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Skunk Girl

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About The Author

Sheba KarimSheba Karim

SHEBA KARIM was born and raised in the Catskills. She received an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and presently lives in New York City. This is her first book.

photo: Photo by Anjali Bhargava


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The Keera in My Brain
I’m a giant in the sky flying over crimson-roofed houses, dressed in
a wool turtleneck and jeans. It’s hot and I’ve started to perspire, a
fine drizzle of sweat that falls onto the village below. That’s when I
see a group of elves walking single file. They’re carrying hot fudge
sundaes, lots of whipped cream and no cherry, just the way I like
them. As I’m about to swoop down and attempt to steal a sundae,
someone grabs my shoulder. It’s a ghost, and it knows my name.
“Nina.” The ghost is still gripping my shoulder. My mother. Her
hair is tied tightly back and nearly every inch of her face is covered in
white cream bleach.
“Wake up, beta,” she says. Her fingers smell like onion and chili
powder; she’s already made breakfast. She always likes me to start the
school year off on a full stomach. “It’s your first day of school!”
She says this as though I should be excited. Though it is indeed
the first day of my junior year of high school, none of the feelings
swilling around in my head bear any relation to excitement. In fact,
they’re pretty much the opposite of excitement. After spending much
of the summer reading the two SAT prep books my parents had
bought me, it’s easy to come up with possible antonyms. Unenthused.
Disinterested. Reluctant.
My mother shakes her head. “Sonia was always so excited to start
a new year of school, but you never want to get out of bed.”
I sit up. “I’m awake now, Ma. Happy?”
“I made you an omelet,” she says. “Hurry up before it gets cold.”
And so I rise, and so begins another year. Another year of social
exile, another year of not fitting in, another year of not measuring up
to the legacy left by my sister, Sonia, another year of wishing I were
someone else, someplace else. Who on earth would be excited about
My father’s in the kitchen and extends his arms out wide as soon
as he sees me. I brace myself. He’s a small man, but bearlike in his
affections, often testing the capacity of my lungs to withstand intense
pressure in the form of zealous embraces, though as I’ve become
older, the duration of these embraces has lessened. “Nina!” he booms
cheerily, squeezing me for a second before letting go. It’s a rare
moment when my father isn’t in a merry mood. If we were white and
Christian, he’d be one of those dads who dress up as Santa Claus
every Christmas. “Ready to ace calculus?”
“I’m not taking calculus till next year, Dad,” I tell him. His forehead
furrows. Sonia, of course, started calculus in her junior year,
which is probably why he looks so confused.
“Don’t worry, you will be soon!” he says, as if calculus were some
major milestone every teenager aspires to achieve.
My father has no surgeries scheduled at the hospital this morning,
so after we eat my mother’s omelets he offers to drive me to school,
which is fine with me since I don’t have my license yet and it’s embar-
rassing to be seen stepping out of a yellow school bus when you’re a
junior in high school.
As soon as we get in the car my father puts on his favorite kind of
music, qawwali, Sufi mystical music. Sometimes, when he gets really
into it, he sings along and does this gesture with his right hand, like
he’s unscrewing a lightbulb. But today he stays still. It’s a little too
early in the morning for musical theatrics, even for my father.
We drive past rows of houses with small yards and swing sets and
the occasional inflatable pool, and stop at the light in front of the old
roller rink, which was shut down a few years ago and has been abandoned
ever since, weeds and shattered glass blanketing the steps to
the entrance. Back in 1986, when I was in fourth grade, this roller rink
was the epicenter of the social scene. I used to hate having wheels on
my feet. When I did go roller-skating I’d hold on to the wall that bordered
the rink as the other kids raced by me, skating hand in hand, or
backward, or both. Mostly when I went I sat around with my friends
Bridget and Helena, and sucked on red and green ice pops, the kind
wrapped in plastic that you squeezed from the bottom up.
We take a left and then a right onto Main Street. The words “Welcome
to Deer Hook” are painted across the brick wall of a store, also
abandoned, which is next to another abandoned store, which is next
to the offtrack betting parlor, where already there are a few old men in
stained clothing loitering outside, the necks of liquor bottles sticking
out from the paper bags in their hands. Deer Hook’s Main Street has
a bad half and a better half, divided by the main intersection, the only
intersection on Main Street that has a traffic light.We cross the light
into the better half and I can tell you the order of what we pass without
looking: the movie theater, the Italian restaurant La Traviata, the
Ming Dynasty Chinese takeout place, the pizzeria, the taxidermist
shop with the stuffed moose head in the window. I’ve spent my whole
life in this town and nothing here has really changed, except for some
businesses shutting down and never reopening, like the roller rink. In
this town, things aren’t reborn or reinvented. Everything that doesn’t
stay the same either dies or goes away.
For as long as I can remember I’ve pretty much hated Deer Hook,
population 11,250. When I was in middle school, I had a game that I
liked to play. I would close my eyes and touch a globe ever so lightly
with my finger. Then I’d spin it with my other hand. Wherever my
finger landed when the globe stopped spinning was where I was
going to end up living, and I would yell out the name of my future
home. “Australia! Egypt!” If it landed on someplace like Kansas or an
ocean, I cheated and spun it again. “Brazil!”
One day, my father walked in as I landed on New Zealand. “New
Zealand!” I shouted.
“What are you doing?” he asked. I explained. My father raised his
bushy eyebrows. “You have a keera in your brain,” he told me. Keera
is the Urdu word for “insect.” What my father meant was that I had
something in my brain that was giving me strange ideas, like wanting
to live halfway across the globe. This was a bit hypocritical, considering
he had moved halfway across the globe, but I didn’t mention this,
because he would have said, “That’s different.” Instead I imagined
the keera in my brain. He was a friendly-looking insect, like a cricket,
with big, powerful green eyes that could see the world beyond Deer
Hook, beyond Albany and New York City, all the way to New
My father pulls into the circular driveway in front of Deer Hook
High, a U-shaped one-story building with a statue of Henry Hudson
in front of the entrance. There’s a ton of people milling around, talking
and laughing, most of them familiar. Huddled together by the
statue is a group of nervous freshmen. “Have fun!” my father says.
My fingers tighten around the door handle. Once I exit this car,
there’s no going back. It’s not that I hate high school, it’s just that I
wish it would hurry up and end already. But I suppose to understand
this, you have to understand the story of my life thus far. The dread
I’m now feeling is a culmination of years of dealing with things that
end in “shun,” at least phonetically: repression, suppression, exclusion.
My name is Nina Khan, and growing up, there were two things
that especially plagued me. The first was my sister.
Excerpted from Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim
Copyright © 2009 by Sheba Karim.
Published in April 2009 by Farrar Straus Giroux
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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