November. Year 1.
She watches silently as the minutes pass.
Every so often, without as much as a sigh, she glances at the cracked glass, the numbers stark against the black background. 7:15. 7:23. 7:45.
Turning as the group shuffles towards the revolving glass door, she brings two fingers to her lips, pressing lightly, checking for blood. Rough skin meets her fingertips. No red. With a sigh, she wipes them against the dark material of her shirt.
Glancing up, she watches as one of them, his blue jacket gleaming in the near-unbearable glare of the light, playfully pushes another, laughter echoing throughout the now empty chamber.
So easy, they made it seem, she thinks. So simple. As if being part of this—the group, was a task as routine as breathing.
Murky—the world is so murky, her vision feeling almost as if it had been covered in layers of duct tape. Muted. Gray. Everything passes by too slow, too fast, at the same time. She is there but not, present but distant. The movie had done nothing in clearing her senses up.
Days—it had been days since the last time breathing had felt natural, unlike a nuisance. She can’t seem to remember the last time existing hadn’t been tiring.
Words flow from her mouth that she doesn’t hear. Laughter erupts from her that she doesn’t feel.
Nothing is real.
Teetering slightly as she escapes what seems like a rotating glass prison, she winces, the full force of fresh air hitting her in the head like a mallet. They all pile out the door, into the beam of the streetlight.
Where to, one of them, no one in particular, asks.
Once again, she watches as they chitter amongst themselves, discussing favorable options, sometimes throwing in a word or two herself. When called for, she forces her lips to draw up, towards her ears—forces her eyes to narrow, her mouth to part in an easy laugh.
Look at them. In the eye. Toss your hair back, almost carelessly.
She tries not to pat her pockets every two seconds, tries not to check if the screen is lighting up every few blinks.
In the end, she accepts failure and draws the phone out.
Almost 8:00. As she pockets the screen once again, she feels the small vibration, the light that peeks through the layer of cloth. It can only be one person. She draws it back out and presses a finger against the circle, just for good measure.
Sure enough, the title stares back, almost menacingly: MOM
Without bothering to read the content of the text message, she shoves it back into her back pocket, silently wishing it’d somehow fall out as she quickens her pace to catch up with the group. Maybe she’ll come across some desperate pickpocket. Maybe it’ll be gone by the time she checks again. Maybe she’ll go home and shrug, with a nonchalant ‘don’t know where it went. Didn’t see your message’, and blame it all on that. Maybe that would somehow be deemed an acceptable excuse.
But someone touches her shoulder and she’s jolted back to reality—reality where if she’d lost her phone, all that’d be waiting would be screams, threats, tears.
At the thought of the possibility, she quickly transfers the phone from the back pocket to the front, patting it a couple of times before looking back to the group. Smile. Laugh. Murmur a joke.
One of them hovers around her—present but not quite interacting, the cream underlining of his parka like a beacon in the darkness of the streets. It’s him—the one she’d first started talking to a few weeks ago, the one who she’d bumped into in the hallway.
I sexually identify as a cactus, he’d said with a deadpan stare.
Ignoring the flaring urge to laugh out loud, she’d stared right back and said I sexually identify as a raccoon.
And that had been it. Their first interaction—or so she thinks.
From the corner of her eye, she watches, forcing another laugh at what someone else’s said, as his stare settles on her once in a while. Watches, as the stare folds back into itself, as he folds back into himself, merging with the rest of the gang for a few moments before his gaze settles on her again. Queer.
And so begins the game. You hide. I seek. Once or twice, when their gazes meet, she flinches, as if struck, the sheer starkness of the stare seemingly stripping her thoughts bare, and blushes a deep crimson she thanks the night for covering.
And so it goes on and on and on, until it becomes a pattern, then a habit, in the short amount of time it takes for them to reach the restaurant. More than a few times, she wonders if this activity is one sided—if, in fact, there is no stare, no interest, but a mere subconscious glance.
In the end, she settles on the thought that no matter what, it carries significance to her, and that most things are that way anyway—of monumental meaning to her, barely a sliver of momentousness to anyone else.
She notes that she’d been talking to different people, maybe even him, once in a while, but it all slides away from focus as the second round of vibrations begin.
Without looking, she slides the phone into mute.
She throws another lighthearted smile someone’s way, then looks back to him and that gleam in his eye, the toss of dark hair, the bark of blithe laughter as he charges towards the car-less street. She catches him by the hood, the same creamy color flashing back at her, and pulls him back. More laughter.
You hide, I seek. You hide, I—
The she finally looks at him—looks, and sees. Sees the nonchalance, the heedlessness, the teasing, and finally, after a moment of hesitation, she teases back—really teases back, letting out the first of her real laughs of the night.
And in that moment, the phone, blazing from under the layer of cloth once in a while, doesn’t matter. Time ticking by doesn’t matter. Each breath drawing her closer to the dreaded pull of home just doesn’t matter, as she pokes fun at him, at how he looks just like another, making ridiculous comparisons. People join, people laugh, and for a single, blissful moment, being a part of the group is as easy as blinking.
Wonder envelopes her at how easy everything seems for just a moment, at how possible it all seems. She doesn’t know how, she doesn’t know why. This isn’t the first time someone had got her to feel. But this time it’s different. This time, something shifts inside. This time, she lets out a breath.
She could be okay. She could go to school. She could finish the assignments. She could graduate, She could be granted a scholarship, she could go to university. She could study. She could live.
She doesn’t know how. She doesn’t know why. She doesn’t get why this one dark haired boy is different from all the others. Maybe it’s because of how comfortable he is in his skin. Maybe it’s the casual sauntering. Maybe it’s just because timing, because she’d felt so shitty, because she’d been trying so hard to pretend to not feel shitty, and here he was, offering a breath of fresh air, reaching out as she’d been sinking like a brick. She has no idea. But for a moment, she spies the grin spreading across his face, and she grins back, wide and bright.
For a moment, she is free.
And she feels it, the pull—almost hears a click as things begin making sense, and looks to him again, in amazement. She lets herself be drawn to the ease. She doesn’t clamp down on the yearning for the feeling to continue. She lets herself hope. She lets herself be pulled in, lets whatever ties form. She lets them form, lets them solidify, and smiles.
Beautiful, she realizes. He is beautiful.
And it goes on for a while, to her surprise—the teasing, him pretending to launch himself towards the street, her catching him by hood and dragging him back. Another game, another pattern.
For the first time in a long time, she is not concerned about whether or not she will be okay, whether or not someone else will be okay, whether or not things will be okay. She breathes.
Before she knows it, they’re striding into the restaurant, the faint smell of fish and spices wafting through the air. They’re led to a small room, circular table placed in the middle, and they move at once, simultaneously, each claiming a seat. Pleasant surprise, as he plants himself to her left.
Then the chatter begins again, and she mindlessly joins in, scrolling through the various messages from her mother, from her friend. Find a different owner for your dog, her mother says.
Come home early.
Where are you.
And so dinner is served, inhaled. She barely touches the food, her appetite gone from the strain from the messages. She ignores the worried stares from different people.
Settles back into the thoughtless silence of before.
Somehow, at some point, conversation narrows down to just him. At some point, through some kind of desperate subconscious attempt to pull herself from this hole that has been dug so deep, she looks straight at him and asks,
“Why do you live”, the tone more so a statement than a question. With barely a moment of hesitation, he replies, tone equally level,
She doesn’t hear the elaboration that follows.
Two things silence the bustling surrounding her. First, what that would mean. Second, the look in his eyes, one that she can’t quite place, but one that strikes a chord in her chest. A pang of—something. She doesn’t know what. She looks back at him.
He continues, “….. so my mom—” and silence strikes again, the entirety of the world narrows down to the one word, the one figure that it represents.
How, she wonders, does something that means terror, repulsion, death, to her, bring another life? And the look in his eyes as he’d breathed the word out, of silent gratitude—this boy who’d seemed so thoughtless, carefree, driven by a single force to give back. To give more.
It was love, she decides, that she sees reflected in his eyes—more than gratitude. How different from most other people, how different from the usual embarrassment that shone in people when they talked about their parents. And more than that—past the layers of gratitude, of love, of whatever it is he has for his mother, she sees pain.
She sees it, feels it in the way he speaks. Rooted somewhere inside—pain, pushing him harder, faster, to do more, to give more. Desperation, fear, pain. Here was somebody she’d thought was the polar opposite of her, who’d really turned out to be kin. How much time, she wonders, does it take for one to build up their defenses so thick, to build barricade after barricade after barricade, to create this near-perfect image of simpleminded boyishness encircling—disguising the mammoth mass of realness? And… does he even know what he’s doing?
Yes, he is beautiful still, but she can’t help but note the weariness that begins to show itself. Unruffled beauty, pained beauty, fatigued beauty, adolescent beauty, youth. Does he know what he radiates?
For a moment, she aches for him, for all he could have seen, for all he has clearly experienced, for the fact that he had felt a need to build up all these defenses. For a moment, her smile flashes sad, for the glee that she had seen in him as he’d joked around, that hadn’t been fake. For the coexisting of both pain and boyhood.
Resisting the urge to reach out and soak him in a bone-crushing embrace, she listens instead as he finishes, then smiles, a simple little thing, and breathes,
Then, without thinking, she silently promises herself—that she’d see those defenses break down. Not in fear, not through force, but through trust and assurance of safety, little by little, step by step.
All of this, for the gleam of insouciant beauty that had shone through on a chilly Saturday night in the middle of November, despite everything. All of this for the boy that had, by some trick of the universe, shown, even just for a moment, what it felt like to be safe—to be free.
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