If Khadija could put the sea on mute, she just might. It’s thirty degrees Celsius, she’s covered from head to toe in a coat and her dark brown hijab. She’s sweating, damnit. And there the sea goes, lapping at the tetrapods along Marine Drive, the water a smoky grey under a bright blue sky. The sound of the water can be calming in small amounts. Now, in this heat, it’s grating on her nerves.
“How much farther?” Aarti asks, twirling the end of her side braid around her little finger. She’s wearing a bright red kurti that makes her look like a traffic light. A sweaty traffic light with nice hair. From her shoulder back, she takes out a pair of sunglasses–something cheap she’d picked up from a roadside seller–and puts them on, doing that Hollywood thing of lowering them a fraction to shoot Khadija a questioning look.
“Almost there, I promise,” Khadija lies, her words ending with a slight fullness of laughter. Beside her, Aarti lowers her sunglasses again, and the look she gives Khadija is a lot more measured, eyes narrow, eyebrow raised.
“Dude, we’re lost. Admit it.”
“How can we be lost on Marine Drive?” and for emphasis, Khadija turns her back to the busy main road, full of whirring cars and impatient honking. She stares out at the sea, throwing her arms apart like they did in the Titanic movie.
Counting on her fingers, Aarti replies, “because we’re on the wrong side of the road, it’s hot, I’m hungry, and we’ve been walking for fifteen minutes when we could have just taken a taxi?”
On second thought, maybe the sound of the sea softens Mumbai’s usual din. Like a massage to a headache. “The taxis won’t know where it is,” Khadija retorts, resuming her walk. “I asked Celina about this place, she gave me proper directions.”
“This is far too much work for macarons.”
“Okay, first of all, how dare you.”
“Stop meme-ing me, Khads.”
Khadija snorts. “No, look, okay. These aren’t the store-bought macarons and cakes. This lady makes them herself. At home. From her great-grandmother’s recipes.” She holds Aarti’s shoulder. “Great-grandmother! Do you know how old you have to be to be a great-grandmother?”
“Yes, hella. The great-grandmother probably learnt it from the British or something! These are secret recipes, passed down from generation to generation, they’re not something we can find in a bakery in Bandra. So–like–walk! It’s for a good cause!”
Aarti rolls her eyes, or at least, Khadija assumes she does, because her face is half hidden behind the sunglasses.
“Besides, you’re getting married and you’re going to Delhi and who knows when I’ll see you again! I want to have these macarons with you! A last memory!”
Aarti’s head turns towards Khadija now, taking off her sunglasses and blinking as the brightness momentarily blinds her. “I’m not dying,” she says with a tiny, sugary smile. “But that’s sweet. Let’s find your macarons, okay?”
They continue walking, passing the occasional couple-in-arms stealing kisses. It’s hard being in love when you have to do it in secret.
At some point, Khadija texts their friend Celina for directions. It’s all her fault, really. Celina came to class one day with freshly made macarons and talked for twenty minutes about this one little lady who made them every Christmas and sold them from home.
“We have to cross the road here,” Khadija says after a moment, looking up from her phone. They jaywalk through the traffic, because jaywalking is an art and they’re artists in their own way. Khadija leads Aarti through a narrow little street flanked by peepal and banyan trees, past a homeless man and a sleeping stray dog, canopied by buildings that had ben built in the fifties, with charming names like Sea Queen and Rose Garden.
This is the Mumbai Khadija likes most.
“Where aaaaaaaare we?” Aarti whines, rolling up her kurti sleeves.
“I don’t know.” Khadija purses her lips, eyes darting about. “Shit.”
They call Celina about six times in the next hour, wandering around from one street to the next. It harder since they’re trying to find an apartment and not a store. GPS leads them in the opposite direction. (Aarti puts her hands on her hips, looks up at the cloudless sky, and says, “fuck off, stupid satellites.”)
At around 3.15, Khadija starts feeling lightheaded from the heat, so they give up, take a taxi, and go to Taylor’s.
It’s a colonial nostalgia cafe opened in 1994, with carved iron chair legs and overpriced pastries. Khadija sips peach iced tea and watches Aarti lick the top off a lemon tart, pink tongue poking out between slightly chapped lips.
“That was a waste,” Khadija admits after a prolonged moment, glancing down to her iced tea. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Next year.” Aarti smiles, taking a large bite of the tart.
They’re experts at wasting time. They always seem to do it together. Sitting in cafes, mulling over one beverage (it’s always either coffee or iced tea), eating tiny cheese sandwiches with ketchup and talking. They open Shazam several times to figure out the music wafting through restaurant speakers. At Taylor’s, it’s something indie that doesn’t quite fit with its colonial theme. They talk a lot. And if Khadija dares to get poetic, she likens chatting with Aarti to painting on a canvas. They start out empty and plain, and speak worlds into existence. TV shows, books, music, politics, science, gossip, food, wanderlust, there’s always something on their minds waiting to be said.
And it’s funny, too, how, when you speak about something, you bring it to life.
Khadija has noticed how Aarti swerves around her own wedding day. Doesn’t linger around conversations to do with buying dresses or visiting relatives, zones out when Khadija brings up the acrid, yet somewhat pleasing smell of mehndi as it dries on their hands.
As the sun sets, its relative safety sets with it. Khadija doesn’t like staying out past 8 pm, but Aarti doesn’t quite look at her when she says, “let’s stay a while.”
“It’s not exactly safe, dude. And you need to take the train to go home.”
“I’ll be okay.” They’re walking wordlessly towards the Gateway of India. It’s always prettier in the dark, emptier and cooler. The sea is black now, lapping on the stone walls that separate land and water. It’s crazy to think that while standing here, watching the waves, they’re standing on the natural borders of a continent, staring out into a sea that has seen millions of travellers over thousands of years.
The yellow street lights make the Gateway and everything around it look grey.
“I don’t want to get married.”
Aarti isn’t looking at her. She’s staring at the massive archway. This was where the British left when they left India. Her best friend takes a step closer, as though she wants to leave too.
“I agreed to it because that’s what my parents wanted.” Her hands are active now, fidgeting with the hem of her kurti. She blinks, and for a second, Khadija thinks she’s crying. But no, her eyes are dry and sad. Defeated. Her voice is smaller now, hesitant. “I don’t really…want to.” As though she’s admitting that she doesn’t like something she ordered in a restaurant.
“Can’t you just…” tell them? What sort of stupid question is that? Khadija halted, staring at Aarti with no sensible words in her head. Finally, she just ventures, “…why? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Why? Why what?” But it’s clearly rhetorical, because Aarti marches off towards the water and leans against the barrier, staring into the black sea. Khadija follows, skin prickling. They’re not exactly alone, and a couple of shady men in the distance eyeing them.
“I don’t find him attractive.” Aarti’s voice is demure and tired. She’s staring at her hands, at her flaking blue nail polish.
“That’s a little…shallow, don’t you think?” It’s perhaps cruel to say, but she’d never pegged Aarti for that sort.
“No.” Khadija watches her swallow. “No. I don’t find…him…I don’t…like…” Biting her bottom lip, she only finishes, “don’t play dumb.”
“What on earth–oh. Oh.” Khadija needs to stop. Needs to stop looking at her best friend with such open-mouthed shock. It’s not the kindest reaction to this sort of confession, and it’s not even that much of a surprise, so Khadija isn’t sure where it comes from.
Aarti winces, giving her a sidelong look that seems less wary and more exhausted. She knows she’s safe with Khadija.
“But…the wedding is in January!” Panic, because Khadija feels like she’s been celebrating Aarti falling into a trap. “You have to break it off! You have to! You can’t move to Delhi and live with some guy and he’ll want to fuck you because that’s what newlyweds do–! You can’t!” Her voice is high, eyes burning as they start to water. Out of nowhere, she pulls Aarti into a hug. “You can’t. I won’t let you. I can’t let this happen.”
“You can’t do anything,” Aarti mutters, toneless. “It’s fine. I can live with it.” Some emotion breaks past her impassivity, though. Her voice shakes.
Pulling back, Khadija wipes her eyes, and slams a fist into her open palm. “This won’t do.” She’s not sure who she’s talking to, but she’s speaking with power. Maybe she can simply talk a happy ending into existence. “This won’t do. We can stop this.” The sea, centuries old, immensely mighty, with great depths of life, splashes against Mumbai’s walls with vigour it seemed to previously lack. “We’re just going to go to your parents, and tell them you can’t have this wedding because you’re in love with your super hot girlfriend, and they’ll be too shocked to react, and we can…run away.” She finishes with a laugh because of course that’s too idealistic.
“You’re crazy.” Aarti leans on the wall now, resting her cheek in her hand. “I don’t even have a super hot girlfriend.”
“You have me,” Khadija retorts, nudging her. “And I’m super hot. And I’m a girl. And I’m your friend.” She isn’t sure how much of this she means, how far her joke goes. But their fingers brush, and there’s so much feeling. Skin on skin, and the bumpy, rough, stone walls. Khadija wants to reach out and touch her hair, perhaps tuck a lock of it behind her ear.
She doesn’t, of course.
“We should go look for those macarons again tomorrow,” Aarti says after several minutes of silence. Khadija isn’t sure if this is a change of subject, or a subtle undercurrent of rebellion.
“Yeah, let’s try again tomorrow,” she replies, feeling a lot more confident.
I received a writing prompt on my Tumblr blog, requesting a story about winter or Christmastime, and my favourite thing about it. This is the result.
Aarti is Hindu, Khadija is Muslim, Celina is Christian, and my favourite thing about India–especially Mumbai–is its diversity, and the way this diversity is celebrated. This story isn’t specifically about Christmas or wintertime, it’s about two friends whose feelings for each other stray towards the more-than-friendly. One of whom is engaged to be married soon. I’m leaving this open-ended and on a hopeful note. The “Christmas” theme is really in the macarons that sort of…tie the story together?
The cafe, Taylor’s, is based of a real cafe in Mumbai that I used to frequent.