The Walk Home
A Short Story by Esther Reiser
The bright sun juxtaposed the biting wind as Sultan made his way home from school. His body lumbered-not because he is a large boy- he is in fact very thin-but simply because he felt tired. Well, that’s the simplest way to describe it. He was imbued with a heaviness that moves up the body, manifesting itself mostly in the head. Indeed, Sultan found it hard to look up or even keep his eyes open.
I’m going to stop being 15 at one point. I’m going to grow up and get a high paying job. Women will love me. I’ll get one who will love me. I’ll stop being alone. He told himself. The guidance counsellor told him to repeat positive mantras to himself whenever he felt down. “They will provide you with a more positive outlook, make you feel better about yourself, and help you achieve everything!” his guidance counsellor enthusiastically told him. “When you’re really down..just force yourself to simile..you’ll feel better!…It will work…trust me!”
Today, it wasn’t. Sultan started the walk home with a forced smile, but decided this wasn’t the best plan when it caused a young girl to run behind her young mother. When the young mother saw the source of her daughter’s agitation, she paused. Terror flashed in her eyes before collecting her daughter and quickly walking off. He concluded that this demonic frown-turned-upside-down must have brought to mind an image of Genghis Khan sizing up a rape victim somewhere in her family history that was regularly told to scare her growing up. He decided to save the “smile your way to happiness” technique to when the park was vacant. Unfortunately, this experience further bruised Sultan conception of his sexual prowess. He feared this awkward shut in stage of his life would never end.
He inhaled and momentarily shut his eyes. Why born here? Why now? The way I’m looked at school? On the streets? Why not in some glorious past or some distant supernatural future? If they’re not scared of you, they just disregard you. It’s always the same….you’re either a threat or a disappointment. No one wants to listen to you..they just don’t care. No matter what you do..they just want to find a reason to hate you. At school..everywhere. I just wish I could go away..just leave this all. I just wish time could go by faster. Everyone says they understand and know what’s best..but they really have no idea…. His thoughts trailed off.
He heard a rustle in the trees beside the path. He was slightly curious as to what was causing the trussle, but didn’t have the energy to investigate it.
Sultan looked up. Today the trail seemed to go on forever. He was neither enjoying his walk nor eager to get home. He stuffed his hand in his pockets and trudged on into a murky and uncertain future.
Deborah was breathless. The dry cold air stung her throat and diaphragm. Her pace had accelerated from a brisk walk to a jog to a run in the course of 30 minutes. Not that it bothered her-if she had the gumption and if her timing was right-the prize at the end would be worthwhile. She brushed away strands of her red hair that had stuck to her parted lips.
Only one thought circulated through her head: If I was a man-I’d probably be arrested. Dear God I have a problem. Yet any of these pre-cautionary thoughts were drowned out by the beating of her heart and her overpowering desire.
Struggling over fallen branches and thick tree roots, Deborah began to envy the smooth and pedestrian nature of the park’s paved paths that her rustic path paralleled. But the anonymity the tress present her with is required. Deborah knew full well being inconspicuous was not her strong suit. She made a mental note never to consider a career in espionage. It may look exciting, but in all likelihood she’ll probably end up being tortured to death.
She saw his black hair bobbing in the spaces between the trees. Deborah felt her heart pounding its way out of her rib cage. Her freckles were being absorbed by the flushing of her cheeks. She could feel her body rapidly shaking and breaking sweat in spite of the fact it was currently well below freezing. She had caught up! Ok Ok…how to intercede..how to make it look spontaneous? Doubt clouded her mind, Am I going to even be able to do this? Honestly, I don’t think my heart will take it…Couching her fears she continued to follow undaunted. Deborah knew theses rustic para-trails since childhood.
Her admiration for Sultan had been slow going. Their paths had intermittently crossed in the school hallways since the eighth grade. She never took much notice in him, even when a teacher sit them beside each other at an assembly in an effort to break up Deborah’s intensely funny conversations with her best friend and force her to pay attention to a presentation she couldn’t care less about. Through the course, she glanced at him once, wondered why he was so interested in the far left corner of the gymnasium, then figuring he was striving to find any distraction from the principles pontificating, she rested her head on her palm and counted wood panels on the walls. The two split ways without a second thought.
Then grade 10 math class changed everything. Initially, he was simply the body in the desk across the room from her. The teacher, who in a desperate attempt to feel young again, took part in the teenage student’s cruelty; he would scan the class for the students who didn’t quite fit in and make a mockery out of them, much to the delight of the other students. One day it was Deborah’s turn. She was asked for the answer to a complicated problem. She could not answer. The teacher said something sarcastic. The class laughed. Deborah furrowed her brow and dug her fingernails into her palm. Motherfucker. Her eyes rested on her lap, squished together in a sneer. She glanced up. Sultan entered her field of vision. He cast her an empathetic look. He was one of the few not laughing-either out of genuine enjoyment at her suffering or relief at the fact they were not interrogated. He just looked at her with a look that clearly said Don’t sweat it, he’s just an asshole. It could have been anyone. You’ll survive. Within the hour, Sultan answered all five of the problems charged at him correctly and even corrected the teacher-who deflected his humiliation with a vaguely racist comment. Sultan shrugged. The class snickered. Deborah swooned. She was in love.
Thus, the term continued. For the first time in her life she anticipated math class. She nonchalantly moved closer to him as the weeks progressed. She often feared he noticed and would be made uncomfortable, so the emigration stopped when they were separated by the one quiet kid who just drew throughout the class. She snuck glances at him at any point she could. At one point, she was so distracted she missed her teacher calling her name and whatever cutting remark he chose to make. Sultan blossomed into the most handsome boy she had ever seen. His movements were mesmerizing. She loved the way the light reflected off of his narrow black eyes. She loved the shape of his profile. She loved the arches of his eyebrows. She loved the way his lips parted when he concentrated.
Deborah often fantasized their first conversation, coming up with scenarios about how they would first converse. She’d be rushing to class and bump him in the hallway. They’d shyly laugh and exchange pleasantries and love would sprout from there. Or they would be in class and the teacher would assign them an assignment together. She’d try not to act to enthusiastic but play it cool as they spent hours on the city trail. He’d appear from around a corner. She’d greet him and suggest a walk along the creek to the waterfall. It would be hot and they’d be completely alone… Her train of thought would get explicit from this point.
Yet every time she tried to say something-anything-even including warning him of the janitors on-coming cart when it appeared he wasn’t paying any attention to the hallway traffic – she suffered a momentary spasmodic laryngitis. Her words got clogged up in her throat-she stammered and for reasons she didn’t fully understand, she would snarl and feel agitated. Her attempted conversations would often result in her scuffling past, looking at her shoes with a stern expression. Not this time though. Not today. Today she was going to intercept him. Today she was going to get his attention. Today…today..today was the anticipated day. She was going to say hi.
She followed the path that fed onto the pavement. By this time she had passed him by a half a meter. Now it was going to happen. Now or never. She paused momentarily…contemplated her life as of the tenth grade. Realizing this was not helping her at all in this endeavour, she decided it was best that she turned her mind off. She heard his footsteps approaching. Calling up all her courage-she pushed her own body forward.
Her foot touched the pavement. On the ball of her foot she turned in the opposite direction that she had been running. She inhaled and looked up.
Sultan looked up to the site of the elaborately dressed girl who sat by him in math class. He raised his head
“Heyyyyy” Deborah said
“Hi” Sultan replied
“You’re in my math class”
“Yeaaaa..ahh..how is it going?”
“It’s ok. Fisherman is a real asshole isn’t he?”
Sultan raised half his mouth “I think he never got over being homecoming king”
“Agreed.” There was a moment of silence. “You’re really good at math aren’t you”
“I guess. I’m more into Chemistry. I guess I like it because it plays a lot into that.”
“I’m not doing well in either” Deborah looked around, “I’m more about History and English”
“Heh, we should help each other..I’m not an expert in either”
Deborah fidgeted, “would you mind helping me with the test coming up in math?”
“…and I can edit one of your English or History exams”
“Yeah….sure..that would help.”
“Ok well…I’ll see you around!”
“By the way….I’m Deborah” She reached out her hand.
“Sultan. Just like sultan, but say it with an “o” sound”
“Yeah. I got that”
Deborah and Sultan shook hands and then parted ways. Sultan looked back to see Deborah wave at him. He likewise responded
The world spun into slow motion. Deborah walked as if in a trance, unsure of how to process the encounter. Her mind was too busy grasping what actually happened to question whether she scared him off or got his interest. She walked off feeling shaky and light, as if a good gust of wind could pick her up and take her away. Very slowly…she smiled. She began to feel an intoxicating sense of accomplishment creep in. Her pace slowly sped up to a gallop as she began to giggle like a five year old playing tag.
Sultan turned around, not quite sure of what happened. His walks home usually consisted of him staring at the river and the hills that crowned it and, at most, a nod from a regular passer-by. But a full on conversation? For a moment he considered what happened. The girl-Deborah, yeah Deborah,-introducing herself. Engaging in a seemingly out of context conversation on a very, very cold day. Shaking his hand. He suddenly began to feel bad about his elaboration on how to pronounce his name. Then he wondered why he felt that-not like he hasn’t corrected like half the school on the pronunciation of his name. But still…this felt different.
Sultan quickly crashed his train of thought into a wall of denial. No, no. Not possible. Still, for a moment, Sultan looked up and noticed how sunny it was. Without thinking, he smiled. It met an old woman walking past. She smiled back, gave a slight nod and continued on her way, still smiling.