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ISMA WAS GOING to miss her flight. The ticket wouldn’t be refunded, because the airline took no responsibility for passengers who arrived at the airport three hours ahead of the departure time and were escorted to an interrogation room. She had expected the interrogation, but not the hours of waiting that would precede it, nor that it would feel so humiliating to have the contents of her suitcase inspected. She’d made sure not to pack anything that would invite comment or questions—no Quran, no family pictures, no books on her area of academic interest—but even so, the officer took hold of every item of Isma’s clothing and ran it between her thumb and fingers, not so much searching for hidden pockets as judging the quality of the material. Finally she reached for the designer-label down jacket Isma had folded over a chair back when she entered, and held it up, one hand pinching each shoulder.
“This isn’t yours,” she said, and Isma was sure she didn’t mean because it’s at least a size too large but rather it’s too nice for someone like you.
“I used to work at a dry-cleaning shop. The woman who brought this in said she didn’t want it when we couldn’t get rid of the stain.” She pointed to the grease mark on the pocket.
“Does the manager know you took it?”
“I was the manager.”
“You were the manager of a dry-cleaning shop and now you’re on your way to a PhD program in sociology?”
“And how did that happen?”
“My siblings and I were orphaned just after I finished uni. They were twelve years old—twins. I took the first job I could find. Now they’ve grown up; I can go back to my life.”
“You’re going back to your life . . . in Amherst, Massachusetts.”
“I meant the academic life. My former tutor from LSE teaches in Amherst now, at the university there. Her name is Hira Shah. You can call her. I’ll be staying with her when I arrive, until I find a place of my own.”
“No. I don’t know. Sorry, do you mean her place or the place of my own? She lives in Northampton—that’s close to Amherst. I’ll look all around the area for whatever suits me best. So it might be Amherst, but it might not. There are some real estate listings on my phone. Which you have.” She stopped herself. The official was doing that thing that she’d encountered before in security personnel—staying quiet when you answered their question in a straightforward manner, which made you think you had to say more. And the more you said, the more guilty you sounded.
The woman dropped the jacket into the jumble of clothes and shoes and told Isma to wait.
That had been a while ago. The plane would be boarding now. Isma looked over at the suitcase. She’d repacked when the woman left the room and spent the time since worrying if doing that without permission constituted an offense. Should she empty the clothes out into a haphazard pile, or would that make things even worse? She stood up, unzipped the suitcase, and flipped it open so its contents were visible.