Sometimes birds fly into Grand Central Terminal. They cruise around the sky-painted ceiling with its contrived constellations like it is the real sky. It is maybe a better sky because there are less birds to brush up against.
On the floor below, people wing into one another. They make eye contact, each step taking them closer until they almost collide in a game of chicken.
The people who are not from the city smile when their eyes meet someone else’s eyes. Smiley is not from the city, and her name is not Smiley. It’s the babyfied mispronunciation of her real name, Miley. Her parents thought the mistake was cute, and so it stuck through grade school in a small Midwestern town all the way to grad school in New York City. Every time someone says her name, Smiley feels a chill as the girl she was supposed to be skids a long remember-me finger down her spine.
Smiley sits on the steps next to the steps leading down to the food court. She has not eaten all day, but her stomach only mumbles to itself occasionally. All the parts of her body have gotten used to this position, these steps her new spot now that the weather has turned. She and the birds have flocked to dry land, warmed by the friction of bodies in transit. Smiley’s stomach squawks as she watches the birds from her stoop.
Ralph approaches her with half a sandwich. It is a portion of the lunch someone—maybe his wife but just as likely his housekeeper—packs for him. Every day for the past week Ralph has offered half his sandwich to Smiley, and she’s accepted. He doesn’t know her name, and she doesn’t know his. She calls him Ralph because he wears a Ralph Lauren tie every day, the label visible when the tie naturally twists in on itself.
Turkey? he asks. He holds the triangle half-wrapped in tin foil over Smiley’s head.
She eyes him from her perch, digs her fingernails into her thighs, but doesn’t make a move to accept the sandwich. Ralph flaps the food in front of her nose. A slice of tomato slips out, slapping the marble floor between his dress shoes and her sneakers.
Ralph’s shoes are slick. He might have had them buffed downstairs where shoe shiners crouch over wealthy men’s feet, wingtips reflecting the ceiling’s chandelier.
Come on, Ralph says, making the sandwich nose its way into the crease of her hand. You’re hurting my feelings.
A woman watches them. She stands in a full-skirted wedding dress amid the midday travelers, her bottom half twisted toward her brother-in-law’s camera, her top half unspooling toward the steps at the end of the hall. Her mother had instructed the seamstress to make the dress tight, anticipating the proverbial weight loss young brides are supposed to undergo. Now, Andaleeb can’t catch her breath. The fabric cinches her ribs like the top of a drawstring bag.
Don’t look at me. Look over my shoulder at something behind me, the photographer instructs, and so Andaleeb focuses on the girl on the steps. She sees the sandwich and the torn sleeve of Smiley’s sweater, how white the girl’s teeth are when she pulls back her lips to bite. The businessman beside Smiley bites into his own half of the sandwich, a small kindness to not watch the girl eat. Andaleeb thinks about how charitable this gesture is, how lucky she is to witness something so genuine.
Her smile feels fake. Too many of her teeth are showing.
Don’t smile too big or your gums will show, her mother says, tucking a stray hair into her grown daughter’s hijab. What would her mother say about this girl crouching, the nails of one hand digging into her boney knee as she chews, the tongue of one Converse torn out? Her mother wouldn’t see such a person maybe, wouldn’t pause to consider this girl. And if Andaleeb pointed her out, pointed out that this girl, too, was someone’s daughter, her mother would say, But not my daughter, in a way that means, We are finished discussing this.
You’re my daughter! her mother-in-law had said at the engagement party last month, at dinner last week, at Grand Central a few minutes ago. I’ve always wanted to have a daughter. She can see the glint in her mother-in-law’s eye now, the possessiveness. Her mother-in-law winks at Andaleeb’s mother who is frowning, arms crossed, appraising what the camera sees from the outside. Her mother puts a hand on the photographer’s shoulder to signal that he should pause so she can fluff Andaleeb’s skirt. Andaleeb’s sisters are scattered around the perimeter of the photo’s frame, running interference so that no one walks into the shot.
To be a woman in this world is to be adopted by other women. Neither Andaleeb’s new mother nor her old mother would claim to be feminists. Feminism is one of those bad words that takes on a tang in some mouths, running wild over the tongue. The women who won’t speak these words teach their daughters to believe that their bodies are temples, that these words should be barred entrance into their minds. But the words make it through, anyway.
Think of how happy you’ll be in a few weeks, Andaleeb’s mother-in-law crows over the photographer’s head. He snaps the shutter of his Canon, capturing the shadow that passes across Andaleeb’s face as she sees the businessman kneel next to Smiley. He grips Smiley’s chin between thumb and forefinger.
Andaleeb doesn’t like to be touched. Her fiancé has learned not to touch, but her mother-in-law grabs her chin often. She sees how other women are always touching. Her sisters leave wet lip prints on one another’s foreheads and pass gum between their mouths like secrets. Andaleeb cannot understand, cannot condone that kind of closeness, another person’s insides slipping into her own.
Ralph’s eyes flit around to see if anyone is watching as he kneels next to her on the steps. Her mother’s voice wings between Smiley’s ears. Cover up, your father’s around—an admonishment issued on sunny summer days when she would lay bikini-clad in the backyard, on winter mornings as she scurried in a terry cloth towel between bathroom and bedroom. The familiar yo-yoing in the stomach of safety and threat unexplained, sheltered in her own body and the bodies of other men.
Ralph’s hand on Smiley’s cheek is smooth. He is gripping her chin hard enough to leave a plum print of thumb on her pale skin. Her father gripped her chin like this when she was a child to see if her teeth were brushed, as if you can say the inside of any person is ever clean. Her father’s nails were shorter than Ralph’s are now. He would laugh at Smiley’s long nails, painted aquamarine and burnt orange and mustard. Her father asked what the other boys at school said about her wild nails. He never asked what the girls thought.
She always wants to be different, Andaleeb’s mother says with a shake of the head. Sometimes Andaleeb stands back and regards her mother as a piece of furniture in need of polishing. Knicked, the cuts in the wood betraying pain, of being rubbed up against too often.
Naim understands Andaleeb’s desire to remain untouched. He was patient, waiting to walk with her each afternoon after classes to the train station, keeping a distance between their hips as their minds drew closer. He told her he liked her company. Her sisters said he liked more than that.
Andaleeb, you think he wouldn’t rather walk at a man’s pace? What man would want to shuffle along with you in the cold unless he was interested in you? All of her sisters nodding in agreement, their bobbing blue hijabs making them look like earless birds.
Still it would be nice to feel his hand on her cheek, to learn to not recoil from the warmth of someone’s skin. Naim says she will grow used to this, that when they have their own children she will no longer worry about germs or the skin particles breaking off from someone else’s hand to leave a filmy residue on her arm. Naim says they’re going to be happy together. He’s so sure of it, and she feels bad when he says it.
Ralph’s hawkish nose is close to her own. Smiley hates the part that comes after the sandwich, the family bathroom part. The sound the door makes as the metal lock slides into place. He looks like he could be a professor or a father, his mouth a straight line, the sternness invoking a desire to please him. This is power, the right of first refusal, the choice to let people cross boundaries of his own making.
She chews slowly even though there is nothing left in her mouth, pretending she has a last bite. People hurry up and down the steps around them. Ralph waits.
Andaleeb wants to catch the eye of the girl sitting on the steps. Wants to smile at her, to tell her without getting too close that she can see they are cut from the same cloth. Two women showing their teeth for strangers beyond the frame. How to communicate this without words, between the shoulders of strangers and their baggage?
We need some shots of her looking at us, Andaleeb’s mother-in-law says.
Ralph is helping Smiley stand, his hand tight on her elbow.
Andaleeb refocuses on the lens staring her down.
Smiley searches for someone in the train station’s migrating flock to notice the way Ralph is steering her, to ask, Where are you going?
Smile, the photographer says. Andaleeb bends an elbow to place a hand on her hip, and she feels a seam separate.
The bathroom door is on a hinge, swinging slowly toward shut, slamming into the doorframe at the last moment with a thud.
Birds scatter above in the peeling clouds.
The camera’s shutter drops again. The click echoes a thousand times.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.