My First Day

This was written on February 17th

Two days after I learned I was accepted at university, the vice president died in a car accident. The two times I visited his office, he’d been outside. The third time I visited, he’d been dead for ten days. The coincidence didn’t fail to attract attention with my friends, who pounced at the opportunity to jape to the “You set foot in the place and the man died” effect. Pictures of him are a frequent sight, and always the same picture: the young, mid-thirties jawline clandestinely prominent (the famous “special by not trying to be” variety), the closely trimmed beard, the gaze looking sideways and away from the lens, not quite a hopeful stare and neither a vacant expression. An entirely measured countenance. On the door outside, the large sign embossed in black with his name and title (Vice President and CEO) was still affixed to the wall, beside the two large, heavy-looking but surprisingly easy to move doors.

“When did it happen?” I asked his secretary, whose desk was outside his opulently furnished office (but that comes later). “When he died, I mean,” I clarified.

“Over a week ago,” she said. “Last Friday.” She was dressed all in black, a matte lusterless abaya, and her face was a reserved, rigid version of the jubilant one I’d seen on my last two visits, when she seemed to me the kind with impeccably resilient glee, the kind who find the simple act of being a triumphant success worthy of every joyous celebration, and seeing that defiance wither today upset me slightly; still, I couldn’t help smiling when I saw her again, a gesture that was understandably not returned—she regarded me blankly instead. She looked somnolently elegant, her slowed movements and speech mindful of the circumstances. As I sat waiting, I saw a man from the cleaning staff walk in and out of the office and, through the two-second long, I saw the inside of the VP’s office. I left.

About an hour later, I returned. She wasn’t at her desk, but the other secretary was, a handsome twenty-something with a cute lisp. “Would it be okay,” I croaked out for not speaking in a while, “if I took a look inside?” By the end of the sentence I’d cleared my throat and released my speaking voice. For a second he looked puzzled, then he asked why. “It’s more curiosity than anything.” He smiled.

“I’m not authorized,” he said, shrugging. “But ask Thakiyya when she’s back, she might allow you.” (That’s her name, the secretary in black: Zakiyya.)

“Insha’allah,” I said, feigning an exaggeratedly hopeful tone and smiling back. A few minutes later, Zakiyya herself exited the vice president’s office. I stood up, answered her few concerned questions about how I’m doing and how well my registration’s moving along, and then I proffered my question. If she was surprised by my request, she certainly didn’t show it. She motioned me forward, opened the door, and let me in. The entire office was brown, many gradations of it—plush golden-brown in the leather seats and dark-chocolate in the meeting table, a befittingly large desk still crowded with a chaos of documents and post-it notes, soft brown carpeting. “Allah yirhamu,” I said, and left.

I couldn’t help thinking that, as far as I’m concerned, he’ll only ever be the face in the photograph and the emptiness in the office seat. To me, this person will remain a non-presence teased into genuine presence by a few details that prove he was there, some jokes, and a glance inside what was once his office. A person who was just as alive as I am isn’t anymore, and I don’t think this irreducible disparity will ever lose its effect. Alive—dead. There—not there. Here—gone.

It’s just that simple, and just that impossible.

Dreary pontification on life and death aside though, today was my first day of university! It’s 11 am as I write this (but I’ll probably post it a lot later), and so far I’ve fulfilled the mandatory quota of running around campus familiarizing myself with it, and attended no lectures because my course schedule hasn’t been finalized. I woke up at 5 am, partly, I think, because I was naturally excited for the day ahead, but mostly, I’m reasonably sure, because sleeping in an empty hostel room is a lonesome, austere, fucking terrible experience. After showering and getting dressed, I walked into a beautiful morning, with a red dawn sky and the cool, insouciant morning air that makes mornings the best time of day (if not the best, certainly the most romantically quiet and peaceful). As far as I could see, there was no one around other than the cleaning staff and a guy sleeping on a sofa, books left open by his side and a litany of notes scrawled on paper. He was the first student I met, and in a way it was perfectly indicative of the time to come. The halls were otherwise ominously empty and silent but for the sounds of vacuum cleaners operating too far away to be seen or located by hearing. I sat on the sofa across the room and waited.

People are strangely excited to be spoken to here, and always follow introductions with a “Pleased to meet you” or a “Tasharrafna” or some other equally thankful and incredulously spoken pleasantry—they’re happy to simply be acknowledged. It reminded me of something a dear friend of mine once noted on her first day of university, something my more solipsist persuasions made me forget and overlook on my first day: everyone else is just as nervous as you. You’re not the only one whose stomach is turning on itself and you’re not the only one too apprehensive to tread over your fear and attempt making friends; in fact, everyone else is, too. It’s kindergarten again, and you’re just as afraid as that snot-nosed kid you were, and the others are just as inscrutably threatening monsters, you’re just as masochistically drawn to them, drunk with hope and the promise of taming the odds enough to forge a friendship, you’re just as ostensibly alone, and it’s just as much of a breathtakingly life-changing event.

I’m nostalgic, too. I was listening to music earlier (Speed of Sound by Coldplay) when I realized how much I’m barraged with archaic emotion. I feel like I did when I was a ten, when in the fifth grade I had to change schools when my dad’s job had us move from city to city. I feel that uncertainty again; it’s the very same feeling, the hesitance, the clenching in my stomach and—at the risk of purulent cliche—the gloomy darkening in my mind. I feel like a worried child again, but not in a bad way. I’ve grown up, and perhaps because of that, the worry that once translated to simple fear now translates to optimism, something I might consider a more complex response. The ten-year-old has acquired some new sensibilities, and they’re helping him in two-months-from-being-eighteen form.  I’m hopeful. I’m optimistic.

Let’s see how this goes.

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2 comments

  1. I congratulate you on starting University and indeed everybody is nervous, but sometimes you have to make the first move. May God bless the soul and have mercy on the vice president. I hope the rest of your University years go well. Keep us updated!

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