The text before me was swimming in a wide whirlpool of abyss. I fiddled with the sides of the legal brief lying before me and only a few words seemed to stick in my brain. There was something about a cheque bouncing, some kind of disputed liability, a haze of smoke…
I cleared my throat and forced myself to make sense out of the words before me. But it was all for naught. I had been working for hours ceaselessly but the stacks of legal briefs upon my desk had not reduced in size. I looked up at the tall bundle of paperwork before me and sighed.
I asked for this life. No. “Asking” was an understatement. I had, quite actively, pursued it and a part of me enjoyed the over exhaustion, the late night cigarettes and the escape all the workload offered. I welcomed it. And why not ? It provided me sanctuary from making useless small talk in the office. I detested most of my colleagues. They only reminded me of the kids that walked the halls of my High School and I had learnt lessons there that were forged infinitely in my skin, like invisible scars.
You see, memory is a most peculiar instrument. It is fallacious and quite flexible. One can train the brain to forget the bitter and sour. Yet, it is the bitterness that forges a man’s worth. So, the difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels, isn’t it? It is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant but they are, eventually, useless, for they very rarely shape you.
I turn the key to the drawer to my right and open it to withdraw a deep chocolate brown, half smoked, cuban cigar to my lips. As I lit it up between my lips, I recline on a cushioned chair to let out a large puff of smoke. Life has been good to me. I have everything I ever wanted and more and the road ahead looks only promising so far. There was no reason for a thirty year old like me to be a cynic.
But I hadn’t always been a cynic now, had I ? No..
Looking back, I think I can point to a conversation that changed everything to what it is today.
Well, I could, perhaps, go into further detail as to why I had the conversation in the first place. But, that might amount to pushing the bounds of this narrative, a little bit.
So, maybe the conversation is where I will begin.
I cannot recall what period it was or what day of the week. I remember only that I was in school and It was a balmy winter afternoon.
I know it was the winter because my sweater smelt of a sweet perfume I had used three days ago – some kind of a Chanel I stole from my mother. Well, “Stealing” is a strong word. She would let me use her perfumes, as long as I was only using them on occasions. Like, if I am going out or if there is some sort of a pretentious, long drawn family “get together” at our place. But in retrospection, I would argue that this was perhaps the most appropriate use of Madam Coco Chanel’s glorious creations. Or that of her franchise anyway. My sweater smelt of a mild sweet distant flower that could make people want to linger around me longer. Well, it made me want to keep smelling myself and that was good enough for me. So, I am only guessing the same for others. Had I used the Chanel that day, perhaps he wouldn’t have lurked around me so much. There would have been no subtlety, no mystery to the distant flower, which would be distant no longer. No. The air would have reeked of expensive perfume and while I would have smelt impressive and even attractive to some, it might not have felt right with the balmy afternoon and the swaying eucalyptus all around us and I doubt he would have stuck around all that much.
So, there I was, skipping god knows what class. They all felt the same after a while when we realised that our actions had no real consequence. Of course, we were yet to find out how wrong we were. I sat down on top of a tiny and uncomfortable walled boundary of a flowerbed, my knees joint together and my calves far apart. A couple of 10th graders walked by, laughing and hooting vulgarly at each other.
“God, were we ever like this?”, Amy said, rolling her eyes at the band of loud and sweaty boys, all of whom seemed like they had had a sudden growth spurt.
“No. We were way cooler”, I replied while grinning at the boys, as one of them tried to trip the other by trying to pull down his pants, “ I can’t say the same for the boys in our batch, though. Don’t you think?”
“Speaking of boys”, she turned around her profile to face me, her face not looking at mine “ I think someone I know has a crush on you”.
There was something uncomfortable about making eye contact with Amy and I think she felt the same way about me.
“What? Ew. Who?”, I said, more excitedly than I had wanted to let on, ensuring that my “ew” sounded more like a cry for attention than genuine disgust. Honestly, it was only a little of both.
“Oh. Relaxe.”, she said, “its not one of the creepy ones, I promise. He is actually a friend of mine. I think you know who I am talking about. Its pretty obvious.”
I had a vague idea of who she had been talking about. But I wanted to hear her say it.
“I honestly have no idea who”, I said incredulously, “ You know how clueless I get about these things”
“Its Ben, of course.”, she said smiling so wide, as if Ben and I were getting married this second and she was telling everyone at the wedding how this was all her doing.
I, on the other hand, wasn’t surprised. I had known it was B. He had been throwing the most obvious hints my way but I had never let myself go there. Also, he seemed kind of creepy and hit on literally every girl that moved. This hardly seemed like news.
“Oh. “, I said, looking up at the towering Eucalyptus trees, wishing I could be up there with them right now, “ I don’t suppose he told you that himself, did he?”
I did not look at her face. I did not want to cringe in front of her at the thought of going out with B. There was a long pregnant pause between us.
“He didn’t need to”, she said quietly.
I knew what this meant. Any dummy could tell she wanted me to go out with him and I had dare not refuse. Not on account of him being a pervert. I would have to come up with something sappy, selfless and much more philanthropic, something along the lines of “for the good of the group”, to really show I’m a team player without having to say it out loud. And God knew Amy was all about saying things without actually having to say them out loud.
“ I just think it might ruin the friendship”, I said, lamely, but in a desperate attempt to wriggle out of this conversation, “ You know.. I don’t want what happened with .. you know who.”
Amy’s best friend had started dating one of the other members of the elite group she so proudly clung on to in the school hallway. They had started dating when Amy had set them up but when she realised that she was no longer the centre of attention between them, she had to look for reasons to tear apart, what seemed to everyone else, perfectly happy high school sweethearts.
“He was a drug addict, T”, she had said, so nonchalantly, “you didn’t really expect me to just watch my best friend snog a drug addict, did you?”
“Of course not”, I had replied submissively, “you did the right thing.”
I was never quite able to let go of the guilt that had filled me up in that moment. I always blamed Amy for so many things that were wrong in everyone else’s lives. Yet, there I was, being an active part of the problem. I had had to snub Chloe and Darryl ( the couple in point), just to stay in Amy’s good books. I hated myself for it. But like most mistakes, one realises their gravity only after their consequence has been set in stone.
“ Well, I don’t think it would”, she said hesitating just a little,” but I can talk to him if you like. I am sure we can all handle the two of you dating like the mature adults we are.”
She was clearly not budging.
“Of course”, I said, “ You know I would appreciate that so much. But our exams are just around the corner, and I would really appreciate my small study breaks to be spent while talking to you”.
I reached my arm out around her to fold her into a tight hug. Amy was skinny and tiny. She was a nightmare to hug. But she needed my subservient reassurances to make her feel better about herself and her precious social status.
Her eyes looked hesitantly on the concrete and then up at her knee.
“We can’t let that happen now, can we?”, she said smiling a flashy beautiful smile. Her smile was contagious but I couldn’t wear it too long.
We decided we should use the rest of our “free period” to saunter around the school. It would be a shame to waste a lovely afternoon sitting near the mud and sulking about how I was “too much of a prude to date”. We walked around for a couple of minutes before we bumped into Ben.
“Hey”, he said sleepily, “What are you two doing here? I was looking for you everywhere.”
He turned to me to say the last part.
“Oh”, I said flushing, “ we were just sitting near the principal’s office.”
I turned to look at Amy for support but found her looking at Ben with a fond expression on her face. Amy and Ben had been best friends for time immemorial but there were always rumours about how the two had fancied each other. Naturally, I dismissed them since I had also had the privilege of being the subject of such rumours every so often. For instance, on one occasion someone spread a rumour about how I snogged like 10 different people behind the school buses in the parking lot. It was the wildest thing because ten different eighth graders actually came forward and very bravely admitted that I had taught them everything they knew about girls.. by letting them do “stuff” to me.
On another occasion someone said that I was dating some guy from class, I barely even knew. Maybe, he spread the rumour about himself. Yep. People did that a lot around here. I am pretty sure he claimed that we had gone third base in a movie hall. A had been seething that day. Within minutes she had mobilised a posse of the grade’s bulkiest boys, and had the boy apologise to me in front of the entire grade. I had been the talk of the town and I had to admit, it felt good.
“We were just talking about you, actually”, Amy said smiling.
I felt my insides panic. This was classic Amy. I knew she fancied Ben. She wanted him to pursue her. She wanted to act like this benevolent rockstar who tried to set us up together but ‘despite her best efforts all Ben ever wanted was Amy and that really wasn’t her fault’. Besides, it would make for a great couple story, wouldn’t it ? Guy next door, falls for the “best friend”.
“ Hahaha”, I said feigning laughter, “ we were actually talking about how dumb 10th graders are.”
There was an awkward moment of silence between all three of us. Amy had just opened her mouth to say something.
“And then of course, I said ‘aren’t the boys in our grade just as lame?’ “, I was blabbing now, “and so you can see how you came into the conversation.”
I had expected for Amy to glare at me with her round doe like eyes but all I received was a fond side hug with her head on my shoulder. I could see why. Ben had been laughing at my little jab at him. I think thats why he enjoyed talking to me. I knew when to drop the fiesty act. It had to be long enough to keep him interested but not enough to bruise his fragile ego.
“ If by ‘cool’, you mean going around the parking lot to make out with random 8th graders”, he said, “then sure. I suppose some would describe me as ‘lame’.”
Ouch. Is this why he was interested in me? Because he had thought I was easy?
“Better them, than you I suppose”, I replied smoothly but quickly followed it up with a laugh to let him know it was all good natured fun.
“ Wow, okay”, he said putting an arm around my shoulder, accidentally brushing Amy in the process, an act Ben didn’t give much notice but I could hear Amy positively purr near my shoulder, “ You got me good this time.”
“Hey”, Ben said, trying to pull me away from Amy, “you wanna go out? Maybe get something to eat?”
“Yeah !” Amy said excitedly, clearly missing the hint, “ lets do that”
Ben slumped his shoulders, ever so slightly. His face remained the same.
“ Great”, he said , “ screw class right?”
“Always”, I said in a sarcastic serious tone. We walked on chatting and frolicking around happily. We tried to sneak out past the guards on the gates. No student was allowed out during class. Unless, of course, you had a little white note from one of the teachers. As it turned out, Amy had plenty. She had always, somehow, managed to be a top student in her class and all the teachers practically fussed all over her.
We walked on out of school like a breeze. I was surprised it had been so easy to break bounds.
“Wow”, Ben said impressed, “ you keep those notes with you all the time?”
“Yep”, said Amy, positively glowing, “ you never know when you might need them”. Amy slipped an arm around mine. I could tell she was in a good mood because of these little gestures. The happier she felt, the clingier she got.
“My car is just round the back. I can ask my driver to pull up here”, said Ben.
“I think we should walk it. No sense drawing more attention to ourselves”, I said. Everyone agreed.
We walked over to a small shop right outside the school parking lot. The guy mostly sold cigarettes and weed but people mostly came out here to buy crisps and sandwiches. It had the kind of food kids wanted to consume under the pretence of drinking like adults. Isn’t that all anyone wanted at that age? To look older than we were?
Ben bought us some crisps and we settled down comfortably in his Mercedes to hear something slow and soulful on the stereo. I couldn’t help but wonder if the music was part of, what was now an unsuccessful ruse to get me alone and , perhaps, “set the mood”. I had only Amy to thank for thwarting his plans, while encouraging his pursuits simultaneously, knowing that only she could execute both to genius perfection . Suddenly, the closed peripherals of the vehicle made me uncomfortable.
Ben picked up a cigarette and whipped out a fancy black matte lighter. Amy was clearly impressed.
“I love that”, she said slowly taking the lighter from his hand and grazing her arm against his, as he let out a large puff of smoke, “ Where did you get that?”
“A gift”, he said uncaringly, not looking at Amy and eyeing me from the corner of his eye instead. I wished I could run as far away from there as possible.
“ Can I take a puff ?”, said Amy, batting her eyelids at Ben.
“Sure”, he replied handing over the lit cigarette.
“ Do you want a smoke?”, he asked turning to me.
“Oh.. “, I replied reluctantly. The fear was palpable in my voice. I knew Amy might try to strong arm me into something, here. After years of spending so much time with her, I had learnt to gauge such situations.
“Don’t bother”, she said cackling rudely, “She is too much of a prude.” Ben joined in laughing a careful, passive laugh. He, clearly, wanted nothing more than to have Amy out of his car without completely aggravating her. We all knew better than that. But it was as if nature had bound us in an unsaid vow. Neither of us seemed to be able to tell Amy to draw back her vicious claws from what had now become a toxic group of people pretending to be friends. She was outnumbered and abominated. Yet, here we were – politely laughing at her every joke, nodding along with everything she said, disagreeing when we knew she would want us to, learning to read her, as if it was part of our primary education curriculum.
In hindsight, I sometimes wonder what the consequences of me telling her off would have been. Would I have been ostracised by my peers? Would I have witnessed a fall in my social status? God knows that was our most treasured possession. And wasn’t it bewildering? We were all from educated families, advocating women’s rights, equality of status and every other social issue ever to come forth into existence. And yet, despite our expensive education and our refined manners, here we were, three people seeking validation in each others’ statuses – being cool by association.
“How do you know you don’t like it if you have never even tried it ?”, Ben asked grinning at me crookedly, while holding out the lit cigarette towards me. In that moment, I hated his face. There was a white rage behind my forehead that was waiting to plunge through me but it seemed too weak before the fear Amy had sired in me.
“I ..“, I said, realising how I was losing control of myself, “I don’t know…”
“Prude”, Amy jabbed smiling viciously, “ Well don’t waste a perfectly good cigarette !”
My palms were clammy and my heart seemed to thump out of my mouth. This was it, the moment of truth. I sometimes wondered how far I would let Amy push me. What would be the vantage point? Something, in my head told me this was it. This was the limit and that if I prod my boundaries any further, they just might snap.
My mind froze. It wasn’t in control anymore. My hands seemed to take advantage of the numbness in my brain and reacted out of an unruly delinquent instinct, I didn’t think I had. I took a large puff of smoke in my lungs and coughed till my chest exploded with pain. But one wasn’t enough to feed the two vultures perched hawk eyed before me. So, I took another one and another one and then some. And something inside my chest wobbled with each puff and snapped completely by the time the cigarette was out.
Somedays, I think I lost a piece of myself in that car and try as I may, I shall never reclaim it.
“Wow”, said Ben, “ you are a ballsy little kid aren’t you?”
Amy looked over at me unimpressed but smiling because she had to keep up appearances. She caressed my shoulder with feigned affection and I knew I had won the battle but lost the war. I looked over at Ben and smiled.
“Should we get something to drink?”, I said, “My throat is killing me.” Ben and Amy laughed heartily.
“I know just the thing”, Ben said summoning a tall bottle of Glenfiditch out of thin air.
Amy chuckled readily. But I knew I could get away with not indulging them this time. I had, after all, just proven myself worthy of their company.
“You know, I think I have had my fill for one day”, I said laughing hoarsely at them.
“ Oh yeah”, said Amy, pouring herself a cup, “I agree.”. I knew she appreciated me giving her some lone time with Ben, who seemed to want nothing more but to follow me out of the car.
“Where are you going ?”, he asked stepping out behind me, anxiously.
“ I think I will take the bus back home”, I said.
“ Sure, you want me to walk you?”, he said smiling eye to eye bawdily. I knew what he was insinuating.
“No, I think I will just find myself a couple of eighth graders”, I said smiling thoughtfully at him. I turned around and walked towards the lines of yellow buses before me. I heard the car behind me start and my shoulders slumped a little in relief. The act had been over. At last, I was alone with my thoughts. Was that any better ? I could not say. Atleast, I was free to lick my wounds. Isn’t that all we can hope for at the end of each passing day? I think, yes.