By Aarav Isaac Samuel
Heat seriously messes things up, right? It is 39⁰C outside and it is like I am sitting in an oven. Alone. Anonymous. Just somebody. That is what people think when they look at me. That is why I don’t have any friends. Because, no one understands me.
I am Oscar and I am seventeen. I was supposed to enjoy my break year, but I am stuck in front of the desk at a supermarket. I am here because my parents told me to get a job to save up money to spend at college (and also get some experience of the jobs I could have if I don’t study well). The only reason that I got this job is because my uncle manages the store.
I have managed this uneventful job for a while, but today, the A.C. broke just over where I sit. Even though I want to get out, I can’t.
Today is my last day of work. Just one more day of forced smiles and cherub-y personas and I am done. This work is not easy – it requires patience and zeal and a lot of smiling. I am generally good at all that, but it being a compulsion makes it really hard to do it right.
I have to say things like, "Hello! How has your day been?" or "How may I help you?". I am alright with asking questions, but I don’t like receiving them since I pretty much just exist. Sometimes it feels like I am floating alone in space. I wish life were more exciting or that I was more interesting, but dreamers keep on dreaming, right?
To be liked. To be accepted. To be known. That is all I want.
Oh! Look at that, Mr. Reeves is back. He comes in like five times each day asking about prices but buys almost nothing. I force a smile on my face, welcome him and offer him help. He grunts. He pulls out a milk carton from his bag, the one he bought that morning and asks for it to be replaced. I take it and see that it has expired. So, I exchange it. He starts to leave and I thank him for coming (again!). He grunts. I do not know what else to do.
Thankfully, the Oaks’ walked in with their younger child. The Oaks’ are family-friends who live nearby. Their daughter, Sam, is doll-like. She recently turned two and is starting to talk. I welcome them and they come over to the desk. Sam waves at me, like how kids do and shows her teddy to me. I say hi to the teddy bear. They proceed to the trolleys and place Samantha in one of them. The Oaks’ are a lovely family. Mr. Oak works from home. I looked up to him when I was younger. He was like the cool uncle that I never had. He and my parents went to the same college. And they have been close friends ever since. I still remember when I used to go to their house to play catch. That was a long time ago. Mrs. Oak used to make the best lasagna in the world. We would all have Sunday dinner together. Everything was fun and happy.
School was also fun back then. Every kid is the same. Coolness is not a problem. Kids play and have fun. Money and creds don’t matter. Everyone is your friend. The kid you met yesterday, and didn’t know his name? Even he became a close friend.
I had a best friend. Once. His name was Luke. We were the best of friends till he moved out four years ago. We had navigated through middle school together. But, he left just before high school and then, it was just me.
I had a "girl" friend too, but she moved up the school tier in high school and, also moved to the other side of the city. Then there was one.
My dad is constantly out of town with the work he has. He is an attorney and has clients all over the country. He is almost never at home. It has been four years since we went on a vacation together. It has been years since we saw a movie, just the two of us. It is mostly my mom, my sister and me. My mom teaches at the local middle school. She also plays the piano. Right now, my mom is pretty busy with my visiting cousins. Their visit was supposed to be just for a week, but it is almost two now and my aunt and uncle don’t seem to want them back anytime soon. My sister is fine with them overstaying. They are all the same age, so they get along well. Me? I don’t. I only know people who are either too old or too young for me. Old people want to talk about politics and other older people and a whole host of stuff I am not into. Younger ones? They do stuff that I have long outgrown.
Whew, it is hot and humid, in here! I want to have an ice bath. An ice cream will suffice, though.
As I day dream about the cold, wild mountains, Diane walks in. She is a junior at college and one of the popular kids in town. I wipe the sweat on my face with my hands and put on a face that I hope looks cool. And I wish she would look at me. Maybe even say hi. Just a sign that she knows I exist. She comes in and goes straight to the make-up aisle without even looking at me. Okay, ignored once, that’s fine. She’ll pass me on her way out. She’ll acknowledge me then. She buys a bottle of face cream. The bill’s a couple of dollars. Her phone rings. She picks up the call and leaves with the cream. Just leaves. C’mon! That’s twice now. Am I invisible or what?
Anyways, the Oaks are back. Sam is busy with her cup of yogurt, trying to open the lid with her chubby hands. Mr. Oak hands me their stuff and I quickly make the bill.
He asked me what I was doing that evening. I say "Nothing", which is not a good idea when it is adults who ask. Because nothing is unacceptable.
But, honesty is important. So, I say it.
He asks me if I would like to come over to his house in the evening. A second passes by and I look up at him and see him smiling. I have a decision to make. Two seconds. I could think of some excuses. But, my brain isn’t working. Three seconds. It is getting awkward. So, I say, "Sure". Mrs. Oak gives a nod as if to say "See You" and they leave.
I look up at the clock and it's already lunchtime. I go into the staff room. The sudden burst of cool air feels so good. I feel like I am flying. No one is there. I find a place to sit and as I pull out my tiffin, Jared comes in. He is a chubby guy. He’s been here for four years. He wears spectacles that look too small for his huge face. Jared is always eating. He looks at me and proceeds to eat his cheeseburger with his nose in his phone. I eat my sandwich and quietly slip out. Jared is a nice guy, but his farts are deadly. All that cheese-you know what, I’ll stop! I don’t want my stomach unsettled after the sandwich I had.
I look at the clock. Just an hour and a half more to four and then I will be free to leave.
A couple of customers walk in and subsequently, leave. Ten minutes. Five minutes. Two minutes, one and finally, it is done. I have completed my first job. I tell Jared I'm leaving and cycle my way back.
I spend a couple of hours watching a movie and then, I start getting ready to leave.
I inform my mother that I am off to the Oaks. I don’t think she heard me over the incessant chatter of my siblings. I get out. The sun is setting and the red hue paints the sky, making everything look like it is dipped in paint.
I choose to walk instead of cycling. Everything around me is dull and brown. Probably, because of the sun. It is late August. Trees are bears. Everything is lifeless and still.
I reach Mr. Oaks’ home by 6:30.
I knock. It has been a long time since I last did that. It felt familiar. Like the old days.
The Oaks’ home is very comfy. They have a carpeted floor and all sorts of antique stuff. I am offered a glass of water by Mrs. Oak. I take it.
Mrs. Oak has blonde hair that somehow always looks puff. She looks picture-perfect. She asks me about how things are at home. I say something. I am not good at conversation, so she asks most of the questions and I answer in short sentences.
She goes to check in on Sam, who was asleep and does not come back out.
So, yeah, I just sit there, then. Alone, again.
Ten minutes later, Mr. Oak comes in and asks me for a walk. A sign that means we will probably be talking. I get on my feet. He puts on his shoes and we’re out.
The air is sweet and cool. Like vanilla. Leaves are crunching beneath our feet as we walk. I have my hands in the pocket of my jeans. It is a bit chilly. Totally the opposite of the weather during the day. We walk towards the woods. I walk with my eyes fixed on my shoes. There is an awkward silence.
"I know how you feel", he says suddenly, taking me by surprise.
What do I feel? I don’t know. Cold? Out of Place?
I look up at him.
He is smiling.
"A bit lonely, right?", he replies, "I felt that way too. In school.”
Lonely? I had not seen that coming. But yeah, I do feel lonesome some (read: most) times
“I had no friends. It was just me.", he goes on.
Mr. Oak had no friends? How could he not have any? If I were as cool as him, I would be out with my buddies every day of the week. People would have loved to be around me.
He continues, "I had a tough childhood. My dad passed away before I was old enough to remember him. My mom and I, we lived in a ghetto. She worked hard for us. Day and night. I remember going to bed with my stomach rumbling sometimes. We were outsiders there. Just moved in. At school, I was the charity case. I remember seeing all the other kids coming with their parents, wearing the best clothes that money could buy. The smile on their faces. Their fathers hugging them. and their mothers smiling. I felt jealous. and angry. But, I could do nothing. I kept my head down and just studied, hard. I had one opportunity to study and help my mom out and I would not let it go to waste. So, I cut the world out. For eight years of my school life, I had no sense of belonging. I would go to school and sit in the corner-most seat that I could find. I did not raise my hands. I stayed silent at class. The kids treated me as an alien, and so I did the same."
I listen quietly, not knowing what to say. Mr. Oak kept going on.
"But then, high school changed everything. I still did not fit in, but I had this English teacher in my sophomore year. His name was Mr. Matthews. He always had this big smile that could lighten your spirit. Once, after class, he sat me down. He started with normal academic stuff, but then said he could see the struggles I was facing. I was taken aback. Struggles? I was fine. Just different. But, he knew the scuffles of being poor. He had also been so. He shared some personal stuff. I do not remember what he said, but I do recall wanting to talk more. He made me feel at ease. We started meeting every week after class. Sometimes at the park or at school itself. He was the first person, I felt, who understood me. He made me see my insecurities. He also told me to write about it. Writing helped. Because even if no one listened, I knew I could still express what I wanted to. Everyday. Just one paragraph. I learned to express my feelings. I also realised that a lot of my insecurity was from thinking people did not like me because I was different. I discovered that was not true. I think that is where you're at, Oscar," he said as he looked into my eyes, "It is common for people to live in a shell, protecting themselves from imaginary enemies. “Even the most popular kids face that. They just don’t show it."
Mr. Oak was making a lot of sense. I wanted to know more.
I asked, "What did you do then?".
"Oh! I kept reaching out to Mr. Matthews. A year turned to two. I was confident in myself and no longer insecure. I started putting myself out there. I was still not welcome among the community. But, I did not let them faze me. I tried. I went out of the way. I would not stop. I even joined a theatre club. But, these were the same people I went to school with. They knew how I was. So, I still had no friends. But, that did not stop me. I kept trying to be open. I graduated from high school with no friends. But at college, I met your mom and dad. They befriended me. Your dad was awesome. He used to sing and dance and just be himself. He made me want to be more like him."
"My dad used to dance and sing?" I asked, surprised. Dad felt so distant now.
"Oh, he did, and he was so good at it. He danced like he had no care in the world."
"I haven’t seen him do that in forever", I say under my breath but Mr. Oak heard it.
"Well he grew up. Working changed him. He faces a lot of pressure from his bosses. I may have a couple of pictures of back then. I will send them to you."
"Sure", I said, smiling at heart. My dad sang! Who knew?
We kept walking and talking. And, I led the conversation.
We were almost going to reach back to Mr. Oaks’ place.
"Look around Oscar". Mr. Oak set near the bend, "Autumn has set in. It is a matter of time before the leaves will be green again. Their current brown would not matter. They will be new again. Stronger. And, better"
I smiled. I understood what he meant.
We scraped our shoes in the doormat and entered. The house smelled of cheese and pepperoni. Mrs. Oak had made lasagna. Sam was awake, too. She wore a pink top with a unicorn on it. She was humming a playful tune.
We sat down to eat and I enjoyed my time there. It brought back a flood of memories. I felt at ease. After we were done, I asked to leave.
I decided to take the longer route home. I was feeling different inside. It was like the weight of the world was off my shoulders. I did not need to fit in. I could just be me. And that would be enough.
I look at my surroundings. It does not seem bare anymore. In fact, it feels good. Like how I am feeling. Ready to become better. Full of anticipation. At the start of a change.
Just as I start climbing the stairs, I get a ping on my phone. I reach out for it. It is Mr. Oak. He sent a photo. It is my dad’s. My dad has his hands up in the air and his eyes closed, in mid-jump. He is laughing. He looks young and happy.
I want to be like that. Care-free. Confident? I want to be known for the way I am. Not pretending to be something I am not. Nor hidden away in self-doubt.
Nature embraces itself. Brown will eventually turn to green.
And, so will I.
By Aarav Isaac Samuel