Something You're Not
At age seven, Sana ceremoniously cut a chunk out of her eyebrow. Gripping on to a pair of pink craft scissors, she balanced deftly on her tiptoes in the hopes of finding her reflection in the hallway mirror. The wayward hairs reminded her of spider’s legs that needed to be impaled, so she surreptitiously raised the scissors towards her brow. With a single snip, tiny black shards fell to the hardwood floor, exposing an oblong shaped piece of skin in the middle of her left eyebrow, pale and insipid from never having seen the light of day. As she heard her mother’s bedroom door open, Sana dropped the scissors and rushed to pick the tiny black slithers up off the floor.
Heeled sandals clicked rhythmically closer still, and Sana wondered why footsteps always sounded louder when they were coming for you. She noticed her mother’s face convulse, her expression finally resting somewhere between shock and despair. Before her voice even had the chance to get louder, prickly hot tears fell in lumps down Sana’s soft cheeks. The tears flowed, soaking through the furry ears on her favourite Care Bears shirt. They continued, even after her mother held her close telling her that it would all be okay, that the piece of missing eyebrow would absolutely- one hundred and ten percent- grow back. However, the fact that perhaps Sana didn’t want it to, was never really considered.
In the years that followed, Sana’s eyebrows set the benchmark for her growth. From spider’s legs to furry caterpillars that threatened bit by bit to join in the middle. Then came the time when her childhood softness gave way to slender drawn-out limbs, and cheekbones so sharp they looked like they were carved from stone. A time when long dark hair sat flat down to her hips and pitch-black eyes appeared to house the kind of depth that a twelve-year-old shouldn’t possess. Teachers immediately assumed she was sarcastic, parents were wary of bad influence, and classmates suspected a smart-aleck. Sana wanted nothing more than to explain that she was, in fact, none of those things. That her dark eyes were instead the perfect almond shaped compartments for an overwhelming amount of worry.
Steady apprehension, the kind that remained somewhere in the background like the incessant hum of an old fridge. It was this constant worry that caused her mind to wander, leading her to a place where she would routinely spend twenty minutes after each shower inspecting her armpits. She had developed a system of counting hairs, a system that was now becoming impossible to adhere to. Months earlier, whilst halfway through a bowl of sugary cereal, Sana had discovered the first few hairs. An intense itch hit her armpit like a lightning bolt, and as she scratched fervently something suddenly tugged and pulled. Three newly discovered hairs eventually met with three more, and now a black wiry bushel was permanently housed in the crevices of her dark brown flesh. The seeds must have been there in waiting, she thought, and even though she had watered herself at least once a day, every day for her whole life, only now had they decided to sprout, stretching so far that she got a ruler out to check.
Wider, longer and wirier, all three were confirmed. To separate the hairs individually and count them was as impossible as trying to pry apart the pet earthworms she once collected in a plastic ice cream container. Sana had watched with disgust as the worms curled around each other with ferocity, overlapping and underlapping incessantly, refusing to be teased apart. When the earthworm ball had become unmanageable, she had simply emptied it out into the back garden, watching as the worms finally decided to unravel and slither away on separate missions. Disposing of the tuft of hair firmly attached under her arm wouldn’t be so easy, so Sana eventually pushed all her sleeveless dresses into a pile at the back of her cupboard. The same sleeveless dresses that she had once fought so hard to own.
Every Saturday morning, dresses were put aside in favour of traditional salwar kameez. For the past year, Sana’s parents had taken her to Pakistani Cultural School at the association centre, to provide a direct link between here and the place they had left behind. Aunties and uncles gathered around plastic tables topped with samosas and lukewarm tea, whilst children were seated in a corner and fed lessons on moral decency and Pakistan’s founding father.
There were three other girls of a similar age to Sana, and on the first day of meeting the four of them had piled into the female toilets, sizing each other up. Sana was the same age as Kiran and Zahra, and Nasreen was a whole two years older than them. Discussing hobbies and comparing the length of ponytails, they eventually rolled the pants of their salwar kameez up to their knees, in a bid to uncover more. Standing side by side under a stream of light, they took turns staring at the illuminated dark wisps that made it look like an amateur artist had taken to their legs with a 2b pencil- and become slightly carried away with shading.
‘I could use the toy brush I had for my plastic pony to comb your legs.’ ‘You’re hairy too!’
‘A boy at regular school once called me Sana sasquatch.’
What were usually seen as denigrations suddenly felt okay. Only Nasreen had little to no hair, having proudly announced she shaved, but all the other girls cared about was the fact she had once been just like them. She represented a beacon of hope, and as cultural school continued, Sana began to promptly wake up before her alarm went off each Saturday.
It became a game for the four of them to share stories about the girls from regular school. Those movie star girls, who woke up, showered, and got dressed without once having to check and re-check what had grown overnight. The kind that got completely naked in changerooms, and passed through swimming lessons with ease, ascending the ranks.
Whenever Sana stood by them- shoulder to shoulder, she always felt a kind of resentment. Dressed in swimsuits, her eyes would wash over them, from painted toenails to the top of swimming caps, noticing that the biggest difference was the hair that covered her body. It reminded her of how a moth could cause fear and repulsion in ways a butterfly never would, even though they basically had the same form.
One morning, Sana discovered her father’s small blue disposable razor had been left out by the bathroom sink. Carrying it with her into the shower, she began to run it down her legs in a long sweeping motion. The blade snagged on her flesh, causing specks of deep red to come to the surface of her skin, and then fade to a more subdued shade of dread as the water flowed. Stepping out of the shower, Sana noticed that little indents now marked her long thin legs, making it look like a war zone. At Saturday school, Nasreen, who always seemed to know things before the fact, noticed the scars around her ankles.
‘Have you been abused or something?’
‘It’s nothing.’ Sana’s gaze fell to the floor as she slid her legs under the plastic chair in front of her.
‘It’s not nothing, you’ve got to be careful.’ Nasreen sounded almost sympathetic.
The very next week Nasreen pulled the girls into the toilets, informing them that she had something to show them, and that one of them would need to guard the door to make sure that no aunty came in. Their unspoken leader, Nasreen had recently gained more respect for dating Craig, a blonde boy from her high school. Every time she uttered his name her brightly painted nails would find their way to her belly, stroking it slowly as though she was housing a hypothetical baby.
‘I always knew I’d love an Aussie boy. We can’t marry someone like us, just think of the babies and alllll that hair. Ali has a full moustache, and he’s nine!’
Nodding their heads in unison, they urged Nasreen tell them stories, like the time both of her parents were at the cinema watching Dostana, and she heroically snuck Craig into her house and saw his bare chest. Nasreen described with impressive exactitude the details of his nipples, that were the of shade of pink you found on the inside of kitten’s ears.
So, when she produced two small white boxes from her bag, the other girls grew wide-eyed. ‘Guess what...these pills will make you hairless.’
Questions came flying in.
‘How many do you take?’
‘One or two a day.’
‘Do you know anyone who has tried them before?’ ‘My cousin in Lahore takes them and she’s hot.’
There were only two packets, and Nasreen announced she would be keeping one for herself. They decided that Sana would be the most rightful recipient of the second one, simply due to the scars on her ankles- which extended like a rickety ladder all the way up her legs. For ten dollars it was hers, and Sana happily handed the money over, slipping the packet silently into her bag.
Once home, she poured a large mug of orange juice, deciding that there was no reason she shouldn’t begin right away. Shutting the bedroom door behind her, she shook the contents of the packet onto her bed and noticed that there was no pamphlet. The box contained two slabs of fifteen pills. Thirty pills in total. She thought about what the pamphlet might say. ‘Smooth skin to fit in’ or ‘Be something you’re not’.
Piercing through one of the foil slabs, a single orange pill fell into her carefully cupped hand, reminding her of an orange m&m. Thinking of the pain shaving caused, she placed the pill into her mouth. It felt cold and foreign, causing her tongue to contract involuntarily. Taking a large mouthful of orange juice, she felt relief as the pill slid readily down her throat, as if being carried by a waterfall. Sana thought about the job her mother had promised her during the summer holidays- washing dishes at her uncle’s restaurant. Mentally calculating how much of her earnings she would needlessly have to spend on shaver blades and band-aids, she decided to take one more.
In the days that followed, a total of five pills were swallowed each evening before Sana went to sleep. The number five seemed safe - not too little and not too much - all the while guaranteeing faster effects than just one pill a day. Sana would inhale excitedly at the prospect of being hair free by summertime, and exhale at the relief of not having to house constant worry.
By the end of the week, it was clear that a certain fogginess had descended over her. On Wednesday she had forgotten to pick up her lunchbox from the kitchen, and on Thursday she found it hard to finish a maths test she knew the answers to, distracted by a funny taste in her mouth. By the time Friday came around, she excused herself from participating in physical education. As the game of netball grew more intense before her, she sat on the sidelines under the shade of a tree, wondering why she could only think of her pillow. Suddenly, the ball came bouncing across, landing by her feet.
‘Oi!’ the others called ‘Throw it back!’ ‘Get it Sana!’
Wasn’t she getting up? Wasn’t she throwing it back? Why were they still shouting incessantly? She saw the ball, but then she saw another one and wondered why there were suddenly two.
Double vision bordered on triple, and then her legs began to tremble. Her stomach suddenly felt like it was being eaten from the inside, full of a knot that was becoming increasingly dense, shifting like a jack in the box, raveling and unraveling hysterically. Oscillating with such intensity that it could launch off its spring at any moment. She wondered if Nasreen’s baby had somehow manifested itself into her own stomach, and as she slid her hand under her shirt everything seemed to give way, folding into darkness.
After two days in the hospital, Sana found herself curled up in the backseat of the car with a forcibly emptied stomach, flowers, cards, and short prickly regrowth on her legs. A foil balloon had begun to lose air, reading GET WE SON in it’s crumbled state. Nasreen had never taken any of the pills herself, and it was discovered she had been stealing stock from Ready Pharmacy where her cousin worked. Sana’s parents described it as reckless behaviour, and Sana wondered if she should hate her.
A steady stream of visitors began to arrive at the house. Sana’s dad led the uncles straight to the drawing room to discuss politics, and they passed by her as if she were not there. Overcompensating aunties gathered in the living area, handing her mother trays of homemade chicken karahi and biryani. They took turns to hover around her, holding her slight face in their dry hands, whispering prayers. Once the prayers were complete, each set of puckered lips would blow a quick blast of warm stale air onto her forehead- so that the prayers would take effect- they explained. Sana wondered if prayers said in a mostly foreign language would go unheeded. Each prayer was followed by an observation.
‘Beechari (poor girl), her cheekbones look too sunken.’
‘Her eyes were sharp, now they are so dull! Haii, such a shame this thing.’
They spoke of her, not to her, and the only aunty who stayed silent was the one who’s lipstick wasn’t cracked. By dinner time they had all left, and Sana noticed that her parents seemed relieved too.
When it became hot enough for the local ice cream truck to be heard, Sana’s mother took out the lighter salwar kameez sets from the suitcase under the bed. She drew the blinds against the afternoon heat, and the house began to smell like icy poles and talcum powder. Every Saturday, Sana waited to see if Nasreen would return, but so far, she hadn’t. The other girls never spoke of the pills, and it was as if they had forgotten about everything.
Sana still wanted to know more and continued a hapless pursuit for information. Pressing her ears firmly against walls and closed doors, she would only ever manage to catch hold of muffled complaints. Her parents spoke with bated breath in a language she couldn’t keep up with. Whenever she asked about what the pills were, she noticed identical crease marks deepening in the space between their brows. Letting out a collective sigh, they’d ask her why it mattered. She wanted to say that of course it mattered. That the midsummer heat brought a lot along with it. Shorter skirts, party invitations, chests and tank tops, arms and legs, and hair, hair, always hair.