It was my best friend who first pointed out to me that my Aunt Mina was beautiful.
Maria just one day plopped down next to me in the Year 2 common room during recess and simply announced the fact in her usual I-am-always-right tone.
“Your Aunt Mina is beautiful,” she declared.
I shrugged and then I said, “Did you watch Australian Open last night. Nadal played awesome, didn’t he? Hey, how about a tennis game this afternoon?”
Maria glared at me. “Your Aunt Mina has a very nice smile, don’t you think?”
I frowned. “Yeah, sure.” I answered merely to agree with her. ” So? tennis?”
Maria gritted her teeth and then shook her head, which in turn causes her long ponytail to fly across my face. She always did that when she was annoyed; to annoy me. Of course.
We have passed the sweet stage of trying to please each other. That was last year; when we were both strangers to one another, fresh Year 1 students who were still trying to test the waters, to see who best among the classmates would have the honour to become our best friend for another 6 years in this school. Believe me or not, she even went so far as to call me ‘habibi’ in a very sweet soft-spoken way. She stopped calling me ‘habibi’ when she found out the word was not in her thick Cambridge Dictionary.
In my case, I wasn’t exactly testing the waters. I was chosen, cajoled, coerced and terrorized by her into becoming her best friend, because according to the Miss-I-Know-Everything, I would be friendless without her by my side. Intially, as my best friend, she was quite sweet about me being ‘too upset’ about my skin. For one year, I used the fact that I was black to get her to agree with whatever I wanted to do. And she would do it too because she hated the thought that I would ever think her disagreement with anything I suggested was due to my being of the coloured race.
But this year, she had gotten a bit suspicious. First, she began to ignore my usual remarks about ‘blatant racism and a shameful act of discrimination’, a nice, intellectual-sounding phrase I copied straight from a newspaper article. And then, she began to laugh at my numerous guilt-inducing statements. After some time, she simply came up with her own snappy repartee. My usual, “Admit it! You are just embarrassed being seen around a black kid,” just didn’t work anymore. She would simply yawn in my face and said, “Sure, Zachary. For a year I have been embarrassed being seen with you. Unfortunately, I don’t have a pair of good running legs to get away from you, who is very fast and really quick on your feet”
Of course she would never miss the opportunity to point out that she was in the school running team to me, albeit sarcastically. She had been rubbing it in ever since I finished the qualifying race as the last runner, a month ago. I told her that the reason I finished last was due to my asthma and not because my legs were any weaker or shorter than her. To that, she just rolled her eyes and said, “For awhile, I was almost sure you were going to say it was because you were black.”
Yeah, you get it, don’t you? She no longer cared about my feelings. She had passed the stage of trying to please her new best friend. Now, it was the phase of ‘showing-off to your best friend every time you get the chance’.
“I said that your Aunt Mina is beautiful because her smile is just gorgeous. Now, do you agree with me or not? And I don’t want to hear another word about tennis. Just stay on the subject.”
I frowned. “I was trying to stay on the subject. I thought we were talking about Australian Open and Nadal and a tennis game this afternoon.”
Maria stared at me, incredulously. And then she shook her head and muttered, “What a thick skull you have.”
I gasped in indignation. “What did you say?”
“And your having a thick skull has nothing to do with your skin.” She pushed herself up and slammed the door of the common room shut, leaving my ear drum almost numbed.
I came back from school and went straight into Aunt Mina’s room, which was just next to mine. When I barged in, Aunt Mina was engrossed in one of her thick law books that had tiny alphabets in them. I used to, out of curiosity, open one of those hard cover books to try to understand what had kept Aunt Mina so fascinated, but I soon began to understand that I could not understand ; I could not understand why Aunt Mina was fascinated so, and I could not understand anything the book said. It took like 4 lengthy lines of big long words before you finally reached a ‘full stop’, with many hyphen and semi-colons and apostrophes in between. By the time I reached the end of the sentence, I had no idea what I could make out of it.
“Zachary, how many times have I told you to knock on the door before you storm in?” Aunt Mina complained.
I shrugged, “This is the fifteenth times.”
Aunt Mina kept her gaze fixed on the shiny page of the thick book. “So can we agree that by the twentieth time, you would remember?”
I concentrated forcefully and then smiled, “How about by the thirtieth time?” I bargained, something Aunt Mina had taught me to do last month when she tried to teach me the meaning of the word ‘compromise’. Needless to say, I was now a pro.
Aunt Mina turned to look at me, her lips straight but her sparkling eyes spoke volume of suppressed amusement, “By Twenty-third time!”
“Twenty eight!” I countered, loving the game.
“Done!” I said, triumphantly. “That was the number I was aiming for, anyway.” I said, gloating.
Aunt Mina laughed. “So, you reckon you are now the master of the art of bargaining, eh mate?”
I shrugged, “Oh well, we all have our little talents.” I said, imitating my dad now, which made Aunt Mina’s amusement quickly fade.
Uh-oh, wrong move. (My dad and Aunt Mina had the worst case of sibling rivalry in the human history, just so you know).
“Just so you know, Zachary, that I could simply lock the door and it would not matter one bit whether or not you can bargain like a pro.” Her eyes all narrow and intimidating.
“Ugh, you are not fun!” I whined, and then quickly realized that that tone was the very tone of voice I would not want Maria to hear me speak in. So I cleared my throat and said, “Just admit that I demonstrated quite clearly that I am a good learner of whatever you had taught me.” I said, the whiny-voice gone, the charming smile in.
Aunt Mina smiled. “Yes, you are, habibi. But another lesson that you need to learn is, bargaining is only effective when the parties involved have equal power between them. Got that?”
I nodded, solemn now. Whenever I was around Aunt Mina, I always knew when to chuck all my childish behaviour and when to listen seriously and dutifully. I could almost instantly (if not instinctively) recognize when she was about to say something really important, because her eyes would look all deep and watchful and she would call me ‘habibi‘.
And then she would hug me. Which I would absolutely refuse to do whenever we were anywhere near Maria or any of my school friends.
So to save my self from the terrible fate, I quickly said, “You don’t have to hug me, Aunt Mina. I understand everything that you just said.”
Aunt Mina laughed out loud, “You are incorrigible!”
I smiled and climbed up her bed. Aunt Mina returned to her own reading, allowing me to quietly and surreptitiously study her profile, something Maria had gotten me to swear to do when I got home. She was such a terrorist that whenever I thought about my best friend, I always frown.
Aunt Mina did have a very nice, sharp profile. Her smile was always dazzling because she had such awesome white teeth. And her eyes were as sparkling and as big as the brightest moon in the middle of the fasting month.
Okay, enough observation. I could now tell Maria that I had done what I had sworn to do; so later, she could not accuse me of lying.
“Yeah, she is pretty, like you said. I like her smile and her eyes.” was the first thing I said to Maria the next time I saw her. That would be the end of my report of observation.
But Maria had other ideas. When she was obsessed about a subject, she would talk about it non-stop. And now, she has decided to be obsessed about my auntie.
Maria began by smiling at me approvingly and for a space of a second, I ALMOST thought that her smile was just as beautiful. Especially now that her two teeth at the front were present again.
“Well, what did you notice about her smile?” Maria beamed at me.
I struggled. “Well…it’s nice, like you said it is.” I muttered, with not much confidence. Just WHAT did she want me to say?
“Yeah, did you notice how the right side of her lips always seems to curve more than the other side?” That question was nothing short of an interrogation. I didn’t know why I felt positively ambushed.
“hmm…yeah.” I muttered.
“And what about her eyes? Did you notice how kind they are, almost smiling?”
“I notice that they are really big. You see, smiling is the action of the lips.” I explained, painfully to Maria, who I thought was being really stupid. “Maybe, we can try other adjectives that more properly describe her eyes. Her eyes are really big, and seeing. How about that?”
Maria rolled her eyes and then her enjoyment returned. “Well, so now that we have established that she is beautiful and kind with smiling lips and seeing eyes…there’s only one thing left to do.” Maria declared, the all time Miss-Know-It-All was back in action.
I frowned in confusion when Maria looked at me expectantly, as though she expected my cleverly clear and intelligently organized brain to be able to read her (insert your own adjectives, for I have run out words to describe how chaotic her mind could be) faculty of thoughts.
When Maria kept staring at me with obvious silent urging for me to say something, I began to feel pressured. You see, Maria had this impressive ability of creating the sort of silence that was so LOUD, it could rupture your ear drums.
“What?!” I asked, exasperatedly.
“Well, the only thing left to do is for her to marry my father, and become my mother.”
When the impact of what she had said finally sunk in, I choked on my coke…
…and never quite recovered from the shock.