It was the day Versace died. The same day a girl kept up with the news to soothe her boredom and a young boy in the UK fell asleep on his suitcase with tears in his eyes.
Gianni Versace had died. On an uneventful day, outside his mansion, after a morning walk. Just like that. Gunned down by an old flame, an old trick, an old friend – BBC, CNN, PTV. Years later on a trip to South Beach with Dario, I visited that mansion and sat in front of those steps. I tried to imagine where his silhouette was chalked in that summer of 1997.
The summer when he died. The summer after my O-levels. I had returned after a month in Karachi teaching English to underprivileged girls at a Coaching Center while receiving my own coaching in a staff-room by colleagues from Nazimabad who allowed me a glimpse into a world completely different from my own. The summer I had bid farewell to my first true friend; the person who helped me, taught me, shaped me, formed me and then when her work was complete, left me. It was the summer I lay around in constant boredom, sneaking cigarettes from my bedroom window and watching The Wonder Years and Chicago Hope on the Dish. Sometimes, I would lie down on floor cushions and re-read An American Brat by Bapsi Sidhwa for the sixth time. Skipping over the gratuitous parts about Benazir Bhutto but savoring the descriptions of Feroza’s move to the States; even harboring a slightly ludicrous crush on Manek. A book read, simply because it reaffirmed and motivated my plans for escape to a land called America. A plan, I had carefully concocted on a pizzeria napkin one day with the friend I had just bid farewell to in Karachi but never heard from again.
News that day was saturated with descriptions of a murderer on the loose. He had killed many, including….actually….especially the founder of a multi-million dollar fashion empire. Emphasis on million and dollars; my first lesson that it isn’t the actual crime but more the value of the victim’s name which makes the news. This name happened to be stitched on the denim that covered my ass. Yes, he had died that day.
That same day a young boy in England walked home with a lump in his throat. Although he lived for fashion and the men who created it, today it wasn’t this news that grieved him. He had never felt so alone, so helpless and so betrayed in his life. He had no one. The ones around him had all lied to him. A boy who had lost his mother earlier that year, so death was already all too familiar to him. He had begged and pleaded to stay in London after his mother’s death but had no choice. He was made to move to his father’s mansion in Islamabad. This summer was supposed to be the end of that punishment. The tormented few months of living in Pakistan were now past him, or so he had thought. A boy I had only briefly seen and once caustically smirked at with pity in Froebells. The insignificant new kid in school, the target of bullying. The ‘weird new Brit kid’ who masked his effeminacy in gothic garb, frilly black shirts and an arm full of black jelly bracelets. The bullies aped his accent and mocked his walk and I? I smirked along as a passerby before moving on. As BBC narrated their own facts of horror about Versace’s death, the boy cried some more. He had walked around London all day, riding the tube to all his favorite places and then ending up on a bench at Hyde Park where he rolled up a joint in solitude. Stoned and despondent, he walked back to the house where he had just discovered that he was a guest not a resident. He had wished for the latter. The house was owned by his mother’s close friend, referred to lovingly as ‘Auntie’. A woman he had, in his mind, already moved in with but he was now told that he had to go back. His father called, sometimes persuading him with babied affection and sometimes scolding him to ‘be realistic and act his age.’ Act like a man! A man! A man!
At the young age of 16, he discovered the harsh realities of life. His Auntie was there for him and her house was open to him to spend his holidays but she was not going to take the responsibility of adopting a friend’s teenage son. Those were improbable and fatuous fantasies of grieving child. So, he reacted like most teenagers. Instead of agreeing with the facts, he slammed doors and thundered at the only woman he thought was his friend.
‘You ditched me too…you’re all the same…I have no one…I want to die. I want to go to heaven and be with my mother!’
When he found out that Versace had died, he went for a walk. After a day of soul-searching he returned to Auntie’s house and came to terms with reality. Sure, he felt defeated. Three months in Pakistan had seemed interminable. Now that his prison sentence was finally over, he was being told that he had to go back. Not three months this time but two whole years.
Curled up on the sofa he surfed the television on for any developments in Versace’s death. Still no sign of Cunanan but strangers who claimed to know either the prey of the predator were stepping up for their own five minutes of airwave fame. As their hyperbolic tales droned in the background, he recounted his conversation with Auntie and wondered if had been unfair to her. After all, she had sat by his mother’s bed when she barely breathed and stayed there even when she had stopped. She had held his weeping face in her hands and brought him to her house. She never stopped him from smoking fags in her house as she finished her own pack grieving the loss of a friend. Sometimes, she even sat with him and shared her own despise for his father. Other times she became the cold and austere middle-man between the two during phone calls between Islamabad and London. When his father convinced him to leave everything behind and move to Pakistan, she promised the boy that he would return to London for the summer holidays. She would see to it! But the summer was ending. And he had to return to his father. She had no claim to him. Her words rang through his mind.
‘Its only two years…’
‘Think of it as an extended vacation…’
‘As soon as you get there, you can start applying to Unis in London and then you can come back here. No one can stop you then. You wont even need an Auntie to crash with…you will have your own place.’
‘Trust me it wont be that bad. You will live in a huge house with a pool and servants and…’
‘You don’t have to go back to that school…I will demand that your father enroll you into another school.’
‘I will make sure your father promises that even in those two years you will spend all your summer holidays here with me…I assure you.’
Wiping off his tears, he accepted his fate. Two years and then he could return. 24 months of putting up with the bullies, his father and the despicable new step-mom. After that, he could return back and never look back. A plan, albeit never charted on a napkin, but very similar to my own.
He would ask Auntie to relay one more demand. He would only move back if he could live in the pool house. It was his way of knowing that he wasn’t sharing a roof with the man he loathed and the woman who tried to replace his mother.
Slowly he walked over to his suitcases, which lay dejectedly in the corner. He began to pack…again. Throwing in his frilly shirts and picture frames, he eventually fell asleep on a suitcase. There were tears in his eyes.
It was now August. Back in Islamabad, a girl dreaded her return to her peers. She had enrolled in a new school called UCI. A decision she had made on her own. Her mother displayed her anger and disapproval in strange ways. And each time the girl was reminded of returning back to the dreaded walls enclosing despised peers, she reacted to her teenage angst by hardening her appearance some more. An angrier haircut, a meaner face, shirts and jeans ripped up to wear. And with every snip, scowl and tear a mother’s frown drooped lower and lower. That girl was I.
A few miles from my house, the boy landed at Islamabad International airport. Eyes swollen and crimson with tears. In the backseat of a car driven by the man he cringed to call his father and besides him the woman who had replaced his mother. Long before her death. Once in secret but now in broad daylight. The boy’s only recollection of the girl with the new haircut and ripped jeans were of gossip. A rude girl who was rumored to run with a dangerous and morally depraved crowd. Who did drugs at parties and gave head in backseats. None of them were true…yet…but my appearance and my reputation urged otherwise. The boy still claimed to have been drawn to me and had even tried to befriend me. Unfortunately, I had been engaged in a similar charade of being unapproachable and unwelcoming. Besides a brief exchange of a cigarette on the roof of our old school, I had not responded warmly to any of his greetings.
When he arrived home from the airport that day, he claimed of a fictitious jetlag, and then immediately headed for the pool-house. When he switched the TV on, he was met with more unfortunate news of the summer. Princess Diana had died in a car crash.
‘Padash, I closed my eyes and cried more than I ever did all year….’ He told me a year later as he reminisced of that day.
The world gathered in front of their television sets. Local news tried to zoom in on Imran Khan and Jemima as they waltzed into the memorial. Unlike other girls, my crush on him had lasted only a week. Although the only person close to a heart-throb, his arrogance was quite a turn off. Afterwards, I grabbed my driver and rushed to Radio City to buy a cassette tape of Elton John’s song ‘Candle in the Wind.’ I played it over and over again in my room. For an odd reason, the voice more than the song gave me a strange boost of strength. As if it assured me that it was going to be ok. I was ready for my A-levels. Two more years of this hell-hole and that was it! Then, I could leave for good following my napkin plan. Finally live life on my own terms. I didn’t realize, that Elton John would not be the only homosexual Englishman to give me strength for the next two years.
The boy too watched Diana’s funeral in his room which he decided he was going to call, his ‘Flat’. He watched the service alone and then wept uncontrollably. He would later share with me that the lyric ‘Your candle burned out long ago but your legend never will’ was when he broke down and cried the most. The words finally served as closure to his mother’s death. Two years of this hell hole was all he had to suffer through. And then he could return back for good. Live life on his own terms.
So tell me dear readers. Where were you when Versace died? Where were you when Diana died. What do you remember most about that summer? And how has your life changed since then?