~ Syeda Zainab, 2 PyC
We met when we were five. Too little to notice any differences. Too little to care.
Raabia was fun and funny and a little wild. I was used to lunch get-togethers with my mother and her extended family, dressed in frocks that were pressed and picked out for me that I had to keep clean, playing with children I didn’t particularly like. I was used to fading into the background until spoken to, playing the role of the model daughter even then. With Raabia, though, it felt like I was the centre of the universe.
Raabia smiled and laughed and talked to me, gave me attention and listened to me. We ran around my neighbourhood together, crawling through the trees and bushes of the local park as if it were our own personal forest, coming up with games and stories. We cast each other as brave princesses on a quest to defeat evil, running amongst our small piece of nature until the sky begins to shift, orange bleeding into blue.
After school we would race each other back to my house, the elementary school close enough, and the neighbourhood safe enough, that two little girls sprinting along, laughter dancing in the air, wasn’t considered odd or unsafe. Raabia always making sure not to leave me too far behind. Me smiling until my cheeks hurt, doing my best to keep up.
My mother wasn't fond of it. She wasn't fond of Raabia. Having to clean grass stains out of my clothes, seeing me running everywhere, laughing inappropriately loud.
I was five, fearless, and didn't care.
For my seventh birthday, my parents threw me a party. There were balloons and loud uncles and cousins who I didn't know names of. A beautiful, clear and sunny day, with the smell of homemade biryani lingering in the air. It was almost perfect. Almost.
“Grandpa and your uncle from Oman have come over", my mother had said, a barely suppressed frown on her face, “I don't think it would be a good idea to invite Raabia today.”
“No,” my father told me, plain, simple, and to the point — like he was with everything in his life. “She can come over another day if you’d like.”
I felt tears prick at the back of my eyes, the burn spreading down my nose. I should’ve cried. Down the line, I would regret not crying. Not throwing a fit like a child of seven was allowed to do when told they couldn’t have their best friend at their birthday party.
But I breathed in brokenly, not wanting to make a scene. Ducked my head down, blinked and nodded.
The beginning of the end.
At ten, I knew that our neighbourhood was small, and split. There’s the East side, where I lived. Pristine homes with well-manicured-people. And then, past the middle of the neighbourhood, where the school and everything else business oriented was, there was the West side. I had never been, wouldn’t have been allowed regardless. I’d seen it, looking out the window of the car when my parents drove past on the way to visit family out of town. Homes that looked worse for wear, and a general impression of bone deep exhaustion that I couldn’t understand just then.
Raabia lived there, she had told me once on our way back home. And so, naturally, there was an allure to it. A child’s curiosity about the place her friend called home.
Why don’t we ever play at your house? I asked her. She looked over at me from where she was lying on her stomach. We were both on our bellies, in the park I was allowed to go to, not too far from home, trying to lure a kitten we’d seen dash under the bushes. The sun’s out in full force and the park had no shade, but I was not about to be the first to complain.
It's messy, she had said, you wouldn't like it.
You don't know that I wanted to say. It felt like an excuse, but I didn't want to be rude when she had so clearly dismissed me.
Fine I had said, dropping my chin onto my crossed arms.
Raabia laughed, her eyes curving up, This is funner anyway, we're on a hunt. She was smiling so wide it hurt my cheeks when I looked at her.
In the bushes, I glanced over, the kitten that had cautiously been crawling closer without our eyes on it. She squeals and the kitten runs away, the two of us right on her tail. See this is much more fun she told me as we ran breathless.
At twelve, Raabia invites me to her house for the very first time. I say yes and jump-hug her too tight. Uncaring in the moment about what I would hear at home.
We walk home, holding hands, two shiny bracelets on our wrists with a whisper of a promise to wear it forever. We don't.
Second year of middle school started with a warning.
“Remember what I said.” My mother isn’t yelling. But her tone pressing enough for me to know that she isn't asking for an excuse, “No more hanging out with that girl. She's not good for you. You have a future, she doesn’t.”
I bite the inside of my cheek, resisting the urge to duck my head. My mother spoke about Raabia with the cold sort of detachment someone might talk about a pest. I get in the car and don't say anything on our way back home. I never did.
Raabia hadn't come to school that day, or the next, or the day after that. I didn't hear from her, but I heard people, and they talked.
Desperate, whore, shameless, the kids in class whispered.
No-good, irresponsible, trouble the parents said.
She had a kissed a boy after class in the girls washroom, they said. A teacher had caught them, the boy was suspended but Raabia's parents were called. I didn't see her for a week after that.
But when she came back, I distanced myself. I felt something dark and unfriendly curl in my gut. I didn't talk to her. In class, when she did approach me, I brushed her off with a weak smile and half-hearted excuse. I did it again, and again, until she didn't try anymore.
It had hurt in the beginning, so much, but when my parents seemed happier with the company I was no longer keeping, when family dinners were less tense, when I could actually invite my other friends over without feeling guilty, I couldn’t help but think it might've actually been for the best.
Maybe mom was right.
The rest of the year, I pretended she was never a part of my life in the first place. I let myself go numb and focus on the never-ending assignments, extracurricular and tests.
I don't know when it started, but maybe along the way, I noticed the differences between us — her clothes looked more worn-down than mine, how her parents never seemed to mind if their daughter disappeared for an entire day only to play in another part of the neighbourhood while mine were twin helicopters fussing over every little aspect of his life, including my friendship with her. Later, on our last day of middle school I would find the bracelet left on my desk and realise that maybe she'd noticed too.