This is the second part of the story I wrote for farhinhusain’s birthday.
Vivid portrayals wrapped themselves around his mind, engulfed his senses, drowned out the rest of the world around him. They calmed the crushing need to be recognized, to be understood.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he laughed at the irony. He was using the action as a means to escape from the consequences of the action.
There was a shove to his side, and he almost fell over from his chair, not so much from the strength of the shove as from shock and momentary panic. His arm throbbed. Ishti and Dip stood over him, glaring, and their expressions demanding attention. The rest of his surroundings slowly came back into focus. A cacophony of white noise, the faint aroma of many different types of food mingled together.
His mind was still repeating the last three words he’d read.
“What?” Sami croaked.
“We’re going to check on Adnan. He sent his friend to say he was feeling feverish,” Ishti supplied.
Sami looked from one to the other, their demanding expressions unrelenting. Dip grabbed his arm. “You’re coming with us.”
Before he could protest, he was dragged out of their class.
It was a blessing that he didn’t have to make eye contact with anyone. Ishti did most of the inquiring directing. But the curse was that he had to be in such close proximity to so many people. It made him self-conscious, and in turn guilty because this wasn’t how he should be feeling while visiting a fellow teammate and junior.
As they entered Adnan’s classroom, the entire place seemed to go quiet. Everyone stopped whatever they were doing to stare. As if they had never seen the school volleyball team before. As if they hadn’t seen seniors before.
He couldn’t really blame them. Everyone in his class got quiet too if any seniors showed up at their doorstep. The people staring at them now were horrible at realizing how weird it felt to at the centre of such attention. One boy refused to look away even after Sami made eye contact. A lot of them seemed to have bought biriyani from the cafeteria. The place was practically swimming with the aroma.
And there were so many girls. Dip nudged him in the ribs with his elbow. “This is why he’s so good with girls,” the wiggling of his eyebrows seemed to say. Sami rolled his eyes and maneuvered out of the way of a girl passing by.
That Adnan knew how to have a normal conversation with a girl was nothing unknown. What he hated was how Dip and Ishti rubbed it in his face every chance they got.
He had the momentary urge to tell them about the one conversation he’d had recently. But it hardly even counted as a conversation. She’d done most of the talking. Plus, the thought of using Orthi as leverage against all the friendly torture felt mildly sick.
Ishti spotted Adnan at his desk. They moved toward him, and he raised his head and looked up toward them with half-lidded, bloodshot eyes. His friends parted around him, giving them space like worried parents when their child falls ill and the doctor’s called in.
Ishti, Dip and Sami reached his desk to be greeted by a weak “How’re you guys?” followed by a fit of coughing.
“We’re okay,” Dip replied. “You should really be more worried about yourself.”
“Yeah,” Ishti joined in. “How’d this happen?”
“He doesn’t really know, apparently,” one of his friends said. He stood at the far right of the circle surrounding Adnan. Beside him stood Ishti, then Dip, then Sami, all with their hands in their pockets. “He was fine this morning.”
While Ishti and Dip continued the conversation, Sami stifled a sigh and scanned the room for some form of stress relief. The walls were painted the same drab color as their class. Two boards on one wall had art and some charts containing the things they had learned that term. He had those things almost memorized by heart.
His eyes feel on the side of a cheek. Recognition hit. She raised her head from the reclined position over her hands on her desk, his heart skipped a beat.
She looked tired, almost like Adnan did. His eyes assessed her surroundings. Her bag was slung behind her seat and a half-empty flask of water was on her desk. Feeling the pull of eyes on him, he turned his gaze around to find a girl staring with suspicion oozing out of her features. She was walking toward Orthi’s desk.
He turned back to ishti and Dip just as the girl reached Orthi’s desk. Their conversation with Adnan came into focus. The world was as boring as ever again, but now, with a probability of excitement. From the corner of his eyes, he saw the girl whisper something in Orthi’s ear. He couldn’t really see her expression from this angle.
What was up with him? He wanted her to notice him, talk to him, maybe. Maybe he should talk to her? But he didn’t exactly want it either.
There was a lull in the conversation just then. Sami took the chance to make small talk, however much he sucked at it. “Drink lots of water,” he said just as Orthi raised her face in his general direction. “Water heals everything.”
Dip snorted. “Yeah, classic Sami,” he said, “not paying attention and trying to make it look like he did.” Sami glared.
“Water does help, though,” Adnan croaked with a small smile.
Everyone in their little cluster turned toward the source of the voice. Sami plastered a grin on his face, his heart in his throat.
Yep. She was look straight at him. She was waving enthusiastically, a big smile lighting up her features, driving away the tiredness he’d seen only moments before. He waved back, all too aware of his friends’ gazes boring holes into the back of his head. Her friend stared at her like she’d gone mad.
“Do you know her?” Dip whispered in Sami’s ear. Sami turned around a bit. Everyone was staring him. No just Ishti and Adnan and Adnan’s friend (Safwan was his name, probably), but almost everyone else in the class as well. Any who wasn’t too preoccupied had their eyes on him. “…yeah,” he replied, “this is her, you know, the one I told you about.”
Dip and Ishti exchanged glances. It was Adnan who spoke up now. “Oh, I should have guessed it’d be Orthi you ran into.” Sami furrowed his brows, to which Adnan attempted a laugh, and failed miserably.
“She always has her nose in book whenever she can spare it.” Probably-Safwan explained.
Orthi came up to them, or should I say, up to Sami, now. “I had no idea you knew Adnan,” she said.
“I had no idea you knew him either,” Sami blurted. He cringed. If ishti had bored holes before, he was slicing Sami’s head open to check for the existence of a brain now. Think before you talk, loudmouth.
Orthi chuckled. “But technically this makes you my senior.”
Sami scratched his head, racking his brain for a reply. Nothing. He settled for a nod.
“Orthi, please don’t get everyone on our team sick,” Adnan said between coughs.
She shook her head in exasperation. “If anyone can do that now, it’s you, Adnan,” she said. “And I’ve apologised already, haven’t I? It’s not like I knew I was sick that day.” Adnan glared and Probably-Safwan sighed. “He probably caught the cold from me,” she said to Sami by way of explanation.
Sami blinked, and then sucked in a breath in realisation. Of course. That made so much sense. “Oh,” he said. “Are you okay now?”
She nodded. “These must be your friends, right?” she said gesturing behind him.
“Uh… yeah.” He introduced them, and internally berated himself for wanting her to see him. Things had never been this awkward between him and his friends before. It was a miracle that neither Ishti nor Dip mentioned him mentioning her.
“Did you finish Fangirl?” he asked her while Ishti talked with Adnan some more. “Go home and rest, and get a mask or something in case it really is viral,” he was saying.
Orthi shook her head. “Two more chapters. I’ll be done today,” she said, almost bobbing on her feet in excitement.
“That’s great!” He couldn’t keep the smile from spreading across his face.
“I’d love to talk about it once I’m done,” The tone of her voice made it seem like they were in a private bubble of their own. “But, you guys have practice today, don’t you?”
All the fluttery excitement stopped and fell to the floor inside him. His smile fell along with it. He glanced at Ishti and Dip, wondering if they’d let him bail out today. They were already one member short. Maybe…
A voice at the back of his head said no. See if they let you get back to class in peace.
He pursed his lips, unsure of what to say.
“It’s okay,” Orthi said, retrieving a pen from her desk. “Do you have any social media accounts? I could add you up.” She poised the pen over her palm. She was left handed. He only knew one other left-handed person. He told her his facebook ID, and what time he would be free. She scribbled it down. He felt hope begin to flutter its wings again.
The bell rang then. He told Adnan to rest up and get well soon.
As soon as the three of them were out in the lobby, Ishti and Dip each swung an arm around Sami’s shoulder, effectively caging him in.
“Why did I start seeing pink around you as soon as she jumped in, hmm?” Dip asked poking a finger between his ribs.
“Are you planning on ditching us, Sammy-boy?” Ishti said. It sounded more like a threat than a question.
Sami grimaced. “It’s not like you think,” he said. “We just talk.”
“About what?” Dip said.
“Books?” He replied.
“Yeah, we can foresee the future when it comes to you, Sami,” Ishti said. “There’s a lot more to it than just talking about books.”
Sami wanted to retort, but they’d reached their class. Whatever it was, he was sure they meant well. He’d known them for years now. But more than anything, he didn’t want to ruin the happy feeling he’d had building inside him since seeing her ten minutes ago.
Sami flipped through his notebook, looking at month-old notes. Almost as if his mind were more pliant, the voice at the back of his head read every word out with cheer and an edge of happiness. No matter how many times he commanded it to say, I am humble and unimportant, it would bring it up in different words. It would be the fond glances everyone was throwing him at home, or the smile his class teacher from fifth-grade shot his way. It would be the sunny yet breezy atmosphere, or how the noisiest of his class were somehow absent today. Everyone remembers, the voice would say. You are important.
He shook the thought out of his head. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t some sort of blessing to this world. He forgot to throw candy wrappers in the bin, he ignored the hungry kids on the streets. He could be a far better person, and if he managed to do everything he wished he could for this world, then maybe he’d allow the thoughts into his head.
A deep breath managed to clear his head for a moment, although the background décor in the imaginary room was still sparkling painfully in his mind’s eye. He grimaced at the first mistake he caught. That was going to cost at least five points on the test from the morning.
The door creaking drew his attention. He looked up to find Orthi entering. Their eyes met, and he couldn’t keep the smile from forming on his face.
In the months since first meeting her, they’d bonded more and more over the books they read. Sometimes they would compete to see who could finish first. He’d lost more than once, what with his volleyball practices thrown in between everything else. Sometimes one would read something and tell the other. They’d gone from sitting at adjacent tables to sitting at the same table. It had been more convenient, when near the beginning they were both reading the same things and couldn’t wait to talk to the other.
Then, it had become habit.
It didn’t feel right to be reading anything in the library unless Orthi was sitting across from him, and she seemed to save all her reading for this time too. Sometimes even her studying.
She made her way to their table and placed her bag at the foot of it. “Homework?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Just looking through the notes for today’s test.”
Her mouthed rounded into an ‘oh’. She’d seen him do that once before. She eyed the shelves around them, tapping her fingertips on the tabletop in a rhythm. Sometimes Sami couldn’t look away from the way her hair spilled from the ponytail past her shoulder and almost onto her lap. Sometimes it was the way she seemed coiled to jump right into whatever world her mind was in. Most often, though, it was her eyes. The way they lit up when she smiled, or when he said something that made her laugh (usually something about a book, sometimes about the volleyball team, sometimes about their friends).
Say something, the voice in his head was saying. Anything, just don’t make it stupid. The sparkles were too loud for him to protest.
“Um,” he started, without really thinking, and then stopped when she looked at him. He felt heat rising under his collar. Great. What was he going to say now?
“Oh! Thank goodness I remembered,” she said, and crouched to rummage in her bag. Sami breathed a sigh of relief. She’d saved him from embarrassment, for the moment at least.
As she came up, there was something off about her. Was it how she wouldn’t meet his eyes? There was a package in her hand, and with the other she was combing the end of her ponytail. He’d only seen her do that last week, when they’d run into each other in the morning. She’d admitted to being nervous about the monthly tests.
He watched her take a deep breath. There was a tension in her shoulders. Yes. She was definitely nervous. She thrust the package into his arms and looked up. “Happy Birthday,” she said, her voice lower than it was even a few moments ago.
He looked from her flustered face to the brown-paper wrapped present and back again. He cleared his throat. “O-oh, you remembered?” The weirdness of her behavior was throwing him off track as well. He hardly knew what to do with his hands or his notebook from before, let alone this new addition to his possessions.
She shrugged. It was nowhere near as effortless as her usual shrugging. He detected a small smile on her face, and she was looking at anywhere but him.
“Can I open it now?”
She barely nodded, and he busied his hand in the task of undoing all the folds and taping of the wrap. His heart leaped when his fingers found the spine of a paperback. He pulled the book out, and couldn’t help but stare at the glossy cover. The title was written in orange and green, two words, on a background the color of old faded paper. The cords of two headphones intertwined. He didn’t even need to look at the bottom. The lettering of the title seemed to scream the author’s name.
It was a copy of Eleanor and Park.
“It’s not the best quality,” Orthi said. “But I checked inside for any printing mistakes. And…uh…I own an exact duplicate…”
The sparkles were becoming too blinding now. Sami rubbed the back of his neck, unsure of what to say. The heat refused to drain away. “Um…thank you,” he said.
Ishti had gotten him a new set of kneepads. Dip had forgotten completely. The rest of the volleyball team chipped in together and held a mini celebration during lunch. They’d bought most of the tiny pastries form the cafeteria, and messed up his entire classroom. It was all maddeningly frivolous, not to mention really consuming, time-wise and energy-wise.
But that wasn’t to say it didn’t make him feel good. It did make the sparkles a bit too bright, but it was nice being at the centre of attention.
And he didn’t know why, exactly, but this felt like the crowning glory of them all. The past few months, he’d gotten to know Orthi like he’d never known any girl before (with the exception of his mother and some of his cousins, but even they seemed enigmatic at times). Orthi was simple and happy, and jolly and excited by all things that excited quiet souls. She was different, but she made him feel like he’d finally found a niche, like he wasn’t alone.
She made him want to hold onto her for dear life (metaphorically, of course. He’d only ever seen her at school, it would be beyond rude to do what he imagined in his head).
She scratched the back of her head, still refusing to meet his eyes. His eyes followed her as she walked to a shelf and picked out the book she was currently reading. He flipped the pages of his new treasure, closing his eyes to bask in the scent of the printed page. When he looked up, she quickly threw her glance from him to the chair, pulling it out.
Say something, you idiot, the voice was saying again.
He took a deep breath. “Orthi,” he started, making her look up from the page. “This…really means a lot to me.”
There was a solemn look in her eyes as she looked up. She hesitated for a moment before saying, “You…make me feel understood.”
Sami’s eyes widened. He sucked in a breath. “A-and you me,” he muttered, not even bothering to smother the grin anymore. The sparkles began to dance.