“You don’t bite your nails.”
Mina and Sendhil lay together in her tiny dorm room, legs intertwined on Mina’s university-issue twin bed. The early morning sun warmed the air around them, coming in through the window blinds in thick rows of light that cast a pattern across the bedsheets.
“No. That’s disgusting.” Sendhil’s forehead creased, then smoothed back out.
“I thought all boys bit their nails.” She held his hand in both of hers, studying his fingers. His nails were immaculate, perfectly trimmed, not even a white cloudlike mark marring their surface.
“Who told you that?”
Who had told her that? Her brother bit his nails, as did all of her male high school friends, and her boy cousins, both younger and older. Her father did, too. He stopped only when he started working in a machine shop after arriving in Canada, when his nails became permanently grey at the tips, no matter how much he cleaned them.
“Well, we don’t. At least I don’t.” Sendhil released his hand from hers and slid it up the back of her shirt, bringing her closer to him and burying his face in her neck. Her collarbone warmed beneath his exhales.
“I always said that if I ever met a guy who didn’t bite his nails, I’d marry him.”
A chuckle into her neck, then a kiss, followed by another. And another.
“…And we’ll need at least a few days to shop.”
Mina snaps back to the present.
“No, we won’t,” says Mina’s father, irritation rising in his voice. “It’s India, remember? Everything will be done for us! You can get the outfits and whatnot in a few hours, once the engagement is fixed. You won’t be worrying about everything the way you would if the wedding were in Canada.”
“But, the sari blouses will need to be stitched…” Mina’s mother says, her voice trailing off into the quiet airport lounge full of rumpled passengers like themselves. They are two hours into their four-hour layover in London. The flight from Toronto had been long and cramped, and another nine hours of flying lie ahead before they arrive in Mumbai.
Mina’s mother turns to her and looks her up and down, exhaling sharply with a closed mouth. “The tailors are going to say we’ve been dining very well once they get a look at you.”
Mina shifts in her seat, simultaneously attempting to suck in her stomach and hunch her shoulders down. She blinks away shame stinging the corners of her eyes, suddenly very aware of her full breasts and doughy midsection, both more prominent since she went on the pill a few years back (unbeknownst to her parents).
“I hope we can find some colours that will look good on you,” her mother continues, before turning away from Mina and back to her father. “Even if we don’t have to worry about everything else, I will need time to shop as soon as the engagement is fixed. So, don’t rush me like you always do!”
“When do I rush you? You’re the one who -”, and they’re at it again. The rapid, quiet clip of their Gujarati melds together with the low conversations of others in the lounge, until Mina hears no discernible words, just a dull murmur.
Mina thinks about this “quick shopping” to be done once they have arrived in India and decided on whom she is to marry. She doesn’t understand the details of how this is going to happen, though she gleaned some details from an older cousin who’d made a similar trip two years earlier. The phrase “least objectionable option” had come to Mina’s mind when this cousin had described meeting several strangers before choosing one, and the man she ended up marrying was kind, with watery brown eyes and a gentle way of speaking. Mina knows there will likely be only a few days in between meeting this person and marrying them, with a whirlwind of wedding shopping in between (it being bad luck to buy any of it too far in advance, especially the wedding sari).
Mina remembers the photos and videos from all of her cousin’s weddings, the brides in stiff red silk saris, mehndi snaking up their arms in intricate maroon designs. They were all wide eyes and open, unsmiling mouths. The posed photos with family members were taken at the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom each sporting the dark red accumulation of all the guest’s kumkum chandlos on their foreheads like gaping, congealed gunshot wounds.
Mina lets out her breath and inhales what feels like jelly. It slithers, unending, into her lungs, before filling her mouth and nasal cavity all the way into her ears, until she hears nothing and is certain she is no longer breathing at all.
She needs to move forward.
For the entire two years she and Sendhil were dating, she prepared for the day that was now here. During her monthly visits back to Toronto while she was away at university in Kingston, she would pretend that this was her life - that he didn’t exist, and that her dorm room with the twin bed wasn’t real. There was only her and her parents, and her extended family. Once a month, she would lock her dorm room door on a Friday before noon, shoulder a bag heavy with laundry, and take the bus to the Via train station. Standing at the platform in a thin haze of exhaust, she would shake off the vestments of her life in Kingston and climb the steps onto the train. She would often fall asleep immediately to the soft sway of the train car, invisible metal bars emerging around her like tulips in the spring, surrounding her completely, snapping together in a criss-cross and welding solid.
By the time she arrived in Toronto, she was back as she was when she was at home. She called no-one, told no friends she was home, and made no plans other than to be with her family. That first night, her family usually celebrated her homecoming with takeout butter chicken and palak paneer, or sometimes Taco Bell. Mina always rose early on Saturday, vacuumed the house, and luxuriated in a long shower with enviable water pressure compared to that in her dorm. She got her eyebrows threaded (if her mother wasn’t with her, she also got her bikini line waxed). She took her mother grocery shopping or else to the mall, dropping her off at the front entrances while she looked for a parking spot.
In the afternoon, Mina would roll out a pile of fresh rotli for dinner. According to her mother, they were all either too thick or too thin, made too slowly, and none the perfect circles that should be coming naturally to her by now. Mina would laugh the first time her mother told her she was too fat, and sometimes the second time, too. She would soften her voice whenever her father told her she was too loud. She was annoyed when her father would ignore her when she spoke of the term paper she did well on, or the upcoming group assignments she was excited about. When her mother told her she shouldn’t have such strong opinions, shouting sometimes ensued, or tears.
By Saturday evening, she was usually mad at one or both of her parents. She would start packing her bags that night, telling her parents she had too much homework to do, or some important group meeting to attend the next day that she’d forgotten about. She would rise early the next day, checking the train schedule for the earliest possible departure before sending an email to Sendhil letting him know that she would be back soon. By the time she boarded her train back to Kingston, the invisible cage she’d put on herself felt like the orange mesh bags that onions came in, the ones you could pull apart with your fingers if you tugged at the right spot.
And so, Mina would leave her parents’ home with a bag full of clean laundry, tupperwares of tandoori chicken and curried okra, and ziplocks of fresh naan and rotlis, the corners of the bags fogged with condensation. On the train, she did her course readings, highlighting key terms in her textbooks and taking notes. Arriving, finally, to her dorm room, she savoured the first inhale of the air, which always smelt of pencil shavings. In the evening, Sendhil would come for the night, and together they would watch The Simpsons and eat the tandoori chicken Mina’s mother had made the night before, wrapped up in the naans, dressed with cucumber and yoghurt and powdered cumin.
In the airport lounge, Mina shakes her head, willing the memories to dissipate.
Still, the thoughts of Sendhil come: his lips, full and soft, his broad shoulders and the warmth of his body, pressed up against her, inside of her, his breath on her neck. Pooling their pocket change to buy a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and eating it while watching Saturday Night Live under a blanket on the couch. Proof-reading his essays and correcting the grammar with a coloured pen. The downy fuzz on his ears, backlit by the bright of the morning sun.
She reminds herself that revisiting these memories doesn’t do her any good. She has to be fair now, to herself. And to the man she is going to marry. Mina doesn’t fear this man; she kind of feels sorry for him, as she does all the potential suitors that her parents keep telling her are already waiting for her, eager to start a life in Canada - in spite of her body shape and dark skin, her parents assure her. The corners of her mouth turn down. She thinks of the work her parents have done to build their lives in Canada, hardships these suitors know nothing of as they line up for tickets for the foreign bride lottery.
What was it Sendhil had said to her, that time he spat words over his shoulder as he stalked out of her room? “You and your damned empathy. You’re in everyone’s head but your own.”
Mina smiles at this memory.
Another memory comes to her, causing her smile to recede.
“You lack it completely. You know that, right?” It was Andrew who said this, just a few months prior to Mina leaving for this trip. He said it while rubbing his right eye. He was reclining, naked, on his bed, yawning as she rummaged under the bedsheets, searching for her underwear. “You think you’re doing this for everyone else, that you’re being self-less, but what you really are is selfish. The one you’re looking out for is you, and you alone. And,” here he grimaced, twisted his torso and fished her pink thong out from behind his shoulder. He sling-shotted it at her through his fingers, and continued, “you are not doing a very good job of it.”
The red digital clock under the British Airways sign reads 23:54. One hour until boarding. Mina wishes she had something to read, even though her mother detests the sight of her with her nose in a book. She admonishes herself for not thinking to allow herself this one thing, not squirreling away a single slim book deep in one of the suitcases, pushed against the red swastika painted on the bottom in blessing with kumkum, rice grains cracking against its cover.
Mina’s shifts in her seat, the belt of her trousers digging into her midsection. Her outfit, a pale green linen shirt and khaki pants, was chosen by her mother with an eye to making Mina look as fair-skinned as possible. In this matter, Mina had deferred to her, having been told by her parents and aunts, and other people’s parents and aunts, throughout her entire life, that every colour she wore, dark or light, bold or muted, made her look too dark-skinned. The thought of being in a whole country full of people for whom such things are tragedy makes Mina’s breath quicken.
She had protested, but ultimately sacrificed her comfort at her mother’s insistence that she dress this way on the long plane ride, wondering why she couldn’t just wear yoga pants instead.
“You never know,” her mother had said, teeth gritted, “who will be there when we arrive at the airport.”
And Mina wonders whose fault this is, this eagerness to see her and judge her before she's even stepped off the plane.
Mina was never certain Sendhil was right for her. During those long horrid summers when they would both return to their parents’ homes in Toronto, he would go to nightclubs with his friends, Sri Lankan guys like him that he’d attended high school with, most of whom Mina had never met. He always left for the evening well after Mina had changed into her pajamas and climbed into bed. He slept through her calls to him the next morning, too, waking to a handful of increasingly angry voicemails from her.
He told her she should join him next time.
“You know I can’t. Indian girls aren’t allowed out past ten!”
He said that couldn’t be true. He always saw Indian girls at the clubs.
Who are these girls catching his attention at the clubs? Why does he have to go out to clubs if he already has a girlfriend? What is he doing out so late anyway? Why doesn’t he answer my calls? Does he think I’m stupid?
Mina reminds herself of all of this as she sits in the airport lounge, of the many reasons why she ended her relationship with Sendhil more than two years prior. It succeeds in steadying her, like a bedtime story repeated to a child the same way each night.
Mina had known of Andrew since first year, though they’d never spoken directly to one another until her final year of university, the year before she was to go to India. They shared a few classes over the years, and she saw him often on their small campus: in the computer lab; in the line at Second Cup; walking to the athletic complex with a tennis racket leaning out of his knapsack. Andrew was hard to miss, at well over six feet tall with wide shoulders and a slim waist. He was one of only a handful of black people on campus - his eyes were a green-tinged brown, large and expressive beneath heavy brows, and his skin was the colour of Egyptian sand. He participated in class discussions as everyone else snoozed or fiddled on their phones. Sometimes, Mina went out of her way to counter the points he was making, even when she really agreed with him.
Right after Mina returned to campus in the fall of her final year away at university, she approached Andrew. They were both at an on-campus pub with their friends. Mina was acutely aware of his presence even though his table was behind on the other side of the pub, noticing that none of the girls in his group were leaning toward him, that his arm was not on the back of anyone’s chair. She waited until he left his group to go in the direction of the bathrooms and excused herself to follow, picking up another vodka-cranberry on the way. When she saw him exiting the bathrooms, she intercepted his path to his table, and bumped into his arm, her drink spilling onto the floor and on her shirt.
“Oh, goodness!” he said. “I’m sorry! Are you okay?” It was the first time she’d ever made eye contact with him for more than a few seconds. He was even better looking this close, and he smelled nice, too; clean, like a good soap.
She smiled at him, trying to make her dimples prominent. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
“Let me buy you another one.”
“No, that’s okay, you’re super sweet! Don’t worry.” She walked away, cheeks burning, towards the bathroom. Once inside, she released the breath she’d been holding, rinsed the corner of her shirt, wrung it out and flattened it against her. She stood up straight, appraised herself in the mirror, and exited, heading back to her table.
Andrew stood by the bar with a vodka-cranberry in his hand. “I took a guess.”
“Oh wow, thank you so much. You’re really cute.” The words tumbled out of her lips. Andrew coughed, his face breaking into a smile. They introduced themselves, and talked: yes, they were both in the same Constitutional Law class this semester; no, neither of them had had that Professor before; yes, it seemed like an interesting class. Mina touched his elbow whenever she spoke. Once she was sure that Andrew was returning all of her smiles, she leaned closer to him and raised her face to his ear.
“I have an idea. We should get out of here.”
He laughed. “Sure. Where to?”
His eyes widened. “For real?”
She nodded. “But you can’t tell anyone. Cool?”
“Uh…yeah. Cool. Wait, like, today?”
Mina went to Andrew’s apartment several times that first week, always preceded by a ping via Google hangouts: “What are you up to?” Andrew called her on this right away, teasing her that he was going to find out her cell number somehow or look her up and speak to her parents. She never responded when he said things like that.
Mina usually left shortly after their encounters, a few times agreeing to let him walk to the corner with her. Once, she let him call a cab after she refused his insistences that she just stay until the morning, given the late hour. “Yeah, I know we’re no-strings, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want you to be safe,” he said with a wink. “I need to make sure we can do this again, you know?”
Andrew was different. His body was new to Mina, a foreign taste and feel that made her return to him even after swearing to herself that she wouldn’t. She wanted to catalogue every sensation she experienced with him and elicited in him, to memorize the exact shapes of the muscles in his back, the pattern of hair on his chest, the angles of his scapula on his shoulders. She told herself she could contain it, would control it.
At school, for a time, they did not acknowledge one another, barely a head nod as they passed in the halls. At night in his room, he started to refer to himself as the side of fries, the 20-minute workout, and the midnight snack.
Once, he asked her if she was married. So many silly questions, she whispered in his ear, running the tips of her fingers through his tightly coiled black hair.
It wasn’t long before Andrew stopped finding Mina’s behaviour cute. They had just written the midterm exam in the class they shared, and the entire class emptied slowly into the atrium outside of the classroom, discussing the test and making plans for drinks that weekend. Mina saw Andrew, but walked past him to join some others she knew. She tilted her head back and laughed after one classmate, Joel, quipped about the intricacies of international law. From the corner of her eye she saw Andrew glare at her, shake his head and walk away. Mina hesitated, then went after him, breaking into a jog to catch up.
“Hey, hey, hey…buddy!” He slowed his pace, but didn’t stop. “How’d you do on the exam?”
“Are you embarrassed of me?”
“What? I -”
“Is Joel your other side piece?”
Mina laughed, but stopped when Andrew started walking faster. “Andrew, wait!”
He stopped, then turned to face her. “What?”
“What is your problem? We agreed to this!”
“Yeah, well, this was fun and all, but I don’t want to do this anymore. Not like this.”
Tears sprang from Mina’s eyes, surprising her with their sudden presence and weight and volume, as they rolled down her cheeks and fell in fat blobs from her jawline to her shirt.
Andrew laughed without mirth. “Mina, who are you kidding?”
Later, at William’s Café over hot chocolate and cake, after she explained everything to him, Mina started to cry again.
“So, in conclusion, I am not good for you,” she said, blowing her nose into a rough paper napkin.
“Now, now,” Andrew smiled, cupping her face in his hand. “You take care of you, and I’ll take care of me.”
The school year flew by. It was nice for Mina to speak with truth about her life plans. It allowed her to put into good order what she believed was going to be her life story: why she had broken up with Sendhil two years prior, and why it was best that she go to India to get married as soon as she’d completed her degree, just as her older siblings and cousins had done before her.
Andrew shared his thoughts, too, pointing out the time they were spending together, and the hidden pockets of her that only he knew. She listened, but the points he made landed nowhere near her, arrows aimed true yet still landing far off course, the target a constantly moving mirage.
Towards the end of the school year, on one of the increasingly common days when they were arguing with one another, she tried to lighten the mood by commenting on how red his face was getting.
“It’s because I am half white, darling.” He flung the words at her. “I know my black half cancels that all out for you. That is why you picked me, isn’t it?” Mina started to speak, but he hushed her with a hand in the air. “I know, baby. I know.”
On the hard metal seats of the airport lounge, Mina replays this scene in her head as she places each of her fingers in her mouth in turn, biting and swallowing the skin from around each of her fingernails.
Her thoughts turn to the last time she saw Sendhil. It was at the end of her second year of university, a few weeks after the tears, shouting, and hasty late-night visits with him had ended. They went for a walk together in Rosewood Park - for closure, she’d said, and insisted it be on neutral territory, at no-one’s apartments, near no-one’s beds. The first spring buds had started to bloom and the petting zoo had opened for the season. They stood together, hands in jacket pockets, in front of an enclosure housing a lone peacock and his harem of peahens.
“I hope you understand now,” Mina said.
“It’s too much to put on a person. You understand that, right? If I stay with you, I’d be leaving my entire culture and family for you, and that’s not fair to you. I care about you too much to do that to you. It’s not fair to put that pressure on a person, or on a relationship.”
In the airport lounge, Mina remembers how she’d reproduced those words with very small changes just a few months ago with Andrew. It was on the day she told Andrew that she had booked her tickets for this trip. Andrew’s head was in her lap, and her tears were falling onto his face.
“You understand, right?” Mina said to him. “I can’t do this - not for you, not to you.”
“Do what for me?”
“I didn’t do it for my boyfriend, and I loved him. If I didn’t do it for him, I can’t do it for you.”
Andrew looked up at her from her lap, his eyelashes soaked and clumped together. “Mina. What if you don’t do it for me, and you don’t do it for him? What if you do it for you?”
In the airport lounge, Mina tastes blood as she lifts a piece of skin from her cuticle with her teeth. She can see the exact tilt of Sendhil’s mouth that day at Rosewood park, the left side higher than the right. He had looked into her eyes and smiled that crooked smile of his before averting his gaze to somewhere just over her shoulder and said, “Mina. One day, you will think for yourself.”
“Flight TR487 direct to Mumbai now pre-boarding families with small children, and passengers with special needs.”
Mina takes her fingers out of her mouth. She looks over to her parents. Both are snoozing in their chairs, heads leaning, chins on clavicles.
“Time to go. Mom, Dad, wake up.”
Neither one of them moves. Mina looks at the clock, then back at her parents.
Her father sighs in his sleep. Mina studies her parents. The bright red EXIT sign burns in the background, just above their heads. Their glasses droop down their noses. A soft purring sound comes from her father’s throat. Mina looks away from them, the afterimage of the exit sign burned onto her retinas, appearing in her sight no matter where she looks.
EXIT. EXIT. EXIT.
Mina’s feet are lead. Her mother’s chest rises and falls. Mina’s right hand tightens into a fist; her knuckles whiten, nails digging into her palm. She imagines what it would feel like for the knuckles of her closed fist to connect swiftly with the soft part underneath her mother’s chin.
“Wake up!” Mina hisses.
Mina reaches to her father and yanks his hand, then whips it against him with enough force to feel his knuckles crack. He gasps, each of his limbs jerking as if falling, waking her mother in the process. Mina rises slowly to her feet as her parents catch their breath and orient themselves, straightening their collars, smoothing their hair and pushing their glasses up. They look around, at one another, and finally up at her.
“It’s almost time to board,” Mina says, shouldering her knapsack. She turns her back to them and swallows the spiky ball that has formed in her mouth. It catches in her throat, but she pushes it all the way down into her chest. She is certain that it is safest there, where it can hide, until she finds a way to make it melt completely.
Diwali Luharia is a Canadian writer, gardener, and speaker of tongues. When she was little, she worried a lot about the fact that the sun would one day burn out. Find her on Twitter.