City Girl

By Sonya Rehman

The trees outside my dorm building are stripped of their leaves. Just a few months ago they stood, in all their glory – christened in glowing hues of flaming red, burnt orange and lime yellow. But winter is here. She’s spread her frosty cape over the city, while her icy breath has seductively made the trees drop their glamorous robes. They now stand vulnerably before her. But they still greet me. Almost apologetically. But I now understand why she’s here. Winter’s sweet presence only amplifies what is yet to come – summer’s warmth.

Central Park

With my first semester done and over with at Columbia, I realize that the once clueless girl who landed in New York in early August has changed in many, many ways. In these few months, I’ve aged. I realize that. And even writing this now, I feel like an old codger. But let me reminisce for a bit…

Once, in the midst of my first semester here, we were assigned day stories to report and file before early evening. My assignment was to do a follow-up piece on Jack Price – a middle-aged man who was beaten to a pulp by two homophobic youngsters outside a deli in Queens. And all I had was a pen, a notepad and a brief police report in hand.

After watching the unsettling video of the attack (caught by security cameras) on YouTube, and then catching a number of wrong trains and buses, I miraculously wound up in College Point Boulevard in Queens – my destination.

I was jittery and at the same time wondered how the hell I was going to get the juice on the story since it’d already been covered extensively in the local news. It was raining – the sky menacingly overcast – and I had half my mind made up to turn around back to my dorm. Besides, the little neighborhood that I walked through was utterly vacant. But the further I walked, the more shops and delis I saw. Walking into a few, I spoke with a couple of shop owners, attendants and customers about the incident – all the while jotting down their take on the matter in my notepad. At one point I found myself in local butcher’s shop talking to a guy called Steven about Jack Price, and a few minutes later, about Waziristan. Quite bizarre.

With a few pages of my notepad filled with quotes, I had two hours to file my report to the Professors. I was giddy. And at one point, on the train ride back to Columbia I seriously considered crime reporting in Pakistan, but I knew I wouldn’t last a day. The only Pakistani female crime reporter I’ve ever known/heard of is Xari Jalil. And she’s tough. Compared to her, I’m a wet napkin.

“You’re too thin-skinned Sonya”, one of my Editors had told me in Pakistan, “To be in this profession, you need to be thick-skinned.” But I’ve never really toughened up, even if I maintained a hairy upper lip, developed a cool swagger, barked – as opposed to talking, and dressed butch, I’d still be a softie. But I prefer it that way. Dressing butch and hairy upper lips aren’t very attractive to the opposite sex.

A few weeks ago my fellow suite mates and I were in a bit of a dilemma. Late one night I’d spotted a mouse shaking its romp on our kitchen stove. Screaming silently in my head, I’d thundered back to my room and alerted the girls in an email: May Day chickies, we have a furry friend on the loose!

Eek!

The next morning, Janani, Annie, Anquinette and I discussed the issue at hand while Annie’s boyfriend bonked around the kitchen to appease our frazzled nerves. But the little bugger had skedaddled off somewhere long before daybreak. The mouse that is. A few hours later, Anquinette sent us an email stating: “The only reason that I think that I have never encountered this problem in my room is that my luggage and the boxes that my bf sends me regularly are scented by our cats rubbing on them, so mice think that there are cats in my room and choose to go elsewhere.”

To which Annie replied: “I don’t have a cat…so can’t have cats rubbing over!” I felt like a loser. I didn’t have a cat, or a boyfriend!

The other evening, prior to taking in the view from the 86th floor of the Empire State building’s rooftop, myself and two other friends ran into, or rather, ran AFTER Madeleine Albright on 5th Avenue.

“Isn’t that Madeleine Albright?” Noha, my friend and batch mate at the Journalism School had said to me and Michael as we made our way across a crowded pathway.

That did it. The next thing I knew, I was running after Michael like a loon, crossing a busy road to the other side after an old woman.

“What the hell are you guys doing?!” Noha had yelled out to us as we ran. While running I thought Noha was mistaken. For all we knew it was someone else. But as we reached the other side of the road, I saw her – it was Madeleine Albright walking a foot away from me! “Oh my God! I’m so sorry to disturb you right now Ms. Albright,” Michael had said, his voice bubbling over in excitement, “But I have to say, I just LOVE YOU!”

It was one of those ‘celebrity moments’ where you have no idea what the hell you’re doing or saying. As Michael spoke, I smiled cheesily and bowed like a retard. I have no idea why I bowed. Maybe I should’ve fallen to my knees and rammed my head to her feet to finish off the gesture. For a split second I thought Albright was going to blow us off, but she was pretty gracious, she shook our hands, thanked us sweetly and made her way up the road with a young woman – presumably a family member. And as she walked away into the crowd, I stared at her back thinking if Albright were a Pakistani, she’d be bundled up in a Land Cruiser with a twenty-five member entourage in fancy cars, police vans, screaming sirens et al and cornered off traffic waiting hopelessly for her entourage to pass by. As you can tell, I’ve never been a big fan of the VVIP culture in Pakistan. It’s repulsive and will always remain something I’ll never understand, and never will. Thankfully.

I think my time in the city can best be surmised by Norah Jones’ latest album, ‘The Fall’. I’m riveted by the entire album – especially ‘Chasing Pirates’. I love the song’s music video. It features Jones driving a building as if it were a ship – in search of something from a message in a bottle. Living in this city, I feel like that an awful lot – on an intense treasure hunt. Maybe everyone here feels like that. Perhaps that’s what this city does to you, because to me, it feels like a maze.

Two of my childhood friends in New York lost their brother recently in a car crash back in Lahore. Adnan was only 17 when he passed away. I still have a sketch he’d made me of Spongebob Square Pants. Such a wonderful kid. His passing made me realize the futility of everything and the importance of having a good clean heart, because you never really know when your time’s up. Holding Ayesha and Amna’s hands in Amna’s apartment in New York – while we remembered Adnan and his sunny smile – I understood that with every loss, there’s equal gain. Both always come before us in the form of tragedies that we might not accept, and gifts that we may readily embrace. I hope my son has Adnan’s essence.

A few days prior to 2010, I penned a little something late one night:

“From one portal to the next. Let the leaves of your dreams change colour. Risk. Love. Full of grace. Fight for depth. Seek spirit and let it be sought. You, the child of your mother’s soil, run, laugh, fly.”

I was thinking of Adnan and all the time that had suddenly passed too swiftly by.

The Friday Times

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