It was the first rainfall of the year. “Just my luck”, thought Rafian, “typical of course. My first visit back home after 11 years, and the first night I decide to go against my better judgement and venture out in this godforsaken city, I get stranded in an ATM vestibule in the rain at midnight!” He looks around at his surroundings, the vestibule was completely dark, even the green letters spelling out “Welcome to International Trust-in-Us Bank” were missing as were the rest of the lights all along the avenue. It did not look promising at all. “I didn’t even know Dhaka had ATM’s, ugh!! I should have never listened to Sherry, I’m a sitting duck for muggers right now!”
Rafian had graduated from high school in 2004, and after a hazy summer of baking on hot roofs and booze-soaked farewells, he left Dhaka for greener pastures in the US and had never looked back since. He kept in touch with only a select few of his classmates from high school, and Sherry was one of them. He had moved to Canada two years ago to complete his Master’s in Biochemical Engineering and ruthlessly cut off most people he associated with his youth. He did this so that he could go through his metamorphosis without any strings attached to his sordid past. His high school yearbook nickname had been the “40-year-old-virgin” and just a few days shy of his 30th birthday, he was finally back in his hometown where he had spent those sexual nightmare-ridden teenage years. He was relieved to acknowledge that he was no longer in danger of earning that moniker for real.
Sherry had told him it was perfectly safe for him to go to the hip (they have dragons painted on the wall! In Dhaka!) juice place next to the park which was unbelievably open till midnight but in his haste to make it by that time he had to failed to check the weather app on his iPhone or grab his inhaler. His phone was useless now anyways, as he hadn’t bothered to procure a local SIM card, opting instead to use the WiFi as it was freely available in most places in this new Digital Bangladesh era. The Dhaka skies decided to open up and belch forth whatever filth had evaporated into the air in a deluge of heavy rainfall which battered against the glass door and within minutes had flooded the streets. The biggest irony of it all was that he couldn’t even get the damn juice despite the bar being right next to the ATM, as the power had gone out, dashing any hope for Rafian to satisfy his late night craving as he had no local currency on him. “Could I *be* any more fucked right now?” he said out loud, emulating the well-known TV character Chandler Bing, as a sarcastic throw-back to his past years. The universe didn’t wait to respond, and a dramatic roar of thunder accompanied by a crackle of lightning lit ablaze the street and the door burst open to reveal a massive bright red umbrella with the insignia of Arsenal, the English football team, being brandished at him.
“Excuse me! There’s someone else in here!”, he spat out at the insolence of this creature that had almost taken his eye out aptly with a weapon of his most loathed team in the EPL. The umbrella shuddered close resembling a bloody black hole collapsing into itself, spraying rivulets of rainwater in the air like an overexcited puppy after a bath and a pair of bright eyes peered at him from under a menacing dark hoodie. “Rafian! Is that you? I can’t believe it! Have you gotten laid yet?” He had a sickening sense of deja vu. Fuck Murphy’s Law.
Years back in 8th grade, when teenage love (and hormones) were in full bloom, Rafian had been part of the same gang of “best friends” that (it seemed to him at least) all took turns being in “love” with Aurora, wooing her with sickly sweet love notes and clandestine phone calls that interrupted the boy’s nights, becoming her boyfriend, and then getting dumped by her. Every courtship and heartbreak was followed by alcohol-charged outpouring of emotions by her jilted would-be lovers and much drama to the entertainment of everybody else. The tales were told and retold with true Deshi gusto of delight in shaming others. That’s what people who like each other do, right?
Like the time when Aurora broke up with Raiyan on his birthday and on the way home from the party, he rolled down the car window to drunkenly holler at an elderly couple in a passing car, to not-so-gracefully inform them “You’ll NEVER be happy!” Or the time when Farook climbed ten flights of stairs after the electricity went off during dance practice for Mehrab’s brother’s holud to find Aurora had already been paired off for all the dances. It went down in their history as “The time Farook threw the shoe” as he comically missed for all witnesses to actually be #rofling4real (if hashtags existed back then). Being the only one who never rode the “Aurora-Go-Round” so to speak, Rafian had spent extended periods of time “sexiled” to the toilet, or in tiny windowless “verandahs” often alone smoking one Benson Light after another, as all the couples would pair up to express the ardour of their young loves. You could play the “American Pie OST” to that shit. In fact, they did. It can’t be coincidence, can it? That he would find himself stranded on a stormy night in a tiny darkened room with this sultry tornado of destruction that whirled through the lives of most of the men he had grown up with? Literally the last woman on earth he would ever want to be with?
Suddenly he was engulfed in a mish-mash of wet limbs. He gasped out, “Hi Aurora.” God! Why did she have to be so…familiar? She knew how much he hated hugs! She took out her phone from the pocket of her skinny jeans and put the flashlight on. “That ‘virgin’ look is gone from your eyes. High five son! You are now a man,” she said in a mock redneck accent, her wet hair glistening in the light of her phone screen. Man, she’s obnoxious. The most annoying thing about her was that in addition to all her “extracurricular activities” she would always breeze through all their classes.
She probably got all her ardent admirers to do all her work for her and to give her the answers during exams, Rafian surmised. He had never seen her break a sweat (or open a book), whilst he toiled away by the light of the hariken during load-shedding in a darkened era of technology, pre-generators or computers or smartphones. Aurora and he always competed for the coveted 2nd place in their grade, 1st place always went to that do-gooder Sumanah who had her nose in a book even when they went out to eat at restaurants where everyone else would be getting high, or getting drunk, or getting lucky. Aurora most likely, all three. Their rivalry reached its climax during their O and A Level years, as they went head-to head with the rest of the country. Despite the years that have passed, Rafian could not get over the bitter resentment of missing out on a Daily Star Award by not getting the 6 A’s that were required by a single point, that Aurora had thwarted him to receive. Surely, her good-looks couldn’t have made the invigilators turn a blind-eye towards dishonesty during an international standard examination? At the after-party the evening of the awards reception, Rafian got completely trashed, and was allegedly seen touching himself through a sky-light on the roof by Aurora and one of the poor idiots she was stringing along at the time. She always showed up at the wrong place at the wrong time. Always.
Back to the present situation. A traumatic confinement in an enclosed space where Aurora had suddenly showed up like an old pimple on his skin that he thought had disappeared for good leaving only the ugly pock-mark. But like really bad teenage acne, she has reappeared in his life and is rummaging through her purse in front of him, speaking wildly, flailing her arms about like a deranged duck. He hears the words, “drunk”, “fight”, “bar”, “asshole”, “walked in the rain”, “utterly fucked”, “flooded”. By the time Rafian had finished piecing together the events in his mind, it dawned on him what he was in for. In his mind’s eye he pictured a montage of snapshots of the torturous wait for a slow death like in Titanic, where the two of them would watch the water rise up and up against the glass door of the ATM vestibule. The Automated Teller Death Machine—that would be an amazing name for an indie electro-shoegazer band. First album, “Money is the root of all evil…”
He hears the click of a lighter and snaps back to his senses, and a whiff of smoke tantalisingly enters his nostrils like the old Bugs Bunny cartoons where Elmer Fudd would cook carrot stew to trap him inside a cauldron. “Wanna toke?” “Oh my God! Aurora! We could get in serious trouble for this! There are CC cameras in here!” She cocks an eyebrow at him, “These could be your last moments. Are you seriously going to turn down a joint?” She had a point, of course. Rafian took the joint from her hand, and tentatively put it to his mouth, then took three, quick, short puffs and held his breath for five seconds before exhaling. “I see you haven’t changed,” Rafian snorts, smoke coming out of his nose and mouth. She frowns, takes the lit joint from him, takes a drag and holds in the smoke as she asks, “So what’s new with you? How did it happen? This consummation—or your entrance into adulthood?”
A million things raced through Rafian’s mind, starting from the completion of his masters, to his cushy job as a scientist working in a lab to make those fluorescent orange helmets worn by construction workers somewhere in Indianapolis, the Hoosier State, to his current kinda-blonde pseudo girlfriend, with whom he had almost nothing to talk about, so their dates would consist largely of the two of them playing tonsil hockey, followed by a quick tumble in the sheets. “Why must you always be so crass? Can’t you think of anything else but sex?” Rafian was turning red and he started to breathe heavily in the tiny smoke-filled room as the storm raged on outside. Something had triggered one of his anxiety attacks, and his asthma was starting to kick in. “Rafian are you OK?” She looked at Rafian with a worried expression, waiting for his breath to catch up when her phone screen lit up catching both their eyes with an GP Alert Message flashing the words “Cyclone Warning Level One in Dhaka”.
Rafian felt a tightness in his chest, and the sound of his wheezes filled out the heavy air as he started to breathe more rapidly in the desperate attempt to fill up with oxygen as his lungs filled up with what felt like peanut butter, its’ stickiness closing up all the airways. “Rafian! Tell me where your inhaler is!” He shakes his head, gasping for air unable to speak at this point. “Shit! Rafian lie down and I’m going to walk you through a breathing exercise. It’s not as quick as an inhaler, but it’s effective. Ok?” He nodded his head weakly, terrified of drowning in his own fears as his lungs closed up. “Lie down, knees bent, feet flat on the floor and exhale and count to three, it makes the inhale easier after.”
She counted through his exhales and inhales as his breath slowly returned to a more normal rate. The night passed in a haze with Rafian coming in and out of marijuana tripped out dreams of swimming in a fishbowl with Aurora, where he was a goldfish and she was a mermaid and the sea-witch had sent a barrage of attacks their way in the form of massive waves of dirty flood water.
“Good morning Rafian. I called for my car and it’s here. Come, let’s take you home.” Rafian blinked at her, his sudden brush with death last night compelling him to ask, “Why were you so mean to me all those years?” She brushed her hair back from her eyes and tucked it behind her ears, “What the hell do you mean?” “You made up a mean poem about me in Class 2.” Aurora looked puzzled for a few seconds and erupted into her infectious giggle that had haunted him over the ears. “I remember…Rafian is a ruffian, his cheeks stuffed with muffins, when it’s time for tiffin, he keeps puff-puff-puffin. OMG! That was terrible. Hilariously terrible”. She says as she wipes the tears of laughter from her eyes. Her lightness irked him, “Maybe for you. Because your life is perfect. And no one ever put you down” She smiled at him, and in a quiet voice asked, “what makes you think that?” He looked at her and suddenly saw something in her face, he didn’t realise she was capable of. Could that be melancholy in her eyes? “Everybody loves you. Everything just falls into your lap.”
With the brittle smile still on her face, she looked at him “Do you remember you complained to our class-teacher about that rhyme because you said it made fun of your asthma, and I said I have asthma too? And then the teacher laughed and asked you to make a rhyme about me. So you said, “Aurora, jao moro” (go die). The teacher said that was mean and not nice. And we all laughed and thought it was funny. I suffered depression through all those years in high-school and attempted to seriously take my life three times. I’m much better now, but my life is not perfect, no one’s is. But hey, what does it matter if it looks like your life is awesome on Facebook?”
Rafian looks at her face and understands for the first time that he was guilty of making presumptions, and this person whom he had spent so much time and energy loathing all those years had just saved his life. “I’m sorry Aurora. I never knew. I guess I didn’t really think about the impact of my words either.” She embraced him in a warm hug, “Hey that’s what friends do right? Be mean to each other?” And they walked out into the sunshine, where trees lay on the sidewalks slain by the wrath of the storm, both armed with a feeling of enouement, the bittersweet awareness of having seen the future but not being able to tell their past selves.