Story : Going By The Clock

~Paramendra Bhagat~Paramendra Bhagat

When I saw her for the first time, she had her papers strewn all over the dining table: recent mail, news clippings, newsletters, papers in progress, handwritten notes, opened and sealed envelopes, pamphlets to pass around, her appointments book. Her bag rested against her chair, and she kept dipping into it every few minutes, to take things out, and put back others. She had not yet begun eating, and her tray had been pushed to the side. She was too busy making her point. The food service clamor could not drown out her insistent voice. I soon lost attention in the people I had come to join at the table, and fixed my eyes on her. She must have felt the stare, for she looked at me with a jerk in the middle of a sentence, went silent for a second or two, and looked right away to finish what she had been saying to the hapless non-person who had the misfortune to be sitting opposite her. We did not get introduced. When it was time to go, she grabbed her sandwich, and proceeded to take care of the tray.

“Looks like someone intends a lunch on the sidewalk,” I said, and proceeded with my meal.

“She is something, isn’t she?” my friend offered his rejoinder. “Britney McBride. You will see a lot of her if you stick around this campus.”

I spotted her tall, slim stature, her dark brown, curly hair barely hanging on her shoulder at many a subsequent meeting. Her sing-song voice, for all its sweet sound, belied the statements she was capable of making. She seemed to know a lot of my growing circle of activist friends. I had yet to find my cause, and was not in too much of a hurry to marry one; I went for the enthusiasm, the energy of the groups. And the inevitable happened. After one such meeting when the crowd was on its way out, a mutual friend made the gesture with his two hands as if to make space for us to stand closer to each other, as in, go ahead, I think the two of you ought to get to know each other.

“I know,” she said when I volunteered my name. “You were staring at my breasts the other day at food service.”

The mischief in her tone was impromptu. And if I were to mistake her words for anything personal, she quickly took care of my confusion and continued talking to me as if the meeting had never ended, and I looked like the crowd to her that had already dispersed. She towered an inch or two over me, and I basked in the attention, mildly interested in the topic at hand.

“What do you think?” she paused.

“It’s all good. I mean, I’m with you on that one,” I said, having lost quite a few threads of her talk along the way. She perhaps asked the question for that is what she had come to supect.

“Why do more international students not join our groups?” she asked me one day, at the end of another meeting. I felt boxed in, almost excluded, but I took the bait.

“I have friends who think the greatest service they can perform is to study hard and get top grades. For where they come from. And what is a needy group of people to you might not strike the same to them. They actually come from countries where poor people are thin, not fat.”

She listened to me so intently, for a moment I ceased to smell her unique smell. I did not know if it was the attention leaders bestow upon their loyal followers, or a hippy love kind of attention that shines on an entire room rather than on a specific person, or perhaps even a sisterly love, for I had had girls mark their boundaries in defense before. If we get to know each other, we are friends, if we go one step better, you are like a brother to me. In her case, I was not so certain of the underlying racial politics, or that there even was one.

I started hanging out with Angela, who was quietish but exceptionally smart. We hit it off amidst our mutual awe at the confusion surrounding the freshman crowd. The newness of the place brought us together. And she could ask endless questions about “where you come from.” We would be together until early hours in the morning, hoping to get some homework done, and would instead talk endlessly. She started going out with a guy from her aerobics class, and then he became our major topic. She gave me the impression she discussed their relationship with me more than with him. She even invited me to go home one weekend, and I did. And then Angela and I started hanging out much less often. One day we bumped into each other and briefly talked about it.

“Whatever happened,” she said. “I hardly ever see you these days.”

We were both amused how, despite that we had not had any falling out, the momentum of our respective lives had carried us apart. But the goodwill remained, and I could still count on her. Once in a while I would call her if I needed a ride to go somewhere. And she almost always said yes.

It was like Britney was this person you met only if you hovered at a certain social energy level. It was easy to miss the beat. But then I found my cause: people. I figured I would rather focus on one organization on campus instead of spreading myself thin and that I did not want to tie myself to any issue in particular, and one lazy evening, at the beginning of my second year, the dorm I had just moved into elected me its Senator. I had shaken a few hands, but mostly it was the handiwork of my friends from my earliest months. They chipped in. And I started seeing more of Brit. Her rage was still on, it is just that I had tuned out. And she picked up topics as if no time had lapsed since we had last had a serious conversation. I had watched her from a distance, sure, but even the guys she only casually related to looked all better than me to me. I’d find myself comparing looks. She is a star figure, I’d think, I am sure she is widely admired. She did not seem to have a boyfriend though. And then I learned her boyfriend was at some other campus, and it was an on again, off again hide and seek game between them.

I could casually mingle with a ton of people, and hover among a wide group, and occasionally I would make my speech, but I refrained from serious commitments, especially those that might require me to attend regular, lengthy meetings.

One Saturday afternoon a friend of hers – but then she must have had tens of such friends – and I started to talk. From the usual topics, she steered the conversation to decidedly personal waters. We went for a ride into town, and then for some coffee. By the time she dropped me off back on campus, it was late in the evening. Many students had gone home for the weekend. She had no further plans for the day, and so she came upstairs. The suite was empty except for the two Afghans who shared a room at one end. And she sampled some of my music. Her voice grew huskier as she tried to maintain conversation. And then she leaned towards me in the couch. We kissed each other, and then there was no stopping her. After we had taken off most of our clothes, between the indecision of whether to do it on the floor, or on the bed, I lost it.

“You can spend the night here, if you want,” I said.

It was two in the morning. And I slept in bed, she slept on the floor.

A few months later, when Britney invited me to a party at her apartment, this friend was there, and Britney seemed to be in the know. I was one of the last ones to leave. She came outside to see me off. The music was muffled behind the shut doors. The street was quiet. And she hugged me, pressing her full breasts against me. I was at a stage in my college career when I had withdrawn into what my friends referred to as my “semester-long depression.” The campus red tape had taken care of the senatorial idealism, and I had become intensely private and creative. My readings became wide, and I read at all hours of day and night, barely having time to get the homework and the assigned readings done. And I wrote a ton. I borrowed a ton of CDs from friends, and then started buying disks upon disks of classical music. It felt like rebirth. And in that quiet I saw the quiet side of Britney.

That hug seemed to have lasted forever. And I started noticing she was no longer hung up on discussing issues with me despite having maintained her full load of trouble-making just like ever before.

A few days later, I looked up from the book I was reading as I walked over to a late lunch, and I saw her, sobbing like a baby. I did not quite know how to react.

“I ran over a squirrel earlier,” she said, moaning. She gave me my second hug that seemed to last forever again. I said I was sorry, not sure I would have reacted the same way if I had run over one. But I also saw someone who was alone amidst the hubbub of the crowds that seemed to surround her most of her waking hours.

We went to lunch together. There were very few people at food service. We sat in a quiet corner. She seemed to have been hung up on the incident. She kept describing how it happened. And then she started talkig about her mom, and her sister who was married and living in Europe. She talked about her hometown which she maintained was “smaller than this one. And you thought this is small.” She asked me about my family.

“You fit in quite well when you first came,” she said. And I felt unnerved, as if she had been watching me from a distance herself, even during those early months.

“How would you know?” I asked, alarmed.

“We have always had a lot of friends in common,” she said.

She said she did not have a class for the next hour. I skipped mine. And we kept talking. I walked her to her class, swimming in the hellos that people seemed to throw at her from every conceivable direction. She ignored them without really ignoring. And we kept talking like we were still at food service, just the two of us in a quiet corner.

“Thank you so much for your time,” she said before shutting the door behind her. She was a few minutes late. The class discussion had already started.

And then I did not see her for a long time. She graduated. The day before she left, she sought me out.

“I’m moving out West,” she said, and kissed me on my neck. She got into her car. And I never heard from her again. While I explored a meaningful relationship a year later, I still sometimes thought of that first hug when Britney McBride pressed her fulsome breasts against me out in the street one morning.

October 1, 2002

(Source : Parmendra Bhagat’s Blog )

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