When You Make It Through to the Other Side
“Stethoscope” you spelled perfectly.
Beside you on the floor a friend filled in the pink crayon lines of her drawing of a sash and tiara. She animatedly babbled as she hit the hand of someone else, reaching in to her box to steal a crayon.
“When I grow up, I’m going to be a movie star. Like Kareena Kapoor.”
Your heart sank. Kareena Kapoor was your favorite actress.
“I’m going to have — ”
She pretended to count on her fingers, and then ran out of fingers.
“– 100’s of fans. And a house as big as a palace — like Barbie’s dream house. And a white fluffy cat like my older sister. You know my daddy told me when I am as big as Didi, I can get whatever I want…”
That’s when you stopped listening. Of course you dreamt about having all of those things, but you didn’t want them to be “like anyone else’s.”
That’s when the teacher walked right past her drawing and stopped at yours.
“What have you drawn, Zaina?”
You look down at your drawing and hurriedly start rubbing at the lines, hoping she hasn’t seen it yet. Your drawing of a stethoscope looks like a giant, smudged cross. Panicking that it wasn’t perfect, you started to redraw. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t —
“I’m very impressed, Zaina, stethoscope is not an easy word to spell.”
She pulled out her glitter pen, and almost instinctively you held your hand out in a fist. She drew a big green star on your hand, and you giggled as you felt your veins tingle beneath your skin.
As she capped her pen, you smudged the ink onto the other hand as well. Two stars today. You pictured running home and showing your parents. Daddy was going to be so proud.
She continued, “I have your drawings from yesterday with me. You’ve colored the cow blue and drawn apples on an orange tree.” She grinned and whispered. “To tell you the truth, I like it better than all the others’ drawings. It was different.”
“It’s OK to be different?” you looked her in the eyes and asked.
“It’s OK to be different.”
A nebulous cloud of steam rose up from your coffee cups, between you and Boy 3. Or more appropriately, “Teacher 1.”
You always awoke before sunrise, seeming to think of it as a time for achiever’s; only someone with a fire in their belly would be toiling upwards even before the sun, while the others snored obliviously in their beds. Besides, you had stayed up late the previous night, burning the midnight oil, writing about the camp experiences that inspired you. You’d been trying to write an empowering story for a while now.
All your classmates slept in their tents, and for all that it mattered to you, they were not even there. They were irrelevant.
You were seated across from Teacher 1 in the makeshift eating area. Above, a square had been detached from the thatched roof, and light streamed through and ruffled your hair paternally. The susurrus of breeze through the leaves was nothing like the whispering of your friends.
It was bright enough to really see each crease on his face. You loved camps for moments like these.
He joined the birds and spoke.
“Remember what that flower was called, Zaina?”
He looked up at the parting. A massive flower with concentric white and lilac rings suddenly caught your eye like a target you were meant to see. It was not an Amethyst shade of promise. The anthers reached towards you like 3D pop up art.
Of course you knew what it was, you had scaled every inch of his powerpoint slides to study for his tests, something you never did for chemistry or physics.
“Passion flower. Passiflora. It is the herbal supplement to treat anxiety, insomnia and hysteria. It got its name from the double row of filaments that bore resemblance to the crown of thorns that Jesus was made to wear. I like to believe that is why the vines will creep up anything in their way to reach the sunlight.”
“You have good memory.” But it wasn’t memory so much as it was yearning. Yearning to be called good enough when you were, and the way you were, from a father you never had.
His eyes lit up as they always did when he spoke about bio, a penchant, and continued.
“They grow in the harshest climates. If only we took lessons from the Passion Flower: there’s no beauty as exotic or captivating as the product of your passion.”
Then it was your turn to match the luminescence in his eyes.
“Is that why you chose to teach bio rather than medicine?”
He grinned. It was adorable and made you happy. “Yeah, so I can inspire students like you to become doctors.”
“I think my parents beat you to it. They’ve been looking at my hands and saying that I have the long, slender fingers of a surgeon like ever since I was born.”
“But Zaina, who is to say, that that is a surgeon’s hand any more than it is a writer’s hand?”
The bright light of dawn burned the image of the Passion Flower into your mind.
— You just got a new snap from Boy 16: Hey, you up?
— You just got a new text from Boy 18: Looking so hot. Where you going?
— You just got a WhatsApp message from Boy 22: Looking like a snaaack
— Boy 32: noice
— Best friend 4: Meet tonight? Her and I are on a break
It had been roughly a minute since you sent out a snap in a black strappy mini dress your parents didn’t know you had. Of late, black had taken over your wardrobe, and it resembled a slick oil spill every time you opened the cupboard door.
You drummed your fingers over your phone screen. Notification after notification after notification lit up your ceiling. The pinging facade from your phone was the sound of being wanted, validation buzzing in your ears. It was the dulcet lullaby that made it all OK for you to fall asleep.
Until your alarm rang again the next morning.
You were sure, then: that was your most favorite place in the world. On a boulder overlooking the beach, on a Malagasy private island, wearing the arms of your father like a talisman around your neck. Cliché sure, but there was nowhere else you’d rather have been.
But it bothered you, because in your head you knew that it wasn’t true. There was a place you longed to be at more than here, but you didn’t know what it looked like, or how to even get there…
“Mhmm?” He was helping an upturned hermit crab back to its feet.
You had rehearsed this a lot, but in no variation in your head did the confrontation go perfectly. Too late.
“Apart from being your daughter, why do I matter to you?” You cringed.
He took two minutes and 27 seconds to respond.
You couldn’t believe he took two minutes and 27 seconds to respond!
“Well… you’re my genes, and –”
” — that’s the same as being your daughter!”
“OK, OK well… you’re hard working, and you care deeply about the world.”
Stony and aloof as the boulder on which you sought refuge, you kept your gaze fastened on the waves.
They wobbled beneath the sun, looking like an Elysian mirage. The sun too intensified like a gateway to heaven from between parted clouds. From where you sat, the sun set the water gleaming in a line, connecting you and itself — like a pathway you were meant to take. You tried to walk around, but the pathway persisted — like those portraits that watch you no matter where you move. Analogies had always gotten to you dammit.
You wondered whether Moses ever felt like you did then. You thought about how silly that sounded and pushed the thought of it to the back of your mind.
Then again, later that night, you looked up at the sky sequined with stars and imagined your soul drifting up amongst them and looking down at your place in the sand.
“And the award for best actress. goes to Zaina for the best rendition of Lady Macbeth I have ever seen!” An old white man boomed over the mic. Since an old white man had said it, you chose to believe it.
Taking the red carpet to the stairs, you glided barefoot. The applause was amplified in the dome of the Royal Opera House. Sweat glistened on your temples. You would have cartwheeled if you knew how.
Stage makeup had smudged all over your face, your bushy hair sprouted from the pole of your head like a child. Yet it didn’t feel like a costume and it made you so incredibly happy.
“So Zaina, what are you planning to do in the future?” Old White Man handed you the mic.
“Environmental science,” you lied smugly, and watched as your parents hid their faces in the audience.
“Well not anymore, you’ve got to take up acting! So much potential!”
You dug your nails into your thighs. You hated the “p” word.
When asked about your stage presence, you thought,
Acting is easy for those that are used to it.
But the spotlight beat down on you.
“It’s just all the hours of practice we’ve gotten.”
After the show, you hugged the friend who played Macbeth, born actor. His girlfriend congratulated you and said she had never seen such chemistry on stage.
You thanked her and walked away.
What’s done is done.
The spotlight didn’t dim after the performance.
In school, Month 1, they let you give the graduation day speech,
Month 2, made you house captain,
Month 3, your story got published and your principal loved it.
Month 4, your essay won at a science festival — the irony!
It was months like these over boys any day.
With each level, you skipped up ladders and reached new heights, and yet somehow you always knew the Snake that would swallow you whole and land you back to square one.
In the car there was a suffocating silence.
You watched as the face of your teacher in the front seat lit with a gaunt opacity from her phone screen. You made her promise she wasn’t texting your parents. You couldn’t meet the eye of the friend sitting beside you. It was the friend at camp who had found you after the board results had been announced back home.
For the one hour they drove you to the hospital, you found yourself escaping into a deep dreamless sleep. Every now and then you’d find yourself being shaken frantically by your friend, who had a wild, spooked look in her eyes.
The teacher, her voice trembling, reminded you of how good you were on stage as Lady Macbeth, you tried to remember the scene: with only the flickering orange flame of the candle on your face; the last time Lady Macbeth was seen on stage.
On stage you had screamed your lungs out, howled in agony, you wanted to give the audience a show they would never forget. But now, you couldn’t find the words to reply. You remained aphonic.
The hospital looked like your school. It looked like your old apartment building. It looked like the prison from the TV show you were watching last week. There was a familiarity about it, as though your parents had been right all along and your kismet had been destined for a future at hospitals.
You’d forgotten the biting, acrid way hospitals smelled. It reminded you of the way your father always smelled when he came back home every midnight. Now there was a larger than life lump in your throat.
The teacher held your hand in a loose sweaty grip and you trailed behind her into the emergency room.
They thrust you onto a hospital bed with a dark green mattress, and the teacher joined a huddle with the doctors. You had a princess and the pea moment, the mattress was too uncomfortable for you. You tried to laugh at this joke in your head, but analogies had always gotten to you.
In a few minutes, or perhaps hours, a nurse came and put your finger in a machine. In your head you spelled out the names of all the machines, almost expecting your father to leap out from behind the wall and applaud. Even then all you wanted was to make him proud. You waited for someone to come and draw a big green star on the back of your hand. No one came. Then you wrenched over the side of the bed and threw up.
The shaking finally begun, your eyes were fluttering like angel wings. It was bad timing to look weak. You had to convince them you were OK. You were OK.
I can do it. I can do it. I can’t do it.
A corpulent hairy man in a doctor’s coat strutted to where you were, followed by his posse of assistants. He bore an uncanny resemblance to your uncle, the one who pressurized you to show him your diary many years ago, and had always been envious of your father’s job.
It made you scorn, but you tried to keep your best poker face. He spoke with the most amused smirk on his face.
“Why did you stop taking the pills? Should have taken the whole packet no?”
The posse laughed like hyenas after the kill.
A nurse flipped your limp arm over to take the “blood pressure.” They all saw the dark marks of a tally chart against your fair skin.
“Oh so there’s a past history! What happened? Lover broke up with you?”
He chortled and then went on.
“This young lady doesn’t need a hospital, she needs a mental hospital!”
That is when it happened. All of a sudden, it did not matter what he said about you. You knew you were someone his words didn’t deserve to define. More importantly, you knew you were someone his words didn’t deserve the power to wound further.
An assistant snatched the packet of pills from the doctor’s hand, baboon-like, and waved it in your face.
“You want to keep the packet?” They laughed raucously and tittered away.
It is said that when one sense gets suppressed, the others get heightened. In that moment, you realized the truth in that saying. Then that you had suppressed your self-sympathy, you had become more mindful of the patients around you. They wriggled like worms in the Earth.
Bodies contorted, eyes crestfallen on the floor, almost all of them were crying.
You knew deep down you had it better than all of them. That they were gasping, trying their best to grasp whatever pieces of their life they could still hold on to. And you?
You were gushing with the spirit of the sanest girl in the world,
A second chance, but really each day you’d been alive had been,
Standing at a crossroad between mourning and respite,
One day you’d be on the other side helping someone lift their chin.
Photo by Raamin ka on Unsplash