Life for a thirteen-year old boy is extremely excruciating. There are things you begin to understand and desire, but for some reason they are kept just out of your reach. It is a pity that our societal norms do not keep pace with our hormonal development. You do not understand the reasons that adults give. In your mind, you know much beyond your years, and you can handle everything, but there’s never an elder around who believes in the truth of your feelings.
Being a single child growing up with mostly my mother (father used to come home late at nights from work), I developed a vivid imagination. I believe I hit puberty early too; by the time I was in seventh grade, I already had pimples on my face and was much taller than my peers. Stronger too. The sports teachers prided in placing me at the forefront of all athletic events, and I don’t remember a time when I disappointed them.
Those were the days of no electronic distractions. It was the year 1988, when all we had to fuel our imagination were books. Satellite TV hadn’t made inroads yet. I could read one book a day; I read anything and everything, from my mother’s cookbooks and movie magazines to my friends’ novels of detective fiction and fantasy. Everything held my interest till I finished it, and then I was back to feeling bored. Then, one afternoon, when my mother was having her little siesta, I climbed up the stool to reach the upper shelves of my father’s bookcase. And that’s when I began to discover the joys of things that were not meant for me yet.
My father, a man of varied interests, kept a stash of almost all kinds of books in his wooden bookcase. The books I hit upon were more of a medical nature—those that spoke of the human anatomy with the somber intentions of disseminating information. But for my curious mind, even that somber language was enough. I read on, page by page, fascinated by each picture of the human body, grasping each nugget of information, understanding why my body had begun acting the way it did at times.
And then, when my adolescent mind had reached such a peak where it was flooded with fantasies that had no outlets, I became aware of Marlena.
Marlena (I never knew her last name) was our next-door neighbor in the three-story apartment building that we lived in.
Our housing society was known as The Seabird because of its closeness to the sea. It was a cluster of 24 houses. We had a little garden outside the building, which was a garden shared by all the children in the building, and there were park benches, where mothers could sit and monitor their children and chat with each other. For that reason, I knew most of the boys and their mothers that I grew up with. I found most of my peers annoying and less-informed. No one knew the stories that I did, and they held me in awe for a while whenever I spoke to them of things I had read in books. But that did not last forever. As my friends grew up, they had other things to interest them than my stories. The aunts were insufferable too. I remember most of them pinching my cheeks even when I was eight, and always chatting about the most ordinary things with the greatest amount of enthusiasm.
Marlena, however, was an enigma. The only thing people knew about her for sure was that she lived in our building. She had just moved in a few months ago that year. People only saw her when she went on her small trips to the market, and she didn’t seem to be interested in the other women’s topics of discussion. Or perhaps she just felt herself to be a stranger. Yet that aloofness was easily interpreted by the other women, and they began to variously label her as Miss Snooty Hotpants and Nose in the Air and Hoity-Toity and Twinkle Toes. I never did understand those names.
I also did not understand, at first, why my older friends acted crazily whenever she passed by. They kept looking at her as she walked out of the gate, making comments and remarks that I thought I understood and even laughed appropriately at them, but wasn’t sure what they meant.
“She’s hot,” Johnny always used to say.
“She makes me clean my whistle,” Sam would say and everyone would laugh.
“She is heavy,” Rusky would say with the emphasis on the ‘is’.
I did know, however, that they were things I could not repeat at home, and definitely not ask my mother about it.
And then Sam asked me one day, “Hey Jeff, doesn’t she live next door to you? Don’t you ever catch a glimpse?”
I laughed with the other boys, not really understanding what kind of glimpse he had meant.
The enigma named Marlena began to unravel slowly one night when I was preparing for a Science test at school the next day. It was well over 9 o’clock and there was no sign of Dad yet. He would come back much after 11 in those days, and so there was nothing out of place. Then, when I was busy studying the different kinds of induced magnetism, there was a sharp bell at the door.
Mother was watching Lucille Ball when the distraction occurred. She asked me to open the door, and I did. I was dressed in shabby home clothes—an Addams Family T-shirt that I had outgrown two years ago and blue shorts that had begun to fray at the hems. I went to the door expecting nothing, but the moment I opened it, I was in for the most pleasant surprise I had that evening.
It was Marlena at the door, in a short home dress, clutching a Buddha statue.
“Is your mother in?” she asked.
That was the first time I had heard her voice. I felt it to be a bit raspy, not the way I would have pictured it (not that I had ever felt inclined to do so until then), and that stalled me a bit.
“I asked if your mother is in,” she repeated.
“Who is it?” my mother asked from inside.
“It is the woman from next door,” I said.
At that, mother immediately downed the volume of the TV and came rushing to the door. It was certainly a surprise for her as well.
“I am Marlena,” the woman said, “I live next door.”
“Yes, I know,” my mother said. “I am Edith. Wouldn’t you like to come in, Marlena?”
She moved in gingerly, looking all about the house. At close quarters, the woman seemed quite exotic. She had that tanned Mediterranean skin that I knew would drive Johnny and the others crazy. But the one thing that attracted my attention was the copious amount of makeup that she had on her face.
“Edith…” she said, “may I call you that?”
My mother nodded.
“Okay, Edith, I have a favor to ask of you.”
“Of course, of course,” my mother said as if she lived for doing good turns for random people.
“I want you to keep this in your house for a few days,” Marlena said, and held out the Buddha statue to my mother.
My mother wasn’t exactly superstitious but she held some strong views about curious things that belonged to other religions and cultures. She looked quizzically at the serene statue of the founder of the South-Asian religion.
“Is that a gold statue?” my mother asked, not mentioning her actual concern.
“Yes, it is,” Marlena said. “It is a kind of family heirloom.”
“All right,” my mother said. “But why do you want me to keep it?”
“It’s okay if you are concerned,” Marlena said, taking back the statue. “It won’t do you any harm, if that’s what you think. The actual matter is that I don’t want to keep it with me for a few days. There are some people who might try to take it away from me.”
“Oh, so you want me to safeguard it?”
“Yes,” Marlena said. “I will take it back from you next month.”
Mother mulled over it. It was not that she had to spend any money on this; if she had had to do that, she would have politely declined right away. She only had to keep a statue. Well, that she could do easily, and earn some brownie points in the process too.
“Okay,” my mother said eventually. “Give me the statue. I will keep it in such a hidden place that even my own husband will not be able to get it. Not that Roger knows a thing about this house anyway!”
“Thanks,” Marlena said. “This means a lot to me.”
I had been sitting there the whole time, listening to the conversation with rapt attention. All the time, I looked at Marlena’s beautiful form. She reminded me of those Italian goddesses our History teacher had shown us on video. She had that perfect glazed look and those hair in ringlets. I am sure Da Vinci would have painted her if she had been available at that time.
Then I realized that she was about to leave, and I could not have allowed that to happen without getting introduced to her.
So I went into the kitchen and put out some cookies in a tray—the good Danish cookies that mother had bought ‘only for good guests’—and brought them out to her. Averting my mother’s befuddled expression, I walked up to Marlena and held out the tray.
Marlena was taken aback at that too, and I immediately realized I had done a very stupid thing. “Oh, how nice of you,” she said. “What’s your name?”
That was enough to dissipate my humiliation. I put out my bony chest as much as I could and said, “Geoffrey Haines.”
But my proud moment was deflated like a punctured balloon by my mother (who must have got a hang of things with her unnatural instincts). Waving her hand like she usually did, she said, “Jeff, haven’t I told you not to wear those torn shorts anymore?”
Just like that, I felt lower than a caterpillar’s belly button. With the tray still in my hand, I retreated from the hall and stayed firmly put in the kitchen till Marlena left for her home.
Continue to Part 2.