“Nia, they’re here!” my mom yelled. I stumbled out of the makeshift tent, hurriedly smoothening my hair as much as possible, and fumbled in the dark on the way back to our backyard porch. They can’t see me anyway. I forgot the flashlight in the tent but I followed the voices to the front door. I could somewhat make out their faces under the glow of the nearby streetlight.
“Hello Nia,” Mr. Sanders greeted. He had always been a jolly person but the tiredness in his voice seemed more apparent now.
“Good evening, please come in,” I replied with my best welcoming smile plastered across my face.
Carmen strolled in, fanning herself. Her wavy blonde hair was twisted up into a tight bun. “Hey. Isn’t it really hot without the AC? I’m sweating so much.”
Before I could reply, my mom returned from the kitchen holding as many candles and matchboxes she could, in her sweaty palms. “Ah yes… It is hot. You all can go out back where there’s some air. We’ve got a tent. Not too great but the most we could put together.” She motioned towards our backyard.
As they filed outside gingerly trying their best to avoid colliding with our prized living room showpieces, I felt a sharp tug at my elbow pulling me into the kitchen. “Did you greet them? Politely?” Mom asked.
“Yes,” I replied attempting to hide my frustration.
“Well I didn’t hear it. You should’ve spoken louder. No one’s going to hear you at that volume.” I rolled my eyes. Thank God she couldn’t see me properly in the dark. “And what did you say?”
“I said Good evening, please come in.” I was trained not to say Hello in any social settings. Best to pull out the ‘Good days’ and ‘Good nights’.
She nodded. “Now go out back and talk to them. And look confident. And happy. And ask Carmen everything about college and her study routine. And sit properly. And talk loud. And don’t interrupt the Dads. You’re not old enough to be intruding any adult conversation.”
“Ok Mom.” I turned towards the door.
“And keep that attitude of yours in your pocket.” I pretended not to hear that one.
I stalked out to the tent where Dad and the Sanders were having snacks. During any power outages, my parents took it upon themselves to camp out in the backyard. It wasn’t much but it could fit a tent and sleeping bags. There wasn’t any greenery save two gnarly jackfruit trees and sparse weeds. There wasn’t really time for garden maintenance in my family. We were all too busy with our own lives. Mr. Sanders had previously worked with my dad and being neighbours, Dad invited them home to socialise. The word wasn’t part of my vocabulary.
“So Nia, how’s school going?” Mrs. Sanders asked.
“Great.” I flashed another angelic smile.
Dad nodded towards me. “Yeah, she’s just qualified for a junior scientists’ convention in Munich. And she won first prize at a Chemistry contest.”
“Oh wow.” I squirmed as everyone beheld me with pride. Dad was evidently enjoying himself as he listed every other competition I had placed in: badminton, coding, and writers’ convention. But I didn’t like being a display trophy. It was true that I loved competing but I preferred to bury all my awards inside my soul and use them as a private shield.
“Well that’s very amazing Nia. You’re too modest.” Mr. Sanders chuckled.
Carmen slowly stared up from her phone. Her eyes bore into mine, her face expressionless like she wasn’t being proud or critical but she was just trying to read me. I broke away appearing as unresponsive as I could. I swiped a kebab and snuggled at the back of the tent where I was trying to finish my assignments due in two days.
A quiver of pain rushed down my spine. I quickly pulled out my phone and started googling. In my life, the only ‘best friend’ was Google. I was an only child with an invisible social circle. To be honest, I had many friends but they were all in my head. I loved fantasising. It was my hobby. Sure, I felt pretty weird but I was getting to live my perfect life. I wasn’t a loner, don’t get me wrong…but in reality, the only thing people saw in my personality was the smart kid. The nerd. The snob who doesn’t talk because she seems to be ‘superior’ in knowledge to everyone else. But I hated being labelled. I didn’t want to be a stereotype and maybe that’s why I loved competing in everything possible. But somehow I always ended up becoming one. And I really didn’t see the point in speaking to someone whose only motive was to borrow my homework.
Google’s Verdict: Spiral Stenosis. Great. Another reason why I might die in the next five minutes.
“Hey.” Carmen slid down to the ground beside me. “How’s everything?”
“Fine.” I wrinkled my nose trying to ignore the stench of rotten jackfruit. “The place doesn’t smell too great but Mom tried her best with the air freshener.”
She laughed. “You don’t have to give me an explanation.”
I grinned. But this time, it was a real smile. “Sorry, just too used to giving explanations for everything.” She crawled next to me with her back to the pillows I had set out.
“I can hold the flashlight while you work if you want.”
“Thanks.” I handed it over to her.
This was my first real conversation with Carmen. Inside, I was panicking. Carmen was a twenty-three year old college Yale University graduate who was back home after four years. I was the follow-in-her-footsteps disciple who’d been compared to her for years. Naturally, I had grown to hate her.
“So…you do a lot of stuff.”
I nodded seriously.
“That’s nice…but are you ok? You seemed uncomfortable back there.”
I took a few seconds to gather my reply. “That doesn’t matter—getting into a good college and improving life for yourself and your family matters.”
“I know. I get all of that.” She smiled. “But if you’re constantly improving life, you won’t ever get the time to enjoy the life you’ve improved so far.”
I paused. This wasn’t something I didn’t know but my life was basically a vicious cycle of anxiety. My mom eyed us as she ladled food as professionally as possible onto styrofoam plates. “Talk to her about college,” she mouthed.
But I didn’t want to talk about college. I could do that any other time while she was around. Here I was having a normal conversation like a typically normal person for the first time in about five years. It just made me happy. There was no simpler way to put it.
“Try explaining that to the parents,” I whispered to Carmen. “I mean I really love them and I know they want the best for me. But sometimes I really just want to sit outside and look at the sun and smile. I want to be able to reply to messages on my phone without being monitored like a prisoner. It’s not like I’m getting into any form of trouble. I’m not even on much social media. I just want to be able to say Hi to someone without having to explain their entire history. I guess I’m just—” I shook my head.
I wanted to achieve and feel beautiful and not seem irritated to my parents and be able to conjure words when people were around. I wanted to feel happy.
“Confused? I totally get it.” She sighed. “People say you’re an only child so you must be your parents’ little pampered princess. And you’re the smart kid so you won’t fail. And you don’t have a boyfriend so you won’t ever get dumped.”
“Exactly. The problem is we’re not allowed to have problems.” I cracked. It was like I finally opened up to someone for the first time. I never realised how much Carmen and I had in common. I had always been pampered with toys and games when I was younger. And it was always imposed on me that I had a more fortunate childhood than they did. But no one ever noticed that the games were all two-player and they were left on my shelves unopened. I had just wanted a little of someone’s time.
“Wow. That was a lot of ranting.” Carmen smiled. She was a bit teary-eyed too.
“Oh—I really have to finish this assignment,” I remembered.
She nodded and focused the flashlight onto the paper in my lap.
“It’s ok. Life gets better. At least we can have our own talk therapy sessions whenever there’s a power outage again.”
I laughed. Something to look forward to.
“Girls, the food’s ready!” Mom called.
“Coming,” we echoed. Maybe things weren’t so bad. I realised I had forgotten about spinal stenosis. I had actually forgotten to worry for five minutes. And it was the best five minutes of my life.