My assailant was waiting for me in one of those grab-and-go salads. The moment I drove a fork into the vinaigrette, it splashed into my eye. It was not balsamic, this assailant, and another one would issue a deeper wound later that day—and all the doctors in the world wouldn’t be able to help.
Onboard the shuttle bus, I was fine for the time being, grazing on salad, doing Arabic calligraphy in my Moleskine among strangers. This was absolute heaven. I was free. I was me. I don’t do calligraphy or design around my friends, husband, mother or brother. My father once caught me drawing when I was a child and threatened to arrange for me and Walid—who enjoyed lighting people’s hair on fire—to be married and work in his family’s fertilizer plant. With Walid’s pyromaniac proclivities and tons of flammable material around, it was only a matter of time before I would perish, with hundreds more, in a workplace accident.
Neither my father nor Walid was my oppressor though—let me state that for anyone who believes all Muslim men stone women to death. They were merely part of the tradition I am now beyond. Let them have their traditions. And I will invent mine.
I suppose it’s ironic that the calligraphers and artists I find inspiring happened to have penises—the French-Tunisian street artist, eL Seed, and the Syrian calligrapher, Mouneer Al Shaarani—but I don’t need to verbally, emotionally or physically castrate men in order to be a feminist.
I simply add my voice to the human conversation through my calligraphy and design—the way that I love to speak. My ink, my paper—my vocal cords. My art, my vision—my voice. No one at my law firm knows this about me.
So the shuttle bus took me to the airport. Inside I put away my Moleskine just as a man bumped into my carry-on bag and knocked the nearly finished salad out of my hands. Before picking up the leaves and shredded carrots, I looked to the man for an apology but he had already walked away.
When I had advanced through the security line and set down my bag on the X-ray’s conveyor belt, I heard the most soothing Levantine Arabic whispered by the woman behind me:
“There’s a bomb in your bag. You have three minutes before it goes through the X-ray machine.”
The voice sounded so familiar I turned expecting to see my grandmother, even though she had died in Damascus when I was young, and instead found an Asian woman in her forties, her hair in a loose ponytail and wisps around her temples. She was wearing a blue hoodie with “Cal” on it. I glanced at my bag sitting on the belt and then at her.
“Why would you—why would say something like that?” I replied in Arabic.
“‘Why’ is for another time,” she lilted. “For now, you can move that bomb without touching it, without even moving your body. Put it somewhere far away from anyone.”
A TSA agent brought a stack of plastic bins, studied us for a second, smiled, and put the stack down by the conveyor belt.
Although I was wearing only a blouse in November, I started to feel the heat rise between the fabric and my skin. A layer of humidity formed. Sweat beaded my face. My hands were slick, and I stepped toward my bag and then stopped.
The TSA agent noticed and walked over to me. “You forget to take something out? Water? Liquids?”
I pursed my lips and shook my head so I wouldn’t risk sounding nervous. He gathered more plastic bins, and I turned to the woman. “I could turn around and leave right now, taking my bag with me,” I said.
“You could but you don’t know when it’s going off. Maybe it explodes when you’re taking Uber.” Her eyebrows rose.
“Well, I could just leave the bag here at the airport.”
“Maybe it explodes in the next few minutes and you could have done something about it. But you didn’t. And many people died.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” I said.
By now, travelers all around were staring at us—speaking Arabic in an airport can do that—so to avoid their eyes, I watched my bag being carried away on the conveyor belt until it stopped before the mouth of the machine.
“One minute left,” said the enigma.
I had spent the last week litigating in court. I took a deep breath and exhaled, “I’m not playing your game.”
“I promise you this bomb is no game.”
“You and that man planted something on me. I know this,” I hissed. “And it’s on the airport cameras. The evidence will exonerate me.”
A smile beamed and she nodded. “Such a lawyer. But that’s just an identity you bought and paid for at Harvard.”
My carry-on went into the X-ray machine that very moment. Tight chest. Shallow breaths. Unblinking eyes.
The X-ray technician stopped moving the belt and examined his monitor. He looked up, turned to another TSA agent, and asked him to come over.
They spoke closely, studying the monitor, with occasional glances at me.
Finally my bag came out of the other side of the X-ray.
“Hey! Are you going to go?” a man shouted behind me.
I turned around. No enigmatic woman. Only a middle-aged man who flung his hands up in the air. “Seriously! What the fuck? I’m going to miss my flight!” he grumbled and pushed past me to go through the metal detector.
On the plane. An entire aisle to myself. No need to share my terrifying experience with anyone. Or hide it on my face. First I let my elbow spill into the seat next to me. Next I drew—hoping to release some stress—but my lines were squiggly. I set down my Moleskine and my trembling hand, and I melted where I was. I stopped wondering about Phantom Femme and Phantom Bomb, and I fell asleep during takeoff.
When I woke up, I was quite sure I was still dreaming.
“How did you sleep?” asked Phantom Femme, now sitting next to me.
I yawned and said, “Your Arabic is uncanny, so perfectly pronounced, like you were raised in Syria with elocution lessons.”
“Maybe I was.” Her lips curled. “You probably want to know why I’m here.”
“I do but I don’t. Everything out of your mouth makes my life suck, so I’m just going to close my eyes and you will be gone.” I closed my eyes and opened them again. Phantom Femme was still smiling.
“Okay, I give up. Why are you here?” I asked.
“Because you haven’t moved the bomb. And when it goes off, you’ll be remembered as a terrorist. You’ll get really good coverage in The New York Times. Your mom will actually die of shame.”
“What? No.” My hands became clammy again. “There’s no bomb or anything—nothing. My bag went through the X-ray machine. They didn’t find anything. You bluffed. You lost.”
“My exact words were ‘You have three minutes before it goes through the X-ray machine.’ I never said they would detect it.”
“I’m not playing your game,” my voice withered this time.
“Think about it. It’s a bomb. You think whoever makes it is going to make it detectable? In the X-ray machine? Before it gets on the plane?” she asked.
“So it’s still here.”
She nodded. “You have ten minutes before it goes off.”
“Can I get you anything to drink?” asked the flight attendant.
“Cabernet. Three of them, please,” I said.
The flight attendant then asked Phantom Femme who requested tomato juice. Very gently I moved my finger toward Phantom Femme after the attendant left. We both watched my finger float her way, and upon contact with her arm, Phantom Femme said, “Yes, I am actually here. Nine and a half minutes left.”
“Nine and a half minutes left to live,” I muttered.
“No, you haven’t begun living.” Her eyes cast down and I felt her sadness and my own ambivalence about wanting to console her and wanting her to fuck off. Our silence brought the other passengers to life. In the row behind me, a boy demanded to play Angry Birds while his parents were invested in their iPads. In front of me, a true bromance unfolded between two college students lauding last night’s beer pong that led to someone named Caitlyn dancing and stripping to Whitesnake.
I found myself envying their oblivion and hating them. Why did they get to have it so easy? Why didn’t they have to speak Arabic to their mothers and feel embarrassed to do so in public? I didn’t choose to be Syrian, and I didn’t choose to have my father’s last name, or his argumentative nature, or his anger, or his anything. My eyes became hot and blurry.
Just as my tears started falling, Phantom Femme loosened my grip of the Moleskine in my lap and opened it to the letter I’d written to my father. He had never read it because he had died before I could share it. A drop hit the page and Arabic letters bled. More drops fell, and I tried to close the Moleskine but she held it open.
“Wait,” she said.
“You accept living when you accept feeling.”
I wiped some tears on my fingers, touched the page, and unintentionally created ink wash. It moved everywhere. The writing became illegible. I hadn’t looked at this page in a long time. I didn’t feel like a good daughter when I did. I blamed him for so much.
But now I could see the words becoming something else in the tears and ink. It was the movement I had never allowed and a new space for new things. The idea of who I was started to die inside and my heart started to drum louder, deafening everything in the airplane cabin. My invisible fingers crossed the distance between myself and my carry-on in the compartment above, and like this I reached without lifting my arms. I entered the bag and sensed the contents, remembering everything I’d packed. I then sensed a small box I hadn’t packed. I held this box with my invisible fingers and I plunged it into a lake six miles underneath me. When I felt the explosive was deep enough in the water, I let go with such an exhale that I was short of breath, and I almost fainted. I closed my eyes.
“You just spent all the calories in your body, doing what you did,” Phantom Femme whispered. “Tell the flight attendant you’re hypoglycemic and you need a sugary drink and also something to eat. I recommend peanuts for fat and protein. Lots of peanuts.”
Phantom Femme was no longer there when I opened my eyes. The flight attendant was however and she gasped. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I said weakly.
“Your hands,” she said.
I looked in my lap and I saw them shivering, wet, and covered in silt from the lake.
After Connor picked me up at LAX, I kissed him lightly and told him I just wanted to zone out, go home, and take a bath. He understood and listened to sports radio for the entire drive to Pacific Palisades.
At home, my phone rang as I ran the bath, and I wouldn’t have ordinarily picked up but the caller ID flashed, “A Brief Chat,” which was certainly not a person in my Contacts.
“I’ll make this quick so you can relax,” said the enigmatic woman on the other end of the line. “You used energy changing your molecular composition. It’s why you were so tired after moving the bomb. Some people wanted you to never learn how to do what you did. The man who planted the bomb in your bag worked for them.”
“And I’m supposed to relax after you tell me this?” I was growing irritated.
“You’re not in danger anymore. They’re afraid of you now.”
“But that would put me in more danger.”
“You sound like your father,” she said and that shut me up, and she continued, “The secret of how to move something like that bomb is simply the secret of how to move in general. The thing you move doesn’t matter. What matters is that you know how to move. It’s the process you practice in your art. All art moves. You’ve just been afraid of it because it comes from that thing you’ve tried to control your whole life.”
My heart started pounding, knowing it was being discussed.
“Let it speak. Start by asking what it needs.”
“Is that all?” I sighed.
“There’s a man who can do what you do. When you’re feeling ready, share your art and Galen Gorry will find you and help you.”
“You work for this guy.”
“No. I work for you. I’m your qarin,” said the jinni who then hung up.
I turned off the faucet. Even though the bath water was inviting, I went into the master bedroom where Connor was lying in bed and scrolling through his phone. He gave me a look of concern. “Didn’t you want to take a bath?”
I untied my terrycloth robe, let it shrink to the floor, and climbed into bed. I rested on Connor and described my day without sparing a detail, and as he took in every word, I felt more naked than I have in months.
— K.J. from Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles
Art and magic are no different. But we are.