Christian.”
Did I know Maryam? A few boys whistled.
“What about your friend Aaran, he doesn’t look like you.” Someone said.
I enjoyed the attention, so I took up politics. I supported the Reagan with my new friends, and we rallied for tax cuts and argued about the cost of the welfare state.
Although we each had our separate interests, Maryam, Aaran and I continued spending most of our free time together. Our houses were in the same neighborhood and our parents opened a Malaysian restaurant together.
Maryam drug us to the movies whenever something new was premiering. There was a three-screen movie house only a mile from our neighborhood. It was a concrete warehouse style building with glass block windows and neon tube lights. The Regal Theater glowed in a hum of electric lightbulbs on the marquee out front. Plush red carpet made velvet highways of the halls and the smell of movie theater popcorn drowned the lobby.
When I was sixteen, my parents asked me to find a job. Money was tight and anything helped. I applied at the theater. I think this was the first sign that I was falling in love with Maryam.
“I got a job at the Regal, Maryam.”
We were at McDonalds eating cheeseburgers and french fries. Aaran was drinking a glass of water.
“Iesa!” She bubbled. “That’s so great. Now we can go to all the movies we want! I can’t wait!”
“Haha,” Aaran laughed softly, “and when will you study, Maryam?”
“Shut up, Aaran!” She rolled her eyes, smiling. “Iesa, this is so awesome!”
Heat flooded my cheeks; electricity sparked down my spine.
From then on Maryam and I spent a lot of time together at the movie theater. We followed the announcements for upcoming movies and developed a secret program of hand signals to help her sneak the line. She brought boxes of Malaysian food from our parents’ restaurant that we ate in the back row. The theater smelled of nasi kerabu and Malay barbequed chicken.
During this time our parents continued spending evenings together. Our dads entrenched themselves on folding chairs in the tiny backyard and smoked cigarettes. Our mothers fluttered around the bright kitchen and drank tea that smelled like alfalfa drying in the sun.
Sometimes I overheard fragments of their conversation as I passed in and out of the house.
“How was your appointment, Amirah?” My mother’s voice carried out of the kitchen.
“The doctor said I shouldn’t worry.” Maryam’s mothers replied, but the voices were cut off by the screen door slamming behind me. I was heading to the Regal; Maryam was waiting for me.
I worried a little about Aaran. I wondered if Maryam and I were excluding him. Maryam and I talked all the time of movies and actors and Hollywood. But my concerns for Aaran were small compared to my growing desire for Maryam. Sitting next to her in the theater felt like an ocean of possibility. No other place in our lives put us physically so close together. In the seats, I prayed for a sudden magnetic charge that would pull her fingers inches to the left, into mine. Maryam’s focus rarely left the screen but I imagined something unspoken was growing between us.
The first day of Christmas break, 1985, Maryam, Aaran and I were going to a movie together. I remember Mariam had recently cut her hair like Molly Ringwald from The Breakfast Club. We stood under the Christmas lights at the Regal waiting to get tickets. Maryam wore a red velvet dress with a furry white collar, she tied tiny bells to her heels, so each step jingled. Aaran wore his Songkok, a Santa hat encircled my mop of black hair. We were smiling and laughing. The line of moviegoers was making a lot of excited noise.
“God Damn, look at that sexy Jap Christmas doll!”
The sound of boys laughing erupted from a few steps behind us in the line.
Maryam’s smile diminished but didn’t disappear. This flavor of hate was nothing new, indistinguishable from those we had tasted before. Aaran put one hand lightly on her back, her bells clinked as took a step closer between us. I knew this type of thing was particularly painful to Maryam because she worked so hard to be American.
“Baby, turn around so we can see you better.” The voice said. “I’ve never seen one all in red like that, look at those bells! I want her for Christmas.”
I turned to look, there were three boys. The smallest one was grinning and staring at Maryam, he seemed familiar. The other two were much larger. The excited noise of the crowd dropped to an unhealthy silence. Aaran stood between the boys and Maryam, he turned around to face them.
“Look at his little hat!” The shorter boy held his arm out, pointing.
Aaran stepped forward and put his face only inches from the boy’s outstretched finger.
The smaller boy flinched and stepped back. One of the larger boys advanced. Aaran didn’t move.
“You should apologize.” Aaran said. He had to tilt his head back to look up at the boy in front of him. Maryam’s smile was gone. My feet were fastened to the ground.
“We aint apologizing to no Japs.” The bigger kid said, he reached out and picked the Songkok off Aaran’s head, he placed it on his own and then did a little dance with his hands hanging like an ape.
The boy wearing Aaran’s Songkok turned his back laughing with the first kid. The memory of what happened next is like a razor in my mind. As Aaran reached for the Songkok, the third and largest boy lashed out and struck Aaran in the face. Aaran’s head snapped back. Blood sprayed from his crumpled nose and disappeared into the crimson fabric of Maryams dress. A screamed erupted, from Maryam, or someone else? Aaran stumbled backward, his foot caught the curb and he began to fall. I imagined diving forward, trying to get between Aaran and the concrete footing of the Regal. I imagined newspaper headlines, the approving look of my father, Aaran’s mother thanking me. His head cracked against the wall before I could even shift my weight in his direction.
Maryam dropped down next to Aaran, she turned and looked up at me her hands hovering over him. The three boys stopped laughing. I looked at the ticket counter to one of my coworkers.
“Call the police, call an ambulance, do something, help!” I yelled.
I kneeled next to Maryam and Aaran. Footsteps pounded the pavement behind me as the three boys fled.
At the hospital I sat in the waiting room with Maryam and our mothers. My dad lit a cigarette and followed Maryam’s dad into the smoking area. Through the glass door I could see curls of smoke diffusing the ceiling lights. Aaran’s parents were speaking to the doctor.
Amirah, Maryam’s mother, held her tight, one of her pale, bony hands enmeshed in Maryam’s glossy hair. Her mother’s normal skin tone was the brown shade of a hawk but in the hospital that night she was a ghost.
Aaran had a bad concussion and a broken nose. He had to stay three days in the hospital. The doctor prescribed bedrest for two weeks after that, Maryam sat with him through the rest of Christmas break. I didn’t see Maryam or Aaran much those two weeks. I was busy with
work at the Regal. By the time I got off work at night Aaran was asleep and Maryam was at home with her mother. My parents told me Amirah wasn’t well and we would need to be supportive of Maryam’s family. I just wanted things to go back to the way they were before.
I looked forward to our return to school. The first day back, Maryam hovered over Aaran during our walk to school. Our class schedules kept us apart most of the day, I didn’t see them again until the walk home, then I had to go to work. The days passed like this for the next few months.
“Dad, I want to quit my job.”
My parents and I were sitting in our small backyard in the evening. The yard was quiet. My dad inhaled long on a cigarette; I could hear the hiss of the tobacco burning. He exhaled smoke as he spoke.
“Iesa, the restaurant isn’t doing as well as we hoped.”
“But I never see Maryam anymore, or Aaran.”
“Amirah is very ill, Iesa.” My dad said.
My mom spoke. “Iesa, right now, it’s difficult. Aaran is a very spiritual young man, he’s been talking a lot with Amirah…and Maryam. It’s helping”
“Yeah, Aaran’s so damn great.” I rushed for the door before anyone could see the tears I was holding back.
I started leaving for school early in the morning to avoid Aaran and Maryam. After school, I hung out with Jackson, he introduced me to some more of his friends.
“Iza, ayezah? What?” One of them said.
“Check this out, I googled it, he’s named after some prophet, Abraham.”
“Honest Abe!” Said someone else. “Yeah!”
They started calling me Honest Abe. It made them laugh, I laughed too.
One night we went to a rally with kids from other schools. The short boy from the attack at the theater was there. I stayed away from him. The meeting was to discuss immigration. I sat in the front row and listened to a speaker talk about illegal immigration. Jackson introduced me to more of his friends as “Honest Abe.” I shouted when everyone else did, it felt good.
That spring there was a dance for the end of the school year. A committee of students planned it; they picked a disco theme. Maryam and Aaran volunteered to help. I was there too, with Jackson and my new friends. After the decorations were setup, kids filed out of the gym and into the waiting cars of their parents.
As I walked out the door, I heard Maryam’s voice. I could just see her head in the crowd. Maryam was striking in the evening light. The curving line of her neck merged into the waves of her dark hair. As the crowd thinned, I saw she was holding hands with Aaran. Heat rose in my cheeks, my fists clenched.
“Come with us.” Maryam said, when she saw me. They had moved two steps apart. Aaran was silent, his eyes wouldn’t meet mine.
Jackson came up next to me.
“Whatsup, Honest Abe? You want a ride?”
I walked away from Aaran and Maryam.
“What is she doing with him?” Jackson asked. “Wasn’t she your girl? You two were tight at the movie theater. Everyone saw that.”
My stomach was a knot. “I don’t know, maybe.”
“Listen, Abe. Some of the guys, we’ve been talking. We don’t like how much time Maryam’s been spending with that little towel head.”
I didn’t say anything.
“You and her, you’re different. You two belong here, you’re not like him. Let’s say we have a plan. You won’t even have to do anything, and he’ll be out of our lives.”
Instead of going home, Jackson drove me to a run-down suburb a few miles outside of town. Grass grew long from between the cracks in the sidewalk. We pulled up in front of a dilapidated church. A black dog was chained to a flagpole in a front yard. A confederate flag hung limp in the still air. We parked on the street near a group of men standing around firepit.
“These boys are gonna help us, Abe. Like I said, no one gets hurt, don’t worry.”
I didn’t want to be there, but I didn’t ask him to take me home either.
The dance was held on a Saturday night. “Everybody go: Hotel, motel, Holiday Inn.” The lyrics of Sugar Hill Gang blasted from the speakers. A large circle of students danced in the center of the gym. A group of girls in shimmering outfits circled the dancers, gliding on roller skates. Aaran and Maryam were on the dance floor, eye to eye. I stood alone, near the wall and watched them dance the disco moves we had taught each other years before in the streets of Sabah. Electric lights blinked around me like fireflies in plastic bottles.
Streams of harsh, white light flooded the dancefloor. Some of the students stopped dancing and turned their heads towards the entryway. Tall men in black stood in the doorway of the gym holding flashlights. I looked back to Maryam and Aaron, their movements slowed as they became aware of the men. The beam of a flashlight fell on them and stopped. Maryam wrapped her arms around Aaran, he shielded his eyes. The music was still playing.
Red and blue flashes entered the door merging with the party lights. Two of the officers approached Maryam and Aaran, they took him away from her. They walked him through a door that exited into the halls of the school. I stood just inside the door and looked through the glass. The officers were opening Aaran’s locker. Jackson was there with a teacher, gesturing with his hands and talking, pointing at Aaran. I felt Maryam’s presence next to me.
“That’s your friend.” Maryam said.
One of the officers reached into Aaran’s locker and when his hand reappeared it was holding a gun. The other officer stepped back and grabbed Aaran’s shoulders, flipped him around and put handcuffs on him.
“Iesa, what is that? What are they doing? Iesa, you know that kid!! What’s happening?” Her voice was frantic.
My heart was racing, I wiped my damp palms on my jeans. The music was a shrill scream grinding behind my teeth.
“There’s a gun in Aaran’s locker.” I said, inside my head my voice sounded clinical.
“Get away from that door!” One of the officers barked from behind us. Maryam let out a small scream. The officers in the hallway walked away with Aaran in handcuffs. Someone stopped the music.
“Do something, Iesa. Can’t you do something!” Maryam was raising her voice. Eyes turned towards us.
“There’s nothing…this wasn’t...I can’t do anything” My mind was still in the hallway, watching the handcuffs close around Aaran’s wrists. Maryam grabbed my shoulders, turning me, accusation in her eyes.
“Iesa.” The gym was hushed, people milled around in small groups. She lowered her voice to just above a whisper. “Iesa, what did you do?”
“No! Mar--” I couldn’t say her name. “I can’t, I just…” I twisted away, blindly pushing my arms out.
She fell back a step, stopped when her back found the wall. Her ankle slipped, and one of her heels came off. Maryam stood against the wall facing me and the rest of the people in the gym. She straightened her dress, she lifted one foot to fit her heel back on. She looked around, then at me. I wanted her to scream.
“Coward.” A whisper, barely loud enough to hear.
Spinning lights from the party reflected on the wells in her eyes. She stepped past me and walked towards the door. The sound of her heels on the hardwood floor echoed above the murmur of onlooking crowd.
The church had to withdraw their sponsorship of Aaran and his family. They chose to go back to Malaysia rather than risk a trial. Our parents all believed Aaran was innocent, but there was nothing they could do. Amirah was admitted to the hospital soon after, Maryam spent the next few months taking care of her. By the time school started that fall Maryam seemed like only an acquaintance, by Christmas she was a stranger.
The memory leaves my hand shaking as I hold the hot phone against my ear. I wish I was fast asleep next to my wife in our bedroom. I stare out the living room window, the newspaper lies forgotten on the smooth, timeworn leather of my recliner. I can hear the blood coursing through the channels of my body.
“Iesa, are you there?” Maryam asks.
“Yes…Hello Mar—” My voice cracks, I still can’t say her name. “It’s been so long.”
“It has,” She says. “You sound just like I remember.”
“How are you?”
“Aaran thought I should call you.”
“He’s doing well. He’s still in Sabah; he teaches at our old school. We speak often. I’ve been angry with you for a long time, Iesa. He said calling you will help.”
I picture Aaran wearing his Songkok in front of a class full of students, patiently answering their questions. The classroom is bright with Malaysian sunlight that streams in through the open windows. I imagine Maryam as I hope she is, surrounded by family, dragging her kids to the movies, decorating for the fourth of July. Outside my window, my daughter is pulling into the driveway. I wonder about her future. I hope she never has to experience the bitter taste of hate that drives so many of the choices people make.