BOOK EXCERPT

The teenagers who star in Paro Anand’s new YA book are all ‘othered’ by their friends

Short stories about young people who find themselves different from the mainstream.

Anyway, when I came back down, Dad had worked something like a miracle. He’d hugged a compromise out of Mum that Aarav and I could be in my room, only, we shouldn’t shut the door. I had to hug him then, sweat and all. I don’t care about not shutting the door. I mean, Aarav and I literally just talk. Unless I’m trying out some new outfit for a party and trying to decide which one I look least hideous in. And even then, I come out of the bathroom and show him. I’m not changing in front of him or anything. I mean, yu-ck.

Anyway, it’s nice to be able to chat to him on our own instead of in-the-stupid-living-room thing. Now there is a hot new topic to talk about. I discuss all my crushes with Aarav. And his advice is always great. He doesn’t talk much about his love interests. There haven’t been many. Or any. Actually. Anyway...

This new boy had just arrived in our class. He was really cute. He’s from some other country, some exotic mixed parentage and all of us were dying and vying to get to know more and be his friends. Of course, there were others who got there first, so Aarav and I just had the fleeting pleasure of a nod and a hi, how are you kind of moment.

Later, in my room (finalllly), I confessed to Aarav that I’d fallen in love – also finalllllly. This new kid – Daniel – made my heart beat faster, which, in turn, unfortunately made my palms a bit sweaty. “I think I’m in love, bro. It’s not the usual crush this time. I’m sure.”

There was a pause. And it went on a bit and for a terrible long moment, I suddenly had a panic attack wondering if Aarav was in love with me. I mean, he looked so sad. He looked as though the weight of it had suddenly fallen on his shoulders.

“What?” I said, unable to bear the silent tension anymore.

“Nothing...”

His voice was small and he’d somehow shrunk. Oh god, he was going to say it. And I loved him. A lot. But I didn’t love him, love him, you know? What was I going to do? I certainly didn’t want to lose my best friend.

“You know you can tell me, Aarav, what is it?” I tried to sound reassuring although I was the one who needed the reassurance myself.

“There, well, there’s is something I’ve been needing to talk to you about.”

“Ok...ayyy,” I braced myself. Here it comes. Though inside my head I was saying, “Shut up, shut up, don’t say it. Don’t say anything.”

“I...oh man, there’s no easy way to say this. Wait, I...oh ma...an.”

He got up, he paced the floor. He turned to me, opened his mouth like, here it comes. But instead, he dropped his shoulders, shook his head, but he wouldn’t look at me.

“No, you know, it’s nothing, I can’t.” But he was near tears now. And honestly, I was kind of relieved that he was backing off. I really didn’t want to hear it. Like, if he told me he was in love with me, then...well then, it was going to ruin every single thing in the world. I mean, he couldn’t be my best friend any longer. Not once he’d told me he loved me and I didn’t love him back.

“Okay, look, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

He looked at me and I saw the tears leaking out of his eyes. His nose was starting to run, as though the tears were trying to find an alternate route. “But I need to tell you, I can’t lie anymore...” his voice was tiny, like a whisper. But a very broken one.

I had to be sensible about this. Even though I’m usually not good at doing practical. That’s what was needed now. Bring on the sensible. Bring on the practical.

I didn’t know what exactly I was going to say once he told me, but I could not be a friend and then not let him tell me what was weighing him down so much. What kind of friend would that be? He was always such a good listener to my woes. I guess it was my turn now.

“Look, come on, come, sit with me,” I patted the bed for him to come sit. Yeah, he nodded slowly, mouthing the word. He sat on my bed and I got up to shut the door, knowing that Mum was going to come home in a bit and then throw a hissy fit about broken promises, but this was a closed-door talk. I knew that much.

His head was slung so low that his chin was totally resting on his chest. His shoulders were slumped. He looked so small and sad that I knew I was going to really have to help him say it. I stroked his back. His shoulders were so tense.

I leaned my head on his shoulder, kissing the corner of it before laying my head there. He would be more comfortable if I was not looking at him.

“Say it, apple pie,” (getting to be more like my dad every day) I whispered.

“I’m a girl...” he whispered back.

‘What?!’ I laughed, shoving him with my head. And he actually fell off the bed. I was giggling. “What d’you mean you’re such a girl? You mean that you don’t have courage? You mean boys have more courage than girls?” And I was about to launch into this whole woman power spiel, but he held his finger up to shut me up, still looking down at his bare toes.

“No, I didn’t say I’m ‘such a girl’, I said, ‘I am a girl’.”

He looked up at me straight in the eye and repeated it.

“I am a girl.”

No, you’re not bubbled up inside my throat. I was standing now, though I didn’t remember doing that. I thought I had my head on his shoulder. He was still sitting on the floor where he’d fallen when I shoved him.

“Ummm, dude, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Did you hit your head on something on your way here?”

“Sit down.” Command. He was commanding me to sit on my own bed. I sat. He’d never commanded me before.

“Look, I’ve been wanting – needing you to know this in a while. I...I...may be a boy by birth. But inside, like who I really am is not a boy, but a girl.”

“No,” was all that came out. I mean, I knew him so well, knew everything about him. How was it remotely possible that I wouldn’t know this? Besides, and most important, it just wasn’t true. I knew it. Somehow, though, he didn’t. So “NO” was all I could say to him.

Excerpted from the story “Best Friends Forever” from The Other: Stories Of Difference, Paro Anand, Speaking Tiger.

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