One last look in the mirror, Theresa. Make sure you don’t have anything hanging out of your nose. Are your eyebrows trying to run wild on your forehead? Chopstick: Check. No lunch in teeth: Check. Gum in case breath smells: Check.
You have every right to be here, just like anyone else. I tell myself as I put my purse on my shoulder and lock the car door.
I stand up straight and hold my gaze forward with as much self-respect and determination as I can project. It has already started.
One stare. I smile.
This one wasn’t a hate stare more of a curious stare (I have learned to tell the difference in the brow and the widening of the eyes).
It is only natural for people to be curious of things they aren’t use to. I remind myself.
A group of stares: it’s a flock of teenage girls this time. I do not smile. They giggle, looking in my direction, and chatter among themselves once they think I am out of ear shot.
You probably would have done the same thing at that age. I remind myself.
I keep walking, say hello to the grocery store attendant, and grab the closest cart that looks functional. Two young men tower over the stand of apples. Both men are each at least 100 lbs heavier and a foot taller than I am. Their lips go from laughing to pursed and their eyes squint when they see me. I stared directly into their eyes with a neutral look on my face and then walked on without missing a beat.
Don’t look at the ground, Theresa. You will look vulnerable, and they will think you are an easy target. Show them you are self-possessed. This is a jungle.
I tug my scarf down farther over my chest, pick up a bag of lettuce, and wish I could get some apples now.
A sandy haired child around preschool age is sitting in his mom’s cart pointing at me. He tries to get his mom’s attention. Mom shushes her small child and blushes, avoiding eye contact with me. I put one hand in the pocket of my floor length skirt, smile and wave at the kid with my free hand.
If you are open and friendly, they will reciprocate. I try to convince myself as I pick up some butter and pull my long sleeves down over my pale hands that have instantaneously chilled in the refrigerated section.
I go down the next aisle, and notice an older gentleman who stops what he is doing, turns toward me, and stares directly at me; I pick out the heart smart tomato sauce.
Click! I hear the sound of a camera and turn to see that he has taken a picture of me on his phone.
“Do you want my autograph too?” I say, trying at a joke and simultaneously trying to shame him. His jaw drops. I can’t tell whether he is more shocked that I am shopping in his store, that I am in his city, that I am in his state, or that I can speak his language in his accent. I push my cart past him, wondering if he sees my European features, or if he can’t see past my scarf.
You are good enough, you are smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like you! I silently recite the Saturday Night Live mantra as a coping mechanism, but I am getting mad now.
I am passed the point of embarrassment; I have been pushed over the edge of shyness. I can’t stomach having to be apologetic anymore. I have done this at least once a week since 2001. Do I need to continue doing this once a week for the next thirty years, or however long I live?
You are strong, my feeble pep talk continues through the cracker aisle, the pet aisle, paper goods, an announcement for a cleanup in the freezer section, which reminds me that I need to pick up some frozen strawberries.
You can do this. People have suffered worse. You are here with enough money to buy enough food for your family. You are doing better than most. I leave a trail of stares in my wake. I offer as many smiles as I can stand.
“Ain’t you hot in all these clothes?”
The cashier slurs, smirking while she lazily slides my items over the scanner. ‘Bip bip’. I can feel the hot anger coloring my otherwise pale face. ‘Bip bip’. I have heard it a million times. ‘Bip bip’. A million times a day, even. ‘Bip bip’. And I have learned that this question translated means:
“You’re in America now, it’s time you learn to speak American and take off all that garb, or go back to your country.”
I swallow my anger and say: “No, I’m not so hot. I usually stay in the AC.”
Instead of what I want to spit at her: Of course I am [email protected]#!^ hot. It is a hundred %^&$* degrees outside! Everyone is hot. Period!
The cashier looks down her nose, and says: “Well, I was just asking!’”
I smile sweetly (the only smile I have left) and say, “Thank you, you are sweet to ask”. Instead of what I want to yell at her: “You don’t know me. Don’t speak to me like I am not a human being. I AM a human being, an American, a southerner, and I have chosen to be a Muslim. I choose to dress modestly because I refuse to be defined by the size and shape of my body”.
You don’t know her either, Theresa. I remind myself as I rush out of the store with my purchases, only to be met by more stares in the parking lot. I smile. And someone smiles back at me. I can almost cry at this small kindness.
“That’s a beautiful scarf!” A petite, brunette woman, dressed in a sharp suit says as she passes.
I do cry.