Graham was the first one to call, of course. She had barely slept, and his cheery voice grated into her ears. ‘Merry Christmas!’, he brayed over and over, sounding incredibly rested, somehow. She wished she could have attended Midnight Mass, like Graham and all the other Christians, and this made her extra brusque with him. She rolled her eyes as he fake-told-her-off for not remembering to call him all night (why did he always have to be the first one to wish her for any occasion, and other tedious boyfriend-talk), and went straight to the kitchen to start on the banana caramel.
Merry Christmases were passed around and her parents hectically took calls in between rebuking her for not brushing and eating first thing in the morning. Sol, however, was not going to take the risk of putting off making her star dessert any longer. That she had procrastinated all this while filled her with irritation at her own procrastinating self and egged her on in vengeful abandon. That, plus the prospect of slipping out to her boyfriend’s home later in the evening right under her parent’s nose made her very restless. Boyfriend. The word sounded weird even in her head, and she just put it down to being new to dating. She wandered into different rooms and forgot why she was there, she mixed up the order of the ingredients, and almost forgot the gelatin before the pudding was safely in the fridge. Completely winded by now, she had to force herself onto her knees for ten minutes of quiet, introspective prayer to collect herself. She thanked Jesus for that Christmas morning, her fifteenth Christmas. Did Christmas mean anything at all to Jesus? She briefly reflected on the year that was almost over. She offered a teensy prayer for her many cakes, tarts, and puddings. She almost offered a thought to Graham before deciding that having a boyfriend was probably sinful in God’s eyes anyway and skipped mentioning him.
And finally, the call she had really been waiting for, if she was being honest with herself, “Doooood merry christmassss!” Afroze cooed. A smile broke out on Sol’s face as Afroze’s high-pitched excitement shot right through the phone lines into her. Cute, how excited her best friend was for her. She hoped, again, that the girl would somehow drop by at some point, despite her stupid curfews. It was Christmas, wasn’t it? Anything could happen. By the time their 30 minute conversation covering all the intricate details of everything Sol was cooking for the day was over, Sol was feeling Christmassy.
Every year, she needed a nudge into Christmas. Although the parents simply adored their only child’s youthful, resolute enthusiasm for Christmas festivities, and went along with her every step of the way on all the ridiculously elaborate menus she planned (and more), they did it more for her, she knew. The Pentecostals weren’t cool enough to celebrate Christmas. Only three days ago, on Sunday, she had almost rolled her eyes at the Pastor who declared that “Christ is born in our hearts everyday”. Sure that was cool, but she didn’t see why it meant one is forbidden to celebrate Christmas like the other Christians. “If you have to celebrate at all”, Pastor Shyam had continued with a wink, “abstain from sin and excess.” You’d think Pastor Shyam would have had something a bit more original to say, at least, she used to think he was cool!
She sighed as thought of that Christmas ball that Graham had asked her to. It had all sounded so exotic to her that she would have gone, if there was even the slightest hope of getting her parent’s permission (it was a late night ball!), even if it meant going with Graham. Yeah, it wouldn’t have been worth it anyway, she told herself. She’d rather have gone with her best friend, obviously, than endure hours of Graham trying to be the cool, popular guy.
Her mind wandered freely, as her hands worked the batter for a devilishly smooth apple walnut cake. She glanced into the mixing bowl now and then, at the pale yellow nut-encrusted fuzz whose aroma penetrated her thoughts, making her feel like everything she was thinking about now would always be associated with the smell of apple cake batter.
The sound of the clanging doorbell followed by Sharon’s voice wrenched her out of her reverie. She hadn’t even brushed or bathed yet! She shyly wished her impeccably-dressed friend a merry Christmas, and consciously avoided her hugs, lest Sharon noticed how filthy she smelled. She hadn’t bathed once in the last three days, since the spirit of Christmas had descended upon her, about an hour after school let out for the winter holidays. She had surrendered completely to the frenzy of cooking and baking that possessed her every year. Sharon was groomed and gorgeous in the sweater-dress that she had bought her less than a week ago. She felt a tiny, irrational pang of longing for Afroze, who made everything fun, even looking and smelling like a hobo while you received Christmas guests.
An hour later, Sol was welcoming the usual trickle of family friends who came for Christmas lunch every year without fail. She was wearing something Sharon had bought her a while ago, and was smelling almost as good as Sharon. Her happy Christmas-face made up for her hastily put together appearance. Actually, it was nice to have Sharon around, she was the kind of girl that adults easily warmed up to. She smoothly bridged the generation gap with perfectly appropriate jokes and the right kind of compliments, and by lunch time (late, at 4 pm) Sol felt a wave of affection for Sharon wash over her. She was almost family. She was spending the Christmas with Sol’s family instead of hers. Her family, too, went to some strange, highly exclusive church that did not make much of Christmas, so Sharon’s enthusiasm was perfectly matched with Sol’s, she was on the same level as her.
The malayalee aunty from the Christian family on the 4th floor sent her usual Christmas gifts of laddus (sticky, too sweet and sickly), murukus (done in 3 different shapes), cake (dry, store-bought, and embedded with stone-like raisins that rudely stuck in your teeth), and mutton biryani (absolutely delicious). Mum had made duck for lunch, curried in a peppery gravy and adorned with a flourish of nuts and herbs on the top. Sol happily watched everyone eat themselves stupid, flushing and beaming as every single guest complemented her baking repeatedly. The day seemed to blur by. Before she knew it, it was early evening, and time to slip away to Graham’s.
She had enlisted Sharon as her alibi, if her parents asked where she was going. Graham seemed a bit disappointed as she turned up with Sharon, and not alone, as he had clearly hoped. Sol’s heart did a nervous cartwheel when she wondered what he had wanted to meet her alone for. He did, even then, slip in a peck, on her lips, while Sharon’s slightly puritanical mind was distracted and her face turned away. When she mentioned this to Sharon later (she couldn’t help herself, really), her sweet, Christian friend was sufficiently scandalized.
However, she never did tell her the actually scandalous bit. That Graham had tailed her back home and had threatened to burst into her parent’s house if she did not meet him downstairs. “Where is my Christmas kiss?” he had asked as soon as she walked into the street where he stood waiting in the shadows. They had gone for a 20 minute walk around the neighbourhood, Sol almost bolting in fear every time she thought she spotted a neighbour. She had been secretly thrilled to be out alone at 11 pm, though. She did not tell Sharon how, when Sol turned to come back home, Graham had held her tight and whispered to her that he was going to kiss her. Actually, she hadn’t even taken him seriously. This was her first boyfriend, and she had no idea how these things went. Even in the middle of the kiss, she did not realize that she was actually being kissed on the mouth, tongue and all. Graham had taken her flushed, shocked expression for ecstasy, and had skipped away delighting in the knowledge that he was the first boy to have ever kissed her. (What was it with boys and virgins anyway?) Pastor Shyam’s voice cautioning the church about sinning echoed once at the back of her mind sometime in the 5 seconds it had lasted, as her body bent leant onto the cold surface of someone’s Wagon-R parked in the street.
No, this, her first kiss, was an event so tumultuous that it was Afroze who heard of it first, barely ten minutes after it had occurred.
Sol had kept her voice level and casual, but the expression of shock and something else she couldn’t quite gauge in her best friend’s voice completely melted through her forced nonchalance.
Sol broke down into giggles started talking really fast, getting almost incoherent.
“Dude, I know right. He just came to my house and demanded to see me and then we went for a walk and then he just…kissed me.”
“Wait wait, what I don’t understand anything. Tell me again. He came to your HOUSE!? What!?”. She related the events in chronological order. Her friend was stupefied by the strange turn of events, but this was a completely appropriate reaction, and every bit as extra as Sol had expected. She recounted the whole thing again, not leaving out any details this time.
What she had not quite expected was how quickly Afroze’s responses went from incredulous to icy. She could sense it more clearly now, something in Afroze’s voice. She could hardly fathom why Afroze sounded so hurt. Her heart was beating so hard that she almost dismissed the one reason her brain offered her, but then again, she could never be sure that she wasn’t imagining it.
Suddenly, she wished she were telling it to her face to face, and not over the phone. “Dude, are you sure you can’t come over, it’s Christmas!’, she said, half in the hope of breaking through her friend’s sudden coldness, and half out of a sincere impulse to see her on her eventful day.
Afroze’s ‘bye’ had been so brusque that Sol had felt the sharp sting of tears in her eyes after the phone call. She was sure, for some reason, that Afroze was going to give her the silent treatment for the rest of the holidays.
About 30 minutes later, almost at midnight, the doorbell rang, sending the household into alarm. Who could it be, this late? Obviously Sol thought she was imagining things when she heard Afroze’s voice in the drawing room. She closed her eyes to still her wild imagination. When she opened them, Afroze was standing next to her bed.
Sol’s mouth dropped open in shock for a split second before she enfolded her best friend into the tightest, warmest, most heartfelt embrace she had ever given anyone.
‘How?’ was the only word she managed in response to Afroze’s Christmas greetings.
“Don’t even ask. Sorry about being weird on the phone. I don’t have anywhere to go if you don’t take me in. But I wanted to spend Christmas with you!” Sol still had her in the hug, she could barely talk. She could not even begin to think about the drama Afroze must have pulled to defy her conservative joint family full of overprotective elders. Afroze only ever got to leave home to go to school.
She would not let her friend go for a long, long time, it was so dreamy and unbelievable.
She knew she was being a little dramatic, but she was so overwhelmed that she barely even noticed how Afroze seemed more than content to be squeezed breathless for 20 minutes.
Later, cosily curled up on Sol’s bed with with tumblers of hot chocolate and a platter of leftovers between them, Afroze asked her to recount the whole thing, for like, the 5th time.
“It was like tonguey and he smelled like mutton pies and mint.”
“And, like, I was so startled, I forgot to open my mouth. He kind of forced it open with his tongue.”
Afroze giggled. ‘How does one do that? I’ve never thought about it before but kissing must be so messy in real life!’
The room was quiet, and Afroze seemed suddenly shy. She had been avoiding Sol’s eyes for a while now.
Lulled by the chocolate, Sol suddenly sat up and kissed Afroze, right on the mouth.