A story of a budding friendship between two boys in school. What cements their friendship? And when does the friendship become a stronger bond?
The rain persevered. Not that it was an incessant downpour or anything. It was that half-hearted drizzle that is irksome in the way it sounds beneath the feet. The kind that doesn't require an umbrella.
My anxiety persevered. Not that it was inherently crippling or anything. It was that ripple that echoed now and then triggered by his very thought. The kind that does require a significant amount of distraction.
So, I fished for a cigarette as I stopped pacing back and forth in the deserted playground in front of his house. It took one considerable minute to light one. I perched myself on the merry-go-round primarily because it was the only swing outside the pool of light sourced from the overhead lamp.
What was I thinking before indulging in this nonsensical ordeal?
So, why am I here? It might seem like I’m one of those ‘not-yet-out-of-the-closet’ boys stalking their quintessential crush from high school. Nope. You need to know what ensued before I ended up in a playground in the middle of the night.
It all began when my mother couldn’t refuse a lucrative offer to transfer mid-semester to a city from the god-forsaken town in which we lived since my birth. But I’m not some ungrateful brat to pay no mind to a hard-working single parent slogging day in and day out for me, let alone whine about it. So, we embarked on the long and uncomfortable haul to the glam-laden city with quite a few memories. Almost all of them worthy of being forgotten. A drunkard for a father. A room for a house. Extortion in the name of rent. Well, you get the gist.
A mid-semester transfer brings with it quite a few clichés. A small round of bullying. A dearth of friends. Inability to catch up with homework. Handling a part-time job. More bullying. Well, you get the gist.
But you see, I haven’t been brought up to take anything and everything in my stead. When my seniors, out of a fit to tease the newbie, invited me to the isolated alley behind my school with a bunch of snacks, I just didn’t turn up. The next day was bound to be tumultuous. I was rounded up while turning a corner in the school corridor to a storeroom.
Yeah, the usual ensued. Heckling, abuses and a threat of a good solid beating. It was a good plan to ingrain servility in my brain towards my seniors. But living with a single mother had prepared me to pack a punch. Be it for some low lives who couldn’t let my mother live in peace. Or just to avoid troubling her with my sob stories of how some children saw my father as a great subject to touch upon to tease me.
I hit and I hit hard. But I did invite a good solid round of punches. Not a smart move in a one-against-several situation. And then…
“Get the hell off him, Ritvik. Or do you want another suspension?”
“We were just playing around, Tej. No need to get so nosy all the time.”
“It’s my duty to be nosy. You seem to have forgotten I’m the head boy.”
They all scampered away like ants. Apparently, my anger had yet to subside. So when he asked me if I was alright, I told him to mind his business. You see, I haven’t had anybody do that for me. No figure of authority in my life did what their duty demanded, let alone what was best for me. I shoved him away and days continued. The seniors couldn’t ingrain servility in my mind. But he sure got the job done by imprinting an impression on my mind.
The chase continued. No, I hadn’t fallen for him. Yet. It was that scum of the earth Ritvik who had me fearing to retain my part-time job. He followed me and got to know that I waited tables for a small café near the school. I had to relent to meet him outside the isolated alley to save some face at my workplace fearing he would do something vile to make me lose my job. And I was beaten to his satisfaction. I returned to school the next day and limped my way to glory.
“Was it Ritvik?” he asked
“Can’t you leave me alone? I’ll handle it.”
“People like you condone bullying which takes the entire disciplinary system for a ride. I get it you want to be tough. But he will continue pestering you for as long as you let him.”
“Then let him. Don’t jump into situations you have no idea about. I appreciate it that you’re doing this as head boy, but I’d like to be left alone.”
“I would have told you to suit yourself. But I’ve been appointed as your school guide. But you’re either a no-show to school meetings or just preventing communication with everybody.”
A liking towards somebody is bound to be bred in coincidence and familiarity. He started going through the syllabus and school activities with me as mandated by our homeroom teacher. Got to know he ran track and was captain of the sports team as well. He convinced me to try out for track and I made it to the team by bursting half a lung in the process. But I don’t know what made me determined to be selected.
He was happy, and I almost didn’t listen to the coach gushing over my clock time. My mother was happy too. Well, all she wanted were decent grades and she got an upgrade with my participation in sports too. I think she was just relieved that I had finally eased into the novelty of the city life.
The coincidence and familiarity of his presence around me bred friendship first. I didn’t mean to start liking him in the process. I mean who does but … I just did. It was a first for me. And gender did not have any role in me discovering that I was capable of developing a liking towards anybody at all. And I didn’t plan to declare it considering the rose-tinted glasses that I was wearing. I knew how utterly foolish it was, but I didn’t have any inkling of the force with which it sweeps you. So I was swept. But the frustration was palpable with all the hiding. With avoiding looking at him in a way that could be construed as weird. Moreover, he put me on edge one day when I offered him a free drink at the café I worked at.
“Why sir, have you taken a liking for me?”
Gah! That sentence made my radar go for a toss. And I took the easy and immature way of distancing myself from him. I started giving monosyllabic answers. Avoided him in corridors. And sat away from him in classrooms.
One day, fueled by my frustration, I was circling the school track late in the evening.
"Oii! Stop, you!" He called out as he attempted to reduce the distance between us. I was taken aback as he towered over giving me a glorious glare.
"What do you think you're doing? Or are you going to tell me to mind my own business?" His tone was laced with disgust. I felt my irritation ebb a bit as it was replaced by intimidation. I took a deep breath and tried to pacify him.
“Listen I’m just going through … stuff.”
“Let me make it clear to you that I sure can give you the space you want. But I didn’t expect you to ghost me. I didn’t take you for a child.”
His eyes seemed to be on fire. I couldn't help but stare for a second.
"I saw you and was thinking about asking for an explanation, but apparently, you don't give a damn. And neither do I." He took a step away from me. But, almost instantaneously, with no second thoughts, I just went on blurting mode.
“Yeah, because I’m tired of being friends with you. I like you. Okay? Happy, now? Now, you can gloat around the school declaring that a rugged freak of a villager likes me.”
But the corners of his mouth lifted into a smile. He ran his hand through his hair and raised an eyebrow simultaneously.
“I guess I have to mind your business now, don’t I?”
He let out a defeated sigh, smirked, and walked towards the gate.
The next day he ignored me with greater fervor than I did. But to my surprise, he had slid in a note under my desk asking me to meet him in the playground in front of his house. At an ungodly hour of midnight. What have I gotten myself into?
Just as the last drag pushed me into a short-lived calm, I saw him make his way through the deserted mass of a playground to stand right beneath the lamp I scampered away from. So much for staging calm.
His features seemed burnished in an odd cinematic way with his shadow forming the radius of the supposed spotlight on him. Or maybe I had been reading too much poetry.
I knew it was just his way of coaxing me out of the darkness I had voluntarily nestled in. And I felt a very welcomed ripple of anger course through me easing my anxiety into an inch of retreat. It was all I needed to clench my jaw and walk towards him.
“Why did you make me sneak out in the middle of the night?”
“The track is no place for a first date, you know.”
“And a dilapidated playground is one?”