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Better men

There comes a time when you look back and wonder where you are. You look around, and the space you inhabit is one where you feel you do not belong. Strange people, speaking a strange language, with tongues as sharp as a viper's hiss, and a strange place others dub as your home. This is not what you had set off for, this wasn't what you had in mind, when, young and naïve, you had dreamt of what you'd become and how good you'd be. This is not what you deserve. You deserve happiness, you deserve love, you deserve so much more. Right?

And you realize that that is a question you cannot answer. And that is a scary thought.

You have people around you who you call your friends, but you don't feel they are. You don't belong there. Why? Because they're happy. And you're anything but. You see them with their friends, and their family, and how they laugh and be merry. And how, for them, the way they are and the way they should be is the same thing.

I let these thoughts muster inside, as I sit in a coffee shop, across from two individuals who are immersed in a conversation, having muted me off. I feel like I came into a packed restaurant, and the only seat available was this, and I was just another person who they had to incidentally share their table with. This is a feeling I am common with, this feeling of being pushed out of the pack, no, shoved out, and the consequential aura of isolation which I feel squeezing down on me. I feel helpless. And I watch them, this boy, oozing cool, and this girl, her glasses perched on the subtle stoop in her nose, laughing at everything he says, her head see-sawing back and forth in glee.

Yes, a girl. There's always a girl, isn't there?
The guy, she has said to me, on more than one occasion, is the coolest guy she has ever met. Wonderful. I sip my frappe, invisible as always, and I observe, and I let it implode. And nothing changes.

There's a ringing that pierces the murmurs of the crowd, and she picks up her cell phone, reeling back from something the guy had said, going ”Musa, you crack me up!” She speaks into the phone, her voice caressing, carried across the stratosphere into the ears of a recipient I wish to be.

“Hey,” she says. That's all I need to let me know who is on the other end of the line. The way she says it, dragging the syllable out into a breathy whisper, cloaking itself in the slur of its sound, its noise, its echo, is what informs me, without a doubt, who it is. “You did what?!” she goes, excitement etched across her face. It's her colleague, and, pathetically, I also remember, how she had said 'he's the most exciting thing that ever hit us here at the Bugle.'

That is when it hits me, this thunderous realization, this epidemic of a revelation which tears my insides asunder. I don't know why this happens here, now, of all places, but it does.

Born of self-pity and self-loathing, of a bruised ego, and a heart so weak inside its depths of ambiguity, this realization comes, that, I, under layers of pretentious difference, am not good at anything. Or, at least, not good enough.

As I come to this depressing recognition of my being, Musa turns to me says, having lost her attention to a better man, picking right out of the most indifferent of small talk, “So, what's up?”

I plummet. Comprehension dawns: this is all I'll ever be. The second fiddle, the third wheel, the one who just does not belong. I mutter something incoherent and go back to my frappe, the chill of the coffee freezing my brain to a masochistic nothingness. Any distraction from my thought stream proves futile.

She puts the phone down, and turns to me. “Shahriar's on his way.” I nod. Great. What else could I do? I recall her labeling him as the “Awesome” guy. I don't like where my thoughts traverse to, this picking of men encompassing different adjectives, these men who are better in every way they can be. What adjective is mine?

I don't have one: I am swimming in a sea of mediocrity.
It's not their fault that I have become a thorn in this vast ocean of roses, each with its own unique splendor, radiating greatness. It's not their fault I am the way I am. It's not their fault that I am the only pixelated presence in the vast LCD screen of life. She did try, to bring me in, to see if I was worthy of the elite.

As my pathetic thought stream plunges me downward still, I realize that I can't even speak properly, that the concept of the spoken word is alien to me. I know they talk at night, on the phone, post-miding the hours away, exchanging kilobytes of happiness on Skype.

What am I good for?

The straw sucks on air: the frappe is finished. As Shahriar arrives, awesomeness tapping at his heels, and they both get up to greet him, and, conforming, so do I, as I sink into the shadows of better people, better men, I implode again, and again, and again.
Nothing changes.

By S. N. Rasul

In every sunflower

I reach across the table, fingers curling towards the coaster that lies abandoned on the other side. Index finger outstretched, I slide it down, the Oscar Wilde quote stamped with a ring of moisture. Faint squeak of resistance, and in the polished glass I see my lopsided reflection, my face elongated along the temple. “It's for you,” I tell her when she joins me at the table. Her amusement lifts off her shoulders and wafts my way.

The light is fading from the sky, November chill settling down on the clusters of people sitting out on the patio. They wrap their hands around steaming cups of coffee, their breaths coming out in misty wreaths before dissipating into the dusk. Snatches of conversation and disjointed words slip past the fuzz of tiredness that she is wrapped up in. The slouch of her shoulders, the loose grip on her purse, the voice that is suddenly ten decibels softer I have spent far too much time around her not to notice. “Is everything all right?” I ask. My eyes, will of their own, are drawn to her hand lying unclasped on the table top.

“Hmm?” she mutters, and rubs the flats of her palms against her dark-rimmed eyes. When she catches my poorly-averted stare, she lifts her shoulders in a laugh. “Long day,” she says, and waves it away dismissively.

It's a gesture I've seen far too many times to count. Standing in line, weighed down by textbooks. Waiting for the bus, shoulder bag slung over her arm, shopping bags lying at her feet. Holding cup noodles to her face, breathing in the curry aroma, fighting back fatigue. “Long day,” she always says, the dark mane of her hair wound around her face, waving those long-stemmed fingers. And every time I lift my shoulders in a poor imitation of her, and affect her airy voice, and scoff.

“Sure.” And I wave back at her.
She laughs, as she always does. I smile back at her, my fancy gripped by the hand that is lying unclasped by the salt-and-pepper shakers. A swirl of paleness against the dark wood, and instantly my heart skips a beat or twenty. She tends to have that effect on me. She also tends not to be aware of it.

“Did you get any sleep at all last night?” I ask. My own hand sets off on its own arduous voyage across the table.

She shakes her head, half-heartedly covering up a yawn before propping up her chin in her hand and resting her elbow on the edge of the table. “Barely two hours,” she says, closing her eyes against the butterscotch sheen of fading day.

All my concern, the breadth of the store-front patio, is collapsed into a single “Oh.”

She smiles, distracted. For the first time in the last ten minutes I notice how the lank strands of her hair are arrayed across her face, casting it in partial shadow, how the lifting of the corners of her mouth relaxes the crow's feet around her eyes, the furrows between her brows. Another yawn shudders down her frame, and her head sags on the table.

My hand, halfway across the table, finds a napkin dispenser to hide behind.

“Mm.” Voice muffled, laced with drowsiness. She looks up through squinted eyes and together we watch a tray of croissants float past our heads, warm buttery smell winding its way around our table. “Hungry?” I ask her, and she nods.

“Muffin?” another nod of affirmation.
She smiles back, cheerier. “You always know.”
I always pay attention like that.
“Be back, 'kay?”
She scrapes her chair sideways so that she can watch me get up. “You're always so nice to me.”
I stop, mid-step, and blush to the roots of my hair.
“What's that now?” I mumble. The heartbeat that had been galloping past my veins the last hour grinds to a sudden halt.

We are frozen in place. She, eyes drowsing over with sleep, hair falling around her face, regards me with a finger probing the faint dimple in her cheek. I shove my hands in the pockets of my jeans and dare not look her way.

And all around us the laughter lilts on another crest and the light turns a deeper shade of gold and the shadows elongate on the asphalt and in my head it is all rushing memory and her quiet breathing. I am quite hopelessly in love with her.

“How've you been?” she asks at last.

The randomness of her question throws me off. “Whatever do you mean?” I choke out, vocal cords vibrating almost imperceptibly.

Her smile is wider now. “You're so silly.” Beaming, her face alight, the fatigue momentarily abandoned. “Sit down,” and she gestures at the chair that I only five minutes ago abandoned.

I oblige. As always.

She reaches across the table, the journey my own clenched fist had been trying to make covered in a heartbeat. She cups my palm in hers, curling her fingers into mine, and lifts it to her face. Her promise ring glints in the dying light.

I put it on her finger. That ring, that night, that November rain falling on her window, that look on her face, the sunflower of her days finding root in my life. Those petals streamed through our fingers, crowding our feet with their bursts of sun-kissed happiness. They sealed all our moments in these small hours.



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