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Personal Essays

Sins of Admission

Growing up with strict Muslim rules can be tough in mainstream America. Throw in prank calls to sexually excitable old men and the going suddenly gets harder.

In the days before caller ID, my friend Karen and I would make crank phone calls, targeting people randomly out of the phonebook. We’d call men and try to lure them into some perverted conversation. It was always perverted, even if the conversations rarely struck a lascivious tone. We were 12, and they were grown. Perverted.

Being the daughter of strict Muslim immigrants, compared to the things I was already forbidden from doing, this was a relatively safe pastime.

Once we called a nursing home, or what we thought was a nursing home. We asked for a Leon, and somehow, by luck or coincidence, there was one. Leon’s voice was rough yet high-pitched, and marked with the halting weariness of a man in his 70s. He asked us how old we were. “We’re 16,” I lied.

We spent many afternoons on the phone with Leon. He sounded bored at first, but he’d always perk up as the conversation progressed.

Leon once wanted to know what we were wearing. Karen was in a faded purple v-neck T-shirt and acid-wash jeans that must have taxed the circulation in her legs. I wore a loose off-the-shoulder black shirt that read, “Where’s the Beef?”

Leon was my gateway to bigger adventures and more serious sinning.Leon was, without a doubt, a dirty old man. But we’d goad him with infantile questions: “Guess what our bra size is?” (We were barely double A’s) and “Do you still have sex?” (Sure!)—and erupt into hysterics at our own idiocy. That was usually when we’d abruptly hang up, for fear of giving ourselves away. That, and by then we were pretty disgusted with ourselves.

Leon indulged our immature queries to the extent that he never hung up on us. Mostly he’d laugh a gentle, grandfatherly kind of laugh, as if to throw up his swollen, sun-spotted hand and say, “Kids today!” I imagined this was because he had to take these calls in some common area—the lounge, maybe, or the dining hall—so that the nodding and laughing were his poker face.

Mostly, he seemed incredibly starved for any sort of companionship, even if it came sporadically and over the phone. Eventually we lost interest in him. It just wasn’t fun anymore. And we stopped calling.

Leon was my gateway to bigger adventures and more serious sinning. Islam forbids mixing of the sexes. So it was a little surprising when, of all the tolerant and forgiving places my friends could have chosen, my house became the designated spot for playing host to pubescent boys. But unlike my friends, who lived in the housing project down the street, I lived in a spacious house—four bedrooms, a musty basement, and a yard—which meant more emergency exits and an abundance of hiding spots. This would come in handy. My father, an insurance auditor, was prone to surprise afternoon drop-ins. He later told me he used to mix up his schedule just to make sure I wasn’t doing something I shouldn’t.

But of course, I was.

Papo wasn’t my first crush, but he was my most coveted. He was Puerto Rican, Catholic, and, at 5’2”, barely taller than I was. What’s more, at 13, Papo was the proud wearer of a mustache-in-training. His voice was like Peter Brady’s—tottering between the smooth bass he’d eventually adopt, and the squeaky tone he’d had as a kid. At the time, I found it wildly seductive.

My mother often repeated a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, which said there isn’t a time when a man and woman are together in a room where they aren’t joined by a third—the Devil.Papo was my friend Sandra’s step-cousin. Sandra thought it would be good if I invited Papo over, so I did. Sandra came, too, and it was presumably for her benefit that Papo brought along his friend John. John was a classmate of ours but fell into Sandra’s ever-growing “Let’s just be friends” pile. John had a disproportionately large head, with the cruel double-whammy of tiny teeth. All through elementary school he hung out with a boy who picked his nose incessantly, and now he seemed desperate to redeem himself.

If it were someone other than Papo—gap-toothed Papo, hair-slicked-back Papo—I might’ve more objectively weighed the risks. I mean, I could’ve argued my way out of the calls to Leon. But an impromptu house party with Papo would be beyond negotiation. Papo wouldn’t understand my strict religious upbringing. My closest friends could barely comprehend it.

“You can’t date?” they would ask.

“No.”

“Not even when you’re in high school?”

“No.”

“Dang,” they’d say.

Minutes before the boys were to arrive, I stood up on my father’s organ bench and took down the framed velvet art containing the words “Allah” and “Muhammad” overlapping in Arabic calligraphy. Another, on the opposite wall, had the words “Allahu Akbar,” stitched in gold sateen over a black background. I stuffed them both into the coat closet.

My mother often repeated a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, which said that there isn’t a time that a man and woman are together in a room where they aren’t joined by a third—the Devil. Perhaps I rationalized there would be four of us, making the Devil persona non grata. Or maybe Papo and I hardly qualified as man or woman, so the rules didn’t apply.

Nothing had even happened, yet I was shaking when I came to the door to let them in. Mom described awful punishments that would take place in the afterlife: There was the tightrope as thin as a hair, with wild blazes below; only believers would navigate this safely. And then there were women who’d be hung by their hair, burned to a crisp, only to be recreated so they can be burned again.

We led the boys into the family room. There was a TV and a large sofa, and a door that locked. Papo sat beside me on the couch and awkwardly put his arm around me. We sat that way for about 30 minutes, watching a rerun of “What’s Happening.” I was beginning to get over my queasiness when I heard someone unlock the side door to the house, just off the kitchen.

I sat on the edge of the couch and muted the closing credits. I had forgotten to brief Papo or John on their escape plans. It was my older sister, Summer; I could tell by her footsteps. Four exits—front door, side door, basement door and garage—were now out of the question. I directed Papo and John to the closet, the same closet I had put the framed calligraphy in. The boys stood in the darkness with their legs straddling my parents’ sacred wall decorations. By now, my sister was pounding on the door. “Gigi, open the friggin’ door,” she said.

I did.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

Summer lingered at the door suspiciously for a few seconds, then headed upstairs. Sandra and I showed Papo and John the way to the basement, and out the door they went.

When Summer asked me later what had been going on, I told her everything. We never were that close, and I thought letting her in on a secret might bring us together, or at least make her pity me enough not to mention the incident to our parents. She chortled and said nothing more about it. Until dinner.

My father put his knife down. He looked at me for an explanation. There was no “They were just hanging out,” or “We just sat around and watched TV.” It was a grave sin I had committed. By sneaking them in, I had lied to my parents. Worse, I was mingling with boys alone behind closed doors. My mother would always say the fact that I had to hide it meant it was wrong.

If anyone was going down, it was going to be Sandra. “It was her step-cousin,” I said. “She talked me into inviting him and his friend over.”

My father’s chest seemed to heave. He peered severely down at a mound of rice on his plate. My mother looked at me, half angry, half crushed. I could tell she was praying. Praying that she hadn’t just discovered the beginnings of a long helix of scheming and lies; praying that God would protect me from the influence of bad friends; praying that I’d ask God for forgiveness and vow—in the truest form of repentance—to never do anything this devious again.

“I’ll never do it again,” I said.

They bought it, the whole thing about Sandra. It was too easy. They didn’t want to think their youngest daughter would’ve concocted such a plan on her own, or that she had tendencies toward lying, or that she—God forbid—liked boys.

I had forgotten later to hang up the Islamic art, and my mother noticed. “Why did you take those down?” she asked, staring at me.

“I don’t know,” I said. I wondered what she might’ve thought about the calls to Leon, if that somehow would’ve been easier to accept.

She gave one long exaggerated exhale. “God reveals whatever wrongdoing He wants to reveal. He’s always watching.”

“I know, Ma,” I said. And I went to my room and prayed, and stared up at the posters of Johnny Depp on the wall.