• Long Sleeves

    Kanak Kapur

    Spring 2024

    On New Year’s Eve, we left Sai’s house wearing jeans and something with long sleeves. Inside the cab, we took off our shirts and wrapped them around our waists. Underneath we had on our party clothes: skintight tops shoplifted the weekend prior from an overflowing sale bin. It was Sai’s job to confirm the night’s address with our driver. She placed her elbow on the center console and leaned toward the man before speaking to him. I was shy, unwelcoming to strangers, but she was boastful, a wild dancer, nuclear and winged. In loose, rapid Urdu, she asked: “Brother, you know where to go or no?”

    The sleeves were Sai’s idea. She thought them up the year before, when we got in trouble with her mother the last time we dressed like this. We had returned home too late from another party, where we’d been drenched in the rain. Afraid of the consequences, we stood on the porch, damp locks of hair pasted to our foreheads. From the window, we’d seen Sai’s mother in the living room with a stack of household bills, a highlighter in hand. Shamefaced, we entered and made our false apologies. I kept my arms folded high across my chest, covering the white blouse I’d worn specifically for what it made of my boobs, which had recently and miraculously plumped to significance. Sai had on one of those bandage dresses that used to be popular, which, in her mother’s words, put her every organ on display. Sita Aunty was always afraid of men, and though we didn’t know it yet, she’d passed the fear down to us, where it would remain, distantly flickering and translucent, until every so often, in what would become our separate lives, we’d hear a story or encounter a man who matched the severity of these phantoms we knew Sita Aunty was afraid of. “What have I taught you?” she asked us that night, her voice slipping from its composure. “Do you want to get raped?” She threw the highlighter across the living room, the cap clattering away from the pen.

    In the taxi, I saw that Sai’s top showed off her new belly-button ring, a gift she’d given herself for her sixteenth birthday. Alone, she’d traveled to the one underground tattoo shop in the city. I was shocked when she told me. For years I’d remember how she called me to an empty corner of the hallway between classes, how she lifted the lip of her shirt, revealing a warm, reddened puncture of skin. The charm on the ring was a tiny, diamond-studded letter. J, for Jiya, my name.

    The piercing made her look older than she was. In the shadowy backseat, I watched her, wondering if she would kiss me that night. Kissing Sai was a thing of luck. It didn’t always happen in public unless people asked to see, unless there was a crowd of boyish voices to cheer. I was still trying to understand the shape our bodies made when we swung an arm over the other in bed, or when her eyes lingered on the bottom half of my face when we talked. It didn’t always produce the same swell of pelvic rush as with boys, but there was something else ashimmer within me, and happy-making.

    The first time still rang in my memory, sharp as a desert shell. We were in her bedroom, Sita Aunty clattering pots downstairs. A patch of Sai’s sticky lip gloss burned my chin. I didn’t rub it off for fear that I would never feel it again.

    Outside, it was strangely humid for December, which was accompanied by the faint smell of wood dust, and then we heard it—a saw running somewhere, a few streets over, or in an old memory. We passed a construction zone where men in yellow hats waited for a night bus, their white shirts stained with the day’s dirt. On nearby streets were circles of identical houses built over the past few months with what seemed like plaster and glue. Once-empty strips of sand were replaced at first by scaffolding and blue tarps, then by squarish homes with turf backyards and the odd pug heaving suicidally on the sidewalk. Sai lived in one of these—villas, they were called. Some came with pools and enough room for a child to learn to put away her training wheels. I lived in an apartment on the other side of Dubai, where Diwali lights went up in September, where the streets were loud not with the commotion of hammers falling into toolboxes but with car horns and parents, shouting at children to stay off the road, to come back inside for dinner. Of both our sides of the city, I always felt mine was lonelier.

    As we drove, Sai noticed our driver watching us in the rearview mirror. They were always watching. For a moment, I considered saying something. I was sixteen then too, old enough to ride the metro alone, to run my own errands. I cleared my throat to speak, but Sai beat me to it.

    “Watch the road, hero,” she said.

    He laughed but his eyes didn’t sway. They loved her bite, and I loved how swiftly Sai could make a rotten fruit out of any man.

    Before Sai’s friendship, my solitude was vast and black. I thought I grew it inside me like an infection—a dark, beating thing that planted my parents almost permanently overseas, that turned boys to mist after a taste of my skin. But then Sai sought me out. One morning, I had forgotten a physics textbook for class, and our teacher took the opportunity to humiliate me for it. In a fit of blustery hate, I called him a lunatic, a weak man, a fucking nobody. I told him he used his students to exercise power he didn’t have in his own home. By then I’d learned there would be no repercussions for my behavior; the administration could never reach my parents.

    The next morning Sai was waiting at my desk. She said she admired how I had spoken back to our teacher, how I had accepted my detention like a gift. She invited me to her house, one visit that translated, as things do, to text messages, to sleepovers, to the thrumming body next to me in the cab, singing a radio hit we both knew. In the cool backseat, she tangled her fingers with mine. I felt the fine hairs of her knuckle. The passing streetlights colored her amber, and I believed that the next few years of my life would pass smoothly, the nights spent, and the pains talked over and alleviated, with her.

    Kanak Kapur’s fiction has been published in The Rumpus, CodeLit, and Black Warrior Review. She is currently based in Nashville.

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