Continued from ‘A Friend to Remember: Part I’
Kalia got upset at the worst of things. I walked over to my mother’s car after school, stepping over the cracks in the sidewalk in front of the school. Being called a terrorist was just something I ignored, something stupid that media sensationalized and used against us. What Jamie had said to Kalia was a failure of an argument, and it was senseless to play along with those who tried to anger her. I opened the car door and threw my things in the back, running the seatbelt over my jacket.
“How are you feeling, Aya?” My mother began, attempting conversation. Her eyes stared tiredly down the gray street.
“Good, I guess. Alhamdulilah.” We rode in silence down the streets, past smiling children on their bikes. I saw big trees, Victorian houses, dogs playing in front yards; this was easily a suburban utopia. The hospital came into view, its large lawn and water fountain in the middle of a scenic view. It was such a superficial place, with smiling nurses and happy-looking people who held terrible things inside, a hospital that held disease and cancer and death within its walls.
My mother pulled up to the front curb, where I would walk out and face another round of chemotherapy, another day of uncertainty. My heels clicked on the concrete as I walked to the automatic doors. My mother always told me this was a test from Allah, a test that was so unfair but so necessary for myself.
It started to rain. Wiping my eyes with the back of my sleeve, I waited for what would come next.
Dropping my backpack near a lamppost at the park after school, I walked on the midline of the grass and sidewalk. A green sedan ran by and splashed yesterday’s rain near my feet – oh, may Allah forgive that driver, as he floored the pedal and swerved down the street, obviously trying to get away from me. I slowed down my pace and walked with no purpose, shuffling my gray sneakers against the gravelly concrete.
I walked into the community playground, ducking under the monkey bars to reach the swings. I sat in one of them, kicking my legs forward and backward, gaining momentum towards the heavens above. I heard a voice behind me.
“Hey, Kalia?” Aya swept into the swing next to mine, pulling herself into the swing and sitting quietly.
“Hey,” I said, my feet scraping the mulch below to slow my swinging. I hadn’t seen her follow me. She had walked off the bus and come to the playground, so I guess it was important. Her lips were pursed together, the bags under her eyes very defined. She pulled at her shirt, her hijab, her hands were everywhere. She sat down on the swing, shaking. Something was wrong.
“So, how’ve you been?” Aya began swinging at a snail’s pace. Her hijab floated in the wind, synchronizing with mine.
“I’ve been good, alhamdulilah, just trying to balance the work from school and home,” I said, with a grimace that made her laugh weakly.
“How’s your foster mother going? Don’t worry, you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” Aya replied. It was common knowledge about the life I had, so it wasn’t something I really cared about when others asked.
“No, it’s all good. I guess she’s doing alright. I mean, I can’t stop her from drinking, but I’m good if I don’t do it, right?” We both laughed.
A few minutes passed as Aya talked about her mom. Her mom was a machine, she described, a woman who defined herself by making sure the bills were paid and there was food on the table.
“We don’t talk much,” Aya said. “After my father died, we had a house, money and time on our hands for the rest of our lives. She spends her time alone and I spend mine alone, and after I got sick it just got worse.”
There, she’d said it, she’d confirmed what I had thought. Aya had always seemed perfect to me – in person, in health, but her telling me that she was indeed sick, for however long and with whatever it was she had, was a secret one could only tell a friend. I realized at that moment that Aya and I, despite our significant differences – social, economic, or materialistic – had actually grown to be, well, friends.
I paused, then told her about my parents, the accident that ripped my life apart a year before. Aya gave a small, sympathetic smile, brushing her hijab out of her face as the wind blew across the playground. We continued to swing, quiet.
“Shouldn’t you be with your other friends? All those guys that admire you?” Aya stopped swinging and stared at me, her blue shoes unconsciously kicking the mulch underneath her feet.
“What friends? I’m guessing you’ve noticed I don’t have too many. And as for guys – no, I’m not really into that stuff.” Her voice was bitter, vulnerable, and I noticed her looking down at the ground. The smartest, prettiest, most wealthy girl in the school, that I knew of, had no friend but me – so she implied. She was too reserved, too shy to even acknowledge the fact of who she seemed to be. I ignored it.
We sat in silence for the next few minutes, wind slowly pushing our swings forward and back. Aya attempted conversation about school, and it was like she lit a fire – once she began to speak, and I began to respond, it didn’t end. The next few hours went by quickly as we sat and talked on those two swings, ignoring all calls from our parents and the rain that fell in torrents down our faces. We laughed, we cried, we became sisters.
Aya laughed in the wind and rain as she leaned back in her swing, staring above, shielding her eyes from the rain. I had always considered her to be conceited, snobby, but here sat one of the few girls I knew, one of the few people in this world that I now trusted.
I called my mother from the playground at about 9 p.m., after Kalia and I had finished our talk. The car came within minutes, and my mother was extremely upset. I sat in silence, while she screamed about the effects of getting sick in the middle of chemotherapy. She wasn’t mad at me, she was scared for me.
She had gotten a call from the doctor earlier that day, stating that there was a mistake in their results – something was wrong in my body, something was metastasizing and I had to go in the next day to find out how the doctors would fix it. My hair had fallen out weeks ago, but the powers of hijab had fixed that issue. I had gotten thinner, but I didn’t care, because it didn’t matter anymore.
I sat in silence, my heart pounding with happiness. It didn’t matter what clothes she wore, how she was so reserved or detached or afraid of what her life would become. I had gotten through to Kalia; she had gotten through to me. I had found a voice, I had found a confidante, and I had found a friend.
A week went by from the talk with Aya. She had told me her life, her story – how she had started out with two parents, then one, then that one parent turned blank, someone who was so absorbed with money and bills and herself, that Aya had no one to ever talk to. She explained how different her life truly was from the one that was presumed.
Aya wasn’t at school for that week since I last talked to her. I was tense and a little nervous for her health – she never let on that something was wrong, but her weight and her appearance decayed slowly, and that was scary to see for someone so full of light, so full of honesty. It’s like she didn’t care that she was sick, she didn’t mind. She wanted only to live.
Standing at a lab table in chemistry that morning, holding a test tube, I anxiously stared at the slow clock above my head, wanting to go home. Time went by slowly when I was alone, I noticed, and doing these projects without a partner was getting more difficult by day. I had started my own little fire in the test tube I held. Other kids in the class laughed with each other, yelling across the room, until the classroom phone rang shrilly, silencing the class to manic whispers.
Mr. Brown picked up the phone and listened, nodding. He dropped it and walked softly to his desk, removing his lab glasses. He wiped his eyes on the back of his sleeve, took in a deep breath and signaled for the class to quiet down.
“Class,” he began, his eyes cast downward. “Aya Rashid died last night.”
I dropped the flaming test tube onto the ground, burning a little hole into the ground.
My permanent lab partner for the year, “no switching or crying,” left me to switch and cry as my mind went completely blank. I left school, I went home, I left everything behind as I walked to the swings at the playground at dusk to think.
She had leukemia, and she never told anybody that didn’t have to know. Aya hid her secret in an attempt to sway pity away from her. She hid her wealth and her status and her life because she thought she never deserved the praise, she felt she never deserved to be told that she was so extremely worthy of everything that came her way.
Hours passed in seconds. Night fell and the nearby lamppost shined its light. Aya was dead, but I was still here. Running down the gray, wet concrete, watching cars go by and moonlight appearing – I cried, I cried for the kindness she had given me and the time I had wasted, believing her to be everything she was not. Reaching my house, I stepped into the cluttered, smelly hallway, slamming the door behind me with all of my might, hearing Mary Long sputter and wake in the living room. I pounded up the stairs, made my way to my room. Pulling out my prayer rug, washing my hands and my face and my eyes, I prayed to Allah to forgive Aya, for any wrong she could ever have committed. I prayed for myself, for my foster mother, for anybody and everybody that crossed my mind, my mind was racing.
She was my only friend, and I was her only friend, but the way she was – it was the way I wanted to become.
Tears falling, I prepared for Aya’s funeral.