It seemed as though every girl at school had a boyfriend. Even Carly had one, who smelled of Vegemite scrolls. But I couldn't understand how I would go about getting a boyfriend, let alone keeping one. I had never had a boy express any interest in me. I didn't know what that looked like. I envied girls like Carly. Their parents who shared romantic stories about meeting and dating. They had blueprints to follow. I, on the other hand, was trying to assemble Apollo 11 with instructions that came with a NutriBullet.
There was a boy who sat at the end of the back row in band named Max. He played bass guitar, the incongruous electronic instrument in wind orchestra, and needed to be close to the power point. He really shouldn't have been in wind orchestra, given he did not play a wind instrument, but he was that good, Ms H couldn't risk a bass section without him. I had never seen him speak to a girl before. I wouldn't call what he had a bowl cut, but it was bowl-cut adjacent. There was a mole on his face that looked like it could turn cancerous. And thick eyebrows - thicker than mine. He sat next to me in band when the trombonist was away. The cord of his bass guitar had to stretch a little further, but he did it anyway.
The week I decided I would make Max like me, he got the flu.
I was the only girl in the back row. There was absolutely no competition. In the week I decided I would make Max like me, he got the flu. I found him in one of the rehearsal rooms of the music block, drool dripping down his bass guitar. I called his name from the door. He didn't hear me. I called again, and he sat up. This was the first time we had spoken.
"Sorry," he said. He seemed a little shivery.
"Ms H said to pack up."
Egyptians say el shatra tighzil birigl homaar, which means a smart girl can knit even if all she has is a donkey's leg. With Max, I was about to make a sweater. I told Carly I liked Max, and I told her to tell him so, and she did. She owed me after the racist soapbox speech. I put myself in his shoes: never had a girl's attention, and all of a sudden there was one right there, wanting to talk. Carly told me that when she told him he said, "Right." She was the second girl he had ever spoken to. I didn't know that I was expecting him to do, but he did nothing. He was away from school the next day. I added him on MSN, but he didn't message me.
After days of his absence from school, I decided I had to make the first move.
Hi. So I heard Carly spoke to you.
I'm guessing you don't like me then. It was a disingenuous opener.
Well. I don't really know you.
Perhaps I was asking too much of the boy to declare his love for me straightaway. So I decided to ease him into realising he wanted to be my boyfriend. His MSN profile picture was a cartoon hooded figure that looked like something out of Runescape, after all.
You're sick, aren't you. Or are you just avoiding me?
Yeah. I think I have a virus.
As the repartee continued, he told me that he worked at KFC, and that to make the gravy they used the old fat at the bottom of the fryer.
My mum loves KFC, I said.
I won't tell her about the gravy.
Probably for the best.
Do you think you would like me if you got to know me?
I think so.
Once he got over his virus, Max would wait for me at the front gate every day after school. We would stand there talking until we saw Mama's car approaching, and then he would leave before she had a chance to see him. Eventually, he began hanging out with me at lunchtime too. He wouldn't eat; he would just sit.
Once we were sitting together, my knee touching his. A teacher on duty came over and beckoned to me with his index finger. I felt ill, just as I had when Baba answered that boy's call. I had been found out.
"What's that?" said the teacher. He was wearing a piano-key necktie. He was a Maths teacher, but not mine.
"What's what, sir?" I said.
He pointed to my neck. Around it was the gold chain Baba had given me, the one with the word Allah on it.
"No jewellery at school. You should know the rules," said the teacher.
"But I though we were allowed if they were religious symbols." One out of every three white girls at school had a cross around their neck.
"That doesn't look religious to me," he said.
"But it is."
"Take it off. Or I'm sending you to the office."
I unclipped the necklace and slid it into my skirt pocket. I walked back to Max, embarrassed. He didn't say anything. A boyfriend is meant to stand up for his girlfriend. But we weren't boyfriend-girlfriend, and I didn't expect him to understand. At least he didn't bring it up, so I didn't have to talk about it.
On days when we had rehearsal, Max would carry my instruments for me from the music block to the front gate. I liked it. I knew what I was feeling wasn't necessarily love, but I sat in it anyway. It was nice to have someone there.
"Watch out!" Jason yelled to Max as we passed him on our way out. "She might have bombs in those cases." He didn't have much of a repertoire.
"You're hilarious," I said. Being around Max made me feel a little surer of myself.
After six months of carrying things for me, Max gave me a ring at lunchtime. It was a simple silver band with a small sapphire in the middle.
"Does this mean we're getting married?" I said, half joking.
I wore it for the rest of the day. No teachers pulled me up for it. Maybe, I thought, this type of jewellery was acceptable. In the afternoon Max walked me to the gate as usual. As we were waiting for Mama, Max said, "Your dad will never let us be together, right?"
In that moment, a spell was broken. Everything about Max became ugly to me. His bowl cut. His eyebrows. His mole. His cowardice. We hadn't even talked about the rules. He had done his research, exposing me before I had a chance to explain.
As we were waiting for Mama, Max said, "Your dad will never let us be together, right?"
I had forgotten to take the ring off when Mama picked me up.
"Where did you get that from?" she said immediately. She seemed to see it even with me sitting in the back seat. I took it off and stuffed it into my pocket. My necklace was still in there. It must have gone through the wash.
"Carly gave it to me. She said I could borrow it." Mama didn't say anything, but the look in her eyes in that rear-view mirror made me think she knew everything.
This is an extract from Muddy People: A Memoir by Sara El Sayed, published by Black Inc.
Sara El Sayed was born in Alexandria Egypt. She has a Master of Fine Arts at works at Queensland University of Technology. Her work features in the anthologies growing Up African in Australia and Arab, Australian, Other, among other places. She is a recipient of a Queensland Writers Fellowship and was a finalist for the 2020 Queensland Premier's Young Writers and Publishers Award. Muddy People is her first book.