Maria didn’t understand my dilemma. How could she? With her Caucasian looks and her white porcelain skin, she simply blended in.
Me? My ebony coloured skin (an euphemism, I no longer doubted now, to a soot-covered appearance) made me stand out each and every time.
Even though Maria was my best friend (indeed, perhaps my ONLY friend) in the whole Year 1, there were times when I just disliked her so completely, it took my breath away, which kind of alarmed me for my daddy said (he is very clever, you see, he is a heart surgeon) that I had this condition called asthma and if I felt any shortness of breath, I was to report it right away to Miss Pike.
“What is WRONG with you, Zachary? I only SAID, your skin is dark, which is good, not bad but GOOD… it’s good having black skin because you can take care of the wall painting inside the photography room while we all take care of the actual drawing outside the room. We need the wall painted black, and with your natural skin and everything, you need not worry about getting the paint on your skin because it would not be so obvious. I was only pointing out for everyone in the class to notice that there are ways you can contribute, seeing that you are NO GOOD at drawing let alone mural-painting. “
I gritted my teeth. I looked at her with all the irritation I felt at that time. For a mathematical-genius and thus Miss Pike’s favourite pet, she sure was stupid!
“You are such a stupid girl! You didn’t even realize that you have embarrassed me so dreadfully. I am not speaking to you until you say sorry.”
Maria let out a massive snort. “There’s no way you can stop talking to me. I am the only one who talks to you in the class, and you know it.”
That served to intensify my anger even more. It was very, very, very unkind of her to point out that if not for her, I would be friendless and without any company. Oh, how I hated this stupid private school my parents had forced me to enter. One month into this ins-ti-tu-tion (I still struggled pronouncing this new word I had just learned a week ag0), and I was still the odd one out. It didn’t matter that I got full marks in my spelling quizzes and Miss Pikes had drawn not one, not two but THREE stars on my quiz paper; it didn’t matter that I memorized my multiplication table ALMOST (for no one can beat Maria at this) as flawlessly as Maria; it didn’t matter that I was quick to help everybody with anything…I would still be the odd one out.
One month into this institution, had also taught me that Aunt Mina had lied. All those staring on the street, had nothing to do with my supposed cuteness. Perhaps, all those people who were staring had the same thought in their mind as Maria’s when she had first seen me….that I was dirty and covered in soot. That I had not had my shower for years and years. That to sit next to me would be a health hazard, that I have all sorts of small bad bugs on my skin.
My skin was already so obviously NOT WHITE, that I really didn’t need Maria to point it out to the whole class that I would be a suitable wall painter because, oh, my skin matched the colour of the paint!
She. Was. A. Moron.
I knew I was harsh. But, at the moment, nothing could top my dislike for Maria.
Not even the broccoli that my mother force-fed me could accomplish that feat.
And that was saying a lot!!
What a stupid boy! I could not imagine why, oh why, did I get such an asinine little thing as my best friend!
No matter! It was not like I needed him all that much. I had MANY friends; he was just one of them. If he didn’t want to talk, I wouldn’t talk either.
I was trying to help him! And this was the thanks I got??
I didn’t have to be his friend. I could go and have lunch with Jack. I could spend a much more enjoyable time talking to Tasha about my new Barbie Doll that daddy had bought. Why, even the mention of Barbie Doll, had Zachary’s nose scrunched in distaste making me stop my ex-u-ber-ance (ugh, I better start remembering how to spell this word before the next quiz) in mid-sentence. But, oh But!! When HE talked about his stupid water rifle and his idiotic train tracks, I had LISTENED!! I had LISTENED so patiently so that when he finished (if he ever finished) I could have my turn. But he never considered. He just said right out that I was boring him even before I finished my whole story. And I had only juststarted!
That kind of treatment was simply too appalling for a good friend to endure.
I had no REASON to be his friend, did I? But I did too, didn’t I? Because I felt sorry for him, you see! He would have NO friends…zero! nada! zip!, if it was not for me. Next time, when he decided he had enough of his sulking, I would make him promise to listen about my Barbie Doll, before I would talk to him again.
I was only trying to help. He MUST be blind not to notice that everyone was ignoring his presence, though it was not intentional. How could anyone include him in the discussion about mural painting when he had no talent at drawing, whatsoever. Art was the ONE subject that Zachary was really bad at.
Painting the wall black, was the only job suited to Zachary’s non-existent artistic ability. But as always, it did not occur to everyone else to suggest Zachary’s name for it. Zachary was just such a loner and so silent, even though his dark presence among so many whites was hardly subtle.
I was ONLY trying to make Zachary feel included by suggesting his name as the wall painter.
And to support my suggestion, I had said, “Zachary would be well-suited for the job seeing that he would not have to worry overmuch about the paint on his skin as it would not appear so obvious on him than it would for us. He would be perfect for it. Won’t you let him do it?”
I practically begged (ugh)the committee to accept Zachary as part of the team, so that we could stay after-hours together. How dare he then turned to me and said, “Thank you for embarrassing me, you toothless drat.”
Oh, how insulting!
“So, did you or did you not get the role as the wall painter?” Aunt Mina asked me after I have finished telling her all the insulting and humiliating little details that had befallen me in the class meeting.
“Of course I got the role. Seeing how my skin matched the colour of the paint perfectly, according to the toothless drat” I pouted. “I will NEVER talk to Maria again. Unless she say sorry to me.”
Aunt Mina sighed, softly. She gathered me in her arms but before she could do anything further, I quickly said, “You can hug me, but I am not going to sit on your lap, Aunt Mina.” I said, my voice full with iron-clad determination.
Aunt Mina laughed. “You think you are such a big boy now, aren’t you?But, habibi, a big boy doesn’t sulk like this.”
“Why not?” I demanded, unsatisfied with Aunt Mina’s statement.
Aunt Mina looked deeply into my eyes. It was my cue to pay attention because she was about to say something really significant.
“A big boy behaves himself with honour. He would take responsibility for his own feelings and happiness. You have to ask yourself, habibi, why are you angry at Maria’s statement? Why do you feel the way you do about what she had said? You have to sort it out and let her know. You have to listen to her side of the story, rather than choosing to cut relationship with her and not talking. That’s not the behaviour of a big boy. A big boy would take action and solve his problem.”
I groaned in earnest. “Why is it that every time I talk to you, I am somehow at fault and I should go and talk to Maria first! “
I ignored Zachary the whole day, all the way to lunch time. I was determined not to have lunch with him today. But I did go to David (the class’s art prodigy) and told him that he better get Zachary to sit next to him for lunch, otherwise I would not let him have the watercolor paints for the mural that I had agreed to supply yesterday.
To my satisfaction, I saw David pulling Zachary’s hand, in fact, practically, dragging him to sit at his table. When Zachary tried to move away, David (who was bigger and stronger), had pushed against Zachary’s sticky thin thighs to force him to sit with him until he finished his lunch.
Satisfied that Zachary was not left alone to fend for himself, for he was such a wimp if not being looked after properly, I turned to Tasha and continued our really fascinating talk about our Barbie Dolls.
All of a sudden, I found myself being pulled up from my seat, dragged away from Tasha and being pushed forward to quickly run out of the cafeteria. “Come on. Let’s get out of here before David could come and get me to sit with him.”
Zachary intermittently pushed and pulled me forward until we arrived in the Year 1 student lounge where we both plopped ourselves down on the lush red carpet and breathe hard.
I stared at him openly. I stared at him the way I first stared at him on the first day of school a month ago. Zachary was always like this. He was so OBVIOUS, so APPARENT, so THERE!! that I could not possible ignore him, had I tried.
And today, I could not possibly ignore him when he had pulled me away from Tasha and our fascinating discussion about the latest apparel for our Barbie Doll, and then made me plop down next to him at the deserted lounge room and began opening his mouth only to let me know what his Aunt Mina had said, last night. A torrent of fierce, heartfelt words came bubbling out of those full dark lips, broken only by an occasional grin and a flash of white teeth (which never failed to make me feel a bit conscious of my own lack of two at the front top).
“So you see, Aunt Mina had asked me to let you know why I felt the way I did so that you would not do it again.” Zachary said, ending his story after a 5 minutes rendition of the reasons why I should not talk about his skin ever again.
I pursed my lips, thinking hard. I understood now why Zachary had behaved the way he did. I had an inkling yesterday that he was a bit too sensitive about his skin. I began to get even more suspicious especially when I had told my father about my argument with Zachary and he had let me know that it might be a good idea to refrain from calling attention to Zachary’s dark skin in the future.
And after listening to Zachary’s long winded talk about how he didn’t like it when people talked about his skin and then made that as a reason for anything that he should do, woulddo, must do, suited to do, I now understood that Zachary was touchy about his skin. That it annoyed him that he was different from the rest of us.
Well, that was just deuced stupid, and I would let him know what I thought of his stupidity.
But before that, there was something in his story that I just had to clarify, first.
“What is this habibi thing that your Aunt Mina kept saying? Is it a new word?”
Zachary frowned. “New word? What are you on about? I have known that word since I was a child. Sheesh, Maria…I told you that you should start learning some simple English words. My aunty uses them all the time when she talks with my father. But I guess, you don’t have an Aunty who is going to be a lawyer, do you?”
I hated it when Zachary was in his boasting mood. For someone who was too sensitive about his skin, he was sure much too vain about everything else.
“Just tell me what habibi means, Zachary! Later, I will find out myself in the dictionary. But for now, just tell me!” I snapped.
Zachary shook his head…probably in regret of my ignorance. Then he smiled, pleased with himself that he could show how much better he was at English than I was. After all, he was the only one who according to him “got NOT one, NOT two, but THREE stars for spelling quiz.”
Zachary opened his mouth in earnest, “Habibi… is what people would call you when they want to comfort you or when they want you to listen to them or when they want you to believe them while they are talking to you in a soft and nice manner. So that, you would know that they love you”
“That’s such a long de-fi-nit-ion!” I pronounced the word definition’ with difficulty, just to show him that I too had a big word up my sleeve. ” Are you sure you are not lying to me, Zachary?” I demanded, belligerently.
Zachary gasped at such accusation. “Why would I lie to you, silly! I have been called ‘habibi’ all my life, and everyone…my daddy, my mommy and my aunty would call me habibi when they want me to feel good and nice about something bad that has happened and at the end of their long talk and after I have felt all warm and nice, they would say ‘I love you’. And they always say habibi to me when they are talking to me nicely and softly. They never say habibi to me when they are scolding me something fierce!”
I humphed. I had no choice but to believe him. After all, I had never come across such a weird word in my whole life, and Zachary did get three stars for spelling. So maybe just thisonce, he knew what he was talking about.
“Let me make sure I got this right. So when people say habibi to you, they mean that they want you to believe what they have said to comfort you which they did in a nice soft voice because they love you, is that it?”
Zachary frowned, as though thinking hard. “Yeah, something like that.”
I bit my lower lip. “Zachary, I want you to know that whenever I talk about your skin, it’s not because I want you to feel bad about it. I really like your skin….well, I started liking it after I found out that it was not soot, after all. Your skin makes your teeth look very, very white. It’s really nice; truly it is…habibi.”
I glanced at Zachary as I said this. He looked stunned for a second, and then his smile brightened my whole existence at that particular moment.
I meant every word I had said, especially the ‘habibi’ part at the end…
…-until I found out that there was no such a word as habibi in my thick dictionary.
And then, it was all I could do not to strangle my lying habibi with my own bare hands!