‘She had, like, a very ethnic way of walking.’
Purse Lady said ethnic a little quieter, as though she were trying not to get anyone in trouble. For a moment, I wondered if I should be offended. I was ethnic. But it was very hard for me to be offended by most things and I decided that if my offence was not immediate or spontaneous then it probably wasn’t worth the effort of getting angry on principle.
So, I said, ‘We have a very diverse employment base here at Paymart. Are you sure it was one of our staff who bumped into you?’
‘Yes, I’m sure. And, as I’ve said, it was a very particular kind of walk, like very vibrant,’ she added, narrowing her eyes as though this were a difficult task and she was doing her best to be accurate. I wished I didn’t know what she was talking about but I did. ‘Now, I know it’s my fault for leaving my bag open – you can’t do that anymore – but I want this dealt with. I’m sure she took something from my purse.’
‘Ma’am,’ I said. They were telling us to call people ma’am nowadays because recently one of our newer employees had called someone ‘lady’, as in, ‘Hey, lady!’ and she hadn’t appreciated that very much. ‘Ma’am. Could you provide any other identifying features? Say, her hair or’ – lord forgive me – ‘her complexion?’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Purse Lady said with an anxiously disapproving head shake. ‘I don’t really pay attention to these things.’
‘I’m sorry, I’m afraid I can’t quite picture her.’
‘She walked right past you! You smiled at her!’
I knew that was a lie because I hadn’t smiled all morning.
‘Can’t I speak to security?’
‘What’s missing from your purse? Maybe I can help you look for it.’
‘Well that’s the problem, isn’t it?’ Purse Lady’s son was tugging on her skirt and I wanted to tell her she should stop cutting his hair in that way – short all over with a straight-edged curtain of bangs at the front – or kids would bully him at school. I wanted to bully him a little. ‘I’m not sure what she took from my bag, that’s why I need you to find her.’
Suddenly, I knew exactly what this woman wanted. She wanted every single worker on shift to line up against a wall like criminals and she wanted to pace slowly down the line, like a human lie-detector, hands behind her back in army-general style, scrutinising each and every ethnic until she found the woman who may (or may not) have taken an unknown item from her purse.
During the pause in our conversation, she must have seen a change in my expression because she hardened her gaze. She moved her limp-haired child behind her in an apparent surge of maternal protectiveness and said again, ‘Can I please see security?’
I felt our conversation descending into future-lawsuit territory.
‘Let me get the manager for you. Ma’am.’ And I ran to get Bilal and Sophia.
Bilal was not the manager but so far no customer had thought to question his authority when I, on desperate occasions, would hoist him from the packing room and over to my present tormentor. He was the kind of man who would say something like, ‘I’m sorry Ma’am, is there a problem here?’ in a way that was both intimidating and unintentionally charming and then the ma’am would smile and laugh obsequiously as if suddenly realising it had all been some comical misunderstanding and she would leave in a tight-lipped flurry, shooting a glare over her shoulder at the poor soul on shift (me), having failed to secure a refund for the supposedly faulty Nerf gun her son had so obviously broken two minutes after opening.
That type of overworked, under-enjoyed housewife found Bilal irresistible. He was stern, built like a refrigerator, but young and humble in a way that made him kind. They flattered themselves by obeying him.
‘Hello,’ Bilal said. Sophia and I were cowering a few steps away, half-shielding ourselves behind a rack of plus-sized gym shorts. Sophia served no purpose in this situation but she lived for watching Bilal ‘in action,’ as she called it. She was giggling, pinching my side and nodding in Bilal’s direction. He turned to Purse Lady’s son briefly and added, ‘Hey buddy.’ Purse Lady loved this. ‘Ma’am, I’m hearing you’ve lost something, I hope nothing too expensive. We don’t take accusations of theft lightly in this establishment.’
‘In this establishment!’ Sophia whisper-shouted into my ear.
With clockwork abruptness, Purse Lady dissolved into a flutter of civility, retracted the severity of her accusation, and settled for returning later if indeed she did find something had gone missing after checking her purse more thoroughly at home.
‘That sounds wise.’ Bilal walked away.
After the dazzled smile left in his wake had worn off, Purse Lady shot me one of those if-looks-could-kill killers and honestly, I did not care. I gave her a close-lipped, awkward smile, the kind of vaguely apologetic smile you give an acquaintance at the grocery store. But I didn’t care.
Bilal barely made it around the corner before he let his frown dissolve into reserved playfulness. Sophia made no effort to hide her enthrallment, but it was okay for Sophia to be like that – she had a punkish, fuchsia pixie-cut, gallons of black eye-liner, and enough earrings on each ear to dress all the girls in the Von Trapp family, so customers knew what to expect the moment they saw her. Her discourtesy only confirmed their expectations, which people tended to relish.
Back in the packing room, we were laughing like kids and, dwarfed in the dimness by a fortress of precariously stacked miscellaneous boxes, I felt the same size as a kid too.
‘In this establishment,’ Sophia said again, shaking her head. ‘That’s my new favourite. Classic.’ She was sitting atop a sturdy-looking box the size of a man, her legs dangling. I had lodged myself into an abandoned trolley. Bilal walked over and started pushing the trolley around with me inside. I couldn’t see him but I could hear his voice behind me.
‘That was all Mini,’ he said, giving the trolley a wiggle. I had my shoulders hiked up and I was grinning, my fingers threaded through the trolley mesh as I swayed at Bilal’s behest. ‘She comes up with all my best material.’
I liked Bilal, very much. He probably knew this and I appreciated that he did not make a big deal out of it. Sometimes these things are a fact of life and just need to be waited out. It’s not always the beginning of something and you don’t always have to see if it could be. That was how I dealt with it anyway.
We hardly ever talked but he was very nice to me, called my sense of humour ‘surprising, like a jack-in-the-box, but more unassuming than that’. My mother thought my sense of humour was ‘sad’ and ‘very concerning’, which incidentally was how she described this one story about orphans in a famine.
‘Oh, Mini, this is all so sad,’ she’d said, shaking her head at the iPad on which she had loaded the news. ‘And very concerning.’ And then she had glanced over at me, I suppose to see if I would make a joke.
Initially, I’d hated Bilal. Or more accurately, I thought he hated me, so I returned the feeling as a sort of knee-jerk reaction. Perhaps hate is a strong word. Pointed indifference. Directed avoidance. I had no real reason for disliking him however, and whenever Sophia brought this to my attention it only made me hate him more.
But once he caught my eye from behind the returns counter. He looked away – then he looked back again. I was refolding board-shorts at the other end of the store in a brain-numbing trance. He was at that moment enduring the tyranny of yet another indignant shopper whose newly-purchased clothes had acquired occult stains and/or rips and who had simultaneously been robbed of all evidence of purchase. Kill-me-now, he said with his eyes, as though we knew each other well enough to have conversations in that way. Something approaching a smile momentarily fluoresced his expression. He looked away again. Oh, I thought. I did not hate him after that.
‘It’s feminist to be ugly,’ Sophia told me as we were leaving.
‘I’m not ugly, I’m just kind of short,’ I said. I hadn’t been paying attention to the preceding dialogue but it did not seem out of character for Sophia to pay me an insult-compliment such as this.
‘I’m not talking about you, Tiny.’ Sophia had taken the tie – a horrendous shade of acid yellow – they made us wear atop our electric-blue polos and fashioned it as a headband, with the tie hanging down to the side like she was a teenage boy from a high-school rock band.
We were walking to the back room to grab our things and ‘escape’, as she put it. ‘And that’s what you are, by the way: tiny. Don’t “kind of short” me. I’ve seen garden gnomes taller than you. No, I was talking about myself. Why do you think I refuse to set foot in a cosmetics store? Why do you think I dyed my hair the colour of wet fairy floss? You know, it’s kind of like why you wear the headscarf, just a different expression of the same power-move.’
I had never thought any move I’d ever made to be worthy of a ‘power’ prefix. I considered the possibly distasteful implications of everything Sophia had just said and wondered, for the second time that day, whether or not to get offended. But, in truth, Sophia’s well-meaning stupidity delighted me. She took herself just seriously enough for it to be admirable but not so seriously that she was intolerable.
‘You’re not ugly,’ I said as a half-hearted reflex. ‘So then where do you buy all your eyeliner from if not a cosmetics store?’
‘Paymart!’ She shrugged on her knapsack and danced her eyebrows at me: ‘Fifty-percent employee discount, baby.’
Walking from Paymart to the bus-stop outside the shopping complex, we had to pass through the plaza. It was a Thursday night so everything was open late and families of the suburban variety spilled happily into the courtyard from the European and Asian restaurants lining its periphery. Sophia had her arm through mine and was telling me about a ‘super progressive scarfie’ character in some new show.
‘It’s great, a real myth-buster, you’d love it,’ she told me. I doubted that. I knew that kind of character, the kind who always talked about why she didn’t wear the hijab because the producers wanted to show she was the modern type of Muslim, the kind that would launch into culturally-enlightened tirades against anyone who caused her offence. I didn’t have that brand of energy.
‘I’ll check it out,’ I humoured her, and Sophia flashed me a generous smile. She had great lines in her cheeks and the crinkles in her eyes reminded me of Japanese folded fans. I don’t know why she thought she was ugly. I thought she looked like Greta Gerwig in 20th Century Women, but I never told her that in case she thought Greta Gerwig looked ugly in 20th Century Women.
‘That man is glaring at you,’ Sophia said into my ear. I glanced over at a squashed-looking man leaning against a pillar by the exit. He held the expression of someone who had just touched a mouldy peach in the fridge and drawn his hand back in disgust, angry at the person who had left it there to rot.
‘I hadn’t noticed,’ I said, feeling heat rise to my face. I watched the ground and willed Sophia to walk faster.
‘What’s his problem?’ Sophia said, though she knew what his problem was. She kept looking over at him. Stop, stop, I wanted to say. ‘Why is he glaring at you?’
We had to walk past him to get to the exit. As we did, he moved quickly onto the path, bashed into my shoulder, jolting me loose from Sophia’s threaded arm.
‘F***ing Muslims’ was the apology I got.
Sophia was livid, looking back over her shoulder and then at me and then around at everyone else in a crazed, flammable stupor.
‘What the heck?’ she kept saying (but she didn’t say heck). ’I’m going to say something, why didn’t you say something! This is – that’s…are you kidding me? I’m so angry I’m going to say something.’
‘No, don’t!’ I pulled her back towards me and finally we were out of the plaza. The sun set so late in Summer. It was eight o’clock and the sky had only just illumed in a brazen show of violet and pinks. ‘Don’t, Soph. Just leave it, let’s go. Come on, please let’s just go.’
She was frowning at me, wide-eyed, walking slow like a dog resisting a leash.
‘Aren’t you upset? Aren’t you angry? I’m angry. I would have served him right back if he had said it to me. I would have yelled at him in front of all those people.’
This time I really did want to be offended. I wanted to be as bold in my rage as Sophia, as reactionary in my justified rebuke. But all I felt was a cold sweat and a sense that everyone else in that plaza was only sorry they hadn’t done it to me themselves. I knew that wasn’t true, but every time something like that happened, it felt like gospel that someone – anyone, everyone – wanted to hurt me. He had intended to shock me, to shame and scare me, and I was embarrassed at having reacted exactly in all those ways. I wished I were like my mother, who never froze. She would have leapt back at him, composed but with a dignified wrath.
I remembered my mother once reading an article about a young actress who had been touched-up by a slimy hot-shot director in the nineties.
‘Why didn’t she stop him?’ my mother had said, looking up from the iPad.
‘Sometimes you just freeze.’
‘Freeze? If someone tried to touch me, I’d kick them in the gut and leave.’
What makes someone a Freezer instead of a Kicker? I was a Freezer.
The incident in the plaza wasn’t even that bad. The bashing into my shoulder, swearing – it wasn’t even that bad. The fact of the matter was, it was by far not the worst thing that had happened to me in public. I was just embarrassed Sophia had finally been around to see it. I had disappointed her. I was a stunned fish, all flaccid and flopping about on the sand.
Bilal was at the bus-stop for some reason. Usually, he drove home. I found it incredible that he could even fit on one of those narrow little benches. He was like a wrestler sitting on a swing in a children’s park.
Sophia alighted upon him immediately, recounting the incident in the plaza with expectant indignation. She kept pausing to allow him to react with the desired shock. Bilal only frowned down at his great, knotted hands. He was leaning his elbows on his knees, which were bent uncomfortably due to the lowness of the bench. Sophia had sat herself down next to him mid-retelling and I sat next to her. The pink in the sky snuffed to indigo and all our skins were bathed in blue light.
‘Oh my God,’ Sophia said, hushed, stopping mid-sentence. ‘That woman over there is staring too. That’s it -’
She stood as if to confront the woman but I pulled her hastily back down to the bench and saw Bilal’s figure relax.
‘Soph, it’s fine. You’re just noticing because of what happened five minutes ago. She’s probably just being nosy.’ She probably wasn’t, but again a curious stare, if perhaps a little insensitive, was still low on the list of things that could offend me.
‘You should give her one of your, “Can I help you, ma’am’s?”’ Sophia nodded to Bilal. He breathed a laugh at the ground. He knew as well as I did that we were not in Paymart anymore and so his mysterious powers of authority were nullified.
Sophia’s bus arrived. She stood, well and truly exhausted by the day, and threw one more pitying and compatriotic glance over her shoulder as she boarded. Bilal and I both gave a little wave.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, once she was gone. I didn’t dare look at him. We almost never talked without Sophia around. The buffer of her empty space still sat between us on the bench like the ghost of her safeguard. I think I could have counted the number of conversations Bilal and I had had over the year on fewer than the fingers of one hand.
‘That’s alright.’ I wondered if he was a Kicker or a Freezer. ‘People have said much worse. Sophia’s not used to it.’
‘You are,’ he said, which was true but sad when said aloud.
‘You have sisters,’ I said. ‘You know what it’s like.’
‘It’s funny, it never happens when I’m around. Just shows how cowardly those people are.’
His use of ‘cowardly’ led me to believe he was a Kicker. But I wanted to know, I wanted to hear what he would have done. I often found myself wondering about the things he would have done or said or thought. I suppose the blueness of our skin and the gold shimmer of his hair under the blinking yellow station light afforded me a moment of mundane bravery, so I asked him. He glanced sideways at me, but we both then preferred to look down at our shoes or hands.
‘You mean if I had been with you and Sophia?’
‘I don’t know. I would have done whatever you asked me to do. I would have done whatever you wanted.’
I studied him. I still didn’t know whether this made him a Kicker or a Freezer. What should I think of him? He was as confounding to me as he had been since the day he had first showed up and ignored me. I had no idea what he was. I had no idea if we were even friends. We didn’t talk like friends. We talked like we knew something about each other. He was a giant, next to me. Incredible, I thought. So strange.
The station light finally puttered off. Now everything was blue: my shoes, his beard, the whites of his eyes.
‘Oh dear. I feel like a soon-to-be-killed-off extra in the beginning of an X-Files episode,’ I said. He laughed, his cinder-block of a chest moving up and down. I saw my bus at the far end of the road. For a moment I fancied myself telekinetic, directing all my energies at the traffic lights to turn them immovably, unstoppably red.
‘Sophia told me you took on an extra shift, Monday afternoons with me,’ Bilal said. We were both looking to the right, down the road at my bus. It stopped at the first traffic light of three. Ha! I thought.
He turned to his left then, looked at me.
‘I thought you said you babysit on Mondays.’
I shrugged. ‘I’ll figure it out.’ I wished he wouldn’t pin me like that. I felt oddly at his mercy. My bus stopped at the next red light.
‘Won’t that be a pain? I think there’s a shift opening on Thursday. Maybe you could take that instead of swapping.’
‘I don’t mind.’ It came out sounding a little smaller than I had intended. A sad look I didn’t understand passed over his face and he turned back over his right shoulder to watch the bus, which miraculously was stopping at the third red light.
I stood up, wishing things could have ended differently, wishing I could have been born a Kicker; I would have Kicked and Kicked all day. As it was, I made myself content. I told myself, these things happen, and that I was fine with it passing me by. A cool wind was sweeping down through the summer air, replacing it with a tired breeze. It was saying, What a day.
My bus pulled up after all with a puff and a sigh. I turned again to say goodbye. Bilal sat there, all big and blue, a strange look upon his face. It was a sort of frown or a smile, or like a question, like he was expecting something funny to happen. Maybe he was a Freezer after all.
‘…What?’ he asked, a glint in the blue-black of his pupils.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. We were both smiling then. I felt a tug in my rib. Now! the tug said. But I Froze. ‘See you, I guess.’
I got on the bus. He watched me through the window, the question on his face. I thought about that all the time, the odd, laughing frown, turned it around in my fingers like a coin. Someone on the bus was glaring at me but it was a half-hearted kind of glare. Not offended, I decided. The bus pulled away and I saw the tottering yellow light of the bus station limp back into life behind me.