It’s on days like this, that I’m thrown back, hurtling nose-first, into that summer when I had just turned eleven and no one else my age was around. We were seniors in our little middle school and felt the first hit of power and control, and what was soon to be adulthood. I was part of that ‘we’ and they were part of me, but when my eleventh birthday came along, I suddenly felt taller and broader, and all the gossiping and games fell suddenly into a sinkhole of uninterest I had at some point uncorked.
I would start walking home on my own, leave our gatherings early—the few I went to—and stay home longer than I’d ever stayed before or since. It was a new age, this eleven, and I tried my hand at everything. I began reading more than any grown-up could muster the time to. Books, so many books. Member of the Wedding. Ship of Fools. Snow Country. Jude the Obscure. Palm-Wine Drinkard. I read more than I could begin to understand but I read them. I drew, too. You can’t tell from looking at me now but I was quite the artist then, at eleven, and there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do, or didn’t want to do. I was doing so much, and by myself, that walking alone, home or anywhere, had become more a necessity than a luxury.
I was walking home alone when I met—and it was so that I had to have met—K. He was walking himself, down from the other side, going seemingly towards from where I was coming. K had my school’s uniform on, his hair hung down to his shoulders, the way no schoolmaster would allow. His cheeks were as big as mine, eyes bigger and brighter, nose small and pointed lips so thin, they may as well not have been there. K was a picture, and I had never seen him before.
I stopped him, or rather he stopped me, when at an impasse I spoke.
“Where are you going?”
School was the exact opposite way and he seemed in a hurry.
“School,” he said. “Why aren’t you going?”
“I did,” I told him, “Seven hours ago, when it started.”
“When it started?!” he said, like his world had just collapsed at the sound of those three words.
He looked down at his watch. “It’s 3:00,” he said. “When did you say your class started?”
“You’re new, aren’t you? I haven’t seen you here ever.”
“I am,” he said. “Of course you can tell. This is my fourth day.”
“Three days and you don’t know when school starts?”
“Of course I do.” He said ‘of course’ a lot. “At 2:40.”
“2:40?” I said, letting my tone do all the talking.
“Right,” he said. “2:40. Everyday. ”
He walked me back that day. It was warm but I didn’t care to notice. I saw him more and more each day, there near the final turn to my road, a few ten minutes past 2:40. He told me he had moved here a week back and that school was the worst part of it all. He detested the place; you could see the detestation in his eyes the way it shrank when he had to string ‘s,’ ‘c,’ ‘h,’ and all the ‘o’s together. He didn’t even mention the ‘l’; he let the ‘l’ often fade behind his throat and in the curl of the syllables. He detested the place—any reprieve from it would do, even that one letter.
I didn’t tell any of my friends about this new daily routine. I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t want to hear what they would. In any case, it was school, and anything you said, good or bad, would spread like wildfire if you attached the words “secret”, or “don’t tell anyone else” to it.
It hadn’t quite bothered me yet that I would never see K in class or in school or at any other place but on the road back to my house. But it did bother me, and when it did, I couldn’t control the urge to see first-hand what it was he would do and where it was he hid when he did these surely mysterious things. So, I decided I would find out about him, and about the circumstances surrounding him. I told him to wake as early in the morning as he could possibly wake, and meet me by the intersection we usually met at, and take me to school. And he did. It was 7:37 when I caught a glimpse of K, standing with his hands tucked into his pockets, like a short, untidy adult. I wore my watch that day and it must have stood out. He didn’t wear his. I pulled up my trailing bag straps and held them both tight as I ran to him in short, sure steps. He didn’t mind waiting; he said he wanted to see school as I see it.
He went up with me, straight into class, too, and it hit me then that I had never thought to ask and he had never cared to mention what section he was in. I knew his favourite author—a strange Austrian writer I hadn’t heard of—and his favourite story—a small, snug story by that Austrian—but at some point or points, it had slipped both our minds to ask anything remotely this practical.
The day went by smoothly. The clouds in autumnal succession, breezed through and through. K didn’t show those glares of contempt that would cut across anything. He didn’t make that face, or maybe he hid it very well. The day went by smoothly, it was barely school through most of it. We sat and stood together. No one bothered us at all. A friend from that group of ‘we’ came by and talked, sitting next to me and him. Nothing seemed a problem at all. I was sure I had done something scandalous, but all heads were unturned as we passed by them at the end of the day.
It was the peachiest of days I had in quite some time, years perhaps, and K seemed fine. He told me it was a strange sight and stranger feeling seeing the school as I see it. I didn’t know what to say.
That was the first time I saw him in school. The next day, the old routine continued. I didn’t see him in school, and I asked around this time. “That boy I was with yesterday,” I asked. “About this high.” “Did you see him?” But no one could recall. Only some seemed to remember me being there, that too faintly. It was like those bad dreams you remember but can never relay the significance of. It was just like that.
I tracked down that friend of mine and asked him. But he looked at me with a giggle behind his cheeks. He thought I was playing a joke; I don’t know what joke, but he thought it was funny. And the more I described K the funnier it was to him, and the more confused others would get. They had never met K or seen him around, least of all with me—that they would remember, and this was the consensus.
I saw K after school at our shared location, and I asked him this time. I went straight up to him, darting at him like mad. I just wanted answers. I just wanted answers. I felt my blood pumping hard in my chest. My head had managed to stay on. My feet dragged behind me but it kept still, mightily still, when I caught him and asked him. And this time he told me. Answering this time a direction question. He cleared the confusion but he let in so much more.
Never, Ever, Ever
“School, for me, starts at 2:40,” he said.
Making him repeat those words didn’t make it any less false in my ears, which rang in frenzied tunes from my crazed run-up. He looked so peculiar then. Standing, as he did, over me, I suddenly saw so much that was wrong with him. His tie was loose and in disarray, his shirt was wrinkled from being pushed down into his trousers, his inner-shirt was blue and terribly mismatched. He looked so sorry. I didn’t believe him. Who would believe him? I chose to believe him.
I skipped school the next day and waited at two o’clock sharp. I got him to go on time for once and sprang up from the curb’s edge, nearly stumbling over as I rose when I saw K coming.
“What? What is it?” he said.
“What happened to you?”
“Nothing,” he said, painfully ignoring the meticulous tidying-up that must have gone down minutes or hours earlier.
“You are K, right?” I asked him.
“Of course I’m K!”
I let his new cleanly and seemly appearance go without too many snickers for most of the day. It was far in the back of my mind, so by the time we reached school, my school, I was in an entirely different place. I was seeing a new world, the same two buildings, the same floors, classrooms, hand-scribbled graffiti, the papers, but none of them mine. Soon the sun set and it was calm for a bit. I had never seen calm in my school. This wasn’t mine. This was K’s. And the night looked a little short of beautiful.
The sky lingered with clouds above our windows. I didn’t pay attention in class, I didn’t know what they were saying. I just looked out. You could hear trees jingle in the air if you tuned it all out; cars and trains fainter, their sounds fading like the last bumbling before sleep. In the moment, swimming along a sea of moments, I didn’t think to myself, or lament over the fact that my classes were only up to 2:40 and not from. Complaints and laments fell somewhere, falling into something else, falling and falling, and there I was. My hand might’ve, must’ve, touched K’s, the way I saw him, still see him, cowering his face away to hide its red glow.
It was about nine when we left. The stars were out and it was so dark. I asked him how he or his classmates found their way home in these late hours, and he didn’t really have an answer. “I just do it,” he said, “I don’t know how they do it.”
I looked a little to our left and right, at the people, and his classmates passing by. Not one looked my way. Some saw K, walking, but not me. Not me. I suddenly felt a chill down my spine and an arrow of nerve and courage working its way up. I stopped. I was walking so closely to K that he almost tripped over me. K looked at me and ever so slightly opened his quiet, thin mouth, but before he could say anything, I just bellowed out a scream. I don’t remember what I said in the scream, but it wasn’t a wordless one. And whatever it was it caused K’s eyes to shrink and his head to almost duck between his shoulders. He stopped me and shook mine.
“Why did you just do that?”
I looked around, looking at his hands on my shoulders. No one stopped. No one looked.
“That,” I said.
“That,” I said again, this time pointing, with no discernable direction in mind.
“No one’s looking at us, K.”
He turned his head a few ways and slowly let go of me. “And?”
“When you hear someone scream, what do you do?”
“No one’s looking.”
“No one cares really,” he said.
“No, that’s not it,” I said. “That’s not it.”
“Then what is it?”
“They don’t see me.”
“People—in my school—I asked—and they didn’t see you. Yesterday. It was like you weren’t there.”
“They’re playing a prank on you,” he said, but I didn’t feel like he meant it.
“No,” I said. “They didn’t see you. They just saw me.”
“I,” he said, incompletely, before he turned and looked around. “Come on,” he told me, as he rushed towards a boy ahead of us.
They seemed to know each other, they shook hands like they did. He turned him over slightly so he faced my way. They both looked. I just stood there, alternating between looking at them and anywhere else. K began pointing. Pointing repeatedly. It was desperate. His friend left and walked on ahead. K was still there. I came up to him and bumped my knuckle on his forearm. I didn’t want to say anything.
The thunder grew louder in the next swing of days. I didn’t see K until well after the rains had stopped and crops had grown a thick new couple of inches. When it was safe to start walking again, I saw him the first day. He was waiting around this time, just standing, by the post at the intersection. His tie drooped over his chest pocket and his shirt, creased near the ends, hung over his thighs. He looked more serious than he could bear.
“K!” I called, walking towards him.
He quickly came up to me, pulling his hands out of his pockets as he rushed. His eyes beamed like they had stories to tell and his mouth for once relented.
“Come with me tonight,” he said.
“My house,” he said. “Father’s putting together one of his fêtes. You should come, please.”
His ‘please’ threw me off more than anything. I didn’t question it, I went with him.
That night I couldn’t decide on anything. What I’d do, what I’d wear, who else I’d see. My thoughts were tied to strings and pulling on any one of them would pull the whole of me down and I would make a monstrous mess. My mother asked when I’d be back and I looked at her with a blank stare and responded with vague estimations of “later”. I’d very much liked to know when I’d be back, what I’d do, who I’d see, what I’d wear. What does one even wear to a fête?
That night K met me at our intersection and we marched against the wind all the way to his house. It was a small house. The door on the outside and most of the interior was painted white and light brown. From within, his house looked smaller, its walls shorter and shrunken. I didn’t fit. I didn’t feel like there was anything to see.
But when we went around to his backyard, my eyes opened. They opened mad and could barely keep focus, letting in a flood of giant colours and light streams I thought I wouldn’t yet see. They were all there for me to see, for all to see, for any who wandered, and found a magic land. I could barely look back at the house, but I did. How could it hide all this behind its tiny frame? That was hardly a thought, the house. It had to be small, the way the backyard extended and extended, reaching well out into the extreme. I couldn’t resist, I told him how wonderful it was, his house; the perfect burrow that hid within it, all the magic one could imagine. He didn’t seem to appreciate it as much. We went along into the small crowd and the bright merriments the fête had to offer.
We, or rather he, met his father. He greeted him jovially, facetiously, putting on a voice that went along with his clothes, or costume, whatever it was. He didn’t look too old, but he seemed maybe seventy or eighty. He grabbed a glass off the table behind us and left us to join his party. He, of course, didn’t notice me at all.
We stayed in the lantern-lit, strawberry-decked party for an hour, I think. We moved sometimes but only to move to where it was less crowded. Though I saw nine or ten heads other than our own, they sure knew how to waddle and expand themselves in their nightlong dance. I did very much like looking, all through it. All I did was look, and there were no corners unworthy. I don’t quite know how to describe it all. All I can say is, I have enjoyed few nights as I did just being a spectator of that one.
K walked me home. It wasn’t too late and the skies were awfully clear. He conceded that his plan to prove me wrong had failed tremendously. No one had seen me, no one could see me. I gladly took his resignation as my challenge. My test, my trial, my cross to bear—I had to now prove him wrong—though in the moment, all I could tell him was “I told you so.”
This Was This
I decided to throw my own fête. It was little; smaller than K’s box of a house. It was in my backyard, right beneath my veranda. I called all my friends. The hordes of ‘we’ came stomping in. I could hear their feet from my room, I didn’t need notification. I didn’t move for most of it, I just lay in bed. I stretched my limbs from time to time, I didn’t want any of me to fall asleep. My mother knocked at intervals. My party was underway, she said, everyone’s here, they’re all here, come downstairs. I could hear them just fine—the stomping—I could her them without my mother’s knocking. I checked my clocks and watches so often. Time went by, but he wasn’t there yet!
It was my perfect plan; K would come on his own. Not with me bringing him here. Not with me beside him as he entered. He would be there. I would come downstairs. Everyone would then see us. It was my perfect plan. But he wasn’t coming, or he wasn’t there yet, or what was he? I didn’t know. I had to know. The clocks and the watches were of no help. My stomach was churning, writhing with metalmarks. I pulled the veranda shade, not all the way, and peaked downstairs; my backyard was littered with people and cake and food and soda on tables, music, mingling. It was the party I had planned, but K wasn’t in it.
I slipped out through my front door like a fleeing thief, making sure no one caught sight of me. I skulked and ducked under the shade of my mother’s car. The tip of my toes came to life, my back cranked and jolted and never once betrayed my shape. I slipped out soon enough and noticed at the end of the road, a few steps away, K standing, hand in pocket, slightly crooked, looking up, or so it seemed. I ran over and punched his arm. He looked down at me and I looked away. “Come on,” I said, pulling him by the arm.
We entered my party and no one—no one did anything I wanted them to. It was the same. It was all the same, and I might’ve cried that night.
We tried it all again, for the last time. It was my plan again, but the illusions of perfection or anywhere near attainment had faded.
The clouds were muddy when we threw this last fête. They swirled in half-circles. We couldn’t find any lightning in the sky or feel the winds any differently than it felt that windy summer. The fête was still on. K invited all the people he could stomach. I got him to bring his father, and I brought mine—the ‘we’ and some of the ‘them.’ I couldn’t have it in my backyard, I hardly looked down or at it anymore. The grassy backyard was plagued with maddening ghosts whenever I chanced upon it. K didn’t want it in his yard either.
We discussed a few locations before we decided on a small clubroom adjoining a field our school had taken us to on a trip the year before, or at least had taken me. It seemed perfect enough when I took him there, and we held the fête there.
That day, and the night before, I couldn’t move for the most part. I didn’t do any of the things I had planned. I picked a book out of a dusty pile that ate up my table, but I set it back down. The words on the pages danced over me. They flew out of the pages and I couldn’t catch them and I let them dance away. The night before, and that morning, rest was unaffordable. I watched the sun rise and peak in past the drapes. I watched a lot of things. I counted the revolutions on my fan, as it circled endlessly, its wind agitating. I felt my head sink deeper and deeper into the pillow. I was asunder. Dancing. Silent.
When it was time, I gripped the edges of my bed and got up, leaving the bad dreams behind me. I met K at our usual spot. He was sporting a shirt I had never seen him in; it didn’t suit him a great deal. I didn’t say anything. We walked to our party and entered together. And at once arms from both sides pulled us into theirs. My friends, classmates, had thought this party my long-overdue apology. My deft simple way of pulling them back into my life and I falling back into theirs. My friends were delighted; each face I settled on brimmed with something—with passion or camaraderie or solidarity. They were happy. I looked past them, swiveling my head, looking past, over, under, beside, to the other end of the clubroom. With some effort, I saw K. He was smiling, surrounded by his friends. He saw me, but no one looked my way. I waved and I think he waved back. “Who’re you waving at?” asked a friend, once they dispatched and mingled in looser formations. “Him,” I said. I said it all through the night. I tried my best. It didn’t work.
We spent the most time together we’d maybe ever spent. Sat together, ate, walked about. There was a moment when some decided to dance but we couldn’t. We brought friends over to our table, sat them down, talked, but they never talked to him. It was rigid, uneasy, tiring, and pitifully circular. It reached a point that it startled others more than either one of us. It had come to a grey acceptance. K called his father over and he sat down next to us. And nothing. He tried his best, it didn’t work.
I remember that party, our fête. Not a moment has truly left me. When K and I left, we stayed till the end; it was a marvelously dark evening. Waves of black clouds, some splitting, drifted above faint city lights. The wind made my earring dangle and brush against my cheek. Leaves and trees began to sway. K held his hand out over my shoulder and a drop of water fell on to his palm. It broke into tiny droplets and splashed across my face. I wiped it off but felt the chill it left on my skin. He looked at his watch and we both walked back.
That Was That
I can’t even remember when I saw K last,. At most times, I can’t place any of it. None of it. That time when I moved back home, a few blocks from my parents, I don’t expect them to remember. When it comes back, K comes back, and I stop. It all floods back and I remember my mother and so many others telling me of my fantasies, the fancies, the unrealities. K must’ve been one. Might’ve been one. His name escapes me still, yet when I think, and it’s gotten rarer that I do, of him, I stop.
It is days like this, when on my way back from three or four lectures, with my throat dry and hands smelling of chalk and dry ink, and I stop and walk the last roads, I feel that I am again. Again.
I have seen and made plans with that, those of ‘we,’ some live here, and I’m shaken every time by how much they’ve grown. Grown past me. And I, still here—there, rather. Bumbling. Just before sleep. Walking that last stretch. Just at the intersection, holding out my watch, checking to see how long past 2:40 it was.