1. Truth Is My Identity.
Sat Nahm. In ancient sanskrit, 'truth is my identity'. A frequently used phrase of love, appreciation. A parting call and a greeting smile. Two tiny little sounds, echoing across continents. From soul to soul, spanning a thousand definitions. From culture to culture they tumble, from one moment to the next.
Chance carried these two words into a small, inconsequental town, in the United States of America, into a kundalini yoga class; middle aged women and beaten down young men, in grubby whites washed out by bright smiles. Sat nahm, they said, as they rolled up yoga mats and exchanged parting words until next week.
Were you to have ventured into the life-stained community centre, through crumbling brick, prey of time's cruel touch, and the stark flourescence of electronic lighting, into that class, perhaps the first thing you'd notice was the young girl stretching against the scrubbed whitewash of the back wall.
By far the youngest in there, no more than maybe fourteen. But, as the following months would teach this town, even the youngest person can make a difference. A withered leaf, frail and small, who gives up and hurls itself into a puddle, no matter how small, makes a ripple. Some ripples are merely bigger than others.
Fourteen - society dictates she should be watching disney films on TV, or wasting life on Starbucks, shopping trips. Instead, she sat, quite happily, and not at all concious of image or ego, dressed all in white, with a cloth turban, on a bright orange yoga mat, nails painted each a different colour of the rainbow. Cheer simply eminated from this girl - a thousand watts sparking even at the slightest play of a smile upon her lips.
The turban, of course, could not conceal the fact she had no hair.
As a shrilly shreiking timer cleaved through the spacey air, heralding the end of the session, this girl stood up, and went to the teacher.
"Sarah? Can I ask you something? Sort of related to the yoga." She smiled, unwinding her white turban and tugging the bandana from her wrist, to tie around her head.
"Sure, anything. Enjoy the class today?"
"Excellent, as always, Sarah. Ongnahmo and all. Namaste. What does the end phrase you always use mean? Sat nahm, is it?"
"Truth is my identity. Indian, I think. Will I be seeing you next week?"
"Who knows?" With a grin, the girl swung her yoga bag up over her shoulder. " There is no next week. It doesn't exist - there's only right now. I might be in Japan next week, or up the rockies. Might not be here - I'm pretty much terminal by this point," The sparkle never dulled from her eyes. "Sat nahm, Sarah!" She called as she danced out of the room. Sarah chuckled fondly. "Sat Nahm, Marina,"
Marina Joy Fletcher, despite battling brain tumours since the age of nine, had taken it upon herself to experience everything before she died; and when your heart could stop any minute, it had become quite a jubliant rush. Withdrawn from school, she used her Wish Foundation wish to travel Indonesia, happily lugging her nurse and medical equipment along for the ride. She sporadically attended sixteen classes at the local community centre, and had visited twelve other countries, and thirty-two of the fifty states. Next on her agenda, surprisingly enough, was the neighbouring town, which, in her short life, she had never seen.
Grinning as she blasted music through her earbuds and savoured the feel of air in her lungs, Marina felt the yoga high kicking in already.
And then a leaf smacked her right in the face, and she felt less elegance. Well. Removing the offending item from where the breeze, stubborn in its persistance, plastered it to her face, she realized it was not a leaf at all, but a leaflet. Some new resturant, The Earth Cafe, opening tonight. Live music and all. Maybe she'd give it a go. She'd have to see how she was feeling. She had no way of knowing that tonight was going to change everything, and everyone round here, for good.
The Earth Cafè was not, apparantly, just a resturant. Boasting an impressive menu, with a section for cultured foods of each continent, and vegan, vegetarian, and dairy-free versions of each meal, the airy, spacious loft had been draped with hangings from around the world, walls of embroidered Chinese silk, jeweled Indian throws, knitted blankets of Irish wool thrown around, with the vintage cushions from countries Hannah Baker couldn't even name. Ornate chandeliers that emenated nineteenth-centuary France hung from the galaxy-painted ceiling, though decorated candles blazed in painted jars around, everywhere. Some tables had been fashioned clearly from driftwood. Most seating areas involved huge sofa-pillows on the rug-scattered floorboards, around tables, though vintage, 60's diner booths,all black and white, lined the back wall.
It mirrored perfectly the organized chaos of humanity. Splashes and fragments of this life and that, all stewing together. The live jazz band played in one corner, surrounded by gauzy white drapes. The biodiversity of the atmosphere was working, Hannah noted. A group of pierced teenagers with dyed-black hair and heavy boots sat across from dreadlocked hippie-chics, and a young-looking girl with rainbow fingernails and a orange bandana around her bald head talking animatedly at a subdued, older, dangerously thin girl; people from all ages and walks of life.
It was a welcome spatter of colour in the otherwise grey town, gilded by interwoven souls.
Gilded by interwoven souls. She liked that thought. That might be good in a poem or something. She'd written it down in her notebook before she even realized what she was doing, and within minutes had constructed pages of poetry, a few dark strands of hair escaping their orderly single fishtail braid down her back, falling around her face. She glanced up once or twice to down some more cinnamon hot chocolate, china mug lined in arabic words warming her ink-stained fingers.
"Hey honey, you ready to order something yet?"
A vaguely-accented voice pulled her from her thoughts. She glanced up to see a redhaired waitress standing over her. "Oh, sorry, I was - never mind. Could you give me a minute?"
"Uh huh. What you writing there?"
Hannah closed her book gently, unadorned fingernails tapping on the cover, no rhythm. She didn't really want to say. She was never without the notebook, ever. The notebook had become her closest and most trusted friend, and then more, and then a part of her soul. A container of her soul, almost - she had spilled her thoughts, her hopes and dreams and confusion, her pain and most intimate emotions across the pages, in poems and couplets great and small, in words.
She looked, properly looked, at the waitress for the first time, and felt a little smile come to her, and a warm feeling of trust. She prided herself on being a good judge of character, though she tried not to pre-judge anyone. Hailey her name tag announced. Hailey's milk-pasty face lit up with an adorable, genuine little smile, seeming just... Nice, from her light, barely-visible smattering of freckles to her startlingly bright dyed orange-red hair, which was a mess, like flames in dyed colour and in being, a few dreadlocks and tiny braids running through, uniquely fascinating beads and what looked like seaglass on the ends of some strands. Waitress Hailey's hair was an interest of its own, Hannah thought. Pretty. Matching orange and blue eyeshadow, too. Somehow it worked.
"Just poems and stuff, I guess." She tried a smile.
Hailey bent down, flaming hair falling, frizzy, around her face. "Cool. I took a few poetry classes last semester. Couldn't stick it out. Don't have the patience, I think. I just ended up with a bunch of random crap, a few odd strings of words here and there. But then, they were an expression of emotion, and that is kind of the point, right?"
"Right. I'm sure your stuff was excellent." Hannah cast her blueish eyes down at the battered book, flipping through it, and accidently noticing the Doc Martens on the waitress' feet, patterned like the universe, and electric-colour striped socks poking out the top.
"Well thanks. My girlfriend didn't think so. Oh - sorry - you need to look through a menu. Be back in a sec, give me a call when you're ready. Sat nahm,"
"The kid in the bandana just over there taught me it. Sanskrit. Truth is my identity. Thought it was cool."
As she looked through the fantastic menu, hoping the food was as awesome as the decor and staff, Hannah's mind unwittingly strayed back to the waitress. What was that slight hint of an accent? Huh. Before long, too awkward to call the waitress back over, running through her order in her mind, she was doodling the phrase 'sat nahm' over the back cover of her book.
Suddenly aware of a prescence beside her, Hannah turned to see the bald girl with the bandana, waving, grinning. "Hi!" She repeated. Up close, she couldn't have been more than maybe fourteen or so. "Sat Nahm, huh? That's really getting around. I'm Marina, by the way,"
Marina dropped down onto the cushion next to her. Hannah admired her courage to just talk and be with complete strangers. There was only really one school in the town - she should have seen Marina from there, shouldn't she? She wanted to be alone, and write and think in quiet. But somehow, she couldn't tell anyone that.
"Hannah." She put out a hand for a shake, and Marina obliged. "You look pretty young... Do I know you from... From school, or somewhere?" Hannah was seventeen soon. Soon. And before she knew it, she'd be leaving school, expected to be an adult, when she still didn't like talking to people and felt about twelve.
"Nope." Marina said cheerfully. "I got pulled out of school when I was ten. Mom and Dad wanted more time with me in case I died or whatever. It's totally cool though. I am starving." She put out a hand. "Hey, Hailey!"
The pretty waitress from earlier spun around on her heels, fuzzy orange hair now tied back from her face with one of her beaded dreadlocks, and a pencil skewered through it. She had flour all down her apron. "Yo. Marina! And you, I didn't catch your name earlier. I like informalities. I'm Hailey. What can I do for you two lovely ladies?"
"Can I get some Gado-Gado, Indo style or - no, wait, change me to a tempè burger, curly fries and... Coke float? Thanks. Hannah?"
Hannah swallowed, drowning in the friendliness of the waitress and the enthusiasm of the girl she didn't even know. Damn social anxiety. "Hannah - Hannah. My name is Hannah. And some glass noodles would be nice, sesame, maybe? Salad? And just... Just water. Thank you."
"Whoa, honey, loosen the laces!" Hailey put a hand on Hannah's shoulder, and Hannah felt her stomach clench at the contact. She noticed her fingernails were bright blue. "We're all family under this roof. Noodles, tempè, got it. Sat nahm, losers." And she ambled off, grinning.
What a strange place this is, Hannah thought to herself. People are actually nice. And friendly.
"Sorry if I come on a little strong." Marina tried, apparantly reading her mind. "I just wanna meet everyone, do everything. I wanna really live if I have to die so soon. Gum?"
Hannah nodded, considering. Nice philosophy. She was assuming there was some sort of cancer involved here. She caught the strawberry chewing gum Marina tossed her.
"You aren't coming on too strong." Hannah reassured her. Lie.
"Thanks. So... You like poetry huh? Who'd you rate, particularly. Frost is a pretty neat writer."
"Frost is good." Hannah agreed. "But a little pretentious. You know who I think could don poems if he wanted to?"
"Who?" Marina encouraged, glad Hannah was taking an active part in the conversation.
"John Green, author of a bunch of great books. Read any of his stuff?"
"Dude, his thoughts are quite clearly stars he can't fathom into constellations. Aside from young adult novel constellations."
Hannah laughed at the quote. And suddenly, just like that, she absolutely loved that girl. And suddenly it felt like old friends, settling back down and getting comfortable with each other again, after a really long time. Best friends. "Well played. What's your favourite one of his books?"
Marina considered. "Either Paper Towns or The Fault in Our Stars. You'd think I'd hate the latter, but it's actually so refreshing for us chemo kids to be portrayed so really. We don't just mope around and then die, and John shows that, and for that, he is the king. But Paper Towns was the first I read, and I remember a few quotes standing out. The town was paper but the memories were not. I don't want my memories to be paper, and if they are, then let's make a truckload of them. Yours?"
"An Abundance of Catherines. The most underrated of all. Your two are immense, and I love some lines in Looking for Alaska, but I hated Miles as a guy. He never smoked or did any of that, and then Alaska did and the others did and he was all, oh well, I'd better now, too. Idiot! Alaska was very real though."
"And admirable for her resiliance in the protection of the female image and form." A friendly, faintly affected voice put in from behind. Hailey was smiling, snaking their drinks down onto the tables. "Be back with the food in a sec."
Marina was giving her the cheesiest, smuggest look over her drink.
"What? What?" She grinned, pouring herself a glass from the iced jug Hailey'd brought her. She noticed lemon and lime and ice cubes she hadn't asked for. She had been thinking subconsciously how they'd be nice... When Hailey returned to bring them their food, sliding the steaming plates across the table with their cutlery, Hannah, being the utter fool she was, dropped her notebook and, in her flustered embarassment, accidently kicked her pen across the room. And Marina stopped whatever she had been about to say. Then Hailey, left and she laughed.
A nice laugh, a kind laugh. With her, not at her.
"What?! Seriously, Marina! What?" She grinned, curtly slicing a leaf of her salad.
"You like her."
"She likes you too! I can sense these things. Trust the bald girl. Go make a move on her!"
"Is it that obvious?" Hannah winced, nibbling on her lip, feeling the filmy skin peel away between her teeth. Her watch told her it was eight-fifty. Damn it. Hannah heard the waitress laugh across the room, chewing on a jeweled pen, and noticed she had several ear piercings, little gold ones and an old-fashioned blue stone. Was she attracted to her? Maybe. But she didn't even know her. She just thought she was hot. Hannah was not one of these people who could just... Pick up pretty girls in resturants. Particularly since;
First and most importantly, she had not told her adoptive parents that she was probably definately gay, or at least a girl-favouring bisexual. She wasn't even sure she was! It was so stupid and confusing. She liked boys, she had been attracted to boys, but the few times she'd kissed boys it hadn't felt like she thought it would. That, however, was probably the individual boys. And yet these past few years, she had been looking at girls differently. She could picture herself with a girl, kissing a girl, as easy as any boy, easier. She definitely felt more comfortable around girls. And yet... Ugh. It was so confusing. She'd spoken once of this to her louder, bolder, crazier, less academic, more impulsive, hotter, confident and hyperactive adoptive sister, Molly, who was a proudly flirtatious freewheeling pansexual. But she and Molly were completely different people. It wasn't a big deal to Molly like it was to Hannah; but then, nothing was as big a deal to Molly as it was to Hannah. And their parents, Molly's real parents, her adoptive, had always been a little stiffer around their daughter since, and avoided the subject.
Why did things have to be so complex? Couldn't people just be attracted to people and not have it labelled or categorized?
"Yeah!" Marina cried, stuffing her face with curly fries. "She is totally into you!"
Hannah rolled her eyes, flushing. "I'm going to go use the bathroom, you crazy thing."
"Fuck, fuck, fuck,"
Nina Holden fumbled further in her pockets, though her numb fingers refused to comply. Damn it, where was it? She needed it, now, now. Under the flickering dimness of a harsh streetlamp, the young woman could have screamed in joy when her frozen, stiff fingers fastened around the shape, the needle. Nobody was around. Why should they be? It was coming up to midnight, she knew - she usually got off around then, but the shivers had become so violent she'd nearly tripped several times over the ridiculous heights of her heeled boots, which, for the love of god, might as well double as vampire stakes. Ugh.
Did the alley stop spinning, anyway?
Fuck it. She sunk to the stained concrete, amidst discarded packets, crumpled cans, trash, trash like her. Struggling to straighten out her breaths, Nina leaned against the crumbled alleyway wall, obscured by peeling paint and graffiti. The wind stalked through the darkness, ruffling her thick, grizzled mane of golden hair. She should have got changed back at the club. In her work costume she waa nearly completely numb. With a contended sigh, she sunk the needle deep into her numb, pale skin, through the torn, fraying netting of her sleeve.
Better. Much better. She still ached all fucking over. You'd have thought in this day and age, they'd make the poles a little more comfortable. The exotic dance buisness, Nina reflected, was a bitch. Still, rent wasn't going to pay itself. Though, rent for what? Was it even worth it? She lived alone in a grimy, bare and half-obliterated flat, furnished rather spectacularly with one filthy, hard matress, crisp packets, needles, and cigarette butts. Beautiful. And that last dealer was a dick. Her eye still hurt. When she reached up to dab at it, she succeeded only in smudging her thick makeup worse, into her tangled blond hair. Red painted nails caught, reflected like blood in the stuttering lamp light. She'd had dreams. Now all she had was a pocket full of drugs.
And then, wondering if they'd turned off her hot water till she paid, Nina stood shakily and hobbled, feet sore from the thigh high boots, into the nearest civilised town, following the first music she heard into the first resturant she saw.
And life, reader, is made up of these interlocking serendipitous moments. For this resturant was opening tonight, all night - and inside were three people who would change her life forever.
The first thing that she encountered in there, was some all-too-happy kid in a bandana attempting to get everyone to dance, grabbing her hand, and twirling her around.
Alicante Murray was not entirely sure how she had been coaxed into going to the opening of The Earth Cafè. Having not had any friends in her entire seventeen-year-long life, whenever someone pretended to befriend her, in order to set her up for humiliation, she was inclined to enjoy it, just for a little bit. Even if she knew perfectly well what was going on. So, she sat alone in a corner booth, head down, as always, long grayish hair masking her face, enormously baggy colourless jumper dripping over her hands and faded jeans. The only splash of colour on her monochrome person at all was a large, droopy red bow in her hair, a startling slash of crimson. While everyone else talked, ate, whatever people did at places like this, Ali sipped her ice water. And sipped again. And sighed, and sipped again. All around, the clink of cutlery on china heralded people eating, eating food, glorious food - no, fat, calories, it was just fat. Disgusting.
Alicante found herself staring in the direction of a gale of laughter, where a bald girl was trying to dance with a resisting, awkward looking older girl with a dark braid, who perhaps was Ali's age, and kept glancing back at her seat. A dyed-red waitress grinned, sitting on a nearby counter and watching. The younger girl was laughing as she tried to convince a dead-faced wild-haired blonde in a large, abused black overcoat to join in. The blonde couldn't have been that much older than Ali, but she seemed so much so. After a while, she went into the bathroom for a good quarter of an hour and came back out happier, took of her stupid heeled boots and danced a crazed, barefoot tango with the others.
She could have sworn the bald girl caught her observing. She averted her eyes and stirred the ice around her glass.
The next time the girl caught her eye, she waved her over.
Alicante pretended not to hear. A boy she sort of recognised from school was watching her. It wouldn't end well.
It never would.
Somehow, by closing time the blonde chick and the redhaired waitress were dancing wildly on a tabletop whilst the dark haired girl cheered, laughing, a waitor pretended to DJ at one table, and the bald kid was taking other peoples' hands, dragging them in.
At one point they all did a manical high-five routine, with a yell of 'Sat Nahm'.
Alicante tugged her sleeve further over her hand.