“I’d like to, if you’d like to?”
Tamanna quickly places her phone, glowing red-hot, against her chest. She wondered if everyone else in the car could hear her heart, beating the way it was. The sweat rings under her denim jacket grow an inch, making her even more grateful for deciding to wear it.
She couldn’t leave Saloni’s message unanswered; the tone for the rest of the year was at stake.
There wasn’t any point in texting Louise, her best friend, about what Saloni had said because Louise would do what she did best: goad Tamanna into doing things she knew she could, but didn’t have the courage to. She definitely couldn’t turn over to tell Ethan, her little brother, about it either, not with her parents in the front. This was something she’d have to power through herself, like the underdog teen towards the climactic end of a 2000s, American romcom.
“Or not, if you’re not comfortable or anything.”
A double text. It had been 7 minutes since Saloni’s initial message – which in ‘post sending risque message’ yearsis an eternity.
Shit, not the polite smile emoji. Reel it back, reel it back.
“Hey, so sorry! Mom was nagging and I couldn’t respond immediately.”
Tamanna’s message was “seen” immediately. She had to go in with the clincher.
“I’d like to. I’d really like to.”
Don’t leave my sincere blush emoji hanging, Saloni.
“It’s a plan. Can’t wait to see you!”
Heart emoji. We are back, baby!
* * *
“What’s the house number again?” Tamanna’s dad asks the car, for anyone with a clue to pitch in.
“564. Poppy Lane,” Ethan says, as if expecting a gold star.
Tamanna could sense the energy in the car shift as they rolled up to the house. The circulated air was tense with something nobody really wanted to touch. Except her mom; her mom was always lighter-fluid ready to set something off.
She makes eye contact with Tamanna in the rearview mirror and looks away quickly.
“Tam, no one at this party knows. About you. And I… and your father would appreciate it if you’d keep it that way, at least till we’re ready to be open about it.”
If Tamanna hadn’t already anticipated that her parents wouldn’t want their friends of 25 years to know that their older daughter just returned from America was gay, she probably would have had something to say. She would maybe even have offered an arrogant eye-roll or an indignant scowl. But she needed tonight to be perfect, for Saloni.
“No ruffled feathers, got it,” Tamanna says with the least amount of annoyance she could get away with.
“We love you.” Tamanna’s dad knew what she needed to hear, even though she was certain he secretly agreed with her mom. From the corner of her eye, she notices Ethan’s reassuring smile.
Tamanna twiddles the pride flag button on her jacket, and nods to no one in particular. They all get out of the car gingerly, NYE potluck contributions in tow.
“Let’s do this, queer,” Ethan teases, as he puts his arm around Tamanna’s shoulders. Always one for lightening moods, he had been ready with the hose-pipe.
“Shut up,” she laughs, walking past her parents to the door, arm-in-arm with her little brother.
* * *
Tamanna and Ethan were in Aryan’s bedroom, where all the seven or eight teens and adults under 25 had decided to congregate. They’d outgrown the game of yore, Hide ‘n’ Seek, a few years ago and had moved on to watching obscenely gory horror movies. The second Conjuring movie played on Aryan’s expensive 43-inch TV.
The door to the bedroom opens slowly, and a slender figure in a sequinned party dress, with long flowing hair, switches the lights on.
“Hi, guys! What did I miss?”
A loud “Salami, bro. Switch the lights off!” cuts above all the pleasantries Saloni receives as she makes her way through all the half-hugs and “How are you?”s. She had only wanted to know where Tamanna was sitting.
As the group settles back into their makeshift seats in the dark, Saloni sidles up to Tamanna on the bean bag.
“Okay if I sit here?” Saloni asks, knowing perfectly well it was more than okay to.
“Yeah, of course. What sort of question is that?” Tamanna gulps down more of her Diet Coke.
Saloni’s chuckle makes Tamanna sit up straighter.
“Did you get anything to eat? I mean, do you want me to get you anything or…”
Tamanna wasn’t really sure what to say to Saloni, now that she was actually sitting next to her. They’d been texting for weeks since they’d both gotten back from their respective colleges for winter break, and it had been only a few days since they’d both revealed that none of the texting had been purely innocent. They’d known each other since they were children. But, something about being away from what was familiar and known had changed what they thought they knew about themselves, and so about each other.
Suddenly, Tamanna wished she could just go back to sending Saloni cute memes with a lot of subtext and not have to deal with the entire zoo she managed to stir inside her.
“I’m fine, Tam. I just want to sit here,” her voice drops as she ends her sentence.
“Yeah, we can just sit. Sorry, I’m just-”
“I know. That’s okay. I am too,” Saloni interrupts kindly.
Tamanna readjusts her position so she can lean back into the bean bag, her shoulder over Saloni’s, in a way that looks natural. Saloni reaches for Tamanna’s little finger with her own, tucked away from seeing eyes. Tamanna’s left foot and Saloni’s right form a little triangle on the floor.
Saloni leans into Tamanna’s shoulder as Vera Farmiga foresees her on-screen husband’s death.
* * *
Saloni hands Tamanna a plate as they stand in line for their chance at the potluck’s offerings. Lasagna, boiled and buttered peas, butter chicken and naan, a Greek salad and a medley of other foods that had no business being eaten together crowd the table.
“Tammy, sweetu. How’s your first term at Carnegie Mellon treating you? Too much work, aa?” Aunty Venuka spoons a generous portion of salad onto her plate.
Tammy uses one of her vague, prepared responses about coding being fun as Saloni smiles teasingly infront of her.
“You’ve met any nice boys in your Engineering class? My friend Shraddha’s daughter met her fiance in college like that, you know,” Aunty Venuka asks, as she shoves spoonful after spoonful of cucumber and tomato in her mouth, awaiting a response.
Gossip, more like. Tamanna wasn’t sure if she actually wanted a confirmation or not – either way, Aunty Venu would probably judge. The hair on Saloni’s arm bristle as she watches Tamanna closely, pretending not to be waiting to hear what she says.
“Haha, no, Aunty. Not really interested in them. I’m just trying to focus on doing well in school and making friends right now. I’m too busy, really.” Tamanna hoped she managed to pass it off for the half-truth it was.
“Ah, very good, that’s the way it should be. Much time for this later, no, Saloni?”
Aunty Venuka abruptly turns her questioning onto Saloni, allowing Tamanna to slink away and find a spot of refuge in the corner of the garden for the two of them.
After withstanding five minutes of small talk, Saloni manages to excuse herself, only a little battered. She rolls her eyes in comic relief as she walks over to where Tamanna is sitting.
“You should have seen her face when I told her I’m studying Sociology, I think she actually threw up a little in her mouth, bro.” Tamanna cackles at Saloni’s dig at poor Aunty Venu, who often received more of it than warranted for her traditional worldviews.
“So, you’re “not really interested” in dating, huh? A heads up would have been nice,” Saloni nudges Tamanna playfully.
“I’m not interested in dating grimey boys in my Engineering class. I’m very interested in dating you.”
Tamanna’s heart stops with the look Saloni gives her. A foreign one she’s never seen on anyone else’s face before – a mixture of immense fondness and gratitude.
“Plus, they go days without showering. So gross.”
“Lucky for you, I shower at least twice a day,” Saloni says between laughs, Tamanna along with her.
* * *
“5 minutes to midnight, everybody!” Uncle Harold announces to the room at large, as he’s been doing every hour on the hour.
Amidst the scurrying to get a good viewing spot for the city’s annual NYE fireworks display, Saloni motions to Tamanna to follow her up the stairs quietly. As they get to the top, Saloni takes Tamanna’s hand and forces her to run to the master bedroom at the end of the landing.
“Come fast!” Saloni enters the room, Tamanna waddling behind her. She shuts the door quietly.
“Hi,” Tamanna squeaks as Saloni turns around. “We could be seen.”
“Or maybe we won’t,” Saloni says breathily. “That would kinda suck.”
“That would really suck,” Tamanna chuckles nervously.
Saloni strides across the room to the balcony overlooking the front garden, making sure to stick to the glass so as not to be seen, and beckons Tamanna to follow. Tamanna reaches out for Saloni’s hand once she’s by her side, trying to prove she too was capable of making first moves. Saloni was all too happy to take it.
“Have you ever… kissed a girl before?” Saloni asks. The question comes out as if rehearsed.
“No. Have you?”
They both look ahead, not willing to make eye contact out of a naive embarrassment, each having imagined the other more experienced. Two minutes to a moment, a new year, where everything could be different.
“I actually haven’t kissed anyone,” Tamanna says, swallowing hard.
“Oh. That’s okay. I mean, if you were saying that because you think I’d care, I-”
“I know you don’t. I guess I just want you to know that this is a really big deal for me.”
“No pressure, huh?”
“Haha, none at all. Unless that’s when you perform best,” Tamanna manages to fake a confidence she doesn’t feel.
A minute to fireworks.
Saloni tugs at Tamanna’s jacket and brings her face to face. Tamanna’s breathing gets harder and shallower.
“I hope you like the smell of butter chicken,” she blurts.
Saloni throws her head back, taking one too many steps closer to the railing, and laughs out loud. Too loud, forcing Tamanna to pull her in by the waist and place her hand over Saloni’s mouth in mock horror.
“Saloni! We could be seen!” Tamanna exclaims quietly, unable to help smiling at the girl in front of her, who made her feel things only the poets were scientifically right about.
“Or maybe we won’t!” Saloni responds, biting her lip nervously, an inviting smile playing at the corners. One that implied the only way to shut her up was to kiss her.
“Happy new year, Saloni,” Tamanna whispers, as she leans in.
Saloni and Tamanna could barely hear the fireworks, and the overzealous oohs and aahs that followed, over the sounds of their own hearts beating; their mouths and hands moving the way they’d seen on TV, experiencing feelings even the most prolific poets couldn’t have managed into words. They both knew – felt together in that moment – that they were absolutely changed. And it didn’t matter who saw them now.