Saints and Misfits MISFIT I’m in the water. Only my eyes are visible, and I blow bubbles to ensure the rest of me stays submerged until the opportune time. Besides the lifeguard watching from his perch, there’s a gaggle of girls my age patrolling the beach with younger siblings in tow. They pace in their flip-flops and bikinis, and I wait.
The ideal time is when no one’s around and no one’s looking. But right now there’s a little girl cross-legged on wooden bleachers peering at me from beneath a hand held aloft at her forehead, a smile on her face. I can’t tell if the smile is a result of how long she’s been watching me bob here in the water.
To check whether she’s staring, I test her with a long gaze to the left of the bleachers, where Dad and his wife Linda are barbecuing. Their oldest son, Logan, round and berry-brown from a day in the sun, is digging a hole nearby, while the newest addition, Luke, lies on a quilt wearing a swim diaper.
Dad said I’d love it here because the beachfront cottage they’d rented was one of the only two Cherie and Ed had let out this weekend. Secluded. Serene. Safe.
Ha. Cherie and Ed forgot to mention that the beach portion doesn’t actually belong to them and is public property at all hours of the day. Party central.
I look back, and, hallelujah, the girl on the bleachers is gone. There’s also a lull on the shore now. The lifeguard’s turned to talk to someone behind him, and the beach girls are on the far right, peering at a sand castle.
I stand and cringe at the sucking sound as my swimsuit sticks to me, all four yards of the spandex-Lycra blend of it. Waterfalls gush out of the many hems on the outfit, and, as I hobble out of the lake, more secret pockets release their water. I’m a drippy, squelchy mess, stumbling toward Dad and Linda, picking up tons of sand as I move. I refuse to look around in case I see someone, everyone, watching me.
Maybe my face reveals something, because Dad starts right away.
“Janna, why do you have to wear that thing? You could have said, No, I’m not wearing your burkini, Mom.” He waves around long tongs as he speaks.
“Mom didn’t get it for me. I ordered it online.”
“I saw her hand it to you as we were packing the car.”
“Because I’d left it on the hall table, Dad.”
“It’s her kind of thing. What’s wrong with the way Linda’s dressed?” He snaps the tongs at Linda. She’s wearing a one-piece, just-had-a-baby, flouncy-at-the-hips number, and, really, I’d rather be in my burkini. It’s black and sleek. Sure, when it gets wet, you kind of resemble a droopy sea lion, but at least it isn’t pink and lime green like Linda’s swimsuit is.
“Linda, you look great.” I smile at her, and she smooths out her flounces.
“Too bad you’re not her size—she could have lent you one of her suits, right, Linda?”
“Dad, I won’t wear it. I’m a hijabi, remember?” I take a plate and add a piece of chicken from the platter.
“At the beach? Even at the beach?” Dad’s gesticulating again and looking around—for what, I don’t know. When he spies a woman unfolding a lounge chair nearby and starts talking louder, I realize it’s for an audience. He wants an audience while he rants at me.
Maybe I should’ve listened to Mom and not come. My first vacation with Dad’s family since my parents split when I was eleven and it’s like I’m a visitor among the earthlings frolicking on a beach in Florida.
Before this, I’d only spent the odd weekend here and there with Dad at his house in Chicago. I was “Daddy’s princess” back then.
The woman in the chair listens intently as Dad lectures. Linda’s got a hand on his arm, and it’s traveling up to his shoulder with a firmer grip, but he’s still talking.
“How come you have to hide your God-given body?” He turns a few burgers over. He’s wearing a white T-shirt and red shorts over his God-given body. “It’s not me who forces her to dress like that, that’s for sure.”
The woman looks at me, then at Dad and opens a book.
Linda places a hand on my glistening black back and hands me a can of pop. “I’ll get you a burger when they’re done,” she whispers.
I move to sit on the bleachers before I realize the beach girls are sauntering this way again. I’m a swirl of sand art against a black canvas.
I duck under the wooden slats of the seats. Cradling my plate on crossed legs, I flip back the swim cap that’s attached to my suit and undo my hair. Sand trickles down with the beads of water. Some of it falls onto my chicken.
Flannery O’Connor, my favorite author: That’s who I need right now.
Flannery would take me away from here and deposit me into her fictitious world crawling with self-righteous saints and larger-than-life misfits. And I’d feel okay there because Flannery took care of things. Justice got served.
I forgot to pack her gigantic book of short stories because everything was last minute. I’d wanted to escape so badly that when Dad mentioned this trip with his family, I’d asked, “Can I come?” without thinking.
Mom had tried to put her foot down about taking a vacation right before exams, but, luckily for me, my brother Muhammad is home for the summer from college. He talked her into letting me come. She listens to practically everything he says.
If it had been only me telling her I needed to get away, far away from Eastspring, she would’ve talked over me.
She didn’t know I had to get away from a monster. And the truth is no one can know.
S. K. Ali is a teacher based in Toronto whose writing on Muslim culture and life has appeared in the Toronto Star. Her family of Muslim scholars is consistently listed in the The 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World, and her insight into Muslim culture is both personal and far-reaching. A mother of a teenage daughter herself, S. K. Ali’s debut YA is a beautiful and nuanced story about a young woman exploring her identity through friendship, family, and faith.