~ Ishita Kumar
“So, tell me one thing about yourself that your best friend doesn’t know.” Rayna scooted closer on the wooden bench of the auditorium, leaning in to be heard over the performance on stage. It was the dance team of the school, maybe. Or a debate. I wasn’t paying attention. Looking up from our game of hangman on the pages of her brown diary balanced between our knees, I considered. It was an odd thing to ask; reminiscent of the slam book questionnaires we'd flock to in primary school, buzzing, eyes lighting up. I can't be sure about my reply. Something about friends who lived across the street, people we missed. Somehow, my mind registers this as our first conversation. We'd only known each other for an hour and a geography period, so it was still awkward to sit with her like this – scribbling on paper to pass time, talking, tuningout the noises of the school fest. She'd come up to me earlier, as we were lining up to leave outside the classroom, lightly tugging at my arm to say that I'd be sticking with her for the next three hours. I didn’t mind. It’s not like I knew anyone else. Transferring schools after tenth gradewas my decision, swayed only a littleby the way my father had leaned forward, back detaching itself from the sofa, eyes crinkling with his smile when I’d told him about the acceptance e-mail. Since I’d first started school in Kolkata, this was one of his wishes – a small one, but difficult to trivialize. I’d never even considered applying, relenting only on the condition that the eventual choice would be mine. I hadn’t anticipated just how hard it would be to say “no”. And so, I had no one else to blame when I sat alone in class, eyes following the hands of my worn, blue watch, counting the end of each period till I could leave – bolt through the front gate, swing myself onto the bus and leave. Friends were never something that came easy to me. Having no imaginary friendsas a child that my parents knew about, they were less concerned than they would have been at my lack of interaction with children my age beyond the one or two companions I’d somehow forced my presence on. Unlike the high intake of cartoons with their constant exaggerated showcase of friendship at every beat, my prospects at this skill only seemed to plummet the older I got. For most of my early school years, I was content to snuggle up in the corner seat of the classroom with a book, spooning the contents of my lunchbox into my mouth.
It wasn’t lonely; I don’t think. When nudged by the occasionalteacher – “Won’t you go sit with your classmates? – I’d stare up at them, biting my lip, before croakingout – and by scrunch of their brows – an unsatisfactory reply. Perhaps that was made up for when I sat alone in my eleventh-grade classroom, desk pressed close to the door – a space that I’d occupy till after August – staring at a floor which was the wrong shade of grey, the too- pale walls, the offbeat chatter filling the room. During the past four years, I’d come to expect Meghma’s cat-like smirk as she whispered goofy remarks in the middle of class, Mansi bumping my shoulder as she teased me for sitting out during P.E and Kamakshi’s promise of long conversations that could start with discussing Maurice and lead to Persian rugs. Being the people I'd shared my blood-bonding ceremony days with, it was odd to be taken away from that space.Suddenly, all I could thinkabout were the days when the notions of loyalty were dramatic sacrifices made in duels; performing "rituals" near the chart-laden notice board in our dark eight grade classroom, hands clasped together, Mansi wearinga school blazerover her head to imitatea Silent Brotherfrom the Shadowhunter Chronicles; huddling together in a corner of Kamakshi's bedroom near the window A.C, music playingon her floral patterned laptopas we experimented with dupattas to use them as togas for our rendition of the Trojan War. 2019 was a weird year for me – more of a hallucination. Mostly, I remember it from the songs I listened to and my conversations with Rayna. With Rayna, it’s hard to pinpoint when we grew closer, morphed into something resembling friendship. Maybe sharing a bench in the cool shadows of the geography lab, the August rain pattering against the windows, brown window shades fluttering – poring over measurements, types of rocks and map projections; whispers about our favourite books, the shows we were watching interspersing the spaces in between. Trailing around the school corridors lined with artwork, hours in the dimly lit club room – sharing our writing, chatting, brainstorming ideas. When she’d thrusther worn, crinkledcopy of Cloud Atlas– its yellowedpages carrying whiffs of vanilla – into my hands, demanding that I readit? Or in the waiting room before the geography oral exams, when she’d taken hold of my clammy hands, pressing her long, pale fingers into my palms, talking about the time her fingers turned blue, how warm oil had to be rubbed into the crevices and lines of her palm to breathe colourinto them. Her textbook lay on the table, pagesof technical terms highlighted in fluorescent yellow left ignored.As we tried to talk about anything other than the differentuses of a compound graph,she let me see her tattoo, shifting
the sleeve of her stripedschool shirt to reveal the pattern of a snowflakeinked on her shoulder. But the most time we spent together was in classrooms. Ours was a gallery classroom – resembling six steps of flicked over dominoes. Hard to navigate – trippingover others' feet, navy blue ends of your skirt frayed from snagging on the jutting tops of chair legs, bag pack knocking against the heads of girls right below you and scraping your knees to reach your desk was inevitable. But it was convenient when we wanted to whisper in between classes – pressed together in the corner seats of the last row, heads ducked, bags placed strategically like bumpy mounds in front of us. We'd talk so much, but it was always about something else. The next book, another song, joint rants.Thinking that we had more time to get to know each other – an entire year. Really, I was too afraid to ask – sitting at our desks, shoulders and knees shifting in her direction, mustering out a scratchy "hey-, " only for my throat to close in on itself as she tilted her head to look at me from whichever book she was reading, chin- length hair shifting over her cheek, small strands clustering around an edge of her bluish-red glass frames. Sitting beside her under the striking white lights of the assembly room, acrossfrom her in the dusty,cosy air of the library,on the benches at the edge of the school garden dusted with flakes of soil and dirt, I'd hold back many words – breath catching, throat dry and body ripplingwith the aftershocks of what I'd almost said. Later, I'd thrash and flail on my bed, head buried in my pillow, with the constant groan and mutter of, "can't believe I almost said that. Out loud!" I'd try to catch myself more around her. These are things I still want to say to her. Hearing her talk about herselfwas calming. SomethingI wish I could record,replay the exact phrases,syllables, gaps (creepy,perhaps). Sometime in November, lazingaround during lunch break, legs stretched out to touch the desk before me, she did. About her timelast year, what she liked about playingviolin for the junior orchestra– details and things I'd never have asked about. When I remember, warmth courses through me, a slight burn spreads across my chest – like being under the chrome yellow hue of Diwali lights. But deeper, shifting and rolling, there's also unease. I thought a lot about what she'dtold me that day – probably more than I should have. It looped in my mind two days later, as I stood right behind her at a school concert, in the prickling heat, catching snatches of Counting Stars being played on a makeshift stage as she hummed along to the music. Rayna, for all seeming shyness, had a way with people – hooking her elbow with someone she recognized in the hallways, drawing them into conversations they
couldn’t refuse. For her friends,she was never short of affection – extending her arms to wrap them in tight hugs, resting her head on their shoulders in the middleof classes, writing them long letters for their birthdays. Watching her interact with others, I’d lurk behind, gaze averted; ignoring the petulant, biting thoughts. So many people like her. I wasn’t sure how to handle my uneasiness around that. Even as a friend, Rayna was different in ways I couldn’t explain – she’d gone out of her way to get to know me, would plop down beside me whenever she saw me sitting alone, made navigating a new place seem a little less daunting. Perhaps, I wanted her to like me just as much, feel as comfortable around me as she did around her other friends. “She won’t know unless you tell her,” my mother would say, sighing at seeing me pace back and forth, brooding over a misunderstanding. After a few unsuccessful attempts at getting me to calm down, she’d roll her eyes, leaving me to my devices. Her words make sense, they do. But it’s not always easy to follow through with them. After school shut down when the pandemic hit, I never did confront her – dismissing it as something I’d exaggerated. I didn’t miss school – anything to be away from that classroom. But it would be nice to have had more time with her - the salty bite of chips aswe talked about music and compared notes during field trips, listeningto her stories about the juice bar she’d visit after school for years before it was taken down, reading her write-ups about performing at St. Paul’sCathedral. Months after graduating, I still slip up, telling people I’m in my last year of school. Anxiety halts my ability to get anythingdone. Staring at the piercingglare of my screen late at night, I think about the friends I’d lost contact with. Rubbing at my eyes, tired, I try not to think about how I haven’t heard much from Rayna. Talk to her, I remind myself. You’re being childish. But, at that moment, I’m not sure how to construct, arrange the words in the way I want to. I don’t even know what to say. The phone in my hands buzzes with notifications, and I end up lookingthrough a series of messages about Percy Blakeney from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Tell me what you think about the staircase scene when you reach it, Rayna says, sending me a copy of her omnibus.
The file downloads as I scoop generous servings of ice cream into a bowl, settling in cross-legged at my desk. Sleep wouldn’t come easy, anyway. Turning in the office chair, the sugary taste of coconut on my tongue, I let Percy Blakeney make me smile.