I can still recall the first time I saw her. It was pouring rain and she was wearing a grey, thin-strapped summer dress. Little dandelions were speckled across the whole bit of fabric. I remember standing by the window and wondering, “What the hell is wrong with this girl?”
She walked along the edge of the icy pool, kicking up water every now and again, stealing sips from an open Asahi bottle. She seemed so lost yet carefree. “She must be crazy,” I muttered to no one in particular. She kept kicking and I kept staring.
In hindsight, calling her crazy was such a jackass move on my part. Not only is it dehumanising, it’s also so very judgmental. Who am I to judge someone else? Especially someone whom I’ve never spoken to? Particularly when my whole life had been a stinking body-bag of insanity and disbelief? No, she wasn’t crazy. She was struggling. Fighting the itch to survive, knowing how much she hated the notion of it all, yet craved its comfort, like the satisfaction of a good high. It’s a demon that allows you to give in to the haze without actually needing to rely on the reality of it. An illusion. That’s all survival truly is.
As I watched her, I knew that my curiosity would become intolerable. I begged for it to quiet down and close the shutters. But it wouldn’t yield. The stubborn bastard never did know when to go away. I was too exhausted to keep fighting it, so in the end I merely unlocked the French doors and stepped out into the freezing misery of that winter day. As I approached her, she caught a glimpse of me. Stopping her watery gallivanting, she turned towards me and began to meet me half-way. Streaks of mascara ran down her cheeks. A portrait of loneliness I knew that the rain could never paint.
“I guess it would be silly of me to ask if you’d like an umbrella,” I said sarcastically. It wasn’t the cleverest line, but it’s the one that spilled out of my mouth first. Her eyes took me in carefully, crafting judgements all her own. It made me unbearably uncomfortable. The way that her brown-eyed stare bore into my face, seeking and searching for the scars hidden underneath. For the briefest moment, I was terrified that she’d uncover them all.
“Here,” she said, offering up her dew-decorated, amber bottle. “My name is Mahiya.” Her voice was sweetly feminine and a bit hoarse with a British accent.
Glancing down at the beer, I knew that I really shouldn’t indulge. If Bhaiya caught even the slightest whiff of alcohol on my breath, I’d be house-bound until graduation. But it was an Asahi, which was my favourite. Taking the bottle from her, I noticed that there was still half of it remaining. I raised the bottle to my lips.
“You’re kidding, right?” I teased before taking a long sip. It was still quite cool and lightly watered down from the rain.
“What’s wrong with it?” She quipped back, crossing her slender arms across her chest. The fabric of her dress stretched lower, showing off a small beauty spot above her left breast. Looking away, I licked my lips and took a deep breath. Afterwards, I took another drink from the bottle before handing it back to her. As our fingers touched, I met her gaze.
“Who names their kid, ‘Mahiya’?” I sneered.
Furrowing her brows, she snatched the bottle from me and then flung it angrily into the large, dreary blue pool. The rain beat the surface relentlessly, causing the bottle to be swallowed up seamlessly. I watched it fill up and sink to the bottom before shifting my attention back to her.
Who the hell was this girl? I pondered.
“I was my parents miracle kid,” she said, glaring at me with fierce eyes. Her arms had neatly refolded themselves before her chest with goosepimples rising along her skin like little beads. “Their pride and joy.”
The skies roared angrily with thunder and the clouds grew darker. The rain fell in violent sheets along my head and shoulders, sinking its way into the very hollows of my bones. I shivered and shoved my hands into the damp confines of my denim pockets.
“My name is—”
“Neha Stellino,” she answered before I could finish. “Amadeus Stellino’s little sibling.”
Our eyes met and I saw the prideful smug smirk upon her full mauve lips. At a loss for words, I nodded once.
“What’s an Indian Hindu doing with an Italian family?” she asked boldly. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to make me upset as revenge for earlier, or if she merely had no tact. Technically, she was more than within her right to be a jerk considering how much of one I was moments ago. Nevertheless, I could feel the heat spreading from my chest to my cheeks.
“Are you always this presumptuous?” I quipped back, attempting to rein in my defensiveness, although from the way her lips curved up, I knew I was failing miserably.
“Well, Neha,” she purred my name mischievously as she dropped her slender arms to her side and stepped closer. “When someone makes presumptions about others, isn’t it only fair that they take it as equally as they give it?”
I opened my mouth to respond but found that I had nothing to say. It’s as if I suddenly fell into a clean, white room with nothing to guide my way. Standing there, feeling lost and astonished, all I could do was continue to look into her affecting brown gaze.
Looking back on this moment, the first time that anyone had retorted me into silence, I should have known that it would become our life altering event. It was like one of those scenes in romantic films where the girl meets the guy one last time, seeking an apology or some grand romantic gesture. Yet, all he can do is stare at her silently with longing in his eyes. Except in our case, there was no guy. There was simply this riveting enigmatic girl and a genderless loner. While I may not have felt anything romantic for Mahiya at this time, I did feel myself wanting to understand this wild creature that had invaded my space so unexpectedly.
When the whipping wind ferociously enveloped us, forcing her to wrap her arms around herself again, did I finally break free of my momentary social debilitation. While focusing on the chill sinking through my black cotton shirt as it became plastered to my form, I conjured a response.
“My parents were Muslims,” I answered in a quiet voice, looking away. The honesty that escaped me was another shock to my system. My past is something that I have buried carefully. Six feet and ten years of dirt and denial that only awoke on the full moon of solitude, and even then, always in the presence of the one person who helped me to bury it. So, why did I reveal my truth to this stranger without a single ounce of hesitation or awkward compulsion?
I waited for her smartass riposte, yet the only sounds between us were the bristling breeze and reminiscent rains of this winter afternoon.
“Don’t tell me you’re an Islamophobe,” I added when the quietude stretched further along.
“No,” she said softly, tucking thick, wet chunks of hair behind her ear. “It’s just not what I expected.”
“Right, you expected me to be Hindu,” I fired back before I could stop myself. Seeing the subtle way her brows furrowed, I knew that I had hurt her feelings. My mind was pleased by this. The defence mechanisms that had been carefully sharpened over a decade of poking and prodding were becoming useful. Nevertheless, an instant flash of sadness and suddenly I began to question my need for self-preservation. What is protection if the only thing you’re protecting is your pain?
“I’m sorry,” I muttered. “I’m not a very sociable person.”
“Who is,” she scoffed. “I’m sorry too, Neha,” she added with a crooked smile. Then she offered me her hand. Glancing down at her perfectly tanned offering, I noticed the way the raindrops splashed against black lacquered nails. “Why don’t we put this shitty introduction behind us? I’m Mahiya.”
When I looked into her eyes again, I found myself returning the smirk. Against my better judgement, I reached out and took her hand in mine, giving it a quick shake. “Alright then, Mahiya. I’m Neha. It’s very strange to meet you.”
She laughed beautifully “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said as her warm fingers wrapped around me, squeezing the world as I knew it into an intoxicating oblivion I hadn’t realised I yearned for.