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Authors: Alicia Erian

Towelhead

BOOK: Towelhead
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Praise for
Towelhead

“As Erian slowly and carefully makes the relationship between Vuoso and Jasira more dangerous, as she develops a real connection for Jasira with Melina, a pregnant woman next door, the novel leads into its achingly perfect finish.”

—
The Boston Globe

“Surprisingly hilarious…deeply unsettling…compulsively enjoyable.”

—Salon.com

“Gutsy and provocative,
Towelhead
quickly becomes impossible to put down.
Towelhead,
much like adolescence, is confusing, terrifying, sexy and impossible to forget.”

—
Now

“Jasira's pain consumes the novel so fully that it overwhelms political symbolism. Instead, it is Jasira's straightforward, understated voice that gives power to this heartbreaking, utterly realistic story.”

—
Booklist

“Alicia Erian's compelling debut novel fits into several categories, but none too tidily. It's sad and sexy, comic and political. Ms. Erian writes with energy and nerve.”

—
Dallas Morning News


Towelhead
is an affecting portrait of adolescence and the need for acceptance. It's a coming-of-age tale that's both shockingly honest and unexpectedly poignant—not to mention compulsively readable.”

—Bookreporter.com

“Alicia Erian's subtly smart debut novel,
Towelhead,
is a worthy follow-up to her much-praised 2001 story collection,
The Brutal Language of Love.
Tart, sexy, and spirited,
Towelhead
…is an appealing coming-of-age tale guided by the author's bulls-eye humor about misguided desire.”

—
Elle

“Alicia Erian's debut novel will shock yet captivate you.”

—Marie Claire

“Poignant and engaging.”

—Library Journal

“Alicia Erian's incandescent debut novel,
Towelhead,
will ring true for readers who remember the rarely poetic transition from childhood to young adulthood…. Jasira tells her story with candor and glimmers of dark, un-expected humor…. The freshness of her narrative voice sets
Towelhead
apart from the sentimental or purely harsh treatment of similar subject matter elsewhere, and makes the novel a promising follow-up to Erian's well-regarded short story collection.”

—Amazon.com


Towelhead
doesn't pull its punches, but as Jasira navigates her sexual self and the adults who either want to help her navigate it or slap it shamefully away, Erian smoothes a knowing empathy and black-comic cunning in with the pain.”

—Straight.com

“Erian (
The Brutal Language of Love
) takes a dogged, unflinching look at what happens as a young woman's sexuality blooms when only a predatory neighbor is paying attention.”

—
Publishers Weekly

“Alicia Erian's gripping debut novel fearlessly enters love's gray areas and darkest corners. The character's voice casts a slow and subtle spell. Before you know it, you're convinced the bad guys are good guys and the heroes are villains. I couldn't put it down.”

—Cathy Day, author of
The Circus in Winter

“How can
Towelhead
be so scary, nasty, and intense, and still be so sweet and tender? How can love and desire and innocence live so completely in these pages with shame, abuse, and neglect? How can three suburban houses with adjoining yards so thoroughly contain this delicate coming-of-age story, this complex story of race, romance, and redemption? Alicia Erian—that's how. She's one of the finest young writers to come along in a decade—fierce, smart, funny, and wise. And
Towelhead
is an extraordinary debut novel. It's sexy, disturbing, joyful and deep, and maybe just a little too real for comfort.”

—Bill Roorbach, author of
Big Bend
and
The Smallest Color

“In
Towelhead
Alicia Erian accomplishes an extraordinarily difficult thing: through the vessel of an adolescent narrator she illuminates a timeless, ageless theme, our inevitable human struggle for selfhood and meaningful connection to others. This is a brilliant first novel.”

—Robert Olen Butler


Towelhead
is a brave, inventive, and moving story about the redemptive qualities of love. Jasira is an unforgettable heroine, a girl caught in the seismic shifts of sexual and cultural growing pains; a girl striving to belong in a community, a world, that finds her suspect. Alicia Erian's unflinching depiction of a teen's survival is accurate, artful, and it offers a glimpse of true triumph. This marvelous book further confirms Erian as a writer to admire.”

—Darin Strauss, author of
Chang and Eng
and
The Real McCoy

Also by Alicia Erian

The Brutal Language of Love

Simon & Schuster Paperbacks
Rockefeller Center
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2005 by Alicia Erian

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

SIMON & SCHUSTER PAPERBACKS and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Designed by Davina Mock

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Erian, Alicia, 1967–

    Towelhead : a novel / Alicia Erian.

      p. cm.

    1. Teenage girls—Fiction. 2. Suburban life—Fiction. 3. Arab Americans—Fiction. 4. Lebanese Americans—Fiction. 5. Fathers and daughters—Fiction. 6. Children of immigrants—Fiction. 7. Conflict of generations—Fiction. 8. Children of divorced parents—Fiction. 9. Domestic fiction. 10. Bildungsromans. I. Title.

PS3555.R4265T69 2005

813'.6—dc22                      2005042482

ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-8895-8
ISBN-10: 0-7432-8895-5

Visit us on the World Wide Web:

http://www.SimonSays.com

For David Franklin

We all do better in the future.

—Raymond Carver,

“On an Old Photograph of My Son”

One

M
y mother's boyfriend got a crush on me, so she sent me to live with Daddy. I didn't want to live with Daddy. He had a weird accent and came from Lebanon. My mother met him in college, then they got married and had me, then they got divorced when I was five. My mother told me it was because my father was cheap and bossy. When my parents got divorced, I wasn't upset. I had a memory of Daddy slapping my mother, and then of my mother taking off his glasses and grinding them into the floor with her shoe. I don't know what they were fighting about, but I was glad that he couldn't see anymore.

I still had to visit him for a month every summer, and I got depressed about that. Then, when it was time to go home again, I got happy. It was just too tense, being with Daddy. He wanted everything done in a certain way that only he knew about. I was afraid to move half the time. Once I spilled some juice on one of his foreign rugs, and he told me that I would never find a husband.

My mother knew how I felt about Daddy, but she sent me to live with him anyway. She was just so mad about her boyfriend liking me. I told her not to worry, that I didn't like Barry back, but she said that wasn't the point. She said I was always walking around with my boobs sticking out, and that it was hard for Barry not to notice. That really hurt my feelings, since I couldn't help what my boobs looked like. I'd never asked for Barry to notice me. I was only thirteen.

At the airport, I wondered what my mother was so worried about. I could never have stolen Barry away from her, even if I'd tried. She was 100 percent Irish. She had high cheekbones and a cute round ball at the end of her nose. When she put concealer under her eyes, they looked all bright and lit up. I could've brushed her shiny brown hair for hours, if only she had let me.

When they announced my flight, I started to cry. My mother said it wasn't that bad, then pushed me in my back a little so I would walk onto the plane. A stewardess helped me find my seat, since I was still crying, and a man beside me held my hand during takeoff. He probably thought I was scared to fly, but I wasn't. I really and truly hoped we would crash.

Daddy met me at the airport in Houston. He was tall and clean-shaven and combed his wavy, thinning hair to one side. Ever since my mother had ground up his glasses, he'd started wearing contacts. He shook my hand, which he'd never done before. I said, “Aren't you going to hug me?” and he said, “This is how we do it in my country.” Then he started walking really fast through the airport, so I could barely keep up.

As I waited with Daddy at the baggage claim, I felt like I didn't have a family anymore. He didn't look at me or talk to me. We both just watched for my suitcase. When it came, Daddy lifted it off the conveyor belt, then set it down so I could pull it. It had wheels and a handle, but it fell over if you walked too fast. When I slowed down, though, Daddy ended up getting too far ahead of me. Finally he picked it up and carried it himself.

It was a long drive back to Daddy's apartment, and I tried not to notice all the billboards for gentlemen's clubs along the way. It was embarrassing, those women with their breasts hanging out. I wondered if that was how I had looked with Barry. Daddy didn't say anything about the billboards, which made them even more embarrassing. I started to feel like they were all my fault. Like anything awful and dirty was my fault. My mother hadn't told Daddy about Barry and me, but she had told him that she thought I was growing up too fast, and would probably benefit from a stricter upbringing.

That night, I slept on a foldout chair in my father's office. There was a sheet on it, but it kept slipping off, and the vinyl upholstery stuck to my skin. In the morning, my father stood in the doorway and whistled like a bird so I would wake up. I went to the breakfast table in my T-shirt and underwear, and he slapped me and told me to go put on proper clothes. It was the first time anyone had ever slapped me, and I started to cry. “Why did you do that?” I asked him, and he said things were going to be different from now on.

I got back into bed and cried some more. I wanted to go home, and it was only the second day. Soon my father came to the doorway and said, “Okay, I forgive you, now get up.” I looked at him and wondered what he was forgiving me for. I thought about asking, but somehow it didn't seem smart.

That day, we went looking for a new house. Daddy said he was making a good salary at NASA, and besides, the schools were better in the suburbs. I didn't want to go back on the highway because of all the billboards, but I was afraid to say no. Then it turned out that the billboards on the way to the suburbs were for new homes and housing developments. The prices started at one hundred fifty thousand dollars—almost three times as much as my mother had paid for our town house back in Syracuse. She was a middle-school teacher, so she couldn't afford very much.

Daddy listened to NPR while I watched the road out the window. Houston seemed like the end of the world to me. The last place you would ever want to live. It was hot and humid and the water from the tap tasted like sand. The one thing I liked about Daddy was that he kept the air-conditioning at seventy-six. He said that everyone he knew thought he was crazy, but he didn't care. He loved walking into his apartment and saying, “Ahh!”

Some news about Iraq came on, and Daddy turned up the volume. They had just invaded Kuwait. “Fucking Saddam,” Daddy said, and I relaxed a little that he would swear.

We went to a housing development called Charming Gates and looked at the model home. A Realtor named Mrs. Van Dyke gave us the tour, which ended in the kitchen, where she offered Daddy a cup of coffee. She talked a lot about the beauty of the home, its reasonable price, the school district, and safety. Daddy tried to bargain with her, and she said that wasn't really done. She said if he were buying an older home, that sort of thing would be fine, but that new homes had fixed prices. Back in the car, he made fun of her southern accent, which sounded even funnier with his own accent mixed in.

For dinner, we had thin-crust pizza at a place called Panjo's. Daddy said that it was his favorite and that he ate there a lot. He said the last time he'd been there, he'd come with a woman from work, on a date. He said he'd liked her quite a bit until she took out a cigarette. Then he realized she was stupid. I thought she was stupid, too, not because she smoked, but because she'd gone on a date with Daddy.

That night, on the vinyl bed, I thought about my future. I imagined it as day after day of misery. I decided nothing good would ever happen to me, and I began to fantasize about Barry. I fantasized that he would come and rescue me from my father, then we would move back to Syracuse, only without telling my mother. We would live in a house on the other side of town, and I could wear whatever I wanted to the breakfast table.

In the morning, Barry hadn't arrived yet. It was just my father, standing in the doorway and whistling like a bird. “I don't really like that,” I said, and he laughed and did it again.

That day, we went to see more model homes. And more over the weekend. On Sunday night, Daddy asked me which one I liked best, and I picked the cheapest one, in Charming Gates. He said he agreed, and a few weeks later we moved in. It was a nice place with four bedrooms—one for Daddy, one for me, one for an office, and one for a guest room. Daddy and I each had our own bathroom. The name of my wallpaper was “adobe,” since it looked like all these little earthen houses, and my sink and countertop were cream with gold glitter trapped underneath. It was my responsibility to keep my bathroom clean, and Daddy bought me a can of Comet for under the sink.

Daddy's bathroom was twice the size of mine. It connected to his room and had two sinks, plus a walk-in closet with one rack on top of the other, just like at the dry cleaner's. Some of his suits were even in dry-cleaner bags. His toilet was in a little room with its own separate door, and right away, after we moved in, it started to smell like pee. He didn't have a bathtub like I did, but he had a shower stall with a door that made a loud click when you shut it.

There were formal and informal living rooms, as well as a formal dining room and a breakfast nook. We started using everything for what it was named for. Breakfast in the breakfast nook, dinner in the dining room, TV in the informal living room (which also had the fireplace), and guests in the formal living room at the front of the house.

Our first guests were the next-door neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Vuoso and their ten-year-old son, Zack. They came over with a pie Mrs. Vuoso had baked. Daddy invited them to sit down on his brown velvet couch, then brought them all hot tea, even though they hadn't asked for it. “Oh my,” Mrs. Vuoso said, “tea in a glass.”

“This is how we serve it in my country,” Daddy said.

Mrs. Vuoso asked him what country that was, and Daddy told her. “Imagine that,” she commented, and Daddy nodded.

“You must have some interesting opinions on the situation over there,” Mr. Vuoso said. He was a very clean-looking man, with short, glossy brown hair and a black T-shirt. He wore jeans that looked ironed, and had very big arm muscles. The biggest I'd ever seen. They got in the way of his arms lying flat at his sides.

“I certainly do,” Daddy said.

“Maybe I'd like to hear them sometime,” Mr. Vuoso said, only it sounded like he didn't really want to hear them at all.

“Not today,” Mrs. Vuoso warned. “No politics today.” She wore a tan skirt and flat shoes. Her face was young, but her short hair was totally gray. I had to keep reminding myself that she was Mr. Vuoso's wife, and not his mother.

“Do you know how to play badminton?” Zack asked me. He sat between his parents on the couch, his legs sticking straight out in front of him. He looked a little like his father, with short brown hair and neat jeans.

“Sort of,” I said.

“Do you want to play now?” he asked.

“Okay,” I said, even though I didn't. I was more interested in staying with the grown-ups. I kept wondering if Mr. Vuoso was going to beat up Daddy.

The Vuosos had a badminton net in their backyard, and Zack kept hitting the birdie into my boobs and laughing. “Cut it out,” I finally told him.

“I'm just hitting it,” he said. “I can't help where it lands.”

I let him do it a few more times, then I quit.

“Want to do something else?” he asked.

“No thanks,” I said, walking to his side of the net and handing him the racquet.

We went back to my house, where the Vuosos were just getting ready to leave. “Who won?” Mr. Vuoso asked.

“I did,” Zack said. “She quit.”

“We don't say
she
when the person is right beside us,” Mrs. Vuoso said.

“I don't remember her name,” Zack said.

“Jasira,” Mr. Vuoso said. “Her name is Jasira.” He smiled at me then, and I didn't know what to do.

After they left, Daddy told me that Mr. Vuoso was a reservist, which meant he was in the army on the weekends. “This guy is something else,” Daddy said, shaking his head. “He thinks I love Saddam. It's an insult.”

“Did you tell him you don't?” I asked.

“I told him nothing,” Daddy said. “Who is he to me?”

There was a pool in Charming Gates, and Daddy felt strongly that we should be using it. He said he wasn't paying all of this money just so I could sit around in the air-conditioning. I told him I didn't want to go, but when he asked me why, I was too embarrassed to say. It was my pubic hair. There was getting to be more and more of it, and some of it came out the legs of my bathing suit. I'd begged my mother to teach me how to shave, but she said no, that once you started, there was no stopping. I cried about this all the time, and my mother told me to can it. I told her that the girls in gym class called me Chewbacca, and she said she didn't know who that was. Barry said he knew who it was and that it wasn't very nice, but my mother told him that since he didn't have any kids of his own, he could go ahead and butt out.

Then one night, when my mother had parent/teacher conferences, Barry called me into the bathroom. He was standing there in his sweats and a T-shirt, holding a razor and a can of shaving cream. “Put your bathing suit on,” he said. “Let's figure out how to do this.” So I put my bathing suit on and stood in the tub, and he shaved my pubic hair. “How's that?” he asked when he was finished, and I said it looked good.

When it came time to shave again, Barry asked if I remembered how to do it, or if I needed him to show me one more time. I told him I needed him to show me, even though I did remember. It just felt nice to stand there and have him do such a dangerous and careful thing to me.

My mother would never have found out except that after a while, the tub got clogged. She called the plumber, and when he used his snake, all that came up were my black curly hairs. “That happens sometimes,” he said. “It ain't always the hair on your head.” Then he charged my mother a hundred dollars to pour some Liquid-Plumr down the drain.

“Take off your pants,” she said when he left, and I did. There was no use fighting her.

“Did I tell you you could shave?” she asked. “Did I?”

“No,” I said.

“Get me the razor,” she said, and I told her I didn't have one, that I'd snuck and used Barry's. When he came home, she made me apologize to him for taking his property without asking. “That's okay,” he said, and my mother grounded me for a month.

BOOK: Towelhead
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