The aroma of filter coffee wafts into the room as Venkat opens his eyes, drowsily. “Good morning!” A chirpy voice announces; Dhruvika walks in with a breakfast tray complete with dosas, kaapi ?and sambar vadai.?
Venkat sits up, his back against the headboard. “Hey!” he says, his sleepiness evident in his morning voice.
“You made breakfast in bed for me?” Venkat is finally awake enough to speak coherently. He’s wearing boxer shorts and a baggy T-shirt.
“It is? ? your first morning here and I wanted to make it special so…” she replies, trailing off as she realises how cheesy she sounds.
“It’s perfect, Dhruvi. Thank you, I love it! How did you know dosas are my favourite breakfast?” he asks, patting his face dry with a hand towel.
“I asked you on our first date, remember?” Dhruvika replies. Venkat thinks back to three weeks ago, and smiles as he remembers.
“So you’ve been thinking about this morning since date one?” he teases with a smirk, grabbing her by the waist and kissing her on the cheek.
“Don’t get all cocky now!” Dhruvika says, pushing Venkat onto the bed. “Shut up and drink your coffee.” She says, feigning annoyance, handing him the cup.
“I can’t believe last night actually happened. I have never? felt that way before I mean- I know it’s great with Madhav but it’s different with him, you know?” Dhruvika says to Venkat.
The two are sitting hand in hand, drinking their coffees in bed and reminiscing about the night before. Venkat raises an eyebrow and smiles, reacting to his lover’s words. Dhruvika talks speedily, the butterflies in her tummy fluttering all the way up to her throat.
“With you, I felt seen and valued in ways I never have before and wow?, that was a turn on. I mean if I had known sex with women would be this great, maybe I would-” Dhruvika stops sharply mid sentence, realising what she’s just said.
“Wait, what?” Venkat says, reflexively tugging his hand out of Dhruvika’s, the sudden jerk causing his coffee cup to tumble over, staining the bed.
“No, Venkat, I didn’t mean-” Dhruvika says, fumbling for the right words.
“No, Dhruvi. I understand you’re a cis-het woman who has only been with cis men. I understand that your other boyfriend is cis. I get that. But I never-” Venkat pauses, choking up. He finds himself trying to clean out the spilt coffee with his shirt, suddenly unable to form another sentence. He never expected to be thrown into a wave of dysphoria so suddenly in the morning.
“Dhruvi, I just-” Venkat pauses, exasperated. “It takes a lot out of me to do things like what we did last night.” He says, shaking his head.
“Every time something remotely sexual happens with someone, no matter how safe I feel with them, I know that the second they see what’s in my pants, somehow this notion that I?? am a woman? gets planted in their heads.”
Dhruvika listens to his words carefully. She knows she’s hurt him.
“And when that happens? It just makes me feel like everything I had with the person, all the intimacy and closeness…was never real. That in your mind, you were with a woman last night. Dhruvika, I am not? ? a woman!” Venkat finishes his sentence, his tone assertive and his voice quivering.
Dhruvika, unable to deny that she did indeed associate Venkat with femininity last night, doesn’t say much. When Venkat asks for space, she nods understandingly and reassures him that she will do better by him.
“Will you still be swinging by the party tomorrow night?” Dhruvika asks, as she walks him to the door.
“Of course. Have fun with Madhav tonight, okay?” Venkat says.
He knows deep down Dhruvika never meant to hurt him, and that she understands that Venkat needs some space to remind himself that no matter what other people think or say, his identity is valid.
Venkat hops on his bike and Dhruvika waves at him from her front porch, smiling apprehensively.
“Can I get a whiskey neat?” Venkat asks the bartender as he absentmindedly seats himself on a barstool.
Hours have passed since the tense morning with Dhruvika, and Venkat’s decided to treat himself to a night out. Spending time by himself and practicing self love are ways for him to cope with the situations that he has seen day after day – for years since he came out as a transgender man.
“Sure, ma’am,” the bartender replies.
Venkat stifles an audible groan as a familiar pang of pain pierces him.
He fakes a smile and acknowledges the bartender’s words. Every single interaction is a battle for Venkat, and he is getting tired of fighting.
Venkat runs his fingers through his buzzed hair – his fade fresh from the previous week. He taps his fingers rhythmically on his glass, in tune with the live music coming from the other end of the bar. If he squints through his glasses, he can see the lively trio that’s playing. He is about halfway through his drink when he sees, from the corner of his eye, someone sit a stool away from him.
“Whiskey on the rocks, please.” He hears their voice, and looks in their direction. The stranger catches his eye, and smiles. Venkat looks back down at his drink almost immediately. He can’t help but notice their drinks are the same and that they’re both here alone.
“That is a sweet collection of pride flags.”
Venkat, puzzled by this comment, turns sharply to look at the person speaking. They glance at Venkat’s bag, sensing his confusion, and take a sip of their drink. It takes Venkat a second to remember that he’s got Pansexual, Transgender and Polyamory Pride flag pins on his bag.
“Yeah,” Venkat chuckles. “What can I say, I’m a badges and pins kind of gay.” He takes one last sip of his drink before gesturing to the bartender for a second round.
“Me too!” the mystery person says, pointing at the tiny Bisexual pride flag pin on their jacket pocket.
“I’m Roman,” they say, before Venkat can ask.
“Venkat. So nice to meet you!” He says, smiling awkwardly and holding his hand out for a handshake.
“May I ask what your pronouns are?” Roman asks Venkat, shaking his hand strongly.
Venkat freezes up for a second. He can’t think of the last time someone asked him this question without blatantly assuming he was a girl because of his voice or his body.
“Uh, He, him, thank you so much for asking-” Venkat pauses.
“Hey, me too! He, him, his. Please don’t thank me for this, it’s about damn time people normalised asking, right?” Roman says, smiling gently.
Minutes turned to hours; Venkat and Roman talked the evening away over many drinks. Venkat is not sure whether it’s the light buzz in his head or how safe he feels, that causes him to lean in to kiss Roman.
“Are you comfortable with this?” Roman asks Venkat as he kneels down to unzip his jeans. Venkat nods, smiling, his hands in Roman’s hair. Venkat and Roman had sobered up and made their way to Roman’s hotel room.
Roman pauses and looks up at Venkat. “You are so handsome,” he says, smiling. “Would it be okay if we took our shirts off?“ Roman asks, his tone serious for just a moment, his hands still firm on Venkat’s waist.
“Yes, please.” Venkat says, urging to move faster.
Roman grins and stands up to kiss Venkat, his hands slipping under his shirt.
Venkat bites Roman’s lip and pulls away to undo Roman’s belt buckle.
Roman kisses Venkat’s neck, his hand making their way down into his pants. Roman whispers something in Venkat’s ear, and two make their way to the bedroom, barely keeping their hands off of each other.
He has never felt this respected by a partner before. He can tell that Roman wants to ensure Venkat feels euphoric every step of the way, especially when it comes to touching Venkat in places that may trigger dysphoria.
The memorable night passes, and the two men wake up in bed together.
“Hi.” Venkat says, a sheepish grin on his face.
“Hey.” Roman says, reaching out to touch Venkat’s cheek, his eyes scanning Venkat’s face.
Venkat furrows his eyebrows quizzically and Roman chuckles in response.
“Just realised I’ve never seen you in the daylight before.”
“Well, we met last night…” Venkat says, smiling. “If you had? ? seen me in the daylight before, that would be quite concerning,” Venkat laughs, and Roman nudges him playfully in the shoulder before kissing him.
“I want to see you again,” Venkat says to Roman. The two of them are standing at the hotel lobby as Venkat’s cab pulls up.
Roman grins and dials his number onto Venkat’s phone keypad. “Can’t wait, Venky.” He says, closing the car door behind him.
Dhruvika opens the front door as she’s adjusting her earrings. To her pleasant surprise, she sees Venkat all dressed up, ready to pick her up and head to the hotel. “I wasn’t sure you were still picking me up tonight,” Dhruvika says, grabbing her purse from the counter and closing the door behind her.
“Of course I’d pick you up,” Venkat says, smiling, as he opens the car door.
“Hey, my friend Sriranjani wanted to know if she could bring a plus one tonight? I invited her last week and she wasn’t sure if she could bring someone.” Venkat asks Dhruvika as he puts his seatbelt on and starts the engine.
“Of course she can! I’m excited to meet everyone. I hope she makes friends with the others coming tonight. It would be nice for her to meet more people in the city!” Dhruvika says, rambling as she and Venkat continue to avoid the elephant in the room.
“So…how was your date with Madhav last night?” Venkat asks Dhruvi as their car stalls in traffic.
“Great! He’s settling in at the new job and everything,” Dhruvika says, relaxing a little.
“I’m seeing someone too, actually.”
Dhruvika’s eyes widen in surprise; they are not a monogamous couple, but Venkat has been seeing only her for weeks.
“Thank you for telling me! I’m really excited for you, V! Who are they?” Dhruvika asks, feeling relieved that Venkat is sharing things with her like he did before their fight.
Venkat pulls over in the hotel parking lot. “It’s almost 7:30,” he says, looking at his watch. “Do you think everyone has reached already?”.
“I think so! Kia said she won’t be able to make it and Kush is probably going to be late as always. The rest should be there,” Dhruvika replies, wondering why Venkat is avoiding her question.
“Have Sriranjani and her plus one reached?” she asks, noticing him glance at his phone. “The plus one is her boyfriend apparently!” Venkat notes, smiling. “They’re on their way.” He says, pressing the elevator button.
The ride up to the restaurant floor is quiet and a bit awkward. Dhruvika has so many questions to ask Venkat and he definitely wants to address their fight from the previous day.
“Can we talk?” Venkat asks solemnly as the elevator doors open. Dhruvika breaks into a smile and takes Venkat’s hands in hers. “I’d like nothing more.”
The two scan the room before they manage to spot their friends; a group of 5 people getting to know each other, sitting on a table for 10 at the far end of the dimly lit restaurant.
The pair join their friends and mingle, pausing only to hit the buffet and order cocktails. Sriranjani and her boyfriend arrive and everyone takes turns to talk about their lives – their work, home, current events- everything.
Dhruvika pulls Venkat aside, unable to postpone their much needed tête-à-tête any further. She listens to him as he talks about meeting Roman and all the epiphanies he had the previous day. She holds his hand and nods when Venkat tells her that he has finally understood what makes him feel respected and seen in a relationship; navigating relationships comes with a lot of new challenges, and he’s still in the process of understanding and explaining his needs.
“Thank you for telling me all of this. For all of the labour, and for prioritising your needs. I want nothing more than for you to feel safe and loved in this relationship,” Dhruvika says, locking Venkat’s arm in hers. Venkat smiles, happy that Dhruvika is willing to hear him out.
“I know what happened last morning triggered this bout of dysphoria and so I had to take some space for a bit, but I know now that we need to be a lot more communicative. And if you’re still open to it, I would love nothing more than that,” Venkat says, earnestly.
“V, I really like you. I know I have a lot of learning to do, but I know we can make this work.”
“Of course, Dhruvi,” Venkat says, chuckling. “Maybe let’s drink coffee at the table? ? tomorrow morning and not spill on your bed again?” He laughs and shakes his head, pulling Dhruvika in for a hug.
“Yes, sir!” She says jovially, wrapping her arms around him.
The pair return to the party and spend the rest of their night surrounded by their friends – collecting stories and making new memories.