"Are you gay or something?"
That was just yesterday, that question put me off for the moment, it was obviously crafted for that goal, but I felt there was something else behind it. Frankly, I thought I am just securing my back by having some dirt on her and making it known, but there has been something about her the first time our eyes met. I had my secrets and she had hers, at this age it is hard to keep to yourself and for some reason, I am sure there will be a showdown soon, I felt her eyes in the back of my head almost without interruption today.
The Literature class got to be the last, while gathering my belongings I deliberately took my time in order to remain almost alone with Monica in the classroom and give her the opportunity to talk to me. Even as I was sure she will take it, as the time passed and the classroom got more empty, I began to feel disappointed. She still sat in her bench as always, piercing me with those black eyes that made me feel uncomfortable. After only the two of us remained, I finally took my bag and got out the door, but I froze right after passing the frame as I thought I heard Monica call me. Her voice is small and low pitched, the hall wasn't silent yet, so I could not be sure, but looked in and there she stood looking at me. Still not sure, I've turned back two or three steps and answered with a neutral: "Yes?"
She seemed more confused than me and I immediately knew she didn't call me, but her confusion was way more than the regular thing you experience in such cases, so I insisted.
Monica sat down again still fixating me and I felt her more and more panicked for some reason, like I was scary, but, as the hunter which finally has the prey cornered, I simply could not let it go, went in the bench in front of her and twisted myself to look into her eyes.
"Look, I am not upset, I will not tell anyone either, if you knew me, you would trust my word, but, even so, what choice do you have now? I think we need to talk, for various reasons, right?"
She tried to say something but didn't manage at first. I knew I didn't need to push harder, for some reason I've already got much further than I ever thought possible, so waited patiently trying to have an encouraging and passive attitude, one that I thought all good psychologists have.
She finally managed to speak.
"How did you know?"
"That I wanted to talk to you."
"Well, you've called me, no?"
"No, I wanted to, but didn't…"
From that I had the confirmation she feared me, maybe because I had her secret.
"Well, I thought I heard you call me, just turned back to make sure. Anyway, I am listening."
"Let's go out?"
"Alright." And we stood up and went through the, by now, deserted hallway. Only Monica's steps made some sound on the tiles, my walking is almost completely stealthy, she said nothing until we got out of the gate.
"I am sorry for yesterday morning,'' she started carefully watching the pavement, "I was afraid and wanted to shut you up, but that was a mistake. The cat is out of the bag already, so, nothing I can say or do will make you forget what you've found out."
"So, what was the subject you wanted to talk about with me? May I do something for you?"
I thought the reason I needed to talk was to make sure she knows I have something on her, so won't ever attempt to rat on me. However, that didn't look like a realistic possibility now, first, she would probably not do that in any case, second, was way more afraid than me, even trying to negotiate her way out of it.
"I've already told you I will not tell anyone, thrice, if we consider this round, I am sorry if you felt threatened, I only wish to talk to you, that is all."
She looked into my eyes and relaxed, but paused for a while before answering.
"I agree, from my part, I only wanted to apologise and ask what are your plans with this information."
I had to be completely open and make sure she understands my position.
"Apologies accepted, there must be some extraordinary circumstances which made you lie about it, as for my plans, I have none, just wanted to make sure you won't start talking things you don't understand and know nothing about. Also, I am simply interested in you."
She stopped and held my arm piercing me with those deep black eyes.
I looked at her for a while, she continued to stir me inside with that look, but eventually let my arm go and looked back at the pavement.
I felt something deep in her, it raised some red flags, but I wasn't able to understand it yet, maybe because it was so unexpected, even as I probably had all the necessary data. I've decided to be as neutral and sincere as possible, while not giving out too much info, after all, I had something big on her, it was her interest to win me over.
"Wouldn't you be, in my place?"
She pointed at a bench. "Let's sit?" and I went ahead and sat before her.
She took some time to answer looking at the small corner cafe.
"You are right, so, what do you wish to know?"
"Everything you can tell me. For example, where are you from?"
She looked uncomfortable.
"I will answer all of your questions, will you do the same for me?"
I've carefully thought of it, something pushed me to be open up to her, instincts never betrayed me yet, so I agreed.
"Sure, anything you'd like. So? Where are you from?"
The answer came so unexpected I thought she mocks me, at first. But, then, it made sense, her dark complexion for once, a reason to lie…
"What is your birth name?"
"Where do you live?"
"Pretty close to your house, I'm helping an old lady with stuff and she gives me her basement and some food."
"And your parents are in Surya…"
She turned to me.
"What did you say?"
"That your parents are still in Syria…"
"No, you've said Surya, I have good ears."
"Possibly, why does it matter?"
"This is how locals call it, how did you know?"
"No, idea, maybe the news?"
She relaxed a bit.
"Yes, they stayed there."
"And you are here by yourself?"
"But you were not alone all the time."
"How did you know that?"
I paused a bit concentrating on those big black eyes, they became blurry soon, but I already knew some things. I felt like I could read her thoughts, but telling the truth would have meant big trouble.
"I don't know, I've just thought…"
"That I am a stupid middle-eastern girl, born only to cook, wash, clean-up and breed, unable to take care of myself, right?"
The violence of the reaction put me off. I took a long look at her trying to understand why she went bonkers like that. She interpreted my attitude correctly.
"I am sorry, go on." And started to carefully study the "STOP" sign across the street.
I've forgotten what I wanted to ask. Up until then she looked like a cold mountain in the back of the classroom, now reacted like a volcano venting deep pressurized and heavy currents.
I was afraid of her, but didn't know why. She would obviously not gain anything by setting me up, on the contrary, I could safely ignore her, still, on the other hand, I had to know more.
"So, how do you manage? Work some place?"
"No, I am writing essays, doing homework for others, teaching French…"
"Wow, does it pay well?"
"I get by…"
Judging by her appearance, I wouldn't have said so. She probably charged way too little for all that. I've decided I will help her, but not before knowing more.
"How do you cook, wash your clothes, what if you get ill?"
"I've already told you I get fed in exchange for some minor help, as for washing, there are cheap washing powders in the shops, I have free water... Getting ill…, inshallah, it won't happen."
"How did you manage to enroll here, fake papers?"
"No, I was adopted."
"My uncle had a business here."
"So you've got adopted by him…"
"No, by the guy that killed him..."
"It's complicated, they were good friends at first, but then, my uncle found a woman that loved him and his partner, my adoptive father, got jealous…"
"Your uncle was gay?!"
"So, I suppose, your adoptive father is in jail…"
"No, he killed himself."
I didn't know what to say. Monica, or Yara, told me those things so composed, matter-of-factly, just answering some questions. It must have been terrible, but she acted like it happened to someone else.
"Then, you are an orphan…"
She thought about it a bit.
"Yes and no, you see, all papers have been filed, approved and all, I've said my family in Syria are all dead, I knew of a case and took the identity of a dead girl there, but it took a long time to receive the official answer the adoption is successful and my papers. In the meantime, my uncle got killed and my new father killed himself, so, when the papers came, I've asked a neighbour to pretend is my father and sign for the delivery, I have the papers, but I am not sure whether they are still standing or not, if the adoption hasn't been cancelled somehow. But, yeah, if they haven't been cancelled, then I am an orphan by now."
"Wow, it must have been terrible for you…"
"Actually, no, it is great, I am free to do whatever I wish…"
"I don't think so, as soon as someone finds out…"
"Yes, I have to stay off the radar for now, but once I am 16 I can keep going on my own."
"Who will help you?"
"The old lady I live at…"
"Which keeps you in the basement and feeds you some crumbs?!"
"It is more complicated than that, she is very nice…"
"How can you say that, when…"
"Listen, you don't know our arrangement, she is very kind, I owe her my life, is not at all as you'd imagine her…"
"I suppose… Anyway, that must have been hard for you, psychologically, how do you cope?"
"I am alright, I am concentrating on me and my plans, the rest is relevant only from the legal perspective and how much it restricts my freedom."
"I see, nice you could do that… And, what are your plans?"
"Nothing unusual, GCSE, a-levels, a loan for University, a job to pay for it..."
"What kind of GCSE?"
"I will go for Math, as much as I can, sciences, I would like to be an Engineer if I can't work in research, I haven't decided yet which ones exactly, I feel comfortable with all, depends on teachers…"
"I would like to be a Psychologist, but also an Engineer. So I will take Math, Physics, my father is a Geologist and I would like that too, personally I think I can take them all."
"Yes, me too, your system is so much easier than school in Syria, I found out I already knew many things you study in secondary school here. And I already know French."
"And Arabic, no?"
She smiled looking away with a dreamy face.
"I am not sure it is safe to take that."
"So, what do you think?"
"Yes, go ahead, no matter what you'd say I won't be upset."
"Why would you be upset, I admire you a lot, you did great given the circumstances, I am not sure I could have survived in your place thus far, let alone make such detailed plans for the future."
She looked at me in disbelief.
"Are you mocking me?"
"No, that is genuinely what I think, good job so far, but you should really change something about your attitude. You need to relate more to the people around for a successful life and career."
"You are right, I am afraid I will be caught, keeping the distance is a way of keeping safe."
"Suppose you are caught and the adoption is invalid what could be that bad? You will get a shelter, food, school, without having to…"
"That is out of the question."
"I am sure you won't be deported…"
"No, you do not understand, I have to become independent, British, important things depend on it."
I looked at her and felt pity. She struggled to be honest, but that question was a bridge too far.
"I need to live in a stable and democratic country. My life depends on it."
"I am sure nobody will send you back…"
"Maybe not immediately, but can't you see the rising racism? They are sending back people which came before the seventies together with their kids and all…"
"That is not all of it, tell me, what's so important?"
She pierced me with those black eyes, panicking again.
"How did you know?"
"As I've said, I am trying to learn to become a psychologist."
"Congratulations, you have chosen really well."
"Now, don't deflect, tell me, your secret is safe with me."
"I can't, at least not right now, can you understand this one thing?"
She was on the verge of breakdown, a steely determination kept her together and I didn't want to push past the breaking point. I've tried to relax the atmosphere.
"I can, anyway, it is you turn."
"What do you mean?"
"To ask me stuff, I will answer as promised."
She seemed to come back from afar and it took a while until she managed to put herself together enough to remember some questions.
"Are you an addict?"
Those black eyes looked again deep inside me, raising heartbeat and temperature. She got convinced I am telling the truth.
"Am I dealing? Well, it is a long story."
Her eyes returned to the "STOP" sign.
"Do you need to hurry home?"
"Actually, I do, mum is getting crazy very easily…"
"And she beats you up…"
It was my turn to get worked up.
"How the fuck did you know that?"
"I've seen many cases… Go, don't give her reasons, we can continue some other time."
She obviously saw those cases from very close. Took a deep breath to calm down.
"Nah, she is old enough, I don't care anymore, this discussion is way more interesting than anything I did in the last year or more."
"Alright, then, as you wish, please tell me the long story."
And I've told her about Anna, how she died because of the impurities and damn criminal negligence, I've told her how I try to make sure that does not happen again, I have a whole laboratory at hand and can test it, cut it only with safe and sterile products, make sure everyone is informed about how to get out of it, that nobody gets hooked because of me, it took a long time, but eventually, I finished. All this time she looked at the "STOP" sign.
"But you make good money out of it, right?"
"Better than the street gangs to buy guns and kill each other in turf wars, dealing to friends at school is much safer and gangs can't hope to take over my customers, they would not last long in their hands anyway, so, better take safe money from me in the long run, it works for all parties."
"Look, all these chants, drugs are bad, let's kill the dealers and addicts Duterte style to protect our kids, are pure propaganda to gain votes, it will never work, the only results of that are unsafe and unknown ingredients and dosage, wide variety of purity, disease, fear and stigma, while the high prices are driving people to crime and gang violence. All this means more deaths, from overdoses or simply bad ingredients like in Anna's case, turf wars between gangs and random violence due to petty crime to feed the habit, lives destroyed in prostitution and prisons, wars abroad, it is the ultimate lesson of mismanagement."
I've felt reevaluated again.
"You will make a good psychologist, but I think you would make an even better attorney."
"Hah, an attorney is a failed psychologist…"
"Who said that?"
"Nobody I've heard of, just thought of it."
"Some other questions?"
She took her time, looked at me then back to the "STOP" sign. I expected some embarrassing or complicated question. She disappointed me.
"Why does Diana call you Jay as well as other people? Your real name is Jane, Jay is a boy's name…"
"Ha, when I was learning how to talk, couldn't do it properly, my sister and parents told me my name, but I could not say Jane, it came out something like Jay, in a short while it became Jay-Jay, then turned back to Jay, even as I could say it correctly by now, everyone called me Jay, so it stayed like that and I don't care if it is a boy's name, I feel like I could choose my name and I like that very much!"
I was doing everything to relax the discussion but she got more tense as time passed. It was a curious kind of tension, I could not figure it out.
"If you wish to know anything more about me or my dealing, now it's the time, go on and ask, I will answer."
She took her time again, but now kept staring at me, up and down, like measuring my body or something.
"You are a swimming champion, what do I need to get into swimming?"
It felt like a deflection and there was surely an ulterior motive, I looked into her eyes and her face turned red, but didn't look away. Asking about the motivation would have been a mistake, though.
"Well, it is simple and free, you need to join the club, I can arrange that for you, the costs are paid through sponsorships. Even equipment is free. Do you know how to swim?"
"It's been some time, but I grew up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea…"
"Well, this is a somewhat pro club... Listen, if you really wish to get involved, I will help you to get in, it may take a week, though, we need to get separate bookings at the pool to prepare you a bit, but I've been looking at your body and seems made for it, how old are you?"
"I was born on the 17th of September, fifteen and some two-three months, but the papers are for a slightly different date, 12th of October, how about you?"
"What's so unusual?"
"Because I was born on the 18th…"
She looked into my eyes for a while.
"So, we can compete in the same category."
"Eh, compete is a bit far fetched, maybe in a few years…"
"When is the next championship?"
"Usually in May or around…"
"It's not impossible, I think I can do it."
She got upset.
"Let's have a bet?"
I looked into her eyes. She really thought she could do it, so I had to explain some things.
"Look, you don't know what this means, it's not only swimming all the time, we have to do a lot of GPP or general physical preparedness, this means exercise at the gym for hours, boring, tedious, hard... I am training for close to ten years, developed the muscle groups, the moves, perfected every fiber even in my fingers, I've just about managed to win last year, but that is only because…"
"I can imagine, but I learn fast and can do a lot of effort."
"You have no idea…"
"That is besides the point, let's bet that I can beat you and I will begin to pay the bet right now."
I looked at her somewhat perplexed.
"We didn't even…"
"I will do the homework for you, anything you don't like, for free, teach you French if you want, Math, in exchange for swimming lessons, I will…"
"Wow, wait… I mean, are you really that serious? You want to do this so badly?"
She looked into my eyes again.
"OK, then, we have a deal." I didn't even stop to think about what I would have to pay if I were to lose it, I regarded all the things she would do for me as a kind of a payment for my efforts to help her with the swimming. And I had the perfect opportunity to make her life easier. A champion must eat right, sleep right, you know…