By Nandhini Natarajan
I was deleting all Facebook requests when a name suddenly caught and held me. From thirty-five years ago and ten thousand miles away. I was about to click it open, but my fingers stilled. I didn’t want to see the years on him, didn’t want to bring him into the present. I wanted to remember him as a tall, skinny, sixteen-year-old with thickly-lashed dreamy eyes. I touched the scar on my elbow and smiled, thinking of that long-ago summer.
Before leaving our country, my family made farewell rounds, visiting my uncles who lived in different cities. First, we went to my favorite uncle’s house in a small, picturesque valley in the mountains. At the end of two weeks, I was loath to leave. My family was to visit another uncle, but I wanted to stay longer in the mountains. On the morning of our departure, I refused to wake up, despite the cajoling and threats. Finally, my exasperated mother left me back for an additional fortnight.
I was overjoyed at my victory (later, I swore it was fate). Two days later, some other relatives—ones I had never met—arrived with their large family. Unsure and shy, I hung back until I was pulled forward and introduced. After I met their second son, nothing else registered. I was suddenly assailed with alien sensations, the breathless feeling of anticipation, and the delicious butterflies in my stomach, not at all like the ones before exams.
Growing up with three older brothers who were noisy, bullying, and teasing in turn, I was a tough tomboy. Meeting him shook out my awareness of being a girl. I, who was never at a loss for words, couldn’t utter a word to him, not even a greeting—and neither could he. After that, I spent every night in long imaginary conversations with him where my brilliant witticisms made him laugh, but daylight muzzled me in his presence. I wondered what he thought of this pregnant silence between us. Could he hear my heartbeats? However, I noticed that he always managed to be where he could hear me.
I was so self-conscious that I was clumsier than usual. One day, to my everlasting embarrassment, I tripped and slid down the four steps of the verandah. As I landed with splayed legs, my primary desire was to crawl into a hole and pull it shut behind me. But then I felt something wet and saw the deep gash on my elbow. The copious blood made me sick, and inexplicably, I wanted my mother. When I returned from the hospital with stitches, to my surprise, I was greeted as quite the hero for not bawling and carrying on, which assuaged my pride a little.
I spent another halcyon two weeks, this time filled with him. The younger people spent days picking wild raspberries and blueberries in the valleys for my aunt’s preserves, eating as much as we picked. The rest of the time, we played endless games with its ever-changing rules. But it was the nights we all looked forward to the most. After dinner, we would sit around the fireplace, telling ghost stories and scaring each other witless. The boys especially enjoyed fabricating graphic, gruesome details, which made us squeal and gasp. Usually, the girls sat close together to squeeze each other’s hands and keep an eye on unprotected backs.
Finally, this enchanted summer too ended, and I was leaving the next day. That evening, he was sitting so close that our shoulders touched when either of us moved. I was so wound up, I couldn’t breathe. But the ghost stories were particularly dreadful, and we were drawn into it with frightening intensity. All of a sudden, we heard a terrible keening sound. In one accord, we all screamed (although later, the boys said it was only the girls). At that moment, I felt him reach for my hand and hold it tightly in comfort. The sound was from outside the house. Some of the parents ran outside shouting, with flashlights in their hands. We sat frozen and heard the parents’ puzzled cries when they couldn’t find anything responsible for that unearthly sound. Then someone shone the light on the roof and found the culprit.
When they came back in, my uncle told us in amused anger, “It’s Uncle Joe. Apparently, when he’s really drunk, he likes to climb up on the roof and crow like a cock.”
We didn’t know what to think or say, especially as some of Uncle Joe’s mortified children were also sitting with us. But when the danger was over, I became aware that he was still holding my hand. Finally, we looked at each other smiled. He set my hand free before an adult noticed. Still, no words were spoken.
When I left the next day, he came forward to carry my suitcase, but someone else beat him to it. As the car was pulling away, I broke the silence and croaked out. “Thank you.”
Before the car reached the corner, I turned around. He was standing alone, with his hands in pockets, staring after the car. My heart broke. I never saw him again.
I returned home, convinced I would be heartbroken forever. No one could ever make me feel like he did. The idea was proven false over and over, through the years, but I was right in one regard. I never recaptured the feeling of falling in love for the first time. It was as if I had been asleep and had awoken into a new world. A world of exquisite thrill and unbearable ache.