Besides having an amazing name, Bacchus also has a compelling, though somewhat seasoned, story:
She has traded her abaya, which she wore throughout middle and high school, for an ankle-length black trench coat and sunglasses with metallic frames. She has one piercing in her left ear, four in her right, a metal rod bridging the cartilage in the ear’s upper rim, a ring in her bellybutton, another in her nose.
Aliyah is Muslim. It’s a part of her identity she can’t shed, like her sexuality, like her last name—Bacchus, as in the Roman god of wine and merriment—and like her ink-stained flesh: the angel tattooed between her shoulder blades, the dark dragons on her lower back, the polar bear on her stomach, the dying rose on her right wrist.
She knows that in some Muslim sects, homosexuality is considered a crime punishable by death. But Aliyah lives in America, raised in low-income housing projects 20 miles from Manhattan’s West Village, where police raided the Stonewall Inn in 1969, setting off riots that sparked the beginning of a national gay rights movement.
In America, Aliyah knows, it is acceptable to be gay. But how, she wonders, can she be true to who she is while also adhering to her family’s faith? How does she reconcile both sides of her existence?
Not easily. Her family has written her off. Renouncing homosexuality is her only ticket back.
“I want to be a part of my family,” Aliyah says. “But what is the price that I have to pay? Honestly, I would rather die than go back to that person I was.”
Erika Hayasaki, the Times reporter on the story, had good access and captures some interesting dialogue between Aliyah and her aunt. It’s after the jump:
Sitting down to eat, her aunt immediately asks if Aliyah has dealt with her problem. Aliyah acts as if she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
They hurry through the meal, and Aliyah says she wants to get some air. Her aunt drives her to the boardwalk and parks her blue minivan on a bare wind-swept road. Gusts of sand swirl outside the windows as they sit in tense silence.
Aliyah tells her aunt she is in love with a woman, who is not a Muslim.
Her aunt does not understand. She tells Aliyah she is too intelligent to be gay. It is the influence of the shaitan, she says, the devil.
Aliyah seethes. She realizes she will never change her aunt’s mind. She could return, behaving as her family dictates, belonging to a family in which love comes with conditions. But that life is not hers anymore.
Aliyah opens the van’s passenger side door and stomps off to the boardwalk, her fists stuffed inside the pockets of her trench coat. Her aunt follows, wearing a veil and an unzipped blue hooded sweat shirt over her long black hijab. They stand side by side behind a rail, staring into the violent ocean. Their black coverings billow in the heavy wind, as the sky breathes mist against their faces. Aliyah swivels to leave.
Her aunt reaches out for her as she walks, touching a hand on Aliyah’s shoulder. She wriggles away.
“You know my number,” her aunt says. “It goes both ways.”
Aliyah says nothing.
“Salam o aliukum,” her aunt tells her. May the peace and blessings of Allah be with you. I’ll pray for Allah to forgive you, she tells Aliyah, before getting into her van.
Aliyah nods, and turns away. She does not look back.
In the morning, Stella and Aliyah will board a plane for Arizona.
The couple fasted during September for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. By October, both quit their jobs in Manhattan. Stella’s mother lives in Arizona, where they are headed to begin a new life, away from the grip of the city and the memories it holds.
Six months have gone by since Aliyah visited her aunt. The two have not talked since. Stella is her family now.
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