I’d like to say that it started just like that, but then we’d all know that I’m lying. Nothing ever happens just like that. I believe it began when I was the shy, last bench girl who sat in a corner, hiding away from the rest of the class… and he was anything but a stereotype.
Often, he’d lean back in his chair and throw a glance at my direction while I’d be hiding my face behind the stray strands of my hair, tucking the hem of my skirt under my knees and biting my lips in random intervals. When I’d look up, often, I’d catch him staring at me, a pencil or pen poking out of his mouth and his eyes twinkling. Those would be awkward moments and I would be lying if I tell you that it was okay for me to catch a boy staring at me, especially when the boy was him – an enigma of his own.
With a mop of dark hair, curling against his nape, a few strands plastered to his forehead, and gleaming charcoal eyes, he was the kind of boy you found between the pages of some kindergarten sweetheart novel. His lips would curl into a smile whenever he spoke to anyone and I would find a slight grin force itself on my face as well when I saw him smile. When he would climb up the top of his desk and sit there, talking aloud to his friends and clapping them on their backs, I would find my eyes follow his every move.
Even during the most boring lessons of History, I’d find myself leaning back and forth to catch a glimpse of him four rows to my front. He was the only person in the class of forty who acknowledged my presence. Growing up, I had always been an awkward kid, finding it hard to pick up conversations. I was self-conscious, nervous and a lot more, like people had often pointed out, but he saw through that. He looked at me like he knew me forever. And I looked at him like I could never figure out what went through beneath his smile.
Each day, I would pass by his seat and wish he would say something. Only, he wouldn’t. Instead, his eyes would follow me as I would fumble with the books in my hand, breathing heavily, almost melting under his gaze. But never did we, for the first six months of the semester, pick up the courage to utter a word to each other.
However, one day, he did.
In the lunch break one day, when the class was empty and the corridors were abuzz, I found him walking inside the class. His hair was messed up and his shirt stuck against his lanky frame as he nearly staggered against his desk. Almost immediately, I gasped and his eyes wandered down the rows of benches and landed on me. They held something… not pain, not sorrow, but indescribable confusion, as if something was killing him inside, yet he was helpless. I expected him to turn away; instead, he smiled.
“Hi,” he mumbled.
That was how it began – a friendship. A friendship between two individuals who had so many stories to share.
Each lunch break, I would find him in the cafeteria, sitting in the middle of the room with his friends. When he would see me, he would lift his hand slowly and smile. Amidst the loud howls from the bunch of boys and his deeper voice, I spent the best few months of my school life.
Sometimes, when I’d have forgotten to bring some money in my bag, he’d push his tray towards me. Everything with him was like a script from a slow, black and white movie.
“Hey?” Sometimes, he’d put his hand on my shoulder and stare down into my eyes. Time stopped at that moment, for I found myself lost in the utter sincerity his eyes held. They held so much pain as well, but I was too young to dig deeper.
When I’d frown and grumble at something, he would turn and ask me if I was okay. Nobody did that. He would sit beside me for long, until I would tell him what’s wrong. He was the type of boy everyone wanted as a friend. When happy, he would have instant jokes up his sleeve. When sad, he would never tell anyone. And that was what I forgot. He never told anything, so I never asked. Or perhaps, I had been too occupied basking under the sunshine that I forgot to ask him at times, if he was okay.
With him, I was not the shy, quiet girl at the back of the class and he was not the quiet, serious, popular boy. We were so much more than that, with so many infinite stories to tell.
And one fine winter morning, with one incident, instead of our stories intertwining, we wrote different tales.
“Why wouldn’t you tell me what’s wrong?” I had told him that day. Frustrated with his lack of response and careless behavior, I had stomped out of the class, balling my fists and fighting tears. He had arrived late to the class with a slight sore on his chin and bruises on his face. I had been too angry because he wouldn’t tell me what was wrong.
That day, he didn’t look at me. His eyes didn’t glimmer like they did always. His face was cold. His eyes were dark. Something about him, scared me that day. And it was perhaps why I never walked back.
“Really?” I heard a group of girls talking in high-pitched tones. In fact, the whole cafeteria talked loudly about something… about someone. There were so many people talking at once, that I couldn’t catch the train of words – of where what began and what came to an end.
“He starves himself?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“But he’s a boy… anorexia? I mean I have heard girls do so, but he?”
“That is so awkward! He always seemed so strange to me!”
“Who? He caught him in the washroom, puking?”
“You are kidding me! I don’t believe this!”
“He was beaten up?”
“Seniors… I don’t understand.”
I didn’t keep a track of time of how long I sat in the sweaty cafeteria, hearing loud noises all around me. I knew who they were talking about, but a part of me refused to believe. A part of me was adamant and held on to the fact that it was just a rumour, but when things started getting clearer and details appeared, I couldn’t help but storm out of the cafeteria and run to him.
“Why?” I almost cried, but not because I was sad for him, but I wanted to know why he didn’t tell me.
“As if you could make things fine,” he retorted.
“B-But-” I struggled to say something, but words caught up in my throat.
We sat in silence. He played with the edges of his shirt while I sat, motionless and cold. In a mirror world, it was seen as if our roles were reversed. He was no longer that easy-going popular boy who had a solution to everything. And I was no longer the quiet girl. Staying in his company had given me an ounce of confidence. I had made many friends by then, but he remained in my books.
But that one day, I felt confused. I felt like every bit of energy had been soaked out of my body, leaving me with an empty feeling.
“Why do you do this?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders before leaning back against the chair and pulling out something from his back pocket.
“This,” he muttered, passing me an old photograph. There stood a little, chubby boy smiling giddily at the camera.
“That was me at some point,” he continued. “I was fat. I was ugly. The kids in the neighbourhood wouldn’t play with me. So, I wanted to become someone who would be loved. Someone people would admire.”
“Because I am this now,” he pointed at himself.
When I looked at him that day, I didn’t fail to notice how his shirt pressed against his flat chest and the way his collar bones stood out against his collar. That day, I didn’t fail to notice the many things that hid beneath his smile. Inside, he was hurting. Yet, he put on his best face, just to impress the world.
“It’s so embarrassing,” he said. “I thought nobody would ever find out.”
All those summers and springs melted in the pain that his eyes held. I felt betrayed. I felt almost useless, because even though I was so close to him, I could do nothing.
My lips quivered when he spoke the next words.
And just like that, he left.
No one saw him at school after that. But people talked about him. They said rude things. They told how pathetic it was.
And it was too much for me to hear.
So that one art class, when the teacher had not yet arrived, I screamed against the hushed whispers.
“He is not pathetic!” I cried. A string of gasps followed pin-drop silence. “It could happen to anyone! Anyone can feel bad about how they look. It’s only human! But when they feel low, when people around us feel low, isn’t it us who should pick them up and provide them strength? Why do you think it’s embarrassing? When girls starve themselves, we say it’s normal. But heck, boys want to look perfect too. Each one of us wants to lose a few pounds so that we can fit into out favourite dresses. Each one of us wants to be in perfect shape so that others won’t make fun of us. So, it isn’t awkward. It isn’t embarrassing. It is just that when a friend was hurting, we couldn’t help him. And now that he’s gone, instead of feeling guilty or sad, you speak so dirty things about him? It is you who is pathetic! Not he! He was perfect!”
When I sat down with a thud, I was crying. Tears ran down my cheeks and no matter how much I wiped them off, they were not stopping.
My eyes wandered over the desk and I found several drawings on them. He had a strange habit of scratching the tip of his pen against the furnished ply of the desk and make small, little pictures. Every time that I passed by his desk, I had a strong urge to run my hand over them, but the ink seemed so fresh, I was sure that it would only end of messing the pictures and making my hands dirty. But that day, I did.
With wet palms, sticky with the tears, I ran my quivering fingers over the drawings. I wanted them to fade away. I wanted all this to be a bad dream. But they didn’t smear. The ink didn’t smear. It had dried up. And they stared right at me, telling tall tales.
When the class was empty and people had left for their homes, I stayed behind. Pulling open a pen out of my bag, next to the stuff he had drawn,
In a race to fit in someone else’s books,
In a race to look finer,
Did we forget that we looked so much better just the way we are?
Did we forget to love ourselves first?
And when the school year finally came to an end, I prayed that someday, he would see this and smile to himself.
To this day, when I’m feeling low and down, I think of the wonderful memories we had and of the many more stories we could have had.