Sneakers_CARIUMA - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

The Rhythm, by Anu Pohani


It’s English class. You sit behind me. I start the note. Something simple. Not witty, how about – ‘good weekend?’

Your precise handwriting comes back, ‘pretty good. Soccer game.’

‘You win?’ I write back. Each time her back is turned we pass the paper. I wish I could write something cleverer, with innuendo.

‘Nope. 0-1. You didn’t want to come see us get our asses kicked?’

‘Rehearsals,’ I write back. I could have run over after rehearsals, but I can’t bare that face. The face that sees me, waves, and forgets. I want a different face so badly; I’d rather see no face at all.

Can I please be that Girl for you? The one who might wear your varsity jacket someday? And then everything will be ok.

‘Come next time. Might help us win.’

Our fingers touch as the note goes back and forth. ‘Shakespeare is annoying,’ you write.

‘Shakespeare has his moments, but in Mrs __ hands, shoot me now.’

‘If I shot you now, who would make the class go by?’ There it is. Does anyone else see it? I think I see something. Did I put it there, or please oh please tell me you put it there? Don’t tell me it’s in my imagination.

‘OK fine, I’ll live. Only if you walk me to math after class,’ I write. It’s bold. But I must know. I want to pull you out of hiding.

‘I’m going in the other direction. Why can’t you be in my science class instead?’ Of course, it’s not the yes, I want. But please tell me someone, you see, it’s there, right?

‘I think she is on to us. Good thing that there are only innocent, nice things in here.’ I write, hand it back to you.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

For the remainder of third period, there is no small tap or scratch on my back. I think that you think, she is on to us. I think that you think you shouldn’t write back. I am heartbroken. I hope for more. I know I am imagining your breath on my back.

I can see your foot, your scuffed cool-kid sneakers, laces undone, next to my seat. You are sitting low in the chair behind me; I can picture you slouching without turning around. The warmth of your arm radiates against my back. Ostensibly it acts as a shield so no one can see you writing, but the feel of it across my shoulder blades makes me warm between my legs.

I love the way you smell. Sometimes I go to the supermarket with my mom and smell all the different fabric softeners, one by one, to see which one your mom uses so I can make mine use it, too. Then I can smell you all the time.

My book bag is between the chair leg and your leg. There is an outside zipper pocket. I can hear it slowly being pulled open; I can see your hand putting something in there. We start with an ordinary sheet of paper, torn from my notebook. You fold it with precision, sharp corners. Origami. You lean forwards when class ends, before I can turn around.

‘Open it when you get home,’ you say.

Your averted eyes at lunch tell me something else. Your arms around other girls. You took your lunch outside to the courtyard. You are sitting with Ari, Melissa, and Nicole.

I am a simple being, an ugly being. Nose too sharp, and everything brown, way too brown against your pinkness. I’ll eat inside with the Theatre Kids, where I belong. We don’t like the sun; we prefer to be pale, Goth. No amount of shade is going to make me pale.

Faux Theatre Kid, then.

I take a seat with a view out the double doors directly at you. Soccer boys, and pretty girls. What would I do there?

You must feel me staring. Finally, I look away because I have hurt myself enough watching you keep some other girl warm in the way-too-late autumn. I don’t understand. It is freezing cold, and this girl is still in shorts. What if no one cared to keep her warm? I bet that is what would happen to me. It’s fine, I’ll see you at sixth period.

You could have picked the end with the big drums, where all the boys went, but you came to the middle and so did I. It’s here too, isn’t it? We sit and our knees touch. When we stand, sometimes, I lean into you. Sometimes, you lean back, tilt slightly towards me. I think your body is saying, ‘I like it when you are close.’ I’ll hang on to that because when the clock strikes 2:54, you are going to race off with Ari to soccer practice, where you belong.

Today, I can’t bear to feel your heat. I still hurt from lunch, but I smile at you anyway, in a hopefully nonchalant way. You pat the zipper pocket of my backpack, reminding me there is something in there for me, for later. For when I am alone. A corner of my mind wants to set it alight without reading it. I tell it to shut up.

At home, it’s busy. I have chores. Mom sometimes opens my bag and helps to put things away. So, I move the note from my zipper pocket into my jeans pocket. The front one where a sharp corner can dig into my thigh and remind me that the something that might or might not be there is sitting against my skin. Eventually, I hide in the bathroom and open the note.

It’s a doodle of your dog. I think it’s a St. Bernard from all the fur and shading. Underneath it, you write, ‘Can you study with me for History? Come over Wednesday after school? Call me XXX-XXX-XXXX.’ There it is. Your phone number, but you aren’t asking me out.

In the time Mom drives from my house to yours, I sweat through my t-shirt. Mom comes in with me to talk to your Mom. I hear them laughing in the kitchen while you and I play with Alfie in the living room. Mom leaves without saying goodbye. Your mom comes into the living room when mine is gone.

‘So, where were you planning to set up?’ she says. I can feel the blood rise to my cheeks. Good thing for brown skin. Hopefully neither one of you can see me blush.

You shrug and say something non-committal. ‘Why don’t you set up in the kitchen? I’ll watch TV in here.’ The way your mom says it, I know. My mother has mentioned she prefers me not to be in your bedroom with you unsupervised. She sees something: studying as code word for something else. My heart beats faster.

In your kitchen, at your dining table, we sit at a right angle, heads bent over my notes. I hope I don’t smell bad. My palms are wet.

I come over often enough. Mom doesn’t escort me in anymore. It’s a good thing too, because sometimes, your mom is out so we study in your bedroom. A tiny attic room where the only place for two people to be is on your bed. Sometimes our stockinged feet touch.

I’ve never kissed anyone. I don’t want you to be my first. I need to practice on someone inconsequential. Options slim on the ground, I keep my lips a safe distance from yours.

You come to see me in the play. I decide to help the Coach record statistics at your soccer games on Saturdays – goals, assists, penalties, throw-ins.

I have seven neatly folded notes in my sock drawer, in a pair of striped socks that I never wear, buried under the rest of them. I keep my feelings there, too. The notes are sweet. I feel feverish thinking about them there in the darkness. I can’t bear to read them again but, in my memory, they’re a bit flirtatious.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

We move on to Macbeth. Our socks touch, and now our fleece-covered elbows. Finals are coming up. I start to wear cherry flavoured lip balm. Your mom lets us race up to your bedroom after school. My mom honks outside when it’s time for me to go.

At the weekend, you see the new Marvel online with Nicole’s friend. At your house. On your bed. Your mom makes Bagel Bites. I know because it’s in your neat response when I write, ‘How was your weekend?’

I want to watch a movie with you in your bed. I don’t ask if you kissed her. Your lips look different.

Christmas break. Nothing to study for, no school, no reason to talk to you at all. I could call and wish you a Merry Christmas. I have your phone number memorised.

Now, we have English together and also Math. You did so well on the final, they pushed you up to my set. The first day back, I start a note to you. ‘Good Christmas?’

‘Mom got me tickets to Tame Impala.’

‘That is awesome! When is it?’ I want you to ask me to go with you.

‘It was for New Years Eve. SO F*CKING AMAZING!’ You write the last bit in enormous lettering. It takes up the middle of the page entirely. I wonder if it is so I can’t write back. We only use one side of paper normally. I put a smiley face at the end of the ! mark, use one of the dots for an eye.

You keep the note this time. I wait for you at the end of class to walk to Math together. You walk out with Ari. Loud and masculine, you brush past me.

It’s my birthday. Maybe you don’t know or maybe you’ve forgotten. Gabe from lighting brings me a cupcake and the Theatre Kids sing Happy Birthday, in their usual way, making the entire lunchroom turn around. From my chair, behind the cupcake and the candle, I stare at you; silently ask you for a gift.

Acknowledge that I mean something to you and you to me, out loud and in public.

Your face is stoic and when the last note dies out, you continue your conversation. You haven’t asked me to come over to study yet this semester. I know your mom uses Bounce dryer sheets. I buy some.

I can’t give up. Today is lacy and sweet. Today is flowery, sugar-coated, heart-bedecked. Pink and red for lovers. So, I’m wearing red. You will notice me. I will hold your hand. I will give you a red envelope with candy hearts sealed inside. I went through the whole bag to pick the right ones. ‘Be mine.’ ‘Call me.’ ‘Kiss.’

Pick me instead, please. I will be your Movie Girl and your Study Girl all in one.

Today, I won’t see you until Drumming Circle, but it is the perfect opportunity. Still, we are in the middle. Still, you and me, next to each other. It will be the closest our knees have been to one another all week. The closest our bodies have been all week. Then, just when everyone is setting up; people won’t notice me hand you the Valentine, but you won’t be able to ignore it.

The drum master clears her throat as she comes in, calls us to order. Your spot next to me is empty. My heart sinks. You must have a cold.

I leave the envelope in my bag for the next day, when even though I will be in my normal uniform, black on black, I can find another opportunity.

You are not in English. You are not in Math. I think the candy hearts must now be crushed. It’s Friday, drumming again.

‘Hey, anyone know where Darren is?’ someone asks. A weight is lifted off my shoulders.

‘Didn’t you hear about the accident?’ Another weight, heavier, settles in its place.

Hour by hour, the news drips in. ‘They found his bike like fifty metres away.’

‘I heard he went over the handlebars.’

‘Might need brain surgery.’

‘Might need a metal plate in his head.’

‘Might need a metal screw in his leg.’

Even if I call, you can’t answer. Your friends are sad, console each other, hug each other. I stand to the side and force my tears to the bottom of my stomach. Every time the door squeaks open in the middle of a class, I think you are going to walk through it.

‘He has a gash from the middle of his forehead, straight down the side of his nose. It cuts through his lips, down to his neck.’

‘He needed 500 stitches.’

‘He’s going to be on crutches for the rest of the year.’

‘If he makes it out of the wheelchair.’

Please make it out of your wheelchair. I want to come see you. I want to kiss each of the stitches. I want to fix it.

‘I saw him over the weekend. It looks like it nearly took out his eye.’

‘He says the doctor said he flew into the tree. The one by the Science Block, but he can’t remember. Can you believe that?’

‘I signed his cast. It goes all the way from his toes to his crotch.’

That morning, our English teacher finds me by my locker. I am to report to the Office. Her face is sad. Her body is heavy. I have disappointed her somehow, I think.

When I get to the office, your mom is there with the Headmaster, and I start to cry. Silent, guilty, cowardly tears. For hiding where I think I am supposed to hide. For not coming to see you, for not acknowledging how much you mean to me, out loud and in public.

I am not brave.

I am told, you are strong enough to start making up some work. They explain, you can’t come to school, but I can come to you and bring you your work. Your mom thought of me because of all the time we spent studying last semester.

Apparently, when Nicole’s friend came over to study, you were caught doing other things, your mom says with a sideways smile to the Headmaster.

I am the safer and definitely smarter option, the Headmaster says. I can use the photocopier in the Office, so you have all my notes from every class, he adds.

Kissing is for pink people. Work is for brown people. It says so in the name INDUS (as in the river) + TRY (as in harder).

I say, yes. It means I’ll be close to you, again.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

Your mom picks me up after school; my mom picks me up from yours. Each time she tsks and shakes her head. She is so afraid for you. She prays to Lord Ganesha for your speedy recovery.

Three afternoons a week. And Saturdays after rehearsals. No one knows about it because no one asks.

We set up in the living room. Because you can’t climb stairs, this is now your bedroom. You say your brain isn’t there like it was before. You are arranged with blankets over your wheelchair. The leg with the cast is stuck out at a right angle. You look at me like you are trying to concentrate, but my words are lagging like there is a weak Wi-Fi connection.

When you get tired, we stop.

You close your eyes. My heart cracks from how much I want to stroke your hair, and kiss the red, dried blood colour scar just on the left of your widow’s peak. You show me the stitches under where your hair grows back. We are so close; I can smell the iodine you dab on the stitches.

It would be wrong of me to take advantage of you when your brain isn’t there like before. I still haven’t practiced by kissing someone inconsequential. I step back to an arms’ length away. I take your completed assignments into school to be graded. I bring them back with notes from the teachers.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

Your mom is visibly excited when she picks me up outside the Theatre. She shows me up to your room, where you are at your desk. She just moved you back in. The wheelchair is gone. You are on crutches: a big milestone. It means you are healing well. The cast comes off in a couple of weeks and you can start physical therapy.

The scar that cuts your lips in a jagged half is fading. You’ll be back in September. You’ll play again next season, you hope. You aren’t sure about the schoolwork though. Your laugh is high-pitched, nervous. I remind you that you no longer fall asleep halfway through. That you are getting better grades than you did before, sometimes.

It’s the last weekend before finals; we are done for the day. I am secretly happy Mom is late. I am laying across your bed. Your room is also my room, I spend so much time in here. Time that I wish we spend with me running my fingers across your naked torso. When I have those thoughts, I am angry with myself.

Being with you for so many hours is a gift. Given what happened, just having you alive is a gift.

Your door opens. It’s your mom, and she has brought you a surprise. A blond head peaks around the corner and I scramble upright as soon as I see it.

The blond head is surprised to see me. She wants to know what I am doing there.

‘She has been helping me keep up this semester so that when I come back in the fall, I don’t have to repeat a year,’ you say. Your smile is enormous.

I had no idea that you might have had to repeat a year. I had no idea that I had a purpose. I was in my cocoon, pleased to have your smell to myself, to have your warmth to myself, to be able to study your face without having to worry who could see my expression. It would be too obvious.

‘I could have done that,’ she says, crossing the small room to where you are sitting.

She kisses you, and I watch her do it. She strokes your hair and it’s like someone is scratching open my skin. I can’t bear to look away. When she finally pulls back, I see your face. You look at her the way I must look at you. There is so much longing, but it is different from mine. Your expression knows you will soon be satisfied, whereas mine knows I will never be.

Blissfully, a car horn sounds in the drive. I wish you both a good weekend and tell her I’ll see her at school on Monday. She smiles at me. How you look at her and how you look at me is not lost on her. She has nothing to worry about. Never did.

At home, I take a Bounce dryer sheet out of the box. I lock my room door, and rummage for the stripy socks in the drawer. I shake each note out and watch them fall onto my bed. I inhale deeply and I read our notes slowly one by one, in order. There was something there once, but I was too weak to dig it out, claim it for my own.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

In September, you are spry on crutches. Everyone is so happy to see you. I can’t help but be a little proud of myself, knowing that I helped to make you smile so big. Knowing that all those afternoons meant something. Yes, I hope you see the past tense there. It’s been a long summer, and I have no false illusions.

At lunch, I see you put your arm around Nisha. It is not my brownness after all. It is just me. Too timid, too insecure, too inexperienced.

In English, I take my normal seat and you take yours. I don’t start a note to you. After class, you wait for me. We walk to Math. We talk about how much time you have spare without soccer. Physical therapy is good, but it could be another six months before you run again.

After school, you call me. We talk on the phone, and I find my courage to ask what happened to the blond.

‘We broke up at the end of summer,’ you say.

My breath has new life, ‘Why?’ I ask.

‘She’s moving away,’ you respond. You sound upset, but now the walk from class, the phone call make sense. We talk every night on the phone. We walk to class every day. Melissa asks if we are dating.

‘Melissa asked me if we are together,’ I say one night. It’s bold again, but I have to know. Surely, this time, it is there.

You laugh, and my balloon deflates. ‘So, what did you say to her?’ you say.

‘I said we were just friends, of course,’ I say. It comes out too quickly.

‘Uh huh,’ you say.

‘So, who do you have your eye on next?’ I ask. Please say me. Please. It’s been four months since I have seen the inside of your house, since I discovered that the dryer sheets alone are no substitute. They don’t have that sweet, slightly salty musk that belongs solely to you.

‘I’m not sure,’ you say, ‘Who do you think I should ask out?’

I should say me, but we are dancing again, aren’t we? Neither one of us can come out and say it. ‘Nisha is pretty cute,’ I say finally before I tune out.

I don’t want to hear what you think of her, and the words I want to hear aren’t coming.

On our next call, you talk about Squid Game. I think it is too horrible. You mention about the Scream sequel. You say you can’t believe I haven’t seen it yet. ‘What are you doing on Friday?’ you ask.

‘Nothing,’ I respond.

‘Do you wanna come over? We can watch it?’ you ask.

‘And your mom will make Bagel Bites?’ I ask and laugh.

‘My mom is going out on a date,’ you say.

The world is quiet. My ears hear everything through aspic, like being underwater. My blood pounds in my ears. What are you saying? Are you saying that if I say yes, I get to be Movie Girl?

I say yes.

In the car to your house, my mom asks half-heartedly if your mom is home, I say I think so. She says it’s weird you want to study on a Friday night. I shrug, hope it is the end of the questions. You open the door and wave at her. In the house, it is quiet.

You ask if you should order a pizza. I manage to say I’m not hungry.

When we go up to your room, it is full of the smell of you. Your cast is in the corner, cut in half, a memory of what has been. You put the pillows against the wall, so your twin bed looks like a couch. I take the side by the wall; you take the side by the door. We face the small laptop screen, set up on a bookshelf opposite the bed. You turn off the lights and press play.

I shiver, though the sweat under my arms is threatening to drip down my sides.

You ask if I am cold. I nod. We stand up, and you pull the blanket back. We get underneath and this time we are sitting as close as we do in Drumming Circle.

When the man in the mask appears, I flinch, bury my head into your chest. I can’t watch. It’s supposed to be comedic horror, but I can’t find the funniness. Your arm is around me. Your breath ripples my hair.

‘If it is too scary, I can turn it off,’ you whisper onto the top of my head.

Your voice is thick with something else. Your arm loosens around my shoulder, as you make to lean forward to shut the laptop. A small tilt of the head, a tiny one is all it will take.

I close my eyes as I move my mouth to where it can’t be ignored. As you stretch, you kiss me, and I kiss you. You gather me under you so we lay as we kiss. My lips can’t feel the scar I know is there.

You taste of Big Red chewing gum. I do, too. I must remember that the cinnamon is a key component of your signature perfume. I don’t know what time it is, nor how much time we have left until a mother shows up, yours or mine. I reach my tongue a little into your mouth, I put my hand under your shirt.

Am I doing it right? Am I kissing you in a way that will make you look at me like you looked at her?

I want you to press against me. I want the hand on my back to unhook my bra. I feel a never-felt-before wetness pooling in my underwear.

After Scream comes Kujo, after Kujo comes Silence of the Lambs, after Silence of the Lambs we stop pretending to watch movies. You unbutton my shirt. I pull your t-shirt over your head. The feel of your chest against mine, skin to skin. My nipples harden and so do yours.

We ignore each other in the hallways. You move to the back of English class, next to Ari.

We stop pretending to study. Your hand finds its way into my jeans. Mine finds its way into yours. You put your hand over mine and show me how you like it. I am too afraid, but with your hand over mine, we overcome.

Our cadence is disorienting.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

I learn to drive, unhinging us from our mothers.

In your bed, we push against the edge, find a new limit, and rest there for a while. In the middle of the afternoon, on this sticky summer’s day, there is only one place to go.

I am not ready because there are questions I need you to answer.

Why can’t you look at me in the hallways? Why did you move to the back of English class? Why don’t we ever sit together at lunch? Why don’t we ever talk about this on the phone?

Why, when we leave the confines of this room do we pretend we don’t carry one another in our hearts?

I am sitting astride you. I trace the scar from your forehead to your lips. It makes you more handsome. Most of it has faded to nothing, but just at your chin, there is a small dent. You kiss my fingers. I shake my head, and you nod yours. I can’t bear to look down the lengths of our naked bodies where I hover above you. We are inches away from the next edge. I swallow and lay my head on your chest. Your heartbeat is slowing.

Your strength is coming back. I feel it when you flip me on to my back and look down at me. Your pupils are so dilated, I can’t see the green anymore. Your pectoral muscles and arms are stronger than ever from the crutches, and now that you are walking without the cane, your legs are strong too. You kiss my neck; you kiss my clavicle. You move your hand to the drawer above my head. In your returning hand is a condom.

I shake my head, ‘No.’ Whatever would happen next would be too vast for me to hide. But of course, I am still dancing, aren’t I? Despite the outward appearance of it all, you and I know I’ll say yes only a few moments later. So, we make a new motif. Still, our sequence as everyone watches remains the same.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

Anu writes: “My essays and short stories appear in Ruby Lit, Caustic Frolic, The Hellebore, Honey Lit, and Entropy, among others. I can be found walking my unruly, shaggy terrier on the Common or on Twitter @AnuPohani.”
Image: Sneakers by Cariuma – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

12 December 2022