There was a silence; a certain pause that had caught up with the atmosphere as well. In a moment, the leaves on the decorative plants, blowing in the breeze, were still. The feet of the bystanders, busily treading around, were still. She, ever graceful in her gestures; she was still. But there was an unseen motion insider of her, swelling and swelling, like the tears filling her wide slanted eyes. At a moments notice, the motion had lunged out, flushed her face, and sent her straight voluminous hair over her covered face.
I had not often seen Rita cry. In fact, I could hardly recall a time when she had been this somber, when I could not easily console her. Even then, she had not done so as publicly as at a mall’s food court, where more eyes than I could ever hope to draw ogled and glared at the wheezing mess. “Shh, Rita calm down. Calm down. Shh.” I got up from my chair, that fell onto the floor, and hugged her awkwardly, trying to fend off the growing number of stares. “Let’s go. Let’s go talk somewhere else.”
I guided her through the mall, whilst she still had her face buried in my chest. As we walked into a Starbucks, packed except for a small booth in the back, her fidgeting had subsided and she was back to her senses, as much as she was able to. “What’s wrong, Rita?”
“About a month or so ago, I started seeing this guy,” she started, and stopped.
“Did he hurt you? What happened?” I said with an ironic urgency, as if I would have stormed out and tracked him down to give him a good beating. Nevertheless I was concerned.
“No. No. Well, not directly. We hit it off. Jean, his name, was sweet so I gave him a chance you know. I had always went out with bastards and jerks, I thought it was a big change for me.”
“I know, I’m sorry I didn’t say anything about it back then,” she said with a quieter tone, “but you weren’t really yourself back then, like it felt as if you were dealing with bigger stuff so you know.”
I was. And had Dani not slip into my thoughts as she started to cry, he would have been summoned by “bigger stuff”. I couldn’t help but feel Rita’s issues were close to mine. Could she have had a Dani in her life? – I realized that I had been relating all people’s issues to Dani and me; the stress, the release, good relationships, bad relationships. It was the only one I’d had anyway; besides Karim, who should have been there with Rita and me-But what did I know? “No,” I said finally,” You can talk to me about anything, anytime whatever mood I’m in. I’m your best friend, I’m here to help. So what happened.”
“Yeah, well apparently, before he came for me, he was with some skank in section A. Nasty little person, feeds off the emotionally weak and the scarred.”
“Anyway, when it was obvious we were a ‘thing’, she came up to me once when I was in the ladies’ room. And she was like ‘what are you doing with Jean?’ And I was like ‘Umm we’re going out is that a problem?’ and she just gave me like a straight up cringe and left, and never talked to me again.”
“I see where this is headed,” I said with a sigh.
“No, you don’t.”
“After that, it seemed all fine. But then, what do I find on the school blog?”
“Oh, no.” I grunted and fell back into my chair, and sank back into a night when I sat crying in bed as my sister told me what cruel pranks and rumors people can spread about me if I were gay. And I wasn’t really sure of it back then, it didn’t seem like it would happen to me or to anyone I knew. My friends and I were nice, I thought, we didn’t bring out that vindictiveness in others. Well, I had been wrong once again. And I always thought it would be me to take the fall first.
“No, you still don’t know the half of it yet. They posted an old photo of me sitting on Roy’s lap. Remember Roy, right? The guy I ‘went out’ with at 13,” she grunted. “And they said that I had lost my virginity to him,” her eyes swelled and she continued with a suffocated nasal tone,” Gosh! Like what the fuck? Lost her virginity at 13, they ate it up. Everyone. Everyone saw it. They all talked about it. I got sent to the principle’s office. I had to have a talk with the father. I was so close to being suspended and it got to my parents.”
I was petrified. I stared at Rita as she swayed with her chest’s convulsions, her hair going with the motions. “Is it true?” I said finally.
“No!” she ejaculated, drawing her hair back to reveal a furrowed brow. “Of course not! No! Are you kidding me?”
“I know. I know, I’m sorry,” I said calmly and slowly, having nothing else to say. “Okay then, those who know you, your friends, know it isn’t true…”
“Ha!” she grinned sarcastically and ever so ephemerally, only to return to her sullen countenance (not that I could blame her). “The thing is, Youssef,” she went on to say, “People follow the crowd. They follow the powerful, not the lame and the petty. No one is on my side. It isn’t ‘good for their image’. Some friends, eh?”
“What did your parents say?”
“Well, they believed me; nothing like family. They stood by me, went to the principle and made a complaint. Well, more like a threat, you know pap,” she let out a short relieved giggle. “Still waiting for the verdict for that bitch, and her accomplices.”
Who would I go to in a time of need? If one day, a bully thought it would be fun to announce I was “a faggot”, where would I go? And I froze, shivers not seeming to faze me any longer. Who? Rita? No. Ahmad? No. Rana? No. Dani? Pfft, what use is long-distance support? Karim? Where was he anyway? My family? I don’t know. I took a deep breath and felt my heart murmur.
“Youssef?” sounded Rita’s shaky voice.
“Um, yeah,” I fumbled. “Yeah, sorry, was just thinking how much this sucks. I mean, what I could do for you. I, I don’t know.”
“Relax. I’m dealing with it, my parents and I. I just wanted to talk to you. You know, blow off some steam. You’re a good listener, and my best friend.”
“I’m always here too, next to you. I’m on your side no matter what happens,” I said.
“Thank you,” she whispered as she leaned back into her coach, unwinding her shoulders. “You know what, excuse me, I got to go freshen up in the ladies’ room. It’ll only be a bit, okay?.” She stood up and strode, but then stopped to ask, “Where is Karim?”
“Where is Karim?” I repeated.
I knocked at the door twice. It was 7:15, about time for me to get home. I texted my mom that I might run a bit late, to which she didn’t reply. I thought I’d spend the rest of the evening with Karim, seeing as I am already outside his door. After a third knock, the door was opened. Behind it stood a short stout bald man in a worn out wife-beater, out of which curly grey chest hair jut. And in between the bush, a heavy gold cross hung obtrusively, and glistened quite menacingly in the doorway light. An awfully unwelcoming sight, Karim’s father welcomed me in. “Come, come, Karim is in his room” he said, his voice gruff and cold. He stared back at me until I reached the room. I walked with a shiver, imagining his fat hands thrashing every bit of verve George had for life. He had lain there-I faced the bathroom door to the left side of Karim’s room. George had lain there once and never returned, and will never return. My stomach turned, and kept turning until I was overcome with fright when that same croaky voice yelled out, “What’s wrong with you?” I froze and looked at Karim’s father at the end of the hallway. “Knock, he’s in there.” I did, and went in fast, shutting the door tight behind me.
“What are you doing here?” snarked Karim, springing from his bed.
“No,” I said, “What are you doing here?”
He looked at me very bewildered. “You were supposed to be at the mall three hours ago, with me and Rita.”
“Oh, well. I didn’t really feel like going,” he said nonchalantly.
“What?” my voice broke. “I called you. I texted you. You couldn’t even text back?”
“I haven’t been on WhatsApp all day.”
“I used SMS.”
“Who uses SMS these days?”
“Cut the crap, Karim! I haven’t heard from you all day.”
He came closer, “Well, I’ve been hearing a lot about you these days.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, my brows crossed and my temples throbbing.
“No! You want to say something, say it,” my voice began to rise.
“I have nothing to say to you. Stop acting like a little bitch. I’m sorry for not texting you or whatever. Okay?”
“You know what? Fuck you, Karim! Fuck you! You come to me when you’re miserable and weak. But when everything is fine and dandy for you, you piss on me.”
“No one asked you to comfort me, I never asked you for anything.”
“I was helping you!”
“That’s what every bastard that takes advantage of others says.”
“What?” I yelled. “How did I take advantage of you?”
He lunged towards me. “Raise your voice again, and I’ll fucking cut you.”
My teeth clenched, and my lips trembled. My hands opened and closed spasmodically at my either side. He stood close enough for me to feel his short breaths on my neck; blow after blow of warm shaky, unprecedentedly repellent, breath. I started back at his eyes, bloodshot but milky, as if he had stopped crying minutes before my unexpected ingression. And for a moment, I felt bad for him. I let my guard down, inhaled and began to say, “Sor…”
“I don’t want to do anything wrong,” he spoke under his breath, “and you are making me worse.”
For a moment, I didn’t flinch. My jaw unclasped and the tremble died off. My palms hung languidly from my dangled arms. I had caught my breath, that had no longer been audible at that point. I said nothing, expecting to hear nothing else. I stared at him. I felt nothing. I guess this is what is called – and I had never quite understood it before then- the calm before the storm. And when that storm hit, nothing could hold it back. I exhaled. And my face turned and with a fast unruly thrust, Karim took an unusual blow to the face, his nose cracking under my palm. His body swayed, almost falling to the ground. Quick as he was, Karim regained balance, only to try to grapple me. I, subdued by an unholy force, grabbed him and kicked his shin as hard and as fast as the rage swept through me. I held him by the forearms, which he used to cover his face, and shoved him away from me, and he luckily fell onto the bed. My blood was boiling and I could still do worse, but I stopped myself. The sight of him huddled on this bed evoked some pity on my part – possibly a change from the usual self-pity he was more used to.
“You are a coward, Karim,” I pointed my finger at him firmly. “God help you not end up like George!” I turned around, violently grabbed something off the desk, and threw the door wide. “But you won’t be a martyr this time.”
I ran down the hall, and before I got to the door, I heard, “Everything okay?”. Karim’s mother came to the door.
“Yeah. I was just um,” I held up what I had taken, a book, ”Getting this book. Sorry to bother you. Good night.” I stormed out. My mother asked the same thing when I came home, agitated as I was, “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, it’s all good. How are you?” I replied quickly.
“Why are you late?”
“I texted you.”
“I know. Why did you need to?”
“Karim didn’t, um, show up, so, um.”
“So?” she said coldly.
“I went over to check on him. He, um, was sick.”
She didn’t look too happy about it.
“Don’t sleep,” she said, “We need to talk.”
Son of a bitch.