But as it turned out, I didn’t have to seek Kevin out. The next evening, after another full day, I managed to escape to Chancellor Hall to visit Jeremy. Walking through all of the guys standing around on his block, I was met with a barrage of mumbled comments, appreciative stares, muffled laughter and “pssssssssts”, and by the time I got up to my cousin’s room, I had to have been the colour of a stop sign. “God, it hasn’t even been a week, do you guys miss women that much already?” I asked him, exasperated. “And I know I look like crap today!”
Jeremy laughed. “Nadiya, yu don’ know how Jamaican men stay areddi? Get used to it. Yu gwine hear a lot more of it this year.” He grinned an evil grin, before adding, “Even when you look like crap.”
I stuck my tongue out at him. But I knew that I shouldn’t have been surprised by the guys’ responses. Jamaican men were notorious for their appreciation of, and their forwardness toward, women. They wouldn’t hesitate to let a woman on the street know their opinion, even if she was with another man. They would call out to women of all sizes and of all ages too; I remembered walking on the beach in Negril once with my mother when I was in high school and hearing a boy barely older than me call out, “Hi dawta, lemmi borrow yu’ Mummy, nuh?”
“Hey, by the way,” added Jeremy, “Kamal just called me. He and Kevin are passing by now too. Hope you don’t mind.”
I hadn’t thought it would be possible to turn any redder than I had on my entrance to Chancellor Hall, but now I honestly felt that my face was about to explode and that my blood might just come bursting out in a huge gush. I made a quick mental check of my appearance. No make-up on? Check. Acne break-out? Hair in messy bun? Check. Oldest shirt in history and most worn-out pair of jeans? Check. Not exactly the look that I would have chosen if I’d known that I was going to be seeing Kevin today. “OK, no prob,” I said with a shrug, trying to act as nonchalant as possible. Jeremy didn’t seem to notice my fraudulence.
We talked for a little bit about how orientation was going for both of us, but the whole time my heart was pounding, just waiting for Kevin to show up.
“What’s up, you two?” Somehow, my heart found the energy to start pounding harder on hearing his voice. I turned towards the open door, Kevin smiled his bright smile, and I couldn’t keep my own smile from taking over my face. I barely noticed the other guy standing by his side.
I stayed quiet for the first while as the three guys joked around, discussed life on Chancellor, and talked about various people that they knew. Kevin eventually noticed my silence and tried to bring me into the conversation.
“So what about you, Nadiya? How are things going for you? Dem treatin’ you alright over dere on Rex?”
“Yeah, things are going really well. I’m having a really good time, meeting a lot of cool people.”
Say something witty, Nadiya, say something witty! I sternly told myself. And…nothing.
“Too bad the work has to start soon, eeh?” he commented.
“I guess so, but I’m actually looking forward to it.”
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “Kevin, this girl has been a straight A student all her life. I would like school too if I was always at the top of the class.”
Kevin raised his eyebrows. “So we have a genius in our midst?”
“No, no, no,” I shook my head vehemently, embarrassed. “I’m no genius. I just work really hard.” I felt like I was making a fool of myself. He must be thinking I’m just some bookworm, who spends Friday nights coming up with science experiments or something.
Now Kamal interjected. “Then you two should get along well. Let me tell you, this guy was always top of the class. What am I saying, was? Is.”
I was impressed, but not surprised. Figures the perfect guy would also be perfectly smart. “Well, I think that says a lot more about Kevin’s intelligence than mine. He’s in medical school, that’s a whole different ball game.”
Kevin just shrugged. “Kamal loves to exaggerate.” Now it was his turn to be embarrassed. “Yo, so you think you made the right choice picking Chancellor?” he said to my cousin, changing the subject. He’s modest, how cute! I thought, trying not to smile.
The four of us sat in Jeremy’s room for a little bit longer until Kamal had to go meet his girlfriend and Jeremy to another fresher event on hall. “I guess that’s our cue to leave,” said Kevin, looking at me. Kamal had run ahead, realizing he was probably going to be late, and fearing his girlfriend’s lack of patience. “You want me to walk you back to Rex?”
“Sure, that would be great.” I tried to fight the urge to grin like a mad woman. “I’ll talk to you later, Jeremy, OK?”
“Yeh man, yeh man, lata.” Jeremy practically pushed us out of the door, with a look of sheer panic on his face. They were bawling out his name from outside and he knew he would hear it, and feel it, if he didn’t go.
With Kevin by my side, and the fresher event starting, most of the noises stopped but I still got lots of sideways glances. Kevin noticed it too. “Woi, Miss Popularity!” he teased. “Do you just make them line up outside your door? Tell them to take a number?”
“Oh my God, it isn’t like that at all,” I dismissed him with a wave of my hand.
“Come on, Nadiya. Not at all, at all?”
I blushed. “Well…I mean…”
He laughed. “That’s OK, you’re trying to be humble, I understand.”
Is he flirting with me or not? I wondered, feeling my heart start to beat a little faster. After a few seconds, I built up the courage to say, “Well, what about you? I’m sure you have a whole bunch of girls lining up to talk to you.”
He shrugged and looked embarrassed again. “Ahm, I suppose so. But I don’t let it get to my head. I know it’s just because they think I’m a good catch since I’m going be a doctor. Little do they know I’m looking for a woman to support me so I can retire early!” he added mischievously. “But seriously,” he continued, “in spite of having some choice, it’s still very hard to find the right girl. People love to tell me I’m too picky and too stoosh, but I don’t want to settle for just anybody. I have to make sure the girl is perfect for me. You know what I mean?”
I nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense. I was dating a guy before I came here, and I probably should have been more picky. There were things about him that I really didn’t like. I would catch him in little lies, and he could be really cold sometimes. But I chose to ignore it, thinking he would change eventually. And then he turned out to be a real jerk.”
“You see? I refuse to settle. That’s what my parents did, you know. My mother was pregnant with my brothers, so she and my father decided that they had better get married. They tried for a long while to make it work, long enough to have me, but at the end of the day, they had both settled! I don’t want that to happen to me. Now they’re both remarried and very happy, much happier than they could have been with each other. Which is as it should be. I’m so busy with school now, and will be for a while, that I’m happy to stay single until I meet the right person. I’m not into having a girlfriend that I don’t think could be a future wife. What’s the point? Plus I’m still very young, there’s no rush to meet that person this very second.” I nodded in agreement. But what I really wanted to know about, and was too shy to ask, was his dating habits. Sure he was picky about who his girlfriend would be, and who his future wife would be, but I wasn’t looking for all that; I was just there for a year. But how about somebody that he would date? Would I fit the bill then? Or would I have to settle for us just being friends?
As if reading my thoughts, he declared. “You’re very easy to talk to, Nadiya. I think you and I are going to be good friends.”
“So tomorrow the work begins,” sighed Cassandra, shaking her head as she sat down on the chair in my room. “Back to reality, eeh?”
Orientation had felt like it had lasted a lifetime, but now it was finally over. Looking back on it, I had to admit that I had enjoyed it. There had been times when I had seriously considered going AWOL and running off into the Blue Mountains, but there had been fun times as well and they had ended up far outweighing the bad times. It really had been a great way to get to know people and build up hall loyalty and I was glad that I had gone through it. But I couldn’t have been happier that it was over; I had had enough of getting the fresher treatment and was ready to start class.
“I’m actually looking forward to tomorrow,” I responded with a shrug.
Cass rolled her eyes at me. “Yu mad. Not me, I wish school was all about socializing and nothing else!” As she tried to run a comb through her hair, she asked, “So? After some time here, how are you adjusting to being back in Jamaica?”
“You know, it’s actually been pretty good so far. My biggest worry was that I wouldn’t fit in, and I mean, to be honest, I do feel a little different from everybody else sometimes. But that’s to be expected, I guess. I wasn’t looking to feel like I had fully reclaimed my Jamaicanness or anything like that, I just wanted to make friends! But I’ve definitely done that, and I’m not feeling any huge culture shock or anything.”
“That’s good.” She grimaced as she came across a knot in her mane. “I don’t know if I told you before, but I lived in America for a summer, and that was quite a culture shock for me. It was too much of one actually. I had to turn around and come right back.”
“You never told me about that!”
“Yeh man, I spent a summer up there with my father. My mother lives here in Westmoreland, you know that, but my father moved to America when I was little, I don’t know if I told you. I remember when I was young, and he used to come back to visit every year, I wanted so bad to move there with him. He would always bring me down all kinds of gifts, and show me all these wonderful pictures…” She shook her head, smiling, as she remembered. “I thought that America must be the land of milk and honey, just like they say.”
“So what happened?” I asked, intrigued. What Cassie was saying was typical of many Jamaicans’ attitude towards “farin”, thinking that it was the Promised Land, where all dreams could and would be realized. When my own parents had told me we were moving to Canada when I was little, I had been delighted. I couldn’t even remember what it was that I had expected. Probably the same great things Cassandra expected! I thought. For my family and many others, the move had worked out well, but some immigrants ended up regretting it when the realities of their new home hit them. Jamaica had many problems, but so did many of the spots that its people fled to, with harsh winters, prejudice and racism, and more aloof culture than what Jamaicans were used to being only a few.
“Well,” Cassandra continued, “when I was in fifth form, my father finally asked me if I wanted to come and live with him. My mother was alright with it because she figured I was old enough and that if I finished off high school there, I could go to an American university afterward.” She burst out laughing as she remembered. “Nadiya, let me tell you, I was so excited! And I could not wait to see snow. I was bragging to everyone I knew that I was gone to live in America.
“I remember being on the plane -and that was my first plane ride- and looking at the clouds… I was in heaven. Literally, I thought! It’s like they were these big, fluffy cotton balls that I would be able to run through and throw up in the air if I could go out there.” She frowned. “It was strange though, it was like I got a premonition or something, because all of a sudden, I got this urge to unbuckle my seatbelt, stroll down the aisle as if I was going to the bathroom or to stretch my legs, then, when I got to an emergency exit, grab those two handles, turn the door sideways and throw it out, and throw myself after. That feeling only lasted for a minute, but I remember it so well.”
“So what happened when you got there?”
Cassandra sighed. “Going from living in Jamaica country bush to a big, bustling city in America was such a huge change. Everybody there always seemed like they were in such a rush to get everywhere, not as laid-back and relaxed as it is here at all. It was like they were all in some kind of race.” She cracked a smile. “I guess that’s what they call the rat race, eeh? And I just found that I missed everything so much! I missed knowing all of my neighbours and saying hello to everyone that I saw when I was out on the street. There, I would walk down the street and people would just look straight ahead, not acknowledge you. Or they would give you those fake smiles where they just turn up the corners of their mouth.”
I had to burst out laughing because I knew exactly what she was talking about. I loved the sincerity of the Jamaican people, and how many times I said “good morning” as I walked through campus. And I hadn’t seen one fake smile since landing on the island.
Cass continued, “And, you know, there were other teenagers in Daddy’s neighbourhood, but certainly nobody else from the Caribbean. That was my first experience with racism. They would make fun of my accent and call me names all the time. And that was coming from the black AND white ones! The black ones didn’t understand why it was I looked the way I did if my father was black, so they would make fun of me too. I just remember being so lonely.
“And my father, who used to boast about living in America….well, once I was in America with him, that all changed. Every day he would come home from work, complaining about the weather and how it depressed him, about how people treated him once they heard his accent, about the concrete all around us…
“And that made me miss the beaches and mountains even more than I already was missing them. It was so strange for me to look around and not see any mountains anywhere! You know, I didn’t realize until that trip how pretty Jamaica was. The thought of staying at my father’s when autumn and winter came was just too much for me. So when summer ended, I turned around and came right back home, and went right back to my old school for sixth form. I was so happy to be back!” she laughed.
“Was your father disappointed?”
“He was, but he understood. He knew what I was feeling. He said it took him a long time to get used to life there too.” I shrugged and smiled. “Anyway, after that I decided that I was in Jamaica to stay, no matter what.”
I nodded. I couldn’t blame her, considering her experience. “Well, did you at least get a chance to see snow like you wanted?”
Cassandra erupted into laughter. “Yes, I did. I went up there for Christmas a year later. Lawd God! Nadiya, that was one serious piece of col’! I was there for a week, and hardly ever left my father’s house. Santa Claus can keep that!”