Stripes of Gehenna
Chapter One: Not Culturally Appropriate
To put it bluntly, I almost died. I know how that sounds; like a cry for attention. Or a drama queen’s game of hyperbole. But I don’t mean it like that. Not in the casual, cool way you say to friends after something thrilling happens. My life, my future, all of my dreams flashed before my eyes. I even mourned myself. Multiple times.
Everything I tell you is real, even though it at times you’ll want to second guess me. But I promise, if you stick with me through the less-deadly and less-interesting parts of my story, you’ll learn more about me. And if you learn about me, you’ll learn that I’m not prone to exaggeration. I don’t lie, and I won’t start now.
But be warned that this story isn’t particularly happy. It doesn’t have a happy ending, but I wouldn’t go to far as to say that it’s a bad ending. It’s just that when things like this happen, there isn’t really a way to come out without some sadness. Some scars. Or in my situation, some stripes.
It began with the stupid gold bangles I wore on my first day of high school.
I marched into the high school with confidence and bright eyes knowing that these years of academia would determine where I would spend my next years in college, undergrad, masters, doctorate. Plans the size of the Atlantic sloshed around in my head and here in the brick hallways and plaster-ceiling classrooms is where those plans had to begin.
Confident as a wild cat, I stalked down the hallway disregarding my low rank as a sophomore. The same backpack I’d carried for the past three years would have to last for the next three. Mom said she didn’t want to spend eighty dollars on a new bag. I didn’t care about the backpack though--maybe it was my good luck charm that helped me maintain my 4.0 GPA. Maybe I just credited the backpack so I wouldn’t feel sad that I didn’t have a new one.
I swung my arms at my sides. The bangles singing together as they rose up my arm and crashed into each other on the down stroke. Like Santa Claus, I drew all this attention with my bells.
As my bangles - or shall I call them BANGles - crashed and chimed at my side, an equally cocky, surprisingly handsome boy approached me. He stood almost a full foot taller than me, but was sort of skinny. Not that he looked malnourished, but he was lean. His skin was dark like he was from South America, but his accent gave him right away. I'd seen enough Bollywood movies to recognize an Indian when I heard one.
"Your bangles..." he noted. I thought it was an attempt at a compliment or a poorly phrased pick up line. His English didn't seem very good.
"Yeah, thanks," I said, making my words crisp so he was sure to understand.
"No, they draw too much attention to you." I gave him another good look through narrow eyelids. His hair was a few inches long and poofy on top, but it hung down above his eyebrows in a way that I liked. A shadow of a beard was growing in and I would not have noticed it except that he was wearing a plain white v-neck. The shirt contrasted with his dark hair and eyebrows. "You're Kathryn Speer, yes?" he asked.
"Yes, how did you-"
"The guidance counselors directed me to you.” Then he went on. "Well, since this is your first day, you probably don't want to announce to the school that you came from the poor school. The way they chime, your bracelets, people can tell they are made of something cheap. Like tin or aluminum," he stated and no foreign accent could make those words seem kind.
I opened my mouth and shut it slowly. My cheeks grew hot. The metal under my fingernails clicked as I tapped my fingers. This foreign student who hadn't mastered English, had the audacity to assume he knew how I should start my high school career. "Oh, shut it!" I shouted. Immediately, my brash, unkind reply embarrassed me. I followed it up with, "If I wanna chime my way around the hallways, you’d better believe that I will."
"You can chime your way around the hallways but just know that it won’t charm your way around them." He laughed, apparently feeling clever. Maybe he had mastered English.
As he swaggered away, I was so perturbed I had to re-do my locker combination four times before finally getting into it. With my cheeks still red, I slipped the cheap bangles off, making sure the stupid bully wasn’t around to see his success and set them on the top metal shelf before darting off to class. I entered with the bell and saw a swarm of students standing. The AP US History teacher assigned seats based on reverse alphabetical order of last name; not terribly original. "Kathryn Speer," she said, followed by "Shardul Padalkar." And then he came over, the bangle bully, and sat exactly behind me. I don’t have to look at him. I don’t have to talk to him, I said to myself.
"Are you upset at me?" Shardul leaned forward and asked.
"I just think it's weird that you want to tell me what I should wear." I turned around to look at him because class hadn't started yet. "Are you like, following me?"
"Yes," he said and then smiled.
"Wait--what? You're following me?" I verified, a hint of fear in my voice.
"The guidance office said I should follow you, or shadow you. Our schedules coordinate well. They told me you have a kind heart and that you will help me adjust to American culture."
I sighed and turned back around, all fear replaced by annoyance. I'd gone down to the guidance office and told them I could help anyone who was new and needed directions around the school. Why did it have to be an attractive, bigoted guy? Had he been just attractive, it would be perfect. Had he been just bigoted, I could have been kind. But the combination of the two only made me mad.
"I think you do not like me," Shardul said. At least he was perceptive.
"I…I don't even know you," I muttered, skimming the syllabus.
"People are not naturally either friends or enemies; friendship and enmity arise from circumstances." He quoted what sounded like a proverb to me. I ignored it and resisted the urge to counter with sarcasm. After that class, I ran off to the next, followed closly by my shadow Shardul. and he followed me. In each and every class, he was seated next to, in front of, or behind me.
At the end of that first day of school, I was exhausted from trying to impress the teachers and make new friends. I stood at my locker and slipped the bangles back over my hand before I turned to leave. Shardul stood there and lifted my backpack off the floor. He cleared his though and started talking like a fortune cookie again. "The genuine friend, who is affected with the joys and sorrows of another, is a medicinal cordial, the sanctuary of the heart, the delight of the eyes, and worthy of confidence," he said, using what I imagine was his best I'm-saying-something-wise voice.
My fingers shook with irritation. I didn’t look at him. "Okay, Shardul, what are you talking about? You keep quoting these proverbs. Just say what you want to say." I spoke quickly and shoved a few books inside my holey bag.
"Okay." His lips were tight. “Look at me?” I turned to see him from the corner of my eyes. His eyes were wide and placid. "Why don't you want to be my friend?"
"Because…" I hesitated speaking my mind. "Because you just came up to me and told me that my bangles were stupid."
"I have difficulty believing that something so innocently intended could be perceived as bullying," he argued.
"Well…I didn’t say you were a bully. I just said it was unkind. It was offensive!" I insisted.
"Was I wrong?" he asked, and though his eyes gleamed with sincerity, I couldn't stand his impudence. "You heeded my advice. That must indicate that you found it to be of value."
"You were…rude. You can't go up to a girl, or anyone, and tell them they are wrong or dumb or dressed weird and then think that a long-lasting friendship will ensue. It's not…it's not culturally appropriate," I hissed and slammed my locker shut.
"You were in danger of ruining your first impression at the new school. He is a real friend who assists in time of danger."
"Just stop," I said, and I went home.
But I’ll try not to bore you with the details of high school drama. The sum up, Shardul was a senior and I was a junior. He was only here for one year, and I decided I could handle just ONE year of him talking like a horoscope. It took a few days of exercising my cold shoulder before Shardul eventually caught on to my not-so-subtle clues that I didn’t particularly enjoy his company or Indian adages. To me, he was just competition.
In fact, when Thanksgiving Break finally came, I relished the break from him. And that’s when things started getting very weird.
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STRIPES OF GEHENNA