The unstable love triangle is a weird instance of Hitchcock’s bomb, in which the “bomb” is ticking not under the table-top, but above, in full view. Which two of the three relationships will explode, and how, and when, and why? Which relationship may endure? The tension is heightened when one of the three parties is a first-person narrator, because then we, the reader, know there’s more to the situation.
The small-town narrator who’s moved to a big city unveils some of her own secrets. In this coming-of-age story, as she struggles with peer pressure and self-esteem woes, she fantasizes about living other lives, being in other sides of the story. Whether she survives or succumbs to the city, ultimately, does not matter. She has placed herself into an acute corner, so to speak, and in doing so, made herself relatable to anyone who has failed in love.
— Kinjal Sethia
The Bombay Literary Magazine
I kissed a boy for the first time in the colony park. It was overrun by yellowing grass and plastic wrappers and the ends of all the cigarettes the neighbourhood’s teenagers secretly smoked. It was deep in the afternoon, the sweet spot where all the elderly were asleep and the footballers were trudging home from school or were making their way to maths and physics and chemistry tuition, and so the park was peaceful and quiet and consequently, very inviting to people like me.
We sat down beside each other on a rusted bench. It was a coveted spot because it was surrounded by trees and bushes, the angles and combined effort of which made the bench nearly invisible to most visitors. If you ever began to doubt the privacy the bench afforded you only had to look about in the dirt around it. If you found a condom wrapper—left usually by the more adventurous kinds—you were mostly safe. He stood up one more time to check once more that nobody was around, and when he began to walk back my blood was pounding so hard in my ears I couldn’t even hear the crackling of dry leaves beneath his feet.
It was in these favourable circumstances that we did the deed—a first for the both of us—half-cheek, half-mouth, spittle, dribble, and then the feeling of having suddenly grown older. When it was done, we disengaged and I used the sleeve of my sweater to wipe my mouth.
When I was thirteen, I knew a girl whose sister had caught her snuggling up to her boyfriend when the parents weren’t home. They sent her to a convent school in the hills, and when she graduated, they married her off to the son of a rug factory owner in Kanpur. I attended her wedding.
I walked out of the park first. He emerged a few minutes later and without looking back, began walking in the other direction. We lived on opposite ends of the colony; it was neat, discreet, a job well done.
After what happened, we decided that we were dating. Our understanding of the concept was that he would slip me chocolates and little notes in class, and at night I would hide underneath a blanket so we could text each other or talk on the phone. I milked the achievement of having finally found a boyfriend. I went to a convent school for girls, and I felt special because I was one of “those girls”, the ones who had a boyfriend. The ones who would pack an extra change of clothes in their bags so that their boyfriends could pick them up after school on their scooters or bikes. We would tell our parents that we were staying back for extra class, then wait for our boyfriends some distance away from the school gates. Afterwards, we would zip through the city, feeling free, yet hiding at the sight of every car that looked like it could belong to anybody who knew us.
What nobody knew was that I avoided kissing him after the first time. There’s nothing about the ordeal I liked: the way his teeth had scraped mine, his dribble on my chin, the pathetic, puppy-ish look he got on his face afterwards, tinged with a doggish sexual desire that frightened me.
I tried my best to make something of the relationship. I tried to romanticise the little things about him. He didn’t have a bike, only a white Activa, which I thought made him look sweet. His boyish smile, the soft mop of hair on his head. The sweet gifts he sent me. I even tried to romanticise the fact that we were from different religions: I, a Hindu, and he, a Muslim, and that the cross-pollination of our different cultural practices would lead to an exotic wedding ceremony, and eventually, world freedom. They would make movies about our eternal love.
We had fun sneaking around the city, and I was only slightly miserable.
Right before I left for Mumbai, we met for the final time to say our goodbyes. What it really meant: it was time to break up. We decided on a time and a date to meet and reached the secret grove from different directions so that anybody watching would not become suspicious. We sat on the same old bench, this time far apart. I cried and promised to keep in touch, though it was more out of pity for him because I knew I was making a promise I wouldn’t keep, and he was really such a harmless boy. When I turned the other side to wipe the snot from my nose, I waited for a long time to look back in his direction. I wanted to avoid his earnest, unflinching gaze. I realized I found him deeply unattractive, and I was glad to leave.
How Z and I found each other were circumstances anybody could have predicted.
Third semester, a college party at someone’s house in Andheri. In a dark living room with fuzzy lighting, the carpet slowly soaking up spilled alcohol, the air conditioner blowing ice onto our bare arms and legs, the smell of sweat and perfume mixing together.
We kissed. I can’t remember when it happened exactly—was it towards the end of the party, or midway through? The details are kind of blurry in my head. We kissed and it was nothing like my first, and everything felt shot through with threads of something luminous and warm, like electricity or summer sun.
What I do remember is that we’d been drinking and I had realised I could kiss whoever I wanted without anybody giving a damn and it made me feel powerful and sexy, and effervescent about the state of the world.
At home, we employed several measures of deception to hang our bras out to dry in a way that no one should see them. So, I let Z grab me everywhere and it felt good.
Z and I made out a lot on the balcony, and we made out in the darkness of the staircase outside the house, and then in the auto when he dropped me back to my apartment. I liked the shape of his mouth and the way it felt against mine. He had a low, booming voice and a movie-star smile, and a habit of saying profound things unintentionally and without pretence. I was freshly twenty, a month too old to feel teenage butterflies, but I sometimes woke up in the morning thinking about him and felt a hard lump in my throat, a lump that only went away when a text from him lit up my screen. I liked that he was patient with me, and he didn’t think that we came from different worlds.
Before the party, we used to hang out a bit here and there in college. He used to move in a herd every day and I wondered how he managed to have so many friends in the second year, but the first time we ever spoke to each other he was all alone, smoking a cigarette at the northern end of the college football field. It wasn’t allowed, of course, and he was so surprised that he dropped the lit cigarette on his foot.
After the party, it was only natural that Z and I began to hang out more and more. We went to Prithvi theatre. To Silver Beach. He pointed out the rocks where couples gathered in the burning afternoons to kiss and touch each other under the cover of umbrellas or dupattas. He explained to me why, in an urban sprawl like Mumbai, poverty increased as you moved from West to East, how this affected local train traffic, and how to say words like prosciutto and focaccia. We visited endless cafes, smoked badly rolled cigarettes, walked across the beach and pretended we were in a coming-of-age movie. For all the things that he taught me, it felt like Z knew too much about what life was all about, things that perhaps he should have waited to know, and that it would be a long time before I came of age if I did at all.
Like me, like most people, Z had some past experiences. A long, intense relationship with a girl named Sanya. Z revealed this information to me when we were just at the precipice of things.
I admit that I know more about her than I’d like to. I caught onto stray remarks that Z made, sometimes bits from people who’d been around her before she left for a semester abroad; times I looked her up on social media, mostly when I was feeling bad about myself and wanted to hurt some more. There was some lore floating around about their relationship, and sometimes it sprung on me like how bad dreams and reminders of crushing mistakes tend to do. The time they’d been sent to the Dean’s office for sneaking into the library after closing time. Unconfirmed rumours of a certain classroom being ‘their spot’. A fight they’d had publicly, close to when things were ending. Anybody who knew I was having a thing with him (everybody did) felt it their god-given duty to assault me with anecdotes of their romance.
Yes, they were so hot together.
They were infinitely toxic and an obviously so-so match. She had better chemistry with the other guy, what’s-his-name? Suraj. Yeah, him. Not Z.
They looked so good together, it was a surprise at all they broke up.
The break-up was inevitable. What burns so bright goes out so fast. Young love.
I was sure I’d never run into Sanya in my first year, the time when I hadn’t met Z yet, and it made me glad as if the lack of recognition made her less real.
It was only later I remembered that I had seen her when I didn’t know about her or Z. She was a dancer and I’d been there when she had performed on stage for a college festival. The silver belt that held together the pleats of her saree shimmered in the spotlight, and when she moved across the stage the sound of her anklets sliced through the expectant silence of the hall. Apparently, they had been in the on-again-off-again stage of their relationship at that time, and I felt nearly sick wondering if Z had gone backstage to meet her after the performance and if something had happened between them.
From a time when I was much younger, I’ve always been convinced that I don’t belong. It’s a strange feeling to wake up, sit across from your family at breakfast and wonder what it would be like to have a different set of parents. Knowing Sanya existed was a reminder of the fact that I couldn’t get a second chance at things. I couldn’t get a try at being his first. I would always, always, be second place.
The next time I saw Sanya, I didn’t know that she was back in town. But then again, we didn’t run in the same circles, and Z, would he really have told me? And was I entitled to know, anyway? For me, the relationship back home didn’t count; Z was my first proper boyfriend and I didn’t know how much I could expect. She was buying cigarettes at the exit of Mahim station, and instantly I thought of Z and wondered if she smoked the same brand—Classic Connects— as he did. When I arrived in Mumbai I started to smoke too, because everyone else was doing it. It scratched my throat and made my singing voice duller and deeper, but it was the fashionable thing to do.
I slowed down but didn’t stop walking; I didn’t want Sanya to notice me because I felt small and inadequate. If she’d caught me looking at her it would have been embarrassing, so I hurried along as fast as I could, staring at my own feet as I walked. I didn’t stop till I had made it to the platform where my train arrived, and even when I was sitting in the coach hurtling away from the station I felt like she was right behind me. I looked her up and noticed a link to her blog of poems and short stories. They had similar themes: men and women caught up in bad romantic situations. The loneliness of living far from Bombay. Long-distance troubles. Miscommunications. It felt like I was reading a troubled woman’s journal, and knowing that she was hurting made me feel good.
I struggled to imagine if her miseries could somehow stack up against my own. Had she ever wished she’d been born in a different place? Kissed a man she didn’t like?
The more I thought, the more it seemed like Sanya had been dealt some very good cards. She was a trained dancer. She had glossy skin. She’d been to Italy. Her family had old money, the kind that would take generations to run out. What did I have?
I thought about my shitty hometown. How time had seemed endless then. You could spend days and days circling the drain, no one to hang out with, at least nobody you liked too much. I thought about all the times that I had fantasized about my change of fortunes: college, the great equalizer. It would redeem me. I would wear blue eyeshadow and short skirts and become a new person.
I wondered if I could hate someone I had never met.
There was a TikTok trend going around, where a man walks up to a random person on the street and asks them a question, like what kind of job they work and how much money they make, or if they want a hundred bucks and if not would they want to double it and give it to the next person?
In one of my dreams, I was walking with my earphones on, after college or maybe after meeting Z somewhere, and a man stopped me to ask a question.
“Have you ever been in love?” he thrust the microphone in my face, angling his camera to catch my best angle.
I stayed silent and awkward, watching the man’s face unfurl with disappointment. Then I asked if he could delete the previous video and if we could have another go, I was sure of my answer now, but the man was already upset and shrugged at me as he began to leave.
I came back to the apartment to find Christina in one of her dark moods again.
Signs of a flat affect, and she wouldn’t stop scrolling on her phone. Scrambled TikTok music erupted from it in regular five-second spasms. This entire scene was so familiar to me that instantly I knew it had something to do with Reuben, and I had learnt to entertain or ignore it depending on how sympathetic I felt.
Seeing me, Christina said nothing, but instantly got up and walked into the bedroom. She returned with a plastic baggie and began to roll a spliff on the beat-up coffee table. Christina was from Bangalore and had studied in some expensive international school with a lot of expat kids. As a result, she sometimes spoke like an American, especially when she was upset.
“What’s up?” I asked.
When we had first met, I had been amused, and slightly fascinated by her accent, but now it just made me cringe. Sometimes, when I was with Z, I would mimic her.
“I keh-aunt deal with Reuben anymore!” I would cry, and he would laugh so hard, tears would come to his eyes. His laughter affirmed that he was with me, and not elsewhere, and the crueller my impressions became the harder he laughed, so I used all her saddest stories for my best American impersonations.
Christina sat down on the rug and patted the space next to her.
We smoked in silence for a while. I sensed an outburst bubbling and smoked faster and deeper, hoping that I would be extremely high before she began talking. Eventually, she exhaled and launched into a predictable tirade: “We had a fight!”
Reuben and Christina had been dating since the eleventh grade.
It was an old story and I was sick of hearing of it. I said all the easy things, suggesting a break from Reuben, or a breakup. I knew this stung because she blew out an angry cloud of smoke and laughed. It was a bitter laugh, a laugh with edges.
I wanted to mention the whole thing with Sanya at the station, but it wasn’t really a thing and I couldn’t figure out how not to sound insecure and needy and jealous. I knew Christina believed in leagues—that some people deserved better than they were getting and that some people were reaching for people they shouldn’t keep, and I realised if I told her she’d look Sanya up on Instagram and that would be humiliating, mostly for me.
The spliff was over and we lay down on the Ikea rug and watched the ceiling turn in circles. Found on the singular trip we’d made to Ikea, we’d grabbed it from the discount pile and had still somehow splurged. It was special to us, and we pretended that it commanded the same reverence as we would afford our mother’s and grandmother’s jewellery. We had walked for hours in Ikea’s air-conditioned aisles, slapping pillows and taking pretend naps and then, inevitably, spending good money on some very mediocre Swedish meatballs. It seemed then, that we were true friends, that we belonged to the same world, and arrived at the same time, to a place that neither of us knew any better. In college, we stuck to hanging out in our own circles, resorting to a small nod or a raised eyebrow when we saw each other in the cafe or passed each other by in the halls. She hung out with the other funny-accented kids—people who’d lived abroad for a bit, or had studied in international schools, or were simply, perhaps, good speech actors. I would catch sight of her sometimes, as she and her friends stood around in circles and took hits from their vapes; her pearl necklace glinted, even from afar, her henna-brown hair always enveloped in a curl of strawberry-ice smoke.
It was a weekend, and Z was staying over at his mother’s house. It was unusual that he was living away from home in the same city, but Z had gotten an internship that needed him to come to South Bombay every day, and he had a stipend with which he could split a place with some friends, and well, he did have a persuasive aura about him.
My legs felt like jelly, my head like it would roll off my neck and begin to float as an entity of its own volition. I contemplated the fact that I had a date with Z in a few hours, and I wondered if I could walk the whole way to his place because taking the local felt stressful. I barely knew any Marathi, and I was sure somebody or the other would find out who I was: a sham, a stupid girl masquerading as a smart one, someone who had never been to a sleep-over or skinny dipping and had no answer to what—according to her—was the best tasting beer.
The high was oppressive, intense; my feet turned hot and cold alternately. I remembered that Z had still left some old pictures up on his profile, the ones where he and Sanya didn’t look “together”—group lunches and school concerts and so on, and I scrolled through all of them and the comments they had left on each other’s profiles before I fell asleep.
“I’m sorry,” I told Z. “The guard held me back so he could note down my name and number.”
“What?” Z sounded dramatic, but his face scanned me dispassionately like I had disturbed him in the middle of something important. Again, that feeling, that I was somewhere I was not supposed to be.
“He told me the RWA is tightening up about unmarried visitors,” I replied. “But he let me go when I told him the house number because — in his words — only an old woman lives here”.
It was only my fourth visit to his old place and his mother wouldn’t be home till later in the night. A single lamp was turned on in the living room. The house was dimly lit, clean, silent. It smelled of incense and women’s perfume. I noticed a small wooden idol of Ganesha on one of the shelves in the living room.
“I didn’t know you guys were religious,” I said.
“Oh, I’m really not, but Ma likes to perform an aarti in the evenings, once in a while.”
In college, a lot of people were Marxists and anarcho-capitalists and atheists, but at home, they were mostly whatever their parents wanted them to be. In my last year at home, I became insincere about the evening aarti, making up excuses to not have to sit beside my mother and pray with her. It seemed like a waste of time, not to mention loud and theatrical. The blowing of the conch shell, the ringing of bells, the clapping, the chanting.
I wanted to ask her: if you love god so much, why can’t you pray to him a little more quietly? I’m sure he’d be able to hear you. But my mother was a very religious person, and asking a question of that sort would be like trying to puncture her spirit.
I felt about Sanya what my mother felt about gods. She felt their presence everywhere, and she was often scared that they were watching, judging, scrutinizing. She was always a little scared, always emphasizing her inadequacies.
The living room had a lot of pictures of Z as a baby, some on the coffee table, some hanging on the wall. It was obvious he was a very loved child. There were also some of him and his dog, Billa, who he had since he was six and who died a few weeks into his first year. We sat down on the living room sofa with our knees touching and talked about our day. Suddenly, I was dragged back to a memory I thought I had buried long ago. It was about the first time Z had invited me over when we had been dating for just over a month. Those days, he’d always dodged the topic of me coming over; when he finally did ask me, he’d exhaled in a really dramatic way, and I had wondered at the time if it meant he was accepting that Sanya was gone and they were over for good. We went into the kitchen, and I took the liberty of sitting on the countertop as he looked through his fridge for something to eat.
“Is that Sanya?” Z’s mother had asked from the hallway. I jumped down, embarrassed, hoping she hadn’t seen me. She came into the kitchen to say hi, offering to cook something for us if we were hungry. The interaction was generic and courteous in most ways, but there was something forced about the whole thing as if she wasn’t sure what to feel. I could tell that she didn’t know who I was and imagined her pulling him aside later and asking, who is she?
Z’s mother charmed me. I was surprised to find her so involved in his personal life. Who he was seeing, his dreams, hopes and personal ambitions. When my mother called, I would present her with a sanitised, mostly made-up account of my life; she wanted to know if I was studying and eating well, and I was doing neither of those things. In an ideal scenario, I would have stayed back, taken admission in a local college, and begun preparing for the Civil Services exam.
Z tapped my shoulder. “Where are you?”
“What?” I mumbled.
Z raised an eyebrow, then shook his head and continued talking. “As I was saying, there’s a party on Friday, and I want you to come.”
“Sure,” I replied. He hesitated, then began looking very hard at a point somewhere above my shoulder and behind me.
“What?” I nudged again.
“Uh, Sanya will also be there”. My stomach dropped.
She would be there, along with other school friends. He wanted me to come. Why? I don’t know; maybe he was the kind of guy who wanted to be friendly with all his girlfriends and ex-girlfriends. Maybe he was still in love with her but felt guilty, so he wanted to hang out with her on my time. I wanted to ask him why we were doing it, and I wanted to express some sort of irritation but I couldn’t tell him that I’d seen her on stage, or that I’d read her stories and felt strangely sick, or that I’d passed her outside the station and wanted to disappear.
At some point, Z got up to order pizza for dinner. He went inside for his phone and I followed. It felt odd to walk around in Z’s childhood bedroom, his real bedroom, not the one where we smoked and held each other’s naked bodies, and slept in late on the weekends when we could.
The wall above his desk had several pictures—bad quality ones taken inside a photobooth. I could only recognize Z and Sanya, all the other faces a curious blur. They were smiling in a way that told me they were drunk, and they were covered in shimmering tinsel. I touched the medals he had won, and ran my fingers over the spines of the books on his shelf, reading the titles over and over as if they’d reveal to me something fundamental about him. I pulled out a book and found a note written on the first page.
I hope you like this.
I felt punched, vacant, remembering how when we had first started dating, I’d carefully annotated a copy of Slaughterhouse Five and given it to him. How I’d written on the first page: Love, E or some bullshit like that.
We watched Blade Runner 2049 while eating the pizza and afterwards, Z said he wanted to show me something. We took the lift to the topmost floor and then climbed up to the water tanks. It was chilly and we could feel the night wind on our faces as we looked at the city below and shivered. It felt special, novel, like suddenly we were doing something that Z was as excited about as I was. So I felt bold enough to ask pointless questions, like if he’d done it with anyone else before, even though it was clear to both of us who I meant. Z laughed then, and I thought of Sanya and him sitting where we were. For a moment, I was back home, swatting away mosquitoes on a rusty bench, nursing a swollen lip after a kiss, feeling that I had made a mistake I would never recover from.
“Listen,” he said when we got off the terrace. “I really like you, okay?” It was a grand statement coming from Z, who had taken three months to tell his friends that we were a thing, though everyone had suspected it already.
At 10.30 p.m., Z reminded me that his mother would be back home soon and it was time for me to leave. He dropped me to the station and we spent the auto ride in silence.
On the day of the party, I missed all my classes. I stayed in bed and opened up two tabs on my laptop: one was Sanya’s blog, and the other was her Twitter account. I pored over her work with an anthropologist’s precision; noted the names she used (real ones in her tweets, fictional ones in her blog posts). I wondered if I could replicate her lilt, her profundity, her sense of humour, which I found attractive yet school-boyish at the same time.
back in the badlands, missed everyone and everything she said in her last tweet.
hooked up w this guy and he pulled out oreo flavoured condoms?? read another. What was it like to be sad in a different country? In my hometown, we lived in a small house and I’d learnt to keep my feelings to myself; if I stayed in bed all day it made my mother upset, and if I went for a walk outside, I would sometimes be teased or followed by men on bikes.
I kept scrolling till I reached June of the year before when they’d broken up. Her tweets from the time were unremarkable—half-assed memos about her declining mental health, quotes from sad romance movies and lyrics from bands like The Smiths. In September, she left for the United States, and suddenly all the tweets were about being young and alive, but also about being cold and lonely. She sounded uncynical but also unenthused, full of yearning yet restrained, like she wanted something while making sure to sound like she didn’t care enough to do anything about it.
At lunchtime, Christina came back to the apartment. It was unusual because classes didn’t get over till five. She didn’t knock on my door to ask me why I’d decided to stay in bed all morning. I was watching a Netflix documentary about a Croatian serial killer when I heard a second pair of footsteps—Reuben— in her bedroom.
At around three in the afternoon, I realised I had two hours to get ready and take the train to Bandra, where the party was.
I took out a blue dress and a green blouse and lay both on my bed. Z had once said that the blue dress was his favourite thing on me. When I put it on I felt ugly and anonymous, and I wanted to crawl back into bed and let the day end.
By the time I reached the party, it was already in full swing—music thumping through the walls, a low hum of chatter floating through the hallway. I couldn’t find Z for the first ten minutes, and while I looked around my heart was beating so loudly in my chest that I thought it might explode. A few people gave me side-eyed glances but nobody tried to approach me.
Maharashtra’s drinking age is twenty-five and above, but liquor sellers, like cigarette panwadis, are here to make money, not enforce moral or legal codes. By the time the people in that room would come of age, most of them would be working as consultants and analysts and associates in shiny buildings in Worli and BKC, too tired at eight to let their hair down, drinking away their weekends in their silos.
“Hey, come here,” Z waved at me. He was on the balcony, smoking cigarettes with someone I didn’t recognize. I felt a wave of relief as I walked towards him, but it was followed by the old pang of self-pity and disgust when I realised who he’d been talking to. It was Sanya.
“Hey,” she greeted me. Up close, I noticed subtle differences from the photos. Her hair was shorter now and coloured with angry streaks of purple. She still had the dancer’s body and was taller than me. She seemed thinner now, more shrunken. In her last tweet, I remembered, she had declared that she had a newfound fascination with rocket leaves.
We stood around in circles, exchanging generic courtesies. I noticed the deliberate way in which Z stood at a distance—he took care to not stand too close to me, touch me, or kiss me. Sanya asked Z about his mother, whether she still went to Zumba class.
“Does aunty miss me?” she asked, her eyes twinkling. A pang of jealousy ripped through me.
Z’s high school friends recognised me as the new girlfriend. They looked at me and then Sanya, bouncing glances at each other. I offered up a knowing smile like I was in on the joke. But I didn’t get any of the private stories that Z related about people from school and old neighbours and teachers. I tried at first, to laugh along, but it came out so hollow that I was sure everyone could see how deceitful I sounded. At one point, Sanya began to laugh so loudly that she bent down to hold her stomach, and accidentally spilt her drink.
My inadequacies felt like they were in front of the jury. I felt my flaws publicly confirmed.
This was the person he had kissed for three years. They were friends before they had gotten involved, and she’d been to his house more times than anyone could keep count. She knew where the towels were kept and how Z’s front door opened smoothly if you pushed thrice even if it was unlocked.
I wanted to act cool and defiant but really what I felt was a longing to be somewhere or someone else. Z offered to make her another drink, somebody else stepped out to answer a phone call, and all of a sudden, Sanya and I were alone. She began telling me a story about how she’d been robbed on a train in New York and I was reminded of the time back home when a man had tried to grab my ass as he sped by on a motorcycle. We started speaking about other things: the subjects she studied in university (literature, like me), the kind of music we both liked (pop ballads versus 70s rock). She laughed often, sometimes with the whole of her belly. Neither of us mentioned Z.
For the first time, I was forced to think of Sanya without also thinking of the two of them together. She was snappy, funny, and graceful. I understood then why they’d dated so intensely, and why now, even after everything, they had chosen to stay in touch. I could see the mannerisms that they’d borrowed from each other, the slight tilts and ways of speaking that still remained. There were simple tells—the way they both touched the inside of their arm while talking, the way they found all the same parts of a funny story funny.
Z returned with drinks and I took large, quick gulps of mine, the alcohol stirring something inside me. I’d never seen him so infectious before, this light-hearted, this loose. Not even the night we’d first kissed, when we had been silly drunk and he’d seemed so large and charming. I took another gulp and waited for the room to spin like it had that night in Andheri.
I had an epiphany: in front of me was a different Z. This was a Z capable of baby-talk, of pulling you for a kiss in empty classrooms, who would gladly take an auto to drop you home even if it was raining.
“Some of them are playing some kind of game inside, I think we should join?” He ventured politely, pointing to a circle of people sitting on the floor in a corner of the room, laughing and passing around a bowl of weed.
People began to file back inside, holding onto their red solo cups and smelling of smoke. At the threshold of the glass-panelled door, I touched Z’s shoulder and held him back.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he smiled, quietly brushing the ends of my fingers. I wanted him to hold me but I realized that we both felt too awkward to speak. Look at me, I wanted to say. You haven’t looked at me, like really just looked at me, all evening and your ex is here and she’s a better person than I ever expected and I feel so bad about who I am and everything that has ever happened to me.
“Z!” Somebody called from inside. The moment was broken just as soon as it came together. Z turned around and went back inside, and I trailed.
It was a game of spin-the-bottle, I remembered. The night we first kissed. Spin-the-bottle and Z came in late, and absent-mindedly sat somewhere roughly across from me in the circle. I’d been a few drinks down then, filled with an optimism that made me want to sing loudly and rest my forehead on the shoulders of people. I had also never played the game before, so perhaps, what I was looking for was an experience.
I tried to find a spot next to Z in the circle but it seemed too packed already, so I kind of hovered at the edge of the circle until somebody offered to squeeze me in.
“We’re playing Straight-A,” a tall guy with light-coloured hair announced.
“High,” a girl’s high-pitched voice floated up from somewhere in the circle and everybody giggled. The guy began to explain the rules.
In this circle, we’d bent forward and kissed each other for the first time. There was some half-hearted egging but in my memory it was loud, the only thing louder was the rush of blood thumping in my ears.
Somebody started passing out cards and I panicked because I hadn’t listened to the rules. I looked at Z but he didn’t notice me looking at him. Suddenly, it struck me that he was deliberately avoiding my gaze.
I took the bowl and took a long, hard drag, and waited for the wave to wash over me, and when it had come and gone I stood up as quietly as I could and left the room.
The hallway was dark and quiet, and off the empty walls bounced the sounds of dripping and leaking. It had begun to rain outside. On the way out, I passed Sanya walking out of the bathroom, the low growl of a flush following the taps of her heels. Her face was flushed red and she didn’t notice me as she walked by.
Z and I had kissed that night, yes, but we didn’t pine for each other, either before or after, or read and re-read each other’s texts in agony, at least not after the first time. There was nothing instant, inescapable, intractable about what happened between us, or about us, really.
When I think of that time now, I remember it differently. The music was just right, I tell myself. The air was neither too hot nor too cold, neither too sticky nor too dry. I’d like to think that we were just the right amount of drunk too—buzzed enough for everything to slow down, and sober enough to know what we were doing. We used just enough tongue for it to feel good, and we kissed just long enough for it to seem like we were into it, and not long enough for it to not feel like an unspontaneous thing, like something that had happened before.
By the time I walked down to the street, the rain had petered out. More than the rain, I could smell the sea, and it made me feel safe. I kept walking even though the water splashed on my feet, and my heels made me wobble over the bumpy ground.
Z was a stranger to me; the version of him that existed with me and the one that existed with Sanya were two very different people. I envied her, this time not for who she was, but for what she had. The effects she was capable of producing in someone. Did he cause the same feelings in her as he did in me? Did she often wake up in the middle of the night just to check her phone and see if he had texted? Did she not sleep at all if he did not? Or did she go to sleep weighed down with an existential grief that only exists in the twilight hours, in the place that exists between wakefulness and sleep?
I knew Sanya had been crying and I felt no pity for her, and I decided that I would never see her again. All I knew about love was what Z had taught me, and all he knew about love was what they had learnt together, so the fact of the matter was, that I was dressed in hand-me-downs and I didn’t feel very grateful about it.
At the beach, I stepped into a discarded bag of trash and I began to cry because I thought I was alone, and I didn’t care that it was late in the night and somebody could have sprung up from the shadows and killed me, or worse, left me half-dead. Then I accidentally bumped into a couple that had been sitting near a big rock and making out, and I could tell the woman wanted to scream at me but in the end, we were deathly silent because a policeman was flashing his torchlight in our general direction, and we were afraid of being caught and charged with public indecency.
I tried to think about Z but instead, what came to my mind first was the boy from back home. Their faces were collapsing into one, and then a stranger emerged. I didn’t know him at all.
Eshna Sharma is a writer currently living in Mumbai, India. She was shortlisted for the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing in 2022, and was a part of the Write Beyond Borders fellowship in 2021. Her fiction and non-fiction has been published in the Himal SouthAsian, Hammock, Spacebar Mag and The Alipore Post.