Bittersweet nostalgia

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From left to right the gathering were at: | Al Mamzar Park | Dubai Mall Food Court | Pizza Hut, Al Buhairah | Mondoux, Dubai Creek Harbour | Dubai Creek Park | Main Building

By Carine Saeed

Deafening silence echoed across the Student Center as the girl patiently waited for her following lecture. Occasionally, she would answer the gentleman seated opposite her as he spoke about his courses. Although her answers were relative to the topic, even from a distance, her disinterest was evident. Her eyes kept skimming the desolate hall discreetly as if awaiting the arrival of someone.

The girl sighed, “why is there no one in the Student Center?”

The gentleman’s lips lifted a little as he inquired knowingly, “oh, you mean someone from your large squad?”

“Yeah,” the pair of casual friends fell into an abrupt silence. 

Her eyes drifted to the abandoned grey tables on the right. As if she was swallowed into a time capsule, the hall’s tranquility was suddenly replaced with students chattering. Pop music played in the background, matching the typical boisterous Thursday vibes. 

“Listen up, we will go to TGI Friday’s in Al Majaz Waterfront,” Hadeel announced to the entire group. 

It became a typical weekend routine. The crew of 18 friends would hang around after lectures waiting for Hadeel’s final call on the day’s plan, as if she was their event planner. However, even after the revelation of the destination, no one moved an inch. Instead, the guys shifted their attention to the round of Tarneeb (a traditional Arabic card game), they were absorbed in. Sporadically, someone would scream from a distance, “does anyone want to join?” Whilst the neighboring table would ask, “does anyone else have another deck of cards?” 

Meanwhile, the girls disliking cards would huff and sigh. Few of them remained oblivious to the events as they were absorbed in a heated discussion with the ones beside them. A stranger walking past this large gathering could never decipher a word. Although they knew each other for one semester, they built code words and inside jokes that no outsider would understand. Acquaintances would even describe this humungous crowd as catastrophic. 

There were always eyes on them. Security guards would also observe them with great scrutiny. 

The group of freshmen did not care. They wanted to make endless memories. Recklessly. 

After noticing that they were the only ones in the hall, a deep voice requested, “Maria, can you sing for us?”

It took a few minutes of convincing before Maria began humming a soft rhapsody. As if standing under the spotlights, the gamers, the talkers, and the day-dreamers paused to listen to her celestial voice. Resembling a queue of paparazzi, her friends whipped up their miniature devices to record the moment. As the song approached its closing verse, the squad began moving like troops to the cars, suddenly aware of their growling stomachs. 

In splits of seconds, the Student Center dissolved into thin air. The girl found herself in her room. She was seated on the bed, engrossed in a text she was sending. Ever since COVID-19 crashed into their lives accompanied by a prolonged lock-down period, her phone became her closest friend. She would spend hours chatting, shuffling between conversations with her old friends from high school, to her new university friends.

“You spend so much time on that tiny device,” her mother used to say. It wasn’t a lie, but they both knew that the girl was an extrovert. In other words, without social connections, she would have suffocated. Admittedly, she wasn’t extroverted to the point where she would risk going out during quarantine, but she needed her fair share of social communication. 

Her phone vibrated with another message. It was a Zoom link. Another ritual of the lock-down period. She clicked join, anticipating the squad’s philosopher already starting a debate. Today, the controversy was about politics. The video call ran for hours after midnight, jumping from one argument to another. Promptly after the call ended, the conversation continued on their WhatsApp group. 

Sometimes, the Zoom call would start a quarter before 12 a.m. and upon the stroke of midnight, the crew would begin humming the birthday song to one of their friends. No matter how synchronized they try to be, there would be a delay from certain call participants. The song would always be off-key and a pain to the ear. Regardless, the birthday boy or girl would log off with a smile expanding from ear to ear. 

In spite of the mundanity of these traditions; it was what allowed them to cope with the stress. Ironically, during the lock-down most of them understood the meaning of true friendships. Despite the social distancing, they made sincere friends. Ones they would always go to for advice, for psychological and for mental support. 

As they stumbled rapidly into sophomore year, the girl found herself tied between two routines: online lectures and numerous outings to compensate for the months they spent socially deprived. 

“Where do you want to go?” The girl asked Maria once over a chat, indicating their outing today. 

“I was thinking Mado, near Ajman,” she answered. 

It was a ritual on Thursday to go out. As the outings increased, it became harder to plan. Frequently, she would find herself in a car with Maria along with her two close friends, Mayar and Karim, still deciding on their destination. 

The spontaneity was thrilling. It gave a sense of freedom. A sense of liberty and independence. 

“How do you want to be remembered among your friends?” The girl once asked her close circle. Regardless of the depth of the question, each one gave an honest answer. Together they were a replica of The Breakfast Club. Somehow, they would always find themselves absorbed in a random debate. Despite the hours spent arguing, they would never reach a point of consensus as they were all equally stubborn. 

“Mayar, you take all your values from the Turkish series you keep watching,” the girl commented during a heated argument, knowing well that her friend spends most of her time glued to a Turkish reality show. 

“True, but because they make sense,” she argued back.

“They aren’t real. No matter how cool they appear, it’s just a show and it resembles nothing from the reality in the middle east.” 

“Then I don’t want to live among the middle eastern culture!” 

“I see that you have no choice in that matter, at least not now,” their loud voices were tinted with the sounds of their laughter. Although their mindsets were slightly different, they felt that there was a balance. Blending them was like getting a cocktail of a hyperactive mess, with a hint of maturity.

On monthly basis, the girl would be stuffed between the large group, celebrating someone’s birthday. In such gatherings, she was always busy collecting the money for the food, the cake, and the gift they ordered. Often, chocolate sauce would paint her palms displaying her constant struggle to divide the cake equally among them. As the group abandoned their seats, they found cake crumbles and tissue papers scattered around and beneath the table. No matter how clean they try to be, they always leave messy souvenirs behind. 

The girl would shake her head and ask rhetorically, “what is this mess?” She would then retrieve wipes and sanitizer from her bag attempting to clean after her friends. It was of no avail. 

“We are honestly a barrel of monkeys,” she described the squad to her sister one day, “we can’t be civilized human beings at all!”  

“Yes, I know you guys are always loud and noisy,” her sister answered. 

It was true. Anywhere they went, from university to a food court, to a park, or even to a restaurant, it was only their voices that resonated. 

It was crazy. 

Chaotic. 

Euphoric. 

“It’s almost lecture time,” a voice said in the background. It took the girl a moment to realize that she was back in a void of a Student Center. Now, no music played. No chattering was heard, and the barrel of monkeys no longer existed.  

The memories slipped away like a balloon flying into the unknown. 

Out of reach, with no return. 

Now, her circle of friends was a triangle of three people. 

The rest?

They became a sweet memory. 

Over the years, euphoria turned into nostalgia. 

A bittersweet nostalgia. 

From left to right the gathering were at:  | The Jungle Courtyard, Jumeira, Dubai  | Dubai Creek Park  | Charade, Al Wasl 51, Dubai.  | Madness, Jumeriah, Dubai.  | The Market Place, Mariott Al Jaddaf, Dubai.  | Beit Maryam, Jumeirah Lake towers, Dubai.