Published: Sunday | December 13, 2009
It is close to midnight when I peek through my living room windows and see Salim standing just outside my gate, his slender frame silhouetted against the glare of the streetlights. Simultaneously my heart lifts and my stomach sinks. I turn away from the window and lean against the wall to steady myself, taking a deep breath. Then, quickly running my fingers through my hair a few times, I slip through the front door and step across the yard, the damp grass cool against my bare feet.
As I approach, he rests a long brown arm against the gate's column and watches me, wordlessly. I glance over his shoulder at the sprawling two-storey house, with its heavy, closed curtains, hoping that he waited until his parents were in bed before sneaking across the street. The house is large and forbidding in its grandeur. The curved concrete drive connects to an angled two-car garage. Carriage-house garage doors added to the home's subtle colonial style. I look at Salim again and feel a familiar tugging in my stomach. I have never been inside his home.
When I was 10 years old, my mother took me to a traditional Hindu wedding. Salim's sister was getting married and the ceremony was held in the backyard of their home. We had just moved to the neighbourhood and the bride's parents invited us out of courtesy. It was my first glimpse into a culture that I found fascinating and strange. The wedding took place over several days and the symphony of sights, sounds and colours overwhelmed me.
On the second morning of the wedding, the mendhi artist offered to decorate my hands with the blackish paste she had used to weave intricate patterns across the bride's palms and feet. Feeling a little besieged by the preparations and festivities, I was only too happy to sit quietly outside for a couple of hours while the mendhi dried.
I sat under a thick and sprawling almond tree in the backyard, inspecting the beautiful pattern, and lifted a finger to trace it.
I looked up and a boy of about 12 stood a few feet away. He was tall and rather gangly, with a head of dark curls and large brown eyes. He came to sit beside me and took my hands, carefully laying them flat on his. "You have to stay very still, until it is totally dry." His voice held a faint hint of an East Indian accent. I learned that he had moved to the island recently with his family from India. He came from a world that I knew next to nothing of, and he found me just as curious.
Soon we were almost inseparable. We scampered around in the street, playing cricket and chatting at my gate until the late evening. Occasionally his mother would step out of the house, her eyes raking across me with disapproval, as she shouted at her only son to "get inside and stop fooling around".
By the time we were 14, we were stealing quick kisses behind the sturdy mango tree just outside my house. Somehow his mother found out, and paid a short, but effective visit to my parents. Shortly after, Salim was sent to boarding school. My mother instructed me to stay away from his family. My short shorts and flip-flops have no place in their world.
Now, he follows me around the side of the house to the narrow steps that lead to the roof. As we settle in our usual spot on the edge, I notice a light stubble peppering his jawline. The shadows under his eyes are slightly more pronounced, and his hair was shorter, revealing more of the sharp planes of his face.
"How are the wedding preparations going?" I ask lightly. "Cora, don't do that," he replies, taking my hand in his. A bitter taste settles in my mouth.
He leans towards me and nudges my shoulder with his. I ignore him. We sit in silence for another minute, the chirping of the crickets rising and falling in a frantic symphony.
Salim tugs at my hand and before I can pull away, he dips his head towards mine and gives me a quick brush across the lips.
When I don't respond, he kisses me again, a soft, heartfelt kiss that reminds me of giddy summer nights spent under the large mango tree in my backyard. He smells exactly the same as I remembered and my resolve crumbles.
I kiss him back eagerly, running my hands through his thick curls and along the nape of his neck. His tongue is furiously hot in my mouth, his hands around my waist so firmly I can hardly breathe. He bears down on me until my head is resting against the roof tiles, his lips only leaving mine to brush against my jawline and nip at my ears and graze my neck. My skin seems to burn at his touch and it feels like his hands were everywhere and yet somehow it still isn't enough.
I feel a vibrating sensation against my leg and hear the soft trilling of his cellphone. He sits up quickly, a guilty, furtive look flitting across his face. He glances at the screen and something in his face changes. He presses the call button and listens without saying hello. After a moment, he gets up and moves to stand a few feet away, his narrow shoulders hunched rigidly. He says a few unintelligible things and then hangs up. When he turns to look at me, his eyes are dark and unreadable.
I cross my arms, disappointment and hurt settling into the pit of my stomach in a very familiar way. "Don't bodda say anything," I say. "If you have to leave, just leave."
He steps towards me and reaches down to pull me to my feet. Giving a heavy sigh, he runs his hands over my face, his long, elegant fingers touching my cheeks and my lips, and then running down my arms to my waist. His touch makes my skin tingle, with conflicting feelings of desire and misery.
Salim turns to look at his parents' house and squares his shoulders, a hint of wistfulness in the quirk of his lips. Standing close to him like this, I can see the man he will become. He will be a dutiful and responsible husband, a strong and loving father.
"I won't be back," he says, and looks at me for a long moment before pulling me into a fierce and unrelenting kiss. When he releases me, it almost feels like a push.
Then he walks away from me without looking back, sprinting down the steps with purpose. Tears threaten my eyes as I watch his progress across the street.
His bride will be beautiful, a treasure brought carefully from his native country. They will decorate her hands and feet with red henna, they will drape her in a sari of red and white, and they will present her to Salim like a rare jewel.
I rest my head against the rough-hewn tiles of the roof, and wait for the tears to come.