Someone was shaking her arm. Too tired and sleepy to move, she ignored it. But the shaking continued.
What the—? Zoha thought groggily, opening her eyes. To her absolute horror, a guy was standing just a few inches from her, his hand on her shoulder, shaking it, touching it.
“Don’t…don’t touch me!” she snapped, jolting herself back onto her couch.
He jumped, his hand shooting back. Zoha scrambled, her arms drawing her shoulders in, even though he was now several feet away.
“I’m sorry. Your alarm went off, and I figured you needed to wake up. I just…tried to wake you up,” he said, his eyes on hers. He wasn’t lying. She could see that in those platinum-gray eyes, but, lying or not, he had no right to touch her. Granted, he didn’t know she was Muslim and that no men outside her family were allowed to touch her. But still, he shouldn’t have touched her. For crying out loud, she didn’t even know him; he had no right to!
He pointed to her phone, which was lying on the library floor. It must have slipped out of her hand. “Your phone,” he said. His voice was deep and strong, and it gave Zoha goose bumps.
“Thanks,” she said with a voice now barely above a whisper as she reached for her phone. All she knew was that she needed to get up, no matter how tired she was. She had to pick up her bag and head for the coffee shop. Zoha hadn’t been sleeping long, only twenty minutes or so—or at least that’s how long she had put the timer on. Only twenty minutes. So she would have the ten minutes to grab coffee from the student-center shop before her organic chemistry class. That was the plan, anyway. This was what happened when she tried to cram in a full day of school after only four hours of sleep the night before. A total, complete fail, she thought.
“You okay there?” the guy asked. He was now closer, a few inches from the green couch she had been taking her nap on, just behind the bookshelves at the far end of the library’s third floor. Zoha glanced at him. He had on a navy-blue UC Davis sweater. His dirty-blond hair was spiked on top and, like almost every guy on campus, he hadn’t had the time to shave that morning, but it was his eyes that made her stare at him. His eyes were the most gorgeous eyes she had ever seen, like two disks of liquid platinum.
Coming out of her daze, Zoha tucked one of her black curls under her left ear and said, “Yes. Yes. Thanks.”
“You seem a little disoriented.” The way he stared at her was as if she were from another planet.
“I’m okay. Just tired.” She rubbed her right eye, still careful enough not to smudge the eyeliner. She wished he would stop staring. Hadn’t he ever seen anyone waking up ‘disoriented’? Maybe he thought she was on drugs. She had already told him that she was fine, but he lingered, his platinum-gray eyes on her. Anyway, why was he there, in her private spot, the back of the library where the books had gathered layers of dust and hadn’t had visitors in years? But she didn’t have the time or the interest in striking up a conversation with a stranger she didn’t care to know, beautiful eyes or not.
Being Muslim and knowing how strict her parents were when it came to the opposite sex, Zoha still talked to guys and made friends with them if they were in her classes, but only to a point and no more. This guy who was standing in front of her was not in any of her classes. In fact, she had never seen him on campus before, and chances were that she would never see him again. Zoha got up and tried to grab her bag, but it fell. Given her luck, the bag was unzipped and, with a cacophony of sounds, everything in it scattered out. Her handmade makeup bag, her change, pencil case, and even her organic chemistry notes all spread out on the cold, gray stone of the library floor.
“Oh, God! Not this!” That’s all she needed—for her stuff all spread out on the floor in front of him. The clock was ticking against her. She would most likely be late for her class now. As she knelt down and started to pick up her stuff, Mr. Busybody offered, “Here. Let me help you.”
“No, thanks,” she said sharply, with a tone that said, You did your job, you woke me up; now, will you please leave me alone? She quickly threw her stuff back in her bag and zipped it, and without wasting another minute, strode out.
The couch in the library was her place to refuge between classes, mostly for studying. Since she had spent the entire last month interviewing for different medical schools, she had to catch up with her classes now. This left her overworked and exhausted. Just half an hour ago, while she was studying, she had been so sleep deprived that her eyelids had practically closed themselves.
Outside, the cool February breeze greeted her as she rushed toward the coffee shop inside the student center, across from her lecture hall. She badly needed that pick-me-up before her class started. Luckily, the line wasn’t too long, but she still hated to wait. She shifted from one leg to the other till it was her turn.
“Small coffee,” she said, before the barista could even open her mouth. “And I am a student.”
“Do you have your card?” the barista with clearly fake-blond hair asked. Zoha knew her from her sociology class.
“I do,” Zoha said, as she searched the inside of her bag. The little cardholder, in which she kept her student ID, her driver’s license, and even her bankcard, wasn’t there.
“I don’t have it with me right now, but if I pay with cash, can you still give me the discount?”
“I’m sorry. Without the card, I can’t give you any discount,” the girl said, rolling her eyes. Zoha wished at least she could remember the girl’s name.
“You know me. I come here all the time. You were in my sosh class last year.”
“I am sorry.” The girl shook her head, but her tone clearly wasn’t apologetic.
It wasn’t that Zoha couldn’t afford coffee without that 10 percent discount. It was because her dad was paying for her school, and Zoha didn’t have a job. If she could save him money, even a few pennies, she would. After all, he still had two more daughters who needed to go to college, too.
“Fine,” Zoha said finally, her lips drawing thin. But I will remember this, she thought darkly.
“Were you looking for this?” A man’s voice came from behind her.
It was the guy from the library, standing behind her with her little cardholder, that she had made last year of pink and purple felt. He loomed over her, which wasn’t a great shock, as Zoha was very petite. Even her fifteen-year-old sister, Noorah, was taller than she. With his height, this guy could be a basketball player, too—just like Noorah.
“Where did you find it?” she asked, finally taking the cardholder.
“You forgot to pick it up when your bag fell, and you in such a hurry, I had to run after you.” He said through perfect lips. He could model, Zoha mentally noted somewhere in her subconscious.
She thanked him. Then Zoha turned and handing her ID to the barista, raised her eyebrows and said, “Student ID! Now, give me my discount.”
The barista took the card, scanned it, and handed it back to her without a peep.
“Make that two, actually,” the guy said, and handed the barista a ten-dollar bill. “Keep the change.”
“No,” Zoha protested. “No, I can buy—”
“It’s okay. I got it.” He flashed her his white teeth.
She wanted to smile. This wasn’t the first time a guy had spontaneously treated her, and it wouldn’t be the last either, but what was the use? She couldn’t even befriend him, let alone think of anything more. She was first and foremost a Muslim girl.
From the back of the counter, a girl with spiky hair and a nose ring handed them two steaming paper cups. They took their cups and walked toward the milk-and-sugar counter.
“Thank you,” Zoha finally said. “Really. You shouldn’t have.”
“I’m Ethan,” he said, his eyes shifting from her hair to her face and back to her hair again. No, she wasn’t the tallest girl on the block, and yes, she was a typical Iranian girl, with her skin just a shade darker than pearl and dark-brown eyes. But it was almost always her lustrous black, curly hair, like something out of a hair dye commercial, that caught people’s attention.
“Zoha,” she said, holding on to her cup with both hands. She wasn’t always like that when it came to shaking hands. For years, she followed her mom and aunts’ method of saying apologetically, “Sorry, we don’t shake hands with men.” But after she started college, she figured out that if she kept her hands occupied, the chances of a handshake dropped off dramatically. Then she didn’t need to explain her life story to the person she had just met—that she couldn’t shake hands with unrelated men. She liked to keep things simple that way. There was no need for the whole world to know that she was a Muslim girl who came from a family whose main priority in life was their faith.
“Zoha?” he asked. She could read a million questions in his perplexed eyes. Is that even a name? If so, what kind of name is that? Where are you from? What’s your nationality?
“Yes, Zoha.” She gave him a quick smile. No, it wasn’t Emily or Courtney. No, it wasn’t the kind of name that one heard daily, but if he was really interested, he was more than welcome to Google it. She was late for her class and felt no obligation to share anything about it.
“Is it Z-O-H-A?”
“Yes.” Zoha smiled again. “Thanks for the coffee, Ethan. I’m late for my class.”
He hesitated a bit, and if it hadn’t been clear before, Zoha now knew that he was into her. He must have expected that treating her to coffee meant a good chat, maybe getting to know her better or even exchanging phone numbers. But she knew better than to exchange any number with him—or any guy, for that matter.
“I’ll walk you to your class,” he finally offered.
“My class is just across the road,” Zoha said, pointing toward the lecture hall.
“What time is your class over?”
“Four,” she said trying so hard not to smile. Who wouldn’t like a little attention from such a hot guy?
He nodded, and then finally said, “It was nice meeting you, Zoha.”
As she crossed the road to the lecture hall, she knew he was standing there, watching her. But she didn’t have to worry about it. She wore jeans and a jacket long enough to cover her bottom. She was covered. He would not see a thing.
After throwing the empty cup in a nearby trashcan, Zoha put her curls in a ponytail. She didn’t remember ever having a real haircut. Her mom’s friend Mahnaz trimmed her hair now and then in her house, but she had never had a real haircut, or been to a salon. As a practicing Muslim girl, she was supposed to keep her hair under a scarf once she left the house, and Zoha had done just that until last year. But once she started college, she no longer wanted to wear the scarf. For Zoha, it was not just about wanting to fit in. It was more. It was about the reasons behind wearing a scarf, the reasons that no longer made sense anymore. This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. She had thought about it all throughout her senior year in high school, but finding the courage and making the decision to actually remove her scarf without her parents knowing—that was another story. Although she had kept her secret from them, the thought of it burned within her, like a hot skewer. The guilt of it haunted her; removing her scarf was a betrayal of their values. Her parents had raised her to practice and believe in Islam, but as she got older, she found herself struggling between what made her happy and what her parents expected of her.