ILLUSTRATION BY ELIN CREESE
My boyfriend at the time had a ledge outside his bedroom, and when he wanted to brood he would climb over his window and sit there. His apartment was on the seventh floor and he would let his legs dangle over Bombay. Well, not Bombay, but one of those really scrawny gullies that split off main roads, that were crammed full with grotesque butcher shops, smelled of anxious, dying chickens, and piss. But I suppose that’s a lot of Bombay. He would sit on that ledge and while he was there he was the king of the space seven stories above the street, and I think it would calm him down. Most of the time.
The first time he took me there, I was seventeen, and I watched him hop out his bedroom and gasped. ‘What are you doing!’
He said, seemingly levitating on the other side, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve got you.’ and held his hand out to me. The first time I went out to sit on the ledge with him I was like Bambi learning to walk, legs shaking, eyes wide, stepping into the world (in my case, not THE world but A world for sure. I suppose every relationship, when you’re a teenager, is like stepping into the world. That world of love and lust and playing at being grown ups. What a joke.) for the first time. Once I sat down though, the building held me and I felt fine.
After that, I sat there with him all the time. Late at night, when he parents were asleep, we’d have sex and then we’d go sit on the ledge and smoke. Or we’d sit on the ledge and smoke, and then start making out, stumble back into the bedroom and have sex.
The sex was good (much better than with my boyfriend before him. I feel bad for him, my first boyfriend. We’d lost our virginity to each other. It wasn’t his fault it was always awful. The sex, I mean. Our education was shitty internet pornos that we’d watch in secret —such intense secret that we didn’t even admit to each other that we watched it. It just wasn’t something you talked about—and then tried to imitate in our parents’ houses, clumsy and self conscious in a sad way. I think when you’re that young you’re just so painfully aware of how imperfectly you’re doing everything, how awfully unexpected and disappointing your body must be for the other person. You hope to stay unexplored, invisible in the dark. Even in the act of it, you hope that maybe the body they touch will be someone else’s. Someone nicer, lovelier. Maybe it’s me I feel bad for, now that I think about it).
He was significantly older than me and knew what he was doing (comparatively and for the most part). We’d sat on the ledge, drinking whiskey, once. I’d suffered the burning drink silently and pretended to be the kind of girl that drank whiskey with a smile (I thought about how I’d have a Jack and coke at the next house party my friends threw and how they’d widen their eyes, impressed and maybe intimidated) while he watched. He downed his drink and said, ‘Come.’ Leading me back to his bed, he took my glass from me and set it aside. He kissed me while still holding onto his own, empty but for a few cubes of ice, which he then put in his mouth, before burying his face between my legs. I think maybe it’s not such a spectacular move, but at the time it was un-dreamable to me.
My boyfriend at the time was significantly older than me, and when his friends gave him worried, disappointed looks once they’d found out how old I was, we’d shrug it off. Or rather, he would shrug it off and I would follow his lead. Later we’d talk about it and he’d shake his head saying, ‘It doesn’t matter to me. Does it matter to you?’
I’d shake my head, ‘No, it’s doesn’t matter to me.’
‘Why should it matter? Why should it matter how old you are? I think you’re really mature. More so than women older than you, even.’
And I’d nod wisely.
My eighteenth birthday was chaos. My parents were out, all my friends came home, packed the apartment so tight it was practically coming apart at the seams. People were throwing up in the kitchen sinks and by the lifts outside, putting hands up each others’ clothes in the bedrooms, someone was crying because she thought her best friend hated her, and someone next to her was playing an old Hindi love song on the guitar. Gulaabi ankhein jo teri dekhi, sharaabi yeh dil ho gaya.
My boyfriend came in at a point where dimensions had started to unglue and split for me and I was navigating a house party in double vision. He sat on the sofa, quiet and stiff, for a bit. I was dancing and singing with someone whose face looked like I was seeing it through frosted glass. Then he left. I ran after him and caught him by the front gate. ‘What’s wrong?’
He shook his head, lips pursed. That terrible, tight smile boyfriends have often given me over the years, a sign that we’re on the cusp of a long and difficult fight.
I went back to my party, determined to smile and pretend I was fine. But I couldn’t shake off that angry, hurt, confused scribble like cartoons have over their head when they’re mad. Everyone at the party could see it. And when a friend put a hand on my shoulder and asked me what was wrong I started to cry.
‘Oh, my God. What an asshole.’
‘Forget him. Let’s drink.’
‘I’ll be your boyfriend.’
‘Oh, shit, that was your boyfriend? I thought he was your parents’ friend.’
Slurred, sloppy words of comfort that bounced off me, did nothing. I shook my head, apologised, said I’d be back in a bit, and went to his apartment.
He opened the door when I rang the bell and let me in like he didn’t have a choice. No tight smile. No expression at all. I followed him meekly to his room. His window was open and October heat wafted in like morning breath. He climbed over the window sill and disappeared behind it, into the traffic noise. Carefully, I did too. I found my footing on the narrow ledge outside and lowered myself onto it until I was sitting next to him. We dangled our legs over the ugly, forgettable street under us. He held a glass of whiskey in his hand. Not his first, I could tell by the way his face sagged. He glared out at the hot, hazy night.
‘Why’d you leave?’ I asked, softly.
‘Why’d you invite me?’
‘I wanted you there.’
‘It’s my birthday.’
‘I’m sorry I ruined it,’ he said. It sounded like an accusation.
‘If you’re drunk,’ I said, ‘we should go inside.’
‘Do you love me?’
I put my hand over his and didn’t look him in the eye. His skin was clammy and it depressed me. I said, ‘I do.’
‘Don’t patronise me.’ He pulled his hand away.
I gripped his arm, thinking of how embarrassing it would be if my parents found out I died like this. What would my friends say? Maybe they’d just shake their heads and judge me. One of them would point at my boyfriend at my funeral and he’d notice and there would be a weird, awkward tension. I’d cringe in my death state.
‘I know. Let’s go inside.’
‘You don’t love me.’ It sounded so pathetic. I looked at him, this grown man, talking like he was reading off a chick-flick script.
‘Why are you saying that? Based on what? The party?’
‘You’re embarrassed of me.’
‘What did I do?’
‘He shook his head. Scowled.
‘I love you,’ I said and I swallowed hard because it brought me down. My friends were still at home. Soon they would order pizza and start sobering up, take showers and change into soft pyjamas. I could almost hear them as they sat waiting for me, saying, ‘I hope she’s okay.’ ‘I wish she would just break up with him.’ ‘He’s so creepy.’ Things like that. (I think, for a while, the only reason I was with him was because I was trying to make a point of some kind. I was a very defensive teenager.)
‘Why?’ He asks.
I blinked. ‘What?’
‘Why do you love me?’
‘Let’s go inside—’
‘Don’t’—He raised a fist and I took a deep, deep breath—‘tell me to go inside. I’m fine.’
He wouldn’t hurt me, I told myself confidently (my frame of reference being films where men threatened to hit women and the women stood up to them and came out okay, victorious even. They knew what these men needed even though the men themselves didn’t).
The following morning, when we’d make up, I’d remind him of that moment and his face would pale. He wouldn’t remember. He’d hold my face in his hands and say, ‘you know I’d never hurt you, right?’ His eyes big, swimming in sincerity. I would nod and smile wisely. He told me often that I was mature for my age. A lot of people did.
Very slowly I exhaled, facing him with my chin up.
His arm wavered, then lowered. ‘I just want to know,’ he said.
‘Don’t do this.’ I put my head on his shoulder. He stiffened but let me. I said, it’s my birthday. I thought, if I cried then we can wrap this up before midnight. Then I realised I’d have to text my friends and tell them I was going to spend the night at his. I thought of them reading the message to each other and rolling their eyes. I knew I’d spend my next shower coming up with defences against their passive aggressive remarks about it.
I shut my eyes and tried to shake off the train of thought, the selfish feeling. Here was this man, clearly hurting because of me, because of something I’d done or said (or neglected to do or say. Who the fuck knows. I was a kid). I should be with him in this moment, be present with him. But I couldn’t help, with my eyes closed and my mind more able to focus, calculating how long I would have to wait after this fight before I could go back on my word. How long does one have to wait before it’s appropriate to break up with no hard feelings?
‘Let’s not fight,’ I said. I kissed his shoulder. ‘Please?’
He didn’t look at me.
‘Hey,’ I said, and kissed his cheek, put my hand on the other and made him look at me. ‘I’m sorry.’ I kissed him.
He didn’t kiss me back. ‘Why?’
I didn’t know. I wanted to get him off the ledge, put the AC on and eat something. I pressed my lips against his again while I thought of a reason. I settled on, ‘Because I made you feel shitty. I didn’t mean to.’ (This at least was true). ‘I love you.’ (This wasn’t.)
He looked at me. ‘Really?’
I nodded and looked down, hoping it would pass for a blush and not avoiding answering.
He held my chin and made me look back up at him. ‘I love you too.’
I kissed him, and he kissed me back this time. One heavy feeling lifted. The rest would weigh me down until I grew up a little more.
‘Let’s go inside.’
Rabia Kapoor is a writer from Mumbai. She is currently putting in her ten thousand hours to master the craft.