Tangled But Not Really Touching
“This is gonna sound weird. But, can I—can I kiss your nose?” We were on the open road. Cars hovered passed us. A few pedestrians walked along the path we were standing on. Women in niqabs and dudes actively trolling for girls seemed to challenge us. All I could think was, “If I say no, I’ll look like a prudish weirdo in front of her friends. If I say yes, I’m saying yes to something else, too. I don’t know what exactly, but I know it’s something I’m absolutely terrified of.”
I nodded: Yes.
She put her hands behind the small of her back, as if holding herself from doing anything more. We were so close to each other now, I was surprised no one pulled us apart—which could’ve easily happened if one of us was a guy.
She puts her lips on my nose.
Everything stopped making sense. Tangled, but not really touching.
It was… kind of hot.
I want to make it perfectly clear that this story is not a generalized, Arab LGBTQIA+ exposé This is not about every international kid trying to figure out their sexuality.
It’s just my own account, my own dumb/mushy/funny account of figuring my shit out. The experience just happens to take place in a country that is very Not Cool with me being who I am.
During my first year of high school, I realized I liked girls. I didn’t know I would like boys just
as much until my last year, but I found the prospect of that confrontation scary as fuck. I was born and raised in a very religious society. As a woman in Saudi Arabia, I am a second-class citizen under law. As anything else, there is legal jurisdiction over my sexual orientation.
So obviously, I was terrified of what I already knew about myself.
I went to a gender-segregated school that separated the boys’ and girls’ sides with a fifteen foot wall, like a fucking moat. Hence, me not realizing I liked boys until I was confronted with Live Males at an integrated American afterschool program.
At the time I was figuring out my feelings for Arizona Robbins, and my friends and I were on our school’s Robotics team, heading into the state regionals.
That’s when I met her: Aaliyah. (“Rock The Boat" was everything to me as a kid—super weird, I know—and Aaliyah is an Arabic name. By the way, I’m Arab guys.)
I was introduced to her at a Robotics project-pitching workshop held at her school that week. The first thing that she said to me was, “You look like Curly Sue, but like, an adult.”
You can imagine my instant attraction.
The next time we met, at my school where the championships were held, Aaliyah and her teammates claimed a table in the gymnasium, right next to the breakfast buffet.
She was wearing her school uniform: a gross charcoal-colored getup that looked like it belonged on the set of Little Women. It didn’t matter though, she made it work. No makeup, just some bomb-ass eyeliner that made her full lips pop.
I had just arrived, glimpsing Her on my way to the buffet, and thought, “Okay, she’s cute. I’m fucked. Food. I need food.” As I was scooping up a heaping spoon of fool, there she was.
Her teammates kept staring at me like they were just telling each other a joke about my Freshly-Electrocuted-Looking Hair. She said hello. I vomited a few letters that sounded like the same.
My heart was trying to punch through my boobs. I tried slowly exiting the conversation but she just followed me out.
Before we parted ways, she offered me her number. I literally had no idea what to do with this information. She took my phone and put in it in herself before I could say or do anything else.
I knew I found her attractive. But I didn’t want to make things weird.
At the time, she knew more about romantic relationships than I did. She was a year younger than me, and—without me realizing it—was trying to ease me into this whole new terrain. I wanted to know everything.
As we burrowed into this virtual mind-fuck of a flirtation, I got insight into Aaliyah’s life. Her past relationships, mostly guys, and casual flings with girls. How much Hash she smoked in a week. At one point, she asked me if I was into smoking weed—which I didn’t think was available where we were. She was a rebel and it scared the shit out of me.
I didn’t see her or speak to her again until the end of that year at the national championships.
My school won and we were about to head off to an after-party at our captain’s house. I told our chaperone that I was going to the bathroom and would meet her out front.
Aaliyah’s school placed last. I had a plan. Go up to her and say hi.
That was it. The Plan.
She was hanging out with her team by the same sidewalk we used to sit on, smoking a communal cigarette, not giving a shit.
As I walked up to them, Aaliyah turned around. Her cheeks were getting a little red again. I didn’t know what to do, so I coughed like I had phlegm in my throat. Smooth.
My palms were sweaty; her face was luminous. Shit. Feelings and things.
She laughed at me, at how naive I seemed maybe. I’m not sure.
I said hi, as planned. End of plan.
She said it back, and we just waited for someone to say something else.
Her eyes were staring straight into my forehead. Focused, as if she was about to pop a pimple on my T-zone or something.
“This is gonna sound weird. But, can I—can I kiss your nose?”
That’s when it happened.
It’s my nose. I mean, it’s weird that I felt sexy-vibes from a nose kiss. But I don’t know, if you
find someone who makes a gross nose smooch kind of hot, you’ve got something special.
I pulled away numbly, saying goodbye as I walked towards my bus. . .
We haven't seen each other since.
In retrospect, I’m not sure if I was ever in love with her. I know that I was very much into her. That I wanted something more than friendship. Sex was definitely a factor there, too.
In a place like the one I grew up in, you only have so many ways to seek something outside of yourself. To find power in who you are, despite where you are. To understand the world beyond yours and how you fit or don’t fit within it.
Every so often, I’m reminded of what I owe to Aaliyah. Even though I would be living a more safe and sheltered life without knowing this part of myself, I cannot imagine who I would be if she hadn’t placed a sloppy smooch on my nose that Wednesday night. Thank you, dude, for rocking the boat.
Illustration by Becca Charin