The first day on campus is a happy one, full of smiles and prophecies of what is to come. Roommates greet and hug, and friends meet one another again cheerfully. There are groups and clubs parked on the lawn, shouting to join this acapella crowd, or the writer’s gang, or the DJ booth. Professors come out to greet the parents in their tweed jackets. The students themselves wander around in awe.
It’s horribly depressing.
He’s too scared to come out, so he sits in the cab for as long as the driver will allow, chewing on a cigarette. He didn’t smoke except for when he was anxious or stressed.
“First day, kid,” the cabbie growls. “You gotta get out at some point.”
He doesn’t tear his gaze from the window. “Do I?”
“Yep. I got clients to pick up. You gotta just get it over with.”
“Passengers, kid! I ain’t makin’ any money sittin’ here waitin’ for you to get up your courage.”
He quickly turns, fumbling with his money clip. “I’ll give you a hundred per hour to stay.”
He scowls but snatches the money. “A hundred and a cigarette. You’re too young to smoke.”
Later he’s wondering if he should have waited longer. Despite the cabbie’s prophecy, another cigarette hangs from his lips. Everyone has long since gone inside as he tries to map out his room.
Laughter echoes from inside closed doors, mostly female, but he doesn’t turn to look. He wasn’t sure what was so great about girls anyway. To him they just seemed like some sort of alien species that twisted men’s minds and made them lose their tongues and money, all for the pleasure of their bodies. He’d heard his mother talk about all the “women from Mars, men from Venus” crap, and he’d always wondered if that was true.
He wasn’t sure if she meant it literally, but still.
He peers at the doors, walking up and down the hallway until he spots 214. His room. He pokes his head inside cautiously.
There’s five or six guys standing in the center of the room, all talking together and laughing. He blanches. He was only supposed to have one roommate, right?
“Yeah, my roommate's a total weirdo,” one guy is saying. “Second we’re in, he asks if I want to play checkers. Come on! Checkers? I tell him no, I just wanna go check out the babes, and he’s like, why would you wanna do that? Yeah, he’s gay, so I gotta watch my towel when I get out of the shower.” He grins and flexes his muscles.
The other guys laugh. “My roommate’s sweet,” another guy says. “Got all sorts of posters on the walls and he’s totally nicer than the other guy I got rid of.”
“Haven’t met mine yet,” another guy said. “Hoping he’s better than any of yours.”
Rich boys, he thought. No way they could have gotten into a school like this by themselves. He decides to speak up.
“Excuse me?” he tries. The guys all stop and stare at him. “Umm…” His heart pounds. “Um… is there a-”
“Bathroom’s down the hall,” the first guy says. “And if you need to get back to the room where they’re talking to the families just turn around and take a left.”
“Oh, no,” he stammers. “I’m- I’m looking for a Casey Keys?”
The guys look at each other in surprise. They’re all massive, all dark hair and muscles. Maybe they got in on a sports scholarship instead.
“That’s me,” one says. “So you’re… Nehal Bhandari?” He sounds doubtful, like Nehal was lying somehow.
“Y-yes,” Nehal said nervously. “Um… so this is the dorm?”
“How old are you, kid?” another guy growls. He’s the biggest of them all, in a ripped shirt and muddy blue jeans. His hair is swept casually to the side and his eyes- blue- are cold.
He’s strangely captivating.
“Uh, fifteen. I skipped a few years.” Nehal said. “Sixth, and seventh, and…” he trailed off. The guys all look at each other and shrug.
“This way, roomie,” says Casey. Nehal follows, glancing briefly at his friend.
The room was very small, and dark, and has no windows, but it’s nicer than any room Nehal has ever had. There’s a bed cramped up against the wall next to a scratched dresser. He wasn’t sure why he was expecting much more.
“Thank you,” he says to Casey. Casey frowns at him in reply. “Where are your parents?” he asked. “Do you have any stuff for your room?”
“Uh, they didn’t really want to come. Mum thought I’d have everything I needed at campus. She said there wasn’t much point in coming down four hours just to leave again. It’s fine,” he adds. “I agree with her. It’s simply logical.”
“Ah,” Casey says. He gives him a sort of appraising look. “Well, I’m sure one of the guys could dig up some extra sheets, if you need anything. And I’ll be right next door.” He smiles. “At least we have our own rooms, right?”
Nehal nodded nervously. “Thanks about the sheets. I think I’ll be okay, though. I just need a map of the city and I can find something.”
“Where do you live? Your accent is interesting.”
“India till a couple years ago. Then Britain for a while. Then down to New York for college. I’ve been here six months.” He tried to make eye contact with the giant above him, but Casey was too tall. His eyes were narrowed also, which made Nehal extra-nervous. But he sensed he would be alright. There was kindness to Casey’s face.
“Anyway,” Casey said. “Some of us are going out to get food in a couple of hours. You wanna come?”
“Uh. Maybe. I mean, my mom wanted me to call her, and she can talk a long time. If I can,” he said. He swallowed and tried to avoid Casey’s eyes.
Casey doesn’t say anything a moment, giving him that strange look again.
“Well,” he said.“If she wants to talk to you, she should’ve come, right? Anyway, see you at lunch. We’re headed out to check out the classes. Catch you later.”
He touches Nehal’s shoulder in a gesture that seemed… friendly. Warm. Sort of an I’ve-got-you type of thing. He stared after him as Casey left the room.
Wow, he was… weirdly nice. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone be that nice to me.
He pushed his suitcase on the bed and sat down on the floor to call his mom, listening to the sound of Casey and his friends laughing their way down the hall.
“Hi, Mum,” he said the instant the call connected.
“Hello Nehal,” she replied. “How are you? Have you settled in well?” As always her voice was sharp, parting his nervous mumbling with her iron tongue.
“Is everyone nice?”
“Are the dorms lovely?”
“Uh…” He gazed around the room a moment in silence. “Yes, Mum.”
“What’s that voice? Are you lying?”
She sniffs. “I should hope not. I didn’t raise a liar. Are the classrooms nice? You picked afternoon classes, didn’t you?”
They talk for a while. She talked, anyway. Nehal just answered with a “Yes, Mum,”
“Oh,” she says suddenly a while later. “Nehal. We have good news. Do you remember the Laghari family?”
His heart drops. “Yes…”
“They’ve agreed to the match. Set for when you’re out of college. What do you think? The dowry isn’t bad, and she’s a lovely girl, always very polite…”
His mother sounded excited. She was an admirer of the family, and Nehal could be a good chance for them to rise upward in the social circle. Nehal nodded along, but he could feel a heavy weight dropping into his stomach. He didn’t want to get married to this girl, today or any day. Ever.
He wasn’t quite sure what he was, but Nehal doubted he was very straight. The things other boys talked about, with their color high and faces enthused he couldn’t connect with. The images slipped from his brain like water. They just didn’t interest him at all. He preferred to stay in his world of equations and science. It was easier to block out the things that actually did interest him, easier to hunch over his worksheet rather than notice the curve of one boy’s arm or the way his shirt fitted him particularly well.
Nehal didn’t want to be gay. He knew he wasn’t straight, but did he have to pick one? Gay, straight, or bi?
Apparently, he thought sadly. Stupid society. At least he knew which his mother preferred him to be. Then maybe it would be an easier choice between the three.
She was still talking. “Then you’ll have to move back to India, of course, when you become a doctor. There’s this neighborhood I know by a great clinic. You could live there! It’s nice and safe, a good place to raise children. You’ll love it. And--”
“Mum,” he interrupted, unable to take it. “I- I have to go. The professor’s are talking to us. Call you later?”
“Bye.” He hung up and stared at the phone in silence for a long moment. He rubbed his eyes and stared at the ground.
Another decision taken out of his hands. Another piece of his life moved across the board. He hadn’t really wanted to come to this college, if he was honest. He hadn’t really wanted his parents to stay at home, or he hadn’t wanted a cat for his birthday instead of a dog. He didn’t want to be put into classes with high schoolers when he was twelve, hadn’t wanted to move to America at all. He didn’t want to paint his room blue, or have a corn-beef sandwich with peppers and yogurt every day for lunch. Frankly, he didn’t even want to pretend to be straight.
Nehal rubbed the palms of his hands into his eyes again. He was feeling a little shaky all over and there was a buzzing growing more prominent in his ears. He took a deep breath, long and hard so the tears wouldn’t start. He pulled a cigarette from his coat pocket with trembling hands and smoked it, taking satisfaction in this being the one part of his life he could control.
Nehal sighed, leaned against the bed. He stared into the mirror on the wall across from him. A lean, slight boy looked back at him, cigarette dangling, his hair mussed and his not-very-American clothes faded. He looked sad, and rumpled, and gay.
Nehal turned away from the image in disgust.
“Hey.” Casey tapped his hand against the door. He looked surprised. “You smoke?”
Nehal shrugged. “Sometimes. It, uh, clears my head.”
“That stuff can kill you.”
“I know.” He was silent a moment. “That’s okay.”
Casey studied him. “Ready for lunch?”
Nehal swallowed and nodded a little. “Sure. Alright.” He stands to walk to the door, pulling on his coat and beanie. Casey’s watching him.
Nehal’s heart flips. He doesn’t know what that look means. What if Casey was somehow pressured into being his friend?
“Uh,” he starts. “Are you, um, sure I should come? I’m not very hungry.”
Casey rolls his eyes. “Relax. I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t sure.” He’s smiling.
“Oh,” is all he says. What else is there to say?
He glances at his phone a minute before tucking it into his back pocket. His mom had sent him two text messages, demanding to know more about his professors. Jeez, Mum. It’s been about five minutes. He hesitates a moment, then silences the phone.
Maybe college wouldn’t be so bad after all.
He smiled at the thought, then jogged down the hall after Casey.