She looked up.
I sat down.
She smiled quizzically.
I placed a rose on the desk before her.
Her eyes widened.
I placed a small bar of chocolate alongside.
Her eyebrows arched.
“Oh for the love of—haven’t you tired of your little ritual yet?!” she cried.
I shrugged and smiled.
She sighed and picked up the rose, tucking it behind my ear. “Now don’t you look precious! What mother-in-law wouldn’t want you?” she teased, smiling indulgently as she picked up the candy and unwrapped it. “I only eat this every year for your sake, you know.” she declared solemnly, waving the bar at me.
“And because you love chocolate.” I teased back gently as I began to stand. I knew what would come next.
She jumped up, drawing herself up to my height.
Well, not quite.
“Quit standing on your toes.”
She lowered her heels back to the floor and began to walk past me towards the door. “I used to be taller than you, when we were little. You used to be such a shrimpy little twerp.” she murmured distractedly.
“Ah, but a handsome one! I had all the babes in the 3rd grade swooning!”
I barely managed to see her laugh before she disappeared out the door. Outside, she was already seated underneath the window arch, watching something below. I leaned at the other side and followed her gaze. The school’s basketball team was practicing in the corner of a field shared with the middle school students, one of whom had wandered onto the court. His face bore the look of a lost lamb, and perhaps that was why he didn’t see the 6’3” bulk of the captain backing towards him.
“He shoots. He scores. He permanently traumatizes confused 11 year old.”
She turned towards me and smiled. “Why, every year? Why the rose and the chocolate?”
“Because the rose was all I could buy with my allowance when I was ten, and the chocolate was the first thing you accepted from me when we met in the 4th grade. But why do I do it? Because I want to.”
In the ground below, a girl flicked her hair; the sunlight caught it in a burst of burnished gold that left the infatuated boy nearby dazzled.
“I give those two a week.” she said, her fingers reaching up and deftly untying her own ponytail.
“A week? Come on, at least give them a month.”
She shook her head gently, the fingers now smoothing with rough strokes the tousled black curls that fell over her shoulders. “A week, because the interschool basketball tournament starts from the 21st. Teams from the entire region. Boys, girls.”
I nodded in silent agreement as I watched her begin to pull her hair into a ponytail again. “Don’t tug so hard, you’ll go bald.”
Her eyes flashed and she smirked.
“Well then, I’ll just have to come to you, won’t I, Mr. Cosmetic Surgeon?” she retorted, as she leaned back against the wall. “Why do you want to become one, though?”
I shrugged. The truth was, I wanted to prove myself to her and this had seemed one of the best ways. The truth was, I wanted to show her people could find motivation because of love and not just in spite of it. The truth was, she made me want to be a better person in every way simply from knowing her. And the truth was, she’d never believe any of it.
“I like art.”
Her high-pitched shriek made a few kids look up in surprise.
“Now that’s a scary thought! What sort of art do you like? Impressionist? Cubist? Abstract?” Laughter made it difficult to talk, but she managed to regain her composure. “I already feel sorry for your future patients. Art is all about ugliness. Since nobody really knows what aesthetics are—and sure isn’t going to let anyone else catch on—it can get away with it. What you see and admire on a canvas is the crude, the odd, the jarring—anything which managed to embed itself in the artist’s mind. But the beauty of it lies in the eye.”
She smiled, perhaps waiting for a response I didn’t have the heart or mind to give. I liked how steadfastly she held to her opinions; her independent mind was one of the things I loved most about her. That did not mean I could always sort out her arguments.
The sound of hissing caught our attention; a group of girls was heading down the corridor. Each seemed to be leaning on the other, casting darting glances towards us every few moments before breaking down into giggles and whispers. They simpered as they sauntered past, slowing down to get a good look. “Happy Valentine’s Day!” they sang out, like a choir of angels, if angels wore plastic bangles and dyed their hair.
I was met in their wake with a stony glare.
“You encourage them, you know. What with your silly Valentine’s ritual and that rose in your hair.” she said, her eyes narrowed.
My eyes popped as my hand flew up to the flower I had forgotten all about. Cheeks flushed, it dawned on me the girls might not have just been staring at a ‘couple.’
“Of course, they’re young. They have a God-given right to be stupid.” She continued, in a stern tone that made her sound older than her years, “But you—you know how much it irritates me and you know nobody can fall in love this young—”
“Let me finish. Yet you refuse to give up this nonsense. Mature a little, will you? You know as well as I do love does not exist—”
A frown creased her forehead and her foot dangled a few inches of the floor, but she ignored my interruption. “—and what people imagine to be love is actually just biology mixed with social conditioning. Studies have been conducted.”
“Yeah, that was a bad idea. Who let scientists rush in where poets fear to tread?” I looked away. I knew I had managed to annoy her.
“What has love ever given the world, aside from Romeo and Juliet? Or Heer Ranjha? Everyone wants to—is supposed to—believe in the fairytale but surprise! There is no such thing as ‘happily ever after.’ The real world is about compromise and custody battles.”
A glimmer of white caught my eye.
She pushed off the sill and paused beside me.
My gaze followed its drift.
A sigh escaped her lips. “When will you stop? Because you will stop one day.” she murmured as she walked away.
I smiled. The muscles in my arm flexed as I reached out slowly. My hand gently closed around the delicate wisp of dandelion fluff from some flower that had bloomed too early. A childhood memory floated back.
Make a wish.
Eyes closed, I blew softly on the downy sphere.
N.B. A different version of this story was co-authored for publication in Young World magazine.