I had just emerged out of the darkness when I bumped into someone. Looking up, my gaze met that of a woman. She was very familiar looking. She smiled at me, having recognised my face.
“Arunima! It’s been so long! Twenty years!” she went on, but I had zoned out. I was back in the darkness of my mind, the shadows of my past.
Navya was a childhood friend. She was almost a best friend. In a small town in the middle of nowhere, it was normal to consider everyone close to you as a best friend. Sometimes they would be upgraded to the status of family, if you considered them to be close enough. Since everyone in Redwoods City knew everyone else, acquaintances tended to be either close to you or practically your family. With the exception of the Gupta family. No one liked them. But that’s a story for another time. The Rao family on the other hand, was looked up to by everyone. Navya Rao and I were born around the same time, in the only hospital in our city. We had neighbouring cribs and our bond of friendship started back then. We cried hysterically if the other was missing even for a brief moment. Our moms developed partial deafness for a while. We were inseparable back then.
Growing up as neighbours, we spent all of our time together: in school, in the evenings after, after dinner at either her house or mine. We lived in each other’s houses. Calling us best of friends would have been an understatement.
In the fifth grade, they moved to another part of the town. It wasn’t very far, but with a curfew of 7 o’clock it wasn’t easy to go there and get back on time. Evenings got lonely and I missed her all the time. Playing basketball helped me forget about the loneliness, even if it was only while I was on court. I got to meet her in school. The only school in town, it had only one class for each grade. Groups were usually close-knit, as was ours. But being in a group meant no undivided attention from Navya like I was used to. Everyone in school was vying for her attention. She was popular, although one could easily have called her weird, and she loved the attention. Surprisingly enough, the popularity never inflated her ego and her humility was what all the adults found the most awe-inspiring. She was friendly with everyone and had many futuristic ideas. She was always da Vinci to me whenever she put them onto paper. She loved most of all to sit in the trees and just think about everything and anything. I was so fascinated by her. Reading all this, you could easily say I was in love with her. I don’t know if I was though. I was only in the fifth grade.
Later in the ninth grade, when my curfew was shifted to dinnertime and I had to go across town for tutoring, I’d catch up with Navya in the evenings. She’d changed a bit, not being so social anymore but willing to talk if approached. My tutor didn’t know of my existence, which was more than fine with me. I informed my parents of everything that happened in class. It was all very transparent to them. It wasn’t so much between Navya and me. I felt important, like I finally mattered to Navya, every evening I met her. That old bond was still going strong for me. Unknown to me, Navya had other plans.
Ninth grade put forth a lot of different ‘experiences’ to us. While some of us jumped into it with enthusiasm, some including me stayed away. I was successful for a while, until Navya pulled me in.
The only reason I had for being willingly pulled along was that I was ready because Navya was by my side. I was ready because I thought the old bond was strong for her too.
One day while chatting in her bedroom, she suddenly gave me a hug. I hugged her back, surprised but pleased. She moved back and stared. Really stared at me. Then she kissed me. I kissed her back. It was all very passionate up until she tried to unhook my bra clasp. I panicked. Was I ready for this? Till then I had been completely sure of myself. Now I wanted to take a step back. I moved away from her. The daze broken, she looked at me, a sense of sadness, almost betrayal. But then she looked at me carefully and saw the fear in my eyes.
“Are you sure about this?” she asked.
I nodded silently. I could not speak. If I had I would’ve cried.
“Come on then, let’s get dressed, yeah?”
She was so gentle about it, completely okay with it that I wanted to cry even more. She sensed this heaviness and helped me into my clothes, like a mother would help her child. After dressing herself, she gave me a brief hug and said, “Arunima, its okay that you’re not comfortable. It would’ve been okay if you were too. I’m just glad that you stopped us before we did anything that would’ve made you feel worse.”
I looked at her, my eyes teary. “Thank you.” I mumbled.
She hugged me and stroking my hair said, “Really, Arunima. You always do this you know. Lighten up. It’s not your fault. It’s just something we don’t agree with.”
She pulled away and looked at me.
“Are we okay now? Smile would you? You’re making me worried,” she frowned.
I managed a small smile. I was sad, but relieved. This got me wondering whether things would ever be the same.
“Come on. I’ll drop you home.” Navya pulled me off her bed.
We held hands all the way to my home. Outside our door, she hugged me tight for a brief moment and walked away. I stared after her, watching her figure disappear into the distance.
That was the end of that. It got very awkward for me later.
Tenth grade found a lonely me sitting on a park swing until I made friends with Siddharth Gupta. When Navya heard of it, she tried to talk me out of it, but in vain. I convinced her they were false rumours. She had always been very gullible. She then discovered me in the park doing physics homework with him. I was so touched by her concern; at that moment I was willing to give us another shot. Maybe we will be good friends again, maybe we will be friends.
I was jolted back to reality. I focused on Navya, who was chattering away happily.
At some point she stared at me expectantly.
“Yes. Yeah. I missed you so much. I hope you’re happy.”
She gave me one of those glorious smiles of hers and said, “Of course I am. As long as you’re happy.”
She gave me a light hug, waved goodbye and walked away. Smiling slightly, I watched her pale white figure disappear into the darkness.