A pair of piercing eyes looked back at her, the eyeliner painted on around them just a tad bit asymmetrical. Sriranjini could identify herself and could almost admit the reflection – NOT her own face – was pretty. She wasn’t beautiful, not traditionally at least, and being made up always felt alien to her – as did feeling pretty. She felt a little silly for having put in so much effort; she doubted he’d have done the same, not that he didn’t dress well at all. He was always careful with his presentation, something she couldn’t help but notice. She’d remembered thinking wistfully that someone like him – with all his style, intense meticulousness, neat visage and spotless glasses – would never go out with her socially. Standing in front of her grubby mirror with her lopsided eyeliner and hair all askew and a lip colour so bold she’d only used before in private, she was suddenly exhausted. Before she could scrub off the red from her lips, her phone rang, Kartik had arrived.
Kartik was waiting for her in a casual button-down shirt looking so gorgeous it hurt her to look at him. She would’ve stopped and stared if he wasn’t looking right at her with a boyish grin that made her feel warm from the inside out. She couldn’t remember the last time she felt looked at with so much interest by a man, and she wondered if he looked at all his friends like… that. She reminded herself he was with her out of pure chance. There would be no excuse for them to hang out anymore after today, for better or worse.
They’d met at a trivia event at a popular city brewery where she had shown up in a last ditch effort to make friends in this alien city. Her past in trivia had been less than ideal, the entrenched sexism had ruined the hobby for her in her final year of college. She arrived at the trivia night late, having lost her way a couple of times in the seasonal downpour, and walked in half drenched and feeling quite mean. The pub was like any other on a Friday night, apart from a huddle of seasoned quizzers. She’d been the last to arrive and Kartik had been participating solo (a last minute partner ditching situation) and asked her to join him. She was surprised; men from her own quizzing society had been less welcoming to her. He was also.. pleasant to look at, she observed to herself, as her mood brightened up from just ten minutes prior.
They’d absolutely blown that quiz, getting steadily drunk and also steadily figuring out their rapport. Quizzing well required them to get into each other’s heads so they ended up dropping out early and talking about her (a data researcher in her first job, new to this intimidating big city) and him (a former lawyer, reconciling with the sheer amount of time on his hands when he didn’t have to live through 70+ hour workweeks). They exchanged numbers and decided they’d meet up again for the next quiz, a fortnight from then. The fortnight went by too slowly and too fast at the same time, and they were in full form and got invited to a serious tournament by some veterans. They’d spent all of last week talking (fangirling, more like) about the tournament. They didn’t stand a chance, but it was fun to pretend like they had skin in the game. She felt more alive on these weekends than she did her entire 3 months in the city. She was suddenly taking more of an effort to meet people and be social after quizzes as well; Kartik was always in her vicinity and even if they didn’t always talk to the same people, they’d constantly be orbiting each other, making eye contact across the room and sharing smiles. It was safe.
Today’s quiz was high stakes, so Kartik carried a flask full of whiskey with him in case she needed to calm down. She was touched that he’d noticed, she was a sharper quizzer without her anxiety swooping in and outsmarting her gut. They worked well together and did surprisingly well, so much so that they were asked by Kartik’s friend on the inside to stay on for the result announcements, like they had a real shot at a prize. She’d drunk after each round and was feeling quite light headed. She would’ve liked to leave and find real food but she could see he wanted to wait; he was holding his breath and was very quiet. So she didn’t say anything, her blood sugar dropping with each passing minute. When the results were being announced, he reached out to give it a little squeeze and found it ice cold and clammy. She looked like she was going to faint and he rushed her out. That they’d come in third place in a national tournament and he had squeezed her hand for reassurance is all she could register before her head began spinning and she was offered a Frooti she was too tired to retrieve from her own handbag.
They walked into her apartment and she was too tired to stop leaning against him. His stolid shoulder made for a great resting place for her spinning head. She was too far gone to be mad at herself – she never lost control, she was always walking the line of tipsy and in control so she could tend to her health. She joked out loud (maybe too loud) that it took 5 people to keep her alive on a good day, and then some days it took 6. “You’re the 6th, fool,” she explained when her joke didn’t elicit a response from Kartik. He nodded, still silent and foreboding. She suddenly became acutely aware of how much she was imposing herself on him. She drew back sharply and hit her head on a shelf behind her. “Stupid, stupid shelf, stupid new flat,” she chided herself softly.
He looked concerned. “Are you okay? Do you need me to call someone?”
She shook her head. This wasn’t anything new – maybe it was a little uncharted territory vis-a- vis being unable to help herself out of a situation, but it would be okay once she sobered up.
“It’s all good, Kartik. I’m sorry you had to see that & come to my rescue. I didn’t mean to force you to drop your plans to bring me home. Can I at least offer you a coffee? I’m probably making one for myself anyway-”
“Sure, thanks,” he answered before she could finish. “And let me help you. Look, I’m so glad I could be of help but why didn’t you say anything sooner? I was right there!”
She was thinking the same thing. She knew she should have let him help. She didn’t know why but it pricked her endlessly if she allowed anyone she was interested in to help her, thinking about being vulnerable emotionally was scary enough without getting into this other stuff. Her ‘street cred’ hinged entirely on her being too proud to ask for help.
They sat too-close on her too-small couch with a tiny cushion as a buffer, aathu-fying their filter coffees with feigned concentration. She watched Kartik from the corner of her eye, his sleeves now rolled up to expose his forearms and his movements precise and intentional. It was truly magnetic. She would have gladly watched some more of the performance if he hadn’t decided to turn toward her (as much as the couch would allow anyway). “This coffee is really lovely, but could I bother you for a bit of, umm, sugar?” She winced. She really couldn’t do anything right today. She apologetically took the tumbler from his hands, a little brush of their fingers inevitable from only being able to hold the tumbler by the rim. She hoped he wouldn’t apologize for it. The only thing embarrassing about a purely innocent graze was someone going out of their way to tell you they found it abhorrent – the way multiple men had indicated to her before. He didn’t.
He wouldn’t stop looking at her with an air of deep concern. How could she convey to him it wasn’t that serious- or wasn’t shocking to her at the very least? She handed him his sweet coffee and sat back on the couch, stealing the barrier cushion and facing him. It was time to be vulnerable.
She talked and talked. About the past 10 years and dealing with her illnesses alone. He listened with interest and care and earnestly supplied her with non-judgemental questions. She talked about how it was a daily struggle and it wouldn’t accommodate too many other people. He frowned at her, clearly unconvinced. “Have you given too many others a chance before, Sri? People could surprise you.” She fidgeted nervously, knowing she’d been wary of people for so long she didn’t know to let them in. No wonder all her friends were people she’d known since preschool.
He wrested the cushion from her vice-like grip. “I felt sorry for it,” he offered as an explanation. She smiled weakly and offered up a “I’m tired, aren’t you?” Instead of asking the questions that bothered her- why was he being so nice to her, why didn’t he run after she had revealed the hellscape that was her broken body, why wasn’t he holding her like she was the cushion (all too tenderly but firmly all the same), would he stay over so he could talk and she could listen. He asked if she wanted him to talk now, with a wry smile almost as though on cue. She was glad she wasn’t getting any pity or, worse, advice or intensely personal questions.
“I’m the opposite of tired since today’s win gave me enough adrenaline for the rest of the week, conservatively. Can you believe it actually happened though? My juniors from college found out and actually want me to train them.”
She smiled broadly. The win seemed like ages ago and they’d never even had a chance to discuss it after. “You-we- did good today, Kartik,” and allowed him to launch into an animated blow by blow of that evening. She took back the cushion and folded herself up into the couch and listened, offering some nuance to his analysis. It was so endearing to watch him get so invested in their quiz.
At some point she must’ve fallen asleep because she woke up on the couch, under a blanket and it was daylight. Kartik.. she remembered with a start. She leaped out of the couch and checked room by room. He was sat on her bed wide awake, reading a very tender romance novel from her bookshelf. He hadn’t left. His brow furrowed when he was concentrating, making one long, fuzzy caterpillar of eyebrows. From the warmth and delight she felt in her chest at noticing this, she knew she was falling. Hard.
He looked up and asked if she would go out with him for breakfast and she was happy because he still wanted to spend time with her. Last night was enough time to get some space from the lingering intimacy of their drawn out talk.
They were driving to a little hole-in-the-wall Udupi restaurant Kartik promised she’d adore. How do you know, she challenged. I can’t, he returned, glancing over at her over the steering wheel. But I hope you will, it’s my favorite breakfast in the city. They walked for a bit in narrow lanes to the sounds of the city rustling up its newspapers, putting away its chai cups and considering taking a Sunday nap. Kartik turned into her personal tour guide and gave her the background to this neighborhood and the restaurant they were going to, and she teased him for being such a nerd. She was in awe of the way he told stories – connecting history and people and the way he looked at the world like a puzzle he wanted to spend time piecing together. She suddenly realized his enthusiasm was contagious and she was being enchanted by a city she’d detested. It was like she felt grounded here all of a sudden, like a little root had begun to shoot, and she could grow and flourish here. She told him and he beamed at her, squeezing her hand and not letting it fall until they entered the restaurant.
Kartik was not wrong, the food was fantastic. They spent an hour ordering practically the entire menu and cleansing their palates with filter coffee. She couldn’t remember being cured of a mild hangover in a better way. They left after a long chat with the owner who Kartik was friends with, and she was happy to have been introduced as his close friend. It started to rain as they were leaving and the tiny umbrella she pulled out didn’t do much. They huddled close and walked back too quietly to the car. The umbrella wasn’t of much use, they were both half drenched by the time Kartik opened the passenger side for her. Kartik buckled his seatbelt and unbuckled it again, impulsively.
“Sri, this – being with you – is driving me crazy, all I want to do right now is brush that wet hair off your forehead.”
“Well, why don’t you?”
Suddenly, they were kissing with a passion she couldn’t remember feeling ever before. She was suddenly so aware of her heart beating and her hands trembling and she pulled back. Pushed him away, actually. She was hyperventilating, but she saw Kartik look hurt and confused. She just.. couldn’t explain. She said a really quiet sorry and ran out of the car into the onslaught of rain.
She called her friend Venkat, her first (and only) real friend in the city, and talked to him until her panic attack subsided. She was so grateful for him, she wouldn’t have been able to ask for space like this with her old friends. She’d just wanted to text Kartik an apology but she didn’t know how to explain. She’d talked to him about her chronic condition, but it seemed like such a leap to talk about her struggles with mental health. Paavam, he already seems so worried about her. She felt like an actual villain for hurting him so much. Venkat warned her against feeling sorry for him; she didn’t owe him an explanation before she was ready. She knew he was right. She was tired and let her phone battery die out instead of calling him up to explain like she really, really wanted to.
She woke up at twilight to her doorbell ringing. It had the same reservedness she associated with Kartik. He had come to return her umbrella from that morning. He had changed since, and she hadn’t she realized with some shame, but he looked worried and gaunt, and had a shadow of a beard she had never seen before. It was incredibly attractive to her, but she was sure she’d think his toenails were cute at this point. She invited him in, hoping he’d be willing. “I tried calling and couldn’t get through, I was worried,” he offered as an explanation. She nodded, suddenly out of words and just hoping he didn’t mistake her silence for hostility. “I really don’t need you to reciprocate what I feel so strongly toward you, but I want to be here for you Sri, if even as a friend. Do you think you can work with that?”
It was so hard for her to receive consideration, let alone kindness from the world. Especially from those who mattered the most to her, and Kartik had become that for her. She led him back to the tiny couch and leaned against his strong shoulders and cried. She couldn’t help herself. He put an arm around her gingerly and offered up a starched handkerchief. She laughed, which millennial even carried one anymore. She faced him and asked him if he could be patient with her. That she really liked him back. That her reaction in the car today wasn’t about him at all. That she’d had several demons living rent free in her head already, and he’d have to share real estate with them. That she was really enjoying this proximity to him right then. She kissed his cheek with some force to try and prove her point, his stubble proving to have excellent friction like she’d imagined. He looked at her with what looked suspiciously like tears in his eyes.
Kartik sighed, like he’d been holding his breath this whole time, and finally spoke.
“Baby, please never feel like you have to apologize for any of this. I’m happy to figure it all out with you.” A frisson of warmth went down her spine when he called her ‘baby’. She was suddenly aware that even if she hadn’t asked explicitly, he’d have been respectful. She really didn’t give other people too much credit. She asked him if he’d like to.. hang until dinner. “I would love to stay as long as you’d like, as long as there’s more of the coffee from yesterday.” She makes a mental note to buy some sugar for her pantry. They settle into a comfortable silence and she shoots a couple of texts to Venkat if she can bring a plus one for his girlfriend’s dinner party later that month, a warm blush spreading over her face.