Our pilgrimage had cost us our diurnal existence. Our five mile walk used up the daylight, and now it was impossible to say — it could have been night. The scintillating stars and solemn moon were supposedly covered up by those heavy, aching clouds. But what could we pilgrims say? We were eternally sore. Our bodies seemed to become still, and yet they persisted on through that murky haze. And all this for a delivery: a four-hour-old chicken sandwich cooled to the wondrous chill of life.
“Who is it?”
“Fahim and Fahim.”
“Fahim… Who else?”
“I don’t know.”
“Were you expecting someone?”
“Do you know who we were expecting?”
He came down. Abir was wearing a black leather jacket cut to the sides by a dull brown. A deep, washed blue sweater was worn underneath it, with a hint of summer blue beneath it. Abir’s hair was combed up, and his eyes seemed to be wary of sleep. The white light of the building was painful to my eyes; I longed to get out into the world once again.
We handed him the sandwich and invited him to join our half-dream. Clothed by the darkness, and in accordance with the silence of the world, we quietly made our way to a bench overlooking Abir’s neighborhood. In front of us stood the ever-decaying buildings, and behind us whispered the abundance of life, all in dim street light luminescence.
Abir sat between us and began unwrapping his sandwich. It is so… so dark. All we can make out is the glimmers in each other’s eyes. I shuffled my feet around in the silence and looked at him. This was the first time in a year. “So… how was this summer?”
“Was? Oh, this last summer,” he said.
“The summer is over?” He smiled. We smiled. I smiled. We laughed. I laughed. He laughed.
He bit into the sandwich. “I worked for the NYC Census… It was the biggest thing I did this summer. What did you do?”
“Ah.” He took another bite. “I went around to buildings and houses throughout NYC to talk to them about the census; I talked to people on the streets too.”
“Was it hard?”
“Talking to strangers? For the most part, no. Most people were friendly. There was one person though. She didn’t want to talk to me because she had had poor experiences with scammers in the past. She probed me with questions about the census, asking why I cared so much. I told her about how low reporting rates in the last census affected funding for our community, and how many schools do not have the budget to buy essential items like new desks and writing supplies. When I mentioned schools she told me about her six children and how she wanted them to get a proper education and have a better life than she did. She agreed to complete the census for her family and thanked me for helping make a difference…”
He paused, looking down, and started again, “the middle school we went to… it lacked a lot of things: access to good laptops/technology for teaching, new desks, and other essential classroom items. Add on top that hundreds of students in packed classrooms, it wasn’t the best learning environment. Our school had a lot of budgetary issues, and some of that could be attributed to low self-reporting rates in the general Tremont Avenue area back in the 2000s and 2010s.”
“How was it working during COVID-19?”
“It was okay, I just had to wear a mask, socially distance, and everything…”
“… Has school been okay during COVID-19?”
“Remote learning has been… very challenging… for me. Normally I would be able to handle 3 or 4 classes in a row just fine. But in front of my computer for more than 20 mins for a class makes me feel exhausted… My friends have also helped me stay sane; I often video chat with them while doing my work.”
“Are we not friends?” the other Fahim suddenly started, his hands jittery. This entire time he was just listening to his breath.
“What do you mean?”
“We never video chatted!”
“Oh…” he calmly went back to his silence.
“What about me?” I smiled.
“No!” Abir said indignantly. I frowned. I smiled. He smiled. We smiled. Silence.
“What are friends?” I wondered.
“You’ve never had one?”
“Are you serious?”
“Well… friends can often be just as important as family, despite not being blood-related. They are often there for you when your family is unavailable in the moment, or if there is something you are not entirely comfortable discussing with them. Some friendships are not that strong, and they may come and go. But others… they are so strong — they can last a lifetime.”
He took a moment and looked at both of us before going on. “Most students come into Bronx Science knowing a couple of students from their middle school or other programs, but there is no guarantee that you’ll see any of them in any of your classes. Sometimes you have to make completely new friends with people who you’ve never met before, and that can be pretty daunting.”
“How did you make friends?”
“Well, for me, The Bronx Science Muslim Students’ Association was one way. I was also someone who, at the time, was struggling with my faith, and knew I probably should find a religious community of friends. Many desi parents often just tell their kids to practice a certain religion a particular way, without really explaining why they have to do those things. Without a real explanation, it forces kids to basically have complete blind faith in something they don’t understand, which is very difficult on kids that age coming into high school.”
“One of my friends introduced me to MSA at the club fair, and I thought I’d give it a shot. In the first meeting we had that year I had such a good time meeting all the members of such a big club, and it seemed to me that this would be a good community to be a part of. MSA helped answer some of the questions about faith that many people, including myself, had. Whether it was directly through their club meetings, or leading to new connections with more Islamically aware students who were more than happy to explain the nuances of the religion, I learned a lot more.”
His voice began to grow excited.
“MIST is a big deal at MSA. It is a tournament for high schoolers that contains a multitude of competitions in different categories, from spoken word, to quiz bowl, to debate, and so much more. All the competitions have a central theme, which changes each year, and themes reflect different aspects of humanity and our struggles in the modern day while relating back to Islamic ideals. During MIST Nationals 2019, I was the only person from Bronx Science attending, and so I had to travel with people from other schools I had never met before. It was through this that I made some amazing friendships with people I would love to keep by me moving forward in life. They were such funny, kind, and great Muslims — just all around great people. I got to have wonderful experiences with amazing long-lasting memories in one weekend with people I barely knew previously. I would not have gotten the opportunity to meet these people if it were not for MIST.”
He grinned in the shade of the world, faintly remembering himself.
“When I first joined MSA, some of the older members went out of their way to befriend the ninth graders, and they helped guide us through that first year and imparted their own advice and wisdom before they graduated. Without their help, I wouldn’t be able where I am right now. Coming home from the MIST Nationals 2018 tournament, I spent an hour or so talking with a then-senior named Abdullah Ridwan. He gave a lot of advice regarding classes and grades…It meant a lot to me for him to give all that advice. I still use much of what he told me to this day, and it has helped me maintain good grades while still having a social life.”
“As a Big Sib and president of MSA, I am kind of a mentor now, like him, to some of the incoming ninth graders. I give them advice and knowledge for getting through a year at Bronx Science. I try to help any other underclassmen that I can, whether it be through MSA or if they just contact me directly. I like being a mentor to others, as I like helping people in general get through their obstacles, and I want to be able to give back the way previous alumni helped me. There is a little pressure to always give perfect sound advice, but I just speak from the heart and detail my personal experiences so others can really understand how my advice applies to them.”
“A friend does not have to be a mentor…” I thought aloud. The other Fahim yelped and leapt, standing on the bench in terror. A toy dog passed us by. His face was of utter horror, but it came to pass, as all things do in life, and he sat down assuming a pleasant appearance. He spoke, “veni, vidi, risus.”
“Risi,” I corrected. The other became solemn once more and said no more. Abir took another bite of his sandwich; it was nearly done. “Friends are like family… what is family to you?” I said unto Abir.
“Family is the core of who I am. My family has the most influence on me as a person… they have instilled in me the values I carry in me today. Family, at least for me, are the people I can always rely on no matter what is happening in my life.
“Prior to school starting, I was debating between the blended and remote learning models. As someone who lives only 10 minutes away from school, I could have easily gone to school without having to put myself through extra risk by using public transportation. But I opted to do remote learning as I did not want my parents to contract the virus from me, both of whom have pre-existing conditions that would make their experience problematic.”
He looked up. “I could never sacrifice their lives for my sake; they have given up so much for me already.” There was a great stillness. Our breaths all froze. Not an echo could be heard.
Abir began quietly, “There is not much difference for me between high school and college. I have applied to schools in or close to the NYC region. This means that even if I am living in a dorm (which I hope my parents will let me do), I will still be very close to family and the majority of my close friends. In this regard, moving onto college really just means changing the building or zoom link I will be learning in. Don’t get me wrong, I still am super excited for college and all the opportunities that will hopefully come my way. I just don’t feel the environment will be too different from what I’m already used to.”
“… However, one thing I am saddened by is potentially being far from my best friend, Faika. Throughout almost all of high school, she has been the one person that has had the most influence on how I turn out. She has always been there for me when I went through my highs and my many lows. She is someone I can always count on to be there for me when I need her the most, whatever it may be. She understands me better than anyone else I know besides my parents. The bond we share is something I hold close to my heart. I’ve gotten to experience a little bit of what it would be like in college because of the pandemic. Sure we still text each other very often, but it is not the same as seeing each other in person daily. She means a lot to me.
“We are probably going to different colleges, possibly very far from each other, and we are going to pursue different career paths. I am worried that no matter how hard we try, our friendship will still drift. Faika has been and continues to be the person I rely upon whenever I am going through something major and I need someone to be there for me. Outside of life’s problems, she’s had such a positive impact on me. She always inspires me to try to be better in whatever I am doing, whether it is with academics, personal projects, sports, religion, and so much more. Her actions and beliefs also help inspire me to try and be a better person in general, someone that cares for others more than about themselves and wants to give back to the community. I think in some ways I have a similar effect on her as well. I think we both motivate each other to be the best versions of ourselves.”
There is a glimmer in those eyes shrouded in sadness.
“I have faith my friendship with Faika will last.”
He had finished his sandwich.
He stood up. I stood up. We stood up.
“Is this it?” I asked him silently.
He looked at me. I looked into him.
“There is a place… I remember it so vividly… its visage… The eternal trees… Thousands upon thousands… There is a lake in the center… its countenance with striking clarity peers through the world — through the very blossoming mirror of our souls — and calls out to us — to me! I realize that it is but the mere ever astride divine call of my grandfather ushering us children into his house for supper,” quoth we. “My grandfather passed away before we moved here.”
“So… was the sandwich any good?” spoke the other.
I could no longer hear their voices. All at once, the trance had been broken. The raging distant shouts issued forth with the sincere blasts of music from opened apartment windows and tore apart the calm of my being, accompanied by the hinted hush of nature: soft sounds of leaves dropping. And the living and the dead all at once seemed to agree that it was, indeed, night.
“I could never sacrifice their lives for my sake; they have given up so much for me already.”