“I can’t do it.”
I’m standing at the edge of the pool, staring at the electric blue water that stretches below like a block of coloured concrete.
“Yes, you can,” says Zakir, like he always does. My brother is nothing if not optimistic. “You swim perfectly well now, Aloo.”
Easy for him to say. Zak has won the Swimming Federation Championship three years in a row. He’s a rare nerd who’s also a jock, which makes him a huge heartthrob at school, though he’s way more interested in books and sports than girls. Did I mention he’s our star batsman, and he scored a perfect 2400 in his SATs? Yup, that’s Zakir for you. I should hate him, right?
“But what if I die?” I squeak, my eyes fixated on the bottomless blue below. “That will be seriously tragic as I won’t get to show my new bangs to Ria. Or go on our trip to Disney World!” My voice quavers.
“Drama Queen!” laughs Zak. “Come on, Aliya. Take a deep breath and jump!”
“What if I bash my face and get so bruised that nobody asks me to the Summer Social?” Truth be told, I wasn’t thinking of ‘nobody.’ I was thinking of Joy. I’d seen Joy at school for years, but it was only this spring that I crashed headlong into this huge crush on him, when he joined our club for Pool Hour. I watched him dive one evening, flying through the twilight sky like a very special bird (fluttering his biceps rather than wings). And I signed up for extra swimming lessons, hoping I’d impress him one day. Joy isn’t a star student but he’s a mean-ass bowler on the pitch, has the deepest dimples, and brings extra chapatis for the street dogs every day.
“I will bash your face myself unless you stop being such an annoying little princess,” Zak rolls his eyes. “Disney World this, Summer Dance that!”
Just so you know, Zak is the gentlest soul on earth. The image of him bashing anyone is so absurd that I have to smile. Then I shoot a quick glance around the poolside, making sure that Joy isn’t there to witness my moment of un-glory with his unsettlingly beautiful eyes. Joy’s lashes are almost as long as the distance between me and the water.
“Aloo!” yells Zakir. “I know you can do it. Just say yes!”
And I do.
And Zak is right, as always – I don’t drown to death or split my skull open. I silently thank God for making sure that Joy didn’t see my ungainly splash, nor my prolonged terror before it. Also for having a super-bro like Zak. Honestly, I don’t know how I’ll manage when he starts in Princeton this fall.
“I still can’t believe you’re going to college right after Disney World,” I tell Zak as we walk back home. I stop to take a selfie of us, and WhatsApp it to Ria.
“And I still can’t believe we’re going to Disney World,” laughs Zakir. “How did you ever get Dad to agree? You’d expect a High Court Judge to be more sensible, wouldn’t you?”
Frankly, I’d been surprised by that too. Don’t get me wrong – our Dad isn’t a toughie like some Dads are. In fact, he’s known for being one of the more lenient judges in Hyderabad. But unlike Ammi, Dad isn’t into amusement parks. He doesn’t amuse easy, our Dad.
So, this is how I scored Disney World: I caught Dad at a weak moment. When I told him I failed Biology, he slammed his teacup down so hard – the delicate china one I’d got him for Eid – that it shattered into bits. I burst into tears. And Dad started looking rather guilty.
“How will you become a doctor if you fail bio, Aliya?” Dad had sighed in that half conciliatory, half I’m-still-upset voice of his.
“But I want to be an actor!” I’d bawled. Dad looked like he wanted to break the teapot too (and possibly the milk jug), but caught himself just in time.
“Listen, no daughter of mine will ever be an actress.” A vein on Dad’s temple had started to throb. “Being a doctor is a very proper thing for a young lady from this family. Just like your mother. You’ll take biology lessons all summer long…’
“But you know we want to go to Disney World this summer… And Khala keeps asking us all to visit Miami, which is so close!” I’d wailed.
“That’s true, Azhar,” Ammi had chimed in from her desk in the study. God bless Ammi.
As I race Zakir up the stairs, I wonder what Joy is doing right this minute. I really hope he asks me to the Summer Social, but I haven’t admitted this to Zak yet. My brother and I talk about practically everything, but I’ve noticed that he isn’t interested in the topic of Joy at all. The night I saw Joy fly, I’d asked Zak what Joy was like in school. “He’s all right,” Zak had mumbled, noisily switching on his 27” iMac. Joy and Zak are in the same class, and both on the cricket team, so I’m not sure why they aren’t friends. Perhaps it’s the competitive streak in Zakir? Unlike me, he has never failed any subject. In fact, the only thing he miserably fails at is to not top his class every year. Zak has to be best at everything and Joy is, after all, the other star on the cricket team – the trickiest spin bowler in high-school cricket, famous for his wrist speed. I’m sure Joy is stiff competition in terms of the attention he gets. So… when Zakir saw me chatting with Joy outside the library last week, he asked me rather curtly what that was all about.
PING! WhatsApp from Ria: “Ur hair looks funny esp that wet mess stickin 2 ur forehead. Did J ask u 2 the dance?”
“He wasn’t at the pool 2dy,” I text back, gutted that she doesn’t like my new haircut.
“Okk gotta go good luck w SAT prep” Ria vanishes from my phone.
Ah, yes, SAT prep. I bring out my book with ten practice tests. Unlike Zak, I’m not remotely fussed about a perfect score, but I do want to get into Brandeis, which has a good theatre-arts program and decent financial aid. SAT math wasn’t too bad, but the language stuff was hard even for me, although I keep hearing that my vocab is fab. Joy was most impressed yesterday when I used the word “amorous” while explaining why I wasn’t allowed to watch “Game of Thrones.” Then we spent an hour comparing notes on our favourite movie love-confessions.
I can’t stop thinking about Joy, so I switch on the TV, craving something age-appropriately “amorous.” The thing is, there are hardly any love stories you’ll find here that could actually happen to teenagers like me. I mean, the stuff you see on film or TV has nothing to do with the way we fall in love. For one thing, everyone looks so incredibly perfect, and for another, their dramas are so very pat (and colour-coordinated) they make you want to barf.
End credits roll for “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” – shoot, missed it. I flip through channels, forgetting the SAT.
An endless stream of soaps, frothing with wives and mistresses wielding heavy jewelry and heavier makeup while they cook, clean, and conspire against each other.
A film with three old men dressed like teenagers chasing girls just a bit older than me who wear teeny-weeny dresses and gigantic false lashes.
An action film in which dizzying stunts are intercut with a blue-eyed beauty-queen clasping a gleaming pistol to her heart like it’s the love of her life.
A dance contest packed with little girls mouthing love-songs with exaggerated expressions while weirdly gyrating their little hips and flat chests, looking like stunted Bollywood divas.
A news report of an acid attack on a schoolgirl by a spurned classmate, which has left her blind in one eye. God, how horrifying…
“So, how’s that test coming along?” Zak breezes in bearing chili cheese toasts. Did I tell you he’s just wow in the kitchen, especially for a 17-year-old lad? Whenever Ma works late in hospital, he fixes us a properly delicious snack.
“Ugh,” I groan, staring at the first of ten tests. “I’ll never finish these before we leave for Florida. I can’t do it.”
“Yes, you can,” declares Zak like he always does, switching the TV off.
“How? Look at all these words I have to memorize that no one ever uses! ‘Pulchritude’? ‘Obfuscate’? ‘Unimpeachable’? Who talks like that anyway?”
“Where are those flash-cards you made? Let me quiz you with those.”
“Don’t bother. I’m sure I don’t remember any of them.”
“Oh Aloo,” Zakir sounds exasperated. “I bet you do. Just say yes!”
And I do.
And again, Zak is right. Once he establishes that I even remember what “dissembling” and “pernickety” mean, Zak goes back downstairs. My thoughts immediately return to Joy, of course. I can’t be absolutely sure that he’ll ask me to the Social, but I do know that I’m the only girl he spends any time with, so he must like me a bit. He always hangs around the club when we’re there, and insists on walking me home from the library. Even when we run out of things to say, Joy tries hard to keep the conversation going by asking fully random questions like, “So, what’s Zakir up to these days?” Joy has never been a sparkling conversationalist, but he’s a good-hearted hunk who sets my heart off on a marathon every time he looks at me through those scandalously long lashes.
In fact, it feels weird that I haven’t seen Joy at all today. I get this sudden, uncontrollable urge to see his dimply smile, and wish I’d taken a selfie with him too. Wait, doesn’t Zakir have photos of his cricket team stacked away somewhere? I look through his desk. No luck. They’re not on his shelf either. Hmm… Zak couldn’t have tossed them, he’s crazy about his team… Could they be in his Box of Special Things? The one he keeps next to his bed?
I open the box. Zak’s journal, which I don’t touch, fills up most of it. Also, a baby picture of me, Zak feeding me cake. A fish-fossil we’d found together on Kovalam beach. And – yes! – those cricket photos, wrapped up in grey tissue. Joy sparkles in all of them, of course. For nothing in the world can obfuscate his unimpeachable pulchritude – I giggle to myself.
God, I’ll miss Joy so much on our trip. Will he still like me when I get back? And what if I forget how to swim while I’m gone? That would be a disaster! Maybe our hotel has a pool I could practice in?
I run downstairs to ask Zak. He has no idea. We find Dad in the study, watching the news.
“Dad, does our Disney World hotel have a pool?”
“We may not be going to Disney World, Aliya.”
I’m devastated to hear this. Zak looks startled too. I mean, everything about this trip has been perfectly planned for ages.
“It’s not safe,” Dad explains. “At least 40 people were shot dead in Orlando early this morning. Probably more. They’re still counting.”
“What happened?” I whisper.
“A madman. I’d rather not talk about it, but then again, it’ll be all over your social media.”
“Who were they, Dad?” asks Zak. “Where were they, so early in the morning?”
“So late at night is more like it. In a nightclub. They were men, mostly. Young men. Gruesome affair.”
More than 40 shot dead, just like that? It didn’t make any sense.
“Why were they shot?” I ask. “What were they doing?”
“The men were – well – dancing with one another, I suppose,” Dad clears his throat awkwardly. “Of course it’s uncomfortable to think about such a weird scene sitting here, but at least in India they are not marrying each other, like they do in the States.”
Zak stares at Dad, cheese toast frozen in his hand.
“Still, this shooting is very sad,” Dad sits up straight. “Even those people have a right to live, of course.”
“I think… I think everyone should have the right to marry who they want,” Zak says slowly.
“Do you, now? You think they should be allowed to marry and have children?” That vein on Dad’s temple is throbbing again. “Men with men, women with women? Just like normal people?”
“I’m sure they were normal people, Dad… Those 40 who were killed today.” Zak’s voice is shaking but he looks Dad straight in the eye.
“Don’t argue with me, Zakir!” Dad bangs the remote down on the coffee table. “You know I oppose violence of any kind, and what happened today is tragic. That aside, marriage is a sacred union, and parenthood – “
As if by divine intervention, the doorbell rings at that moment. “Zakir!” I yell, interrupting Dad for once. “We have to get the door!” I drag Zak as far away from the study as I can.
Joy stands on the doorstep. Judging by the way Joy’s face lights up, he hasn’t heard the Orlando news yet. We hear Dad pump up the TV volume, like he always does when he’s mad.
“Sorry I couldn’t make it to Pool Hour… So… I thought I’d stop by to… well… to ask about the Summer Social.”
There it is, finally! The moment I’ve been waiting for. My hand shoots up to smooth my half-wet bangs down. Joy steps in gingerly as he speaks.
“I was wondering if… if you’d like to come with me to the dance… Zakir?”
Zak’s mouth falls open. Literally.
So does mine.
Joy keeps speaking, shy but kind of awesomely fearless.
“You’re going away to college soon and I’ve… I’ve always liked you, you see…”
Zak’s mouth closes itself, but his eyes fill up with tears.
Oh my god. It’s all starting to make sense.
Why Zak has never had a girlfriend.
Why Joy joined the swim club.
Why Zak feels so awkward talking about Joy.
Why Joy insists on walking me back all the way to my doorstep.
Why Zak keeps Joy’s photos in his Box of Special Things.
I’d got it so wrong. It’s not that Zakir and Joy don’t like each other. They like each other too much to be buddies.
Zak stares at Joy, eyes still brimming, unable to utter a word. He swallows hard as Joy speaks.
“So… I thought I should just… well… ask if maybe we could go to this Social together?”
“I… I can’t… Joy… ” Zak begins to speak, his voice trapped in tears.
“Yes, you can,” I hear myself say, not letting him finish.
I’ve never seen Zakir like this before, so trembly and confused. I’m the emotional one, not Zak, so we’ve always been told. But I’ve nursed my crush for just a few weeks. Zak has hidden his for years.
“Zak,” I whisper. “Just say yes.”
And he does.
Nandana Dev Sen is a writer, actor, and child-rights activist. She writes books for children, and works closely with RAHI, Operation Smile and UNICEF to fight against child abuse.
The author tweets as @nandanadevsen and is on Facebook. Her Youthquake stories will appear in The Wire every month.
Copyright © 2016 by Nandana Dev Sen