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‘Oh, DC is amazing. Though nothing beats Manhattan, you know.’

‘I haven’t ever been to Manhattan’, she replies with a sigh.

‘Aah, it’s perfect to live in. I might even want to live there for a while, and then… Then, I’ll go home, I guess.’

‘Is that sadness I see? This is the first time I’ve seen you hesitate about going back home.’

It gets light. Then dark; uncomfortably dark. Light again. I step on a random red plastic cup now and then, the slight crunch barely audible. The only thing constant is the volume of the blaring music. And the neon glowing bands around their wrists and their necks. Some of them just stagger drunkenly, some actually dance, but I can’t really tell the difference.

I stay there for a while, but I really need to get out now. It’s getting hot and sweaty. It may fit my idea of fun, it might not. But what I really want to know is how much of yourself do you need to lose to have a good time?

Harrisonburg is pretty deserted, even if it is half past five in the evening right now. An occasional car or two zoom by, but that’s pretty much it. I might as well have survived a zombie apocalypse; on a mission to rebuild the world (even though it’s almost always America which the zombie’s target), I’m sure you have watched enough zombie movies to figure it out yourself. But to a girl who has spent almost two decades gallivanting between London, Lahore and Muscat, any place without traffic might be refreshing, but strange. It is cold; the polar vortex is sucking the life out of me, except when I feel the rush of cold air and the adrenaline high which ensues later, as I sled down the layer of magic crystals which fall down from heaven every time luck is on our side. After all, who doesn’t want to lie in bed watching Netflix and enjoy the luxury of snow days? I clutch the insides of my pocket tight; my teeth hurt as I accidently suck in the cold air. My neck, the only exposed part of my body goes numb; dammit, I shouldn’t have forgotten my scarf in the dorm room.

I check the bus route timing on the website. The bus seems a little late, but I can wait. Actually, I don’t think I can; if I don’t move my body, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to move again, the mind numbing cold is getting the better of me. The cold really does suck when you are from a sub tropical country. I start walking around to activate my slowly numbing muscles, when I look at a bus across the road. With a sinking heart I look at how the traffic light has turned green, the doors of the bus close with a slight gushing noise, and I stand there stupidly at the wrong bus stop. I punch in the address to my dorm in Maps and start walking, resignedly.

I have always been a people watcher. I like observing people, it’s simple as that. I have always loved organizing things, stacking them into similar or somewhat similar piles. Tired of shopping, and scoffing at the lack of variety at Valley Mall, I sit on one of the massage chairs and observe people. A myriad of different people pass by and I watch them. My mind simultaneously tries to deduce their ages, their sexuality, religion, ethnicity and socioeconomic status maybe; all these years of organizing has led me to put people into boxes. Perhaps it was the predictability of people back home. However, lately, people have been surprising me. They never seem to belong to the boxes I put them in, so I have let go of putting them into boxes altogether. And I am happier, for I have come to the realization that people are not stacks of cards, neither are they little pawns, rooks, kings, knights and queens that you put in the little squares they belong to on a vacant chess board, and hence I let people surprise me, and all these surprises yet have made me smile.

“Never discuss politics, religion and money in the land of the free,” my father told me before sending me off to fend all kinds of unknown monsters alone. But as I sat with my back against the wall with them, and my legs stretched out in those lazy hours post midnight, when the sun is as reluctant to rise as I am to sleep, we talked and we talked about the religions of Abraham, and how our beliefs and practices differed, and how it was all but the laws of humanity which we were supposed to adhere to, but the laws of greed, materialism and our innate darkness we chose to have our paths paved by, I felt a weight lift off my chest. I had a voice, an opinion and it was heard and respected. How many times had I discussed this notion with my Muslim majority friends, and how many times was I told not to question faith, and how many times were my opinions shunned and ignored for being just childish whims, not that men my age had childish whims, no, they had opinions to be respected and set in stone. My uniqueness is appreciated, my opinionated self is not thought unfeminine, on the contrary my opinions define me as a person, not a gender.

I never felt unique. No matter how hard I tried, I always saw a wall of invisibility engulfing me. I was seen, heard too sometimes, but never did I leave a mark on anyone. Staring at the ceiling of my dorm room, the same paranoia grips me. Am I still a human holograph, a spotlight that waltzes into people’s lives but possesses no mass, whatsoever, to incur a change. After all, if I felt such at home, these feelings are definitely more overwhelming in a new place so far from home with people so different and diverse from mine. And then, I look at the subtle, yet not too trivial footprints left in the heart of the many I have met yet. How just knowing me has changed preconceived notions about the land I come from. How my Russian friend can curse like a sailor in my first language. How Qawwali’s from the subcontinent blare around my dorm and everybody knows why Jeff Buckley idolized Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and how so many still struggle to pronounce the ‘kh’ sound.

The needle in my brain keeps gallivanting back and forth from ‘What am I even doing here?’ to ‘This is where I want to be’, but as the days stretch, and the snow melts, and the leaves grow, and the warmth envelopes the Quad, the needle has become stagnant, one day at a time, one day at a time.

This is where I am. And this is where I want to be.