“What? Why are you looking at me like that?” he said to her with an unintended bemused smile spreading across his face. He had met Lu in the first year of college when on the first day she sat next to him, threw a death stare his way and said, “You are a really cute boy, but you seem to shy for me,” with the boldness of a person who had no problem speaking her mind. “Well, your obvious endless supply of confidence can cover for us both,” he replied. She laughed, harder than he thought she would, as though she had not expected him to say anything back. That was, they often recalled, how their friendship began. He loved having her around. And he admired her as well. He admired how she never shied away from calling a spade a spade, how her confidence was so thick an aura that it devoured every room she walked into before she even uttered a word, how accepting she was of her own messiness, her rough edges, her flaws and flaunted them as though it were they that were the true measure of beauty, how she would be afraid and do it anyway, how she loved and loved with every ounce of her being. He admired her for her. And he had always felt that she too admired parts of him, even though they were quite different from one another. That is why, he thought often, their dynamic worked so well, why they gelled so well together: their differences complimented one another. And they adored each other with a type of platonic love that many over the years had tried and felt to understand.
Now, 5 years on, she sat across him, on the other end of a rounded wooden table, in their favorite coffee shop, her eyes fixated on his. She had that searching look in her eyes, the one she often had when she was about to ask a question he either did not have the answer to or did not want to answer. Lu looked at him in a way that made him shift in his seat and fidget his feet underneath the table.
“Okay, this is getting a little weird. Have you finally cracked, and you want to kiss me or are you actually going to tell me what’s on your mind?” he said again after a while.
“Okay, firstly, blaargh,” she said, lifting a few fingers to her throat, “kiss you? Mxm. Secondly, I just want to know what you are hiding from me.”
“What I am hiding from you?” he shifted his feet again. He leaned into his seat and slouched one arm over the end of the wooden chair, “what makes you think I’m hiding anything from you?”
“Because, Sashi, you’ve got this mysterious thing about you.”
“Mmh, mysterious thing, huh? Sounds like you are falling for me, Lu” he replied, smiling.
“No, I’m serious,” she said, throwing her hands up in the air. She was still glaring at him. And he saw for the first time a mild anger, a mild rage that lay beneath the searching look. He straightened himself, goggled at her in disbelief and said,
“Lu, you’ve known me for 5 years. You know everything about me. There is no mystery to…”
“No, don’t do that.”
“That thing where you look into my eyes to reassure me. I do not know everything about you. See, you have this way of opening up and staying closed simultaneously, of letting me in and keeping me out. So you tell me only what I need you to tell me about yourself, what you reckon I need to know; you show me only what I have shown you too. Everything else, you keep to yourself. You only show me the parts of you that I want to see, that I ask to see, not all that exists. And if I’m being honest, I’m often sat here wondering whether I truly know you or I just know a version of you filtered by what I ask you to show me.”
“Let me finish, Sashi,” she said. He wondered for a second how long these questions had been lingering on in her mind.
“Now, I’m an open book with you. You know the ugliest sides of me. I’m not asking you to be the same with me, I’d just like to know why you aren’t,” she went on.
“May, I speak now?”
He looked at her again. Her eyes were no longer searching, they were piercing. It was as if they could cut through the fiber of his skin and expose all that lay beneath. It was the first time he felt transparent, the first time he felt as though the eyes she darted his way penetrated every layer, every wall with which he had shielded himself, as though hers were eyes that saw right through him. He felt as though she could see the scars that he hid beneath the polished surface, scars that he reckoned were too ugly to be shown, too fresh to be revisited, scars whose stories were too gruesome to be elaborated, and too deep to be understood. And as he stared into her eyes, which were still fixed on his, he knew that it was perhaps time he showed her the scars, time that he let her see sides of him he thought were too revolting to be shared. She reached out and took his hand in hers, squeezed it a little as if to tell him that it was okay, that she was right there with him. And he knew immediately which scar he needed to pry open.
He wanted to tell Lu that it first happened when he was 7 years old when he had gone to Grandma’s old family house, that he was startled when he woke up to find a hand over his mouth and another in his underpants. He wanted to tell her how his heart thumped so hard that he thought it would leap out of his mouth, how he saw her eyes, the woman, darken as she shushed him when he tried to scream. He wanted to tell her how the wetness disgusted him when she forced him inside her, how he tried to wiggle himself from underneath her but she tightened her grip so that he could not move, how he then gave up, sat there and starred into the dark ceiling, how tears rolled down his cheeks even though he felt nothing, how a numbness wrapped around his body while she moved her hips this way and that until she was finished. He wanted to tell her how she then rolled off him and wiggled a finger in his face saying, “You’ll see what I’ll do to you if you tell anyone.”
He wanted to tell her how he was afraid that it would happen again the next day, how he went up to Grandma to try and tell her. But each time he started to speak, her finger rushed back into his mind and the fear would mound his words into a lump that stuck to his throat, how he asked the other kids to switch rooms with him, but they all said no, how it felt as though they all already knew what was happening. He wanted to tell her how it happened again the next night, and the next… and the next, so that he began to expect it every time he went to bed, how he began to stay awake and wait for it to happen and go away so that he would not have to be startled awake.
He wanted to tell her how his heart pounded in his ears when he saw her the next holiday, how he knew it would happen again, how he was not surprised when it did, nor was he when it happened again… and again… and again, how he wanted to tell his mother what had happened, but he did not ever have the words. He wanted to tell her how he was only 10 when he felt a little sense of pride after he and his peers first learnt about sex because he was the only one who knew what it was actually like, but wondered why that was so. He wanted to tell her how he started to think, at the age of 11, that he had HIV because they told him that it was transmitted that way so that for the next two years he thought he would die every time he got ill, how he was 12 and death was to him a default thought. He wanted to tell her how broken he was when he learnt about rape at 13, when he learnt that what had happened to him was rape, how he felt as though the innocence of his childhood had been yanked from him, how he felt that he had been robbed of a choice that was his right to make, how embarrassed he felt to have let it happen to him. He wanted to tell her how he spoke to no one about it so that he went through it alone, how tears would randomly roll down his cheeks in the middle of the night as if his eyes remembered what his mind had for so long fought to forget, how he often felt less of a man because he was for so long told that men are not to be raped.
He wanted to tell her that that is why he kept to himself, why he got startled so easily, why he flinches whenever someone tried to touch him, why he did not like to be touched. He wanted to tell her how sex was now this place of fear for him, how it was a constant reminder of the choice he did not get to make, how it was a reminder that he is not man enough, how it gave him anxiety and panic so he chose to stay away from it. He wanted to tell her all this and more. But the fear grabbed his heart again and tossed it against his chest until it began to ache; the fear pulled the words off his tongue and crumpled them into a ball that was left on his throat so that he could not speak. He soon felt a warm wetness well his eyes. And Lu’s face softened when she saw this, as though she could read his mind.
“Look, Lu, I want to tell you,” he started, “I really do. I want to tell and show you everything. But... I… I can’t. And it’s not you, it’s all me,” he said, looking up to search her face for a reaction. “Perhaps I’m afraid. Perhaps I’m not ready. I don’t know, I… I can’t find the words. I’ve tried so many times, but each time I start to tell you, I get stuck. The words get stuck. I’m just not ready. I know I will eventually have to show you my own scars, to show you wounds I am certain I have not healed from, wounds that I am ashamed of, wounds I am still afraid of seeing myself. And I will, but not today. Not today. Today, I am afraid. Today, I am ashamed. One day, I won’t be, and you will be my first call. I promise.”
She got off her seat and stretched out her hand to wipe off a tear he had not even felt fall. “I know,” she said, wrapping her hands around his neck and holding him close to her, “I know you will. Whatever it is, it’ll never change what you are to me. You are an amazing man, and you will always be. And I adore you whole. I’ll be right here always. You take your time.”
“Thank you,” he replied, holding onto her.
“Aww, look, the well of tears is not completely dried up in there after all,” she said after a long silence, cracking a smile as she walked back to her heat.
“Yeah, fuck you, Lu.”