Hana is certain she needs a doctor. Her doctor, however, is her childhood pediatrician. He is a member of the Muslim community in Fairfield, Connecticut and attends the same mosque as Hana and her family in Bridgeport. Her parents will most certainly find out about her secret from him. She needs to find a clinic, far from her neighborhood, to get the infection treated. She thinks through every facet of her plan. Her hijab will make her conspicuous. She must remove it and hide in plain sight. The very notion of that, the exposure of herself, leaves her unsteady. She chose to put the hijab on at the age of thirteen despite her parents’ discouragement. They did not want her to endure such visibility in their all-white town.
“We are proud of your decision, but we want you to be safe.”
Her father has a way of furrowing his brow and widening his eyes, appearing vexed, but Hana knows it is merely her father’s expression of concern.
“I need to express myself,” she says without hesitation.
“You do not need to announce to the world that you are Muslim,” he says, snorting with cynicism.
“But the world has nothing to do with it.”
Hana is now eighteen and can meet the doctor without her parents. She finds a female one in Norwalk. The reviews on the Internet are strong in reference to her bedside manner and willingness to take time with her patients, but Hana only cares about her name and picture. Dr. Margaret Wolff. She is Caucasion, American, and certainly not Muslim.
Hana decides to wear a camisole beneath her long-sleeved tunic. The doctor will want her to strip, but perhaps she can keep her undergarments on. She enters the clinic in what feels like a torrent of sweat. She sees a wall of pamphlets and notices the one about HPV. She looks at her reflection in the window and sees the outline of her hair, long russet twists resting atop her collarbones. Hana had been told by friends that she is lucky to have naturally beachy hair, that she does not have to endure unruly North African hair like their own, and that it is an affront to them that she is covering it.
She approaches the front desk, looking around for any familiar faces. Mothers are busy wiping their children’s hands with disinfectant wipes, anxiously waiting for their kids’ names to be called. There is a faint unexpected scent in the air that Hana cannot name. She assumes it is from outside the clinic, but then discovers a cone of sandalwood incense burning behind the desk. Hana fears it might be a sign of some Near Eastern influences in the office.
The nurse is wearing pink scrubs, a color that hardly agrees with her copper-blonde hair. She is engaged in her work. Hana can tell that she knows of her presence, but still maintains a stern focus on the screen monitor. Hana feels her throat constrict, knowing she must speak soon. The woman sighs before looking at Hana.
The woman’s fingers glide across the keyboard.
“Your reason for the visit?”
“Well, I got…” Hana holds her breath. The sandalwood invades her senses.
“Speak up, ma’am!”
Rattled, Hana steps closer to the desk. She leans in, lowering her voice.
“Please, I would prefer to talk about it with the doctor.”
Hana discovered she was an artist after being called a raghead.
It was the first time she encountered such cavalier hate – the kind that happened in passing. She had only worn the hijab for a week and her life became abruptly defined into two parts: before the hijab and after. Hana had put on a maroon scarf that morning, pulling it tight around the sides and tucking in her flyaways, dabbing ruby gloss onto her lips. She walked into the corner 7-Eleven as she had always done before. As she held the door open for a white balding man with a paunch – a blue slushie in hand and a polite smile on her face – she noticed a keen, unfamiliar look in his eyes. He passed through the doorway and muttered: “Go back to Afghanistan, you fuckin’ raghead.”
He did not slow down. He did not even face her. He just said the words as easily as one says thank you or excuse me. She was paralyzed, still holding the door, feeling an undeniable weight in her chest.
“Pardon miss. Are you okay?” asked a woman with an infant strapped to her back.
Hana could only nod.
“Do you need help? You’re trembling.” She stepped closer to Hana wanting to place a hand on her arm.
Hana was able to lift her eyes to search for the man. He was standing before the beer cooler, examining the different choices. She wondered how he could do it all so easily. How he was able to strike her with venom and then look for his favorite brand of beer.
The woman’s baby began to coo and gurgle. Hana was able to tune into the sweet sounds.
“Thank you. I was just leaving,” she said, attempting to smile.
When Hana entered her home, she heard her mother call from the bedroom.
“Don’t eat too much junk, Han-obe. We are having dinner soon.”
Her mother said this every time she returned from the store. This time Hana did not sigh and say with exasperation: “I know ya, Mama!” She felt desperate for her mother’s comfort. She wanted to be held until her mother could squeeze the affliction from her body. There was a gravitational drop in her chest after hearing her mother’s pet name for her. She thought it clever to merge her only daughter’s name with the word hobe. A word in Arabic that means my love. Hana and hobe: Han-obe. Her mother had been saying it, so endearingly, since she was four years old.
Hana wanted her embrace, but she knew that she would have to explain. She stopped arbitrarily hugging her mother when she decided to assert her belief that she was indeed becoming an adult. She also did not want to concern her mother. After all, her mother begged her not to wear the hijab, especially after 9/11.
She floated up the stairwell, lightly closing the door to her room. She dropped her leaden body into her desk chair and stared at the gray-and-pink-speckled laminate of her desk. She remained there for forty minutes before finding a pad of paper in the drawer. She drew an unfamiliar shape on the page, deepening the lines until they became grooves. She did not know what she was drawing, but strangely felt pulled to the paper. She let her hand move, feeling it stave off an inevitable eruption of tears. She grew thankful for the release it gave her. She drew for hours. And then, on a whim, she moved the pen to her skin.
“So what do we have today?” the doctor asks as she enters the patient room, reading the contents of the folder. Hana is seated on the examination table. She is relieved to be certain that the doctor is a stranger. All that is familiar is her white coat.
“I think I might have an infection,” Hana says after clearing her throat.
“What kind of infection?”
“Um, I suppose… a skin infection.”
Hana swallows slowly.
“I got a tattoo. The skin looks inflamed. There is puss.”
The doctor can sense her reluctance to speak.
“I see… where is it located?”
“On my thigh.”
“Let me have a look.”
Hana’s cheeks flush as she drops her pants slightly to one side. The doctor peers at her left outer thigh.
“Yes, that does not look good.”
The doctor examines the skin closely, noticing the formation of blistering. Hana feels her gloved hand graze her tender skin.
“Where did you go for this tattoo?”
“A place in NYC.”
“Could you tell if the instruments were sterile?”
Hana offers reticently: “My cousin does it for me.”
“Oh,” the doctor says and then looks back at Hana’s chart. “You are eighteen. It is your choice after all.”
Hana’s skin feels prickly – the sensation that precedes sweat. She wonders if the doctor can tell.
“I cannot treat it fully like this. Please remove your clothing and I will return in two minutes.”
Hana tenses up. The doctor notices her shift.
“Is that okay?”
She feels her eyes ache with the onset of tears, but then offers a nod.
Hana takes off her tunic and her black jeans. She stands in her camisole and underwear, returns to the table, and pulls the medical paper over her lap.
Dr. Wolff returns and does her best not to react to a new awareness of her patient’s body: Hana’s right side is covered in ink. The black designs, seemingly foreign, are intricate, wrapping around her upper right arm and upper right leg. Her body aesthetic is asymmetrical. The doctor attempts to make sense of this incongruence. Hana can tell what the doctor is thinking and squirms slightly, wishing she could burrow into the table.
“Someone has a hobby.”
Hana does not pretend to smile.
“So you have been through this before. Many times it seems. Have you been treated for an infection before?”
“No,” Hana says.
“What are these designs?”
Hana clears her throat. “I am an artist. It is Arabic calligraphy.”
“And what do the Arabic words mean?”
Hana fidgets. Her body art is her own secret. Only her cousin, Hisham, knows what it all stands for. Why should she have to explain to anyone else?
The doctor reads her silence as an objection to the question.
“I understand,” she says. “I have some sample creams here that you can use. You must apply the cream twice per day and dress the wound.”
The doctor hands Hana several single-use packages of sterilized gauze.
Hana slides off the table.
“I think you should slow down on the body art. Your skin needs to breathe.”
Hana feels a catch in her throat. She does not want to stop. If her parents found out they would blame themselves. They missed the signs that their daughter was growing religious; they missed the signs that their daughter was participating in senseless American behavior.
Her cousin, though, gets it. Hana is grateful to have him in her life.
“It’s like this,” he once helped her articulate: “You are choosing exactly who you are.”
The doctor waits for a response.
“I will try” is all Hana can say.
Dr. Wolff has enough experience with patients to know when her advice will not be heeded. She extends a hand. Hana reciprocates.
“Take care,” she looks at the chart again, “Ms. Mustafa.”