I pick up a jar of seeni sambol at Nimah Market, lamenting the lack of Lankan products at the Pakistani grocery store just a block from my apartment in Griggin Square. It’s impossible to tell how old anything in the store is: preservative-soaked canned goods, bottled pickles of mango and onion, packets of spices tossed into metal cages, haphazardly overpriced. I catch strains of Hindi, which I vaguely understand from the Bollywood movies that played in the background of my childhood. My father spent years watching them, huddled through New England winters, trying to glean any part of South Asia he could. Sinhala became a scarce commodity, so much so that he hoarded the broken syllables that fell from my own tongue. Soon, the currency of my Ivy League education and American boyfriend came to be more valued at this market, and I imagine the broken bars of “Ammi,” “thathi” and “adderei” are tucked in with the raththaran earrings given to me as a child, somewhere in my mother’s jewelry boxes.
I toss the seeni sambol in my basket and decide this overpricing is reasonable. As I dig through the papayas in the produce section, the tiny bell above Nimah’s door tinkles, crudely signaling the entrance of another brown body searching for cumin or curry leaves, or spicy instant ramen to scent their Boston summer. I listen for the flap of an embroidered sari or broken down flip-flop, the patented heavy sounds of an aunty, just looking for an onion or lime she can complain about later. Watching aunties study bundles of identical green chiles always reminds me of the easy exasperations of home. My mother can spend hours doing the same as the aunties here, although she is too modern for saris; I was always truly thankful for that.
But it’s not an aunty who walks in, or a sullen uncle sent by his wife, or even a white woman who has heard amazing things about the prices. It’s you, in an all-black jumpsuit, clinking with gold chains, eyebrows looking like smeared ash and perfectly arched scythe blades all at the same time. Your presence whispers all through the shop, heels catapulting you to all of five foot three, skin smoldering of curried coconut milk. I hear you drop a jar in the aisle next to me, and I imagine that you have made a mess of the jaggery, your thin wrists and hipbones littered with the sweet brown sand, a beach unto yourself.
I am pissed at my mind, imagining that sand and your thick saltwater, tasting you on a kitchen counter anywhere. To describe you with spice metaphors would be to reduce your depth to a stereotype, so I give you the ocean, the only thing I can think of that captures the vastness I feel with you in my mouth.
What the fuck are you doing here? Your lilting Hindi, marked with the undertones of your recent summer in Bangladesh with him, rings through the store—a darker, richer gold than the bell that announced your presence. I refuse to let you be the reason that I leave the store empty-handed, so I grab a papaya without testing for weight, grab two limes for the lunumiris I’m making later, and hope to all the gods that you’ll let me leave the store with just a “Hey.”
A scratched bronze bangle slides down your wrist as you reach up towards your hair, smoothing the bumps of your hasty pin-up job. Half-leaned over the counter, flirting with the cashier for no reason at all, you let me approach the counter before pushing it. You are the one who got away, after all—although there were all the signs that I should have run far, far away a long time before. I can’t stop staring at your left wrist as you animatedly ask more questions, still angrily imagining drawing you closer to me and locking my mouth on those most vulnerable erogenous zones. While you ask stupid things like “how are you” (obviously not fine), “how’s your mother” (obviously hates you despite her misgivings about lesbians), and “what are you doing tomorrow night we should get drinks” (no no god no), I find myself agreeing before I reach the checkout counter.
“There’s a bar down the street,” I say. “I can bring Adam, you should meet him.”
I see the edges of your cheeks drop down a half centimeter, the apples becoming lemon bulges as you hold the taste of my new boyfriend in your mouth. I’ve disrupted myself of you, and I breathe deeply, probably too audibly. As your gesturing fingers sift through memories of my brokenness, you decide this is acceptable. You would love to meet Adam, can’t imagine anything better, it is too bad that Amir can’t make it, he’s still in Bangladesh with his family. I often wonder if you’ve just traded one broken human for another, a queer depressed brown femme for a sweet South Asian Muslim man. Amir is handsome, tall, a pariah to your family and no doubt not as good at eating pussy as me. I am just very ready to leave Nimah’s jaggery-stained walls for the clean sterility of my apartment.
I call Adam to cancel on dinner and stuff myself full of roti and lunumiris and chunks of papaya, barely scraping out the seeds before viciously grabbing a knife to cut the damn thing. I can’t decide if I want to give it a mercy killing or an excruciating and gorgeously slow ending; having the choice paralyzes me and I use a spoon to eat the papaya instead. I do not cry once while watching Kuch Kuch Hota Hai with the sound off and English subtitles.
I fall asleep dreaming of the phone call where you profusely apologize but you just have to cancel. In my dreams, all my aunties are on the beach, trying to decide whether to tan or swim, white saris telling me that I must be at the temple or at a funeral, and either way I should pray, pray, pray for the phone to ring. I look up and I’m in a church, in the bell tower, in the bell, and when I finally get the courage to look down, there you are—pulling the rope, the clapper bruising my chest as I fall onto the burnished shell, and you keep pulling the rope, over and over again, the rope braid burning you bright pink and mottling the taut skin above your veins as I fall. I wish that I had woken up gasping, suddenly, the defibrillating effect of coursing fear, but I drift back to lucidity. Humans can get used to any kind of pain, especially the dull thumping kind that moves with a heartbeat. I’m sure my mother finds this sympathetic, but I’m the one who keeps climbing up bell towers hoping to find a music box.
* * *
I want to text her to call off our bar meet and greet tonight, but I am too chickenshit. I call my mother instead. She doesn’t pick up, and I remember that she’s on a silent meditation retreat in the middle of a desert, warding off spiders and silently judging all the middle-aged white women in yoga pants. Mela always loved my mother, despite the whole “You turned my daughter into a lesbian” thing that Ammi was always going on about. I think it helped that Mela was so beautiful, that in spite of our Lankan-Indian differences, Mela knew kathak and wore ghungroos and could recognize Jacqueline Fernandez, the Lankan beauty queen. My mother didn’t know the Mela who drew henna on strangers at bars, who fucked strangers at bars when I wasn’t home and encouraged me to do the same. And I tried, for so long. She loved being jealous and swimming with sharks and dolphins at the same time and kissing them all on the mouth before she knew which one was which. Eventually I wasn’t sure which one of us was a dolphin, which one was a shark; I just learned that some sharks had no teeth and that a dolphin could beat you senseless with her tail if she wanted to. I could write a book full of things Mela taught me, but I prefer to leave those lessons to wash away with her. They’d teach you how truly perfect the world could be but also what terrible things you were capable of doing if that world ever changed.
Once, Mela caught me reading her journal, ostensibly for proof that she was seeing someone else. Instead of getting angry, she made me fuck her while talking dirty about the other people I’d fucked, moaning about what men I’d let fuck me and who had gotten my number at the bar, what it felt like to dance with another woman, how other people liked to touch me. I took her from behind while whispering in her ear and dripping tears and sweat onto her collarbone. After she came, I slapped her in the face and left, maybe for the second time, and certainly not the last time, that year.
My doorbell starts buzzing and I jump, half-expecting Mela to show up half an hour early (and in my house no less). Instead, I find sweet, pale Adam, coming to check on me, saying I sounded distraught on the phone last night. He’s holding a bottle of guava Maaza juice and two donuts from the Italian bakery down the street, his smiling teeth holding the only hardness in his whole body.
“I’m fine,” I smile at him. “And I haven’t eaten today, so you’re perfect as usual.” He looks pleased and I am really regretting this Mela reverie I’ve gotten so involved with. Adam isn’t perfect, of course—he’s white and doesn’t understand my mother’s accent. But he’s graceful and the sex is good and he always brings candy or cookies or at least wine. He knows about Mela and it scares the shit out of him. White people are always scared of the wild creatures that evade their imposed sense of order. He’s glad that I’m not that girl anymore. He actually said that once, that I’m “not that girl anymore,” as if I was some Limited Too edition of his fantasy girlfriend, wearing too much lip gloss and making bad decisions about which boys I should go to the movies with.
He’s also got something else for me, he says, pulling out a blue box. It’s got a thin silver bracelet laced through with two charms, a horseshoe and a garnet heart, my birthstone.
A charm bracelet. Sigh. “It’s beautiful,” I tell him, pulling it on and feeling its soft loops graze the little hairs lying flat on my skin. I kiss him lightly and we go back into my room as I tell him I’m on my period (a lie) and that I’m dying to be off of it so I can properly thank him for such a generous gift. (I can feel Mela laughing at me as I say it.) Undeterred from making this a sexy, romantic moment, somehow we end up nestled in each other’s half-naked bodies on the floor, counting the scars and blemishes on each other’s chests. Feeling the tiredness in his breath, I tell him that I’m getting drinks with my friend Belinda later and he should probably go home before he gets too comfortable. Content with his contribution to my day and our relationship, he murmurs and slinks his way out of my apartment. I realize that he bought the bracelet at the Indian bridal store on the corner, opposite Nimah Market, and wonder why the fuck they carry horseshoes.
Now that I’ve lied to Adam, I can get ready to see Mela. I mix my guava juice with white wine and save the donuts for later when I hate myself and want to watch Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, craving other people’s drama and much-needed silence. The phone rings—it’s her. I hear her bangles sliding up and down her wrists, and she’s very sorry, something came up, Amir’s home early, what a lovely surprise, must do this again another time, and I just hang up as each one of her syllables falls out of the phone and hits me in the chest and the back and the shoulder and the calf where the clapper hit and I wish for nothing. Not for Adam or for Mela or even for Ammi. Just finish the Moscato, open my fridge, and start pulling out food. I’ll cook tonight. I’ll wear Adam’s bracelet while I sleep tonight. I will dream about Mela tonight. I will cry and swim with the toothless sharks and the good dolphins pooling in my tears, and wake up, wake up, wake up, alone, on purpose and hide more gold jewelry under my skin. Eat jaggery straight from the jar.
Sasanka Jinadasa is a writer, advocate, and educator in the fields of gender justice, anti-racism, criminal justice reform, and public health. Her work has been published in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Renegade Magazine, and Black Girl Dangerous. She lives in Washington, D.C.