I sat alone in the dark basketball court. I knew I was going to get hell for missing another algebra class, but I couldn’t get myself to worry about that right now. I had to escape from all the hypocrisy and fake sympathy that threatened to smother me. I took a deep breath and took out the slim cigarette I had picked up from Tasha’s room. All these days it had been with me, a talisman and a grim reminder.
What was it about death that suddenly made a person angelic? All of a sudden Tasha was a super-hero cum model student cum movie star. All her good points had been blown out of proportions, and everyone conveniently forgot about all those drunken episodes and secret stays in hospitals.
I grit my teeth and closed my eyes. I hated this, all this bitterness, this anger. They said it’d vanish eventually; it was already two months since the accident – how long would this last? I loved Tasha so much – I was the adoring kid to her pied piper. Then why couldn’t I remember her with any fondness? Why was it that when anyone gave me that infuriating sympathetic smile and consoled me on my loss, I felt like reminding them about all the times Tasha had led them or their children to destruction? And why didn’t it make me feel any better that, no matter how drunk she was, no matter how much I tried, she refused to take me along? All her ‘friends’, the ‘in’-crowd, the one I had wanted to join, were still there, glorifying their dead queen. The dead queen who had left me behind all alone.
I stared at the cigarette for I don’t know how long, but ultimately let it drop. A hand appeared and picked it up. I turned around. I wasn’t alone in the gallery anymore.
I hardly knew Varun, star basketball player of the team. The only time we’d talked was when I’d interviewed him for the school newspaper. I always thought he secretly liked Tasha; he always used to snag the seat across the aisle from us in the bus, and sometimes I caught him staring at her. Right now, I didn’t want him to bring her up. I waited, but he didn’t speak. Minutes ticked by, and the silence began to feel oppressive. Why was he cutting class and here? Suddenly I found my mouth trying to justify what I was doing here.
“I was going to smoke.” I said. Varun nodded, but didn’t speak, didn’t even look at me, kept staring at the empty basketball court.
“I really was,” I insisted, yet he didn’t say anything.
“I have smoked earlier, don’t think I haven’t.” He just rolled the cigarette in his fingers and shrugged.
I felt my temper rise. Who did he think he was – just because he happened to be a star player didn’t mean he could intrude on my privacy like that.
“Aren’t you gonna speak? Why are you even here?”
Varun finally answered.
“Do you want me to leave?”
“That’s not what I said, damn it!” Something inside me snapped. I stood up and glared at him. “Aren’t you gonna ask me why I was here?”
“It’s fairly obvious,” Varun replied calmly, still not looking at me. “You were here not smoking.”
“I was going to.” I said defiantly.
Varun shrugged again. “I guess you were.”
“Aren’t you going to tell me not to smoke?”
“Do you want to smoke?” he asked aggravatingly.
“Of course I do.” I bit out.
“Would you want me to stop you?”
“Stop this!” I ran a shaking hand through my hair. “I’m talking about smoking. Stop psycho-analyzing me!”
Varun twirled the cigarette around his fingers one last time and then threw it towards the dustbin at the end of the row. The aim was perfect. Of course.
“Then you can find another day or time to start smoking. Or not.” He said calmly.
I stared at the dustbin, blinking rapidly as my eyes started to prickle. I really didn’t want to follow Tasha’s footsteps – she hadn’t wanted me to either. But the thrown cigarette reminded me of thrown possibilities, lost future, and grief over Tasha’s loss took over. I looked away, shaking helplessly. I hadn’t cried over her death, even at the funeral – something that everyone had whispered over – and I definitely didn’t want to lose control in front of Varun. A soft something brushed my right hand. I didn’t want to look down – didn’t want him to see my wet eyes, so I lifted my hand and opened it. A slightly crumpled, but clean white handkerchief lay there.
“It’s sometimes okay to cry, you know.”
When I turned around, I saw that Varun was looking at me, his eyes full of empathy and understanding. I collapsed next to him and buried my face in my hands. And for the first time in ten years, I cried. Noisily, helplessly, while a guy I barely knew looked on.