“I’ve gotta do something more with my life than just wait for something exciting to happen. I should be road tripping across the United States or something. My mom says that the US isn’t worth road tripping across. She says that it’s just 7-11s and narrow-minded people.”
I’ve found myself wishing for simple things recently. Like wishing for rainy but warm days. Or wishing for time to laugh at nothing with a few good friends. Or wishing to find a shortcut home through the park. Or wishing to sit down and enjoy a good chicken sandwich. Or to find a good song to listen to. Or to write something meaningful. Or to tell the girl that I like that I like her. Or to just be happier.
Senior year is coming to an end. I feel like I’ve done nothing, gone nowhere, been nobody. I’ve gotta do something more with my life than just wait for something exciting to happen. I should be road tripping across the United States or something. My mom says that the US isn’t worth road tripping across. She says that it’s just 7-11s and narrow-minded people. I disagree, and so does my grandfather, Jawahar. Or Jawa, for short. And sure, there are tons of 7-11s and tons of narrow-minded people, but there is a lot more. Jawa and I both believe that we’ve spent too much time in our lives looking at what’s outside our country. We’ve gone to Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America together, but not Antarctica. I would aim to go to Antarctica with him, but neither of us really want to. We want to go on an adventure in the US.
But that’s a distant dream.
I think a lot of the US smells good. A lot of it smells bad, but a lot of it smells like fresh air and hotel soap. All that good stuff. Or at least it all smells better than the social studies classroom that I was cooped up in while all of these thoughts ran through my brain. Like mice running away from the siren of a fire truck, into their dark nooks and crannies where they wouldn’t be found. Mr. Whitaker had microwaved his fish lunch in the classroom again. It wasn’t pleasant. I was looking out the window and trying to not be reminded of the horrid smell. There were all these crystal-clear raindrops trickling down the windows. They left their imprints for just a minute and then went away like they were never there. And, sure, it was a rainy day like I had wished for. But it wasn’t warm.
The one part that I really enjoyed about social studies was that sitting at the next table over, to my left, was Malaika Melrose. I only knew a few select things about her. I knew that she likes to travel. That she loves the color orange. I knew that she’s Tanzanian because she’s very proud of the fact that her name is from the Tanzanian song, “Malaika.” It means Angel. And that’s a pretty accurate description. I knew that she recently got a scholarship to Pomona for volleyball, because she wore the sweater they sent her like it’s a part of her. Which was hard for her, because her co-captain passed away in a car accident. That’s why she has a tattoo on her arm that says ‘Olivia.’ Except the O is a volleyball. I knew that Daniel Vettel called the tattoo tacky, and Malaika wasn’t having it, so she punched him right across the face. That was probably the highlight of my February. After Olivia died, Malaika had to be strong for the rest of her team, which was exactly what she did. Then they won the championship, which was probably the highlight of my April. And I’m really happy that she got the scholarship because you can walk to Pomona from Pitzer, which is where I’m headed next year.
When Mr. Whitaker makes the abrupt decision of teaching on the other side of the classroom, I get the chance to look at her without seeming like a creep. Today happened to be one of those days. She tried taking notes for a little while, but then gave up and started doodling in her notebook. Since I wasn’t listening, I thought I might as well have been doing something productive, like she was. Besides, looking at someone like that and pining after them the way I was is a self-destructive tendency. So, I drew an array of half-hearted ghosts on the top of the page.
I guess Mr. Whitaker noticed this, because he enunciated across the room, “Levi, you ok?” And just like that, with one word, this cloud of silent pensiveness I had surrounded myself with vanished. He said my name with a disappointed tone that I usually only heard from my parents. It hit me like a shard of glass right to my chest. I nodded stiffly in response. He stared for a moment and then returned to his lesson as I opened up to a new page of notes.
As the class came to an end, you could hear the crunch of papers and the stuffing of book bags as people hustled to get out the door. Mr. Whitaker was still droning on about something or the other. Malaika bolted out of the door so quickly that I couldn’t have said anything to her if I wanted to. Not that I would’ve.
I trudged out of the building, into the fading grey light that was splitting through the storm clouds. I made my way through the crowds of bustling children. I could see Malaika just a few crowds ahead of me. She was laughing really hard at something that her friend had said. It was a true and genuine laugh. I hadn’t laughed like that in a while.
I darted away from the crowds and towards the park. As I approached the entrance, I found myself paused in time. I was looking down the winding path into all this greenery. Cherry blossom season had just come to an end, so pink petals were littered along the pavement. I was wavering in between weaving a way through the trees, as a shortcut, or just going right along the main path the way I usually did. If I started a new adventure, where would it take me? In my mind, a memory unfolded of a story Jawa likes to tell.
“When I came here from India, I was lost. I had no friends and very little money. All hope had been drained from my heart. That’s when I met your grandmother. She was the kindest girl at Columbia. Actually, she was the kindest girl I’d ever met. She introduced me to her friends, who soon became my friends. She and I and our friends would go on adventures. We loved to wander and would often find ourselves lost in the unknown together. Now here’s something to keep in mind, Levi. Wherever we went, we would find a brick wall and put a little something behind it. A little part of ourselves, or a part of our adventure. That’s how we left our mark. Levi, you have to figure out how you will leave your mark.”
I stood still for a while and thought about this story that Jawa tells whenever he gets the chance. The anthem of the remaining water droplets scurrying off of the leaves and falling to the floor sounded in my ears. How was I going to leave my mark? Eventually, I turned left on the sidewalk, heading towards the subway station, straying away from all previous plans and all previous paths. When I had made my way down into the dingy station, I came to a stop near the wall and pulled out my phone to dial my aunt, Gigi. It rang three times before she picked it up.
“Hi, Levi!” she shouted, “How are you today?”
“Hi, Auntie,” I said, less enthusiastically, “I’m alright.” There was a pause because Gigi doesn’t know what to do when people don’t reciprocate her enthusiasm. I would normally be just as happy to talk to her as she was to me, but today I just wasn’t feeling it. I broke the silence and asked, “Are you at work?”
“Um, yeah, why do you ask?” She was typing something out on her computer as she talked.
“Can I go to your house for a little while? I want to talk to Jawa.” She stopped typing when I said this, focusing entirely on me. The lights in the station flickered a little. The world went ghost-quiet, just for a split second.
“I mean… yeah, of course. You ok?”
I replied, “Yeah, yeah I’m fine. It’s just been a while.”
“Right. You got your key?”
“Alright. See you later.”
I didn’t feel like texting my parents and telling them where I was going (they would ask too many questions). When I got down to the platform, I sat on a bench and passed the time by sketching more half-hearted ghosts on a scrap of paper. I was thinking of nothing, which was nice because I rarely get the chance to do that. But this nothingness went away with the whip of wind that came by with the train. As I rose out of my seat and onto the train, I was reminded of how much I dislike the subway. Everyone on the subway is burdened by where they need to be, except for a few who don’t have a place to go. We’re all swallowed in darkness, making it seem like we’ll never see the light again. Plus, it often smells like old cheese and burning garbage, which doesn’t help either. Luckily, Gigi’s house is just two stops away.
Gigi’s house is the coffee-colored one at the end of the street. It used to be a fire station, so it has a big pole running through the middle of it. She thought it would be fun to keep for her nieces and nephews to play on. Unfortunately, most of us are afraid of heights, including me.
I came to the corner and unlocked the door with the clack of a rusted keyhole. I entered the building and climbed up the steps towards the top. The draftiness and the sunshine flooded from all different areas, creating an eerie mix of temperature. Nevertheless, I love Gigi’s house. It always smells of its sun-soaked pine floors and basmati rice.
As I reached the top floor, I saw Jawa for the first time in a long time. There he was, upon the mantelpiece stored away in a shiny silver urn. I constantly avoid going to the top floor when we come to Gigi’s house for dinner, just in fear of seeing him. Seeing him without a smile and a pleasant greeting. Seeing him lifeless. But I had to confront him because I could feel how much I missed him in my bones, and this was all I had.
So, I closed my eyes, leaned against the mantelpiece, and forced myself to talk: “Hi, Jawa. I know it’s been a while. A long while. And I’m sorry I haven’t come and visited sooner. The family wanted me to, but it’s just that talking to you without you responding is difficult. It’s mainly because I know you’re still here. I just know it, in my gut. But it makes me really mad that you can’t respond.” My voice was breaking a little bit. I felt this sour lump of sadness swelling in my throat. “And I kind of really need a response right now. There’s so much that I need to do. And if you would just respond, you would bring me to do it. You always knew what was right for me.” I paused and opened my eyes, looking up at the urn. “But I know that you can’t give me a response. And I know that I have to do things on my own now.”
That was when my eyes, blurred with tears, happened to notice something in the reflection of the urn. Gigi kept it so well polished that I could see the brick wall on the roof of the 7-11 across the street. I crouched down by the window, fixating my eyes on the wall. Jawa and his friends, always putting memories behind walls. I wiped away the tears and looked back at the urn. With a smile, I quickly ran into the kitchen and found a ziplock bag. I hurried back to the urn and opened it up. There was already a trowel inside, so I carefully scooped up a bit of his ashes into the bag. I closed the bag, then the urn, and headed straight for the pole, leaving my bag on the upstairs floor. I didn’t care how afraid of heights I was; I spiraled through the air on that pole, all the way down to the first floor. It was like I was afraid the brick wall might be gone in a matter of minutes or something.
I dashed out the door and across the street and was about to head into the 7-11 when I realized that it’s kind of odd to go into a convenience store with a bag of your grandfather’s ashes in hand. So, I pocketed the bag and opened the door. I was relieved to find that Bayani, a long-time friend of Gigi’s, was working that day.
“Hi, Baya!” I shouted, running past the countertop. He looked startled.
“Hey, Levi, how are you?”
“I’m great. Do-ya-mind-if-I-go-up-to-the-roof-for-a-minute?” I asked the question as if it was one word and didn’t give him the chance to respond. “Thank you!” I called, rushing towards the stockroom.
As I climbed up the first step, I could hear him in the background saying, “You’re welcome?” I made it to the top and climbed through the bulkhead door. The sunlight was immense compared to the fragments from earlier in the day. It washed the red tear imprints right off of my face and it guided me towards the wall. I ran my fingers along the bricks, trying to find a loose one. There was one that shook a little bit to the left as I ran my hand across it. I pulled it out and was about to place the bag of ashes inside when I noticed something. I dropped the brick on the floor at the sight of it. I guess Jawa had already found this wall because there was already something behind the brick. It was two pieces of paper. I pulled out one, in awe, and read it aloud to myself:
I moved to this city out of spontaneity. I knew I wanted to get out of India and that my parents wanted that for me as well. So, my father found me a map of the U.S. at a small souvenir shop in the heart of Delhi. We hung it up against our wall, and I threw a dart at it. It was the luckiest shot in the world, landing right on New York City. So, I went. I got a scholarship to go to Columbia University and met some of the best friends I’ve ever had. Although, I try not to tell them that because their heads are big enough as it is. On this map that my father gave to me, my friends and I have marked all the places in the U.S where we have left treasures like this one. I miss India, but I made enough money in the three years after graduation to get my parents and brother settled in Brooklyn. As I sit on this rooftop, I am reminded of the fact that spontaneity saved my life. A lot of it was hard work and dedication, but it all spawned off of the spontaneity of throwing a dart at a map. So if someone finds this someday, I would like to remind them to bring spontaneity into their lives. You never know where you might end up.
— Jawahar Kadakia
This was it. This was the response Jawa had given me. As my eyes traveled back and forth from the map to the note, everything was clearer. This treasure that he had left was timeless. Jawa’s legacy is timeless. Our family is timeless. I am timeless.
And that’s when I heard a familiar voice. The door of the 7-11 opened below me. I looked downwards at who was entering. There was Malaika, talking to her mom on the phone. Suddenly, I had the best idea. Or the worst idea. I would only know if I went for it.
I pocketed the map and note and placed the ziplock bag of ashes behind the wall. I slid the brick back in and pressed my forehead against the wall for just a moment. Then, I slipped back through the bulkhead door, into the darkness of the steps. I practically fell down them, back into the 7-11. I hurried along the rubbery floors in search of her and my feet skidded as I came to a halt in front of the Twinkies aisle. There she was, choosing between strawberry and chocolate peanut butter Twinkies. I tried my best to center myself and calmly walked over to her.
“I would suggest the strawberry,” I said, pointing to the box to her left. She laughed a little.
“Nice,” she said, picking one up. “We have social studies together, right?” I nodded. She continued, “I’m Malaika.”
“Levi,” I said, shaking her hand. I was smiling really obviously, which would’ve been weird if she wasn’t too. “This might weird you out, but can I ask you something sort of spontaneous and probably really impulsive?”
“Go for it,” she replied.
“Over the summer, I’m planning to go on this road trip. You see, my grandfather left this treasure map, and I’m supposed to go to each location and find the stuff he left there.” I unfolded the map and handed it to her. She ran her eyes over it a few times before saying:
“Wow. You must have a pretty cool grandfather.”
“Yeah, I did.” She smiled and handed it back to me.
“Now here’s the weird part,” I said, “How would you feel if I asked you to come with me?” Her jaw practically dropped to the floor. This felt like the perfect example of an awkward silence.
I rambled on, “It’s totally fine if you don’t want to, I just thought I should ask somebody, and y’know you were the first person I saw so–”
“I’ll do it,” she said, cutting me off.
“Yeah,” she smiled, “Come. Let’s talk.” And with that, I was no longer a half-hearted ghost, lost in a pensive silence.