The JRB presents an excerpt from You Exist Too Much, the debut novel from Zaina Arafat.
You Exist Too Much
Read the excerpt:
In Bethlehem when I was twelve, men in airy white gowns sat at a three-legged table outside the church of the nativity. They ran prayer beads through their fingers and sipped mint tea in gold-rimmed cups shaped like hourglasses, steam floating off the surface and up into the bright blue sky. I walked past them with my mother and my uncle as we wandered through the holy city. One of the men called out, ‘Haram!’
Forbidden. For the especially devout among us, it’s haram to eat meat unless the animal has been killed in a specific way. Haram to drink alcohol. Haram for a pubescent girl to expose her legs in a biblical city. It occurred to me then that I wasn’t a flat-chested kid anymore, that curves had begun to appear along the length of me. I was no longer indistinguishable from a boy child. Somehow, I had stopped noticing my body long enough for it to change.
‘What should we do?’ I asked my mother. I felt a pulsing lump take shape in my throat as I noticed her teeth gritting, her jaw extended and temples shimmering. My great-grandparents’ house was where we were staying and where all of my clothes were, thirty-six miles and three checkpoints away. I felt myself go cold as I closed my eyes and prepared to receive her reaction—I knew better than to try and preempt it with an apology. All I could do was strategically try to calm myself, to remember that the anticipation was heavier than the thing itself.
I should’ve had more sense than to dress in such a way when we were visiting the birthplace of a prophet, albeit not our own. My mother had, and still has, a native’s knowledge. She knows the rules instinctively, in that part of the world, and I only ever learn them by accident.
But then, why did she let me leave the house that way? Was this all part of some plan to teach me a lesson? To my uncle, I was ajnabi, a foreigner, which essentially gave me permission to dress however I pleased. But not to my mother. I’d grown used to manoeuvring within the lanes of her behaviours, looking to them as guidance, her innate instincts precluding me from finding my own.
‘Baseeta,’ said my uncle. It’s okay.
My mother looked me up and down. We approached the main door of the church and the men hissed again. My uncle ran the tips of his fingers across his mustache, then looked to my mother and me. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘I have an idea.’
We followed him into a gift shop just off Manger Square. He dropped a few shekels on the counter, then asked the shopkeeper if we could use his bathroom. My mother grabbed a Kit Kat off the shelf and tore it open, breaking apart two sticks without a second thought. My uncle dropped three more shekels on the counter. The man pointed toward the back. My uncle thanked him and led the way.
His master plan was that he would trade me his trousers for my Roxy surfer shorts. He went into the bathroom first, and I could hear sounds of fumbling, his belt buckle jangling as it hit the floor. He opened the door slightly and handed his pants to my mother, so she could administer the swap. She then stood in front of me while I took off my shorts. ‘Yalla,’ she said, her most frequently used word. Hurry.
I pulled on the pair of pants. They sagged on me. I had to tighten the belt buckle all the way up to the last hole and then roll the waist so that they wouldn’t fall off, leaving me even more exposed than I had been before.
I stepped out of the bathroom and looked at my uncle. I examined my new curves against his ridiculous pasty legs, gangly and covered in sporadic patches of hair, my shorts tight against his thighs like boxer briefs. It occurred to me in that moment to question why, as a man, his bare legs were somehow less troubling than mine. It was a double standard, a shame I had simply accepted until then. In acquiring my gender, I had become offensive.
But as I stood in front of him, an unexpected pride began to swell inside me. I liked the way his trousers made me feel. Seen. Like I could get attention from boys, from girls.
‘Inti walad, willa binit?’—Are you a boy or a girl?
A security guard at the InterContinental hotel in Amman had once asked my cousin Nour this question when deciding whether to lead her into the curtain-shrouded ‘women’s check’ for an intimate pat-down before she could enter the lobby.
‘Binit!’ Nour had responded. ‘Girl!’ She’d been insulted by the question, the uncertainty it revealed. But not me. Not that day. Wearing my uncle’s baggy trousers, I enjoyed occupying blurred lines. Ambiguity was an unsettling yet exhilarating space.
As we walked back toward the Church of the Nativity I looked at my mother and smiled, desperate for her to smile back. But she withheld. She offered only a freshly disconcerting look, scrunching up her forehead so that lines appeared, her cheekbones protruding, her mouth forming a terrifying expression of indifference. At the time, I couldn’t quite place the source of it. Had she noticed my contentment? Did it scare her?
Only now, years later, do I think I understand. It was in that moment that she first realised: I wasn’t like her. The trousers were a demarcation line, one that separated me from my mother and her lineage.
I wonder sometimes if that day was the start of something. Whether it’s when I began this habit of constant seeking, of endlessly striving to earn my way back, a pattern that would send me on a misguided and self-destructive quest for love. I communicated something to my mother as I stood there smiling in a pair of men’s pants, a message I didn’t know I was sending her. She has always known first what I have yet to discover, has always seen it before I could.
Look at me, I wanted to say to her then. Please don’t look away.
I woke up alone one morning when I was twenty-six. Anna had left for the day. Her side was already made, to the extent that half a bed can be: the comforter pulled up over her pillow, sheets crumpled underneath. She’d opened the curtains before leaving, knowing I liked to be woken by sunlight. She was always finding solutions for things I preferred to simply complain about. Though it was finally bright out, I felt the usual pang of dread. ‘Your death hour,’ my best friend, Renata, liked to call it. ‘Seems normal.’
I looked at the cat clock that Anna had brought with her when she moved in, the calico tail twitching: it was nine fifteen. Early, given that I’d spun a double set the night before and taken a lot of tequila shots to stay fueled. Anna had an afternoon class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, meaning she’d still be at the café beneath our building. I then reached to the surface of the nightstand for my grad school acceptance letter. I’d gotten into an MFA program for writing in the Midwest. It was the deadline to send in my decision.
I lay there for a few moments willing myself to get up before finally tossing off the sheets and swinging my legs off the bed in one swift motion. I pressed my feet to the cold hardwood and walked to the kitchen, which was an extension of the same room, only the flooring different, linoleum instead of wood. I touched my hand to the silver coffeepot—still relatively warm. Anna must’ve just left; I had only just missed her. Lately I’d been trying to make a point of waking up earlier. Renata had suggested it a few weeks ago: ‘Maybe your girlfriend would like to see you in daylight, from time to time? Wouldn’t that help things?’
I dropped a piece of bread into the toaster, then sat down at the kitchen table and opened my laptop. It purred to life, the cursor unfreezing. I typed g in the address field and the rest of the url filled in. The screen turned to white as an hourglass twirled. When my inbox appeared, my eyes descended to the chain I wanted, mine and the professor’s. I had written to her the day before; we were arranging to see each other one last time before I left New York. Her name wasn’t illuminated—no response yet.
I clicked refresh, as though an email would appear in that split second. I refreshed my inbox a few more times before emptying my spam. I was about to close my laptop when a text from my mother flashed across the top of the screen:
On train to NYC. Staying two nights.
Stress washed over me, the familiar lump forming in my throat. I ran my fingers through my hair until a few strands came away into the palm of my hand. I heard the spring of the toaster, but no longer felt hungry. My mother lived in DC and regularly came to the city without warning. ‘You don’t own New York,’ she’d say whenever I requested advance notice or logistical details, which I’d since learned not to do. Any attempt to get a firm date from her, some degree of commitment, made her uncomfortable and irritable, as did any reaction to her arrival that fell short of sheer delight. ‘And no one’s asking you to even see me,’ she’d say. True, but the onslaught of her presence was impossible to resist, the promise of days spent shopping, the alluring sound of r’s rolling off her tongue, the smell of her perfume lingering long after she would leave.
I began to type a series of questions—Where will you be staying? For how long?—then deleted them. I took a deep breath and responded, Can’t wait to see you.
Downstairs, the café beneath our building was full, the window seat taken. I glanced around and spotted Anna hunched over a tiny round table near the back. She wore a red plaid shirt buttoned all the way to the top and a black Patagonia fleece vest unzipped, her knuckles pressed against her cheek and her bangs combed back, making her look a little like Luke Perry or the lead singer of a boy band. Handsome pretty, I would call her, and she liked that, each time beaming with pride. She looked up and saw me, her eyes brightening as I ordered a coffee from the barista. I smiled back, but as I walked toward her carefully, trying not to spill, I felt guilt, which almost instantly morphed into shame. ‘Hey,’ I said, taking the chair across from her, my attention caught by a community bulletin board with tabulated flyers, the middle teeth all ripped off. ‘I see Brokeback’s at our spot again.’
A woman wearing cowhide chaps and cowboy boots sat with a mug steaming in front of her. The sight of her always made me uncomfortable, and my discomfort usually disappointed Anna. ‘Yep,’ she said, forcing a laugh. Then she leaned forward and kissed me. The experience was new enough that I still felt a wave of exhilaration at the ability to kiss a woman in public, as though what we were doing was illicit, two high schoolers smoking pot on the football field. I kissed back and pulled her closer for a second kiss when the first had ended, overcompensating. Anna reached across and pressed her thumb to the side of my mouth. ‘You’ve got a little …’
‘Oops,’ I said, wiping away a dried bit of drool. ‘I meant to wash my face.’ I realised that I hadn’t combed my hair, either, and was still wearing the T-shirt I’d slept in. ‘You look pretty rough yourself,’ I said, grinning with contentment. ‘Tired?’
After climbing into bed the night before, I’d woken her up the way I knew she liked, pressing my nose against her neck and breathing deeply until the vibration roused her. I then switched up our usual roles, pulling myself on top of her while at the same time scooting her beneath me. I could tell she’d been wanting me to initiate sex more often; she’d made several underhanded, Mrs Roper–like comments about how rarely I did so. With our drastically different schedules, sex had gone from being an every-other-night thing to a weekend thing to a never thing.
‘I am,’ she said. ‘Worth it, though.’
She touched my leg with the toe of her shoe. I felt tenderness for her in that moment. I could tell that she was getting tired of our asymmetry. We’d been together on and off for four years, and by now she was beginning to resent the way I treated her, the decreasingly little effort I made, the fewer gestures of affection, the amount of time I spent elsewhere. I resented her for offering no resistance, for refusing to say something directly and choosing instead to let passive aggression seep through. She knew me better than anyone—we’d met in eating-disorder treatment; she had seen me at my most vulnerable. But it sometimes seemed like she still couldn’t see through me, still chose to believe in a version of who I was that we both knew no longer existed. And yet, as each other’s first relationship post-recovery, we were desperately clinging, terrified to let go.
I reached into my bag and pulled out an envelope, my acceptance letter folded up inside. ‘Well,’ I said, tapping its short side on the table. ‘I signed it.’ I felt a surge of fresh anxiety.
‘Yay,’ she said, halfheartedly. She sucked the straw in her drink; the last of the liquid rumbled as it gave way to emptiness. ‘Need me to mail it?’ she asked. She had access to stamps on campus.
‘Would you mind?’ I said, sliding the envelope across the table. ‘By the way,’ I said, shifting in my seat. ‘Guess who’s on her way to town?’
Anna hesitated for a moment. Then: ‘She is? Right now?’
I nodded. We both knew it was impossible to predict her visits. My mother was a consultant of sorts, a ‘cultural liaison,’ which meant she was never tied to an office or location. ‘I bet she works for the CIA,’ Anna would jokingly suggest.
‘Where’s she staying?’
‘I don’t think she knows yet,’ I said. ‘But I’ll probably stay with her, at least the first night.’
This always annoyed Anna. ‘Isn’t that a little weird,’ she’d asked several times before, ‘to share a bed with your mom when you’re in your twenties?’ And I would assure her it was normal in our culture. But by now, she knew better than to address it.
As a consolation I offered, ‘Want to have dinner with her tomorrow night?’
Anna perked up. She’d been waiting for this invite for quite some time, and I was just as surprised as she was to find myself extending it. My mother had met Anna only once before; I’d introduced her as my ‘roommate,’ and tried not to think about what I’d do if things got serious between us, never letting myself visualize our future, a family, anything beyond the present moment. Ever since then, anytime my mother came to town I tried to hide her visit, which wasn’t easy to do. And if I failed, then I’d have to explain to Anna why she couldn’t join us. ‘I don’t get it,’ she would say. ‘I’ve introduced you to mine.’ This was true; I’d met her parents and entire extended family on numerous occasions. She’d introduced me as her live-in girlfriend and they seemed completely fine with it, which had always seemed very strange to me
Anna looked at me dubiously now. ‘Wouldn’t she rather meet your boyfriend?’
I rolled my eyes. ‘Stop,’ I said. ‘You know I hate having to lie.’
I’d invented Andrew, an imaginary boyfriend, to tell my mother about whenever the topic of relationships came up, which seemed to happen more and more often. I’d transposed Anna’s background and statistics onto him, in male form. ‘Are we ever going to get to meet this famous boyfriend of yours?’ my mother would ask.
‘Someday,’ I would say. ‘He travels a lot for work.’
Anna now seemed faintly excited. ‘Are you—’ She hesitated. ‘Are you planning to tell her about us?’
I thought about this. Was I? And why now?
Why not now?
I told myself it was Anna who’d been pressuring me to tell her, though really it was me who probably wanted to. Guilt, for one thing, in both directions. I was tired of the weight that filled the air when the topic of my family came up. I was tired of deceiving my mother. Maybe telling her would precipitate something, some change, though I wasn’t quite sure what I felt was in need of changing.
‘Yes,’ I heard myself say. ‘I’m planning to.’
Anna touched my shoulder. ‘Then I’ll come,’ she said.
My stomach dropped, air rising and then escaping from inside me. At the table beside us, a couple was discussing their daughter’s after-school pick-up plan. Anna checked her watch. ‘I’m going to be late,’ she said. As she stood up to leave I found myself noticing her as if for the first time, her lanky figure, her pale freckled skin and short auburn hair. ‘See you tonight?’ she asked. And then, before I could interject: ‘Oh, sorry, I mean tomorrow?’
We kissed once more and she rushed out. Alone again, I looked around the café and expected to see people staring, but no one was. ‘We’re not in Saudi Arabia,’ Anna would say whenever I drew back if she tried to take my hand in public. ‘No one here cares.’ I pulled the bowl of whatever she’d been eating closer to me—granola—and finished the last few spoonfuls. Then I looked past Brokeback and out the café window. I watched Anna wait dutifully for the walk sign to flash before jutting across the circle, underneath the Pavilion Theater’s marquee, and into the mouth of the subway.
- Zaina Arafat is a Palestinian–American writer. Her stories and essays have appeared in publications including the New York Times, Granta, The Believer, the Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Vice and NPR. She holds an MA in international affairs from Columbia University, an MFA from the University of Iowa and is a recipient of the Arab Women/Migrants from the Middle East fellowship at Jack Jones Literary Arts. She grew up between the US and the Middle East and currently lives in Brooklyn.
Set between the United States and the Middle East, this is an electrifying coming-of-age story about love, identity and sexual desire against the backdrop of traditional values and religious views.
‘A novel of self-discovery following a Palestinian–American girl as she navigates queerness, love addiction and a series of tumultuous relationships’—The Millions, One of the Most Anticipated Books of the Year
Told in vignettes that flash between the US and the Middle East, Zaina Arafat’s powerful debut novel traces her protagonist’s progress from blushing teen to creative and confused adulthood.
In Brooklyn, she moves into an apartment with her first serious girlfriend and tries to content herself with their comfortable relationship. Soon, her longings, so closely hidden during her teenage years, explode out into reckless romantic encounters and obsessions with other people which results in her seeking unconventional help to face her past traumas and current demons.
Opening up the fantasies and desires of one young woman caught between cultural, religious and sexual identities, You Exist Too Much is a captivating story charting two of our most intense longings—for love, and a place to call home.