by Srabonti Narmeen Ali

lit05LIA took one last look at her reflection in the mirror and then grabbed her schoolbag. Her hands were shaking but she chalked it up to the freezing weather outside. Her backpack was a little worse for wear. It was a depressing dull grey colour and the bottom warm brown leather, a signature Jansport look, had become so thin that the corner of her psychology textbook was poking out accusingly. Lia had bought it years ago, back when she had seen a pretty girl carrying a Jansport bag with purple sequins and her name in big bold pink — Amy McGregor. Lia wanted her name on her backpack like that, but her mother had said it was too dangerous and inappropriate. Dangerous for what? Lia had asked. Why inappropriate?
But her mother had shaken her head violently and responded with an angry snort. They had gone to the store and Mama had gotten her a Jansport bag to placate her, all the while complaining about how expensive it was, and then when Lia had opted for a sequined one like Amy McGregor’s, whoever and wherever she was, her mother had lightly smacked her hand and chosen the grey one. Something that was the colour of ghosts, and death. That’s what Lia always thought when she saw the bag. Not purple sequins and happy smiley faces and bold bright letters, but a ghost, climbing on her back and happily riding with her everywhere, thinking that carrying all her heavy textbooks was enough fare for him to be perched on her shoulders and taking over her life.
Lia’s mother had hated her haircut too. Well, that was an understatement. Lia’s mother had screamed when she saw her hair after she came home from the salon, which was far enough away from their home that she couldn’t walk and instead, had to take the bus to a part of town that she barely recognised. It was one of the most daring things she had done and she had hated every minute of it. But she had found the salon that the girl with bright red hair and a spikey sharp-edged haircut had told her about. She had watched the girl walking around the college campus for about half an hour before she finally got the courage to go and speak to her. Like most Caucasian girls, this one, Siobhan, did not bat an eyelid at a stranger coming over to her and telling her that she liked her haircut. She wrote down the name and address of the salon and looked sympathetically at Lia’s long and stringy hair, wanting to say something, but stopping just in the nick of time.
When Lia had walked into the house, it had started to rain and the walk back from the bus stop, long. Mama took one look at Lia’s drenched red hair, in shaggy messes slicked onto the side of her face and tell-tale streams of cheap red dye staining her face and her cream-colored jacket and started screaming. When she had finally calmed down and Lia managed to explain that she had not been stabbed, and her hair had not been slashed into jagged bits by a lunatic murderer, Mama ranted and raved about how beautiful her hair was and wondered hysterically how she could do such a thing. Lia did not tell her about the belly button ring that she had gotten after seeing a beautiful African American girl on campus, whose name, she figured out, was Crystal, wearing a cropped white t-shirt and jeans, a beautiful pink rhinestone peeking out from the crevice inside her exposed midriff. There was a body piercing shop right next to the salon. On an impulse, Lia had gone and gotten her belly button pierced, choosing a beautiful hot pink rhinestone and listening to the woman carefully as she rapped out a set of instructions for taking care of her piercing properly so that it didn’t get infected. She came back with her stomach feeling a little sore. She hoped that Mama would never see it.
All of this was for Aneel. She was like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. The bag, the haircut, the jacket and her belly button ring. They were all stepping stones to get closer to him, to make him finally realise that she was the one for him.
She could not wait to go and show Aneel her new haircut. As she walked towards the campus in the chilly November air, she thought of all the flirtatious things she could say to him. Aneel was so smart, he always knew what to say. He was a sophomore, whereas she had just started her freshman year, and he was in her English literature class. He was a finance major but he had to take English literature and so he came to Lia a lot for help. Mama didn’t know about Aneel. She would be angry, but Lia didn’t care. Ever since she met Aneel, what Mama said didn’t seem to matter as much to Lia.
Aneel lived on campus, in his fraternity house, unlike Lia, who lived off campus in a small flat above a curry house with her mother and walked to school every day. Her mother would offer to drive her but Lia refused. She liked the feeling of being independent.
As she rounded the corner towards the main hall, she spotted him, lounging in the café with his morning cappuccino. Lia’s class was not until 12 in the afternoon, but she came at 8.00 am so that she could meet Aneel before his class began. As she walked into the café, a blast of heat and the smell of freshly roasted French beans hit swarmed around her like bees, encasing her in a false pretence of warmth and cosiness. Aneel looked up as the door opened.
‘Heyyyy, beautiful! How’s it going? You don’t know how glad I am to see you! I was scared you wouldn’t come!’
She blushed. He had never called her beautiful before. And he looked so genuinely relieved that she came. Maybe the haircut worked!
‘Why wouldn’t I come? What’s up? What did you do last night?’
‘Well…that’s actually why I wanted to talk to you.’ He took a long gulp of his grande cappuccino, pausing to wipe his mouth with a napkin (he was so particular about these things). ‘By the way do you want a cappuccino or something?’
‘Umm yeah, a cappuccino sounds good.’ She waited, thinking that he would get it for her, but when he didn’t get up, she walked slowly to the counter, savouring the fact that Aneel saved his mornings for her. Usually when she saw him during the day, he was with his friends and he didn’t have enough time to talk to her. He was a very busy person. But in the mornings he was all hers. When she brought her cappuccino back to the table, Aneel started without preamble.
‘Lia baby, I had the most amazing night last night.’
‘You did?’
‘Yeah I met this awesome chick who is a bio major at a party last night.’
Lia felt her heart stop.
‘Oh really?’
‘Yeah but guess what? Well you know how it is, one thing led to another and the truth is that I never got down to writing my essay and I was wondering, since you’re so amazing at this kinda stuff, whether you would write it for me? Please??’
‘Oh, okay, yeah sure, no problem.’
‘Thanks beautiful, you really are a life saver. Anyway listen I gotta go, I promised Carol – that’s the girl from last night – that I would meet her at 8:30, so I’m gonna head out. Just write the essay and hand it to me before class, will ya?’
‘Okay,’ her voice got smaller.
He awarded her a million dollar smile and walked away, letting in a breath of cold air as he opened the door to the café. It was only when the door shut and she was left to cry softly into her cappuccino that she realised that not only had he given her morning time with him to someone else, but that he had also not noticed her haircut.
With a long suffering sigh, she picked up her ghost backpack and slung it around her shoulders, the way Amy McGregor had. The cream-coloured jacket that she had spent six months allowance on — she had saved it after seeing someone on TV wearing it with tight skinny jeans and bought it amidst her mother’s strong disapproving remarks — felt constrained under the weight of her disappointment and a ghost bag full of angry, heavy books.

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