Today was the first day of the rest of my life! I was no longer restricted to wearing a uniform nor was I to travel by school bus. St. Andrews College, Bandra was to be my new destination and I was so looking forward. Yes, the best was yet to come and nothing could dampen my spirits. Well, almost!

The campus was inviting as eager faces beamed at meeting familiar ones. Groups were synonymous with schools and areas you belonged to. The excitement was in the air as the ‘freshers’ had arrived. I was just about taking in the surroundings when suddenly there she was. Clad in a salwar kameez, almost holding on to her mom for support. And as luck would have it she was headed towards us. All eyes pointed at the two girls who claimed she was from their school. I’d rather the earth spilt wide open and take me with it than be dropped to college. Worse, be in the same group where ‘adults’ were chaperoned. In between my suicidal thoughts, the well dressed lady walked in and introduced herself as ‘Hayley’s mom’ like we were supposed to know her. She casually began prodding as to where we all lived. Malad and Kalina were the tied winners with Andheri the close second for residential answers. She seemed slightly perturbed. Turning to me finally she asked, “And where do you stay my girl?” In an attempt to sound even more distant, I said “Andheri, near Apna Bazaar”. Almost at once her face lit up with a thousand Christmas lights as I heard the words in Dolby Digital “Perfect! Can you drop my Hayley-girl home? We stay there too!” I had not even settled down to being a collegian and had earned myself the title of a babysitter! Now my thoughts graduated to committing murder….one or multiple did not really matter!

With hugs and kisses she bid her baby farewell, all the same explaining to me that her ‘Hayley- girl’ had never travelled alone before. ‘Don’t worry lady, I’ve been around the world in 80 days’, I almost heard myself saying, but only managed to nod my head in agreement. Well, the queen mother had left and her princess was all by herself. I decided to ignore her, when she asked the inevitable question, “So how much did you get at the S.S.C results?” I turned to find out a girl sheepishly answering with a 59%. The princess smiled as she went on to ask the rest of her subjects as to how they had fared in their conquests. Finally she comes to me and with an opinion that could only mean that she did not think much of this ‘outrageous blabbermouth’, she asked mockingly, and “So what’s yours?” I replied, “Why don’t you tell us your scores first?” She triumphantly announced 81% much to the awe of all the girls around. I offered my congratulations and in the same breath mentioned that incidentally I too had scored precisely the same. Our eyes met for the first time, when both of us made mental notes that it was going to be a war between the cloistered nun v/s the OTT chatterbox when it came to scoring grades at least if not more.

My faith in God above was attested that day for she was not in the same division, however it was short lived. She was at the bus stop even before I could get there. On the bus ride, she barely spoke. On reaching home when she asked for my number, I reluctantly parted with it. Thus my first day in college was forever etched in my memory as ‘not happening dude’. Next morning she promptly called and asked to be picked at 11.00 am. Unwittingly I had stepped into the shoes of the ‘chaperone’. While in college, it was difficult to get her out of class even in the break, let alone bunk a lecture. Her books were always complete and her behavior immaculate. She thought jeans and skirts were horrible clothing and boys were just taboo. Bottom line, she was not looking good on my score card as the social butterfly. I had to do something…. and I had to do it fast!

It’s been close to two decades since that fateful day, Hayley Annabelle has been my soul sister. It is amazing how we lived within 2 blocks of each other but never met all those years. When that simple ‘pick and drop routine’ changed into a friendship so rock solid is beyond both of us. Being older than her by precisely 15 days, I was every inch the protective Capricorn. I’ve fought with strangers, almost beat up boys and chased bullies, if they so much so harassed my ‘Hayley-girl’. She in return has been my cornerstone, the witness to my madness and perhaps the only one who believed in me, when I myself had some serious doubts about it.

Hayley moved on to the USA to complete her graduation and get an MBA degree in 1996. Life was never the same. I cried buckets and almost convinced myself this was the end. I have seen her twice since then. Between many milestones and achievements either ends, we continued to be supportive through snail mail. We missed each other’s weddings and could not be there when our kids were born either. However none of this has ever been the bone of contention. Thankfully with the advent of the internet, we are now virtually updated, even though both lead busy lives with our families and careers respectively. Yet a simple hello and we can gauge if the other is having a rough day. No matter what, we know there is this one person in the world who will understand where we come from. She is by far the longest standing long-distance relationship I’ve ever had and I’m happy to state that it’s not complicated. Did I mention that she has graduated to short skirts and halter tops from her traditional avatar? But then again, that is another story!

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