When I found out that Raya had killed herself, we hadn’t spoken for ten years. I look her up. A single selfie on Instagram. Her face has not changed. Dimples in the same place. A new piercing through them, but their impact on me has not subsided. Pulling at her necklace. Side-eyeing her own camera. On her YouTube channel I see she only liked one video: Methadone withdrawal chronicles day 30.
We went to the same high school. I was twelve when we first met. When she turned thirteen, she moved to Canada and our friendship became solely through MSN Messenger and our Hi5 profiles.
Her network was about seven times the size of mine. Even though she lived in another continent, she still talked to boys from my high school who didn’t know I existed. She called them her best friends, and so did they. She sent them selfies of her new haircuts, her new piercings, her new Apple Bottom jeans that weren’t sold where we lived. The boys were in love. I watched them as they changed their display names to ♥´`·.¸ღ [ Raya ] ღ¸.·´`♥. They’d make her playlists, FedEx jewelry to her house, ask—beg, to be her next long-distance relationship. When she finally said yes to one of them, she started to send him more intimate selfies. He plastered them all over the school bathrooms, and she was too far away to know.
‘What’s your boyfriend like?’
‘He’s alright. His friends are great. He has nice eyes.’
‘Does it bother you that you don’t always know what he’s up to?’
‘He doesn’t always know what I’m up to either.’
‘You’re too good for him.’
‘They’re all not worth a penny, wala filis, but it feels good when someone tells you they’re thinking of you.’
Raya was a year younger than me, but she knew a lot more. She knew how to kiss a boy. She sent me long, late-night instructions teaching me what to do with my mouth. A few music videos with a slow kiss. A few movie scenes where it led to something more. Intimate moments, a dress comes off. What an orgasm looks like. I turn the volume down. When I told her I didn’t want to have sex with a boy, she told me I didn’t need to. She told me I could take care of it myself. She talked me through it.
When she told me she was in love with me, I was fourteen.
They say to pray and abstain. Pray and abstain. Pray and abstain.
At the dinner table, I mention Moe from high school. He’s a friend of a friend who came out to a boy he knew. All the boys of Sharjah city cut him out of their circles. I say that it’s sad that he doesn’t have friends anymore. My father says he should have sought therapy.
‘What kind of therapy?’
‘Not the type at psychologists. That doesn’t work. He should have prayed, gone to the mosque.’
‘The Church does it too. The men go on to be married to women and they start families. They become normal, wallah.’
‘You think it can go away?’
‘Every disease has a cure. That’s the way God intended.’
We watch the Addams Family. I look at Anjelica Huston. I am afraid of her. When she grabs a knife, when she throws it at Gomez, when she digs her pointed red nails into his cheeks and then they kiss. I want to look away, but I cannot. Her eyebrows move; I shiver. Her eyelashes flutter and I start to get nervous. I tell myself it’s the movie. I’m too young for horror. It’s fear because it can’t be attraction because that’s not the way God intended.
The blackness of her hair blends into the blackness of her dress and I can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. I want to grow my hair too, resemble her, intimidate like she does. I want a black dress with a train. I want to be a witch. This witch in particular. I start buying tops with sleeves that cover my wrists, but I’m only nine years old and my fingers aren’t as slender as hers. I don’t know if I will ever have control of my face like she does; when she says something funny, when she’s flirty, the sides of her mouth move slightly into her cheeks. She only ever almost smiles. Her cheek bones. I know she is happy, but her face resists it. She teases me, with half a smile, half a glance at the camera, and she knows it’s me who’s watching. I’m so afraid of her I never want the image of her to go away.
When Raya tells me she loves me, I freeze. My first thought is that she’s out of my league. The second thought is how I’d be so much better than the boys who send her photos around. The third thought is that she lives so far away. The fourth thought is whether I could live in Canada. The fifth thought is that I am a girl.
She tells me she’s not expecting anything of me. ‘I don’t want you to do anything. I just want you to know how I feel.’ But I want to do something. I want to do something right now. She says she’s sorry and we should stop talking. She didn’t plan for this. I don’t sleep. I go through her profile and all her photos: one-shoulder tops, low rise jeans, rhinestone belts and hoop earrings. I go through all of mine: tom-boy hair, loose t-shirts, scuffed denim and Skechers. Chubby fingers, a flat chest, a bit of acne. I wonder how she could have fallen for me. Could a Year 8 girl really be prettier than the 9s? Out of all the girls of my year, was I the greatest one? Out of all the boys too, out of every one of my school?
I’m proud of who I am for being good enough for her. I think I must be doing something right, that someone like her should choose me. I want to wear this like a medal. I’m Gold, because out of everyone I know she’s the one with the kindest, most beautiful heart, and the bravest soul.
In our Islamic Studies class we learn about the prophets and all the tortures God inflicted on their disobeying peoples. We study Lot, when before the torture he fled his village in the night with his children and a few believers. Rain of clay and rocks to kill everyone for their homosexuality. He told them to stop but they refused. They brought it on themselves.
In our Islamic Studies class we learn about the 99 names of God, like the merciful, the king, the powerful, the holy, the peace, the forgiver, the omniscient. I think there are 99 gods. A few for the people of Lot, probably the king, the powerful and the omniscient, and a couple of gods for me: the peace and the forgiver.
Raya told me about the time she kissed her best friend in her bedroom.
‘It only means something if you want it to.’
‘Didn’t it feel intimate, like a normal kiss?’
‘It’s not like I stopped to tell her I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. We just did it and laughed about it.’
‘Did you want to do it again?’
‘No, we weren’t trying to start a thing or anything. It was just one make-out session.’
‘Does it feel wrong?’
‘Look at me.’
In her display photo she’s blowing smoke into the camera.
‘Not much of what I do feels right.’
The day after I go online at the usual time. She’s there. Currently playing: U Got It Bad. I’m on Kelly Clarkson. She’s usually spoken to me by now but this time she waits. I do too.
Three songs later she says, ‘hey.’ No emoticons, her hey is a hey and it’s not a heyyyy, none of the nicknames.
‘Have you thought about what I said??’
Two question marks to make me twice as nervous.
‘What did you think?’
‘I still don’t know what to say. Yes, I’ve been thinking about it, but I don’t know what to say. I never expected you to feel that way.’
‘Raya is typing…’
‘Raya is typing…’
I put my hands behind my back. I won’t type. I’ll shut up now so she can say what she wants.
‘Raya is typing…’
She stops typing. She’s offline. I ask a mutual friend and she’s still online to him.
In school we learn about the ways we can go to hell. Getting a tattoo, showing our hair to men, getting hair extensions, plucking our eyebrows. A long list of things that made us no longer Muslims. We also learn about all the ways we can go to heaven. Adopting a cat, praying five times a day, pilgrimage to Mecca, being kind to your parents, building a mosque, making another Muslim happy. I can make Raya happy.
I ask what happens if a woman without a hijab builds a mosque. My teacher says there’s no such thing, a good Muslim wanting to build a mosque would cover her hair.
‘What if she’s a bad Muslim?’
‘There are no bad Muslims. Only sinners who don’t care about God.’
I think how hard the rains of clay will hit Raya and me, in case God doesn’t care about sinners either.
Raya unblocks me. She says hello, calls me the gahba, Iraqi for slut, but it’s endearing. She acts like she hasn’t been gone for three days. She tells me she misses me, she’s been busy. I tell her I have been thinking about what she said and if it’s okay that I call her now. She starts sending me emoticons.
A lot of emoticons. One of a boy laughing so hard he falls on the floor. Another: a digital creature holding his stomach from the agony of laughing out loud for so long. One that’s banging on the table in a laughing fit.
She says she can’t believe I fell for that prank.
She sends me screenshots. A few friends were in on it. How the boys laughed, she tells me. It was hilarious. That is hilarious. It’s actually brilliant. I agree with everything she says. I send her laughing faces too. I’m not gay. That’s why this is funny. I just didn’t want her to feel bad so I didn’t say anything. She called me a good friend for not walking out on her just because she might have been gay, but she was definitely not gay. Neither was I. Why should I be upset? Why should I be hurt, that screenshots of the whole thing are all over high school?
I go back to dating boys. I focus on the natural thing: what God intended. I start wearing makeup to school and invest in push-up bras and I spend an hour on my hair every morning until the popular boy notices me. I go on a date with him, and I’m the straightest girl you’ve ever met. When I turn sixteen, we kiss at the steps of the mall. He tells me I’m the one, I’ll introduce you to my mother, all of that. He knows Raya. She told him to tell me she said Hi. When he asks me why she and I aren’t friends anymore, I say she’s fuckin’ weird.
I find out from Instagram. Old friends from high school are praying for her in their stories. ‘We belong to God and unto him we shall return, pray that God receives Raya with mercy and forgiveness.’ Raya’s mother shares a post on Facebook that she died from a cardiac arrest, but a good friend of Raya’s shares a long post about how he’d been trying to talk her out of it and he failed. He takes it down a few hours later. He posts the prayer instead. I watch all the posts and I refresh them to see new comments.
Lur is an Iraqi writer from Adelaide. She achieved First Class Honours in Creative Writing, was shortlisted for the 2017 Deborah Cass Prize and won the 2017 Scribe Nonfiction Prize.