At the Olympics, Nada was the first woman to compete as part of a mixed team. She was compelled to wear a version of the hijab, a cap-style covering that made her look more like a swimmer than a wrestler. During her consolation match, Nada was executing an underhook counter when she lost her headgear to the passivity zone on the rubber mat. Her male teammates called her a prostitute. Two things happened as a result: her father sent her to work on one side of a mechitzeh or gender wall at a telecommunications company and, while there, she met Faye on Facebook. Conservative clerics called Facebook a door to lust.
Faye was outed as a teenager and never really survived the merciless online trolling. Overnight, the world was populated by drive-by shooters. Because of this, she quit school and got a job at the Walmart in Little Rock. When she wasn’t working cash, she was riding the bus to and from work. She wore clothes from the Goodwill on University and collected non-perishables from the Foodbank on 65th. Faye didn’t know that she was living the American Dream because she couldn’t wake from it.
When Nada first met Faye at McDonald’s, she made a joke that prepared each for intimacy. “I am Saudi Arabian of Somali descent. My ancestors were brought there as part of the slave trade. They were transported from one of eight countries commonly called the Horn of Africa. The horn of Africa accurately describes what patriarchal culture does to women.” Faye knew phallic humor when she heard it. She said, “Your name in Spanish means nothing.” She then rested one hand on Nada’s and offered to share her muffin.
In addition to arranging a visa and plane tickets, Nada’s father gave her a modest relocation dowry with the proviso that she never return. From the airport, she taxied to a used-car lot and bought a 1960’s panel van, one advertised as a perfect replica of the original Scooby-Do Mystery Machine. In the parking lot at Walmart, Nada opened the back of the van to a Sleep ‘n Stow conversion kit. She said, “Think of the door to this van as a Friend Request on Facebook.” Faye complied. For an hour, anyway, they negotiated privacy settings in the Mystery Machine.
If Faye was an economic slave in the land of the free, that meant she was expendable and invisible. Nada was the easier target for xenophobia. If she wore her hijab by choice, she might hear anti-Muslim vitriol. If she showed her face, her dark skin metastasized colonial wounds. Her best defence was to confuse the dogs by checking more boxes. She would scream at her tormenters, “I’m gay!” But Faye knew that identity was meat to the dogs, that certain things were best not said until the deafening explosion of fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Their choice of honeymoon destination was a hot debate. Nada preferred SuperShe Island on the Finnish Archipelago. She said, “No men are allowed. We’d be like Wonder Woman!” Faye liked the idea of Isla Mujeres or the Island of Women across the bay from Cancún, Mexico. She was smitten by the legend she read online, how the island was once sanctuary to the priestesses of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of the moon, only vestured from the girdle down. Of course, she also read the later stories, how pirates kept their women on the island while they sailed elsewhere to rape and pillage. But Faye preferred the goddesses of legend to the sex slaves of history.
On their first night at the María del Mar beach hotel, Faye and Nada ate cubes of red snapper cooked in lime juice and chili peppers. They were contemplating dessert when a man named Ernesto approached and asked if he might enjoy their company. Faye understood dirty joke right away, but the thing that really annoyed her was how Ernesto kept looking at Nada’s big boobs and how he disguised his aggression with demure glances toward the parquet floor. How could such a thing happen on Isla Mujeres? After being rebuffed, Ernesto excused himself with a smile and a piece of advice, “The waiter will only bring the bill when you ask for it. Say, La cuenta, por favor.”
After midnight and a pitcher of Mexican sangria, Nada and Faye took a stroll on the beach. At one point, they walked into a volleyball net. Said Nada, giggling and disentangling herself, “I’ve never felt so free!” Faye’s reaction was counterintuitive, joy replaced by panic and fear. She wondered what was wrong with her. She did not realize that Anywhere, U.S.A. had prepared her to invest lightly in hope and dream.
It was Faye who suggested that they swim. Nada was an athlete and more than game. She and Faye stripped and entered the water. “The moon is out,” said Nada. “That’s the goddess, Ixchel,” said Faye. “Yeah,” laughed Nada, “except she wasn’t butt naked!”
While they swam, Faye navigated competing currents that both elevated and dragged her down: Walmart and the Mystery Machine and Wonder Woman and sex slaves and goddesses and pirates and online trolling and the Isla Mujeres and the bill that you must ask for and pay and ask for and pay.
Faye was struggling to stay afloat and breathe when she said to Nada, “Isn’t the cave around here?”
Nada remembered the story. A fisherman from the island had long ago discovered a cave where sharks entered but did not appear to come out for many hours. Until then, it was believed that sharks never slept, that if they stopped moving, they would die.
“Yes,” said Nada. “I think so, but it’s really deep, isn’t it?”
Faye disguised her crisis, but not her love, “Let’s see if we can find it!”
And each made a jackknife of her body and plunged below the surface of moonlight and ocean, mermaids in pursuit of sleeping sharks.
It’s easy to find contemporary stories that tackle difficult issues of class, identity and race, but not easy to find one that is beautifully written and meticulously crafted. This one is.