“Life is short and the world is at least half terrible, and for every kind stranger, there is one who would break you, though I keep this from my children. I am trying to sell them to the world. Any decent realtor, walking you through a real shithole, chirps on about good bones: This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.” - Maggie Smith.
“It’s simple, really,” I say, scraping paint off a wall with one hand while gripping my battered phone with the other. “Just tell them you’re giving company to a lonely friend, stranded in the city oh-so-far-away from family.”
“It’s not that easy,” she replies, sighing. I imagine the worry lines on her forehead becoming more pronounced. “You know how my parents are. It’s hard enough getting away from them for a day, and you’re asking for weeks?”
“After which I’ll be going back home. Who knows if, and when, we’ll see each other next.”
“I know, I know.”
I don’t speak for a while, surveying the result of my anxious scratching. It isn’t exactly an improvement from before. To be fair, it would take a lot to transform this dump. It doesn't make me any less fond of it. It’s still mine. Just like this trashy city with its flickering lights and glittering glass, charming despite its clearly dilapidated state. I try not to think of how painful leaving would feel, but I’m so full of nostalgia I could almost choke on it.
“Do you remember the first time you walked me home?” I ask, smiling at the memory of the night.
“When you nearly stepped on a cockroach, and I had to promise to kill them all for you?” She’s smiling too, I’m sure of it. “How you manage to tolerate the rats is beyond me.”
“Oh, I hate them too. I just like to think there’s fewer of them. God, I can’t believe I’m reluctant to leave this filth behind.”
“Hey, we met in the midst of all the filth.”
She’s laughing now, as I think of the first awkward conversation in the pouring rain, the struggle to hold an umbrella open over the two of us as we made our way to the metro station. Earlier, we’d been dancing on a roof, and around the topic of how we knew each other’s very queer friends at a very queer event.
I was caught staring at a question painted on a wall, once we had finally stumbled into the station.
“Can an outsider ever be an insider in the city?” she read out, her voice almost a whisper, like we were sharing a secret.
“What’s a city without its strangers?” I replied, grinning.
I had been so certain I belonged here, back then. Even with my insufficient knowledge of the local language, my inability to bargain with auto-drivers, my embarrassingly foreign lifestyle. Perhaps it was naive of me, privileged even, to think there was space for me here. There was just something exhilarating about the whole thing, to think all I had to do was figure out where I fit, complete the jigsaw puzzle for the bigger picture to make sense.
“Please.” I sigh, hoping she can hear everything I’m not saying. How loving her is the closest I’ve come to feel at home. That if she loves me back, the city must too. That I can’t say goodbye to one without the other.
“Are you sure your flatmates won’t mind?” she asks, and I know she’s understood.
“They aren’t around.”
I’ve been by myself ever since the city went into lockdown. The women who had been living with me had left right before, unwilling to be stuck in a city that wasn’t theirs. I didn’t go with them, it felt too much like giving up.
“I’ll figure it out, then.” she promises, as I try my best to stop brooding.
“I love you,” I say, and it still feels like giving up.
She reaches my apartment in a few hours. She embraces me moments after crossing the threshold, and I want to cry. I didn’t realize how long it had been since I touched another person. I am both relieved and embarrassed. How obvious my yearning must seem. I blame the solitude for making me this desperate to be held.
I think of how surreal the last few months had seemed. I had stood in front of the mirror too often, as if reminding myself of my own existence. Gazed at the dark circles and chapped lips, the collarbones that hadn’t been as prominent before, and made mental notes to take better care of myself. Experts had been saying the same old things on the radio: suggestions that involved maintaining a weekly schedule, exercising, limiting the intake of news, finding a hobby or just something that offered a sense of control, and most important of all, not losing hope. It felt more challenging than it should have.
She’s talking now, but the words don’t register because I’m still marvelling at our entwined hands. I draw circles on her palm with my thumb, notice how her nails have been bitten short. I do not speak. Everything I had wanted to say suddenly seems so trivial.
“Hmm?” I murmur, finally becoming aware that a response had been asked for.
“I was asking if you wanted some tea,” she says, calmly moving away from the drama of a reunion into the familiarity of routine.
I nod and follow her to the kitchen. She doesn’t need help finding ingredients, only asks me to pass her the ones out of reach. She grates ginger briskly over boiling water, humming a tune to herself. I am bewildered by how quickly she appears to have adapted to the situation, but her slightly trembling hands give her away.
“I missed you,” I tell her as if it isn’t already evident.
“Missed you too,” she mumbles, avoiding eye contact. “Pass the sugar.”
Just like that, we fall back into established patterns. We wake up together and fall asleep together. I become used to how comfortable it feels. She makes the tea every morning, I leave the ingredients within easy reach the night before.
Our days are planned around each other’s commitments. She avoids the living room when I’m designing, helps put away the material when I’m done. If she has an online class, I make lunch. While I’m not particularly good at it, I get better with practice. We buy groceries together and watch how nobody touches each other.
“For once,” I mutter, tapping a watermelon to gauge how ripe it is. “They know how it feels like to be us.”
With each passing day, I watch a lifetime of tension leave her body. She looks over her shoulder less often, unafraid of a family friend or acquaintance recognizing her with her mask on. There are no concerned neighbours asking why she isn’t staying at her childhood home, no curious glances at me. As strange as it sounds, we have never felt safer.
The cutting of the melon feels like a special occasion. I play our favorite music, the songs we danced to months ago, in what feels like another life. We forget to cover the floor with newspaper, so it gets messy. We carve faces onto the rind, laugh until our faces hurt. The worries that have piled up over the years seem to slide off our backs. When we finally eat the fruit, I’m pleased to discover I have picked one that tastes sweet.
We go to a park during the time that has been allotted for evening walks. She picks up fallen flowers, holds them gently in the golden light. Tells me she’ll braid them into my hair later. I watch children running towards the swings from the corner of my eye, their parents just a few steps behind them. I pretend it doesn’t sting, that I am not feeling this odd mixture of grief and wonder.
I know that none of this can last, but I still try to hold on to as much as I can. I realize it might be the closest I come to domestic bliss, so I pathetically let myself picture it. I dream of a life after, one that is almost like this. No questions, no objections, no fear as we walk through a park together. Perhaps the heaviness of a ring on my finger. It feels like both too much and too little to ask for. It feels too substantial to dismiss. Some nights are harder than others.
“Can’t we just stay like this?” I ask on one such night, while my palms are cupping her face.
“Stop romanticizing a pandemic,” she answers, her lips twitching as if holding back a smile. I watch tears form in her eyes and run down my fingers.
I feel guilt, of course. How could I not? It feels unfair that this part of the world remains untouched. It feels wrong to be part of it when everything outside burns, to be ungrateful because our time here is limited. Foolishly, perhaps even selfishly, I try to save what I can. I want to keep all these bright unbearable moments for us. Even if they singe my fingers. I think we deserve something resembling happiness.
We repaint some walls of the house in the last few days.
“We could make this place beautiful,” she insists.
She picks blue, says it reminds her of the ocean. That when all of this is over, she wants to go to the beach, dig her toes into the sand, feel the waves rushing over her feet. I am seized with the sudden impulse to take her there, to give her this dream too.
“We should go someday,” I suggest, the words tumbling out of my mouth before I can stop them.
She just looks at me, raising an eyebrow to convey her skepticism.
“I mean… we might still have some time, right?” I ask, cringing at how defensive, how stubbornly hopeful I sound.
“I might be married,” she replies, and even though I knew this was coming, it still leaves me feeling shaken.
“Can’t you do anything about it?”
I do not want to feel like we’re settling, only trying to live up to other people’s expectations. Giving in when we should have been fighting.
"They want me to marry a man."
She sounds resigned, tired of having this conversation repeatedly, of explaining why what I want is a pipe dream.
"Which I am not.” I state, strangely angry that I’ve had to say it out loud. Angry that it matters that much, that she doesn’t sound as enraged as she should.
“Can’t we just drop it? Things are bad enough.”
She picks up a brush, begins to cover the old paint with smooth strokes, almost as deftly as she’s moved away from the conversation.
“When have they not been,” I comment, not because I want an argument, just because I’m tired of only knowing love in difficult places. I do not want to be called brave for wanting the silver linings. For refusing to take my rose-coloured glasses off, refusing to turn bitter because it was expected of me, for being willing to push aside rubble if it means rescuing something from the wreckage. I do not feel brave, I am merely terrified of becoming complacent.
I pick up a brush and try to swallow my protests, shelve my grievances with the world. There is work to be done here. We paint in silence, barely stopping to take breaks as if we are both trying to prove something. Once we are done, we step back to inspect our work.
“Not bad,” she remarks, the expression on her face inscrutable.
“Not bad at all,” I concede, smiling despite my inhibitions.
She finally looks at me, holds my gaze and smiles. I know what she’s thinking now, and I want to let her know that I agree.
It truly isn’t all bad. I would like to think that when we look back on this, it won’t be. That when I am asked to speak of these memories, I will say there was something priceless here. Something delicate, something soft that we carried with us, in a place that wasn’t kind to softness. That it wasn’t that difficult, finding something lovely in the ruins.
Not at all.
Sahiti Gavarikar is a final semester student, pursuing her Master's in Counselling Psychology. She is a trainee counsellor, and a poet on the side. Her literary projects often cover areas important to her: such as mental health. She has previously worked at online magazines such as Winter Tangerine, Andromedae Review, and Monstering Mag.
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