My friend helped me carry the bags out and down four flights of stairs. The electricity was out again, meaning no elevator to carry three bags of fifty pounds each. My mind mused about proverbs around true friends being there to help you carry the weight of the world when times got heavy and tough. These proverbs seemed to find literal context now. I had a silly sheepish grin when my buddy nudged me. “Pick up a bag man, not your servant here!”. The truth is that my friend had been there for me through heavy times, in a more than literal sense. Through parental tensions, examination pressures, social anxiety, a collection of heartbreaks and drugs and illness and everything a young boy went through, my friend always showed up, cracking some joke and cheering me on.
We had spent the previous evening talking about the things we went through growing up in a middle class neighborhood in a developing nation. The unique challenges, and opportunities that stemmed from them. Drinking stolen vodka on rooftops with Fanta, listening to music recorded over old tapes and spending our evenings walking along the battered community streets. We had grown up playing on the streets, stealing a few rupees from the grocery money to buy snacks from street vendors and sneaking out through the windows at night to walk around aimlessly. We had spent the evening before recreating our experiences. For the sake of it, I stole some money and liquor from my father and met my friend on the rooftop to stand atop a water tank and listen to rock records from American bands, because we couldn’t afford actually going to bars and theaters but it never stopped us from having fun. “When you’ll go to America, and have all the money and all the freedom, will it even be fun anymore? When you have nothing to rebel against, and nothing to hold you back, what joy will you find in breaking free?” asked my friend as he awkwardly hugged me goodbye. “I’ll keep your folks busy for five, okay but hurry up.” He whispered, winked and then ran back up the stairs. I was a little confused as I felt a warm embrace behind me.
Her hug was less awkward, more passionate and a comfort which I instantly knew I would miss. It had only been a couple of hours since her last embrace, but this one was even more emotional. I turned around and before I could say a word, our lips met. First love is an odd thing, it encapsulates you in a way that remains nostalgic forever. It teaches you to dream and hope. I snuck out through one window the previous might to meet my friend, with a vodka bottle and a tape cassette on me. Only a few hours later, I had snuck into another window with the same bottle, half finished now, and another cassette. It was the last mixtape I had made for her. I had hoped to surprise her, wake her up. I had slowly opened her bedroom window, crawled in and tiptoed to her bed. Just as I had moved the sheets, I felt her weight on my back. In one swift move she jumped on me, as both of us fell onto her bed laughing. “What took you so long silly, don’t tell me you were hanging out with that loser while I was waiting in my bed, wearing close to nothing here?” she chuckled. Her whimsical affection always put me at ease, as I lay back and teased, “Well, that loser helped us hook up remember?” He had indeed delivered my poems to her, as she was in his school, and gotten her number back for me. She climbed on me and held my face in her soft manicured hands, “Oh dear, if you really believe that, you are truly lost!”
As she kissed me, I began to wonder what she even meant by that. We spent the night reminiscing our first date. It had been terrible, a restaurant where pretty much half the neighborhood saw us, the food was bad and to top it all, I hadn’t even had enough cash to pick up the check. In the end she had paid, and covered up for me. That had been three years ago, and I would have never imagined the love and support that would keep me in her arms till today. The innocent wows about forever and always, badly written poems and countless mix tapes later we were still together. We had talked about staying together, making it work no matter the time zone shifts and distances and expensive calling cards. Soon our teenage hormones had taken over and the sheets and tender embraces gave way to the first rays of dawn. Somewhere inside us, as we hugged standing by the luggage, we knew it couldn’t last. Yet, we genuinely believed in those moments that we would make it work. Yes, first love is truly odd, full of dreams and hope. Or maybe it was just the teenage hormones after all.
“Don’t forget the carry on!” yelled my sister. I was a warning, as she made her way down the stairs. It was code for “Stop now before you gross me out brother. I do not want to see you two...interact.” One could always rely on their sibling to rain on their parade. I felt a slap on the back of my head, as the devil herself made her way to my side. She had never failed to mock me, get me in trouble, blame me for events I had no involvement in and steal all my favorite things, candy included. There wasn’t a day that I could remember when we hadn't fought. Still, there wasn’t another person whom I could protect more than her. Especially when the music at home got loud. My mind shifted to worry, “How could I do that now, when I was half the world away?”
My sister and I had spent the previous morning and afternoon together. As we packed my things, she made plans to take over my room, my music system, and anything she could scavenge that I could not take with me in my three bags. We bickered through the day. I lectured her on taking care, staying safe and being careful of boys. “Boys are the worst! Seriously be careful, I won’t be able to save you if you got into trouble.” I had scolded her. “As if you could stand a punch from any boy I’d hang out with.” she scoffed. I talked to her about studying and working hard so she could follow in my footsteps. She mocked me for being a nerd. The more aggressive she got, the more insecure she felt. I could see it. There is something about being an older brother, that teaches you responsibility, makes you grow up. Particularly when you wished the grown ups were more grown up. This morning, my sister didn’t say much. This was a first. As she hugged me goodbye, she whispered, “Stop thinking about me. I’ll be alright, I can take care of myself. No really. I can. And I’ll call you to bug you all the time. Okay?“
I heard the elevator rumble, as the electricity must have come back on. The doors opened, and a woman who looked like the weight of the world was always on her shoulders stepped out. Indeed, the weight of our world had always been on hers. Our mother had been in tears all morning. I joked that she cried like I was going to war or something. In an unrelenting fashion as ever, my mother had made lists, and trips in trains and busses from morning to evening and cooked and cleaned and done everything in between. I just tagged along as she prepared for me to go to college. She had taken me to the grocers to buy knick knacks. She took me to the bookstore because books were cheaper here. She knew my schedules, this was creepy. She had dragged me to shop for clothes, thought I needed a suit for interviews. I had spent the past few days complaining and begrudgingly accompanying here everywhere. I had hoped to break free and sneak away to meet my friends and girlfriend. She had reminded me of everything that needed to be done. Then she had gone ahead and done those things for me. And made every dish I had enjoyed eating, in the past week. And then she had given me money and time to go meet the folks I wanted to. And she had never complained. About anything I did, to anyone and never shed a tear. Until this morning when she could no longer hold it in. And anything I said or did would only make it worse. To her, I was indeed going to war, away from her safe embrace.
My mother was followed by the man with whom my eyes rarely met. As the rays of sun highlighted his now wrinkling body, I saw for the first time that he didn’t stand as tall as I always thought he did. Our relationship had been complicated. In the past one week however, he had made more of an effort to talk. Every morning, he asked me if I read the news. Then proceeded to read it to me. This was the last thing I had wanted. It was some last ditch effort to educate me with whatever he could, perhaps. I had not been interested. I had my fair share of preaching in all these years. I had heard his music, we all had. One night a few weeks back however, he had surprised me. Both my parents had. I had the admission but could never really afford to go to America to study. Nobody in the neighborhood could. He had summoned me as always, after dinner, I had made excuses trying to get out of any real conversation. Then he declared, “Your mother and I, we have discussed it. You are going to America.” I had looked at him with ridicule, smirking, “And who will pay for that, you?” On any other day, a statement of such contempt and disrespect would surely ensure fireworks to follow. That had however, he had blinked quietly and replied calmly for the first time in many years, “Yes. We will get a loan against the house. You can repay it once you get a job after graduating.” My mother had smiled and nodded, “Yes son, we did talk about it, your father and I are together in this.” This had been the first reference of them being together in anything in a long time. I had taken it as a sign. Perhaps I should have taken the morning news briefs as a sign too. I knew he would always doubt me. I secretly wished as we walked towards me, that he could see the man I was becoming. That he could see beyond my lack of knowledge of the morning news. I couldn't stand in the same room, but perhaps that was more from my insecurity than his contempt. I realized as he hugged me, feeling frail and shaky for the first time, that our morning news briefings were maybe not a last ditch effort to educate me, but to connect with me.
I couldn't wait to get to America, to my college and my new life. The dreams that lay ahead of me. I couldn’t wait to get away. And in this moment, somehow, I couldn't enter the car with the meter already running. As I saw them all, standing side by side. The sun hit their faces against the chipping paint and concrete on the buildings. The broken roads, and sounds of honking cars and street urchins filled our ears. It was all quaint and poetic, like something out of a story book. It looked pretty in sepia, and I soaked it all in. The last few days and weeks, and years in fact seemed to blur together in this instagrammable moment, as I stepped into my airport taxi.