“Hey, wait up!” My footsteps stopped on their own accord on hearing Bishal’s voice behind me, despite my mind’s command – “don’t stop!”
“Um, hi!” I greeted him as he jogged up to me.
“Why wouldn’t you wait for me by the peepal as usual?” he queried. “I was kinda frustrated when I didn’t see you there. Thought you’d be skipping school today as well.”
I looked around, trying to think up an excuse. “Um, I just had to go to the stationery store to buy me a pen. I was about to give you a call.”
“Oh, okay.” He scrunched up his nose. I could clearly tell he was not buying my story.
“Listen, you can share with me what you are going through, okay?” He had on that soothing, come-here-little-pup-I-have-a-cookie-for-you voice of his. “I know, I know, you said nothing’s wrong. But… well, you seem kinda off, you know? I mean, like, yesterday, for instance. You skipped school, for god’s sake! Seema, the nerd, the class-topper has started skipping school? That doesn’t seem right. Not at all!”
He would not let me get a word in.
“I know it was just once, but I have never, ever, not in my sixteen years of friendship with you, have known you to skip school. That, too, a whole day; not even just a class!”
“Take a breath,” I told him. He could be such a pain sometimes.
“Okay.” He literally took a deep breath. “Look, I just want you to know that I’m here, okay? Anyway, I’m glad I saw you. It is such a long, boring walk to school when I’m alone.”
For once, my heart melted. But then, the image of him yelling “I do not love her!” at his friends flashed through my mind and it was all I could do to make a happy face and say, “I know. And nothing is wrong with me, really. I guess I’m having my PMS a little too early.”
Bishal and I had been friends for as long back as I could remember. His house was just five minutes down the street from mine, and we always walked to school together. I’d wait for him under the big peepal tree by the side of the main gate of my house whenever he was late. When I was late, he’d simply rush up to my house and bang on the front door despite my mother’s disapproving look. The 15-minutes walk to school always seemed somehow adventurous, fun, when we were together.
Everything changed during the tenth grade when I realized that I had fallen for him, and later found out that he did not feel the same way about me. It was during the third month of tenth grade when I realized that I had fallen in love with my leap-frog partner, my best friend Bishal.
Our classmates used to tease the two of us cruelly since way before I had this realization. When before I used to get irritated at their lame catcalls and hooting, I had now started liking it when they called out “Here come our lovebirds, Romeo and Juliet!” whenever Bishal and I entered the classroom together. I would look at him out of the corner of my eyes and wonder if he liked it, too, but I couldn’t tell if the goofy, boyish grin on his face meant he felt the same way about me.
About a month after my big realization, I was about to sneak up behind him at the lunch table at the school cafeteria where he was having a heated discussion with two of his guy friends about something or other. I was out of their line of vision, and all of a sudden, Bishal, who had a seriously short temper, stood up and shouted, “I am not in love with Seema, okay? I do not love her!” He put down the fork with a dumpling at its end and stormed out of the side door. His friends shrugged and went back to eating their burgers, but I tossed mine in the bin and ran all the way to the restroom to escape the numbness that was slowly engulfing me from toes up.
That was the longest day of my life.
And it was the next day that I skipped school for the first time in my life.
It was not like I had expected that he’d have the same feelings for me that I had for him. But I guess my subconscious, stupid mind had somehow harbored a teeny-weeny bit of hope.
A week later, I was waiting for him under the peepal, hoping he’d turn up soon – we were getting really late for school – when I got a text from him.
“Hey, Simi <that was my nickname> would u skip school today, 4 me? I mean, I m @ Siddhapokhari @ our usual spot. N I feel lonely. N I need to tell you something. It is important.”
I got kind of nervous. Bishal was being totally weird. He was a weirdo alright, but Siddhapokhari at 9 a.m. on a Monday?
I glanced back at my house and started to walk the road to school, but as soon as I got around the first corner, I took a shortcut to the bus-stop. I hoped the school coordinator would not call up my parents like she sometimes did when students got absent. But hey, I was the teachers’ favorite – so maybe she’d just think I was sick or something. I could only hope.
When I found Bishal at Siddhapokhari, he was munching on a huge bar of dark chocolate without a care in the world and feeding crackers to the fish in the pond. I felt like punching him.
“So?” I asked him with my hands on my hips. “What’s the deal?”
“Um, nothing?” he said with his mouth full and offered me a bite from his bar of chocolate. “I just wanted to see what you’d do for me.”
“You scumbag!” I turned around with my cheeks burning to get the heck out of there, but he started in a funny voice –
“Okay, just kidding! Um, I did not feel like school today. Happens sometimes, you know? I just wanted to be alone, and came here, and well, thought I could tell you something, ‘cause you’re my best friend and all, and well – “
“Hey, take it easy.” I went to sit beside him. The fish that had come up for the crackers he’d thrown onto the water were struggling to catch the bits in their funny, whiskered mouths.
Bishal took a deep breath.
“I have kept it inside me for too long. But, I guess I can tell you. I mean, I’ve always wanted to share this with you. I just – I didn’t have the guts.”
My heart raced. Was Bishal going to tell me that he loved me?
And then he told me his secret.
And my heart shattered into a thousand pieces one more time. I couldn’t say anything for what seemed like an hour. When I finally found my voice, all I could say was, “So, you’re gay, huh?” And it came out as a squeak.
My best friend, the guy I had fallen in love with, was telling me he was gay. What was I supposed to say? I wished I had received a warning, a signal of any kind, to let me know what was coming.
He would not look at me at all. He just nodded weakly.
“You don’t hate me for it, do you?”
I couldn’t breathe.
“No – no – of course not! It’s… well, it is a lot to take in right away. I mean, I had never, ever imagined… I mean, I am totally surprised, you see,” I blabbered. “It is big news, but no, I do not hate you. Why’d you think so? I… you’re my best friend, no matter what.”
“Thank you. It is such a huge relief to tell you this.” He finally took his eyes off the goldfish that was swimming lazily in front of us, and looked my way. “I couldn’t tell anybody, not even you. I – I was afraid of being treated differently, you know? I had such a hard time trying to act like normal boys. I mean, I am normal, but…”
I wanted to take away his fears and wrap my arms around him and hold him close. But I just gave his hands a light squeeze.
“You are normal. And special. You do not have to pretend to be someone else when you’re with me, you got it?” I told him. “I still love you the same.”
“Because you are my best pal, no matter what,” I added quickly. “And it doesn’t matter what others might think of it. It is who you are, and nobody has the right to judge you.”
“You won’t tell anybody, will you?” he asked nervously. “I mean, I am not ready to let anyone else know this yet. I am – I am scared of being treated differently.”
“Of course I won’t tell anyone, you mutt! Not unless you want me to.”
He gave a shaky little laugh. “Well, I did it! I finally did it! I can now be myself with at least one person! And I’m glad it’s you.”
He held up his half-eaten chocolate bar, but I shook my head. I was still reeling from the revelation.
“Oh, I think you were always you around me! You just did not tell me you like boys, is all,” I was finally starting to pull myself together, but it hit me again that he’d never look at me in the way that I wanted to be looked at by him. My inner core was in turmoil. But I had to be the rock he needed right then. “Turns out you’re a master at secret-keeping. But I’m glad you shared it with me. Now I can tease you all I like with each of our grade’s boys’ names!”
He looked kind of shy as we both watched a flock of pigeons flying low over the water at the opposite side of Siddhapokhari. The sun was beginning to get a bit too warm, but I could tell he wanted to stay a while longer.
“Now that I’ve let you in on my secret,” he began in a sly voice. “Tell me yours. What was the matter with you last week?”