Sitting at the dining, with her math notebook, a ragged pencil and a stub of eraser, Julie closes her eyes and breathes in deeply. On the paper, she has made mistakes in her math homework, and with the eraser, she cleans up till she has a clean, blank page.
She can start over.
But one cannot clean up one’s life mistakes and start over, no matter how much one wishes so.
Beside her, lost in a world of his own, her younger brother is already doing his homework. A genius in his own right, he is already a year ahead of her in school even though he is two years younger than she is. At twelve, he is hurtling towards teenage and is terrified he will never fit in, because he has nothing to trade except for his intelligence. He has poor eyesight which he compensates for with huge coke bottle glasses. He also has bad hair, bad skin and a nervous habit of biting his nails down to the quick.
He is the brains of the family.
She is the beauty.
There really shouldn’t be so great a disparity between two siblings, considering their parents. Both parents are relatively good looking, and none of them is a genius, even though they are both brilliant at their jobs. No one knows where Julie’s stunning beauty comes from, just as no one knows where Anthony’s genius comes from.
Julie attempts the equation again, but halfway through she knows she is not getting it right. She erases the whole page again, considers asking for Anthony’s help, but doesn’t. Lately, Anthony has been getting more and more smug about his superior brains. He’d tutor her as if she was seven years old, and this gets her mad faster than anything else.
Biting the pencil, she starts again, then cleans the page.
She starts over again.
And suddenly, she is in her room. Her pink room with the posters of Barbie and Princess Ariel. She is seated in front of the mirror, and is giggling as Hannah brushes her hair. Hannah is her best friend forever. The hair brushing follows the painting of her toes with pale pink polish, nail polish her mother must never see. Because she is just thirteen years old.
Julie knows this shouldn’t be happening.
She knows that she is fourteen, and that she is sitting at the dining table, doing her math homework. She is not supposed to be thirteen again, in her room with Hannah, being a little girl again.
She closes her eyes so tightly her entire face hurts. When she opens them, she is at the dining, doing her homework, making the same mathematical error.
I must be hallucinating, she tells herself. My room is no longer pink. Dad has had it painted green. I am no longer thirteen. And I am sitting at the dining.
Her notebook is so rough now from the constant writing and erasing. She tears off the page and is confronted by a blank page. A new start, a chance to correct her mistakes.
And she is in her room again. Her pink room with the posters of Barbie and Princess Ariel. She is seated in front of the mirror, and is giggling as Hannah brushes her hair. The hair brushing follows the painting of her toes with pale pink polish, nail polish her mother must never see. Because she is just thirteen years old.
“Have you kissed yet?” Julie asks Hannah. The he in question is Bode, Hannah’s boyfriend of two months.
The question gets the two of them giggling again and Hannah’s hands slip from Julie’s hair as she covers her mouth to trap the laughter bubbling out. Both girls have been friends since they were toddlers, age-group daughters of two friends who had started having play dates when they were three. They attend the same school and the same church, and both take ballerina classes at the same studio. It is only natural that they are best friends. Both their mothers are also very strict, and if Julie’s mother hears that Hannah has a boyfriend, all hell would be let loose.
“What do you think?”
“Well, have you?” Julie asks again. She doesn’t have a boyfriend herself, so she is living vicariously through Hannah’s experiences.
“Maybe yes, maybe no.” Hannah is giggling again, falling onto the bed and drawing up the blanket against her budding chest. Julie crawls in beside her.
“If he was my boyfriend, I’d probably have done more than kiss him by now.” Julie whispers. There are girls in their school who have already gone the whole way with boys. Even though Julie is not sure she would give so much in so little time, two month seems long enough for a boyfriend and girlfriend to have graduated from holding hands to kissing and smooching.
“Well, we’ve kissed.” Hannah, not to be outdone, finally confesses. “And I let him touch my breasts in the bathroom at school yesterday. It felt quite strange. I wonder why some girls like it so much.”
The admission sends them into another fit of giggling.
Things happen much more rapidly after that. In her pink bedroom or in Hannah’s gray one, Julie’s best friend keeps her abreast of her growing relationship with Bode. The first time she allows him remove her bra, the first time he touches her in that private place, and the first time they go all the way.
Throughout the admissions, both girls would giggle and Julie would ooh and aah. She sometimes wishes she is the one with the boyfriend and cool life, the one experiencing the secret groping in the school toilet.
And then her wishes come true. She gets her own boyfriend soon after. Then, Hannah’s stories are no longer as tantalising. Perhaps this is because she can do the same things with her boyfriend that Hannah is doing with hers.
But Julie finds herself reluctant to do more than kiss. Not that she is scared; she finds that she is just not ready. She even finds it’s kind of distasteful to have a boy’s tongue inside her mouth. But because she has to keep her boyfriend, and kissing is something boyfriends and girlfriends do, she always acquiesces when he wants to kiss. But she never allows it to go beyond the kiss. His hands have never been inside her shirt let alone her training bra. And that’s the way things will be, at least for a very very long time.
Because they sit according to the alphabetical order of their surnames, Julie and Hannah don’t sit together in class. Today, from the back of the class, Julie can see Hannah as she rests her head on her desk in the front of the class.
Since they arrived in school in the morning, Hannah has not felt well. Her skin was hot and she was sweating even in the morning cold. And she’d complained of abdominal pain. By break time, she was feeling better.
But now, towards the close of the school day, Julie can see that Hannah is not looking well again. Her dark complexion seems somehow darker and she has a hard time keeping her eyes open.
“Hey Han. Are you okay?” Julie asks her as they wait on the playground after school for Julie’s mom. One week, Julie’s mom would be responsible for getting all the kids to and fro school, then the following week, it would be Hannah’s mom’s turn.
“I don’t feel so good. And I feel so sleepy.”
On the way home, the girls are unusually quiet and Lisa, Hannah’s elder sister keeps looking at her younger sister questioningly. But she doesn’t ask any verbal questions.
The following morning, Hannah is still in bed when Julie arrives at their door. Lisa is ready for school and waiting by the door.
“Mom asked Hannah to sleep in today. What’s the matter with her, by the way? She was fine yesterday morning.”
Julie shrugs. She’d wanted to ask the same question herself.
Somehow, school is not the same without Hannah being there, and Julie finds her mind wandering. During lunch break, Bode, Hannah’s boyfriend, corners Julie on the way to the restroom.
“Where’s your friend?”
“She didn’t come to school because she is sick.”
“Oh.” He seems a little let down, and Julie is sure that he is thinking about and will miss the smooching Hannah gives so freely. “Can I send a note through you?”
By afternoon, Hannah is feeling better. Her eyes are sparkly and her complexion is no longer dusky. She is waiting impatiently for her sister and friend to get back home from school.
“A day of rest was all it took.” She says as she tears impatiently at the note Bode wrote her. Soon, Julie and Hannah are giggling again, talking about Bode and John, Julie’s own boyfriend. And all is right with the world again.
For three more weeks, everything keeps on being right with the world. School in the mornings, home in the evenings, enough drama between the two girls and their boyfriends to keep romance novelists in business for a long time.
Then Hannah is ill again. As it was the first time, there was no warning. One day she is fine, and the next she is so nauseous that she almost cannot get out of bed. This week, Julie’s mom is doing the school run and only Lisa is waiting by the door when they arrive Tuesday morning.
“Not again.” Anthony mumbles. At eleven, Julie’s brother is all arms and legs and brains, and is not one to fold his arms serenely and wait for his sister’s friend to make an appearance so that they can get to school.
“Hannah’s sick again.” Lisa says as she tumbles into the car. At fifteen, she is the eldest of all the kids, and can be quite probing. “You’ve got to tell me what’s up with the two of you.” She whispers to Julie in the back seat. “Hannah never falls ill, and you know it. So this illness is suspicious.”
Perhaps because girls with extremely strict parents tend to be just a little wilder when their parents are not there, Lisa has a reputation of being loose in school. She goes with boys just for the fun of it, and doesn’t see anything wrong with dumping a boy for his friend, or taking up with her friend’s ex. Because of this, she doesn’t have many female friends.
“You’re taking a pregnancy test.” She tells her sister later that afternoon. Somehow, she has procured PT strips and she is holding up four of them. “Go pee for me.”
When the pink strips appear on all four of the sticks, Hannah is dumbstruck. She is frozen into place, as is Julie. In the bathroom where three girls is a crowd, only Lisa can find her voice.
“I knew it. I just knew it. Boy, are you in trouble?”
When the tears come to Hannah’s eyes, they are bitter and salty and quiet. Because her mother is downstairs somewhere in the house, there can be no hysterics. The tears keep cascading her cheeks like a waterfall gone mad and she is clutching at Julie’s arm like it were an anchor.
Julie tastes the sides of her mouth and is surprised to find out that she is crying silent tears too. In Lisa’s face, there is amusement and not a little derision.
“Thought you’d have known that a little hanky panky would lead to this. Why didn’t you ask me for advice when you started allowing this boy to go all the way? What’s his name, by the way?”
Hannah cannot speak, and neither can Julie. For a brief impossible moment, Julie is glad that she is not the one in this dilemma, happy that she is still a virgin. Then the sadness envelopes her again. This here is her friend, the person that she loves most in the world. No little girl should be going through this, crammed in a tiny bathroom with her big sister and her friend, staring at positive pregnancy tests, and afraid to cry out loud because her mother might hear.
“What are you going to do about this? Tell dad and mom?” Lisa’s voice is now extremely grating. “What’s your boyfriend going to say? Will he be happy to be a daddy? What is his name?”
None of the younger girls answer.
“ I asked what the little boy’s name is?”
“Bode.” Hannah finally says.
… to be continued