There's always a beginning in a glance. Like a face bobbing in your periphery until your three seconds are up and pop! she goes…
Because you're forgivably human, you stop in your memory tracks and forget. Lights to be sheltered under, crowds to be assimilated into, an entire social bloodstream to penetrate. It's a bigger jump from third grade to secondary school than Mum ever thought. See how she watches you wade into pubescent territory, ankle-deep in murky testosterone.
Teachers, they'll tell you that wall separating you from trouble is a precaution.
Although, what constitutes as danger is rather a matter of will than romanticism.
He couldn't remember her face exactly, from when he'd seen her outside the school-gates. Twenty minutes 'til they opened, the kids milling around them cherished the last gulp of freedom from the bite of cold morning air in their mouths. When the bell would ring, as was really the problem for him, it would stagger his perception in jagged slants so that her portrait was flawed and her back was turned before he could rectify her from the gaggles of schoolgirls tugging awkwardly at their headscarves this early in the day.
Physics class was the best for viewing his dreams. The teacher in the boys' side of the building had a yawn like a gaping questionable hole. This infamous abyss earned its repute for swallowing the will of any aspiring Newton or Edison who had hopes of making it through GCE's alive. But dreamers like him, they thrived. Where equations and formulae wallowed stillborn in white chalk-dust, he bent numbers out of shape to fit the angles in her face.
Reality's a tricky fiend so he got by with a little help from his allies, armed to the teeth with televisual cut-outs and sound clips from doldrums in reverse. In a pip-sized nibble, radio and television were formidable masters if you knew your way around their vices.
He retouched her portfolio in camera flashes and red carpets. Kareena's nose and Megan's pout and Aishwarya's eyes. Lucy's spunk and Ziyi's smile. He's never heard her voice calling out to any stray siblings on the pavement so she croons jazz by Norah Jones and flirts coyly through the film-roll of a Bollywood epic.
Of course, he'd been careful never to admit that to the others. That he thought jazz was cool and Indian musicals drew more buckets of tears from him than the suspicious masala tossed about in the cafeteria kitchens.
Sure, he took pains not to let it show. All classrooms in the boys' section could boast three long windows taped over with paper for the sake of prying eyes and budding adults confined to female anatomy in Biology textbooks. Beyond the glass, burning in the eastern breeze, the girls' grounds teemed with amoebic groups of tall, short, skinny, plump, pretty and plain denizens of the forbidden fruit-bearers. Just adjacent, sheltered by another metal gate, a PE class of sweating youths lumbered in parallel to the muffled off-shoots of malicious giggles and juicy gossip.
When it was him in the group of runners, he'd picture her apart from her friends, cozied in the shaded nook of the overhanging neem tree that loomed low enough to cover both of their thoughts.
After classes was usually the worst time of the day. All gates were flung open as soon as the last bell sprung its prisoners loose with a sniggering peal. Hard to maintain a pace of detached coolness with kindergartners skipping dangerously close to your trouser hems and cocky juniors whipping off their ties, declaring war on any type of order that dared cinch them in again. He walked slow and without much direction, his moral compass flickering northmost as the dilemma hovered nearer.
She wasn't quite what he expected today, fully visible amidst the mobs and meeting his gaze for a moment before she tugged open the passenger seat of a car and disappeared.
She was what he still knew. A daydream composed of teenage fantasy and rambling musings on love dictated by forgotten poets.
As he still expects, he forgets almost everything but the tilt of her eyes as she'd averted them before anyone could've guessed its target. He'd been too far away to absolve himself fully so he resolved the minor details in his usual way. Angelina's brows and Sushmita's intensity. The color was something he questioned over his practice Chemistry papers until he decided to lay the matter to rest.
For the life of him, he was glad he did not possess the talent or the wandering hands of an artist. His scribbles looped over and over until the margins of his notebook were printed over with spirals. One thought leading to another and another curling tight into the shell of the other. Thankfully, prosaic notions of fanciful flights were beyond him as well. He listed down the symptoms associated with females undergoing their courses without a simpering smirk lingering in the twitch of his hand and was awarded ten more points on his paper for effort.
The principal's office smells like green ink and unfinished signatures. He can't quite put a name on either of their aromas but he knows dread when he senses it.
Sir looks up, implausible through tan-rimmed glasses that blend perfectly into his skin, "How are the new prefects in their posts? Do they appear comfortable? Are they displaying a good example to the rest of the boys, Salim?"
He sighs and immediately suppresses it. He could feel relieved later.
"No, sir. No problems at all. They're all doing fine in their duties…"
Her face peering timidly through the crack in the door as he turned to see who it was. The coup de grace?
Instead, Sir waves her in with all the exasperation of a man saddled with too little frustration. "Salaam Aleikum, Zainab. Could you make it quick? I'm talking with our Head Boy here…
"Ah, Salim, just my daughter, as you can see."
"I-It's okay, sir. I'll wait out until you're done…"
Maybe life's more unfair than he'd thought.