After garbage day, after garbage afternoon, or rather sometime after the 5am and 4pm window where the garbage truck is finding itself thunderously wheezing down our street, there is trash everywhere. Unmoored and vomited across the street in little mounds, it’s in a gradient of sizes with the biggest wads at the base of their original receptacle and the smaller bits extending and almost reaching out to the bins posted at the opposite curb. Wrappers, broken bottles, Styrofoam takeout boxes, plastic sandwich baggies with half-eaten sandwiches, it’s all caked into the dirt and in the sparse, greying grass of the front yard strips that are squeezed between wide concrete driveways, tangled in the clumps of pine needles, leaves, and twigs, hanging at the edges of storm drains. There’s a soggy car seat, a couch with its molding cushions piled beside it, baby shoes, a deflated kickball, a deconstructed plywood end table with its screws and nails exposed, and three faux-gilded frames that smell strongly of cigarette smoke.
Around the bus stop, in the mid-morning heat, the air smells like raw sewage and the ditch behind the chain-link fence fills up to a stagnant pond during rainy weeks, bottles and other inedible fast food remains pile up on the banks. Instead of bringing them closer to the apartments where they live, the yellow school bus driver drops the elementary school kids off beside this fence where there isn’t any place for them to walk that isn’t directly on the road, apparently confident that the brightly colored backpacks that make up approximately 60% of each of their tiny bodies is armor enough.
The kids are always playing outside, bouncing basketballs and riding around on little scooters or in tiny electric jeeps. There’s a group of construction workers who sit outside in a circle of fold-up chairs at the end of the day, having a beer, still in their neon yellow vests. The neighbor’s motorboat, parked out front, is my landmark until he takes it out on sunny weekends and I drive right past my apartment. He told us his kids don’t take out his kayak enough and that we could borrow it whenever we’d like, we could even borrow the paddles too. On bright Sunday afternoons, the neighbor washes and waxes his PT cruiser for hours. When I invited him and his new roommate over for my birthday dinner, it was the first time either of them had ever had tabbouleh or falafel. We invited all the neighbors and ran out of chairs and plates and forks but thankfully not wine or beer or cake. It was an apartment warming party 4 months belated.
When my parents stopped by on their way down from North Carolina, I show them around the apartment, finally set up how I want it. We go out to eat at the local Vietnamese place two minutes away where we go whenever someone suggests going out to eat and talk about work, about starting school again, about Yosemite and Lake Tahoe and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where my parents have been traveling. We do not talk about the dozens of Palestinians that were killed recently. My mom was smiling and laughing with us and I told myself that she had probably been too busy to focus on it too much. Probably but maybe not.
Someone told me there was a protest in town over the weekend, in support of Palestine, but I didn’t see it on any local news, before or after, and the whole thing seems so pointless and depressing anyway. And I’m conflicted internally with that Middle Eastern half of me; all I have is a deep-rooted sense of injustice and features ambiguous enough that people ask me where I’m from or if they’re especially obnoxious, what I am. Its why my dad told my mom to introduce herself as L instead of her real name. Hopefully people think its Elle and she saves that start up 15 minutes of invasive, uncomfortable questioning.
A couple weeks ago, I needed a key to another room in the lab of our collaborator and, passing him in the hall, I caught the attention of the scientists with the lanyard around his neck. He was Middle Eastern, I’d heard him berating his grad student in Arabic earlier through the half-open door in the microscope room. I had chatted with that grad student a few times before, he was sweet and humble and said he was from Qatar, and I think that he saw me before I decided it was a terrible time to ask for a key, edging out of the room. In the hall, the man hands me the key, tells me to bring it right back, and eyeing me more closely, asks where I’m from. I don’t tell him where I’m from, I tell him what he’s looking for, that my mom is from Palestine. He asks my name and I tell him.
Like a dream where the memory of the event comes back in images and phrases but doesn’t quite make sense spatially, he’s halfway down the hall when he’s telling me, “No, its Layla, its pronounced Layla”. He’s pronouncing it differently than I did, obviously, but I’m not going to specify how he pronounced because it doesn’t matter because it’s not my name. I said, “No, it’s not. My name is Layla”. He shook his head, he’s further down the hall now, and he said again, “No, your name is Layla, it’s not Layla, its Layla”, and he corrected me again, on my own name, like I wasn’t listening well enough the first time, like I couldn’t get my mouth in the right shape to make the right sound for the name that I’ve been wrong about my whole life, apparently, how embarrassing. Then he continued down the hall with a fucking smirk, a didn’t-anybody-ever-teach-you-anything smirk, and he was gone. And it took me one more minute to get angry but it was one minute too late and maybe it was symbolic of the force of men asserting dominance, of a man telling a woman how to be, what she is, defining her identity as it aligns with his worldview. Or maybe that guy was a fucking asshole in general. Either way, I told my least favorite coworker that it was her turn to go and return the key.