By Noori Passela
Her name is the first thing she tries to discard. Even the first attempt to swallow it down has her choking on air. It is too dangerous to allow it fly loose on the afternoon wind, even in as large a city as this one; news still travels as swiftly as the azaan (call to prayer) does on Fridays and the Psalms do on Sundays. Especially fast was bad news: a funeral, a firing and now a shiny bright red ‘F’ that mars a sheet of paper stuffed in her schoolbag.
“Never lie,” Mama and Baba had always instructed her. “Lying gives birth to many, many bad things.”
Except, she is not lying. She is not going to lie. Not yet.
She is only unraveling facts, one at a time, so she can pick which to keep later. Logically – as how they’re supposed to do in Physics – she pulls up her name first, since it’s the first thing that has rung through her head since this morning at school. Logically speaking, her name is always the first to be called because it begins with an ‘A’.
Not an ‘F’.
So, this is what she has been trying to do since the last bell of the day: forget her name, and the rest of herself would surely follow. It seems to be working so far; she has already forgotten her usual route home and walked way past the pharmacy– that is still open and running– on the ground floor of the building she lives in. She can always go back.
She can always go back, she tells herself, once she’s done.
She was not the same person she had been after receiving the report card. And – if she’s being totally honest – she has not been the same person for a long time. Even the ‘A’ which always stood at the start of her name was absent throughout most of the semester. And the one before that. And the one before that, last year.
First, if a name is forgotten, the rest of the person would be next. Logically.
“Don’t lie!” Mama chides her in her head.
But she’s not lying. She can’t lie to herself. The ‘F’ had been looming over her head while her mind wandered away from class, and now it had done good on its threat and made its way onto the closing line of her term report. It is all her fault for letting the truth slide this far.
It is both too early and too late for tears. The tears won’t wipe off the ‘F’ and they won’t wipe away the dread of having to present it to her parents. So, if she lets go of her name and the rest of herself now, there wouldn’t be enough for her to be hurt by their angry, stinging words.
“If a name is forgotten, the rest of the person would be next. Logically.”
The end of the road next to the sidewalk is nearing. There’s even a traffic light turning red, signaling to her to halt should she decide to cross to the other side and contemplate how far it took her from the building she lives in. A bright, ugly red.
She can stop. She can tell herself to stop.
Instead, she turns on her heel and heads back the way she came from. But then, the building is suddenly too close to her, looming as large as the ‘F’ above her head, and she has no choice but to walk past it again, straight to the other end of the line of similar buildings on the street. She can always go back later, she tells herself, she can do that. Just not now.
Another thought flits through her head, in between words weighted with disappointment and anger, and it goes like this: couldn’t she just stop and take a breath, just one deep enough for the entirety of the world to stop spinning?
And yet another goes like this: what does one minute gain? It cannot give back the time she wasted on daydreaming when she should have been revising. It cannot change the nature of the wasteful dreams, as sweet and as golden as they painted themselves to be in the morning light, when they would peek past the paper screens lining the classroom windows.
She could give up the dreams, but giving up the rest of the self attached to her name just feels easier right now.
So, she tries again, running through each letter in her mind, picking them off and squeezing them into the shop signs she usually pays little heed to on her usual route to and from school. The ‘A’ feels more at home in so many of them, in the ‘bakery’, for instance, and especially in the ‘cakes’ on its outdoor menu. And then there are all the ‘baqalas’ (grocery stores), bursting to the brim with shelves full of packaged croissants, cheap glistening cupcakes that sell for two dirhams, glucose biscuits, packets of sunflower seeds, smoked almonds and spicy cashews.
For a moment, she wants nothing more than to take refuge in one of these shops and disappear through a shelf or even a hidden cupboard, just like that story about the lion, the witch and the wardrobe. Who needs names in an imaginary world? She would make up a new one. At least it was the one thing she was good at using her head for.
Yes, this is a good thought, running away. It is not a good idea, but it is a good thought. Even if she doesn’t even have a fils lining her pocket, she would have what was left of herself, with no ‘A’ or ‘F’ in sight.
If it is supposed to be a good thought then shouldn’t it make her smile? She glances at the reflection in the nearest glass door. Her uniform makes her look and feel smaller than she is. She has not grown much over the last few years. So, yes, that does make her small; small enough to hide for a while, disappear for as long as she could.
She can feel herself shake in fear, from the tips of her fingers to the ends of her toes. These last few months have been a lesson in nerves. These last few years…
She has to be honest with herself now. There is no other choice.
She has been a failure for a long while now. When it started, and when or if it would ever end, are questions that can be answered later, but each day of feeling like a failure has felt like a year in passing. It is not something that she likes to put into words, and even if she wanted to she couldn’t. It was all letters and numbers, lines of F’s and 25’s, and sometimes 50’s by pure dumb luck. But it was always never enough.
So, this is it. She looks at the mournful stranger in the glass. This is it. This is all she is and ever will be.
The door suddenly moves and her reflection looks askance. Someone is leaving the shop, outside of which she still stupidly stands, and the tiniest voice in her head tells her she has to get moving soon. She takes a few steps backwards, turns around and is met with the most sickening sight.
Baba’s car is slowing to a crawl near the pavement. The window on the driver’s side is rolling down.
He does not call out her name. Maybe this was going to be her sole achievement of the day– having successfully discarded her name. If only the report card would follow. There is just so much of herself left to spare.
And Baba’s words do not spare anything, or anyone. Experience has been her best teacher.
“She can feel herself shake in fear, from the tips of her fingers to the ends of her toes.”
Baba is not really looking at her from the driver’s seat; he’s scanning her from trembling head to toe, taking in the pathetic sight. It is now that she wants to cry. What an idiot she had been to delay what was coming. She should have known that waiting was the worst part.
“Hey!” he calls out, a command. She obediently walks out, but stands as far away from the car as she can.
“How come you’re wandering about here?” he asks, a trick question. He already knows the answer. If she shrugs in response, she’s going to catch it from him. She shrugs anyway.
It goes over as well as she can expect.
“What’s wrong with you? Answer properly!”
“I’m going home now,” she replies, grasping at words. None of them are correct, but anything will do to get this over with. “I’m going home. I’m sorry.”
She does not dare run. Keeping pace with Baba’s slow-moving car is a monumentally difficult task at the moment. Even quadratic equations are not this bad. She can take being hit over the head with any amount of formulae, if that can keep her distracted from the hammering of her heart against her chest. She is only two shops away from the building with the pharmacy on the ground floor. It feels like it is ten million miles and a heartbeat away at the same time. She can already feel the contents of her head disconnecting from the blood rushing inside her ears, and the prickle of nerves underneath her skin giving rise to goosebumps.
The door to the building draws nearer and nearer. Baba is parking the car right in front of it. When he gets out, it’s like he’s gliding, his spindly legs taking him seconds to reach the door before her. He yanks it open and turns to glare at her, wordlessly berating her to hasten for her punishment.
If only every minute was a mile.
Noori Passela was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Abu Dhabi. She aspires to be a published author. In her free time, she nibbles on any genre, from crime to thriller to historical drama. For Noori, the thicker the book is, the better.