It is a light, subtle pre-summer evening as I walk down the sweeping podium staircase and take a whiff of the warm, scented breeze that’s blowing outside. I’ve gotten off my eleventh-hour studies a little earlier than usual, and have a good hundred-odd minutes to while away in my daily company of music and sweat. I clamp my JBL boosters and quietly slip into Mockingbird by Eminem. It’s my newest favorite, and I invariably listen to it three times in a row whenever I get a chance to be with my earphones. This particular instance, however, gives me the privilege of a meagre thirty seconds before a certain sight overwhelms my mind to the immediate exclusion of everything else.
There, leaning against the lamp-post, with an A-rated magazine in hand, his wired-antenna hair sticking out like unmowed grass, is one of my classmates from tenth standard! He wasn’t exactly my friend; nor was his place in my life so superficial as to be dismissed as mere acquaintance. Whatever our relationship back then; seeing a face from school amid a sea of strangers in a stranger city feels like recovering a map to some long-lost family treasure among the dust and debris of the attic. Caught up in a vortex of nostalgic memories, and carrying a gleeful, almost idiotic smile on my face, I run towards the lamp-post and shake my buddy out of his Selena Gomez fantasies.
“Hey, boy!” I shout. “Recognise me?”
His frame turns around like a puppet in the act. He looks at me, face an unreadable mix of emotions. For a very brief moment, he makes me queasy; I begin to doubt if he’s the same guy I’d seen so often in the hallways and corridoors of my school. Then those stony features break into a smile; a smile that I know well. “Hey,” he nods.
It is only after a full ten minutes of tangential small talk that I understand how, and just how much has he truly changed. Gone is that goofy grin; gone are those holy threads and kadaas that once adorned his wrist; gone is that combed, kempt and collected aura that always hung around his frame, in the face of what looks little more than a desperate attempt to fit in with his new colleagues from eleventh grade. As I dig into those delicious school days with him, I sense an awkwardness of sorts- a lingering feeling of discomfort. It mingles with the balmy evening and fills my mouth with its unwanted presence. I don’t like taste of it. Distilled bitter. With a dash of chilli. Not the best that’s come my way. And I’ve tasted my own food.
I begin to realise with growing apprehension, that the nauseating essence stems from nowhere else other than our own conversation- more specifically, my friend’s responses. He’s reluctant to reply. Reluctant to reminisce. Reluctant to reconnect. Is he not happy to meet me? Is he wishing he’d chosen some other lamp post to lean on? I’m not entirely sure.
So in the midst of my animated description of the first Annual Day we both took part in, I manage to insinuate a question that probes into that particular sphere of my friend’s character.
“So,” I play with my earphone cord, “How do you feel after coming to college? Is it better than school?”
The twinkle in his eyes vanishes. I can no longer read his expression. He’s shut his emotions out; locked them away, safely out of reach of curious thieves. We stand there for a whole five minutes, the noise of the summer breeze reigning our little scene without interruption. Two soldiers in a quiet storm; one innocently inquisitive, the other alarmingly detached. The battle, however, does not rage within those few inches between us, as it does within the depths of the five feet of suppressed angst standing before me.
I try to fathom what inner turmoil might be holding him back from replying, and yet keeping him rooted to the spot. After what seems like the worst millenium of my life, I see those chapped lips move.
“It’s certainly more forgettable,” he says, “And that’s a comfort.”
Out of nowhere, the evening dissolves. I watch, terrified, as the shapes and objects around me- objects from the familiar pavement; objects I thought I knew so well- twist and morph into objects from my bedroom. Yes, my bedroom. The bus stop turns into my cupboard. The fire extinguisher turns into my pouffe. The lamp post chooses my tubelight. The mound of leaves below the banyan tree twists into my double bed and the tree itself, for all its imposing might, chooses the puny, dried-up potted plant perched on my window sill. The morning sun is just streaming through the crack in the curtains, as I rub my bloodshot eyes and prop myself up on my elbows. My lethargic mind has slowly begun to register the fact that none of it was real; that it was all a dream; that I’d never actually met any insecure school acquaintance and had an awkward exchange with him. I’m groping around for my spectacles, smiling at how the entire alley had transformed into something in my bedroom. And my mind has just begun to accept the comforting truth.
That it was all in my mind.
That none of it was true.
That nobody was actually so insecure.
When all at once, my mind gulps down another little transformation.
As I slide the glasses up my nose, I notice, for a bright, brilliant moment, my conjured-up acquaintance standing right in front of me.
And I watch as he transforms.
Into the mirror.