The door swings open. Farnaz Ghorbani peers in. Her expression, an eternal apology. Ilyana makes her hands into pistols and aims them at Farnaz, hollering, “Operation Desert Storm!”
Farnaz backs out of the bathroom.
Coco punches the silver button on the hand dryer, bends at the waist and flips her hair upside down underneath the jet of air. She takes a tube of gloss from her back pocket and, by feel, does her lips candy-red. She is always finding ways to save time. When the dryer stops, her hair stands like a kinky halo around her face. Her lips shine. The bathroom is quiet and warm.
Hoisting onto the tiled sill in front of a window that lets in no light, Ilyana fires up a cigarette, and pushes smoke from her nose in lean, controlled wisps. She picks at the crust on her infected lobes. She adjusts the dollar sign earrings that dangle to her chin and smooth the angles in her face.
The door swings open. Farnaz cringes into view.
Leaning on the hand dryer, Coco says, “Look who, yo,” and purses her lips. Ilyana jumps off the sill, graceful as a cat, flipping her cigarette into the sink. By the time she reaches Farnaz, her voice is soothing and her blonde hair glints in the green florescent light, “You gotta take a piss, Gulf War? Don’t be scared. Join the party.” The dollar signs sway back and forth.
Ilyana is square-jawed and skinny. No teacher has ever seen her smile. In the faculty room she is referred to as The Sociopath. Every Sunday she eats dinner at Coco’s house. They are real best friends who fight for each other and read each other’s minds. They almost always get their periods on the same day. But even Coco doesn’t know that Ilyana was born in a whorehouse in Moscow, and sometimes if she dreams in Russian she wets the bed. When she was five she was brought over by an American uncle who got drunk and lost her in Central Park. It was a week before he sobered up and collected her from the police. Her picture had been on television. Back then, she didn’t speak English. She is now in her third year of foster care.
On her way into the stall, Farnaz adjusts her headscarf, smoothing a pleat, and that’s when Coco remembers the tiara. Her sister’s 8th birthday was Saturday and their mother decorated the living room with Dominican flags and pink and gold streamers and dressed Judy in a Cinderella Halloween costume she bought half price at the CVS in March. “Just like a princess,” their mother crooned, as she fitted the tiara in Judy’s hair, and Coco, who is a good cook, iced the chocolate cupcakes and smiled.
Farnaz flushes and emerges from the stall. Ilyana pushes her back into it. She says, “Whatchu got under that scarf? Hostages? Bombs? Ollie North?” (Ilyana’s current foster mom believes that teenagers should read the newspaper every morning with orange juice.)
Farnaz tries to squeeze past, but Ilyana shoves her down on the toilet and growls like a dog. Farnaz hunches and wraps her arms around her head. “Do what we say and we won’t fuck you up,” Coco hisses.
Farnaz says something but the arc of her body muffles her voice.
They rip the scarf from her head and shove it between her legs into the toilet. They are surprised by all the pins, by the under-layer bonnet. They try to flush the scarf but it gets stuck and bubbles back up. Coco holds Farnaz’s arms while Ilyana tears at her bun. Farnaz’s hair loosens and falls down her back, all the way to the toilet seat.
Coco purses her lips, presses the soft pads of her fingers against the combs of the tiara. After Judy’s birthday party, their mother went to work and while Coco was cleaning up, she found the tiara behind the couch. She stuck it in her purse and took Judy with her to meet Ilyana and the Puerto Rican brothers from the 12th floor. They walked to the river and roasted marshmallows over a tin can fire. The older boy, Juan, leaned his shoulder against hers. Everyone laughed when Judy said it was the best birthday ever. They walked back to the Wald Houses in a big pack that owned the sidewalk, counting the stubble of rusting air conditioners hanging crookedly from windows. The boys kicked at the black plastic rat traps in the lobby. They took the stairs while the girls waited for the elevator. Ilyana got off at the fifth floor. Coco went up to the tenth and read Judy her favorite story and put her to bed. When Juan called, she met him on the roof and they passed a 40 back and forth and looked at the yellow squares of windows. He snaked his fingers down the V of her t-shirt and inside the cups of her bra, and whispered, “You’re driving me crazy, Mami.” He undid his pants and stood so they puddled around his ankles, pushed her head between his legs and held it there. The pressure of his hands was heavy as he moved her head up and down. He grunted in the darkness. It was quiet on the roof, high above the streets.
She takes the tiara from her purse and hands it to Ilyana, who laughs. Farnaz doesn’t make a sound as Ilyana grinds the little combs of the tiara hard into her scalp. The air in the bathroom curdles with humidity. Coco paints gloss on Farnaz’s lips in dense red blobs, “Now you’re a real fuckin’ princess.”
A deep croak rips from Farnaz’s mouth. Her body jumps, involuntary, and Coco smears gloss across her face, “Princess got the hiccups.” Farnaz croaks again and Ilyana backs away. The sound echoes through the bathroom, absurd. The sound is nothing like Farnaz’s thin, frightened voice. The sound is strong and bold and unstoppable. Farnaz’s black hair curls, swept back by the little plastic combs, showing off her high cheekbones, the symmetry of her eyebrows. She wipes tears and lip-gloss from her chin. In the dim bathroom light, the rhinestones in the tiara look almost real.
The sound croaks from Farnaz again, seizing her body, and she thinks of her mother who used to pour her a glass of water, rub a circle on her back with a flat hand, when she hiccupped as a child. Her mother’s bangles would click in the sound of a circle. Farnaz has not thought of this in years. It is not one of the memories of her mother she turns over and over in her mind. It is new. A gift.
“She looks different with ears,” Coco says. “Not so terrorist.”
They slam the stall door behind them.
When she is sure they are gone, Farnaz fishes her scarf from the toilet, wrings it out, pumps it full of soap from the dispenser. She scrubs it and her hands at the sink. Crawling near the toilet, she finds the pins and bonnet. She forgets she is wearing the tiara till she catches sight of herself in the mirror. She can still taste the gloss, like sticky metal, and rakes her tongue with her teeth.
To quell the hiccups, she takes long, even breaths. She stops sniffling, sets the tiara on the windowsill. Presses the silver button on the hand dryer, and holds the scarf beneath the streaming air. It billows, gauzy purple, veined with yellow. Four times, she presses the button, till the scarf is dry and her hands are chapped and hot. She winds her hair into a bun, ties the bonnet on, drapes and pins the scarf so it covers her neck, ears, chest, and frames her face in a balanced oval. She drinks handfuls of water from the tap and leans against the sink. The faucet drips. Holding her breath, she counts to twenty in Farsi, then English. A hopeful lull when she believes the hiccups have gone. Another rips uncontrollable from the depths of her gullet, croaks out her mouth. She smiles, then sighs.
Six years ago, in Tehran, a stranger had saved her, a man who could read and write English. His parents had sent him to Boston for college the year before the Shah was deposed. The man pulled Farnaz from the rubble of her apartment building and dropped her in front of the U.S. Embassy with a note pinned to her dress: “She is Persian royalty.” His college roommate had plastered the walls of their dorm with pictures of Princess Diana and told him that Americans could not resist the fascination of a monarchy.
Farnaz sat in front of the embassy with a broken arm, covered in layers of grey brick dust. Someone found her a few hours later and carried her inside. All the people’s mouths moved; she didn’t hear anything but the shrieking residue of bombs. They gave her a piece of chocolate, wrapped her in a blanket. The story of royalty followed her and she never said anything to refute it. The real story is something untouched, all her own.
The bell rings for class. In the silence between hiccups, she tucks one neat end of the scarf over her shoulder and leaves the girls’ bathroom.
Neela Vaswani is author of the short story collection Where the Long Grass Bends, and a memoir, You Have Given Me a Country. She is the recipient of the American Book Award, an O. Henry Prize, the ForeWord Book of the Year gold medal, and many other honors. She is also co-author of the Middle Grade novel-in-letters, Same Sun Here. Her fiction and nonfiction have been widely anthologized and published in journals such as Epoch, Shenandoah, and Prairie Schooner. She has been a Visiting-Writer-in-Residence at more than 100 institutions, among them: Knox College, 92nd Street Y (Tribeca), the Jimenez-Porter House at the University of Maryland, Kentucky Women Writers Conference, the Whitney Museum in New York City, and IIIT Hyderabad, India. She has a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies, lives in New York City, and teaches at Manhattanville College's MFA in Writing Program and Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing Program. An education activist in India and the United States, Vaswani is founder of the Storylines Project with the New York Public Library.
Her father is Sindhi-Indian and her mother is Irish-Catholic. By the time Vaswani was eighteen, her family had lived in thirteen homes and traveled to twenty-five countries on doctor swaps and teaching tours. Vaswani has held a number of waitressing jobs, from chicken shacks to comedy clubs, and she paid off her school loans by cocktail waitressing at a fondue bar in NYC. Her first job was at a one-hour photo booth on Long Island. She has also dressed Armani models, delivered telephone books, worked cattle round-ups and barbed wire fencing, ripped tickets at a movie theatre, been a maid, a stage manager, a secretary, a prop girl for two independent movies, and driven an ice cream truck. She is left-handed although she plays the fiddle and knits right-handed. She loves paleontology, the Indian railway system, female detectives on television, goats, bats, bad-tempered camels, her husband, and online Boggle.