An extra-ordinary chance: A short story

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It wasn’t that she thought it was impractical. She didn’t know how to place her feelings when it came down to it. She thought it was beautiful in an all-consuming way yet painful in its depth. It was almost like staring into the deep end of a pool, surrounded by an abyss of everything and anything. But in some ways, it could also be so light. She wasn’t sure why, but it reminded her of white flowers. The kind that bloomed in spring with such ease.

To clarify, “it” is love. Something Leila had grown up around all the time, breathing in through glass windows. The concept of love was inescapable growing up in an Indian household. The old Bollywood CDs she would push into the DVD player reeked of love. She would watch them on the edge of the sofa, hanging on to every word the protagonists said to each other as if she was a journalist conducting an especially pertinent interview. Love, in the movies she watched, was running through a sugarcane field in a yellow sari. It was all about people who did not expect anything, people who went about their own lives and suddenly ran into love, like accidentally finding a small penny at the bottom of your backpack as you fish for your book. 

But the love they showed was as unexpected as it was perfect, almost chemically. Love was two people who were connected in a way that was greater than the sum of their whole. It was singing songs, in harmony, across from each other on-screen. It was them being the first person to call about something as important as a relative moving away or as inconsequential as eating a fresh mango in the afternoon. 

But love like that wasn’t what Leila saw in real life. Real life was much less perfect. It was flawed. It was angry at times, like a bent spoon or a word thrown in anger during an especially heated fight. It was as flawed as the people who constituted love, as temperamental as their own emotions and as ordinary as the boxed cereal they ate for breakfast every morning. There wasn’t always something apparently extraordinary. Often, it was normal people who fell in love, couples across the street who drove a navy Subaru and walked their yellow lab around the block every day at the same time. To her, the people who composed those relationships were nothing like the actors she grew up watching, deceptively charming in a way that was eye-catching. No, in her eyes, they were normal, understated. But to their partner, Leila figured, they were extraordinary. There had to be some element of extraordinary for it to be love. Or at least, she figured as much. She hoped, at least. 

 

 

She didn’t bother to look at James twice when she first met him. He wasn’t extraordinary — not subtly, not overtly. To Leila, he was just James, a kid in fourth period. He had a firm face with a protruding jawline, and the kind of shoes that could have been used to play soccer in but weren’t quite athletic enough. He always wore glasses — a set of thin, white glasses that framed his face in the right places. He was unassuming, unbothered by menial things and carried himself with an air of independence, if not outright arrogance.

They were paired together once for a leadership program. It was on public speaking, and frankly, Leila wasn’t sure if she remembered why she signed up. She appreciated the structure of organized programs, as lame as that sounded to admit, and didn’t mind the seemingly overbearing days of training the program entailed. One day, as they were listening to a particularly boring speaker during a nine-hour training session, James pulled out his pencils and started drawing on the corner of the pamphlet they had been given to follow along. Leila had seen him do this before. He would quietly start drawing — so unobtrusively that their group leader had no explicit reason to stop him — as they listened to yet another speaker. Intrigued, she glanced over.

(Love) was as flawed as the people who constituted love, as temperamental as their own emotions and as ordinary as the boxed cereal they ate for breakfast every morning. There wasn’t always something apparently extraordinary.

It was a mix of shapes, strewn over the page in a way that Leila could not understand. At one part of the page, there appeared to be a spiral of square blocks extending outward. As he pulled out a maroon colored pencil from his pencil case, Leila was stunned by a wave of nostalgia. It had been so long since she had sat down to draw — probably since she was a child. Noticing she was peering over, he turned toward her. 

“How would you describe this color?” he asked, holding up his pencil. 

She was taken aback. “What do you mean?” 

He smiled. “As in, what do you think of when you see this color? Pretend I can’t see, and I’m trying to draw this color from your description only.” 

She was confused but equally intrigued. She paused to think, tilting her head as she stared at the edge of the table. “It’s — it’s like fall in a color.” 

He began to add extra motions to his drawing, as if taking her suggestion into serious consideration. 

“It’s warm, if that even makes sense,” she added, almost embarrassed, and tucked her hair behind her ear. “That’s what you mean, right?” 

He smiled reassuringly. She laughed slightly, as if she was inhaling, and turned around to face the speaker. 

“Do you play?” he asked, a few minutes later. She turned around, unsure if he was talking to her. 

“What?” 

“You know, like, music? Do you play anything?” 

“Oh, no,” she said, finally understanding what he was getting at.

He nodded and continued to color. 

“Do you?” 

“There’s a chance,” he said, looking up to meet her eyes. 

“What do you play, then?” Somehow, she sounded less enthusiastic than she would have normally, as if tailoring her voice to avoid him sensing how nervous he made her. 

“You should come see our show to find out. We’re playing tonight at the house on Churchill.” 

“Who’s ‘we’?” she couldn’t help but ask, nerves still steadily increasing.

“You ask a lot of questions, don’t you?” He laughed, shaking his head. “I’m kidding. It’s the band I’m in, you know, just a bunch of dumb hicks who play music together.” 

She was taken aback by his dryness. “Um, OK … sure?” 

“There’s a chance,” he said, looking up to meet her eyes. 

“Deal?” he asked, sounding surprised.

“Deal.” 

“You know, you’re interesting, Leila. Very interesting.” 

Gently, she took the maroon colored pencil from his hand. “You’re coloring outside the lines.”

“I don’t believe in coloring inside the lines. That’s a social construct.”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, you’re one of those.”

“There’s a chance, Leila.” He packed up his bags, and then they were dismissed for lunch. 

 

 

So what’s your deal?”

 

They were walking back from his performance, on a barely lit road. It was sometime in late November when the weather was still temperamental but slowly settling into winter.  

“What do you mean?” she asked. 

“I mean, like, who even are you?” The corners of James’ eyes crinkled when he smiled, she noticed, as hard as she tried not to. 

“Hmm.” She paused, then turned to face him. “I don’t know. I feel like identity is a social construct in and of itself.” 

He laughed, turning his face upward. “And the student becomes the master!” 

“Exactly.” 

“OK, but really, Leila. Do you know what I mean?”
She sighed, smiling. “I don’t even know what to say. What, like, you want my whole life story?” She looked at him, walking backward so she could see him in the light. 

“OK, what if … I say a word, and you say the first thing that comes to mind?”

“You must be joking!” she exclaimed. “You don’t think I’ve seen a million Bollywood movies that use this same pickup line?” 

“Whoa — who said anything about picking you up? A little presumptuous if you ask me.” He winked. 

She shook her head, laughing. She had seen this time and time again in romantic Bollywood movies — the hero asking the heroine inconsequential questions to see what she immediately thought of, in the hopes that he could somehow find out how she felt about him. But at the same time, she was curious to see what James would ask. 

“OK, ready? What do you think of when I say … school?” 

She chuckled, pulling the strap of her backpack. “Hard.” 

“Family.” 

“So much sometimes.” They both laughed. 

“Cats?”

“Dogs are better.”

“Maroon?”

“You already asked me this,” she said, pushing him away lightly. 

“Sister?”

“I don’t have one.”

“Love?”

She rolled her eyes. As if she hadn’t predicted this. “Extra-ordinary.” 

Extra-ordinary,” he muttered, as if he was mulling over the premise of the word split in two. “What do you mean by that?” 

“I don’t know,” she said. “Just something you can’t find every day, you know. Like, even if the people are normal, to each other they’re extraordinary. It could be the most domestic whitewashed relationship in the world, where you go to Vermont for Thanksgiving and do the 5K every year, but still, there’s something special for the people in it.” 

Extra-ordinary,” he muttered, as if he was mulling over the premise of the word split in two. “What do you mean by that?” 

“I can’t believe you’d say that about white people — we actually go to Maine for Thanksgiving, thank you very much.” At that they both laughed, and then James’ eyes softened as he added, “So, Leila, do you think you’re extra-ordinary?”

“I’d like to think. … you?”

“There’s a chance, Leila.”

She laughed. “In what way?”

“No, I mean, there’s a chance that you’re extraordinary.”

She froze. “A chance?” 

“One I’m willing to take.” 

Contact Riya Berry at [email protected].