Shrejal spread a pearl of white paste on her palm with the pad of her middle finger. The paste smelled exactly like the corner of the room that her grandmother’s old cat had died in; ammonia and something floral to mask it. “It’s called Alabaster and Awesome,” Shrejal said to Dhanyati, as she watched the color dial out into a clear ointment. Her dark brown skin showed beneath the whisk of cream. In the other room, hidden under her bed, was the extra booster pack of niacinamide and bearberry to suppress her melanin. “Six percent hydroquinone!”
“Six percent? How did you get six?” Dhanyati asked.
Eggshell, linen, baby powder, seashell, white smoke, fog mist, picket fence, dove wing. Color sculpting is intricate, Shrejal thought.
The girls were both nineteen, though Dhanyati, with her round and innocent baby-face seemed younger. In the bathroom mirror, Shrejal watched Dhanyati anxiously grip herself like she was her own plush toy. Shrejal had always been bolder, braver, willing to take a risk. It was, perhaps, one of the few things she could say she actually liked about herself.
She carefully oiled the dark caves under her eyes until her face glistened. Then, she squeezed out the tube onto the slope of her breast just above her black lace bra and worked the paste up her neck. New lace, corn silk, magnolia, flax, oatmeal. Her mind held a palette every time she uncapped a cream.
“Soon, you’ll be white like Neha Dhupia,” Dhanyati said. Even in Hackney, they knew their Bollywood. “My parents only let me use saffron paste, like I’m a chicken skewer. Not like yours who got you the real bleach.”
“You know they aren’t my real parents,” Shrejal said over her shoulder as the girls walked back into the bedroom. Shrejal’s real parents had died in a car accident when she was thirteen. She lived with Yashmita and Vaidyanath, her aunt and uncle. “My mum would never have let me put this mercury poison shit on my face. She used to say, ‘stay out of the sun and you’ll be okay.’ Besides, you don’t even need the acid. You’re warm beige, not espresso like me.”
“How did you get that stuff, anyway?” Dhanyati asked.
“I’ve been using one of my auntie’s old prescription pads and forging her name.” Auntie Yashmita was a triage nurse. She worked most nights at the hospital, and during the day she sealed herself in her bedroom at the end of the hall to sleep.
“You could get in big trouble for that,” Dhanyati whispered, lying on her stomach across the bed and flipping open a magazine.
Shrejal shrugged. The two girls had been inseparable as children, and slowly a space started to open up between them in secondary school when Shrejal’s restlessness and Dhanyati’s shyness seemed to make it impossible for them to exist in the same place. Shrejal liked being out, where alcohol might take the edge off, and meeting boys could distract her from herself. Dhanya asked her about sex all the time, even though she wasn’t having any. If Shrejal was too caught up on her skin color, Dhanya was too fixated on her weight. She acted as though the proportions of her body were the first thing anybody noticed about her, not her face, which was beautiful by any metric. She hid her weight beneath baggy clothes. In summer, she rarely even went outside. In photographs, Dhanya could always be found standing in the back, or holding an oversized purse in front of her stomach. Shrejal thought her friend was far too beautiful to be so insecure, even with the extra thirty pounds that had slowly accumulated during the last three years, mostly sitting on her hips and bottom and breasts. She had tried to explain to her that it was trendy now to be full. Boys liked that look.
Shrejal still had hope, sometimes, that Dhanya would loosen up. Maybe she would open herself to the possibility of letting a boy even get close enough to kiss her. After all, when they were children, they would practice kissing on each other and Dhanya had no fear then. Dhanya talked about their friend, Bjorn, a lot lately and Shrejal had been careful so far not to point this out. After all, Dhanya was her only friend as of late. It was a liminal time for Shrejal; all her other friends had left to go to real universities. She had barely graduated school after getting hooked on THC edibles and Carlings and couldn’t get in anywhere except the polytechnic which everybody said was for the thick. Dhanya was going to the uni next door so they had become close again. Shrejal hadn’t told Dhanya that she couldn’t wait to leave, and that the house she lived in had never really felt like home. Before her parents had died, home had meant a place that was an extension of her body, instead of this prim rooming house where she always felt the pressure to earn her keep.
Dhanyati got up and sat on the makeup stool to watch Shrejal in the mirror. This had become a ritual between them. Shrejal would be readying herself for a date or a party and Dhanya would watch her until Shrejal stood up, finally ready, giving her last looks in the mirror, and ask Ok, so how do I look? And Dhanya would look down at her feet, as though ashamed of something. Shrejal, you know you look perfect—you always look perfect.
“I wonder what I would look like with a baby bump,” Shrejal said, glancing at the Bollywood magazine in Dhanyati’s hands. Inside was a splashy array of photos of Neha Dhupia, eight months pregnant. Shrejal arched her back and stuck out her flat stomach as far as it would go.
“I heard that if you’re pregnant, you can pass the mercury on to your child,” Dhanyati said, flipping through the magazine.
“We’re fucked. All because of colonialism,” Shrejal said. “Just think, if Saif Ali Khan hadn’t chosen the fair girl in that ad — if he’d chosen Priyanka Chopra—I wouldn’t be doing this.”
“You’ve got to stop paying attention to that stuff,” Dhanya said, tossing the magazine away.
Shrejal laughed bitterly. Sometimes Dhanya was so naive that it made Shrejal want to hurt her. Not literally, but with her words. Ever since Shrejal had started watching videos online about history and ethnic identity, her mind swirled with new information. Chromatics and the Construction of Race. Theory and Methods in Ethnic Studies. Survey of South Asian Colonialism. Lately, she had been reading about the Imperial project in India, carving up a civilization with the lightest at the top, and the darkest at the bottom. Indians had learned this, and even after the colonial rule was gone, they continued to divide up the population themselves—the proof was right there in her Bollywood magazines. She knew it was toxic. Still, Shrejal felt that she could not stop herself from wanting to lighten her skin. It were as though the way she felt about her skin had been decided for her within her very DNA, lodged so deeply inside her molecules that it could not be helped.
The door swung open and Shrejal quickly crossed her arms over her chest. ‘What the hell!”
“See? I’m not spying.” Uncle Vaidyanath entered, his hand cupped over his eyes as he inched across the floor. He had a carpet of perky, dyed black hair. “Shrejal, Auntie wants you to get ready.”
Shrejal always felt his presence like dull obligation. He ambled blindly with his other arm in front of him like he was looking for a piñata. She slipped a robe on.
“Do I have to go?” Shrejal said. She felt her annual dread of the coming visits with their relatives for Onum, the Kerala harvest festival. A relay of visiting homes where Malayalee girls were expected to be obsequious to their elders and make conversation with melancholy cousins. Dull, dull, dull.
“You promised her. I can’t tell her no now. She’s leaving for her hospital rounds,” he said, helplessly. “This is our culture. Ah-yo, I sound like your aunt.”
“You can look now!”
He took his hand from his face. “Dhanya…”
“Hello, Uncle,” Dhanya said, solemnly.
“Fuck,” Shrejal muttered, biting her nails.
“Ay, dirty words.” Vaidyanath wagged his finger at her. “Auntie doesn’t like that. Did you make the Pookalam flower arrangement?”
“No!” Shrejal bellowed and sat down at the makeup table.
For a moment, Vaidyanath’s eyes showed real fear.
“I’ll make you one,” Dhanyati said, propping her hand on Shrejal’s shoulder. “Don’t worry.”
Shrejal pressed Dhanyati’s hand and became flush with emotion. “Thank you, Chakka,” Shrejal said, using the Malayalee word for little jackfruit. Dhanya had done this kind of thing since they were children, taking responsibility for breaking something she hadn’t broken, or later, covering for Shrejal when she slipped away to see a boy. Dhanyati was the dutiful Indian girl who always put the grownups at ease.
“Thank you, betee,” Vaidyanath said, reaching to touch Dhanyati’s elbow.
Dhanya flinched and crossed her arms tightly.
“Ah-yo.” Vaidyanath took a step back, looking confused. Shrejal glowered at him. “I don’t understand you girls. I didn’t grow up around women.”
Aunt Yashmita appeared in the doorway in a matronly frock. Her hair was pulled back tightly, her face like a brown, unlined pear. “I have to go to the hospital. I’ll be back to fetch you both,” she said. She pointed a finger at Shrejal. “You’re going to be on time.” Yashmita took a scan of the room and disappeared down the hallway.
“Ay,” Vaidyanath whispered. “Get ready by six. Please.”
Shrejal looked in the dressing mirror and touched her glistening cheeks.
“What are you putting on your face?” he asked.
She handed him the tube. “Extra whitening cream.”
He twisted his head in acknowledgement and strained to read the ingredients. He opened the tube and sniffed. “Smells like a litterbox,” he said.
After the Onam event, Shrejal’s subconscious still buzzed with activity. She woke up in the middle of the night through a mist of sounds and freeze frames, like she was still at the party – the shucked shoes in the vestibule; the Sadhya platter with rasam, butter milk and payasam; the heliotrope saris, and the smell of jasmine flowers in the neighbor girl’s hair. Too much, too much like India always was. Even when her parents were alive, the family functions had always made her embarrassed in front of her English friends. Indian gatherings didn’t abide by Western notions of taste. They were a promiscuous jumble, fragrant and unctuous. An assault on the senses. She never invited her friends over to the festivals for fear that they would see her dressed in the ridiculously bright saris. Especially Olivia Rowe who became prom queen and got a full ride to Bristol. Olivia and her crew couldn’t know about Sadhya platters or they’d never invite her to a party again.
As the images retreated, she righted up in bed. It was four. Semester breaks were restorative but also made her unable to track time. She turned on the side light and stepped to the mirror, hoping that the meridian would have been crossed. Every time, there was hope that the taint of dark skin would be lifted, even for a moment, and that she would look lightened and refreshed. She shut her eyes and positioned herself under the arch of the mirror. When she looked, she felt a momentary lift, and then her stomach plunged. She gasped and stretched her hand across her cheek. The skin had turned a dull gray like a rhinoceros’ hide. She switched on the task light above the mirror and looked closer. The dark bags under her eyes were gone but only because they had evened out with the freezer burn of the rest of her face. “Shit!”
She sat back down on the bed and picked up a hand mirror to look in a different light. It was no different. Last time it went away in three days. Maybe it’ll go away in three days. She pulled out her laptop and stabbed the keyboard, filling the browser pane with a stream of words. How long hydroquinone discoloration wear off niacinamide bearberry poisoning dark girl emergency. She lay back on the bed with the laptop on her belly. She heard the bathroom door outside close. It was Vaidyanath taking his pre-dawn tinkle. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. She tapped on the keyboard with one finger. She needed the nuclear option. Glycolic acid very large batch fast free shipping. A gallery of plastic jugs and pitchers splayed across the screen. She held the quantity line with her cursor and shifted the pointer up and down, from five and then finally to ten. But, just then, things got hot and she needed a cry. That was when dark-girl hope caved in and she realized she was in the same place as before or even worse off. She was trapped in her body with no respite. She had one of those cries where mucus and tears create an estuary between the nose and top lip. She hit Save For Later and let it all out.
When Shrejal looked at Bjorn, it always seemed like part of him was facing inwards, which was totally weird. He had an eye that had lost its color because of a fist fight he had been in as a kid. Bjorn walked next to Shrejal, staring at the ground as she worked on her double-scooped ice cream cone. Dhanyati hung back a step as they walked under Swamp Cypresses and Upside Down trees in the park. Shrejal could see that Dhanya was tensing her body, hiding it behind an unnecessary tote bag, consigned to third-wheel mode. Of course, Dhanya didn’t have an ice cream. She would never eat that in front of Bjorn.
“I tried to read the book you gave me,” Bjorn said.
“Which one?’ Shrejal asked, mouth full as she turned the cone over her tongue. Her face and neck were two shades apart, the former finished off in heavy stage makeup that gave her the look of a Kabuki actress. She could feel it beginning to sweat off in the hot afternoon sun.
“That comic book you gave me about that German bloke,” Bjorn said in his slow, neurasthenic rhythm.
He meant the illustrated introduction to the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant that she had lent him a few weeks before. Shrejal thought the pictures might make it easier for him to understand. She looked over her shoulder and waited for Dhanyati to pipe up—she had read it the previous semester for class.
“I just stopped reading when I couldn’t find a dictionary,” Bjorn said. “Too many big words.”
Shrejal ignored him. “Why do you always lag?” she asked Dhanya, frustrated. Dhanya rolled her eyes.
Bjorn talked about the Taste of London, which was coming up in June. Shrejal thought of Taste the year before, when she was still with all of her friends who had since moved away to school. These weren’t the starched-white Olivia Rowe girlfriends—Shrejal couldn’t look sloppy in front of them; these were the Jewish, Jamaican and mixed-race girls who poured cheap vodka into plastic water bottles to sneak inside their purses, and then bought virgin cocktails to booze up in secret. These were her fearless girlfriends who invited boys they met at the Taste to come with them to the bankside later on that night. Last year, Shrejal had made out with a white boy from a posh school. He had run his fingertips along her arm, giving her goosebumps, and said to her, “Wow, your skin’s like Wispa.” And she had replied, “Yeah, I’ve been going to the beach a lot, I guess,” and for a second she had believed her own words. For a second, she had set aside the fact that she’d lathered on SPF 150 every morning in summer since she was thirteen, and always wore long sleeves, even when it was ninety degrees outside. No, she didn’t want to go to Taste this year, or any year, again. Especially not with Bjorn.
“Dhanya wants to go to Taste,” she said. “I think you should take her. Show her a good time.”
“That’s okay,” Dhanyati said, shooting Shrejal a dirty look.
“When do you get paid? Maybe you could take her somewhere fancier, like Le Bouchon,” she said, glancing sidelong at Dhanya.
Bjorn tightened up, but kept his eyes on the ground. “Yeah, maybe. It’s been really slow at the shop, though.”
Suddenly, Dhanyati’s presence was missing. Shrejal turned to see her walking swifly, and calmly, away from them.
“Hey! Where are you going?” Shrejal called out, but Dhanya never looked back.
Shrejal ditched Bjorn around the Tesco, telling him she needed some time to meditate. People always believe that Indians need to meditate. She walked through a jigsaw of train tracks and storefronts, careful not to look in any windows, worried that she might catch a reflection that made her Ben Nye foundation look like clown makeup. It was depressing feeling the greasepaint covering her rhinoceros hide, like she was wrapped up in a bag, marinating. Three days, they said. And then what if the Ben Nye oils clogged up her pores and gave her zits? Stupid ashy zits. I bet Katrina Kaif never had a zit in her life. She pictured that scene from Boom when KK snaked her perfect, light-skinned body across a boardroom table. Fuck Katrina Kaif, fuck Kareena Kapoor, fuck Shruti Haasan.
She texted Dhanya.
Needed some space.
Can u come by?
Need 2 talk 2 u.
When she got home, Vaidyanath was standing in her room, holding an urn-sized box banded in a long mailing label.
“What are you doing?” Shrejal asked, annoyed. She picked up her underwear off the dresser.
He set the parcel down and looked at a portrait of a woman near the makeup kit. “Are you trying to look like your Mummy?”
She glanced at the picture of her mother tucked in the dressing mirror frame. “No.”
“I tried Snow White Enamel and Milk of Roses when I was in India,” Uncle Vaidyanath said.
Shrejal sat down on her bed, surprised. “You did skin whitening? Before you got married?”
“I thought us Indians only did it to find a partner. Like those matrimonial newspaper ads in India Weekly—eligible, college-educated EU citizen seeking fair-looking, wheatish girl.”
“Sometimes being dark feels heavy. Always your auntie complaining, shouting at me. It made things heavier. So, I started to lose hope. I just wanted to do something new for myself. Make things lighter. Freak, right?”
“I get it.”
Her uncle turned to leave.
“Why is she always complaining?” Shrejal asked.
“She just wants things done properly. I used to be fair looking,” he said. He sighed.
Shrejal lay back and felt the quicksand moods that recurred during her semester breaks. The month-long summer interregnum always started with a swell of hope: there would be unstructured time to withdraw from the world and try a new procedure—microdermabrasion followed by a course of steroids like kojic acid. But now, the time was slipping away, and she was wearing clown makeup to navigate a trip to the corner shop. It was exhausting. She thought about her post-colonialism videos. Fuck all the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the Mughals. And, finally, absolutely, fuck the British Empire.
Dhanya finally came by after a length of time that Shrejal knew was meant to express irritation. Shrejal heard her stomping down the hall before she opened the door. She wouldn’t look at Shrejal. When Dhanya bent over to set the big tote purse on the floor, Shrejal slapped her butt. She cried out.
“Come on, you can’t stay mad at me,” Shrejal said, playfully.
“Why do you have to be such a bitch?” Dhanya said. She flopped down on the bed, wiping her runny nose with the back of her hand.
“Sorry. I was just trying to get Bjorn to ask you out.”
Dhanyati lay with her hands crossed, coffin-style. “Who said I wanted to go out with him?”
“He’ll never do it on his own.”
Dhanyati expelled a sigh and clubbed her hand down on the sheets. “He likes you. He wants to go out with you. You see how he acts around you.”
Shrejal screwed her face up in distaste.
“Why don’t you like him?” Dhanyati asked.
Shrejal rolled her eyes.
“You’re putting rat poison on your face to look beautiful and there’s someone who wants you just the way you are,” Dhanyati said. “You treat Bjorn like shit.”
Shrejal gripped Dhanyati’s hand. “You’re in love with him, aren’t you?”
“I’m not in love with him. Maybe I just want someone who pays attention to me.”
Shrejal got up and went to the window. She studied her quiet street, each house studded with attic lights and the glow of televisions. The air conditioning ticked on. She felt trapped in her room, in her house, in her current life. “Bjorn’s marked, Dhanya.”
“What do you mean? He’s got clear skin. He’s beautiful.”
“No. He’s racially marked, just like any other immigrant. Like Polish maids and gypsies. He’s white, but he’s poor and uneducated, which does me no good.”
She took a moist towelette from the pack on her dresser and began to wipe the foundation away from her face.
“You’re mental,” Dhanya said, getting up to go to her.
“How else are we going to get ahead?”
“Get a degree. Get a job like a normal person,” Dhanya said as she stood over Shrejal. She pressed her finger against Shrejal’s neck, and rubbed her fingers together. She held up her thumb which was greased with makeup. She pressed it between Shrejal’s eyes like a bindi. “Now, you’re marked.”
Shrejal laughed, locking her arms around Dhanyati’s rump and scooping her in.
Dhanyati stroked her cheek and looked into her eyes. “You have such a pretty face.”
Dhanyati touched Shrejal’s laugh lines, which were dry and sloughed off on her fingers. “But please don’t poison yourself anymore.”
Shrejal pulled her arms tight around Dhanya’s body, knowing that she was the only one in the world that her friend let touch her like this. Sensitive Tentative Dhanya.
That night, Shrejal locked herself in the bathroom and unwrapped the shipping box that Vaidyanath had left. It was a gallon bottle with the words Alpha hydroxy on one side and seventy percent glycolic acid on the other. She sat on the toilet seat and read the warped instruction booklet. The directions for use were like a roadmap for life. AHAs have a smaller molecular structure and travel deepest into the skin to dissolve excess sebum and dead skin cells—not like weak hydroquinone or stearic acid. This was the real stuff, heavy duty—formula C2H4O3—to make collagen grow and reform dullness. That’s what she had wanted her whole life—to reform dullness.
Nine more gallons would be coming in the mail over the next two weeks. She had to space it out so Vaidyanath and Yashmita Auntie didn’t get wind of the plot. Then she’d build a glycolic bath that would wash away everything so she could start over.
After a week of waiting, Shrejal woke up in the morning and the dry skin was finally gone except for a penny-sized crust on her chin. She picked at it, and decided she had to wait it out at home a little longer because exfoliation would make her skin sensitive to the sun. She slumped on her bed for most of the morning, reading CLR James and Toni Morrison. Our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze, she underlined in heavy, blue ink.
Mornings were hard during the month-long break, marked by the oscillation of the ceiling fan and the advance and retreat of sunlight through the cherry drapes which came all too quickly. She kept social media always open on her browser, hoping for posts from people feeling the same sadness. Instead, she saw updates from the starched-whites and the not-quites from their dorm rooms and college towns. It was more than she could bear. There were a few who posted a new profile photo each and every morning like university was a daily act of reinvention. Some were group photos where they were the only ones poised and meeting the gaze of the lens, like they now held a deeper knowing about something.
Usually, the house was empty during the daylight hours – Vaidyanath would be doing on-sites with his IT clients, fixing LANs and supervising air-cooled mainframe rooms, and Yashmita would be at the hospital, pulling as many shifts as she could. When she needed to get away from the sting of missing out that came through her social channels, Shrejal lay on the living-room sofa and watched Family Fortunes. Today, as she ambled her way downstairs, she was surprised to find Aunt Yashmita rubbing the range with a gingham towel as she warmed sweet pala milk on the stove. She was in a house-coat with her hair hanging loose. The rolls of fat under her upper arm peeked out.
“Mo-le,” she said, sounding out the Malayalee word for daughter.
Shrejal always liked the way Malayalee words created a comfort bubble around her. The soft consonants and bending vowels. Shrejal slid into a seat at the dining table. A foil of white appam pancakes lay unwrapped on a plate. “I didn’t know you were home,” she said.
“Just finished a double,” Yashmita said.
When she was a child, Shrejal would occasionally sit in the A&E and watch her aunt work. She still remembered being parked in a plastic bucket chair in the corner of the nurses station as Yashmita yelled a series of dry commands to the team assembled around a gurney. “Thirty seconds of silence for the EMT report!” Yashmita would bark as the nurses ran around with defibrillator pads. She projected expectations on everyone around her, and this was what made her good at her job. Yashmita, in her mossback way, never allowed moments of weakness or failure, and saw the world as a data set of problems and solutions. “Protect better outcomes in the future!” was her mantra.
Yashmita dressed the appam in the white cream. “Somebody brought in a dog with an eyeball hanging out last night. Nothing wrong. We just comped together a pressure dressing and then called the vet.”
Yashmita said these things matter-of-factly, without fear or disgust, really without much emotion at all. Shrejal watched her aunt’s beautiful hands form each mouthful of appam like a sculptor. Her fingers were very long and tapered, and her nails were even, always unpainted, the ends like little white half-moons. It was a little unbelievable to Shrejal that these were the same fingers that pushed compresses against bloody, open wounds. Fingers that could set bones and do stitches. Shrejal had asked her aunt once if she ever worried about making the wrong decision at work, because everything could change in an instant. Yashmita had replied that five-tier triage got her to stop worrying about making any wrong decisions. If you didn’t know something, you just had to pretend like you did.
“What are you doing today?” Yashmita asked.
Shrejal hated the question because it always sounded like a judgement. She held up the book in her lap. “Subaltern studies,” she said.
Yashmita squinted at her for a moment. Then, she reached across the table and touched her long fingers against Shrejal’s cheek. “Hyperpigmentation.”
Shrejal turned away and pushed her hair forward to cover her face.
“Shrejal, what are you doing to yourself?”
Shrejal stayed silent. She knew how Yashmita worked – her Fabian gambit of asking unanswerable questions to decenter a person. Yashmita sighed and shook her head.
“And what is this subaltern studies?” she said.
“It’s about the postcolonial movement in India. Our history is only written in the shadow of whites. We have been othered, and we need to establish our own rules. Our own history.”
“Well, we’re Brits now. We live in Hackney, Mo-le.”
“Even here, we’re othered. Don’t you care that you’re different? That we’re all othered?
Yashmita shrugged, seemingly unperturbed.
Shrejal shook her head. “You have no self-awareness. None. Your entire generation.”
“Uh-huh,” Yashmita said, looking at her tartly.
“I mean, why do you even stay married to Uncle? You’re never happy with him. You’re always riding his arse.”
Yashmita clucked her tongue. “He’s okay. We are Nayar women. We are raised as tribal chiefs and masters of our households. If this were my parents’ generation, I would have six Vaidyanath’s —one for every shift.” She smiled sweetly at Shrejal. “Don’t forget that.”
“So, you never think about being a brown woman. I mean, like really brown?”
Yashmita crumpled her brow. “You’re a very clever girl but you’re doing it all wrong. Nayar women aren’t supposed to care what people think.” Yashmita’s pager rumbled like a bee trapped in a drawer. She sighed and left the room.
Shrejal retreated from the table and bolted herself in her room. She took a long breath. Four more bottles and she would be able to take her bath. The absolute ablution. Life would be crisp and free. Like for Olivia Rowe, the world would open its bounty to her, and she would have a hard shell of beauty able to withstand anything life threw at her. She looked at her coffee-bean face in the dresser mirror, and wondered what on earth it had to do with her roving spirit, with who she really was inside. The photograph of her mother, tucked in the mirrors frame, looked back at her. Her mother was smiling, standing carefully in the shade beneath a large tree. Her skin was perfect. Victorian pewter, macaroon cream, water mist, muslin, snowbound, milkshake perfect. She had long auburn hair, and wore a luminous, white sari. An angel. For years, Shrejal had harbored the thought that if she hadn’t defied her parents by playing outside and becoming a dark little girl, they might still be alive.
She heard the floorboards creak and then a set of feet came up to the door frame so that the light in the crevice went dark. Dhanyati appeared, stacked high with boxes.
“Your packages,” Dhanyati said as she lowered the green-cellophaned load on the bed. She looked a little sad, but she didn’t say anything.
There was still a rawness between them so they were both observing an upspoken agreement: Shrejal didn’t press Dhanya to go out, to get dates with Bjorn, or fool around anymore; Dhanya stopped telling Shrejal what to do with her skin. Maybe if they stopped fighting with each other, eventually they would stop fighting themselves. Besides, today was not the day for fighting. Today, she would take her bath. She looked at the shipping boxes spread on the duvet. That was it—ten of ten.
“Glycolic acid wash. After this, we’ll look like sisters,” Shrejal said.
The girls unwrapped the gallon bottles and lined them up on the floor like bowling pins.
“What about your auntie and uncle, then?”
“They’re at work.” Shrejal stripped off her layers until she was in a tee shirt and her knickers.
“Are you sure this is safe? “ Dhanya asked, as she pressed the ball of her foot against one of bottles.
“It’ll be thirty percent. That’s what they do at a spa.”
“This says seventy percent. I read about a Tamilian girl who got third-degree burns,” Dhanya said.
“That’s why we’re going to run the bath, aren’t we? Get all nice and diluted.” Shrejal bent down and laced her fingers around the necks of a couple of bottles.
Dhanya kept still. “Would you have asked Olivia Rowe to help you with this?”
Shrejal stood back up. “What are you talking about?”
“There was one period last year—I counted—when you didn’t call me for seven months.”
“Piss off. I called you.”
“When you needed something.”
Shrejal sat on the bed. “I said we should have lunch and you kept saying no.”
“Because nobody has lunch at ten-thirty or dinner at four-thirty. Because that’s all you could spare away from those girls.”
“I’m just terrible, is that it?”
Dhanya slowed her breathing. “Olivia Rowe doesn’t have to do anything but you’d still drop everything if she called.”
Shrejal stood up. “Forget it.” Her face was drained. She bent down and picked up a pair of bottles and went through the door. Dhanya heard her stumble down the corridor. She picked up a jug and sat it on her knee, reading the warning label. “Burning, erythema, vesiculation, scarring,” she slowly sounded out.
They lugged the bottles in pairs to the bathroom. They knelt by the tub, shoulders touching, and tipped the jugs one by one into the tub. Halfway through, the emetic stench started to build. Shrejal kept pouring and stirred the liquid with a loofah brush. It foamed slightly, and
Dhanya drew back. “I can’t breathe,” she said, squinting as she tipped another bottle over.
Shrejal brought her tee shirt up to cover her nose. She turned the faucet to full gush.
“I’m going to throw up.” Dhanya clambered over to the toilet and dry-heaved.
Shrejal raised the window sash and turned on the exhaust vent. “Let’s give it a minute. It just needs to air out.”
Dhanya batted her eyes like they were burning. Shrejal helped her up and to her bed. Shrejal stumbled over to the Almirah and picked up a water bottle. She wet a hand towel and pressed it to Dhanya’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Chakka.”
Shrejal touched her palm to the side of Dhanya’s face and felt her spirit course through her bones. Dhanya’s breathing eased as she looked at Shrejal. “Move over,” Shrejal said. Dhanya slid down to clear a place by her side. She lay on the pillow and watched, wide-eyed, tucking her hands under her cheek.
“Turn around,” Shrejal said as she lay next to her.
Dhanya turned, shifting and adjusting to free herself from the tangle of sheets. Shrejal brought her arm over Dhanya’s shoulder, and her knee up so it rested on Dhanya’s hip. Shrejal remembered when they did this as children. Two squibs under the covers. Those first feelings they shared when Dhanya lightly ran her fingernails up her back; when they practiced kissing in the dark as little girls, laughing with their mouths pressed shut. Shrejal closed in like it was that first coup de foudre she’d felt as a little girl. They were one skin, a territory of ochre and umber tones bound together a subcontinent and an immigrant journey of parents. Shrejal held on.
“Shrejal,” Dhanyati whispered.
In that moment Shrejal knew what Dhanya felt and wanted to say but couldn’t. What they both knew and perhaps had always known. She slowly, carefully pushed Dhanya’s hair back away from her neck and looked at the rectangle of perfect brown skin at the back of her friend’s neck, and then she kissed that place.
They passed into a brisk sleep, the sort when you don’t know if you’ve slept or laid awake, when time doesn’t seem to have passed. When Shrejal opened her eyes, she heard the floorboards and shot up. Dhanyati stirred, still volte face on the pillow like a sleeping lover. Shrejal slipped on her pajama pants and stepped out. She heard the toilet flush and gasped.
Uncle Vaidyanath came out of the bathroom, wringing his hands dry. “Ay, what are you doing?”
“Nothing.” Shrejal shrank against the wall. “I thought you were working late.”
“They cancelled the contract. Bastards deserve to crash.” For a moment, his timorousness lifted, and he looked like a free man as he walked to his room. “By the way, good job on the disinfectant. I drained it because it was smelly.”
Shrejal stepped into the bathroom. The porcelain was blinding. All the calcium and limescales had been dissolved leaving a ghost-colored pit, wide open and empty, where you couldn’t tell the bottom from the sides. She stood over it silently.
“Looks like we start from scratch,” she heard Dhanya say. She stood in the hallway, her hair rumpled, rubbing her eyes still misted with sleep.
Shrejal waited a moment and then stepped out. She pulled the handle and shut the door.
Tom Silva studied Creative Writing at the University of Chicago. As a filmmaker, his work has been showcased at the Montreal World Film Festival and the Art Institute of Chicago. His film, Silhouettes, was acquired by NY-based Dreamscape Media and is now available internationally through Amazon Prime. His publishing credits include stories and articles in The Nashwaak Review, Film International, and London-based Hot Topics.