I could tell it was going to be a long day. My two very best friends, Neel and Joanne, were going on and on about Neel’s birthday and some new fashion designer!
I just wasn’t much of a party-lover, and my fashion sense wasn’t as evolved as theirs. I quickly ran out of interest when it came to the right mix and match of tops and jeans and shoes. We were meeting after a week, and I hoped the subject would change soon.
Neel Sarathy has been my best friend since third standard. I’d stood up for him on that first day we shared one of the double desks in class. He had been a favourite target for many of the boys in the class. I guess that had actually toughened me up. We had been an inseparable duo until Joanne showed up in fifth standard. Then we became an inseparable trio.
I chewed slowly on my egg puff as we walked and I waited for the conversation to take a new turn. The new designer was coming to town and of course, would be hanging out at Debonaire, Neel’s mom’s totally fabulous outlet. All well-known designers in and visiting Bangalore hung out there.
‘So do you wanna come see him too?’ Neel asked me, breaking my trance.
‘Oh, the designer guy? Is he any good?’
‘Duh!’ He threw a hand up in the air, exasperated. ‘Haven’t you been listening to anything I was saying, Li? Amazing designer? Most definitely. Hot? You have no idea, girl!’
‘Of course. You would know. I believe you, Neel.’ I shook my head. ‘What’s his name?’
Neel and Joanne rolled their eyes and replied in chorus: ‘Akash Chaula.’
‘Get a grip, Li. You’ve got to start showing some girl instincts there.’ Joanne did her walking backwards thing, which she does when she wants to seriously ‘look’ into a person’s eyes and talk to them, which was a tiny bit annoying.
‘Ya! Like the ability to grasp a hot guy’s name,’ Neel added perkily.
‘Oye! The instincts are there, alright? It’s just …’ I looked up at Neel sheepishly—the guy was seriously tall, like almost six feet, though he was only turning sixteen next week. ‘I am not that into fashion designers or models. I mean, some of them are seriously hot but not exactly my kind, you know.’
‘Chill, Li. You don’t have to worry about offending me. It’s just the inconsiderate majority out there who stereotype fashion as something disgusting and unproductive, that pisses me off,’ Neel finished off bitterly, but smiled kindly at me.
‘Ah, touchy,’ Joanne murmured.
We turned the corner and were at Neel’s place.
‘Look! The roses are starting to bloom, guys. This time, I can swear that I did not take help from my mom.’
He pointed to the little garden in front of his house. He loved to try his hand at different things: painting, craft, stitching and recently, gardening. He was majorly talented though he didn’t make a big deal of it and people usually didn’t notice.
‘W-o-w!’ Joanne exclaimed and clapped her hands together like a little kid. ‘Damn cool, Neel. What the hell on earth can you not do?’
‘That would be nothing. ’Cause hell is definitely not on earth,’ Neel laughed.
‘Honestly, Neel, it’s beautiful! What you planning to do next?’ I asked as Neel opened the door for us.
‘You gonna follow the footsteps of our poet laureate here?’ Joanne jerked her head towards me. Okay, I wasn’t bad at poetry but the kid liked to exaggerate.
‘Haha. Poetry is, unfortunately, not my thang, girl.’ ‘What. Have you given a shot at least?’ Joanne did not
‘Well. Yeah, of course I have. But, like I said.’ He shrugged his shoulders and turned the lights on.
I liked to hang out in Neel’s house; we all did. I mean the three of us (that pretty much is ‘all’ to me). It was not very large, but comfortable. There was a sense of light, and the very modern paintings—which I could hardly understand—filled it with colour. And it was spotless 24/7.
Neel’s dad had died when Neel was five. So, it was only Neel and his mom, Nita, who were the best of friends.
‘Oh my god! Is tomorrow 15 April?’ Joanne snapped, suddenly propping herself up on the couch.
‘Yes. Obviously, Jo. A week before my birthday, 22 April. We’ve been talking about it the whole day!’ Neel seemed kind of offended.
‘Oh crap. First day of my music classes with Godzilla!’ she moaned, hitting her head on the soft couch.
‘You’re not seriously going there, are you?!’ I asked with pity.
Godzilla was the nickname of our music teacher at school, Mrs Preksha. Joanne’s parents had insisted she go for extra classes with her, though Joanne had begged and moaned that she wanted any other teacher. We had just finished our tenth standard exams, and Joanne’s parents felt that she would spend all her days being idle unless she attended these classes. They were not usually control freaks, but this summer had some nasty surprises.
‘Yes. I. Am. Going,’ she muttered feebly.
‘Aww … don’t worry, hon,’ Neel chimed in. ‘You’ve always wanted to, like, seriously learn music, right? So this is a good opportunity.’
‘I know. It doesn’t matter if it’s Godzilla or any other hag out there. I mean, she’s not that bad, you know …’ I trailed off.
‘Except for the stinking attitude and I’ll-strangle-you-if -you-don’t-get-this-note look that she gives,’ Joanne cut me off before I could finish.
‘She has a daughter,’ said Neel, much to our surprise. ‘Like, a girl?’ Joanne asked dubiously.
‘What the … of course, a girl. That’s what daughter means, right?’
I started cracking up. Soon, Joanne and I were giggling hysterically.
‘How did you come to know that? We didn’t,’ Joanne asked, taking a breath.
‘Haha. Very funny,’ Neel said dryly. ‘She’s just a bit older than us but I don’t think she’d be too hard to get along with.’ ‘Do you mean to say that you actually checked out a girl?’ I asked, trying to keep a straight face, which of course, I couldn’t.
‘Well, not exactly check out but …’ he seemed to have run out of words and his face turned pink. He looked like a little kid who had been teased.
‘Alright. That’s enough, okay? Time out, guys. You’ve had enough fun with me today.’ He made the T-sign with his hands and jumped on the couch between Joanne and me.
I woke up groggy. I had overslept. Again.
‘Shit,’ I muttered and turned off the radio on the table next to my bed, though my favourite song ‘Tonight’ was playing.
I reached for my cell phone from the table and checked the time. 6 pm. My already abnormal sleeping times were getting crappier.
The house was unusually quiet, which meant that my dad had not come home from work, and my mom and sis were chilling, probably watching a highly dramatic, romantic, macho and tragic serial on TV.
My phone vibrated and a message flashed across the screen. It was from Neel.
Hey Li, heard anything from Jo?
Today was her first day in music class and it must have got over by now.
Hiya Neel. Nope. Just woke up from my evnin slumber: P
Well, I’m kinda worried. She didn’t reply to my texts or calls. I hope everything’s alright.
That was weird. Joanne was never one to hide any kind of emotion from us, and that girl could text faster than you could say I-can’t-text-right-now.
Ah. Don’t worry Neel. I’m sure everything’s ok. Maybe she’s busy or sumthin.
I really didn’t feel like worrying. I was still stiff from my nap. Besides, this was Joanne. She’d call up sooner or later. Still, I dialled her number. The hello tune cranked up and I couldn’t help but smile. It was the hilarious modified version of Eminem’s ‘Stan’, ‘Christmas Stan’.
And then, after a few seconds, she picked up the phone. ‘Hey Jo-Jo! What’s going on, dude?’
‘Hi Li. Wassup?’ she asked listlessly. And her voice cracked at the end.
‘Neel’s been trying to reach you the whole evening. Why haven’t you picked up his calls or texted him back?’ I demanded.
‘Listen, Li. I had a real shitty music class today. I’m really pissed. And that Godzilla’s psycho daughter whipped my ass in front of a whole bunch of students!’ I could feel her fuming on the other end.
‘Whipped your ass?’ I asked incredulously.
‘She humiliated me. It was terrible, Li.’ Her voice cracked again and I could swear she was crying this time.
Whoever could make a girl like Joanne cry had to be plain cruel. I felt my blood boiling.
‘Hey there, Jo. Don’t cry. Tell me what happened? Calm down, honey.’ I tried my best to keep my voice under control. Showing anger wasn’t going to help her.
‘Well, classes started normally. I was introduced … and apparently I’m the only newbie at that shithole this summer. We kicked off with some basics, you know. And then Godzilla went out for the last hour, which left her daughter and a few of us.
‘She told us to play what we had learnt today and twitched her little butt around like she was in charge. She told me to play too and so I did. And she started getting really nasty and making fun of me and stuff. I swear I could have yelled her head off but then Godzilla returned and I didn’t want to give a bad impression on the very first day if I was going to have to endure the whole summer.’ Joanne started sobbing uncontrollably.
Joanne Leslie was beautiful, smart, outspoken and I couldn’t imagine anyone treating her like that. I tried to project my anger on a slightly healthier level.
‘Oh my god, Jo! I’m so sorry. What the hell is wrong with that girl? Me and Neel, we’ll figure something out tomorrow, okay?’
‘I really appreciate that, Li. But I don’t think that’s … I mean … I can handle this.’
‘Did you tell your parents about this?’ I asked, concerned. ‘Yeah, no. I mean, I told my mom but not my dad.’ ‘That’s enough, I guess. But you can’t let it happen
‘Of course not, Li. It won’t happen again. I was weak today; a bit emotional and cranky.’
‘PMS?’ I asked.
‘Maybe. I don’t know,’ she gave a muffled laugh.
‘Jeez. Get a calendar,’ I snorted, glad that she had lightened up.
‘Thank you but I’ll keep such private issues to myself,’ she snapped playfully.
‘Alright, Jo. Just take care of yourself, okay? And I think you should call Neel. He’s been worried sick.’
‘Yah. I definitely should.’ She sighed. ‘Thanks for calling, Li.’
I gave a huge yawn and got up. How was I going to sleep tonight after three long hours of sleep in the evening? I went into the bathroom and splashed my face with some cool water, rinsed my mouth and brushed my tangled hair, and then wandered out of my room.
‘Hey, you slept so long I thought you were dead.’ My usually-sweet, sometimes-too-sarcastic sister Sonya greeted me, sprawling lazily on the couch as I passed by her in the sitting room.
‘Unfortunately, I’m not dead,’ I replied sourly.
She snorted and turned her attention back to the TV, grimacing at something on the screen.
‘Ma, I’m hungry,’ I announced, entering the kitchen.
She was on the phone, talking really fast, and seemed a little pissed. One of her colleagues, I guessed. Mom worked in a social institute dedicated to the welfare of women and kids. She was buried in work most of the time, but she thoroughly enjoyed it.
Interrupting my mom when she was on the phone was never a good idea (except for like a real emergency). She ignores you, gives you killer looks or yells her head off.
I opened the refrigerator and it stared back at me emptily.
‘Did someone raid the fridge while I was asleep?’ I grumbled, taking out half an apple. Nothing else. I closed the fridge grumpily and took a bite of my half-apple.
My mom snapped her phone shut and gave a relieved sigh. ‘Huh, baby? Did you ask for something?’
‘Uh. Yah. Is there anything edible in this house right now?’ She narrowed her eyes at me. ‘Not right now. I’m going to start fixing dinner. Why? You’re hungry so soon?’ she started moving around the kitchen, taking a knife and a huge cauliflower.
‘Gobi manchurian?’ I asked hopefully. ‘Would you like that?’
‘Most definitely,’ I squeezed her back and she squirmed, giggling.
‘So what did you do today?’ she asked, slicing the cauliflower.
‘Hung around. Read. Ooh, there was an article today about a new designer who Neel’s been talking about for weeks. He invited me to meet him too …’
Ma interrupted. ‘But you’re not going, right?’ she asked sternly, her eyebrows scrunching together. Ma wasn’t so keen on me hanging out in the fashion hub.
‘Of course not,’ I laughed. ‘Where was I?’
‘With the new designer.’ She smiled at me and started washing the cauliflower.
‘Then after lunch I slept.’ ‘Slept?’
She narrowed her eyes at me and I quickly muttered defensively, ‘What? I was sleepy. That’s not a crime, is it?’
‘Of course not, but I hope you’re making good use of your time,’ she said matter-of-factly.
I muttered inaudibly, taking this as my cue to get out of the kitchen before she could tell me how to make use of my precious time, like I hadn’t heard it enough. Jeez, this was supposed to be our summer holidays! Moreover, school was done. Literally. Neel, Jo and I were going to join the same pre-university and finish up college together.
I stood in the corridor. I could hear my sister giggling uncontrollably at something on TV, but decided to return to my room.
I didn’t know what I felt like doing. I thought about the useful things that I could do this summer, other than hang out with Neel and Joanne (of course, no one dared mention this among the ‘unproductive’ activities in my list of daily activities). My mom had wanted me to learn French, which I was quite keen to do. But I had refused to start until college began.
I plodded up to my desk. I gave my spinning chair a twirl and then sat down heavily. I stretched myself and stared at my PC, which gaped back blankly, almost invitingly.
I logged into Facebook and phew! There were fifty-two notifications. Well, it had been two days since I’d gone online and I’d subscribed to the ‘close friends’ thingy. Post-boards and everybody was once again hooked to Facebook apparently.
I went through the list one by one, ignoring the apps, invitations and photo tags. My friend request list had 201 requests. I had stopped accepting friend requests from unknown people once my list had crossed four hundred. I quickly swept over the latest ones, seeing if there was anyone I knew.
I accepted three of the requests. One girl was from the Hindi tuition I used to go to, another was a guy I’d heard Joanne talk about, and the third—well, I thought he was really good-looking (if that was really him and not some model whose picture he had picked from somewhere and stuck as his profile picture).
When I clicked on the inbox, there were three messages from someone I didn’t remember being ‘friends’ with.
Suzanne Sangi is sixteen years old, and doing her pre-university course in Mount Carmel College, Bangalore. She loves music, sings and plays the guitar. Facebook Phantom is her first novel.