A Cake from Space

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ACTION - My Pakistani friend’s leg bounced up and down like a rabbit that swallowed three Aderalls in one go. It was 9pm on a Monday, and Chandri sat at his desk, hunched over a surface covered in books and A4s jam-packed with notes on Development Economics. Chandri’s wide, brown eyes hovered less than an inch away from an open book. A fat left index finger sailed across highlighted lines of text, while his right hand scribbled unintelligible lines on a brown leather notebook.

 

I half-sat on Chandri’s bed with my notes. I leaned back on my right elbow looking at my friend jitter-jatter all over the place. The floorboards groaned under Chandri’s dancing foot. He mumbled soft Urdu to himself.

 

“Hey Chan-man,” I said.

 

Chandri’s leg stopped, and so did his Urdu ululation. He turned to me with his classic, go-to expression: a single bushy eyebrow, like a fuzzy black caterpillar, perked up in an arch underneath his brown eyes. His left eye, slightly off centre, focused on something behind me, another dimension I had theorized. Chandri’s mouth, as per usual, hung faintly open.

 

“You good?” I asked, half chuckling. “You’re doing the leg thing again.”

 

Chandri nodded and turned back to his work. His leg resumed its tappity-tapping.

 

“Chan-man, you should relax, man.”  I said.

 

Chandri didn’t look up.

 

“You’ve been at it for two days now, you’re ready,” I said. “Stressing out is bad before an exam, you need to relax, buddy. There’s more to life out there than studying.”

 

A knock on Chandri’s door preceded a scraggly-man with a patchy beard walking into Chandri’s room. An odour of burnt-wood followed.

 

“Hey muchachows!” Ashkay emphasized the last syllable and waited for the crowd’s laugh. It never came.

 

“Hey Ash! You done studying?” I asked from the bed. Chandri didn’t look up from his notes.

 

Ashkay snorted at the question. “Man, I was ready yesterday!” Ashkay was a short Singaporean 22-year old with tiny brown eyes; they got tinier when he smoked weed. That was the case that evening, and most evenings for that matter.

 

“Besides,” Ashkay leaned on the doorway’s frame. “I can’t study with all the noise Chan’s leg makes.”

 

“Sorry.” Chandri said to his notes. His leg did not stop bouncing.

 

“Anyway,” Ashkay scratched the side of his patchy beard. “I’ve got some of that good stinker with me.”

 

Chandri’s leg stopped, he turned and peered into Ashkay’s soul, and into the wall next to him.

 

“I beg your pardon?” Chandri asked.

 

“Weed, Chandri.” I sighed, sitting up on the edge of the bed. “Ashkay offers weed.”

 

“Oh.” That was all the intel Chandri needed. He turned back to his desk and hunched over. His leg resumed its infinite vibrations.

 

Ashkay turned to me; his eyes were small slits. “Rob? I know you want to sleep like a new-born on a hay cradle in Belen.” He grinned slyly.

 

“I have no idea what you mean with that,” I stood from the bed. “And I don’t wanna know. But it’s 9’o clock, and I’m done; so, yes.”

 

Ashkay smiled and nodded. “Coolio man, I’ll be up on the roof.” He walked out of Chandri’s room, taking the smell of burnt wood and rotten youth with him.

 

“Chandri,” I said. “You sure you don´t wanna smoke up a bit?”

 

Chandri looked up at me with a confused expression. I knew the answer before he spoke. Chandri had never smoked, he had never drunk anything that wasn’t water or came in a juice box. He rarely went out to parties. When he did, he left 20 minutes after arriving, never saying goodbye. That didn’t stop me from trying to involve him. He was a nice guy, and a good friend. I didn’t want him to miss out on the extra-curriculars of studying abroad.

 

“I-I can’t. I need to finish this. I’m sorry.” Chandri said. And with that, he turned and locked himself in a hunched posture.

 

I opened my mouth, but decided not to say anything. I flashed a smile at my friend and walked to the door.  Pausing at the doorway, I looked at Chandri. The yellow light of his desk lamp made him look like a mad scientist working on a secret formula. An equation or device that would open a portal to another dimension where weed and parties and coffee never existed. I closed Chandri’s door, and left him and his dancing leg to their business.

 

BACKGROUND - From the roof, Ashkay and I had a view of The Hague’s main street, Prinsegracht, a few blocks away. It shone out with the white gleam of bar signs and streetlights. Between pauses in our conversation, Ashkay and I could hear the buzz of live music, cars, and the occasional bicycle bell ring. A bell ringing twice usually meant a tourist walked on the bicycle path. The Dutch take their bike lanes seriously.

 

The air was chilly, but the sky worth it. Mid-May nights yielded late sunsets in The Hague. The clear, smog-less blue above morphed into purple and fiery orange sundowns often. Strokes of tangerine clouds painted the already surreal sky canvas.

 

I placed my bluetooth speaker on the metal handrail of the roof at the edge of the building. One of Ashkay’s favourite playlists was on: Ayahuasca – Cumbias Piscodélicas VOL. 11. My Singaporean buddy didn´t speak a lick of Spanish, but he enjoyed the acoustic riffs. Ash blew out a long spiral of grey smoke; it mixed strange and beautiful with the pallets above. When you’re with a friend, as high as a pair of giraffe balls, sunsets like that blow your mind and stick with you for years ahead.

 

“You guys study too hard.”

 

I can’t remember if Ashkay said that, or if I imagined it.

 

“Man, it’s a big exam.” I said, looking at the clock tower of The Peace Palace. The clock barely jutted out above houses and buildings.

 

I could see Ashkay smiling from the corner of my eye. He was leaning on the rail with his chin resting on his crossed arms, elbows pointing out, and a joint between his right hand’s index and middle finger.

 

“It’s always a big exam,” he stood upright and took the joint to his lips. “Specially for Chandri, it’s always a big anything for that guy.” He inhaled long and deep, his chest puffing like a pigeon’s and holding. He extended a gangly hand holding a poorly rolled joint. I took the thing.

 

“The guy’s just anxious, Ash. He comes from a traditional family, you know? It’s his first time outside of Pakistan.” I took a measured drag and held it. “He’ll come around.”

 

Ashkay nodded in silence with puffed cheeks and squinting eyes, he looked wise and attentive, a caring sage living on the top of a snowy mountain peak. Finally, he released the greenish cumulous into the sunset. Ashkay floated away with it. He wasn’t on Earth anymore.

 

“Astronauts should be anxious. Snake handlers should be anxious. Students? Students should be stressed enough to pass and have fun.” Ashkay’s words hung on the chilly air, below a group of three teens biked next to each other on the bike lane. They occupied the entirety of the path, preventing an old man behind them from overtaking.

 

“Chandri’s too anxious and nervous, man,” he added. “I’ve seen the guy skip doing groceries to study for bonus point exams. That’s just how he is, Robby. You need to stop trying to get him out of who he is.” He paused. “Can you imagine being stuck in a space station with a snake? Like, with zero-g and all.”

 

I paused; too high to form a response, but not high enough to get stuck on the whole snake in space bit.

 

Nervous and worried was Chandri’s natural state of being. I met Chandri a week before our Masters in The Hague officially started. It was a Friday night and I was going out to a bar. Chandri sat at the table of our shared kitchen in our three-floor student building. He read the ‘Student Survival Guide’ Erasmus University gave us on Introduction Day. Chandri examined the booklet like a thirteen-year old reads a nude magazine: with relentless attention to detail and breathing a bit too loud.

 

The night I met Chandri I had announced myself with a ‘hey’ as I walked down from my floor. His eyes had shot towards me like I caught him reading a forbidden text. That was the first time I saw Chandri’s famous ‘1000 yard stare’.

 

“B6?” I had asked, pointing at a set of keys on the table.

 

His unibrow had creased and he’d cocked his head.

 

“Are those your keys?”

 

“Oh, yes, yes, yes, sorry. I live in B6.” He’d stood up and extended a hammy hand. “My name is Chandri Wur, nice to meet you!”

 

“Roberto, I’m B5.” His hand had been sweaty and had orange dust particles; most likely Cheetos I’d decided. “Looks like we’re neighbours.”

 

He’d nodded and sat back down.

 

“There’s a bar downtown with 2x1 margaritas tonight,” I had said. “Would you like to come with? A bunch of us are going.”

 

He’d looked at me as If I had proposed to sniff coke off the bare chest of albino hookers; one of his eyes in disbelief, the other far, far away…

 

“I-I can’t. I need to read this.” His voice had quavered.

 

“Don’t apologize,” I had chuckled. “It’s ok. We’ll catch up later, man. Maybe you can write me a summary, I lost that thing 30 seconds after they handed it out.”

 

Later that night three months ago, I came home to find five A4s stapled together, half-slipped under my door. They were filled with multi-coloured notes on plagiarism and the student insurance scheme.

 

A cold breeze flew by between Ashkay and I. Above, the last shades of bright orange and purple descended into darker tones. Tomorrow’s Mid-Term Exam was important, I´ll give Chandri that, but it could be anything else: a presentation, a party, buying socks. Chandri would find a way to stay away from everything else.

 

My thoughts crept back to Ashkay’s proposition of a space snake. I knew it was time to go. One more drag, and I would be up in the twilight, among the first stars and my roof companion. I patted Ashkay on the shoulder and headed back to the stairs that lead down to the rooms, leaving the Bluetooth speaker on the rail. I stopped midway and looked back at the last bit of tangerine sky. Below it, Ashkay leaned on the railway peering out into the night. It was chilly, but I don’t think he cared.