You have known her since you were kids. You lived in the same neighbourhood; her house was a few houses from yours. You spent many afternoons, together with other kids, in the field across your house running around, sometimes chasing after a worn ball and building stick houses. Often you made up random games; games that ushered in the night, games from which your mother’s incessant voice unplugged you. You remember those days; remember the smell of dust in the hot afternoons, the earthy smell of the soil that enveloped you as you sloshed and squealed in the rain, the potatoes that your mother roasted for all the kids, the mangoes eaten in between play, their juices flowing down your dirty fingers and how it felt so good to wipe off these juices with your tongue, especially when your mother was not nearby. You remember all that but most importantly you remember her.
You heard her before you saw her; she had a deep voice. A voice that organized most of the kids into play groups, a voice that was used as a warning to those cheating in the games, and a voice that you could listen to for days. She wasn’t exactly an appointed leader in the group but she was the one who knew where the ball was, where the skipping ropes were, who should join which team, who should not be let into the team and from which farm to pinch those juicy mangoes that you all loved. Her name was Brida but you all called her Bri except the teachers in school.
All the children in your area attended the same school. The school that had two blocks of buildings which housed all the eight classes; the same school where the teachers were overly friendly one minute and really stern the next. It is in this school that you shared a class with Brida. She sat at the front of the classroom; you sat behind next to Luka. You were desk mates with Luka all through primary school. Luka was one of the best students; best meaning he was always leading in exams. His name was up there with Brida’s when they called out the names of top performers in the closing ceremonies. There was a reason why you sat with Luka.
You were always last. You got into trouble in classes for failing to answer questions. In fact, you had to bring your parents to school regularly. During those days you were allowed to go to school later on in the day and you loved it. You looked forward to a few more hours of sleep that allowed you to escape the piercing cold in the morning. Your mother always accompanied you to these summons; never your father. The walks to school were uncomfortable and uncharacteristically long. Your mother wouldn’t say much but she always held your hand all the way to school. You loved that reassuring gesture, but you didn’t want your friends to see that so just before you got to school you let go off her hand. Every time, halfway to school she’d tell you a story of a young boy who was always getting poor grades in school. The story remained the same, the name of the boy changed often and the reasons of his poor performance always varied, but the ending remained the same all through. She always ended the story with the question “Julian, if you had a problem like –name of the boy in the story- you’d tell me, right?” She had a way with words like that. You like to think you inherited your love for words from her. Moments before getting into the head teacher’s office, she would look at you and say in a calm voice “Julian, you must try harder”. Resignedly, you’d nod.
In the head teacher’s office you wouldn’t nod, just sit small and lower your eyes. Soon you’d be miles away but you’d come back to the present to catch snippets of the conversation.
“We are worried…”
“…slow, doesn’t participate in class…”
“…reads a lot at home…”
“…needs to bring that spirit to school…”
“…don’t know what the problem is…”
“…might have to repeat next year…”
At that point a slow sigh would escape from your mother and you would look up to see her pained look that would pierce through your heart.
“I will try harder,” you would say timidly.
“One last chance Julian!” The head teacher would boom. You would nod enthusiastically knowing very well at the end of the next term you’d be sitting in this very wooden chair having this very conversation.
That is how you ended up being desk mates with Luka; the highest performing pupil and the poorest one. Only you and Luka were never friends. He hesitated when you asked him questions and was often a little too hard on you when explaining stuff. During break times when you’d pass by Luka and his friends and they would momentarily hush then break into laughter, words would be exchanged, threats would be given but since you didn’t want trouble you lowered your anger and walked on. The teacher’s word was the rule so you shared a desk with him. But a desk wasn’t the only thing you shared.
Through sheer luck you go through primary school and secondary school. It is in adulthood when you finally leave your parent’s house that you discover a place to channel all those dreams of words that you had since childhood. So after many trials, many false starts, and disappointments, today you have several books to your name. People love your work. Often the critics bay for your blood but it doesn’t kill your spirit; you have been trying harder your whole life. Nothing can stop you now. You keep writing. This is what you love. But writing is not the only thing that you love. There is a girl.
Brida and you remain friends throughout the years. She went to art school in Vienna. You came to the city to wait tables. After work, tired like hell, on your little table you wrote into the night. You didn’t get to see her for a while, just the occasional email. Now she is a renown artist, and even better, she is back in the city. She owns a swanky studio tucked in the outskirts of town where she creates magic. You have reconnected. You talk more on the phone. You spend a lot of time together. She attends your book readings. You attend her exhibitions. Just two childhood friends looking out for each other in this huge city; at least that is what one of you thinks.
One afternoon you are over at her studio that also doubles up as her home. She is in those red overalls that you detest; too big, too screaming a colour, but she loves them. She’s hunched over a canvas, working. She doesn’t hear you come in so you stand and watch her, watch how intense her face looks, how her hands move with utmost care and how she stops mid-brush to look at her work for minutes on end. You wonder what is going on in her mind at that particular moment. Then she notices you and swiftly turns her piece from you.
“Bri, I am not an artist for heaven’s sake!”
“Do you let me read your unfinished books?”
“Fair enough. What are you working on?”
“Just started a new piece.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
“It is a conversation I am having with myself.”
“I am painting my conversation with this guy that I like and when it is done, I will tell him what I feel.”
“Someone I know?” You take a minute, your heartbeat peaking, and ask in a leveled tone.
“When will you be done?”
“Dunno, today, tomorrow, maybe never.”
“Oh.” You heave.
That was weeks ago, maybe months, you forget. But dates are not important now because Brida just sent you a Whatsapp message.
“It is done.”
“About time!” Frantically you write back.
There is no time. Week old dishes in the sink. Papers all over the place. Cookie crumbs on the couch. Leftover Chinese takeout from last night on the floor. Dress shirt from a book signing last week hanging in lazy abandon on the armrest. Must clean up. She likes Ethiopian coffee. No Ethiopian coffee left. Must go to the store. Peruvian Pollo Saltado is her favourite food. The Peruvian place nearby isn’t open Sundays. Must rush to the one across town. Books scattered all over the living room. Must organize the library. As you pick up the books it hits you; if she put all that effort in her craft then you better get writing. You should have started that book a long time ago. A letter, yes, a letter! But first you must clean up.
So you clean up in a hurry and sit down to pour your heart out in a letter. You recount the days of old when you were just kids, when all you did after school was play and eat. You remember some of the foods that highlighted your childhood; your mother’s roast potatoes. You must make her some. This is even better than Peruvian; it will take her back to where it all started. You have some potatoes in the pantry, surely you must have some! You find three potatoes, wash them and let them cook in the oven as you finish the letter. Soon your childhood is right there with you; you can smell it. The only thing missing to complete this dream is the girl you have always loved. But she is coming.
Only she doesn’t come. It is hours now. The potatoes are cold. They are tired of waiting. You are tired too. You grab the letter and head out.
You burst into Brida’s place. There she is sitting cross-legged on the powder blue carpet. She holds a glass of red wine. Another glass stands next to her gloriously, but not as glorious as she looks. You move closer and sit on the carpet facing her. You can smell her. You only need to stretch your hand a bit and you can touch your dream. You look at her. She looks at you. There’s a look about her. Surprise, maybe? … no, something else. She starts to say something but you interrupt her; what you have to say can’t wait longer. You look into her eyes and in a calm and collected voice, which surprises you since your mind is nothing but calm, heck not even your body is calm!
You walk her back to the past. To the times that you all came home from secondary school and sat for hours exchanging stories about your new schools and experiences. You remind her of how she dressed, how she wore her hair, how she talked and how she laughed. You couldn’t say a word those days but now you are confident with words and you use them to draw her in her younger years. Then you remind her of the day you knew you would always love her.
You are at the front of the class. You are trying to solve a question. You can’t remember your multiplications. You could never master those numbers. The teacher is calling your name over and over. You can hear muffled laughter from your classmates. The piece of chalk feels heavier. You can’t write. The teacher is saying something. The laughter is growing now. Tears are welling up your eyes. Suddenly your pair of khaki shorts feels warm. The laughter is louder. You want to die. Then you feel the softest hand slowly take the piece of chalk from you and everything stops. Furtively, Brida looks at you then proceeds to solve the sum. You walk back to your desk head down.
You pause and look up at Brida expecting her to say something. She doesn’t. You continue reading the letter and end by professing your love. You tell her you have even made her roast potatoes. Where are the potatoes? You forgot, damnit! You ask her if she remembers the potatoes you always had when you were kids. She doesn’t respond.
“Bri,” you look at her face. And before you can ask her what is wrong…
“Hello, Julian.” That voice draws the life out of you.
The letter effortlessly drops from your hands.
“Hello Luka,” you whisper.