She looked up at the high walls. There were some things even they couldn’t keep out.
Rami was riding ahead of her, his control over the bike unsteady. Naira watched his knees rise to the handlebars and realized she should have lifted up his seat. He was nervous and overthinking what he was doing. Trying to go slow, when he should go fast.
“We can go up the hill just a little bit and then turn around,” Naira said.
They were on a street used to pick up students at the elementary school, but it was empty on the weekend. The road was long, part flat and part hill. When Rami started to turn the bike, he reduced his speed so much that the bike dropped to the side. He jumped off.
Naira caught up and circled around him, “You okay?”
“Yes,” he said with a tinge of frustration.
She didn’t get off her bike. She wanted him to learn to fall so that he would stop being afraid of it. His mother was one of her oldest friends, and Naira noticed how her friend was overly protective of Rami—this was similar to the way they were brought up. Rami’s family had moved to a suburban part of Los Angeles, with homes that had high walls and security cameras. Naira could see tennis courts and swimming pools through the tiny slits in the wall-high shrubbery.
“Still want to go?” she asked.
Rami took a long moment before he finally uttered, “Okay.”
Naira looked up the hill and saw a car turn onto the street. She moved to the sidewalk, expecting it to pass by them. But the car stopped halfway down the road and pulled to the side.
“It’s okay. We can go around it,” she said to Rami.
They started, and Naira rode alongside Rami as they passed the vehicle. It was a dark blue Honda Accord with a new car shine to it. She glanced in and could see a man sitting in the driver seat. He was looking at something on his face in the rearview mirror. When they got to the end of the street, she asked if Rami wanted to go again.
“Yes.” His face was flushed, and he was slightly out of breath but he was already looking down the road with anticipation. When they passed the car again, the man was outside with a spray bottle and roll of paper. He was wiping away dried-up spots on his windshield.
“That’s my teacher,” Rami said after they passed him. “From third grade. Mr. Blinkin.”
Naira waited for him to say more, but that was it. She had to pedal harder as they reached the incline. She had been using an app for a daily home workout and could feel her body ready to endure. Halfway up the hill, they turned around.
“Just stay to the left, and you won’t have to worry about the car,” Naira said.
They started down the hill, and Naira pedaled faster. She felt the freeness of the wind blowing in her face, the rush of speed filling up her body. As she pushed forward, her bike sounded like an engine. Suddenly, the world had no burdens. Her friend wasn’t home sick and bedridden. The whole world hadn’t just experienced a year of grief and isolation.
Life was there, and it was to be lived and breathed in fully.
She felt tears slide down her face.
She reached the end of the street and only then realized Rami wasn’t next to her. She looked back up the street: the blue Honda was still parked, but the man was gone.
Her heart was pumping fast as she flew up the street. When she got to the car, she saw that the school gate next to it was open. She pulled up her bike to the curb and dropped it. She entered the school grounds. There were tents up for outdoor classes and a community garden with shriveled-up plants. The glare of the blacktop was making it hard to see. She left the playground and saw an open door to a classroom. She entered and saw that the room was generic like any other—tables lined up, child-sized seats, amateur art on the walls. The teacher was sitting in the front of the class with his head down on the desk. Rami was next to him, his mask on.
The teacher looked up. His eyes were bloodshot. He was old, his hair completely white with a small balding spot. He was wearing a faded yellow button-down shirt and khaki pants.
“I saw him crying and followed him.” Rami looked at her, his eyes wide and full. His black hair reached his shoulders, messy from a year of home cuts. He got up and stood next to the man. “His wife and daughter died. From Covid.”
“I’m sorry,” the teacher said as if snapping out of something, “You all shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t have let him in.”
“No, it’s okay,” Naira said. “Rami was your student.”
He turned to the boy. “You were?”
“It was a long time ago.” Rami seemed so much older than his eleven years. “My mom is leaving too.”
Naira felt her stomach tighten. He knew . . . he knew even before any of them did. Before Naira could admit those words to herself. Her oldest friend was leaving.
“Come on aunty, let’s go to the top of the hill. You’ll be okay, Mr. Blinkin.” The teacher forced a smile as they walked outside. Naira turned back and saw him collapse back on the table.
Rami cycled ahead of her, and both of them strained as the incline got steeper. They got to the top, and Naira could hear the birds around her bantering. She looked up at the high walls. There were some things even they couldn’t keep out.
She turned to Rami. “You want to talk about it . . . about your mom?”
Rami’s head followed a butterfly that flew between them. He looked at Naira and then down the road. “No,” he said finally. “I want to ride.”
Rami pedaled hard ahead of her, going faster than before. And then she heard it—a deep, guttural, stormy scream. It was coming from Rami. She opened her mouth wide and joined him.