The short girl, the guilt and the elevator
I was nowhere to be found. My mother looked everywhere; in my room, in hers, around the house and outside. When she stopped looking, I snuck out from behind the stairs and ran up to the roof. My regular seat waited there on the edge that looked out to the vast area of what they call, Defence Phase Four.
What happened today was not the first time that it had happened. It was just one of the many times when people treated me the way they do. But something was different this time. It was that girl’s smile or perhaps the look she gave me. I couldn’t get it out of my head and I didn’t want to talk to Mama about it.
It was Saturday evening, and I was tired from our weekly grocery visit to Naheed Supermarket. I wasn’t very fond of the store. I preferred the small grocery stores around our home but Mama insisted on Naheed for it had all the imported and ‘genuine’ products, so to speak. I pleaded that Naheed was too big, too many floors, too many aisles, too much scatter. But Mama loved it.
“It makes me feel like it’s not Pakistan. Like I’m in a foreign country,” she would say.
So Naheed it was early afternoon every Saturday. However, what happened today wasn’t Naheed’s fault.
As I held Mama’s hand, she walked through the entire store filling our trolley with things that we needed and things that we didn’t really need for the week to come. After what seemed like hours, Mama said she had to go to the third floor. I asked,
“Can we take the stairs Mama?”
As expected, she replied,
“No Hasan, we’ve been walking for so long, I don’t have the energy for stairs. Come on now, good boy.”
And with that she pulled my hand and dragged me to the retched elevator. Elevators made me dizzy.
The elevator already carried five people as Mama and I stepped in. A group of four girls, who looked like friends by the way they spoke and giggled to each other, and an old man. As Mama helped me step inside, my head spun as I heard a spur of female laughter. My head spun further at the thought that I was their source of amusement.
“Relax Hasan, you’re a 34-year-old man and they’re just a bunch of young girls. They’re probably laughing at something else. They can’t hurt you,” I said to myself inside my spinning head.
As the old man got off and more people got on the elevator, I peaked at the four girls. One was busy texting on her phone, one wore a head scarf and the other was shorter than the rest with pretty eyes, followed by the fourth one… my gaze stopped at the fourth one. She was tall, had light brown hair and the fairest skin.
She was beautiful.
I hastily lowered my eyes, her beauty was enough to make me feel shy and intimated. Furthermore, she giggled the most out of the lot.
The elevator stopped, people rushed out and I rushed out along with them. Outside, my head continued to spin as I walked around twice in a small circle.
“Hasan this is not our floor! This is not the third floor, come back inside!” Mama yelled.
I looked up to find Mama and the four girls still inside the elevator. Mama looked furious while the girls burst out laughing. The beautiful one laughed the most. Her shoulders shook and she gasped for air, as if the humour in the matter could kill her. I wondered how someone so beautiful could look so unappealing.
I walked back inside and this time awkwardly looked at the girls who were still trying to stifle their laughter. That was when I noticed her, the shorter one with the pretty eyes; she wasn’t laughing. In fact, she looked just as embarrassed as I was. She gave her friends a cold stare that translated to “cut it out”.
She put her hand on her face and shut her eyes. I could see she was horrified at what was happening.
She caught me looking at her, but she did not look away. She looked right into my eyes and gave me an apologetic smile. It was a smile that wasn’t really a smile but was etched in guilt and helplessness.
Her look stayed with me all through our rendezvous of the enormous third floor. Mama didn’t say anything to the girls; in fact she acted like nothing had happened.
“There are all kinds of people Hasan and you can’t control how they react,” she’d say.
That was her typical consolation and I always confessed to her that this is why I don’t like going out, especially in large places with lots of people. It wasn’t because I couldn’t handle being around people, it was solely because they couldn’t handle being around me.
On the roof, I looked at the sunset and I thought about the short girl with pretty eyes, the look she gave me and her smile, which wasn’t really a smile. Perhaps she knew someone like me, someone with Down syndrome. Mental retardation was not rare in Pakistan. Of course, no one was allowed to call us mentally retarded anymore. Calling us special children or special people were the norm now. However, laughing at special people, forcing them to be “normal” or throwing them in dumpsters or orphanages at birth, such practices still exist and no norm has been made to prevent it.
Perhaps the short girl with pretty eyes didn’t know anyone like me. Maybe she was just a person who did not find humour in the fact that some people are different. Someone’s misery and confusion was not comical for her, like it was for those other girls.
The roof was dark now and it was time for me to head back before Mama freaks out. I thought about next Saturday when Mama will take me to Naheed again. I was hesitant more than ever now, to go back there.
But well, it wasn’t Naheed’s fault…
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.