What You Learn Along the Way by Omar Hussain

This personal story, spanning many years, includes a word which in many parts of the world is used as an offensive description for a person of Pakistani descent

What You Learn Along the Way

Lesson One: Know the Difference

The morning recess bell upends my daily journey across the monkey bars. I release my grip and let my dangling body splash down into the play pit, kicking up pieces of wooden tanbark, just as Ryan LeMasse tells me what I am not. 

“What do you mean I’m not white?”

“You’re not,” he confirms. 

“Look,” I hold my arm out next to his. “We’re the same color!”

“That’s because my family is Italian. We’re just tan.”

“My mom is white.”

“But your dad is a Paki. He’s not white.”

My t-shirt sags too far off my left shoulder. I tug on it and pursue Ryan as we head back into our classroom decorated with finger paintings of Santa Claus and paper mâché snowflakes. We form a single-file line, Ryan just ahead of me. I hold my hands out, palms up. Flip them over. 

“Ryan — are you sure?”

He looks back over his shoulder, eyebrows pinched. “Yes, Amir. You practically have the same last name as Saddam.” 

I nod.

He turns around and puts his arm around me. “It’s okay, Amir. Not that big of a deal.” 

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Lesson Two: Take Responsibility 

I speed-walk to first period pre-calc, sweaty hands clenching my backpack’s shoulder straps as blue and green eyes — already bulging in full panic-mode — stop on me for just a second longer than usual as they pass me in the hall. The second plane hit the World Trade Center only forty-five minutes earlier. 

Please don’t let it be the Muslims, I think to myself.

Ms. Wick forfeits her lesson plan and blasts AM radio throughout the classroom.

“I just hope we go after whoever did this,” says Jeff, a kid whose real academic year habitually starts with summer school. Other boys nod emphatically.

Looking around the class, I pattern my behavior after the real Americans. I shake my head a nanosecond after they do. I smile and chat with neighbors as they pretend like our senior year is utterly unaffected by what’s happening on the east coast. I sit with a solemn expression on my face as Ms. Wick delivers a power sigh. 

At noon the announcement to end school early is made through crackling intercoms campus-wide. I find my friends in the quad. Those of us with driver’s licenses and cars become the focal point.

“I think I should head straight home,” says my friend Matt. “Can you give Perry a ride to his house?”

“Sure,” I say. “No problem.”

“Hey, Amir,” Jessica taps me on the shoulder. “Can I get a ride?”

“Of course.” 

I feel my friend Scott staring at my profile. I turn and face him, his football-fat-neck ever apparent. “What’s up?” I ask. 

He curls his upper lip into a pained grin. “Don’t you feel bad for any of this?”

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Lesson Three: Follow Their Rules

The security line snakes around nylon barriers as guards with black hats and combat gloves and automatic guns survey every person trying to make a flight. I breathe slowly and repeat my reminders in my head. 

Enunciate your words so they know you don’t have an accent. 

Smile so they know you’re not threatening.

Make casual conversation with others in line so they know you belong. 

The TSA agent mounted on a stool summons me with a simple “come hither” hand gesture. He tilts his head while up-and-downing me. His LA Looks styling gel holding his Bart Simpson spiked hair perfectly in place. I hand him my ID and boarding pass. He looks them over. 

“Give this to the agent at the metal detector.” He holds out a blue and white laminated slip that reads, “Random Security Check.” The United States flag marks the top right corner.

“What’s going on, Amir?” Wade, my deputy director, asks. He’s not holding a laminated slip. 

“Nothing — everything’s fine.”

I take my shoes off and put them in a tray. Push them forward along the metal countertop with my carry-on luggage. 

“I’ll take that,” the nearby agent says, grabbing the slip from my hands. He rips at my luggage before it can reach the conveyer belt. “You’ll need to come with me. You can take your shoes for now.” 

“I’ll meet you guys at the gate,” I quickly say to Wade. I look for the rest of my team and find them standing on the other side of the security checkpoint. They shuffle impatiently while staring at their phones. 

I follow the burly agent as he takes me inside a small room over-lit with hot fluorescent light. There are no windows. 

“Arms out at your side. Spread your legs for me.” He meticulously moves his hands up my calves and thighs, fingertips momentarily stopping to dig in and probe, knuckles eventually banging into genitals. He checks my torso before opening up my luggage. 

“Where are you headed?”

I fake a confident tone through my dry mouth. “Anaheim. We’re putting on a conference for a client.” My tongue swirls for saliva as he tosses around my packed clothing.

“What is it you do?”

“Consulting — been doing it for several years now. Started my own firm.”

“And how long have you lived here?”

“My whole life.” 

He pulls the last item out of my suitcase. “Okay, you’re good to go. Please pack your stuff and head back toward the gate.” He steps away from my luggage — the clothes and toiletries in a bungled heap. My Superman shirt the only article of clothing still folded. I summon the last dying particles of energy in my face to flash a weak smile toward him. My heart pumps blood and adrenaline through my veins, increasing my pulse until it audibly thumps, while shame takes the form of cancer, spreading throughout my body, metastasizing my pride along the way. 

“Sorry for the mess,” he says, turning his back to me.

“It’s okay, sir. Not that big of a deal.”

Omar Hussain is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area, transplanted to Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, X-R-A-Y Magazine, The Cabinet of Heed, Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Lunate, The Metaworker and Dream Noir, among others. Omar’s beta-test novel, The Outlandish and the Ego, debuted in late 2017. It received some praise, remarkably.

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Art Rashid Rana cea+ CC2.0

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