Tamara turned her car into the horseshoe driveway in front of her younger sister Cameron’s college dorm, just managing to wedge her car into a spot at the end of the fire zone. It was Friday before Fall break at Louisiana State University, and the campus was packed with students. Duffel bags, backpacks, and rucksacks stuffed with dirty laundry lined the curb. Tamara bit at a hangnail on her thumb and looked around for her sister.
She hadn’t seen Cameron in almost two months. Freshman year, Tamara had picked Cameron up every weekend and brought her back to New Orleans. They’d spend Friday and Saturday nights going to parties and clubs, then toast their hangovers with ginger ale and salted crackers on the drive back on Sundays. This year, shortly after the term started, Cameron had come home to attend one of her high school classmates’ funeral. She’d returned from the funeral with a dry face and a stoic silence. Before leaving to head back to Baton Rouge, she announced that she planned to stay on campus till break. The news had stung Tamara, but she smiled and bobbed her head along with their parents, who took it as a sign Cameron was getting serious about school.
Girls hung in clusters on and around the front stairway, their collective laughter like overactive wind chimes. Usually, Tamara spotted Cameron by her wild curly hair. Last time she came to pick her up, she’d seen the purple streaks in Cameron’s hair before she even pulled in the lot. She changed her hair often; cornrows, Bantu knots, box braids, butterfly clips, it was always something different. With her brightly patterned button-down shirts and heavy black boots, she usually looked like she’d stepped out of a ‘90’s Black sitcom.
Tamara noticed a group of girls in headscarves huddled under a massive oak tree, and just as her eyes bounced off them back to the door, one of the girls in a long black skirt and a navy blue scarf detached herself and headed towards Tamara’s car. She opened the back door and tossed in her backpack and a tote bag, then slipped into the front seat with a satisfied huff.
Tamara blinked several times, staring at the stranger in her front seat.
“Hey?” she said.
Cameron pressed her lips together. Her face was clean of makeup, a slender hole where her nose ring usually nested.
“We should go,” she said.
Tamara looked at the wheel like she’d forgotten how to drive. “Okay.” She put her foot on the gas, and the engine revved. “Oh.” She fumbled for the gear shift and switched it into drive.
They rode in complete silence. Every question Tamara crafted died on her tongue when she looked at her sister out of the corner of her eye. ‘What the hell?’ was what she wanted to say. Cameron sat back, looking out the window, shadows of trees passing across her face. They were halfway to New Orleans before Cameron finally spoke.
“I know you’re wondering why I’m dressed this way,” she said. She turned sideways in her seat to face Tamara.
Tamara pretended to be absorbed by the road in front of her. “Hmm? Oh no, I didn’t notice anything different.” She cut her eyes at Cameron in a dramatic side-eye.
Cameron let out a snort of laughter. Finally, something approaching normal.
She parsed her words out slowly like she wasn’t sure how they would land. “I, uhm, I converted. To Islam. I’m a Muslim.”
Tamara nodded. She dug her nails into the steering wheel, trying to think of something positive to say, something encouraging and supportive. “That’s nice,” she finally offered in a monotone.
She turned on the radio. Garbled zydeco music whined out from the speakers. She didn’t change the station. Cameron was looking at her, her mouth opening and closing like a fish. Tamara kept her eyes on the road. She could feel Cameron blush; heat crept up to her own cheeks. Cameron huffed lightly and shifted in her seat, turning back towards the window.
Walking up the driveway to their parent’s home, Tamara wondered how they’d react to Cameron’s new look. She figured they’d be just as shocked as she had been, maybe even angry. They weren’t irreligious, but they didn’t go to church either, except for weddings and funerals. Before Tamara could even put the key in the lock, their mother swung the door open and stepped onto the threshold. Here it comes.
“Oh my goodness, look at you,” their mother said, grabbing Cameron into a hug.
Their mother was short and shaped like a peach, all bosomy curves, and rolls. The sisters were tall and thin like their dad. She gently pinched the edge of Cameron’s headscarf.
“You look so pretty. Wait till your dad sees you.”
Cameron ducked her head and laughed, then stole a look at Tamara.
They knew. Cameron had already told them.
At the dinner table, Tamara pushed her food around her plate while her parents and Cameron talked. They were mostly concerned with if Cameron was being treated okay at school, if anybody had bothered her.
“No, everything’s fine mostly,” Cameron said. “I get a few looks, but most people are nice and friendly, or just normal, you know. Indifferent.” She laughed. “And my friends in the MSA—the Muslim Students Association—we hang out and walk to classes together, so I’m not alone usually.”
Tamara noticed her mom and dad were careful with their words, asking sensitive questions.
“So the thing—I mean your scarf, it’s called a hee-jab right, am I saying it right?” their dad asked.
“You’re overemphasizing the first syllable, Dad,” Tamara said, by way of contributing something to the conversation.
“Well, yeah, it’s hijab,” Cameron replied. “But some people pronounce it like that too. It’s okay.”
Their dad looked relieved. Was that sweat on his forehead? Their mom smiled sweetly at Cameron and kept patting her hand.
“And you know your sister’s doing well at the station, Cam,” their mom said. She looked at Tamara’s plate, then up to Tamara.
“Yeah? Oh gosh, sorry, Tam, I didn’t even think to ask,” Cameron said.
Tamara had started out as an intern with Fox8 News when she graduated college the year before and had recently been promoted to production assistant.
“That’s awesome. Congratulations,” said Cameron. She squeezed Tamara’s wrist and smiled.
Tamara managed a weak smile and wished for dinner to be over so she could escape to her bedroom. She was saving to get her own place, and right then, she wished she had it.
Their dad clapped his hands together, then spread his arms wide to encompass both his daughters. “My TamCam,” he said. “Together again.”
Tamara lay in bed that night, the blades of the ceiling fan rotating slowly above her, slicing the shadow the tree outside her window cast along the wall.
TamCam. Their dad had called them that for as long as she could remember. “You sure y’all aren’t joined at the hip?” he’d asked when they were kids. “Let me see.” Then he tickled their bellies until they collapsed into giggles on the floor.
It was true. They did everything together; played the same games, listened to the same music, and even bought the same clothes. All their friends knew they were a two-for-one deal. If you wanted to hang out with Tamara, you’d have to be okay with Cameron tagging along, and vice versa.
But if Tamara allowed herself to be honest, it was usually vice versa. Tamara liked to believe that Cameron had been her shadow, her tag-along, but that had never really been the case. It was Tamara who mimicked Cameron’s style, borrowing heavily from her little sister’s wardrobe. It was Tamara who slipped herself into Cameron’s circles. No one ever commented on it, but Tamara remembered the times Cameron’s friends had stiffened ever so slightly when Tamara joined them. If any of it registered as strange to Cameron, she never hinted at it. She was generous with her things and even encouraged Tamara by showing her how to pull an outfit together and offering to do her hair and makeup. Any events or parties she was invited to, she always extended to Tamara.
It was Cameron who came up with the idea for the binder when they were adolescents. “Like MASH, but better,” she’d said. They’d gathered up all their teen magazines and cut out pictures of cute boys, clothes, and jewelry, and houses and cars from their mom and dad’s old magazines, gluing them on construction paper with glitter and sequins surrounding them. They’d put all the pages together in a big purple binder with “Tam + Cam 4ever” written in black permanent marker across the cover.
They had planned out their whole lives together on a life map that folded out over several pages with accompanying drawings. They would live next door to each other—whoever they married would have to agree to that—and they would always take vacations together. They’d each have two kids, a girl and a boy, and their children would be best friends too. They would grow old together, sitting on their porch, sipping iced tea, and watching their grandchildren play. That was the plan.
Tamara wasn’t so naive to think that was exactly how things would go, but the essence of it, their lives overlapping each other’s, that she still believed in. Cameron becoming Muslim upset the plan.
Maybe Islam was just a phase, a new look Cameron was trying on, like the temporary hair dyes she washed out every week. That was it. That had to be it. She’d just have to ride it out and wait till Cameron moved on to something else.
The weekend before Thanksgiving break, Cameron sent Tamara a text saying she didn’t need a ride home. She was going to stay in Baton Rouge till Thursday, volunteering for a holiday feeding at a mission with the MSA, and then one of her friends was going to drop her off at their aunt’s home for dinner.
C U at turkey time :-p, Cameron signed the text.
Tamara huffed. She tossed the phone on the bed next to her without responding, then scooped it back up.
K can’t wait to see you <3, she replied.
So the Muslim thing was still in effect. Tamara had been reading up on the religion online, although a lot of the top hits on Google turned out to be Islamophobic sites with crazy “facts” that couldn’t possibly be true. She thought about asking Cameron for legitimate resources, but felt awkward about bringing it up. Instead, she’d asked her co-worker who got so excited by her question that he now regularly left pamphlets on her desk with titles like “Was Jesus Really Crucified?” and “Proof of Muhammad in the Bible” that didn’t help her understand Cameron’s conversion. What she really needed was a pamphlet titled, “How To Talk To Your Sister When She Converts to Islam And You Feel Left Out.”
Tamara was determined to break through the awkward silence that now cloaked their relationship. So what if Cameron was a Muslim? They could still talk like they used to, with no filters. Maybe they could even go to a party or a club. They didn’t have to drink to have a good time, right? All they needed was each other. They could still be TamCam.
Cameron arrived at their aunt’s house close to evening, dressed in a long merlot-colored dress and a rose-printed headscarf. Some of their family members tensed up at her appearance, but quickly softened with her smiles and hugs.
The aunties and grandmas all proclaimed Cameron a “doll, just a doll,” and asked her how she wrapped her scarf and could she show them how she pinned it. Then they set to work piling turkey and dressing on her plate ‘cause didn’t she look too thin and what was she eating in that lousy school cafeteria, hmm?
Tamara finally stole a moment with her sister in the kitchen after everyone had eaten and gathered around the television to watch football. Cameron stood at a counter covered in bottles of soda and alcohol.
“Hey, you,” Tamara said, bumping Cameron playfully with her shoulder.
Cameron poured Coke into a red plastic cup filled with ice and smiled.
“Did you have fun being fawned over?” Tamara asked. “You’re such a doll, you know.”
Cameron scrunched her nose up. “Yeah, that was weird,” she said. “Where do they even get that from?”
“Probably too many Lifetime movies,” said Tamara. She poured her own cup of Coke then splashed a little rum into it. “But hey, you wanna sneak out of here? They’re in there half dead from all that turkey. One of my friends is having a party at her house. No senior citizens allowed. Wanna go?”
Cameron adjusted the lid on a pot of cold gumbo. “Oh, uhm, that sounds nice, but I can’t,” she said.
Tamara waited for an explanation, but none came. “Why not?” she ventured.
“I just—I don’t think it’s a good idea. The crowd, you know?” She smoothed the edge of her hijab.
“It’s just a house party, Cam. Not much different from this one.”
Cameron tilted her head. “Yeah, no, I think I’ll pass. I’m tired.”
Tamara fought back an urge to roll her eyes. “Well, let’s just hang out at home then. Watch a movie?” she offered.
“What? No, Tam, you should definitely go.”
Tamara pursed her lips. “Well,” she scoffed.
“Come on, Tam, don’t be that way. I’m just exhausted from midterms. I’ll be knocked out before the opening credits finish. Go and have fun. Mama says you need a boyfriend.”
Tamara laughed despite herself. “Mama needs to mind her business.”
Cameron swatted at her with a napkin and laughed.
“Fine,” said Tamara. “I’ll go. By myself.” She sighed dramatically, then pointed at Cameron. “But after the semester ends, you’re coming with me.”
Cameron smiled but didn’t respond.
The rest of the weekend went by in a blur. Cameron went out Friday afternoon to attend jumaah, Friday prayers, at a mosque, but other than that, she spent most of her time in her room studying, only coming down for food. Early Sunday morning, her bags were packed and ready at the door. She wanted to get back to school early so she could work on a paper.
They all stood on the porch, huddled against the morning chill, waiting for Cameron’s ride to arrive. Her friend, an olive-skinned young woman wearing a black hijab, pulled up. Their parents walked over to talk to the friend, leaving Cameron and Tamara to say goodbye to each other. They hugged.
“We’ll definitely hang out when I get back,” Cameron said, holding Tamara’s hands.
“Yeah, sure,” Tamara said, running her thumbs along the delicate bones of her sister’s knuckles.
Tamara pulled Cameron in for another hug, wrapping her arms around her sister’s neck. Cameron held Tamara around the waist, resting her cheek on Tamara’s shoulder. They let go, and Tamara watched Cameron walk away, white light from the sun humming around her pale blue headscarf.
Christmas break arrived and Cameron came home lugging two overstuffed suitcases and a backpack loaded with old textbooks and notebooks. Tamara had bags and boxes too. She’d found an apartment and was moving out after the new year.
Some of the awkwardness of the past few months had faded away between the two sisters. Cameron was visibly more relaxed, her limbs loose, the tired, pinched midterm face gone. She was up for shrimp po-boys, trips to the mall, movies, whatever. She and Tamara spent whole days vegging out in front of the TV, muting the volume on old shows and making up their own dialogue.
Cameron even went to a few parties with Tamara, tying her scarf in a turban style and putting on a little dark red lipstick. She chatted nervously with guys and refused any offers to dance, clutching her cup of soda close to her chest like it was a life preserver. Clubs and bars were off limits though. She’d go off in the evenings to events at the different mosques, always in long, loose skirts and tops that came well below her hips. Tamara was curious about the mosque, just to know what it looked like and what they did in there, but she couldn’t bring herself to say or ask anything related to her sister’s religion. It dangled, heavily yet quietly, between them.
Christmas day came and they drove out to their uncle’s house in Slidell for dinner. Tamara and Cameron sat next to each other in the backseat, staring out of each other’s windows.
“Is this weird for you?” Tamara asked.
They were crossing the Causeway Bridge over Lake Pontchartrain. Seagulls skimmed the surface of the water, causing ripples that glinted in the bright sunlight. It was a cloudless day, and cold, the sky an icy blue.
Cameron’s dark purple scarf was pulled low over her forehead, casting a shadow across her face. “Hm?” she said, turning to Tamara.
“Christmas dinner,” Tamara said. “Is it weird now? You know, since you don’t celebrate
Their father, in the driver’s seat, turned his head slightly to the backseat. Their mother sat up front with her face rigidly fixed on the road.
“Oh. No, it’s fine. I’m looking forward to seeing everybody,” Cameron said.
Tamara sniffed. She was feeling uncharitable towards her sister. The morning had been weird. After breakfast, their parents had brought gifts for them to the dining table. Cameron had fingered the red ribbon tied around a box covered in green wrapping paper decorated with snowmen, not opening it.
“I’m sorry, I—I didn’t get you guys anything,” Cameron had stammered. “I thought—I didn’t think…”
Their mother had looked pained. Their father had jumped in trying to make a joke out of it.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he said. “Hey, y’all getting too old for Christmas gifts anyway, huh? Tam, you wanna stop celebrating Christmas too?” He’d cackled and slapped his thigh, cracking himself up.
“I think I’ll make myself another cup of coffee,” their mother had said in a quiet voice, getting up from the table.
Cameron had excused herself, saying she needed to get ready, and taken the gift upstairs, holding it like it was a bomb. Tamara had glowered at her sister’s departing figure.
Their arrival at their uncle’s stately home revived everyone’s spirits. The house was packed with people, family, and friends of family—their mother’s side, so she was happy. She huddled with her sisters and their husbands in the living room. Bursts of laughter fired out randomly like the clucking of chickens. They ate and drank, and drank some more, shouting at each other and grabbing loose children around the waist, wrestling them in for hugs and kisses that left red stains on their cheeks and foreheads.
Cameron spent most of the evening tucked into a corner of the couch, sometimes talking but mostly not. Tamara ignored her and downed glasses of wine, playing spades on the frigid back patio with the other young adults. When night came, she and her cousin Damond slipped away down to the edge of their uncle’s lake to smoke a blunt.
Damond perched on a rock rolling the blunt, cigar innards scattered in front of him. Tamara stood behind his shoulder, holding a bottle of beer, staring out at the black water. She was just beginning to wonder if there might be alligators lurking in the water when she heard the crunch of dead grass behind them. Moonlight shone on Cameron’s face.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” Tamara responded, turning back to the water.
“What’s up, cuz?” Damond said. He leaned over the blunt.
Cameron laughed. “You don’t have to hide, Damond.”
“Man, I didn’t wanna, you know, mess with your holiness,” he said.
“Whatever,” Cameron said.
Damond licked at the edge of blunt, then sealed it with his thumb.
“So what’s it like?” he asked. “You know, being a Muslim?”
“It’s…nice. I don’t know. It’s like finding the last piece of a puzzle you’ve been searching for. It’s like I know why I’m here now, what my purpose is.”
Damond bobbed his head. “That’s dope.”
Tamara took a slow sip of her beer. How was it that their weed-head cousin could talk so easily about Cameron’s conversion, but Tamara couldn’t?
“All this time, I felt lost, like I had no home,” Cameron said. “And then I found Islam. Or it found me. It’s like it was always there.”
Tamara let out a harsh, guttural laugh.
Tamara turned to Cameron and smirked. “You had to go find yourself? You felt homeless? You sound like a white girl.”
“You sound drunk,” Cameron shot back. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t understand, and you don’t even try.”
“What’s to understand? You’re doing what you wanna do. Ms. High and Mighty, on the holy road. I get it. Whatever.”
“That’s not it, Tam. You think I think I’m better than other people. You’re so far from the truth. Don’t you know what it’s like to feel alone and afraid, to need comfort and hope? I’m trying to tell you. I was in the dark, and it was terrifying. And then I picked up a Qur’an, and it was light, light all around me, light that opened up my whole life, so I could see everything, all of it. And it was beautiful. But you don’t want to know that, do you?”
Tamara could hear the tears in Cameron’s voice, the pleading. The beer and wine and food soured in her stomach. She knew exactly what it was like to feel alone and afraid. Cameron turned to walk away.
“You could have told me,” Tamara muttered at her sister’s back.
Cameron spun around. “Is that what this is about? Tam.” She paused and put her fist in front of her mouth, then dropped it. “Tam, you need to grow up.”
Tamara scoffed. “Screw you, Cam. Have you forgotten I’m the older sister?”
“Well, then act like it!” Cameron shouted. “Stop following me around and be your own person. Stop moping around and waiting around for me to give you a life. I’m trying to make my own.”
“Then go do it,” Tamara shot back. “I don’t need you!”
Cameron’s departing footsteps shuffled in the wet grass. Damond stood up and stuffed the blunt and the bag of weed in his pocket. He walked over to Tamara and put his hand on her shoulder.
“Y’all gon’ be alright cuz.” He patted her shoulder, then walked back towards the house.
Tamara stood alone and painfully sober. Angry tears trickled down her face. She wiped roughly at them. She thought of the light Cameron talked about, tried to imagine it. Her path ahead was as obscure as the trees in the distance she knew were there but could not see. She needed light to show her where to go and what to do. Other than her job at the news station—a job her parents had to push her to pursue—what did she have? What life was she building? She hadn’t ever considered it. She had allowed Cameron to be her light, content to follow its glow.
Tamara was in her new living room surrounded by boxes and containers when the doorbell rang. Cameron stood on the threshold in a bulky purple sweatshirt, the hood pulled halfway over her white headscarf, a silver hoop nose ring back in its former place. It had been weeks since she and Tamara had seen each other, weeks since Cameron had quietly packed her things and gone to stay with a friend until it was time to go back to school. Weeks of not talking to each other beyond a few cursory texts. Cameron held a white box in her hands.
“Chantilly cake,” she said, holding the box up.
“Shouldn’t I be the one coming to you with cake?” Tamara asked. She stepped back and waved Cameron in. “Come inside, it’s freezing.”
Cameron set the cake down on the bar countertop that connected the kitchen with the living room. She walked over to the sliding glass doors that led to a balcony. The sky was gray, the tree limbs barren and arthritic. It was early afternoon but looked like evening.
“I like your place,” she said, turning back to Tamara and scanning the many half-unpacked boxes that littered the floor. A lonely tan-colored couch sat in the middle of the mess.
“Thanks. I can’t seem to find time to unpack.”
“I’m sorry,” Cameron said.
“I’m the one who needs to apologize, Cam.”
“No—well, yes. But I’m sorry. I should have told you. I don’t know. I was scared.” Cameron stuffed her hands into the pockets of her sweatshirt. “I only told Mama and Daddy that day when you were on the way to pick me up. I don’t know. I didn’t know how to tell anybody without it feeling like I was confessing something, like it was a bad thing.”
Tamara nodded. “Yeah, okay.”
She sat down on the couch and patted the space next to her. Cameron kicked her sneakers off and curled into the couch. “I was worried things were going to be weird between us,” she said. “And then I realized I made them weird by not telling you.”
“I’m sorry too,” Tamara said. “I was such a bitch to you.”
Cameron opened her mouth then closed it back. “Yeah, you were,” she said with a tilt of her head.
Tamara tutted and threw a pillow at Cameron. Cameron laughed and pulled the pillow to her chest, resting her chin on it.
“But,” she said, hesitantly, “I said some things I shouldn’t have, or not in the right way. I didn’t mean what I said about you not having a life.” She glanced at Tamara, then looked back down at her lap.
This was the part where Tamara was supposed to say it was okay, of course she knew Cameron didn’t mean it, but that would be a lie. The truth sat between them, silent, unacknowledged, but understood. She got up and rummaged through some of the boxes. Underneath shoeboxes filled with photos and her high school yearbook, she found the purple binder, its edges bent, and the plastic cover torn, ‘Tam + Cam 4ever’ almost completely smudged out. She handed it to Cameron.
Cameron’s eyes widened. “You still have this?” she asked.
She cracked it open and pages fell at her feet, dusting her socks with glitter. Over the years, they had added photos of themselves together. The two of them in bathing suits on a beach celebrating Cameron’s sweet sixteen, Tamara perched on a stool in a silver sequined halter dress for her senior prom, Cameron in front of her holding a makeup brush, their heads flung back laughing at one of their father’s famously lame jokes, the two of them in denim shorts and tank tops sitting on the bed of a pick-up truck at the Lakefront, clutching red plastic cups and their arms wrapped tightly around each other. People around them in the shadows, but always the two of them together.
Cameron flipped through the pages until she got to the life map they’d made. She folded it out and traced the winding path with her finger. There were stops along the way for college and careers, Cameron in front of a gilded sign shouting Cam’s Styles, her hair a fright of indigo spirals, Tamara in heels and a pencil skirt, holding a briefcase, marriage at a trellis dripping with lilies, two faceless grooms at their sides. Children, travel destinations, and then down to the bottom, Cameron’s comical drawing of two old women, their eyes folded into wrinkled flesh, beaming with toothless smiles, holding each other up with their wilted arms.
Cameron laughed and shook her head. “God. We were so silly.” She shut the book and set it on the lid of a half-open box in front of her. It sagged, then collapsed into the box.
“Yeah, silly,” Tamara said, pushing her words through the tightening in her throat.
Cameron stretched her legs in front of her, then looked over at the flat-screen television mounted above the fireplace. “Well, I see you got the TV hooked up,” she said.
“Yeah,” Tamara mumbled, grabbing the remote off the coffee table and turning the TV on. She browsed through the program listings.
“Oooh, Love Jones is coming on,” Cameron gushed.
Tamara’s thumb hovered over the select button. “Can Muslim girls even do Love Jones?” she asked.
“Muslim girls can do anything with Larenz Tate in it.”
“Except Larenz Tate.”
Tamara managed a smile. This was the sisterly moment she’d been craving for months, but now it all felt forced, hollow.
Cameron tucked back into the couch then shot up, reaching for her phone.
“Wait, what time does it start?” she asked.
“Not for another fifteen minutes,” Tamara said. “Why?”
“I have to pray.”
Tamara muted the TV and pointed by the bar. “There’s a clean spot over there.”
Cameron walked over and consulted the compass on her phone, turning until she found the right direction.
“East, right?” Tamara tried. “To Mecca?”
“Actually, it’s northeast from here.”
Cameron pulled a small rug out of her backpack and laid it at an angle between the bar and the glass doors. She pulled her sweater down over her hips then rested her arms at her side for a moment before raising her hands to her ears. “Allahu Akbar,” she whispered.
Tamara watched her sister mouth a silent prayer, her face hidden by the shadows of the clouds covering the sun. Cameron bowed low, then kneeled to the ground, her nose and forehead pressed to the floor. She rose up on her knees then bowed down to the floor again. Her moves were fluid and certain, in full submission to an unseen power that guided her.
As Tamara watched her sister pray, the distance between them seemed to expand. Cameron wasn’t pushing her away, yet there was a space between them that could not be traversed, a space she knew would only continue to grow. She imagined if she were to try to walk to Cameron at that moment, she would just walk and walk and never reach her.