Be Cool for Once

Be Cool for Once Aminah Mae Safi Voyage YA

This story first appeared in the Fresh Ink anthology edited by Lamar Giles.

The thump of the bass and the riff of the guitar took Shirin to a higher plane, even if she was only listening to an opening act. At least, until Jeffrey Tanaka walked into the Fox Theater looking like a sex god after a particularly divine offering. He ran his hands through his dark hair, scanning the crowd. He pulled out a lip balm and swiped it across his lips. Like he’d decided to draw shining arrows to all of Shirin’s favorite parts.

Helpless, Shirin could only stare. “What fresh hell is this?”

“That’s unfortunate,” said Francesca in total solidarity. Because Francesca understood, even if she was immune to Jeffrey’s charms.

“Why is he at a Thousand Day Queens show? I know he’s not supposed to be out on a school night. He told me his parents wouldn’t let him. He’s a baseball player. Why would he get them to make an exception for this?” Because this wasn’t just an opener for any band. This was the Thousand Days Queens at the Fox, one of those preserved institutional theaters in downtown Oakland. Shirin had been bragging about her tickets all week. And the ability to be cool and relax while Jeffrey stood nearby was like knowing the speed of an electron and exactly where it was. Impossible.

“Aren’t the Queens too girlie?” But Shirin knew the assumption was unfair as soon as she’d said it. The red pen she’d borrowed from him that morning bit naggingly into the back pocket of her jeans. She hadn’t used a red pen in her entire life. She’d only started borrowing things in homeroom to talk to him and she’d only started talking to him to prove to herself that he wasn’t as interesting as he looked. It hadn’t worked. Once, she’d even borrowed a protractor from Jeffrey and she hadn’t needed that, either. It was awful.

“If rock is girlie.” Francesca shrugged. “Besides, they’ve just blown up.”

True. That had cost them, too. Much more than the last time, back before the Queens were famous and before Shirin could go to a concert on a school night. She took off her glasses, cleaned them on her worn T-shirt, then put them back on, the way she did when she was in the middle of a difficult lab. The logic didn’t add up. The data was, well, wrong. Incomplete. Why was Jeffrey here?

“What do you think of that roadie?” asked Francesca.

“Who?” Shirin’s eyes were still glued on Jeffrey. He kept looking around the venue. A sickening thought bubbled through her—he was meeting someone here. Shirin was going to have to watch Jeffrey on a date while her favorite band played. She must have forgotten to think penitent thoughts about one of the Twelve Imams when she was at masjid last weekend, because Shirin was definitely being punished.

Francesca nudged Shirin with her elbow. “Friend, you are blind. The one in the beanie? She’s back there. Stage right wing. And nobody helps her out. Perfect.” 

But Shirin was too busy following Jeffrey’s movements to look at the stage. He waded through the other concertgoers, his eyes hopeful and sharp. He gently tapped a girl with dark hair on the shoulder, but his expression fell when she turned around.

And that’s when he looked up and caught Shirin staring.

Shirin jolted, then froze, an electron trapped in the beam of a microscope. Her location known, she couldn’t move. Jeffrey walked toward her.

“Deep breaths.” Francesca patted Shirin on the back. “Channel Anne Boleyn. Go after your man. Or throne. Whatever.”

“Anne Boleyn lost her head.” Shirin looked away from Jeffrey, hoping to forget he was headed her way. She had the heart of a scientist. She wanted to be a physicist, a professional observer, a watcher. Not an explorer or a gambler. “And her throne.”

“Didn’t say it wasn’t without its risks.” Francesca smirked. She was a pusher and an adventurer. The girl with the wild hair who could talk literally anyone into anything. The concert scene was her and Shirin’s middle ground—sound waves, freed from the safety of the lab, pushing against a pit of people.

Of course Francesca had been the one to discover the Thousand Day Queens down one of her many rabbit holes in the Internet music forums. They had stage names and insane costumes and an ability to turn rock into art. The names had practically made Francesca convulse—they corresponded to tragic historical queens. Maria Antonio for Marie Antoinette, who had met her fate at the guillotine. Rana Jhan for the Rani of Jhansi, who died fighting for Indian independence from the British a hundred years before it actually happened. Ana Pembroke for Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded by her own husband. Women who had all reached for the stars and had crashed spectacularly back down to earth.

The thought of crashing, of risking exposure, made Shirin dizzy.

“I prefer to keep my head attached to my neck, if it’s all the same.” Shirin turned back to the crowd, but Jeffrey had disappeared. “And he looks like he’s meeting someone. Like a date someone.

Francesca laughed like Shirin had just told a good joke. “Try overreaching for once, friend.”

“Overreach what for once?” Jeffrey popped out from behind the railing and stopped inches from Shirin. He shoved his hands casually into the pockets of his stupid jogger pants. He always wore jogger pants. Even before they were cool.

Shirin stared. His V-neck was a little bit more snug and his hair was just a little bit more tousled than normal. Why couldn’t she have the decency to like a shy, nerdy boy who flew under the radar? Jeffrey looked like he should come with biohazard labels. Warning: may cause obsessive three-year crushes. “Francesca’s a reckless friend who wants my downfall.”

“True. At least then you’d have tried something new.” Francesca nodded, then turned to Jeffrey. “I was talking about Anne Boleyn. Know her? Lost her head over a man.”

Shirin could have strangled Francesca. Francesca offered a saintly smile in return.

“You mean Natalie Dormer in The Tudors? She was badass.” Jeffrey pulled out his lip balm and used it.

Francesca snorted.

Shirin blinked. “She was queen of England for a thousand days.”

“Damn,” he said. “It’s the band name. I missed that. That’s what you were saying. I thought—” He shut his mouth.

“Well done.” Francesca offered him a sympathetic pat. “Most dudes never get it. Unless they’re obnoxious film bros.”

“Bless Natalie Dormer, I guess.” Shirin’s sarcasm was aimed at Francesca, but its collateral damage landed on Jeffrey. Fine. Maybe he’d go and find whoever it was he had been looking for. Then Shirin could get back to being an observer rather than caught in the light of his electron microscope.

Francesca elbowed Shirin in the ribs. “I think what Shirin meant was, super of you to give a shit about her favorite band.”

Jeffrey’s mouth twisted. “I know it’s your favorite band. I’m not that clueless.”

Onstage, the opener reminded the crowd of their name and thanked everyone for listening. The scraping and lifting of instruments was all there was to distract Shirin from the thrashing thump thump thump in her chest. She was going to have to make it through this entire concert right next to him. She was never going to last.

***

Francesca narrowed her eyes. “Consider this your two-minute warning.”

“For what?” Jeffrey asked.

“She’s getting Denise a signed shirt,” said Shirin. A safe topic. Francesca had promised one for her girlfriend, Denise, since she was home studying for her calculus test tomorrow. No way to feel foolish talking about Francesca’s girlfriend.

Jeffrey scratched his hands through his hair. “The shirt she’s wearing?”

“No.” Francesca’s eyes didn’t stray. She was memorizing the rhythm of the roadies onstage. She wasn’t planning on waiting after the show like an ordinary fan.

“What Francesca really wants,” said Shirin, “is to bring back a really good story for Denise.”

Jeffrey flashed his lopsided grin. “She’s gonna get some serious purple heart emojis for that. I mean—it’s cool. That’s cool.”

Shirin tried to smile, but the expression got stuck halfway across her face. There were apparently no safe topics with Jeffrey. Shirin was reminded of the time he’d said he loved The Fast and the Furious. When Shirin had said she didn’t get a movie about pointless car chases, Jeffrey had described the part where Paul Walker got all mushy over a tuna fish sandwich because he was so in love with Jordana Brewster. Like that was the best part. Like he was a hopeless romantic as well as an athlete and a sex god.

Biohazard: may cause heart to burst.

Shirin turned abruptly away from Jeffrey. The roadie who had been trailing behind all the others finally turned her back on the crowd. Without warning, Francesca hopped onstage, picked up a cord that was left behind, and walked into the wings. The stage was a full head above Francesca, security guards were posted on either side of it, and the theater was already packed with people. But nobody had seen her. And Francesca was not a girl who could get away with anything and everything. Her dark hair and dark skin usually ensured extra scrutiny. But Francesca acted as though she were invincible. As though she were Anne Boleyn reaching for the crown.

Jeffrey turned, gobsmacked, to face Shirin.

Shirin laughed so hard, she snorted. She clapped her hand over her mouth, a flush coloring her tan face. “She’s an observable phenomenon.”

“You don’t have any secret hidden skills like that I need to know about, do you?” His hands went into the pockets of his joggers again.

Shirin blinked, almost like fluttering her eyelashes. “I can kiss my elbow.”

“Prove it.” A challenging glint entered Jeffrey’s eyes.

Shirin couldn’t look away. A voice in the back of her mind told her she ought to. But her eyes focused on him as she grasped her right elbow with her left hand, then lifted it to her lips, giving a quick peck. Easy peasy. Minus the fact that her fingertips were tingling and her head was buzzing and she was still staring into Jeffrey Tanaka’s dark eyes.

Jeffrey mirrored her movements. But he came up short. He craned his neck and tugged his elbow to no avail. He couldn’t reach. He looked up, defeated. “Damn.”

Shirin laughed—without snorting this time. “I guess I just have to face it. You’re not totally perfect.”

Jeffrey raised one of his straight eyebrows.

Oh god. Shirin had admitted—out loud—that she’d thought Jeffrey was otherwise perfect. To his face. She’d violated the one sacred aspect of scientific observation. She’d changed the environment. She’d acted on her subject.

Warning: known life-ruiner present.

That’s when Francesca jumped down from the stage. She held up a signed Thousand Day Queens shirt—the one they didn’t sell anymore, with Marie Antoinette eating cake while Anne Boleyn played with a long saber and Rani of Jhansi sipped tea—and a backstage pass. Shirin looked pointedly away from Jeffrey. Jeffrey stared at Shirin. Francesca watched them both. Then the lights dimmed and the Queens walked onstage.

There was only one thing left for Shirin to do.

“Be right back.” Shirin grabbed Francesca’s pass and fled.

***

Onstage, Ana Pembroke, the drummer for the Queens, was ripping through her opening set. The sound beat through Shirin’s chest. Nobody could drum like Ana. If there was any justice in this world, Ana was destined to be one of the greats. Unlike Shirin, who was sitting next to a road case in a hallway backstage, hiding.

The Queens were the first concert Shirin had gone to without a grown-up around. They were the kinds of musicians to put on a show. A show she was now missing. All because she couldn’t fully admit how she felt about Jeffrey. Maybe if she’d told him, he would have gone away and found whoever it was he’d been looking for from the start. And she would be watching the Queens right now, not curled up in a ball beside some unused band equipment that smelled like gasoline and slightly singed plastic.

“Please. I gotta check on my friend.” It was a horribly familiar baritone, impossibly blocking out the sound of the drums.

Shirin looked around the side of the road case. Jeffrey was talking to the backstage bouncer. Shirin slunk lower, winding her arms around her legs.

“He’s cool, I swear.” This from Francesca. “And I think he’s the only one who can help. What if he closes his eyes? You’re not really backstage if you gotta close your eyes.”

“Backstage is backstage,” said the backstage bouncer.

“Aw, honey,” said a woman’s voice. “Cut the poor kid some slack.”

There was a long silence. Shirin didn’t dare breathe.

“Fine,” said the bouncer. “But you start any shenanigans and you’re out of here, you got it?”

“Understood.” Jeffrey’s shoes squeaked as he walked.

Shirin peered over the back of the case. Jeffrey was about to walk right past, when his foot caught on the edge and he tripped. Jeffrey caught his balance, but the case toppled into Shirin’s knee, causing her to yelp.

There was absolutely no justice in this world.

Jeffrey stopped, looked down. “Shirin, is that you? Are you okay?” 

No. She was not okay. “Jeffrey. What are you doing here?”

Behind him stood Francesca, her eyebrows raised so high they met her hairline. The bouncer, with his staff tee and his surly expression, just stared. Shirin pushed the road case upright.

“You know you’re the only one who calls me Jeffrey? Everyone else says Jeff.”

As if Shirin needed another reminder that she was different from everyone. “No kidding.” They had drawn a small crowd. Sure, roadies backstage were pretending like they were going about their business. But they lingered as they wrapped up cords. They checked their mics in slow motion. They shuffled precariously close to the case Shirin hid behind.

Wonderful.

Shirin stood. “How did you get back here? And what are you doing here, at this concert?”

“I hoped I’d find you.” Jeffrey stared, his eyes wide and honest.

I hoped I’d find you. That was worse than anything. The possibility of him only made Shirin wish she could be an adventurer like Francesca. Someone who enjoyed making history, didn’t mind being observed. Shirin took a step back. She didn’t know how to watch and be brave at the same time. She didn’t know how to stay independent and be attached to Jeffrey. Shirin could have cried. She was going to have to tell him how she felt. It was the only way he’d understand. She couldn’t easily live her life under a microscope, not the way he did. She couldn’t take that risk.

She took a deep breath. There was no going back from this. “Jeffrey. I’ve been in love with you since forever.”

Nobody was even pretending to wrap cords anymore. And Francesca, who was shocked by nothing, gasped.

Shirin’s voice shook, but she barged on. She had to make him understand. She was retreating. “I thought if I got to know you in homeroom, I would like you less. I thought we would be too different. But turns out, I like hearing how different you are from me. I’ve made it so much worse. You’re not for me. You’re not for girls like me. I’d rather see than be seen.”

Jeffrey looked ready to take a step forward, but then he didn’t. He nearly reached out for Shirin. But the woman with the boots tutted. Shirin looked over to her—she wore cherry-red lips and her raven hair in big, natural curls under a beanie. She was the roadie Francesca had pointed out earlier. She reminded Shirin of a particle collider—power and precision.

“Uh-uh, kiddo,” said the woman, her voice deep and a rich. “You heard the man. No scenes, no shenanigans. I don’t care how handsome you are.”

Jeffrey groaned but stayed, miraculously, in place.

Shirin stepped closer to him, so he knew where she stood. “I’m going to leave and you’re not going to follow me, could you do that?”

Shirin watched as Jeffrey opened his mouth again. His beautiful, stupid mouth. He closed it, clamping his lips shut. Jeffrey nodded.

“Thanks.” Shirin didn’t turn around as she left, because she didn’t think she could bear it.

***

Above Shirin and Francesca, the Thousand Day Queens played like there was no tomorrow. There was only now, only this. It was the balm that Shirin needed to soothe her desperate heart. The lead singer and guitarist, Maria Antonio, had a voice of smokeless fire that melted into the sound of her wailing guitar. Everything about bassist Rana Jhan was steady and dependable. Rana was all hard work, absolutely no flash. Except for her pink hair that matched her instrument. Shirin had to admit, that was some flash. But it was the kind you expect from a band.

Francesca was in the same state of amped-up bliss—arms in the air, eyes half-shut, feet thumping against the theater floor. They moved as a mass. A shifting, undulating beat across bodies. A particle and a wave. Shirin was sweating by now—Francesca’s face glistened and her shirt was darkened in spots—but Shirin didn’t feel the heat anymore. She pushed away everything that wasn’t rhythm and sound. The Queens played on and Jeffrey Tanaka ought to have been washed clean from Shirin’s mind.

But under the beat of the drum Shirin could feel the thump of her heart. And in the twang of the bass, her memory reminded her of the squeak of Jeffrey’s shoes. Shirin closed her eyes. If she couldn’t conquer this now, she would at least pretend to. She did her best to give in to the music.

A full set and two encores later, Shirin could feel the scratches down her throat from screaming. She could sense the cramps in her calves that she would have tomorrow from jumping up and down tonight. She relished the feeling of her body being spent, of having left all of herself in the pit. Then she thought of Jeffrey trying to kiss his elbow and her euphoria did an unfortunate loop through her stomach.

“That was magic. Even knowing we were upcharged by a million percent.” Francesca tugged at Shirin’s arm, pulling her along toward the doors.

But Shirin caught sight of the exit and snatched her arm from Francesca’s grip. Ahead, Jeffrey leaned on the wall beside the only open exit. There was no avoiding him.

“Oh no. I’ve really got to figure out which of the Twelve Imams I pissed off so I can beg forgiveness.”

Francesca looked between them. “Hell no. I am not hanging around for this. Meet me outside when you’re done.”

“Outside?” croaked Shirin.

Francesca gave Shirin a quick kiss on the forehead. “I told the girls we’d get shawarma on Grand after the show. Obviously you’re coming with. The ridiculous athlete is also welcome.”

“The girls, as in the Thousand Day Queens?” Shirin shook her head. “Who are you?”

Francesca shrugged and began walking away. “Your best friend.”

“And I’m not asking him,” shouted Shirin, but Francesca was already outside. Francesca and her tough love. She would pay for this. Someday soon.

Shirin approached Jeffrey and the inevitable. But she didn’t know what to say. She’d used up all her words backstage. She stopped and stared, feet from him, thinking about elbows, and lip balm, and tuna fish sandwiches.

Jeffrey ran his hands through his hair. “You’re infuriating.”

“Me?” breathed Shirin. “How?”

“You convinced your parents to let you go to concerts when you were fourteen with research and a PowerPoint. Immigrant parents. I mean, I only have immigrant grandparents. You don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of you. Like, you always say what’s on your mind. And, one day out of nowhere, you asked me for a pencil. Then a ruler. You don’t just talk to anyone. So I kept ordering random school supplies in case you needed an orange highlighter or a protractor or a drafting ruler. I wanted to make sure I had it, if you asked.” Jeffrey stubbed his toe on the floor. “And you even like me. So. Why—why do I have to stay away? Why are you staring at me like I’m contagious or something?”

Shirin took off her glasses and cleaned them on her shirt. She put them back on. “Because you’re impossible. You have to be.”

Jeffrey stared. “Why?”

Because she didn’t know how to be an observer and an explorer. Because she didn’t know how to be brave and be herself. “I didn’t want to want you.”

He laughed. It was hollow. “That bad, huh?”

“Worse,” she said. And it was true.

Jeffrey turned to leave. He took one step. Then another. He wasn’t going to turn back around, like at the end of a stupid car-chase movie. He’d probably get over this eventually. Shirin might, too. But maybe, if she was being honest with herself, she didn’t want to. Maybe she hadn’t started talking to him to prove he was uninteresting. Maybe she’d been taking a risk. Maybe all hypotheses were risk and all experiments were bets. Because maybe, just maybe, astronauts weren’t only space explorers—they were scientists, too.

“I have my own protractor,” she called out.

He turned around, his face blank. “Then why—?”

“Bullshit, asshole. No one likes the tuna here,” she said. She hoped she was quoting the right line. She wasn’t sure if that also made her the Paul Walker of this potential relationship, though. Better than being Anne Boleyn, to be honest.

“You watched it.” He stepped closer. “You watched a pointless movie about car chases.”

“You came to see a band you’d never heard.” She shortened the distance between them to centimeters, then millimeters.

Shirin was close enough to run her fingers through his hair. She didn’t, though, not at first. She just stood there, with next to nothing and all of infinity between them. Then she reached up—for his hair, for the stars—and for once didn’t think about the consequences. It was as prickly as she’d imagined. He leaned into her hand, as though the touch were wanted. Then Shirin held his face and pulled his lips to hers. For a moment, he stood so still that Shirin thought she’d made a terrible mistake. And then he was kissing her back. Jeffrey Tanaka—with the sex god hair and the never-ending school supplies—was kissing her back. He tasted like spearmint. The hazy scent of the venue lingered on his skin.

When they broke apart, they were both short of breath. Jeffrey smiled from ear to ear. Shirin returned the grin. She took his hand and pulled him outside, knowing she’d have another fight with her parents ahead of her. This would definitely make for an interesting PowerPoint.

“Come on,” she said. “We’ve got a date with a band.”

They were still holding hands when Francesca waved them over. She was whispering something to Rana, like they’d already become the best of friends. Shirin laughed. If Francesca couldn’t stumble on adventure, she made it happen through sheer will. Shirin was pulling Jeffrey along, nearly to Francesca and the band, when a shout stopped them both in their tracks.

“Jeffrey Tanaka, you get your butt in this car right now.” Shirin and Jeffrey jumped, releasing hands. At the curb, Jeffrey’s mom was leaning out the driver’s side window of a champagne SUV. Shirin sighed.

If only her life could be cool, for once.

.


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