Sukanya’s heart lodged in her throat as she trained on the face she had tried to burn from memory. She wasn’t sure if it was nerves or the lack of sleep. 8AM on a Saturday, and she had been rudely awakened by a phone call from her mother.
“Sukku! You won’t believe who I just saw.” Her mother was right — she didn’t believe it. Not only because it had been five years, but because Ria would never be awake at 8AM. Without a pause for air, her mother rattled off a list of updates: Ria was looking beautiful but so thin and tired (dark circles under her eyes), they were out of the good kind of tea biscuit, and she had coordinated a coffee reunion for the two women at Sukanya’s favorite coffee shop in an hour.
Sukanya was surprised at how quickly she identified her former friend amid the throng of hungry, chatty café-dwellers fleeing the cold. Last night’s snow, tracked in by her winter boots, hadn’t yet melted when their eyes met. And then there was the slight eyebrow raise. The recognition. The five seconds of thick silence as woman walked towards woman.
Ria’s face cracked into a strained smile, and Sukanya realized with a pang that her mother had been right — she had retained all her beauty, the shining hair and chocolate skin that Sukanya’s mother claimed came from weekly massages with coconut oil. For a while neither woman spoke. They levitated like dust in a cocoon of other people’s bubbling conversations.
It was this same silence that introduced them during reading time in Mrs. Gardner’s classroom. Two years after Sukanya’s family entered permanent isolation. Two years after they fled upstate from the city. Two years after a white man with hate in his heart and a gun in his hand decided the earth should no longer tolerate the stain of her brother’s life.
Pressing a finger to her grinning lips, Ria had mischievously slid over a sheet of paper littered with clandestine words that no child should know. Fuck. Bitch. Cunt. A meticulously researched and curated document of Evil Words. That night, Sukanya read the words aloud to her parents while they scrubbed stains of tomato chutney off the tables of the family restaurant. Mrs. Gopalan had clapped a hand over her mouth in shock, Mr. Gopalan had dropped a half-filled water tumbler. While the soddened carpet chilled Sukanya’s slippers, they explained profusely that she was to never use those words, that she was to scrub them from memory like tomato chutney. They asked several times who had shown them to her. But their daughter held her silence, as she would learn to do for the next decade.
That night, crouched under her covers, Sukanya traced the Evil Words until her fingers were stained with graphite. A small light was lit in a small girl in a small apartment. The realization that she had the power to defy her parents, to say things that jolted them like a lightning bolt out of their quiet, isolated monotony. And from that night, until a very different one fifteen years later, Ria became Sukanya’s idol.
It was Sukanya who broke their levitation now, returning them to the ground. “I’ll grab us coffee,” she offered. Ria reached into her purse, but Sukanya waved her away. “It’s been so long that you’re practically a visitor here. Why don’t you find us a seat? Let me be a good host.”
At the counter, the sweet, slightly frazzled head of curls that Sukanya knew so well flitted around the grinder like a caffeinated fairy. Kelly broke into a smile seeing Sukanya’s familiar face emerge breathless after battling the crowd. “Imagine seeing you on a Saturday!”
“You can blame my mother.”
“I would never say a thing against Mrs. Gopalan,” Kelly replied with a short laugh. She clicked her pen shut — this was an order she knew by heart. “Latte to go?”
“Oh, did you bring a date?” Sukanya, buried in thoughts from decades past, didn’t notice the edge, the small croak that had crept into Kelly’s jovial voice. Instead, she realized that she had no idea how Ria took her coffee. It was a sign of adult companionship that they had never shared, their path cut long before reaching that milestone.
“An old acquaintance. She won’t be here for long,” Sukanya replied. The rigidity in Kelly’s smile faded in relief, another nearly imperceptible change that Sukanya missed. They chatted amicably about the weather, plans for the holidays, until Kelly returned with two twin cups of coffee and a lemon bar wrapped in cellophane.
“On the house,” Kelly insisted, when Sukanya opened her mouth to protest. As she turned to leave, Kelly touched her hand lightly, her cheeks flushed. “If you’re not doing anything tomorrow night … there’s supposed to be a live concert in the park. My band is playing. Nothing big, just … you know.”
Sukanya clenched. This time, it was Kelly who didn’t notice. “I’m not sure if I’ll be free. Give me a call in a couple hours, I’ll be home,” said Sukanya, smiling tightly and scribbling her number on the back of the receipt, sliding wax over linoleum to Kelly’s calloused hands. It was a familiar response, the first step in a cycle she had memorized, much like her mother before her. A doomed phone call, one to be intentionally ignored. Three, four weeks passing in silence, until the event had slipped into memory. Then Sukanya would slowly reemerge, stuttering a light apology. “So sorry about a month ago…”
Twin cups in hand, lemon bar pocketed, Sukanya fought her way back to Ria, who was leaning on a windowpane, half asleep. She raised her heavily-lined eyes, murmuring thanks as she clasped the cup in both hands.
“Weird that we’re having coffee and not milkshakes, isn’t it?” she said drowsily. Sukanya was surprised she remembered those twilight evenings. For eight years, she had spent her idle time picturing the five-minute bike ride to the diner on 2nd Street with one-dollar milkshakes, her brief escape from the world. Now she had shoved the route so deep within her memory that it was lodged in some inaccessible place, the spokes in her bicycle and the creases in her sneakers becoming hazy and frayed.
When it became clear that Sukanya and Ria were attached at the hip, Mrs. Gopalan reluctantly acquiesced to two hour meetings on Friday evenings, after school and before the dinner rush. If her daughter had to have a friend, a reason (other than school) to leave the protection of the household, Ria was a permissible option. Her family had moved from California when her father accepted a professorship at the local university, making them the only other Indians in town. In India, the Gopalans and the Mehtas would not have even spoken the same language, and the entire country would have stretched between them like a gulch. But here they were as similar as siblings.
Every Friday after school, Sukanya would hum to herself, rubbing the menus so ferociously that the words Gate to India glittered like gold. At 4PM, like clockwork, she would burst into the kitchen. “Amma! Done!”
Mrs. Gopalan would press two dollars into her daughter’s hand. One for Sukanya, and one for Ria in case she forgot her money at home (how embarrassing would it be if Sukanya could not pay for her friend’s treat). “Please be safe, kutti,” she said as always to her half-listening daughter.
Sukanya would leap onto her bicycle and race to the diner, where Ria would join her, always a few minutes late. They would order one-dollar milkshakes. Chocolate for Ria. Cookies and cream for Sukanya. And for the next two hours, Ria would describe her world, a world Sukanya could never join. At first, they were the secrets of a mutinous child — a clumsy kiss from Ryan Wade behind the school, a detention note from homeroom. But as they grew older, the secrets matured as well. High school parties, hookups with older men, stolen whiskey from the basement…
In return, Sukanya undammed her river of secrets. The Evil Words she could not release elsewhere — how she felt strung between school and the restaurant, between her parents’ love and their paranoia. She said the things she would never tell her parents, because she loved them, and when you love someone you lie to them. Enveloped in the warmth of their chatter and the cold of fingers on milkshake glass, two girls grew like twin flowers in that diner on 2nd Street.
At 6PM, the spell would break. Sukanya waved goodbye, pedaling hard and fast back home. Cinderella at midnight. And she would arrive right on time, beads of sweat forming on her forehead, as early dinner-goers filtered into the red-carpet floors and tackily-decorated walls of Gate to India.
Sukanya never gave away a word. Even the night that Ria arrived thirty minutes late, stoned out of her mind and reeking of overripe cantaloupe, Sukanya stayed with her at the diner while Ria cried that her parents would finally send her away as they had threatened. At 9PM, when Sukanya returned home, her mother was in tears, her father enraged. Even as Mrs. Gopalan clasped her only remaining child to her chest, while Sukanya explained that Ria had wanted them to come home earlier, that this tardiness was her fault. Even then. She never betrayed her friend.
How odd it was, indeed, that now they had abandoned those precious milkshake nights for coffee.
“I guess that’s what happens when you become an adult,” Sukanya said, shrugging. Ria laughed. Short. Dry. Sharp. Sukanya searched her obsidian eyes for a hint of her thoughts. Was she, too, buried in aching memories? Memories colored with pain and fury?
“So.” Ria lifted her face to remove a stray hair. “What are you up to these days?”
“I’m in graduate school. Political science,” Sukanya explained.
“Oh, wow,” Ria whistled. “That’s amazing. College must have been so fun.” Her voice dropped to a whisper at the end of her sentence, and she had broken eye contact, studying the ring of magenta lipstick on her coffee cup. That was how Sukanya found out that Ria never attended college.
“It had its moments,” Sukanya replied. “How are you? Are you still with Blake?”
Ria winced. “No.” Short. Sharp. Silence yawned between them again, levitation returning. Then Ria lurched off the windowpane. “How about we go outside? I can’t even hear myself think in here.”
Outside, the town looked like the cover of a December calendar. Imperfections hidden under a white lacquer, wreaths pasted on the doors of mom-and-pop shops, the morning sun peeping out to witness the spectacle.
“I’ve missed this kind of snow so much,” Ria sighed, breathing deeply. “I’ve been in the city for the past few years, and it gets so disgusting so quickly. Looks like muddy slush within two hours.”
“That’s how I remember it,” Sukanya agreed with an apologetic smile. They skated tersely over the usual conversation subjects — the weather, plans for the holidays — as they strolled down Main and hit 2nd Street. Their street.
They paused under the green street sign, both thinking of the same evenings, both unsure what the other was thinking about.
Ria cleared her throat. “Blake … didn’t turn out to be who he said he was,” she said. Absent-mindedly, she traced a purple bruise on her wrist, the ring under her eyes that Mrs. Gopalan mistakenly attributed to exhaustion.
Sukanya saw Blake in her mind’s eye. Straw-colored hair, the combination of blonde eyelashes and blue eyes that her mother said made him look like a demon. The school had deemed him attractive, though.
Sukanya had hated him.
She remembered the first time she had heard his name. They were turning to part ways at the diner, when Ria caught her shoulder. “I’m seeing someone,” she had said shyly.
The next week, their conversations were filled with him. Details about his life that Sukanya had never wanted to know. How he and Ria had met after school. How he kept her secret from his parents, since he wasn’t sure how they would react to a brown girl existing in their lives. The scholarship he was chasing. His wet kisses. The messy, uncertain way they touched each other.
When the next Friday arrived, and Sukanya scrubbed the menus, and raced down the block, her eyes gleaming and eager, she arrived to an empty diner. She ordered a milkshake — cookies and cream — and squeezed into the booth, watching young people flit in and out, hands on waists and laughter in the air. She ignored the annoyed stares of couples eyeing the half-empty booth, forming words in her mind of everything she wanted to say, all the secrets she kept locked up inside her for a week. And there she sat, alone, until 6PM arrived and her smile had chipped and broken on her face.
She left slowly, checking every corner of the diner, waiting for Ria’s breathless face to pop in with an apology spilling from her mouth. Just wait, her heart insisted. She’s coming. Just wait. And repeated this refrain. JustwaitShe’scomingJustwaitShe’scoming, as she cycled home.
As the years passed, the hatred she had felt for Blake had gone stale. She was a twenty three-year-old woman, and he still a high school student in her mind’s eye, unchanging as time streamed on. Now, the old enmity surged. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered to Ria. She meant it. She reached out to touch Ria’s shoulder. “He’s an evil man, Ria. You deserve so much more.”
Something filmy and glistening passed over Ria’s eyes, and for a second Sukanya thought she might cry. Then she shook herself and cleared her throat. “Your birthday’s coming up, isn’t it?”
“Happy early birthday,” said Ria. “I haven’t been around for so many of your birthdays. Five, I think!”
Six, Sukanya thought, but she didn’t respond other than with a smile. Her eighteenth birthday was one of those memories that she kept locked without a key, buried somewhere deeper than she cared to search. But it was the first that sprung to her mind whenever she was in pain, when she had run out of fuel for her tears but hadn’t yet cried out her sorrow.
By that time, the weekly Friday meetings had slowly reduced to bi-weekly, then monthly. But Ria would always arrive early for the meetings she did attend, spluttering excuses and carrying treats in her arms. The excuses were always Blake.
Sukanya was dressed to the nines — a brand new dress (a gift from her parents), a hint of lip-gloss and mascara clumsily applied to her lips and lashes. Like most teenage girls, she had been obediently trained to despise the figure in the mirror. But today she felt beautiful.
“I’ll pick you up in the car,” Ria promised over the phone. Her 1983 Toyota Camry, a decade old and limping on wheels, was her pride and joy.
That night, Sukanya hadn’t scrubbed the menus — Mrs. Gopalan’s second gift. And ten dollars were in her hand instead of two (for something extra special). She was perched in a booth in Gate to India, smoothing the pleats of her blue frock and pinning her hair up, then down again. And there she sat, smoothing her pleats, changing her hair, until it got too dark in the restaurant to distinguish her skin from the air around her.
Her father tapped her gently. “Customers are arriving, kutti,” he said sympathetically. He switched on the golden lights.
“Oh,” said Sukanya quietly. She glanced at the clock. 5:45 PM.
Mr. and Mrs. Gopalan congregated briefly in a corner, unsure of how to balance their daughter’s happiness with the dinner money that paid their bills. They arrived at a compromise. Mrs. Gopalan grabbed her purse, a hidden gem at Value Village that was as old as her daughter.
“Come, Sukku! Let’s go to the mall. I’m not wasting my ten dollars,” she said cheerfully. She pulled a sweatshirt over her churidhar and held out a hand. Sukanya took it reluctantly.
Despite her best efforts, the mall did raise Sukanya’s spirits. A sweet woman complimented her outfit, and she and her mother strolled idly past outfits they couldn’t afford, giggling at their ridiculousness. They spent most of their time in a sunglass store, trying on the most horrendously gawdy spectacles they could find. They took turns, each selecting a hideous pair more offensive than the last. They posed like models on the runway. Between bursts of laughter, Mrs. Gopalan built her daughter her own gate to India with stories from her youth. Racing to catch the bus with her friends. Stealing her mother’s kajal and wearing three layers of it, thick and waxy, on her first day of tenth grade.
“I was very fashionable, you know,” Mrs. Gopalan said.
They left the mall grinning, arms linked, old Tamil movie songs on their lips. Sukanya sang the part of the film hero, her mother his lover. It was one of those blissful moments that never lasts, a patch of sunlight haunted by gloom. In fact, Sukanya didn’t even remember those songs, her gait, her happiness.
But she remembered the cluster of girls from her high school. They were crammed on a mall bench, chortling and chatty. As Sukanya passed them, they looked up. A brief moment. Brows furrowing. Eyes sweeping down, then up. A short, sharp, unkind laugh.
The old movie song solidified and crumbled in her throat. Her arms sank like weights in the ocean, her gaze dropping to study mall floor tiles. In that moment, she hated the world around her. She hated her clumpy mascara, her new dress. She hated that she had one friend. She hated not being an American teenager. She hated that she spent her eighteenth birthday at the mall with her mother. Singing songs of love she would never experience, the type that couldn’t be translated to English.
Steeped in embarrassment, Sukanya hadn’t noticed that her mother stopped singing as well. Her humiliation so strong that it radiated through the air in waves, and her mother had been caught in one, raised up and crashed down on a crest of shame.
They drove home in silence. Sukanya smiled as her parents sang her Happy Birthday, spoke graciously in Tamil to relatives on the phone. She ate exactly one piece of cake, commented on its deliciousness, and didn’t join her parents in front of the TV. She climbed upstairs, ripped off her dress, and cried into her bed sheets until her eyes were so exhausted and empty that they lilted shut.
Ria came to school on Monday with a bright pink card and a strawberry smoothie, overflowing with apologies. Blake’s car had broken down. No payphone around. Sukanya hugged her only friend and told her not to worry. Things happen.
Was this yet another apology? A reflection of Ria’s contrition projected five years into the future?
“If you’ll still be in town on the 10th, maybe we could do something,” Sukanya offered.
Ria bit her lip. “Well, that kind of depends on what you say,” she began. “I need a place to crash for a while.”
“Ria…” Sukanya scrambled for words. How could she explain the memories whirring through her mind, animated pictures moving a million frames a second? How can someone pluck one picture from a movie and explain the plot? The stone in her chest when she called the Mehtas the day after graduation, and Ria was gone? No phone number, no address, no goodbye?
“I know, I know, I’ve been a shitty friend. Hell, a shitty person,” Ria reasoned. “But what was I supposed to do, Sukku? When Blake showed up at my house, my parents had been screaming at me for a month since I finally told them I didn’t actually get into Villanova. I didn’t have a plan, didn’t have any money, and he had a van! He had ideas!”
Sukanya, still reeling from hearing her nickname fall casually from Ria’s mouth for the first time in half a decade, didn’t stop her, and soon Ria was spilling her secrets, undamming her Evil Words.
“I know it was stupid to take off like that. But I was a stupid teenager, and he didn’t give me any options! I had no life left here, Sukku. I had you, and I wanted to tell you, but he came at 3AM, and we were gone by 4, before my parents got up. They tracked me down when we first got to the city, gave me a call, but… oh God, Sukku. I don’t even want to remember what we said. I don’t think they’ll even look at me anymore. And Blake was so sweet to start off, bringing me flowers and chocolates. But one night he got really drunk and punched me in the face. I should’ve run. I should’ve fucking run. But I didn’t, and he was crying to me to stay, stay, and I did. I stayed for five fucking years. I left a couple days ago, no plan, no strategy, no nothing. I took my clothes and I got on a bus, no idea where to head next. So I thought of you. And I know, it was stupid. We haven’t talked in so long. But the next thing I knew I was heading upstate on an overnight Greyhound. I didn’t even know if I wanted to see you. I didn’t even know if you were still here! And God forbid I’d run into my parents. I didn’t sleep on the bus, way too stressed. But I guess I’m lucky that this town is so small, because the moment I got here I went to the supermarket on 4th to get breakfast, and of course I run into your mom. And she was so sweet, Sukku. She was so nice.”
Sukanya waited until Ria had finished, until tears were streaming down her face, her coffee, half-empty, growing cold in the frigid air. She massaged Ria’s back, turning towards the street to block her from the gaze of the curious passerby. And as she waited for her former friend’s hyperventilated breaths to slow, another memory. The last in a series, the closing call.
Sukanya had convinced her parents that she could stop commuting and pay for on-campus housing with her day job at Smoothie King. But by sophomore year, friendships had already been forged. People slunk around the dorm with keys in their hands. The movies she’d watched the summer before college revealed themselves to be false advertising, and Sukanya found herself alone, again, now away from her parents.
At nights, exhausted from class, from work, from research for grad school, she’d collapse into bed. In the five minutes between shut eyes and sleeping body, she would transport herself to the diner on 2nd Street. She would imagine Ria, twenty years old, driving home from college together. Laughs, long and soft and loud. Experiences shared.
She was napping after dinner on a Friday when the sound of hip hop from the next door over jolted her awake. And with uncharacteristic courage, she donned her warpaint (eyeliner and lipstick) and wrapped sharply on the door.
“Can I get a shot?”
Reluctantly, the gaggle of college students let her in. She had pressed sweaty bills into their hands, fifty cents for a shot, a dollar for a beer (overpriced — how else would they make money?). Sukanya had never been drunk. But she remembered Ria describing the feeling, that sense of indestructible confidence, swaying about the ground like a monarch over subjects. She chased that feeling, yearned for it, following it through the doors of the dorm and into a fraternity house.
But as the night continued, and the music flooded her ears, somehow too loud and muted at once, she realized that she would never get that feeling. She drank and drank, and the happiness drained from her body, as if there was no more room, as if the alcohol replaced its volume. And when the happiness ran out, and she was still drinking, the only room remaining was occupied by her tears. Those spilled as well.
“Ria! I have to tell Ria about tonight,” she cried, lurching onto her dormmates, strangers who couldn’t care less. When she begged them to walk home with her, they waved her off with vague instructions back to the dorm, unwilling to leave the party for the weird girl who insisted on coming along.
“Try not to die on the way back,” one of them called sarcastically as she left. The others laughed, but Sukanya didn’t notice. Her body and mind were choked with tears and vodka. She stumbled back to the dorm and slouched on her desk, by the telephone.
“I know she’ll call. Wait until she hears about tonight,” she mumbled, oblivious to the emptiness around her. Sukanya was certain she would call. Twenty years, and she finally had an act of rebellion of her own. A bridge between her world and Ria’s. She stared at the wall, forming her words, repeating the story in her mind to capture details already fading in fogged memory. “I have to tell her…”
And there she sat, until sunrise, the phone by her hand, the words in her mind. Until she was sober, and her head hurt, and she realized that she was twenty years old, waiting for a phone call that would never come, from a person who would never come.
Slowly, coldly, Sukanya pushed the desk away. She staggered into the bathroom and vomited. She washed her mouth. Brushed her teeth. And she slipped into bed. In the five minutes before eyes shut and sleeping body, she thought about nothing.
Sukanya knew she finally had that indestructible power she had chased. With one word, she could send Ria away. Cast her into sorrow. Reclaim the nights she sat alone in the booths on the 2nd Street diner, flicking her milkshake straw, holding back tears. But when she looked into Ria’s eyes, she didn’t see cruelty. She did not see that symbol of all that Sukanya couldn’t have, the wild nights, the Evil Words.
She saw a woman. Bony and shivering, alone and frightened.
“Ria, don’t worry. Let’s get your stuff. You can stay as long as you like.”
Tears of relief. Smiles that betrayed more gratefulness than words ever could. Embraces.
The two women and their twin cups of coffee walked back to the apartment, where Sukanya began boiling rice for lunch. She shouldered off her coat, and, hearing the crackle of plastic, remembered the lemon bar. She split the pastry, crushed but delectable, in two parts, handing one half to Ria.
They ate in the silence, citrus crème slipping on tongues. Every word that needed utterance had been said.
The phone rang. Mechanical cries filled the apartment, like a child whining for attention. Sukanya let it ring.
“Are you getting that?” asked Ria, not accusatorily but in question.
Sukanya hesitated. She thought of crafting an excuse, saying it was a marketing call. But instead she nodded, and walked towards the phone, holding it to her ear.
“Hi, Sukanya! It’s Kelly. I finally got a break here.” Kind voice, riddled with nervousness that Sukanya mistook for poor connection. “Just wanted to check if we’re on for tomorrow night? The concert in the park?”
Sukanya let the silence hold. She watched Ria, licking lemon crème from her fingers, leaning over the boiling rice, eyeing the photos on her wall.
Ria turned to face Sukanya, startled by her silence on the phone. Their eyes met. The eyebrow raise. The recognition. Ria smiled. Sukanya smiled back, and let go.
“So sorry, I was checking my schedule. Tomorrow night sounds great!”