Of Dust and Eyes by Subash Chapagain, winner of Story Writing Competition organized by Deerwalk Literature Society, Documentary, Movie, and Dramatics, and DWIT News.
For the first time, we met inside a tempo. We didn’t speak or anything; our eyes met, and that was it. Her hairs curled and strayed into her broad cheeks that hid inside a surgical mask. Blue, I remember. It was blue; mine was green. However, my friends often read me from the internet how those masks were failing our lungs. Colors barely mattered. Never mind. We’re used to living inside a dust-bowl.
It was supposed to be a cold evening but the dust-bowl had its own rules. Inside a human-stuffed, mechanically hilarious machine that runs on cooking gas, we defyed environmental science! Global warming was real, at least inside that poor old tuk-tuk that whined all day long. DiCaprio should ride this thing sometimes. A dozen solemn bodies like mine rubbed and squeezed each other, someone’s elbow ran into someone else’s nose; and no one was to blame if that even broke and bled. Long noses must be broken. ‘Democracy’, they said.
But she was there, she hummed her own songs. She played with her earphone wire, she nodded to the beat while she locked and unlocked and locked her phone. One must’ve had superpowers to be that calm under that steel box. I wondered like a fool. Then someone rammed the tempo’s ceiling so loudly that even she took her right earpiece off to see what happened. But that was the sad part. Nothing ever has happened in this country.
I pretended to see what time it was. My phone was dead, so I peeked at her. Someone’s belly had been my hiding post from the start of our journey that was three thousand years ago. It was always good to have a seat when someone else was hanging behind that vehicle’s edge with their torso forcedly injected inside. Brakes creaked, and my hiding post succeeded to squeeze out of the tempo.
I took my eyes off her. I had to.
“What do I keep my eyes at now? Should I turn my head right and pretend that I’m looking outside into the dusty abyss? Or should I turn my neck left and breathe that fume of sweat and public misery? I hated dilemmas. I looked at my new pair of Goldstar that I bought from an e-commerce the previous week. I had paid them in cash though.
“Courage is a man’s thing,” I incited myself. “Enough with these cheap shoes, I’m looking back at her again.”
I lifted my head as high as the rod in the ceiling permitted, and slowly pulled my eyes towards her. Determined not to retreat, I kept on staring. But she was not going to give up either. We just gazed through each other. I had to murder a smile for I didn’t know what would happen if I smiled. Now I think of that moment, I have this realization that she too buried something behind her lips. That could be a smile. That could be anything. I can’t say for sure. A middle-aged man was arguing with the tempo driver about why it should be fifteen and not eighteen rupees for the fare. She seemed to not have heard that.
Back to the cheap shoes, I rolled my eyeballs. I lost the eye game. “Loser!” I heard my life whispering in my ears.
I wished that journey to never end, but sadly the brakes creaked again. She paid her money. One Ten, one Five, two coins- Two and One each: eighteen rupees. She didn’t care even if it wasn’t fifteen. She took off. She walked away, and when she did she left behind a cursory silhouette. Those solar lights deserved a bit of admiration sometimes, yet I was not in a mood for that because no one hummed songs anymore. Good things never last long here in this dust-bowl.
I took off at the next stop. I too rammed the tempo’s ceiling.
When I got home, I checked my plants in the plastic vases. They looked like they were going to bloom when the winter’s over. They drank the water I dripped onto; they stood privy to my restless walkthrough to and fro inside that large, ten by ten room when I thought of many good things I ought to do with my life then. I loved them for they never complained about the internet being creepy slow; they had this awfully patient aura with them. They could wait until summer.
Summers in the dust bowl were unbelievable. Winters were dusty, but summers were dusty and muddy.
It was one of my friend’s birthday the day before. I don’t know why people get so excited about being older. However, I couldn’t feel bad for being invited. “Come on man,” they had said in the group chat, “Barbeque! And beer. A lot of beer.” The only time these group chats were active were before someone’s birthdays and during live football games.
Beers were good during summer. So, I had put on my old pair of Goldstar and rushed to the birthday boy’s place. And in the stroke of midnight, we had sung ‘happy birthday to you’ for six or seven times in a row - with guitar, without the guitar, with piano, without piano, and two more times just to remind our aging friend that now he could think about getting married. But he never thought about it. He was that drunk. And so were the rest of us. We had even suspected him of being gay. But drunkenness knew forgiveness very well.
I had this weird history of oversleeping at someone else’s place, and that day too I had kept on snoring till the birthday boy’s girlfriend showed up. The birthday boy’s girl had brought him a ‘surprise’ cake. Pineapple cake it was. She cut it, and we ate it before she could even fetch plates and spoons from the kitchen. No one cared if it made her boyfriend surprised. However, we sang ‘happy birthday to you’ once again. This time, the girlfriend’s voice was the loudest. I was thinking how she should’ve auditioned for a singing competition. She then made good coffee. We all sipped as we watched our drunken videos from the previous night. I couldn’t believe they’d even made me recite a poem. The poem was good, but I don’t think I liked hearing my own recorded voice. I mean, who does?
All the other guys had already left by then. “I need to go.” I too had said and left them in peace.
I had thought I could walk all the way to my place, but I was wrong. Hangovers were a real misery. I didn’t feel like doing anything. When I crossed a bridge that looked so much like many others that were named after the color they are, there was this deadly smell that almost persuaded me to hate my nose. My mother often told me that this nose looks kind of nice on me. It’s a pity that I had to cover it all the time with those masks. Since surgical masks worked no more, I had switched to a fancy, expensive one. This too, I had bought from an e-commerce, and I had paid them in cash again.
It was Saturday, and I was supposed to call my father. But I needed to get rid of that nasty headache first. I searched for a fruit shop and ordered one glass of mixed juice. I drank at once and paid eighty rupees and saw that my purse had just one hundred more left in it. I definitely should’ve called my father earlier, yet it wasn’t late. I reached for my pocket to take out my phone, but it wasn’t there. I hated hangovers even more then. I needed to walk back to the birthday boy’s room.
I wasn’t quite sure if that glass of juice worked. I still felt dizzy as I dragged my feet back to where I came from. I felt like puking when I reached my friend’s door.
“I left my phone,” I told him. I realized that I had been too dumb not to notice that we were watching the previous night’s video earlier in my phone.
“They are watching your poems in the kitchen.”
“Who ‘they’?” I asked.
He replied that his girlfriend had invited one of her friends.
I heard my friend’s girlfriend and her friend giggling in the other room. I felt sorry for my silly poems. I went to the room to fetch my phone. The girls stared at me. I stared back at them.
“Wait, do I know you?” I asked the new friend.
“We’ve never met I guess.” She replied.
But I knew those eyes very well. We had met six months back, on a cold dusty evening, inside that clangorous tempo.
The dust never really settled there in the dust-bowl. It had its own perks. It played with my mind and gifted me a power of knowing people by their eyes.