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Fairweather friends

Tanaz Bhathena | Updated on January 19, 2018

I love you, you love... Who was she kidding? Zaf Chowdhury, star bowler of Qala Academy’s cricket team, a boy Emerald had secretly loved for years, wasn’t coming to see her Image: Reuters/Tim Wimborne   -  REUTERS

Tanaz Bhathena

Emerald Verghese stared at herself in the mirror, wondering if her face revealed any signs of madness. She was sure she had gone quite mad. Only a mad — or, perhaps, mad and desperate — girl would have invited a boy to an empty apartment to leak to him the Class XII physics midterm exam. One her mother had set, no less.

The exam, Emerald knew, was somewhere in her parents’ bedroom, in one of the seven locked drawers of their dresser. Emerald’s mother took the keys with her every morning, strung onto a chain that she wore around her ample waist. Today was no exception.

Emerald tried to flatten her hair with a wet comb. It sprung back into place, surrounding her face like a cloud. Flakes of powder, rouge and dust scattered across the surface of the dressing table. Emerald picked up one of her mother’s lipsticks.

A layer of maroon spread over her mouth. Smooth and soft, a stick of cold butter sliding across a baking tray. She picked up her mother’s foundation and determinedly dipped a finger into the liquid. Forehead, cheeks, chin. The fuzz on her upper lip. She powdered her face. Rouged her cheeks.

The mirror revealed a moustachioed she-clown.

Emerald ran to the bathroom and washed her face with hard, unforgiving fingers. At least her pink cotton salwar-kameez worked well against her skin tone, hid the bulge of her tummy and the shapelessness of her hips.

Emerald smacked the side of her head. Who was she kidding? Zaf Chowdhury, star bowler of Qala Academy’s cricket team, a boy Emerald had secretly loved for years, wasn’t coming to see her. He’d kill her for making him drive all the way to Sitteen Street for nothing.

The doorbell rang at five-thirty. He wore jeans and an old T-shirt that stuck to his chest in patches of sweat. A light stubble shaded his cheekbones.

“Come in,” she said.

He stood at the door and rocked on his heels. “Don’t need to. I could just take the… you know… and leave.”

But Emerald insisted and, after hesitating, Zaf stepped in.

“Would you like something to drink?”

“You don’t have it, do you?”

“Of course, I do. Would you like to sit?”

He sat on her father’s favourite leather chair in front of the television. Emerald brought out two Cokes on a tray.

Zaf’s knees bounced. “I haven’t got all the time in the world, Emerald. Do you have the exam or not?”

“It’s somewhere in my mother’s drawers.’”

‘“And…?”

“My mother has the keys. And I don’t know which drawer.”

A vein stood out on the side of his neck. He stood up, towering over her. “Show me.” She did, trembling slightly, wondering if the floor had a crevice that she could sink into and never come out.

He eyed the keyholes in the dresser. “Do you have a hairpin? One of those long, black ones?”

She did.

One. Two. Five. Drawer seven held the exam.

“Finally!” he whispered, scanning the front page.

“There’s a photocopier in my dad’s study.”

His smile was back in place. “You’re an angel.” It was what he called her when he came to get tutored by her mother in Class IX, when Emerald sneaked him a can of Fanta from the fridge.

“That door is locked, too.” Her heart raced. “But, luckily, I have the key.”

“Lead the way.”

Emerald didn’t move.

“What’s wrong?”

Years later, she’d realise that it wasn’t bravado or desperation that made her do what she did next, but simply a look in his eyes — a look that told her he knew, had always known she liked him. Breathing deeply, Emerald stepped forward and placed her hands on his chest.

His heart beat rapidly under her fingers. “What are you doing?”

“I… I really like you, Zaf.”

Zaf glanced at the exam in his hands, his frown deepening. Instead of moving away, he lowered his head, his limbs uncertain and stiff: a six-foot statue slowly coming to life.

Emerald raised herself on the tips of her toes, her hands shaking as they slid up his cheeks, held his head in place for a kiss that was, at first, barely, then suddenly all there, a wet, nearly suffocating mash of mouths. Her nerves registered anger in the sharp, almost pincer-like grip of his hands. Yet she didn’t make a sound even after he pushed her away and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I have to go.”

Emerald said nothing. Her mouth felt sore, her body bruised.

Zaf picked up the papers that had dropped to the floor. “Now show me where that study is.’”

***

At school, appearances were maintained. Zaf set the ground rules: acquaintances in public, friends in private. Emerald wondered how many ‘friends’ he’d fondled in the past year. Realistically, she didn’t expect to see him again.

One evening, though, her phone buzzed with a text from an unknown number. “Got 95%. Thanks. Z.”

***

She tasted wine with him a few weeks later, for the very first time, at the Jeddah Corniche. Zaf poured her a bit of the ruddy liquid from an opaque blue Finding Nemo water bottle.

Emerald wrinkled her nose at the smell, a combination of old socks and fruit. “It stinks.”

“Yeah. It’s the speciality of toilet-brewed alcohol.”

“Yuck! I swallowed some of that!”

He laughed. “Chill. It’s not brewed in the commode.”

“Who owns such toilets?”

He took the cup from her hand and sipped, leaving the question unanswered. As disgusting as it was to drink something brewed in an old bathroom, it secretly thrilled Emerald to be sitting with Zaf in his car, drinking alcohol, an act that could put them both behind bars in Saudi Arabia, if caught.

Today there was no chance of this. There were no other cars at the Corniche that morning. Her father was at work, her mother at a science fair in Dubai and Emerald had, for the first time, found the courage to fake a sick day and skip school. Clouds veiled the sun and the air held the scent of rain.

“It’s good that Mom’s away,” she said. “Or there was no way we could have met.”

He drained the cup. “That reminds me. Did you bring the test?”

“What’s the rush?” Her mouth was dry from the wine. “We’ve only been here a few minutes.”

“Half an hour, babe, not a few minutes. Need to take you home before someone catches us.” His hand squeezed her thigh.

Anger and lust slid through Emerald like threads on twin needles. She unzipped her purse and withdrew a photocopy of her mother’s neatly written questions.

Zaf eyed the questions with a frown. “You don’t have the answer key, do you?”

“Why? Don’t have the brains to figure them out on your own?”

His mouth flattened for a second. When he looked up again, his eyes were wide. Contrite. “Sorry. You’re doing so much for me that I took you for granted.”

Emerald wasn’t naïve. She’d seen the way he’d looked at her classmates when the cricket team once came over to play at the girls’ section. How his eyes had travelled over their slim bodies, lingered on their bright eyes, rosy lips, and perfectly straight hair.

“It’s okay,” she said, after a pause.

He rubbed her thigh in response. The lower half of her abaya slid up, followed by her ankle-length skirt. Emerald closed her eyes, waiting for the inevitable ascent of those long fingers.

***

The day of her last exam — Class XI English — Emerald tried not to touch her newly straightened hair, conscious of the stares of the girls outside the exam hall. “Nice eyebrows,” one of them said and Emerald thanked her in response.

The threading, done by a Pakistani beautician in a ground-floor apartment building in Aziziyah, had left Emerald in tears. But the result, two perfectly arched eyebrows, had been worth the torture. So much that Emerald had allowed the beautician to wax her upper lip and cheeks, and then iced her pimpled face for the rest of the evening.

She saw the difference in the mirror a day later, felt it that morning, when she accompanied her mother to the boys’ section to write the exam. Teachers who knew Emerald gave her approving smiles. Boys she didn’t know took second looks. Their scrutiny unnerved Emerald. Yet she couldn’t help but imagine Zaf’s reaction. Would he, too, be pleasantly surprised?

She met him after the exam ended, on the roof terrace.

“Got the paper?”

Emerald nodded, noting the way his gaze lingered on her hair and face.

“Great.” Zaf took the paper and folded it without looking away. “You look nice.”

“Thanks.”

“I can actually see your face now,” he said with a laugh. She winced and stepped back before he could kiss her.

“What’s wrong?”

She shook her head. “You don’t need to do that anymore.”

“Come on, it was just a joke.”

“It’s fine.”

Zaf’s mouth opened, as if in protest, and then shut again.

Years later, she’d tell the story to her daughter when the girl came home crying over a boy. Emerald would compare the moment to the first time she waxed her face, to the brief, painful sensation of hair ripping from her skin, leaving it smooth. Changed.

“Don’t worry,” Emerald told Zaf. “I’ve included the answer key this time.”

A gust of air diffused the brutal March heat and flapped the cloth of her abaya. She found her mother waiting at their usual spot, near the school’s front gate.

“Where were you?” her mother scolded. “The bus is about to leave!”

“Sorry, Amma.” An odd sweetness lingered in her mouth, like the wine she once tasted. “Was talking to a friend.”

Tanaz Bhathena is a Toronto-based author whose début novel, A Girl Like That, will be published by Penguin Random House this year

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Published on January 19, 2018
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