The strange thing was he had crossed my mind quite a few times this week. Perhaps because I had heard he was based somewhere in USA. He had come up for discussion at a school reunion once. That’s about it. It was like he had never existed. The only proof of his existence was the class photograph that graced the display of all our social media groups. He stood out, the odd one out. No tag above his head. No profile. A ghost from the past.
I cannot pinpoint the precise moment we became friends. Is friend even the correct word to describe our relationship? The nerd and the star. There was a melancholy in me that he sensed. He was very intuitive but nobody would guess that. His powerful persona drew people but he never let them in. He lived in the dream world of acting and the roles he enacted sustained all his needs.
So I, Sanjay Bajaj, official class mouse and topper, was the closest thing to a friend, Prashant Pai, unofficial class hero, would allow.
I remember my first crush. Prashant helped me muster the courage to approach her. When she crushed my hopes, he was there to distract me from the despair I felt. Then there was that year I did not top the class. It was devastating for me. My identity was my grades. He mimicked and imitated every teacher till my tears turned to laughter. Impulsively, I hugged him that once.
He gently pushed me away with a fist bump, saying,
“ Superheroes don’t hug. They fist bump!”
He did not stay in touch after school. I heard he went to America to try and pursue an acting career. Perhaps, India was too small a stage for his talent. He was always a misfit so it was not surprising. I climbed up the corporate ladder, got married, and had two kids. Everything was steady, like most of my life. Uneventful.
This was my third visit to Los Angeles and I had still not seen the Hollywood Walk of Fame. My meetings with business associates got cancelled for the day. The stuffy formality of my hotel was stifling. Honestly, I was unused to doing nothing. So I headed for the tourist attractions. Might as well make the most of a pointless day. The inlaid terrazzo and brass stars embedded in the sidewalks were surprisingly cool for a hot day. I lightly traced the star dedicated to Elvis Presley.
The walk was filled with a variety of tourists. It was amusing to see Marilyn Monroe clones sashaying around, Elvis Presley reincarnated in so many avatars and Johnny Depp pirate lookalikes swaggering around the area. Looking at the tourists clicking photographs with the celebrity doppelgängers was a reminder that fame lives on, long after the famous have died. I clicked a few photos to send to the family. There was Spider-Man, my son’s favourite. Poor Spidey was ambling around and trying to cast his web but no tourists were falling into his trap. He took off his mask, put on spectacles and combed his hair to switch to his Peter Parker alter ego.
My heart lurched. This was not possible.
“ Prashant?” I asked quizzically.
He looked up and peered at me. It was definitely him. He seemed tired and looked way older than I could imagine.
“ Sanjay? What the hell! Dude, is it really you? “ He looked me up and down. “ I can see the nerd has made it, as expected. “
“ Depends on what you mean by making it. It is a boring and predictable life. Like always. How have you been, Prashant ? “ I replied.
“ I have some auditions lined up next week,” he mumbled, as he pointed to his outfit, “ and this job helps to study people so when the time comes, I can just jump into character in a shot!Hollywood won’t have to wait much longer. I am almost there!” He snapped his fingers animatedly.
“ You were, no, are a great actor. It must be interesting, this work?” I said politely.
“ Yup. In a way. It’s temporary though. Obviously, it’s not what I had in mind when I came here but hey…” He cut off mid sentence.
Suddenly there was an awkward silence.
“ I got to run, Sanjay. You look good, dude. I mean it. Give my regards to your family. Watch out for me on the big screen! Next year is going to be my year. I know it!” His voice sounded constricted as he waved cheerily. He slipped on his Spider-Man mask and started walking away. I watched him accidentally step into a puddle of murky water and in an exaggerated Spider man gesture he zapped it. He tried to extricate himself from the swirling muck, but it stuck obsessively to his costume.
He did not look back as he continued walking. His feet leaving muddy imprints on the shimmering tarmac. I ran behind him while trying to quell the rising lump in my throat.
“Prashant! Wait! My son loves Spider-Man. May I get a photo?”
He hesitated for a moment. After the photograph, unknown to him, I slipped a $100 bill in his costume bag. Then, I fist bumped him. Surprised, he responded with gusto.
“ I know superheroes don’t hug. They fist bump!” I said, with a wink.
“ You remembered?” he said incredulously.
“ Some people are never forgotten, no matter who comes and goes. They are the true stars.” I pointed towards him and seemingly beyond, at the sidewalk where the Elvis impersonator’s rhinestone costume glistened in the sunlight in an endless dance of magic.
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