When you’ve known someone your whole life, it’s hard to tell where you end and they begin. And it’s hard to lose them without losing a little bit of yourself.
There was this girl I grew up with. We lived on the same street and our parents were friends, so from the time we were kids all the way through high school, we were tight. It wasn’t a boyfriend-girlfriend thing, but I never felt like I needed a girlfriend because I had her. And she must have felt the same way, because she never had a boyfriend either.
In our senior year of high school, she found out she got into Stanford, which was her dream come true. She was the super smart, straight-A’s, perfect SAT score type. The type you knew would end up at a fancy college before she even started kindergarten. But she was also the ‘prone-to-getting-homesick’ type, so Stanford, which was half an hour away from San Jose, where we lived, had always been her first and last choice.
Me, I was the total opposite. I never took school seriously and never bothered to look too far ahead. My family owned a small, but busy tandoori restaurant and I had worked there since I was a kid, so I always knew I had something to fall back on. But when I heard about her and Stanford, it motivated me to be a little more ambitious.
A couple of my friends had gotten into Chico State, a small party school up north. It was nothing close to Stanford but it was a step above settling, and since my friends weren’t too much brighter than I was, I figured if they could get in, so could I. And I was right.
For the next four years, I was at Chico and she was at Stanford. We kept in contact in the beginning, but as time went on, we just sorta lost touch for some reason. It wasn’t her fault; she did her best to call or text every once in a while, but I was always worried about bothering her, so I didn’t reach out as much. And maybe me not reaching out made her think she was bothering me, because after a while, I stopped hearing from her.
I didn’t get much accomplished at Chico. Didn’t even graduate. For most people, school is a way to get to where you’re going, but I never had a place I was trying to go. People used to tell me I could get far if I could find a direction, and I thought college might be the place for me to do that. I was wrong. It was more like a four-year long drinking game. I had a good time and everything, but at the end I had nothing to show for it, and had to return home empty-handed.
The day I got back, her Mom was at my house. I don’t remember what she was doing there, but I remember being happy to see her, because I was dreading facing my parents and knew her presence would make it easier. It wasn’t that my parents were strict or demanding — they were the complete opposite. That was the problem. Letting down reasonable parents is worse than letting down unreasonable ones… so it was nice having someone there to soften the blow. As soon as I walked through the door, she sensed my parents’ disappointment in me, and drowned it out with as much hope and optimism as she could. It didn’t make them forget about paying for four years of college, but it made them feel a little less bad about it, and that was the most I could ask for.
When it was time for her to go, I walked her to the door, and thanked her for helping me out. We spent a few more minutes catching up and somewhere in the middle of that, I asked, “So what’s your daughter up to?”
She got this funny look on her face. Then she smiled and said, “She’s with her boyfriend.”
At first, I thought she was joking. Like maybe there was someone they referred to as her ‘boyfriend’. So I faked a laugh and said, “Wait, what? She has a boyfriend?”, expecting her to say she was kidding.
She didn’t. Instead she said, “Yeah, she didn’t tell you?”
I said, “Nah, I haven’t talked to her in a while.”
Then she covered her mouth and said, “Oh, in that case maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.”
I guess it wasn’t a joke. For a moment, I didn’t know what to say. Finally, I made an attempt to play it off and said, “Damn Auntie, is that what you sent her to college to do?”
She said, “What can I say, she’s outta control,” and we both laughed.
She went on to tell me all about the boyfriend and how great a guy he was — how he always touched her and her husband’s feet when he greeted them, how he didn’t drink or smoke, how he came from a good family — but at a certain point I stopped hearing the words coming out of her mouth. I was having too much trouble trying to wrap my head around what I had just heard. It wasn’t just that she had a boyfriend, it was the fact that her Mom knew about it. Punjabi girls don’t tell their parents about their boyfriends. Mostly because, Punjabi girls aren’t supposed to have boyfriends. And the ones that do keep it a secret for as long as they can. The only way the parents get to know is if someone finds out and tells on them, or if the relationship becomes so serious, it’s time to make it official.
A couple days later, I was in my room, on the computer, looking for a new catering van for the restaurant, when the doorbell rang. My Mom answered and I heard a voice say, “Sat Sri Akal, Auntie.” I recognized the voice.
My Mom responded in Punjabi, “How are you Mahi?”
It was the middle of the day but I had just gotten up and hadn’t even taken a shower, so I went over to the mirrored doors on my closet to straighten myself out while they talked. Then I quickly made my bed and opened the blinds to let in a little bit of sunlight. By the time I got back to my chair, they were wrapping up their conversation. Mahi said, “Is Indo here?”
My Mom said, “Yeah, he’s in his room.”
We had thick carpet in our house, so you could never hear someone coming down the hallway. But I still heard every one of her footsteps in my head. My door was half open but she knocked anyway, and I turned around.
I thought she would look different. I was sure four years of college would’ve transformed her into someone else, but they didn’t. She looked almost exactly the same — still had the same simple ponytail, the same tiny nose ring, the same hopeful eyes. Still didn’t wear make-up, and still didn’t need it. I was expecting to see a woman I didn’t recognize, but she was still the girl I remembered.
She smiled and said, “Hey… welcome back.”
I said, “Thanks.”
She stood there for a moment, like she was wondering if she should walk over and give me a hug, but since I didn’t stand up, she sat down on the bed instead.
I said, “Man… it’s been a long time.”
She said, “I know.”
Anytime she hadn't seen me in a while, she would be really shy and quiet. Usually she'd wait for me to make a joke or make fun of her to break the ice, and then she'd go back to normal. But for whatever reason, I didn't do it that day, so it just stayed kinda awkward between us.
“So how was Chico?
I let out a laugh and leaned back in my chair. “It was tight. Didn’t wanna come back.”
“So how come you did?”
“I don’t know… I was havin’ too much fun. Too much fun isn’t good for you.”
She shrugged. “I’ll take your word for it… I wouldn’t know.”
“Why? You didn’t party it up at Stanford?”
“Not really. Mostly just studied it up.”
“That sucks.” My computer went to the screensaver, so I reached over and shook the mouse, then turned back to Mahi. “But hey, at least you graduated… unlike me.”
She nodded. “Yeah. Oh, by the way, thanks for coming to my graduation.”
“Uhh yeah, sorry about that, I just got caught up with some stuff, so—”
“It’s okay, I’m just joking.”
Since I didn’t break the ice, I guess she thought she should give it a try. But it didn’t really work and there was a long silence. And then I said, “So how’s your boyfriend doing?”
As soon as she heard those words her whole demeanor changed. It was like her heart stopped beating for a moment. She said, “How did you know about that?”
I smiled and said, “I know everything.”
“No, for real, who told you?”
“Look, I can’t give up my sources, alright. It wouldn’t be ethical.”
“Was it my Mom? Did she say something when she was here?”
“Uhh, she might’ve mentioned it.”
If Mahi was capable of getting mad, she would’ve been furious. But the most extreme emotion she could feel towards someone was disappointment. And she was as disappointed as I had ever seen her.
I laughed and said, “Was it supposed to be a secret or something?”
“No, it’s not that… it’s just… it’s not that serious. We’re more like friends.”
She said it in a panic, but I just acted like I didn’t care. I said, “What’s the big deal? Nothin’ wrong with having a boyfriend.”
She said, “I know, but that’s not what it is. She’s making it sound like something it’s not.”
“Maybe she’s just excited.”
“Well there’s nothing to be excited about.”
“I think you might wanna tell her that.”
“Yeah, I will.”
I thought we were done with the topic, but then she stared
into my eyes and said, “I really mean it though… it’s not what you think.”
I knew better than to believe that. But I didn’t get why she was trying so hard to convince me to.
Instead of asking her, I gave her a smile and said, “Okay… if you say so,” and changed the subject. I guess I still wasn’t over the idea of her having a boyfriend, so I pretended none of it mattered to me. That I was completely unaffected. I even took it so far as to act like I was happy for her.
In my mind though, I knew that even if I didn’t say anything to her that day, I would say something to her eventually. When I was ready, and the time was right.
But I never got the chance. Because less than a week later, her boyfriend asked her to marry him. And she said yes.