by Prenesa Naidoo
You confused me when you asked me out to dinner. You asked me on a cold morning, when I was walking to class, dodging cars, and making my way through The Secret History, a book that felt too big for my hands. I couldn’t remember if I told you that I had class that morning. But there you were, standing at the corner where we usually met. With two coffees in hand; one strong and dark and sweet, and the other creamy and vanilla flavoured. I thought that they represented us. Me, with my long black hair and dark brown eyes, with my caramelized skin. You, with your warm blonde hair with the dark roots and soft blue eyes, with your creamy skin flecked with freckles along your nose.
You confused me because I didn’t think that you saw me that way. I didn’t think that you thought about me after I had left the room. But you did.
You asked me if I could handle something as clichéd as dinner and a movie for the first date, while we were navigating the sudden change of roles. I could handle it. Of course, I could. You walked me to the door of my lecture theatre, giving me a hug and a quick peck on the cheek. This was a different hug, more intimate than before. I liked it.
On the day of our date, I spent hours trying to decide what to wear for you. It was for you, always for you. I ended up choosing that lacy black skirt of mine, the one that caught on your watch weeks before. I wore the pair of high-heeled black boots that made my legs look even longer. I washed and straightened my hair, thinking about you running your fingers through it during the movie. I imagined your warm hand on my thigh, the heat coming through instantaneously through my thin stockings. I wondered why you chose me. I wondered why you didn’t choose Jade; her hair was the same colour as yours and bobbed on her shoulders. Jade, who walked around in her little faded denim shorts and crop tops underneath her sports jerseys. I always thought that you’d end up with her, and it amused me that if you did, you would look like siblings holding hands.
You showed up at my door with a bouquet of sunflowers and baby’s-breath. My favourite. You had a smile on your face, but your energy was nervous. You moved too quickly, on impulse. Then you moved too slowly, calculating every move.
You held my hand tightly as we walked down the busy street, trying to decide where to have dinner. You gestured to the Indian restaurant. Then to the Egyptian restaurant. My stomach sank for the first time then. When I chose the café that we had been to before, you held your tongue. I thought that maybe going to a familiar place would ease us into the night. You didn’t seem to share the idea. I ordered a toasted cheese sandwich and spicy butternut & turmeric soup. Your eyes lit up then. You ordered the breakfast burger without bacon. You loved bacon; I didn’t understand why you didn’t want it that night. You dipped a fry into the habanero sauce and held it in front of my lips. You smiled when I ate it without flinching. You choked on the heat of the soup when I offered you a taste and finished my glass of lemon iced tea.
You insisted on getting the largest buckets of popcorn with extra butter because you knew how much I had loved it. You laughed when I emptied the contents of two Astros boxes into the popcorn. You mentioned that you enjoyed watching foreign films with subtitles – something that had never come up before. You had always preferred Marvel movies. You nodded to the Bollywood films playing, and frowned when I said no. My instincts whispered what you were doing, but I didn’t want to believe it. You continued to frown when I chose Amélie. I loved old movies, I loved foreign films, I loved subtitles. Amélie seemed like a good choice. You came around to the idea of the movie, and eventually started to enjoy it. I loved the sound of our laughter together. You put your hand on my leg, your thumb gently moving along my knee.
You said that we were a good fit. You said that you enjoyed spending time with me, getting to know me on a different level. You jumped to my side when Jade said, “It’s just a matter of time until you start smelling like her. Turmeric and other spices.” You whispered that you liked it that way.
I wanted to go to an outdoor market one night, some of our friends were playing live music. You agreed. We stood side by side in the cold, and when the drizzle began, you put an arm around my waist. When we went to get a drink from the vendors, Jade sniggered at my chai order. You kissed my forehead and drank from the cup.
You came over after your lectures one day. I was cooking dinner. You were opening all the jars in my spice cupboard, you sniffed at them until you sneezed when you inhaled too much chili powder. You asked me what I was cooking, whether it was Indian or Egyptian. You liked that I cooked traditional food most days. You liked that there were extra onion and garlic in the food. You liked watching me cook, especially when the mustard and cumin seeds popped in the oil on the stove. You liked that I usually made a milder version of the same dish for you. You liked the stain of the food against your pale fingers. You liked that I spoke to my mother in Hindi on the phone. You liked that I spoke to my grandmother in Arabic.
One night, as you were pulling my pants off, you asked me to say your name in Arabic. In Hindi. When I told you that it would be exactly the same, you left my pants dangling from one ankle and went to watch tv.
You told your friends that my collarbone tasted like honey. That the spot behind my ear tasted like cardamom. That my body smelt like rose water.
You asked me if I felt any connection to Cleopatra. You laughed when I said no. You asked me which side I preferred; the Indian or the Egyptian. When I said that they came together, you said we would too. I laughed at the crude tone in your voice. I asked you about your family, whether they were always from here. You always brushed it off, saying that it wasn’t as interesting as my story.
You asked me to teach you words in Arabic and Hindi. Basic words, easy to slip into conversation with me. When you mispronounced something and laughter danced in my eyes, you got angry. You wouldn’t allow me to help you say it. You would leave.
When we got the invitation to Dean’s Halloween party, you insisted that we go as Egyptian Royalty. You didn’t ask me what I wanted. When we struggled to find something for you to wear, you insisted that we go as Indian Royalty instead. You watched me dress in the soft light of my room, humming along to my eastern instrumental music. You gently kissed my forehead before sticking the bindi on. You helped pin my black and gold sari over my left shoulder. You ran your fingers down my back. Your eyes lit up when I tied my black and gold shawl into a turban around your head. Your arms were wrapped tightly around my waist when I placed the thin string of pearls around your neck. You looked me in the eye as you ran the gold bangles over my wrist. You looked the part. We both did. When we won ‘best dressed’, you picked me up and called me your ‘Indian Princess’. When Dean told you that I was changing you, you raised a fist. When Jade sauntered over in her sexy nurse’s costume, you didn’t bat an eyelid.
We decided to spend an entire weekend inside. You insisted on it being at my place. It made the most sense; you had a roommate, I lived alone. You watched me make a face mask of lemon and honey. You sat on the toilet lid as I applied it all over my face and neck. You told me you knew lemon was used to lighten skin. You accused me of changing myself. You refused to listen when I said that mixed with honey, it was the best natural exfoliator. I pushed you out the bathroom and showered. When I returned to the bedroom, you were lying on my bed, smiling. You didn’t apologize. You just said that you loved me the way I was, the way I smelt, the way my hair fell across my face, the way my skin bronzed in the sunlight. You asked me to sit in front of you. You brushed my hair.
We went out for dinner after our final exams. We went to the Egyptian place. You beamed when the owners came over to us and hugged me, kissing the top of my head, asking me how my family was. You soaked up the attention that they gave you, praising you for loving a girl made of Egyptian soil. They told you that our children would be beautiful. You loved this. You loved that you were doing something different. You loved that you were different. You loved that I was different. You laughed when I sank into my chair with delight at the sight and smell of the baba ghanoush. You told me that you remembered how I told you that we barely had a meal without it on the table back home. You dipped a piece of the warm bread into it and held it to my lips. You loved that I soaked up my culture.
We went shopping for basbousa ingredients. You pushed the trolley and took the ingredients as I handed them to you. You wrinkled your nose at the coconut flakes. You grinned at the lemon and honey. You grabbed a second packet of almonds. I went to get a bag of sugar while you were waiting at the smoothie counter. You insisted that I take the larger bag of semolina flour. You laughed when we were at the till, and I had to send you back to aisle 7 to get a bottle of rose water. We sat on the kitchen floor and ate it the moment it was ready.
I loved reading in bed with my legs up against the wall; my knees resting on the headboard, my feet against the cold white wall. You always pulled my right leg to rest on your shoulder. It looked like some complicated yoga pose, but it felt comfortable. You always played with my thin gold anklet.
When I was donning my hands with henna, you waited until they dried and asked me to write my initials on your chest. You liked watching it stain your skin. You kept it on for a day and a half, saying that you wanted it as dark as possible. When we went swimming, you showed it off. You tanned well. It didn’t look so stark after a few hours in the sun.
Again, you asked me to say your name in Arabic. In Hindi. You didn’t understand how there could be no translation. You always got upset with me.
After a while, you got upset if I tied my hair too much. You got upset if the food was too mild. You got upset if I preferred pizza. You got upset when I started playing different music, less eastern instrumentals. You got upset when I broke my Monday fast and ate a chicken and mayo sandwich. You hated when I didn’t light the lamp at the alter if we got home too late at night; you didn’t understand that we didn’t do it out of respect. You hated that I didn’t wear my bindi if I couldn’t find one that matched the outfit I was wearing. You were getting irritable at all my choices. You didn’t like that I gave myself these choices.
One day, when we were sitting on the grass in between lectures, drinking lukewarm coffee and eating another batch of basbousa that I made the night before, Jade showed up. She was with a new girl, an exchange student from France. Jade had taken it upon herself to show her around because they shared a dorm. Your eyes lit up when you saw her pouted red lips, her sleek bob. You looked her up and down, looking at the half-eaten croissant in her hand, at the French to English dictionary peeking from her bag. I cursed in my head, thinking that the first movie we watched together was Amélie. It felt like my fault. I jinxed it. You introduced us both. You moved your bag, your laptop, pushed the container of food closer to me. You offered her a place to sit.
We both knew I was just another toy on your playground then.