But there’s one thing I’m very good at and that’s denial. Oh, and changing the subject.
So good, in fact, that I get overconfident. And when that happens, things tend to sneak up on you and bite you in the butt.
That evening, when it happens, we are walking back from the market. I hate that shortcut through the car park, mainly because you have to look out for dog poo. But we always end up taking it anyway because it is the shortest way.
At some point, Sahil stops me.
‘Hey, um, listen…’
‘What?’ I ask, half-heartedly. I smell something disgusting and I hope whatever it is, it isn’t smeared under my shoe. ‘Can’t it wait till we get home?’
He doesn’t answer. Instead, he bites the skin on the edge of a fingernail. It’s something he does when he’s nervous. ‘I wanted to talk to you about something.’
‘Are you sure it can’t wait? We’re nearly home.’
He seems not to hear me. ‘Thing is…would you…feel differently towards someone if they told you…something… um, like, something about themselves…?’
He rambles on like that for a bit. I am not paying attention at first. Then my brain catches up and I realize what’s happening. I know I’m about to get a big chunk taken out of my behind shortly.
Because my luck has run out. Sahil is going to say it no matter what stunt I pull and then things will be all weird between us, because, you know, I just don’t feel that way about him.
I think quickly. ‘We-ell, if I found out that, let’s see, Rashmi had been lying about her favourite flavour of ice cream, I could live with that. But if I found out, say, Shailaja Ma’am is really a serial killer instead of a maths teacher, yes, I would feel very differently towards her.’
He stares at me like he thinks I’m insane. ‘Never mind, forget it.’
‘Fine!’ I say, relieved, and start to walk away. But he catches my arm.
In fact, he catches it so hard that it makes me whip around and almost bump into him. We’re standing literally centimetres apart. He’s still holding me. His eyes are alive in a most peculiar way, shining, like they’re full to the brim with tears. It may be the harsh yellow streetlights, but to me his face looks flushed. His lips are slightly apart and I can feel rather than see his chest rise and fall as he breathes faster than usual.
‘Komal, I have to tell you this,’ he says in a soft voice.
The blood is ringing in my ears. My heart is racing.
I press my eyes shut so I don’t see his face. ‘Sahil, please…’
But he says it anyway.
It rocks my world.
Staring into the pitch dark can be really disconcerting. Especially at first, when you can’t tell if you’ve got your eyes open or closed, because you literally see nothing. Then your vision adjusts and you start to make out the shapes of familiar things. But in the darkness and a world of corners and shadows, even the things you know so well seem unfamiliar and alien. Like you’re in this obscure, murky reality that doesn’t quite feel like the one you live in, even though you know it is.
I had to keep my eyes open. If I closed them, I would see Sahil’s face framed in the streetlights. See his mouth moving.
Three words. That’s all it takes to change everything.
We’d been friends for most of our lives and then he goes and dumps this on me?
The day I returned home, Mummy sent me out to buy some stuff from the little shop down the lane. I was coming out when I ran into…yep, you guessed it.
It was a bit of a shock to see him. Daddy had been right. He didn’t look well. He seemed thinner and tired. There were bags under his eyes.
I tried to brush past him, but he caught my arm – he was really good at that.
‘Let me go,’ I said under my breath.
He did so, but said: ‘Come with me.’ And turned and walked away.
I had no intention of going with him, but for some reason my feet followed him of their own accord. His home was just in the next lane. He turned in at the gate and into the doorway where the stairs were.
I remained by the entrance and he stood under the stairs, with his head bent towards the ground.
He said one word: ‘Sorry.’
I knew him inside-out, so I knew he was really trying hard to control himself.
There was a part of me that wanted to hug him and tell him it was all right. But then there was that other part that told me that this was not the Sahil I thought I knew – this was some weird messed-up version of Sahil.
‘How long have you known?’ I tried to make my voice sound hard, but it came out all shaky.
He made an odd exhaling sound. ‘I…maybe a few months? A year? Forever?’ He rubbed his face.
‘Then why didn’t you say anything earlier?’ Why did you lie to me if you’d known forever? Why did you make our friendship a lie? Why? Why? Why?
My throat was hurting. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I’d been running and running. Silence stretched again. I stared at the floor.
‘You can’t even look at me,’ he said finally in a small voice.
‘I’m still me, you know.’
He sat down on the stairs, balled his hands into fists and dropped his face on to them. His shoulders started to shake.
If I stayed, I knew I would break down too. So I left and left him alone in the dark.
Excerpted with permission from Slightly Burnt, by Payal Dhar, Bloomsbury India.